Poems by Chris Pollard

CIRCUS

between
the circus I want to be
and the circus I am
is the circus
that came to town
one summer
and refused to leave
no matter how nicely
we asked.

 


 

SKINNY JEANS

from space
no one can tell the difference
between the cool kids
doing the cool things
cool kids do
and the uncool kids
doing the cool things
they saw the cool kids doing
believing it must make them cool too.

 


CHRIS POLLARD lives in Ottawa, works in a grocery store and is at an age where he can now safely say he has been writing for decades and the math will bear him out.

Copyright © 2020 by Chris Pollard. All rights reserved.

Poems by Louise Carson

THE LABYRINTH

Unlike some, this one is low.
I walk on grass paths separated by inlaid brick.
I could cheat and step right to the centre
where a birdbath reflects the changeable sky:
cloudy, sunny.

But I don’t, and wind my way,
questing with a half-smile.
When I arrive, what then?
Nothing – the birdbath –
so I unwind the way I came.

 

 


 

TWO WORDS

so far
i am
a struggling
illiterate

ignore
word’s red warning
underscore
another teacher

am more frustrated
when word
ignores me

it likes capitals
to begin
each
line

gertrude,
word,
word,
stein

 


LOUISE CARSON has published nine books including mysteries, historical fiction and poetry. Her collection A Clearing was published by Signature Editions in 2015. One of her books In Which, Broken Rules Press, was shortlisted for a 2019 Quebec Writers’ Federation award. She has recently had work in Grain, Event and Queen’s Quarterly and online with Montreal Serai and carte blanche. Her next collection Dog Poems will appear in 2020 from Aeolus House. Though born in Montreal, she has lived beyond the West Island for most of her life.

Copyright © 2020 by Louise Carson. All rights reserved.

‘Beyond the Stars’ by Jason Waddle

The stars are the freckles that
press their cheek to God’s cheek.
This creates the energy we
witness at night when our cheeks
are pressing lovingly against our
lover’s cheek, and this
causes a rumble in her belly
where another life is the
signature between two lovers
that forms the universal womb
of creation that is written
beyond the stars.

 


JASON WADDLE writes poetry and fiction. Since 2017, his work has been traditionally published 18-times. In the summer of 2019, his first book was accepted for publication by a New York publishing house. ‘Awake in Dreams, Sleeping Death Away’ comes into the world on February 28, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 by Jason Waddle. All rights reserved.

‘I Took All the Spoons When I Left You’ by April Ford

And yes it’s true, I took all the forks, too.
But taking all the forks isn’t as cruel as taking
all the spoons and here’s why: Forks can kill you.
Their tines can blind you, like, if you tug too hard
on a piece of sinewy steak and your face gets in the way.
(The media gravely under-reports how often faces get in the way.)
Not to mention, forks are the freaks of tridents. Their extra
prongs aren’t cute like the extra toes on polydactyl cats.
But spoons, but spoons. Listen up: If forks are for tearing things,
then spoons are for holding things together. Spoons are for bowls
filled with soup your mother used to make; they are for balancing
on the tip of your nose to make your first childhood love laugh.
Spoons are smooth landings, branches bowing, ballet dancers
contouring. They are for gathering and for nourishing.
Taking all the forks when I left was my way of making sure
you wouldn’t get any ideas (because grief can do that to a person).
Taking all the spoons when I left was my way of making sure
you would notice.

 


APRIL FORD is a gender fluid author living in Verdun with her feline rescue family. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize for her short story “Project Fumarase,” and has held fully funded residencies at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Ucross Foundation. Her debut novel, Carousel, will be released on May 14, 2020 by Inanna Publications. aprilfordauthor.com

Copyright © 2020 by April Ford. All rights reserved.

Poems by Pam Seaton-McLean

FORGETTING

November days of
low light and flattened sky
thick with heavy cloud
reduce to neutral tones of
white, grey, and beige
both the land and the air.

