“Breaking Wheels” by Meg Clavel

Siobhan already made two appearances in the parlour room to pick up the extension that morning. Her husband Frank, preoccupied with his garden, gave her ample time to ring Luke. Perhaps invite him over for tea if he could spare some time before the train. In each attempt, she managed to pull only four digits of the sequence. As she watched the dial tick back around, she knew it was just a matter of time before she resolved to hang up. The telephone, hidden in the back corner of the parlour, no longer seemed so discrete when she entered the room again for the third time. This time, she was accompanied by a rag and some polish. Buffing the polish in a circular motion, she worked in sections. Meticulous as she was, the phone’s brass fixtures would shine before she tried him again.

Luke had always made her feel this way, a feeling she couldn’t quite explain. Mopping floors were customary when he grew inside her belly. The sweep of a mop across the floor or soap suds arched around the window pane felt like a necessity even in times of complete exhaustion. With her all-consuming condition, which seemed to appear overnight, the blissful pregnancy she expected was not her reality. Childbirth was not to be discussed; her own mother had educated her well. The torments of Siobhan’s term were spoken of only in her mind and even there it felt her mother would be in earshot. Confinement was what it was called, because that is exactly what it was. She learned every crack in the house during those months, contrary to her mother’s incessant advice. There were corners of the floor that collected more dust. The removal of carpet stains, from tea spills to food remnants of long-ago parties, became experiments that helped pass the time. She would rummage together glass jars to store her creative compounds, often pilfering chemicals from Frank’s garage. She worked the house clean, day and night. Her chest felt heavy, her steps slowed; she couldn’t stop. 

Labour came early, but Luke grew strong. He was like her, though she would not admit it. He was clever though. Often she struggled to find the right words to praise him. When she couldn’t, silence became her default. She sat with him across the round table when he completed his arithmetic after school. His brow relaxed no matter how difficult the equation. On rare occasions she might offer cornbread, knowing that was all she could offer him. Academia didn’t interest Luke as it did not interest her. When he came home to the typical after school snack of tea and toast, his Mother didn’t stop to greet him. She would fuss over household tasks to be done. With her apron tied so tight, everything else just seemed to drape over it, like ruffles on an old canopy bed. On some days he would find her bleaching the base boards. The smell gave him a headache. When supper was over, she would whirl past him with a sudden need to polish the silver. A leaking roof that had yet to be repaired, but a sideboard full of silver, inherited from his grandmother, now deceased. Her delusion was a puzzle he wanted to solve. At fourteen Luke left school to work for their neighbor, Mr. Owen. A successful automobile mechanic by trade, Siobhan ignored Frank when he said Mr. Owen owned half the town. Luke took note of his father’s warning, but learned from his mother that it was best not to ask questions. 

Rows from the Owen household echoed down the block at all hours of the night. Siobhan was happy when Mr. Owen took her son on, regardless of his family’s reputation throughout the neighborhood. The day Luke came home in a suit, she remarked only on the suit itself. Crimson curtains were delivered one afternoon. The house carpets, still cleaned daily, were replaced with chic rugs. She accepted Luke’s gifts with thanks, but the silence that had grown between them was deafening. On nights when her son didn’t come home until long after supper, she would wait for him. Transfixed by the muted glow of the street lamps, she peered through the glass of their oculus window, wondering if her son might ever return. 

When he did return, she found in her a voice that could shout louder than all the members of the Owen household combined. Her accusations of his tardiness seemed useless. A stain on his suit, not of tire grease, but what he claimed was spilt red wine came with a request for assistance. These requests carried such weight, that Siobhan’s hopes grew high once more. While knowing the stain was not red wine at all, she scrubbed the fabric clean over the sink, imagining Luke standing beside her as she taught her son household cleaning remedies as her mother taught her. This was never the case. Instead her son, now fully grown sat at the table. Head in hand, as he iced his swollen brow. Sometimes, she got greedy with offers to polish his rings, but he snapped at those offerings. They would be polished at the jewelry store in town free of charge, but not before he removed what might be remnants of the previous night’s tavern brawl. At eighteen he moved out, sending a cleaning woman daily for his Mother, except Sundays. Sunday became Siobhan’s favourite day of the week, though her glass jars had not been refilled of late. A good day’s work put her at ease. She had the buckets in the attic too, which needed emptying when it rained. Small pockets of rest until Luke took up space once more. 

