‘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.

 

‘The Fringes’ by Vera Oleynikova

The FringesIllustration by Andres Garzon

 

In 2010, I moved into a place that nobody in their right mind would want to live in—a second-story walk-up in a crumbling building on one of the worst streets in St. Henri. It was an apartment haphazardly cobbled together from odds and ends. Leftovers from other projects became slanted paint-stained floors and grey linoleum panels where a ceiling should have been. This ceiling wasn’t entirely solid. The panels lifted up when poked. The building’s foundation was sinking. Something or someone had chewed at the walls. The people who lived here last must have had pit bulls, like everyone else on the street. My friends politely declined to visit and when I showed them pictures of my new place, they asked me if it was a squat.

“No, I pay rent,” I insisted.

My downstairs neighbours were a young, married Spanish-speaking couple and their newborn son. You could tell they were horrified by their surroundings but were too polite to say anything. Every day I watched the husband set off for English classes in the morning, with a backpack and a plastic coffee mug. He looked determined. The same toughness emitted from his wife’s face as she pushed her baby stroller up and down St. Ferdinand on her own, ignoring the yapping dogs that at any moment could have broken through the flimsy fences.

The wife never integrated with the other new mothers on the street—the ones who asked me to buy them a bottle of rum the first day I moved in. I did and watched from my balcony as they passed the bottle around while their children drew on the sidewalk in pastel chalk.

One day I watched the young couple push a twin mattress out their window. Through the same window, I watched a new queen-sized bed being assembled. They weren’t going to be staying in St. Henri for very long. They had too much aspiration for upward social mobility. You could picture them in the suburbs many years later, comfortably settled; in their backyard, with BBQ burgers and margaritas, regaling their friends and neighbours with the story of their very first mattress in Canada, and other such quirky anecdotes about slumming it on the bottom rung.

It came as no surprise that they left without saying goodbye. A French-Canadian single mother of three moved into their apartment. I don’t remember much about her. Only that I thought she was pretty and one of her children was named Brunette. Her only possession, apart from her clothes and the baby clothes, was a huge flat-screen TV. I know this because she didn’t have curtains.

My neighbours across the hall sold pot and eventually got arrested. Even so, my landlord insisted that the building consisted of “mostly students.” It was flattering that he found me so upstanding as to have to lie like that.

St. Henri doesn’t come to mind when you think of the good things about Montreal. I couldn’t tell you why I loved it there. It had nothing to do with the draw of post-collegiate poverty tourism. I’ve lived in other working-class neighbourhoods. And some sub-working-class neighbourhoods. I’ve lived in buildings with appliances in the front yards, windows that wouldn’t open, doors that stuck, landlords that were never there, neighbours who looked either frightened or frightening; where men in sneakers were always shuffling in and out and passersby looked like they hadn’t known a day of joy in their lives. That wasn’t what I was after. Nor was it the French-Canadian joie de vivre that I was so taken with. Hell, I barely even like Montreal. It’s cold and cruel and unforgiving in a small-town sort of way. Past mistakes hang in the air like a thick fog. In a larger, faster city, the bad air would have long dissipated. Your wrongdoings would be broken up and sent in a dozen different directions by the city’s massive subway system. People would have forgotten because they’d be too busy worrying about what to do with their own dirty laundry. But not in Montreal: where everyone’s so laid back and no-one’s ever too busy to point out that dumb thing you did years ago–where you wear your past like a beehive over your head.

Out of town friends ask whether there is anything there. “Is there a landmark? Something I would notice?” Well, as far as amenities go, there’s a strip club, with a sleazy dive bar adjacent. There’s a Dollarama and a pharmacy, a bank and all of that normal stuff. Maybe there is more than the usual number of futon stores. There’s a farmer’s market near the flossier quarters. More importantly, there are train tracks and memories and overdue library books I still have.

The trains brought with them a special kind of traveller; punk kids that fashioned outfits out of fur and aluminum cans and settled around the Fattal Lofts, which was a microcosm all its own. But I didn’t interact with them much, apart from picking up their empties some mornings to return for small change.

“But what’s it known for?” Factories. Factories that used to make all sorts of stuff and then stopped and now exist as is, like dinosaur carcasses, decaying beautifully. There is something peaceful about that. About being in a place where purposelessness and empty lots still exist.

They call it the working class but I didn’t know too many people who actually worked. Meaning that, in the summertime, you got the sense that somewhere someone was drinking sangria on their porch and you could probably join them if you really wanted to. There was always a sense of adventure. That something might happen. Something fun! You might meet someone who shares your views on stuff!

