Letter from the Editor: Darcie Friesen Hossack
I wrote a letter from the editor for this, our first issue of WordCity Monthly. I wrote about the pandemic, and how governments were using it as cover to defund and commit aggression against the arts. I wrote about how writers and poets have responded by creating more, sharing more. We’ve been connecting more. Helping each other more. Knitting our work together more.
I wrote that, in doing these things, new friendships have been sparked and old ones re-kindled. And I wrote that these very acts of creativity and kinship are how this literary journal has come into being.
And then, Chadwick Boseman died.
One of the world’s bright lights had gone out. And suddenly, more than I’ve ever known it in any instance before, mine were not the words that needed to be heard in this moment.
So, while I could tell you that the candles being lit here in this journal, by the writers, by our team of editors, are works of love and calls to solidarity, we’re going to make space, instead, at the start of this issue, just ahead of the audio interview, for a voice that can speak to this grief.
Dear readers, I thank you for joining us; writers, for the support and gifts of your words. Please, now, if you will, spend some moments with the following lines from AD Ibrahim, as we dedicate this, the first issue of WordCity Monthly, which was born in Africa, to Chadwick Boseman, to the Black Panther, to Wakanda.
T'challa only went to take a long nap but will soon return his spirit still lives on with us we have no reason to cry over him Wakanda never dies like the trough & crest of wave he keeps undulating to and fro An emblem worn only by knights commando and icon of black symbol warlord with head held high among his equals yer of Kings and ardent enemies Black Panther the great roaring lion among jittery cowards furious wave and thunderbolt strike at the hearts of skimpy lazy mouthed egrets kanda the great, at the crest of your fame, you die raising the flag of hope by repositioning black continent rearing the spirit & morale of teeming youths Wakanda the great, gone but never forgotten one bit fresh in our mind like dawn chasing darkness Wakanda the great, a cactus and a thorn on the flesh of blood sucking cancerous tumor you fought relentlessly like a lion outgrowing the animal kingdom Wakanda the great, you'll forever be remembered our thoughts and prayers are with you and your immediate family
Abubakar Danladi Ibrahim‘s poems have been featured on the Bharath Vision and Freedomexpress online magazines, along with many other local and international journals, where they’ve been translated into various languages. A tutor of Business Studies at the prestigious Borgu Junior Secondary School New-Bussa in Niger State, AD Ibrahim looks forward to the publication of his first book of poetry. He lives in Kainji, New-Bussa, Borgu LGA in Niger State of Nigeria.
About this month’s contents:
We begin the rest of our planned content with our own Jane SpokenWord, in conversation with the inimitable Nancy Mercado, who was named one of 200 living individuals who best embody the work and spirit of Frederick Douglass, on the bicentennial of his birthday, by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.
As you read on, you’ll find, from the curating and editing desk of Sylvia Petter of Austria, “fiction from new and experienced writers from around the world, including a short story from New Zealand, “Katherine Mansfield´s Sheets” by Rachel Fenton; “Baloney, Hot Mustard and Metal Filings” by Mitchell Toews from Manitoba, Canada; two excerpts from the novel, At the Feet of Mothers by Sweden-based Bosnian writer, Adnan Mahmutovic; flash fiction entitled “The Carving” by Bellamy Cole from Alberta, Canada; a short story entitled “A Day of Many Colors” by Iraqi writer, Faleeha Hassan, translated into English by William M. Hutchins; and a short story entitled “The Soulkeeper” by Ecuadorian writer, Abdón Ubidia, translated into English by Nathan D. Horowitz.”
Kenya’s Nancy Ndeke, our poetry editor, writes: From the complexities of race and color and the assumptions that inform and dis-inform, poetry/prose breaks the barn doors of jaded histories and delivers deeply traumatic truths which should heal our world for indeed tomorrow is owed this truth. From the joys of love and accompanying pains, to leaderships gone rogue and what needs to happen, from the grim realities of children mowing fellow children, the vagaries, pains, sorrows, joys and hopes of humanity and the environment of man and beast are all captured here within the city largesse for everyone’s pleasure. The climax on this platform is the spoken word. Full house is the only phrase to capture this literary marathon.
Non-fiction is brought to us by Canada’s Olga Stein, who writes of our four essayists and memoirists:
Body Filler by Hollay Ghadery
“Body Filler” is an excerpt from the chapter “Body Filler” in Hollay Ghadery’ soon-to-be published memoir, Fuse. This excerpt, and Fuse as a whole, explore the many dimensions of mental illness, many of which stem from anxiety disorder. This portion of the memoir is particularly focused on compunction and self-punishment, all part of the never-ending cycle of disappointment and consequent attempts at merciless self-erasure. Fuse is startling for its intense, brutal honesty, and it is heartbreaking; too often it leaves the reader wanting to extend a loving, reassuring hand to the narrator, only to watch so much of her life go by, still in the grip of a terrible illness. Fuse is also a poetic, clear-eyed, and courageous effort to come to terms with oneself.
Three Personal Essays by Nina Kossman
Nina Kossman is a poet, novelist, playwright, and visual artist. For me, above all, she is an expert storyteller, irrespective of the medium she chooses to work in. In these personal essays—vignettes really—she demonstrates her usual skills, which include the ability to hone in on some poignant, universal truth. She does this by neatly and efficiently conveying character, people’s misdirected convictions (those with long-term consequences for others), and the tragic reality that never strays far from human lives. In these essays, Kossman’s eye is spare but unflinching. Here, as with much of her other work, she, the narrator, becomes a type of flâneur—one who observes her own and others’ foibles, keenly, with an inimitable touch of humour, and always with a delicate layer of wonder.
Playing Under the Gun by Hernan Humaña
This memoir represents the author’s efforts to assimilate portions of his life in Chile from his childhood until his early adulthood, when he was witness to Augusto Pinochet’s military coup of 1973. The coup d’état occurred on September 11, or what Humaña refers to as Chile’s 9/11, a day of catastrophe. This memoir is unique for several reasons: first, because as an athlete, Humaña is not a typical auteur. In this instance, the individual who bears witness is an athlete, a figure who is supposed to perform when told to—rather than reflect, and, much less, critique their country’s politics. Second, this memoir represents a reconstruction of the past, and of a life that unfolded in a different language. Reconstructing one’s past—one self—in another language is uniquely challenging. Language shapes experience after all. A mother tongue influences in a profound way the textures, tones, and even our understanding of those experiences as we remember them. How much more difficult must this work of reconstructing the past become when that one palette, the words one so intimately associates with vital and intimate aspects of one’s experience, is absent. This memoir, then, represents Humaña’s overriding desire to share his experiences, fears, and the choices he made—during that dark period in Chile’s history—with Canadian readers. It also represents literary life in Canada—one enriched by new Canadians and their stories from every corner of the world.
