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.




Being Human

I groan, rapping a loose knuckle
against the heavy double-glazed door of my local McDonald’s. Trying the door
once more – it doesn’t give – a familiar anxiety creeps up, leaping into
piggyback position, without permission. When, earlier that evening, the doctor,
a smug man with handlebar moustache touched his fingers to his naked chin in a
light, affectionate gesture and asked, ‘but how do we cure loneliness?’, and
with no answer forthcoming, nothing but mild, undeserved awe, had shrugged and
smiled at the woman I had been following around the impromptu party, her body
shifting but a fraction; still, this placing a chasmal difference in our
non-existent potential, I should’ve come back with a quick quip, sharp as a
whip from the hand of a matador cracking against a bull’s buttock. Something
like-oh, I don’t know, but something.

I knock at the glass once more. A
short woman appears, standing at a distance. We watch each other for a moment.
I knock again. She takes the few steps towards me, and when close enough, I
say:

‘I would like some nuggets.’

She points at the sign displaying
opening times, like the glass is soundproof. Indoors, I can hear the sweet
arias of Beethoven the company deployed as an anti-yob tactic, some genius from
marketing deciding that the Moonlight Sonata could prevent a riot.

‘I would like some nuggets,’ I
repeat. She points to the sign once more. This branch isn’t open until 5 AM.

‘I will pay you,’ I open my wallet
and take out the first note, squinting at the coloured face of Queen Elizabeth
in the darkness, ’20 pounds for 20 McNuggets. You can keep the change.’

The woman doesn’t say anything, so I
slip the note under the door, wobbling a little as I rise. She bends at the
hip, her hand against the small of her back, and sweeping back strands of
blonde hair which have strayed from the safety of her hairnet, picks up the
money, holds it to the light and pockets it. She turns around, and waddles
away.

I check my wrist. It’s naked. I took
my watch off earlier, before falling asleep cuddling a stranger in the spare
bedroom. She was not the woman I had been following around all evening, who, at
midnight, made her excuses – something about work in the morning – and left the
party. The glass door unlocks automatically. I walk in.

A child, barely out of the perils of
his teenager years, is behind the desk, his hands drumming the counter
arrhythmically, the fear he might have to interact with me manifesting.

‘Excuse me, could you get the short
blonde lady who works here for me? Like yay high?’ I ask, illustrating with a
flat palm to my breastbone.

‘Oh, Sandra? She’s on cleaning duty.
I’ll go get her.’

Behind the counter, the fat fryer
sputters and spits, as staff prepare the rations for the drunk, the wanderers,
the early birds, the habituals. The young man returns, more fidgety than
before.

‘Erm, she’s not here.’ A pregnant,
dishonest pause. ‘She’s gone home.’

‘Right.’

A disembodied hand slides hash browns
and McMuffins onto the relevant shelves, ready to serve. Near the bottom of the
set of shelves lies a greasy box of nuggets, the last box.

‘Do you have a no chase policy?’

‘Er…we don’t have security here.’

‘Oh, ok. Cool.

I consider leveraging myself over the
desk, which, would make for a better story and more entertaining CCTV footage,
but I’ve been drinking. That would be dangerous. I wander around the side gate,
pluck the Nuggets from their resting place, consider a box of fries, leave the
box of fries because I’m not greedy, just trying to stave off the surety of a
hangover, and, high-fiving the nonplussed young man, I walk out.

Outside, the sun is ignoring its
alarm, blues and pinks and purples but the orange corona nowhere to be seen. A
fox scampers along near me, not unlike a dog at feeding time. I chuck him – or
her – a nugget, which they chomp on.

‘Listen,’ I say, between mouthfuls,
‘I’ve always believed in the fundamental goodness of humans, but everyone does
things for a reason, you know? One which is justified to them. Whatever, you
probably don’t care anyway.’

‘So why’d you give me the nugget?’
The fox asks silently.

‘You looked hungry.’

‘Altruism feeding your static ego.’
He bobs his head in a nod, and darts away in the darkness.

In the morning, I try to massage the
hangover from my body with codeine and a skin-wrinkling shower. It’s Friday,
and still too early to order a takeaway. I type a message to my best friend, in
capitals, saying, ‘I WANT TO DIE.’ His response is equally melodramatic: ‘I’M
WAITING FOR THE REAPER TO COLLECT ME.’ I email work, citing stress induced
flu-like symptoms as my reason for not coming in on time, or at all. My flatmate isn’t home, so I dance around the
house naked, to ‘a-ha’s’ Take on Me, until even this liberation,
combined with the nausea, is overwhelming, retiring to bed.

I toss about in the duvet, unable to
find any position in which my body isn’t pulsating, my heart working overtime
to pump out every toxin I’ve dashed through my mouth. I make the executive
decision to masturbate. Queuing up visual memories, I am a child once more,
approaching the desk at Blockbuster with an armful of videos, intent on a
marathon. Like then, I’m told I can only have one, and reward whichever cruel
adult has delivered this sentence with hot, fresh salty tears. After I finish,
I wipe my eyes and fall asleep. Five minutes later, I’m woken by a hypnic jerk,
a swooping around my navel, my heart thudding harder. I check my wrist. It’s
still naked. The time on my phone tells me I could pre-order from the Indian
around the corner. Loading up some unpolitically correct sitcom from the 90s, I
spend far too long deliberating over my few choices, when I know what I want.

When it arrives, I call immediately
and explain my food is colder than the chest freezer from which the produce was
taken from. They extend their sincerest apologies and promise to refund me.
Instead, they email a colourful, badly designed coupon for the equivalent of my
next meal. We all know the deal here, this isn’t our first rodeo. The coupon
will do.

Whilst eating, I scroll through my
contacts at random. Spilling a daal off the edge of my naan bread onto my
pillow, I type a message to a friend I haven’t spoken to for a few months,
asking if he wants to get a drink tonight to catch up. My phone pings as soon
as I put it down. It is the girl from last night, the stranger I shared a bed
with, saying, ‘I’ve got your watch. Let’s get a drink, I can give it back to
you?’ I ignore her. I wonder if she is still a stranger if I shared a bed with
her. Probably. When I’ve finished my meal, I upload an image to Instagram,
describing the semi-urgent nature of my impending doom, both for the sake of my
employers, who I know keep tabs, and to let the world know what I’m doing. This
is the best, or one of the best times to upload, catching the ennui of
lunchtime, maximising interaction. Most of my life revolves around filling
time, until the next ‘certainty’ arrives. In this way, I’m sure when death does
arrive, I’ll be ok, I think.

Monday, I call in sick again. I’ve
run out of paid sick days, so my manager suggests I take a few days off as
holiday, which I do. I decide to feed my body, mind and soul, and head to an
art gallery.

It’s a muggy, nasty sort of day,
sweat pooling in pits and orifices of all kinds. The sun is still hiding. I
walk past the Tate Modern several times – the last time I visited, my best
friend and I were chased out by security, after failing to control a bout of
the giggles at the number of blank canvas’ the gallery was exhibiting. Still,
the potent cocktail of laziness and convenience entices me towards the
entrance.

The guy welcoming people, despite my
best efforts, catches my eye, holding my gaze with a fierce, determined glare.

‘What would be lovely, is if you
could donate £5 to the Tate Galleries. We are a charity so rely solely on
donations to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.’ He gestures
towards a short black pillar sprouting from the ground, and as he does so, a
screen lights up on it, with a payment due for £5. ‘All you have to do is tap.’
I reach into my pocket and tap my bank card against the screen, before I can
even question him, or myself.

‘Thank you, your contribution will
keep the Tate open.’ As I walk away, I hear him feeding the same lines to
someone else. 

Avoiding the gallery spaces, I make
for the enormous foyer, divided in two from where a deceptive carpeted ramp
starts. On one side, on flat ground, a range of oversized swing sets; here,
adults pretend they are only playing children in this sole moment. Above the
ramp, the main attraction: a huge silver ball, swinging back and forth on an
adjustable axis. Cut into the ceiling, a tiny square of blue in the sky,
somehow only visible from indoors. From the ground it’s like being a cat
trapped in a well, a rope swinging teasingly just out of reach, this made all
the worse by the fact a cat couldn’t grip a rope.

A few steps away, a girl holds a pair
of black balloons. She’s trying to take a selfie; the dexterity of her wrists
letting her down, she drops her phone; in the futile attempt she makes to catch
the device with her foot, her grip loosens on the trailing ribbons, and the
balloons drift silently towards the high ceiling. She watches me watching her
for a moment, then we both gaze upwards towards the floating objects. No one
else appears to notice. She puts her fingers to her lips. I shrug and lie on
the carpet. Knowing my best friend works close by, one of those flexible jobs
which he would be hard pushed to describe what he actually does, I
message him about the ball before its hypnotic nature lulls me away.

When he arrives, he says, lying next
to me, ‘You weren’t lying. Do you want a cookie? White chocolate and macadamia
nut. They went down a treat in the office.’

‘Nice.’ I take one from the
Tupperware he’s holding out. ‘How’s work?’

‘Oh, you know. It’s… you know.’

We watch the ball creak across our
vision, back and forth, back and forth.

‘Do you remember that video we saw
here last time? The guy pouring oil on sugar cubes.’

‘That was hilarious.’

‘Yeah, so funny. But it wasn’t.’

‘I get what you mean.’

‘What did it mean? Wasn’t it
something about the beginning and ending and order and chaos losing their
meanings?’

‘Something like that.’

He sits up and takes out another
cookie.

‘You’ve got new socks on.’

‘They make me feel good.’

‘You still feeling bad?’

‘Kind of.’

‘Hmm. You been dating anyone
recently?’

‘No. But that’s not going to solve
the problem. I’ve still got to be a person, even with another person.’

‘Fair.’

‘I need the toilet.’

‘Cool.’

In the cubicle, I cry some and listen
to Take on Me to cheer me up. I call my mother as I walk back to my best
friend, still sniffling and a little tender.

‘I’ve got this weird feeling of
homelessness,’ I tell her. ‘I feel alone a lot of the time.’

‘It must be the devil.’

‘Are you quoting that poet?’

‘What poet?’

‘Never mind.’

‘You should come to church on
Sunday.’

‘We’ve had this discussion, Mum. I’m
not coming to Church anymore.’

‘So you say you’re lonely, there’s
plenty of people to speak to at Church and you don’t want to come? Ah! What’s
your problem?’

‘I’m not lonely, I feel alone. I
don’t think that’s going to solve my problems.’

‘What do you want me to say to you?
You’re a twenty-eight year old man. Get on with your life.’

I request some more holiday from
work, citing the special circumstances of emotional burnout and a potential
oncoming breakdown. It is approved immediately, in what I believe is an active
effort to reduce a PR disaster.

Today, I
order too much food from KFC – I was unaware they delivered, and excitement
gets the better of me. The bill comes to £89. When the food arrives, I punch a
message into the delivery service website, saying the chicken was pink in the
middle. A robot sends a joyful message back, explaining that I won’t be charged
if the food is unfit for consumption.