On the morning of his train, Luke lingered in his flat in hopes of a grand farewell, though no one knew of his departure. He examined the envelope, mysteriously left in the breast pocket of his suit, which contained one train ticket. It was placed without a note, a dead giveaway as to who left it for him. This was just his Mother’s way, he accepted. There was still a silence, but today it seemed less loud. Clutching the envelope in hand, his suit was all he left behind. He boarded the train in jeans and a t-shirt, an intentional uniform where he would not be recognized. As the train pulled out, he let out a deep breath he felt he had been holding his whole life. With the top window of the cabin open, he smelled the fresh sea air of his home town one last time. With a jolt of the engine, the train went in reverse for a couple hundred yards, its wheels switching tracks. Then, they were moving forward. 

Siobhan returned the brass polish to its home under the kitchen sink. Luke had boarded the train, this she knew. The train was far away now, yet she could somehow hear its wheels moving at a steady pace. Never screeching to a halt, but roaming through hills and valleys of places she did not know. Luke needn’t come back and she wouldn’t follow, unless invited. A distance between them, a clean break. She put her feet up that afternoon. The drapes, though dusty, stayed on their hooks.


MEG CLAVEL is an aspiring writer from Toronto, Ontario. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University and a diploma in Makeup Artistry. Her passions include makeup design, creative writing and photography.

“Luna” by Sarah Bensemana

Kenya. 

From the never-ending, dry landscape rose twenty trees in my field of vision. Some were brought down by elephants, but most were left brittle and weak, dying of thirst. It had been my first day in the African Bush and the clouds carefully shielded me from the sun.

#

Friday night dinner. 

The generations sat around the table in soft, sinking chairs. My square-shaped father situated himself at the head with a bible at a thirty-degree angle from his hand. He laughed as he told vulgar stories from his childhood: the constant reprimanding of teachers and his dying need to contest elders.     

And that is when Kayla materialized: the self-deprecating part of myself that I would never truly be able to understand.

#

Zoo. 

As the sun broke free from the morning clouds, the blazing ball of fire seemingly engulfed me. The black pavement warmed my feet, through the soles of my shoes. I hear the cries of a child, a parent, a zookeeper and the gorilla.

#

Award Night.

The evening started nearly twenty minutes ago and I have not yet heard my name. So I guess this is what it is like to be average. To sit here, waiting while seemingly everyone has been called up and congratulated four hundred times. 

Kayla grew short in the past few years, but her presence was nevertheless aversive. She stared at me as she danced in a tribe-like manner. Her deafening screams filled the room, yet no one turned to look at her. 

Why is it that she was not getting any attention?

Why is it that she was looking at me like I was some sort of monster?

#

Kenya.

Kyle, our tour guide with fiery hair he hid under a hat, felt the incessant need to document everything. He insisted that we remain quiet as to not reveal our location. Luna, the lioness, slowly entered the open valley.

#

 Zoo. 

It stared back at me. The only separation between it and I was the tall, rigid glass wall. The glass wall that was tall enough to tower over my father. The glass wall that seemingly rose for miles… 

Perhaps it was not only the gorilla that was enclosed.

#

Friday Night Dinner.

I was filled with joy, surrounded by the bizarrely comforting walls of my childhood home. As soon as anybody walked through the glass door, the light browns and blood reds made it feel as though you were in nature. On the entrance wall hung endless welcome signs in a million different languages. I always found this bizarre since anyone who ever came in only spoke the same three: English, French and Hebrew. Yet, my father bought more and more. 

The walls were once made of cement, but now only glass. My transparent house left nowhere to hide. 

I often wondered if people were watching me.

#

Award Night.

It had been twenty-two minutes, and the secondary four awards were coming to a start. A boy in my class had just been called up for the Awardfor Mathematics, a subject in which he received endless amounts of recognition for minimal amounts of effort. It always came so easy to him.

Kayla grew. 

#

Kenya. 

“Animals are fascinating,” Kyle said.

“Can you fathom how lucky we are to be witnessing this?” he repeated.

