Like a Prayer Flag

There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.

The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.

He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.

Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.

Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.

However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?

At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.

To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.

Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.

To Your Health

I never did belong. When I awoke to the world I realised I was not of it.

Not for me the parties, the crowds, the shared secrets. It’s not that I wasn’t liked; people were just indifferent to me. For the longest time, I actually thought I was invisible to people outside my family. I even played at walking funny or making sudden noises to get a reaction out of people. It only gave me the reputation of being weird and unpredictable. I could find no redemption after that.

One day, I read about the health benefits of having friends and set about doing so. A bookmobile serviced our little town and the surrounding ones. If I had a friend, it was the bookmobile lady who accompanied me in my reading and nudged me along. I confided in her my latest research project and returned home with Dale Carnegie’s aptly named “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I hid it away like a dirty little secret, not wanting to give my peers a reason to mock me.

There were tips and tricks! “Compliment people you meet by noticing small things about them.” That was harder than you would think. It highlighted several things. I don’t interact much with people and when I do I hardly talk; I don’t pay attention to them. This would explain why they did not notice me. I was doing the same. I became consumed by my new game. I hung out with another loner. We stuck together because there is safety in numbers. We didn’t talk much but it gave us a veneer of normalcy. I started talking to her as practice. One morning, I said “I love that you always match your shoes to your outfit.” She blushed and looked up to see if I was teasing her. The truth is I had noticed she varied her shoes quite a bit. I alternated between two pairs of shoes so I took note. She saw my eager face and sincere smile and mumbled something. I pressed. What was that? It was so out of character that she looked up again. We were going to have a conversation?

She explained that her mom worked in a shoe store and that she got them at a discount. I asked if they were comfortable, what kind of discount, if I could get a pair. We talked all the way to school and it was quite agreeable. I could see the benefit already. On the way home, she asked me about a hair clip I wore. It was a cheap clip, four pink plastic cats, but I was quite fond of it and told her all about my different hair clips in detail. The next day, she proudly showed me a different pair of shoes she wore and confirmed her mom could get me a pair. We agreed to go together after school so I could choose and report back to my mom. My world was turning upside down. I was wearing a golden hair clip with a dark band in the middle, more serious because we were expecting to get our class and individual pictures taken. We all dressed up a bit for the occasion.

We were side-by-side in the class picture and we were both radiant. My parents bought the picture and marvelled at us both. By then, we were officially best friends and I had a new pair of shiny black shoes with a buckle. They were an extravagant choice, but my mom agreed because of the discount and the health benefits of having friends. Our good mood was infectious and other kids gravitated towards us. The invisibility that was ours slowly lifted. It felt like all this time we were little suns surrounded by clouds of our own making. The clouds had dispersed and the scenery was lovely. The book had not explained about the health benefits and to tell the truth I did not read it all. I returned it, having learnt the first trick. I practiced it nonstop ever since. I credit my longevity with it.

The interview was over. “Dale Carnegie, uh?” I was tired by then. This was a long story. The reporter thanked me and prepared to leave. He added, pensively, “You complimented me on my fancy tape recorder when I came in.” “I did, and we established a rapport. You perked up because you felt it was not going to be a run-of-the-mill ‘old broad turns 100 but doesn’t remember how to tie her shoes.” To his credit, he blushed. “I was honoured to have met you. I hope you enjoy my article on you.”

He came back to see me and show me the article. It talked about the beautiful diamond hair clip I was wearing and how I came about it through my smart financial dealings. I had shares in my friend’s family shoe store, which turned into a chain that did quite well for itself. We went our separate ways. I married and moved out of town where I became a librarian. I always kept a copy of Dale Carnegie in stock.

Hands

Bea made her living as a courtroom sketch artist, capturing in minutes the highlights of proceedings. Her renderings were exact but not clinical. She had a knack for seizing the flicker of emotion, highlighting it with a shadow or a hint of colour to the cheeks. She was a consummate portraitist and, as any artist, was always looking for a challenge. She had two sets of notebooks: the official and the personal. She did her work, chronicling each witness and, in effect, describing the proceedings. If a picture is worth a thousand words, she was surely a very quick typist.