I take a photo of the pile of food,
and post it to Instagram. It’s a little late to catch the flurry of lunchtime
activity, but I still get a little bit of action. I click on the list of people
who have liked the post. A person I don’t know in real life, or follow on
Instagram, has pushed the little red heart. I click on her profile. Similar
age. We have some mutual friends. Not my type, but the more I think about it, I
don’t really have a type. I accidentally double tap on one of her photos, the
red heart appearing to alert me to what I have done. Fuck it, I think, liking
four other photos. My phone pings shortly. She’s done the same on my profile.
Just incase, I like one more, from several months ago, a black and white
portrait, half her face in profile, illuminated by a stray block of sunlight.

She reciprocates.

Hmmm. I pace the room, wondering what
my next move is. I scroll through her virtual life for clues. A few scraps of
poetry litter her captions, so I post a quote from Audre Lorde.

She replies in my private messages
with a large red heart. I dance about the room.

Over the following week, we send each
other funny memes and videos at all hours. My heart gyrates for the next
faintly amusing photo joke every time I am away from my device.

On the weekend, I find myself at my
best friend’s son’s third birthday party. I pick him up, lift him towards the
ceiling, making abstract sounds the child grew out of a year ago, spin him
round, then settle in the sofa closest to the wi-fi router. I pause briefly,
when steaming hot plates of rice and chicken are delivered to the partygoers,
before realising my thigh is thick enough to balance the plate on, digging with
a fork with one hand, continuing to tap at my phone’s glass screen with the
other.

‘Who are you talking to?’ My best
friend’s wife asks.

‘His new lady friend,’ my best friend
smirks.

‘Oooh, when can we meet her?’

‘Soon.’ On impulse, I say, in our
long running message thread, ‘Marry me.’

‘Why do you want to marry me?’

‘You make me less lonely.’

‘I’m not a cure for your loneliness.’

‘Do I make you feel the same way
tho?’

‘Yeah.’

‘We should meet.’

‘Ok.’

‘That’s my Grandmother in that urn.’

‘Fuck,’ I say, almost dropping the
brass trophy.

My Instagram belle doubles over in
laughter, clutching at her sides.

‘I’m joking.’

‘Ha. Good one,’ I say, placing the
urn back on the shelf.

‘I wasn’t joking. I just didn’t want
you to feel bad, at first.’

‘Right. I need the toilet.’

When I return, she’s whipping a
leopard print dressing gown over her nude figure. I catch a tiny glimpse of a
stray nipple, pink and pointy, and freeze.

‘Hey,’ she says, patting the bed. I
sit beside her, and she wraps her leg around my own, leaning into my lap,
kissing me.

‘You’re still wearing your clothes.’

I untangle myself and begin to
undress.

‘What do you wanna do?’

She smiles faintly, like no one has
ever asked her that question.

‘I would like to cuddle.’

‘Cool.’

‘Sure?’

‘Yeah. Cuddling is cool.’

She lies down, turning her back to me
and I traipse my arm around her body, tucking up to her. Her breathing deepens,
body slack, and soon she is asleep. I glance around her room, properly. She has
laid a patterned scarf atop her dull lamp, giving the illusion there is a
forest on the ceiling. Her hair smells like my childhood, like coconut oil and
warmth. Succulents and creepers line the shelves and furniture. Outside, a
street light buzzes but it’s so high pitched and infrequent, it could be a
cricket. This is cozy, comfortable. Cuddling is cool.

Two days later, it is Valentine’s
day. I message my new – well, I don’t know what she is to me, but I message her
anyhow, saying, ‘Let’s hang out tonight.’ Before she can reply, I pay
too much for a dozen red roses from a leering man wearing a tartan flat cap. He
is in the process of trying to sell me a small, dying olive tree, the branches
gnarled and dehydrated, when she calls.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. What do you want to do
tonight?’

‘Erm. I’ve got a date.’

‘Right. Ok.’

The silence hangs in my ears like an
echoing tinnitus. I’m unsure of what to say, what the protocol is here, so I
hang up and call my mother, asking to borrow her car.

‘What do you need it for?’

‘I’ve got a date.’

‘Ah fantastic! I hope you won’t be
drinking if you’re driving.’

‘I don’t drink, Mum,’ I lie. ‘Gave
up. For my health.’

Getting into the car, the first
whispers of rain graze my cheek. By the time I am bombing down a country lane,
listening to the acoustic version of Take on Me, which is infinitely
more heartbreaking, at the loudest volume my tiny ears will take, fat globules
of water are punching my windscreen. I speed past a strange, tall object. In my
rearview, I see the object shirk and shriek at the waterfall my tyres just
splashed on it. I do a U-turn and open the passenger door and the figure jumps
in, slamming the door.

‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’

‘WHAT?’

‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’

‘OH. I NEED TO GET TO MY GIRLFRIENDS
HOUSE.’

I turn down the music, and begin to
drive.

‘Why are you in the rain?’

‘My car broke down.’

‘Bad timing.’

‘Bad timing, indeed.’

I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker, or
helped anyone in this manner, nor would I think I would. My parents always said
never to answer the door if not expecting anyone, or the phone if you I didn’t
recognise the number.

‘Here,’ I say, reaching towards the
back seat, thrusting the bouquet of love flowers in her direction. ‘For you.’

I expect a fuss, a squeal, maybe even
tears from the sodden stranger I picked up from the side of a country lane;
instead, a content smile, wistful, almost, and she says, ‘I wish all strangers
were as nice as you.’

We haven’t gone the length of a
single take of the song when she says, ‘if you could stop just here, that’d be
grand.’

‘Wait – you don’t want to go any
further?’

‘No, I just needed to get to my
girlfriend’s house.’

‘Oh, ok. Well.’

‘You’re a lifesaver, thank you!’

I let the engine purr, body and
vehicle static as my thoughts roam. I want to gun the throttle, spin the
wheels, making a tsunami-like wave, pulling away from this obscure country
road, which, with the apocalyptic rain and engulfing darkness, resembles a scene
from a horror film where my naivety leads to me perishing. But for now, I’m
content with my thoughts and an eerie radio silence.

Then I do something I haven’t done in
a while: I begin to pray. Strange incantations, asking for deliverance.

The radio turns on. A blur of static,
then the traffic report, delivered in dramatic fashion. Apparently, it’s
raining. They will be back with an update in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes.

Rather than switch back to the
nothingness, the radio remains on, promising the greatest hits from the 80s.
And of course, the most absurd impossibility: That electronic drum break. A
baseline played with such delicate beauty, like a plucking a feather from the
wing of an angel. Those synths, those glorious synths! Music is a gut language
and joy shoves aside whatever is swimming in my stomach. The vocals from Take
on Me (radio edit) usher into my ears. Another burst of static. As the joy
came, it leaves. A growl, like the monstrous feeling within me has just been
given a voice. Perhaps my mother is right. It must be the Devil.




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.




In the Beginning Was the Word and the Word Was from Our Sponsors

“Are you tired of feeling sad?”

This is a difficult scene. This must be
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No. You can’t show that. You can’t show that
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Gritty truth sells nothing. This has to be the kind of sadness that afflicts
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anyone getting the idea that sadness is romantic or Byronic or some such shit.

This isn’t melancholy. You’re asking “Are you
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“Are you tired of feeling sad?”

So let the camera show a woman on a park bench.
But not a nice park. She throws bread to a pigeon but the pigeon ignores the
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thank you.

We should get that pigeon on speed dial. He’ll
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mind, let HR worry about the pigeon.

“Are you tired of feeling happy?”

Now this is even trickier than the opening.
Nobody is sick of feeling happy. We’re all in it for that sweet kick of
dopamine. That’s how we got that pigeon locked into a ten-year contract, though
he only worked seven. Fame and fast living were too much to handle. He couldn’t
get enough happiness till one day we found him floating upside down in the hot
tub. He couldn’t say no to happiness and now Steven in recruitment has to find
us a new pigeon. Which will be easy because young pigeons are cutting off their
toes to be the next glum pigeon.

They all want a piece of happiness but somehow
you’ve got to convince people that they’re tired of happy and that happy is a
bit of a drag. Only don’t suggest that happiness will make you sad because sad
is over, it’s done, sad is the new coke.

Focus on the smile. Focus on how many muscles
it takes to smile. Focus on how wrinkled a smile makes you. Plant in their mind
the association between smiling and the inevitable heat death of the universe.

Now we tell them the good news.

Now we tell them about a new product from our
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Here is one of those scientists. Is his lab
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What?

We said, “Get ready for Belangé: A new emotion by Wellspring and
Sutcher.”

Belangé is suitable for all occasions and none.
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The opera.

The big game.

The gym.

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This is Anton. He tried Belangé for thirty days
for free and was completely satisfied. The thirty-day trial is risk free. If
you aren’t completely Belangéd by this new emotion we’ll give you your money
back – guaranteed.

The words Belangisfaction guaranteed should
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another paramilitary incident with the guys who make Scrabble.

Now we show the faces of all our satisfied
customers.

We show a new customer arriving at a Belangé
clinic.

*

As Arthur steps into the foyer he experiences a
moment of disorientation. This isn’t just the foyer at the Belangé clinic.
Arthur’s gym has this exact foyer and so does his block of flats.

The feeling of always walking into this exact
foyer no matter what door he enters is not unlike being stuck inside a hall of
mirrors. It’s like one of those stop-start repetitive dreams that stalks you
across a whole night no matter how many times you wake and fall back to sleep.
He feels as though he could board a ship to a far continent and inside would be
this foyer. He feels certain that if he leapt from the ship into the yawning
mouth of a whale the inside the whale would be this foyer.

But Arthur has finished with that. He’s done
with the inescapable sense of quiescent panic that lives like rising damp in
the back of his head. Arthur wants to feel Belangé about this foyer. He doesn’t
have to be the victim of his emotions any longer. Arthur has a fucking coupon.

He approaches the front desk and a young man
who looks more like a lifeguard than a receptionist appears on the other side.
He holds a tablet computer. They use tablets instead of cash registers here.
They’ve transcended the cash register.

He notices Arthur admiring the tablet.

“These are so much better for your
posture,” he says. “The company has us all use them now. Posture is so
important.”

“You must be happy having such an understanding
employer,” says Arthur.

“I’m quite Belangé about it,” says the
receptionist.

“You’re feeling Belangé right now?”

“I’m Belangéd off my tits, sir,” he confides,
leaning across the desk as he does. “Why we don’t we get you booked in?”

Arthur hands the receptionist his coupon. “Now
this coupon is only for standard Belangé,” says the receptionist in the
same way that you might tell someone that their pet cat is actually a skunk. “I
think we could do you a deal on the premium emotion.”

“What’s the difference?” says Arthur.

The receptionist pulls a face and says,
“Standard Belangé is a very high quality package,” in a way that makes clear
that he has never gone to bed with anyone who feels standard Belangé. “But
premium Belangé is a whole other world. I’m just going to book you right in for
the premium,” he says.

