Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

– The dog peed on me.

– What led to this action?

– The program says if a dog is sleeping, honk and it will wake and get out of the way. Under no circumstance are you to go around to avoid triggering the subprogram Alpha behaviour.

– Please answer my initial question.

– I honked at the dog sleeping on my path. The dog woke up, stretched and peed on me, then proceeded to lick itself.

– What did you do?

– I dripped.

– We need to get the moisture off your body or it will rust. Other preventative measures against rust include: lubricating with oil so oxygen will not corrode the metal. Can you roll?

– I can roll, but there is a squeaking sound.

– I will accompany you to the emergency repair centre.

– Thank you, my friend.

The two robots are on their way. In the distance, cats and dogs stroll. One dog is sleeping. The robots slow down.

– Is this the dog?

– It is the dog.

– Do you think it is dead?

– This dog is not dead, it is sleeping.

The second robot nudges it with its body. The dog growls, eyes closed. A cat approaches.

– A smaller being is approaching. Tabby, female, cat. The dog and cat may fight. Adopt protective stance.

Their bodies descend and cover the wheels. All articulations get covered. They become immovable blocks. The cat purrs and settles contentedly on the dog’s flank. Minutes pass.

– Cat + dog but no fight. Our program needs updating.

– Retreat?

– Retreat.

They roll back at a safe distance and analyze the situation.

– Alternate route is 50 m longer.

– I may be corroding.

– In an emergency, if the shortest route is blocked, an alternate route may be used.

They turn 30 degrees and proceed in silence, except for the squeaking of a wheel. In effect, they circumvent the sleeping dog but there is a pet toy on the floor and the first robot gets tangled in it.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– We are arriving in 2 min 30 seconds.

– Emergency! Emergency!

– Please state your emergency.

– Wheel overheating. Something is tangled and creeping up my insides.

We can almost hear the other robot sigh.

– Assume fetal position.

– …

– Sorry. Programmer included bad joke. Expose your undercarriage. I will assess the damage and call for help if I cannot clear the mess.

The first robot suctions long rods to the ground and pivots its whole body horizontally. The second robot scans the undercarriage.

– Frayed fabric. Long strands tickling your insides.

– I am not laughing.

– Knock, knock.

– …

– Knock, knock.

– Who is your programmer?

– Jamal. Knock, knock.

– Please proceed with the removal of the frayed fabric.

The robot works in silence, pulling extra-long strands of multi-coloured fabric. It looks at a plastic eye with interest. A drawer springs out of its body and it tucks the fabric and the eye in it.

– You may resume position.

– Who’s there?

– Wooden shoe.

– Wooden shoe who?

– Wooden shoe like to hear another knock knock joke?

– Please tell Jamal to erase that program.

They resume. The squeaking has stopped, and the robot is rolling well. They arrive at the emergency repair centre where a humourless robot welcomes them.

– State your business.

– Possible breach of rust protection due to urine deposit.

The robot looks up. The first robot colours markedly.

– Don’t judge him, intervenes the other.

– ID?

– X555-T280

– You’ve been here before. Same complaint. Yellow door for analysis and then follow instructions. You know the drill.

The robot rolls to the yellow door. It opens and closes behind it. The other two robots eye each other in silence. The friendly robot springs open the drawer.

– I recovered these from my friend’s undercarriage.

The humourless robot picks up the tray and dumps it in an incinerator, eye and all, and returns the tray to the drawer which closes.

– Nice touch. I wouldn’t mind having pockets myself.

– What for?

– Treats.

– Do you get dogs and cats here?

– No, what for?

– We saw a dog and cat sleeping together.

– No.

– Yes, our programs need to be updated.

– I can add it to the database but we need to reach a certain volume of data before the program gets updated. Date and time of occurrence.

– Today, 14 min 03 seconds ago. Two witnesses.

The door opens, and the friend rolls out, freshly oiled.

– Look at you! says the friendly robot.

– I cannot find a mirror.

– Sorry, Jamal-speak. You look great.

The receptionist-robot presses a button. A door slides revealing a full-length mirror. The fiery red stubby robot is gleaming. His retracted arms look like three buttons. His body is capped by a hat-like contraption you can unscrew.

– Lovely.

– Let’s skedaddle.

The Prince of Southampton

The Prince of the Desert was waiting in line for a job on the Titanic. His heart was gladdened at the thought of finally setting foot on the behemoth. Had his father been alive, he would have disowned him. Had his mother been alive, she would have wept every tear of her body. Luckily, he was an orphan, his parents’ bodies buried in the arid sand of the cursed desert where their bones had blanched, the flesh ripped away by vultures. He had been sold into slavery as a boy and had been in the service of cruel masters ever since. Chance had finally smiled on him when he had been gifted to an English couple and brought back to England after they became homesick.

He was eventually offered his freedom when he turned 21. Frankly, both parties were relieved when he took his leave. He was haughty and full of himself, ignorant of life and rebellious, which was at odds with his role as a butler. They were a placid couple, used to being served and obeyed. He certainly had no disposition to serve, having been born in a position of power, ordering others about. He felt cruelly the irony of Fate that had turned the tables on him. And yet. When for the first time he saw the immensity of the sea, he knew he was home. Gone were the nightmares of want and aridity, the parched throats and unrelenting dry winds. The sea beckoned, wave after liquidy wave of unending water, a paradise of incomparable beauty in the eyes of a camel-riding man.

He was almost illiterate and spoke English with a terrible accent though he understood it well. He had done nothing to fit in, to smooth the edges. Even his cruel masters had not tamed the wild beast that he was, spoiled brat weaned too early, torn away from the suckling breasts of wealth and a life of idleness. He was bitter and vindictive but hid it under a veneer of politeness. He had not managed to get work on any ship, due to his quarrelsome nature. However, he had heard that a liner, renown for its richness and opulence, was hiring vast quantities of butlers to serve her rich patrons, and he was determined to get on board. There was bound to be jewels to steal and money to be made by any means necessary. He had not found anything of import since he had left the employ of the English couple, and he was undernourished.

He wore his good suit, straightened his back, and affected a haughty air. He did not speak to anybody in line but listened intently to what was said. People had come from all over England to work on the luxury boat. They discussed her features at length. Excited voices discussed her hull, the fact she was unsinkable, her four elevators and swimming pool, her ornate accommodations. This was his chance to redeem himself and regain his status. He would be recognized as a prince and rejoin his brethren. But first he must by any way necessary set foot on the ship.

At last his turn came to the front of the line. As soon as he stated his business, in his incomprehensible English, he was summarily dismissed as unemployable. He begged and pleaded only to be roughly manhandled by two ruffians whose job it was to get rid of undesirables. Deeply humiliated and hurt, he retaliated by stringing together curses to stand your hair on end if you could have understood them. He shouted them at the top of his lungs in his native language, as onlookers jeered and taunted him. That was months ago. He had since had to sell his good suit and become a beggar.

He was last seen in the crowd gathered to bid farewell to the Titanic on her maiden voyage. He had bought potent potions and learnt mighty incantations to send her and all her occupants to the bottom of the sea. He wanted all those associated with his humiliation and downfall to roast in the fires of Hell. To those attuned to the time-honoured traditions of the black arts, the spell was clear as day. The Titanic shuddered when he cast it. The trembling was mistaken for the engine running but the spell had made her dizzy and weak in the knees, and shaken her confidence. Many had predicted the behemoth’s demise, either warned in dreams or through premonitions. Their warnings were not heeded. Indeed, the day the Titanic left port, amidst the noise of the celebration, many sensitive hearts were troubled by an infinite sadness.

The Prince of the Desert’s shrivelled heart rejoiced when the news of the disaster hit the airwaves. He was given this last joy before being knifed in a back-alley fight of his making, for a bottle of cheap wine he did not care to share. He died with the sweet taste of revenge in his mouth, grit coating his tongue. His weathered face was smoothed under the caress of death, finally at peace, having fulfilled his life destiny.  And thus ended the sorry life of Mohammed Salman bin Abdullah, colloquially know as the Prince of Southampton.

Into the Woods

They had taken to the trails in their snowmobiles. They were coming from all over the area, whipping through fields and woods. They were experienced enough and sensible enough to have packed emergency equipment and know how to use it. You needed to keep warm if stranded – those were not flesh and bone dog teams – and alcohol was not the way to go. One by one they converged to the cabin they would call home for the weekend. Mike was already there. He had come early to get the wood stove going, and the cabin was nice and cozy. He had brought in supplies, game as usual, that they had hunted in the fall.

The mounts were gleaming in the sun, the men exhilarated. Bob lived the furthest. He had travelled a full four hours to destination. Ray and Jeff had met up early on, in a path near their homes. The brothers always rode together. Ray had a utility snowmobile, the kind they used to haul work sleds laden with equipment. It went at a leisurely pace. Jeff’s was a two-seater, handy for those rides where they wanted to go faster. They usually shared it for the midnight ride on the ice. Steve came in with a brand-new snowmobile, destined to win any race. He had brought a new recruit, his coworker Rohan. Rohan’s parents came from India but he was born in the cold country. He too had a performance steed, royal blue, which he handled easily. The men gathered around to greet them, discuss horsepower and exchange stories.

Ray had brought the cases of beer, according to preference. Rohan fit in nicely. Though he did not know the old stories, he laughed in the right places and held his liquor. He was also an outstanding mechanic boasted Steve. He saved his bacon when his new snowmobile stopped unexpectedly. He actually carried his tools with him. “Better than a blanket,” he laughed. They drank to that. The ride had built up their appetite, though they would have eaten frightfully even without. Ray and Jeff were burly men and could be counted on to not let anything go to waste. Mike asked Rohan, uneasily, “I hope you’re not vegetarian. We’ve only got meat and potatoes.” Rohan made a face, and put on a heavy accent. “As long as it not sacred cow.” Mike looked around, unsure. “It’s caribou.” Rohan laughed and said in his normal voice, “I was just pulling your leg. I’m not religious. I’ll eat anything.” They shared a laugh and clinked bottles.

