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 PRISM international
Contemporary Writing from Ganada and Around the World  PRISM international
2008 PRISM international
Literary Nonfiction Contest
Grand Prize -$1,500
Amanda Hale
"The Death of Pedro Ivan"
Runners-Up
Leah Bailly
"Long Views Across Nothing"
Terri Favro
"Salties and Lakers"
Judge
Patrick Lane
Contest Manager
Shana Myara
Readers
Lauren Forconi
Meredith Hambrock
Eitan Olevsky
Rachel Parent
Elizabeth Ross
Dan Schwartz
Brian Wilson  PRISM international
Fiction Editor
Michelle Miller
Poetry Editor
Crystal Sikma
Executive Editors
Krista Eide
Kristjanna Grimmelt
Advisory Editor
Rhea Tregebov
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Ian Bullock
Lindsay Cuff
Dina Del Bucchia
Elena Johnson
Alex Leslie
Erin Vandenberg
Sonia Zagwyn PRISM international, a magazine of contemporarjr 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.
Email: prism(5)interchange.ubc.ca   / Website: www.prismmagazine.ca
Contents Copyright © 2009 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover Art: red by Emma SanCartier.
Subscription Rates: One-year individual $28.00; two-year individual $46;
library and institution one-year $35; two-year $55. Sample copy by mail is $11.
U.S. and international subscribers, please pay in U.S. dollars. Please
note that U.S. POSTAL monej' orders are not accepted. Make cheques payable
to: PRISM international. All prices include GST and shipping and handling.
Submission Guidelines: PRISM international purchases First North American
Serial Rights for $40.00 per page for poetry and $20.00 per page for other
genres. Contributors receive a one-year subscription. PRISM also purchases
limited digital rights for selected work, for which it pays an additional $10.00
per page. All manuscripts should be sent to the editors at the above address.
Manuscripts should be accompanied by an email address. If you wish your
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Translations should be accompanied by a copy of the work(s) in the original
language. The advisory editor is not responsible for individual selections,
but for the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality and
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For details on how to place an advertisement in PRISM international, please
contact our executive editors. PRISM occasionally exchanges subscriber lists
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from such exchanges.
Our gratitude to Dean Nancy Gallini 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, the British Columbia Arts
Council, and the Government of Canada, through the Publications Assistance
Program (PAP), toward our mailing costs.
PAP Registration No. 8867. January 2009. ISSN 0032.8790
A
Canada Council     Conseil des Arts
BRITISH COLUMBIA    c^>   for the Arts du Canada
ARTS COUNCIL
Canada Contents
Volume 47, Number 2
Winter 2009
2008 PRISM international
Literary Nonfiction Contest
Interview with Contest Judge Patrick Lane / 7
Winning Entry
Amanda Hale
The Death of Pedro Ivan /  10
Runners-up
Leah Bailly
Long Views Across Nothing / 27
Terri Favro
Salties and Lakers / 62
Fiction
Lindsay McNiff
Electric Clothes / 42
Franz Hohler
The Giants in the Parkade  I   71
The Creation  I   72
translated from the German by Jeff Kochan
Poetry
Nathaniel G. Moore
The Hospital Is For Sick Children / 20
Smaller Narrative / 22 Daryl Sneath
Plato's Cafe I   24
Ann Scowcroft
Checklist / 36
Observation / 38
John Barton
At Third Beach   I   39
A Few Lines in C Minor  I   41
Niels Hav
Blindness: Three Poems on a Theme I   54
translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Julian Gobert
The Ministry of Kisses   I   57
The Perfect)'aw  I   58
Maureen Hynes
Full Rolling Boil  I   59
Migrant Workers  I   61
Allison Blythe
Guests   I   68
Christine Wiesenthal
sump pump poem / 69
Word on the Market (Light Sweet Crude) / 70
Contributors / 73 PRISM LITERARY NONFICTION CONTEST
Interview with Patrick Lane
Shortly after contest judge Patrick Lane chose a winner, PRISM international
sat down to talk with him.
The Author Intrudes Himself
Reading all the essays, the first thing I noticed was how, for the
narrator or the central character, life becomes the definition of
content. I'm fascinated by how dominant that approach is in
contemporary nonfiction. When I go back to Truman Capote's In Cold
Blood—that first great nonfiction book in which the author intrudes himself into the experience—the story is as much about the author as it is
about the people he's writing about. That broke new ground, really, for
contemporary nonfiction. The winning entries are all examples of the
same kind of approach.
Mostly, I was looking for success in the tone of the piece. Tone is the
attitude of the writer toward the subject that they're writing about. I narrowed it down fairly quickly to maybe four or five pieces.
The character that's revealed in the grand prize winner, "The Death
of Pedro Ivan," is beautifully delineated by the descriptions that surround her, and I loved that. When I'm looking at a travel piece, I want
to know how the characters reveal themselves in this experience. That
delineation is dependent on the ability of the author to choose from
this locale significant images that reinforce the spiritual and emotional
awareness that's going to be revealed by the end of the piece. I thought
"The Death of Pedro Ivan" did that very well as did "Long Views Across
Nothing," one of the runners-up. In "Salties and Lakers," the other runner-up, the author chose a really difficult position as narrator—writing as
a very young person—and that limits significantly the ability to express
the emotional rigour of the experience.
To Surround With Language
In "The Death of Pedro Ivan" the syntax is exquisite in places and I just
thought that was wonderful. The way the author can build a paragraph,
the way she intersperses building from detail and from energy.... Within
pnsmmagazine.ca a series of paragraphs she'll set up an emotional construct by movement
through an alien landscape. Then there will be a paragraph of perception, usually done through dialogue or an interchange between two characters. In the opening she's got some wonderful paragraphs where the
character is describing the world around her. Then that energy is raised
to a higher level by dialogue: "When Onaldo arrived finally.... 'I was at
your house,' he said accusingly..."
The way "Long Views Across Nothing" is constructed I think is riskier.
I liked this writer's ability to create tension by truncating her sentences
and using fragments of syntax to create a driving force throughout the
piece. She sure knows how to use commas. She writes, of the three pieces, the best sentences—as a complete piece, though, it doesn't cohere as
well as "The Death of Pedro Ivan."
My concern was not what they were writing about—that was the least
of my concern. My concern was how they were writing about it, or how
well they were expressing the situation they'd chosen to surround with
language. Ideally, what I wanted was a piece that cohered.
A Certain Kind of Objectivity
But again, both "The Death of Pedro Ivan" and "Long Views Across
Nothing" are travel pieces. In "The Death of Pedro Ivan" there's the section when she's describing the dance and talking about the "swivel-hip
men" dancing with white women. The narrators in these pieces seem to
lack a certain kind of objectivity—there's an inability to stand far enough
back from the experience to comment upon it. That seems to be lost, I
think, in much of the contemporary creative nonfiction.
There's got to be a point where the narrator stands far enough back so
they can comment upon their own experience in a deeper sense, asking
themselves the kind of questions you have to ask yourself: Why did I feel
this?How did this affect me?
This New Generation
I was pleased by the work that I saw and it gave me great hope for this
new generation of writers out there. There are moments in these pieces
that are just exquisite. I was occasionally stunned just by the sentences.
I loved the narrator in "The Death of Pedro Ivan." You know, that's
what I want to do. I want to fall in love with their ability to express their
experience. And in this piece she does not over-do the dead pig or dog
that's lying in the ocean. She uses it subtly, which is great, because it
could so easily become this grotesque thing, but she doesn't let it, she
plays it down, and I like that.
8     PRISM 47:2 Everything Becomes Story
This is what I want the nonfiction writer to do: to read the way a writer
reads. To read the engaged work of master writers and ask themselves,
if the piece moves them deeply, How did they do that to me? Because I
want to be able to do that to people too. Sometimes I'll read a sentence or
a paragraph in a piece of writing and I'll be so struck by it that I'll go
through it and analyze it literally by the sound of the words on the page,
the movement of the language as it progresses, how that has influenced
me emotionally, how it has engaged me in a way that demands that I
move forward.
The nonfiction writer—particularly in the contemporary nonfiction
world, which is so much involved in the ego of the first person narrator—should always remember that their narrator is a created character
of themselves, not themselves, and they have to objectively stand outside
of their piece and observe themselves. That's a very hard thing to do.
Marcel Proust was once asked about this great biography that he
did—Remembrance of Things Past—and he became enraged and said, None
of it's true, it's all fiction. I made it all up. This man who smelled a mad-
eleine and suddenly the past flooded into him and he spent the next
twenty years writing it said, It's all fiction. John Newlove said of poetry,
It's all lies. And by that he meant, I made it all up. I made it up out of my life,
which is a fictional story in itself. So nonfiction writers have to remember
that they're writing a fiction. Everything becomes story.
But mostly, my advice would be just to read. Just read, and read, and
read, and read and read.
prismmagazine.ca    9 Amanda Hale
The Death of Pedro Ivan
Saturday, 30th December
I walked along the Malecon toward the Hotel Rusa. The ocean was
a brilliant turquoise, waves crashing over the rocks, sending spume
flying. Flecks of it stung me and dried immediately, leaving my skin
salty, sticky. This was not the grand curving Malecon of Havana. I was
at the other end of the Caiman, the alligator which sweeps down from
its northern tail in Pinar del Rio to the hungry snout of Baracoa, surrounded by mountainous jungle and, to the north, the flat-topped rock of
El Yunque, a brooding presence shrouded with clouds—a sinister child
dressed for a fiesta.
I saw something bobbing on the cresting waves, sucked in and thrown
out repeatedly. I couldn't tell if it was a pig or a dog; a pinata with rigid
legs and inflated body. I remembered a dead dog I'd seen years ago,
swollen like a balloon, the memory of it in my nostrils. I watched the
creature for a while, waited for it to come ashore on the ragged tearing
rocks that separated the ocean from the sea wall, but the waves threw
and pulled with a great sucking sound, keeping the dead thing at a teasing distance.
He was late. I sat in the bar. The little round tables were dark brown,
the bar a long slab of darkness. I looked up at the television suspended
from the ceiling in the corner. The hotel receptionist slouched on a bar
stool watching the afternoon tele-novela. No soap operas in Cuba. The
only propaganda is revolutionary. Every morning I listened to Radio
Rebelde, which broadcast old speeches by Fidel while we all waited for
him to die. When I asked about him, people were silent as though struck
dumb by the possibility of change. The Commandante is recuperating. He
will come back. Cuba hung by a thread, every pipe springing a leak, every
chunk of masonry cracked and crumbling, gashes at intervals on the
streets where the inner workings of the town's water system were revealed. The whole island was suspended in the grip of imminent death,
as though a large hand squeezed its throat.
The days leading to my brother's death still fresh, I remembered how my sisters
and I had planned for his final days, not realizing that we were living them.
Impossible to believe in death. It had been impossible.
10     PRISM 47:2 On the wall next to the television hung a portrait of La Rusa, a pale-
skinned beauty of the Flapper era, an opera singer married to a wealthy
New Yorker. She had been famous in Baracoa for her support of the
Revolution and for her elegant hotel on the Malecon, with its sun-
bleached ochre exterior and a handful of rooms looking out to sea. Until
La Farola, a curving highway through formidable terrain, was built in the
sixties, the only approach to Baracoa had been by sea. They say that Che
Guevara stayed at La Rusa, Camilo Cienfuegos, perhaps even Fidel.
"The woman in the novela looks like La Rusa in the painting," I said.
"Her pale skin, her blonde hair..."
The receptionist gave a slow nod, a twitch at the corner of her mouth.
I'd become accustomed to the slow restraint of Cuban employees. It
was like a kind of glazed absence, especially evident in the frigidly air-
conditioned dollar stores where stony-faced women went through the
motions of service while queues of shoppers grew longer, jostling for
space. I recognized that state from my own childhood—a paralysis that
occurs when every energetic impulse is blocked, until the body becomes
a closed system housing a fugitive spirit. In Cuba there seemed a lack
of incentive for people stuck in the same make-work jobs for twenty or
thirty years at a subsistence salary—that, and perhaps lack of protein,
lack of possibility to imagine a world beyond the back of the Caiman.
When Onaldo arrived finally in a bici-taxi, he seemed surprised to
find me there. "I was at your house," he accused.
"But we arranged to meet here, didn't we?"
He asked for money to pay the bici-boy and when he came back he
was looking at his watch. Another rushed afternoon meeting. We ordered two beers and while we waited for the barman to bring them, I
gave him a bundle of Chinese temple papers I'd sewn into a book for
him, with a poem for Ano Nuevo. The papers were red and gold, the ink
a startling blue against the rich colours. Onaldo read the poem slowly.
A man of words himself—sometimes poetic, sometimes archival—he recorded the history of Baracoa, its folklore and customs, from the mouths
of a dying generation. He was, however, a man of few words. He used
them all on paper, and even his books were small and thin. But there
was a richness to his body that hinted at the wealth held within, packed
into the secret of his dark skin. Onaldo's body had been my home since
our first encounter, the solidity of him, the changing hue of his skin from
dark to brown to ruddy gold. He read my poem carefully and, ever
the editor, corrected one of the words. Other than that, not much but
a slow nod of appreciation. Then he picked up a book that lay on the
table: Santeria: African Magic in Latin America. The red cover bore an oval
image of Christ crucified, a rooster, a ladder, a snake. Circling the egg
were likenesses of the major orishas—Chango, Oshun, Yemaya, Obatala,
prismmagazine.ca     11 Eleggua, Oggtin—each doubled with a Catholic saint—originally a ruse
to disguise the true religion of the Africans brought to the Americas as
slaves. Onaldo frowned as he leafed through the book, his glasses resting
on the bridge of his nose. He couldn't read English but I'd often found
him poring over one of my books, holding it in his pale-palmed hands,
staring at the words as though he might absorb the sense of them by an
effort of will and handling. I showed him the illustrations—black and
white photos of processions in Havana in honour of Yemaya and Os-
hun, of animal offerings, ritual objects and talismans used to cast spells
and protect the home, grainy photographs of santeros possessed by their
orishas.
I'd been reading about possession when Onaldo arrived, about the
initiation ceremony called asiento where the saints mount their initiates
and ride them. I thought of Fidel, who'd been known in his younger
days as El Caballo—the horse—presumably a reference to his sexual potency. But I'd also read that Fidel owed his success to the blessing of the
babalawos, the high priests of Santeria, and I wondered if it was indeed
he who was mounted and ridden by the African deities who thus held
him in a position of power, concealing their own powers, as Celia Sanchez had concealed herself in Fidel's huge shadow while she called the
shots. It is a well-kept secret amongst the Cuban people that the Revolution was led by Celia, a gentle woman from Media Luna. It was Celia
who'd been determined to oust Batista when a child whose birth she had
witnessed—her father was a doctor and she had often assisted him—was
raped to death in Havana by American mafiosos. It was Celia who gathered troops and ammunition in the Sierra Maestra, and when Fidel, Che,
Cienfuegos and their men arrived from Mexico in the famous yacht, the
Granma, she chose Fidel as their leader. But he never made a decision
without her. She always had the last word until her death in 1980.
Onaldo began to speak rapidly and my mind raced to keep up. We
volleyed words back and forth and as I spoke he glanced again at his
watch. Only an hour until he had to return to work. We'd wasted precious time with the misunderstanding about our rendezvous. I felt his
impatience with my slow Spanish as he broke in again, all the while
touching me, holding my arm and releasing it, punctuating his words.
