Before he knew he was lost

Picture Credits: davidawsp

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.

The previous
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.

They started
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
walking.




Waterlogged

Picture Credits: John Christian Fjellestad

My mother
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
languages.

The day
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.

“They have
done it!” a voiced wailed in lieu of greeting.

“Hello?”

“They have
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
point.

“Aunty Ebi,
who has done what?”

“They have
taken my sister. They have killed her, oh!” she lamented. I heard voices in the
background, some crying, some murmuring words of comfort.

“Who has
killed who?”

“My sister.
Your mother. Our enemies have finally succeeded. They have finally killed her!”

It took
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.

“Tari! My
beautiful girl. How are things?” Papa said, his mouth smacking. He was always
eating something.

“Papa, have
you heard about Mama?”

“What has
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.

“Mama has
died,” I said.

There was
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.”

Why these
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.

I
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
home.

*

Hopelessness
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.

I peered
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.

“Stop
shaking,” the old man who was slicing Mama open said.

I gritted
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
required.

I hadn’t
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.

My arm
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.

I looked
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.

*

“You want
groundnut?” Mr Oke asked, pouring a handful of groundnut unto his palm and
holding it out to me.

I looked
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.”

He shrugged
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.

Things were
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.

Somehow, I
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.

“We’re
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.

Mr Oke
pointed to the row of rickety boats. “The main road is underwater. You have to
use the river.”

*

The okada
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
I approached.

“Why are
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.

“They’re
making arrangements for the burial rites,” she said, her eyes still focused on
the beans.

“Jesus
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.

The girl
finally looked up at me. “You’re Auntie’s daughter? The one that lives in
America?”

I nodded.

She
frowned. “You’re going to be here for the next month?”

“No. I’m
leaving once the burial is over.”

Her
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.”

My legs
almost gave out. “Next month? Why didn’t anybody tell me that? What am I here
for?”

She
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—”

A hand
snatched my wrist, distracting me from my mission and cutting me off.

“This child
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
enough?”

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.

“My
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.

As I
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.

Aunty Ebi
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.

“We will
give you a list,” Uncle Peter said.

“Okay. I’ll
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

I adjusted
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

Picture credits: Martyn Fletcher

The
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.

I
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.

I
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.

It
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?

Anyway,
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.

Even
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

“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,
after all.

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.




Kirabiti

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
together.

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
jeans.

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.
“So imposing.”

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
works.

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.

“Shaun?”

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.

“Is it serious?” you’d said at last.

“I think so,” she’d replied, offhandedly. “They bore
me, though. You didn’t bore me.”

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.

“Thought not.”

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.

“What?”

“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.

“What?”

“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
watching her.

“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.

You
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.”

“Lovely,”
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
sarcastically.

“Shaun?”

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.

“To what?”

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
gone.

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?”




The Woodcutter

Picture Credits: Ching

Anna
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.

“Whoosh!”

Prue
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.

Every
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.

“Our
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.

“Hello,
lovely twin!” Prue sang as she approached the tree. Her laugh today sounded a
notch higher than usual.

“Look
at the state of you already.”

Prue
flushed at Anna’s words. Her raised arms froze mid-air. Her elbows and wrists
jutted out, like nubs on brittle, wintering branches.

“Your
father didn’t think about that, did he?” Anna insisted. Sometimes she couldn’t
stopper the voice inside her.

Prue
stared up, silent.

“The
mess this tree leaves behind,” Anna explained, training her daughter’s raised
arms back down to her sides.

Prue
still said nothing, but her eyes said she understood: Mum meant another mess
left behind.

Anna
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.

“He
always left me to clean up the mess.”

Prue
stumbled forwards and let out a small whimper.

Anna
reached out a steadying hand. “All right, petal?”

She
needed to stop using that word. Petal.
That was his word.

“Mum?”

“Sweetheart?”

Prue
took another squishy step closer. “I could ask him.”

“What?”

“I
could ask Dad to come and sort the garden – tidy the mess?”

Six
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.

“Can
I ask him?” Prue’s mouth quivered.

“No.”

“But—”

“No,
you won’t beg your father to see you. He should be asking you. Instead, it’s
radio silence.”

A
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.

“He’s
not silent. He messages me sometimes.”

Anna
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.

“Sometimes?”
Anna repeated back. “Once in six months?”

Another
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
grow.

“We
don’t need your father,” she said. “I can sort this garden.”

Prue
waited.

“I’ll
cement it over.”

“Cement?”
Prue blinked, as though learning some terrible swear word.

“Like
a pavement.”

This
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.

“It’ll
make our lives much easier, sweetheart.”

Prue’s
eyes shone. “You’re going to chop it down? Everything Dad grew?”

Anna
reached out and brushed her daughter’s cheek. “It’s much for me, on my own.”

“Even
my tree?” Prue trembled.

Anna
pointed to the mulch. “It makes too much mess.”

Prue
tugged at a petal on her dress’s hem – or perhaps it was a moth, this time. “I’m
sorry.”

“Why?
It’s not your fault, sweetheart.”

Prue
flushed. “She’s my tree spirit. And she makes a mess.”

“No,
Prue. It’s just a tree. That was your father’s fanciful story.”

Prue
fell to her knees and grabbed the axe with both hands. “I’ll help you tidy, Mum.”

Anna
stared at her little girl’s wiry strength. “Put that down.”

“It’s
fine.” Prue half-smiled. “I know how to use an axe. Daddy taught me. Undercut
first, he said.”

“Undercut?”
Anna asked.

“Here.
I’ll show you.”

Prue
planted herself, feet apart, in front of her glistening tree and swung the
blade.

“I’ll
fell me.”




Satan Lends a Hand

Picture Credits: Julien Dumont

 “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
waved.

“Mine,” Lisa said. “It makes a spaceship noise when I
turn left.”

“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,
kimosabe?”

“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
men.”

“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
retarded.”

“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?”

How many
nephews does that guy have? Enough to ruin me. And Marco still hasn’t fixed the
grease pumps.

“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
business success.

Then why
doesn’t he just destroy the planet? I mean, what’s he do with all those souls
anyway, run an auto parts monopoly?

Blasphemy!

“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.

 Lisa slowly
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?”

“Nope.”

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.”

They thrashed.

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.

“The accelerator’s stuck!”

Toffee lowered the bong, snorted smoke. “Your wristlet’s
jammed beside it!”

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
tire’.”

“Marco?”

“Yo. Brick.”

“Fix the grease pumps.”




Giants

Picture Credits: Ionas Nicolae

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.

“Remember me?”

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.

Grandmother holds
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.

Eyelids droop.

His face is all you
see.

*

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
looking.

“This town is too close,” she
says to Father. Everyone stares. Everyone knows her name. “Like being always on
a stage.”

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
arm.

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
behind her.

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
safely home.

*

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
says.

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
ground.

Mother.

*

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
knocking.

It’s Christmastime
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.

Outside, frost
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
globe.

Breathe and it
shatters.

*

Eventually, you
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 Christmas,
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.

Grandmother, in
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
beside her.

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.”

Paintings she’s
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,
than ugly.

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
leave.

*

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
now.”

“Who?” Geri asks. “Who’s
better?”

“Your husband.
Bill.”

Jean touches her
shoulder. Geri’s eyes light.

“Bill,” she
repeats.

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
faces tumble.

*

Attend Bill’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.

She can’t.

Your giants’
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
applications, auditions.

“People don’t
expect you,” she says.

Tell her you want
to. It’s partly true.

Grandmother is
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.

Afterward, always,
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.

*

At auditions,
fingers slide over catgut strings. Scatter notes like pearls from a broken
strand.

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.

Find yourself
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
know.

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
says.

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
nonsense.

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
knew.

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.

Gobble,”
it says.

“Gobble gobble.”
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.

“Trautwein,” you
read.

Here, Trautwein.
And there. And here again, across the path.

Read aloud names
and dates.

“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

Picture Credits: bhossfeld

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“I don’t know how
to fish.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Renovations.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t even see
her enter the trees.

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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




Candle Matters

Picture Credits: S. Hermann & F. Richter

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯

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

🕯🕯🕯




The Littoral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You just threw a cup at
me.”

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

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

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

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

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

I glance at the glove
compartment.

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

“Look, we’re at Nana’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Princess and the Moon

Picture Credits: Christopher Dart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you travelled yourself?” the princess asked.

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

“But in reality?” the princess insisted.

“That I cannot say.”

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

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

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

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

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

“For many it is. They do not return.”

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

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

“Tell me.”

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

“How is it possible?”

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

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

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

“I must go myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

She thanked him warmly before leaving.

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




Hands

Picture Credits: Nina Childish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Last Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Flight

Picture Credits: Lode Van de Velde

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
point.

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
anymore.

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
nameless.