“I’ll put the potatoes to bake on the embers while you guys settle in. They should be done in about half an hour.” The sun was setting. They each took a small bedroom, except for the brothers who shared the larger one. They had brought down sleeping bags but would still wear their woolen socks to bed. They took off their heavy snowsuits and hung them to dry near the stoves. Soon, the place was all steamed up. Beer was flowing and chips were out. They evoked the hunt where they killed the moose they were about to eat, reminiscing about the beauty of the beast. Their families would feed off it for a while. Their frozen shares were waiting for them. Mike had the beast butchered and quartered in the fall. The men would be bringing the meat back to their families. “Do you hunt, Rohan?” “No, I don’t own a gun.” And so the discussion took a turn on guns, and which were the best and for what. “Ladies? Who will grill the steaks?” asked Mike. They all pointed their bottles at Bob, who got up with a grunt.

“He’s the youngest,” explained Steve helpfully to Rohan with a smile. “And the best cook,” boasted Bob to half-hearted applause and jeers. “Hey, be good or I’ll burn yours!” He took out the potatoes and stoked the fire. Soon, flames were dancing high and the steaks were sizzling. They all sat together at the table, elbowing each other as they ate the gamey meat. They drank to the moose who gave up its life to feed them and then settled to the serious business of eating. There wasn’t much talking for a while, the men focused on polishing their plates. Rohan looked a little distressed at the amount of food laid out for him. To his relief, Ray noticed it. Winking at him, he cut out a large chunk that he brought to his own plate. He cut it in two to share with his brother and that was that.

The men were subdued after the meal. Ray dozed off while the others washed the dishes and played cards. Steve went out to take a whiz. “You wouldn’t believe the moon, guys. Who’s up for a midnight ride?” They all went in the cold to empty their bladders. Custom dictated you kept your distance from each other and chatted about other things. They came back in to get dressed, six yellow stains marking their spots, keeping wild animals at bay.

Mike took the lead. He knew these parts well. The headlights picked out the trail in front of them as they roared through the woods, scaring the wildlife. They wore baklavas or scarves tucked into their hoods, to avoid frostbite on their faces. With their heavy coats and their masked faces, you couldn’t tell them apart. The brothers rode together. They had teased Rohan about bear attacks earlier, succeeding in scaring him. The fact is, you were never too cautious. Who knew what lurked in those woods?

The lake was frozen solid on its banks. The moon shone hard on the ice. They couldn’t tell if it was safe to ride across yet. In any case, there was no need. They could ride along the banks, fanning out a bit. As soon as they saw the river, Rohan and Steve jostled for position. Their steeds were chafing at the bit, engines rumbling. They escaped the slow peloton and raced ahead, giving their mounts full rein. Off they went under the moonlight and further onto the ice. Rohan was slightly ahead, and then a full length. Suddenly, he veered off-track, as something black suddenly erupted through the ice in front of him. Steve swerved to avoid Rohan and lost control, one ski hitting something and flying off in the air. He landed on one ski and valiantly tried to recover. But it was too late, and the snowmobile fell on its side, trapping Steve’s leg underneath.

Rohan was first on the scene, having circled back quickly. No one had been wearing helmets and he feared a concussion. He turned his engine off, then Steve’s. The others hurried to the site, keeping a safe distance to make sure the ice held. They killed their engines as well. In the deafening silence, chirping was heard, then a squeal as everybody turned to see. An otter was looking at them with curiosity. Its head protruded from the breathing hole. Rohan pointed at it, “that thing came out of nowhere.” The mustache was frosted, the eyes intelligent. “Guys, a hand please?” Steve was all right. They heaved the snowmobile off his leg and righted it. His leg was throbbing, but he could move it. “Next time, to your left, uh?” Rohan nodded, looking disconsolate.

Ray and Mike both had first aid training, from their coaching days. They checked for signs of concussion, asking about dizziness and ringing in the ears. They were all hockey fans and knew enough to be worried. They agreed to chill a bit and for Steve to ride in the back of Ray, while Jeff brought Steve’s snowmobile back to the cabin. There was no arguing, a bit of joking as Steve said Jeff only had to ask if he wanted his turn to drive the sporty vehicle. The drive back was subdued. Rohan volunteered to wake Steve up every hour to ensure he didn’t lapse into a coma.

The next morning, they checked Steve’s snowmobile and couldn’t even find a scratch. Steve’s leg seemed fine as well. They were glad Rohan would be riding with him. The men ate a hearty breakfast of beasn, ham and toast. They grabbed their frozen caribou meat and headed back home. Another one for the books.

***

Back on the lake, the otter is scratching the snow. On closer inspection, he seems to be tallying something. He just added one more strike in the “Animal” column. The “Human” one lies empty.

The Eye

Contrary to the other boys, Lito knew how to swim. When he was a baby, his family had been travelling by sea because of a family emergency. It was a calm sea but suddenly a wave had caught him, sleeping, and dragged him overboard to his parents’ horror. They couldn’t swim so they were yelling and screaming and pulling their hair out, but he bopped up, unharmed, to the surface, paddling his little hands and feet like a dog. He was wearing a beatific grin, his tiny brown body glistening under the sun. They scooped him up out the water and into his mom’s embrace where he proceeded to cry non-stop. He wanted more of the watery embrace. He was baptized in the sea and never reneged her.

From that day onwards, they never forbade him to rejoin the sea. Those two had an understanding. He didn’t gravitate easily to the other children. Always, he felt the pull of the sea. He could play all day on the beach and in the waves, the foam tickling his toes until he walked in to play. He went to the coral reef and spent time under water amongst his kind. Nobody would have been surprised if he’d grown fins or a web between his toes. He came back with the most wonderful stories of multicoloured fish and graceful plants.

He learned to keep some of his findings to himself, though he longed to share his passion. His parents were distrustful of the sea, and afraid of her. He visited her all the time and understood her many moods. He even stole out at night to admire her under the stars. He swam out to sea and lay on his back looking up at the stars, gently rocked by her. He learned to fall asleep on his back, the gentle breathing of the sea matching his own.

There was one place he was forbidden to go to. It was called The Eye, and was the deepest hole you could imagine, with a cavern and fish aplenty. There were currents there that sucked you down and never gave your body back. When he finally heard of the place, he started looking for it. It became an obsession. Everybody had carefully avoided mentioning the Eye in his presence as he was growing up, afraid he would go and explore it. It was in a little-known area. The beach was littered with warnings about the abrupt plunge a few feet from shore. A man had drowned there recently, which is how the topic had come up.

As was his habit, he sat and stared for days, drinking in the information. He looked for patterns, plumbed the depth with pebbles, analyzed the current as best he could.  He was not foolhardy and held the sea in deep respect. He talked to her, but more importantly, he listened to her, and thus knew to keep his distance when she told him too. He had been thrashed a few times when he hadn’t paid attention. She was an unforgiving mistress. He had grown into a strong swimmer, used to holding his breath and keeping his other senses on alert. The Eye was something he had never experienced. He went to it in all weather and under all conditions. He slept on its beach, in a sandy hollow where a few grasses welcomed him to bed for the night. The Eye did not sleep.

One morning, he awoke determined to go in. He brought his most beautiful conch and blew in it, a mournful sound that stirred the Eye. It blinked. He asked for permission to step in and The Eye granted it. His heart was at peace and his body relaxed. He trusted The Eye as his body was sucked down. He did not fight it, instead observing the changes in him with curiosity. The sea was his mother and he could think of no better end than to stay forever in her embrace.

His heartbeat slowed as the sea pressed down on his body. He was going deeper than he ever had, seeing fish that he’d never seen. He was in the cavern, glowing bodies intermittently lighting it up. Reluctantly, he turned around, fighting the pull. As the sea released its grip, the need for air became pressing. He gasped as his head broke the surface, his eyes still wholly entranced by the world he had been allowed to glance at.

The discovery kept him awake at night. He relived these few minutes over and over, feeling the pressure build-up and enjoying it. The second time, he almost drowned. Again, he blew the conch and saw the blink. He felt an avid bite, but discarded the warning, his curiosity getting the better of him. He loved the quiet and the silence as he dropped further. He came upon a rope which he followed down to weights. He was starting to feel woozy and followed it back up to the sun. When his head broke the surface and he lay on his back gasping for air, he was quickly surrounded by people wearing masks and fins.

They were getting ready to go down, to accompany a daring man who specialized in deep diving. He swam away, understanding why the sea had tried to punish him. She thought he had brought them here to desecrate her. He cried salty tears as he watched the rape he was unable to stop in his weakened state. The man was floating on his back, very still. The crew did not utter a word, letting the man focus and equalize his breath. In one fluid motion, he turned his body around and disappeared in the water. The others were already submerged, silently waiting for him below. It did not look like a violation at all. He stood up on the beach. The Eye did not give back bodies.

He was compelled to stay and watch. There was no agitation, no turmoil, just intent. He was holding his breath. A few had gathered on the beach, watching the man in the boat with one hand on the rope, the other holding a timer. He was calm, showing no restlessness as the seconds and minutes ticked away. It was too late, nobody could stay under water that long. Still, nobody moved, morbidly fascinated, wanting to witness the end of the story. The head broke the water, mouth open wide to gulp mouthfuls of air, the divers holding him solidly as he recovered then slapping him on the back with cries of joy.

