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51:4 /SUMMER2013
. **-■
M- '
A  '    *•%  PRISM
"Remainders" by Shana Myara
'Last Concert—Luzon, Philippines" by Erin Frances Fisher
"A Full Season" by Aerin Fogel
JUDGE    Annabel Lyon
Rosemary Anderson, Nadine Bachan, Connie Braun
Jane Campbell, Ophelia Celine, Sonal Champsee
Jenn Chen, Alison Cobra, Caralea Cole
Robert Colman, Ruth Daniel!, Robin Evans
Charles-Adam Foster-Simard,Tara Gilboy, Melissa Janae
Michelle Kaeser, Anna Ling Kaye, Michelle Kelm
Julia Leggett, Kari Lund-Teigen, Jennifer MacDonald
Hanako Matsutani, Kim McCullough, Leah Mol
Natalie Morrill, Jen Neale, Steve Neufeld
Beth Pond, Jeffrey Ricker, Rochelle Squires
Meg L.Todd, Emily Walker, Janine Young PRISM internationa
"Bonfire" by DeannaYoung
"routine" by Andrea MacPherson
'The Birth of Prairie Poetry (A Fiction) " by Chris Hutchinson
JUDGE    Rhea Tregebov
Leah I loi'lick
Zachary Matteson
Ruth Daniell
Kayla Czaga :i^ivi
Anna Ling Kaye
Leah Horlick
Sierra Skye Gemma
Jen Neale
Jane Campbell
Andrea Hoff
Zachary Matteson
Rhea Tregebov
andrea bennett
Rosemary Anderson
Nadine Bachan
Cara Cole
Ophelia Celine
Kayla Czaga
Kate Edwards
Charles-Adam Foster-Simard
Tara Gilboy
Julia Leggett
Melissa Janae
Jennifer Macdonald
Hanako Masutani
Matt Malyon
Kim McCullough
Beth Pond
Selenna Ho
Miles Steyn 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-462, 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 for the authors.
Cover photo: "Mr. Peanut" by Nancy Rose
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Contributors receive three copies of the issue in which their work appears.
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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.
July 2013. ISSN 0032.8790
BRITISH COLUMBIA 888     Canada Council     Conseil des Arts
ARTS COUNCIL <±>   for the Arts du Canada CONTENTS
Annabel Lyon      7      Parsnips and Bike Pumps
Shana Myara       8       Remainders
Erin Frances Fisher      43      Last Concert—Luzon, Philippines
Rhea Tregebov      14      In Praise of Substance
Deanna Young      16     Bonfire
Andrea MacPherson     21      routine
Chris Hutchinson      41      The Birth of Prairie Poetry
(A Fiction)
Tessa Mellas     23      So Many Wings
Kris Benin     64     The Game
Lucas Crawford      17     Stop All the Clocks
on Pancake Tuesday
Kari Strutt      33     As Regards the Ashes of Peter,
Dead These Many Years
Heather Tucker     53     Vanishing Point POETRY
Scotr Andrew Christensen
Jennifer Zilm
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk
July Westhale
follow you home on highway 2
Room Three: Saint Remy
Sew Yourself a Banner
A Tough Language
Do I want her dress on me
or on the floor?
How to Succeed in Alienation
Without Trying
Ransom Note
The Viewing
Contributors     73
'h, contests. Can I make a confession? They're kind of depressing.
Depressing, and confusing. They confuse me the way the idea of a parsnip being
better than a banana confuses me, or one child being better than another. What
(as my eight-year-old would say) does that even mean? Writing isn't a sport;
there's no stopwatch, tape measure or Russian judge on earth who can deliver a
definitive verdict. There's only a writer in a room somewhere who's emailed ten
manuscripts and told: you have one week. Pick three!
The three I've picked are, if you will, a parsnip, a bike pump and a bottle of
shampoo. They're roughly the same size, and there the similarities (and hence
the grounds for comparison) end. "Remainders" is a chronicle of love and war
and the devastating compromises we'll make for the possibility of peace. "Last
Concert—Luzon, Philippines" offers a guitarist a moment of clarity after months
of squalor, misery and self-doubt on the road with his wife and baby daughter.
"A Full Season" chronicles the like-life (hard to call it the love-life) of a woman
whose humor is as sharp as her pain.
I hated having to rank these, and on another day might well have placed
them in a different order. But I adored having to read them. Each story offered
moments of devastating familiarity, funny or chilling or both in turn. Each story
offered moments of utter, breath-snatching surprise. Each story made me think,
Damn! I wish I'd written that, knowing I never could have. Each story offered
me what Tobias Wolff calls "the pleasure of giving respect." I offer them to you
here with utter pleasure, respect and the shame that comes of having to choose
between parsnips and bike pumps. The shame is mine alone; the pleasure and
respect we'll share. Enjoy! Shana Myara
JLt was three am when the missile fell into our backyard. If it hadn't been so hot
I might have missed its long, clear whistle and dead thud against the lawn.
That summer, sleep was a game of trickery—reinterpreting the warm air,
coaxing stiff muscles to give against the heat. The flannel sheets I'd brought from
Canada took up space in the closet and both of us, Ben and I, sweated onto
a thin bed cover. I ran my arm under the cool side of the pillow. Breathed in.
Breathed out.
Beside me, Ben lay heavy in sleep. A child of this weather, he dreamed in
Hebrew and his lips twitched to words I didn't yet know. We were a mismatched
pair, but love was love, and we could say it in both languages. When we'd first
met in Eilat, he'd pointed to the sky to describe where he lived. In the north.
A change in the stagnant air. Any breeze was a salve—in a moment it could
send me to sleep on the cool grass, on the tiled poolside. But this breeze, on
this night, came from the air being parted. I pulled the curtain back and saw a
shadow penetrating the yard. Its peal gave it the sheen it was missing—a metallic
dirge, glinting before it hit. It tanked onto the pomegranate bushes.
I waited too long, I think. I choked back excited laughter, almost pointing
and clapping. Look at that!
Ben stood on the porch calling out orders. Naomi! Hatelpon! Tel-eph-one.
I picked up the receiver and held it up so he could see. I dragged the dial
each time he shouted a number. The phone felt cool against my ear. The living
room was just as we left it. My hands began to tremble as I imagined what might
have happened to the cupboards, so neatly stacked with plates and bowls. A vase
made of Jerusalem glass.
Ben had gone inro action immediately. From sleep, he stepped back into
war. He'd been on both sides of it long before I'd pulled my finger along a map
of the Mediterranean to eretez Israel. I was a Jew from Canada. Mount Royal.
Bagels. Old altecackers who spoke Yiddish, French and English. When they so
seldom spoke about the war, it was about something unthinkable, machinated
in another time.
Here, the possibility of war seeped into the everyday—Fridays, the streets
brightened with soldiers carrying bouquets of flowers home for Shabbat; virgins
with rifles smoked cigarettes at bus stops. They flirted with the Canadian girls.
I'll teach you Hebrew, the boys offered. But until something happened, the
mind could make it all look like decoration—this is how they do things here, in
this strange country. There are palm trees at the side of the road. Desert.
My gentle Ben, like every man in this country, was a soldier. He told me it's
a rite of passage here; everyone goes through three years service and comes back
changed. Then, for twenty more years, they must go back one month a year as
8 PRISM  51:4 reservists. For Ben's service he'd trained parachutists. When the war broke out,
he'd almost gone with them, but his captain saw that his eyes had starred to blink
too rapidly. The vibration of the M-l6s, their noise, the smoke, it'd ruined his
eyes. He blinked in double-time now, squinted into the dim or bright light. It
gave him the appearance of a questioning suitor. Tell me, he'd command, like all
the Israelis. Naomi, tell me—eyes stuttering.
This night, he blinked against the dark, trying in vain, I knew, to see past the
From the other end of the line the army man told me to stay in the house.
We're coming, he said.
Ben and I waited.
Adrenaline courses through the body and then it stops. I curled up on the
cold floor with the soldier's calm, confident voice at my ear, and I slept.
A Russian Katyusha. The army arrived at sunrise and young men in uniforms
knocked on doors and called into open windows. Clear the area. Katyusha.
Five hours later they were gone. They took the defect away.
By noon, the house held the worst of the summer's heat. The wood floors
relented underfoot. Ben and I slipped in and out of the cool bath. We made love
on the tiles—languorous and disbelieving on the wet floor.
So—two unexpected things happened that day.
The rocket.
And my body, like our yard, became host to a polite invader. She took over
my insides and I said aloud that she was a gift from the gods. From god, Ben
corrected, winking. I thanked the shoddy Russian machinery. Hot nights I spent
sleepless, plotting a child's fantasy of making weapons impotent. In my mind I
was Lucille Ball, sabotaging missiles instead of chocolates on the assembly line. I
swallowed fuses, swapped gun-powder for cocoa. Each morning I woke up sick.
Me: I never planned to stay this long.
Ben: I never asked you to take me away to Canada.
Weeks turned into months and I never made a decision to stay. I acquired
more things for our home. Picture frames and glass jugs for water. A white crib.
We ate fresh figs from wild trees. Ben took me to the Red Sea and we opened
our eyes underwater at schools of neon fish. At Pesach, we read the questions
from the haggadah with Ben's old mother and father in Jerusalem—"why is this
night different from all other nights"—and we reminded ourselves that we had
been passed over. My stomach grew as if in testament; red lines stretched from
my navel and radiated outward.
At forty-one weeks, the doctors sliced a line into my belly and pulled her
out. She came to be. The benign gift.
Ben divined the future of our little tinoqet. Our baby girl would be a
ballerina with those toes. A head of state with that head. Her tiny fingers pushed
against my breast, making sense of home.
A Russian nurse at the hospital told me Katyusha was a nickname. They
name the bombs and the hurricanes after women, she said. You're not a little
Katyusha, she cooed, you're a Sarah-sha. Kikiriki goes the rooster, Ben read in a sing-song that matched the thrum of his
lashes. I learned along with my daughter. Kikiriki goes the tarnegol.
She has my eyes.
But my mouth, nakhon?
Ben and I claimed her parts right then, as if we planned to carve her up one
day and take just pieces of her with us.
Days before, the radio had crackled with news of giving up land for peace.
The opposition had compared it to cleaving a child in two, like the bible story. No
one on either side could agree: what land, what divisions. Then new bombings
killed two vendors in Netanya, and the television cameras followed Hasidic
men as they picked up pieces of flesh so the dead could be buried whole. The
army retaliated. And many on the other side died—only miles away but unreal,
unspoken here. On the streets, men in black hats shouted into megaphones that
Israel was indivisible. So it is written!
Threat seeped into the everyday here. Into the chill of a breeze. What we
had built was impossible. In the home, table corners like sharp stakes. Outside,
fences delicate as pomegranate bushes. Our Jerusalem glass vase from Ben's
parents cast light like a kaleidoscope but shattered at the baby's reach. I looked
to the bald patch in the backyard and I thought about how glass could make so
much noise when something so big came so quietly, so gently in the night.
When the borders opened in months of ceasefire, the trucks with green
license plates repopulared the highway. The same trucks as anyone else, carrying
t-shirts embroidered by mothers and daughters over there for cheap; or fruit,
or livestock. When I had been here only a few months, living on a kibbutz, I
accepted a ride down the long dirt road that led to the main hall like I saw so
many others do in that small community. The man was vibrantly handsome, a
little older than me. He smiled at me each time I said something in my halting
Hebrew, and he punctuated each of his polite questions with the same sparkling
smile. It wasn't until we arrived at the hall and a man from the kibbutz came to
shout at me that I realized I'd accepted a ride from a driver with green plates.
The kibbutznik admonished me. I was a silly, stupid girl. I shouldn't travel
by myself if I had no sense.
Surely I wouldn't have stepped into this man's cab if I had known. Surely I
wouldn't have let him drive me somewhere else to act on our instant chemistry; I
wouldn't have consented to his finger drawing a line down my chest, to my navel,
opening me in two. I remember I would have. I would. We had no problems
between us, this handsome man and I.
In my small, tidy house with Ben and Sarah-sha, I wondered about that
smiling man. Each day, waiting in line at the border, perhaps, his truck loaded
with product, trying to get home or leave home. Idling the engine, perhaps,
tapping his finger on the steering wheel at the nagging thought that something
bad would happen today. Maybe the pimple-faced Israeli guard would usher him
through. Maybe not. Whole days spent that way.
I said to Ben's friends once and they tsked me: Open the borders and let
hormones fuel the peace.
First they will rape you, they said. And then they will bomb you.
10 PRISM  51:4 But—they didn't know about the smiling Palestinian man. I said: In Canada,
I knew Palestinians. In Canada! they said. Then Ben had leaned close. You have
a big heart, he whispered, but you don't know. He slid two fingernails together
until they clicked. You don't know this much about it yet.
After Sarah was born, I tried to picture our future here. I heard a falling
whistle each time, as I saw us among the fresh fruit in the shuk, or still in our
beds. And when I tried to imagine otherwise, I remembered how the othets
laughed at what the Canadian thought she knew.
Over on the sofa, Ben rubbed kisses over Sarah's face. Apchee, he said in
amazement. Apchee.
He blew air loudly in a mock sneeze, and then did it again on her belly. A
small blast, a rabbit's sneeze—the arnevet goes apchee.
Ben's month had arrived again. May. He packed his army boots. Along with all
the other men, he would return for a month to his command. The joke was that
they returned with one extra inch around their bellies for each year that passed.
Their gaits slower, their children inches taller or now conscripts themselves.
Ben was still young, under thirty, still in his prime except for his eyes.
I read the newspaper as I tried to do every day, puzzling over every other
word. Un-ee-ver-si-ta. A student uprising at a university. More rockets in the
north. Predictions that we would soon invade.
He smoothed the flat of his palm against my brow. It'll be ok, he said.
That night in bed I whispered secrets into the small of his back. I prayed to
the rocket god ot to Elohim—I just closed my eyes and willed it to still be true:
we had been passed over, we would be safe.
I'll be ok.
I promise.
Sarah fussed in the other room. Ben went to check on her and then carried
her back to our bed.
Just for tonight, he said. And we slept with her in the middle of us, as if
we afforded some protection, and our promises were any kind of covenant but
In the morning, Ben left for his service. He lied to me and said he'd blow
kisses from way up in the sky.
The heat turned the dirt on the side of the road to dust. Each afternoon I
carried Sarah past our front lawn to the street and we walked the neighborhood
to the pool. I stopped to taste the tart fruit from lemon trees and shook hard
green olives from theit branches—a novelty for me still, even though I'd become
an olah-chadesha, a new immigrant, the month before. The heat warmed the
lemons on the trees. I picked them and my fingers shone with fragrant oil.
The days passed like this. One week. Two weeks.
Sometimes the school bus would pass us on our way home. It pulled its
heavyweight up the slope, trailing dust like ghost stories behind it. Small hands
11 poked out of windows and young voices formed pitch-perfect words—squeals
of nonsense, half of it, to my ears. I watched the yellow of it proceed. A target in
yellow, I thought.
The borders were closed again. No green license plates to watch for. Would I
accept a ride again? I thought of that handsome man's kind eyes. I imagined his
truck door closing, us coasting away from the city. But, no. I wouldn't chance it
now. Not with Sarah-sha. Not with any driver, I told myself.
I held her tight and we walked up the hill from the pool. Sarah's hair dried
in the heat after only moments out of the water; mine too, until it became wet
again with sweat.
This evening, instead of running cool water in the tub, I laid Sarah out in a
blanket in the back yard and tugged the hose close. I let the water run free like
parents did in Canada. Here, it was an unthinkable extravagance. In English, I
would plead ignorance if the neighbour came to yell at me.
This was the first time I'd lingered in that space since the rocket. Now, small
pomegranates hung from the bush's spindly branches.
The sun dipped, but heat still clogged the air. I dabbed water to Sarah's face
and then doused myself, directing the stream to my brow, my armpits, my lap.
Dripping, I picked one of the pomegranates. I banged it on the ground like
Ben had taught me, then pried it in half to pluck the little gems. Piercing their
thin membranes, small bursts of juice bloodied my tongue. I pressed a seed
to Sarah's mouth and coloured her lips red. We were two vampires together,
undead, feasting in the last light of day.
To the eyes, nothing had changed—although maybe it's true that he was darker,
maybe a bit leaner—but when Ben returned after that month away he looked so
much like himself I wondered if I had been remembering him out of focus. He
noted that the silvery leaves of the pomegranate bush had filled out. A few dozen
pieces of red fruit had sprouted. Sarah gained 14 ounces, I told him.
Something happened, he said. And when I started, he added, I didn't want
you to worry.
He asked if I remembered Aviam, Natasha's boyfriend.
He grimaced. Then, a solemn nod.
I flushed with cold adrenaline. Awful relief, first, that it had been Aviam
and not Ben. Then I felt it so clearly, how they felt here. How emotion outpaces
reason. A rush of energy like a man was chasing me; like I might turn and fight.
At the end of the world—be sof haolam—in Canada, people did not admit
these feelings. By the smell of a person's food, the brownness of their skin, that's
how bigots in Canada shortcut to hate. Here. Here it is different. The thing that
matters is real estate; the languages are cousins. If they weren't on the mount by
now, arm in arm, Mohammed and Moses were frauds. Where were they now if
not convincing the land to open up, fatten for us all?
I hadn't meant to stay.
I cupped my hands to Ben's jaw and kissed him. His lips wete parched and
he smelled like cigarettes, just like all the soldiers.
12 PRISM  51:4 It's enough, I said. I walked to the crib and lifted Sarah.
You can come with me or you can stay. It's happening.
Why, Sarah would ask when she was older. She would grow into a force
of nature, obsessed with the smiles and grimaces of other children. Latching
onto empathy first, knowing, perhaps, that this would be the ultimate thing her
birthright would test. Why is that child crying, she would ask, crying. And once
her mind blossomed so big and empathic and hopeful, she would realize that, by
birth, she had taken sides, and it would take an exceptional person not to. Why?