People kept their doors open; let you peek inside their lives. From the street, you could see tiny, well-loved kitchens or bedrooms with fleur-de-lis flags and TVs they don’t make anymore. I liked that. I liked the way it was slightly cut off from the rest of the world. It felt like living in the fringes. I liked the way the sidewalks were cracked and bumpy and uneven. It was a place where you would occasionally see a dead cat on the street. People hung their laundry outside to dry. Everywhere you looked you’d see evidence of lives being lived.

I lived there for a year. Not nearly enough time to claim it as my own. Maybe I haven’t lived in too many other places. Maybe NOLA is nice and Detroit is nice but I can’t get my shit together enough to get a passport and find out. My mom came from Toronto to help me pack the place up. My very accommodating landlord wasn’t so much concerned with cleaning the place (we both knew this was impossible) as me just getting all the stuff out of there. My mom had a real flair for throwing out my favourite things and packing up just the trash.

“This is no way for a person to live,” she observed sharply.

By the time we were done, there was so much garbage, my curb space alone couldn’t contain it. So, we started putting my trash on other people’s curbs. We snuck a little bit of garbage, just a bag here, a bag there, into everyone’s piles, until the whole street was overflowing with my garbage. My whole life spread out like that.

The next morning the garbage man diligently shoved everything into his truck. Mostly everything; throwing my old couch in with one arm. After he was done, some of the garbage was still strewn about the street. I recognized a mannequin’s leg and a plethora of pizza flyers I was supposed to deliver for a local deli, lining the sidewalks.

I moved back to suburban Toronto to live with my parents. There I was confronted by houses and people and dogs and strangers that all spoke different languages. And roofs that all looked the same. And past that suburb was one just like it, but with a different name. I no longer saw pitbulls. Not that I particularly like pit bulls. I just got used to seeing them. They are a part of the scenery that I have grown accustomed to, like the chirping of birds. In the suburbs, there were no sounds here that I recognized as familiar. The noises that I was used to were gone: the train tracks, the dogs, the elderly French-Canadian couple yelling at one another, the police sirens that made me sit straight up in the middle of the night.

Suburban dogs don’t yap or snap. They wag their tails; they obediently follow their owners. They don’t try to jump over the fences. In the suburbs, people tried very hard to be nice to me, and I tried very hard to be nice back. I made small talk with those people. I smiled and said, “thank you.” I was overly gracious with them because I didn’t care about their dreams.

I am no longer in the fringes because when you live in the fringes, it’s acceptable not to work and to drink rum in the daytime and live off of dollar store chocolate. And what’s more, I heard some kid from Fattal built a fully functioning guillotine. The welding shop on Rosa De Lima takes apprentices sometimes if you were looking for something to do. The graffitied walls of the Death House. In the fringes, I’d walk to the dep to get coffee at 8am and would end up at a bonfire that was still going. The old couple down the block who sat outside their house playing cards and drinking Coronas day in and day out. They’ve been doing this for the last 35 years and will continue to do so until their dying day. For them, the sun rises differently. More happiness is possible.

 


VERA OLEYNIKOVA is a set and costume designer, props master, carpenter and freelance writer currently living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Though Catalog, The McGill Daily, The L Magazine and online music publications.

Copyright © 2019 by Vera Oleynikova. All rights reserved.

‘Sweaty Hands’ by Jude Klaassen

I can’t feel the dish soap or the knives, I can’t hold onto plates.
All I can do is imagine fucking a pen against paper, like
11 year old genitals against couch pillows.

I can’t hold anything, I drop dishes, I drop pens,
I sit on top my fingertips
that tingle and hurt numb.

I can smell co-dependence off the couple at the bar,
but maybe it’s the dishwater still on the utensils, maybe the beer stained glasses.
In any case, she’s leaning – woman

get away from him he’s not leaning back.
The bathroom is upstairs, and the pain in the center
of your gut isn’t just a UTI.

At home she’s creating a dream state on top the length of my fingers
which I poured all my trauma into.
I’m already out and she’s pushing me further out with frantic droning about the seasons.

I tell her September’s shit, the pavement’s still lukewarm.
Wait for January, it’s iced for sweaty hands
that sweat numb everything.

I’m reconnecting with my hands in my mouth,
and down my pants sometimes.
It has a lot to do with balance.

We lie in bed, hands down our pants.
We kiss but not much else, we sleep naked,
but if we’re lucky we’ll pass out in our jeans, smelling like poutine and beer.

Instead, I tell her I can feel my muscles to my bones, which I can’t feel at all.
Instead before we sleep, I ask her to cradle my hands in hers
so I can feel her sweat instead of my own.