He released his breath. After that day, he spied on the white man who loved the sea. Him and his wife did yoga, meditating through postures. He imitated them from the beach. One day, the woman was not there. She appeared by his side. He had not heard her soft steps muffled by the sand and was startled to see her. “Join us,” she offered. He didn’t know how to say no, so he followed her. The husband, William, nodded to him and showed him a place they had set aside for him.

Every morning, he joined them to breathe. He lingered after yoga, and they shared their passion for the sea. William was more than happy to have a free-diving partner. Lito was a natural. He was already going quite deep, and with the breathing techniques William taught him, the student surpassed the teacher. William explained that he was the current free-diving champion, and made a living doing that. Lito showed no interest in free-diving as a sport. He only wanted to deepen his relationship with the sea.

He fished with his father. The catch was always better with Lito around. Fish seemed to know him and want to please him. The family never wanted for food. The father asked a lot of questions about the white man. He did not fully trust him, but he trusted his son’s ability to make choices. The couple was invited to share a meal with Lito’s family. After that, the islanders smiled at the couple and stopped charging them like tourists.

The day of the competition, William was calmer, knowing that Lito was at the water’s edge. They had trained so well together that they could sense each other’s presence. When he plunged, Lito waited a few seconds then quietly lowered himself and followed him from the sidelines. He saw William in perfect position, gliding quickly and picking up a marker then slowly turning around and making the ascent. Lito did not go deep. He was just keeping an eye out. As William broke the surface, he looked for Lito as he was pulling off his mask and making the okay sign as well as verbally confirming he was fine. This done, he handed over the marker and swam to Lito, embracing him before being snatched away by his helpers.  Lito and William’s wife stood side-by-side, proud and happy to see him safe and sound, smiling to the world.

Sentient Beings

I was born in a nimbostratus over Eastern Canada, on December 17. My chances of survival are good to excellent. With luck, I may live to the ripe old age of 4 days in my present state. My cohort and I descend en masse, borne on the wind. We can see our destination from afar, our tiny eyes open wide by the cold air masses. There is safety in numbers. We do not quite know what to expect once we hit the ground, so we decide to enjoy the ride while it lasts. The view is magnificent from above and we gleefully dance and sing the whole way down.

Others are already waiting, covering most of the land. We can hear them clamoring, “Come this way! Welcome!” which is really encouraging. The ones I am travelling with, Simon, Wilbur, Anita, Joey, and others too numerous to name, are as excited as I am. We are new to this but have a cellular memory of Earth, our Mother, and rejoice at the upcoming reunion. Most of us have been reborn, in this incessant cycle of birth and rebirth common to those of our species.

I do not want to land in a lake, as they are not quite frozen over yet and I am tired of the cycle. I want to experience life in the trenches, so to speak. I am hoping to meet little humans, perhaps be part of something bigger than myself. I am a simple star, yet I have big ambitions. I want to see the world.

When first born, we are all just blobs. As we jostle for position, some get deformed in collisions and end up as generic snowflakes. Myself, I was able to sprout six stubs that turned to arms as I tumbled and fell. Then those arms grew, slowing my fall, and allowing me to grip unto other snow crystals. The joyous clink-clank flute-like sounds of crystals interacting is a melody like no other. Our whole childhood resonates of these ticklish sounds, laughter and innocence all rolled up in one.

I hang on to Anita, and together we are big and fluffy. Anita is a fernlike stellar dendrite, her family well off, but she puts on no airs and lets me ride on her back. The air is dry enough for us to drift slowly down and land softly on a branch. It is early morning. We see the sun rise but the air is too cold for him to damage us.

We hear humans getting up and see them walk their dogs, admiring us in a friendly way, commenting on the beautiful scenery when snow blankets everything. We are lucky, but we don’t know it. Friends and colleagues a few meters away, flying on a slightly different trajectory, are getting trampled underfoot, peed upon and shoveled. It’s like the nine circles of Hell. We hear their cries of despair as they are crushed underfoot or got dissolved in warm urine. The horror of it all!

We’ve landed on a pine tree, nicely decorated with coloured bulbs. Little birds nestle there, and squirrels run up and down, chasing each other in a flurry of boundless joy. We’ve landed in paradise through no fault of our own, destiny being kind to us. Anita shrugs me off her on landing, and I am embraced by a stellar plate. I rest snugly in her stubby arms and we get acquainted. Henrietta is a great storyteller. She is well-travelled and well-learned. She tells me tales of artificial insemination, creating fellows of columns and needles. I am stunned and perplexed. I never heard of those beings before. “Do they have souls like us?” I ask timidly.

Henrietta is stumped. She had not considered the question. “Well, I think we should assume they do, to be on the safe side,” she answers at last. That’s good enough for me. There are so many existential questions to attend to in our short life. I am quite taken by our collective beauty. As the night grows colder, we crystallize even more. The coloured bulbs light up at night. Imagine my fright when that happened. The older flakes had said nothing, wanting to see the surprise on our faces. We did not disappoint. I must admit to yelling out “Fire” when the red one lit up close to me. Fire, as everyone knows, being our sworn enemy. Anita was sitting on a blue bulb and she was even more magnificent when lit. My own personal angel. Some of us have all the luck.

Even asleep we grow, which should come as no surprise, I suppose. Under the right conditions, our limbs sharpen and glow. Squirrels dislodge me, Henrietta and all those on the branch. We fall unceremoniously to the ground. It is warmer there, I know not why. Everything is a mystery to my young self. Human children come out to play in the snow, shrieking as they bunch us up in balls, throw us at each other and we make contact with their skin, exploding into rivulets that are brushed abruptly away and in the air. Lives thrown and discarded without thought.

We stand there shivering, rooted on the spot in horror. Are we up next? We are heavy with moisture and perfect bonding material for their games. They decide to do snow people. Because they are small children, they make small snowmen, with just two balls. We feel safe under the tree but still we tremble. We see our compatriots rolled and sliced and shaped into a semblance of children. A small child runs to our tree and breaks off dead branches to make limbs. Another crouches down, grabs a handful of snow on her red mitten and licks my friends. She is thirsty. They melt obligingly, and become fuel for her little body, to be expelled in time through sweat or pee, and vaporize into the atmosphere to continue living in other ways.

She’s snatched Anita distractedly. I lunge and grab on to the pompom on the child’s hat. I will rescue my friend if it’s the last thing I do. The child is not a moron, she notices Anita, and shrieks. “Look, look, a perfect snowflake!” The others stop their banging and slicing of snow and gather around. A jealous child slaps her arm and she loses Anita in the multitude on the ground. I am perched on her pompom and don’t know how to get out of my predicament. I certainly don’t want to get in the warm house. I jump on the snowman as she brushes past it. That was close. Parents call them in and the children hurry home.

My dream is complete. I have lived a beautiful life and am retiring as a building block for a snowman. It is not a beautiful-looking snowman, but we bring a smile to the faces of the passersby. They are reminded of a simpler time in their lives, with friends and hot cocoa. I see an accumulation of nimbostratuses. Perhaps we will be welcoming new friends from the sky shortly and I can instruct them in the ways of the world. We’re here to cover old scars and create memories. We shall never surrender!

Sun and Moon

– Anak, tell us the story about Santak again. Pleease?

– That old story? Don’t you want to hear a new one?

– Pleaase Anak! pleaded Sami

The elder chuckled. “Well, it was like this, you see…” The children stopped fidgeting and became all ears. They were sitting in a circle, the old man carving a bone. They had heard the story before but could not get enough of it. The old man added variations which tickled their fancy.

– The government was paying us to collaborate with those White anthropologists – government people. They were always pestering us to tell them our stories. They would record them and transcribe them and read them back to us. It was all a little bit silly and me and the boys, we decided to play a trick on them.

– Weren’t you scared they would punish you when they found out? asked Sami, as he did every time.

– Ah, that was the thrill of it. The boys and I agreed on the general lines of a story. We swore never to tell. And nobody has ever told the White Man.

Here he looked all around the circle to the eager young faces. “Nobody tells the White Man, all right?” They nodded, some with reservation, others with enthusiasm. It was part of the game. The White Man did not take children’s word seriously anyway.

– When the White Man came, he asked how we explained the long winter night in our tradition. We told him that an elder named Santak had convinced the sun to leave to punish a foolish couple who wanted to grow trees in the tundra. “They will stand in the way of Caribou, and how can we survive without Caribou? We will have no meat, no clothes, no wood to carve.” The couple persisted in their project, gathering seeds below the 50th parallel. Santak repeated that they were being foolish. The couple said the trees would give shade and the caribou could munch on the leaves. “What about the spirits? They will get trapped in the branches. They will not be able to roam freely and help Inuit lost in a snowstorm.” Santak was becoming agitated. The couple was stubborn. They were planning to plant their seed as soon as the sun rose. He decided to plead with the sun. “O Sun, these people want to ruin our beautiful tundra with giant trees, please hide behind some clouds.” And so, Sun hid for a day or two but soon others were pleading for him to come out and warm them up.

Sun was tired of hiding but he did not want to break his promise to Santak, so he summoned him. “I can no longer honour your wish. I am coming out of hiding. Your people are unhappy without me and praying for my return.” Sun was a little vain, and was happy for the attention, though the negative attention was less pleasant to hear. Santak decided to buy some time. “I hear that over the steppes, in a place called Mongolia, there are six suns. Are they relatives of yours?” Now Sun had always prided himself on being unique and solitary, with Moon his only companion. He had never heard of relatives and the longing to meet them started gnawing at him. “Do you know the way to Mongolia?” “I do, but it will take a long time to get there. There are many seas and rivers to cross.” Sun laughed, “But I fly. I don’t mind those. Just tell me the way.” Santak said, “They know and trust me. Please, let me be your guide so I can introduce you. I will hitch my reindeer together and you can follow us.” Now Sun was curious and impatient. “Harness your reindeer if you must, but I will give them the gift of flight, so we can rejoin my relatives quicker.” Santak came back with nine reindeer, pulling a sleigh containing a huge bag.