Once her official duties were taken care of, she would often choose one person who offered challenges of some sort. She would try and feel that person from the inside. She looked at people in the general seating for inspiration. Some were regulars, others were family or interested parties. In publicized cases, there were more spectators, drawn in by mere curiosity.

One day, she was assigned a case involving an attack on the Muslim community. Bea delighted in seeing a number of veiled women as they were deceptively expressive yet more challenging to depict. She chose a young woman, whose eyes were the only visible feature. Wanting to preserve her anonymity, she chose not to draw her eyes but to focus on the tension in her shoulders, and the way she carried her head which betrayed the intensity of her concentration. Bea could not help but create stories for the people she sketched. Surely, this was a young woman. Her moves were quick, her body supple under her cloak. Bea was able to match the emotions shown by slumped shoulders or head held high to precise statements in a case. The story she invented mirrored the case – the young woman’s sympathies were for the accused, a woman suspected of having murdered her child who was being abused.

Her unwitting model was old enough to recognize when someone was wrongly convicted. She was clearly drawn to the case, not missing a single day. Like most cases, people typically arrived according to a set schedule and sat roughly in the same place. She had become familiar with Miss A., as she called her privately, and came to rely on her presence in order to start her day. She was almost a talisman, or a good luck charm.

She had become so engrossed in her personal drawings that she took to sketching in the official and personal notepads side-by-side, timestamping both as she went along. She learned so much from that study that she applied the technique to her official court sketches and made them even more valued.  Reporters came to her and asked her to extrapolate from her observations either to predict public opinion or the jury’s position. They noticed how accurate her predictions were and started arguing for or against according to her sketches, which made for lively debates in the press.

One day, Bea noticed that someone was drawing her as she sketched. It was someone from the general public. She felt a professional curiosity and went to compare notes at a recess. It turns out that artist was only sketching hands. Her own were a blur of circular moves. The depictions were amateurish and all the more interesting. They were pure instinct and had a definite naivete about them. The artist had no formal training but was intensely curious and an avid learner. His line showed energy fields as he felt and saw them. Bea saw how he was sensing the invisible and adding yet another layer of understanding. They started sitting side-by-side and learning from each other. As his drawings became more precise, hers were pared down to their simplest expression.

Her official work had always relied heavily on the accuracy of the faces, but she could see how distinctive and eloquent hands and hand movements were. She still drew faces accurately but added more details in the hands that told the story. People knew to guard their faces; they were much freer with their hands.

When arthritis attacked her fingers, she did not despair. Instead, she took it as yet another example of storytelling. Her fingers were tired of chronicling bad deeds; they longed for restful topics. She retired from her lucrative work in the court. Indeed, her protégé took over after years of learning by her side. His own style was still naïve, almost cartoonish. In a world where the general public was looking for dumbed-down news, his simpler tales sold well. She was glad to be rid of a job that had started feeling like a chore. When her protégé had last drawn her hands, the lines were square and almost static, the energy imploding.

They met occasionally for lunch where he plunged into detailed descriptions of expressions and caustic descriptions of court happenings. Though she recognized in him the passion she used to have, she now felt strangely detached from that world. When she’d retired, she had felt grief at leaving the life she had known, privately doubting her decision. Paradoxically, an intense freedom had befallen her. She was free from rigid schedules and set forms. A world of new interests opened before her. She became daring in her desires, forceful in accomplishing them. She had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Because of her arthritis, she was no longer able to quickly sketch. She had to be deliberate and choose how she would use the few hours without pain that she had each day.