I told my daughter that I was not exceptional.
I shockeled Sarah and sucked kisses on her forehead. The two of us would fly
early the next week to my mother's in Montreal.
When he could stand it no longer, Ben would come to be with us. In
Canada, something in his face would change, his blinking would slow, even
though he assured me such a thing wasn't possible. His face would grow smooth
and enigmatic like a statue, and I'd spend our years together looking for clues in
the small muscle movement in his face. You could see it when he looked at me.
He hated me in that small potent way just under the surface—the way hatred
should be held, complicated, and close. Sarah left for school each morning, and
each afternoon she came home with benign stories to tell. We listened, Ben and
I, and grew fat with relief—and I said to him, when our time comes to die, we'l
go by cancer or a car crash, something like that. Rhea Tregebov
.zVrchitects like to ridicule a certain type of a building by designating it
"Holy Crow architecture"—the viewer walks towards or into the building
and feels impelled to exclaim "Holy Crow! Look at that eighty foot atrium!"
or "Holy Crow! Check out the sixteen Carrara marble fountains!" Creating
this (admittedly facetious) category of architecture is intended to distinguish
between buildings whose major features are eye-catching gimmicks from those
with more solid elements of design; to differentiate surface glitz from lasting
aesthetic content. The same label might at times be appropriately applied to
prize-winning poems: "Holy Crow! Look at that hip, edgy content!" "Holy
Crow! Check out that scintillating multisyllabic diction!" One worries, in the
position of judge, about awarding the prize to a "prize-winning poem"; one that
is more flash than substance.
A good poem can in fact take its time with you, can sneak up, hours or
even days after it's been tead, and then take you over, take up residence within
you. I found this to be the case with the winners of this year's competition, and
particular so in the winning poem, which becomes richer and more rewarding
with each reading. Deanna Young's "Bonfire" works its quiet way into the
reader's mind, and psyche, without pyrotechnics, but with a nuanced and layered
approach ro story-telling, an apparently everyday diction, and a complex and
demanding emotional and conceptual core. The subrle and intricate narrative
begins with a story immediately identified as artificial: the made-for-TV movie
plot with its cheap production values and no doubt cheesy emotional terrain. By
the end of the first sentence of the poem, the transparent "lie" of the constructed
movie plot is asserted to be "coming true." Both in the poem's and the movie's
narrative a mother and her kids, the speaker implied to be among them, are
beginning a new life in the absence of the father. The departure of the family
from the father is declared to be pivotal: "It scares me to think what I'd be now
if she hadn't / left then." The poem then goes on to an eloquent exploration of
"what keeps driving us toward the door" as departure generates departure and as
the poem constructs itself via a series of interlocking narratives and images. The
paint which is splashed at the beginning of the poem in the false story becomes
the paint that creates the bonfire in the painting that the words of the poem
themselves then paint, as we warm "our hands at the edge of art" and at the
convoluted and compelling edges of the poem itself.
Likewise Andrea MacPherson's "routine" encapsulates the long life of its
subject via succinct and moving image and detail, allowing the narrative and its
emotional content to slowly develop in the reader's mind. Chris Hutchinson's
"The Birth of Prairie Poetry (A Fiction)" takes up a similar landscape with
14 PRISM  51:4 similar thoughtful restraint and engages the reader via a fictional subject that it
both persona and character.
The power in these poems lies in the intensity of their regard and the subtlety of
their language, and the recompense for their readers is great.
15 Deanna Young
The made-for-TV movie they showed in school
about a mother and kids driving over a bridge in the sun
to a rundown house and splashing each other with paint
to music, is coming true. Though the father there
was dead, where ours is just killing himself slowly
in another town. My new bed is from the Sally Ann.
I spray the iron frame brass and am suddenly rich,
fold a blanket three times, like a charm, and place it
over the springs that claw like fingers from the mattress.
This is where I'll come to love geometry, discover
modern poetry and lose what we'll call my virginity.
After a month I look down and my nails have grown.
It scares me to think what I'd be now if she hadn't
left then. To know what I am. A scorched girl, shame
crackling under my skin, a strong man in a muscle shirt
feeding my sleep with brush. We have no way of knowing
when we're young. Only a spark, maybe, that takes,
then rages, keeps driving us toward the door
of a rundown house, ourselves twenty years later.
Struck. Prepared to enter. Standing behind a stroller
before a wall-sized painting of fire by Mary Pratt.
Warming our hands at the edge of art until fire
becomes paint becomes fire again and our face grows hot.
16 PRISM  51:4 Lucas Crawford
Jl or Lent, I will give up sleeping with my professor. In class, I superimpose her
family stories over her lectures—a mother who served them breast milk souffle;
a father who hocked Amway; a brother middle-named Lampshade just for fun
and the mysterious family car that changed colours in the sun.
For Lent, I will write up one memory of her per day, in red ink, on the back
of my term papers, until every page looks like a stoplight. I'll tape them up
backwards on my all-girls dorm room wall, where nuns hung crosses until last
year. Let the tape strip stripes of paint off the wall when I move home. Let the
tesultant mosaic of quick-rip scars remind the next resident about the benefits
of slow, steady detachment.
Day One:
The day I brought her a bag of red licorice. She said nobody had done
anything so thoughtful for her for as long as she could recall. She cried,
and, except for when Dad had died the year before, I'd never felt so sad.
For Lent, I will bundle up my thoughts of this smiling antagonist town with
its thousand hidden sins, and bury these thoughts in the causeway that links
us to an island. Let the waves lap up over these feelings and smooth them
down to stone. Let me drive through this island one day and find these feelings
repurposed as folk art for sale from a road-shoulder shanry. In ten years, let this
folk art, with its cracked green and yellow paint, sit on the floor holding a heavy
wooden door open for some student out west whose mother tucked the rock
inside her carry-on.
For Lent, I will give thanks for paradoxical university towns where frowns are
for home and the Chinese restaurant is resplendent in tartan decor. Nobody
believes the rumour they hear about you because if it were true, surely they'd
have heard before now! Jesus by, no way she's got a girl on the side—she's married
to some other prof!
Day Two:
The look on her face when she told me that, after sifting through storage,
she found her favourite sweater and realized that it was older than me. Was
the sweater's vague hue (swamp + rainbow + white noise) an omen?
17 Day Three:
Her bemused disappointment when I sliced her fancy party cheeses into
piles and piles of cubes, to look like a grocery store meat tray. The cubes
looked like crumbling bricks, the tray a diorama of Parmesan ruins.
For Lent, I will become seven again. Pledges of abstinence were more fun then,
when we'd chatter about who had given up chocolate and who sacrificed potato
chips. Lent is a popular time for grade-schoolers to begin doubting the power
of categories: Cinnamon hearts aren't really a candy, are they? Aren't they more of a
spice? Hey, did you know that black licorice comes from a plant?
For Lent, I will punish myself by not telling my mother what's happened. Every
time we talk, I will hunch over with shame and sweat as if there is a bowling ball
lodged in my stomach. Let this sweat evaporate, become rain, and someday rise
as steam from a humidifier that will let a girl clear her throat and speak.
Day Four:
How she walked home through traffic from the hospital on the hill after
doing no-breakfast blood-work at seven am. How angry her husband was
to hear that I requested she take an HIV test. She is twice my age; he is
twice hers; he lived without contagions or computers, me without vinyl or
busy signals.
Day Five:
Her very first come-on, at her book launch, sliding her hand onto my sacrum,
inside the back of my jeans, just above my over-worked old underwear. I
couldn't imagine that soon she would slice me up. That she would steep my
feet with beets, my ears with pears, my kidneys with beans—just offal. My
minor organs jarred, cellared, sold by her at the farmer's market without so
much as a shooter of local anaesthetic or a goodbye.
For Lent, I will rub Wednesday ashes on myself each day as a way to externalize
my guilt. I'll smear it not only into the fault lines of my forehead, but also into
the grimy folds of the elbows in which I hold her. Let this ash derive from old
wood, perhaps from the kitchen table she sanded and refinished before moving
to Nova Scotia. Their favourite students lined this table nearly nightly, breaking
bread and booze. One day when she was gone to fetch the next case of red
wine, her other disciples and I flipped the table and signed it with a black magic
marker. Let this table come from a tree in BC, from land that changed hands
as brusquely as a bomb drops. And if this tree once provided shade to someone
who knew how, properly, to be an elder, then good.
Day Six:
Her story about the week they moved here, about how three guys had
been hitting golf balls at the field where they do the Highland Games. She
and her husband happened upon the trio hooting about how they'd "hit
18 PRISM  51:4 Buddy's car over d'ere!" She didn't realize that "Buddy" is both a vague
anybody and also a specific island fiddler who needs a last name around
here no more than Madonna or Jesus.
Day Seven:
The summer when she gained some weight and said her thighs rubbed
together so much that she was excited all the time. The week she told me
this, she burnt down an old stump in their backyard. It was a season of
many burning bushes.
For Lent, I will ignore the students she and her husband currently favour. I will
hand out lukewarm smiles and nods like Halloween candy and impersonate
those who are experts in moderation and silence. As you do with a stale candy
kiss, I will chew, chew, chew, and only feel it grow larger in my chops. I'll swallow
it one day, like tight old gum (but perhaps it's I who will stick in her gut for eight
years or more?).
Day Eight:
Her long-infused vodka-lime breath that might've ignited with just sun,
which she huffed through her tears on the day she chased me home to my
dorm at sunrise.
Day Nine:
Weeks later, going to her class late after having two pineapple coolers at
Piper's Pub on my way back from my mother's great-aunt's wake. Laughing
at the scolding email she sent later because everything she writes smells of
someone who has never lost.
For Lent, I will give up going to church. I remember all the parish halls and
communiry annexes where you'd go afterwards for egg sandwiches and glazed
donut holes. The halls are being sold off around the province now for legal fees
and judgment days. I told the Bishop I was gay over dinner one time. He became
very, very interested in his plate and the person sitting to his right.
For Lent, I will draw up an accounting system for sins that will tell us how to
feel. Let this spreadsheet be analyzed by a think-tank of emotional economists
who double-check all their figures and aren't drawn in by appealing numbers.
Let them scratch their heads at the remainder I can never factor into any airtight
system: what happens when you force yourself to give something up?
Eight years later, I move into a co-ed residence hall for dissidents, poets, and
nomads. I accidentally cut off the end of my finger in design class—belated bris.
Blood dalmations the floor—enough that I could have dyed a binder of old term
papers red. The only way the doctor can stop the blood is a special gel that forces
a scab to grow. It is not available over the counter and I believe it only wotks on
physical wounds. I wish I could rub some into my sorest spots tonight, while I
19 watch the news to hear about the Bishop. He got out of jail today and won't be
giving any more first communions.
A decade later, I have my own students and they call me Mister. One week, they
give performances. As I watch, I realize my professor's hand has vanished from
my waistband. On Fat Tuesday, I'll tell my students to stop the clocks on their
phones. Then they'll tie long laces of red licorice into necklaces and wake up to
Mardi Gras everyday. Let one of these red strands of candy fall on the classroom
floor, travel home on my boot-bottom, and get stuck on the welcome mat. Let
me take the mat to the Laundromat, where I will run into a friend from college.
Let me bundle up all of the words of the hidden affair like a warm pile of dryer-
sheet socks, and drop them at my friend's feet like gifts.
Let me tell my old friend that I slept with our professor, who had said, at the
end, "This would really hurt you if it ever got out."
20 PRISM  51:4 A ndrea MacPhen
Saskatoon Sanatorium, 1940
Sight of the lake from the window, cots on the open-air porch, starched bed
linens crisp against palms. Other girls her age dancing to A Nightingale Sang
in Berkeley Square and she is having wax lodged in her lung—scars like pale,
flattened earthworms—and listening to the girl next to her, talking about a
fiance, babies, the future. All she can see is the ebb of the lake, the way the
lights turn on in houses, across the bay. The familiarity of a home, the word
so thick. The san, the san, the san. She knows the girl will not make it, knows
many of them will never leave the sanatorium. This lake view will be the end.
This blue, this blue.
vows, 1946
Slate blue dress, red flowers at her breast. The word husband chalky in her
mouth. He'll wear his uniform, of course; they will smile, only glance at one
another from the corners of their eyes. Later, she'll take off a heel, hold it in
her hand as he folds his pants, turns his back to her as he undresses. Between
them, the reminder that she was not the first; she was lucky to live, to grieve, to
console. Lucky to pin the red rose at her chest, to wear his ring.
(In summers, they visit the girl's grave. She brings flowers, though she no
longer remembers the girl's voice on the porch of the san. But he wilts, he cries.
And she stands tall.)
routine, 1951
Heft, pull, pin, pin. Sheets on the line. Underpants. Sleepers. Cotton shift.
Slip. Baskets overflow, white in the dazzling sun—baskets never empty, the
bottom only a future possibility. Four boys and her, all tiny pants and smaller
socks, toes in need of darning. Heft, pull, pin, pin. Bottles to wash, pots to
scrub, dinners to make, hurts to soothe: the boys too close in age, her husband
too aware of failures, her own resolve weakening, faltering. These moments,
pinning the laundry to the line with the hypnotic motion of wrists and arms,
21 are hers alone; so little, now, so much less than she'd hoped for. A view of the
flat fields beyond, the pale yellow house, her own hands strong and knotted
and chapped. But the boys, those three small boys in short pants and trim
haircuts; the boys. Heft, pull, pin, pin.
empty, 1977
Shadows and smudges on bedroom walls where once there were denim
trousers, balled socks, stacks of schoolbooks, a ball. A bat.  The boys now
sleeping next to young wives in bungalows and apartments filled with baby
blankets. Knit bonnets, ribbons she'd sewn on. Keeping hands busy. They
visit, place fair babies on her lap.  She touches their temples, remembers.  But
mostly, there is the deep quiet of the house—the jangle of his teacup on saucer,
her hands in soapy water, washing two plates, two cups, two spoons. In the
garden, she plants snapdragons against the carport, saddened by the way they
double, twine.
descent, 1983
When they take his toes, she knows it will never be the same. Now: canes,
walkers, hand rails, the whirr of a bed that lifts. Separate rooms. Tea at opposite
ends of the table. Slow shuffle, loss of words, days filled with silence. The shape
of days changes. She bakes pies that remain untouched. Looks out windows
that remain closed. Things crumble. She remains.
22 PRISM  51:4 Tessa Medicts
X he hospital says to come quick. Mary Lou jumps in the car, steps on the
gas. Ignores stops signs, crosswalks, curbs. Knocks the mirror off a Jeep, and
keeps going. Parks in a fire zone. She gets there gasping, nose dripping salt on
het tongue, hair frizzing out of a polka-dot headband, breasts loose in her shirt
and sweaty against her ribs. She sets her palms on the counter, fingers gripping
the grain of the wood. His name trips over her teeth and the nurse flips through
papers and pauses, biting a tiny nip of skin from her lip. Mary Lou gets there,
but he's already dead.
Already dead. Mary Lou licks the words to taste them. The dying already
over. He's not going to die again. Then a policewoman with more words. Words
that careen and spark in Mary Lou's head. His car heading north. An empty
road. His car slipping out of its lane. Tires rumbling on grooves in the pavement.
First the right wheels. Then the left. Then no more pavement to cling to. Just
a car rolling over and over, the hood ornament leaving divots in the hillside, a
piece of roof metal severing his arm. Then blood. A deluge of red. Red soaking
into tan upholstery. Into violets and grass and dirt. Aid in the middle of all these
wotds, Mary Lou thinks, I should tell her I'm not his wife. Instead, she asks
about his hands.
She says, I know that he's dead, but he plays piano. Are his hands okay?
The policewoman shifts her weight from hip to hip, says, his arm was severed at
the elbow. Says, it must have been out the window. People like to feel wind on
their skin. Not Chester, Mary Lou says. She knows how he hated breezes. They
would get in his eyes and sting like chlorine and turn the white parts pink so he
looked like he'd been crying for days. She says, he wouldn't have put his arm out
the window. Because of the wind. The policewoman rubs at her knuckles. Hard
to say, she says. Maybe he was checking his phone. Or a deer crossed his path.
Maybe he fell asleep. Mary Lou shakes her head. Chester's the most cautious
driver I know. The policewoman shrugs. A fluke, she says. An accident. I'm sorry.
She hands over his wallet, his watch, his keys. Mary Lou looks at these things.
And the policewoman adds, Your husband's car got towed to Mortinson's shop.
And again Mary Lou knows she should confess that she's not his wife. Though it
would be just like Chester not to change his emergency contact. He knew she'd
come. So she doesn't say they called the wrong woman. Because ex-wives don't
get to hold the wallet of the man who rolled down the hill. Or hear the missing
parts of the story filled in with words like cotton batting. Words like elbow,
window, skin.
Then the policewoman with one more word. Body.
And again Mary Lou's nose is running. She wipes the drips on her shirt.
23 Okay, she says. The body. And wipes her nose again.
She follows a balding doctor, who wears scrubs that are toothpaste green.
And under the scrubs, moccasin shoes that are soundless and muffle his steps.
The pink linoleum is speckled like salami. Chester hated salami, but Mary Lou
loves it. She used to eat it in bed, savoring the salt on her tongue, and he would
hide under the covers until she brushed her teeth. Then when she kissed him,
he'd say she still had salami breath, that the salami stench had soaked all the way
down into the salami pink of her lungs.
At the corner, the pink tiles turn into gray ones. And she thinks how Chester
liked to spell gray with an e. He said it gave the word a drizzly feeling. Gray
with an a made the word seem fat and happy and that felt false. He used British
spellings for other words too. He put an ou in color, spelled somber with an re.