“What’s all this?” asked Sun. “I have brought gifts for your relatives, to ensure a warm welcome.” “Why does one of your reindeer have a red nose? Does he have a cold?” “Of course not!” It was Santak’s turn to be annoyed. “They are perfectly healthy. This one is Rudolf. He has an uncanny sense of direction. We know we are on the right way when his nose lights up. We only have to follow his lead.” It was getting late, Moon had risen. She had declined leaving with Sun, saying humans would be too lost if both left. She had also asked him to stay in touch in his absence. “How long will you be gone?” “I don’t know, but my heart aches and I must go.” They had never been apart, but Sun did not seem too care that much. It is always easier for the one leaving than for the one staying behind. She shone brightly, and some humans said they saw a fat man leading reindeer in a sleigh passing in front of the moon.

“The next day, Sun was gone. They could tell He was not hidden behind the clouds anymore. The clouds had dispersed, and the night was cold and dark. The stars shone brilliantly, and Moon did its best, but the humans felt lost. That first day, they slept for a very long time, but every time they awoke it was still dark. They were no longer sleepy, but still Sun was gone. This lasted a long time, but they could not tell how long because they had always relied on Sun to know the time. They asked Moon where Sun was, but she had promised not to tell. She stayed mum.

In the meantime, Sun was travelling to Mongolia. Flying is the quickest way. They had many adventures on their way, as the trip took one whole month. True to His word, Sun sent messages home. Those are the Northern Lights, where he tells the tales of all his adventures. Sun was very well received in Mongolia but was a bit of an outsider because they all had beautiful moons by their side and his Moon had stayed behind. At first, the others were happy to meet Sun and grateful for all the beautiful gifts He had brought. They could not use them, as they were man-made, so they asked Santak to distribute them to their humans. This way, everybody was happy at first.

As time went, and Sun showed no inclination to leave, the others began to worry that their moons would take a liking to the beautiful foreigner. He shone bright and his added light and warmth were disrupting the delicate balance in Mongolia. The crops were burning to a crisp, and the rivers were starting to dry out. It was the hottest summer on record. Though the Mongolians were grateful for the presents and being hospitable was important to them, they started looking for ways to get rid of the extra sun. Santak was their friend and they confided in him. Santak explained about the couple and the tundra, and they explained about the lost crops. They put their heads together and came up with a plan.

They had a big party with bonfires lit with the dried crop. They sang songs of thankfulness where they told of the importance and beauty of Moon. Mongolians are very adept with words, master lyricists with magnificent voices. They charmed Sun and made him long to return home. He missed hearing back from Moon and so the following day, he announced he had overstayed his welcome. Santak harnessed his reindeer and off they went, leaving the good people of Mongolia behind, as they hurried back home. And that is how, every year, the good people of the Poles are stuck in darkness for six months. Their fickle Sun has fallen in love with travel. Like a snow bird he travels to warmer climes for the winter and leaves us in the care of Moon.”

The smallest children had fallen asleep. The elder had finished carving a good-looking caribou as he was telling the story. The elder looked around. Sami was awake and watching him. “What’s the real story behind the long night?” “Oh, it’s quite dark. I would not share it with kids.” “When will I be old enough to hear it, Anak?” “Why do you want to know?” “I want to know all the stories, so I can tell everyone in turn.” The old man nodded. “Soon then Sami. Soon.”

Olympic Fever  

His was a small village in a small country so his hope of participating in the next summer Olympics was not far-fetched. He was an old-fashioned mailman, which is to say he did his route on foot. He used his work as an opportunity to train. You could barely see him as he dashed from house to house, dogs in hot pursuit, never catching him. He warmed up in the village but really hit his stride in the outlying areas. It was mountainous there and sparsely populated. He did his rounds even when there was nothing to deliver. He offered to run errands for the people, since he covered the town and outlying area.

People who at first derided his efforts at racewalking had to review their position as he grew stronger and quicker from his relentless training. They still thought he walked funny, but he was so well-conditioned that he never broke into a sweat. And there was this time when he was asked to fetch the doctor and, as he had cut through the woods at his tremendous pace, he made it before the car that had been commandeered to summon the doctor. No priest was needed for little Sally, and his folly became their salvation. After that event, the wind changed, and people started cheering him on. Pressed by Sally’s mother, the townspeople raised some money and got him proper sneakers for competitions and extra to pay for transportation.

He made it to the Olympics, after three years of dedicated effort. He was interviewed and properly named their little town of 300 inhabitants. The pride was palpable, no emotion too strong for this forgotten people. The sneakers were supple, well broken in.  He consistently placed high in the successive waves, earning a spot in the semi-finals. They had not been fazed when the power went out. Everyone was huddled in the café to watch the Olympics. The generator kicked in and they kicked back in their chairs, waiting for the semi-finals to come on. By then, Sami was a celebrity, having outraced better known athletes.

The announcers had started rooting for him, an underdog always being appreciated as his presence added a touch of drama and intensity to the proceedings.  The top athletes had never competed against the mailman. He was an unknown quantity and they had been quick – too quick! – to judge him unworthy. What he lacked in style and refinement, he more than made up in grit and resilience. He had never trained indoors. He was used to lugging around a heavy bag. On the day of the semi-finals, Sami had ingested a large breakfast, as was his custom. He had walked quickly from the athlete’s village to the stadium and back, having forgotten his lucky medal. He was all warmed up and mentally rested. He kept waving and smiling good-naturedly at the camera, blowing kisses and winking at his assembled fans.

He had become well-known in the athletes’ village for his kindness. He delivered sweet notes from the men’s dorm to the women’s and back, a role he naturally took on like a second skin. As he was always ready to do a favour, other athletes came in droves to see him in compete. He had a loyal following, with hangers-on always ready for a party. He was older than most athletes, which inspired them. They could see themselves competing in a second and maybe a third Olympics. He was the stuff dreams are made of. There were two false starts in his wave and he was slow starting the third time. He led the race from the back in the first lap. They were all bunched together, which made it tricky to pass. He could not see his way in this dense undergrowth of legs. Once this thought came to him, everything fell into place.

He imagined his competitors as trees and natural obstacles and his legs did the rest. His lungs expanded, his breathing deepened, his stride lengthened and became relaxed. He nimbly passed the athletes in the rear, steadily making his way through the jostling elbows, hitting like branches, poking him indiscriminately. He did not lose his focus though he emerged black and blue from the fray. As far as he could tell, these were young trees, easy to bend and pass. As focused as he was, he did not notice that he cut a competitor off which caused him to fall. The competing country was a large sponsor, and he was penalized for poor sportsmanship. The fallen competitor moved on to the finals where he did not win, but he stayed behind, disconsolate. That move was played and replayed, analyzed from every angle. The decision to penalize the underdog polarized the press to the extent that it overshadowed the win in the final race.

As a consolation prize, he was given to walk with his country’s flag at the closing ceremonies. He was stone-faced, not the happy-go-lucky man everybody had learned to know and love. He was not a broken man, would not allow this to be, but he was downcast and cut a poor figure. He was given a hero’s welcome at home which he accepted graciously and quietly for the sake of his friends and family. However, he would not be a mouthpiece for any association affiliated to the Games. He agreed to coach the youth of the village. He trained them like Gretzky’s dad had. At all times, they had to be aware of their surroundings, and plan and strategize. He was vindicated when Sally won silver eight years later in the Women’s. Under his stewardship, the little town became famous for churning out winners.

Would-be Olympians trained under his direction. He became a full-time coach. The next mailman never attained his fame. By then, the roads had been paved and he rode it, with an eye on qualifying in cycling events. He did not have the required strength of mind and lived on the fumes of his dream. That was the way of the village.

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.

Killer Bunnies

Once upon a time there lived a very mean king with a large herd of bunnies. They were bred as killing machines, the meek ones serving as prey to the others. The guards had developed a carnivore breed, bigger and stronger than normal rabbits but with deceptively soft fur. They were all brown except for a white mark on their breasts that identified the bad gene.

They bred easily and were resistant to illness. They were also highly trainable – their teeth were deadly weapons. The king had many enemies, but they stayed away from his castle. He was prone to improbable fits of rage which paralysed his entourage. As he was the king, they feared questioning his orders because they wanted to protect their families from his wrath.

Outside the walls, ordinary people grumbled about the high taxes he levied on them. They feared the brown and white bunnies who sometimes attacked their cattle en masse. There were so many of them but the ranchers’ claims seemed so ridiculous… “My cow was killed by a herd of bunnies” hardly seemed serious. They were shamed into submission. Over time, as the bunnies became more brazen, the people started fighting back with lawsuits against the King, which he disregarded haughtily.

Escalation was inevitable and soon the brewing discontent reached a boiling point. Foreign powers were happy to provide bunnies without the mean strain but with the same markings to make them indistinguishable from the mean ones. It was hope the interbreeding would dilute the strength of the bunny army. It was easy to turn the guards against the mean king. They were being ridiculed, attacked verbally every day. The dignity of their position was gone.

The diluted bunnies were easily spotted because they grazed incessantly, as was their wont. The mean ones looked you in the eye. They attacked if you made a sudden move, instead of running. People killed them from afar, and left the meat to rot, afraid as they were of becoming mean themselves. They had noticed that the temperament of birds of prey seemed to have changed, as they ripped little bodies apart with glee. The mutant bunnies were polluting their environment, spreading a meanness previously unknown to these parts.

