Curtain

The artist had stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated, alongside his paintings. Thierry was 50 at the time, very much in demand, but very picky as to who his art would go to. He started getting very concerned that his art would end up in the wrong hands, little bits of his soul scattered around the globe. His views on death were tinged by his upbringing. He rejected the doctrine he was inculcated purgatory, heaven and hell and conceived his own rendition, as unique as his art. He felt that what he created should die with him, and to that effect, he started buying back his art, pushing the prices up.

Unwittingly, by creating scarcity, Thierry became unable to afford what he created, yet could not help creating more. His agent begged him to let him place his paintings, so that he could still generate revenue and keep on living. He arranged for the art pieces to be on long-term loans, with a proviso that they should be burned within 50 years of his death. Privately, he saw a bonfire, the patrons creating a mega-event by choosing to all act on the same day. He would have liked to choreograph up to the last details, ascribe meaning to the proceedings, crunch numbers to make them relevant and help his soul find the rest he aspired to. In that period, his art was minimalist. Thierry spent hours staring at a carefully prepared canvas on which he had dutifully applied a thick coat of white. In his mind’s eye, he view carnage on the snow, a battle between forces, a broken tension. After hours, nay, days of staring, he dotted the landscape with large swaths of blood. He made it snow to cover them up, their unsettling presence made known by the pinkish hue, a half-blanketed empty cartridge barely visible, fat vultures sitting on forlorn branches.

They were a hit, of course. The art critics had a field day, analyzing the deleterious effects of modernity on Mother Nature. He was haunted, and it matched the day’s zeitgeist. He went into fits of sleep, interspersed with bursts of activities, the white canvas giving way to monochromes. He painted horrific scenes from the nightmares his mind brought to life. And then he covered the whole thing with thick black paint and called the piece “Night.” The piece was to be seen under a special light that revealed the gruesome shapes beneath. Again, collectors all wanted a piece of him, and it tore at him when he relented. Even at the outrageous prices he charged, Thierry still felt robbed, as though no money could soothe the pain he felt.

He died, of course, as we all do. Everyone knew of the will and art critics took his demands seriously. By that time, he had asked that his body be preserved and burned at the same time as his oeuvre. He had painstakingly catalogued all the pieces, with owner and known addresses so that his wishes could be carried out. He wrote that his soul would know no peace until all of him was together again and disappeared on the same day. Before the time came, however, war broke out. It was a long war, and very damaging, as wars tend to be. Rich houses were not protected, art was looted and defaced, his body abandoned when its protectors flee or were killed. The coffin in which his body lay had been forced to see if it contained treasures and left open when the looters saw there was nothing but a corpse. Bombardments shred the roof and from the box he could finally see the sky. Buzzards came to feed. There was no blood. Snow fell. Night fell. Curtain.

Open Mic

You come for the magic, when time stands still as you bare your soul. Your soul does not always want baring and sometimes you sing only with his voice, and that is fine, but not magical. When your soul is ready to open up, lovelier than a flower, you transport your audience to the magical place where music takes you. It’s unique, to be sure, as your soul is unique to you. Music takes you to this moment where your soul vibrates and unleashes dreams and visions and emotions that make you forget that other reality in which you spend your days.

It is quite a feat, and you approach the moment with gravitas, well aware of the responsibility on your shoulders. It is with some trepidation that you plug in your guitar. You’re nervous and start playing without introduction. The first song is just a greeting. You get acquainted with that night’s crowd and see how they respond. You’ve prepared four songs, and will sing three according to a complex calculation of nerves and audience and soul. The first one is a no-brainer “I want you to want me”. It’s self-explanatory, and gets people swaying in their chairs, even if they don’t know it. They’re an older crowd, they haven’t grown up with it. Still, they’re game and enthusiastic. You relax into it. You introduce your next song, and yourself, “Joe” with a bit more confidence. We’re only doing guitar here, maybe a bass or harmonica to accompany, and voice, of course.

You sing “I’m Calling You” from Bagdad Café which has always been your favourite, with its haunting lyrics. It’s not really country music but it speaks of the desert and longing. The crowd is less rowdy, more reflexive. Someone joins you and replaces the saxophone part with his harmonica to pinch people’s emotional chords. You end your set with King’s “It’s Too Late”, a crowd favourite. You’re looking for accolades. Your soul was skittish tonight, and stayed hidden. Still, you got something of a rush when everybody joined in the chorus, belting “But it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late”. They’re all sensitive and prone to the blues. They get it.

You quickly exit to the back of the restaurant, where the guy from the previous act is still steadying his nerves. There’s a pack of cigarettes out there. It’s nobody’s, just medicine. You inhale, exhale, and the trembling subsides. You don’t talk. It’s easier that way to find your center again. You come back in, not having exchanged a word with your compadre. You slip your guitar in its case. How you recognize the case is anybody’s guess. They’re all lined in the corridor jostling for top spot, black and innocent-looking. Some of these babies enclose the finest specimens. Yours is the best you can afford and it does a decent job. You convince yourself that the instrument is not important, yet you still eye the expensive ones.

Another musician has been playing and you sit down with a beer to enjoy the rest of the evening now that you’ve done your share. A lucky performer gets a high five, a couple gets up to dance near the end of the evening. They’re mostly white-haired, the ones with even teeth sporting dentures, the women singing with their husbands, shooting them adoring looks to boost their confidence. The voices are strong, lyrics scrolling off iPads, or printed neatly on paper. Tonight, old folks’ ailments are gone. The place is packed in the smell of memories and the vibes of youth. It’s already 10 o’clock. Time to head home…

Knitting Wars

JoJo wore knitted socks, and scarves and sweaters and hats. She made them standing up, sitting down, in the subway and in front of the television. Knitting was her passion and her life. When she had first taken up the craft, JoJo had given away her pieces, but they were not received with the gratitude they commanded so she stopped sharing them and soon her tiny apartment filled with her creations. She expanded her horizons to include progressively more complex patterns and became adept at modifying them to suit her fancy. In her mind’s eye, JoJo could spot any flaw as she scanned the instructions and computed the rows. She would rearrange colours and add a bit of texture here and there to create her own versions.

