Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is
dissected, absorbed, and devoured voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of
dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty Herald, the only touchstone with
the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper tantalizes with a headline
on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of an
onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the
story of the Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.
Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at
the drawing, takes in the words, breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry
12th December – the paper informs her – the nucleus had all but disappeared
but the long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky
near Princeton, New Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000
miles long and still visible to the naked eye. That said, the story writer
concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people generally would know
anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”
If she were so inclined, she would track down the writer and
slit his miserable throat just for that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately,
it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges (imaginative, of
course) for matters of a more pressing nature – most recently, an unknown and
heinously boring writer had shunned the press after Leonard declined his
manuscript, and thus her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor
blade to the throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a
Persian rug – perhaps the very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other
day, which had been delivered two hours early, and she herself had had to see
in the delivery men.
There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is
pouring her another drink, and Virginia reclines back in her chair, happy to
allow the conversation to continue around her. She is back in the room, present
again, a flurry of fire-lit faces that had not been aware that she had ever
left. She sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips, and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamun
on the opposite fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a
thick spray of stars in a farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over
Leonard’s shoulder, to the window – she looks into the winter evening. All that
is visible are shadows from the dim light of other buildings, other rooms,
gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city that
harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter
stays encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in
Rodmell. Even after everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as
home. She still thinks of returning. But there is no undoing the past, no
returning from Rodmell to here – the precarious edge of the world, where this
strange city captures voices unknown to Mr Bell’s invitation of a dinner party,
where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit, painful and unerring,
in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a story
that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody
How exciting other people were.
She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly
derailed by the door opening, a great oak of a door, creaking on its hinges,
and she was back in the room for the second time, transfixed by the sudden
entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having taken a
rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock
“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was
saying, though the subject of conversation was lost on her. Then the damning
line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as your acting in the bedroom has
always proved a mastery of your performance.”
Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended,
neither does she look across at her sister, Vanessa, who she knows very well
will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder, much to Lytton’s despair.
She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following what he thought
was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched uxoriousness
of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door
he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.
“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what
appears to be a considerable amount of time, and Virginia wonders if she had
somehow seen the door open even before it had.
“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right
Honourable…” Whispers pass between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs
grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and opens his arms to welcome the late
She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink
glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. Lytton pulls a chair from the table
with the lavish gesture of the half-drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her
glass as she comments on the décor, touches
the fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s
legs, and says, “Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name
for the first time whilst tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees
her face in the light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming
out of a fevered dream. Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes
in response, the perihelion – the blazing comet at its closest point to the
sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation – to be this elusive shade of blue, cool
and hot at once.
And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up
unexpectedly by E.M. Forster, who, sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and
her attention halfway through a sentence. And then, seamlessly, she is laughing,
charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the evening, her being
in short (what Virginia had never been) a
real woman, and Virginia is left to push her wine glass half an inch
further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fire’s
waxes and wanes. She feels heat rising within herself, not unlike the heat of
the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she knows without looking up
that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so, instead, she
turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points
dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of
bloodshot, an embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to
the fellow?” he inquires. “Suggest that he leave the premises?”
Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an
empty glass. “Suggestions, overt, subtle,
and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John declares that he should be
“throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves, a thought
which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision
from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard
conversation, and, whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders
hand-in-hand with her mind, catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to
conceal a smile that reveals, despite this glamour, grape clusters and pearl
necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.
She reaches again for the wine glass,
blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and sips the warmth of it,
and, like the waves of the sea, the wine
consecrates the past in a dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting,
the real and the imaginary indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment
she closes her eyes, imagines the bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses
herself. Her imagination lifts up its skirts and tiptoes back to life: the
clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle murmur
of a piano she had never realised was being played.
On Lovella Avenue
I decided to go for a walk. I had been bedridden for several days from a fever and general malaise. Cause unknown. I felt being outside in the oppressive heat might rid me from the burden of my thoughts. So I set out on my journey, hobbling like an invalid. My hips tight and sore from lack of movement.
I tried to look at everything with different eyes. As
if I had never seen any of it before. Which was quite the contrary. I had taken
this route for several days before the illness had taken hold and left me
housebound. But I was surprised to find that actually, there were so many new
things to be discovered on this walk. On this day.
I noticed a pair of bright teal doors to a two-family
flat I’d passed by many times. But now they stood presenting themselves to me,
as if installed just yesterday. My eyes just never saw them. I continued on my
journey, eager to know what other hidden treasures remained undiscovered by my
My gait was awkward. Each step felt unnatural and
forced. Like a quadruped made to walk on its hind legs for show. I was almost
certain my legs would collapse underneath the weight of my body at any given
moment. I wasn’t heavy, my legs just felt abnormally weak. And they were, as was
everything else in my body. I just didn’t know it yet.
Feeling spontaneous, I diverted from my usual path. I
turned right down Lovella Avenue. What a strange name. I assumed I could cut
through this street to reach my regular trail a block or two down the road.
There were two small squirrels, I’m almost certain they were babies, running
back and forth in the street. Flourishing. This made me happy. Babies make me
As I approached, they scurried off to clear the way.
Further down the sidewalk I saw two more obstacles. A pair of black cats. But
unlike the squirrels, they were anticipating my arrival. They sat and stared,
waiting for me to approach them. When I finally did, the scruffy black one
asked to be petted while his friend looked on from a safe distance talking to
me in meows. I spent a few minutes with them. Contemplating their life. Hoping
they were safe, okay, loved, well-cared for. If I was more insane than I
already was I would have taken them home, but their presumed owner was standing
in the doorway. So I kissed them on their heads and went on my way. That’s when
I saw it.
An opossum. Blonde, not gray. Small. Strange to be
seen out in the middle of the day. I thought they were nocturnal. It didn’t
notice me, so I called to it. Making kissing noises to get its attention. From
what I knew about opossums they were aggressive, so I was surprised that this
one did not seek to engage with me despite my best efforts. I watched it cross
the street. It didn’t look well. Each step it took seemed to take a great
effort. It seemed tired and I understood. My heart hurt, but I continued on my
walk. Past deceased worms on the sidewalk, bloated from the heat of the sun.
Whenever I saw them alive, I tried to save them. But for so many, it was too
late. This, I also understood.
Two blocks further down and I’d reached a dead end.
There was no indication of this when I made the initial right down Lovella
Avenue. I felt conned. All this walking for nothing. Just another dead end,
like my life. I turned around in frustration, ready to return home when I saw
It had made it across the street and was sitting by a
truck in the driveway of a pristinely manicured lawn in front of a pristinely
manicured house. Something I knew I would never have the luxury of owning in
this life. I said hello to the opossum as I had to the squirrels and the cats,
but the opossum said hello back. I paused. Unsure if my insanity had reached
its apex under the blistering sun and days of fever. But it continued on. It
was a she, I could tell by the voice. She asked me to stop for a moment and
listen to her.
I sat down on the lawn under the shade of a Dogwood
tree. She came closer and sat next to me. I was silent, waiting to hear her
story. She told me she was old, nearly two now, and tired. Not much longer for
this earth. Her last litter of babies had been poisoned by people and died. She
was dying from the poison, too. I felt sad for her, I could tell she was
hurting and I wanted to ease her pain. I asked her to sit in my lap and let me
hold her for a while as she talked. I would listen to her endlessly, for as
long as she desired.
She told me about her youth. She was born not far from
here, near a dumpster behind the supermarket off Clayton Avenue. She was one of
twenty-two joeys, but her mother only had thirteen teats and nine of her
siblings perished from starvation in infancy. Nature is cruel. Her childhood
was short-lived. She witnessed the death of her mother at four months old, hit
by a car filled with teenage boys having their idea of fun on a Midwestern
Friday night. “People hate us,” she said, “and I don’t know why. We just want
to live, is that too much to ask?”
Humans are cruel. I began to quietly weep and my tears
fell onto her matted coat, covered in dirt and fleas. I didn’t want her to die,
she was special, but I could feel the shortness of her breath and her weak
heartbeat. I told her I wanted to take her home and rehabilitate her and maybe
we could live together, happily ever after.
She told me she was ready to die. After watching her
babies succumb to the poison she didn’t see a reason to go on. All she asked
was that I sit with her and listen for as long as I could. She told me about
her adventures. After her mother died, her and her siblings had to fend for themselves.
Some set off on their own and she never saw them again. She stayed together
with three of her sisters and for some time they lived peacefully in a vacant
lot. She raised her first litter there in paradise, but land developers
purchased the lot shortly after and began construction so they had to move
again. With babies in tow, she was too slow to keep up with her sisters, so
they parted ways and she began her journey alone.
By then she was nearly eight months old. She had seven
babies in her first litter. She was successful in raising them all to
adulthood, which was an extraordinary feat for a first time mother. Now and
then she would cross paths with them around the neighborhood. Many had families
of their own now. They would stop and chat for a bit, but everyone was busy
just trying to survive. Not much time could be spared. She told me one of her
sons died from an attack by a dog. He was her first born son, Ico. I could hear
the sadness in her tone as she told me this. Her voice trembling and weaker by
For many months after her first litter she lived
alone, taking refuge in a feral cat colony near the Recplex. People felt bad
for the stray cats and would feed them regularly. No one ever feels bad for
opossums. The cats were kind enough to share their food with her despite their
differences. Then one rainy day the local animal control came by and rounded up
all the cats, never to be seen again. Shortly thereafter, the food stopped
coming and she moved on.
She made many friends along her short journey, but
many of them also perished. Hit by cars, attacked by animals, hurt by humans.
Life seemed so unfair she questioned why it had to be like this. She struggled
for many months, deciding whether or not to conceive again. It didn’t seem
right to bring more babies into this world of chaos and suffering. But then she
They fell in love quickly and lived for many months
near the outdoor Home and Garden section of Home Depot. Eventually she became
pregnant and when she told Aris, he was elated. It was his first litter. He
left that evening to go forage for food to bring back to her and the growing
babies, but by sunrise he hadn’t returned and never did.
Alone and pregnant, she needed protection. She had
seen several neighboring opossums in the area and reached out for help. An
older female named Kaiza took pity on her growing belly and agreed to take her
in. Kaiza was almost three years old when she met her, ancient for an opossum,
and refused to have more babies. She had seen the horrors of man and could not
allow for the possibility of more suffering than already existed. She stayed
with Kaiza until the babies were born nearly two weeks later.
Not wanting to be a burden on her elder, she decided
to leave with her five babies in her pouch. She felt strong and hopeful she
could fend for them alone and set off to live in a nearby park. Her babies grew
in the park and played and had many experiences exploring the wonders of
nature. She had discovered a bag of food near the playground, a prize, that she
took back to her offspring, now big enough to venture outside her pouch. She
fed the five of them a cheeseburger, fries, and chicken nuggets. They were
happy at the feast their mother had brought home to them.
That evening two of her smaller ones fell ill. She
stayed with them the whole night, not wanting to leave their side to find more
food. By sunrise she awoke to her greatest horror. All five of them were cold,
lifeless. They died in their sleep from the food they ate that had no doubt
been poisoned. She stayed by their side all day. Crying. Feeling incredibly
guilty for feeding them the food that killed them. She found the scraps from
the bag and ate them ravenously. She didn’t want to go on in a world like this.
And now here she was, almost lifeless herself, laying
in my lap. To me, a small little baby. I cradled her and cried with her. I told
her I was sorry people were so cruel and that her babies were no longer
suffering. I told her I had so much I wanted to share with her if she would
only let me take her to a vet, but her breathing was labored and she told me
the end would be soon. I told her I would take her body and I would bury it in
my backyard so she would never be alone again, she would always have a place
with me. I asked her name to put on the tombstone and she replied with her last
I sat there motionless for some time. Sobbing into her
fur. Feeling like I’d lost an old friend, perhaps the only one in the world who
ever truly understood me. Eventually the owners of the house came outside to
move the car. I must have been a strange sight, crying with a dead opossum in
my lap. I stood up, holding her still warm body, and began to walk home.
About two blocks down the road I crossed paths with a
dead bird. Its head bent upwards unnaturally towards the sky. I didn’t have a
chance to meet the bird while it was still alive, but I picked it up all the
same and placed it gently on top of Nila’s body as I continued my journey home.
Maybe her name was Nila, too. Like the opossum.
God Meant Us To Fly
Crouchin down to peer through the smudged window, I could just about make her out through a fog of heat risin across the front porch. Heat as thick as cotton that day. I stretched my neck high as it would go without givin myself away and saw her rockin in that chair – the one Ma Rachel tried to sell in the yard sale but nobody bought. Sat there stale and stiff, brown hair mopped across her face. But I could see her eyes – how she stared straight in front of her, like she wasn’t seein nothin or nobody no matter how long she looked. And like nobody was seein her neither. There was somethin else funny about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
Heavy steps and the screened-door slammed when Ma Rachel walked past. Ooh, I knew she meant business. Short and stout as a potbelly pig, Ma Rachel was never quiet. And when she got caught up in some sort a business, it was like a herd a cattle who just figured out what the slaughterhouse was for.
She spied me in the corner and hollered, “You get on outta here! Ain’t none uh’yur business what that girl’s here for, you hear me? You better move that skinny bee-hind now!”
I didn’t need no second warnin from Ma Rachel, I’ll tell you that much.
I scurried as fast as my feet could take me through the livin room, slidin on cool tiles and headed straight to my secret listenin spot cause I knew there was gonna be somethin worth hearin today. You see, it wasn’t scorchin outside but it was mighty hot. Sweat drippin down your panties hot like you only get down South. And it was hot enough for me to figure out, even only being eleven, that this girl wasn’t sittin out there for her health. The only reason people waited like that outside Ma Rachel’s was when they needed help. I knew she’d be tellin Ma Rachel somethin and doggone-it, I was gonna hear it. Not much happened round here so when it did, it was in your interest to know more than everybody else.
Creakin open the back door, I snuck down stone steps into the yard. I winced as sun flamed my face and the grass scrunched underneath my feet. Stickin straight against the house, I edged as slowly as I could round the corner til I was spittin distance of Ma Rachel on the front porch. But she couldn’t see me now. Stock-still behind her favorite Gardenia with blooms so sweet and ripe I could nearly taste them. She’d be none too pleased about that but she was gone now. Too busy wrapped up in helpin.
You see, Ma Rachel was the helper. People lost their dog? She’ll find it. Run outta hay? She may not have much but she’s got extra when it counts. Even little ones that needed lookin after, she’d take them in as babies. She helped people or animals alike – it didn’t matter so long as she thought you were worth it. My Momma called it a blessin and a curse.
Momma, in the meantime, or at least as long I remember, was on her own. Never threw any pity party, too proud for that. “Keep your head down, don’t mind what anybody says and you’ll be just fine.”All I’ve ever seen of Momma was her workin hard and stayin outta trouble. I guess after havin me she decided she’d had enough trouble.
Before I was even outta diapers Momma took a job workin down at the prison and I started stayin at Granny’s. Things went on like that just fine right up until the day I turned up and found Granny stone-cold and solid propped up on her salmon-colored sofa.
“Granny?” I called, wipin my shoes, lettin myself in through the back door. I was only little then but I still knew how to mind myself. I walked through to the livin room and plopped down on what used to be Papaw’s recliner that still smelled of Old Spice.
And there she was. Still as a cow in rush-hour traffic.
“Granny?” She looked like somebody had done flicked the off-switch right when she was in the middle a sayin somethin. I Love Lucy came from the TV and it seemed like Granny might keep watchin that show for all eternity. I don’t remember much else after that except for Momma showin up and huggin me as tight as she could. I still don’t know how she died but after the funeral Aunt Carla said, “That poor woman had as many crosses to bear as any Saint. Her heart just wasn’t strong enough to do it anymore.” I reckon I was one a those crosses she was talkin about.
Things got real hard after that. I’d count Momma’s cigarette butts in her ashtray to tell how upset she was. Ma Rachel musta known Momma was too proud to ask for help. So one day after Sunday service, I heard a commotion and saw Ma Rachel headed in our direction.
“Suzie!” she hollered and Momma stopped.
“Suzie, your Momma’s service was real nice.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. It sure meant somethin for you to be there.”
“Listen here, we need to talk about what you’re gonna do.” Ma Rachel looked me then.
“Go’on to the car, I’ll be there in a minute.” Momma gave orders in a way so you were sure to listen the first time. The next mornin, we woke early. Momma drove me down a gravel road and we parked up beneath the oak tree. Ma Rachel came out to meet us, walkin and talkin at the same time, sayin “Don’t you worry Suzie.” I guess I’ve been runnin with Ma Rachel’s pack ever since.
Lucky for me that day when the girl arrived, all those other young’uns had already gone home. It was one a those long summer days and Momma was on late shift. The mutts were worn slap out in the yard too hot to move, and Moses the cat was scratchin up against the woodpile, so I distracted myself watchin him.
I waited. It seemed like hours. Keepin so quiet I could hardly hear my own breath comin and goin. Ma Rachel waited too and I’ve never seen her so patient. Then, a voice cut through—
“I killed him.”
Nothin seemed to move.
Her hair muffled the words but they still hung in the air. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right til Ma Rachel started pacin across the porch.
“I killed him, Ma Rachel.” Her voice louder and relieved.
I didn’t move a muscle. My legs hurt but I planted myself to the ground and prayed I didn’t make a sound, even though my body swayed back and forth towards that Gardenia. If Ma Rachel saw me now, my hide would be raw.
“Honey, what’ve you done?” Ma Rachel’s voice broke and her hands raised up like she was praisin Jesus but I knew she wasn’t.
I expected her to rage and holler like she does when we break somethin or make a mess. But instead, I saw her do something I’ve only seen a couple a times, like when Kurt broke his arm and the bone showed through. Her shoulders hunched over til she knelt right in front a the girl. She reached her hand out, lifted her chin and stroked her cheek. I knew she was lookin right at her.
“Honey, tell me what’ve you done.”
