This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

 

Painted Gloria © Gloria Macher

 

I come from a thousand light-years beyond the dark twilight of Earth, a planet today corroded by ambition and destroyed by so many shambles and fights over territorial and ethnic powers and other foolishness of the human species. Pure greed. Pure lack of humanity.

They have sent me to compete with other creatures of the cosmos, given the great exotic beauty of my colours, which like rare diamonds, shine with purity and perfection not seen in these parts of the universe. I feel very flattered but sometimes I regret having covered myself with so many colours from our multiple earthly histories. But they were there, exposed in the Global Market of New York headquarters in Battery Park in front of what was once an island that was said to represent the freedom of the people. The truth is that I stole them when the end approached, and had to hide them discreetly on my body when I ran to grab one of the few spaceships that left La Guardia towards the Polaroid Station, in Black Hole VI. I did not think, at that moment, that I would carry the irritating weight of history and that I would become an astral circus monkey.

I have as my eyes the true intense ultramarine blue, flattered by the Greeks and Romans, which appealed to the imagination of the Old World and was coveted dearly by Dutch painters while the great European maritime powers plundered the shores of Africa and the Americas. It has nothing to do with the synthetic blue indigo discovered during the industrial revolution when England, the Netherlands, Germany and France decided, under penalty of death, to prohibit Portugal from exporting its indigo derived from an Asian plant hallucinated with blue. This blue that I have is so intense and unique that I receive the daily visit of a creature from planet ZX2. Every time it makes eye contact with me, it throws sparks of luminous quasars.

At least it is more reserved than YU4, who I think is fascinated by the golden Indian yellow of my skin. The creature has no idea that in my land, this pigment was obtained, according to certain stories, from the urine of Indian cows fed exclusively on tender leaves of mango trees. Others said it came from Persia or China, but not from India. What is certain is that because of the striking yellow colour, it became a favorite of alchemists in both China and the West in the quest to obtain gold while destroying civilizations. Be that as it may, the pigment I put on before being exiled is guaranteed to exist for more than 100 years, as is that of Rembrandt’s watercolours shining in the museums of my land of yesteryear.

I think what also catches YU4’s attention, because of the aura I see shining around its head, is the scarlet red with which I painted my fingers. Traditionally extracted from the blood of aphids, it became famous around the world. The first evidence of its use is attributed to the Sumerians. It was also used in ancient times in Egypt, Greece and the Near East. It became more expensive than gold at the time of the Spanish conquests, when Spain decided to keep secret the origin of its carmine.

When they discovered that it was also found in the mealybugs that lived as parasites in the cactus of México’s nopal, the monopoly broke down after violent red wars. The supply from other countries in South America, and from Indonesia and the Canary Islands emerged to cover the beautiful fabrics, paint, clothing and makeup from around the world in this sumptuous, dark red beauty that is even eaten in ice cream and treats. Without really knowing, but with great intuition, I think it is the latter that attracts my daily visitor who is always putting something into what seems to be a mouth.

I always try to cover my feet, painted fuchsia and magenta, so as not to cause visitors to faint. I know that it is the pièce de résistance in this body that magically does not age since I left Earth’s orbit. I think that the mixture of the colourless pigment of my skin with the colours I stole has helped to lacquer them and therefore resist time and light. But hey, I am neither a chemist nor a doctor. I only know that this magenta weighs on me a lot when I walk. It must be because of the battle of Magenta, between France and Austria. So much blood was spilled that the battlefield was incredibly reddish. Now it is so embedded in my toes that there are times I need to be transported by a crane when they move me from one universal cosmic exhibit to the other.

How lucky I was to not steal the “mummy powder” to paint my dark brown hair. The historical weight would be immense when I think with what impudence – and without the slightest archeological scruple – they mixed the bone meal and embalming bitumen of the Egyptian mummies during the Renaissance to obtain the desired colour. The obsession reached the point of using it in ointments, syrups and potions to cure diseases. The demand was so great that the Egyptian mummies were replaced by European mummies. I had very good judgment when deciding on a black pigment of charcoal. It doesn’t cause so much agitation but it integrates very well with the rest of my colourful body.

What I show very little is my tongue painted with golden powder that China distributed throughout the world, ignoring the threats of the United States. What I have is a high-calibre powder pigment and not those poisonous ones that circulated before the World Trade Organization based in Geneva put a serious halt on trade worldwide. I know that the beauty of my tongue is as if it were an exquisite traditional painting of the magnificent Hua Yen, but even more intense since it reveals a brightness never imagined. Worth shocking all galactic visitors.

I am hoping to participate very soon in the highest competition, organized by the Globalizing Galactic Association, where I will stick out my tongue and thus be able to successfully retire and lead a healthier and more serene life. Far away from these stressful whirlpools of representing a cosmic territory that has already disintegrated for not knowing how to live in peace and accept each other’s differences. The colours have already served their time. So have I.

 

 

 

 

Street in Mumbai © Rana Bose


Background:
Sharad, a rookie reporter, forgets the fine distinction between journalism and voyeurism, in trying to uncover the hidden life of Sanjana Pardi, an activist fighting for the rights of Bombay’s destitute.

 

1987

I asked Sanjana why she used her father’s car when it was clear that he would not be supportive of her concerns. “Sharad, my purpose in life is to redistribute my father’s wealth equitably among the poor people of India,” she said. I didn’t detect any sarcasm in her voice. She looked at me to gauge my reaction. I didn’t react. Had I reacted she would have continued with her irritating bombast.

I was the only journalist she had called to cover her protest march against the city’s municipal administration for not supplying a water connection to the Bhima Nagar slum colony next to the Andheri flyover. Sanjana had formed the Bhima Nagar Slum People’s Association in 1982 to prevent the demolition of slums. Her struggle had ensured that the slum wasn’t demolished and now she was demanding piped water connection for the people of the slum.

Sanjana Pardi was charismatic and had an earthy appeal. In her early to mid-thirties, she was thin, short, sprightly. The most prominent part of her face was her wiry hair – dishevelled and tousled. Her hooded eyes were sparkly, with a hint of mischief in them. Her nose was straight and pointed as an arrow and gave her face a sharp profile. Her chin was prominent and jutted out.

Sanjana dressed as an archetype, almost a cliché of an activist. She usually wore khadi kurtas and jeans and carried a jhola. The only thing missing was a pair of Kolhapuri chappals… she preferred Bata sandals.

She grabbed my arm and led me through the gathering of people from the slums. “Look at these people, Sharad, they are human beings. You journalists call them slum dwellers. It is a description that makes them faceless and reduces them to a mere statistic,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the din of the restless crowd that surrounded us.

Sanjana climbed a makeshift platform that had been raised and began addressing the crowd in Hindi. She had a mesmerizing effect on the people. It was not what she said but the way she said it that had her audience enthralled. She became one with the people by speaking their language, Bombay’s street lingo: slangy, colloquial, and peppered with gaalis and jokes.

After the brief speech, she walked among the people, joining her hands in a Namaste, identifying most of them by their names, hugging women, kissing a child, warmly greeting men, but from a distance.

“You are building yourself to be a politician,” I said.

“You are too cynical. These are my people.”

I laughed, a tad sardonically. That annoyed her.

“Sharad, you should know the difference between politicians and activists. In the past they were the same. Gandhi and Ambedkar were both politicians and activists. But in our times, politicians are people who rise from the grassroots and reach an exalted position. They first make a lot of money and then occasionally think of solving people’s problems,” she said.

“And so, how are activists different?” I asked.

“Generally, activists are people who have no aspirations to become politicians; they are educated, from the middle class, and genuinely interested in people,” she said.

“You are wealthy,” I said.

“I would call it an accident of birth, but it isn’t,” she said, sounding enigmatic.

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, that is a long story, Sharad. Let us keep that for some other day,” she said, as she asked her driver to take me to my tabloid’s office in Colaba.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Sanjana fascinated and intrigued me. I knew her professionally. It would have seemed that we were friends, but I was a journalist in need of stories, and she was an up-and-coming activist in need of media exposure. She was the rising star in Bombay, an articulate champion of the dispossessed, fighting for the right causes. I was a nobody, a newcomer reporter who had yet to make a mark in the field. She preferred to talk to me and not to other journalists, probably because I shared her ideals and believed in her. I was always in awe of her. I was eager to know more about her, without seeming inquisitive.

She was hotelier Dev Pardi’s daughter and would potentially inherit a hospitality empire that was growing exponentially. I also knew that Sanjana was living with Franklin Robinson, a civil liberties lawyer, who helped her in her human rights work. Many speculated (and a few knew) about the nature of their relationship, but Sanjana had told me that Franklin was her “partner in life and work.”

I wanted to know more about Sanjana, but it didn’t feel right to ask her. I knew I was being intrusive, but I justified my curiosity by telling myself that I was a journalist pursuing a story about the hidden life of a public figure. My chief reporter readily agreed when I suggested that I do a profile on Sanjana. She – my chief reporter – was a waste of a human being, clueless most of the time, but liked to call herself a feminist. She was delighted to have a profile of a young and upcoming firebrand woman leader.

I checked our tabloid’s archives on Dev Pardi, but the clippings were mostly about corporate information. There was nothing substantial about his personal life. The only sliver of personal history was about his humble origins – before shifting his base to Dubai, he had lived in Alankar Apartments in Andheri, and according to a recent profile published in a business magazine, he still had an apartment in the building. I decided to follow that lead. I called Sanjana’s office to check her whereabouts and found that she was in Delhi for a meeting with the Labour Board. I thought that was good, seeing that she wouldn’t be around and wouldn’t realize – at least not immediately – that I was digging up her past.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Alankar Apartments in Andheri East was an old building across the Western Express Highway, next to Mohan Studio, which was being torn apart to make way for a housing complex. At the building’s gate, I saw an elderly man carrying a cloth bag stuffed with vegetables. He was wearing a transparent white linen shirt (called pehran) and a white pyjama – standard clothes a Gujarati man wore at home. I noticed that he had a traditional religious woven cord strung across his shoulder. He eyed me suspiciously.

“Who do you want to meet?” he asked, speaking to me in English.

“Dev Pardi,” I said.

The man looked at me sternly. “He hasn’t lived here in decades,” he said, in a diction that revealed both his education and prosperity. He looked at me uncertainly. After a moment’s hesitation, he said: “Come with me. I am Rajendra Vasavada.”

“Hello Mr. Vasavada. I am Sharad,” I said.

“Sharad what?”

“Just Sharad, sir. I don’t believe in using my surname because it reveals my caste and unfairly categorizes me.”

“You must be from the lower caste, then,” he said, looking at me in a manner I found judgemental.

“What if I am? Will that make a difference in your attitude toward me?”

“No. I am a proud follower of the Mahatma,” he said, offering his hand. We shook hands and smiled. He led me inside the building and we climbed up a flight of stairs. I followed him down a corridor and to his house.

“Let me apologize to you,” he said as we sat down. “People from my generation always give their full names – first and last names. But then, in those days, things were different,” he said.

“The situation is no different now, sir. It is just that I have never been comfortable with caste identities.”

“Yes, but let us not get sidetracked into that debate,” Mr. Vasavada said, sounding amiable. “Tell me, why do want to meet Dev Pardi? You seem sensibly well-informed to know that he wouldn’t be living here. He is one of the richest men in India. Why would he live amidst such squalor?”

(Old-world decency compelled Rajendra Vasavada to admit a mistake and carry on the conversation unfazed, with charming affability.)

“Mr. Vasavada, I am a journalist, and I am working on a news story about Dev Pardi’s life before he became who he became,” I said.

“Everyone calls me Rajendra Bhai.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“He is a noble soul,” Rajendra Bhai said, becoming pensive. He looked at me intently and explained: “He saved the life of an infant by adopting her when her parents died.”

“You mean Sanjana Pardi?”

“Yes. It is not known to the public and I don’t think you should reveal it, either,” Rajendra Bhai replied, sounding anxious. I noticed that he was completely bald. His narrow eyes were sharp and hadn’t aged. He had a thin moustache that had turned white, and he had Mickey Mouse ears. His hands moved energetically as he spoke, and his voice was a deep baritone.

“I know Sanjana, and I came in search for her roots,” I said.

Rajendra Bhai was all perked up when he heard this and looked at me inquiringly.

“She hinted that Dev Pardi is not her father.”

Rajendra Bhai did not speak but his expression changed from being politely condescending to guardedly alert. His eyes, which periodically danced and darted around the room, now steadied, and he gazed at me intently. After a pause that didn’t seem to end and during which I cleared my throat many times, the last one loudly, Rajendra Bhai also cleared his throat.

“How long did Dev Pardi live here… in this building?” I asked.

“He was born here, and he left this building when he got a job in Umbergoan to manage a resort… That was about three decades ago,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“How long was he here?”

“Two decades, yes,” he said.

“Did you know him well?”

“Yes, we are friends. We went to the same school and played cricket in the railway yard behind our building.”

“How did he become so successful?” I asked.

“People say hard work makes fortunes – hard work and luck. In Dev’s case it was being at the right place at the right time,” he said. Then, having realized that he was being far too candid for his own good, he suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, “If you want to know more about this matter, go and talk to Datta Moray.”

“The politician? How is he connected to this?” I asked.

“Talk to him and you will find out. And don’t tell either him or Sanjana that I told you to do so.” He got up from the chair and signalled an end to the conversation.

I returned to the office and delved into Datta Moray’s clippings file. He was a legislator in the state assembly from Dombivili, then a distant suburb, now a part of Bombay, the bustling megapolis that begins on the edge of the Arabian Sea and never seems to end. Moray had been re-elected four times. I called his office and requested his assistant to schedule an appointment with him at his party office in Bombay. The legislator’s assistant was delighted that a journalist wanted to meet his boss and scheduled the meeting for the next afternoon. He gave me a lot of information about his boss, none of which was relevant to Sanjana or Dev Pardi. I was not interested in the achievements of Datta Moray as a “leader with a mass following.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Datta Moray had a thick black moustache and paan-stained lips. His white hair matched the linen kurta pyjama he wore. He was in his late 50s or early 60s. His eyes were lined with kohl. A thick gold chain hung around his neck. He wiped his face with a small white towel but continued to sweat profusely. He smiled as he took me into his opulent office. He sat on a plush chair upholstered in white faux leather. His table was made of wood and glass. It had no papers on it and the only prominent object was a green-coloured telephone. His assistant brought two cups of tea and a plate of biscuits. Datta immediately began to sip his tea, making a loud, slurping sound with every sip.

“My assistant told me that you wanted to talk to me for your newspaper,” he said.

“I want to know more about the relationship between Sanjana and Dev Pardi,” I said. His face instantaneously transformed from easy geniality to a menacing scowl. He dropped the half-eaten biscuit into the waste bin below his table.

“I don’t have time for all this,” he said, and got up.

“Datta Saab, please. I am not going to do any report on this subject. I just want to know what exactly their relationship is because Sanjana hinted that she is not Dev Pardi’s daughter,” I said, speaking rapidly.

I don’t know what made him stop in his tracks and he looked at me disdainfully.

“You journalists don’t have any respect for other people’s lives. Sanjana is not a film star that you should be snooping around to dig up dirt about that girl’s personal life,” Datta said.

“I am merely checking the veracity of what she hinted.”

“And who told you to talk to me?”

“Rajendra Vasavada from Alankar Apartments, but he told me not to tell you that he was the one who suggested it,” I said, trying to sound both earnest and abject.

Datta walked back and sat on the chair. His demeanour changed back to being amiable.

“That old man will always be a troublemaker,” he said. He looked at me intently and after a pause, added, “Sanjana is my niece. But before you put this or anything else in the newspaper, please check with her. She doesn’t want anyone to know that I am her uncle. She finds me embarrassing,” he said, and looked at me intently to gauge my reaction.

Stupefied, I gaped at him.

Speaking slowly, Datta said, “Dev Pardi is not Sanjana’s father. If you want to know more, bring Sanjana with you and come and meet me with her. Or talk to Dev Pardi.”

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

I had reached a dead end. The only way forward was to talk to Sanjana because it was impossible to establish contact with Dev Pardi. I couldn’t afford to make a long-distance call, or trunk call, as it was called back then; my tabloid wouldn’t pay for it. The only way I was ever going to find out more was to talk to Sanjana. I was certain she would be furious to find out that I was snooping around. Left without a choice, I called Sanjana the evening after I met Datta Moray.

“Sure, come over now if you want. I have just returned from Delhi, and I have a remarkable story for you,” she said.

“Sanjana, I don’t want a story right now, I want to talk about you,” I said. I heard her breathe heavily and then she asked, “What about me?”

“I have met Rajendra Vasavada and Datta Moray,” I said.

There was a brief silence on the other end and then Sanjana shrieked, “You bastard! You fucking jerk, what the fuck do you think you are doing? My personal life is none of your goddamn business, you demented freak.” She hung up before I could say anything.

Her reaction frightened me. I sat numbly by the phone for some time, not sure what to do, and then went home feeling morose and guilty. I began writing a letter to Dev Pardi, explaining to him my desire to know the truth. I made a carbon copy of it. It was a short letter, where I introduced myself and briefly explained my quest to know the truth about his relationship with Sanjana. I said that I didn’t plan to use the information in any news report. The next morning, I dropped the letter at Dev Pardi’s corporate headquarters and mailed the carbon copy to Sanjana.

I began working on other assignments, trying to forget my pursuit of Sanjana’s personal life. I met Franklin at the labour court a couple of days later, and he gave me a knowing sort of a smile. I didn’t dare to ask him anything and waved at him half-heartedly. He waved back, didn’t seem eager to talk, and walked away into the lawyers’ room.

A couple of days later, my colleague told me that Sanjana had called and left a message for me to call her back. I did so immediately.

“Come over this evening if you are free. I am having a get-together of friends,” she said, sounding amiable.

When I reached her place in Santacruz, Sanjana and Franklin were waiting for me in the living room. They took me to the terrace where a group of people sat stiffly. I saw Rajendra Bhai, Datta Moray, and another elderly couple. It took me some time to figure out that the man was Dev Pardi. He looked smaller and paler than his photographs. I presumed that the woman was Dev Pardi’s wife. I looked at them hesitantly.

“Come on in,” Sanjana said, her voice betraying her unease. Pointing at Dev Pardi and the woman with him, she said, “My dad and mom.”

I greeted them with a Namaste, and sat down on a chair. Dev Pardi and Sanjana’s mother were sitting on a large couch; Rajendra Bhai and Datta Moray were seated on another smaller couch. Sanjana handed me a glass of orange juice and returned to a small stool. From the fourth-floor terrace, I could see the slow-moving traffic.

“Let me not beat around the bush,” she said. “After I got your letter that you wrote to my dad, I thought long and hard about the nature of my relationship with my dad and mom. I spoke to Franklin and Rajendra Chachu. Datta Mamu also called me,” Sanjana added, but then didn’t seem to know what to say and looked at Franklin and Dev for support. Franklin held her in his arms.

“I told Sanjana to tell you everything,” Dev Pardi said.

“He was probably scared of a scandal,” Rajendra Bhai said, and guffawed.

“I wasn’t going to write about it,” I said, softly.

“Yes, Sanjana said so, but I don’t trust the media,” Dev Pardi said with effortless candour. “I don’t want people to jump to any conclusions, especially the wrong ones,” he added.

“Sanjana is Dev’s and Urmi’s adopted daughter,” Rajendra Bhai said, interrupting Dev Pardi, who was getting agitated.