At first I'd thought him unique, but now I saw his gestures and heard
his intonations everywhere—an entire island of people in gestural and
linguistic union, contained in a bell jar.
"Yarisel needs new clothes for Aho Nuevo," he said. "She was crying
last night. She has nothing to wear for the fiesta..."
I'd heard the same story many times in the past few days. Something
in me kicked and I said, "If I could be included in your life, if I could
get to know your grandaughter, feel free to visit in your house, then of
12     PRISM 47:2 course.. .you know I want to help, Onaldo, but I feel used."
His response was rapid, his dark eyes flashing unforgettably, then he
was on his feet, hovering in the doorway as I paid the bill. We went outside and stood on the sidewalk in awkward silence.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he said finally. "We will forget about this."
Then he leaned down to kiss my cheek and we parted. I walked back
along the Malecon, and because I was on the other side of the street I
forgot to look for the swollen creature tossing there.
I turned onto Calle Moncada and entered the bright house where I was
renting a room. The front wall was yellow ochre and inscribed on it
were the names of my hosts—Erminda Leon and Hernando Puentes—
with a painted palm, la palma real, the symbol of Cuba. I had an office
in the back of the house where I worked in the cool early mornings with
only the sound of the pigs grunting from their pen. Sometimes Onaldo
visited me there in the afternoons. I stopped in the kitchen to talk with
Erminda, hiding behind the brightness which came so easily to me in
Spanish, a new language which made me feel like a child again, light and
innocent. Every morning we greeted each other in the courtyard in our
white nightgowns. A wrought-iron gate led off my bedroom and I would
open the wooden shutters, unlock the gate from the inside and step out
to embrace Erminda. We would look up at the sky where clouds often
gathered, threatening rain, but on this morning the sky was a clear blue.
I told her about the dog-pig and Erminda laughed.
"Just a dead animal," she said and teased me about my refusal to eat
the pig they'd killed for her grandson's birthday. There was to be a fiesta
for him the next day—New Year's Eve.
As we stood by the kitchen table talking, a woman entered, grim-
faced, but unmistakably related.
"Ah, another sister," I said.
There were fifteen in Erminda's family, and as I got to know them,
a warm and inclusive clan, I joked that I was number sixteen, an honourary sister.
"Alina," Erminda said, and embraced her sister in that gentle way
she had, laying her head on Alina's shoulder. Then everything changed.
There were some rapid words, too fast for me to understand. I saw several women clustering in the doorway. I saw Erminda recoil, her arms
flying in the air, then collapsing around her head.
"Esta muy grave, Erminda," Alina said, her voice expressionless.
"/No, no, Dios mio, nof'she wailed, and the women moved to surround
her.
I slipped into my room and closed the door. I sat on the bed and
picked up my Spanish grammar book. Yo normalmente me despierto a las
prismmagazine.ca     13 seis. Wailing sounds from the kitchen, from the sola, more people entering the house, many voices rising and falling. Entonces, yo me levanto a las
seis y me bano. I should go to her. Something is terribly wrong. But there
are too many people and I don't understand. iA que hora se acuestan los
ninos? I read the words over and over, nothing making sense. In my
throat a bird beat its wings, trying to escape. I smelled the swollen dog.
"Amandita?" Erminda's voice at the door.
"Erminda, what is it? What's happened?"
"My nephew is dead, an accident..."
I had thought it was a niece, confusing my genders once again.
"No, no, Pedro Ivan, my nephew who works in Moa for the Canadian
mining company. He fell from the balcony of his apartment."
Erminda had talked about this man almost every day, worried about
his drinking. He was like a son. She'd raised him since he was four, when
his mother, Erminda's sister, had died in childbirth.
"I was expecting him. He always comes for Ano Nuevo."
I held Erminda, but she was stiff and unyielding. "When someone
dies in Canada, we light a candle for their soul," I said, "and place their
photo near to it."
Erminda rustled in the drawer of the kitchen dresser and turned to
me. In her arthritic fingers she held a black and white photo of a twelve-
year-old boy. His face was solemn and he wore a Russian school uniform
with a loose tie around his neck. I lit one of the candles I'd brought
from Canada. I remembered buying the box of scented candles, thinking they'd make a good gift for someone in Cuba, never thinking of this
light flickering on a dead boy's face as the aroma of ginger and lemon
filled the room. Erminda began talking with the animation that often
signals a state of shock. She kept on talking as Alina entered from the
sola and sat in the kitchen rocker. Then her brother Francisco came, a
tall handsome man, his body stiff and awkward in the women's kitchen
as he leaned down to kiss Erminda. I slipped past the women sitting in
the front room, out onto the street.
It was late as I approached the funeral parlour. I'd been walking for
hours. Earlier the dim streets had been lit by flickering television screens,
everyone watching la novela. I'd seen a large woman, her hair braided in
a circle on her crown, knitting in front of the screen, a fat baby girl wobbling on pudgy legs, clinging to the woman's knees. From every open
doorway a room was revealed—a gleaming motorcycle leaning against
the wall, a long corridor leading to a tiled kitchen with a faded blue
refrigerator, an old woman rocking, children playing, Christmas trees
with lights still blinking—lives spilling onto the street. Some homes were
14     PRISM 47:2 dark holes boarded with broken planks. Dogs patrolled the rooftops,
baring their teeth at me as I passed, setting off a chain of barking. When
I'd passed the Casa de la Trova I'd glanced in to see if Onaldo was there,
wondering if he was still angry. I'd wanted to join the dancers and lose
myself in the piercing trill of the clarinet, the rhythm of la musica traditional. Swivel-hipped men danced as they breathed, effortlessly, dark hands
on white skin, bodies snaking and pressing as they guided tattooed foreigners around the tight dance floor. I'd walked on, the music filling my
mind, until I'd found myself on a corner, recognition creeping in slowly.
A spiral staircase led to an open doorway flooded with light; an irregular
blue pulsing signalled the changing images on the television screen. I'd
heard voices in dialogue—a movie on the DVD player I'd bought him
in Havana. I paced the block, always in the shadows, staring up into the
impossibility of our own dialogue. Finally, the patterning changed and
I heard Fidel's voice. He was talking about refrigerators, giving detailed
statistics; it was the same speech I'd heard him deliver in the Plaza of
the Revolution when Chavez had visited Havana a year ago. I imagined
the old man's long finger stabbing the air with each statistic, his youthful
passion grown pedantic. I imagined Onaldo's face locked on the screen,
the curve of his upper lip, his glowing skin.
The funeral parlour was next door to Miriam Zoila's house. I'd seen
her sitting in the open doorway every night as I walked home, a hibiscus
flower in her hair, the lights of a tiny Christmas tree blinking behind her.
Her parlour was a hive of light with golden walls. She was a handsome
woman who had two children by Erminda's son, Hernandito. Everyone
seemed connected in Baracoa, but the order was breaking down. The
mouth of the alligator, after years of hunger, now fed on foreign visitors
and their influence. Miriam Zoila's daughter had an Italian lover twice
her age. He came four times a year loaded with gifts, but he couldn't
marry her because he had a wife and children in Italy. Zenia wore handmade shoes with stiletto heels, her nails were immaculately polished, her
clothing tight and revealing. She'd quit her job in order to be available
for Stefano. Each time he came he brought her a startling array of nail
polishes so she had begun offering manicures to alleviate her boredom.
As I walked past the funeral parlour, light spilled from the double
doors open to the street where people clustered like guests at a dance
waiting for the music to begin. Women sat inside, heads tilted in conversation. A white-tiled cafeteria with the inevitable ham and cheese
sandwiches on display separated Miriam Zoila's house from the funeral
parlour. The prospect of food so close to death turned my stomach. I
wondered if Erminda was there. I wanted to cross the street and look for
her, to join in the wake and bathe in the flood of light, but I walked past
slowly, careful not to stare, and turned the corner to my house.
prismmagazine.ca     15 The funeral was arranged for four in the afternoon of the next day. The
birthday lunch had been cancelled. "We'll have it tomorrow for New
Year's Day," Erminda said. "We must eat the pig." She was trembling,
her shoulders hunched, her brow furrowed and anxious, as though she
could prevent Ivan's fall with her worrying. I held her hand and talked
to her, trying to bring her back from that strange zone of magical possibility.
"You must eat something, Erminda. Have some bread with a slice of
cheese, or a plate of rice and beans," but she shook her head and went to
sit at the funeral parlour. She would stay there all day, until it was time
for the procession to the cemetery. I sat on the front terrace waiting for
Onaldo. He came at noon. "There's been a tragedy in our house," I said,
and he listened while I told him, the death holding us, banishing our
discord. We walked over to the funeral parlour. The women sat inside
on stiff, high-backed chairs, talking and wringing their hands, while the
men stood out front, all zipped up. I looked for Erminda while Onaldo
greeted people, shook hands, kissed the women's damp cheeks. In the
back of the parlour, dense with mourners, was the casket. It seemed so
small, so narrow and inconspicuous. All the women were gathered there,
the sisters and aunts and cousins, clustered around Ivan's head. Erminda
called to me and Onaldo and reached out her arms to us.
"Mira, mira," she said urgently, "How beautiful his face, not even
damaged, his hair, his skin..."
The casket was closed except for a sheet of glass covering his face.
Onaldo stood on one side, looking directly down at Ivan, while I leaned
over from the other side, grasping Erminda's hand. I saw the startling
whiteness of his skin, like marble, against a shock of black hair and his
moustache. I remembered my brother lying on the hospital trestle, his
beauty taking my breath away. I wanted to look and look at Ivan, the
communion with death never enough for me, but the blood family was
gathered at his head, jewels in the crown of his death, and I felt myself
an intruder.
I wondered if it was suicide. No one had said that word, but I'd heard
the story of his father, a combatiente and loyal member of the Partido, who
had been accused by the police of attempting to sell a television. His
body had been found in the kitchen with the television set on the table, a
note stuck to the screen. / did not intend to sell this television. I was minding
it for my neighbour. He had stabbed himself many times in the chest, then
slashed his throat. No one spoke of the blood, only of the television and
the terrible accusation the police had made against a man whose life had
been devoted to a Revolution which strove to resist the marketplace.
Suicides are different from accidental deaths. The death of my brother
16     PRISM 47:2 haunted me, but I knew the power of his dying, the peace and completion of that surety. It is we, the survivors, who suffer our inability to understand such willingness to let go of the world. I stared down at Pedro
Ivan's face beneath the glass and wondered what his final expression had
been, before his face had been set into repose.
I woke suddenly, the alarm pulling me from a dream where Onaldo was
calling to me down a long corridor. He'd gone back to work, saying he
would return in the afternoon to walk with me in the funeral procession.
I dressed quickly and arrived in time to see the coffin being carried to the
hearse. The roof of the car was piled with red and orange flowers. I hung
back, looking for Onaldo, and felt the ocean trembling in my throat, the
dead dog jiggling. I saw Erminda finally, standing behind the hearse with
her daughter, Ines, their backs rounded as they walked, oh so slowly,
hands pressed against the crawling hearse, heads bent, pushing. It was
the gesture of Erminda's sweeping, her endless washing and scrubbing,
pushing and pulling, the gesture of a lifetime of domestic toil. The procession snaked behind them, curving round potholes filled with filthy
water and stretches of sidewalk gaping like broken-toothed mouths.
The cemetery was high above the town. As we approached the tower at the cemetery gates I stopped looking for Onaldo. The procession
came to a halt and everyone stood around as the despedida de duelos was
spoken for the family, acknowledging the life of Pedro Ivan, his achievements, the eternal love of his family. When the speech was over, many of
the mourners slipped away, back to their homes, while the hearse crept
forward with the family through the gates of the sprawling cemetery
where generations of Baracoans lay clustered in close communion under
marble slabs topped with crosses and heavy-winged angels.
I saw the ocean in the distance, a streak of bright turquoise, the sky
pure blue with banks of engorged cloud on the horizon. Sunday, the eve
of a new year.
The men set to work opening the tomb where Erminda's parents had
been interred with their daughter. After thirty seven years Pedro Ivan
was to be reunited finally with his mother. The coffin was lowered into
the tomb on long ropes. The men struggled with the weight of it, their
muscles bulging dangerously. A terrible wail split the air. It was seconds
before I realized it was Erminda, her hands flying once again above her
bowed head, grieving as her dead sister would have done had she been
alive. Hernandito and Francisco took her arms and walked her away
from the grave. They sat with her on the edge of another grave at a distance from Pedro Ivan. Ines joined them, her face like a stone.
Pedro Ivan's friend, Pancho, mixed a pile of cement in the middle of
the path. He spaded three shovelfuls into a bucket which was passed,
prismmagazine.ca     17 hand by hand, down the line to a rake-thin man in a loose shirt standing inside the grave. He tipped the cement onto the coffin, beginning
at the head, covering the face under the glass, levelling it out with a
spatula. Only his head and shoulders were visible as he worked, like a
baby struggling to come into the world. He continued until the cement
was finished, the coffin covered, then he climbed out. But before it was
done Erminda and Ines began to walk down the sloping path to the
cemetery gates, Ines' sons on either side, a line of the blood-linked. I
followed them and after a while, without looking back, Ines reached for
my hand. We walked together, arms linked, then Ines slipped back, the
boys dropped away and I walked alone with Erminda, supporting her,
until we reached the house.
Erminda kicked off her shoes and curled into the kitchen rocker. I relit
the candle and picked up the photo of Pedro Ivan. Holding it between
my fingers, I asked, "What was he like?"
As Erminda began, a flood of words, I replaced the photo behind the
flickering candle and leaned forward to listen. Behind her words was
a bright-eyed grief too fresh yet to know itself. I remembered my last
reading, before Onaldo had arrived at La Rusa, about the law of similarity pertaining to sympathetic magic—the contagion of an inexplicable
attraction between objects which have been in contact and continue to
affect each other long after physical contact has been broken. Erminda
was on her feet now, searching in the drawer amongst the photos. She'd
remembered something, a small stone in the palm of her hand, a face
painted there, the mouth a flower of faded red petals.
"He painted it at school," she said, "when he was seven years old, and
he gave it to me for my birthday."
The family began to arrive from the cemetery—Ines, Hernandito,
Alina, Francisco, old Nando, his voice gruff. Erminda, still clasping her
stone, went into the sola to greet them. I watched the candle fade and
sputter, drowning in its pool of wax. I picked it up and poured the wax
into the palm of my hand where it burned, gathering all my senses. As
the wax cooled and set I exhaled and set the candle, burning brightly
now, back in its saucer. I blinked my wet lashes and felt the ocean subside in my throat. Then I turned and entered my room, closed the door
behind me, sat on my bed and molded the warm amber wax. It smelled
of ginger and lemon. As I worked a familiar form began to emerge;
high cheekbones, broad nostrils, ears flat to the head, heavy-lidded eyes,
strong teeth pushing the mouth forward. A disembodied head, carrying
all the force of his powerful body, emerged, unbidden, from my burning
hands.