She decided on gardening. With the same precision and attention to detail she had always shown, she established a schedule. However, she quickly realized that success depended on her attitude and intention. Her first attempts resulted in crooked vegetables and stunted growth. As her awareness and comfort levels grew, her fingers sensed the seeds’ personalities and energy fields. The interplay of her growing ease and inner peace translated into larger and tastier crops. “Hands,” she thought. All this time they had been hiding in plain sight. When hands covered faces, covered eyes, covered tears, people tried to pry the fingers apart. But all this time, the body was trying to show the hands.

 

High Noon

Chet stopped the pickup truck in the middle of the road. The red one coming along surely was Bernie’s. Bernie idled alongside him. They lowered their windows and shook hands. They were shooting the breeze amicably when a car they didn’t know came along. It sat behind Chet. Neither Chet nor Bernie paid it any mind. The driver of the car turned off his engine and waited. They were amused. They leisurely ended the conversation and left, each pickup going its own way, resuming travel. Looking in their mirror, they saw the car hadn’t moved. Chet turned in the first dirt road he came to and sat there to observe. Bernie was doing a U-turn. He drove back and stopped his truck behind the stranger’s car. The stranger didn’t move. The proper thing to do when two vehicles visited was to wait politely for their drivers to finish their conversation. When one person stopped in the middle of the road? He didn’t know what the rule was. The stranger had been polite and shown no impatience. He hadn’t honked. Was he from those parts? Bernie didn’t recognize the car. It was one of those imported vehicles with sleek lines and tinted windows.

Curiosity had gotten him this far. He turned off the engine and walked over towards the driver’s side. The driver started the engine and inched forward as Bernie was walking towards the car. He called out “Hey, Mister!” but the car kept going, just a little faster than he did on foot. Frustrated, he retreated to his truck, started the engine and proceeded to follow. The car stopped again, unexpectedly, in the middle of the road. Bernie had seen the move coming. He passed the car and stopped in front of it. He got out of the truck, but the car passed him slowly in the empty lane. Chet was looking at the whole dance. At first, he had been laughing heartily but he was growing as frustrated as Bernie. He backed his truck to block both lanes in front. Bernie saw what he did and maneuvered the same way behind. The car was now sandwiched, both its front and rear escape routes blocked. It sat there, forlorn.

Neither Chet nor Bernie wanted to get out of the truck. It was a question of honour now. They had started this game of cat and mouse and were not about to give up. Bernie was already preparing the story he was going to tell the guys around the pool table. He couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Chet was the first to move. He saw the police flashing lights from afar. He had lost his license on a DUI charge and should not be on the road. But it wouldn’t be manly to back down. His indecision cost him. It was Constable Conway, who had it in for him. They stared at each other from afar. Conway’s radio was crackling under the hot summer sun. It was midday, when things get resolved. No doubt “piggy” Conway was on his way to lunch. Maybe his stomach would urge him on. Chet moved his truck aside to let the cruiser through. Conway rolled down his window. “Got your license back?” “I’m not driving. Just waiting for my cousin to come back and move the truck. Thought I’d listen to the radio.” Conway narrowed his eyes. He motioned to the car with his chin. “Dunno,” answered Chet. And then, “I hope my cousin’s coming back soon. My stomach’s growling like a dog seen his shadow.”

The fat man opined and rolled his window up. Beads formed on his forehead, a crown of thorns miraculously appearing during the exchange. He wiped his face and turned the air conditioning up a notch then drove over to the car. You could tell he was wary of the tinted windows. Conway spoke to the dispatcher over the radio then extracted himself from the police cruiser. Hands hooked on his belt, badge in evidence, he walked over to the car. The window did not slide down. He rapped on it and tried to peer through it but saw only his own reflection, his mirrored sunglasses repeating his likeness to infinity. Conway shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He cleared his throat and looked at Chet. Chet was watching using the oversized side mirror, non-committal. He avoided eye contact. The constable made a big show of taking down the license plate and proceeded back to his car. The mystery car purred alive and slowly started rolling. Conway hurried to the cruiser and put the flashers on, tailgating the offender. The two pickups followed in a slow procession, large soul-expanding western music blasting out of Chet’s truck. He loved western movies, and his heart was dialed into “High Noon.”