“I cannot wait to sell this footage to a documentarist,” he encouraged.

I began to understand the omnipresence of racist colonialism and white peoples’ need to exploit a land and people that is not their own.

#

Award Night. 

“It is with great honour that we grant the award for Scientific Excellence to Rachel Wolf.”

#

Zoo.

I stared deep into the gorilla’s desperate eyes and felt my mother looking back at me. I slowly raised my hand to touch the cold glass. The gorilla started beating against the heavy walls of its enclosure until its hands streamed blood. It yelled and screeched until it sank down. 

Exhausted.

#

Kenya.

The tension was prominent. I felt as though its weight was both pushing down on my chest and forcing the air out of my lungs. I could not breathe. As the two lionesses surrounded the limping cub, Luna followed with silent, soft strides. Despite the deep mating calls of the male behind us, her established confidence radiated through all of us.

#

Award night. 

I ran up there trying to contain my explosive achievement. One would never be able to see it. Unless that one was Kayla.

Only Kayla can see the atoms and compounds of my body exploding and coming back together again. Only Kayla would be able to feel the chemical reactions of endorphins being released into my body. Only Kayla would be able to share this moment with me, yet I could not see her anywhere.

#

Zoo.

A wave of anger came over me. I looked at my father and he became the enemy. The enemy of the gorilla. The enemy of my mother. 

I charged at him and bit into his wrist. I watched the blood stream from his arm.

The gorilla looked back at me.

#

Award Night. 

I held my award close to my stomach like a pillow during a frightening film. 

As I made my way toward my seat, that same boy approached me. All he managed to mutter through his big mouth was that,

“My parents did not think you deserved that award.” 

All of a sudden, that award that I once held so closely, began to suffocate me. It stretched and tightened itself around my lungs like a boa constrictor.

Tighter and tighter. 

#

Kenya.  

I will never be able to understand how two animals of the same species can be programmed with completely disparate mentalities. The male cared for nothing more than establishing his dominance, destroying all of what could never be his. While Luna, covered in scars from battles she fought to protect others, was being punished for a crime that should not exist.

As the male walked toward them, Luna stood still. The sky started raining glass and in her eyes, a reflection of her executioner materialized.


SARAH BENSEMANA is an eighteen-year-old girl who has always had a passion for literature. While she has not shared her work with many people as she find her writing to be very personal, she hopes that her audience can find some comfort, intrigue and familiarity within her short story, “Luna.”

“Labyrinths” by Sophie Gazarian

Lily builds mazes in her dreams. When she’s awake, she draws them with colouring pencils on sheets of loose-leaf paper.

Her parents pay little attention to their child’s strange hobby until they notice rooms and passageways appearing in their house that weren’t there before. Her mother finds a door behind the washing machine that leads to a dark, never-ending corridor. When Lily’s father goes down to the basement, there are twice as many steps as usual and they lead into the back garden.

Her father finds a sheaf of drawings tucked in one of Lily’s colouring books and connects the dots. He’s unnerved, but Lily is a well-mannered girl otherwise, so he gently asks her to keep her mazes to paper only and leave real buildings alone. She’s going to hurt someone, he warns. Lily agrees and continues to draw her labyrinths in private, creating new rooms with trapdoors and hidden entrances.

When Lily is thirteen, a middle-aged man sees her walk home from school from the doorway of a run-down pizza parlour. He follows several paces behind her, watching with delight at the way her body sways with every step. 

Lily takes a left into an alleyway the man’s never seen before. She then takes a right through a door that materializes in the brickwork. She jogs down a flight of stairs that appear before her and lead into an underground tunnel. The man pays no attention to these anomalies, so absorbed is he in his pursuit. He follows Lily as closely as he can but he’s soon out of breath as it becomes harder to keep up with her. Lily turns another corner and disappears from view.

“What on earth…?” the man says as he comes face to face with a dead end and no one else in sight.

And then the walls close in on him.


SOPHIE GAZARIAN is an emerging writer from Montreal. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and an MA in Library and Information Science from McGill. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.

