The First of the Gang to Die

It happened two days ago and felt like time travel, only it wasn’t a time trip at all. I woke up in black and white, like I ran out of colors, only it didn’t feel like my fault at first; I thought the world was to blame, not me. Like the world was black and white in the old times when there weren’t color TVs, only it wasn’t, but it kind of feels like it was when you have only seen the past in old films.  

How selfish of you, my wife said, when I told her. Like there wasn’t depth perception before three-dimensional TVs. That’s stupid, I said, because I know what the world seemed like before they appeared and I definitely experienced depth without them. She shrugged like she made her point and I realized she did. I asked if she accused me of being too young and she said I wasn’t or else I’d easily find a job. I’ve been unemployed for the last couple of months but it’s not the young who took my job. It’s the stupid machines. If I had more skills, the stupid machines wouldn’t have taken my job, she claimed, only I never thought I’d compete with machines for a position in the rat race.   It’s not a rat race if you’re a machine, she said and I couldn’t argue with that. Damn you, said the parrot we keep as a pet in the living room and I felt like the bird read my thoughts. That stupid bird didn’t seem that cute in black and white. It doesn’t usually repeat what I say, only what I think about, only if it’s inappropriate. Sweet birdie said my wife, turning his way, and started petting the bird. That ended the conversation abruptly, only I didn’t mind, because I had already started losing my temper, cursing inside, and I didn’t feel like hearing my thoughts aloud, spoken by the bird. 

*

Jim’s standing in line. He will be next and he knows. Only he has four mouths to feed and not a high-skilled wife like I do. He’s so desperate, he even practices smiling at home. He stands in front of the mirror and tries to fake a smile, only he hasn’t yet mastered the art of faking authentic smiles, he claims, which I find contradictory, or even ironic, but he doesn’t see it that way. Practice makes perfect, he claims, or at least tolerably better, in his case. He’s been my best friend for years, that is since after high school, when we both found the job at that fast food chain store, at the same time. He’s terrified at the prospect, but can’t do much. He’s just standing there, waiting for his turn, like we’re toy soldiers in a Morrissey song and I was ‘the first of the gang to die’ but the rest will soon follow my path. I don’t think Morrissey’s song was about our situation at all, it was mostly about love problems and all, or even actual death and other existential issues we don’t have the luxury to think about, I say, although Jim reminds me I have no clue what Morrissey was talking about. I nod, yet chances are he wasn’t talking about people like us. 

I tell Jim about the word gone black and white and he says it’s normal. He claims it comes with age. I find it strange though that no one ever warned me about it. I didn’t think it really happened. I mean literally. He’s rolling his eyes, asking: You meant literally? I nod. Like in those old films? I nod again. That’s serious stuff, he says after some pondering. I thought you meant you lost the magic or something, metaphorically speaking, like in the Logical song, he says, like you lost that sense of magic now the world’s made you practical and responsible and all. We speak through songs, cause that’s how we communicate best. Because we’re not machines, for fuck’s sake. I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, I sing to him jokingly, but I’ve also lost colours, I add, no singing this time. He passes me the cigarette he’s holding; he knows I can’t afford smoking now I’m unemployed. Jim’s a real pal. He’s not looking down on me, like my wife is, now that I’m jobless. Then again, I don’t cost him that much. You smile more often now that you don’t have to smile, he says. And I smile again, like I’ve swallowed spring and summer and all joy the world has ever offered, because I know he’s right. I can’t stop smiling now I don’t need to, which, for a strange reason, makes Jim laugh his heart out, like he’s just swallowed all jokes the world has ever offered. You should see a doctor, he finally tells me, after he stops laughing. 

*

I’ve been replaced by a smiling machine. The project is still on trial, but I was the first to go, for I was the one who smiled the least. Customers come here to feel good, the manager told me a year ago, advising me to smile more. Customers come here to eat, I argued, but he insisted they’re not coming for the food. Not only for the food. They come to treat themselves. It’s not like we’re a special restaurant, I said. For god’s sake, it’s only a fast food store. He got angry which I didn’t really get, because it’s not like it’s his own store, he only works there, but he took it personally, as if I had offended him personally, like I said he wasn’t special enough or something. Things escalated fast, because I was offended too, wondering how on earth he dared asking me to smile, when he didn’t even pay me on time. You should be grateful you have a job, he said and left. In hindsight, I realize my argument was wrong. I mean, even if he paid me on time, even if he gave me tons of money, would I be able to sell my smile? 

The day I got fired, my wife brought the parrot home. I wasn’t crazy enough at the time to believe the bird was a mind reader, although strangely enough, as soon as he saw me, he started making strange noises. We got closer, my wife and I, until we could clearly hear him talk, saying – stupid boss, stupid boss, stupid boss – repeatedly, as if he was inside my mind already, but my wife said be must have been abused by his previous owner and I believed her. The bird didn’t stop repeating those words all evening, and spoke without emotion, like a machine, like I wish I could express myself, calmly, firmly, not a sign of anger or sorrow in the tone of his voice. I liked him in the beginning, because I felt exactly the same, only emotions overwhelmed me, feelings I couldn’t tell apart, so I experienced them in silence, while the bird did all the talking, as if we were on a stage and we had split the roles, the parrot doing the talking, me the feeling part.

*

My wife asks what the doctor said. I tell her he didn’t smile either. He only checked the test results, without even touching me. He’s skilled enough to keep his job even without touching me which seems weird, yet who am I to judge? She only wishes to know what he said, not my opinion. I light a cigarette before letting her know. She looks at me like I’m a hopeless case. What? I ask and she rolls her eyes. She didn’t mind me smoking when I had a job which brings me to the conclusion it’s not my health she cares about. It’s all about the money, her money. She won’t admit it though. She says she’s read about all those famous people who had boyfriends or girlfriends who put them down, claiming they’d never succeed and how success is the best revenge. I have no clue where she’s getting at so she moves on, claiming, that when success comes for her, I won’t be there to witness it, for I’ll be dead. I put out the cigarette, knocking on wood with my free hand. You’re already successful, I tell her but I then realize she doesn’t see it that way. She’s not successful enough for her standards and I don’t put her down actually, only I hold her down, which is even worse. 

The doctor prescribed meds and therapy. He said that I should smile more and colors would come back. I smile often enough, I told him but he insisted I didn’t or else I wouldn’t have lost my job. And I can’t help but think I’m wasting my wife’s money with that therapy thing. Funny thing, said the doctor before I left, but not so long ago people were so hopeful about the machines. I stared at him to make him explain, cause machines never seemed that nice to me. I realize they make life easier from time to time, but they’re mostly annoying. Like talking to a child, the man moved on, explaining his thought; automation would replace human work and that’d mean more leisure for all of us. Who would give the paycheck then? I asked. He made a gesture as if delving more into the issue was impossible, as if I wouldn’t understand anyway and he showed me the door. That was the sign I should leave. I didn’t expect more; that therapist is just another cog in the wheel, the cog that enables smooth turning of the wheel. 

*

I can’t find Jim on the phone, so I call his wife. She hasn’t seen him since last night, she says. What happened? I ask. What happened is he got fired, she says sobbing over the phone. Those fucking machines have won, she adds. I hang up to tell my wife. Although I’m deeply worried about Jim, a part of me feels relieved I’m not the only victim anymore. Not all people are up for this, she says. Up for what? You know, life, she replies, as if life means silently, obediently, working day after day to make ends meet. On top of this, you have to smile, as if things went as planned, feigning happiness, even when dead inside. It only takes a moment before I snap. Life isn’t supposed to be like this. Life should be about authentic smiles. I throw my phone out of the window and then take hers and step on it, and jump on it like a maniac but that’s not enough to calm me down. I hit the TV with all my strength until it’s on the floor in pieces and then take a hammer and hit the laptop on the table, until it’s smashed and then the parrot mechanically repeats from the living room, ‘fuck all machines’, like a song on the repeat but without the emotion, cause that’s what I’m thinking about and the bird knows and spits the words hiding in my brain, remaining calm at the same time, like I wish I could, yet I’m not a machine. Or a parrot. 

The doctor arrived an hour later. It’s us against the machines, I said. Better than blaming the foreigners, but not too different, he answered. I asked what he meant but he didn’t care to explain. He prepared an injection to calm me down. I wish those stupid machines had never been invented, I said. It’s not who invented the gun, it’s not even about the guns at all, it’s who pulls the trigger, he told me before he left. The parrot was staring at me without talking, for my mind went numb with the injection and didn’t speak either, but the parrot nodded, as if he agreed with the doctor.

*

And I feel like the child in the African proverb who wasn’t embraced by the village and was ready to burn it down to feel its warmth, only the rage turns inwards, it becomes internalized and it feels like I’m now eating myself from the inside, like I was me and now I’m slowly vanishing, wondering who’ll replace me after I’m gone. Most probably, it’ll be a machine, or a parrot, or a parrot-like machine. The world’s gone mute too, along with the bird, like in those old black and white films, in which there was no other sound but music, background music playing, and I realize I must have regressed even further, instead of getting better. 

They say my problem is I can’t keep up with my time but I don’t want to either. I still cannot decide whether that’s a comforting thought or not, but apparently, I wasn’t even the first of the gang to die. Jim was. Perhaps many more have preceded him, yet they weren’t part of the gang, so they don’t count. 




I See You

Picture Credits: Ella 87

I wake when you do. Your alarm clock is mine, the digital bird harmonies that enter your ears are the same ones that enter my own, the loss in quality almost imperceptible as the sound travels through the fibre broadband that runs into my flat. It thrills me to think of this physical connection between us, that there is a wire that starts behind the paint and plaster of my bedroom and travels down into the ground, twisting and turning and emerging many miles away into the fine white interior of your beautiful house. It is a physical connection between us, like a vein or a string of muscle. We are part of the same body.

Of course, I can’t match your routine. I rise when you rise, but I lie on the floor as you perform your morning exercises: the sit-ups, press-ups, ab curls and pec pounders. You grunt and call out encouragements to yourself as you go. You are always pushing your body. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’re holding yourself back, you always say. I have that tattooed on my left forearm. I see the sweat glistening on your abdomen, and if I concentrate I can feel it too. The burn, you call it. The wall. The mountain. I am there, perched on your shoulder, trembling through your ascent.

I shower when you shower. I start on my arms as you do, soaping down each one before moving on to my chest. Your viewer numbers spike at the time, and I can see the likes and comments as they come in. I don’t pay them any attention. I know you know I am here.

Out of the shower and it’s on to the skincare routine. I do my best to keep up. I have the cinnamon and bergamot body oil, the guava and pomegranate face scrub, the moisturiser with the hygroscopic molecules. I can’t afford the peptide serum; one bottle would use up my entire salary from the warehouse, but as I soap my face with the scrub and run the same specialist clay you use through my hair, I feel as if we are one.  

When it hits eight I’m out the door, but I keep your feed in the top corner of my Visor. I keep it on all day. The audio cuts if someone needs to tell me something, but most of the time I’m with you right through – hearing what you hear, seeing what you see. I watch you eat breakfast as I’m waiting for the shuttle bus. I can taste the ancient-grain acai berry granola, the avocado on sourdough.

It takes a long time to get into the warehouse. My shift doesn’t start till ten, but I queue for an hour at the security gate. Once I’m in, it’s a twelve-minute buggy ride to my section. I have a forklift to load the packages and take them out. Everyone has a Visor at the warehouse, even the foreman. 

I clock off around eight – it’s a ten-hour shift – but it takes me a while to get out of the building. They strip search everyone before they leave – it’s company policy, they have to make sure we’ve haven’t taken anything. I don’t mind, they let me keep my Visor on and I have your feed running full screen while they do it. Usually, you are in the gym at this time, bench-pressing three-hundred pounds or battling through a stage of a virtual Tour de France. You stop now and then to drink one of those cold-pressed juices you’ve been talking about lately, kale and blueberry or beetroot and snowberry. Snowberries have the highest antioxidant count by weight of any berry. I learned that from you. You say something like Time for a power-up before you drink, briefly pausing on the bottle and the company logo. I mouth the words and take a drink myself. Mine’s water, but you have the power to transform it. 

By the time I get back, you’re often at home relaxing. Sometimes you’re on the sofa with your latest girl. At the moment it’s some actor from the latest Superman reboot. You move through them quickly, but they’re always actors or models. You switch to your premium rate on these nights, but I always pay the extra. Sometimes I switch to your partner’s feed, to see you as they see you, but not for long. Besides, there is always a mirror nearby. Your bedroom is full of them: you hold the light a prisoner.

Actually, it was a mirror that brought me here. I know how careful you are – and I understand why. The software you use is excellent at blurring out the details – street names, signs – and the way the video drops when you’re approaching or leaving your house is a wise move. You never know who’s out there.

But the software isn’t as clever as you thought. A few days ago, on your early morning jog, you stopped at a corner and checked your hair in that small mirror you carry, the one some dumb commenters call a make-up compact. I could see half a street sign in the reflection.

And that’s how I found your house.

All I had to do was to take that frame, zoom in, and I had the clue I needed. One word: BISHOP. 

I searched online for a long time to find the right place, looking over the whole country for street names that matched. There were lots of variations – Bishop Street, Bishopsgate, Bishop’s Lane, Bishop Road – but only one, in Hampstead, that was the right fit. 

Bishop’s Avenue. When I looked on Street View I could see the corner where you paused that morning. 

Finding your house was trickier. From the corner you stopped at I knew it had taken you one minute and fifty-six seconds to get through your front door. So you had to be close to home. Given how big the houses are in that neighbourhood and the distances between them, that narrowed it down to a handful of properties. The final piece of the puzzle, though, was which one?

I’d really hate to have broken into the wrong place.

Street View wasn’t giving me much insight, what with the huge driveways and high walls, so I switched to satellite view. I remembered the pool party you’d hosted last year, when you were upset because you had invited David Beckham and he hadn’t come, and then it was easy.

You’re the only one around there with a twenty-five metre swimming pool.

I waited a few nights. I knew you wouldn’t just let me in if I turned up at your gate. And I didn’t want to scare you by sneaking in while you were there. Then, earlier tonight, you went out to the gala dinner for that cancer charity you support, so I knew I had a few hours to play with. That tuxedo was made for you, by the way; it’s no wonder there’s talk of you as the next Bond, even if it is mostly you doing the talking. 

It was easy enough to get over the wall. I had a mini step-ladder in the boot and a tarpaulin to throw over the razor wire. I ignored the warning about the dogs. I know you only have a chihuahua called Luigi, and I knew he’d be locked up inside. The pool was all lit up, and there were spotlights around the edge of the building. But I kept to the shadows, creeping along the path towards the darkest spot I could find along the side of the house. I could see you were getting ready to leave the gala. The hall you were in was emptying out, the black-suited waiting staff stealing through the crowds to collect the glasses and plates. You were standing near the entrance adjusting your cufflinks – Leroi & Etude, you’ve been talking about them a lot recently.

But even if you had left immediately, you were still an hour away. I had time. Of course, I’d given a lot of thought about how I’d get in to your house. I didn’t want to break anything or cause you any unnecessary pain or difficulty, but in the end smashing the kitchen window was my only option. There was always the risk of the alarm, I know you have one but you don’t always set it. Besides, I knew the security company would call you even if the thing went off. They’d call you and I’d see you answer it on my Visor. There’d be time to back out.

I’m so glad I didn’t have to.

You look shocked, but you really shouldn’t be. I know it seems like I’m a stranger, but it isn’t so. I know you intimately. I know you have a mole on the inside of your left thigh that you are worried about; I can tell by how often you look at it. I know your favourite place is your chalet in the Dolomites; I can feel the crisp freshness to the air whenever you visit, can tell how it inspires your soul. I know you believe in love despite your reputation as a player; I can tell from how often you look at that slideshow of pictures of you and Meghan Vow on Miami Beach, the one in the e-photo frame from that new Korean manufacturer. 

Three million people subscribe to your feed, but no-one sees you like I do. How many of your other followers watch the blackness before your eyes when you’re in bed at night?

I’ve watched every moment I could since you started broadcasting, back when you were just some fitness instructor living in a shared house in Notting Hill. And look how far you’ve come! I’ve watched you in the bath, on the treadmill at the gym, eating dinner at your favourite restaurant, sitting on the toilet and reading the book of poems you keep there with a pen to underline your favourite parts.

 I’ve backed you every step, been inside your head, your most devoted follower, a spirit on your shoulder, willing you on. I’m part of you; your memories are my memories; your mind is my own. 

I’ve seen everything of you, and now you can see me. And I can see you, seeing me. Have you checked your viewing figures? Half the country’s watching us right now. Don’t look so pained, step into the room and close the door.

The world is at home tonight, watching other people’s lives unfold on magic screens perched on the bridges of their noses. And whether they choose to watch it through my eyes or yours, they’re all going to see what happens next. 




SEX TOYS

Picture Credits: fotografierende

He walks into the unforgiving glare of a station waiting room on a freezing cold night and feels with a sudden and inexplicable certainty that the next few minutes will be important. He knows he’ll remember the girl with pink hair in a knitted beanie who is waiting inside, her cold flushed cheeks, her smudged eyeliner, her wind-chapped hands. He knows he’ll remember her black leggings, her scuffed plimsoles, and her bare ankles gone pink in the cold. 

He knows as he glances at her uncertain eyes he’ll see them again and again, long after he glances away, long after this moment has gone. He knows that the window, which lies as flat as the palm of a hand against the night, and in which their reflections are mysteriously transposed over the cold steel of the rails and the electric glare of station lights outside, will remain bright in his mind.

*

A moment later there’s the clattering noise of the train, the screech as it brakes and slows, the lit empty carriages flickering slowly past. There’s the release of air, the clunk as the doors unlock and open. 

They get on the same carriage but he goes right, she goes left. He sits next to a window and the train pulls away. The backs of warmly-lit houses scroll by. He sees empty kitchens, vacant tables and chairs.  

All of a sudden in one of the houses he sees a man staring out of a window at the passing train. It’s just an instant but there’s something that troubles him about the man as if he’s someone he should know but can’t place. 

Then he hears a voice. 

When he looks up, he sees the pink-haired girl looking at him, eyes narrowed. 

‘Do you mind?’ she says.

‘Mind?’ He feels himself drawing away from a confrontation. 

‘If I sit with you,’ she says. ‘There’s someone back there, he keeps staring at me.’ 

He starts to turn around in his seat to look but she stops him. 

‘Please don’t,’ she says. ‘You never know, do you, what people are like?’ 

Including me, he thinks, almost says, and she smiles and says, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but I’m an OK judge of character and you don’t look the type,’ as if she can read his mind. 

She’s sitting down now, opposite him.

‘Thanks?’ 

She shrugs, laughs at him, at the situation. 

Her skin is still tight across her nose and cheeks with the cold, her eyes bright with tears from the wind they’re sheltered from now, this stillness inside the train that hurtles through the countryside. 

Her pale thin face is beautiful, he thinks, her cracked lips and cracked hands, and her voice has that cracked quality too, her words are beautiful. 

‘Did you have that question at school about being on a moving train?’ he says. ‘Are you moving or are you still?’

‘Can we be both?’ 

And her question seems to be imbued with a poetry of meaning, everything gliding against each other, a dance of worlds within worlds. 

And then bang she’s gone. The world stops. Or not bang in fact. Silence. A clean blade cutting through everything.

*

Then it all happens again. The waiting room, that first glimpse of pink hair, wind-chapped hands. The glances and silence. The cold outside. 

The layers of detail are extraordinary now, vast overlapping constellations that he feels himself move through like he’s high or hooked up to a computer simulation. A thread, a kind of silvery, watery ribbon of something connects everything to everything else now, her, him, the man in the house with the stare that troubles him. 

‘That man,’ he says, changing the script for the first time after so many repetitions, and she looks at him for an instant as if she’s hungry for something; she beckons him with her eyes. ‘Did you see him?’ 

‘Why?’ And the question seems like a prompt, like a teacher encouraging a child to tell her an answer she already knows. 

*

When he wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is. 

The building is derelict. He can make out rows of podlike beds like it used to be a medical facility. He wonders if he’s been in some kind of accident. But where are the doctors, the nurses, the other patients? Through the broken roof he can see the branches of trees. 

He realises he can remember nothing about himself. He only has the memory of the pink-haired girl and the train. 

*

He walks through woods until he reaches a motorway service station. A few early risers walk bleary-eyed in and out of the glass-fronted building. 

He sits down on a bench to rest. When he glances up, he sees a man frowning at him as he walks passed. He must look worse then he thought, he thinks. He looks away.

He feels eyes on him again not long afterwards and when he looks up he sees a woman standing not three feet away from his table, staring at him. She seems angry.

He asks her if something is wrong, but she says nothing.

He looks around when he hears a man say, ‘Are you sure?’ 

He’s addressing a woman whose small, defiant eyes are boring invisible holes in him. ‘I’m certain of it.’ 

A few other people drift over, sensing the disturbance, and he’s surprised to see not the need to be relieved from boredom on their faces but narrowed eyes full of distrust and in a few something that looks very much like outrage. He gets up, and tries to walk away but they close around him. 

‘Yeah, no doubt about it,’ he hears one man say. 

‘Drummond-Pierce,’ someone says accusingly. ‘Bryan Drummond-Pierce.’ 

‘You’ve mistaken me for someone else,’ he says. 

‘Listen to him pretending he’s not,’ another one says. 

He pushes past them and hurries out of the building into the car park. The air is cold; his breath comes out in white puffs as he walks quickly between the cars, looking for somewhere to hide. 

*

He stows himself away in the back of a truck, and slips out when they reach a run-down seaside town.

He follows roads of junk shops and boarded-up houses until a dead-looking strip of sea comes into view and he waits under the trusses of an old collapsed pier, watching the sea crash in. 

The town changes after nightfall. People shift in the dark. Figures lurk in doorways, keeping out of the light. Someone stops suddenly in front of him, comes close enough to his face for him to smell his breath and says, ‘I got tears, you looking?’ Drummond-Pierce, if that’s his name, quickens his pace, the sound of movement all around, a wet shuffle in the night. 

*

He sees the flickering light of fires under a flyover, and he makes his way towards it. He hears moans, muttering. Someone blocks his path and breaks into a lewd grin. ‘How much do you want for a gobby?’ he says. Drummond-Pierce pushes past, and the man laughs mockingly at him from behind. ‘New, are you? You’ll learn.’ 

He sits down away from the other bodies in the shadows, not tired but not knowing where else to go. A moment later a figure approaches through the flickering light and stands over him. 

‘Is it true?’ she asks. ‘You’re new?’ 

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

She shines a light in his face. 

‘What are you doing?’ 

‘Having a proper look at you.’

‘Open up.’

‘No.’ 

She switches off the torch. 

‘You shouldn’t be here.’

‘Why?’

‘How much do you know?’

‘About what?’ He’s confused, but her voice is kind. ’I’m trying to find someone,’ he says. 

‘Who?’

‘A girl with pink hair.’

‘Do you know who you are?’

‘I can’t remember anything,’ he says. ‘I was in some kind of accident, I think.’

She holds his hand. ‘Don’t worry for now,’ she says. ‘You’re tired.’ 

There’s something about her manner that he’s drawn to. He feels protected, mothered. She lets him lay his head in her lap and she strokes his hair. 

‘Those pretty eyes,’ she says, looking down at him. ‘There’s a place out on the coast road, the old lido. You need to go there.’

*

In the morning she’s gone. There are only a few loiterers left. 

‘Best to get going,’ someone says. ‘Might be roundups, you never know.’

He sets off along the coast road until he gets to the old lido, a big white building with an empty pool full of rubbish. 

He walks in through the open gate, the wire fence half pulled down in places. 

The building is falling apart and it’s dank inside. He hears footsteps as soon as he enters and a tall, slender woman turns the corner of the corridor, smiling a wide, beautiful smile that vanishes when she lays eyes on him. 

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘I thought it was a customer.’ She turns without another word and begins to walk away. 

‘I’m looking for someone,’ he says. 

She stops and looks back over her shoulder. ’Isn’t it usually them that do the looking?’