When they were married, it made her cringe. But now she's in a tiled room, hard
corners, perfectly cubed. And sombre seems like it should be spelled with an r,
then an e, not soft like silver with vowels that lift off the tongue but hard like
fire, like ochre, like whore. Because the room is white like the sutface of aspirin.
Because the light sheds blue shadows. Because wires wind around metal frames.
The curtains so stiff and the surfaces laminate shiny, fixtures fixed with a plastic
gloss. And everything's so bright, Mary Lou's eyes don't linger on the bed or the
body until the doctor says, I'll be right outside in the hall. Then he leaves and
she can't look at anything else. Just the body under a sheet. A sheet so thin the
grid of threads has risen to the surface like fat floating in milk, like blood blisters
and swollen ink.
It doesn't seem possible—Chester, the sheet, the body. Such a death seems
careless, and Chester wasn't that. He always checked his mirrors two or three
times. Checked his mirrors and looked over his shoulder and wore his seatbelt
tight. He'd measure the air in his tires, check the battery, oil, and brakes. And
when he finally got on the road, he never drove fast. He knew how tires could
slip on pavemenr slick wirh oil, wet with rain. Like the day they met—a day
rupturing with rain. With visibility hindered, Chester had let up on the gas.
Mary Lou was in the car behind his. Her shoes had let in water. She wanted to
go home and soak in the tub. She was tired and riding his tail, and Chester got
nervous and braked. Then they hit.
When he got out of the car, she was shocked to see a man in his twenties.
He said he was sorry, even though she was the one driving crazy. He kept asking
if she was okay, but it was he who looked shaken. He kept biting his pinkie,
ripping into the pink of the nail. He stood on the curb with rain plastering hair
to his forehead, and when she stepped into the street to examine her bumper, he
said she was making him nervous. She might get clipped by a car. So she joined
him on the curb, and he told her about a friend with a shop who could fix her
bumper for cheap.
He gave her his card, white letters spelling CHESTER LAWRENCE, the
letters set on matted black, piano keys stamped at the bottom, a piano for a
pianist the size of a thumb. She asked what kind of music he played, imagined
his hands lurching like a marionette's legs. But he said, No, and his eyebrows
scrunched in that way she later would know meant so so sorry. Not a musician.
24 PRISM   51:4 And suddenly this image of his hands frantic and flying tucked itself in the back
of her head. Not a pianist, but rather a piano tuner, and really in the end she
had more need of someone like that. So she called him that week and asked if
he'd tune the piano at the nursing home where she worked. The keys had the
off-kilter clunk of a piano being played underwater, and whenever a resident
banged out a tune, Mary Lou cringed at the way the songs broke apart, the notes
falling into baffled collisions. Because it was, after all, a piano they'd found on
the side of the road, the mahogany gouged with claw marks, hammers exposed,
and many of the key covers gone, leaving gaps like missing teeth—
And now Mary Lou is thinking about body parts missing, and she loses her
breath and a shiver crawls through her toes. She panics: where is his arm? She
panics like a mother who misplaces a child while shopping. Where did she leave
him? And who misplaces a limb? And now she has to know if the arm is under
the sheet with Chester or still on the hill with the violets or at the nurse's station
maybe with the cell phones and mugs in a box marked Lost and Found. She tells
herself, look under the sheet. So what if it's horrid. So what if she doesn't want to
know how body parts come undone. She has to do it because this is a body she
clung to when the hours were long and sleep far away and car lights moved on
the ceiling like comets bright for a moment, then their tails of chalk burnt out.
So she does it. She throws back the sheet and there he is. Chester with skin
pale like bread dough, his arm hanging on just under the elbow by a ribbon
of flesh. All the rest ripped raw, the bone sliced on the slant like cut flowers.
The skin covered with lavender streaks. The scrap of a sweater cuff hangs at his
wrist. A plaid sweater, though plaid isn't something Chester would wear. Linda
must have picked it. Mary Lou only met Linda once at the video store. Linda
whose name meant beauty, but who wasn't that because she had no chin. So
the whole time Chester was explaining how Linda did this job, something with
orphans and Shriners, Mary Lou kept picturing a fleet of chinless Shriner clowns
in clown cars missing their bumpers, and this seemed absurd, not a thing that
children should see.
And now, that dangling sweater seems silly in exactly that way. So she inches
the cuff over each finger until she's holding the piece in her hand. But still
something is wrong. That thread of flesh. His arm hanging on by a scrap of skin.
It would have bothered him. He liked things cleanly done. He would have told
her to finish the job. So she does. She rifles through her handbag until she finds
scissors, the ones she carries for arts and crafts at the home. She slips her fingers
into the handles and squeezes against the meaty fibers. The skin resists. So she
opens the scissors wide and uses the edge of the blade to make the cut. She saws
the blade back and forth until it breaks through. Then, the arm falls away from
the body. The pillow case slips from the pillow. Mary Lou swaddles the arm in a
bundle, tucks it into her handbag, and zips it shut.
When Mary Lou opens the door, the house looks different. She's never home
at this hour to see afternoon light casting a glow on dust drifting down from
the doorways. In the light, the piano keys seem to shine. It's the piano Chester
runed at the nursing home a decade ago. She took it when they got a new one
25 even though he was gone. She couldn't let it go to the curb. Mary Lou thinks she
should wipe the dust from the keys, but then the telephone rings. The ringing
stops, and a voice comes through the speaker. It's Sophie wondering why Mary
Lou isn't at work. Saying the bingo chips are still in her car, and the ladies were
looking forward to bingo, but they can't play without the chips.
In the kitchen, Mary Lou hits the delete button and erases Sophie. She kicks
her shoes into a pile of sneakers and heads down the hall. In the bedroom, a
towel is on the floor, still wet from the shower. The bed sheets are rumpled. A
triangle of toast is stiff on the radio clock, toast with a crescent moon missing
just the size of Adam's mouth. And Mary Lou thinks, shit, she's gotta get rid of
Adam because Chester, in the shape that he's in, shouldn't have to deal with a
boyfriend. She pulls the closet shut over Adam's dress shirts, kicks a sock under
the bed. Then the toast, a beer bottle, Adam's case notes on index cards in tiny
print. She shoves these things in a drawer, and opens the window to air out
his aftershave smell. She pulls the sheets to the headboard, something Chester
would do.
How many years since he's been here? Six. No seven. She feels like she's
traveled in time. It makes her body feel buoyant as she kneels on the bed, takes
her handbag in her lap, and unwraps the bundle corner by corner until his arm
drapes over her knee. His fingers bloom like petals. His pinkie is stiff on its
hinge. Mary Lou touches his downy hair. So much like a child's arm, she thinks.
The wrist thin like the head of a teaspoon. Fingernails harboring dirt.
She carries his arm to the bathroom and sets it down. She lets the water run
until it is warm, puts a washcloth under the tap, rubs it with soap. Then slowly
she wipes. She wipes the gash on his forearm, the yellow crust edging the jagged
flesh. She teases blood clots away from the bone and rinses. The washcloth turns
pink. She teases and rinses again.
How did this happen? The jagged flesh. The gash, the blood, the bone. The
yellow crust like sap. The gash speckled with traces of leaves. Were there leaves
on the windshield? Did he try to clear them away with his hand? No, he would
have done that before he started the car. Unless he was rushed. No, Chester
never hurried, she thinks.
She takes her time with his fingers. She runs the cloth over each crease,
looking for clues. Over his cuticles pale and pink like earlobes. Over the scar
where a wine glass broke into pieces because he was always holding things tight.
Over the web of veins fanning out from wrist to knuckles. And those knuckles
delicate knobs. And those fingers long and lithe. A pianist's fingers—everyone
said so—they stretched the octave and had such natural curve. A pianist's fingers,
but poor Chester with a brain that couldn't keep track of two sets of hands, that
would focus so hard on a thumb crossing under so the pinkie could stretch up to
catch the high C, that the other hand would stop mid-phrase in a gnarled pose,
a clod of chords deferred.
A childhood spent at the piano. College locked in practice rooms. And at
the end of it all, his playing still ruined by subtle blips and pauses, all but one
song. Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, a song already jagged and jerky. Thar one he could
do. Of course, the career of a pianist couldn't be built on one piece. He knew
26 PRISM  51:4 his limits. For a piano tuner, one song was enough. One song to show he was
more than just a mechanic. He'd bang out Joplin and piano owners would clap.
Then he'd pack up his piano fingers and take them back on the road. Mary Lou
wonders what he would have been if no one had told him he had the fingers of
a maestro, if he had tried to be something else. She doubts they'd ever have met.
She dries his arm with a towel, finds gauze and a bandage in the back of
a drawer. She holds gauze to the wound. Then around and around with the
bandage, wrapping on the slant. A scalp to covet the bone. She brings his arm
back to the bedroom and tucks it under the sheets on Chester's side of the bed.
His fingers curl on the pillow. The bruises disappear under the blanket. She
kisses his hand and it smells like soap. She thinks of those days when a migraine
sent him to bed before dinner and she would kiss his eyelids one by one, then
shut the door behind her, careful to muffle the creak. She does this now and
something rises inside her, something that whispers, he's back, he's here, he's
By the time Adam pulls into the driveway, she's packed him a bag and left a
note. Something about nursing homes and measles and spending a week with
his brother—he can sleep on his couch. She packed clothes, his case notes, and
a Tupperware with leftover chicken. She left the bag and note on the steps and
locked the chain. Then she cleaned the house like Chester on Saturday mornings
with vinegar and baking soda, an old toothbrush and a bucket of ripped up
shirts. And now the house smells sweetly acidic. Baking soda splotches her arms.
And she lies on the floor under the coffee table with the thick plate glass on
top. She lies on a square of burgundy carpet, staring up through the glass at the
ceiling fan spinning. At the stuttered blur of irs blades, the pendular sway of its
She hears Adam's steps in the driveway. Then on the porch. A pause while
he reads the note. The silence lingers. Then his key in the lock, the door knob
turning, the clank as the door catches and holds on the chain. Then Adam's voice
through the darkness. At first just a little bit worried. Lou, are you in there?
Babe, unlock the chain. Then louder. Lou. Come on. This is silly. You can't have
the measles. Babe, I'm tired. I'm ready for bed. Then his hand through the crack.
The cuff of his sleeve. His wrisr wrenches to get the chain off its track. His fingers
strain further. His watch catches the lip of the door. Then the knock of an elbow.
Skin scraping metal. Then Jesus Christ damn it Lou let me in.
Adam's arm slips back into the darkness and he presses his eye to the space
between door and frame. A sliver of Adam. An eye and a nostril. The knot of
his tie against his throat. He calls her again. Lou? Like a question. Lou, can you
hear me? Lou, you're freaking me out. Then Lou Lily Lou, my darling. Skip ro
my Lou Lou Lou. Words he sings over and over at six in the morning, loud and
obnoxious, when she won't get out of bed. Then he ties all of the Lou's together
and sends them into the room. Dozens of Lou's drift in the air over the glass top
table, below the whir of the fan. The Lou who plays bingo at the nursing home
with Alice and Jean and Barbara. The Lou who makes chicken and dumplings
Thursday nights. The Lou who buys organic eggs because Chester was always
27 talking about cancer. The Lou who hides under a table and leaves her boyfriend's
clothes on the porch. He says her name soft and it almost sounds Asian, Lu
chiseled down to its basic part. Now she is that Lu, broken away from Mary,
blending into the darkness, a bristly carpet abrading her ribs.
The phone rings, a thick electric shiver. Then Adam's voice on the speaker.
Lou, I'm not leaving until you come out and say you're okay. And she knows
he means it. She knows he won't walk away because what if she's hurt. What if
a rapist has a knife to her neck. She crawls out from under the table and picks
up the phone. I'm sorry, she says. I'm sorry I locked the door and said I was
sick. And then it's just Adam and Lou on the phone. Adam and Lou and both
of them breathing, inhalations crossing the line. And then because of the arm
in the bedroom, she comes right out and tells him, Chester's dead and I need
some time alone. And Adam says, God, Lou, why didn't you just say so? What
happened? She tells him his car went off the road. And Adam says, Are you sure
you don't want me to stay? Yes, she says, but she doesn't hang up. Lou, just let me
in for a second. No, she says. If you're here, I won't remember he's dead. I was a
cold-hearted bitch, she says, and hangs up.
It rings again, and she leaves it. She hears him in the living room through
the crack in the door. Come on, Lou. Please let me in. She doesn't answer. Okay,
he says. I'll come by in the morning. Call if you need me. The door shuts and
locks. She goes to the bedroom and takes off her clothes. Then she crawls under
the covers and pulls Chester's arm to her chest.
When the phone rings around midnight, she's far away, her mind turning loops
like an acrobat unhinged. The phone rips the softness of sleep. Then a voice fills
the bedroom. A voice saying sorry to call so late. They told her she had to ask
this question because Mary Lou took his wallet and keys and maybe something
else. And the voice is all splinters and frayed edges. But slow. A tiptoeing voice.
Cautious as it slides into the house and crosses the chasm of space to Mary Lou's
bed. It's Linda. Who else could it be? Saying no she's not mad if Mary Lou took
it. Though of course she's not saying she did. She's saying it's been a strange day,
a god awful day, and she doesn't know what to think. But if Mary Lou could just
call back, it would be a great help. And if not, she'll come by tomorrow. Just to
check if she has it. And if she does, could she give it back so they can take care
of the body. At the very least, she'll come for his keys. And again she's sorry for
calling so late. She'll never do it again.
The phone clicks off and Linda is gone. Mary Lou hears electricity in the
wires, the thud of ice cubes at the end of the hall in the fridge. The electric hum
gets louder. The sound crawls into her ears and presses against her skull. She
grasps at the bed sheets looking for Chester, finds his hand and pulls it tight
to her waist. She puts her hand over his and squeezes, so his fingers dig into
her skin. She squeezes hard, pushing down through rhe muscle, clawing into
the spaces between her ribs. This is where she put Chester's fingers when he
couldn't calm down. When he woke in the night from that dream about a piano
filled with dead birds at his conservatory audition, the judges telling him to play
Chopin over and over, and Chester ttying so hard to make it good. But all he
28 PRISM  51:4 got was a thud of dull notes, notes muffled by feathers. And finally the judges
told him to climb into the piano and lie on that pile of bodies while someone
else played Chopin pitch perfect, and the piano sttings vibrated against Chester's
He always had trouble sleeping. He said the world's worries marched over
his face at night. He'd toss and turn, get up and go to the bathroom. Lie on the
couch. Then sit at the kitchen table. Hours later he'd crawl into bed and hold
her crying. I'm tired, he'd say. I just want to sleep. His fingers would dig into het
body. His knees would clutch her thighs. Always that desperate clinging. She'd
say, Chester, that hurts, but he needed something to hold, so she let him and
sometimes slept less than him. Those nights, she felt like a mother instead of a
In the morning, Chester's arm is under her breasts. She pulls the blankets over
her head and curls around him. She stares into the darkness until she sees
constellations. Her breathing sounds like wing beats. The warmth of it settles on
her skin. The air thickens. And she notices the air has a smell. Like sex but laced
with the rot of meat.
Her fingers slip on his arm. Not the slip of perspiration, but the viscous slip
of blood. She feels it on her palms. A sap seeping into the grooves of her skin.
She feels it and her pulse comes alive in her temples. She scrambles out of the
sheets. She paws and scratches until his arm rips through. She looks at his arm
in the light. The skin is yellow. Brown continents rise through the bandage. His
nails are grey.
She wraps her robe around her, takes his arm to the kitchen. She jerks the
faucet all the way up and plugs the dtain. The water hisses. She implores it to
spill out faster, flutters her fingers through its stream. With an inch in the basin,
she sets in his arm, her hand underneath like a cradle; the other unspools the
bandage and gauze. She rubs at the blood until brown threads into the water and
curls around her wrist.
When his arm is clean, she empties the brine and rinses his skin. She dries
him against her robe and sits on the floor to think. It's not going to work. The
arm is rotting. Linda is coming. And Chester's car rolled down a hill. She tries
to remember how long until the mind slips out of the body. Until cells run out
of air. She considers the freezer. She could tuck him away, and it would stop the
deterioration. But she can't shove him in with frozen peas and boxed lasagna and
wait for his arm to cover with snow.
She comes up with something else. Under the sink is a can of polyurethane
left over from the bathroom shelves. She lays wax paper over the table, cracks
open the can, and stirs.
She starts at the end of the arm that once attached to an elbow and pulls
the syrup toward his hand with a pastry brush. The hair glosses down in parallel
ridges like matted fur. She smooths the bubbles. Then paints another inch of
skin. She spreads it thick and blows on the wet part as she paints. She lacquers
over a scar from a crock pot one Thanksgiving at his mother's. Dabs the bone
of his wrist. Then the swirls of the knuckles. The lacquer pools in the well of his
29 nails. One side done, she turns the arm over. Then starts at his hand and works
her way up.
Maybe he was eating an apple as he drove, she thinks. And he came to
the core and it was sticky on his fingers and he opened the window to toss it
into a field. He would only ever throw something out the window if it would
decompose on its own. Though she can't remember him ever snacking in the car.
Or eating apples. Or hurling fruit over a lane of pavement.
The phone breaks into her thoughts. The sound vibrates in the glassy sheen
of his palm. This time, after it rings and rings, a man's voice fills the room. The
hospital. The balding doctor. He says they don't want to involve the police, but
Mrs. Lawrence wants an investigation. Mary Lou has until noon to call. After
that, they'll send an officer over. Really, they don't want it to come to that.
Of course, Mary Lou thinks. Of course, they don't want the police. She
knows what they want. She runs to the bedroom and grabs yesterday's clothes
from the floor, forces her limbs through the holes. She packs a duffle bag.
