The Reader

He read with a mathematician’s mind. “12 pages to go!” “On average, the chapters have 14 pages.” “The longer chapters are all about exposition. There is more action in the shorter ones.” I had recommended a book I had just finished reading, thinking he would like it. “Where are you at?” I asked. “I’m five pages into chapter 6.” “I mean, what’s happening? Where are you at in the story.”

He looks at me as though I’m slow, as though he’s already answered the question and rattles what’s happened in chapters 1 to 6. “I thought you’d read it?” he asks with a hint of suspicion. “I’m not doing your homework for you, am I? If there’s a book report at the end of it, you have to tell me now. I will read differently.” “No, nothing like that. I thought you’d enjoy the story. It made me think of you.” “Why?”

Now it’s my turn to turn diffident. The main character is clearly on the autism spectrum, but I don’t want to offend him. “He likes math” is all I can think of. That seems to satisfy him.

Rock Art

I read of the white plaques on the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. I look at mom, picturing the landscape under her skull – splotches of white paint on ancient fissured walls devoid of sense with the passing of time. Were those prints ever meant to convey anything? I was here, here in your olfactory cortex. You used to smell the roses, balk at cigarette smoke, enthuse over wine. I was here, in your visual cortex, see the rugged wall under my print? It speaks of faraway countries, and distant lands of the imagination.

Now you see ghosts, reinterpret the shapes into abstract concepts that confuse me. I strain to grasp the meaning of your words as they mercifully still pour out of you. I tentatively offer my version. You look at me sternly, “Never mind, you don’t understand.” I feel I am failing you. You point to paintings, your own or your son’s. You discuss weight, colour, light and shadows with large gestures. You glow.

I know you are not beyond meaning. You sit contented, try and engage me. Your temporal lobe is still vigorous; it remembers sound. Your body sways to the music, any music; you know the words to every song. To every music, you create your own lyrics, the words conveying your feelings.

I introduce myself, recite the names of your children, point mine out. “See, I am the girl, your daughter,” I say proudly. I smile. You smile back.

Green

That time of year when you catch a cold because you are sick of winter and you go outside without proper clothing because you believe in the power of Mind Over Matter and dammit if you can’t do what you please… You are no longer a child and no one but yourself will control you and who wants control anyway? Who needs it? Politicians will pull wool over your eyes like that toque you did not want to wear it gives you hat head is that what it’s called? Cat hair? I hate when my mind plays games. How can I have Mind Over Matter when my mind plays games? Last night I heard the sound of a metal pipe clanking on a cement floor, the sound reverberating in my head but there are no cement floors in here and no one said a thing and I could tell it was all in my head from the way the sound waves were travelling out instead of in. So. I am lucky today to have no earworms though I must admit I miss the incessant chatter and music that typically fills my head must be those new pills that dull my Mind Over Matter. I will have to start faking taking them – meek, and I will inherit the Earth but what will I do with it? Cover it with greenery and shrubs and maybe little green men will come and visit. Yeah, that would be nice.

Luna

The bed beside him is cold. He waits.

Silhouetted against the doorway, eyes wild, seaweed hair heavily roped on her shoulders, white fish feet. “Little mother, come to bed,” he says softly. She lies down beside him, at a distance. She sighs a heavy sigh. He coaxes her gently, “And?”

Her eyes are moist. At long last, she intones, “The great sea has receded. She is showing her underbelly. The sand is smooth save for little breathing holes.” A beat. “It can’t all be crab down there! I saw the most hideous creature coming out of one of them, covered in warts, gelatinous. A large bird was waiting patiently for it to climb out. It didn’t blink. Someone will be eating.” She spits out, after a moment, “There’s loads of rubbish too.”

He can tell she relishes the sound of the word “rubbish.” It rolls off her tongue and crashes in his ears. “I wish the sea would stay on top, the waves hiding it all, waning and waxing.” Her hands going to and fro above her, in the air. He knows better than to speak. He must respect her rhythm.

“You know you can walk for miles out to sea? You won’t realize when it stops creeping back, and then rushes in, and traps you, and gobbles you up. Quite the monster really. A fake tame beast.” Her voice is flat as salty drops wet her cheeks.

They will not sleep. They never do under a full moon.

Music

He was listening to music as he walked. Actually, he was using music as a way to drown  stuff out. Marsha had walked passed him without a smile, a nod or anything. The music filled that space in the hollow of his stomach. Ms Bartosik tried to get his attention but he feigned deep concentration, bopping his head to the rhythm. Dave walked by his side for a bit, sullen and grumpy, which suited him fine.

