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

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


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

‘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.

 

‘Encounter’ by Jaco Fouché

Encounter.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

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

“Are you planning a picnic?”

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

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

“Before work?” the woman asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, do,” a woman said.

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

“Are you planning a picnic?”

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

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

“Before work?” the woman asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What work do you do?” the man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2019 by Jaco Fouché. All rights reserved.

 

‘Consequences’ by Dalia Gesser

Consequences

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

When we live our lives on the edge, with no regard for how we conduct ourselves or how we treat our mates, it’s no surprise that consequences usually follow. I picked up an inebriated man in my cab, late one evening, outside a local bar. He needed to get home or maybe he just ran out of drinking money and called it ‘a night’. It’s all too common for the intoxicated ones, having just imbibed in a ‘bottle of courage’, to rant on about some ridiculous situation they became embroiled in, which of course they’re never at fault.           This forty something-year-old was no different. Having no filter, he began spewing his drunken opinions during the short drive to his residence. I was all too familiar with this behavior and how easily an innocent comment could set them off, so I tried to keep the conversation light. This gentleman, however, most probably due to his uninhibited state, felt the need to share the ongoing conflict he was having with his spouse.

“Oh my wife doesn’t care much for my drinking,” he confided in me.

“Why is that?” I asked sarcastically, trying to humour him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’d think she’d be used to it by now.”

“Maybe she hopes you’ll change,” I said more sincerely.

“She’s always trying to change me,” he said complaining.

“We all have room for improvement,” I said.

“When she met me, she knew that I like to drink and she did too,” he said trying to defend himself.

“Well, people don’t always stay the same, especially as we get older,” I said.

“You got that right,” he said, a bit upset. “If she doesn’t drink, the least she could do is not bug me about what I like to do.”

“Well maybe she wants the best for you and doesn’t want to see you have long term health problems,” I said.

“I know, but if I don’t care she shouldn’t either.”

“Easier said than done.”

“True.”

Just as I pulled up to the man’s home, we both witnessed someone throwing clothes out of an upstairs window. We watched as the smaller items floated down gracefully while the larger ones landed on the lawn with a thud.

“This doesn’t look good,” the man commented.

“I guess not.” I replied. “Am I to assume that’s your wife tossing out your clothes?”

“Ya,” he said in shock.

This situation was so cliché. I could easily imagine, without meeting her, the script leading up to this scene. The numerous comments and threats she made to him about his drinking or spending money or, more likely, both, judging by the neighbourhood where they lived. Then there were his endless promises to change, which never amounted to anything concrete, only leading to escalating disappointment. The numerous frustrated rounds, voices raised, before he would leave the house in a huff. He would always return ‘three sheets to the wind’ after the bar closed at 2:00 a.m.

Tonight, after their argument, he took off to the bar as usual, but this time her anger brewed. This time, after reaching her limit, she made the decision not to continue on the same path with this man who was incapable of modifying his habits. After a few hours of smoking many cigarettes, pacing around the house, maybe speaking to a girlfriend which included many tears, she came to terms that change was overdue. She brainstormed, possibly with her girlfriend, decided on the best plan, mustered up the courage and carried it through. Good for her.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said as more garments filled the yard.

Yes, he was that clueless.

“Lori!” he called up to her.

Lori stared down at him as he craned his head out of the open cab window but said nothing. At this point what could he possibly say? As drunk as he was, he seemed to understand at least that much. Her action spoke volumes. She popped her head back inside then after a few seconds and resumed her mission, more garments came tumbling downwards.

“I never thought she’d go and do this!” the guy exclaimed.

Was this his best defense?

“Well I guess she had enough,” I said stating the obvious.

As the reality of his wife’s actions sank in, a look of guilt spread across his face. The man got out of the cab, walked over to the clothes spread across the front yard, and began picking them up with a saddened expression. He was clearly at a loss as to how to deal with this pathetic situation.

“Lori, Lori,” this upstanding citizen called up to the second floor again.

It was all to no avail. Lori ignored his pleas.