“Prayer of a Pariah” by Aqueb Safwan Jaser

In the crowded Kamalapur Railway Station, Arunima could be found wearing heavy make-up and gaudy salwar kameez. She’d vehemently clap her hands, pursue passengers, and collect money. As odd as it may seem, this was her vocation. Arunima was transgender, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah.
 
In the train station, she’d often sing Rabindra Sangeet when she wasn’t asking for money from the passengers. If she felt elated, she’d even prance to her melodious tunes. Her movements were graceful. The way she swayed her waist made the other hijras envy her.
 
One winter morning, except for a few stray dogs and a couple of slum children, Arunima was all by herself in the train station. There were no passengers either, so Arunima couldn’t start her work. To bide her time, Arunima puffed on a Derby and hummed on Bideshini

Pressing the cigarette between her scarlet, quivering lips, Arunima stared into the fog before her. There was nothing, yet Arunima fixated her gaze toward the fog. After a while or so, Arunima heard the thumping of shoes, as if someone was pelting towards her. Almost abruptly, a dark, tall figure emerged from the whitening of the fog. Arunima shrieked and just when she was about to leap off from her seat, a middle-aged man thumped on the ground before her.

He was gasping for breath and as he did so, froth started to emerge from the corners of his mouth. As much as she did not want to believe it, the man was dying. Arunima wrapped him up with her midnight blue shawl. She woke the slum children from their sleep and asked them to help her drag the dying stranger to the entrance of Kamalapur Railway Station. By then the stray dogs woke up as well and goggled at the apprehensive scene occurring before them.

After arriving at the entrance, Arunima thanked the children and halted a CNG. ‘To Karwan Bazar, mama!’, Arunima instructed the plump driver in a panic-stricken voice. Thankfully, Dhaka streets are empty in the mornings, so the driver was able to reach the destination in a very short time. Having reached Karwan Bazar, he pulled off in front of a dreary, five-storied building. It was where Arunima lived.

Both the driver and Arunima hoisted the stranger up to the third floor. Upon reaching her apartment, Arunima made the stranger lay in her dingy bedroom. She drew the floral patterned, magenta-coloured curtains so that the stranger could breathe fresh air. After clearing the froth off the stranger with a sewn napkin, Anurima went to the kitchen. The kitchen was half the size of the bedroom. It had a single stove, a faded wooden cabinet, a frying pan hanging on a hook in the ceiling, a ceramic bowl, and a tin glass beside the basin. 

As fast as she could, Arunima prepared a hot bowl of chicken soup for the dying stranger. She took the bowl to the bedroom and discovered him lying on the floor, blood spewing from his mouth. Arunima felt helpless but she was determined to help him. She hoisted him up on the bed again and sprinkled a few drops of warm water on his face. He woke with a start with an eye still half-shut.

‘Where am I?’ he inquired, alarmingly. His sight was hazy, so he couldn’t properly perceive Arunima. She spooned the soup into his mouth and he obediently gulped it down his throat. Arunima couldn’t help but feel miserable for the man. The way he was devouring the soup told her that he was starving for quite a long time. After he was done, Arunima made his head rest on the pillow. He fell asleep at once.

It took a long time for the stranger to wake up. As a matter of fact, he woke up in the afternoon of the next day. As soon as the man woke up, he was startled to find a hijra slumbering on the floor before him. He thought he had been abducted. Without interrupting Arunima’s sleep, the man attempted an escape. But he had fallen head first on the floor, waking Arunima up from her sleep.

‘What on earth are you doing? You aren’t properly fit yet to walk,’ Arunima said, while heaving him up again on the bed. She didn’t realize that he was trying to elope and the man was quiet with fear of being harassed by a hijra. ‘You have been asleep for a long time, you know,’ Arunima said with a benign smile on her face while putting a blanket over him. She was struggling to be as amiable as she could. It has been a long time since she normally conversed with anyone other than her own kind.

‘What’s your name?’ Arunima inquired with the strained friendliness almost visible in her tone.

‘Umayr’ the man replied under his breath. He was still too feeble to talk. By now, Umayr realized that he wasn’t abducted. As a matter of fact, he was far from being abducted. He was being cared for. ‘Thank you’ Umayr murmured. Arunima felt a strange delight in herself, the kind of which she never felt before. No one has ever expressed gratitude to her, so she didn’t know what to say. Instead, she smiled her benign smile.