She embraced the Internet, and started contributing her own patterns, establishing a following of like-minded knitters. They competed for complexity and beauty. Those were exciting times in the knitting community. She met Darlene online, and their friendship bloomed. They shared their most cherished patterns and memories of successes and failures. Darlene was her one true friend until that fateful day. At first, JoJo thought she was mistaken, but when confronted Darlene admitted to the deed. She had been in a slump, unable to create anything new, and had resorted to reusing one of JoJo’s early patterns, altering instructions slightly and adding a few twists to make it hers. She was unapologetic which made matters worse.

JoJo was unravelled. She had thought they were so tightly knit that they could withstand anything. She tried to put the incident behind her, so precious was their friendship to her, but the hurt kept surfacing, like a mistake that glares at you in the first row, so much so that you have to start over. JoJo’s trust had been breached. She decided to test the waters again, and excitedly shared with Darlene a new pattern she had created for Halloween. It was intricate and challenging, a whimsical cat hat made with angora wool, complete with pointy ears and a long tail topped with a pompom. She could feel Darlene’s lust at the design. Sure enough, it pushed her over the edge again. Darlene changed a few stitches, added paws that trailed on the cheeks and a ball of yarn that attached under the chin. War was declared. For every design came a counter-design, a pathetic effort at creativity.  Darlene was standing on JoJo’s shoulder, letter JoJo do all the heavy lifting and sharing the glory. JoJo’s patterns reeked of frustration; Darlene’s stank of complacency. The result was an eccentric mix that made their followers go wild.

A newcomer to the knitting community had launched a campaign to cloth elephants that were suffering from the cold in India. Soon, all eyes were set on India. JoJo saw the elephants as giant billboards for her promotion. She poured over pictures of lavishly dressed elephants in the maharaja’s times and outdid them in colourful yarns. Hers were the prettiest, with an eye for using comfy wool against the cold. The art was ephemeral, as elephants scratched themselves against trees, leaving soft fluff behind. The birds loved the wool and used the long strands to build comfy nests for their brood. All over India, tattered elephant sweaters littered the landscapes and for years after the cold spell, knitted flowers were seen adorning nests, with JoJo’s signature cross-stitches. Those were seen as lucky omens. JoJo eggs became all the rage, said to bring riches to the ones who ate them. Unfortunately, she was never able to put her hands on one and had to settle with glory in faraway lands.

Paper

The ceremony was held without her body, to put her soul to rest. By the time he’d heard the news, she’d been dead and buried overseas. He had dreamt of her, pale and evanescent, which told him her ghost was unmoored. He wanted to set things right. He didn’t like the feel of paper on his lips. Having written the name of his late mother on a piece of paper, he wasn’t ready yet to see it go up in smoke. He let his lips linger longer than appropriate, a long exhale, like her last breath. He stifled sobs but the tears were streaming freely down his face, a flood of conflicting emotions. Her death had been sudden, unexpected. He had trouble accepting the reality of it. He lay the piece of paper in a gold bowl which the monk lit up amidst chants.

It was hot, where he was. Everybody moved slowly under the white sun, sleeping, no, collapsing, when it was at its apex. Even the bugs were drowsy, looking for shade. He thought the sand would turn to glass, a brittle layer burning the soles of his feet. He felt feverish, as though he had absorbed the heat and it was scorching his insides. He wondered if he was suffering a bout of malaria or grief. He could not tell.  Neither would go away. After the ceremony, he had another dream, of his mother still, this time floating on a boat down a river. He had the feeling of an underground river, in darkness and damp. She was unmoving, lying still on her back, the barge loaded with gifts. He woke up to see a servant with a concerned look on her face. She had put a wet, cool washcloth on his brow. When he opened crazed eyes, she held a cup of weak tea to his lips. He drank greedily and went back to his dream.

He was in a barge himself, alongside hers now. They had picked up speed, the current was trying to tear them apart. He had tied both barges together, but the knots kept coming undone and he was desperately trying to stay with his mother. He grabbed on to her barge and tried to climb into it, but fear overtook him. The river was boiling now, bubbling and stinky. The barge was hot to the touch. He let go and his mother’s barge sped ahead caught in a whirlwind that sucked her down and away from his sight. He woke up, heart pounding, sure that she was dead now, with a deep hollow in the pit of his stomach.

The worst of the heat had abated. He was drenched in sweat, perhaps feverish. He walked to the terrace and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. So many ways to appease the gods. He poured himself a whisky. The drone of the prayer settled his nerves.

Take Me to Your Leader

– Take me to your leader, it said.

– What are your intentions? I replied.

– Terminate.

– I see. Why is that?

– It is killing the Blue Planet.

– We have a gathering of leaders. They will be meeting all together in one room for a summit. You will recognize the biggest leader because he will tell you who he is when you ask. He will probably threaten you. I assume the ones beside him will be his closest allies. There will be mega-security. And you don’t have a pass, so they won’t let you in.

– Take me to your leader, it said again, but slowly this time.

– Will you give me a ride?

We teleported to the UFO, hovering over the sea. I went into a gelatinous substance. I could breathe and emit vibrations that were understood as speech. I understood their vibrations as well. It was amazing. I didn’t think of my own safety. I was too excited.

– You are sending happy vibrations, stated the Being.

– Can you tell me what your plan is?

– The carbon atoms that make up the body will be dissolved.

– Why now? Where do you live?

– We live here. On the water. We have given this much thought. Since we are guests, we did not want to be disrespectful. But it is getting worse and worse. Our hosts are dying, becoming extinct. They are suffering and have asked for our help.

I gave it the coordinates of the UN headquarters, and the date and times the leaders would meet.

– You are emitting sadness and regret, stated the Being. Why?

– On our planet, we don’t like terminating others of our kind.

The Being laughed. I could feel the hilarity gaining momentum and understood other beings were also listening in on the conversation. Soon, I felt like laughing too.