“Where else can I take you,” I asked the distraught man trying to make him understand that staying here was not an option.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few months later, I was requested by dispatch to drive a man home. It was difficult to detect his age, due to his smoker’s complexion and slightly burned-out appearance. This guy was the last of my intoxicated fares so by the time we arrived at his home it was close to 3:00 a.m. When I stopped the cab in front of the house with the porch lights on, I noticed a piece of paper posted to the front door. Next to the door with the handwritten message was stacked a stereo, a briefcase, a few boxes, an ugly lamp, a leather jacket, and a few other possessions. Scattered across the lawn was an array of clothes. My passenger let out a gasp.

“I can’t believe she left my jacket in full view! Someone could have stolen it.”

Of all his possessions this undoubtedly was one of his favourites. He took a couple of minutes to study his state of affairs. “This is unbelievable!”

The now ex-girlfriend found an unmistakable way of making her point. I felt the need to bring the posted message to his attention, as I questioned how cognizant he was with drunkenness now compounded in shock.

“She left you a note,” I said.

He got out of the cab and pulled the paper off the door. He glanced back at me and shrugged.

“How long have you been together?” I couldn’t help but ask loudly.

“Not long,” he paused, “a few months.”

He stood silently, assessing the disaster zone, then took out his cell phone from his pocket. Perhaps he was expecting to get the boot, not knowing exactly how or when it would happen. I waited patiently then, after a couple of minutes, made an arm gesture signaling him over to the cab.

“What are we doing here?” I called to him wanting to get on with my shift.

“Just a sec,” he held up his index finger.

He paced back and forth over the lawn, picking up his clothes while conversing with someone on his cell. “Okay,” he said then hung up.

He walked over to the driver’s window and paid me.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Ya,” he answered. “Just like last time, a buddy’s coming over to get me.”

 


DALIA GESSER, a theatre arts/educator and writer, has been running theatre arts programs for children and seniors, since 1998, funded mainly by grants from the Ontario Arts Council. She incorporates storytelling in all her theatre arts programs as everyone has interesting stories to tell. Some of her non-fiction stories have been published in an anthology book series titled ‘Conscious Women’, four in the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series and four stories in ‘Kingston Life Magazine’.

Copyright © 2019 by Dalia Gesser. All rights reserved.

 

‘On You’ by Charlie Evans

On You.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

It was a long drive back from the cottage.

We awoke hungover in an overcrowded cottage by a lake lacking in food, coffee and cigarettes. Most of us were coming down from drugs, apart from me. But I had awoken in a mood, so I was just about as upbeat and pleasant as the rest. You were one of the most upbeat, something I think you were doing for the benefit of me. You were always good at cheering me up, even when I didn’t want it.

Someone had started playing music, beginning with an Ed Sheeran song – one of the more romantic ones. I remember you groaning because it was loud, and it had woken us up much earlier than we desired. I mumbled something incoherent into my pillow and you laughed, pulling me in closer to you and kissing the top of my head. Eventually we were dragged out of bed by your friends, but you whispered to me that you wished we could’ve stayed there together all day.

We all lingered too long, no one awake enough to begin the long drive back to our respective towns. Someone had braved the roads and driven 20 minutes to buy a pack of smokes for us all to share. You gave me two instead of one. A few people ended up in tears before it even reached noon, me being one of them. It was a bad day. You stood with me on the deck and held my hand, kissing me when no one was looking.

We weren’t together, and all night your friends had asked me why. I began to run out of reasons because, in part, we didn’t know ourselves. It had to do with distance and commitment issues and a big hesitance for either of us to acknowledge that it could possibly be something more than just sex. We’d been sleeping together on and off for a long time by that point, but we treated it as if it wasn’t a big deal. Because it wasn’t, we told ourselves. We’d never put a label on it, always keeping it casual because we didn’t want to rush into things and make them fall to ruin.

The night before, as we’d sat around the fire, I had seen your eyes on me. One of your friends couldn’t help but point it out. You blew it off as if it were nothing but gave me a look. A look I knew well at that point: a look meant just for me. The one that kept your words in when you, with your eyes, tried to tell me how you felt.

You made sure we stopped on the drive back, telling your friends that I was a nightmare without coffee—a hard fact. You let me order first at the Walmart McDonald’s, saying I needed it more than you did. I hushed you and told you to order your burger.

At some point during the drive, you reached across the backseat of the car and grabbed my hand, intertwining our fingers and giving me a squeeze. You didn’t let go for at least an hour.

I looked at you and I finally knew. I let myself acknowledge the truth that I’d tried to bury for God knows how long.