Umayr looked around the dingy room. His sight was still fuzzy from being frail, but the blazing sunlight helped him look around more distinctly. He saw a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali covered in dust and reposed on an oval, wooden table. An imperceptible, crunching noise indicated that termites are feeding on the insides of the table. The curtains were still pulled away. In the far corner of the room, there was a retro cassette player. It too was covered in dust. On the ground below, there was a dusty tower of cassettes of Bangla classics. On the wall above, there was a shabby poster of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.

‘I’ve watched it countless times,’ Arunima said, noticing Umayr looking at the poster of Charulata

‘It’s one of Ray’s finest,’ Umayr said. 

‘Charu is a timeless character. Such poise yet so poignant. Don’t you think there is a Charu within all of us?’ Arunima said with a vacant expression on her face as if she was lost in the far end of a cave of suppressed memories. 

‘I very much think so,’ Umayr replied in accordance with Arunima’s apparent grief.

‘What’s your story, Umayr?’ Arunima asked while shaking her head to draw herself away from her musings. Umayr was silent. His eyes reflected the persona of a man who’s striving to procure the best vocabulary to describe a difficult situation. After a long, subdued silence, Arunima placed her hands on Umayr’s, which were still cold and bony.

‘I… I…escaped from home,’ Umayr said, with great endeavour. ‘It’s not my fault. It’s, it’s not. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t,’ Umayr continued, tears streaming down his pale cheeks. Arunima pressed his hands more tightly. ‘It was too much, it was. Yes, yes, I started taking drugs. I wanted to kill myself. And why shouldn’t I? It was too much to bear. I never expected Aditi to leave. She promised she wouldn’t. But she did, anyway.’ 

A part of the blanket was drenched with Umayr’s dropping tears. 

‘And then my family. It wasn’t home anymore, it, it wasn’t. They loathed me for who I became – a drug addict. I brought dishonour to the family, they said. It was torture. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sought peace, I sought death, and I escaped…’ 

Umayr couldn’t finish his sentence. His throat was dry. Arunima handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down immediately.

The silence ensued again. Umayr looked down at his scrawny hands with an empty expression. Without contemplating what’s right or what’s wrong, without giving any thought to the consequences of the unpredictable society, Arunima wrapped her arms around Umayr. It felt like the right thing to do. The two stayed like that, embracing each other until the blazing sun gave way to the crisp winter evening.

Over the next few days, Arunima and Umayr’s relationship deepened. Umayr looked at Arunima as his caring sister and addressed her as Di, while Arunima cared for him as her brother. In the mornings, when the streets were empty, Arunima and Umayr would go on a stroll in Ramna Park. A few passing pedestrians would throw dubious stares at them while they rode on a rickshaw but they knew better than to pay attention. On their way, they would see a flock of crows cawing into the brisk morning air. During their strolls in the park, the soles of their feet would get damp from the dew appearing on the surface of the grass, which they crunched on their way. If the mornings were too frosty, they would sit on a bench in the park and puff on Derby, the smoke of which made them feel cosy. 

One day, Umayr found a shattered mirror on the leaves strewn across ground of the park. He picked up a shard with great curiosity. Upon scrutinizing the reflection, Umayr was taken aback. He saw that his hair was dishevelled and that his cheekbones began to emerge, making him look skeletal; his body was thin as a rake and his eyes were pale. ‘I have destroyed myself, Di’ Umayr said in a great state of melancholy. It was true. The drugs had ruined the once handsome structures of his face, making him look ghoulish.

Arunima took the shard of glass from his hand and threw it away. ‘You are my brother, Umayr, and know that you are the most handsome person I have ever seen,’ Arunima said with such firmness that it was clear that she meant what she said. She took Umayr’s hand and began strolling to the never-ending curves of the park. It was her effort to make Umayr forget about the predicaments of life.

The days passed with gusts of cold wind. Arunima made Umayr eat as many nutritious foods as possible. But to no avail, Umayr was still gaunt. She mostly relied on her chicken soup, which she prepared with a special blend of herbs. It was her medicine for all sickness, however, it wasn’t quite working for Umayr. And she couldn’t find a doctor either for hijras are often met with contempt in society. And Umayr wouldn’t go without Arunima. 