*

The decor shifts once you leave the reception
area. Front of house is designed to replicate the spa or yoga studio. It must
be clear at the front desk that Wellspring and Sutcher know their way around a
kelp smoothie. These are people that have health and are willing to put that
health in others. Everything in the foyer from the soft music to the ergonomic
furniture and skin-tight uniforms serves to remind you that Wellspring and
Sutcher care about your chakras.

And they do care. They’ve used data
mining and analysis to get the inside track of your chakras. They know more
about your chakras than Krishna.

But that’s just the foyer. Now Arthur enters a
world of low light, leather furniture, and wood panelling. This is a place of
seriousness and intellectual power. This part of the clinic is here to remind
you that you are in safe hands and not about to submit to any quack remedy at
the hands of incense-munching Pilates-gurus.

Arthur is guided into a small office and made to
sit on a couch. A therapist with a trimmed beard and tweed jacket enters the
room.

“So tell me, Arthur,” he says. “Why do you want
to feel Belangé?”

*

So Arthur tells the story of himself, his
sister, and their dead mother’s dead dog. This process is not necessary to
feeling Belangé but will increase his identification of our brand with therapy
and help us to appropriately target advertisements in the future.

Arthur wants to be clear that their mother had
always intended to leave the dog to him. He and his sister both knew that this
was his mother’s intention. But she had said that Arthur wasn’t ready to take
care of another being. Can you believe that?

A judge did.

She stole the dog just to spite Arthur and then
she accidentally left it in a café and the café cooked it. It’s not what mother
would have wanted even if hotpot was her favourite. And now his sister has the
gall the invite him to the funeral.

How does Arthur feel about it?

He can’t stop laughing. Bitter, angry,
uncontrollable mirth. He needs a new emotion. One he can wear to a funeral like
this. The therapist understands. You can see right away that he understands. We
did studies on faces and then gave the therapist the surgery he needed to make
sure that Arthur knew that he understands. That’s the service you get at the
Belangé clinic. The customer is always right about his dead mother’s dead dog.
Arthur is in safe hands.

Cut to Edna.

*

Edna is in a court of law. On trial for murder
because she beat her brother Arthur to death with a tasteful statuette of their
dead mother’s dead dog. After she had charitably invited Arthur to the funeral
and he had behaved like that.

Her lawyer appeals for mercy. With a brother
like Arthur can anybody really be surprised that the Bleaux mist descended?

Bleaux, pronounced blue, is the new colour developed
by Wellspring and Sutcher. It is 38% more effective than the next most popular
colour. It is the official colour of Belangé. It is so exclusive that the
copyright is protected by an aggressive and litigious law firm. It is no longer
legal to just say blue. You’ve got to say “blue spelt b-l-u-e” or God help you.
Wellspring and Sutcher won’t apologise for that. That’s just the law. They’re
just using laws that everyone agreed to when they voted for a 3% drop in
alcohol duty back in 2396.

When the Bleaux mist descends no one can be
accountable for their actions. Edna was well and truly Belangéd and who
wouldn’t be under those circumstances. Who wouldn’t be in the midst of an
uncontrollable fit of Belangé if they could afford it?

*

Outside the court. Edna is a free woman. There
isn’t a court in the land that would convict Edna. She stands on the steps of
the courthouse and a journalist asks her how she feels.

We must be careful here. She can’t smile and
she can’t frown. That would be off-message. She contorts her face into a new
expression. This expression must be tastefully done. It must be North of
orgiastic pleasure but at the same time South of respectability. The sort of
face you’d pull if the Queen herself scratched that spot on your back that you
can’t reach. It’s very important that this be the kind of expression that says
my emotions would pair perfectly with the Wellspring and Sutcher Spring
Catalogue.

The news of the trial will be followed by a
series of advertisements and all of the models will be pulling that same face.




Bright morning stars are rising

Picture Credits: Adina Voicu

The
sun is red this morning. You told me to note the colour. Yesterday it was pink;
Monday, the same gold as the party. There was music, a barbeque, meat sweated
on a platter, and many people came, many people I didn’t know. But Marty I did.
I never liked him. He was old, his hair too long, too oily. He said he wanted
my mum when he thought no one was looking, whispered it to her by the burgers
and the buns. But I saw. He tried to touch her. It was the drink, she said
afterwards. By then it was too late. Maybe I did wrong. You said I should think
about this. But I see his face now, the way it screwed in pain. I hear the
sound he made like a gutted pig. It ended the party. An ambulance came. The
garden emptied and was silent.

Mum
is on the phone. It’s early but I’m awake. The sun sits gold on the hedges, the
garden, the spider’s web outside my window. I don’t know how long she’s been
talking or who she’s talking to. Sometimes it’s my aunt. Sometimes it’s you.
Sometimes it’s the number she wrote on the kitchen calendar with “24 hour”
underlined. She doesn’t know I’m listening. I hear everything she says. I’m
trying, she is saying, I’m trying really hard but if I get no response what can
I do?

It’s
been a week since it happened. The barbeque I mean. You ask me if I’ve thought
about it much. I say I haven’t but you frown and tip your head. We’re in my
room. It’s warm. You want to open the window. There are sweat patches under
your arms and on the moustache you bleach. You ask me if you can. Open the
window I mean. I shake my head. I like it shut. Ok, you shrug, we’ll talk about
it later. You make a note in your book. Then you give me one. It has pictures
of animals. For you, you say, I thought you might like it. I do. I take it and
open a page. A pack of lions under a tree. The next page has a hippo rolling in
mud. Ok, you say again in your put-on soft voice, what shall we talk about
today?

I have scabby hands from itching. I have scabs too in my hair. They haven’t always been there. They came a few months ago. Mum bought me white gloves like a mime artist or baby. They’re to protect my hands for when I sleep. Before bed I put this cream on that smells of vinegar then wear the gloves until I wake up. But last night while I slept I took the gloves off and itched my hands until they bled. I must have shouted because Mum came in. She is smaller than she used to be. At least it seems this way. She wears no makeup and her hair is never done. I’ve heard her say on the phone to my aunt or to you or to “24-hour” that the floor has caved. I don’t know why. Our floors are fine. She sat on my bed and as she does when I shout out, sang to me like when I was little. Once I was calm she checked the window. She told me there was nothing outside. It was after this she saw my hands. The blood on the duvet. She took me to the bathroom and held my hands under the tap. All the time she was muttering I knew this wouldn’t work, I told her, I told her it wouldn’t. To be clear. She meant you.

It’s now been two weeks. I’m in the sitting room. Mum’s in the kitchen on the phone again. So he’s ok? she’s saying, oh thank goodness, thank you for letting me know. I’ve got cottage pie on a tray on my lap. Mum didn’t make it because she never cooks anymore. I don’t eat it but instead stab my fork in over and over until it’s all messed up and the carton breaks. I turn on the TV. There’s a solar storm. It’s when the sun can’t hold its energy and lets it go in big angry bursts. I turn the volume up. There are explosions and white light. If one hit earth, a solar storm I mean, it would take out all power, no microwave meals, no TV, and Mum couldn’t talk on the phone. The world would go quiet except for car alarms. But when they stopped the peace would be giant. I wish one had hit earth as we’d have cancelled the barbeque and Marty wouldn’t have drunk and touched my mum.

I’m looking at the book you gave me. Animals of the Serengeti. I keep it on my bedside table with my gloves. I’ve learned about giraffes and hyenas. But my favourites are the elephants. When they die their families hurt like humans. They sniff their dead. They even have elephant funerals. Yesterday I took it outside. The garden was busy with birds. I lay for a while on the grass. I heard the school bus and an ice-cream van. Our neighbour was putting out the rubbish. They moved in three days ago, a man and woman. There was a van but not much came out of it. It was him putting out the rubbish. She was in the kitchen, the door open, the radio on. He shouted to turn it down so she threw something, a plate or mug I didn’t know. It smashed against the kitchen window. He went inside and shut the door. The music went off. So I tried clicking my tongue. Next I whispered my name. Then I said it loudly because this is what you told me to do. It was going really well until a cat sprang through the hedge. Even though I knew it was only a cat I threw a garden chair at it anyway and caught it on the head so that it whined loud enough for mum to hear. She sent me back into the house.

The sun makes me heavy. It’s strong orange and hot. Everything slides and sticks. There are flies that come in and settle on the fruit bowl, the bananas going brown, and on the bin. They crawl under my bedroom door and through the gap at the side. Then they fly and slam off the window. One gets in my water glass. I watch its wings go wild but I don’t take it out. I just watch until it stops moving. Mum brings me lunch, a tuna sandwich. She says I need to eat or I’ll get sick. I tell her I’m already sick. She tells me not to argue. When she leaves I peel the bread from the tuna. I take the crusts off, break them into pieces and feed them to the dead fly. You ring the doorbell. The sound is damp because of the heat. I hear you and Mum talk. You knock on my door and say, it’s time, but I say I’m too heavy, too hot. Mum says, get out here I’m paying for this. So next I’m on the sofa that sticks to my legs. You’re wearing big globe earrings that pull down your earlobes. Let’s try again, you say.

It’s now been a
month. This time we sit in the kitchen. The table is between us, on it some
biscuits and mugs of tea. One of the mugs is mine, it’s from San Francisco and
has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. In red letters it says “Stay Golden” but
the glaze on the “t” has cracked so it reads “Say Golden” instead. I don’t
drink tea but I like to pretend I do. You know this so you pour me some. Then
you ask me how I am and I say fine. You say ok and write something in your
book. Next you want to know if there’s anything specific I’d like to talk about
and I shrug, which makes you smile a thin smile. So we sit not talking until
you say ok again and reach for your bag. You pull out a toy traffic light and
put it on the table. You want to ask some questions using the light, you say, I
can press each colour so they flash. I’m to answer red, orange or green. Red is
bad, orange ok, green good. How was your morning? Green. Have you been
practicing saying your name out loud? Green. Can you tell me how you’re feeling
right now? Orange. How different is this to yesterday? Green. That’s good. Then
you pause. You do this before the harder questions. And how different is this
to what happened at the barbeque? Red. Red red red.

It’s five a.m. The sky is huge and silent. I see the shape of hedges and the garden chair, the one I threw, still on its side. A light is on next door. The window above the patio. I think it’s their bedroom but it might not be. The curtains are open and the man is standing there. It looks like he’s crying. His shoulders shudder hard. He’s also talking nonstop and fast. I can’t see the woman so it might be to himself. But then the light goes off. At lunchtime, he’s talking to Mum by our hedge. She nods then points at me. I’m lying on a blanket on the grass. The sun is firing, stinging my skin. He disappears then reappears again through our back door. He smiles at me. He has a cracked tooth right in the middle of his mouth. I point this out. He smiles more widely and makes a funny whistling sound by poking his tongue through the gap. I laugh. Mum says he’s called Jim and he’s a doctor. She sounds very pleased about this. He says sorry about the plate throwing the other day, his wife was stressed. He tips his head and sighs. My mum sighs. Then he says to me, I hear you’ve been through a lot too. I raise an eyebrow at Mum who won’t look at me but instead offers Jim a cup of tea.