I felt it.

That feeling where you realize that the person in front of you is so incredible. The feeling when you know you could sit and listen to the person ramble on for hours and never be bored. When you know that sitting in silence with them is the best thing you’ve known. That they’re everything. All you need, all you want, all you could ever possibly see that point in life.

I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.

You looked at me when I was staring at you, reached out and touched my cheek. “What?” you whispered.

I shook my head at you. I didn’t know how to find the words. I still don’t.

“Nothing,” I whispered back.

You can always tell when I lie. You leaned across the car and kissed me, a bit deeper than you normally did in front of people. Your two friends in the front seats made a comment, but you kissed me again and then turned back to look out the window, holding my hand the whole way home. I stared out my own window, trying to think of the sky instead of the colour of your eyes.

We dropped me off first, back in Toronto. You got out of the car with me and pulled me into a hug, holding me tight, telling me that you’d see me next weekend for our friend’s wedding. The wedding that I didn’t know then would cause the end of us – even if it turned out to be for the best. The end of everything. The sex, the phone calls, the whispered conversations under the cover of stars, the friendship.

Losing the friendship just about caused me to lose myself. At least for a little while.

But we didn’t know that yet.

All I knew was the feeling I had felt in that back seat, and all you knew? I still don’t know. I may never know. But that’s okay.

Because for one afternoon, one long car ride back from the cottage, I knew.

And you didn’t.

 


CHARLIE EVANS: I am currently in my second year of an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree at Sheridan College in Creative Writing and Publishing. I enjoy writing both creative non-fiction and fiction, typically writing short stories as well as longer pieces. I am looking to begin publishing my work both online and in print in a more official capacity.

Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Evans. 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.

‘The Accident’ by Ilona Martonfi

The Accident.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

“A car hit my little sister,” I said to the nun in my broken English, my siblings and I attended St. Malachy School on Clanranald Avenue.

Halloween night 1955: a Volkswagen Beetle hit nine-year-old Erika on Decarie Boulevard, corner Monkland Avenue. Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough.

One year earlier, we had immigrated to Montreal. War refugees from Budapest, a mother and a father, four daughters and one son. Ages seven to fourteen.

After school, I was scoring orange peels in father’s pastry shop when I saw my seven-year-old brother József. He ran into the store to tell my parents about the accident. I ran outside with father. We found my sister lying unconscious between two parked cars.

Apu, my father, picked up his child. Sobbing, he carried Erika into his shop and laid her down on the bare floor. A Magyar Cukrászda.Scuffed wide plank oak floors, between two glass counters that were filled with chocolates and fresh Hungarian cakes and pastries.

My sister lay with her eyes closed. Father crouched beside her on his knees, calling her name, “Erika. Erika.”

My mother stood by the counter, very still. I prayed the Our Father. The Hail Mary. Repeatedly, I said them. Then Erika threw up. It was dark red. I thought she would die. I prayed louder. To our relief, the red colour was from beets. Sliced cékla my eldest sister Erna had cooked.

On Decarie we rented an apartment across the street from the store. My sister Erna had sent her younger siblings with the alarm clock. “Tell mother to wind it so we will not be late for school.”

The driver of the car, who hit my sister, cried as hard as my father did. “I have four children and no car insurance,”he blurted out between uncontrollable sobs.

Józsefre calls, “Father wanted to cut the guy’s head off when he saw Erika vomiting red. ‘If she dies your head comes off!’he told the driver. She flew through the air and landed on the hood of a car. I was holding her hand. This guy came through the red light. All I remember, she was hit. She was on the wrong side. Both of us should have been hit. It happened in the dark. We all ate beets for supper.”

An ambulance took my sister to the Children’s Hospital. She came home the same night. She suffered a concussion and was dizzy for several days. Erika was allowed to sleep with my parents in their double bed. Missed many weeks of school.

“I don’t celebrate Halloween. Your sister had the accident,” mother said, many years later.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is an editor, poet, curator, advocate and activist. Author of four poetry books, the most recent Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). Forthcoming, The Tempest (Inanna, 2021). Writes in journals, anthologies, and five chapbooks. Her poem “Dachau on a Rainy Day” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. Artistic director of Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and Argo Bookshop Reading Series. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

______________________________________________________

I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

__________________________________________________________

When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. 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.