Stubble fields, tangled branches
and grey light close in,
proclaiming their permanence.
With little to see, we walk on
head down, disbelieving
the fact we know…

That climbing through cloud
from stratus to cirrus
to a breach of the final bank,
we arrive in a parallel world
where the sun blazes
and the sky is blue.

 


 

THE ICE WALKER

Like the walker on a winter creek
who hears a hollow crack,
the bearer of a shattered heart
knows the risk in stepping back.

A bigger chasm might open wide
sucking down to blackest cold
with memories of rights and wrongs
those tedious arguments of old.

To step ahead spells danger too
as the splinters travel out
threatening a deeper plunge to
depths mired in muddy doubt.

When groaning shakes the river ice
and any action exacts a cost
the safe way is to stay unmoving,
suspended midst the breathless frost.

 


PAMELA SEATON MCLEAN lives in Bright’s Grove, Ontario with her husband and cat. The insights delivered by observing nature inspire her writing.

Copyright © 2020 by Pamela Seaton McLean. All rights reserved.

‘My Uncle, Me, and Psychosis’ by Janet Stewart

My Uncle

 

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I’ll always remember when I was three and stepped up onto a new sidewalk that was too high for me, almost to my knees. I can still do it now, figuratively. My uncle held my hand and helped me up; my mentally ill uncle, my favourite Uncle Lloyd. He’s still holding my hand now: we shared the same genes for psychotic disorder. I didn’t quite inherit the destiny of isolation and rejection he experienced. He lived very much alone and my family never visited him.

Psychiatry had improved slightly by the time I came under its care: there were antipsychotics. I mothered my daughterhis child died a blue baby in England just after World War II, which may be what set him off in the first place. He came back to Canada without his wife, behaving strangely, painting the rooms of his family home in Rivière-du-Loup in bright pastels. I was told that it was shell shock from the war. I doubt he ever got a proper diagnosis or medication.

As my predecessor, my true family roots lie in him. My father told me, “Late at night, he used to walk the streets of a small town where he lived near the Veteran’s Hospital.” I wonder how he knew that. He worked on oil paintings at Gran’s place when I was very small, but I’ve never seen any of his works anywhere since. By the time I felt a need to learn more, Gran had died, and no one else knew much about him.

In 1989, I had my first episode of psychosis at about the same age he did, at 33. I had also just arrived back home in Montreal after working overseas. During that first episode, when my daughter was two, I talked my way into a Master of Science program: Virology and Immunology, mainly because I thought I was a genius. I didn’t tell anyone that I thought I was a genius because I believed that I was on a secret mission to come up with a cure for HIV. I felt at home at the Institut Armand-Frappier in Laval and was proud of its tradition of vaccine production and research. It was only after six months into the Master’s program that I was finally diagnosed with psychosis and medicated, and I decided to finish the degree even though I realized that I am not a genius.

I left in good standing with the publication of an original contribution. That led to enrollment in a Ph.D. program at McGill University, where I didn’t fare as well. I didn’t feel accepted there and became depressed. It ended in another episode of psychosis that put a stop to the Ph.D. in 1994. Then, I supported my daughter and myself by eking out a living as a freelance scientific writer, bogged down by the heavy medication. My love for my daughter was my reason for getting up in the morning and overcoming the curse of inertia caused by the antipsychotic medication until, in 2003, I was worn down by a third episode of psychosis struck that lasted five years.

 

2003-2008

When the third episode was building in me in the autumn of 2003, I got into an argument with my father, which I had never done before. It was over why we had never visited Uncle Lloyd, his brother, and why nobody had told me when he died. I asked where he was buried and when his birthday was, and my father didn’t even know. My mother remembered what cemetery he was buried in. So, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day during the spring of 2004, in full-blown psychosis, I went to the Field of Honour Cemetery, where a tent had been set up by the Last Post Memorial people. They looked up the number of his grave for me. R. L. Stewart was clearly marked on the cracked gravestone, with the wrong year of death. I left flowers.

