I Made Myself a Needle

Picture Credits: bhossfeld

The highway’s a
mess, all slimy fish guts and thin tires ploughing through ankle-high water. I
flick on my wipers, but the water’s in the air, fog running down glass, and the
fish smash against the windshield anyway. Poor travelling conditions, the
highway authority warned. Right. That happens when fog thumps and rolls its way
down the mountains and fish flick their way through the air, not obeying
traffic laws or having the sense to be skittish like deer. The tiny yellow
minnows are the worst, darting out in schools from the coniferous darkness.
Each one lands with a thwick on my windshield, and wipers drag clumps of
yellow and silver scales and blood into swishing semicircles.

I need to cancel
my swimming classes, I remember. All of them. I pick up my clunky Samsung and
sneak a glance at the screen, but still nothing.

For most of the
day I’ve followed the same red taillights through the fog, but even they turned
off a few kilometres back. The next town with its cheap yellow brick of a motel
is still ahead, but it’s too slow going, especially if a larger trout were
stupid enough to smack into my rusted Toyota.

The sign was a few
kilometres back, but I’d told myself I wouldn’t stop. That she isn’t there.
There’s nothing in the campground, really. Not this time of year, a month or
two before the owners start sweeping up the debris from winter. But the roads
aren’t listening, and so my eyes flick between the highway and the gaps in the
branches in time with my wiper blades. I catch myself thinking the pines look
familiar, but they’re trees.

When I turn off at
the sign and finally bump my way down to the dirt clearing, the ruts in the mud
are old and rained in.

*

The night before the search, Mom had
me watching to make sure Alexa slept while she trekked up the path to see if
the lodge had batteries for our flickering lantern. I was ten that year; Alexa
was six. The tent flap was firmly zipped, but I kept hearing Alexa’s little
feet kicking against the nylon. Her body was too busy to shut down, like it had
been too busy digging for worms with a crowd of boys earlier to shake the sand
out of her bathing suit when Mom told her. Meanwhile, I’d sat by our burned-out
firepit and pored over Grandpa’s old tackle box. It was a fishing lake, after
all. Cheaper camping spots.

I wrapped clear
fishing line around a stick in the dark, the line slipping between my fingers
with every knot. The back of my neck was crisped from dragging the line back
and forth on the dock, but all I’d hooked that day was lake weed, dripping and
green. After a few hours, I’d waded to catch minnows for bait in a Becel container,
but their silver mouths gaped back and forth at me as they swam away. The
ponytailed girls my age hadn’t said a word to me, just curious looks between
screeching at the idea of fish tails brushing their bare legs.

A loud zip, and
Alexa’s face peered out. “You’re gonna teach me to fish tomorrow, right?”

“I don’t know how
to fish.”

“That’s okay,” she
said, unperturbed. “You teach me, and I’ll know. Promise?”

I laughed,
promising only if she’d go to sleep before Mom came back.

Alexa poked her
caramel-coloured head fully out. “I can’t see them inside here. The tent’s in
the way.”

I sighed and
beckoned her, dropping the fishing line in the dirt. “You better be quick.
Mom’ll be back.”

At home we had a
skylight in our bedroom, right where our heads met. Alexa always slipped out of
bed after Mom tucked her in, tried to jump across the sky. She’d find a star,
then she’d look for the next closest and do a little hop in her pyjamas. Then
she chose the next, and the next. She went on dipping trails through the starred
darkness, hopping to another point in the sky.

Outside our canvas
tent, her flip-flops made a snapping sound in the dark. When she was done,
cheeks flushed, I brushed off the bottoms of her pyjamas and zipped the tent
behind her.

Then I dragged my
hands through the dirt, feeling in the grit for the smooth fishing line. It was
invisible in the dark, and my fingers caught on nothing but poky twigs,
rough-edged rocks, and the constant brush of browning pine needles.

*

Chlorine and echoes. About a month ago,
I stood in a slick, high-necked one-piece in a too-warm pool, toes scrunching
against the thin grout on the bottom. My whistle just added to the chatter of
the seven-year-olds as I tested them on proper kicking, the backfloat. Alexa’s
daughter, Presley, swims like a fish. She doesn’t stay up well, but she has a
way of wiggling and then gliding until she starts sinking. Then her scrawny
body suddenly jerks, like a fish flipping its tail for a new direction, and she
goes with the momentum, flapping thin arms and gliding again.

I gave them all
watery high-fives as they left the pool. Alexa was on the side, as usual. That
day she was exhausted from showing houses, her normally smooth hair frizzy as
she leaned against the windowed wall to the parking lot. It was a dark spring
day and the clouds sank with their weight. The fish had started, then. Come
down from the hills, but not many. Alexa watched an orange fish the size of her
hand nibble at the glass.

“Mom told me
you’re being evicted,” Alexa said.

“Renovations.”

She snorted.
“Sure, renoviction. You found a place yet?” My lessons were cutting down, and
she knew it. Then she offered a place to stay. She hadn’t thought about it. I
could tell. She never thinks. Just decides she should do something, so she
does.

I should’ve
thought. Instead, like an idiot, I thanked her.

*

Everything in the campground – the
parking lot, the lodge, the empty campsites – looks smaller than the pines,
which crowd around the dirt lot. Their sappy needles stretch over the mud. My
fingers shake as I shove my phone into my hoodie and start rooting around in
the cluttered trunk. A flash of yellow to my right – I spin around, but it’s just
a school of bright minnows.

The thick fog
feels like pinprick raindrops on my skin. I need my rain jacket, but the back
of the Toyota is a mess of haphazard boxes, bathing suits, half-empty cans of
hairspray and jumbled spatulas. I find the jacket, finally, under my pillow and
the torn grocery bag of unwashed laundry. Shaking off Dorito crumbs, I slip it
on.

I know I’m alone,
but it doesn’t stop me from squinting at the trees. My body is a branch bent
away from the path, tense, threatening to whip back. Running shoes shuffle me
forward, down the rocky, tree-lined path, and down to the beach.

*

The morning before the search, right
after breakfast, I’d pumped my gangly legs and willed them to run to the little
dock before anyone else. I’d stripped to my bathing suit in the mist and hucked
myself into the cold water. My thin shoulders started to shake, but the ponytailed
girls never shivered when they jumped in.

I was treading
water and imagining chatting to the girls, maybe racing them to shore, when Mom
came with Alexa. My sister was holding Grandpa’s tackle box tight, and Mom
waved at me as she sent Alexa down the hill in her yellow bathing suit.

“Not now, Alexa,”
I called to shore, trying to shoo her back.

She set the tackle
box on a rock. “You said you’d teach me to fish.”

Trampling feet and
whipping ponytails thundered down the path. They giggled, but it couldn’t have
been at me yet.

”Alexa, I’m busy,”
I snapped. “Go do something else.” I squeezed my eyes shut and sank below the
cold water. Toes strained as I made myself a needle, piercing through the water
to the lake weed that tried to wrap itself around my ankle.

I didn’t even see
her enter the trees.

Wounded minnows are
thought to release a “fright scent” from their skin, and it seeps across the
emptiness to the other fish. They smell it, or breathe it, or maybe they just
feel it tickle across their gills. Just as one of them gets hurt, the other
minnows get the scent and feel fear welling up inside them. They start darting
away, freezing, to avoid a predator they can’t see or smell or hear.

It was maybe
thirty minutes into swimming with the girls that I felt it. That unknown fear
filled my body from my callused heels to the ends of my hair as I called
“Marco!” through screwed-shut eyes. That’s how I first knew that Alexa was
missing.

*

The trees open up to the gash of
rocky beach bleeding into the cold, still lake, but the slimy dock I remember
isn’t there. Even so, I can still hear the creaking when each wave hits, the
almost gasp of the boards with every icy drop.

I walk until the
cold water squishes its way through the mesh in my running shoes. My phone hasn’t
buzzed, but I light up the screen anyway. She still hasn’t texted me back.

Behind me, the fog
drifts through the trees, and it calls her name. White socks now translucent
brown with water, I slop up the hill. My feet hit the rocks slowly, and then faster,
until I’m running headlong into the woods that swallowed up my sister.

*

Alexa’s house was white and taupe,
granite and stainless steel. I started out seasoning the chicken, but somehow
Alexa was the one basting, setting the timer, poking in the thermometer. I was
put on peeling carrots, boiling water.

It had been three
weeks. “Maybe I’ll try further north,” I said. “Cheaper rents, and they have
pools.”

Alexa wrinkled her
nose. “North? There’s nothing there.” She grabbed the milk carton and sniffed it.
“Still able to pick up Presley on Tuesday, right? It’s not often I can do a
showing then.” I nodded. Alexa poured tall glasses and swung open the side
door. “Presley! Dinner!”

No answer. “Presley!”
The swing set was empty, the fence closed. A silver trout nibbled a blackberry
bush.

The carton dropped,
milk splashing and running along the lines and grains in the hardwood. I
stared, carrot in hand. Alexa was forcing her way outside, her thin voice
suddenly screaming. The sound of a lawnmower cut out, and Alexa’s panic echoed
between glossy sidings. “Presley!”

“Mom?” A quizzical
face poked out from under the porch. Like the fizzle after a lightning strike,
Alexa slumped to her knees. She clutched Presley close, mumbling into her
caramel hair. I only picked up one word.

As Alexa’s elderly
neighbour gawked, I got out a rag to slop up the milk.

That night when I
woke up from sweating on her leather couch, Alexa was standing at the living-room
window, gazing up into the dark sky. I thought her knees were rocking back and
forth, but then I realized the movements were subtle bounces. Her eyes were
tracing paths across the stars.

*

Alexa doesn’t
recall the exact moment of getting lost, just that she’d been following trails
of bugs, looking under logs, and jumping over rocks. She was deep in the trees
when she couldn’t remember if our tent was behind her, before her, beside her.
She wandered, and then she picked up speed.

Short legs,
dimples, running over the sticks and dry brambles. Air in dry slices – in, out,
in, out. Sharp pain on her toe and then down to her knees as she tumbled,
scraped. Her ankle twisted, throbbing. Soon it would swell in the summer heat.
Little hands grasped in front of her. Her knees crushed pointy pine needles.
Dry skin scraped to red dots. Mud smears on pale legs. A squished ant on her
knee.

Almost every tent in
the camp was an empty shell of nylon wilting in the grey air. We’d been
searching for two hours, and my throat was raw. Before the police and the
search-and-rescue (SAR) team had made it down the highway, we’d already
criss-crossed all over their possible tracks in terrified loops.

The sand in my
bathing suit itched, but the SAR commander said we had to totally concentrate on
the woods. No small talk, no horseplay. Using every sense for clues, for a
whimper through the trees. I waited ten seconds after every call, imagining the
sound banging around the timber until it reached her. Looking for a bright
yellow bathing suit, caramel-coloured hair. The SAR commander said we can hear
farther than we can see.

Mom searched with
me, her hair a wild peacock tail clipped up and straggling. Her eyes were
frantic, but whenever she looked at me, I saw something else.

In minnows, tiny
bones connect the ear to the swim bladder. So when calls skip across space, the
sound vibrates through the tiny bones and then resonates in a tissue balloon,
strengthening and amplifying. My body felt like a swim bladder, with every
crack of a twig splintering through my frame.

*

The mud squishes under my drenched running
shoes as I slow down and look around. The fog settles into the trees, a blanket
slowly pierced and stuck with pine needles. The fish are more occasional here
in the woods, but as I stop to breathe, to listen to my senses again before
continuing across the crest, I see a few fat whitefish twisting around a tree
trunk and more bright yellow minnows.

Phone’s still
quiet. Keep my eyes on the ground, behind me, up above. Look for the ridged marks
of a little girl’s flip-flops, the bruised poison ivy where she fell. She’s
still farther on.

I unzip my jacket,
its tent of sweat, and I breathe. In. And out. In. And I keep running.

*

I imagine Presley
did this, this breathing, sitting on the bench in her class’s cloakroom,
watching the playground through a small rectangular window. She’d been smart,
and when she hadn’t seen Alexa, she’d stayed inside. Closed the door
eventually, so she wouldn’t look so small as her stick-ish arms kept it open.

Mrs. Tychell’s
desk was empty. The halls were shining, and Presley would’ve been quiet as a
fish in a fishbowl when she walked by the library’s big glass windows and saw
every teacher in the school. Staff meeting. She hung by the sides of the
windows, trying not to be a pair of staring eyes, and wondering if she should –
or really, how she could – gear up her fingers to push the door open and see
the eyes of every teacher in school.

So after no one
looked at her, she’d gone back to the cloakroom and cried, watching the
darkening rectangle as the sweaty extra socks and forgotten pencil cases got
harder to see.

*

When one of
Darlene’s swimmers jerked like a fish in the rec-centre pool, I remembered.
Tuesday. Water seeped from my bathing suit into the jeans I’d thrown over top
as I called the school, called Alexa. Nothing.

The fog was
already sinking over the playground, and every blue-painted door was locked.

Alexa’s pristine
house was next, but a garbage heap spilled out front. When I pulled in, I saw
my boxes, my spatulas, my winter boots and even my half-used shampoo from the
shower. When I knocked on the door, the curtains twitched closed. I texted.

The anger. The
all-caps. Then: “Just go.”

I threw my stuff
into the trunk, and I didn’t realize where I was until I hit the highway.

*

It was near
midnight when the SAR team started their sound sweep of the area furthest
northeast, after they found a piece of little footprint looking to curve to the
other side of the dark, fish-filled lake.

I was supposed to
be lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind rattle the tent screen back
and forth. Instead I sat at our empty firepit, holding Grandpa’s tackle box in
my lap now that the SAR commander was done with it. Mom had barely looked up
when the tent unzipped. She was supposed to be resting too after a long shift
of searching, but as I sat beside her, she kept scraping mustard onto dry bread
for the searchers’ sandwiches.

The clear fishing
line was looped under and between and over all the shiny hooks and lures and
pliers in the tackle box. I tied knots in the line, little clear knobs. Hooks
and lures and bobbers came in between and I tied more knots to keep them on.
Clinch knots, turtle knots, blood knots.

I saved the
biggest hook for last, but when I grabbed it, I heard a rustle in the trees and
sharp pain pricked my thumb. A shaking branch – just a squirrel. Mom’s breath
exhaled with mine, but when I looked, she still couldn’t meet my eyes.

Slowly, carefully,
I unhooked the sharp metal. The fish hook was smeared with blood, but I stuck
it back in the dusty box. Ignoring the drip of my finger, I threw all the line,
bobs, and lures back inside and snapped the box closed. My finger smeared red
on the flimsy latch, but a swipe with my shirt made it shine silver. It looked
even cleaner than before, a little latch holding the rusty tackle box shut.