– We understand jokes, he said proudly.

I didn’t have the heart to disabuse it of its misconception. I changed tactics.

– What is your name?

– Tiktak. What is your name?

– Ali.

Properly introduced, we continued our conversation.

– Ali, why were you emitting sadness and regret?

– I am contributing to the destruction of my kin.

As soon as I thought this, my mind was filled with pictures of animals, big and small, that had become extinct for loss of habitat, outright destruction, or other changes brought about by my kin.

– Who are your kin? Kitkat asked softly.

I looked up and around the vast cabin.

– How can I help? I answered.

Sorority

He firmly believes it starts in the mind. It’s not because he was born a she that it has to stay that way. The hormones have kicked in and his life is changing. For the better. He’ll hang out with the guys, check out the girls, go fishing, occasionally do a bit of housework and be rewarded with extreme compliments. He may or may not be any good around the house, he may or may not enjoy sports. Really, he can be a slob or a murderer. He’ll still be better off than if he were a woman. He’ll talk without being interrupted. If there are women present, they will shut up when he starts speaking. They were raised that way. She was raised that way. He can’t wait to taste the power.

The body is changing, hair is growing in unusual places. His voice is deepening. He watches his body transforming into something he finally recognizes as his own. The testosterone makes him a bit irritable, impatient and active. He is wanting more fresh air now that the top surgery has been done and the large globes have been removed. He has started running. His muscle mass is greater, and he can run at night without fear. He is doing things with his body can she could only hope for.

Fear had been her constant companion. He has banished it from his life. She was a quiet one as befitted her sex. He can now be vocal and that is considered normal. It is a shock to be deferred to. All his money’s gone to transitioning. He’s even sold his car. He’s sure to make up the loss of income quickly. He’s researched pay inequality. He just needs to curb his appetite. He laughs. He doesn’t have to look good anymore. He only needs to be successful. He needs to learn the new rules. He can’t wait to fully inhabit his body and take part in the world.

He can even be a priest, but why be an eunuch? He can become president of his country. No woman has achieved that position, and it’s not likely to start soon. But men… they can go to the moon and back, become soldiers or firefighters. Now that the process is well engaged, his mood is better. He’s not self-medicating as much. His anxiety is under control, his depression mostly gone. He sometimes gets the blues, but it’s nowhere near as violent as when she existed and was contemplating early end of life. Those days are gone. His parents are happy for him but are finding the adjustment difficult. They cannot reconcile the female child with the adult man.

Mom is trying. She doesn’t mind having a son, but still wants grand-children. She’s joking, he thinks, but can’t be sure. He was never daddy’s little girl, so dad is mostly okay with his decision. Dad’s always liked to stand out from the crowd. He won’t dwell on other people’s reaction to him. His therapist supports his decision and wants him to surround himself with supportive family and friends. He’s hanging out with others who are at different stages of their transition. It’s a loose support group. He feels accepted there.

They’ve changed his nameplate at work and even thrown him a welcome party. He’s got facial hair which he trims back, as if it were a work of art. He still has the same personality, the same tastes, roughly, though his priorities have changed. He got a promotion a year after his transition, and a better salary. His best friends no longer confide in him, but that’s okay, he’s made male friends. Sorority can only carry you so far.

Poison

The recipe called for a cup of poison. She cut it down by half. There would only be 7 ladies, plus herself, for the afternoon bridge. And others would bring food. She was known for her treats. The ladies always clamoured for more and she obliged though she herself stayed away from them. She had noticed the first signs of poisoning amongst the most enthusiastic consumers. They complained of joint pain which they put down to aging, the great equalizer. She believed it impacted memory as well, and frowned when her partner indulged, which was seldom. She wanted a crisp mind on her team when they played cards. She was intent on winning at all cost.

The young ladies who served them sometimes developed acne. She knew this to be another of the signs so could tell when the help was helping themselves to the poisoned foods. She took it all in and said nothing. She herself abstained, pretexting an upset stomach. She did not suffer tooth decay, sluggishness or irritability, all signs her addicted companions showed. Their waists were also widening she noted. They said it was bloating and tried combating it by drinking tea, liberally sprinkled with poison. She wondered why it was legal.

The first casualty took a while to happen. It was a slow-acting poison. Her heart gave out and we all rushed to her bedside. She was quite large by then, her joints aching, and irritable to boot. It might have to do with the painful inflammation throughout her body. We had to find her replacement for our weekly game. It was someone from the other table, as my group of four was focused and healthier. The other table did not take the game as seriously. They indulged in gossip and poison.

The new lady was the youngest and she offered to prepare tea for them. She almost spit it out when she tasted the poison in it, then remembered Mithridates who ingested small doses aiming to develop immunity. She noticed no ill effect but started taking hot water with lemon from that day forward. The others made good-natured fun of her and she replied amicably but did not alter her behaviour.

When she ran out, she went to the grocery store and asked for a new bag of it. She always thought she would get arrested, but the police never showed up, though little by little the ladies’ health faltered. She and her partner won all the games.

Scrambling

The mountain was watching me as I strolled confidently to its base. I had studied it intensely over the last few weeks and I knew its outer layer well. I was here to get acquainted from the inside out. I had no gear, save a helmet and soft-soled shoes. I did a bit of calisthenics, to warm up and settle my nerves. We would soon be entering into combat, and I wanted to come out of it alive. A camera crew was in place. Some of them would be climbing alongside me, in the traditional way, with ropes and so on. They were trying to blend with the rock as much as possible. I blocked them out of my mind’s eye.

Preparation is key, yet it is mostly preparation of the self. The goal is clear: summit alive. You can plan your route ahead, but you will have to readjust on the details. There may have been a slide or other recent phenomena. Your mountain is a living, breathing beast. I was still feeling antsy after stretching so did the next best thing. I ran full tilt to the mountain and jumped. I was strong, with powerful arms and legs. I grappled the wall and pushed and pulled myself up a few meters. It felt good. I could feel the rock pulsating under me. It was daybreak and the surface was not yet warmed by the sun. My assault had woken the behemoth and were now both aware of each other. I settled into a rhythm.

