“i was a servant of the transition” by Joshua Scammell

we started at this pond in rockcliffe. there were other people around, some of them swimming, others just enjoying the sun. i arrived first and started meditating. we were talking about our past lives when we dropped. we tried these hand gestures that were supposed to open your heart chakra, and make you more receptive. she explained that the hands extend the heart whereas feet are like roots, it made a lot of intuitive sense and i realized that i have very sensitive hands. i changed into my bathing suit under a towel. it felt weird to hide my genitals. swimming felt was amazing. i felt at home in the water. she said i was probably atlantian in a past life, but i couldn’t stop thinking about my past life as an otter. we found a dragonfly head that seemed way bigger than normal floating in the pond scum and i remember thinking “show me insects.” i started pushing my hands forward underwater, creating these currents that i could direct towards her, which disturbed the surface of the water only slightly. i remember thinking, “i wish i could do this with the wind” and then realized i probably could if i tried, but i didn’t try. i started to shiver and felt everything slow down. i realized i was transitioning from one type of consciousness into another, in the same way that the world itself is transitioning from one type of consciousness into another. i was half in the water and half out of the water when this idea of “the transition” started to gain a lot of significance in my mind. someone at the pond said “where is my servant?” as a joke, and the phrase “i was a servant of the transition” kept popping into my head. i was convinced that if i was sensitive to the world around me, i could see into the past, but i didn’t try any rituals to become more sensitive. we left the pond and the space around us started to expand and contract depending on how much attention we gave it. the effect was doubled if we both focused our attention on the same thing. i became more sensitive to the moods of the trees around us, and felt a strong kinship with the wind. we got on our bikes and went through the east end of the city, which was very busy with traffic. this was when we really started to trip. my body was moving so effortlessly and smoothly. the bike felt like an extension of myself, and i knew exactly how to negotiate the traffic, biking alongside cars. the city was intensely stimulating, so i just focused on myself. this was a part of the city i’m not familiar with, but a lot of the places were familiar. i could remember two specific dreams i had that looked identical to the areas we were biking through. everything felt like it was on a bridge, very close to the sky. then we hit the river and the energy totally changed. the air coming off the river felt way healthier and cooler and full of love. i started to think about how easy it is to send out love on the air. i started dancing with my hands as i biked, feeling myself flow with the wind. inhaling and exhaling was part of the dance. the phrase “i take from the whole, so that i can give back to it” echoed in my head, and i didn’t wonder whose voice it was. as we got into the forest i started to see trails of physical bodies, like visual echoes. i started to see auras, like the wavy air that rises off hot objects, hovering around people. i also saw these auras hovering around nothing, what i called sprites; these little flying points of energy darting through the forest. i remember thinking, if we find a dangerous animal like a bear, we can just open our hearts and send the bear love and it won’t hurt us. we took a break when we got to the gatineau hills. there was a little spot with bathrooms and picnic tables on the grass. we watched the clouds for a while, and i realized clouds are conscious, but their experience of time is way more diluted than ours. i tried slowing my own consciousness and silencing my thoughts, so that i had a mind like a cloud. that’s when i made my wasp friend. i realized he was inside my helmet the whole time. he started crawling on my hand and my first instinct was fear, but the fear didn’t feel natural. he was covered in my sweat, and moving slowly, and if he wanted to sting me, he already would have. i did the gesture to open my heart chakra and sent him love and i could tell he received it. he looked me square in the face and crawled all over my head. i felt a really intense bond with the little guy. he stayed on my glasses as i walked to the bathroom and just hung out with us for a while. then i had these vivid flashbacks to camping last weekend at sandbanks, where a dragonfly landed on my hand by the fire. this whole time, she was lying on top of the picnic table and i pressed my thumb against her third eye and then all these really bright neon patterns started flowing across both of our skins. they were like moving tattoos that covered our entire bodies. we biked on further up the mountain, through a deep part of the woods. i inhaled the clean energy from the forest, feeling that energy turn into fresh ideas in my mind, and then exhaled love back into the forest, it was like an exchange: we traded love for ideas. then we biked up this really intense mountain and i remember thinking how i don’t “have” power but i am made of it, i am power manifest, my existence is itself a monument to my will to exist, and pushing against gravity was so easy. i didn’t actually feel like we were going uphill–there was no up or down–it just got harder to pedal. i remember thinking the trees are way older than me, they carry more spirits, and more wisdom, but i’m still young and innocent. right then, when the word innocent crossed my mind, we went downhill and i biked with no hands and so much wind rushed by my face and it was such a rush of bliss, innocent. then we got to the lake and locked our bikes and climbed up these rocks. i remember thinking, “how does this rock want to be filmed?” and i let the rock show me how. i started filming the lake, letting the water tell me the right composition. we found a spot really high up, where we lay down and watched the lake move with the wind. i could see sprites flying all over the water, moving the wind, but i knew our energy contributed something to the wind’s movements. the frogs were singing for us. a really cute yellow beetle fell in love with me. she was staring up at my face for a long time and then climbed on my cheek and stayed there for a long time. ants were tickling me everywhere, then a spider crawled on me. he was so funny, he danced for me with all eight legs. he strung a web around my head and then swung away from my glasses to the nearest tree and back. he was a pleasantly chaotic character. i’m pretty sure there was a UFO or something, some crazy unreal sounds came out of the sky really suddenly, and the clouds shifted really suddenly, but we didn’t see anything directly. it sounded like music composed of thunder, and then shortly afterwards, the sounds turned into regular airplane sounds. i was very confused about that but didn’t dwell on it. i had all kinds of realizations that i managed to remember and write down. got ideas about film theory, and meditation, and yoga, and all kindsa stuff. we ate a cliff bar and i remember thinking this is how people should do it, exercise a lot, and then eat very little, it actually feels awesome. then we meditated for a bit together and left. the way back was mostly downhill so we rode so gosh darn fast and the wind was so intense and so invigorating and i cried a little. i felt like nature wanted me to succeed in life and was giving me all the energy that it could, and i kept thinking thank you, thank you, thank you. on the way back we crossed this really old train bridge from the quebec side back to the city. it was rusty and beautiful and covered in graffiti that looked to me like the same neon colours i saw floating on our skins, except this was actual graffiti, not hallucinations, which was confusing in the most delightful way. we passed some friendly teenagers who were drinking and smoking pot and they said some things as we passed by, we couldn’t really hear them, and we said something back, i can’t remember what. as we got into the city, you could feel the energy change entirely–it was way less integrated, way more chaotic, but it wasn’t evil or dark necessarily. just confusing. we biked past the locks at the end of the canal, and we had a bittersweet farewell, because we hadn’t kissed or even hugged this whole time, and it felt for some reason like a “farewell” rather than a “see you later,” and we parted ways, and i biked through downtown alone, feeling the chaotic energy around me, but not letting it enter me, farewell. all these images of a beautiful future were bouncing around inside my head and i started to cry, like really cry. when i got home, i just wept and couldn’t stop weeping because everything was so beautiful, the future was so beautiful, and i knew exactly what to do.


JOSHUA SCAMMELL was born in Ottawa, where he learned to read and write. He then lived in Los Angeles, where he forgot to read and write. He now resides on Vancouver Island, where he is remembering how to read and write.

‘How Edwin Discovered Mile End’ by Anne Chudobiak

It had been a favourite topic of discussion at dinner parties throughout the years. They would go around the table and each one of the guests would explain how they had come to live in their Montreal neighbourhood, Mile End. Jen’s story was shorter than most because it was a postscript to Edwin’s. Edwin had phoned her right after he’d signed his lease, the first of his life, and urged her to take his back bedroom. He could afford the rent on his own thanks to his job at the passport office, which he had been able to secure before graduation in a seamless transition from school to real life. The place, a third-floor apartment in an early twentieth-century row house on St-Urbain St., was huge and he would welcome the company. From the payphone in the shadow of the Byzantine dome of St. Michael’s sham-rocked church, he’d told her the impressions that he would go on to share—and expand on—for years. As he’d walked to meet the landlady Vera and her daughter, it had seemed to him as though the entire neighbourhood was present and accounted for, present and accounted for and outside or within easy reach of it: leaning in their open doorways, sitting on their front stoops, calling out to one another from their balconies, in Portuguese, Italian, Greek. After years of living on campus, years that he had thought happy and full, it was a shock for Edwin to walk past a café and realize it was occupied by old men. “All these old guys, arguing and playing cards,” he’d say, whenever it was his turn to tell his Mile End story. “I realized that I missed old people. That I wanted to see old people again.”

