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  PRISM
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MAGAZINE
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MARGARET REGIS
UWL
international
A QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF
CONTEMPORARY WRITING PRISM international, a journal of contemporary writing, is published four times per
year at the Department of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia,
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Also financially assisted by the Government of British Columbia through the British
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Second Class Mail Registration No. 5496. January 1987. CONTENTS
E TWENTY-FIVE
NUMBER TWO        WINTER 1987
David Galef
Night Ward
7
Russell Thornton
"Ravine Creek in December"
16
"A Door"
17
Roberto Sanesi
"The Glassmaker's Shop"
18
"Ipswich Colour"
19
Ivan V. Lalic
"At the Tomb in Prague"
20
W. A. Cram
Bicycles, Shiny Birds, and
Other Things That Glitter
21
Glen Sorestad
"Along the Promenade des Anglais"
29
Leon Rooke
The Sugar Derby
30
William Woodruff
Simkin
31
Kyle Herbert
"Letter to James Joyce"
35
"Raven River"
36
Alice Hamilton
Three Poems
37
Cynthia Flood
A Young Girl-Typist Ran to
Smolny: Notes for a Film
40
Knute Skinner
"A Small Construction Site
in County Monaghan"
51
Robyn Sarah
"Shed"
53
"Sufficient"
54
Reinhard Filter
Dreammaker
55
Rolf Aggestam
Untitled Poem
58
Kenneth Radu
A Bird in Hand
59
Susan Sonde
"Letters from the Baja:"
Four Selections
69
"Yellow Canary Whistling to the
Industry of Silence inside its Cage"
72
"Russian Tearoom Reconstructed
beside the Lighted Calli"
74
"Reflection from a Golden Era"
76  David Galef
Night Ward
The table fan in the ten-man dorm looked and sounded like a bit of
green fuselage, whistling through the night. Upwards in the darkened
room, above the reach of the fan, a mass of air hung stagnant like a
hot, breathing presence. From the open casement came frequent gusts
from the Shanghai Canal, whiffs of rotting vegetables and raw sewage.
There were occasional sighs in the chamber, but whether they came
from the sleepers or the city itself was unclear. In any event, not everyone in the room was asleep: on the cot in the far corner of the room,
Robert Low lay patiently, preternaturally awake, waiting for the next
rumbling of his bowels.
The disease had started in Guangzhou with something he had eaten
at lunch, a gray, gelatinoec slab that he knew was bad even as he
chewed it. That night, riding in what the Chinese called a hard-seat
train, his guts began to rearrange themselves into unfamiliar positions,
glands and organs all combining as if to form some anatomical funnel.
Then everything began sliding down the funnel, and he had started
losing sleep. He had medicines; he discovered they were no good. The
course of his trip across China began to take on a bizarre interior
impulse: in trains, hotels, and waiting rooms, to locate the bathroom as
soon as possible, and to replenish his supply of toilet paper. He kept
hoping for improvement, like a change in the weather, but the days remained hot and humid and he continued to lose weight.
At first, he told no one, or rather, he wrote no one: his main method
of communication was to write Chinese characters on a notepad he
carried and hope for a sympathetic reader. Most Chinese could speak
no English. Back home, he had had a Chinese friend teach him basic
character strokes—pronunciation he garbled hopelessly—and they
had settled on writing. In Hong Kong, he had combed through a
pocket dictionary, looking for tourist words. Room fee, train ticket, rice
bowl. He now had two dictionaries and realized poignantly that he
should have brought a phrasebook and pointed, like other travelers.
Possibly his pen strokes were inexact; sometimes people understood,
sometimes they laughed. His pad contained, amid endless starts and
finishes, one conversation with an old man in Guangzhou, pages long, which ended in a long string of incomprehensible characters.
The fuller his pad became, the sicker he got. By the time he reached
Shanghai, he had had no sleep for four nights and what had started
out as an adventure in China had turned into a prolonged nightmare.
It had been hard enough getting a place to stay in Shanghai. Every
place was booked and he had been lucky to get a spot in a hotel
dormitory. Tomorrow, he told himself—though lately he addressed
his remarks directly to his stomach—in the morning, when you've survived one more night and it's obvious you're not getting better, then
you go look for help. His fingers in the dark sketched out the two
characters for hospital: "doctor-institution." A schematic arrow inside
an enclosure, a curve like a B, the rooftop radical. . . drawing the pic-
tograms cheered him minimally, though the word hospital, in any language, made him feel afraid. His fingers traced out other words— door,
bicycle.
He looked up from his ghostwriting. The Japanese travel clock by
the edge of his bed read two a.m., its dial a vivid green. The cramps
now came on the hour. They seemed to come with ever increasing frequency, like labour pains, but always heralded by a liquid rumbling.
They came now, moving with alluvial swiftness. Before the pain could
set in, he was out of his cot and into his shoes, and with an invalid's
delicacy was padding out the door, down the hall to the public facilities.
The toilet was Western-style but hopelessly clogged. The bathroom
itself, like the entire hotel, was a relic of the Shanghai of the 1930's.
Now, the wooden moldings were swollen with moisture, and the doors
wouldn't shut. In the rooms, the fixtures had been ripped out incompletely: a chandelier-hole above a repainted escritoire, a bit of
wallpaper with an art deco fish hanging in mid-hallway.
Robert, wedged the bathroom door in place and sat down heavily.
The room, through frequent visits, was already familiar. The bathtub
was a cast-iron monstrosity with a lion's head for a spigot, a runnel of
rust down the interior. In a basin, a mass of gray laundry floated like
an island. The tilework, where it wasn't whitewashed over, was flecked
gold and black. In a moment, the lion's head merged with the tiles and
the basin as the whole scene swam together. Robert groaned and succumbed to another body-wracking cramp.
Afterwards, he felt purged but even weaker than before, his thin
white legs splayed out like two appendages that no longer belonged to
him. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat, his shorts hopelessly soiled.
Without any clear transition, he was back in the room again, lying
down on the hard bedding, and this was his third, or maybe fourth
time tonight.
The fan whirred, the vague sighs continued. Alone in the dark, the premonition of the next rumble keeping him awake, he began feeling
resentful of the others, just inches away, yet asleep. For him, sleep
seemed a great distance off—twelve thousand miles off, perhaps, in
Boston, where he listlessly pursued a graduate degree during the
winter months. At this time back home, his girlfriend Emily would be
yawning over her desk. In her second year of law school, she was working this summer for the firm Rogers & Halwell and often kidded him
that graduate students couldn't afford to travel on any high scale.
"And think of the postage you'll have to waste writing to me." He had
written to her just yesterday, in fact, a brief postcard in which he mentioned he had come down with something, though he wasn't explicit.
Couldn't be explicit, when he still didn't know what he had.
The bed seemed to poke through parts of his body, though the mattress was hard and flat. He shifted onto his side, but his belly complained, building toward another ominous rumble. He was so tired—if
he could only fall asleep, he would be all right for a while, unaware of
his body, oblivious like those in the beds around him in this cramped
dormitory. Of the nine others, he had talked with only one, a long-
faced Scotsman who had offered him a digestive biscuit when Robert
lightly referred to his illness. Most were the backpack and tin cup type
of traveler, their bags now at the bases of their cots, like solemn
markers. The sleeping figures were so still.
Robert took a deep breath and tried very hard to imitate the others.
He stretched out his legs, adjusted his breathing, and shut his eyes —
just then his stomach protested violently, the familiar tugging sensation at his bowels. He was about to get up again, to begin once more
the long trek down the hall, when another spasm made him double up
over the sheet. He saw, with the clarity of a dreamer who sees past surfaces, that he wouldn't make it to the morning. He simply couldn't
take any more of this. There was even the possibility, not worth thinking about for more than a few seconds, that he might collapse right
there. He would die draped over the bed—a final spasm would do it—
and no one would notice until morning.
He looked at the clock, almost three now, and thought of the people
he would wake up downstairs, the havoc that a sick American would
cause in the hotel. Or maybe they wouldn't care, you couldn't tell.
Since he had arrived in China, he had been stared at for minutes on
end and completely ignored at other times. It was the other end of the
world from Boston. Walking in the street, he had been jostled with incredible ferocity, but it didn't seem directed only at him, and on another occasion, he had been helped onto a bus. This was just after one
of his attacks, and it had cheered him at the time, though they gave
him a seat at the expense of an old woman with a twisted leg. Then the
clerk at tonight's hotel had refused him a place three times before finally admitting there was a bed open. There was little logic in the
mixed treatment: he was a novelty item, with all the mixed feelings a
novelty item engendered. But to get medical help needed an audience—or at least one attentive reader.
He hurriedly packed a plastic bag with his dictionaries and passport,
shorts and a change of shirt, and walked toward the door. At the last
moment, he knocked into a piece of furniture looming blackly against
the wall, and the crash sent him backwards. Someone sat up in bed;
someone else rolled over in the yellow awning of light from the
hallway. Robert shut the door and made his way toward the stars. Accommodations tonight were so crowded that there were people sleeping in the far corridor. He saw them now: flat bodies on flat cots. He
hurried by.
He moved down a flight of grand ballroom steps, a curved expanse
with a marble balustrade, then another and another. Waiting at the
bottom, however, was not an orchestra ensemble but a man sleeping
on a wooden bench against the main door. His hand was over his eyes,
and he gave off snores in fits and starts, like an early-model
automobile. Robert approached him, pen and paper in hand.
He tapped the man on the shoulder and then, when he got no
response, he shook him lightly. The man rolled over on the bench and
muttered something in Chinese. He was the caretaker, maybe, or the
night watchman, guarding the premises with his own body against the
gate. Robert shook him once more, almost violently, and said aloud,
"Wake up, will you? I'm sick!"
The man stirred in his undershirt and looked up, his eyes meeting
Robert's. Now was the time to act, to explain. Holding his stomach, he
grimaced in pain. Shoving his pad under the man's face, he wrote out
in laborious Chinese, "I... am ... sick-condition."
The man looked at the characters on the pad suspiciously. He
pointed back up the stairs, talking in Chinese. They all thought that
because Robert could write he could certainly speak.
Robert's comprehension of the language was limited to "thank you,"
"hello," and "good-bye," and this was none of them. In any event, he
had no intention of going back upstairs. He shook his head long and
slowly, pointing to the pad. Underneath his first message, he wrote,
"I... go ... hospital." The word hospital, which he had traced over and
over on the bedsheet, came out elegantly.
The man read the words and barked out a sentence. Robert gave an
exaggerated shrug, the man said something more, and so Robert
printed out the only full, grammatical sentence he knew in the
language: "I cannot speak Chinese."
Another suspicious glance: this could go on all night, the way one
waited for a room, for a train ticket, the way everything in this country
10 seemed opaque, intransigent. The two men stared at each other.
Robert flipped through his dictionary, found the word necessity, and
jotted it down next to the hospital-sentence. He presented the pad
again.
When the man began talking once more in Chinese, Robert pointed
to his mouth and shook his head violently. "Hospital," he wrote again.
His limited Chinese was useful for only one type of arguing: repetition.
Finally nodding, the man got up from the bench, unlocked the hasp
on the outer door and gestured down the road. Catching on to
Robert's limited form of communication, he used Robert's pad to write
out "hospital." He pointed proudly into the dark.
So Robert was supposed to walk there, and who would guide him,
who would give him directions? He shook his head again and sat down
on the bench. In any other country, he felt sure, a sick foreigner would
be given more attention. He wanted at least an escort there. Sketchily,
he began to write "you and I," but the man grabbed his shoulder,
pointing again.
"One person... no walk!" Robert wrote shakily, hastily—had he
written walk or run? He rubbed his stomach with his hand to bring the
issue back to illness. He moaned—credibly, he hoped: he wasn't the
dramatic type. Undemonstrative, Emily always said. You have to show
what you feel.
The man responded in Chinese, walking down to the reception
area. For a moment, Robert thought he had overdone it and was being
deserted, but the man was waking up someone else. He came back
with a young man in tow, wearing a rumpled white shirt, trying to rub
his eyes with his glasses still on. The older man pointed to Robert,
nudging, explaining in rapidfire syllables. He took Robert's pad —
Robert had just found and finished writing the Chinese for diarrhea —
and showed it. The two nodded, and the older man took Robert's pen
and triumphantly wrote "hospital" in the unused margin.
So he had an escort, or at least someone to accompany him out the
door. When he got up from the bench, he had a strong urge to go
right back to the bathroom, but he clamped down on himself. Stiff-
legged, with the man in glasses ahead of him, he walked out the
entrance.
Outside, a postage-size moon hung over the canal, the streets black
and empty. They took a right along the canal, and as they passed one
long warehouse, Robert could hear the sound of high-speed drills.
The graveyard shift: they staggered the work around the clock, he remembered reading, and even now, blue sparks flew from the grated
windows, escaping a controlled hum. Robert's escort picked up the
pace.
11 Robert dutifully walked faster, but that made the pains come faster,
too, and he had to stop. The man kept on walking, oblivious. "Wait!"
Robert cried out, and that at least got the man's attention. Hobbling
forward, he wrote the Chinese verb to wait on his pad and shoved it
forward. The man looked at the message, shrugged, and offered a
hand. Robert scribbled again. "Hospital... far.. . near?"
The man borrowed Robert's pen and, with one neat swirl, circled
"near." He motioned forward, as if encouraging a child. They walked
on.
After four more blocks, they came to a large white building set off
from the road. A billboard in front had a red cross in the centre, and
Robert recognized the word hospital underneath. The man stopped,
borrowed the pad, and wrote what Robert translated as "Number One
People's Red Cross Hospital." The place looked deserted. In the front
clearing, an acre of red earth had been leveled and a pile of bricks lay
by a scaffold. A glass-paned door, already set in its frame, opened onto
nowhere. For one wild moment, Robert thought they were going to go
through an elaborate charade in this ghost of a building but they
moved on, past a gate where a night guard slept watchfully. Robert's
escort nudged the guard in the ribs.
The guard woke up at once, and the escort pointed to Robert, explaining in a flurry of Chinese. He strained his ears, but he could make
out nothing. After all his days of listening, Mandarin still sounded like
someone talking with straws up his nose. The escort pointed at
Robert's stomach, which growled obligingly—and suddenly he had to
get to a toilet.
There was no chance: the escort marched Robert toward not the
white building but a sort of annex to the left. They walked through an
empty lobby and the man frowned at the elevator in back, stabbed a
button. The elevator was a long time in coming. Robert crossed and
recrossed his legs in an effort to hold back. To divert himself from the
pain, he flipped through the English-Chinese dictionary and found
the word for stomach, which he painstakingly copied out on the pad.
He couldn't think of the word for weak, though it was one he had written out before. Instead, he prefixed the word evil to stomach and
showed the pad to his escort.
