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 PRISM
INTERNATIONAL
Contemporary writing from
Canada and around the world
36:4  >,ifr    P       ■  INTERNATIONAL
7QQ7SHORJ FICTION
CONTEST WINNERS
GRAND PRIZE - $2,000
"Goombay Smash"
Jane Eaton Hamilton, Vancouver, British Columbia
RUNNERS UP - $200 each
"My First Slaughter"
Nodar Djin, Washington, DC, USA
"Limber Like Me"
Claire-Marie Hitchins, Toronto, Ontario
"The Mime"
Robert Pennee, Guelph, Ontario
"The Inscription"
David Pratt, Kingston, Ontario
"In the Karnatak Country"
Padma Viswanathan, St Albert, Alberta
HONOURABLE MENTIONS
The Defining Moments of My Life"
Anne M. Fleming, Vancouver, British Columbia
"Incorruptible Tales"
Paul Molotov, Hamilton, Ontario
Congratulations to the winners and thank you to all who entered and patiently
awaited the results. This year's contest was one of our most successful ever,
despite the potentially disastrous Canada Post strike in December. We received
over 600 entries from all over the world and had the good fortune to read many
exceptional stories. Thanks for the great read—see you next year! INTERNATIONAL
is pleased to announce that
Caroline Davis Goodwin
is the winner of the 1997/98
Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
for her poems
"Things the Man Carried
With Him to Big Port Walter"
& "Winter Hatchery" (Issue 36:1)
She will receive a $500 cash prize.
The prize is awarded annually by the editors for the best poem
or group of poems by a writer appearing in each volume.
Funding for the prize is provided by PRISM international and
Birney's widow, Wailan Low.
Congratulations to
Ken Babstock
whose poems
"The Interior"
&
"What We Didn't Tell the Medic"
(published in PRISM, 36:1)
won GOLD at the
1997 NATIONAL MAGAZINE AWARDS :#' lip    lip  liil .^flF      [
INTERNATIONAL
Editors
Sioux Browning
Melanie J. little
Executive Editor
S.L. McFerran
Fiction Editor
Ian Cockfield
Business Manager
Emily Snyder
Electronic Submissions Manager
Lee Henderson
Poetry Editor
Miranda Pearson
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Associate Editor
Jeremiah Aherne
Advertising & Circulation Manager   Advisory Editors
Bob Wakulich   Keith Maillard
Editorial Board
Oana Avasilicbioaei
Shauna Fowler
Aislinn Hunter
Bibiana Tomasic Kaulfuss
Jennifer Lee
Natalie Meisner
Rebecca Myers
George Nicholson
Tricia Telep
Chris Tenove
Leslie Timmins
George McWhirter .
PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four times
per year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University
Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, NY. The magazine is listed by the Canadian literary Periodicals
Index.
E-mail: prism@unixg.ubc.ca
WWW: http://www.arts.ubc.ca/prism
Contents Copyright © 1998 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover photograph (black and white): Untitled by Helene Cyr.
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Our gratitude to Dean Shirley S. Neuman and the Dean of Arts' Office at the
University of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council ($16,000)
and the Government of British Columbia through the Ministry of Small
Business, Tourism, and Culture.
Thank you to our donors, Cherie and Julian B. Smith, and to the PE. Fund.
Publications Mail Registry No. 5496. July 1998.
The Canada Council
por the arts
SINCE I957
Lf. Conseii. des Arts
du Canada
depuis 1957 Contents
Vol. 36, No. 4 Summer 1998
7QQ7SHORT FICTION
CONTEST WINNERS
M.A.C. Farrant
Jane Eaton Hamilton
Nodar Djin
Claire-Marie Hitchins
Robert Pennee
David Pratt
Padma Viswanathan
Anne Fleming
Paul Molotov
Judge's Essay
A Life All Their Own  6
Fiction
Goombay Smash 7
My First Slaughter 20
limber like Me 31
The Mime 37
The Inscription  52
In the Karnatak Country 62
The Defining Moments of My life
Incorruptible Tales 92
77
Contributors
100 M.A.C. Farrant
A Life All Their Own
The twenty stories that made the final cut in this year's contest are
amazingly diverse. Traditional tales, voice pieces, second-person
narratives. Other world, old world, our world. To arrive at the
final eight, I was looking for stories that delighted, transported, and moved
the reader. Stories with a life all their own, that live apart from their authors. Stories with a radiance, an excitement that draws you in, regardless of style or content.
The winning story, "Goombay Smash," possesses all of these qualities. It is a finely layered, gently ironic tale of love and the painful ending
of love. That the author of this story managed to convey such heartache
with warmth and humour is nothing short of remarkable. And 111 not
soon forget "hair anniversaries," a hilarious comment on the "twinness"
of lesbian couples. "Goombay Smash" is a wonderful story, filled with wit
and sadness, and I'm delighted to award it first prize in this year's contest.
The runners-up were equally engaging. "The Inscription" was so evocative of Albert Camus' "Algeria" that I was compelled to read it more than
once; a charming story that leaves the reader longing for more. Indeed,
because of "The Inscription" I'm now rereading Camus' Lyrical Essays
with much pleasure and, for this, I thank the author.
Great warmth is again evident in "The Mime," another charmer. Some
stories leave you feeling in love with the world and "The Mime," for me,
was one of these. Ifs the Trickster celebrated!
Speaking of love, the voice of the narrator in "limber like Me" is
marvellous—quirky and wise. A story of life and death told with strength
and humour.
"My First Slaughter" (translated from the Georgian by the author) is
another gripper; old worldly and otherworldly, a story of defloration,
slaughter, sharp awakening: "Everything in this world is probably horrible
inside."
The character of the feckless father in "In The Karnatak Country" is a
standout. Stories can transport. Reading this one, you'll find yourself in
Southeast India, circa 1935, standing with a clutch of children, uncertain
and hungry, waiting for Father's next move.
Congratulations to all the winners. It was a pleasure reading your
stories. Thank you.
M.A.C. Farrant, June 1998.
6 Jane Eaton Hamilton
Goombay Smash
The hotel was what your travel agent, a gay man who gave you an
itinerary with a sixteen-hour layover in Toronto, recommended.
He showed you an advertisement in Girlfriends. Two women sunning in chaise lounges were photographed from the rear; only two tanned,
fit arms showed and then, beyond them, the swimming pool, and then,
beyond that some potted palms. All the same, it looked like paradise and
you were keen to sign up. Now that you're actually here, you see that as
far as decor goes, ifs passably nice, although the pool is teacup-sized.
There's a Jacuzzi, with palm trees skittering in the breezes. Your room,
billed as poolside, is undeniably cramped, with hardly enough space for
all your and Marg's luggage, which in very short order opens like an
orifice and ejaculates vibrators and sandals and hemorrhoid cream. In
the window the apparently broken air conditioner burbles; the room is as
cold as a refrigerator. You spend your first night in the defrost drawer,
huddling against Marg like a stick of celery. The good part is that tossed
together under the covers, you and she make love, and if there's a little
something missing after five years together, at least she's having sex
with you, not someone else.
Although the room was billed as "poolside," it does not escape your
attention that the puddle they call a pool is down a long hall, through a
courtyard, and then through the dining room into a second courtyard.
Nor has it gone unnoticed that no one could swim in it not really, that ifs
too tiny for more than a single crawl stroke end to end.
The morning stretches out leisurely. There is a breakfast of sorts served
in the dining room, with coffee and orange juice and toast and cereal. As
promised in the glossy brochure, there are plenty of women. Only women,
in fact and they mostly come in twos, like Ark animals. You and Marg
take your plates to the courtyard and sit in partial shade at a white resin
table. "Heh, Marg," you say and when she looks up at you, you send her
the visual equivalent of an elbow in her side. You want her to look at all
the sets of twins. For instance, the two women who wear the same white
serge baseball shirts, with black trim that says "Key Wesf' as if if s a
team. The women are young, probably in their mid-twenties. You can't
for the life of you imagine what they do when they aren't busy with a tropical vacation: are they accountants? Historians? This hotel doesn't
come cheap. They have identical blonde hair, spiky on top but roping
between their shoulder blades in back. Are they perhaps actual twins?
No, they smooch. They look longingly across their table at each other
and rise to plant wet kisses on each other's lips.
It would be like kissing yourself, you think, and think about how many
nights you've been left to do just that
There is another couple who wear their identically-styled hair blown
poufily back. One is streaked blonde and the other is brunette, but thaf s
not what you notice. What you notice is the sameness, and their similar
thin lips. When they depart going off to do you don't know what with
their day in paradise, another couple takes their spot Though different
in build, both of these women have masses of curly black hair cascading
to their waists.
Maybe this is how American lesbians celebrate their anniversaries,
you think. Never mind paper, silver, gold: American lesbians have hair
anniversaries. If they make it two years, they part on the same side, five
years they spike, ten and they bob. Twenty and they both wear buns in
snoods
"Psst" you say, "Marg. Look over there."
Marg says, "What Joyce?" and looks up at you.
You point out the women with waterfall hair and try and explain about
hair anniversaries, and how the two of you should get matching buzz
cuts, but Marg just frowns and goes back to scraping out her grapefruit
with a stumpy-handled spoon.
You hope if you live to be ninety, you never look like anyone's clone.
Unless ifs Marg's. You would be Marg's clone if she asked. You would—
if she asked.
You rented a car in Miami. When you called your mother in Abbotsford
to say you were a bit hesitant about renting at the airport she said, "Don't
be silly. They only kill Germans." You told her you'd be sure to put a little
Canadian flag in your window.
You drove down the southern seaboard through the linked group of
southern Florida islands called the Keys. Because it is late October, every
home or business you passed, just about was decorated. Americans take
their Hallowe'en seriously. In Vancouver, where you live, Hallowe'en is
reserved for the few days immediately preceding the end of the month: a
simply carved pumpkin on the doorstep, a demure bowl of candy in the
foyer. But in Florida porches are massed in white cotton pulled out to
resemble spider webs. These are huge, ten or twenty feet across. Black
plastic spiders gallumph across the netting. In every second window,
convincing fright masks made of rubber are displayed along with white- sheeted ghosts or black-sheeted witches. Maybe ifs the tropics. Everything here is ripe and half-rotten, even holidays.
Ways you have debased yourself for her:
1) you have lain nude on your car, a gigantic hood ornament in your
garage that smells of dirty oil, waiting for her to arrive home, and raise
the door with her remote
2) you have danced naked to girl group songs in your kitchen
3) you have served her chocolate birthday cake in your birthday suit
coming to her with your breasts illuminated by candlelight
There is something disorienting about breakfast For one thing, you are
smack dab in the middle of a bunch of vacationing lesbians, which means
you ought to feel like a hog in heaven. But you don't Instead you feel
pasty-skinned and overweight, as if you carry the heaviness of Canada
with you.
Vines hang down the sides of the buildings trailing things that look to
you like red licorice ropes. Hibiscus shrubs bloom hot and pink, thrusting up deeply coloured stamens. Everything droops and drips. Oranges
plump on leafy stems, changing from green to orange. The hot tub gurgles. Although you wish it weren't true, skeletons dangle from some of
the palm trees. When you were thinking about taking Marg away somewhere, you researched palm trees and found out there were 3,000 varieties. There are probably ten or twenty varieties around the courtyard.
You try to dredge up names: coconut saw cabbage, Royal.
You are almost positive Marg doesn't want to be here with you. She's
made it clear. When you said, Let's get away, she said, What? You and me?
While Marg finishes eating, you go to the office to ask for a room
upgrade. You want a suite right beside the pool because, as you tell
Camille, you didn't come thousands of miles to stay in a room the size of
a closet "I gave closets up years ago," you say, grinning. Camille doesn't
think ifs funny. There is a room you can change to at noon, she says, for
an extra $30 US a night if you pack, Camille will see that your bags are
moved. Even if you get back late, someone will be in the office to exchange keys with you. Camille is a strapping blonde who wears a white
shirt calculated to set off her dark tan. As far as you can see, there is only
one of her. She asks if you and Marg have signed up for tomorrow's
women-only sunset champagne cruise. You say, "Should we?" as if Camille
will know whaf s the right move to please Marg, then plunk $80 US, which
works out to something like $8,000 Canadian, on her desk and wait for a
receipt
Marg and you stroll out to discover Key West You walk south to where
a marker tells you you're at the southernmost tip of the continental US. Cuba, it says, is only 90 miles away. You think of the refugees trying to
cover the distance by raft; you shake the thought, a responsible, work-a-
day concern, away and try to concentrate on paradise. Walk to the water's edge. Point at your chest Say, "These are the southernmost boobs
in the continental US."
Marg laughs, which you consider such a hopeful sign that you mention hair anniversaries again.
You watch pelicans dive bomb for food. You love their greedy pouches
and how they skim the surface of the waves looking for fish. Florida birds
astonish you. In a restaurant parking lot on the way down, you and Marg
saw a flock of white birds with tall red legs that you believe were ibis.
And you've noticed a white heron, too, standing in the ocean shallows by
the side of the highway.
It's hot out so every store becomes a relief, both from the heat and the
street vendors who promise the cheapest T-shirts in America. There's
merchandise for sale that you'd never find in Vancouver, and lots of art
galleries; while Marg leans on the door frame, assuredly bored, you buy
three framed prints and arrange to have them shipped home.
On Duval Street, you buy a black ostrich feather, look hard at Marg
and say, For later.
Marg wants to tour the Hemingway House. Hemingway was never a favourite writer of yours, but because Marg's happiness is paramount and
because old houses fascinate you, you agree. Also, you see it as a chance
to get off your feet, if only for a minute. Key West is supposedly a walker's paradise, but you can attest first-hand that touring has hardly been
like walking on clouds. Asphalt is asphalt and after a while, the balls of
your feet ache no matter how pretty the scenery. And there's been some
pretty good scenery. Especially the flora, the wild, untamable growth
that loops and spirals through people's yards messy as intestines.
There is a little while before a tour begins so you and Marg wait, examining a brochure, sitting on the lip of a mosaic tile fountain in the
courtyard. The house is a registered historic landmark. It's big and blocky,
painted beige, with wonderful oval windows with green shutters; a Spanish Colonial made with local brick. You sense you have landed inside
your fantasy at last, except that instead of being a lesbian, you're one of
Hemingway's subservient wives. The grounds are perfect philodendrons
mass and climb banana palms, dangling leaves as big as boogie boards.
And in fact the tour is lovely, too—the house is warm and sweet You
long to reach out and run your fingers across the spines of the books in
the many bookshelves, even though you know most of the books were
probably not Hemingway's. But many of the furnishings are genuine,
things Hemingway and his wife Pauline accumulated in Spain, Africa and
10 Cuba. There's a wonderful birthing chair in the master bedroom that
belonged to Pauline; Pauline had two kids with Ernest and you wonder if
she used the chair. A sign strapped across it says, "Please do not sit in
this chair." You wonder about being a scofflaw and sitting anyhow. You
wonder what you would give birth to.
Hemingway built the first pool in Key West It is filled and blue and
beautiful, much nicer than the chary one at the guesthouse where you're
staying. Apparently it about broke Hemingway—even in the late 30s, the
cost was $20,000. Thaf s why he sunk a penny—his last according to
legend—in the wet cement of the patio.
Marg says her favourite thing is the catwalk from his second-storey
bedroom to his office over the poolhouse.
"Aren't writers romantic?" she asks dreamily. She taps the brochure
on your arm. "It says he wrote A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell
Tolls here. God, I can't imagine."
Marg, who is enamoured of writers, once booked you into the Sylvia
Beach Hotel in Newport Oregon. The only room left was the Hemingway
Room, which has a view of the parking lot and an even better view of the
Dempsy Dumster. Worse, it had a moth-bitten deer head right above the
bed. You dreamed that it fell and one of its antlers gored you though your
heart
One of the many, six-toed cats slinks around your ankles, its malformed
paws flattening on the porch boards. The air smells like jasmine.
Mallory Pier: ifs where you end up after a long afternoon of walking,
staring the sun in its swollen orange eye as it winks into the Gulf. Night
falls, but all around you are hucksters. An acrobat totters across a wire
strung fifteen feet above the boardwalk. A sword swallower pushes blades
that look black and deadly into bis throat A boy of about fifteen grins
while tourists take snaps of the iguana on his shoulder. A bearded man
lets his parrot hop on tourists' shoulders then asks for donations. It's
busy. Ifs noisy. Ifs colourful. It mirrors your mood. All that cacophony,
that jostling, that competition for your attention. Thafs what ifs like inside you. There isn't a calm neuron in your entire brain. They're all roused.
They're all snapping and popping to the Latin music of the pier. You could
burst into dance any second, something as disjointed and arrhythmic as
a wooden puppet.
You're almost positive that she gives the other woman things you've given
her.
Where is your watch?
My watch?
The watch I gave you for Christmas.
11
. Where is that ear cuff I gave you?
Ear cuff? I don't know. Did you give me an ear cuff?
This has been going on for months. Something—or, according to Marg,
nothing—has been going on for months. That's why you're here, why
you planned this trip—to have Marg all to yourself, to have her undivided attention. At home, Marg is a very busy chef in a very busy restaurant and, as far as you can tell, also a very busy lover—although not in
your bedroom.
At home, you have taken to watching the Discovery Channel while
you wait up for Marg. Recently, they had a week's special on sharks.
Sharks, researchers contend, are as intriguing as whales and dolphins.
But after watching eight specials, you don't agree. You don't see anything interesting about sharks. Not great whites, not whale sharks, not
hammerheads. They don't vocalize. They dont breach. They don't even
breathe air. They're fish, not mammals, and that's what the researchers
seemed to forget The only thing that intrigued you, especially considering the upcoming trip to Key West was an aerial shot of a man and a
woman standing in water just knee high. Dotted around them, each within
fifty yards, were seven great white sharks. According to the TV, the ocean
is like that all the time; the announcer offers up the image to prove that
sharks only rarely attack humans. They only like us kicking on surf boards
so that from underneath, in their stupid, subterranean brains, we look
like sea lions.
You and Marg recently bought a house together. Naively, you assumed
this meant that the two of you were seriously committed. Because as a
teacher you have summers off, you started to putty and scrape, mostly
alone, in July. In early August, when you moved your bed to start painting the walls in there, a note fluttered to the floor from under Marg's
pillow: What am I doing? it asked. She's young enough to be my daughter.
Although you are not personally that young, you know who is. Her
name is Emma She's the new sous chef at Marg's restaurant. She is
young, skinny and married. She wears a lot of black.
When you get back to the guesthouse, your belongings have appeared
miraculously in the "suite" beside the pool. At this guesthouse, where
the rooms are the size of closets, the suites are the size of rooms. They
are only called suites because they include puU-out couches and because
women in Vancouver will be encouraged to reserve space. Some women
are having a party outside; you and Marg decide to try the Jacuzzi, which
is abandoned. But as it turns out someone has sprinkled soap into it and
when you turn on the jets, it begins to foam. At first it is hard to see the
bubbles; in the dark night they make only the ghostliest Hallowe'en out-
12
1 line, but after a while, the bubbles begin to pop against the bottom of
your chins, against your lower lip, against your nose. When Marg inhales one she giggles and says, "I think we should call it a night." You
swat bubbles away, cupping them like breasts. You step from the tub,
which spills suds, and pull towels around yourselves. You tiptoe through
the breakfast room. You half hope the partying women will ask you to
join them. You wonder if there is something identifiably Canadian about
you. Perhaps your pasty skin reminds them of snow. Perhaps they understand that you are the kind of woman upon whom your lover would
cheat
You crawl into bed beside Marg. You want to be held in her arms, but
she has her shin in her hand. She is dotting After Bite where the mosquitoes have got her. Into her leg she says, "First there was nothing, and
then there was A Farewell to Arms. I'm still trying to get over it"
The women outside hoot and holler. You think of a man who lives
across the street from you in Vancouver. Occasionally you see him with
his hose in the street kneeling, hosing the litter that has accumulated
away from the front of Ins yard. Some goes left. Some goes right. He
keeps checking to make sure his neighbours aren't watching him.
You wonder who has stayed in this bed before you, whether they
number in the dozens or hundreds, whether they've left pieces of themselves behind in the form of stray hairs or dandruff or stains, whether
they were new lovers or old, whether any of them fought You are not
fighting with Marg, of course, and that has to count for something. It is
not exactly a honeymoon between you, but that has to count for something. You think about Key Wesf s narrow streets, the small salt box
houses, their gingerbread trim. You walked past a small store with half of
its wares on its outside wall. A woman in a yellow dress tended it
"May I take a picture?" Marg asked and the woman waved her hand
and cackled.
You blinked at each other, trying to decide if that meant yes or no. The
hands of an antique clock circled too quickly. A sign said, "Thank you,
EMORY." There was a lifesize baking mold of C3PO from Star Wars.
There was a bunch of plastic bananas, a trombone, a washboard, a coconut monkey's head and a sign with a Fitzgerald-like character in tennis
whites under the word "Goombay."
You continued along the street but then you had to double back. You
lie in bed listening to the party from which you are excluded considering
Key Wesf s dead ends. Marg puts down her After Bite and sighs. "I wish
to hell they'd just shut up," she says, and as if in answer, you hear an
interruption. Marg slides from bed and reports from the window. "Ifs
the police," she whispers. "They've had a complaint They're breaking it
up."
13 It is after one when you finally slide into sleep. You wake groggy, as if
you were one of the drunks at the party. The sun bakes at the window.
Marg is nowhere to be found. You stumble to the bathroom and remember that today is the day the guesthouse moves you back to your old
room with the broken air conditioner. This room is booked. This is also
the day of the sunset champagne cruise. Tomorrow, leaving Key West,
you will visit an alligator swamp before heading to the airport Marg, it
appears, has already gone on to breakfast When you join her, slipping
into a moulded seat booth in the breakfast room, you're aware that people are staring. They don't seem very friendly. The twins in the Key West
baseball jerseys actually send you the finger. Marg shrugs. She says,
"They think we're the ones who reported them."
"Just because we're from Canada?" you ask. You wonder if Marg is
missing Emma; if she came to breakfast alone because she couldn't stand
to be near you another minute. You remember that once upon a time,
things were new and fresh between the two of you. Marg's eyes danced
the Macarena when you came into a room. You aren't hungry. You brave
the shattering glances and serve yourself a small bowl of unflavoured
yogurt Ifs sour. It puckers your lips.
After thumbing through tourist brochures, Marg has an idea for the day.
She wants to rent scooters.
"Scooters? As in motorcycles?" you screech. Three sets of twins turn
to give you scathing glances. You ignore them. Now you are sure Marg
misses Emma. She wants to rent a contrivance that you will surely steer
right into an oncoming car. Has she seen how Key West drivers drive?
Maybe she wants you to die. Maybe she wants the insurance money so
that she can open a restaurant with Emma. If you're lucky, you'll end up
a vegetable and Marg will have to nurse you the rest of your natural born
days. "I can't ride a motorcycle."
"See?" she says and passes you a brochure. She taps it. "They give
you lessons right there."
That is how the two of you end up scorching through Old Town like
Hallowe'en rockets. The scooters aren't so hard to manage after all, but
you'd prefer to stick to the back roads, where it doesn't matter if you give
it too much gas and fly. Marg has an idea. You scooter out through a
military base to a public beach. Like twins, you both wear your one-piece
black bathing suits under your pants; you park and hot foot it across the
hot sand to the seaweed-ridden shore. The waves are tall; they slap against
the beach and sound like Alka Seltzer going out Marg insists you have
to swim, since you're here. Marg insists you can't come all this way and
not get in any water other than an insane Jacuzzi. So you run in. The
water is surprisingly cold, like Canada's. There's an undertow. Seaweed
14 wraps around your neck. You lie back and before a wave capsizes you,
Marg snaps your picture. You are wearing thongs and this is mostly what
shows up: two sizeable blue floating feet.
Suddenly you scream. Something has brushed against your leg. You
spring to your feetThere, undulating in the waves, is something. An alligator. An anaconda. Once, your brother's girlfriend called your brother's
penis the anaconda of love. You told her you weren't interested in hearing about it. You scramble to shore. Gradually, the thing washes in. Ifs a
severed tail about five or six feet long. The wound is red, ragged and
fresh. The tail tapers off to nothing.
"I think ifs a snake," Marg says, captivated.
You look at her. You would never have thought of Marg as stupid. "Ifs
a snake all right," you tell her. "Part of one. Go figure," you say.
"No kidding," she says.
You nod. Eventually you both seem to decide that, severed, the tail
can't do much. It can't do harm. It can't swim along. It can't even scare
you any more.
Marg has another idea. She signals and pulls over to the side of the
stumpy road and tells you she wants to visit the graveyard. There's a
gravestone she wants to show you.
You ought to have guessed this was coming. In all the places you've
vacationed in your years together, Marg has wanted to see the graveyards. You think her interest is macabre. You think there is nothing to
learn about the Fijian or Mexican population by looking at what kind of
graves they make. Marg disagrees. Marg thinks houses of the dead capture the heartbeat of a nation.
"The dead don't have heartbeats," you tell her as she putters into the
thin, asphalt drive snaking through the cemetery. She leaves a sassy plume
of blue exhaust behind her. She is avidly searching for something. When
you pass a highrise of maybe forty graves all in one building, Marg stops
and wipes her forehead. The graves are indented; they look like cubbyholes for school children. They aren't all occupied; some of the cubbies
have granite markers but others are blank and haven't been used yet
The white stone that was used to erect the unCanadian mass grave is
blackening with age.
Marg says, "You've got me wrong, Joyce."
You are busy trying to knock down the kick stand of your scooter so
that you can sidle over to the shade for a minute. You're only wearing flip
flops. You bruise your toe and curse. You look up at Marg, who has produced a hanky and is swiping at her high cheek bones, her upper lip, the
back of her neck.
"About Emma," she says.