Across the trees
and the tip of the lake, a piercing blast came from a SAR team full of
whistles. Ten, twenty seconds of silence. Listening. It was a dance, a march.
Crackling radio count. “Three, two, one, BLAST.” Screeching. Listening. And
then moving forwards, headlamps slicing up the treed search area until the next
count, blast, and stillness.

Alexa had curled
up in the overhang of a giant spruce when her ankle got too big to move, but
the piercing whistles jerked her awake. Her eyes were still crusty from sleep,
but strange boots shuffled closer, and she scooched back towards the trunk,
silent. Mom taught her not to talk to strangers.

On the eleventh
blast, though, a searcher saw a flash of her yellow bathing suit in his
headlamp beam and then the flinching of a small child against bright light. She
watched a giant with a light for a face come closer, but his words were gentle
as he switched off the headlamp and crackled the radio.

Back at the
firepit, after a word from the SAR commander, Mom was gone, running against the
trees. My butt stuck to the log as I heard the clump of hiking boots and the
whispers of SAR personnel as they wiped sweat off their headlamps, checked
their batteries for the next search. When Mom came to the tent with a slumped
yellow figure over her shoulder, I froze. Mom zipped open the tent and laid
Alexa inside, whose eyes barely fluttered. I stayed still, not blinking, until
Mom noticed me and her soft hand led me back inside.

I fell asleep with
my arm over Alexa’s dirt-covered body. Her length seemed longer against mine
than before, or maybe I had shrunk, waiting.

*

There’s a big
spruce near the tip of the lake, but there’s another a few hundred yards away,
and another again. My eyes sweep the trees and I catch yellow, but it flicks
and separates. Minnows.

It’s dark. I look
at the spruces and watch as a single minnow, like a thin yellow leaf swirling
down, inspects the branches and knolls of the second spruce tree. The rest of
its school flicks closer, and little mouths open and close on my hair. Pulling.
I’m under the spruce, legs collapsed.

We always think of
the fish who spawn, fulfill the cycle. Of the fish who thrusts every inch of
her muscle against the current even as silt and leaves silk past, when a single
second without struggling would sweep her downstream. Of the fish slapping her
way up each step of the creek’s ladder, defying gravity, defying water, defying
her body to carry her eggs to the same gravelled creek she was born in. We
never think of the fish who can’t get up the ladder, whose tail gives out in
exhaustion.

I settle in the
soft dirt under the spruce, feeling soft lips as the minnows nibble me to
sleep. My body is too long for the curves of the roots, but as my eyes close, I
feel a smaller body against my skin, curled up in the roots and growing as my
own starts to shrink.




Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




A Boy in Wolf River

Watching Wolf River flow by is to watch a god in rage. A flood of spring
rains turns the typically docile creek into a roiling serpent, broken branches
and trash swirling in its coils. Every now and then, little waves leap ashore,
bleeding through the grass to lick Adrian’s toes.

He stands a respectful distance from the springtime menace. A year
before, he had enjoyed swinging from a rope tied to an overhead branch,
trailing his toes across the water like a tease before landing in a dirt patch
beyond. But all good predators are patient, and when the old branch snapped,
Adrian dropped right into the river’s frothy jaws. It toyed with him, tossing
him over and under, slinging him tauntingly against its slippery banks before
sweeping him along again. The water was so cold that his body ached.  His lungs felt like they were twisting up
inside his chest, trying to wring themselves of the water he kept inhaling. The
gray-white churn of the surface gave way to blurry darkness.

This is it, he didn’t think but felt, for there is little space for thought in
the act of drowning. Thankfully, the hand of God reached down to yank him
through a sharp S-bend, and he was mercifully spat ashore.

The wind rushed by, wild and raspy, but then he realized that the
sounds were his own gasps for air. He clutched at the earth with every inch of
himself. The world spun, the day turning to hazy night and then back to burning
day once more.  Even as he dragged his
trembling body away, a piece of himself would be forever caught in the river’s
grip. A piece of his youth, stripped from him and driven to the sea.




Candle Matters

Picture Credits: S. Hermann & F. Richter

My son is serene, soft-smelling, and
glowing – especially in the evenings. He has a smile like a croissant, but
really his entire face is a bakery; all cheese danish and guava empanada in the
eyes. I carry him in a basket with a warm, fresh cloth wrapped around his
frame. He is small but slowly filling, collecting like yeast and sugar, lively
and sweet, rising and freshening the air around him. And he has all my favorite
parts of a child, bones and skin and teeth and hair. This boy is something to
behold. And for that reason, I am careful with him – though I have no choice.
What do we have if not each other, us little midwestern corn kernels, the world
all hot oil and butter.

🕯

In the evenings, I light a candle and
press my palm against my child’s stomach. There is a mutual warmth between us,
not to be confused with heat. One soothes the skin, the other oppresses. My boy
coos out small animal snores.

🕯

We sit in the living room and listen to
the birds singsong to one another through the window. I tell him what each bird
is – cardinal, whip-poor-will, warbler
– even though he’s too young to carry the information. This builds character, I
assume, but I’m not sure why.

🕯

I drop my son on the floor and he
shatters. In desperation, I sweep pieces of my boy into the center of the
kitchen, but his shards tear at me and I recoil in fear that this child, my
only son, has fallen victim to my clumsiness and is now scattered all over the
place, speckling the tile with his remains, and all I can do is stand and bleed
from my hands. What a fragile thing he is, was, would’ve been. Look at my boy,
bones and skin and teeth and hair and glass and glass and glass. I cannot help
but stare at the way his broken body shimmers like a pond in summer. I wish he
were a pond in summer, as ponds do not break, only fill the container they
inhabit. Ponds do not shatter on the floor.

🕯

I light candles in every room. Candles
that smell like lemongrass, vanilla, cardamom. These are for guidance.
Freshly-cut grass, chlorine. These are for strength. Fermenting apples, brown
sugar oats, ocean breath. These are for memory. Candles that smell as filling
as my loss. Candles that burn to the bottom of the wick, absenting themselves,
fleeting as heartbreak, making the house smell rich and full in all the ways it
is not.

🕯

The evenings are hot, sticky, and empty,
but I still light my candles. I dip my fingers into their hot wax, watching how
the liquid islands each small flame. The scalding sensation livens my
fingertips, and the wax hardens around my skin before I can consider what I’ve
done. I sit on the floor and pick the molding from my fingers like a child
tears sticky glue from their own small, gazing hands. I eat the candle matter.
Sometimes I dip my fingers and place them directly into my mouth, trying to
drink the oily mixture down before it hardens in my gullet. It’s a race, one to
keep my throat from clogging, one to see who will harden first.

🕯

While fetching water for the plants, I
feel a sharp bite in my heel. It is a shard of my son, one that had been swept
into a crevice in the tile. I love him, but he has hurt me again. The blood
pouts from my skin in small purses. I take the speck of my poor boy and sweep
him into my palm. He is so small in my hands, not at all how I remember him.
There must be a way to preserve him, my child, my truant glow. There are so
many candle jars lining the shelves, I choose one and drop the speck of child
into it. If I am quiet, I can hear him softly clink against the glass. He had always felt like a candle; small
and brightly beaming. I have often felt like whatever the opposite of a candle
is – a sprinkler, perhaps.

🕯

The wax I’ve been eating has hardened
within me. There is a candle in my stomach now. I feel it when I’m sitting on
the toilet, the way it protrudes from the flesh beneath my belly button. My
fingers can’t help but poke at it, to coddle the waxy pulp trapped in my
viscera. I drink scorching tea to melt the stomach-wax down, make it a stew
rather than a spear. Any flavor works, black or green or herbal. I’d drink the
boiling water plain if called upon. I adjust my posture while waiting for my
bile to re-mold itself, trying not to preference a side.

🕯

I pull at strings of myself in search of
a wick to light. Geography would suggest one would be on top of my head, but
nothing flammable exists there. Nothing that would hold flame. I light cotton
swabs on the stovetop and swallow them like a circus act, seeing if they take
hold in my esophagus. I pinch and yank at parts of my body looking for the most
likely entry point to burn myself down to a stump. To chase the warmth rather
than the heat. I knock candle jars from every table and countertop in the house
until my floor is a well-trimmed lawn of shattered glass, including the jar
holding the last remaining piece of my boy. This is what I’ve done. I cannot
tell him from the rest of the pieces. I cannot tell my son from shattered
glass.

🕯🕯🕯




The little story that haunted for a very long time

Can a story haunt you? I don’t
mean one that spooks you a little, even one that makes you keep the lights on
after reading. I’m talking about a story that leaves a scar, an invisible scab
that you return to weeks, months, and years after you’d read it. “The Girl in
the Mirror” did that to me.

Not that I could even remember
the exact title. I knew it was in a collection of ghost stories and there was
skeleton on the cover. I would have been ten, in primary school, wooden desks
and inkwells still there from earlier generations. In that final year we were
given plastic ink pens. We invariably smudged both our books and hands as we
wrestled to insert the thin cartridges. Crappy ink pens that would never be
used again, that you had to pointlessly master, and would be punished for misusing:
that sums up my 1970s education.

Other things though were quite
miraculous. Obviously the free milk was gone, and in the next decade they would
take our jobs, but that other source of sustenance, the public library, was
still in its pomp. The mobile version would park outside our tiny rural village
school (thirty pupils); we would line up and take it in turn to step into its
cave of treasures. The chosen books would be placed on a shelf in our classroom.
I can remember the L-shape of shelves, the large map of the world above. The
books from the library were placed in a special area so as not to mix them with
the school’s own books: many of which had been in the schools for decades. This
was the school that my grandparents, parents, uncles, and cousins had all
passed through.

The library service was the only
way to get modern books – not that I ever knew when books had been published.
I’d worked my way through my mother’s Enid Blyton, published thirty years
before, but I knew some books were easier than others to understand.

Who could be haunted by a story?
Not a novel, just a story a few pages in length. I don’t think I was
particularly sensitive as a child. Sensitivity isn’t a big advantage on a farm.
We always had plenty of books though. Not only did the library send its mobile
to the schools, it would also stop at the end of my parents’ farm lane so we
could walk down and get books. It would make this stop just for the two or
three families on that lane.

The library books borrowed by my
family were placed in a special place so they wouldn’t get confused with the other
books in the house. They were placed on a chair in the spare room, and had to
be returned there. My mother didn’t want to search our rooms for them when the
library next made its call. Lord of the
Flies
found its way there one week, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up
the book because of the gruesome cover. Perhaps I was sensitive, but not to real life and death. That pig skull on
the cover was somehow more unsettling than the bone fragments scatted over our
farm, jaw bones a thin boot-crunch beneath the surface. Death was ever present.
Piglets crushed by their mothers, chewed or sickly. Cats drowned in sacks.
Chickens torn apart by foxes. Stillbirths. All part of the mix.

Right now, there is much talk about how reading novels generates empathy in the reader. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The perfect synthesis of silver bullet public-health promotion, and evangelism. No need to learn from life, from loving, from hating, from being hurt or hurting. No need for anger in this sparkling new century. Just read from this list of books. Perhaps that’s why certain books are frowned upon – if it’s so easy to bestow empathy via books, then surely other, darker emotions can be conjured by the act of reading. And perhaps they should be.

When my son was around eight I
read him The Tiger Rising (by Kate
Dicamillo). A wonderful book, but (spoiler) the tiger dies. The ending takes me
by surprise too, but he’s old enough to deal with this, isn’t he? The real world
doesn’t always run smoothly.

Not all stories have happy endings,
I tell my son, nestled on the bed beside me. Surely, that was right. Wasn’t it
fair to warn him?

His bottom lip quivers. His eyes
are huge. My heart drops through the floor. What
have I done?

“How many don’t?” was his very
reasonable question.

How could I possibly answer that?
My brain raced through all the stories with less than upbeat endings. Too many.

“Three,” I squeak.

“Then we won’t read those,” he
said.

And that was the end of the
matter.

Had I told my son a story that
would haunt him?

I’m happy to report he seems
undisturbed as a teenager, and quite relishes a less-than-happy ending. The Tiger Rising, a book that deals with
rage and injustice, which let me introduce Blake to my son, is also a book
about a beautiful tiger that is killed.

What was it about “The Girl in
the Mirror” that had it slipping round and round in my head for years? I didn’t
have the book. I never went back and reread it, but it never left me. I have
more memories of thinking about that story, dreading it, then I do of reading
it. Books weren’t a thing for conversation. We could talk about comics. What superhero
could beat another, etc. – and then, later, all our talk was of music, never
stories. Who would have spoken about such a thing? If you read, you kept it to
yourself.

As the years passed all I had was
my memory of that story, and the ghostly horseman on the book’s cover. I also remembered
the first story in the anthology was called “Pride Comes before a Fall”
(actually it wasn’t, but I had the memory that it was). That cover, that title,
and the story of “The Girl in the Mirror”niggled at the edge of my brain for years.

Decades go by, and the Internet
is here. In the intervening years, I have looked for the book in second-hand
bookshops, but mostly it has faded to a memory of something not-quite-right.
When I do mention the story (by now I know people I can talk about books with) it
sounds almost Freudian. A time-travel story. Two girls switch places through a
magic mirror. One girl, rich and lazy, is from the present; the other is a
hardworking girl on a Victorian farm.

The rich girl wants to swap
places, live on a real farm to ride the horses. To avoid detection they will
leave their clothes behind for the other. The rich one goes through the mirror
first, meets the brutal parents, and of course is trapped there. It’s that image
of nakedness, vulnerability, and being trapped in an alien world that unsettled
me. The girl from the Victorian farm slips into the future and is never seen
again. Smart girl. When I told my partner about this story that had so freaked
me she thought it probably didn’t exist. That it was something I’d created. After
thirty years of films, comics, books by the thousand, how many could remain
with you? My psychedelically enhanced synapses had embellished and transformed
something I’d heard, read, or seen into a memory.

It is a time-travel story, not a
ghost story. One person is trapped on a farm forever. Perhaps this story,
lodged in my brain, influenced my decision to refuse the farm when offered a
few years later. But that’s hindsight. We create a coherent narrative after the
events, refusing to believe that life is random.

But that story was real. I was sure of that, despite having had the experience, several times over my life, where things I “remembered” have been disproved by family, or myself. I’ve learnt that memory can’t always be trusted. I might not remember something, might think I’d locked a door, or sent an email, when really I hadn’t, but my brain was unlikely to create something as elaborate as“The Girl in the Mirror” to haunt myself with.