His full name was Raymond Lloyd, and I never would have found his grave if my father hadn’t told me that during our argument. I must be the only family member to have visited his grave after his funeral,  although he had five brothers and two sisters with 18 kids among them. I’m probably the only kid in the family to hold his hand or to ask my grandmother what he was doing when he talked, though he was alone. The only one who would ask her when he would visit her next, the only one of his nieces and nephews to remember him with fondness. He would silently mouth words in a conversation with empty air. I remember the incredulous look on his face when he did. It was as though some arbitrary, crushing injustice was being handed to him by the person he was talking to, and pleading with, although nobody was there.

I was six or seven when he died. In the fall of 2003, I wished I could go back in time and talk to him. I felt strongly that I could get through to him even in his psychotic state and have meaningful conversationstreat him like a sensitive individual, listen to him, make him feel I’m there, find something to laugh about together.

I wrote a little piece about my recollections of him, what I would say to him if he was alive: “Life is better now for people like us.”  I sent it to the members of my immediate family.

I wasn’t aware then of the dire circumstances many people with schizophrenia live in today, nor did I foresee my own homelessness.  My copy got lost along with almost all of my other belongings during the last bout of psychosis and homelessness, but I did manage to save the handout from the Last Post Memorial with the number of his grave written on it. I can find his grave again.

I fought off treatment with antipsychotic medication for five years, even demonstrating in court that I did not constitute a danger to myself or others. One of the tenants in the slum I was living in threatened to kill me, so I moved into another slum to get away from him, making trips across the street loaded down with the few belongings I had left. And so it went when I was psychotic: escaping real or imagined threats, abandoning my possessions bit by bit, one crisis at a time, until I no longer had a place to live.

I finally hit the wall and ended up homeless in 2008. I was sent by ambulance to psychiatric emergency by the workers at a women’s shelter and finally came out of the psychosis a few weeks later.

 

2015

Now it’s autumn, about fifty-five years after stepping up onto that sidewalk with Uncle Lloyd and seven years after stepping off the psychiatric ward for the last time. No more delusions, and no more slums for me now, either. I am back among the living, with my old friends, a new career, out of poverty, misery, isolation, and mental instability.

Supposedly I have recovered, I’m often told that I’m amazing and that I inspire people, but don’t feel particularly inspired. Most of the time I hardly feel anything, I don’t feel like myself, I’ve just been hanging on. I don’t cry, I don’t laugh. I’m told I’m doing well considering. I add, “only compared to before.” I silently complete the thought: I am doing well for someone with schizophrenia. It’s as though people with schizophrenia should be content with a quality of life that would be unacceptable to most.

But I’m a success story according to the professionals, probably because I work. No matter what I tell her, my psychiatrist doesn’t seem to understand how slow and painful it is, that something is wrong, or what really keeps me goingwhich is, that I’m convinced I’ll eventually feel good, feel right, and really laugh again . . . feel like myself. 

I’ve recovered from psychosis before, that’s why I’m so sure. It took me six years to feel like myself after the episode in 1994, and this last episode was much, much worse. So, I just keep learning to function better, until I can start feeling again.

Autumn is my favourite time of year. These days, I walk in beautiful weather to the subway on my way to work. I pass the little huddle of Caribbean stores at a corner near my apartment.  I wonder what that restaurant is all aboutmostly men and some gaudy women, drinking outside on the sidewalk on Saturday nights with music spilling out. They seem to be having such a good time that they take no notice of me when I walk through their universe.  

Nelson Mandela Park: in the summer, the older men sit on the benches talking and watching the passersby. Cars pull up blaring reggae, and the few women are all dressed to the nines. I can’t imagine feeling comfortable or welcome sitting in the park, with only the odd woman there and no white people. It’s a public park and I know nothing bad would happen if I did, I just feel that there are invisible barriers that I would breach. I wonder about the story behind naming the park after Nelson Mandela. I feel that he is part of me too.