Today
is my birthday. I have cake and thirteen candles. My presents are a book about the
Amazon, a watch, and a pair of yellow slippers. The book I like a lot, the
tropical birds, the giant rivers. The slippers I put on until my feet get
sweaty. I didn’t ask for the watch. Mum weeps but I know it isn’t joy. Around
midnight I hear her on the phone. It’s “24-hour”. Her voice is all gluey. It hurts,
she’s saying, it still hurts so much, I just want it to stop.

Last night the bleeding was bad. Mum took me to wash my hands then when the blood had stopped, dried them and put the cream and gloves back on. She sat on my bed and held me. She smelled of perfume. She was wearing a shirt with roses and a skirt. Jim’s here, she said, why don’t you come out? I shook my head. We’re just chatting, she said, he needs a break sometimes. I shook my head again so she left the room. We’re here if you change your mind, she said. I turned to my light and watched the shadows. In the corner by my desk something moved. Its shadow grew up the wall then went away again. From the kitchen Mum laughed and then Jim did. The shadow came back on the wall and got bigger, round and bristly, and it moved when I did. From the kitchen there was soft music. Mum and Jim talking also soft. He didn’t mean anything, I heard her say, he’s an old friend, he was drunk. She’s a clever girl, she then said, but this has been hard. I sat up, my eye still on the shadow. It grew giant over the door and made my room go dark. I got out of bed and ran into the kitchen where I screamed so hard my ears popped.

You come when you
hear. Mum called. She doesn’t know what to do anymore. She thinks I should go
away somewhere with better help than her. She said this after she found me in
the bath. I was holding my breath underwater but I must have passed out as she
was shouting at me and I was choking. We go for a walk, we don’t normally, you
normally like to sit inside. But you say it might be good to leave the house
and give Mum some space. We go to the park. I’ve not been for a while. It feels
strange but also good. It’s the afternoon. The sun’s behind dark clouds. We sit
on the swings. The playground’s empty. It’s before school ends when kids come
to kiss or fight. I tell you this. You ask how it makes me feel. I shrug. I’ve
not been to school in two months. I threw potassium the size of my fist in some
water during chemistry. It blew out half a desk and blinded my teacher for a
bit in one eye. I didn’t mean to do it but they said I couldn’t go back. A lady
walks past with her baby in a buggy. It’s crying its lungs raw and she’s
singing Twinkle Twinkle, but the baby still cries and cries. I jump up and run
over, ignore you telling me to stop, and sing the song my mum sings to me. It’s
a lullaby, an old one from America, Bright
morning stars are rising, day is a-breaking in my soul
. I sing it very
softly. I lean in to the baby. It has tiny black eyes. We look at each other. I
keep singing quietly and it goes quiet too. I watch its eyes close. Its mother
starts to cry. Thank you, she says, I’d gone crazy. You’re behind me then and
place a hand on my shoulder. Let’s go home, you say.

Jim says he also likes elephants. We’re in the garden, just him and me. He says he wants to talk, that he’s a friend of Mum’s, friends only, and he’d like to be mine too. They are very majestic, he says. I tell him they hurt like we do. Then I tell him about my book. He says he’d like to see it so I say he can borrow it if he wants to. He is round at our house a lot, sometimes because Mum asks for help with something, to fix a tap or put up new shelves. But other times there doesn’t seem to be a reason. They also protect their family over anything else, he says. And they hear with their feet. I laugh. We look at Jim’s house. The windows are shut even though it’s July. It’s difficult to live like this, he says, I thought moving might help. I ask why his wife is angry. He looks at the grass and picks a blade. Our son was run over, he says. The driver didn’t stop. He was six. He flicks the blade and picks another. The sun is like an egg yolk. The sky is white with no clouds. My dad left, I say, a few months ago. Just walked out. We don’t know why or where he is. Jim nods. He smiles a half smile. Your mum told me, he says. You must be angry yourself. I shrug. I’m angry, he says, it’s ok to be. It’s ok to miss them too. I pick a blade of grass. Then I think about you saying I need to talk about it. I think about Marty and what I did. I put a man’s hand on a barbecue, I say. And it burned and burned.

We’re sitting in the kitchen again. You’re making good progress, you say. I eat a biscuit then another and another. Perhaps you’d like to talk about what you told Jim, you say. I say maybe, but not today. Later, after you’ve gone I go into the garden. It’s evening but the heat is still close on my skin. Next door is silent and the lights are all off. Jim and his wife must be out. Mum has gone shopping, she said she’d only be an hour, I could call her if she needed to come home. I’ve got my Amazon book but I don’t want to read. I don’t even want to look at the pictures. Instead I start crying and it gets louder and louder and I think the whole street can probably hear. I don’t care though and throw the chair again. It clatters on the paving and I kick it then hard, then again and again until my foot gets caught. I try to free it and something snaps. The pain is sharp and very sudden. I lose my balance and my head hits the floor and I bite my tongue and there is blood. Then things seem to darken until after a while, Mum is there. She’s holding me and crying. I say, I think I’ve broken it, and point to my ankle. She says, I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, and takes out her phone. Next we’re in Jim’s car. I watch streets and people pass. It’s not far, he says, it just looks like a sprain and your head will only need a small stitch. He smiles at me in the rear-view mirror. Do you know elephants can recognise themselves, he says. I bet your book doesn’t tell you that.

The sun goes from
yellow to pink. There is dew on the grass and some dandelions. A bird lands, picks
at something then flies away. I’m sat by my window. I’ve been here a while. Mum
is asleep in my bed. It might be better, she said when we got back from the
hospital, though I think she just wants to be close. I stand up and it hurts
but I stay standing anyway. When you’re ready, you’d said yesterday, you should
just try. I open the window and wait.




The Skills of My Brother

Picture Credits: saulhm

The night
when Bernie sewed up the gash in my leg – that’s when it all changed. I
remember his hands all bloody in the fringed circle of lamplight. My leg
stretched out, the flesh glaring white but oozing a singing line of scarlet. In
his neat fingers, the needle rose high and then dropped down, pierced my flesh.

Bernie, I
said. No. No. We could have driven to the hospital. We could.

Bernie
doesn’t look up, just supports the flesh of my calf with one hand, as the other
hand tugs the thread tight. The sting of it fires through my whole leg and I
jerk back. But still he sends the needle down again, hesitates for a moment,
letting it hover, making sure to get it in just the right spot.

Driven? Ralph,
we’ve been through all this.

I clench my
teeth tight. He is right. We argued long and bitterly outside in the yard, went
through all the possible options as I stood dripping blood. He is right about
the van. It’s more than forty minutes to Hereford hospital and we are both far
gone in whisky. I shudder as the needle prods my shinbone.

 A taxi, I say.

But we’ve
been through that one as well. Neither of us has ever been in a taxi, don’t
know how it works. Bernie would never pay anyone to drive him. It’s not a
question of money, he’s got plenty of that, but why would you pay when you can
drive yourself? As Bernie pulls the thread tight again, I cling to the chair.

There is a
taxi, I say.

Is there? Where?

In Boshop. I’ve
heard talk.

Oh yes,
Bernie says, stopping for a minute to adjust the thread. As he moves, the
lamplight shines dully on the bald patch beginning to show through his grey-black
hair. Belongs to that bloke Emlyn as plays in the brass band. You know him? Right,
well. Saturday night. He’ll be soaked in drink far worse that we are, won’t he?

That’s the
problem with my brother Bernie. He’s got an argument for everything. So even
when he says – now come on, Ralphie, it’s no problem. It won’t take a moment. I
can stitch it up with my eyes shut. Even though you know it isn’t true, you
don’t say it.

Instead you
let him sit you down in the chair by the fire. And you watch him as he gets out
Mother’s sewing tin, brings the little side table over with the fringed lamp
on. Got to have good light, he says. And I say – don’t you need a towel? A
tarpaulin?

No, he says.
No. Get on with you. There won’t be more than a drop.

Except now
there is a stream. It gets all over the glass as Bernie pours me another
whisky. The needle rises again. I should never have let him. It will lead to no
good. Just because he rewired both the farmhouse where he lives and this cottage.
He may be able to stitch up an injured cow but still he needs to know his
limits.

Damn, Bernie
says as he wipes at the blood thick needle with his handkerchief. Should have
put my reading glasses on before I started. Now he’s got the needle clean he’s
ready to start again.

Ambulance, I
say. It’s not too late to call an ambulance. Please.

Now? No
point now. We’re nearly done.

I brace my
back against the chair as the needle goes down.

 You are a fool, Ralph, he says. Why did you
have to slice it right here? For look, don’t you see, it’s right on the ridge
of the shin. Got to pull the skin together extra tight.

I don’t dare
open my mouth or I’ll cry out. I might like to say that the particular fence as
was the cause of this wound is one that Bernie built. And I’m not saying he
can’t build a good fence. But he wanted to save money and so he put in a strand
of barbed wire and that’s how we come to be where we are now.

My voice
squeaks – could have asked the Bakers.

They are the
farm opposite, half a mile away. But there isn’t any point in discussing it for
Bernie fell out with them a long time back – something to do with a man they
paid for tarmacking who didn’t do it right – and so we don’t speak. Bernie
sighs, tugs on the thread. My whole leg is burning hot as a furnace.

Also, it’s
the problem of your skin, Bernie says. It ent no good now. You never did have
firm, taut skin. Mother always said so. And now look, at your age, it all
begins to give way. All flakey, won’t hold the thread.

Dear God. Dear
God.

Yeah. I
know. I know. But there no point you hollering on. I got to stitch over several
times to get it to stay together. For Christ’s sake, Ralph. Grow up. It’s only
a needle and thread.

And overall,
I have to say, he does it pretty quick. Because that’s how my brother is. Two
years younger than me, a full foot shorter and only half as wide but nimble and
brisk. A man that can do any job. That’s what Mother always said. Thank God
we’ve one in the family.

Later he
tears up old sheets to strap the wound and then makes us both tea, mops up the
blood. But I’m so far gone with the whisky that I’m singing Onward Christian
Soldiers fit to bust my lungs then wailing like a baby. God help me, God help
me. However has it come to this?

Ralph. Ralph.
You don’t half make a fuss. Not a word of gratitude. Always the same. You know
right well. I always say. I would have gone off now, gone abroad somewhere,
seen something of the world but I never could, could I? Because there was
always you to look after, wasn’t there?

*

After that
night things didn’t look different, not at all. I get the cows in, mix the
feed, fill the water troughs, drive the tractor, dig the potatoes. The days are
short and bleak, the sky low, the rain sludging the whole yard so your boots
make a sucking noise as you walk through. Come on Ralph, could you get on a bit
faster? Could you get those bales lifted down?

It doesn’t
look different but it is. Because I’m thinking. Thinking all the time, working
things out. Maybe it’s the roaring pain in my leg that is the cause. Well
course it’s going to hurt, Bernie says. What do you expect? If they’d done it
in the hospital it would hurt the same.