That first evening, he’d marveled at the old men’s counterparts, women assembled to examine vegetable gardens encased in chain-link fencing reinforced with chicken wire, shaking their fingers at the cats that dared to slink by. There were other kinds of gardens, too. Over time, Jen and Edwin had tried to identify them all, an endeavour that Jen’s husband Capa who abhorred yard work and never wanted a garden found pointless. Whenever they engaged in it, he would tune out or leave the room. There were gardens that reminded them of forest bottoms, that were populated with moss, ferns or northern blue violets, or some combination thereof. Because these gardens required little care and were well suited to the shady side of the street, they were sometimes chosen by default by unambitious gardeners in search of convenience. They were Jen’s favourite kind, and she maintained that if she ever got a yard, in spite of Capa’s objections, that she would put in one of these gardens, sunny side or not. There were gardens that were more like meadows overflowing with raspberry bushes and tall, friendly, outgoing flowers: orange, red and yellow tiger lilies, black-eyed Susans, and pink cosmos, which, as summer went on, would get heavier or bolder, leaning over the fence and tickling people as they passed by. Vera the landlady had one of these gardens in the front, and that first year her daughter had taught Edwin how to make tinctures from the coneflowers. Edwin still made this tincture, and every year at Christmas, he would give it out as gifts, saying that it was the reason he never had the flu. There were gardens where fences had been removed, so that the same flowers, bushes, shrubs, vines, and fountains could extend one, two, three properties at a stretch. There were gardens watched over by the Virgin Mary in statue or tile form. There were gardens consisting solely of grapevines, potted tomato plants, rose bushes or potted shrubs arranged in symmetrical formations. There were fences draped in morning glories. Everywhere, there were front fences whose wrought-iron spikes bore lost baby items—hats, rattles, shoes—collected from the sidewalk, in the hope that yesterday’s strollers might retrace past steps. There was the odd garden where the owners had devoted themselves to maintaining a patch of suburban grass, no bigger in some cases than the space one might need for three or four graves laid out side by side. These gardens declared themselves with an extra line of plastic fencing or with a sign depicting in words or, worse, images, of a dog or cat in full squat with a line through it, that this was to be a shit-free zone. There were gardens that had been filled in with cement or replaced with interlocking brick. These were usually accompanied by an old man in a fisherman’s cap and with a hose, whose task it was to keep the space free of debris. There were gardens centred on flowering trees, trees that would only flower for a week or two each spring: magnolia, crab apple, lilac. These gardens were the most common of all.

That first night in the neighborhood, Edwin had walked home slowly, trying to take everything in. He had read outside of the church to learn that dome, name, and shamrocks aside, it offered mass in Polish. The church, he would find out, formed the foundation of Vera’s social life. Two times a year, he would host a Sunday lunch for her small circle of friends, mostly women and a dwindling number of men, who would take refuge in one another, smoking cigarette after cigarette under Vera’s beloved ash tree. That first evening, he had continued down the street, where he had passed a temple to Indian guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Incense wafted out of the temple’s open doors. Edwin recognized the soapy smell; the incense was popular with the girls in residence. Soap and cigarette smoke, that was the smell of the women of his youth, perhaps the last generation of women for whom this was true. On the same block was a Chinese Buddhist church and something called a mikvah, which Edwin would learn, was a ritual bath used by the area’s Hassidic Jewish women. On his way to the apartment, he had walked up Hutchison St., where he had seen other signs of this observant religious community: Men whose beards, side curls, and long black coats would not have looked out of place in an Eastern European village centuries before. Women in wigs and Jackie Kennedy suits, rushing. Children, so many of them. Big sisters helping little ones across the street. Boys on scooters. Girls playing schoolyard jumping games. Toddlers entrusted to stand on the sidewalk on their own.

Edwin left the street for a back alley. The back yards were not as ornate as the front. There was a frugality about them, as though it would have been shameful to spend money on one’s backyard even if one had the means. Some were given over to parking lots. One had a VW Bug resting on cinder blocksMany were used to store unwanted furniture, shelves, coffee tables, couches, and ottomans. There were plastic dining tables plunked amongst the weeds, with an overflowing ashtray as the only adornment. There were back shed fire escapes covered in tin that themselves looked like fire traps. On every pole, an abandoned bicycle. In some cases, these bikes had been smashed up or harvested for parts but remained locked. “I will buy a bike,” thought Edwin, who had never needed one, or even to use public transit on a regular basis, as he’d always been so close to all his destinations while living on campus.

That July, Edwin assembled a team—for him, assembling a team had always been easy—to help him move his and Jen’s possessions into the apartment, where he showed off its many features: the clawfoot tub, the stained glass windows and the intact fleur-de-lis pattern on the lower half of the original plaster walls.

Edwin had been in the same apartment ever since. He had developed a symbiotic relationship with Vera. Her age was a secret, but for years, it had been estimated at 90-something. Edwin cleared her pathway of snow. He brought her paper in the morning. He helped her to the taxi when it was time for her to go out on one of her rare outings beyond the church. He repainted the front stairs. He helped one of her nephews redo the front windows with EnergyStar panes. When it was time to order more fuel oil, he made the call and led the workmen to the tank. He also paid the bill for them both. Vera, in turn, granted him full access to her backyard vegetable garden. She allowed him to renovate his kitchen to accommodate a six-burner range. She even made arrangements in her will so that the next owners of the triplex would inherit Edwin as well. When Jen learned that, she knew that she would never leave the neighborhood either.


ANNE CHUDOBIAK lives in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the Montreal Gazette, the National Post, McGill News Magazine, VIA Destinations Magazine and the Montreal Review of Books.

Copyright © 2020 by Anne Chudobiak. All rights reserved.

 

‘Midnight Inferno’ by Suzanne Johnston

The last time I struck a match, I lit the sky on fire. Up, up, up galloped the pillows of smoke, stacked on top of each other like scorched marshmallows. The flames slithered up the barn walls and nicked the rafters. Embers rained down like shooting stars, feeding the fire that ripened as it borrowed oxygen from the crisp midnight air.

I opened the milk house door to get a closer view of the inferno in the barn’s belly. Two mice scampered out like adulterers, clutching their fur against their naked bodies, choosing the cold rather than risk perishing in this firestorm I’d ignited.

My pores began to unbutton from the heat. I stood back, watching the blaze from the bend in the driveway. I shoved my hands in my fleece-lined pockets, felt my heart chop in two as flames etched yellow streaks into the cracked windows that heaved like winded lungs.

I hadn’t wanted to burn the barn. But it was coming down, with or without my help. Over the years, strong winds had blown boards and shingles across the yard in a mystifying and deadly swirl of debris. I worried a fire in the summer, with the grass daring to light just from the sun’s heat, would eventually toast the barn and take the homestead with it. So, I picked the coldest night in January and doused my childhood barn in kerosene.

A giant ball of flame erupted through the roof, pummeling the night with its fist. The gas cans I’d sculpted into a funeral pyre had triggered the blast. One last big bang ripped through the barn’s innards and flung them out its empty window frames. Its crippled walls kneeled to the earth like captured fathers at war.

Close to dawn, the barn drew its last breath and folded inward.

A smoldering heap reduced to charred limbs.

The heavy, grey clouds snowed ash that morning while I dug through the rubble with my shovel, pounding down glowing embers peeking out from their funeral shrouds of white.

 


SUZANNE JOHNSTON is a writer and marketing professional from Calgary, Alberta. She writes risk-taking short and novel-length fiction for adults, drawing inspiration from her prairie roots. She is a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Broken Pencil and FreeFall.

