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"Horse Camp" (an excerpt) by JonArno Lawson
"Narrative Supplemental" by Carolyn White
"Skeleton Coast" by Jean McNeil
JUDGE    Andreas Schroeder
Karim Alrawi, Nadine Bachan, Jane Boyle
Connie Braun, Jane Campbell, Sonal Champsee
Alison Cobra, Cara Cole, Robert Colman
Ruth Daniell, Robin Evans, Charles-Adam Foster-Simard
Sierra Skye Gemma, Rebecca Hales, Kat I laxby
Tariq Hussain, Michelle Kaeser, Michelle Kelrn
Sabrina L'Heureux, Kari Lund-Teigen, Jennifer MacDonald
Leah Mol, Jen Neale, Josiah Neufeld, Steve Neufeld
Beth Pond, Rochelle Squires, Kelley Tish Baker
Meg Todd, Emily Walker, Janine Young PRISM
Anna Ling Kaye
Leah Horlick
Sierra Skye Gemma
Jen Neale
Jeffrey Ricker
Jane Campbell
Zachary Matteson
Andrea Hoff
Rhea Tregebov
andrea bennett
Rosemary Anderson
Nadine Bachan
Michelle Barker
Ophelia Celine
Cara Cole
Kayla Czaga
Kate Edwards
Charles-Adam Foster-Simard
Tara Gilboy
Julia Leggett
Jennifer Macdonald
Matt Malyon
Hanako Masutani
Sandra Maxson
Kim McCullough
Beth Pond
Selenna Ho
Daniel McDonald
Miles Sreyn PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four
times a year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British
Columbia, Buchanan E^I62, 1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1.
Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor,
MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. The
magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals Index.
Website: Email:
Contents Copyright © 2013 PRISM international {or the authors.
Cover photo: "Miraichan" by Kotori Kawashima
Subscription Rates: One-year individual Canadian $35, American $40, International
$45; two-year individual Canadian $55, American $63, International $69; library
and institutional one-year $46; two-year $72. Sample copy by mail is $12. US and
international subscribers, please pay in US dollars. Please note that US POSTAL
money orders are not accepted. Make cheques payable to PRISM international. All
prices include HST and shipping and handling.
Submission Guidelines: PRISM international purchases First North American
Serial Rights at $40 per page for poetry and $20 per page for other genres.
Contributors receive three copies of the issue in which their work appears.
PRISM also purchases limited digital rights for selected work, for which it pays an
additional $ 10 per page. All manuscripts should be sent to the editors at the above
address. Manuscripts should be accompanied by an email address. If you wish
to receive your response by regular mail, please include a SASE with Canadian
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by a copy of the work(s) in the original language. The advisory editor is not
responsible for individual selections, but for the magazine's overall mandate,
including continuity, quality and budgetary concerns.
For details on how to place an advertisement in PRISM, please visit our website
at PRISM occasionally exchanges subscriber lists
with other literary magazines; please contact us if you wish to be excluded from
such exchanges.
Our gratitude to Dean Gage Averill and the Dean of Arts Office at the University
of British Columbia. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the
Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council.
April 2013. ISSN 0032.8790
Canada Council     Conseil des Arts
for the Arts du Canada CONTENTS
judge's essay
Andreas Schroeder
A Challenge
JonArno Lawson
Horse Camp (an excerpt)
Carolyn White
Narrative Supplemental
Jean McNeil
The Skeleton Coast
Jonathan Mendelsohn
Last Train to Takarazuka
Joel McCarthy
Three Towns Over
Pasha Malla
The Actual
Jessie Jones
mine (with back turned)
house advantage
Tammy Armstrong
Lunar Eclipse
Epithalamium: New Mexico
David Clink
Julie Herperger
On the Way to Redberry Lake
Jeff Musgrave
Instructions for my Father
Elena E. Johnson
Before Sleep
Edge Effect
Alone at the Base
Jim Johnstone
Caroline Wong
Bones and Seeds
Girl from Neruda County
Michael Patrick Jessome
Ghazal: Finger Bowls
matt robinson
february afternoon, near tampa TRANSLATION
Li Qing Zhao      66      On Peacock Tower
Translation by
Caroline Wong
Contributors      78
ISSUE'S CONTENT. A ndrects Schroeder
i_/et me begin by admitting a bias. For years I've monirored—and in several cases
judged—the creative non-fiction competitions of a variety of literary magazines,
such as PRISM international, Event, Fugue, Grain, Prairie Fire, Malahat Review,
etc. I've tracked the genre when it's been the focus of the CBC's annual literary
contest, and I've assessed the creative non-fiction manuscripts of UBC Creative
Writing's MFA applicants for more years than I care to admit. In the process I've
encountered a lot of fine CNF writing, but what's bugged me for years is this:
why do so many CNF writers in North America seem to define the genre solely
as memoir? Here we have a literary form whose definition and potential ranges
so widely that, at its extremes, it can seem utterly apples and oranges (try judging
personal essays against docu-poetry in the same competition)—and yet for the
most part we're merely using it to tell personal anecdores and reminiscences. A
non-fiction form of fiction, in effect. Meanwhile, its formidable capacity for the
contemplative, the rhetorical and the experimental is being wasted or ignored.
Happily, PRISMs Literary Non-Fiction Competition of 2012/13 turned out
to be something of an exception—if not in the overall range of its entries, then
at least in its winners. In all three of the best-written submissions, straight-line
narrative has been enhanced or even replaced by approaches and techniques that
emphasize exploration, contemplation, and a cettain productive unpredictability.
"Horse Camp" is a wonderfully cheeky, free-wheeling intellectual romp
prerending to be a treatise on horses, but like some of the best creative non-
fiction, it's primarily about itself, refusing to be unduly limited by thesis or
theme. "Narrative Supplement" makes imaginative use of the ambiguity and
insensitivity of bureaucratic forms and jargon to explore the pain and emotional
effects of suicide on those left behind, while "The Skeleton Coast," which uses a
150-kilometre trek through the Namib desert ("The Land God Made in Anger")
as its narrative base, spends a lot more time tracking a parallel desert in the
narrator's emotional psyche. In some ways I liked this piece best of all, not least
because of the way its author attempted to take Aristotle's theory of narrative
(in the beginning evetything is possible; in the middle, one or two outcomes are
likely; the end is inevitable) and reverse it, though I had to eventually conclude
that the attempt probably caused more problems for the piece than it solved.
Still, it's the kind of headset that will help us make fuller use of this literary form's
exttaordinary potential, and I hope competitions like this one will encourage
more creative non-fiction writers to experiment with approaches a bit more
outside their comfort zone.
May I make that a challenge?
PRISM  51:3 JonArno Lawson
HORSE  CAMP (an excerpt)
It is easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse.
—Genghis Khan
At midnight, with Channa in company, the Buddha mounted his horse Kanthaka,
and departed: on the banks ofAnoma, the River Glorious, he renounced the world.
—The Jataka, or Stories of the Buddha's Former Births, (No. 460)
Lore than thirty years have passed since I last rode a horse.
No one remembers now whose ill-conceived idea it was to send me to a horse
camp. It's possible the idea was mine—I enjoyed cowboy novels and had a fine
iron-black set of six-shooter cap guns.
In any case, I spent eight long, unlucky days at this camp whose name no
one can recall—I haven't been able to find any trace of it.
My father tells me it was only a half hour's drive from our house—this seems
incredible. So close. But the memories I have of it exist in a realm separate from
all other memories of my childhood—it doesn't seem possible that I lived those
eight days in such close proximity to home.
Skinner was born into the freckled Saxon flotsam that people the poverty-stricken
cores of small towns from Moss Point, Mississippi to Flin Flon, Saskatchewan—
or from Opa-Locka, Florida to Emmunak, Alaska if you ptefer instead to travel
along a diagonal—and here we speak only of one continent.
Similar small-town Saxons can be found almost anywhere from the islands
west of the Dogger Bank just beyond the Eurasian landmass to the distant shores
of Australia, and in half a dozen bits of the world in-between—less than forty
years ago we know for a probable fact that a group of them even reached the
moon having, in the meantime, renamed themselves Americans.
In a way the most striking aspect of this nation of pirates is its ubiquity
coupled with its neat-complete lack of self-awareness—historical, familial, or
personal. And yet they are cunning. Only the Han Chinese are as numerous, but
they tend to know who they are.
Pale and thin, with heavily-lidded eyes and strong, frog-like fingers, Skinner
was, in his own way, ambitious: he watched for opportunities, and he was clever
with knots. Though he was slight, he was tough—a sniffing giant, detecting in
him the blood of an Englishman, might still have passed him over for fear of the
trouble his sinews would give to his jaws.
Skinner slept in the bunk above mine. On our first day at camp, during a
nature walk, he discovered a crayfish in the creek we were lunching next to. He immediately picked it up, bit off its head, and spat the severed cephalothorax
several feet through the air onto the sandwich of Farzad, who was sitting a few
stones away. Farzad glanced down at the small, lobster-like head of the crayfish,
and tipped it off onto the ground.
The present, which knows what it has to be, must constantly revise the
past in order to arrive at itself. For this reason, there are moments in the past
which will (sometimes fortunately) disappear forever. But some moments only
disappear for a short period, and are then given a second chance, when the
present becomes more hospitable to them again.
Which leads me to the relationship between Elizabethan England and
Safavid Petsia.
I think it's safe to assume that neither Skinner nor Farzad had ever heard of
the Elizabethan mission that reached Persia nearly five hundred years before
the incident involving the decapitation of the unfortunate decapod. The Anglo-
Saxon Shirley brothers (Anthony, Robert, and Thomas) represenring the Earl
of Essex, arrived in Isfahan late in 1599 at the invitation of Shah Abbas of the
Safavid Dynasty. Shah Abbas asked the Shirleys to bring five thousand horses
with them and to re-train his army according to modern English methods.
But before we look more closely at this fascinating early episode in mannerly
equine cross-culturalism, the girls from Michigan must be considered.
What is Michigan? I've seen it from across a river—I've never desired to get
closer to it than that. My brother went dancing in Detroit, Michigan, one night,
and a man who said he didn't like the way he laughed pointed a gun at him out
of his car window.
What else can be said about it?
Michigan is not Minnesota. Nor is it Wisconsin. And the Great Lakes are
not and never will be North America's answer to the Mediterranean Sea. There is
little warmth to be had from standing beside them, and no inspiration at all to
be had from glancing out across them. Why? Because on the other side are places
like Rochester, Ashtabula, and Port Sanilac—none of which, we can assume, are
in any way like Tripoli, Alexandria, or Algiers. When my wife says "Let's go to
the beaches!" my heart sinks. I picture dead seagulls on a rocky shore under a
grey sky. I think of death and zebra mussels.
But to return to the subject of Michigan.
It's hard now to convey to those who didn't experience it the down-spiralling
atmosphere of the darkening, despairing and (who knows why? had something
better been promised?) disillusioned 1970s—the faded skin-tight jeans people
wore, the huge plastic sunglasses and the giant brass belt-buckles with bear heads
and skulls and coarse slogans that sold at the run-down traveling fairs long since
abandoned by the happy long-haired youths of the previous decade.
8 PRISM  51:3 From town to town these rusted, flea-bitten end-of-the-world enterprises
continued to truck their worthless wares—tattered beaded macrame owls, velvet
posters of big-game cats, race cars, and half-naked girls, as well as various leather
products, mostly vests, jackets, and motorcycle gloves. For some reason—
possibly as a result of watching seedy Sunday night made-for-TV movies—I
always thought these fairs came from California, but now I think probably most
of them were on their way from (or on their way back to) Michigan.
At camp, all the boys feared the Michigan girls. Older than us, and larger,
they outnumbered us three to one. They had real cabins, with proper doors
and screened windows—until that summer the camp had been exclusively a
girls' camp. Having boys at the camp seemed to have been an afterthought—a
cash grab or the fruit of some other unsavoury scheme or contemptible plan.
However it was, we were relegated to a single hastily-converted tumble-down
shack without shade near the barn; the door was made from a sheet of thick
plastic, and in the centre of the shack sat a single toilet, surrounded by a shower
Why the Michigan girls hated and hunted us with such fury we never knew.
We hid in the shadows, but so did they, haloed by their feathered hair, their
hard, heavily made-up misanthropic faces—pastel eye-lids and bright orange
lips, their rough cheeks thickly rouged—wearing high-heeled hand-tooled tall-
top fancy-cutwork cowboy boots, like vicious primped-up low-class clowns
from some horrible planet consisting of a single vast nightmare circus with over-
populated tents that finally spilled out into giant ferris-wheels that doubled in
times of need (for instance when the pop and popcorn ran out) as colonizing
spacecraft, their ships finally landing in Michigan, the colonist clowns sending
theit disturbed and aggressive progeny to be trained in the arts of controlling
and dominating earth creatures.
This, anyway, is how I viewed them at the time.
Many of them are probably grandmothers now who wouldn't dteam of
kicking a little boy in the groin while wearing some fancy-but-frightening barn
fashion racky-tack girl cowboy boot. Though I'll bet many still enjoy kicking a
grandson's bottom when it blocks granny's line of vision to the TV.
I only witnessed one attack, but one was enough. I remember how the boy
fell, writhing in the sand, his out-of-control contortions, and then—the slowing
of his spastic movements, and how he finally lay still for a moment in the dusty
track before trying to stand, slightly bent, with his hand held across his lap,
hobbling off to the dubious shelter of the shack. I remember that as I watched
him I prayed to be spared—hoping against hope that I'd never experience his
pain and humiliation.
I was not the one who'd been injured, but I expetienced my first delicious
moments of self-pity. It was a dazzling (though dark) sensation—I had no idea
how addictive it would become, or I might have switched courses immediately.
The all-encompassing amnesty I'd gtanted myself with my self-pity allowed me
the slightly uneasy satisfaction of a growing, general passivity. Decades would
pass before I learned again how to make the best of things. MOUNTIE VS. COWBOY
As I mentioned at the beginning, it was most likely my six-shooters that landed
me in the camp.
While there can be no doubt that the majority of the boys had been drawn
in by the imagery of violent, inscrutable cowboys, I had never considered the
possibility, until tecently, that some of us might have been meditating instead
on seductive souvenir shop effigies of Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen. Not
Skinner, certainly, and probably not Farzad.
In the case of Farzad, I wonder now if it was the great myrhological Persian
hero, Rostam, and the seven quests he undertook on his great steed, Rakhsh,
that instilled in him a desire to ride.
But let us consider, for a moment, mounted icons in North American
settings: the red-jacketed Mountie is more or less a nineteenth century British
cavalryman. He rides, however, without a troop—he's a loner, and this is what
makes him kin to the Ametican frontier cowboy. The Mountie's broad-rimmed
hat is conservative and symmetrical—similar to (but also quite different from)
the broad-rimmed asymmetrical cowboy Stetson, which is itself nothing but a
squashed sombrero.
A Mountie is a man who might cotrect the grammar of lumberjacks, but he
is also a last source of hope to lost prospectors. He sits straight in his saddle. He
is not a gun-slinger. He annoys members of the First Nations, enforcing alien
laws upon them, but it rarely comes to a shoot out. When he rides, he is at the
service of the Queen. He does her will, not his own—this is what makes him
most different from his south border cousin. A Mountie represents the law, while
a cowboy represents only himself—he can be sheriff one day and, his slouching
silhouette disappearing into the sunset, an outlaw the next. This is part of the
cowboy mystique. The cowboy rebels against the strictures of society with his
bad, sulking postute and face-concealing bandana while a Mountie is an uptight
open-faced poppy of bureaucracy.
The Mountie is surrounded by pine trees, mountains, and rivers. He makes
his campfire, flint on stone, like a boy scout. The cowboy's habitat is the open,
empty plain: he flash-starts his fire with broken percussion caps and a bullet. The
Mountie is more samurai than cowboy, but really, not much of a samurai either:
the Yabusame trained mounted archers of Japan probably had more in common
with the Navajo.
The cowboy is closer to ancient models—Alexander the Great, for instance,
was something of a cowboy when he galloped forward on Bucephalus to chop
through the Gordian knot with his sword.
The Mountie, in contrast, is closer to a knight in the age of chivalry. He is
self-effacing, and interested in the greater good; a gesture from his sovereign is
enough to instruct him, and suffices him in his quest to establish justice in his
(or her) Majesty's beaver-filled realm.
(Her Majesty is, in reality, a pitate Queen, as the pirated Nations of what is
now called North America became only too awate).
The third, completely unexplored icon, was the First Nations rider. To little
Indo-European boys, a First Nations rider was, for the most part, a thing of
10 PRISM  51:3 alien beauty. He was almost a centaut, at one with the animal he rode. What
he achieved with his horse was not open to us. The world he rode out from and
back to was not familiar (and, to be fair, at that point we knew as little about
out own histories as we did about the great riders of Comancheria; our criminal
ignorance was still in its incipient state). We needed a saddle, a stable—an Old
World and a New. What did the (to-us) nameless and nationless rider of the First
Nations need? Where was he going? And where had he come from? We couldn't
imagine. While many of us could see ourselves as cowboys, and possibly a few of
us dreamed of being Mounties, I doubt that even one of us imagined himself as
a nineteenth-century First Nations rider.
One problem faced by the girls from Michigan, I realize now, was a lack of
historical and mythological role models.
While there were many famous horsemen who rode horses that were almost
as famous, there are few horsewomen of note between Lady Godiva and Calamity
Jane. There was the Iron Age woman of Wetwang, discovered with her chariot,
and, come to think of it, there was also Joan of Arc, who is generally imagined
either riding her hotse, Papo, ot burning at the stake.
Lady Godiva, of course, is nothing without het horse. A naked woman
parading barefoot through town comes across as a lunatic, a nude woman on a
horse is something else entirely, something so fine that she can't exist in reality—
only in mythology and the imagination. The world's lowliest pornographer
would not be able to exploit the image of Lady Godiva on her horse. It's a
transcendent image. The legend of Godiva, come to think of it, probably owes
something to the myth of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Anyway, you can
see why Lady G. would not have held much appeal, or been much use, to the
downtrodden girls from Michigan. Hippolyta though. . .there was a role model
they might have made use of.
I will, but not right now.