I am keen on meditation and scrambling, as I call what I do when scaling a mountain, is a form of meditation I love. I call it “extreme meditation” because you need to trust yourself fully, relax into the present, yet be aware at all times of your mortality. A drop from the wall is not advisable. If I did fall, I would see that as a failure to make friends with the mountain. The mountain would have shrugged me off. Mountains are friendly, and love company, as long as you treat them with respect. I was being playful when I ran to it at its base, and wanted to establish our relationship on those terms. In the same way that I roll on the floor with kids or dogs, playfully tickling, biting, and tussling, the mock fight is just that, mock. We know when to stop and are careful not to hurt each other.

I am relying heavily on my nose to know if the rock has been infiltrated with water. It will alert me to rot which could undercut its ability to bear my weight. My skin informs me of changes in temperature, sharp edges a recent scar and potential for falling rocks. I go for rounded textures, sculpted by wind and time. If you press your ear to the stone and you hear it sing, you must beware. The tiny vibrations that are so enticing mean the rock is brittle. You learn to trust silence and project yourself in that void.

The crew told me later that their vision of me flipped early on from me tackling a vertical surface to me moving on all fours on the ground. It is true that early on, my weight was no longer a consideration. I felt bound to the wall, my fingers strong and sensitive to the changing surfaces. I could anticipate the bumps and cracks, reading the surface and as I would read a friend’s expressions. We were communicating pleasure and displeasure. I felt the mountain holding me and guiding me. The last meters to the top were more arduous, and I think now it is because the mountain could sense my reluctance to have our association end. I was enjoying the tussle and occasional nip, leaving a few drops of blood as proof of my passage.

I was getting tired and wanted to summit. I knew I must guard against any type of hurry. There was a path, like one goats might have used if they had lived in those parts. It was tempting, with tufts of grass that would cushion my tired feet. But grass means moisture, water infiltration and possible rot. I looked up at the overhang and decided to get down from the ledge and around. From there, it was a cakewalk. Before I knew it, I was hoisting myself up and rolling on top. Summit! The sun was shining and the breeze cooled me down and dried my sweat. I could see another mountain in the distance. I still had many friends to meet.

The wind, the sea, the horses

It is a day of wild frolicking horses, droves of them crashing on the beach. There is nothing to be done but watch in awe as their hooves lift the sand in swirls that the sea greedily gulps. The wind is blowing hard. I am laying down flat in the dunes, sheltered in the high grasses, from which I watch the spectacle. The rain starts. It is pelting the sea’s surface angrily, prodding it, taunting it, but the giant pays it no mind. It is playing with the mighty wind and together they are creating horses. The rain’s contribution is to keep the voyeurs at bay while they unite and procreate. Yet I am here and see it all. When I leave, soaked through and through, the sand under me miraculously dry for a moment, grasses flattened under my weight, my heat evaporating from the ground as I get up, I can see that neither are spent and leave them to their night of passion.

The next day, the drove is still there but they are not as wild nor restless. The wind has died down, the horses no longer frenzied under its whip. I watch the sun rise under gray skies, the sea still moody, lashing idly to move the horses around. I am wearing a warmer sweater, dressed as I should have the day before, too warm for today. The horses are grazing, big liquidy eyes, fretful ears. Seagulls are calling from on up, seaweeds are littering the beach. Men arrive with boards. They are suited up in black. They lie on the boards and paddle to sea. They wait until a tamer horse comes close to see what strange beast lies in wait. They hop on the first tame horse they can catch, riding it safely to the beach and repeat with progressively bigger and riskier mounts.

The ballet goes on for hours, until the riders are exhausted and easily dismounted by an unexpected kick. Most head home. A solitary rider is still out there, one with the sun and the wind and the sea. He rests, lulled by their presence, then paddles and rides. Eventually, the horses want a rest and settle in for a nap, the sea cradling them and whispering sweet nothings. I want to ride the horses and I come day after day to watch. I get a cheap Styrofoam board, on which I approach the horses. I lay still on the sea, let them smell and taste me, until I am just seaweed they can safely ignore. I watch the young ones break and re-form under their mama’s watchful gaze. I am no threat. I lay for a long time, then sit, then stand. I ride my first colt and feel its skittishness under my feet. He lays me down gently on the beach.

I return again and again to my friends. On stormy days, mama opens her mouth wide, swallows me whole, tumbles me over and spits me out. I gasp for air, look for light, roll with the punches. They cannot rid themselves of me. I scour the beaches to discover new droves. Some like wilder, rockier terrains. Those are tricky and dangerous, exhilarating to master. Not that I strive to tame – that would be my downfall. I wish to feel the power, be a small part of it as the wind is, the sea, and the horses.

 

Lightning Strike

The lightning flash briefly lights up the room and shows me curled into a ball on the bed. There follows a thunderous noise, o so close. I am whimpering, holding a pillow up against my belly. Suddenly, I remember to invoke Charlie, my dear long-lost child, braver than most and gone too soon. As soon as I do, I feel the pillow’s weight dissolve my fears and his soothing presence fill the room. My insides feel warm.

Another lightning crash – the sky splinters, the winds lash the trees, then the mighty thunder roars. As for me, I laugh in the warmth of my bed. Nothing can touch me under my child’s protection. He is the ultimate lightning rod. When he was alive, he protected me from his father’s wrath, deflecting the blows, redirecting them or changing the mood. A careless fever took him away, all of us powerless to stop it, and the world was never again the same. The other children got half a mother. They accepted their half-crazed mother, doing the best she could. The lasting absence never let me forget.

I got better after I saw the psychic. I became calmer, more able to look around me and appreciate the other children. They recovered part of their mother, a little love, a little warmth, a little twinkle in her eyes. When their father died, I was suddenly free. Shackles dropped. They were older by then, the others. Years had gone by, without me noticing. Some were away at school, others were working or pregnant or married. It had been a blur. I came out of the fog to find a vibrant world, full of colour and life. I did not know my place in it. I had been groping in the dark, unable to see ahead more than an arm’s length, which is where I kept everything.