Other than her effort for keeping Umayr well-fed, Arunima also tried to keep his mood elated. On Umayr’s 24th birthday, Arunima cooked a succulent dinner for him. She kneaded dough to make butter naan and kindled tandoori, which was marinated with minced garlic and onion, cayenne pepper and garam masala. She also prepared raita by seasoning the yoghurt with cucumber and mint. A bottle of Coca-Cola was bought to abate the jhal.

After spreading a tattered carpet on the floor, the two sat down and dined in gaiety. While munching on a leg piece, Umayr thanked Arunima for making the effort to make the day special for him. Arunima said nothing but she smiled her benign smile. Umayr noticed that she bore a certain melancholy in her heart. He was meaning to ask for a long time but he couldn’t get the opportunity to do so. Umayr knew about how most hijras are abandoned by their families and later regarded as pariahs in the society. This in turn leads to their joining of the hijra community, where they are taught the art of their occupation.

“What’s your story, Di?” Umayr inquired, haltingly. Arunima looked up from her plate, which had a half eaten naan, and into Umayr’s curious, unflinching pair of eyes. The benign smile gradually faded away. But Arunima wanted to tell her story, her miseries, her laments, which she suppressed in the deepest corners of her heart for so, so long.

‘My mother said I was born a beautiful baby. Such beauty was rare in boys, many claimed. As a child, I was provided with singing lessons. Yes, that’s where I picked up my adoration for Rabindra Sangeet. His notion of romanticism enchants me, truly. But I was only taught to sing and not dance. I remember the first time I attempted to dance. It was a sunny afternoon, Maa and Baba were away, and I played Aloker Ei Jhorna Dharaion Baba’s old gramophone. Oh, I tell you, Umayr, I never felt such ecstasy in my entire life. I performed kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi just by myself. I knew I did well. I felt it in my soul, Umayr. 

Then suddenly the music stopped. Baba was standing beside the gramophone. He smashed the vinyl into pieces. Maa was weeping her silent tears. I knew from their faces that their worst nightmare came to life. My true identity was their worst nightmare! 

By the time I was fifteen, my identity was becoming more and more apparent. I was locked in my bedroom without any contact to the outside world because to everyone, I was a hijra, a pariah. I hummed many Tagore Songs just to keep my soul alive and to pass my time, I read and re-read the Geetanjali. In those dark, doleful days, that book was my Bible. 

Then one day, the locked door was open. Baba and Maa stood in the doorway, their faces heavy with regret. I thought they’d finally accept me for who I am and not what they want me to become. But I was a fool to think something like that. They came to throw me out of the house. They said they had had enough of me. It didn’t take much effort to throw me out. I remember standing in the entrance, staring for the very last time at my house, where I spent my childhood in the arms of who I believed were my parents.

I left with nothing but the copy of Geetanjali for it was my solace, my only accomplice in the forlorn days. I remember walking for miles on end until I discovered my own kind. I met my guru, who taught me how to survive with my identity. I made friends, I made enemies yet I was lonely. 

Sometimes we don’t realize who we really are to the world, to ourselves. And that lack of understanding puts us in a state of sheer isolation. We spend too much time finding our place in this world that in the end, we discover that there is no place at all. We are all vagabonds in this world. 

You know, Umayr, I sought my purpose in this forsaken world. I didn’t find any.’

Arunima was not weeping like Umayr did when he shared his own story. He understood that all her tears had dried up a long, long time ago. But he also knew that there was still a pang in Arunima’s warm heart, which left her confused and strayed. Umayr held Arunima’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Arunima smiled once again and kissed Umayr’s forehead. ‘You are my Di,’ Umayr muttered as he rested his head on Arunima’s lap, ‘and that’s your sole purpose in this forsaken world.’

The next morning, Arunima and Umayr went out a bit late. They felt heavy from last night’s dining. But they wouldn’t miss out on their daily walking routine. It was almost at the end of winter, so it was already sunny when they arrived at Ramna Park. The park was already filled with many pedestrians by the time they arrived. This disconcerted them a little, since there were too many unwavering stares this time. Of course, they tried to ignore them but the gazes fell heavy upon them.