 


JUDE KLAASSEN is a Creative Writing student at Concordia University. They love sonnets and combining their enthusiasm for craft and writing into zines. They tend to write about bathrooms, bodies, and disconnect.

Copyright © 2019 by Jude Klaassen. All rights reserved.

‘Along the Old North Road’ by Emma Kinnear

Old North Road
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Chained-up whimpering farm dogs, Brexit signs, and lucent yellow fields slowly disappeared. Hedgerow dissipated into copses, pebble-dash farmhouses to rows of limestone cottages. It became hard to concentrate on the tale of Treasure Island once we were on the road.

‘Was it written by an ancestor?’

‘Yes, a distant one. His full name was Robert LewisBalfour Stevenson. A different branch of the same Balfour stem as us.’

No one was listening by then though. Children liked questions more than answers. The wind rose and the rain returned. Everything in the new campervan was modular, had multiple purposes, metamorphosed. Somehow, despite that, it was hard to be excited. Disjointed words were texted.

Sorry for the confusion. I’m just so muddled. Don’t think I am fit to do this. It is an idea though. Sorry.’

Accompanied earlier by a long voice message, unintelligible, between sobs. Everything had shifted, changed, roles realigned. Reincarnated. I was once a daughter. She was once a mother.

Hills rose, the endless flat fields of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and South Lincolnshire were gone. Lambs and calves hovered by their mothers, heads down amongst meadows with poppies and marigolds. Midges returned.

Sheep encaged in small metal boxes were ferried alongside us. Alice, a new vegan, glared.

Grey skies pulled back. The sun lingered above the new landscape: spruce, oak and copper birch. Flowering gorse lined verges. It was early summer and there was so much roadkill: doe, pheasants, foxes, some no longer identifiable, just the bloody innards. A chap I once knew picked up all roadkill, filling his many freezers. Home-grown vegetables, roadkill, and self-caught fish  were his diet.  Dead human bodies are treated with such composure, restricted carefully by legislation, kept cool with the chemically-induced appearance of life until lawful disposure. Yet other animals’ bodies can be hung from butcher’s windows, pickled, stuffed, turned on rotaries, wrapped in freezers, or just abandoned.

Leaning on each other, the children slept while my husband listened to his audiobook. There was no one to ask—did it matter—my anthropomorphism of everything?

An ewe mourns her dead lamb. She was unable to leave his side, curled around his body, lamenting, refusing to eat. She might have never moved, had his body not been pulled from her. When my old mottled guinea pigs lifelong companion died, she cleaned his body, licking him from head to paw, then laid beside him. Hours later, Guinea would not rise; eventually she hid. She would not eat and died soon after.

The signs for Sunderland passed. Briefly I lived in that proud north-eastern city, developed an obsession there for running. Ice, darkness, or sea fret were no deterrence. The ritual was ten miles, thrice a week, along a desolate coastal path—around coves, sea arches, chalky bays, and lighthouses.

Great-great grandfather, George Thomas Balfour-Kinnear, boarded a while at the Grange School in Sunderland.  At noon on 2nd October 1845, a procession of Grange boys were led over abandoned quarries and around what became a coastal park with anchors and driftwood, down to the sandy seashore. You can imagine them chattering, whistling, the sun in their eyes. George Thomas wanted to bathe that day too but was held back on account of failing to finish his Latin homework.  All along the North Sea the currents quite suddenly shift as the tide turns. Their power could drag you back, out, tear the sand away from underneath, knock you to the ground. You forget its strength when floating, staring up to the evening sky, or tugging the children around in a dingy. Likewise, on that day in 1845, all was calm and warm, until the sky darkened, the gentle waves reformed. One of George Thomas’ friends struggled and four others, including the boy’s brother, and their master, tried in vain to rescue him: all five drowned.

Angel of the North, Gormley’s memorial statute, glimmered ahead, momentarily stretching, desperately, above the trees. We stared at her bronze-like beauty. Built with steel from the closed-down pithead baths where coal miners washed before returning home.  Soon she too was gone. So many times I had visited her: built snowmen beside her, sat in the rain eating,  touched her metallic skin,  watched the sunset. Then we moved away, forgot her.  Now we did not even stop.

Off the main road, small squat trees leaned eastwards in the saline breeze, reached towards the sea. Two old men chatted, fiddling with their cufflinks. Both wore faded suits:  one grey, one black. Over the stone humped bridge and into Alnmouth, multi-coloured houses curved around the horseshoe bay. We thought so many times about living there, viewed several houses and never moved. That was long ago, it makes me feel mournful to return, like seeing an old lover, all those unfinished or unformed memories.  Why didn’t we move there?