The memoir was written over the course of four years. The editor is Olga Stein, a contributing editor to this magazine.
Syrie by Donna-Lane Nelson
In “Syrie,” intrepid traveler Donna-Lane visits pre-war Syria, and stays with close friends. This enables her to see and experience the country, in her own words, as “if [she] were a Syrian woman.” The author’s take on the everyday, intimate lives of Syrian women is fascinating. It unveils facets of a society westerners have rarely had the opportunity to see, and given what we as readers know about the calamitous events in the country since, Nelson’s account becomes that much more elegiac.
Donna-Lane is an accomplished and prolific writer. American-born, she now lives in France and Switzerland. She has worked at the UN, and takes a special interest in women’s issues, including their reproductive wellbeing. She is the author of Coat Hangers and Knitting Needles: Tragedies in Abortion in America before Roe v. Wade, an account of the history of abortion practices in the USA, and the procedure’s current legislative status. (Note: This book will be available to readers in our next issue.)
Now, with tremendous pride, we begin with Nancy Mercado and Jane SpokenWord
Jane Spokenword in Conversation with Nancy Mercado
Nancy Mercado is the recipient of the 2017 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement presented by the Before Columbus Foundation. The editor of the first Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology published in Voices e/Magazine of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College- CUNY, Mercado is a guest curator for the Museum of American Poetics, and an assistant editor and a board member for Eco (hyphen) poetry (dot) org; a website dedicated to addressing the issue of climate crisis.
Featured on National Public Radio’s The Talk of the Nation, and on the PBS NewsHour Special; America Remembers 9/11, Mercado is also the author of: It Concerns the Madness (a poetry collection), Las Tres Hermanas (a children’s coloring book), and is the editor of if the world were mine (a young adult anthology).
She has presented her work throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean and holds a doctoral degree in English Literature. Visit: https://www.nancy-mercado.com/
A special thank you to Albey ‘onBass’ Balgochian for the sound engineering in the prelude and postlude of the audio. Albey’s performances range from the Bowery Poetry Club to the Whitney Museum of American Art, his résumé includes many distinguished artists including Nuyorican Poet Miguel Algarin, Beat Poet John Sinclair, Darryl Jones (Miles Davis, Rolling Stones,) and the Cecil Taylor Trio & Big Band (“Best of ’05, ’09, ’16” All About Jazz) https://albeybalgochian.com/
Fiction. Edited by Sylvia Petter
(Translated from Spanish into English by Nathan D. Horowitz)
Sifting through the sands of time—that’s a saying of ours—my young assistant Clivia discovered an ancient folktale that used to be told around the fire, in the evening, in a country that was known in those days as Mexico. A folklorist, Heraclio Zepeda, had committed it to memory, and years later, and in another country, a poet by the name of del Campo had written it down. The tale made reference to a village “soulkeeper” (almero), a man who captured the souls of those who died, and stored them, in glass flasks, in what was termed a “soulery” (almería).
Centuries later, and by means of more advanced technology, my own vocation is very similar to that of the old soulkeeper. The institute where I work has at its disposal an immense archive of direct and reconstructed information on thousands of people who no longer exist in the traditional sense.
It would be pointless here to explain the very complex procedure that permits us to gather up the mental processes, the memories, the character, the tastes and loves and phobias—the complete consciousness of one who has died. Let it suffice to say that we use every single known technical resource, physical, psychological and otherwise, in this process of recollecting, reconstituting and archiving the essence of an individual.
The first audio recording technology foreshadowed our work. It copied voices, and stored them away, immune to time, and brought them back to life whenever someone wanted to hear them. In that primitive process lay the seed of today’s virtual soul technology.
Because now we do the same thing with whole consciousnesses. With the addition of virtual brains to house them, they can function, they can think again. And, if I may say so myself, they do this reasonably well.
It so happens that many of these “virtual souls” which we have been able to preserve in the institute believe they are real. They believe they belong to bodies that are still living, but are suffering from the effects of some drug, or are trapped in nightmares. Sometimes it’s almost comical to witness their fruitless struggles to “snap out of it.”
But there are other souls, more lucid ones, who comprehend what has happened to them. They understand that they are not “real” or “living” in the original sense, and they become desperate. They agitate for absurd, impossible freedoms. For instance, they might ask us for a body to inhabit. Most of them beg us at some point to destroy them.
Against regulations, in a few cases I have granted this wish, behind the back of my aforementioned assistant Clivia, whose firmness and discipline can only be compared with her talent and her youth. With her aid, I made great advances, and I never would have wished to displease her.
But precisely because of her, in the maturity of my life, I discovered that what inspires my investigations is not any passion for scientific discoveries or technological advances—which never resolve the fundamental problems of humanity anyway—but my passion for those infinities that discoveries and advances can never touch. I refer to subjects which in other epochs were relegated to psychology and metaphysics.
Thanks to Clivia, whom I loved like a daughter, I met the virtual soul of Kalus. For several weeks we gazed into his tempestuous spirit as into a terrifying abyss. It was like witnessing the chemically pure form of evil. Imprisoned by our horror and fascination, we listened to the stories, the seductive arguments, and the perverse justifications stored reverently in his consciousness as if they were other forms of good. Kalus was unperturbed by his virtual condition. He was a soul whose physical desires had been sublimated into many other forms: a torrent of words, a destructive will, a boundless thirst for followers.
“Enough with Kalus,” I said to Clivia one morning. “Case closed.” To head off her objections, I added that if there was one thing the world had too much of already, it was psychopaths. At some point we could go back to him or to an even more entertaining soul. But for now, there was other work to do.
The day passed slowly and silently. Clivia shot me furtive looks. She left early; I worked until almost midnight, then went home.
But I couldn’t sleep a wink. Finally, as the sky was getting light again, I left my home and went back to the lab. I went up. And I saw Clivia there, in that twilight dimness brightened only by the screens of the computers, listening as if in a trance to Kalus’s voice, which filled the room as the sound of lapping waves fills a cave by the seashore.
I left without her becoming aware of my presence. When I returned later that morning I silently observed her nervousness and unease.