Dave knew instinctively when he needed support. Having him by his side made the music recede a little in the background. They were shuffling in synch, which lifted his spirits. He started doing some fancy footsteps which Dave matched and then embellished. Pretty soon they had stopped and were dancing in the hall. They were striving to take as little space as possible, as though dancing on a tree trunk, whilst being as extravagant as possible. He had cranked up the music so that Dave followed without missing a beat. They were getting hot, and out of breath, but neither wanted to be the first to stop. They locked eyes and grinned. A small crowd had gathered and were cheering them on.

The bell rang. They broke it off. Fist pump, then they each headed to a separate class. Geography for him, calculus for Dave. Masha appeared by his side – you were awesome! I didn’t know you had it in you. What’s that you’re listening to? The only music now was her words and her eyes.

 

Raven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topiary Artist

She was a topiary artist. Hers was an early vocation. She was inspired by Grace Jones’ hair, a veritable chef d’oeuvre, but as she had no inclination to talk to people and listen to their critiques, she turned to plants. She did all the talking, explaining her plans, showing them her sketches, and asking for their cooperation before trimming them.  She had a soft spot for jungle animals that she sketched live at the zoo. Her skills were in high demand, especially for lions whose mane was made of Boston ivy so it turned fiery red in the fall.

After a journalist who was visiting his aunt wrote a travel piece on the Web, the little town was overwhelmed with tourists wanting to see the famous lions. The whole town’s economy soon revolved around garden tours, and buses disgorged rich widows with nothing to do but break the monotony of their lives with silly trips and shopping sprees. Postcards with topiary art sprung to life, t-shirts, dish towels, placemats, puzzles,… and demand for her work grew.

There was nothing she loved more than work on live plants, with the sensitivity of a sculptress, bringing to life the beast within the live matter. Plants revealed their true character – cubs playing, giraffes munching leaves, placid buffalos. It seemed normal to local children to play amidst wild plant-animals that were frozen mid-movement. The town’s inhabitants donated a piece of land so it could be turned into a public park, commissioning the artist to populate it with her imagination.

Local contests were held in schools to encourage the kids’ participation and the winner’s drawing was mounted as a piece de resistance. It was a duck, and she managed to convey whimsy in the jaunt of his webbed feet and the comical slant of his eyebrows. The piece was unveiled with a plaque showing the kids’ name and drawing. A barbecue was held to celebrate the opening of the park and the inhabitants walked amongst the wonderful creatures. They liked their realism and fine proportions as well as being able to recognize them. There was a quiet area for kids, where bushes had been turned into squirrels and bunnies – the bunnies made out of furry plants that were soft to the touch.

Unfortunately, one night, the whimsical creatures were expertly vandalized into slightly crooked and deformed caricatures. They remained works of art, but the original intent was turned on its head. The miscreant – for there was only one, after all – was apprehended; at the artist’s insistence, he was ordered to do community work with her. As the artist was excited to meet a fellow topiary artist, they became fast friends. She learned from him a certain cynicism that added some bite to her otherwise banal creations and turned her into an artist of higher stature. Her later works were considered more mature and won her critical acclaim. However, she never regained her following amongst the early admirers that had made her fame.

Flying

He was the kid who climbed onto low roofs and jumped off, a blanket for a cape or makeshift wings at the ready. He thought Icarus died too young, and vowed to himself to be more careful. He talked with birds, asking them to share their secrets, adopting the wounded ones and nursing them until they flew away. He cried over his many failures, and learned better ways to help when he volunteered at the local bird care centre, where he befriended the wounded who thrived under his care. He studied them so, that naturally he became an ornithologist. There was a lot of nonsense written about his friends. He set about correcting the exaggerations and aberrations that were accepted as truth. Studying birds, he studied their environments. He ended up on the canopy of trees watching the rare insects and birds that lived in that special ecosystem. Those were thrilling years — he did everything but fly.

He was not mechanically inclined and swore off airplanes as artificial means of transportation. They polluted the air, killed birds, disrupted migrations, and generally made a pest of themselves. They were not birds, not even mechanical ones. They were noisy and graceless — indeed a very poor approximation of birds, devoid of feeling and ingenuity, reduced to an object of flight.

He had vivid flying dreams. They felt more like astral projections. He would wake up from them at peace with the world, happy to have spent time with his own kind. He wished he could grow feathers but could never figure out how. He was always surrounded by birds, who seemed as happy as he was for them to be together. He had a small bird cemetery, for the unfortunates who were hit by cars and left to die. They were grouped according to their classes, much as people of different faiths inhabit different corners of large cemeteries. He kept detailed records of the area where he found them. In a separate book, he gave them each a name and a story, to honour them posthumously. He had grown very fond of his cemetery which was full of trees and bird feeders.