“I gathered that much after I spoke to Datta Moray and you,” I said.

“You journalists should learn to mind your own business,” Datta Moray said, his voice rising slightly, unable to conceal his anger. Dev nodded vigorously in agreement. Datta wasn’t quite finished yet and added, “And this is a personal matter and has nothing to do with what Dev, Sanjana or I do in our public life.”

“OK, let us not turn this into a media ethics debate. We have all gathered here to present Sharad with the facts, so let us just do that,” Franklin said calmly and looked at Sanjana. She had recovered her poise.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

“Sharad, my biological parents Ghanshyam and Manjula were star-crossed lovers. They were neighbours in Alankar Apartments, where my real parents Dev and Urmi also lived, as did Rajendra Chachu and, of course, Datta Mamu, who is my biological mother Manjula’s brother,” Sanjana said, all in one breath, and then heaved a huge, almost interminable sigh, as if she had gotten something heavy off her mind.

“Please remember, I said my biological parents and my real parents. For some children, the real parents are not their biological parents,” she said, looking intensely at me. Then she held Franklin’s hand, again seeking his support.

Datta took over the narrative and came straight to the point: “Manjula and Ghanshyam fell in love, but their parents wouldn’t agree to their plan to get married because Ghanshyam was a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, and Manjula was a Kunbi from Maharashtra. So, with Rajendra’s help, they eloped and got married. They lived with Rajendra’s aunt in Pune for a year or so. Manjula died because of some complications during Sanjana’s birth.”

“Ghanshyam was distraught, and the next day walked in front of a train,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“He blamed me for my mother’s death,” Sanjana said, in a low, soft voice.

“No, he didn’t,” Rajendra Bhai said.

“In any case, Rajendra Chachu spoke to Dev and Urmi about adopting me, and they were delighted to do so,” Sanjana said.

“But we made the mistake of not telling her that she had been adopted,” Urmi said, speaking for the first time.

“Because we wanted her to be our daughter, not an adopted one, but she discovered it accidentally a few years ago when she met Datta at a public event,” Dev said.

“I was only trying to make her realize that she was my blood,” Datta said, sounding apologetic.

“That was a fine way to do so,” Sanjana retorted at a high pitch. “You blackmailed me into submission. I couldn’t fight you publicly after you told me you were my uncle – my mother’s brother,” Sanjana said.

I was in the thick of a full-blown family drama, and not following everything that was being said.

Franklin sensed my confusion and helpfully intervened. He said, “Sanjana was fighting the Maharashtra government on the Adivasi people’s right to their land and opposing a highway construction near Dahanu. Datta was supporting the highway as it would connect the vegetable market to the farmers. And just when it seemed that the government would agree to Sanjana’s demand and realign the highway, Datta came to meet us. He told Sanjana about Manjula and Ghanshya, then asked her to pull back from the agitation and help her uncle.”

“That hit me hard, and I withdrew from the agitation,” Sanjana said, softly.

“I was merely trying to explain to her the benefits of the highway,” Datta said, again sounding apologetic, but his deceit wasn’t lost on anyone.

“Ha!” Dev exclaimed, and Urmi put her hand on his to restrain him.

“I confronted my dad and mom, and they were forced to admit the truth. I dropped everything that I was doing to learn about my truth,” Sanjana said. “I went to Alankar Apartments, only to learn from Rajendra Chachu that Ghanshyam’s parents had left the building almost at once after my father ended his life, and they probably returned to Allahabad. Datta Mamu took me to meet his and my mother’s mother – Aaji  – who was overjoyed to see me and wouldn’t let me go from her bear hug,” Sanjana said, tears streaming down her face as she held on tightly to Franklin.

I was with the family for a couple of hours before Sanjana and Franklin dropped me home in her car. We didn’t speak during the ride. I sent her flowers and a thank-you note a day later.

 

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

 

Note: “Activist” is part of a collection of linked stories entitled Faith, which Mayank Bhatt is preparing for publication.

 

 

 

Zoom interview, December 9, 2020

 

Introduction

When Sáasil Uj was five years old, she was asked to craft a short story for a writing contest in school. Her uncle had just hunted a deer, something that in the Maya tradition of the Yucatan peninsula can be done whenever this revered animal crosses one’s path in the cornfields right before daybreak, with the first rays of the sun.

Sáasil was staying at her grandmother’s, where she recalls climbing some huge boulders in order to get a better view of the farm. The crickets were singing loudly, and the stars were still shining bright.

Sáasil didn’t know how to write at the time, so she told the story to María, her mother, in a combination of Mayan and Spanish, and then both of her parents helped her transcribe it.

Sáasil’s grandparents communicated in Mayan, but her mother only learned this language at the age of 30, after she met Sáasil’s father. Hilario is a researcher and professor of the Yucatecan Mayan language. He is convinced that a language dies when it is not spoken,* but also that it can be brought back to life within two generations. What he calls Linguistic Revitalization or Language Revival is actually the subject of his PhD thesis; and more importantly still, it is both a lifestyle and a passion that begins in their own household.

Language in this context is of course more than words. Along with the language, it is the Maya world that comes back to life. The Maya words, understandings and meanings for love—in yaakunech, a yaakumen—are closer to “I hurt you, you hurt me,” implying that to love is to live in one’s own and the other’s pain. As a matter of fact, in order to fall in love, you have to sacrifice a hummingbird.

You can feel the parents’ pride when they describe how Sáasil Uj reads stories to her little siblings. Because there aren’t enough books printed in Mayan, she performs an empirical act of interpretation, reading in Spanish and storytelling in Mayan. In her spare time, she also teaches Mayan to one of her cousins, and the Maya names of the deer in the story are actually inspired by the names of her dogs.

At the time of the interview, the family was still undecided about their new puppy’s name. Hilario insists they call her ha (“water” in Mayan), but Sáasil Uj wants to name her Chiquitita (“Tiny”) after the dog’s late grandmother.

 

Zoom interview, December 9, 2020

 

The Little Deer and the Tiny Star

By Sáasil Uj Chi Xool, María Reneyda Xool Yam, and Hilario Chi Canul
Translated by Maya Khankhoje

Once upon a time there was a deer called Chan Kéej (Little Deer). He was very dear to all his siblings. He was very curious and very naughty. He liked to poke his nose around in different places and find out new things.

Every day when Yuum K’iin (Father Sun) spread out his hands to kiss the earth and let his round face peek out over the tree tops, he would see Chan Kéej playing hide-and-seek with his siblings: Sak Xikin (White Ear), Sa’anjo’ol (Grizzly Head) and Chak Mo’ol (Red Claw).

Chan Kéej used to wake up very early to say hello to his friend Yuum K’iin. As soon as he slid off his hammock, he would run out the door and jump up and down. He’d then start walking along the sak bej (white road) that goes all the way to the spot where Yuum K’iin appears. He’d keep on walking towards the place where the tractor had dumped the biggest rocks. He would climb on the stones until he reached the reddish flint stone, his favourite rock. There he would sit down to stare at the lak’in (east). He’d gently kiss the horizon without breathing in the cool morning air, till the Sun spread out its first rays.[i]

After bowing his chan pool (little head) to salute Yuum K’iin, and stretching his little legs to bow down, he would ask:

—Yuum K’iin, may I breathe in the dawn air?

His friend, with his bright and warm rays, said yes.

—Yes, you may breathe in the dawn air.

Chan Kéej would take a long deep breath and then head back home, covered with the light and warmth of the Sun’s body.

In the meantime, his siblings were playing hide-and-seek in their courtyard.

One day, Chan Kéej went to greet his friend Yuum K’iin as usual. But just as he was filling his lungs of steel with cool morning air, he opened his eyes and saw a ball of fire falling from the sky. He was frightened and wondered what that falling flash of light was. Maybe his friend Yuum K’iin had fallen off his hammock?

Without a second thought, he began to run towards the spot where the fire landed. But even though he ran day and night till sunrise the next day, he did not find a ball of fire that had fallen from the sky.

Disappointed and sad, Chan Kéej went back home. At nightfall he went to sleep and dreamt about the light that came from the sky. All of a sudden, he woke up and stood by the window with his eyes set on the lak’in (east). There, inside the ya’ax che’ (kapok) trees that surrounded his favourite hill, he could see a very bright light, as if the kapoks formed a strong wall around a golden city.

Chan Kéej didn’t stop to think. He quickly left his house, covered by the cold mantle of a night full of stars. And to the rhythm of the maaya paax (Maya music) played by the crickets, he ran to see what lights were being protected by the kapok trees that night.

As he ran, he stumbled on a stone and hurt his right leg, but that didn’t stop him. He forged ahead toward the source of light. Just before reaching his favourite hill, he came upon a very hungry wolf. Even though his leg hurt, Chan Kéej was very scared and started running again until he lost sight of the wolf. Running so hard, he fell off a cliff and rolled all the way down into a cave, where he remained unconscious for several hours.

When Chan Kéej opened his eyes, he realized what had happened. He started exploring the cave until he glimpsed a light that made him think there might be a way out.

He started kicking around the wall of the cave when all of a sudden a door opened, leading to the heart of a village. There, a female friend who had come from afar received him with a big hug. She was a lovely star visiting the earth—the flash of fire he’d seen falling that morning from his favourite hill, captivating his heart and inspiring him to start on the extraordinary journey through the forests of the south.

Chan Kéej was dazzled by the light of the star that came down to visit the earth. All of a sudden he heard the wind singing and telling him:

—Hello, Chan Kéej, I am Chan Éek’ (Little Star). Yuum bo’otik, thank you very much for coming to my rescue. If you touch me, I will return to the sky, and there in the sky I will see you every night.

Chan Kéej then touched Chan Éek’ and they both returned home.

If from the sky to the earth there are no borders between cosmic beings and animals, why on earth should there be borders between human beings?

 

“The Little Deer and the Tiny Star” © Sáasil Uj Chi Xool

 

El pequeño venado y la estrellita

Hubo una vez un venado llamado Chan Kéej (Venadito), muy querido por todos sus hermanos. Era muy curioso y travieso. Le gustaba explorar los lugares y conocer cosas nuevas.

Todos los días, cuando Yuum K’iin (el Padre Sol) extendía sus manos para besar la Tierra y asomaba su redonda cara sobre los árboles, encontraba a Chan Kéej jugando a las escondidas con sus hermanos: Sak Xikin (Oreja Blanca), Sa’anjo’ol (Cabeza Grisácea) y Chak Mo’ol (Garra Roja).

Chan Kéej se despertaba muy temprano todos los días, para saludar a su amigo Yuum K’iin. Apenas se bajaba de su hamaca, salía a la puerta de casa y daba unos brincos de alegría. Después caminaba por el sak bej (camino blanco) que va hacia donde sale Yuum K’iin. Caminaba hasta llegar al lugar donde el tractor había amontonado las rocas más grandes y subía hasta alcanzar la cima, donde estaba su roca favorita: el pedernal rojizo. Ahí se quedaba sentado a mirar fijamente el lak’in (oriente). Besaba suavemente el horizonte, sin respirar el sereno,[ii] hasta que el Sol extendía sus primeros rayos.

Después de inclinar su chan pool (cabecita), para reverenciar a Yuum K’iin y estirar sus pequeñas patitas para saludarlo, le preguntaba:

—Yuum K’iin, ¿puedo respirar el sereno?

Su amigo le contestaba, con su brillo y calor, que sí.

—Sí puedes respirar el sereno.

Él respiraba hondo y profundo, y luego emprendía su regreso a casa, acompañado por la luz y el tibio cuerpo del Sol.

Mientras tanto, sus hermanos, en el patio de su casa, jugaban a las escondidas.

Pero un día en que Chan Kéej fue a saludar a su amigo Yuum K’iin como siempre, justo cuando terminaba de llenar sus pulmones de acero con el frío sereno, abrió sus ojos y vio una pelota de fuego que caía del cielo. Asustado se preguntó:

—¿Qué será esa luz que cayó? ¿Será que mi amigo Yuum K’iin, se cayó de su hamaca?

Sin pensarlo dos veces, empezó a correr, a correr y a correr hacia donde cayó el fuego. Sin embargo, por mucho que corrió día y noche, hasta el amanecer del tercer día, no encontró la pelota de fuego que cayó del cielo.

Decepcionado y triste regresó a su casa. Cuando llegó la noche, se fue a dormir y empezó a soñar la luz que vino del cielo. De repente, en su sueño despertó y se paró junto a la ventana, mirando hacia el lak’in. Ahí descubrió que dentro de los árboles de ya’ax che’ (ceiba) que anidan el patio de su cerro favorito, se veía una luz resplandeciente. Como si las ceibas amurallaran una gran ciudad de oro.

Chan Kéej sin dudarlo salió de su casa y se abrigó con el frío manto de la noche, llena de estrellas. Y, con el son de la maaya paax (música maya) que tocaban los grillos, fue corriendo a ver qué luz cuidaban los árboles de ceiba, en esa noche.

Corriendo y corriendo se tropezó con una piedra y lastimó su patita derecha, pero eso no lo detuvo. Él siguió caminando hacia donde estaba la luz. Cuando le faltaba poco para llegar a su cerro favorito, se encontró con un lobo muy hambriento. Chan Kéej se asustó mucho y empezó a correr de nuevo con la patita adolorida hasta que logró perderse del lobo. Por correr tanto se cansó y se cayó en un barranco sin darse cuenta; rodó, rodó y rodó mucho, hasta llegar a dar en una cueva donde quedó desmayado por unas horas.

Al abrir los ojos se dio cuenta de lo ocurrido, entonces se levantó y empezó a explorar la cueva hasta que alcanzó a ver una luz, que le hizo pensar que por ahí estaba la salida. Chan Kéej como pudo emprendió de nuevo su camino iluminado por la luz.

No tardó mucho pataleando, cuando de repente la puerta del corazón de un pueblo, habitado por una amiga venida de lejos, lo recibió con un fuerte abrazo. Era una hermosa estrella que vino a visitar la tierra, y que justo había sido el fuego que vio caer del cielo aquella mañana desde su cerro favorito y cautivó su corazón para emprender un extraordinario viaje en los bosques del sur.

Chan Kéej se detuvo vislumbrado por la luz de la estrella que vino a visitar la tierra. De repente escuchó una voz en el canto del viento que le decía:

—Hola Chan Kéej, soy Chan Éek’ (Pequeña Estrella). Yuum bo’otik (muchas gracias) por venir a rescatarme. Si me tocas, regreso al cielo y desde ahí, en el cielo, te veré todas las noches.

Entonces Chan Kéej tocó a Chan Éek’, al mismo tiempo los dos volvieron a sus casas.

Si del cielo a la tierra no hay fronteras entre los seres cósmicos y los animales, ¿por qué en la tierra ha de haber fronteras entre los seres humanos?

 

Sáasil reading to her little siblings and teaching them how to count in Mayan and Spanish—Video © Hilario Chi Canul, for his PhD thesis about the revitalization of the Yucatecan Mayan language

 

 

For more information on Hilario Chi Canul’s work, see his book La Vitalidad Del Maya Yucateco, his poem in Mayan and his appeal in Spanish to protect the earth (both with English subtitles), as well as his essay on Maya culture in a Mexican journal of philology.

 

* In 200 years, the proportion of speakers of Indigenous languages in Mexico has plummeted from 65% of the population to 6.5%, according to the National Statistics Institute, INEGI. “Our languages don’t die, they get killed,” declared Mixe linguist Yásnaya Aguilar, when she brought the matter before Mexico’s House of Representatives in 2019, blaming national public policies for this murder.

[i] According to the Maya tradition, breathing the sereno or cold morning air is not good for you; it can give you a cold or a sore throat.

[ii] Según la tradición Maya, respirar el sereno antes de que salga el sol puede provocar que uno se enferme de gripa o de la garganta.

 

 

 

 

They named me after a crab, because even though my eyes appear to face forward, I walk sideways to surprise my prey. Or is it the other way around? They are after me, but I avoid them with great cunning. Some twin me with death, but they don’t realize I actually hold the secret to eternal life. Division and multiplication are all the same to me, because the more I split myself in half, the more clones I spread out there, thus extending the game. I’m also a voracious guest, eating what my host feeds me. But when the food runs out, I hungrily gobble her up until we both slump into a heap of ashes. I sometimes change my strategy and hide under the sand for a whilesay, five yearsand then make a comeback. I’m also a shape-shifter, changing my modus operandi and appearance, sending my enemies scurrying for new weapons to defeat me. I am, as christened in my biography by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies. But my real name is simply cancer, like the crab-shaped diamond constellation that holds the night sky together.

 

Cancer! That is the word I was trying to push to the back of my mind as I pushed my way forward on the crowded bus. That’s when I ran into him, looking slightly worn after a hard day’s work at the hospital, but always ready with a warm smile for an old friend or patient.

“Hello David!”

“How are you? How’s the family?”

“Fine, but I need your help. I’ve been waiting for the results of some tests, and from the way the radiologist looked at me, I’m sure it’s bad news. You’ve got access to all my files, haven’t you?”

“Not to worry. I’ll let you know,” he mumbled as he stepped off the bus.

His call came the following day.

“I’ve arranged for the head of the Breast Centre to give you an appointment as quickly as possible.”

“Spit it out! Don’t beat around the bush! What is it?”

“I’m not beating around the bush. You were supposed to say “Why the hurry?” and I was supposed to answer “Well, because… Yes, it’s cancer, but the more curable type.”

That was two summers ago. Today is a rainy, slushy, windy, still-winter grey day, and my mood matches the weather. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, my mood has been influenced by the weather more than by my illness. And of course, by the waiting, as well as the numerous appointments with numerous doctors, each with his/her agenda, his/her fake optimistic smile, his/her “don’t worry, my dear, everything will be fine.” And the worried calls from friends and family wanting to know the unknowable. As for the kindness of friends… well, that is the best and sometimes the worst part of it.

An acquaintance:

“You look much better today, my dear. Last time we met you looked ghastly.” (I didn’t know I had looked ghastly.)

A yoga buddy:

“There is this wonderful video on YouTube. Did you know that you can cure cancer with a vegan diet and a strict detox regime? (I know all about those quacks, thank you.)

A relative:

“There is this clinic in Mexico, just south of the border… It’s good Trump hasn’t built his wall yet.” (Everybody has heard about these clinics.)

A book-club member:

“My dear, you must stop being angry at the world. You know that, don’t you, that cancer strikes people when they’re stressed out?” (Why blame the victim?)

A neighbour:

“Are you going to be home this evening? I’ll bring you some frozen home-made soups for when you don’t feel like cooking. You must eat well, you know.” (I’ve been turned off soup for the rest of my life.)

OK, well, perhaps these are not all my friends, but they are certainly well meaning. My real friends have more practical offerings.

A former colleague:

“I’ll do whatever needs to be done, cook, clean, shop for groceries, drive you to the hospital, whatever.”

A voice from the past:

“Hello, sweetheart, just wanting to hear your voice. Love you!”

The young ones:

“Hello, grandma, when can we come visit?”

Heartwarming, but deep down I’m grateful for email and voicemail technology. You read or listen and you answer or not. Most importantly, you learn that your opinion is the only one that matters.

