‘A Coffee Date With Death’ by Ian Canon

Coffee Date

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“You’re late, Isaac.”

“You’re mistaken, Labe,” he said, raising a finger in the air as he sat down. “The Grim Reaper is never early—nor late. He always arrives just in time.”

Labe, the elder of the two, had a mangy red beard and eyes like fava beans. He curled his fingers around a cup of coffee, the steam somersaulting across his forehead. Isaac had a neat, close-cropped beard and rounded eye-glasses.

“You’re still late.”

“You really haven’t seen?”

“Seen what?”

“It’s all over the news. I was schlepping souls up off the street all afternoon! What a day, a night, a week, if it was a month!”

“Explain.”

“The stock market crashed. Kaput! Nobody has money. Nothing! Zilch! They’re jumping out of buildings left and right.” Isaac threw up his hands as if tossing imaginary paper bills in the air. “The roof to The Bank of New York had an hour wait just to jump. An hour!

“That’s just the way these humans are. Such fickle beings. So proud yet prone to despair. But you, Isaac,” he said, extending an accusatory index finger. “Always with the excuses. Always late. We had a meeting. One you called, I remind you. So souls can wait. God knows they have an eternity.”

“Labe! I couldn’t help it, I swear. You don’t understand the difficulties of someone in my position! The angel of death, the man with a giant, terrifying scimitar. These are not positive things, mind you. A thankless job, if ever there was—”

“Welcome to Monk’s! Coffee?” a young boy sidled up to the table.

“Please, please.” Isaac wiped the sweat from his glistening forehead.  “Oy. I’m famished.”

“Cream or Sugar?”

“Black, my boy, always black. I’m getting old, you know! Weight’s becoming a factor.”

“Black. Got it.” The waiter turned to Isaac. “And you, sir? Need anything else?”

“My coffee is still serving me quite well, thank you.”

“Let me know if you two need anything else,” the boy said. He disappeared behind a swivelling back kitchen door.

“Why do you do that, Isaac?”

“Do what?”

“My weight. My age. These things aren’t real.”

“I like to play the part. It’s fun. What’s it matter?”

“Ugh…” Labe said, shaking his head, waving Isaac away. “I guess it doesn’t.”

“Anyway, what were we on about.”

“Your, as you put it, thankless job.”

“That’s right. A thankless job. One you wouldn’t understand.”

“My appointment is every much as difficult as yours.” He furrowed his thick red brows. “Some might say it’s more difficult, even. Let’s look at the facts, shall we? The crude birth rate, per 1000 people, is 19.4, while the mortality rate is significantly less, sitting at just under 8 deaths per 1000 people.” He slurped his coffee, his mustache coming back damp. “I have to usher into existence twice the souls you usher out on a daily basis, and you’re trying to tell me about difficulty. You have much to learn, Isaac.”

He raised a finger in the air. “Still, still. You’re held up in high esteem for your actions. A hero! Whereas I’m hated, feared, and misunderstood! The humans praise the lord every time you perform your little miracle, while they curse my name. It’s the most thankless job! One that I’ve been doing forever!”

“We’ve both been at it forever. This is nothing new to you.”

“That’s why I called this meeting. I’m fed up!” He collapsed onto the table, still talking into his arms. “When does it end? When do we get a day off? When can I go on vacation? How long are we here for?”

“I’ve never considered the question before.” He stroked his beard. “I would imagine this is our lot for eternity, my old friend.”

“Eternity!” Isaac stuck his tongue out in a mock-gag. “Bupkes! But tell me, Labe, in your infinite wisdom, what was before eternity? What did you do before this? What is after this? These people have their death, their escape, and what do we have? Are we human? Are we something else?”

“I do not know.” He looked up at the ceiling as if the answer were written on a poorly dusted overhead light. “I’ve only known life. This life. That’s it.”

“But you must know more than me! Life by very definition preceded death. What was I before this… whatever this is!”

“These are questions I do not have an answer for, but they are excellent questions, nonetheless.”

“Who does, Labe?” He leaned in closer and whispered. “The humans? Can we ask them? Surely, before they come to life or shortly after they leave it, they must have something to say!”

“An interesting possibility. I do not see why not. Where shall we begin our line of questioning?”

Isaac’s eyes glowed at the possibility of answers. “The beginning,” he said. “And the end. A hospital.”

“Just 12 blocks east.”

“Let’s go! Souls, those weary travellers, are waiting to be ushered into existence!” Isaac stood up and hopped, from one foot to the other, like a school boy playing hopscotch, out of the cafe.

Labe stood in a stiff, almost robotic, motion, brushed himself off, and left a $5.00 bill on the table. Shortly after, the boy-waiter brought over a pot of coffee, shrugged at the empty seats, and pocketed the change.

Despite the bodies raining from the rooftops, blotting out the sun as they fell through the air, it was a beautiful summer day in New York.

“Have you ever attempted to talk to the unborn?” Isaac said, stepping over a body.

“No, Isaac. I never quite saw the point.”

“What are they like?”

“They’re not really like anything. They’re quiet, I suppose. They arrive, from God knows where, these frail winged babes, to be ushered into a body. It’s an unglamorous activity with nothing of note to report. Have you talked to the dearly departed?”

“Talked? No. Listened? Not if I can help it! The damn things don’t shut up. They yap about this and that and the other. Always yapping.” A homeless man leaned into Isaac and asked for spare change. Isaac, ignoring the man, continued. “Yap, yap, yap. I rarely get a word in.”

“What’s the process like when you pull them out of a body?”

“More often than not, they’re confused before they fly off to, as you said, God knows where. Probably the same place they came from.”

“Have you ever seen a dead soul after the ushering? Say, walking around the street amongst the living?”

“Hmmm. That’s a good question. No, I can’t say that I have. I guess they don’t come back, then. Isn’t that odd?”

“I suppose it is. Where do they go off to?”

“Up there, I imagine.” Issac gestured towards the sky.

Entering the hospital, they lost their elderly exterior and took on the appearance of two middle-aged doctors. They carried with them an air of ease, comfort, and respectability as they walked through the narrow corridors of the hospital and towards the maternity wing. With their new skins, no one doubted their position or purpose.

“Where are we going, Labe?”

“Just a little farther, Isaac. At the end of the hall, on the left, up here, there’s a woman a few minutes from birth. A soul will soon be entering her. It’ll make a perfect specimen to question.”

They walked into the room. A woman, legs high in sternums, was red-faced and panting. No one seemed to care or notice the doctors’ intrusion.

“So what happens now?” Isaac asked.

Labe put his finger to his lips. He turned his chin to the sky. A small, wingless cherub floated through the roof, head first, and held out his hands towards Labe. Labe grasped the soul’s hands and gently set him on the ground.

“We have some questions to ask you, child.”

The bodiless soul blinked into the void.

“Ask him where he comes from!” Isaac said, a few feet behind Labe.

Labe glowered at Isaac, annoyed by his impulsiveness, then turned back to the small translucent soul and asked, “My child. Where do you come from? What came before this? Do you remember anything?”

No one said anything for several minutes.

Issac leaped forward. “Well, what is it, human! Where do you come from?”

If there was any effect on the child from Isaac’s outburst, it was not visible on its outward appearance. It remained lifeless and without expression, except for the empty smile on its face.

Labe tried his hand again. “Do you understand my words, child? Do you know what it is I am saying? We must know where you come from.”

Blankness. No response.

Labe knelt down. “Do you have any memory of anything before this?” He stared into the child’s eyes, hoping something would disturb its stillness, but the boy simply looked through him.

Labe stood up and turned to Isaac. “Its small cherub lips would likely not part for anything, man or beast.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t believe it has the capability to communicate. This thing here is a blank slate. It has no memories, thoughts or desires. Before us is an empty soul, waiting to experience the life of a human and to feast on its many experiences. It waits to learn, to play, to love. As of now, it has no knowledge to give us because it has no knowledge.”

“Are you saying there is nothing to gain here?”

“Perhaps not. The soul prior to birth is as lost, if not more so than we are. It is only through life that it gains some knowledge.”

“Then perhaps we must question it after it has lived a full life. We must question the dead!”

“Indeed, Isaac. We must.”

Labe lifted the pre-born by the shoulders and laid him over the pregnant woman as if it were a clean bed sheet.

“We’ve got a head,” A doctor said, as they left the room.

Isaac and Labe walked through the corridors of the hospital until they came upon a small commotion of nurses and doctors.

“This should do nicely,” Isaac said.

They entered the room. There was a man on the operating table with his chest open, hooked up to a variety of machines, the ominous steady ring of a heart monitor, the 21st century calling of the dead and dying, still heavy in the air.

“Is he dead?” Labe asked. He had always been uncomfortable around the dead. He assumed this uneasiness was bestowed upon him, for his duties regarded the living, not the dead.

“A goner.”

Isaac pinched the skin of the man’s shoulders and lifted up a soul, vaguely outlined by the shape of the man it came from. He placed it on the ground and it, as if Isaac stepped on a hidden air pedal, began to inflate. Fully animated, it judged its surroundings with the wide eyes of terror.

“Where am I?”

“You’ve passed,” Isaac said.

“Passed? What do you mean?”

“You’re dead. You’ve died.”

The soul looked around again, seeing its former shell laying, stiff and still, on the operating table. “I… I… I’m dead?” He looked at the pale feet of his old body with disappointment.

“Dead as the day is long.”

“My God,” the man said, throwing his hands around, pacing the room. “My friends. My family.”

“They’ll be fine. What’s your name, soul?”

“B-brian. My name is Brian. Brian Thompson. When will I see my family again?”

Labe walked forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Be calm, gentle soul, your family will be fine.” Labe stepped back behind Isaac.

“We would like to ask you some questions,” Isaac said.

An unnatural stillness, cased in confusion, came over Brian. “You want to ask me questions?

“Yes,” Labe said.

“I have a few questions of my own.”

“If we answer yours,” Isaac said, “will you answer ours?”

“I guess.”

“Then go ahead.”

“First of all, who are you two? What are you?”

“I am Isaac. Some people call me the Grim Reaper, or Death, or the Angel of Death, or Michael, but I prefer simply Isaac.” Isaac looked back at Labe. “And my friend over there is my counterpart. People don’t call him anything. Most don’t know he exists. I take the souls out at death and he puts them in at birth. He goes by Labe.”

“Okay. Isaac and Labe. What happens now?”

“We were hoping you could tell us that.”

The soul’s face contorted, and he took a step back. “I don’t understand. Isn’t that your job? Aren’t you supposed to take me somewhere? What do you usually do with a soul?”

“We don’t do anything. My job is to pull the soul from its body and Labe’s is to place it in a body. Beyond that, we have no clue where you come from or go when you die.”

“And you want me to tell you where I’m supposed to go when I know nothing?”

Yes,” Labe said. “We’ve been here on earth for an eternity, and it appears we are stuck here for an eternity more. What we don’t know, and what we may never know, is what happens beyond death, and you lot seem to be free’d, upon death, from your earthly confinements.”

“Well,” the soul said, attempting to stroke his chin, but slipping through his bottom lip. “Let’s work this out together. What happens to a soul after you free it… Isaac, was it?”

“They’re usually out of their mind, or in shock, or overwhelmingly sad. They ask me questions, questions I can’t answer, then I tell them they’re free to go, to fly off into the sky, wherever they wish.”

“And you’ve never asked one where they planned to go?”

“Honestly? I’ve thought about it.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t really say. Something always stopped me, I guess. Besides, they always find their way, wherever they go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never seen a soul return to earth. I haven’t seen them on the streets, or in the supermarket, or at the bottom of a bottle of milk.

“Do you know where you’ll go?” Labe asked.

“I don’t have a damn clue. Where would you go, if you suddenly found yourself free?”

“I suppose I would look for answers,” Labe said.

“Where would you do that?”

“Everywhere,” Labe said. “The universe is unimaginably large.”

“Maybe that’s why you’ve never seen one return,” the soul said.

“Why?”

“There are no road maps out there. Once you’re gone, it’s like finding a spec of dust in an ocean of sand.”

“You believe them—those like you—to be lost? All of them?”

