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.

Mary

Sad Mary has had another miscarriage
Joseph cannot console her
She lights yet another candle
To her merciful god
Asking for a child

Conceived purely
Sprung out of hope and love
Little Jesus is a miracle
The little boy
Treated like a god

He grows up
Not touching the ground
He walks on water
Says the half-crazed mother
Nobody disputes it

At Cana, the wedding party
Runs out of wine
At his mother’s urging
The boy turns water into wine
It’s a miracle, cries mad Mary

Now Jesus loved mad Mary
And for her he was ready to die
She sat at the foot of the cross
Sobbing
Mad Mary lost another boy

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.

Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Scratch

She redacted the whole book, turning it from a profoundly racist book into a book singing the praises of the oppressed. The only thing she did not do was change the title and author that were her source material. Her used bookstore was called “Scratch Bookstore” and you bought at your own risk. Hers was a labour of love. She refused no book, redacted as she read along. The books were sealed, and you decided how much you put in the tin. She wasn’t in it for the money, she enjoyed creating new pieces of work.

Some authors were harder to redact. There was an awe around their works. As the fame of her art grew, more people would drop in books and she had a hard time keeping up. Her specialties were with biographies, but she did well with horror stories which she turned into fairy tales or romance novels. She was a Scratcher before scratch music was in vogue. She created music from words on paper.

She was made famous with obscure books that, once redacted, were sought after. She did not redact the same book twice and was scrupulous at keeping a tally of those she had done. She did not want comparisons. She did it all in one go, as the inspiration struck, and signed and dated them. She had quite a cult following, with collectors fighting over her works of art. They were not all great, but then that is true of all art, and she did not worry about it.

She had started as a child. Her parents read her bedtime stories that she would listen to sternly, sometimes uttering a tut tut sound. As soon as she was able to read, she started scribbling in books, to the consternation of the adults. They did not try to see what she was creating. They just scolded her for defacing books. But she persevered with an obstinacy verging on obsession. She would then present to them the fruits of her labour. All they could see was another book destroyed. She did not learn her lesson. She had a truth to tell and she would tell it. Eventually, she found fertile ground with her grandma.

She presented her Little Red Riding Hood to read. Grandma opened the book and saw the scribbles. She had heard that her granddaughter was defacing books and should not be encouraged. The girl was practically mute by then, and grandma thought she might be trying to communicate by other means. She smiled at the child. Her smile was tender and welcoming. She said, “Would you like me to read you this story?” The child beamed back and settled comfortably against her. Grandma cleared her throat “Once upon a time…” there followed a beautiful story that read like a poem. Grandma was choked with emotion. “The end,” she whispered as she held the child against her. “Thank you, Mabel, may I keep this book? I will treasure it.” Mabel replied, in a normal voice, “I love you, Grandma.” She hadn’t spoken in months. They both looked at each other deeply, with joy at seeing the best in each other.

Grandma waited with trepidation for Mabel’s visits and new books. She started buying her second-hand books for her art. Her daughter was displeased but had to recognize Mabel was doing better and started talking again. Grandma praised the child when Mabel was not in the room and encouraged her daughter to read the books with an open mind. When she finally did, she was an instant convert. Of course, the child still had to curb her actions, as the parents could not afford to replace library and school books. As everybody, Mabel redacted what she heard as well. Unlike others, she was well aware of the filters she was applying and could regurgitate the official line “Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492” instead of her own version where Columbus covered America. She had her own opinions about life, and freely expressed them. She was deemed an activist by age 4, a rebel by 5, a revolutionary by 6. Her parents did not know what to expect in her teenage years. She was expelled from high school which was later seen as proof of her genius.

Her assassination at age 35 rocked the artistic community. She had done so much in so little time, and touched so many lives, that her funeral drew hundreds and was covered by the media. Mourners left redacted works at the spot of her murder where they stood vigil. The murderer’s name had been redacted, never to be uttered, banished from memory.

Tornado

Like a fever announcing an infection, the weather warning was displayed: TORNADO. Like an annoying symptom, it was summarily dismissed. If I were to worry about all the little viruses floating around, I would be in a constant state of panic. I carry on, like the Queen had urged us to in dark times. I am serving a customer, remarking on the sudden darkness. He adds something about strong gusts of wind. I can hear the shop windows rattling and my witty remark dies on my lips. The noise in the store is suddenly deafening, windows exploding amidst incomprehension, I instinctively duck as I raise my arms to protect my face. My customer leaps on the counter, or rather is pulled up by his bootstraps and thrown in the air, his face contorted in pain.

Rain is pouring in, roof gone, foodstuff on the floor. The cashier? The staff? Everybody stunned amidst the rubble. The roof is collapsed, is anybody under? The noise continues, trees creaking, snapping, and falling. No screaming, there is no point. I taste of metal, I am all wet. A pinkish red liquid is streaming down my face. I wipe it away with my sleeve, but it keeps coming. The sickness has manifested itself, violent and sudden. Pay attention! It’s vomiting debris of what were once houses and playthings left in the yard. I see a barrel heading our way, a wheelbarrow too, nothing tied down. We didn’t know to batter down the windows or hide in a cellar. How do you react to convulsions the first time they happen?

Help arrives like helpful white cells, mopping and carrying and straightening. We are put on stretchers, the attacked and the maimed, to be restored, ready to fight the next battle. Flashing strobe lights, helicopters, news stations send their camera crews. I hear there were 6 tornadoes, due to unusual weather conditions. Tell me now that climate change is not real, that this is normal. I am in the hospital emergency. I hear there are casualties but no fatalities. People were still at work. Residential areas were hit, so homes are lost, lives only shattered.