‘A girl with pink hair,’ he says. ‘Have you seen her?’ 

‘One of us or one of them?’ 

‘One of who?’ 

‘Oh, just follow me,’ she says. 

They go down cold corridors where rising damp darkens the walls. It’s odd to see this beautifully dressed, perfectly made woman in such a place. 

‘Who are you?’ he asks. 

She glances over her shoulder, just to be sure he’s on the level. ‘You really don’t know?’ 

‘No.’

Through rain-misted windows, he can see the grey sea and sky smudged across the horizon. Eventually they go into an unlit room where bodies are sprawled on mattresses.

‘Will you take a look at these vampires,’ she says, walking through the bodies. She whips back a curtain and light floods in. The men put their arms up to shield their eyes from the daylight. The woman laughs. He sees the vials he was offered on the street, what they’d called tears.

‘You might as well say hello now you’re here,’ he hears one of the men say, and he turns in surprise, the voice just like his own. The man is sitting up now and his arm no longer shields his face, which is identical to the faces of the other four men in the room, and identical to his own.

*

‘A girl with pink hair?’ 

They laugh.

‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ one of them says. ‘Not real though, so you can forget about trying to find her.’

‘What are you talking about?’ 

‘You’re a fucking manmade. We all are.’

‘Who’s Drummond-Pierce?’

‘Gepetto.’

This man, this duplicate of him, pauses. ‘We all dreamt of the pink-haired girl. We all fell in love with her. We all came looking and if we didn’t get rounded up and burned or had our heads chopped off, we ended up in places like this. You’re just the same as us. A fucking toy.’

It clicks, everything makes sense now, but there’s still the memory of the girl, the threads he senses connecting everything, riding against it. He looks at these pale bodies sprawled on mattresses that look exactly like him, but feels there’s some vital difference between him and them. 

‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m different from you.’ 

‘Oh, think you’re the original? We’ve all had that thought.’

‘Is Drummond-Pierce still alive?’

His duplicate laughs. ‘Lynched years ago. Head on a stake. We’re the only ones who are relatively safe. The Bryans. Because of what we are of course. They come here, sneaking away from their wives, from their husbands, their loved ones and they take their pleasure.’

‘Take the tears,’ one of the others says, the weary voice of someone who has seen too much. ‘You can be with her then.’

*

‘Where are you going?’ the tall woman asks. 

‘Somewhere else.’ 

‘It’s better to just accept who you are and move on,’ she tells him. ‘Think of the teachers. The engineers. The doctors. What have they got? At least we can still do what we were made for.’

He leaves the lido and walks along the coast road. He doesn’t care what he’s been told. He’s going to do what he set out to do at the beginning and find the girl. 

He walks down road after road, through one town after another, looking from face to face, entering every train station he can find until, finally, he steps out of the cold into a platform waiting room late on a cold night and knows. Just knows. He looks up and there she is. The beanie, the pink hair across her thin face, those windchapped hands. 

What happens is what always happens. He does what he always does. 

They glance at each other but don’t say anything. Not yet. There’s the tension of wanting to break the silence but at the same time wanting it to continue. And he knows they will both get on the next train. There will be the man in the house looking at the train passing and at some point she will come over to him and ask if she can sit with him. The train will pull into the final station and they will get off together and, in the next heartbeat, she will disappear. 

Or she won’t. 




Disconnected

Rich says I spend far too much time online because I told him I Googled ‘internet detox’. If that’s his attitude, then I’m glad I didn’t tell him about the hour I spent reading the results.

‘You can just not go on it for a few days,’ he said. ‘See how you feel.’

That’s easy for him to say. He’s ten years older than me and doesn’t even have a Twitter account. Our friendship is a weird one. We met at work and I left, a year ago now, and we meet up most weeks to have a pint or two in this dingy pub he likes. The windows are dirty and the chairs need replacing. It’s not very Instagram-able. But I keep coming here anyway. He’s different to my other friends.

I rip on him for not being very technical. He rips on me for being too focused on screens. He only arranges meeting up on the phone and he doesn’t have a mobile so I can’t be late. He gets really arsey if I’m late, like he did last week. I told him that this Twitter storm was going down and kept refreshing my feed. I was involving him – showing him the funnier Tweets and reading them out. I’d have thought he’d like that. But he got really annoyed.

‘Can’t we have an actual conversation without you playing on that thing?’

Normally it’s good-natured between us. But he was scowling and looked huffy. He almost downed his pint. So I told him not to worry, mate! I wondered if maybe things were bad with his wife because he’s not normally like that. He was chatting. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my phone, burning in my pocket with all the things I was missing. I didn’t say anything about it then, but did what he asked me to at the time. He’d said thanks for listening and that he felt better. On the tram home I ate up all of the Tweets, but the storm was over. There were just slow people discovering it and people were going to sleep. I kept scrolling for more and more.

It was then that I thought I might have a problem.

But only a few days later I realised it was more serious than that because, for the life of me I couldn’t remember what that Twitter storm was about. There have been a few more since then, I guess. I didn’t even post anything about it, I was just reading it then so I can’t check back. So I decided to Google ‘internet detox.’ I honestly thought he’d be proud of me.

‘Well done, mate,’ I imagined him saying.

But he reacted to my words with indifference, said I should just not go on it. 

‘You can’t just not go on it!’ I said, incredulous. ‘I’ll lose followers. I have to make an announcement – say I’m doing a month-long detox, or week, whatever. Then you have to write about it and then you get back on as normal.’

Rich groaned and drunk his pint. Rich is a simple man, he likes pints and the quiet life. He doesn’t understand my generation. I think that he would have been better off living in an earlier century, that he’d be really happy in an era that hadn’t discovered electricity. I sometimes wonder if he’s a bit racist or sexist because of this; he’s not as enlightened as people of my generation. We’re changing the world. He doesn’t like it when I start talking about privilege. No straight white men do though, do they?

‘Just don’t go on it for the next week,’ he said. ‘Try it. You always say you like trying something new.’

I’d had a few pints at this point and, honestly, he was annoying me, being all smug like that. A week without the internet, that’s fine.

‘You know what?’ he said. ‘Give me your phone. I’ll give it back to you next Thursday.’

My heart lurched, I felt panicky, but I wanted to prove the smug git wrong. I could live without my phone for a week. ‘Fine,’ I said.

‘Got any numbers you want to keep?’ he asked.

Numbers? Oh, he was talking about the phone bit of my phone.

‘I’ll be fine, mate,’ I said, downing my glass. I gestured towards his pint. ‘Want another one?’

‘Nah,’ he shook his head. ‘Should be getting back.’ He picked up my phone. ‘You sure you’re okay with me taking this?’ he asked.

‘I’m more than okay with it,’ I said. I’d show him.

‘I’m a bit worried that it’s too much for you. Maybe you should start smaller.’ He looked genuinely concerned. ‘You should go on the internet at home, maybe. Easier rules.’

‘No, mate,’ I said. ‘I won’t go on the internet – apart from if I have to for work – for a week. They’re the rules.’

‘Do you remember that time at work when you left this at home and you were anxious the whole day? You got Jane to send you home, sick, at 2pm because you couldn’t handle it.’

‘That was just an emergency. I needed it,’ I said. It had been an emergency. I’d had my hair done and wanted to see what my social media friends thought about it. I’d posted the picture before work. I must have been coming down with something, too, I think. Because I did feel ill. ‘And, anyway, that wasn’t this phone, that was years ago, that was the iPhone 5.’

‘Oh,’ said Rich, ‘I wouldn’t know.’ He tuned out whenever I mentioned any Apple product. ‘Same time next week?’

‘Uh huh,’ I said. I put my coat on and felt in the pocket for my phone. I felt panicked but remembered that Rich had just taken it. Force of habit, I thought. It’s only a week.

On the bus, I realised that I had no way of getting in contact with Rich to ask for my phone back. His number (landline, obviously) was on that phone. I vaguely knew where he lived but wouldn’t be able to find his house. I felt a bit like a mother who had left her new-born with a stranger for a week. Was that a bit much? That was how I felt. And how well did I really trust Rich? I’d only got this phone about six months ago, it was still the newest model. I kept wanting to reach for my pocket. The journey seemed amazingly long. I looked around and almost everybody else had their headphones in or they were tapping away on their phones, scrolling through Facebook, texting, listening to some music. I felt so bored. I looked out of the window. All of the people outside seemed to be on their phones too. They looked so into their phones. They looked happy. Well, not happy exactly, but blissfully unaware of everything around them, like time passing. I’d never been more jealous.

I got home and didn’t know what to do. The urge to keep checking my phone was there. I kept forgetting that I didn’t have it with me. I pulled the Wi-Fi out of the phone socket because everything was fine and I was going to win. It was just that I wasn’t used to it anyway. Rich was being smug and annoying. I didn’t spend too much time on my phone or the internet and I would prove that to him. I liked doing things full-hog. That was what one of my blog commenters said about me a few months ago.

I sat down on the sofa for a few minutes, fidgeting. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my evening. It stretched out, a long expanse. I wasn’t even sure what time it was without my phone and computer. I didn’t have an old-fashioned clock. I live alone and, this rarely bothered me before, but now I wanted somebody to talk to. Usually when I got home I would edit a video for YouTube or write a blog post at the same time as watching Netflix and playing on other social media. Dual-screening and multiple-tabbing. It was my happy place. I’d fork a ready meal into my mouth without really tasting it and connect with people. Some from around the world! My blog is really popular in Denmark and I chat with people there. I bet Rich has never spoken to anyone from Denmark! He’s so shut in on himself. The internet has really widened our awareness of other people.

I decided to put the telly on. I bet that’s something that Rich would do. Slump in front of the TV with his wife until it was time to sleep. Boring. I don’t know if I could ever commit to one person, you know? How do you know that they’re the right person for you and you’re not just missing out? I admit, though, I haven’t had sex in a while. Hmm. It has been a while. But it hasn’t felt like that long. And that was only a one-off at Sam’s birthday. FOMO is real, you know. 

There wasn’t anything good on the telly, oh God. That’s what my dad used to say. I’m turning into my dad! All because Rich had to take my phone away. He had me when I was low, two pints in when I think I can achieve anything. I felt low. I had no way of getting in touch with other people – I don’t have a landline phone! – and I felt so bad, shut off, missing out on everything. Shit, what was I going to do at the weekend? I hadn’t planned anything yet but I think one of my mates was going to plan something. He would upload it on Facebook, maybe. The TV was still on. I felt so old-fashioned and old, a pensioner. What even was I without the internet? I decided to go over the road to buy more beer and I didn’t even switch the TV off when I left. I drank the beer, watching an awful scripted drama thing, and felt very sorry for myself. I switch the TV off and the silence and lack of distractions are deafening. They are defeating me. 

Only six more days to go. 




One Night Stand

John bolts the door shut. He pounds it with his palm a few times to make sure that it’s locked properly. He can hear the sound of him hitting the door reverberate in the empty hallway outside. With the door secure, he takes his coat off. He removes the knife and gun from his pockets and places them on the table by the door. Behind him, Jennifer looks around the room using the light from her phone.
‘You can charge it if you like,’ he says to her.
She turns around. ‘You have a charger?’
He nods, before realising that she might not see him doing so in the dark. ‘Yes, I’ve got a charger,’ he says.
‘I haven’t charged it for two weeks. It’s weird because I haven’t even needed to charge it since then. The only time I use my phone anymore is for the torch. Although sometimes I’ll look at old pictures or texts and stuff.’
‘Do you remember the adverts?’ he asks. ‘They used to say that it’d last a month without charging. I never knew what that meant.’
‘You’d just sort of think they were lying, wouldn’t you?’
‘Or just exaggerating or whatever. The sort of thing adverts do – not lies exactly, but not the truth either.’
‘Sometimes I have dreams where I’m sitting somewhere, and I’m using my phone like crazy. I’m just sitting there for hours, using it. I’m listening to a song on YouTube, and then I’m on Facebook, and suddenly I decide I want to read this poem that I like.’
‘What poem is it?’
‘I can never remember. When I wake up, I mean. In the dream, I can. It’s always the same one. I know that it rhymes and that there’s something dark about it. And then obviously I’m calling people. Someone calls me up and it’s the most natural thing in the world that someone would be calling me. It’s perfectly normal that I’d be having this phone conversation. It’s mundane. Because in the dream world, someone calling you up to have a chat is the sort of thing that happens.’
‘I’m lucky,’ he says, ‘I don’t really have dreams. And when I do, they’re sad, so when I wake up from them I’m glad to be away from them, you know?’
‘You don’t miss them.’
‘It’s better to have sad dreams. Good dreams only make you want to go to sleep again.’ For a few seconds, there’s silence. It’s not an awkward silence, but it’s not comfortable either. He trawls through his brain, trying to think of something to say when she says:
‘So where’s this charger, then?’
‘Here,’ he says, putting out his hand. ‘I’ll charge it for you.’ Even in the dark, the flicker of hesitation on her face is evident. For a second, it upsets him that she thinks him a potential thief. Then he imagines himself in her position and realises that he would probably be as cautious.
‘It’s over there,’ he says, pointing to a wall socket. ‘Can you see?’ She shines her light on the socket, nods, and thanks him.
‘I’ll go and light some candles,’ he says. Although he has electricity, the only light bulb has broken. One night he was sitting down reading, and then suddenly it went off. A quick, short, popping noise and the light bulb was dead. He has about fifteen candles left – fourteen and a half considering the state of the one he’s using now – and hopes that they’ll last until he can find another light bulb. (If he can find another light bulb, the patronising and ever-present voice of reason intones once more at him.) Last night, to conserve the candles, he spent the evening in the dark.
He lights each candle, worried the whole time that the match might go out and he’ll have to use another. Just like the light bulb, he has no idea when the next time he’ll be able to get his hands on a box of matches will be. He manages to light all three candles with one match. With the candles lit, he turns to look at Jennifer.
She really is beautiful and has the curvy figure that he likes in girls. As he watches her, he notices how she’s staring at the plug-socket. It’s not an amazed look. More a contemplative, nostalgic one. She’s staring at it, probably not even aware of what she’s doing. Of how she seems like someone in a movie holding a picture of a dead relative. A moment of realisation presumably hits her, as she quickly plugs her phone in and stands up.
John turns away, pretending to have just finished lighting the candles.
She comes up behind him and looks out of the window. In the distance, a stream of smoke rises into the air.
‘It looks a bit like a tornado,’ she says.
‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘the fires get so bright it’s like it’s daytime.’
‘You get those places, don’t you, where it’s daytime all the time.’
‘In the Arctic?’
‘In Sweden as well. Or Norway. Places where people actually live. Imagine that. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and it’s bright outside.’
‘Or the opposite,’ he says, ‘where it’s dark all the time. You go to school in the dark.’
They look at the smoke for a few more seconds and then turn to look at each other. They turn at exactly the same time, as if they had planned it; as if they both know what the other is thinking.
‘That’s why I liked you,’ he says. ‘Things like this.’
‘It’s like we’ve known each other for ages.’
‘That happens sometimes. You meet someone and you just sort of instantly – err.’
‘Connect?’
‘Connect with them, and that’s what happened with you. When I saw you – I’m not gonna lie – I liked you because you’re so gorgeous. But the moment I started talking to you, it didn’t really matter anymore.’
‘Same’ she says. ‘I actually saw you earlier in the night. It’s weird because although you were hot and stuff, I didn’t really give you another thought. I was feeling a bit ill, and I wanted to go home, and if I’d done that I might not have seen you again.’
‘Do you go to the clubs a lot?’
‘I try to,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it gets too much just being inside. I live with seven other people, and if I’m going out, I usually try to go out with at least one of them. But tonight I came on my own. No one else was in the mood for going out, and I didn’t want to stay in. They’re great people, but I’m with them all the time, you know. I need to get out.’
‘My sort of…philosophy I guess you’d call it, is that what’s the point of making all this effort to survive if your life’s going to be miserable.’
‘It’s like just being alive for its own sake, isn’t it?’ she says. ‘That’s why I risk it. I’m guessing you risked it too?’
‘I don’t live here with anyone, but I do take precautions when I go out. Like today, when I was literally at the door of the club, I didn’t keep my guard down. There was this bit of me that was saying “you’re at the door now, you’ve been buzzed in, just walk in and you’ll be fine.” But I didn’t listen to it. I went inside, and stood at the door, with my gun out, until I knew for sure that it was closed. Just like when we came here, I hit it a few times just to make sure that it was closed, even though I knew it obviously was.’
He loves talking with her. It’s not what they’re saying, but the way the conversation is flowing. He doesn’t have to think about what to say next. Talking to her is effortless, and has none of the awkwardness he usually associates with meeting new people. He wants to ask her more things but decides against it. Things are going good between them, and he doesn’t want to risk asking anything that could upset her, or have her ask something that would upset him.
He puts his hand to her face, and they kiss. The smooth transition to each other’s lips, the way their bodies affix themselves to each other, reaffirms his sense that he has known her for a long time. As she pushes her body up against him, he feels a bulge that is either a knife or a gun. He wonders if she trusts him enough to remove her weapon. Or will she keep it by her all night like that girl a few weeks ago, who was holding her knife the entire time they had sex?
As they kiss more, he runs his hands down her body. Her hands, in turn, move down his back, stopping just above his backside. The fact that she stops there turns him on more than if she’d carried on, and he feels her lips twist into a smile as he groans in pleasure.
He removes his lips from hers and kisses her neck. This time she moans – or, rather, releases a small, barely audible, exhale.
He steps back and reaches into his pocket.
‘I found these,’ he says, taking out a box of condoms. ‘A store had been looted. The people who owned it had had their throats slit with pieces of glass from the window. The woman’s hand had been cut off; I think she must have had an expensive ring on or something because they didn’t cut off the other hand. Anyway, I saw these. They’d fallen to the ground, and whoever looted it had forgotten to take them or something.’
‘Oh, right,’ she says. Her voice is unsure, hesitant. ‘That’s good.’
‘We don’t have to us them. If you don’t want to.’
‘No, no,’ she says. ‘The last thing I need is to get pregnant. It’s just weird seeing them, that’s all. I can’t remember the last time I saw a box of condoms. Anyway,’ she smiles slyly, ‘I think we definitely need to use them. I don’t know where you’ve been.’
For the first time in a long time, he bursts out laughing. The laugh surprises him so much that he drops the condoms onto the floor. He looks at Jennifer, who smiles back at him.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he says, picking up the condoms, and affecting mock-outrage.
‘Nothing. I didn’t mean anything by it,’ she says sarcastically.
‘No. It definitely meant something. I think that you’re implying that I’m some kind of slut or something.’
‘Well, am I wrong?’
‘I’m an honest gentleman.’ With that, she laughs. She’s really pretty when she laughs, but he can tell by the strained way that she does it that she also hasn’t laughed in a while. He noticed earlier, too, how pronounced the frown lines on her forehead and mouth are for someone her age.
Outside, they hear a loud bang. It’s either a bomb going off in the distance or a gunshot nearer. They’re not sure if this is the first bang, or if they’ve just been so preoccupied with each other that it’s the first one they’ve happened to hear.
The other day, John recorded a video on his phone, and when he played it back later he heard little clicks that could only have been gunshots in the background. When he heard this, he remembered not hearing the gunshots when he had been recording the video. By now, he imagines that pretty much everyone is accustomed to the sound. In the same way that people who live by the sea no longer hear the waves unless they listen out for them.
‘Come on’ he says, ‘I’ll show you where the bedroom is.’
‘Just one sec,’ she says. She takes off her coat and then reaches into her jeans’ pocket. She removes a large knife from it and places it in the coat pocket. ‘Can you put this away for me,’ she says, handing him the coat. He nods and walks over to the door to hang it up. Afterwards, he turns around and looks at her. She smiles at him. Outside, the smoke continues to rise.
He walks forward and puts his arm around her shoulder. She puts hers around his waist. They walk together into the bedroom.




On a Sweet River

Picture Credits: Andreas Riedelmeier

Josua walked around the outside of his house and small garden twice as he always did, every night.  The first time around he spoke softly to the demons of mischief and disease, asking them to spare his family.  He touched the maize and the beans climbing up the corn stalks, and asked for abundance.  The second time he spoke to his companion, the earth, thanking him for life. He returned some drops of water from the jug to its source, the creek that ran to the river, and touched each banana tree while looking at the moon. You must know how to give to our Mother Earth, and she will give back. He lit the copal resin, its smoke respecting the earth, water and maize.

Later, lying in his hammock warm enough in t-shirt and cotton pants, his internal dialog continued, putting into quiet words his fears for his elderly mother. She had lived a very long time in uncertainty and as death’s companion. He asked for understanding of the troubled times and for news of brothers and an uncle disappeared during those years.

He remembered the evangelistos who had come to town by bus earlier in the day. Right there, as the sun beat down on the dusty road, they told of a just and merciful God.  They told the story of the extermination of the Canaanites.  Their all-loving God had ordered the killing as punishment for their sins. Did that god order the soldiers to rape the women and kill the men and boys in Josua’s ancestral village in the Altiplano? Josua had faith that his spiritual guides were protective, but he wondered where they had been while the government forces spent more than thirty years hunting down his people, the peones, believing them to be rebellious.

Lastly, just before sleeping, he spoke with his ancestors, dedicating his work of the day to their memory.  He thought of his friend David, and asked Mother Earth to watch over him too.

David had stepped off the morning bus from Guatemala City, months earlier.  He wasn’t a tourist; he carried only a backpack and small duffel bag.  He wasn’t an evangelisto; he had copper wires braided into his red beard and a few ceramic beads in his hair, and he did not wear a white shirt.  By sundown of his first day, everyone in town knew about David.  Without actually looking at him, they knew the color of his eyes was identical to the color of Santa Maria’s dress in the Iglesia Isabel la Catolica nearby. They saw strong muscles and rough hands.  He didn’t go straight to Holly’s, the one bar in town where the tourists went to feel at ease with their own kind; he went to the tienda.  In effortless Spanish, he spoke of the rains last month and of the odd circumstances surrounding the misplacement of the funds to repair the bridge over the river.  He drank a few Gallos quickly, since quickly was the only way to enjoy them while the beers were still relatively cold.  He sat alone at the edge of the road and watched the chickens peck in the dust and village life pass by.  He sat quietly, without checking his watch or fidgeting with his clothes. He bought Chiclets from one of the smaller boys.  The locals observed him impassively. After a while, he stood up and looked around him. Josua, shaded by his straw hat raveled at the edge, was buying tortillas across the road, and David left his gear and went over and spoke to him:  “Amigo, con permisso.”  He asked Josua if there was a place to stay, not a hotel, but a place to rent, maybe a room or a small house. Josua led him away from the river, where the forest began, and where Maria Kok had a one-room house for rent.

He settled in with little fuss.  He didn’t ask for anything, he didn’t pry.  He ate rice and beans and tortillas and slept in a hammock.  He charmed the children with his tricks with a Frisbee, and they brought him to their homes. That’s how everyone in town came to accept David.

 

*   *    *    *

 

When Josua walked down the dusty path to town the next day, everyone greeted him.

“Que tal, amigo?”

“Bien, bien.  Y tu?”

Everyone knew everyone in this small pueblo and was bound to everyone by the weight of memory. All the neighbors, every one, had come from the highlands, like Josua’s family, and each was trying to make a new life in this place where the growing season was different, familiar plants for food and medicine didn’t grow, and where the men and boys were still learning how to hollow the trunk of a ceiba tree to make a cayuco in order to fish in the river to provide protein for their families.

At dawn shopkeepers opened their stalls, and a profusion of bright plastic brooms, tarps, and kitchen utensils spilled into the street. Transistor radios were turned on, each to full volume, each to a different station. Fishermen set out their catch, and fish scales glistened on their rough tabletops. Pickup trucks from other villages offloaded crates of melons, bags of onions and habanero chiles, baskets of small apples, limes, and pineapples.  Also in those pickups were young women with babies tied to their backs, grandmothers and grandfathers, short and bow-legged, and others come to shop in the tiendas or to sell scant produce grown in their small milpas.  Some spread out blankets or pieces of cardboard and arranged peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers for sale.  Mothers with babies swaddled in perrajes carried their laundry to the river. The day was like all others.