We have little experience of living in historical time. Historical time is an
innovation: it was, until recently, a highly anomalous way of experiencing life.
Most of human existence has been lived out, instead, in mythological time. The
newness of history has either given us (or created in us) a horror of it. It has
encouraged in us an urge to apocalypse—to put an end to it—so that we can
again re-enter mythological time.
We don't yet know how to live in the histotical world we've created. We
may never. Nearly all nations force mendacious mythological patterns onto their
11 histories out of an honest psychological need. Out desite for myth is insatiable,
but we quickly get tired of history.
This is because history is familial, tribal, and/or national in nature. In some
ways, the attempt to give religion a history is part of what hampers and kills ir.
Religion, however, is resilient, and by its ever-evolving nature casts off the figures
that accrue to it—it moves free of history.
In the five books of Moses, horses are conspicuously absent. The Torah is full of
anti-heroes, and in some ways, the stories work as a complete demystification
of God-like humans. There are none of the saddled heroes we find in nearly all
other mythologies where people have lived intimately with horses. Pharaoh's
horses drown along with their elevated riders—they do not cross out of Egypt.
The message is cleat: when entering the monotheistic world, we must enter on
our own two feet, in keeping with the ironic Italian expression Andare con il
cavallo di San Francesco, or Go with St. Francis's horse, e.g. on foot, as St. Francis
Later, Solomon rides a mule to his coronation, and Jesus rides a donkey into
Jerusalem. But it is the emergence of the Four Horseman of the apocalypse (from
heaven, as John saw from his resort on Patmos) that indicates we are exiting the
strictly monotheist Semitic world again. Just as the drowning of Pharaoh's horses
in the Red Sea told us that we were entering it.
And not until Mohammed rides the lightning steed Buraq to heaven on his
Night Journey to the farthest mosque, do we see the hotse teappear for a brief,
significant moment in monotheism. Buraq does not belong to Mohammed—he
is a creature of God's, and Mohammed is taken on his back by invitation, to
complete his mission as a Messenger.
Speaking of Mohammed and the Muslim wotld, let's tetutn for a moment to
gentle, good-natured Farzad.
It seems to me that Farzad came from Qom. Qom was the city ■where the
first protestors of the Iranian revolution were killed in 1978. Farzad told me his
family had left Iran earlier that year because it wasn't safe anymore. He had been
in a car that was hit by bullets. He looked anxious when he told me this, not at
all excited. He had seen a bleeding body lying in the stteet.
Just one? I asked.
To see even one person die is a lot, said Farzad.
Farzad wasn't getting it—I had been telling him all I knew about wars,
and he was reflecting on the fighting he'd seen in Qom. But I was talking to
him about millions. I was picturing the pictures I'd seen—the heaps of bodies,
baskets filled with human heads. But Farzad was pictuting just one dead man.
I said "How many people do you think died in the second World War?"
Farzad said "What do you mean, world war?"
"World War—a war that involved the whole world—everyone fought."
"Even Iran?"
This was a good question. "No—I don't know—maybe not Iran," I admitted.
In all the stories I'd heard about the war, Iran had never been mentioned. Though
12 PRISM   51:3 if he'd said "Even Burma?" I would have answered in the negative as well. My
knowledge of the war was limited to Europe and Japan, and Japan only because
of the atom bomb. "But everybody else fought—and how many do you think
"A few thousand? I don't know, maybe that's too high, even a thousand is a
lot of people."
I laughed out loud.
"Millions!" I said, loving the affect I was having—amazed at his stupidity—
though even then I had a sense that stupidity was the wrong word. Farzad
wasn't stupid. I knew he wasn't stupid. But I'd never met anyone before who
didn't know about the war. I wanted to impress him—I was telling him about
something I'd been hearing about for years, and I experienced a kind of demonic
joy as I watched him struggling to imagine it for the first time.
"How many is a million?" asked Farzad.
I tried to remember. A thousand had three zeroes. Ten thousand had...ten
zeroes? Or no, it had...four zeroes? A hundred thousand—was it five, or six?
A million had a lot of zeroes—I could almost picture the numbet. To hide my
ignorance, I started writing it with a stick in the dry dirt. I wrote a "one" with a
lot of zeroes next to it. It looked too big, but hopefully Farzad wouldn't notice or
question it.
Farzad did not say any of the things I am now tempted to put, retrospectively,
into his mouth. He was bewildered. Not by the enormity of the number, or by
the crimes, which I wasn't able to convey, not do I think it was my smug sadism
that dismayed him. He was bewildered because he was balanced. Or because he
was well brought-up, in the best sense. Or was he lucky to have a good basic
nature? Maybe all of these things combined. Though he'd seen people killed, and
lived through his own terrors, he had not projected his experiences onto all of
I, too, was bewildered to my core, but I had lost access to my bewilderment.
I felt an aching need to be clever. To see that he was still capable of a real
emotional response both distressed and excited me. He had seen more of real
life, at its worst, and he was still intact. He could still feel empathy.
I had merely seen a film and been told of the shadowy world of mass murder
that lay behind it, and I was already hiding behind the mask of an expert, leaving
behind my humanity in collusion with the violence that had been done to me by
the film.
Above all, people love cleverness because it doesn't carry the obligations of
wisdom. But people forger that along with wisdom's obligations comes wisdom's
freedom. Wisdom overflows as an ever-expanding movement in evety possible
direction. Cleverness encourages nothing but the claustrophobia of more
cleverness as it overfills a never-expanding space.
There are those who ate most impressed when they hear things they've never
heard before, and then there are those who ate most impressed when they hear
the things they alteady know. 13 The first group cast other people aside in the search for novelty. The second
group cast themselves aside in their search for familiarity and reassurance. Our
culture rewards both types of behaviour, and so there are plenty of both types of
people. There are actually more than just these two types, but I don't have time to
describe the other twenty-eight, in all of their permutations and combinations.
A half hour before dusk one burning hot evening we were made to get back onto
our ponies for a game of tag.
We were supposed to play in and around the edge of the woods—I had
little hope of participating in any meaningful way—and so it suddenly struck
me that the best thing to do was hide. It isn't easy to hide on a pony, but I saw
a promising clump of ttees and shrubs off the edge of a path. Farzad was close
behind me; without either of us saying a word to each other he saw what I was
up to and he joined me. We didn't make eye contact. It was hot—there were
bugs in the shade—but bug-bites were preferable to being chased by frenzied
whip-cracking Amazons in the last blinding rays of a boiling sun. Mercifully, we
were forgotten and sat quietly in our arboreal hideaway as the light faded.
It was incredibly peaceful—no one knew where we were. The ponies
cooperated, and a great, surprising joy rose up from my chubby tummy to my
flabby chest.
Tiny fiteflies started to ignite in the air around us. For the first time in my
life I think I had a sense of what was probably really happening—that we were
drawn to the cosmos by a song it sings in which we are both the notes and the
listeners. For a moment we harmonize our lives (if we're able) with this cosmic
singing, and then fall silent to our graves, like fireflies at the edge of a dark forest
showing up and disappearing to a cricket's rhythmic chirping.
That's not how I'd have said it at the time—I wouldn't even say it that way
now—but that was the feeling.
Soon, angry voices shouting our names could be heard in the distance—it
was time to leave the safety of the woods, and return to the indignities and the
dangers of the shack.
My paternal grandmother grew up on a farm. I never met her. But I once read an
account of her brothet's memories of theit farmhouse: there were eight fiteplaces
in it, and he had to chop wood for them every day. When my grandmother was
born in 1888, exactly eighty yeats before I was, it was assumed that any given
day would have a fair amount of wotk in it, and work of various kinds as well,
even if you were comfortably off.
My grandmother would not have understood how baffled and wearied I was
by the care involved in looking after my pony, Silver. Nor would my maternal
grandfather, who delivered milk with a horse and wagon until 1960.
I might have been born in a different universe. But as it happened, it was
the same world, only older and stranger than before. Hardly a generation had
14 PRISM  51:3 passed, but I (like most of my peers in the west) was already cut off from the
common skills my parents and (even more so) my grandparents would have
acquired at home as children: from the carefully accumulated knowledge of how
to do things like chop and prepare wood, care for a horse, mend or make clothes,
cook a meal—things that would have been basic knowledge to a ten-year-old in
the Western world sixty or seventy years earlier.
But I could whistle a tune! And I had daydreams unlike any they could have
imagined, fuelled by movies, television and NASA—and I was lucky, maybe,
that I didn't realize yet how little I knew. This allowed me to be conceited in a
way that wouldn't have been possible if I'd already been living a hard-working
multi-faceted life. I hadn't faced any major trials yet. But I knew a lot about
World War II, and to be fair, I also knew the Bible stories, which contain a lot of
useful, compactly expressed information.
In those days I loved church. Wednesdays mornings, during the school year, I
was enlisted by the elderly local Anglicans as an altar boy. I found the datk, cavelike beauty of the nineteenth-century church interior reassuring. Understanding
nothing, I was caught up in the spell cast by the smoke and wax, the elaborate
wooden carvings and the mysteries depicted in the stained glass windows. I best
liked shaking the little brass altar bell during the "Holy, holy, holy." Pulling
my cassock and sutplice on and off in the vestty I was a sorcerer's apprentice. I
can't remember if I was ever the thurifer (responsible for the thurible) or if I was
engaged in lifting the chasuble or shifting the chalice veil. Probably not.
Unlike many my age, I looked forward every week to Sunday school. Our
Sunday school teacher was an ageing war bride named Mrs. Gutcher. She had
thick lenses, wore thick pancake make-up, and had a slight overbite. She may
well have drunk too much.
Mrs. Gutcher told us how in the early days of humanity Eve once stood by
the water in Eden, and while standing there, she fell asleep. And in those early
days when everything was alive, when even shadows and reflections had lives
of theit own, a shadow approached Eve's shadow, and everything was so fertile
that even Eve's shadow could conceive. And this happened with her reflection
in the water too—another reflection approached her reflection, and also in her
dream—a dream man came to her. And this was the beginning of the imbalance,
when our shadows, reflections, and dreams gained independence from us and
started to conceive progeny that we had no control over. This was why we were
thrown out of the garden. Unfortunately, our shadows, reflections, and dreams
came with us.
It may be that you know a different vetsion of this story. Anyway, should we
bother believing all our lives in the things we believed in when we were children?
Is it safe, on the other hand, to pretend that our early beliefs haven't, in some
definitive way, shaped us?
I can't vouch for the accuracy of what I heatd—sometimes I daydteamed
while Mrs. Gutcher spoke. My background, like hers, was (at least in good part)
Notth West European. In othet words, we were both lightly Christianized Celtic
pagans, and as St. Patrick wrote to Corticus "One who betrays Christians into
the hands of Scots and Picts is far from the love of God."
15 But I'm putting off telling you about how I learned to care for my pony,
Silver. Just as I put off actually caring for my pony, Silver, when he was mine to
look after.
I was rhe fattest boy in the camp, and so they gave me the fattest pony.
Everyone fed Silver—they thought it was funny. I didn't like Silver, but I felt
protective of him—I felt he was a symbol of me, and when they stuffed him and
laughed at him, I took it personally.
Those who are successful at what they do would always (no mattet what they
tell you) rather have done something else. It is, in fact, essential to success—a
basic indifference to and discontentment with the field of endeavour. And this,
though I didn't realize it yet, was my problem. I wasn't indifferent to the elaborate
rules and rituals involved in the grooming of a horse. I could see at once that I'd
never grasp or master any of it, but I wanted to. It would have been far better
if I'd approached the multiple problems involved in saddles, saddle blankets,
bridles, buckles, brushes, bits and reins, as if they were of no consequence to me.
The occupations of those whose lives were, ar one time, built around horse
culture left to the future last names which could have no connection to modern
motorist life: the osier, the currier, the farrier, lorimer, or smith. Their days were
over. But for a week I had to act as their inheritor.
I never looked into the mind of Silver. John Hawkes went as fat as anyone
can to fictionalize the inner life of a horse in Sweet William. And in the end,
something about his account doesn't satisfy. Singer could bring an animal's
perspective to life in his Seance stories, but they show the extent and the limit
of what can be done. When you try to imagine the inner life of an animal, your
account has to be brief, supernatural, and to the point.
16 PRISM  51:3 Jessie Jones
mine is better in minus
mine is a scraping sound, hauling backwards
mine is in the city making money on small windows
mine hurt by every barbed dollar
mine is regarding the field as though not there
mine is yielding
mine is laughing at a wall of hip tea
cupping gasoline in a glove, oppugnant dark
spilling through thick
mine at the centre of the field, borrowing absence
mine, riddled with circular equations
mine can't summon psychosis, then can
a keeling sleep hides one thing only
mine awaiting completion in a sofa
mine awaiting completion in a bread loaf
mine articulating with a haircut, a throat
mine shaking off a plinth, alone
mine is the last elaborate freedom
mine is prescribed fire
mine is the field in the iris looking back
mine is the lock tolling left
Then out of the sun came Vegas
and we belonged to its
weekday getaway package deal.
City of costume. City
of noontime cow-tip
into floral liquor. Did people hug there?
I wanted to be hugged there, but
all the glitter. I attempted average
cleavage for all those mitrors. Most were
doors. You ate garnishes.
At every table, concentrated staying. General
folding on the floor, rubes glowing
with the need to be shown out. The hour
past the detrimental. If everyone was all in,
a woman leaned close and a staunch guard stood beaten.
The House was a man in an unfortunate vest.
Your hand was money until they told you
it wasn't. The loss was small but articulate.
The House with the cuttle fish mouth said in consolation
if it's a push, no one wins. No one wins for
whole daylight nighttimes. All over
small pockets jammed with fingers that smelled of felt, digging
The loss is the start
of a tetutn. I thought it must be why
they like magic also. It's all hoax
unless something comes back.
PRISM  51:3 Tammy Armstrong
I was wrong about depth.
On the lake's milk-stirred evening
the swallows sip mayflies from the surface.
They are half-sifted words in night's gritty pockets
where men, still in work clothes,
sit on rocks or coolers, smoke and dry fly
for rogue shad—dark muscles
down from Horsetooth tesetvoir
pushing toward skinned light.
Today's record heat was heavy in high 30s,
but you tell me to wait
while the tap water garters across my wrists
and the ice tray in your hands
hollows against the counter's edge.
Wait for something in the storm clouding
to push against the Front Range.
fust wait for the storm's rigging to shift
where lighting lodged its jack knife last week
in the field's soft grain.
Coyotes are coming down for water now,
seeking out the farmer's slough, the overturned trough.
On Rabbit Mountain we listened to theit a capella
roll the canyon.
Soon the rains will escape the distended sky,
the sand will silt the gullies
and the bones will push through—
the mule deer's worn skull, the vertebrae beadwork—
an augur's toss onto the snap-grown grass.
White and clean as peeled rutabaga,
the bones will appear in the morning near enough to the house
we'll wotty what their presence suggests.
Still, the swallows on the lake dip and half-dip.
They have been hitting our windows lately,
seeing something worth returning for.
You set yourself to the atomic clock,
I set myself to you at the dormer's early squint,
asking, as we shift into the moon's shadow, is it too slow?
Time swamps the estuaries of our schedules,
fills our days with puttering and friends emailing,
What part of the country are you in?
Is this you who knew me some years ago?
We are lost to clocks that circle strange time;
their silver hands point to empty faces
ot leap seconds missing footing.
It's five, no, eight o'clock my time.
I know the names of almost nothing now
and you asked me so long ago
for the return of your book of saints,
for an explanation
as to why my country has so many time zones.
Let me guess what you're thinking as we watch
the light low-belly its inky mooring.
Across the Front Range this moony saltcellar shifts
a bit more,
drags its reading lamp back through the pines,
warms these rumours of kin-shadow.
For George
When the antelope lie down
in the storm's hollow,
our first story ends and begins.
Here is a good space
that hassles the ropes free
and leaves us over after-dinner mantras
in strange places on the edges of darkly mined towns.
Each new day, the road's black throat opens
beneath our threadbare radials,
swallows the pale spirit that shrugs off shadow
and shows the path down toward the town
with its trucks lined up like newly polished boots.
If you'll love me in the awkward,
I'll let those coy-dogs cross up North
while you drive against the kerosene sun.
Another mapless flinch. Our story is a back road.
This is the gold around our fingers.
The storm calls through the evergreen sting
while something in the air catches the starter flame.
A good winter. A book of plum.
The sky's worn blade.
Before the coming snow,
the antelopes settle at the shelterbelt.
Just there, a certain sort of light.
The snow falls.  Our story begins.
21 Carolyn White
Date/Time of Arrest Report: 10-3-08/1130
Location of Arrest/Incident: Golden Gate Bridge2
OfFense(s) Charged or Investigated: (10-31) Suicide3
Name (last, first, middle): White4, Laura5 Margaret6
Race: W
Sex: F7
Hair: Bin'
Eyes: Hzl1"
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 15012
10-03-08 1130
9350 17702
On 10-03-0813, at approx. 1130 hours14, I received a report that a witness had
observed a person jump from the Golden Gate Bridge15, into the water16, from
the east sidewalk, by light pole 8717. I responded from the east lot on the south
end of the Golden Gate Bridge and arrived at the area of light pole 87 at approx.
1135 hours. Golden Gate Bridge Patrol had released a flare into the water and
the U.S. Coast Guard had already been notified18 and was responding. A green
purse was located near light pole 8719. A search of the purse found a green wallet
and inside the wallet was a Ca. driver license #D8060837, belonging to Laura
Margaret White of Fremont, Ca20. At 1138 hours the U.S. Coast Guard, Greg
Babst—BM1, advised they had recovered the body approx. 800 yards east of
the south towet, and were in route to Coast Guard Station Golden Gate. Aftef
talking with witness I responded to U.S. Coast Guard Station Golden Gate.
Presidio Fire was notified and responded to Fort Baker.
While en route to Fort Baker, the coroner was advised and was requesred to
respond. Upon my arrival at Station Golden Gate, I observed the body of a
female, approximately 20 years old, as she lay on a rescue litter on the U.S.
Coast Guard dock21. The picture on the driver license from the recovered purse
confirmed the female was rhe owner of the purse and confirmed the identity of
White. Presidio Fire Dept. Engine 52, Paramedic Zaffa, checked the body and
pronounced her deceased at approx. 1155 hours22.