Parked up, we headed for the beach, wood-fire smoke curled up, sedated us. Onto the dunes, we removed our shoes. There was an acrid stench of salty fish. Sea coal scattered across the beautiful expanse of sands, black shiny lumps from closed mines. Quickly the tide came in, the estuary filled with such velocity, red flags fluttered, the sea surged, and the landscape changed shape. St Cuthbert’s cross on the hilltop, where the estuary meets the sea, stretched further away. Winds rose. The children, who had been lulled into a mesmeric pensiveness, sharpened again, lamented their hunger. Bickered.

Inside the daytime café and nighttime bistro, all was as it always was: prints of the village and surrounding Northumberland covered the walls, the sideboard was brimming with rich four-layer cakes, the waitresses were ever young, fresh-faced and friendly,  the menu still had gunpowder and blue lady tea.

It was time to send mother another message. ‘How are you now?’ She was new to texting and disliked it. Likewise, the first time Granny used the internet, she said it was, ‘Astounding. Simply astounding,’ yet looked away mournfully towards the view she had always known, the heather across the moors.

‘What are we doing tomorrow, Mum?’

‘We’re going to Melrose to see the Abbey.’

‘Why?’

‘Another ancestor, Saint Waltheof, great-grandson of Earl Siward, step-son of King David, he was the founding Abbot of that Abbey. Imagine that, a family saint!’

Waltheof’s Cistercian life of self-inflicted austerity, near starvation, sleeplessness (rising at 2am), devoutness, often solitude or silence, led to hallucinations which exalted him, apparently, to see Jesus impaled on his wooden cross with nails pierced through his flesh and the crown of thorns upon his head. Corpus Christi.

Our food arrived and we start to talk about what to cook for supper and about what they’d do the day I was to visit Edinburgh. They didn’t moan about any of it.  Last holiday we went to Orkney by train and boat; next holiday we’re planning to return to Scotland. I wanted to justify myself, reiterate my interest in our ancestral lands, as a way of addressing ownership and land justice. Remind them of the authenticity of this, backed up by academic research on land rights and years of work for charities in  housing law, mental health law, running a law centre and helping out at the foodbank, but it all sounded pious. They knew the dirty secret too: there is an inner part, ashamedly, which almost relishes in such illustrious ancestry, which whispers. ‘I have direct lineal ancestry from the ancient baronial family of the Balfours of Muquhanny! I have direct lineage back to Robert the Bruce and William the Conqueror!’

It was recorded by Burke, in numerous other books and in dusty archives. This mantra gives courage when nervous, allowing me to hold my head up high. It shouldn’t be true, but it is. My beautiful, auburn-haired son examined my face, reminded me – ‘This is a holiday.’ To show I remembered, we bought some takeaway cake; yes, it is a holiday!

A text message came back, ‘Bit better today. Doctor said to stop the meds.’ Despite beta-blockers, she had a blood pressure reading off the scales. Her young doctor put down the monitor, removed his glasses and rubbed his dark eyes, she relayed. Unable to say anything, apparently, for quite a while, pondering what to do, what to say, then he looked to her as though really, she should be dead. Mother reassured him, made him feel better, it was okay, it was just white coat hypertension. Everything was just absolutely fine. Doctors, though, can be anxious; lives rest in their balance, or so it must seem, so the dose was rapidly and drastically increased. Quickly, Mother became utterly disorientated, confused. Many years ago, a pharma psychiatrist explained that increasing dosages beyond a said point drastically increases the side effects whilst only producing limited positive results. Prescribed way beyond the tipping point, Mother likewise suffered extreme side effects. My daughter tugged my arm.

‘You’re not even listening. Do you care more about your dead relatives than us?’

The sun was low, I lifted her up, though she had suddenly grown so tall and feisty, her golden hair curled down to her waist.  My son stood back to back with me, he had outgrown me. Less than a week ago, I was the tallest.

‘You’ll have to have another baby. We aren’t babies any longer,’ they laughed.

It was hard to pinpoint when that happened.

‘Have a baby, please,’ they insisted. ‘Three children wouldn’t be too many. Go on, please Mum, have three children.’

I corrected my son and daughter, ‘No, it would be four children. Not three.’