“Or maybe this state gives way too, sooner or later,” he said, examining his opaque exterior.

“Think so?” Isaac said.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on earth, it’s that nothing is forever.”

“What’s it like?” Isaac asked.

“What?”

“That body. I’ve always meant to ask.”

“There’s a certain lightness to it.” Brian lifted a few centimetres off the ground. “But some things, physiologically, don’t make a whole lot of sense. I can feel, but I don’t have skin. I don’t have eyes, but I can see. I don’t have lungs or hold air, but something is producing a voice. My body has weight, but I’m floating here, seemingly unaware of gravity’s existence.”

Isaac smiled. “Maybe we were once human, you think?”

“Perhaps,” Labe said. “But I am not aware of any death of mine.”

“Did it hurt?” Isaac asked. “Do you remember it?”

“It hurt for a bit, but it was sudden. A heart attack, I think. I was watching my daughter’s school play—her head sticking through a hole in a tree—when I toppled over, digging my fingernails into my chest. Then I woke up here, whatever this is.”

“Whatever this is, indeed,” Labe said.

“So, have I been of any help?” Brian said.

“Absolutely none,” Isaac said. “But it’s sure been an interesting experiment.”

“This experiment has done nothing but double my questions.”

“Answers are a monkey’s paw—they always come with more questions.”

“Where to now?”

Brian looked up, hands on his hips, floating in the room like Peter Pan’s shadow. “Somewhere up there, I guess.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Isaac said.

“Goodbye,” Labe said.

“So long my supernatural companions.” The soul floated into the ceiling, never to be seen again.

As they left the hospital, Isaac and Labe walked with their heads down and their voices quiet. They pondered the complex nature of the universe, so vast and untamed, a wild horse unbroken by man or ghost until they reached the Bank of New York. The ground was littered with bodies and blood ran down the sidewalk, emptying into a nearby drain.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you, Isaac,” Labe said.

Isaac put a hand across his brow and looked up at the roof of the building. “Never a weekend, or a vacation, or a day off—an eternity of work—toiling for God knows why.” He pulled away from the roof and looked at Labe. “What difference does it make if I release the souls? Who would be the wiser if I took a month off?”

“It is our purpose for being, Isaac.”

“Maybe I don’t need a purpose. Have you ever thought of that? Maybe I just want to be free! Maybe I just want to wander the universe, a lost soul.”

And at that moment, a body came careening through the sky, splattering the being formerly known as death into a thousand pieces, like a bug on a windshield and Labe never saw Isaac again.

 


IAN CANON is the author of the novel It’s A Long Way Down (2018) and the poetry collection Before Oblivion (2017). He’ll be releasing his second novel What We Do On Weekends in 2020. His stories have been featured in The Sunlight Press, The Spadina Literary Review, Kyler Zeleny’s short story collection Found Polaroids, and he has been interviewed for Vue Magazine. He runs a small writing workshop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada through which he mentors young writers and helps them advance their work through both traditional publishing and self-publishing. For more, visit thisisallcanon.com.

Copyright © 2019 by Ian Canon. All rights reserved.

‘Home Tastes Just Like Fried Plantains’ by Silvana Morales

Fried Plantains
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

At five o’clock that morning, like he had done every morning, Ibrahim Delgado woke to the sound of screeching roosters. His old bones creaked like the bed he rose from as he shut off the rusted fan that blew faint wisps of cool air throughout the night. The aluminum shutters opened with a stubborn jolt, allowing the first glimmers of the early morning light to flutter in. It was a morning like any other.

The old man washed and dressed himself, buttoning his white guayabera, not forgetting to slip a cigar into the front pocket of his shirt. He pulled on the cap his son had sent him from Canada, the one he wore every day and loved. It had been a bright blue, red and white once; it was now faded and stained but still represented some hockey team his grandson often talked about during their monthly phone calls. He still did not understand the sport. Ibrahim Delgado remembered that it was the first of the month. Miguel, his son, would be calling him later that day. He felt a jabbing pain in his chest as he thought back to their last conversation.

The kitchen was still that morning, as it had been every morning, and Ibrahim Delgado waited for his coffee to brew. He bit into a guava, the sweetness bursting into his mouth as he inspected the magnets on the yellowed refrigerator door. The plastic magnets – shaped like apples, bananas, and grapes – help up a mosaic of photographs and postcards. Some were recent photos of his family in Montreal, surrounded by snow. Some were of Miguel as a child playing in the Caribbean sun. And a photo of Mirta, torn and bent. She was young and beautiful in the black and white of the photograph. He missed her the most.

Ibrahim Delgado thought about what he would say to his son. He would tell Miguel that he was fine on his own. He would be firm with his son. He would say that if he had been strong enough to survive malaria in Angola, he would easily overcome a simple economic crisis. Besides, what did Miguel know anyway? He was not living there anymore.

The old man sighed. He knew he no longer had the same strength he had had as a young man, fighting in a war on a different continent. Those days were nothing but stories told to his wide-eyed grandchildren now, as they listened to their abuelo talk about the time before the revolution.

He would tell Miguel that things were not as bad as they seemed.

Ibrahim Delgado picked up the plastic bucket he kept next to the back door of his home. He stepped out into the cramped backyard and was greeted by the cool breeze coming in from the sea. And like every other morning, Ibrahim Delgado was greeted by his chickens scattering around his feet as he plucked fresh eggs from their nests. He sometimes spoke to them about his plans for the day, and he liked to imagine that they listened and clucked their responses in return. Before leaving his home, he examined the lone banana tree he had planted beside the house. A cockroach slithered down the trunk. He poked at the fruit, turning them this way and that. They would be ripe in a few days, he guessed.

The sun was beginning to rise as the old man stepped out onto the streets of La Pachanga. It was the same sun he remembered seeing every morning as a child in Pilón, where he would accompany his father, admiring the dark-skinned man in a straw hat who wielded a machete with the grace of Ogún. His father, who, when angry, would cuss in his native Yoruba. His father, who had taught him everything he needed to know about cutting sugar cane. He looked down at the sun spotted hand carrying the bucket. His right index finger with the missing fingernail. The white scar that seemed to shine like a jagged bolt of lightning, where as a young man his hand had slipped, the rusty machete slicing into his skin.

He cleared his throat as he shuffled down the street, listening to the first bristles of the old fishermen’s village come to life. The tin roofs of the houses glinted in the warm light, and Ibrahim Delgado shook himself out of his daydream to let out his first whistle of the day.

El huevo! El huevo!” The old man chanted as the eggs rattled in his bucket. And as he made his way through the streets, he exchanged each egg for one peso, patting the occasional stray dog on the head as the bucket gradually grew lighter.

It was now midmorning. Ibrahim Delgado, empty bucket in hand and a pocketful of jingling coins, made his way to the tiny grocery at the end of the village. He stopped when he saw the mob that had formed around the decrepit building. The people were angry as they had been for days on end. He could hear snippets of the conversations around him, saying the same things he had been hearing every day for the last few months.

“I have been standing in this line since three o’clock in the goddamn morning and you’re telling me that there is no bread?”

“What in God’s name am I supposed to feed my children?”

“Isn’t it bad enough that the government took away the bread and milk rations for an old woman like me? El Presidente must want us all to starve!”

“No oil, no rice, no meat! What now?”

Ibrahim Delgado sagged –of course, no food, again. He would just make do with what he had at home. That’s what he had always done, anyway. He thought back to the grocery stores his son had spoken of when he had arrived in Canada all those years ago; the ones with the shiny floors and shiny lights. The ones that never had empty shelves; where you could find whatever your heart desired. The ones with the jets of mist that kept the vegetables looking fresh and bright. The old man’s stomach growled.

He turned and walked back through the streets, making his way to the stand on the corner of 1era Avenida and Calle 17; where an old lady sold flowers she grew herself. And on this morning, just like every morning, Ibrahim Delgado bought a white lily from the same woman for the last three years with one peso he had earned from his morning labor. She greeted him with a smile that had only become more toothless over the years and handed him the delicate lily. He thanked her with a nod and left. They had never exchanged a word in three years.

As he turned onto another street, the old man paid no attention to the crowd that had formed in front of the house at the corner. He did not need to approach them to know what it was. He could tell by the sobs coming from the woman lying in a crumpled heap, and the screams from the old lady beside her, that they were coming to take the house. The construction workers looked just as miserable as the homeowners. Ibrahim Delgado briefly wondered how they could blindly follow such orders. He knew that they probably had no choice. They had mouths to feed just like everybody else. It was not really their fault. The government had been tearing houses down one by one. To increase tourism, they had said. To build more hotels! A splendid idea! He shook his head. This was not what he had fought for. He had fought for what he thought was liberty. Back in the Sierra, with Che and the others. What a stupid boy he had been; a stupid, hopeful boy. It was only a matter of time before they tore down his house, too.

Passing the restaurant on Calle 13, he hummed to the strumming of guitars coming from the patio, where tourists and locals intermingled and the smells of carne asada and congrí were ever-present. The musicians were playing Dos Gardenias and the melancholic sound of the trumpet made its way into Ibrahim Delgado’s heart. He smiled, his mood lifting itself once again, and clutched the lily closer to his chest. His wedding band glinted in the sunlight and he remembered Mirta.

He remembered how they had met long ago, beneath the framboyán tree in the park he had visited every morning for the past three years –two teenagers in love. It had not been ‘love at first sight.’ He smiled as he remembered how much of a nuisance Mirta had found him to be at first. How he teased her and how her annoyance soon turned into laughter. The tree had become their daily meeting spot. They would sit on the ground, lean against its trunk and chat until it was time for Mirta to go home for dinner. They had gone to different schools. Some days he would pluck flowers from the tree’s branches and give them to her. Her cheeks would redden, matching the petals of the flowers as she would accept the gift. Some days she would bring her little sister to the park and let her play on the seesaw as the pair sat in the shade of the vibrant framboyán. He had grown to love the tree as much as he had loved her.

Ibrahim Delgado was old. He knew it, and so did his son. He could no longer travel long distances on public transport. The heat and the cramped interior of the trucks, the sweaty bodies, the lack of air. It would kill him and he knew that. He had not been to the cemetery in the neighboring town on his own since the burial. He had not visited Mirta, nor had he cleaned her tombstone. So, he did what his body allowed him to do. He had left a lily for her beneath the framboyán tree every day. He knew Mirta would have understood. She had always loved lilies anyway.

This morning had not been any different. The old man checked his watch, a strange digital one his son had given him on his last visit. It was ten o’clock. Miguel was supposed to call him that evening. He already knew what his son would say to him. He had been saying the same thing for the past few months.

“Ay pero Papi, you know you can’t stay like that on your own.”He had said the last time they talked.

“Basta, Miguel! I won’t hear any more of this nonsense.”

“Pero Papi, you’re getting older. You shouldn’t be working like a dog every day. You should be living life! You’ve worked hard enough as it is.”

“I am not working like a dog, Miguel. And I am not going to Canada!”

“Don’t be stubborn, Papi. You know Mami wouldn’t want you to be alone like this.”

“I can’t leave, Miguel. You know that.”

“Yes, you can! Papi, por favor –”

“Miguel! Just let a poor old man die in peace. I’m too old to be starting my life all over again. Besides, I can’t abandon your mother’s grave like –”

“Papi…”

“I said NO.”

“All I’m saying is you should think about it. You aren’t going into exile, Papi. And we’d all go back to visit! We’d go to the cemetery, Papi. You know I always take you when I come visit. You don’t have to worry about that.”Miguel had paused before adding, “And there are more opportunities here.”

Ibrahim Delgado had sighed and told his son that he would think about it. The truth is he had not thought about it. Or at least he had tried not to. But, the thought of Canada had piqued his curiosity. Nevertheless, his heart ached at the thought of leaving everything he had ever known behind.