The morning bus roared to a stop, its fumes and music accompanying the sunrise. When strangers got off, they were either tourists come to see the river and the falls or evangelistos in white shirts come to sell Jesus.  This morning only the bus driver got off to pee behind the tienda and to buy himself one cold Gallo.

Josua walked to the dock to check on his little boat and to listen to the last argumentative voices of the egrets on the small island opposite, before they settled down in the branches of the mangroves to sleep the hot day away. The heat would suck the smells out of the packed earth:  rotting fruit, excrement, spilled spices, stale beer.  Josua hoped a tourist would hire him to make the trip upriver to visit the falls and to bathe in the hot sulphur springs that bubbled through the cracks in the rocks close to shore. The day seemed cooler if you lay your body in the hot water in the shadow of the thick vines.  Or maybe David would need a boatman and a translator for one of his trips into the remote villages.

Often he asked Josua to take him up and down the river in his small boat. He told Josua he had come to take testimonies from families about the bad times so that all the world’s people would be witnesses. The word spread with the river current, and one by one David, with Josua translating from Q’eqchi’ to Spanish, listened to the stories, wrote them in a notebook, felt the anguish, and sometimes visited the mass graves.

David would pay him ten quetzals for a day’s work, and Josua would go to the tienda in the evening to play dominoes with the other men, who spent their days sitting outdoors under a blue tarp, nursing beers, moving the flies through the still hot air, waiting. Then Josua would walk home to his dinner and, afterwards, would again walk twice around his house and elaborate on his conversations with his spirits, before sleeping, fitfully.

Earlier Josua had asked David whether he thought the evangelistos were correct in their beliefs. Without condemning their opinions, David told him that he believed there was a lottery to life. Each individual’s place was defined by chance, not by being born in God’s image. Each individual’s legacy was determined by his choices:  what to deny, what to applaud, when to be silent, and how to exercise responsibility. He saw his work as the obligation one brother has to another. Josua had a lot to think about.

David also had much to think about – not only the horrors to which he was bearing witness, but also the miasma of despair that hung like a dense storm cloud over Josua’s family. Each evening he would eat his dinner alone and write in his journal. One evening he wrote:  “Josua’s mother has taken me into her heart, even though she is too shy to look at my face. She came out of her doorway in bare feet and gave me a pumpkin today, and I know she has only a few. I fear that she will die of heartbreak, not knowing the fate of her two oldest sons and her brother. I hear Josua’s love for her in the one word I can understand him say to her, Mami.  I don’t know how to help her.”

 

The next day David and Josua traveled up river into Lago Izabal and to the small village of El Chapin where they heard and documented more testaments.  As they often did, they stopped at the hot spring on their way home to soak and to soothe their burdened memories.  They tied the small boat to a vine and slid into the warm water.  Often a dugout would paddle by:  a fisherman checking his crab traps or a workman moving supplies.

The stillness of the midday forest echoed a voice: one man in his cayuco calling out to them. He asked for permission to join them, as he was hot and tired and wanted confirmation of his directions. In his boat was another older man, slumped in the bottom, clutching a woven shoulder bag. He was bare but for shabby trousers.  Josua grasped the older man’s hands, then gently raised his chin to see his face more clearly.

“Mi tio,” he whispered, and tears quickly welled and spilled over. My uncle.

Josua and David took him to the village, to Josua’s mother, the old man’s sister.  For days the brother and sister sat together in the shade of her doorway quietly talking, sometimes keening, their backs bent. When all the words were spoken, the old man reached for his bag. It was the one he had carried since boyhood, black and white, woven by their mother, made to carry tortillas wrapped in banana leaves. As though he was a spirit releasing the winds, he took out one item after another.

First, the collar of an old shirt, so threadbare that the white background was like dust on a cobweb. Still visible were the stronger polyester threads of gray and blue.  Josua’s mother reached for it with trembling fingers, stroked the edge, and fondled the one button.  Next, a belt, grimy with years of wear, sweat-stained, scratched and nicked, but unlike any belt in the world for the name scratched near the buckle: Checha.

There was more. He took the strap of another bag out of his bag; this one green and black, made long ago by her own hands for her second son, Herson.

These pitiful bits were the remains of her sons. They were all she had to remind her of their existence and of their deaths; all she had to know of their fate. But now she knew, and that was the gift her brother had brought home in his black and white bag.

David went with the family and the neighbors to the sacred burial ground. They returned the remnants that had been Checha’s and Herson’s to the earth, restoring dignity to the family and honoring their spirits and their ancestors.  He wondered about the choices and the beliefs that led to these young men’s early deaths. He thought of responsibility and brotherhood and justice; and he speculated that their similarities outweighed their backgrounds – his of privilege, theirs of want. When he looked up from the newly dug hole in Mother Earth, Josua’s mother held his gaze.

Back at Josua’s house, the only sound was the chickens rummaging in the yard.  The crying and the words were over.  Anxiety and tension had given way to sadness and resignation.  The day’s rituals would continue – coffee beans would be hulled, maize would be ground, eggs collected.  Josua would talk with his companion, the earth, and, in the village, the evangelistos would sell their merciful god.




Black Helmet

Picture Credits: James Paramecio

Juan Carlos launches forward, agile, quick, like a gazelle leaping into the avenue,  into the moving cars.  Motorcycles buzz between the lanes.  Buses belch dark diesel fumes, filling his lungs, slowing him down, leaving him out of breath.  He tries to hide beside one of the buses, looks back, looks ahead, across the bustling avenue.  He runs again and bounces off the hood of a por puesto taxi.  The driver honks and screams hijo-e-puta, mal parido, flicking a fat middle finger at him.  Three more lanes of traffic and he can be on the other side, but not a single car lets him pass.

He turns his head and notices the afternoon glare bouncing off the shiny black helmet, the Guardia National that kept looking at him, the one who started to walk in Juan Carlos’ direction, the one that screamed at him to stop.

Breathe, breathe deep, don’t let the fumes drown you, suffocate you.  Fatigue is setting in.  He knows he has to put more energy in those legs.  Run, damn it, run.  The black helmet gains on him, now at the edge of the avenue, while  a cacophony of honks suffocate the air.

Juan Carlos takes off again.  His tennis shoes claw the wet pavement, as he flies across large puddles of water, dodging moving vehicles, bullfighting noisy motorbikes, until finally he reaches the other side of the avenue.  As he jumps on the sidewalk, a por puesto taxi splashes dirty water all over him, staining his only starched white shirt—the one he uses for work.  Carajo. There’s no time to moan.  He runs along rows of acacia and caoba mahogany trees.

People walk in the opposite direction.  They don’t move out of Juan Carlos way.  They are slowing him down. They see him, but veer their eyes away.  They can tell what is going on.  He knows they don’t want to be connected, as if he did not exist.  They know this could happen to them, to their children, to their cousins, to their brothers, at least not today.

Today he’s nothing but a reminder of things that they hate but feel powerless to do something about.  But what can they do? Who can they trust?  They have marched, they have worn their tear gas masks, waved the flags and nothing changes, other than there’s less food, less medicine, less freedom – people dying from eating food from garbage cans or cooking yucca amarga.

But here he is, running, trying not to get caught.  Juan Carlos jerks his head back,  looking for the black helmet, then glances forward for an opening in the crowd.  God have mercy, people please let me through!  He says to himself, almost as a whisper, really wanting to scream it at them.

Juan Carlos notices that the black helmet has been bogged down by the flow of the crowd,  but he can’t tell how close, or how far he is.  Maybe the black helmet is tired too, maybe his lungs are about to burst and a deluge of sweat pours down his face like him.

He thinks about the black helmet’s gun.  Does he have riot plastic bullets, or ordinary bullets aimed to kill.  It doesn’t matter for even in riot mode, they put marbles or shoot the plastic bullets quema ropa, point blank.  He had a good friend bleed to death while he held him, ignoring the sting of a plastic bullet that found his own shoulder.

But this is different.  They are hunting them down.   That’s what they did to his friend Marcelo a week ago, even though he didn’t do much but show up at demonstrations with his gas mask, with a shield and plenty of flags.  But he went to school with people that knew people.  He had been to parties with the people that were killed in El Junquito.  The ex cop that stole the helicopter and threw grenades on the roof of a government building, more for show, more for demonstration than trying to hurt anyone.  At least that is what people said, not the government. They found him hiding in the chalet of a doctor in the mountains.  They surrounded them, threw rockets at them.  And when they turned themselves in, they assassinated them, bullet to the forehead.  Then they burned the evidence,  and sequestered the bodies.  And now they are going after anyone connected to them.

Juan Carlos knew some people, but not directly.  They talked about what they were doing in some of the gatherings where they made and painted shields with words like libertad, abajo con la narco-dictadura. They built gas masks from two-litre plastic coke bottles.  They talked about all their families leaving the country – the Venezuelan diaspora, the news in the internet called it.  They talked about where to get food, toilet paper, harina PAN corn flour.

Juan Carlos sees the soldier again, his black helmet peering through the crowd.  Why did he run?  He should have acted casual. Why didn’t he confront him when they were asking for papers, give them a look like he was a somebody.  That’s what Marcelo did a weeks ago.  And they took him in. They have not told the family where he is.  Or what has happened.  More than likely they are torturing him, like they’ve done to others.  They even had the gall to release to social media the story of one man they beat so bad, they dislodged his testicles.  And to further the humiliation, they posted the photo of the man all over the Internet.

There’s a shopping center ahead that connects the crowded avenue to a parallel street with less traffic.  Beside, there are more trees where Juan Carlos can hide and plenty of side streets where he can lose the black helmet.  Juan Carlos might be able to sneak through, maybe the black helmet won’t notice.  Then catch his bus or even a por puesto taxi several blocks down, closer to the river.  What if he has to run all the way to Las Mercedes?  He’ll run all the way to his house if he has to.  What if they have already been to his house? He’s not letting the black helmet catch him.

Juan Carlos slows down his pace and takes the chance to breathe, build his strength, get ready—just in case.  Maybe he won’t notice him.  But how could he not, one look at his long hair, his white shirt—he can’t be missed.  Try to walk, not run, follow the people, mix with them, let them cloak you, he thinks.   Don’t look back,  he will notice you, he will recognize you among all these people going home.

Juan Carlos enters the mall’s courtyard. The afternoon’s rains have turned the sidewalk and the polished granite into a slimy mush, stomped constantly by passing shoes.  The structure is composed of two office towers with a large steel canopy thrown across the sky to produce an open ten-story high atrium that shields the courtyard and several levels of storefronts from the tropical sun and rain.  He passes several stores.  A shoeshine boy in ragged clothes and no shoes crouches in front of one of the window displays finishing a job.  A shining plastic mannequin smiles behind him.

Juan Carlos hopes that he lost the black helmet.  Maybe he’s home free, yet wants to look back to see if the black helmet is still following him.  Maybe he lost him.  Maybe the black helmet is five steps behind.  And what if the black helmet is just ready to grab him.

He has to look.  He can’t.  Juan Carlos keeps walking, cranes his head slightly, as if looking at one of the window displays, back to where the shoeshine boy is.  The boy stands and looks at something intently.  He knows the black helmet is not too far, he can see it in the boy’s eyes. The black helmet will probably stop to harass the kid.  Maybe he is one of them, one of their militias, a colectivo.  He hears a voice telling the shoeshine boy to get the hell out there, “vete carajito.”

Juan Carlos can’t tell whether it is his persecutor or someone from one of the stores.  He has to see who it is.  He turns a little more.  It is not the black helmet, but a sales clerk with a name-tag from the men’s store dressed in a fancy suit, like the ones on display.  But the shoeshine boy is not looking at him, he’s looking at the crowd.  Juan Carlos follows where the boy’s eyes are looking and they lead to…!  There he is, his shiny black helmet and shadowed impersonal face.  Has he seen him?  Is he going after the shoeshine boy?  Is he coming his way?

Juan Carlos walks faster inside the crowd, doubling his pace.  He arrives at a balcony where there’s no way to continue but down an escalator.  How stupid of him, how could he have forgotten about the escalator?  He will be completely exposed, trapped, with people in front and behind him, unable to run or do anything.  He has no choice, there’s nowhere else to go, so he moves towards the escalera electrica, following the mass of people, filtering into the machine like the grains in a sand clock. Juan Carlos grips the black handrail and places his feet on the metal step that is going to deliver him to the other side some twenty meters below, where more stores stand side by side and a waiter cleans the water from a table as he prepares for the early evening clientele.

The man in front of Juan Carlos looks at his watch, then picks at a fingernail with his teeth.  The person behind him, whom he has not turned to see, is moving his briefcase back and forth, poking Juan Carlos back pocket where he keeps his wallet.  If only he had money like his Uncle’s side of the family.  He could pay for a visa and go to the States.

Marcelo could have tried to bribe them, but last week he had to be so brave.  Tu no sabes con quien te metes, you don’t know who you’re messing with Marcelo told them.  He heard him as he arrived at the scene holding two iced cold coconuts.

Juan Carlos doesn’t have any money.  He works so he can barely make ends meet and help his mom with the groceries, whenever basics are available.  He should be in school, he should be studying, so some day he can get a real job, making real money. But everyday, inflation eats up his paycheck and he can’t even buy food, a pair of shoes, have dinner at the restaurant down from the escalator, or buy the starch and soap to wash his now stained white shirt.

Juan Carlos does not belong to any political party. He’s only been to the demonstrations, gathered to make gas masks, shields, signs. He wishes he could go back to the university and study instead of having to work, just barely to exist. Or move to Spain or Argentina. Money, money, money, if only he had money.  His Dad used to make decent money, but now is not enough, and most of it goes to get insulin through the black market. If he gets stopped he can use his uncle’s name. He’s in the Fuerzas Armadas. Even though everyone in the family seems to hate him.  “Why don’t you do something?”  His mom has screamed at her own brother.  “Throw some weight around!” He is not that happy either, and give him a few drinks and he starts cussing and mumbling estamos hasta la nuca de cubanos, we’re up to our necks with cubans.

When they were at the beach with Marcelo, the black helmets didn’t take well to what Marcelo had said. They surrounded him. The girls pulled back. Juan Carlos wanted to interfere. He wanted to tell the little soldiers in their black helmets that his uncle would take them out of their comfortable duty in the big city and send their sorry asses to the Delta, to the middle of the hot swampy jungle, where little soldiers like them dropped like flies from malaria, encephalitis, yellow fever, cholera—where they drowned in their own shit before they even saw anyone. If only he had said that at the beach while they were beating Marcelo.  But Marcelo gave him a look to not get involve, to lay back. He held the two iced-cold coconuts with straws coming out watching his friend getting beat up, then taken away. He feels so guilty, he should have done something. Alejandra and Marisela told him not to blame himself. They would be torturing him right now for all they knew.

He hears a shout. The man in front of him stops eating his fingernail, veers his sluggish eyes and looks up the escalator and then at him.  He hears the commanding shout again.  There’s no mistaking—it’s the black helmet.  He turns and sees the black helmet pointing a finger at him, ordering him to stop, not to move.  But the ground, the step in which he stands, the escalator, keeps moving, disregarding the command, oblivious of his authority.  The black helmet yells louder in a commanding tone at the people on the escalator to get out of the way.  Where are they going to go?  They can’t go up.  They can’t go down any faster, they would kill themselves if they jumped to the sides.  So these people, the very element that keeps Juan Carlos from getting away, is keeping the black helmet from getting to him.

With loud shouts and pushes and shoves the black helmet moves his way down the escalator.  Juan Carlos has to get going and passes the man having fingernails for dinner. He pushes and says permiso, permisito” excuse me, and pushes through another person, feeling the fabric of their clothes, the bad breath of their long day—of smoking cigarettes and drinking con leche’s. But he is not moving fast enough, and his pursuer in the black helmet seems to be gaining on him.  At the sight of the man covered in protective black plastic plates and menacing gear, people do what they can to get out of the away.  But with him, they don’t want to be too cooperative. They remain unmoved by how close he gets to them as he slides across, touching their bodies, invading their personal spaces, breaking the solitary trances in which the daily rituals of going back to their homes have placed them.

I’ll never make it, he thinks. He is trapped inside the apathy of this people.  They are so full of bravado during the demonstrations, but on an average go to work day, they don’t help. At this rate the black helmet is going to get to him, and as he can now see on that bellicose face, unleash all his wrath and fury upon him, to punish and humiliate.  The black helmet screams again, telling him to remain still, that he doesn’t want to make things worse for himself.  The black helmet roars to the people to remain still and move aside as he approaches him. A woman in front of him has panic written all over her face. He can’t tell if she’s scared of him, thinking that he is going steal her purse like a common criminal, or of the loud menacing screams of his persecutor under the black helmet.

He can’t get past this woman, she’s frozen there.  He’s doomed, soon to be going in their paddy wagon to some detention center, asked questions, and then what. Will his family know where they are keeping him? They’ll break him, but to what avail, so he can tell them that he was good at painting the Venezuelan flag on shields, that he was guilty of throwing tear gas canisters and rocks back at them.

He looks at the lady with the petrified expression and when her eyes meet his he says “Doñita, that’s not a policeman, it’s a Guardia Nacional, and I’m not a criminal, so please let me through.”  Her expression remains the same, as if rigor mortis has set in.  He clearly sees that she is not going to do anything.  So he jumps from six meters high and lands on top of a table.  He twists his ankle, it hurts, it hurts like the devil.  He steps down on a chair and on to solid ground.  He looks up at his persecutor.  Where was all this adrenaline at the beach, when he stood there. The black helmet motions as if he’s going to jump too, but he’s too high up on the escalator.  He keeps pushing his way through the people, screaming at the top of his lungs, asking the people to stop him, that he is an enemy of the revolución, un traidor a la patria.

People move away. The black helmet advances.

Air, heat, fire, anger, adrenaline takes over every cell, muscle and nerve of his body and he runs, runs, pushing tables and chairs aside, runs with all he’s got, with all that he’s ever put into a run. Do it for fucking Marcelo, even if it is to run away from the black helmet instead of confronting them. There are people sitting at a table in front of him. He is not able to veer to the side, it’s too late, so he jumps on top of the table.  Glasses fly about, shatter as they hit the floor.  He lands, and runs with more force, more power. He can feel his own body in motion. He’s flying now.  He hears the black helmet slide and land on a table as he did. He hears metal bouncing of the ground, boots stomping. He hears tables and chairs shoved around.  The black helmet screams again, ordering, demanding, demeaning. He keeps running with a new acquired desperation.  He turns slightly and sees the black helmet reaching the end of the tables. The polished granite extends another twenty meters, wet, slippery, mushy. Juan Carlos has to turn, he can’t slow down, but the tennis shoes don’t hold, so he slides and slides, managing to keep his balance, until he finds a grip on the ground and lurches forward with all his force into the street.  His persecutor, his predator, his black helmet runs behind him until he finds the slippery quagmire at the end of the tables.  He slides too.

Juan Carlos hears the black helmet stomp a couple of times and fall.  A deep hard hollow sound follows, like a helmet hitting the ground and the sharp cling of metal, once, twice, cussing, screaming.

Juan Carlos runs and runs, down the avenue, into a group of buildings, across their parking lots, until he finds himself under a canopy of old mango trees hovering over a quiet street that runs parallel to the highway. He wants to look, he wants to savor this moment, but there’s nothing to savor.  He should have confronted the bastard, defend Marcelo, anything.  Now only what ifs remain, and some hope, maybe Marcelo’s okay. He slows his pace, now aware of a sharp pain in his ankle. He walks, limping, taking quick steps, taking in deep gulps of air. He runs again until he’s out of steam. He looks back, the Avila mountain peering through the clouds, no site of the black helmet.

He pulls out his phone and calls home. His mother answers and immediately asks what’s wrong. He asks if they have been there for him.  She says no.  He tells her what happened. He tells her what happened the week before, with Marcelo. She listens.  She tells him that they will call his uncle, if anything they will find whatever money they can and get him a ticket out. Panama and Colombia are no good, the frontiers are bogged down with masses of people fleeing the country. There are Primos in the States.  They are illegal there, but they are surviving, working in construction.  And one more thing, his mother says taking a pause.

“You shouldn’t have started to run.”




Peter’s Ghost

 Peter's friends gather around the fire We first summoned you at your wake and you have haunted us ever since. Not the official wake where your parents sat limp and bewildered and your aunts cycled robotically around the downstairs rooms with trays of drinks and nibbles. Where we four stood huddled together in the kitchen, our backs to the other mourners, each struggling with the sense that we were intruding on a private moment. As though our grief weren’t authentic enough for us to belong. We were only your friends, after all. Nor your family.

 

We left that wake early, entirely dissatisfied, our need for proper remembrance unmet. Funerals are for the living, we said, yet it bothered us all that there was so much of yours that you would have hated. The music, the Bible verses, the people chosen to speak – you were somehow utterly absent in all of it. There was no sense of you, the real you, even with your portrait smiling down at us from the dais. A portrait four years old because your parents hadn’t asked us for a more recent picture. What use is a funeral that cannot reflect the person it is supposed to honour? It seemed to show how little your family knew about the person you had become, and how little interest they had in trying to find out now that you were gone. Or perhaps they felt guilt at the distance that had opened up after you left for university, choosing instead to mourn the son they had known. I try to be understanding; the urge to place blame after a death is overwhelming. We all did it.

 

So we attended their funeral and their wake, and then we held our own. We each pilfered a bottle from the kitchen and took a taxi out to the beach where we had camped one year for your birthday. We built a fire and sat in the sand, paying no mind to our funeral finery, and we conjured you up from the flames. We each shared our own recollections of you, your phrases and peculiarities. The ways in which you had touched each of our lives. We wove a shared memory of you, each of us adding our own threads until we remembered what it felt like to have you there among us. Anish, the mimic, reminding us of your voice. David, the archivist, recalling the small details that were so unique to you. Cerys, your first love, reminding us of the ways in which you cared for us all. I admit, I said little. Not because I didn’t have anything to share, but because I was wary of sharing too much. Of revealing your flaws, speaking ill of the dead. But if the others noticed, they said nothing. We drank and talked and summoned you as best we could. In the sheltering dark, freed by alcohol and stirred by the fire, we came loose from ourselves, drifted out of our world and met you halfway, in the twilight between life and death. Or so it seemed. We left before the sun came up, choosing to sleep and awaken to reality rather than watch the growing daylight gradually leach away all the magic of our vigil.

 

The next day we met again for lunch and shyly confessed to what we each had felt, realising that we had experienced the night in the same way. The significance of it seemed amplified by the mundane setting, something for us to nurture. We promised to meet again on the same day every year, and somehow we have. Events fling us apart, but you draw us back together every year, our lives a great slow pulse with you the beating heart that drives it.

 

After lunch, we hugged our goodbyes and departed. I took a train south, alone, and what occupied my mind and heart was not the experience we had shared but the memories I had witheld. We summoned you together, a version of you we could agree on, but I took with me something quite different: my Peter, the Peter only I had known. I wondered if the others were holding onto their own private Peters as well, and felt certain that they were. Each of us haunted by own shade. What haunts me is secrecy and shame, a version of you that others would perhaps not like. Or more honestly: a version of you that reflects badly on me.

 

Before the funeral, it had fallen to me to clear your room in the shared house we were leaving. Our first home after university, to be abandoned as we went our separate ways. Your parents had asked us to take care of it, and only send them the important things. I was deemed the most capable since everyone else was presumed to be closer to you and therefore more affected by grief. Anish and David had been your best friends since school; Cerys was your girlfriend, although with her on placement in France you hadn’t seen each other for months. That would have been my opportunity to come clean about us, but I had put so much effort into maintaining the fiction of our platonic friendship that it was hard to let it slip now. Hard to paint you as a cheat when you weren’t there to defend yourself. If the others suspected, they said nothing, and so I found myself in your room with a stack of empty boxed, sifting through your possessions. Impossible to identify what was “important”. After death, the tiniest things are freighted with significance. Post-its with scribbled notes on them: the last samples of your handwriting? Your bed linen, nothing like clean and not likely to be wanted by anyone, but still smelling of you. The real you, my Peter, who had laid here with me on the rare afternoons we had to ourselves, warm and living, both of us secretly joyful under our guilt. And then there were the clothes you had worn… It was too much. I filled the boxes and your cases with every last thing in the room, then I buried myself under the sheets that smelled of you – of us – and cried myself hollow.