When Mandela died, in the late autumn of 2013, there were a few dried-out bunches of flowers strewn over the dedicatory plaque, a few candles, trees bare, dead leaves blown across the frozen ground. The park was abandoned and desolate.

Slums to the east and slums to the west of me.  I live amongst a few blocks of middling, trimmed hedges, mowed lawns, and working peoplemostly Asian, brown and black. I’m a member of a visible minority in this neighbourhood, and oh! a member of an invisible minority, an often reviled and hated minority. But I forget about the schizophrenia more and more.

I tap “Create Document” on my iPad, then on “Blank Document,” and bring up a blank screen entitled “Blank 3”. I love the blank page, but have no notion what Blanks 1 and 2 are! I don’t notice or remember much. There are loose ends in evidence all over, the Tupperware I didn’t put back in the cupboard after cleaning it months ago, the shards of a ceramic dish I haven’t glued back together yet, the dead DVD player I’ve been meaning to take to the recycling depotbut I’ve misplaced the address. The dust. Is it only the side effects of the antipsychotic?

I’ve been on and off antipsychotics enough times to know the difference. It’s huge. The people who rejoice in telling me that I’m doing so well on meds don’t realize that I live in a prison of fog. Antipsychotics do get rid of my delusions, but they wipe out a lot more than just psychosis, things like having some oomph and feeling alive. I’ll never cease to hate those pills. They’re a necessary evil, a witch’s spell, almost as destructive as the spell I’m under when psychotic. Added to that, five years of paranoia and delusions thoroughly fried my brain, too fried to work in science, which I was happy doing.

For seven years, I’ve been getting used to people again, no longer so put off by the demands and deceptions required in order to socialize. People seemed so petty and fake in my initial forays into the working world when I came off the street. Then reading, using computers, driving, cooking, working, even just getting a grip, all had to be re-learned.

I work on a mental health team that cares mainly for those most severely affected with schizophrenia, doing home visits. I work with people who live in isolation and misery, in slums that smell, often with cockroaches and bedbugs and filth, the only lodgings they can afford on their meagre disability pensions. I’ve been there myself, partly why I was hired. Having experienced homelessness was also considered to be a plus for this job! Times are changing.

The team’s goal is to keep our clients stable enough to get into a routine, to help them care for themselves and live in the community. I shudder at the thought of how most will end up in old age, with health and quality of life deteriorated from decades of neglect and poverty.

Claire is around 50. Many of her teeth are rotting and coming loose. She refuses to go to the dentist though it’s covered on her disability pension. “Nobody likes to go to the dentist,” I tell her. I had woken her up in the middle of the afternoon pounding on the door to her apartment. “I’ve come for our appointment to clean your place together, remember?” I say though I know that remembering appointments is the furthest thing from her mind. She goes back to bed and soon I can’t shake her awake again. She’s on the verge of being evicted because four times she’s left things on the stove that started fires. The team decided to take out the stove’s fuse and I went with Claire to buy a slow cooker that shuts off automatically.

According to my team, my work is “superb.” I get through to people that the other members of the team can’t. One, in particular, doesn’t respond to medication:  he’s delusional but he listens to me. Sometimes. He doesn’t like the team; I think he finds it intrusive. But he knows he needs people he can depend on and that his parents, whom he currently relies on, won’t live forever. That much I’ve got across to him in his more lucid moments. But he still doesn’t like the team. He wants to get laid and I’m way out of the right age range so I’m not a target. The younger women on the team feel it though.

I’m beginning to realize that I have the wrong attitude for this job. My co-workers are dedicated to making our clients’ lives the best they can be. Buried deep in me is the knowledge that I barely escaped the fate of my clients and still only just manage to take care of myself properly. don’t have much in the way of solutions for our clients, as I don’t for myself, either. “Just force yourself to do things, until they’re second nature. It may take years. You have to force and push yourself for the rest of your life, in fact: it’s a chronic illness, a disability.”