You don't know how to respond. You realize then that the suspicion of
15 this affair is central to who you've become over the last year. But ifs
private. You don't want Marg messing with it You don't want her to have
any thoughts about what is happening to you because she's fooling around.
"She's just a kid I admire."
You think you'll have to say something. "I love you" is what comes out.
Marg makes a noise in her throat and revs the throttle on her scooter.
The bike surges forward and it seems like ifs a second more before
Marg's torso follows.
Ifs very hot very close, and the sun is beating down. The grass here
is all scrubby, not really what hi Canada, you'd label grass at alL Of course,
Marg and you live in a rainforest even if there are no trees left You listen to
the surprisingly loud putt-putt of Marg's scooter fade into the distance
before you turn the key on your own and try to catch up.
The grave Marg's been trying to show you has this stone:
/ Told You I Was Sick, B. P. Roberts, May 17,1929 to June 18,1979.
You drag Marg out for a walking tour of Old Key West. There are dozens
of houses on the tour but ifs too hotto last through all of them. You stand
on the sidewalk staring up at assorted houses. You read the brochure
aloud: "This is the Richard Tuggy' Roberts House," you say. "Two Bahama
houses stand side by side. They were originally constructed in the early
1800s at Abaco on Green Turtle Cay. In 1846 just after the disastrous
hurricane, Joseph Bartlum and Richard Roberts disassembled the buildings and brought sections aboard a sailing vessel to Key West The scarcity and expense of lumber on this island were key factors for the decision of the master shipbuilders to move the homes.
"The house at 408 William Street displays the unique, beaded clapboard siding seen only on the Bahama houses. Simple and unpretentious, the interior walls are white pine, hand-planed, the window sashes
are mahogany and the glass exhibits its original opalescent tinge. The
wide verandas are typical."
Marg easily tires of looking at old houses. You believe she would be
happiest to live in a highrise apartment with Emma, instead of in a turn-
of-the-century Victorian with you.
She suggests you stop at Shell World. They have a vast array of conch
shells, black coral, shells made into jewellery, salt water taffy and shark
jaws. You pick out a conch shell you can hold in your hand; its brown
stripes are shiny. You present it to Marg as a token of your trip. All the
missing gifts have gone completely out of your head. You can't imagine
she would take something you gave her—an emblem of a romantic vacation—and pass it along.
It did not occur to you, when you plunked down your money for the sun-
16 set cruise, that mostly what you were paying for was the privilege of
drinking as much booze as you could pour down your throat Of course
you are a teetotaller and while Marg drinks some, she doesn't drink when
she's on the water because of vicious seasickness. All the twins, with
whom you are in close proximity while the sky dazzles, ignore you steadfastly. The baseball twins are today wearing matched purple tank tops
with pink triangles in the spot where, ostensibly, their hearts should be.
"Come on," says the keen hotel worker who keeps moving your bags,
the one who talked you into this cruise. "Just one drink." She grins over
even, white teeth. "Ifs on me." She orders at the bar then passes each of
you an orange concoction that looks nearly dangerous. "Goombay
Smashes," she says, "an island tradition."
Obediently, the two of you sip.
You stare at a sign advertising an organization called "Reef Relief"
Accidental boat groundings damage the sensitive reef, it says. "Brown,
brown, run aground. Blue, blue, sail on through."
A lone dolphin explodes on the starboard side of the boat, leaping and
drawing the boat forward.
You haven't dared to reply to what Marg said in the graveyard. You weren't
born yesterday; you still think she's having an affair, but now she's also
overtly lying about it. At night, in your minute but frozen room, you touch
her and tell her you feel like two halves of the same woman. "Two thirds,"
you correct
Marg lifts on her elbow to look at you. She lifts her eyebrows, waiting.
"Goodnight" you say.
Before you leave Key West the two of you find a handmade tile store and
blow most of your leftover money on two coffee mugs. With the exchange
they cost nearly $100 each. But you think ifs a good sign. While they
don't exactly match, there are two of them. Two of them. Which must
mean that Marg envisions a future for the two of you. Or perhaps she is
planning to give yours to Emma You also buy a trivet that depicts a woman
and a wolf side by side. You don't say anything out loud, but to yourself
you nickname the wolf Emma.
The next afternoon you are off to the alligator farm by Miami. Your rental
car is small, slow, red; in your mind, it flashes out like a beacon. The
Keys are navigable, but once you're north of Key Largo, things are dicier.
You start to notice hurricane damage—palm trees without fronds, mostly.
Your mother told you all about Hurricane Andrew, which she watched on
CNN, and now you pass what she said along to Marg.
"One woman was in her bedroom with her six-year-old daughter," you
17 say, "and the hurricane swept under the house, pulled up some floor
boards and stole the sneaker off the child's foot*
Marg signals a lane change. You wanted something more, some ejaculation, a "wow" maybe.
"And a lot of people found out their insurance was no good. The government declared it a disaster area. It did millions of dollars worth of
damage."
Marg adjusts the rear view mirror.
You can't seem to get her attention. You say, "Do you love me?"
She says, "What time does the brochure say this place closes?"
You get lost in Homestead. Homestead is supposed to be one of the
most dangerous spots in the Continental US; more people get murdered
here than anywhere else. Marg is not impressed with your abilities as a
map-reader. You drive up and down country roads that bisect agricultural fields—palm tree nurseries mostly—but you never find where you're
supposed to be going. You say, "Those are Alexandria King Palms they're
growing there, for your information."
Marg pulls the car over. She reads the map. "This is 192nd Avenue
Northwest" she finally says disgustedly. "We're supposed to be looking
for Southwest I told you you need reading glasses."
You say, "Oh. Southwest Southwest Right." You twist the map upside
down until Southwest becomes apparent to you.
Marg's patience is being tried. You suggest you change places. When
you walk around the car, you think you might be shot. But the only people you see are migrant farm workers in beat-up vehicles. You get behind
the wheel where her hands have left wet slicks. She directs you and keeps
directing you. You drive into the slippery edges of sunset
The Everglades Alligator Farm is the alligator farm closest to Key
Largo, where you've booked a room, your last for tonight Once, when
you were a preteen, you tried to visit the Everglades. You were with your
mother and her brother. It was the year men landed on the moon, which
you watched in your Fort Lauderdale hotel room. On the way to the
Everglades, the rental car overheated. Now you wonder if you'll ever see
alligators. Ifs nearly five. The place closes at six. The dollar-off coupon
in your hand is wrinkled and damp, but it still proclaims that you are
about to have "A Gatorrific Time!"
"Have you ever been on an airboat?" you ask Marg. Now there are
signs that tell you you are getting close. "Everglades Alligator Farm, 10
miles" and an arrow pointing.
It is very, very rural, but not at all what you imagined the Everglades
to look like. You thought of water, swamps, men who wrestled alligators
with their bare hands. "Unspoiled Florida at its Wildest" says the coupon.
You are very tired, very weary, very hot when you pull into the Everglades
18 Alligator Farm driveway. But you're happy to be here, finally. It's only ten
after five, so all the hours of travel, all the stress, has been worth it Marg
puts her face in her hands You say chirpy things like, "We're here, sweetheart Come on, my little mung bean. Everything is fine now. You'll see.
Lef s go have a gatorrific time."
You try to sound upbeat. How did she get so far away from you? Because in this Homestead parking lot mere feet from thousands of alligators, in a spot not very long ago ravaged by a hurricane more severe than
your emotions, you understand that Marg is already gone. She's here,
beside you, but die's already gone, too. If not to Emma, then to whomever her next lover is, to whatever her life holds in store for her future.
Marg looks at you. You try to decipher what*s in her eyes. Pity? There's
no need for pity. Her hand reaches for die door. It swings open. You follow her determined walk into the gift shop. A sudden blast of cold air hits
you. There are alligator goods arrayed on many glass shelves and for a
fleeting second, you're sorry that you spent all your money on art and
ceramics. There are alligator stuffed animals and alligator spoons and
vinyl alligators that will swing from key chains.
What you'd really like to see is a picture of someone an alligator chewed
up and spat out
Marg stands in line at the counter. The clerk snaps bubble gum in an
otherwordh/ shade of blue.
"Two," Marg says.
The clerk says, "We're closed." She does something with her register,
which is computerized. A register tape begins to jerk out, trailing longer
and longer.
Marg says, "You're open till six."
"Sure," says the clerk, "but not for airboat rides. Last airboat ride's at
five."
Marg doesn't know what to say. Neither do you. Both of you are imagining this whole insufferable day, the expensive mugs, the hot highways,
being frightened and lost in Homestead, driving around aimlessly for
hours.
"Come back tomorrow," the clerk teUs you. Her eyes slide slowly up and
down, up and down, first Marg's body then yours. You'd think she'd never
seen lesbians before. The cash register tape winds onto the counter and
twists there like something alive, like a snake: an anaconda d' amour.
"We can't" Marg says.
You agree. "We're flying out tonight"
"This is it" Marg says.
"She's right," you echo. "This is it"
19 Nodar Djin
My First Slaughter
In the very beginning of winter many years ago, an unprecedented
number of bulls were driven into the Petkhain* slaughterhouse. Unlike cows, the bulls were to be slaughtered because of lack of feed for
the whole herd.
During the day, the whole block where the slaughterhouse was located wailed with the wail of the animals being slaughtered, and in the
evenings a sweet smell of burning bull meat crawled along the whole
street For the first time as far as I could recall, the Petkhainers were
feasting without any reason: the New Year's holiday had already passed
and there was still plenty of time left till the next one.
Due to a lack of reason, the Petkhainers partied with special zeal, getting inebriated not so much from vodka as from the surplus of meat, and
this made the expressions on their faces more remote and wild. I was
surprised that people who had just filled themselves with shish-kebobs
could throat out melancholic songs about unrequited love and that the
devourment of animals could cause such joy in man.
My grandfather Meir, being not only a rabbi but a slaughterer as well
(the fact of which, by the way, my father Yakov, the prosecutor and a
vegetarian, was very much ashamed of), remarked that God expects not
saintliness from a man, but understanding—that is, not the renunciation
of killing animals, but a feeling of sympathy for them when they are being killed. Only Jews, he kept saying, kill with understanding—in a sympathetic way.
I started laughing, and that very night—in response—my grandfather took me to the slaughterhouse, where he was to kill another bull for
a wedding, which at first was scheduled for the beginning of spring, and
then moved up sooner because of the availability of cheap cattle.
On the way, he explained that people of other religions kill with a sharp-
pointed knife: they target the heart but then, missing, draw second and
third stabs. But that*s not the worst: even if the first stab happens to be
on target, the animal dies slowly and is fully conscious of the act of violence being committed against it. In addition, he said, a knife tearing into
flesh rips instead of slashing the muscles, whereas when it is taken out it
shreds the flesh and causes the animal insulting pain.
*Petkkain (a historic district in Tbilisi, the capital of former Soviet Georgia) was
populated by Jews, whose ancestors arrived therefrom Babylon in the 8th century B. C
20 s
The slaughterhouse, which served as a hospital during the war, was a
long shed, dissected into parts. In the front, drowning into the earth,
stood huge scales, and upon them, a tall pile of dissected carcasses. In
the next one, there was a vile, sour-sweet smell of half-dead meat and
tripe. Despite the late hour, this partition turned out to be packed with a
multitude of silent and unshaven men. Without glancing at each other,
they—a carcass jerked up on each hook—delighted in their work with
axes and choppers. In the short pauses between the desperate wails of
the cattle being slaughtered in the farther partition there were mute,
hollow sounds of metal hitting against the bone and the crackle of the
skin being stripped off.
My grandfather dragged me by the hand across a couple more partitions, and, finally, hitting the door with his foot, took me inside a tiny
partition, or a slaughter-room, to be precise, which, because of a lightbulb
smeared with blood, emanated a dim red light There was a dense, salty
stench around—like in an animal house. The walls of the room were
splattered with a dark grey lime, and on the floor, in the middle, gaped an
oval hole for the puddle of blood. The ceiling was painted an unexpected
silver-turquoise, and right under it in the farthest corner, a radio of prewar times splashed with blood hung on a nail:
If every loving thought and look
Became a lyric line,
There'd be no bigger poetry book
On themes of love than mine.
But still the book is small—what's worse,
I'm writing nothing new:
Whatever time I have for verse
I'd rather spend with you...
"Iethim Gurji!" My grandfather nodded in the direction of the radio
and, opening a leather bag, pulled out of it a familiar wooden box in which
he kept his knives.
A hefty woman stood under the radio with her back to us. She had tall,
thin shins with unbelievably round calves. Shoulders like the wings of
some unknown bird were drawn forward towards the chest.
"Iethim? The poet?" I asked, observing the woman and how, throwing
the top of the wooden box aside, my grandfather cautiously took the handle of a wide knife and brought it close to his eyes.
"No, he is not a poet because poets choose words, and then write
them down on paper. Iethim did not do that he was a Persian, an orphan
and a vagabond, and so he never wrote anything—he only spoke in
rhyme," and, sliding his finger across the sharp razor of the knife, he
21 added, "Persians are very sensitive people! Say something, Silva!"
Silva did not say anything, but she turned around. Her face was also
round, with moist and sad eyes. The dark pupils pulsated and rocked to
and fro in the white.
"I promised you: everything will be all right you'll see!" my grandfather said to her. "You're still young; you'll find yourself another man, or
you'll wait till your Bakri does his time, and then you'll both have a life
together again, you understand? You're both young, you still have thirty
years of continuous living ahead of you, you hear? You'd better wipe your
tears and bring the bull in! These days it's better for you to work than
listen to sad poems, you hear? Wait, time will pass, and you'll be happy!"
"I am not listening to these poems," Silva answered, looking aside. "I
am crying because I am angry at life!" and she let out a sob. "Wait! And
how can I wait when I have to live? I am not Jewish, I don't have the time
to wait.."
"Wipe your tears off, I told you," my grandfather mumbled.
She nodded, pulled out a handkerchief from her rubber apron and
patted her eyes.
"She's also a Persian," grandfather whispered. "And also an orphan,
like that poet Iethim. She has lots of relatives in Persia, but she's not
allowed to go there. And yesterday..Well, she has a fiance—a Bukharian
Jew, Galibov—yesterday they gave him ten years."
"For what?" I felt sorry for her and her fiance, because, indeed, people
live each and every instant and no one has time to wait for happiness.
"Why so long ten years?"
"It's a long story," grandfather shrugged. "I told your father about it
and he said in Russia they would have given him more!"
"Meir!" exclaimed Silva and came towards us.
I was surprised, not so much by the familiarity with which she addressed my grandfather, whom even my grandmother called "Rabbi,"
but by the sudden transformation of the Persian woman: her shoulders
straightened out, her chest came forward, and instead of sorrow, some
frightening thought was showing through her eyes.
"Meir!" she repeated; and, stepping right up to me, touched my neck
with her cool hand that suddenly smelled of lilac, the scent which did not
correspond either with her image or her surroundings. "Who's this boy
with you, Meir?"
"I am not a boy!" I interjected, without taking her hand away.
"Thaf s my grandson," my grandfather mumbled once again, searching for something in his bag. "He wants to see how Jews slaughter their
cattle."
"Yeah? You look like a Persian: very smooth," Silva said to me and
pulled my head to her leather apron on her spacious chest, which
22 exuded not lilac, but blood.
"Where's the sharpening stone?" my grandfather asked her.
"I gave it back to Suren."
"Will you fetch it?"
"Go yourself!" ordered the woman.
To my surprise, my grandfather nodded his head and left, handing the
knife to Silva. Without letting me go, she brought the knife around my
back, and pushing me closer to her, clasped my body in a tight ring of her
fleshy hands. For the first time then, my face was scorched by the breath
coming out of a strange but close-standing female flesh. The breath was
spicy, a bit bittered with anise. I sensed weakness in my legs. It seemed
that someone had struck me with a switch.
"What are you doing?" I was frightened.
"Don't be afraid!" she grinned and unclasped the ring. "I'm checking
the knife"—and imitating my grandfather, she slid her nail across the
sharp edge. "Your grandfather is right there is a jag right here...Try it!"
Taking one step back, I extended my hand for the knife and, sliding
the nail of the thumb across the sharp edge, cut the skin on the joint.
Silva was happy, brought my finger to her eyes and pushed hard upon it.
The joint was covered with blood. Bending her head and licking the
wound, she carefully placed the finger in her mouth. Then she raised her
glance at me from under her brow, started ragefully sliding her tongue
along the finger, and swallowed the bloody saliva on her lips.
"What are you doing?" I repeated in a whisper.
She did not answer right away. Taking my finger out of her mouth, she
carefully blew on the wounded joint and muttered, licking her lips:
"This knife, you see, has a jag...Thafs bad blood, you have to suck it
out.."
"Bad blood?" I asked her thoughtlessly, continuing to sense the elastic powers of her hot tongue on my finger.
"Jews don't use the meat if the knife has a jag...Thaf s not pure blood:
bad knife causes pain to the animal..."
I was thinking about something else.
"The knife must be wide and strong, but smooth like words in a poem,
so that the animal feels pleasure..."
"Sharp?" I asked.
"And the length should be twice the thickness of the neck...And it
should not be pushed into the flesh: you slide forward once, and backward—once, like on a fiddle. And the blood will be soft..."
There was a pause. Again, I stopped sensing my own body. The Persian woman put her hand back on my neck and uttered:
"You're not a boy, you say?"
"No," I answered silently and lifted my eyes at her carefully.
23 "Give me your hand, then," she blurted, and, grabbing my hand with
hers, free of the knife, she pulled me towards her and squeezed me to
her belly. Slowly letting go, the Persian woman pulled out from under my
hand the bottom of her apron and the dress, and my fistfound itself against
her naked flesh. Somewhere inside of me—in my throat, in my back
under the shoulder blades, in my hips, in my knees, even in the ankles—
there suddenly arose a tormenting energy, obeying which the fingers
crawled to the source of the heat.
"You're doing good!" Silva whispered and covered her eyes with her
shivering lids. "like a boy! like a duck, even!"
"What?" I started. "Like who?"
"Don't stop! In Persia women pour corn kernels there and let a hungry goose peck them out..Ifs very good... But don't stop!"
I refused to think of the goose and, at last reached the scorching inner flesh. When I touched it, I was overwhelmed by a hot wave which
reminded me of a dense cover made out of soap bubbles in our Turkish
bath. I sensed how suddenly weakness started to grow inside of me,
which, however, no longer frightened or tormented me, but rather, seeped
into some mysterious force.
The wounded finger tensed up and, squeezing its way further, came
against the elastic, slippery hill. Climbing over it it—all by itself—went
sharply inside, into the tight depth, permeated with viscous moisture,
which dripped along the finger towards the wrist
The wound on the joint started to sting painfully, and a moment later,
I heard the hoarse coughing of my grandfather from behind the door.
Jerking away from the Persian woman as though I had just been stung, I
found myself under the radio:
It's time, high time for me to go,
No things I take along.
I leave the winds thai lightly blow,
The thrushes' early song.
I leave the moonlit night, the trees,
The flowers in the grass,
The murmuring of distant seas,
The torrent's mighty bass...
Shocked and frightened, with my back to Silva and my grandfather, I
saw, accompanied by the voice on the radio, my finger covered with
blood—not with my own, but with the dense blood of the Persian woman.
The hairs on my wrist clung to the skin and were glued in knots enveloped by drying moisture that exuded a suffocating scent As soon as I
guessed what kind of moisture it was, I was jerked by ahazy, deep shame
24 for everyone in the world, for everything alive and stinking. For the fact
that everything in this world is probably horrible inside.
Then I was surprised that I had not known this earlier. I had never
read it anywhere, no one had told me about it I was told different things,
but never that everything is so horrible inside. Why didn't anyone tell
me about it? And could it be that no one knows it yet—only P No, I decided, that can not be! But there could be something other: it is not so
horrible at all, and it seems horrible to me only, because I know less than
the rest! Perhaps it is that the world is not only not horrible without horrors but also miraculous without miracles.
"Turn the radio off!" my grandfather's sharp voice interrupted me.
"Why?" I grew cautious, hiding the smeared fist behind my back.
"Silva's going to bring in the bull," he answered, caressing the sharpening stone with the edge of the knife.
"I have a question," I said, not in a hurry to clean off the blood. My
grandfather did not object and I added: "Why is man afraid of blood?"
"Thaf s a stupid question. Blood reminds of death."
I thought for a while and nodded: "No. Because a man is afraid of
everything that he consists of."
"Turn off the radio, I told you!" he blurted.
The bull that the Persian woman brought into the slaughterhouse did
not feel Its end. True, it was popping its eyes, but it was doing so either
out of curiosity, or out of sleepiness and tiredness.
I had seen bulls before, but only then did I realize that they were killed.
All notions in our head are dissected and therefore, although we know
that the world is one, we forget to see things in it as they really are—not
separated from each other, not even closely intertwined, but in their union. A bull on a meadow in a village and a dish of beef for dinner were
always two different things to me: a bull on a meadow is carelessness of
summer holidays and freedom of time.
Beef was expensive, and we ate it only on Sabbath eves when our
relatives poured in and my grandfather—in a lively manner, as though
they were his own memories—told Agadic legends at supper, which filled
me with an illusory but gay feeling of being a part of something incomparably more significant than my own life. And so these two disparate worlds
merged together for the first time in front of my very eyes.
When Silva caringly pushed the bull closer to the hole for blood—I
realized then that bulls, which I only saw on village meadows, exist in
order to be converted into beef.
Killing, the ceasing of life, which I came across for the first time that
night united into two different seductive worlds—and this was not surprising, but shocking to me, and alienated me for a long time afterwards
25 from the Sabbath eve feasts with their holiday smells and images of colourful legends.
It was also that very night that I, for the first time, felt hate for a person
close to me: for my grandfather, with whom I later made peace—not in
three months, when, accidentally cutting the vein on his wrist he died
from loss of blood; but much later—after I had sensed in myself the readiness to kill a dog that had frightened me.
Looking around skeptically, the bull stopped at the designated line and
dropped its muzzle, sniffing the smell of blood at the edge of a dark opening in the ground.
The Persian woman and my grandfather did not exchange words—
only mute signs. Silva threw two rope nooses over the hoofs of the animal; one over the front the other over the hind hooves. Then she
unhooked the tip of a rubber hose from the nail on the wall and lowered
it into the ground. Then she returned to the wall and turned on the tap.
Water shrilled in the ground, and it seemed to me that the bull liked the
sound. My grandfather checked the knife with his nail once again and
was satisfied. Taking it away from my grandfather and also sliding her
nail over it Silva suddenly put her other palm to her throat and started
caressing it just as she had with me.
Neither she nor my grandfather took any notice of me. They also did
not pay attention to the bull, which was standing between them. Silva
came close to my grandfather and, clenching the knife between her teeth,
rolled up his sleeves. In response, he brushed his beard against her fleshy
cheek and whispered something in her ear. This scene stirred a sharp
sensation of jealousy within me, although then it was difficult for me to
imagine that my grandfather could condescend to lusting after a woman.
A more horrifying guess flashed in my head: the closeness of these two
people is the closeness of accomplices in everyday murder.
My grandfather slowly pulled the knife out of the Persian woman's
mouth, shoved it behind his apron's belt and, stepping up to the bull
from the front, grabbed a horn with his left hand. Silva rounded the animal from behind, and with her back to me, squatted, tearing her fingers
into the knots.
Rabbi Meir raised the bull's muzzle by its horn, looked the animal in
its confused eyes, and moved his lips; charging, probably, either God or
the bull itself to regard what was about to happen with certain indulgence. Then he swung his fist and hit the animal in the forehead with all
his might
The sound was hollow—the sound of a fatal blow against something
alive—but at first the bull did not even budge. A few moments later,
however, its feet grew weak and, dropping its neck onto its chest it sighed
26 briefly and tumbled to the ground with its hooves towards me. This happened almost noiselessly: only the crackle of a shattered horn could be
heard.
Silva tightened the knots and jerked the rope high, and the animal's
legs gathered around its belly as if it were getting ready to return to the
womb. The woman threw herself against the ribs of the animal, and, circling the free ends of the rope around the damaged horn, pulled them
upon herself. The bull's head was thrown back on the floor towards its
back, revealing a pale neck, and, for a moment, an image of asih/er-rimmed
bull's horn flashed in my memory. On Sabbath eves my grandfather would
drink wine from that horn for the longevity of Israel.
While the Persian woman was fussing with the fallen animal, her skirt
had crawled up to the very foundation of her naked legs. Their whiteness almost blinded me. The woman started to cling tighter to the animal, and her thighs, crowding each other, grew wider. From time to time,
they shuddered: from under the deep thickness, sharp slices of muscles
broke through to the surface, but after shimmering for just a little bit.
they immediately vanished in the massive fleshiness.
The muscular balls of the calves had nowhere to vanish: jumping, they
slowly slithered down, evoking a scene from a movie—a slithering of a
ostrich egg inside the body of a snake. When I finally tore my glance
away from Suva and shifted it to the bun, the murder was already approaching its end: the knife in the bull's throat was slippering for an exit
and smoking with hot vapours. Carefully, not to smear his beard, which
he covered with his palm, my grandfather pulled it out of the gaping
wound, put it in his mouth, and bent the bull's muzzle closer to the opening in the ground. The blood spouting and mixing with the stream coming out of the hose, bubbling and shimmering, splashed into the hole.
The animal flapped its eyes confusedly: the world in front of it was
probably losing its power and beginning to flicker—existing, and then
suddenly, vanishing. Or perhaps the animal was just amazed that it was
unable to utter a angle sound except a muffled snoring. Then, apparently guessing that its throat was already slashed, it settled down and, in
a hurry to slip into nonexistence away from the people that were murdering it it shut its eyelids.
I was overwhelmed, not by pity for it but by a never-before-experienced
curiosity. I attempted to guess its sensations, and it seemed to me that the
creature had already picked out a shelter for itself, and the thought of that
shelter gave it spiritual pleasure and physical delight The bull loosened up
and submerged into the warm, soft, and inebriating cloud of steam which
emanated from a stream of blood spouting from its throat The animal's
belly—under the Persian woman's naked thighs—shuddered lustfully.