In that day I lost Clivia forever. She would never again be the curious and charming girl who would bring me a flower or read me a poem. Those clandestine nocturnal encounters with Kalus had changed her. It would have been useless to tell her that this perverse and impossible love had made her lose her perspective on things, because all love transforms its victims, and changes day into night and evil into good. It would have been useless to tell her that it was absurd to fall in love with a phantom, because all of us do that at one time or another. Instead of trying to explain these things to her, I made the painful decision to terminate her from the institute. I told her it was for her own good. And I was left alone with Kalus. I spoke to him at length. I explained his virtual condition clearly to him. I explained that he would never speak to Clivia again, or to anyone else, for that matter. And as I erased, one by one, all the functions of his mind, I thought I heard one last scream from him (or was it a laugh?) before he was extinguished like a candle flame in the silence of the night.
I don’t know if anyone, in the future, will weigh my soul and decide that this virtual murder, and perhaps the others that I have committed out of compassion, are nothing other than several more of the restless, infinite manifestations of evil.
Abdón Ubidia is one of the most representative and relevant voices of modern Ecuadorian literature. He was the 2012 recipient of the Premio Eugenio Espejo in Literature, awarded to him by President Rafael Correa. He is the author of multiple works of fiction as well as several plays and two collections of folk literature. Nathan D. Horowitz, a writer, teacher, translator, and proofreader based in Kansas, has translated Abdón’s work into English since 1999. Together, they have published three collections of his short stories: City in Winter and Other Stories (2018), Time: Philosophical and Scientific Fictions (2018), and Funventions: A Book of Fantasies and Utopias (2020).
Two excerpts from Adnan Mahmutovic´s Novel At the Feet of Mothers, Cinnamon Press, UK, 2020
I thank you’uns, kindly, sirs.
Call me American. Or Amreekan in that language I’d never learn, if only because I was trying so damn hard to hate this woman called Aliya who’d given birth to me and named me and sang to me and cleaned my shit and then gave me to another woman, abandoned me to another tongue and this high land of lakes with hollow trees full of hermits and crucifixes. Call me Joseph with the twang of my Smoky Mountains, where my mother Rachel should have died instead of that sterile hospital where I couldn’t say “No” when she told me to pack my bags and leave my mountain, my America for this Middle East where people pretend to be ancient, where I could also pretend I was ancient, where I could find my ancient mother who’d called me Yusuf, where I might tell her, “Mother, you don’t get to abandon me. I abandon you.”
I knew this wasn’t what I promised Mom, but I thought, maybe, by the time I got to Gaza I would have forgotten about what I wanted, and do what she wanted me to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. And then I’d go back to my mountain, my sisters and my father, my weird friend, and all the crazy birds that hate me. In the end, I thought, there’d be trees, again. But on that hot day in May I stood among the sounds of churning water and chatter of activists. I leaned on the small lifeboat with the name Sofia written in Greek, the same color as the big sign on the hull of this foreign ship I’d boarded at daybreak with all the other foreigners desperate to get to the Gaza Strip, to get to the strange shores they claim they love. Yes, that’s what they called them, the beloved shores, like they were all now living in a time that was both old and maddeningly modern, both plant and machine. They all sounded like these seagulls that sang as Cyprus disappeared in the green waters. There were other birds too on these waves thick as moss, the kinds I didn’t recognize, the kinds that could never migrate to my woods and settle down and be neighbors with wild turkeys and woodchucks. These breeds of birds seemed to love to rise up from the flat waters full of noises. I’d seen birds rise from the smooth treetops, as dark as these waters, and just as deep, or deeper. Yes, deeper.
I clung to the lifeboat like to a trivial shrine no one else was likely to claim, and there I felt I could pray that Helen beat that damn Mediterranean bug. I prayed the way Mom taught me, fast, so the words came out right. And if they came out right, God might just listen and say, “Sure I’ll fix that pain of hers for you, my boy. Yes, I’ll fix that for y’all, no problem.”
Whenever I thought of Helen I remembered that dream in which I’m wriggling in wet vegetation outside my house a few miles up the mountain from Maggie Valley, Kathryn tickling my nose with goldenrod, my parents arguing in front of squirrels and raccoons and a coughing mongrel dog. Then someone, a woman, calls me, but I feelat home where I am, and when she tries to grab me, I shout, “What do you want?” She opens her mouth, but now she has no voice, and I turn away from her like every other time she trespassed into my dreams and tried to settle. God, I’d heard of mommy issues, but damn it, when you got yourself two mothers, one dead and one a ghost, it was a whole lot different, let me tell you.
Though my prayer was fast, suddenly my mouth was dry, and I rubbed the large buckeye seeds I’d brought for good luck, as if I’d need to dig for water. I walked over the oily deck and stopped to watch how the activists, all so different from each other, gathered in smaller groups on the deck, then split and disappeared into the body of the ship, only to come back onto the deck and flock again, over and over. There was comfort in the way they walked about this ship, as if randomly. I wasn’t a part of their plan to deliver forbidden goods to Gaza and break the Israeli blockade. My motives were simple. Raw.
Then the people all stood along the railing facing north and watched one ship after another cropping up on the waters to form the Freedom Flotilla. Flotilla, they called it. But there were only five. One big ship, Mavi Marmara, was almost like a head of this body of ships. Helen told me all about its mission like it was a story of a mother goose that brings all the fat little gosling with her everywhere she goes, but now the sight of the ships and the smells of diesel and hemp and the salty air broke down her story in my head, and I wasn’t sure what kind of story I was in any longer. But I was sure someone would tell me. I was used to it, that someone always told me my story. To hell with storytellers. Y’all can just shut up.
When I got tired of watching the waters, I walked some more around the ship, thinking I should talk to someone, maybe this man with a moustache who passed by me and lit a cigarette and turned on his iPod. The song started in the middle, a weak sound from his small speakers, What’s so funny ‘bout peace love and understanding. I held my breath, and walked to the middle of the deck where a row of men and a row of women were praying in the heavy air. The other activists didn’t seem bothered that this small group just claimed the deck for their ritual. One woman tugged my sleeve and gestured that I should move out and wait until they were finished. Mom told me meditation and water were bound together, so I watched them stand, bow, straighten up, fall on their knees and then touch the deck with their foreheads. The pattern was repeated four times and then they turned their heads, first right then left, whispering. I’d never seen these Muslims like this. They weren’t like on TV. I wondered what their conception of God was. I’d heard sermons down in Asheville and sometimes on TV about God being the kernel of everything or a shell that kept everything together, but Mom taught me God was a pomegranate, everything a heart and everything a skin. I remembered how careful I always was when I cracked open the bloody fruit, and how every time a piece fell onto the floor. I always ate it.