 

We had planned to tell Cerys when she returned from her placement, then come clean with the others. You didn’t want to break up with her over the phone and neither of us wanted the others to know before she did. I suppose we thought we were tempering our own bad behaviour by putting rules and restrictions on it, that we were saving Cerys from humiliation, but I realise now that the secrecy made our affair all the more deliciously intense. Stolen kisses, illicit trysts, all the things you don’t get when you love out in the open. But we were convinced that this, finally, was the real thing – the love that would last. As though we two twenty-somethings had waited and waited for it! It almost makes me laugh now, how important we thought our union was. It coloured everything we did. Yet I look back now and wonder whether it would ever have survived the banality of normal life, of loving out in the open. There is no way to know, and perhaps I only raise the question to spare myself the pain of feeling that I had found and then so quickly lost the real thing, the love that would last. None of the loves that came after you did.

 

Until Adam, at least. Is it too soon to say that? Perhaps it won’t last, but it feels like more. Adam was the first partner to notice your presence in my life. I had tried so hard to hide you away, not by concealment but by diminishment. Him? Oh, an old friend from uni. No, he passed away. Yes, it was very sad, he was young. But it was a long time ago now. And it worked; no-one ever pressed me on it. Except Adam, who was observant enough to join the dots. My attachment to certain things – books, music, films, places – that he traced back to time spent with you. The friends I rarely saw but stayed in contact with when the only thing that linked us after all these years was the permanent absence of one other person. Adam gently lifted away my camouflage and saw the truth I was shielding. He worked his way into my confidence with the gentle insistence of tree roots easing through obstacles in the soil. He became embedded in my life, patiently learning me and giving me the intimacy against which I had been shielding myself.

 

It’s not that I intended to shut myself off, but your abrupt death left me with a secret and no-one with whom to share it. By the time I felt ready for relationships again, the habit of secret-keeping had grown strong. Secrets grow more powerful in the dark, I have discovered. You have to expose them to the light quickly or they mushroom and distort, become toxic. You would have told me I was being absurd, letting such a normal human action steer my life, but you weren’t there to tell me. And besides, it wasn’t a decision I made or was aware of – it just grew that way.

 

I’ve known for a while that Adam understands this, that he has pieced the puzzle together, that he sees me and loves me regardless. But I still need to tell him, to hear myself say it out loud, all of it. For some reason, it’s hard to do it in the spaces we share – our living room, our kitchen, our bedroom – and so I invite him into the bath. We sit facing each other over a cloud of suds, uncomfortable at first as we try to find ways to make ourselves fit together in an unfamiliar configuration. I never share the bathroom; it is the one place where you can drop every pretence and be your truest, ugliest self. With Adam there, it becomes a confessional, a place outside of our everyday lives where I can let the long-suppressed truth spool out of me. In doing so, and seeing Adam accept it as a simple fact of my history, I feel it shrink and lose its hold over me. But not its significance. You still cast a shade over me, somehow. So after my confession comes the exorcism, performed in stages. All the things you and I loved together I now share with Adam, the books and films you and I enthused or argued over. He is not you, he doesn’t respond the way you did, and that’s all the better because somehow it neutralises the memory of you. He and I take a trip to Edinburgh and visit old haunts – vastly changed themselves – and sing along to The Irish Rover at the top of our voices with a pub full of strangers. We find a dim corner and snog like teenagers, and by the time we are nursing hangovers on the train back down south, Edinburgh is more in my memory than the place you and I had a sly weekend of reckless fun. I try to feel bad about painting over my memories of you, but it’s a relief. I’ve nursed my grief for too long.

 

The final exorcism comes at the anniversary of your wake. I email everyone and tell them I’m bringing Adam this year. One by one, they reply that they will do the same and bring their families, and when we gather around the fire this time there are eleven of us including children. We talk about you and toast to your memory, and then we talk about other things in our lives. We celebrate each other. Before the night is over, I take a moment alone with Cerys and tell her what has been weighing on me for all these years. It hangs in the air between us for a moment, and then she laughs and pulls me into a hug. It doesn’t matter, she tells me. She had moved on from your relationship before your death and had quietly harboured her own guilt over it for some time. I can’t bear to think about how differently she and I both would have coped if we’d simply told each other the truth. Questions about you occur to me, thoughts I’ve held down, but now I’m tired of the past. I want to look ahead, make plans, move forward. Adam waits patiently for me by the car, smiling as I approach. “Ready to go?” He asks. I return his smile. “I am.”




Ophelia and the Water

It was strange to approach the house and not see him, leaning all of his weight against the back of the wooden chair, shirtless with a tall can of Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette hanging loosely from his fingers in the other. It was a Tuesday morning. The church bells of our small town had woken me and I had pulled myself from the bed to take a walk through the late summer heat. By the time I reached his house I was sweating through my tee shirt. I took the warped wooden stairs up to his porch in quick steps. They creaked under my weight. The plywood bent up from the foundations, pulling up on the rusted nails. The whole house creaked really. It was an old shack with a tin roof and only two rooms, but it was charming with its blown glass windowpanes and copper doorknobs. I pressed the outer edges of my hands against the window and peered in but saw no movement; only ashtrays full of cigarettes and dinner plates in the sink. Moving to the front door I turned the handle and found that it was open; I pushed it and stepped in. The familiar smell of damp shag carpet and stagnant cigarette smoke came and I passed through it.

‘Hello?’

There was no response. I walked forward through the living room letting my palm graze the top of the plush navy chair. The door dividing the two rooms was open. I have never seen it left this way, exposing what I had come to think of as the personal part of the home. It was the bedroom. Red curtains hung over one window, the edges of the fabric browning and frayed. The sheets were pulled from the edges of the mattress and heaped in the middle of the bed. The dresser drawers were deep and bare except for empty packs of cigarettes and a few laminated prayer cards; Saint Anthony of Padua, Nicholas, and Francis of Assisi. The closet door was open and all of the clothes pulled from their wire hangers. I took the prayer cards from the dresser and pushed them into the back pocket of my denim shorts. I walked back to the kitchen and washed the dishes. When I finished, I dried my hands on a crusted tea towel. I folded a blanket and draped it over the recliner before going back out into the heat leaving the door open a crack.

I had met Jack on accident a few months before. I was renting a house on a large piece of property; a short-term rental, just for the summer. I had chosen the house for its isolation. I though it might prompt me to finish my doctorate as I had been in a bit of a rut. On my third night in the house and after three glasses of vodka over ice I had decided to take a walk across the field adjacent the house. I poured a tall glass before I walked out.

Once I reached the edge of the field I decided to go further. I climbed through the barbed wire, bending my body to avoid the thorns. The woods and thicket were tangled in a mess and forced me to walk in winding paths. I sipped on the vodka while I walked and it felt like it was moving through my bones and cooling me from the inside out. I felt nice, not drunk but a little light headed. My body felt light and my clothes loose. The sun was beginning to set. I wasn’t worried. I liked walking at night.

I listened to the tree frogs croak and the cicadas sing in their strange and elongated hums. The harmony of their songs filled my head with a buzz and lulled me into a slow walk, my feet moving one in front of the next without being told to do so.

I looked straight ahead as I walked. I walked until I saw a light. It flickered and danced just beyond the trees. It was the light from a fire, glowing in those shades of orange, gold, purple, and blue. I turned my step toward the firelight and found a clearing, four houses on one side, and another four facing those. All exactly the same, tin roofed, two room cabins with a little front porch. The fire burned in the middle of them all. It illuminated a small plot of summer crops and a man sitting with his legs crossed, smoke pouring out of his nostrils and mouth, beer cans rested beside him. I approached. The people in this town were friendly. He must have heard me before he saw me because he looked around him, not nervously but curiously. It took him a moment to find me but when he did his eyes stopped and his mouth opened into a smile missing many teeth. I just stood still and waited for him to speak.

‘Hey there.’

‘Hello.’

He made his way over to me and held out his hand. His fingernails were black with dirt.

‘Who are you?’

‘Tabitha, Tab for short. I moved in at the Logan property for the summer. I’m doing research at the college a town over.’

‘Oh yeah, some one said they saw a car out there. I’m Jack.’

He invited me to have a beer with him. I did. I had a few. I rolled thin cigarettes with moist tobacco and handed them to him as he cracked open cans. He drank with large gulps while I sipped. Louisiana by way of California by way of New York he told me. He’d been here for eight years now living with his girlfriend. She was in their house watching television and he pointed to the second house in the north-facing row.

‘I don’t like watching television much, especially in the heat of the summer. I like the heat. Most people don’t but I like it. Sweating is good for you. Sweating keeps you healthy.’

‘My father used to tell me that.’

I didn’t have to tell him much about myself. He was able to fill the conversation all on his own as though I was just another reason for him to tell a story. Stories were what they were, a small fact hidden in an immense fiction. We sat up late that night. He told me about what he saw in the stars and I explained the constellations to him.

‘How do you know all of that about the sky?’

‘My mother taught me.’

I came back often after that night. I always took the same meandering path through the woods.

The more he told me the more I knew he was a liar. It made me like him more. His inventions brought me back to listen and to watch him weave them. His hands flew around him as we spoke swatting away questions that might reveal the holes in his narrative. The words that rolled from his mouth in relentless waves seemed to be exaggerated by his greasy, shoulder length, sand coloured hair and some poorly poked tattoos. He caught me staring at them one afternoon. The ink had bled to create undefined shapes.

‘Prison. That’s where I got ‘em.’ Just locked up for possession but that was years ago.’

I met his girlfriend Rita. She looked older than him and maybe she was. She hardly left the house. She preferred the air conditioning, a pack of cigarettes and cheap boxed wine. She didn’t seem to mind me.

Most nights Jack and I sat on his porch. I rested on the edge with my legs dangling off and he sat in his wooden chair above me and talked. He talked about his mama, about music, about the women he dated and living in California during the seventies.

He showed me things. Old photographs of the cars he owned. Photographs of a younger man who still had all of his teeth. One night he asked me to walk with him across the clearing. He took me near where the fire had burned on the first night.

‘See that over there?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Know what it is?’

‘No.’

‘It’s Ophelia.’

His vagueness was intentional. He led me over to the thing—a bust of a woman or what was a woman missing her eyes and her hair, but with plump lips—and told me about her. She was from another planet. She’d been exiled and that’s why she was here in this clearing. She could see the stars here. He took a drag of his cigarette and leaned down to her face. He pursed his lips and blew the smoke through one of her eye sockets. For a moment the smoke vanished, then reappeared, drifting out from the other eye. He smiled his big toothy grin, ‘Ophelia, Tabitha. Tabitha, Ophelia.’

Jack had planted flowers around her. At night the deer came out from the woods to eat the blossoms.

‘How long has she been here?’

‘Longer than me or you.’

Jack didn’t drive. He called me from their house one Sunday morning and asked me if I had plans for the day. I didn’t. He asked me to come over and to bring my truck. When I arrived he stood in the yard, cut off jeans and no shirt. He carried with him a cooler, which he slung into the bed of the truck before he climbed into the passenger seat. There was already a lit cigarette hanging from his dry lips. He reached for the crank to roll down the window.

‘I’m gonna take you somewhere special.’

We drove down country roads.

‘Make a right just past that old church there. Alright, then a left when you see the cow pasture.’

Tall brown power lines flashed passed in perfect succession. The black tar on the road could have bubbled and the heat rising from it made the horizon blurred and oily. We passed houses long abandoned; the grasping, creeping vines came through, and out of the broken windows, almost entirely covering the façade. Donkeys grazed in small fields unbothered by the warmth, their ears and tails flicking lazily at flies.

‘Pull into that gas station there.’

We were about forty minutes out of town. He got the cooler from the back end and carried it in. When he came out ten minutes later I could tell it was heavier, his arms strained to keep it at waist level.

‘Beers,’ he said through the open passenger window. ‘You can’t buy them in Moss county on Sunday but you can buy ‘em in Laurel. The Lords day and such.’

He tuned the radio to a blues station once he was back in the passenger seat.

‘Is that where you wanted to take me?’

‘No, go on and make a left out of this parking lot. We’re getting there.’

Past pine forests and dried up creeks. Past cotton fields and exposed orange and red clay canyons that seemed to drop for miles back down into the earth.

‘We’re getting close.’

‘Will you tell me where we’re going?’

‘I call ‘em the Red Rocks.’

When we pulled up I understood. A prodigious lake, the same bright blue as the sky, covered everything for miles, its edges marked by enormous red sand stone. The heat of the red against the kindness of the blue made it seem surreal.

‘It looks like a Dali painting.’

‘A what?’

‘Never mind. What’s the lake called?’

‘Dunno.’

‘I didn’t bring my suit.’

‘You got shorts don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘Come on then.’

I followed him stumbling down the sandy slope to the edge of the water.

‘Aren’t you going to swim?’

‘Nah, I don’t float right, some people do but I don’t.’

He opened the cooler to retrieve a beer. I walked to the edge and let the water lap at my feet. I waded forward, first to my knees, then my thighs, then my waist. The water seeped into my denim shorts and weighed me down. It was warm. I ran my hands across the surface and leaned backward, letting myself fall into the water. I floated there for a while. I let the water move me and watched the clouds move too. When I looked up I had floated from shore. I swam back in and pulled a beer from the melting ice. Jack was laid out flat on the sand, the sun darkening his already brown skin.

‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here.’

‘Not many folks know about this place.’

‘It’s beautiful.’

‘It’s magic. That’s the thing about this place. The water, it’s magic, it makes you live long.’

I smiled.

‘I’m serious. There is something about the water. It moves through the creeks and into the lakes and into use when we drink it.’

I wanted to believe him.

I sipped on my beer and listened to the wind bend the pines behind us. I listened to Jack hum unmeasured tunes and closed my eyes. The sand stuck to my damp clothes but I did not mind.

I drove us home hours later and after a few more beers. Jack kept drinking in the car, the beer cans held between his knees. By the time we reached the cabins the sun had set. I stayed in the car while Jack unloaded himself and then his belongings. I watched him stumble up to the edge of the porch where he turned, leaned, and waved goodbye to me. I drove home and slept well into the next afternoon. When I woke I called him and thanked him for the day before.

‘No problem darlin.’

I did not go to the cabin that night. The following morning was the day I found it empty.

When I walked out the door, leaving it just a little bit open, I went straight to Ophelia. I wondered if he had taken her too, but she was still there, looking up to nothing. To no one. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the prayer cards. I propped two against her chest. For the first few weeks after Jack left I checked on Ophelia. I made sure her flowers were looked after. One morning I didn’t go to water the flowers. I just stopped after that.

I heard lots of stories about Jack after he was gone. I heard a story that he been on a chain gang and rolled from the bed of a truck to escape, that the police had got wind of him and were on their way. I heard that he was a not from New York but really he was from Mexico. I heard that he had learned how to build houses when he worked as a missionary. It didn’t matter which ones were true. They were all just stories.

At the end of the summer I moved off the Logan property and went back to graduate school and my doctorate. I keep Saint Anthony pinned above my desk.




Something About Him

It was late when Tee knocked on the door. The man he came home with had his hand on his arm when I answered. They smelled of alcohol and smoke.

 

Tee removed his friends hand and smoothened his tight T-shirt before saying,

‘Ife, meet Ese, my sister. She’s here for the weekend.’

 

‘Hello Ese. Its nice to finally see you’ Ife said, offering a weak smile, ‘Tee keeps going on about his wandering sister, I hope we didn’t wake you?’

 

His skin gleamed like smooth honey under the incandescent light of the veranda, making Tee’s dark skin look even darker.

 

I smiled back. ‘No you didn’t, I hope you guys had fun.’

 

‘We sure did.’ He replied.

 

Tee looked at him cautiously and then they paused before they both started laughing and walked into the house. I locked the door.

 

‘You look tired.’ Tee said. ‘You should get some sleep’

 

‘Will you sleep with me?’ Ife yawned.

 

His jean was so tight, it made his butt look like two wraps of pounded yam pressed beside each other.

 

‘Yes I’ll be in the same room with you’ Tee replied. He mumbled goodnight and without another word, they both vanished into his bedroom.

 

*****

 

Tee was outside when I woke up. He was wearing only trousers, counting reps on a homemade barbell. I sat at the doorstep, watching. He pulled the weight up to his knees, then to his shoulders before lifting it high above his head. The veins in his arms swelled like they would pop. He laughed a little when he saw me and dropped the barbell carefully and stood up.

 

‘Where’s Ife?’ I asked.

 

‘Gone’ he said.

 

His chest glistened with sweat. His brown shorts glued to his thighs like a second skin. He was panting.

 

‘Panla’ I called him.

 

He laughed hard. That’s what everyone used to call him because of how skinny he was. His hatred for food was only second to my love for it and our system was perfect until daddy found out.

 

‘Remember the beating that made me start eating more than you?’ He asked.

 

I nodded, snorting with laughter as the image of my brother screaming and jumping with each landing of the belt surfaced in my memory.

 

‘Do you remember Dotun?’

 

I did.

 

Dotun was our neighbor. He was Tee’s best friend for the four years his family lived in the flat above us. They were in the same class and they did everything together. When his family moved to Jos, I thought my brother would die. He cried so much and would not say why, even when my father furiously decided to give him something to cry about.

 

‘Help me bring my towel’ Tee said, opening the bag of millet by the well.

 

His bathroom was neat. His towel hung over the water closet. Two condoms swam in the toilet bowl beneath. I looked at them for a moment before taking the towel away.

 

For a long time I had wondered when I would ask my brother the question that had been on my mind since the day Dotun moved out. As I closed the toilet door behind me, I realized that it was no longer a matter of ‘when’ but ‘how’.

 

Outside, Tee tossed millet seeds on the well. A cigarette dangled between his lips. I watched him silently.

 

‘Why are you smiling?’ he asked.

 

‘Nothing I said’ pursing my lips to hide the mischief on my face. My heart skipped a beat, it was now or never.

 

I handed him the towel and walked beside him to the doorstep where we both sat.

 

A swarm of pigeons descended on the well. They struggled between themselves for the grains even though I knew that Tee had put out more than they could finish in a day. He always did.

 

‘Ife loves birds too but he hates chickens.’ Tee said. I turned to look at him but he did not take his eyes off the birds. He knew.

 

He stretched his hand to me and I took the cigarette. Then he started to tell a story, something about him, Ife and a black cock.

 

The irony was not lost and I choked on the smoke. Tears streamed down my eyes but I could not stop laughing and choking.

 

He looked at me with a sad smile on his face.

 

‘Don’t die oh’

 

I stopped laughing and coughed until I could breathe again.

 

Then I asked him.

 

‘How long have you been together?’

 

He looked into my eyes and turned back to the birds.

 

‘Two years.’

 

I nodded silently. After all these years, I was a bit surprised by how ordinary this moment was. I gave the cigarette back to him.

 

He took a long drag and let it out. As the last wisps of smoke poured out of his nostrils, he started to talk, with the speed of a person vomiting words that refused to stay down.

 

‘He told me his parents have found a wife for him. They want him to pay her bride price next month’.

 

‘What is he going to do?’

 

‘He doesn’t have a choice’ Tee shrugged.

 

My mouth became dry.

 

‘What are you going to do?’

 

‘Nothing’ he said, as simply as I wished the world was.

 

I wanted to reach out for his hand and squeeze it, to reassure him, to tell him everything would be fine.

 

But I wasn’t in the mood for lies and so we sat in silence, watching the birds picking the grains with their beaks, their chirping delightful like sweet music.

 

‘I was wondering how long it would take you to find out’ Tee said.

 

‘Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve known for years’

 

The surprise in his eyes vanished as quickly as it appeared.

 

‘Well if I had known that, I’d have just flushed my toilet’

 

I laughed.




Boys

When they first move into the house, it feels obvious to Laura that it loves her more than Tim. It wants her to be there and doesn’t mind that Tim is an addition. It’s as if the rooms warm themselves up slightly in the few seconds before she walks into them. The orange light that comes through the big front windows in the afternoon might shine right on her face and miss him entirely. Sometimes the water in the shower warms up straight away for her, but is a bit faulty for Tim.

 

Here, she thinks, she is the most beloved one. The house loves her more than it loves Tim and Tim loves her more than almost anything. She loves both the house and Tim, and within time she will get them to love each other. But she is, still, the most loved one. It feels like having two best friends, but knowing that she is both of their only best friend.

 

Before they moved here Laura and Tim lived at the adventure holiday camp where Tim worked. Tim instructs groups of children/families on tree climbing/zipwire courses. They had a flat in a small building where all the instructors lived with quite a lot of their girlfriends and even some children. It was in the Kendal in the Lake District.

 

But because they were unhappy there, Laura started to act stressed and strange. Tim noticed this. So when Laura inherited some money because somebody died, they decided to buy a barn conversion closer to the town that they both came from. Tim would still work for the same company, but instead, he would commute and travel over the country to assist at different adventure holidays.

 

This is where they have come to live now.

 

Laura first sees the prince in a nearby stately home on a Saturday afternoon.

 

It said on the website that the stately home is an iconic 18th Century house with a notable art collection.

 

The biggest painting is entitled The Prince and his Retinue Hunt Game in the State Park. The prince is wearing a long ruffled frock coat and and his hand is on the head of one of his pointy-faced hounds. A foxhound. The prince’s hair is brown. Laura does not have to read the plaque at the side of the painting to know that he is the one who is the prince, even with his whole hunting troupe around him. His face is horselike and shimmery, regal.

 

In the gift shop they sell small fridge magnets with the picture of the prince and his retinue hunting game in the forest. Laura buys one and puts it on the fridge and uses it to hold up a photo of her and Tim from Prague last year.

 

When they get back from the stately home trip, the wood of the front door has swollen again so they can’t get it open for ages and have to kick it until it opens and then they have to organise for someone to come round and shave the wood down so that it won’t happen again. Tim gets stressed about it and says what if it was a bad idea to move somewhere instead of renting where they have to arrange for everything to be fixed themselves instead of just getting a landlord to do it. His voice goes annoying in that way she hates.

 

Laura is fairly sure she could have figured out how to do it by herself, but Tim is worried about what will happen when he has to go away with work and she’s there alone. They have an argument in which Tim implies Laura lives in some sort of fantasy/dreamworld and never has to deal with anything real/tangible and Laura implies Tim does not respect her independence and competency because he hates women. Laura sleeps in the spare room that night.

 

To be honest Laura rarely feels hugely unhappy or frightened or stressed any more. If something bad happens it is like a soft weight that sort of rolls over her. She doesn’t cry unless she is really drunk. She has accepted that for life to be good and exciting sometimes, bad things have to happen too, to have something to compare the better things to so that happy and sad are a contradiction of each other.

 

When Laura is in the spare room she is reminded of a way that she felt when she was a teenager. She used to imagine sex with men and she used to imagine saying this thing to them in a moment of climax. She used to think it was the most outrageous thing someone could say. She can’t even remember where she got it from now. It might have been from porn or from something someone at her school had heard in porn. She used to think these words almost every night.

 

Tim has to go away to Ireland with work. He is supervisor for a two week adventure holiday with a group of Scouts.

 

Laura has to get a taxi to Morrisons to do the food shop because Tim has taken the car.

 

On the third night that Tim is away the prince from the painting appears to her after she has got out of the bath.

 

Except if she is honest, she wishes him to. It is not a huge surprise. If she is honest, she gets out of the bath and brushes her hair and puts on her pyjamas and waits for him in the dark. He takes her hand and squeezes it gently and she says ‘I knew that you were going to come eventually’ and she feels his breath on her hair.

 

When they have sex there is a heaviness to his weightlessness on top of her body.

 

He is gone in the morning and when she wakes up she goes back into her and Tim’s room and puts on the TV and cries and goes back to sleep until eleven AM.