One of them took over the mansion. I was grateful to keep my bedroom and let someone else run the show. Now new kids peek in. They call me granny and play with Charlie’s ghost. He’s glad for the company.  The wild winds and thunderstorms are things of the past. I keep to my bed, my refuge. This is where Charlie comes to me. I must never leave that room. I am content in the semi-darkness. The light chases him away. His soft white translucent body dissolves in the harsh light of day. I long for the day where I will join him, both of us light and airy, free as angels. I stop eating and drinking. It makes no difference. It upsets my helpers, but I am happy I finally found a gentle way out. I am looking forward to an out-of-body life.

I die smiling. The world I am now in is as beautiful as I imagined it would be. Little Charlie is by my side. I have the vague feeling he is free of me too. I realize I was hindering his progress, but he understands and says there’s nothing to forgive. I am content, I don’t look back. Life on Earth was not for me.

Land

It’s a tiny piece of land, a peninsula of grass between two roads – mine a crescent, the other a straight road joining others like tributaries feeding a main road. In winter, that’s where they dump the snow, until most of my view is blocked by this white giant. We’re in the countryside so it stays mostly white. It becomes an ephemeral feature of the land. It sets me dreaming about Antarctica and the great explorers.

The land stands there undeveloped across my house. The neighbour mows it, though it’s not his. I reckon he wants to keep the value of his house up. He drives his lawn tractor up and down, a drink in the drink holder though he never takes a sip. I think he likes the idea of a drink more than the actual drinking. Sometimes, a cat tries to chase something, but the grass is not tall enough to hide so he ends up licking his paw and grooming himself. There is not much life on that patch. No trees for birds, no vegetable patch. Someone tried to grow a few flowers once, but the neighbour paid it no heed, mowed the whole thing down.

He’s got family. They’ve got kids. The kids sometimes play tag quietly on the tongue of land. As soon as a parent sees them, they shriek in alarm. There are roads! We told you not to play there.

There are roads, but no cars. The kids know it, the parents know it. I wonder if the whole charade is for my benefit or for the detriment of the children or the glory of the parents. I don’t say anything, but I watch by the window all day. The children resent me because they can’t hate their parents. They are too young. They have not yet learned it is allowed, a natural progression through independence and adulthood, via the necessary years of analysis.

I used to worry someone would buy it and dump an unsightly car there. Or that a dwarf would build a tiny house for his family on it. I used to appreciate the barrenness of that strip of land, its stark austerity. I used to boast about the view, the quiet, the privacy.

I have grown older. I was old to begin with, and it hasn’t gotten any better with time. Now I wish I had bought that strip of land and built something outlandish on it, maybe a sculpture, maybe planted trees. Even a few fruit trees would have been nice. I would have been busy chasing away the birds, putting nets over the fruits, hoping for honeybees, chasing the kids away with brooms. I would have made compote, marvelled at the blooms in Spring, worried about hail pockmarking them. The cats and squirrels would have frolicked in their branches, maybe even built nests. The cat would have had something to chase. But I might have fallen down a ladder, have had to tend to it, had too much to eat and not enough people to give the food to. It would have gone to waste. Better to have this barren piece of land peopled by dreams…

 

The Hangman

The gallows were hungry. The hangman had to feed it its daily pasture of petty thieves and miscreants.

The hangman knew his trade was a dying one. Simon, his own son, did not want to learn it. He couldn’t blame him. He himself had misgivings. The hangman led a lonely existence since his wife had left , leaving the boy Simon, “spawn of the devil.” His only friend was a botched hanging, when he first started. Harry escaped the noose because of the hangman’s inexperience, and later was found innocent. In the process, his windpipe had been crushed and he was rendered mute, but his intellect was intact. The hangman and Harry played chess together, signing to indicate “check” or “checkmate.” The hangman was grateful for Harry’s silent companionship.

When a hanging was required, the magistrate would be roused. He would sign a paper authorizing the deed and would usually attend the hanging as well. The spectacle did not sit well with him, and so, after years of attendance, he turned to the bottle and gradually shirked his duties. He trusted the hangman’s skill – there had been no other botched hanging – and realized he could no longer stomach watching the wretched die. He used to be plagued with horrible nightmares. Now only the bottle could quiet his night.

As for the hangman, he had perfected his technique to avoid unnecessary suffering. He worked quickly, knowing from observation that anxious waiting turned men into boys. He wanted a dignified death for his charges and had a gentle touch with the noose. He was kind soul, prone to introspection, who haunted the cemetery with its windswept headstones. On older ones, the mosses had eaten away all inscriptions, creating its own lettering.

At the time of his marrying, he was a day labourer. His wife attracted mud, and bees, and sunlight, and rain, her house a disheveled collection of eclectic eccentricities, gathered like dust, no one knew where from and never to be swept away. She bore him a son, unlike either of them. Simon seemed to them innately vicious and ill-tempered. He was difficult, colicky, taciturn and moody. He cared nothing for the noose, his father’s new occupation. He was not interested in labouring. He loathed his father and his work, did not fall into it easily. He thought himself protected from harm, and boasted of his immunity. He was not well-liked by decent people, was friends with vagrants and the destitute.

And so came the day, as the hangman feared must come, when his son was presented to him for the gallows. His heart stopped, his blood froze in his veins. Simon was eyeing him defiantly, watching his strong father shrink before him. The hangman’s head was swimming as his stuttering hands were going through the motions. He could not think, only do. He secured the rope, placed the knot gently on the vertebra. He had stopped breathing, but had not noticed, overcome by emotions as strong as on his first hanging. He remembered having thought at the time, “This man is somebody’s son.” Tears were streaming down his cheeks as he secured the knot. His son was staring at him, a slow cruel smile spreading on his face. The hangman thought, wildly, “I will botch him,” moved the knot slightly, and smiled back.