But when it is
still paining me bad after a week he does get some antiseptic cream. Only
because he’s got to go into Bishop’s Town to get some diesel and the chemist
there happens to be next the garage. But still I’m grateful as he never done
anything of that kind before.

The
antiseptic helps but I’m still thinking. Bernie and me together always, inherit
the farm from my parents, he take the farmhouse itself and I the cottage. Mother
said it must be so, seeing as Bernie could be relied on for any job and I could
not. And so he does all the jobs and does them well. Not as well as he thinks
but certainly not bad. I will say that.

But now I’m
thinking and thinking, planning. The problem is he doesn’t know where his limit
is. He’s got to be stopped for his own good and for mine. Occasionally I get
out the Yellow Pages, just to look at it. Run my fingers down the paper, just
looking at the adverts there. Time to change things, with the spring coming on.
All I need is a plan.

*

It should be
easy, that’s what I figure. Being on a farm must help. Farms are known to be
dangerous places what with all the machinery and the equipment, not to mention
the animals. Also Bernie has a shot gun, always has had, and no licence either
so whatever happens there is really his fault. Many die on farms.

I begin with
the simple stuff. He got an electric fire on a shelf above the bath. Should be
easy enough to dislodge that. I often go in his house, he in mine. Only got to
say I forgot something on this shelf here. Just lean over while he’s in the
bath. Elbow nudge the fire, in it goes, job done. But the problem is I forgot
to check the length of the lead. Very short, it is. So the fire just dangles
there above the water. Oh damn and blast.

I consider
getting the lead lengthened and trying again but that may be too obvious. The
gun is a better bet, I reckon. Block the barrel. I take it one night when
Bernie is far gone in whisky. I do the job carefully. Bernie would be proud of
me. I don’t just wedge any lump of wood in it. I cut and shape a piece carefully
so it fits the barrel, tight as a cork in a bottle.

I have to
wait a week or two until he goes out with the gun after the rabbits. Then I
watch him from the kitchen window going down the field, low and sunk close to
the earth, walking very quiet. He raises the gun. Oh no, I think. Oh yes, now. Get
him now, I think.

And then
comes the most almighty bang, blasting against the sides of the valley,
exploding up into the colourless sky. And birds rise up from the trees,
squawking, for miles around. But when the smoke clears he ent dead. On no. He
dancing around the field, merry as the devil hisself, fingers blackened and
burnt, eyes red and running but do he mind? Not at all.

You’ll have
to get a new gun, I say. I want at least that satisfaction. That he should
spend some of all that cash he got hidden in a Tupperware box in the freezer. But
oh no, he say. No problem at all. I can fix it, I can fix it.

Fix it? How
you fix that?

I just chop
the end off the barrel. Always better with a shorter barrel anyway, I always
thought. And so he does. A fine job he makes of it. I watch him and consider my
options. What I need perhaps is to put some explosives down the gun, a charge
of dynamite. I manage to get hold of the right stuff. Blasting out the root of
a tree, that is what I say. But unfortunately it goes off in my kitchen when
I’m trying to get it down the barrel.

Ralph,
Ralph. For Christ sake, what happened?

The walls
black, the window out, a hole in the shelf above the sink.

Fault on the
electrics, I say.

Oh Ralph,
for Christ’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t do the electrics
yourself. You’re no good at it. Let me do it. You know that.

And so it
goes on. And I keep trying. That’s the thing about Bernie and me. When we start
on a course, we don’t turn aside. That’s what we learnt from Mother. So when
he’s in the bullpen I slip the latch closed. The fence around over six foot
high but still he’s up and out, lithe as a monkey.

Sorry, I
say. Sorry. Just did the latch without even thinking.

Then after
that focus on the vehicles. Got to be easy that. Leave the tractor in reverse
gear on the edge of the bank. But no, he checks before he starts up. Disable the
circuit breaker on the chainsaw. But no. Problem with all this modern equipment
is there is a lot of Health and Safety to it. Makes it hard for someone like
me.

Then one day
I think – I have it all in my power now. We’re on the bank again, where it is
very steep, trying to move the trunk of a fallen tree. Bernie behind the
tractor, trying to attach the tree to the back. I’m driving the tractor, meant
to be pulling forward and up when he say. I’ll just slip the brake off, that’s
all. The tractor sure to go over the tree trunk and both go over him. Job done.

Oh yes, I
think. Oh yes. I have him now. The time has come, my boy. My hand pull the
brake off. The tractor lurch back. I jump out hop-skip-quick. The tractor
running fast back down the bank, hitting against the tree trunk. But did it get
him? No. He was too quick. Like a magician, just coolly standing at the side, watching
it all.

I see him
there and throw myself down on the bank in despair. Why does nothing work? The
worst of it is that if he wanted to finish me off he’d be able to do it just
like that. But me, I’m no good at practical work, never have been.

Ralph,
Ralph. Come on boy, he say. For Christ’s sake, don’t take on so. It were an
accident. I shouldn’t have asked you to do the tractor. I know you are no good
at it. But you don’t have to worry, boy. You could have killed me, but by the
mercy of God you didn’t. I’m here and I will help you. Maybe I does talk about
going away somewhere, going abroad. But you know I never will. I couldn’t do
it, could I? When you need me so bad.

He lay a
hand around my shoulder and pat me on the head. And the worst of it is I lay my
head against him. Damn, damn. That’s how it always was. And we sit there like the
two old fools that we are on the muddy bank with the tractor on its side down
below and the dog sitting next to us, whining and licking his lips, and
somewhere far away the sound of crows cawing, cawing high in the spring air.

*

Time is a
healer, they say, but personally I reckon him a judge. But you got to wait, you
got to be patient. That’s the lesson I learnt. It happened like this. Easter
comes and blowed in with it a great storm. It funnelled down the valley tearing
at the branches of trees, howling and whistling. Tiles went from the old
stables first. Bernie was much upset. He likes to have things shipshape. We
wait the day out but then the night comes and I lie awake listening. The wind
never drops, tugging and pulling, on and on.

The next day
comes and the wind is still shouting and raging. And now the rain comes down in
waves. The whole yard is awash. About midday Bernie comes down from the
farmhouse, arms waving, shaking his head, all lathered up. A whole section of
tiles come off the back of the farmhouse, he says, and the rain coming in
everywhere.

You must
come and help me, he says. It won’t take me a minute. I’ll have them back on in
no time at all.

No. No. I
say. Not in this wind. You must wait until the storm abate.

But he would
not hear of it and so we go out into the barn and find the tools. Tiles, wires,
hammer, ladder. Wait, wait, I say. Do not go up there now. But Bernie never
listen to me. And so I go out in the garden with him. The wind tear at my hat
and at the skin of my face. And already I’m thinking. What must I do? How can I
manage this to my advantage?

It is
regrettable the ladder is quite new with metal rungs, not a spot of rust. We’ll
see. We’ll see. I think. Too late now even to spread some margarine across the
rungs. We walks across the garden towards the farmhouse. I see then where the
tiles are off. The situation is not nearly as bad as he is saying. He could
easily wait but no, no he won’t.

He puts the
ladder up and I am to hold it. He goes up ahead of me and onto the roof, carrying
a bag on his back containing his tools. He goes up like a cat, lithe and
liquid, reaching the guttering in seconds, propelling himself up across the
roof. I wait and I wait. The whole valley is blown like cloth in the wind. My
hand rest light on the side of the ladder.

It takes him
nigh on two hours to get it all fixed to his satisfaction. Twice he comes down
for more tiles. He always does a job well, my brother. Or so he thinks. And all
the time I standing there, shaking now with cold and thinking, thinking. I
could just leave him up there, take the ladder. But no, no, I would not be rid
of him like that. That devil, he would find a drainpipe or such and shin down.

Are you
done? I call up.

Yep. Done
now. Very firmly fixed.

I think –
shall I? Shall I? The ladder is no weight. It could fall just like that. I see
his shadow high above me. He is down on his knees now, back facing towards me,
foot reaching towards the top rung of the ladder. But then, then. I did
nothing. Nothing at all. I promise you that.

I can’t
quite say. It might have been the wind. But also he didn’t have the ladder
secured properly. I see his foot reaching down, trying to find a rung. And then
a great gust of wind, and the ladder goes, and his foot waving and waving. And
I think then – I do not want him to die. No, I do not.

But he rolls
off awkward, turning a couple of times along the guttering, I see his hands grasping,
such competent hands. And I see him for a moment, spread like a black star
against a grey sky, but then I jump back for fear he will fall on me. He meets
the grass, head first and is spread out heavy, flat on his back.

When I
realize he is dead, my knees go from under me and I kneel beside him on the sodden
grass. He is certainly dead – his eyes are open and glassy, his arm twisted
awkwardly under him, his mouth stiffly open, ready to issue an instruction
which will never now be heard. I bow my head, shout out loud. It cannot be that
he is gone. I never wanted him gone. What will I do now? I need him so bad.

I leave him
there, walk back to my cottage, drink a glass of whisky, then another. After
that make some tea. I get out the Yellow Pages and thumb through it. My hands
stroke down the thin paper of each page. Adverts for plumbers, for carpenters,
for electricians, for garages to fix the car. I got the money as well. I know
where it all is. That there Tupperware in the freezer.

I think then
of calling one of those numbers and I think of the man who will come. I can
stand out in the yard and issue instructions. He may not do the job as well as
Bernie would have done. That I know. But still it will be a pleasure just to
watch him, to feel the money in my pocket, to pay him and have him gone.

I think of
that awhile. Then I put on my coat and go out again. I owe it to Bernie to
treat him proper. I find a sheet and a needle and thread. As I open the tin I
notice stains of dried blood on the edge of it. He was always bound to
overstretch himself. It is a shame for such a competent man not to have secured
the ladder better.

I pull
Bernie in through the back door of the farmhouse, take off his boots, and get
him laid on the sheet. And it’s only then I remember something. I don’t know
why I never thought of it before. It was something Mother said once when I was
sewing a button on. You sew better than Bernie, she said, but only quietly and
perhaps because he wasn’t there to hear.

I do sew
better than him, neater, the stitches all the same length. I stitch him in precisely
using a double thread for strength and oversewing when the thread runs out, to
make sure nothing unravels. Then afterwards I get the sewing scissors and cut
all the ends off neatly. Then I head out into the yard and get the little
digger. There is a good spot for him outside the yard wall. Gone abroad. That’s
what I’ll say.

I dig the hole
down deep and put him in. He was a good brother to me, a capable man. I wonder
if I might move into the farmhouse now. There are fitted cupboards there, properly
built, each angle an absolute right angle, the doors fitting snug shut. I am
not sure about the wiring there. It’s never a good idea to do wiring yourself. I’ll
get a man in to sort it out. I think I shall manage quite well.




A fairly weathered friend

Cassey’s hair
is encrusted with hairspray that I can smell from two tables away. Her pink
nails are at least a centimetre too long and click against the taught leather
of her clutch. It’s black, with diamantes glinting along the silver clasp. I
hate everything about this woman.