Clothes, a toothbrush, a necklace from Adam, her mother's ring. What else?
Her wallet, keys. A book. She finds the paperback she started last summer. She'll
read it to Chester when they get there, wherever they go. Then the phone rings
again. A swirling kind of ringing. Ringing that wraps around her knees. She
crawls under the bedside table and yanks the cord. The ringing stops.
But down the hall, it rings in the kitchen still. Adam's voice tells her to pick
up the phone. She follows the sound and hits the power off with her fist.
The refrigerator rumbles. The clock ticks in her scalp. She leans on the sink
and looks out the window. A squirrel races across a branch wirh an acorn in its
mouth. The acorn falls and the squirrel releases a srring of angry chatter. Then a
car door slams and the squirrel clutches the tree. Mary Lou sees Linda below on
rhe walk and drops to the floor.
She leans against the cabinets. Her pulse beats in her fingers. Her pulse beats
in her teeth. Her chest heaves. She tries to swallow. Linda's hand is thudding
against the door. The gasps in her chest get louder. The gasping has a rhythm. It
fills her body and leaks into the cabinets behind her back. Then she closes her
eyes. She's leaned against these cabinets and gasped like this before.
The last Christmas they were married, a bird crashed into the kitchen
window. The house was quiet except the sound of dishes in the sink. Chester was
washing and Mary Lou was eating pie when a bird thudded into the window and
broke itself on the glass. A hiccup lurched from Chester's mouth and the gravy
boat fell from his fingers. It sank through the suds and split their Christmas
platter in half. His eyes went from the bird caught in a string of lights in the
window to the pieces under the soap.
Then something rose inside him. Mary Lou could see it climb his neck. His
chest so suddenly heaving. Gasps choking his throat. A sound like machinery
seizing. Nostrils tight. Forehead covered with sweat. He grabbed her arm and
squeezed, and his nails dug into her skin.
She rubbed his back. His face turned red, and his legs just crumbled. He
hit the floor and heaved against his knees. And since she couldn't think what
to do, she sat beside him and mimicked the wheezing. She closed her eyes and
30 PRISM  51:4 adjusted her gasps until they were perfectly timed with his. Gradually she slowed
the tempo, to mute the pounding pulse, to loose the strangled lung. Until their
breaths came slow together and Chester relaxed.
They leaned against the cupboards and breathed in and out to a count of
thtee, a waltzing tempo. Chester let go of her hand and leaned over his knees and
added a string of notes to the rhythm. He tapped a song on the wooden slats of
the floor. His fingers leapt and jerked between the boards in pit pit patters. She
put her hands over his to stop the movement, but he kept going and her hands
were pulled along. It was the closest they ever got to dancing. Like dancing on
someone else's feet. And she knew he would always be scared. Music couldn't fix
a thing like that.
Mary Lou hands Linda a glass of water. She sits on the couch, holding Chester's
wallet and keys on her lap. She's wearing the same blouse with the silver buttons
that Mary Lou bought last summer on sale. Maybe a size smaller. Maybe a
thinner knit.
I'm sorry you had to come out here, Mary Lou says. I don'r know why I took
his things. I wasn't thinking. I should have called, but I was just so tired.
Linda sets the watet on the table. Condensation drips down the glass. Linda
spteads it with her thumb. She looks around the room and sniffs. Are you
painting? she asks.
Maty Lou leans against the piano and looks toward the kitchen. Oh that.
I polyurethaned some shelves this morning. You know, to keep my mind off
things. Linda nods, slips Chester's belongings into her handbag. There wasn't
anything else? she asks. Anything else you took?
That's all they gave me, Mary Lou says. She stares at Linda's boots, grey
suede with a lasso pattern looping around at the ankle, her feet so tiny Mary
Lou imagines her wrapping them with cloth like Chinese women used to, each
year wrapping tighter and tighter, the delicate smallness worth rhe crumpling
of bones. Linda sees her looking, and Mary Lou asks, Are those from Macy's?
Linda shakes her head no. I need to use your bathroom, she says. I'll show you,
Mary Lou says, and leads her through the house. They pause in the kitchen and
Linda sees the pastry brush on the table. The duffle bag on the floor. She picks
the paperback up from the counter. My aunt reads books like this, she says.
Chester called it crap lit. Mary Lou walks past her and flips the light in the hall.
The toilet's old, she says. Hold the handle down when you flush. Linda slides
past. Mary Lou hears the click of the lock in the bathroom and wonders if Linda
will look through the medicine cabinet. Mary Lou always does that at parties,
reading the labels on pill bottles, fingering make-up and floss.
The toilet flushes. The door creaks open and Linda's boot heels click on
the hardwood floor. I should go, she says. Mary Lou offers to walk her out.
She follows Linda into the living room, studying the threading on her back
pockets. Her jeans look expensive, but the left leg's crooked, like she hemmed
them herself. And suddenly Mary Lou wants to touch her, to put a hand on her
shoulder. She doesn't want this woman to hate her. I'm sorry, she tells her. Linda
nods and her chin disappears against her neck. Me too, she says. Then there's a
31 Do you know if they found anything in the car? Mary Lou asks. Like
feathers? Maybe Chester was trying to let something out when he opened the
window. Maybe a bird got in. Linda cuts in, They think it was faulty brakes.
She studies the pictures on the piano. This is Adam? Mary Lou nods. Linda
picks up the one behind it. A wedding, her entire family jumbled together. Mary
Lou in front in a lavender dress, Chester tucked behind her in a seersucker suit.
Chester had a copy of this, Linda says. I made him throw it away. She sets it
behind the one of Adam and touches the piano keys. Mary Lou's pulse rises
again through her ribcage and climbs her throat. Here the smell is strongest. She
holds her breath.
Linda presses a few keys. I used to take lessons when I was little, she says,
but I wasn't good. Not like Chester. I got him a piano last year for his birthday.
He'd play in the morning, and I'd wake up to music. This morning the house
was so quiet, I couldn't get out of bed. She plays with one hand, and the keys
push hammers. The hammers hit strings and the strings echo, but the sound is
bent. Mary Lou tells her it's out of tune. But she keeps pressing the keys, just the
phrase of a song over and over. And Mary Lou listens and understands how the
piano sounded in Chester's sleep, the notes knocked crooked by claws and beaks
and feathers and muffled by so many wings.
32 PRISM   51:4 Kari Sir till
'n the day of Peter's memorial service, Bird joined us on the patio at the
restaurant where the event took place. He was a pigeon of average appearance
save his messy head feathers. He flapped onto our tabletop and sidled up to a
glass of wine. Although none of those present had the skill or inclination to
conduct an anatomical check, it was generally assumed that Bird was male. It
might have been his swagger, or the brazen way he helped himself to sips of wine,
both red and white. More likely, though, it was because Bird wanted to be close
to Jen. The same could be said of most of the men in any given room. Bird was
content to sit on Jen's shoulder and coo into the fine, blond hairs at the base of
her neck—like most of the men in any given room.
Jen was Jesse's girlfriend. Jesse is Peter's son. Bird is gone, Jen and Jesse are no
longer together, and Peter's ashes are still in my basement. They are in the cold
room, next to the large Tupperware bin of canning jars.
My husband, Ken, answered the door the morning Peter arrived. Even to the
untrained eye it was clear that Peter was mostly dead already.
Peter, however, was certain he had at least a couple of months left in him.
Peter was an artist. Like many artists, he regularly overestimated himself.
At Peter's side, propping him upright, was an extraordinarily large man-
"This is Jesse. He's my son," Peter wheezed at Ken. Ken laughed. Ken and
Peter were friends for decades. Apparently there had never been any mention of
this son. "Jesse drove us... Vancouver to Calgary... thtee days. Can't sit long."
"How did you get to Vancouver?" Ken asked. Peter's current home was near
"Long story," Peter gasped. "We're comin' in."
Peter discovered this son by accident, when he contacted a long-ago lover to say a
final goodbye. The lover's name was Maya. Maya the Model. Word has it that her
long and slender body graced billboards along the Champs-Elysees. Apparently
Maya raised Jesse herself, in Vancouver. Jesse did not look or sound French.
Mostly he looked like a tall, slouchy hoops player, and he sounded relaxed.
Content. These qualities didn't impress me as being very French. I haven't decided whether I think it was fair that Maya didn't tell Peter about
his son. But really, Peter was a pain in rhe ass. What if he had decided to stay
around to raise Jesse? It takes a long time for a boy to grow up.
Apparently Maya and Peter said their last goodbye in Vancouver, then Maya
packed the two of them a lunch and Jesse drove the car to Calgary. That was
good because, although Peter managed to transport himself from Victoria to
Vancouver, he was cyanotic and mostly blind. The passenger side of his car was a
scarred smear of scorched metal. Peter said that every time he crossed a bridge, he
would ride the car along the right guardrail so as not to smash into an oncoming
The morning after Peter arrived, he stranded himself on our toilet. To be fair,
ours was a complicated bathroom—not much room between the toilet and the
half-wall that acts as a divider between the toilet and tub. Even near death
Peter was big man, with dense bones. He could not raise himself. We called an
The medical attendants worked hard to get Peter off of the can. His lungs
were so full of tumor he was only good for one syllable per breath.
"Fuck... off... get... Ken... get... Jesse," he told them.
When they finally got him on a stretcher and our the door, Patrick, the boy
who lived in a house across the street, was waiting by the blazing ambulance.
Patrick was old enough to ride a bike but he spoke as though the roof of his
mouth was coated in a thick layer of peanut butter. He hovered over the stretcher
mumbling diphthongs into Peter's hairy ear.
"Eyeyoo otay? Eyeyoo otay?"
"Fuck... you... kid," Peter wheezed as they slid him inside.
"I don't understand why he came here," I said.
Ken looked at me. "He wants me to prorect his art, his molds. He wants
Jesse to have the right to control who reproduces his bronzes. He needs legal
"Do you think anyone really wants them? I mean, it's not like there's a deatth
of cowboy bronzes in the world."
Ken flipped the page in the book he wasn't quite reading. "He's got a
presence. I think he figures the pieces will be worth more after he dies."
"That never happens. OK... sometimes it happens, but almost never."
"Maybe he just needs to be close."
"To a friend."
I looked at the sink full of dishes and tried to ignore it.
"Honey," Ken added, folding the book into his lap, "he just needs to be close
to me."
34 PRISM  51:4 There is much that could be written about the ways men understand their
friendships, but no man would read ir. I walked over to my beautiful husband
and wrapped arms around his neck. "If a man has to fall, you're are a safe place
to land."
"Thanks," he said, softly.
Bird had a cowlick of sorts, a tiny tuft of soft head feathers that sprang upright,
a blight on the aerodynamic efficiency of his avian skull. It made me wonder if
he'd flown into a window. He certainly acted brain-damaged.
To wit, Bird was expert at riding in cars. The trick was not to hold him
too tight. If you squeezed, even a little, he would push his wings outward and
squirm, but if you kept your fingers soft and loose, he settled into your palms
and closed his eyes. During the nine days Bird spent with us, I held him on a
number of car rides: from Rouge to the home of a couple who hosted Peter's
funeral "after-party," from there to a club, then to our home at the south end of
the city, and then to Carburn Park. He never shat on me. Not once.
Four days after the ambulance took Peter away, the ICU staff called to tell us it
was time to "let Peter go." Like we were going to take a hook out of his mouth
and drop him back into the pond.
Ken, Jesse and I stood around Peter's hospital bed while the nurse turned off
the machine that forced oxygen into the minute portion of his lungs not claimed
by cancer. The quiet nurse removed the air-tight mask from Peter's head.
His passing was gentler than his living, and much less dramatic. His heartbeat
simply faded away. His chest was cemented with tumor. It rose and fell in the
smallest possible increment, for less than a minute. Then it stopped moving all
That was that.
Peter died with his eyes open.
Apparently, this sometimes happens naturally, but I personally believe Petet
willed them to stay wide. I think he wanted to leave us with the impression that
he'd be watching.
I don't know what possessed me to try to close them—perhaps that hackneyed
image from movies where a kind soul passes a gentle hand over the lids of the
Peter eyelids were unforgiving, would not be moved. His eyes fixed hard on
the ceiling as we left the room. Wide open. The color of Arctic ice.
It is impossible to know how many children Peter sired. Ken told me about the
ones he knew of. Jesse, Naomi, another man in Vancouver and another grown
daughter as well. 35 Peter abandoned all of them, not all at once, but in series.
Ken tried to contact as many of Petet's children as he could.
All but Jesse and Naomi responded ro his death with silence.
Naomi has five children of her own. She cares for every one of them. Three
of them came to stay with us while we planned and executed Peter's funeral.
They took tutns chasing my dog, Matilda. Matilda was abandoned as a pup.
It took me two years to teach her that there would be food when she needed
it, that she didn't have to eat my leather dress shoes. The week after Peter died
Matilda learned to hide from the children—in the laundty basket, under the
dirty clothes.
Naomi's mother didn't come to the funeral, nor did she send flowers. She
sent Naomi's grandmother instead. That was much mote practical. No one
needed flowers, but the children were the sort that needed tending.
It is a mixture of cement and less dense material (perlite, moss, peat,
vermiculite). When it dries it looks like stone, but hypertufa's light. You
can mold and shape it. It was Peter's last medium. Peter and his final female
companion made sculptures and planting vessels, on the Island. Hypertufa is the
sort of medium a sick man can manage. Neither Ken nor I can remember the
last companion's name, so we call het Hypertufa—the sort of woman a sick man
can manage.
None of those who gathered for the funeral were particularly fond of her.
Perhaps it was because she was the sort of vegetarian that gasped when she saw
chicken wings or retched noisily at the package of ground beef. Perhaps it was
because she was the only woman in the house who insisted she was "connected
to Peter by the soul."
Despite this profound psychic connection, Hypertufa did not arrive in time
to say a last goodbye.
The patio was hot the day of Peter's funeral. We were thirsty, and the drinks
were cold. Bird ingratiated himself by hopping from rim to rim, sipping wines,
sitting on shoulders and murmuring in bird-speak.
When the sun dropped low and the time to move the party was imminent,
Bird perched on my finger. "I'm gonna throw him," I vowed to Ken. "If he
comes back, he's ours. If he doesn't, he never was."
Bird didn't even try to leave. He flapped his wings only as many times as
required to reorient himself, then he dropped lightly onto Jen's shoulder.
My propensity to anthropomorphize is loosened by drink and I suggested
36 PRISM  51:4 that perhaps Bird was the embodiment of Peter's spirit. This was acknowledged
by all present, in air quotes, to be "the god's honest truth."
Wine makes idiots of us all, and we made Bird our own, passed him from
hand to hand like a joint, adoring him more each time around. When Ken and I
finally took Bird home, he settled himself on a window ledge near our back door.
We were certain he'd be gone the next morning, but he was content to stay.
Bird had other peculiar ways.
Strangest was his habit of walking rather than flying. Unless there was an
absolute need, his preferred pattern of locomotion was a kind a rapid running
punctuated by brief off-ground forays that lasted several wing flaps.
Four days after Bird came to live on our windowsill, I was returning home
from a shopping trip. I turned onto our boulevard and I noticed an elderly man
attempting to run. He was dragging alongside him a girl who might have been
four. The old man's face was grim, the child in obvious distress. Behind them,
executing his fastest run/flap/run, was Bird.
I don't think it helped when I screeched to a halt, bolted out of the car
without shutting it off, and sprinted after them shouting, as loudly as a person
does when they are panicked, "Bird. Bird. Bird."
Eventually the old man and the girl stopped tunning and I was able to catch
up. Bird stood at their feet, examining the ground near their toes. The little girl's
face was red, her eyes glassy, the tracks of tears catching in the late afternoon
"I'm sorry," I offered. "I think he's just curious."
The old man took the little girl's hand and shook his head. "In the old-
country ve vood kill such a bird," he said. They stomped away, back the way they
Willow Park was no place for a Bird.
Kids are different than works of art.
If you abandon a painting, you can come back to it later and it will be exactly
as you left it.
A child keeps growing in your absence, perhaps becoming something you
didn't intend.
You build a painting or a sculpture all by yourself, but kids are interactive
projects. They don't stop growing just because they're ignored. They don't keep
loving if there's no one to love. You can't show up at the final buzzer and pretend
you saw the game.
These are facts.
Artists don't always appreciate the limitations posed by facts. Bird did adore the barbeque. He would watch the grill whenever the opportunity
presented itself, sitting on Ken's shoulder, or mine, burbling bird-twerps. A
shoulder-sitting bird is fine if you have calm and well-adjusted neighbors. Our
neighbors are not. One is bird-phobic, the other is simply mean. When Bird
decided to sit on the mean one's shoulder, death threats ensued.
"If that filthy creature sets foot on my property again, I'll bash its skull with
a shovel." She brandished very long barbeque tongs as she said this. Her voice
sounded like the un-tuned strings of a cheap children's guitar.
I had to find another home for Bird.
Turns out it's easiet to find a home for a Great Dane than a pigeon with
peculiar ways.
The young man from the mortuary was exactly the person you picture when
you toss out the cliche "earnest young man." Plus his name tag actually tead
We were gathered, all of us, in the living room, to finalize Peter's cremation
details. Children and their mothers, Ken and I, other guests. Ernest asked the
room for a signature: ".. .the next of kin."
Hypertufa was the first to speak up. "I'm his wife."
Maya the Model, Jesse, Naomi, Jen, Ken and I, the throng of children... we
all laugh out loud.
"You are the last bead on a string," somebody mumbled. It might have been
In the end it was Jesse who signed. He is eldest. He is blood. The room was
comfortable with that.
Of all the events that surrounded Peter's death, I regret most the moment that
my husband and I abandoned Bird. That I abandoned Bird.