The story that haunted me for so
long is short and not collected in other anthologies. It is no classic. Its
author, Margot Arnold (born 1925) is still alive and has spent her life writing
books such as The Officer’s Woman, Marie, Voodoo Queen, and Lament for
a Lady Laird
.

It wasn’t through the Internet
that I tracked the book down. I searched and found the Armada book of Ghost Stories, the one with that cover, and ordered
it. When it arrived, there was no “The Girl in the Mirror”. It did have “The
Skeleton Rider”,in which a character
is warned “Pride comes before a fall”.

I didn’t doubt the existence of
the mirror story, but clearly my memories were jumbled. For decades I’d assumed
if I just found that book with that cover, I would have the story. There were
other books in that series, and other similar anthologies. I bought a couple at
random but none had my story. I got on with my life. Moved house again. Back
into the countryside, though Shropshire rather than Yorkshire.

Here I could make paper boats and
float them in the stream with my son. You needed to make your own entertainment
here. It was perfect for wandering. I expected my son to have that anchorless
roaming existence I had had, but there was no dog, and he wasn’t constantly
being told to get out of the house, so never developed the habit. People in the
village muttered about child snatchers, men in white vans. I thought of my
childhood when Hindley and Brady had prowled and preyed. That had never stopped
any of my parents’ generation telling their kids to get out and get fresh air –
get out of their house. The Bogey Man only gets you if you stray from the path.
In the twenty-first century there is no safe path.

One afternoon, we are sitting by
the river, and there is the inevitable church stall of bric-a-brac, junk,
books, and food. I checked out the stalls. You can see the ending, can’t you? And
it’s true, there it was: The 8th Armada
Ghost Book.
There were several of the series. I picked them up, knew
immediately which one held “The Girl in the Mirror”, recognised the black and
white illustrations, the seventies hairstyles.

To be honest I felt quite sick
finding it again. Motion sickness, as if the world had lurched the wrong way. I
tried to force myself to read the story but something wouldn’t let me. The
words remained black letters. It was enough that I had the story, the book.

And it sat on the shelf for a
couple more years, until I finally picked it up and read the story through. It
is short and exactly as I remember it. There is no reason that story should have
lodged so tightly in my brain. I have read so many ghost stories, horror
stories in my life – have a whole collection, but that fairly crappy one stuck
in my brain, and in some small unseen ways changed my life.

We are not empty vessels. We cannot accurately predict what reading one book or story will achieve. Or that we will get the same results each time. These are not laboratory conditions. We are not rats. We are readers, and have our own stories.




Chemistry

Picture Credits: Feliciano Moya López

Boy has brown eyes, brown hair, and a
two-piece green-white pencil box with a hinge on one end. If you hold the
outer bit at the hinge end, you can swing the inner bit out all the way.
You could never lose just one bit and have to explain why. It’s cool. 

Boy has a brown voice too, but with
golden spangles that pop up at random. You don’t see them coming, and
suddenly they’re there. My brother says it sounds like the lab test
for lead. Plumbum. 

Boy catches flies. Mosquitoes. Bugs.
Spiders. A grasshopper one time.

Boy takes out his pens, pencils,
eraser, sharpener, 6” ruler — lays them out on the desk. Tears out a sheet
of notepaper, folds it in half lengthwise, and then once again. Places it
inside the pencil box, tucks the edges. Places the day’s catch inside.
Swings the lid closed. 

In his plumbous (valency two),
sometimes plumbic (valency four), voice, Boy offers it to me: innu njaan
naale nee. My turn today, and tomorrow, yours. I see this written on
the sides of hearses sometimes. 

I give Boy my antelope tooth, but
that is another story.




Ballet Preljocaj’s La Fresque at Sadler’s Wells

Picture Credits: Jean-Claude Carbonne

This show prompts you to lift up your eyes and spirit, and dream. From the very beginning, when we are exposed to vaporous, silky grey shapes that gradually materialise on stage, the invitation is to relish the dream-like atmosphere, without asking too many questions. Admittedly, I spent the first 15 minutes trying to work out whether the soft shapes were lights, projections, actual silk, or some unexplained VR magic. But much like these light effects (by brilliant light designer Éric Soyer), La Fresque is a mesmerising show, and one to enjoy precisely in its mysterious haziness.

I liked the idea that, as a show revolving around a painting, the framework of it was quite clear: Chu and Meng, two friends travelling together, enter a temple and come across a magnificent fresco depicting a group of young, beautiful girls. Contemplating the wall painting, Chu is magnetically drawn into it, and begins a journey of idyll, passion, and adventure. As he comes out of the fresco, his whole world has changed, but so has the painting.

The show seems in many ways indebted to the ancient device of ekphrasis, whereby a poem describes a visual work of art in such detailed and vivid manner that the artwork acquires a life of its own. In Catullus’ Poem 64, for instance, the story of Ariadne and Theseus (and the Minotaur and the labyrinth), which is supposed to be simply embroidered as a decoration on a coverlet, is narrated almost as an independent story, and ends up taking up more lines than the rest of the poem. Similarly, in La Fresque, the dream (from the moment Chu steps into the painting) seems to be the real show – we are set free from any sense of temporality and place. We are transported in a world of visions, some perhaps more striking than others, but all equally fascinating as they explore the link between movement and stasis, the fixed image and real life.

What’s remarkable about La Fresque is the incredible variety in the quality of movement the dancers showcase, especially the leading roles. From a sensual and staccato sequence introducing the wall painting, to a La La Land-like routine with the two lovers seemingly floating in the air (featuring a starry sky in the background), to the intrusion of bizarrely bouncy, jelly-moving masked creatures, to soldiers moving with sharp precision, the show can be anything from delicate to empowering to shocking, navigating the variegated score by Nicolas Godin and Vincent Taurelle.

One of the most fascinating themes of the piece, which comes up repeatedly, but again explored from different angles, is hair. The whole idea of dancing with (and choreographing) hair is adventurous, and feels pretty avant-garde. As choreographer Angelin Prelijocaj puts it: “It’s funny how hair can extend the movement of the body in a sequence, but it’s also hazardous. There is something that occurs that is … unexpected. But that is very nice.” This actually sums up the show pretty well. We get hair flicking in perfect synchronicity, chignons being made to a fellow dancer on stage (in a creepy, wonderful way), hair extensions literally hanging from the ceiling and used as circus ropes – hair is omnipresent. In all instances, it seems to stand for beauty, freedom and sensuality, and its “taming” means inhibiting this sense of unrestrained freedom.

Using art (dance) to explore art (painting) is a rich, compelling concept. I found myself thinking about one of my favourite paintings (Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent), and the number of times I tried to imagine the background story that hides behind it: who are the two girls? What are their lanterns for? What are they thinking? Ballet Preljocaj goes one step further and asks what happens when we positively enter the world of static images, and how much they have the power to change us.

La Fresque runs at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd October. For more information, please visit their website.




The Littoral

Is it kidnapping when
it’s your own children? I hope not. I stole them from their beds at four a.m.,
flushed and yeasty with sleep, their angel hair sticking up flossily; damp,
sticky little bundles of flannel and warmth, which I nestled into the preheated
car.

I pulled away from the house at 4:15 a.m. Dawn was spilling over a wide sky dappled with cirrostratus. I was terrified that James would turn up, or maybe I was hoping he’d stagger into the rear-view mirror as I was reversing. He didn’t.

A friend of mine once
said: “The problem with having children is you don’t realise how much you’ll
love them.” There’s the catch. You protect your old life with a pentagram of
childcare, career, running, painting and whatever else you used to find so
defining. And then, the hidden trap door: you care so fiercely for these tiny
possets of humanity you’d sacrifice your life for them. And you can’t stuff
them back once you realise that. The patriarchy’s got a gun to your head and
you helped put it there.

We’re heading East on the
A12. There’s no traffic at this time in the morning so with any luck we’ll arrive
before six. I glance back at the girls. My chest tightens at the sight of their
solid bodies in brushed cotton pyjamas. I have no idea what I’ll do once I
arrive. I have no plan. Maybe it will be a day out at the beach, maybe I’ll
take them home at the end of the day and pretend everything is normal, or maybe
I’ll commandeer a boat and start a new life in Finland, or fly to a remote
Greek island and raise them on the white sand, spearing speckled mackerel in
the Aegean. I have our passports in the glove compartment. I could get us all
out of the country if I acted fast. Mum would help.

The first time James shook
me, I was so surprised, I thought maybe I’d imagined it. It didn’t feel like
something that could happen to me. I guess people feel like that about a lot of
things: war, getting pregnant, car accidents, growing old, cancer. So I ignored
the first note of this symphony but it continued to unfold predictably enough:
sonata, adagio, raised voices, aggressive insults, the odd bit of grabbing. Once
upon a time I would have left but now there was children, sleep deprivation,
work stress, back pain, etc. I wore this mantra for years, like oversized ear
defenders, silencing the percussive crashing of crockery, the shaking of
shoulders and the wilful ignoring of no means no means no. It was a whirling
Beethoven scherzo before I stopped defending and started listening.

For example, last month
he threw a mug at me and I flinched.

“Why did you flinch? How
could you ever think I’d hurt you?”

“You just threw a cup at
me.”

“Not at you. Near you. How can
you think I’d ever hurt you? What kind of man do you take me for? I love you.”

So I apologised but he
was too injured to accept it and he stormed out.

It’s almost funny, except
this is my actual life. And it’s all a secret; even he doesn’t really know that
it’s happening. I smooth it over, usually by apologising and accepting most of
the blame. I keep reality locked in a lead-lined box in my head.

I look at the girls in
the back, still sleeping, dimpled hands clutching Froggy and Sheepy.

And that’s the gun to my
head. Because if I leave him, I leave part of them too. And they will face him
alone and I have no idea what will happen when I don’t intervene. And how much
of them would I lose? Every other weekend? Every other week?

I glance at the glove
compartment.

My mother retired to a
tiny cottage on the Suffolk shore. I pull up outside her house at 6:03, just as
the first text from James arrives. I turn the phone off and release my sleepy
babies.

“Look, we’re at Nana’s.”

Standing in the open door,
my mother looks at me. She says nothing but holds me a little too long before
she bundles the girls inside.

“I’ll be in soon. I’m
just going to stretch my legs.”

I make my way over the
gleaming ridge onto the littoral. The shingle squeaks under my shoes and the
sky above me is vast. The land here is continually ceding to the sea. There is
a drunken blurriness to this landscape where sea meets sky meets land. The land
is buffered by sand, then shingle, then marram grass, then marsh. It can be
hard to judge where the water ends and the firm land begins. It has a transient
softness to it.

I know that I need to
yield, that some things have to take their own shape. I cannot stay married to
James; I cannot detach my children from their father. We are as woven together
and as distinct as the sea and the marsh and the land.

I remember the girls
eddying away from me on this beach when they learnt to walk, wobbling on their
unsteady toddler legs.

What would I tell them if
they were me? I would tell them to leave, that their children will survive
their father better if they know their mother walked away.

I have not been apart
from my children for a single night of their short lives.

I howl at the sea. I want
to stitch my children into sealskins, throw them into the brine and raise them
on shingle and sea winds. But this is a tale of due process and litigation. I
have to submit to this unconscionable rupture and prepare us for the journey
ahead.

I turn away from the sea
and walk back to the cottage, the wind shuddering at my shoulder, the salt
spray spitting in my hair.




The Familiar Absence of Words

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived
alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never
mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My
mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.

*

The day before my grandma died
she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It
always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty
years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few
hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash
nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was
cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still
hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before
had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun
and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the
carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and
sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine
beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This
was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while
now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t
have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried
to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there
was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her
voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some
weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t
know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and
about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I
hoped it was enough.

*

I stayed with grandma for most
of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss
are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise
of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between.
I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

*

My grandma died on the 16th of
March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the
room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was
quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an
injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too
oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum
seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into
the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room:
the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside
the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the
blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a
few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped
in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood
against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go
in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his
lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second
and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said
nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In
moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for
home. He was tired and needed to rest.

*

“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer
like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I
was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then
looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I
didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too.
I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s
arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged
and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the
silence that my family is so good at again.

*

Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t
keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I
asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at
the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to
grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and
soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched
the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took
a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s
house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said
hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind,
unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and
grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan
nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and
John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I
pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was
hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then
the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked
grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum
has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum
in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,”
she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and
the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs
of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she
said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds
for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face:
to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except
that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her
for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I
leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool
and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched
another human like this.

I realised then that the
carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d
never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their
mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a
few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for
months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were
just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up
again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a
sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed
now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened
to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was
dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was
strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded
and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and
unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start
of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without
difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked
out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee
at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t
want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless,
too still.

A few minutes later I stepped
outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to
drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I
ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the
stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half
an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and
certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss
of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for
her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward,
stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The
doctors shook our hands and quietly left.

*

In the immediate aftermath of
grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other:
how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a
clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or
awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just
there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the
aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for
the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.

*

Later two undertakers came to
collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain
from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her
tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I
waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they
carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own
home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was
over.

*

A week or so passed and it was
time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director.
It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what
clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions
to answer.

We decided what Grandma should
wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,”
the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It
signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult,
Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered
and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then
we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the
funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan
nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum
smiled at me and so it was agreed.

*

For the few weeks following my
grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never
experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a
relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a
while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living
my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we
met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made
sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We
gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we
waited.

The crematorium had big
windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family
members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked
behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The
other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our
seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the
congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It
was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these
were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t
we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her
leave.

Soon the celebrant started his
speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that
make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who
wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and
waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to
direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past
the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely
face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused
after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched
as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my
mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that
this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains
close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium
in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and
the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as
I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a
few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay?
They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and
then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I
finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s
just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the
growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve
mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between
us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to
lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since
childhood.

We stood there for a second longer,
the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved
separately into the group of mourners.




Hand Job

Picture Credits: ahyakal

I am working at the fish and chips shop when I am poached. The man who
poaches me looks like an old-time Hollywood producer. He is wearing brown boat
shoes, white linen shorts, a long-sleeved white linen shirt with one too many
buttons undone, and an expensive gold necklace; he should have been relaxing
poolside somewhere while beautiful people did cocaine from silver plates and
fucked in his pool house, not buying greasy food in some Melbourne tuck shop.
Later, when we are doing cocaine from a silver plate and beautiful people are
fucking in his pool house, I tell him of my initial impression and he says
emphatically, ‘the movies are a sucker’s game, baby, the hand industry is where
the money is!’