He turned the corner and followed the trail to where the park stood. It was a simple park. It had been around since he was a young boy and had seen the passage of time in the town just like he had. It now stood between two hotels, and tourists often stopped to watch as the local children played on the rusted slide. At this hour, the children would all be in school. The smile that had earlier played on his lips had now faded, and his forehead was creased with worry. He could see some trucks up ahead, blocking the path. He felt the seams that were holding his heart together coming undone as he urged his body forward. The air was thick with dust, and the old man coughed. He slowed down when he reached the park. He could see the workers, in their ragged uniforms, pulling bits of metal that he assumed could only belong to the swing set. He watched as they tossed the trash into the back of their trucks. Weaving through the trucks, he ignored the surprised cries of the workers as he pushed past them to get a better view of the land.

In the farthest corner of the park, a stump rose from the ground. Scattered around it lay dozens of lilies, both new and wilted. The rest of the tree was nowhere to be seen. Ibrahim Delgado clutched at his chest. He stood, eyes locked on the stump as more workers milled about, some crushing the lilies beneath their feet as they went about clearing the park.

“Excuse me, Señor, but you need to step back.” A young man in uniform had appeared beside him. Ibrahim Delgado did not say a word, his eyes resting on the place where he had met his wife decades before. The young man gazed at him before speaking again. “They want to extend the hotel –build a bigger pool. That’s what everyone’s saying.” He pointed at the bigger of the two hotels, a bright blue building with high walls all around it.

“They cut down the tree…”

A confused look spread across the young man’s face. He glanced back at the stump before turning back to the old man. His face softened upon seeing the lily. “They tore everything down, Señor,” he said softly, “They always do.”

_________________

Ibrahim Delgado walked home with a broken heart. He had spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around the village, his hand grasping the lily so tightly, the petals had begun to crumble. As he approached the orange house on 1era Avenida and Playa, Ibrahim Delgado realized that the sun was beginning its descent into night. He accelerated, hoping to get home before his son called.

He passed a group of old men playing dominoes at a table they had hauled out in the middle of the street. He heard the clinking of the little dotted tiles, the frustrated knocking of knuckles indicating when someone could not play their turn, the shouts of “Coñó aseré!” Ibrahim Delgado might have joined them on any other night. Only tonight he wondered if they ever got bored of playing the same game every night, if that was simply their way of ignoring the fact that they were all waiting for the change everyone knew was never going to happen.

The old man unlocked his front door and entered the parlor. It was flooded with silence. He flicked on the light switch, praying that there had not been another apagon. He sighed with relief when the room was illuminated by a faint light. No power outage that day, he thought. He entered the kitchen and pulled out a chair, setting the wrinkled lily down on the table before him. He tried to smooth out its fragile petals in vain. He began to stand, deciding to turn on the light in the kitchen before remembering that the lightbulb had burnt itself out days before, and he had not been able to find lightbulbs anywhere. He sat back down.

The weak evening light seeped into the kitchen as the old man sat at his table. He waited, like he always did on the first of every month, for the phone on the wall to ring. He prayed that when his son called the line would not die. He hoped that he could hear him properly. He knew how difficult it was to call. The old man could not afford it either. So, he waited, and although the phone hardly rang anymore, Miguel had never broken his promise.

Ibrahim Delgado glanced around at the empty kitchen. He saw the cracked tile counter and the peeling paint on the wall above the refrigerator. He saw the holes in the towel he used to dry the dishes. He saw the chipped plate he used three times a day sitting on the counter. The phone rang, and the old man lifted himself with a grunt. He shuffled to the phone and picked it up from the receiver. Miguel sounded far away, but he could hear his son’s voice nonetheless. He listened with a heavy heart as his son told him about his life in a country he had never seen. His grandson was doing well in school. His daughter-in-law was pregnant with their second child. The pride radiated through the phone and Ibrahim Delgado beamed at the news. His heart twisted itself in his chest.

“Papi? Can you hear me?” Miguel was asking him.

“Yes, Miguel. I’m here, mijo.”

“You’re quiet today, Papi. Are you feeling well? How was your day? How are your chickens?”

“I’m fine. We’re all fine. What are you doing, Miguel?”

“I’m making dinner, Papi. Have you eaten today?”

The old man glanced at his refrigerator. It only contained two eggs and a bottle of water. “I have. What are you cooking?”

Ropa vieja. Plátanos fritos. You know, the usual.” Miguel chuckled.

“Fried plantains.” The old man repeated.

“Tastes just like home.” He heard Miguel laugh once more.

“Home.” The word felt strange in Ibrahim Delgado’s mouth. For a minute, he said nothing more.

“Papi?”

“They cut down the tree, mijo.”

Miguel was quiet. “I’m sorry, Papi.”

“Everything, Miguel. The entire park was demolished.”

“I know how many memories you had there, Papi. Nobody can take that away from you. You know that.”

The old man coughed. “You’re right about that, mijo.”

Miguel did not speak. He tried to picture his father on the other line, most likely standing in his battered kitchen, in the same clothes he wore every single day. He knew his father was not telling him the full magnitude of the situation.

“Miguel?” The old man took a deep breath.

“I’m here, Papi.”

“Is it difficult to go to Canada?”

“What?”

Ibrahim Delgado gazed at the faded photograph on the refrigerator door. “I want to go, Miguel. To Canada, I mean.”

“Are you sure, Papi?”

The old man sighed. “Yes, mijo. Like you said, I’ll keep my memories with me wherever I go. That’s all that matters. I think your mami would understand.”

 


SILVANA MORALES is an undergraduate student at Concordia University, currently studying a double major in Creative Writing and Religious Studies. She has a passion for writing both prose fiction and poetry. As a Latina writer, Silvana uses writing to explore and stay connected to her roots. She also wishes to provide a different cultural perspective in the writing industry.

Copyright © 2019 by Silvana Morales. All rights reserved.

 

‘A Pleasant Valley Sunday’ by Lorraine Kiidumae

Valley Sunday

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“I kept thinking how marvelous it would be if I could somehow tear my heart,
which felt so heavy, out of my chest.”
― Anton Chekhov

 

I knew it. I knew what she was up to the minute I heard she was going to Florida by herself—a piece of trash, I say—one of those women who just can’t stick with it.

It was circa 1967 at our house in Oakville, Ontario, and those were my first thoughts as I sat, telephone in hand, listening to my friend Donna. She was talking about her mother, Mrs. Fritz.

Next door, in the Fritz’s back yard, their fourteen-year-old golden-haired cocker spaniel, Ginger, had prompted Donna’s call. She’d been pacing back and forth on top of a layer of ice and fresh snow for the last two hours, tied to the clothes line, the fur on her toes soaking wet, a high-pitched whine emitting continuously from her lungs.

“I mean, what mother goes off and leaves her children alone for six weeks in the middle of winter?” I thought. “And now, poor Donna has to do all the housework too, on top of her homework, and she’s only just shy of thirteen, not even!”

“Well, I guess she was in love then. That’s what she told me, anyway,” Donna said, wearily.

I, like my mother, was not one to get involved in the messiness of other people’s lives, so I said nothing. But imagine how that must feel—too be responsible for someone else’s death, and he, the father of your own children. It was such a shock—there was no indication at all of heart trouble—or, so they said; what a pity. It’s only nine months since she left, and just three weeks before Christmas too. But I guess there’s no accounting for love then, is there? Still, for Donna and Kevin, it must have been a terrible thing, living in the shadow of another person’s sorrow.

Ginger let out a howl and started to yelp, tugging her leash against her neck. “You’d think someone would take pity on that poor dog,” I thought.

“I can’t stand it any longer. If she hasn’t stopped crying in the next ten minutes, I’m calling the SPCA,” Donna said. “And that’s that.” She pronounced this so loudly it made me jump.

“Oh no, Donna, really? No, don’t do that. You poor thing, you’ve been through enough. She’s just pining. Animals do that, you know; set to wailing. I’ll come over and walk the dog, bring Ginger over here for a bit,” I cooed, trying to smooth things over. “I have a bit of homework left to do, but I’ll be over as soon as I’m done.”

Poor Donna—her brother Kevin up and left her by herself, went off to practice football with his coach. She’d been out running errands again, picking up something for dinner.

“Oh, all right then,” Donna said.

It was Mrs. Fritz who used to walk the dog, to keep her girlish figure, she said. But Mr. Farnsworth, it seems, can’t abide dogs licking at him, he abhors them, and Ginger is just too old to move anyway; so they abandoned her too, on top of everything else.

I went down to the basement, pretending I was going to do my homework, softly closing the door behind me. I sat on the stool next to the record player and put on my album. My first and only album—“The Monkees,” a gift from Donna for my twelfth birthday. I had a poster of them pasted to the wall in my room. I picked up the needle and moved it along to the third song, my favourite, ‘I want to be free, like the bluebirds flying by me.’

Days in our house were usually pretty serene: Not a lot of tension. Not a lot of high drama or emotion either.

This was in direct contrast to how things used to be at Donna’s house. At Donna’s house there used to be life—laughter, music, lights on all the time, the perfect white bedroom set in Donna’s room. And her father, Mr. Fritz, he was the captain of our Saturday night sleep-overs, at the helm in their small, windowless, galley-style kitchen, laughing, smiling. Popcorn made from scratch, rubbing the pot slowly and patiently back and forth over the glowing red element of the stove, salted and poured over with freshly melted butter; we licked our fingers, hand-stirred frozen lemonade, ice cold.

Mr. Fritz was a little portly, with darkish hair, wavy and thick, not handsome in a traditional sort of way, but amiable, a tease, there in his black apron—a gift from Donna last Christmas, ‘The Grillfather’ printed in red letters on the front. He seemed happy in comparison to the composed, reserved countenance of my own father; serious-minded, with a wry, English wit. Things used to seem more fun at Donna’s place.

Mrs. Fritz was the serious-minded one in their house—a school teacher, always dressed tidily in a skirt and stockings, a blouse and sweater; cold as a dead fish. She was slender and would have been pretty—very pretty—if she’d smiled more often. An underlying discontent enveloped her, a judgmental air of Mr. Fritz’s playfulness with his children, and she, the authoritarian, glowered mostly in the background, intervening with directives on teeth-brushing and other disciplinary matters. A swat on Kevin’s bare legs with a belt when he’d delivered some perceived verbal slight on his way out the door to football practice.

Collectively, they were a handsome family, always well-dressed. Kevin, blond, like his mother, and more manly-looking than Mr. Fritz. Donna, tall and slender like Mrs. Fritz, her hair a honeyed blend of her mother and father’s hair colours—boy-crazy.

My family had a sort of blandness about us; faded clothes, loosely worn, handed down from one child to another, the same dark hair; no bright sports uniforms or dressing up for Sunday roast dinner at the dining room table; no formalities to be adhered to; no parental control or expectations hovering over us as we did our homework.

Mr. Fritz was an insurance agent, or he worked for an insurance agency. Anyway, I’m not really sure what he did. His best friend, Mr. Farnsworth, worked there too; they had met there, both just out of university and beginning their careers. And Mr. Farnsworth came to their house often; sometimes stayed for Sunday dinner. I was never asked to stay for Sunday dinner, that was reserved for family, and for Mr. Farnsworth. I was there though, on a few occasions, when Mrs. Fritz would come to life on those Sunday mornings after our sleep-overs, and she would occupy Mr. Fritz’s spot at the helm in the kitchen. It seemed odd: she would move in, after Mr. Fritz had made us breakfast, flipping pancakes on the griddle, our favourite radio station playing with bacon popping in the cast iron frying pan.

We would help Mr. Fritz wash and dry the dishes afterwards, clean up the mess while we danced to the music playing on the radio…‘it’s another Pleasant Valley Sunday, Here in status symbol land, Mothers complain about how hard life is, And the kids just don’t understand’…laughing as we bumped hips in time to the music, Ginger running in circles after us.

“Hurry up Howie,” Mrs. Fritz would command through the doorway, anxious to get started on the roast.

While she waited, she laid the table purposefully as always; first freshly ironing a white lacy table cloth, then flicking it across the table, straightening and tightening it at the corners. Dishes were brought out from the china cabinet; not the round grey tumblers and white melamine Donna and I used from the kitchen—these were crystal glasses and white china plates with a gold rim on the edges; candle light; bottles of good red wine (according to Mr. Fritz, as he dutifully removed them from the sideboard in the dining room).