When he retired, he opened it up to the enthusiasts who had heard of his project through the grapevine. Entry fees allowed him to expand and create a public space for visitors who wished to bring the body of their pet birds to be properly interred. Some would tell their story, which was added to the very large ledger, so they would be remembered. Monuments were erected, with large falcons, owls or more modest parakeets. He was given all manner of trees by grateful patrons to house the living. He had made special arrangements to be buried on-site. When the time came, the trees were full of songbirds who gave him a magnificent send-off. An unofficial truce was reached and honoured on that day so that birds of all feathers could flock together.

He was finally able to fly.

Till Death Do Us Part

The woman of steel took care of it.

She had heard that the girl had been buried a month ago, after a long illness. She regrets not attending the funeral. She had considered it, but her pride prevented her from going. From all accounts, it was a grand affair, and she expects the family must be swimming in debt now. They are her best chance, pride be damned.

The family is told of her grandson’s untimely demise. They commiserate. They are tactfully informed that he had not yet wed, had not tasted love, and asked about the state of the late young woman. She is reassured to hear that the same fate had befallen her.

They make sympathetic noises over tea, muse over possible family ties. “I believe my cousin twice removed…” “Yes, yes, we are related. This is such a large family.” “Then you will pardon my asking, and you will understand my grief…” “Yes, yes, but will you pay for it all, and will you take into consideration our anguish…” “Yes, yes, such a tragedy, and what will the neighbours think.”

In the end, they agree to dig her up so that both can be buried together, as the couple they never were in life. The man will not present himself alone to Death. Someone will be by his side to take care of him where they themselves are not yet ready to go.

The neighbours approve.

Daggers

She had always wanted to run away with the circus. She dreamed of rubbing shoulders with elephants and tigers, getting to know the person behind the clown, befriending the bearded lady. She was afraid of heights and admired the trapezists safely from the ground.

She started out as the knife thrower’s assistant, learning not to flinch when the blade penetrated the wood oh so close to her skin. The knife thrower had a temper and very few friends. He was the brooding type who only lit up when people showed interest in his craft. He polished his knives obsessively, talked to them in endearing tones. They loved him back and never failed him.

Her crewmates held many secrets – she was privy to them all. Her innocence opened many doors that remained open since she kept her mouth shut. Discretion was prized among those outcasts – they had all found their way there for a reason–some tormentor, betrayer, or one of the many ghosts that plagued them. They were always on the lookout for The Reason to catch up with them.

In turn, the others were curious about her reasons for fleeing her home, which by all accounts, looked cozy. They knew better than to presume it was, and waited for her shadow self to manifest. They saw it the day a knife grazed her. Her secret was out: she fainted. The wound was oozing green blood.

Black on Black

The whining wakes me up. Puppies have tiny bladders. I lay awake in bed, not moving, willing him to fall back to sleep. I think of the hoot of the owl earlier today. I answered it jovially. He was not amused. I was excited to tell my neighbour about the owl.

He warned me, through missing teeth, “He can carry that puppy of yours, tear it up and eat it raw.” I shudder. He’s a no-nonsense farmer. Tells it like it is.

I’ve put my large black umbrella by the door. I pick it up as we make our way to the porch, down the steps, and into the yard. I’ve put my puppy on a leash and stay near to protect him. I feel foolish with my large black umbrella opened on top of us both, but I don’t know what else to do. At least it’s too dark for my neighbour to see us.

I hear no night noises, no scuttling about. My imagination gets the better of me. I fear the owl is hunting, and his preys know it. My puppy has done his business and is puppying around.

My senses are suddenly on high alert. I dive and pick up the puppy, my umbrella tilted forward as I bend down. It gets ripped from my grip and flies to the sky in an angry fluttering. My puppy is trembling in my arms. I sense the umbrella gently drifting to the ground, black on black.

Freezing

He can’t believe she’s left him. He feels the cold seeping into him. He puts his hands under his armpits for warmth. His heart is racing, his breath short as though he were running. Is he running after shadows? She’s gone, or so says the note she’s left with her keys. She accuses him of being cold-hearted. “Your coldness is driving me away. No cuddles, no sex, no love in your eyes. Where is the warm-hearted, warm-blooded stallion I married?”  The note is stern, pitiless, except for the small heart by her signature. His heart aches. He shudders from head to toe – rocked to the foundation of his being, his own personal earthquake. He cannot come to terms with this sudden catastrophe. He sees his reflection in the large antique mirror they bought together. He looks like a snowman; he is white as a ghost. He understands the expression now. He feels like all the blood has drained out of him; no wonder he’s cold. Annoyingly, he needs to pee. It doesn’t seem to fit the solemnity of the moment, this everyday need coming to the forefront.