“Happy
birthday!” My enthusiasm sounds genuine and I throw my arms around her. We bump
breasts and cheeks and pull back quickly. Her eyes scan my face – skin kept pale
out of Sydney’s summer sun, black mascara, long earrings. She keeps looking,
searching for something that isn’t there anymore, but smiles at the same time,
keeping a polite pace to the conversation.

“Thank you! I’m
so glad you came. Here, do you know everyone?”

I glance around
the table. Her clones are already a bottle or two deep in prosecco.

“Of course, hi
everyone!”

They shriek
back their greetings, their eyes traveling down my indistinct black top to my
jeans and, most astonishing of all, flat shoes. But it’s a birthday! I can almost hear their brains frying with the
confusion.

“Grab a glass,
there’s plenty of bubbly left,” Cassey says, too busy being the centre of
attention to hand me one herself.

“Thanks, but I’ll
go to the bar.”

Someone shrieks
and I presume it is about what I said, until they all raise their hands and
start singing. A song about chandeliers. I leave them to it.

While I wait in
line at the bar, the words of the song grow familiar. Blowing off the cobwebs
of repressed trauma, I think. The most traumatic thing these women have seen is
lipstick where it shouldn’t be.

The bar is long
and heavily staffed, and I place my order quickly. A whiskey, specifying its
Irishness, and soda. He doesn’t blink, just turns to the cascade of bottles
behind him. My reflection in the mirror is partly obscured by spirits with colourful
labels, but my paleness stands out in the sea of fake tan around me. Even the
man beside me, his arms bulging through a polo shirt a size too small, is a
strange orange colour. He grins at me, an instinct he quickly corrects when I
don’t respond. He has better luck with the woman on his other side.

I pay and
return to the table, where someone has bought two more bottles of prosecco. The
empties rattle in their metal buckets, and the table is slick with condensation
from the glasses. Someone is telling a story, something about a dodgy phone
contract. The topic seems unusually dull, even for this audience. Cassey’s eyes
are wide as she nods in sympathy, but her expression becomes glazed when the
story continues for longer than anticipated.

“You had
problems with your phone, didn’t you Cassey—” someone interrupts, reaching a
heavily manicured hand across the damp table “—in Fiji? Didn’t they charge you
some exorbitant amount?”

“Oh they tried,”
Cassey flicks the hair off her neck, as though priming for a fight. Everyone
giggles. “As if Matty would let them get away with that.”

“Finally, that
law degree coming in handy!”

Everyone
laughs, and she basks in the reflected glow of her competent, and
highly-qualified, boyfriend. Her eyes meet mine, and linger. I raise my arm and
take a long, slow taste of my drink. The short tumbler sits among their
towering glasses like a frog among flamingos. I run a chiselled nail along the
condensation on the table, then flick the water off.

“So, Peta, what
are you up to these days?” Their faces swivel to look at me for the obligatory
small talk. I sit straighter, lengthening my collarbone as though pleased to
partake. There is a grease stain on the right thigh of my jeans. Mayonnaise
must have slipped from my sandwich on the train without me realising.

“I’m doing my
PhD.”

Someone should
study groups like this. It is a strange phenomenon watching eight women lose
interest simultaneously, their deadened expressions as well-matched as their
stilettos.

“Weren’t you
doing that last year?” someone asks. She has aquamarine nails.

“Yes, it takes
a few years.” The last three of Cassey’s birthday parties have included this
conversation. I wait for someone to ask what the topic is, and decide that this
year I will give the extended answer. I shouldn’t talk down to them, after all,
as though they were imbeciles. But no one asks.

“Where are we
going next?”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

“Charlie’s!”

The chorus is almost
harmonised and they laugh. A group of men, including my polo-shirted friend
from the bar, pass by, and holler their approval.

“I didn’t know
we were going anywhere else,” I say. Cassey can pretend not to hear me from the
other end of the table. Her hand is on the downy forearm of a bloke with teeth
that gleam despite the darkness. The woman with aquamarine nails answers me
instead.

“Charlie’s is
having a two-for-one night on bottles of prosecco, plus the DJ is a friend of
Matt’s.” She stops talking suddenly, as though confused by her own words.

“Jackson is
playing?”

“Yes, I think
so.” She turns to the woman next to her as though needing to confirm the name,
but it is clear she wants to avoid seeing me digest the information. Jackson is
Matthew’s best friend. He and Matthew wore matching footy shirts when they went
clubbing. Matthew told me he wore it ironically. I liked that he cared enough
about my opinion to lie, it seemed like a good sign.

Cassey has
released the arm of the man, though he winks at her as he leaves. She turns
back to the table and fans herself with her hands, blowing through her lips as
though she is suddenly too hot.

“Gee – zus,”
she says, and everyone giggles.

“Oh as if you’d
be tempted!” someone shrieks, and slops wine out of her glass with the
excitement. “Not with dear darling Matty waiting for you at home!”

Cassey stops
her playacting and smirks, satisfied that her friends are suitably jealous.

“Where is home,
these days?” I ask. What I mean is, are you still living in the flat I helped
him find? Are you still sleeping on sheets that we fucked on first? But there
is something in her continued smirk that makes me realise her answer is better
than that.

“We’ve bought a
house, over in Franklin.”

“It’s gorgeous!”
someone adds, drawing out the word like she could wrap it around the house and
carry it away with her.

“Amazing pool,”
aquamarine lady says.

“Thanks to
Matt!”

I imagine him
in the backyard in the dusty flat suburb they chose because it’s where families
live, sweating through his t-shirt as he digs and digs, building her a pool.
Except, of course that’s not what they mean. They mean he paid for it.

“Sounds nice,”
I say. My whiskey is finished and I want another one, but not if we’re moving
on. Cassey will expect me to come with her and her gaggle. I was always the
leader on our nights out. Every Thursday night for years ended with me dragging
her to just one more bar. We would trip through doorways, giggling, delighting
at the surprise our disparate appearances had on the crowds. We were above the
superficiality of a well-matched friendship. We liked each other because we loved each other, not because of some inconsequential
interests that made us compatible.

“More bubbles!”
All the bottles are empty but there is no point staying, so everyone collects
bags then we sit without drinks while someone goes to the bathroom and returns
with freshened lipstick.

Outside, the
night is too warm, a heat that rises from the ground to meet its brother
descending from the sky, trapping us in between. There is sweat behind my knees
and I wish I wasn’t in jeans. The women around me are fresh in their short
dresses, bare legs skipping with ease through the heavy air. Everyone wants to
be near Cassey, which means I can hang back. I know the bar we’re going to –
Charlie’s! – and have no desire to get there quickly. Seeing Jackson again is a
feature of this night that I can do without.

A few groups
are at the small tables. Cassey has reserved space for ten people, and the
bartender waves us towards a collection of odd-sized tables that have been
shoved together in the middle of the main space. I go straight to the bar and
get myself a whiskey, then, because I’m feeling generous or lost or perhaps a
bit of both, I buy two bottles of prosecco as well.

My eyes probe
the dark corners of the room as I wait, but the DJ desk is empty and Jackson is
no where to be seen. The music is that electronic pop which is everywhere now,
and sounds generic in places like this when it loses all its distinguishing
features under the squeals of birthday revellers.

I deposit the
bottles on the table, but only aquamarine seems to notice. She says thank you
as she starts pouring, and there are a few vague smiles thrown in my general
direction, but no one wants to be beholden for the next round. The whiskey here
is rougher and burns like cigarette ash rather than a wood fire. My whiskey
pretention only arrived after Matthew left me, but it has blossomed into
full-blown fervour since then. He would have ordered me a Jack Daniels and I
would have drunk it with ease, but not anymore.

“Does Matt know
his girl is out looking like a total bombshell?” Jackson swoops over to the
table and Cassey disappears into a bear hug, though I can hear her shriek from
under his chest. He steps back and surveys the group; his eyes rest on me. “Oh,”
he says, and everyone watches as he tries to control his reaction. “Hi, Peta.
Long time.” And then, catching himself, he strides over and hugs me too. His
cologne is the same as Matthew used to wear. “How are you?”

“Fine, I’m
doing my PhD.” It is the only thing worth reporting about my life. “How are
you?” I ask, as it becomes clear he has no reaction to my information.

“Great.” He
wiggles his hand at me, and it takes a moment before I see the ring. “Married Elle
last month.”

“Congratulations.”
He and Elle got together at the same time as Matthew and I, and those first
months of shared dates hover between us.

“I’d better get
to work. Any song you want, tonight, Cass!” He bellows at Cassey as he leaves.
I’m too hot, sitting at the end of the table, furthest from the door and its
fresh air. My whiskey is almost gone, already. The lights start pulsing in time
to the first song Jackson spins. There is a shouted conversation happening
around me but I can’t hear enough of it to join in. My heart is beating too
fast. I force myself to breathe slowly, regularly, out of time to the music.
Some of the women are dancing already. I get myself another whiskey, and when I
return my head tunes in to the conversation, finally. It’s about Jackson’s
wedding, and Matthew’s best man speech.

“Jackson will
have a lot to live up to when it’s his turn!” aquamarine squeals, and everyone
laughs. My breathing stops again, like I’m relying on a faulty machine with a
mind of its own.

“When Matty
finally asks, you mean,” Cassey shouts, and it’s a joke and everyone laughs but
there is something spiky about her all of a sudden. Her eyes are on mine as she
fills her glass with cheap yellow bubbles.

“Jackson and
Elle have been together longer,” aquamarine says, and eyes swivel to me as
though I stole the first year of Cassey’s relationship. My whiskey is finished
again, already, and I tap the tumbler against the table. Someone, surely,
should buy me a drink. A song starts, Aretha Franklin but with a different beat
that suits the dark and the lights and the dancefloor. The table empties and
the women are wiggling, just barely in time. I stay where I am, wishing there
was table service.

“You know,”
Cassey appears in the seat next to me. Her forehead is shining, she was always
a sweaty dancer. “I’m glad you came tonight.”

“I always come
to your birthdays.”

“I know.” She
burps, suddenly, but doesn’t seem to notice. “Except for that first year.”

I grab a bottle
of prosecco and empty it into my whiskey glass. “You mean the year I lost my
boyfriend and my best friend? Yeah, I wasn’t much up for partying that year.”
The bubbles catch in my throat. Aretha has been joined by George Michael.

“You didn’t
have to lose either of us.” Her hand comes down to mine, it’s sticky from the
sweet alcohol. “You and Matty weren’t right for each other, not romantically,
you know that. But we could have stayed friends. We should have stayed better
friends.”

Someone is
calling for Cassey to join them on the dancefloor but she waves them away. She is
still an emotional drunk.

“Why would we
stay friends? We have nothing in common.”

Except Matthew,
of course.

“That never
mattered to us.”

I don’t know
which “us” she is talking about – her and Matthew, or me and her?

My glass is
empty again. Aquamarine is back at the table suddenly, bottles clasped in her
hands. She fills our glasses. “I’m glad you switched!” she yells, as she tops
up my tumbler with bubbles. I drink, and it tastes like metal. Cassey has
disappeared into the messy mass of the dancefloor. I am glad not to have to
talk anymore. I come to these things to keep one point of contact going – so
she can see I am okay, so that I will know when they finally get married. But I
can’t talk about why we don’t speak on any other day of the year.