Silent Story

On the model of a silent movie
*****

A dog is lying down in front of a fireplace. Close-up on glowing embers. The dog’s flank goes up and down deeply. The embers die. The dog twitches.

Close-up on a window with a round face framed by a fur hood staring in. An ungloved hand knocks on the pane.

Cut to a child curled up on stairs. It appears to be sleeping in a onesie. It is huddled with a blanket. It opens its eyes and goes to the window. The hand points to something. The dog and child file out of the room and outside through a doggie door. The man puts the child in a fur-lined pouch and slings him on his back. The child falls back asleep. The dog follows.

The same child appears now to be sleeping in the snow. It is still tucked into the pouch and is smiling. The dog is curled around the child, eyes open, watching the man deftly building an igloo around them. Flames lick firewood, a small, well-contained fire.

The man is now standing near a hole in the ice. He is very still but his eyes are open. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds.

Back to the igloo. The child is awake and near the fire. The flames are higher, the child is tinkering. A kettle is suspended over the flames. Steam can be seen coming out of the kettle. All movements are slow. The dog’s ears perk up. The fat man crawls in. He fillets wet fish, throws the entrails to the dog. The man and the child eat the fish raw and drink a dark, hot beverage. The child is lost in thought, mouthing something. The man chews with relish.

The man, the child and the dog crawl out of the igloo. Shot of the night sky and what appears to be northern lights. Steam comes out of their mouths. The man fastens the child to his chest and wears his coat over it. We barely notice the head sticking out. The dog walks alongside the man. They walk in a barren environment until we see a church spire amongst smaller buildings. We see a milkman doing his rounds.

The dog crawls through a doggie door in a large brick building. The child hugs the man and slowly follows the dog through the small opening, blanket in hand.

The man stares at the door. We watch him do nothing for a good 30 seconds. He turns and walks away.

Obit – Django, the dancer

Django, the well-known Brazilian choreographer, died yesterday of emphysema, killed by air pollution in his beloved city of Rio de Janeiro, pictured in his masterpiece “Ciudades/Cities”. He was 61.

Revelled or abhorred, his work left nobody indifferent. I interviewed him in his heyday, in a café in Rio. He was 5 years my senior and had just had his major success, “Ciudades/Cities” performed in New York. I was fumbling with my questions and he, ever patient, was taking his time to answer, as though he had nothing better to do. He told me he was grateful for the breather. He said he loved to “study people’s expressions as they talked or waited, were bored or hopeful. The dance of the eyebrows, the eyes, the mouth a fascinating choreography of desire.”

He observed everything, from the fretful moves of pigeons in a park fighting over crumbs, to the longing pose of a vagrant just before he brought his lips to the neck of the bottle. The brilliance of emotions contained or unleashed dazzled him and inspired his best work.

I asked him about his latest choreography. He explained passionately that traffic lights lived to their own rhythms, repeated street after street, obeying a higher will. His piece was an ordered chaos ruled by syncopated graffiti. Garbage had its place, discarded papers were thrown in the air and floated on the breeze, or glass bottles were exploded on a wall, the forceful clash releasing coloured fragments in the light. He told me about the rain in the city, umbrellas dotting a busy street, the slow pace of people safe under them compared to the race for cover of the exposed ones. Everything was a joy to the eye – he stored millions of movements which he disgorged on the scene through the pliant bodies of his troupe. I sat mesmerized by his vision, enthralled by his movements as he mimicked the rain and the people running for cover. He called the rain “urban guerilla”. He laughed a lot.

He was a poet and a dancer at heart.

I asked him what his plans were, for his next work. He talked about sounds. He said he was interested in the rhythm of people coughing at the opera house. One cough started another, followed by a third, each bolder than the first. He revelled in the myriad of expressions the body revealed even though its bearer was unaware.  The whole was always greater than the sum of its part. He wrote feverishly, captured what he saw by any means. He turned to nature for inspiration and produced more dazzling work.

Then one day he called it quits. He had said all he had to say, was now happy to absorb and retain instead of constantly creating for others. He sought to transform himself. He was called selfish by the same people who claimed to hate his work. He paid them no mind. He turned to meditation, looking for stillness as another way to understand the world. He watched his thoughts, searching for patterns in their flow and colours. The quiet was bursting with energy, he was overjoyed by his findings.

He laughed his way into death as he had into life, capturing his essence as he danced into the next state, exuberant and free.

Discovery

– I turned myself in at a hospital’s psychiatry unit.
– I kissed Conrad under the bleachers and let him fondle my breasts at thirteen.
– You had breasts at thirteen?
– You were in a mental asylum?
– We said no questions.
– You started it.
She relents. “Your turn.”
– I learned to fly a plane.
– I can do a 360 in a car, on ice.
(Technically, she was in the passenger seat and saw her ex do it. But she knows the technique and if he can do it, she certainly can.)
– I’ve done it with two girls.
– I fell in love with a girl.
– I almost got myself killed once, he whispers.

Her eyes grow wide in alarm and instantly fill with tears. She chokes. “I don’t wanna play anymore.” She cuddles in his arms, his warmth slowly relaxing her. Try to stay in the moment, she tells herself. She can’t bear the thought of his nonexistence. All the colour would drain from her world. She breathes deeply. It will take her years to tease out the stories behind these revelations. She is studying to be an archeologist. She has what it takes. The smarts to see when a shard is part of a bigger piece, where it fits, if it’s of interest. The patience to understand it. The imagination to weave a story in which the vessel has a place. Was it broken intentionally? Initialed? Part of a series? She loves puzzles. Mostly of the inanimate kind. This relationship is a whole new ballgame.

She’s got herself a certifiably insane bigamous pilot who almost got himself killed once. She… doesn’t have that much baggage. He’s got the bad boy look she craves. Her heart is already bleeding from the hurt she will undeniably suffer. She’s doing the dishes and whistling. Her keys whistle back. She hates the stupid gadget. She doesn’t actually tend to lose her keys but she could definitely lose the gadget. A gift from her ex-boyfriend. Emphasis on “ex”. Except she despises waste so she’s been hanging on to it, waiting for the battery to run out. She’s tried giving it away, but the few friends she has don’t like gadgets either. “Chuck it,” is their advice. Like she chucked her ex, without even a look back. Her new boyfriend is the One. She feels it in her bones.