I try and go back to the scene of the crime. But can you ever go back? In my mind, I am there always, trying to make sense of this event. My neighbours who were not affected develop psychosomatic reactions. The shock is widespread as the disease takes hold and infects neighbouring cells. It’s been two weeks. Two weeks of phoning insurance companies and trying to restore order. I want things to go back to how they were. I want to rebuild. What are the odds of the same conditions repeating, of the same disaster to occur? My premiums shoot up. The insurers seem to think the odds are not in my favour.

It’s week three. I still have nightmares, still worry when the skies are gray. My scar tingles. It’s not a Harry Potter scar. It will be very realistic for Halloween. Thanksgiving is coming up first. We’re having it at my brother’s, next town over. It’s usually at my place, but I can’t cook, I can’t think straight. Others are taking over, bringing me food. The town is in septic shock, inhabitants walking like zombies, still uncomprehending, numb. What do I have to be thankful for? People tell me I am alive, that only the store was lost. They are discounting my peace of mind, my mental health.

The town is slowly healing, thanks to the injection of volunteers, white cells in all colours and religions. We are given warm hugs in the form of shelter, shoulders to cry on, building assessments. The phone lines have been repaired, electricity restored. The scars are everywhere. Trees have been cut down, uprooted, splintered and quartered. We live in a lunar landscape, rarefied air and meteorites. The Earth is far and blue. I am floating above, untethered and lost.

Canvassing

The door-to-door approach suited him well. He enjoyed parrying with his constituents, showing off his political acumen. The elderly lady let him in, unsmiling. He tried a genuine smile, but it hurt. Those muscles were seldom used, and his skin felt like cracked leather. He whipped out the fake one, supple as an old shoe. The old lady brightened up. “I recognize you, now. I voted for you last time.” “Thank you, thank you.” He sat down to tea and stale cookies, no doubt bought on sale and served to unsuspecting visitors, not worthy of anything homemade. He looked around for a dog. No such luck.

In his mind, he went over the senior list: overpriced lodgings, access to health services, transportation. He had something ready and practiced for all. “What will you do about Sleepy?” He frowned. The question did not appear in any category. “I am not aware of the issue with Sleepy. Could you fill me in?” He was faking interest now. That was one of his good faces, with the smiling-in-awe-at-baby one. Both made beautiful, intense pictures.

“She’s been pooing in my flower bed again. I told those no-good neighbours of mine I would shoot her if I caught her at it. But she comes at night, she does. Her kind always does their business at night, like thieves.” She shook a fist in the general direction of the neighbour’s house. He expected her to spit on the flower-patterned rug. She refrained. Now, she was looking intently at him, waiting for a response that would match her outrage. He could not muster it. “How is your health?” he inquired, after a moment.

She looked at him, disgusted. “Politicians,” she muttered under her breath, as she snatched the cookie plate from the table. She turned to go. He offered, “Did you try calling the city to ask an inspector to come? They could fine the owners.” She grunted, “Phone’s disconnected.” He didn’t want to get involved and risk losing the neighbours’ votes. He put on a concerned look, “Why is your phone disconnected, may I ask?” “May you ask,” she scoffed and sat in sullen silence.

“My party supports full access to municipal counsellors. We have blogs, a website, even a chatline. And of course you can call…” She gave him a stern look. “…or drop by…” he trailed off, miserably. She was still staring, unsmiling. “You’re too young,” she declared. “Four years older than when you last voted for me,” he countered, jubilant. Mistake. Do not contradict the voter. “I was a fool back then, obviously. No doubt seduced by your youthful countenance. Well, off you go. I have a cat to attend to. He terrorizes my birds too. I’ll get her some day.” She shooed him away, with her hands, as you would an unruly child.

He got up, trying to put on a brave face. “Remember my name. Jack Dolan-Brown.” She was waiting for him by the door, surprisingly nimble. “I don’t doubt you will catch Sleepy in the act. Have you tried an infrared camera?” A slow smile crept on her face, distorting her features. “Well, Jack Dolan-Brown, have a great day. And good luck to you.”

The Hangman

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You’re Alone

Do you cry when you’re alone?
Do you let the tears wet your cheeks
The sobs rack your frame?
In the silence of your home

Do you cry when you’re alone?
Or do you stifle your screams
And harden your heart
Lest you suffer more pain and agony

I don’t scream when I’m alone
I let the pillow swallow the tears
And smother the screams
As I hold it to my face

I don’t cry when I’m alone
I let the tears flow inside
Hoping they will drown my sorrow
And quiet the pain

The Cotswold Way

Walker-ships crest land-seas
Marvelling at the buried treasures of past eras
Arrowheads of the paleolithic
Burial fields of the neolithic
Medieval agricultural ripples and
Feudal ruins shipwrecked from past wars
Their history preserved, their dead cherished

Modern-day pilgrims tread routes of old
Navigating seas from the world over
Calling to village-ports in their odd vestments
To taste foreign foods and gawk at the locals
Navigator-captains consulting routes and each other
Pouring over cryptic maps, a jealous secret
Knowledge dispensed in conspiratorial tones

Numberless rock-fish
Netted and stacked into dry walls
Sheep-white foam dot the rolling waves
They protest as we sail along
Pushed by high winds filling our lungs
The occasional haughty hoseman
Showing off to the slow-moving masses

The current sometimes veer the traveller off course
He tries to avoid going from brambles to stinging nettles
The endless soothing rain hiding his tears
The pain of the journey transcended
Old towers, solid lighthouses
Where all converge before going on their way