PRISM  51:3 At approx. 1213 hours Mari County Coroner Investigator David J. Foehner
arrived on the scene. Investigator Foehner took charge of the body at that time
and searched the clothing and the purse of the subject. While taking inventory
of the purse, Foehner found a suicide note23 helping confirm this as a suicide.
A set of car keys were also found in the purse. At approx. 1237 hours Golden
Gate Bridge Service Operator (tow truck driver), Amarrilas, located the vehicle
registered to White, parked in the east lot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The vehicle
was stored by Corte Madera Tow24.
witness information:
Rene Putman, Netherlands25
I contacted the witness on the Golden Gate Bridge. He identified himself as
Rene Putman and stated in essence that he was walking on the bridge and saw a
girl with red hair climb over the rail and jump into the water26.
1. Clothing worn by White: brown two-tone shirt, blue jeans, and no shoes25.
2. White was not listed as a missing/wanted person30.
3. Notification to the next of kin31 to be performed by the Marin County
Coroner's Office.
It is my opinion that White committed suicide by jumping to her death from
the Golden Gate Btidge. This is based on witness statements and the suicide
note found in her purse.
When my sister swallowed handfuls of her sleeping pills and anxiety medications,
pushing the capsules down her throat with gulps of Smirnoff, the EMTs who
came to my parents' home to pump Laura's stomach and fill her body with
charcoal told my mothet, "Don't wotty. She won't be atrested." In 1963, a police
officer in North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, or
Oklahoma would have put her under arrest, handcuffing her limp wrist to the
gurney. On the day in July that Laura tried to die, and on the day in October
that she succeeded, suicide was not illegal in this country.
Since 1937, upwards of 1,300 people have jumped from the Golden Gate
Bridge. On average, one person jumps every two weeks. Laura was one of 34
bridge jumpers in 2008. The bridge meant nothing to my family until my sister
died beneath it.
"Thanks Laura," my father says. "Thanks for picking the biggest fucking
landmark on the West Coast."
(10-31) SUICIDE
Barbara Meyers, a Unitarian Universalist minister with wine-colored hair and
wide, glassy eyes, sits in my parents' kitchen. She has the high voice of a child.
We are planning Laura's memorial service.
"We think it's impottant that we not shy away ftom the word suicide,'" my
father says. "She fucking killed herself. It's not like we'te going to try and hide it."
At the memorial service that Saturday, Barbara Meyers gives a homily in
which she says, pausing gravely, "It is important that we seek to learn from the
person who dies from suicide."
Her voice drops as she says the word.
A day after, we are assembled in the living room—the room no one ever uses—
where candles a decade old sit arranged on the coffee table with unlit white
"Your Great-Great-Grandfather Brownley killed himself," my grandmothet
I nevet knew: at thirty years old, my Grandmother White's grandfather,
Robert Brownley, drowned himself in the Chesapeake Bay for fear he had given
his second wife, Emma Lee Jarvis, the clap. He tied a bit of cloth about his head
to prevent the blue crabs from eating the flesh of his face—he was quite vain—
and sank into five feet of brackish water and drowned.
And then my mothet tells me, "My uncle, too."
My Grandma Breingan's brother, Clemente Bernasconi, killed himself in
1958. My mother does not know how ot why Clemente Bernasconi killed
himself. Her mother would not speak of it.
"And my great-great-grandfather," my mother adds.
Of Edward George Blackwell, the death certificate states only that in 1894
he died by "cutting his throat, being of unsound mind."
"It's in yout blood," my grandmother says. "The child came by it honestly."
Had she been named for our family, Laura could have been Ladie Alice, Dora,
Elsey, Winifred, Maria Antonia, Apollonia, Wisconsin, Annunciata, Lucia, or
24 PRISM  51:3 Florence. Instead, my sister's name was chosen on the basis of tolerability; my
mother and father decided they could both stand saying "Laura" for the rest of
their lives.
My Great-Aunt Margaret kept us for a night every summer when we visited my
father's parents in Virginia. She lived in a tiny cinderblock one-story on North
River. Her second husband, Howard, was a sea captain, and brought home gifts
from places my aunt would never go. When he retired from the sea he took to
his bed and stayed there the last eighteen years he lived. The house we visited
was choked with the gifts he had brought her: glazed ceramic angels, reed-woven
wine casks, mobiles made of white Jamaican seashells, tiny bamboo garden
scenes from Japan, and delicate, brightly painted china birds in their china nests.
At night, Laura and I shared the bed that Howard died in, giggling as we
inevitably rolled togethet into the deep hollow left by his body. In the morning,
Aunt Margaret fried potatoes in a cast iron skillet and let Laura, her namesake,
pick something to take home from the myriad of treasures cluttering every
surface of the house. Laura always chose to take a china bird.
In Laura's bedroom in Fremont, everything is as it was left: the green-sheeted
bed in which she slept, the narrow closet full of clothes too large for her waning
body to fill, and the books she cried every time she read, so great was her desire
to live in a world unlike this one. My now dead aunt's china robin, cardinal,
bluebird, sparrow, and finch perch atop my sister's bookshelf, their china nests
ringed in halos of dust.
7. SEX: F
26% of bridge jumpers are female.
8. BIRTHDATE: 06-14-89
My sister was born on Flag Day: June 14th. My father convinced her that the
American flags our neighbors affixed to their garages and cars were hung in
honor of her birthday. At six, Laura counted them aloud as we drove down
Marigold Drive, whispering, "Happy birthday me, happy birthday me," at each
flag she saw. Fourteen yeats later, we gather for the twentieth birthday she is not
alive to celebrate. The flags hang on every house.
At age 16, Laura begged my mother to let her shave her head. She had worn
her hair cropped short and dyed shades of eyesore-bright pink and highlightet-
purple for a year—an incomprehensible thing, as she hated to be noticed. My
mother told het, "You'll look like a Nazi skinhead. Your teachers will judge you."
She looked to me for agreement: "Right, Carolyn?"
I reminded her that her daughter's hair would grow back, whereas the
numerous facial piercings Laura had been begging for would leave marks. My 25 parents often cringed at the sight of the hooked bone and glass earrings Laura
forced through the stretched holes in het ears.
The next day, I drove my sister to the hair salon we had visited since we were
children, and Laura asked Noelle to shave her head. I was struck by the delicacy
of the flesh revealed. Her scalp was render and new looking, like the smooth
pink skin beneath a scab.
When my sister's hair grew back, it came in as curls of light red. My mother
fawned over it. "She's such a pretty girl," she said to me, proud.
A correction: my sister's hair was not blond when she died. It was red as
The officer might have seen Laura's eye color listed on her drivers' license. Or, the
coroner peeled back her eyelids to reveal pupils the same color as my own. Or,
she died eyes opened wide.
11. HEIGHT: 5'9
A correction: my sister was 5T0. She hunched to hide it.
12. WEIGHT: 150
At age 16, when my sister received her driver's license, she recorded her weight
as 150 pounds. By 19, bulimia had sucked the fat from her flesh, leaving her
skin taut and bloodless over the mountain ranges the illness had made of her
cheekbones, her spine, her ribs. The coroner's report does not report Laura's
weight. Instead, it tells me of her organs. Her heart weighed 252 grams when
its beat stopped.
13. ON 10-03-08
My mother left the house in the early morning to walk by Mission Creek,
beneath the eucalyptus. An hour later she returned to find Laura sitting at the
kitchen table. Unwilling to be drawn into conversation, my sister rose from the
table and went to the garage. She returned with her mud-crusted riding boots
in hand and said, "I'm going to the ranch." My mother said goodbye, and Laura
Laura placed her purse on the grate beneath light pole 87, climbed over the rail,
and jumped. She was alive for four seconds aftef her feet left the bridge. Her
body hit the water at 75 miles per hour. She suffered subarachnoid hemorrhage,
transection of her cervical-medullary junction, hemorrhage to her posterior neck
muscles, a comminuted ftacture to her C-l vertebra, lacerations to her lungs
and liver, anterior right rib fractures, internal hemorrhage, and an eight inch
laceration along her left lower lip, near the corner of her mouth.
My mother says, "She's gone."
She rises from the kitchen table to fold her small, sharp limbs about me,
holding me against her as she sobs into my shoulder. She clings to my body as if
I am trying to run from her.
"She jumped off the bridge," she says, gasping.
"The bridge," I reply.
I understand what horror is. I had never known it.
My mothet sat back on the imported sand beach beneath the pines, her thin
body slathered in SPF 89 sunscreen, as I walked into Lake Tahoe, its water
as frigid as the biting spring snowmelt. Lauta floated belly-down on a shiny
black inner tube in my wake, her fat hands clasped about the rope I had tied
around my torso ovet the pink paisley-printed nylon of my swimsuit. We headed
towards to the buoyant, Astroturf-carpeted platform some 60 feet from shore. I
was the water-horse to her rubber carriage.
My feet slid on the algae-coated stones and I threw myself into the lake,
the cold shocking the air from my lungs. Laura's fair skin turned red where the
shallow swells broke across the tube and onto her body. The ground gave way
and through the clear lake I could see pine trunks, great and even as marble
columns, felled and rotting. I surged forth and yelled, "We'll make it, Laura!"
Laura's inner tube bounced behind me and her eyes scrunched closed
beneath her blonde fringe. The water grew deeper, the rocks and drowned tree
trunks vanishing beneath us. All I could see was blue. Lauta began to sob, "Stop,
Carolee—stop!" I swam faster.
Once I had reached the floating platform I used my weight to dip its edge
so that my sister could slide from the inner tube onto the Astroturf without evet
touching the watet. Still crying, Lauta clambeted onto the squate of buoyed
wood and plastic grass, graceless as a seal on land. She lay splayed on the gteen,
water-worn turf of the platform, her hands spread flat. I stood above her,
bouncing gently. I proclaimed, "See? We made it!"
The Golden Gate Bridge Patrol uses the bridge's 128 light poles as reference
points in its records. The most populat light pole from which to leap is the 69th,
at the bridge's centet. A recorded 55 people had climbed the tail there by 2005.
My sister was the 21st person to climb the rail beneath light pole 87 and jump.
"You know, they'te not always dead when they pull them ftom the water," my
father says. In two years, he has never told me this. "Sometimes they have to
watch them die."
My fathet and aunt took Laura to Florence as her high school graduation
present. It was hot and the city was empty of Italians; tourists filled the streets.
My father took pictures of Laura in the mins. In one, she emerged through a
tiny stone door, smiling mockingly through an angelic expression. Her cheeks
were already hollow with illness; in a year she would come to my parents with
the shiny welts of lighter burns on her arms and say, "I've taken all my pills, but
I'm not ready to die yet." In a year her teeth would be rotten and datk in my
graduation pictures. In a year she would be locked away in the psychiattic watd,
behind heavy, buzzing doors.
At the leather market, Laura chose a slender purse made of strips of soft,
emerald-green leather.
I write my sister's eulogy.
Laura was not easy to know. She may have seemed distant, terse. We all knew
her differently Her family remembers her stubborn disposition, her strange, absurdist
sense of humor, and her tendency to express her distaste with a squawk, a sound
more befitting of a chicken than a child. She wanted to do everything on her own.
As a toddler she said, "I do it myself. " She walked with her toes curled under her
feet, balancing across the knuckles, refusing to explain why or to stop. Her childhood
friends knew Laura in the years when she was a runner, a laugher, a goof. In some
respects they probably knew her when she was most herself, the little girl that came to
live somewhere hidden away as she got older, and different, and sad. Laura did not
want to grow up.
We don't know the exact moment that Laura's life changed. By the time of her
death, a simple conversation was an excruciating ordeal for Laura. The eating
disorder that would slowly destroy her health and sap her of her strength was Laura's
way of trying to control the uncontrollable fear she experienced while trying to live
day to day. The child we once knew seemed to disappear, to shrivel, and for years
would only reappear in instants.
Laura wanted to be normal. Though it may seem like she did not want us to
know her very well, I think that maybe more than anything else she wanted to find
a person to know, and be truly known by. The waste is unspeakable. She chose to end
her life having barely lived it. She may have someday had the ranch, the dogs, the
great love, and all of her other wishes granted, but maybe not. Laura's desires were
not outrageous. They were small, and sweet, and, to Laura, seemingly unattainable.
Now, truly unattainable.
"I want to see the body," I tell my father.
He looks at me and says, pleading, "Let me talk to the coroner first. It may
be something you do not want to see." He is wrong, but I agree to take the
coroner's advice.
28 PRISM   51:3 Laura's corpse will be fed to flame the next day, her 252 gram heart and
smooth and glistening epicardium and 553 gram right lung and 1529 gram
brain turned to fine white ash to be housed in a small brass box—the plainest
urn the Chapel of the Angels Funeral Home has in its thick catalogue. I want to
see the body, as if it will explain. I want to see the body so that I know my sister
is dead.
The coroner calls and says to my father, "I don't recommend it."
The body is taken away and burnt.
In Santa Cruz, I sit at Sushi Totoro across the table from my friend, Kai, who has
ordered the 49ers roll, sushi made of globs of roe, melted cheddar cheese, and
tomato sauce meant to mimic the colors of the San Francisco Niners.
I sit on the queen bed in my parents' room and read what my sister has written
on a single sheet of white paper, three inches by five. My father stands in the
doorway, back to me, waiting. Words lilt on the page, the ink floating above the
black, wide-rule lines:
After 19 years, this is where I meet my
end, where I finally discover what comes
next. I really am very sorry to do this
to all of you, this selfish and weak thing I'm
about to do. I know you were all rooting
for me, but I wasn't rooting for me. I feel
like if I don't do this now, it will only happen
later, probably within the next year.
I love you all so much and I hope you
knew that.
Am I scared? Hell yes. When you
actually consider taking your own life
seriously, that's when you find out what
you really believe. I will hope for the
best. I hope I get to try out a different
kind of existence, a different world. I never
really belonged here. Please try to let me
go. To my family, all my love.
Laura White
"She sounds so fucking young," my father spits.
I rest the note on my knees. "Not her best," I say. And he laughs.
Three days after Laura jumps from the bridge, we drive to San Rafael to collect
her car: the blue Prius. My father drives around the bay's shore, opposite the city.
29 I stare at the huge white cranes lining the water's edge, built to lift and stack the
metal containers from the decks of the boats that dock at the shipping yards. As
a child I thought they looked like great white longneck dinosaurs. Beyond rhese
metal structures, across the bay, I can see the Golden Gate Bridge. I am unable
to look from it. It emerges from the fog in red spires, the water beneath it blue
as cornflower. It is beautiful. The bridge remains in sight for twenty minutes. I
twist in my seat so that I may continue to stare at it as we round the bay and the
hills threaten to obscure it. Finally, I see only dried grass.
When we reach Corte Madera Tow, a fenced asphalt lot at the heart of a
labyrinth of highways and circuitous commercial roads, the sun-leathered tow
truck operatot says, "I am sotry for your loss," as he hands my father a full
clipboard of paperwork. Laura's car sits in a big, cluttered garage, two stickers
affixed to its bumper: "Obama 2008" and "Give wildlife a brake!" I walk away,
my footfalls echoing.
Near the entrance to Corte Madera Tow, a white pit bull sits tied to a metal
pole by a heavy chain. It whines. I look down at the dog and the plastic grocery
bags and crushed soda bottles caught in the chain link fence behind it and I
think, so this is where it ends.
My father has frequently searched for Rene Putman on Facebook, but has not
found him.
"That poor man," my mother says. "He was on vacation."
"The foorage probably doesn't even exist anymore, but I think about it
sometimes," my father tells me over the phone. "If you could watch it, would
"You think the security cametas caught het?" I ask.
"Oh, I'm sure," he says, as if he's thought of it many, many times.
"But it wouldn't be of the fall," I say.
He does not pause. "No, but you'd see her go over the rail, probably."
"No," I say. "I don't think I'd want to see that."
It would be grainy, I imagine, the footage captured by a security cameta
mounted high on light pole 87. Laura walks into the frame with her odd, low-
footed gait. She walks like she is gliding, her upper body held unmoving above
long legs. She stops, looking over the edge at the water beneath.
I do not care to see my sister climb over the rail and vanish into the air,
hurtling unseen towatds the watet.
I want to see her face. I have dreamed of it every night since she died—weeks
now. In the dreams, I turn a corner in a familiar place, a crowded Santa Cruz
coffee shop or hallway in my grandparents' house, and abruptly find myself
standing on the bridge. Laura is standing with her back to me, hands spread on
the red rail. Her hair looks like a flame. And just as she tutns to face me, I go
blind. I cannot know whether she smiled her grimacing smile. I cannot know
30 PRISM  51:3 whether tears wet her freckle-spattered cheeks. This moment is one I cannot see.
"You're probably right," my father says. "I think more about the second after
she let go of the rail—whether she regretted it or not. That is what I can't stand.
The thought that she was sorry she did it."
"I hope she wasn't," I reply.
My father says, "Yes. I hope she was glad all the way down."
From the journal of my sister, Alta Bates in-patient Laura White, July 2008:
So how did I end up here? I better figure it out on paper before someone else
asks me. I was strong, I was solid. Then I went to Davis, alone. Fuck friends. Fuck
trying. It's easier to go up and down on this rollercoaster high of drinking and being
fucked and engaging in my ED and not eating and going to Summit hung over
with unexplained bruises and burns. Enter parental concern. Enter sober me, enter
conscience. I spill the truth to my dad; 1 spill it good. I cry for my daddy once again,
dropping the act. Not a hot piece of ass after all, not a pro drunk driver, not a smooth
party girl. So it all comes crashing down. I ask for help, and now I have it. But the
pattern persists. I need those rollercoaster emotions again, or else, what do I have?
Nothing, no one. Wrong, of course. This is the point where I could have chosen health
and sanity. Instead, I choose destruction and lies. I am still a drunk and I go straight
back to the Bad Guy when I can. I lie and cheat and it feels good. I never pause to let
my conscience creep in, to see the moral wreck I have become, the worthless daughter,
the destitute human. So why not end it? Better to float on to the next thing, leave this
life trashed by the wayside. But no. Something in me screams now to hold on. I listen,
feebly. I want to go home. I want a cat to rub itself against my calves. I want to listen
to the adamant stomp of my mother's path through her domain.
