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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 while—say, five years—and 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.
“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.
“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.)
“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?)
“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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
“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 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.
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.
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.
“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!”