The car with the tinted windows cruised at low speed, the pursuit reminiscent of O.J.’s. They were too intent to realize the absurdity of the situation. At last, they made it to their destination. The lead car stopped in front of the emergency entrance of the hospital. Staff in white erupted from the large doors pushing a wheelchair. The car door opened slowly. An elderly Asian man faltered out. He waved weakly at Conway and was wheeled away. Conway, quick as a whip, followed them inside mumbling “We were escorting him.” The businessman was treated for heatstroke and Conway hailed as a hero. Mr Chen had been expected earlier but presumably got lost, turning at the wrong field, rows of corn mocking him until he got dizzy and lost. He did not know to turn on the air conditioning, his body clad in a black suit did not register the intense heat, did not know the sweet release of perspiration, the coolness of the wind.

 

 

Birthdays

My earliest memory is when I was four. It’s my birthday. I’m fat and happy, wearing a birthday hat. It’s just me and ma and a cake with candles. I see the scene as on a photograph, me clapping my hands, ma carrying the cake with the four lighted candles. But then, everything slows down. Ma’s smile freezes and a shadow clouds her brow. Her eyes become glass, like the dolls in my room. I know instantly that daddy is here. It’s just a memory but I feel I can smell the sweat and booze coming off his unwashed body before I even see him. He takes in the scene. He’s wearing rumpled pants and a stained undershirt (why stained? Mother was always meticulous with our clothes). His hair is tousled, his eyes unsteady.

A cigarette is dangling from his lips. It’s not lit. He looks dizzy. He’s holding on to the walls and walking tentatively. You can tell he’s trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. He seems to feel he’s walked into something unusual, foreign. Ma is still holding the cake. The song has died on her lips, the candles are melting. Pa approaches her with forced bonhomie, puts one hand around her waist to steady himself as he plunges his head toward the cake. I let out a protest. He lights his dead cigarette to one of the candles and inhales. The tip glows red, ma stiffens. He lets out the smoke over the cake. The flames flicker and dim, obscured by the smoke. I still hold out hope.

My second memory involves my brother. It’s his birthday but there is no cake. Ma, him and me are walking quickly outside in the rain. Me and Peter are holding onto a suitcase. Peter’s is stuffed with crayons and his teddy bear. I have brought sensible things. A change of clothes and my books. They are cheap suitcases, made out of vinyl. Mine is a dirty yellow, medium size. Peter’s is kid size and small. He is sniffling, unhappy. We are cold and wet and not protected from the rain. A car stops. Ma looks and ushers us in. It’s Mr. Smith, the neighbour, with tight lips. He says, “Where to?” and she says “The train station.” No other words are exchanged. We are out of the rain and relax minimally.

At the train station, ma starts opening her purse. Mr. Smith puts a hand over hers and she looks at him fearfully. His other hand is in his pocket. I read shame in his eyes but no malice. He hands her a few dollars. “That’s all I have. Go!” He waves off our thanks. The rain has stopped. It’s just a drizzle. Ma looks at the time and whips us both to the washroom where she proceeds to dry us with paper. She combs Peter’s hair and smiles at me. It’s a genuine smile. We walk out, flanking ma, as she strides confidently to the counter. “One adult, two children. To Madison.” It feels like we’re going to the movies and she just bought tickets. Peter is looking around at the people. He’s fascinated by a baby in a stroller. He points and says “Baby,” and looks up at ma who is busy, then at me. I smile and he’s happy. He’s an “easy baby”, as opposed to me who was a “contrary baby.”