 

But Laura knows that the prince will come back the next night and he does. He is just like a real boy/man. She wonders around the kitchen and spends the whole day making loads and loads of tiny biscuits and cakes and tarts. It feels like her heart is in a perpetual state of clicking.

 

When the lights are out, she imagines him in full shape, she knows if she turns the light on that she might catch a glimpse of him and that he will disappear forever. So she never does.

 

Sometimes she will find him waiting for her in the hall, where he is slightly more visible when the sun is setting and comes musky through the windows, she can see the bits of dust it reveals settling on his shoulders. But in a way he is less present there. She feels like he is making himself appear for the sake of it, as if he thinks that she wants that. It is the spare room where he is really present.

 

By the time they have been fucking for a week she has already whispered the words that she used to imagine to him at least three times. Then one night, when they are holding hands in the dark and watching an episode of Masterchef on her laptop, she confesses to him that she has always wanted to say it but that she knew if she said it to Tim he would feel weird about it and other men she had slept with had known her friends, and if Laura’s friends found out she said that then they might think that she wasn’t a feminist anymore.

 

The prince tells Laura that she can always tell him anything that he wants and he won’t judge her or tell anyone.

 

In the morning he is always gone. It’s okay. Laura reads in bed then makes herself massive breakfasts in the kitchen, like fry-ups and batches of welshcakes and popovers with a lot of fruit on the side.

 

Sometimes she puts photos of her breakfast on Instagram and Tim likes them or comments saying he misses her, so Laura feels bad, but sometimes he forgets and then she feels angry again.

 

In the afternoons she goes out in town or to the cinema or to the garden centre. Sometimes she goes to look at the prince in the stately home, very much there with all of his dogs.

 

At night she makes big dinners and puts on the new Ed Sheeran album and pours herself a glass of wine. And this is the only time she feels a sense of fear, her heart going click, click, click. Some time around now she knows he has come into the room, feels a warmth and a fullness. Sometimes he will touch her slightly or move the door so she knows that he is there. She always sets two places at the table even though he doesn’t eat.

 

Then she gets the text from Tim. Tim is like; Back tomorrow I can’t wait to see you I’ve bought you a bracelet and two different types of wine. Laura has to tell the prince that she can’t sleep with him for a while and she promises to talk to him when she can but she just has to figure out what is going on because all of this is fucking with her head. He understands and to say goodbye he plays her a short song he has written on the mandolin.

 

She sleeps back in her and Tim’s room, cold and too spacious. When she wakes up, Tim is not next to her in the bed like she’d thought he might be.

 

She wonders if his flight might have been delayed, but when she looks out of the window, Tim’s Nissan is back on the drive. Tim is waiting at the kitchen table.

 

He says that he saw that guy through the window and at first he kicks off and nearly throws a cup of coffee and he even calls her a slut and a whore and then he says sorry and she says sorry and they both are on the floor on their knees kissing and crying. The day after Tim packs most of his stuff in a suitcase and goes to stay at his mum’s.

 

When Tim is gone, things between Laura and the prince change. She isn’t sure if it was the limitation of their time together that made her think she was in love with the prince instead of Tim, that its rushedness and forbidden nature made it feel exciting and glamorous and or that these endless days without talk make her feel tired and nervous, or just that now it has got boring and she has started to see him like all other boys.

 

The sex stops being good. He stops coming every night, and she doesn’t ask him why. If she is honest she feels a bit angry towards the prince that he would appear in physical form for Tim and not her, but she doesn’t bring this up.

 

One night she realises it has not just been an entire week since she saw the prince, but since she saw literally anyone. She goes to the shop to buy some wine and ready meals and feels surprised when the teenage boy in Morrisons appears to be able to see her.

 

That night when she is about to fall asleep she starts to hear the noises again.

 

When the door opens she thinks it might be the prince again. But it is someone else, or something else. His body is heavier. When they have sex he grips her thigh harder and he does not like it when she talks to him. Laura is glad of that.

 

Now, it is somebody different almost every night. Laura is in full acceptance of the fleeting nature of their visits, has stopped trying to understand them like she used to but is used to their bad timekeeping, how some of them wake her up in her sleep with their elbows, some of them like her to make loud noises, some of them want her to whisper secrets after sex or put the radio on quietly. Often she recognises someone she has slept with before but more in a way that a bird in the garden might be the same bird that comes into the garden every day or, it might be a completely different bird, and how that’s okay.

 

She always makes them dinner even though sometimes they don’t come until later.

 

Laura still finds herself saying that thing all the time. She isn’t even really into the stuff it connotes anymore or doesn’t find it novel, she just feels like she owes it to this thirteen year old version of herself who she thinks about quite often, who wouldn’t believe that Laura gets the opportunity to say it so often.

 

She often says things in other languages (she has started doing French online in the afternoons) or things in made-up languages. Sometimes she’ll experiment by saying someone else has said to her before, often feeling like it would always make them come anyway; it wouldn’t matter if all that she was whispering in their ears was words and more words and more words.

 

Tim texts her to ask how she is. He asks if and when she is planning on moving out of the house or if she’d consider paying him rent seeing as she is living there for free and he isn’t living there at all. She doesn’t get it for almost a week because the signal is not good and also because she doesn’t charge or turn on her phone that much these days.

 

That night Laura cooks a huge dinner. She lights candles and sets out all the plates. She summons every ghost and makes them promise they will come with her wherever she goes even if it means having to leave here. Every single one of them says yes, of course, they will stay forever.




Monsters

Pic credits: JB Kilpatrick

Today I want to find the monsters and ask them where Bô is. It’s Nam’s birthday, and he wants Bô. Nam was ten last night, but when the sun came up he changed to eleven. Mẹ says we’re going to have a party in the house. I’m excited. I like parties, and I want to get Nam a present. Right now, Nam and Mẹ are not awake, so I’ve got to think of a plan to find Bô. Don’t know why, but Mẹ says not to go outside. But I like the outside and so does my doggy, Kiki. I tiptoe past Mẹ, who is sleeping on the couch again to keep the house safe from the monsters. I tell Kiki, “Shush.” If she barks, Mẹ will never let us outside again.

I’ve never seen the monsters, but I need to find them so I can ask where Bô is.

Kiki walks next to me as I go into the backyard. Sun is up. Birds talk. Bugs fly around me. The morning is gray and dusty – smells like fire. I go to the river and try to find rocks. My feet touch the water. Cold. Really cold. Small fish swim between my toes, kissing my skin and making me giggle.

I look at the trees and yell, “Monsters, where are you?”

I cover my mouth. Too loud. Don’t want to wake up Nam and Mẹ, but I want to know where Bô is. Nam needs him for his birthday. I wait. Don’t know how long, but the chickens start to sing.

The monsters never speak to me.

They never come. Never come yesterday. Never come last week. Been wishing, but they never come. Maybe I can ask the nice lady. Don’t know if she will be coming today to play with Mẹ, but I hope she will.

Monsters never come, and I don’t see Bô.

So I get some rocks. Not pretty ones, but good ones. They’re round and not too big. Maybe Nam will like the rocks. White with gray spots.

Like chicken eggs.

Kiki barks and runs off. I call her, but I see Nam walking to me, so I hide the rocks in my pocket.

He grabs my hand. “Minh, what are you doing?”

I say nothing. Don’t want him finding out about my present. I say I’m hungry and want some eggs. Nam takes my hand, and we go to see the chickens. I run to the chicken house and say good morning. The chickens talk to me, saying cluck-cluck. I say cluck-cluck back. I grab the eggs under them and give them to Nam. We walk back to the house, and we hear a zoom sound. In the sky, three big birds fly above us. I point to the birds, and Nam starts to run to the house.

In the house, Nam closes the door. We both stand still. Zoom sound becomes smaller. Until no more whoosh. I look at Nam. He stares at the ceiling.

“Nam—”

“Quiet.” Nam covers my mouth.

I try to pull his fingers off, but Nam is too strong. Then he lets go.

“Quiet.”

I don’t want to be quiet, but I need to listen. Today is his birthday. Clock, ticks and tocks. Ticks. Tocks. Ticks and t—

“Do you want breakfast?” he asks.

“Yeah.” I run to the kitchen and pull a chair to the stove.  “Can I make?”

“No, you make really bad food.”

I don’t make bad food. Mẹ tells me I make good food. She says she loves my food so much. I talk to Nam as he makes eggs. I jump off the chair and zoom around until I fall on the ground. I ask about the birds. He tells me they are the monsters. I grab Nam’s arm and shake it real hard. The monsters did hear me.

“They came!” I jump.

“Came?” he asks.

“Yes. I need to ask them to find Bô.”

Nam pokes the eggs with the chopsticks. “He’s not with the monsters.”

“Who’s he with?”

“A witch,” Nam says, pushing me away.

But I don’t believe him. Mẹ always told me stories about the monsters and how Bô fought them. She says they eat people, and people are scared of them. They take everything. Poof! Kids gone. Parents gone. Even the house is gone. I don’t understand why everything has to be gone.

“Will Bô come back?” I ask.

“Don’t talk about that.”

“But—”

“Right now, he’s with the witch. The more you talk about them, the more Mẹ will be sad. Do you understand?”

I nod. I don’t want to make him mad. “Sorry.”

Nam doesn’t say anything. Kiki barks again and behind us is Mẹ. She gives us both kisses. A long special one on the cheek for Nam since it’s his birthday. Mẹ grabs the spoons, but I stop her and tell her, “I want to do it.”

Spoons. Plates. Rice. Veggies. Lots of veggies. Bread. We eat the food Nam made. Mẹ talks about what we are doing today. I want to go into the town to see everyone, but Mẹ says we stay in the house. No trip today. I’m sad, but we need to listen to Mẹ. She gives Nam his gift. Some clothes. Blue with stripes. I want to give my present to Nam, but I see him staring at a picture of Bô. I touch the rocks inside my pockets. The rocks are pretty, but they are dead. They don’t play. Sing. Or make food like Bô. Rocks don’t talk. They just sit in the dirt. Bô is a better present than rocks. But where is he? He makes Nam happy. I will find him.

Don’t know how, but I will.

After breakfast, I help clean the table, while Nam plays with Kiki. Mẹ washes the dishes and I dry them. I tell Mẹ lots, like the fishes in the river, and I want to swim. Mẹ always gives me the same answer. She tells me not to go outside. Mẹ gives me the last plate to dry, and when I’m finished, I call for Kiki. She comes to me and jumps on my body. Licks my face. Then I hear a loud zoom.

I open the door and run outside and yell for the monsters to come back.

I jump up and down at the sky. Five huge birds fly above me. I follow the birds, and people start running. Everyone hides. They run back to the house. Close the doors. Yelling at everyone as they point to the sky.

Nam calls me.

He carries me. “We need to hide.”

“But I want to talk to the monsters.”

Up in the sky, the birds fly back and forth dropping down loaves of bread. Like the ones I ate at lunch. The ground shakes. We fall down. We run into the house. Mẹ locks the door and tells us to get under the table, but I tell them I want to ask about Bô.

“He’s gone,” Nam says.

“But—”

“Be quiet!”

Tears drip down his face and hides it in Mẹ’s arm. I know Bô is not gone. He is still here. I will ask the nice lady when she comes. The nice lady that Bô hugs and kisses. She came that day to talk to Bô. He had everything. Suitcases. Books. Stuff to go to fight the monsters. I said I wanted to come, but Bô won’t let me. He kissed the nice lady again and walked out of the house.  I followed them and saw Bô and the nice lady got into the car. They still haven’t come back. She must know where he is. I will find her and ask where Bô is. He needs to be here for Nam’s birthday. I want to tell Nam and Mẹ my new idea, but Mẹ tells me to shush. She says the monsters are coming. So I cover my ears and try not hear the boom, boom, boom.




Me, I Would Prefer

This year, for my partner’s birthday, I wanted to do something really special. We both love animals, so I knew it would have something to do with that, for starters. But we already have a dog and the apartment is zero percent big enough to fit anyone new except maybe a cockroach or two, so a pet is out of the question. Besides, I think surprising someone with a life change disguised as a gift is actually pretty rude.

 

Anyways. We’re out at the bar one night, just your typical Thursday night thing, and I’m tired. I’m pretty much always tired, but especially at night. My partner, on the other hand, could go for hours. We’re sitting there in the bar, soccer match on at the far end of the room, the bartender going full sass, yelling at some guy who had fallen asleep on the barstool (right there with you, buddy) and my partner talking to a shy looking dude sat on her right. I’ve basically ignored him since he joined our table, even though I know it’s not nice of me. She does this when we come here, this thing, almost always: finds a person sitting alone, taps them on the shoulder, and says something controversial in the hopes of getting into some kind of heated conversation. Let me give you an example.

 

My partner: *smiles warmly at guy at next table over*

 

Guy: Hey

 

Partner: Hey, how are you?

 

Guy: Yeah, I’m good, just waiting for a friend/watching the game/drinking until I die, etc.

 

Partner: Good? You’re good? Well, not so hard to be good when you’re a white man, is it?

 

Me, I like my conversations lukewarm. But it’s crazy how much life these encounters give her, so it’s kind of nice to watch her come away from one with a glow on her face like she’s just spent half a day in the sauna. (Me, I would prefer to actually spend half a day in the sauna.) But that night, anyways, it’s already late and I have to be up early the next morning, and so I start sleeve tugging, like baby, let’s go home, we can come again on Saturday. And she’s sweet, says of course she’ll come home with me, but I know she’s having fun talking to strangers and wants to stay. But I get my way this time, because I am a brat and she loves me.

 

But as we brace ourselves against the harsh winter outside, the wind screaming hollow sounds in our ears like a manic cat, the full moon presiding over everything in a manner that, to be honest, does seem a little bit arrogant, I get an idea. The other half of the birthday present, the half that doesn’t have to do with animals, will be this. I will tell her: you are more important than me. You want to stay out late, let’s stay out late, let’s never go home. Your wish is my command. Just then, though, the wind picks up speed and we pass a kebab shop, the sign lit up in red, so we go in for some fries and hot air.

 

A few days later, we’re walking the dog in the park when the idea really comes together. We take the route that goes through the petting zoo, but of course, it’s getting colder and so they’ve taken most of the animals, the goats and camel and bunny rabbits, inside. I don’t really know what inside looks like, but I imagine a sort of darkish, speakeasy vibe with leather armchairs and glass ashtrays. Then the dog barks at a crow, and I stop imagining things.

 

“Where do you think that stork went?” my partner asks. We took a special interest in storks after our trip to Bulgaria last summer. It was so beautiful, their nests lining the streets, high up on telephone poles, stork families of three or four nestled up together in the cool morning air, the blue silhouettes of mountains on the horizon.

 

“I don’t know,” I answer. “They go to Africa for the winter, right?” But I’m not really paying attention, because I know exactly what I’m going to do next.

 

That afternoon, when my partner is out working and I’m home on the couch with the dog curled around my legs, I look up the phone number for the park service online. This is already a big step for me, because I really hate making phone calls. But I do a round of the nostril breathing my therapist taught me, and then I dial.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi,” I say, tentatively. “I’m a frequent visitor to the petting zoo and I was wondering, um, what’s going on with the stork. Like, did he get to go to Africa for the winter, or is he still around?”

 

The woman on the other end pauses, and then shouts something away from the receiver.

 

“Yeah, he’s here,” she says finally, sounding bored. “Here, you know what, I’ll just go ahead and put you on with him and you can ask whatever question you want.”

 

There’s some shuffling and then someone drops the phone and picks it up again, and then finally, the stork answers. His voice is deep and rich, with an accent I can’t quite place.

 

“How can I help you?” he says.

 

One week later, the time has come. D-Day, B-Day, November 16th. We wake up late, lay around for a while, and try to do the whole breakfast in bed thing, but it’s not easy to stay sitting upright and the dog keeps licking our faces and diving for our plates when we’re distracted, so we give up and head for the kitchen.

 

“So,” I say, harvesting the next round of toast from the toaster with a fork even though everyone says that’s dangerous, “I was thinking tonight we’d go somewhere a little different for a drink, like I don’t know, maybe Lion’s Den? We haven’t been there in a while, right?”

 

My partner makes a face that looks really hesitant. I know she’d rather just go to the regular bar, and I feel a little bit crushed, like maybe the whole plan will fall apart.

 

“I know it’s your birthday, but I have a really good feeling about that place tonight. Just come with me for one drink and if it sucks we can go anywhere you want. I promise.”

 

I’m not usually one to lobby so hard, but if I want this to work out, I know I have to sell it. Finally, she nods in agreement, and I kiss her on the mouth. Then the dog gets jealous and kisses both of us on the mouth.

 

That night, it’s not easy to get us out of the house, because first my partner has to finish screen printing a new batch of t-shirts. I’m all antsy from the coffee, my secret weapon for staying out as long as my partner wants, so I start nagging, like come on, we’re gonna be late, and she’s like, late for what?

 

So I shut up and wait until the shirts are all laying flat to dry, but when we’re out the door, I pull on her sleeve and we get there in record time.

 

The Lion’s Den is dark and weird like an Alaskan winter, which is exactly why I chose it for tonight. There’s always someone there getting naked, or playing checkers against themselves, or watching the owner’s pet ferret dive under the tables to intercept fallen peanuts. Generally, though, people mind their own business.

 

It’s nine fifteen when we arrive, right on time. The bar is pleasantly full, each table lit by a single candle stuck in a wine bottle, the old, hardened wax dribbles forming stalactite rings around the glass. My partner really wants to sit at the barstools up front, but I’m like, no, come on, there’s a nice table in the back. She sighs. “I thought this was my birthday.” I almost want to cry when she says that, but I put on a brave face and pull her towards the back.

 

The stork is there, waiting for us at the table I reserved. He’s got this red velvet bowtie around his neck, which is charming as fuck.

 

“Stork,” I say, “I’d like to introduce you to my partner. It’s her birthday today.”

 

He ruffles his feathers and extends a wing out to her, and I know she’s sold. I tell the two of them to sit down while I order three beers from the bar. When I get back, they’re already deep in conversation, the stork explaining how he’s resting here for the winter because of a strain in his shoulder.

 

My partner nods. “It must be hard to be away from your family.”

 

“Well,” says the stork, his long beak glistening with drops of beer, “it is hard, in some ways. But long term partnership, in a sense, is all about independence. If all goes well, anyways, I’ll join them in the east this summer.”

 

My partner puts a hand on my knee, and we ask the stork about his migration route, his favorite stops, etc. We go on like that for a while, talking, drinking, and showing him pictures of the dog from our phones.

 

A few beers in, though, the thing happens. The horrible, dreaded thing. My eyes begin to shut involuntarily, stinging like snails in salt, a combined response to the thick cigarette smoke and my pure, unfiltered sleepiness. I know I’m supposed to fight it, but then I picture my bed.

 

“Should I get us a round of schnapps?” I hear the stork ask, his soft words barely making it through the thick mist of eyelids and dreamland I’m floating in.

 

I’m about to say no, let’s go home, but then I blink my eyes open and see my partner’s face glowing and her eyes sparkling and head nodding, and so I find myself saying yes, too. When the stork comes back with three little glasses of peppermint schnapps, the kind that tastes like mouthwash in the best way possible, we raise our glasses.

 

“Happy birthday,” the stork says.

 

“Happy birthday,” I say.

 

“Happy birthday,” my partner says, “to me.”

 

We clink glasses, drink, and I lean back in my chair, remembering the sounds the storks made that summer, like soft little clicks against wood, the frogs singing in the creek. My head is thick and heavy, even after the peppermint, so I rest in on my partner’s shoulder. She pats my hair, says she’ll wake me up when it’s time to go home, and then I don’t hear anything anyone says anymore because I am dead asleep like dirt in winter.




Running like I Never Saw

Pic Credits: Mike H https://goo.gl/bAJr58

In reply, Mammy chews her little fingernail, what’s left of it, then goes, Sit at the table then Nate, play the puzzle for me, I want a picture.

Nance and me don’t like puzzles, but we like Mammy, so we do it for her. I like make-believe more than toys, but Mammy says I make-believe too much.

So we start looking.

We get pig’s face and cow’s bum, and there’s a bunch of swirly-curly bits what Nance has been collecting. She’s always better than me, ’cos she’s bigger.

The swirly-curly bits, Nance says, are pig’s tail, but I ain’t sure. There’s lots more swirly-curly bits on farms than just pig’s tails. Daddy M once showed me springly bits on the combine and in the cow shed, hanging from hooks in the barn. Everywhere, if you know to look.

Mammy goes, Smile!

And though we don’t want to, we both look up and grin, for Mammy, Nance showing blacky holes where her empty front teeth are.

The flash goes clickety-clack, then Mammy’s lost in the picture, pressing buttons, saying, oh yes, this’ll show them all what fun we have!

But she ain’t looking at us no more and we quickly get lost in the puzzly pieces ’cos there’s something unnice about when Mammy’s doing that.

*

Granny B’s house looks like a spooky man with a pointy hat.

I weren’t so sad when Daddy M went to live there, only he took Dusk with him. We saw Daddy M not so much anyway, on account of his always being on the combine or drinking wobbly-juice with Uncle Cliff, who’s fat with a scraggly beard, and Carl the farmhand.

I miss Dusk. Miss his waggy tail and roughy licks and how he runs in circles when he’s happy. I love him more than Daddy M and Granny B put together. Almost as much as Mammy. He’s my best friend, ’cept maybe Nance.

When Dusk lived with us, Mammy always used to do yells at him. Swears are bad, she says, but it’s OK to call Dusk sunuvabitch ’cos he really is one.

At Granny B’s, Dusk lives outside on a chain, even when it rains. When I ask why he has to stay behind the clinky gate, Granny B’s oldie eyes thin. Her mouth wrinkles like a cat’s bum, her legs wibble.

That pesky dog stinks is why, she goes.

But I like how Dusk smells. When my face is buried in his fuzzy fur, where I kiss him between the eyes. When he licks my face with his roughy tongue it makes me go funny in my tummy, and not in a broken plate way. Granny B makes good ’tatoes with crackly crusts, but she never lets Dusk come inside.

Some nights, I stay at Granny B’s. I sleep under scritchy blankets that block off the winds coming through cracks in the windows. It’s a good view, bigger than the one back home. There, all you get is creaky tree, but here, sludgy yard is all to see. Dusk on his chain, too, and cow field where Daddy M says Carl the farmhand shovels shit, though I never seen it.

Then, one night, there’s yelping. I crawl out the bed, look down in the yard. Daddy M’s there, sloshing a bottle, kicking Dusk.

Dusk on the chain and helpless.

Nance tells me not to look.

I can’t sleep after that. While I’m under the blanket, wind rattling, I says, Nance, will you help me set Dusk free one day?

Nance opens an eye, yawns and goes, Yes, Nate, but go to sleep now…

*

One time, Daddy M took me to the War Place.

Daddy M often takes me out. ’Cos Nance is a girl, she stays behind, watching Granny B do dough, cake and cook. She looks mad as hell when I leave without her, and I’d rather stay and lick the bowl, ’cos I don’t like no tractors, no boxing, no War Place, but Daddy M says they’ll make a man of me.

At the War Place, Daddy M is wet-eyed with wonder, like I never saw. Not even when he burned that dead, cold baby cow on Christmas.

Look at that gun, lad, he says.

I look at my reflection in the glass.

Ain’t that beautiful? Daddy M goes.

I don’t say nothing. Don’t like no guns, but go ooooh ahhh so Daddy M won’t be sad.

He goes: Them’s the guns we used on Jerry in World War Two.

Who Jerry is, don’t know, but World War Two is when this big country started a fight and the whole world had to stop them spreading germs ’cos no one else wanted them. I ask then:

Daddy M, where’d your guns go?

Daddy M gets all shiny-eyed, hot-faced then, like he sometimes does, and I know I did wrong.

There’s a long pause while Daddy M’s eyes go somewhere else, someplace I don’t wanna see. Then he leads me to the big tank, his squeezy hand so tight on my softy fingers it hurts some, and I know to be quiet then.

*

Nance ain’t like so many other girls. She looks after me.