I went out later to walk on the Malecon, half-expecting to see the
18     PRISM 47:2 dog-pig floating, but there was nothing visible in the darkening ocean.
I looked up into the sky, bruised deep red with the promise of a better
day. I walked the entire length of the Malecon and when I returned, at
the very end of that day, the end of the year, I saw him standing at the
corner of Calle Moncada. My hand went automatically to my mouth and
I smelled the warmth of my own waxen palm.
prismmagazine.ca     19 Nathaniel G. Moore
The Hospital Is For Sick
Children
defibrillators
double as harmonicas
gurneys eek
wheezing in and out
I lean in to love
reach octaves honestly
without Earth's degrading
expectations
gauze wear: fuel efficient certification
policy for a dimly lit ruby
covered in water,
in violent acuity
deliberate malicious:
not slippery mischief
each suture heads south
soothes, intent on securing
skin's permanent mood or integrity
each tear costs five cents in gumball memories
Haldol scuffed up in EmergRoom
fuzzymind [, these are the real seasons: Winter
Spring, Spring2, Summer
Fall, Fall2.]
20     PRISM 47:2 hit on head cut in eye hurt
fallen ligament legitimist
great artery alterations
keep the tag from
gauze wear purchase
expectations: heal re/run groan,
crinkle paper bag over the counter
have some patience, colour patience
tumbling into drainpipes, bombing
arteries
prismmagazine.ca    21 Smaller Narrative
left your bathing suit
slung over a rusty
bike now
[it's in] in the backseat
of my mom's car now
now this is the beginning
of a smaller narrative
about a rusty bicycle coming
to terms with how you left your
bathing suit slung over
this is the beginning of a smile
now it's in the backseat of my mom
's car now
left it slung red like our hearts
slayed with silver flecked dark orange
our small and narrative land
rust is a bloody colour at times
burned orange, stale almonds
suffered in yellow torment
even wore a dress, she said
to her interview but not the suit
the bathing suit remained like sleeping
chainmail vest medieval even
slung over a rusty
22     PRISM 47:2 it's twisted crotch
and straps are part
of a smaller narrative
slung over a rusty
a slow dribbling balloon dead
with air slung over a rusty
finishing nail
biked apart
the photographers were happy
slung over
bathing suits drying
in the quicksand sun
quicksand kept moist by partial
clouds with air slung over a rusty
bathing suit
so.. .you left your bathing suit slung over
a rusty bike, it's in the backseat of my
mom's car now
prismmagazine.ca     23 Daryl Sneath
Plato's Cafe
Lights above
the street coming on, snow like
down coming down
Coming on dusk
a stillness coming down
on the street of snow
The door almost closes
& he catches over his shoulder
the image of her stepping
reflected in the glass
of the door that almost closes
catches the door
holds the edge
fingers curled
around the cold glass edge
a gesture of reaching
an awareness, suddenly
of what's behind
24     PRISM 47:2 Behind
the clink & rattle
behind the bustle of waiting
comes the murmur of stories
& orders & other lives
In the corner of the cafe
I sit & read
the stories of others, fixed on
words, the order of pages
Outside the day is history
& I don't even notice
the brightness fading, the woman
who nearly steps into her own reflection
in the glass door that almost closes
A gust of winter life squalls in
& I don't even notice
just shiver & lean forward
still reading
for another sip of hot tea
prismmagazine.ca    25 Tea
so the story goes
was an accident
of leaves on wind
falling to water
staining it gold
an elixir, now the world's drink
our shared therapy
But neither I
nor he who catches the door
nor she who walks through it
knows the origin of such things:
too faded by the sun
So how much does it matter
if a man reaches back
out of instinct or reason
or if a woman doesn't see
the reaching, only what's beyond
the door
How much will it matter,
in the end, what I read
or if I only know the aroma
of other places
26     PRISM 47:2 Leah Bailly
Long Views Across Nothing
Leo (Today)
There is a baby, a torn dress. Pink, smudged with clay down the
front and a ripped trim. Her head has dull matted hair in tiny
curls and she crawls between blankets tossed around a dirt floor,
her bottom exposed. There is a small fire in the corner of the room
where her mother squats, her kanga up over her knees, balancing three
pots on the embers. Lit by a lantern hung from a hook, three older sisters
make shapes against the clapboard walls to tease the baby. The oldest
sings under her breath: Our God is the Only God. Her only words in English. In the doorway, their father fumbles with a cell phone, lighting the
numbers with a flickering torch. Every minute or so, a song in bleating
digital tones rings out from the phone, something like a pop song, and
each time the girls jump up and twirl with the sound of it.
Around them is a cloud forest. Soaked with rain and crowded with
vines. At sunset, the blue monkeys circle around the house, the small
clearing, and throw fruit pits at the family's tin roof. Crackled evening
news spouts from a hidden radio, Kiswahili peppered with the Queen's
English. The vegetables in one pan float around in grease. The meat stew
in another smells thickly of goat and stewed tomatoes. Rice boils in the
third, a grey film on the surface, churning, not near ready. The mother
hums too. Just barely, under her breath.
At a table in the canteen's main room, lit by another hurricane lantern, a couple—both white—are laughing about something. The girl
watches the boy's hands, how his fingers pick at a crack in the table's
wood. Two spoons wait for them on squares of toilet paper. They take
turns pouring servings of warm beer into a child's cup. Take turns saying
cheers. The boy puts his muddy feet up on the bench, tries again to make
the girl laugh but she's too hungry, drinking the little cups of beer too
fast. She thinks about their tent outside, the leaky fly. The evening starts
to get moist and cold.
They feel very far away.
It started with riots, between the hawkers and the police, the morning
they landed. They'd heard rumours about it in the airport but boarded
the Cityhoppa anyway (forty bob a head) and traced the long line from
prismmagazine.ca     27 the international airport to the heart of Nairobi. Out the window: a city
divided into four. Uptown offices, downtown slums, suburbs made of
glass, and south, a real game park where cheetahs hunt for gazelle meat
under the city's haze. The girl squished her backpack onto her knees to
let the woman in the church dress sit, and the woman playfully tugged at
her ponytail. So tell me, please, what do you think of Africa ?
Then River Road, stepping off the Cityhoppa into the mobbed streets.
The roar of the engine revving away, the two of them instantly swarmed
by touts. One drunk and swinging the boy's bag around. One nudging
the girl into a bar. They just started walking, holding hands through the
thicker crowds, and landed finally at the Hotel Sunny Daze, a guesthouse
for Sudanese salesmen. The uncle behind the desk tsk-tsked, walked
them out to the road for a plate of ugali, even taught them how to roll it
in their palms and dip it into the soup. Then walked them back.
A few weeks later, in the city on the coast, they were mugged, had
her shoulder bag snatched from her shoulder. It wasn't late. Two blocks
from the guesthouse, just opposite the main post branch, in a darker
under-hung strip of sidewalk. The boy was beside her, shoved away by
one of the thieves, and she screamed, and swore, tried to chase the six
of them across the street to where an armed guard with a billy stick was
manning the front grill of a bank. Nine-thirty at night and the guard did
nothing, watched them go, insisted later the theives had knives. One of
them threw a stone, stopped the boy from chasing, but she—incredulous,
shouting—stayed on. They didn't lose much. Her diary, her wallet with a
driver's license, twenty dollars' worth of shillings.
Later, from the hallway of the guesthouse, by the door with the brass
padlock to the room with the mosquito net and a ceiling fan, into the
self-contained bathroom with the drain in the middle of the floor, she
cried. Held a small scrape down her arm. The boy kicked the door, said,
This is bullshit. She sent him down to the corner to buy cigarettes from
a hawker, but out on the street he felt like an insect, microscopic. The
cigarettes didn't help anyway. Blowing smoke through the bars of the
bathroom window, thick into a drizzling sky.
Then there was the train. Long views across nothing.
She woke up to yellow scrub and acacia trees and the thick trunks of
balboas, their corky trunks making fat shadows over such dry soil. The
clatter of Africa passing by. The girl smiled, kissed him all over his face
to wake him up. The red of sunrise on clay on houses made of shit, the
purple and red of a wrapped kanga holding the hump of a baby tied to
a back. The chimes for breakfast, for sixty-year-old silver rattling across
the table, the old British uniforms bleached grey. Weak tea, soot in the
marmalade.
Then coming to the forest, the West. The stink of a four-hour matatu
28     PRISM 47:2 ride. A tiny-braided baby beside the boy, holding onto his knee, getting
a smack from her mother for sneaking her fingers into her mouth. Along
the road with the towering flame trees and colubus monkeys, boiled
chicken at the station over blaring Lingala dance hits. The expanse of a
tea plantation, hill station, gumboots and shawls and afternoon showers.
Kisumu. Kitale. The stretch of rain way across the horizon, hovering
around Mt. Elgon, weeping onto her skirts. Her children flooding down
each valley, in search of sweater factories, flower farms. The glue-huffing
boy leaning in for a kiss. How they still couldn't fill themselves up.
How everyone is hungry for something.
Finally, after waiting nearly an hour, in the canteen on the edge of the
forest, the oldest daughter brings them tin plates full of food. Steaming
heap of cabbage, greasy chapatti, the buzz of a generator way down the
road. The girl scoops rice into a bowl of goat gravy, makes a face for the
camera. The boy makes a shaky toast, to Africa. How awfully small we
feel on the face of it. Something happening to them, the door to their tent
flapping open closed, rain coming in the seams. The baby, the one in
the torn dress, shrieking between their feet. Kitchen smoke thick in their
faces.
Outside, the strangler figs soaring into the canopy, a choking, smothering green.
Jana (Yesterday)
Mbogo slaps the smallest boy and calls him the mosquito. It's true, he
whispers. / am the mosquito. Look! The oldest boy lifts his head and puts
his lips together in an almost smile. Look! Humphrey nearly shouts and
buzzes around, flapping his little hands around his shoulders. The other
boys also raise their eyes. See!
A car honks down the street, and Humphrey takes a small breath and
sinks to his knees. The older boys rub their eyes, try to squish themselves
further into the shadows as the lone taxi hums past the park. They are a
group of six. Holding still. At their feet is the bag and coming out of the
bag are items, a small bounty of acquired things. A pair of brown sunglasses. A tube of lipstick. A few sticks of CareFree. Most excellent are
the three cassettes of Lingala Hits labeled HAPPY DAYS ENTERTAINMENT—recently purchased from the makeshift music stand beside the
Junipili Breakfast Spot, where Humphrey's sister sweeps each morning.
The heaviest and hardest to see is a leather-bound journal, full of many
sentences in English, words that fifteen-year-old Calvin is mouthing to
himself now.
And of course, there is the wallet. Little plastic cards with the muzungo
girl's picture. And cash: one thousand seven hundred sixty Kenyan
prismmagazine.ca     29 shillings. Kenyatta's beard pointing at them. Which means three hundred bob each, but more for Mbogo, and forty less for those who get a
part of the tapes or the cards or even the CareFree.
Listen to this! Calvin is laughing now, and all the older boys relax,
knowing everyone else in the park is scavenging or asleep and the taxi
has rolled by. She was counting, listen! Moja, Mbili, Tatu! Calvin pushes the
journal out of the shadow, so the other boys can see the lovely, round
letters inked onto the cream-coloured page. Look! Simba, Mamba, Nyoka
the snake! Oh here, Rafiki!
Humphrey jumps to his feet again, full of brave feelings, and starts
circling, his faded blue T-shirt ripped above the shoulder, exposing part
of his neck and chest. He sings a hymn about the lion. First he sings like
a child, then leaps into the centre of the circle and starts to dance, dirty,
like the girls in the nightclubs at the hotels, his bum pushing around in
the boys' faces. One of them spanks it, hard, and they all laugh until
he plops down next to Mbogo to examine the pile of foreign cards. A
driver's license, a pass to a movie theatre called The Century Dome.
Humphrey chooses the Fitness Club card, traces his finger around the
shape of her face. Pokes where her green eyes would be. He remembers
her shrill little cry when Calvin ripped the bag off her shoulder, the
straps breaking off and hanging there, holding onto nothing.
It starts to rain lightly. There is not much wind, but they are open to
the sky and start to get wet. Mbogo quickly collects his few treasures—
the wallet and cassettes—onto a large square piece of plastic and folds
it carefully then tucks it under his shirt. The boys each pocket their own
prizes, and before long they are jogging toward the old town single file,
along the shadow of the wall. Humphrey shivers and pulls his torn collar up over his head, exposing shorts that are tied with a shoelace strung
through makeshift belt-loops. His sister Petty's sewing. He is twelve, and
can quietly calculate how much he would make off a card or a cassette.
He counts on his fingers as he runs, sucking the last mint from his Care-
Free.
A matatu passes and they pause—the line of them with their backs
against the wall of the post office, just feet away from a dozing askari.
Humphrey closes his eyes. Then Mbogo whistles softly and they tuck
into the alley, one at a time, under the overhanging bits of sheet metal
and plastic strung up to protect the sleeping people there. Some hide
behind curtains or clapboard walls, some sleep on the wooden flats, exposed. It's late, but there are still a few faces looking out from the shanties as the boys file past, the smell of unwashed bodies rising out of the
rain.
It started with a small stake-out, Calvin spotting the two muzungos
strolling into the China King restaurant. It was just dark but the streets
30     PRISM 47:2 were emptying fast, the shops boarded for the night and the askaris taking their posts outside the banks and shoe stores, swinging their batons.
He ran to fetch Mbogo from the beach dump, trailed by Humphrey and
the others, and they crowded under the almond tree, across the street
from the China King, in the dim of the overhanging sidewalk. They
could see the muzungos inside, lit up under the fake red lanterns, chatting
easily with Mr. Lee and eating plates and plates of warm beefy food.
How they laughed, tossed their heads back. How they still couldn't fill
themselves up. Outside, the night pulling in black around them. Finally,
after nearly an hour of waiting, after goodbyes with Mr. Lee and a minute of hovering around the door, they pushed off—
Straight toward the boys. Humphrey and two others approached
from the front and stopped, so the muzungos would pause. From the side,
Mbogo and his brother pushed the boy muzungo against the wall, not
roughly, but strong. And then from behind Calvin ripped the bag off her
shoulder. There was a terrible intake of breath. They started to run.
The girl muzungo, though, didn't quite understand and started swearing, screaming, calling attention from the askari across the street. The
boys, unsure, almost paused, like students getting a reprimand, and the
girl kept after them, chasing after the bag that Calvin had tucked under
his arm. Humphrey, his head full of blood and his limbs singing, picked
up a rock and threw it, right at the muzungo girl's feet. To stop her. To
keep her from making a dreadful mistake and following them into the
park at night, where she didn't belong.
The stone thudded against the earth. She jumped. The boy muzungo
said something to her in fast English, and the boys fled. Mbogo shouting
Go! and the older boys sprinting up the street and into the park with the
bag, Humphrey behind just a little, his bare feet slapping the last bit of
pavement. How they were supposed to scatter but didn't, Mbogo in the
lead and running hard, the crickets shouting and the sounds of pounding
feet against the walls, all following the bag, following the wealth of the
bag that they each imagined would contain the glory of Mr. Lee's steaming plates and the muzungo's shining sneakers and cameras and rings
and those millions of shillings, enough to feed them and their sisters for
months. How everyone is hungry for something.