He heads to the washroom, his legs vaguely obeying. Really, he couldn’t care less. His legs feel waterlogged. Have his tears migrated to his bladder, his legs? Is this what despair feels like? He can’t make sense of anything. Peeing offers some relief but does not snap him back to his senses. At least his heart is no longer racing, his fingers no longer cold. His hands hang limply by his side, he doesn’t know what to do with them. But, oh my, there she is in the doorway, smiling sweetly at him. He stumbles in her direction, tearing his clothes off. His body is burning. With passion? There she is, the love of his life! She vanishes. He feels the cold crystallizing in him. He opens a door – the closet? He is tired, so tired. He sits on the floor, the towels tumbling over him. He creates a nest for himself before losing consciousness in a puddle of his own urine.

 

* * *

A flash. Voices. “Call the coroner, will you? And cordon off the area. This is weird. You saw the note on the table in the entrance? Find the woman! That is the key to most crimes. And find the concierge. He may know who the next of kin is. We will treat this as a homicide.” The coroner comes. He is a somber man, not a bon vivant as depicted on tv. Those tv guys got it all wrong. Hartmann is business-like, does not waste his saliva on niceties. The body is transported to the morgue. The post-mortem report is unhelpful. The man died of hypothermia, in the middle of summer in New York. His vital organs were frozen solid. His heart a solid block of ice. The man literally froze to death. “I guess she was right. His coldness drove her away and killed him too.”

 

Cats

“Karl!” …Just like that!

I look at her expectantly.

– I wouldn’t read anything into that. It’s a common enough auditory hallucination.

I am disappointed. I came here because I was told great things about her, how she understands and helps people.

-You look disappointed. No doubt you heard good things about my abilities, but lying is not what I am about. I don’t want to fill your head with fanciful notions.

I feel foolish. My head is already full of fanciful notions.

I usually hear my name called just as I am about to fall asleep. Is it a warning of some sort? I wait for the voice to call again. Is it waiting for me to answer? Is somebody from Beyond calling me to them? And what I will never say aloud: Am I about to die?

I don’t recognize the voice but there is an urgency in the tone that wakes me up as surely as being poked with a stick. I feel alert but not afraid. My dog sleeps through it but my cat prowls the bed, meows over me, frets with the pillows. Sometimes I think it’s my cat’s doing. The Egyptians knew something about cats and their ties to the Beyond. I ponder this some more. I won’t be able to fall asleep again.

I get up and feed the cat.

Ninja

Guerilla gardens are never static. They live in a host’s head, and roam with the would-be gardener until they find the perfect spot.

-Mom? What’s a “gorilla garden”? Rachel said her dad planted a gorilla garden last night. Is he growing bananas? Or a jungle?

-It’s “guerrilla” garden, darling. It’s urban warfare. Some people decide that they know better than everybody else. They think they are good people, but they prey on unsuspecting landowners who they accuse implicitly of dereliction of duty. They plant flowers! Or vegetables! But not in their own backyard. Noooo!

You are not to play with little Rachel anymore.

-But Mom! That’s not fair. We didn’t do anything!

Once the host finds a spot, they stake out the place to find a suitable time to do the deed. They are outlaws, vigilantes of the vegetable kingdom. They move stealthily like ninjas!

-Never you mind, Missie. If her father is an outlaw, then she’s an outlaw.

Sometimes, they plan elaborate schemes. They enrol accomplices with soil and tools. They might decide to plant flowers to liven up a vacant lot or a vegetable garden to feed the hungry.

-Why are you so angry anyway? It’s not like they’re spray painting graffiti on your house!

-It’s just not done. Where would we be if people grew their own food? Or started enjoying living in poor neighbourhoods? It goes against Nature.

Every seed sows dissension and will hasten the revolution. Long live anarchy! Long live the Vegetable Kingdom!

Graduation Day

Today started like any other day. Mom left early. After a while, the whole brood started calling her back. She puked breakfast. We slept soundly, dreaming big dreams. I woke up feeling uneasy. Robert had disappeared; mother looked stern. She pushed Anita out of the nest. Anita did not make a sound as she frantically flapped her wings. Mother was methodical, cold. I was her favourite and I was next. There was to be no exception. She did not hesitate as she heaved me over the rim. And pushed.

Time slowed – I saw my life stream past me – family dinners, communal sleep, then itchy wings and discomfort as feathers grew. And now this. Before realizing it, I was frantically flapping my wings and uneasily stopping my fall. I landed on a low branch from where I could see Robert and Anita, both visibly shaken but safe. We looked up as a terrified Olivia seemed to bomb down toward us, only to stabilize as she flapped her wings like she was possessed. She landed a few branches away, shaken not stirred. I leaped to her rescue flapping like a madman and almost knocked her off her perch. We huddled and looked up. Mom was staring down at us.

“You left quite a mess,” she said, a satisfied note in her tone. She started cleaning out our home, throwing all our stuff overboard. A lucky pebble, my Elvis stamp. “I guess it’s graduation day,” shouted Robert. With outstretched wings, he flew away.

Graduation Day