Alas the tame adventure comes to end
Reminiscence takes its place
The stunning plumage of pheasants
The subtle trilling of unseen birds
The loud blast of the clay shoot, the runners racing up the path
The tartness of cider
And the longing to return

Bayou II

Heaving waters through heavy rains
Trees shaking their beards
The gators stick to their mudholes
Snapping jaws at unfortunate fish
The bayou smells of rot
Green turned brown
Sticky slime and sizzling air

Spanish moss and mythical flowers
Lure unsuspecting tourists to the durga arms
Of the river goddess
Staccato Zydeco rhythms just out of reach
Calling them in further still
A trick of the light, a flick of the wrist
A tumble in the now still waters

Clouds of Milk

I wish I could fly like Superman!
My cape fluttering in the breeze
The wind not quite keeping up
Not quite keeping me up

Hoist the sails and watch her fly
Like a horse whose mane trails on her neck
Nostrils twitching with the scent
of fear
Or is it discovery?

Talkative people taking to the skies
Swarming the airwaves
Disgorging in alarm their innermost quivers
Failing to arrow or even to trot

Even the fears are losing momentum
Leaking out of my feeble mind
I’m holding on to traces of reason
Scents of the past

Racing ahead
Hoping to outrun this invisible foe
Whose steps echo all around me
No pattern, just ghosts

Muslin curtains between me and the world
A fine film blurring the horizon
Will the clouds rain down tears
Are they clouds?

These splotchy white stains
Blemishing my world
I’m hoping they will dissolve
Like clouds of milk in my tea

The Prince reincarnated

– Jared was always mom’s favourite.
– You know what mom told me? She went to the shoe store with him. They had a “going back to school” sale.
– Oh, come on! He’s starting university. That doesn’t apply to him! Plus, I can’t believe he went with mom.
– Shush! I’m telling the story. Anyways, he comes in, goes straight to the women’s section, sees a pair of low boots he likes – suede, red, low heels. He is admiring them. Mom waves at a salesperson and whispers his size. The lady is in the back, looking for the box. Jared hadn’t seen mom calling the girl or anything. He says “Can we get a servant to help?”
– Nooooooooo! I would’ve died! Everybody heard, I assume?
– With his booming voice? Yeah. They all acted as though nothing had happened. Very professional of them.
– Did he buy them?
– I didn’t ask. I was too busy berating mom for treating him like a little prince since he was born.
Susan is shaking her heading in disbelief.

– You know I believe in reincarnation, right? Don’t make a face, your turn to listen. In Portrait class, we have to research the art of portrait through the ages. I read about this painter who narrowly escaped death. He had painted a gay prince in Bavaria with his lover in a bathtub. There was a picture of the painting. Vivid kitsch colours. The prince was wearing a ruby red robe and soft red boots. Does that remind you of anybody?
– Oh, come on. That’s what I find stupid about this reincarnation business. Everybody is some type of prince or other.
– The guy really looked like Jared though. Same eyes, but the prince had extra padding, even a double chin. Did you know that court painters fleshed out their male models to make them look “healthy”? They found letters from court artists discussing the trade.
– Ha, Photoshop before Photoshop even existed. Funny how human nature stays the same through the ages. I guess the definition of what healthiness looks like varies through time, though.
– Speaking of health, I’m hungry.
– Let’s grab something before you get ‘hangry’.
– As if.

They’re walking through the mall, window-shopping. They point at high-heeled red shoes and giggle. The food court is bustling. They order thai and find a table. They dressed carefully, trendy above all. Maybe others will be hanging out. They spot a well-groomed youth, panhandling. “It’s Andy! He’s begging!” He’s keeping a low profile, approaching harried females, who presumably will be touched by his acne-riddled face and politeness as he extracts a bit of money from them.
– Who was HE in a previous life? A beggar, no doubt.
– A musician, a bard?
– What about the mother with the very obedient brainy kid at the table?
– A schoolteacher! (mimicking a stern voice) Children, sit up!
– (together) EAT YOUR GREENS!
They wave at Andy to come and sit with them. He’s bought two hot dogs and a milkshake.
– Nice hair.
He runs his fingers in the slicked-back hair, grimacing.
– What a man’s gotta do to eat in this town!
– How’s business?
– Tricky.
– You’re not eating healthy food.
– Gotta feed the acne if I want to make a living!
They laugh.
– So, girls, I got enough for some weed if you’re interested.
They exchange glances.
– Maybe. Where?
– The park across from the church one hour after I’m done eating.
– All right.

They head to the park early and sit on the swings waiting for him. On the adult side of the park, there are a bunch of clipped bushes – some type of art. Closer to them is a skateboarding bowl. There are a few guys, one who seems pretty good. They walk over – it’s Andy. He’s gotten out of his schoolboy clothes and is wearing a gray hoodie and bad boy low-slung jeans. His bangs hang limply over one eye, the other sparkling devilishly. They wave and he glides over to where they are, hopping off in front of them and flipping the board expertly, catching it as it flies up in a spin. He gets out of the bowl reluctantly.
– You know skateboarding started out in empty pools? You have to watch “Dogtown and Z-boys.”
The girls are trying to act cool, but he can tell they just want a toke. He does too, so they gather back at the swings and share a few joints. They swing, waiting for them to take effect.
– How’d you get in the begging business?
– How’d you get in the police? I didn’t know they recruited so young.
She pouts. Looks at her shoes. Looks at his shoes.
– Nice Converse!
– Thanks. We shan’t stay too late. Your friends the cop will come sniffing at sunset.
They keep swinging, looking at the wonderful colours as the sun sets the sky ablaze. The colours are incredibly vibrant, shimmering, undulating.
– I can see the light waves. Can you see the light waves?
She waves her hands in front of her. Her sister is swinging hard, Andy is standing on his swing, going high.
– Watch me go higher and higher!
They laugh. Andy jumps off. “I can fly!” He lands softly, somersaults and lies down on a grassy hill. The girls flank him, look at the stars twinkling faintly.
– I am falling into the sky, whispers one. “Me too,” says the other. They stay as more stars come out. They make up constellation names and laugh. The grass tickles them. Headlamps pick them out, a voice is heard and footsteps approach.
– Evening, folks. Enjoying the fresh air?
They come to their senses.
– Yes, officer, but it’s getting chilly. We were just getting ready to head home.