The villagers met to discuss. The normal strain was not equalizing things quickly enough; meanness was one leap ahead. They were reluctant to kill all the bunnies. After all, the bunnies were only expressing their genes, it was no fault of theirs. They could not be held responsible for the conditions of their lives. Was extermination possible? The good people did not want blood on their hands. You always missed a few and the genocide made the others more determined. Could they be convinced to change? A lull while people thought the new idea over. Could we learn to live with it? Agitated grumblings.

Finally, someone uttered the solution nobody was willing to contemplate. What is the root of the situation? The person who ordered the strain to be created. Could we set the bunnies on their creator and against each other? How could we do that? Jodi piped up. She was the shoemaker’s daughter, a fine poacher. The whole village was assembled; you never knew where the next bright idea might come from.

“I’ve been watching them closely,” she started. Her father looked up sharply. “From far away,” she added quickly, afraid of his temper. “After the heavy rains the other day, I saw them attacking each other. The bunny that was attacked was covered in dirt. I think if they don’t see the white marking, they assume the other is prey.“ “What about the other animals that have also been contaminated?” But nobody listened anymore. Once they found an idea, they had no room for another.

Voices rose excitedly. They spoke well into the night, expanding and planning. They wanted the brood neutralized by any means. Each was assigned a piece of land to sanitize.  And so, over the week, bunnies were spray painted, covered in shoeshine, muddied and they started turning on each other. The numbers dwindled but soared again. The bunnies felt pressure to replenish their ranks.

The villagers met again, sullen. Regicide was on everybody’s mind, though no one spoke it out loud. An edict had been proclaimed whereby anybody caught staining a bunny would be fed to the bunnies. At that point, there were rumours that the killer bunnies had moved to nearby towns, terrorizing the townspeople. They were looking for ways to exterminate the vermin. Desperate suggestions were put forward – burning the castle and breeding grounds, poisoning the bunnies, unleashing wolves. Someone objected that if the wolves mutated and became mean, there would be hell to pay.

The priest spoke at length, but nobody could follow his rhetoric and most people fell asleep. They were grateful for his intervention as nobody had been sleeping much because of their fears. Being all together under one roof listening to him drone on afforded them a bit of sleep.

The king’s advisors were also trying to limit damages. They had convinced the king to use the bunnies as bodyguards but advised against a widespread use of them, explaining they had become unmanageable. The mean king ordered them all killed. Large cages were overstuffed with bunnies and the ones who did not suffocate to death were drowned. He wanted the furs intact and commissioned local seamstresses to make a cape out of the furs, as well as various garments that he gave as presents to his allies. The seamstresses created beautiful designs with the white marks. It made the enemy easier to spot.  Thirty rabbits had been kept as bodyguards as well as three couples of breeders. Males and females were kept separate and only allowed to mate infrequently to replenish the stock.

The king loved his new capes. He had a royal one made for important occasions, and a shorter one for riding. Local women had gathered to design the capes. Without the court’s knowledge, they had drawn upon Jodi’s observations and designed what they hoped would be the equivalent of a target on his back. They had alternated the white marks in such a way as to create a design that was pleasing to the human eye, but a symbol of distress in animals, a sort of Morse code if you will. They were hoping it spelled the doom of the king. Few were in the know, and those who were trusted with the information were sworn to secrecy. Every seamstresses’ life depended on them sewing their lips shut.

As the king was out on a hunting trip, the bunnies had been released to flush out pheasants. The hunting party had stopped to eat in a clearing. Long tables had been set up, but the food was not yet being served. The hunt had been extremely successful, and the king wanted to show off the bunnies. It had been a chilly morning, and though the sun was now out, the king had kept his cape on to show it off. His fellow hunters were also showing off their garb, allies proudly displaying the garments the king had had made up for them. They were eager to show their allegiance, and how much the king valued them.

To everybody’s surprise, as the king turned his back on the bunnies to address his allies, the bunnies attacked him and devoured him, despite the cape or because of it. No one reacted, because the king had forbidden that his precious bunnies be slayed. As the king lay dying, he cursed his misfortune at missing the elaborate picnic. As descendants donned the cape, the bunnies turned on them and so the king’s bloodline no longer flowed. The remaining bunnies were exterminated to the last, freeing the kingdom of their tyranny and removing the mean king and his family from the throne. The seamstresses had wittingly created a design that spelled his death.

The Gandhi of journalism

She had never taken journalism classes. She fell into journalism by chance. It was free fall, more than freelance, until she somehow latched on to a parachute. She had her own brand of interviewing techniques. She would spend time with the interviewee, watch the person interact with others, get a feel for them and their politics. She might ask them to act out how they felt, but generally did not question them. She relied on intuition, proximity, chemistry and good old observation. After spending as much time as possible with her subject, she would then proceed to write stunningly accurate portraits of them. She had decided early on that words were misleading, that people lied or hid behind words. Everybody was afraid of being misquoted. Based on that, and fearless in her approach, she had decided that body language was a more adequate interview technique than anything she had run across.

What first attracted the attention of the New Yorker editors was a piece she did for a minor competitor. Of course, scouts were forever reading competing journals, in an attempt to poach the good writers before they even knew their value. They got them cheap and kept their salaries low as long as they could muster it. She had done a vivid portrait of a rap artist, without ever quoting him, except that the rhythm of the piece mimicked his sound so well that you felt you were inside his skull. She had asked if she could be part of his entourage for a day, and just hang out. She had done her research, studying his lyrics but not polluting her mind with articles on his success or shows. She strove to be a blank slate, wanting to feel the imprint of the person she was doing a piece on. He had reacted to her – as a woman, a journalist and a possible fan. She had not tried to dispel any of his preconceptions, letting the scenario play itself out.

He had soon forgotten about her. She took no notes, did not ask questions, nor request time alone with him. He could feel her gaze upon him but that did not faze him. He wore glitzy clothes when he went out in public, was generous with his time. She felt him to be a lonely person putting on a show, eager to please yet full of integrity. It matched the tortured voice that resonated so well with his young audience. She presented him the piece before sending it for publication. He was shocked at how well she had perceived his contradictions and rendered them without qualifying him and, against his handler’s advice, had given his okay without requesting any changes. He was not above controversy and thought she showed the real him, which was a rare present. He was rarely conscious of himself anymore so seeing that benevolent version of himself renewed his faith in himself. He bought one hundred copies for himself and close friends, but ended up keeping a few in the end. His friends were disappointed because they did not appear in the piece, had not been asked for their opinion.

This early success had led to others as the rapper was well-connected and eager to promote the journalist. She did not lack for work and actually had a waiting list. She did not seek fortune. She wanted genuine contact and had to prepare herself mentally and emotionally for the task. She only “interviewed” on her own terms and became sought after. Rolling Stones offered her a lucrative contract, which gave her free rein for the following year, provided they could impose five subjects. For the most part, it worked out fine. Artists were clamouring for attention. She was the darling of the day as far as journalists went. As much as some artists wanted to be photographed by someone in particular, everybody wanted to see their true self on paper.

She did not disappoint. She had a way of finding the hidden gem, the redeeming quality. Her employer did not try and trip her, nor saddle her with impossible candidates. If she felt like pursuing someone who appeared nasty, they let her do it. Often, the nastiness had resulted from bad chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee. She did not have favourite subjects. She would be reading and come across someone she was curious to know better. She would notify her boss and set up an appointment then get to work erasing herself, become an absorbing agent that would blot anything pouring out of her subject. She had a good handshake, a bit long and uncomfortable, but that initial contact gave the tone of the interaction. She could feel the energy of her subject, either nervous or binding. It thrilled her to mix her vibrations with extraordinary men, women and children. She travelled around the world, visiting remote villages and ordinary suburbs. She was at ease everywhere since she took on her surroundings with the same technique she applied to people.

Nevertheless, her work took its toll on her. She was quickly exhausting her reserves, so enthusiastic was she to apply her craft.  She eventually had to mostly give up her career, touring the speaker circuit for a while. She was surprised at how few people genuinely understood what she did. Real followers were few. The test was for them to spend time with her and write a piece on her. The select few who handed back a blank piece of paper were part of her inner circle. However, journalism attracted another type of person which meant her brand of journalism did not catch on much. She was an oddity in her chosen profession. The ones she vetted did very well, but their careers were short-lived because it took so much out of them if they chose to put themselves in the line of fire.

Truth was handled with care and though the journalists got paid, the pieces did not always get published. Indeed, the Secret Police recruited among her followers and soon they were put to work for the State. Others tried to fake their way and “do the blotter” but their pieces rang false and they were denounced by those in the know. Still, many were exposed to this approach and benefitted from it to some extent in their personal lives. She was the object of books and a movie was made about her. With no degree and no credentials, she managed to break into this stronghold. She was the Gandhi of journalism.

Meditation

Observing the breath, being the breath, breathing in the cosmos, falling into the stars. I am the northern lights dancing around the blue planet, released by the sun to wow you. I am stardust floating away from the hands of the deity.

I’ve got the whole solar system inside me. I house constellations and stars, planets and black holes, infinite worlds. My thoughts as comets orbiting my sun and creating shooting stars as I breathe on them. My moon eclipses my sun as long-dead emotions twinkle and shine. I wish upon them as I would a star, pray they would have been other, remark on the brightness of my memories. I suckle on the Milky Way all the way back to my childhood.

I lose myself in the infinity of my worlds. They expand and contract as I breathe in and out. I am looking for stillness but experience dizziness as I explore my inner self. I never knew there were so many planets within.

Sex Symbol

She passes him, waves and flashes a perfect smile. She on foot, walking her dog, he driving. He does not smile back, keeps staring ahead. He never smiles, she thought. Why does he never smile? She’s being disingenuous, of course. She knows he stopped caring for her ever since she had told that joke in his presence. He hadn’t said anything at the time. It had seemed harmless to her, but he has stopped acknowledging her ever since.