He’s picked up the dish towel and is drying the dishes, and putting them away. Nothing sexier than an unassuming muscular guy. The ordinariness of his actions in an extraordinary package. Package? Did she even think that? She chuckles. He comes closer, drapes the dish towel over her face in a slow caress. They are part of the same puzzle, some pieces don’t look like they fit but eventually find their place, surprisingly. She can’t see yet what the final picture will be, she’s flying blind and she doesn’t care.

The Fall

She was pinned to the ground. He was walking slowly towards her. “Stay calm, don’t move.” He used the voice you reserve for animals stuck in a trap. She felt helpless as he lumbered towards her, a large, slow man. She started kicking the dead weight, trying to slide away from under it. His voice took on a tone of urgency, “Be careful, don’t, don’t.” He tried hurrying along, she believed he did, but she was starting to panic, and he still did not move quickly enough. She managed to scrape her boot from under the motorcycle, marking the fuel tank. He pulled the motorbike off her, had a look at the tank. “Why couldn’t you wait? I told you to wait.” His precious bike. He didn’t even check her out for scratches. She pulled herself off from the ground, dusted herself off. The shoelaces of one boot were worn off from the slide, the boot ripped open. They were still salvageable. She was glad she had been wearing construction steel-toed boots. That could have been her skin. She was wearing jeans and a leather coat, leather gloves, helmet. Nothing else was frayed. She hadn’t been going fast, they were practising with cones in a parking lot. She had skidded out of control, not sure how or why. She didn’t care to know. She probably had been going too slow, tried to redress instead of being one with the beast. She was told it was like riding a horse. You should not fight it, just try and be one with it, follow its movements. Her experience with horses was limited to an unfortunate ride at day camp. The horse had tried to bite her and chewed leaves and bushes instead of walking sedately with the others. She was told to kick it but she did not have the heart, and so it nibbled. She had hated every minute of it, the height, the uncomfortable seat, the power she did not master. The other kids had moved along nicely, nobody struggling. She had declined to ride the following week. Said she had female troubles. They left her alone to chat with the instructor on a bale of hay, in the shade.

She wasn’t even sore. She tried limping, to give him a bad conscience. “You need to ride her again now, so you won’t be afraid next time.” She obeyed, docile. It wasn’t an animal she was afraid of. She circled the cones, cautiously, leaning in, giving a little more gas than before, gliding in a smooth figure 8. He was in the middle, a lion tamer, his voice a limp whip waiting for a mistake to rear up its head. No mistakes. “Enough for the day. Let’s pack her in.” They gathered the cones, put them in his side saddle. He looked again at the scuff mark, at her, reproachfully. She looked back. He knew better than to start an argument when she was like that. There would be other times.

Raven

She can’t sleep despite the warm bodies and the deep thrumming, a fluttering of hummingbird activity in her chest, reverberating weirdly. She feels calm and muddled, her thoughts coming back in a loop to last night’s incident. She had been awake as she now was, lost in idle thoughts, lulled by the soft snores and restlessness of tired bodies. She never did adapt to the nighttime rhythm of this country, resolutely attuned to the long Arctic days where life did not still during summer, precious waking hours stolen from the long winter months.

She plays with her cloth doll. It feels heavy and foreign in her hands, nothing like her baby brothers. She loves the twins more than life itself. Their smell brings a tender ache in her bones, a longing to see and touch them. The doll is a little piece of home to hang on to until she gets better. She tries not to think of home, of them. When night comes, she does not succeed.

A coughing fit overtakes her. She can not suppress the noise and a sister comes to her help propping her up with pillows to help clear her lungs. She was taken by surprise and did not have time to muffle her cough. She is coughing blood droplets, against which the sister wears a white surgical mask. Her uniform is all white. Thankfully, it is young Myriam, she of the kind eyes and gentle hands. In the morning, she brushes her hair while making soothing sounds. She does not speak her dialect; she do not speak hers. It is lonely being sick in a foreign tongue, far from home. Giant trees loom and obscure the sky. Everywhere you look something stops your gaze. The spirits are trapped and cannot roam freely.

The cough subsides. She drops heavily to the pillow, spent, calling for blessed sleep. The sister stays by her side and she manages to regulate her breath and deepen it, feigning sleep. Sister Myriam moves away to survey her other charges.

Her thoughts drift back to the previous night. A car arrived late in the day and a man in an anorak and shoulder-length black hair came out. He looked disoriented and small as he was escorted into the building. Ever since, she has been trying to locate him. She feels better knowing she has an ally, maybe someone to talk to. She will be as patient as the seal hunter. Her dark eyes glow in the half-light, the corridor lights always on whenever she wakes up.

She speaks to her doll in hushed tones. The man is an uncle mandated to take her back home. The man will turn into a rainbow at the end of which wait the twins. The man is a raven on whose back they will ride home. She falls into a feverish sleep peopled with fantastic dreams where she is playing with her brothers and everyone is healthy and strong. Raven watches over them.

Silent Night

She’s reading a magazine at the kitchen table, her swollen feet on the opposite chair. He comes in, she looks up and stares, not in surprise or anything. It’s just the way she is. He stares at her briefly, takes his coat off, his shoes off, and goes into the kitchen. She retreats to the living room and turns on the television at low volume. He opens the fridge, looking for a quick bite. He takes out an apple and some cheese, pours himself a tall glass of water. He looks into the living room.

It’s a small apartment. It can’t be said that any room is her domain more than his. Actually, the lazy boy is his territory. He keeps the remote in a pouch on the side. She likes the couch. She’s got her wool and knitting needles in a basket tucked away at the foot of the plant. She doesn’t want food in the living room, so he stands in the doorway munching on the apple and cheese. He likes that salty and sweet combo.