For the first time, the man smiled. He patted his own midsection, his
glasses gleaming in the dim light of the lobby. He took Robert's pad
and wrote out two characters that Robert deciphered as "fourth level."
The fourth level of pain, the fourth level of understanding? The
elevator door opened, and he realized that "level" was "floor," and
there would be help there.
There was an elevator operator inside, perched on a bamboo stool,
another sleepwalker minding his job. He stirred long enough to have a
12 brief conversation with the escort, both smiling and nodding when
they regarded Robert. He let them out on the fourth floor, his head
drooping again as the doors swallowed him up. Maybe he trapped
himself between floors and slept there.
Down a short corridor was a glassed-in partition with red-glazed lettering. Ows^-something and clinic were the only characters he recognized, illuminated by a dull yellow light from behind the door. They
passed right by, however, and were soon walking down a long green
corridor, Robert taking halting steps because he was desperately close
to another spasm.
Finally, halfway down the corridor, a white-kerchiefed nurse
popped her head out from a room and beckoned them in. Inside was
what looked like a consulting room, with a scale, a table and chairs,
and a medicine cabinet. Beneath a blackboard in the corner was a
shadowy array of bell jars filled with preserved things, translucent
white shapes that made Robert queasy just seeing them. There was another nurse, also wearing a kerchief, and she motioned him to a chair.
Robert shook his head. He pointed to his pad, on which he had just
written the word bathroom. There were two words for it that he knew
of: one politely signified a hand-washing place, the other bluntly stood
for a toilet, and he chose the second.
The first nurse read what he wrote and smiled—what was so damn
funny about his illness?—and said something to his escort. Before they
let him go, she gave him a small cardboard pillbox and wrote with
elegant care on a slip from his pad a character that bristled incomprehensibly. He had to look it up; he also had to get to the bathroom,
and he hurriedly guessed at the main radical, counted the strokes —
this was the only way to use the Chinese-English dictionary—and on
page 319 he found the character, faithfully reproduced and meaning
feces. Clutching the specimen case, he nodded and followed his escort
to the bathroom.
The glasses-man seemed more impressed with Robert now that he
had the official status of a patient. With a deferential wave of his hand,
he indicated the facilities and waited as Robert entered the cubicle.
The toilet was the usual trough, though the tiled expanse around it
was shiningly clean. The Chinese, of course, seemed able to squat for
hours, anywhere, on any occasion. It was the world's cheapest seat,
completely portable and free. Robert now did the same as the Chinese,
though feeling as if he were folding himself over the exact area of
pain. The spasm lasted for almost a minute, and when he came out, he
showed the specimen box to his companion, who nodded without
speaking and followed him out.
Back in the examination room, the first and younger of the two
nurses took the specimen box in a clamp of toweling and padded off
13 with it. The older nurse motioned him to a chair; she handed him a
pen and a form to be filled out. Hospitals, it seemed, shared certain
similarities the world over. What was the Chinese for Blue Cross? The
form was all in Chinese but decipherable through context and the various characters he knew. There was name, and below it something like
domicile. Record-country: "U.S.A.," he wrote, the nurse looking over his
shoulder. Then, as a supplement, he wrote the characters "beautiful
country," the Chinese for America. Age and sex were also characters he
knew. Below that were a few closely written lines with blanks that
would have to remain blank. When he tried to look up the first two
characters, they didn't seem to be there—which was what you got for
buying a cheap pocket dictionary, he reflected. Suppose his disease,
whatever it was, wasn't there, either?
The nurse took the form and walked out of the room, leaving him
with his escort. The man sighed and rubbed his eyes. Tired} wrote
Robert on his pad and shoved it toward him.
The man looked surprised, as if discovered in a secret vice. Not so, he
returned. He penned again, in painfully exact calligraphy, You are sick.
Robert answered with a short affirmative, and they passed the pad
back and forth among them for several minutes before the doctor arrived. His escort, he found out, was twenty-five years old and unmarried, a native of Shanghai. He liked the city. There were questions
that Robert knew how to write, answers he could understand. He
would surely have been out of his depth with long and tortuous love affair, or live a quiet but desperate life. The man asked politely whether
Robert's stomach still hurt, and Robert replied politely that it did.
The doctor came in then, white-coated and stethoscoped, looking
closely at Robert before advancing. He placed a faded pamphlet on
the table as he sat down on the chair next to Robert's. The title read, in
English, Glossary of Medical Terms, with multicoloured organs arranged
in a circle below. The doctor opened to the first page, scanned a
Chinese index, and flipped forwards. "Do you... " he murmured,
keeping one eye on the page, "have pain ... here?" He poked lightly at
Robert's abdomen.
Robert nodded, and the doctor continued his probing. He palpated
Robert's chest, his arms, and his stomach, which rumbled encouragingly. At one point, he concentrated on the lower gut, looking
to the correct page and asking twice, "Hurt. .. when I rebound finger?" It didn't hurt, and Robert was relieved to answer all the rest of
the doctor's questions in the negative. No itchy scalp, no dizziness, no
vomiting—they were quite insistent on the last point, and both the
doctor and the nurses chimed in on that question. The glasses-man
contributed a creditable mime of a patient throwing up.
Robert changed the subject. After six days of running to the toilet,
14 he was both exhausted and dehydrated. He found both words in the
dictionary and wrote them out on his pad. Dry. Lost . . . 2, 3 kg., he
added before showing everyone his latest work.
They led him out then, across the hall to a separate room. The
entire ward was deserted, which seemed strange, until he realized that
they were probably isolating him. They showed him by turned-over
palms to lie down on the hospital cot; they mimicked an injection.
The injection turned out to be an intravenous tube: glucose and
saline solution to replace lost fluids. The label was in English; maybe
that was the scientific language in use. The younger nurse walked in
bearing a cup with three pills inside, two saffron yellow and the other
an eggshell blue. The other nurse came in then —it was like being
royally attended—bearing a glass of water on a tray. They watched
with approval as he swallowed everything, and then they hooked him
up to the i.v. The doctor had already disappeared; now the nurses left,
and Robert was left alone with the glasses-man. He was perched on an
armchair, thoughtfully regarding Robert like a relative who has
brought an expensive basket of fruit for a patient. He had gone to the
trouble of bringing him here, making sure Robert got taken care of,
and now he was going to watch over his investment.
Robert lay back against the white sheets, staring at the white ceiling.
The rumbling in his bowels was quieting down, the liquid lava drying
up. The sensation he had felt for days, that of perching before a void,
unable to relax his guard, began fading away. He might almost be
home. Friends and relatives might be in adjoining rooms. Lazily, he
reached for his pad. You remain! he wrote, holding the message up so it
could be seen.
The man replied with a set of characters that Robert couldn't read.
Sleep! wrote Robert, indicating the other room.
Sleep, wrote the man, pointing to Robert, who suddenly felt extremely tired. It was just past sunrise now, and a film of light came in
through the gauzy white curtains. The beginnings of traffic noise invaded the chamber: the rattle of carts, a truck starting up. He listened
to the sounds for a minute, and when he turned back to write a question, the glasses-man had gone. A breeze moved the curtains, as if to
suggest a possible exit route.
He was alone in the white room now, alone but growing invisibly
better, an incalculable distance from the streets filling up with people.
He thought of the canal, of himself walking along the bank and peering over the parapet into the heavy green depths. The water moved
like a tide against the backs of his eyes; he lay back on the cot and slept.
15 Russell Thornton/Two Poems
Ravine Creek in December
A frost climbs through the creek
Along the way emptying his coat
Of chrome fenders, crockery,
Children in classrooms, candles with hardening drippings.
Now he comes to the creek source
But there is nothing left of him, only his coat
Which he finds he has slipped out of again
As a whistle out of a throat.
16 A Door
Opening and closing, a door is crying
an unnameable, contorted creature
blind and lost
It is hiding what is inside it
and what is outside it
and so inside and outside hide from it
But it wants to see
and go finding its own way
in amongst men, gods
17 Roberto Sanesi/Two Poems
The Glassmaker's Shop
Panes, spectres, frames ... in the hollow of the door
sits a solemn figure, leaning; night
beneath its stocking scratches the foot of the moon
and shadow turns up the collar of the cold: somebody
is brooding on death, but sees only life;
and perhaps the gap between them is in that pale
light's shattering, as it reflects and splinters
the wonders of the shop's back room.
Translated from the Italian by
Richard Burns
18 Ipswich Colour
To Mel Gooding
Green corn against white sun.
And there
poppy heads are cut, sleep
drops bits of voices in the deaf reflexes
of the estuary, and you'd say the body was sinking
secretly into the soul.
Rough mud
all along the bank withdraws
with a landslide of mist, with boots,
keel tar, and the dead fish too.
Suddenly somebody
moves off in the distance.
Sighing shells dissolve
in imperceptible sounds.    And perhaps, the evening
is a crumbling piece of wood, the faintest
gleam in the footprints of spent seagulls.
Translated from the Italian by
Richard Burns
19 Ivan V. Lalic
At the Tomb in Prague
Earth freezes each winter, leaves fingers of snow on the
stone
And Yehuda Liwa ben Bezalel is scattered among dust
Like the type of a destroyed book.
Mercurius, first firebreath, streaked with verdigris:
Arise now from Saturnus, the black beginning.
A sky of lead and silver is heaped on Prague,
Wind freezes in crystals over the bend in the Voltava,
Slowly the Rabbi dissolves in the solution of his legend,
But the moment, again and again, returns:
Jupiter, true path, from black to blueness,
Paved with opals of fire: sing on, of planets
Greening under glass in alembics of formulae.
Yet, the impossible does not exist; words travel, like stars,
Wiser at each return, but more inquisitive.
The graveyard's dust sparkles, invisible flowers of frost
Bloom into perfume upon the skin of air:
Sulphur, mercury, arsenic, but also something more,
What was measured once, forgotten, but is promised still.
No more than the shadow of your truth, Rabbi Loew,
Whose blood gleams like rubies within the frozen earth; but
The passer-by places a pebble on your grave, and leaves
With the snow, with the wind along the street.
Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by
Richard Burns and the author
20 W. A. Cram
Bicycles, Shiny Birds, and
Other Things That Glitter
Just the Facts
Lester Gordon's colleagues at the government building couldn't believe it. And it surprised Lester too. But hadn't he read enough intrigue novels to qualify as a connoisseur of shiny black shoe agents?
Hadn't he endured forty-two damp winters on the island imagining
that every tenth tourist was an MI5 agent assigned to sabotage the
city's hydrofoil service? What else could he do but emulate his favourite "government" man?
Of course, he hadn't expected all the fuss. It always worked on
Dragnet. Those block-shaped men in seersucker suits and black shoes
knew how to calm some hysterical old bat—right up the wazoo. Especially Joe Friday. And as long as Lester worked for a branch of the
"government", he liked to call himself a G-man too.
The people who phoned the Medical Services Plan office wondering
where their reimbursement was for hospital care in some exotic land,
however, didn't appreciate a gruff voice interrupting them with, "Just
the facts, ma'am, just the facts."
More Facts
Lester Gordon has his grade 12.
Someone once told him that he could be a threat to his supervisors —
and to the provincial cabinet, because soon grade 12 will be the highest
diploma available in British Columbia. But Les doesn't worry about
that.
He heard a rumour that people on the coast only have to know how
to shovel coal onto Japanese freighters. But Les isn't worried.
He worries about his son. Eleven years old and already wearing
black. Studs. One glove. A fad he thought went away a long time ago.
He wonders if perhaps a mother might do Benjamin some good.
He wonders if a mother might not do him some good. But the way
21 he sees it—it's out of the question. When does he find time to date? Up
at 6:30 a.m. Showers. Gets dressed, makes the bed. Wakes Benny up,
makes coffee and breakfast. Throws some sandwiches together for
Benny's lunch (sometimes Benny makes his own, but Lester doesn't
think peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches fit the bill). Gets his son off
to school. Feeds the cat and makes sure one window is open enough to
let Fiver in or out whenever he wants. Straps on a rear-view mirror to
his eyeglasses. Attaches the portable bicycle headlight to his thigh and
adjusts the white and orange fluorescent-striped helmet. (Benny always says he looks like a Transformer.) Carries his shiny ten-speed
down the apartment steps (just an old Schwinn, the first bike he
bought after his wife left him and took the Honda Civic). Fits his Hush
Puppies into the stirrups, and pedals to the white and silver building
where 85% of the employees are women—most of them married.
Seven and three quarter hours of work later, he bikes home and
starts supper for the two of them. Every Tuesday and Thursday Lester
teaches First Aid at the St. John's Ambulance Building from 7 to 9
p.m., and on Wednesday evenings he volunteers on the phone line at
the Detox centre. The babysitter charges more and more as Benny
gets older, which Lester thinks is backwards, but then again, Benny
may be getting harder to handle. He wonders where it will end.
The Government Office
New shiny building on the corner of two busy streets. A battle for
parking spaces. The architect believed in practical work environments.
The open concept. The government believed in lowest bid. So the air
circulation system doesn't work, the lighting is a subtle system of
neural deprivation, and five stuffy floors of sweat, perfume, and carbon dioxide make several people dizzy. The dizzy people keep Lester
busy since he doubles as the First Aid attendant for two floors.
Lester likes that responsibility better than his "real" job. He always
says he would be a full-time First Aid attendant if given a chance. But
chances are for other people. Les thinks the supervisors have it in for
him.
They don't have to worry about their jobs. Oh, no. Lester knows he
won't advance to "adjudicator", the claims adjustor for broken bodies.
He has completed the training, written the exam, but has a problem
with telephone manners. And he knows, to work for the "Government", one must be polite on the telephone.
But two months ago, Lester lost his permanent status and was put on
probation. For talking on the phone. Three months of good behavior
and he will be classified as permanent/contract status. It's just not fair,
he thinks.
22 So, Les stays in "Micro and Source." He finds files, sorts medical
cards, and summarizes medical histories for others. It's a far cry from
where he started though—as a "staple spotter." He had to make sure
the computer cards weren't "bent, stapled, or mutilated in any way"
before entering the machine. He was there for three years, then because of better technology, they did away with "staple spotters."
In his First Aid course, he found something he excelled in. Practical
emergency care. How to reassure people that a twisted ankle wasn't
the end of their walking lives, that the flash blindness from the Xerox
machine wasn't permanent. Lester found his place. Almost.
The Problem
Lester has greasy hair. And he can't do anything about it. He washes it
every day and tries to keep it short, but he likes it swept back over his
head—Elvis style. G-men and Elvis. Why did those days ever end, he
laments.
He knows that some women cringe whenever he approaches to attend an injury. He knows they think his hands are greasy and sweaty —
but they aren't. They are powder dry, and smooth. Lester ignores the
tittering around him and smiles, says hello to them by name (he remembers names from years of searching through medical files), and
completes the First Aid.
The only person who appreciates Lester is Lorna Thorpe, an Out-
of-Province adjudicator who works on the same floor as Lester.