We have a little time to kill. That’s what ma says. “To kill.” I tell her, in hushed tones “Mr. Smith’s money? And mimic blowing out candles. She squeezes my hand. There is a diner at the station, and she walks over with us in tow. “Miss? Our train is at 1:00. Will we have time to grab something to eat? It’s his birthday. We’re off for an adventure!” The waitress is pretty, with big blond curls. She has a big smile, big enough for the three of us. She asks how old the young one is today and takes our order. Peter is babbling happily and shrieks in delight when the waitress brings a slice of chocolate cake with three lit candles. Patrons join in to sing happy birthday. I say Peter loudly to fill in the blank at “… dear Peter” and he blows them out in one big breath, with our help. Everybody claps. We’re indeed off to a great adventure.

The story goes that ma did not want my father to find us, so she did not dare go to her parents or sister. We showed up at a stranger’s doorstep and she took us in. She wasn’t really a stranger. She was Maggie, and she and ma “went a long way back.” She did not know we were coming but she acts as though she’s thrilled to see us. Ma volunteers that it’s Peter’s birthday and that we were hoping to spend the birthday month with her. She answers, “Too bad you chose a short month!” and I know everything will be fine. She introduces me next “This is my eldest, my pride and joy, Mary Beth.” I curtsy shily. She curtsies back. “Well, Mary Beth, will you help me get the room ready for you? Charlene, be a darling and put the kettle to boil? Peter? I see you’ve found the cat. Be good now.” And off we go in a whirlwind of activity. Pretty soon, it feels like home. The three of us will take her bedroom (“Oh yes, you will!”) so she moves a trunk with her clothes into a tiny room next to the kitchen. We unfold a bed (tada!) and I am suddenly envious of her. She will have her privacy. I am seven now, so I know to keep quiet and do as I am told.

Maggie reads me like an open book. “I work during the day. You are allowed to come here and close the door if you want a bit of time to yourself.” I hug her, which I never, ever do. She is thin and does not smell like ma. She has an earthy smell, that I can’t place. She caresses my hair and says “Blond like me. Do you like curls?” I am overcome with shyness again and nod yes. Ma has set up the table, with two cups and two glasses. Steam is coming out of the teapot. Maggie says, “I have tapioca pudding I made just last night. How is that with a glass of milk, kids?” “Thank you, ma’am,” we answer. Peter is walking towards the table, grinning and holding the cat so that his paws are brushing the ground. Tommy has a white chest and white paws on a striped body. He looks like a tiger. “Tommy’s not allowed at the table. I’ll pour a little milk for him in his bowl.” And she does.

Ma’s birthday is the next memory. Until we moved in with Maggie, I never knew Ma had a birthday. We’ve moved out now, as agreed after the birthday month was over, but we visit Maggie all the time. We are renting rooms in widow Carmichael’s big house. Maggie throws a garden party for ma. It’s August, of course, because that’s when she was born a long time ago. There are a few men friends, but they’re nothing like pa. I help out with the refreshments and Peter endears himself to everybody. I don’t miss pa. Peter Robinson chats me up. He asks an awful lot of questions about ma and then goes to talk to her and asks an awful lot of questions about Peter and me. I like him a lot and ma does too. I help Maggie light so many candles that it looks like the cake is on fire. We walk out with it. I am holding the cake and Maggie has her hands on my shoulders. Ma is smiling and Mr Peter is by her side.

The final birthday memory is after my parent’s divorce. Little Peter turned seven. He has been entrusted with the camera. Ma, Big Peter and me are surrounded by a bunch of Peter’s classmates. He himself is not in the picture. He wants all of us to pretend we are blowing out the candles. He says that way nobody knows who we are celebrating. He did not want to be photographed.

No cookies

“My name is Iris. I was named after this ancient and beautiful Greek goddess representing a rainbow. Like all rainbows, I’m pretty sure I’m gay, though it’s a bit early to tell, says my mother. I am ten.” Or I could say “My name is Iris. I live inside your eye. I can see all you see. I am part goddess and all-powerful.” Or, I could say, “My name is Iris. Like the blue flower of the same name, I bring a message of hope.”

– Mom, which one do you like best?

– What is this for?

– The girl guides.