They walk home together, the three kids. At the door of the house, the girls both give Andy a long goodbye kiss on the cheek at the same time. “Thanks for the lovely evening,” as they disappear in the house.

He walks off in the sunset, whistling.

The Accident

The empty sleeve gets all the attention. I mostly try to keep my mind off it. It just reminds me of how stupid things can happen when you’re drunk.

I don’t remember the accident. I woke up to find granny at my side, angry as hell. “You ruined the pickup,” she spit out. I felt a dull ache in my arm. The right one was bruised and getting pumped with some IV solution, the left one was bandaged up to the elbow. I remember the shock when my mind registered that it was shorter than it should be. Still, I refused to make the connection. “Where’s Garrett?” “Your brother’s gone home.” “You’ve been in surgery, and everything. They told us all to go home. I’ll call them now that you’re finished sleeping. Lazy bum.”

The doctor came in, and a pretty nurse. The doctor asked me stupid questions, but I had trouble answering. He asked if I was in pain. I said, “What do you think, asshole?” He added “On a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is the highest, how much pain do you feel?” I said “11” always the smartass. The doctor mumbled something, and the nurse played with the drip. I fell asleep again and so I missed Garrett and mom. They didn’t stay long. They weren’t allowed to smoke in the room and they started hollering at each other on my account. I slept through it and missed everything. Seems they were thrown out. Must have been a riot.

Garrett was playing chicken with me, as stinking drunk as me, and he came out of it without a scratch. Figures, he was always the lucky one. I ask him “Who turned first?”. He turns his head away and says “I turned first.” I know Garrett, and he’s lying. Lying to protect my pride. That’s when I knew I was done in. When my own brother takes pity on me instead of goading me, I’ve got a problem.

Anyway, I got some insurance money on account of having lost an arm. The fuckers, pardon my French, amputated below the elbow – I would’ve gotten more if they’d cut above. It’s no good to me either way. They’re all in it together. Poor suckers like me get ripped off every single time. It’s a conspiracy. You’d think I’d get a break what with an arm missing and everything. Can’t even get my old job back. I applied for Social Security. At least they don’t press too hard when they see the empty sleeve. I give them a sap story about the pain. That drug they gave me at the hospital was pretty decent. I’d rather booze up myself, but I must admit that did the trick much quicker.

I am pretty spooked about the missing arm. It had my girl’s name tattooed with mine in a heart. I’m a romantic that way. It got ripped off and our names with it. When I was feeling a little bit better she dumped me. It’s like some kind of poetic justice, though I don’t see the poetry in it. She said she can’t do it with a cripple. Now that hurts. Cripple. I used to tease the vets in wheelchairs to get a rise out of them. Now I am one of them.

My friend Scotty came up with a great idea. We went back to Jim, the tattoo artist, and asked him if he has a refund policy for when his goods are lost or stolen. Then I showed him my arm. He went soft, said he was real sorry, went out back and got some weed for us. He said to come back for more if the pain is too strong. We smoked it and it helped. Whatdya know. Now I hang out at his store. I’m the receptionist. Business is slow but I can help myself to his stash and he can run errands. If clients come in, and they look serious, I text him and he doesn’t lose a sale. The rest of the time, we listen to music. Best job ever. I got another tattoo, just had to pay for the ink. I’m a walking advertisement for his talent. He wants to do something funny with the stump but we have to wait until it heals properly. I got a scorpion on the other arm in the meantime.

Granny got over the mishap with the pickup. It didn’t help that I borrowed it without asking. She says my receptionist job is not good enough but she’s just saying that. I’m her favorite grandchild and she can handle the loss. She’s loaded, won $1000 in the lottery, once. Anyway, that’s my story. Can you spare some change?

Love at sea

They met underwater, snorkelling. They were watching a grey-brown nurse shark resting on the ocean floor. They had spotted him from above and decided independently to dive down to get a closer look. He was not flamboyant, did not have interesting colours. Yet, here they were, like kids in a candy store, with that peculiar excitement that comes from seeing something alien and beautiful. The rest of the group had moved on, after a selfie or two. It was relaxing to watch him munch on a coral reef, sometimes catching a fish or a shellfish. The strong jaws crunched rock-hard shells. The pair did not stay long, could not breathe under water. When they surfaced again, eyes gleaming, they looked at each other curiously.

After the activity, the group was herded back to shore and given choices for the rest of the day. They did not exchange anything more than that glance as they were shedding their equipment. He was not so much tanned as weathered. She was bleached by the sun and the wind. They both wore wedding bands but had come alone to the activity. They met again a few days later, early afternoon, each by themselves again, wearing their wedding bands. She was watching a beached jellyfish with sorrowful eyes. He spoke like the rough seas, his words cresting white on the fringes. “Those things sting,” he said uneasily. She replied, abruptly, “They’re not things.” His shadow fell on the jellyfish. “Dead or alive, they still sting,” he said in a gravelly voice. She did not answer. He started walking away. She followed in his footsteps. He was taller than her, his stride longer. He shortened it so she would not need to hurry so much. He could hear her panting. He stopped. “Maybe you could walk in my shadow? The sun is harsh.”