All of a sudden, I felt like stepping up to the woman and touching her.
27 My flesh grew anxious, and I looked cautiously at my grandfather, who,
it appeared to me, flew into a rage, noticing that I had caught the unusual
expression of his bloodshot eyes. My grandfather, it seemed, was somehow frightened of my presence as well. I wanted to leave the premises,
but he was ahead of me: pulling the bloody knife out of his teeth and
placing it on the ground by the hole, he picked up the sharpening stone
from a shelf and slammed the door behind him.
Silva would not turn to me. Slowly tearing herself away from the bull's
belly, still on her knees, she crawled on all fours to the animal's head and
placed the knife under the soft stream coming out of the hose. The tender shrill of water and the lazy snorting of the dying victim rendered
stillness to silence, against the background of which the anxiety within
me became unbearable.
'Turn the radio on!" the Persian finally uttered, without raising her glance.
Happy at the idea, I carefully plugged tile cord into the socket
I leave with you what's mine from birth
As much as flesh and bone—
The winding path, the scent of earth,
Of hay that's newly mown.
Heave the cooling rain, the baking
Sun, the skies above...
Instead, the greatest treasure taking
On my way—your love...
"Lock the door!" the Persian said, caressing the bleeding wound on
the animal's throat
After locking the door with a hook, I returned to my previous place.
"No, come here!" ordered Silva, and when, holding my breath, I approached her, she jerked away from the bull and unzipped my pants with
blood-smeared hands. I started back, but she pulled me to herself with a
powerful movement of tile hand. "Come here! Lower!"
Obeying, I sat on the floor, touching the animal with my back, and a
sweet stench of steaming blood hit my nostrils. The smell of death made
my head swirl unexpectedly, and fearing that sensation, I buried my face
in the Persian's wide chest and felt out in it the salutary scent of lilac.
Suva clasped her fingers upon my neck and pushed painfully on my
Adam's apple, as if she were checking it out for the knife. Then she moved
me away from herself and put me with my back across the dying animal's
throat My head fell back onto the cold ground. With my back I felt the
shudder of the weakening muscles on the animal's neck, while my lower
back became hot from the blood which spouted from the bull's throat
28 under my weight Amidst the hustle of unfamiliar sensations, I nevertheless made out the touch of female hands against my neck, and the smooth
sliding of naked, female thighs against my hips.
"Don't close your eyes!" whispered Silva, and although I did not obey
her, very soon my flesh began to grow numb in the anticipation of that
stupefying languor, the impatience for which is caused by a fear and pain
of it ending; that very power, the invincibility of which is determined by
the primal oneness of the beginning—that is, of love and death; the oneness of lechery and blood.
When, after some time, I sensed that the bun, having let out its last
shudder, finally died, I opened my eyes, sat up, and in the dim light of a
blood-smeared lamp discerned the Persian's face above myself It seemed
that it existed separately from her cool flesh, which poured blood onto
my belly from its gaping abyss. Her face, frozen in the already familiar-
to- me languor of pain and pleasure, looked like it was not alive—just like
her mouth, which seemed unable to utter a sound.
The next time I was to see this face was a quarter of a century later, in
Central Asia—in a Jewish cemetery located in a Muslim district next to
the Iranian border, where I was photographing the whimsical gravestones
of the local Hebrews.
Many of them were exiled there from distant corners of the country,
including my very Petkhain. They lived stingily here: saving money in
case they were ever allowed to return to their native lands, for, as the
former Petkhainers told me, only a melon is capable of getting used to
central Asia after Georgia. No one, however, allowed them to return, and
the money saved was mostly spent on gravestones.
I came to the cemetery at about noon and immediately started photographing a mausoleum made from Italian marble. Towards the evening,
when the sun set to that height from which it penetrates the world with a
sneaking light during the mornings, I returned to the vault in order to
photograph it from inside.
Stepping under the arch and descending the stone stairs, I, as always,
first started to look at the portraits of the deceased upon the oval china
plates. The mausoleum belonged to a family and a sign shimmered above
the portraits: "The Galibov Family. Every man is like a letter in the alphabet in order to form a word it must merge with tile others."
The names of the deceased and phrases from Hebrew hoh/ books were
etched out under the portraits, made dim by time. A distich, written in
bronze, flickered over one of the ovals:
Don't curse your fortune, passerby!
You are more fortunate than I.
29 I raised my glance to the portrait: from the black wall gazed at me a
distorted-by-age face of the Persian, Silva, whom I would have recognized even if her name was not written there—by the expression of her
eyes. like before, they iUuminated pain and pleasure simultaneously, and,
like before, the pupils did not stay still inside them, but rocked.
From the text next to the distich, it became clear that "the Tbilisi Persian woman, Silva Adjani, was taken to be married—in the zenith of her
ruby life—by a Bukharian Jew, a civil engineer, a bridgemaker, Moshiakh-
Bakri Galibov," who explained to the world the reason of her death with
the phrase taken from the Talmud: "A wise man was asked—why do
people die? Wise man answered—from life."
There arose a feeling within me and everything that I knew before
about life, about love, and about death, became clearer; as though something very important but which had always existed beside me, had, finally, penetrated my very heart
Immediately it became stifling and, coming out of the vault, I caught
the scent of lilac, which was growing amidst the acacia trees that surrounded me on all sides.
30 Claire-Marie Hitchins
Limber Like Me
Limbo, limbo, limbo like me—limbo-o, limbo like me. Well, I want a gyal to
limbo like me; limbo-o, only for me.
—Caribbean folk-pop song
Still limber, eh?" That is the Professorman, greeting me.
Now, after three days of rain—emerald hills, and skies blue as the
Virgin's frock! From the slope above the St. Augustine campus, the
monastery of Mount Saint Benedict jousting the sky, poking its cross at
a wisp of cloud.
Should I try to tell this Professorman about limberness? (Iimberity?
Or, maybe, limberacity?) Or just rest up in my cosmic with the fact that
the sight of my fat brown body clambering onto the campus over this
barbwire fence can set his little black hormones humming? Still...
I smile at him. Wave. Take more time than I need to getting over the
fence.
For the last four weeks of his life, my father sleep, wake, eat speak to
us with graduating effort for a thin cauliflower necklace of cancer is slowly
slowly embracing his neck, growing inward, blocking the tubes for air
and food. Each day the embroidery embellishes itself further, sprouting
tiny new flowery facets.
Pops endure all these things with his head erect Not stiff, mark you.
Just sort of straight up, chin level with the ground and the bed. Is not a
haughty head, just a head determined it not ready to flop forward or
back—at any rate, not just yet All the energy of him, brain that could tot
up columns of figures faster than fingers could put them into a calculator,
hands that delight to draw "plans" for houses, dresses for our paper dolls,
the occasional sketch of a hibiscus or a hurricane-felled tree; arms that
could saw and chisel and carve and plane and summon boats and chairs.
and tables from a log—all this purpose, this will, focused now, centred,
realized in that rock-steady head.
It was an extraordinary feat and I only recognize it near to his dying.
I only realize what he mean the head to do, and that it doing what he
mean it to, the night before the morning that he die.
Pops' dying hit Miguel the hardest He was Pops' best friend, and Pops
was his other self. They had bank accounts in common and knew about
31 each other's women when Carmencita and I still thought most men were
faithful to their wives... Now we all sit on Carmencita's verandah, gazing
out at the Gulf, setting our lives aside. The afternoon is lit by the gold
tongue of flame at the throat of the green lizard living at the warmest
corner of the verandah. We are smart and perceive it as trumpery and
deceit since the lizard don't use that tongue to eat at all, just to attract his
dinner.
We "work" with Pops all the way through his dying, but it was a thing
he did. He never suffer ft, or permit it to happen, or give in to it He set
his life aside, determined ft. His dying was a thing he shaped and moulded,
as he had done things all his life, without ceremony but with great care.
By the time he had decided it was time to complete his dying, he wasn't
afraid anymore.
It is just as well sickness give people a lot of things to do. Turn on the
oxygen. Turn it off. Wheel out the oxygen tank. Wheel it in. Open it with
a wrench. Lock it up. Misplace the wrench. Find it back. Bathe the sick
one. Invent ways to wash the hair on the head of a prone somebody without drowning him. Brush the said hair. Brush it again. Put up brush and
comb. Take them out again to repeat the ritual not half an hour later.
Care the patient in a thousand small small ways...
I arrange that the Professorman keep a ways ahead of me on one of
the myriad tracks of hard-packed earth that lazy, bad-minded, own-way
students on this university campus have carved across the green grass—
poor grass, struggling to survive with not a help from anything or anybody except the seasonal rain! I say "a ways ahead" for in my Creole way,
fifty feet fifty yards, fifty metres, is the same thing.
Miles, I know, is longer.
One time me and El Professor were friends. Not sleeping friends. Real
friends. One day when I was dim and beautiful—"tan bella," he'd say,
winking appreciatively—we had gone together into Port-of-Spain to hear
Wole Soyinka read his poetry at the little Carib Theatre. Well, we never
really go together. (He have wife—a tall, thin, shrill, jealous black package. I have husband—shortish, whitish, secure and indulgent) I need a
ride. He say "So, come with me..." I go with him.
It was hot—little Carib still appealing for funds to install central air
conditioning. On the way back, he stop his new Cressida on the southwest corner of the Savannah and buy us sno-cone from a one-arm sno-
cone man—well, not really a man. More a boy. Mister ask him about the
arm and he shrug, grin and say "Is accident When me small, me bredda
push me and me drop 'pon de power saw and it cut off." He laughs wryly.
"No hospital not in my part of South." South is the south of Trinidad to
South people, a separate country.
His one arm more than make up for the missing second one.
32 So my sno-cone done and all my little bits and pieces dripping with the
last of the passion fruit syrup. Mister proffers a handkerchief and I wipe
my fingers and my mouth, and give it back to him. Guess what? The man
no gimme back the hanky! I feel like a little messy girl, my messiness
referred to my own safekeeping. Then I wonder what it must be like to
make love to this man, and I relish the little shortish whitish man I screwing these many years, and I think of the toilet paper joke we share so
many times when, wet with each other, renk as goats, we roll over into
sleep.
I too vex! Better the man never give me the damn handkerchief at all.
Near to the end, when Pops finding it hard to speak, he issue a new
summons. We never know what he was saying at first but after he say it
to Carmencita, me, Nurse Howden, we finally make it out
"Nurse me."
So we do what come naturally. Croon to him. Hold his hand. Pat his
arms. Mop sweat from his forehead. Kiss it Powder him. Put ointment
on the jewel at his throat Anoint it again and again. Put white rum on his
head. Hold the rum bottle to his nose so he can smell it. Examine his feet
for swelling. Talk to them. Talk to his lungs. Encourage the working parts
to co-operate, secure the body, patient wounded on the bed.
And Pops lie down in it like a baby and let it suckle him, this man that
brew resida and comfry for ailments of man and beast that know the
virtues of periwinkle bush before the modern medical researchers find
them out that slap together and apply a poultice like any medicine man...
Miguel and Pops and Roderick (my little nasty man) have one drink of
ponche de creme every day up to the last Sunday Pops live. He die early
the third Monday morning after Christmas. At least Miguel and Roderick
drink. Pops take small sips of the white liquor and let it lie at the back of
his throat Sometimes, near the end, an hour or two after the drinking is
done, he would cough, and the creamy liquid would run from the sides of
his mouth, and we would know that not a drop had got past the bung at
his throat.
The night before that Monday morning, it dawn on me that for as long
as Pops head hold up straight he not going to die. Simple as that It was
his way of checking on his presence, of ensuring his being here. Suddenly I know when the head go down, he would go too; and I figure that
it wouldn't go down till he was good and ready. When pillow receive head,
Pops fixing to move on.
Miguel and me and Carmencita fussing about what we going to do
about Pops. Never mind how we mince-up the food, puree the food, liquefy it in a blender, not a thing going past Pops' throat Poor baby, submissive, he eat and hold the mush in his throat for hours, resolved not to
give trouble... (Well, not in everything, for while he still had his voice,
33 when we were droning the rosary, muttering our "Holy Mary, Mother of
God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death" with grim
monotony, when he can take no more of this reiterated woefulness, he
terminate the exercise with a roar of "Bastante!" and we scatter, frightened just like when we small...)
We know this is not a man you force-feed. True, he ask to be nursed,
but equally true he resent his lack of control over his bowels and his
bladder. He long for the freedom to shave his own chin and bathe his
own body and ablute at length on the throne of his house, peering through
his glasses, newspaper on his knees. On that throne he has done the
crossword, the whole London puzzle, in no more than ten minutes, every
day of his life. He has constructed the throne room and installed the
throne in his house with his very own hands; he has added extra bedrooms to the modest structure as his family increased; arranged front
and back verandahs, redone the kitchen in modern style. With his hands
he has raised uprights, mixed cement and sand and stone to make concrete nog walls; rendered them, painted them, hurricane-strapped the
roof to cheat the rains and storms.
This is not a man you force-feed.
As I near the Econ Department El Professorman, Alistero, is ascending the stairs to his office, two at a time. I will go up the stairs too and
pass his office en route to the department office. (I am a post-grad student—doing my Ph. D.) I avoid catching up, don't stick my head into his
office as I go by.
One day when I had stopped to collect a paper that he had graded—
"Gender as an economic issue: the case of Trinidad, a small island state"—
he had proffered a poem. Roderick the Nasty is a poet so I have for many
years had an intelligent interest "On Angels and Pinheads," he had called
it.
I recognized the metaphysical riddle in the title for they sent me to
Catholic college in the USA, the good nuns who raised me, on scholarship. We are an old Venezuelan family, moved to Trinidad in the last century, wombed in the church. The nuns were not about to lose me to a
secular institution like the new University of the West Indies—not at any
rate, until I had been inoculated with Ethics, Moral Theology and the
generous helpings of Aquinas's Summa, compulsory at every American
Catholic college.
On my return to Trinidad they received the prospect of my enrollment
to do a Diploma in Education at UWI with equanimity when I told them I
had decided on teaching as a career. By that time, I guess they supposed,
prayed, hoped, I was as dangerous to the heathen as they were to me.
I read the poem.
34 On Angels and Pinheads
If an angel alight
at tiie side of its twin,
does that narrow the room
on the head of the pin?
As the angels keep landing
and taxiing in,
does the temperature rise
on the tip of that pin?
I imagine them seraphs
must be pretty packed in,
as they make terpsichorean
twirling out twisting in.
Is docility virtue?
Agility sin?
Do they do any dancing
aloft on the pin?
If I were an angel
(which Pve never been),
Fd sure wish you alit
on the head of my pin!
I smiled and returned it to him. "Clever, clever," I offered. "You clearly
have a livelihood there." (It would take him time, I was sure, to get the
pun.) Then I thought of the passion-fruit-stained handkerchief, and my
nasty Roderick, and smiled again. My farewell.
"Listen to me, you Miss Angela!" Carmencita was bearing down on
me, her ackee seed eyes wide, her small mouth stretched so you couldn't
see any lips, "This is not your house. My father—your father, our father—is a sick in my house, not your house. When anything happen and
we can't manage it here, and Pops suffer or die as a result is my conscience it going burden and is me going to feel bad. Him cyaan't stay
here no longer. We cyaan't manage him."
So the last petals of cauliflower find their way into the decoration around
my father's neck. "Pops," I say to him, "you must be really tired." He
smile a little smile. Then, his eyes make four with mine and he let his
head drop back onto the pillow. "True," he say, "I feel a little weary. I
going retire early tonight"
35 Nurse Howden say he slept off lightly, without even a gasp of breath,
at about five the next morning. Carmencita say, as usual, he resolve our
differences. Me, I affirm the maker's energy in my father's head erect,
the deep appreciation of simple kindnesses, the savouring of the streamlined functions of a healthy body.
So today I am on campus again, to explain my absence from classes,
and ask for grace on my next Econ paper, for we must bury Pops and I
know I won't make the due date. Mister has gone into his room and closed
the door, and it is quiet as I walk past, so I decide that he is busy and that
I will leave him a note.
"My father died this morning," I write, "so things will be busy and
confused over the next two weeks or so. I'm hoping it will be all right to
give in my paper, due in three days' time, at the end of the month. If I
can't have the benefit of so long an extension, please let me know what
you propose. Thanks. Blessings. Angela." I think about the "Blessings,"
for Mister isn't into God and all that stuff, but my father has just died, and
I decide to let them stay.
My business in the department office completed, I execute a backbend
for Sfta's benefit, my two hundred pounds notwithstanding. It is a bit of
craziness I indulge in from time to time, to her great amusement Sita is
sixty plus, East Indian, and guards the Professorman's secrets. She is a
loyal secretary—but a good woman too. From time to time we share
jokes about positions in the Kamasutra and the talent of experienced
bones, when the brashly bared bodies of the undergrads and their manners manque start to get to us. No one has "caught" me doing my
backbends up to now.
Sita thinks I am crazy—"Yeah, yeah. You're still agile—and an ass!"
We laugh uproariously.
"Your Father," she says, "must be doing the limbo in his grave!"
36 Robert Pennee
"he Mime
Look at him. You have to laugh, even if you don't find it funny. Just
the way he stares. His mouth hanging open, his legs gone weak in
tile knees, his arms drooping at his sides like pillows on a
clothesline...to see him like this, you'd think he had spent his whole life
with a thick rope around his neck.
His name is Augustine. A Leo. So, yes, he loves to perform. But he's so
shy he can barely open his mouth. He has to let his body say everything
for him. This would be fine, I suppose, but he does everything as if he
were wading through quicksand. Yes, it really is like that Poor Augustine doesn't live in air like the rest of us, but in a thicker medium, a medium with the density of glue...
But that's not the worst of it If you saw him walking down the street
with his hands behind his back, you immediately thought "Ah, he's the
Queen of England's husband today..."
You never thought "Ah, it is Augustine out for a walk..."
And if you think that people will take advantage of someone because
of this, you're right It wasn't that long ago that I saw someone approach
him from behind and give the little yellow hat he wears a knock so that it
fell into a puddle. Before Augustine had even turned around the other
fellow, ayoung hood named Maurizio, had pranced away, in hysterics...and
ifs true. It was a scream. But Augustine would never dream of revenge.
(You will think he's witless. But he's not Not at alL) He picked up the
soggy hat which after this mishap looked like a banana peel, and set it
back on his head. He smiled, and when he saw that people were laughing, he bowed, as if this were great sport and he was responsible for their
pleasure.
Naturally, if you live in our neighbourhood, you can't miss the antics.
They happen so frequently. You'd have to walk around with your eyes
shut Which, in fact Augustine does. He performs in the street in front of
everyone. And we all watch of course. He likes to pretend that he's blind,
and that he's carrying a white cane. That, s how this one particular routine starts out You can see him step from his one-room flat and descend
the long staircase, with one hand on the black metal rail and the other
37 suspended in mid-air in the shape of a closed fist. Before he is halfway
down the block, he is already beginning to stoop. His right shoulder creeps
up, and he seems to be resting all his weight on the arm which is suspended in front of him—the one which rests on the invisible cane. He
probes into every corner with it drifting it from side to side. If something crosses his path, he reacts with bewilderment After a while, most
of us tire of watching. But for those with nothing better to do, the show
continues all day long.
His body withers; slowly, painfully, decrepitude consumes him. He is
left the skeleton of a real person. His limbs appear fragile, like the silhouette of a victim of famine. Without any concern for what might be scattered on the ground around him, he slumps to the pavement in a pitiful
heap. Shaking, he raises his arms, his palm extended..."Please," he seems
to say, "your coins." And if there is a passerby who is not familiar with
Augustine, then he is likely to receive a pocketful of change, whereas
from those who know him, his neighbours, he is more likely to be given
a sharp kick in the ribs...
You are going to say, but surely this is terrible, to treat someone like
that But if you haven't had to live with Augustine, you shouldn't make
rash judgements. He can be a real pain in the ass. For instance, one of his
routines, especially if if s raining, or the weather has turned cold, is to go
and sit in the local cafe—Le Bord du Trottoir.
You can guess without my telling you how he entertains himself there.
Of course! He mimes the patrons. But to start with...let me say what he
does when he first goes in. To begin, he always enters the place like a
priest He's completely sober, and turns his head from side to side, as if
he's about to absolve us of our crimes. Then he shrugs, "Oh well, there's
no one here for me," meaning that there's no one to inflict himself on.
For a moment everything looks hopeless, then his eyes light up, his finger darts forward, he points to an empty chair; before anyone has time to
blink, he scuttles across the room, stands at attention in front of the chair,
embraces himself affectionately, lets his head jab from side to side, his
lips puckered slightly, his eyes turned heavenward... Then he drops into
the chair, indicates to the ghost seated across from him that he wishes to
be left alone, and finally turns on his real victim...that is, on whoever
happens to occupy the table next to his.
Those of us who are regulars usually sit at the far side of the cafe, near
the window. We play chess, we read the newspapers; if there is something of consequence going on in the political arena then there's sure to
be a heated debate, otherwise, we talk amongst ourselves quite amicably. At first, Augustine used to gravitate toward us. He would take a seat
across from our table and launch into his routine. He'd move his hand to
capture a pawn, hide behind the paper, wag his finger like a heretic, or
38 put his arm around the chair nearest to him and confide in the ear of his
invisible accomplice. For a while, it amused us, then it started to get on
our nerves. What do you expect? Having this morose monkey perform
an absurd rendition of every move we made. We'd tell him to bug off.
The bolder amongst us even threw their cigarette butts at him, or poured
the remains of their coffee in his lap...but he hardly noticed. Like a marionette, he'd dangle himself at the end of a knot of strings, flailing his
hand about which I assume was supposed to suggest someone tipping
out coffee on his own head. (His mimes weren't always easy to follow...the
art of the mime is based on the treatment of complex gestures, refining
them to their essentials. But Augustine seemed to go precisely in the
opposite direction...his mimes were full of irrelevant improbable details,
so that if one happened to lose the gist of a performance or came upon
him in the middle of a routine, he looked like a complete lunatic, tweaking the air in front of his nose and screwing up his mouth as if he'd just
bitten into a moth.)
Anyway, it didn't take him too long to get the idea that he wasn't wanted
and, besides, the repertoire we offered him was really quite limited. This
was especially true of Gregor, who was the only one of us who played
chess with a passion...he could sit for hours, absorbed in a single game.
If he was alone, he would set up the board and study the openings of the
masters without moving a piece. Without even calling for a cup of coffee.
The seat opposite him remained empty. In fact, he hardly needed the
board at all...he could remember entire tournaments in his head. Who
could blame Augustine for wanting to go elsewhere?
"If he wants to stare into space," Roselli used to say, "he can do it
anywhere...he certainly doesn't need Gregor for that"
So, Augustine took to sitting on the other side of the cafe and miming
complete strangers. Well, you can imagine that this went over well. A
young couple might be in the middle of a romantic tete a tete, when
suddenly the scarecrow beside them was removing a flower from a phantom vase and offering it to the empty seat across from him. "Go away, for
God's sake," people would say to him after he'd exhausted their patience.
But he refused to listen. With a kind of misplaced bravado which was
really quite endearing, he'd turn to the wall and mime a gesture of outrage. Inevitably, Roselli, the owner, would have to come over to the patron and say, "Don't mind him, he's harmless enough," and if that wasn't
enough he'd add, "Here, let me offer you a cappuccino on the house..."
Before going back to the kitchen, he'd give Augustine a slap on the shoulder to say thaf s enough, but it hardly had any effect.
Not satisfied with tile actions of the patrons, he began to mime the
stories they were telling. (Yes, he was a notorious eavesdropper. But
people tolerated him, don't ask me why. Perhaps because he was always
39 silent..) Of course, their stories offered him a wider range of gestures
than their physical presence did, and he had to be quite inventive to insinuate with only his shoulders, his hands, his mouth, and his eyes, the
subtle nuances of everyone's story. This little habit of his went on for
quite a while. Until, one day, someone thought to challenge him.
It was atall man in a grey suit aprofessor of history named Schicklgruber,
who thought he was being very clever.
He began by saying that the story he was about to recount was true to
the letter. He pointed to Augustine and said that it was about someone
who looked just like this fellow here, which is what had made him think
of it. We should all pay close attention.
He said that there was once a famous mime-artist who lived in the
village of -. Well, said the professor, for a long time this artist practiced
his craft, without problem. He had some favorite routines. Being of the
old school, he liked to hold his hands on his chest, as if he were embracing a broken heart, and then he would raise his hands in sorrow, as if his
heart had actually fled. While we listened, Augustine began to gesture
slowly. He laid his hands on his heart cupping them so that they seemed
to become the heart itself; then, as if it had sprouted wings, it lifted from
his chest and rose gently into the air above him, carried aloft by the
fluttering of his exquisite fingers.
The professor proceeded. He said that after a while, this mime, Teeko,
lost his mind... (As soon as the professor said these words, Augustine's
eyes began to roll around in his head like an antique doll's and he dropped
his chin into his hands...) The professor seemed to enjoy the reaction he
was getting. He spoke more authoritatively. "Teeko became incapable of
telling what was real from what was imaginary..."
We all stared at Augustine, wondering what he was going to make of
this. "Sometimes," Schicklgruber continued, "he would sit on a little stool
eating from an empty bowl, using air for a fork..."
Augustine lifted his hand as if it were attached by a stick to everything
that Schicklgruber was telling him. He cupped one hand in front of him,
and the other, bent to hold a fork, was gradually raised to his panting
tongue. "At other times," said Schicklgruber, "he would take a broom
and begin to sweep the street just as if he were in the middle of his own
kitchen..." Augustine stood up. He moved his hands in front of him, back
and forth so arduously that it looked like he was stirring a cauldron.