And how now, in a dim alley lined with shanties, jogging with his
brothers along a dirt path turning to mud, under a rain so light it feels
like air—Humphrey wishes to show his triumph. He wishes for a hand
to reach out and snatch his wrist and smack his small head. He would
yelp, Mama! And she would shake her fist, You child you! And trembling,
he would hand her the bills and the special Fitness Club card and she
would hold it for a second, under her nose. The woman's eyes would
be large on her thin face, with hanging bags underneath—an exhausted
prismmagazine.ca    31 purple—but she would be alive at least, and full of that old exasperation. Oh child, child. And Petty would be there cooking over a fire, and
Humphrey's eyes would dart around, take in the old rusted kitchen knife
hung by a leather string, the dial radio tucked in a corner, the batteries
missing. His mother's hut. Before the city! The tidy pile of tin dishes in
the corner, two blue dresses hung beside the door.
Eh, Mosquito! Instead, there is Mbogo's voice. There is no hut. There
are only the boys, their voices rising over the light music of rain on the
roofs of the alley. They have stopped outside of Mbogo and Calvin's
shanty: wood slats, stinking mat, those magazine pictures taped to the
plastic. You take this. They hand him three hundred fifty shillings and
the rest of the CareFree. Humphrey nods and turns to leave, and then
remembers, and holds out the Fitness Club card with the muzungo girl's
picture, but Mbogo shakes his head. Punches him lightly on the arm.
Humphrey smiles weakly and turns toward his lean-to. It is a cold
five minutes of jogging, his toes squelching in the mud, his shirt soaked
through. Finally, he finds his own section of back alley, the wooden
boards on plastic crates, the roof an orange Fanta umbrella. A flashlight
flickers from his neighbour's shack. The crickets hush. Something happening to him, the plastic of the door flapping open closed, rain coming
in the seams. His sister, in her braids and torn dress, curled up on a
towel. The smell of burning garbage closing in, the whine of mosquitoes
thick in their faces.
Outside, the city is cloaked in quiet, a choking, smothering dark.
Nakesho (Tomorrow)
Notes on an abandoned continent. One country of fifty-three. Thousands
of boys like the one who threw the stone, most I'll never take the time to
imagine. Gangs and gangs of boys, of lean men with yellow eyes, who
show me their bibles, photographs of their mothers. The teacher in Hell's
Gate. The boda boda driver in Kisumu. That lobster-man on Tiwi Beach.
White sand, the quietest child on his knee, a full moon over the Indian
Ocean. Why there is no African Ocean, just a seething mass of land.
How awfully small we feel on the face of it. All left behind now: Naivasha,
Nakuru, the lake in the centre of the Rift. Mombasa that snatched my
bag. Mombasa that threw a stone.
I ran it over and over in my mind that night and all the next morning
at the police station, waiting in the wooden chairs as the lady detective
filed the report in triplicate. Behind her, shelves and shelves of reports,
slipping from their folders. Me, making it up, sweating under a barely-
moving fan, listening to the telephones ring and ring, inventing their
names, their clothing. Were there six boys or seven? How many wore
32     PRISM 47:2 shoes? Surely, there is no sister. Surely, there was never a mother at all.
Then Lamu: ancient city. How we fled there that same day—by bus,
by boat. Medina of narrow passageways, fruit trees dripping over closed
courtyards. All of it closed to us muzungos until Ali-the-Saviour, caretaker of the diplomat's one-storey house, rented it to us for a thousand
bob a night. But worth it. The bougainvillea that poured over the front
door, centuries old, beamed ceilings and arched doors, the little holes
in the doorways for candles. Our screaming match at four in the morning. Wanting to stay here, wanting to leave. Four-poster bed with nets,
the two of us tangled up come morning. Ramadan, the sunrise call to
prayer. Five days of fasting for the Swahilis and us, frying fish after fish,
sneaking to the police station to buy beer. Coffee on the terrace and
bare shoulders, just for a minute, before I plucked another chicken from
a basket, shuffled along ancient roads of coral bricks, past donkeys and
women cloaked but for their eyes. The neighbour children swarming my
door each morning, each day with a new gift or treat or lesson \Jana, Leo,
Nakesho. Yesterday, today, tomorrow.
Then there was the train. Long yellow views across nothing.
Then our second chance at Nairobi. Field trips to the suburbs. Banana
splits with the doctors at the Polo Club, pink coolers in the accountant's
flat. So tell me, please, what do you think of Africa? All of them mugged at
least once. All of them warning us—about the slums, about East Leigh,
infamous Kibera. The city made of tin and shit, of hawker men and
women, constantly scrubbing. How I wanted to scrub something too,
resorted to grey underwear and jeans in the guesthouse sink. Nairobi,
burgeoning capital, split unevenly into four. How we moved from River
Road to Uptown at our new friends' requests. Uptown: the parking meters replaced with askaris, streets empty, the storefronts lined with cages.
Safer, somehow, in its nightly abandon.
A muzungo girl and muzungo boy, feigning normalcy. Out late with the
journalists at the nightclub, we took turns buying rounds of vodka, took
turns saying cheers. We ate fried chicken, danced, the only muzungos in the
place but feeling warm, with the vodka and the music and our green eyes
staring back at each other in sad recognition. At the mercy of the kindness of Kenya. And on the drive back to the guesthouse, a body on the
side of the road. Unaccounted for, just a spot of blood and a dark heap.
A hit and run, our friend sighed. On the road for four hours now and still no
police.
How everyone is hungry for something.
Then Kitale. After a good late lunch, the eggs a little greasy but the
chapatti perfect. After the bus, the matatu, the ride on the back of the
boda boda man's bicycle. After trying not to argue about the price. After
the West, the forest, the daughters in the canteen, the rainstorms, the
prismmagazine.ca     33 blue monkey tossing fruit at the roof. After the coast, and the mugging,
both of us trying to laugh and make it nothing. The sun sunk low and
thick in the sky and night pressing on and the two of us chatting about
a room for the night, until Thomas, the Christian waiter tells us, Tonight,
the Kenyan Games! Tonight, no rooms in Kitale! The way he untied his apron
and whispered to the cook, and even offered to carry my pack. How he
led us around in the dark for three hours, to every hotel and guesthouse
and family friend in the small city, each time scowling, each time apologizing for Kitale, for Kenya.
Nearing midnight, outside a brothel, the ladies pouting around the
door and the shops clamped shut, the few streetlights flickering over the
red dirt of road. I sipped from a plastic bottle of hot tea from Thomas'
wife, after her prayer that Jesus find us salvation. Thomas' back was
turned, the men speaking with the uncle at the desk, and the very young
ladies around the door whistled at me, in their purple tops and bellies
and high shoes, low so just I could hear. My pack resting between my
knees and my eyes almost closed with tired. When the glue-huffing
boy appeared out of the blackness. His eyes tearing yellow, his hands
scabbed. The girls ignored him. I tried not to look: his shrunken frame,
his hair missing in patches, I fingered around my pockets for something
to send him away.
The glue-huffing boy that leaned in for a kiss. Soft. On the cheek,
nothing malicious, but funny, his own personal joke. His lips on my face
for a second, then away. The ladies laughing too and me feeling monstrous, bloated to an unnatural size. The glue huffing boy whispering it
to me, Sweet dreams, Miss, and scuffing away, his canvas shoes tied with
plastic bags. The tea in the bottle scalding my fingers, Thomas calling
me to come, to see the cell in the basement of the place that would be
fine enough for tonight, praise Jesus. A line of ants skirting the ceiling's
perimeter, the basin of water in the corner, the square of soap and torn
pile of newspaper to clean yourself with. Thomas handed me a padlock
and key, told us to lock ourselves in, perhaps not come out until morning.
It started with riots between the hawkers and the police the day we
arrived. We heard it on the radio but saw nothing, only the seething
mass on River Road, blaring, touts laughing to each other and trailing
us, mothers nursing toddlers, throngs of commuters queuing for matatus,
hawkers everywhere, on every inch of sidewalk, their goods spread on
thin bits of cloth; turnips, cell phones, fancy fake nails. Not breathing until I was safely staring down from the guesthouse window, barely floating
above the surface.
A few weeks later, in the city on the coast, I was mugged, had a shoulder bag snatched from my shoulder. It wasn't late. Two blocks from the
34     PRISM 47:2 guesthouse, just opposite the main post branch, in a darker under-hung
strip of sidewalk. I screamed, and swore, and tried to chase them across
the street to where an armed guard manned the front grill of a bank.
Nine-thirty at night and the guard did nothing, watched them go. I didn't
lose much.
And now, running after a bus barreling toward an international airport, we are leaving. That last bit of Africa swarming out the window.
Chickens hung on handlebars. Massive crowds chasing the Cityhoppa,
rush hour, piles of commuters transferring south. Tittering Kiswahili
over the speakers, the cinderblock shops, the balance of a water jug on
the crown of a head. Two muzungos smashed between bodies; the smell of
sweat and wood smoke on skin. Something happening to me, the certain
sounds of jets overhead, a mother with her hand on my head, Oh child,
child. Her baby, another baby in another torn dress, humming between
my feet.
Outside, airliners soar into the atmosphere, a choking, smothering
clean.
prismmagazine.ca     35 Ann Scowcroft
Checklist
After Navid Modiri
1. regarding biology
do your fingers deny what the mind had decided
and check themselves a hundred times within
the chamber of the hands not to not to
reach for the collar of his shirt the soft dissolve of
skin at the edge of his brow is there
no touch that is casual that does not send a riot of
signals through the endocrine
reducing you to chemistry
matter as conveyance of fluid and electricity
matter as desire?
a.) always
b.) sometimes
c.) never
2. regarding speech
must the act of speaking become an act of gentle
avoidance a means of self protection before your
own desire do you find yourself articulating
the circumference of a buried city but never the city itself all
that dust the shards out of which you have only just
willed your body to form, and for him, do you
choose words that paint the temple walls in falu
and ochre paint fish swimming from a crevasse far from the sea
so the buried city, beautiful only in his imagination, does
not rise, its rubble, its debris, in the wind he inadvertently
unleashed by the gesture, only the gesture
of his hand?
36     PRISM 47:2 a.) always
b.) sometimes
c.) never
3. regarding gravity
is your goodness in question that
smug fortress
did you wake one morning to discover all
your most precious signifiers had adapted
to a new landscape grown feathers where a foot had been
teeth in places that had never been carnivorous
has musn't become please
did the fundamental laws of physics shift
so that you could no longer be certain the earth
would rise, however subtly,
to meet you when you fall
did you fall anyway?
a.) always
b.) sometimes
c.) never
prismmagazine.ca    37 Observation
Colombo, 2006
just before the bomb exploded     (and
submachine gun fire separated some molecules of
air from the company of some other molecules
of air, making a path skyward through
layers of two-cylinder engine exhaust dust
heat fluorocarbons oxygen like your body makes a path
through water only swifter, more loud and also
containing the possibility of death and
the president's brother's mouth went dry
inside the limousine, separating him momentarily
from almost remembering what his wife had asked him
at breakfast and that other mother's son, dressed in a bomb
understood the shy intimacy of doubt and belief
just before his head separated from his neck and landed,
largely intact, some distance from what remained
of his body, say a wrist or ankle
the remnants of a toe the street sweeper pushed forward
unaware later on with other oddments of rubble    some
molecules of air, parted on his approach, reunited
behind his orange vest just before the day moved on
into other days and our memories reassembled themselves
into stories we could account for: weight,
velocity, acceleration, frictional force   gravitational
pull has nothing on grievance, on grieving either can
propel us forward either can propel us to lay down, lay down)
the koels houp houped and the crows mewled
in that strange way they have with their tongues
inside their horny beaks
38     PRISM 47:2 John Barton
At Third Beach
for Conrad Alexandrowicz
What is home? Calm as deep water.
Where's my home?Deep in calm water.
Water will drink my sorrows dry,
And the tide will turn.
—Montagu Slater, librettist, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes
The surf, rising, rises in swells and rolls, rolls
in, swelling to crests, cresting in rolls and swells
breaking white, broken, swollen, crests falling
whiteness riding, gliding in rolls as surf breaks
glazed, glazing, rides across sand, breaks as light
the glare gleaming, the foam-arched swells whiter
than light and breaking at my feet, falling back
pulled backwards by swells falling under swells
light dashed, drained from sand, swells unfaltering
as they crash—what is home? Calm as deep water.
Light staying untold, staying clear, staying still
staying dark, rolling in, rolling in, sand rubbing
blank, blanker to where I stand, clouds alighting
the distance, lighting the beyond beyond the near
light mouthed by its cloudy entrance, the bitter
falling back from my feet, rolling in from afar
overrun by cloud as still it breaks, as it breaks
light crashing across sand, the brine still glitter
but where's my home?Deep in calm water.
prismmagazine.ca    39 Beyond the inlet, the light swells fathoms down
so profound the roll stays seamless, rolls seeming
without limit, without notice, without surcease
light rolling invisible, swelling whole, brine
seemly with unseen life, creatures of the dark
inside the rolls, inside the swells rolling, sky
and surf without seam as clouds roll vapourous
beneath, above, light immense in a hazy embrace
rolling me out on the most unseemly swell to lie—
let me roll and lie: water will drink my sorrows dry.
Immense the light, immense the clouds, immense
the roll, immense the unseemly, the unseen life
swelling me, rolling me, letting me swell, dark
upholding me, beholding me, its hold immense
with stillness, with whiteness, with briny crests
swelling as I drift vagrant, as far out the terns
wheel and dive, roll inside the swell and fish
rise from below, drift and roll, rise above and fly
home-free as, unclouded, the fathomless yearns
for where swells might break and the tide will turn.
40     PRISM 47:2 A Few Lines in C Minor
Dallas Road, Victoria, July 2008
The path you strike out for unwinds us along wind-eroded cliffs
Lures me from the breakwater where if alone my walks all end
An isthmus of stone blocks anchored by breakers as it ascends
Deafened from reckless white plumes of wake, solid and adrift
A whir of hummingbirds calms you; the opalescent sun, surfing
Wave-crests, bathes you in a repose the cicada-rich weeks extend
The path you strike out for unwinds us along wind-eroded cliffs
Lures me from the breakwater where if alone my walks all end
We muse a moment at a viewpoint, arbutus limbs holding stiff
In trumpet blasts of air: a chrome veil of spray the ocean sends
Roiling up from the rocks befalls us; the wild rose as they bend
Knock scent loose for our notation on the afternoon's empty staff
The path you strike out for unwinds us along wind-eroded cliffs.
prismmagazine.ca     41 Lindsay McNiff
Electric Clothes
When her mother walked into the house in a torn skirt, Penny's
initial reaction was embarrassment. She finally had an after-
school friend beside her on the couch, a girl named Melanie
whom she had convinced to come over with the promise that her dad
might paint a picture of the two of them in old-fashioned gowns and
slippers. It was true that Penny had a box of musty clothes—old bridesmaids' dresses and clunky shoes with the buckles broken and the straps
permanently squished down into the shoe—and it was true that her dad
liked to paint. That was all he did, really. Penny hadn't touched that
trunk of clothes since two houses ago, when they had lived in Phoenix,
and she had been nine. She had asked her mother who "D.R." was as she
stood in the kitchen staring at the initials markered to the tag of a strappy
dark green dress that pooled around her ankles Her mother smoked and
stared out the window. "D.R." said Penny's mother. "She was the worst,
fattest bitch I have ever known. She died ten years ago. Electrocuted."