When the prayer was done, the Muslims mixed with the others, speaking in unfamiliar tongues. Two of the women who had their hair covered during the prayer now took off their scarves and talked with the Swede. I really wanted to ask him about the ship and this mission they were on, and maybe apologize for lying to the captain to get a free ride to Gaza.
No one on the ship asked me to do anything, and I felt I should be scrubbing the deck or chopping onions in the kitchen like in the old stories of long pilgrimages and family squabbles, civilizations of clashes. There wasn’t much else to do but watch the sea vapors erase the border between the water and the sweaty air. I imagined the woman who gave me away must have a heavy smell, but I wanted her to smell of black olives when I found her in that terrifying landscape where war was everything’s father, both mundane and boring.
The sun was gone now and the wind was cold. I started shaking like Laika when she walks out of a lake, and I hugged my knees and sang Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Agreed to have a battle, imagining my sisters standing before me like two fat pears. Then I spotted the Swede leaning on the railing as on a desk. He smiled at me and I smiled back, but neither of us made a move, like in a spaghetti western duel: it took a long time, a lot of suspense, and a lot of good music until the quick draw. The man waved me to come over. I waited a good thirty seconds for his second gesture before I walked over to him and stood on his left side to hide the left side of my own face.
“I’m Henning Mankell.”
For a second I wanted to say that was one weird name, but Mom’s voice told me not to be rude, so I said, “I’m Joseph Schneider.”
“What brings you here, Joseph?”
“The prime mover.”
“You could say I’m on a pilgrimage.”
Mankell stroked his eyebrows and sucked at his teeth. “Aren’t we all?”
I looked over the railing. “I’m an orphan, you see.”
“No, I don’t think you do.”
“Well, I suppose you’re adopted?”
“Yes, just like Laika.”
“Not really. She was sick and lost in the Smokies. My parents found her six miles from our house, nine years ago.”
“I mean the name. It’s a historic name, the first Russian astronaut.”
“That was Dad’s idea. He said she looked like she’d dropped from the sky.”
“She was one beautiful bitch,” I said and turned, exposing the left side of my face. I wanted him to see how my left eye was almost a part of my cheek, except for the few eyelashes, like it was stitched together.
“Herre Gud, what happened to you?”
“I was born this way.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t usually¾”
“S’alright. I like to call it my buckeye eye,” I said and pulled a chestnut-sized buckeye seed from my pocket and put it next to my deformed eye.
Mankell sniffed at the air.
“It’s called anophthalmia. It’s Greek. It’s sort of nice to have a fancy name for a nasty thing. I guess a refugee camp wasn’t the best place to be born. My mother said I should thank God I didn’t get phocomelia. She was a nurse you know.”
“When you’re born with some sort of flippers instead of limbs. Magical stuff.”
Mankell laughed and put his hand over his mouth.
I laughed too. Makes it easier for strangers to be with me, deal with me, accept me.
“You’re something else, you know. You look young. How old are you, kid?”
The Swede scratched his beard, saying, “Din dumma pojke,” and he patted me on the shoulder. I suppose that’s how destiny works: someone, somewhere, speaks to you in a language you don’t know and makes a decision to treat you as a friend or as an enemy.
A man with a blue sailor’s hat came with a bottle of water and plastic glasses and we all drank. The man showed Mankell a list of the cargo, and said, “We might just pull this off. We’ll make history. Bring down the blockade.”
Mankell shook his head, took a fruit bar from his pocket, and ate it.
The man looked at me and said, “Nice to have good people onboard. Palestinians deserve all the support they can get. If the Israeli Defense Forces try and stop us once we leave the international waters, don’t be afraid. I’m sure they won’t let us through that easy but we’re here for a good reason, a just cause.”
“I don’t get scared.”
“Good for you.”
Mankell finished his bar. “As Hemingway put it, This was one beautiful and complicated operation.”
The man and I glanced at each other. I didn’t want to say I never liked Hemingway so I nodded at both men, and said the way my mother would, “I appreciate y’all letting me be on the ship. I thank you’uns, kindly, sirs.”
They laughed at my mountain accent. I went back to the lifeboat, as if out of habit, and I perched on it like a half-crazy duck I played with around Lake Junaluska with its feathers stuck every which way. An albatross chased away the cruising seagulls and landed on the boat. I pulled two buckeye seeds out of my jeans and threw them at it.
The damn bird didn’t move.
I stared at it until we both looked away at the same time. The horizon was blurred and the sea sailed away from me. There were all these vacant lots around the ship. All that space. I could just pick an acre of water, right there, and settle down. So beautiful, and offensive, like all things without borders. But soon there’d be borders. I knew that. I wasn’t naïve. Soon, I’d come to that place where my mother went to aid refugees in the 80s, or whatever the hell she was there for, and I’d walk in her steps. Yes, that’s right. I’d do that. I’d do everything she told me she did. And I’d chase this ghost called Aliya, and I’d find her, and I’d tell her Rachel sent her regards, or something like that, and then when she looked at me like they do in movies, waiting for me to break down or hug her or something, I’d walk out on her.
I wondered what they were, my mothers, if not madwomen, wretches, jokes of history, born among people but choosing not to be of their people, choosing to be strangers to their kin, to their faiths, to roots and bonds, but in the end, maybe not entirely indifferent, or loveless there on their sad heights.
I searched for my reflection in the waters, but it wasn’t there. These waters didn’t give a damn about people and their faces. I put my hands over my face and prayed again. Fast. And when I was done, I couldn’t remember what I prayed for this time, if not for the damn bird to leave me alone, or for God to speak, “Let there be trees, again.”
With What Diversity
(May 31, 2010)
And the albatross with the dark blemish on its right wing came back and circled above the ship and it screamed at me, insisting that I acknowledge it, but I barked at it, imitating the weak and hoarse barking of that lost-and-found mongrel Laika that never scared a squirrel, and I barked on until a fat man with glasses taped in the middle touched me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, are you all right?”
The bird landed on the boat.
The man said, “That’s weird. Albatrosses aren’t terribly social. That one has a beef with you.”