The girl lifted her head and I saw her lookin up to meet Ma Rachel’s eyes like she was ready to meet her maker. You could tell she was afraid but when she looked at Ma Rachel a stillness seemed to come about her. Her hair tumbled down and I could see that she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful. Goosebumps went straight up my arms and I knew she meant what she said. But it almost seemed like her problems had gone just by tellin Ma Rachel. I could swear there was somethin familiar about her so takin a chance, I leant forward. I could see her hair like buttered toast, freckles across her nose, and then it hit me.
When I first came to Ma Rachel’s, Tiffany was just one of us young’uns. I should say though, she was never quite like us. One dry summer our only relief came from the sprinklers in the backyard. The boys would push their way to the front while us little ones got sent to the back, at least until Tiffany would appear.
She’d slam the back door open, runnin straight up to the front like she deserved to be there just as good as anybody. Elbowin the boys outta the way – she didn’t give a hoot what anybody thought. First, she let us have our turn. Then she’d fly – bare feet on wet grass as fast as she could go, legs like grasshoppers straight over the water that sprayed her face and nipped her calves. That was as happy as I’d ever seen anybody.
Everybody always said there was somethin about Tiffany. She had more sense and charm than the rest of us combined and we knew it. She was Ma Rachel’s favorite, but we didn’t mind cause she was everybody’s favorite. Now, it all seems so long time ago and that girl sittin on the porch – I barely recognize her.
“Aw honey, what did he do to you?” Ma Rachel could barely get the words out.
Tiffany sat in her chair, just rockin til finally the words came out. “I don’t know how it happened. I loved him, but he just wanted everything for the takin. We were gonna get married. You remember how charmin he could be? But other days, he’d come home and I knew by the sound of his boots across the floor there’d be hell at the end of it.”
“The worst days,” she stopped now and lifted her head from her hands. “The worst days he’d leave. Lock the door on his way out and take the keys with him. Come back long after midnight. I never knew what I did to make him that mad.”
By now the whole night smelled like honeysuckle. Crickets echoed over Ma Rachel’s yard against the kudzu. I remembered how Momma told me once that only the males made that noise callin for a mate. The sun was drawn in but I could still see a pair of Blue Jays flittin through the Dogwood tree. It depressed me how dull the girls looked compared to the boys. Then I thought of Jimmy and how he ran so fast you woulda thought he was goin barefoot over hot coals when we raced in the backyard. I couldn’t ever keep up and I asked Momma one day after our races, “Why don’t God give us girls the upper-hand once in awhile?”
She smiled at me, “Oh Birdie,” she said, “It don’t matter how fast you run. When God means us to fly, he gives us wings.”
Even back then, there was always a winner and a loser. Jimmy was the nicest and we all looked up to him but Tommy was the one in charge. I was just little when I first came to Ma Rachel’s, so they treated me like I was their babydoll. I was one of the weaker ones too, if I’m bein honest. That was how I got my name Birdie. Ma Rachel used to say I was as tiny as a bird and chirped like one too.
You see, I liked to spy and then go tell on the rest of em. I reckoned if I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t big, I needed to keep up somehow. Sometimes it got me into trouble but usually everybody refused to point the finger back at me. Ma Rachel ain’t no fool though and she’d say “Well I guess you musta heard that from a little birdie?” So Birdie just stuck.
One late afternoon, Ma Rachel was away to help a neighbor. I was up a tree when I fell straight down onto the log pile propped up for winter. Usually we kept our distance because we knew the rattlesnakes liked it there, so I was in a hurry to get gone. I only had a few scratches and that woulda been alright, but as I was rushin to get down a log come loose. One by one, the logs started rollin and comin straight for me. I didn’t know what was happenin and before I could stop em, I ended up with one leg stuck underneath that busted pile.
I tried to move my leg and it wouldn’t budge. Splinters spiked my calf and a pain like I never knew went straight up my thigh, blood tricklin from the bark cuttin into my leg. I was still little so you can bet I hollered as loud as I could. I wasn’t worried about my leg or the blood but all I could think of was those snakes.
I spotted Tiffany across the field but she was far away. I kept hollerin until a shadow stood over me. The sun glared in my eyes but I could tell it was Tommy.
“Get me outta here,” I said.
I knew I needed out quick before things got worse.
You see, Tommy would get nasty if you let him. Usually when that happened Jimmy kept him in line. But that day, I saw the way his eyes went funny – just a slit across his face and still grinning. It set my nerves on fire.
“Ain’t that a funny way of askin for help,” he said, lookin down at me.
“Come’on now, I’m stuck!”
I was gettin desperate and my leg hurt somethin rotten.
By this time, he was makin his way around the log pile like he was on the lookout for somethin.
“You just wait right there.”
“My leg hurts somethin awful!”
“Holy Shit! That’s disgustin!” he shouted. “I’ll bring it over so you can see.”
“What is it? I don’t wanna see it – I just want outta here!” I craned my neck, but I still couldn’t see what he found. “That better not be no snake!” I struggled again to get free but I was too weak to move the logs by myself.
I could hear him as he tossed logs from the other side, one by one thuddin to the ground. “You better not make any more topple on me – I’ll tell Ma Rachel,” I warned.
“You shoulda thought about that before, little Birdie.”
I thought about yellin again but didn’t want to upset him even more. He’d been mad ever since I told Ma Rachel how he hurt Lacey. Lacey was Ma Rachel’s favorite dog and about a month before, I found Tommy playin this game with her. Throw a ball out, wait for her to bring it back, then as soon as she was reachin distance, he’d grab her collar, squeeze so hard it looked like her eyes might pop straight outta her head. Countin while he did it and every time he’d count up a second higher. Then he’d stop, give her a treat and do it again.
Now through the stacks, there was silence and Tommy appeared over me with that same grin.
“Look, I’ve got a gift for you. A birdie for a Birdie.”
I reached my head up and saw the outline of a small carcass, twisted with feathers, matted and stuck. It looked like a Robin’s head and he cupped the poor bird in his hands as he squatted down closer to me.
Sweat ran down my back and my eyes darted around lookin again for Tiffany.
“Come on, Birdie. What’s the matter? It’s just you and me now.”
He opened his palms and inched closer to my face. I squirmed, tryin to put more space in between us. I woulda crawled underneath that blasted pile by now if I could, snakes be damned. Then I could see exactly what he had – that bird musta been dead a good few days and it was so close I could smell its rotted stink. A thick oozing maggot slipped through his fingers onto the logs beside me and all I could see was the edge of that bird covered in a pile of grubby maggots.
I thought I’d throw up right there.
“Wha’d you say?” He looked at me, mean as sin.
“Nothin,” I replied, my eyes down. Momma always said there’s no use makin deals with bullies.
Then he whispered, his breath so close to my ear it made me feel even sicker, “Birdie, I’ll get you outta here, but first I need a favor.”
Tommy raised up the maggots and the bird til it was inches from my face. I couldn’t tell if the warmness comin down my cheek was tears or grime drippin off those maggots.
“I’m gonna put this bird right here, so you don’t get lonely,” he said, and I saw him place it to the right of my face on top of the logs. Then he cupped my jaw with his hand and I felt his fingers dig into my cheeks, squeezin my mouth so slow and so careful. I clamped down til my teeth cut into each other, but I didn’t know how long I could hold it.
“Open your mouth, Birdie. It’s an early supper tonight.”
I felt like I might pass out from the heat, the throb in my leg and the thought of those maggots two inches from my face. His fingers started to pry my mouth open and I thought again about Tiffany. I brought my head back ever so slightly and all I could think was, let’s get this over with. Waiting til he turned his attention to the maggots, I turned my chin and reared my head back just so. I opened wide and sank my teeth as hard as I could around his fingers until his flesh turned into bone.
He hollered so loud and I saw him swing his other hand back and I knew what was comin. Just as he lunged forward, I saw another figure over us and Tiffany appeared, pushin him off the top of me and down onto the ground. I looked up, sticky tears on my face and the taste of copper from blood in my mouth. She had one arm around his neck and he squatted down to get against her but he was no match. She held her ground. Him in a headlock, and with the other hand she grabbed the logs and managed to shift them off me, clearing them away as fast as she could.
Tommy was pitching a fit by then, shoutin “You nasty bitch!”
But Tiffany’s eyes met mine, she pushed the last log off my leg and shouted, “Go Birdie, go!”
Back on that porch, I couldn’t help but think how small Tiffany looked now. Like at some point she started shrinkin instead of growin. Ma Rachel had been quiet longer than I could count until finally, she stood up and started to pace. I knew her well enough to know she’d be hatchin a plan already. When she was like that she furrowed up her brow and stared down at the floor, not lookin at nobody til she settled on what had to be done.
“It’s gonna be alright.” Ma Rachel sounded like she nearly believed herself.
“What are we gonna do, Ma Rachel?”
She asked the same question I wanted to. Ma Rachel could fix just about anything but I had no idea how she’d get outta this one.
“We gotta fix this mess, don’t we? I’ll go tell Birdie I gotta run out.”
Ma Rachel’s words lit a fire under my bottom like you wouldn’t believe. I ran towards the back field, alongside the house, across the yard until I was right next to the fence by the ponies. The whole way back I saw bits of memories comin back – how Tommy apologized and started kissin up to Tiffany after she head-locked him. How a couple years later she started lettin him put his arm round her in the yard. How they borrowed Ma Rachel’s truck to go to the movies, and how before I knew it life had turned upside down and Tiffany was lookin at him like he was some gift from God.
Now, running through that yard I thought about how this never woulda happened if it weren’t for me, if it weren’t for that afternoon. How the only reason he wanted to break her was because all those years ago, she broke him first.
I dried the sweat off my forehead and tried to look normal so Ma Rachel wouldn’t suspect nothin. When she reached me, she was so distracted I don’t think she woulda noticed if I only had one arm attached.
“Birdie, I’m fixin to go out” she said. “Get yourself to bed, your Momma’s workin late tonight.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” And she turned to walk away.
“What Birdie?” she asked, turnin towards me.
I thought of Momma and how she says it helps to say the hard things out loud. “I saw Tiffany, Ma’am. She helped me outta trouble once.”
Ma Rachel looked at me now and her eyes were so heavy. “I always knew Birdie was a good name for you.”
The summer night hung between us.
“Ma’am I might be young, but I could still help.”
She looked at me like she was sizin me up. “Yes, Birdie. I know you could. I tell you what, if anyone comes round later this week and asks what you got up to tonight, you just say we fixed a nice dinner and went to bed early. You say Tiffany came round to celebrate her birthday. That I made her favorite chicken and dumplins.” And without another word Ma Rachel turned back up the hill, huffin harder than I was by that point.
The next minute, I saw Tiffany and Ma Rachel headed to the old Oak tree and ducking into her truck. I ran to catch up. I felt somehow like I was part of if all, chained to this moment, this night sky for better or worse. My feet dug into burnt grass and I’d nearly caught up when my legs tripped. I fell straight down into hot gravel, my knees scraped and sore.
Then I heard the engine sputter and crank. I looked up. Tiffany’s head turned and she stared right at me. I stood up straight as I could and looked right back at her. I felt like I needed to show her that I could be trusted. At first, she looked at me like I was a ghost. Then her eyes flickered and I wondered if she remembered everything from that afternoon so many years ago. Just before her head turned, she placed her hand on the back windshield towards me and I saw her smile. I knew Momma was right – ain’t no use tryin to bargain with a bully. Now Tiffany knew it too. As she turned, the wind caught her hair, waving wild out the window and I felt a judder in my belly. Ma Rachel revved the throttle to gather speed and I watched them haul ass down that driveway, turnin up dust like I never seen.
Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards
This could be, if Bognor had a cathedral, a tale of two cities, twin poles in the life of Wilson Thomas.
—I’m going as far as Guildford. Any good to you?
The shortest distance between two points, there being no motorway, is a meander, in this case the A285, A283 and A3100. It is on these procrastinating curves that Wilson Thomas has come to rely for his mental health, his life.
—You can put that nightie on the back seat.
There is another, identical, locked in the boot.
—Little gift for my wife. Well, I say my wife. Always take them something when I go home. Was it a holiday in Bognor, or business? Personally I live there. Not easy to own up to. I mean, what does anyone know about Bognor except George the whatsit’s dying words? Bugger Bognor. (Map of Britain. Bognor marked in red.Caption: Welcome to Bognor, Backdoor of Britain.) Its only claim to fame. Almost Joycean. Irishman goes for a job on a building site. Foreman asks him, sort of proficiency test, “What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?” Quick as a flash on a frosty night he comes back, “One wrote Ulysses, the other wrote Faust.”
Not a literary man, then?
Visit the pier? (Two explorers silhouetted in a tent. Night time. Caption: Where’s my pith helmet?)
Met my wife on the pier. Donald McGill exhibition. Working visit for me. Professional card-man. I like to say that. Shades of green shades, sleazy glamour. Actually more prosaic. Belle Vue Cards. I rep for them. Plus a little creative work. My wife helps me with that. Amateur cartoonist.
It was love at first sight. They were both peering at the same framed card. He noticed the dimple in her cheek matching the one between her shoulders. She looked up. Eyes of postcard-sky blue. He raised his cap. Her dimples deepened. The sea glittered, like the glass beads on his mother’s throat, his earliest recollection, tickling his eyes.
“I’ve an original McGill of my own if you’d care to see it?”
He drove her to his digs.
“Not many on the market these days. Difficult to come by unless you have contacts. Gives you a little frisson knowing it’s the actual paper he worked on. Speaking of frissons, I’ve another McGill in here.” He dropped his trousers. Embroidered mothers-in-law all over his shorts.
He had the McGill framed and gave it to her. The un-nuanced figures of Curate and Vamp, secure in their ink outline against the washes of colour, brought afresh the first rapture of childhood as they opened it together.
Her first present to him was a pair of musical shorts. They played “I Do Like to Be beside the Seaside”, at the touch of a microchip. He put them on to propose. “I don’t know your name yet.” “Er, Thomas, Wilson.” “Yes, Thomas Wilson, I will.”
—She did a little sketch of me. Caricature. At least, I hope it’s a caricature. I had it copied, printed up. Send them to her on my longer tours of duty, captioned “Greetings from the Fat Man in Postcards”.
Funny, women go for the fuller figure. Thin men don’t realize. Look at H.G. Wells. Never short of female admirers. Used to call him Treacle Wells. One of his women was asked why she found him so attractive. Said, because his skin smelt of honey. Extraordinary. “Stands the Clock at Ten to Three?”
I told my wife about that once. She said, Sounds fun, let’s try. Anointed me with a pot of Gales.
Every so often, one of us will say, Let’s have an H.G. Wells night. Only we moved on to Lemon Curd.
Did a Midlands tour a few months ago, sent her a jar, with a boxed chipolata and a note, “The shape of things to come.”
Duncton. Making good time. Another trip, I phoned her anonymously, did the old heavy breathing. She just said, cool as you like, “If you want the asthma clinic you’ve got the wrong number” and hung up.
You’d like my wife.
Ever been to America?
This will peter out beyond Petworth.
—Petworth Park. Sounds like a municipal tryst for lovers. As I was saying, we do alright, we larger men. Takes women unawares. I grant you a novel called The Fat Man wouldn’t have the same ring, but that’s only prejudice.
I usually stop about here, have a breather, stretch my legs.
At exactly here. Midpoint of his journey, zenith of his weekly trajectory. Marked on the Ordnance Survey as Ball’s Cross. Here he is poised between two worlds. He will drive into a lane, walk up and down, lean on a gate. His tongue searches his teeth, seeks out the small molar cavity. Into its rough protective burr his soul nestles. He will be here for several minutes while the magnetic field reverses.
He will drive up the narrow road, turn left, then on to join the A283.
—The quilted fields of England. I love this countryside. Even the names resonate. Chiddingfold. Could be Old English for “cemetery”, conjures up the cosiness of village graveyards. All safely gathered in. Hambledon, Bramley. English as autumn mists.
Pictures of this sort of landscape – maybe a shire horse in the middle distance, church spire far distance – still work their magic, guarantee the sales. Anythin’ rural or ecclesiastical or both. Even quite modern buildings can do it. Know Guildford Cathedral? Only finished in l961. Still a popular card. That’s how I met my wife. She was sketching it. Naturally I took a professional interest. Suggested she did a watercolour, maybe soften the cathedral, age it a little, submit it to my art director for a greetings card. She did, he went for the idea, I went for her.
It was love at first sight. He had leaned over her shoulder, watched the pastel smudge the deep-grained paper. Her long hair matched the quaking-grass, ruffled by the same breeze. Her chin set in concentration, a soft furrow echoing a distant field. He retreated until she was packing up, handed her his card.
They drove into town, had coffee and scones with a view of the Guildhall, then drove through darkening Surrey lanes.
This was the pattern of their Sundays for a month.
On the Sunday of Michaelmas, after their coffee, he parked in sight of the cathedral, wound down the window. “You’d make a perfect Mrs Wilson Thomas. You might even enjoy it.” “Will I, Wilson Thomas? Yes.”
—She became very interested in colour-washed pen and ink. We both love the work of Thomas Rowlandson, his chromatic delicacy against the robust penwork, the feathery foliage. I got her to do a series of views in that style, tried to get the firm to accept them as a set of upmarket postcards. Came to nothing. I had a few printed up, send them to her when I’m on the road, with a little poem on the back, something out of Clare or Herrick or William Blake. Blake is her idol. The watercolours, the woodcuts – she loves them. Did you know he lived near Bognor? Felpham, few miles along the coast. She wanted to visit it, soak up the atmosphere. Tricky. Had to head her off on that. Suggested a little project of my own – trace the locales of Wilson Steer’s works. Personal interest – he was a distant relative on my grandmother’s side. I’m named after him, in fact.