"Struck by lightning?" Penny had asked.
"No, Penny, for god's sake. Hair dryer. She was drunk, getting ready
to go someplace. She might have been wearing that dress. Is it a little
burned anywhere? No, I don't see any burns."
Struck by lightning, Penny had thought, the dress hanging from her
bones like a shroud. Struck by lightning in this very dress. Any time
Penny tried to wear her old dress-up clothes after that she could only
picture D.R.'s flesh cooking and snapping like a sausage on a grill, D.R.
outside on the wet grass flopping with the last bit of her life, filled up with
energy from some other source, and she would strip the clothes off in
fear. She felt electric. She locked up the clothes. She thought of them as
her deadly, electric clothes, and spoke of them to no one.
Penny had told Melanie that her dad would paint them like two angels, and all the way home she was terrified of opening the front door and
finding him sitting on the couch with his legs open, wearing his terrible
grey drawstring pants and no shirt. Sometimes when he couldn't think
of anything worth painting he would watch cartoons—he had a cabinet full of old VHS tapes of recorded cartoon shows, the commercials
blanked out. When Penny had nothing better to do she would watch a
few episodes with her dad but it always confused her the way he refused
42     PRISM 47:2 the snacks she offered and never laughed at any of the jokes. It got so
that Penny didn't want to laugh at the jokes either, and the silence in the
room after some zany character made a wisecrack was so uncomfortable
it was almost disrespectful. Penny would go to the kitchen then, and
watch her mother smoke and fret over numbers on haphazard stacks of
papers, punching calculator buttons with a long fingernail.
He hadn't been watching TV when Penny walked through the door
with her new friend. She called, "Dad! I'm home! It's me!" and warned
Melanie not to sit on the deacon's bench when she took her shoes off
because it was an artifact from a pirate ship and might still be covered in
scurvy. "I know there are little bits of scurvy on the right near the bottom. You can't touch it without mittens. My parents tried to wash it off
but they couldn't get it all."
She told Melanie to wait by the TV, warning her that they sometimes
picked up signals from other planets, so not to worry too much if a lot of
the channels were fuzzy, and shut herself in her father's painting room.
He wasn't wearing a shirt. The room was oily-hot and smelled like chemicals and her dad's sweat. He never shaved when he was preparing for an
art show, or else the room would have smelled like his aftershave. The
room-smell in the absence of aftershave didn't suggest her father, but a
man who painted fervently through dinner and then through much of
the night, and sometimes forgot to tuck her in. To her many complaints
on that subject, her mother always suggested she remember that she was
eleven now, and shouldn't need any tucking in.
"Hey, Daddy."
"Hey there, baby. Home from school already?"
"Will you paint me and my friend?"
He put down some instrument she couldn't see. His workbench was
a long, cluttered thing that stretched out from either side of him and
he had his back to her. He might have been working with a pencil or a
paintbrush. He turned around and took off his glasses. He looked hungry, messy. His patchy beard was trying to move downward—tufts of
wiry hair dotted his neck like little branches and his colour was uneven.
One of his cheeks was a furious red, probably from propping his head
in his hand while he painted, and his eyes were small and tired-looking.
Her new friend couldn't meet this man unless he was going to paint
them.
"I don't paint people, Pen. You know I don't paint people."
"If you can paint other things why can't you paint people?"
"It's just not what I paint, baby. I'm not good at people. Or if I did
paint you and your friend, nobody would recognize that it was you."
Her stupid father in his bare feet, stupid paint-splattered windows and
the tiny radio that played nothing but news and classical music. There
prismmagazine.ca    43 were plates in his workshop that they could have used in the kitchen, she
and her mother, the two people who actually ate regular meals in this
house. There were forks crusted with food that had been in his mouth
but not swallowed, bitten remains on the plates, scrunched napkins and
a squishy peach pit. She gathered them up quietly so he would have
no reason to leave his workshop. She didn't want Melanie to see him.
"Thank you, baby," he said to the scrape of stacking plates, and he resumed his hurried sketching. A pencil, Penny realized, was what skated
over the page.
She told Melanie that her dad was preparing the room so he could
paint them. Melanie couldn't decide what to do with her hair and Penny
suggested a French braid. A nice, tight French braid in Melanie's long,
thick hair could take awhile—could take them until dinner time, when
Melanie's mother would call and say it's time to come home. Melanie
had started out trying to protest the French braid, but Penny insisted it
was a hairstyle particular to the time period her father hoped to capture.
Melanie asked how long the painting would take. "Twenty minutes,"
Penny said. "Twenty minutes start to finish, and you can even take the
painting home with you. But it has to be a French braid."
Then the door opened to reveal Penny's mother in a torn skirt at the
end of a short stretch of linoleum hallway. She leaned on the wall and
tried to kick off the smart low heels she wore every day to the office. It
was just "the office" to Penny. Her mother dealt in figures—numbers that
Dad would ask about between forkfuls if he ever joined them for dinner.
Even Dad seemed to have minimal information about the numbers, figures, dates, calculations, but enough to remember to make semi-specific
queries. Both girls could see her from the side, struggling with the shoes,
hands splayed out on the wallpaper. Penny noticed with wonder that her
mother's small belly actually jutted from her midsection like a big piece
of fruit, curving her usually rake-like frame. The ragged tear was tracing
its way up her knee-length skirt, with broken threads coiling around her
thighs, which Penny now noticed, were dirty.
"Is that your mom?" Melanie asked, her upper lip creeping toward
her nose.
No, Penny was about to reply. She was about to say that the woman in
the ripped skirt—whose hair, she saw, hung free of her missing alligator
teeth clip, the one Penny had a twin for, though she preferred an orange
elastic, and who stared blankly into the front hall mirror when on any
other day she would have bustled in, thrown her purse on the couch
and made a few phone calls—that woman was the gardener who lived
in the gazebo out back with her pet Rottweiller and tended the gardens
on Mondays, the grass on Tuesdays, the bird feeders every day, and all
the indoor plants on Wednesdays, which was why she had happened to
44     PRISM 47:2 enter the house at this moment.
But at the word "mom," as though she had heard the whispered jeer
of the after-school friend, Penny's mother turned to face them. She had
failed to kick off both shoes, and the one that still clung to her foot scraped
and clunked against the hard floor. She was limping. Her beige suit
jacket was open and she wore nothing underneath—her breasts reached
down from her chest, lower and thinner than Penny had expected. She
had often pictured her mother without clothes on, pulling up nylons for
work with a comb clenched between her teeth. She had expected high,
authoritative breasts, not these small, sad half-arms that somehow concealed the nipples, hid them beneath their hanging, but did not conceal
the deep tracks of broken skin on her stomach, disturbingly round and
dough-white, sagging over the waistline of the torn skirt.
Penny was, in an instant, inside Melanie's head and seeing through
her eyes, the way her English teacher told her to do when she wrote a
story, and she could feel the ineffectual couch sagging in the middle
where she most often sat cross-legged to watch television or read or eat
some snack she had concocted—peanut butter crackers with pineapple
slices or raisins mixed into her yogourt. This couch moved from house
to house. Beside the couch, there were still boxes sealed and marked
with the name of the room they would sit in for months, untouched,
until somebody wrestled the tape off and opened them like unwanted
presents. She had lately put her schoolbooks on one of the boxes marked
"Family Room." The boxes had become furniture. Sometimes she would
put her juice there in between sips. Through Melanie's eyes there were
tacky flattened cushions on the couch and the whole place had a faint
scent of turpentine instead of dinner, and there stood the culpable slut-
mother by the door, home from a hard day on the job, her naked torso
offered up like spoiled meat and dust on her legs.
Penny turned toward Melanie to tell her she didn't know what was
going on, but the girl had her eyes covered and her little shoulders under
her green T-shirt shuddered. What? Penny wanted to say. That's not my
mom. Or maybe, She doesn't usually look like that when she comes home. Don't
you cry. Don't you dare. Her mother loomed monstrous on the hall floor
and Penny noticed the skirt wasn't merely torn but wet, its cream-colour
darkened near the crotch. As she crept slowly closer, her one shoe still
scraping the floor, Penny could see a band of bruising across her naked
middle and how the inside of one of her eyes was as red as a poppy. The
swollen eye fluttered; it was trying so hard, at the corner, to close. The
worst was the gash Penny could now see splitting her mother's lower
leg, black and open, the skin around it raised and dirty. That wound was
something else. Penny said, "Mommy, what happened?" and her mother
merely stood, fingers groping open and shut uselessly by her sides, and
prismmagazine.ca     45 screamed her husband's name, "Richard," over and over again.
They started eating pizza every night. Penny's father tried to order as
many toppings as possible, claiming that a growing girl needed her
mushrooms, olives, tri-coloured pickled peppers, zucchini wedges and
soggy piles of overcooked tomatoes. Penny did her best to pick off everything except the cheese. Sometimes the vegetable pieces were trapped
underneath the cheese, flattened and almost invisible under their yellow-
white barrier. She would pick and dig with her fingernails the way her
mother never would have allowed if she had been sitting at the table
with them. Penny didn't need to ask where her mother was—she already
knew she was in her bedroom, propped up on just about every pillow in
the house, including one from Penny's bed, staring out the window with
messy hair. She knew this because she could see her through the parted
curtains on her walks home from school. She had stopped trying to bring
friends over.
Kids on her street did enough staring into that wide window. It wasn't
like they could see very much of her. Maybe a faded lump, depending
on the time of day. But they knew what they were looking at. Penny
usually went in the back door, or sometimes she would pretend to drop
something in the mailbox if the kids were staring too hard, or if a group
of them had stopped to look up, and then she would walk around the
block. She would make herself believe for a second that she was delivering exotic medicines to help her mother, to close the wound on her leg
that Penny had just dreamt of two nights in a row.
The house smelled like medicine now, or so she imagined. If pills had
a smell the house smelled of pills. Plastic and gummy for capsules, bitter
and chalky for caplets. Her father had stopped painting. Just for awhile,
he told her. The pizza boxes started to pile up. "You could make those
into a craft or something, Pen," he suggested. "Like an alligator mouth
or something."
"No, Dad."
"Why not?"
She shrugged. TV was off-limits. Her father didn't even know what
to do with himself. He told her that he and her mother had decided that
television hurts the mind and they wanted her to grow up smart. He
couldn't watch his cartoons either, at the risk of being a hypocrite, and
he didn't dare close himself into his workshop in case of his wife's feeble
call of "Richard!" It was all Penny ever heard of her mother.
Without cartoons or paints her father was an aimless wanderer. He
drifted from the kitchen to the living room and touched the plants' leaves.
He never watered them. He pinched the still-green parts beneath his nail
and then checked his nail for plant juice. He broke off the browner parts
46     PRISM 47:2 and carried them to the garbage. The leaves started to look ragged, like
someone had been crawling around chewing on them. Penny watched
her dad and wanted to scream. He slept on the couch now, which made
the living room more "his." Whenever he wanted a nap, which was often, Penny would have to find somewhere else to be. Usually she would
lie in the backyard grass. Her bedroom was too close to her mother.
One evening, maybe a week after the torn skirt, Penny heard a howl,
long and guttural, coming from the master bedroom. Only the hitching breaths that had punctuated the howl had suggested any enduring
humanity. She recognized the breathing as her mother, the slight squeal
that followed each breath as she prepared for another, but she did not
recognize the howl. The time had been 8:04 pm—too early for a physical transformation that might take place in the moonlight. Penny had
pushed her face into the crease where the door met the doorframe and
whispered, "Are you okay?" like she used to do to startle her mother,
for laughs, while she put on her make up in the morning. The breathing
had stopped, and so had the howling, and there had been no response.
Penny could only picture her mother lying there in the pillows like a
child who was supposed to be asleep hours ago, trying to will herself
into obscurity. "Bedtime, Penny," her father had said, finding her at the
closed bedroom door. She could never seem to fall asleep on the grass
outside, though she would have liked to.
"Bedtime," she had scoffed. Eight o'clock.
He was trying to keep Penny from the news broadcasts, she knew.
The television was a mouthpiece. Approaching it slowly when her father
was closed up in the bedroom with her mother, feeding her, propping
up her million pillows or whatever he did in there that made him feel
useful, Penny's fingers would tingle. She would reach out slowly, her
hand stretching toward the ON/OFF button, willing herself to do it. Just
for a second, and then she would turn it off. She never did it. She could
feel the nerves burning all the way up her arm to her shoulder. She was
afraid if she turned it on it would never go back off. What if every channel was her mother? Nothing but her mother wearing ripped clothes
and a savage expression, her breasts hanging loose and a knife in her
hand. The kids at school sometimes said there was a knife, sometimes a
revolver. Sometimes a sword, and Penny's mother was the Dragonlady.
If every newscaster agreed, what then?
Some rude boy in her class had passed her a drawing of her mother
that he had worked on while he was supposed to be reading quietly.
Her mother had four arms, all of them snake-like, and a big scaled belly
with two plump bowls for breasts. She was covered from head to toe
in red-ink blood and she had two pointed fangs spiking down from the
top of her depraved grin. From the hasty belt sketched around her waist
prismmagazine.ca     47 there hung a series of weapons including a chainsaw. Penny had tucked
the drawing thoughtfully into the pocket of her jeans. The rude boy had
stared, waiting for a response. Her eyes had roamed over the words in
her novel but she never turned a page. Her gaze quivered over the word
"quill" for what seemed like forever. She thought of pilgrims, though she
didn't think this book was about pilgrims. It could have been. Satisfied,
the boy had flipped open his own copy of the book.
The ridicule mounted. One of the bathroom stalls read "Beware of
Penny Lake" in black magic marker. She stared at it while she sat on her
hands and peed. It occurred to her that most of the kids in her school,
probably even the eighth graders, must now know her name. When she
had first started going to Riverside School last October she had told
anyone who would listen that her family had to move because her entire town was being overhauled, made into a gigantic cemetery for unclaimed bodies. She told her classmates that each family in the town
had been paid five million dollars to evacuate. She had been unable to
make a name for herself with that story. It seemed that either the kids she
told didn't believe her, or they didn't understand the significance of her
claim. Like towns were made into graveyards every day. Like the world
was so full of unclaimed dead.
She stopped going out for recess because her teacher told her she
didn't have to anymore. She was given the option of spending recess in
the library whenever she wanted to. At first she resisted, maintaining to
herself that she was no different from any of those other students whose
mothers were not whispered about, and she liked the sunshine on her
neck and the grass pricking her thighs as she sat cross-legged in shorts by
one of the big trees. But then one day she sat writing in her colourful star-
stickered journal: "Everybody is afraid of me. They say my mom killed
someone but she still gets to stay in our house instead of going to jail. I
don't agree with killing. I don't think you should kill but some people
can't help it. There is evil and good in the world, and if you are evil you
can't help killing. If she's evil then I'm half-evil, like the way Dad is half-
Irish because Grandma is Irish." The journal was stolen from her. She
barely made a move to grab it. Let them have it. Let them know. She
spent every recess in the library after that.