Copyright © 2020 by Suzanne Johnston. All rights reserved.

‘What is Love and Where Does it Come From?’ by Kathryn Malone

Sarah bit her lip, not out of pleasure but out of the need to steady herself so she did not dart for the door. She was a willing participant and dutiful wife now, but everything felt empty and forced. It was more like a slow-motion attack rather than a celebration of love. She felt like she should be making eye contact, but it seemed like it would make the situation real and somehow even worse. She breathed a slight sound of acceptance. If it became any louder, she feared he would know that she was a prisoner of this marriage and now her own body. She peered up out of the corner of her eye and saw, not a man but a frightened animal, panting and glaring, not at her but at some nearing enemy that knew his form and his secrets.

Michael paced the room, stared at the open window as if it were the window to another world where he was the norm and his parents were the freaks. He was feeling everything and nothing all at once. He looked like the 1950s sculpture of a man, but he felt like a scared kid at a sleepover who was the only one who could hear the monster in the closet, and knew it was biding its time before it announced itself in the flesh. Just then there was a knock at the door.  Not an entrance, but a knock, someone was on the other side also biding its time. Michael cleared his throat and walked to the door. He opened it with sweaty palms, and the door floated open. There, there was the monster and the most beautiful sight imaginable. Michael started to breathe heavily and looked down at the monster’s shoes. “Michael,” spoke the monster, “I think you need to let me in.” He began to cry and shake. “Steven, you need to leave.” Steven walked through the door and closed it behind him. He didn’t wait for Michael to look up, he put his face in his hands and gave him a kiss with such gentle passion that you would swear you could hear a movie overture filling the room, defining a moment that was years in the making. Michael had no more fight in him. He let himself be ignited with a fire that felt so natural and exquisite that he wondered how it could be possible in a world as fake as the one he existed in.

Sarah smiled a natural smile and took Seth’s hand as she stepped over the uneven rocks covered by the darkness of the night sky. The moon was hiding itself and not showing anyone the way home this night. Sarah did not mind at all. The world’s greatest pleasures hid themselves under the disguise of a starless, moonless night. Seth never let her hand go even when the rocks were smooth and flat. Sarah felt her heartbeat in a way that was unfamiliar, and she felt warm, in fact, warmer by the minute which did not make sense in light of the chilly wind coming off the water. Her stomach was a-flutter and her hand became sweaty in the palm of Seth’s hand. It was the strangest thing. It felt almost as if the two were connected. Her heartfelt so vulnerable from the cool feel of Seth’s skin and the rhythm of his pulse. The ground became grass and dirt as she saw a small cottage coming into view. Seth shone the flashlight on to the porch. “There it is.” He looked right into her eyes and smiled.  Sarah smiled back, a seductive smile. She didn’t know she had one. Nonetheless, it just kept creeping onto her face.

Michael sat unimpressed and bored at the rehearsal dinner. He could barely pull off his fake smile as the corny jokes circled the table. He looked over at Sarah, poor simple Sarah who didn’t know the difference between life and obligation. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other all evening. Well, other than a casual greeting and, of course, brief introductions of each other’s distant family at the beginning of the meal. It should bother him, but it actually struck him as perfect. She had Seth, her best friend, and soul mate whether either of them knew it, and he had Steven, his long- time football rival and best friend. As long as both of them were distracted, neither would feel the need to mention that the marriage was a sham. That seemed to go for the rest of the wedding party as well. Michael cackled to himself. My God! What a bunch of fucking idiots!

Sarah could not stop staring at Seth. It was as if she had never really looked at him before.

Maybe, it was really because she had never been allowed to look at him that thoroughly before. Other than him being a poor educator of limited means (according to her parents), there was also the matter of his wife, Marianna, she had been at so many gatherings with them, but not this one and the party was definitely much better without her. There is nothing really wrong with Marianna, but there is nothing really right. Perhaps her mother should be ill more often. Seth smiled at her and tapped her hand. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat. God, she thought, I wish he would hold it.

Michael lay content on the football field, breathless and sweaty. Steven looked down at him laughing. Everything in life could be solved with a good game between friends. Steven calmed himself and looked off into the distance. Michael, all of a sudden felt lonely. He craved warmth in the chilly night air. Steven remarked on the fact that it was a moonless night and said something about a story where monsters roam during such times. Michael felt an ache in his body: it was in his heart this time. He caught Steven’s eye. It wasn’t just physical anymore. Steven looked back at him breathing heavily. They couldn’t hide from it. Michael opened his mouth to speak and Steven softly spoke, “I love you, Michael.”

Sarah was on the verge of tears. Seth shut the door behind him. “I love you, Seth.” Seth turned around. Now they were face to face, no more hiding, no more denying. Sarah burst into tears, “I have loved you, my whole of my life. Even before I knew you, and now especially now because I do.” Seth was shaking. He was white as a ghost. Sarah was so scared. “I know I am not a good person. I know that your wife is and that what I am saying is adding more destruction into a flawed world. Seth, if I continue to lie, and pretend that you are just my good friend and that I don’t lay awake at night wondering what it would be like if you looked at me, the way you looked at her, then I won’t be a person anymore. My last truth, my last connection to the human race is the way I love you and the way I am willing to leave you if you don’t feel the same.”

Michael started to get up but Steven got down on his knees so they could be face to face, without any distance or way to escape. The way they looked at each at that very moment, you could have sworn it was possible to hold another person without touching.

Sarah couldn’t stand the sound of the desperate silence and bolted so hard at the door she could have gone through it. She was stopped. Seth stopped her with his body. She could have passed out. She had never been this close to him before. His hand brushed her cheek then circled the edges of her lips. She ran her tongue along his finger, as his other hand brushed her thigh and went on to outline her entire body. She felt her body blush and she shivered with the anticipation of how it would feel when their lips finally touched.

Sarah and Michael stared at each other and repeated words in a stale sophisticated fashion.  This was no theatrical event, but the rows of shallow boring onlookers didn’t notice. You have to care about something other than yourself to notice when two incompatible souls come together and promise to be miserable for all eternity. This had all the passion of a nineteenth-century royal wedding, for you see as long as there will be an heir, and the evidence of a brief connection, no one will ask any questions. Their parents were elite members of society for the 1950s and they were excellent business people. Things had to seem perfect for them, the type of perfection society could admire.

The day continued in a blur for Sarah and Michael, because nothing really mattered. They had both experienced a full life. They had both known friendship and passion that turned into love and now the next chapter was about to begin, a chapter of duty and family. For the loves of their lives had families of their own and not the courage to choose a better path.

“Michael, STOP!” Sarah rolled out of his grasp. Michael froze then started crying. Sarah started crying too. They looked at each other and saw the other for who they really were. “Michael, I am very sorry this happened to you. I am sorry you don’t get to spend your wedding night with the love of your life.” Michael looked away, he kept crying. He was trying to be reasonable, but he couldn’t find a reasonable thought. Sarah took a deep breath and began to put her clothes on. Michael continued to cry. Sarah went one step further and began to pack. Michael took notice and found his voice, “Sarah, I am sorry, and we can work something out.” Sarah silently packed up her clothes, then her shoes, and then everything else until anything that had her essence was neatly contained. She looked over at her wedding dress hanging in the closet. Sarah cleared her throat, “That would look really nice on my sister if she doesn’t mind second hand.  See that my parents get it, it was very expensive.” Michael looked shocked. He stood up so quickly he almost fell. “Sarah, it’s not ideal, I know . . .

“You are right, it’s not and it’s supposed to be, so I will be the hussy. I will be the disloyal whore that runs off into the night and you will be the sympathetic saint who didn’t know what hit him.” Sarah, with a suitcase in hand, walks over to Michael. She kisses his cheek and whispers in his ear, “Don’t let a group of shallow idiots decide who will be the love of your life and where your life will lead.” Michael, still too shaken to smile, gives a nod. He steps out of the way so Sarah can leave through the door. Sarah enters the hallway and stops just as she is about to shut the door. She smirks and says “Knock ‘em dead.” Michael manages a smile, “Same to you.”  And the door glides to a close.