The Shiny Bird
Lorna always wanted to be a ballet dancer. She has a poster of Karen
Kain on her office divider. "She looks like a bird," she says to everyone
who passes by close enough to hear. "She looks like a delicate bird."
Lorna has tapered, dancer's feet, but then her calves explode, swell
up to her thick thighs, and her torso—well, a Mason jar has more
curves, she always says. Of course, she neglects her huge breasts in her
description, breasts that sway when she moves.
Her brown hair is short, like a crewcut all around except at the front
where it is long and curly. She calls it semi-punk, a term she learned
through her daughter who has eight inch spikes in her hair. And
Lorna sort of likes the spikes.
"Orange and blue spikes on a fifteen year old girl is one hell of a lot
better than pregnant at fifteen," Lorna says. "I should know. I was
pregnant at fifteen!"
Lorna's eyes are a bright blue, and they sparkle and glitter,
telegraphing her impending roar. She never gossips about others —
23 only about herself. When the other catty women start talking about
how creepy they think Lester Gordon is, she leaves in a huff of sweat
and perfume. The women like Lorna. She makes them all look great.
The Stories
Lester tells stories one sentence at a time. He enters the coffee room,
surveys the drawn, grey faces and says, perhaps, "Went to Seattle on
the weekend and met the strangest man on the bus," and then leaves.
Or maybe he will say, "My son and I went up island to watch a logging
operation." The next day he will enter the coffee room, glance at the
faces again and say, as if there had been no time lapse, "He had the
strangest hole in the side of his nose," or "Good thing I was there because one lumberjack hurt himself."
The women gab incessantly after he leaves. About him. About his
wife that left nine years ago. "Serves him right for marrying a dancer,"
they say. "For five bucks or a nice word or two, she'd dance on a table,
on the sidewalk, or right into somebody's bed. Who knows whose son it
really is?"
Lorna doesn't believe the stories. She believes Les is a good man.
And she should know. Lorna's been through several not-so-good men.
Her first husband, Floyd, was so good around Trish, her daughter
from her first affair, that Lorna thought he was a saint. A dapper, experienced man of twenty-three, he had the potential to become an
electrician—or so she thought. He was fired from his first job as an apprentice for trying to strangle his boss with a piece of 3-wire. The boss
was upset because he used fifty feet of wire in one room where it
should have taken eighteen. Lorna had not known about his temper,
but she soon learned that Floyd couldn't be told anything.
After being fired from every job in two years, he began sitting
around the house watching game shows and building toothpick
houses. She left him after he started whittling the kitchen chairs into
toothpicks as he muttered prices for waffle irons and vanity mirrors.
She lived with many men after that but all of them turned out bad.
For a time she thought her size intimidated men, made their anger rise
and caused them to become brutal. But one day she realized that it
wasn't her bulk they despised, it was her simple demand to be loved.
Most men, Lorna now says, are just piss-filled little boys looking for a
replacement mother.
But Lester? Well, she just knows he is different. Sure he needs someone to look after him, but she believes he needs someone to love too.
And she figures she may be just the one he needs.
24 More Facts
When Lester isn't teaching First Aid or helping alcoholics and drug
addicts or worrying about his soon-to-be oddball son, he polishes
stones he finds in the Goldstream River. He takes them home and rubs
them with emery cloth until the rocks are perfect spheres. Then he
polishes them. It takes hours of buffing but they glisten on his
windowsill like the moon and the stars.
Les likes shiny things. He polishes the rims on his bicycle every day.
(He wonders if his mother ever made him eat dirt when he was a
child.) The spokes glisten like tinsel when he rides and Les figures he'll
never get hit because his bike is so brilliant that motorists would swerve
just to save their eyes. Dressed in his Joe Friday suit, helmet, rear-view
mirror attached to his eyeglasses and the headlight strapped to his
thigh (always moving to attract attention), Les Gordon glides through
the traffic, a sunburst free of worries. Just the facts, he says to himself.
Just the facts.
The Shiny Bird
As an adjudicator, Lorna pays people after their medical claims are accepted. So many dollars for a colostomy, so many dollars for a craniotomy, a shunt for ventricular obstruction for hydrocephalus, or so
many dollars for a laminectomy for spinal stenosis. Amazed at the
number of people with horrible sounding problems, she happily pays
and hopes they get better.
A simple keystroke on her computer terminal causes a cheque to be
written and mailed, so one day she bought a stainless steel bird, the
kind that balances on a pillar and rocks back and forth perpetually,
and placed it beside her terminal. It rocks rhythmically like a silent
metronome, pecking one key on the computer, while she reads about
more "otomies".
Lester likes the bird. He admires the calm precision of its movements. It reminds him of his own shiny bicycle streaking along the avenues, an alternate sense of order in the world, his world.
More Facts
When Benjamin was five years old, he named their cat, Fiver. They
both love Fiver very much and Lester lets the cat outside every night,
and each morning Fiver is in the kitchen waiting for his food.
But one day, Fiver doesn't come back.
"Fiver, here Fiver," they call.
25 Benny scours the neighbourhood before leaving for school, but no
cat. Les pedals to work along lanes and narrow streets looking for
Fiver. But no luck. Outside the building, he remembers he left his keys
on the kitchen table. He can't lock his bicycle. Debating a few minutes
whether to return home or risk theft, he picks his bicycle up under his
arm, and carries it into his work area.
No one says a word to him about it. Business as usual, he thinks.
The Question
In the coffee room, Les surveys the pallid faces, sniffs the perfumed
air, and says, "My cat never came back," and walks out. Lorna jumps
up and races after him. Grabs him by the arm and says, "Will you finish your goddamned story!" Not knowing what else to do, Lester looks
at Lorna's blue eyes. There are no sparkles in them. She wears a necklace of polished stones. It must weigh ten pounds, Lester thinks.
"Where did you get that necklace?" he asks.
"Where did you lose your cat?"
Lester's face goes red. He rubs a palm over his greasy hair. Tingles
under his armpits. He wants to relieve himself.
"Why the hell don't you finish telling your stories, instead of dragging them out for days and days?" Lorna says.
Lester looks at the women in dresses and shiny earrings milling
about in the hallway. "The cat just never came back," he says. And he
turns to walk away.
Lorna grips Lester by the arm and leads him to her desk. Sits him
down and says, "Well, I want to know more. A lot more. Can't you tell
the whole story to one person instead of one sentence to no one?"
Lester feels as if he is going into shock. His palms sweat, a fever
crawls up his chest. He wants his First Aid kit. What does this all mean?
he wonders.
Lorna smiles, the light sparkling in her eyes. A laugh rises from her
chest. "Les, don't look so shocked. Relax a little. C'mon, lighten up—
laugh a bit, Joe. Eh? Joe Friday? 'Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts.'"
Lester in a cold sweat.
"But, but, how do you ... ?"
"I've heard you on my phone. Everyone's heard you on the phone."
Had Lorna reported him? he wonders. She wouldn't do that if she
feels the way she does, would she? he asks himself. Would she?
"I'll need time to think it over," he says.
Another Question
"Moved from Micro and Source to Out-of-Province have we, Mr. Gordon?" The voice of authority—the supervisor.
26 Lester jumps up. "No, ma'am. Just on my coffee break. We were
talking."
"Coffee break has been over for quite some time, Mr. Gordon. There
is work to be done here, not socializing."
Lester turns to leave. The shiny bird nods its head—up and down,
up and down.
"There is a matter of unauthorized use of telephones, Mr. Gordon.
And a little matter of a bicycle in the work area which has come to my
attention. You know there are rules about that. What if everyone followed your example?"
Lester knew it was all too good to be true. "It won't happen again,"
Lester says.
"Well, there's more. We like to be progressive here. The management, and others," she points above her, "feel the most efficient
method of payment involves a re-structuring of the organization,
which directly affects you—and several others. Shall we discuss it in my
office?"
Just the Facts
Technology, Lester thinks, is too cold, too calculating. A data-base system so the adjudicators can call up their own file requests. More shiny
bird keyboard pushers. A two-week notice of termination. "We considered you for several other positions but we're very sorry," he mimics.
They were just looking for an excuse, he thinks. One bicycle in the
work area. They just have no appreciation for beauty.
"It just isn't fair," he says to Lorna. "I have eleven years here. It just
isn't fair."
"Move in with me, Lester."
"Just like that? Snap—in like Flint?"
"I can help till you find another job."
"I need time to think about it."
"Suit yourself," she says, "just remember, there's safety in numbers."
An Answer
Lester Gordon's last day of work. He rides his bicycle through the
automatic glass doors, into the foyer, and up the elevator. To hell with
rules, he says. He rides along the aisles of each floor, tossing polished
stones to people he recognizes, from a canvas bag slung over his
shoulder. At Lorna's desk, he pulls out a stainless steel bird placing it
beside the other one. He doesn't say a word, just starts the bird rocking, then rides down the hallway past the supervisor's office with his
feet and arms waving in an obscene gesture before smashing into the
elevator doors. He rides by the breakwater, by the ocean crashing
27 against the shore with the wind whispering, tingling across his scalp.
Sailboats wobble on crinkled water. He wonders what kind of a job he
can find. He wonders about Lorna.
Lester pedals harder and harder as if the answer will be found in the
blurring spokes. He weaves through traffic fervently until he is lost in
the confused street plan of Uplands. Jaguars and Rolls Royce's in front
of sprawling mansions.
Head roaring, temples ready to burst. Up and down—up and down.
Lawn ornaments seem to peck at the grass. Les concentrates, pumps
his pedals, his wheels glittering in the morning light. An ambulance
rushes past him, the tremulous siren fading in the distance. He hopes
whoever it is attending to is all right. He wishes he was there to help.
To reassure the person. It's all right, now, he says to himself. Everything is all right.
And Lester stops pedalling on top of a steep hill where he can see
the blue ocean, the green hills of the Gulf Islands, and the snowcapped mountains of the mainland. Wave crests glitter, sparkle, and
disappear like motes in a shaft of sunlight. Slowly he dismounts, rubs
the wheel rims clean of dust, and pushes the bicycle down the hill. The
spokes and rims sparkle as the bike gathers speed and stops wobbling.
From the top of the hill he watches it careen straight and true down
the yellow line. Lester feels lightheaded; he yells and waves at the sky.
A car slams into his bicycle and he watches the spokes fly apart and
scatter on the ground like shards of glass on pavement. He hears the
screeching tires, the horn blasts, the crunching of tubular frame
against chrome. Turning away from the commotion, he tosses his helmet into the salal bushes next to the road, drops his rear-view mirror
into a shallow puddle, and unstraps his headlight from his thigh, letting it fall to the road. He studies the arbutus trees and rose bushes in
the manicured yards as if they had suddenly appeared. And he sees
what looks like buds, new growth waiting to be polished in the sunlight.
Breathing the fresh salt air, he runs through the forest lot, secretly
advancing towards Lorna's apartment. There's safety in numbers, he
says to himself, as he marvels at all the cats clinging to cedar shake
roofs and trees, all crying out to him, all asking to get down safely.
28 Glen Sorestad
Along the Promenade des Anglais
From the earth's four corners they bare
their breasts to the seductive sun,
here on this Mediterranean beach;
bare their breasts to the slow stroke
of sun, to the sky and the sea,
these women of every age, breasts
of palest hue or dusky tan,
pendulous or pert, nipples
to the sucking sun they lie
strewn beneath the sultry blue,
fifteen or fifty, a bask of breasts:
magical dreamscape for the old stroller
whose age and cane vanish
beneath the touch of the sun's wand.
29 Leon Rooke
The Sugar Derby
I thought of the hole my husband had punched into the wall as I ate
my sugar. Let me put that another way. As I ate my sugar I thought of
the hole my husband had punched into the wall. I left the table and
went over for a close look at that wall. It was beige. It was beige all over
and you would never know a fist had rammed through it. I ran my fingers over the surface and thought, Now this is smooth, you can't get
any smoother than what I have here. Then I walked down the hall to
my bedroom. I stood at the door, looking in. You would say as I would
that he had never been inside that room. Let me put it another way.
He'd been in that room, but looking at it now you would never know it.
He'd never been on that bed. Of course the sheets were new, the
spread, even the mattress. Let me state it this way: of all the items in
that room the mattress had been the first to go. I hung in the doorway,
admiring that room, the beige walls, the beige curtains. Admiring the
light. Even the floor was beige. I went into the bathroom and stared at
my face in the mirror. I was doing all right. It had been three days
now. My face was not one bit swollen. I got out the pill bottle and swallowed four tablets along with a glassful of water. Then I went back into
the kitchen and sat again at my table and ate more sugar. It was all
right with me if the son of a bitch never came home. I like my beige. If
he called on the phone or sent around his messenger boys, this is what
I would say: You have the wrong party. I am Mrs. Beige. Mrs. Beige
lives here. It was my beige that had got him started in the first place.
So he said. But let me put it another way: I've got my own ideas.
30 William Woodruff
Simkin
Dear Mort,
Just a few lines to let you know, first, that Judy and I arrived home
three days ago, back from our honeymoon, and second, that I want to
see you as soon as you return. Judy, unfortunately, still feels uneasy
about you, which will necessitate a get-together somewhere away from
this apartment. We'll have to fix a time and place. And I'll have to concoct some story to mollify her curiosity about my staying out late; I
hope my imagination doesn't dry up. So jot a note to yourself, the instant you read this sentence, to phone me at school the minute you enter your door.
When I phoned your house, Doris, chillingly polite as always, told
me only that you'd gone to San Francisco; on one of your business
trips, she said. "No, Mr. Kaplan, I don't know where he's staying." So I
sent this letter to your usual motel; I hope it finds you there.
I can now admit that you guessed correctly; Judy and I did go to
London. We stayed at the Beachcroft Hotel: an old house, converted
to a bed-and-breakfast, of mottled red brick, fronted by roses and facing a tree-lined side street in Golders Green. To remind you, in case
you've forgotten, Golders Green lies north of Hampstead Heath, not
far from its upper reaches, in the city's northwest suburbs: a long tube
ride from Earls Court.
On the way home we stopped over in Brooklyn for a two-day visit
with my parents—a tense visit for Judy; she always lets them intimidate her—then flew on to Los Angeles.
In London we spent our days doing the popular spots—we got
swindled at a few tourist traps—and spent our nights in robust intercourse in our cold little room, usually on the loudly creaking bed, but
once or twice on the scratchy carpet, next to the gas heater. I'll spare
you the prurient particulars. Mulling over this sentence, I now see us
shivering on the deck of a riverboat chugging and splashing up the
Thames; or riding a Gray-Line bus (my hand on Judy's leg) with other
camera toters, mostly Arabs, trying to ignore the garrulous guide; or
trudging through museums and cavernous antique churches, buying
lots of postcards; or lying on the grass (Judy tickling my nose with a
31 blade she's plucked) in lawny green parks among staid leafy old trees,
gardens of red and yellow and purple flowers, rippling ponds
patrolled by ducks, and casual ramblers of all ages and races, several
tossing bits of bread to the ducks, two or three throwing sticks for
eagerly galloping dogs. My poor aching feet. Our poor budget! I
promise, with a solemn oath, hand on heart, to bore you to death with
our pictures.