Her mother did move in and out of the house but it was a different
sort of movement now. She wore a coat, even though it was summer, and
she held her husband's elbow and bent slightly at the waist. She used to
be taller than he was. He had to start driving again, though to Penny's
knowledge her father hadn't driven a car in years. He might not even
have a licence. He looked funny with keys in his hands, his beard gone,
his hair cut short and his shirt tucked into a pair of rumpled dress pants
that seemed too big around the waist. They bunched up under his old
48     PRISM 47:2 belt. What'reyou trying to prove? Penny wanted to ask, but she didn't dare
speak as he ushered her hunched mother with her unwashed hair out
the door to the waiting car. Mrs. Peterson from across the street would
sit with her while her parents were out. She was a mild old widow who
spent most of her time, at least while she was minding Penny, on the
phone or with a crossword puzzle.
"Where did they go?" Penny would always ask.
"Never you mind now. It's not for children."
"What's not for children?"
"Don't get smart."
While Mrs. Peterson talked on the phone, her sentences slow and
thoughtful as she doodled flowers and worms with eyes and smiles,
Penny would fling open her mother's bedroom door and look for signs.
Blood, hidden weapons. A bank statement. Would she kill for money?
Her mother loved money. She was always complaining that they didn't
have enough of it. A taped confession, or maybe a letter to Penny explaining herself. She tried to be organized in her searching, to maintain order in the room so her investigation would not be discovered.
The bedclothes were a mess, but even though she lifted pillows, ran her
hands along the disturbed sheets and strained to lift the mattress corners,
she made sure that the mess she left matched the one she found when
she opened the door.
Nothing. But the room had the medicine scent and the pillows held
no trace of her mother when she pressed them to her face. She breathed
in old dampness, grease, sweat. Sometimes, if she sniffed deeply enough,
she thought she detected the smell of blood—like the pennies in her
strawberry change purse. Her mother's perfume sat unused on the dresser, with only the faintest remembrance of a relationship to a neck and
wrists. Her blazers hung in the closet. The folded corners of the bed-
sheets were coming loose.
When a half-moon of Penny's stomach glinted white as she reached
up to grab a fly ball during gym class, a rude girl asked her if she was
sex-starved like her mother. Nobody heard. Her teacher cheered, "Atta
girl, Penny! Nice catch!" and the weather-beaten, oversized softball in
Penny's glove seemed the perfect weapon for her evil as she moved it to
her throwing hand and whipped it at the girl's sweaty face. The girl went
down on her knees, her pink baseball cap askew, blood spurting from
the general area of her nose and mouth. Penny snarled, revolted and
terrified by the bright spray of blood that filled her classmate's cupped
hands and soaked the front of her gym shirt. "I showed her," she protested to the crowd that soon formed around her. There were hands on
her shoulders, pulling her back. She met her teacher's horror-stricken
prismmagazine.ca    49 eyes and attempted a roar. Her teeth clicked together, her jaw smarting a
little by her ear. She pulled away from the teacher and hissed, throwing
her glove on the ground. She wiped her wet eyes and pulled at the bottom of her shirt. Too damn small.
During her suspension Penny played Scrabble with her father. They
were usually quiet games, interrupted by the occasional ringing of a
phone Penny was no longer allowed to answer, or the odd wail from
the forbidden upstairs bedroom. The world seemed to have become an
off-limits place. Whenever her father rose abruptly, often upsetting a
few of the game pieces, the tops of his thighs jarring the kitchen table,
Penny would protest. "Why do you have to go to her? She's an adult,
isn't she? She can take care of herself, can't she?" Her questions would
seethe there, unanswered, and she could hear her father's slippered feet
taking the stairs two at a time. "Go on, hurry up," she would mutter.
"Go do whatever she tells you, as usual." She would look at her father's
letters while he was gone, memorize them. If it suited her, she would
make a trade. He barely ever paid attention anyway—spent more time
scratching a rash on his jaw that showed up every few days, picking at
calluses under his socks, or wandering toward the kitchen door when it
was Penny's turn to make a word. His face seemed to ask, "Did you hear
something?" but he refused to acknowledge his concern.
"How's Mom?" Penny would ask whenever he sat back down to the
new set of letters she had given him in his absence.
"Oh, just fine. She's tired."
One hot afternoon they sat sweating in the kitchen, a bag of chocolate
chip cookies opened and half-finished between them. The biggest fan in
the house blew on her mother's elusive form upstairs behind a closed
door; the only other fan puffed weak warm blasts into the stagnant air by
the gaping kitchen window. The plants along the window ledge were all
dead and collecting cobwebs. Penny couldn't wait to get back to school
where it was air-conditioned. She could picture herself dying here. Part
of her believed her mother was dead already, or at the very least melted,
transformed into something useless and wet, saturating the sheets, her
father only pretending she still existed so that Penny wouldn't have to
grow up without a mother.
Penny spelled REPE. Her father said, "What's that supposed to say?
Reap?"
Sometimes he gave her the points just for her good effort, even if she
spelled something wrong. This time she was missing an A.
"I was trying to spell rape," she said, folding her hands in her lap.
"Isn't that how you spell rape?"
They stared at each other for a long time before her father finally
50     PRISM 47:2 pushed his chair back. "How about a barbeque tonight? I haven't bar-
bequed in a long time. What do you think of kabobs?"
"It's out of propane."
"What, baby?" he asked, his hands carefully breaking apart the words
they had already made, filling up the cloth letter bag.
"The last time you tried to barbeque you couldn't do it because there
wasn't any propane left in the tank." She spoke carefully, mindful of the
scream she could feel inching its way up her throat, of the A that she had
absently pulled from her father's costly word AXEL pressed into her
moist palm.
"I'll pick up some more," he chirped. "It'll take me less than ten minutes. I'll just go and tell Mommy where I'm going."
An empty house followed his tired footsteps first up and then down
the stairs, and the screeching slam of the front screen door. It was the
first time since the torn skirt that she had been alone in the house, with
her mother or otherwise. She didn't know what she was supposed to do
with this time that she had. Would it be right not to act? Now that she
had these few precious minutes to use as she pleased? She could go into
the master bedroom, finally, the way she used to do all the time while
her mother figured out numbers in the kitchen with her long cigarettes
and her bright nails, while her father painted everything except people
in his drafty painting room. The best thing about their bedroom was that
it wasn't hers, and the mattress felt so different from her own against her
ankles as she pressed herself up into the air and fell back down, hitting
the hard springs in a creaky bounce. She couldn't believe people slept
here. The closet was depthless, filled with old clothes her mother rarely
wore, and Penny would stand among them with her eyes closed, feeling
fabric against every part of her, the darkness complete and stifling. She
imagined that if she came into contact with the wrong piece of clothing it
would come to life, draw her closer with its empty sleeves or stuff part of
itself down her throat so she couldn't speak. She always grinned to herself, delightfully scared. They were bodies, all of them. They had once
walked the streets.
If she wanted to she could go in there right now and force her mother
to speak to her. If she had known in advance that she would have this
opportunity she would have made a list of things to ask her. She would
have asked them in order of importance, just in case her father got home
before she made her way through the entire list. She could say, Mom,
I still live here. He won't let me see you, and he doesn't talk about you
very much, but I'm still here. If he's worried about your evil spreading
to me he doesn't need to. I just want to know what happened. I won't tell
anyone. I know what it's like, Mom, really I know.
She made it halfway up the stairs and then fled back down. She could
prismmagazine.ca     51 picture her mother contorting, seizing up in fear at the sound of her footsteps. Not heavy enough. Not the steps of her nursemaid husband who
was nothing without his workshop, without his acrylics and his soft lead
pencils. Penny turned on the tap and sobbed a few times. There weren't
any tears so she wondered whether or not she was actually sad. The
sound just burst from her, stinging her chest and throat. She was afraid
to see her mother. It had been weeks. There was still the chance that it
wasn't her mother in that room at all.
When Penny turned off the water she heard it: "Richard!" She gripped
the edge of the counter, not knowing what to do. Hadn't he told her he
was going out for propane? There was her father's name again, snaking
down the staircase, airy and tearful. If she didn't move, Penny thought,
it might go away. But her mother was like a baby wailing from its crib
without any concept of the possibility that someone might not respond.
Her voice was shaky and urgent: "Richard! Richard! Richard!" climbing
in pitch and volume until she was screaming it, and Penny lifted herself up onto the counter, her butt jostling the clutter of used dishes. She
tucked her knees up to her chin—tipped over a glass with her heel. It
split into a million pieces, shards skating across the linoleum and resting
like icicles, their tiny blades reaching. Penny covered her ears. With each
scream she was guiltier. If she could keep out three in a row she would
undo the first few minutes of screaming. And then the next scream she
heard could be the first—her father could enter on the very first scream
and ascend the stairs, and everything would be back to normal.
The door creaked open again. She heard the thud of the propane tank,
the dashing of rubber shoe soles on the staircase as her father sprinted
toward the bedroom. She heard him lose his footing once and stumble.
He cried her name: "Christine."
Penny sat on the kitchen counter for half an hour. It wasn't safe to step
down. Her stomach growled and she gripped her middle, rocking forward. Her father found her in her tight ball.
"Careful, Dad," she said. "I broke a glass."
His face was pink in places, the white of his eyes stained red and slick
in the corners. He struggled with his words. "Mom said she called for me
at least twenty times."
"You were out," Penny said, her mouth pressed to her kneecap.
"You should have gone to her, Penny."
"I'm not allowed in there."
"You should have checked on her. Use your common sense."
"How do I even know it's her up there?"
"Who do you think it is? Don't talk like that."
"I don't know what you're doing to her up there. Hiding her up there
52     PRISM 47:2 in your.. .laboratory or whatever."
"Just stop it. Please."
She wanted to whip a glass at her father. One of the dirty ones half-full
of old, sour milk. The backs of her eyes were burning.
"Do you know what your mother might do to herself up there? Do
you have any idea?"
"Yeah, right. How would I know? I don't know anything."
There was glass everywhere. Tiny flecks glinting like stars, or like
something remarkably clean. She could see the kitchen floor through
them. They were tricky. It was only because of their sharp edges that she
could tell they were there. She could run across them like some ancient
form of torture, she could be out of this suffocating hot house and on
the grass in seconds. She shifted back toward the cupboards, hiding her
flushed face as she said, "She's a killer anyway. I know that."
"What did you say?"
"I said she's a killer. Anyway."
He crossed the floor to her, his feet crunching over glass pieces that
shot through his socks. He brought them with him. Penny's hands were
still gripping her ears, pulling at their folds, trying to fill her hearing with
an oceany roaring. He pinched her elbows in his own hands and lowered
his face to hers. She shut her eyes. She knew her father was crying but
she would not look at his wet alien face, his baggy eyes and quivering,
downturned mouth.
"She was hurt," he spat. "She is hurt, goddamnit. Don't you say that
again."
He slumped onto one of the kitchen chairs and tore off his socks. The
bottoms of his feet were sparkled with blood. "Jesus," he muttered, and
set to work pulling the edges of each of his wounds and pinching out the
glass. "Stay up there, Penny. The whole floor is covered in glass."
She found him later that night shirtless by the television, his feet bare
and bandaged. He was watching one of his cartoon tapes. His face was
as stoic as ever, not even flinching as a walking mushroom shot a cream
pie at a foolish banana with legs and cried, "Score!"
Penny was about to remind him about the no-TV rule but he cut her
off. "I've already done all my growing up, thank you very much. I'm
smart enough already."
She sank to the carpet and crossed her legs, her gaze locked eagerly
on the television. "Don't look too hard, Penny," said her father. "It'll
mush your brain."
The banana joined forces with a giggling cherry jelly bean on a pair
of white roller skates. They prepared a counterattack. Penny laughed.
prismmagazine.ca     53 Niels Hav
translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Blindness: Three Poems on a
Theme
Institute for the Blind
Passing by the Institute for the Blind,
looking on the dark side, a night in December,
I saw the sightless dancing the tango
behind picture windows. The whole building
was lit up, brilliant like a UFO
or a house pervaded by metaphysics.
I stopped, paralysed
outside in the real darkness
and stared myself almost blind.
54     PRISM 47:2 Blind Man's Bluff
They covered his eyes with a scarf
and spun him around—he loved that game.
Dizzy from the dark, he reeled ecstatic
between his cousins, three Graces
squealing with laughter. They laughed at him, his euphoria,
which was also theirs. He caught them one by one,
but guessed systematically wrong, and the party went on
the whole afternoon. He was happy in his darkness,
tireless and bold, a line had been crossed,
he touched their blushing faces—
his hands were happy. And he wished only
to go on when they mercilessly loosened the bow
and pulled the scarf from his eyes. He stood bewildered
on the brink of tears, shocked by the light
that for a moment turned him completely blind.
prismmagazine.ca    55 On His Blindness
1
Is it cheaper now, I wonder,
to write in ink, since Borges dictated
his labyrinthine tales in Buenos Aires?
The Homer of the Argentine considered words to be
symbols we share with others. "I believe abstract
aesthetics to be a vain illusion," he wrote
in one of his prefaces, where he delighted in renouncing
originality. Almost without affectation. Only after going
blind did he make eye contact with John Milton
in his Paradise Lost.
2
Love makes blind. But it took forty years!
Forty years of preliminary studies, imitation and outbursts
of rage when the dreamtiger escaped. Now and then he'd
consult oculists, each time a disappointment. He studied
Joyce, who must have loved Nora, though he never went
completely blind. Only when Alonso Quixano lost his
mind and called himself Don Quixote did he leave his
father's library; and not until forty years after finding
love in Geneva did Borges go blind—
as blind as Beethoven was deaf!
3
He worked in the dark and polished his sentences
in memory until they sparkled from sheer metaphysics.
"If one is a poet, one is always a poet, and all the time
assailed by poetry." Borges absorbed nourishment
from his misfortune and replaced the visible world
with sagas and Old English verse, thereby transforming
blindness into a gift: Only now did he come eye level
with Homer, and only now was he able to see deep
into the dark, wide world and into the dizzying
moment that is eternity.
56     PRISM 47:2 Julian Gobert
The Ministry of Kisses
You are a veteran of the never-ending War On Kisses and are suffering
its consequences. Your last hope before the war was the simple hope
of a good kiss. Or your last kiss felt like hope. You can't remember:
amnesia has robbed you of your dreams of past kisses.
A new government branch called the Ministry of Fusses has opened
to combat Kiss Fatigue Syndrome, better known as KFS. Under their
mandate, KFS sufferers are supplied with kisses on a need-to-kiss basis.
Your veteran's pension designates a monthly kiss giver (a squat girl with
plastic lips who always kisses you with her eyes open) and a kiss quota
to be delivered at life-sustaining intervals.
You visit the Ministry of Kisses to speak with your caseworker about
the hopelessness of your present situation. Security at the Ministry is
tighter than a virginal mouth pitted against an invading tongue. You
are granted entry only on the lowest level of the compound. The
disheartening scents of Sadness and halitosis pervade the hallway. You
tell your caseworker that the kisses you receive smell like burnt toys,
products of the assembly line, emotionless and toxic. You describe the
side effects you are suffering. He stops you before you can finish.
Your caseworker (himself a decorated veteran of the War On Kisses)
tells you that you should not complain because any kisses are better
than no kisses at all. Funding to combat KFS is part of the provisional
government's plan to combat widespread Sadness, but Sadness,
a newly classified social priority and subject to review, is hardly
quantifiable. Government bean counters want statistical proof of
increased Sadness in the general population if they are to stay the
course and continue funding the KFS program.