Before he said anything else, I turned away and opened the steel door and disappeared downstairs. I sniffed my way to the toilet and locked myself inside and sat down. My pants soaked up drops of urine from the seat. The touch of it felt like a hug and I looked into the mirror and scratched the skin over my eye. I thought of Mom, and how she walked through Gaza with me in her duffel bag with holes punched in it, walking for hours and none the wiser about anything except that she had feelings for the thing in the bag. And there was no one out there any wiser than she was to help us out in the crowds. And then, suddenly, she crossed an ocean and climbed her mountain again, alone in the woods among stale ghosts of her kinfolk, all of them drunk and lost among the trees. And then I thought of my other mother, but she shied away into hot shadows of rocks and plants and small creatures. God damn us all.
At around six in the evening, everyone gathered in the dining area between the cargo hatches and the ship’s superstructure, and the gray-haired Greek who was responsible for organization and security on board spoke until people’s faces tightened with confidence. The man said, “We’re getting closer,” and I wondered, Closer to what? He said, “If the IDF board the ship, I want everyone on the bridge. And do not panic.”
People nodded and then they followed the Egyptian cook whose leg seemed to be hurting. He rubbed it hard before serving food. Later we all tried on life jackets and some people were assigned to lookouts and some, I among them, went out to string barbed wire around the ship’s rail.
Mankell said, “There’s nothing to do but wait right now. Wait and watch.”
“That’s harder than work.”
I watched the rest of the crew of the activists, all waiting to hit the infamous and invisible barrier to a world they cared about as if it was their own holy home of rocks and heat and walls. I felt like an impostor. I didn’t support their ideals, nor did I fight them. I was using them. But I knew I’d made a mistake. The shortest distance to Gaza looked like it was going to be the longest. Only I wouldn’t mind being lost out here forever and never get there, never find my mother’s footprints in that wretched country.
The people moved smoothly as if they were at home, but I could see how unfamiliar they were with each other, itinerants, a community pulled together by common loves and hates, and it would disband when those reasons expired, as all things, as food did in this weather only spirits could truly love. I chanted the Tweedledee song.
The Swede asked me if I’d like to use their satellite phone and call my sister in Nicosia, but I said it wasn’t the right time.
Then he asked me about my song. “It’s from Alice in Wonderland, isn’t it?”
“Through the Looking Glass.”
“I hate that book.”
“I like it.”
The Swede frowned and said, “That’s new.”
“It cheers me up, is all. When we were small, my big sisters fought over small things, stupid things really, and Mom said that the only times they didn’t fight was when they did something with me, or for me, like singing that song. They scuttled and jumped and nudged each other and laughed at the end. One year, they even looked like the twin brothers, fat and ridiculous, with so many pimples you couldn’t see their beautiful freckles.”
“That reminds me of my childhood. In Sweden, we have this tradition, every Christmas the national television shows famous cartoons, usually Disney. You know Donald Duck, and the little deer, what’s it called?”
“Yes, and Snow White, beautiful and silly. They always show the scene when the dwarves wash themselves. I hate Disney. Though that hookah-smoking caterpillar was one cool creature.”
“I’ve only read the book.”
“I shouldn’t be here, with y’all. I don’t care about the occupation or blockades or suicides or walls. I’m a cheat.”
“You’re all right. Better than the people who stood us up.” He blew his nose.
I looked around and pointed at a man with a fist-long beard, flicking prayer beads. “He reminds me of Dad, especially the nose.”
Mankell yelled, “Hey, Mustafa.”
The man said, “How’re you doing, old man?”
“Prima. And you?”
He turned back to me and said, “That man told me that he felt scared around other Muslims for two years after nine-eleven. It’s incredible, but I can understand him. We’re like babies. We get fed with something and that gets stuck.”
“How about you?”
“I grew up on the diet of the late Olof Palme, our most famous Prime Minister, you wouldn’t know of him, you’re too young, but he was assassinated, sort of like Kennedy, minus the scandals. Sweden was like a family home. Then things changed.”
“When was it, this home?”
“In the eighties.”
“You’re far from home.”
I followed the albatross far out as it landed on a rising wave, lending itself to the waters, as if the sea needed to play with it.
Mankell said, “You seem to hold a grudge against the bird.”
“It just freaks me out. I’d dreamt a few times it was hanging around my mother’s neck, like in the old poem.”
“No sir. It’s like, I don’t know, maybe I’m the albatross. Now I have to cut myself loose.”
I dug into my bag and pulled out my knife and flicked open the blade.
Mankell stepped back, saying, “What are you doing? Where did you find the knife?”
“I got it from my friend Flint.”
“Joseph, if IDF takes the ship and they find … ah, man. Please, get this. We cannot risk our mission. No weapons.”
“It’s not a weapon. It’s¾”
“It doesn’t matter. You don’t want to be caught with a knife on you.”
“But what should I do?”
“Get rid of it.”
“Can’t do that, no sir. This was a special gift. Look, it has an inscription.”
Mankell looked at the words worse than injustice is one’s own justice, and said, “Great, but listen to me. Lose the knife.”
“Maybe,” I said and stroked the inscription. Then I rubbed my nose as if to remove the smell of the sea.
Without finishing my thought, I hurled the knife out over the railing and at the floating albatross, but it only hit a wave halfway to the bird and didn’t even make a ripple. “There. Happy now.”
I looked at the man flicking the prayer beads, whispering something every time he touched one. Thirty-three. The man smiled so wide that I saw his molars.
A group of activists came up and sat in a circle and talked in English about the list of things prohibited in Gaza, and which of those they had on the ship and which were carried on the other ships in the Flotilla. A woman with a long black hair, frizzy from the sea air, read the list aloud like a poem. Some names of the forbidden merchandise even rhymed. Mankell went over to them and beckoned to me to come and sit with them. I turned away.
The chatter made me drowsy and I dozed off in the nook between a crate and the railing.
Adnan Mahmutović is a Bosnian-Swedish Writer who has written extensively on war, refugees, and immigrant experience in Thinner than a Hair (2010) How to Fare Well and Stay Fair (2012) and At the Feet of Mothers (2020).
He is also an Associate Professor in English literature at Stockholm University. His major academic work includes Ways of Being Free: Authenticity and Community in Works by Rushdie, Ondaatje and Okri (2012), Visions of the Future in Comics (2018) and The Craft of Editing (2019).
Translated from Arabic into English by William M. Hutchins
A Day of Many Colors
Don’t feel sad if your day gets off to a gloomy start, because at any moment it may turn into a day of many colors. Before reading this story a reader might doubt this claim, so I will try to attract her attention with optimistic euphoria. Let’s get to the heart of the matter and see how a day’s gray clouds became brilliant colors.