During our walk through Earls Court I lead us along Trebovir
Road, without telling Judy why, just to give myself a look at number
seven, which had become, in my memory of the time you and I lived in
the building (Christ, five years ago!), picturesque, local-colourful, spif-
fily antique. Now, however, it looked drab, surprisingly small, and, except for the grimy black door (I'd forgotten about that long vertical
crack; still there, by golly), indistinguishable from all the other buildings on the block. I'll forgo reciting some platitude about memory and
the passage of time. Judy didn't even notice the building—she had no
reason to—and I couldn't bring myself to point it out to her. Nor did
she comment on my reflexive suppression of the shiver that shot
through me as we passed it, on my falling back two or three steps,
hands in pockets, eyes fixed to the sidewalk.
I wish I could reflexively suppress this damn jet lag. It's muddled
things for me ever since our taxi ride home from the airport: our poor
budget's coup de grace. My intermittent disorientation and grog-
giness—protracted and much too severe, according to Judy—which I
now offer as my feeble excuse for not writing to you sooner, made
hauling the last of our furniture into this our new apartment, yesterday and today, a complete wipe out. Once I had to lie down, the room
pitching like a boat. And tomorrow I have to go back to work, back to
teaching the little buggers, as best I can, how not to demolish our
English language; then, tomorrow evening, get back to unpacking
boxes. So, chock-full of self-pity, I'll end here. "Now more than ever
seems it rich to die," wrote Keats in one of his limp-wristed moods. We
visited his house in Hampstead, by the way. In my present mood, that
line weighs a ton.
After we've finally settled in I'll prod myself to resume work on my
novella: the weird product of my morbid fantasies, according to Judy.
You and my psychotherapist would call it another of my exercises in
vicarious self-destruction.
Judy said, looking over my shoulder a minute ago, "Don't write to
him, Stanny." I had to overcome a reluctance to tell you that. Please, if
you can, don't let my blushing bride's attitude offend you, as I don't
(ha ha) let your wife's offend me.
Surely, my friend, you and I have erased by now what happened
during our student year in London. Judy just displayed, for the ump-
32 teenth time, her idiotic conviction that I haven't. She misunderstands
your and my relationship; we must disabuse her. The possibility that
she, or Doris come to think of it, might try to keep me from seeing you
overwhelms me with panic. I don't want to lose you! But I don't want
to lose Judy either. (Christ, with worries like these popping up now,
how long can my marriage last?) "What can I do?" I shout to the ceiling. Imagine me jerking this page's precursor out of my typewriter,
and throwing the crumpled wad at the picture of Judy on the bureau.
"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece," wrote Shakespeare, no
doubt after scrutinizing a graph of my brain waves.
It seems I've prattled on beyond my ending. And obliged you to
read more than "Just a few lines." Please excuse, as you have so often,
my garrulity and little emotional outbursts.
I await your call.
Yours always,
Stan
P. S.
A sudden impulse, and a new burst of energy, move me to tell you
about the letter, a report of some aunt's death, that Judy should've
gotten at the Beachcroft from her mother. That corpulent gas bag,
you might remember, distinguished herself at the wedding reception
by spilling champagne on the rabbi. Before that all-too-typical faux
pas she'd whispered to me, glancing back at you, "So who's the beefcake you got for your best man? Why did you keep him under wraps?"
Mother's letter reached us here today, and some anonymous British
postal clerk deserves a nod of appreciation. The address on the envelope, or rather that part of it that Mother wrote, reads: "c/o Beachcroft Hotel, Golden Green, London, England." As you can see, it includes neither a street name nor a postal-zone code, which mail sorters
in cold, damp, dimly-lit back rooms always look for first. And I
couldn't find any Golden Green in my dog-eared London A to Z. Yet the
letter found its way to the Beachcroft—the filigreed handwriting of
the forwarding address looks like the owner's—then to this apartment.
I now see the owner wrapped in her shawl at her rolltop desk, peering
at the envelope through her lorgnette.
Imagine our mail sorter: a type if you wish; bald, sallow, paunchy,
with trembling nicotine-stained fingers and bloodshot eyes. Call him
Simkin. He squints at the envelope, then leafs through a worn G. P. 0.
Directory or his own dog-eared A to Z. His eyes glaze as he scans a
memory map a lifetime in the making. He squints again at the address.
"Bloody Americans," he mutters, his hand penning "NW 11 7DG" in
purple ink under Mother's scrawl.
33 In response my compliment—I've joined Simkin for a drink, on a
cold, gray, drizzly evening —he looks down, dry coughing, into his half
pint of brown bitter on the mottled ring-stained pub table. "Nothin'
sir. All the same. Ever' day. They tell me do it, I do it." His expression,
confused, haunted, evokes in me his leaden ache; I know he dreads
the loss, the almost certain loss, of someone important. Simkin, mon
semblable, mon frere. "Beggin' pardon sir. I've to ring up Harry." He
awkwardly arises from the table, scraping back his chair, almost knocking it over, then disappears into the smoke-hazed crowd.
I saw him once, several years ago, as a solitary morning drinker in a
grubby New York bar (which explains my placing him in a pub),
seated between two mirrors that faced each other from opposite walls,
his reflection multiplied to infinity.
Gazing at this blank page, having just snorted a little coke, I now see
him an hour or so after his head-down exit from the pub into the cold
drizzle. He shoots six .22-calibre bullets into the brain of Harry's sleeping female lover, tries to hang himself from the ceiling light fixture
and fractures his hip when the plaster gives way, and dies when the
ambulance taking him to the hospital in a downpour, siren screaming,
collides head-on with a truck.
34 Kyle Herbert/Two Poems
Letter to James Joyce
Hitherandthithering
Greatly,
I wend witherward
Atop causeway crags
Upfrom a bay all
Swimmering with finthing.
thereoff, mesee villagethatch.
I tread the roadly mudpath
Howstrewn badfar with pebblethorn.
Lor', me foot it weep!
Here be grazegoat, bleatsheep;
A twain of wagon cows.
Leave me be, ye stinkards! says I.
To the beasts, ye know.
I'll not feed ye.
I feel as old as yonder church.
Skybrows knitting.
Rainsong come.
The land be sunshy
Fer the nonce.
35 Raven River
Raven river, black black in the brew-black haze
So lumining in the glimmerous moongaze.
Look there, something large and strange arrives by boat.
At the oars is something stranger, toad or goat?
Above are bridges and ridges of bridges,
Against which fog-breathed women, leaning, gazing,
Hum.    One woman holds a baby (or a bag).
Another, whiskered and whiskey-warmed, exclaims:
"High time the moon, that bit of chalk,
Got off Earth's back and learned to walk."
A lady with a dog laughs and then says, "Hush,"
As police with flashlights pad through lambent slush.
"Go on home.    Night is for sleep," the policemen say.
"Or for dreams," say the women, as they drift away.
The river is white in light of the dim-dawns.
Life's large but elusive, as it on and ons.
36 Alice Hamilton/Three Poems
Run fer th meadow my heady one
th pooly an blackened skies above
an I don need another one
Ready to beat th bushes thru
ready to head th roady down
an I put out my thumb
O mad eyed meadows in bells ahead
an th three side shows
in th whirly hells
Run fer th hilly bowls instead
wher I lay down
my desert bed
Among th quills my longing one
th pooly skies is filling above
wi feathers and pillows on yer skin
In heavy an dopey mows I drowse
take my pearls my lolling one
th skies is filling wi those above
an I don need another one
37 II
I lap awake
from a dream of seas
th animals rustling thru th leaves
th treez yaking all nite
but could I wish them
to go away
no
tell me of yer secret life
why do you sway
from racey skies
an do you cool
do desert treez be quite the same
I lay awake
in a branchy daze
walk thru th moovies mooving ways
talk to th woodies
in secret codes
in pales of snow
of forest gales an beechy groves
to grow away
an will I die
green in fossils an secret lies
38 Ill
To tide wag bottles into th shore
all my lov dog body an sole
wrapped in a note log bogged in foam
could I ask more
of my dogs bone
To mouth wide whales
from a low boat thrown
down my lov dog swallowed whole
bit of note in a bottle form
could slog to th shore
of my dogs roam
shell roar cockles of th ocean floor
wher th letters of sea
build a bottles dome
to sea weep wishes I would never ask more
drowned in lov dog body an sole
39 Cynthia Flood
A Young Girl-Typist Ran
To Smolny:1
Notes For a Film
Streetcorner in Burnaby.2 Hot summer day. Time, now. Three young
women. One's cute, one's punkoid, and one's neither. She looks as
though she's trying to be someone.3 Some of her clothes fit. Punkoid
smokes and Cute giggles. All three carry sheaves of a revolutionary
newspaper,4 subscription forms, pencils. Street: small tidy stucco
houses, small tidy green lawns; a few larger, scruffier frame dwellings;
some humans at work with hedgeclippers; gnomes and flamingos
stand about; curtains6 drawn everywhere.
Cute, giggling, "Isn't the anarchist house around here?"
Experienced Punkoid frowns. "Yeah somewhere," indifferently.
Unsure, one has millisecond vision of black dwarves massing by the
barbecues, TV aerials flaming with black flags.6
Dissolve to Punkoid's cross face and sharp voice. "Kate, you take this
block, both sides. Meet you back here in an hour. And don't get tied up
talking, okay?" Cute goes one way, combing her hair, and Punkoid an-
'So says A.J. P. Taylor in his Introduction to John Reed's Ten Days that Shook
The World, Penguin, 1982, p. xv. NB see if Trotsky or Deutscher refer to her.
aBoring bedroom suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
'Lots of room here for directorial creativity. Wd. be interesting to see what F
and M directors would do. (In the women's dorm at college in the late 50's the
phone message book included a column showing initially the sex of each caller. Still
done?)
4NB devise suitable name.
5Priscillas.
6Consider music for this bit—in fact consider soundtrack throughout. Shd. be
highly patterned. Maybe silences for all the inner visions though?
40 other, not. CU on Kate, whose Adam's apple'jigs as she swallows; not
attractive.
The stairs of the first house are cartoonly tall, looming. Kate can tell
there's someone behind the glass-windowed and curtained door.8 Her
knock sounds explosive. East Indian woman in sari, festooned with
small children, opens.
Kate, brightly, "Good morning! I'm visiting in your neighbourhood
to introduce our9 paper, Da Da Da Da10 [EIW remains expressionless—camera on her throughout Kate's remarks], and I'm sure it will
be of interest to you. We cover the international scene from a revolutionary perspective,11 and each monthly issue also contains [here
Kate's voice starts running down like an old Victrola; camera is still on
EIW's unchanging face] up-to-date analysis of events in the Canadian
labour movement, the women's movement, the...." Behind the EIW
appears a handsome teenage boy. He takes a paper from the top of
Kate's pile, looks at it, hands it back, says "No."12 His glance moves
over the little bump Kate's right nipple13 makes in the close-fitting fabric of her shirt, and he closes the door in her face. Immediately Punjabi bursts out within.
Kate walks further down the street.14
Next house. Flowers planted geometrically. Razor edge between
grass and sidewalk.15 Door, freshly painted, bears sign in stick-on
letters: The J one's. Kate winces. Then we see her from the back as she
positions herself at an angle to the doorway so as not to seem invasive
to the opener. She knocks gently. Middle-aged man, primfaced, appears.  We  see  Kate's lips  moving tentatively and  then with  more
'Obvious question, but let's ask it anyway: What about Eve's apple? If it's supposed to be all her fault, how come she doesn't even get the damn thing named after
her? Or did the apple just slide down her evil throat as smooth as milk?
8Shot here through letter-slot, about eight inches from bottom of door—the sari
and the bundle of kids' legs.
"Note that this is never explained.
'"Making up a name will be hard. Sarcasm and flippancy are easy, but irrelevant
here. Can't use any extant. Many of the non-extant have too many connotations,
resonances (go easy on that lit crit stuff, okay?).
"The extreme disjuncture between the contents of these two sentences is
echoed in the changing tones of Kate's voice. Readers/viewers may feel the impulse
to laugh; they are invited, since they are so smart, to think up other and better ways
to do door-to-door selling of a revolutionary newspaper in late 20th century North
America.
12He does all this quickly, decisively, no hesitation whatsoever.
"The left is concealed by the revolutionary press.
"This sequence can repeat exactly whenever needed. Kate has to look extremely alone. Camera behind her, the long street stretching out.
"Could have shot of a man using an edger here.
41 determination, and come in on, " . . .women's movement, the anti-
imperialist and Third World struggles. We16 are also active in the NDP
across Canada...." Man disappears. Victrola effect. Kate waits, nervous. Man reappears. Kate's eyes are wide open and eager, the man's
narrowed and suspicious.
"We take the Trib."17 He closes his door, precisely and not noisily.
Kate walks further down the street.
Next house. Geometry and razor-edge again. Kate pauses at first
step, arranges sheaf of papers, has pencil ready. We watch her from
the top of the stairs this time; she comes up sturdily and rings the bell
in a confident manner, stands feet apart directly in front of the door.
Woman opens main door (screen door remains closed): early forties,
tall, glasses, curly grey hair, big build. Stares. We see Kate's lips
moving again, and come in on, "... across Canada. Right now we're
offering a special rate, twelve issues for five dollars and three back issues thrown in free. [The woman stares with a little smile. Kate is unnerved but continues.] Or if you like you can buy a single issue now
and see if you like it.18 [The woman's smile widens.] I'm sure you will,
you know. It's really a very good paper. ..." Victrola effect again, and
Kate shifts her feet about miserably.
The woman says, "I'll take a subscription." Kate fumbles delightedly
among her papers. There is a mixup over who will open the screen
door19 and whether Kate will give the form or the woman will simply
take it off the top of the pile. Kate watches while the woman
deliberately, too slowly, fills in the form. There is something not quite
right about her manner.20 Kate connects with this fact at the moment
when the woman hands back the subscription form. Her accepting
16Never explained.
"Newspaper of Communist Party in British Columbia. Kate's reference to the
New Democratic Party tipped her prospect off that her paper is likely Trotskyist.
(Though he would say "Trotskyite". Why this curious distinction obtains could be
the theme of a very interesting little dissertation. Cf. Marxian, Marxist; economism,
economist; racist, racialist; socialite, socialist. Consideration in order once again of
distinctions between/among American, Canadian and British usage.)
"Mistake. At the training session back at the hall Kate was told only to suggest a
single-issue sale if sure the prospect wouldn't take a sub.