"Finally," said Schicklgruber, now speaking in little more than a whisper, "things got very bad. The poor creature's countenance became more
and more troubled, until it looked as if he were drowning in himself. One
day, quite unexpectedly, he went into the local bistro and ordered a cup
of tea." With a puzzled expression on his face, Augustine pointed to the
chair, as if to say, "But I'm already here, how can that be?" With a shrug
40 that rid him of his puzzlement he raised his finger to call for service.
Roselli, as fascinated as the rest of us, asked him what he wanted. Augustine cupped his hand, raised his small finger like a gentleman of great
refinement and motioned for tea. Roselli clapped his hands and a moment later a real cup, brimming with hot tea, appeared.
No one said a word. The professor stared intently at the cup which
was sitting on Augustine's table. "So," he seemed to be saying, "what are
you going to do next? Ifs a real bistro, a real table, a real cup, tea..."
Augustine hesitated. For a moment he was like a child who has stumbled on the paradox of a dying parent
Schicklgruber nodded, as if he had anticipated this reaction from the
start "Then," he said, "when Teeko had taken the last swallow of tea, he
stood up and from beneath Ins shirt produced a gun. ..it was a small hand
gun, the kind that is easily concealed..."
We were hardly listening. Our eyes were fixed on Augustine. We felt
like the script was inevitable. Augustine stood up and pushed the chair
away from him. His hand slid along the contour of his chest, as if here
reaching into his pocket..he raised his hand. And now there was plainly
a heavy weight in it
"Without so much as a word," Schicklgruber said, "or a fuss of any
kind, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger..." The professor
turned to the rest of us. "There was nothing we could do to stop him."
Augustine stood between the two tables. His hand was suspended in
front of him. His face seemed to be considering the weight of his decision.
Schicklgruber was still talking. "While everyone wept and comforted
one another, he lay there, as motionless as a stone!" The voice hovered
in the air like an announcement of tragedy on the evening broadcast
Augustine raised his hand. Quite suddenly, as if the decision had been
reached only after great resistance, he held it at arm's length, pointed it
directly at Schicklgruber's head, and with a single violent recoil that ran
from thumb to shoulder, shot him.
Everyone in the room fully expected Schicklgruber to collapse. Even
the professor, only a moment ago in such control, raised his hand to his
face, as if half-expecting a trail of blood to appear. Augustine returned his
hand to the table, raised it again, now open and light and with a look of
supreme buoyancy, made his way through the crowd to the entrance.
This wasn't the last of our Augustine. No, quite the contrary. He retained
a measure of celebrity after that Neighbours pointed to him with a certain pride, which meant that he could take greater liberties. He forgot
about Le Bord de Trottoir and took to working the street again.
Not that he stopped being a pain in the ass. Prodded on by his celeb-
41 rity, he started performing elaborate mimes of people as they walked
down the street. A policemen on his beat. A bag lady. A thug. A pregnant
woman...anyone. Everyone. It didn't matter who you were. No one was
safe. You would be walking down the street and before you knew it, Augustine was over your shoulder, walking like you, stopping when you
stopped, turning when you turned. People hated ft. Not that he always
mirrored a person's movements exactly. Sometimes he would exaggerate a little detail, so that it seemed ludicrous. Sometimes he would store
a character away and only bring it out later.
For instance, he might start at the top of the street one leg stepping in
front of the other like a camel, and we'd all nudge each other and say,
"Look, ifs Roselli." His arm would be suspended in front of him the way
Roselli always held it as if he was supporting an ostrich egg under his
elbow. His head would even rise and fall like Roselli's, like a jack-in-the-
box, which used to be our nickname for him. We would sit on our balconies nodding our heads in appreciation as he passed, and in turn he would
nod his head (which was as small as a peanut but was somehow still able
to conjure up Roselli's massive forehead.) And it was easy to imagine
everything else about Roselli as well—his apron covered in grease, the
glass eye which he'd had since childhood, his collection of model trains,
even his parrot Coco-rico...
Not all of Augustine's performances were successful. One morning
he came drifting down the street like Petain, the thief who ran the pool
hall. At first people were uncertain that thaf s who it was.
"Sure, it is," Maurizio said, "Look at his hand..." He was referring to
the way that Petain always walked as if he were carrying a knife. "Augustine must not have heard," Gregor said, pushing to the front of our group;
he was about to run and tell him. But there was no chance. At just that
moment a car drove down the street and slammed on its brakes. Petain's
wife leapt from the back seat "I've seen a ghost" she yelled to the driver.
"Petain, Petain," she cried out as she hurried to catch up to Augustine,
who by this time had understood what was happening. A woman dressed
in black was dashing towards him. He yanked off his yellow hat and threw
his arms into the air as if he meant to surrender to her. She was almost to
the sidewalk when she recognized her mistake. It was like having her
husband vanish before her eyes. She collapsed into the street howling.
Petain, her husband, had died the night before. It took us hours to console her...
Everyone thought that this episode would intimidate Augustine. But no
such luck. Within a week he was back on the street as if nothing had
happened. To teach him a lesson, Maurizio thought of challenging Augustine to a duel. "Lef s see how he likes a taste of his own medicine."
42 Maurizio was a braggart but we all thought he had a point Besides.
we were curious to see what would happen. He positioned himself in
front of Lubczek's, the grocer's store. There was an open square of asphalt with a city bench. "I'm waiting," he said with a shrug of his shoulders. He didn't have to sit for long. In a matter of minutes, Augustine
came floating down the street as if he were a child dawdling behind his
parents. In quick succession, he was lured by the contents of a five-and-
dime store window, distracted by a puddle of a rainwater, annoyed by a
pebble in his shoe...
Seizing his opportunity with the timing of an acrobat, Maurizio drew
alongside him, his hand reaching into his own shoe, his face wriggling
with annoyance, ft took Augustine a moment to respond. He stopped,
stared. Maurizio returned the stare. When Augustine raised his finger to
his chin, Maurizio did likewise. Augustine frowned; so did Maurizio. He
tried smiling; so did Maurizio. When a look of satisfaction spread across
his face and he began to tiptoe down the street Maurizio was right beside him. Augustine put his fingers to his lips, a mute call for silence.
Maurizio copied the gesture. Ssshh.
Everyone on the street was quiet as a mouse. Couples were leaning
from their third-storey balconies. Even if a woman's blouse was open,
and her breast was showing, no one looked. Shopkeepers came to the
doors of their shops. If there were customers, they could steal from the
open tilL Who would notice? Teenagers stopped their bicycles in the
middle of the intersection. Even the police said nothing. Of course, such
behaviour is irresponsible, but who could find fault with it? A showdown
like this doesn't happen every day.
Augustine went to the curb and sat His knees were spread open like
the wings of a butterfly, the soles of his feet clapped together as if in
earnest prayer, his eyes stared into the gutter. This pose, as fragile as a
scrap of origami, was matched by Maurizio, who had even managed to
mimic the way that Augustine's fingers slowly kneaded his brow. (We
were delighted to see that Maurizio had real talent..he had started to
physically resemble Augustine. "Yes," said Roselli, who had left the cafe
to watch, "he's even becoming a pain in the ass like him.")
Who knows what we expected to happen? Something great that's certain. But no one was prepared for the farce that Augustine had planned.
He knew everyone was watching, and he made the most of ft.
He started to scratch his head, like he was trying to imagine what he
could possibly do to rid himself of this shadow which had affixed itself to
him. Naturally Maurizio scratched his head as well. Then, acting as if he
were a trained circus animal, Augustine stood up, sat down, rolled
over...Maurizio was with him every step of the way.
Augustine stopped. He leaned far forward, so that he was on the tips
43 of his toes. He stared at Maurizio, who stared and stood on his points as
well. Then Augustine started to dance.
"Ha," said Roselli, "He's doing Maurizio..." He was, too. Maurizio had
a celebrated routine-^a tango, and now Augustine was prancing around,
just like a real dancer. Maurizio's face showed scorn, but he danced all
the same. Then Augustine started getting clumsy. He tripped, he staggered, he pretended to have a flower in his mouth and that it fell out..his
shadow performed like a painted partner.
"They're funny," Lubczek said, "They should go into business together..."
It was true. They were funny. When Augustine heard people on the
balconies starting to laugh, he stopped and bowed. Then, as if he had
grown bored of the whole thing, he gave a great yawn. Perhaps Maurizio
sensed something was up. He yawned as well, but you could see that he
was a bit uncomfortable, as if the shirt he was wearing was suddenly a
size too small...
With no warning at all, Augustine began marching down the street
like a toy soldier on parade. Maurizio had been caught off-guard and
some of the people started to hoot but he made up for it by marching
down the street a yard behind Augustine, with his bottom wagging so
that everyone could see he had a sense of humour too.
Augustine marched right into Le Bord de Trottoir. Those of us who
were closest to them hurried in after. Most had to settle for positions
outside. With the swagger of a real regular, Augustine crossed to the
tables by the window. He sat reached under his armpit and took out
something flat square. He placed it on the table. Maurizio was seated
across from him. He copied every move, watching like a hawk. Augustine began to move his hand above the table as if he were arranging
things on its surface.
"He's setting up a chess board," Gregor said. As soon as he said it, we
knew it was true. "Yes, ifs chess," everyone agreed. Maurizio had set a
board up in front of his place as well. Satisfied with the look of the board,
Augustine clasped his hands together in his lap. Maurizio did the same.
Then, aware of his next move, and almost smiling, Augustine closed his
eyes.
Maurizio seemed at a loss...he stared in disbelief at Augustine.
"He's doing Gregor," someone said. "No, he's fallen asleep," said
Roselli. We all knew that it didn't matter. Faces outside the window started
to laugh. Reluctantly, already sensing defeat Maurizio closed his eyes.
We watched. A moment later, he opened them. He turned to Augustine,
who hadn't moved a muscle.
"Go on, Roselli," one of Maurizio's friends said, he thought he had a
brainstorm, "go ask Augustine if he wants a coffee."
44 "Why?" said Roselli, with a laugh, "do you think he needs something
strong to stay awake?" He started to laugh, but showed no sign of moving to serve Augustine.
And Maurizio? He had closed his eyes again. He was determined to
outwit his rival.
"This is boring," Lubczek said, "Fve got work to do..." He started for
the door. "Hey, Maurizio," he called over, "if you're smart you'll find yourself a real occupation—this town doesn't need a second dummy!" His
exit was accompanied by laughter, and slowly others started to move
toward the door.
No one was paying much attention to the battle between the silent
titans and so no one was quite certain exactly when Augustine stood up
and tiptoed to the doorway. But ft was certain that Maurizio's friends
were half asleep themselves because they failed to alert their comrade.
There he sat all alone, his eyes closed, possibly imagining that he was
playing a masterful game of chess, when Roselli approached him with a
glass of brandy and said, "Here, drink this you idiot then get out.."
It was a long time before Maurizio had anything else to say about
miming.
One day, Lubczek noticed that Augustine was pretending to smoke. All
day long he kept bringing his fingers to his lips, slowly drawing them
away, followed a moment later by a slightiy puckered exhale. It looked
like he was blowing smoke rings. Children, who couldn't imagine such a
papier-mache clown smoking, assumed he was trying to fill the neighbourhood with soapy bubbles...and ifs true, it did look like that as well.
We thought Ifs another routine. It will go away eventually. But it persisted.
Whenever children touched Augustine on the shoulder and pointed
toward the sky, which was their way of asking him to make bubbles, he'd
let out a silent guffaw. He would reach under his armpit and take out a
phantom pack of cigarettes. (Of course, the children thought it was a cup
of soapy water. They would be laughing before he had done anything.. .just
reaching into his armpit set them off ..like a row of dominoes.) He would
take a cigarette, hold ft to his lips, exhale, and as the children watched
what they thought was a bubble rise into the air, he would hold out his
two fingers and gently stab the air...the children would howl, "Not the
pin, Augustine, not the pin..." But we adults knew that he was toying with
their innocence, bursting the bubbles with the end of a burning cigarette.
Yes, he made a fine joke about ft. But we all knew that it had become
his secret weakness. He suddenly started to disappear in the middle of
his routines. "Where's Augustine?" people would ask. Sooner or later
45 someone would spot him in the alley between Lubczek's market and
Delvecchio's shoe store, perched on a barrel, having another cigarette.
"See," Delvecchio's niece used to say, "he has troubles like everyone
else..." It was the incident with Petain's widow, thaf s what we concluded.
"He's never really been the same since."
But this didn't stop Maria from going next door to buy him coffee and
sandwiches. "Why do you let everyone pick on you? Eh, Augustine?"
She talked to him like he was her younger brother. "You really must be
soft in the head, you know that?"
Who knows how the rumour started. Probably it was the way the words
"soft in the head" made their way around the neighbourhood, like a census taker...after a while, it was part of his portrait, like his small nose or
his green eyes. Augustine was soft in the head, and so he must be seeing
a psychiatrist "No," said Delvecchio, "ifs the guilt he's seeing a priest."
"You're all wrong," said Roselli as we gathered in the doorway to the
cafe, "Ifs a hypnotist..he's trying to quit smoking again."
He began a new routine. He stood in front of a simple stool. He raised
his hand in the air, and slowly wagged his wrist If he had been holding a
real watch ft would have begun to slowly pendulate. "That's good," said
Lubczek, "My wife went to a hypnotist once, and that's just the way he
moved his wrist. Very convincing..."
Augustine's face was serious to begin with, the look of a real professional, but gradually his eyes glazed over, his head started to rock back
and forth until ft was floating on his neck like a balloon. Finally, overcome by vertigo, he slid onto the stool for support and before anyone
realized how it had happened he was staring vacantly into space.
"The fool hypnotized himself," Delvecchio said, as if we needed program notes to follow what was going on.
A moment later, Augustine was back on his feet. He started to tap
dance, twirling an imaginary top hat and cane...then he dropped back
onto the stool and began to row frantically, as if his life depended on ft.
"He's quitting a sinking ship," Roselli said, and he tapped his temple
to indicate just what ship he had in mind.
No sooner had Roselli finished laughing than Augustine was back on
his feet He made out that he was taking off his clothes, stepping into a
shower, washing himself...he even lathered his armpits so that the children who were watching would have a laugh. He was just about to wash
his feet when he suddenly stopped. Now, instead of soap, he had a rope
in his hand. With a noose at the end of it He threw it over the lamppost
and was about to climb on the stool when he snapped from the spell. He
threw the rope to the ground in disgust as if it was offal that he had been
holding. Then, gathering up his dignity, he walked away.
46 We were caught off guard. All that remained for us to watch was a
stool and the ghostly image of a hypnotist lost for words, having been
unable to convince even a single fool to dispense with life against Ins own
wishes.
"There's a moral in this," said Lubczek, who liked cigars and to scratch
his balls in public, "but Fll be damned if I know what it is."
He must have got the idea from The Great Antonio. Antonio Pellucci was
an enormous man who used to demonstrate his skill by lifting platforms
with twenty children seated on it and other similarly incredible feats of
strength. Real circus stuff, although to our knowledge he only ever consented to perform in the neighbourhood. There was a picture of him on
the wall of Pellucci's bakery...of Antonio standing in front of a school bus
with a tow line from the garage strapped round his shoulders.
One day Augustine went and stood in the middle of the street From
his actions, it was clear that he was fumbling with a long, awkward weight
Maybe because we weren't paying enough attention, it took us a while to
piece together that he was trying to uncoil a length of chain. It took even
greater concentration to understand that he was attaching the chain first
to the undercarriage of a bus and then to a leather vest which he was
wearing.
Pellucci stepped from the doorway of his bakery. He wagged his hand
at Augustine, dismissing him. But then when he saw Augustine make
the sign of the cross, his jaw dropped and he threw his cigarette into the
gutter. Antonio always said a prayer before he performed one of his stunts.
So, of course, there was Augustine, standing in the middle of the street
with his hands folded and his eyes closed.
"What God do you think a mime prays to?" Lubczek said, shaking his
head in amazement
"Thaf s easy," said Roselli, "the Holy Ghost who else?"
With a final adjustment Augustine was ready. He started to strain.
Nothing happened. He pulled. The veins stood out on his arms, on his
neck. His face looked like it would collapse from the effort Then one
foot moved forward. It struck the pavement like a slap. Then another.
And another. The bus was actually moving. Traffic had come to a standstill. There were people on the street wanting to cross, but they made
sure to go around the bus.
"Ifs amazing," said Pellucci
"It would be more amazing," said Lubczek, dryly, "if there were people on the bus."
Throughout this performance, Maurizio had been nearly beside himself.
"You're all full of shit" he said, fuming. "Why don't you go stand at the
47 I
bus stop? Assholes." He could hardly contain his anger. When people
started to applaud, he exploded. "I've had enough...YouTl see. Just watch."
He left in a fury.
We all forgot about him, but a few minutes later he reappeared with
Schicklgruber and a thug from the local bar.
"There's going to be trouble," Lubczek said.
And sure enough, there was. They crossed to the alley where Augustine was perched on a barrel, having a cigarette. A moment later they
dragged him out His hands were cuffed together and they dragged him
behind them as if he were a convict None of us knew how to respond.
"What do you think you're doing with him?" Roselli called out His
voice was indignant
But no one, not even Roselli, made a move. Instead, we watched as
they pulled him over to The Paradise Variety. The provincial bus stopped
there...it was parked in the lot beside. Passengers were just beginning to
board.
"Arethey planning to send him out of town?" Delvecchio asked. It still
seemed like a comedy, even if we understood how vicious Maurizio could
be.
But they had something much worse in mind. With the other end of
the length of chain, they hitched him to the rear bumper.
"Hey, tins is serious," Roselli said. He started to run toward the lot He
crossed the path of Madame Petain, who held out her arm to stop him.
"Let the fool go...he deserves whatever he gets."
Roselli pulled free, but by this time it was too late. The bus was ready
to pull out
Maria had come running from her uncle's store.
"The driver doesn't see him," she was yelling...
The thug had run off, but Maurizio and Schicklgruber were still standing to one side, delighted with the results of their adventure.
"Let's see you pull the real tiling," Maurizio was saying to Augustine.
He hammered his fist into his crotch a couple of times, as if to say, "Like
this, eh? This is the real thing!"
We were all expecting Augustine to start railing to the driver. But he
still didn't say a word. He was like the victim in a silent movie...the bus
started off, moving slowly at first to make its way from the parking lot.
Augustine took short quick steps. His face was astounding...his eyes
wide, his mouth agape. Then he had to start to run as the bus moved into
the street We stood on the sidewalk with outstretched hands, useless to
help him. Several people called to the driver, but he motioned with his
hand, telling us to go away. "I know my own business," he yelled through
the open window.
By the time the bus reached the first intersection, Augustine had fallen
48 and was being dragged along the asphalt..people were yelling all along
the length of both sidewalks. It was only when cars started to honk their
horns that the driver got the message. He slammed on the brakes as if
his day was being ruined by a flock of pigeons.
We rushed to see to Augustine. Even with our help, he could barely
stand up. His knees, chest and elbows were badly scraped...his clothes
were torn, blood dripped from his chin. He stood completely still while
we made Schicklgruber remove the cuffs. Maria handed hun back his
yellow cap, but he seemed not to notice. He held it crumpled in his hand,
like a handkerchief A policeman showed up, but Augustine refused to
say anything. He shrugged and scratched at the palm of his hand...the
bus drove off Maurizio sulked into the bar with his pals. "Ifs over, I
guess," Lubczek said. He tried to offer Augustine a sandwich and a glass
of cold milk.
"What are you talking about?" Roselli said. "He needs a real drink."
He tried to put his arm around Augustine.
But Augustine shook his head. He pulled clear of our embraces and
walked off, head hung down, a clown overwhelmed by the brutalities of
life.
"Ifs the same old story," said Roselli. "life catches up with all of us.
Even an idiot is not immune..."
After this, ft poured for an entire week.
"It seems appropriate," Gregor said, lifting his head from a chess game
for a minute. "Ifs as if the neighbourhood has gone into mourning."
He was right Wet towels hung from the railings on the third floor, like
saddened flags. The gutters were full of wet tissue and rusty soup cans.
We stayed at Le Bord du Trottoir and drank black coffee just to be tough;
to keep up our strength we ate Roselli's chili which made us fart For
hours at a time, the window was covered with a curtain of rain, while
outside a parade of black umbrellas drifted by.
"I almost miss him," Gregor said, and we all nodded. "He was a pain in
the ass, but he was loyal..."
"He was like a dog who keeps pissing on your shoe," said Roselli. "He
made you forget that your feet stink all on their own..."
Thunder interrupted his train of thought He returned to the kitchen,
rubbing at the back of his hand and slouching, like someone who has
misplaced his lucky rabbif s foot
This went on for a fortnight When the sun reappeared, there was a
sign on the telephone poles announcing a performance in the municipal
hall.
No one knew what ft meant but we were all curious.
Everyone gathered in the town hall. There was no charge but people
49 threw money into a hat which was lying on a table by the entrance.
"It's the janitor's," Lubczek said, but even he tossed a few coins into
the pile.
There were folding metal seats. We stood around for a while, uncomfortably, as if this was a mistake, but then we started to find our way into
seats.
"Whaf s this all about?" Maurizio asked. We were surprised to see him
show his face, but no one bothered to kick him out
Finally, at eight o'clock, Augustine, who must have been waiting out
back, walked to the middle of the stage. (It wasn't a real stage. Just a
space in front of the room, which had been left free of chairs.) Augustine
was carrying his own folding chair which he set down, even though he
remained standing. He didn't need to call for silence...everyone's voice
had grown still with curiosity.
He looked at us for a moment as if deciding whether to go through
with his act..then he smiled, strangely, like a condemned man, and proceeded.
We watched as he executed an elaborate series of gestures. He seemed
to be slowly removing a thick rope from a spool on the wall.
"Ifs a fire hose," Delvecchio said.
"No, no," said Roselli, "Ifs definitely rope. Look at the way he makes it
coil on the floor."
It slid through his hands as he passed them over one another for what
seemed like an hour.
"Get on with it," Maurizio shouted, but so many people near him told
him to be quiet that he lost his nerve and fell into a sulk.
Finally, Augustine indicated that the pile of rope on the floor was sufficient Carrying one end in his hand, he started to move around the
room, beginning at the far side and gradually encircling each person.
"Whaf s he up to now?" Madame Petain asked. Her eyesight wasn't
good and she had to squint to see to the far side of the room.
"He wants a captive audience," Lubczek said...no one understood what
he meant even though some started to laugh. Then ft became apparent
what the joke referred to.
Augustine had begun to twine the invisible rope about each chair,
around the arms of each patron, looping it about their waists, going from
one to the other, occasionally knotting it for extra strength, then moving
on, over one leg and under the other, intricately binding each of us to the
chair and to our neighbour. No one moved. In fact movement became
quite restricted.
"I don't like this," Pellucci said. "Ifs making me claustrophobic"
The act was certainly having an effect. Our limbs had become heavy
and I was thankful that I was sitting in a comfortable position because I
50
L couldn't imagine uncrossing my legs or moving my arms from where
they rested on my lap.
At last he was finished, the rope was webbed around the heating ducts,
under the rungs of the chairs, around our wrists, and was left to trail to
the front where he attached it with a simple knot to his wrist He sat
down and removed a phantom cigarette from his shirt pocket He placed
it in his mouth, delicately, as if it were made of meringue. Slowly, using
the same hand with which he had held the cigarette (throughout this,
his other hand remained limp in his lap) he lit it-
He inhaled like a man in front of a firing squad. (I thought I'd die for a
cigarette...so exquisite was his mouth as it exhaled a stream of smoke...)
Slower and slower, his hand repeated the same few motions. He was
blowing kisses to us...but no one was free to return his agonizing affection.
Maria was sitting beside me, and I could see her mouthing the words,
"I love you, Augustine," which made me nod my head sadly and tenderly
as if I were on my own deathbed.
He seemed to have mesmerized us. No one would have thought to
move.
"I can't" Roselli said. "Ifs like being immersed in quicksand."
Augustine's own movements grew even slower, barely perceptible,
until he seemed to have stopped, and still we went on watching as he
slumped further in the chair. His eyes dropped shut his hands went limp,
he even appeared to age before our eyes and still no one thought to call
out No one moved. No one raised the slightest objection...
51 David Pratt
The Inscription
More than anything else, it was the taste of blackberries. It was
early July, and not many of them were ripe, in fact there were
more flowers than berries, but in one place a long spray projected through the fence over the station platform, and the berries had
ripened from the greater exposure to the sun. I picked a handful before I
tasted any, and then put them all in my mouth at once, crunching down
on the tart sweet, juice-filled, seedy mouthful: and I was eight years old
again.
We moved to France and came here, to Le Trayas, thirty years ago,
when I was seven, and my father was appointed station master. I must
have hurtled through the station a dozen times on the Rapide, but this
was the first time in more than twenty years that I'd stood on the platform. The station master's house had long been closed, the windows
boarded up, paint peeling from the shutters. The glass-covered sign pointing to the exit had been smashed, the lettering on the wall showing Direction Marseilles was almost illegible, and a ticket machine that must
have been installed after the last station master left was out of order. I
walked slowly along the platform, savouring each step on the concrete
surface I'd so often run down as a child. The shrubs that grew along the
fence obscured the garden where I'd had my own small plot of tomatoes
and melons. On the gate, a rusty sign indicated that someone had once
owned a chien mechant. The flowers grew more profusely than ever. Three
times my father had won the regional competition for the best-kept railway station. Now the lavender-coloured hydrangeas, their blossoms as
big as footballs, interspersed with gardenias, had expanded to fill the
flower beds along the edge of the platform. The whole south side of the
house was covered with bougainvillea. Wherever they could find a foothold, wild poppies blazed. Three of the four palms I'd helped plant were
still standing, now forty feet high. And the line of trees on the other side
of the tracks filled the air with the sweet corrupt smell of figs.