When I hand him his order – two pieces of battered
fish, $7.20 worth of chips, three potato cakes, a cornjack, two dim sims and a
Chiko roll – I am conscious of his heavy gaze. I ignore it and put another
basket of chips into the deep fryer. The oil splatters more than expected. When
I yank my arm away I hear the man cry out. ‘Get back!’ he yells. ‘For the love
of God be careful!’

He asks me to stop what I am doing and speak with him.
Once I finish cooking the new batch of chips and the customer leaves, the store
is empty, so I figure what the hell, take off my apron, and sit with him while
he slowly makes his way through his order. He has a special talent for chewing
food and breathing heavy through his nose at the same time.

‘Your hands are something special,’ he says, his voice
emerging from some deep cavern in his throat. ‘If you stop working here and
come with me we can change the world.’

I don’t have much going on at the time, so I shrug and
say, ‘sure, why not.’

The starting rate is $1000 just for showing up. Then
he pays me $200 for each ring I put on. On any given shoot, I will wear between
twenty to thirty rings. I make $5,400 on my first day. The man takes photos of
my hands for hours, gives me the cash in a yellow envelope sealed with a wax
stamp with an imprint of two hands inside the stamp, and sends me on my way.

Two weeks later, I see my hands on a billboard near
the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Maybe thirty people are standing in the street,
staring up at the billboard, saying admiring things about my hands. Everyone
agrees that my hands are the truly impressive part of the advertisement. When a
woman turns around, she notices my hands and says, ‘look, it’s the person from
the billboard. It’s the same hands.’ The crowd chases after me and I hide in an
alleyway until I feel safe.

One month later, I am in New York with the man from
the fish and chips shop. We are in a warehouse in Chelsea and a famous
photographer is taking pictures of my hands. These pictures get published in
Vanity Fair. Around the same time, a very cool writer who is famous on Twitter
publishes an article in N+1 about my
hands, their commodification and what it all says about late capitalism. It
goes on to become very influential; it is published in Best American Essays and taught in universities. 

Sometimes, stupid people I went to high school with
message me things like, ‘haha ur life is like that episode of seinfeld’ and
then use the crying laughing emoji.

While the man from the fish and chips shop and I are
doing cocaine from a silver plate and people are fucking in his pool house, I
think about being chased by a crowd and hiding in the alley. Sometimes I miss
putting chips in the deep fryer. My psychiatrist says I didn’t let myself deal
with the trauma of this event, but I say to her, ‘what is there to deal with?
It happened and it’s over.’

A man from the pool house comes up to me. His body has
a light sheen and he smells of sex. We let him take a hit of cocaine from our
silver plate. He says, ‘I have had sex in many pool houses and done cocaine from
lots of expensive silver plates, but I struggle to connect with people on a
meaningful level. But your hands, even on a billboard, even in a magazine, even
on a screen – they make me feel like I am being nurtured by another person. You
have a gift. May I please touch them?’

He reaches out to me and I pull my hands away.




Warning Systems

Picture Credits: Stefan Keller

Warning systems

4 hours before: The first sign is deep in the earth, a
tremble becoming a tremor. There is time to flee to higher ground.

 49-year-old Xavier Da
Sousa leans backs in his 22nd floor Canary Wharf office, sinking into his first
Glenfiddich of the day. The slight tremor in his right hand causes drops of
amber liquid to bounce off the edge of his Waterford crystal glass. He picks
them up, one by one, with a wetted finger, the way his father chased grains of
rice even in the throes of Parkinson’s. He tastes earth, and ash.

In the end, he needn’t have worried. He outlives them all.

 45-year-old Elisabeth
Da Sousa smiles through the aftershocks from her second ever orgasm, enjoying
the tremors rolling deep in her belly. The purple-haired woman sprawled across
her runs a pale hand over her dimpled brown thighs. This newly discovered
pleasure feels so undeserved she takes it as retribution that this is what she
was doing as the wave gathered pace.

Eventually, she dies alone in her Richmond garden flat, dreaming
of a woman she can’t name.

2 hours before: Then, water may recede from the coast, exposing the ocean floor, reefs and
fish. Some escape routes may be cut off.

22-year-old Mary Da Sousa drops the coral earrings she’s
borrowed from her mother into the  sink at
Café Rouge, an attempt at returning them to their original habitat. She throws
her blue plastic hairnet in after, an expert at the right dramatic gesture to
use before leaving a room. She takes the expression on her ex-manager’s face
and the clapping of her former co-workers as her due.

Ultimately, when she returns herself to the ocean ten years
later in unnecessary sacrifice, it’s only accompanied by the shushing of the
waves.

 22-year-old Marcus Da
Sousa scrubs the last piece of grime from the empty tropical fish tank that was
the twins’ joint 12th birthday present. His father wanted to replace
them but it wouldn’t have been the same. He talks to Maggie, the long dead Forktail
Rainbow fish, the way he always did when his bronchitis flared up. He talks
about it the most after, the space that’s left, he’s even interviewed, holding
back tears, on local TV.

So the painful way his lungs fill with water for the final
time makes it into the papers, the son of the financial genius, the brother of
a teenage mermaid.

 19 yr old Magdalena
Da Sousa, Maggie to her friends, lies back on the deserted white sand beach,
and puts in her headphones. It’s how she’s always dealt with the arguments she
lives in, whether the voices in her house were too loud or too quiet, or when
she needed to recharge. She’s started ‘Their Eyes are Watching God’ in the
middle and already read the last page, something that her brother, her favourite
teacher, would frown about. She immerses herself in Janie Crawford’s life.

  She never knows
she’s exactly 30 minutes from solid ground.

29 minutes before: An
approaching tsunami creates a wall of water and loud “roaring” sound
similar to that of a train or jet aircraft, unmistakeable if you can hear it.
Run.




The Princess and the Moon

Picture Credits: Christopher Dart

The Princess Xiang sighed. “I was thinking about the moon,”
she said. “I often think about the moon. I wonder how I may sail to her. I am
told it can be done. Some say it has been done, but of that I am not so sure.”

Zheng, the governor of the province replied in his
measured tone. He was said to give wise counsel. “Madam, believe me: it is
better not to wish for impossible things. No one can imagine the world seen
from the stars, for no one has found the path that leads beyond the mountain
heights, nor the trail in the wastes that surely leads heavenward.”

If the wise, old governor believed that would end the
matter he had misjudged the Princess Xiang’s resolve to learn more of the
stories that were told of travellers beyond this world. She replied, “Then
there is a challenge for someone who has the strength of mind and heart to take
up the challenge.”

Zheng looked out towards the mountains. He took a deep
breath before replying. “My dear Princess, it is wise not to go beyond the
limits of the world we know. Of these things there are whispers. Travellers who
leave never return. Rumours are many and as varied as the flowers in the
imperial gardens. Believe me, my child, it is better to remain where we are.
Walls are built for a reason.”

“Then why, dear Zheng, are we alive?” asked the princess. “Surely
if we did not dream we would turn to dust? I see from my window in the street
below many wandering with that dusty look about them. I do not want to be like
them.”

The governor Zheng said nothing more that day. He allowed
for time to pass, time in which the princess might reflect on the dangers of
such curiosity. It was true he had heard of wanderers onto the sacred mountains.
They were the ones who disappeared. A rescue party would go in search of them,
only to disappear also. There were places where it was a deadly trap to
venture. The moon was for admiring, not for visiting. It was better to leave
the moon to the astrologers who understood its influence, and to poets who understood
its charms. For the curious minds it was wise to think only of earthly things
within the realm of the permissible.

When the governor Zheng was young (as once he had been) he
dreamed of travelling to the moon and even the stars. He had heard talk of a
road that stretched out beyond the bounds of the city and far into the
countryside for many days until there was only wilderness. There eventually one
would reach a fork with a road to the right and a road to the left. One way went
into the realm of the heavens. There it was possible to walk to the moon.

The terrible dilemma was that the other way led to hell.
Take that road and night felt immediately. Soon the unfortunate traveller was
behind an enormous iron door that slammed shut before escape was possible. The
door was immovable. The traveller was trapped in the darkness where the heat
was fierce beyond all endurance. The fire was everlasting, yet one’s body never
burned. It suffered an eternity of heat that gave no light and no hope. It was
not the sun. It was an endless night of dark fire.

An old man, far older than the governor Zheng was now, had
told him in youth of some advice the old man had been given when he in turn was
young: “When you come to a fork in the road take it.” Zheng had been told that
many, many years ago. He had spent a lifetime trying to understand what those
words meant. They were nonsense that contained perfect sense. That much he
knew. As for the true meaning, Zheng left that to more adventurous souls than
he.

He saw that the Princess Xiang’s curiosity would not
blossom into wisdom as a seed blown by the wind grows in fecund soil to become
a flower. It would not fall like a leaf from a tree at the approach of winter.
It would not fade like snows in the spring’s awakening. The Princess Xiang, an
indulged child, was wilful as a girl and foolhardy as a young woman. It had
been the governor’s duty to save her from rash alliances and false friendships.
His task was the harder for the princess’s alacrity of mind and impulsiveness
of spirit. She might behave foolishly but she was never a fool. She was going
to seek the way to the moon. Zheng could see that as surely as he could see the
moon itself in the cold night sky.

In the days that followed their conversation Zheng tried
to avoid seeing the princess. He took care not to be places where he thought
she might be. Fortunately for him, he was not summoned by her. The princess did
not require his counsel, leaving him able to catch up on administrative matters
that others in their idleness or weakness brought to his attention. There were
trivial matters that were not his concern but which required his judgement. He
had no time to gaze out of the window at the sky. Others could dream. He worked
late into the night until the last flicker of the candle went out, and the only
light in the room was moonlight.

There soon came an inevitable meeting of the governor and
princess. Whether it was by chance or design the Princess Xiang was in the
palace library when Zheng came in to seek a reference.

“Lord Zheng,” the princess said, “what a delightful
surprise. I hear you have been preoccupied with affairs of state, and I see you
are busy now. But not, I trust, too busy to answer a question?”

“Indeed not, madam, Above all questions we must consider
the Unanswerable Question,” said Zheng.

Princess Xiang’s eyes brightened with interest when she
asked him to explain.

“The question that has no answer is: ‘What we see in the
sky is a void, for never can we read a heavenly mind.’”

“But that is not a question,” the Princess Xiang replied,
disappointed.

“Then we cannot answer it,” Zheng retorted. As he had
hoped, a furious princess stalked out of the library, having flashed him an
angry look, one that he was familiar with over the score of years he had known
her. His position as governor was secure, however, for the emperor valued his
supremely capable governor even as he loved his excessively pampered daughter.

As for the Princess Xiang, she was determined to learn
more of the road that was said to lead to the moon. Zheng was not going to say
further, although she strongly suspected he knew much more than he was prepared
to tell. She might threaten him, but he would not say. Were it within her power
to disgrace and ruin him he would not say. Neither beatings nor imprisonment
would open his mouth. She knew him as well as he knew her.

There surely were others who might instruct her truthfully
on the way she could travel. It was surely possible. She considered again the
stories she had heard over the years. Yes, there were rumours of terrible
dangers, but was that not the case in all adventure? Shipwrecks destroyed the
plans of mariners seeking new lands. There were lands waiting to be reached
beyond the treacherous rocks and the fierce storms. Mariners steered by the
pattern of the stars. Travellers by land needed moonlight. The moon was guiding
enterprising travellers. The moon was beckoning courageous souls.

The difficulty was knowing where to go to find the answers
to the questions that flowed through the princess’s mind. She did not seek
riddles. She required answers she could understand. She needed a map that she
could follow, and advice that she would heed. Zheng was not going to stand in
her way. He was not her master but her servant. If he refused to serve her others,
more reliable than he, would be found.

The princess, accompanied by a maid, went out into the
city in disguise. She was a noblewoman but not a princess. Though impossible
for her to degrade herself into a humble class, she could mask her true statue.
Ladies of quality were an everyday sight in the city. Nobody thought to look
twice, except perhaps furtively to admire her beauty. The Princess Xiang and
her maid could wander at will in search of maps and those who could read them
as she might read them.

In the oldest quarter of the city where the streets were
narrow and shaded there was a small shop, no more than a kiosk, with maps on
display outside. “Come inside,” the map-seller beckoned. “I have maps of many lands
and charts of many seas. Continents and oceans are open to you should you wish
to consult my goods.”

“Have you travelled yourself?” the princess asked.

“In dreams. Madam. In many dreams,” he replied.

“But in reality?” the princess insisted.

“That I cannot say.”

“You forget who I am,” the princess replied angrily.

“I do not know who are you are.” He looked carefully but not
impolitely, at her. “A nobleman’s daughter, it would seem.”

“My father is a merchant. I wish to follow his progress,
for on his return he always tells me such marvellous stories of where he has
been.”

“And where, may I ask, did he go last?” the map-seller
asked.

“To the moon. It was to be his final journey.”

“For many it is. They do not return.”

“Have you known anyone who has been there and come back?
You must tell me. I need to know.”

“You ask a great deal of a humble man, madam.”

“Tell me.”

“I can tell you that the eye of heaven opens when the silk
worm moves. Consider how you may turn your dream into reality. It is possible.”

“How is it possible?”

“The journey is long, as you may imagine. It is a
difficult road to find. That, however, is only the beginning. Once you have
found the road you must walk with caution and with courage. You will find that
the higher the road climbs the colder the air, the icier the ground, the darker
the days even at noon.”

“Continue,” the princess urged the map-seller. “I am
listening.”

“Go home, my lady. Wait for your father to return. Be sure
to put a lantern in the window to welcome him back.”

“I must go myself.”

“You cannot imagine the ardour of walking to the moon.
There are tales of sailing there, but they are as yet unproven. To walk, as
hard as it is, is the surer way. For, yes, some time ago I travelled there
myself.”

“Tell me more. I’ll pay whatever you ask.”

“Madam, it is not money that I seek. My desire is for your
safe return. So I whisper to you the secret of the passage to the moon. It is
this: when you come to the fork in the road you will see turnings to the left
and to the right. Take neither. Go straight ahead. There are no maps to show
the way beyond this point. You will be entirely at the mercy of heaven. Your
destination is not much further. If heaven favours you shall reach the moon.”
The map-seller paused thoughtfully. “You must wait for a full moon. That may
sound obvious, but had I not thought of that I should be there yet, lost in the
clouds. When you see the moon rise it will be enormous. Don’t be afraid. You
are nearly there.”