"A metal screen door, ugly, noisy, with stiff latch and handle. This model, now
ubiquitous, is in every way inferior to the woodframed screen doors of yore, the
sound of whose closing on summer days has been eulogized by innumerable
middleclass writers doing an E. B. White "Once More To The Lake" number.
20The woman has a look something like when a person who ordinarily wears
glasses goes without them—drugged, lost, out of synch. Her clothing also can suggest
mental illness (not the garments themselves but the way they are worn, the movement of the body beneath them).
42 hand hesitates, indicating her realization that this is not a "real" sub.21
But it is a sub. Kate leaves. The woman watches her go down the steps
to the sidewalk and turn to continue her journey.
Kate walks further down the street.
She thinks about that young girl-typist who ran to Smolny, ran with
a message of crucial importance that Trotsky had to receive or . . . ?
What kind of place was Smolny, anyway? A suburb like Burnaby? Kate
visualizes herself running from Georgia and Granville out to Boundary and Hastings. But 1917, in Russia ... fragmentary images of snow-
howling steppes, Lenin addressing the crowd, onion spires, Peter and
Paul.22 Kate shakes her head, annoyed at her own ignorance and
romanticism, waves her arm to brush the images away. She says, "I
can't see how to see it." And the young woman herself, what is she like?
Kate puts her on a country road, straight and flat, files of elms to either side,23 and dresses her seriatim in professional Ukrainian peasant
dance costume, Canadian Girls In Training uniform circa 1914, and
1920's flapper style. In all cases she has long blonde hair coiled in
braids about her, and she runs with long powerful strides.24 Kate
shakes her head again.
Next house. Frame, three-story, beat-up but handsome still. Children's toys, tricycles, playpen littering front yard. Stacks of beer
cartons and old newspapers on front porch. Door with long oval
window, no curtains. Kate is still lost in abstractions when she rings the
bell; she waits, thinking. The runner image again, now in modern
Olympics outfit complete with torch. Rings again. Door opens. Young
man, plain, intelligent, scruffy.
"Yeah," he says, "don't I know you?"
21"Real" would be when the prospect and Kate had engaged in a brisk, vigorous,
informed political discussion as a result of which the p. was convinced (not persuaded
but convinced) to buy the newspaper. Kate does not believe she is able to carry on
such a discussion. For the present she is right; but she will learn.
"Also possibly the pram-on-the-Odessa-Steps scene from October, and the
massed pennanted spears from Alexander Nevsky.
23 A Dutch landscape, Hobbema or Ruisdael.
"Kate is thinking of the Modern Library logo, and then by association of the
Everyman Library motto, "Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide/In thy
most need to go by thy side." Everywoman is not mentioned, though many do use
books as armour. For example, the woman to whom Kate has just sold a
subscription: The day she ended her marriage, she went to the Kingsgate Branch of
the Vancouver Public Library and read Dick Francis's Rat Race in its entirety. With
that padding of 150-odd pages of cheap thriller between herself and the morning's
experience, she felt able to go home and tell her children.
There are limits though. In 1975 gifted British Columbia poet Pat Lowther was
hammered to death by her unadjectived husband in the bedroom of the East Vancouver home they shared (you could say). In her most need, where were you, Erato?
43 "At the demo last Saturday I think," she says. Her face is shimmering between friendliness and urgency to begin her spiel. Young man's
eyes drop to newspapers she's carrying. Face changes,25 lengthens,
goes tight, works in an ugly way. Mouth opens.
"Kronstadt!" he bellows. "Kronstadt] Trotsky murdered them!"26
Glare. Spit.27 Slam.28 Glass of window in door vibrates.
Kate walks further down the street, her step uncertain. She turns;
she has only done four houses; she turns and the long street stretches
out.
"Well. That was the anarchist house."
She walks.
"I wonder if anyone knows what her name was?"29
Now, a sequence in which we don't see or hear the details of Kate's
experiences. She goes up and down steps, from house to next house. A
couple of times the pencil and the subscription form pass back and
forth, there is briefly a smile on her face, her step is resilient—but essentially what we watch is the strengthening power of routine exerting
its influence upon an individual.30 Kate is passing through her "first
time on a subdrive" initiation. She is learning how to do this work of
25This must happen instantly.
26The sailors at the Kronstadt naval base on the Baltic were among the most
loyally revolutionary supporters of the Bolsheviks throughout the revolution, and
Trotsky was a particular hero of theirs. In 1929 this relationship turned sour; the
Kronstadt navy "mutinied against the Soviet government, and took possession of
the fortress and two ironclads. After a bombardment lasting many days, the Soviet
troops made a night attack across the ice and the revolt was crushed with much
severity." So says the Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., 1929. (Incidentally the excellent entry on V. I. Lenin in this edition is by L. D. Trotsky.) The Britannica then
austerely concludes its remarks on Kronstadt by noting that the port "is icebound
for 140 to 160 days each year, from about the beginning of December until April",
and does not comment on Trotsky's approbation of the Bolshevik decision to crush
the sailors' revolt. Whether this action should or should not have been carried out is
a question which has since generated savage and unhealable differences among the
left.
"He's not had time to work up a good supply of saliva; nonetheless, a visible
glob lands on Kate's shirt.
28This is a really purposeful slam.
29If Trotsky knew, he didn't tell; he identifies her as a "working-girl from the
Bolshevik printing-plant" (History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere Books, London,
1967, Vol. 3, p. 194). Was she a typesetter, not a typist, in fact? He also says she was
accompanied by "A worker" (male, for obvious reasons), and that these two "ran
panting to Smolny". NB remember to see what Deutscher says if anything.
30This is a tricky concept in revolutionary work. Too little routine in an organization leads to sloppiness and inefficiency. Too much generates an inability to respond to anything unfamiliar. An organization afflicted by this particular type of
blindness is said to be suffering from routinism.
44 the revolution. It is work, she now realizes, combining in itself work's
too-common qualities of difficulty and tedium. Occasionally there are
brief flickering images of the young girl-typist.
Kate finishes one side of the block and crosses the street, and this
new side stretches out and out before her. She is just half-done, is already tiring. She starts down the block. At the third house the camera
meets her on the porch, a quick approach, nothing special about the
building. She knocks. Brief wait. Then heavy sounds beyond the door;
it opens. Tall, big-chested old man31 with crutch under his right arm,
newspaper under his left. His check shirt and his jeans are clean and
neat but he is not a person who is interested in them. He looks intently
at Kate, who speaks without much expression.
"I'm selling Voice of Revolution, a monthly newspaper. We cover [the
man blinks at the copy Kate extends to him] the international scene
from a revolutionary perspective [his eyes widen], and each issue also
contains up-to-date analysis of events in the Canadian labour movement, the women's movement [frown of puzzlement], the anti-
imperalist and Third World struggles. We are also active in the NDP
[his lips frame the initials CCF] across Canada. Right now we're offering a special rate [a smile begins to form on his cheeks and he looks
Kate up and down; she becomes self-conscious but is determined to
get to the end], twelve issues for five dollars and three back issues
thrown in free. Would you like to examine32 our new issue for a few
moments? I'm sure. ..." No Victrola effect this time; the man's deep
warm voice simply obliterates hers.
"The VoiceX Are you selling the Voice then?33 Come in, yes, do come
in, put it down here so I can take a good look. The Voice now! I've not
seen it in years."
They go past a small fanatically clean livingroom and ditto kitchen
and enter a TV room currently metamorphosed to a guestroom. The
base is clear but the superstructure comprises open suitcases, books
and magazines flung about, a couple of canes, a tobacco tin, some
Guinness bottles. A crocheted throw on the hideabed has been tossed
back as if by one arising from a nap.
"Now I'm Mac, Mac Ferguson, and what's your name, comrade?"
"I'm Kate Steele." Her face is nervous (inside house of totally
strange man, remember that look on the porch); excited (this must be
"Camera can explore this last adjective. Conclusion: this human is not as old as
he initially appears. Poverty and hunger do a fine job in achieving this older-than-
you-are look. So do the heavier emotions. So sometimes do intellectual struggles.
32This should be "look at", but at least she's saying the right thing this time.
"This telltale sentence construction is the kind that encourages rightwing
Letter-to-the-Editor writers in deploring the too-strong influence of Scottish trade
unionists In Our Canadian Labour Movement.
45 an old member, what luck); shy (what can middleclass Kate possibly
have to say to this towering hulk of a worker?).
"Been in long?"
"Just a few months. I joined in the spring, after all the cutbacks demonstrations the teachers had."
"Ah, an intellectual. That's good, the party always needs some.
Think of Trotsky himself."34
Abruptly Mac sits down on a chair and feels for his glasses. Kate sees
them lying on top of the TV and hands them over; he does not say
Thank you, just puts them on and is at once absorbed. Kate looks
amused.35 Mac reads, muttering. "This NDP convention now, what's
the line?36 They'll never go for that, the social democrats. .. That's
right, tell the leadership where to get off.. . And this nuclear... terrible thing, terrible it is. Well. . . never win a strike that way, never
happened that way yet on God's green earth. [Kate sits down on the
hideabed.] Latin America. Poor damn buggers. Poor damn buggers.
Here there's food anyhow . . . Abortion rights. I don't like that now, no
no . .. [Kate's face sinks; is she going to have to argue that one with this
old comrade?] The International. The Four Eye . . . Ah, the masthead." He reads in intense searching silence, then drops the paper and
looks at Kate. Fragmentary vision of the young girl-typist, lights of a
town ahead of her now along the narrow road, with darkness coming.
"Nobody I know left."
Kate takes the leap delightedly. "Were you a member then?"
"Aye, yes, we're comrades, eh? Not really though. I dropped to
sympathizer—oh, years ago it is now." He reaches for a tobacco tin,
wincing; quite often in the rest of this scene he shifts his right leg
about, seeking comfort. He starts rolling a cigarette. Kate watches his
hands. CU to her face; Adam's apple activity again. Then she says,
"What happened?"
Silence while Mac finishes rolling his cigarette, lighting it, dousing
the match, inhaling, looking at Kate. Quite a long silence, which must
establish that there is going to be an answer, that it will be serious and
34Kate does not consider herself an intellectual and is bothered, but does not
know what to say.
35Such a reaction would be highly suspect in many left-wing and feminist circles.
I like her amusement because it shows she has relaxed a bit and is focussed on him,
not herself; likely it's a relief after her experiences of the last while not to be the object of attention.
36This term, meaning here the official opinion or analysis of a revolutionary organization, has been subject to much abuse in the North American left from (a)
people too cowardly to accept the political commitment which having a line demands, and (b) people unable to move a political inch without the starch of an organizational viewpoint in their spinal columns.
46 truthful, and that Kate is going to hear things she hasn't heard before.
"Comrade,37 I honestly don't know if you could understand it without being in the Cold War. I mean, I started with the movement in the
Depression, the Left Opposition, I went through the War—how old
are you?"
"Twenty-seven," says poor Kate, feeling it a most puny age.
"The Second War. Oh yes, terrible, but the Cold War. . . that
McCarthyism . . . what that did to people on the Left. Oh yes, here in
Canada too, don't ever let them fool you on that, it didn't stop at the
border. Awful divisions. In the movement. We were responding to the
outside pressure, you see, it was hard to know that then. Fighting for
our lives, we were. Oh, the factions. Comrades dropping out and
dropping out, just a few of us left. . . when you're so very few you're
precious, see? You love each other and you hate each other too, somehow. Things go bitterly wrong."38
"Was it for personal reasons that you left then, Mac?"39
"Hard to say.40 And I was a marked man in the union too, see. They
got at me every way they could, the rightwingers, and they had plenty.
Fight to be allowed to speak at meetings. Hell, fight to be told the
meetings were happening! Fight to get to work. Fight to keep it. And
to watch those "labour statesmen" trading up their cars every two
years .. . boom, see. Oh it was a bad time. My wife left me41 [this very
quick, en passant]. And then I got this," touching his right leg. "At
Powell River. The mill. They wouldn't even take on the Compensation
Board like they should have. I don't get half the compo I should, not
half." Mac is going to develop this theme, but recalls himself with a
glance at Kate. Brief image of the girl-typist runner, freeze-frame, as
if listening.
"Camera on Kate's face through most of this speech, which comes slowly, with
pauses and gaps.
S8Now to Mac's face, looking at Kate. Shows (a) the gratitude of a deeply lonely
person talking to someone who at least understands the terms he's using; (b) consciousness of her youth and his age; (c) consciousness of her sex.
39Kate thinks these would be separate from and inferior to any political reasons,
no matter how misguided the latter. She thinks so in spite of a year's participation in
a women's group and a careful reading of Rowbotham's Beyond the Fragments and
analogous works. She doesn't even know that she thinks so. Consideration of power,
depth, and subtlety of bourgeois ideology is in order.
40Mac is not interested in answering the question but in saying what he wants to
say anyway. This is true of about ninety percent of all answerers to all questioners.
"'Throughout Mac's story, speculation is encouraged re whether he would have
spoken thus, or even considered speaking thus, if the revolutionary salesperson arriving on his doorstep had been male. Interested readers/viewers may care also to
imagine versions in which inhabitant of house and salesperson are respectively female and male, or both female. Such timewasting fantasies can be most instructive.
47 "So it was very bad. This was the early sixties by now, I was still
trying to get back to work with this leg, took me another five years to
realize I'd never work in the mill again. I was still trying. And we were
having a big faction fight in the movement. Was right round when the
NDP was forming, eh? No more CCF. Again and once again, the question of the NDP.42 So at this one branch meeting I got up to speak, and
the comrade in the chair ruled me out of order. And—what's your
name again?"
"Kate."
"And Kate, you know what I did?" He looks in appeal at her.43 "I
cried. Couldn't help it. It was like everything was all of a piece, the
movement, the union, my wife, the rightwingers everywhere. I cried.
[Kate sees the girl-typist, clad now in a fifties-style skirt-and-sweater
set, running along narrow city streets lined with old European apartment buildings. She must be tiring but she keeps a steady pace. She
does not carry any parcel or envelope, so the crucial message for
Trotsky must be in her braided head.44] And I walked out then, and I
never went back." CU on Mac's hands, which are large and thick-
fingered; the tops of three fingers on the left hand aren't there. The
ropy veins on hands, wrists, arms stand out in high relief. Camera
shifts to Kate's face, which shows that she cannot think of a single thing
to say.
"Now you'll be wanting your money," Mac says suddenly and heaves
himself up. "My daughter, she keeps me short, but I know where her
bus-money stash is. No no, none of that, the press has to pay its own
way, eh?"
Mac and Kate go into the kitchen's antiseptic neatness and he gets a
cocoa tin down from a cupboard and counts out twenty quarters.
"Och yes she'll fuss, but what can she do, see? Next month I'm off to
the one in Williams Lake and she's a lot easier on me—so I'll put her
42Kate has heard this sentence spoken with sarcasm and as invective. Mac says
the words with plain sadness.