– Go with the last one.

– It’s kind of lame.

– Which one would you choose?

– The first one.

– Did I ever say it was too early to tell if you were gay?

– Come on, mom, play with me.

– I still vote for the last one. You’re going to creep them out with number 2 and freak them out with number 1.

– But will they remember number 3?

– Sweetie, there is no way anybody can forget you.

Hmm, did I mention I am blind? I usually stand out, even if I wanted to blend in. So, anyway, here we are at my first day of girl guides in this new town. I am wearing my uniform and wielding my cane, feeling confident. Mom drove me and reads in a corner, ready to assist if need be. It’s mostly for the comfort of the lady in charge. You have to take care of the sighted. They tend to be afraid of us blind people.

– Girls, we have a new recruit. Her name is Iris like the Greek goddess of the mythology represented by a rainbow. Iris is also the name of the blue flower we studied this summer. Iris, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Uh oh, she took out #1 and #3. I am forced to go with #2. I take a deep breath, aiming for a creepy voice. “My name is Iris. I am 11. I was born blind and I’m okay with it. I may need a little help at the start, but I adapt pretty well. Could each of you introduce yourself so I can remember your voice? Maybe tell me a little bit about yourself? I am new at girl guides, but I am sure I will like it.” Lame, lame, lame. All my courage left me. Still, I am standing tall and waiting. I feel a little hand settle into mine.

– I am Mindy, says a small voice. I am nine and I’ve never had a blind friend. Welcome to our troupe.

– I am Carol, I’m 11 like you. I’m new in town and hope to make friends. This is my third time with this troupe. They’re okay.

Shouts of protests. “We’re awesome!” I think I’m going to fit in just swell. My smile broadens as I relax.

– I am Jaya. I am named after the Hindu goddess for Victory. Mindy is my sister.

I nod, impressed. These girls rock.

– I am Jackie! I am Robin! Welcome! Welcome!
They are swarming me, in a friendly way. I can feel their smiles and enthusiasm.

– Can you tell us how you use your cane? What is it like to be blind?

They weren’t told what not to ask!

The troupe leader steps in. “Girls! Give her a bit of room!”

They hush, and retreat, except for Mindy, still holding my hand. Here goes with my spiel.

“First, if you see someone with a white cane and cool shades, it’s okay to come to them and introduce yourself. Don’t touch them (I squeeze Mindy’s hand) if you don’t want to startle them. Most blind people see shadows at best. Our eyes are hypersensitive to light. That’s why we wear sunglasses. You may want to help. If that is the case, ask the person if you may help them in some way. “Mindy, you want to try?”

She lets go of my hand and walks a few steps back. “Hello, my name is Mindy. May I help you?”

– Hi Mindy. My name is Iris. I need help crossing this busy street.

The room is silent. I have everybody’s attention.

– Now, let me take your arm and you can walk with me across. I will follow along.

We walk across the make-believe intersection. Mindy is mindful. “Watch your step,” she whispers. I wield my cane in front of me and take an exaggerated step up. We’ve made it to the sidewalk. Applause. We bow.

– Do you want to learn how I use my cane?

I’m on fire. I am surrounded by friendly people and I feel safe.

– Yes, they reply.

– You hold it lightly. The cane is like a divining rod. To find water, yes? Except, in our case, we’re looking for our way around. Then you sweep in front of you, tapping the ground lightly where your foot will land. You’re trying to determine if there is anything on the ground, a hole, a bump, an object. “Mindy, do you want to be the blind person and I will guide you?” Silence. “If you nod, I can’t see you. You have to speak up and say what you want.” “Yes, I would like to try.” I steel myself as I take off my glasses and hand over my cane. I feel naked without my attributes.

The door opens and something shifts in the room. “Hi Marsha,” comes Jackie’s sunny voice. Nobody else greets her. The troupe leader whispers to her. “We’re getting a lesson from Iris, the new troupe member, on how to properly help a blind person cross a busy intersection. You can introduce yourself after the demonstration.”