Yes, there is a silver lining to this black cloud that now hangs over the view from my window. There are the friends who hug you tighter than usual (mind the incision please). The acquaintances who turn out to be real friends. And the ex-lovers who might have stopped lusting after you but still love you. There are also the siblings who start phoning you every day from faraway continents, and the offspring who conquer their fear of flying to calm your own fears. The list is endless.

At the hospital you start recognizing faces and smiling at them diffidently, while trying to make sure the pale blue kimono (definitely not designed by Karl Lagerfeld) doesn’t open up from behind. You also stop caring whether you will be assisted by a male or a female radiation technician. People don’t really see your once cuddly and erogenous fountain of milk and honey. All they see is a tattooed radiation target that has to be positioned correctly before the big machine starts whirling its killer-rays.

You learn the real meaning of the words solidarity, complicity, empathy and even tenderness. Yes, cancer cells indeed multiply themselves with great abandon, but so do all the feelings that unite us and make us human. There is no place for anger in this web of shared misery.

On my first day at the clinic for a blood sample, the phlebotomist, who happened to come from a warm country like myself, wondered why I chose to retire in Canada where it is so cold. When I explained that Canada was a good country to live in if you were cursed with cancer, he looked up at me and nodded silently.

What is the final word on cancer? Is it a battle, a journey, an enemy to conquer? A cross to endure? Who knows! Forget I said “cursed with cancer.” I was wrong. It is certainly not a curse. It’s just a signpost, warning you not to step on the crabs that might cross your path.

 

 

MY FUNERAL SONGS

1-800-273-8255 – Logic

Everybody Hurts – R.E.M.

Jump Around – House of Pain

 

It felt good not to feel. JF adjusted his position on the snow bank, scribbling into the notebook that his therapist, Nico Tesoro, had given him at their first session. It was hardbacked with lines; it had heft. The numbness crept from his ass and the back of his thighs down through his calves and ankles all the way to his toes, and then back up, settling deep in his chest. His heart hurt, fingers cramped from writing in the cold.

And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb. And she’ll always get the best of me; the worst is yet to come. All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love. This I know, girl, I know.

Since Morgan’s death seven months ago, anxiety had taken on physical sensations: less space for air in his lungs, his breath caught, half-full, half-empty. He couldn’t eat or sleep more than a couple of hours, awakening in the dark at three or four a.m. covered with a slick of sweat, his heart pounding, mind in a whirlwind.

His loss had turned to dread. Each day seemed endless with no forward momentum, no belief that he would ever feel any different. JF wondered if it would be better if he were dead. Suicide presented itself as a potential solution.

JF had thought about simply not being, free of pain. But a mensch had to get down to specifics. How would he do it? Pills were the easiest for sure, the most comfortable, and he would be in solidarity with Morgan.

He’d scoped out the medicine cabinet at home and ransacked his moms’ separate night tables on either side of their bed while they were at work, carefully replacing everything as it was.

All of the sleeping pills and benzos had been cleared out. On a visit to his dad, he’d discovered, to his surprise, the same deal. No oxys, no benzos, no sleeping pills, not even a bottle of Percocet.

Hanging was the macho way to go. Usually this was done in basements or attics, right? Well, they didn’t have either one in his apartment. Also, a side effect was shitting and pissing yourself. Did he really want his moms to find him like that? And it hardly seemed a painless or sure-fire way to go. What if you half-strangled yourself? Then what?

When he was about ten years old, the father across the street had killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. Apparently, CO is odourless and colourless and tasteless and will cause reasonably swift loss of consciousness. On discovery, the body will look peaceful.

The asphyxiation route wouldn’t work for JF. No one in the family owned a car, for starters.

Readjusting his position on the snow bank, sitting cross-legged now, JF remembered how he used to feel more a part of things – his family, his classmates, the whole fucking human race. He’d had friends. But his obsession with Morgan had expanded, little by little, to take up so much space in his mind and heart and being that there was little room for anything or anyone else. He found himself isolated and alone. A pinball aimlessly shooting and bouncing off walls, going nowhere.

Yet, his obsession with Morgan was probably the most interesting thing about him.

JF felt an invisible pull, welcoming surrender to a force that felt outside of himself. Sliding down the snow bank, he walked, creaky and frozen at first, then more agile, until he was standing in front of Morgan’s house beside the pretty pocket park blanketed in snow. She’d lived in this sprawling white Victorian home with its pale pink trim, its turrets and tower, like a fairy-tale castle or a fussy wedding cake. He needed to be inside the house where Morgan had lived, inside the room where she’d slept.

There were no cars in the driveway, and JF rang the bell. A petite brown-skinned woman answered the door, and he started talking before he could think of what to say.

“I’m a student of Professor Rosenblum’s. I left my music here… the other day.” Just as he got the words out, a plumbing truck pulled into the driveway, and a big man hoisted himself out, heralding his arrival with a clanging belt of tools.

Pase por favor!” the woman called out. “The problem is upstairs.”

The plumber walked in, with JF trailing close behind. Water was sluicing down through the ceiling, dripping from the pear-shaped crystals of the ornate living-room chandelier.

While the housekeeper and plumber went upstairs, JF hung back and then padded down to the basement, where he knew Morgan had moved her bedroom for privacy. He passed through a laundry room and found a closed door with a sign that said, Do Not Disturb!

He wondered if it would be locked, but when he tried the door it let out a sharp whine as it opened. So here it was: her bedroom, her girl cave.

On Morgan’s bureau, in a little glass dish sat the silver chai necklace she’d worn every day. Chai meant “life” in Hebrew. Despite how troubled she’d been, Morgan had always had plenty of joie de vivre. JF gathered up the chain and pendant in his palm and stuffed them into the pocket of his damp parka.

Morgan’s bed was covered with a quilt in pastel blues and greens, and marbles had spilled out onto the coverlet from a black velvet pouch. They were a wonder: not only cat’s eyes, but glass globes with swirls of colour, elaborate designs of flowers, and symbols and hieroglyphics that confounded him. JF hadn’t known she was into marbles.

Had Morgan collected marbles, or played games with them, maybe with Collier? What else didn’t he know about her?

He sat down on the bed and the marbles rolled to his thigh. He gathered them in his hands and let them fall back onto the quilt through spread fingers. Some rolled off the bed and made a hard pocking sound as they hit the concrete floor.

JF knew Morgan had suffered. He’d wanted so badly, so deeply, to comfort her. To quiet the voices she’d heard inside her head, to calm the terrifying hallucinations. But he’d felt helpless. He could only be her friend, but had longed to be her lover. Would that have done her any good?

The scarf Morgan had worn in the colder months was slung over her desk chair, its blues and greens deeper than the hues of the bedspread. He buried his face in the scarf. It still held her scent – a salty sweet mix of sweat and patchouli. He wrapped it around his neck to feel its warmth and softness. Unbearable.

JF sat for a bit – it was hard to tell how long – before he heard footsteps and voices from above and crept stealthily upstairs, skulking out the front door.

 

BEFORE I DIE….

I want to not feel dead

I want to talk to Morgan’s ghost or spirit or soul or whatever

I want to travel to Costa Rica to see those sea turtles

 

JF stood outside Nico’s office, the door ajar. He could see that it was its usual mess of strewn toys, Chinese take-out cartons stained and dripping greasy brown and orange sauces, and multiple to-go coffee containers on every possible surface.

JF kept his appointments with Nico, one of the few constants in his life now, a regular window of time, which gave a shape to the void he felt himself in… the void that was him.

When Nico spotted JF, he stood up from his desk to his full uncomfortably tall height, lanky and physically awkward with enormous hands and feet, large dark eyes, and long wild black hair streaked with silver, which he’d pulled back into a ratty ponytail and tied with twine. He was wearing one of his loud Hawaiian shirts with a turtleneck underneath, baggy gold wide-wale cords, and fuzzy slippers. Though this would be their fourth individual meeting, Nico’s appearance still came as a surprise.

“Hey there! I thought you’d stood me up.”

JF shrugged. “I can’t do our session –.  Not today.”

“Well,” Nico loped over to JF, patting him on the shoulder. “How about we walk, and talk while we’re walking.”

A statement, not a question. Nico didn’t wait for JF’s answer, just suited up in his parka and boots, and headed out, locking his office door.

They made their way toward the mountain, not far from Nico’s office. Nico had a slow, shambling gait as they headed into the wooded path, black ice beneath a dusting of snow. It was nearly twilight and there were not many people around, which suited JF: the occasional cross-country skier, two elderly people snowshoeing, the odd dog walker. Now and then Nico lost his footing in a long slide, the snow obscuring the icy patches, and JF steadied his therapist so he wouldn’t take a pratfall.

“Last week you were starting to talk about Morgan,” Nico said in his deep gritty voice roughened by decades of chain smoking. He had the breath and the yellowish fingernails and teeth to prove it. “Tell me about your relationship.”

They headed uphill. “Relationship?” JF heard the snarl of sarcasm in his tone.

“Okay. Your connection.”

“Well…” JF stopped as a flock of crows flapped overhead against the darkening sky and glimpsed a crescent of silver moon. “I helped Morgan with her homework now and then.  We were in Science together. She panicked before exams and I was sort of her tutor.”

“It’s great that you’ve got a gift for science. You can do a lot with that.”

JF was not looking toward the future. The planet was fucked, the climate apocalypse within sight.

Yet, he’d felt more alive when he was with Morgan, hopeful. She had an intensity about her that was contagious, that infected him, made him burn brighter too. And she was beautiful and sexy as hell with her nearly black hair, rippling and shining over her shoulders and down her back, and her pale green eyes, the irises spiked with flecks of gold and blue.

“I went to her house once,” JF said. “You know, to study.”

It had begun to snow and Nico drew a tuque out of his pocket and pulled it low over his forehead.

JF remembered that afternoon with Morgan, which had stretched out into evening. Her parents were out at some sort of gathering or meeting, he had no idea where. They studied first at the dining room table and when it got dark, they went outside and brought steaming cups of mint tea and sat in camp chairs looking up at the night sky. It was fall and the air was crisp and clean, the night clear. JF pointed out Aquarius, the water bearer, and then Pegasus, the winged horse. Morgan couldn’t see Pegasus, so she came over and sat in JF’s lap. He put his arms around her, feeling the plush firmness of her body, then took her hand in his and traced the formation of the winged horse. When she finally saw it, Morgan gave out a gleeful yelp. He could have sat there forever.

Remembering, JF felt a rush of pleasure.

Nico was looking over at him, short of breath from the climb. “You’re smiling. What are you thinking about?” He breathed heavily for a few minutes then tapped his parka. “Mind if I…?

Again he didn’t wait for JF’s okay, but lit up one of his stinky French cigarettes, inhaling deeply, with a sigh of satisfaction. He held it with his fingers furled inward facing his chest.

JF didn’t want to tell Nico – or anyone for that matter – about his evening with Morgan. It was one of the few memories of the two of them together that he cherished as his alone. At the time, he had no idea that in a few months she’d be dead. Weird to think of it now. Nico was waiting for his answer when a big fat skunk came waddling across the trail, its black and white striped body stark against the snow. The creature let out its stink.

“Oh, geeze,” Nico said, “Let’s move on.”

They pressed on uphill, Nico coughing as he grunted, “So I sense you had a strong connection with Morgan.” What? Did he read minds? Nico was staring at the blue and green scarf wrapped around JF’s neck. Did he know that it had been Morgan’s, that JF had stolen it? How could he?

Sneaking into houses, stealing a dead girl’s stuff just wasn’t JF’s style. In truth, he’d always been a bit of a goody two-shoes. He hated himself.

They came into a clearing, and while Nico stopped to catch his breath again, JF looked up at the sky. All he could see now were whirling white flakes dancing against the deep blue, Morgan’s favourite colour.

They continued on, walking and talking. JF felt so afraid, uncertain about what to do next – next hour, next day, next week, next month, next year. Unless there was no more next.

 

WHAT AM I AFRAID OF?

Living more than death

What has been stolen

What remains

 

They arrived at the top of the mountain, at the lookout, the chalet behind them. Dusk brought a gauzy twilight softening the glow of the hundreds of twinkling lights below, their furred halos like dandelion puffs about to blow and disperse in the winter wind. Nothing solid or stable, everything in flux.

“It should’ve been me,” JF said, looking straight ahead. “Or maybe we could’ve died together.”

“But you didn’t.” Nico’s gritty voice was firm, his voice lower than usual.

JF’s chest hurt, his heart crushed.

“The world needs you.”

JF snorted at this absurd, sentimental notion. He had his mom Rachel’s raucous laugh that seemed to come from his nose as much as his chest, and now he mimed the gag reflex but coughed instead, hacking until his eyes teared, hot and stinging. He wrapped Morgan’s scarf tighter around his neck and rubbed the sharp points and smooth curves of the chai charm he’d shoved into his pocket, pricking his fingers until they bled. They stood there for a long while until there were very few other people, just a few dog walkers.

“For next week, I want you to write a little each day or night,” Nico said. “Let’s say, tonight, while you’re sleeping, a miracle happens. When you wake up tomorrow, what are some of the things you notice that tell you your life has suddenly gotten better? Think about it.”

Nico went into the chalet to get them both a coffee. JF stayed put, taking in the view from the lookout.

He found himself remembering some of the random platitudes he’d read about loss and grief in the little pamphlet the school counsellor had handed out to their whole class after Morgan’s death. Especially the one about having to grieve what he’d lost – truly sit with it. Because then he could appreciate what he’d kept. You must reckon, face your own darkness. Maybe that last one was from Oprah?

Nico had told him, “Bad things that have happened blow up and warp our beliefs about ourselves… We have to confront our negative beliefs. I’ll share one of mine: I think I’m a clumsy oaf and all I’m good for is work. Now you can confront one of yours.”

In family therapy, Nico had passed out M&Ms, giving seven pieces each to him, his moms and Guy, his dad. They had to sort their candy by colour. Green was for words to describe your family. Orange symbolized what you’d like to change. Red indicated what you were afraid of. Yellow was your favourite memories of your family. They each took a turn to give their responses and then picked the next person to talk.

The activities they did, like his writing assignments, seemed lame and cheesy at first, but despite that, his moms, his dad and even he got into it. What else could they do? His moms wouldn’t let up… they just would not quit. At some family meetings, the four of them had ugly fights where they cried and screamed at one other. But somehow, after these devastating sessions, JF felt a release, a calm and cleansing exhaustion that soothed him like the sound of the train at night, clattering by not far from their apartment, regular as clockwork. It was almost like a friend during these long days and endless nights.

JF was looking forward to that steaming cup of coffee. He wanted to hold it between his hands, against his chest. So now he had another writing assignment. His final line wasn’t written yet… “whenever” wasn’t here yet. Today wouldn’t come again.

JF and Nico would wind their way down and around the mountain until they got to the bottom, out of the woods, and onto the street. He’d go home. His moms were waiting for him. Maybe there’d be pizza. He wasn’t alone.

The only way out was through. Just take a step.

 

 

Red Becoming by Sharon Bourke

 

Vibration before sound, that’s how it starts. You could be at school, at home, anytime, anywhere. You hear mumbling and feel your lips twitch as you mouth words. Keep on your noise-cancelling earphones, never go anywhere without them. Listen to The Weeknd on continuous loop, I Would Die for You, and sing along with him.

Even though we’re going through it
And it makes you feel alone
Just know that I would die for you
Baby I would die for you, yeah

Beneath, around his voice are other voices, talking just to you. They whisper, then hiss through clenched teeth. You will die for you, you will die, yeah, baby yeah. Don’t listen. They crank up the volume and play tricks until you can’t hear The Weeknd, only horns beeping, children whispering and weeping.

You’re failing several of your courses in Grade 11 because so much is flooding in through eyes, ears, nose, mouth, every pore in your skin, so you can’t concentrate on your teachers. Take Math.

Open your text and read.

Make connections between the numeric, graphical and algebraic representations of quadratic relations and use the connections to solve problems.

Construct tables of values and graph quadratic relations arising from real-world applications (e.g., dropping a ball from a given height.)

The words are too black and the space white blinds. You snap shut the text and see every grain and scratch in the cover.

Soon school’s out for summer and maybe you’ll be well again. Drawing like mad, he he. Making new cartoons. You have an idea for a graphic memoir, a joint project with Collier, a day in the life sort of thing. If you can only hold out till summer. So far, you hide, hope to appear normal.

Parents ask about your day, well, what can you say? When mom hugs you, it’s electroshock. You see how you hurt her but you can’t help it. Colours make sounds. Yellow is a beep, beep, beep.  Blue, waves rolling in, crashing shore. Red, a scream, which is why they call it bloodcurdling.  Mom’s voice is silvery. Dad’s hard, geologic. Sleep is out of the question. There is an old doll’s head with red glowing eyes, she spooks you.

Time is the abyss, sad, weary. 

You hear a black feral cat, skinny, yowling, like an ambulance coming. There are more wild stray cats in a pack, pack-cats. Coming for you.

They try to woo you to their side. We love you, Morgan. Listen and you will survive. They threaten and terrorize you. We will turn your vagina black.

You text Collier from the girl’s washroom at school and then go into the yard for a cig. This is one of your worst days ever. You’re scared. Your mind’s going.

It’s happening again.

Meet me out front.

“Coll, Coll, Coll!”  You rejoice when you see them and put away your earphones into your backpack. They’re not helping today. “Thoughts out loud, too many thoughts. Being born, it hurt to come into the light.

“We’ll walk it off,” Coll tells you.

“I’m scared,” you say. They are the only one you can trust.

You head to the Lachine Canal, the day so hot you know the sun is alive and will peel off your skin and scorch your heart.

At last you’re alongside the river and feel the breeze off the water. Collier sweeps his arm around you and their touch is different from anyone else’s – it calms you – a little. You glance over to them and see a feral cat on their left shoulder. Its gem-green eyes.

“Coll, there’s a black cat on your shoulder? Do you see it too?”

They tap both shoulders, shrug, then shake their head no.

But you still see the creature. When the light hits its eyes, they glimmer like emeralds. Now it yowls.

“Coll, hear that?”

The cat leaps to Collier’s other shoulder.

“Sometimes my mom pretends she’s a bird,” Coll says, apropos of nothing. “A wild, weird, scavenging bird, picking at garbage. She likes being this bird, calls it the haw-craw. I told you all about that and it got inside your head, Mor.”

Maybe she put the feral cat into your head to torture you. Your cats will eat her birds.

You pass by the sculpture garden and there are families gathering to barbecue, kids kicking a ball around and you feel outside of all normal life on this radiant spring day with the buttery sun and cerulean sky. You like the sound of that word, cerulean.

Then you think of the doll’s head nightlight, your math book, classmates. “Everyone is trash-talking me behind and in front of my back.”

Collier pulls you in close to their chest.

A wind picks up off the water, the sun hiding behind a puffy cloud. You know the earth is laid waste. Fear makes you ill.

“C’mon Mor, let’s break into a clip.”

In no time or all time, you reach the rocky beach and your whole being is filled with light and loveliness. The wind goes wild, but you don’t care because the sun beats down in waves that match the ones washing toward shore. You both strip off your clothes and slide down the rocks into the lapping frigid river and gasp in one moment. Together. You cut the back of your thighs sliding down and it feels good, that sting.

“Mor, you drawing lately?”

“A bit.” What you see and hear and know.

Collier splashes you and the river water is frigid against your cheeks, burns your eyes, spurts up your nose. You splash Collier back and get into a water fight like you did as kids. Now a clear blue sky of the mind and warm dazzling sunlight.