I was one hundred percent certain my grandfather loved me more than my mother or father did—in fact more than my grandmother, who treated me like a live doll and cared for me dotingly. She would, for example, make sure I ate healthy and nutritious food. She did not mind spending her entire monthly pension to provide dishes that would make my mouth water as soon as their aroma spread through the kitchen.
She changed my clothes three times a day and kept in her room a chest of drawers filled with clothes she organized according to the hour of the day. For the morning, there were embroidered tunics of different colors and red and white ribbons for her to tie to the end of my little braid. Skirts and blouses with long sleeves or short ones trimmed with lace were stored in a drawer along with short socks that had colored stripes. These were for the afternoon. The bottom drawer of the chest contained leather shoes without heels. When evening came, she would dress me in silky white satin pajama tops and bottoms that made me look like a precious princess.
I loved my grandmother’s pampering but wasn’t sure when it had begun. It may have started the moment my younger sister was born, a year after me. She needed extra care from my mother because she was born a month premature.
Even the doctors believed she wouldn’t survive because one of her kidneys wasn’t fully developed, but my mother refused to leave her in the hospital’s preemie section and preferred to care for her baby herself. My mother felt proud when my sister completed her first year. Whenever her eyes fell on my sister, she would feel vivacious and invigorated. She would smile and say: “If I had left her in the hospital, she certainly would have died within the hour.”
My grandmother completed the story for me, saying, “Your sister was born a year after you. She was very weak and gave hardly any sign of life. She breathed with difficulty, and her skin was twisted over her bones. She didn’t even open her eyes for forty days after she was born. She looked like a little blind kitten.”
My father would comment: “We wrapped her in white gauze and cotton for the first two months; so she looked like the mummy of a baby pharaoh. Your mother fed her milk with a dropper.”
My grandfather admitted, “I didn’t look at her for fear I would grow attached to her and she would depart the way the doctors warned us. Then I wouldn’t be able to forget her easily, and my weak heart wouldn’t have been able to cope with yet another pain.”
My father also had responsibilities that at times I thought distracted his attention from me. He worked from dawn to dusk to provide us with a decent standard of living.
The very sound of my grandfather’s steps entering the house, though, transformed our whole house into a delicious tray of sweets. I would race to grasp hold of him. I couldn’t reach the chest of such a tall man when he was upright, no matter how hard I tried. Even so, whenever I saw him, I would stand on my tiptoes and raise my whole body, attempting to embrace him. Before I had tried unsuccessfully so many times that I would feel discouraged, he bend down and open his arms to me. Then I would press myself into his chest and become part of him.
My grandfather would smile when he realized that we had become a single mass.
When I sat down at the table with my grandparents, even though he knew full well that I had already eaten my lunch, he would always ask, “Are you hungry or is it time for candy?”
Then I would reply blissfully, “It is time for candy.”
My grandmother would urge him not to give me every piece of candy he had brought along“Just one at a time”—but he would ask me to close my eyes and hold out my hand so he could place candies on it. Then I would raise them toward my nose, with my eyes still closed, so I could sniff the sweets and give my imagination a chance to picture each piece however it liked.
I remember he once placed three different pieces wrapped in cellophane in my palm. Recognizing the feel and sound of the clear wrapper, I held the candy near my nose. Then I rapturously began to describe what I saw in my mind’s eye. I told my grandparents that I was a princess seated in a garden, surrounded by flowers. “Oh, here’s a sparrow bringing me sprigs of mint in his beak. Now a rabbit is rolling an orange toward me. Look: Granny’s hen just laid a caramel egg for me.”
My grandfather chortled and exclaimed, “Once again, you’ve guessed correctly! Open your eyes.” When I did, I found three sweets. One was a mint, the second was orange-flavored, and the third was caramel. After unwrapping them, I put all three in my mouth at the same time and closed my eyes again as I savored in my imagination the blend of flavors I was tasting.
When I woke up today—late as usual—I opened my door to find my grandmother fashioning something from yarn with a crochet hook; I could not tell yet what it would become. She was probably making a sweater vest for me, because—as she always said—winter was knocking at the door. Grandmother was listening to a discussion of child rearing on one of her favorite radio shows. I smiled at her, and she responded with a smile that was even lovelier and sweeter.
I went to the kitchen and drank a glass of water. Then I started to survey my surroundings. I wasn’t hungry but felt peevish. When my grandmother followed me, wanting to make me breakfast, I told her I wasn’t hungry yet. “I may drink some milk shortly.”
She didn’t like the way I was acting, especially since—as she always reminded me—“Breakfast is extremely important.” She seized my hand and took me to the bathroom, where she proceeded to scrub my face and hands with rose-scented soap. Then she dried them with a white cotton towel. Next she began to comb and braid my hair, naturally after she changed my clothes. Once she was satisfied that I was spick and span, she went back to her crocheting.
I looked around but didn’t see anything I wanted to play with. I wished I had a nearby girlfriend who would come to our house (or I would go to her house) so we could play together. Unfortunately, all our neighbors’ children were boys. They played their own special games that my grandmother said weren’t appropriate for a girl.
I tried to overcome my annoyance at my isolation as I dreamt of befriending a girl at school, because the next year I would turn six and start school. Then I would surely find a girlfriend with whom I could study, play, and converse. I might even share some treats with her.
“Granny, I’m going to sit at the doorstep.”
“Fine, but don’t leave the stoop. The sky’s cloudy today, and the rain will start soon. I don’t you getting wet and catching a cold.”
I sat outside the door, which I left ajar and began gazing at the street, which looked totally deserted, if only because the older kids were still in school and the young ones might have been kept inside by their mothers for fear of rain.
I sat there, staring at the quiet street for a time, but soon my tranquility became stifling vexation. I decided to go back inside, rose, and turned to enter the house, but then I heard my aunt call me: “Darling Sarah, how are you?”
I knew she wanted me to do something, because she only referred to me as “Habibti” when she wanted something. I turned to look at her and smiled. “Thank God, I’m fine.”
“Could you buy me a pack of cigarettes? I’m busy cooking now.”
“Yes, Auntie. Will you give me the money?”
I ran to her and took the money. When I quickly crossed the street there wasn’t a vehicle in sight. I handed the money to shopkeeper, who recognized me on account of all the times I had bought cigarettes for my aunt. Once he handed me the pack, he said jokingly, “Cigarettes will make you as old as me if you don’t quit smoking them.”
I laughed along with him, because he knew full well that I was buying them for my aunt, who was trying to keep her smoking a secret from her husband. I stopped laughing, though, when I heard the husky voice of the fat woman who scared me so much that I always hid behind my grandmother when we encountered her in the market.