Mindy announces she’s ready.

– Before we start, you and I are not the same height, so the cane will not work as well for you. If any of you skis, you’ll know that the salesperson will fit you with poles according to your height. It’s the same idea. Now, close your eyes and spin around. Now, Stop!
I say, loudly, “Hello, my name is Iris. May I help you?”

– Hi, my name is Mindy. I want to go to the pharmacy next to the bank. I’m afraid I got lost.

– She’s facing the wall, shouts Marsha.

Time for a bit of tough love. I open my eyes which show a filmy white, quite repulsive to sighted people, I am told.

– Hey, Marsha. I’m Iris. I’m blind. Your comment doesn’t help. I’m going to tell you guys about echolocation. Please y’all, get up and face a wall. Now, Mindy, say your name out loud.

– Mindy!

– Now do a half-turn so your back is to the wall. Say your name again.

– Mindy!

– Everybody else do the same thing, one by one.

They do. I hear next the now-familiar voices, Jaya, which her slight accent, Jackie, energetic and sunny, Marsha, sulky, Carol, cautious, Robin, playful.

– Did you notice a difference?

Carol volunteers, “The sound is a bit deeper when it bounces off the wall.”

– Yes, exactly, Carol. You can figure out where obstacles are by listening how the sound travels. Research it on YouTube. Now, I will offer my arm to Mindy and we’ll cross the street.

We walk a few meters. I had automatically counted my steps previously, so I call out “curb” at the appropriate time. We step up and “land” on the sidewalk to scattered applause as this is no longer a new event. Mindy hands me back my glasses and cane. It feels warm and a bit moist to the touch. Her vibes are still in it, tentative and light. I feel better.

The troupe leader chimes in. “Thank you, Iris and Mindy. Marsha, do you want to say a few words about yourself?”

– Hi Iris. I’m Marsha. Me and Jackie are the oldest members of the troupe. We go to Sunnyview High. You’re new here?

– Hi Marsha. I’m new at girl guides.

I stop there. She is not my friend and I’m tired of being in the spotlight.

The troupe leader senses the awkwardness and moves right along. “All right, let’s all sing the Guide Marching Song and then one of you can explain to Iris what guiding is about.”

On our way home, I’m quiet. Mom doesn’t press. She knows I will talk when I’m ready. I let her take my hand in hers. It settles me. “She stole your intro. I was shocked when she mentioned the goddess.” Mom chuckles. “I was proud of you. You turned on a dime.”

She does this all the time because she knows I can’t resist. “What does that mean?”

“You turn quickly, as if your foot were on a coin.”

– Ahhhh. I ponder this for a while. “I’ll find a way to use it. Thanks. How is your book?”

– It’s fabulous! We’ve got another victim from a blow to the head. I don’t think a blow to the head would be enough to kill me. I have a thick head.

– The sisters were nice.

– Yes, I liked them both.

– Do you think a blow of the cane to Marsha’s head…

– Don’t go there.

 

Tall Tales

– I told you to stay away from that boy!
– It’s my fault. I got scared.
– Why did you go to him anyways?
– He was holding a cherry.
– You always were a sucker for sweets. Look where it got you.
– I’m not going out looking like that.
– You sure are, Missy. You will not be missing your cousin Lizzy’s wedding.
– I will be a laughingstock.
– You’re not the first one it’s happened to. With everyone there, nobody will notice.

She was putting on false eyelashes. Brooding, the young fired her last arrow. “I brought it back. Do you think dad could reglue it?” Mother rolled her eyes. “Stop being such a baby.”