As the afternoon progressed, so did Mrs. Fritz’s mood; elevated, it seemed, by the anticipation of the Sunday roast;  peeling vegetables over the sink, a crisp floral apron tied tidily over her clothes. Once the pork or beef was in the oven surrounded by onions and carrots and quartered potatoes; cooking slowly at 325 degrees, to meld the flavours together, Mrs. Fritz would dress for dinner, which was held early at five o’clock.

She soaked in a hot bath, lingering to massage and relax herself, and to seep the scent of onions from her fingertips, she said. She always wore a dress those Sundays rather than a skirt and blouse; either sleeveless, or with small sleeves just over the shoulders in blue or cream brocade. The length of the dress highlighted her still youthful figure, her hip bones, the curve of her breasts. All accompanied by a string of pearls at her throat and matching earrings –understated sensuality.

Once, I was just leaving as Mr. Farnsworth arrived (looking attractive, suntanned, charming, as always—Donna running to greet him, throwing her arms around his waist), Mrs. Farnsworth having begged off with the flu. The mild flicker of a smile was in the corners of Mrs. Fritz’s mouth as she removed one place setting from the table, her look willing me out the door. “Time to go home,” it said, “little pitchers have big ears.” I was self-conscious, in my Saturday faded navy cotton pants and runners.

“Bye Donna, bye Mr. Fritz!” It never seemed necessary to address Mrs. Fritz, for it seemed as though she were only half there.

 

For years afterwards, I would carry that image of a woman who would leave her husband for another man; for her husband’s best friend. A woman who from then on seemed in a distinctly different category than all the other mothers I had known—a woman with an aura of scandal, a defiance of conformity, a possible hint of instability and yet, an underlying air of excitement too. I didn’t yet see the danger of such women.

“It must have been dreadful for the poor man, coming home, in the middle of the afternoon like that,” I said to Donna, later.

Mrs. Fritz had called in sick to the school where she worked the next day, and they brought in a supply teacher. Mr. Fritz came home on his lunch hour to check up on her, to make sure she was all right, to make her a bowl of chicken noodle soup.

Afterwards the light and noise and music seemed to disappear from Donna’s house. It all disintegrated so quietly: Mrs. Fritz leaving, packing only a few suitcases. The lacy cloth still hung on the dining room table from yesterday’s Sunday dinner on that rainy and dreary Monday afternoon. Was Mr. Fritz suspicious of Mr. Farnsworth’s absence from the office? Or was he really intent on retrieving some aspirin from the medicine cabinet, as he had said, nursing a splitting headache from the two bottles of wine the three had shared at last night’s Sunday dinner—where Mrs. Fritz had slipped off her patent leather high heeled shoes, stretched out and crossed her nylon-stockinged legs underneath the table and rubbing her feet together, slid one foot up Mr. Farnsworth’s pant leg, caressing his shins. Mr. Farnsworth had over-stayed his welcome and the placid Mr. Fritz had left the table and gone to bed early, leaving them there to clean up the residual mess.

Mr. Farnsworth left his home quietly too, Donna said, although, to me, this did not seem nearly as tragic. I had never even seen Mrs. Farnsworth.

There were no more Saturday sleep-overs; no more popcorn or frozen lemonade in round grey tumblers; no more watching movies or the vampires in Dark Shadowson television in Donna’s private, white, perfect bedroom; no Sunday pancakes and bacon, no dancing in the kitchen.

Afterwards, each night after work and on most week-ends, Mr. Fritz would lie down and never get back up again. He took to his bed in the bedroom he’d shared with Mrs. Fritz, with the dark wooden furniture, where he had found her with Mr. Farnsworth. He was always there whenever Donna and I went to her house after school. Donna was often frightened then, fretting constantly and didn’t want to go through her front door alone, so I always went in with her.

When we came around the corner from the living room and past the bedroom door, Mr. Fritz would be there, with all of the lights out, lying still in the darkness on his back with his hands folded on his rotund belly. Over the weeks we watched his hands lower as his stomach slowly receded.

“My Dad is doing pretty good,” Donna whispered, “but he is very lonely.”

He functioned well enough to go to work each day—Mr. Farnsworth had whisked off to Elliot Lake with Mrs. Fritz for a job as a used car salesman. Mr. Fritz summoned the energy to soldier on, working seven to three so he would be there when Donna and Kevin got home from school; standing in front of the stove in a sort of stupor, skimming off greying foam from a pot of over-boiled potatoes, a withered-looking wooden spoon poking through the surface. I couldn’t bear to meet his eyes. He did not appear to find solace in his children, as one might expect, for he and Mrs. Fritz having never seemed that close. I suppose it had all hummed along somehow, like it was supposed to; that last Sunday dinner, to me, seemed picture perfect.

The day before it happened there had been a storm with freezing rain that coated everything with a good, thick sheet of ice. All the hydro lines on our street were broken. Trees cracked and their limbs fell across the road and blocked traffic. We’d been off school and without electricity for thirteen and a half hours. The power finally came back on at 9:45 p.m. The next day, it was a Tuesday, the fourth of December, and we went back to school. Mr. Fritz wasn’t feeling well and after he dropped us off at the front door, he said he was going back home to bed. He was still lying there when Donna and I walked into the house after school.

That lace tablecloth was still there, getting dusty by then and greying. The lights in the house were out, and nothing seemed unusual except for the cold air blowing in through Mr. Fritz’s open window. Donna and I made our way to the bedroom door and stood for a few moments. Far away I thought I heard a window close.

“Dad?” Donna said, as she crept to the foot of his bed. We heard a wheeze and a groan and looked closely at the top of the mattress. Ginger was lying at the foot of the bed, alert, protecting Mr. Fritz, and we realized the sounds were coming from her. But Donna already knew that her father was dead, and she screamed and searched him for movement where there was none.

For years, I didn’t remember Donna’s screams or her anguish. I remembered I stepped out into the hallway, as though I were waiting for something too. But I knew that it was over, like a crime that could not be undone. And I thought then, and now know this to be true: that nothing, nothing in the name of love should ever feel that bad.

 

In my mind’s eye I can still see Mr. Fritz there, lying on his bed, frozen in time with his face swollen with bitterness; and yet, a look of magnanimity graces his countenance too. His heart had given out on him, Donna was later told. But when she’d known back then, that he was gone, she’d continued to scream. Holding her arms around her waist, she stayed there rocking, bobbing up and down. And then she finally slunk to the floor into the fetal position; she lifted her hands to her face and began to sob, and she screamed and screamed until no more sound came out.

 


LORRAINE KIIDUMAE is a graduate of the Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio, fiction cohort, and the Humber School for Writers. Her work has appeared in Emerge, RCLAS Wordplay at Work, the anthology Emails From India, Bandit Fiction(UK), the Nashwaak Review, and the Scarlet Leaf Review. She has forthcoming publications in The Maple Tree Literary Supplement and The Path (USA).

Copyright © 2019 by Lorraine Kiidumae. All rights reserved.

‘A Teaspoon of Water’ by Daniel Holden

Teaspoon of Water

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

We were about 500 kilometers from Thunder Bay when I had something of a gut feeling this was the place, we should stop the car. I pulled off the highway and Katherine stepped out of the car on the opposite side, clutching her arms together and hopping from one foot to the other in the cold. She looked around at the surrounding trees, the grassy patches next to the road, and the clouds moving overhead.

“We’re probably the first people to walk on this patch of road,” she said, “after the guys who actually built it.”

Getting out of the car had felt like stepping onto a running track. The exact same drop in temperature you get coming out of the changing room in just running shorts and t-shirt, with goosebumps running up your legs.

The road was a little raised up, and from that slight vantage point it was possible to see just how far the forest spread out around us. The tops of the green trees filtered into the dark blue setting-sun sky at regular intervals. It was truly endless – a vast expanse of pine needles and rounded birch leaves that stretched for thousands of kilometers uninterrupted all the way to the frozen arctic ocean.

“Well off we go,” said Katherine; smiling at me; stretching her arms over her head; looking back at me.

I took a step forward and stopped.

“Oh, I should probably lock the car. Will you grab a torch from the trunk as well in case it gets dark?

Katherine found the torch and delicately closed the trunk. I pressed the car key and the honk of the horn echoed off into the distance.

“Somehow I feel like that has made us less safe,” Katherine laughed, hopping up and down to shake off the stiffness from sitting for so long. “Some psychopath in a cabin in the woods probably heard that – now he knows we are here.”

“Or she.”

Katherine raised her eyebrows at me and smiled.

I was glad she was still in high spirits. It had been a long drive even to get this far, and we still had a few more hours to go before we got to Longlac where her brother lived.

“We probably shouldn’t stay too long unless we want it to be midnight by the time we arrive at your brother’s.”

“Okay, well let’s try to find the lake quickly then.”

We passed under the canopy and immediately the light softened under the shade of the leaves. I looked down and noticed Katherine’s beat up old trainers – the sides had almost completely torn away from the soles – the laces were now the only thing holding them together.

“I hope we see a bear, or a moose, or something – something rare at least,” said Katherine.

“Actually, a beaver would be the best. I’d rather see that than a bear. But even a raccoon would be good,” she added, smiling and turning to face me with a little skip of her feet, scuffing the pine needles across the ground.

“I’m happy just to get some fresh air – it was hot in that car, and it’s a beautiful evening. It seemed like a shame to let it all pass by out the window.”

To be honest, I was utterly exhausted from the drive. We’d been meaning to do this cross-country thing to visit her brother for a while, but the recent news about his diagnosis had really brought a sense of weight and urgency to organising the trip. We’d each decided to take a day off work the next weekend available and try to fit the whole thing into three days.

“First one to see the lake wins a prize,” Katherine said.

“Hey – you have an unfair advantage; you could see it on the GPS . . . what is the prize anyway?”

“Biggest cut of steak when we get to my brother’s.”

Katherine’s brother had been fighting pancreatic cancer for around a year. He had just received a particularly brutal session of chemotherapy after which he had been sent home to try and rest and recover. It was a battle we’d heard about from a distance, and although Katherine had flown to visit him in the hospital in Thunder Bay this was the first time I’d been to see him, and the first time I’d visited Longlac, Katherine’s childhood hometown, so, I was a little nervous about that too.

Thinking about Katherine’s brother, it was impossible not to reflect on the arc of my own life – and sitting in the car I had felt each second of it pass in painful tedium. As the car rumbled along the road, I had found myself imagining Katherine too – sitting in her plane flying to Thunder Bay. Reflected on her face was the light of the live flight map – the plane tracing out a perfect arc of its own over Canada – moving pixel by pixel at an intolerably slow glacial pace.

If anything, it just reinforced the importance of this visit – how could something like a phone call possibly portray even a fraction of the reality of what it all meant? What did “two weeks” of treatment really constitute?

Two weeks? Such a simple concept – but it is easy to forget that two weeks is actually made up of millions of one-second intervals, and each of those individual seconds need to be lived, even if they do not go remembered. Taking a twelve-hour drive across the middle of Canada does a much more effective job at portraying that.

“I see it!” said Katherine.

There was the lake, visible between the trees – long and thin as it had looked on the GPS. It was probably about five hundred meters long, running parallel to the road – maybe one hundred meters across.

We shakily mounted one of the large boulders that lined the shore. Yellow sunlight spread out softly over the deep, cold lake; bright highlights of the setting sun sliding over the surface as if it were covered in a layer of soft fur.

“Pretty beautiful, eh?” Katherine said.

Ahead of us, trunks of dead trees stood upright in ranks spreading out into the water, their peaks incrementally descending further below the surface. I could just about see the far shore, where the forest floor rose quickly, pines and birch trees filling in the little gaps until the undergrowth was no longer visible. Small rocky islands dotted the lake here and there, filled with raggedy, wind-blown trees, their roots gripping the gaps in the rocks. A sudden cold gust of wind hit us from across the lake and I was overcome with an unexpected feeling of loneliness.

“I guess we can just sit here? Looks as good a spot as any.”

We shuffled forward on the boulder, its gentle curve steadily pulling us down toward the water. We sat down and let our legs hang, the friction of our pants holding us in place.

Katherine took off her rucksack and pulled out a plastic container of pasta salad and a fork which she handed to me.