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
here?”

“I don’t know, Dad. He’s a good friend. Maybe something urgent about our
test.”

Dad raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t worry,” I said hurriedly, “he’s … he’s most probably … gay.”

“What? How…?”

“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
friend.”

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
minutes.

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.

The window slides open, finally.




House Rules

Picture Credits: Arek Socha

The guest arrived at the door
and knocked so loudly it made Gail jump. He was unshaven, his skin had a grey
tinge, and he wore a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it she didn’t
recognise. He was carrying a cabin-size bag which Gail thought strange,
considering how far he’d travelled. He was much taller than her and his
handshake hurt; without thinking, she wiped her hand on her jeans. Gail’s
daughter Poppy stood next to her, and the guest reached down and ruffled the
girl’s hair. Gail put her arm around Poppy and ushered her closer to her side.

“Come in,” she said to the man
and sent Poppy to play. He followed Gail upstairs as she showed him to the
room. Gail asked him the usual questions, like: How was your journey? What
brings you to Glasgow? Where are you from? Gail knew the answer to the last one
already because the website had told her, but she found it was a good way to
learn about the strangers who stayed in her home. This one was American, and
she wondered where he stood on gun laws and building walls.

“I’m visiting my aunt,” the
guest said. He put his luggage down and surveyed the room, which had walls the
colour of sour milk, and a sheepskin rug on the floor.

“That’s nice – she must be looking
forward to that,” Gail said.

“Yeah, but she’s not very well.
She’s been in hospital for the last month.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Gail said,
and paused. “You’re probably hungry – I have a list of restaurants.” She went
over to the chest of drawers and pulled out a laminated booklet she’d compiled
herself, though she didn’t go out to eat much these days. The booklet was so
guests would give her good reviews; she also let them use the herbs she grew on
her windowsill and kept hand cream by the soap in the bathroom. The man thanked
her and flipped through it too quickly to read anything.

“I might try one of these
tomorrow. I’m pretty tired,” he said, and looked at Gail. She hesitated slightly
too long and then smiled.

“I’ll leave you to it,” she
said.

Gail woke up in the middle of
the night. She lay in the bed she used to share with her husband, finding she
couldn’t sleep. Until recently, Poppy used to crawl in next to her, and even
though she took up a lot of space for a small person, Gail missed her. She
could hear the man’s snoring through the wall and the bed creaking as he moved
around. Gail thought she should be used to people staying with her by now, but
she kept a pair of nail scissors by her bed just in case. It’d mostly been
young people travelling, but she’d also had the occasional business casual type,
who left crumbs on her kitchen counter, wet towels on the bedroom floor and
hairs in the bath. One girl played ‘Eye of the Tiger’ at three a.m., and another
cut her nails onto the living-room floor, and Gail kept finding the sharp white
crescents months after she had
gone.

There
were footsteps in the next room and Gail lay still, listening. The man went to
the landing, and Gail got up and put on her dressing gown. The guest locked the
bathroom door, and she crept out. He coughed, and there was the sound of his
urine hitting the toilet bowl. Gail was cold now that she was out of bed and
she shivered, suddenly aware of her bare legs.

“Mummy?”
Poppy’s sleepy voice came from her room, and Gail froze, not wanting the man to
know she was there. “I had a nightmare,” her daughter said. Gail went quickly
into Poppy’s room and switched on the nightlight. Gail and her husband had
painted the walls green before her daughter was born and the colour gave
Poppy’s skin a sickly tinge. She was clutching Sylvester, her teddy bear who
only had one eye. Gail smoothed Poppy’s hair and asked what the dream was
about. “Daddy,” she said. Gail hugged her and told her everything was ok.

There
wasn’t much to show the guest had been in the bathroom apart from a glob of
soap on the sink which Gail wiped away. She looked in the mirror to see her
hair was stuck up on one side and the inner corners of her eyes were crusted
with sleep. People told her she was pretty, and she searched for what they saw.
Gail prodded the corners of her mouth, held her skin taut. She splashed water
on her face and brushed her dark brown hair.

In
the morning, the smell of bacon frying made Gail nauseous. The guest clattered
pots and pans, and the radio was on. The man turned around and smiled at Gail
and Poppy, his teeth slightly crooked. “Good morning,” he said. He was standing
in the way of the cupboard where the cereal was kept. “Sorry,” Gail said, and
motioned towards it, and they both stepped the same way. They smiled awkwardly,
and she hoped that was enough to hide her annoyance. Gail poured a bowl of
cereal for Poppy who splashed milk over the table as she ate.

“Cute
kid. She looks like you,” the man said.

“Thanks.
Have you got children?”

“No,
just a dog called Badger,” he said, and pulled out his phone to show Gail
pictures of a black and white crossbreed. “I’m lucky my boss lets me bring him
into work – the regulars love him.”

“Do
you like your job?”

“It’s
fine, nicer than other bars I’ve worked in. I studied law years ago, but I
didn’t pass the exams.”

Poppy
announced that she was finished and clanked her spoon down on the bowl. Gail
wrapped her in a thick padded jacket, a scarf and hat, meaning most of her
daughter’s face was obscured. They both said bye to the guest, Poppy waving her
small hand at him.

“Why
does that man live with us?” Poppy asked once they were in the car.

“We’ve
talked about this, sweetheart.”

“Is
it because we’ve got no money?”

“Don’t
worry about that. Have you got Sylvester with you today?” Gail said.

“Yeah.”

“What
are you doing at nursery today, Sylvester?” Gail said, and Poppy laughed and
the two of them talked, Poppy pretending to be the bear. They fell silent after
a while, and when Gail looked in the rear-view mirror, she noticed her daughter
was frowning.

The
front door was locked when Gail got back. “Hello?” she shouted, but there was
no response. She kicked off her trainers, which were damp from the rain. Gail
switched on the kettle and found her favourite mug was by the sink, the dregs
of the guest’s black coffee still in it; she ran the tap and scrubbed at the
ceramic until she was sure it was clean. Gail paused, thinking she heard
footsteps, but there was only water bubbling in the kettle and the birds in the
garden. She went to the fridge for milk and there was the smell of food gone
off.

Gail
sensed there was someone standing behind her, and she turned to see the guest
still wearing grey pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt with a hole in the neck. “Boo,”
he said and laughed. Gail forced a laugh and looked at the guest leaning
against the door frame. “Excuse me,” she said, and he moved so there was just
enough room for her to pass. Her shoulder brushed against him, and she could
hear him breathing.

Gail
switched on her laptop and scrolled through her work emails. There was one from
a magazine saying they weren’t interested in an idea she’d pitched, and another
from her husband which she deleted. Gail sighed, still feeling the slow burn of
annoyance at what had happened in the kitchen. Why hadn’t she told the man to
move? “See you later,” his voice came from downstairs and she didn’t reply.

Gail
and Poppy were sitting at the table. Poppy was colouring in a picture of a fox
with blue pencil, scribbling outside the lines, and Gail was writing an article
about tea-tree oil. It was dark outside and there were flecks of rain on the
window. Gail’s hands and face were cold, and she folded her arms across her
body. The front door opened, and the guest coughed, phlegm in his throat. He
hung up his jacket, and his phone fell out of it, clattering to the floor. “Shit,”
he said, and Gail looked at Poppy to see if she’d heard.

“How
was your aunt?” Gail said. The guest was still wearing his scuffed trainers and
his jacket had a brown stain on it. He rubbed his face, his stubble rasping
against his hands.

“Not
so good. There were all these tubes stuck in her and she’s lost so much weight.
We always used to watch films when I visited and then we’d stay up talking, now
she doesn’t know who I am.”

“That’s
a shame,” Gail said, tilting her head.

“I’m
going to miss her. I don’t have much family left,” he said, his words slightly
slurred.

He
walked closer to the table and looked over Poppy’s shoulder. “Wow, you should
be an artist when you’re older,” he said.

“But
I want to be an explorer,” Poppy said, and the guest laughed.

The
house was quiet after Gail put Poppy to bed. She tried to write, but she
shifted in the chair, her back stiff. Gail looked at the screen, the cursor
blinking, and then switched off the laptop. She wanted to watch something
mindless on TV, so she padded to the living room. The door was slightly ajar,
and she found the guest reclining on the sofa. He wasn’t wearing a top, and
Gail tried not to look at the scraggy hairs on his chest. His laptop was
balanced on his round stomach and he shut it as soon as she walked in.

“Come
and sit with me,” he said. His forehead glistened, and the room smelled like the
man’s sweat despite the scented candles dotted around. He’d switched on the gas
fire, and Gail’s top stuck to her.

“I
just came to get a book,” Gail said, and picked up one from the table.

“Don’t
go so soon,” the man said and placed his damp hand on Gail’s wrist. She froze
for a moment, and then pulled her arm away.