You stay in the water a second, a minute, an hour. Shivering when you climb up those sharp rocks, Collier gives you a hand. They are so agile and move with a grace you can never muster. You both scramble into your heaped up clothes, which drag on wet, clammy skin. Part of you awake now, which had been dormant. Bringing you back to the quiet of before. Where are the voices now?

 

 

Patineur (c) Máire Noonan

 

Je nage. Autour de moi les vaguelettes taillées comme dans l’ardoise remuent au vent. Le visage immergé j’expire à fond, faisant bourdonner l’eau pendant que se vident mes poumons. Par moments, j’entends mon gargouillis se répandre dans un écho sous-marin comme un meuglement lointain. Alors je flotte un instant pour distinguer cette fréquence insolite. On m’a parlé des djinns qui nous suivent quand on se croit seul. Ils se métamorphosent en être ou en objet, nous observent secrètement et nous châtient selon nos démérites. Mon cœur bat plus vite à cette pensée, mais je reprends la cadence malgré mon essoufflement. Je me dirige vers l’autre rive qui est encore loin. Au fond du lac, j’imagine une présence qui me rappelle les dessins de Gary Larson; ses créatures loufoques nagent parallèlement, nous font face du dessous en nous effleurant du doigt sans qu’on s’en doute. J’entends décidément des voix dans le roucoulement de l’eau et ces voix semblent m’interpeller. Quelque chose me chatouille sous l’aisselle. J’arrête de nager. Le chatouillement se déplace sous mes pieds tandis que mon souffle devient court et que mon cœur tambourine. Je lève la tête au ciel pour découvrir un faucon qui plane. Il trace des huit au-dessus de ma position. Plus haut encore, un avion, tout petit, traîne un filet mince comme de la salive. L’eau est noire sur la surface et verte au dessous. Un rayon de soleil se faufile entre deux nuages et pénètre de biais le gouffre lacustre. Je plonge la tête pour suivre la trajectoire de ses rais diffus lorsque surgit une ombre au fond de l’eau qui découpe la lumière en se déplaçant comme une méduse. Je guette avec inquiétude les froissements de la surface avant de reprendre ma nage.

 

J’ai pourtant fait ce trajet à quelques reprises, mais cette fois-ci cela semble différent. Un reflet sur l’eau m’éblouit comme une étincelle et quand je replonge la tête, je distingue une apparition oblongue qui me contemple en retour, en esquissant un sourire entre les lignes d’ombres qui s’embrouillent. Je suis très myope, mais je devine des formes qui s’agitent comme des flammes de bougies dans le vent. Mon cerveau s’ajuste à la vision subaquatique et bientôt, au lieu d’ondoiements troubles, je vois naître tout un peuple d’ombre qui s’anime et qui semble me faire signe de ne pas approcher davantage. Je cesse de bouger en sortant la tête de l’eau pour entrevoir la lune, précédée de son halo, se lever derrière la crête dentelée des cèdres. Le gargouillement suspect s’est transformé en grognement, et s’amplifie alors qu’une créature étale au fond du lac terrorise les environs. Des insectes patinent sur la surface de l’eau, traçant des figures géométriques éphémères. Ils s’attroupent dès que je m’immobilise.

 

Le soir tombe avec lenteur et mon corps refroidi se maintient en flottaison par de petits mouvements instinctifs. Une nuée de moustiques circule autour de ma tête sans m’approcher. Je ne dégage, sans doute, plus assez de chaleur pour l’attirer. Autour de moi les clapotis se sont calmés et la rive s’est beaucoup éloignée. Plus petite et moins orange, la lune est maintenant orpheline dans un ciel incolore, suspendue au dessus du vert sale des courbes montagneuses. Je vais me noyer. Bien que je flotte sans effort, je ne sens plus mes orteils, ni mes pieds d’ailleurs. Les moustiques m’ont finalement trouvé. Ils m’ont piqué partout sur le visage : derrière les oreilles, au front, plusieurs fois sur le nez, sur le bord des yeux. Mon grelottement ne les a pas fait fuir, mais ça ne fait rien. Je n’ai rien senti. Mes dents claquent comme des castagnettes.

 

Je me souviens d’un jour où je rencontrais quelqu’un dans un café. Je ne sais plus qui. Un homme, je crois. Ou bien  c’était une femme? Je ne me rappelle pas. Je sais qu’il (ou elle) est allé à la toilette…, ou peut-être n’est-il (ou n’est-elle) jamais venu(e) à notre rendez-vous. Je ne sais plus. Mais pourquoi est-ce que je pense à cela? Ah oui! Le café. Alors la serveuse est arrivée avec un café que je n’avais pas commandé, mais puisqu’elle l’avait apporté, elle a dit qu’elle ne le reprendrait pas, qu’elle me l’offrait, que si je ne le buvais pas c’était tant pis pour moi. Elle s’est éloignée en continuant à parler, et tout en débarrassant une table voisine a ajouté qu’il était frais fait et que ça me réchaufferait, un bon café chaud, surtout avec le temps qu’il fait dehors. La tasse fumait devant moi et en la soulevant, j’ai senti à retardement qu’elle me brûlait le bout des doigts. C’était mon premier hiver ici, et mes doigts sans gants étaient toujours engourdis, les poings fermés dans mes manches. J’ai pris la tasse au fond de ma main et j’étais heureux de ce pincement au creux de la paume. J’étais heureux de tout. Tout me paraissait valoir la peine d’exister : cette serveuse que je ne connaissais pas, si gentille, le clignotement des néons rouges, l’odeur de friture, les nachos de la table d’à côté, le cendrier débordant du comptoir, les journaux empilés en désordre, la tache de graisse au mur, la radio qui frémissait sur l’étagère, tout méritait d’être là et avait sa place. J’aimais ma vie, chaque moment, et je ne voulais rien de plus. C’était ma vie, mon heure. J’étais apparu après des millions d’années d’existence d’un monde qui m’a conçu et posé là. Et tous mes gestes, toutes mes interactions sont indissociables de notre univers dont je suis l’extension légitime, sans gloire mais irréfutable.

 

Cette nuit-là, je n’ai pas dormi. Rentré dans mon meublé, j’avais le cœur gonflé. J’ai sorti une feuille pour écrire à mes parents encore vivants à l’époque. Je voulais leur dire que ma joie se confondait à mes pleurs et que mon un et demi était un palais, que je n’étais jamais seul, qu’ils m’accompagnaient en tout, que la neige contre ma vitre était une bénédiction, que ce pays était un paradis, que ce n’était pas une erreur d’être parti, que bientôt ma situation s’améliorerait et je les ferais venir. Je voulais écrire tout cela et bien plus. Je me suis levé pour ouvrir la fenêtre de ma pièce surchauffée, puis j’ai fait du thé sur le réchaud et j’ai brûlé de l’encens. Je suis resté des heures durant à regarder le papier bleu sans tracer un mot. Des flocons de neige glissaient par la fenêtre et venaient fondre sur ma feuille vierge, tandis qu’un sentiment de bonheur m’empêchait de sentir la fatigue.

 

Mon nez est humide et glacé, mais à fleur d’eau je respire l’air poivré du soir. Des relents de pourriture me parviennent de la forêt de cèdre que je ne peux plus qu’imaginer. Une lueur faible laisse deviner les patineurs qui avancent par à-coups imprévisibles, traçant des sillons élégants sitôt aplanis. Où vont-ils, ces insectes, lorsqu’ils ont fini leur routine? Où se cachent ces petits êtres en attendant leur prochaine sortie? Je les contemple longuement avant de somnoler. Lorsque je m’éveille, ils sont partis. Le lac est maintenant figé comme un miroir où le reflet cristallin d’une lune distante veille comme unique témoin.

 

 

 

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

 

This morning I wake up early with worries. In bed, cuddling my main squeeze, loud rock music and static invades our bedroom. Some asshole outside is testing a sound system. It’s 9:30 am, Sunday.

We live in a weird spot, squeezed by inner city traffic on one side and green space on the other. We occasionally get pelted with noise from events, but dammit, it’s 9:30 am on God’s fuckin’ day of rest!

Immediately, the political brain springs into action. Some would call it, “How to right a wrong.”

  • Call the police and make a noise complaint? But it’s the police, and an organized event probably has a noise permit.
  • Get my neighbours to rally naked against the beast? I don’t think I’m that persuasive.
  • Unpack my trusty rocket-launcher? Where’s the target?

So I grab Liza, my 9-kg Lhasa Apso terrier mix, and dash out to take on The Man! I’m in such rage that I must remind myself not to drag poor Liza while she tries to pee.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The sound tech is weaponizing Classic Rock against me – “Start Me Up” by the Stones, “Light My Fire,” by The Doors. But where’s the source? Acoustics in this zone are disorienting, deflecting off buildings, roads and hills. Nothing by the volleyball courts. Nothing by the tam-tams statue. It must be from the pre-game tailgate party by the stadium.

Liza and I cross Avenue du Parc. I conduct my first security assessment. Some rent-a-guards doing traffic patrol on the feeder road. Don’t appear armed. The field seems unsecured.

History teaches valuable lessons. Many decades ago at The Forum, the opening band, Sha Na Na, suddenly went silent while performing its second rousing encore. I noticed that Leslie West, the corpulent leader of the heavy rock marquee band Mountain, had ripped out the sound cables from the amps with his meaty hands. A brilliantly simple solution to Mountain’s fury at this dorky ’50s imitation band stealing their time.

“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Liza’s recent haircut distracts people who notice her. « C’est tellement cute ! » We arouse no suspicion. I scan and assess as we advance. The tailgate party is more organized than I expected – food trucks, benches, inflatable water slides, and a dozen or so dark-clad men gathered around a food tent and the noise source. My first doubts about my plan… With sound cables in one hand and Liza Minelli’s retractable leash in the other, I would be defenseless as they beat the shit out of me.

I must think of optional attack scenarios and quickly, as we approach the target. Stunned, I realize they have no loud sound system!

It has to be… Molson Stadium, just beyond. Standing in its shadow, looming high above me, I can only glance at a segment of its outside barrier walls. Massive. A coliseum.

Through the gates, I spot empty interior top-row seating. Early in the day? Possibly. But the Alouettes are 3 and 10 in a depressingly lousy season. I also spy loudspeakers and distinctly hear the directional sound.

We are 30 meters away from the entrance. Liza hunches over and shits. Fuck you! Despite poop bags hidden in my pocket, I’m not picking it up!

“The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points;”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We stride towards the entrance. Inside lies the hidden target – the Sound Engineer and the Control Panel. Around me, linked gate barriers control access and evasion. Two choices: Entrée avec billets and Billeterie. The narrow Entrée is heavily patrolled. I eye them. They eye me and Liza. They’re not smiling.

I choose the unguarded Billeterie. Once I commit, I face the sobering realization that I will not be able to directly penetrate the stadium.

It gets very quiet. The sound stops.

The Billeterie is closed but a door is ajar. Inside, underpaid workers working for a depressing corporate team that traded away top draft picks for Johnny Manziel, a wasted NFL quarterback notorious for his self-destructive partying and on-field antics. (A touching fact – Manziel revealed later he is bipolar and struggling to be healthy.)

“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Inside, a man of authority. I attack. « Hey, j’habite ici et le bruit du système de son avant 10 h un dimanche, un jour de repos, c’est dégueulasse ! »

He strikes back. « Oui, je suis désolé. Je vais adresser votre plainte. »

I counter « Oui mais calice, c’est dimanche ! Ce n’est pas une excuse ! »

My foe digs in. « Oui monsieur. Il y a un match aujourd’hui. »

I’m not fooled. « À 13 h ! Il est 10 h maintenant ! »

«Vous avez raison. Je vais transmettre votre demande. »

His fuckin’ active listening is killing me. The illusion of addressing the consumer’s complaint. The deflating reminder that bureaucracy has no beating heart. At 1 pm, Air Force jets scream over our homes for the national anthem.

Next time I‘m packing the rocket launcher.

I’ve seen the speakers.

P.S. The Alouettes lost.

 

 

 

 

When I was a teenager I was in love with a girl called Morgan Rosenblum. Our gang had a clubhouse on the Lachine Canal: a battered old bright orange container that was never used or carted away, and we hung out there after school and on weekends. It was the place to be.

Morgan’s 16th birthday party was in May, and Montréal was beginning to get warm at last. Nine of us arrived early to set up. We had loads of munchies, plenty of beer and wine and weed, but it was bigshot me who brought the supply of Oxy. I had access through my dad who used the pills for pain relief after his near-fatal trucking accident.  There were stashes here and there in his apartment and I stocked up, cagey, little by little, until I had a whole mess of them.

The party was the night I was going to get next to Morgan. I had plenty of friends, but she barely noticed me, maybe because I wasn’t artsy enough. At first, I hated that she called me Jean-François because no one else did, but later I liked that she used my formal name – the only person who chose to – a sign signifying, well, something.

Morgan was a talented artist who drew cartoon stories, and hers were in colour, all the bright yummy hues of hard candies. Because of Morgan, I immersed myself in graphic novels, which I’d known nothing about. I heard her mention Art Spiegelman and Alison Bechdel, Aislin and Jillian Tamaki, and I immediately got hold of their books, so I’d have conversation-starters. Morgan loved Indian food which I’d never tried, but when my Dad planned an evening out for the two of us, I told him I wanted to go to an Indian place, “Darbar,” Morgan’s favourite.

I thought long and hard about what to get Morgan for her Sweet Sixteen and decided on a set of drawing pens I’d overheard her talking about with Collier, her best friend.  I saved for weeks and made a trip downtown to Omer DeSerres to buy them, and couldn’t wait to surprise her at the party.

In short order, bottles of red and white wine were poured, beers popped open – Louise brought some Makers Mark – and that went around our circle and kicked off a lifelong love of bourbon and its smoky warmth.

Tony, who played five instruments and had his own band, was in charge of the music. Collier put out gummy bears, and Morgan lit a joint and passed it around. Penny had baked a lemon-filled cake with indigo blue icing – Morgan’s favourite colour – and soon everyone was high, attacking the chips and peanut M&Ms, the gummies, and the licorice Twizzlers, as the munchies set in.

“Ready for birthday cake?” Penny asked, a friendly redhead who got us all involved in a weekly game night like a bunch of seniors, and who took great trouble to hide her ample breasts and belly under baggy tops.

“Tributes!” Collier said. “Tributes first, why we love the lady of the hour.”

“I’ll start,” said Penny, tugging at her sweatshirt. “I love you Morgan because you’re fucking kick-ass. You remind me never to take any shit, from anybody. Still working on it.”

The group cheered, and when the hubbub quieted, Tony spoke up. “You’re hot, Morgan.  You’re fucking hot.”

“Oh, shut up, you dick,” Collier hissed.

“Well, it’s true,” chimed in Louise, looking around at the rest of us from behind her thick, black-framed glasses. “Morgan is a hot beverage, to quote Starbucks.”

“You’re incredible, the most talented person I know,” said Katie, the brightest girl in our class, tops in science; she spent all of her vacations in St. Johns, Newfoundland, where her dad lived and worked as an oceanographer. “I would trade both feet for half your talent,” Katie added, pulling back her pale hair and twisting it up on top of her head, her long, willowy arms bare and graceful in a white tank top. Funny that Katie would envy Morgan, as Katie went on to become a noted conservationist – famous enough that I read about her in the paper – working to save sea turtles.

Morgan leaned in and kissed Katie on the mouth to hoots and hollers.

“You saved my life,” Collier said. “Again. I’m a cat, with nine. And lots of near-misses.”

Collier was born a boy, but when I knew him in high school, he called himself two-spirit, fluid. Fluid was milk and orange juice, not people. That made most of the boys and mean girls go off over his fluid, two-spirit business. Thank God he had Morgan, and they went way back.

Everyone was quiet after he spoke. Of course Collier had to be at the party, but except for Morgan, none of us were really close to him, though he had my respect for being who he was despite the fact that it earned him mostly grief and abuse.

I watched Morgan kiss Collier, a long deep dance of lips and tongues and mouths that radiated through their bodies and into ours as we all got lost, and I wondered if I had it wrong about the two of them being just friends. The others must have been having similar thoughts because no one hooted, hollered or cheered them on. We just went quiet.

When they drew apart, I drank Morgan in. She had a startling beauty, not a classic or conventional type of look. She was a tall, curvy girl with athletic shoulders and thick dark hair that flowed all the way down to the small of her back. Her skin was a creamy olive and her eyes, almond shaped and heavy-lashed, were a pale sea-foam green that took you by surprise because you expected them to be brown. Her lips were full, and she had a strong prominent nose, which only added to the character of her face. I overheard her talking one day in the hall with Collier, “I love my big schnoz,” she said, “It’s the only thing I got from my dad.”

I would’ve liked to hear more of their conversation, but Collier shot me a look, pure poison.

The tributes to Morgan went on. When my turn came, I kept it simple. “I love you Morgan.” I was too drunk and high to worry, and the words just tumbled out.

She looked at me for a brief moment with those pale green eyes, then tilted her head back, as Collier cooed, “Aww.”

Penny lit 17 candles on the blue cake, one for luck, and Morgan covered her eyes like a little girl before making her wish. Collier’s eyes were shut at the same time wishing right along with her. I wish I knew her wish, I can only imagine. And what did I imagine? I know now what I wished I had wished for her. And for myself.

Most of us had brought gifts. I didn’t see Collier give her anything unless he did so when the two of them were alone together.

Penny gave her a giant white vibrator called The Magic Wand. “You will never need man, woman, or anyone in between – again.”  Katie presented Morgan with a package of vintage issues of Raw, and Tony, a year’s supply of Dentyne Fire, her favourite gum. Now it was my turn. I handed her the package I’d carefully wrapped in shiny midnight blue gift paper and silver ribbon. When she opened it, Morgan sighed and touched her heart. She came over and held my face between both hands and gave me butterfly kisses on my cheeks, lips, eyes and neck.  I didn’t want the moment to end.

The dancing started after midnight. I passed around the Oxy feeling pretty full of myself, and swallowed mine fast without thinking, watching as my more experienced friends crushed and bit and chewed the pills to get the biggest buzz. I was feeling no pain but the effects weren’t as intense as I’d expected or hoped. Morgan and Collier got up together to dance, and everyone fell away to the sidelines to watch the two of them move together.  They danced down to the floor and their heads swivelled and bounced, their arms undulating like plants beneath the sea. And then as Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman came on, they slow danced, holding each other, Morgan dipping and Collier dancing up into her, bending deeply at the knee so his lanky leg was between hers to be closer still. Morgan and Collier. How could I have missed this?

After a while, Morgan slipped outside – I had these antennae always knowing where she was – without having to look.  Everyone else was still dancing like crazy. All at once, there was a deafening beat on the ceiling of the container, and I heard Collier shout out something.

I rushed outside with a few of the others. There was Morgan atop the container dancing, drunk and high and wild. Others crushed out of the clubhouse as Collier tried to soothe Morgan, to talk her down, literally and figuratively. Who knows what she was seeing and hearing and feeling?

I later learned that Morgan, even cold sober, saw things that were not there, but hid it from others except Collier. She also heard voices speaking inside her head. That explained the earphones she rarely took off because they helped drown out the internal noise.

I came to understand a bit of that noise myself.

Tony and I boosted Collier up so he could climb on top of the container. Up on the roof, he put both of his arms around Morgan enveloping her as she cried and laughed and laughed and cried, something I’d seen Collier doing, too. We could hear the murmur of his voice and her painful cries.