In school, Nance hits the big boys when they point at my holey shoes and tell me they’d steal my lunch money, only I’m too poor to have none. But when she gets them, you should see her go! She ain’t half good. If Daddy M took her boxing, she would, wow, pachow! Pachow! Kill them all!

So Nance gets the boys, but when Miss Carver comes, Nance hides and I’m the one who gets the trouble. I says it weren’t me, but the boys says it was, and Miss Carver rolls her eyes and goes, not this again, and puts me in time out.

Later, in the bath, while Mammy is out the room bleaching sheets, I says, Nance, you knows those big fisty boys at school?

Nance, not looking up, picking her toenail goes, Yeah, what about them?

And I goes, Nance, are they bullies?

Course they’re bullies, Nance says, that’s why I hit them for you.

After a while I go, Nance, is Daddy M a bully?

Nance stops picking her toe then, looks at me. She don’t speak, just stares, then goes, What you think, Nate?

I tell her my head says he is, but my tummy don’t like that being true.

And then, I think meaning to make me feel better but not, Nance says: ’S okay Nate, he ain’t your real Daddy anyway.

*

I never met my real Daddy.

Mammy don’t talk about him. We never even seen pictures. Sometimes I wonder he’s dead. Sometimes maybe he’ll come take me away. When I think that, my eyes go all wet like Daddy M’s at the War Place, with its smell of dusty-metal and glor-ee-us dead.

One time, when Daddy M still lived with us, he was out with Carl and Uncle Cliff, who ain’t a real uncle but was friends with Granny B’s old man before he deaded himself. Sometimes I wonder if anyone’s a real uncle or daddy or granny, or if all of them’s just made up.

Anyway, this night Daddy M was out, I’m in peejays playing in the corner with my train. Daddy M comes back, knocking pots, banging doors.

Mammy put his dinner in the oven but forgot to turn it off. So when he’s down to eat, it’s dried and twisty, like when Nance and me salts slugs and sets them in the sun to die. Not burned, but not delicious neither. Dead dinner.

Daddy M goes: You’ve ruined my meal!

Mammy, shaking, goes, Sorry sorry sorry. She says the oven’s broke.

Standing, Daddy M leans over her, quietly says: You blaming it on the oven?

Mammy shakes her head.

From across the room, Nance looks at me.

I play with my train.

Daddy M calls Mammy an ungrateful word. Then he goes, I take you and your kid in, give you a home, what damn thanks do I get?

Mammy opens her mouth to speak then. Daddy M slaps her face.

I try to stay shush, don’t look.

Then, outta nowhere, a blastedy-bang, smashety-crash. The plate is on the floor. It ain’t a plate now, just lots of sharpy icicles reminding me of when it gets cold and they hang over the door, and when you breathe it makes clouds, and the moon’s face is milk-puddle big.

Only it ain’t like that really, ’cos I’m scared and shaky and want not to be.

Daddy M’s been hot-faced before, but this ain’t like before times. His eyes are ready to pop, roll on the floor. He puts his hot spitty face near Mammy’s. He yells.

That’s when Nance nods.

Corner cupboard, go inside, shut the door. It’s heavy on my fingers, icicle-sky black. Feels good inside, ’cos Daddy M’s cussing ain’t so loud.

The cupboard’s warm from pipes that creak and squeak under wood. Outside Daddy M is shouting and fisting.

Mammy screams.

I rock myself back and front, which feels nice, so I think about that instead. Try not to cry.

We’re in there four years, or maybe longer. Even when everything’s quiet, my hands are still on my face, cosy like when Mammy sings me at bedtime, hot like when the blankets are scones-warm.

After it’s quiet, then it’s just creaky pipes, then footsteps, soft and slow. Mammy pulls the door. Light stings. When it stops, her face is all wrong-looking. You can only see one eye. The eye you can’t see cries black, her big lip red and split, like a trod-on tomato.

What Mammy needs to do is, she needs to say something to go-away the bad tummy feeling. Instead, she crouches, hugs me, starts to cry. While hugging me she goes: No more, no more, Nate, I promise. Never again.

Me, I stare over Mammy’s shaky shoulder at the pile of plate icicles, wondering will they melt like water ones or will they stay there, ready to cut our feet when we don’t look.

*

Daddy M moved in with Granny B not long after that.

Granny B’s was a whole two houses away, down the windy dirt road that cars sometimes use, but mostly Daddy M’s tractor grumbles along, or me and Nance follow the dried-out crumbly holes where the wheels went.

Next Sunday at Granny B’s, Daddy M’s in a be-quiet mood, so I’m glad when he goes checking cows, which he says be mooin’ like they ain’t been milked.

Granny B slops steamy gravy over crackly ’tatoes and crunchy carrots and chewy ’snips, which I don’t like, but which she always makes me try.

The door goes.

Putting down gravy, Granny B answers it. Nance is at the end of the table. She looks. I lean back in my wibbly chair to see.

It’s Uncle Cliff, his beard scragglier than usual.

Hey, Nate, he says, waving.

Wickedy wind blows in, riffling ’brellas and coats. Dusk barks. Puddles gleam by the big door-light. Tall black trees scratch brown sky.

Chewing on a ’snip, we wave our fingers back, Nance and me.

Granny B’s going, He’s not in, Cliff, but join us for dinner?

Uncle Cliff goes, That’s OK, just wanted my gun back that I borrowed him for the pheasant shoot yesterday.

Granny B goes, must be mistaken Cliff, weren’t no pheasant shoot yesterday…

For some reason, that’s when Nance must remember my plan to rescue Dusk. ’Cos lightning quick she’s off her chair, out the door, running like I never saw.

I bolt after, ducking round Uncle Cliff.

But Nance is gone. Fast feet sludge mud, past hay-bale mountain, toward rickety fence and windy road.

Me, I’m swinging clinky gate. Dusk’s wound up like I never saw. Then he shoots too, after Nance, towards the road, to my house.

Nate! calls Granny B.

Come back, Nate! yells Uncle Cliff.

But it’s too late, I’m out the gate, past bales, darkness rushes over, making voices shush, making yelling quiet. Windy road is new at night. Trees look mean. In the dark, something flickers. My running feet tripple over grumpy grooves and tractor tracks, cold air crickling my chest.

Still running, scratchy gate at our house creaks.

Dusk leaps.

Our house glares, hurts my eyes like when Mammy opened cupboard door. Through greasy glass, Mammy stands against the kitchen wall, grippling a wet whisk.

And even though he said he’s looking after poorly cows, Daddy M’s there too, hot-faced like I never saw, trembling hot, raggedy-hot, mad mad mad, grey flash at his side.

In a hurry cold blur, wind comes. I hear Nance, close but not. Standing outside the open door, I’m too scared to go in. Inside, Daddy M yells, Mammy shrieks, Dusk barks.

When the bang comes, my ears hurt.

After it goes, yard tree creaks. That’s all.

It’s cold outside, but my pants are warm.

Someone comes.

Dusk! Jumping up, licking my face with his roughy tongue! Nose all wet and red!

Mammy, white and wobbly. She don’t speak, falls to her knees, eyes wide white, hugging me like I never been hugged.

Daddy M don’t come out.

And it’s quiet then, and stays that way, awhile.

*

After the bang, people in smart pyjamas come. The yard is all lit blue, lots of vans come too. A lady with a hat helps change my pants, asks questions, Mammy too, but I don’t remember much, just blue, blue and more blue.

Me and Mammy don’t live on farm no more.

Now we live with Dusk, in drippy flat, in Big City. It ain’t so big really, but it’s fun talking to wet wallpaper faces, making songs out of clangly bells from the church nearby.

Mammy complains drippy flat ain’t big enough for us.

I ask if she’ll go away Dusk again, but she kisses me then, looks me in the eyes big, promises me never, never again. We’re her precious little heroes me and Dusk, she says. What would she do without us?

I go, What about Nance, Mammy? Is she your hero too?

Mammy’s lips go stiff.

We’ve talked about this, Nate, she goes, holding me by the shoulders. You’re too old for that now. This needs to stop.

I go quiet.




Next Door Neighbours

Pic credits: MonkeyMyshkin https://goo.gl/7pSmxu

I knew my next door neighbour Mark had started selling pills – and maybe worse – for these bad guys who showed up in town a few months ago. Mark’s mom is strung out down in Cincinnati and she never talks to him so these bad guys made him feel like pretty hot shit. “We need you, Mark. You’re the man, Mark. Can’t do it without you, buddy.” I could hear it.

On Tuesday morning he came over to my place for coffee like he’s done every morning since my Winnie passed – never calls, just beats on my storm door till he nearly tears it off the hinges. I was in bed at the time, wrapped up in a snarl of sheets that I hadn’t washed for weeks or months. To tell the truth.

I made coffee while he yammered on and I spilled some Early Times into both mugs, a little hair of the dog for me, a little treat for him. He had on a brand new black Buckeyes hat and a brand new bright scarlet Buckeyes hoodie. Brand new jeans too. And boots.

“These guys – what are their names?” I started.

“Jerry and Bill.”

“You know Jerry and Bill work for some people you wouldn’t like to meet, right?”

“Whozat, Dale?”

“People who don’t give a shit about anything for starters. Least of all you.” I rubbed my eyes and yawned.

His eyes turned into little slits and he said, “At least I’ve got a job. That’s better than most people in this shithole town. You included, I hate to say it and no offense, but that does include you. How are you going to get a job if your ass is in bed at ten in the morning?”

“They got a leg up on us,” I said. “Why, I believe, in the spirit of entrepreneurialism, Jerry and Bill have detected a snag in the fabric of our community continuum. It seems they have gotten to clawing it wide open.”

“Jerry and Bill?”

“Jerry and Bill and their bosses. And their boss’s bosses. All the way back to the little farmers over in Afghanistan or wherever the fuck.”

Mark slurped his coffee and rubbed his forehead and sat there. It was easy to be jealous of his cash flow and I guess I was. A month and a half ago I worked at Walmart managing Lawn and Garden but they fired me because they said I showed up one morning drunk and late.

“It all starts down in Mexico now, they were saying,” Mark said. “They grow the poppies down in Mexico. You could spit on the fields from a boat in the ocean. I’d like to see that. Miles and miles of flowers all the way up to the waves. Beautiful.”

“Boy, they’ve really got you, don’t they?” I said.

“I might save up and go see that.”

“You couldn’t walk two miles from your front door without turning back for home.”

“Maybe, but maybe that ain’t me anymore either. I might go see Stonehenge or the Spinx or Paris, France.”

“Sphinx.”

“What?”

“You said Spinx. You pronounce it Sphinx. F sound.”

“Since when do you give a shit about the F sound?”

Anyway, I’d been at Walmart three months and before that I worked for a little company that serviced and filled vending machines, but they went under, which was no surprise to me. At Walmart, I’d only applied for a grunt level sales associate spot, but I guess my resume looked alright so at the interview, Walmart said, “How’d you like to start out as a department manager?” To which I’d replied as politely as I could without completely losing my shit, “That’d be great.” I kept my hands folded in front of me while they went on about the job and when they were done, when the whole thing was done, we all stood up and shook hands and I said, “Really looking forward to it.” And they said, “So are we, most definitely.”

Mark’s phone rang in his pocket and he jumped. Really jumped out of his chair. He answered it and stepped into my tiny little living room. But if he was trying to hide something, it didn’t work. A roach could fart in the kitchen and I’d hear it clear back in the bedroom.

Mark’s side of things went like this: “Hey. Bill.” “I mean Jerry, sorry.” “Things are good.” “Real good.” “Okay, I’ll be there.” “10:00PM.” “Yep, 10:00 PM, yep.” “I’ll put it all in an attach case.” “An attaché case, I mean. Yeah.” “How are you – oh, you hung up.”

When he came back into the kitchen, I said, “Got yourself a meeting with Jerry and Bill at ten tonight? Gonna drop off the haul and pick up some more product?”

“Sorry, Dale. That’s need to know information and you happen to be a person who don’t need to know,” he said. “Company secrets.”

I started to say, “But I heard you just now conducting your shit business right in my living room,” but I let it go and just said, “Okay, Mark,” and finished my coffee.

I don’t make excuses for myself. I am what I am and right now that’s a middle-aged, unemployed redneck living in his dead fiancé’s singlewide. I also don’t mind saying that Lawn and Garden job was like a stab of white hot hope, a vein of gold scribbled on a seam of lignite. I started on a Monday and the Sunday before, I went to church which I had not done since Winnie passed. I figured it was time to give the Divine another shot. I even wore my suit. My suit, the only suit I’ve ever owned – a charcoal gray outfit with pinstripes and wide shoulders – was what I wore to my Walmart interview and to my senior prom twenty-five years ago. I slid into a pew at the very back while the people were on their feet with their hands raised up and their hands were like the faces of daisies scanning the sky for more light. But the lights were low in the church except up in the pulpit. A spotlight engulfed the pastor’s face, a face that shined down on us and shot-gunned the Good News over our heads every minute or so. I thought I was revived.

I didn’t see Mark the next day and since I didn’t have anybody to open up the door for, I stayed in bed, though one time I did get up. The cicadas were screeching and I stepped outside and pissed in the grass and sucked in a giant lungful of night air – thick and hot, filled with the reek of decaying alfalfa and the sludgy mud that builds up after a thunderstorm. Around here, the mud never seems to dry up.

My dreams were full of monstrous Winnies. In one, we were on a date to Olive Garden. Everything was normal until the waitress asked us if we wanted to pay a quarter apiece to sample the wine. I said sure and the waitress poured it, this pink sweet stuff in a green bottle. I said, “Now there’s fifty cents I’ll never get back.” I looked at Winnie and the thin, pale skin of her face was suddenly pocked with holes. Dime sized holes. Her cheek and jaw muscles and all the jaggy nerves stuck out. The holes grew and grew until everything slid away – her eyes and nose, her long brown hair – it all slid into a goopy pile on the table. Her skull said, “But you got me, baby.”

When Mark finally came around a few days later, he had a black eye, a bad one, and he was limping. The eye was swelled up and solid purple. He was in his old overalls and old boots, the laces trailing along behind him.

“Holy shit.”

“I fell down the porch steps. Tripped on my own feet like an idiot.”

I passed him my menthols and matches and went to the kitchen to start the coffee maker. When I came back with a couple of steaming mugs, there were two crushed-out butts on the table and a third cigarette half smoked and hanging from his bottom lip. He was touching his eye with his fingertips and sucking in little puffs of air.

Eventually, he said, “You think Lawn and Garden is hiring?”

“Maybe. I don’t really know.”

“I was thinking you could put in a good word for me.”

“My word don’t mean much at Walmart.”

We sat at the table while the morning sun washed over us and threw our shadows onto the table top and down onto the linoleum. We smoked all the cigarettes and eventually the coffee pot was empty. It gurgled and hissed and popped on the warming plate and I just sat there and let it. But Mark said, “You better turn that off. You’ll burn down Winnie’s trailer.”




The Butterfly

V:

The gods told men; ‘dance and we shall observe’.

The first time I climbed the pole my father beat me. I was eight. My family were back at the restaurant, it was after the lunchtime rush, everyone was taking their siesta, so I slipped out the back and ran to the deserted town square.

Tito was shouting at me not to do it.

It didn’t take long to climb and I wasn’t afraid to fall. I sat on the capstan but didn’t dare to stand up, or lean back to acknowledge the glowing sun. Not yet. Looking down, Tito was a long way off almost in another world, and I felt like a brightly plumed quetzal bird, or the butterfly I was named after. I stayed there ‘til the light was fading from the day and the shadows were growing longer. I thought about tying the rope around my waist and jumping from the cuadro, but I didn’t dare, and was it part of the magic if the others weren’t there?

Tito eventually grew tired of shouting at me to come down from the bottom of the pole, so he ran and got my father, who threatened that he would come up there and get me if I didn’t come down right away. ‘It is bad luck for a woman to fly,’ he said as he beat me. But mother stopped him saying, ‘She’s not a woman yet Pedro, please stop. There will be no bad luck. Our family have been flyers for hundreds of years, of course Vanesa would want to become a voladora, of course she would.’

According to a Totonac myth, 450 years ago there was a drought that brought hunger to our people. The gods withheld the rain because they thought the people had neglected them. The ceremony of the voladores was created to appease the gods and bring back the rains. The tallest tree in a nearby forest is cut down (with the permission of the mountain god), stripped of its branches and dragged to the village. The trunk is erected with much ceremony. Five youths climb the pole and four jump off while the fifth plays music. The ritual pleased the rain god Xipe Totec so the rains began again and the fertility of the earth returned.

I’m the sixth child in a family of six boys and two girls, Tito is my youngest brother. Him and my other brothers will be the ones who get to carry on the family tradition of pole flying. It’s not fair. But like Papa says, it’s taboo for a woman to fly.

 

L:

The first time that I went to Mexico was when I was 16. It was during what turned out to be the last holiday I took with my mum and grandma to North America where my grandma’s sister had gone after the war as a GI bride. She’d had three daughters and they lived in Florida, Tennessee and Texas. We visited all three states. Whilst we were staying with the cousins in Texas, we crossed the border into Mexico for a weekend, went to the Angel Falls. I bought a silver abalone ring for my mother which I wear on my little finger to remember her by.

 

V:

Being forbidden to follow the family tradition, I went to study history in Mexico City and graduated with honours, then I got a job working at the Museo Nacional de Antropología. If I had thought going to the city would help me leave my family behind, my plan did not work, as just 100 metres from the museum there is a pole where every day flyers perform this very ritual. If I wanted, every lunchtime, I could go and sit a while in the shade of the trees surrounding the museum, listen to the snakelike pipe and pitta-pit-pit of the drum and watch a group of voladores perform their dance for tourist dollar.

The caporal leads with his flute and drum, the dancers start dancing in circles on the ground below the pole. Each melody relates to a request to the gods, asking to serve our people and humankind. Then they climb the pole and when they reach the top they sit on the wooden frame. As the caporal stands and starts playing, the flyers time their movements to his melodies. Then they make the leap of faith from the top of the pole; they attach the cord to their waists, and just let themselves go.

 

L:

The next time I came to Mexico I ended up staying for good. That wasn’t the plan. I was taking a year off, I couldn’t face going to uni straight after mum died, so went travelling round South America with my girlfriend of the time. The trip had made us realise that we didn’t actually get on, and we had parted ways amicably in Ecuador, where she had hooked up with a bunch of surfing Italians. We still had our tickets to go home in about a month’s time on the same date, so we said we would see each other again at the airport in Mexico City. I made my way up to Mexico not without some problems, a single guy travelling alone seemed to be more of a target for unwanted attention than a group, and I was lucky that I only nearly got into the wrong taxi one time.

When I arrived at the beach at Playa Del Carmen, I quickly made friends with some of the backpackers there. I had a little fling with a redhaired Irish girl from London who had just got to Mexico and still had that pinkish burned tinge to her soft skin, but she was travelling in the opposite direction to me, so although we swapped numbers, I never saw her after she and her friend left to go and see the amazing animals of the Galapagos. I was enjoying sleeping all day in a hammock in front of the Caribbean, drinking beers and eating grilled cheese and ham sandwiches in the many bars, talking to chilled out Europeans and Americans, but I thought it was about time that I made my way slowly back to Mexico City to wait for Angela. When we saw each other again maybe we might find that splitting up had been a huge mistake. I did miss her on those long hot nights, lying in my hammock, as the palm leaf roof rustled in the breeze and the waves crashed on the shore. I wondered if she was still with the Italian surfers. She had been flirting with one of them from the moment we met. I wondered if they had got together.
V:

You throw yourself into the void and lie on your back, the body weight of each voladora makes the cord unravel very slowly and as we descend, we lift up our legs and with our feet, we take the cord and just let ourselves go. Flying upside down I forget I have feet – what need do I have of feet when I have wings to fly? Our costumes have a profound symbolism related to nature and flight. The multicoloured streamers that flow from our hats symbolise birds, representing life and harmony. The colours symbolise blue for male, yellow for female; red means the beginning and the green colour symbolises nature. Our costumes are mainly made of white, which means the end, because everything comes to an end.

L:

Before I went to the beach, I visited some of the Mesoamerican pyramids with Angela. When we first got to Mexico City, we were staying in this busy big old colonial hotel where there were sounds of building works going on all night, not far from the Zócalo. We went to Teotihuacan on a bus from the Del Norte bus terminal. We sat and ate lime flavour crisps on the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and I got terribly sun burnt, as I had left my suncream back at the hotel and Angie’s was running out.

Playa del Carmen was not far from Tulum, which was the one historic site in the travel book that me and Angie had actually put both a star and a tick by before separating, so I got together with a group of German and British backpackers in the beach bar one drunken night and we decided to travel there the next day. Tulum was a very different experience to Teotihuacan. Maybe it was because I had been dragged round Teotihuacan on a sticky hot day and there was no shelter from the sun’s unforgiving beams, and we had no budget to buy bottled water from the sellers there, so I was slightly sun-mad. Or maybe it was because I was realising that Angie and me weren’t the real thing, that I remember Teotihuacan with more of a sense of emptiness than anything else.

Tulum overlooks the Caribbean Sea, and the water is as dreamily azure as you would expect, and the sand below the cliffs is suitably soft and white, and turtles crawl out of the sea when it’s their time to breed and lay their eggs on the beach below. I didn’t see any turtles, though I wondered if my Irish girl had made it yet to the Galapagos where she might see the very same turtles that would one day lay their eggs on the beach I was looking at. For the first time in this trip, maybe since my mum had died, as my temporary new friends were laughing and taking photos of the ruined fort, I sat looking out at the sea, and I felt that I could be happy again.
V:

The second time I climbed the pole was after my father was dead.

I had gone back to our village for the funeral. My father had kept flying until he was in his fifties, but then a torn ligament in his leg meant he had to stop. For this strong healthy man it was the start of a fast decline and it was out of the blue when my mother phoned me sobbing to tell me he had died. Once he was no longer able to train with my brothers, he started sitting in the restaurant kitchen all day, drinking wine that was meant for the customers, and telling my mother that her chili needed more beans. He did not tell her how ill he was, that the torn ligament was an excuse, that the wine was for the pain, that it was down on his lungs and that there was no treatment.

After the funeral my mother handed me my father’s hat with its long many-coloured ribbons, each colour with its own meaning.

‘At the end he was sorry he never let you fly, Vanesa. He knew how much you wanted to. He was sorry he made you run away.’

‘I didn’t run away Mama,’ I said. ‘I wanted to learn about our heritage, I wanted to work somewhere that I could help keep our past alive.’

My mother clasped her hands around mine. ‘The way you must do that is to fly. Tito will show you how. Your father wanted you to. There are some women now; voladoras. It’s not bad luck, of course it’s not, it never was. The gods want women to fly just as much as men.
L:

Back in Mexico City I couldn’t get over the green Beetles. All the cabs are green Volkswagen Beetles. I sat in the Zócalo, under the polluted yellow sky, having a beer in one of the bars facing the square, watching the steady stream of cars, horns blaring, tyres screeching as they circled, I thought to myself, this is my life, I am 19 years of age, I am an orphan, and I don’t want to go back to Bristol, I don’t want to go to university, could I stay here and never go home?
V:

It was the day after my father’s funeral. We awoke early, my mother, my sister Linda and my six brothers all went to the square together before anybody else in the village. I was dressed in my father’s costume, which my mother had taken in so it fit. I had tied my hair into plaits and then pinned them close to my head. My brother Tito was our caporal, our sun. Me, my older brothers Mani, Pablito and Esteban would make the corners of the square around him; representing earth, air, fire and water. The twins Miguel and Luis had come with us to give support they said, but then they had to get back to the restaurant and start preparing food for lunch, they had never liked heights and when my father had gotten ill the family had to train another boy from the village, as the twins refused to take part.

My brothers showed me the dances at the bottom of the flagpole, but I knew them already, I’d been watching people fly since I was a baby, and even when I’d moved to Mexico City I’d been watching the voladores in the Chapultepec Park almost every day for the past four years. Tito played the pipe and drum to set our rhythm.