I will not do this again. There, there it is. I will not. I am committed to this life
I've been given, whether I come to regret that or not.
a. Before driving to the Golden Gate Bridge, Laura removed the FasTtak device
from the Prius and hid it in the garage beneath her quilted saddle blanket.
The car's toll tag records its passage through a FasTrak lane on any Bay Area
bridge. Removing it ensured that her path to San Francisco would not be
traceable. I wonder: Why would my sister bother to cover her tracks if she
was sure she would jump?
b. When my father tutns my sister's keys in the ignition, we find the mix CD.
"Wake Up" by Arcade Fire plays. "You'd better look out below!" the singer
c. Laura took a photo of herself with her cell phone. The timestamp dates it
October 3rd, 2008 at 11:25 am—five minutes before Rene Putman saw her
climb over the rail. I tell my father I do not want to see it.
I think, why did she take off her shoes? And then I realize that they probably flew
off when she hit the water. Like in Looney Tunes. 31 30. A MISSING/WANTED PERSON
Two months after she is dead, I call my parents' house and get the answering
"Hi, you have reached the Breingan and White residence. We can't come to
the phone right now, but if you leave a message after the beep, we'll get back to
you as soon as we can," says my mother.
"Hi parents," I say. "It's Carolyn."
And I realize I have said my name when I no longer need to. There is no
longer a person with whose voice they will confuse mine. They are my parents,
and I am their daughter. No confusion left.
By 12:30, when Laura had not yet returned from the ranch, my mother called
her cell phone. The phone rang, singing the chorus of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"
over and over: "Does that make me crazy? Does that make me crazy? Does that
make me crazy? Possibly." My mother went to Safeway to buy groceries to make
dinner for my farher and sister. She bought three boneless pork chops and a red
My mother rounded the sharp corner at Marigold and Mission Creek Drive
at 2:15, and saw two police cars parked in front of the house. A male police
officer met her as she stepped from rhe car onto the cement.
"Are you the mother of Laura White?" he said.
I am sitting beside my grandfather on the porch of his home in Virginia. His
brain is riddled with dementia. We sit in silence and watch the ctabbing boats
come in at dusk, their motors chugging across the smooth water of slack tide.
"Why do you think Laura did what she did?" my grandfather asks. He sucks
at his tobacco pipe and looks at me intently. The ice resettles in his sweating glass
I think, thank God he remembers that she is dead. It is one of the last things he
remembers—everything since wafts through his brain, ephemeral as pipe smoke.
"She was sick for a long time," I say. My grandfathers face contorts as he tties to
comprehend; this answer is not good enough.
Ten minutes pass and my gtandfather asks, "Why do you think Laura did
what she did?"
"She didn't think she had anything to look forward to," I say. He tilts his
head from side to side, as if he is testing my answer's fit.
He will ask again. I will not have an answer to satisfy him.
Laura did what she did because:
32 PRISM  51:3 David Clink
Patience settles inside you.
Your sand dreams of returning to the ocean
to dance in that salty den of sharks and coelacanths.
Glass is yout horizon, your world where
wood is both a ceiling and a floor.
A hand takes you by the waist.
33 Julia Herperger
A constellation of stones
in a dry bed
where the river was:
water-logged sticks, plastic
bags tangled in green reeds.
Who knows
what I'll find? Sea glass,
tossed pennies, some talisman
I can keep on my bedside table,
like the tin
Dad found in an abandoned
house on the way to Redberry Lake.
The house slanted
to one side, sun-bleached
grey in a field of rye.
My parenrs
before they were my parents, younger
than I am now. Dad told this story
so many times
it seems I was there, watching:
he steps into the house while she waits
just outside the doot in a blue
sun dress, strawberry-blond
hair to her shoulders.
There are windowpanes in jagged
shards on the dirt floor, dust
sieved though
cracks in weathered wood,
and, in the corner, a silver
34 PRISM  51:3 wink of sunlight
on metal.
He brushes off the dirt,
finds the initials O. N. J.
scratched into the lid
of the tin.
Sun-blind, he steps
back into the field,
hands it to her. It nests
in her palm like a small bird.
Neither of them say
anything. Open space and silence,
everything still before them.
His memory
already turning into a photo
he'll pass on to me.
I think about
where the future begins—
every moment opens
into it, hete
for just long enough to see it, before
it turns into the past, the memory
of green fields and heat. 35 JeffMusgrave
(black & white photograph of my father on a beach, taken by my mother, 1967)
Leave the woman taking
this picture, Dad;
dive into the water and
swim for your life.
Crawl onto the beach of
the next village and
marry the prettiest
girl you see. That night,
when I come to you in
nightmares, please stay
calm, as I will bring
scenes from your foregone future:
holes the size of fists
in closet doors, and
choirs of rum bottles
on window sills.
Feel better by going for
a walk on the beach.
Peet actoss the watet
and imagine
the boy from your dream,
smiling and waving. He is
happy that, for you,
he simply never was.
36 PRISM   51:3 Jonathan Mendelsohn
Yamamoto had not wanted to break up the work party, which is why he stayed
until its end. When he arrived at the station thete were only four minutes to
spare before the last train of the night would set off.
None of his colleagues had known Yamamoto wasn't feeling well, sitting
tall in his charcoal grey Armani suit in the izakaya booth. But then none would
have claimed to really know Yamamoto in any personal way at all. They certainly
wouldn't have known that at the best of times going for after-work dinner and
drinks at the pub wasn't exactly the thirty-one-year-old's favourite hobby. That
he only ever drank a single glass of beer at these all too-common-outings was of
course joked about, but Yamamoto was such a good sport, laughing along, no
one realized the young manager would rather have been at home.
The guys from the office liked talking about sports, baseball, soccer, so
Yamamoto, who sometimes worried he came across as too work-oriented, would
talk about his fitness routine: weight training and swimming 1500 metres every
day before work. He liked describing the specifics of his exercise regimen; it
was easy conversation that wasn't gossip or overly personal. Better to answer
his colleagues' probing questions about fitness than deal with inane ones about
appearance. His co-workers, old and young alike, often made wisecracks about
Yamamoto's looks, and there was always an element of truth in their envy-tinged
teasing. A favourite witticism involved asking about the quantity of seaweed he'd
eaten as a child—the old myth about seaweed doing wonders for the lustre of
one's hair. But really, what was his secret? They wanted to know. It was genetic,
wasn't it? Yamamoto had to admit it probably was.
One thing he didn't share with his coworkers was his love of reading, in
particulat long nineteenth-centuty English novels. He read them in Japanese,
of course. He'd never been strong with languages. It didn't matter. There were
plenty of good translations, especially for Dickens. His favourite, though, was
Trollope. Trollope for the everyday details of English life that took Yamamoto
to that far off place. Trollope and a cup of English tea in his armchair by the
window of his catpeted living room—that was the young salaryman's idea of a
perfect night. But he knew his colleagues wouldn't understand. As he wasn't yet
married, they'd think him strange choosing not to join them more often.
On this night, though, a rather wet and muggy Thursday, he had to be
out. Had to go along with his department at least a couple times a month.
And as per always, he did so with good posture and social grace, his new navy
silk pocket square in place to match the shiny blue of his new tie. He knew
how often to smile and when to laugh, all the cues necessary to assure everyone
that he was having a great old time in the downtown Osaka izakaya. Anything
not to burden the group, especially with something as embarrassing as a little
37 stomach discomfort. It wasn't easy, however, to hide the wince-inducing churns
his stomach kept going through. Hard to laugh in that kind of situation or not
feel a little isolated from everyone else. His head kept repeating its concern over
the cramping. And now there were bouts of nausea as well. Was it one of the
dishes he had eaten? The oysters?
Rushing off the escalator he shook out his long black umbrella with three
quick, hard shakes, before wrapping it tight and buttoning it up. With equal
deftness, he swiped his train pass through the card reader and raced down to
Track Four where his train was waiting patiently. There were still three and a
half minutes, but Yamamoto hurried, hoping to find a seat, afraid he might
otherwise faint out on the platform in his best suit for all to see.
Up ahead an older man walked quickly, clearly on the same seat-finding
mission. A thin-waisted man, he wore a chocolate brown corduroy jacket over
a beige shirt tucked into brown pants he had hiked much too high. His grey
sneakers had big looped laces, also grey, that flopped with each step he took.
Instead of a briefcase, the old man had a white plastic shopping bag hanging
from his wrist, banging against his leg with each step. The ojiisan walked at a
good clip for a man his age but Yamamoto knew there would be no competition.
He passed the old man easily, accidentally bumping him with his briefcase as he
did. In fact, he bumped the ojiisan rather hard, and would have apologized had
he not been so desperate to sit.
It was the last seat on the last car of the ttain, a narrow space in the middle
of one of the soft moss-coloured benches that ran from one set of car doors to
the next. Yamamoto squeezed his way down between a high school girl in her
tartan uniform and a heavy middle-aged man wearing a forest-green suit that
looked two decades out of style. The man, in glasses with gold frames so big they
covered half his cheeks, reeked of whiskey.
The doors hadn't yet closed when Yamamoto was hit by another round of
nausea. People continued streaming onto the train, but Yamamoto didn't notice.
He had hung his head in his hands to close out the wotld, anything to block out
the smell—the rank, sour smell coming out the pores of the drunken fat man
beside him—a stench too similar to his father's for Yamamoto to ignore. He took
a breath to calm himself.
Closing his eyes tight, Yamamoto tried to concentrate on his stomach. He
just had to control it. Just control it. Like the waves of nausea that kept coming
up, so too now were childhood memories he wished would go away. Sickness
was not something his fathet would abide. Crying was even worse. Yamamoto
berated himself, commanded himself to swallow it down and just, Sit up straight!
It didn't work. The nausea was making him dizzy, as if he were caught out on
a small boat in the middle of a dark windswept sea instead of a still unmoving
train. It felt like a nasty bit of karma when he opened his eyes to find the ojiisan
he'd bumped on the platform was standing right in front of him, holding the
rubber ring above him. Yamamoto quickly averted his eyes, afraid the guy had
come to stand there and glare down at him. Only after he braved a quick upward
glance did he realize the old man wasn't even looking in his direction. Yamamoto
saw the hunched way the man stood, the frailty of the old man, of old men.
The shopping bag hanging heavy from the man's wrist. Through the plastic,
38 PRISM   51:3 Yamamoto could make out six small hard-covered books weighing the tired old
man down. Of course the ojiisan had to be a reader, Yamamoto thought. The
scruffy mismatched clothes, the plastic bag. Why did so many of the men who
read on trains have to look like pathetic old homeless people? And why did this
old guy have to carry exactly the kind of antiquarian books Yamamoto found
so handsome? He hated how curious he suddenly became. Did the ojiisan read
Trollope? Was he also a fan?
Yamamoto knew he should give up his seat. He would have too if he didn't
have such a stomachache.
Nakamura was seventy years old but still worked everyday except Mondays
when he left the house only to grocery shop and go for a walk up to the temple
on the hilltop near his house. Long before work, still lying in his bed half-asleep
in Takarazuka that Thursday morning, Nakamura knew it would be that kind
of day—when artificial lights would be necessary the gloomy way through. It
wasn't raining yet when he awoke. The only rain that would fall throughout the
day would fall in a thin drizzle that couldn't satisfy the low hanging clouds with
any sort of release. The morning commute into the city was more unpleasant
than usual, what with the humid weather and the lack of air conditioning. The
Hankyu Railway wouldn't turn it on until May; it didn't matter how hot the last
few days of April had been.
Nakamura tended the book shop himself. This wasn't what bothered him;
in fact he knew to be relieved at the distraction work brought. To pass the quiet,
grey morning he stood at the store counter with a cup of coffee, his radio tuned
softly to a classical station as he scoured the newspaper movie listings. It was after
work that he was ptepating for.
At twenty past seven in the evening, after Nakamura had swept the floor
and dusted the counter and bookshelves, he locked up his shop and took with
him yet another selection of books he had still to read. Like the walks he took
on Mondays—always Monday and exclusively up the narrow stone path that
led to his neighbourhood temple—Nakamura was compulsive about his need
for a wide selection of books to choose from each night when he read in bed.
Dependent on his mood he would pick from no less than the 15 or 20 books
he had going at any given time, often forcing himself to try authors and periods
of English writing with which he was unfamiliar and not unabashedly in love.
On tired nights when a new plot or overly modern style just seemed too much,
however, he would return to his beloved classics of old.
Financial consttaints usually kept him eating his dinners at home, but
he could only make a late show tonight, and didn't feel like he could wait till
afterward to eat. It had always been a shock to his late brother that he could
cook. His ex-wife and het friends—het ftiends because she had known them
fitst and because they stopped being his friends after the divorce—used to tell
him he had a knack for Italian food. They had adored his carbonara, and he had
loved making it fot them. Now though, he cooked only simple (usually boiled)
Japanese dishes for dinner, much hotpot through the wintet. For lunch he liked
39 to make himself omelets. He preferred making foods that didn't go well with
wine. He didn't drink anymore. Hadn't for years. Now when he was blue he
went to the movies.
Wet, and still angty with himself for losing yet another umbrella (left
somewhere on that morning train between Takarazuka and Umeda), he brushed
through the curtained entranceway of a tiny yakitori place and sat himself on a
stool at the counter. There were no tables in the place. There was only enough
room for the wooden counter, skewers of chicken sizzling on the hot grill behind.
Nakamura wiped off his hands and face with the cool, wet towel he was given
and, after ordering his food, released a large sigh. Two young salarymen looked
over before resuming their conversation with the proprietor. Nakamura wished
someone would have a conversation with him.
After dinner, he bought a bottle of cold green tea and a two hundred yen
box of chocolate almonds in the sterile white glare of a convenience store. He
took them through the mild rain and into the darkness of the giant old movie
house in East Umeda. Nakamura loved this place for its grandiosity, for the red,
velvety curtains that framed the screen. The screen felt miles away, the place
was so big. It was a Korean melodrama, lots of tears and beautiful people. The
film was supposed to be tragic but it was so pretty and far-removed from reality.
Nakamura enjoyed the escapist ease of it.
The sinking feeling returned when he exited the cinema and saw the drizzle
coming down under the street lamps. Couldn't he just snap out of it? More than
anything, Nakamura wanted the day to end. He looked at his watch and realized
he only had a few minutes to catch the last ttain of the night.
He moved quickly along the sidewalk, hot and frustrated by the feelings
he had no explanation for, his plastic bag of books swinging by his side. As he
was boarding the train his shoulder was nearly knocked off by a rude young
salaryman who hadn't even apologized as he rushed by. No one apologized these
days, Nakamura thought, as he side-stepped through the crowd and onto the
train. He hadn't noticed the selfish young man when he first walked over, but
when he did, it was a strong temptation indeed to glare down at him. It was a
rage Nakamura felt building—a feeling he thought he'd outgrown—a rage at the
self-centered ways of the world. When he looked around it was as if the whole
train, everyone, looked angry or sad or drunk-awful. No one cared about anyone
else anymore. Nakamura knew to catch it though, this angry wave of heating
thoughts. He'd put too much conscious effort into his reactions to let something
this small work him up. So young people never gave their seats to the elderly
anymore—what else was new? He could stand; it was good for him to stand.
He'd spent too much of the day sitting anyhow. But still he let out a sigh. Could
it never be easy?
The familiar musical warning trumpeted along the platform and in through
the open train until its lingering last note when 24 sets of car doors closed
simultaneously. The train started with a thrust. Yamamoto's grip tightened on
his briefcase, which was on his lap. He looked up as the train exited the terminal
40 PRISM  51:3 station into the spring night. The old man and the other ring holders were
bobbing toward Yamamoto and back again in rhythm with the jerky movements
of the train. Seeing the outside world suddenly seemed terribly important, like
getting an eyeful of fresh air, but the standing crowd blocked any possible view.
Yamamoto couldn't see a thing. He heard it, though, when the train shrieked
and took a sudden turn.
He hurried to unzip his leather briefcase, burrowed his hands deep inside,
finding and clenching the empty plastic bag he had used to take fruit to work.
He didn't pull the bag out; he didn't want to believe he'd have to use it. He closed
his eyes, swallowing and swallowing as he did. It had to have been the oysters.
He was sure of that. He was less sure he could hold them down all the way
It came up the way a train makes its sudden start. A jerk followed by a thrust.
Yamamoto barely managed to hold on to it, sealing his lips and feeling the soft
warm-wet food, like porridge, fill his stretched cheeks. That was the jerk. The
thrust came as a second jolt went through his stomach and up his throat and out
his mouth like a jaundiced waterfall. He retched into the plastic bag, but not the
one he had been holding. He hadn't had time to get it out of his briefcase. It was
instead the bag of books the ojiisan standing in front of him had opened and
offered for him to use.
The vomit didn't all land in the bag; a good deal of it splattered across the
old man's one pant leg. The ojiisan wiped himself off with his handkerchief and
then offered Yamamoto a hand. "Do-zo," he said and helped the boy up as the
train slowed into the next station. "Here you go."
Everyone on their car stared as the young salaryman walked through the
crowd, wiping the dtibble from around his mouth with the sleeve of his Armani
suit. He couldn't use his hands as they were holding shut the two sides of his
unzipped briefcase.
Nakamura glared at the onlookers. "Mind your manners!" He was still
shaking his head as he helped the young man off the train. "They think it's a
bloody television program they can just stare at."
There was a men's toilet off the platform and Nakamura quickly moved the
boy towards it, hurrying him into the only stall in the empty bathroom.
Yamamoto dropped to his knees at the oval hole that was the squatter's toilet.
He could feel the old man crouch behind him and put a hand on his back as
he threw up all over again. There was no way for Yamamoto to move or even
arch his back out from under the man's touch. He was too busy convulsing with
aftershocks. Then came the bile. After that nothing but empty gagging. While he
stroked Yamamoto's back, the old man hummed a familiar bit of classical music.
It wasn't Mozart. It was sadder music, gentler even. Chopin, perhaps? Dvorak?
The music helped calm Yamamoto. So long as the ojiisan kept humming the
slow and haunting melody. Take him to that other place. It was enough to keep
him kneeling there, even after he'd finished gagging, hunched as he was so close
to the floor, his hands—two fists—supporting him against the lubber pads
meant for feet on either side of the squatter toilet. But he didn't move. He didn't
want to, listening to the old guy's repeated refrain, like a gentle lullaby.