The map-seller brought out a folded piece of parchment
clearly of some antiquity. He carefully unfolded it for the princess to see.
The ink was faded but quite legible. The map-seller explained that copies were
rare because the secret of the journey had to be kept. He was looking for
someone trustworthy to make fresh copies. “But this,” he said, “is a very
ancient copy. The one I used myself.”

The map-seller anticipated the last question before it was
asked. Where to begin the journey. Where was the secret road leading out of the
city and onto the moon? It was, of course, the street where the map shop was to
be found. “Find the map,” he said, “and you find the moon.”

The Princess Xiang put many gold coins into his hand. It
was more than he dared ask for, much more than he could have expected. “You are
too kind, my lady,” he said with a quiver of nerves in his voice, for he had
surmised the true identity of his customer.

She thanked him warmly before leaving.

“Come see me on your return,” the map-seller requested as
the princess left, adding, “The way back is much easier.”




Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music

imgres-1

Riots for Stravinsky and cheers for Hanatarashi. How do you get from the tritone as “the devil in music” to an audience facing a wall of white noise with smiles on their faces?


“It’s amazing, really, how little sound comes out of something you’re smashing with all your might” – Yamatsuka Eye

The adventurous Noizu fans who came to see crackpot noise-makers Hanatarashi (meaning snot-nosed) at Tokyo’s Toritsu Kasei Super Loft on August 4th 1985 expected a raucous show. What they didn’t expect was a ferocious performance of industrial-grade destruction, with a back-hoe bulldozer as the lead instrument. Handed waivers upon arrival that relieved the band of any responsibility for injury, or worse, the audience watched as frontman and HDV operator Yamatsuka Eye burst through the doors of the hall atop the bulldozer. With percussionist Ikuo Taketani somewhat safely tucked away in the corner, Eye tore through the stage and inflicted brutal punishment on everything nearby, including the literal kitchen sink, while screaming the band’s trademark scatological and sexual non-sequitur lyrics. The beleaguered bulldozer held out until Eye put the hoe into the wall. The dozer tipped backwards and gave out, but after pulling off the dozer’s cage to hurl across the stage and grabbing a circular saw, the destruction continued with the audience now nervously dodging Eye’s fitful saw swings. Surrounded by bent metal, crumbled masonry and the squawking remains of Marshall stacks, with gasoline pouring from the ruined bulldozer, Eye produced, as his grand finale, a molotov cocktail that he’d prepared earlier. This was a touch too dangerous for even this daredevil audience and Eye, confessing later in an interview for Banana Fish Magazine that he got “too excited”, had to be violently subdued by several members of the crowd.

In the settled atmosphere, once certain that explosive group immolation wasn’t to be the crescendo, the crowd that had remained, many with smiles on their faces, slowly filed out enclosed in their own bubbles of tinnitus. The bill for the annihilation of the Super Loft tallied ¥600,000 (approximately £6000) and Hanatarashi subsequently laboured under a ban from most venues that ran until 1990, when the band, slightly calmer and more safety conscious, dropped the ‘i’ and returned to what passed as civil society in the Noizu circuit.

Hanatarashi, along with fellow Noizu bands such as Hijokaidan, indulged in the kind of audial assault that would bring most people to the point of self-induced deafness, but the Super Loft audience signed off on possible death-by-bulldozer just for the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. Extreme volume, distortion and cacophony, with a ferocity of performance that completely transgressed the normal bounds of the relationship between the performer and audience, were unrestrained musical expressions that attracted large audiences to the Noizu scene in Japan from the 1980’s onwards. It’s been argued that Noise as a genre was born in Japan at this time; whereby the noise was not a wash or flavour, but the whole. The act of seeking out sounds which most people take care to avoid seems a strange masochistic ritual, but evidenced by the brutalised crowd at the Hanatarashi gig, there is – for some – much to enjoy in noise.

“I did Noise Music because I genuinely liked noise… But a lot of people didn’t. At my concerts, people smashed beer glasses in my face.” – noise musician Boyd Rice a.k.a NON

In music, the definition of noise has changed drastically over time and is still debated today. The simplest common usage of the word noise is that of unwanted sound and, although clearly subjective, in some sense this definition also works in the context of music. Noise in music is of a volume/tonality/structure which breaks from previously held traditions of what is ‘pleasant’ to the ear of the average person, or consonant. What may be considered at the time to be noise can be the sound desired by a particular composer and, one would hope for the composer’s sake, later embraced by the intended audience. In essence, history has shown that noise in music is unwanted until a musician proves otherwise, with help from a willing audience. Noise can be a disturbance, but disturbance can be key to progression. By prodding at the edges of the normative discrimination, musicians have expanded the appreciation for sounds which previous generations would have found genuinely violative.

‘Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring”? What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?
And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,” The season when on joyous wing The birds melodious carols sing And harmony’s in every thing!
He who could write the “Rite of Spring,” If I be right by right should swing!’

Anonymous letter to the Boston Herold of February 9, 1924

An amusing example of how dissonant prodding has been received as violative is to be found at the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées on the 29th of May 1913, the year that the Ford Motor Company would develop the first moving, mass-production assembly line. Stravinsky was a young and innovative Russian composer, of little renown in 1913, hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s to write for the Ballets Russes company, with The Rite of Spring being the third such composition. Prior to the première, Diaghilev had promised “a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion” and Stravinsky had written the work as a solemn pagan rite and hoped to present a “great insult to habit”. When first playing the piano version for Diaghilev, Stravinsky was asked how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound, to which Stravinsky replied “to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.” The newly opened theatre, designed by Auguste Perret, was as avant-garde in construction as the contemporary music, opera and dance that was to be presented inside. The geometrically strict and decoratively plain exterior of reinforced concrete mixed modern and classical architecture and made it the perfect venue for what Debussy described as “primitive music with all the modern conveniences.”

The atmosphere before the performance was lively; the 29th of May was unseasonably hot, reaching a height of 30c, and the halls and corridors of the theatre were packed with those who had bought into Diaghilev’s hype. The house was sold-out, largely encompassing subscribers for the whole season of Ballet Russe and there was a fifty-fifty split in the guest-list between the Parisian elite of diplomats, dignitaries and dilletantes, and the Modernist art scene. Patrons such as Daisy Fellowes, (née Countess Severine Phillipine Decazes de Glückberg), an elderly Countess de Pourtales, and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian empire represented the upper crust, and batting for the avant-garde were the likes of Jean Cousteau, Maurice Ravel and Edgard Varèse. Cousteau was quoted later as saying that a scandal was primed by the mix, with “a fashionable audience [in] low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feathers…side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, headbands, showy rags of that race of esthetes who acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.”

Alfred Capus in Le Figaro reported that during the first bars of bassoon with discondant accompaniment in the closed-curtain introduction, there was prompt hissing and jeering. Incensed at a perceived misuse of the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon”, before storming out. The Countess de Pourales is recorded to have shouted “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me”, to no one in particular. A back and forth between supporters and discontents followed, with the American music critic Carl van Vechten recalling “a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause.” At the start of the Augurs of Spring section, the curtains opened and the ensuing polyrhythms, unresolved harmonies, rapid dynamic shifts, and familiar themes played in unfamiliar registers did not sit well with the patrons disinclined to experimental music. Furthermore, in an attempt to convey the agony of human sacrifice in a primitive society, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had his dancers land their leaps with flat feet which added echoing thuds to the music. At its worst, the din from the audience was so loud that it drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out counts to the dancers while standing on a chair in the wings.

According to Stravinsky, his friend Florent Schmitt shouted an insult to a group of elegant socialites, “taisez-vous, garces du seizieme!” and the various reactions and counter-reactions shared between the conservative and avant-garde sections pushed the battle onward. Diaghilev ordered the house lights to be flicked on and off in either an attempt to quell the uproar or, perhaps, sheer excitement at the press-baiting pandemonium he’d created. Stravinsky was horrified by the furore, leaving the auditorium to watch at the wings (it has been alleged in tears, but to claim so seems to kick a man when he’s down) saying later that he had “never been that angry”. At the intermission, the theatre proceeded to eject forty of the most troublesome, but it was not particularly successful in restoring full order.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky were devastated by the negative response and embarrassed by the spectacle, but Diaghilev took delight in the publicity of scandal, expressing complete satisfaction at a celebratory dinner after the show. Mainstream reactions in the press to “Le Massacre du Printemps” were not great, with Giacomo Puccini damning The Rite of Spring as “sheer cacophony” and Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris claiming (pejoratively, it should be noted) that the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. The performance immediately made waves internationally with The New York Times reporting under the headline: “Parisians hiss new ballet: Russian dancer’s latest offering, ‘The Consecration of Spring’, a failure”. However, there was strong praise from some publications and subsequent performances were far more successful.

“No doubt it will be understood one day that I sprang a surprise on Paris.” – Igor Stravinsky

Dissonant music wasn’t the sole cause of the chaos, with the angular and provocative dancing, anti-Russian sentiment, reactionary morality, and hype all part of a melting pot. However, the premiere was a key flashpoint in the debate over modernism, in which noise in music was a rapidly expanding form of expression. Arnold Schoenberg’s drive to “emancipate the dissonance” and expand the possibilities of musical expression lent dissonance a cultural cachet in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s music was noteworthy for the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers and, although he faced a similar reaction to The Rite of Spring on occasion, his music and theories had lasting influence throughout the 20th century.

While composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky were experimenting with rhythm and harmony, the Futurist Italian Luigi Russolo, in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises, was arguing that the public, accustomed to the sounds of industry and traffic, were hungry for “the infinite variety of noise-sounds” regardless of whether they knew it or not. For the Futurists, the explosion of mechanical noise in the 20th century evoked the activity, speed and progression that they celebrated in modern society. Russolo’s revolution was for music to no longer be a canonised system of notes, but rather understood as a structure of non-periodic complex sound. Russolo categorised these noise-sounds into six groups:


1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
5. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs
6. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling,
Scraping

In order to produce these sounds, Russolo constructed 27 varieties of noise machine called intonarumori, each named after a different sound. The device was a crank-operated wooden parallelepiped box with a speaker at the front, the pitch being controlled by a lever on the top. The lever would modify the tension of a metal or gut string, wrapped round a wheel, that was attached to a drumhead inside the box.

Russolo introduced the public to these devices with a concert entitled Awakening of a City and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes in Milan in April of 1914, and, continuing the trend of violence in response to noisy spectacle, a riot ensued. Futurists in the audience responded to booing with fists, and eleven audience members ended up in hospital. In 1926, influenced by Russolo’s machine music, and anticipating Hanatarashi’s use of machines of industry, George Antheil produced Ballet Mécanique, which called for 3 airplane propellers to accompany the pianos, bells and siren in the orchestra. The reception to the piece was as mixed as that of the The Rite of Spring or Russolo’s Awakening, and the Paris première ended with – you guessed it – a riot in the streets. Despite the early negative reactions to these modernist experiments in noise, by 1940 The Rite of Spring was accompanying the extinction of cartoon dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia and the following decades would see avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen produce music that would have presumably killed the Countess de Pourales on the spot. These experimental composers would eventually find their ideas pushed into pop music by the likes of Sonic Youth, who managed to straddle the seemingly incongruous worlds of MTV and the art music underground, with the benefit of an audience of noise-primed Gen X youth.

“We believed that music is nothing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, whatever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.” — Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Keyboard Magazine, 1990

From the purposefully consonant compositions, within strict rules of tonality, of medieval religious music to the chaotic noise of Tokyo’s Merzbow or Detroit’s Wolf Eyes, dissonance has moved from something to be avoided to become an all-encompassing driving force. What was an imperceptibly gradual change before the 20th century has now become rapid. The relationship between an experimental composer and his noisy environment and the advances in music technology have led us to the point whereby people will pay for a MP3 of almost pure white noise and call it music. Cued by Willie Kizart using a damaged amplifier on the recording of the Kings of Rhythm track Rocket 88 and furthered by Dick Dale’s work with Fender, the electric guitar turned distortion and feedback into an art-form, driving music more towards timbre than harmony. Experiments with synthesisers, from Elisha Gray’s basic single note oscillator in 1876 to Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, engendered real-time, precision control of volume, pitch and timbre. Rather than Russolo’s acoustic noise generators, noise could now be artificially created in exact and varied ways. With the development of recorded music from tape to digital memory, sampling became a new form of replicating and altering environmental noise. Just as Russolo and Antheil would take from the sounds of the modern mechanical world, musique concrete would mimic the electronic age with the use of tape loops and purely electronic-produced sound. The digital revolution would lead to the hip-hop sampling of Public Enemy, which took the sounds of New York streets and media soundbites and reconfigured the noise into dense music, punctuated by sirens and drills, that articulated urban conflict.

There are many ways of conceptualising dissonance. The term consonance comes from the Latin consonare, meaning ‘sounding together’, and has become synonymous with particularly harmonious intervals in Western music. However, there is a psychological aspect to consonance and dissonance which is subjective and has changed throughout history. Psychologists would describe dissonance as a negative valence emotional response, meaning that it conjures feelings such as anger and fear; emotions that relate to suffering. In harmony, consonance and dissonance refer to specific qualities an interval can possess but, although consonance relates to mathematical constants, musical experiments outside the acceptable ranges of the time attuned the human ear gradually to more dissonant sounds. In the Middle Ages, the tritone musical interval (the interval between, for instance, F to the B above) was once prohibited by the Roman Catholic church due to its dissonant qualities and perceived ties to the Devil. Nowadays, however, this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, especially in the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; music considered completely palatable to today’s ear.

Differentiation in ability to determine pitch, timbre, volume and time between tones could account for more or less appreciation of complex music. When two pitches are played together the mind appreciates the combination while also picking apart the unique pitches. More distortion or dissonant intervals will lead to added overtones and sum tones, creating very complex waveforms, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it. These complex waveforms are what people would be hearing in music they consider to be difficult. The reason why some people react so poorly to modern classical music that delves into dissonance is that there are no easily discernible patterns. Philip Ball, in The Music Instinct, writes that “the brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear.” The lack of predictability of tone sequences in the music of Stockhausen, for example, can confuse the brain, but the mind can learn to appreciate the complexity. We learn to appreciate this through listening to more complex music but, as the noise in our environment has increased, it is our adaptation that further enables us to enjoy what previously was rejected. The music mimics the noise in the environment and, in turn, the environment programs us to accept more noise as music.

Who are these loud and noisy people? They are like fishermen hawking fish.” – Buddha

How much has noise increased in the past few hundred years? Statistical comparison is a struggle, but noise appears to have been a concern for every society throughout history. The Buddhist Digha Nikaya, committed to writing in 29 BCE, records some contemporary noises of concern:

“Ananda, was neither by day nor night without the ten noises,—to wit, the noise of elephants, the noise of horses, the noise of chariots, the noise of drums, the noise of tabors, the noise of lutes, the noise of song, the noise of cymbals, the noise of gongs, and the tenth noise of people crying, ‘Eat ye, and drink!’”