“You’ll
need to leave a day early I’m afraid,” she said. She paused as she thought of a
reason. “Poppy isn’t feeling well,” she said, her stare hard.

The
guest went early in the morning. He shut the front door loudly, and there was
the jangle of keys landing on the door mat. Gail waited, and then got up and
went to the spare room. The bed had been made, although the duvet was lopsided
and the pillows slightly crushed. There was a glass of water on the bedside
table, marked with the guest’s fingerprints. Gail’s phone pinged and she saw
there was an email saying he’d already left her a review. She swiped the
notification away and pulled the sheets from the bed.

There
was a knock outside and Gail’s chest grew tight. She looked around the room and
couldn’t see anything the guest had left. There was another knock, more
insistent this time, and Gail crept downstairs, pausing midway. She could see
the outline of a person in the frosted glass panel of the front door, and
whoever it was looked much smaller than the guest. Gail exhaled, and opened the
door to see a woman who had hair like a dandelion. She wore thick tortoiseshell
glasses and blue eyeshadow; she held a walking stick in one hand and a lit
cigarette in the other.

“Sorry
to bother you. Have you seen my nephew?” she said.




Days of Winks and Roses

The years before Brexit were a time of magical innocence.
—Overheard in a French bar, March 2019

Jesus winked at him.

Big Malcolm checked to see if anyone was watching. Two small
boys were chasing pigeons round the square like cowboys at a rodeo. A group of
four old men were playing boules beneath
the shade trees by the church. Big Malcolm had another butcher’s at the Son of God.

Who winked again.

Big Malcolm sauntered round the statue. Twice. He tapped
its ribcage. Hollow. Bronze. He checked its head. No strings or wires. He
didn’t touch its eyes. In case they moved. Or felt like lychees.

Malcolm lived in St.-Genès-sur-Tarn.

His wife had been the one who’d pestered him to move.

“Fresh start,” she’d said. Ten years ago.

He’d checked the price of properties. He’d found their terrace
house in Bethnal Green was worth a bloody great big farmhouse near the River Tarn.

“I want to be respectable,” she’d said.

The place they’d bought had needed plumbing and
rewiring. Two ceramic footprints in the floor and single light bulbs hanging
from the ceilings might have satisfied the French, but even Malcolm’s taste was
more refined than that. He’d done the work himself.

Electric wires and plumbing fixtures weren’t too
complicated, once you got the hang of them. But winking statues?

Malcolm stepped back slowly. Jesus didn’t move a muscle.
He was standing on one leg, his arms spread out like he was balancing. Forever
set to pirouette, karate-kick a Pharisee, or mime a parable. And smiling. Like
he knew a joke or two. This Jesus wasn’t dead and drooping like the Jesus on
the war memorial.

Big Malcolm told himself he’d been a right old Charlie. What
had looked like winking must have been the sunlight playing tricks. He climbed
into his SUV and drove out to the farmhouse.

He’d forgotten Marge was having friends for tea. Best
china, all the crusts cut off the bread, and sandwiches the size of postage
stamps. A brood of expat English women, sipping tea and gossiping on chintz,
pretending to be ladies. Marge was happy playing middle-class abroad. She’d lost
her Cockney accent, bless her.

Malcolm didn’t bother them. He greeted Artemis, their
boxer bitch, who traipsed along behind him to the smaller sitting room in back.
He switched the telly on. He kept the sound down. Well, you can with snooker,
can’t you? All the way from Sheffield by
satellite and dish subscription. Artemis collapsed across the rug in front of Malcolm,
fell asleep, and farted.

*

Two weeks later Jesus winked at him again. It wasn’t
sunlight playing silly buggers this time. Thunderclouds were blanketing the
sky. No play of light, no shadows.

Malcolm sputtered, “What the…?”

Jesus didn’t answer.

Pigeons strutted undisturbed across the cobbles. Lightweight
metal tables stood beneath the stone and timber arches. Checkered plastic
tablecloths flapped unattended.

Jesus winked again. The other eye this time. Then
nothing. Cocky little beggar, wasn’t he?

The clouds burst. Malcolm ran for shelter in the bar. Drip-drying
in a window seat, he kept an eye on Jesus getting drenched. He wondered what
he’d do if Jesus whipped out an umbrella.

Malcolm never had been one for church. He didn’t hold
with all the folderol. The Church of England had a bloke out here who held a
service every other week in one old Catholic building or another. Malcolm went
along from time to time to please the missus, but it didn’t light his touch
paper.

He ordered a pastis.
He tried to ask Bertrand, the owner of the bar, how old the statue was, but Malcolm’s
French and Bertrand’s English weren’t quite up to it.

Christophe, another customer, who spoke both languages,
interpreted. “Our friend, he wants to know how long our Jésus has been hopping
on one foot.”

Bertrand said, “Une
vingtaine
.”

Christophe said, “Twenty years, perhaps.”

“Who made it?”

Je n’sais pas.”

“He doesn’t know.”

“I got that.”

Ça il a compris.”

Mais oui.”

“So, are there any stories told about it?”

“Stories?”

“Superstitions. Legends. I don’t know.”

Y’at-il des
histoires racontées sur
notre Jésus?”

Histoires?

Oui.”

Non.”

“He says there are no stories.”

“Oh.”

“But you can talk to Madeleine.”

“To Madeleine?”

Mais, oui. She
fills the ordinances at the pharmacie.”

“The ordinances?”

Oui, the
papers that the doctors write. Our Madeleine turns doctor papers into pills.”

“Prescriptions!”

“That’s the word you say in English?”

“Yes. Prescriptions.”

Merde!”

“So why should I ask Madeleine about the statue?”

“Ah, when she was young, our Madeleine, she fall in love
with Jésus.”

“With the statue?”

“Yes, the hopping one.”

Bertand broke in. “La grue.”

“Grew?”

Grue.”

“Cru?”

Grue!

They sounded like a pair of French detectives played by
Peter Sellers.

Bertrand balanced on one leg. He didn’t half look silly.

Christophe rescued them. “A grue. It is a kind of bird.”

“Oh! Like a heron?”

Non,
is bigger.”

“Crane?”

Oui, that’s
right. Crrreng. He thinks our Jésus stands there like a crrreng.”

The scattered audience of customers applauded. Bertrand bowed,
triumphant.

Malcolm said, “What happened?”

“People like our little theater.”

“No. I mean with Madeleine.”

“Oh, Madeleine.”

“Yes.” Malcom waited.

Christophe shrugged. “What happen?
What you think? This Jésus, he is made of bronze. He cannot satisfy her. So she
finds another husband, no?”

Big Malcolm said, “I see.” He didn’t.

Marge was on the phone when Malcolm reached the
farmhouse, chatting with a childhood friend in London. “Geneviève she’s called.
Can you imagine? I’ve a cleaning lady by the name of Geneviève.”

Festooning spittle, Artemis fussed over Malcolm, body
twisting in contortions of delight, but Marge just waved, her fingers glued
together like the queen’s, and kept on talking. Malcolm thought, I can’t
remember when we last made love. Not really.

*

Malcolm visited the pharmacist’s one afternoon. He thought
of buying Marge some perfume, but he didn’t know what kind she used these days.
Instead he bought himself a pair of sunglasses. He didn’t need them, but it
gave him an excuse to talk to Madeleine.

He said, “Nice statue, that, across the square.”

“You think so?” Madeleine spoke English.

“Well, it’s not as gruesome as most other Jesuses.” That
bloody crane word cropping up again!

“You’re right. It has some joie de vivre, n’est-ce-pas?”

“Christophe said how you liked it.”

“Ah, Christophe. He likes to tell tall stories.”

“So, it isn’t true?”

“Of course not. Do I look like I’m a nun?”

She didn’t. Quite the opposite.

She said, “I didn’t fall in love with Jésus.”

“Oh.”

She smiled. “Non.
Jésus helped me when I fall in love with Luc.”

“With Luke?”

“My husband.”

“Right. I knew that.”

“Jésus knew what kind of husband I would like.”

Big Malcolm paid her for the sunglasses. She handed him
his change. She smiled a second time. Big Malcolm longed for Marge to smile at
him like that. She used to – something like that, anyway – when they were
younger.

Malcolm said, “You know, I think I’ll buy my wife some
perfume.”

“Good. A woman always likes a gift.”

“What flavor would you recommend?” He could have kicked
himself. It’s not a bloody lollipop, you Charlie! Flavor. Honestly!

“What fragrance does your wife enjoy?”

He didn’t know. “She’s fond of flowers, I suppose.”

“An English rose?”

“Oh, yes, she’s fond of roses. I remember that. She
often said she’d like a rose garden. We never had one, though. Too busy.”