She moved to his side and looked at him. She was using his shadow to shield her eyes and get a better look at him. His face was craggy, distinctive. He wasn’t young, either. She offered, “My girlfriends told me to wear a wedding band so I wouldn’t get hounded at the bar.” He smiled. “And, did it work?” She smiled back, “I don’t hang out at the bar.” They had been walking in an easy silence, trying to adapt their differing strides, passing seashells without giving them a look.  They weren’t good at small talk, decided not to try, were grateful for the quiet company. They parted after over an hour, sated.

The next day, she joined him as he was watching the sun rise on the sea. It wasn’t that early, she couldn’t sleep and had decided to go for a walk on the beach. He had found a spot and was watching expectantly. She stayed a few steps back. He motioned her closer. He was wearing a plain white cotton shirt and khaki shorts, holding his sandals in his hand. She was dressed the same but her white blouse covered a blue bikini top. She looked at his wedding ring finger which was bare and tanned. She raised an eyebrow. The sun was rising, an event that filled her with joy every day. She exhaled, suddenly realizing she had been holding her breath. They let the beauty of the moment fill the space between them, the morning light bathing their surroundings. She took off her clothes and went swimming. He followed.

It took some doing after the vacation. They exchanged emails, spoke at length on the phone. It was funny that they had spoken so little when together, and so much while apart. They enjoyed those leisurely conversations. They shared the minutia of their lives, they made each other laugh and cry. It was frustrating, all this technology between them when they longed to be together. He lived near the water, she in the city. He spoke of the sea like you would a mistress. He abhorred labels, did not consider himself a surfer but rather someone who enjoyed surfing. The sea brought him much joy, in all her moods, though he knew enough to ride her only when safe. He had an app on his phone that indicated where sharks were hanging out. He was still intrigued by them, kept a respectable distance from them.

She had a sister that needed looking after, with whom she shared a condo. He was as free as a bird, having little contact with his brother, and being estranged from his parents. Over time, he had dealt with the important relationships in his life and made up his mind about the time he was going to spend on them. He wanted to be with Stella, that much he was sure of. Uprooting himself to a faraway city, that he was not prepared to do. Luckily, Stella was as eager to be with him as he was to be with her. She came for a short visit, a long week-end to which she tacked a few more days. He introduced him to his surroundings, and to a lone friend. They met him at the pier, Diego a carbon copy of Charles, except darker. Charles had a catamaran and moored her there. His lodgings were sparse, Spartan even, except for the books. He had curbed that habit, as much as he could, being a regular at the town library. He surfed, beachcombed, sailed lived simply and fully. Was there room for her? For a future together? They both thought so and resolved to make it so.

She asked for a transfer at work and got it. Her sister kept the condo, but Stella kept paying her share of the condo fees until her sister’s boyfriend moved in. The transfer went well. She had worked remotely with the colleagues at this branch and they got along. She had a place to crash, furnished, boyfriend and all. The honeymoon phase lasted until she found herself unexpectedly pregnant.  She wasn’t sure about having a baby, but he was thrilled. He confessed to having amassed enough to last them a lifetime from his previous incarnation in high tech. He proposed by the sea, on his knees, with the sun rising on the horizon. Instead of a diamond, the ring held a black pearl. Her heart said yes, her mind held her back because she was much younger. Her heart won.

They named their boy Christopher, for Christopher Columbus said one, for the boy Christopher in Winnie-the-Pooh, said the other. Christopher was home-schooled and curious. The three of them sailed together with Diego on the catamaran. Christopher loved the sea. He loved music. His loves combined into a career in marine biology. He thought of becoming a sound studio engineer, after hearing whale sounds. Pragmatism took over. He wanted future generations to experience the beauty of these behemoths first-hand, not just through music. He became their champion, pure of heart and of tongue. He begat two girls, a replica of her mom’s family. He got custody of his daughters, and she felt lucky to babysit them.

They had grown old together, united by their love of the sea. She told Christopher that she had been attracted by his father’s voice, a mermaid’s call that had enticed her to run aground in his arms. Charles confided that he had been charmed by her quiet company. His temper would sometimes flare, like a stormy sea, but she navigated expertly around the reefs, until the calm returned. There was a buried treasure in his words, a lost childhood of gold and ducats that she was privy to. She always saw it shining, even when he lost sight of it.

 

Appropriately, Charles was lost at sea, on his precious catamaran. Only the catamaran was found, drifting, with no sign of him. He would have been happy to have gone that way, embraced one last time by his mistress. Stella’s eyes grew dim, her face lined, her hair lost their shine. He had been her beacon, and losing him she had lost her way. She remembered the salty taste of his sweat, the curls of his hair, his sweet tattoo. For their 10-year anniversary, he had gotten a nurse shark, she an oyster. She had joked, “You crack me up!” Now the shell hardened, the pearl hiding deep within, with no intention of being seen. She dreamt of sharks all the time. They were tender and shy, in turn unassuming and voracious. They cracked shells and spit out their contents or swallowed them whole. Once, instead of a pearl, a green fog had filled the shark’s mouth. She woke up uneasy, wondering if his soul was at peace, what message he was trying to deliver.