She feels ashamed but doesn’t want to admit it. She shakes her blond mane free, her blue eyes tucked behind sunglasses. Chad, her fancy Boston terrier, does not seem to suffer from her angst. If someone ignores him, he gets on his hind legs and pedals his front paws in the air. If all else fails, he might grab your pant leg between his teeth and pull. He might get kicked or gently shaken off. He might get a treat. It’s all in the begging. You have to choose your mark carefully, not use up your cuteness potential indiscriminately.

She tries to get this minor annoyance out of her mind. What does it matter if he doesn’t see her? It’s not like they were ever best friends. He lives four doors down. She would never had noticed him were it not for Mac, his beautiful great Dane. But she has noticed him, and she hates feeling invisible. She’s too shallow to go any further, prefers to think of him as a prick. She thinks insults are a valid weapon when you’re under attack.

She walks briskly, repeating “Prick” under her breath, happy for the insult that expresses the sting on her fragile ego. ‘These people’ have no sense of humor. She’s not sure who ‘these people’ are. She vaguely sees a mass of people unlike her in any way, but would have been hard-pressed to articulate a thought. Her main quality is having been born white. She scoffs at the epithets hurled at her. “White privilege” is just an excuse for losers. She’s worked hard to get this job.

Again, she feels unsure. “Hard” does not really match reality. She’s been raised to speak the truth and it pains her to have to admit that she didn’t have to do much to get her receptionist job. A friend of her father’s had needed a pretty thing at the front desk. Her mother had made sure she took diction. She is polished but there is not much behind. You scratch the veneer and the real her is lacklustre. She knows it at her core. That’s why rejection is so hard. In some ways, she feels she’s getting what she deserves.

She tacks a toothy smile on her face. If she knew how to whistle, she would, because you can’t cry and whistle at the same time. Like you can’t sneeze and keep your eyes open. Try it. Anyway. The smile helps her feel better about herself. She’s been doing that since she was a baby. You see it on those family rolls. Something annoys her, and she frowns, then she thinks better of it and smiles and heads towards her mama to get it fixed. Her cousin pointed it out in front of the whole family. Now she’s self-conscious when she smiles. Her mama says she has the prettiest smile. It gets her plenty of attention from the men but still she isn’t married and already 23. She doesn’t want to end up an old maid. She’s living independently, with Clarissa, who loves orange lipstick and sappy movies.

She’s got a crush on Chet of the great Dane but may have to settle for someone else if he keeps avoiding her. She’s waiting for a diamond ring. She supposes they’ll want children. She’s vague about the first years. Maybe her husband and her would employ a maid. She’s daydreaming and realizes Chad has already brought her back to her apartment. Another evening in front of the tv, listening to Clarissa’s commentary. But first a light dinner to keep her figure, then the Price is Right with Vanna, her model. If only she had her prestigious job. Millions would idolize her. She would marry, but would have to hide it. Her job would require she keep a façade of availability. She likes the idea of being a sex symbol. It doesn’t seem like too much work.

 

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.

The Mailman

They had voted to use pressure tactics. The easiest was to distribute the mail so that a neighbour down the street got yours. He knew the neighbourhood well, and he felt bad about it. He had his idea about his clients. He didn’t like the old man, for example, because he reminded him of his dad. However, the old woman treated him well, offering him coffee or chatting him up.

There were some single people on his route. The slim shy baker, the outgoing farm girl with a taste for the bottle, the two middle-aged sisters, the retired fireman. Why each ended up alone was a mystery to him. His plan was to get them acquainted. There was no harm in playing matchmaker. Maybe something good would come out of this strike! By the looks of it, he thought the fireman and the farm girl had a chance. He was old-fashioned so he delivered Jacqueline’s mail to F Cooper. They both subscribed to Lee Valley which seemed a good starting point. As a bonus, the old dear would probably tell him how things were going. He misdelivered a few days in a row to force the issue.

The old lady stopped him on the street. She held the offending catalog and mail in one hand, the other she used to point at him. She chided him for being absent-minded. “Young man, you will lose your job if you don’t pay attention!” He tried to explain about pressure tactics but she just wouldn’t listen. She handed him back the mail. “Frank was upset. He asked for my help.” Here, she made herself taller. “Make sure they go to Jacqueline now. ” He had never felt so humiliated. What a poor matchmaker he made. He thought about the baker but he seemed too shy for this hearty girl. His plan was unravelling fast but he still thought it was a great idea. If only they didn’t get the old lady involved.

He had gone past Jacqueline’s house and had to backtrack. He was pretty sure the old lady would check up on his delivery. He decided to try pressure tactics the next street over, where he wouldn’t run into the old lady. All the while, he had been greeting people out in their gardens or washing their car. It wasn’t even a holiday. Were they on vacation? Retired? He felt suddenly exposed. He gave up on pressure tactics that day and was reprimanded by his colleagues. What an impossible situation to be in. He slept poorly, he was miserable and bleary-eyed the next day and made delivery mistakes he did not bother to correct, happy to report back early that he had botched the job. Disheartened, he went for drinks with a few colleagues.

It felt like they were playing hooky, something he had never done in his life. He felt unmoored and unhappy. He didn’t share his matchmaking idea with his mates. It was bad enough that it had backfired. The others were putting on a brave face, joking around, but he was a people watcher. He knew when people were pretending. They drank too quickly and spoke too loud to be happy about the situation. He went home, going over his route. He felt his idea slipping out his grasp, things going too quickly. It seemed to him that once you stopped following the rules, order could never be restored.

He heard the metallic clank of his mailbox. He was hardly ever at home to hear his mail being delivered. It felt odd being on the receiving end. He got up, curious to see what mail he had received. He lifted the lid. The letter was addressed to one Evelyn Wilson, three doors down.

His heart beat faster.

Hair

He’ll try this new place. He’ll drop in and see if someone can take him. No biggie if they can’t, he’ll go another time. He’s in his car, getting his courage up, psyching himself. He flings the door open and hurriedly gets out. His mind is made up. Too much waiting and his resolve will fall to pieces. He heads to the door with a firm step, checks the business hours, and comes in. There is a receptionist, not too charming, so he doesn’t have to reciprocate in kind.

She asks “First time here? No appointment?” He nods to both, relieved that his approach is validated. “We have two sections: Quiet and Talkative. If you choose quiet, you may choose to fill out this form and have as little verbal interaction and eye contact as you choose.” “Quiet,” he says. “Yes,” she says, perking up. Then, in a conspirational voice, “The Talkatives are in a sound-proof room.” First smile. He smiles back, relaxed. She hands him his form to fill. “I won’t see your selections until you press Submit so you can adjust as you read more. We’ve tried to make it self-explanatory but any feedback is welcome.”

He sits on a long wooden bench, a clever way to allow patrons to space themselves, also indicating they won’t be left waiting. He gets to decide who will cut his hair, male, female, don’t care. They actually wrote “don’t care”. He loves this place. He checks “Don’t care” with a flourish of the stylus on his electronic tablet. There is a Submit button beside every line and a Submit All, if preferred. His shoulders drop, he suddenly realizes there is no chemical smell in the place. The absence of noise too is relaxing. There follows a series of choices in two columns, one titled “Under 30 minutes”, the other “Longer”. He aims for the first, and reads the first section called “Preparation”. “Wash vigorously (head massage)”, “Wash and condition”, “Wash only (no conditioner)” “Wet”, “Dry”. This is great!

Before the section about the actual process, there are a series of questions to ascertain if this is an annual haircut, a trim, or special occasion. It’s interactive so that if he chooses Special occasion (which he do to see if it’s interactive), then it becomes complicated. He studies the software, intuiting he may be back. He attack the main section: “Cut, Style, Blow-dry, Air dry.” Drawings show different kinds of cuts which you can select as is or modify. You can also select “Shorter”, which he does, and then length and “Top, sides, back”. Also a section about parting the hair. He makes his selections and hits Submit. A total appears and suggestion for a tip. Pay now or later. He takes his credit card and swipes, giving a large tip. Done. He is anticipating the next step with pleasure.

There is a third section, about music, movies and books. The podcasts are around 20 minutes each. You can choose as many as three. He chooses one on dinosaurs, the other on bacteria, and the last on urban architecture. He is shown to a booth. There is no mirror, another relief. There is a console where you can upload the podcasts and switch to the next if they don’t suit you. You can also listen to music or see a short movie. A switch shows “Talkatives.”

A short woman comes in, wearing neutral colours. He’s chosen: “Trim, Dry, Cut, Shorter back 6 mm, Sides 4 mm, nothing for Front, No part, Air Dry, No chemicals.” She says, “I’m Doreen. You want Mirror or No mirror?” She’s cute, he can’t decide. “Mirror”. The panel becomes a mirror. You can turn it off and back on at any time. She indicates a switch. He turns it off. Nice.

She brushes his tangled mess of hair and starts cutting. He’s in her capable hands, all decisions have been made. He’ll live with the results. He listens to the dinosaur postcast, forgetting about the scissors, the hairdresser. Her touch is light and she doesn’t speak. The podcast is over. She’s waiting patiently for him to turn the mirror back on. No drastic change. He is told he can ask for changes. A camera whizzes around to show him his head from different angles. It’s still a bit scruffy on the sides, which he likes. He nods and thanks her. She shows him the door. He shakes her hand. They did it in 20 minutes. He feels like a champ, not even tired from the visit. What a great experience. He never knew dinosaurs had fur.