Collier crouched behind Morgan and hooked his arms beneath her knees, helping her scooch her bum to the edge of the container, and when she let go, a net of arms and hands were ready to break her fall and get her back inside.

We barely had time to breathe a collective sigh of relief because not long after, a crew of boys, a year or two older than us, showed up at the party and crowded into our clubhouse.  Word had gotten out. After they’d helped themselves to our provisions, their leader Luke insisted we play Truth or Dare and everyone was game, except for Collier.

“Not playing,” he said.

“Then piss off,” Luke ordered.

“Not going anywhere,” Collier sing-songed.

“Come on Coll,” urged Morgan. “Don’t be a party pooper.”

He shook his head, his long platinum hair swinging around his pale, thin face.

“Bro, if you aren’t playing you need to get out of here.”

“Don’t call me Bro.”

Luke gave Collier a dismissive shrug and muttered under his breath, “Freak.”

More beer, wine and bourbon were passed around, and Luke had brought more weed, boasting that it was laced with cocaine, and a second batch mixed with LSD. As he passed around a rainbow joint, a light rain began to fall on the roof with a soothing sound that reminded me of the ocean which I’d only visited once in my entire life. People settled into a circle along the edges of the space, Luke and Collier on either side of Morgan with me opposite her, as the game started with Louise. She asked Tony, “Truth or dare?”

“Truth.”  He slugged down his beer.

“What do you hate about yourself?” Everybody laughed, though it really wasn’t a funny question.

“I’m a shitty musician.”

“No way,” said Penny. “No truth there.”

Tony turned to Louise. “Truth or dare?”

“Dare.”

“Kiss Collier in their most private place.”

The pronoun was considerate, the dare cruel.

“Collier’s observing,” said Morgan, pulling them into her hip so they were sitting as close as possible.

But before things could escalate, Louise leaned over and kissed Collier lightly on his forehead. It was a great move, his brain – thoughts, sense of himself – his most private place. Even Collier smiled, a saddish, secret smile.

Everyone looked at Collier, waiting.

“Okay. Morgan, truth or dare?”

“Truth.”

I looked at Collier, and we both felt a rush of relief because he would never dare her to do anything humiliating or dangerous.

“Who’s the love of your life?”

“Tu es l’amour de ma vie.”

“Shit,” said Katie. “Tell us something we don’t know.”

The game went on and on deep into the night going around the circle many times.

Luke turned to Morgan. “Truth or dare?”

“Dare,” she said.

“I dare you, Beautiful, to let me make you feel better than you ever knew you could. Or would.”

“Fucking poet and doesn’t know it,” Collier murmured.

It was quiet, the rain had stopped. Everything then happened too fast. Luke hustled Morgan outside while three of his friends held Collier down. Some of us tried to free Collier. In a druggy, delayed reaction, the rest of us surged out of the container, looking for Morgan, so we could stop Luke from whatever he was doing to her. We searched the canal, ducking into other containers and old, stranded train cars, but there was no sign of either of them anywhere. In desperation, we ran up and down the tracks. Still no luck.

Finally, Katie called 9-1-1.

I dream of this night again and again. Some nights, I am the rat, squeaking, as he feasts on crumbs with ash caught in spills of blood-red wine and stinking beer. Other nights, I’m the police, arriving at the wrecked bright orange container, empty of kids, smelling of booze and beer and sweat and weed. Some nights, I am Morgan, terrified, unsure what is inside and what is not, hoping the voices inside my head would shut the hell up. Other nights, I’m Collier, loving Morgan as I already do, knowing that I couldn’t save or protect her, as hard as it was to save and protect myself, having to live with that – or deciding not to – spending months on the psych ward, a padded, protective prison, wondering if I could go on in this world that is cruel and ugly with few glimmers of light.

It was close to dawn when the police found Morgan alone in an abandoned shoe factory along the canal, near the town of Lachine. She was not breathing, and medics rushed her to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.

The cause of death was opioid overdose. There was evidence of sexual intercourse though no one will ever know if it was consensual or rape.

We all went to the funeral, and later, Collier organized a small memorial service for her closest friends. Somehow I got invited.

It was cold and bright on the May afternoon of the service with a sharp wind off the water, and the sun making gleaming fish scales on its surface.

We all gathered on the rocks descending to the waterfront beach on the Lachine Canal, one of her favourite spots, where you could still glimpse the sculpture, which looks like upraised flames or hands reaching for the skies. Apparently, it was Morgan and Collier’s special place, this beach, and they liked to shimmy down from the rocks and swim in the chilly water, kite surfers in the distance. They are the only two people I’ve known who actually swam in that rocky, restless, filthy Canal.

We each had a chance to share a memory of Morgan. And then while her mom held the oak urn, one-by-one, we reached in for a handful of her ashes and tossed them into the foamy water.

Morgan’s mother tolerated my presence at the funeral and at the memorial service, but she was cold, dipped in Plexiglass. Maybe it was simple, pure grief and had nothing to do with me and my part in Morgan’s death. I’ll never know.

I intended to go and see her, to ask for forgiveness. In fact, I planned it all out in my head and on paper, but by the time I got up my guts to go to her home, she had moved out west. I did write her a letter some years later, but she never responded.

After Morgan’s death, I hid my smarts in high school though I managed to do all right. I loved biology, anatomy, understanding life and death, health and illness. I had a secret dream of becoming a doctor, but never pursued it. Not because I wasn’t bright and tenacious enough, but because deep down inside, I felt rotten to the core, hardly a healer who first and foremost would do no harm.

I managed to squeak out an acceptance from McGill, but broke down during my freshman year and had to take a whole year off. The shrink I saw tried to convince me that what had happened at the party would have most likely have happened anyway.  Even if there was a grain of truth in that notion, it didn’t help. Nothing did.

I became a recluse, cut off my family, my friends. For a few years, I didn’t go to school and was out of work. I drifted, stayed in shelters and grabbed meals at food banks. I thought I spotted Luke at the Men’s Mission one night, but he was so dishevelled and broken and dirty, I wasn’t sure it was the same guy.  Whoever he was, he took no notice of me.

My life was no longer my own.

In The Book of Numbers, God tells Moses that the Israelites must designate six cities of refuge so that anyone who kills someone by accident can flee there. The murderers will be protected from the wrath of the “blood avenger,” a family member of the deceased.  The roads were to be well marked, free of obstacles, and wider than regular roads, so that those who have killed someone unwittingly could go there easily and without delay.

I never found my city of refuge. I remained in place.

I ran into Collier one more time, much later on. We were well into our thirties by then, and I stopped into a café near the McGill campus. Collier greeted me more warmly than I expected and we sat down for a chat. He told me that he had taken over Isolatoes after the original owner died… the man who had taken Collier in when he was orphaned and homeless had been like a father to him.

Collier asked me to stop calling him “him” and “he,” and to use they, awkward and confounding as I found this pronoun. I tried to make myself conscious and respect their wishes. They looked well, their platinum hair twisted up into a bun, decked out in high-waisted jeans, heeled boots, and a billowy white-ruffled blouse. Collier no longer sported the ironic smirk that was like a hand covering their face during the painful years of high school.

We both had the speciality of the house, an Isolatoe, a scrumptious coffee drink with cocoa, coconut milk, Kahlua syrup and cream. I needed some sweetness in my life.

Collier filled me in on the past twenty years of their life. They had gotten a degree in set design from Concordia and worked for some years in local theatre. Then when Paulie got sick with kidney cancer, Collier took time off to care for him. After Paulie’s death, Collier decided to take over the café. One of Collier’s dreams was to host a reading and performance art series at the café, and I could feel their excitement about this future creative venture.

We talked a bit about that night.

“You know, Morgan was expecting a baby,” Collier said. “Ours.”

I felt an electric shock pass through me. Though so much time had passed, I said, “I’m so sorry.”

Collier nodded. “But I’m thinking of adopting a kid, a girl. I’m making a trip to an orphanage in China this spring with my partner, Cole.”

“Wow, that’s wonderful,” I said. My own life at the time was still stuck, and sucked. I liked my work as a biology teacher at Park View High, the same high school I’d attended, hoping to ‘make a difference’ and all that, but I was terribly lonely and haunted by ghosts. My penance.

Collier told me that every year they went back to the beach on the Canal and sat for a while honouring Morgan and feeding bread crumbs to the seagulls, as they’d done together.

“I still talk to Morgan in my head,” Collier said.  “I dream of her, and she’s alive. With me. Again.”

We started a tradition that afternoon where I joined Collier at the Lachine Canal beach on the anniversary of Morgan’s death, and we thought of her and spoke of her, and remembered her life and how it had touched ours. It helped a little.

And that’s when a woman came over to our table to talk to Collier. Her name was Andrea Boise and we all got to chatting. Turns out she was training to be a Physician’s Assistant.

I have Collier to thank for connecting me with the love of my life, only myself to blame that I could not hold onto her. But that’s a different story. No, maybe not, perhaps I just have this one story and that’s enough.

 

 

“voodoo” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) thomas murawsky
I

Liberty High School’s big clean-cut balding principal, Franklin West, met Carlos Rodriguez as a freshman, reflexively finding the wise-cracking pony-tailed adolescent repugnant. Franklin drove into the inner city from a middle-class white neighborhood outside the city limits, where his stern Christian father once sold insurance, where home was his mother’s orderly domain. Franklin believed they raised him right, all his boyhood spankings were well-deserved, and that parents had become negligent; he hated having to coddle rather than simply suspend Carlos at will; if only corporal punishment were still allowed, he dreamed. The best he could do was find grounds for an occasional suspension and give his teachers firm reminders to send Carlos to his office after any sign of non-compliance. Franklin prided himself on his disciplinary methods, including the use of highly detailed files on every student; his files on teachers were no secret either. “I run a tight ship,” he liked to say, “follow the rules or walk the plank.”  He considered “What’s wrong with you?” a conversation starter with Carlos, “I know your parents are undocumented” a closer. After four years of his counseling sessions, Franklin lamented not being able to make Carlos shed a tear or take a swing.

II

All his teachers would have been shocked to find out that while publicly praising Carlos for making something of himself as graduation day approached, Franklin also kept a little black novelty store voodoo doll, with a cutout of Carlos’ year-book head-shot glued on. The little body tucked in his bottom desk drawer was covered with so many sewing needles head-to-feet, Franklin now risked pricking a finger every time he pushed one more in. He had come to believe needles were more potent than any colorful bead-headed bulletin board pin—thumb tacks or safety pins were out of the question. He had stopped using deliberately rusted needles when the doll was barely visible and too risky a target— a tetanus locked jaw was the inspired curse for Carlos.

III

That Carlos had delivered his valedictorian speech like a populist presidential candidate rather than a high school senior—standing ovation included—left Franklin alone in his office playing out murder scenarios in his mind at the end of the day. Tossing a Molotov cocktail through Carlos’ first-floor bedroom window late night was a favorite fantasy. Franklin saw himself parked across the street, looking through the night-vision scope on his new semi-automatic AR-15 rifle—praying to see Carlos and his boyfriend run out screaming in flames. Yes, Franklin was having abhorrent ideation and had been leaking psychopathic behavior for some time: he not only knew where Carlos lived, he had followed him closely enough to know exactly which room he slept in and with whom.

Franklin could only see a border-crossing illegal homosexual who ran around school promoting disgusting ideas; unbelievably, one who was headed to a top university on a full scholarship! He had not only got passed Franklin on his watch, he was now larger than life having done so. All that anti-bullying and restorative justice work that teachers had begun at the school had provided the perfect atmosphere for him to thrive.  The tight red t-shirt emblazoned with “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” fueled Franklin’s spite; his only consolation was making sure Carlos’ parents were picked up by ICE and ultimately deported a few weeks before graduation; now college-bound, what could Franklin do to stop Carlos from getting that law degree, then doing what he always talked about? — helping, who Franklin thought, society’s misfits and multicultural ingrates who should be shot for the treasonous things they say about the U.S.

IV

As Franklin held the little needle-covered corpse with his dead father’s old leather work gloves and placed it in a backyard hole beneath his favorite pine tree, he began to feel better inside a day-dream about fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan…if not for all his responsibilities as principal. There was also Betty—the sweet new librarian he had just hired that seemed made for him. Of course, the great novel and memoir he had outlined were not going to write themselves. Finally, he remembered his age.

As he poured lighter fluid over the silvery black deformity, he knew better than ever what mattered: anyone kneeling during the national anthem at an NFL game was, indeed, a son of a bitch–just another un-American freak. He would sideline as many of these sons of bitches as early as he could. This Carlos had gotten away; but there would be many more coming into his school building, and Franklin felt he was in the best position to handle them. He had learned his lesson; it was time to be more proactive. “Patriots are not born: they are made,” he liked to say.

V

Only the ashes of the voodoo doll were left when it stopped smoldering—a crust of blackened needles atop. Franklin could not help thinking about the look and potency of four years’ worth of charred slivers gradually stuck in a new doll with a fresh new face the following school year. Feelings of anticipation brought a sinister little smile to his face: the school was his after all, and he was not planning on going anywhere.

Untitled 2017 © Prasun Lala
[“Intersections” was first published on the author’s blog.]
Winter lights © Lisa Foster

 

–1–

 

White

The city turned white, for the snow had been coming down non-stop for two days and a night. When it finally did stop, the temperature dipped so low that the air itself was about to freeze.

He stayed home till boredom nearly killed him. He wasn’t the type who could watch TV for endless hours, and his weak eyes didn’t allow him to read for long. Then he listened to the radio, to audiobooks and to podcasts till he could not listen to anything any more.

On the fourth day he told himself, “Will I let the snow and cold beat me after all these years?”

He put on his long underwear and on top of it, as many layers of clothes as he could, and opened the door, saying, “Here we go!”

The streets were nearly empty and the sidewalks were deserted, for they were like desert paths full of small and larger dunes – of snow, not sand – but none of this stopped him. He walked and walked; walked as fast as his body would allow him, for the years had taken their toll.

He did not know how long he walked, as the brisk walk made him feel warmer and it was easier to be outside than he expected. He had no destination or aim other than to escape his loneliness, and this was better than being locked up in his tiny apartment.

Yet when the sun dropped lower on the horizon and the wind picked up a bit, the cold started seeping into his bones again. Feeling like he needed to pee, he decided to turn back.

He took a different return route. In one of the side streets he chose, snow removal trucks, plows and tractors of different sizes were relentlessly moving back and forth, so he stopped at an intersection to wait for a safe moment to cross.

Feeling colder by the minute, he got impatient and started waving repeatedly to the driver of a large snowplow that blocked his path. When the driver nodded to him, he proceeded as fast as he could.

Then there was a loud thump.

 

–2–

 

Yellow

“How did I get here?” The sandy beach was exactly as he remembered it (or imagined it) from his childhood years, infinitely empty after the last of the resort’s cabins were behind him. He was walking alone. He met no one, nor did he see any building on his path. Only the sea to his left and the sand dunes to his right.

He walked for hours but did not feel tired. Neither did he find the sun too hot or the breeze any colder than what felt adequately refreshing. Even the brightness of the sun hovering motionless above the sea’s surface did not bother his eyes. The only thing that occupied his thoughts was this infinite emptiness. He couldn’t get it off his mind. When he spent the summers here as a kid, the population of this old country was less than a third of what it was now; and he had often heard in the decades he lived abroad that dozens of new resorts had been built on the shores of the Mediterranean. So, how come this old resort was never extended nor were any new ones built next to it on these ideal shores?

He said to himself, “I’m not turning back till I find someone to ask or I reach another resort or town.”

After countless hours of walking, he still met no one; and even stranger, he did not feel tired, hungry, thirsty, or even the need to pee.

 

–3–

 

Red

The snowplow driver was motionless in his seat, seemingly in shock.

An ambulance siren was heard from a distance.

A small crowd gathered (no one knew from where) around a small snowplow in front of which lay what seemed to be an unidentifiable mass in a pile of snow.

Someone said, “He was crossing in front of that big snowplow when this one came speeding from the far side and hit him. It pushed him for two or three meters before it could stop.”

On closer examination, one could see that the mass in the snow was a person. A small pool of blood had formed next to it, contrasting with the white surface.

Another voice said, “No doubt he’s dead.”

 

 

You swarm around me like grasshoppers, like hungry squirrels. “What’s my name? What’s my name?” you ask with your hopeful eyes, so many frenzied pairs of them surrounding me as I enter the classroom. Have I remembered you finally, my new students, what seems like a countless mass of you?

You, the Hasidic children of Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood… I’m used to seeing you outside on the street, vague local colour. Walking in your plaid uniforms, with large bows planted on one side of your head, a style that, ironically, makes me think of an ostentatious Christmas package. All of you with mid-length hair and black tights, stomping purposefully down Hutchison, Parc, Jeanne-Mance. Passing me. Anonymous.

But now, your faces are just here below mine, upturned and eager, and I suddenly need to know all your names. Each a diminutive, ending in an ee-sound.

“Ruchi?”

You shake your head, no. “Bruchi?”  A quick smile. Phew, got it.

And then you, with the ponytail.

“Sha! Nobody say. She has to learn besser the names.”

You’re wearing a gold initial around your neck, a school fashion that’s been helpful.

“Raizy?” No. “Rosy? No. Roisy?” Yes.

Two hundred nuances of Raizy, Rivky, Ruchi. Hundreds of variations of the same twenty syllables, it seems. Chaya Leah? Chayale? Chaya? Chaya Hindy, Hindy Chaya, Chana Hindy… I call out an attendance roll of guesses until I’ve managed to cover everyone in the class.

“Hindy, please sit down.”

“I’m Mindy.”

“Sorry, Mindy.”

“She’s joking—she’s Minky!”

Titters flutter around the room. Oy vey.

I like you girls who are trained to hide your knees and be demure but also to be strong and practical, like your mothers who work and tend a dozen children. Who stride briskly through these streets with young faces poised under stiff wigs.

Yes, I like you and your old-world English, newly acquired and cumbersome in your little mouths, translated thickly from Yiddish.

“Is everyone here?” I ask in the Grade 3 class.

“One girl is failing.”

“Missing, you mean?” A shy nod.

Or, “I’m very upset of Minky. She’s sitting on my benkel!”

“Minky, please go back to your seat. That’s Raizy’s.”

“I saw you with your hair loose on Bernard!” One of you – Bruchi, or Ruchi?— approaches me, scandalized, fascinated. “Your hair was loose! You wear it loose outside from school?”

In school, like a caricature of a prim spinster teacher, I wear a tight bun.

“Are you still a girl?” a little one lisps, her face reddening, not understanding why my old face would still be topped by real hair. Every other girl she’s known gets married by eighteen, graduates to adulthood with a boxy bobbed sheitel and the term “Mrs.” followed closely by, “Mummy.”

“Are you still a girl?” She hangs onto her seat in bewildered delight.

Yes, I’m still a girl who doesn’t want to go to school today. I don’t want to be a teacher, or a spinster for that matter, collarbones covered, and robed in vigilant layers for your school’s severe dress code. I want to stroll along Bernard in my jeans and V-neck t-shirt. Sit on a bench and eat a warm bagel and talk to men in the doorways of bookstores and linger in record shops.

The other neighbourhood happening here, on these shared streets. So why do I now feel naked on them?