She found solace in her grandchildren, especially Sandy, who looked a lot like her grandfather. They spent time together, and she was happy to reminisce because the child did not interrupt, playing intently at her feet, looking up if she stopped. She was like a sponge, absorbing all this information, asking questions days later to clarify a point she could not make sense of. They grew close, the child her old age stick. Stella seemed to regain a bit of her youth, in the child’s presence.  Sandy never tired of hearing the story of the twin tattoos. For the child’s birthday, Stella had showed her another tattoo. It was a pearl, hidden behind her ear, under her hair. “Four people know of its existence: the tattoo artist, me, your grandfather and now you. Happy birthday, Sandy.”

Nobody could beat that present. Sandy kept pirates at bay, protecting the loot fiercely. She confided in her granny when she decided to become a geologist and study fossils. She would regale Stella with her field work and her discoveries. Without Sandy, Stella would have sunk, become a bottom-dwelling being.  It was not a surprise when Sandy inherited the house and its contents. It was hers from the get-go, a house where both grandparents were kept alive, finally able to end their lives together.

Party

The mere sight of the scale had set her off. Flashbacks of purging and gorging came uninvited to the forefront of her consciousness. She hid her past well. Married, two gorgeous children. Sure, she had her neuroses, but who didn’t? It was fashionable to see a psychiatrist. She needed to, just to stay even-keeled. She tried very hard to pretend the scale was of no interest to her. In her own house, it was hidden from view. She reapplied her make-up, turned to leave, took her shoes off and weighed herself. Nothing. The scale was broken! After all this anguish and dickering, she was left with only shame and anger. To have succumbed to temptation for nothing!

She storms out of the washroom and finds the host. She asks her in low hushed tones, with a twinkle in her eyes and a laugh in her voice “What’s with the broken scale in the washroom?” The host pauses – “Ha! It’s electronic, you need to set it by applying a bit of pressure, just a tap of the toes to the surface. Don’t you have one of those? It saves the batteries’ energy.” “Oh, ha, ha, ha.” She gives a strained little laugh and waves a finger at her. “You had me fooled, there, for a minute. I thought you were trying to pass it off as a work of art.” Both women laugh, in that high-pitch falsetto that passes for comradery and good times in a party. Someone grabs hold of the hostess “The food is splendid, and so are the waiters! Who is catering…?”

She slinks off to try again. An informal line has formed, snaking down the hall. Helpfully, she points people to other washrooms, this way and that. It is a large mansion, there are 5 powder rooms, strategically located within it. One person goes in search of another washroom, but, maddeningly, the others stay put, chatting and joking around. They are in no hurry. She waits, anxiety slowly building up. Everybody has a drink in their hands, everybody stays forever in the washroom. It is beautiful, with a full-size Roman bath, gilded apparatus… and a state-of-the-art scale.  She looks at herself in a mirror – something else that has been banned from her home. Her emerald dress sets off her freckled skin and red hair. She sees the martini in her hand, and calculates the calories. She holds it for effect, does not drink alcohol. She is slim and gorgeous, her husband tells her. He even said she could afford to put on some weight.

She smiled sweetly at him, gave him a peck on the cheek and answered, “I love you too.” He is infatuated with her, thrilled of her trophy wife who slid in place to replace his previous trophy wife. He had a ready-made family. The kids were at an adorable age, and he held on to them. The switcharoo with the wives happened discreetly, a small wedding of 200 close associates. He did not want to make a big deal out of it. She held her own, though the days and hours preceding the big event had been nerve-wracking. She was in hysterics, looking at her slim body in the gorgeous white dress with despair. “I am fat, fat, fat and ugly.” He did her best to reassure her, but her eyes held daggers and she spit her venom. He had put it down to nerves. The event went without a hitch, Angelina being the flower girl, Billy bringing the rings on a cushion.

She has a knot in her stomach. It must be the canapes.

Dexter

This morning, Dexter left me. We had argued the night before. We had come back from a walk and an hour later, he was begging me to go out again. I was watching the news and got impatient at his begging. I snapped at him, “No, stay.” He left a puddle in the hall and went for his bed, dejected. Of course, I walked into it, got mad, called him names I now regret. We didn’t make up and slept uneasily. I imagine he must have spent the night stewing, reliving the hurts and frustrations of our relationship because when I let him out this morning, he had a faraway air. He took his favourite toy and blankie and headed out.

I watched him tenderly from the back-door steps, remembering his puppy days, not wanting to acknowledge last night’s harsh words. I did not apologize. It never occurred to me how deeply I had hurt his feelings. He walked away purposely, without looking back, with bravado in his step. I saw him disappear in a hole in the hedge – I had not repaired it, as I had said I would. He wiggled in, his blanket staying behind lying on the ground. I called out, then “Hey, Dexter, what you doing, boy?” then saw the blanket slowly disappear between the bushes, dragged by an unseen force. I felt then that he was waving a hankie goodbye. It melted my heart and I started worrying.

I went back in for my cup of coffee, still believing he would return for his morning meal and nothing more would be said about it. It was Saturday, traffic was light. He would be back. I did not want to make the first steps. For chrissakes, he was a dog, I was the superior being! Nevertheless, I decided to bake his favourite cookies, as a peace offering. When I had run away as a kid, my little suitcase full of books and apples, my mother had let me know she was about to bake my favourite cookies. It nagged at me and eroded my resolve. I had turned back at the end of the street. I had made my point known and stood my ground.

I was hoping Dexter would feel the same way and decide to forgive me. I hadn’t been a great master, preoccupied and distant. I didn’t play nearly enough, was often frustrated with him. I put the cookies in the oven, and set the fire to low. I would have to wait 45 minutes for them to bake. The coffee was bitter. I threw it out. I had to fetch my own paper. I poured myself an orange juice and took my vitamins. It tasted vile after the coffee.