41 Only when the tears came did Yamamoto open his eyes again. He'd not
regained as much composure as he hoped, but already he heard himself saying,
"Sumimasen. I'm sorry." He was still facing the toilet, but saying, "Gomen
Nasai. I'm very sorry." He tried sniffing the runny snot back up his nose, tried
braving a look round, but he was quick to turn back after catching sight of the
plastic bag still hanging from the old man's wrist. The ruined books! Suddenly
he was that eight-year-old boy all over again, his face twisting up in the awful
anticipation that came before you got hit for making a mistake. The pain inflicted
for "feminine" weaknesses, as his father called them whenever Yamamoto began
to cry.
"I've ruined your books." The flat manner with which Yamamoto delivered
the line was on account of the fear he was working to hide. The flinch, however,
was all instinct—what he did when a man came in towards him, as the old man
did now, to cup a hand over Yamamoto's shoulder.
"Sh sh sh. Don't worry about that now. You'll be OK," the ojiisan said.
"You'll be OK."
"Please," Yamamoto said, more harshly than he intended, pressing hard with
the back of his knuckles to wipe away the wet from his upper lip and nose. "Just
go." He shut his eyes tight and the way he was pursing his mouth, his fists, the
way his nostrils flared with the air pumping in and out of them. When it came
it came to him in full. A complete vision. He saw just exactly what he would do
and how easy it would be to do; he heard the cracking sounds, and how seeing
the old man's blood on his hands after would satisfy something very deep and
wrong inside of him.
"I'm happy to help," the ojiisan was saying. "So please, don't you worry."
The old man was still talking and swaying with rhythm, staying just as close—to
Yamamoto. "Don't you worry now. You're gonna be OK."
Yamamoto felt the man's breath at his cheek. He didn't hesitate a moment
longer. When he got up, he was so quick he nearly knocked the old man over in
the act. He grabbed his briefcase like he was yanking the hand of a misbehaved
child. The bathroom stall was too nattow for him to pass the old man, though,
desperate as he was to leave, to get away so as to protect the ojiisan and keep a
promise he once made himself as a boy long ago. Yamamoto had no choice. He
had to wait fot the old man to hoist himself up off the floor in the slow way old
men will. When finally they walked out of the stall, Yamamoto watched as the
old man tossed the bag of books in the bathroom's trash bin.
"Old and used, anyway, eh?" The ojiisan laughed.
On the long escalatot ride up Nakamura asked the young salatyman where he
lived, if he was anywhere near Takarazuka so that maybe they could share a cab.
The young man didn't look up when he apologized that he unfortunately lived
near Uneno off the Nose line.
"Naruhodo. I see. Never mind then," Nakamura said. An idea had occurred
to him. "I think I might just walk then."
42 PRISM  51:3 "Sure." They had gotten off the escalator and were standing by the turnstiles
at the station exit. "Why not?"
"But it would take you almost an hour from here!"
Nakamura smiled "It very well might."
"But it's raining."
"I think I'll survive," he said and offered the young man a wink. The
heaviness that had been bearing down on him all day was finally beginning to
lift. And now this spontaneous little plan of his. It was such a meager thing, but
the very thought that he could walk now—at night, in the rain, so outside of his
routine— it felt wide open with possibilities, like boarding a big ship bound for
the open sea.
"Please." The young salaryman took a five thousand yen bill out of his wallet
and moved in toward Nakamura. "For your trouble, so you can take a cab
"Thank you, but I genuinely would rather walk. I could use the exercise."
"You don't even have an umbrella. Please. I insist."
"Now who's worrying about who?"
They walked out the station together. It was drizzling but warm. The young
man apologized and said he had to go. Before he did he opened his expensive-
looking umbrella and held it out for Nakamura.
"It's almost big enough for two," Nakamura joked. This time, though, he
didn't refuse the offer.
Before the young salaryman set off, Nakamura rummaged through his pants
pockets and produced a dog-eared business card. "Because who isn't in the
market for an old foreign book?" He said it with another wink. "Truly, you're
welcome at my store any time. Have a cup of coffee and a chat, eh?"
Yamamoto thanked the man with a deep nod and stepped into a waiting cab.
"Evening," the cabbie said.
Yamamoto closed the door. "To Takarazuka," he said. He looked out the
rain soaked window that he unrolled just a crack. Finally alone again, he looked
down at the card the ojiisan had handed him.
Rare and used Foreign Books
T. Nakamura, Owner
2-3-22 Nakazaki-cho, Kira-ku, Osaka, 530-1013;
Ph: (06) 6313-4202
Yamamoto closed his eyes a moment and took in a deep breath. He turned
found to watch as his taxi drove by the old man. In the light rain the ojiisan
was walking btisk and tall undet Yamamoto's umbrella. The old guy looked like
he really was enjoying himself out there. Yamamoto watched him a long time
before facing forward again. He checked the rearview mirror to make sure the
cabbie wasn't watching, and then dropped the business card out the window
before shutting it tight. He didn't want to get wet.
43 Elena E. Johnson
These nights are mostly sunset.
We amble into long-johns,
arrange our cocoons without flashlights.
Wind keens the ropes
that tie small shelters to stones.
Before sleep we switch
the bear fence on—
each pulse through the wire
a faint click.
Each landscape leaves its mark—
a scratch at the heart, faint
as a pole-scar on talus,
sunk like a boot-print in tundra.
(Oh how the sphagnum springs
and springs, how it soaks and soaks
again.) 45 ALONE AT THE BASE
The "door" of the cook-tent
unzipped. It blows shut,
blows open.
The other tents
flap, flap, flap.       No one
is ever coming back.
46 PRISM  51:3 Jean McNeil
The drive from Uis to Hentiesbaai is poles, road, poles, road; a melon sun. In the
truck we are chastened into the silence that grows, as the moment of departure
draws closer, between people who will soon never see each other again.
It is September, early spring in the southern hemisphere, and we pass under
the mantle of coastal fog that extends 10 kilometres inland, a product of the
refrigerated Benguela cutrent that flows all the way from Antarctica. The fog
inteimingles with sandstotms, turning noon into sepia twilight. Just visible in
the murk are glossy ribbons of kelp, fur seals, the hunched shaggy forms of the
beachcomber hyenas who eat the fur seals, fishing shacks, knackered bakkies and
hulking remnanrs of ex-ships.
We've been walking 150 kilomettes over seven days in the Namib desert on
the ftinges of the Skeleton Coast National Park. The Ovambo called this place
"The Land God Made in Anger." The Bushman called it Bitterpits. I read this
word first in Stephen's poems when he was alive and all was well and thought:
that sounds like the place grief lives. I should go there.
This is my second visit to Namibia. The first trip, in March and April 2010,
was almost on a whim. I was living in South Africa then, and was captivated
by the idea of the empty country to the north: a desett in southern Africa
stocked with anomalies like the horned adder with eyebrow scales that make
him look like an enraged elder statesman, the gemsbok which have their own air-
conditioning system in theit nasal cavities which allows their brains to keep ftom
exploding in temperatures of 45 degrees, and the desert elephant with its feet
specially adapted for walking on burning sand. All eking out a living in dry-cut
valleys where rain hasn't fallen in hundreds of years, drinking the dew condensed
from a cold Atlantic.
It is not yet over but already I know I will write about this trip, and that
it needs to happen in teverse time. In the beginning everything is possible; in the
middle one or two outcomes are likely; the end is inevitable. So said Aristotle, the
first theorist of narrative.
But if we reverse this chronology we start with the inevitable and end with
the possible, we see more clearly what has been discarded or lost along the way.
We glimpse the ghost of luck, map the path not taken. Why should be this way?
we ask, retreating along out path, as if we have seen a lion. Everyone in Africa
knows this is what you do when faced with a lion: stand your ground, then back
slowly away.
The last of our nights in the desert, our campfires the only warmth against the
chill. Fires burn bright at the beginning, then wither.
47 For these last six days we've walked 20 to 30 kilometres every day through
dune grass swaying in the wind. It looks not at all like land but an empty sea. I
see only him, the horizon, the dog bending into the land.
Eight or nine kilomerres beyond the Rhino Alerr camp rhe finish line awaits.
This is such a trifling distance for us now that Jan doesn't even put on his trainers.
His feet are swathed in bandages, as are mine. Alice, the Frenchwoman who
does logistics for Medecins Sans Frontieres (so not a delicate creature) has a
centimetre-wide hole in her head from when the metal peg of our spinnaker-
shaped shade tarpaulin hit her in a freak accident, and the tip of Helen's toe will
fall off within the next two days. We've even had to bandage the dogs' paws; Tiki,
the little herding dog, pads along on Band-Aids.
Last night we'd sat around the campfire; as usual only Jan and I drank. Alice
was still recovering from her confrontation with Jan, two—or is it three?—nights
ago now.
She comes up to me when the others are eating around the fire.
"Don't you think he drinks too much?"
"I'm the wrong person to ask," I say. "I drink too much. I'm not a good
The problem is Jan's volatile moods. Here I can't fault him—I'd be furious,
too. But on the other hand there is a collusion in my response which is not only
a drinker's camaraderie, it has a tinge of self-sabotage. This has been with me all
my life. Its periodic reappearance is never a good sign, I've learned. It means my
allegiances are misplaced and they will not be repaid in kind.
On our way to the Rhino Alert camp we stop to taste desert lettuce. It is a
succulent; in Namibia many plants survive on the sea mist which drifts inland
from the Skeleton Coast. The lettuce tastes of the sea.
An explosion from the river grass. A creature sprints past me, pursued by
Omukuru (the Herero word for God, or divine creator), Jan's dog. It's a kudu, a
dusk-coloured anrelope. The kudu and Omukuru teat down the sandbed of the
Ugab, an ephemeral river, so-called because it flows only a few days a year.
"Will he catch it?"
"Not on his own," Jan says. "If there were three or four of them, maybe." His
voice drips with a calculated boredom. Nothing I say will interest him now.
My relationship with Jan, if that's what you can call it, has deteriorated over
the past two days—a sharp decline that might have nothing at all to do with
me personally and everything to do with his preoccupations. We'd started off
talking while we walked—about the fate of the Bushmen, Laurens van der Post,
the corruption of the ANC—all the reliable southern African topics. But now
that voice of his which teeters between provocation and scorn has tipped in the
favour of the lattet. You're mad as a box of frogs! What do you want to know the
name of that for? Walk, won't you—he shoves me on the back when I get in his
Anxiety fizzes in my stomach, my head, everywhere. I deliberately fall behind
and walk at the rear.
We are doing this trek in support of the organisation Jan founded, which
wotks to conserve the endangered black rhino, an animal that has recently come
48 PRISM   51:3 under renewed and sustained threat thanks to a snake oil remedy trade in Asia
which prizes rhino horn for sexual potency. The rhino hasn't got long to last, I
can't help but fear. The rhino themselves remain phantoms. We see only their
spoor and dung.
This week we have all turned brown and lean like kindling. Jan has gone
beyond tanned; his face, caramel at first, is rubber. Two tourmaline eyes stare out
from it. He looks like one of those hard men in Grand Theft Auto.
All week dark holograms of anger swirl from him, also a stringy, unstable
elation. Around him the air is electrified but unhappy. I keep watching him,
ttying to figure out his essential code. He is alert, taut, but there is something of
the same surrender of the language of this place in him, too: succulent, ephemeral.
Such voluptuous words for a thorny place. Like the buffalo thorns that attach
themselves to us, driving an inch down in to our flesh, we absorb them until they
are dissolved into our bodies.
Before dawn we rise and stand by the fire, shaking off mist, dew, scotpions.
Waking up after surviving another tentless night among hyena, jackal, elephant
and leopatd feels like coming unpeeled into the world. The spring sun rises by
six. We watch Orion fade with the night westwatd, into the Atlantic.
We walk all day. What do we think about while we walk? For once I don't
think. The wind roams through me and this is enough.
My life now is blisters, zinc smear of sunscreen, trying not to sit under the
tick bush nor step on a puff adder, migrant fears that waft in and out as I try to
take the measure of the emptiness of this place. Scat of bustards in the sky. Jan
picks up petrified ostrich eggs for me. The ground is covered with the shatteted
detritus of a lost culture—flint from Bushman arrows, used Bushman's candle,
last touched by a human hand six hundred years before.
There is an undeclared reason why I am doing this trek. I am not an habitue
of secrets; it just didn't feel right to tell anyone. Everything I see and feel on this
journey has been coloured by this. It has to do with a friend of mine, a writer
who chronicled this landscape, or one much like it, long before I came here.
These days have been an ordeal but also never long enough. I remember my
near miss five days ago, or was it six? At night I don't dream of snakes at all but of
us going sand-surfing on windsurf boards mounted with spinnakers; imprinted
on them ate the names of Damaraland, the Kaokoveld: Koppermyn and Mon
Desir, Torra Bay and Sorris Sorris. Such reckless yearning names for drunken
hamlets with an Engen station and a bottle store. There is some formula driving
this, I feel, an attempt to solve that persistent equation between lavishness and
February is the hottest month in the Cedetberg. Tourists are scarce—not many
people can take the heat; duting the day it is ovet 40.
Eskom, the electricity company, is doing work on the line and have cut off
49 power to the entire district between Calvinia and Clanwilliam for the day. I have
to shove everything in the freezer and not open it if I want all the food and drink
I have bought to last in the heat.
Outside a rainstorm brews. Cold cobalt clouds amass over the citrus farms
that stretch for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. The clouds are rolling
in from the north, all the way from Namibia. If I got in the car and drove for
another five hours I would reach the Namibian border. And if I drove for a
further ten hours after that I would be back in Walvis Bay.
I don't know I will walk 150 km in the Namib desett in six months' time—
that decision is still ahead of me. But here, nearer the border, I feel its pull; an
insistent tug of unfinished business. Not good business, rather it has the grating
insincerity of something I must return to do in order to expunge it from my
As for this trip to the Cederberg, I've come here alone against the advice of
friends (this is South Africa and it's not safe) in another kind of bleak sympathy,
this time with a friend who is dying.
I met Stephen some years ago. We were colleagues, both writers; last year
Stephen invited me to teach at the University of Cape Town. Stephen is a
mountaineer, a walker, a marathon runner, a swimmer and like many men on
the Cape physically perfect, with thick veins rushing oxygen from one quadrant
of his body to the other as his heart performs feats of endurance.
A prolific poet and essayist, he'd published what many people considered
his best collection, Return of the Moon, in 2000. These poems were based on the
Bleek/Lloyd translation of the San (Bushman) language and lore, now stored in
the archives at the University of Cape Town. The Bleek/Lloyd archive amounted
to nothing less than the record of a lost culture and language. When, in 2004
the South African poet and journalist Antjie Krog published a collection based
on the same archive, Stephen publicly accused her of plagiarism, igniting a bitter
controversy in the cloistered world of South African poetry. I only met him years
after the fact.
"I've mellowed now," he told me, in an oblique referral to this chapter in his
life. "I'm not quite as uncompromising as I once was."
He'd taken his share of criticism too, I knew, accused of being a conservative
poet because his work did not overtly position itself with the snuggle against
Apartheid. "I refuse to write about politics as my primary subject," he'd told me.
"Probably because that's what I was supposed to do, or required to do." Then
he'd given a rebellious giggle.
The shadow of his death creeps across this place, even if at this point, here in
the Cederberg in February 2011, Stephen is still alive.
Sitting on my stoep with only a Windhoek beer for company, the rainstorm
approaches. I wonder if the Cape leopard still treads these roads. To the north is
Namaqualand; I love the word Namaqua—its sound like pieces of split wood,
like water running over stones.
Stephen has camped alone here. He set himself physical challenges, epics of
austerity to feed his poetty, as if an internal code needed to be established then
stiffened like a core. He wrote a famous essay about this place, "Bittet Pastoral."
50 PRISM  51:3 In it he calls the Cedetbetg "the land with no fat."
"It takes an unusual person to see beauty here," says Haffie, the dowager
owner of the farm where I am staying. "Most people want green, they want the
coast." So do I, I think. Then why am I here?
I wanted to write but I find I can't here. I am writing a book narrated by a
man who falls in love with another man for the first time in his life. Neither of
them are gay. "They must be a little bit gay," teases my friend back in London,
when I tell her the scenario. What I mean is that for both men it is a personal
scandal, what they feel for each other, a surprise and also a revelation.
"Why are you writing about men?" my London friend asks me. I don't think
I manage an answer. It seems so obvious to me: / am a man, these men are
me. Even if in life I very often provoke the worst possible instincts in men. I
don't know what they see in me, but they feel shortchanged. They are expecting
something from the outward package, and upon opening it find a creature too
close to their natute to be trusted.
The nights are rough. I feel alone and vulnerable. It is 28 degrees at midnight
and I have no fan, so I have to leave all the windows open. I wake before dawn
and open the curtains to see that the shale of the Cederberg has ignited. A
hungty red bores into my eyes. Today it will be 39 degrees.
"What do you think of my Bushman's feet?"
We sit around the fire bundled in our downfilled jackets, but our feet are
bare in sandals. I had noticed Jan's feet, of course, when I first met him a yeat
and a half ago. Who is this annoying guy with the lovely feet?
Since I was last in Namibia I have had many dreams in which I come back
only to find he is not here. He doesn't live here anymore, he's had to leave. The
dreams were their own warning: don't go back. Something about this place, or
this man, or both, has its hooks into me, into my unconscious.
Several things have changed since my last visit to Namibia: Stephen is dead.
He died suddenly in April this year of stomach cancer. In February I spoke with
him on the phone in Cape Town; he was so weak he could not have visitors. I
never saw him again after that day in St James when we climbed the mountain
and he told me that I would come back to teach with him and I thought, no.
Tilings have changed for Jan, too. There is a problem with his wotk permit
and he can no longer be in the countty for more than two months at a time. Just
as in my recurring dreams of returning, he doesn't live here anymore, in fact only
by chance have our paths crossed. Yet everything he owns is here: the business he
built from scratch, his house, his partnet Elise.
"Why did you come to Namibia?" I ask as we walk up and down dunes.