That’s what I feel like saying when I see some of them.  I also tell myself that when I get home to my own dusty, cluttered apartment that I am so careless about. But I never tell my clients that they need to push themselves, it’s not the recommended approach. Most of them aren’t ready, according to the recovery model of peer support. Will they ever be ready? I’m supposed to be the bright light of recovery and hope, an inspiration. Talk of the miracle of recovery, perhaps, when I really don’t believe in miracles. Give hope. Be a role model. I don’t think my clients would want the kind of life I lead now.

The suffocating silence that surrounds schizophrenia stifles me too. My friends don’t ask me what I did during those five years of delusions, and they change the subject when I bring up my present challenges, though I listen to all the details of their ailments. Nobody sent me flowers when I finally ended up in the psychiatric ward, no Get Well cards, and only my daughter visited me there. People had given up on me, had stopped contacting me, and had moved on during the five years I was psychotic. I didn’t exist for them anymore.

“Now you’re doing great, you’re okay now,” a friend said, as though all those traumatic experiences don’t take a toll.

There’s too much, it’s too big for me: five years of psychosis, the medication change that caused the episode (a medical error), homelessness, emptiness: no connection, no drive, no motivation, no direction, no feelings, just groping in the dark for so many years, no laughter, no joy, no pleasure. Not even any tears. All these thoughts and feelings crowd together, I want to get them all out, but they leave me paralyzed, and I can’t find the words to answer him. I am also responsible for the silence that I hate so much.

Where to begin? In the full knowledge that the people around me don’t want to hear or think about it. Instead, “You’re rocking!” a friend said when I got the job on the mental health team. But when I told her I never feel like doing anything, that I have to force myself to do everything, something it’s hard to admit to because I feel so guilty and ashamed about it, she quickly changed the subject. Friends only want to hear about the successes. “It’s too hard to hear about how much you’ve been suffering,” she finally told me one day. Another friend told me, “Just don’t talk to me about mental illness.” A very good friend.

Uncle Lloyd was even more hidden behind, what I’ve come to consider, a wall of fascist silence. It has denied us our identities to the point that I am probably the only person alive who ever thinks about him. As a family, we learned nothing from the way he lived and died. He was erased by the silence. So far, I haven’t broken through the walls around my own schizophrenia. I’m waiting for the right opportunities, the right moments, the right words, the right audience. So I write. I’m starting by writing this. I hope that someday we’ll all know what to say and how to say it.

 


JANET STEWART works in the areas of mental health research, teaching, and care and in scientific writing.

Copyright © 2020 by Janet Stewart. All rights reserved.

 

‘Lucky Black Boy’ by P.T. Russell

Shrieking wails, carried by the churning wind above, deafens me as the darkness steals my sight.

The ocean water is warm and murky. Its salty froth burns my nostrils and stings my eyes. I am surrounded by haunting voices inside and outside of my throbbing head. It’s too loud. I can’t think. All of my waning energy is spent on breathing in the briny air and swimming for my life. My arms claw through debris and foam while my battered body moves with the surging waves, protesting against the shifting current. The evil tempest wants to pull me out to sea, out to my death. My legs are numb—one must be broken but they kick with a fury I cannot explain.

I will live and not die. Not tonight.

“Swim! Swim!”

Desperate shouts behind urge me to keep going, not to look back, that I’m going the right way. But the further I swim the sadder I become. My home is gone, so is my mother and baby brother. The black water rushed in and took them away.

My throat burns because I swallowed some of the wicked water. Someone like me pushed my head down into it. I struggled to keep them off but they were screaming for help and they couldn’t swim. I saw the hood of a car, maybe white or grey, that swayed back and forth under the water. The floods had gobbled it too.

My uncle beats them off with a piece of plywood and tells me again to keep going. For a moment, I use their limp body to rest but they start sinking and the painful fight against the water is back on.

The storm is fierce and mean: it strips away your spirit, soul and self-respect.