Allowing for the unknown volume of an ancient Buddhist toast, the loudest sound on the list is that of the Asian elephant, trumpeting at a maximum of 90dB. The decibel level of the loudest sound in a city environment would increase as time went on, pacing more rapidly in the decades leading up to the 20th century. In an 1896 article entitled The Plague of City Noises, a clearly irate Dr. John H. Girdner called attention to the “injurious and exhaustive effects of city noises” from such sources as horse-drawn vehicles, bells and whistles, animals, persons learning to play musical instruments, peddlers, and that most infuriating member of late 19th century street-theatre, the organ grinder. What Dr. Girdner and the Buddha share is a concern for largely natural sounds of animal and human activity. However, the industrial and urban development of the 20th century altered the make-up of street noise and a poll of New Yorkers in 1929 issued an updated list of ten sounds to break a Buddhist samantha, with every one a product of a mechanisation.

The everyday noises of Girdner and the Buddhists pale in comparison to what the modern ear has to contend with, especially baring in mind the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. Rule of thumb: the sound must increase in intensity by a factor of ten for the sound to be perceived as twice as loud. A car horn (120dB at 1 metre), a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB), a power mower (96 dB), a food blender (88 dB), and a car driving at 65 mph (77 dB at 25ft) could conceivably occur simultaneously and for extended periods of time, albeit in a particularly poorly-situated home. Even the average lowest limit of urban ambient sound today is 40 dB; a constant hum that crosses the frequency spectrum.

“Natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.” – Gordon Hempton

The increasingly urbanised and industrialised modern world has become a place of almost constant unnatural sound. The American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton contends that in the whole of the United States there are just 12 places that could be considered naturally ‘silent’. By measuring average noise intervals at various locations over time, Hempton demonstrated that in the state of Washington there are just 3 places that are free from anthropogenic noise for longer than 15 minutes, compared to 21 places in 1994. In the UK, research by Sheffield Hallam University found that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991. With this increase in the spread and intensity of noise there has followed a general adaptation and acceptance of noise, but accompanied by some very negative consequences.

The word noise is derived from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, and noise can have many physiological and psychological effects that are deeply unpleasant, even causing permanent harm. In addition to the obvious hearing damage that can occur from repeated exposure to loud sound, diverse research over several decades has uncovered a variety of problems related to noise exposure. Fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches, anxiety disorders, depression and an increased prevalence of stress diseases have all been shown to be possible negative consequences. A WHO report from 2011 estimated that Western Europeans lose over one million healthy life years annually from noise-related disability and disease. Noise could also be making us less kind to one another, as research into noise as an urban stressor has found that a noisy environment can increase anti-social behaviour.

A series of studies at Wright State University in the mid-seventies found that noise interferes with social cues from a person in need of help and reduces helping behaviour. Further study in 1979, at the University of Washington, into noise and social discrimination found that noise may cause people to distort and over-simplify complex social relationships. Key to these outcomes, both physiological and psychological, appears to be our primal response system. Studies of blood chemistry have shown that exposure to noise causes an increased production of epinephrine, a central component in the fight-or-flight response. The more ‘unpleasant’ a sound, the more the amygdala, which plays a role in processing fear, is activated and therefore the stronger the emotional response.

The only rational reactions to an environment that threatens are either to escape or to adapt. However, even if one can ignore it, there is no physiological habituation to noise; an auditory assault affects us even when not consciously registered. Furthermore, it appears that the adaptation to noise that modern life requires is leading to an increased fear of silence. In 1999, the BBC accountancy office was refurbished with noiseless air-conditioning, double- glazed windows, and silent computers.

The makeover was effective in abating noise, but the employees were uncomfortable. They complained that the silence was stressful, leaving them feeling lonely and paranoid that others were listening in on their phone calls. In response, upon consulting noise expert Yong Yan from the University of Greenwich, the BBC decided to buy a noise machine to combat what Yan calls Pin Drop Syndrome. This covered the silence by producing a continuous 20 dB murmur of unintelligible voices, with the occasional snippet of bottled laughter, and the accountants relaxed into their faux-hubbub soundtrack. In a world of noise, silence equals exposure. The noise can fill in spaces that separate, cover up the sounds that bring attention and can blend individuals into an amorphous group. Perhaps it was this comforting, masking relationship with noise that the BBC accountants were found to be craving when absent.

Our ears have an inbuilt hypersensitivity to sound that was invaluable in the days when humans were hunter and hunted. We can hear a pin drop in a quiet room because our auditory system enhances the volume of a sound to several hundred times louder than the source volume before the brain itself registers the sound. While humans have transformed their relationship to environment and the conscious perception of noise, the brain and auditory system are still somewhat stuck in the fight-or-flight world of pre-civilisation. We tune out the noise in our daily lives but the physical and psychological forces are still present, pushing up blood pressure and promoting the release of stress hormones behind-the-scenes, even when we aren’t consciously aware of the sound.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating” – John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1961

Today there is no firm basis for a distinction between music and noise. With the abandonment of traditional, harmonic definitions of consonance and dissonance, the distinction is entirely subjective and particular to context. There is no such thing any more as the ‘non-musical sound’ that John Cage wanted to highlight in his compositions; everything is fair game. We are born into noisy environments and the necessary adaptation means that the normative level of acceptable noise has been rising exponentially with each generation. But with musicians of today using white noise, the entire range of audible sound-wave frequencies heard simultaneously, where is there left to go?

The Austrian anthropologist Michael Haberlandt claimed that the more noise a culture could bear, the more ‘‘barbarian’’ it was. Hanatarashi’s bulldozer performance was nothing if not proudly barbarian, but the violent expression was peacefully received – unlike the riots that followed the performances of earlier noise music. Noise has found its audience and the Noizu crowd at Tokyo’s Super Loft were purposefully escaping any sense of tranquility, seeking out that dangerous thrill that the body provides when the fight-or-flight response goes haywire. Like skydivers and train- surfers they were after the exhilaration that comes from hacking the body’s primordial response mechanisms. They were all freaking out together, each body screaming to run but with safety in numbers and the perversely comforting wash of noise connecting and concealing everyone. The enjoyment of the performance came from the transgressive destruction on not just the venue but the audience themselves. They were pushing at the biological limits of their minds and bodies, going against the grain like the boundary pushing experimental music, in order to feel a rush. In earlier decades, or centuries, that rush could have been achieved with less. The charge of a herd of elephants or the clattering and cheering of a horse race might have once been at the upper limit of common noise, but with the constant, and constantly increasing, cacophony of noise in our environment today, the level of acceptable noise has been dragged further up the decibel scale and further out from consonance. The result of this trend is that the noise music listener will always be like a heavy drug user who requires an ever increasing fix. The Hanatarashi fans amongst us are bathing in extreme noise to induce the fight-or-flight response; musical adrenaline junkies looking for a high that the body and mind will continue to adapt to over time. Only, unlike drug use, everyone is taking noise everyday, whether we like it or not, and we have to choose to either embrace it or escape it.

But where to escape to, when silence is disappearing? Perhaps noise music highlights how people are too accepting of the damage and social alienation that the daily exposure to noise is producing. Are we all barbarians for living with noise that would have driven our forbears crazy? Noise is now presented by health authorities and scientific studies as a pollutant but, unlike with oil spills and insecticides, some people inure themselves to this pollutant through choice. By choosing to embrace the constant noise of modern life, with all of its negative effects, they are like the BBC accountants, a symbol of the slow death of silence. If a solution isn’t found, there might come a point where the silence on Earth is found through noise-cancelling headphones rather than a trip out of the city, and natural silence will have truly vanished. And what will the music of that time sound like? The Rite of Spring sounded like noise, even Beethoven sounded like noise to the ear of the day, so in a few hundred years time will we be looking back on Hanatarashi with a feeling of quaint nostalgia as we wonder how anyone could have considered such classics as Boat People Hate Fuck or White Anal Generator to be noise?




The Poetry of Snow

Picture Credits: vagueonthehow

Snow drifted across the windshield, broad blank flakes that outdid the wipers, their pendulum motions dulled to juddering flailing. Eventually we pulled up alongside the train tracks and turned our faces toward the hidden mountains, running the windows down zip-zap quick to get whatever stilted view there was. We passed boxes of crackers and a lukewarm flask between us in comfortable silence and then, without much in the way of discussion, we made love on the back seat, cheeks pressed damply together.

The old saloon
wagon became like a womb, covered in the skin of ice, sheltering our raw
nakedness from the worst of the chill as we rocked together. The radio played
up to my imaginings offering muffled pinches of show-tunes from way out over
the valley; carpet-slipper tapping classics of a kind old folk enjoy. I sighed
and pressed my ear to Michael’s chest, feeling the hair tickle my helix like a
delicious, whispered secret. His roughened palm stroked up and down my back and
then, after a time, his fingers began creeping into the narrow gully of my
buttocks to signal that he wanted me again. I pretended to be asleep, not
because I didn’t want him but because the shy little spanks he imparted in his attempt
rouse me sent my blood rushing from my head, thawing me out and turning my
climates tropical in ways I had clean forgotten could be done. I was glad of
Michael then, and I showed it until he was spent and quivering in my arms.

Darkness had
gathered around us, but in a rare twist of nature the snow seemed to trap and
hold the last of the light a little longer than usual and I used it to try (and
eventually fail) to read the map he held out to me. Michael was smiling
encouragingly so I pretended to know what I was about and forced my unsteady agreement
with the coloured lines and penned stars. Stalling for time, I twisted to get
another cracker and the zip of his hoodie slid cool and firm against my nipple.
I looked him up and down and he put his hand in the shaggy nest of my hair; by
the time we were finally ready to drive on darkness was upon us in full, the
map forgotten.

When I let him
out at the motel, he thanked me for a nice time and for the ride along. I
thanked him for a nice ride and for passing time along. It was silly and I felt
like a goose for saying it, but he just looked at me a little funny, like all
the emotion in him was welling up and he didn’t know why. “You driving back
this way? Tomorrow maybe?”

I told him I
was not and let his disappointment soothe my own aching chest and return some
strength to my sex-heavy limbs. I told him I was a drifter too and he nodded,
all solemn, as if our kind holds this knowledge as a sacred truth; not just a
happening of circumstance. My tyres and his boots crunched the same snow, a
million individual snowflakes all coming together ready to be faded away in due
course. I could see the poetry of it but I had no desire for it to change. Drifters
never do.




Hands

Picture Credits: Nina Childish

What
struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his
body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them. When they
first met, he shook her hands boldly and directly, as if it were a perfectly
normal thing to do and not a violation of the law in the Islamic Republic of
Iran. Taken aback, she forgot to respond. Her hand hung limply in his palm,
until he dislodged it.

Just the
day prior, she had read about a poet who, after returning from abroad, had been
arrested for shaking a woman’s hand. She wanted to warn him: You shouldn’t do that. You might end up in
jail for shaking my hand
. But he must have known what he was doing, she
reasoned, and who was she to tell him how to behave in his own country?

His hands
didn’t fit anywhere, not in his pockets, or at his sides. They dangled oddly
from his arms, like an expert swimmer more at home in a lake than on dry land.
The lines on his palms were long, stretching from his wrist to his index
fingers. If a fortune-teller – like the one she had consulted in Hafez’s tomb
while visiting Shiraz – had been asked to read his palms she would have
predicted for him a long life, a fulfilling marriage and many children. His
hands were like an autonomous body. She imagined them keeping her warm at
night, soothing the aches in her back, providing a resting ground for her lips,
caressing her hips.

Before
they said goodbye that magical night in Tehran in front of the Golestan Palace,
she asked him why he decided to shake her hand. Without answer he waxed
lyrical, in a different direction. “I dream of working wonders with my hands,”
he said, “I want to make magic potions and aphrodisiacs based on ancient
Iranian traditions.” Although it was not an answer, his words opened a new mysterious
horizon onto his soul. She wanted to know more.

She
touched his hands again in Tbilisi, a city they had arranged to rendezvous in
order to get to know each other better. Across the border, where it was safe.
Christian Iranians and Bahais walked the streets of Tbilisi openly, freely
proclaiming their faith. The walls of certain homes were covered with signs in
Farsi. There in the Georgian Republic, they could say things – about each
other, to each other, about their lives – that could not be said so long as the
morality police of the Islamic Republic was watching them. Closed circuit
cameras and bugs in hotels. They could hold hands publicly, without breaking
the law.

Funny,
she thought, how law interacts with morality, indeed with honesty: what is licit
in one country suddenly becomes an offence when the jurisdiction shifts. As if
there were no universal or transcendent ethics. As if, even in the Islamic
Republic, everything were just a game of power and politics. Strange how acts
of affection, expressions of love, can made into crimes.

Her
hands pressed hard on his body. Certain parts of him yielded in certain ways,
though not every crevice and not in every way. He was nervous and gently,
tenderly, resistant. Her hands traced a continual arc on his back while they
worked together to etch each other’s body in their memory, to stimulate the
words that flowed between them like a fresh shower on a hot summer day,
summoning and cementing memory, not just for that instant, but for eternity.

She saw
his hands again in Abu Dhabi, but this time it was different. This time it was
she who was cautious. She wanted to see what his hands would do with her body –
how he would touch her and when and why – when unprompted. Nearly all of their
contact had been initiated by her hands in Tbilisi. This time, she decided, she
would let his fingers determine their movements, would wait for his nails to
dig into her skin, and his thumbs to press into the small of her back. She
imagined her spine curve, bending into his hands. As she waited for him to
touch her, the hours passing relentlessly with him making no movements, giving
no sign of the love growing between them, she remembered when he shook her
hands unbidden in full public view in violation of the law, in Tehran. Looking
back on that moment, she wondered whether she had misread the target of his
apparent defiance. Was it perhaps a performance, not for her sake, but for the
state, an act of civil disobedience that dared the government to punish him? Hospitality demands that we shake the hands
of every guest,
his handshake seemed to say in retrospect, as he failed to
touch her. We must show our respect to
every visitor!
Or was she demeaning that miraculous moment? What force of
gravity had caused him to extend his hand to her then, only to withdraw it when
they were finally alone?