Turning a corner in the park, Umayr stopped dead in his tracks, apparently gazing at the crooked branches of a tree. Though utterly ordinary to the eye, they gave Arunima the ominous premonition of some phantom gradually approaching. She was just about to convey this to Umayr, when she noticed his wholly vacant eyes. He abruptly collapsed to the ground and began shuddering.

Froth appeared on the corners of Umayr’s mouth, he was having a seizure. Terrified by his violently twitching body, Arunima screamed for help: ‘Save my brother! I beg of you! Please, save him!’, but her cries fell on deaf ears. The pedestrians far off dwelt only on what their eyes could see, and they saw a hijra attacking someone, someone of their own kind. Some soon rushed to the scene, eventually dragging Arunima away from Umayr’s convulsing body. 

They threw punches at her; kicked her, while others hurled stones. Arunima repeated ‘Please! Save my brother!’, but to the crowd Arunima was a persona non grata, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah and she attacked one of them. She deserved no mercy. Her forehead began to bleed. Her skin was scathed. Her gaudy Kameez was torn in places. Someone yelled, ‘You are dead, you bloody hijra,’ but it didn’t matter to her. 

She was beaten until her mind blanked, losing consciousness. The last thing she had seen was Umayr being carried away by a few people. And the last thing she muttered was his name, her brother’s name – ‘Umayr’.

Time passed by. Now raindrops fell on Arunima’s blood strewn face, waking her up with a start. A repugnant stench nauseated her, upon looking around she saw that she lay on a pile of garbage. 

Her attackers left her in the filth to die. She tried to rise, but her feet didn’t allow her. She could feel some of her shattered and broken bones. Arunima clasped her hands in a silent prayer, with such effort that it were as if she were hauling a sack of stones up a steep rocky hill. 

She may be a hijra, but today her hands were held together instead of one palm thumping on another. Her prayers had to be answered, for she was praying for Umayr, someone who unlike her, who is accepted in society, in religion and perhaps, even in eternity. 

Feeling the damp cold sludge against the grazes of her skin, Arunima began to weep. Through her tears, through her gritted teeth, and through her devastation, she kept on muttering, ‘Save him. Please…’

Arunima’s hands then let loose and thumped on the pile of garbage. Her eyelids drooped. Arunima was no more.

In a hospital bed, Umayr woke up with tears streaming down his haggard face. In the darkness of his barely conscious mind, he knew he would never see Arunima again. Pressed onto his chest, he felt the face of a weeping woman. The scent of henna told him it was his mother. ‘I’m sorry, beta,’ she mumbled, ‘please, forgive us’, Behind the bed, stood his father, rigid, but just as sorry. Umayr barely reacted, his eyes occasionally veering off towards the foggy window. 

How unusual to have rain during this time of winter, he thought to himself. Just as unusual to find someone like his Di, who may have finally found her place in this forsaken world.


AQUEB SAFWAN JASER is a Bangladeshi creative writer who appeared in an anthology titled ‘Ten Square: Hundred Word Stories From Bangladesh’ and The Elixir Magazine. Being a cinephile he also writes for High on Films. Currently, he is pursuing a degree in Marketing while working as a Content Writer.

‘How Edwin Discovered Mile End’ by Anne Chudobiak

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Copyright © 2020 by Anne Chudobiak. All rights reserved.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2020 by Kathryn Malone. All rights reserved.

‘Like a Spore’ by Larissa Andrusyshyn

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2020 by Larissa Andrusyshyn. All rights reserved.

 

‘For a Friend’ by Roxanne Claude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a humming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2020 by Roxanne Claude. All rights reserved.

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

My Uncle

 

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

2003-2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2020 by Janet Stewart. All rights reserved.

 

‘Lucky Black Boy’ by P.T. Russell

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

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

I will live and not die. Not tonight.

“Swim! Swim!”

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

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

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

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

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

Where is God?

My whole town is buried underwater.

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

My friends have probably sunk to the bottom by now.

Can they see me?

Are they proud?

I’m swimming for them too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My back and side hurt.

Does this mean that I’m alive?

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

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

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

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

We finally meet again…

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

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

 


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

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