They headed out to the reception, huddling together.
– I hate fall weddings. They put me to sleep, said Father.
– Why am I stuck with whiners? replied Mother.
Soon, they joined the others. The young stayed sheepishly with her parents, scanning the room. She spotted her cousin Marv and went to him.
– You too?
– Hahaha! These things happen. How did you lose yours?
– A boy offered me a cherry. When I came near, he grabbed me and lifted me up in the air. I was so scared, I lost it.
– Bummer.
– You?
– I was minding my own business, when I heard a hissing sound in the brush. I didn’t have time to run away quickly enough. It stung my tail, so I dropped it. You should have seen it wriggling on the ground! The snake kept attacking it. I hid under a log and watched the whole thing. The snake ate my tail! It was so gross! I’m lucky I came out of it alive!
– Wow!
– You need to change your story.
– Pardon me?
– Your story. About losing your tail. You won’t get any sympathy for that.
– But it’s the truth.
– You don’t have to, but you’ll be miserable all evening if you don’t.
– Do you have any suggestions? she asked coldly.
– Well, I already did the snake bite.
– Is it true?
– Does it matter? See, you gotta own your new state, flaunt it.
Marv was her hero. He was so self-assured.
– I couldn’t pull it off.
– Suit yourself. I see some stunned flies. You want some? he asked and headed to the buffet.
She followed close behind. More cousins were there, eating. Some sniggered, others stared. She was happy to be with Marv.
– Here come the tailless club! shouted Albert, the mean one.
– Better than to be part of the headless club! replied Marv, amidst laughter.
– I see you got yourself a girlfriend, continued Albert, undeterred.
– Where’s your headless date? replied Marv.

They were at a standstill, eyes locked, neither backing down. A voice came from the back.
– What happened to you?
– We were eating grubs at this fancy new place that just opened near the weeping willows – you know the place I’m talking about? Well, be careful if you go there. There’s an old gray cat prowling about. It’s lost part of its tail too, in a fight, no doubt. It can’t regrow its tail, of course. Maybe that’s why it loooves lizards so much. Let’s just leave it at that. We were lucky to make it out alive.

They got their stunned flies and kept walking. The cousins stayed behind, subdued. Marv was working the crowd like a politician, though the maneuvering was made difficult by the absence of a tail. Here and there, clusters of older folks were snoozing.
– Look, they’re getting a head-start on hibernating, he chuckled.
– My dad is with them, dozing off. He can be so embarrassing.
– Don’t let it be. It’s all about attitude, kiddo. The stunned flies are good, no?
– They are. I’d never had them before. I usually like sweet stuff.
– At any proper wedding, they’ve got grubs on leaves. Sweet and sour. You’ve gotta try it.
He stopped a waiter, who hailed another. The other waiter made its way towards them, holding his tray high above the crowd.
– Not many left, I’m afraid.
– Thank you kindly, replied Marv. After you, kiddo.
She tried a mouthful of grub and leaves. “OMG, this is so good!”
They all beamed.
– It’s a house specialty. I’m glad you like it.
The waiter was smiling, looking her in the eye. She did not feel self-conscious about her lack of tail. These older guys were real gents.
– Thank you so much, she smiled. That was quite the treat.
The waiters bowed and kept going about their business. She was having a great time. Marv made her laugh. The bride and groom made their entrance, tails flicking this way and that, all frisky. Their tails had been adorned with white Coral bells, and they released a pleasant scent. The crowd cheered them, the old folks startled awake were shouting the loudest.

The new couple danced the first dance, and the dancing began in earnest. Marv took her hand and they joined the fray. They could not dance properly, being off-balance and such, so they opted for clumsily jumping up and down. Soon, other youngsters, who did not care for dancing, were imitating them to the beat of the music.

Eventually, her mother waved at her. She detached from her group of friends. “Love, we’ll be going soon. Say your good-byes. Your dad is getting too drowsy.”
She went back to Marv.
– We’re leaving. Thank you for a fabulous evening. I hope to see you when our tails have grown back.
– I had a wonderful time with you. Thank you for that. Next time we meet, I’ll treat you to something sweet at the fancy place near the weeping willows. For old times sake, he winked.

– It wasn’t so bad? asked Mother.
– As good as a dream, Mom. As good as a dream.