I don'r remember if Ken drove and I held, or if it was the other way around. I
was already distraught. We searched for a home, but none of the pigeon keepers
we spoke to would have him. "Too risky. Might be diseased," they all said. The
mean neighbor was threatening to call by-law officers, to have Bird trapped and
We went to Carburn Park. It was dusk and the still water of the lagoon
reflected a near-perfect image of the evening sky. The fine edge of dusk chill was
cutting into the warmth of the spring day, layers of air separated by density. The
chilled air hovered at our feet, the warmer air near our hearts.
I set Bird down in the dewy, groomed grass next to the asphalt path, ran
my thumb over his grey head, smoothed down his strange little feather cowlick.
Then Ken and I ran away.
Bird chased us. I know, not because I turned around to look, but because
one of a trio of skinny-jeaned, spike-haired, uber-pale boys yelled "Hey, is that
38 PRISM  51:4 your bird, 'cause it's totally chasing you?"
"Then why's it chasing you?"
"That's totally your fuckin' bird."
"Is not."
The day after I abandoned Bird I awoke crying. I went back to Carburn Park,
but of course Bird wasn't there.
This is the thing about abandonment. It is immediate and complete. Leaving
can take years, but abandonment is instant and it cannot be undone. I try to
believe that one of the skinny, pale boys carried Bird away to a good home, and
there's enough comfort in the notion to keep me from crying. Sometimes.
It took me years to admit that abandonment is an act of desperation, not an
act of indifference. It hasn't brought me to a respect or affection for Peter, but it
has brought me to an understanding. I no longer chafe at the black plastic box
of ashes in the basement. Ken still imagines he will one day make good on his
promise to build two wooden boxes, divide the ashes between them, send one
to Jesse and the other to Naomi. This becomes less likely with each passing year.
Perhaps one day we will drive, Ken and I, to a rugged, open grassland. There
will be a river nearby, and in the distance there will be a horse without a bridle,
pacing and snorting, rearing. A Chinook wind and a sunset making flames of the
horse's mane. We will open the black plastic container, perhaps tip it on its side
and free Peter's ashes to the capable embrace of water and wind.
Ken will mourn the loss of his friend.
I will think of Bird and be reminded that there are things I do that can never
be undone.
39 Scott A ndrew Chrislensen
so what, elizabeth—
your parents came from mass
my grandmother
from lynn, outside boston.
how we ended up
here, fighting
the pull of the moon
—your "long tides"—
is fractured at best.
if you had
attended my high school—
it hadn't been
erected then, my mother
in those days
said she went to normal school—
i would have sat
in your desk—
clawed at the
bubble gum you abandoned,
sucked on irs words—
would have
followed you home
on highway 2.
ms. bishop—this
is all hindsight,
of course.
grade 12 english
to get me into college,
your death
when i was the kid
wearing adult clothing
waiting to vomit
each exaggerated stitch
onto the page.
40 PRISM  51:4 Chris Mulch inson
My life would not be mine, or yours—
you whose words would chase the light
around dust-colouted stalks of wheat,
whose adolescent sins are still hiding behind the haycocks
where your open violin case once filled with mating crickets.
The autumn you learned music (lately, I've haunted that
peak-roofed barn turned airy schoolhouse where swallows
still thread the high rafters), you penned treble clefs
on veiny wrists and in the margins of spiral notebooks
you kept concealed, a secret dowry, beneath your mattress.
Moving then, seeking you, circling Milk River,
I was like the town itself, half awake, halfway
done with transmigration, half the spectre
of my name. Did you invent the dogs, ted ones
that chased the wild piebald horse your father shot
for a depression winter's worth of meat, or was this
the beginning of a fiction to be revered but made pastiche
by your admirers? Glazed with frost, did the gutted horse's eyes
pick you out (and the music tutor's growing shame)?
Maybe I kicked inside and pushed that first
bright syllable thtough your lips, though
you never said my name or wrote things down
the way they happened. Your admirers would never see
how eight months heavy with me within the bonfire
of another July drought, the trapped air clapping
with locust wings—how you stooped to ponder a snakeskin
like a scroll coiled beside a road covered in fine white silt,
the 'o' of your open mouth, a silent whole note.
Knowing I'd be born too soon, and not for you
but for the harvest.
41 Jennifer Zilm
A yellow wall still brightening
behind somber irises.
Trying, yet always trying
"not to see bleak things
bleakly" you lose intetest in colour
to focus on line, where it leads
to the Garden of St. Paul's Hospital,
to Dr. Gachet, a failed therapeutic
relationship with a field, slender sadness
of each separate strand of browning grass.
Asserting belief that we'll
that this combination of red ochre
saddened with grey and black
lines rhat define the outline
gives rise to a little feeling:
anxiety, from which some
of [your] companions in misfortune
suffer and [which] is [still] called
seeing red"
42   ■      PRISM  51:4 Erin Frances Fisher
i. re-dawn on the cab ride from the Luzon Filipino airport to the hotel, humidity
settles into Preston. Shandra lies half-asleep on the backseat of the cab next to
him, her mouth open and her eyes closed, their daughter Chantelle nursing at
her breast. Preston himself would be asleep—he has a concert to play tonight,
the last concert of his tour—but he hasn't had a bowel movement in over a week,
and despite the pain meds, the blockage is killing him.
Shandra's breath sucks heavily in the cab. Preston rubs his palms over his
pant-legs. In the mugginess, his clothes and hair are unfamiliarly soft, the air
tastes throaty and mineral, and by the time they arrive at the hotel Preston feels
as if he's been dragged through an equatorial broth of wet leaves, dirt, and sulfur.
He runs his tongue over his teeth, swallows a handful of opiates, then checks his
pocket for pesos.
"You're keeping count?" Shandra turns her head toward Preston as he riffles
through bills. She's asking about the painkillers—he's taken a lot—but he counts
the cab fare aloud instead. Shandra tucks her breast into her bra, rearranges
Chantelle in her sling, and slides out of the cab. The driver accepts the cash.
Preston steps outside, shuts the door, then lifts their luggage and his guitar from
the trunk. His intestines ember. He rests his guitar on his suitcase and waits for
the pain to pass.
The cab pulls away, bathing the hotel's parking lot in red taillight. Shandra
touches Preston's shoulder, fingertips only, for balance, and lifts one foot then
the other, scratching at crumbs of asphalt that have pitched to the bottom of
her flip-flops. Preston moves to hold her elbow, to steady her further as she
scrapes off her sandals, but she jerks her arm out of his reach. Unbalanced, her
foot drops. She lifts it up immediately, as if the pavement's hot, and brushes the
sandy-grit from her foot. She again rests her fingers on Preston's shoulder, and
this time he waits for her to finish. The parking lot smells of tar and trash; a
couple of stray dogs skitter around an overflowing dumpster. Along the horizon
the morning is clearing to blue, and, peaked against the skyline, Mt. Mayon
flares—smoke rises from its teat, shunting sideways as it lifts.
In the hotel, Preston sits on the toilet with his pants around his ankles, his
boxers around his calves, and his guitar on his lap. He lines his nail file and tuner
on the floor beside his footstool. He tunes his guitar then runs a scale and the
tenor line of the fugue from the piece he's worried about playing at the concert
tonight. The tiny bathroom lacks a tub—his thigh and ass squash against the
shower stall above a stratum of umber mildew—and his knees brush the sink. To
give himself the illusion of space he leaves the door open. Shandra watches him
43 from the bed.
"You look stupid." Her eyes trace up his naked legs, his shirt, the butt of
his guitar. She runs her hand over Chantelle's head, repositioning the baby's
headband. "Come out of there." The air conditioner clicks on, blasting Preston
with a tart mix of Shandra's breast milk, shampoo and hair musk. The blue walls
and cool air combined with Preston's jet-lag give the early morning the feel of
late night.
"What if I have to pee?" Shandra asks.
Preston relaxes his jaw, hoping that this will relax his bowels as well; even
over the painkillers his intestines growl warmly. He runs the alto line of the
fugue and shakes his hands out. He runs the alto and tenor together, bringing
out the lower voice and softening the higher.
"What if I have to pee?" Shandra spirals her fingers into the hair above
Chantelle's headband. "What if I have to change her?"
Chantelle's face crunches and she starts to cry.
Preston rests his head against the sink. "Look." He locates his nail file.
"Look," he says. But there's nothing he can say to fix the situation; the hotel is a
dive. Not what he'd been expecting, but probably what he should have expected.
The whole tour, the tour he earned as the competition winner, has been poorly
organized. No one keeps an eye on details country to country. He should have
known he wouldn't have any down time to help Shandra with Chantelle. Preston
rolls his forehead against the air-conditioned porcelain. At least this hotel doesn't
have roaches, despite a pervasive smell of grease that hovers above even the burn
of his filed nails.
Chantelle wails. Preston forces his mind from the pulse in his abdomen. He
sets his file on the edge of the sink and repositions his guitar.
"F-you," says Shandra. "F-you, Preston." She says it smiling, light-toned,
and right into baby Chantelle's face to calm her. "I don't want to be here," she
Preston peels his guitar from the skin of his thighs, then checks the rack
above him for a towel to cover his lap—sweat could mark up the instrument's
polish—but the shelf is empty. This is the concert he was looking forward to the
most. The final concert of the tour—an open air concert in a baroque Spanish
chapel that was half devoured by the volcano years ago. This concert is supposed
to be tops, the pinnacle of the trip, and the work, rhe performances behind
it, should have built up to this night. Shandra should be happy, exhausted in
a good way, not worn out and resentful. Preston should feel exultant, fueled
with adrenaline. Instead he's bloated, pissed off at having to execute yet anothet
concert. This tour was not supposed to end with him sessile on the shitter.
Chantelle's cry is a tooth to the btain, and Preston's intestines are swollen solid.
Shit sausage, he thinks. "My bowel is a shit sausage," he tells Shandra.
Shandra stands. She hoists Chantelle onto her hip. "I'm getting another
room," she says. She closes the bathroom door.
Preston listens for the suite door to latch—for Shandra to leave. The walls of
the bathroom are off-white, like foam on beer, and vibrant under the overhead
fluorescent. In the confined quiet, the hum of the light intensifies. He should
44 PRISM  51:4 stop Shandra. Calm Chantelle for a minute. He could still call out.
The room door latches.
"Shandra?" Preston swings the bathroom door open from the toilet.
A woman pushes a cart of towels into the suite. House-keeping, of course.
Preston's pants are around his ankles. His guitar only half shields his thighs.
Shandra is long gone.
The maid nods and starts to back out.
"No, wait," says Preston. "Do you speak English? Can I get a towel?"
She lifts a stack of towels from her cart and carries them over. She sets
them on the edge of the sink next to his nail file, then stops and sniffs deeply.
Instinctively, Preston inhales too. Over the smell of filed nails, that greasy funk
he noticed earlier.
"You want to see?" she whispers. "Where the smell is from." Preston lowers
his head in a half-nod, more out of embarrassment and politeness than in
agreement. But the maid misinterprets Pteston's confusion and steps into the
bathroom. He leans away when she closes the door, but her knees still push
against his legs in the tight space. She shuts off the light.
At first the dark is fierce and crisp, then Preston's senses adjust and it becomes
malleable, almost buttery, in the glow from a hole in the wall beside him. In this
new light, the smallness of the room becomes more comfortable—where there
was tightness thete is closeness—and Preston feels hidden rather then confined.
The maid fixes her eye to the hole. He can feel her breath, her warmth, as she
leans over him. The kinked, loose strands of her hair fan around her head as the
soft light encircles her. She watches, then backs off and waves Pteston toward the
plaster. "This pervert," she says, "he's always here."
Preston lays his guitar flat on his thighs and puts an eye to the hole. The light
tunnels through the wall from a table lamp in the next room. A man in a suit—a
nice suit, with weave that's at least as tight as Preston's concert suit—stands in
the kitchenette with his back to Preston. The man wears his tie flipped over his
shoulder. He leans on one arm, his hand splayed and planted on the counter. A
frypan spits on the stove, the element glowing forge-hot. The man must have his
air-conditioning shut off, because Preston can feel heat waver through the wall.
Beside the man stands a woman: broad, short-limbed, and barefoot. Naked.
Her hair, damp at the ends and against her brow, hooks sweatily on her shouldets.
The light from the table lamp mottles her skin dull yellow, though outdoors
she'd probably appear a healthier tan. The woman's legs are unshaved, and her
armpits, like her crotch, spark dark, heady fur.
With his free hand the man cups the woman's breast. Her nipples, too,
Pteston sees, ate stroked with hair. The man peels his hand from the counter,
shakes his sleeve up his arm, and stirs the frypan with a fork. At the same time,
he raises the woman's breast, as if to test the weight. Then he slides his hand
down her body, grips the flesh of her ribs and pinches across her chest. Preston
pulls away and stares at the hole in the wall. Light soaps over his thighs, souses
his guitar and towel. Preston turns to the maid.
"The girls." She cups her chest and squeezes. "Always heavy breasted."
He sets his eye back to the crack. The man's hand has returned to the girl's
45 breast. In the yellow light her nipple flushes mauve and mud. The man scratches
the base of the pan, then prongs out a greasy dumpling, or maybe an off-colour
"And the food," the maid says, "always the same. Balut. Unhatched duckling."
That evening, the first half of the concert frays. By open air concert Preston had
pictured a hall with open windows, open doors, not outside; the stone chapel
kneels in the hardened lava field, half melted and wall-less. While he plays on
stage, he can hear his daughter crying in the trailer that the concert staff and the
stage manager—Front of House—have set up for him by the chapel.
He tries. The spotlights blind him, and what he can't see, he hears: an
underscore of everything nocturnal. Insects leave welts along the hairline on the
back of his neck and around his ankles. Sweat flows in his eyes and on his guitat
strings. His fingers squeak. And the pain in his gut.
When the final chord of the ptelude rings, Preston stands, bately bows, and
takes intermission before playing the fugue. It's not done, breaking up a piece
like this, but he's so tricked out on pain meds that half his concentration has
been tied up trying not to shake.
He closes himself in the trailer where Shandra is still trying to nurse Chantelle
quiet. He sits on the couch and wipes sweat from his neck. Not sweat, blood.
The insects. He rolls down his socks. His ankles are swollen and scoured. These
bites should itch, or hurt, but they don't. How many painkillers has he had? And
his bowel is even worse. If he can't feel the insect bites, should his gut throb like
Shandra eases Chantelle off her nipple.
"Shandra." His palms are tacky. And there's at least another hour to the
concert. "Shandra?"
Shandra finally meets his gaze, then runs her eyes over his raw neck and
ankles. She scrutinizes his belly like she can see it move. "Preston," she Starrs.
She lets her shoulders relax and the tension goes out of her face. "Here." She digs
Chantelle's baby powder out of her bag and shakes it onto his palms. "Are you
ok?" She bites her cheek, leans over him and touches his neck.
Her fingers are cool, a chill that's out of place with the tacky air, and soft.
All of her seems soft. He lifts his hand and feels her thtough the fabric of her
dress—red, jersey, barely there.
"Seriously?" The tension that had slipped out of Shandra's face has returned,
and Preston can tell she's holding het anger back because there's still a second
half to the concert. "I thought you wanted help." She knocks away his hand and
he lets his arm drop, leaving white fingerprints across her chest.
"I think I need air." He opens the trailer door and sits on the step. In the
distance, the volcano smelts. Preston sniffs his palm, trying to cover the sulfur
with the lilt of baby powder.
Front-of-House knocks on the wall of the trailer and then walks up to
Pteston. "Ready?" He stares at the powder in Preston's hand, then hesitantly
mimes a snort.
"Oh god, this isn't—" Preston claps his hands and blows the powder into the
46 PRISM  51:4 ait. "I mean this is baby powder. I swear."
The second half of the concert is worse than the first, he's taken too many
opiates to resurrect it. The air cools until it becomes a dog's damp nose pressed
against Pteston's neck and collar. He can feel the volcano behind him, its great
scabbed back. Chantelle cties through the dark, from beyond the spots. By the
end he's sure that half his chords were lost.
Post-concert, Front-of-House and the rest of the staff take Pteston for drinks.
Shandra comes too, Chantelle fussing in her sling. Preston wipes condensation
off his glass with a napkin. The pain meds aren't mixing well with the beer.
"Should you be drinking," Shandra states. She's the only woman at the
table—the only woman he can see in the bar. The men are running their eyes
over her shoulders, the dips in her collar bone, and chatting. Preston can't help
but think they're commenting on her, on how Shandra brought Chantelle to the
"Should you have Chantelle here?" Preston takes a drink. Laughtet charges
from the group as Front-of-House points at Preston and speaks in oveily-loud
Filipino. He seems stuck in a loop: pointing, clapping his hands, blowing, and
"I mean." Preston runs his fingertips down his pint glass. "Should we have
Chantelle here?"
Shandra glares at him, pulls down the top of her dress, and unclips her
nursing bra.
Preston opens his mouth, then shuts up. The bar is posh, that's the only wotd
for it, but Shandra is going to nurse at the table anyway. Of course she is, who's
he kidding? At least she's halted Front-of-House's performance. Preston washes
down another few pills with beer.
A server stops and whispets to Shanrda. She flushes, pulls her dress back up,
then surveys the room, disgusted.
"You like my tits enough in this dress," she says to the table. The men look.
It's true, thinks Preston. Her tits do look great in that dress. Cigarette smoke
piles up, and the table returns to talking.
Shandra folds her arms across Chantelle, her cheeks still red. Preston lifts a
hand to stroke her shoulder, but she pulls away so he sips the head off his beer
The server returns, this time placing a sizzling, cast-iron pan on the table.
"Ah." Front-of-House stands. "Balut." He prongs a buttet-fried duckling.
With a hint of a bow, he offers the fork to Preston.
"You're not going to eat that," says Shandra.