And then we climbed into the sky. And then we danced at the top of the platform to honour the gods. I saw nothing below, only the clouds above with their reddening blush. Tito danced on the capstan, playing his music. Then he stood still. And then one by one, my brothers let themselves slowly down and I tightened the rope around my waist and I leant back. I could hear my family below applauding in support.

As I let myself gently fall into the void, I felt the pole slip out of my reach. I slowly twisted and spun upside down. The ribbons from my father’s hat flowed out behind me as we circled the pole, spinning slowly, and as the sun rose I had to close my eyes, but even with them shut, I danced in the air and I knew this was the place that I was meant to be.

We circle the pole 13 times each, a total of 52 circuits, or the number of years in the Aztec calendar.  

 

L:

It was under a week before I was supposed to go back to the UK. I felt like there wasn’t much waiting for me there. My grandma was in a home, I had no brothers or sisters, and I hadn’t spoken to my dad since he left us. He didn’t even come to mum’s funeral. He sent some flowers. Irises. She hated irises ever since she’d had to draw them in art lessons at school and got an E. I went back to the hotel, there was still hammering from whatever work they were doing, which was probably why it was so cheap, and I lay on the big double bed. I looked through the Lonely Planet guide which Angela and I had bought in Waterstones in Bristol that weekend almost a year ago when we’d started planning our trip. There were the places with the ticks next to them that I wanted to see and the things with the stars next to that she had wanted to see. There weren’t many things that had both a tick and a star next to them, which perhaps should have told us a bit about our suitability, or lack of, as travelling, or maybe even life, companions.

There was still the Museum of Anthropology to see, I decided I’d visit it the next day, it was not too long a walk from the hotel, and I could take a look at the famous Bosque de Chapultepec, maybe sit and eat a sandwich there, then check out the National Art Museum as well.
V:

When I throw myself off the pole to fly, I forget I am an individual, I am part of the whole. For me to fly is a sensation of freedom, I feel like I am a bird drifting on currents of air. My mind flies when I am upside down, I see the world from another perspective.

I decided that I would quit my job at the museum and move back to the village, where I would join my brothers as the first voladora in our family, keeping our traditions alive. I was working out my last week at the museum when I met him.

L:

I was drawn by the music I could hear through the trees. It sounded odd, slowed down, a sort of rhythmic lack of rhythm. I followed the sound and I saw a spectacular sight. Four men suspended upside down, hanging by their heels, spinning slowly around a tall pole, as the man at the top of the pole played a spiky tune on some sort of flute.

I was walking towards them, looking up, so I didn’t see the girl that I bumped into. Her carton of drink and sandwich fell to the ground.

‘Lo siento,’ I say in my best GCSE Spanish accent. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I add, so she doesn’t start talking to me in Spanish.

‘It’s all right,’ she says, wiping bits of salad off of her chest. But she looks annoyed.

‘I was watching the… the display.’

‘The dance of the Voladores de Papantla,’ she says. ‘A Mexican tradition. They’re here every day.’

‘I’m going home soon, I probably won’t get a chance to see them again, but they are amazing,’ I say.

‘Where are you from?’ she asks.

‘Bristol. In England.’

She is much shorter than me. She has pretty dark eyes and long straight black hair. Her smart white shirt has been stained green by the sandwich.

‘Can I get you another sandwich, another drink?’ I ask.

‘I should go and try to wash this off. My lunch break is almost over. It’s my last week, but I don’t know what they’ll think if I come back like this.’

‘Oh, do you work at the museum? I was going there next. Any galleries you recommend?’

Without really noticing it, we have started walking towards the museum, away from the voladores who haven’t even finished their display and are still slowly circling the pole to that tune.

‘Sure, there are maps in the foyer, I can mark some things of interest for you, once I’ve washed my top.’

‘I feel bad that I’ve messed up your shirt and ruined your lunch,’ I have an idea so I stop and dump my rucksack on the floor, start looking in one of the pockets. ‘Here you go!’ I take out a delicate silk scarf that I’d bought from a bright-eyed girl walking along the beach at Playa del Carmen, thinking I might give the butterfly print fabric to Angela as a parting gift. I hand it to the girl whose shirt I’ve ruined. ‘If you wear this you could hide the stain.’

She looks at the scarf, then at me oddly. ‘I can’t take this,’ she says. ‘It’s lovely.’

‘You can give it back to me later,’ I say, with what I am hoping is my most charming smile. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Vanesa,’ she says. ‘It means butterfly.’
V:

I never gave Luke his scarf back. He was waiting for me after work, and we walked to a favourite cantina where he insisted on buying me a drink and a taco. I noticed the shell ring that he was wearing and he told me about his mother and his life in England. He told me about his girlfriend and how he didn’t think they would be getting back together. I had never really thought about going to England before, but I thought it would be nice to visit him.

I told him I had quit my job to go back to my village and become a voladora. I told him all about the ceremony. We stayed talking in the cantina until we were both quite drunk. He kissed me and asked if I’d like to see him the next day. His mouth was soft and his beard tickled my bottom lip. As we walked back to my apartment arm-in-arm we must have made an odd-looking couple. Luke is tall and his hair has almost been bleached white by the sun, his skin is a golden brown. I am little and dark. Men rarely look twice at me.

I didn’t ever go back to work at the museum, I phoned them and told them I was sick, had the vomiting bug that everyone was getting. Luke and I spent the rest of the week together. We didn’t talk about what was going to happen after he got his flight back and I returned to my family.
L:

It was not the same as it had been with Angie, it was not the same as it had been with the Irish girl, it was not the same as it had been with anybody else. Although I knew from the moment I met her, it was the day before I was due to go home I told her. ‘I’m not going to go, I’ve decided I’m going to get a job and stay here with you. If you want me to…’ She kissed me.
V:

I kissed him. ‘Of course I want you to stay. But have you really thought about this? Your ticket…’

‘I’ll see if I can cash it in,’ he said. ‘Give me a bit of breathing space.’

‘What about Angela? She’ll be expecting to meet you at the airport.’

‘I’ll go, I’ll tell her. Say goodbye. There’s nobody waiting for me at home Vanesa, my grandma doesn’t know what day of the week it is. I had a place at the University of Warwick, but I can always do a degree later. You said your college here was excellent.’

‘OK, yes!’ I say.
L:

To her the ritual is as important as breathing. I saw that the first time she took me back to her village and showed me how she flies. It’s not just a spectacle, but a ritual that has profound meanings, connects her deeply to her world.

Her family, and her village, all welcomed the tall British stranger in, and I felt that I had at last found a place to call home. A place to be me. Though I will never dare to climb the pole myself and I am always sick to the pit of my stomach ‘til she’s safely down, I understand how much a part of her it is to fly.
V:

We have to be fit to carry out the dance. The ceremony could last three hours or longer. We dance on the ground, then we fly, then we dance on the ground again, then fly once more.

I belong to a family of voladores, our blood has transmitted this ceremony from generation to generation. It is part of my being. I have watched since I was a baby. It was very easy to learn the steps, but it was not until I was 23 that I started to fly, that I really felt free, that I really became myself.

As I tie the rope around my newly flat stomach I look down into the crowd, like ants below us. I see my husband Luke’s blonde-white hair, a head above any of the other people. I see the dark shape he nestles in his arms, held safe until I come to the end of the dance and have my feet on the ground again.

I think of my father, holding me as a baby in his arms as he watched the flyers, and I hope that one day our daughter may also become a voladora.
THE END




On Being a Mermaid

I was five years old, swimming in tight circles around my Nonnie in the hot tub out back behind the old house in Fort Worth. She was visiting all the way from Slidell to see me, her first grandson. As the jets tickled my toes, I noticed something bobbing up and down amongst the bubbles attached to a gold chain that disappeared into the water just below her brunette hair. My hands reached out and plucked it from the froth.

“Nonnie, what’s this?” I asked. She took it from me, and rubbed it with her slender fingers, her nails always that same rusted shade of pink.

“This?” she asked. “This is my golden sand dollar.”

I had seen sand dollars before, but never a golden one.

“Do you want to know the story behind it?” she asked, the sliver of gold glinting in the summer sun. I nodded.

“Well… When I was just a young girl, I spent the summers like I always did. On the beach with my parents. One day, I went out by myself on a small boat we owned to try and catch some fish. But a storm grew overhead, and I was thrown from the boat! As I started to sink deeper and deeper into the ocean, I began to notice these pearlescent bubbles everywhere. There was flowing hair all around me in beautiful shades of red and green and blue. And right when I began to struggle to breathe, a pair of lips kissed me on the mouth! And I felt at peace. I could breathe, as long as their lips touched mine. Then a pair of strong hands swam me to shore. You know who it was?”

“Who?” I asked.

“The mermaids,” she told me. “Once we were on shore, they put in my hand this golden sand dollar and told me that from then on, I was one of them. And that not my children, but my children’s children would also be mermaids, like me.”

“You mean…?”

“That’s right. You’re just like me,” she said, finally releasing her grasp on the sand dollar and letting it fall beneath the surface of the water. “We’re mermaids, Alvin. We’re mermaids.”

*

The floor swayed as everyone boarded the old trawler boat. The sky was cloudless, the heat of the sun weighing down on the parts of the deck uncovered by the awning. My Nonnie was the first on board, her grey hair bouncing in all directions in curly ringlets. In her hands, she carried an urn, small and ghost white.

In my hands, I carried a cooler, filled to the brim with beer and ice. My mom told me to carry it for her from the car. Initially, I refused, complaining that an eighteen-year-old shouldn’t have to lug around alcohol he couldn’t even drink. But I obeyed. It wasn’t the kind of day to raise a fuss.

“Don’t you think it’s sorta in bad taste? You know, considering…” I said, trailing off, unable to say the words out loud.

“It’s what he would have wanted,” she said and started off towards the dock. My little sister Temperance and I shared a look, but I didn’t argue.

Once the rest of the family was on board, they scattered in packs to the far ends of the boat. Maybe because it wasn’t very large in size and everyone just needed some space to breathe. But, even then, I don’t think the Titanic would have been big enough to give everybody the space they needed for this particular voyage.

I stared out at the bay, trying not to let the swaying deck or the rank smell of fish get to me. In my hands, I was mindlessly crinkling a piece of paper that Nonnie had given me the night before. I had spent all night reading it, mulling over the words again and again until it was memorized. Until it was perfect.

*

“It’s a poem. I’d like you to read it tomorrow after I’m done giving the eulogy,” she said.

“Why me?”

“Because we are the only ones strong enough,” she said, the familiar fragrance of chardonnay on her breath. I nodded, but didn’t particularly agree. I sure as hell didn’t feel strong. But she placed her hand on my shoulder with those same rusted pink nails, her eyes looking out at the sunset colored beach from the deck of the condo. With her other hand, she brought a Marlboro Light to her lips and breathed in deeply, the tip gleaming orange in the haze of dusk.

“I’m glad you’re here, Alvin,” she said, the smoke trailing in thin wisps from her nostrils. “We mermaids always do better when we’re at the beach.”

*

The boat began to sputter away from the dock and Port Aransas grew small behind us. I noticed the one crew member lurking in the shadows, this hulking man with skin burnt to leather. This man of faded tattoos and no right hand, lost to a propeller many years ago, with only scar tissue where it used to be. All that and he was still scared shitless of stepping on our toes. The uncertainty of the open ocean was one thing, but grief… That was something else entirely.

The ocean was still as we cut through the water, the waves tenderly lapping against the sides of the boat. The seagulls had perhaps taken the day off, because the sky was void of any signs of life. The only sound I can recall is the stammer of the boat’s engine. Nobody said much of anything, except for the odd attempt at small talk.

“My stomach hurts,” Temperance said.

“I told you that you should have eaten more for breakfast this morning,” my mom said.

“Breakfast sucked,” Temperance replied.

“I don’t think I did that bad of a job,” Aunt Betty said, fanning her slender face with an old straw hat in an attempt to keep the sweating at bay.

“John David always made the best breakfast,” Temperance said. The mention of his name brought a silence over the crowd.

“Well—” Aunt Betty started, stumbling to find any words that would come to her aid.

“You’re fighting a losing battle, Aunt B,” my mom said, breaking through the quiet in the way that she always did. “You’re going against a fond memory on this one. And those are the hardest to compete with.”

In the distance, the silhouette of a lighthouse stretched into view against an endless blue horizon. I couldn’t recall ever seeing a lighthouse in person before that day. In the movies, they were always portrayed as these shining beacons of hope. But as the boat’s engine cutting off marked our arrival and the lighthouse stared down at our sad little affair, I couldn’t help but feel all sense of hope ebb from my pores.

“Thank you to everyone for coming out today,” Nonnie said, standing resolute as she waited for everyone to gather around her at the stern. She wore sunglasses, but I could still make out the redness of her eyes that only tears can bring, those dark circles that can only be born from unrelenting and sleepless nights.

“I just wanted to say a few words before we started,” she said, continuing to talk, her lips forming word after word, the sum of their parts adding up to a eulogy to honor the memory of her dead son. But I couldn’t pay attention, haunted by the image John David’s waxen face in the communal coffin, the one that all the bodies due to be cremated are viewed in before the whole ashes to ashes, dust to dust thing.

*

They had called it a wake, but the word just didn’t seem to apply. The room was stuffy and small, every inch of the walls covered in the lingering air of death. When I used think about the end of a life, I imagined a cathedral with ornate portraits of stained glass. But it wasn’t like that at all. Everything was wrong.

My uncle.

Mine.

Mine?

Dead at forty-two from a steady diet of alcohol and drugs, his body finally calling it quits after countless scares.

That couldn’t be my life.

That couldn’t be my uncle.

When my mom told me that he was in the hospital again, I didn’t go to visit him. There are only so many times you can visit someone in the hospital for the same exact thing before it just becomes redundant. And it’s so damn easy to think of alcoholism as something someone does rather than a disease someone lives with. The lines get blurred, blame gets placed, and everyone tries so hard to come out the winner when it was never a winning game to begin with.

John David called me two days before he died. He sounded so tired, like his soul was worn out, through and through. I can’t quite recall the words we spoke, just the feeling. I was tired too. Maybe not in the same way he was tired, organs failing and skin yellow with jaundice. No, I was tired from hearing my mom crying in her room, scared that every ring of the phone would be that call telling her that – ding dong – her brother has finally died and that she doesn’t have to worry anymore. Even more than that, I think I was tired of being disappointed by the people I was supposed to be looking up to.

“I love you, JD,” I said, the last words I would ever say to him. I wish I had put more into it. I wish I had meant it and hadn’t been so angry.

“I love you too, bud,” he said. Then I passed the phone off to Temperance like it was an inconvenience, more akin to a burden than a goodbye.

*

“Now, Alvin would like to recite a poem that I asked him to read for the occasion,” Nonnie said to the people gathered around her. As I shuffled to stand beside Nonnie with all the eyes now turned to me, I pressed my sunglasses back into place with my forefinger. Sunglasses mean they can’t see you cry. But you can always hear it in the voice.

I cleared my throat, the sound catching somewhere on the way down as I unfolded the paper in my fist.

I began.

“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone.”

Someone in the audience coughed, and I took a second to breathe.

“Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.”

My chest tightened as I fought the quivering of my jaw, my eyes stinging from the wind or the words, I couldn’t tell. I felt hollow yet on the cusp of something, as if everything in my life were on the crest of a wave, ready to curl and bow and break everything I knew into tiny, little pieces until nothing would ever be the same again.

My mom cracked open a Michelob ULTRA, breaking the silence. The air hissed from the can, and I felt sick. As I shuffled back in amongst the crowd, Nonnie caught my eye. She nodded her approval as I stuffed the piece of paper back into my pocket. I took a sharp breath as she returned her gaze to the water.

Everyone watched as Nonnie for the final time cradled the urn, holding any last semblance of what was left of her son in her arms. She gently rocked it, just as gently as she cradled John David when he was a baby. When he was small and the world hadn’t reduced him to dust. When he could look into his mother’s eyes, reach out his hands to touch her cheek, and let out little peals of laughter like fresh spring rain. When she couldn’t even fathom the depth of pain that outliving a child brings.

I bit my lip and tasted blood as Nonnie went to the ship’s edge and pried her fingers from the urn. It splashed into the water, the lighthouse watching down on us from the shore. I closed my eyes and felt as if my whole body was submerged as John David’s ashes sunk deep beneath the water, the bubbles scattering all around me in tranquil chaos. Pearlescent bubbles and the soft touch of beautiful hair in shades of red and green and blue. And just as he slipped out of sight, lost forever to the depths of an insatiable ocean, I opened my eyes.

There were no pearlescent bubbles.

No hair in shades of fantastic colors.

I was old enough to know that the mermaids weren’t coming to save him.

Nonnie made her way to my side and got close enough to whisper in my ear, her golden sand dollar still hanging from her neck and reflecting the sunlight into my eyes.

“Mermaids sing their songs at morning tide and evening time,” she said, clutching my shaking hand into hers. “But on the day that you were born, they sang their songs all day long.”




Walls

The rain was coming down hard as I crossed the street. I ducked into the doorway of Dean’s building and rang the buzzer. The estate looked grim in the rain; scrubby lawns and the red tile roofs. My shoes were soaked. I could feel my toes sticking together inside my wet socks and I scuffed the ground, working them apart. Holding the buzzer down I leaned back, peering up at Dean’s bedroom window. It was dark and the curtains were drawn. The intercom crackled, latch clicked. I shoved the door open with my shoulder and began trudging up the stairs. Dean’s flat was on the third floor and I leaned on the banister, breathing hard and waiting for him to let me in. The glass in the door had been pasted over with newspaper. I heard the jangling of keys from inside and the slow thud of the bolt sliding back. Dean looked down at me through hooded eyes. He was wearing sweatpants and there was stubble on his jaw. I rolled my eyes at him and he lumbered to one side, making space for me. The hallway was dark and smelled like smoke. I peeled off my jacket and hung it over the radiator. Dean went to hug me, but I shrugged him off and strode into the living room. A blast of hot air hit me. I tapped the radiator. It scalded my fingers and I whipped my hand away. The television was playing an afternoon soap and there were several empty beer bottles on the table. I leaned against the wall, balancing on one foot then the other to pull off my shoes. Dean strolled past and flopped back onto the couch.

His sister Evie was sitting in the window seat with her back to the screen. She was drawing with a piece of charcoal, craning over a sketchbook.

“Hello, Evie.”

Her hand jerked and I heard a soft crunch as the charcoal snapped. She frowned at the stub still between her fingers.

“Hey, Nessa.”

She set the board aside, unfolded her legs, and climbed to her feet. She bent at the waist and pressed her fingers into the dark blue carpet, feeling around for the charcoal.

On the TV, a woman started screaming. Dean let out a laugh around the neck of his beer.

Evie straightened up and turned to the screen. She wiped her hands on her jeans, already covered in smudges. I noticed that she had a dark line running from one side of her nose to her chin and that her t-shirt was ragged at the hem. I sunk onto the couch beside Dean and frowned at the TV, twisting my skirt loose where it clung to my thighs.

“What’s happening?”

“Simon caught Mona sleeping with his girlfriend,” Dean answered, reaching into the box at his feet and offering me a beer.

“How many of those have you had?”

He shrugged. “A few.”

I could feel my face flushing now. The smoke in the room was tickling my throat. I knew I was spoiling for a fight. Evie dropped back into her seat, watching the TV.

“Why are you watching this?” I snapped.

“It’s priceless,” Dean laughed.

I scowled at him. He was giggling to himself. The women in the soap, both glamorously made up, were circling each other. I looked at Evie. Her eyes were fixed on the screen and her bottom lip was caught between her teeth. One of the women seized the other and pressed her against the wall. They began kissing passionately, hands raking through each other’s hair. There was a buzzing in my ears and I felt strangely giddy. Evie’s eyes remained on the TV but I thought I saw her teeth tighten on her lip. A whitish dimple appeared on her chin.

“This is ridiculous,” I scoffed.

One woman was peeling the other’s shirt off. The column of Evie’s throat twitched as she swallowed.

“I mean it’s just so unrealistic,” I cried.

A man barged in on the scene and began shouting, driving the two women apart.

Evie rose abruptly. I almost jumped. She hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her jeans and smirked down at me.

“I’m starving,” she said, “I’m going to order pizza.”

My heart was pounding. I felt as though all the blood had rushed to my face.

“Don’t,” I said, suddenly eager to please. “I’ll cook. I bet Dean’s eaten nothing but pizza for days.”

*

The kitchen was a disaster. I had to wash a heap of dishes and before I even looked in the fridge. When I did I found nothing but beers and a packet of cheese slices. I dashed out to the shop in the rain, splashing through chilly puddles in my sodden shoes. By the time I started cooking it was dark. The streetlamp outside shone, a ball of rosy light in the window above the sink. The kitchen was hot and full of steam. I wriggled out of my sweater and dragged my hair back into a ponytail to stop it sticking to my face. I’d made a pan of Bolognese and left it bubbling softly as I gathered up the last few dishes. I turned on the hot tap and leaned back against the counter, listening to the water splash into the bowl. The noise had a drowsy effect and I closed my eyes, beginning to feel calm.

All the time I’d been cooking, I had been listening, feverishly, for sounds throughout the flat. Dean had fallen asleep with his head tipped back against the cushions. Evie had slipped off to her room. I heard her moving about but she never came into the kitchen and I heard the low thump of her music when I switched off the tap.

Her room was wall to wall with Dean’s and when I lay in his arms some nights, unable to sleep, I would hear her music pulsing through. When I finally did drift off I always dreamed in black and white. Those were Evie’s colours. She was tall and slim, boyish about the hips and shoulders but with neat, full breasts. I liked the way she painted her eyes, drawing the pencil up in sharp flicks at the corners of each lid.

I loved to watch her draw and to hang around the flat when she was there, but I found myself unable to talk to her without feeling self-conscious. Sometimes, when she was out, I would creep over to the window seat where she left her sketches. I found drawings of Dean and Amy and all their straggler friends who wandered in and out of the flat. There were sketches of cats and birds she’d seen on the lawn, still lives of perfume bottles and jewellery, but there were never any of me. Maybe she thought I was ugly.

I heard her making love once. Some girl she’d brought back from a bar. I heard them giggling through the wall; Evie’s voice, urging the girl to be quiet. I heard the thump of springs and muffled cries. I lay awake, my left hand clutching the sheets, hardly daring to breathe. Dean was sleeping beside me and I could feel the weight of his arm on my stomach, his breath pooling beneath my ear. I wriggled carefully out of his grip and onto the cool side of the bed, closer to the wall. I could distinguish Evie’s moans from the other woman’s because Evie’s voice was deeper. Slowly I slid my hand down, over the soft curve of my belly, and slipped it under the lip of my briefs. I imagined Evie’s fingers linked with mine, the silver rings she wore flashing in the dark. I came silently, almost instantly, twitching through every limb. It felt like slipping down to the ocean floor and being destroyed by the pressure. I resurfaced with sweat cooling on my skin; Dean snuffling in his sleep beside me. I opened my other hand, letting the sheets fall loose onto my chest, and raised my palm before my face. Four little red crescents shone where my nails had bitten the skin.

The girl left afterwards. I’d heard her clattering about, gathering her things. There was a low exchange of words and I heard the rattle of keys and Evie plodding back to her room. I lay in the dark and imagined her dropping back into bed, pulling on a t-shirt and lighting a cigarette. I wondered if she felt tired, or happy, or used. I could almost feel the little aches in her muscles as I pictured her, as if I was trying to creep under her skin. Her music started up again. I wondered if she ever listened when Dean and I had sex.

*

I turned back to the sink, where the bowl was overflowing, and plunged my hands into the water. It was hot and my fingers lost feeling for a second as I rinsed a cup. There was a heap of cutlery at the bottom of the bowl and I rummaged through it, scrubbing the pieces one by one. The door behind me opened. I whirled around expecting Dean but Evie slouched over the threshold. She had rubbed most of her makeup off and only a slight bluish shadow remained around her puffy eyes. I wondered if she’d been crying. Her hair was tangled and there was a dullness about her movements as though she’d been asleep. She crossed the tiles and yanked open the fridge. I stood to one side, watching as she pulled out a carton of milk and took a long sip.