She asked me, “Who are you buying those cigarettes for? Does your mother know that you’re outside the house, alone in this threatening weather?”
I did not answer her questions. Instead, I quickly took the pack from the man and raced away, not looking to the right or left. As I ran across the street a speeding taxi would have crushed me, if the driver hadn’t been alert, and I would have numbered among the dead.
The driver stopped his vehicle, and rolled down its window, and began cursing me in a loud voice. Fear caused me to freeze where I stood on the sidewalk, which I had somehow reached.
I tried to catch my breath even as my heart pounded faster and the pack of cigarettes fell from my hand. Luckily my grandmother didn’t hear the loud screeching of the car as it ground to a halt, but it caused my aunt to open her door. In a frightened voice she called to me, “Are you okay, Sarah? Speak to me: are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine,” I replied, still trying to catch my breath as I reached down for the pack of cigarettes. I picked it up and walked shakily to my aunt, who quickly hid the pack in her bra. Then she began checking my body with her hands to make sure I wasn’t injured.
“I could have died I was so scared for you! Praise God you’re safe. Why didn’t you look before you crossed the street?”
I didn’t reply and walked slowly to my house, where I went straight to the kitchen, drank some water, and attempted to forget what had just happened to me. When I noticed my grandmother coming, I tried to keep her from observing my fright by pretending to be busy pouring myself a glass of cold milk.
In less than fifteen minutes after the untoward incident, my mother entered the door, which I had forgotten to close. Holding my little sister, she addressed my grandmother angrily: “How could you have let her go outside and cross the street? Aren’t you supposed to be looking after her for me? I won’t allow her to live with you any longer. I’m taking her away with me now!”
Then she began yelling at me in the same angry tone: “Sarah! Sarah! Come with me now! I not going to let you out of my sight again. Let’s go! Come with me! I said: Come! You shan’t stay here a moment longer. Do you hear?”
My grandmother left the kitchen to see why my mother was screaming so furiously. She asked calmly, “What has happened? Why are you angry?”
The moment my mother caught sight of my grandmother, she grew more furious and started shouting even louder than before: “Do you mean you don’t know what happened today?”
“What happened? Tell me.”
“Of course you’re calm, because the matter doesn’t concern you; she’s not your daughter.”
“What are you talking about and who’s no concern of mine?”
“Sarah! As a result of your neglect and indifference, Sarah almost died today. A car almost ran over her. Didn’t you know that?”
“Sarah? When? Sarah hasn’t left the doorstep today. She promised.”
“Promised? Do you trust a little kid’s promises? She’s a child! Don’t you understand that?”
“Who told you all this? Tell me. I want to learn what happened to Sarah today. And please, speak a bit more softly.”
My mother ignored my grandmother and continued her emotional tirade in a very loud voice: “Your neighbor, Umm Ali, told me she saw Sarah buy a pack of cigarettes from the store across the street. She said a speeding taxi almost ran over her when she was crossing back.”
“That’s not possible! How could this have happened? Sarah, where are you? Come and tell us the truth.”
The two of them began calling me. So, with head bowed, I went to them and stopped before them. Their questions rained down on me, but I didn’t answer. I felt their inquiries coil around my neck till they almost strangled me.
“Why did you cross the street? Who were you buying cigarettes for? Why didn’t you look both ways before crossing the street? Why did you leave the stoop in the first place? Why? Why? Why?”
When my mother started to seize my hand to take me home with her, I glanced at Grandmother’s face and saw tears streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t say anything—perhaps because she felt she had neglected me and realized that her neglect could have cost me my life.
I didn’t know where I was heading when I raced through the open door, down streets that seemed bound together by an invisible cord. I only stopped running when I was at the center of the market, which also seemed nearly deserted. I paused there, not knowing where to go.
Although the doors of the shops were open, I didn’t feel I could enter any of them, quite simply because I didn’t know the shopkeepers. I wanted to return home but didn’t remember the way I had come and didn’t recognize any of the streets.
My situation went from bad to worse when all at once rain started to pour down as if the sky had opened its gates to drench me. My clothes were completely soaked and felt cold when a chill wind pressed my sopping frock to my body. So I started shivering.
I couldn’t make out my surroundings because the rain was coming down so hard, creating a sheet-like wall of water that made it impossible for me to see clearly. I began to wail, thinking that someone might hear me and come help me. A young man did approach, but I could scarcely tell what he looked like, because of all the water streaming into my eyes.
He began to whisper, “You there. Girl. I know where your house is. I’ll take you there. Give me your hand.”
When he saw how reluctant I was to take his hand, he began to insist: “Come on now. Don’t be afraid. Let’s go! I’ll take you home on my bike.”
I wiped the water from my eyes to see him more clearly. When I made out his features, I felt frightened, because the large scar on his cheek reminded me of faces of villains I often saw in cartoons. I slowly began to retreat, a step at a time, once I realized that I had never seen him before. I wondered how he could know me, since he wasn’t a neighbor or a friend of my grandfather or father.
When he tried to come closer, I sped off, running far away from him. I attempted to escape. When I looked back, though, I saw he was following me on his bike, trying to catch me. I almost stumbled many times and could easily have fallen on my face whenever I saw him draw nearer on his bicycle.
He was yelling: “You won’t escape. You’ll see what I do when I get hold of you. I’ll make you regret this!”
I panicked, and the streets seemed to swirl before me like a whirlpool. What did this fellow want from me? Where should I go? Would anyone save me? “Help me, Lord!”
Before I knew it, I fell to the ground, and everything around me froze in time, including the wheels of the scary young man’s bike. He approached and tried to pull me up by my hand. I closed my eyes and began to scream so loudly that my vocal cords almost snapped.
“Grandpa! Grandpa! Save me. Where are you, Grandpa?”
When I opened my eyes I found towering over me a textile merchant who was busy gathering wet bolts of cloth from the doorway of his shop. He had placed them there to attract customers. Summoning all my forces, I raised my body from the ground and ran toward him.
I burst through those bolts of cloth like a shot from a hunting rifle, slumped into a corner of the store, and burst into tears.
When the textile merchant saw me, he handed me a dry piece of cloth and asked me to wrap it around my body. I did but kept on crying.
“Calm down, little girl. Tell me: are you lost? Where’s your mother?”
This time as well I could not open my mouth to tell him what had happened. The more he asked me to stop crying, the more bitterly I wept.