“Sorry, I know it’s not the ideal food for this beautiful moment.”

It really did look quite miserable – all steamed up from the car journey.

“Just the fact that you made anything at all is pretty great – it looks perfect.”

I took the plastic container and fork from her hands — I was starving.

“But imagine if we had the stuff for a barbecue right now on these rocks,” she replied, “that’s what we really need –the smell of smoke, oh, and that little bit of heat. Now that would be nice.”

“We can buy a small one to put in the car alongside the spare tire for next time,” I replied.

“Don’t forget the meat,” Katherine added, “if we put it with the snow shovel maybe we can keep it cold.”

She laughed, turning back to look at the view, kicking a little pebble and causing a small plop as it fell in the water sending ripples outward.

At the far end of the lake I noticed two loons together, tracing their arcs through the water, their own ripples spreading steadily out across the surface and interweaving with each other.

“Look, loons.”

“So, we aren’t the only ones enjoying the lake.”

The two loons dived, disappearing below the water in a single slick motion.

I looked down. Below us, I was surprised to see some small fish swimming around the shallow waters, their dark blobs hiding their tiny intricate detail and warm beating hearts.

The reality was, I thought, that even when we were driving on that long cold road to Longlac we were probably never really too far from some other beings, tracing their own arcs through the vastness of Canada; scuffing their own leaves across the forest floor, creating their own ripples in the lake; thinking about their own next meal. Our car was not the only grand arc out here. They were all out there – meeting and spinning in unison, bouncing off, passing by each other unchanged.

I thought of Katherine’s brother’s arc, far away in Longlac, weaving and twisting around all these others – visitors desperately spiraling around it, trying to pull it this way and that. But, like all of us, at some point his trajectory would end – it would thin out and fade away – and then there would be nothing for the other’s arcs to spin around, and they would fly out and away into the Canadian vastness again on their own paths.

I only hoped this – that Katherine’s arc would not spin out and away from me. There were times before when I had felt it happening, and it had taken concentration, understanding, and patience to stop her from spiraling out into that dark vastness; qualities I didn’t feel I possessed at that moment.

“There they are again,” Katherine said, pointing out over the lake to the loons. “Just popped up.”

The sun was getting lower now, and the sky starting to change color, filling the lake with a deep rich yellow. Golden light splashed around the corners of rocks, and I watched the lake water lap at the rocky slope below.

There was a curious pattern of erosion on the slope. It was covered in these small rounded rock pools about the size of a fist. For the next few minutes I ate Katherine’s pasta salad and watched the water swirl around them.

Then, almost before I could register it, I saw something; a tiny wave of water rippled around one of the small rock-pools and splashed down, spreading out in a pool of reflected golden sunlight.

It was the smallest quantity of lake water. About a teaspoon – lost almost the instant it had appeared – diffused back into the massive quantity of lake water. Compared to the rest of the water in the lake, compared to all the water on earth, it was nothing. Compared to a twelve-hour drive across Canada, the duration of a lifetime, compared to it all: it was something totally, completely, and immeasurably small.

But something about that moment swept over me and burned itself into me. Perhaps it was the quality of the sunlight that spread out like oil over the rocks; or the two loons drifting peacefully at the far side of the lake; or the presence of Katherine sitting and quietly eating beside me.

And, if I could zoom out on the arc-like cord of rope that my life had traced over Canada, that moment would be smaller than the smallest microscopic hair – dwarfed a thousand times over by everything surrounding it. Almost a single strand of atoms – sticking out of the rope at a right angle and shining under the light, there it was, as if under a microscope – that was what I had stopped the car for.

Katherine touched my hand.

“Hey, we should probably start heading back – it’s going to be dark soon.”

“Yeah, we do still have a few hours of driving to go.”

We packed away the plastic container and got up, walking back into the forest.

“Thanks for that,” said Katherine. “It was nice to have a change of pace. It took my mind off things a bit.”

She kicked her feet at some pinecones on the forest floor and they scattered in the dirt.

“Something about looking over that lake,” she added, “a change of perspective you know.”

The trees started to thin out and the road appeared in the gaps. We emerged from the trees and looked down the road. The car was there – sitting on the tarmac like some kind of spaceship as if it had descended from the night sky above.

Katherine walked around the passenger side, passing me the torch which I put back into the trunk.

I got in and started the engine. The instruments lit up. In a few more hours it really would feel like a spaceship. Once the light from the sky finally faded and the trees either side disappeared from view, we would be back in the void again, traveling again through the massive vastness of space at mammoth speeds.

“Will you message your brother and tell him we’ll be there in about three hours?”

“Three hours, Jesus, we really do still have some way to go.”

She looked heartbroken.

“At least we don’t have to get up early – just think about when we’ll be sitting out on his porch in the sunshine with some good food tomorrow,” I replied.

Katherine didn’t reply for a while. She started typing on her phone. I assumed she was messaging her brother. Eventually, she looked up at me with those big dark eyes I had come to recognize so familiarly.

“Do you think he’ll have the barbecue out?” She asked.

“I did see the lake first after all.”

 


DANIEL HOLDEN is a Machine Learning researcher working in the games industry in Montreal. Most recently he completed a collection of code poetry in collaboration with poet Chris Kerr, with additional poetry and visual artwork published in Battallion by Sidekick Books.

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Holden. All rights reserved.

‘Empath’ by Brian Michael Barbeito

Empath

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

They killed the boy. Not a they, but a single person. ‘They’ is something people say but they mean one person. But words don’t matter.

I know right from looking at the poster of the missing boy that they killed him. The poster is frayed at the sides from the wind and salt air. It’s white. We are at the pier. There are staples along every side of the poster. Old papers have been taken down or lost. I look at the grain of the wood, they look like railway ties. But I don’t know what they are. They are posts. There is a post on the post. We have no money to get on the pier. There is a charge. I think we have lots of money, somewhere, much more money than the average person but maybe not as much as a millionaire. Maybe as much as a millionaire. Yes. Or close to that, but we have no money in the moment. We are in shorts and t-shirts. We didn’t know there was a charge to get on the pier. I won’t die. I fell in the water during the night and got taken out to sea and almost died, but they grabbed me and I lived. That was a long time before. Recently a man, perhaps someone like the one who killed the boy, asked me where I lived. This guy has a wife and two kids playing there. He is what they call clean cut, but he is dark.I lied and told him I lived ‘over there,’ and pointed to a different direction. He knew that I knew he was evil, a bad man, and he smirked and said that, “Oh, I don’t think you live over there, I think you live right there,” and he pointed to where I actually lived. There are many bad people around. Many people who smirk are bad. Not all, but many. I look out to the sea. We head back home along the beach because we brought no money with us. It is a long walk. But a nice one. I feel bad for the boy. He is about my age.

Zenith wants to kiss. She lives in a strange place and smokes cigarettes outside in a chair. She and her friend followed us out of a local supermarket once, and she called us over. I never met anyone that young who smokes. Secondly, I can’t figure out how her parents let her smoke. I don’t ask about it. I actually don’t talk much. But there was a boy on the other pier, and he was fishing and you could see that there were a lot of fish to be caught in this one area. I knew the lines were going to get tangled. This kid was alone. He was native to the area, a white guy with the sandy hair and a permanent tan. He smoked. And he smoked alone, so he wasn’t smoking to show off in front of his friends. The lines got tangled. He said, “I am starting to get pissed. I am starting to get pissed.” He kept saying this. I didn’t like him. He was too old for his age. He didn’t have a good aura but he is not a killer or something like that. He is just a bit of a selfish person. The lines become untangled and we are free of him. He can do what he wants. I kind of like the place and kind of want to get outta there at the same time. I like the night. I don’t always like the people. I can sense who they are: many good, some bad, some very bad. Zenith’s mouth tastes like cigarettes. She is not a very good kisser either. I don’t tell her that. She is beautiful and she is strange. I am strange and I find her strange. So, she must really be strange. We sit in a lot near the fire department on curbings so white they seem to shine in the night. The fire department is in the middle of all the motels. But I guess right there that they have to put the fire department somewhere.

It is morning. There are hurricane shutters on the windows, but they are open, unused. The sun comes in from somewhere over or beyond the Atlantic Ocean. The blimp goes past in the sky but not till a bit later. I forget where I am but then when I realize I am in my room it is like heaven. There will be a lot of trouble in the future. There is not a way that heaven can be much better. Even if it is, I would just as sure stay there in the room. I have my clothing and my homework because I keep going away from school for weeks and they assign me work: Do this chapter, answer questions 3 through 12 on this date, read this chapter on this date and answer only questions 3, 7, and 10. I never did any of it. I never opened a book. I never felt I was from earth in the first place and I definitely was not going to do their work. I was like a visitor. I can see the ships, a couple walking. There are the sounds of footsteps—you know this, you know this and how it is—most people do at some point; the smell of the suntan lotion and the sound continual and calming of the motor from the pool filter. A lizard somewhere on a screen or wall and the light and sun infiltrates all things well.

Sun.

But not for the boy.

Not anymore.

Sometimes my insides ache and it’s like either an otherworldly pain or a very worldly pain. I am not sure which. I go out then and swim in the sea. I have to pass metal railings and green stairways first. That sun is on everything. The sea is full of sand, coral, seaweed. I stand on the shore then sit down. The world becomes full of light but it’s not the light from the sky. It’s another type of light. I know this somehow. And besides, it happens at night. Night is not scary. It is holy. Day is also. Day and night are both good when there is light.

Darkness took the boy.

I go back to the pool. There is a man. He is a good man and he is an old man. He has a British accent. He is talkative. He keeps jumping off the diving board. Though I can swim well, I stay near the shallow end. He is thinking out loud but using me as an excuse to talk. This is what people do around me. I am blank. The most I can figure is two things—that he feels guilty for being there for some reason, and that he must have had a lot of friends or family in his life that were racist. He is fighting against that somehow. He keeps saying, “This here what you got going on is not a normal life. This is a millionaire’s life; this is how a millionaire must live. This is only how a millionaire spends his day.” He must not be a millionaire because he is obsessed with millionaires. Then he says, “If someone enjoys the day with their friend, and the friend is not white but maybe black, then people say, “Why you going along with that guy,” and in the right world you would say to them, “Too bad. He’s my friend and I don’t care and it doesn’t matter and we are friends and that’s it!”’ I just nod. I don’t know anything about it one way or the other. He has a feeling of what it would be like to be rich and to live also in a fair world. Then he disappears, not magically. Just finished his swim, going somewhere out to the beach or into the apartments. I don’t know which.

I am going to find Jimmi. He always used to be game for anything. He was the best at catching lizards and could spot them from far away. He said that some kids from a rival group of skateboarders threw his skateboard into highway traffic. I never knew if this was a story because everything he said was like that. Then, I supposed it could be true. Jimmi and I used to roam around, sometimes with Randi. Jimmi asked me once, right out loud, “Why do you go around with him?” and I just knew, the way you know some things. Randi was a fat kid in Jimmi’s eyes and slower plus uncool. I knocked on Jimmi’s door and his mother opened it. She looked at me and said, “Jimmi don’t live here no more.” My mother used to tell me that the men on the balcony on the top floor of Jimmi’s building were waiting for drugs to wash in from the ocean. She always said, “Look at those men, three men staring all day out to the sea with binoculars. And day in and day out. No way, no way that’s normal. What they are doing is waiting for a large shipment of drugs that was dumped from a boat and is supposed to wash up somewhere near here. When they see it, they will rush down.”I made my way back to the building and found myself in the front lobby because it was spacious and comfortable with long leather couches.

There is an older girl. Her name is Becky. She is about 15. She is talking to her friends. I am just someone’s kid brother or a boy, am practically invisible. She is energetic. We are all in the lobby. She looks older than her age and always has some story to tell. She is explaining to everyone something as I look out the window at green palm trees and the black cement and blue sky. “…and we try to come back in here from the road, and they said come in the car with us, get in the car, we’ll go for a drive…and I say no way, fuck that, I ain’t getting in a car with you, and I didn’t get in the car and they just sit there watching and we came up in here so I ain’t even going out there tonight . . .” And I look back at her and think she is okay—daring, sometimes up to trouble, but will be okay—she has a sense. Street smarts, as they call it.