I settled at the table with the paper to wait for his return. The phone rang. Irrationally, I thought it was him. It was nosy Sue, from three doors down, who said she had seen Dexter go by with a determined look on his face. He had ignored her calls and she wanted to know if I knew he was on the run. I thanked her and hung up. He was headed towards the park. I grabbed my coat and turned the oven off, turned the lights off. I curled his leash in my pocket with the poo bags and headed off. I hoped he would welcome my sorry self and find it in his heart to pardon me. I sure couldn’t find enough love in my own to excuse my behaviour.

I walked heavily to the park. I saw him lying on the ground near a toddler. My heart skipped a beat. The toddler had been crying, and he was licking him tenderly. He had pushed his favourite toy at the baby’s feet and covered him with his blankie. What a handsome dog! So caring! The mother came close and surveyed the scene. She patted him and cooed. She picked up the baby, the blankie and the rubber bone. Dexter followed them as they headed out. The divorce was final.

I went home and threw out the cookies.

Adrian’s Wall

I stop by Adrian’s farm. He is out and about, as always, this time repairing a dry stone wall. The wall is sturdy, built a century ago. He’s filling the joints with loose gravel, walking on it to test its solidity. He seems content. From the high wall, he waves at me. I take it as an invitation to come forward.

“Give me a hand, will you?” he asks. I look around. There were slabs of limestone in the back of his pickup. “I want to extend the wall a bit, try my hand at dry walling.” I nod, staring at my feet. We start unloading some stones. He is muscular, on a small frame. I am all limbs, a bit uncoordinated, still getting used to the length of them. We work well together, in silence. Once we’re done unloading, he stands there, studying the stones. I move to leave him to it. He looks up.

“Those structures are amazing,” he says. “There is a trick to it.” He’s a gentleman farmer, always trying out techniques. I must admit he fascinates me. I am younger than him, and stronger. I’ve always lived on the land but my father, though ingenious and clever with his hands, does not explore ancient methods. He goes with tried and true, or else explores modern machinery. I learn by watching, and escape to Adrian’s, when I have a chance.

He’s holding a slab in his hands, weighing it carefully. He seems to be communing with it, his movements deliberate as he places one, then another, side by side, methodically. He’s using a wooden mallet to bring them closer, a chisel to make them fit, loose gravel to add friction. I start handing him the next stone I think will work best. Sometimes, he cannot see it, and he looks up with a question in his eyes. I position it as I see it and he grunts his appreciation. The crickets chirp unrelentingly. Finally, he stretches his back, signalling a break.

We walk to a tree, where a thermos and two tumblers await. He smiles shyly. “I was hoping you would drop by. It’s a back-breaking job.” I accept the weak tea in the metal tumbler. It’s icy cold and very sweet. He also has bread and cheese, and tart apples. It feels good to rest and eat in the tree’s shade, legs fully extended on the grass, the muscles suddenly aware that they’ve been straining for the past few hours, surprised and confused by the relief they feel.

He won’t shut up then, tells me that he wants to make an arch, with no mortar, but is a bit concerned about lawsuits. He laughs at his own joke, giddy with the sun. I smile, unaccustomed to such merriment from him. My hands are still feeling the weight of the stones, aching to continue on. There is something deeply satisfying in the technique. I feel as though using mortar is cheating, a shortcut we’re unworthy of. I ask, “Where do you want the arch?” He looks at me funny, and grows serious. “You think we can do it?” I am confused. My old man never seeks my opinion nor my help if he can help it. He never considers me his equal. I clear my throat, try to appear more confident than I feel. With a lowered voice, I say, “Sure.”

After that, we go back to work. We change places and Adrian hands me rocks which I weigh and position. I sometimes shake my head and point to a different stone and he obediently hands me the correct one. I make sound decisions – the new wall is taking shape nicely but we will soon be running out of stones. Adrian explains how to form a corner stone and says he will order more slabs and research how to build an arch. I prepare the corner, carefully chiselling the stone into place.

I dream of stones all night. They speak to me of truth and destiny. They sit tight and comfy, solid in their new homes. My mind is reviewing the moves, becoming more efficient as the night wears on. In the morning, I have decided to become a stonemason. I research it on the computer. You can make a decent living if you’re good at it. I feel I show promise, but need more exposure. I resolve to continue working on the wall, perhaps adding a personal touch here and there. The arch will be my final exam.

Thursday, my chores all done, I stop by Adrian’s again. He’s added large slabs on top of the wall and they’ve held. I am happy to see that. The new section blends in well, as far as the technique goes, though the stones are not weathered. When plants start growing in and around it, it will feel more rounded. “You ordered more stones?” “They will be in by end of week. Do you know of Hadrian’s Wall?” He proceeds to tell me all about the Romans, their history and fortifications. Time flies by, as I help him prune the small orchard on the side of the house.

As I am getting ready to leave, he asks, “What does your father think of you coming here?” I shrug. “I would like to pay you for your work.” I wouldn’t mind a new bike, that’s for sure. “I don’t know about regular hours. I need to help out at home first. Let me see with my da.” I bike home, my head swimming in possibilities as pebbles shoot out from under my threads. Life is good.