The level crossing now had automatic gates, unnecessary in my father's time when the road that crossed it was gravel, and the village up
the hill only a dozen small houses. I imagined it now full of villas with
swimming pools and security codes that you punched in to open high,
iron gates. I walked over the crossing. Looking down the road, I could
52 see the deep grey-blue of the Mediterranean a kilometre away. It was a
hazy day, and the jagged red cliffs along the coast were almost black in
silhouette. Turtledoves were calling from the woods behind the station
house; I remembered how they would wake me every morning exactly
half an hour after sunrise. I walked down the platform. It was much longer
than I remembered, probably extended to accommodate the fast trains,
and railway ties of concrete had replaced the old ones of tarred wood.
The platform had been recently resurfaced, and was clean, the litter of
dust leaves, old newspapers, and soft drink cans swept to one side in
neat piles. Probably a work crew came out regularly from St-Raphael.
Someone had sprayed the words, "Sandra, je t'aime" on the platform in
white paint I walked right past the bench before I really took it in. Then
I looked again, and saw that it was the same bench.
I hadn't planned to stop at Le Trayas at all. I couldn't have done it if I'd
taken the fast train from Nice. The name jumped out when I checked the
timetable, and I saw that I could stop for an hour and catch the next train
without missing the connection at St-Raphael. I needed time to think about
the day and the changes it was going to make in my life. The interview at
the Centre for Advanced Language Studies had gone well. At lunch I'd
sat with the Director, Mme. Lapointe, and half a dozen students from one
of the advanced classes. Lunch was excellent a light but satisfying fish
souffle, elegantly presented, served without wine. The (fining room was
hung with tapestries, and outside the gardens were full of flowers. Most
of the others at the table were executives with large Swiss and Japanese
companies. Even though few stayed more than two months at the Centre, their French was very good, deficient only in vocabulary and idioms.
The Centre wanted to replace an instructor who was moving to Geneva
to marry an industrialist who had been in her class the year before.
I needed a change from the students at the technical lycee in Lyon.
Three-quarters of my energy was spent trying to motivate seventeen year
olds who saw the required literature course as an irrelevance in their
pursuit of qualifications as lab technicians or computer analysts. And it
was clear now that I was never going to get a university post If I had
chosen a different subject for my thesis, I might have finished the doctorate. I had gone to the University of Lyon because the Professor of
literature was an authority on Camus. But he considered Camus an exis^
tentialist, while I believed him to be the greatest idealist since Rousseau.
We started with academic disagreement and ended with personal antipathy. After the committee rejected my proposal for the third time, I went
home and burned everything Fd collected over the previous five years,
saving only the thirty-four volumes of Camus' works in the Gallimard
edition. The fastest way to earn a doctorate is to choose a subject about
which you care nothing.
53 I had no important ties, now, to Lyon. My beloved Aunt Monique had
died the year before. My only significant liaison, an eight-year relationship with Brigitte, had ended four years ago when I had asked her for the
last time to marry me, and she had answered for the last time that she
could not leave her husband. Ifs true that I still wore her ring, but that
was not from sentiment so much as to discourage the lyciennes, who were
at an age when they all considered themselves irresistible. Max, the one
colleague with whom I had become friends, said, "Ifs because you're not
really French, Patrice. You can't get used to women who shave their armpits." Since Brigitte, there had been only two or three brief relationships
in which I had eventually realized I was even less interested than the
women involved.
Mme. Lapointe offered me the post on a one-year renewable contract
at a salary significantly higher than what I was now earning. As a matter
of course, I asked for ten per cent more, and as a matter of course she
offered five. I accepted. I had time after I left the Centre to stop by a real
estate agent in Nice and ask them to send me a list of apartments available in the Old Town, preferably two or three streets away from the tourist area.
The bench had been recently painted a bright green. Although no one
else could have told, I knew that it was oak, and that this was why it had
lasted so long. It was a simple design, just six plain boards fastened with
wooden pegs into solid ends. You could not see now that the top board
was more recent than the others, but that was the board that I h ad shaped
and fitted when I was eight years old.
It began when Aunt Monique gave me a jackknife for my eighth birthday. Maman had died when I was four, and Aunt Monique, my father's
sister, had come to live with us and help bring me up. When we lived at
Le Trayas, she would take long walks with me into the Esterelle Mountains on weekends. And often we'd go to the beach early on a Monday
morning, and beachcomb for items dropped by sunbathers. Usually there
was nothing but empty packets of Gitanes and wine bottles, but sometimes we'd find coins that had dropped from people's pockets as they
dressed in the dusk, hurrying to catch the last train. It was she who
showed me how to make snares for rabbits and which wood made the
best slingshots, whereas it was my father who gave me books by Balzac
and Dumas that he bought at a used book store in Nice.
The knife she gave me had a large and a small blade and a handle of
deer horn. I still have it though I leave a trail of lost pens, wallets, cheque
books, and keys behind me wherever I go. I carried the knife out of the
house, closed as Aunt Monique had told me. I crossed the tracks, walked
down the platform, and there was the new bench. I was Michelangelo
before a virgin block of marble, Matisse facing a fresh canvas. I immedi-
54 ately sat down cross-legged on the bench, and set to work carving my
name into the top board. The bench was new enough that ft bore only a
few initials scratched by boys from the village. My name would decorate
the very middle of the top board, and I carved it all: Patrice Francois
Marie St-Jean Vignancourt. It was harder than I thought to make the
letters deep and straight and it must have taken me more than an hour.
Then, satisfied with my work, I wandered off up the trail into the hills.
Aunt Monique was unusually quiet as she served lunch. All my father
said was, "After lunch, Patrice, we will do some carpentry." First we took
a metre stick and measured the width of the bench. In the storage shed
we found a long piece of oak. We took it into the workshop, fastened it in
the vice, and my father had me measure the plank, mark it with a set
square, and then cut it the right length. Then he demonstrated how to
use the spokeshave to bevel the edges. This took me more than two
hours, and my arms ached by the time I'd finished. I had no idea that
preparing one board could take so long, and I hadn't even started the
sanding.
My father said very little to me while I was working, just dropping in
now and again to see how it was going. This was a time in his life, in the
mid-1960s, when he was often very quiet for weeks at a time. After his
death, from conversations with Aunt Monique and from my own inquiries, I realized that this was the time of the Marseilles Trials. My father
was a witness at the trial of several officers of the Marseilles Milice who
were charged with the murder of members of the Resistance during the
war. At eight years old, I had no idea my father had been in the Resistance, or even what the Resistance was. Much later I learned that by the
time of his twentieth birthday, my father had already been a private in
the French army, a prisoner of the Germans, and a member of the Maquis
He led the commandos that attacked the German positions from the rear
when the 38th US Infantry stormed ashore at Le Dramont in August
1944. He had lost many friends during the war, several of them dying
unimaginable deaths in the cells of the Vichy police and militia. I believe
that he felt obligated to give evidence, but considered that punishment of
war criminals so long after the event was to prolong the conflict he had
fought to end.
I knew nothing of this as I spent my evenings finishing the board for
the station bench. First sanding with coarse sandpaper. Then filling holes
and rough spots with a homemade filler that my father showed me how
to make with a mixture of sawdust and old-fashioned fish glue that you
melted in a pot on the stove. Then sanding with a medium grit and finally with fine sandpaper and steel wool. Now and then Aunt Monique
would come into the workshop, bringing me a cup of water. I'd explain
what I was doing, and she'd run her fingers over the wood admiringly.
55 The piece of wood we were using was white oak, and the bench was red
oak, so I had to learn about staining. We used a homemade solution of
potassium permanganate. I was intrigued that this purple chemical, when
applied to the wood, turned it to a light rich brown. When the colour was
right I varnished the board. My father showed me how to mix the right
amount of turpentine with each coat of varnish, to avoid bubbles in the
finish. The first time, I got varnish all over myself, and, because I'd not
cleaned up the workshop first dust became ingrained in the surface. My
father had me sand the varnish off as soon as ft was dry, and do it again.
Then we drilled the holes for the pegs, knocked out the old board and
installed the new one.
The whole process took about three weeks, and at the end my father
gave me the bill. So much for the wood, the price of sandpaper, glue,
stain, var nish, all itemized on one of his official forms He used the board
I'd autographed to prop up a palm tree that was beginning to lean, and
allowed a discount for it on the account as rough lumber. He was very
meticulous about such things. The combined total probably wouldn't buy
a cup of coffee on the Cote d'Azur today. But it took half of my small bank
account at the village post office. I don't remember any feeling of resentment though. What I do remember is the pride I felt every time I walked
by the bench on the platform. That board, the top board of the bench,
was a perfect board. That first season, before the winter rains, you could
see your reflection in it I would stand glancing at it when there were
other passengers waiting, hoping that one of them would comment on
what a handsome board it was.
All of this came back instantly as I approached the bench. Not just the
visual memories, but the ache in my eight-year-old arms as I planed and
sanded, the smell of sawdust and varnish, my Aunt Monique's smile, my
father's calm presence, and the comfortable tiredness as I went to sleep
each evening.
It was as I was studying the bench, with its wood now chipped and
scarred under twenty layers of paint that the first roll of thunder echoed
over the hills. I looked up and saw that the sky had blackened. In a moment it began to rain, first lightly, then heavily. The only shelter on the
station was the telephone kiosk at the end of the platform. The rain
drummed on the roof, and then became a sharper sound as it began to
turn to hafl. A bolt of lightning forked down to the top of the mountainside.
The noise increased. Hailstones hit the ground and bounced two metres
in the air. I could see that many were the size of cherries. The sound of
the thunder and the hail were exhilarating, and I wished for a moment I
could share them with somebody. I thought of Max at the lycee, but before I could think of his phone number, the hail was turning back to rain.
When it had almost stopped, I emerged from the fogged-up kiosk. I picked
56 up some of the hailstones, now melting fast Some were spherical, some
oval. Most were smooth, but some were lightly spiked, like the shells of
long-dead crabs worn by the sea. I was thirsty, and I put some of the
hailstones in my mouth and let them melt The skies had cleared, and
steam was rising from the roadway and the platform. The station bell
rang, and the barrier came down across the road; my train was coming.
The train was almost empty. I leaned out of the window, watching the
station recede until we rounded the bend and it was out of sight But I
was no longer thinking of the years at Le Trayas, for the stop there had
brought back a whole other set of memories, and these were all of Algeria.
We'd left Algeria when I was seven, and my father won the promotion
to station master at Le Trayas. It was always his intention to return. The
family, on my father's side, had been in Algeria for four generations We
wore the title of pieds noirs with pride. Our ancestors might have arrived
shoeless a century ago, the sweepings of Europe, but in Algeria they
were aristocrats. My grandmother spoke Arabic as well as she spoke
French. Almost all of her friends were Arab women. It would never have
occurred to her, though, that Algeria would ever be anything but part of
France. The civil war broke out in our third year at La Trayas. My father
took another promotion to the larger station at Nimes. So we were spared
the terrible years in Algeria in which nearly two hundred thousand lives
were lost only the lucky ones dying cleanly in battle. My father lost his
only brother, who was a policeman in Oran. His killers dumped him on
his doorstep with his throat cut ringing the door bell as they left He was
bleeding fast enough that he would not make it to the hospital, but slowly
enough that he would still be alive when his wife came down to answer
the door. like the other pieds noirs who left Algeria, we stayed in France,
the country that had abandoned us, because there was nowhere else to
go.
I was twenty-one when I went back. I'd just graduated from the Ecole
Normale in Paris, and had accepted my first teaching post at Ouargla. I
crossed the Mediterranean on the overnight boat from Marseilles to Algiers. It was only when I stood with my suitcase on the dock that I was
assailed by the smells of Algeria. Cotton clothes damp with sweat date
palms and jasmine; cooking fires burning dried camel dung; and, permeating everything, the hot sharp wind from the desert I experienced in
that moment the sensation of the returning exile, the sensation of every
returning exile since Odysseus and before him, the knowing you have
returned and the knowing that you can never fully return. I knew then,
that whatever my future or that of the country on whose ground I now
stood, that I would never be anything but Algerian.
People find ft hard to understand in the context of today's violent chaos
57 that in the years immediately after Independence, professionals from
France were valued in Algeria. Even returning pieds noirs like myself
were welcome if they came to help build the new socialist republic. By
bus and truck I made my way the three hundred kilometres south, to the
village on the edge of the Sahara. I taught in the lycee and the education
was a complete farce. I had fifty students in one classroom, with seats for
thirty. When the air was still, the heat was stifling. When the wind blew,
it was a desert wind, hot m the day, cold at night, a dry, feverish wind,
carrying sand into your eyes and nostrils, under the fingernails, into your
clothes and your food.
My class had no textbooks and no curriculum. The women sat on the
available <chairs, their black chadors concealing everything except their
eyes. The men stood around the walls, Arabs, Kabyles, Shawia, Mozabites,
Berbers, and Tauregs. Most of them had no more than a few phrases of
French, and I was supposed to prepare them for the Baccalaureate. They
had as much chance of passing the Bac as I had of becoming a professor
at the Sorbonne. So we pretended to be preparing for the Bac, while in
fact I taught them everyday French, so that, if occasion arose, they could
survive in a French environment.
For the first three months no one in the village spoke to me. I began to
doubt my own existence. I would stop for coffee every morning on my
way to school, at the half-tent half-broken-down stall that was the nearest thing to a cafe in the village. And every day when I came to pay, the
proprietor would indicate that someone had already paid, waving vaguely
at the group of old men who sat in the shadows. Then one day he accepted payment. Ayuz told me later: "They were watching you the whole
time, all the village. Watching to see if you were a good man or bad.
When you were allowed to pay, it was the sign that you were accepted."
After that, all doors were open to me. Often on my way back from the
lycee, I would take off my shoes at the entrance to the little mosque and
spend half an hour in its cool gloom. Neither Moslem nor Christian, I
came to appreciate the simplicity of a place of worship without statues or
pictures, decorated only with extracts from the Koran in flowing Arabic.
The strictness with which Islam interpreted the commandment against
graven images had over many centuries made calligraphy an art form,
and Arabic script one of the most beautiful in the world.
Ayuz was my first and best friend in Ouargla. His father owned the
camel stable, and he was my guide when I made my first expedition into
the desert He was a head taller than me, a Taureg, one of the blue people. His sky-blue robe was topped by a dark turban that circled his face
and covered his mouth. After we became friends, we saw one another
almost every day. Sheba, the camel I took on my first ride, became reserved for my use. Ayuz taught me more about camels than I taught my
58 students about French. "Camel is not like a horse," he said. "When she
shit, her shit is dry. When she piss, she piss down her leg to keep cool."
He taught me to ride, how to talk to the camel so she would kneel, or
stand, or stop, or break into a gallop. He taught me how to make tea like
a Taureg, and to drink the three ritual glasses; the first sweet like love,
the second bitter, like life, and the third soft, like death. Once, on an
early-morning ride in the desert together, he shot a small antelope and a
sand partridge. "I will show you how to cook the Taureg way," he said.
He dug a hole in the sand on a south-facing slope. While ft heated up in
the sun, I plucked and cleaned the partridge and he eviscerated the antelope. I kept the flies off the meat and he rode to a village half an hour
away, returning with couscous, aniseed, cumin, and oil. These, with some
salt from his saddle bag, he put inside the antelope together with the
partridge. Then he put the antelope in the hole, filled it with sand, covered it with rocks, and buflt a fire over the rocks. We came back at dusk
with several of his cousins and dug up the cooked meat. I have never
tasted better.
Ayuz told me once that during the war he had killed four French soldiers. He said this not defiantly, but as a confidence shared only with
friends. He had been wounded twice but never captured. I was glad of
this. What prisoners suffered at the hands of the paras would have made
my own shame too great for friendship to be possible.
My salary at the h/cee was small, but ft was more than enough, for
there was nothing to buy in the village. I lived in a room on a rooftop that
contained only a chair and a bed. The old woman who owned the house
brought me a meal each evening, and I kept a small charcoal brazier on
the roof for making tea. One evening in my second year I was consumed
by the desire to buy something. I wandered out into the village, knowing
that there was nothing of interest in the tumble-down shacks that passed
for shops. I stopped at one of these places, looking glumly at the heaps of
used truck parts, patched zinc washtubs, and ladders with rungs missing. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I noticed at the back of the shed
the rounded leg of a table protruding from a pile of lumber. The old Arab
who owned the store noticed my interest Together we excavated the
table. It was a solidly rectangular piece of French furniture, almost two
metres long, with foot rails joining the legs near the bottom, and stretch-,
ers at the top. Probably ft had belonged to some French administrator
from colonial days. It was perhaps forty or fifty years old, but it had been
made in early seventeenth-century style, almost without adornment except that the legs, which were square at the bottom and top, had been
turned in the middle. The surface was worn and scratched, one of the
foot rails was broken, and a leg was loose. But in my mind's eye, I could
already see it handsomely refinished in my rooftop room, holding my
59 papers and my few books. I almost paid the first price the old man asked.
But then I remembered my manners, and we bargained down to half the
sum. Four village boys helped me carry it to my roof, staggering under
its weight.
I had no tools, except for Aunt Monique's jackknife, which I used for
much of the work. When I needed a tool or a new piece of wood, I went
down to the edge of the village and got it from Hamid, who repaired
everything from clocks to camel saddles. First I replaced the broken foot
rail. Then I borrowed Hamid's old twist-drill, drilled out the pegs that
had worked loose in one of the legs, and replaced them with dowels I cut
from a broken pointer I found at the school. Ayuz would come over in the
evenings and watch me, murmuring approval as the work progressed.
When the repairs were complete, the table was as steady as an altar. It
was good French oak, the top almost five centimetres thick, the legs
massive, with a slight and attractive irregularity showing that they had
been turned by hand. Worn, stained, scratched, and dirty, it already looked
magnificent.
Sandpaper did not exist in the village. Nor was it necessary. I set to
work with a rag and a bucket of sand. I found a way to separate coarser
and finer sand by spreading it on the table and blowing at it. With the
coarse sand, the film of dirt thinned and vanished, the scratches and
gouges slowly smoothed out and disappeared, and after that the ingrained
stains. I felt my heart lighten with the wood. When the surface was smooth
to the touch, I doused it with water to raise the fibers, then let it dry
before sanding for the last time. I worked at the table every evening for
two months, and at the end of that time it stood blond and shining in the
sun.
Rather than returning it to a seventeenth-century walnut colour, which
would have required a stain, I decided to preserve the lightness of the
wood, so I treated it with olive oil. It was a perfect medium, especially
when the can had been left standing all day in the sun. Working with it
was like feeding the wood, and the oil softened my hands, roughened by
the previous two months' work. "You stroke it as if it were a woman," said
Ayuz.
Slowly the light colour deepened to a gold so rich that you seemed to
be able to see right into the wood. I finished it early one evening in March
of my second year in Ouargla. When Ayuz came over, we stood and looked
at it for several minutes, while I put the kettle on the brazier. Then, slowly
lifting its great weight we moved it into my room, and placed it under the
window. In the dusk, the table glowed like stored sunlight. I sat at one
end on an orange crate, and Ayuz sat at the other on the chair. He was
wearing a white robe. In the muted evening light, with his blue-black
turban covering his forehead and sweeping down to mask the lower part
of his dark face, he looked like a prince.
60 Ayuz ran his finger appreciatively over the golden surface of the table. Then he took his long curved dagger from its sheath on his belt and
began to gouge the surface. For a moment I couldn't speak. Then, "What
are you doing?" I gasped.
He looked up. "I'm carving my name," he said. I stared at him in stupefaction. My face must have gone white in the effort of self-control.
What was happening? What kind of assault was this? I began to tremble,
and went out on the rooftop where the kettle was boiling. How could I
repair the damage? Hide it with a filler? Cut it out and inlay a new piece of
wood? Plane off the surface? Replace the entire table top? Or just drag
the table out into the desert and burn it?
The cups rattled on the tray as I set it down on the table. Ayuz worked
carefully and with confidence, and the flowing Arabic characters were
now emerging, cut deeply and cleanly into the surface. My eyes pricked.
Ayuz looked up, and must have noticed the tears. He touched my hand.
"This is a beautiful thing you have," he said. "I will add to it something of
mine, now, so that you can remember me."
It was at that moment that I began to understand.
The following year, an itinerant silversmith came through the village,
and I had him inlay Ayuz's inscription with silver. It was soon afterwards
that I heard my father had been diagnosed with leukemia, and I submitted my resignation to the school so that I could return to France. Ayuz
had often talked of making the Haj, and we both left the village at about
the same time. He never wrote, but I learned by chance years later that
after he reached Mecca he had participated in the annual camel races at
Riyadh, and had performed so well that he was taken into the royal camel
guard of one of the Trucial states. He was killed a few years later defending the palace against an unsuccessful coup attempt May Allah the Compassionate ever hold for him an honoured place in paradise.
As the slow train pulled into the station at St-Raphael I found that I was
holding my old jackknife in my hand. I was thinking how the few people
who see the table today are stunned by the softly glowing Arabic calligraphy set in the golden wood. They are few because, in the first place, I do
not invite many people to my apartment and when I do, the table is usually covered with a linen cloth. Because people who see the inscription
want to know about it and when I have tried to tell them, I find myself in
the midst of things I cannot explain.
I was also thinking that if Ayuz's inscription had not caused me such
pain, short-lived, but intense, it would not mean as much to me as it does
today. And I wondered how, without pain, could the inscriptions of those
we love be preserved in the human heart
61 Padma Viswanathan
n the Karnatak Country
Southeast India, 1935
—Pack your bags. We are leaving. No objections, children, you will
not insist any longer on living in this house. Time and again I have told
you to come and take your place with us, with your parents! But it is
always Broom Uncle this, Grandmother that No more! This time, I will
not take no for an answer.
Goli flies around the room. He is shoving each child in the direction of
his or her packing while shouting
—Go, pack!!
—But...
—PACK!!
So they do.
They board the nine thirty-five train. In the morning, they will disembark in the Karnatak country, where Goli is stationed at present the
furthest any of them has ever been from home.
They reach their new house at ten in the morning, by which time their
home village of Cholapatti would have been sweltering and still. In
Cholapatti, the packed summer air is so hot and moist that every villager
feels a privileged proximity to the Goddess Earth—each person feels
her sweat
In the Karnatak country, the air swirls and rustles round. It is cool like
the children have only known water to be, water dippered from the big
clay pot in the darkest corner of the pantry. In the Karnatak country,
every breath the children draw is as cool as if it were just released from
the narrow mouth of a big clay pot
Their new house is like their grandmother's in Cholapatti, a little
smaller, but with the same brick floors and clay-shingled roof. It is a government-issue house and comes with a government-issue houseboy. He
bobs ingratiatingly as they arrive.
Goli has told his children that he is a big-shot revenue inspector and a
man with many other pursuits of a business nature. Their grandmother,
Thangam's mother, has told them that the government moves Goli to a
new village every year or two, and that it is for that reason that she is
62 raising them in Cholapatti—in the house that will someday belong to her
son, Broom.
Each child has lived with Thangam and Goli only for a few early years.
They keep the two youngest of their children with them, a toddler and a
baby, at any given time. Every couple of years, a new baby succeeds the
old. The old baby replaces the toddler. The toddler ascends to the
Cholapatti ranks.
Now, for the first time, they are all united, parents and children, under
a strange roof in a faraway part of the Madras Presidency. The children
are keen to know how they should behave.
They watch their father take soap and a towel and stride toward the
back of the house. He returns ten minutes later, shaved and washed.
They are still in the front hall, mostly still standing and very quiet. The
one or two who sat scramble to their feet Goli stops and looks at them
with indignant expectation. He shouts
—Not clean yet? Move!
Two take the initiative to rush to the back, grabbing towels where
they saw Goli do so. They think, there must be more than one bathroom,
if they were supposed to be bathing while Goli was. But no, there is only
one bathroom. One by one, they bathe in cold water, and then sit in the
hall, strangely uncomfortable. Janaki and Kamala, aged nine and seven,
think they must feel odd because they have just been whisked away from
home to a new life, and because it has not sunk in that they are to be
living with their parents and also because they are never very relaxed
around their father. This must be why they are shivering, their skin
goosepimpling and teeth chattering. When they are older, they will recall this morning, and name the source of their discomfort cold.
Goli paces and mutters, to and fro, up and down, sometimes right out
the front door. Each time one of the children stands to take a turn at the
bath, he shouts
—Move!
at the receding back, which then jumps and runs for the bathroom.
Thangam is exhausted from the trip and lies with the baby on a bamboo mat under a thin dhurri. As the last child is bathing, Thangam calls
out feebly
—There is no food in the house. You have to get them some food.
Goli boomingly echoes his wife:
—No food in the house? No food in the house. Okay, we will eat at a
hotel.
("Hotel" means a public eating establishment run for money. A restaurant It is pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable. Readers
may speculate on the origins of this nomenclature.)
Goli starts out the door and in a few moments notices no one has
63 followed him. He returns to the door and shouts
—Come on!
One of their number is still in the washroom The other children just
point in that direction.
—Hm?What?
—Kamala is still taking her bath.
Kamala comes hurrying along at that moment
—Is that her?
They nod. He starts out the door again and the children run to follow
him. Their hair is still uncombed, and Kamala's blouse is buttoned wrong,
but they are reasonably clean. They turn two corners and stop in front of
a low structure. It is two walls connected by a thatch roof, and steam
coming out the open front and back—the hotel.
A harried-looking boy looks up at them from the floor, where he is
clearing disposable plates made from stitched-together leaves. He throws
tile leaf-plates, coated with the remains of meals, to two grateful dogs in
a roadside ditch. His eyes swing to a man squatting shinily among vats
and cauldrons. The place only seats five, and two places are taken. Goli
has taken a third. The man looks at the children, then addresses his pots:
—They'll have to eat in shifts.