Madeleine picked up a sample, sprayed some perfume on
her wrist, and offered damp and scented skin to Malcolm. “Try it.”

Malcolm sniffed. “It’s very nice,” he said.

“I think your wife will like it, too.”

“I’ll take it then.”

The bottle came inside a fancy box, which Madeleine wrapped
up in yellow paper and a bright red ribbon. Malcolm paid. Her smile alone was worth
the price.

She said, “I hope your wife will show you how she likes your
gift.” And, then, she winked at him.

Big Malcolm thought about that wink the whole way home.
He reckoned Madeleine was prettier than Jesus.

Marge was out. Big Malcolm put the perfume on the
kitchen table near the salt and pepper. He and Artemis watched horse racing from
Aintree on the telly.

Marge arrived about the time the big race of the day was
getting underway. He heard her car pull up outside. Some minutes afterwards, to
his surprise, she came into the sitting room. She usually didn’t bother saying
hello. Today she interrupted when the leading horse was only five jumps from
the finish. Winks and Roses, the outsider he’d put money on was galloping along
in second place, not even looking puffed. At 66–1, it stood to make a thousand
quid for him! He hushed his wife, his eyes glued to the telly, so she stalked
off in a huff. His horse fell, leading, at the last. It wasn’t till the bloody race
was over that he understood what Marge had wanted. She’d been trying to thank
him for the perfume.

*

Jesus kept on winking at him. Malcolm didn’t mention it
to Marge. She might think he was cracking up.

He risked a chat with Père Arnaud instead. The village
priest shared lunch most days with other old-age pensioners at Bertrand’s bar
and restaurant. Bertrand served the old folk soup, a main course, and a glass
of wine for half the price that anybody else paid. Père Arnaud wore mufti.

Malcolm saw him leaving one bright afternoon, well-fed
and not the least bit wobbly. Malcolm greeted him: “Bonjour.” He might be Cockney, but he knew a few French words.

Bonjour,” the
priest said.

Malcolm took him by the arm and led him over to the
statue. Pointing, he said, “Jesus?”

Oui, c’est Jésus.”
Père Arnaud spoke French and Latin, but no English.

Malcolm tried to form a sentence with the little French
he knew. “Il fait comme ça,” he said.
He does like this. He winked to illustrate.

The priest looked puzzled.

Malcolm winked again. “Jésus,” he said – the proper
French pronunciation, too. He pointed at the life-size bronze. “Il fait…” He pointed at his own right
eye and winked. “Jésus…” He winked again.

Il cligne?

“Clean?”

Cligne.”

“Kleeng?”

Cligner, c’est…”
Père Arnaud winked.

“Oh, yes, right, winked.” Big Malcolm winked himself to
show he understood.

The priest winked twice.

It wasn’t long before they looked like Chief Inspector
Dreyfus in a mirror, driven mad by Peter Sellers.

Père Arnaud recovered his composure. “Non, Jésus ne cligne pas.”

No, Jesus doesn’t wink. Well, maybe not when you’re
here, mate, but he’s been winking up a storm at me these last few weeks.

The priest shrugged. Malcolm shrugged. The priest shook
Malcolm’s hand, then walked away, his shoulders jiggling like a jelly. He was
trying not to laugh too hard.

Big Malcolm turned to Jesus. “What?”

But Jesus didn’t say a word. He winked. Too bloody late,
you numpty.

Marge got up to greet her husband when he walked inside
the farmhouse. “Would you like a cup of tea, love?”

This was a surprise. He said, “Yes, please.”

She even served it in a mug and let him drink it at the
kitchen table. It was solid oak and scarred with years of use. They’d bought it
with the house. It wasn’t fit for hoity-toity company, but Malcolm liked it
better than the prissy stuff that filled the front room. You could put your
elbows on this table. You could spill things on it. Marge had poured her own tea
in a smaller mug. She set an open packet of digestive biscuits on the tabletop.

“What’s this about, then?” Malcolm said.

“I wondered if you’d like to talk instead of watching
telly.”

“Talk?”

“Yes, you know, have a conversation.”

“What about?”

“Well, anything.” She looked at him. “I’m trying, Malc.
Don’t make me work so hard.”

Her eyes had crows’ feet underneath the makeup, but the
pupils even now were blue as little butterflies. He muttered, “Sorry, love.
I’ll try.”

She said, “So what have you been up to?”

“When?”

“This afternoon.”

His guard was down. He said, “I had a chat with Père
Arnaud.”

“The priest?”

“Yes.”

“What about?”

“You know that bronze of Jesus in the square?”

“The one who’s got his leg up in the air?”

“Yes, that one.”

“What about it?”

“No,” he said, “you’ll think me daft.”

“I won’t.”

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t laugh now, but I had this silly notion it was
winking at me.”

“Winking?”

“Yes, like this.” He showed her.

Marge winked back at him.

Before their mugs of tea were empty, they were winking
at each other like a set of Christmas lights. They hadn’t laughed so much in
ages.

*

Jesus only winked at him once more.

On Friday afternoon, Big Malcolm saw a boy of twelve or maybe
younger sitting on the old stone bench that faced the statue. He was clutching
football boots and staring hard at Jesus. Cooling off beneath the bench, a
small brown dog was lying with its head between its paws. Big Malcolm sat
beside the boy.

He waited. Neither one said anything. The boy’s eyes
never moved from Jesus. Malcolm stretched. Small clouds passed overhead like
floating sunshades. Fifteen minutes passed, but Malcolm wasn’t in a rush.

Then Jesus winked.

The boy’s face broke into a grin. He clapped his hands,
just once. Excitement, not applause.

Big Malcolm turned to him. “You saw that?”

Comment?

Malcolm tried again in French. “Vous avez vu çela?

The boy said, “Quoi?

Big Malcolm winked. “Jésus.
Il
” – he remembered – “cligne.”

The boy regarded him with wild astonishment. “You saw
him wink?”

Thank God! The boy speaks English. Malcolm answered,
“Yes. I thought you did, as well.”

The boy said, “You play football?”

“No. I used to, but I’m too old now.”

“I thought, perhaps, that’s why you see him wink.”

“What’s football got to do with winking?”

“Every Friday afternoon I sit. I wait. If Jésus wink at
me, I know I score a goal tomorrow in the football match.”

“Right. That makes sense.”

The boy got up to leave. The dog crawled out from
underneath the bench. Its owner said, “We have to go now.”

“Right. Good luck tomorrow,” Malcolm said.

“I don’t need luck. I only need to
try my best. It never fail. He wink, I score.”

A thought crossed Malcolm’s mind. Was that what Jesus
meant?

He drove into the nearest town, some six or seven miles
away. He bought the biggest bunch of roses he could find.

He phoned Marge on his mobile. “Are you home, love?”

“Yes.”

“Is anybody else there?”

“No. I’m writing to my mum.”

“I’m nearly home. I’ve got a small surprise for you.”

“A nice one?”

“Well, I hope so.”

Artemis was there to meet him in the drive, her rear end
squirming with excitement. She escorted him inside.

His wife was sitting in the smaller sitting room, a pad
of writing paper on her lap. She saw the flowers. Her eyes grew big. “What’s
this, then?”

“Roses.”

“Why?”

“For you.” He gave them to her.

“All for me?”

“Of course.”

“They’re lovely.”

“So they ought to be, the price I paid.” She saw he had
a shopping bag as well. He reached inside. He pulled a box out, wrapped in cellophane.
“Ta-ra!” he said. “And chocolates, too! They’re Swiss.”

“Oh, Malcolm. I’ll get fat.”

“You’ll still be beautiful in my eyes.” Malcolm set the
chocolates on a coffee table.

Marge said, “What’s come over you?”

Big Malcolm plunged his hand inside the bag again. He
muttered, like it was a bit of magic, “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” From
the bag, he pulled – no, not a rabbit, but a bottle of champagne.

By that time, Marge was well and truly flabbergasted. “Why?”
she said.

“Because we’re married.”

“Well, I know that.”

“Twenty-seven years, three months, and sixteen days. I
worked it out. Still married after all that time.”

She stared at him.

“Another thing.” He fell to one knee on the rug, which
smelled of Artemis. He said, “I love you.”

“Me?”

“Of course. Who else?”

“I thought you loved the dog.”

“Well, she’s all right, but you’re the one I really love.”

She hadn’t heard that word in months. Or maybe years. She
swallowed, took a breath, and said, “I love, you, too.”

They took the bottle of champagne upstairs.

The earth might not have moved, but it was good enough
for Malcolm. Marge said she enjoyed it, too.




The Nightingale and the Swallow

Picture Credits: Chiara Cremaschi

The one, transformed to a nightingale,
made for the forest, the other flew at the roof as a swallow.
—Ovid, Metamorphoses,
Philomela, Procne and Tereus,
Book 6, lines 668–669.