"This expression contrasts with Mac's big masculine head and face in a way
commonly thought more moving than if it appears on the face of a woman or a
child.
"Deutscher tells us that on 23 October Kerensky banned Rabochyi Put (title of
Pravda since the July days) and ordered its editorial offices and printing press
closed. "A working girl [NB he puts her first] and a man from the press rushed to
the Military Revolutionary Committee, saying that they were prepared to break the
seals on the premises of Rabochyi Put and to go on producing the paper if the Committee gave them an effective military escort." (Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed:
Trotsky 1879-1921, New York/London: Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 307.)
Deutscher further states that this proposition, "breathlessly made by an unknown
working girl, came to Trotsky like a flash."
48 address on your form." He does, in a clear spiky hand which owes
nothing to H. B. MacLean.45
"Do you live part of the time with one and part with the other,
then?"
"That's right. When I'm not in some damn hospital with this [slams
leg]. Neither of them wants me, really, but what are daughters for,
eh?" He folds the receipt and gets out his wallet. "I'm useful still,
though. Do repairs here, look after the kids there. Her man here,
though, he's an awful rightwinger. 'Trade unions are not political organizations' [this in an assumed whiny tone]. Thinks it's terrible when
the young Turks now,46 they bring resolutions on Nicaragua to the
meeting. I tell him he should go down Stateside and help Mr.
Reagan." Mac and Kate laugh briefly. Mac takes a photograph from
his wallet. "Here I was." A young soldier smiling. A casual snapshot.
There is nothing to say.
The young girl-typist has reached a large building, windows lit from
top to bottom, guards' figures black against the grey of the coming
night.47
"Will you take tea? Och, I should have asked before. No, you've to
get on, I see that."
Kate is out on the front porch. She is down the steps and almost at
the sidewalk. She looks down at her own arms and legs.
She sees the young woman now mounting the steps of the big building, Smolny, about to step inside tall ornate doors, about to break the
seals of history and vanish nameless. The doors swing open and the
■"System of handwriting instruction favoured for many years in Canadian public schools; designed to pulverize any individuality in students' methods of moving
pens across paper. Each lesson begins with "Ready for printing —desks
cleared—printing materials ready (practice paper, pencils, and compendiums on
desk). Pupils adopt attitude of attention . . . All pupils should sit in a comfortable,
hygienic position." (H. B. MacLean and Grace Bollert, The MacLean Method of Writing, rev. ed., Agincourt, Ontario, Gage Ltd., 1966—67, passim.)
46The OED says that this term identifies the Ottomans who in the early years of
this century tried to rejuvenate and Europeanize the Turkish empire. It also defines
the expression as applicable to anyone having qualities "attributed to the Turks", i.e.
unmanageability and violence. By quoting a question posed in a 1908 newspaper,
"Will the glorification of the 'Young Turk' kill this expression as one of reproach to
be used in the nursery?", the OED suggests that the child-classifying expression
used in Britain predated the 20th c. political term of reference. A good deal seems
to be implied here about attitudes to children and non-Britons.
4,By one of those ironies Clio frequently produces—so sharp that in any "creative" or "fictional" work they would be roundly condemned as vulgar—Smolny,
which was a building in Moscow, had in its previous incarnation been a finishing
school for bourgeois young ladies.
49 typist turns to show Kate's face, an old face, worn, heavy, heavy with
the weight of human years. Then she's gone.48
"Kate! Katel" Cute and Punkoid are down at the next corner, waiting and waving.
Kate walks further down the street.
She turns in at the next house. She will complete her assignment.
48Trotsky, according to Deutscher, had been waiting for some provocative action from Kerensky, and the seals were precisely that. He sent riflemen and sappers
to guard the printing press, the machinery rolled once more, and the next day the
rising started. (Deutscher, op. cit., pp. 307 ff.)
Presumably if this specific provocation had not come to Trotsky's attention
some other would have, the revolution would still have taken place, etc. However, it
did take place in just this particular way because of the thought and action of one
particular young woman. For further discussion, see History, role of individual in.
Plekhanov's essay is as good a place to start as any.
50 Knute Skinner
A Small Construction Site in
County Monaghan
Two men stand at a small construction site,
one middle aged, bald, lighting a pipe,
one young, in a green jacket, holding a shovel.
From time to time the young man lifts the shovel
as if to do something with it, and with himself,
but the older man, a man in a blue sweater,
is taking time with his pipe.
He has cleaned it and filled it, then tamped it several times,
and he has spent any number of matches,
but the pipe won't burn—or else it stops from neglect
as the man resumes what looks like a monologue,
a stream of words on a palpably serious subject.
And all this time the young man fidgets.
He shifts the shovel from one hand to the other.
He pushes it into a small mound of cement
only to pull it back and then shoulder it.
He is a good if a somewhat impatient listener,
and clearly he knows his place.
The bald man, now, has succeeded with the pipe,
and heavy smoke comes spurting from his mouth.
He places a cloth cap squarely on his head
and turns aside to contemplate their business,
a house in a halfway stage of reconstruction.
It's time, he knows, to stand and look at the wall
where a new window waits to be bricked in.
It's one thing to do what the young man now does-
pour sups of water onto the hill of cement,
then quickly, skillfully fold them in with the shovel—
but the real challenge lies in assessing the window
and the open space along the sides of the timber.
51 It can't be, and it won't be, done in a hurry.
The space must adjust itself to his measuring eyes,
and some of the bricks will have to be reshaped.
He taps the end of one such brick with a hammer,
cutting it down to just the size that's needed,
working with such absorbing concentration
that his pipe burns out.
In time, when he has the brick just as he wants it,
he ascends a short ladder and stands on a scaffold.
The young man hands him a half bucket of cement,
and the man on the scaffold sets the bucket down.
He transfers the pipe from his mouth to his pants pocket.
He pulls up the sleeves of his old blue sweater.
Then he trowels cement onto a mortarboard.
He turns to the work at hand, so intent he appears
at that moment to be part of the work itself,
a part of something comprising himself and the wall.
The young man stands, a spectator, at a short distance.
He knows how to mix cement,
he is learning patience.
52 Robyn Sarah/Two Poems
Shed
In their being
unfinished I love
these spaces the wind
enters, bringing a rasp
of leaves, a spit of rain—or
birds come in, their startling a
whirr, a flurry, up through rough
beams open to sky—then,
one feather: white down, still
airborne moments later, suddenly
sunstruck in the stillness of its
down drifting
53 Sufficient
Or how you close
the chink of sky
between each new plank
and its fellow: with one or two
sure, quick hammer-strokes—yes,
this; and the raw sweet smell
of the new wood, wet
from last night's rain;
even the nails
I hand up to you, cold
and smooth, from a torn
paper bag, shall I not
find them pleasing? balanced
on a beam, here, scooping
the fur of sawdust into piles
with my one free hand?
54 Reinhard Filter
Dreammaker
ONE
You have to have a face.
Not just any face. Not a hungry face. Not one that appears in papers
or news programs. It must not be a living-room thing. You need something sweet. Something alluring and dreamlike. Something challenging and nearly-but-not haughty.
You use a box of smiles.
(It doesn't matter how you feel. When you reach for it, one fits.)
Sometimes, in mirrors, there are images, austere and bleak. You
think, without that face you would be a gonner.
This is how you spend your time: walking between shadows, gathering an infinity of inconsequentials, putting on and taking off, setting
tables. . . . just so, aware of passages and corridors and minutes bleeding from your wrist.
It is the time that kills. It is the time that, one night, after the clearings away, after the drinking of one last coffee, makes you decide.
After that, in the dim light, in the fragrant light of bars and hotel
rooms, in seconds stretched elastic, when you see nameless faces
huddled in small corners — in that time—you decide. You stand surrounded (a cacophony of empty eyes, white and round as eggs), carrying a decision like a duffel bag, packing for a trip.
These are your adieus:
three lipsticks, red and pink and beige
an assortment of powders
Miss Clairol
TWO
You spend Mondays walking sidewalks.
All of it is new and you feel younger. You have not opened your jars
in days. You are in your promises. Weeks of light and sound.
These are crammed with aspirations. And you take your box of
55 smiles, the one you used for years, and pack it away. You do this almost lovingly, with determined uncertainty, as though these putting
aways are large. Nevertheless, you bind it with ribbons gold and red
and blue and shove it into the darkest corner of the darkest room. You
tell yourself: I shall forget.
Even as you walk, even as you feel the soft sunlight curl your back,
you know that these changes are important. You have money in the
bank, in your purse; you have put aside the faces; you are ready.
There are streets and crevices to walk. Conversations. There are afternoon coffees in sidewalk cafes. And almonde croissants on ornate
plates, steaming with butter.
THREE
One time, in the gentle light that smothers, the light of hospitals and
tea gardens, one time when you are feeling right, you sit quietly sipping. That is when it strikes.
That is the first time.
You have to have someone.
Not just anyone. It cannot be a TV thing. It cannot be a pipe dream.
It must be someone steady.
And so you keep your eyes ready. You go to shopping malls and
cineplexes, to swimming pools and cruises. There is money and time to
spare.
One day you see an image in a mirror.
A little later, you see him again. On a crowded subway speeding under early afternoon.
You share a secret.
In those times, he comes with wine, he appreciates supper, and you
spend afternoons getting pretty.
For a while, you think you need a car.
At night you listen. It feels the same; vaguely, you remember other
times.
For a while, you thought you wanted a car, but he said you did not
need one.
FOUR
Someone is shuffling cards. You think you have a good
hand. When the calls are made and new cards taken, you
lose. After a time, you move to another chair. This is the
56 peculiar thing: no one objects. The dealer deals. You think
you have a good hand. . . .
There are days of dreams. Sometimes you wake up after you have
been walking. Hours after you have made lunch and supper and been
shopping. Sometimes you do not wake up.
You know it is happening.
You see yourself in mirrors.
In a room dark and empty, behind cases, beside an old bureau lined
with newspapers, the box waits. You have never forgotten. Days cascade, and it waits, Dreammaker. It breathes. It promises.
(You must set the table. . . . just so.)
Sometimes in the afternoons, between the washing of dishes and the
mopping of floors, you begin to hear the low rumble of heavy glasses
sliding from trays. The booming resonance of heavy music. The smell
of cheap parfum and sweat. (Eager eyes wide and round as eggs!)
These are dreams of memories, oozing beneath doors.
In the nights, you are gone. His hot breath blasts.
Sleep, the numbing.
Someone is shuffling cards.
FIVE
There is a rush of wind; sometimes you think it would not be so bad.
It could not be so bad.
(Every Monday you make chicken and candied carrots.)
Three days into the fifth year there is nothing in your purse.
Everything is tight.
You cut yourself.
You make sounds.
57 Rolf Aggestam/Untitled Poem
A candle burns.
Closest to the wick: blue light.
The white on top of the blue.
Little by little the candle burns away.
My body is bent over,
I walk with a stoop
like a sooty wick.
A fierce light
bent my eyes downward
so that I would
look carefully
where nobody else searched.
I was given a stick
to prop myself upright as well as I can
Translated from the Swedish by
Erland Anderson and Lars Nordstrom
58 Kenneth Radu
A Bird in Hand
It was not at all the way she had imagined. Looking out her bedroom
window on the second floor, Natalie saw the Empress of India, her
neighbour's parrot, float down the street, its gilt pagoda cage secured
to a large wooden base. Down the lake, she corrected herself, for
streets had disappeared three days ago beneath the flood water.
Everyone had accepted the worst as inevitable after days of torrential
rains, ceaseless spring run-offs from northern hills, the melting of record snowfalls, the turbulent rising of the rivers that flowed on two
sides of the town. People had packed, left; many scoffed at first, trusting in the river banks, the drainage system, the incomplete flood control project, merciful acts of God. A contingent of college students
from the south came up to help fill sand bags, Natalie saw on television, to build dikes, to plug their fingers in holes.
Natalie realized the worst on the second morning of the flood when
the birds stopped coming to her feeders. Small animals of the field behind her house, father having built his dream home on the outskirts of
town, crawled between the cracks in the foundation. She had surprised
two chipmunks under the laundry tub in the basement. Drowned by
now, she suspected. Lulu, her fluffy golden Persian cat, never one to
stir herself, caught a vole behind the refrigerator. Possibly squirrels,
rained out of their trees, many of which had toppled, found refuge
and things to chew on in the attic.
The river on the west side of town spilled over its banks first and
flowed down—it was mostly downhill from there, the town having established itself like a mess of pottage in a high rimmed saucer. Just
flowed down as gently as you please. Nothing at all like the deafening
rush of murderous tidal waves that had swept up livestock, pots, entire
populations, and carried them, lord knows where, like so many pieces
of debris splashing over a waterfall. Natalie, when she was a girl, had
seen a flood like that in a movie, "The Rains of Ranchipur." Lana
Turner's Fifties-style hair had remained in place throughout the catastrophe, she remembered, patting the loose little graying ringlets on
59 her own head. Father held her hand during the film because she was
frightened. His fingers played between hers.
The calm gradualness of this disaster surprised Natalie. At first
people muttered, got their feet wet, took to rubber boots; then cursed
in their hip-waders in front of the television cameras as they saw their
seed beds washed away. Then, full of lamentation and dire predictions
in the eye of the lens, they paddled away in row boats and canoes. The
army helped. The anxious ones, those who had been watching the
water line rise from day one of the downpour, had left when the going
was good. There had been sufficient time to flee with their possessions. Not everyone had.
Instead of moving out, Natalie moved up. Everything of value in
her basement: her preserves, jams, jellies, some a few years old; her library of romance novels hidden in the basement because she feared
visitors and her mother would see them and, well, make unnecessary
comments. People had in fact stopped dropping by long ago. Father
could be so discouraging when he was alive. Still, the habit of secretive-
ness remained. So under the living room sofa went adventures with
tall, dark, mysterious men on the Cote d'Azur or Australian beaches.
Only a hundred or so would fit there. The others she stacked in the
linen closet or behind the dishes. Mother's things Natalie left in their
boxes in the basement, and father's. She had been meaning to take
them to St. Vincent de Paul or to some clothing drive for Polish workers. Except she could not bring herself to go beyond the front garden
gate. Once she had stood there on a summer's day, it couldn't have
been more than a year ago, the wind whipping her white, ankle length,
cotton dress about her legs, stood there with two boxes of clothes she
had carried up from the basement, and watched. Thank heaven for
deliveries, she often said to Lulu, for helpful, if pushy, neighbours like
Bert and Lydia next door. She had made a mental note to ask them to
take the boxes away. The flood intervened.