I want to be as I was over the summer, lying on the grass in Outremont park, limbs entwined with my summer crush, inattentive to the Hasidic children dotting the area, chattering in Yiddish. You kids and I were then of no special consequence to each other, noted for no more than the fleeting moment we’re accustomed to. Carefully distant in our cheek-by-jowl setting.

But now those clusters of children are you. You, looking at me, following my every move. Not another outsider to sweep your eyes over. I’ve stepped right into your world. I’ve brought the odd interruptions of drama classes and untended hair to the door of your disciplined school.

“Our girls are sheltered. You must respect that.” The principal, an imposing, impressive woman, welcoming but firm. Sharing the first of many classroom prohibitions: “No theatre. We don’t use that word. Drama games.”

 

~~~

 

“Are we allowed to…?” In class they follow me, uncertain but exhilarated. Winking in complicity behind my back at how much I allow.

“I can be pregmat?  I can have a pregmat belly in the skit?” A nine-year-old asks, mischievous.

Mispronouncing the word pregnant, snickering. The mountainous terrain of their lives, still embarrassing.

“My mother had a baby!” A student declares each day, bringing me another photo of a fresh doughy face.

Mazel tov! How many are you now?” (Though we all know counting blessings tempts envy in others, so the evil eye must be repeatedly shunned.)

“Twelve, knayne hore.”

Knayne hore. Girl or boy?”

“Girl, knayne hore.”

“Was she named yet?”

“Chayale.”

Knayne hore, mazel tov.”

 

~~~

 

“Okay girls, we’re going to create a sculpture garden. Everyone is going to become a statue, and I will stroll through and guess what you are.”  A mild exercise in concentration, a class warm-up.

“We’re not allowed to make statues—that’s avodah zara!”

Idol worship? I think you’re teasing and I roll my eyes, but am wary. Perhaps reframe. “Still as photographs, then.”

Is that more benign? I am almost familiar with the terms of your world—I even know, obscurely, that you’re not allowed to throw your bitten fingernails in the garbage, and I let you excuse yourself to flush them down the toilet—but sometimes I balk. I freeze into a statue myself, unsure how far your imagination is allowed to lead.

In a school where the colour red is forbidden, where the bottoms of Ts must be curled so they don’t resemble crosses, where I’m reprimanded for saying ‘God forbid’ in the wrong context, it’s difficult to assess when I’ve accidentally stepped over the line.

And then there are the times where you trample over my own threshold.

I come to hear the premise of your skit: “A goneff comes into the house!” (A robber?)

“And goes into the boydem!” (The attic?)

“And plutzling the family comes home!” (Suddenly?)

“And the robber is a shaygets!” Please don’t use that word.

“A shvartzeh!” What? Oh God, no.

“But that’s what my mother calls them.”

Foot firmly down in Grade 4, come what may. Will I be fired for writing “racism” or “diversity” on the board? Will imposing an agenda of “multiculturalism” get me sacked? Didn’t I hear they learned about Mandela last year?

I launch into preachy-outsider-teacher mode: Girls, you can have villains in your plays, of course. That’s drama! And, yes, let’s tackle fears, and even enact and overcome them here on the safety of our stage.

But then let’s also talk about the so many kinds of people in this world, dear students. In this neighbourhood we share. It’s not just you and then so many ominous others. It’s us. It’s me!  Your weird drama teacher with frizzy real hair and too long earrings who might still be a girl is telling you that Hashem created all the people in this world, all colours and nations, in His infinite wisdom, knayne horeh. This is what I try to say.

Please listen before I leave you, which I rather hope will be soon. I’m not a natural pedagogue and I haven’t come to undo your community. But I do want to gently, slightly, crack open the door leading outside, to this place we share. And I won’t deny it if asked.

I see your condescending looks, your scepticism. But I notice some attention to what I’m saying mixed in. And just for that I’m grateful to be here with you.