She had
never seen his hands so reticent as they were in Abu Dhabi. Neither in Tehran
nor Tbilisi were they like that: tentative, passive, even cold. It was as if
they belonged in another place, on another body, or in another galaxy. She
decided she would wait until they said goodbye to question why his hands
appeared to be tied down by a psychic force she could not fathom, why they were
so hesitant to touch her body. And then, in the airport, there was a crush of
people, as there always is. They were late. The lines extended out into the
arrivals hall as the boarding time approached. 5:30. 5:35. 5:40. The day was
just beginning, yet it felt like the end of time. All passengers for Tehran please approach gate 6D, the intercom
blared. The moment to speak had passed – she had to touch his hands. She
reached out to find them, but they were tugged deep inside his pockets, too
deep for her to reach.

The
deferral of discussion, along with his unreachable hands that could have
brought words to his lips, prevented her from asking the question that was
burning on her lips: when would their hands meet again? He asked her to watch
his luggage while he went to the bathroom. When he returned, he had to rush to catch
his flight. There was no time to say goodbye, no time to repeat the gestures
that brought them together in Tehran and Tbilisi, no time for her to take the
measure of his hands, to press his knuckles on her cheek, to lift his
fingertips to her lips and to tell him how much she wanted his hands – but
actually the entirety of his body and of his soul – in her life. Perhaps, she
decided, the crush of people was the best way of deferring this impossible
speech. Maybe silence was the preferred option. Not knowing what to say in the
little time remaining to them, she closed her eyes and imagined his fingers
stroking her hair. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.




Curbing Creativity: Migrants, Publishing & Brexit

As we are continually swept towards Britain’s catastrophic exit from the EU, the public remain as perplexed as on the day of the referendum result in 2016. The nation’s current sorry state of affairs would leave our past selves recoiling in disbelief: Boris Johnson is (barely) standing as Prime Minister, the unnerving prorogation of Parliament transpired, and it seems likely that we are about to come crashing out of the EU with no deal. It sounds like the perfect set-up for a dystopian novel – and on the subject of which, Brexit’s threat to the publishing industry and our creative industries across the spectrum is one we must not let slide. 

One troubling implication of the Brexit saga thus far is its breeding of a malicious anti-immigration rhetoric which continues to incite intolerance towards some of the most ambitious, talented individuals this nation has to offer. Remaining firmly at the forefront of the narrative, the perpetuation of immigration myths seems an indisputable reflection of the global rise in Far-Right movements. Such damaging fabrications arguably have one purpose: to create an environment of hostility that ought to deter migrants from both working and living in Britain.  

Those who spout anti-multiculturalism sentiments often fail to consider the abundant contributions migrants make to society – benefits that far exceed economic input. In their ‘State of Hate 2018’ report, Hope Not Hate argued: ‘The divisive and xenophobic rhetoric of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum set a tone for anti-immigration hate, which legitimised and galvanised prejudice beliefs’. In allowing misinformed prejudices to reign over the Brexit debate, often disregarded is the fact that migrants, both EU and non-EU, allow many of our industries to thrive – including the creative sector. 

The publishing industry relies upon migrants to remain relevant, innovative and prosperous. The influence that writers of an immigrant background have had on literary fiction in the UK is unparalleled. From Caryl Phillips to Oyinkan Braithwaite (whose second novel My Sister, The Serial Killer made the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 shortlist and was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2019), both first and second generation migrants defied and stirred the traditional literary canon, blurring its confined lens. 

Arguing the necessity of migration for creativity, Jo Wallace, creative director at Publicis London, writes, ‘When we get excited by an idea it’s mostly because it’s different. It’s new. Something foreign which translates into logical magic. It’s the juxtaposition of unexpected things that creates a tension which hooks us.’ If Britain fails to attract migrants post-Brexit – which its current rise in xenophobic hate crime and increasingly rigorous immigration policy would certainly ensure – we can wave goodbye to our longstanding reputation as a cultural hub of talent. 

Absent of the varied perspective and unique experience that shape an author’s work, Britain’s book industry may regress to a mere echo chamber for an exclusionary, homogenous narrative; inevitably promoting voices of the same narrow background. And not only does this issue of representation affect writers in the UK, it is in fact one which permeates the entire book industry. 

The lack of diversity within publishing roles is alarming; Spread The Word published a research paper titled ‘Writing the Future’ in 2016, expressing their concern towards the industry’s poor inclusion of minority ethnic employees. Warning that the UK’s publishing sector appears ‘increasingly mono-cultural and parochial’, Spread the Word suggested that ‘the book industry risks becoming a 20th century throwback increasingly out of touch with a 21st century world.’ 

This absence in diversity is only set to spiral post-Brexit as Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary, has pushed for an immediate end to free movement – contradicting prior promises that EU nationals may continue to live and work in the UK until January 2021. This imminent end to free movement would demand that EU nationals, too, are subject to a rigid, bureaucratic nightmare. The path to a Tier 2 work visa, let alone British citizenship, is destined to become one migrants no longer wish to tread. 

UK immigration policy is already a complex web of character scrutiny, high costs and extensive requirements for non-EU/EEA citizens. Once this brutal policy is similarly thrust upon EU migrants, a particularly infuriating requirement is the salary demand for a Tier 2 ‘skilled worker’ visa. Under this visa, £30,000 is the minimum salary threshold for migrants who wish to live and work in the UK (with the exception of those whose prospective role features on the government’s extremely limited ‘Shortage Occupation List’ and public service workers). 

As of yet, there have been no proposals of exemptions for creative workers. To give some perspective on the absurdity of this threshold, authors in the UK earn an average annual salary of £10,500. Such unreasonable criteria is enough to leave deflated any aspiring international creatives who wish to settle in the UK.

As the Creative Industries Federation investigated, of 250 businesses working within the creative sector, 75% reported that they employed EU migrants – two thirds stated they could not fill those jobs with British workers. The correlation here is clear; migrants are essential for the creative industry to flourish. To determine ‘skill’ by a salary figure is to entirely overlook and undermine the expertise and impact of creative workers including freelancers, authors and front of house staff who are essential to its functioning, to name just a few. 

We ought to celebrate and embrace migrants – both EU and non-EU – not impede them with a convoluted, impossible-to-navigate visa system. Not only should Brexit implore us to re-evaluate our future immigration policy approach to EU migrants, it should similarly apply to all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers across the board. We need to renounce this grossly bigoted preconception of migrants as ‘others’, as people taking rather than giving. 

Brexit often feels like both a symbol of and catalyst for Western prejudices and paints a horrifying picture of the chaos which will ensue as a result of the championing of far-right voices, the drowning out of truth and the elevation of thinly veiled racism. This has no place in a cosmopolitan world. What Brexit really ought to affirm is our dire need to dispel cruel myths and to quash unreliable narratives sparking harmful misinformation on migrants. Evidently, such untruths have detrimental consequences. 


Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers that provides Legal Aid support for asylum-seekers and refugees. 




14th BBC National Short Story Award inspired by #MeToo, Brexit and Trump.

Lucy Caldwell

Photo by Tom Routh

Announced today was the shortlist for the 14th BBC National Short Story Award  with Cambridge University, this year the writers where inspired by the #MeToo movement, Brexit and Trump.

Lucy Caldwell, multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and short story writer, has been shortlisted for the second time for ‘The Children’. Previously shortlisted in 2012 for ‘Escape Route’, one of her first ever short stories, Caldwell is joined on the 2019 shortlist by a wealth of emerging talent including University of Dundee Fellow and former bookseller Lynda Clark for ‘Ghillie’s Mum’; charity worker Jacqueline Crooks for ‘Silver Fish in the Midnight Sea’; civil servant Tamsin Grey for ‘My Beautiful Millennial’; and Welsh writer Jo Lloyd for ‘The Invisible’. The writers have explored sexual politics, intolerance, community and immigration.

The Award is one of the most prestigious for a single short story, with the winning author receiving £15,000, and the four further shortlisted authors £600 each. The winner is announced during a live BBC Radio 4 Front Row broadcast at a ceremony in London on Tuesday 1st October.




Leeches

Picture Credits: Theresa McGee

When I was 7, I witnessed my first death. We were at
the cottage when my cousin Sebastian found, trapped and tortured a leech on the
dock. My mother took this opportunity as teachable moment; not about how some
young boys can be cruel and violent or how others will try and beat the ugly
out of this world but of how these parasitic, predatory worms are super
resistant, strong, “can even resist torture,” she said. When the boys left, I
built a home for the suffering leech, of sticks and mud and a red leaf for the
roof. Shortly after, the leech died. Sebastian returned to steal the dead from
its home, to use as bait to catch fish, he said. I strongly resisted but
failed. Sebastian wouldn’t listen to reason. Sebastian was a killer I guess. I
remember crying so much that afternoon, throwing a tantrum so severe that
Sebastian enlisted my grandfather into finding a replacement leech. They went
off into the lake. Just after dinner, when the sun was setting, my cousin and
grandfather returned with two long, beautiful, speckled leeches.

            I had permission to bring them home
as long as they were returned the following weekend. During that time, I cared
for them, brought them to show and tell at school. A new addition to my friend
group, to our tea parties and adventures. I kept them in a bucket of sand and
weeds. Aunt Margaret closed the cottage as the summer came to an end and we never
got the chance to return the leeches to the lake. I wondered if they were mad
at me for taking them from their home. A profound guilt came over me. I was to
protect them from an uncertain future, I told myself, from the cruel boys and
the fish that wanted them dead. I kept them for two months.

Leeches can go a long time without eating but by the
end October, I started noticing how they weren’t as active, as responsive. I
thought about placing my little hand in the leech bucket and letting them suck
at it for a while but I couldn’t stomach it. I was getting concerned. Winter
was quickly approaching and my babies were starving to death. I tried feeding
them meat, raw meat, even the blood from raw meat. Nothing.

            My mother got worried that they
would die. That the trauma from their death would cause irreparable damage; foreshadowing
a future of bad relationships and loose morals. “Trauma can do that,” she told
my dad quietly. My mother called the Museum of Nature for some advice. She
spoke to a woman that specialized in creepy crawlers, in leeches. “Leeches only
feed on live mammals,” she said. In their exhibit, they fed them mice. I don’t
think I could stomach that either. The museum people told us that we would have
to put them in the fridge over the winter so that they could hibernate. Mom
didn’t want that. However, the museum had an upcoming workshop on creepy
crawlers. They told us to bring our little friends and that they would keep
them in their exhibit if they were a fit, or else, release them. I was happy.
My leeches had found a home, of glass and fame.

            Workshop day had arrived, and one of
my leeches escaped. I was destroyed again. I yelled at everyone to watch where
they were stepping or so help me god. Mom said they could sense water. When she
came home, she looked under the rug in the corner of the house facing the
biggest body of water, the river. My leech was there, alone and shriveled up,
but still alive. We quickly rushed them to the museum. There we met with the
leech specialist and compared leeches. Mine were much more beautiful, they were
mine. Theirs were small and grey. Mine were big, dark green, with a dotted
vermillion line along their backs. “They slid like pretty ribbons through
water,” I told them. The museum agreed to take them. They went even further and
gifted me free admissions passes, inviting my entire class to come see them in
their new home. A few months later we took a school field trip to the Museum of
Nature for the creepy crawler exhibit. My leeches were easy to spot amongst the
others. They were the prettiest.   




The Last Time

What I’ve done I’ve done. What’s left is little.

Uphill, the villagers are harvesting. Down by the
shore, at the resort, they are cleaning, cooking, laundering, massaging. The
mistress of my end shuttles between my bedside and the dirt yard where she
cooks, a quiet infant sashed to her back. She has just prepared a pot of rice
porridge. It must be an hour after dawn. It’s the last time I will eat rice
porridge.

If I could just shift a little, I would see a flare of
red orange: hibiscus petals lingering in full bloom on the damp earth. But I
can only look through the doorway as it is, or around the warm, dark hut, or
over the wasteland of my body, idle beneath the sheet. I look through the
doorway. There is no sky, not from this position, only an open fire and sunlit
green and the thatched overhang of the porch where I used to escape the sun and
the torrential rains, where it’s always cooler, where outside the other huts
women work and babes are reared.

Several children crowd the doorway. Their faces are
shadowy. Their uncombed heads look arrayed with palm fronds. She may have sent
them to check on me. They may be asked whether they notice any change. For a
while it’s as if they are paralyzed, unable to return to their games. They push
their fingers into their mouths and pull up fistfuls of their long shirts. They
are not old enough to wear underpants. The mothers of the village used to give
me their infants to hold, believing that a foreigner would bring them luck. A
few have ended up straggling to major cities, to larger islands, worldly in
their way. If that can count as luck.

She scatters the children and comes to sit on the edge
of my bed with a bowl of porridge. The infant, chubby imp of her mature years,
tugs her headscarf towards his mouth. I groan; she holds still. After the
difficult moment passes, she props up my head and feeds me a few spoonfuls of
warmth. My sheets smell sour but there’s little purpose in having her take them
to the river. I ask her to open the window. The window is a door turned on its
side and let into the back wall of my hut, alongside my bed. I used to be able
to open it on my own, maybe a week ago. She stands and leans over me to prop it
with a foot-long stick.

Everything is vague. I don’t sleep at night. I close
my eyes and sleep.

A rooster’s tail, silvery green, is passing back and
forth beneath the window when I wake. The mistress of my end is squatting out
near the fire, framed by the doorway. She feeds the flames with coconut husks,
checks the pot, and stirs. Later she pours the dense syrup into rings of bamboo
and leaves it to cool. Yesterday I could hear him from a nearby hut, the villager
who fell harvesting palm buds and was carried home and lay moaning with his
injuries. I must ask about him. Dead, she says. I close my eyes and listen to
the birds scratching the tin roof overhead. It’s stuffy in the hut. I think of
coolness, of flow, and see in my mind’s eye white sap raveling down around the
scored bark of the rubber trees and sluicing along the midrib of a green leaf, drizzling
into a can. I see water traveling from the weir uphill, cool water gurgling
into the village along an aqueduct of bamboo piping. Do I have any fears? Yes.
I fear getting well again. But I need not have that fear.

I try to stay awake. Sleep is pointless but sleep is
difficult to resist, especially during the day. At night a fantasia of memory
keeps me awake. The villagers fear the night. Ghosts live in the banana trees,
they say. A man like me, indisposed to the supernatural, has for these years
been surrounded by well-meaning mystics. I can appreciate the banana ghosts and
the drums they play in their ceremonies, the arcane rhythms beat out on hides
stretched over oil barrels, rhythms that beat down the frets of mind.
Thankfully there are too few souls in the village to support a mosque. Day in
day out the metallic call to prayer would disturb the tranquility of the place.