So whenever I have a few days leave, we’ve been trundling round the country, Suffolk, Yorkshire, Stroud Valley, tracking down the footprints of his easel, so to speak. She copies the paintings, I photograph the scene. “Then and now” sort of thing. Surprising how much of the country is still unspoiled. Turn down a lane, find a stile, follow a path between furrowed fields. Smell of wet earth. Leaf mould in the hedgerows. Like generations of wisdom, sifting into the soil. She’ll put her arm through mine, say, Breathe it in. I know just what she means.
You’d like my wife.
See that programme on cancer on the box?
Wilson is much possessed by death, and sees the skull beneath the skin. For if one of them should die? Or leave? Easier to face the knock upon the door.
Wilson is not, has never been, a political man, but he has watched, appalled, the bi-polarity of the world crumble. He is unnerved. The world now reminds him of a pre-Columbus globe in reverse. He sometimes feels the axis tilt, feels the slide and scramble. Each stop at Ball’s Cross becomes a little longer.
Wilson has read somewhere of a scientist who requested his ashes be made into a firework, who ended his earthly intactness in the starshower of a score of rockets.
He thinks of him now, thinks of himself, sees his wives and assembled guests, with their sausages on sticks, gazing at the flare and burst; of his soul ricocheting off the stars.
As he entered the workshop, the elves lowered their voices
and conspicuously changed subject. They made a show of doing this, of cutting
him out. They didn’t hate Santa, they were just frustrated with the long,
repetitive hours and needed someone to punish.
Bushy approached with a clipboard. Santa straightened his
posture and cleared his throat.
“How’s everything going?” he asked.
“It’s going!” Bushy replied with a giggle.
“You think we’ll be ready?”
“We’ve been ready for days.”
“Great. That’s … fantastic work.”
The sound of wrapping paper crunching and tape being yanked
and torn from industrial-sized rolls filled the temporary silence.
“Would you like to check the inventory?” Bushy asked. He was
extending the benefit of the doubt, assuming some official purpose behind the
visit. The truth was that Santa had nowhere else to be. It was the night before
Christmas Eve, their most demanding yet, and he was bored.
“You read my mind, Bushy,” he replied, merrily.
Santa eased himself into a red golf cart, his girth spreading
awkwardly over the driver and passenger seats. Bushy sat on his lap and
steered, while Santa worked the accelerator. Virtually all of the presents had
been wrapped. They zipped through aisles upon aisles of gifts, a multitude so
vast the eye had nowhere to land and focus. Santa’s gaze bounced between
packages of varying colours: festive red and forest green, earthy patterned
prints, reflective wrapping, shiny silvers and golds, glistening now even in
the weak, grey light of the storage facility. Yet beneath this dazzling display
was a homogeneity of presents: phones, consoles, tablets. Every year, the
Bushy drove in silence. Santa wondered what Bushy saw when he
looked upon these gifts. Once, the elves had been artisans. Now, they were
procurers, dealing in abstractions: units, shipment dates, delivery logistics.
The rise of tech had at first eased and then ultimately emasculated their
profession. Did Bushy think about this?
“Do you want to see Zone B?” Bushy asked, once their canvass of Zone A was complete.
“No, no. It seems like you have everything under control.”
Bushy smiled and
turned the cart around. “How’s the missus?”
“She’s gone to the South Pole for a few days.”
“Alright for some!” he
said, with another mischievous giggle.
“There’s really no need for her to be here now. And, of
course, I need to focus.”
“You can say that again.”
“It’s for the best, I think.”
“Actually, Bushy, I get rather … edgy on Christmas Eve.”
Bushy made no response.
“I get almost… gloomy,”
Santa confessed, delicately.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Bushy said, keeping his eye on
“It’s probably nothing.”
jitters, I’d imagine.”
“How is morale? Among
“This time of year can
“Hard?” Bushy shook his head, uncomprehending. “I mean, from
what I can tell, this year everyone is jolly. Everyone is feeling pretty jolly
about the way things are progressing. I haven’t noticed any issues with cheer.”
“Great. I assumed as much. Just making sure.”
“Everything is fantastic,” Bushy said. His brows were lowered
as if he was continuing the conversation in his head, puzzling over its
They parked outside the workshop entrance. Santa lurched to
his feet and felt his weight slam down hard upon his knees.
“Rudolph has been looking for you,” Bushy said.
“So everyone keeps saying…”
Bushy seemed anxious to rejoin the others. They stepped
inside. The elves were working hard, carrying presents, stacking them, curling
reams of red ribbon. Despite all this motion, they appeared purposeless. For
all Santa could tell, they were simply moving objects back and forth. A
simulacrum of Christmases past. At some point over the years, Santa’s
enterprise had been subtly misshapen, stretched beyond its elastic limit. He
watched them for a moment more, then slipped away, unobserved.
He was shocked by the state of his bedroom. Mrs. Claus had
warned that she intended to do a “Deep Clean” before leaving, but this was much
more. There was new bedding, a new watercolour print mounted on the wall. She
had arranged an elaborate floral display above the fireplace, dusted the
surfaces and shampooed the rug. It was as pristine as a hotel room. And, as in
a hotel room, Santa wandered this immaculate space uncomfortably, aware that
every time he made contact with his surroundings he slightly dishevelled them.
He did not resent her absence. Her family missed her and he was bad company on the 23rd, always anxious and unsocial. It had been a sensible decision. Yet now this strange overture, as if they’d had a fight.
Several magazines were fanned across his desk, all featuring
Santa on the cover. She had left those too: a quiet prompt. He absently picked
one and stared at an artist’s rendition of himself flying across a moonlit sky.
Recently, his media image had altered. People were representing him as thinner,
corpulence no longer being associated with jolliness, but disease. Santa stared
at the flattering image and felt a strange mixture of vanity and self-reproach.
He turned his attention to the sled manifest, a document so
vast they had resorted to printing it on scritta paper, the same as is used for
Bibles. There were 994,412 people with the name “Scott” in the USA alone. Most
of them wanted iPads. It was said that one death is a tragedy and one thousand
a statistic. This principle could be applied to Christmas itself. At a certain
scale, merriment became unintelligible.
He attempted to focus. He could not. He called his wife.
“I’ve been thinking about population forecasts…” he said, the
moment she answered.
“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Jesus … 4.2
billion by 2030? They’re killing me.”
“Baby, no. We can’t go through this again…”
“I’m aware that I say this every year, but I have a really
bad feeling about tomorrow. About the feasibility.”
“That’s right, honey, you do
say this every year. And every year the outcome is the same: the job gets done.
Can’t you just, I don’t know, try to accept that you’re very good at what you
do? Try to take pleasure in it.”
He needed comfort. Comfort should be easy to give. He felt
that she was withholding it deliberately.
Of course, he knew this was unfair. The fact that she had
never been down a chimney, and he had, meant that on some essential, material
level, they were different. He had a sense of the 24th that was wholly his own,
stored somewhere deep, inaccessible. No matter how strong their marriage, how
extensively they talked, this difference would never be breached. No other
living thing could speak directly to his doubts. There was only one Santa: his
worries were uniquely his.
“You sound far away,” he said.
“I’ve got you on hands-free.”
“Oh,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Just, you know, futzing.”
“Well, I’ll let you get back to it.”
“Okay.” She paused. “You didn’t say anything about the room.”
“Right, yes. It’s … very dramatic.”
“You don’t like it.”
“I do. I’m just tired.”
“We can change it back if you hate it.”
“I don’t. Sorry, I’m just distracted. It’s lovely. Really.”
There was a pause, then she asked, “Have you spoken to
“I haven’t run into him today.”
“You need to make an effort.”
“Well, I’ll see him plenty tomorrow.”
“He thinks the world of you.”
“He idolises you.”
Santa said nothing; any response would surely be petty. And
he couldn’t explain why he had grown so distant towards his friend.
“You should rest,” his wife said.
“Okay. We’ll speak tomorrow.”
They both lingered. He had the impression that there was some
code-word that he’d forgotten to utter. Something that might dispel this
“Nick—” she said, impulsively.
“I’m fine,” he assured.
“You’ll do a good job tomorrow.”
“Get some rest.”
“You too. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Nick.”
“Are you alright?” he
blurted. “Is everything okay down South?” But by then, she’d hung up.
There had been a time
when he and his wife flirted constantly and teased mercilessly. They had loved
to tease, to push the envelope. Their attraction seemed indefatigable so it was
thrilling to test its limits. On their third Christmas, back when Santa
assisted with workshop production, he’d pulled late nights. She’d once phoned
down from their bedroom:
“Mr. Claus, would you care to come up and join me in bed,” she’d
said in a throaty murmur.
“Not particularly,” he replied, sotto voce.
“You’ve got something better to do?”
“I’ve got a date.”
“My other wife. You knew about her right?”
“I didn’t. Well, I’d better call my boyfriend.”
“You’ve got a boyfriend?”
“He’s incredibly rich.”
“Bet he doesn’t drive a sled.”
“No, he drives a Ferrari.”
“Okay, you’ve made me jealous.”
“He’s ridiculously attractive. And the things he can do in
bed … my word!”
“He’s fat too! I love fat men.”
Santa wore a vacant smile as he recalled the exchange and the
more heated exchange that took place after the call. These days, he and his
wife were cautious when they spoke. It was as if they had stood witness to some
disaster and each were complicit in its cover-up.
Santa’s shadow pranced about in the firelight. Otherwise, the room was very still. A piece of bark snapped. A displaced log fell with a muffled thud. The muted sound gave Santa the impression that he wasn’t in the room at all, but far away from it.
No matter how strong his practical misgivings, how tired his
body, how unsteady his faith, Santa always woke on the 24th with a burst of
energy. He opened his eyes alert, cognisant, like he’d not been asleep at all,
but had merely blinked between thoughts.
The carpet outside his door was muddied; forked hoof prints
trailed up and down the corridor.
“Either Rudolph is impatient to see me, or the devil’s come early for my soul,” Santa said, aloud, to himself.
He stepped into the snow. The sun glowed dimly, blurred behind a wash of pale overcast, like a cataracted eye.
The last of the presents were being loaded into the sled.
Prancer and Vixen stretched and limbered while the other reindeer quietly
gathered their thoughts. Only Rudolph, who was the youngest, moved skittishly
between the elves and his fellow reindeer, joyous to the point of agitation.
There was something about Rudolph’s cheer that made Santa increasingly
uncomfortable. Sometimes when they spoke, Santa felt as if he were guarding
himself against exposure, as if he were concealing an infidelity of some sort.
And sometimes, to his bewilderment, he found that he wanted to be exposed.
He took a sip of his coffee; it was already cold and
beginning to solidify in the mug. Rudolph bounded over, his nose blazing red,
his eyes watery and bright.
“Look at this manifest,” Santa said, before Rudolph had
chance to speak.
Rudolph made a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s a doozy!”
he replied, excitedly.
“Maybe we should sack it off this year!” Santa joked. He
rarely made jokes like that.
Rudolph laughed. “Why not? I’m sure nobody would notice!”
“Exactly! Yes, exactly.” Santa was laughing more now. “We
could just say: sod it. Go inside, watch a movie.”
Rudolph chuckled politely. He looked towards the sled.
“Maybe roast some chestnuts,” Santa continued. “Crack open
the whiskey…” The thought was incredibly funny. Santa really couldn’t stop
laughing. “We could pack up all these gifts and use them next year. Or not! We
could leave them here. Just abandon them. They’d be buried in snow by tomorrow!
A nice, jolly graveyard of gifts. Let the kiddies go hunting for them.” The
image was hysterical and exciting; little children bumbling around Arctic
pastures, fields for PlayStations with chilblained fingers.
He let go. Santa laughed until the corners of his mouth hurt and
his stomach hurt and tears streaked his cheeks. The sound was absorbed swiftly
by the acres of virgin snow, his laughter disappearing almost at the instant of
articulation. Eventually he stopped. The surrounding planes were silent.
“We really have to get going,” Rudolph said.
The snow poured. The sled and the elves and even Rudolph were
obscured behind the powdery white flakes. Santa appeared to be surrounded by
“You ready?” Rudolph asked.
Over five hundred million gifts had been packed. Across the
world, children waited in feverish anticipation. The gifts would delight them
for a day and ultimately disappoint them. Eventually, they’d lose faith in
Santa, in presents entirely; they’d ask for cash. They’d be replaced. The
“I just want someone to tell me that what I’m doing isn’t
completely mad,” he said.
“It is mad! We’re depositing five hundred and twenty-six million
gifts across the world in less than twelve hours!”
“I didn’t mean ‘mad’ in a fun, slang sort of way.”
“In what way did you mean it?”
“I meant in a literal way. As in insane.”
Rudolph’s nose dimmed slightly. “You’ll feel better once we
make a start,” he said.
They moved through the air, travelling into darkness. At
certain speeds, it is easy to confuse physical velocity with more abstract,
even spiritual forms of progression. Santa was familiar with this tricksy
phenomenon, he knew it was coming and yet he was unable to resist its effects.
For a moment, he felt like he was really going somewhere. In the distance, he
spotted a swampy patch of brightness. Aurora Borealis. The eerie light
unspooled for miles across the black sky; his skin glowed sapphire and his
green breath fogged before him. Santa felt humbled by the immensity of his
task. The desire to do it and do it well absorbed him completely; his worries
seemed suddenly small and light.
They started close to home, Greenland their first stop. The
proximal approach was risky, pitting them against the time zones. But it
divided their route into short spurts, which played to the reindeer’s strengths
and it spared them a long journey across the globe with full cargo.
They advanced steadily across the desolate landscape,
visiting humble abodes that had remained unchanged for generations. In one, an
old woman sat in a rocking chair. Her children were dead and her home empty,
but she prepared their stockings every year and Santa always filled them. What
she did with the useless gifts, he could not guess, but he felt for her. At
Christmas, sadness was a purer distillate and he did what he could to dilute
it. These first visits were always more emotional; later there would be no time
Next, Canada, venturing briefly into Alaska, then back
across. In the Southern region, their progress slowed, particularly in the
densely packed cities, where whole families lived only breaths apart. He moved
through Vancouver trippingly, stopping and starting stopping and starting,
distributing gifts in vast apartment blocks, dozens at a time. Once complete,
they’d lost significant cargo and the sled moved faster. Bolting into the USA,
the G-force pressed hard against Santa’s skull, pushing at his eyes, his
cheeks, his jowls. The sled trembled.
“How are we doing, Rudolph?” he cried.
He worked harder. He filled his sack more heavily, reducing
trips to the sled. His mind went blank and his muscles thought for him. He was
a system of reflexes.
Santa scrambled down chimneys, fingers grasping for purchase,
fingernails snapping off, legs pumping. He discovered himself in a lounge:
garish, bright, decked out in white ornaments. The image vanished and he was on
the sled. The reindeer moaned as they peddled over a labyrinth of rooftops,
spritzed by a gentle rain. And then again. Ten houses. Twenty. Forty. In the
sixtieth, his leg cramped and he walked with a limp, hobbling towards a tree
which had, inexplicably, been placed in the bathroom. His sack, full of sharp
objects, gouged his back. Pain was progress. As the sack stabbed, he moved
faster, like a beast spurred.
“How are we doing Rudolph?
“It’s tight. It’s very tight.”
Faster still. He hurled presents towards trees, he pivoted on
his foot like a sprinter completing laps. He was in a squalid threadbare squat
in Brooklyn, reeking of old clothes, sweat. He was in a townhouse. A
brownstone. He was on Fifth Avenue. The sole of his boot flapped free and he revelled
in this, this validation of his labour. He fumbled across a ballroom, the men
were in black tie. A woman in a sequinned gown observed him panting towards the
ten foot spruce.
“How cute,” she declared, her accent waspish.
Some people could see him but most could not. Those that saw
him recognised him vaguely, like a figure in a dream. An experience of
translucence. He did not mind it now, on the job, but it haunted him after,
that sense of light travelling through him, of being half-vanished.
The air in Mongolia was wet and sweet. The air in Kowloon was
thick with pollution; a haze of petrol fumes settled on Santa’s skin. He did
not slow. They covered Hong Kong. His throat was sandpaper; it hurt to swallow.
Soon, his spit was just froth and there was nothing to swallow at all. Laos.
Taiwan. Rudolph’s nose pointed the way, a small and constant conflagration in
fields of dark.
The sun rose over Alice Springs, Australia, and bloodied the
sky. Santa witnessed it through bloodshot eyes. Time was short.
By Wellington, his muscles were shredded; his limbs loose and
disobedient. Hard to move quickly. Hard to be graceful: he bumped into a desk.
He shoved a couch from his path, rather than walk around it. His body
imprecise, a crude instrument.
When Santa deposited the final gift near the Slope Point, New
Zealand, they were all too exhausted to cheer. He coughed until he retched and
then wiped the sweat from his brow. Almost immediately, more sweat gathered. He
fell against the sled, staring into the middle distance. The landscape pulsed.
Lactic acid pickled his muscles. But he was done.
“Oh no,” Rudolph said.
Santa was too tired to acknowledge the remark.
“Oh dear,” Rudolph said.
“What. What is it?” Santa demanded.
“We missed one.”
Santa returned to the sled and there, in its shadows, was a
single square package wrapped in violet Crepe-paper. He picked it up, his heart
To, Tommy Baker Love, Santa
Beneath his signature was an image of Big Ben, indicating
that the present belonged in London, the other side of the world.
“It’s only four in the morning GMT. We could still make it,”
Rudolph said. Dasher’s head sank, and he studied the dirt ground. He looked
like he was about to cry. For a moment, Santa worried that he too might cry. An
image of himself weeping ceaselessly rose in his imagination.
“We could…” Santa said.
“Could”; the suggestion of an alternative. The air became
electric; a scandal, if not uttered, had been implied.
“We’ve never skipped a gift before! Not once!” Rudolph
laughed with strained joviality.
The other reindeer
looked at each other guiltily.
The package was light – most likely a Kindle Fire. Given the
hundreds of millions of gifts they’d distributed, it seemed absurd that this
flimsy thing should be of any consequence. He turned it in his hands and
wondered how far it would fly if he projected the toy with all his strength.
And if he did? The reindeer would tell the elves. The elves
would talk amongst themselves. His dereliction would license theirs.