It’s the boy who is not okay. And they are not talking about him, as in books and stores and movies. People are concerned with themselves, with their own day. But the boy could not protect himself. I know that the boy was good, better than good, and should not have been taken, though nobody should be taken. I try and take a deep breath. We have to go to church. The priest has a voice that is so slow and bored I wonder how he doesn’t fall over. But there is something about the benches and the light from the windows. I just stare around and soon can’t hear anything. There is an abandoned porch or something out there, by the wild trees whose names I don’t know. Later, Zenith will stand there with me. She says, “Does it bother you that I smoke?” No,” I lie, but it’s not exactly a lie. It’s cool overall. I don’t know. Her friend comes, a girl from England. Something is bothering Zenith but I don’t know what and will never know. They say goodbye and walk off, in a good way. I never see any of them again. Nothing bad happened, we just went separate ways.

I go back down the street and follow the grasses. There is no sidewalk and the walking is slightly dangerous, but people walk there anyway. One lady appears in the middle of the street, well dressed and either drugged or drunk. The cars stop to help and a man gets angry. “This is not a game!” he screams. He keeps calling out. What the hell does he want them to do, I wonder, let her get killed? I think to myself then the world is sunny but it is also a bad place. Then when some women try to calm and direct and help her, she gives them the middle finger, which makes everything about the world more complicated. I leave and go down to the sea, cutting across the restaurant parking lot. I am isolated but know I will be safe there and secure. I watch my favorite things, which have little or nothing to do with what the others like. I watch the curbs, white and shining, and the lights from the restaurant, how they are positioned just so. The trees they have planted have green palm leaves and, in the nights, lights shine on the trunks. It’s better than anything.

But I know the boy is dead.

Somehow, I head back to the gates that enter the pool area. There are old men coming back from swimming; towels, light conversations, easiness, no problem.

Later we are near the pier but in stores. The sun is bright. T-shirts with iron-on prints are popular. The smell of the store is beautiful—something about the fresh shirts, the ironing machine on nylon or cotton or whatever it is. I stand near a stucco wall and there is a teenager, a group, near a pickup truck parked where there is no parking allowed, practically in the doorway of a store, and the truck has a sticker that reads, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we kill them?” These are rough people: shirtless, tanned boys, and girls in bathing suits. The leader puts his hand on one of the girl’s shoulders and says, “You left the party without saying goodbye last night.” She doesn’t answer. She looks down at the ground. I walk away, enter the t-shirt store. I look through the book of iron-on prints: surfboards, the sea, the sun, musical bands, sayings, all kinds of things. Then I see the one I want, a skull with snakes and flowers all around it. It should go on a black shirt, I think, but my mother reads my mind. Not really–not like I can sometimes read minds, but probably because I have stopped the page there.

She freaks. “You are NOT getting that. You are NOT wearing that. I am NOT buying that. If you think you wearing a shirt with a skull and snakes you can think again –NOT a chance.” I don’t say anything. I pick out something with an ocean and a sun and they make up the shirt and she pays and we leave and I am happy enough. There is a dive shop and I am obsessed with how the watches look. There is a red marker on all diver watches that is from the zero to twenty-minute mark. I watch the mechanical bridge go up. It leads to the intercoastal waterway. The sun is shining again, so brightly, upon everything. I wanted the shirt with the skulls. We walk into the day and disappear into the other stores and then the streets and the larger world, and my gift grows but it’s a good thing because the world is, although pretty, often also pretty bad. I am okay, but I am also restless. They find the boy soon. He was taken and killed. Someone took the posters at the pier down shortly after that.

 


BRIAN MICHAEL BARBEITO is a Canadian nature poet and landscape photographer. He is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013).

Copyright © 2019 by Brian Michael Barbeito. All rights reserved.

‘The Innocents’ by Caroline Misner

Innocents

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Ted placed his face in his hands and closed his eyes. He needed a moment to think. Perhaps two. Perhaps more.

The day had been a disaster from the beginning. Sylvia had awakened that morning to the howl of Nicholas in his cot and she had been in a foul temper ever since. Usually a good mother, despite her wild mood swings that rocked the household from time to time, today she had no patience for the baby or his sister Frieda and least of all for Ted.  He’d become accustomed to her behaviour. Sometimes, all it took was an innocent remark or a gesture that made her feel slighted to send her into a fury.

They had already planned on a day’s outing, somewhere they had never been before, a day’s exploration, preferably to the beach. It was a glorious warm day in late May 1962, perfect for a picnic somewhere beyond the farms of Devon. But Ted had balked at continuing on with their plans so Sylvia had taken matters into her own hands and tossed both babies into the back of the car and revved the engine. Fearing she would do something crazy; Ted had no choice but to accompany them. He let Sylvia drive.

For hours they drove, Sylvia clutching the wheel, her blazing hazel eyes darting across the countryside, heading west and seeking a route to the coast. Ted sat with the map unfolded in his lap and tried to navigate. The roads meandered through hills and farmland, never quite reaching the sea and that had enraged Sylvia even more. He managed to talk her into stopping at a small village to purchase food for the children—a humble meal of biscuits, bread and marmalade and a few bottles of milk and apple juice. The respite from the drive seemed to mollify Sylvia’s frustration, albeit only temporarily. Back in the car, she raged and pounded her fists into the wheel.

“Why do you Brits always keep the roads so far from the shore?” she shouted. “Back in the states you can get to the beach in no time.”

The tone of her voice had set Nicholas to howling again and even little Frieda had tears in her eyes. Ted had tried to calm them as best he could. Sylvia ignored them.

They finally arrived at the base of a jagged coastal cliff hedged in by oak woods and brambles. The shore still seemed a long way off, accessible only by a single path that wound between crops of scraggly brush. Sylvia cut the engine and sprung from the car, slamming the door behind her. Ted followed, hauling babies and grocery bags. He found a small clearing between the beach and the woods and spread a threadbare blanket across the rocky sand.

The tides sparkled brilliantly in the sun, low waves crashing and creaming against Sylvia’s shins. She stood with her back to them, staring out to sea, the hem of her skirt drawn up between her legs and tucked into her waistband. A lone scruffy hound worked its legs up to a gallop as it crossed the beach to chase the gulls that rose, squawking, in the tepid breeze. Ted fed the children and they ate heartily but soon lost interest. Not yet able to stand, Nicholas crawled after his mother, his small hands and knees leaving criss-cross trails in the sand. Frieda padded after them, her milk and biscuits forgotten on the cloth. Ted sat with his head in his hands and wondered what to do next.

It was no use trying to talk sense into Sylvia when she got like this. She was the most brilliant and yet the most stubborn woman he’d ever met. The best he could do was watch the children and wait for Sylvia’s mood to pass. Sometimes, these tantrums lasted for days and the only way to calm her was with the little white pills he kept locked away and doled out as needed. He regretted not bringing the pills with them today.

He lifted his head and saw Sylvia trudging up the beach; Nicholas was perched upon one hip and Frieda’s hand clutched her mother’s. The beach was not what she had expected and the disappointment would likely set her off again.

“I want to go for a hike,” Sylvia said as she plopped the babies onto the blanket.

“Don’t you like the sea?” Ted asked.

Sylvia scanned the undulating water, the pebbled shoreline, the cracked furrowed rocks that lay scattered like uncollected ruins in the nooks and crooks of the inlet. The gulls screamed overhead, safe now from the dog that had abandoned his chase and scampered off to other adventures.

“I hate it,” Sylvia said. “This is not an ocean. Not like the ones back home –too flat, too pale. Where are the big waves, the colourful umbrellas, the lifeguard chairs?”

She headed off into the woods without another word. Ted scooped the children up in his arms and followed. There was no trail to guide them; twigs and acorns cracked underfoot as they made their way deeper and deeper into the woods, Sylvia sweeping branches out of the way with her arms. The roar of the sea faded and a mossy coolness enveloped them, a welcome respite from the heat on the shore.

“Look.” Sylvia paused and pointed into a mound of brush.

A rabbit trap sat nestled beneath the leaves, its sharky jaws yawning open and its teeth gleaming uncorroded; a copper chain snaked round a tasty French bean morsel on the bait plate. It was all too familiar to Ted, having been raised among the farms of the Calder Valley in Yorkshire. As a youth he’d prided himself in being quite the huntsman and had set many similar traps himself. His prey had filled many a Sunday stew pot.

Silent rage-filled Sylvia until she seemed to burgeon—Alice in Wonderland after sampling the bottle. Dull light reflected the mania in her eyes. Without a word, she grabbed the trap and hurled it into the trees, a brown cord whipping behind it like a tail.  The trap snapped shut on impact with the ground and the French bean sprung from it and landed in the brush.

Ted stood aghast at what she had done. It was a desecration, an affront to everything he held and believed in, knowing some poor farmer had probably set the trap in anticipation of his evening meal. But Sylvia wasn’t finished yet. She spotted another trap and another, each tethered together with the same frayed cord as the first. She threw the traps, one by one, into the woods, her face reddening from the exertion and her fury.

“Sylvia!” he gasped. “Stop that! What are you doing?”

“Murderers!” she screamed, tears glazing her ruddy cheeks. “You’re all murderers!  You’re killing the innocents!”

Ted let the babies slide from his arms where they huddled terrified round his knees.  Sylvia was beyond reason. All he could do was let her fury wind itself down. She sobbed, bunching her fists against her eyes once the last trap had been thrown.

“Murderers!” she wailed. “Cannibals! All of them.”

“It’s the way of the land, Sylvia.” Ted tried to sound reassuring but he knew he failed.  “Most people in this county can’t afford fresh meat every day. The traps are a necessity.”

His instinct told him he should reset the traps. Perhaps the farmer who had set them would never suspect. Sylvia raked her fingers down the length of her face; thankfully her nails left no marks. She raised her bloodshot eyes as though beseeching some unseen deity.

“Why is it always the innocents who have to die?” she whimpered.

Ted had no answer to that. Sylvia heaved in a deep breath; her shoulders loosened and her shaking ebbed. The storm was blowing itself out. It would pass soon. But for how long? How long before Sylvia’s grief would overtake her again?

“Oh, Sylvia,” he whispered. Sylvia stepped into his arms and he held his wife close, the warmth of her body as familiar to him as his own skin. Below them, Nicholas and Frieda clutched their parents’ legs as though trying to climb up the trunk of a tree.

And there they stood, in the cool woods beside the sea in Cornwall, a young family, clinging to one another. Ted detected a stir in the brush; leaves rattled. A young brown rabbit scampered through. It paused and regarded them warily. Its whiskers twitched and it scurried on, leaping over the inert snake of the trap’s cord.

 


CAROLINE MISNER‘s work has appeared in numerous publications in the USA, Canada, India and the UK. She has been nominated for the prestigious McClelland & Stewart Journey Anthology Prize for the short story “Strange Fruit.” In 2011 another short story and a poem were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in the beautiful Haliburton Highlands of Northern Ontario where she continues to draw inspiration for her work. She is the author of the Young Adult fantasy series “The Daughters of Eldox.” Her latest novel, “The Spoon Asylum” was released in May of 2018 by Thistledown Pressand has been nominated for the Governor General Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Caroline Misner. All rights reserved.

‘Meeting Morris’ by Laura Wang Arseneau

From the bakery, I walk down Bagot St toward the smell of the lake. I bought one bagel to share. It is still warm in the paper bag. I asked for butter so it seeps, grease staining brown paper dark. You will not mind.

I walk my bike right at corner

BANG!

It hits a post of steel, bolted down to concrete.

I upright the bike and carry on.

Across the way rattle wheels of a walker, a moving cage for a Mister; a shuffling old man, moving slow, head down.

Passing by black iron fences the front yard of a mansion.

Maple tree denuded of maple keys.

Leaves yellow veined, and fresh blood red, scuttle over and around an overturned urn, empty on the walkway.

All the pretty flowers gone.

Bark.

Gateway opening, closing.

Child’s voice.

A red wagon being wheeled over chalked, hopscotch squares, numbers smudged.