 


KATHRYN MALONE is a playwright and actress who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  She has a BA in English and a Concentration in Drama from St. Thomas University.

Copyright © 2020 by Kathryn Malone. All rights reserved.

‘Like a Spore’ by Larissa Andrusyshyn

Marisol scrolls through the appointment list and marks the scheduled patients who have checked in. The waiting room is already full. On Thursdays, the doctors have both appointments and walk-in hours. Doctor Lamarche is twenty minutes late, and all the wait times will be pushed back even more than usual. She knows there will be grumbling, and breaths let out in front of her in long, angry hisses. Doctor Lamarche is a man of shiny teeth and strong cologne who expects that the ‘front of house business’ be kept from him. He has no idea what Marisol faces every day while he prods their wounds and presses his stethoscope to their chests. How people cough open-mouthed right into her face, that meth heads trying to score painkillers sit in the waiting room picking their sores, that she must handle, label, and package for transfer all the samples the doctor takes: urine, blood, cyst and every manner of removable flesh that awaits the news as to whether it is malignant or benign. That people line up despite the sign that says, “The reception staff cannot estimate the wait time” and demand to know how long the wait will be. How she sits, desperate for a minute of silence between phone calls, and patients who complain about the wait, complain about the walk-in hours, complain about the fact that the next available appointment with a specialist is months away. How the germs, diseases and rat sightings seem to grow more frequent and proximate. How she googles air purifiers and pandemics on her lunch break, sure that she’s seen patient zero hunched in the waiting room shaking. How she rubs hand sanitizer into her palms over and over like a salve. How she feels like a membrane, see-through like a snailfish she saw once in a documentary about life in the deepest part of the ocean. How every day she is becoming something translucent, shell-less and drifting.

Larissa … poetry has been shortlisted for ARC Magazine’s Poem-of-the-Year, the 3 Macs Carte Blanche Award and the CBC Poetry Prize. Larissa’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Feathertale Review and Maisonneuve Magazine. Currently, Larissa is working on a new manuscript of poems but taking breaks to write fiction. Larissa facilitates creative writing workshops in Montreal.

 


LARISSA ANDRUSYSHYN‘s poetry has been shortlisted for ARC Magazine’s Poem-of-the-Year, the 3 Macs Carte Blanche Award, and the CBC Poetry Prize. Larissa’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Feathertale Review and Maisonneuve Magazine. Currently, Larissa is working on a new manuscript of poems but taking breaks to write fiction. Larissa facilitates creative writing workshops in Montreal.

Copyright © 2020 by Larissa Andrusyshyn. All rights reserved.

 

‘For a Friend’ by Roxanne Claude

The winds here are charged, tensed and pressing against the maple barks. They themselves are holding onto the afternoon sun, anything and something to carry them through the unforgiving season to come. It is fall here, but clearly harsher than the falls in the cities. Every snowflake here seems to be larger, rounder. Its bulk settles on the branches before the afternoon rays are due to melt it away. The quiet amplifies the cold. The silence is not simple but deep and layered with the noise of troubled creatures not yet having found shelter before the first storm to arrive.

The snow has fallen briskly today, covering the ground, although not enough to hide all embers of the last summer. Despite the barren patches, the forest stands tall and rooted in the mountains. The mountains carry the dry land with frankness, with bluff –proud of the tragedy, prouder of the fight and the ultimate conquer of the fire. It carries the dug trenches as pearls, necklaces to be worn in glorious fashion. As the wild creatures step and crack the fallen branches, those too strong to burn, the noise echoes through the forest. It adds to its song of resiliency, its song of demure and tender beauty.

A house stands alone among the snow and ash. The mountain behind acts as a backdrop, too pretty to not be a painting hanging in a museum. The house is simple, even a little stale. There are no flowers left in the ceramic crocks. They were wilted by the morning frosts. The garden, or what was left of it and put back together, was picked dry. The marmalades of Saskatoon berries made it into jars, subsequently to delight the palette of young grandchildren. This house is not precious and there stands no reasonable explanation as to why it was saved. However, it was the will of the mountain to save this land, this house. Mother Edith’s soul said it would be so.

This house is not precious. The wood stove was salvaged and rusted on the legs. The floors creaked. The walls, timbered logs, let in morsels of cold air during the nights. There would be bunk beds in the corner of the cabin, with mattresses lifted and leaning against the walls at the end of summer. There would be no linens. Grandmother took them with her for a good washing. There was an outhouse, long gone now since the fires. There were no remains of swings, no remains of carvings in the barks, those indicating young love. The young love was now long gone too, having faded with every blink of the eye.

There stands a girl, a woman in fact. Her feet were tired and sore after the quarter day hike up the rock. She followed the burn path up. This place seemed so different now. The cabin, the home, she looked at did not feel like a home now. It was much smaller than in her memories and she was much older than she thought she would be revisiting it. She hoped to cry in awe seeing the cabin, to feel a shiver down her spine, but all she felt was the cold against her aging cheeks. Her freckles are the same as they were back then, speckles like on a Bar at the Folies-Bergères. Her blonde hair, now long, looked different than back then. The strands are no longer seasoned with dirt and sap. Her hair no longer smelled like glacier rivers, the same ones she would bathe in as a child.

The evening is settling into the crevasses of the mountains. Soon it will be dark, a blinding darkness that penetrates the soul to make it quiver and taut the hairs at the back of the neck. The woman approaches the cabin, expecting an epiphany or something of the sort. All that happens is the noise beneath her feet. The cracking of pinecones resonates through the air, adding to the symphony of wolves in the forest below and the bear bells around her waist.

She opens the plain door, past the enclosed porch, to a plain room, one that she remembers well. There are no more photographs or needle points on the wall. They had been all taken down by her mother once the sale of the property had gone up.

The woman passes her hand along the log walls. It feels rough and lacquered, just as she remembers. This house is not precious, but the memories within are. Her life is not simple as this space is. Her life is scheduled yet hectic. Her life is expensive cafes, soft clothes, and warm cars. Her life is manicured, well thought out and precise to the word. She is not wild as the fires were. She is not stoic as the cabin is. It stands alone on barren land, on flowerless land. Although a sheet of white covers the metal roof, she senses the rust and the rivets holding the structure together. She feels the strength of the timber, holding steady. The mountain too is hardy and unyielding. Why is she not?

Darkness looms around the corner, behind the distant trees and their needles gently swaying in the wind. She throws timber in the stove and lights it with eight-dollar matches, packaged afar and sold in a high-end clothing store as kitsch. The room grows empty and dark. The only thing that remains are the bunk beds, they had been built into the frame of the cabin. There were no mattresses, only solid boards to lay her sleeping bag on.

It would be rough sleeping, but it would be honest. She settled herself in, her mind as blank as the dark sky. The corners of the cabin were dark and haunting. She stayed by the warmth of the fire, trying to put pen to paper. She did not know what the words would turn into as she held the tip of the pen to the page. Nothing came spewing out of it. Nothing. She was dry.

She looked into the fire for inspiration, some sort of sense of self. She looked for the spark she had lost, consumed by the idea it fell out of her pocket on her last journey away from this very place. It was the moment she would never return to, an era forever lost and rushed too quickly. She was a child, now forever a woman, never to return to the state of pure happiness and innocence of the mountains. She shed a tear looking into the flames that gave her no inspiration. They only gave her sadness. She watched the fire die and turn into crackling embers, begging to soar highly just once more.

Silence encapsulated her. She felt like a little girl again, but not the one she was before. She was not carefree and running around the stumps of tress or throwing water balloons at her cousins behind the shed.

This woman is curled inwards, towards her spine and rests in a place of loneliness and defeat. She had no reason to be, as she had love and empathy towards her fellow woman. She felt low, in a place she had too often been before, driven by the demons in her head. The uselessness amplified, the demonstrative need to succeed, everything she wanted to be but was not. It all lay underneath her, rocking her to sleep as the demented lullaby she knew all too well.