The reindeer watched him. Rudolph squirmed. Santa understood that he had, in his hand, the single loose brick that could upend the edifice. He could fail. He could choose to fail. Let the whole thing tumble. The prospect was dizzying.
“We’ll go to London,” Santa declared, solemnly. “And then we
will go home.”
They moved sluggishly from the Southern to Northern
hemisphere, the darkness disintegrating in patches behind them. Upon reaching
Europe, they turned west, traversing the sky like wearied vagabonds escaping a
long pursuit. The sled swerved and the air grew frigid. They pushed on. In
London, they travelled at an altitude and vantage that made the city seem like
an elaborate toy village; oddly fragile and easy to crush.
Tommy lived deep in a nest of council estates in Whitechapel.
There was no chimney, so Santa would have to enter by the door. He walked along
a narrow, concrete gangway on the fourth floor. In the courtyard below, a group
of teenagers were jeering and making trouble; grime music played from a muffled
A woman sat in the living room, cradling a glass of red wine.
She looked up, acknowledging him with only faint surprise, as if he were her
husband come home at an unusual hour.
“Hello,” she said.
“Ho ho ho,” he replied, somewhat anaemically. He had sweated
through his clothes many times and they felt stiff and filthy. The air around
his body smelled foul.
“Sorry … do you … I don’t know, do you prefer to do this in
private?” she asked.
“It doesn’t make a huge difference.”
He dropped the present under the tree. He noticed a glass of
milk placed on the ledge of a boarded-up fireplace. He paused. He was
incredibly tired; the night’s adrenaline was withdrawing, making him feel
strung-out, shivery. His stomach lurched at the thought of milk, at the thought
of putting anything into his body. Yet he had noticed the milk and she had seen
him notice. He took a sip and forced himself to swallow.
The room came into focus. Reams upon reams of red tinsel had
been tacked to the walls; it was the cheap plastic stuff. Several Christmas
cards had been strung up with dental floss.
The four-foot tree was shedding heavily. It was covered in
baubles and fairy lights that flicked frenetically from green to red to orange,
the abruptly alternating rhythm gave the space an unhinged quality.
“We’ve met before,” she said.
“Suzie Baker. We met in ’78. I stayed up all night, staking
“Yes! Of course.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’m sorry. I have a photographic memory for children but
adults are harder to place. I do think I remember…”
“I’ve seen so many faces,” Santa said, in a tone that seemed,
even to his own ears, strangely confessional.
“It’s okay, really. You’ve got a tough gig.”
Nobody had ever said that to him before. Usually, when he
spoke to clients, they talked about how enviable his job was. How he trafficked
in cheer, travelled extensively. So many
perks! they said. Such fulfilling
work. It was important for people to believe in the perfect job.
“It is tough,” he said.
“Next year I might send gift cards,” he ventured.
“What are you doing up?” Santa asked.
“Just clearing my head. It’s been a long year … I don’t
want to be mopey tomorrow. For Tommy’s sake, you know? Kids pick up on your
“Children can be incredibly taxing.”
“They lose it with time, though.”
“That sensitivity. By the time he’s thirteen, your jolliness
will be irrelevant. You’ll be able to take a break.”
“A break… Frankly, I could use a break from life. Will I get
one of those too?” “Not one you can
come back from.”
Her eyebrows arched and then she peered at him. “I feel
guilty talking like this in front of you… I can’t be responsible for depressing
“It’s important to share these things. Incredibly important.
I’m actually in a similar position myself.”
She smiled. “That’s hard to imagine. I mean, from the
outside, you seem perfectly together.”
“Oh, I have doubts. There’s a lot about me that people don’t
“I have a dark side.”
“You do, do you?”
“‘Santa’ is an anagram for ‘Satan’.”
She squawked with laughter, startling him; it was a strange,
unmelodious laugh, and incredibly charming.
Suzie looked down into
her wineglass, as if remembering something unpleasant. He recognised something
in that expression. Santa was always remembering himself, always alighting
briefly from his moods and descending right back into them.
“I’ve been reading about introverts and extroverts…” he said.
He wanted her to stay with him. “You know, it’s got nothing to do with how
outgoing you are. It’s about energy. Extroverts draw energy from other people
and introverts draw energy from themselves. They find people draining. You seem
like an introvert. Like me.”
“I draw my energy from coffee.”
He laughed. “Can I sit down?” he asked.
“Of course! I should have offered. Sit. Please.”
Santa fell heavily into the chair opposite. She was a young
mother. Her face was thin, almost gaunt. There was a stain on her black and
white striped top and her jeans were furry at the knees, discoloured from wear.
The old clothes strangely suited her. He felt suddenly conscious of how his gut
ballooned over the armrest and he moved his arm protectively across his stomach.
His features burned red, then melted to a soft and forgiving
amber in the changing light.
“It’s nice of you to sit here with me like this. I didn’t
know your services extended to adults,” she said.
“It’s nice of you to host me.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Do you get the blues when it’s all over?”
“Christmas, you mean?”
“Yeah. Ever since I
was a child, taking down Christmas ornaments has always felt so depressing.
It’s strange, because I rarely actually enjoy Christmas itself – no offence.”
“Believe me, none taken.”
“But packing it up feels so morbid. Like I missed my shot at
“I know exactly what
you mean. I’ve been thinking something similar. Christmas Present is …
“Even when I’m buying the ornaments, I’m already edgy,
worrying about how long it will take to put them away again, or how I’ll get
the tree to the skip.”
She tapped her wine glass. The edge of her nail struck the
rim; it produced a thin ringing sound that wavered in the air and made him
“It will be okay won’t it?” she asked.
“Certainly!” he replied. “Wait, will what be okay?”
“I don’t know … just, everything I guess.” She shrugged,
laughed at herself.
“It will be okay.”
The affirmation appeared to hit home. Her body relaxed. He
An image of Suzie naked flicked, almost intrusively, across
his mind. Then he welcomed it. He imagined her trembling in his arms. He
imagined being in hers. Sex with his own wife had become a thoughtless ritual.
They knew what each other liked and diligently performed. Their love was well
rehearsed, choreographed, and when they parted, the room seemed filled with
Santa had an overpowering urge to share everything with Suzie.
To go deeper. To help more. He yearned for that.
“I feel—” Santa began speaking, before he knew what to say.
“People like me hide behind people like you,” she cut in.
“When I feel anxious, or incapable, I show Tommy cartoons of your workshop, your
reindeer. It helps—”
“—Powerless. I feel, powerless,” he said, finishing his
sentence while processing hers. “Everything I do…” he continued, unable to stop
himself. “Everything is dedicated to making people believe in something that
“Oh,” she said, tonelessly. “That’s no good,” she added,
after a minute.
A piece of tinfoil became untacked and dropped from the wall.
She got up immediately to right it. She fidgeted, but the tinsel would not
adhere and eventually she snatched it from the wall entirely and put it aside.
“There really are too many decorations in here,” she said.
“When Tommy’s a bit older, I don’t think I’ll bother. Maybe a tree. Something
small, that’ll be easier to clear up.” She sounded different. She had shut him
out. Suzie glanced absently about the room, as if she were alone in it.
“I should let you get some sleep,” he said. He did not wish
“Tomorrow will be full of cheer,” he added, impotently.
“Yes, I think so too,” she replied, politely.
Suzie saw him out, nodding as he left. The door shut quickly.
“Woah! What were you doing in there?” Rudolph asked.
“We had a waker. I chatted with her a bit. Spread some
“Like the good old days!”
“Yes. Like those.”
Now, finally homeward bound, the reindeer enjoyed a second
wind. They sang carols loudly, out of tune and out of synch with one another,
garbling the lyrics and laughing. Santa could not shake a nagging feeling. He’d
experienced this feeling once before, in the early days, when he’d left coal in
a child’s house. Thereafter, he abolished the practice.
In no time at all, their home was in sight. It was a strange
law of nature that he had observed often. The outward voyage is always slow and
gruelling; the homeward journey always abrupt.
Inside the elves were celebrating. Every year, their
festivities grew more decadent. Alabaster lay naked across his workstation and
several of his colleagues were wrapping him alive. As they spread shining gold
paper over his pale flesh, he laughed at them, at the rafters, at his situation
entire. One look from Santa could silence this scene. If they could sense what
he was feeling, they’d freeze and sober.
Glances drifted towards him. The job was done and still he
was expected to perform. Santa made a limp victory sign. They cheered. He
excused himself. The constant pop-pop-pop of Champagne corks bursting, the
quiet sizzle and drip of bottles overflowing, pursued him through the room as
In his study, he considered playing a game of solitaire, but found it hard to move from his chair. He thought of Suzie. He had been ungenerous, and she was probably still awake. Already, he worried about next year and returning to that flat. Perhaps the room would be barer, stripped back: that would be his doing. And how would she treat him if they met again? Maybe she would greet him like a plumber, a necessary nuisance, watch him potter about the tree and hope that he worked quickly. The prospect frightened him. It terrified him.
After an indeterminate time had passed, Rudolph trotted in, his
nose pulsing wildly. It was truly an odd shade of red. A red that had no
corollary in the natural world. It was the red of American candy, the
corn-syrup, zero calorie, mass-produced sweets that rotted the innards of
“You should be proud, Santa,” Rudolph stated. “This year was …
A talking reindeer with an obscene nose. This was his lot.
“I almost didn’t deliver that last present,” Santa stated.
“What do you make of that?”
“I accept it.”
“But what do you make of it?”
Rudolph considered the question carefully. He seemed to be
struggling with a thought that surpassed his faculties; it was like watching a
child contemplate death. “Our
sled is empty,” he said in a measured tone. “Our gifts are given. These are the
things that matter.”
“I’m not so sure, Ru, I’m not so sure at all. I have this
idea of what I should be doing, how this should work, and every year I feel I’m
getting further away from it.”
“Well … maybe you should give up on that idea.”
There was nothing beyond the idea, just distribution plans.
How pale their offering. He needed to share this burden. He could not do
another twelve months alone. Yet the thought of Suzie gave him pause.
“Sometimes … to hold onto the things that really matter, we
have to let go,” Rudolph added. He concentrated. He remembered something and
exclaimed, “Hold on tightly, let go lightly!”
What was Santa to do with this? Penny aphorisms tossed into
the swallowing dark.
Rudolph waited for a reply. He shifted his weight from hoof
to hoof. Santa felt as if he could undo all of Rudolph’s Christmases with a
single, cool remark. One day he would.
“That’s a lovely expression, Ru.” Speaking came at physical
cost. “Where did you learn the phrase?” Santa asked.
“The elves say it whenever they’re cooking up a plan: hold on
tightly, let go lightly.”
“A lovely expression,” he said again.
Rudolph’s nose throbbed and he drew in close.
Santa’s fingers played
along the velvet fuzz of Rudolph’s antlers. He pressed down on the soft bone
underneath, which was warm to the touch, which had the faintest pulse, and
massaged it gently. It yielded to the pressure like damp bark.
There was no living bark outside. Outside, the arctic tundra
ravaged trees, blasted their branches clean off, entire trunks snapping like
sticks of chalk in the subzero climate. Only here, in Santa’s home, could such
a small, warm thing survive the night.
Before he knew he was lost
Even before the
man knew for sure he was lost, he was searching. He felt like he had walked
into a room, but didn’t know why. Instead of an occasional moment, an
occasional instance, every room he walked in, he felt like that, even if he
knew specifically why he had entered the room, something tickled his mind and
he wasn’t quite sure why he was there. He would go into the bathroom to take a
piss and, while he was peeing, be sure that there was something else he needed
to do, some other task.
He started writing
down his reasons for entering a room on his arm with a green sharpie. Pretty
quickly his arms were filled with notes like: get banana, or masturbate, or pay
phone bill. Soon the notes looked like old, faded tattoos. That was the best
part of the whole experience, as he had never quite been able to work up the
courage for an actual tattoo. The thought of a needle penetrating his skin was
terrifying, so invasive. Such a vulnerable position and irrevocable.
He tried to
pinpoint the moment that it began, the exact moment when he wasn’t sure why he was going, but it all felt too
nebulous. Had he felt this way when his mother died? When he moved again and
again? When he lost that job? He couldn’t remember, but a part of him wondered
if it had always been like that, if he’d always had a confused look on his face
after entering a room, and he felt embarrassed retroactively.
The green sharpie
didn’t help. Sure he could look down and see throw out dead mouse and know to throw out the dead mouse. The dead
mouse wasn’t the problem. It was the other feeling, suggesting that he was
missing something, that he should be doing something else besides just throwing
out the dead mouse. He thought that maybe there would be a clue in all of the
writing on his arms, like a pattern he could decipher. Maybe if he could
determine why he was going from room to room on a surface level, the subsurface
would begin to be realized.
He wrote down
everything on one long list, but nothing seemed out of place. If anything it
made the strangeness of what he was experiencing more pronounced. Did he never
go into a different room for a strange reason? Like just to go there? Or for
something out of the ordinary? This more than anything else worried him. He
became determined to figure out what it was that his mind was trying to tell
him. That wouldn’t be accomplished by staying in his apartment. He had read
somewhere on the internet about exposure therapy. A woman had been afraid of
water and they had taken her to the ocean. Not right away of course. At first
maybe watching someone sip out of an opaque glass, and then later pressing a
hand to a window pane while it rained outside. But eventually she went to the
ocean and the article or whatever it had been claimed she had swam. So maybe he
wasn’t quite afraid, maybe he wasn’t actively hiding in his apartment shivering
at the thought of going into the hallway. Not yet at least. And that was cause for fear. If he didn’t do
something soon, he was sure to become afraid.
He didn’t plan
anything, or pack anything. He just walked to the next room and instead of
walking back, he kept on. He walked outside, but that was worse somehow, and
the feeling lingered forcing him back inside wherever he could enter. So he
stuck to populated areas, areas with doors. He didn’t like it, but he forced himself
to do it. He was going to get his life back, whatever the cost.
Eventually after a
few weeks or months, he found an abandoned town. The eight-room, strip motel
would become his home for quite a long time. He could move from room to room
without going outside. It offered him a break of sorts. He could keep on with
his task without needing to move to a new city, without disturbing anyone. He
cleaned up the dead birds and settled in.
management had kept a huge stash of individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats,
and he was eating one in room six trying to remember why he had come to room
six when the door opened. I’m sorry. I
didn’t know this was occupied. The man, a vagabond surely, stood there in
the doorway checking out the room and dripping from the rain. They stood like
that for a few moments, until the vagabond seemed to realize that the room was
clean and didn’t have any of the man’s things. Are you management? Can I have a room? I don’t have much money, and it
doesn’t have to be this one. This room, I mean. The man considered it. The
vagabond was clearly on something and he shouldn’t enable that kind of
behavior, but on the other hand, the motel wasn’t really his. Who was he to
turn someone away? Particularly after he himself had been turned away so many
times in his wandering. And it wouldn’t hinder his daily activities; he could
just skip room six. He held out the confection. Rice Krispies treat?
The vagabond kept
to himself, apparently content. Occasionally, the man would pop his head in on
his daily tour, as he had begun to think of it, just to check on him. The
vagabond was passed out every time. He couldn’t help but wonder how he
continued to get high. Drugs run out. Wasn’t that the point? Both of the
vagabond’s arms at the soft, inner crook of his elbow were bruised with a
needle hole that wouldn’t quite close, like a cracked doorway. Once, when the
vagabond was passed out, he went in to make sure he was still breathing. He
was, and murmuring a phrase over and over in his haze: arrived now, now arrived.
The man couldn’t
stop thinking about the phrase. What did it mean to have arrived? Certainly in
all his walking he went places, he was in places, but he didn’t feel as if he
had arrived. To arrive meant a conclusion. To arrive meant to know. And knowing
would be a kind of bliss wouldn’t it? Maybe in that way, the vagabond’s way,
through the bliss, could mean an arrival. Maybe a conclusion.
He made a plan to
sneak in the next time the vagabond was passed out and see what he could find
out, but instead the vagabond walked right up to the man as he was debating. He
didn’t know what to say. How could he explain that he was planning on stealing
his drugs? The vagabond looked vacant, itchy, and far away. Take this, and no matter what I say don’t
give it back. He pushed a small black bag, like a travel shaving kit, into
his hands. I can’t. I can’t, he said.
And he left and locked himself in room number six. The man looked inside the
bag and every bit of it seemed to shimmer.
The man closed the
bag and made his tour. He’d never used before. The needle loomed in his mind.
What would it be like, if he was able? Would he spiral out? His mother, God
rest her, had always claimed he had an addictive personality. What if she was
right? What if by stepping through this door, there was no going back? He
didn’t believe that, he couldn’t. There had to be a way back. But if he had
truly arrived, would he care?
Every day he
smashed a Rice Krispies treat into a thin pancake, almost like a wafer, and
slid it under the vagabond’s door. He wondered if the vagabond might have died,
but there was no smell. For now that was enough. The man knew that some things
were only conquered alone.
One night, he took
everything out of the bag and laid it out. All the metal glistened. The needle,
oh-the-needle, was already filled with a mercury-like liquid that danced and
thrummed. It moved as if alive, and as he stared into it, he knew it would
never run out, not ever. Even after he was dead, it would still slowly dance
and thrum, and he thought that knowing this thing, pulling it inside him, would
be to know a small bit of eternity.
It seemed fairly
intuitive – just a prick and press kind of situation. He was scared, sure, but
to arrive, to finally know would be worth it. He made a night tour, and as he
walked by room six he was surprised to find the door cracked. He pushed it
open. The vagabond was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his
hands, but he looked up when the man entered the room. It’s still in me, even though I know it’s not. I can’t get away. Do you
still have it? The vagabond looked so tired. There were a thousand things
that went through the man’s head and all of them false. And he knew then that
paths only diverge, they don’t end. They splinter like light through a prism.
You could head in the same direction and end up with a very different
trajectory. The man nodded. Come with me.
walking, and were several miles away from the motel when the vagabond asked, why did you put it all the way out here? Did
it help to keep away? Did you use it? Of course you did. So you know, then. You
know that it will never run out. The man didn’t answer.