“Use a glass,” I said, before I could stop myself.

Evie lowered the carton and looked at me. I felt as though I was shrinking. I lowered my eyes, watched my hand turn in lazy circles in the sink, ripples swilling out from my wrist. I heard Evie sigh and the swish of her bare feet on the floor. I leaned back against the counter, hand still in the water, to allow her to get to the cupboard. She stopped in front of me, her body very close to mine. My eyes flicked up to meet hers. My mouth went dry. She was taller than me and my face was level with her collar. She leaned across me, her right arm reaching over my shoulder, only the smallest slice of air separating us. I felt my breath catch in my throat as the scent of her bed-warmed skin reached me. She moved away suddenly, cool air rushing in, and I saw that she had been reaching for a glass that stood upside down on the draining board. I sagged a little and wondered how I could possibly have started so pointless a job as washing Dean’s dishes.

Evie was staring at me. I cringed under the attention.

“What?” I snapped, face burning.

She snorted and shook her head. “Nothing.”

“Why are you laughing?”

“I’m not.” She looked up again and her face was sincere. “I just … I worry about you, you know?”

I gaped at her.

She shrugged, frowning as though searching for the right words.

“You seem smart, and you’re pretty. And Dean is…” She shook her head again. “I just wonder what you’re doing here.”

I stared at her but didn’t think I could speak. There was a lump in my throat that was choking me.

“I mean, he’s my brother and he’s cool but, I dunno … you just seem wound up,” she finished with a shrug.

I watched her fill the glass with milk. She put the carton back in the fridge before turning to leave the room.

I scrunched up my eyes as the door banged shut and, when I opened them, I was surprised to feel tears on my cheeks. I swung back to the sink and plunged my hands into the water. Feeling for the surface of the bowl, I grasped the first solid object under my touch and squeezed the fingers of my left hand around it. I jumped back suddenly, sending a shower of droplets through the air, and held my left hand up before my face. On the soft inside of each finger there was a deep clean cut. The pain came singing through and I hissed. I reached carefully with my right hand into the water and pulled out the kitchen knife. I dropped it back at once. Through the wall I heard a thud and the sound of someone moving about and I knew that Dean was awake.




Taddy Beer

Someone took a photo of my teddy bear. It doesn’t matter that a bit further on down the line, moth-eaten and dried, he finally fell apart. The image persists if anybody cares to look at it. Since the night of the flying foxes my mother does, that’s for sure. She can be very forgetful nowadays.

This alarms her but I’ve noticed that studying the brown-bear picture keeps her steady. Most likely, the sight of a cuddly toy makes everything else seem just as safe. For bear, think bearable! Life is more bearable when she’s occupied like this. She can breathe more easily. It feels as if there is all the time in the world. She is fending off the possibility of loss. And you could argue there’s a lot more scope for her in the image than with the bear itself. The image is a safe haven where she hoards whatever memories are left.

My mother taps at the beveled edge of the pic to focus my attention; make sure I am taking in the details. After a while though she’ll start to get restless because at another level she is hoping to find something more. She’s on the lookout for a sign of devotion in me. I always understood this but to start with I resisted.

The teddy’s sewn-on smile is his dominant feature. It was the best of him, not to be forgotten in a hurry. His wavy brown fur is abundant. A little faded, but maybe this is the pic itself. Either way, the photo of him is not quite the same as the him I remember, because in reality most of his fur was missing. I’d eaten it. Tearing it off his woven fabric torso with my gummy-teeth, chewing his crinkly ears. Or this is what I’m told.

“You loved your teddy bear,” my mother likes to say. “And you had such a sweet way of saying his name. It was so cute. Everybody laughed.”

She laughs too when she tells me this. It bursts out of her all in a fizz as she sags down in her high-backed chair or lies flopped out across the swingbed seat on the patio of her bungalow, if it’s a sunny afternoon. Her eyes squint whenever she brings up this subject, as though the flavour of the past is embedded in the words and she’s trying her very best to taste it.

After the bear had fallen apart my mother kept his kapok innards in a carrier-bag till she found someone who could remake him. He came back as tiny twins; one pink, one blue, each with a silky sheen.

“Look, it’s your teddy bear. Surely you can’t have forgotten him,” my mother said, holding a furry-shiny twin in either hand and leaning them forward as though in a comedy act. It was my eleventh birthday.

“How can it be?” I’d asked her.

“They’re made of the same stuff. Therefore they are one and the same,” she told me in glowing tones.

“But the bear is a brown colour in the photo,” I reminded her pointedly after a minute, my mother’s enthusiasm making my voice turn sullen.

“That’s of no consequence if it’s still the same substance underneath,” she muttered, now put out. Then she perched the twins on the edge of the mantelpiece next to my birthday cards and said no more on the matter.

I had my doubts. Apart from which I no longer cared about the original bear, let alone the twin bears. I was eleven years old and in my mind, well on the way to becoming a teenager. I could hardly take any interest in the subject.

My mother wanted me to admit to having a special feeling for this old bear and these new smaller bears. She wanted the two of us to share a love for them, but the more I saw this requirement in her eyes the faster I moved away from complying. The next day she took another photo, to have an up-to-date record. The twin baby bears – Castor and Pollux, as I was supposed to call them – are propped up against the pillow of a bed. I don’t think it could have been my bed because I always made good and sure to keep these twins well away from my personal space. But the pic is in the album with the other one all the same.

“You always had to have your teddy sitting next to your plate,” my mother was fond of recounting. “Otherwise you wouldn’t eat your tea. I’ll never forget the time we went to stay in that B&B in Budleigh Salterton and you screamed and hollered to have him on the table and the landlady said it would be alright in the end, but only because of the racket you were making. All the other guests in the dining room thought us a very funny family.” This observation always seemed to delight her.

“You called him Taddy Beer,” she’d say, her eyes turning misty; her voice flowing over into sentimental.

My mother exalted in constant reminders of this. She would never allow me to forget.

“Why did I call him that?” I sometimes asked her, to be encouraging, when I’d become old enough to no longer fear her cellophaning me into a fairy-tale world from which I would never escape. For I now recognised that these simple words linked the past and present for her, giving a sense of unity.

“You were saying Teddy Bear, of course. That’s the way his name came out on your baby lips. I tried over and over to tell you the right way to pronounce this but it didn’t make the least bit of difference.”

The attachment my mother had always felt took on a further dimension recently, after she’d had a scary dream. She’d heard this awful howling coming from somewhere at the bottom of her garden, is what she had claimed. Then these foxes with wings had flown out above the line of trees and attacked her. They had torn at her head till it split open and all her precious memories tumbled out into a trashy heap and were then pulled away forever, strand by flimsy strand. I’d reminded her till I was exhausted from repeating it, that we used to walk Taddy Beer out in my go-cart down the woodland path on sunshiny days when I was little and nothing nasty had ever happened to us. It took a lot of persuasion to get her to even go into her garden again. But finally she was soothed.

*

We are sitting on the patio. It’s a late summer afternoon. My mother has her photo album resting against her knees. This is the sanctuary where her precious images are stored. She is peering across at the line of bushes and trees by the edge of the garden as though she’s on the lookout. I glance at her quickly but am relieved to see she appears to be ok. There’s a fond expression on her face. She looks serene. Her eyes seem hopeful, as if any minute now she’s expecting to see a small seated figure appear in the darkening foliage. Someone she can rely on to help her hold herself together. She raises one hand slightly and holds it in the air. As though she’s getting ready to wave.




Symbiosis

Pic Credits: Ana Bernardo https://goo.gl/PkNKWg

My skin rooted to the ground. It stretched out from my body, pushed in between the leaves and dug into the soil. Blood retreated from my hands and feet and settled in my lower belly, anchoring me to the ground.

My heart was still. My veins had no oxygen or blood. My organs shut down. There was a niggling sensation in my gut; bacteria perhaps, decomposing me. I should be dead.

I was alive.

I knew, because I could still see. There was the foliage, the birch tree spreading its net of branches beneath the yellow-pink sky. Night turned to day and my eyes had logged it all.

I was breathing through my skin, like a plant.

I remembered.

I’d stepped on a loose stone. I hadn’t looked at the path that moment, my gaze was on the pass, just fifty metres away, where the trail dipped down into the valley onto steadier ground, to journey’s end. I should have kept my eyes on the stones. The mountainside was one long field of scree, there were loose stones everywhere and the rain made them so slippery. I should have remembered hiking accidents happened on the way down, when your body was cold and tired, and you only saw the finishing line.

I lost my balance, tripped, tumbled. Wind whipped me, rain pricked my skin, branches battered me as I hurtled past the tree line and there was the ground. The stone grew large in my vision and took everything away with a slam.

*

Hellie Andersson became casualty. A name on a list. Another ignorant hiker who thought she could beat the elements and conquer the mountain, but forgot that to go up, she had to go down. Mountain rescue would spot me if I was lucky, ship me off to a mortuary, wash me, put me on display for my parents before my body was boxed in a coffin. There’d be a small feature on the news, the world would pat my parents on the shoulders as they mourned the loss of their little girl. My post mortem claim to fame.

Mount Elgåhögna was on the Norwegian side of the mountain range; hikers were rare here, the closest hiking station was across Lake Femunden, thirty kilometres away. Most likely, I would rot away here on the slope, using the stone that killed me for a pillow.

But my skin had rooted itself to the ground. Earth connected with my fingers and nudged casualty away.

I remembered.

*

“Painting is about connections, Hellie.” Great Aunt Selma put the brush back on the rack. She leaned back on the stool and looked at the canvas. “It helps us communicate with places. Each brush stroke is a spoken word.”

My seven-year-old self stared at the painting. It depicted a young woman with ivory skin and hair made of birch leaves, staring at her reflection in a pool. Behind her was a wizened birch, and beyond it, the outlines of a mountain.

“Mount Elgåhågna,” Selma said softly. “I’ve never felt such a connection to a place before. It’s as if the mountain was alive…”

“How, Auntie?”

“It’s difficult to explain, sweetheart… It was almost as if the earth reached out to me…”

“Did you meet the tree lady?”

Selma laughed. “The tree lady is a myth, Hellie. Norwegian folklore, remember?”

“Huldra,” I remembered, nodding. “Woman at the front, tree at the back, guardian of the forest.” I cocked my head to the side and folded my arms. “Why have you painted her if she wasn’t there?”

Selma pulled a hand through her silver hair. “I was trying to make sense of what I saw…”

“Saw what, Auntie?”

“It’s difficult…”

“Please!”

 Selma sighed, looked at me and smiled. “You are an insistent one, aren’t you?” She reached over and stroked my hair. She smelled of turpentine. “That’s why your Dad sent you over here, wasn’t it?”

“He never has time for my questions.”

“I think it’s more he doesn’t like giving answers.”

Selma withdrew her hand. She picked up one of the palette knives, which looked more like cake spades than knives, and scraped the battle-grey layers out over the mountain incline, smoothing out Elgåhogna’s face. She cocked her head to the left, appraising the work, then wiped the knife on the cloth and put it back on the rack. She swivelled around on her stool to face me. Tucked a loose hair behind her ear.

“It was on this hike,” Selma began. “I’d ran out of water and saw this pond. There was a stream trickling into it that I thought would be good for drinking. I was filling my bottles when suddenly I got very sleepy… I assumed it was the heat, I closed my eyes and remember feeling this tickling sensation in my fingertips – for a moment I couldn’t move, it was as if my body had rooted to the ground…”

Selma turned, picked a brush and ran it slowly over her left palm, tracing the wrinkles netted on her skin. “It was probably just a mirage, a trick of the light…”

The brush stopped. Its hairs hovered above Selma’s canvas-white skin. She swallowed two times. “I could have sworn my palm was made of wood.”

*

A tickling sensation travelled through my rooted skin, into my fingertips. It climbed up the underside of my arm, tucked around my earlobes, trickled down my spine, branched out across my shoulder blades and shinnied all the way down to my toes.

My fingers lifted off the ground. My arms followed; there was a creak and a crack, splinters fell to the ground.

I sat up. I raised a hand to my face. Turned it around.

Shit.

My palm was covered in wood.

I prodded my palm with my finger, curled a nail underneath a splinter and nearly dropped my hand back down as pain flashed up my arm.

Shit. I looked up and down my body. There was my skin, human skin, smooth canvas white against the sun. It itched, as if someone had rubbed it with gesso and then sandpapered out all the cuts and bruises I must have got from the fall. I bent my legs slightly and drew in a sharp breath.

My hamstrings and shins were rotten. Damp, moist, dank; they smelled of dead things. I gagged. Covering my mouth with my hand, I prodded the mulch. My finger sank through. I was poking a hole in my goddamn flesh.

I looked around me. Clothes, I thought. Where were my clothes? I had to cover myself, I couldn’t look at this thing splayed out beneath my torso any second more. Where the hell were they? I looked in all directions. Could the mountain have taken… no, no, that was insane. There weren’t such things as clothes-stealing mountains.

I spotted my rucksack tucked against a bush ahead of me. It must have rolled there when I fell. Perhaps I could empty all the crap and crawl inside, use it as a sleeping bag. That could work, right?

I tried to move towards it, but the wooden filaments in my limbs creaked so badly I thought they might break. I thought of the many times I’d snapped a branch off a tree when I was young. How much would it take to snap my limbs? Two hands, five minutes of bending? Would the human part of me resist? I stroked the wood on my arm, brought my hand to my neck. Would I hurt more as a tree?

From somewhere above me a jay called. It swooped into view, bouncing off the air, skirting the green ridges of the pine trees.

I looked up in the sky, wincing in the stark light – heard another jay; maybe the partner of the first.

Bet they’re laughing at me, I thought.

A wind gushed down from behind; it rattled my wooden fingers and rustled my leaves.

Leaves?

I brought a hand to my head. Leaves brushed against my wooden fingertips. I twisted one off. Just like snapping a hair strand, it didn’t hurt.

The straps on the rucksack flapped in the wind; waved at the lake, which glowed as if someone had etched resin into it, trying to get the hiking station’s attention.

I imagined the conversation mountain rescue would have if they searched for my body:

“Must have hit her head on the stone. Blood, concussion, hypothermia.”

“Where is her body?”

“Could a bear or wolf…?”

“Or the river?”

“You think she just walked off, without her rucksack?”

“Hypothermia can cause delirium.”

“People walk away from themselves up here…”

I imagined what the people at home would think if they saw me.

“Monster.”

“Freak.”

“Don’t look, children, don’t look.”

“Burn the horrid creature!”

I imagined my Dad coming at me with a flaming torch.

At least damp wood didn’t burn.

“They’d chop me up in little pieces,” I said aloud. “My sap would spread all over the ground.” I frowned. Would a tree bleed like a human? Could you die two times? Had I even died in the first place?

Painting is about connections, Hellie.

Connections. I drew a finger along my wooden arm again, softly, scaling the hard ridges, tracing the spots where my old, human skin had rooted to the ground. Did the mountain know I’d helped Auntie paint it? Had it helped me recharge myself, when I hit the stone?

*

“The brush is like a wand, Hellie. If you know how to hold it, you can create magic with it.” Selma handed me a brush. “Here, have a go.”

“But what if I ruin it?”

“Of course you won’t ruin it. The bulk of the work is done. All that’s left now is blending. Smoothing out the paint strokes, adding turpentine to thin out the layers in the sky and on the Huldra’s skin, sharpening the Huldra’s facial features with the contour pencil…”

“But I have no talent…”

“Talent is a silly word, Hellie. Art doesn’t spring out of people like a jack in the box. It grows, like a tree.”

Selma got off the stool, sliding carefully down, putting her weight on her good leg, waving my arm away as I made to help her. She motioned me to take her place. The turpentine smell washed over me as she placed her delicate fingers around my wrist and guided my hand towards the canvas.

“The trick is to not be in control. If you lean up close to the painting and pinch the brush hard at the top, you won’t let the magic out. You won’t get perspective. You have to let the painting paint itself.”

With her free hand, Selma picked up another brush from the rack. “Hold the brush like this, between index and thumb. Further back… that’s it.”

Our joined hands guided the brush along the canvas. Midnight green shadows crept along the moss lining the hill rise. We switched brushes, opting for the contour lines to sharpen the Huldra’s features.

“There you go, the shadows are coming. Look at them, drawing lines on the arms, giving shape. Look at the Huldra, coming alive.”

*

“Is that what I am?” I asked aloud. I frowned at how quiet my voice was. I repeated the words; slowly, articulating each syllable, hand at my throat. My voice grinded and creaked, swallowed by the landscape before it had fully left my tongue.

I looked around. The landscape was identical to the one in Selma’s painting; the stone fields of the mountain sloped down into the lichens and dwarf willows, granite grey blending into moss green and goldenrod yellow; thickening in the forest-green under-layers of the pines.

The pool with the birch tree was just a few metres away. I tried standing up, but my legs were too stiff. I placed my hands on the ground, arms straight, splayed out my fingers, and hauled myself over the mountain carpet, deadweight legs carving a two-track path behind me. I reached the pond, pulled my legs up to the side, parted my leaves and gazed at my reflection in the water.

My face was a shade darker, as if someone had coated it in linseed oil. The freckles lines under my eyes had become faint scores, like the beetle tracks in old tree trunks. The colour of my eyes had changed too. Evergreen, instead of cloudy blue.

Just like the Huldra in Auntie’s painting, I leaned further forward, until my whole torso stretched out above the glossy water. “Did you know the myth was real, Auntie?” I said to my reflection. “Did you know the … mountain, knew? Or did you just not want to be lonely anymore?”

I leaned closer to the water. “Are you a Huldra too?”

A breeze caused one of my leaves to fall into the pond. Rings scuttled over the surface, drawing another memory.

*

“The painting haunts me.”

July 15th, 3 pm. My seventeen-year-old self walked my great aunt out of the hospital, towards the car park where Dad was waiting. She’d just had her second injection of cytotoxins. She wore a wig to cover the thin, soft tufts that remained of her own hair. She’d lost at least three pounds in the last year, her hands were red and swollen.

“It’s in my dreams, every night… I tried to paint it away. Portraits, animals, city landscapes… Everything just turned into the Huldra.”

“The doctors have told you not to paint. Your joints…”

“Need exercise,” Selma said. “Those doctors aren’t painters.”

She slowed to halt, wrung her hands. She smelled of petroleum today, as well as turpentine. “I know it’s not just the bone cancer that makes my hands feel wooden. The mountain calls me, Hellie.” She looked at me. “I need to go back.”

“Look, Auntie, it’s just the meds. They’re making you blab, you don’t know what you’re saying…”

“I know perfectly well what I’m saying, sweetheart. If I’m ever to finish that painting…”

“I thought you had finished it.”

“The colours need thinning, I haven’t applied the balsam…”

That explained the petroleum smell, I thought. Selma still used the paint thinner instead of the pricier mineral spirits, even though they stank.

“Let me do it,” I said.

Auntie blinked. She twiddled her fingers, then shook her head. “No, no, the mountain won’t allow it. I must go back. The painting has to paint itself.”

I took hold of her arm. “You won’t last five minutes up there. Let me finish the painting. You focus on recovering.”

I tugged her away from the hospital entrance. People were smoking all around and I did not want my aunt to start another coughing fit. We approached the car park. Dad’s Audi stood in the first row, I could see him glaring at us through the rearview mirror, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.

Selma stopped again. “Hellie…” She made to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear, blinked when her fingers touched air instead. Pulled at the end of her wig.

“What?”

Selma blinked. Her eyes grew distant and she reached out a shaky hand to my arm.

We spoke no more.

*

“Mountain rescue found her rucksack here.”

Dad pointed at the spot on the map circled in red, just below the brown, coiled lines of the mountain. “There was hardly anything in it. An apple, half a water bottle, a packet of crumbled digestives. Didn’t even bring her wallet.”

“How on earth did she get all the way to the mountains?”

“Receptionist at the hiking station said a taxi dropped her off. The taxi driver assumed she had dementia and let her go without charge.”

“I can’t believe they just let her walk off. The woman is eccentric…” Mum cleared her throat. “Was.”

Dad folded the map and tucked it back in the plastic folder. “It’s almost suicidal.”

“No,” I said, louder than I’d planned. Dad scowled. “Selma would never have let herself die in a sickbed, she wouldn’t wait for death to catch her.” I swallowed. “She’d chase it down herself.”

There was a long silence.

Dad broke it by clearing his throat. “What are we going to with that painting in the cellar?”

“The mountain one?” Mum said.

“Yes.”

“Auction it. Some specialist art collector might snap it up.”

“No!” I cried. “I mean, it’s…” A weird, tugging sensation filled me, as if someone had attached a string to my brain. “I need to keep it.”

“Can’t you just take a picture and reproduce it when we’re home?” Dad said.

“I need the original.”

“There’s no room in our suitcases.”

“I’ll buy a new one. I’ll pay, for the extra luggage.”

Dad exchanged looks with Mum. She shrugged.

Dad scowled again. “Keep it then.”

“There’s another thing,” I said. “I’ll need to come back to Norway.”

“Why?” Dad frowned. “Selma’s gone, there’s nothing here for you anymore. You’ve got the painting.”

I picked a nail. “I need to go the mountains. I want to see where Selma went when she disappeared.”

Dad’s eyes narrowed. He leaned forward, hands curling on his knees.

Before he could speak, Mum walked up and touched him on the shoulder. “She’s grieving, dear. Let her come back, if that is what she wants. And she’s twenty years old, she’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

Slowly, Dad sank back into the chair, looking down at his feet. “I’m not having another member of our family become a hermit in this country.”

You never understood her, I wanted to say. You never wanted to. Instead I smiled. “I’ll only stay a week, Dad. Tops.”

Dad looked at me for a long time. Then he stood, shrugging off Mum’s hand. “I’m going to the bathroom,” he said and strode out of the lounge. The door slammed behind him.

That evening, I heard him speaking to Mum. I lay at the top of the stairs, peeking through the gap in the bannister rail, as I did when I was young.

“This country messes with your mind,” Dad whispered.

“You’re only concerned about her walking al—”

“It’s the mountains,” Dad cut her off. “They look hungry, staring down at you from the sky… As if they will devour you any minute.”

*

“Did you devour me?” I asked the mountain. “Is this what happens to all hikers that disappear?” I looked back up the mountain slope, to the point where I’d slipped. It had been so foggy, when I walked; I’d not seen more than a metre down the slope.

Could Selma have fallen here too? The scenery was identical to the one in the painting, and if she wanted to return, wouldn’t she have come on the same path as me?

What if the mountain wanted us to fall?

“Why did you bring us here?” I whispered. “What do you want me to do?”

Something stirred the ground under my hand. I tried to lift it up, but my palm was stuck to the soil. I bent my head down and peered through the gap between hand and earth.

My palm had grown roots. A tickling sensation travelled up my wooden veins, all the way to my head. Something tugged at my consciousness. It’s about connections, Hellie.

Connections. I thought of the two of us, painting together for the first time. Connecting with the canvas and the colours, the Huldra and Elgåhögna. Connecting with each other, and ourselves.

Was it really just the painting which made Selma, dying of cancer, head off to the mountains?

I closed my eyes and focused on the roots in my hand. Fibre filled my mind, everything was a solid taupe and then it gave way to something soft; maroon soil, warm, folding itself around my mind; my mind burrowing into it, like a brush into a paint pot. Things stirred in the dark; I heard a rumble, like a giant belly churning. Tremors rose out of the depths and passed through me, making my whole being vibrate.

Elgåhögna had absorbed me as a plant does the sun. I was part of the network, the ecosystem crisscrossing through the ground.

Voices came to meet me, male and female; there were snatches of Norwegian, Swedish, English, and other languages I couldn’t place. Multiple minds rubbing against each other.

“Auntie?” I whispered, picking my way through the voices. “Auntie, are you there?”

Something soft and silky brushed against my mind. Connections, a voice whispered from the depths.

“Auntie,” I said, not daring to believe what I was hearing. “Is that you?”

The voice spoke back.