Sleep would come to this woman, painfully, but it would come. It was a dreamless sleep, perhaps driven by the negative thoughts or it could have been the cold. She would convince herself it was the latter, if only to ignore the fact that her feelings of inadequacy were indeed within her.

It may be all too easy to blame it on every dirty finger creeping up the skirt. To blame the sadness and the emptiness on the cracked jaw and the bruised knees would be tempting. But she is woman. A woman is meant to thank every punch and every playful slap. She is meant to bury her blood and speak of it nevermore.

With every step she takes, she sinks a little more into the dirt, weighed down by every terrible thought and image. Here she is. Alone once more to face the demons. She fights with no sword and no bullets in her gun. She fights bare-knuckled against a wall, built by her own calloused hands.

Behind every glass of wine stood a reason. A reason for her to be small, unforgiving, and cruel. It is exhausting to hurt, to weep. With every tear cast off, the voices in her head become louder. They shout at her temples, the curses and harsh sentences reverberating against her skull.

She awoke to the bells in her head. It was still dark. No sunlight would creep through the frosted windows. The air was intense and icy. As she reached for a log next to the stove, she heard it.

It was a humming.

And then it stopped. She looked around her. Nothing had changed, nothing had moved. The humming resumed. It was a low humming, the sort that was unnoticeable and unremarkable unless paid attention to. It was much like her.

Her bare feet slipped out of her down sleeping bag and she gently returned the log to the ground next to the stove. The cold nipped at her toes, almost like a playful tickle. She rose to her feet, her body motionless while her ears focused around the room. The sound came from outside. It was tempting and precious.

Her legs led her to the door as she pushed the panel outwards. The forest presented itself as a picture, perfectly framed by the edges of the covered patio. Suddenly, it was dark no more. The trees were not lifeless as they were this past evening. They were lush and full of adventures. The smell of lunch tempted children back to the homestead, even though the mountain would eventually entice them again every afternoon.

The woman stepped down from the patio. Her feet felt cold, piercing and blood-rushing cold but the sun was out. It was bright and warm upon her skin. She saw the flowers in the painted crocks blooming, their fragrance would fill the air and be carried off by the soft winds to the peaks. She heard the humming once more. It was soft and childlike. She looked behind her.

A little girl sat of the steps, pulling the petals of a black-eyed Susan. Her eyes were downcast, but her slight grin showed her to be at peace. She was small, with freckled skin, blonde hair and dynamite blue eyes. Content in her ways, the girl looked up at the sky and smiled.

The woman looked up too, but in a blink, it was dark once more. She stood on frozen tundra looking at the sky as her toes turned blue.

It was illuminated with thousands of stars and the brushstrokes of the aurora; a light show just for her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched the sky sway and as the harsh wind tickled her sockless ankles. It was too early in the season for such a beautiful display of nature, but the mountain said it should be so. The mountain knows the troubles of those who love it dearly, keeping the rocks in their hearts to carry the memories around the globe. For in each travel, each step away from its base, the mountain knows the pain and sorrow she carries in her pockets.

The mountain is strong, robust yet kind and warm. It is a place to forgive and to offer the little tragedies a place to stay. For they shall not be forgotten but healed in this sacred place. For she is a woman who was once a child does not mean that the spark has since disappeared. Because a woman retains the fire, burying it deep within the soul, ready at any moment to awaken the senses. Even burned to a crisp, the trees hold steady onto the preciousness of a light soul. Each branch is ready to reveal secrets, once lost but now found.

She cries a little more until the peaks are illuminated from behind. She feels lighter, not healed but lighter. She walks towards the cabin. Perhaps this cabin is precious, she thinks. As the ink bleeds onto the paper, creating words of quaint reassurance, she writes. What she writes of is dear to her, an offering from the mountain and her as a messenger. What she writes may be fiction or truth. It may come from within her or simply stolen from what the wildfires left behind.

The woman folds the pages neatly and with intent. She is numb when sealing the envelope. She places it on the now cold stove.

As she walks away from the cabin, all possessions in tow, she smiles and enjoys every single step down to the village below. She hums with the marmots, common butterworts and the wolves, each adding a melody to the majesty of the orchestra.

Following a burnt forest trail stands a home, a beating heart. For each sadness offered in earnest to the sierra, a flower blooms under the ashes. In this land stands a friend, a confidant that tells no lies. Peace is often far-reaching, an unattainable treasure. Put on a pedestal and protected with glass walls, this peace needn’t be so dramatic. Forgiveness is found in crevasses and unassuming curves of the river. Love is found in the winds and carried wherever one goes. All tears shall eventually be swept away by the glacier falls and offered to another. Every dark sky is illuminated, even with just one lonely star.

On a stove in the woods rests a sage green envelope. This letter, written in sober peace, is offered and addressed to a friend.

 


ROXANNE CLAUDE was born in Pembroke, Ontario. Roxanne now lives with their partner and two dogs in Camrose, Alberta and works full time as a Paramedic.

Copyright © 2020 by Roxanne Claude. All rights reserved.

‘The Trailcam’ by Matt Poll

Trailcam

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“Someone…yes, someone smashed our trailcam,” Pia said, holding up a shard of brown plastic.

A breeze tousled the silver birches that loomed above the trail, provoking a flurry of golden autumn leaves. The leaves flipped and glided among the two bird researchers.

“Damn, that’s the second one now. We had one go missing last month up by the platform, right before you arrived. The straps on that one looked like they were cut with a blade,” Teemu said, then directed his gaze downwards, “…and they left no tracks. They’re pretty good.”

Teemu, the lanky Finnish bander-in-charge, crouched to examine another piece of the camera.

“Whoa. So who do you think is doing this? Are there poachers up here?” Pia pushed a lock of bronze hair behind her ear and looked down the trail with a spooked expression.

“No, I mean, yes, there are poachers in Finland, for sure. But over on this side of the mountains, there just isn’t much to poach, as far as game birds or animals with good fur on them. I’ve never heard of poachers here working at catching our birds, the songbirds we work on here. Too small, no meat.”

“That’s really creepy. And what about the Mistle Thrush that Dawn banded yesterday? I wanted to ask you about that. Have you ever seen anything like that? Could that be related to the trailcam?”

“The one with the little splint on its wing? No, never saw that before. That was much stranger than the trailcams — the bones in the wing were set perfectly like a vet did it. But no vet —“ Teemu looked up and exhaled from puffed cheeks.

“But no vet would use those tiny little bits of wood for a splint?”

“That’s right. It was woven wicker. And the splint was fastened with that strange cording. Dawn thinks it was wool made from thistledown. Who does that? Such a tight little braid, don’t know who could have done that, or why. Maybe it’s related to the trailcam, maybe not,” Teemu said.

“Maybe it was the gnomes and elves!” Pia giggled.

Teemu’s face remained sombre.

“Well, we don’t joke about them, especially up here in the north. You know, the majority of Scandinavians believe in them. The invisible eyes. The small ones. We call them Tonttuhere in Finland. There are good ones and bad, many different types, just like birds.”

Pia furrowed her brows suspiciously.

“Riiiight.”

She nudged the cracked remnants of the camera casing with her foot, then stooped and retrieved something from the leaf litter.

“Oh-ho! Looks like we have a forgetful vandal. He left the memory card,” Pia said with a smile, holding the card up high like a football referee.

****

Pia, Teemu, and Dawn crowded around Teemu’s laptop on a tattered couch. The research shack was cramped and basic, but the international team of bird banding volunteers had been working well together in the remote wilderness of northern Finland, in spite of the First-World ordeal of a spotty Wi-Fi signal.

The sky outside the large main window was a profound black, and the swish of the pines was picking up in the onshore wind. A slim shaving of moon flickered on the fjord a kilometre down the hill.

Teemu queued up the files on the memory card to play all eight of the previous night’s motion sensor-activated video clips. The first two showed a Eurasian Red Squirrel bumbling past in the background. The third clip featured a spotty Mistle Thrush kicking over leaves, while the fourth also briefly showed a squirrel, this one sniffing near the camera in failing light. The last few clips showed movement but were too dark and brief for the researchers to make out on the first play.