"Why did I come here?" He repeats the question, his voice sounds of wary
offhand boredom. "I was so tired, tired of people, everywhere. Tired of their
little powerplays, their ego, striving, university degrees, their..."
"Yes! That too."
That night he leaves the campfire. Later when I go to lay my bedroll in a 51 hollow on the karst plateau where we sleep I see him lying on the rock far from
camp, propped up on one elbow, looking up into the stars. It's not a normal
tableau of a man gazing with wonderment at the sky. There is a collusion between
them; a current travels down from the sky as much as upward. The stars know
him, or know something about him. I wonder what it is.
All night I hear jackal and hyena. Hyena make scoping sounds, almost a
coo, like whales communicating underwater. I wear a British Airways eyemask
against the Cyclops glare of the moon. When I wake I shift it to see Orion's boxy
eye criss-crossed by shooting stars. The Bushmen said "we are the Dreamer's
dream:" they believed we are being dreamt into existence, which we mistake for
reality, by a far more advanced consciousness. It's not hand to imagine a remote
intelligence in these dark skies curdled with constellations.
All day we've been seeing remnants of the Bushman's existence: the stone
hunting circles where they would crouch and aim their slender bows at springbok
and eland, the flints they used as tools and which Jan ingeniously spots on
the rocky plain. But the Bushmen are long gone, driven out by the relentless
migration of Bantu peoples from the north.
Tonight Alice and Jan had a confrontation. Alice asked that we walk more
slowly and take account of the landscape.
"This is not a bloody safari!" Jan bellowed. "And don't tell me how to walk
on sand! I've been working in the Namib for sixteen years." Alice had lived in
Mauritania; she knew a thing or two about walking on sand.
For the whole day we'd seen only ostrich. This area of the Namib was formed
when the Atlantic retreated 300 million years ago. By day we walk through eerily
vacant Gondwanaland plains.
"Ten years ago this place was teeming, man," Jan tells us as we rest under the
only tree for fifty kilometres in all directions.
In the 1800s, homesteaders in the area would be unable to open their doors,
walled in by springbok herds that stretched from one horizon to the othet. Now
weekend hunters come from Windhoek or Swakopmund in portly 4x4s. So far
we've scared the living daylights out of a lone mother giraffe with her calf and
scattered a few nervous springbok. All eyeing us, stiff with the threat of slaughtet.
We walk for seven hours with hardly any rest. The last hour is a 30-minute
vertical scramble. The rains have been so plentiful this year we have been walking
through undulating sable curtains of grass, so beautiful that I forget to look
down. This momentary inattention is what led me to my near death experience,
two days behind me now.
At the top of Messum Crater, Jacqueline plays Sinatra's "Fly me to the Moon"
on her mobile phone. The view is so impressive it takes on a calamitous aspect. A
khaki plain stretches to all horizons, punctuated by anvil-shaped drumlins.
I take Stephen's poems from my backpack. I hadn't noticed before how
Return of the Moon is suffused with dreams—the dreams of the Bushman, of
stats and the moon and its steel light, of rain and wind and oryx and eland. In
the Namib my dreams are atavistic and strange, they dissolve before the first
52 PRISM  51:3 green ribbons of dawn appear on the horizon.
In my usual life as a teacher of writing I often give my students this question,
as an exercise: What dream did your character have the night before the story
starred? It's about the overture as much as the unconscious, the last moment
before we were aware that something was going to begin, the very next day.
Things that happen today: Alice gets walloped on the head by a metal tent peg
which the wind tips out of the ground, tearing the flytarp, our only protection
against the sun in this treeless place, over our heads where it whips, a giant kite.
Alice's head pours blood and we marshal one of our precious ice packs, long and
thin like those ice cores glaciologists coax from the Antarctic ice sheet, to stem
its flow. We are four hours away from a hospital. There are no helicopters to
pluck us out.
And later, once Alice has been attended to and we are sure she is not going
to die of a brain injury/bleed to death, Jan looks at me. I come to sit across from
him around the unlit campfire. He never sits next to me. Then again I never sit
next to him. I sit in my chair and shake out my hair and lift my head to speak
to him and his eyes are already there. In a long arrested moment we stare at each
other. The look in his eyes is familiar: curiosity, distaste, and an element I can't
identify. I meet his gaze with a questioning one of my own: Why do I feel so close
to you? You don't like me, do you?
Jacqueline joins us in our little semi-circle of camp chairs, and we look away.
Haffie's Cederberg farm is a 30-minute drive from Clanwilliam on a recently
tarmacked road. The drive takes you first high above the verdant valley of the
town into a mountain pass. Here twisted cedars defy the wind. Strange boulders,
wind-carved, line the highway like statues. Then the road plummets into a wide
flat valley, as far as the eye can see. I pull up undet huge drooping ttees and book
in at the fatm office.
For the last eight months I have felt a pull to return to South Africa, as if I
had to return to make sure this landscape was real. Not only the Cederberg, but
also Cape Town, Noordhoek, the places I frequented last year when Stephen was
well and we were making plans to work together in the future.
The day before I left for Namibia last year Stephen took me for a walk on
the mountain. We reached the top and he turned to me and said, "You see how
easy it is to become obsessed with this place." We were looking out onto False
Bay, into the bony mountains that stab the southern ocean on either side. It was
a Sunday in April, early autumn, but a thin heat temained.
"You'll come back next year, and we'll do this again," he said. In his eyes was
a rigid note. Possibly the obsession for this place he was speaking of.
I had to stop myself from saying, "Stephen, I won't. Something will go
wrong. I don't know what, but it won't be like that." The feeling was there,
automatic, pre-scripted, I didn't need to think of it at all. An alarm trilling
through me, powered by an uncertainty: what will go wrong? I knew, I think.
53 Not what would happen, but what would not happen. I wonder if this counts as
oracular knowledge. A premonition.
"She's trying to recreate the trek she did two years ago," Elise says of Helen, who
is the oldest among us and is finding the terrain difficult.
But Helen is not making it easy for herself: she rejects all our sorties of
friendship or offers of help. Each night around the campfire on her iPhone she
reads out the blog that someone on the trek kept of this same journey two years
ago. "Dave brought me up to walk behind him," Helen says, and her eyes mist
over. "I was number two all the way." I can't help but feel sorry for her. We have
perhaps committed the same error, summed up in that old adage: never go back
to somewhere you have been happy.
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the PURE LAND. This is the
title of the painting by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon that hangs above
my desk in London. It is a horizon-awed canvas, a single Rothko line between a
muted sky and land.
Ahead of me for seven, eight hours a day, I see this painting. Jan cutting
through it with his angry seigneurial stride. But he is delicate, too, almost
balletic. He moves in wider circles than the rest of us. The air eddies away from
him as he approaches while we are fitting ourselves into envelopes of space,
trying to slide in neatly, hoping it will let us in. He hurls himself into time like
you would a wall. I like this burning conviction. You can tell a lot about a man
from the way he walks.
Stephen, he gulped the ground. He wrote that the body of the writer
absorbed the message the landscape was broadcasting. For Stephen, Hemingway,
abour whom he wrote with great insight and affinity, was the embodiment of
this idea. He would never have written the books he wrote had he not grown
up in the woods and lakes of Michigan. He had absorbed the savagery and the
wild intelligence of that place. For Stephen, Hemingway was not so much a
masculine writer as an open-hearted one. He declared his allegiances. He knew
what he loved and was not afraid to say so.
They have similar eyes, Stephen and Jan, gas-flame blue against a darkening
face that week as we all crisped in the desert sun. The eyes of a man walking away
from you, always or eventually, into the horizon, into adventures, other women,
another cold beer at the beach bar where he will bask in the admiration of men
and women alike. Even toward the end of our walk when we are fed up with
each other, Jan still stares at me with those beacon eyes of his. And we stop, each
arrested in the moment of discovering an adversary, or is it another self? As you
would stall in front of a mirror, shocked to find it is not your own countenance
looking back.
54 PRISM  51:3 DAY1
It is quarter past seven in the morning when I nearly step on the snake.
The spring sun has been up for twenty minutes. We walk across the northwest
face of the dune. That is why I don't fully believe in the snake: he should be on
the east slope, facing the sun.
I think: just a horned adder. No, it's not—
By then it is too late and my feet are above its plug-shaped head.
I know very well what you are supposed to do when you encounter a puff adder:
stop dead, back away. The puff adder strikes at 300 kilometres an hour. That's
fastet than a jet departing the tunway.
Instead I step over it thinking, oh, that's a puff adder.
Almost unique among snakes, the puff adder doesn't move at a human's
apptoach. "I'm going to kill you so why bother" sums up their world-view. If it
does bite you, the result is very often death. If you are lucky and don't die you
can be ctippled permanently thtough tissue and muscle damage inflicted by the
cytotoxin in its venom.
Jan lifts the snake up on the end of Jacqueline's walking pole. The snake
unhinges itself and dangles by the throat to reveal the biggest puff adder I have
ever seen. His thick belly is a vanilla bronze. It glitters in the early morning sun.
"I used to play with these guys but then a mate of mine got bitten on the hand
and we had to cut off his fingers so he wouldn't die."
After he has put the snake down Jan comes toward me; we exchange an
uncertain look. He makes to put a single finger on my shoulder, as if to say, you're
bloody lucky, or, I'm glad you're not dying right now. But at the last moment he
draws his hand away.
Up and down dunes all day. There are no shadows in this land. The sun cauterises
them. For seven hours in 38 degree heat I see Jan, the horizon, khaki grass,
Omukuru, the gleaming citadel of the flytarp. At night temperatures plummet
to near zero; the 40 degree temperature differential means we migrate between
winter and summer in a day.
This is when he tells me his story, how he was a commando here 22 years ago,
in the dying days of the Botder War. He was only 18. His father, a conservative
Afrikaner, forced him into the South African Defense Force, where he trained as
an officer.
"No one knew where I was," he says, running a hand through his hair as he
marches in front of me. 'Not even my fathet.'
Jan came to this country fitst in war. He has made it his home, but now he
has been banished. His two months are almost up.
In southern Africa people say stay when they mean live: "This is where we
stay," they say, pointing to the house where they have lived for 25 years. There is
something itinerant and non-committal in this verb choice. As if at any moment
they could get up and leave.
We are in the same position, I realise. He can't stay here either, even if it is
his home.
55 Evicted into a cool wind we walk twenty kilometres in silence.
Back in Cape Town over the next week I will battle strange lashing panics. A
black fear will dervish around me, looking for exit. Why is this happening to
me? I didn't know Stephen that well, we were only friends. He's been dead for
five months now.
But grief will saturate the months to come so that my mind will feel as if
it has been flensed from itself by unseen knives. Grief is waiting. Waiting for
what? Fot the moment to return, the moment in which you felt alive, if not
loved. The moment in which the natural obscurity of life, the dark and the
shadows, is illuminated. Waiting for the lean figure to appear on your horizon
once more. To come bounding back from the edge. Waiting for the sunset, to
drink sundowners as the light is swallowed by the mountains.
I never felt desire for him, for either of these men in fact, or not desire for
possession. But I did feel a companionship, and although one will burn you alive
and the other is the east wind that blows in the Namib morning, they might be
the same current pitched on a different frequency.
"Desire is a great builder of inner space within human lives, hollowing us
out, making resonant places we originally thought vacant," Stephen wrote in
one of the essays collected in The Music in the Ice, which would be his last book.
Suddenly inside us there are grand vistas flooded with sun. We say, I never knew
this place existed.
3:40 in the afternoon. At this hour it's too hot to walk. Jan and I read under
the flytarp while everyone else sleeps. All sounds are magnified by the silence:
Helen's sleep murmurs, drone of bees, jangle of the copper bracelets and amulets
that encircle Jan's wrist, fizz of Jan's cigarette lighter, rake of desert wind.
In Stephen's poems the Bushman says that a man is truly dead when his
spoor fills with rain. All people who die become stars:
There are whole clans of people—
Men, women and children—
Long since become stars.
I sit up and look into the yellow wind of the Namib. I see how he absorbed the
tense, resinous tone of this land so thoroughly. I understand now how walking
and poetry are twinned. There is a space inside me now which I did not know
was there and which must be filled. This space has been prised open by the
desert, which demands I fill it with emptiness.
I put down his poems and stare at the dun hills.
Stephen's voice—as a poet, as a person—still rings in my mind; its intensity
so out of place with those languid Capetonian vowels, the humout that always
56 PRISM  51:3 loitered at the edges of even the most sombre sentence, his near-cackle of a
laugh. Only when you stop remembering what someone's voice sounds like are
they truly dead.
I don't know yet how, on our last day of the trek, we will file rhrough rocky cuts
that will lead us down into the riverbed. It will be 40 degrees. The sun will sting
our arms. The red walls of the canyon will close in on me. This is where Jan will
shove me as casually as he boots Omukuru's behind when he gets in his way. We
will pass lone eland and oryx standing sentinel in sand tivers with those cool
nodes in their heads preventing their brains from exploding.
We will be so near now to the Skeleton Coast. We will feel its coolness, feel
the presence of the wrecks that bleat like scars, the Eduard Bohlen, the Otavi,
the Dunedin Star, beached spacecraft lost in the fog Angolans call cassimbo. The
Land God Made in Anger. Anger can have a velocity, even a beauty. Jan will be
angry; I will be angry. I will have absorbed something of his fury.
Suddenly our feet are walking on sand.
"Ah, the Ugab river," Jan will sigh.
That means we've made it; it's over.
That night we make a fire in the middle of the Ugab, where the river would be if
there were water. Our legs ache from the effort of the day, when we have levered
ourselves in and out of canyons, walking a thin game trail etched by the delicate
tracks of Hartmann's mountain zebra.
He materializes from the darkness and sits by the fire. I can't see his face, only
his legs. Here the dark is so total that if we do not sit within a metre of the fire
we disappear.
Jan tells us he has a trip he needs to do, through Mozambique, with two
vehicles. One of them needs a driver. He asks all the others in our group if they
will come—Jacqueline, Caro, Helen. I offer encouragement to them all. He says
nothing to me and I am careful to say nothing in return. But in the end I make
a mistake, offering a random comment about road trips and his voice comes out
of the cordon of darkness.
"Be quiet. You are not invited."
A self-protective response would be: I didn't ask to be invited. Or, cut it out
with the power plays.
I say, "Yes, Jan, I know I'm not invited."
I sit around the fire for a few minutes more, then go to bed. I crawl into my
sleeping bag and am asleep immediately. I didn't know I was so tited.
The night before our walk begins we sleep on a grassy plain under a full moon.
Only yestetday I'd flown back here from Cape Town in a sandstorm so fierce it
57 threatened to divert our flight. Don't worry, the pilot had said on the intercom
as we keeled in over the cold ocean. The engines can take it.
I wake in the middle of the night from a dream to the gurgle of jackals
hunting in the shadow of the Brandberg. In the dream I am in my flat in Cape
Town and there is a stranger, a man, in my shower, naked apart from a pair of
chocolate-coloured Ugg boots. The man is flimsy, urban: writer type. Nothing
like Stephen or Jan, the men who I will watch as they move in front of me—one
alive, one a ghost—until they consume all horizons.
I feel such anguish ar not being in the desert I say to the dream in a bleak
panic: Take me back, take me back please! I wake up in the Namib and the relief
is like waking up from a nightmare in which someone has killed you to find you
are not dead aftef all.
There is always a dream the night before the story starts, but we don't always
remember it.
58 PRISM  51:3 Jim Johnstone
Bryten Edward Goss, 2006
At dusk, smoke rises
from Tribeca
like an ampersand,
a cirrus cloud
riling sentinels
from the rooftop
where we hover,
at the sight of flame.
It was Matthew
who warned
that beasts would turn-
and turning, pass
from body
to body until the city
began to burn.
In the conflagration
your dress
swells, peels back
like the mast
of a tall ship—
the marquee dwarfed
by the advancing
proof of motion.
Shifting frames
I submit
to its constraint,
the petal-shaped
of your composite.
"Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle,
the theatre is not possible. "
—Antonin Artaud
True hunting is over.
Behind an arcade I tear your dress and tie my arm off with a sleeve—pulse
embossed, free to address your fingers' reach.
A tangible lilt: the Ganges defers the dead to its margins.
An abbey blanketed with fur.
Lion, leopard, wolf.
60 PRISM  51:3 Joel McCarthy
e made our love Sunday mornings. It was a good day for that, at least that's
what we figured. The most practical day of the week. We were always home and
there were never any plans. Our sex was bettei on a Sunday. It didn't have all the
hype and obligation that Friday or Satufday nights carried. Those were nights
where we felr like we had to, and that just made us not want it. We were like
that. We didn't have to do anything; we didn't need to be told what was what,
where we should go, how we should be. We fucked when we felt like fucking,
and that happened to be on Sunday mornings when the church bells at the end
of Mill Street rang out.
We nevef married, and though I don't think she'd ever admit it, it's why it
ended between us. We acted like rebels, like we were against the grain, happy to
live outside of conventions, outside of what our families wanted. We said we'd
never have children. We'd never enter a church. We'd never reserve a banquet hall
or call a caterer or hire a band. It made us special compared to everyone else, and
we felt like we were really sticking it to the lot of them by making us work. We
lived together with separate bank accounts and we made love on Sundays. It was
I told myself it was perfect but knew it wasn't. It wasn't what she wanted
and it wasn't what I wanted. We played as rebels for as long as we could. We
were stubborn, and it wasn't compatible with the relationship we thought we'd
perfected. I would've proposed and she would've accepted, but neither of us
budged. Aftef a while we stopped making love on Sundays. That's about the time
we knew it was gone for good.
She ended up marrying a mechanic three towns over. I knew this because I
kept in good contact with her brother, Ben. Ben was a good man and I told him
that he was too good a bud to lose over what ended between his sister and me.
We stayed talking, but not like before. At least we were still talking.