Followed by yellow dress, hop skip cartwheeling limbs and a red ribboned ponytail lassoing.

Hey, I too have a red ribbon on wheel, flap flap flap with each turn of my front bicycle tire.

I do not want to be late to meet you. So I hop on and pump pedals.

Gain speed, taxi runway, take flight.

Too soon

I reach the boardwalk and get off and wheel my bike along. It is heavy going, so off! it goes.

BANG! Wheels spinning Ferris wheel.

Now I am set free to go to our

BEACH.

No Morris. I am early. I am late. You are early. You are late.

I will wait for you just a little while longer. The planks beneath my soles are silvery, stripped down and smooth. I kick one shoe, then the other off foot

FALL.

My bare feet move one step, two steps on wind bleached boardwalk.

Step onto smooth stone.

Bend and pick stone, pocket.

Toward waves.

Break, foam, roll, repeat.

Break, foam, roll.

Plank gives over to sandy grit.

I button my sweater against wind.

Tear a milkweed pod and pocket.

Snatch a gull’s feather, caught in shrub and pocket.

I am early, so

LONG I wait for you. You will see me, here won’t you? Step off the platform. Heels sink into sand. Toes dig shovelling each step. I am looking for

FIVE, six, seven flat stones arranged in a half circle. Here it is. Eyebrow to eye of burnt out fire. I sift through charred driftwood, choose the nicest one that fits snug in the palm of my hand.

Fingers enclose.

Smudge char black markings onto my fingers.

Char

KOHL lines on my face.

I will do my makeup just how you like it Morris.

Eyes rimmed in kohl. You used to say, I like it when you put makeup

ON again off again; here there; there there, there there, don’t worry. Morris, you told me I look like Mata Hari. Dance for me? I pocket a charred stump and move with the wind. Feet spin, slip, twist too the music on the wind. I am your muse, your model, your lover, how oft.

TEN, nine, eight you remember? We promised to meet here. It is getting colder. I will leave a note. But with what?

In pocket, why this charred stump will do.

Sharp end of a blackened wood writing tool.

Big letters on silver wood.

MORRIS I WAS HERE. I write a message for you to see

HOW I kept our promise? Where were you? Where are you now?  Oh! It is getting darker.

Sun’s weak eye through clouded lids.

Time to turn back come back tomorrow is another day

TIME, night-time.

Wind at my back. Hand in pocket. Here is stone. Drop.

Here is feather, buoyed up in wind, fly away little birdie. Bye bye.

Here is milkpod with white soft inside like dog fur, opened and picked clean. Run like the wind little doggy.

Last one

In pocket charred driftwood stump in fist.

Palm and fingers black.

I keep this for you, Morris. You, artist man. You, who gestured charcoal on my body. Do you know

WHY, look here.

Someone left a bicycle, lying on the boardwalk, wheels spinning with red ribbon flapping. Beside it lies two halves of a bagel and a torn paper bag stained black.

 


LAURA WANG ARSENEAU‘s short fiction has been published in Canadian literary magazines such as The Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead, The Windsor Review, Hammer’d Out, and JoyPuke. She has been an arts writer and curator, now based in the Niagara region of Ontario.

Copyright © 2019 by Laura Wang Arseneau. All rights reserved.

‘The Mountain’ by Allison Hall

The Mountain

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“Why is everything so fucking dark lately? What happened to happily ever after?” Alice asked. The glow of the flame lit up her face as the tobacco hissed and caught. The smoke crept from the side of her mouth in a wavy line.

“What do you mean? Are you telling me you’re not happy?” Jay reached for her hand, stroking the long fingers that ended abruptly in chipped black polish.

“No, it isn’t that. Why does everything have to be so apocalyptic? Zombies, nuclear fallout, the end of the world. Sometimes I feel as though there isn’t anything positive left.” She looked around at the people on the patio, their animated chatter filled the air with an emptiness that made her skin crawl. Her gaze fell upon Jay and she caught the flush that played across his cheeks and down his neck towards his button up shirt that was crisp, without a wrinkle.

“Oh, I see, you’re talking about popular culture: movies, books, that sort of thing. Well…what about the movie we saw last week? Everyone seemed happy at the end of that one.”

“Rom-coms,” Alice snorted with a billow of smoke coming out of her nose, “Those aren’t real. Nothing ever works out like that.” She flicked the remains of her cigarette over the edge of the patio at a somber man in an uncomfortable suit on his way home from the office.

“And zombies are?”

“I guess you have me there.” Alice took a sip of beer and drummed her fingers on the edge of the table. “I grew up with all those fairy tales, you know? I was set up for things working out. It’s like when you’re a kid, your parents tell you that everything will be fine in the end, and then they throw you out into the real world and it’s just the opposite.” She reached for the cigarette pack and Jay pulled it away from her.

“You’re smoking too much lately. I think you should quit.”

“Really?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Sure, I can quit. No problem.” She drew her hands back and twisted the thin paper napkin into a spiral.

“Your life’s not that bad, is it?” Jay signaled for the waitress to bring over another round. “I mean look at you, you’re beautiful. You have a great place, a steady job…that ring on your finger. How could that be bad?”

“Those are material things. I’m not sure you can use material things to define happiness. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Of course, you can. Don’t you see? Those material things mean so much more. Your beauty comes from confidence. Your apartment…that represents safety and comfort. Your workplace is your security. And the ring…that represents love, the rest of our lives together.”

“No. I guess it’s not that bad.” She placed her hand on the fork and flipped it back and forth. “And you? Are you happy?”

“Of course I am.” He leaned back into his chair. “How could I not be?”

“But you’re in med school. I don’t think I could be happy if I was a doctor.”

“I’ll help people. I’ll improve their lives. That makes me happy. Simple. Not to mention, all the money that I’ll make, for us.” He nodded at the waitress as she put two more bottles down on the table.

“But will you really help them?” Alice bit her lip in a way that made her face change. “You’ll lie to them, tell them that everything’s going to be okay. Fix them up for a year or two, before they die anyway.”

He smothered a laugh. “Before they die anyway? That’s pretty cynical. What’s gotten into you?”

“Sometimes I wonder what the point is –why we even bother.”

“Are you talking about the secret to life? Why we exist?”

“Maybe. Oh, I don’t know.” She raised the bottle to her lips and emptied half of it: the liquid fell forward in quiet gulps. “We have drinks. We talk. We go home. I get up for work, you go to school and then we do it all over again. Is that really living? Shouldn’t there be something more?”

“What do you suggest?”

“A purpose. Something to strive towards.”

“What about the wedding –isn’t that a purpose? Something to look forward to?”

“I suppose. But what then? What’s the purpose after that?” Alice pulled at the diamond around her finger, staring at the reflection of light it threw onto the green glass of the bottle. The sun, far off in the distance, fell in an angry red mess over the skyline.

“To live happily ever after,” Jay said triumphantly. He raised his drink in an exaggerated toast.

“Very funny,” she said. Her mouth curved into a reluctant smile. “Do you really think we can be happy?”

“Of course. We are happy. It’s not that difficult.”

“But I think it is. Marriage is hard, you have to work at it. What if I sleep with someone else? Will you still be happy then?”

Jay’s eyebrows lifted. “That depends. On the situation I mean. Maybe you got really drunk and didn’t know what you were doing. I think I could probably forgive that. Yes, I think I could.”

“But if I told you I’ve slept with someone else; wouldn’t that make you furious? I wouldn’t be able to forgive you if you did something like that.”

“Even if it was a mistake? If I didn’t know what I was doing? I think if you loved me enough, you could forgive me. When you’re serious about being together, you work things out.” Alice looked at him and then looked away. She thought about the text. She wished she had never seen it, but now it was too late. The light all around them was fading into dusk. The waitress placed a flickering candle in the middle of the table.

“Are you ready to order?” She stood there expectantly.

“No, I think I’m okay for now,” Alice said. Her nails tapped against the bottle.

“Well I’m starving,” Jay announced. He squinted as he tipped the glossy menu towards the dull reflection of the candle. “I’ll have the sirloin, rare, and fries…no, skip the fries. I’ll have a salad, ranch dressing on the side. I’m watching my waistline.” He winked at the waitress who smiled as he handed her the menu.

“Watching your waistline? You sound like a 1950’s sitcom dad.” Alice’s hand crept towards the pack of cigarettes he had pushed to the edge of the table.

“Withdrawal already?”

“I’m fine.” Her fingers gripped the chair as she rocked back and forth. “What am I supposed to do now? Watch you eat dinner?”

“You’re the one that wanted to go out. Why don’t you get another drink or something?”

“Sure.” Alice stood up and walked over to the bar at the edge of the patio covered with little lights that looked like chili peppers. She squeezed in between two men on stools and put her hands down flat against the rough wood of the bar top.

“Can I get you a drink?” the man on her left asked. She noticed that his patterned tie was slightly askew.

“I’m getting my own drink,” she said. “That’s why I came up to the bar.”

“She’s married anyway,” the other man said, eyeing her ring, “or as good as anyway.”

“Since when does that matter?” Alice stared at him until he finally looked away. “I’ll have four shots of tequila,” she told the bartender, who poured them out and put them on a little silver tray. The men watched as she walked back over to the table, carefully balancing the drinks.

“I hope two of those are for me,” Jay said.

Alice looked at him and threw her head back, draining the shots one by one down her tilted throat.

“Lemon?” he asked. His forehead lifted and made a dividing line.

“Thanks,” she said. Her eyes watered as she sucked on the pale-yellow wedge. The waitress put the steak down and turned to Alice.

“Can I get you an extra plate?”

“No, thanks. I’m vegetarian.”

“Since when?” Jay asked, chewing on a mouthful of pink meat.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” she said, as the waitress considered them and walked away. The tables were starting to thin now and the mosquitoes were out. Alice slapped at her arm and reached into her bag to pull on a sweater.

Jay’s face danced in the shadow of the flame. “Really? This is a bit much, even for you.”

She looked down at the table and contemplated the empty shot glasses. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“It’s just that every morning when I open the front door, I see the mountain.” Alice shivered and pulled the sweater tighter around her shoulders.

“The mountain?”

“Yes, you know, the mountain. The one across from my apartment.”

“I’d call it more of a hill.”

“I look at it and it’s always the same…I mean it’s not always exactly the same. In the winter it’s covered in snow, in the summer it’s got patches of green, but when it comes down to it, it’s just a big piece of rock looking back at me every morning and it never changes. It’s always there. And sure, it’s nice to know what to expect, but sometimes when I open the door, I pray that it won’t be there anymore. I think about what I would do if it wasn’t there one day.”

“Are you calling me a piece of rock?”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I understand perfectly. I think you need to climb the mountain. It’s a symbol of overcoming your obstacles.”

She glared at him under thick bangs. “If I climb it, I have to connect, become a part of it, and right now I want nothing to do with it. Can’t you even try to imagine what that’s like for me?”

“What that’s like for you? Huh.”

Jay closed his eyes and she watched his shoulders lift up and down in time to his breath. She could almost hear him count to ten before his eyes opened again, black and empty.

“Do you know what? I think I’m done,” he said. He pushed his plate into the middle of the table.

“I thought you were starving.”

“Not anymore.” He stood up and threw a couple of twenties down on the table.

Alice thought about the mountain again and pulled a cigarette out of the almost empty pack. The flame from the candle caught her eye, causing the white part to glow a dull shade of orange. “I told you there’s no happily ever after,” she muttered to no one in particular as she watched his silhouette lurch off into the night. She smiled. Maybe tomorrow the view would be different.

 


ALLISON HALL is a teacher-librarian and writer from Ontario. Her short stories have been published in Cleaver Magazine and The Mulberry Fork Review.

Copyright © 2019 by Allison Hall. All rights reserved.

 

‘How to Win Solitaire’ by Heather Hunt

Solitaire.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Dear Mariella Goodman of the Counselling Office at Johnstown College,

I wish you hadn’t helped me last year. Now I am in a worse state than I was in before, or ever have been; worse even than in the third grade when I peed my pants during story time. For weeks—MONTHS—my identity was Pissy Chrissy. No! Now I am in a state worse even than the exact MOMENT following my accident, when my best friend Hannah shot away from me, laughing, and said, “You’re just like Jillo!” 