Preston takes the fork. He can make out the still-sealed eyes, the under-
formed wing bones. He chews it quickly and downs the rest of his beer.
"Excuse me." Shandra stands and lifts Chantelle. She turns to Preston.
"Don't drink," she says. "I'm taking a cab."
"Wait," says Preston. Or he thinks he says it. His fingerprints are still
powdered down her front as she walks off into the smoke and sounds of the bar.
"It's ok." Front-of-House grabs Preston's shoulder. "Let her go." He takes the
47 fork from Preston and stabs a second balut. "We'll bag her some."
"I don't think," Preston starts. Then someone tries to top off his drink and
he waves away the refill. "I'm in so much pain." He holds his side. "I'm sorry. I
have a blockage."
Front-of-House leans forward, his elbows on the wood-slab table. "Have you
been looked at? Fotget doctors. How about Fuentes?" He props his head on his
hands. "A psychic surgeon. Like a magician, only real. There's an event tonight.
They take audience members, I'm sure they'll take you."
"It's late," says Preston.
"Even this late." Front-of-House smacks his hand on the table. Even this
late, the rest of the staff agrees.
"The show, I guarantee, will be good." Front-of-House goes for a cab.
The auditorium is indoors, spacious, and smells of sweat and bodies. Preston
lies, spotlit, on a table on the stage. He can't see the audience from the table, but
he can hear them: they whisper and shift in their seats as the surgeon, Fuentes,
stands stage-edge and displays his hands to the crowd. Fuentes's assistant, a
young woman in a scant nurse's uniform, flips Preston's tie out of the way. She
spreads his suit-jacket, unbuttons his shirt and daubs his stomach with iodine.
Fuentes addresses the audience in quick Filipino, then walks to the table
where Preston lies with his belly exposed. The stage lights above Preston turn—
incredibly—brighter, and the house lights cut. The audience holds its breath.
Preston twitches—an involuntary reach for his instrument, a momentary
panic before he remembers he's left his guitar offstage with Front-of-House.
Fuentes raises his arms, then he dives into Preston's belly. The surgeon's
hands melt through Preston's skin, his muscle, and blood squirts high enough
to sizzle on the spotlights. Preston tries to raise his head, but the stage lurches
dizzily. The surgeon pulls out a length of gut, of fecal-packed intestine, chunks
of deep red flesh, and tosses them everywhere. Purpled meat smacks rhe stage;
cartilage marbles toward the audience.
Fuentes's white lab-coat is watery with blood and bits of filth. He raises his
hands triumphantly. The assistant helps Preston upright. He stands, and again
has a fumbling urge for his guitar—for something to hold between him and the
conglomeration of figures in the dark. The surgeon bows.
The audience jeers, yells and catcalls. The house lights rise. Preston's cohorts
clap their hands above their heads. They help Preston from the stage. Front-of-
House hands him a white, foil-lined bag, then they pack Preston and his guitar
into a cab and shuttle him to his hotel.
The dumpster in the hotel patking lot is empty. The dogs are gone too. Along
the horizon sky is tinged orange. Sunrise? Or the volcano? And Shandra must
have been serious about getting her own space because when Preston lets himself
into the hotel room, she's not there. He fills his mouth with painkillers, hauls
his guitar to the toilet, and drops his pants. Normally his hands would hurt by
now, after a full day and half the night of playing, but the meds have blocked
any tightness in his tendons and his fingers feel fabulous. Fantastic, accurate to
the point of carelessness.
48 PRISM  51:4 Half-naked and on the toilet, he tunes. The air-conditioning, still on high,
blasts into the bathroom. Preston slams the door with his foot, then leans over
and turns the water in the shower on hot. He adjusts his guitar on his knee, and,
in anticipation of starting the fugue—its multitude of beginnings—he plucks
each open string, then lets ring the final notes of the piece. The last cadence
bounds round the shower stall, off the tile, and comes cordially back at him from
the damp walls. Still, Preston hesitates before starting—the shower has filled the
room with steam. Water beads on every cool surface: the floor, the shower, the
sink, his face—everything sweats. Even the package Front-of-House gave him
for Shandra has started to secrete through the foil.
The package. Pteston lays his guitar across his knees. He picks up the foil bag
and tilts the contents onto his hand: balut. Leathery, with hard, beak-warped
lips, and eyes sealed under a membrane. He pulls up his shirt and feels his
abdomen. No incision, just a btuise-colouted stain from the iodine. His hands
though, and the sleeves of his suit, are red, covered in the evening's gore—from
Fuentes, or the insects. And his guitar is dead, the wood damp, the fingetboard a
mess of baby powder and blood. What was he thinking—that he could start the
piece again here, like this? Preston gags, then there's a reflex in his bowels and he
He shits for what feels like hours before he fumbles with the switches. There's
no fan, no matches, nothing to cover the smell of two weeks worth of backed-
up feces. He shuts the overhead light off—at least he can hide—but light twirls
thtough the steam from the hole in the wall. It cuts across his guitar and slaps
his belly.
Preston holds his breath. He leans toward the wall. The man in other room
sits at the table. The coil on the stove ticks with heat, but the pan smokes from
the sink. The girl, the same girl, stands beside him. The man leans over and
mines his fingers between her legs.
Preston looks away. The running shower covers any sounds the couple might
be making. The water must be ground water, from a well, as the yellow smell
of sulphur rises from the shower stall. His belly, under his ribs at the iodine
stain, feels unfamiliarly empty, relieved, but in a guilty, shameful way. The tour
is done. He performed poorly enough to ensure there won't be another. And
Shandra—he squeezes the balut he is still holding—he only has this for her: a
stunted bird, an embryo that, even if its eyes burst open, would still be deeply
blind. Preston palms the hole in the wall, but the light glows, sad and implicit,
through his fingers. Tara - Michelle
I eroticize everything that I can't kill, but I never enter the body of the woman
you love.
Snap her into place in papier-mache multiples, hung on a mobile above the
bed we fuck in. I am quick to ask that she keep on her clothes, for me.
All ninety-nine pounds and heels of her.
Every hair that's never seen a split end; every inch of polished boot.
You like the things I say about gender because you don't need them. Everything
you love you give to her. It makes sense that you would.
I did this in my late teens, early twenties, mid-twenties, at thirty-one. In
crushes and emails; in fantasies, even—I could never be enough.
Trade my dream career for a prescription for Ritalin. Spellcheck me to the
Sew gold sequins to my sleeves so you'll see when I arrive.
Four painkillers later, there are holes in my body, lost thoughts in my gut.
I've been climbing rickety staits to you since I was nineteen years old.
Since I learned that you moved into your van, I've been leaving tiny bottles of
whiskey and live sprouts, unsure of what you're eating these days.
I've been leaving ulcers and poems. Felt letter banners that say GO THE
50 PRISM  51:4 I was hoping your girlfriend, who you love, would wrap herself in her beautiful
would weave fishnets over her beautiful legs,
would find that she is quite loved, everywhere. 51 A TOUGH LANGUAGE
A tough life needs a tough language—and that's what poetry is. That is what literature
offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.
—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
She is up against the wall in her tiny pants, eyes fluttering wild against
imaginary wind.
She is handing you a fizzy drink, lime wedge holding on for its life.
I am flirting with a gaggle of oldet hutches behind you. They are taking stock
of my boots, purse and age. It is a numbers game and there are three in their
pack, and one of me, and my friend, but she is having a convetsation and you,
you don't know where to look.
You ask me how I imagine this and when I try, she keeps putting on more
clothes. Tiny black clothes, floral patterns, inky lines, buckles and lashes. You
imagine this being perfect, and it's hard to think that I exist in this imagining.
You rip at my hair like you understand tigers or power; then you start giggling
and fall apart.
When you're wirh her you use excessive exclamations. You use short forms.
Your mouth curls and your grammar changes. The hard questions are the ones
you don't ask.
I want to gender-identify as a "broad." I want to light long wooden matchsticks
and hold them between my teeth.
The time between wine and work. The time between fever and flight. The
pause I'm so suspicious of.
You write me out of your life whenever you don't feel srrong. You have a
bladder of steel so you never text from the toilet. You make raspberry oat
muffins with frozen raspberries, and somehow they come out perfectly. I
imagine you rubbing sand against me in the bathtub, soaping up my hair and
pouring warmth over me.
When you call with sweetness I want to give you an automated reply. The answer
is yes. Out of the office. Please try again. Please try. Iggy's instruction set says
"Fuck you; love me more." And I wonder if tough love isn't the way to go, isn't
the way to tell a keeper from another, isn't what got me here in the first place.
52 PRISM  51:4 Heather Tuck
I read in one of my textbooks that hypothermia is a peaceful death. One thing
keeps me from letting go and crossing over—fear of my grad picture being
flashed across the evening news, Walter Cronkite shaking his head, announcing,
" Tonight's top story: Thirty-four virgins found frozen in tent on remote farm..." I dig
thtough my duffle, layering into what clothes I have left.
I packed for India, not Northern France experiencing the coldest spring on
Spreading my poncho under my sleeping bag fails at keeping permafrost
from leeching into my bones. Socks secute green scrubs over my legs. My boots
remain on. A pair of panties cap my head. My friend Noni's idea—to contain
body heat. Most of us wear them now. I just wish mine wete more European.
Red or black with a hint of lace. White cotton is so tragically Canadian. That was
a sinful thought, wasn't it. God, forgive me—again.
The virgin thing is an assumption on my part. We're all around the same age,
early twenties and I'm guessing, like me, everyone has racked up hours of purity
In the tent, Noni's spot beside me is empty. Defeated, she left this morning. I
sat with her, absorbing the rocking until the bus arrived to take her home. I miss
her stifled weeping. It muted the clatter in my head.
Six weeks of this has killed off all but four neurons. They ricochet around
the cavern once occupied by my brain. Three of them rapid fire: deny, sacrifice,
surrender. The fourth pecks like a chicken: where's my passport, I'm hungry, let me
sleep, don't let me die before I have sex.
I button my thin sweater, mitten my hands with socks then cup them over
my iced nose.
Distant summer trickles into frozen dreams. The hammock folds like a pod
around two sister peas. Swing and sway follows a hot July wind. Small hands
meet in a bag of liquorice allsorts. Leaf shadows shiver on the turning pages of
"The Mystery of the Tolling Bell"—
A ladle spanking a saucepan rallies us for midnight prayer. I unzip my
cocoon and reorient. Forgive me, Lord. Do you count dreams as sin? I'm awake,
now. I remember: to be a disciple, I must deny family, hate my sister.
The girls' pavilion empties before the boys'. My feet are stones. I throw them
on the road and run, grabbing a handful of long grass on the way back. It's
musky-sweet to gnaw on. Noni used to swallow it, saying, "If it doesn't hutt the
sheep, it won't kill us."
Warriors march, sing, plead. I hitch myself to the fence post to keep
from spilling like boiled noodles onto the dirt. Blessed noodles, buttered, cheesy
53 noodles.. .1 swallow the gritty mulch in my mouth.
David is not among the intercessors—again. He's proving a hard nut fot
them to shatter. Though, maybe he's got a point when he complains, "Ya daft
gits. Shouldn't God know He's got bloody problems to fix without me tellin'
I pray, Dear Lord, deliver me to David's warm sleeping bag... snuggling...
drifting... Water swirls around sister pirates launching boats in the creek. A
snake swims against the current disappearing into the bank—
My eyes spring open as prayed-out soldiers are dismissed to their cots.
Luminous hands signal 5:20. It's the longest I've slept in weeks, three solid
hours. My watch survived the luxury purge. Back then, it seemed an essential
tool for a nurse. Now I'm thinking none of us has a pulse for me to check. Think
not. Get up and run.
I stretch the mandatory five kilometre run into six to generate warmth. Gold
limned clouds smash with the pinking sky. I want my camera, the solid little
Olympus. I miss it. Miss the giftedness of it. The only present my father ever
bought for me. I miss the silly face he made as we posed for the camera's first
snap. Deny your father and take up your cross.
As I loop back, first light spilling over the ridge shimmers up whiskers of
frosted grass. Boys, jockeying for position, race uphill. David lags behind. "Jesus
H Christ, it's bloody freezing." He packed for India too.
I break the sliver of ice on the trough, slapping more than washing. I stink
worse than the manute pile, but not even the Finns among us brave the sub-zero
Six tea bags float in the giant caldron. I untie days-old white bread bundled
in cloth. Breakfasr for sixry is served. David sighs, "What I'd give for a strong cup
of coffee. I haven't had a shit in ten days."
I miss coffee more than familiar music and a BM would be bloody marvelous.
Sorry, Lord. Crucify all selfi-indulgentpassions and desires.
I'm nor nursing or evangelizing. I'm assigned to laundry duty. Boiling water
in the iron pot calms me. Soap stinging my cracked hands affirms there's still life
in me. By noon, shifts and pants ripple on the line like a boneless choir.
During the hour set aside for prayer, I follow the stone wall, past the mill,
into the village. I've memorized the salvation message. It could roll off my
tongue with elegance musical. A woman nods hello and I tell her that her lilacs
are 'tres joli'. To the old man reading in his yard I say that his blonde horse
is 'magnifique'. He puts down his crumbling book to join me in stroking the
mare's velvery muzzle. Over the wrought-iron fence his hand, more leathered
than my bible, offers a hardboiled egg, salted and peppered. He winks a smile
when I say, "Merci."
An ancient cupboard, burnt sienna and turquoise, rests against his stone
cottage. Ivy cascades down its shady side. He follows my gaze then taps my
temple with his finger. "Pensez."
Oui. Think. No, don't think. Trust in the Lord. Do not lean on my own
Afternoons, I weed and hoe. David cuts withered potatoes for planting. He
54 PRISM  51:4 drops an eye into the furrow. "Dr. Spud, PS, at your service."
"Potato Surgeon."
He's fresh out of medical school, Cambridge. His accent makes my belly flip.
I ask, "Why'd you sign up?"
He pops a fleshy bit into his mouth. "I'm one lucky bastatd. A little payback
seemed due. Figured India would be a good place to balance accounts. You?"
I scan the fields. "Heard the vanishing point of God's disappointment was
"Ya daft git. Find your own perspective."
"I thought personal perspective was sinful."
"You miss a psych rotation?"
"Doesn't heating voices telling you to live in a gatbage bin not seem bonkers
to you? I've never heard such rubbish as what's being shovelled here. Apparently,
I'm not a good follower. Baa, baa baa-loody right, I'm not. Bet you got told you
needed dropping by a peg or two"
I nod.
"You've done this before, right?"
"A little."
"Columbia, Ethiopia, Northwest Territories. First time with this organization,
"Be proud, bloody proud. You're one of, you are."
His hair is an explosion, like music escaping a bandshell. Beyond him the
meadow blushes lavender. I've heard French girls lay back in such places and
boys follow. With the sun this high the earth wouldn't feel as cold as it did last
night. I'm a depraved sinner, this I know. He offers a slice of potato, and I eat it.
I arrive for lessons on cultural sensitivity, hygiene, key phrases, some inspirational
By day five my mind is powder.
"God demands brokenness! Live life for Him and Him only. Deny yourself
the pleasures of this sinful wotld. Embrace the cross and die ro self..."
My stomach grumbles. Breakfast was porridge, no milk, no sugar. It sat in
my bowl like a pale brain. Could it think? Did it understand how bad it was? The
hair of the girl in front of me is buttety, no, more like melted white chocolate. I
bend forward to muffle the quaking in my belly. Her hair smells like coconut.
Metcifully, we stand. We pray. We walk up the stairs and out the door.
Hallelu—no, no, no. We turn left, back into the auditorium, down the steps,
across the front, up the stairs. Someone starts singing, "We're marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion..." A rope of sacred music pulls us 'round and 'round,
'round and 'round, a conga line for Christ. Eons later we snake toward baskets
of oranges.
The fasting faithful bypass lunch. My fingers tighten around the fruit's skin
55 with an affectionate squeeze. I exit the building in search of oxygen. A greening
tree offers a low branch, like an upturned hand. I accept. I recline. I hold the
orange against the brilliant sky before breaking rhe skin. A squirt of juice lands on
the back of my thumb. I lick it. I'm ten segments rich, savouring each one before
sleep swallows me. Breeze fluttets my skirt... hair hangs like willow tendrils...
arm sags... fingers release peel... My sister calls, "Heather, luuuunch." August
sand burns my feet as I race from the lake to the blanket. I bite into a peach—
"Is this how a Godly woman presents herself?"
Cradled in a spring-waking tree? Yes. Absolutely. "No." I snap up and off the
branch. "Sorry."
"The road to hell is paved with sorries. Come along, please."
I follow the Iron Maiden, the devout ironer of men's shirts and pants, likely
their socks and underwear, too. I'm not a woman of iron—yet. By God's grace I'll
become a Proctor-Silex, without the steam option.
The leaders are Iron Men. Their words weight my pockets with lead, saw me
like a log into manageable pieces and anchor me in my place. I study pairs of
laced-up shoes while they breathe holiness. "Praise you, Jesus," sucks in. "Pride,
obedience, sacrifice," torpedoes on sharp exhales. Then, the benediction: "You'll
be going with the evangelism team to France. Amen."
"...but... I'm a nurse."
"Go, memorize 1 Samuel 15:22 and James 4:6."
To obey is better than sacrifice. God opposes the proud. Before volunteering fot
India, I worked on an oncology ward. A patient lost his tongue, yet somehow he
smiled, more than most. I gave him a gift, a Laurentien twenty-four pack. He
used the pencil crayons to talk in colour. When I said goodbye he wrote, "Hope
is a chameleon. Absorb colour wherever you go."
The words coating my tongue now, taste... black. "Yes, sir."