You choose not to complain further. You thank him for his time, and
say yes, you will be a statistic for the good of the nation, as long as it
leads to a State of Happiness and Better Kissing. He assures you it will.
prismmagazine.ca     57 The Perfect Jaw
The perfect jaw chews through the world's problems like a baloney
sandwich. The perfect jaw saves us from mediocrity. Its symmetry sets
hearts fluttering. The perfect jaw takes on a life of its own, and serves a
term as ambassador of goodwill in a time of very little or none. Notice
the interplay of dialogue and full greasy lips. Watch it emote the full
range of human emotions without missing a bite. The clenching and
flexing as it eats and talks and chews through scenery.
Dictators choose not to dictate when that jaw is around. It is a strong,
clean jaw-line. Stubble makes it feel more attainable, but it is still
hopelessly out of reach. Dictators feel sadly weak-chinned around it.
They hide behind long bushy beards and fiery oratorical skill. They
look for signs of a double chin in the mirror and find them.
The perfect jaw's personal doctor yearns for the day the TMJ sets in
and he can unlock the keys to the inner workings of this wonderful jaw.
Nothing can be that symmetrical, appealing to female and male viewers
alike. It must be an optical illusion. It must be Photo-Shopped in. This
jaw is the Holy Grail of all mouth, nose and throat specialists. What
makes it tick? How does it make the world go round?
Nowadays the perfect jaw wants a piece of the tabloid action. Pictures
run for six figures easily. Its owner feels left out. All his humanitarian
efforts and baby-making prowess are being over-shadowed. He hides
out, keeps the jaw hidden under wraps, swathed in medical bandages,
and chews behind closed doors with a palm in front of any probing
camera lens.
58     PRISM 47:2 Maureen Hynes
Full Rolling Boil
Take it from the inside this time. The way your forearm
aches from slicing the stem and blossom ends. Hundreds
of crabapples, each the size of a pituitary gland, a small red egg.
Chopped, the pieces yellow and brown in the pot as the pile
so slowly accumulates. How you slice your hours.
The occasional worm on your cutting board. How your mind
keeps visiting the Gwendolyn McEwen parkette:
the ground around her trees cobbled
with fallen red fruit and the grackles's full attention.
How the gift of two full bags of crabapples was not
so welcome, how you felt you had no choice
but to make jelly. Don't discard the seeds
or peels or cores, cook them in, the pectin
is closest to the peel. The apples
turning into a mash of pink, red, yellow, white.
How your silver bracelet heats alarmingly
as you stir your constant stir. How cloudy
the mixture is, the worry. How you must wait
for the full rolling boil, the boil that doesn't go away.
Who will appreciate the gift. Recall
your mother saying it's better to make jams than jellies:
less work. How you will label the jars, "Temporary
Insanity, August, 2007."
How you lay the steaming mash on four layers of damp cheesecloth
in a big bowl, tie thick wet knots and suspend the parcel
over the bowl on a wooden spoon between two chairs. Overnight.
prismmagazine.ca     59 How patiently you let the mixture drip. How the next morning
you bring precisely five cups of strained liquid to a full rolling boil.
How you add an appalling amount of sugar. The first sign
of the mixture clarifying: relief. How you pull out
your old Chinese ladle to pour the hot coral syrup
into eight small jars. How you contrive
a canning bath, immersing the eight jars so they are covered
by two inches of boiling water. The small pop
as the last jar seals, cooling on your counter, the one you thought
wouldn't seal. How you worry about sanitation.
Learning the kitchen lessons again, spreading them
on your biscuits, steaming them into your job,
boiling down your poems, attending
to your loves. Precision. The principle of reduction.
The goal of clarity. Stir your constant stir.
Take clean and tender care of your pots,
your spoons and jars, your muslin and wide-mouthed funnel,
your friends who leave bags of crabapples on your porch.
Accept imperfection, the wabi of unskimmed flecks of foam.
What substance will thicken your work like pectin, give it form?
Flicking out the occasional worm. Persistence
and the small result. Patience and the small audience.
The sweetening, how necessary it sometimes is.
The gleaming.
60     PRISM 47:2 Migrant Workers
The buzz is loud for miles. Heavy rain, slippery
road ramp, the truck takes a weighty spill.
Jostle and thud: crack. The cargo, in crates
on pallets, dumps out onto the shoulder:
twelve million bees arise, a mighty
orchestra of hum. The air thickens
and pulsates, the rain continues.
This is a world where even the insects
have jobs, commute around the continent to work.
First the precarious Atlantic blueberries, then back
to Ontario to pollinate some other crop. Almonds
in California, plums and apples in BC.
Some questions I am trying to raise
without getting stung: are the bees like the rest
of us, our lives ordered by another?
How can we rob the bees of their natural lives
—what is a natural life? Is it under-
nectared and overworked, crossing
time zones, dazed and jetlagged,
vulnerable to mites and viruses and colony collapse?
Little charioteers of thrum, husky and striped,
your furred chorus rises visibly above the highway:
consternation and the definition of hover.
The rapid thrib-throb of your wings against the rain,
you smelling your way back
to your queen, your hive, your transport van.
prismmagazine.ca     61 Tend Favro
Salties and Lakers
I was selling beans from our front yard the day I heard that an American movie star had been decapitated in a car accident. She must
have left the glove compartment open. My mother always warned us
not to do that, that if the car crashed, our heads would be lopped off on
the edge. I'd never really believed that it would happen, but what do you
know, it had—and to a woman who had been married three times, the
last time to a well-known underworld crime figure with a taste for mauve
shirts. In other words, she had gone bad, and had no chance of redemption. No wonder she'd lost her head. I was strangely thrilled. Nothing
bad ever happened in my world.
And yet, every summer morning, on our local radio station, the announcer read out the number of bodies that they had fished out of the
hydro station at Niagara Falls, in a toneless way as though describing the
results of a fishing derby. Death was all around us. People threw themselves into the gorge. Movie stars lost their heads. Death and grief were
all so thrilling and distant and something that happened to other people.
Then, my grandfather died.
He started dying on my twelfth birthday. I was too old for dolls but
wanted one anyway. Penny Brite. Her legs were kneeless, smooth and
straight. She came in a plastic box that snapped shut with a satisfying
click.
"Oh, just what I hoped for," I said, slippery paper falling between my
black patent toes.
I leaned down and took a deep, satisfying sniff. Penny Brite carried
the unmistakable rubber and rooted Dynel hair scent of 1967. Of optimism. Of never-ending fresh, zip-locked, backcombed, Mercury astronaut, 100% Du Pont synthetic, Switched-On Bach, Tupperware-burping
progress. Everything was invented anew every morning. Time spun
backwards. We seemed to grow younger, lighter and fresher every day.
Except, of course, at my grandparents' house. Nonna, who had broken a hip in a tumble on an icy walk, sat Buddha-like in a wheelchair.
Nonno wore a dark pinstriped suit, probably dating from the Depression. The house smelled of fish, polenta, crusts of dark bread soaking
in instant coffee. They were like creatures from a different time, long
over: as evidence, myself, their youngest grandchild clutching her doll
62     PRISM 47:2 with posable legs, looking forward to a future of moon colonies, silver
jumpsuits with matching eye shadows, flying cars, and everyone, not just
Penny Brite, with rooted Dynel hair, platinum in colour. I had seen it all
in the back issues of Popular Science stacked up in our bathroom.
I stood on the faded florals of my grandparents' rug, smelling the newness of the doll, the smell of the unending, never-arriving, wipes-clean-
with-a-damp-cloth future, while the past, in the form of a tall and aged
man, stooped to kiss me, his breath purpled with wine.
Then, something was wrong. His hand pressed against my shoulder,
surprisingly heavy as he steadied himself.
"Something wrong, Pop?" asked my father.
"I'm cold," said Nonno.
The moment passed. Nonno had a glass of wine mixed with Canada
Dry. We ate our cake, washed the dishes, went back to our house next
door. Later that night, there was a phone call.
My father shouted to my mother, "Call an ambulance," and ran out
the door. Three days later—just a week before the first day of school—
we were at the funeral home.
Nonno was on his back, hands folded politely over his tummy, a rosary snaking from his fingers. My father pointed to the spot on his head
that hit the floor after his single, massive stroke. He pointed that way
to worn bits of machinery, to fraying cords on kitchen kettles, to cross
border thruways lacking adequate signage. I was terrified by the way my
father's hand seemed to say this is an object.
They took my grandfather's body from the funeral home to the church,
where we waited in our good winter clothes. It was ninety degrees in
the shade. As we stood near the front entrance of the church, watching
for the hearse, two girls in summer shorts and tops pedalled by on their
CCMs, sucking on freezies, riding one-handed.
"Who died?" I heard one say.
"Some old Wop," said the other.
The hearse arrived. Bells started tolling. We sweated through the Mass
for the Dead.
My straight-backed older sister sat praying beside me, her face in her
hands, as my younger cousins slowly slid under the pew, wrestling and
giggling in the dust.
The priest swung the censer and smoke thickened the air in the church
as he chanted In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. I wanted to be
in my tennis shoes and bathing suit, riding my bike past the peach orchards and vineyards, singing "She Loves You" at the top of my lungs. I
wanted to jump into a pool and feel the sting of chlorine in my eyes. But
my grandfather was dead and we were required to immerse ourselves
prismmagazine.ca     63 in an uncomfortable, choking grief, like a black curtain pulled across an
incense-filled narthex.
Regular Canadians would not make such a fuss, I suspected. They
would grieve quietly and sensibly in Swedish modern living rooms.
They would not force their children to look at their dead grandparents
in open caskets, or kiss their powdered cheeks, or sit in the nauseating
heat, deafened by bells, the weight of one thousand nine hundred and
sixty-seven years of tradition pressing down on the living along with the
dead.
Regular Canadians would get their loved ones in the ground quickly
and efficiently and have a roast beef dinner later to cheer everyone up.
They would toast the departed with Scotch on the rocks in crystal tumblers and say, Bottoms up!
After mass, we climbed into big black cars with FUNERAL on the hoods,
and started a slow drive to the cemetery on the other side of the canal.
In the distance, I could see the superstructure of an ocean-going ship
gliding quietly above the horizon. It looked as though it were ploughing
through the fields.
"Saltie," I announced. "Bridge'll be up."
My sister sighed.
We reached the canal just as the siren sounded—the funeral director
stopped the hearse, stepped out and held up his hand to let us know
that we were all waiting for the ship to pass. The Saltie was loaded to
the plimsoll markings, low in the water and leaking ballast like a bloated
steel whale; it was having a hard time lining up with the lock. Salties
lacked the long, streamlined, made-in-Canada profile of the lake freighters, or Lakers, that plied the seaway from Montreal to Thunder Bay.
Everyone turned off their engines—my father and the other men
stepped out of the cars and took off their jackets, their underarms soaked
with sweat. My uncle lit a cigarette and my surviving grandfather puffed
on a cigar. My father and brother folded their arms and stared at the
ship.
"Can I get out too?" I asked. "It's so hot."
"Yes, let's," said my sister, pulling off her black headscarf.
We stood watching the Saltie pass—the Koningin Juliana, out of Amsterdam. The ship passed directly in front of us, a great wall of rusting
steel and bolts. So close we could almost touch her. It was like standing
next to an airport where the planes flew so slowly, you could talk to the
passengers as they passed over. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Can I go too?
I had always wanted to see the inside of a ship; all we ever saw was
64     PRISM 47:2 the hull, the screws, the rusty water running from the tin bucket hull, the
superstructure with the rotating radar post and the flag at the bow. And
the men, always the men. All colours of men. Standing, watching.
There was a young, blond sailor, about my sister's age, looking down
at us. He saw me looking up at him, smiled and waved, then noticed my
sister and blew her a kiss. She looked away.
An older man at the rail nudged the blond sailor, jerking his head
toward the hearse.
"Sorry," we heard the young sailor say, and both men pulled off their
caps. All the other men along the railing of the ship did the same—some
even put their caps over their hearts. The row of nameless sailors slid by
my grandfather's body, paying their respects.
If we hadn't been going to a funeral, the sailors might have thrown
gifts, as sailors often did, especially from Salties flying "flags of convenience," like Panama or Liberia. I had no idea where Liberia was, but
it was clearly a seagoing nation with a generous spirit, as so many ships
flew their flag. Liberian seamen loved to toss down packs of chewing
gum with exotic writing on the wrappers—I guessed it was Arabic—and
Russian cigarettes that gave you a sore throat. And strange little souvenir
dolls. But unlike the cheerful dolls in Mountie uniforms that you could
buy at shops in Niagara Falls, the Liberian dolls wore drab little dresses and kerchiefs, and had angry scowls on their painted plastic faces. I
thought they looked like the kind of dolls that girls probably played with
behind the Iron Curtain.
Once the ship was in position, the lock doors swung shut, the siren
sounded and the car engines started.
"That blond sailor was looking at you," I said to my sister.
She answered, "Say your rosary. Your grandfather just died. Keep
your mind on your prayers so he won't get stuck in Purgatory."
As the car drove us slowly over the deck of the bridge, I looked out
the window at a family parked on the other side. A dishwater blonde
in a yellow sundress and an older man in shirtsleeves were lounging
in the front seat of a Thunderbird convertible. They reminded me of
Bob Hope and Tuesday Weld in /'// Fake Sweden. A little boy, maybe
three years old, stood in front of the car, sucking ice cream out of the
bottom of a cone. He seemed awfully close to the edge of the canal but
the man and woman didn't notice. Three carefree Canadians, I thought
enviously. They didn't have to worry about funerals or grief. Nothing
bad would ever happen to them. I wanted to get out and relax with them
at the side of the canal.
prismmagazine.ca     65 At the cemetery, my grandfather was lowered into a hole filled with slugs
and worms and those bugs that roll up in a ball when you nudge them
with your shoe. Saint Antonio bugs, Nonno used to call them. The coffin
was solid oak, but how long would it take for the slimy things to gnaw
their way in? I closed my eyes and tried to pray, but all I could feel was
the weight of Nonno's hand on my shoulder.
Dust to dust, the priest said, sprinkling water as Nonno went down and
down. I felt slightly sick to my stomach.
We got back into the black car and I put my head on my sister's lap.
"I don't ever want to be buried," I mumbled into her skirt. "When I
die, I want them to burn me."
"Only Vikings and pagans do that," she said. "God says we have to go
into the earth."
The day after the funeral, my father began emptying my grandparents'
house. Along with possessions accumulated during a lifetime of boat trips
and war and Depression and more war, we acquired my grandmother.
After her hip fracture she had tried, and failed, to walk again. My father
had bought her a strange metal brace with a pristine black boot, perhaps believing that somehow my grandmother, well past eighty years
of age, would rise from her wheelchair and walk. Instead she had sunk
into a noisy dementia, convinced that the well-coifed, Scotch-swigging
matrons on Edge of Night were speaking to her, watching her as she sat in
her room gazing at yellowing pictures of empty-eyed children in heavy
starched clothing. A thousand years ago.
We all sat together that first night, my mother looking weary, my father
speaking quietly to Nonna in Italian, my sister helpful as usual. Nonna
didn't like the food.
"It's breaded veal cutlets," my mother explained.