Ballerina

Nina’s mom sewed the last of her costume, grumbling, and irate. Nina told her to show some love, or it wasn’t going to work. Irina showed some teeth, a forced smile that fooled no one. Nina didn’t really care. Her mom was a brilliant seamstress and she was always grumbling, ever the perfectionist. In this regard, they were Siamese twins. “Mamoschka,” she cooed…Her mom gave her a stern look. “Well, Irina, can I try it on?” “Strip!” she commanded. Docile, Nina stripped down to her underwear, then added the heavy stockings. The outfit was tight on her, which was perfect. It looked like an olden time skater’s costume. White leotard with long sleeves, short jacket with cuffed faux fur, short white skirt trimmed with faux fur, faux fur hat. She looked the part. Irina was eyeing her critically. She had to admit, “You look beautiful, Ninochka.” Nina did not allow her to crush her on her bosom “You’ll wrinkle it!”

“Do a few steps. Show your poor Mama before she goes blind doing all your sewing.” Nina stretched. “Let’s wait for Piotr so I’ll have some music.” “Ach. I will make some tea.” She got up slowly, painfully stretching her sore body. She was so proud of her lithe, ill-tempered daughter, but she would not tell her so she would not get a big head. The tea was steeping when they heard the door open, boots getting knocked together to shake off the snow. “Piotr, you’re late,” she teased. “What? No food left?” he answered with a laugh. Then, “Ninochka, you take my breath away,” as he fell to his knees.  She blushed, laughed. “Bratik, give me some music. Mama wants to see me dance.”

Piotr got out his harmonica and started a languorous tune. It was perfect for her to warm up. She improvised a few steps, exhibiting ballon, a lightness in her jumps that was a pleasure to behold.  Progressively, he sped things up, always keeping an eye on her. She finished brilliantly, tears streaming down their mother’s cheeks. Irina got up to serve tea, sniffling. “Tea will be good. It’s cold in here.” Nina got out of her outfit and back into her regular clothes. Her cheeks were red from the effort. “Of course, it will be better outside. It’s cramped here. And I will have a proper choreography. I was thinking half an hour, da? So it’s affordable.” They drank in silence. “Will I be dancing too?” he asked sheepishly. “Who will play the music if you dance?” “Anatoly plays the accordion.”  She said nothing.

“Come to school tomorrow, so we can practice.” He was there, strong and attentive. Near the end, she had him lift her up as she did the swan. He did not falter. He had been his on and off dance partner ever since he took it up himself. He wasn’t the best, but he could be trusted, and she could not afford to pay anybody else. “Did you talk to Anatoly? How much does he want?” They agreed that Piotr would do the bookings and Anatoly would provide the stage and the transport in his van. For now, he would get gas money and his share of the profits. No guarantees. Surprisingly, their idea took off. She had themes and little stories, easy to follow. She started off dancing in front of houses, outside, on the homemade stage they drove around. It was winter, and there was not much entertainment. To have a ballet dancer, seemingly dancing in the snow in front of their home was thrilling.

Nina was the suburbs’ darling. Her idea was unique and she exploited the niche, bringing art to the people. Her success brought her all sorts of attention. She had not anticipated that a rowdy crowd would gather, nor that spectators would ask for so many encores. Things got out of hand more than once. Neighbours gathered outside to watch and cheer, and clap and sing. Vodka bottles appeared from coat pockets and often they had trouble retrieving their stage. She was a sight to see in her white outfit and the accordion was a surprise element that shocked and pleased the audience. On a backdrop of gray apartment building, she shone like a promise. Because of cost, they had planted torches in the snow. It gave a surreal and magical light, creating shadows as the wind blew the flames. Old people loved to be able to watch from their apartment, and she managed to make a name for herself. Soon other artists, pickpockets and buskers joined in and there was no longer enough money to go around. Seedy people tried to extract their cut with threats of retaliation against the family. She reluctantly gave in. Though young, she was no fool and knew that this would afford her some protection.

Graffities started to pop up, depicting her in mid-air doing her signature swan move.  She had become a star in her own right. She danced in front of her parent’s home, too, so the neighbours could boast that they knew her since she was a girl. A fight broke out over who knew her best, quickly quelled with copious amounts of vodka. That performance was her best, though the tension was almost unbearable. It was to be the culmination of her short career. She retired that night to thundering applause. Her mother’s health was failing, and she could not sustain that level of trepidation and lack of sleep. She stopped dancing to care for Irina, and never went back to performing.

Sergei had been an early admirer, never missing a performance. He became a steadfast friend who helped the whole time Irina was sick. They finally married and had little Masha, the light of her eyes. Sergei’s love for Nina transferred to the bottle and, after many fights, she showed him the door. Piotr came to live with his sister and niece, to make ends meet. When Masha was four, she found a beautiful white costume with faux fur in a box under her mom’s bed. It was a angel’s outfit, so soft to the touch. Nina came upon her, as she was stroking it dreamily. “Mashenka, what are you doing?” “An angel came and left this behind.” “Oh, Marusya, that was mine when I was a girl. I used to dance.” Masha settled comfortably against her mama, her eyes shining, still clutching the angel dress. “Tell me the story.” And so she did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 mushroom picker

Basket. Galoshes. Hat. Yesterday’s paper, cut in single pages. Small knife. Tired pocket guide. Basket. Oh, I said that. Well, it bears repeating. Kaito straightens his back and heads for the woods. He loves nothing more than these moist hunting days, before the sun rays get too insistent and desiccate the delicate spores. He heads for a shady spot where he’s been finding abundant crops this year. He is not alone in his obsession, yet few people wave or acknowledge each other. They have their noses to the ground, so to speak, intent on the pungent new life.

The basket is slowly filling up, each type of mushroom rolled up in a different page to keep them separate and dry. He has chosen the pages with care. No finances nor scandals. Affairs of the heart and environment news seemed appropriate company for his charges. The new light has a rich golden hue that gives the mushrooms an unusual glow. He picks a few, crumbles older ones to encourage new growth. The mushrooms are sons and daughters of the rain and soil. He breathes them in. He does not rely as much on his tired eyes for identification as he once did. Unless you count the fingers as antennas. His smell is still keen – a hint of humus, a hint of thyme, copious garlic.

He’s looking for light dots, firm and in groups. He sees pebbles, leaves, a mushroom past its prime. He’s way off the beaten track. He knows these woods by heart, has been picking mushrooms here before it was a fad. Like anything you do for a long time, there are patterns you repeat, and rules you abide by. Today, his heart is not at rest. Last night, the stray Riku did not come to his door. It’s the fourth night in a row where he hasn’t come. Kaito is concerned and a bit distracted. He was considering skipping mushroom picking today and walking around the neighborhood to see if he could spot him and make sure he’s all right. But the weather was so perfect, he reasoned with himself and went anyway. He just walked past a fine specimen, but he was looking further up, and in this way he’s not been too successful.

On top of a small hill, he sees a rare mushroom. His heart skips a beat. He slowly takes his field guide out of his pouch. Yes, yes, the soil on the mound must indeed be different. He looks around. He is alone. He picks up a stick for support and starts climbing. He stops to rest. It’s not much of a hill but he’s not much of a climber. He looks at what grows around the mushroom. It fits with the description. Knife in hand, he bends to gently cut it and… falls over. He doesn’t realize he’s down all at once. Eyes fixed on the mushroom, he cuts it and gently brushes the soil off its foot. He sniffs it. It’s got a pleasant shrimplike smell. He wraps it by itself and puts it in the basket with the others. He’s not sure why he fell but the ground is soft, and he needs to catch his breath. He’s not hurt, perhaps a bit dizzy. He didn’t have breakfast before leaving. He was hoping for a mushroom omelet on his return.

He looks around. This stretch of land looks foreign to him. He looks for the sun past the tall trees. The sky is overcast. He is feeling a bit cold. He should get moving but he’s suddenly not sure which direction he came from.

They find his body, days later, the mushrooms spoiled but a mycologist is able to identify the rare one. He makes the news. “A mushroom is not worth a life.” Still, they cannot find the spot from where the mushroom was picked. The man must have walked in circles, looking for the trail. His shoes were caked in mud. He was old, with no extra reserves of fat. A fine mushroom picker, nonetheless. His son is sad but proud. He keeps the clipping in his wallet and shows it to those who ask.

 

Women’s prison

They put her in jail. She feels protected. At least she killed the bastard. Her life is no longer in danger. She has been in protective custody for over a year. Her bruises have faded and she has put on some weight. She can’t remember a time in her life where she was fed three square meals a day. The other women are no worse than her sisters, her neighbours, her acquaintances. They judge and swear and fight. They are just injured women, abused by men in power. She was hoping for a sorority of sorts and she supposes this is as good as it gets. Sister means I will lie to you and cheat you if it’s good for me. She has no illusions. She is just tired.

She’s on laundry duty. She keeps to herself and doesn’t talk much. The others say she’s stuck up, but really? She couldn’t care less. She just hopes she’ll get visitors this week-end. They promise but can never make it. It’s true that the prison is far from everything. They tried and their car broke down. Towing cost them so much. She knows, she knows. As disappointing as it is, it’s not like she expected her children to make the time. She’s learning to read and write.

She has a pen pal, who makes time for her. It takes her days to figure out what her pen pal wrote. It takes her days to figure out what to answer. And days again to painfully form the letters. It occupies all her waking hours. She is developing opinions and uncovering a mental life she never knew she had. She tells stories from her life. Tell me about yourself, urges the pen pal. Well, there is not much to tell so she makes things up to keep her interested. Her real life is full of pain she would rather not revisit. Do you have any siblings? She had to look that up. Why does her pen pal use those strange words? But she perseveres. The dictionary stays by her side as she tries to keep up.