When the water began seeping between the walls and window
frames, and through the cracks in vigorous streams, Natalie acted
quickly. She unplugged the washing machine and dryer, didn't know
what to do about the furnace so she pulled the power lever to cut the
electricity throughout the house. A Coleman camp stove, her father's,
and a kerosene heater would have to do. Before a general power failure and the death of the telephone lines, Bert phoned. Evacuation
notices had been announced on radio and television all day. Surely
she'd heard? No, she would see it through, the house could withstand
a major assault, the ceilings did not leak. If need be, she could pitch
her father's tent on the roof. Bert did not see the sense of it but he always believed Natalie an odd, twittery sort of person. She had fuel and
food to last several weeks and the flood waters would certainly abate.
60 Nothing lasts forever, she reminded him. Yes, a whole case of tinned
soups and jars of vitamins, mother having had a fondness for Oxtail
and vitamin C tablets.
In their black van with the bubbly windows and red stripes on the
side panels, Bert and Lydia rolled through foot high water up Natalie's
driveway. Lydia gave an inventory of the things she had chosen to save
even before she told Natalie to get in: silverware, two suitcases of
clothes, a box full of houseplants which Natalie thought strange, as if
you couldn't replace African violets and peperomia, an electric blanket
their portable colour T.V., the console model being much too big to
save, their new VCR, the food processor, the toaster, the electric
kettle, blankets, three radios, a jolly jumper, a crib. Of course, the
baby, asleep on top of their possessions.
"Bert just grabbed a drawer full of clothes, you know men, and all
his power tools. At least take a chair or two, Bert, I said, but he went
for the chain saw."
That man was forever attaching something to or taking something
off his house, rearranging walls and windows, until it looked like a
perenially incomplete housing project next door. No loss if the place
collapsed in the water. Natalie knew her thought was unkind and,
given the situation, dangerous if there were any truth at all to powers
of suggestion. She knocked three times on the wooden railing of the
steps. Bert's sour milk breath and insistent, grating voice, his habit of
barging through her back door, "just dropped by to see if you need
anything, Nat," not to mention the familiarity of abbreviating her
name to a boy's, made her wish, at times, for, at the very least, an inconvenience to interfere with his life. The flood, however, was more
than she had in mind.
"Now, Nat, you can't stay here. Everyone's been ordered out. The
power's off. The phones are dead. There'll be looters, sure as hell. If
you understood anything at all about water pressure, you'd know the
house could collapse if the flood rises, and it will. Trust me on that.
Grab a suitcase. You don't have time to take much else. Don't forget
your papers. I had to remind Liddy. Liddy, did you get the insurance
papers and bonds? Liddy will help you pack. Come on!"
Her feet cold in rubber boots, Natalie held her white dress above
her knees, thanked Bert for his concern. "The house won't collapse
when the basement leaks as badly as it does. A lot of water will get in."
No one was going to overpower her with the laws of physics. She
found his habit of chewing his moustache irritating. Once, in the
kitchen, while her poor mother was ailing upstairs, he had picked her
up, "why, you're no heavier than a sparrow," and had slipped a hand
under her dress. Unresisting, she turned gray and cold. He put her
down, pulled the end of his handlebar moustache into his mouth with
61 his tongue, then went out to bring in the rest of the groceries he had so
kindly bought for her. Not two months after mother's death, going
into the basement to repair the dryer, he grabbed her on the stairs,
and gave her a hard kiss, forcing his tongue between her lips, pressing
her hand against his stomach.
"Come on, Nat, come on, come on." She went hard as if sudden
rigor mortis had set in. He raised her dress above her thighs. His fingers could not quicken her. He let her go, sucked on his moustache,
then replaced the fan belt in the dryer.
She couldn't quite bring herself to get into his van. As they backed
out of the driveway, she heard Lydia scream, "The Empress!"
"Aw, shit, Liddy."
The wheels churning furiously in the water, the van drove out of
sight. Natalie returned to the porch, clutching an afghan around her
sloping shoulders. The sky was ash gray. More rain would fall. She
waved good-bye even after the van had disappeared, remembering
Father's last kiss. She tried to calculate how long it would take the
flood to rise to the third step. Not long, as it turned out, for the next
morning her feet got wet on the kitchen floor and her mother's Persian carpet lay like a lost garden under a placid lake. Pale red vines
wavered around faded blue flowers that looked like translucent jellyfish. As more water flowed into the house, it darkened, thickened.
Several romance novels floated out from under the sofa. Natalie
picked up three. A woman in a long red dress with a shawl loosely
strung over her shoulders and hair like Rapunzel's stared out to a
starry sky from the balcony of what looked like the edge of a palace.
On the cover of another, a woman in white gauze lay on deep green
grass, her body covered by a black haired man wearing riding boots.
So Natalie moved up. Upstairs went the Coleman stove, the
kerosene heater; a box of dry novelettes from the cupboard, a dish, a
bowl, a knife, a spoon, a fork, a pot, a pan, a cup, teapots, a spatula,
food from the pantry, her preserves, the case of soup tins, a can
opener; the four afghans she had knitted for her sick mother; her collection of Maria Callas records; but not her father's leather bound
volumes of Dickens which she had read aloud to him over the years as
they sat together on the porch swing or in the garden; the six oversized paint by number pictures of Lake Louise, Niagara Falls, a kindle
of kittens in a basket, the Last Supper, a matador and bull, and two
cows under a willow tree, all of which she had painted in her mother's
bedroom to keep the dying woman company.
"You paint real nice, dear."
Natalie also hauled up the tool box, originally a denizen of the basement, just in case she needed something for something. She left her
62 violin case on the piano. Father had taught her to play. He was so
gifted musically and used to lead church choirs and the like. They
played duets together, some Mozart, some Brahms, mostly Liszt,
Mendelsohn, and Stephen Foster.
"Music for the heart," he often said. They played together until the
day he died, five years ago, stricken by a massive heart attack that
threw his head back first, mouth jerked open, she remembered, then
bang down on the piano keys. After the funeral for which Natalie had
to buy a dress ("You can't go in white, dear," Mother had insisted,
"we're not in China"), mother took to her bed and spent a year passing
away in a general decline of will and desire.
"Forgive me, child," she said, holding Natalie's delicate, bony hand,
crossed herself, and died.
Natalie did not see the purpose in evacuation, desertion was how she
saw it. There was something indecorous about a forty year old woman
running away. She had been born in the house. Father had built it with
his own hands. She had spent years tending to flowers and vegetables
on the acre of land surrounding it. She couldn't bring herself to leave
the yellow roses or the maple wainscoting, she told the two men who
had proposed to her. Neither one of them felt that he could live in her
father's house. Twenty years ago, shortly after President Kennedy's assassination, she sat in a white, ankle length dress (father preferred
long white dresses, "my skinny cockatoo," he sometimes jested) on the
porch swing to say good-bye to a handsome college student. He had
worked for her father and was now an obese realtor with a second wife
and five children. He had tried to get her to sell after they buried
mother. Who the other suitor was, Natalie couldn't remember. Father
had been so negative about them, about all of her high school friends
even; so comforting and forgiving when she agreed they weren't
worth the time of day. Had taken her on his knees. Rocked her until
she had stopped crying. In the middle of the stairs, her arms wrapped
around Lulu's wicker basket, Natalie remembered the leathery smell
of Father's cologne when he pressed his face into her neck.
"Such a big man, huge, so very big." Tall and firm like a tree, a giant
over six foot four. His hands. How could she leave the house, filled
with his furniture? He had made all the decisions about what to buy.
The house was sufficient for her. The garden, too, that she loved to
dig in. When she was younger, Father used to grab one of her arms
and legs and swing her around his shirtless body in the summer high
over the corn stalks, then sit her on his shoulders and run into the
field, pretending he was a hawk and she his prey. Often to the copse of
trees out of sight of the house and road. He only stopped when his
heart condition forced him to retire early from the contracting bus
63 ness, which he sold, and mother, during one of her rare moments of
protest, said it was not only risky, given his health, but it was also beginning to look odd, playing like that with a girl her age.
His fingers were long, hairy, and very, very hard. After dinner, he
used to dip them in a crystal, silver trimmed bowl. Natalie would wipe
them dry with her red linen napkin. Father loved a formal setting. She
took to reading romances after he died, despite mother's disapproval.
She climbed up the rest of the stairs. Only once had he ever struck her.
She was in high school, then barely fifteen. Only once had he
threatened her, rubbing her wrists raw. After that she always told him
how much she loved him and promised never to leave. So, other men,
friends, leaving home, entering college, marrying, or getting a job: all
that had been quite impossible. Not even the flood could force her out.
Mother went strange and silent in the last years. The house would not
collapse, Natalie knew, having withstood so much in the past.
The piano could not be saved. Perhaps it would play of its own accord under the water, become a music box for sea horses and starfish.
"How silly of me, Lulu."
Lulu met her at the top of the stairs with a fat, wet tabby, missing the
tip of one ear.
"Why, Lulu, you've rescued a friend." Natalie bent over to pat the
animal who rubbed his wet fur against her ankle, making her shiver.
"If there's room for chipmunks and squirrels, there's room for your
friend, Lulu."
After she finished carting the things she needed or wanted to save
upstairs, the kitchen table began to float. Natalie spent most of that
night drinking hot cups of black tea mixed with her father's favourite
scotch. He had twenty-three bottles in the pantry when he died. Bert
bought her more when she requested it.
"Funny thing, Nat, I can't figure out what you do with it. You never
seem boozy to me." She had to offer him a drink from time to time.
But he always started.
"I wish you'd let me, Nat, Liddy needn't know a thing. You're still an
attractive woman." She just went dead on him. Father had started her
drinking at a young age. "It makes everything all right," he said, "just
fine." When she drank secretly with him in the copse of trees, why, the
day just went softer, that's all, softer and easier to take, and the birds
covered their heads with their wings. On the day of his burial, mother
went to lie down, and Natalie sat still in front of her window, drinking
a half a bottle of scotch.
After midnight the rain stopped. The sky cleared. The moon rolled
out white and luminous, three quarters full. The houses on her block,
all large, spacious, some run down, poorly maintained through the
years, rose out of the high water like ships abandoned on a calm black
64 sea. Moon light floated above the lawns, picking out a submerged car
here and there, momentarily phosphorescent under the water.
Around the lamp posts masses of wreckage, garbage, caught, eddied,
formed islets of debris. Natalie recognized a television set with a
smashed screen. A dead dog, a German shepherd, if she judged correctly, caught in the branches of a tree in her front yard. The smell of
sewage was so strong she shut the window but the offensive odour
lingered in her head. She heard deep and dreadful sounds as if something enormous, hard, were thrusting against resistance and breaking
in. The sound made her shake and want to cry out. Looking through
the glass, she could almost swear that a house across the street cracked
right down the middle and sagged before her eyes. The Empress of
India floated by. It was still cool in the night, spring being only a week
or two old. Natalie wrapped two of the afghans around her thin body.
She chose not to light the kerosene heater, trying to conserve her fuel.
Trees, barely in bud, stood above the water: dark, twisted, bereft of
birds, branches reaching upward as if trying to pull themselves out of
the flood. She rubbed her forehead against the window pane.
"Dear God," she whispered, shaking from cold, raising both arms
like branches of the trees. She dozed off but jerked awake in the midst
of a nightmare, one she had been having for years, one she blamed on
her father's scotch. She always felt as if she were being suffocated and
had to waken to breathe. It was still dark. Despite the cold, Natalie
opened the window. Father had planted, pruned, trimmed the two
maples in the front, their trunks hidden by the water. The mountain
ash and the two poplars had fallen and been carried away; but the
maples looked like giant tumbleweeds snagged to a standstill. When
she was twelve, he had driven with her fifty miles north to a reforestation area where he had dug them up.
"Daddy, can you do that?"
"Daddy can do anything, chick."
They ate sandwiches in the middle of all those perfect, evenly spaced
trees. The ground was wet. She remembered the flute-like song of a
rosy-breasted grosbeak.
"Take your things off, now," he had said, even though it was early
spring and chilly then, too.
The water looked black and smooth. If she were to get on the porch
roof, kneel, and look into it, she'd see her face. The dead things
floated closer to the house. Another dog, two cats, a chicken or a mop
head.
"Could it be?"
Lulu, who was licking a paw on Natalie's lap, perked up an ear.
"Look, Lulu, a fox. Drowned in its den, I imagine, and washed right
out." Its fur, dirty red, was the colour of her mother's hair, she noted,
65 remembering how often she'd had to apply henna rinse to it. Glum she
would have answered, if asked, mother had just gone glum even before father died, as if she had to wake up every morning to cold porridge and iron bars.
Natalie screamed. Lulu meowed, jumped off her lap. Natalie
knocked a kneecap against the windowsill as she scurried onto the
porch roof on all fours and crawled to the edge against which the
water lapped softly. She stared hard into the moonlit darkness. A
hand, its five fingers separated and stiffly held, swirled among the
branches of the maple tree, got free, then floated towards the roof.
"Dear God!" Natalie leaned over the edge. It was a big hand, its fingers long and hard, white as death, seemingly cut off an arm but
upright as if held in a warning to stop.
The water slipped over the edge of the roof and wet Natalie's white
dress. Caught in a patch of moonlight, the hand glowed then retreated
into the dark, then back again into the centre of light.
"Why, it's a mannequin, Lulu. See? There's the arm trailing behind
and a body too, twisted in that funny way of store dummies. I
thought. . . it's chilly, Lulu, quiet..." The cat, who had followed her
mistress to the roof, jumped back into the room, leaving Natalie alone
talking to the night. The scotch, still in her head, made her dizzy, and
she held herself against falling over into the water. She could see outlines of her reflection merge into the mannequin's body. For a moment Natalie saw glassy eyes and a hairless head looking up at her, an
orange face with blood red lips, and a complexion as smooth as
polished bone.
"It's not real," she whispered. Her dress was soaked from the knees
down. An island of branches, furniture, pieces of clothing, floated
over her neighbour's lawn. In the east she saw the sky lighten as if
someone were cautiously raising a blind. She saw more corpses of dead
animals. Some birds.
"Nothing's alive."
Despite the crumbling cement foundation, the water in her basement and on the first floor, Natalie believed the house would hold.
The chill sank into her bones but she didn't want to go back in. The
dawn was coming and it looked like sun peering through a slit in the
sky over the horizon.
"Surely that couldn't be a bed?" She pointed to the other side of the
street to a large object sinking before her eyes. Father had carved the
vines and clusters of grapes on her bedposts, erected a canopy, too,
now ladened with dust. "A bower for my own sweet bird of paradise,"
he said. He had carried her over the threshold after he put the tools
away and took a shower. Fourteen she was. Mother was having a tooth
filled on that day.
66 "Come on now," he had said. Since his death she slept on the roll-
away cot in the spare bedroom.
A screech. A squawk. Natalie's skin almost pulled away from the
flesh on her arms. Another squawk, hard and piercing. The sky lifted
some more. The light of dawn followed the tracks of the moon.