“Replay it Teemu, that one, and can you slow the — oh Jesus!

Something cracked off the corrugated outer wall of the shack with the force of a gunshot. The researchers all flinched, then tensed. Teemu held a finger to his lips and stood to peer out the window into the gloom. Visibility ended several paces beyond the front steps.

“It’s OK guys, just a branch falling, it’s windy,” Teemu rasped in a voice that betrayed his uncertainty. He sat back down and played the last four video files again, this time at one-quarter speed.

Dawn jabbed the screen with her finger.

“There! Do it again slower, and pause it. Frame by frame if you can.”

Teemu restarted and paused the video file, then brightened the screen to compensate for the almost complete lack of light in the clip, which was taken at dusk. The front half of a Siberian Chipmunk was visible peering from what looked like a rough cloth sack, and very clearly, one of its front paws had a tiny wooden splint fastened to it.

“Same thing! That chipmunk has the same splint like the Mistle Thrush I banded yesterday! Someone is out here fixing up small animals!” Dawn blurted.

The next clip elicited gasps. It showed a pair of stumpy hands reaching and coaxing the chipmunk out of the sack, after giving the splint a final adjustment. Then the chipmunk and the hands were gone from view.

“Did you see how small those hands were?” Dawn said and poked the screen again.

“A woman?” Teemu offered, then used his sleeve to wipe the screen where Dawn had touched it.

“No way. That’s a kid. Those hands were super small,” Pia said, “…play the last ones, Teemu. This is crazy.”

The next clip was even darker than the previous ones. Only several frames were lit. Teemu paused the video as something passed close in front of the camera and looked right into the lens. The researchers squinted closer until all three realized together with a jolt that it was a human face.

“Christ!” Dawn said, “…it looks like an old hippie!”

The blurred face on the screen was that of a bearded older man whose face rippled in a knowing, friendly grin. He sported what looked like a rumpled felt cap.

“Wow. This guy, maybe some kind of old veterinarian who’s gone hermit,” Pia said, absently looking at the screen, “…a midget vet.”

“Yeah, I guess. Here’s the last one,” Teemu said.

The last frame before the camera had been destroyed showed the face back away from the camera.

“Wait, how small is that face? Look how small it got just there at the end.”

“That was blurring I think. It’s a perspective thing because the face was close to the camera,” Teemu said.

“No way, that face was too small, he’s a dwarf or something. Holy smokes, I’m gonna put this online when we get a signal. This will go viral, a midget vet in the woods,” gushed Dawn.

Pia added: “Dawn is right. I agree about the perspective, but at first, the face looked much bigger than it is because it was right up against the lens, but when it backed away —“

A loud clang outside the shack made the trio jump again, but they settled quickly as the familiar sound told them that Hanno had returned a day early with the supplies. Hanno was the caretaker of the Sami tribal land the research station was on and was busy replacing the station’s large gas canister.

****

The stocky Hanno pushed the door open and dropped two large bags of food onto the table.

“Hello. Gas is changed. Here is your food.”

The brusque Laplander pointed his chin at the laptop and gave an inquisitive grunt.

“Hi Hanno. Thanks so much for the food run, we were running low. That there on the screen is someone we think has been tampering with our research cameras. And maybe he’s been caring for animals too, healing them. Do you know him? He would be quite a short fellow,” Teemu said.

Hanno stepped closer to the screen and frowned, as the weather outside took a turn. The wind suddenly bent the treetops, and a weighty rain clattered on the roof.

Hanno let loose a breathless diatribe in Finnish and stabbed accusatory fingers towards the three researchers, and the laptop. The three cowered on the couch, as the wind redoubled its fury. What sounded like hail began to crackle against the research station. Hanno finished with a quiet sentence and calmly pulled the memory card from the laptop. He turned and plucked the tiny wicker and thistledown splint from where it sat on the window ledge, then exited the cabin.

A bewildered silence hung in his wake. Dawn finally spoke up as the winds outside ebbed.

“What did he say?”

Teemu took a deep breath, then spoke with a thin voice, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“He…said that we have encountered an Uldra, which are a kind of…Tonttu, ehm…gnome, as you would say, that in fact live up here in the north. He said that the Uldra, and the other twilight beings, well he said that unlike us, they all speak the language of the animals, and know about their problems. He said they care for the animals, as we saw. He ended by telling us that if the Uldras are mistreated by people, that disasters can occur. So we should leave them alone, is what he said, and Lapland and Finland will remain a happy place.”

“He said all that?” Pia whispered.

“He did.”

****

The researchers huddled in the doorway and found that the weather had eased abruptly — not a puff of wind — leaving the trees around them picture-still. The moon shone with a diffused brilliance that illuminated the woods around them so brightly that it looked like the light of the gloaming.

The top of Hanno’s colourful hat could be seen as he bobbed his way back down the trail to the fjord. He was humming a melody that sounded like the tentative first notes of a dawn chorus. A Robin’s chuckle replied from the underbrush, perfectly on key and in time with the Laplander’s refrain. This was soon joined by several Fieldfares and an assortment of other songbirds. Then, dozens of human-like voices chimed in from the surrounding forest, adding a dreamy, melancholic falsetto to the most exquisite song the researchers had ever heard.

 


MATT POLL has spent most of the past decade lurking in the bushes in South Korea and has written a memoir about the shenanigans involved with being a foreign birdwatcher there. He has also started writing a series of supernatural stories about birding, as well as a thriller/fantasy novel set on Korea’s DMZ.

Copyright © 2020 by Matt Poll. All rights reserved.

 

‘Encounter’ by Jaco Fouché

Encounter.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take of some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it, and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had a head of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

Some years before, I had moved to a coastal town thinking that fortune smiled on writers in picturesque places. But after much time had passed, I was in a bad state. I had hardly any friends. Writing no longer interested me. I wasn’t working at a proper job which contributed to my condition. There was a lot of time to waste fretting about old regrets and fears of the future.

So I slept. And dreamt. There was one in which I wandered into a vast building visiting room after room on floor after floor. I could never leave it. I’d wake up with a feeling of searing regret, something that some prisoner might feel, but that did not stop me from turning over for more sleep.

I slept at night, I slept in the mornings. In the afternoons I got up to go to the shops, or with effort write one of the stories that were my mainstay at the time. In the evenings I’d watch television before once again falling asleep.

One day I awoke early from a bad dream. In it I had decided enough was enough, I could no longer bear my own history, I couldn’t stand my own feeble attempts at art. I saw that it had all rushed away from me, everything that constituted a good and meaningful life. What was left to do? I had literary visions of the windswept cliffs the town was famous for. Perhaps I’d gain something like insight or guidance from the gulls and water and bracing sea air.

I dressed and ventured into the strange chilly morning, walking along the badly lit streets to the beach where I stood looking out over the bay.

There were other people there; old people, happy people. So happy did a particular group of three of them seem where they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the sand that I walked over.

“Morning,” a bald man said, “are you joining us?”

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

All three of them had with them some baggage that made me ask:

“Are you planning a picnic?”

“No, we’re going swimming, of course,” the bald man said.

“Good grief,” I muttered, as to me it was a cold day. They laughed in delight at this. I said I was going for a walk.

“Before work?” the woman asked.

“Work, with that head of hair?” the third man said skeptically. I hadn’t had a decent haircut in a long time.

“I’m self-employed,” I said. I walked some distance along the path from where I could watch them put down their baggage, take off some clothes, and in their bathing costumes go into the water.

There must have been ten of them in the early light, their forms cutting into the backdrop of small white breakers rolling into the shallows. The bald man and his female companion turned and looked in my direction. Were they discussing me? Beyond the breakers, the water was darker but beyond that, across the bay, the sun was rising behind a great bank of clouds.

How beautiful all this was, I told myself. Why wouldn’t I do things like this more often? But I knew the next day would come and I might wake up only to turn over and sleep. I was stuck in something I couldn’t clearly explain. Still, this particular morning was happening and I decided to make good use of it and followed the path through rocks and milkwood trees. It was wonderful to be out in the chill and the noise of the sea, water churning white against the rocks.