Laura’s got a boyfriend. Her first serious one. She’s lost it to him. I know this even though she doesn’t talk much anymore. We still share a room but she doesn’t like me getting into her bed these days.

“What
kind of name is Terence?” I ask.

“Isn’t
it awful? What possessed his parents? But he carries it off?”

Yes,
he does, but I remain silent. I don’t like the way she talks about him. And she’s
started to wear makeup. A bit of clear mascara – which makes her lashes look wet.
Lip gloss. She doesn’t need much. Her hair is thick and shiny and straight.
Mine is tight curls. Wiry. Almost pubic.

The
phone rings.

Dad
shouts up, “Laura. For you. It’s the tosser.”

She
takes the stairs two at a time. I can hear her breathy giggles in the hallway.
Dad won’t let her bring the phone upstairs.

“How
far have you gone?” Laura’s friends
crowd our room every day. An older boyfriend – in a band! She’s popular. I wish
they’d go home.

“He
likes it when—” she drops to a whisper. I grip my Jane Austen. I’m all fists
and ears. Straining to hear. She commands awed silences.

*

Laura
is two years older than me. When we were younger, we slept in bunk beds. A
couple of years ago Dad took them apart and set them side by side. I remember
descending the ladder at night and crawling in with her. She told me stories.
There was one about a girl who loved playing in the woods. The girl had no
interest in boys and all that. One day a god chased her. He really fancied her.
She ran away from him until they were both so knackered they couldn’t run any
more. She begged her dad for help. He turned her into a tree! I thought of her buried
to the waist in earth. Scabbed over with bark. Such a relief but also, like
being paralysed. Rough justice.

“That’s
fathers,” Laura says.

Laura also says, “So what if Ariadne found a way out of the labyrinth? I’d knock it down. I’d blow it up. Half-brother and all.” And, “Ariadne and Phaedra were sisters. Theseus had them both. Seedy bastard.” At this, we are quiet. Amazed at his cheek. Astonished by the thought.

Laura’s
started locking the bathroom door. She used to like chatting while she
showered. I sat on the brown cork tiles, which bowed around the toilet – swollen
and water-wobbled. It was in the bathroom that Laura taught me stuff. Like—
everyone pees in the shower. Like— wash inside your belly button or it’ll get
the same fermented whiff as front-bottom. Not long ago she’d say, “Come talk to
me while I poo.” She gripped my hand when she couldn’t get it out. Her eyes
would dilate when it came and she shivered at the pleasure of it.

*

There’s
a party at her friend’s house to celebrate the end of their GCSEs. Mum and dad
say I’m allowed to tag along. At first Laura’s pissed off – she had to haggle
for every extra minute of her curfew. I get it so easy. Riding her coat tails.
I’m allowed to go to pubs and clubs – the ones where we know we’ll get served –
Jeez, at her age, I had to be in at nine.
But she calms down. She lets her new friends play with me, like I’m a doll.
They make up my face and I sit like a plastic bust – a Girls World. They straighten my hair. Laura lends me a dress with a
low-cut neck.

I
have huge breasts but behind my bra they are clawed red in stretch marks – from
sprouting so fast. Last week, dad walked in on me getting changed. He did his
thing – he breathes really loud – like he’s trying to breathe fire. He stamped
downstairs. Through our bedroom floor, I heard him growl to mum. Her soft voice
– explaining what it is. That no boys have been scoring my tits. My red, red
beating cheeks—

*

Terence
plays the drums.

“Like
Animal,” I say.

“Grow
up,” says Laura.

He
likes bands from New York; mainly bands with no words; or bands with whole
tracks of reverb. Laura loves words but still makes us listen to his mix tapes.
She doesn’t tell him that she knows all the lyrics to Pulp’s Sisters EP. Secretly, she still flicks her
hands like Jarvis when we pogo our beds – “I know you won’t believe it’s true; / I only went with
her ’cos she looks like you—”

“Seedy bastard.”

“—My God!”

There
is a girl in Pulp, she plays keyboards. She is called Candida, which is also
thrush – a yeast infection you may get in
your vagina –
not a bird. Pulp are mine –
and Laura’s – favourite band. We worship Jarvis. I think Laura’s worse than Peter
for denying him. It’s like denying everything she is. But according to Terence,
Pulp are mainstream now they’ve been on Top
of the Pops
.

*

The
female nightingale is mute. Scientists don’t understand why. Most female songbirds
in the northern hemisphere don’t sing. Or they sing very rarely. It’s not that
they can’t. They have the organs and they know the tunes. They choose not to.

*

One
Saturday morning, I get out the shower and they’re on her bed. Dad says they’re
not allowed in our room without me to chaperone. They’re kissing. Loud. Dad
must be out.

“You
sound like you’re eating soup,” I say, snatching my dressing gown out of our
louvred wardrobe.

He
starts doing it louder.

That’s
my sister. She is not food.

His
feet hang over the end of her child-sized bed.

He
rolls on one side and looks at me. Laura sits up.

“You
look like Laura when your hair’s wet,” he says. I don’t think Laura should like
the way he’s looking at me. She doesn’t seem to mind.

“I
told you she was pretty,” she says.

“You
don’t notice under the Chewbacca wig,” he says.

“Don’t
listen to him. I wish I had your hair. Boys only tease when they like you,” she
says.

I
grab the wrong clothes. I’m blushing so hard my cheeks have swollen my eyes into
slits.

*

I
started blushing when I was eleven and my cheeks have been red ever since – for
one thing or another. My period came on my first day at secondary school. It
began as an ache somewhere between the bottom of my stomach and lower back. A
part I didn’t know I had. By lunch my pants were sodden. Like my crotch was
sweating the pain out. I headed down to D-Block Girls’, where hard year-tens –
all wet look perms and spray-crusted quiffs – compass-and-ink lines into the laminate
doors. Jeanie Wilson gives it brown. They
climb up and peer over cubicles. They time how long you’re in the bog and shout
that you’re having a shit. I was quick—

I
flicked the lock. Tights – rolled down. I knew what this was. I’m no Carrie – yet hadn’t expected those offal
blobs – like stewed berries. The blood wasn’t liquid. It was sticky and nearly
as solid as skin. Smell of raw meat and earth. I wrapped waxy paper around my
pants. It was the anti-bunging kind. The stuff they buy to avoid blocks. The
blood would slide off. I broke out – to find Laura. I knew where she’d be. She
was always in the library.

She
didn’t have any towels and neither did her friends. They weren’t due on. She led
me down the brown corridors under the gym to find the school nurse. Smell of
sweat, leather and plimsolls. Fluffy grey smell of pommel horse. She called us
in. Smell of TCP. A white metal cupboard stuffed with crepe bandages. The nurse
tied up my wet things in a scented bag. This
is a tampon
. She gave me cotton pants covered in tiny blue flowers –
primary school pants stuck to a winged pad. A leaflet – I stuffed in my bag. I
was late for French. The nurse pulled Mr. Roberts out the door. Mutters behind
hands.

When
dad picked us up he’d already been told. The nurse spent the whole afternoon telling.
Phoned home. Poor little thing. On her
first day
! Dad asked if I was alright.

“Fine.”

He
squeezed my shoulder and looked relieved. We drove home.

After
tea, Laura and I walked the dog to the park. Some boys from the estate:

“She
was scrating at school ’coz her fanny was bleeding.”

“Ignore
them.”

I
walked faster. Looked down. Said nothing.

“This
estate,” Laura said.

“Oh
God, Laura. The smell. Can you smell it? Everyone will know—”

“Everyone
does know. The nurse told them.”

“Oh
God.”

“Don’t
worry. Everyone hates her. She’s a witch. She’s got drawers full of STIs. Like
porn. She loves showing off knobs covered in warts.”

Even
while my pores were blowing bubbles of sweat and sticky red blobs were rolling
out of me – I could feel it sliding out! – Laura made me laugh. I felt lighter.

“Don’t
be ashamed.” She slipped into that voice.
Some women in India are shut in a hut while they bleed.
It was the same
voice she used to persuade me to skin-head Barbie with a pair of secateurs.

*

I
have a dream where we’re in the woods. Crouched where the root bowl of a fallen
tree left a hole in the earth. Amongst the crisp packets and cans, we cosy up. Bracken
blankets – playing house. Or soldiers in a trench. Camouflaged in fern. Laura jumps
on me, tickling my pits. I tip into the black earth. Flat on my back with Laura
straddling my legs –pinging at my knicker elastic. We are laughing so hard we can’t
catch the next breath.

“Show
me,” she says.

I
push my hands up my skirt and rip the towel out. Toss it on the ground. It
thumps the floor – swollen – fatted. Lying on the leaves – glistening black, like
a rabbit turned inside out. A spout boils and seeps – russeting the leaves
beneath me. Laura picks up a stick. She stabs it and raises it on the end like
a spit. She brings it close to her lips. Licks.