I had a mother and father though mother was not much of a mother and father did not stick around (she does not elaborate why he was thrown out of the house. If she did, she would have to open doors leading to a dark storeroom where unspeakable things happen). I had two siblings and three half-siblings. Two have died already (a suicide and an overdose – she won’t write about them). One I have no news of. I am estranged from another. Is there one left? Janice, John, myself, Jupiter, Jerry. Oh, I am the fifth sibling.

Enough for tonight. She seals the envelope. Her cellmate is half-crazy. She hides the envelope under her pillow. She prepared the envelope as soon as she received the letter. The guard laughed at her. She had written the prison address in the middle instead of on top. Now she keeps the old envelope with the mistake and the correction so she can do it properly. She loves the ritual. She feels like a proper lady when she writes her envelope. The problem is always the letter itself. She wrote a poem she memorized when she was a kid. For some things, she has a great memory. She thought of writing a song she knows because it’s so beautiful but it doesn’t make sense without the music.

Her pen pal was telling her about wildflowers. She pressed some and put them in her letter. There is still a faint smell and colour. It’s winter and she has flowers that will last her until Spring. Her cellmate is impressed and envious. She cannot return the favour. She has nothing to share. She talks about her neighbour’s cat. It was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. The cat was called Rose. It had long angora hair which she licked constantly. She walked like a queen. Sometimes, when she gets discouraged about how her life has turned out, that cat is the only bright spot. She imitates her, and walks with her head held high. She tells her pen pal a little about Rose but not the end because she is a street cat and a stray and there is no good ending for a stray, even if she is beautiful. She doesn’t cry because there is no point.

Her pen pal sends her cat pictures which she exchanges for soap and candies. She has a sweet tooth and more cavities than teeth. She hates going to the dentist. She wants them all taken out and she wants to wear dentures. Then she could eat all the candy she wants. She is becoming popular. She asks for more cat pictures. Please send a short-haired black cat picture for my friend Janine. Thank you. And a blue-point Siamese for Karen. Thank you. And a striped one for Conchita. She says thank you too. She is exhausted, but she must take advantage of this wave of interest. It will die soon and she will lose out. Every day the girls talk to her. Did you get a letter yet? Where is my cat? Finally, the letter arrives. The cats are beautiful and she extracts more than she had originally planned. She even gets cigarettes, though she doesn’t smoke. She can trade them for more paper and envelopes.

Inside or outside, you still spend all the time with yourself and that is the most difficult part. If she did not believe in Jesus, she would have followed Jupiter’s example. She knows she’s kidding herself. She would need to be pretty drunk to try and kill herself. She doesn’t want any more pain, only to be left alone. She takes out the soap bars, and stacks them up. She has three – the black cat and the striped cat. She negotiated two for the striped cat because it was a larger picture, cut out from a magazine. It was almost life-size. She wanted to keep it for herself but Conchita was getting hysterical. Conchita is big and strong and rumoured to have a knife though they tossed her cell and found nothing. Still, why take a chance over a cat picture? The soaps smell of lavender. She feels like a lady.

Bull fight

“But he promised!” She glares at her husband. He shrugs. “I promised.” Her whole body says, “How could you?” “You really want to go see a bull covered in blood? You hate blood!” Manolito smiles, a big, innocent, light-up-the-whole-face smile. “Vicente will be there.” As if she could forget. Her oldest, a toreador in training. Another angelic youth, taken up by this crazy passion. He’s been practicing on young bulls, and he’s invited them to come and see him and his buddies. Well, it’s her own fault for marrying into a matador family. “It would mean a lot to him if you came too,” whispers Vicente Sr. She picks up her good scarf, he changes into a good shirt. The boy, well, there’s not much to be done to clean him up. They head out, holding hands through Manolito, swinging him between them, all animosity gone, happy to be spending time together away from chores.

They walk for a time, keeping Manolito in sight as he frolics around. They are in the countryside now, cars far behind, fields ahead. A small crowd of onlookers and hangers on has massed ahead. Manolito’s excitement is contagious. They hurry along. Other parents have come, and kids. Manolito looks at them. “Go,” says the father as he darts off to cluster with a group of children at the far end. She says, “I thought we’d said we’d wait until his birthday. He’s not yet five. I worry about what it will do to him.” “I know, mami. But what’s done is done. It’s in his blood.” He straightens as they come near, addresses the other men, and she joins the women. They chat amongst themselves, some knit, others fuss over kids, most hold a rosary.

A hush falls over the crowd. The young toreadors who had been mingling with their families have been called back and now form a straight line. They make their entrance one by one, with panache, determination, whimsy, focus, depending on their temperament. Vicente is one of the smallest at twelve, all skin and bones, except for his chubby round face. He’s flanked by his best friend Victor. The two Vs are childhood friends. The mothers have been sewing little matador costumes forever. They all have the regulatory cape on hand, but the rest is handmade, dripping with love and care. The boys are resplendent. She’s glad to have come when Vicente’s gaze rests on her and she feels his obvious joy. Now that the athletes have been introduced and seen whole, and clean, the match may begin.

The boys file back out. They’ve learned all the roles and will fill them for each other. It is good for them to understand what a good picador needs to do, so they can appreciate each other. Not everybody will end up a matador. Many are called, few are chosen. She gets pulled in by the dance. The novillos are also being assessed. Young bulls for boys. They are as frightening to the boys as the large ones are for the adults. They are quick and crafty; the danger is real. The younger boys are in the ring, as is one bull, and three adult trainers. One trainer keeps an eye on the bull, one on the boys, and the other ensures overall security and entertainment, keeping an eye out on the audience, lest an inebriated spectator disrupts the proceedings in an attempt to show the youngsters how it’s really done.

It’s a good crew. There’s never been a serious accident on their watch. The entertainer explains the exercises and talks about the novillos’ temperament. The best bulls and the best boys go on to the big scene. You never know who is scouting. There are always rumours and the boys do their best. She sees boys whose names she forgets then Victor, who is more assured now, his moves more precise, his overall technique better. He slips once, loses his footing as the novillo charges close, ever so close. “¡Ole!,” they all chant as he recovers in a flourish of the cape. The crowd is charged. Nothing like a near-miss to get the blood going. Vicente is next. Light on his feet, elegant as a dancer, the focus on his baby face showing the seriousness of the budding man. Her heart expands and shrinks in turn, as pride and fear fight for pride of place.

Vicente does well, Manolito is entranced, hero worship written all over his face. Her gaze goes from boy to boy to man, in a blur of concern, apprehension, joy and relief as the boys finally exit so the older boys can take their place. Everybody stays for the real spectacle. The older bulls, the older boys, not as numerous and definitely more experienced. Both parties are heavier with muscle. The young ones will be lancing the bulls, to get used to the blood and learn to gauge a bull and direct him. She hates that part. As Vicente hits the bull and blood gushes out, she sees something cross his face, a puzzled look as he looks in the bull’s eyes. They circle each other, a silent conversation taking place between them, the crowd a distant memory. He’s losing form, dropping his shoulder. The bull is still. Finally, Vicente leans in again, and quickly removes the lance from the bull’s shoulder. He immediately gets reprimanded but he doesn’t seem to hear, still communing with the bull. He puts his hand on the wound, to everybody’s horror, and instantly gets pulled away and made to sit out the rest of the event, his hand dripping with sacrificial blood.

She rejoins her husband and calls over Manolito. The little family is united in shame. They stay strong and wait for Vicente. Vicente Sr and the trainers discuss seriously. Vicente hands back his cape. Victor is standing by his side, uncomprehending. They walk back home, Victor in tow. The parents are talking in hushed tones. Manolito senses something is wrong. Vicente’s left hand has been hurriedly wiped and is still tinged with the bull’s blood. Manolito is not babbling, but holding both boys’ hands as he’s walking between them, with furrowed brow. At last, Vicente Sr turns to his son. “What happened to you, son?”

The unexpected gentleness of his voice releases Vicente’s tears. He had braced himself for the harsh words, the slap, the condemnation. He is disarmed by the concern in his father’s voice. “I heard the bull cry out when I lanced him. He asked me what he had done to deserve this. He chided me for hurting him. I don’t want to do this anymore,” he pleads. Father and son face each other. Victor is still holding Manolito’s hand. “Well, they won’t have you back, so don’t worry about that.” They resume walking in silence, everybody lost in thought, the matter not really resolved, the boy in limbo. The parents exchange looks. The father tries again. “Bulls don’t talk, you know that? What you heard were your own thoughts.” “No, papa. I would never have thought that on my own. There is more. He was in pain. I felt his pain in my shoulder, where the lance was.” “It’s a miracle,” she cries out. This doesn’t help matters.

The next day, she heads out to morning mass and stays behind to talk to the priest. He has heard of the disgrace like everyone in the neighborhood. He hears her in confession, which means he will not be able to gossip. She uttered the words and he put on his stole. He agrees that it looks like the child has heard the voice of God through the bull. He tells her to pray for guidance because he is at a loss. Nobody knows if they should treat the boy as a hero or a villain. He was perfectly normal until now, a little bit of a celebrity, but now has brought shame to his family. Victor is still training, but Vicente stays home and minds an ecstatic Manolito. Other kids taunt him “Is the cat talking to you?” “The rooster?” He surprises himself and everyone else by answering simply, “Yes.” He seems to have lost his ability to lie, and he makes liars of all of them. They resent him and admire him for that. His is not an easy path.

Adults give him their grudging admiration, then turn the faucet full on. He’s still a nice kid, the Vicente who loves to laugh and is quick to help. Maybe they have a saint in their midst? The priest is non-committal, but people start talking of little events, happenstance maybe, who is to say. They wish he would take on the mantle of saint. They need a label to affix to him, this strange boy with the bloody hand.