After a while, I returned to the beach where the bathers were leaving the water and heading for their towels and warm clothes.

“Oh, wasn’t that splendid,” the bald man said on noticing me.

The woman nodded and said, evidently for my benefit, “I’d suggest that even the younger generation might have use of such an experience.”

I remained standing there, drawn by their warmth. The bald man produced a half-bottle of sherry from his bag and grinned at me. “How about a toot now,” he said. We drank in turn, small polite sips which were more about the company than anything else.

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

“Writer,” I muttered. “Nothing you would’ve read.”

“I say,” the man said to me, “I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but is everything all right? There’s something about you, some malaise.”

“Yes, and you seem overdressed for the beach,” the woman said kindly. “This isn’t just a walk you’re taking, is it?”

There was very little I could think of to say to that so I laughed as carelessly as I knew how. We drank some more of the sherry, which filled me with warmth as much as did my companions.

“You know,” the bald man said, “fifty years ago I had ahead of hair like that.” The woman laughed. The man stroked his pate and looked out over the sea, which had grown much lighter. “I’d just started a business. Construction. Things were great. The economy was strong, my timing was right. I was doing well. Then I got a diagnosis. I was told I had months to live. So I closed my business and moved back in with my folks. I didn’t do anything but read. After some time I’d worked my way through the Waverley Novels, the James Bonds and about half of the Canadians and my dad asked me, ‘So when do you plan to die?’ And I realized even if it was happening any day now, I might as well go out and face life. I went back into construction, got married, had a family, lost my wife, saw my grandkids grow up. Then I met this one. All that in fifty years.”

“And I met you, John,” the woman said softly and then to me, “It’s true it’s not all about good times. Sometimes you have to accept what’s downright bad too. Long ago when I was in my late forties I felt very alone. My kids were grown, my husband had left me. I moved to another town and worked there. I met a man who I had my doubts about. He wasn’t working, but he claimed to be looking for a business to buy and run. After a while, he was still looking and talking about it and living with me. I told friends that even if he was a swindler, at least I would have had someone in my life for a while. But sure enough, I eventually had to accept that he was simply a layabout and a braggart. One day I drove him to the station and bought him a ticket to a town on the other side of the country. He went. He left me without resistance. After some months he phoned me to say he was happy. Despite what you might think, that it sounds tacky, it was sort of special. It was life, you know. And that only happens to you when you allow it to.”

I nodded. I was very self-conscious. The two people seemed so kind and wise to someone who often felt like a foreigner even to himself. I was a citizen of some desolate country. I wondered if I should be concerned that my plight seemed to be written all over my person.

“What we mean,” the bald man slowly said, “is that we could tell something is up with you. If we could, we’d point you in some direction and say, there, that’s the way to go.”

“But what do we know?” the woman said.

Some of the other bathers had joined us and there seemed to be no point in continuing the discussion. I thanked the couple for their time and they wished me well and I walked back to my flat, where I looked around me.

The place was a mess. I cleaned it all day long. Shortly before the end of business hours, I went out for food and when I came back, I cleaned some more. Late at night the people below me knocked on the door to urge me to be quieter and expressed their surprise at the fact that they’d never seen me before. They left. I stayed up to write down what I could remember of the morning’s meeting at the beach.

At around four o’clock I fell asleep and dreamt. Once more I entered a vast building with many rooms and floors. But instead of waking up without having left it, this time I passed through it and walked away and I felt powerful.

When it was daylight, I began to dial numbers and look up businesses before deciding that a more personal touch was called for. I set out for the main part of town where with some effort I managed to ingratiate myself into a position with a retailer situated in a busy street. It wasn’t really sales, nothing so fanciful, just an assistant’s position, but it was a job that I could do while being among people all day. I was with company.

After going home at night, I chiseled away at my thoughts about the people on the beach. A few times I went back there early in the morning. I never saw them again.

 


JACO FOUCHÉ is a South African writer who has published ten books in Afrikaans and who is interested in publishing in Canada. He was won awards for his Afrikaans writing. His most recent award was for an English poem in the AVBOB Poetry Project, “A Feeling like Leaving Harbour”, of which the theme was death and loss and which earned him first prize in the English category.

Copyright © 2019 by Jaco Fouché. All rights reserved.

 

‘Highly Evolved Creatures Talk to Me’ by James Finost

Stepping off the blurry edge of town, first through the corn-filled meadows, then an untouched wilderness, twisted maple forests, pristine rivers—where do they run to?—shallow canyons, shores of salt lakes—half a continent of scenery at least, all passes in a matter of hours and then—sand. And then that’s all there is. Hundreds of years of walking sand. Wandering endless bleached earth. You could drown in it. Wherever the other side is, only the creatures can say.

What do they say? “I know a place you can go.”

Water burns, though it isn’t water, from the canteen to my lips down my throat through my arteries, unrelenting poison, memories of being able to black anything out by numbing the hours with the next round and the next. Where is the darkness now? A day that never relents to night, allows decades to crawl on by.

I take desperate sleep under a sun that doesn’t move, doesn’t blister my skin. This heat could peel the shell off a tortoise, but no burns come to my arms or feet or face, it only shrivels my insides.

The flash of a scorpion out of the earth stops to consider something a moment. I bring a stick down on its back and cleave it in two, squash the stinger under the sole of my sandal, squeeze its insides into my mouth. Its blood burns my tongue, though it isn’t blood. Gulp it down, whatever I can get, and toss the carcass away.

Asking them: “How do you live?”

The voices come—where do they come from?—“We don’t drink.”

Feverish walking through immeasurable nothing. Not another soul to be found. No bodies rising from the earth, like nothing ever died out here because nothing lived out here. The steady incline up a rapid, moving, shifting hill, a blistering promise of some view. But more nothing all around. The opposite of being trapped in a confined space. Trapped in the bright abyss.

At times I find the canteen dry. And other times when I wake—was I asleep or passed out?—it’s filled with the substance again. Oldest affection, sweet and refined it used to be. Like the blood of someone you used to love, or who used to love you.

Another carcass tossed away—my own—in the ever-expanding wasteland, the void of nature. In a place like this, you start to wonder if you’ve fallen entirely into some place eldritch, a blight on a map in the centre of nowhere at all. Black ants at the sides of my vision, or are they the spots of delirium?

Whispers. The creatures whisper to me still. Where are they?

My hands search inside the sand. No, not sand, soft scrobiculate pockmarked ground. Cup both hands to my head to shut out the light and peer through tiny holes in the ground. Here they are! They gaze up from unreachable quenching darkness. What highly evolved creatures these must be with their irises so clear, rested, full of colour—I used to know them.

They say, “Don’t you know what it’s like watching you?”


JAMES FINOST is an Australian emerging writer living in Canada. Not too long ago he was a primary school teacher, and before that a facilitator of writing groups for young people. He now works in a library trying to keep his ever-growing reading list at bay.

Copyright © 2019 by James Finost. All rights reserved.

 

‘Eulogy’ by Maia Kowalski

Eulogy.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

My father’s funeral was on a Tuesday, on my mother’s birthday. I found this fitting. After the divorce, she had said multiple times how much of a relief it was to have him out of her life. Now it almost seemed like a birthday present. She didn’t attend. The crowds of black that shuffled inside the church fanned themselves with the funeral programs I had made. We kept the doors open, but there wasn’t enough wind to sufficiently cool anyone past the last pew.

He didn’t want it in a church; I remembered that much from his will. In the few glances I was allowed, he said he wanted to be cremated in Calgary, where he had lived most of his life. His ashes were to be thrown around the city. I think he knew it would be too hot when he died to stuff people into a building. Grandma said we had to have a casket in Barrie, though, where he grew up. The shiny box was flooded with roses when we knew he hated them. There was a picture board even though throughout his life he was vehemently against taking photographs. But I liked how we refused all his orders. It made the whole thing more bearable.