After a while,
when it became apparent that they weren’t moving toward his gear the vagabond
asked, where are we going? and kept
looking over his shoulder, looking back, though, now, he couldn’t see the way.
The man still didn’t speak, but he did grab the vagabond’s hand and they kept
chose the most inconvenient time of the year to die and I am 99% sure she did
it out of spite. If you knew Mama the way I knew her, you would think the same
thing too. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that just the day before
she departed this earth she left a six-minute voicemail telling me all the ways
I was a disappointment? She always did like having the last word.
When I left
Nigeria, I was determined to leave everything behind. My mother unfortunately
refused to let go. I don’t know how she did it but she always managed to find
me. So I compromised and spoke to her once a year, on her birthday. Though that
didn’t stop her from calling me every few months and cursing me in two
after she left her colourful voicemail, I woke up to twenty-two missed calls
from an unfamiliar +234 number. Normally, I ignored calls from numbers I didn’t
recognize but twenty-two missed calls in the span of an hour was worrisome. I
called the number back, bracing myself for whoever was on the line but nothing could have prepared me for
the ear splitting noise that shook my skull.
done it!” a voiced wailed in lieu of greeting.
done it! The witches and wizards have finally done it!” the voice sobbed.
I closed my
eyes and took a calming breath. It had been ten years since I spoke to her and
it seemed Aunty Ebi had still not mastered the fine art of getting to the
who has done what?”
taken my sister. They have killed her, oh!” she lamented. I heard voices in the
background, some crying, some murmuring words of comfort.
Your mother. Our enemies have finally succeeded. They have finally killed her!”
some time but her words finally sunk in. After the call, I sat on my orange
couch staring at a muted Judge Judy wondering what was the right thing
to do or feel. I called Papa, curious to know if anyone had told him his
ex-wife had died.
beautiful girl. How are things?” Papa said, his mouth smacking. He was always
you heard about Mama?”
that woman done now?” The words came out in a huff but I could hear the
underlying glee. Mama was Papa’s favourite subject. He could spend hours
talking about everything that was wrong with her.
died,” I said.
silence. Then a gurgling sound came down the line. Soft at first, before
gaining momentum and shifting into a deep belly laugh. “I told you! I told you
I serve a living God. No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper. I knew
Jehovah would deal with my enemies.”
enemies could not have waited a little bit longer, I did not know. It was tax
season, the busiest season at my accounting firm and I knew asking for time off
was going to hurt my chances of getting the promotion I had been eyeing.
contemplated not going back home. I took the time to make a list of the pros
and cons of attending Mama’s funeral. In the end, I had eight bullet points for
the cons and zero for the pros.
Still, I found myself packing my bags and booking a
ticket. Familial bonds always have a way of finding you and dragging you back
was odourless but it had a physical presence. It got under your skin, invaded
your senses and weighed you down. I learnt that as a child and I learnt it
again standing in the morgue holding a lantern over Mama’s dead body. The
morgue was in a windowless room at the back of a small crumbling brown building
behind the main hospital. The walls, painted a doleful shade of beige, were
scuffed and peeling. It was obvious I was in death’s home.
down at Mama’s lifeless body. They said it was a cardiac arrest in the middle
of the night. Her body was found the next morning when a curious Aunty Ebi went
to find out why her sister had not made it to their church meeting. Mama left
this earth alone and probably terrified. Did she know she was about to die? Did
she have any regrets in her last moments? Did she think about me? Out of all
the questions I had, it was the last one that kept me up at night.
Death was a
strange thing. Mama had been so alive, so full of fire and vitriol. Her
emotions rolled off her, heavy and uncontainable. Whatever she felt, everyone
in her vicinity felt too. Now everything that made Mama Mama was gone. All that life, reduced to a still mass of flesh. The
lines on Mama’s face didn’t seem as rigid and as uncompromising as they did
when she was alive. She didn’t even look that dead. Yes, she was extremely pale
and she had two cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils but she didn’t look dead dead. Her dull skin made her round
nose, full lips and wide forehead look even more prominent. I knew that now
when I dreamt of her, I would see this pale face and I had never been more
grateful that I looked like Papa. Mama had a frown I thought death would have
smoothed out, but it appeared I was wrong. Even in death she looked angry. Mama
was always angry. Angry at me, angry at Papa, angry at her in-laws, angry at
the market women. I never bothered to figure out the source of her anger. I
spent a good part of my life running away from it. Until I got to a certain age
and decided to turn around and face it head on. I looked it in the face and
prodded it, taunting its volatility. I hadn’t cared to understand Mama and now
I never could. I wasn’t deeply troubled about that and I couldn’t help but
wonder if I should be.
shaking,” the old man who was slicing Mama open said.
my teeth and stopped myself from saying something. I was too jet-lagged and I
didn’t want to get into an argument with the man who was currently embalming my
mother’s body. The hospital staff were on strike and that included the
mortician. My relatives had arranged for the old man from the village to embalm
Mama’s body the traditional way and get her ready for transport. I volunteered
to point out Mama’s body, thinking it would be a quick detour away from my
relative’s judgmental eyes, but the hospital had no light and the morgue had no
windows and that was how I found myself holding up a lantern so the old man
with yellow teeth and a missing ear could do whatever it was that dead bodies
planned on standing over Mama’s body. If I had known, I would not have stuffed
my face with puff puff that Aunty Ebi had made, because now that puff puff was
churning in my belly, trying to find its way up my throat. I just wanted a
reason to get away from the scrutiny of the relatives that I hadn’t seen in
years. They had all looked at me with either curiosity or scorn, because I was
the girl who betrayed her mother by choosing to live with her father. It wasn’t
my fault Papa caught Mama cheating on him in their marital bed. It wasn’t my
fault Papa had thrown Mama out of the house and promptly married his mistress.
I was nine years old and clueless about the details of their broken marriage. I
didn’t understand the intricate family politics involved or the effects my
choice would have. Though, if I did, I probably would have still chosen Papa,
simply because Papa was easier to live with.
shook and I shifted the lantern to my other hand. “How long is this going to
take?” I asked the old man. He frowned at me but said nothing. I wasn’t even
sure if we were allowed to be here but the security guard at the gate hadn’t
said anything when we walked in.
away from Mama’s body, but there was no safe place to rest my eyes. Death was
everywhere. The morgue was overflowing; bodies were piled on top of other
bodies. Bags of melting ice had been placed on and around the bodies and I
hoped whoever placed them there would remember to come back and replace it.
groundnut?” Mr Oke asked, pouring a handful of groundnut unto his palm and
holding it out to me.
down at his hands, the same hands that had held his penis just moments before
and I couldn’t suppress a shudder. “No, thank you.”
before tossing the groundnut into his mouth. Mr Oke was a wiry man with a
patchy beard. He smelled like baby powder and hummed in tune to the radio as he
drove. He didn’t make unnecessary small talk or play obnoxiously loud music.
You would think all this would add up to a good road trip. It was anything but.
I looked down at my watch and barely restrained myself from banging my head
against the dashboard. Mr Oke looked like he was in his forties but apparently
he had the bladder of a man in his nineties. In two hours we had stopped eleven
times, so he could relieve himself on the side of the road. Two of the eleven
times, he went deeper into the bush and was gone for a while, so I suspected he
did more than take a piss. I tried not to think about the fact that he didn’t
take tissue paper with him.
not going how I expected. I should have asked questions before I got on the
plane. I should have reminded myself that things never go according to plan
when family is involved. Apparently, Mama told Aunty Ebi she wanted to be
buried in her village, the place she was born, instead of the city where she
spent most of her life. Even in death, Mama had to be difficult.
It was the
peak of rainy season. Driving from Port Harcourt to Bayelsa on muddy, potholed
roads while sporadic thunderstorms battered the rusty hearse was not an ideal
situation. I leaned my head against the window, trying not to think of Mama’s
body bouncing around in the coffin at the back of the hearse.
was once again stuck with Mama’s body. It was as if her soul was trying to
taunt me. I was being forced to spend time with her that I had denied her when
she was alive. Aunty Ebi had guilt tripped me into accompanying the corpse. Since you are not involved in the planning,
the least you can do for the mother who brought you into this world is escort
her body to its final resting place, she’d said. How could I argue with
that without lowering the already low opinion they had of me? They were already
upset with me for coming back from America empty handed. You would think that
my mother dying would be a good enough excuse as to why I forgot to bring
gifts, but apparently it wasn’t.
here,” Mr Oke said, five hours into our journey.
“What?” I asked, looking out the window. We were parked a few feet from a small wooden dock that was so withered it was a wonder the storms hadn’t washed it away. Canoes, rowboats and motorboats, all in various states of disrepair, littered the river bank.
pointed to the row of rickety boats. “The main road is underwater. You have to
use the river.”
stopped in front of a small red bungalow with a green corrugated roof. I had
never been to my grandfather’s house but I knew I was in the right place
because I could hear Aunty Ebi shouting. The okada man set my hand luggage on
the ground. I would have been impressed that he had driven a motorbike while
balancing luggage between his chest and the handlebars, but I had once seen a
man riding an okada with two goats strapped to his body. I paid him and watched
him drive off, a part of me wishing I could hop back on and drive off with him.
I dragged my hand luggage on the wet ground, past the point of caring about the
mud that splattered against the wheels and speckled the hem of my jeans.
The sun had
retired and only the soft glow of a lantern highlighted the face of a young
girl who sat by a tree in front of the bungalow. A silver tray was balanced on
her knees and she hummed to herself as she sorted beans. She didn’t look up as
they shouting?” I asked the girl. I wasn’t sure who she was but if she was on
my family’s property she was probably related to me in some way.
making arrangements for the burial rites,” she said, her eyes still focused on
Christ. I can’t wait for this burial, so I can go home,” I said, more to myself
than to her. I was cold, my clothes were damp and my skin felt sticky. It had
not been a good day.
finally looked up at me. “You’re Auntie’s daughter? The one that lives in
frowned. “You’re going to be here for the next month?”
leaving once the burial is over.”
eyebrows pulled together and lines that were too deep for someone her age
appeared on her forehead. “It’s rainy season. The soil is too soft and
waterlogged. Nothing can be buried for at least the next month.”
almost gave out. “Next month? Why didn’t anybody tell me that? What am I here
shrugged and went back to sorting her beans.
I felt the
change happen. I felt the frustration that bubbled under my skin boil over and
turn to anger. There was only so much a person could be expected to endure.
After waiting for thirty minutes for a boat big enough to carry a coffin to
arrive at the dock, Mother Nature decided to be a bitch and open up the sky. I
spent the entire boat ride scooping rainwater out of the boat so we wouldn’t
sink. That was soon followed by an hour haggling with two men over keeping the
coffin in the village mortuary. One of the idiots actually suggested I take the
coffin home with me, since the body was already embalmed. I had never been so
close to slapping a person.
I was tired,
wet and I could swear the smell of death had slid under my skin and taken
residence in my soul. All that wahala for a burial that wasn’t even happening
for another month. I marched towards to house, indignation propelling my feet,
rage directing my movement. I slammed the door open, “Aunty Ebi, why—”
snatched my wrist, distracting me from my mission and cutting me off.
came all the way from America to bury her mother, you will refuse her?” Aunty
Ebi cried out, wrapping her arms around me. “Has this orphan not suffered
I stared at
Aunty Ebi, both impressed with her theatrics and extremely confused.
“Ebi, we have told you. Things have to be done
a certain way. You cannot just come from the city and demand our land,” an
elderly woman said.
I was in a
small living room, surrounded by weathered faces and wrinkled skin. Three men
and one woman who looked like their days were numbered sat on a tattered floral
sectional that was in serious need of reupholstering.
sister’s last wish was to be buried with her parents. Uncle Peter, are you
going to deny your niece her final resting place?”
The man she
called Uncle Peter sighed. It seemed he was impervious to the guilt trip that
worked so well on me. They spoke in Izon. It had been years since I had spoken
the language, so there was a bit of a delay as my brain tried to translate but
I got the gist of it.
watched the back and forth, my anger shrivelled and burnt out and in its place
a bone-deep weariness took hold.
“What do you
need from us?” I finally asked. My words unfurling haltingly in my mother
tongue. I had been gone for some time but I still knew how these things worked.
We wanted something from them and they wanted something from us in return.
pinched me slyly. I stepped away from her. If we did things her way, we would
argue until the sun rose, then set, then rose again.
give you a list,” Uncle Peter said.
go back into town and get everything tomorrow,” I said.
1 goat 2 bags of rice 2 crates of Fanta 2 crates of Coke 3 chickens 4 crates of eggs 10 bottles of hot drinks 20 tubers of yam
the travel pillow around my neck and shifted in my seat, trying to get
comfortable. Reading the list one more time, I wondered how they had come up
with it, how all these items equaled a hole in the ground for Mama’s body. I
reached for my bag and put my phone on airplane mode, ignoring the fourteen
missed calls from Aunty Ebi. In a day or two they would realize that I wasn’t
coming back and maybe the calls would stop. They could bury Mama by themselves.
The Flight of the Swallow
evening has worn on until dusk. It is fast becoming a hot summer’s night. I
sigh and think about how difficult it will be to sleep in my flat. England
isn’t built for this kind of weather. It’s made for cold winters not blistering
heat. The buildings are designed to hold in the warmth not let it out. I try to
push the thought out of my mind and concentrate on the conversation that is
happening right in front of me. The four of us sit outside in the beer garden.
We have spent the better part of a day here. Why waste time moving on when we
have such a good seat, Susan had said? She is right, although I won’t tell her
that. She is talking right now about something. Whatever it is, she seems to
think it’s very important. I try to pick up the threads of the conversation. It
seems to be about tax havens and their connection to Brexit. I vaguely know
what she is talking about, but it’s too hot for politics.
am about to excuse myself to go to the toilet, not because I need it but
because I want a break from current affairs when I hear a very familiar sound.
A flock of swallows has just flown overhead. This is their time of night, just
as dusk is beginning to deepen. The noise fills the air and quickly fades as
they go about their business. The sound stills me. The conversation about
Brexit vanishes into the background. The memory comes flooding back. Just like
it always does around this time of year. The time of year when swallows are
visiting England from Africa. They come here to breed and fill the air with
their call. I know very little about swallows, what knowledge I have of them
has been absorbed from years of nature programmes on the BBC. The reason I know
anything about them at all is because of the memory that now fills my mind.
was young, just a child. My grandfather on my mother’s side had been in
hospital. He was a heavy smoker, had been for years, and it had finally caught
up on him. He went in for surgery, but something had gone wrong, and the family
had been called to his bedside. I was young but old enough to understand what
that meant. That his death was near, but despite my believed maturity, I still
didn’t fully understand the full scope of death. It didn’t seem real to me.
Something that didn’t make any sense. I could not process it properly. Maybe it
was because I was a very melancholy child, prone to shyness and solitude. Or
perhaps I was just a child. Either way, I knew something was happening when my
mother did not come home that evening.
was late; the swallows were at play outside of my third-storey window. I can
hear their calls as they swooped around outside, seemingly rushing around at
great speeds. In my adolescent mind, they were speeding to their loved ones or
passing important messages. Most likely, they were feeding, but I didn’t know
that at the time. I was up late, reading my book in the twilight. This wasn’t
unusual. I was always an avid reader. It must have been The Hobbit
although I cannot remember that for sure. I choose that book because it was the
one I would read over and over again, never growing bored of Bilbo and his
adventures. I squinted in the gloom when I heard the door open and then close
downstairs. My mother had returned from saying goodbye to her father. I can
only appreciate now how hard a thing that must have been. To know someone was
dying and not be able to do anything about it. To say goodbye. How could you
find the right words?
I lay there in my bed, still reading my book in the half-light. Outside, the
evening was turning to night, and the swallows were as active as I’ve ever
heard them. They swooped and squawked in the sky. The noise seemed to fill the
room. I strained to see them outside of my window, but their speed obscured
them from me. I began to wonder if they knew what was happening. As if in some
way they were saluting the passing of another soul from this plane of
existence. A strange thing to think as a child, but then I was no ordinary
child, if such things exist. Suddenly, I heard my mother come up the stairs to
my room. This is where the memory becomes hazy. I do not know why. Maybe grief
clouds the mind. Perhaps it is the years that have clouded the memory. The only
thing I can remember is my mother’s sorrow written all over her face but not
the words she spoke. Instead, what I can remember is the swallows outside. That
noise, that strange sound. It has stuck with me all these years. Did they know
what had happened? Were they trying to communicate their understanding in the
only way they could? I will never know.
now, while I sit with friends outside on a balmy summer’s eve, I become
distracted by that sound once again. Those swallows at play as they fly above
my head. That familiar, beautiful sound. Are they trying to tell us something
right now? Or are they just doing what swallows do? I feel cosy and at peace
with memory. It reminds me of death but also life. Life and death are
interwoven together, linked forever. One cannot be without the other. I find
comfort in that as I listen to the flight of the swallows.
“Hi,” he says to me, and smiles, I think, as I get off the subway, a
human river pushing us past each other. There’s something icky about him, I
think, but then again it’s such a brief interaction. I shrug it off and follow
the crowd up to the yellow line train heading north, and he follows me there.
Or maybe not, maybe it’s just a coincidence. A lot of people head north on the
yellow line, after all – there’s at least a hundred on this platform with us.
I begin to walk down the platform as I catch a glimpse of him out of the
corner of my eye. He’s shorter than me. “You’re here! Hi again,” he says to me
as he approaches and I walk down the platform. I duck behind one of the columns
holding the thousand tons of earth above us and, mercifully, he doesn’t follow.
I’m not used to this kind of attention from men. I’ve only been a woman,
noticeably so at least, for a year, after all. But I recognize lust. I hear the
train arrive, and hope it’s one of the older trains, the ones with segmented
cars. I’m far enough down, I think, that he’d board a different car. No such
luck – it’s one of the new ones, the ones that are just a continuous tube. If
he wanted to, he could patrol the train up and down until he found me, and then
I’d have no choice but to interact with him. Maybe tell him to stop following
me, and rely on the people around me to stand up and help, but it’s not wise
for people like me to rely on the kindness of strangers.