I moved above a pet store. The rent was cheap because there were birds along
the back wall of the shop that squawked every time there was something for
them to squawk at. I got used to it, and when it felt like too much I always had
my headphones. They were these big padded things that gripped your melon
like a vice, blocking everything out. I'd play tapes that I didn't listen to when I
was with het. It was a lot of 70's stuff from college radio, stuff that she hated,
progressive guitar stuff with flakey dfum patterns—stuff that gets you thinking
the beat is in four when it's really in seven or nine or something like that. Tricky
stuff. I'd clamp my head and turn up the volume and think about moving into
a big city, or to an island where the weather changes every ten minutes, and
I'd let the music trick me into thinking the birds weren't squawking. I thought
about the broad who ran the pet store below me, how I wished she was half as
61 attractive as my ex. It occurred to me that I could barely remember her face now.
I'd ditched the few Polaroids we'd managed to pose for. I wondered if she had
kids now, got fat, lost the glow in her cheeks, the fullness of her smile. I didn't
know if I'd gotten fat. I never bothered to replace the bathroom scale she took
with her, three towns over.
I got beat up late one night after the pet store was long closed. I heard glass
breaking, and the birds started their squawking. There were these two kids below
me, emptying out the register, stealing whatever they could carry. I went down
and caught them before they got away. I got a hold of the one's wrist, a black kid,
and I twisted it until he screeched like one of the parakeets at the back wall. I lost
sight of the white kid, though, and that wasn't a smatt thing to do. He smashed
a fishbowl over the back of my neck and I went down and they took off.
I got up, went back upstairs, picked bits of glass out of my neck and hair,
and brought down a broom to clean up the mess. I called the broad who ran the
She wanted to take me to a hospital, but I said it was alright. My neck hurt
some and I had a headache, but any blood had already scabbed over. I had this
piece of plywood resting up on milk crates that I'd been using as a coffee table.
I brought it down for her with a six pack, and I nailed it over where the front
window had been. She thanked me and we drank. I took her up to my bed and
we fooled around until morning light spilled in through the window.
I left het a wad of cash for when she woke up. It was my last rent payment. I
labeled the envelope as such because I didn't want her to feel like a whore. I never
thought of her that way.
Three towns over was an hour on the road, and I didn't think my car was going
to make it. It did, and I didn't know what to do when I got there. I expected
the thing to die. I called Ben, but he didn't pick up, so I went for lunch at the
cafe on the main street and ordered the special: tutkey sandwich and soup. The
coffee was hot and it tasted soapy. I paid at the front counter, and asked where
the mechanic was at.
When I dtove the car in, I saw him. He was Asian, with hair like a helmet
and coveralls that told me he'd worked on his fair share of engines. He shook my
hand when I got out of the car, but made sure to wipe his own before reaching
out. I noticed the ring on his finger, felt the callused flesh that had grown around
it. He couldn't have taken it off if he wanted. I had to wonder if he ever wanted
It took me a few seconds to answer when he asked me what the trouble was.
I told him the battery light kept coming on. I told him the battery was new and I
figured it was the alternator, and asked would he check it out for me? He smiled,
told me it wouldn't be a problem, and he pointed to a row of chairs and a stack
of magazines along the wall of his shop. He spoke with no accent.
I picked up a magazine, but wasn't reading. I watched him when I knew
he wasn't watching me. He whistled something familiar, but the tune stopped
once he set the hood open, so I couldn't figure what it was for sure. I browsed
the walls, looking for any sign of her or the family that I wasn't sure they'd made
62 PRISM  51:3 together He pulled the voltmeter from a large tool chest and connected it to the
battery, positive to red, negative to ground. Were they in the red? Were they in
the ground?
There was something on the counter in front of me, next to the register. I'd
seen it before. It was a paper weight, glass, a fake monarch butterfly trapped
within. I remember her buying it. It was off a dirt road, somewhere west,
wherever we were. There was junk sprawled here and there about a yellowing
lawn, a wooden sign sptay painted. It said 'Antiques & Treasures." When she
picked the thing up, she smiled, said it wasn't antique, that none of it was, but
she was good enough not to let the owner hear. She bought it anyway, paid full
price, though I'd tried to get her to haggle the thing down another dollar than
it was going fot. It sat on her side of the toom on a night table until the day she
packed everything up.
The mechanic looked at me, his brow furrowed. He said the battery was
charging normally, and asked if it could be something else that was giving me the
trouble. I got up, put the magazine back in its place, telling him it was alright,
that maybe it was nothing. Maybe the trouble had passed, I said. He looked at
his shoes, shrugging, not knowing what to say. I pulled the wallet from my back
pocket, telling him thanks for checking things out, asking what I owed for the
time. He laughed, shaking his head, his thick hair not moving. He told me no
charge, that it was okay. He told me to come back if things started to act up
again. I nodded, telling him I doubted they would, knowing it now.
As I pulled away from the town I heard church bells, and in the mirror saw a
swarm of whippoorwills dancing in the gray sky. I clicked on the radio, catching
only static, but it was all right. It was enough to mute the bells. It was all right,
and it was enough.
63 Caroline Wong
after Thomas Heise
My birthright I have exchanged for an alphabet
tablet and a dirge. I have pawned my Confucian
ink stone for an amber the colour of unpreserved bones.
If I could sail on an ox bladder on a vertical
ocean I would burn my nostalgia to honour
the cinnamon peeler in the moon.
For some of us, home is a leprosy
we carry throughout out journey west
bereaved of Monkey's eight fold tests.
I sleep today. My mother, long dead, cracks open
her sarcophagus to make room. "Ma, I'm not ready yet."
In answer she bestows upon me three blessings.
The sun beams seeds of incandescent catastrophe.
A stick girl plants flamingos in a broken lawn.
It's no one's birthday. Some stars are not born yet.
Half out of the sky, the gibbous moon
floats between branches of dogwood.
No chance for the stars to break through.
Clouds and grass a rain-stitched
carpet on which to fly straight into the pool
of drowned longing.
Rise, my lotus girl, who sits shy and sweet
fecund with Pablo's leaves.
Plug your ears against the courtier's serenades
bled now of concretized lies and heat.
Go where a stranger's touch, his wordless pleading
will not move you
where the one worthy of your heartbreak
The green grass in the meadows
Grows long with your absent shadow.
65 Li QingZhao (1084-1151)
Translated by Caroline Wong
In the gilded censer the fragrance is cold.
The silken counterpane tosses like waves.
Rising, a heaviness in my limbs.
My hait hangs in unwashed tangles.
Dust from habit layets over my fine things.
Outside the curtains the sun has burned up half the day.
The aches inside, so much I wish to tell you.
But never mind.
This new thinness—
comes not from autumn
or from too much wine.
But never mind.
You are gone—
A thousand songs of farewell have not detained you.
Never mind.
Thinking of you on your way to distant Wuling.
The wall of smoke and mist in between.
I'm grateful for the rivet flowing past Peacock Tower
witnessing my watching.
Watching thus adds a new length of sorrow to the long road.
66 PRISM  51:3 Pasha Media
And so it was in the town of L in Ontario Province that everyone became a
god. This happened less celestially than with a natural, earthly progression: the
citizenty went from mastets of theit own domains to lotds of private castle to
heads of PTAs to full-on gods, with the requisite special powers and elaborately
flowing garments. Robe-tailoring concerns statted moving serious units. Leather
sandals went on back-order. Razor companies, despite stuffing even more blades
onto their space-age designs, found L  a dead market: big, shaggy beards
became all the rage for men, and the women let their legs and armpits grow
ivy-wild and free.
While each person was a god their talent as such, their magic, was limited to
one realm so no one stepped on anyone else's toes. Meaning that each deity had
a specific powet: this god was really good at tempests, that god was the God of
Video Conferencing, another one was fierce into hoedowns, and then there was
the god who'd crafted an exquisite, divinely manicured front lawn that no one
could hold a candle to, no mattet how feverishly even the God of Pyromania
tried—fireproof, that lawn.
There was an arcanely titled God of Stuff who with the help of tiny, tiny elves
made miniature simulacra handicrafts of real-world things, which when fired in
an enchanted oven and removed, and painted, and glazed, would transform into
the real-world thing, replacing the real-world thing in the real world. Basically
stealing it with a sort of proprietary voodoo. For example: this god, whose name
was Morris, had his elves manufacture a dinky-scale ceramic copy of a minivan
he'd seen another god, Arlene, driving, and which Morris liked very much.
Arlene was piloting her kids (whom she'd crafted herself; Arlene was the God
of Pregnancy) to soccer practice when poof, it disappeared, and Arlene and her
kids had to navysealroll out of traffic to safety, while the minivan rematerialized
in Morris's workshop and the elves danced and cheered.
Or there was this other god, Julie, the God of Boring. No one was quite sure
what she got up to in her split-level duplex, but every so often the always-drawn
curtains in the front window would flutter and you'd see the shadow of a face
there, ot at least a shadowy head-shape which probably housed some make of
face, and a great beige pall would fall tediously over the land and everyone's life
got a bit duller for a few days.
Stuff like that.
L was a fair-sized town, with fat too many gods to tell about here. And
while there were literally thousands of gods, there was no Allah or Zeus or even
Brahma-equivalent, no head honcho-type figure who called the shots and did the
smiting (Barry, the God of Smiting, mostly just smote roll-your-own cigarettes,
went the local joke). Evety god pretty much did his or her own thing. Whether
67 it be conjuring a maelsrrom of snakes from the sky or kicking out hot jams on
local radio.
Yet there existed no ethical or political divisions between gods, no teaming
up, no allegiances of Light vs. Datk or Naughty vs. Nice or Shirts vs. Skins, etc.
Each god was just a cog in the same wondrous machinery of the town of L ,
which was in many ways like any other place in human or heavenly history,
except maybe Sodom or Valhalla, in that it comprised everything, one big sloppy
jumble of stuff good and bad and kind and evil and sweet and stinky, and it
functioned as such, as best it could, and sometimes L ets were happy, and
sometimes they were sad—or angry or frustrated or envious, or whatever.
Still, like everywhere, people (gods) got pissed off at one another sometimes.
But it was agreed that in order to represent the "huge vast glowing and snatling
complexity of humankind," as per the Town Charter of Commandments, it was
necessary to include and respect vengeful gods, wrathful gods, petty hateful gods
that were cruel or full of avarice; the covetous, the snivelling, the bitchy and
mean. There were plenty of kind, fun gods, too: the God of Beach Volleyball, for
example, whose name was Liz, and the God of Making the Th-mes River Run
with Chocolate Milk, and this other quiet god nobody knew too well but just
smelled really, really amazing all the time.
What else? Oh, when the God of Pregnancy, Arlene, blessed the other
gods "with child"—a simple ptocess, just a form you had to fax her—and said
children were born, they were at first coddled as any other babe-in-arms might
be, and cribbed, and breast- or bottle-fed, depending, and burped, and so on,
until they were school-age: five. Then every boy and girl was placed into a local
madrasa, where they began a theologically inclined study of all the R's, as well
as subjects that were not R's like music and gym, etc., and twelve years later
from this holistic education they would emerge with some idea of what type of
god they'd like to be—as in, of what. So they'd "declare" and attend the local
polytechnotheological college ro specialize, to learn their craft, and graduate a
fully certified god, ready to do that unique and holy thing that no one else could
do, or had done, ever. And then they'd do it, forever.
And then, and then, and then: so things went in L . The kids grew into gods
and the gods exercised their powers, and life wasn't that unlike life in any other
mid-sized town in Ontario Province, such as H or B , excepting of
course the frequent acts of divinity, and the fact that nobody died. Oh, because
of the mortality rate (zero), housing was a problem—that is until an enterprising
kid named Ailsa decreed herself God of Housing Gods, and within the week was
conjuring great towering literal skyscrapers that pretty neat tickled the moon.
The apartments were really nice, too, with feng shui flowing through evety unit
like a soothing, Zen-filled river.
Ailsa's work was commended by urban planners and architects alike—even
the God of Demolitions, Gina, resisted getting up to her old tricks. And so
L ets had comfortable places to live, and were happy. In a laudatory profile,
the L Free Press praised Ailsa as "Best God Ever," and contrarian letteis to
68 PRISM  51:3 the editor were hugely outweighed by those pledging support.
This success continued and Ailsa stayed busy. Then, when she was in her late-
twenties the God of Love, Mike, hooked her up with a fellow named Lucan, and
soon they were an item, a couple, a married couple, wife and husband. Lucan
was the God of Money, a position he'd defaulted into due to the glazed look he
got at the smell of hot paper and which his madrasa teachers had mistaken for
But gods don't really need money. When Lucan and Ailsa's friends came
over, out of collegiality, or pity, they might fold a few bills into their wallets
with sombre promises to "spend it wisely." But Lucan knew it was a ruse; he felt
ineffectual, especially considering all the fame and furor afforded Ailsa, or even
the prosaic utility of someone like, say, their neighbour, Medway, who laboured
doggedly within the realm of fibreglass insulation. Truth: Lucan was angry. His
life felt like a compost bin; evety day he stomped more guck into the squelching
brown sludge, reeking and rotting in the depths of his soul.
Despite the anger, because of Mike's fine work Lucan did indeed love Ailsa
very much, and she loved him right back, and perhaps it was precisely because of
all that requited love that Lucan suppressed his rage, or at least sublimated it into
the Sisyphean task of cranking out sheet after sheet of totally useless currency.
Ailsa, for her part, was so busy with her work, and all the interviews and photo
shoots attendant to celebrity, that she remained oblivious to her husband's
turmoil and decay. And then one day she came home and he was standing in
the kitchen wearing nothing but hi-tops and said, flaccidly, "Ailsa, let's fax for a
With passive aggressive tactics Lucan coerced and Ailsa listened, or at least
was quiet, while mentally sketching blueprints for a Fuller-inspired geodesic
dome on the derelict fairgrounds. Finally she said, "Okay, if that's what you
want, but you're carrying it." And so Lucan faxed Arlene, was soon enough
impregnated, and nine months later a team of various medical gods caesarean'd a
squealing baby boy from his midsection. Ailsa and Lucan named this child Elgin,
and Elgin progressed from soiling himself at evety turn to a plastic potty to being
cheered as he mounted the big boy toilet to secreting his bodily excretions—of
all sorts—beyond his parents' jurisdiction altogether.
Into his teens Elgin evolved into a pasty, mincing young man in a helmet of
brown hair so persistently greasy he appeared dipped to the temples in gravy. His
beard grew in patchy and pubic; whiteheads glistened within it like pearls. Elgin
had one friend, a boy two years his junior, Iqbal. Together they shut themselves
in Elgin's room for hours and hours. Ailsa and Lucan weren't quite sure what
they got up to in there, though it couldn't be anything naughty, as their son
expressed as much interest in dtugs ot sex or anything archetypally teenage as he
did in, well, everything.
Life to Elgin seemed akin to queuing with bad gtoceties at some purgatorial
supermarket: onward he ttudged, holding in each hand a watm, damp lettuce.
And so he trudged. And in his son's nudging Lucan recognized his own similar
ttudge, as though in re-run, and this isn't what he'd hoped fatherhood would be.
Lucan had believed raising a child might ttanscend his empty, moneymaking
existence. Instead: Elgin. 69 On the evening of Elgin's graduation from the madrasa, he and Lucan and Ailsa
went out for a celebratory dinner at a downtown restaurant run by Gladys, the
God of Tex-Mex. Iqbal was not invited; this was just for family. And while his
demeanour might have suggested sulking, Elgin always slumped around in a
silent malaise, like a masterless henchman or an off-duty mime.
First, drinks (wine for the adults, grape soda for Elgin), then everyone
ordered—Elgin by pointing listlessly at the menu. As the waitress trotted away
Lucan stared at his son. "What did you order, boy?" Elgin mumbled something.
"What, what's that?" "Steak fajitas, too," said Ailsa. Lucan's eyes widened; he
thumped the table with a fist. "Damn it, that's what I ordered—you couldn't
have got something different?" Elgin shrugged. Steely-eyed, Lucan emptied his
glass and signalled the waitress for anothet.
The food came: vegetarian nachos and two platters of fajitas, sizzling in
stereo. After everyone had cleaned their plates in tense silence, Ailsa asked The
Question: "So, Elgin, school's done—what are you planning on doing?"
"Time to declare," said Lucan. "Everyone else does at your age, you're no
bloody different."
Elgin said nothing.
"Out with it, boy," growled Lucan. "What are you going to do with your
Elgin took a sip of grape soda.
Ailsa said, "What about grape soda? There's no God of Grape Soda."
"I don't even like it that much," said Elgin, staring into his drink, fizzing and
"Well what do you like, goddammit?"
"Easy, Lucan," said Ailsa. "Blaspheme not."
Elgin said, "Nothing, really."
"Nothing," Lucan sighed. "The boy likes nothing. He's interested in nothing.
Well you can't very goddamn well be the goddamn God of Nothing."
The air above the table shifted.
Elgin stopped chewing.
Ailsa locked eyes with her husband. "Can't he?"
In a voice trembling equally with irritation and wonder, Lucan whispered:
"My son: the God of... Nothing?"
Here was the thing: Elgin was an atheist. That might seem a counterintuitive
position in a town like L , surrounded by so much evidence for the powers of
the divine, but Elgin, in his lethargic way, was steadfast. He just didn't believe,
and he couldn't fake it. The whole business of gods seemed only exhausting, all
that showy providence—it just couldn't be real. From mass delusions to tricks of
the light, possible explanations were outlined in The Actual (working title), the
manifesto he and Iqbal penned together, and which they had so far secreted from
everyone in town—especially Elgin's parents.
70 PRISM   51:3 At the time of Elgin's graduation the manifesto was a 1500-page doorstop
hidden in a hollowed out edition of the municipal bible (released annually,
roughly the size of a dozen stacked phonebooks). Though manifesto was the
wrong word for The Actual, which lacked not only disproof of things godly, but
also a basic, cohesive argument. As Iqbal's 128-page introduction suggested, this
was precisely its point: "An argument," he'd written, "is an attempt to convert
someone's opinion to your own. Conversion is a religious practice. We don't
want to do that."
It wasn't even nihilism the two boys were advocating. Despite its length, The
Actual was less epic and rambling than a steady, brown drone humming without
cease. The document was about getting thoughts and feelings on papet—for
posterity or their own integrity ot what, Iqbal and Elgin weren't even sure. All
they knew was that they didn't believe, and writing about this, togethet, seemed
the right thing to do: and they did so compulsively, almost pathologically.
The Actual aside, the motning after that Tex-Mex dinner, Elgin's father
marched him down to the registrar's office at the polytechnotheological college.