I
can’t remember the rest but I imagine her daubing her fingers in my blood – smearing
it down our cheeks. Budding her soft lips and perching them on my nose. And we track
through the woods, Laura holding the stick before us like an Olympic torch. And
we burst from the trees. And she lobs it, like a grenade, at the boys from the
estate. Unfurling in air. It flaps. It glides. It lands. When they see what it is,
they burst like pigeons or scraps of bonfire – combusting. I imagine it
springing to life and running after them. Snapping little teeth at their heels.
And Laura laughing. Us laughing like a couple of harpies. I try to make myself
have the dream again by telling it in my head when I can’t get to sleep. Or
sometimes I think about, “He likes it
when
—”. I feel that twitch between my legs. I want to touch it but can’t
make a sound because Laura’s awake in the next bed.

Sometimes,
when I look in our bedroom mirror, I’m startled by looking so familiar. And when Laura and I catch each other,
I see the same look on her face.

Laura
is clever-clever and school-clever. Her head of year loves quoting her Mensa
score in assembly. None of the teachers know my name, You’re Laura’s sister aren’t you? I like borrowing her status but
I’d like my own name.

*

At
the party I drink too much. Too fast. The floor is sloping. Laura’s friends
have all lost interest. I’m leaning on the door jamb between kitchen and
sitting room. I’m thinking about water. How much I need a glass. I’m also
considering fruit salad. There’s a cut-glass bowlful on the kitchen
worksurface. I want to push my tongue into it. Terence comes over. He taps up
my chin and asks if I’m alright? Laura’s probably asked him to look after me.
Her friends will be thinking how sweet.
Like a big brother. I feel sick.

I
tell him I’m spinny. I need fresh
air. He brings me a tumbler of water then he takes my hand and leads me into
the garden. There’s a brick outhouse at the end of a concrete path. It’s a bit
more than a shed. Terence opens the door and tugs me inside. It feels secret,
which makes my skin tingle, a feeling that’s halfway between scary and nice.
Like shimmying up to the highest branch and looking down – holding on tight and
shivering with the leaves. Blood fizzing; stomach churning. Like Christmas Eve
and the night before an exam. I can never split that feeling. I want to go in.

Inside
the shed: smells of lawnmower petrol and compost. Shelves of plastic plant pots.
Broken spider webs gummed with dust and pasted on the walls. Garden forks.
Spades. Rakes. Trowels. It’s cold – like a cave.

He shuts the door. I sit in a deckchair. When he turns around, he has
it in his hand. The end bulges. Shiny. Opaque like oiled meat; or like a skinned
animal – he looks so helpless. Holding it. His eyes saying please. Like when a
dog rolls over and shows their underside – the warm belly where the organs flutter
close to the surface. He touches the back of my head. Gently. He likes it when— I open my mouth?

I don’t think anyone sees us come back. I don’t think anyone misses
us. I don’t talk to Laura all the way home. Then it’s days of silence.

My heart is arrhythmic when he’s on the phone. I’ve developed a
rash on my chest – pink and white mottling. I’ve discovered that I can make
myself sick if I put my fingers in my mouth and tickle that wobbly droplet of
flesh at the opening of my throat. Warbling vomit.

I dream about that night. In my dream Laura pours the fruit salad
into my lap. Tinned peaches and pears sludged onto my legs. On Laura’s dress.
The syrup soaks through. When I stand up, my thighs are wet and sticky and I
leave a puddle of juice. Everyone laughs. I grab fistfuls of fruit and chase
her trying to get her to eat it from my palms. Grabbing her and trying to force
the grainy, mushed up fruit into her mouth. Her lips are pressed tight and she
snaps her head from side to side.

Days of silence.

After a week she corners me in our room. I’m lying on the bed. I’ve
let down the hem of my school skirt and I’m hand stitching it.

“What are you doing?” she asks. She sits on the end of the bed.

“Making it longer.” I’m doing invisible stitches. The way mum
taught me. I’m doing a pretty good job.

“Why? Have you been told it’s too short?” She picks up Bomber, the
heavy teddy that was mum’s, then hers, then mine. None of us can bear to throw him
out.

“No,” I say.

“It’s not too short,” she says. She puts Bomber under the sheets
and tucks him in at the end of my bed.

“I just want to,” I say.

“Why? You’ll be able to see the old holes. It’ll look shit.”

“I want it a bit longer.”

“But it’s long enough. It reaches your knees. What’s the point?”

I’m pulling the fabric as far down as it will go and rolling a
tiny hem.  She sits on the end of my bed
and slips into mum’s you-can-talk-to-me
voice.

“I’m not angry with you.”

“Sorry?”

“I’m not angry with you but you need to tell me exactly what
happened.”

“Nothing.”

“But it did.”

“What?”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing.”

“You can tell me.”

I’ve run out of thread. I unwind the bobbin and suck the end of
the cotton to make it stiff. My mouth is dry. I rethread my needle and tie the
cotton in a knot. I push the needle under the very top layer of my skin on my left
index finger, not quite piercing or drawing blood. It’s a party trick – I pull
the thread through – look I’m stitching
skin
.

“Don’t do that. It makes me feel weird,” she says.

My skin snaps, leaving a frayed edge.

“He did something. I’m not angry with you but I need to know,” she
says.

“No. He didn’t.”

“He did. I’m not angry with you. I’m angry at him.”

She’s stands up and presses her back against the door. She folds
her arms. She looks like a bouncer. I sew my right index finger. Pop. More
frayed skin.

“I’m not angry with you,” she says.

“Please, please don’t be angry,” I say.

I don’t know what word to use. The only ones I know sound absurd. Stupid
words – I can’t use any – my throat has closed.

I tap two fingers on the back of my left hand. She understands.

“Two words,” she says.

I tap one finger on the back of my left hand.

“First word,” she says.

I fill my cheeks and expel the air – slowly – through pursed lips.
She folds to the floor and puts her head between her knees. “I’m going to be
sick,” she says.

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not angry with you.”

“It is my fault. I made him.”

I’ll take this blame if it makes her feel better. I want to make it
hurt less but I still want him to disappear. This will make him disappear. This
will make him disappear.

*

Long silence. Her breathing with her head between her knees. In.
Two. Three. Four. Out. Two. Three. Four. Her fists clench and unclench. The
breathing slows down. I unpick my line of stitches. Slowly, I peel the hem
apart and listen to the little pops of cotton. Penelope sewed by day and
unpicked at night. Weave. Unpick. Delay. Pricked,
pierced, sewn, unravelled.
I pull the knotted end and roll the spent thread
as tight as a hair ball and flick it onto the carpet.

Eventually, she looks up. Her eyes are red but her cheeks are dry.

“You’re coming with us to the pub tonight,” she says.

“God, Laura. No, I don’t want to see him.”

“Shall I speak to dad about—”

“No.”

She waits for me to say it: “I’ll come.”

We’re in the pub. I feel like I’m watching TV. She looks so pretty.
Shampoo advert hair. Her freckles scattered like sand on her nose. A couple of
his friends. Me. Her. I’m imagining what he’ll say when she tells him. He’ll do
one of three things: he’ll deny it (bad for him); he’ll pretend it was a
drunken mix up – comedy – like Shakespeare (bad for him); but he might… He
might not give a shit.

I start to think she won’t do anything. Maybe she’ll shrug it off.
But then she smiles at me like we’re in on something. She puts her hand on his
thigh. She looks at him and cocks him a lopsided smile that dimples one cheek.
She raises an eyebrow and stands up. He follows her out the fire escape. I look
at the dirty, flagged floor – tacky-black-beer-smears. My stomach muscles try
to curl.

It feels like an age until she slips back into her seat and gobs
something viscous into his half-finished pint. She does it casually. His
friends shuffle and laugh. With a black, plastic stirrer, she swirls it around
before he slopes in. Sucking in his stomach and tucking his T-shirt into his
jeans. Exaggerating sheepish – like everyone is counting his luck.

She says, “Come on. Drink up. On to The Bell?”

He downs it.

His friends fall apart.

“What?” says Terence.

Silence from us.

“She doesn’t swallow,” one friend says, which cracks them up.

She stands and turns to me.

“We’re going home.”

Laura leads us onto the amber-wet pavement. She doesn’t need a
ball of wool or pockets stuffed with pebbles. She doesn’t link arms. She walks
ahead and when we get to the bright lights of the house, I fall back so I don’t
have to see her wet cheeks.




I’m a Secret

Picture Credits: Catherine

Shhh, shhh. I’m
going to tell you my story, but not too loud, not too loud. Can’t let them hear;
they won’t like that.

I’m a secret.