Nonna threw up her hands and spoke to my father, not my mother, in
Italian.
"We can't have pasta or polenta every night," my mother pointed out.
My mother was trying to be modern, North American. She even
made desserts from the Kraft Kitchens that she jotted down during commercials. Caramel apples! Marshmallow treats!
Nonna waved her hands over the veal cutlets and said, "Basta."
I stared at my veal cutlets. I wanted to be North American. Angela
Cartwright in Lost in Space. Or the blonde kid in Family Affair, rich and
cute and orphaned and cared for by a plump, bearded Englishman.
No one on that show went to mass.
No one's grandfather died.
66     PRISM 47:2 No one's grandmother lost her mind.
All the old people had silver hair and drank martinis and spoke clear,
unaccented English. They were like Lakers: modern and streamlined
and built for the fresh, clean inland waters of North America. They were
all future and no past.
My grandparents were like Salties: rusted and battered and sprung
from the old world. Bulky and squat to weather the high seas. Foreigners
navigating inland channels, never quite at home, tossing mysterious gifts
to waiting children.
After dinner, I escaped outside. A summer storm was approaching; the
sky had turned a steel colour, grey as my mother's hair, as she stripped
the line of washing.
She held clothes pegs in her teeth, like bullets, as shirts and pants,
skirts and underwear flapped hollowly in the wind, waiting to be filled
by our flesh and blood Canadian selves.
prismmagazine.ca     67 Allison Blythe
Guests
Under my wool coat
an owl and a fox are moving
against each other.
No shapes in the trees, or shadows.
They are next to my chest.
I don't know what those animals
are up to—but we go visiting
one night in spring.
Moon in the moonlight, you are waiting
in the yard, splitting wet yellow-wood for a fire.
You offer me a drink of something strong,
offer to take my wet coat and hang it
in a tree.
I tell you / can't let them get away like that
and am suddenly afraid when you lead me inside.
68     PRISM 47:2 Christine Wiesenthal
sump pump poem
not thinking clearly and wrists shot from wringing right now several
things too wet and electrical second day in a row now feeding wires
cords tubes hoses strung out between ventilation machines the floor
fluid beneath me pooling dark and deep there a shallow shivering river
here an emergency surgery triage spot a big big problem the brain
connection all criss-crossed here at the open drain the thin drip line
of a humming dehumidifier my IV my air supply sweet jesus help me
there is such a thing as death yes from taking in water too fast hydro-
something-or-other smells septic here this blossoming bruise of wet dry
wall maybe hydroencephalitis no wait that's water on the brain it must
be hypo-whatever i heard about a contest where somebody died from it
once just how much water must you drink to die and why at what point
do you want to start crying let it out just let it out one sudden flood of
tears only all the critical ducts and valves are plugged what no weeping
tiles asks dark-eyed marco wheeling in the vacuum what no sump
pump he says no i say no sump pump no weeping but listen there is a
heart here and what else could it be saying but sump somebody quick
pump that central switch board on again right now not thinking water
brain drained wrists wringing heart all wet and electric, still ticking
prismmagazine.ca     69 Word on the Market
Light Sweet Crude)
News of a thwarted terror attack in Saudi Arabia shocked the Market
today poor thing strung out and suffering hypertension sending blood
pressure and the price of Light Sweet Crude through the roof now
the Market's a good sport but going through a rough patch nerves
shredded to bits a tattered cape trailing home long red at the day's
spent end truth be told the Market's getting weary sick in fact to death
of all that yelling over "the Market's" every action and reaction the
men shoving in the bull pit shouting non-stop into many antennae
about upbeat earnings industrial averages unpredictable lifters and
gainers and drags on the TSX (the TSX tsk tsk losers) not to mention
that damn bell always clanging at the close the VIPs and CEOs
clusters about beaming and clapping when its been a good show and
the blonde women stand by their men clapping along also but of
course the Market's reception any given day's very volatile very fickle
sometimes downright insane it's all a bit humiliating considering the
many securities and maturities the Market must trot into that hectic
ring day after day so many people piggybacked and banked on its
constant performance and growth no wonder word has it the Market's
thinking of pulling up stakes and leaving New York for good looking
for a quieter home on the range in Alberta where there are lots of bulls
and only a few bears left a place where God and oil hum-run together
as one (naturally a gas) a place where people mind their own business
say the price of light's leveraged right and anything else you hear's just
another load, sweet, crude.
70     PRISM 47:2 Franz Hohler
translated from the German byJejfKochan
The Giants in the Parkade
Three giants once went into a parkade.
"I'll go in the ground floor," said the first.
"I'll go in the first floor," said the second.
"I'll go in the second floor," said the third.
Then each took a heavy iron bar, went to his floor, and smashed all
the cars that were parked there.
Afterwards, they met at the entrance, went away together, and never
returned.
prismmagazine.ca    71 The Creation
In the beginning, there was nothing apart from God.
One day, he received a vegetable box full of peas.
He wondered where they could have come from since he knew of no
one other than himself.
He did not really trust the matter and simply left the box to stand, or
rather, to hover.
After seven days, the pods burst and the peas shot with tremendous
force out into nothingness.
Often the same peas which had been in a pod stayed together and
orbited around one another.
They began to grow and to shine, and so nothingness became the
universe.
God was astonished by this. One of the peas later developed itself into
all kinds of living things, including humans who knew about him. They
credited him with the creation of the universe and worshipped him as a
result.
God did not resist, but to this day he broods over who the devil could
have sent him the box with the peas.
72      PRISM 47:2 Contributors
Martin Aitken (born 1961) is a translator of poetry, fiction and non-
fiction. He holds a PhD in linguistics and lectures on English language.
His literary translations have appeared in journals including Apparatur,
Den Bid Port and Caique. He lives in rural Denmark and is currently translating a novel for Simon & Schuster in New York.
Leah Bailly—a playwright, fiction writer and essayist—has just returned
from several years abroad, including extensive sojourns in Latin America, Africa, and India. Her nonfiction was recently a finalist in the CBC
Literary Awards, and will soon appear in Parlour Magazine. Currently
pursuing an International MFA in Fiction at the University of Nevada,
Las Vegas, Leah is Deputy Editor of the literary journal Witness.
John Barton has published eight books of poetry. A ninth, Hymn, is
forthcoming from Brick in 2009. Co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of
Canada's Gay Male Poets (2007), he lives in Victoria, where he edits The
Malahat Review. Presently, he is writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library.
Allison Blythe was born in Ontario in 1976. She now lives with her
partner in Victoria, British Columbia, on the Gorge Waterway. Her writing has appeared in the local magazines Island Writer and This Side of
West, and is included in Rocksalt. Her poetry hopes to explore the places
of contact between natural and artistic worlds.
Terri Favro grew up near Lock Two on the Welland Canal in St. Catharines, Ontario. She now grudgingly lives in Toronto, where she freelances as a copywriter. Her stories have appeared in Grain, Riddle Fence,
Geist, More and The Writing Space Journal. She is currently working on a
graphic novel.
Julian Gobert is a filmmaker, composer and writer currently living in
Toronto. He received an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media
from Mills College in Oakland, California. His poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Contemporary Verse 2, Grain, Carousel, Quills,
Existere, The Chajfin Journal, Freefall, dANDelion, Fhe Nashwaak Review and
Pilot Pocket Book.
prismmagazine.ca    73 Amanda Hale's first novel, Sounding Fhe Blood, was a fiction finalist for
the BC Relit Awards and was voted one of the top ten novels of 2001
by Toronto's Now Magazine. Her second novel, The Reddening Path, has
been translated into Spanish. A third novel, My Sweet Curiosity, will be
released in Fall 2009. Her work has appeared in numerous publications,
including Arc, Event, The Fiddlehead, Dalhousie Review, Room, Grain and
The New Quarterly.
Niels Hav was born in 1949 in the north-west of Jutland, Denmark. An
English collection of his poetry, God's Blue Morris, translated by Patrick
Friesen and P. K Brask, was published by Crane Editions in 1993. A
second collection, entitled We Are Here, was published by Book Thug of
Toronto in 2006.
Franz Hohler is one of Switzerland's most celebrated contemporary
artists. A writer, dramatist and cabaret performer, Hohler is the author
of 47 books of prose and poetry for adults and children, 10 theatre pieces
and 21 spoken-word CDs. His work has been translated into 18 languages, and he has received 18 cultural awards. Born in 1948, Hohler
lives in Zurich.
Maureen Hynes is a past winner of the Gerald Lampert Award and the
Petra Kenny Poetry Award (London, England) and her poetry was shortlisted for the 2007 CBC Literary Awards. She has published two books
of poetry, Harm's Way and Rough Skin, and is working on a third. She is
poetry editor of Our Times, Canada's national labour magazine.
Jeff Kochan's translations of Swiss literature have also appeared in Exile.
His own original prose and poetry have appeared in PRISM international, filling Station, Zygote and in England's Mays Anthology. He lives in
Edmonton.
Patrick Lane is the author of more than 25 books of poetry, short stories, fiction and nonfiction. His work has received many awards including a Nellie, a Governor-General's Award, and the inaugural BC Award
for Canadian Nonfiction. His Giller-nominated novel, Red Dog, Red Dog,
was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2008.
74     PRISM 47:2 Lindsay McNiff is originally from London, Ontario, but she has spent
most of the last decade in Windsor. In September she misses the Western
Fair, but she's now trying to make a habit out of riding roller coasters
once a year. Some of her writing has been used as course material in the
Women's Studies Department at the University of Windsor. She is currently working on mastering a sewing machine.
Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Let's Pretend We Never Met (Pedlar
Press, 2007) a wild, orgiastic novel-in-poems about the Latin Poet Catullus. The poems published in this issue are from a collection based on a
histrionic argument with a friend named Holly. The book will be called
Pastels Are Pretty Much The Polar Opposite Of Chalk, and is forthcoming in
2010. Visit www.nathanielgmoore.net.
Emma SanCartier is a Toronto-based artist who divides her time between Toronto and San Francisco. She is very passionate about book illustration and is currently drawing pictures for her third children's book.
Her work can be found at www.emmasancartier.com.
Ann Scowcroft's poetry has most recently appeared in The Malahat Review. She lives and works in rural Quebec amidst the shifting currents
of family, community, teaching and research. She is presently involved
in a multi-media instrumental theatre project called Frankenstein's Ghosts
with, among others, the Blue Rider Ensemble.
Daryl Sneath was raised in a small town called Beaverton. After completing an MA in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of
Windsor, he moved to another small town called Port Perry where he
writes and shares his days with his wife, Tara, and his son, Ethan. He
returns to Beaverton whenever he can.
Christine Wiesenthal lives and works near the river valley ravines of
Edmonton, in the only NDP riding in the entire province of Alberta.
When things get lonely, she likes to write. Her books include the poetry
collection, Instruments of Surrender (Buschekbooks, 2001) and The Half-
Lives of Pat Lowther (2005), a biography short-listed for the 2006 Governor-General's Literary Award for Nonfiction.
prismmagazine.ca     75 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 &
Libretto.
Meryn Cadell
Keith Maillard
Maureen Medved
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Rhea Tregebov
Bryan Wade
Online Faculty (M.F.A.):
Luanne Armstrong, Gail Anderson-Dargatz,
Brian Brett, Sioux Browning, Catherine
Bush, Zsuzsi Gartner, Gary Geddes,
Terry Glavin, Wayne Grady, Sara Graefe,
Stephen Hunt, Glen Huser, Peter Levitt &
Susan Musgrave
www.creativewriting.ubc.ca
Faculty Good Reads
Book Club
Buy 10 General
(non-course) Books
at the regular price and get
20%
of their value
off your next purchase of
regular priced General Books.
No time limits.
No membership fee.
Includes books in-store
and online.
Join at
www.bookstore.ubc.ca
or at any in-store cashier.
(604) 822-2665
UBC BOOKSTORE
www. bookstore, ubc. ca
Pt. Grey Campus
6200 University Blvd.
Vancouver, B.C.
Robson Square
800 Robson St.
Vancouver, B.C. Annual Non-Fiction Contest*
Three winners will receive $500 each
plus publication!
$29.95 entry fee includes 1 year of EVENT
5,000 word limit
Deadline April 15
The Rules
• Previously published material, or material accepted elsewhere for publication, cannot be considered.
• The writer should not be identified on the entry. Include separate cover sheet with name, address, phone
number / email, and title(s). Send to EVENT, PO Box 2503, New Westminster, BC, V3L 5B2, Canada.
■ Include a SASE (Canadian postage / IRCs / US $1).
• Multiple entries are allowed; however, each entry must be accompanied by its own entry fee.
• Make cheque or international money order payable to EVENT.
• Contest back issues are available from EVENT.
• Entries must be postmarked by April 15.
Visit http://event.douglas.bc.ca for more information
Canada Council
C~~l~)    for the Arts
Conseil des Arts
du Canada
'   V  Douglas College MANY SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS
ENTICE YOU
WITH FREEBIES.
IN THIS CASE, THE FREEBIE ISA MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION.
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SUBSCRIBE TODAY
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Magazine
Canada-' jUBCl Creative
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UjjjW Program
Online Writing
Mentorships
Expand your horizons.
Broaden your scope.
Challenge yourself.
The Power ofMentorship
Booming Ground, Western Canada's pre-eminent online
writing studio, offers innovative, professional creative writing
mentorships in a variety of genres for writers of all levels. The
non-credit program of UBC's prestigious Creative Writing
Program, Booming Ground matches some of Canada's best
writing instructors with students all over the world.
Manuscript evaluations
Receive a constructive written report from one of our
instructors evaluating your manuscript and providing
concrete suggestions for revisions and corrections.
New Courses!
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work in memoir, travel writing and other forms of narrative
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apply@boomingground.com
Booming Ground PRISM international
Creative Writing Program, UBC
Buch. E462-1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1
Canada
PRISM international
Creative Writing Program, UBC
Buch. E462- 1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1
Canada Subscribe to PRISM international and save!
□ Two-year subscription (8 issues): $46.00 (GST included).
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Residents outside Canada please pay in U.S. funds. U.S. POSTAL monev orders are
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Subscribe to PRISM international and save!
□ Two-year subscription (8 issues): $46.00 (GST included).
□ One-year subscription (4 issues): $28.00 (GST included).
Residents outside Canada please pay in U.S. funds. U.S. POSTAL monev orders are
not accepted. Please make cheques payable to: PRISM international.
Name:
Address:.
City:	
Province/State:  Postal/Zip Code:.
Email:	
□ Payment enclosed □ Bill me later
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Signature:	  PRISM is Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Translation & Creative Nonfiction
Inside PRISM 's Literary Nonfiction Contest Issue
Grand Prize Winning entry "The Death of Pedro Ivan"
by Amanda Hale and Runners-up entries "Long Views
Across Nothing" by Leah Bailly and "Salties and
Lakers" by Terri Favro
An Interview with Contest Judge Patrick Lane
And new work from:
Martin Aitken
John Barton
Allison Blythe
Julian Gobert
Niels Hav
Franz Hohler
Maureen Hynes
Jeff Kochan
Lindsay McNiff
Nathaniel G. Moore
Ann Scowcroft
Daryl Sneath
Christine Wiesenthal
prismmagazine.ca
$10.00
Cover Art:
red
by Emma SanCartier
25274" 86361   7
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