Like an eagle, only different

He soared. He found a column of hot air and rose with it as on top of a geyser. The air supported him without him having to flap his wings. He banked sharply to the left and sped down, his wings loosely tucked close to his body. Soon his brother Jaja had joined him and they started playing chicken. But a movement caught his eye and he forgot about the childish game. Jaja sensed his shift in focus but he was too late. The prey was already squirming in his brother’s claws and he was left to his own devices. Jaja sat on the branches of a dead tree, surveying the ground for movement. He was distracted by his brother’s loud munching and the ripping of flesh. He twitched impatiently and tried to focus over his stomach’s growls. He lacked his brother’s single-mindedness, and often went hungry. He had a thirst for knowledge that would surely spell his doom.
When he did catch a prey, Jaja might let it go if the poor thing could teach him a new word. In that way, the inhabitants of the woods spent time learning new concepts. Soon, a new generation of learned mice took over. They gathered new foods for him to try in the hopes they would be spared. From a pure carnivore, Jaja became omnivorous. His diet was more varied and his intellectual life richer.
He developed a longing for travels after a long discussion with a Chinese bird who had escaped from his cage. They became friends as he had finally found a stimulating companion. They hunted together, teaching each other tricks of the trade. They both had varied diets and progressively moved out of their habitat. One day, Jaja and Song saw a gaggle of humans with binoculars. A few days later, they were captured, drugged, tagged and released. Try as they may, they could not remove the tag from their bodies.
They got used to the extra weight. The tag actually afforded them some protection against poachers as their whereabouts were monitored. They eventually parted ways in South America, where they were enticed by colourful females. Jaja reminisced in old age about his eventful life up North but his kin thought those were the ravings of an old bird. Nobody had ever heard anything as outrageous as learned mice and Chinese birds.
His brilliant tag had tarnished over time. It gave him a distinctive air. With his fine mind, he went on to teach promising youth who hunted on his behalf. He had always been kind, and was cherished until the end. He planted the migratory seed in young minds, and is credited with the discovery of faraway lands and the introduction of new foods that gave his people an edge. The species diverged as it adapted to new environments and resisted well to climate change. It also spawned the finest philosophers of its day.

The Prince

He bowed deeply, with a flourish of his feathered cap. The prince cried excitedly, “Is it time?” The painter replied, “The light is very flattering at this time of day. The others have taken position.” The prince went to the yellow room, which served as a studio. It was a large room, to accommodate all the courtesans. He changed into flowing red robes. They were creating an intimate yet daring portrait, though following the rules of the day. The king’s emblems were discreetly alluded to, his crown and scepter discarded on a settee. A bathtub was in the background, his lover of the time still in it, a coiled white towel on his head, another draped on half the tub on which he reclined. The poor boy was shivering, the water having cooled off while they all waited for the prince’s arrival. The prince’s tame tiger lay on the floor, between royalty and the boy, a symbol of strength and dominion. He was enormous, well-fed, chained to the bath’s cat paw, a royal motif in vogue at the time. The prince struck a pose, holding an ornate mirror, his powdered wig just so, his valet strengthening the folds into elegant whorls. “Music,” commanded the prince.

The quartet started playing, the painter painting, and a hush fell on those assembled. The scene was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. They were used to the prince’s eccentricities but this latest one was beyond understanding. It was to be a surprise for the Queen, and a surprise it would be. Of course she knew of the lover, her son was none too discreet, but they would still get an heir out of him yet. The traditional elements of a royal painting were all there, though subverted. It was Dali before Dali, a hint of the Revolution before it happened, colonialism, decadence all wrapped in one. With a frisson, they wondered if the painter would be put to death for creating such a grotesque, yet oddly engaging, portrait. It was close to finished. Clearly the painter and the prince were enjoying their work, and seemed oblivious to the dangers inherent to the deed.

“The king!” announced a guardsman, and everyone’s attention shifted to the door. He came in with a huff. “What is that you are painting? Bring it over.” The paint was still wet and concern could be read on the painter’s features. He motioned to his assistants, explaining in urgent tones where to hold the frame to avoid smudges or dropping it. The assistants walked uneasily towards the king, dropping to their knees as they came closer. The guardsman put his spear in front of them and they stopped a few meters from the king. A wide grin relaxed his features. He looked at the painter and made a cutting gesture at his throat. The painter paled, close to fainting. “My king, you don’t like it?” asked the prince, offended. “Amid all this nonsense, the painter had the good grace of making you look healthy,” he replied. This was the royal painter. He always fleshed out the skinny to make them look healthy. He had added a double chin to the lanky prince, and given him the required haughty air. “Your queen will be pleased,” he added, turning away with his retinue.

“We’re done for the day,” said the prince, his good mood vanished. His lover wrapped himself in the large towel and got out of the bath covered in goosebumps. A maidservant toweled him energetically, to get the blood flowing again, lest he catch cold. The king’s visit had put a damper on the gathering. “I’m hungry,” exclaimed the prince. “Get me a snack.” The order was relayed and a long table set up in the green room. The meal was an elaborate affair, the wine flowed and the music mused. The prince’s frown melted as his companion made him laugh. The painter and his assistants did not join in the revelry. The painter had taken his leave and had the painting shipped to his apartments in the palace. He felt trapped. This was his best work but nobody understood it. He was a modernist, creating what passed for extravagant and amusing art, but it was very serious to him. He agonized over his compositions.

He knew the prince well, since his childhood, and this portrait captured his essence – he was sensual, authoritarian, vain and shrewd. He wanted to please and shock. He also wanted the throne and its power. He acted like a spoiled brat but was far from it. He just did not want to appear as a threat. The painting was calculated to destabilize and engross, but he may have miscalculated. The prince might not hesitate to throw him under the cart or have the painting destroyed. The painter slept fitfully, the painting at the foot of his bed. He woke up several times during the night, afraid when he heard steps coming his way. He had resolved to steal away with the painting, to live as a destitute, rather than seeing it or himself destroyed.

The thunder of feet he had heard in the night was not meant for him, however. Messengers from all over the country had been coming in, bearing bad news. An invasion was imminent. The painting was forgotten as troops were raised in earnest. It was time, yet again, for war.