 

~~~

 

“Do you forgive me?” The twelve-year-olds ask at the end of the term.

“For what?”

“For anything I may have done. Are you moykhel me?”

Though I know you ask this of all your teachers at the end of a course so no ill feelings should carry over, still I’m touched.  Here we met, you and I. Here we saw each other up close, learned each other’s names.

Your winged eyebrows are raised anxiously, sincere.

“Of course I do, Chany. There’s nothing to forgive. It was wonderful to have you in my class.”

You smile in relief, shy, and press your books into the grey sweater of your uniform.

“It was really fun to be so free. Thank you.”

I want to say, it was really fun for me too. Sometimes it was.

And anyway, who knows in the end how the balance of happiness to unhappiness in your lives compares to that in mine?  When I see you walking down St. Viateur or Jeanne-Mance, pushing a stroller—your first baby or maybe your fifth by then—perhaps you will smile or nod at me, even if you catch me eating a non-kosher bagel or wearing pants or holding a man’s hand. Or maybe you will politely avert your eyes. Though so many in the neighbourhood take offence at this, I will know it’s to spare me and my own shyness near you.

 

Lorsqu’on nous regarde d’en bas, ça donne l’impression que notre vie est facile. On imagine les grands espaces, la liberté. Eh bien, je dirais que la liberté n’est possible qu’à l’abri des problèmes et la seule période sans problème c’est au tout début, quand on est entouré d’un mur concave de calcaire. Si on savait cela avant de sortir, on ne chercherait pas à tout précipiter dès les premiers instants de conscience. À force d’acharnement et d’épuisement, on détruit, pour de bon et sans espoir de restauration, ce cocon idéal. À partir de ce moment-là, les choses se gâtent. Prendre de l’altitude, naviguer le ciel peut être beau à voir, mais là-haut, ce n’est facile pour personne. J’en sais quelque chose, je suis un jeune faucon.

J’ai vu un de mes frères, d’une autre couvée, assailli dès son échappée. Vidé de toute énergie, hors d’haleine, à peine extirpé de sa coquille, son petit corps tremblant, visqueux et échevelé, s’est fait rapiner par un oiseau à peine plus grand que lui. J’ai vu d’autres petits infortunés rouler accidentellement hors d’un nid voisin, qui avait été squatté à la hâte par une mère négligente, pour se retrouver au sol à la merci d’un renard qui les a gobés goulûment. Dans mon cas, ça s’est très bien passé. Maman était présente quand j’ai crevé mon œuf. Je l’entendais avant même d’avoir lézardé la surface. Elle rôdait nerveusement autour du nid, ce qui m’a permis de ponctuer mes efforts de quatre ou cinq siestes, de quelques secondes chacune, pour reprendre des forces et m’extraire définitivement d’où je n’aurais jamais dû sortir. Les jours suivants n’étaient que piaillements et bousculades; une lutte sans merci contre mes quatre frères, tous étant d’au moins quelques jours, jusqu’à une semaine, plus jeunes que moi. C’est dire que j’avais l’avantage de l’âge et de la taille.

Lorsque papa, qui nous nourrissait le plus souvent, arrivait avec quelques vermisseaux, il survolait notre aire en battant des ailes pour nous réveiller. De la corniche de notre escarpement, j’étais le premier à tendre le cou dangereusement hors du nid et à ouvrir le bec au plus large de ma capacité. Je cognais mes petits frères avec mes ailerons pour les sonner et m’emparer de leurs portions. Je dévorais autant que je pouvais, c’est-à-dire presque tout ce que papa ou maman apportait, surtout au début, et sans le moindre sens du partage. J’ai vu le plus faible d’entre nous cinq sécher et mourir au fond du nid, tandis que les autres gagnaient en robustesse. Aucun de nous ne l’a regretté, le pauvre, même pas ma mère. Nous étions au contraire soulagés pour lui. C’est qu’il n’avait pas la combativité nécessaire. Pour ma part, bien nourri, je devins rapidement très vigoureux, au point d’attraper des insectes au vol. En quelques semaines, j’avais triplé de taille et j’assommais littéralement mes frères à l’heure du repas. Comme je les blessais régulièrement et qu’en m’agitant je risquais de faire basculer notre nid en bas de la falaise, maman m’a jeté dans le vide. En apparence, j’étais bien assez grand pour voler et me défendre seul, ayant grossi en si peu de temps, mais je n’étais pas du tout prêt à quitter ma mère.

Les premiers temps, je la suivais tant bien que mal mais je ralentissais ses excursions et parfois, j’entrais en collision avec elle, ne sachant pas ralentir ou bifurquer à temps. Elle me chassa cruellement pour que j’apprenne à me débrouiller seul. Je me trouvai tout d’un coup livré à moi-même, plein d’angoisse, tournant nerveusement la tête dans toutes les directions, planant sans but, puis me posant, de temps à autre, sur la cime d’un conifère. Et là, j’oscillais de long moments, comme pour réfléchir. En vérité, je ne faisais qu’imiter les adultes en guettant l’horizon, dans le seul espoir de voir ma mère surgir avec un ver grouillant pour me rapatrier au bercail. J’étais tenaillé par la faim, mais je ne savais rien de la chasse et ma vue était encore trop brouillée pour que je puisse distinguer quoi que ce soit à distance.

La première fois que j’ai visé une proie au sol, je me suis aperçu en me rapprochant que je m’apprêtais à attaquer le reflet d’une fleur jaune qui remuait dans une flaque d’eau. J’évitai l’écrasement de justesse pour aussitôt m’élever d’un trait jusqu’au premier nuage. Je me laissai porter par le vent en reprenant mon souffle mais je perdais tout espoir de me nourrir quand se profila au-dessus de moi l’ombre d’un condor. On avait vu ces charognards ténébreux survoler notre nid par le passé, mais ma mère orchestrait des distractions pour qu’ils ne nous découvrent pas. Le simple passage de ces grands oiseaux effrayants nous faisait tous pisser en même temps. Celui qui volait au-dessus de ma tête semblait fixer son attention sur une proie au sol, qu’à grand effort de concentration je pouvais distinguer assez clairement. C’était un chevreau blessé qui boitait et haletait péniblement, tandis que trois jeunes renards salivant, l’ayant grièvement blessé, attendaient le bon moment pour l’achever. Le condor, voulant prendre part au butin, se laissait tomber comme une feuille en formant des huit descendants. Bientôt, il atteindrait mon altitude. Je n’avais ni la force d’accélérer, ni l’habileté de manœuvrer pour m’écarter de son parcours. Alors, je ployai les ailes et me laissai tomber comme une roche, en priant de heurter une surface molle à l’arrivée. J’aboutis effectivement sur un petit mulot qui continua un instant de gigoter sous mon poids. La force de l’impact lui avait brisé le dos. Il a suffi que je le picore quelques fois à la tête pour qu’il cesse de bouger. Son cœur battait à tout rompre quand j’entrepris de l’éviscérer et de dévorer ses entrailles encore chaudes.  ” Quel délice! ” pensais-je. Si j’avais su comme c’est bon, un petit rongeur fraîchement tué, j’aurais rampé au sol bien avant. Je me rendais pourtant compte que cette méthode – consistant à se laisser tomber sur sa proie – n’était pas la moins risquée, ni la plus précise. Maintenant que j’avais repris des forces, que je voyais mieux et que je pouvais penser plus clairement, il me fallait élaborer un plan d’attaque. Deux choses me paraissaient prioritaires: choisir ma proie et me servir de mes serres pour capturer des petits rongeurs savoureux. Fier de ces deux résolutions, je repris mon envol en me laissant dériver avec une assurance, un aplomb et une détermination dont je ne me croyais pas capable jusque-là. Le goût du sang m’avait galvanisé.

 

 

Je décidai de m’en prendre aux canetons. Ces flâneurs nerveux réunissaient tant de caractéristiques avantageuses, qu’ils semblaient être une proie toute désignée. Mieux qu’une proie isolée, ils sont toujours en groupe et leur nombre pallie l’imprécision de ma chute aveugle; L’âge tendre de ces créatures les porte à la distraction; ils sont dissipés, bruyants et pas toujours accompagnés d’adultes. C’est du moins ce que je croyais. Je ne pouvais pas savoir, au moment où je prenais pour cible ces palmipèdes, que la représentation erronée que je m’en faisais conduirait à ma  perte. J’élus donc comme territoire de chasse les marais, les étangs et les lacs et je me mis à observer ces petites familles voguant inlassablement le long des rives en quête de la végétation lacustre dont elles se gavent à satiété. Les canards ont une faiblesse notoire lorsqu’ils se repaissent. Ils plongent la tête dans l’eau et comme un balancier, leurs queues se soulèvent et pointent au ciel. Sans beaucoup réfléchir, j’avais présumé qu’il serait facile de les surprendre dans cette position vulnérable. J’ignorais alors leur habitude de se relayer, de manière à ce qu’il y ait toujours un guet pendant que les autres s’empiffrent. Au moindre soupçon, ce dernier alerte le groupe. Chacun sait que ces bêtes fébriles à l’extrême souffrent d’une sorte de paranoïa ontologique : il suffit d’un clapotis inégal, d’un hochement de feuille suspect, du passage d’une loutre ou du regard insistant d’un castor pour amener l’un du groupe à caqueter, l’autre à cancaner et tous, très vite, à nasiller. Lors de mes premiers essais, je les approchais en feignant d’être distrait. Je faisais le désintéressé, comme si je pensais à autre chose. Mais ils détectèrent ma ruse et se précipitèrent dans les fourrés où je ne pouvais plus les atteindre. Aussi candide et vulnérable puisse-t-elle paraître, cette race de survivant a développé l’instinct de détecter le danger à distance. Si je prenais un élan à grande altitude, en traçant une grande courbe derrière un cumulus, ils avaient vite fait de me repérer entre les nuées et de se jeter pêle-mêle dans les roseaux hors de ma portée. Plus d’une fois, n’ayant pu freiner à temps, je me suis enfoncé dans des buissons ou empêtré dans les branches d’un cèdre riverain. Chacun de mes essais était plus ridicule que le précédent et j’avais l’impression d’être devenu la risée du voisinage. Des bandes de canards ricanaient dès mon apparition dans l’azur. J’ai l’intuition qu’ils se sont donné le mot et rapidement, le bruit s’est mis à courir qu’un nouveau faucon faisait des attaques prévisibles, loufoques et maladroites. En tout cas, je n’avais pas le sentiment d’être respecté, sûrement parce que la réputation qui me précédait m’enlevait toute crédibilité et cela finit par me démoraliser. Encore une fois, j’étais dépourvu, affamé et je recommençais à faiblir. Je n’avais plus le choix que de recourir à la chute libre en espérant pour le mieux. Si je rate les canetons, je tombe à l’eau, pensais-je. Perspective peu réjouissante, mais moins risquée qu’un écrasement sur la terre ferme.

Je cherchais à profiter de mon avantage principal : ma vision qui, à ce stade de mon développement et malgré mon jeûne forcé, était passée de passable à exceptionnelle. Je décidai de jouer le tout pour le tout. M’élevant jusqu’au point où ma vue perçante me permettait de voir sans être perçu, je me plaçai exactement au-dessus d’un groupe de canetons assez éloigné de la rive. J’enfonçai mon bec dans mes plumes pour cacher mon identité, je vidai l’air de mes poumons et je fermai les yeux en repliant les ailes, me faisant lourd afin de maximiser mon accélération et de produire un effet de surprise. J’étais en chute libre pendant moins de cinq secondes quand j’ai heurté un obstacle de plein fouet. J’ouvris les yeux pour m’apercevoir que j’avais percuté la tête du condor qui quelques jours auparavant m’avait épouvanté. L’impact fut si violent que ce monstre lugubre ébranlé perdit connaissance et comme un cerf-volant brisé se mit à virevolter sans contrôle. Il alla s’écraser tête première contre un rocher saillant au beau milieu du lac que je ciblais. J’avais peine à croire ce qui venait d’arriver tandis que je descendais avec précaution vers ce pourfendeur céleste déchu. Je le survolai un moment en battant fort des ailes afin de l’oxygéner et de l’éveiller, si par malchance il avait été encore vivant. Il paraissait sans vie. Tout semblait calme autour de nous et la circulation aérienne était des plus tranquille. Après avoir tourné quelques fois autour de ce triste spectacle, je m’approchai de la carcasse désarticulée du condor dont les énormes ailes, au larges plumes ébouriffées, pendaient de chaque côté du rocher et trempaient sans élégance dans l’eau. J’atterris, non sans appréhension, sur son poitrail en l’enserrant férocement, ce qui le fit faire un soubresaut qui m’effraya et me fit bondir plus de dix pieds à la verticale. Heureusement, ce n’était que le réflexe nerveux d’une dépouille encore chaude. Après avoir balayé à nouveau son bec du bout de mes ailes par acquis de conscience, j’empoignai sa gorge de mes serres puissantes et je lui rompis le cou d’un seul coup et sans difficulté. Le jabot gonflé fièrement, perché sur ma victime fortuite, je m’apprêtais à crever la partie tendre de son abdomen quand, surgi de nulle part, un groupe de vautours s’amassa autour de moi, noircissant le ciel au-dessus de ma tête. Sans espace pour m’élever, j’ai eu le réflexe de plonger à l’eau et de battre frénétiquement des ailes dans un mouvement de panique, m’éloignant du danger en m’enfonçant au plus profond du lac en quelques instants. Nager n’était pas plus difficile que voler, peut être plus aisé même; avec les bourrasques et les fronts venteux en moins. Dans ce lac sans courant fort, l’harmonie semblait régner. Les poissons me dépassaient, indifférents, et la végétation marine ondulait par rangée, sereinement et en cadence. Levant les yeux vers la surface qui s’éloignait irrésistiblement, j’ai cru voir la tête d’un anatidé qui, avec son bec plat, lapait une gorgée d’eau et portait sur moi un regard étonné. Il plongea la tête à quelques reprises pour vérifier s’il m’avait bien vu piquer vers le fond. J’étais assez heureux, tandis que mon pouls cardiaque ralentissait doucement et que mon corps gorgé d’eau se délestait de ses dernières forces. Voyant mon sort inévitable, j’avalai le lac à pleines lampées comme on respire l’air sans compter et bientôt, ivre d’eau, je fermai les yeux en me blottissant dans un nid d’algues accueillant et, avec le sentiment diffus d’être enfin libéré, je me laissai paisiblement engloutir, enlacé dans son étreinte.

 

 +++++++++

Antoine Bustros is a Montréal pianist, composer and writer. He writes music for films and has been developing an original repertoire for Ensemble Ulysse, a new chamber music ensemble, since its foundation in the year 2000. He has previously published short stories, music and essays in Montréal Serai and XYZ, la revue de la nouvelle. Recently he scored the 18-episode series Extraordinary Canadians and Tony Asimakopoulos’ documentary, Return to Parc Ex. Both have been available online since October 2017 on CBC television. In the winter of 2018, he will be releasing a third album with Ensemble Ulysse: La condition Humaine.

www.antoinebustros.com

http://watch.cbc.ca/extraordinary-canadians/season-1/b8ab2028-603d-4a14-a560-14203346716d

http://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/episodes/return-to-park-ex

https://www.facebook.com/EnsembleUlysse/

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=cafe%20resonance

 

 

 

Talula

 

Talula, my seven-year-old visitor, meets the ghost of my husband in my kitchen. Her father lifts her onto the bar stool at the counter where I’ve spread out a festive buffet of beads. Lately, Talula has been creating bracelets and necklaces from plastic beads at Miss Wiseman’s after-school beading course on Mondays.

A little girl in love with beads.

Talula is shy. Her long dark hair escapes its barrette and falls across her face, hiding her expression, muffling her whisper. She keeps her focus on the boxes of colourful objects before her. Her eyes never meet mine. Beside her, her father is also engrossed in admiring this trove of millefiore glass beauties from Murano, brown and white dzi beads from Tibet, silver findings from Bali… treasures of a man long gone, also in love with beads. After an hour they prepare to leave, clutching their meticulously chosen gems. My late husband’s passion – his very soul – moves out the door with them. Talula waves goodbye.

Her father later sends me a message thanking me, saying that his daughter spoke excitedly to her classmates the following day about her new acquisitions. She has given one as a gift to Miss Wiseman. She knows these beads belonged to a man who has died.

Seventeen years after his death, the universe has sent me Talula. I cry.

 

 


The Sarasota Sag

 

Lately, a wizened little gremlin has been hanging around me. She never speaks, but she makes her opinions known by occasionally rolling her eyes or wrinkling up her nose in disgust. She patiently crouches by my feet, waiting until I have arranged my back before bending to lace up my shoes. She perches on my shoulder while I apply foundation to fill in the deepening crevices bleeding into my upper lip. At breakfast, she lolls on the kitchen table as I eat my whole-grain toast and lactose-free yogurt before downing my magnesium and calcium supplements. I’ve sometimes given her a good whack and sent her scurrying into some closet in my mind, where I immediately slam the door. And lock it. But recently she’s managed to escape, and I find her peering back at me in the mirror. She is a constant reminder of my decline. Really, she’s such a pest.

With my 71st birthday looming, I can no longer fend off the perception of myself as an aging matron, joining the ranks of slack-jawed, arthritic, tricep-flapping oldsters. It all came to a head on my recent snowbird getaway in Sarasota. Sitting by the pool in my Capri jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt, unable to find the psychic strength to don a bathing suit, the full realization of my encroaching decrepitude came blasting into my consciousness. The impact was reminiscent of the Florida tornado that roared its way between the two high-rises on the beach last year, and cut a swath of destruction right outside my door.

I’ve been told I come across as a particularly youthful septuagenarian. And truth be told, the seniors at the pool were not in their 70s. These oldsters were in their 80s and 90s, so I still had a buffer of 10 to 20 years ahead of me. And yet I could relate.

The first tip-offs were the varicosities. Men and women alike were doddering amidst a forest of bluish branches wending their way up their oddly bowed legs. Hey, I’ve got some of those!

I blame my older son for these painful obscenities. While alternately relaxing and rebelling within my belly 46 years ago, my feisty fetus was parked in the left half of my bicornuate uterus. Judging by his frantic rolls, punches and kicks, he was squished and already pissed off with the world. I’m truly sorry he felt that way. But after he was yanked out with mid-forceps, it was I who was left with vaginal varicosities the size of golf balls. Over time, these were cajoled with gentle inversion, soothing sitz baths and calming creams. They did recede, leaving delicate tentacles of lavender and grey rooted in one ankle and journeying to the east and west along my calf. Now, inadequate blood flow and a constant yanking sensation in my left leg must be endured forevermore.

Poolside, the women spoke to one another in voices registering soprano proportions. There was no need for everyone to hear about Claire’s daughter-in-law, still the bitch she always was. Did anyone really care to know about the details of Sharon’s bargaining skills at the Saturday flea market where she found the most adorable little enamel boxes, so useful for her pills? (Well, not the heart ones – they’re too big – but the cholesterol ones fit just fine.) Laughter resembled a startling cackle, not a low, warm resonant chortle. No, this was a definite clucking, a shrewish heh-heh, rather than an expansive ha-ha, which sounds so much younger.

Did I mention that I was sitting by the pool not taking the water, not only because I dared not be seen in a bathing suit, but also because I had lately been injured? I had needed an airport wheelchair, crutches or a cane to get to the beach, to negotiate the aisles at the grocery and to reach the bathroom at four a.m. My geriatric neighbours were also shuffling about with canes and walkers or hanging onto their equally unsteady companions. No wonder I could relate!

A few weeks ago, after walking for six days up and down New York streets, I incurred an injury brilliantly diagnosed in the most erudite of medical terms as “overuse.” In other words, I walked too much for a 70-year-old-who-should-have-known-better-than-to- cover-80-blocks-of-Manhattan-at-a-go. My throbbing leg and a painful burst Bakers cyst behind my knee thus prevented me from taking on exercise of any meaningful sort. My subsequent Sarasota holiday was a bust. Strolling the beach or walking to town was not an option. Biking, stationary or otherwise, was not possible. And swimming, if kicking, was ill advised. I had been rendered sedentary. Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies and Mars bars filled an emotional void I could barely see the bottom of, so I could expect not only a withered musculature but an inevitable weight gain as well.

The ladies around the pool had lost their waistlines. They had bulging tummies and back fat spilling over the tops of their swimsuits. They had puckered thighs that jiggled jelly-like when they tried to move from chaise lounge to shallow-end banister. Some of them had skin that seemed to shed a form of dandruff, leaving a little trail of cells behind them, so dry were they from years in the sun. But these bronze women still looked healthier than I, newly arrived from the cold Canadian north, and the pasty colour of clay. Because I would slather on 60-SPF sunblock, I would not return home with the appearance even hinting at the notion that I had just spent four weeks in the southern sunshine. No, I would remain as chalky as ever, too fearful of dying an agonizing death-by-melanoma.

But, what’s the difference, I ask you? If we die of this or of that? We’re all going to return to dust or ash, depending on what type of body disposal we’ve chosen. Does it matter if we look healthy and tanned in our coffins? Be realistic.

So, I’ve been thinking about how I will negotiate this next and, frankly, almost-final life phase. Glaring at the gremlin in the mirror, I contemplate whether there is some particular way I want to be, prior to my swan song. Flexible or stiff? Frivolous or grave? Frantic or at rest? And do I even get to choose?

All the pool octo- and nonagenarians were young once. I’m sure they were as stunned as I am to find themselves at the head of the train.

I give my gremlin one last look and decide that I might as well just get on with whatever living is left, and see if I can embrace it. And forget about what used to be.

Cause it’s gone, baby, gone!

 

 

 

 

I’m sorry it had to come to this.

Fifteen years ago, I would have never even thought of this as an option. Yet here I stand, looking out of my window from my closet of an apartment, and I watch the stars. I think of the one night we saw the moon. I was the scrawny seven-year-old who had never stayed up past midnight on New Year’s Eve and who was still ashamed of the training wheels attached to her bike. You later told me it was around three in the morning when you snuck into my room to wake me up. The world was darker than I’d ever seen it before, and there was a strange red hue cast across my surroundings. Refusing to answer my questions, you grinned as you pulled me from my bed and down the stairs. Dad was waiting there for us, and grabbed my other hand when I reached him. I remember him leaning down and whispering, “You’re gonna love this, kid.”

I’ll never forget the night you two crazy parents dragged me out of bed and onto the deck to show me the red moon. Being a seven-year-old who still confused the words “specific” and “Pacific,” I couldn’t repeat it perfectly when you told me it was an eclipse. My closest attempt was an – “eslips” – but you two smiled and wrapped me in a blanket, then a hug. We stayed up all night, and you let me stay home from school the next day. “Special occasions need to be special,” you told me, “and this was very special, trust me.”

Ten years ago, I would have never even thought of this as an option. Here I pace, my hands unsteady and my breath uneven, eyes scanning my bare walls. I think of the afternoon we painted the living room. I was the four-eyed mathlete who had never been brave enough to ride a ‘real’ rollercoaster and was afraid of any hairstyle that wasn’t a ponytail – and sometimes even those intimidated me. We were sitting on the couch, you reading a magazine and me doing my homework. You looked like a normal mother for a moment, then out of nowhere, you jumped up and sprinted out the door. I remember thinking nothing of it. Perhaps you had forgotten a meeting, or you had an incredibly strong craving for peanut butter cups and just had to go to the store to get some. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I’ll never forget the look on your face when you rushed back in half an hour later, with a gallon of sky blue paint and a paint brush. I remember you saying in an excited hushed tone, “Let’s surprise your dad.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon moving furniture and picture frames off the walls. By the time Dad got home from work, the walls were painted a sloppy blue, with drips and smudges accidentally adding texture. For a moment, he acted as though nothing had changed, but I knew he had noticed.

You went up to him and said, “I was going to clean up the drips.”

“No,” he said, a grin spreading his lips, “I think it suits us.” If it were possible, I loved him even more after that.

Five years ago, I would have never even thought of this as an option. Here I sit, on a rickety chair as I stare down at my hands, then past them to the cold concrete floor. I think of the morning we ate breakfast on the ground. I was the teenager who was too overwhelmed to join a club because three were too many people; who tried out for every sport and only got onto one team – dodge ball, the sole sport where running away from the ball is what they look for. Dad had gotten up extra early to make us a wonderful breakfast. I remember the smell of back bacon wafting through the house and Dad’s special “secret recipe” oatmeal (a tablespoon of cinnamon and three tablespoons of milk along with a dash of M&Ms). I tumbled downstairs and eventually you came sauntering in as well.

I’ll never forget when you looked out at the beautiful assortment of food laid across the table. You stood with hands on hips as you shook your head and muttered in disappointment, “We can’t eat like this.” Ten minutes later, we were sitting on the floor on an old blanket, surrounded by oatmeal, bacon and fruit salad, each with our own milkshakes. You smiled and said, “Much better. Now we can eat like kings.”

One year ago, I didn’t think I had any options. Here I am, leaning against the wooden chair with my chin in my hand, my eyes floating up towards the creaking beams in my ceiling. I think of the time everything disappeared. I wasn’t smart. I wasn’t sporty. I wasn’t special. But I was one thing. I was loved. I was loved by the two greatest human beings I have come to know. And when the morning air was fresh, and drivers were still kind of asleep behind their wheels, and the ice was creeping across the road, I lost you. Everything gone in an instant. I blinked and the world was crumbling around me. Glass flying. Metal crunching. Screams echoing.

Not your screams. You were already gone. But the screams that fill my ears are uncontrollable. Shrill and strong.

And pained. The screams have been on repeat for the past eleven months. They have moved past my ears, through my mind, down my spine, spreading out to every cell of my being, finally finding their way to the deepest parts of my heart. Screams cannot be contained inside a weak, collapsing heart like mine.

I have no other option.

Here I hang.

From the rope, tied to the creaking beams in my ceiling.

My body limp, eyes blank, my chest quiet. The screaming has finally stopped. A peace falls across the room. I can feel our footsteps pounding against the carpet in the middle of the night. I can see the smile that crossed your face when you spotted the sky-blue walls. I can smell the bacon and the oatmeal.

Here I hang.

Finally free from the faded stars of joy, the bare walls of my core, the broken chairs of hope, and the concrete floors of my heart.

I was loved. Then, I was lost.

Finally, I am free.

Seemingly mundane moments turned into quirky omens,

with made-up messages to help a girl mend her broken heart and her hurting soul…

~

And on the second day, God said: “When sadness falls upon thee, eat gluten and eat a lot of it.” That day she ate many pancakes.

And on the third day, God told her: “Treat yo self.” But she didn’t know what He meant. So she cooked an egg and placed it Sunny-Face up; but it leaked with tears regardless.

On the fourth day God said: “Wear your (you know which jeans).” And she said, “Okay” and wore her (you know which jeans). A photograph in her boyfriend jeans was taken.

On the fifth day God said, “Sweet child, make something seasonal out of your sadness.” And she listened and made her sadness into something seasonal. But God said nothing more to her that day. He knew she didn’t want to hear anymore for one day. A Sweet Potato Pumpkin Soup was brewed until her heart’s contentment.

On the sixth day God said, “Take a moment to step inside and feel the warmth of good friends.” And she said Okay to his advice, and stepped inside and felt the warmth of her friends. She smiled with her mouth – and even showed some teeth – but He knew she still felt cold, and that there was no correlation to the weather. A photograph with good friends was taken.

And on the seventh day, God chained his child to her bed and gave her no choice but to vomit all of the poisons she had inside. While she lay there the whole day through, she thought: “Lord, what a cruel way to give a girl a day off.” She found some mercy – a vial full – and thanked the Man for His days of reflection, His twisted types of healing.

Between the bites and chewing of her morning toast, the eighth day came and went, and although all that was meant to be destroyed and created was – she still felt like she needed Him. But God said not one word to her that day. He was quiet. Private, in fact, and seemingly distant. She listened for a sign in between the conversations her mother had around her; she listened on the metro through its humming; she listened in the car for Him to say something or anything complete, but all He mumbled was: “Sweet child – Eat, Pray, and love.” She said Okay to Him (unsure if he even heard her), and promised she’d try tomorrow. For now this movie will suffice. The Eat. Pray. Love film starring Julia Roberts was played as she fell asleep.

On the ninth day God returned, and He said to His child: “If you look just beyond the mountains, and make a vow to eat the fish of the sea and the greens of the earth – your pain may feel more natural – and in time, it will leave you.” And she said, “Okay, but I hope you know I’m going to eat all of the Mountains too. Mashed potatoes ARE my favourite.” And he replied with more enthusiasm than yesterday, “You will not be judged for having eaten all of that gluten. Today you must Eat but tomorrow, tomorrow you Pray.” And she answered, with a mouthful of potatoes, ‘Okay.’ A photograph of a mountain of mashed potatoes, a sea of grilled fish, and a bush of broccoli was taken.