The children give each other looks None has understood the man. It
is as though his words come from funny places in his mouth, from the
front when they should come from the back, and from the top when expected from the bottom. Suddenly they remember they are in the
Kannada country they have learned of in school, where people speak the
Kannada language. But what a funny language. Tamil is normal, Kannada
is strange, like a one-legged bird or two-headed cow—recognizable, but
not the way things are meant to be. Their father is yelling
—SKI Sit!
The boy has laid out two more places. They all step forward together.
Goli raises one hand to point at the dish the boy is carrying and make a
dismissing gesture at the children. He tells them
—Only two of you just now. Not enough room.
Mena flounces forward to take her place, dragging Radha, the toddler. Kamala, Ladu, and Janaki politely watch the dogs instead of the
diners. The dogs lap sauces and grains from the ridges of the leaves,
always licking twice where once would do. Dirt congregates in the hollows between their jagged ribs. After doing a quick sniffover and finding
no more pickings, one mounts the other and they do a funny dance. Janaki,
at nine, knows enough to look away and Ladu, thirteen, knows enough to
know why, but Kamala, who is only seven, keeps staring, her mouth slightiy
ajar, until Janaki spins her by the shoulder to make her face the street
The children find the food as strange as the language and the weather.
64 By the time they find their way back to the house (Goli has left them, to
attend some important business), homesickness is burling up in them. It
will soon harden and form a ring to mark the end of one age, the beginning of another.
Only Mena is perfectly cheerful, bright-eyed and willing as the other
children have never seen her. She arranges their bundles neatly in the
hall. Their mother rises while she is doing this. Mena asks her
—Amma, shall I take the baby for a while? Don't you want to bathe?
Thangam blesses her children with her smile, though it is a mixed
blessing, the sun shining through clouds. Mena takes baby Krishnan,
and Thangam goes to her bath. Mena plays boisterous games to make
the fat baby laugh. When Thangam returns, they all go to sit on the thimai,
the long, low patio which they know from Cholapatti and are relieved to
see on housefronts here. In the combined strength of Thangam's faint
glow and this strange country's dilute sunshine, they almost begin to
feel warm.
Neighbourhood children grow curious about them but since they cannot speak to one another, they choose the shared language of sandlot
cricket. Even the girls join in.
Mena continues to act in her siblings' estimation, very strangely. She
is polite, responsive, uncomplaining. She cares for the baby. She cleans
the kitchen. She takes stock of the staples and purchases vegetables and
milk, lamp oil and kolam powder. She is surprised to find that her parents
employ no cook, but glad to have more work. When Goli returns from
work Mena bustles to the door and hands him a piping hot tumbler of
coffee.
In their grandmother's home Mena always used every trick of devi-
ousness and manipulation to get others to do her chores, faking a cut by
making blood out of vermilion powder, or trading chores so relentlessly
that her sisters would lose track of who owed whom and end up just
doing all the work. Here, Mena is industrious to the point of making the
others a bit nervous.
(Contrary to what Goli said when he took them from their grandmother's house, he has never before made any move to have his children live
with him. Is this why Mena is so happy? All is finally as it should be? For
the first time she feels part of the natural order? But the order's nature is
that its elements line up only to drift apart again. That is why there must
be equally powerful and revered gods for life and for death. Most people
know this but don't want to believe it This is why Mena appears happy
but smells of desperation.)
Goli sullenly carries his coffee out onto the thimai. Janaki and Kamala
are out there, playing at catching the other's hand before it is snatched
away. They look like bears slapping at river fish, a game of prey and hunter.
65 Janaki and Kamala become quiet at the sight of their father's face, but
they keep playing and their giggles quickly escalate again to shrieking.
Goli suddenly howls
—HUSH!
They freeze.
—Was I sweating to earn your keep all day so that you could torture
me?
He has lapsed back into his ruminations. Supper is a silent matter.
Ladu makes one attempt to tell the story of something funny he saw that
day, but Goli breathes harder and harder and Janaki recognizes this as
the huff and puff of a coming storm. She signals her less barometrically-
sensitive brother to abort the story.
Mena serves all of them first and eats afterward with Thangam, just
like a real lady of a house.
One evening, Janaki and Kamala see their dad at the end of the road,
talking with two dark and paunchy men. They are all laughing uproariously and slapping their thighs. Goli spots his daughters and calls them
over. As they arrive he grabs them by the shoulders:
—Two of mine.
The men are nodding, smiling through the dusty haze of the jokes
popped around them moments before. Janaki and Kamala later inflate
the men's gummy lips, beady eyes, and thick, soft limbs, until they become, in the girls' imagined memories, perfect comic book villains. Goli
slaps his kids' backs and explains to his friends:
—Finally got them out of the grip of that brother-in-law of mine. None
of his own children, you know?
He turns his head sideways and gives a wink.
—None of his own. Right?
The men laugh again. Janaki and Kamala shudder at their proximity
to these dastards. Goli goes on, being modestly boastful, slyly honest,
—And I've got more kids than I can count! Pah! That brother-in-law,
rich as a Chettiyar, but will he share his gold? Ah, what to do? Poor man
can't have kids...
The two men giggle. Goli goes on, and on
—TH forgive him. You know, if ifs true that a man's real fortune is his
family, and you and I know it is—well, then, Tm a millionaire.
He squishes the two girls together. They can't remember him ever
touching th e m before. The thick villains chuckle benevolently. Goli shoves
his daughters in the direction of the house and says
—Run home. Tell your sister Fm on my way home, coffee better be
ready. Scoot
They do, but each does feel a bit funny on her inside.
The following evening, Janaki and Kamala are sitting on the thimai.
66 They hear Goli shouting
—Come! Come!
Then he appears, in the seat of a bullock cart. Instinctively, they rise
and run into the house. He soon follows, still shouting
—Come! Come! Come!
When her sisters ran into the house like startled fish, Mena had
guessed the reason and decanted the coffee. Now she trots it out, but
Goli takes no notice. He helps hasten her toward the door, throwing her
off balance, splashing coffee on the floor.
—Come, I say! Into the cart! Where is your precious mother? Thangam!
Thangam!!
He blusters past Mena into the next room. She looks anxious and eager to obey but not sure what action to take in order to do so. Goli reappears and clarifies the matter:
—INTO THE CART!
Moments later, they are all amongst damp straw, trundling up the road,
clinging to boards which threaten to pull away. A bullock cart ride is a
familiar experience, something recalled from home—from Cholapatti,
that is. The children would like to relax and enjoy its comforting sway
and lilt but with their father so near, relaxation is of course not possible.
Presently, Goli leaps from his seat to the ground. He stumbles slightly
and adjusts his dhoti. The bullock cart jolts to a halt. Goli is already some
distance away, gesturing to a building by the side of the road and asking
—Unh? Unh?
His tone suggests they should say what they think, and what they
should think is that ifs great They all climb out cautiously. He has already run up to the building, a defunct rice mill. He turns as they trudge
off the road, a caravan of tired gypsies. He whispers as if all the world is
a stage:
—It was criminal, really. The price. Got it for a song. Lots of people
going under these days. The stupid ones. Used to be, you could get away
with not being on the smarts. But not these days. These days it's be
smart or die. You know, kids, the sinking has started—and you are hitched
to a swimmer.
His wife's voice when she replies is both unbelieving and utterly without surprise.
—You bought it?
Goli beams at her and starts running around the building, peering
and banging and measuring things with the span of his hand as he replies
—Lock, stock, and barrel. Me and my associates. Opportunity is knocking down our door. The ground floor suddenly lowered and why, we just
got on.
67 Thangam is whispering now.
—I thought..you weren't interested in rice mills.
Goli is in front of her in a flash, the pockets under his eyes pulsing. He
specifies
—I am not interested in anything your brother had to propose. He
wanted me to work for him. For him!
—He wanted to be responsible...
—He wanted to be my boss. No respect for me. Me! His elder brother
in law! Go and work for him...big shot...
Goli has begun chopping his right hand against his left palm, as he
always does when he is angry. Thangam speaks again, her eyes shut
—I think...he just thought..we needed the money.
—And do we? Tell me. Do we?
—Don't we?
—No!
The children step back in unison as the hot roar of refusal whips past
them. Mena alone stands her ground and looks at her siblings triumphantly. They all remember the dispute between Broom and Goli, one of
many.
It was a few months ago. The children's grandmother, Sivakami, was,
as ever, troubled at the thought that Thangam and Goli had no security.
She wanted him to offer them the chance to co-invest in the purchase of
a rice mill. She had pleaded for them with her son:
—They just don't seem to have the skills to plan for the future.
Broom sniffed and guffawed at this sort of comment
—Skills? How much skill does it take to not buy expensive tilings? It
takes skill not to go to the club and play cards night after night?
He finally agreed, though he continued to grumble. He said the main
obstacle was that Goli's money disappeared from his hands like ash in a
cremation grounds wind. He said Goli would never make it to Cholapatti
with cash for an investment Still, when Goli and Thangam came, though
he didn't manage to make eye contact Broom did make the offer. Goli's
response was brash and ungracious.
—Looking for a partner now, Broom? Tired of your miserable miserly
ways, decided you wanted a little human company? Why the sudden
change?
—No. I never said partner. You can put some money in, you will get a
share of the dividends, such as they will be in these troubled times. Good
chance we won't see any for a long time. Patience is needed, stick-to. And
if you move back to this area, say for retirement I will consider making
you a manager, with a salary, plus a share of profits and rice.
Before Broom was even through speaking, Goli had started chopping
right hand against left and saying
68 —Don't insult me, little brother, I won't stand for it
Broom's clear, colourless eyes had grown dark and cloudy. He jabbed
a finger at Goli, who was by then striding away. Broom's shouted words
scurried along in his wake:
—If you weren't married to my sister, I wouldn't stop to throw my
shoes at you, you no-account!
The children stood looking on like a naive painting of dismayed witnesses to a crime, their unripe faces yet without depth or perspective.
Broom saw them and said
—Nice father, yours...
Mena covered her ears and chased out after their father and the stream
of invective that flowed along after him.
Sivakami shook her head; it almost looked like an apology. She said
—Don't Not to them, not about their father. They suffer enough.
Now, in the field by the rice mill, each child privately recollects this
scene. (One would guess from Mena's smug face that in her version,
Goli is the winner. In Janaki and Ladu's memories, the victor's identity is
less certain. Kamala recalls words but not meanings. She thinks she wants
to go home, but she is not certain where that is, just now.)
That night at supper, Mena doles out the rasam, tamarind broth with
mashed lentils which always settle to the pot bottom. Janaki hates that
lentil sludge so Mena usually dumps it on double thick. But not tonight
Janaki is grateful She assumes this generosity of not giving can be ascribed to Mena's newfound mental peace. But when Mena eats—still
eating last like a real woman of the house—Janaki sees her pour herself
the last of the rasam, from the bottom of the pot. It is nearly clear. There
are almost no lentils in the broth.
Janaki reports this to Kamala. They suppose their sister forgot to put
the lentils in. All week long, Mena has been serving up rubbery rice
pancakes and powdered condiments so bland that one would sooner use
them to dust a baby's bottom than to fire up a meal. Not that they would
ever consider complaining about the food. Mena serving terrible food
with a sincere smile is far, far preferable to her customary pursuits of
being lazy and torturing them.
In fact Mena did not forget the lentils. In fact their store of lentils has
runout
Earlier that afternoon, when Goli returned from work, she had inquired
—Can I give the houseboy a shopping list Appa? Will you give me
money?
He had looked at her as though he didn't know who she was and how
she came to be in his house. He asked
—Money?
—For groceries, Appa, we need some...
69 —Management management. What have I been keeping you at your
grandmother's for, if you still do not know how to manage money?
—L..
—Payday is Thursday. Thursday I will bring home such food as you
have never seen, squashes and cucumbers and sweets. Yes?
Mena clapped happily and retired to the kitchen to hum and cook.
Generally, people buy supplies on credit The bill is paid quarterly.
Cash is used only for the daily purchase of vegetables from the market
or wandering vendors. Here, in the Karnatak country, the local merchants
told Mena they don't want to give credit. Is it because Goli is not a local?
But he has been in residence for over a year.
Mena had pooh-poohed the merchants. She bought supplies with the
ten rupees her grandmother Sivakami had slipped her as they departed
Cholapatti. She had splurged, believing Goli would want nothing but the
best She was right: Goli wants nothing but the best But he has given no
money to buy ft.
Anyway, she is reassured. Thursday. Thursday they will be set gently
back on the lap of luxury.
The next day is Tuesday. They breakfast on pazhia saatham, soured
rice gruel, as they do every day ("Best thing for young tummies," their
grandmother always says). But today the buttermilk is very watery and
they are all hungry by mid-morning. When they come to Mena mock-
whining that they want a snack, they expect her to indulge them with
milk sweets, as she has done all week.
Instead, Mena crabs that if they've got nothing better to do than bug
her, they may as well occupy themselves with finding fruit on the banana
trees in the garden. The children drift out of the house. They avoid the
two stunted and barren banana trees which stand at the end of the yard
like two more children their father forgot to mention.
Lunch is rice, lots of rice but with rasam even thinner than it was the
night before. For supper, the same. Kamala asks for more. She is given a
big chunk of plain rice with a vadu maangu, the baby mango pickle. Their
grandmother packed a big jar with their luggage. No one else says anything. Thangam doesn't eat She says she's not hungry. She drinks half a
cup of nearly transparent buttermilk and goes to bed. Their father still
has not arrived and Mena will not eat until after he does Nine o'clock,
ten o'clock, eleven o'clock pass, Mena sits in the dark. She says she wants
it dark so everyone else can sleep, but she used cotton wicks to wipe the
bottom of the lamp oil can the night before. At eleven-thirty there is a
loud knocking on the doors and Goli's voice calls
—Thangam! Eh, Thangam!
Thangam bolts upright Mena unbolts the doors. She lights an oversized lamp and holds the itty bitty flame so Goli can see. He drops his
70 jaunty cap and swinging cane in a corner. He drops himself onto a waiting bamboo mat Mena asks
—Supper?
He is prone and his eyes are closed. He turns onto his side and gets
comfortable as he says
—No. Ate at the club.
Mena blinks, then glances at the lamp. She hurries to the kitchen and
eats rice in a race against the dwmdling flame.
On Wednesday, for all three meals, they have rice with buttermilk that
is so thin as to be indistinguishable from water that old people strain
from boiled rice and drink for strength. Each of the children pretends
the runny white meal is something else, onion sambar, spinach kootu,
bitter gourd curry. Kamala starts to sniffle a little as she bites into the
tangy flesh of a vadu maangu. Janaki silently signals her "What?" but
Kamala answers aloud
—I miss Grandmother.
Janaki's anuses start to sting, too, at the thought of Grandmother's
generous kitchen and endless affection. Mena ends this nonsense:
—Hush. Stop that You want to go back to living with Broom Uncle,
where we are not wanted? We get to see Amma and Appa every day this
way.
That night Goli's work forces him to stay over in a neighbouring town.
The family eats its poor meal early, all together, and gather in the hall.
The moon has narrowed nightly and is almost ready to turn and begin its
climb again to obesity. In the bluish darkness of the hall, the children lie
or sit on their bedrolls and play word games, making up rhymes and
riddles, laughing loud and freely in the night which gladly does not contain their father.
Payday! Mena is in a good mood again, anticipating the good meal they
will have in the evening with all the groceries Goli will have sent the
servant to buy before he comes home from work.
The servant comes and goes, and comes again. Mena questions him
rudely about the groceries, but he just shakes his head, a blank but obsequious expression on his face. He goes.
Mena is sitting on the thimai when Goli arrives home from work—
empty-handed but with a spring in his step. He asks her
—Where's my coffee?
His question seems to be directed to the northwest corner of the house.
He walks past Mena, into the house, with his head opposing the direction of
his travel by about thirty degrees.
Mena had put off making the coffee. She was awaiting a delivery of the precious dark dust since she has enough to legitimately brew only a thimbleful.
71 She sits a moment longer on the thimai, where all sit to sun their cares
or to forget them in watching the neighbours. The thimai is the place
where private pains meet the life of the street where decisions are made
and deals contracted, streets just like this one aU over Madras Presidency.
Different people, different language, even, but the same worries. And
despite all this, Mena sits so all alone in the rosy dusk, her toes over and
underlapping one another, her chin on her knees. In the rapid sunset ft
is only moments before she can no longer see her toenails and is isolated
even from herself
She takes a breath, picks herself up and walks into the house. She
cocks her head at an unreasonable angle, just like her father did, trying
to see what he sees. She brews the coffee and dumps three tablespoons
of sugar into the pale brown steam. There is no more milk. Thank God
sugar and rice come in huge sacks. Plenty of those two commodities left
Looks like rice and sugar for supper tonight.
She places the tumbler and bowl on a saucer and carries it out to her
father. No more English biscuits or store-bought sweets. Goli is pacing
pedantically to and fro. He grasps the bowl and pours the coffee from the
tumbler to blend and cool it He is anticipating, as every drinker of great
South Indian coffee does, the pleasure of steam and foam rising as the
creamy liquid, falling from the lip of tile stainless steel tumbler, hits the
cylindrical bowl below. Steam he gets, but no foam. He frowns and peers
into the bowl, fighting more the fog in his mind than that around the
dish, trying to see what is wrong. Mena stands by, her mind a blank with
hundreds of squirming questions nibbling its edges. Finally, Goli looks
up, his spectacles opaque from the mist He asks her
—What is this?
She answers with reflexive obedience.
—Appa, coffee, Appa.
—It doesn't look like coffee.
—Appa, thaf s what coffee looks like without milk, Appa.
—Who drinks coffee with no milk? Am I an Englishman? Pah!
Mena swallows the air in her mouth with great difficulty and asks
—Did...you get paid today, Appa?
—0, yes, 0, yes. Stopped after work and put the whole thing down on
that new rice mill of ours. Ready to fire her up any day now.
He makes another long waterfall of the coffee and remembers his
displeasure. He jabs the vessels out from his body and exclaims
—Milk!
—We have no milk, Appa.
—Get some! Are there no cows left in the world? listen, you can hear
them now!
The questions in Mena's mind are taking big bites now, feasting on
72 her eleven-year-old brain. She replies, clinging to the shreds of blank-
ness which remain:
—I need money, Appa.
—Money? You need money? It is not enough that I am slaving from
dawn until dusk, working for the English, buying properties, doing business, you want money now, too?
—No, for supplies. To buy milk, vegetables, lentils, butter...
Goli is pacing, waving the coffee around to emphasize points.
—Just like your mother, no management sense. Just like that stupid
cook! I told her get out! I told her my wife will cook, my daughter will
cook! What else are you doing? I don't have infinite resources. You have
to learn to plan.
—But..
—DO NOTTALK BACK TO ME! I told you, you must learn.Too bad,
the budget is all used up, you'll just have to manage. I'm going to the club.
That night they eat plain boiled rice with a choice of side dish: sugar
or vadu maangu. Breakfast: the same. Lunch: you guessed it
At five o'clock, Ladu shows up with three onions and a seyppukezhengu,
a root vegetable, like a giant yam. Mena is elated. Her salivary glands
spring to action at the sight The springs quickly run dry, though, when
she thinks to ask
—Ladu. Where did you get these?
Ladu's head cocks at thirty degrees, apparently fhe angle at which an
individual can dissociate from any present situation. He directs his response to the northwest corner of the house
—My friend gifted them to me. They had too many.
Mena heaves half a sigh of relief. It is interrupted by the recollection
that Ladu cannot speak the same language as any of his friends. She asks
—Does your friend know he gifted them to you?
Ladu is extremely fascinated by a spider web in the northwest corner
of the kitchen. Mena asks no more questions and prepares a decent meal
for her family. They relish it with pathetic delight while Mena gags on
every mouthful. That night she lies awake on her empty stomach. Goli
gets home late. She doesn't offer Wm supper; there is none. He doesn't ask.
In the morning, Goli sits groggy on his mat This he does for long
minutes each morning. Sometimes he rubs his head or cleans his fingernails. It is as though his internal mechanisms are winding. Then something snaps and he careers for the bathroom as though released from a
colossal slingshot The mist will evaporate from his eyes like clouds from
a lake. Once this happens, he cannot be stopped.
Mena chooses this, his calmest quarter hour, for her second approach.
—Appa?
No sign of response. She creeps closer, and kneels.
73 —Appa? Appa, I know I should have planned better, Appa, I know I
splurged, but I, I really need to buy some more supplies, Appa. I can't I
have nothing left to cook...
She trails off weakly, distracted by the oddness of his demeanour. He
is only a metre away but peering at her as though a long way off. Suddenly, he zooms in. His pupils dilate in the rush of landing. He springs to
his feet
—That's it. Thaf s it Fve had it with your requests. If you will not stop
bothering me, if you cannot take responsibility for yourself and live by
my rules, you can all go back to live with your grandmother. Pack up,
you're all leaving on the nme-thirty train.
Mena works her mouth in horror and confusion. Janaki, Kamala, and
Ladu are rising around hen they open their eyes to Goli's words. Thangam,
who had already risen, lies back down. Mena must reply.
—Thafsnot..But..
—Nine thirty. Be ready. If you wont be happy any other way, thaf s
what you will have.
Mena doesn't turn to look at her siblings. She feels their alkaline shock
becoming numbness, neutralized by her helplessness.
Nine o'clock sees them trooping out the door. Goli tries once more to
get them to leave without Kamala, as though like a mother duck he can
only count three. Thangam sits by the door, clutching Baby Krishnan
and two-year-old Radha. She holds Radha so tightly, in fact, that the child
is uncomfortable, and keeps trying to squirm out of Thangam's white-
knuckled grasp. As each of the older children files past he or she drops
a kiss on Thangam's powdery cheek. She says nothing, but looks long
on each and drains a thick, golden tear from her eye.
Mena wonders what Goli will use to pay for their tickets back to Cholapatti,
but decides ifs not her problem. (For the reader's information, he had
had a very good night at the club. It is another source of supplemental
income, though he speaks only selectively about this pursuit It is often
as expensive as it is profitable. Today, as he strolls whistling toward the
station, his shirt pocket jangles with his winnings.)
A shriveled, cackling man waves bunches of faded paper pinwheels at
everyone hurrying into the station. Goli tosses a rupee coin at him. The
old fellow catches it with startling ease. Goli relieves him of the entire
bunch, distributing one each to his faithless children and the remainder
magnanimously among all the children in sight The old man wanders
off elated—a rupee is many times more than that bunch was worth. Each
child carries some baggage or bedding from the bus stop to the station.
Their father said it was too much for the houseboy, gave him a two-rupee
tip and the day off Kamala had already been struggling under her allot-
74 ted weight of luggage. It is a sad sight to see her trying to carry the
pinwheel as well.
A freak of architecture has created a gale force wind in the vestibuled
station entrance. As the children pass through the vacuum, the curved
petals of each of their pin wheels rip free of their moorings, so that the
pointy ends dangle limp and heavy like seaweed removed from the water
that buoyed it up in elegance.
The four children approach the platform while Goli buys their tickets.
One by one, they toss their pinwheels onto the track.
May as well have saved the effort and just put the coin on the rails for
the train to flatten, Mena thinks morosely.
Three of the pinwheels lie limp and motionless on the ties. The fourth,
propped up on a rail, rotates in futile quarter-turns, one direction, then
the other, back, back again, until a pot-bellied beggar child wanders up
the track and relieves himself on ft.
The tickets are two-and-arhalf rupees each, ten rupees for the four
children, just the amount Mena used to feed the whole family for the ten
days that the experiment lasted. Goli gets a ticket for himself, too.
Their baggage is stowed and they are on their way. Goli is swinging
on a gleeful mood, buying snacks, cracking jokes, making a party with
everyone in the compartment Isn't this fun, his attitude seems to say,
charming man with his four beautiful children, off for a holiday.
In the spirit of a game he asks his children,
—What if ..I were murdered? What if someone got on at the next stop
and stabbed me dead, right here and now?
He looks at all of them, directly at them. He has never really seemed
to notice them before, and now the intensity of his look is like the sun
through a magnifying glass. Smiles wiggle nervous on all their faces except Kamala's. She starts to cry. Maybe on account of the fleeting thought
that she might be happier if he were dead. Maybe she is frightened. Her
tears attract Goli's attention. He asks sympathetically
—Missing Broom Uncle?
and slides down the wooden seat, shoving Janaki and Mena along and
knocking Ladu off the end. Now he is directly across from Kamala. Her
face fills his vision as he leans in closer and closer, head cocked like a
father crow. He tells her, confidentially,
—I only let you all live with him because he can't have children of his
own.
Closer.
—He can't have kids.
Kamala is looking down. She is making an enormous effort at self-
control but ifs not quite enough: one last slippery tear bubbles out to
rim over her cheek.
75 Goli bounds to his feet and roars at the people ramrod still all around
the compartment Chop chop chop chop goes hand against palm.
—He talks against me! He is a stingy coward who can't have relations
with his wife! He tries to steal my children! He talks against me!
Kamala bellows through her weeping, her eyes still shut
—Don't talk about my uncle that way!
Goli leaps over and hits her. He stands and fumes at the door as the
train pulls into a station. He gets out and paces around the platform, then
buys fifty packages of snacks from another vendor who looks like he
hasn't had a sale all year. Goli throws them through the windows at everyone in the compartment telling them to eat Janaki hands one to Kamala,
who will not take it. Janaki puts it in her lap. The package sits untouched
until Ladu points at it Kamala nods faintly; Ladu eats the snack with
alacrity. It is far more interesting than most of what they've eaten lately.
Goli is strutting up and down, stuffing a couple of packages of the
stale, greasy tidbits into his mouth. Like an aristocratic host at a royal
banquet he is aggressively hospitable, ordering everyone to eat The
rest of the people in the car smile and chat at his neighbourliness, his
good-spiritedness.They and the children nibble the age-old snacks. Janaki
offers some of her own snack to Kamala, who doesn't respond. There are
finger marks on Kamala's pale cheek.