I sit close to the window and make myself as small as possible. I’m only
going two stops away, and there are at least a dozen more stops until the train
reaches the end of the line, so odds are this guy is going to keep riding and
I’m done with him. Still, he might follow me as I get off the train. As it
reaches my stop, I wait until the doors start to close before I jump off the
train. The crowd is big enough that, hopefully, he won’t notice.
I walk up the stairs toward the station’s exit. I don’t see him, but
then again there are a lot of us. Maybe he’s not following me, I think. Maybe he
really just was being friendly, and my imagination is spinning a deeper motivation
from a pair of barely seconds-long interactions. And yet my heart still beats
harder, movement on the periphery of my vision more noticeable. As I continue
to gaslight myself, I exit the station and see him walking away from it, in the
same direction I have to go. The pit of my stomach drops like a sledgehammer on
the plunger of a carnival strength-tester. I look around for an escape. There’s
an alleyway I could duck down that would take me in the same direction I need
to go, but that’s probably far less safe, and then again there’s a fence
blocking it now – that wasn’t there last time I was here.
I get a better look at him this time – he’s wearing a blue jacket and a
red hat. I don’t see what’s on his hat, but I know from experience that people
with red hats are unlikely to be friendly to people like me. He’s got shaggy
black hair and a sparse goatee. He looks a lot like Shigeru Miyamoto, actually,
though I’m wondering if that’s actually true or if I’m just subtly racist. I
try not to look too long, though – people can feel when they’re being watched,
I walk past him, hoping he wouldn’t notice me. Of course he notices me.
I’m six feet tall, and he picked me out of a crowded subway twice in a row. I
should have waited in the station for a few minutes, I think.
“Hi again,” he says.
“Yes, absolutely,” I say to nobody, my phone against my ear, as though
it were a shield to block his words from reaching me.
“Hi,” he says.
“No problem, do you want me to pick something up?”
“Hey, do you hear me?”
Did nobody ever teach this guy manners? I’m on the phone. I clearly
don’t want to talk to you.
“I know what you are, and I like it.”
God, I’d like nothing more than to just turn around and knock him out.
That’s what I would have done before, when I was pretending to be a man, but
then again I never would have been in this situation before. Even still, I
recognize how futile this will be. The type of guy who follows women and
harasses them on the street isn’t the type of guy to pick a fight with. Who knows
what he’s carrying?
My hand slides into my purse, grabbing my travel-size bottle of
hairspray I keep with me for emergencies. After he starts to walk away, I call
my friends, for real this time. They agree to come meet me, along with their dog.
I’m speed walking toward my friend’s street, now looking behind me,
watching him on the other side of the street talking to someone else, now
looking forward, hoping to see my friends come round the corner to rescue me
with their presence. One of them is a man, and I know this guy won’t mess with
another man. I hate that I have to rely on this. I hate that I need a man
nearby to feel safe. I hate that this is the reality of being a woman, of being
a visibly trans woman. I hate that I am a visibly trans woman. I miss my male
privilege – as ill-fitting as it was, at least I could ride the subway without
being harassed. I hate that I’m a magnet for tranny chasers who fetishize me
because of what they perceive to be in my pants.
I wish regular creeps would follow me.
It’s on a trip you take to the Isle of Rum that she
mentions Kirabiti. That’s what she calls it. Kinloch Castle is on the far side
of the island to where the ferry boat comes in. You wheel hired bicycles off
the landing ramp and leave the foot passengers trailing. The unsealed road
crackles like bubble-wrap beneath your tyres as you pass finely gritted
beaches, white stucco-covered houses – one with black metal crows above the
doorway – and a community centre you’ll later discover to be the only public source
of wi-fi on the island.
You snort the sea air as you pound the pedals, trying
to keep up with her, feeling increasingly irate that you can’t. She has good
legs, egg-shaped muscles on the backs of her calves. You’ve never noticed them
before. Her rucksack is strapped to the back of her bike, so her white shirt billows
out behind her like an untethered sail. She always wears shirts or cardigans
over vest tops, to hide her broad shoulders.
“Family trait,” she confessed once like a guilty
secret, when you teased her about them, the third or fourth time you slept
No one prepares you for good weather in Scotland. You
are carrying a daypack on your shoulders, containing your top, boots, washbag, and
your new cagoule, ankle gaiters and torch. The torch jiggles against your back,
agitating your skin. The decision to rid yourself of your merino wool sweater,
hiking boots and alpaca socks, to ride bare chested, bare footed, seemed louche
when you set out. But now you’ve sweated off the bug-spray the midges have
swept in, working themselves across your chest and up the legs of your distressed
You’d mocked her optimism as you watched her pack,
back in London, two days ago. With departure time approaching, her wardrobe half
empty on her bed, she’d balled up sleeveless tops and cotton shorts and
scrunched them into her rucksack.
“Forecast’s nice,” she’d protested, but she squeezed a
couple of jumpers in anyway, to please you.
She seems unaffected by the midges now, her light clothes
flapping them away. It needles you, her comfort in surroundings that make you
feel so out of place.
Another irritant: this fine, unexpected weather, the
sunlight bouncing off cresting waves, is making you think of Lisa. Specifically,
that last holiday you took as a couple, to Liguria for Dee’s wedding. You had
booked an Airbnb with Shaun and Martha: a villa high up in the hills overlooking
Monterosso al Mare. It had a crescent-shaped pool, a balcony and a bar. It was hot
like this, and you’d been sweating then too, basking on a sun lounger, your
skin freckling and freshly pinked. Martha – ever the leader – had gone off in
search of lemon trees, Recottu and triofe. Shaun was swimming lengths in
the curved pool as best he could, training for his next triathlon.
Lisa had been sitting by you, flipping through an old
art catalogue on Futurism that she’d found in a drawer somewhere. She had kept
trying to engage you in a conversation about Balla’s “Mercury Passing”, knowing
full well you had never seen it. Or perhaps you had, perhaps at one of the
countless exhibition openings you’d been guest-listed into over the past three
years – “Oh, you’re Lisa’s partner? She’s a force.
And you’re in … research?” But it had been hard to remember anything in that
fat heat, two Pirlos down with the scent of chlorine and sun cream rising.
Kinloch Castle grows steadily as you approach, red sandstone
stark against blue sky. It’s a rectangular building, stocky round turrets at
each corner. An outer wall fringes the inner one, unnecessarily shoring it up with
archways and buttresses, as though trying to create the illusion of a building
three times the height. Stained glass windows glare down at you, bisecting
sunrays. Some panes are smeared: old handprints; traces of children’s nostrils
pressed against the glass. The entrance is indicated by a tall pink tower,
unmistakeably phallic, set in the centre of one of the long walls. As you pull
up, a tour guide opens an oak door carved with lion heads.
“Welcome, welcome! What weather – can yous believe
it’s September?” Spotting the bicycles, he adds: “We’ll wait for the ones on
foot. Yous took the smart route.”
You prickle gleefully; the bikes were your idea. You
uncurl the wire lock from the bicycle’s frame and look for a place to chain it.
She slings hers onto its side in the driveway as though tipping a cow.
“No need to worry about that here, Toto,” she says. “We’re
not in Kansas anymore.”
You find a gutter pipe to lock the bike to then attach
hers as well, to make the point. Untying the sleeves of your jumper from around
your waist, you pull it over your head as you enter the castle. Your skin barks,
darkening your mood.
“You alright, hon?” she asks, as you join her in the
lobby. You don’t answer.
As you wait together she begins to fidget, brushing an
imaginary stray hair from her forehead, shifting her weight from foot to foot, tucking
the back of her shirt into her shorts. The movements hover in your peripheral
vision like midges; you want to swat them away. Has she always been this nervous?
You try to think back over the last five or six months but the answer eludes
you. As she re-rolls her sleeve you put your hand out to stop her. She
misinterprets the gesture and holds it, smiling gratefully. You shake free of
her grasp – the smile drops – and walk over to one of the blood red walls to
study a painting. It’s a clansman in full tartan garb: kilt, sporran, Sgian-dubh. His hands are on his hips,
his right foot resting on the body of a dribbling stag.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” she says immediately, behind you.
It recalls to you – suddenly, perfectly – the moment
you first met. It was at the exhibition launch of some Twitter follower of
Lisa’s, that you’d attended half-hoping she’d be there (she wasn’t). You were
scowling at a gold frame filled with pages from Jeffrey Archer thrillers,
defaced with intricate geometric knots.
“I like to feel something, I guess,” a voice sighed apologetically,
addressed to the fey-looking man she was with then. “Abstract art just never
lets me in.”
You give a non-committal shrug and bend down as though
to study the signature on the clansman painting, which sits next to a small
puddle of spittle. In your mind’s ear, you hear Lisa sigh, slap her catalogue
shut and slip into the pool.
Through eyes that had refused to stay open or closed,
you’d observed her cut across the water with short, determined strokes. Time
took on a fluid quality as you’d ebbed in and out of sleep, images and sounds
careering and colliding. Lisa’s tanned body glimmering like an eel’s as she
twisted, changed direction. Lisa treading water in the centre of the pool,
forcing Shaun to pull up in front of her. Shaun lifting Lisa up on his broad
shoulders. She, tumbling backwards into the water, pushing her wet hair back as
she resurfaced. Lisa eyeing the inverted triangle of Shaun’s torso. The two of
them sharking a slow circle around each other, disappearing behind the water
slide. Laughter, splashing, shrieking, silence.
When you’d awoken, they had been sitting at the edge
of the pool, heads bowed in conversation. The knot of Lisa’s bikini top was
off-centre, but you couldn’t remember if it had always been that way.
The castle door creaks open.
“Welcome, welcome,” you hear the guide greet the other
tourists. “What weather – can yous believe it’s September?”
As the lobby fills, he strides up the stairs of the
Great Hall to a mezzanine level to signify that the tour is starting. He stretches
out his arms like an emperor at the Colosseum, the group looking up at him.
“Kinloch Castle,” he says, “was built in 1897 as a
hunting lodge for George Bulloch, who inherited the island from his father. The
sandstone was imported from a quarry on the Isle of Arran. Construction took three
years and involved up to three hundred workers. The young Master Bulloch, as
you’ll see, was not a modest man. In fact, this whole castle was designed to
emphasise his position at the top of the Highlands and Islands social ladder.”
The group trails his steady stream of patter around
the building: the Gold Ballroom, the Billiard Hall, the Lady of the House’s En Suite,
bedrooms with four-poster beds, a secret passage to the maid’s quarters (her
hand brushes your arse through your jeans). Stag heads adorn each wall, their
antlers great skeletal hands that hold an alternative history, of the land
clearances that made way for hunting reservations like these. Back in the Great
Hall, the guide opens a mahogany cupboard under the staircase, revealing an orchestrion.
The group oohs and aahs at a series of long brass cornets, lined up like
hunting rifles, a small drum perched on a shelf at their mouths, a rusted
triangle poised beside it.
“Only three of these exist in the world today,” he says,
proudly. “This is the only one that works.”
He loads a cylindrical cartridge dotted with braille
into the machine. As the room fills with a noise like off-tone bagpipes and
childhood days at the seaside, the line loops in your head: the only one that
She hadn’t liked it when you told her you’d agreed to
meet up with Lisa at the start of the summer. But she’d listened while you
explained it to her, nodding sadly as you said it was something you needed to
do, were going to do. You had always been clear about your feelings – certainly
she couldn’t charge you with that. The pub was on the canal by Camden Lock, one
of those awful, busy, minimalist places that Lisa knew would annoy you. You had
perched on the end of a wooden bench beside a concrete table, nudged
intermittently by the elbows of a girl having an argument with her boyfriend.
“I just want you to care,” she was shouting, “to actually
give a shit.”
You’d ordered a cortado so you could finish it before Lisa
got there, to emphasise her lateness.
When she’d arrived it was in a flurry of activity, as
always: talking hands-free, smoking a cigarette, taking off her sunglasses to
squint down at your face.
“Bye-bye-bye,” she’d said to the person on the phone
while smiling at you.
She’d looked good: healthy, athletic. You wondered if
she’d been training – then, with whom. She’d sat down as you got up to hug her,
but otherwise you’d chatted away like this was any other date, like you’d never
left her, like there’d been no year-long void. She’d teased you for re-reading
Rilke (“Relic with a God complex”). You’d feigned offence that she hadn’t
invited you to the Tate’s Clinton Hill retrospective (“The ICA’s”). She’d asked
if you’d ever finished that PhD and when you’d said you had her face lit up
with childish joy, an exact copy of the first time she’d ever seen her name on
the RA’s Summer Exhibition programme, six months into your relationship. And
for those fleeting moments it was like old times, like the oldest – those that
sit inside the bones of you and make them strong and, later, unbearably weak.
Eventually, because you’d known she wouldn’t say it
unprompted, you’d asked if she was seeing anyone.
“Yes,” she’d replied, carefully.
An eyebrow arched. “Of course not, silly.”
Her tone had left you with more questions than
answers. She hadn’t asked if you were dating again. You’d considered telling
her anyway but couldn’t find a way that didn’t seem like return fire. Besides,
you didn’t even have a photograph.
It had felt good to hear her say that, even though
you’d doubted it was true.
“Leave him, then,” you’d given back.
“For who – you?”
It was like a guillotine falling.
She’d waved for the bill and paid, even though she
hadn’t ordered anything. You’d stood up as she left, so she’d be obliged to peck
you on the cheek, at least. Her hair smelled of oranges, which reminded you that
it always had.
Back in the lobby at the end of the tour, under a
bronze cast of an eagle eating a monkey, the guide’s tone turns serious.
“This house is falling down,” he says. “Such was
Bulloch’s desire to show off his wealth, he demanded construction be rushed, so
the structural support is poor.” You wait for him to ask for a donation on the
way out, to support a roof fund or some-such. But instead he adds: “We can only
work to preserve it as long as possible.”
“Like Kirabiti,” she breathes beside you.
“Kirabiti,” she whispers. “You know, the island. The
one that’s disappearing because of climate change. Rising sea levels, nothing
can change it.” The volume of her voice rises, becomes more animated, as she
sees your interest is piqued. “There’s a weightlifter from there. I remember
seeing him on the Olympics. He dances after every attempted lift, whether he succeeds
or fails. It’s so that people will love him and remember him and remember Kirabiti.
He came third or fourth, I’m not sure – but I remember the dancing and
Kirabiti, so it works. Isn’t that amazing?”
“It’s Kiribati,” you say.
“Kiribati. You said Kirabiti.”
“Oh,” she says, going red.
That night, you stay together in a pine camping pod,
the shape of a fortune-teller’s caravan. The shower is outside, surrounded by a
staked fence, and charges fifty pence for hot water that never comes on. She
hasn’t said much since the tour, but she makes a campfire, deftly spinning
pieces of kindling between her fingers, lighting the match and slowly feeding the
flames with smaller sticks until the logs can go on. She has a patience with this
sort of thing that you’ve never had for anything practical. She catches you
“Girl Guides,” she says and laughs.
It’s an apologetic laugh, she uses it often: at
academic functions you’ve guest-listed her into, when she’s asked who she’s
reading and she replies “Karin Slaughter, mostly”; with the few friends you’ve
introduced her to when she has to remind them of her name. You find it
embarrassing in front of other people yet here, alone, it’s endearing. There’s
an assurance she needs that only you can give her. And, away from everything, it
feels like something you can give.
read Rilke aloud to her as she works:
“Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter; who lives alone will live indefinitely so, waking up to read a little, draft long letters, and, along the city’s avenues, fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.”
she says. “Really nice.”
It doesn’t last, of course, the weather. The rain comes
down, the fire’s snuffed out, and you retreat into the cabin. She has midge
bites on her ankles from where she took her socks off before making the fire.
“Silly,” you tell her giddily, brushing your thumb
across a blushing sore. “I told you to put the spray on.”
The cotton sticks to her skin as you try to pull her
shorts down. She wiggles out of them, yanking her knickers back up as if trying
for some ridiculous sense of striptease. You push them aside and lick her
hungrily where her thighs meet. She resists for a moment – embarrassed by her
smell, the sea, the sweat – before parting her legs, the stubble raised up on
goose-bumps. You make her beg before fucking her.
Later, when the rain stops, you roll yourself
carefully out of the camp bed, your back objecting. She is snoring comfortably,
has been for the past four or five hours. You, meanwhile, have been staring at
the ceiling of the pod, shivering and counting spiders, real and imagined. You
step out on the porch, roll a cigarette and light up, idly fizzing bug-spray into
the air to keep the midges at bay. The sun is rising, you can see it through
the haar, a Pointillist blur. She told you earlier that the twilight hour, the
pinking dusk, is called the gloaming. What is the opposite of “gloaming”, you
wonder? Perhaps they covered that in Girl Guides too.
It can’t carry on, you know that. She must know it too.
It’s the subtext undercutting every nervous laugh, every action designed to
please you: “I just want you to care, to actually give a shit.”
The last time you heard from Lisa was two weeks ago, when
she’d phoned to say she was getting married and asked you to give her a reason
not to. Your heart had stalled but you’d kept your tone neutral.
“How many exes are you phoning tonight?”
“However many will pick up,” she’d answered
A sigh. “Of course not. Silly.”
After a pregnant pause you’d told her to send you a “Save
the Date” and you’d be sure to raise a toast to the happy couple from afar.
“I keep giving you these chances,” she’d said.
Her hair still smelled of oranges, even over the phone,
even after she hung up.
You hear her stir inside the cabin, call your name
unsurely, as though you might have run away in the night. It grates. She’s like
the weightlifter, you think, always dancing in your presence. The image is
pleasing: her with a great inflated body, tucking the back of a t-shirt into a
leotard, a stupid grin on her fat face. Her cheeks puff out and her skin
purples as she hoiks the barbell to collarbone level, squats to the floor.