Don’t look like it
right now; I got my fake face on. It molds to my skin and smiles at you with lips
that speak of sweet, sweet escape; promises you your wildest dreams from eyes
that dance with mischief. I’m a whispered conversation at the corner, an
elusive glimpse in the shadows, and you stop, for just a moment, and stare;
wonder how I can be so perfect. Your
pulse quickens and your eyes widen and your lips part in question

who is she?—

and it’s okay
because it means you can’t tell. That it’s all fake; that I’m hiding
underneath.

Hiding and safe.

I’m at the pier
now, walking hand-in-hand with my love, the moonlit water at our right and the
laughter of lovers in our ears. To him, I am a vision. I am his mystery, his
fantasy, whispering the words he wants to hear and smiling the way he wants me
to smile. I gaze up at him, and he is beautiful.
Angel with a halo beautiful; breath caught, mind blank, heart fluttering in
my chest kind of beautiful. He smiles at me, and it’s like his light

—his love—

is streaming from him
and into me – soothing me, basking me with its warmth – and everything is wonderful
because I am his and he is mine.

Later, we go back
to his place. We stand there, he and I, like two lovers in a movie scene, the
moonlight filtering through the shades to paint white art on his skin. I slowly
walk towards him, unable to tear my eyes away. He is the breath filling my lungs
and the heart pounding in my chest.

I am nothing
without him.

I worship him
then, like a priestess before her god. I do anything and everything,
desperately trying to show him that I am his

—please be mine—

that I need him

—need me. please, need me—

that I love him.

—love me. love me

We’re lying in
bed, after, when he turns to me. “So … I’m Jack, by the way.”

I light a cig,
blow smoke at the ceiling. “Thought we weren’t doing names.”

“Yeah, well…” he
shrugs. “Come on. I don’t know anything about
you. Share something. I’m Jack, and you are…”

I spin on top of
him, trying to force my mask into a seductive smolder, but it’s not responding
right. It’s weak, trembling at the edges, and I let my hair fall around my face
so he can’t see. “Here, honey. I’m here.”

He holds up a
hand. “Your name. That’s all I’m asking.”

And just like
that, it’s over. I spin off him, dress, grab my purse and head out the door, and
he calls after me but I ignore him. It’s not like it matters; it’s not like he matters. There are plenty more where
he came from, plenty more who will hold me close and smile at me for a little
while and when that while’s over, there’ll be another and another and another.
But even as I leave, close the door behind me, step into the moonlit street, my
mind is still back there, and in my mind I’m standing over him and grabbing him
by his face, my nails sinking into his skin and dripping blood – real blood
because his face is real – and I’m
shaking him while I cry and scream, Why?
Why did you have to look underneath? Don’t you understand that there’s nothing
there? Don’t you get that it’s all a mask, and underneath is just
empty?!

But I don’t tell
him any of that, because I can’t.

Because I’m a
secret.

And secrets aren’t
meant be told.

*

I head back then,
to the cold place where the sun isn’t as bright and the shadows are darker; to
the place that presses on me and weighs on me and crushes me.

To the place of
the people who know my secret.

To the place I go
when I have nowhere else to go.

I open the door,
ease inside. I make it only a few steps before she hears me. “Hey!” She comes
running out, smile beaming on her face – love streaming from that smile,
basking me, warming me – and I know it’s fake, I know it’s all a trick, but oh man it looks so real and I want to
believe that it’s real. “You’re back! How was your day?”

Glinda, I call
her. The good witch. The one who always has the hugs and the warmth; the one
who always knows what to say.

I look at her and
tell myself to be strong, that this is just one of her tricks, but it’s so
difficult. A thousand conversations flash in my mind, words she’s spoken to me
over and over – “I love you, Jessica, no
matter what”
– and suddenly, in that moment, I want to believe.

I step forward.
“Hey, Gli— Abbie,” I say, using her other name, the name she likes. Her mask
name. “Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s okay.” She
waves a dismissive hand and beckons. “Come. I made you dinner.”

I allow her to
lead me to the kitchen. Close my eyes, breathe in deep. Smell the delicious
scents. It smells like…

Warmth and light and love. Childhood. Happiness.

Home.

I begin to smile.

Then he steps into the room.

Oh, I have names
for him. The dark one. The killer of light. Lucifer. Voldermort. Mostly,
though, I call him Evil.

He smiles at me,
too, but I can see the shadows at his lips; hear the venom dripping off his words.
“Nice to see you, Jessica. Did you have a good day?”

It’s like a cold
hand is clutching my heart, and I find myself stumbling back, grasping the cool
tile of the wall. I can’t do this, I
can’t, I can’t.
But I glance at Glinda – Abbie, Jessica, her name is Abbie – and she’s still smiling at me,
warm, inviting, and maybe, this once, I can.

I nod back at him,
not trusting myself to speak, and walk to the table. Pick up a loaf of bread,
lift it to my mouth. Turn around, a joke planted on my lips—

Glinda isn’t
looking at me. She’s facing him, and
she’s … she’s smiling – love streaming from that smile – but not at me.

At him.

—for him—

All of a sudden,
it’s too much. It’s all just too much.I scream – wordlessly, an anguished cry
from deep inside – and throw the loaf at them. Reach behind me, throw and throw
until the dinner’s on the floor and on the walls and on the ceiling. “I knew
it!” I shriek. “I knew it was all a
lie. You don’t love me, you never did. You’re embarrassed of me. You’re ashamed
of me!” I see my next words coming and know they’re going to hurt but I say
them anyway, because that’s what I want. I want
them to hurt, just like they hurt me. “I’m glad
you can’t have kids. People like you don’t deserve to have kids.”

I run past them,
so fast they don’t have time to respond – but not so fast that I can’t hear her
sobs – and thunder up the stairs. The mask is broken, it’s shattered into
pieces all around me, and underneath it the emptiness reaches out and grabs the
self-loathing and the self-disgust and sucks it in and grows and grows, and all
I can think is that I knew it was all fake. How could it not be?

They’ve seen under
the mask. They’ve seen the secret.

No one could love
that.

*

“Jessica?” The
call is quiet, the knock on my door tentative, but still it catches my
attention. “Jessica? Are you there?”

It can’t be. I hurt her, hurt her terribly. I’d thrown off my mask and shown her
the horrible, secret emptiness underneath. Why would she come back?

I wait, heart in
my throat, barely daring to breathe. The shadows press close around me and the
morning light through the windows seems to wither and die, and oh what have I
done, I need her, I am nothing without her, she’s all that I have, and I’ve
lost her…

“Jessica?”

The call, again.
The shadows are flung back; the light streams into the room full-blast. I let
out a laugh, a sob, run to the door, fumble with the handle – quickly, quickly
– and pull it open. I catch a glimpse of her face – pale and streaked with
tears – and then I’m in her arms and I’m holding her tight, never letting her
go, never, ever letting her go.

“You do love me,” I whisper in her ear,
inhaling the beautiful scent of her kindness; of her spirit; of her love.

She pushes me back
a little, looks into my eyes. “Of course
I love you. You’re my sister.”

“Ha!” I hug her
again, briefly, tightly, and twirl back into my room. I raise my arms, close my
eyes, let the sun caress my face. The day is beautiful and the birds are sweet,
and everything is right with the world. I plop down onto my bed and grin at
her. “We should do something. Like, maybe go shopping.”

She blinks.
“Sh-shopping?”

“Yes!” I jump off,
grab her hand, spin her around. “Like when we were teenagers! We’ll go to the
mall and buy clothes we don’t need and eat food we shouldn’t eat, and then
we’ll come home and do each other’s nails.” I run to my closet, grab my purse.

“O … Okay.” Her
voice is hesitant from behind me. “Jessica, don’t you think we should talk?”

My smile turns brittle,
for just a moment. Why is she doing this? Can’t she see my mask is off, that
this is me? That for once, I’m
letting the secret me out and it’s okay?
For a moment the light retreats, and the shadows return. For a moment, I am
cold.

Then I shake it off.
“Later, Abbie,” I say, the lie rolling easy off my tongue. I turn back around,
mask firmly in place, and pull my fake lips back into a smile. “First
shopping.”

*

We come back later
that afternoon, and maybe she has a mask of her own because we both talk like
nothing happened. We talk of this, we talk of that, empty chitchat that doesn’t
mean anything, and she’s in the kitchen doing the dishes and I’m in the study,
looking for a pen, when my eyes catch on a small book I don’t recognize.
Curious, I step closer, look down at the title…

The words slam
into my eyes

—no no no no no no no no no—

angry, accusing,
demanding

—don’t make me look, don’t make me look—

and even after I
wrench my gaze away I can still see them

—please, don’t make me look underneath—

burned into my
irises, painting the house in horrible, big-print letters.