They were confused.  Swifts dived between the dunes; sails chimed in the breeze. I whispered, That would be four children. Luminescent blue forget-me-nots and cow parsley rose up the hillside. We all paused, stared in different directions: to the meadows, out to high tide,  up to St Cuthbert’s cross,  west, towards the sailing club. It never got easier. We had three children. One died. My eldest daughter died at birth, fully formed with beautiful dark red hair, tiny fingers and toes, a snub nose, wrapped up in a patchwork blanket which had taken nine months to knit. A decade on, the words still barely came out, fell to a murmur, even after years of counselling. Time makes it easier to forget for longer periods but then it hits, drags you down, pulls you under. Everyone said we should tell our living children, so we did, but it sticks in the gullet each time,  sounds wrong and harsh. My nails dug into skin; the saline air made my eyes water.

Back in the campervan we clambered to our seats—onwards, on our ancestral trail to Scotland.

 


EMMA KINNEAR trained as a lawyer but has worked in the charity sector within housing and mental health law and at Toynbee Hall’s legal centre in east London.

She has published academic and professional papers internationally but after recently finishing a creative writing course is re-focusing. After travelling the length and breadth of the UK, she has settled in Norwich with her two children and novelist husband.

Copyright © 2019 by Emma Kinnear. All rights reserved.

‘A Pleasant Valley Sunday’ by Lorraine Kiidumae

Valley Sunday

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, all right then,” Donna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


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

Copyright © 2019 by Lorraine Kiidumae. All rights reserved.

‘The Divan Doesn’t Lie’ by Marjorie Silverman

In your waiting, the
weight of (my) history
weight of (my) body
weight of you
behind (me)
silent

I want to kill.
I want to kill the
part of me that
wants to kill.
I want to be wantless,
weightless

Instead. I
bury. I
suffocate. While
orange flowers
bloom outside
your window.

 


MARJORIE SILVERMAN is a former Montrealer now based in Ottawa. She is an emerging writer whose work has been published in The Maynard and Bywords. She is currently working on a book-length poetry manuscript. Marjorie is also a professor of social work at the University of Ottawa.

Copyright © 2019 by Marjorie Silverman. All rights reserved.

‘exercise 1’ by Cayden Johnson

no words exist in a room without boundaries
in the sense that people breathe underwater
a large open window lets daylight into the white room
transparent fabric hangs a metre in front of the glass
the fabric is not a blind
the words are not a line
they live inside the anti-sentence
in messy vers libre no one respects
inside the cement floor are letters
you can bend down to pick them up
but will notice they slither away to form faces
tiny images descend into the hard surface
on the sheet stained with sweat
appears one strung-together phrase
plucked from a voice that allows us to understand
what barriers we want to cross
discussions important to our time
the fabric does not consult google
letters move up its sheer texture like kids on a rope
this energy spells while tongues choose their own direction
return to where the letters came through quick-sand cement
or crawl out the window like a high-rise burglar
with the wisdom of sage and the innovation of consequence

 


CAYDEN JOHNSON practices experimental poetry and photography. She is an MFA candidate at the Ontario College of Art and Design University. Her poems have appeared on various art show ephemera. She currently works as a teaching assistant and freelance book editor.

Copyright © 2019 by Cayden Johnson. All rights reserved.

‘A Teaspoon of Water’ by Daniel Holden

Teaspoon of Water

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

I took a step forward and stopped.

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

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

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

“Or she.”

Katherine raised her eyebrows at me and smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see it!” said Katherine.

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

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

“Pretty beautiful, eh?” Katherine said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, loons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine touched my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked heartbroken.

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

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

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

“I did see the lake first after all.”

 


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

Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Holden. All rights reserved.

‘Empath’ by Brian Michael Barbeito

Empath

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

Sun.

But not for the boy.

Not anymore.

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

Darkness took the boy.

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

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

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

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

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

But I know the boy is dead.

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

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

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

 


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

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

‘Shiners’ by Sacha Bissonnette

Kinder peeks around tablecloth
galaxy gazing
revels at the mechanics of
a Lazy Susan
coming of age
“the world is so big,” he whispers
his travelling tooth
eagerly waiting to be
spit shined
bundled up
and pillow talked

a strap of his book bag snaps
weighed down by corner scorpions
rum rangers
chipping dominos
the other remains strong
swings across his shoulder
swings like Sunday palms

his hands are hers
inked curry yellow
mango nectar rich
stuck to handwritten recipes
and first lessons

he sits alone now
eats good
one gold silver tooth
smiles at the crooked horizon

 


SACHA BISSONNETTE is a poet and short story writer from Ottawa, Ca. He was born and raised in Ottawa to a Trinidadian mother and a French-Canadian father. He received an honorable mention for his poem ‘Acheron’ in Carleton University’s poetry competition and recently published poems ‘Rigorous’ out of New Orleans. He is also assisting as a dramaturge on two local plays.

Copyright © 2019 by Sacha Bissonnette. All rights reserved.