Jillo was her daughter, her doll whose mouth she could pour things in if she had the urge to change a diaper. Jillo’s mouth was frozen in the shape of an O, but not in surprise. Her eyebrows were static and relaxed.

Hannah and I stopped being friends after I peed at school, but we were doomed anyway. Her mother forbade her from pouring anything but water into Jillo, and I was always whispering, “Do it with chocolate milk. I can get some from my house.” Her mother slit her eyes at me while plating after-school Oreos in their kitchen. Somehow . . .I don’t know how, but somehow, she knew I wanted exotic liquids to gush from Jillo’s stark plastic nub. I mean, I kept my voice down. It didn’t matter if it was chocolate milk or prune juice. I just wanted to experience something that didn’t flow freely from millions of faucets around the world.

But, actually, Jillo looked nothing like a baby! She looked like our teacher, Mrs. Ashford. They both had green eyes and blond hair down to their shoulders. During story time I’d extract reading rug lint from as close as I could to Mrs. Ashford without touching her black ankle boots. Once, on a Thursday in March, she said, “Christina, are you listening?” and I said, “Yes, but maybe he just put green food coloring in the eggs and ham, so it’s secretly pretty normal, but no one will believe him.” She didn’t ask me again. During the summer after the third grade, I unzipped my pencil case on a Ferris wheel in San Francisco and let all the lint out. The sky was more reading rug than it was air. 

If you had not helped me leave my relationship last year, I would still be in that one rather than the one I am currently in. Jen wasn’t THAT bad. I realize that any opinion you formed of her is based on my whining about her in your office. I hope your office is still located on Fourth Street, but don’t mistake my hope as a wish that you and your peace lily still face West and get all that afternoon sunshine. I just hope you are there to receive this letter. I know you never met her, but I’m telling you now. Jen, she wasn’t that bad.

I used to blame Jen for the footprints on our hardwood entrance. Brown footprints from April to November, salty whites from November to April. The city was coming into my apartment with no invitation, and I had to tiptoe through that shitty city to reach the cleaning cupboard. Those footprints filled my head with heat, pulsing in my temples –Inescapable. “I need a drink,” I’d mutter to my soggy socks. Salt doesn’t wipe away as well as mud. While I filled the mop bucket, Jen would retrieve a Tupperware from the fridge and eat standing up, smirking with her dick nose and saying, “You can’t prove they’re mine.” 

“No one else here wears size ten,” I would say, and she would laugh. Spraying couscous or granola everywhere. The next thing I knew, I’d be coaxing her crumbs out from between the cupboard cracks with a butter knife. Never her. God no. She’d probably chop her fingers off! Jen and her goddamn sausage fingers.

Before I started thinking her nose looked like a dick, I thought Jen resembled a young Goldie Hawn. I didn’t know what Goldie Hawn looked like, still don’t. I’m guessing she’s suave and a bit handsome. Two months into our relationship, I slipped at a curling match and broke my foot, and Jen drove around the block nine times because a bread delivery truck was idling in the spot closest to the Medi-clinic. 

“I thought it would work, since nine’s your lucky number. But looks like I gotta take matters into my own hands.” She double-parked, trapping all that sourdough and gluten-free rye between the curb and her Jeep. I had never seen anyone double-park before. No one’s brave enough! She carried me up the clinic walkway and hummed the Bridal Chorus into my ponytail, every note punctuated with dejected beeps behind us. Pissed fists on flat black car horns. Her chest vibrated against my back when she hummed. Goddamn brave Jen! She placed me on a paisley waiting room chair. I was quick to grow cold – quick to complain. She covered me with her coat, even though all she had on was her Bon Jovi concert tee. Her forearm hairs stood at attention until the doctor saw me.

But as soon as we moved in together, the footprints started. She was just so BIG. Just so SORRY! She didn’t realize she was so annoying. You already know . . .you helped me feel less bad leaving her. Remember? “You shouldn’t have to live annoyed.” You had this amused smile. Something you should know is . . .well, you wear glasses. And you keep your desktop screen turned away from your client’s chair, but in the reflection of your glasses, I noticed you playing Solitaire while I spoke. I always see you making weird moves. You should hold off on moves that aren’t important.

The one I’m with now accidentally called me “Stace” on our second date, when we were in line for movie tickets. I said, “I think you mean Christina,” and she said, “What?” and I said, “Did you just call me Stace? My name’s Christina.” And she said, “Excuse me,” but not to me—she said it to the line gathering behind us, because we were stuck between those blood-red velvet ropes they try to fancy movie theaters up with. We were stuck in front of about thirty people, and she shoved backwards through them all jagged – like tearing cling wrap too fast against its own blunt razor.

As I followed her, more than one person leaned toward my face and made a tsking noise with their tongue. When we got outside it was frigid as hell, but I was relieved to have escaped that snake pit. I told her, “I was just reminding you what my name was. I thought you forgot.” The marquee was bright, and she glittered in dark contrast. Onyx. Just then, I realized that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known in my entire life. She must’ve realized my realization, the way she laughed. I turned away to read license plates or convenience store signs. Coronas, 2-for-1!

I heard her say, “Excuse me, do you have a cig? I’ll give you a dollar,” and when I looked, she was huddling over a garbage guy’s lighter. I wanted to touch the black stubble of her shaved head, which I had only gotten to do once so far—a week earlier, on the bridge after our first date. She had gripped the waist of my polyester peacoat, tripped me forward for a kiss. Our mouths had generated seamless humidity. My right palm had found the calmness at the back of her scalp. Come to think of it, it’s textured like a velvet rope.

But outside of the movie theater, tobacco smoke streamed from her nostrils. She said, “Don’t you dare ever. EVER! Embarrass me like that again.” I apologized with my eyes. Do you remember them? They’re dusty, like September footprints. We speed-walked downtown. Instead of watching a movie, we downed Jameson and sank balls at the decrepit university billiards place. I’m guessing you don’t know the place. It’s decrepit.

She sunk the eight-ball and said, “The only way to diminish your pain is to literally confront it head-on.” She’s one of those people who says “literally” for emphasis. Stacey’s her ex-girlfriend, and now the name means nothing because we literally include it in every conversation. Like, “What do you want for dinner, Stace?” “Oh, cheese and peas, Stace.” It’s like slapping a “Dykes Do it Best” sticker on your own locker in the tenth grade before anyone else can. Before they hear you missed class on Tuesday because you were writhing under Cherise Lopez from one to four p.m., destroying her bed with sweat and toe jam.

We had walked to Cherise and her dad’s apartment for lunch, and she had used the bacon that was specifically his to make my BLT. He was at work. Cherise had this way of paying attention to me, treating each of my words and actions as opportunities. When I mumbled, “thanks, it’s tasty,” she mumbled back, “tasty, huh? I know something tasty,” and her eyes took a season or two to investigate me, starting at my mismatched socks: purple hearts left, cooking kittens right. You heard me. Cooking kittens. That morning when I’d gotten dressed. . .well, if I had even dreamed of being someone’s lunch dessert, maybe I would have worn my mother’s lawyer-lady nylon socks.

Good thing was, Cherise wasn’t fickle when it came to me. She didn’t like her dad’s bacon, didn’t like salt. Didn’t even like cheese! Her own lunch was lettuce-mayo-bread. But with ME, I figured Cherise wasn’t fickle because of how she paused on her way up. I blushed and squeezed my thighs together, which made a shadowy v-crease in my jeans, which inflated her smile. Maybe it’s stupid, but. . .well, if I had died under her cautious chestnut gaze, right now I’d be a ghost, bragging about how my life was all pleasure, no pain. You’d say, “what about Jen, who filled you with guilt? And what about the new one, whose slightest facial grievance governs your thoughts, emotions, and actions?” and I’d say, “I don’t know Jen or the new one, because I died in high school when someone figured me as cunning as a piece of crystal, before I could discover reflexivity.”

The day after my time with Cherise (more specially, the day after Heaven found the stretch of skin between my thighs), I waved our afternoon around like an identity token. I wore a rainbow pin on my backpack and told all the kids from the Out and Proud Club, “Guess what I did yesterday!” I wonder if I would have started calling her Cherry if we had had more time together. I’d love to send her dad some bacon. Actually, well—what I’d actually love is to apologize to the entire Lopez family, if I knew how to reach them. But her dad moved away from Johnstown when she went to sleep in the river. I don’t dare dream of all the things I’d say. “I miss her, too,” is all I can muster without my ribs and collarbone clenching each other for support. The thing is, I don’t actually know if I miss her, or just the feelings she gave me. I feel hollow like a Jillo doll, thinking about all this. I wonder what her favorite movie was. Her favorite brand of car. I don’t care about cars the way she did. Cherise and the goddamn toy-car collection on her bedroom shelf. My bedroom shelves kept junk like concert glow sticks and dollar-store nail polish, dry, three shades too light to be current.

Blame is a vortex. I don’t know why anyone accepts it if they don’t have to, but sometimes you HAVE to, like when a dark circle spreads around you on a thin blue reading rug. I wish you hadn’t helped me with my problem. Jen? Really not a problem, Jen. She used to aim the hair dryer under the duvet when my feet were frozen – made me any goddamn thing but annoyed. Maybe I mistook her cold-pricked arm hairs as a visceral reaction to the cold. Maybe they were her only defense. “Spare me if you can.” She knew I’d put flames to whatever we created, someday, in some way or another.

Sincerely,

Christina Burns

P.S. I’ll feel bad if you’re not on Fourth Street anymore, and your offices have no windows, because if you’re like the majority of people, you threw your dead peace lily in your IKEA waste basket and its ceramic holder broke in pieces too soft to puncture a plastic bag. Did you know peace lilies grow back if they want? Just like that, on a whim? So, organic matter is in the landfill. Those brown fronds hear and smell misery without ever seeing it. Seagulls, goddamn creaking cranes and lost dogs.

 


HEATHER HUNT is a lesbian writer and video artist from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She holds a BA Honours in English and Creative Writing from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and has self-published two novels of LGBT2S+ content. Hunt conveys the emotional impacts of human relationships in her work by employing language reflecting the elements of nature and the human senses.

Copyright © 2019 by Heather Hunt. All rights reserved.

‘The Wish’ by Simone Garneau

Hot wet tears run down my cheeks and under my collar. I sit at the foot of the bed and rub my mother’s knobby feet under the quilted blanket. I don’t want them to get cold. My brother Carl stands at the side of the bed, his hands resting on the part of the blanket covering Dad’s legs. This blanket lay on their bed for sixty-nine years––a wedding present from Mum’s parents. It was the blanket that my brothers and I crawled under on cold weekend mornings when we were young. The one that kept Paul warm when his fever spiked, fifty-eight years ago. 

The room is not large enough for everyone. The kids––mine and Carl’s––stand in the hallway. Not kids anymore. All grown-up now, some with children of their own. The occasional whisper or shuffling can be heard outside the door, but mostly it is quiet. They take turns coming in to say their goodbyes.

Mum and Dad’s hands are clasped together on top of the blanket. This is what they wished for. They knew that when the time came, they wanted to go together. They couldn’t imagine a life apart. They met in the summer of 1949 when Mum worked at Ron’s Ice Cream Parlour on Water Street. Dad always said it was love at first sight. For the ice-cream sundae, that is. “Your mother was the cherry on top.” 

After the children have all been in, and there is nothing more to do but go, I reach out and touch Carl’s arm. He can’t look at me. “It’s time,” I say. I smooth the blanket over Mum’s feet one last time, and then I stand up. 

When the caretakers from the funeral home come in to take our parents away, they can barely tear Mum and Dad’s hands apart.

 


Ten years ago, SIMONE GARNEAU finally stopped procrastinating and started writing fiction. Most often, her ideas come to her as she drifts off to sleep. In 2010, she was short-listed in the Quebec Writing Competition and her story was published in an anthology by Véhicule Press. She was also a long-list finalist in the 2010 CBC Literary Awards Short Story Competition. Simone lives in Montreal and is working on a novel.

Copyright © 2019 by Simone Garneau. All rights reserved.