We are near the sea, yet for reasons that have never
been clear to me, the people of the village are not fishermen. They grow
bananas and rice, tap three or four groves for rubber, and make palm sugar.
More recently, some of them have found work at the resort. They think the
resort has improved their lives. I used to wonder whether it has made them
dependent. Meanwhile I try not to think of the plastic bags and containers they
bring to the village and eventually discard. The elders tell about the coming
of mirrors. Now it’s the coming of plastic.

She’s feeding a sliver of papaya to the little green
bird whose leg she’s tied to a crosspiece on my porch. The papaya … I can taste
its chalky succulence, and she knows I can, and she brings me a sliver. My
tongue accidentally brushes her rough finger. She draws back and giggles.
Bahar. She must have been an adolescent when I first settled in her village.
She understands me better now than she ever did before, now that I’m dying in
her care, gaunt man in a gloomy hut. Such gentle treatment, such wordless
sympathy. Gentle and sympathetic towards me at least. Maybe a week after I fell
ill, a month ago now, a thin green snake slithered into the hut. She charged in
after it with a broom of twigs. The snake darted beneath the bed. It’s OK, I
said. I’m dying. Not yet, she said, and shoved the broom under the bed and
pulled the snake out, broken, by the tail. We both know I have little time. We
both know I could waste that time lamenting the breakdown of my body. I feared
that most, making a fuss. When I first came here, I made certain promises to
the village headman. He’d studied a year in the capital in the sixties, when
the village was more populous, before the island-wide migrations out of the
rural areas, before other islanders were displaced here, before the violence,
before the long knives and the quick, heady slaughter and then his rediscovery
of a contemplative rural Islam. He told me a story passed down from his
grandparents. A merchant had one day brought a mirror to the village and for a
time everyone was distracted, upset by its powers. I promised him that I hadn’t
come to change the villagers or disturb them. My ambition was to merge
seamlessly into the seasons of their lives. I’m restless, I said. I’ve been
restless my entire life. Here you will find rest, he said. And so it was
decided: I would own the house for the length of my life and lease the land.
Since then I haven’t traveled more than fifty miles away. What a mystery I must
have been to them, once, when I first settled in this village uphill from
nowhere. Now I’m probably no more anomalous than a mirror or the resort.
Please, they will wrap me in a sheet and bury me within hours of the end, as
they would their own.

The fly won’t leave my face. I want to cry out. Bahar.
I puff weakly in its direction. The fat, black, dirty tickling circles back and
lands again. Finally she checks on me. She fans it away and lights a candle
nearby. The difficult moment has passed. I nod off.

That was a restful absence, untroubled by dreams or by
pain. I do have one wish, that it didn’t hurt for the blind man to massage my
legs and feet. Instead of the masseuse, the itinerant medicine man pays a visit.
He understands my condition but enters my hut regardless and sets out his glass
jars on the empty bedside stool: herbs, tree bark, seeds; eels and white eggs
in liquid. I don’t understand what he’s saying about a jar of sand-colored
powder, so he smiles and unfolds a magazine page and shows me a sensationally
endowed African boffing a Slavic-looking woman. He laughs. I smile weakly. I
whisper that there’s no cure for death and praise Allah because otherwise
there’d be no cure for life, and he grows pensive and seals his eyes and
whispers a prayer. I wait for him to finish. Funny cigarettes? I ask, and he
looks back at the doorway and brings out a fold of newspaper from a pocket of
his jellabiya. He rubs a dried stalk
over the palm of one hand, rolls a joint, lights it, and holds it to my lips.
He has a web-like scar over half of his face because a spider peed on him, the
villagers say. We toke back and forth until it’s a nub that he drops out the
window. Ascending each plateau, I lift away, heavy then light, a comforting
warmth in my loins, dead coldness in my legs and feet, and I realize again that
the unorthodox make the most congenial company.

When I drift back down, it’s nearly nightfall and I’m
alone. I hear the voices of the other villagers and feel a spasm of regret and
chide myself for not paying attention because this is the last time I will be
able to pay attention. Bahar brings a storm lantern into the darkened hut and
returns with a bowl, probably of rice porridge. I shake my head. She leans over
me and drops the window and brings a tub of water and wipes me down with a warm
rag. I can’t turn over, please don’t turn me over, I say, though she knows, and
I pant until the tizzy of fear subsides. When I’m calm again, she takes the
lantern and leaves me in a rush of flashing darkness. The villagers on their porches
are eating rice with their hands and gabbing. This is the last time I will hear
them eating, laughing, the last time I will be charmed by their inscrutable
lives, the simplicity of their humor, their apparent lack of boredom, the last
time I will smell the sea, if I really am smelling the sea, if I’m not just
imagining it, the colorful wooden boats rising and falling on the waves, the
bamboo fishing platforms in the wide gulf, men at dawn panning for gold at the
shoreline, boys kicking up golden powder playing football on the beach at dusk,
children flying kites of colorful paper and bamboo. I used to spend some time
with a boy of the village, flying his kite. That was the closest to fatherhood
I ever came. Or when he was older, you in boots, he in flip-flops, he led you
up the hill along the aqueduct and further up to the weir, yellow leaves and
red leaves flashing in the current, and you left the creek and walked through
the plantations and along the edge of the paddies and over the hill into higher
hills. You bathed in the crystalline pool below the waterfall and on the way
back a storm broke, and he snapped two enormous leaves from a banana tree and
you walked home holding a leaf over your head. Strange what you never expect to
lose, and lose. That was the last time you saw him. He moved to the city and
was killed in an accident and his mother mounted his road-scraped helmet on the
scarecrow in her paddy. They are flashing over the weir, the bright dead
leaves. They are churned under, resurface, are carried away. That was the last
time I became angry. That was the last time I saw the sea. That was the last
time I went walking in the hills. That was the last time I insisted on
anything. That was the last time I felt doubt. That was the last time I felt
regret. That was the last time I left my hut. That was the last time I spoke to
the village headman. That was the last time I yearned. Did you think you’d be
spared? Not death, but the natural elegy that is life on earth? Sometimes I
rushed at life and caught hold of it. Sometimes, a coward in the wings, I held
back. But that was life too. If I were still capable of regret? That I’ve
received hospitality more than I’ve given it. Maybe that. That too often I’ve
been treated gently, let off the hook. That sometimes, ambivalent about life,
I’ve lived as if by habit. Maybe that. I’m not holding a stone to my chest,
though. I do not need to hold a stone to my chest. I’ve come through, that’s
what I can say for myself. I’ve come through, with all the awkward hunches and
stays of execution that coming through entails. No, do not. Do not hustle
yourself into revelation, do not cheapen the last flashes over the weir, think
of beauty, yes, and of joy and luck and grace. These are your last rites. Again
the cliffs above Debre Libanos. Again the walk into the Blue Nile Gorge. Again
along the Mediterranean, the perfume of herbs in every crushing step. Duck
beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the medieval stone house where you lived
for a time. See the Scythian figurines in museum cases, the cobblestones of
Erice. Again the fever and dream of the written word. Again your parents and
the child your parents could lift. I was a fickle son. Again the finest flame
of touch and the play of mind for the last time: tether, tearing, snap:
churning under, flowing out.

Morning.
His eyes still look. I draw them closed. Stone is heavy. Place two small
stones.




Things My Mother Failed to Tell Me – About Ageing

Picture Cfedits: Carlos Eduardo Du

Mother never said that
there would come a time when Spanx and control-top pantyhose would be my best
friends. Trusted close-knit companions you can rely on. My mother failed to
tell me I would embrace the push-up bra I cursed in my twenties, since it left
red welts on my skin, with enthusiasm in my fifties when everything goes south.
I never saw Mother naked. Never saw her blemishes and wounds of experience. I
have scars. The back of my hand reminds me sixteen-year-old girls are more
comfortable with a potato peeler than a paring knife. The faint discolouration
on my ankle showcases my first attempt at shaving my legs. Mother never
enlightened me on waxing. Her idea of waxing was a can of lemon scented furniture
polish – ideal for keeping the dining table shiny. No, Mother never promised
personal grooming would get easier with age.

I curse the age spots. As a child, I embraced my freckles. A connect-the-dots story, Mother said. Her fingertips brushing against my cheek made me giggle. I’d bury my head in her shoulder. A whiff of her Evening in Paris perfume was comforting. Today, I scold myself for baking in the sun during my twenties. Once upon a time, society envied golden girls for their beachy exuberance, their tan lines were badges of honor. Mom never suggested a sunscreen with a high SPF rating. I lathered baby oil with carefree abandon. My daughter wouldn’t dare skinny dip in a vat of oil, baiting the Sun God to burn baby burn!

I wear progressive
lenses, a tell-tale sign of maturity. Women my age resist squinting lest our
peering be mistaken for a cougar-like glare. Channeling my mom-voice, I direct
the adolescent grocery boy to my car. He sees an older woman with yogurt tubs,
bags of granola and ripe bananas. I see army supplies, intending to battle with
my fluctuating weight. The specialty toothpaste is designed to lighten the
agony of sensitive teeth. He’s too young to deduce the box of pantyliners in my
cart is incriminating evidence of my easing into menopause. I’m too old to be
embarrassed by personal grooming products.

As a woman, I want
respect, with my years of experience valued as wisdom. Yet I constantly
camouflage. Monthly hair salon visits hide my roots. I’m seduced by promises to
conceal my wrinkles and astonished the drug mart legally sells snake oil. More
lotions and potions sit displayed on my nightstand than are found in the school
chemistry lab. Give me time and I’ll create a spike in Proctor & Gamble
shares. We respect, even nurture, the aging of wine and cheese. Yet you won’t
find me tattooing my date of birth on this old crate. I’ve lived. Survived the
terrible twos, endured teenage angst, and trudged through mountains of
adulthood. Financial woes, career challenges, and family drama are all etched
in my creases and folds. The support of loved ones boosted my immune system.

Mother failed to
mention mishaps and mayhem bring your personality to life. A surgery scar is an
emblem of family togetherness, when everyone, little kids included, helped
around the house while I recuperated in bed. There were family vacations where
we laughed so hard that we should have taken some Depends. Smile lines are
easily read by a skilled fortune teller. Remembering the stumbles of my youth,
I look back and laugh. Applying for positions I wasn’t qualified for led to
long-term employment. Going outside my comfort zone broadened my skill sets.
Learning on the job I didn’t age, I matured. Capabilities were stretched.
Responsibilities gained. A career wasn’t defined by the number of years worked.
I balked at the word “senior” in my job title. When a role shriveled up, I
dusted off the interview clothing and put my best foot forward. Defeat was not
an option. Male colleagues are often graded as distinguished as they aged. A
woman is seen as being well preserved. Why are we stacked differently on the
shelf?

Time is a precious
commodity. I’ve passed the route marker where the road ahead offers more
funerals than weddings. Traditions and customs suggest we maintain a rosy
complexion, the casket on display. No amount of rouge can return us to our
youth. I held my mother’s hand during my father’s funeral. Our chests of
memories are deemed more valuable than the contents of our jewelry boxes. I’ve
offered her aged bones a boost when climbing into my family van. Despite her
advanced age, she is sturdy. Fragility isn’t to be confused with helplessness.

Mom’s a first-generation
immigrant who navigated the cultural differences of a new frontier. Her first
year in Canada came with no how-to-manual. It never occurred to me that cooking
a Thanksgiving turkey was such an ordeal. Mom told me a neighbor came to her
home and gave her step-by-step instructions. Without her help, Mother admitted,
that she’d have cooked that bird with a bag of giblets inside. Dressing fowl
was as foreign as purchasing a winter coat, but she adapted. Weathering the
frost of Alberta, she embraced new traditions. Mom never hid her heritage, age,
or her eagerness to try something new. I shared my first dish of frog legs with
my mother. When my own teenage daughter had the opportunity to taste the item,
I encouraged her.

“Go ahead, take a
bite,” I said. “You might discover you like the flavor. Maybe it’s not for
everyone, but my girl channeled her adventurous side. Truth be told, the froggy
appetizer tastes just like chicken.

My mother failed
to tell me that the weight of childhood teasing is tough to shed. Taunts and
ridicule nestled beside love handles. As an adult, I’ve learned to balance when
someone kicks me in the shins. I propel myself forward, springing back up like
the kiddie inflatable punching bag. Mom never spoke of my exclusion from the
cheerleading squad because the white uniform looked different on a brown girl.
She skipped the explanation why the neighbors hesitated to let me hang out in
their daughter’s playhouse, merely suggesting that I’d understand when I got
older. I’m older now, yet I fail to understand.

I’ve inherited arthritis,
alongside the aches and pains of teenage adolescence. When picked last for the
dodgeball team, I crawled into bed and pulled the covers over my head. Every
joint hurt, even my heart ached. No cure found in the Farmer’s Almanac. My mother
had travelled across the world, with four young children, not knowing the
landscape, the currency, or the customs. If she could survive without friends,
so could I. She told me that growing pains came with adolescence. It might hurt
at the time but I’d forget all about dodgeball when I was older. Resilience is congealed
in our bone marrow.

Exposure to the
world expands my mind. Yet mother forgot to point out that we shrink as we age.
Perhaps not enough to be cast in our own TLC television program, or in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, but
sufficiently smaller that we see the world from a different perspective. Energy
depleted, I concede I don’t have the fight in me to bark at the salesclerk who
asks where I’m from. I’ve heard the question so often that it feels routine,
much like someone asking whether I’m paying withdebit or credit card. Do salesclerks quiz the second-generation
fraulein from Germany or the mademoiselle from France? Their creamy complexion is
several shades lighter than my own. My aged ears suggest judgment by something
other than my shopping habits. Mother’s parenting words encourage politeness. I
resist the urge to have a cougar fight at the checkout stand, among the Made In India accessories.

Mother encouraged
good posture. Stand tall she advised. Looking back, I realize she was resisting
more than my juvenile slouches. She was giving me a push. I suspect my teenage
swagger thought my flared jeans were cool. Yet Mom’s notes about good
presentation remained in style much longer than those threadbare flares.

I’ve embraced my
mum jeans, my hips reminding me that I earned my curves. My children are the
best accessories investment I made. I avoid telling my daughter what she should
or shouldn’t wear. She’s far more sophisticated than I ever was at her age.
Confident in her body image, she’s without need for her mother’s advice. Three
generations of women displayed, our choices repositioned and recycled, adapted
and repurposed. Mother never told me it would take fifty years to be
comfortable in my own skin. She forgot to mention style is about personal
choice. The threads we wear are an extension of our creativity, our character.
Regardless of what we choose to mask or hide, the wrinkles of experience, the
creases of laughter, and the comfort of our past can be worn with panache.
Mother should have told me – there’s nothing more attractive than a confident
woman.