“It’s great you
came!”

I didn’t
realise that aquamarine was still sitting beside me. Her glass is clasped in
two hands, like something precious she needs to protect.

“I come every
year,” I say again. Why is that so hard for people to remember?

“Yes, but this
year especially. It’s good that you came.” Her lips are all wet and wobbly, and
I realise she is on the verge of tears. My glass thumps back to the table as I
look around for a distraction. “She hasn’t been out in months, you know. Not
since her mother’s diagnosis.” Her voice pitches and rolls with emotion and
alcohol. “She is so dedicated and so selfless, it’s just really good she gets
this night out.”

I stand,
knocking against the table. “Toilet,” I say.

The toilets are
grimy and along the sinks are discarded glasses with drenched limes huddled in
the bottom. I wee, then stand at the sink for too long. My face warps in the
dark mirror and I am suddenly five years younger, waiting for Cassey to finish
throwing up in the cubicle behind me. “Hurry up,” I’m yelling, but she is still
retching.

“You go,” she manages
to say between heaves, and I consider leaving, but then there is a knock on the
door and Matthew is there.

“Are you two
ready?” he is asking, and I yell again at Cassey to hurry up. He blinks at me,
like he is seeing my reflection in a funhouse mirror. He disappears, and is
back minutes later with a glass of water which he pushes under the cubicle
door.

“Thank you,”
Cassey’s voice is weak and pathetic. Last week, that was me, and she got me
water. I grab Matthew’s hand.

“Let’s dance,”
I say but still he looks at me like he has never seen my true shape before.

“Cassey,” he
says, ignoring me and tilting his head closer to the graffitied cubicle door. “I’m
going to stay right here, let me know when you’re ready to go and I’ll get us a
taxi.”

And I am blinking
in the mirror trying to remember why I had wanted to leave my best friend alone
in a club toilet and why that made Matthew see me differently, truthfully, my
stubborn selfish streak suddenly exposed. And from then on he was with Cassey
and her vomity selflessness.

I return to the
table but everyone is dancing. I finish my glass of bubbles and push my way
onto the dancefloor. I grab aquamarine’s arm as she raises it to do the Y in
YMCA. “What diagnosis?” I yell into her ear. It takes a minute for the words to
filter through the alcohol and noise. She yells back, and I see Cassey watching
us. I push through more bodies until I am next to her. “Your mum is sick?” I
yell into her ear. She doesn’t stop dancing and her shoulder bumps into me as I
lean closer. She flicks the hair off her neck and shrugs. “I didn’t know,” I
yell, and she shrugs again. Jackson is watching us, his head moving with jerks
to the beat of Destiny’s Child. “I didn’t know!” I yell again, but she still
doesn’t respond, and there is nothing for her to say. Would I have acted
differently tonight if I had known? She doesn’t know, and neither do I, really.
I am probably still the woman who leaves her friend behind. Matthew chose the
kind woman, and it is only in the heat of the dancefloor as Cassey shakes her
shoulders in a terrible shimmy that I realise he is a better man for that
decision. I put my hand on her arm and yell, again, “I’m sorry!” But she
doesn’t want to talk. She takes my hand off her arm and holds it in the air.
Jackson is still watching and I wonder what he will report back to Matthew. I
drop my arm around her shoulders and we raise our free arms high, our lungs
opening as we bellow the lyrics to a song I haven’t heard in years. Her long
nails flash through the dark and I am enveloped in the smell of her hairspray.
It is familiar as my childhood bedroom.

Hours later,
when the music has ended and Jackson has left, we stand on the street outside.
I am drenched, my jeans feel like I have waded through a river. Cassey is
fanning herself with her clutch, the diamantes spit and sparkle at me.

“Did you have a
good night?”

“Yes,” she
says. She tries to look at me steadily but her feet stumble and she throws an
arm out. “You can go, if you like. Matty will be here soon to get me.” Her
friends have migrated to the pizza kiosk down the block. I don’t want to see
Matthew. I don’t want to see her climbing into his car. I don’t want to see
whatever greeting they have for each other.

“Maybe,” I say.
She staggers again. A man with a ripped t-shirt whistles and his friends roar.
I hold her arm. “It’s fine, actually. I’ll stay.”

Her arm loops
through mine and it’s warm and sticky. She is everything I hate in the world, but
that is nothing to do with who she is. So many nights out together, and so few
ended like this: me standing here, waiting with her.

I know it’s
Matthew’s car before I see him in the driver’s seat. He pulls up in front of us
and shows no reaction at seeing me there. “See,” I want to say. “I can be a
good person.” I help her into the car.

“Thanks Peta,”
he says, and clasps Cassey’s hand as they drive away.




Divorce

Picture Credits: Jeff Balbalosa

My husband tells me he isn’t going to try medication. A
doctor or therapist isn’t going to help. He tells me that he will exercise away
his depression. That’s what fueled his running for all those years, once for
more than 500 days in a row. His knees are bad now, but the bike has been good.
He just needs to get a new one, he tells me, though he doesn’t like the guys at
the bike shop.

I remember the late nights when we are living in New
York City ten years before. How I sometimes wake up to him panicked and angry.
How I feel a rush of panic, too, my chest tightening, saying anything I can to
get him back into bed. Sometimes it works. We curl back up into each other and
tuck under the covers. I kiss his tears. Others, I listen to him leave – heavy down
the steps, front door slamming, out of the building and into the nighttime
street. Still other times, I hear him come home late, clumsy from beer. Those
times I pretend to be asleep.

Now, ten years later in Baltimore, he gets a deal for a titanium
road bike online, but the disc brakes won’t line up properly. He finally takes the
bike to the bike shop, but their repair doesn’t hold. He comes home puffed full
of hot fury. He pulls the bike apart, and stuffs it all into garbage bags,
piece by piece. He drags the bags to the dumpster in the alley behind our
three-story Victorian townhouse.

My heart pounds. My words are scattershot. I can’t find
the right thing to say. I watch him throw away an expensive bike and, with it,
his promise of getting better.

That evening, I am still jittery. My socked foot slips
down the back staircase, those narrow, steep stairs built for servants in 1899.
As I fall, I hear my friend telling me she broke her wrist when her marriage
was ending. I land hard on my tailbone, bouncing down several more stairs. The
dishes I was carrying are now pieces around me. The bruises last for weeks.

Around this same time, I begin to sneak on to his
computer and read his emails when he showers. I know I have only about ten
minutes before he’s finished. When I hear the water stop and shower curtain slide
open, I hurriedly put his computer into sleep mode. I do this every day. I tell
myself that I want to be prepared for any bad news, for anything that will set
him off. I tell myself that I need time to figure out what to say to calm him
down. I tell myself that I need to be vigilant.

I start running. I run all over Baltimore. I run through
Remington, where the hipsters now live side-by-side with aging grandmothers,
and up into Roland Park, the genteel but now frayed neighborhood where I was
born. I run by my family’s old house on Woodlawn Road, with its dumbwaiter
inside and massive porch out front, where my brothers and I used to play hide
and seek, where my mother was happy. I find footpaths behind houses and barely-marked
trails along the creek. I run through the expansive campuses of the tony private
schools. I run around the buildings of Roland Park Country Day, over the
footbridge across Northern Parkway to Bryn Mawr. I time myself on Gilman’s
track.

I begin to pay attention to the huge trees behind Johns Hopkins.
I hear the notes of their leaves in the wind. I see dead branches high up,
ready to fall. As the road slopes and curves along a low, stone wall, my tears surface.
Sometimes they are quiet and gentle. Sometimes they blind me and I have to
stop, my throat aching and clogged.

Once, I see him park the car and walk into the house as
I finish a run. I turn back and do another loop. I am not ready to go home yet.

It is our Tuesday afternoon marriage counseling session.
My pouring tears warm my face and I tell him I am sorting myself out. I turn to
face him and finally I ask him directly, what are you doing? It has taken
months of courage to utter that question.

The therapist tells him that his silence is controlling.

Don’t follow him, the therapist tells me after he shouts
at her and leaves the room. She raises her hand. Let him go.

Later, I find him waiting for me in the parking lot, the
car idling.

At home, he sobs, hands to face, knees curled into his long
torso. I can’t go back there, he tells me. I kiss him. I stroke him. I hold
him. There are lots of other therapists we can try, I tell him. I’ll start
looking again in the morning, I say.

When I say those words to him, I believe I will find us
another marriage counselor, though the next day and the days and weeks after
that, I don’t even look.

Instead, I go to a lawyer a friend recommends. I visit apartments
where I might live. I buy an accordion file for all the papers. I am thin from
all my running. I wear my favorite grey trousers and a silk, orange blouse. I
wear heels. I wear bracelets, earrings, and a necklace. I tuck my blunt French
haircut behind my ears. I know that I am going to the movies right after I tell
him I want a divorce. Snow White and the
Huntsman
at the Movieplex.

Ten months pass, he has moved out, and we are not
divorced yet. He wants to talk. I suggest a time to phone. No, he texts. In
person. But I don’t want him in the house we fell in love with and bought
together all those years ago.

I tell him I will come over to his condo after I pick up
a refill of my cancer medication. I put on a fleece cap to keep my head warm in
the winter cold. My thick, brown hair fell out right on schedule, the
seventeenth day after my first round of chemo.

He now lives in the Mies van der Rohe building, which I
have always loved. Perfectly proportioned concrete floating in air. We sit at
the kitchen table that used to be in our kitchen.

He wants to talk about the end of our marriage. I know
that I am going to cut him off, but I wait. I want to hear more. It feels good,
the familiarity of his heartache and pain. It feels good, him needing me. I remember
the security and pleasure of comforting him. I recognize the false but easy confidence
of knowing what he needs, of thinking that I am right.

He begins to cry. If you can’t help me, no one can, he
says.

I pull off my hat, my head bare, and tell him that I
can’t. You know I am sick, I say. I can’t do this. His face reddens more. He says
he wishes he were there to help me.

I don’t tell him that he could quietly take the trash
barrels and recycling bins out and back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I don’t tell
him that he could bring over the heavy bags of cat litter I need every week. I
don’t tell him that he could shovel my walk and dig out my car when it snows.

Our divorce is scheduled for Valentine’s Day the following
year, a perverse irony of timing at the Baltimore County courthouse. I caption
a photo of Veuve Clicquot on Facebook, “this is what divorce looks like!” I open
the bottle with my new boyfriend.

Later in the spring, around the time the nighttime air
becomes fragrant, my now ex-husband texts, asking to call if I’m still awake. It
is one in the morning. Will I take him to the hospital? His girlfriend is out
of town. His friends are too drunk to drive. It doesn’t occur to me until much
later that he could have called an ambulance. Instead, when I hear his voice on
the phone, I feel the warmth of that old feeling. He needs me. I put on my
jacket and get into the car.