I'm dismissed. I feel proud—well, not so much proud as shocked, that out
of eighty shining candidates I've been seen at all, that there's somerhing in me
worth noticing. I pause at the growing monument in the foyer and survey the
worldly pleasures we will leave behind: curling irons, make-up, money, my red
swearer with the pearl buttons. I resist reaching in and stealing Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Iron Maiden speaks from behind. "Can I share my heart with you? The way
you dress. I'm sure you don't mean to tempt the men."
My head drops, hair closing like a curtain over my yellow T-shirt. My thumb
snags the small rip at my wrist as I tug on the sleeve. The tongues of my boots
lick the hem of a layered peasant skirt. My Joseph socks, a multi-coloured gift
from my niece, puddle up my shins. Kodiaks clad my feet. Solid boots that have
made me unafraid to walk in the countries of anacondas, pit vipers and mambas.
I'm afraid of snakes. I'm terrified of snakes. I was prepared to face cobras in
India. I don't know what lurks in France. I don't even know the French word for
I rummage through my remaining possessions, shroud myself in a
voluminous sweater then return for more instruction.
A finger attached to a pious hand punctuates the air. "This is not a holiday.
56 PRISM   51:4 This is war! Are you a soldier for our Lord and Saviour? Will you surrender? Will
you give Him your all?"
A raspberry-cheeked boy in a white shirt rises in the rain of "Amens!",
descends the steps, falls to his knees. Others follow. I exit the auditorium,
retrieve my little Olympus and lay it on Mount Sacrifice.
It's three am. The raspberry-cheeked boy now walks in determined circles
to keep sleep from winning. Seventy-nine minds remain focussed on God.
Coloured floaters bob in my left eye as I pray for deliverance to my six-by-four
sleeping space on the gymnasium floot.
A microsecond before I disappear like dust banged out of an eraser, reanimation
begins. The leaders say, "Good girl. God has a place for you." An old lorry rattles
my remaining cells as I'm transported from France to Belgium. Rain-washed
miles turn David, the farm, the pavilions into opaque smudges. Like a Dali
landscape, time, sequence, connections... melt, collapse. I wake at headquarters,
rise from the centre of my chalk outline and follow directions.
I fold towels hot out of the dryer. Smooth sheets into perfect squares. Pile
clean clothes into stacks. A mechanic retrieves coveralls for the garage. He shy-
smiles, says "Danke," and places a chocolate bar on the ironing board.
All morning I think about chocolate, trying to remember what it tastes like.
Can I love it without wanting it? Is there wanting without love? I check it's in my
pocket as I walk away the prayer hour.
On the footbridge over the pond I study a swan seatching deep into the
water. Is she admiring her bill mirrored like a tempting shade of lipstick or does
she see it as a rose offered from the deep?
The distant feather-touch of the old man's finger tapping my head startles-up
my neck hairs. Pensez.
Yes, think, think. No, stop it. Keep the mind stayed on the Lord... my God.
The Lord is my shepherd. Be a good sheep and follow. What do lambs circling the
trough see when theit heads bow and pale pink tongues disturb the reflected sky?
The Lord is my shepherd; I want lipstick the shade of scarlet rust.
Esther pulls me from the laundry and sends me to open up the infirmary. My
knees feel installed backwards as I descend the steps. New recruits, grasping their
aching heads, fill the chairs. The caffeine withdrawal of my first week still throbs
behind my memory. I rummage through the medication cupboard trying to
decipher the foreign labels. Could be ASA or arsenic for all I know.
I snitch coffee from the private kitchen, dissolve Nescafe into paper cups,
break the chocolate bar into medicinal squares and minister to the suffering.
A Dutch recruit helps. She reminds me of Noni. Her slender finger, lined
white where a ring recently sat, slides the last piece in my direction. My head
wobbles 'no'. She asks, "Where are you from?"
She laughs easy. "You are funny."
/ used to be. My back teeth twitch when Esther whispers, "Someone has asked for you."
Short-termers are forbidden to date. Fot us, the fully committed, there's a
kind of ordained courtship, initiated and negotiated by hopeful males. I've heard
David deserted the Lord's army ro take a position at the Children's Hospital in
London, so it must be the chocolate-gifting mechanic.
The raspberry-cheeked, surrendering boy from orientation sits across from me,
earnestness and reverence flanking him on either side. He snatches a look at my
face then woos my canvas sneakers. "God has called me to the Middle East. I
believe He has a plan for us to serve him together."
Submit. Obey. Iron. My lips are numb. I can't hear my own breathing but the
walls bend by fractions, inches, yards, miles. I have a warm bed. I have a pillow.
I'm still awake as the slate gray dawn slips through the window. I shall not want.
I teceive two lettets.
One from my sister: "Shauna earned her starfish badge. Blackberries plumped
thick by the creek. A rogue mouse skitteted up John's pyjamas..." I fold my want
into the pale blue paper and tuck it inside the envelope.
I open Noni's epistle:
...the feeling of abject wtetchedness is fading, slowly. Questions
remain. What fathet delights in his children's suffering? Who
celebrates control and deprivation? That's sick, isn't it?
They broke me. Now, the fragments are mine to reassemble. I'm
teetering, precariously, exhilaratingly (is that even a word?) between
faith and reason. It's such an expansive place with room inside for
wonder and wondering, universes inside universes. Yesterday, I read
this gem by Rumi, 'Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field, I'll meet you there.'
I am only a train ride away. Ticket enclosed.
Love, Noni
P.S. Sheep have a stomach for grass. People don't.
P.P.S. Elvis died August 16th.
I run the footpath around the pond. As I round the curve, a swan stretches its
neck, unfurls yards of wing, runs on water, then lifts. I follow its flight until it
vanishes into absolute blue. On the walk back, my sweater peels away under a
warm September sun. The ticket in my pocket weights me like a feather. Neurons
spark, fire. I follow the light. In Holland I could walk with Noni through the streets
where my father fought in the war. I'll earn airfare home by planting bulbs that
bloom rainbows in the spring. Come summer, my sister and I will shop for panties,
French silk. We'll swim in the creek and paint the old cupboard at the cottage sienna
and turquoise, highlighting the carved flowers lavender.
58 PRISM  51:4 I sit on a nubby avocado chair while the faithful discuss theit plans for my life.
The image of me splayed in the desert, a Bedouin shepherd poking my ice-cased
body with his staff flashes across my closed lids. White underpants of surrender
shimmy up the pole as Noni's wisdom shivers down my spine: "The limbs
furthest from the heart are the parts that freeze." My eyes drift to burnished trees
licking the silver sky outside the window. Words form on my tongue, spicy, red
hot. "I... I'm leaving. Return my passport, please."
Disappointed gods strike at my heels as my stutdy boots turn, moving me
toward a point of light where I might begin.
59 July Westhale
Somewhete between Avenida Portugal and purgatory the sun goes running
through buildings taking blue with it, how can we ever talk about blue, how
can we ever see cement sacrificial and prostrate next to medians gone green, a
grid, borders of carts of sopaipillas sold like tickets to the hourly motel Santa
Victoria, how can we ever smell the moment luck changes, now it is just called
getting shit on by a pigeon, in Bella Vista the sky is  , the sky
is us, the sky is lapis lazuli, more precious for having known Afghanistan &
Chile. How can we ever dance at multilevel discotheques fire spitting around
each other like angry butts out a car window, telling each other false memoirs,
lonesome highway rippling between us in heat waves, pickup sticks in our bible
belts.  How can we ever know brutal heaven.
Salt Lake City
Braying a long note, listen : a train/undercurrents of a man's voice : neighbor
leave to bed lows, sugar : darkness becoming solid ice box : outside : great
Jello molds temple the apartment, jiggling through sambas of heat: window
built in 1911 : framed, alkaline dandelion greens, full: of lead, asking Urgent,
tapping Urgent: devastated locomatives fault lines, the missed connections :
bludgeoning night stillness with whistles : not : like sad cows between Reno :
a peak of pilots, who knows what: sounds a ghost town makes, obituaries :
for rhe lonesome : point of intetest—utgency : prostrate floorboards warping :
fiction sounds, feet? A bony leaf? Who : translates noises in wakefulness,
Ogden coffee tasting : butter, brine, salt, silence : sovereign lands of mugs
urging tourism Sunny American Fork! Bitter knowing swales and berms, the
lanky sexy body of a train car, moaning : across punishment : urgent!: no one
does : storms like Utah, drowning/gulleywashes : crickets, the terrible songs
they sing.
Careful, decomposition of autumn : of gutter ledge, no one is looking : to the
nines, tonight, manila envelopes wishful : thinking, bellies swell : light bladder
cherries : bludgeoning silence, rain sears above flats : pallets in alphabets, alleys
cooing wet proclamations of sentiment : rotting leaves, mouths, drain pipes.
Green flat fingers of a viola clench, leave moon marks : sunlight light, olive
oil : repelling against corrugation on the sill like a bloody brick, Medellin
in October : pink : tongues ghost over balconies, savory neckties : sharp
spectres of slime, las palomas, thick on luxutiant diets of the congested : men,
winnowing copper, iron : babbling brooks : bad deals archive uncles reflecting,
mercury : in mirrors, balls hooked/threaded gullets : o, magnificent fish, gills
ridged : prophecy
The bodies, lonely and tamarind,
moor in satin, resting mischievously,
for a sentimental militia. As if they
(have eyelids, graces inflamed in unconsciousness)
from sleep
(night fits, statfished over fitted sheets)
(clumping steps, soundwaves)
through the way of halls
(a carpeted esophagus)
into the kitchen, open fridge doors
(beached in gritty sleeplessness, comprehending of time)
eat a pickle from a jar. Kris Berlin
W e come up with the game as a measured response to how bogus everything
We're drunk and sweating like crazy, playing cards and smoking in his
trailer when Brad tells me he's doomed. He says he's set to die or get divorced
or disfigured. He got his fortune told—a full spectrum reading—and the tarot,
the I-Ching, the Ouija, and what was left in the bottom of a teacup are all in
agreement: he's fucked at a cosmic level.
I tell him what I always tell him, what he says I'm here to tell him—that it's
all bullshit. He's all fucked up and depressed and goes to some gypsy lady—what
else is she going to tell him but what he wants to hear? Then he gets into a minor
car accident because of poor road conditions and comes to believe the prophecy
is true. Which is—as I said before—bullshit.
You weren't there, he tells me.
He says that he couldjfe/it.
The thing is he's actually a happy guy. As an unhappy person, I know who is
and isn't of my ilk—and I know he shouldn't be this way. In truth, he's screwed
up because his wife and kid were supposed to be here months ago, because he
was supposed to have made enough money to move them and all their stuff here
by now.
Of course, there are things that aren't entirely his fault, like the fact that the
only university that would hire him is on this side of the country, or the fact that
we get paid monthly, or that Adrienne lost her job back home. But then there's
the things he could help—like drinking, blackjack at the Indian casino and his
mystical consultations. And other things, like his refusal to borrow money from
me or the bank or a credit card—the latter two of which he calls the Great Satan.
Because of my DUI, I'm always at his trailer. The couch has become mine,
even though my legs hang past the armrest and I always wake up with absolutely
no blood in my feet, paralyzed until bteakfast. It just makes sense to stay there,
because we're both driving to the same place at the same time to go sit in the
same office in the same depattment. I'm almost never at my own place now, and
nevet alone. It makes sense to be here because it's better than drinking by myself,
makes sense to be away from my silent apartment and the noise of my own awful
thoughts. Also, my father cannot reach me here. The pounds and pounds of
pressure his voice exerts aren't gone, but here I have the luxury of going a week
without one of his croaking, demanding phone calls. The pressure is building, I
imagine, inside my answering machine.
We srart playing the game because I want to cheer Brad up. It's wrong that
he's depressed, because I have never known him to be. I tell him I'll give him a
reading, and have the idea of making up some positive bullshit to counteract the
64 PRISM  51:4 negative. I tell him to go get out his tarot cards or magic dice or pendulums, but
he says:
It's real bad luck to have that shit in your house.
He motions to the unspoiled atmosphere of his living room, which is covered
in Masonic skull tapestries and African masks.
You don't have anything? Lots to dtaw?
I tell him I don't believe that he has nothing, and after a minute of sipping
his Jack Daniels, he gets this can out from between Kachina dolls and Kinder-
Egg toys his kid put together. It looks like a coffee can, but there are washed-out
dtawings on it, spirals and stars and little men, turtles and eerie little spirits
with hotns. Like cave paintings—Hopi petroglyphs—drawn in Crayola marker.
I don't ask what it's supposed to mean, I just nod and do what I do best at the
trailer—act like it's all normal.
Inside are dice, too many to count, with letters printed on them. Boggle
Because the counter and table are clogged with dishes and bottles, multiple
chess games on multiple boards, I throw the dice straight at the floor. They
scatter across the orange and green linoleum, the first throw of the game. It takes
a long time for us to gather them up because we're drunk, and laughing, and we
keep finding more the rest of the night. We make up the rules on the fly.
It's about the first thing you see, Brad says, scooping handfuls towards me.
You get rid of the letters that ate meaningless and focus on a batch that speaks to
There's a message in my pile. Sort of. It makes sense if you ignore the jumble
of letters around it, or the few that squeeze into the words themselves. Johnnie
Walker helps, and I can see, very clearly, that there is a part that speaks to me
That's when I decide the game isn't about telling the future but about obeying
orders. You roll the dice and do what it says. Easy. Brad and I nod at each other
with some militance.
Then we're on the roof, looking out on Pine Crest Trailer Park. It's maybe
eight o'clock, and a lot of the trailers still have their lights on, or are cooking
dinner and you can smell it. There are still kids out playing. It's actually nicer
than you'd expect, a summer night with the cold air just starting to come in
through the trees. Something we wouldn't have experienced if not for the dice.
The toof is flat enough that we can roll up there, and one thing leads to
the next and then we're digging into in a patch of dandelions in the front lawn,
a neighbor watching us from behind a screen door, concerned because we are
supposed to be grown men. Me with a shovel, Brad sitting on the ground with
breakfast confection between his knees that we have to bury because somewhere
in the letters he saw JAMJAR FUNERL.
When it's over and we've said our eulogy for the Blackberry spread and
65 poured booze into the ground, we get back on the roof, keep playing.
Brad rolls IMPORTNT BEARD and then he's nodding saying of course—we
need to grow beards.
He's smiling, and I can see that this is making him feel better, though it's
quite clear that the process means different things to both of us. Because he is
a brilliant writer and a well-spoken and educated person, all of his mysticism
makes me feel conflicted. At the same time that I feel sorry for him for being
gullible and stupid and believing in Dark Age superstition, I'm usually wishing
I could be like him—that I could believe what he believes and be able to make
sense of the world using sticks or my birthday. But really, the game is different
from all rhat. It's a game of truth or dare, only you can't opt out of the crazy shit
with truth. The only truth is the dice and what we see in them, what noun or
verb or half-sentence that we turn into a physical action.
That first night we get on and off the roof several times, we dig that jar of jam
up when we roll UNERTH IT, and go for a HIKE in the WOUDS surrounding
the park. DRAW A PICTRE makes us sit down at the kitchenette and actually
draw pictures like Brad says him and his brother used to as kids (I draw a turtle
and he draws a cartoon ghost). The phrase PRESENTS GIVE AS makes us fold
up and hand out the drawings to some children on bikes. We watch them stop,
look at the pictures, and discard them in horror before tearing away from our
It's obvious to me that we're seeing what we want to see, because the dice
says PIZZA HAWAII when we're hungry and GO TO BED when it's four hours
until school starts and we're so drunk we can hardly speak to each other. I don't
mention this, don't bother to point out the obvious, and the next day when we
get up and go to school and come back home and make drinks, we take out the
dice, spread them on a TV tray with purpose and feel better about absolutely
everything we're doing with our lives.
And then it's been months and months and we're playing the game every single
day like normal, regular guys play poker, or like we used to play chess. Even
though he never calls it the game, Brad talks about it like that's what it is, and
no longer speaks to the grand cosmic meaning behind any of it. He still hasn't
brought his wife and kid here, still hasn't saved up enough, and they often have
long, painful conversations on the phone. I know she's a reasonable, caring
person, but I can hear her screaming on the other end sometimes. When I heat
it from behind his bedroom door, I have to put on a record, or else take a walk
through the trailer park, go buy a newspaper or a hotdog at the canteen.
For months it's just him and me at the Formica tabletop, smoking pipes,
growing our beards out, talking about our days, our lectures and students. And,
of course, tossing the dice. Our conversation pausing long enough for us to
work out that we have to find a bridge (UNDRA BRDGE PLEASE). Then
it's us talking about departmenr heads and how hot Jane the secretary is, except
we're standing under rhe causeway we drove to, rolling dice on the hood in the
66 PRISM  51:4 pouring rain as traffic goes past.
Every now and then something comes up and pauses the normal flow of
things, slows down the pace of the game. Make it seem like less of a game, or
more than one. Lots of rolls would produce idiotic, impossible non-actions like
now and then it would get heavy. Something like WINSHIELD SHATTER
BAT would make us have to consider how far we were going to take things, and
who else we were going to include—as a victim—in our hobby. We'd have to
decide, sitting in our cramped little office, which car sitting in the parking lot
was going to get it. Was it better to smash a new car, or one that was already
falling apart? Ot one somewhere in between? Or a totally random selection? And
where were the security cameras, anyway?
Before he took aim at the Don't Drink & Drive Community Shuttle van,
Brad noted:
It's amazing how much your answer says about you, you know? Once you
really commit to actually doing it?
Another time, months later, we roll NOW HURT EECHOTHR and have
to decide exactly what hurt each other means, what the gravity of a wound
would have to be for it to work. Though this language is a bit disconcerting,
"working" really just means we could move on, that it would prompt anothet
roll of the dice and we could continue. This was an unspoken rule—we both had
to be satisfied with the outcome for us to continue.