Slowly, she straightens her wobbling legs, then places one behind her ready for
the jerk. But the angle is bad: her arms push forwards and the weight slams to
the floor. She reels backwards onto the mat, and sits there for a moment,
stunned. Then she gets up, bows, laughs and starts to wriggle. Her hands draw
circles as her weight shifts from foot to foot, her bottom swinging,
desperately trying to draw attention to an island already drowning, already
You take the last drag of your cigarette and stub it
out on the wooden porch. It leaves a black mark which you press your finger
against, to feel the residual burn. There’s a new bite on your wrist; the
little fuckers get through every time. But there’s something else hovering just
outside the frame, something you can’t swat away. It keens towards you now, steeling
itself to bite.
“Because if she is the weightlifter,” it says, baring
its teeth, “what does that make you?”
hated cherry blossom’s dying sprawl. The untidiness of it. The neediness. How
the fallen petals clung to her shoes, like wet, white moths, as though she was
dry land to them. She laid down the axe on the grass and raised each itching
foot in turn. She shook until a few petals unstuck and fluttered to the ground.
The rest held fast.
swooped with airplane arms through the blossom’s sickly-sweet gunge and
giggled. Her red hair swung behind her in an arc. So pretty, Anna thought – but
as her daughter sprinted towards her and the blossom’s winged petals flapped
and flailed and stuck to the little bare legs and the new blue dress and that glossy
hair, she winced. Stop, she wanted to shout. Don’t come any closer.
spring, it was the same. Prue clapped and whirled around the shedding tree and
the blossom flew to her. She loved the tree and it seemed to love her back in
its cloying, dying-throes way. It was all his doing.
daughter’s tree,” he had said the day he planted it. Anna gave birth that
morning – “gave light”, they would have said back home – and when he arrived at
the hospital, he cradled their little Prue for ten, perhaps fifteen minutes,
before rushing away to plant a cherry tree at the foot of their garden. Prunus serrula, he said. Gorgeous. White blossom rather than pink. Bark the
colour of glistening cherries.Your
twin, he had whispered to Prue every day since, for the last eight years; until
the night he left without a word’s explanation.
lovely twin!” Prue sang as she approached the tree. Her laugh today sounded a
notch higher than usual.
at the state of you already.”
flushed at Anna’s words. Her raised arms froze mid-air. Her elbows and wrists
jutted out, like nubs on brittle, wintering branches.
father didn’t think about that, did he?” Anna insisted. Sometimes she couldn’t
stopper the voice inside her.
stared up, silent.
mess this tree leaves behind,” Anna explained, training her daughter’s raised
arms back down to her sides.
still said nothing, but her eyes said she understood: Mum meant another mess
wiped a petal caught in the crook of Prue’s neck and brushed at her winged
dress. As she tidied, she looked across at the rhododendron by the fence. It had
become a monster too. All those showy, purple flowers. All the waxy leaves that
would curl into orange mulch come autumn. Every season in this garden brought
its own particular untidiness and neediness. She glanced down at the axe lying
beside her: a sharp, clean thing that might end all this mess.
always left me to clean up the mess.”
stumbled forwards and let out a small whimper.
reached out a steadying hand. “All right, petal?”
needed to stop using that word. Petal.
That was his word.
took another squishy step closer. “I could ask him.”
could ask Dad to come and sort the garden – tidy the mess?”
months gone, with no explanation apart from metaphorical fogs and craters, and still
Prue dreamed and plotted her father’s return. Every morning when Anna woke,
there was her daughter hovering at the foot of the bed. “Is Dad home?” she’d
ask. Anna would shake her head and Prue would sidle closer and pat the cold,
empty side of the bed from head to foot – as though she’d rather doubt her own
senses than hear her father’s silence and what it said.
I ask him?” Prue’s mouth quivered.
you won’t beg your father to see you. He should be asking you. Instead, it’s
shudder passed through Prue’s body. Anna could feel it vibrate in the earth
beneath them, like the drumming of a gull’s feet. Prue had never cried since he
left. She only shook, as though she didn’t have the voice or salt for tears.
not silent. He messages me sometimes.”
stared now at the rosebed he’d planted a couple of years ago. There was the
first sign of his wanderlust, his edging towards mists and gorges. It was a
blanket of red and yellow deadheads now. She’d already taken the secateurs to
it this morning to avert the impending mess. Prue hadn’t noticed yet.
Anna repeated back. “Once in six months?”
shudder passed through Prue. For a moment, Anna wondered if she should stop – but
it was time to break his story’s spell. Girls aren’t fables. Trees don’t make
good sisters. Absence isn’t a place to sow seeds or to water or to try and make
don’t need your father,” she said. “I can sort this garden.”
cement it over.”
Prue blinked, as though learning some terrible swear word.
time, the tears rose to Prue’s eyes. A fold of petals drizzled from her dress. She
stared down at Anna’s hands, saw the roses’ stings in them and flinched as she
looked over at the blanket of deadheads.
make our lives much easier, sweetheart.”
eyes shone. “You’re going to chop it down? Everything Dad grew?”
reached out and brushed her daughter’s cheek. “It’s much for me, on my own.”
my tree?” Prue trembled.
pointed to the mulch. “It makes too much mess.”
tugged at a petal on her dress’s hem – or perhaps it was a moth, this time. “I’m
It’s not your fault, sweetheart.”
flushed. “She’s my tree spirit. And she makes a mess.”
Prue. It’s just a tree. That was your father’s fanciful story.”
fell to her knees and grabbed the axe with both hands. “I’ll help you tidy, Mum.”
stared at her little girl’s wiry strength. “Put that down.”
fine.” Prue half-smiled. “I know how to use an axe. Daddy taught me. Undercut
first, he said.”
I’ll show you.”
planted herself, feet apart, in front of her glistening tree and swung the
Satan Lends a Hand
“God chiseled away everything that wasn’t an idiot and when the smog cleared there stood my husband,” Lisa announced, standing in a sweat with Toffee on Knutson Auto’s sunny blacktop, lighting a cigarette, surrounded by broken cars, surrounded by noisy traffic, dead center on a crumbling peninsula that inhaled chicken-fried fuels and exhaled barbecued soot. “He looks under the hood and says, ‘That’s an engine,’ then puffs back to the couch.”
“That’s why I disfigured Cetshwayo,” Toffee said, gesturing
for another Marlboro 100. “All he wanted to do was fuck and drink and watch TV.
And, damn, could he fucking drink and watch TV.”
“You know what they say, relationships either end
badly or go on forever.”
Toffee kissed the dirty white sky. “Then thank God
ours ended badly.”
Two men in greenish-brown jumpsuits, Brick Knutson and
Marco G., according to the embroidery above their pockets, strolled up to the
women. Brick wiped his hands on a pink shop towel, then dabbed his glistening crown.
“Whose silver Toyota?”
All four squinted at the heat-shimmering vehicle
parked crookedly on diagonal yellow stripes. A passing tow truck honked; Brick
“Mine,” Lisa said. “It makes a spaceship noise when I
“Well, you landed your little spaceship in a towaway
zone. You’ll have to move it.”
Marco puckered up a snicker at Brick’s frown.
“If you want my business, you’ll move it into your
garage and fix it. The keys are in it.” Lisa’s tongue had sharpened her tone. “Comprende,
“Marco, drive her around the block. The car.” They watched him squeal away. “Be
about an hour before we can get her in to have a look see.”
“Uh, I called ten minutes ago and was told I could get
it right in.”
“Who’d you talk to?”
Lisa wrote her name and number on a piece of paper,
handed it to Brick, then walked away with her fists. “We’ll be in the slime-colored
coffee shop next door.”
Sunlight buttered the hot rolls on the back of Brick’s
neck as he watched them walk. “Reminds me those grease pumps need fixed.”
Marco squealed Lisa’s car up to Brick and rolled down
the window. “Take me to your leader.” Scowled at, he jerked up his whiskery
chin at the coffee shop where the upper profiles of the two women sat behind a
window. “HHYo, who would you do,
purple hair or green hair?”
Brick, colorblind, pulled an ancient fang from his
pocket and, pressing the heels of his hands against the window slot, rubbed it with
his thumb. “Listen. Fly this spaceship to Overton and check it into the Pentagram
of Fire, grab us some lunch, then roll it into bay four and check the power
steering fluid. Then hop on those grease pumps.” He straightened and squinted
at the browned industrial horizon and murmured harsh reprisals.
Marco looked away from the coffee shop window. “Jack
in the Crack coming up.” Then he ran over the tip of Brick’s boot.
Lisa and Toffee sat in a booth under an oscillating
fan sipping Death Smog coffee, and every ten seconds Lisa’s purple wing flapped
kinkily for the stubbly side of her head.
“They wouldn’t be giving us the run around if we were
“Well, let’s don’t go growing a couple dicks to find
out.” They high-fived. “So, why’d you take it there anyway?”
Lisa looked up from her phone and shrugged into fuzz. “You
know, I really have no idea. I guess – because there’s a magnet on our fridge?”
She turned to grime and glare. She peered through beige haze at the bustling
auto shop. “Did they even pull my car in yet? God. This coffee’s making me
“They must pipeline it over to Knutson’s.”
Coffee spurted from Lisa’s nostril.
Forty-nine minutes later, her phone rang.
“It’s Fuck Knutson. Hello? Hello? This is Lisa Chive-Curly.
Is my car finished? Hello?”
A voice deep in shop sounds, “Best give Marco a chance. Remember,
he’s the high priest’s nephew.”
“Wait – what?”
nephews does that guy have? Enough to ruin me. And Marco still hasn’t fixed the
“Wait – what?”
“He has a dark
past. He interprets women literally. He entertains rats out back amongst the used
tires. Brick, he’s ideal. Besides, Satan’s into destruction these days, not small
doesn’t he just destroy the planet? I mean, what’s he do with all those souls
anyway, run an auto parts monopoly?”
“Oh – my – God.” Lisa rammed her phone into her wristlet.
“Ate up devil freak must have dick-dialed me!”
They buzzed back to Knutson’s as Lisa’s freshly detailed
car perved backwards out of bay two. Marco stepped out and handed her the keys
and winked and grinned and rolled his eyes and turned his head and nodded.
curled her lip.
“Don’t let the hair bun fool ya, bambina. I’m evil as shit.”
He shot Lisa with his finger gun. “Dishonor before death.”
“Like this?” Toffee yanked a pencil from his pocket
and broke it near his crotch.
Brick jogged out of the office clearing his throat. “Tweaked
the steering box. Give her a try for a couple days. If she’s good, stop by
Friday and we’ll settle up.” He folded his arms and shook his head at Marco. “I
wasn’t talking to you.”
“I’ve never seen your car so clean,” Toffee said, loading
a bowl as Lisa sped across the lot, turned left, and entered traffic.
“Hold up. Did you hear the spaceship sound?”
Lisa turned on the radio and a deep scratchy thunder
throbbed in the speakers. “Douchebag jacked my tunes!”
“No, wait, this is Ramhate’s new song.”
The steering wheel spun free when a front tire struck
a choked storm drain. Lisa spilled her margarita onto Toffee’s cleavage. Bounding
over a littered island, the car made a figure 6, then another, then another,
then it belly-flopped a cesspool and rocking-horsed a fruitful stretch of
ditches and gutters and potholes.
Accelerating, the car rocketed over a slag pile, crash
landed on a polluted slick, whirled across animated stagnation, then whipped through
a weedy lot in reverse.
“Damnit, Lisa! You bong-watered my cat! Lisa?”
Lisa sat up in the backseat. “Stop this mother—!”
The car trunk-slammed a vat of used oil behind
Knutson’s and splattered the white building as chocolate splatters a rich creamy
dessert. The women staggered from the vehicle slurring adverbs, inspecting body
parts, chanting for attorneys and lawsuits and swift justice.
Brick and Marco wiped their faces and surveyed the aftermath
from a secular distance: the break area on the roof. “Are you sure you checked
that car into the Pentagram of Fire?”
“I thought you said, ‘Make sure you check that damn front
“Fix the grease pumps.”
They are your
earliest memory. Beaked noses. Hair like clouds. You’re a child, four at most,
and wear the dress your mother bought, the socks with scalloped edges. Your
mouth is red with popsicles, your teeth rough with sugar.
The giants leer,
red-nosed – great aunts and uncles on your father’s side. Bob, Wayne, and Bill;
Geri, Fern, Jean, Mae. Russ died months ago but his name is often spoken. It’s
hard to remember he’s gone.
court in their center. With high cheeks and strong jaw, she is the handsomest
in the room. Boxed wine fills goblets. A Tripoley board is brought forth.
Watch from the top
of the stairs until the dog, a gray poodle, runs past. Chase after, down the
hall to the back room where Grandmother sleeps now that Grandfather snores. A
cat is there, curled like a pillow atop the bed, among handbags. The dog crawls
under to hide; you crawl under too.
It’s a long time
before Grandfather finds you. He is tan and thin; his limbs splayed like a
spider to peer under the bed. Shriek. Run but not hard. Let him catch you round
the waist and carry you to the basement, where he shows how to crack nuts with silver
tools, build towers of magnetic flakes.
When you are tired,
he turns on speakers that are built into a wooden bar. Colored lights dance the
walls and ceiling. He dances too, growing as he does. He grows until the room
is not tall enough to hold him and he must curve his back to fit. Even then, his
elbows knock divots into walls. His head pushes the ceiling, raising the floor
above, where other giants spill their wine and curse. Only then does he
diminish back to size and cradle you once more in his arms.
His face is all you
You moved from the
city on the ocean four states away.
“To be near
family,” Mother says. She does not add in
case Father leaves.
But the town you’ve moved to
isn’t hers at all – it’s Father’s – and she cries when she thinks you aren’t
“This town is too close,” she
says to Father. Everyone stares. Everyone knows her name. “Like being always on
You’ve been on-stage, violin
tucked under chin. You can’t see on-stage. You hear people watching but cannot see
them. The lights hurt your eyes and you sweat.
Picture Mother there, the round,
white light on her pale, pale face. Picture people staring, shadows moving, Mother
pinned, blinded by the light of Every One’s stares.
No wonder she cries.
For Halloween, Mother paints
your face with lipstick and shadow; your hair is braided into pigtails and you
wear a blue gingham gown. A plush dog rests in a basket that hangs from your
“Not in Kansas never looked so good,” Mother says.
It’s the first Halloween your
baby sister can walk on her own, apart from the stroller, and she grasps your
one finger with all of her own. Russ’s widow Mae waits, porchlight on, for you
to knock on her door. She wears a black witch’s hat; cats curl the staircase
She croons, “I’ll get you, my pretty,”
and your sister cries.
“It’s late,” says Mother, an apology.
Father carries Sister to the
car. Mother follows.
You are the only one to see Mae
slip into shadow, tall as the bare-branched trees, silent as a bat, seeing you
Swagger your steps at the
supermarket, the church, the pavement outside Grandfather’s shop. You are
famous. Joe’s granddaughter, Bob’s great-niece, Scotty’s eldest.
“Everyone knows me,” Mother
cries to Father. “I can’t go anywhere.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he
She takes the keys and leaves.
The door bounces too many times behind her.
Ask if she will return.
“Of course,” Father says. “Of
course she will.”
Hold the Lucky 8 ball
Grandfather gave you. Shake it and repeat, silently, to yourself of course, of course she will.
And, of course, she does.
She leaves you at Geri’s, to
drive to the mall an hour away.
Geri’s lips are gummy and red.
Her face droops more than Mae’s, more than Jean’s and Grandmother’s and Fern’s.
She has her brothers’ faces, their own beaked nose. Her husband Bill sits, as always,
beneath an afghan in the chair nearest the window. On her mantel are photos of
children not her own. She walks you along the row, naming them and how she
knows them. You’re older now – old enough to understand there is sadness here, but
not old enough to understand why. She makes chocolate chip cookies for you and
your sister, pours glasses of Sprite, though neither of you like chocolate or
Sprite. Your sister, still very young, opens her mouth to protest. Kick her
under the table.
When it’s time to leave, forget
your coat. You must run back inside, Mother says. Find Geri crying in a chair
beside Bill’s. Tears flood the floor. Children’s photographs float, knock about
your knees. You must wade them to get to your coat, hung on a peg in the
corner. Geri holds her arms to hold you, but she isn’t Grandfather and you’d
rather not. Try to run but slip in the flood. You can’t swim. Drown. Feet
scramble for a hold. Arms splash too hard for Geri to grab.
The door opens and there is
Mother. Run to her, tears streaming the door, tumbling the porch, drenching the
The giants do not have many
children, much less grandchildren. Run with your few cousins through the park,
over fairy bridges to fountains made of limestone where you drink after paying
the troll. There are geese to feed, monkeys upside down in cages. Pebbled paths.
The giants bring you here – sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. Iron gates
open at a touch from their hands. Magic, you think, slipping your own hand into
one of theirs.
Bob’s house sits
atop a hill, above a winding drive. It’s on the edge of town and everyone must
pass it as they come and go. A welcome sign of sorts, tall and very white. You
are proud walking to it, climbing the stairs that lead inside. Enter without
and the house is full. You know these people and run possessively through great
halls. Drink juice mixed with soda until your stomach bubbles.
In the front room,
giants and their grown children choose presents from a pile. They roar until
they cry, steal booze and lottery tickets from one other, avoiding the flamingo
yard ornament that will be wrapped and brought again next year.
You are still young
enough to have presents picked especially for you. Fashion dolls, coloring
books, glass beads for your neck, bottles of polish for tiny nails. Show these
to the giants who smell of smoke and drink – the doll with her tiny waist, the beads
sparkling against your neck.
Bob steals an ear
when you sit on his lap, slips it from your head with a thumb and forefinger.
He shows it to you, lying on his palm, when you begin to cry.
Only Jean, his
wife, he says, can put it back and she does, setting the ear gently against the
side of your head with a touch as hot as the sun’s, soft as a petal’s.