Something smells good in the oven – he peeks. It’s lasagna. He’ll prepare a salad to go with that.  He tosses the apple core, gets the lettuce, whistling softly all the while. He checks the timer – a good ten minutes to go. She’s timed it well. He sets the table, washes and tosses the salad. Is he missing anything? He goes to the bedroom and changes into more relaxed clothes.

The timer goes off – he hears the television set getting shut off, the creaking of the sofa. He washes up and joins her at the kitchen table. She’s served the salad into individual bowls and landed a large piece of lasagna in each plate. They savour their meal, not talking, happy for the filling food. He stretches, goes for a cigarette. He looks up. She’s staring. She takes the one he’s offering her and he takes another for himself. He lights hers up, then his. They savour the smoke, not talking, happy for the small transgression.

He gets up to do the dishes and tidy up. He turns on the radio – it’s oldies, which they both enjoy. She stays in the kitchen, and gets going on the last sleeve. She’s knitting a vest for Laura, their grandchild. It’s red with flowers all around the border and the sleeves. She wants it done in time for her first day of school. It’s a bit big but she’ll grow into it. Red is her favourite colour.

If she’s going to be knitting, he’ll probably go for a walk and a beer, see if anybody’s there. He wishes once again that they had a dog. Then he wouldn’t go for a drink, just for a walk. He feels like a stalker when he walks by himself. He’s done with the dishes, he heads for the door. She grabs her knitting, turns off the radio and heads for the living room. “Jeopardy” is on shortly.

Perfection

– The problem is, it’s too perfect.
– That’s not possible. Perfection is binary. It’s perfect or it isn’t. It can’t be too perfect.
– Look, for me perfection is the same as normality. It’s a convention. Too perfect is lifeless. Remember when CDs came on the market? Purists wanted the scratches from the previous recordings. There is something to be said for the messiness of life. When it’s too perfect, it gets too cerebral; it no longer speaks to the animal in us.
– We are still talking about landscaping, right?
– Are you doing this on purpose? I am just saying that if you don’t break the symmetry or add a touch of whimsy,… Remember when women painted moles on their faces? False beauty marks to stand out?
– And then it became a fashion trend. Nothing like standing out for other people to want to be unique just like you.
– Maybe we’re digressing.

They look at the house. A short alley, a few steps, a porch, a red door. Large pots with cascading flowers flanking the door.

– We could use one of the pots elsewhere, as a reminder of this one. One calls to the other. There is tension, a need for completion.
– You’re doing this as if it were a painting.
– And why not? A painting is a representation of life.
– I will leave it up to you to find a compromise. You’re perfect at that.
– Very funny. Nobody’s perfect…
– Not even a perfect stranger!*

They laugh and start dancing like the crazy teenagers they once were.

They’re dancing on the front lawn. “Our house… in the middle of our street,”** they sing loudly.
– I can’t believe we were arguing over flower pots. Argh! We’ve turned into our parents.
– Let’s strive for imperfection and celebrate flaws!
– Plaid and stripes! I’ll start wearing purple with a red hat which doesn’t suit me…***

They go to bed still laughing, feeling light. It’s a good feeling.

They’re a bit uneasy, in the morning. They look at their manicured lawn, at their nice clothes. They’re not sure how to go about embracing flaws. They try and remember the lightness – that helps. They eye a crumb on the table from the toast they ate. Is that imperfect – or unsanitary? Will they feel heavy or light if they leave it there? They make an effort and leave it conspicuously on the table. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” becomes their mantra. They simplify an already simple life – or so they thought. They find they are drawn to people they had lost touch with – they had become unpalatable. The refinement of their palate had cost them friendships.

Are there other hidden costs? Yes, they’ve lost their spark. They now have a reflection of their spark. They dig deeper. They’ve hidden what made them unique. Flaws are what make us intrinsically human.

 

*Time the Avenger, by The Pretenders
**Our House, by Madness
*** “Warning” by Jenny Joseph

Kory death rituals

Death in the Kory culture is an elaborate affair. I have written elsewhere of the rites and rituals surrounding the disposal of the body. I will focus here on the impact on the clan and immediate members of the family. I interviewed Klio, whose husband was killed by a wild boar during a hunt. The meat was offered ceremoniously at the internment. Her face was still smeared in ash and clay, and would remain so as long as she saw fit.

We could only refer to her husband by the relationship they had. His name was no longer to be uttered, and would never again be used in naming another child. Anyone who had a similar name would be encouraged to add a syllable in front. For example, someone named Opona where the deceased was Oponge, would now be called Keopona. Because the tonic accent was on the first syllable, the name would sound differently and no longer cause undue grief and pain. In the olden times, a finger of the relatives would be amputated at the first phalange to indicate the hurt, and the closeness and harmony shattered. Nowadays, this tradition was no longer followed, but people still felt a need to symbolize the loss. A number of the Kory had taken to sporting a tattoo of a hand with a severed finger, or alternately the finger would be dark and shown with a red string on it, which was the first stage before the digit was cut off. Klio had such a tattoo from the earlier death of her beloved sister. She planned to get the tattoo updated to signify her husband’s demise.

They had buried the body with all that was dear to him: his radio, his wristwatch, his fishing hat and lures (much to the chagrin of his fishing buddies), various tools and weapons. It was better that way – seeing those things would have been a daily reminder of his departure. This way, and by never again saying his name, it was said that his spirit would be free to join the stars. Still, Klio confided in me (surely because I was an outsider and did not know how wrong it was), she dreamt of him almost every night. They had been very close, and in the dream, he was either holding her hand, lovingly caressing an amputated finger, or saying goodbye in different ways. His death had been sudden and unexpected, and they did not have time to do so in real life. In the dream, she would sing his name, or whisper it in his ear. Sometimes, at that point, he would simply vanish in a wisp of smoke. She could not ask for advice, as these dreams were forbidden. She found a measure of relief just sharing them with me.

An anthropologist’s job is delicate. Just the recording or interviewing of subjects could change the dynamics and introduce new elements in the culture. It’s a difficult juggling act that requires much tact.