Borderline Personality Disorder…

“What. Is. THIS?!”

Glinda comes into
the study. “Jess, what are you…?” She sees what’s in my hands and trails off.
“Jessica…”

I throw the book
at her; she ducks, narrowly avoiding it. “There is nothing wrong with me! It’s you. You, and that monster you married,
and this dark house that you live in. You’re
the messed up ones, so you try to pin it on me. How could you?” I’m sobbing,
I’m screaming, and it’s not enough. There is no release, no words, no action
that can express the pain deep inside. “Have
I not suffered enough!”

I run past her,
not caring what I knock over, and almost barrel into him. He’s standing in the doorway, his work bag still on his
shoulder, a question in his eyes. “What is going—”

“This is your
fault! You took her from me! You took her and made her into a monster!”

I run out.

*

I go everywhere
after. I’m shaking, I’m crying, and I grab anything and anyone I can find,
pulling them to me with both hands – one after the other after the other – desperately
trying to bring the love back. Can you make me happy? Can you? Can you take the emptiness away?

None of them can.

Eventually – I
don’t know when – I go back. I have to; it’s the place where I go. I ease the
door open, slip inside. Pause in the hallway. Listen.

After a few
moments, I hear them.

“…don’t know what
to do anymore.” I’ve never heard such pain in my sister’s voice before, and it
breaks my heart to hear it – and, even worse, to know it’s from me. “I can’t go
on like this. She can’t go on like
this. I don’t know how to fix this.”

And then his voice, and even I have to admit that
it’s soft; comforting. “I don’t know if this can be fixed, love. Not by us, anyway. Only she can do that.”

“And until then …
what? I’m just supposed to be OK with this … this thing that’s taken over my sister?”

I slump against
the wall, hang my head. Squeeze my eyes shut. Quietly, alone in the dark, I
take my mask off. There’s no one around, so there’s no one to see my secret.

It’s a while
before he answers. “This thing, babe … she is
your sister. Maybe not the one you remember. Maybe … maybe she’s someone new.
But she’s still your flesh and blood, and you love her, and she loves you.” He
sighs, and I hear the rustling of clothes – he’s holding her. “We can’t fix
this, my love. All we can do is be there for her. And hope that it’s enough.”

*

It’s day now, and
I’m walking through a park. Not really going anywhere, but I think that’s okay;
it’s okay if, today, I don’t have a plan. And maybe you see me now; maybe you
even wave, share a laugh. Wonder who I am. It doesn’t matter if you do. It isn’t
real. That’s my mask, my fake body.

I’m a secret.

And sometimes,
when I’m really brave, I share it.




The Other Eye

Veiled Woman, Iran, c.1890, by Antoin Sevruguin

You
look in the mirror and see all past, all future selves. You see your mother’s
chin, your khaleh’s hair. You see that your cheeks will
fall from here down to there and that one day you’ll
have khanom joon’s jowls and maybe even agha bozorg’s
flabby neck.

The other day you showed your friend
a picture of Papa and she said, You have your
father
s eyes. But
he’s
in profile in the photo and what she means is, You have your fathers
left eye
. Or really what she means is, I care about you.

All you could think, though, was how
Papa used to turn his face away from the camera to hide the way his right eye
stared off to the side. In English they call this “wall
eye”,
which you imagine like standing between two walls and trying to see both at the
same time. But actually, if you look it up, it’s
some Nordic thing to do with haze or film. It’s
also the name of a kind of American fish. In French, they say un oeil qui
dit
zut
à
lautre,
and you’re
laughing and imagining Papa’s right eye, just
out of frame, listing to the side in a sort of permanent “fuck
you”.

You look in the mirror and bring
your face close to the glass. You bring it so close that your nose touches its
reflection and your breath steams the pane. You remember how maman
would pinch the tip of your nose. Such a pretty nose, she would say. No
surgery for you.

All your aunties have the same nose,
but not by family resemblance. Once upon a time, they surely all had lovely
variations on those same big, curved noses that weigh down your little nephews’
faces.
But since you can remember, it’s not genetics that
they share but a doctor’s phone number. You can spot an
Ossanloo nosefrom down the street. It reflects light off its little
upturned tip and its Disneyfied little nostrils.

According to family lore, when Nuri
came back with the bandage on her nose, everyone was shocked. There
was enough nose on her to make three new ones
, said amme joon.
I bet the doctor had a field day. But afterwards, everyone agreed that
she should have spent more money or done nothing at all. Ye pasho in var, ye
pasho oonvar
. They made a hash of her hooter, now shes
all stuffed up.

You
look in the mirror and see all past, all future selves. You try to catch
yourself by surprise, see yourself (just for a moment) like a stranger. You
stalk your reflection in the street –
in
glass shopfronts, in the windows of cars –
and
the day you stumble or catch up, the murder will be silent and the feast
luxurious.

You have desired and been desired,
of this you are certain. How often the two coincide still eludes you. You host
lust like a dinner guest, both invited and invasive. You lay the table with
your best china, with spotless napkins and floral arrangements. You eat and
drink well in each other’s company. The conversation is
flavoured with wit and innuendo. You wait until the door is closed, and only
when you’re
all alone do you return to the scene of the supper to down the swill of wine at
the bottom of the glasses, to smash the plates on the floor, to piss on the
table.

You’re
not insensible to the compliment of leering faces and lolling tongues. Alone in
the street, or late at night, the terror that fills you when you see a strange
figure is replaced with a perverse disappointment when you pass unnoticed. Fear
and flattery, a horror within yourself that catches in the throat, that chokes
like hair in the drain. A horror that lingers like dirty dishes, that rusts and
rots like pots stacked in the sink.

You want to be: intimidating,
approachable, sexy, terrifying. You want to smear your lipstick on your teeth.
You want to bite, quick and fast –
to
draw blood. You want to draw blood and smear the blood on your mouth like
lipstick and bare your red teeth and red lips. You will open your throat and
wail a siren song. They will come to you with plundering eyes and you will
shipwreck them, break their vessels, release their ghosts. They will come to
you crying MUSE and run from you crying MONSTER.

In Persian culture there is a system
of ritualised beauty in seven steps. It is called haft
ghalam arayesh

the
seven brushes of adornment, the calligraphy of the face. It now means something
more like “dressed to the nines”
(another
numerological aesthetic). I hold your face in my hands. Sefidab for your
skin, a moonlit white; sorkhab to stain your lips and cheeks; vasmeh drawn
into and between your eyebrows, dark framing arches; sormeh around the
eyes (I lick the wooden stopper and dip it in the vial); hana on your
fingernails and hands, dying the tips of the fingers a burnt umber; band
to thread and shape the hair which grows so soft and dark along your lip and
brow bone; a single khal to dot your cheek, the final mark of the
seventh stroke.

We find the beauty of the seven
brushes in miniatures and in poetry. Here she is, again, in photographs. I pull
the albums from the shelf. Let’s look at pictures
of the royal wives. I’ll brush your hair and tell you: about
Naser al-Din Shah and his camera. Some of the earliest photos of life in Iran
come from the court of the Qajar king. I tell you how he set up a darkroom in
Golestan Palace and employed the Russian, Antoin Sevruguin, as court
photographer. How, alone with his wives and children, the shah took pictures of
his own. We look at them together. See, here the women pose side by side, they
are seated or standing, with instruments and at picnics. Their legs stick out
from under short, ruffled skirts inspired by the Russian ballet.

You keep laughing as I hand them to
you. You think that the bushy monobrows, thick ornamental moustaches, heavyset
faces, and revealing attire could not have been better conceived by someone
asked to represent the perfect opposite of everything considered beautiful in
the present day. You show them, bemused, to your friends and family. Confronted
by this catalogue, they are convinced you are showing them images of men in
drag. Like fat men in skirts! How will you
comprehend that the rotund, hairy, bare-legged Anis al-Doleh, who appears in
many portraits, was the king’s favourite wife

a
woman so beautiful that thirteen men were said to have committed suicide,
heartbroken by her rejection.

You look in the mirror
and you see all past, all future selves. Sometimes you imagine that the mirror
is watching you. It sees you at your most disgusting. It sees you squeezing
blackheads from your chin, picking food from your teeth. It sees you gape as
you apply mascara and wince as you tweeze your eyebrows.

You look in the mirror and imagine what would happen if you stopped plucking and shaving. You could sprout a nice monobrow – arched, like the poets say, as bows to an arrow. You could maybe muster a little moustache. Someone once said to you, A hairy woman is so sensual, so sexy.You pluck your eyebrows and your upper lip, shave your pits, wax your legs, bleach your arms. When you reached puberty you grew two scraggly chin hairs which always come back, no matter how many times you tear them out at the roots. You tried removing hair from the other bit too, but you came out in rashes. Now you only use scissors.