That night the department chair comes by our office, and we talk to him
with bleeding hands behind our backs, eight staples each (to match up, we
figure, with the sixteen letters that made up the phrase). We are, as we usually
are at this hour, drunk.
What's that now, the chaitman asks, pointing to the letters strewn all over
the little table between our desks.
It's a brainstorming tool, Brad says immediately. I can see that he wants to
keep both our game and his out-there new-age mysticism to himself.
Like Burroughs, I nod at the chairman. Like cut-ups?
Out jobs are the result of being published at an exttemely young age, of both
of us having found critical success with our first novels. The University hired us
specifically to revitalize their English and Creative Writing programs. Actually,
they hired me, and their hiring him was the result of my constant nagging on
his behalf—an agreement going way back, the kind of watch-out-for-your-bros
pact that people make as passionate young men (without thinking). Whenever
there was pressure on us from any direction in the department, we'd always fall
back on our writing. It was our excuse for being late, absent and for drinking. It
always worked because no one else wrote—they studied writers and believed in
the idiosyncrasy of craft as well as the sanctity of it. Of course, four months into
the game, we hadn't written a thing. We had found something else.
That's great, really great, the chairman smiles. Very creative.
He pushes around the dice and we both look at each other. Another unspoken
rule, being broken before our eyes: only we can do it.
Then he says he wants to try one, and we have no other choice but to walk
67 him through it. It's awful to watch him fill up the cup and give it a spin, awful to
watch the letters and words come out. By this time we know exactly how to read
them, and we almost always see the same thing, and see it right away. He's doing
it all wrong, picking through the letters to put them together like it's Scrabble,
while the real message sits there in a string, as clear as day.
The chair leaves, saying that he hopes he gave us some good material, and
we're left to contemplate the universe and what exactly it wants out of us. It's a
long time before we look at each other. I don't think of things like he does and
pride myself on it, but this time, I can feel it. I can feel something heavy in the
room, something old and scary. It's the kind of feeling you got when you were a
kid at night. I wonder if this is what Btad feels like all the time.
I go get a coke from the machine in the hall before we get started. I pour
coke into my Johnnie Walker, swish it around in the bottle. Brad's sitting on top
of his desk, Indian-style.
Maybe this is how things get better, he says.
Am I going first or are you? I ask him. I know right away what mine is.
He says, looking in my eyes:
I think this is the process by which we escape the doom.
It almost makes sense, which I don't like. I feel a frown across my face so
I look away from him. He is supposed to be the clown in my life. No wisdom
should pass through his lips.
Like the twelve labors, he says. The dice are like the twelve labors. Except
more than twelve.
I ignore him and go first:
I tried to kill myself.
Clear my throat. Sniff. Continue:
Three rimes. First two were maybe not-so-serious. Last one I woke up in a
Sniff again. Clear throat:
No one knows that. My parents don't even know.
Brad nods. Pulls at his beard while I talk. Stays silent.
I said I'd give myself one year at this. If it didn't work out, I'd do it for real.
Brad studies me some more and lets me have another moment. It feels like
the more words I let out into the air, the more need to follow them. I go on for a
while longer and explain a few other things I've never said to anybody. How I've
always sort of wanted to die, and that I've never really wanted any of the things
I've worked for in my life, and that a supreme sense of feeling like a fraud has
been following me around since I first succeeded at something simply because
I was expected to. How I dream about the pressure from my father being lifted
by any means, including death—his or mine. How I sawed off the barrel and
stock of the shotgun because I don't want to have to fire it with my big toe like
Hemingway did.
Eventually, I stop and Brad gives me his hard nod. His is short and sweet,
68 PRISM  51:4 and isn't totally unexpected. He says:
I resent you.
He doesn't add more to it, doesn't try to explain it, and I don't ask him to. It
takes a lot not to judge him for it. But I just do the same thing he does. I don't
say anything. I listen. I let it sink in. Let it make sense, which of coutse, it does.
He was given something he didn't quite earn. A part-time position he had to leave
his family for. A job he didn't want but couldn't pass up because of the money. A
job that interrupted his life and put him and me in this situation and made it so
he couldn't do any real writing anymore. A job that made him dtink again.
The two of us look at each other for a long time.
I had been thinking about what the game meant, why I was playing it, and I
thought I had figured it out. It's about being unable to predict—to any degree—
what is going to happen. It's about how the dice have never, ever said:
The office is a small, ordinary place, overrun with our books and dust and a
couple houseplants, a room too small for one man, let alone two, and it seems
like the last place in the world anything meaningful might happen. But I can feel
that thing in the room, stronger than ever, like one of the little monsters from
the can is in here with us. This time I don't try to psychoanalyze it.
I lean forward and the two of us shake hands, like we're meeting again for
the first time, this transgression behind us. Our hands are still full of staples,
like strange new jewelry. We don't speak for the rest of the night, we just roll the
dice and complete our tasks, like our actions are words. A conversation of small
movements and tasks. All action is a symbol and has greater meaning beyond
anything we can conceive. We communicate nonverbally, like gorillas. Roll the
dice and stare at the results, then make them real:
Him and me, driving to his house to get paint to make our office a nice sky
blue. Him and me, dancing to Huey Lewis on the radio. Him and me, eating
every bag of chips in the snack machine, forty-four bags of various flavors that I
buy fot a dollat a bag. Him and me, climbing the tallest tree on campus, in the
dark, hoping no one sees us. Standing on icy boughs in out slacks and loafers,
smoking our pipes and growing our beards out, paint on our hands and slacks
and faces. Watching young girls wearing practically nothing go in and out of
the campus bat. Him and me, brand new men, a new kind of man. I feel like a
mystical creature, like a sasquatch or a yeti. A true believer.
69 Late inro the night, Brad—balanced in the pine ttee with his feet alone—speaks:
I'm glad I have you along for this.
I haven't spoken for so long that I find it difficult to choose my words, but
he speaks again:
Those girls are some fucking hot.
Smoke pours out of his head.
I move back into the apattment once the family is back together.
It takes longer than it should, mostly because of the dice roll BUY A NEW
STOVE, which Brad actually went and followed through on, throwing away
four hundred dollars one week before he was set to meet his monetary target.
I help with the move-out from the old trailer, the move-in to the new one,
and the unloading of the giant truck with all the stuff from their old house. I'm
there for drinks and dinner among their boxes and stacked furniture and am
witness to a Brad that I don't fully know. The one with a four-year-old boy in
his lap, a beautiful young woman holding his hand. Of course, I knew it was all
there, but I hadn't expected it to be something that made me feel happy to see
again. Happy and guilty, because I know I was party to behaviour that was no
doubt unfitting for a husband and father of a young child. But I can already see a
change in his face and posture alone that tells me things are going to be different.
And they are. When the family arrives, it actually marks the first night in
months that we don't play the game, that we don't do tidiculous, boyish things
and shout and smoke so much that our lungs burn and tingle. It marks the first
night that we have a conversation without alcohol coursing through our veins.
The next day I'm at my apattment without thinking about it, unconsciously
deciding that I was going to stay there from now on, and not see Brad unless I'm
invited out. And that's it. Then it's all back to square one, rhe score reser to zero,
the pressure back on. Forty answering machine messages from my father.
I'm alone for only a few weeks before I change things. Jane the secretary is
sleeping over, the Jane who gives us our mail and takes our messages. The Jane
who hung around our doorway a few too many times until she was party to
the unprofessional behaviour mentioned in a few menacing notices not explicitly
written to us, butter us nonetheless. The Jane who doesn't need makeup or wild
outfits to impress anyone. Jane, maybe the most practical woman I've ever been
with, the kind of woman I might need to fulfill expectations of me.
Brad gives me a clutch of dice taken from the main cup.
Sometimes I push them around my desk when I feel stalled or bored, trying
to find a specific word or sentence or sentiment. I'm actually working on the
stories I'm supposed to be writing while I teach my courses, actually coming up
with good stuff again. Once, I even consult with the dice and come up with an
entite paragraph out of that black and white mess. I wotk hard not to roll them
with serious intentions, and do my best not to start playing again, but this only
lasts a week or so.
Things are becoming predictable again. Jane and I out on dates, Jane and I at
my apartment or hers. Going for long country drives with my reinstated license.
Brad and I having quiet, reasonable conversations about books and government
grants. Eating healthy, calorie-wise meals at the staff dining hall and lifting
weights or else jogging on treadmills, side-by-side at the gym.
Brad's different with me now, and he calls me man in a way he never used
to—a term reeking of forced informality—and he makes an effort to read all of
the stuff I'm writing and give me extensive notes that are usually three ot four
times the length of the otiginal work. There's a mutual sense of establishing
distance, and ttying to build lives more separate from one another. Our
relationship with the University becomes our primary context for interaction,
and we start doing the things we were supposed to be doing in the first place—
hosting literary events and rooting through the slush-pile for the journal, giving
public readings. It would all be tedious, except that we have each other duting
these deeply shitty times.
Jane has not found my gun yet, or if she has, it has not been mentioned. I
have thrown out the box of ammo for it, but the thing is still in the desk, undet
my thesaurus and dictionary and Notton anthologies. It's more of a souvenir
now, anyway. A reminder of what it was like before the game. She calls the game
my creativity dice.
She is always asking why don't you ever have Brad and his wife over?
I see enough of that guy, I tell her.
It's true, but it is really about trying to straighten up for a while—something
he is trying to do too. I know, when I see him and Ade, that there is a strain
between them, or at least some kind of pain that is only half-mended. She looks
at him with the eyes of a woman who wants desperately to trust her man, who
has nothing but hope that he's going to get it together. Faith. I know it has to do
with how long it took for him to save his money, with the fact that his son had
to endure his first semester of junior kindergarten without his father, but also
that they have been apart for too long. He doesn't grab her tits and howl like a
werewolf anymore. This, to me, means they're taking it slow.
At the gym, Brad does chin-ups. He can do four sets of twenty-five in a row,
for a total of one-hundred. His upper body is swelling up, he's totally stopped
drinking and smoking, and has rededicated himself to his wife and son. He tells
me he hasn't gone to the Indian casino either, though he is seeing a shaman for
a very small fee. He's happy again, that doom-and-gloom gone from his face.
His beard is gone too, while mine has reached Karl Marx and is approaching
Charles Darwin proportions. Brad tells me that we broke the curse. That it's
71 lifted because of the game.
Everything's going to be alright from now on, he says, then lifts himself up,
again and again and again.
It's a nice thought, but it's his. It's nice to have him back where he was, to
have him strong and stable, and not to have to worry about him anymore. I
expect him to ask me if I am still playing the game, but he doesn't. I'm not sure if
this is because he knows I still am, ot if he assumes that because things are better
for him, they must be better for me.
It's necessary for me to play, because there's still the matter of all the things
that are waiting for me, things that I and everyone else are expecting down the
road. If not success, I'd call it excellence—full-spectrum excellence in all aspects
of a modern, western existence—the weight of which was lifted for a period of
time, and is now back on, in full force, even worse than before. My father calls
and I respond to his questions using the curriculum vitae I have drafted to send
to an agent, and from my learher-bound agenda with details of readings, lectures
and important research for my novel.
The game is invaluable to me.
I live up to my expectations not in spite of the game, but because of it.
There's a mental calendar in my head for work, for writing, and for Jane. I fill
hers up with important, seemingly spontaneous moments, all of them leading
up to a road trip home with the new dog, to meet-and-greet with mom and the
old man. Real, sincere sexual contact is peppered throughout.
If her formal introduction goes well, there's six more monrhs of carefully
manipulared events before a ring is produced in a highly specific way, just for her.
It will be at a campus hockey game, where the team will skate out with different
pieces of a large sign, black letters on white board, coming together: MARRY
ME JANE. I can feel each event leading into the next, just like words turn into
sentences, turn into paragraphs—each page a perfectly measured consttuct. A
marvelously complex and dazzling endeavor, and what would be a deeply bogus
one, were it not for the spirits or forces that deliver the messages to us from the
great beyond.
Kris Bertin is a writer and bartender from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He's had
stories published with The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence,
Exile, Pilot, and others. His first publication with PRISM international ("Is
Alive and Can Move," 50:1) went on to be nominated for the Journey Prize
and was collected in their anthology.
A native of Nova Scotia, Scott Andrew Christensen sandwiched an MFA
between thick crusts of teaching and living abroad. He now lives in the Middle
East with his wife and daughters. His poetry has appeared in Poetry Salzburg
Review and The Dalhousie Review, with poems forthcoming in The Fiddlehead
and CV2.
Lucas Crawford is a poet, performer, video-maker, and a postdoctoral fellow
in Architecture and Gender Studies at McGill. Lucas' poetry appears in The
Antigonish Review, The Nashwaak Review and Other Voices. Upon completing a
PhD in English at the University of Albetta, Lucas promptly wrote this—his
first prose piece.
Erin Frances Fisher is a writer and musician out of Victoria, BC. Her stoties
have won awards and/or been published in The Malahat Review, PRISM
international ("Bridges," 49:4), Little Fiction, Riddle Fence and Granta.
Chris Hutchinson lives in Houston, Texas where he is a PhD student in
poetry and literatute at the University of Houston. He is the author of three
poetry collections, most recently, A Brief History of the Short-lived (Nightwood
Editions, 2012).
Annabel Lyon is the author of seven books for adults and children, most
recently The Sweet Girl (Random House of Canada) and Imagining Ancient
Women (University of Alberta Press). She teaches Creative Writing at the
University of British Columbia.
Andrea MacPherson is the author of four books, Away: Poems, Beyond
the Blue, Natural Disasters and When She Was Electric.  Her poetry was
anthologized in How the Light Gets In, and she was First Runner Up in Grains
21st Short Grain Contest. She teaches creative writing and literature at the
University of the Fraser Valley.
Tessa Mellas holds a PhD in English from the University of Cincinnati. Her
debut story collection Lungs Full of Noise won the Iowa Short Fiction Award
and will be released by the University of Iowa Press in October 2013. She lives
in Columbus, Ohio with her husband and two cats.
Shana Myara's writing has won subTerrain s LUSH Triumphant Fiction Awatd,
been shortlisted for CBC Literary Awards and developed into a short film by Meghna Haldar ("Newcomers Swim, Every Friday" in 2012). Shana holds an
MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and is rhe Festival Programmer of the
Vancouver Queer Film Festival.
Photographer Nancy Rose has a passion for nature, and uses her crafting skills
to create miniature settings for the little red squirrels in her backyard. She has
created numerous scenarios where the inquisitive squirrels find themselves in
some rather human like poses as they search for peanuts hidden in the props.
Kari Strutt lives and works in Calgary. Her work has appeared in Event, Room,
Freefall, Grain, Prairie Fire and Imprints 12. Her bios are notoriously short
because she'd really rather write about someone else.
Heather Tucker is the winnet of the Writers' Union of Canada short prose
competition (2010), a finalist for the PRISM international Non-fiction contest
(2013) as well as The Malahat s Novella Prize, Constance Rooke Creative Non-
Fiction Prize, Open Season Award and Far Horizons Award. She is a four-time
winner of the WCDR Short Story competitions. Through an eclectic career in
the health sciences, Heather gathers stories.
July Westhale is a mixed race, Pushcart-nominated poet, activist, and radical
archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been
awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House,
and Bread Loaf. Her poetty has most recently been published in Barely
South Review, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR
Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary fournal. Het poetry can also
be found in the recently released anthologies: Women Write Resistance, and
Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated as a Best New Poet
for 2012 and 2013, for an AWP Intro Award, as well as a Creative Writing
Deanna Young is the author of Drunkard's Path (Gaspereau Press, 2001). Brick
Books will publish a new collection of her poems in 2014. She lives in Ottawa
where she is co-director of the Tree Reading Series.
Jennifer Zilm has poetry forthcoming ot published in The Antigonish Review,
Vallum, Room, Quills and SB Quarterly. She was shortlisted for the 2012
Echolocation Poetry Contest and aire's Poem of the Yeat Contest. A recovering
religion scholar, she lives in Vancouver. She has just completed het first
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a writer, performer, media-maker, activist and mama.
She is author of the poetry books Somewhere to Run From (Tightrope, 2009)
and Emergency Contact (McGilligan, 2006). Her writing has appeared in The
Grid, THIS Magazine, Herizons, Broken Pencil, Today's Parent, HOUR and
other publications. She is currently pursuing her first full-length creative non-
fiction project.
The Canadian journal of Poetry and Critical Writing
A new contest exclusively
for writers under 35
Grand Prize of $1000 ft publication in CV2
plus 3 writer's toolkit prize packs
Johanna Skibsrud
Entry fee of $26 includes
a one-year subscription
or send entry and fee to
;o2-ioo Arthur Street, Winnipeg MB R3B iHj
75 UBC Bookstore
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The Creative Writing Program at U.B.C.
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 8e Libretto.
Steven Galloway
Nancy Lee
Annabel Lyon
Keith Maillard
Maureen Medved
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Rhea Tregebov
Bryan Wade
Online Faculty CM.F.A.):
Luanne Armstrong, Gail Anderson-Dargatz,
Joseph Boyden, Brian Brett, Sioux Browning,
Maggie deVries, Zsuzsi Gartner, Terry Glavin,
Wayne Grady, Sara Graefe, Stephen Hunt,
Peter Levitt, Susan Musgrave &? Karen Solie e
• i ^i •
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Rolex is proud to be the printer
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SM is contemporary writing
Kris Bertin
Scotr Andrew Christensen
Lucas Crawford
Erin Frances Fisher
Chris Hurchinson
Annabel Lyon
Andrea MacPherson
Tessa Mellas
Shana Myara
Kari Strutt
Rhea Tregebov
Heather Tucker
July Westhale
Deanna Young
Jennifer Zilm
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk
7 ' 72006 " 86361' 2
Cover Photo:
"Mr. Peanuts" by Nancy Rose


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