On the 10th day while she ran and the sun set over her, she Prayed. At first she spoke to Him as though He were a genie in a bottle needing to be rubbed the right way, but quickly that tone faded. She prayed to Him instead like she would as though she were rambling to a friend: “Like maybe, maybe my life’s puzzle pieces could seem less puzzling; maybe just things could align like the stars in the sky.” And all of a sudden, in a mere streak of yellow light (yolk), God came down from the sky, hushing the world around her and said: “Dear child, I am always listening. I am always watching you from the Centre of every sunset, from the yolk of every morning egg.” That day two photographs were taken: a sunset, and two ripe, yellow morning yolks.

And on the 11th day that passed, her world ended. She saw only darkness and her heart cried and squeezed out through her eyes. God had decided her fate. He hardly warned her of when He would take action, and that made her angry. But on the 12 th day, running from her problems, she was reminded of life’s beauties and rebirths. She found this lovely Lady and gave her a free ride all the way to Île Des Soeurs — she didn’t even pee once. A ladybug had landed on her hand, and a photograph was taken.

In between the 11th and 13th day, she visited a church – something unforeseen to her in many ways. When they asked the reason for her visit and she told them, along a rectangular table, under bleack white lights, they prayed for her. She couldn’t quite hear what was said, but mumbles and deep breaths filled the room, and voices found passion in words and in circumstance not relevant to them. They prayed for what she had asked like they said they would.

Later that same evening her actual Father came to her that night with a distraught looking piece of Gluten Filled Apple Pie, and he wrapped his arms around her only just to say, “Baby, you are going to be okay…” He hushed her for a moment more before continuing: “…Everything will be okay again because ‘The Spirit of God is upon me; because He hath anointed me to preach good news to the humble; he hath sent me to bind up the Broken-hearted, and proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners.’ You’re going to be just fine,” he said once more; “You’ll be okay again.” And while she listened, she let her heart turn off inside her chest. Resting it on His. For a moment she leaned everything she had on him, just to feel whole again (Isaiah 61).

On the 13th day God said in a sweet whisper: “Wishing a Happy Birthday to the twins! And Sweet child, remember when you are feeling blue, bake something orange.” And she said, “Okay. But you have to help me do the dishes…” And God replied, “Yeh, okay there sweet child. I know your heart,” He said, “I know your thoughts (that’s enough). I have searched you to see if there be any wicked way in you — I’ll lead you in the Way, the lasting-ever, but I will not do the dishes.” [A rift of Psalm 139 L 23] That evening a Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie was made, and she finally left her home for something other than school. To a birthday party she went, with a pie in her arms, and a small happiness to celebrate her red-headed favourite twins.

On the 14th day, she looked up into the sky and pointed through the clouds to where she thought God might be. “Show yourself!” she cried. The sky remained blue and the clouds sailed back to where they were resting. “What are you trying to do?” she asked. She heard no answer. “Why are you doing this right now, why all at once?” The sky remained the same picture. Then, in a gust of wind — a howling swirl, God said: “This is what you need. Everything must fall apart before it can feel right again.” “I don’t understand: why everything?” To which God replied, “Sweet child, you must try to understand: what seems like the destruction of all things concrete in your life is only the renewal and transformation of darkness to light. No one may have told you, ‘but there will be days like this’ when the rain that falls is what no one foresaw; when your own anger and hate will overwhelm you. There will be days when you’ll feel like the bottom of a garbage can.” She said, “Okay. John Lennon said that, God,” but she could not find the courage to thank Him. When the night fell upon the sky, and The Last of Supper had been had, she found a baby Omen in the form of a little Livia blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. And finally, she understood that there will be days like that – like He said, where the world is dark even under the presence of the sun, but there will be days like this: when Livia turns 2 and she is just so unconditionally happy to be just This. Happy 2! A photograph of little Livia was taken where a glowing, chocolate cake was presented to her in the absence of the sun.

After the fourteenth day, she allowed herself no further grievance. After two weeks of misery, omens and sadness, God spoke to her of these matters just one more time.

Lately she sat in her room and seemed to wait for Him to speak to her. Her heart was as flat and stuck that way as the wallpaper in her Baba’s home, still grey, still ripped, still sort of paisley-like. “He was quiet again,” she thought.” But finally when He did speak, He said: “Sweet child, I watched you cry and squirm; I heard your prayers and those of the many you invited – and I saw a heightened hate slithering from within you. You were turning on us. Your heartbeats were thick, changing, and hunting for other fulfillments. It’s time to follow your real heart, and always. To wherever it points. Because that’s where your true fulfillment waits for this time in your life.” He said, “Tamara, you might hate me for this someday – or it may be exactly what you want. This time, I let you decide. I’ll mute the sounds of those with disdain for as long as I can, but you have to promise the heavens that this will be the absolute last. Nothing living will be capable of handling the wrath of (it) to follow. Blessed be.” And she said, “Thank you for Your mercy,” and looked up through the clouds to say: “May this be the last true piece of mouth. I’ll worship like a dog in the shrine of my life. I’ll tell you my sins – don’t sharpen a knife. Good God, let me give you my Life.” No pictures were taken (Hozier, “Take me to Church”).

 

I can still taste him.

After all these years, my memory of my first love is the way he tasted as we kissed endlessly on the rooftop of the Damascus swimming pool. His lips were full and smooth, quite wet, and I could feel his teeth underneath their soft flesh. We were playing ‘spin the bottle,’ and a hot rush would flush my whole body when it pointed to him as we all sat in a circle on the warm, stone floor of the pool tower. It was our secret place. One to which only the children had access, while the adults basked by the poolside beneath us, the scent of roasting shish kebabs rising in the air.

Pierre was Dutch, his father part of the UN contingent in the Middle East. I was part of a group of diplomats’ and other foreign workers’ children, with many nationalities making up the mosaic of my Syrian childhood. We were all of different ages, somewhere between 9 and 14, French, American, Swedish, German; English was our common language, and most of us attended the Damascus Community School for Foreigners, which boasted more than 30 nationalities.

We were a small group, a dozen or less per class, from kindergarten to the eighth grade. My best friend Susan was Swedish, and she taught me how to wear wooden clogs, in which she could run as fast as I did in my bare feet. We shared everything, and once she took me into her parents’ bedroom and, opening a drawer, revealed a pack of condoms. Sex was never discussed in my home, and she had to explain to me what they were.

Pierre was the oldest in our school, cocky and self-assured. Looking young for my age, flat-chested and insecure, I could only dream of getting close to him. Which did happen, occasionally. At one party, having drunk a little, he deigned to dance with me, and I remember the thrill of actually holding him in my arms, his body pressed against mine as we struggled to keep upright. As my face touched his chest, I inhaled his scent, strong and heady, the smell of a young male, new and intoxicating.

A few days later, still reeling from this, my first sensuous experience, I was sewing a button on my father’s shirt and was surprised by the same scent. It was the smell of male sweat, and the memory of it was like the key to my sexual awakening.

While I dreamt of Pierre, another boy had his sights set on me. Octavio was the son of the Brazilian consul, dark and a little pudgy; he pursued me relentlessly and steadfastly, much to my disgust. At one of the parties he cornered me against the wall and declared that I would be his one day. I pushed him away in anger. He would bring me presents, gold jewellery, a broach encrusted with precious stones, which, I later found out, he pocketed from his mother’s drawers. I often wondered what happened to this intense Latin boy with huge eyes like black coals.

But I was in love with Pierre. Far from handsome, this pouting blond teenager had a terrible hold over me and, as children would, toyed cruelly with my infatuation. Once, he persuaded Yanek, a sweet, gentle Indian boy, to trick me into thinking he was interested in me, and the experience left us both with a bitter aftertaste. Coming to class one day, I found an invitation from Yanek to a party, a personal note that implied I was to be his date.

When I arrived, all the other children were already there, waiting, giggling. There was no date. And Yanek was standing against the wall, suddenly as aghast at the deception as I was. Laughter broke out and reverberated across the room, and I cringed, desperately trying to hold back my tears, horrified and humiliated. And at the same time, I could see Yanek’s face, almost as ashen as mine, for in some way he, too, had been made fun of, a puppet in the hands of the other children, a citizen of a second-class country, a lower caste. Like me.

He must have apologised to me later, I’m quite sure. Although, strangely, I never held it against him. Nor against Pierre, the instigator.

My revenge came later and with no premeditation, as if fate had decided to grant me a reprieve. The so-called Six-Day War in the Middle East, in 1967, changed me imperceptibly, ripping into my colourful, idyllic childhood and, aided by my imagination, infiltrating it with an apocalyptic vision of a world war.

It started innocently, albeit abruptly, as I enjoyed a mid-class recess, playing tetherball in the green compound of the school. Suddenly, limousines from the U.S. embassy appeared at the gates, and all the American children were whisked away. Soon cars with British diplomatic plates arrived to collect my English playmates, and a sense of unease gripped the rest of us. We filed into our principal’s office, and found Madame Bitar listening intently to a small transistor radio. She said something about a dangerous political development and urged us to collect our things and go home.

We had been preparing for the possibility of a Middle-Eastern war for some time, hiding under our desks when the warning alarm sirens would go off, getting used to the darkened city with street and car lights painted blue, as Damascus readied itself for Israeli air raids.

But I was not prepared for what awaited me outside, as I left the school. A different world than the one I left that morning, with streets emptied of regular citizens usually milling about in the bright Syrian sun, replaced instead by groups of frenzied young men with guns, shooting into the air and crying ‘war, war.’ Fear gripped my throat and I began to run home. Halfway there, I came upon my father, driving, panicked, to pick me up from school.

After a brief family conference at home, it was decided we would go to check on the wife of my parents’ architect friend, who was alone with a small child and pregnant with another, her husband away on a business trip. As we sat in her garden, tense and uncertain as to what awaited us, with my father predicting the worst as usual, the worst happened. A sudden, thundering bang shook the ground as Israeli fighter planes appeared overhead. There was no warning, no sirens, as bombs rained on Damascus airport on the outskirts of the city.

We hurried into the middle windowless room of the house and waited as the bombing continued. Incongruously, the sun kept shining, the heat filtering into the darkened room, nature oblivious to the sudden invasion, while thoughts of the end of the world paralysed my body and mind.

Suddenly, it was all over. Then, after a brief silence, the sirens went off, wailing across the city in a belated alarm. When they stopped, we ventured outside to find the streets quiet and deserted under the blazing afternoon sun. As we made our way home, we came upon a long, winding convoy of white UN cars ready for departure.

I imagined I could see Pierre in one of them, his face glued to the window.

For the next six days, we stayed at home, obeying the curfew that gripped the city as the Israeli army stood at its doorstep. The tension was tangible, and I would hide in the kitchen, kneeling on the cold, marble tiles, my elbows against the rough wicker seat of a small stool, praying and praying: ‘Please God, make sure it’s not the third world war, please God, please.’

Outside, in the apartment, Arab children cried, and our cats hid fearfully under the bed. Several families, following a government edict in view of continued bombardments, moved from upper floors to stay in our street-level flat, and it was hard to find peace among the chatter and disorder of all these people locked together.

Despite the frequent bombing, young boys oblivious to the danger ventured into the streets, looking at the planes swooping down and picking up fragments of shells, their recklessness a constant amazement to my ever-weary father.

When it all ended, I returned to school with my Swedish friend Susan, to find it strangely empty. Madame Bitar was still the principal, and the classes continued, now under the aegis of the Italian embassy. The American and English children never returned, their nationals no longer welcome under the new political order. But the Dutch were back, and so was Pierre. He had not changed much. I, however, had grown into a young woman of 13. No longer the ugly duckling, I now wore a bikini to the pool, although I still had to stuff tissues into my bra.

I remember the precise moment Pierre ‘saw’ me for the first time since the war. I was swinging on the high swing in the play area, soaring above the sand, higher and higher. I pretended not to see him as he approached and stopped to look at me from the sideline. Still painfully aware of my immature body, I kept my gaze firmly on the blue sky, watching him from the corner of my eye.

When I finally descended, he approached me and said ‘hello,’ something he’d never done before, usually waiting for me to make the first move.

Soon our little group was back on the rooftop, spinning an empty Coke bottle, pairing off to kiss in the corners, sand gritting between our teeth as our lips locked in deep and exhilarating yet innocent embraces. But I didn’t care anymore if the nozzle slowed down before him, although we continued our furtive affair for some time before breaking it off.

He still tasted the same.

Damascus by Игорь М. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution.
Damascus by Игорь М. From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution.

 

mexicanFarm

 

Municipal Court Mondays were always a low roar or outright chaos. Or maybe it was the other way around as the herd of weekend detainees was packed into the courtroom. The crimes for the most part were of a petty misdemeanour-type nature, anything from unpaid traffic tickets, public urination, drunk and disorderly conduct, occasionally shoplifting. Most were public intoxication charges beginning on Friday evenings and ending with the last arrests on Sunday nights.

Madera is a small town and the county seat of Madera County in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley of California. The main economic activity is agribusiness, grapes and cotton, run by gringos and worked by Mexicans. Ranchers pay in cash so as to avoid any unnecessary intrusive government reporting. The agricultural workers support their families as best they can. The single men wire money to relatives in Mexico, then retreat to the colourful local bars on South “C” Street that outnumber residences where the rents are cheap.

Although I had recently passed the interpreters’ test, there were few courts that paid the federal rate. With a family of six, I couldn’t be too choosy about accepting work. Municipal court paid poorly but was within walking distance of our house on South “C” Street, the heart of the Mexican barrio and the source of many Monday morning defendants. Some of them I knew personally or had seen on the street. That morning would provide one of those auspicious neighbourly introductions. A certain Raul Armijo would get the services of his down-the-street neighbour absolutely free, and the best and only Federally Certified Court Interpreter in town.

The courtroom deputy began calling out the defendants in alphabetical order one by one for the judge to summarily read the charges, ask if they understood, explain that requesting an official record of the proceedings would delay their case and their jail release time significantly, and confirm that they were ready to waive the official record and hear their sentence.

With most it was a perfunctory “guilty” and time served if they were arrested on Friday night, or ten days in jail – but not before asking the constitutionally required, “Do you have anything to say before you hear your sentence?” Most simply said, “Nada.” I would follow with, “No,” instead of the literal “nothing.” Occasionally a defendant would say he or she was sorry, or sorry and embarrassed, and would not do it again. The judge would assess the quality of the groveling then pronounce his sentence and strike his gavel for the next case.

Occasionally the judge would sermonize with a comment about their contemptible behaviour and the bad example they set for their family and the community. This routine was predictable each Monday morning as I interpreted for the Spanish speakers, whispering in their ear in their intimate personal space, several years before Madera County would have wireless professional interpreting equipment.

When Raul Armijo heard his name and replied in a loud, very loud, louder than he himself realized voice, “Soy yo!” (That’s me!), he surprised himself in his hurry to explain he’d been unjustly arrested this time.

The judge’s face lit up with interest and a quizzical smile, along with everybody else’s in the courtroom. Most defendants were withdrawn, submissive and contrite at hearing their name and stepping up to face their moment of fleeting justice. Raul’s voice was affirmative and unrepentant, haughty even, because he felt he had done nothing wrong.

This was an invitation for the judge to sermonize about Raul’s dissolute and re-offending behaviour, letting him know he recognized him from prior appearances for the same charge of public intoxication.

Sí me tomé mis buenas cervezas, eso no tiene nada de malo. Esta vez me detuvieron porque me conocen yo andaba bien, no andaba cayéndome ni nada. Fui a tomarme unas cervezas con mis cuates, es todo.”

I followed dutifully with, “Yes I had several beers, there’s nothing wrong with that. This time they arrested me because they recognized me. I was OK, I wasn’t stumbling or nothing like that. I went out to drink a few beers with my buddies, that’s all.”

The professional interpreter has to be as faithful as possible to the source in tone, meaning and style – in this case colloquial language – and yet maintain a professional distance from the emotions of the speaker, while accurately reflecting his or her words… even in a case of unjustified arrest.

 

legal image

“The police report says you were falling down drunk,” began the judge in a dialogue between them that was to have an interesting denouement. I was translating this into English in a loud voice for the courtroom to hear.

“That’s a lie. Yeah, I was feeling good but I wasn’t falling or tripping, nothing like that,” asserted Raul. “I did not deserve to be arrested this time, Señor Juez.” “Your Honour.”

“So, you’re calling the police liars,” replied the judge.

“They are lying, Your Honour, yes they are,” countered Raul. “I have witnesses.”

“Are your witnesses, here?”

No se haga, Señor Juez, usted sabe bien que no tengo testigos aquí. Me acaban se sacar de la cárcel. “Don’t play dumb, Your Honour, you know very well that I don’t have any witnesses here. I was just brought over from jail.”

“Oh, we have a wise-guy Mexican here.”

Raul replied in a loud unequivocal voice after hearing my interpretation, “You got it, a damn proud Mexican! You know you don’t treat us Mexicans like the gringos.”

“Well, first of all I treat everybody the same under the law, damn proud Mexican; how do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”

“Not guilty! I am not guilty this time and I can’t miss work in jail. I have a family.”

“Well, I pronounce you guilty by the weight of the evidence. You should have thought about your family before you went out drinking. Do you have anything to say before I give you your sentence?”

Sí, Señor Juez, a usted y a todos los presentes me los paso por los huevos.”

Oh my God! I recognized him as the young man on “C” Street I occasionally saw going to and from the neighbourhood panadería bakery. Sometimes with his young wife and two little kids.

Wow, what a rare opportunity for an official court interpreter! To be able to faithfully convey what is stated in the source language (whatever its tone and intent), without being subject to contempt of court charges when translating it into the target language for the court and for the (non-existent) record. I was in a sense lucky as an interpreter to have this opportunity so early in my then still fledgling professional career. But it broke my heart, as Raul had the audacity to accuse the system of the unspoken hypocrisy of justice meted out against Mexicans and thereby bring down upon himself certain retribution.

I thought about my own evident insecurity in these hearings, wishing I were a lawyer to help. But for me, the interpreter, these colloquial expressions really inspire and demand creative translations. Too bad there would not be an official record of this exchange — I would order a copy for my memoirs.

The courtroom, which was packed with many Spanish speakers, had a long ways to go as the docket was still on the letter A. Before I could give my English translation, all the Spanish speakers in the courtroom erupted into boisterous laughter.

“Yes, Your Honour, you and all those here present can kiss my ass!” I was sworn to repeat it as I heard it, without changing or modifying anything.

Upon hearing me, English-only speakers present in the courtroom broke out into a loud but quickly smothered laugh, looking at the judge for his reaction.

The judge flushed in anger at the defendant’s temerity but controlled himself except for his trembling grasp of his gavel.

“Six months in the county jail is your sentence, Mr. Armijo.”

After hearing my translation of the judge’s sentence, Mr. Armijo yelled back at the judge as the bailiffs were beginning to drag him away, “Es una injusticia pero los seis meses se los hago y me la pelan.”

Interesting, most of what Raul uttered was pretty straight-forward until “…me la pelan,” such a vulgar expression regarding male genitalia. A literal word-for-word translation wouldn’t work; Americans just wouldn’t say that in these circumstances. But this expression would become a classic for my confessions of a court interpreter or a tequila-sharing moment with colleagues and maybe eventually with grandchildren when they were of tequila-drinking age and past virginity. The Spanish speakers were already rolling on the floor.

Here goes: “This is an injustice but I’ll do your six months and…”

Here, I was still debating in my mind which of the several possibilities I thought would be an English equivalent to the colourful evocative Mexican expression. These terminology calls are instantaneous, much quicker than it would take to write them out many years later for my professional memoirs. I went for the more contextually equivalent impact if not a literal translation.

“… you can suck my dick.”

Should I have used “cock?” “Penis” was out of the question… way too lofty. I had considered, undaunted by the stately surroundings, “I’ll do your six months and stick it up your ass.” Probably okay, but I had opted for the “dick” word and stuck to it, and it went into the lamentably non-existent record. It would have had a very different effect had I been inhibited by the courtroom and the sanitized and elevated tone and had instead said something like: “I can endure the six months’ sentence and Your Honour may perform fellatio on me…”  Not! His Honour would have gotten the message and still given Raul the same maximum sentence. But I was sworn.

As the bailiffs were about to clobber Mr. Armijo, a young man maybe in his early twenties, the now visibly angry judge ordered them to stop: “Don’t take him away yet!”

“Now it’s my turn,” gaveled the judge. “Six more months.”

All the English speakers, as if now their team had scored some points in a hotly contested game, laughed and ooh’d.

I translated it very loudly into Spanish for Mr. Armijo, with all the noise, and for all the Spanish speakers to hear. It was very hard to not show my personal objections and not whisper to Raul to knock it off for it would only get worse. When they heard the additional six months, the rowdy onlookers also laughed and made gestures with their right hand and fingers, equivalent to touching the hot comal grill that tortillas are made on. The whole courtroom environment was like a soccer match or basketball game, depending on your cultural background and who was kicking goals or scoring baskets.

The judge, now that his cheering section was alive on his side, then said with a loud voice and an equally loud smashing of his gavel, “Now it’s your turn.”

Was this fun or what? “Your turn,” I said in Spanish, “Ahora te toca a ti.”

I had to concentrate on my job and do it well. There are too many bilingual witnesses around ready to challenge everything I say. I would be out of work, and I had a big family to feed if the judge lost confidence in my work. And it sure beat picking grapes. This hearing would be talked about throughout the legal community if not most of the town. For sure in the barrio, about how Armijo sang it to the judge.

“I already told you what you can do with your six months,” adding another respectful, “Señor Juez!,” “Your Honour!”

By now the judge knew he had lost control and respect that morning; he knew he had to re-establish his authority. So with each disrespectful utterance by the defendant, the judge stated, punctuated with his heavy gavel, “Six more months!”

As the laughter withered away with the defendant’s gradual realization that he was accruing some serious jail time for something he had never done more than ten days for in the past, he heard the judge say in a very loud but solemn voice:

“Mr. Armijo, you now have two years of jail time. I can continue this as long as you want to. Do you have anything further to say?”

At this point, my continuous faithful translation into Spanish was not necessary to convey the meaning. Although the defendant remained uncowed and proud, a real sense of fear swept across his demeanour and spread to the other defendants, both Spanish and English-speakers awaiting their turn before the pissed-off, in-a-bad-mood judge.

Without another word, Raul was led out of the courtroom with a bailiff on each arm. He was unaware that municipal court cannot impose more than a one-year sentence on misdemeanour crimes.

Amidst the buzzing and murmuring among the still sizeable number of defendants waiting to go before the judge were all the other personnel, attorneys and Bailiff Andres Inocente Sanchez, only a few months away from retirement.

One of the attorneys suddenly shouted out from the back of the courtroom where the entrance of the packed venue was situated, “Your Honour, you have a rabbit!”

The judge looked up and we all followed his gaze in time to see Armando Arevalo slip out the door. Taking advantage of all the commotion, Armando had stepped away from the group of defendants who had already received their sentences and would be herded away to jail after all the cases on the morning docket had been heard.

The judge admonished the bailiff. “Andy,” he quipped, looking over at Andres, “one’s getting away from you.” “Andy” was completely unaware, as he had been following the two bailiffs who were taking away Raul Armijo to the holding cell.

Upon hearing the judge yell out his name, Andres alias Andy returned, confused, and replied, “Yes, Your Honour?”

“One of your prisoners just escaped out the front door,” the judge told him. Then he asked the attorney, “Did you see who it was?”

“I think it was Mr. Arevalo, Your Honour.

“You’d better go after him,” the judge said.

“I’m going to call the police right now, Your Honour,” replied Andy, without any inkling of irony in his voice. He re-entered the courtroom a few moments later, returning from his desk next to the judge’s office. “OK, Your Honour, got it covered, you can continue.”

The chuckling and whispering in the courtroom ceased when the judge asked loudly, “Wasn’t he the one who wanted his sentenced delayed until next year?”

“Yes, Your Honour, he’s the one,” stated the public attorney, who was only a few years away from becoming an excellent Federal Public Attorney. “He’s been before you several times.”

The judge, rather than actually speaking for the record, mused, “He’ll turn himself in after the New Year. He wants to work a few extra days to buy Christmas presents for his kids. I’ll just add ten days to the sixty I already gave him.”

The rest of the morning settled down into the predictable “Inferior Court” routine, as all Madera County Superior Court personnel called it. The court adjourned just a little past noon. I went up to Bailiff (and friend) Andres Inocente Sanchez, who had been hanging around for a while after escorting the judge to his chambers.

“So, Chente,” (the nickname for Inocente in Spanish) “you went out to call the police when Armando took off, eh?”

“Hell yes, I’m less than six months away from retirement. I made it this far, I’m not going to chase after any escapees. Que chinguen a su madre!” I can’t stand the treatment they get. Armijo has a family to feed and you don’t make much picking grapes. He can’t go a whole year without working. His wife will have to go back to her parents’ to live. The cops always say the same thing about the detainees. The judge never questions them and he gives the gringos timed served for the same thing.

While I agreed with Chente’s spot-on assessment of justice for us, which was standard practice throughout the San Joaquin Valley, I wondered how I would translate “…chinguen a su madre.” Probably not the literal, “Go fuck your mother” — it’s just not that serious in Spanish any more, and is too graphic in English. Maybe, “Hell no, I’m not going to chase after no escapee!”