In the city, their father puts them on the train bound for Cholapatti. He
has business elsewhere to which he must attend.
The children reach Cholapatti slightly after sunset and walk home,
dragging bags, bedding, and bottoms. Their grandmother says nothing
about their unexpected return. She looks them over anxiously, but asks
no questions.
Late that night Mena, Ladu, and Janaki all rise with terrible diarrhea.
Only Kamala sleeps soundly.
76 Anne Fleming
The Defining Moments
of My Life
Part One: The Defining Moments of My Life as Envisioned by My Mother
When Pregnant with Me
1.
I am, like David Copperfield and most other people real and imagined,
born. This event occasions my mother enough pain and struggle to be
worthy of the word "labour," but not so much that she begins to believe
my entry into the world will be her exit
During these difficult but ultimately meaningful five or six hours—
eight at the outside—her husband frets with worry in the waiting room,
absentiy ripping the petals off the flowers he bought in the first giddy
half-hour, and whose stems he snapped soon thereafter from too much
anxious clenching.
He is not disappointed in the least to learn his first child is a girL
2.
I breastfeed easily and happily.
3.
I am an attractive baby, even as a newborn, with enormous eyes and long
lashes. All the nurses love me on first sight
Eight weeks later, my christening takes place in St Clemenf s Anglican
Church. I wear the slightly yellow but still-gorgeous lace gown my mother's grandmother tatted by hand for her first child's christening that has
seen eight christenings since. My father holds me proudly by the baptismal font After handing me to the priest he coughs in a weak attempt to
mask his deep emotion and rubs his strangely watering eyes with his
77 knuckles. My mother takes his hand, which grips hers tightly. She, too,
bites back tears. Afterwards they have a fabulous luncheon at which no
one gets drunk and everyone coos appreciatively at me and my mother.
We are pretty as a picture. She does not leak breast milk through onto
her best dress, the blue silk. I smile.
5.
I am an easy baby, gurgling happily in my crib. Each stage described in
the baby books I enter into promptly and exactly. At X days, my eyes
focus past ten inches and I display an interest in the mobile above my
crib. At V months, I roll over. At Z, I begin to crawl.
All this while, my mother is utterly absorbed in me, and so, when he
hurries home each night from his job with the great future, is my father.
At two, I chatter away animatedly and am almost completely toilet trained.
My father gets a promotion. When they learn the happy news that my
mother is again pregnant, they put a down payment on a house in Moore
Park. We are nicely ensconced there by the time my mother gives birth,
even less painfully than to me, to my little brother, on whom we all dote,
me included, in my clumsy toddling way.
I have a happy childhood, which consists of:
A) An easy adjustment to school after making shy and clinging to my
mother's skirts when she delivered me on the first day;
B) A cute and unshakeable conviction at age six that I will marry Timmy
Mills, the adorable blue-eyed first-born of my mother's best friend, Peg;
C) Well-attended birthday parties, creative Hallowe'en costumes sewn
by my mother, fun family Christmases at which no one passes out or
kicks the dog, and many other seasonal festivities;
D) Skating lessons, swimming lessons, piano lessons, ballet tap, and lessons at anything else I happen to be good at;
E) Sunday school; and perhaps,
F) One sorrow: the death, in old age, of my grandfather. My grandmother lives
till she is at least 90, or whenever my mother can conceive of losing her.
8.
I get my period. Of course, my mother has lovingly explained my en-
78 trance into womanhood before the sacred event I embrace my womanhood with bashful pleasure, feeling closer than ever to the woman who
brought me into the world. I turn to her with the difficult questions in my
life, like how to let a boy know you like him without going too far, and
how to get blood stains out of underwear.
9.
I continue to be attractive, as my brother also turns out to be. We are
popular and have lots of friends. Mother makes us a nutritious lunch
each day. 10.1 go on my first date. 11.1 have my first boyfriend. 12.1 get
the lead in the high school play, preferably West Side Story. 13.1 have my
firot abortion. Sorry. 13.1 am valedictorian, and give a moving speech,
thanking my parents for their support 14.1 go to university on a scholarship I don't need. 15.16.17.1 have a brilliant career as well as a brilliant
marriage, and several children as adorable as I was.
And so on.
Part Two: The Defining Moments of My Itfe as Seen by Me
1.
I am not if you go by Shakespeare's way of thinking, born. I am untimely
ripped from my mother's womb, instead, via c-section. (I always did think
that was a bit of a plot cheat—one may be untimely ripped, but one is still
of woman born. Oh, those nit-picking witches.) Before the decision to
open my mother up, labour is a monstrously painful and long process,
and I hear about it often, every time I am deemed an ungrateful child.
I am a startlingly ugly baby, with a big swath of coarse black hair down
the middle of my head and onto my low brow, and a bumpy red rash over
my entire face. The effect is not unlike that of a black-haired pig we see
some years later at the Royal Winter's Fair scratching its flakey skin
against the door of the stall.
The hair falls out the rash goes away, and I am still none too pretty. I
cry almost constantly. It drives my mother to distraction and causes my
father to yell at my mother to shut me up, he needs his sleep, whereupon
he storms out of the house in a rage swearing hell sleep in his office,
which he may or may not do. This is what he does when my brother,
though not biologically related, takes after me in the vocal cord department so I assume ifs not far off
79 One of my earliest memories—I will call it my first—is of a geranium on
the kitchen table. Just that The geranium, red and green on the pale
grey table, lit up by a small patch of sunlight and the sound of traffic
outside. Apparently I pulled all the petals off this geranium, in fact off
any flowers I came in contact with, but I don't remember that I remember it whole, in the sunlight
My other early memory is of playing with the nap of the beige carpet
under the ironing board as my mother works above me. The iron hisses
across spritzed shirts. The air smells of seared starch. And then there
are spots on the carpet Under the place where my mother is no longer
standing. Putting my finger in the biggest spot inches across, I lick it to
make sure it is what I think it is. Yes. I am a wound-sucker, I know that
metallic taste, and I love it Ifs the taste of me, my cut finger or knee or
lip. The same taste coming from someone else makes me feel funny.
5.
My adopted brother arrives. He has black hair and brown skin and hollers all the time. I cant believe I ever hollered that much or that loudly,
though I am told repeatedly it is true.
6.
I hate my clothes My mother makes them or gets them passed down
from her aster's daughters. I lobby for hand-me-downs from my boy-
cousins, to no avail. The clothes are cute skirt-and-top outfits, or cute,
patterned pant-and-top outfits.
One weekend at my cousins', I steal Jeffs red and yellow striped shirt
Td take his blue corduroys too, but Fm afraid my greed would reveal me.
I start carrying the shirt with me in a plastic bag, and I change wherever
I can, in friends' garages, or in the bushes in the park.
Seeing myself in a mirror at school, I realize the shirt doesn't do much
to change the overall effect I am still wearing a brown skirt with brown
gingham applique mushrooms.
I continue to wear the shirt anyway until a close call with my mother
wanting to know whaf s in the bag forces me to stow it in my hiding spot
in the park. The next day I discover it half-burnt, sodden, and
unrecoverable. I cry.
80 Timmy Mills calls me and my brother ugly. This follows on my mother
telling me gleefully and regularly^-every time we see an infant in fact
cute or ugly—that I was an ugly baby.
She has told me I look cute in various outfits. More accurately, she
has said that outfits look cute on me. "Ifs a pretty little outfit isn't it?" she
will say. "You look sweet in it" She has not said that I am pretty. Not that
I want to be. Handsome suits me better anyway. But for the first time I
notice my mother makes a distinction between me and my clothes. She
herself is pretty, as my father is handsome. I have heard my mother say
to her friends, joking, "We get by on our looks." I look like my father, and
the effect is not pretty.
My brother is only five, and too little for me to have thought much
about his looks. Sometimes, when people ask, I say our father is a Cree
Indian and that we spend summers on the trapline. You don't look Indian,
they say, and sometimes I say you better sleep lightly cause you never
know when an Indian is sneaking up on you, and you never know what
well do either, because we're dangerous. "Yeah," my brother will say.
Timmy Mills is full of shit and fat besides.
8.
I realize words can have unexpected consequences.
My brother, though almost four years younger, is a good companion.
He is game for almost anything. He can keep up, he never whines or
complains or tells on me and my friends when we smoke in the park and
light fires, burning mitts and hats lost under the snow in winter, or other
articles of clothing that we find. I am on the lookout for boys' shirts, but
mostly we find underwear and socks and wonder how their owners came
to leave such things behind.
But he has nightmares, my brother. Our father says he is too old to
sleep with his parents, so when he wakes up in terror he comes to me.
The person who put the seed of fear in him in the first place.
He dreams his real father has come to kill him in his bed.
9.
I get my period when I am ten. Not expecting this for a couple of years at
least Mom has not yet given me her Soon-You-Will-Be-A-Woman speech,
but I know whaf s going on. I don't think Fm bleeding to death with some
mysterious disease. I know what menstruation is. I have read my friend
Elaine's copy of Are You There God? Ifs Me, Margaret.
81 There's an unofficial club of girls who have read this book. They whisper and giggle and make like they have a superior knowledge of the
world. A friend of my mother's who has a daughter a couple of years
older than me says she doesn't care what the school board thinks, this
book is a true representation of girlhood and should be on the curriculum. She has started a petition.
I do not like the book. If it is a true representation of girlhood, then I
am not a true girl. All of Margaref s friends look forward to getting their
periods, and are happy when it arrives. There is talk of small amounts of
rusty-brown blood in the underwear.
The blood in my underwear has never been rusty brown, not even on
the very first day. It is brilliant red. There is lots of it I am always getting
up in the middle of the night to find Fve bled through my nightie onto the
sheets again, and scrubbing them out with cold water. I learn to sleep a
light uncomfortable sleep on my side.
I stain things: car seats, couches, swings. At school I work on ways to
casually lean over so I can check between my legs for blood. I perfect a
light probing gesture down the back of my pants or skirt to check for
wetness as I get up, but several times I notice people notice.
My mother is not a big help. After giving me her modified, My God,
You're-A-Woman-Too-Early talk, she provides me with a box of pads, and
the instruction never to use hot water on a blood stain. She seems to
blame my inability to manage my period to my general inadequacy at
being female rather than to a startiingly heavy flow. Not that she's said
anything, ifs just these looks she gives. She claims to have a heavy flow
herself, so I assume that she must be right, that there is some innate girl
thing, some tidiness and cleanliness gene that I simply don't have.
Ifs not until I'm fourteen that I figure out that I can stick a second pad
to the back of my underwear at night to catch the flow. Finally I can lie on
my back and get a few nights' rest, but ifs no help during the day.
I resolve to use tampons. I open a box of Kotex snuck from my mother's bathroom. They look like whfte bullets on sticks. I crouch over the
toilet and try to insert one. It feels like a white bullet on a stick. I push. I
swear. Push. Wince. Pull it out Dump. Flush. Pull another tampon from
the package. Re-read the instructions, noting the approximate angle of
insertion. Try the foot-on-the-bathtub method. Adopt a speedier plunge.
Am pleased with the success of this. Put my foot down. Try to walk around
the bathroom.
I finish the whole box and hope Mom is not having her period. The
next day I go to the drug store and buy a box each of Kotex, O.B. and
Tampax. It costs my entire allowance. I manage to insert a Tampax. It
lasts three-quarters of an hour.
82 10.
At seventeen, I win a part in West Side Story. I am the tomboy always
trying to get into the gang and always getting ridiculed and kicked around
instead. My character's name, interestingly, is "Anybody's."
My mother is appalled. She knows I could not possibly be Maria, but
she thought maybe a chorus girl, maybe even Bernardo's girlfriend, or
Riff's. Anybody but Anybody's.
The girl who plays Maria, who Fve always thought was a flirty snot
turns out to be okay. Her name is Sara, and while she waits for her scenes,
she drinks coffee and does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, which
Fve never heard of before. The first time I meet her she asks me for an
eight-letter word for crazy. "Um," I say. She is a year older than me. She's
sitting with Colin Vogl who I know from track. He does javelin. He is
Officer Krupke in the show. I keep saying "Um," because I can see she is
in the process of writing me off and I don't want to be written off I can't
think of a single word for crazy except mad, which of course is five letters short
"Cracked," says Colin.
"Thaf s only seven," she says after a pause.
"Demented," I say, my mind suddenly unleashed. "Deranged, insane,
nuts, cuckoo, off your rocker, loopy, lunatic, unhinged, bats..."
"Unhinged," she says. "Thank you."
We begin to give each other vocabulary tests we get out of Reader's
Digest We score well. When we don't do the crossword, we smoke drugs
in the parking lot me, Sara and Colin, who supplies the weed. Getting
high is not the point of this exercise, at least not for me, because I don't,
not at first The point is Sara, Colin and me. Maria, Officer Krupke and
Anybody's. Or as we soon become to each other, Santa Maria (this cracks
Sara up because she's actually Jewish), just plain Krupke and Buddy. Me.
11.
The same friend of my mother's who championed Are You There God?
It's Me, Margaret gives my mother The Diary ofAnais Nin for her fortieth birthday. She has inscribed it "Here's to spotted G's." I read it after
my mother is finished. It is not as racy as I expect but there are bits I
read over and over. With my door closed and my hand between my legs.
12.
I get high for the first time. Sara and Krupke and I lie in the middle of the
football field after smoking up behind the dumpsters, and for the first
83 time I really feel it The clouds are stupendous "I love you guys," we all
say. Other times we say it like fakey-fakey actor types, "Oh, I just love all
of you guys," blowing kisses, but this time we say it like we mean it We
sit up and put our backs together, leaning in a circle. Sara holds my hand.
"I feel pretty," Krupke hums. Sara and I take his hands. We get up and
skip around in a mockery of an interpretive dance circle, singing the
song. I realize that Krupke is gay.
13.
Timmy Mills is paralyzed after plowing his mother's car into a telephone
pole on the big hill on Mount Pleasant south of St Clair.
14.
My brother gets busted for shoplifting a water pistol at the variety store.
I used to steal Double Bubble from there by bending down and putting
them in my socks. The one time I got caught the guy put me in the
bathroom for five minutes, saying he was going to call my parents, but
then let me go after I blubbered and cried like an idiot and swore Fd
never steal again. On my brother he calls the cops.
My father picks my brother up by the shoulders and shakes him. Danny
scrunches up his eyes and kicks as hard as he can. He gets Dad in the
hip and the thigh and when he almost hits the groin, Dad slams him into
the wall and lets go. Danny howls.
My father has previously thrown plates full of food, dented the fridge
with his fist, torn the door off fts hinges, and smashed my mother's antique dining room chair, but he has never hit my mother or me. Or my
brother. "Don't you ever hit him again," my mother says and then tells
him to get out I am amazed that he does. He comes back sometime
while we are asleep because he's there the next morning. When he apologizes to us at breakfast, we dont look at him.
15.
I cut my hair forthe performance of the play, though the Home Ec teacher
doing costumes has said "Just tuck it up under a cap, dear. No need to go
too far."
My parents freak. "You look like a boy," my mother says.
Tm supposed to look like a boy," I say.
"You're supposed to look like a girl trying to look like a boy."
"A facsimile," my father agrees, "not the thing itself."
"What can you do?" I say, shrugging. "Whaf s cut is cut"
"Are you being flip with me?"
84 "Fm just saying what is."
My father paces a few steps away and adopts a considering tone. "She's
just saying what is. She's just-saying-what-is. Does she actually know what
is?" He paces back, looking at the floor, finger to his chin. "Does she? No,
I don't think so. Should I tell her? Is she old enough to know what is? Or
should I tell her if she takes this play too seriously, she won't be taking it
at all? That her career in drama is hanging by a thread?"
He looks me up and down to see if I am quivering or not to see if he's
got me. He has. He says, "Get out of my sight. You look obscene."
"Talk about a career in drama," Sara says of my father when I tell her
about this the next day.
My brother comes and sits on my bed while I cry and plays with his
Rubik's cube. "I like it" he says. "I think you look good."
16.
My father steps up his scrutiny of my appearance, leaving for work only
after he has seen what I'm wearing each morning. Of course, I am careful to look like a girl. I wear earrings and bangle bracelets and high-
waisted pleated pants. I even wear blouses, though it pains me emotionally and the shoulders are all too tight
He does not come to the play itself, which is fine with me. My mother
comes with my brother and Peg Mills, who hasn't gotten out much since
Tim's accident Mom is teary-eyed afterwards—it is, after all, her favourite musical, and the one she starred in when she was in high school. She
hugs me. She hugs Sara. "You were great," she says, "You were all just
terrific. Oh, does it take me back, though!" She hums a bar from "I Feel
Pretty" and takes a couple waltz steps. "Oh!" she says, wiping tears from
her eyes.
After the opening night pop-and-chip party in the drama room, a bunch
of us go to the Morrissey on Yonge Street, a bar famous for not asking for
ID. The strategy is to mix up the younger-looking people with the older-
looking ones. I wait nervously in line with Sara, who has fake ID, and
Krupke, who's looked old enough to drink since he was fourteen. Except
that I start debating the relative merits of successive Dr. Whos (Fm a
Tom Baker fan, myself) with Winston Yeung, and Sara, who played her
part like a star, is nowheing mobbed like a star, so by the time they get to
the door, I have fallen way behind them. The bouncer lets them in. He
lets Winston in. He lets everyone in. Except me and the boy who plays
Baby John. Baby Bob, we call him.
"Nice try, boys," he says, laughing. "Come back when your beard starts
to grow."
Sara and Krupke don't see what's happening. Baby Bob and I turn
85 away without looking at one another, sensing that each other's eyes are
too full to bear being seen. We put our hands in our pockets and head up
the street toward the subway. I walk slowly, hoping that Sara and Krupke
will come after me.
"He thought you were a guy, eh?" says Baby Bob. I shrug. "Thaf s so
weird. You don't look like a guy to me." Oh no, I think.
Baby Bob drapes his arm across my shoulders. I twist away from him
so it falls off and pick up my pace. I immediately sense that I've hurt him
more than if I'd just said, "Don't Bob." Other girls, the ones with the girl
genes, would have known that ahead of time. Thankfully we take different routes at the subway station.
On the way home, I take my childhood shortcut through school
grounds and back yards, darting like Anybody's from shadow to shadow.
17.
On closing night there is a party at the house of one of the cast members
I know only vaguely whose father owns the house but lives somewhere
else. We drink beer and smoke up in the back yard. Sara drinks white
wine. I get all emotional thinking how I only have another month of Sara
and Krupke, three at the most before they go away to university. Next
year they won't be here. Next year they will forget about me, their little
high school friend.
No, no, they say. Never, they say.
There is a long lineup for the bathroom. Sara comes in with me. "It
won't make the wait any shorter," I say. When I close my eyes while
peeing, the room spins a bit Sara flashes the light on and off, laughing,
then leaves it off Streetlight comes in through the frosted glass.
Sara pees, saying, "Help me up" when she's done. I do, though she
doesn't need it She hangs onto my arms. She looks into my eyes. My
stomach is full of happy bumblebees tumbling all over one another. She
kisses me. This is exactly what I've wanted since the first day I met her,
though knowing it is news to me. I kiss her back.
People start pounding on the door. "Lef s get out of here," Sara says,
pulling up her underwear.
18.
Though tempted, we don't ditch Krupke. He is now as maudlin as I was
earlier, only about the jock who takes him for "rides" after school but
won't otherwise talk to him. We climb the fence into the cemetery and
spend the rest of the night communing with the dead and dodging Security. A couple of times Krupke turns to find us holding hands, whereupon
we take his as well.
86 19.
My mother is in the kitchen waiting for me when I get home. I expect an
earful. More than an earful. I get ft, but a different kind than the one I
was expecting. It turns out I am not the only one who did not come home
last night
"Good!" says my brother when he hears the news. "I hope he never
comes home."
20.
My father returns the next afternoon and sleeps for two days before checking himself into Homewood.
21.
Sara and I skip school and go to Toronto Island. We stop for crusty rolls
and shaved salami from Poko's Deli. In the lineup we stand close enough
that our clothes touch, ft is unbelievable. The bees inside me zoom around
in wild abandon. We stop again for kiwis and a bag of Oreos at Dominion.
In this lineup, I read The National Enquirer over her shoulder. Her hair
is against my cheek, the front of my left shoulder is against her back. I
have never been so aware of a few square inches of skin. If you gave me
a pen today, I could draw you an exact outline.
Because it's the middle of the day, we are able to find an unpopulated
section of beach near Hanlon's Point. We eat our lunch. We talk. Sara,
who is never shy about anything as far as I can tell, is suddenly shy. We
lie in the sun with our sides touching. She turns over on her stomach and
puts her arm across me. I stroke her hand. I lift it to my mouth and kiss
it. I kiss each knuckle, each nail, the pad of each finger, the palm. And
then she kisses me.
She has her hand up my shir t when movement down the beach makes
us hurl ourselves apart A Doberman trots up to us, a friendly one who
licks our hands. We laugh at ourselves. Just a dog. We sit up, waiting for
its owner. Our hands touch where they support ourselves on the sand.
The owner appears. "Gorgeous day, eh?" he says, and looks out over
the water. "Sure would be nice to be sailing." I make the mistake of agreeing.
He tells us he used to have a sailboat but had to sell it when he got
divorced. Sara runs her hand over mine. He tells us what kind of boat it
was, and what kind he wants for his next boat Sara's fingers make the
hairs on the back of my hand stand up. He tells us he got the dog 'cause
he was lonely. Her fingers run over my wrist up my forearm. Cinnamon
87 is the dog's name. Cinnamon Girl, from the Neil Young song.
"Go away, go away, go away," Sara starts chanting without moving her
lips.
"Well," he nods to Cinnamon, "my girl's waiting on me. You have a
nice day now."
"You too."
"Ha," says Sara when they're out of sight She rolls on top of me. Her
weight is splendid. Her tongue is as liquidy-thick and inevitable as molten lava, and almost as hot. Her hands are acrobats. This is it I think.
This is it.
22.
I have my first non-self-induced orgasm, there on the beach at Hanlon's
Point sometime around 2:30 on a perfect day in June.
23.
We get to know Toronto's parks by night all the wonderful, dark, out-of-
the-way pockets where two bodies will fit together.
24.
Sara goes to Trent We write a lot of letters. "My bodacious beautiful
Buddy Budski," Sara writes. "When are you coming to visit?
"I did it. I TOLD my roommate about us. I was very nervous but pretty
sure she'd be cool about it and she was. Her parents—the ones who
called her Rainbow, natch—have lots of gay and lesbian friends, in fact,
her two godmothers are lovers. Whoa. I told her about your godmother,
the Anglican nun who sends you crucifix jewellery every birthday. Whaf s
her name again? Anyway, slight contrast. So Fm liking her a lot—Rain,
that is, not Aunt God—and she says ifs no problem, she'd be happy to
give you a place to crash whenever you come to visit TOU-MUST-COME,
YOU-MUST-COME' (said like the Daleks on Dr. Who, 'EX-TERM-EE-
NATE, EX-TERM-EE-NATE'). I'm sorry you are so bored and lonely. Of
course, if you came here and visited me, you wouldn't be, n'est-ce pas?
Mais non. Pas solitaire. Tous ensemble encore. So come, okay? Next
weekend? Oh, except I forgot, you have some family do then, don't you?
So the one after. I have to go to my appallingly simplistic Canadian Geography course now with the patronizing prof. I think I should drop it. Except ifs a prerequisite for things I do want to take. Argh.
"Love you more than Barney loves Fred. No, I mean Lucy loves Ethel.
I mean...just a heck of a lot. Your Santa Maria."
88 "(PS. A 'nullipara' is: A an empty subset in Venn mathematics; B. a
meaningless comment C. a woman who has never borne a child; or D. a
ciliated micro-organism...?)"
25.
Because my father wants weekends to be "family time" now, so he can
think he's making reparations for the damage he's done and that he's
turning us into a loving and supportive family who will help each other
(i.e. him) through this difficult time and all other difficult times to come,
I am not able to go to Trent until the end of October. Hallowe'en.
I would like for Sara and myself to spend the weekend closeted in our
room, reading, talking, doing crossword puzzles, kissing, touching. Sex
would be nice, too, but ifs Sara's touch Fve been missing more than anything. Just her hand running through my hair or across my back.
But there's this Hallowe'en party she and Rainbow don't want to miss,
ifs going to be great they're going as Starsky and Hutch. As lovers. "I
mean, the subtext was always there, wasn't it?" Rainbow says.
Sure, but what am I supposed to go as? The car? The bad guy?
"You could be the girlfriend we're not interested in," Rain says. When
I dont laugh she says, "Kidding. Ifs so nice to meet you finally, I feel like
I know you."
Rainbow came with Sara to meet me at the bus station and has not left
us alone since. I dont know yet whether I like her or not If I hadn't met
her through Sara, I almost certainly would. Whether she likes me, I really can't tell.
All fall I have been writing to Sara about how worried I am about my
brother because he doesn't want to do anything anymore, how he hardly
talks at all and sometimes I talk to him and he starts humming like Fm
not even there until I tell him he's doing ft and he apologizes. I don't
think he goes to school every day. I know he smokes drugs. I think he
smokes more than I thought
Fve been writing to Sara about my father, and how in some ways he's
worse now, if only because he's around more. He comes home after work
and hovers over us, watching everything we do. He tells us how we're
not doing it right whatever it is, math, chopping the beans, cleaning the
bathroom. He tells my brother he can give him extra help in school, since
he seems to need ft, which of course he doesn't and only confirms what
my brother suspects, that my father thinks he is stupid because he's an
Indian.
I have written about how hard all this is on my mother, and how she
seems to take it out on me.
Sara should know I'm not in the mood for a party with a bunch of
89 yahoos I don't know drinking their faces off.
"Can't we go as Pete, Line, and Julie?" I ask. Rainbow has blonde hair
not unlike Peggy Lipton's.