It’s always easy to tell who comes to funerals because they feel guilty. I saw too many people I hadn’t seen enough in my father’s life when he was alive, and when I shook hands with them they pretended to know my name and gave me a sympathetic smile. Some didn’t smile at all. Go home, I wanted to tell them.

My grandmother gave the first speech. Even though she and my father never had a strong relationship, she pulled out old childhood stories and humorous arguments that lightened the crowd. She told us about his love of gardening and daisies. Then as we were all feeling better about ourselves, she hit us with tears when she said a child shouldn’t die before their parents.

My aunt was next and she, too, did not have a strong relationship with my father. But she brought out the same material.

“He was a good brother,” she said. “I knew it’d be hard to lose a sibling, but I didn’t think it would be this hard.”

I heard people sniffling in the row behind me and my grandmother gave a massive sob. I coughed to make it look like I was feeling the same.

I didn’t want to do a speech. I didn’t even want to be there. I told my father’s side over and over that I didn’t want to talk, that I didn’t have anything to say, but my grandmother quipped me with the you’re family line which left me with no other excuse. So when I walked towards the podium I pointedly dabbed my face with a Kleenex, pretending to wipe away old tears and ready to feign more emotion. I had a folded map of North America to use as a prop and stuffed it under my arm.

“My dad was a good man,” I began and scanned the crowd. Eager but tear-stained faces from my family filled the front row. Everyone else was a massive blur.

“I’ll always remember him as the one who took us for road trips,” I said and looked at my brother for confirmation. He gave me a faint smile.

“Jack would map them out and we’d start driving at 4am so we could get to our next rest stop before dark.”

I took out the map and pointed out the different places we had driven together. There were pen marks all over the United States and a single line from Calgary to Toronto, when my father had driven my brother out to university in his first year.

“He said his dad never took him to places like this, so he wanted to do it for us.”

I folded the map back up and looked at my grandmother and aunt. They smiled at me in agreement.

“He drove us around the city a lot if we needed something,” I continued. “There were the trips to Krispy Kreme, and Tim Hortons, and always to McDonald’s.”

The whole church laughed.

“When I was six we’d go daisy hunting in our backyard. I remember always finding more than him, and when he looked into my basket he threw them all up in the air and made me laugh.”

I actually smiled, remembering our hazy sunlit backyard, my orange dress, white daisies falling around me and sprinkling my vision. “Then he’d pick me up and put me on his lap, and we’d pick off the petals together.”

For the first time at the ceremony, my eyes threatened to tear. But I braced myself.

“Of course, there are always two sides to every person,” I said. “To be honest, there were a lot of times I didn’t want to be around him. Most of my life, actually.”

The wind carried in sounds from the street.

“When my grandmother told me to write this speech, the only things I could think of were negative.” I paused, pacing myself. “Honestly, those last three examples were the only things that showed him in a positive light.”

I looked at the front row. Grandma wasn’t happy.

“Our conversations were never deep. I never smiled genuinely around him. I think I even tried to suppress smiling if I noticed he was near me.”

Grandma’s mouth drooped comfortably into the frown lines she had built up over the years whenever she was upset with my father. I stopped looking at her.

“There was that time when I was eight, and he was running a bath for me and Jack. I sat on the side of the tub, naked because I was little, and he looked at my stomach and told me I was getting fat. I ran off crying to mom and she told him off.”

I was going to stop there, but there was a fire in my stomach.

“When I had a hard time making friends in university, he told me I wasn’t trying hard enough. I told him I had anxiety and he ignored me. ‘Making friends isn’t that hard,’ he said.”

There was an uncomfortable cough.

“He told me I was closing doors on people on purpose. He told me to force myself to be social. He told me I would be a drop-out. And he expected me to trust him when he couldn’t even trust me. I couldn’t make eye contact with him. He was unreliable and headstrong and nothing I liked in a person.”

I was looking at the back of the church. It was at this moment that I dared to look at the other pews, and it was the silent mass of stony and sad faces I had expected. I took their silence as agreement.

“I wish I could say that I loved him. I wish I could say that I enjoyed his company or he made me laugh or he was one of the best fathers a child could ever know. But the truth is he wasn’t, and being dead doesn’t change any of that.”

I snuck a peek at my grandmother and could barely recognize her. Her face was contorted into a glare, all narrowed eyes, and furrowed eyebrows, but she didn’t speak. I don’t think she could figure out what to say.

My aunt studied her fingernails in her lap. She must know I’m right, I thought. But when she looked up at me, her eyes were full of tears. She shook her head. My stomach dropped.

Jack was as somber as he was before I spoke, and I knew he didn’t like confrontation, so he wouldn’t say anything to me until after. But he bit his lip, which I knew meant he felt guilty. I looked away.

“Thank you.”

I walked away from the podium and towards the doors. I heard people whispering about me in the pews as I walked by.

“Why did she say that?”

“Is that really his daughter?”

“What a horrible child.”

But I ignored them just like I ignored my father every time he tried to tell me he was right.

Happy birthday, mom, I thought as I finally exited the church. The sun was bright and the heat embraced me. I feel as relieved as you do.

***

I woke up today with a headache. It’s still so hot outside, and even though I kept my window open last night, I couldn’t escape the stickiness of overnight summer sweat. But the heat reminds me. Today’s the day.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. The funeral was only a month ago, and since then my family has refused contact. Jack updates me on everything they’re saying behind my back, even though he doesn’t agree with what I did either. I don’t blame them for talking about me, but deep down I still think they know I’m right.

Jack says their favourite line against me is, How could she say that about her own father? He helped raise her, didn’t he? Sometimes I want to send a message back to explain. But I never do.

I thought ranting about my father would make me feel better, and I did in the beginning, for the first two weeks after the funeral. But then one morning I woke up with so much guilt I couldn’t move out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything except think about how I ruined the ceremony.

The day after that I told myself I’d redo everything at his grave the next month. I’d say a proper speech and remember him in a good way, even though my mind was filled with bad ones.

That’s today. I put on the same outfit I had on a month ago, and drive to the cemetery.

His grave is way in the back because everywhere else is filled up. I remember when he told me he paid to keep two spots open closer to the gates for himself and my mother, when they were still together. A few years went by until he realized he couldn’t afford it. I remember arguing with him about how he was spending his money, which ended with me not speaking to him for three weeks. I laugh as I drive past those two spots now, reading the names of people I don’t know: my way of telling them how happy I am that they got those spots instead of my father. But I wonder if I’d be more inclined to visit him if he was closer to the exit.

He’s in the middle of a row, and after I pass everyone else’s pretty potted tulips and orchids I come to a plain stretch of dirty grass and weeds. I’m surprised no one picked up the cemetery’s gardening bill, after all the emotion and kind words said at the funeral. But I guess all of that really did mean nothing.

I’m standing in front of him now. I look at his name for much too long, study the way it’s carved into the grave and how neat the dates look underneath it. I’ve forgotten why I’m here.

And when I do remember, nice words refuse to come out. Instead there’s that fire again, that fire I had a month ago, and it’s erupting inside my throat and now I’m yelling at him, yelling at his grave, yelling at dirt and weeds and a piece of stone that bears his name. I yell until I start to cry.

But when the wind changes and the sky is overcast, I slow myself down. I don’t know how long I’ve been here but it feels like the longest I’ve ever wanted to be in his company.

I had brought the map from the funeral with me as a symbolic thing, to show him where we went together for the last time. But I rip it up now, in front of him, getting rid of any evidence. I don’t need it anymore.

I’m about to leave when I see a single daisy flopping back and forth in the wind, right beside his grave. I pretend it’s him in flower-form, asking for forgiveness. And I pretend I’m six again, and dozens of the same flower are falling around me, dotting my vision, and I’m about to be picked up and held in his lap. I hope he remembers.

The daisy loses its petals in a strong gust and I watch them disappear in the grass. Then I turn my back on him for the last time.

I really hope he remembers.

 


MAIA KOWALSKI is a Canadian writer who is finishing up a Masters of Creative Writing in Paris, France. Originally from Toronto, she plans to move back home after she graduates to work on her first short story collection.

Copyright © 2019 by Maia Kowalski. All rights reserved.