It’s getting harder to breathe and swim and live… My muscles are giving up but my mind wills them to move. The rope tied around my waist connects me to my uncle. He is all I have now. Another big gust of wind rips out of the night sky and hurles us over the steepled rooftop of a weeping church.

Where is God?

My whole town is buried underwater.

Will there ever be other children and games of marbles in the sand?

My friends have probably sunk to the bottom by now.

Can they see me?

Are they proud?

I’m swimming for them too.

Uncle is wheezing, he is swimming slower and slower; his growling shouts have become sputtering whispers. He’s coughing up the black water. I know he is tired, his head must be aching. Our ceiling fell on top of him and burst it open, while I hid beneath his belly.

He can’t keep up anymore and I need to check on him. But before I can turn to him, he tells me to keep going, that he’s ok…

I can go faster now, I have a second wind; there’s a light bleaching the darkness up ahead. I believe they can help me and my uncle.

I can’t hear him anymore and most of the screams around me have also stopped. My body glides ahead easily through the bouncy waves. My good uncle untied the rope. I guess he is finally free.

I should give up too, so I can be with my family. I can hug my mother and kiss my brother and run barefoot on the hot dirt roads, racing with my friends. I always won. They always said my legs used to spin like a bicycle wheel. But my uncle’s voice is pounding in my head. It speaks louder in death than it did in life. It scolds me like a warning and I have to listen.

The light is closer but I am still afraid. There are so many bodies floating around me and I will have to crawl over them. Everyone looks like me, blackened by the shadows of the ugly night. They are faceless but we are all the same. We are all dead.

I swallow more water and choke. I fight to keep my head up but it’s impossible because the wind is beating down hard. An angry tornado swoops in, whipping over the water. Bodies, including mine, are snatched up and thrown through the air…

The booming winds bring a scary silence as it spins me like a wooden top. Dizziness, then the blackness takes me whole.

My back and side hurt.

Does this mean that I’m alive?

I land on top of a capsized boat; it drifts in the wasteland of what used to be a marina. I jump off the boat and catch the metal railing of the building it slams into; just before the broken vessel washes out into the ocean. I hold onto the railing with jelly arms and a strong leg. The wet rail turns into melting lard—I lose my grip and my wrinkled fingers open as I fall.

“I have come for you,” the water declares with its greedy mouth.

I close my eyes because my strength has long gone. It is my turn to leave this world. Time was short for me and the storm takes young and old.

Mother’s sweet brown face smiles down on me. My hands reach up for her.

We finally meet again…

The woman who catches me before I die is not my mother— she was a strict teacher from primary school. She pulls me up into her arms and brings my head to rest on her warm bosom.

She whispers in my clogged ear, “You are one lucky black boy.”

 


P.T. RUSSELL is a Canadian resident from The Bahamas, who has recently resumed the gratifying art form of storytelling. She is currently working on short stories, flash fiction, screenplays and also hopes to shoot a short film in the near future.

Copyright © 2020 by P.T. Russell. All rights reserved.

 

‘The Trailcam’ by Matt Poll

Trailcam

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teemu’s face remained sombre.

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

Pia furrowed her brows suspiciously.

“Riiiight.”

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn jabbed the screen with her finger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did he say?”

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

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

“He said all that?” Pia whispered.

“He did.”

****

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2020 by Matt Poll. All rights reserved.

 

‘Brother I choose’ by Ryan London

there is someone who looks just like you
who can speak with pretenders and skeptics
and sing duets alone and untainted
knowing he is out there
knowing he has ever been
i smile to myself

you draw me with small hands
as if i cannot hold you
as if i listen to the music of pretending
knowing my love feels like sandpaper
knowing it burns like your hand on a stove
but heals like a kiss
i smile to myself

 


RYAN LONDON is from Toronto but based in Montreal where she graduated from McGill’s Industrial Relations program. Her poems center around the female experience, mental illness, and suicide. She is a strong believer in language accessibility, believing poetry should be written with the intent that it can be experienced by anyone.

Copyright © 2019 by Ryan London. All rights reserved.

 

‘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.