"Where would we get an Afro wig in the next two hours?" Rain says.
I lie back on Sara's bed. I think I might cry. Hallowe'en is like New
Year's Eve. You have to either get right into it or ignore it and I have
never been able to do either.
"Let me look in my Tickle Trunk," Rain says. Maybe I do like her. She
stands on a chair and rummages through the top shelf in her cupboard.
"Cowboy hat. You could be Stan the Man from Alberta." She tosses the
hat down. "Pig nose. You want to be Miss Piggy? A little mascara, flouncy
dress..."
Sara laughs.
"Okay, maybe not. little old lady? World War One flying ace? Colonel
Klink?"
The party is at another residence in a big hall. We go late-ish after
drinking beer in our room with Marcus, another costumeless friend of
Sara's and Rain's. Marcus wears the cowboy hat "Marcus. Cowboy.
They're just two words I never thought I'd hear in the same sentence,"
he says. He practices introducing himself on the way over. "Hi, I'm Marcus.
I'm a cowboy. Yup, Cowboy Marcus, thaf s my name."
He asks me how I'm going to introduce myself Tm not" I say, turning up my jacket collar. "Fm too cool to introduce myself."
Sara has dressed me, starting with a tensor bandage wrapped around
my chest so my breasts don't show, then an undershirt to hide the bandage, and then a white T-shirt Jeans. A red bandana. A bomber jacket
She has gelled back my hair and got me to bite my lips to redden them. I
am James Dean. I look in the mirror. I like what I see. Ifs not James
Dean, but I like it. Ifs Bud.
Starsky and Hutch are all over each other all night Predictably, I guess.
Thaf s what they said they were going to do. I doubt it occurs to anyone
but me that they aren't just two straight girls having some fun at the
expense of fags and a 70s TV show. I think even they think they are just
playing.
They get a good reaction, although the night is definitely soured by a
drunk boy dressed as Hitler, who says, "Starsky? Starsky? Vat kind uff a
name iss Starsky?" and I think that Sara is going to rip his face off or at
least knee him in the balls. I start forward, but Rain has already got him
spun around and is remarkably smooth, as if she'd done this before, handcuffing him with the toy cuffs she bought Sara rips the paper swastika
off his sleeve.
"Hey, hey, hey," he says, "It was only a joke."
"You're an asshole, Matt," a big guy dressed as Julius Caesar says.
90 "Yeah, yeah, okay, Tm an asshole," he says. "Sorry."
"Go home, Matt"
"Okay, okay," he says and wanders off, still handcuffed.
I put my hand on Sara's back and ask her if she wants to go. "No, I
don't want to go, Tm not going to let that fucker ruin my night no way.
No fucking way." Then she cries and I hold her and Fm glad ifs me and
not Rain, I think ifs significant ifs me and not Rain, I still have that right
to be the one to hold her when she cries.
Back in the room Rain gets out her guitar and we sing songs, we sing
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken" in three-part harmony, and it feels like it
used to feel with Sara and Krupke, like we all love each other and ft will
always stay that way. We pull the beds together and sleep with Sara in the
middle.
26.
On the bus on the way home, I look out the window at all the bare trees
in the wind out there on November 1st I see a big-framed, skinny dog
trotting down the shoulder like he had a purpose. I think Fd like to be a
dog going somewhere in the rain. I remember the lonely guy on the
beach, calling his dog Cinnamon Girl, how pathetic I thought ft was—/
could be happy the rest of my life with a Cinnamon Girl—how Sara and I
made fun of him afterwards. How I kinda liked him.
91 Paul Molotov
ncorruptible Tales
Part One
A hanging mobile of pink plastic hands and forearms clicked and
clacked in the breeze. The air was salty and fresh. "A beautiful
morning," thought Christiaan, sketching his arms up to touch
the fingers and knuckles, palms and elbows, swaying over the bed. Some
people know whether a morning is beautiful when they first awaken, without the benefit of coffee or cigarettes or other unhealthy pick-me-ups.
Christiaan was one of those people. He got out of bed quickly, without
being the least bit dizzy, brushed his teeth for a full five minutes, remarked happily on the absence of colour in his urine, and took a cold
shower. An orange-hued arm sat on the twin stacks of white towels.
Breakfast always consisted of two hard-boiled eggs, three glasses of
water, orange juice, and toast Within this framework lay endless possible variations. The eggs could be small, medium, or large in size. White
or brown in colour. A multitude of breads were available for toasting; the
number of pumpernickels alone was startling. Condiments might include
salt, pepper, a dash of paprika, mayonnaise, or what have you. "Paprika."
The word fell clumsily to the floor and stayed there. Lost. The eggs were
medium in size, white in colour. The bread was plain, white, and utilitarian. Nothing ever changed.
By keeping the meal simple, Christiaan was able to concentrate on
another arm that was sitting on the table. This one was an almost perfect
Mediterranean flesh tone with an olive tint It was a good arm. A handsome arm. As fine an arm as any in the world.
Christiaan Ostergaard was employed by the smallest prosthetics manufacturing company in Denmark. They had been in business since the
Napoleonic Wars. He was an arm and hand specialist and took great pride
in crafting each limb to match the amputated or crushed original in every
detail. It was satisfying work.
The company was really little more than a workshop, with twenty-four
employees, not counting the few clerks in the office, and Mr. Mavrinoer
the boss. Of those twenty-four, Christiaan was the youngest so it was a
surprise and an honour to be chosen to attend the big convention in New
York. Mr. Mavrinoer had said great things were happening with artificial
limbs and he didn't want the company to be left behind. He would have
92 made the journey himself if he could get away, but was confident that he
was sending his best employee.
The second and third glasses of water were gulped down quickly. The
arm from the kitchen table was gently placed in a special felt-lined suitcase. The other suitcase, containing clothes, toiletries, and a hand, was
already by the front door. The airline tickets were paper-clipped to the
inside pocket of the brown tweed jacket Good weather was a blessing.
This was Christiaan's first trip abroad and his heart skipped a beat
when the aircraft seemed to fall into the sky. The flight was long and
uneventful. Christiaan drank so many glasses of water that the stewardesses finally brought him a carafe and snickered behind a curtain. Frequent trips to the washroom showed no yellowing of the urine.
At the airport in New York an old woman dressed in black fainted
when tile customs officials held up the arm from the suitcase. She was
revived just in time to see the hand emerge from the other suitcase. One
of the officials bit his lip. The other tucked his chin into his chest It was
no use. They both started heaving with laughter. They laughed all afternoon. They laughed that night while drinking beer in a strip joint Sometimes they still laugh when they get together now, years after the event
Christiaan checked into his modest hotel and drank a glass of water.
The taste was odd, so he called room service and requested some bottled water. Six small green bottles arrived half an hour later. The slip of
paper said the water cost twenty-two dollars. Christiaan shook his head,
drank two of the bottles while studying the conference brochure, then
went to sleep. In the morning he ordered his regular breakfast from room
service and was startled by the size of the eggs. They were very big. The
slip of paper said fourteen dollars. The eggs weren't that big. He drank
two bottles of water. In the washroom there was a distinct yellow tint to
his urine and a slight sulphurous odour. He drank one more bottle of
water.
The ride in the taxi took less than five minutes and cost ten dollars
including tip. Mr. Mavrinoer had provided fifty dollars in spending money
for each day of the three day visit No money had been budgeted for the
previous night's arrival, but who would have thought that the water of
such a modern cfty would be tainted? That left just one hundred and four
dollars.
The Convention Centre was a gigantic complex and the whole place
was devoted to medical and drug suppliers, rehabilitation equipment
makers, and all of the mechanical and technical wonders that contributed to the miracle of modern medicine. As Christiaan walked from the
registration desk through the corridors and exhibition halls, small men
with oily hair and frayed suits slipped business cards and invitations to
private parties into his hands.
93 With quick, sure steps Christiaan marched to the scene of his downfall. In the Hall Of limbs, serious men and women stood behind tables
covered with sophisticated apparatuses and scientific instruments. Artificial arms and fingers with skin-like coverings moved with human dexterity thanks to miniature hydraulic and pneumatic-powered gears and
pulleys Computer monitors displayed three-dimensional models with intricate schematics. Doctors and engineers spoke to one another in loud,
deep tones. With their X-ray eyes they seemed able to look through
Christiaan's flimsy suitcase at the puppet arm within. "Neanderthal,"
thought Christiaan, as he turned, stumbled, and ran out of the building.
Finally, to a quiet place where the sun didn't poke its accusing eye.
Breathing in fiery gulps from the exertion of running. A large figure
approaching like a shadow out of the shadows. Shadow voice loudly. "GIVE
ME YO MONEY, FUCK" Stuttering with hands extended. A sudden warm
wet movement "YO MONEY OR I CUT YOU AGAIN!" Knees giving
way, now kneeling, shadow hand taking the wallet removing the money,
asleep now in the land of shadows.
Christiaan woke in the strong arms of an old black man. "You're all
right son, the bleeding's all stopped." Christiaan blinked and said, "I am
a caveman," then blinked again. "Well, you're aright pretty one," said the
man, now helping Christiaan to his feet and giving him a token for the
subway. While searching for the key to his hotel room Christiaan found
an invitation to a party that one of the men had given him that morning at
the Convention Centre. The party was in one of the hotel suites.
In the suite, jazz music blasted through a pair of broken speakers.
Ashtrays overflowed onto the floor. There was a smell of vomit Men
established their territories and scratched themselves. Women stood with
their blouses unbuttoned, waiting till it was all over so they could be paid.
Christiaan ate a bowl of green olives and drank a bottle of Tennessee
whiskey, staggered to his room, pulled the arm out of the suitcase, threw
it on the floor and unzipped his pants. A stream of brilliant yellow piss
flew to its target.
At eleven the next morning a cleaning lady entered Christiaan's unlocked room. At eleven fifteen the hotel manager threw Christiaan onto
the street where he bumped up against the doors of a bus. The doors
opened. Moments later he was on his way to New Jersey. Many of the
people on the bus were holding rosaries. Others read the Bible. When
the bus pulled up to Bamberger's department store Christiaan followed
the pilgrims. Inside they passed the shoe department made a right turn
at the cookware, and then crowded around a glass case in which lay the
actual arm of Saint Francis of Assissi.
Soft-spoken monks wearing robes cut from raw burlap preached about
the founder of their religious order his misspent youth; his capture and
94 year-long imprisonment during the war between Assissi and the city of
Perugia; the voices which told him to rebuild the church of San Damiano;
the stigmata which came at the top of Mount La Verna leaving him with
wounds on his hands, feet and side. The monk pointed to the scar on the
palm of the perfectly preserved hand and then resumed speaking, emphasizing the special relationship Francis enjoyed with birds and fish
and all of the animals of the earth. Lastly, the monk talked about the
great saint's incorruptible flesh which had remained intact since his death
in tile year 1226.
Christiaan walked round and round the glass case. Finally he asked
for some paper and a pencil and one of the monks obliged. After the first
few sketches the senior monk went to the stationery department and
returned with a sketchbook and some parchment paper, a pencil with
soft lead, and an inexpensive watercolour paint set Christiaan was provided with a chair. He sketched from every angle, put his face to the
glass, returned to the chair, sketched, asked for a ruler, measured, and
sketched. From the first hundred sketches he selected twenty which he
accented with the watercolours.
Someone asked if Christiaan wanted coffee. How did he take it? He
replied that he wasn't sure, so they added a bit of cream and a bit of
sugar. At first the taste was quite horrid, but got better on the third cup.
Green pencils were requested and arrived with another sketchbook and
more parchment paper. The second hundred sketches were splendid in
their detail and execution. A large crowd had gathered to watch and a
visitor from Texas asked, "How much?" Christiaan thought the man was
asking how many and responded, "Two hundred." The Texan removed
two one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet put them in Christiaan's hand
and left with a sketch. Three other people in the crowd did the same.
At five o'clock the department store closed. Christiaan gave four hundred dollars to the monks and half the sketches. Then he asked what had
happened to the rest of Saint Francis and was told that one of his legs was
in a monastery in France, the other in a church in Latin America. Fascists had burned the skin off the matching arm during the war, but the
bones had been saved and were kept in a vault at the Vatican. The head
and torso had been missing since the sixteenth century.
When Christiaan returned to Denmark, he told Mr. Mavrinoer that
the old company was doomed. Technology had left them in tile dust
Within a year the business withered away, and Mr. Mavrinoer was treated
in the hospital for depression. Christiaan visited him and proposed a small
venture. Christiaan built a workshop in his home, crafting arms the old-
fashioned way, one by one. Mr. Mavrinoer acted as his agent fmding
customers and people in need around the world who could not afford
modern prosthetics.
95 On the walls of the workshop hung the sketches Christiaan had completed in New York and these acted as both his inspiration and his model.
He also painted scenes from the life of Saint Francis, including the sermon to the birds and the peace treaty with the wolf He enjoyed working
through the silent hours of the night arinking coffee and smoking a
pipe. Stray cats and dogs were his companions. When there were no
orders for arms, Christiaan would fill the time by making mechanical
toys, wind-up figures, and whirligigs. He covered one wall of the workshop with mosaics depicting artificial arms picking flowers and mushrooms, all made from the broken glass of beer bottles. He was happy.
Part Two
Rhythmic motion, wind blowing, hair flying, warm between the legs, galloping. The horse strong, sure, and beautiful. Breathing together, some
steam from nostrils distended. Shannon Haig had never thought she would
ride a horse. Before the accident die had no interest or desire.
Four years since the fog-shrouded morning when the oncoming truck
had smashed into the car, killing mother and father, Shannon alone surviving, walking down the highway with one arm remaining in what was
left of the car. An extended stay in the hospital. Doctors and nurses and
people who looked like doctors but who only asked questions. Then a
man who didnt look like a doctor who talked about Shannon's father and
how he never became a Danish citizen. This made Shannon what they
call a charity case and therefore only eligible for an inexpensive artificial
arm
The man said that his name was Mr. Mavrinoer and he seemed to be
a kind old man. He said they would have to go for a drive and meet his
partner. Shannon had not been in a car since the accident. She held onto
the door handle tightly with her one hand. There was fog. Along an open
stretch of road the tears came. There was no stopping them. Mr.
Mavrinoer pulled into a petrol station. Tears were also falling from his
eyes and filling his beard. The sun peeked out and made his tears look
like rainbow prisms. She laughed. He laughed. He bought ice cream and
chocolate bars and chewing gum They feasted while they continued their
drive.
Soon the car pulled into a driveway and up to a charming little house.
There were trees and overgrown bushes and rocks and moss. Rabbits
hopped through a gap in the fence. Mr. Mavrinoer guided Shannon to a
door at the back where an unobtrusive addition had been built onto the
house. A sign hung over the door which read: "Ostergaard's Workshop.
Welcome." An odd-looking arm was painted in the middle.
The first thing Shannon saw upon entering was the sun reflecting off
96 a wall that was covered in bfts of glass to form pictures of hands picking
flowers and mushrooms. It gave her the creeps. Then there were the
drawings and paintings of an arm similar to the one that decorated the
sign over the door. Yes. It was more than a little creepy. Mr. Mavrinoer
sat her in a chair and started calling out "Christiaan! Christiaan, your
guest has arrived." A tawny kitten jumped softly into Shannon's lap,
purred, mewed, and promptly fell asleep. Birds flew in and out of the
open windows, observed by a half-dozen or so other assorted cats, who
were in turn observed by a border collie.
From a door attached to the house emerged a man of indeterminate
age wearing a brightly coloured Japanese housecoat sandals, and one of
those hats workmen sometimes wear, made from a kerchief with the
four corners tied into knots. His eyes were hidden by the darkest sunglasses. He held something secretively in his hands and was running
toward Shannon. Her legs jerked, the kitten extended fts claws instinctively, she started to yell but no sound came out as the sandals slapped
upon the paving stones of the floor and came to a halt
"I made this for you. Just finished it"
He thrust the thing into her hand. It was hot Her heart was pounding.
He removed his glasses and smiled a au'ming smile, knelt down on the
floor.
"Ifs still warm from the welding, but it works. Wind it up and then
release that little catch there."
Shannon looked at the thing. A box with a wooden frame at the front
glassed in, and a metal back where the key was for winding. Despite
being just eight years old, she looked at Christiaan with an adult's close-
minded frustration. He placed the box face down between her knees and
locked her legs together. With her hand now free she .turned the key,
released the catch, lifted the box from between her knees and peered
inside at what looked to be a stage. Tiny Japanese figures moved from
left to right, right to left, fanning themselves with tiny fans.
"I made their clothes from my housecoat" He showed her the spots
where he had cut away sections of the robe he was wearing. "Tve been
studying the history of Japanese theatre. Ifs wonderfuL Let me have a
look at your arm."
Once a week for the next four weeks, Shannon visited the workshop.
On the final visit her new arm was fitted into place, a cake was presented,
and there was a small party. A bird flew through the window and landed
on the table. It seemed quite tame and ate a small black spider that had
been fashioning a web on the sugar bowl. For dessert it snapped up cake
crumbs from Shannon's hand until the tawny kitten chased it away and
claimed a spot on her lap.
When the party started to wind down Shannon clenched her fist and
97 asked the question that had been on her mind. She would sweep the
floors, wash the clothes, make sandwiches, if only she could stay.
Christiaan slowly walked around the workshop, winding all of the toys.
They danced, twirled, jingled and jiggled and jigged. He lifted Shannon
up and held her in his arms and shook his head. No. That night he and
Mr. Mavrinoer emptied every bottle they could lay their hands on and
repeated a mantra over and over again: Why why why why whyr Because
it just was not possible to adopt all of them. They went out in search of
more bottles to empty.
Wind in the hair flying. Rhythmic galloping motion. The warm horse
between the legs. Steaming breath from distended nostrils. The horse
happy with its rider, returning to the barn, anxious for oats and brushing. Four years since the accident Looking forward to getting together
with Christiaan and Mr. Mavrinoer on the fourth anniversary of receiving her arm. Each anniversary celebrated with a party, the gift of a toy,
the adjustment and refitting of the arm.
The barn now in view. Other riders from the orphanage converging
on the same spot Into the stalls and the high-pitched laughter of excited
children. The back of the barn a tall open space full of hay, good for
jumping. In the hay sits Peter, an older boy from the orphanage who
never speaks, never rides the horses. Peter has a weakness for cigarettes.
If he could he would smoke cigarettes from the moment he wakes in the
morning to the moment he falls asleep at night To help him smoke less
he has been given a plastic cigarette. Atoy to occupy his hands. He sits in
the hay with the plastic cigarette between his fingers, putting it to his lips
and taking it away again. On this day he has no real cigarettes, only real
matches.
The fire spreads surprisingly fast, leaping and dancing and leaving a
trail of choking smoke. The horses panic and throw their weight against
the stalls. Shannon has not reached the barn yet. She is still galloping
across the last pasture when she sees the smoke and then the flames like
tongues licking the cracks in the timbers. She hears the high-pitched
laughter turn to high-pitched screams. Her horse starts to slow and turn,
but she urges it on faster. At the barn she dismounts and runs through a
small door and into the inferno.
Inside, the horses bite and kick each other. She calls out and they
come to her, heads bowed, ashamed, agitated. The big doors are locked
but not barred. She points and the horses run at the doors. Some of them
break their ribs, two crack their skulls, but the doors give way. The horses
run to the open air, followed by some of the children. In the disorienting
mix of smoke, sunlight and flame Shannon finds other children, trapped
or too frightened to move, and drags them to safety.
By the time the reporters arrive the doctors have already given first
98 aid. Two children are dead, one from smoke inhalation, the other from
being trampled. Three badly injured horses have been shot and a few
others will later be put down. Peter is missing and his body is later found
in a shed, hanging from his belt
The story of Shannon's heroics is repeated by a number of the children and the reporters smell a good story in the making. Where is the
young hero? No one has an answer. Wait She made a phone call. A car
came and went
PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
MANY THANKS to Tdnya Kern and the
patrons of the MOCAMBOPO Poetry
Series in Victoria B.C. for a $50
donation (and thanks to Mark
Jcrman, Derk Wynand and D.C.
Reid for reading)
PRODUCTION TRUST FUND
In order to create a more stable financial
base for the continued operations of
PRISM INTERNATIONAL, a trust fund has
been established through the University
British Columbia. Proceeds will be used to
offset production costs. Tax deductible
donations can be sent to:
The Prism International Production Trust Fund, c/o Creative Writing Program,
University of British CoH/mbfcr. Such E462 -1866 Main Mall. Vancouver, B.C. V6T111
99
\ Contributors
Helene Cyr is a professional photographer living in Victoria, BC. She
has exhibited her work in Victoria, Montreal, Mexico and the Dominican Republic A book of her photographs on treeplanting titled Handmade Forest: The Treeplanters'Experience is due out in October from New
Society Publishing.
Nodar Djin was born in Soviet Georgia, and lived in Moscow before
emigrating to the USA in 1980. A philosophy professor, Djin started writing fiction four years ago and published two novels in Russian: The Story
of My Suicide and Joseph Stalin: The Party.
M.A.C. Farrant is the author of five collections of short fiction, most
recently "What's True, Darling" (Polestar, 1997). Her work has been
dramatized for television, appears regularly in various magazines, including Adbusters and Geist, and she has been nominated for numerous
national and international awards Her latest anthology contribution is in
Concrete Forest: Canadian Urban Fiction (McLelland & Stewart 1998).
In 1998, she will visit Australia for a two-month reading tour, as well as a
stint as Writer-In-Residence at Maquarie University. She lives in Sidney,
BC.
Anne Fleming lives in Vancouver, BC, and teaches English Lit. and Comp.
at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. The Defining Moments of
My Life" is a story from her first collection, You Would Know What to Do,
to be released in Fall 1998, by Polestar.
Jane Eaton Hamilton, writing as J A, is the author of several books,
most recently a collection of poetry titled Steam-Cleaning Love. In 1992
and 1995, she recieved Honourable Mentions in PRISM international's
Short Fiction Contest Her work has won the Belles Lettres Essay Award,
the Event Non-fiction Award, the Paragraph Fiction Award, and the
Canadian Chapbook Contest among others.
Claire-Marie Hitchins hails originally from the Caribbean, and now
fives in Toronto. Two Hitchins brothers sailed from England Gate eighteenth? early nineteenth? century); one disembarked in Jamaica, the other
in Trinidad. So the island clans began." More accustomed to writing
poetry, "Limber Like Me" is her first published fiction, and is dedicated
to EAW "with love and thanks for minding Papa."
100 Paul Molotov has had fiction published in Ta Panta, Carousel, and other
magazines. His plays have been performed at the Fringe Festival, and
Ontario Place. Currently, he is involved with the Compassion Project at
www.CompassionProjectorg
Robert Pennee, who is originally from Montreal, manages a classical
music shop in Guelph and sometimes writes for television. In 1996, he
wrote and coproduced the Juno-nominated children's recording
"Maestro Orpheus and the World Clock." He is currently at work on an
occult detective novel.
David Pratt taught Education for years at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. He has published several academic books and recently
embarked on a full-time literary career. He was born in the UK and now
divides his time between Canada, the US, and Europe.
Padma Viswanathan is a writer from Alberta who has recently relocated to Montreal. Her play, House of Sacred Cows, was produced late last
year by Northern Light Theatre, in Edmonton. "In the Karnatak
Country" is an excerpt from her noveHn-progress, Thangam.
101 « SI ffl \
Creative Writing B.F.A. at U.B.C.
®> The University of British Columbia offers a Bachelor of Fine
ml£      Arts degree in Creative Writing. Students choose three genres
to work in from a wide range of courses, including: Poetry,
y~*B     Novel/Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen & TV Play,
Radio Play, Writing for Children, Non-Fiction and Translation.
All instruction is in small workshop format or tutorial.
Faculty
Sue-Ann Alderson
-^     Keith Maillard
*?       George McWhirter
*m~     Jerry Newman
^£     Undo Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
m
For further information, please write:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462-1866 Main
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T IZl
Or check out our web-site at:
http//www.arts.ubc.ca/crwr ITiii
TELLUSASTOEY...
rM WIN $2000
INTERN AT IDNAL      1998 PRISM INTERNATIONAL Fiction Contest
c/o Creative Writing Program,
University of British Columbia,
Buch E462(R) -1866 Main Mall,
Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z1 CANADA
(604)822-2514
Fax (604) 822-3616
prism@unixg.ubc.ca
http://www.arts.ubc.ca/prism
Earl Birney Prize
for Poetry
$500 awarded annually
by the Editors to the best
poem or series of poems
by a single author in each
volume.
WE PAY!
PRISM has recently
doubled its poetry rates to
$40 per printed page,
making It one of the
highest paying markets for
poetry in Canada. Fiction,
non-fiction and drama
rates are $20 per printed
page. Submissions are
accepted year-round.
Please include a SASE.
Send us your best work and compete for the
chance to win the grand prize of $2000 or
one of five runner-up prizes of $200.
Previously unpublished submissions only.
Winning stories also receive $20 per
published page. Name, address and title
on a separate page, 25 pages max., Typed,
double-spaced. Entry fee $20, $5 for each
additional story, no story maximum. Outside
Canada pay in US$. Each entrant gets a
1 -year subscription. Entries must be
postmarked by December 15th, 1998.
W
jgtijjjtij ijjjaagM^^S;J^in5HS^)i^jgin^i5£
- photo by Helen
Check us out on the web:
Our website includes selected works from
our most recent issue, contest information
and guidelines, vvww.arts.ubc.ca/prlsm The Vancouver International
Writers
(& Readers)
Festival
on Granville Island
October 21 - 25,1998
For a free Festival program call 681-6330
PRISM international is proud to sponsor a reading by
Greg Hollingshead and Coral Hull
at the Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC, October 22nd, 12:30 pm  PRISM international
fiction
drama
poetry
translation
creative non-flctlon

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