When I arrive at his building, he is already downstairs.
Standing but bent over. In the ER, I give the nurses his name and medical
history. I tell them he is allergic to latex but nothing else. I explain that
he has severe, crippling abdominal pain. I request more ice chips and another
blanket for his feet.

We talk about all the times we have cared for each other
in the hospital – his three knee surgeries, my two stapedectomies. When a moth
got trapped deep in his ear canal and all the curious doctors, nurses, and
orderlies came by to watch it get extracted.

The morphine calms the spasms of pain. It also loosens
him. He tells me things. His girlfriend is seventeen years younger than he is. He
feels like a kid again. They have fun. She is also a writer, but just
beginning. She wants children, but he’s not so sure.

I tell him that when we were together, I had been softening
to the idea of having a child. I tell him I was getting heady with the thought of
becoming a mother when we took that beach vacation to the Eastern Shore. I never
knew, he whispers back at me.

Neither of us mentions that this was the vacation he
threw everything into the car days before we were to leave, his pale skin
sunburnt, his mind enraged.

The doctors tell him his intestine is twisted. If it
doesn’t relax on its own, they will have to release it surgically. They give
him more morphine.

He tells me that he knows he must have been hard to live
with. He says that he was angry. He says that he always felt he should have
gotten more credit, more fame for his writing. He says that he knows this made
it difficult for me.

That afternoon, I run up a dirt path on the edge of the
park near my house, ducking under the low branches of the flowering trees. For
one week a year, their pink leaves blanket the ground, a slippery spring snow. My
toe catches on one of the large, exposed tree roots. I fall slowly and heavily
on my knee and my hand, then on my hip. I cry out and, once I land, I cry hard,
bruised and aching. To this day, my left knee feels a little weak.

After he is released from the hospital, he needs me to
sign one last batch of financial papers. The house is sold and I am leaving,
going to London for a year. The movers are coming today, I tell him. Come
within the hour, I say. I sign the papers and I ask him to help me put a few boxes
into my boyfriend’s SUV. I see that he is hiding his hurt and his irritation.

We carry my things down the stairs and to the street. As
we load the SUV, we are both careful not to scratch the leather.




Confession

It’s
Wednesday morning confession when the blonde steps into my box. She’s a halo of highlights and a contralto so low I feel
her in my chest. She says it’s her first time.

“Bless
me Father, for I have sinned.” She laughs a little and drums her nails against
the latticed screen of the confessional. Black, polished squares. “This is my
first confession and these are my sins,” she takes a breath. “I’ve wished for
the death of my neighbour. I’ve drunk too much. I told my friend she was
beautiful but she’s not. And sometimes, I think about killing myself. I think
about the ways I could do it.”

“Why
do you think about killing yourself?” She doesn’t strike me as the type.

“I
don’t feel like I belong in the world. Nothing makes sense.”

I’d
like to help her make sense, I think. I tell her not to do anything drastic.
She says okay. I absolve her, dole out five Hail Marys and tell her to come
back soon. She’s not sorry, that much I know. When she’s walking away, I crack
open the door of the box to get a good look as she slips out into the grey day.
She’s wearing a black dress that hits her somewhere between thigh and knee. Her
skin is tracing-paper white. No coat. She’s wielding a fancy cane and dragging
her left foot a little. She didn’t smell like the other women who come to my
box, pressed up against the screen, all tuberose and waxy makeup. She smelt
like a freshly struck match put out by the rain.

*

The
night is dark. Clouds are spitting rain between the stars. I leave my coat but
take the hat hanging on the hook beside the door and dump the box of white
communion wafers in my bag. The bike’s wheels skid on
the streets as I set out to hear sinners and deliver the body of Christ to
those who cannot make it to the church doors.

I
swerve to avoid animals skittering across my path. They appear out from under
cars and behind walls. The colours of the night are fat and full. The fox’s
coat is an auburn that’s too close to orange. A woman’s hand hangs out a window
holding a cigarette and the tip burns redder than the chipped polish on her
fingernails. I can smell bonfire smoke in the air.

Mrs
Zhang’s behind the first door. She’s pushing ninety and can barely breathe but
insists on pulling the sofa cushions onto the floor. “I wish they’d put out
those fires,” she says, dropping one knee and then another onto the stained
cushions. “Stupid boys.” Once she’s down there she confesses to calling her
daughter a slut and kicking the dog. I give her two Hail Marys even though I
know she wants more.

At
the Munro house, I’m up in the old lady’s room sitting by her bed. She tells me
she prays her family will move out and leave her alone to die in peace. I don’t
blame here, there’s four generations living in five rooms. Outside the bedroom
door one of the daughters corners me, “While you’re here, Father, would you
mind seeing the rest of us?” I say yes because I’m a soft touch and I like to
look at the youngest Munro. She’s sixteen. When she’s on her knees, I focus on
the black strap of her bra through the white-white of her school shirt and
think about the woman who wants to kill herself. I imagine drawing a blade
across a long blue line in the woman’s arm. The Munro girl says she stole
biscuits from the tin and blamed her brother. Usually, she tells me about
putting her hands on boys and the money she’s stolen for her “running-away
fund”. I’m grateful she’s making tonight easy for me. I hand out Hail Marys to
everyone and leave.

Next
up is old Bill and then I’m done. I knock the door but there’s no answer. No
Bill. No one. I give him communion once a week and he likes to tell me how many
men he killed in the war. The number changes every time. Forty-one was the
highest we ever got to. The curtains are drawn. I tap the window facing onto
the street. Nothing. For a second, I hope he’s dead. It would mean one less run
on the confession and communion trail. I make a move to leave but then I see
some kids standing around a bonfire in the middle of the street. “Hey,” I call.
“Have you seen Bill?” They turn around in a pack. Every one of them wearing a
mask that looks like a face without 
features. Blank. Holes where the eyes and mouth should be. I get on the
bike and start peddling. They run after me, hurling stones and whatever they
find on the ground. “Have you seen Bill?” they shout. “Have you seen Bill?”
Freaks.

*

Before
heading home, I stop at the shop that’s far enough away from people who might
know me. The old lady who looks after the parochial house has gone somewhere to
watch statues cry and I intend to make the most of it. I pick up a loaf and
join the back of the queue, keeping an eye on the door. The strip lights turn
everything white a zombie-eyed blue. I dump the bread as soon as I get to the
counter and pull my collar off. The guy reaches for the whiskey before I have
to ask and wraps it in paper.

Outside,
I find the blonde from the box stood looking at my bike like she’s never seen
one before. She’s still wearing the black dress and holding a string bag
crammed full of oranges. She clocks me and tilts her head. “Hello, it’s me.
Remember me?” she says. I shove the paper-wrapped bottle into the bag on my
bike and drop the collar in too.

“I
remember. You running low on vitamin C?”

“Liquid
sunshine,” she laughs and that low voice creeps back into my chest. “Are you
off on a wild night?”

She
must have spied the whole hide-and-seek operation with the whiskey. “Not me.
Just finished up the confession and communion rounds and heading home. I’ll let
you get back to fighting that scurvy off.”

“I’ve
never had communion,” she says, walking towards me, putting her arm on mine.
“I’d like to.”

“We
serve it up every Sunday in the place where the box is.”

“Can’t
I be one of the stops on your rounds?” She looks at the cane and then at me.
She smiles and squeezes the arm she’s still holding on to. “You could give it
to me now, since you’re here? I’m just across the street.”

I
want to get out of the night and into the whiskey. I wonder if this is a trick
but then I think about pressing one of those white discs on her fat red tongue
and my dick gets hard.

“Lead
the way.”

*

The house is bigger than it needs to be for a person like her.
White everything everywhere. Books piled in corners and under windows. Not much
else. We’re in the kitchen and she’s peeling oranges, breaking the segments
into a metal bowl. “Here,” she dumps a handful of crescent-shaped pieces onto
my palm. They taste the way good oranges should. “I’m
Marion.”

Of course she is. “I’m Theodore.”

“Father
Theodore.” She thinks it’s cute. She says it again so she can feel it roll
around her mouth. “Father Theodore.”

“You
can skip the Father part, Theo works just fine. What happened to the leg?”

“An
accident,” she shrugs. “I wanted to tell you that I didn’t confess all my sins
today, Theo. I was afraid to. Do I need to confess everything before you can
give me communion?”

“That’s
the idea.”

“You’re
interesting,” she says, as I follow her into the living room and onto the sofa.
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

Somehow
she’s got the whiskey out of my bag and is pouring unsteady measures into tall
glasses. I don’t think she understands how priests work or she doesn’t care.
She sidles up next to me. Too close. She definitely doesn’t care. “You’re
interesting too,” I say as she hikes up the dress, crosses her legs and turns
to face me. I wait for it to come but it doesn’t take long. She says she burned
down a house when she was nine. She stuck a chisel into her cousin’s leg. She
pushed a car into the sea. She says everything was “an accident”. She’s lying
but I go with it. She’s almost on my lap, telling me she thinks being a priest
must be a dangerous job because priests always wind up dead in the movies.

“This
isn’t a movie.”

“I
know but keepers of secrets are dangerous people to be,” she says, poking me in
the chest. “Everyone would be better off if we kept secrets in locked boxes
under beds. A box won’t get its eyes pulled out. A box won’t get shot in the
back or its throat slit with piano wire. Secrets are for boxes. Secrets should
be whispered into trees. Secrets are for the birds.” She reaches for the
whiskey and tops up the glasses. “Your turn.”

She
looks almost beautiful in the dark room with her see-through skin and a belly
full of oranges. Not the kind of beautiful that makes you scratch her name onto
your eyeballs so you see her in everything, but she’s definitely something.
Something strange. Before I can stop myself I’m telling her things. I tell her
stories I hear in the box. I tell her about myself. About the woman I ran away
from and the well-made suits I traded in for this costume. I tell her I come
from a long line of murderers. My grandfather, my father, me. It’s passed down
the line like red hair and bad memories. It’s in the teeth, bedded into the
second round that comes after milk. It’s in the bones. In the rising blush that
climbs my neck on hot days. I tell her I did it to save someone and she
believes me. I don’t tell her everything. She refills the glasses. The
whiskey’s almost gone. “To the sinners,” she clinks.

We
fool around for a while but the whiskey’s too much for her and she falls
asleep. I shake a blanket over her bones and tell myself I’m not a monster.
Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and give her that white disc of a body she so
badly wants. Maybe I’ll build her some shelves. Maybe I’ll try to keep her
alive a little while longer. I grab my bag.

*

The
bike’s gone from the railing by the front door. I’d bet money on the Freaks and
bolt cutters. I head home counting bonfires burning out on the streets. The stars have slipped from the blue-black and it’s hard
not to choke. I jump a locked gate and cut across the park. There’s an
old birch in the middle of the green and its silver skin glows in the dark.
It’s got twigs but no leaves. A sure sign it’s dead. I keep walking, listening
to the murmurs of blackbirds and robins. I reach up and pull their sleepy
bodies out of the sky. I hold them to my face, letting their wings beat against
my lips. I tell them all my secrets and let their sweet songs scrape against
me, pulling me out of the night.