Dazed and headachy, the effects of a pot of tea and too much scotch
felt in her brain and kidneys, her dress wet and cold against her skin,
Natalie leaned forward to the sound, almost falling into the water. She
saw blue and green feathers in a gold cage sparked to a high bright
glare by shafts of sunlight.
"Lulu! Lulu! Come see! The Empress has come back!" Father hated
birds in the house. An old prejudice, Natalie knew. He had scoffed
when Bert and Lydia bought the parrot at a going out of business sale,
just a year before his death.
Ragged and sodden, the parrot danced in circles on the perch. Half
of the oversized gilt cage was under water, barely kept afloat by its
wooden base.
"Poor thing, she'll die." Father's hands had dropped to his sides. She
caught a fingernail on the E string from sheer fright. "Mother!
Mother!" Lulu jumped out the window. Her gold fur caught the early
sunlight that was creeping up the gentle slope of the roof.
A twig of one of the maple branches poked through the bars of the
cage. "It's caught. Look how cold and frightened it is, Lulu. How could
they have left her like that? Some people are not to be trusted, Lulu. I
feel sick."
The sun crept up her body and rested on her face, gray from exhaustion. She breathed in deeply as if gulping for light and heat to
warm her bones.
"It will die, Lulu, just become another dead thing in the water." The
cat meowed, nuzzled against Natalie's thigh, then toppled over into
the empty space created by his mistress when she, not quite elegantly,
not quite smoothly, fatigue and queasiness notwithstanding, dove
head first into the water and disappeared beneath its shiny black surface.
She rose spluttering, arms flailing, dress ballooning about her
shoulders and face, twigs caught in her curls. At first she swam in a
circle, then sank again, the dress blocking her movements, and rose
again, kicking the mannequin in the face. Swirling like a wounded
duck, Natalie beat against the water and, somehow, reached the
branches of her father's tree. Grabbed a limb. Lulu sat on her
haunches in the sun, winking. Spitting out water, the smell of which
made her want to vomit, Natalie gasped for air, freeing herself from
the sensation of choked lungs. She reached for another branch, caught
her dress. She wrapped her arms tight around the second branch and
67 pulled herself free, tearing half her dress off.
"Dear God," she gasped, almost yanking an arm out of its socket as
she reached for the cage. Her fingers fit between the bars. The parrot,
frantic, snatched at them with its curved beak and crunched, cutting
through skin, rubbing bone. Natalie screamed but held the cage and
jerked it free. Then she let go the branch, holding the cage high overhead, sinking again beneath the water. Up she came, kicked, beat
through the flood towards the edge of her porch roof, her lungs
wrenching themselves for air. An empty canoe suddenly appeared and
almost hit her in the head. The pain in her fingers, for the parrot was
still biting down, flapping its wings, made her kick harder. She
screamed but water rushed into her mouth, shocking her with its foul
taste. The parrot, to gain better purchase, let go for a moment. Aware
only of the cessation of the terrible pressure on her fingers, Natalie
heaved the cage onto the roof. It clanged on the red tile and rolled off
into the water. But Natalie, coming up from under once more,
reached the edge and lifted it out.
Her hair a net for bits and pieces of debris, flakes of garbage, her
dress torn off, her fingers bleeding profusely, she raised one leg over
the eaves, scraped the inside of her thigh, and hoisted herself out of
the water. Lulu sniffed around the bird's cage. The parrot squawked;
its blue and green feathers, some of which had come loose and caught
in Natalie's hair, poked out between the bars.
"Lulu. . . . see . . . it's so good to breathe. . . . Lulu . . . see, I found
something alive."
Natalie shook her body and lay down on the porch roof, draining
herself of the filth of the flood, swallowing the new day.
68 Susan Sonde/Seven Poems
Letters from the Baja
Four Selections
Light steps in and out
of the pink stones
the projects of tin
rusting in the foothills.
The children come down
prodding tires like hoops
to the sea.
It's a long way for their legs
and the road they go is burning.
Along the main artery
merchants display blankets
like a wall of frescoes.
When the red wind tunnels
under this sky
wearing shoes of a giant,
batting his cane
our compadres crawl into their huts
and eat dust for a week.
69 The coastal highway glows
on its trek south
like a necklace of amber,
crude chunks the sea washed up.
It couldn't be hotter than it is
already inside the ruined sap.
If we follow closely
we'll see cities like flyspecks;
remnants of an ancient forest.
A man and woman
standing in its shade.
Islands of colour; houses
projected at odd angles from each other.
The dark smear of a village.
Insects trapped inside
their tiny wings raised to fly.
70 Even before the birth of the great blowhole
at Punta Banda in the leaded womb of the sea
those who swam up that coast
from someplace invisible were its arms and legs.
For a brief time sun was their raft.
They learned to read the shadows
on the back of its visionary eye.
Sleep forged a candle to warm them
the sky was a cordovan colour.
On land they pursued the tangled kingdom
of bighorn.
Explorers all, life owed them that much.
It danced in their skin like a puma
under an awning of its own steely making.
When a big wind came, sweeping sediment
from the sierras and plateaus it took them
wherever it could.    They could not go
fast enough.    It swung them instead
like the stars at the end of its pale stick
its pointer, as far as it was able.
The places they'd been showed nothing.
Light went looking for a trace
inside the mouth of the universe
found nothing and again nothing.
Of that invention strapped to its back
. . . not a clue.
At Punta Banda water blows out of the enormous spigot;
midday spits fire.
In the evening, purple shadows grapple
to be first
among their brothers
and the wind goes deep in the wide room
no one tends.
71 Yellow Canary Whistling
to the Industry
of Silence inside its Cage
The losses of the others
belong to them
but nip you too.
Look how that coterie
of swallows explodes
out of the gray
apogee of living like a warm vest
onto the freeze-frame
of dying.
How, like death
the waters of the City
are taking charge
of our lives, converting the sofa
and matching Louis the XlVth;
the initialled peau de soir
draped across our favourite portrait
of the bishop like damp cargo.
If the dead could speak
their wishes would be honoured
by the topography of falling leaves.
Night is good to us, its lovers
and sponsors a kind of Arab bazaar
but doesn't make us happy.
The voyage taken by Columbus
reminds us of the picture postcards;
the events no longer shaping our lives.
72 Trees shade the port of Maghera
hide small trawlers
angling in the undertow.
Slag heaps shift suddenly
photosensitive as plants to light.
Swallows return to where
they started
and those others
are taking over
the brilliant Piazzale Roma.
73 Russian Tearoom Reconstructed
beside the Lighted Calli
The artifice of evening, pyramid and spokes.
The joists to which we have ministered
the mortar ministering briefly to us.
Existential pallor issuing as steam
from the neck of the polished brass samovar.
The picture: Landscape with River Birches.
The recalcitrant boarshead glares down
at us from under a cocked hat.
With a flourish, the automechanic
leaning way back in his chair blows smoke rings
at the blonde, his wistful companion.
Evenings, more like mummers on parade.
The feeling of being in the world
and of its music.
The eggings . . .
campaign of the night before;
our coming out
to wipe the wimpled yellow
from the hype of dawn.
Tonight the calli seems to go no further
than the hooded light of those smokepots:
the exclusive property of the glass-blower's cottage.
Do his walls have ears?
Let's climb down and pin them back.
The automobile has been banned from inside the City
noxious fumes are spoiling it.
74 So it's horses; vaudevillians in black-face,
that hoarfrost dances
on the plain of living
like dismantled parlour cars.
The plan calling us to action is cancelled.
The iconoclasts of living, a kind of whiplash
of moments takes over.
Are you living like you're dying?
The painted, wax look of trees
anticipates the formal
convoluted entry
and those small gray putti
posed above the cornerstone
of the new construction
are not singing, exactly.
75 Reflection from a Golden Era
The hills are an overstated miasma
of spectral waters
superheated by summer.
The partially drained canals
transmit a sense of paralysis;
Venice has been jacked up
as far as it will go
and responds
to the moisture in the atmosphere
like an enormous salt lick.
Horseflies lace through
sodden gardens, leaving
barely perceptible signatures
on deteriorating pine and acacia.
All this time the milk of existence
has been stirred and the outer
layer
reveals the faded
caravanserai, the tired
camels within.
76 NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS
Rolf Aggestam, a well known Swedish poet, editor and journalist, has published
three books of poetry in Sweden. He has also translated ancient Japanese poetry,
and Walt Whitman, into Swedish.
Erland Anderson's poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including
Portland Review, International Poetry Review, and The Greenfield Review. He has published two chapbooks: Piedras (1978) and A Hollow of Waves (1983).
Richard Burns lives in Cambridge where he founded the international Cambridge
Poetry Festival in 1975. He has published eight volumes of poetry, as well as criticism and translations. He is co-editor of the new magazine Margin.
Emily Butler, a visual artist and mountain climber, has studied art at the University of Edinburgh and the Emily Carr College of Art and Design. She has lived in
Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, Baker Lake in the Canadian arctic, and Edinburgh (Scotland); she presently resides in Vancouver.
W. A. Cram grew up in Chapleau, Ontario and now works in the Vancouver area.
His work has appeared previously in Seventh Wave and The Canadian Forum.
Reinhard Filter has published one book and is marketing a second. For seven
years he has been the fiction editor of Origins literary magazine, based in Hamilton,
Ontario.
Cynthia Flood's stories have appeared in a wide range of Canadian literary magazines and anthologies. She lives in Vancouver where she has been active in feminist
and leftwing politics since the early Seventies.
David Galef's fiction and articles have appeared in Punch, Queen's Quarterly, Event,
Grain, Quarry, Portland Review, and a variety of other magazines.
Alice Hamilton writes in English and French. This is her first publication.
Kyle Herbert, "a native of Putney, Vermont presently residing in exile in Iowa
City, contends that the ambiguous depth of creative passion, not the picayune quest
for "realism," should be the seminal prompting behind art. Such largess, he believes, is incumbent on the gifts of the artist, squandered or malign if not of an expansive, universal optique—imperative to future human survival."
Ivan V. Lalic is one of the leading poets of his generation in Yugoslavia, where
nine volumes of his poetry have appeared. He is also a distinguished translator and
critic. His selected poems are available in English: The Works of Love (Anvil Press
Poetry, London, 1981, tr. Francis R.Jones).
Lars Nordstrom's poetry has appeared in a number of Swedish magazines and in
Portland Review. Currently, he is a visiting Fulbright Scholar at Portland State University working on a critical history of American Northwest poets.
Kenneth Radu's fiction and poetry have appeared in many periodicals, including
Arc, Canadian Forum, Event, and Matrix. His first collection of poems, Letter to a Distant Father, will be published this spring by Brick Books. His first collection of stories
is forthcoming from The Muses' Company.
77 Leon Rooke has new stories forthcoming or currently in TriQuarterly, Grand Street,
The Quarterly, Fiddlehead, Mississippi Review, Waves, Story Quarterly, Canadian Forum,
and others. A play written for Caravan Stage Company will open in Spring 1987.
Roberto Sanesi, one of the foremost poets of his generation in Italy, has published
twelve full length collections. His work published in English includes Information
Report (Cape Goliard Press, London, 1970), and In Visible Ink: Selected Shorter Poems
1955-1979 (Aquila, Isle of Sky, Scotland, 1982), ed. Richard Burns. He is also an
outstanding translator of English and American poetry.
Robyn Sarah's poems have appeared numerous times in PRISM, including PRISM
13:1, 22:1, 24:1, and 24:4. Her most recent book is Anyone Skating On That Middle
Ground (Vehicule Press, 1984).
Knute Skinner divides his residence between Bellingham, Washington, and
County Clare, Ireland. His Selected Poems was recently published by Aquila Press.
His poems have appeared previously in PRISM 6:1.
Susan Sonde has had poems published in New Letters, Epoch, Mississippi Review,
Southern Poetry Review, Images, and others including anthologies. She has one book
published: Inland is Parenthetical (Dryad Press, Washington, D. C). She won the
Poetry Society of America's Gordon Barber Memorial Award for her sixteen page
poem: "Letters From The Poet Zhang Jie."
Glen Sorestad's latest books of poetry are Jan Lake Poems (Harbour, 1984) and
Hold the Rain in Your Hands (Coteau Books, 1985).
Russell Thornton has had poems published in many of Canada's major literary
magazines. His work is included in Vancouver: Soul of a City and will appear in
Relations (Mosaic Press). His third book, The Skin of a Song, will be appearing soon
from Athanor Press.
William Woodruff lives in Los Angeles, California.
78 ...a wildly different
cross section of American
creative power-
Bill Katz,
Library Journal
.. one of our most
important literary
magazines—
The Writer's Digest
$20 per year
Ben Brooks
Michael J. Bugeja
Charles Bukowski
Ford Button
Michael Cadnum
Joan Colby
Steve Delmonte
Robert Feinstein
Gary Fincke
Stuart Friebert
Bruce Michael Gans
Dan Gurskis
Joseph Harris
Gerald Haslam
Elizabeth Herron
G. Y. Jennings
Judson Jerome
Ann Kong
Michael J. Lassell
Esther M. Leiper
Michael Lynch
Florri McMillan
Lauren Mesa
John Millett
Brenda Nasio
Sylvia O'Brien
David Ray
William Rintoul
Elisavietta Ritchie
Pattiann Rogers
Larry Rubin
Albert Russo
Margaret Ryan
James Steel Smith
Lawrence P. Spingarn
Knute Skinner
Bryce Walton
Fredrick Zydek
AMELIA
329 "E" Street, Bakersfield, CA 93304 PRISM
international
magazine
Since  1959, introducing the finest contemporary
Canadian and international writing.
Don't miss our April 1987 issue
Special Feature: Winners of our
1986 Short Fiction Contest
Final Judge: Guy Vanderhaeghe
 Subscribe now!	
PRISM international
A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary Writing
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Department of Creative Writing
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Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1W5
Canada Technology
Society
Technology's growing impact upon all societies is profoundly
influencing every person's life, thoughts, and dreams. We
invite submissions which explore this theme. Poetry, fiction,
short plays, translations, and cover art work, in any style
or genre, are welcome. Author's payment is $25 for every
printed page.
Deadline for submissions: February 28, 1987.
Publication in July 1987. Please clearly note "Technology in Society
Issue" on each manuscript. Enclose a suitable SASE (outside Canada
SAE with IRC's) for reply.
PRISM international
Department of Creative Writing
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1W5
Canada IN THIS ISSUE
Poems by: Susan Sonde, Robyn Sarah, Glen Sorestad,
Russell Thornton, Kyle Herbert. ...
Fiction by: David Galef, Kenneth Radu, Leon Rooke,
Cynthia Flood, W. A. Cram. . . .
In Translation: Ivan V. Lalic, Roberto Sanesi,
Rolf Aggestam.
IN OUR NEXT ISSUE
Winners of our 1986 Short Fiction Contest.
Final fudge: Guy Vanderhaeghe

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