"My son's going to be the town's first God of Nothing," Lucan announced with
a flimsy sort of pride. The registrar, Pauline (The God of Registration), handed
over the appropriate forms, which Lucan completed with requests for a thesis
supervisor (gods of Quantum Physics, Buddhism and German Philosophy),
while Elgin slouched nearby, staring forlornly at the untied laces of his sneakers.
Perhaps revolutionaries aren't born, or even chosen. Perhaps the tebel spitit lies
dormant within all souls, and it takes only a spark, some ignominy or injustice,
some cause ot reason, to kindle it into a conflagration. In Elgin's case, his
lethargy often infuriated othets into action. Certainly he vexed and perturbed his
professors. "To be the God of Nothing, you have to become one with nothing,
not just do nothing!" Dr. Lao hollered, brandishing chalk. Elgin shrugged.
Word spread around campus of rhe kid who, for reasons no one could
fathom, didn't care about godliness. In the cafeteria, in line for the bus, in the
crowd at the Homecoming Game that October, Elgin could feel the lingering
looks, hear the whispers, sense the speculation. Once someone even came up to
him after a Books of Creation lecture and asked him outright: "So you think
you're better than everyone else?" To which Elgin replied: "No, of course not.
Obviously worse."
Rumours began to circulate beyond the campus's ivy-shrouded walls. Ailsa
sensed among some of her more reactionary clients a palpable reticence and
frigidity; some even cancelled orders. Still, no one came out and demanded what
she suspected was on all their minds, i.e. how someone of such godliness might
have failed so terribly as a parent.
One evening in Octobet, while Lucan fed another day's-worth of dollats
through the paper shredder and Elgin perched at the window waiting for Iqbal to
come over, Ailsa sat swirling wine on the couch and wondered: maybe she'd been
too career-driven, maybe her absenteeism had allowed her husband's cynicism
to encroach unencumbered into Elgin's subconscious... But no, that wasn't it,
71 she thought, watching Elgin peer into the L night. There was something
different about the boy that transcended both nature and nurture.
When Iqbal, who had recenrly taken up with a teenage sect that hung
around the town's various shopping mall food courts, finally showed up (with a
freshly pierced nasal septum) he deflected Elgin's embrace into a limp soulshake,
expressed no interest in working on The Actual, and absconded forty awkward
minutes later with Elgin's favourite pen. At this Lucan gloated—though it was
a brief triumph, as the next day the L Free Press featured an editorial about
his son.
Lucan read the piece ("Renegade student so impudent to refuse even
Nothing!") aloud to his wife and son over breakfast: '"What has our city come to
that a boy of such strong matrilineage"'—here Lucan cringed—"'might forsake
the very foundation of what it means to be a L er? To wit: what sort of dark
soul might reject godliness? Elgin was lucky to be born in this town, and not
some heathen backwater where nary a soul perchances to dream. Yet this boy
chooses to ignore such a privilege. An apostate,'" Lucan read, glancing up and
meeting his son's eyes, "'is the only name for a practitioner of such blasphemy.
Cast him out!'"
Elgin slurped his wet cornflakes.
"Boy!" hollered Lucan. "You're disgracing this family. A God of Nothing—it
can't be that hard! Just do what they tell you, graduate, and then you can sit back
and petform as little magic as your heart desires. Why drag our family through
the mud?"
"But I don't want to do nothing," said Elgin. "I don't want to do anything."
Lucan threw up his hands.
"Elgin, sweetie," said Ailsa. "All we're asking is that you try."
"But I don't want to try. And the more I don't try the more it feels like
"So stop ttying!" screamed Lucan.
"But then," said Elgin in a measured voice, "isn't that the same as doing
A paradox, then. Yet there was no time to contemplate paradoxes when the town
of L was in an uproar. The Free Press missive had divided the citizenry into
pattisan camps: on one side the collective, Elgin: Cast Him Out (ECHO) hosted
a candlelit vigil so fiety that the God of Flame Retardants had to intervene
before all of downtown was burned to the ground. ECHO was opposed by the
surprising (to Lucan, at least) Pro-Elgin the Atheist CollectivE (PEACE), who, if
not explicitly in support of the boy, at least advocated a general theo-/democratic
right to agnosticism.
Morris, the God of Stuff, became PEACE's spokesperson, mostly because
his elves had plagiarized a high-tech megaphone that made his voice resonate
and glisten with a digital sheen. "People," he hollered from the rooftop of the
Children's Museum, "it is not for us to decide how each person believes. This is
no caliphate! We are not fundamentalists! Our gods live free. If the boy doesn't
72 PRISM  51:3 want to lord over Nothing, we must let him..."
The local public access TV station hosted a debate between Morris and
ECHO's representative—perversely, Maureen, eyeing her purloined minivan in
the studio's parking lot. Ailsa, Lucan and Elgin watched this broadcast with
interest. Points were made and vigorously rebutted; the rhetoric was fierce,
turning personal when Morris quipped about Maureen's impending bus-ride
The next day, one of PEACE's members was jostled and mocked in line
for lottery tickets; this incited a brief riot that culminated in the looting of
the adjacent Bulk Barn. Later that week an ECHO rally was dive-bombed by
diarrheal waterfowl—clearly the work, Maureen claimed, of PEACE's God of
Birds, a certain Howard "Hitch" Rosenstock. A few days later the brakes went
out on Hitch's Prius and he had to be lifted to safety by a flock of seagulls.
And, just like that, wat was declared. The town's central thoroughfare became
a line in the sand: on the east side, ECHO stockpiled weapons, which Morris's
PEACE-committed elves swiftly appropriated in their west-end workshop.
Maureen recruited the God of Smiting, Batry, who between cigarettes smote
God after God from the enemy ranks. Fortunately PEACE included the God of
Resurrection, who revived each felled fighter; they awoke blinking and staggered
about like foals in the sunlight.
Elgin's parents sided, naturally, with PEACE—though Lucan assured Morris
that his talents were best suited to "producing funds for the war effort," while
Ailsa crafted ramparts and flying buttresses and all other manner of cover for
PEACE's frontline soldiets. The attacks intensified. Many of Ailsa's buildings,
which housed members of both factions, were reduced to rubble. Throughout
the town fires burned and were extinguished and then rekindled and alarms
screamed through the night.
Despite the chaos, things seemed destined for stalemate. Each god's powers
were negated by some other god's: fecal tempests summoned by the God of
Shitstorms were sanitized by the God of Sewage Treatment; strikes from the
God of Astigmatism were remedied by the God of Laser Eye Surgery. In an act of
desperation, on October 28th a faction of pro-Elgin reconnaissance agents were
nabbed from a foxhole on the tenth fairway of the S-nningdale Golf Course.
Iqbal, learned Elgin, was among them. Two nights later PEACE retaliated: the
God of Hydro cut power to the west side of town, instigating an act of divine
vengeance from the God of Natural Gas.
On Halloween night the town of L was reduced to total stasis. The streets
were empty, everything sat in darkness, and with neither heat nor light; even the
malls shuttered their doors. PEACE and ECHO agreed on a temporary ceasefire.
If they were honest, few people on either side could remember what they were
fighting about; general assemblies were required to remind one another before
resuming battle.
While meetings convened at the tival factions' respective headquartets,
Elgin sat in his usual perch by the front window. As ice cubes chimed in a glass
of untouched grape soda in his lap, listlessly he flipped through The Actual,
thinking about its missing co-author, his only friend. How was Iqbal faithful
73 enough to fight under Elgin's name, yet still seem so indifferent ro Elgin and
their old common cause? What did he really believe in? Was there anything in
L to believe in at all?
Out the window, the streets were lifeless and dark. What a metaphor,
thought Elgin: the town without powet as all the gods were rendered powerless:
no one had any powers at all, so efficiently was each divine act rendered moot by
some diametrical force. Elgin stopped flipping pages. He listened. Downstairs,
his father cursed faintly while his printing press whirred. But otherwise, the
night was silent.
"It's happened," he said aloud. "Nobody's anything anymore. Everything's
just... nothing."
At this a pang of sorrow lanced his heart. He thought of Iqbal, out there
somewhere in the night, perhaps held captive in a dingy, ECHO-held root cellar,
waiting patiently for the God of Hostage Negotiations to turn up and work her
magic. But then what? Would things return to normal? Was that good? Elgin
himself could think of no answet: other than suggesting that L was vacuous
and silly, The Actual had, by its very nature, never proposed an alternative to
collective divinity. Faced with the prospect of a clean slate, and without Iqbal to
celebrate ot even confer with, Elgin felt overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted. The
book in his hands grew heavy.
Just as he was beginning to lose all hope, the doorbell rang.
Three children waited on the stoop: one was draped in a white sheet
punctured with two eyeholes; one wore a construction paper-and-felt attempt
at a witch's hat and robe; face rouged with lipstick, the final child brandished a
rusty pitchfork—the poorest excuse for a devil Elgin had ever seen.
"Trick or treat," said the children.
Elgin stared back. "Did you make those costumes yourselves?"
"Yeah," said the witch shyly. "We know they're not very good, but.
"We don't have any powers yet," came a voice from within the bedsheet.
"Trick or treat," said the devil.
"But I've got no treats," said Elgin.
"What about yout pop?" said the witch.
"Oh," said Elgin. "Well, okay."
He handed the glass to the ghost, who lifted her sheet, swept the drink
inside, slurped, and passed it along to the devil. Once the soda had made the
rounds back to Elgin he took a sip to complete the ritual. The flavour was diluted
and the bubbles had lost their fizz. But it was still cold, and the coldness woke
Elgin up a bit.
The devil pointed his pitchfork at the book under Elgin's arm. "What's that?"
"Something I was writing with a friend. But we never finished it."
"You mean it doesn't have an ending?" said the witch.
"No, not yet." Elgin considered the shoddy triumvirate on his doorstep—
the devil's absurdly blazing visage, the witch's hat-brim crinkling, the ragged
twin hollows from which the ghost surveyed the world. "Know what?" he said.
"Why don't you finish it for me." And with equal feelings of resignation and
telief, he handed The Actual over.
74 PRISM  51:3 "For us?" said the witch.
"For you," said Elgin. "Give it a good ending, okay?"
"Sure," said the ghost.
"We will," said the devil.
And the three ttick-or-treaters—the witch, the ghost, and the devil—took
Elgin's life's work back down the driveway and off into the moonless night.
Elgin stood on his doorsrep watching them go until they turned a corner and
disappeared. He was left with a view of the neighbouthood: lightless houses, cars
dormant in driveways, and, smoldering just above the skyline, the ruins of one
of his mother's massive towers. This, a remnant of what had been, was the only
sign of people, gods, or anything like life. The town seemed abandoned, at once
shrunken and limitless.
And somewhere a dog barked—once, sharply.
And then thete was silence.
And Elgin felt sad.
And then, in what seemed a small, benign miracle, the dog began barking
75 Michael Patrick Je
When the car entered the fog, btanches of hardwood went as veins in a wrist.
It's like blowing dust from an old dictionary, like finding pressed leaves
between "mallet" and "mandrill."
In an atlas, it may be possible to span the fingers so they covet five oceans at once.
Afterwards, bend at the knees and drop under. Start on the cold bottom and
heave the largest rock.
There might be proof of a pond in the attic. It's the kitchen ceiling sagging
after rain. Call us lucky. There's green water on the dinner plates and infant
hand-smudges that bloom in the plaster.
One seagull has its mind tucked into its wing. It's all fish hooks, a bit of netting.
Still, the sound of its feathers is the sound of turning pages.
In her grip the cake pan scoops ait like a shovel. She takes it outside to the sandbox.
After winter we find it turned, spotted and gouged from salt and ice.
76 PRISM   51:3 matt robinson
unsteady—not quite anxious—from the limp of this
deck furniture's scuff-addled vantage, this small, prefab
balcony's whitewashed aluminum tails: sttobe-frames the inflatable beach
slide's flaccid blue end-of-day posturing—captures everything
here, uneasy; collapsing; folding in, on itself, and there
is near nothing as far as wave action goes; the water sleepily-dimpled,
the gulf a sun-soaked newsprint facsimile of overworked levi's.
afternoon's now a breezy, disinterested sigh; nameless
near palms struggle to grab the air's pay. checked, the view's a strip-mall
waffle house, segmented and greasy; you can't un-stick your eyes'
thick lids for all the air's syrup, the beer's not quite warm.
this, it would seem, is america. you sit here, you lounge
in a favourite shirt worn and washed once too often—
the seams ready to give, but no one's willing to wager, just now, on
quite how.
Tammy Armstrong's poetry has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies
in Canada, US, Europe, UK and Algeria. She has been nominated for a Pushcart
Prize, the Governor General's Award and short-listed twice for the CBC Literary
Prize. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick,
studying North Atlantic poetry and ctitical animal studies.
David Clink has two collections of poetry published by Tightrope Books: Eating
Fruit Out of Season and Monster. He edited an anthology of environmental
poetry: A Verdant Green (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2010). The same
publisher has recently released Crouching Yak, Hidden Emu, a book of David's
humorous verse.
Julia Herperger has had poetry on CBC Radio, and in magazines such as Arc,
Room and The Antigonish Review. Her work has been included in the anthologies
Listening with the Ear of the Heart: Writers at St. Peter's (St. Peter's Press), and Fast
Forward: Saskatchewan's New Poets (Hagios). She lives in Saskatoon, and is at
work on her first full-length manuscript.
Michael Patrick Jessome was born and raised on Cape Breton Island. Currently
he lives in Fredericton and is completing a Master's Thesis in Creative Writing
at UNB. Michael has been an assistant editor for The Fiddlehead and was the
poetry editor of QWERTY {or two issues. Michael will also be published in the
fall issue of CV2.
Jessie Jones is a writer and editot living in Victoria, BC. Het work has previously
been published in CV2 and is forthcoming in filling station.
Elena E. Johnson has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards, the Alfred G.
Bailey Poetry Prize and This magazine's Great Canadian Literary Hunt. Her work
has appeared recently in The Fiddlehead, Arc, Dandelion and The Literary Review
of Canada, as well as three anthologies. The poems in this issue are excerpts
from "Field Notes—Alpine Tundra," a 22-poem series written during her time
as writer in residence at a remote Yukon research station. She lives in Vancouver.
Jim Johnstone is a Toronto-based writer and physiologist. He's the author of
three books of poetry: Sunday, the locusts (Tightrope Books, 2011), Patternicity
(Nightwood Editions, 2010) and The Velocity of Escape (Guernica Editions,
2008) and the poetry editor at Palimpsest Press.
Kotori Kawashima, born in 1980, is a photographer based out of Japan. He was
awarded the 42nd Publishing Cultural Prize by Kodansha for photogtaphy. Some
of his photo-books include Miraichan, BABY BABYand Myojo. With over one
hundred thousand copies of Miraichan sold, it is highly regarded in the Japanese
78 PRISM  51:3 photo-book world. Exhibitions of Kotori Kawashima's work have taken place in
five cities in Japan, including Tokya and Osaka, and his work has also generated
a large response internationally in Taiwan and Thailand,
JonArno Lawson lives in Toronto, Ontario with his wife and three children. He
is the author of several books for children and adults. His most recent book is
Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, illustrated by Alec Dempster, and
Old MacDonald Had Her Farm, illustrated by Tina Holdcroft.
Joel McCarthy is from Mississauga, Ontario where he lives with his fiance and
two cats. His story "Everything's a Club" was published in The Feathertale Review,
Volume 8. He splits his time as a musician, contractor and writer of fiction.
Pasha Malla is the author of fout books. He is "currently" "working" on two
more. He lives in Toronto.
Jean McNeil's most recent book is Night Orders: Poems from Antarctica and the
Arctic (2011). She lives in London, England.
Jonathan Mendelsohn's writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The
Toronto Star, Today's Parent, The Kansai Time Out and Cha: An Asian Literary
Journal, where he also served as a guest editor for fiction in Fall 2009. He is
currently completing his first novel, set in Japan, where he lived for five years.
JeffMusgrave has published short fiction, non-fiction and poetry in a variety of
journals and magazines, including Grain, The Queen Street Quarterly, subTerrain,
Crank and The Antigonish Review. He lives and writes in Toronto.
matt robinson s most recent collection is Against the Hard Angle (ECW, 2010).
Previous collections include no cage contains a stare that well and A Ruckus of
Awkward Stacking. He works at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. Among other
things, lately he's been revising older poems and dog-sitting.
Andreas Schroeder is a freelance writer who has published 24 books, including
creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, translations and writing for young adults.
His work has been included in 59 anthologies and his articles have appeared in
most major serial publications in Canada. He holds the Rogers Chair in Creative
Non-Fiction in UBC's Creative Writing Program.
Carolyn White is a Californian who found her home in tidewater Virginia.
As an MFA candidate at American University, she writes short fiction about
imagined families, those they have lost, and the stories they keep on telling. She
writes non-fiction about her own.
Caroline Wong came to Canada from China in her early teens. She is a recent
graduate of the Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University. Her work has
appeared in the Prose Poem Project and Ricepaper. Caroline lives with her family
1st prize in each category $500 2nd prize in each category $250
DE4D/./A/EJULY15 2013
JUDGES: Yasuko Thanh fiction Jane Munro poetry
Betsy Warland creative non-fiction
Entry fee for Canadian entries $30. Non-Canadian entry fee C$42.
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AY 15,2013
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The Creative Writing Program at U.B.G.
The University of British Columbia offers both
a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master
of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. The
M.F.A. degree may also be taken by distance
education. See our website for more details.
Students work in multiple genres, including:
Poetry, Novel/Novella, Short Fiction, Stage
Play, Screen &? TV Play, Radio Play, Writing for
Children, Non-fiction, Translation, and Song
Lyrics &■ Libretto.
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Online Faculty (M.F.A.):
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Canada  PRISM is contemporary writin
Tammy Armstrong
David Clink
Julie Herperger
Michael Patrick Jesso me
Elena E. Johnson
Jim Johnstone
Jessie Jones
JonArno Lawson
Li Qing Zhao
Pasha Malla
Jean McNeil
Jonathan Mendelsohn
Joel McCarthy
Jeff Musgrave
matt robinson
Andreas Schroeder
Carolyn White
Caroline Wong
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