Then Bob laughs and
it fills the room, lifting you on bubbles no one else can see. Jean pulls you
back. She holds you as Bob wipes his eyes, pops bubbles with stout fingers. She
doesn’t let go until the last bubble is popped and it is time for you to leave.
Hug Geri quickly,
linger with Grandmother, hide from Mae. Blow a kiss, instead, near the
bejeweled tree where bat shadows threaten. Watch Mae catch it, the print of
your lips against a powdered cheek.
hovers. Stars reflect, like pins, in the snow.
Make a wish. Watch
the air still. Flakes hang without falling; all the world cupped within a
Breathe and it
move with your family away from the town where Mother was too well-known. You
move into the country nearby, where there is no one. Woods line the back of
this new house and there is a clearing where someone once built fires ringed
with stone. The trees here are always bare – summer, spring, winter, fall. They
are enchanted trees where orphans, when no one is looking, go to mourn.
At the new school,
no one knows your name. Sit in the back with your head down. Tell everyone
you’re an immigrant because you were born in the city on the sea. Blush when
they laugh. Disagree when the teacher says it isn’t the same thing. It is.
another house. Your own, this time. Giants stuff the edges of it. They are
smaller now, unsure of how they used to be big. The cards and booze are claimed
mostly by their children. Wayne and Fern are gone. Mae. Their absence is a hole
that will gradually shallow. Mother demands Christmas carols from you and you
play, violin tucked under chin, in a corner. Downstairs, your few cousins and
sister play air hockey. The house is full of noise.
“Where are the
jobs?” Father’s sisters ask. “What do we expect?”
The Gazette printed an article about the
death of Small Town America. Children grow and leave, never return.
slacks and matching sweater, strings of pearls along her wrists and neck and
ears, pours sparkling juice into a flute for you. Finish your song and sit
She pats your knee.
Says you play well. She’s proud of you. Her eyes water like ponds.
“Get out if you
can,” she says. “This place is ugly.”
made hang from the walls of her home, the walls of yours and your aunts’ and
all the living giants’. They are of the prairie and are more sad, you think,
Across the room,
Bob and Grandfather laugh. It isn’t like Bob’s laugh of years ago, but it is
strong enough, still, to push you and Grandmother against the wall, cracking it
so that every time you pass that room from now on, you will see the crack and
remember that night and that laugh. The way Grandmother sounded, urging you to
Go with Jean when
she visits Geri before Bill dies. Don’t enter the room he’s in – the room that echoes
machine-forced breath. Let Jean enter that place alone. You stay in the living
room, where the sun shines many windows and photos fill the shelves of a new
bookcase. Geri serves chocolate chip cookies and Sprite. You no longer mind.
But she calls you
by your aunt’s name and, this, you do mind. Look away. Ask about the children
in her photographs.
“I don’t know
them,” she says. “Who are they?”
Name them for her.
Point to each in turn until Jean returns and says,
“He’s better. For
“Who?” Geri asks. “Who’s
Jean touches her
shoulder. Geri’s eyes light.
But Jean must leave
and you must follow, glancing behind to say goodbye. Already, Geri’s light is
gone. She sets a trash bin beside the bookcase and sweeps her arm; children’s
funeral, then Geri’s. Curl your hair and paint your lips; you’re old enough
now. Next is Bob’s, where Jean refuses to leave the casket and stands beside it
through the entire service, clutching his hand as if, even this, she could
heal. Remember your ear and think maybe she can.
powers, you’ve noticed, are faded.
“You don’t have to
come,” Mother says about each visit to disinfected rooms, parlor viewings with
bodies laid like wax upon tables.
There are scholarship
expect you,” she says.
Tell her you want
to. It’s partly true.
handsome as ever, even as the others fade. Grief becomes her. High-collared black
tickles her jaw. People calm as they speak to her, grow less teary. Even Jean,
she manages to coax away from Bob’s body.
Grandfather plays music from his disco bar. The lights still flash, but he
slumps like the curved shrimp ringing crystal bowls upstairs.
The air that once
filled him has been taken from him and given to you. When he asks for a dance,
lift him with one finger, spin him as he once did you. Ignore the tears that fall
like acid from his face, burning carpet, sizzling the wood underneath.
fingers slide over catgut strings. Scatter notes like pearls from a broken
Choose the school
that is furthest away, in the city on the sea.
Here, music turns
from pearls to stones.
Change majors. Get
married. Work. Have children.
Mother calls to say
Grandfather is fading fast. Tell her you know; you’ve seen pictures. Snarl your
voice so that she knows – what she says must not be spoken.
The air tastes of
salt. Dolphins curl from water. Your children take turns burying one another in
sand. The pier is bloody from fish. Sand pipers run like the chicks your
great-grandmother used to have, but you don’t think of Great Grandmother; you
were too young. Think only of chicks without knowing why.
Waves hiss where
the pipers run. Foamed fingers claw tracks from sight.
The days are long.
Quit your job because, you say, you want to squeeze every moment you have.
But the days are
long. It’s hard to remember to squeeze.
crying often, the way your own mother did; stop as soon as you can, hope the
children didn’t see though, of course, they did. Your youngest cries with you –
over cheese that isn’t cut and cheese that is. Your oldest can’t quit touching
you – hands slide under the long sleeves that you wear, stroke the undersides
of your arms, where the skin is softest. When they hug you, it is as hard as
they can, afraid that you’ll leave.
You’re afraid, too.
Pull away. Tell
them it hurts. They have giant blood in their veins and are stronger than they
Lock yourself in
the bathroom. Ignore their pounding.
Outside, they wait.
Heavy breath beside the door. Four arms wrapping the moment they see you.
Pulling away is like cutting vines.
When he dies, Father
is the one who calls. You’re brushing the oldest’s hair.
“I have news,” he
Let your tears fill
the room, trickle the door’s seams, rush the hallway beyond. A waterfall roars
the stairs; your oldest nearly drowns. She floats beneath the surface, hair
like seaweed about a petal face. Eyes like stones. Grab her from the flood. Dip
your fingers to wet them, then draw them over the walls. Paint pictures with
your tears to cheer her. Emerald and gold stretch where you paint. Paint a
picture of Grandfather, the way he filled a room.
By the time your
youngest enters, the flood has dried and your head knocks the ceiling. Hunch to
fit. Splay your knees in a kind of jig, swing these girls about the room.
At the funeral,
feel an intruder. The people filing past, faces shining, lay stronger claim
than you. Shrink beneath the weight of your parents’ grief, your aunts’. Watch
the faces of your sister, your few cousins – rounder and deeper set than you
remember – watch their grief play out. Wonder if yours is real at all.
They say things and
write things and read things.
Not you. Your mouth
is a cave collapsed on itself.
Afterward, at Grandmother’s,
is a box full of puppets. The room has been made into a stage. Children are a
rarity; yours the only ones. Adults crowd to watch. Grandmother pours sparkling
juice into goblets, hands them to your children.
“I shouldn’t spoil their
dinner,” she says, “but who knows if I’ll see them again.”
Tell her this is
Jean smiles like a
Cabbage Patch in a corner nearby. She doesn’t know you and tried pulling away
when you gripped her hand to make her remember. She cried and you let go. Now,
she has forgotten again and her face is dimpled with smiles.
Above her, rests
Grandfather’s shadow and Bob’s with him. Mae’s arms, like wings, fill the
ceiling and there is Geri and Bill, Wayne and Fern; even Russ, whom you never
Say, “We will
always see you again.”
The girls finish
their show and Grandmother pulls a turkey hat from a shelf. Its wings flap at
the touch of a button.
Grandmother mimics. “Gobble gobble.” Flapping her arms.
Your girls roll
like beetles on their backs, laughing until they cry. In that moment,
Grandmother stretches as tall as Grandfather that day he danced in the
basement. Air lifts you to your back, above the chair where you sat, and you
hear Bob’s laugh before realizing – it’s your own.
Light falls in the
cemetery, where you’ve gone with your children for a walk. Your husband stays
behind and your mother is with him, telling him she knows. The shock of this
place. Your father sits in the chair Grandfather used to take, rocking in the
window. The town is small enough you think you see him, the shape of his head
in that window, from your perch on the hill.
Your children run
between headstones, the way they couldn’t that afternoon when mourners stood
like wraiths and a canopy spread the hole in which they placed Grandfather.
Now, the cemetery
is empty. Mist creeps beyond the ridge. The girls twirl. When they run, their
shadows reach to the tops of trees. Their arms spread for balance. If the straight
and pebbled path were just long enough, they could lift off. Could fly.
Screech, “I’ll get
you, my pretties.”
Their laughter is
sharp as stones.
When they tire,
point to the name they don’t know – the name that is your own.
And there. And here again, across the path.
Read aloud names
“Parents of,” you
read and your oldest is old enough to take your hand.
The youngest asks
when you will die.
Tell her, “never,”
unable to lie.
I Made Myself a Needle
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
“That’s okay,” she
said, unperturbed. “You teach me, and I’ll know. Promise?”
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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 Princess and the Moon
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
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 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,
“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
“And where, may I ask, did he go last?” the map-seller
“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.”
“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
“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
“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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
His eyes still look. I draw them closed. Stone is heavy. Place two small
Courage tries again, in vain, to explain to Eustace that his beloved
Muriel is in danger.
Eustace kicks him muttering, “Stupid dog.”
Courage says, “Oh no, Muriel, I’ll save you.”
I’m watching Courage the Cowardly Dog and eating
cornflakes. Courage lives in the middle of nowhere. Creepy things happen in
nowhere. And the narrative always relies on him to save the day. I live on this
small island in the Gulf with my parents. I could have been anywhere else but
I’m still here. Stuck like Courage. I used to love how Courage always saves the
day, saves his family. But I don’t think I do anymore. What if Courage could be
free from the burden? Muriel and Eustace would be just fine without him. He
could walk away anytime he wanted. But no, dogs are loyal. And so are daughters
expected to be. Birds are not. We had birds before. I loved them a lot and took
care of them. I opened their cage to test their loyalty. I was a fool. But they
deserve their freedom … I guess.
“Eat your cornflakes before they get soggy,” Mom yells from the bedroom.
Our living room is flooded with tube light even though it is 8am. Dad and Mom
have forbidden me to open the curtains, for perverts lurk everywhere. They
stare into homes, at young girls, using binoculars. Dad has left for work.
Mom is almost ready. Her driver will arrive soon. Mom and Dad are hoping I land
a relaxing job here after I finish my Bachelors at the university. They don’t
want me to go through the rigmarole of Indian transportation just to get to and
fro for work.
I can feel Mom run about the house getting ready for work, but I know
her eyes are on me. I finish up the cornflakes before she leaves. She’s happy.
As a good daughter, I do things to keep my parents happy. Mom watches Saavdhan
India almost every day and makes me watch it with her. And every
single time she says, “Thank God we didn’t send you to India. See what happens
there.” I’m still not allowed to go to the theatre with friends. She says
before leaving, “Don’t watch TV too long. You have to study, you know, right?”
When the lock clicks, I wait for like a minute before I change the
channel to Star Movies. I remember to change channels twice
before switching off the TV because I know Mom checks the previously viewed
channel always. We don’t have internet at home. I don’t have a mobile phone.
But I do read Sidney Sheldon. I switch on my PC and play the free Kellogg’s PC
game. I toggle left and right to get the milk in the bowl. If I miss, I lose a
After the TV and PC fail to entertain me for long, I draw the living-room
curtains with more force than I intended. A curtain ring breaks. I slap my
forehead at my stupidity. I pick up the fallen ring and look out. No one’s
looking at me. I look down at the vegetable shop opposite our building. A
housewife bends over the array of veggies on display. She holds a brinjal, inspects
it. Puts it down and inspects another. While her husband is out at work, what
could she be doing at home? Her husband could have left her and the kids (if
they have kids) in India. But he got them here, thoughtful of him. Many husbands
can’t afford to keep their families here, and leave them back home. And what do
those lonely men do to keep themselves occupied?
After the woman leaves, the shopkeeper lingers outside the shop and then
he looks up. At me. And smiles. I duck and crawl away from the window. I sit on
the couch looking at our window. My heartbeat races. The shopkeeper is one such
man whose family is far away. He might as well be a bachelor. But he isn’t. All
his money is saved up and sent home to his family. After having sent the money
home, how do these men satisfy their desires? Just yesterday I read about this
Indian man who visited India after twenty years and didn’t recognize his family
To avoid thinking about the shopkeeper and the lives of men like him, I
focus on the window. The tape imprints on the glass are a reminder of the Gulf War.
Of a time before I was born. Mom and Dad could have left. But they stayed. To
provide this sheltered life for me. Maybe they should have left. Growing up in
India makes one street smart. They wouldn’t have been able to restrict me there
the way they do here. Not with all our relatives around. But not all born and
raised here are as sheltered as I am. Some have had experiences. My friends
have invited their lovers home when their parents are out. Maybe I would have
done too, if I had one.
In school, I did get close to one guy. I go to my bedroom and take out
my slambook. I leave the curtain ring on my study table. My slambook is full.
Two pages are stuck to each other. I had glued them together for fear my
parents would see what’s hidden in there. I slowly pry the pages apart. They do
come loose but the impression of one lasts on the other. I can read a few
words, though. I smile at his writing. He must be in India now. Like most of my
friends. None of their parents cared enough to make their kids stay back. Higher
education sucks here. All the failures in school who repeated classes for years
are now with me in college.
I guess my only shot at love is if I leave this damn place. I might meet
someone smart and mature who’s at least been with a few girls before and who
would teach me things but also respect me. He would teach me to French kiss.
David’s face comes to mind. David and I studied in different schools. But we
met in college. He is my classmate. He is the only guy I talk to, maybe because
he is not threatening. At least, he wasn’t threatening until yesterday. After
our test, he had confessed his feelings for me. I wonder if I should tell him,
about wanting to leave this stifling island. I’m sure he wants to leave too. He
had confessed his feelings for me after the story. Does it mean he wants to
stay and that he likes it here because of me?
The story was about a small boy who was born on this island, like me.
And is now all grown up, like me. But he finds himself stuck on this island
with his haunting past. David said I wouldn’t know what that felt like. I told
him I wanted to know the boy’s name. He said he preferred if the boy was
He took me to the boy’s past. The boy is sent to the cold store, a
little away from the boy’s house, by his parents almost every day to buy bread
or milk or eggs or chips. The shopkeeper notices that the boy is coming all by
himself every day and that when he engages the boy in idle conversation and
when more time passes, no one comes looking for the boy. After a few
months, he finds ways to bribe the boy with candies. The boy doesn’t know what
the shopkeeper is doing to him. When he does realise, it’s too late. The man
knows by now that he can use fear to make the boy do more. Much more. The boy
grows up to have a feminine gait and everyone mocks him for it, in school and
now even in college.
He paused, his voice cracked when he said, “It’s not really my fault
that I walk like that. Do you think I walk like … like..?”
I looked away so that he wouldn’t see the rage in my eyes. “Where is
that bloody shopkeeper now?” I said, still looking away.
“Forget I told you about it, okay?”
“Do you like men?” I asked, looking him in the eye.
I shouldn’t have asked him that but it just slipped out.
He looked shocked.
“No way. I … I like you, idiot. Why do you think I told you this? No one
knows this till now. Not … not even my parents.”
“Maybe you should tell them, that it happened right under their nose.
That they should have been vigilant. You are their child. Jesus. What?”
“Why are you so angry?”
“Oh please, do you expect me to dance?”
At night, he called me on my landline. Dad answered. He wasn’t happy
that a boy is calling me.
“You can discuss whatever you want in college, no? Why is he calling
“I don’t know, Dad. He’s a good friend. Maybe something urgent about our
Dad raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t worry,” I said hurriedly, “he’s … he’s most probably … gay.”
“Nothing. Forget it. I’ll tell him not to call anymore. Sorry.”
I felt bad for calling David that behind his back.
I slept restlessly. I dreamt that I met the shopkeeper. He crossed my
path on a dark road. I lifted a brick and flung it at his head. It missed. This
kept happening. There was no dearth of bricks. I kept aiming it at his head.
And I kept missing. Next, my foot was on his neck. He cried for forgiveness. He
told me he regretted it and that he wished he could start over. He had no
outlet for his desires and he couldn’t afford to fly home, not for a long time.
And that it had made him a monster and the easiest target was the small boy. I
pressed down my foot harder. He choked and died. Next, I was Courage the
Cowardly Dog, in my living room. Mom looked just like Muriel and Dad like
Eustace. Torn between staying with them and rescuing David, I picked David, but
when I reached the shop … the damage was done. What happened next is exactly
what Mom told me would happen if I left them. The shopkeeper raped me, saying, “You
thought you could kill me? You can’t even defend yourself, let alone your
I woke up, screaming.
I keep the slambook inside my drawer. I fix the curtain ring with magic
tape. I quickly pull the curtains and fit the ring in the ring hole. The rest
of the day I try to study. But I’m restless, wanting to talk to David about
leaving this place.
The next day in class, I tell David that I want to go to India and that
I feel stifled here. I tell him he should go too and that he would finally be
free from his past. I tell him I’m sick of my parents’ vigilance. And that boys
here have no exposure. I would never find a partner here.
“Did you forget that I said I like you? We can go together, get
admission in the same college. We will always be together.”
He leans forward and kisses me. I’m so shocked that I slap him. I blank
out in the exam. The guilt makes me puke in the loo. I wipe my lips every five
At home, I try to pry my window open.
I’m a whore. I let the shopkeeper look at me and fantasise about me. I
let him rape me in my dream. I let David get molested in my dream. I let him
get close and finally kiss me. No one will believe me if I said he kissed me.
Everyone thinks he’s gay. I even told Dad so. What if he will do something more
tomorrow? I haven’t told him that I only see him as my best friend. I’ve just
kept silent. How can I hurt someone who’s been through so much? I can’t let him
down. I’ve let my parents down. I will never have to face any of them if I
leave this place. Only if I learn to fly.