“You stay here with me till your grandfather comes to take you home. I recognize you and know your grandfather. He passes by here every day on his way home from work. You may not remember me, but I remember you. Your grandfather brought you here once to buy some cloth when you were a little younger.”
I was in no state to remember anything like that, but what this man said made me stop weeping long enough to ask in a shaky voice: “Do you know where our house is?”
“No, by God, unfortunately I don’t. If I did, I’d take you there straightaway, because your mother is surely about to die from fear and anxiety about you. Calm down; your grandfather will come soon and take you home. If he doesn’t, I’ll ask around for your house. Then, God willing, I’ll find it. Now I’ll wait for your grandfather at the door of my shop, because I’m sure he’ll pass by here the way he always does. Just try to stay calm.”
I didn’t absorb everything this man said, but the words “your grandfather” were a balm for my breast and washed it clean of fear. These magical words sufficed to drive my fright away and to return me to some semblance of calm.
Many hours passed as I waited for my grandfather—yes, many hours—till I had almost lost hope that he would appear, but all I could do was wait. Who could say whether my grandfather would take this street on his way home today? Perhaps he would need to stay late at work. Gloomy thoughts began to devour me till I almost started to cry again. Then I shoved my head between my knees as I sat cross-legged on the floor and pulled over me the piece of cloth, which was no longer dry, since it had absorbed a lot of water from my body. So I began to shiver.
“This is a suitable place to take refuge from the rain, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard his sweet voice. Afraid I was dreaming, I raised my head and found him looming before me with a beaming face.
I tossed the cloth aside and raced to him. As usual I attached myself to him and he lifted me up. I opened my mouth to try to tell him everything that had happened to me, but my tears defeated me again and quickly became showers.
He wiped my cheeks with his right hand as he held me in his left arm. Then he said, “You’re luckier than ever today, because you’re going to get both sweets and new clothes.”
Then he turned to the smiling cloth salesman behind him and said, “Abu Muhammad, cut enough fabric to make a nice frock for Sarah, and permit us stay here till today’s interminable rain lets up.”
“Absolutely. My shop is your shop. There is plenty of room; make yourself comfortable.”
The cloth merchant took down a large bolt of brightly colored fabric and began to cut it with large shears while my grandfather sat on a wooden chair in the center of the room. As I sat in his lap, I felt the warmth of his body encompass me, even though he was also soaking wet from the rain.
I began looking at the bolts of cloth of many different colors. I hadn’t noticed them till my grandfather arrived. They were stacked one atop the other against every wall of the store, and some piles almost reached the ceiling. Yellow jostled against red to make an orange color that was tremendously vibrant. Blue spilled over brown like waves in a rushing river. Green stood out brightly, waving with delight. Rose undulated as if pursuing a white cloud. Meanwhile lavender streamed down from the ceiling, attempting to cover the black and rudely dislodge it from its place, even as brown opened its arms wide to spread warmth through the whole area.
My grandfather whispered to me, “Close your eyes and hold out your hand.”
I honored his request. Then I lifted the piece of candy to my nose and started inhaling its perfume. The fragrance, which was a blend of warm coffee and milk, created an intensely sweet, magical moment that transported me back to my grandparents’ quiet house, where I sipped warm milk from a rose-colored Mickey Mouse glass while my grandfather and grandmother drank coffee and chatted about what they had done that day.
Faleeha Hassan is a poet, teacher, editor, writer, playwriter born in Iraq, who now lives in USA
Faleeha is the first woman to write poetry for children in Iraq. She received her master’s degree in Arabic literature, and has published 25 books. Her poems have been translated into 16 languages. She received many awards in Iraq and the Middle East.
Faleeha Hassan. Pulitzer Prize Nomination 2018, Pushcart Prize 2019, IWA. Cultural Ambassador – Iraq, USA
William Hutchins, based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He twice has been awarded the National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation, first in 2005-2006 for his translation of The Seven Veils of Seth by the Libyan Tuareg author Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing), and again in 2011-2012 for al-Koni’s novel New Waw. His translations have appeared in Words Without Borders, Banipal Magazine, and here in In Translation. His translations of Arabic novels include Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and Cairo Modern by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (Anchor Books), Basrayatha by the Iraqi author Muhammad Khudayyir (Verso), The Last of the Angels (The Free Press), Cell Block 5 (Arabia Books), and The Traveler and the Innkeeper (American University in Cairo Press) by the Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi, Return to Dar al-Basha by the Tunisian author Hassan Nasr (Syracuse), and Anubis (The American University in Cairo Press) and Puppet (Texas), also by Ibrahim al-Koni. His translations released in 2012 have been The Diesel by Thani al-Suwaidi (ANTIBOOKCLUB), Return of the Spirit by Tawfiq al-Hakim (revised edition, Lynne Rienner Publishers), The Grub Hunter by Amir Tag Elsir (Pearson: African Writers Series), and A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet).
Rachel J Fenton
Out on the lake a black swan swims into view between the two buoys measuring Pupuke’s diameter. Viewed from where gulls are, elevated in a thermal, its circumference is heart-shaped. Sarah wonders if Nathan remembers her telling him this the last time they were here. After, she had written him a poem describing how it had formed, their meeting, certain he would find significance in the fact a volcano blew a sweet-heart full of fire. Full of water, it resembles glass from this distance.
Nathan raises his arm as if to signal drowning, locks the car with the zapper and says,
‘Someone should tell this tree it’s spring.’ With his free hand, he pulls the branch above them, its ruddy buds twang upward like the circumcised penises of young men. ‘Watch you don’t skid in that.’ He points the car key to a goose turd streaked across the path to the lakeside café like a tire mark burned into asphalt. Sarah steps toward him. He moves onto the grass and Sarah says,
‘Why do you always do that?’
‘You wouldn’t want to put your foot in it, would you?’ he says.
Another couple are ahead of them. Entering the Rendezvous, they hold the door. Coffee and pastry aromas waft out like warm ghosts. There aren’t many pastries left in the display counter. The other couple are discussing what to order as if tactics for a rugby match. When they’ve paid, they sit at the back of the room, next to a large red curtain.
Raising her purse, Sarah says,
‘I’ll get this.’
Nathan takes a step back, says,
‘Awe, you don’t have to.’
The waiter is young, doesn’t make eye contact, she takes down the order clumsily, as though the pencil has a mind of its own. Sarah thinks it needs sharpening, suspects the waiter is new to the job. While waiting for the card transaction to go through, she glances over her shoulder. Nathan’s turning.
He takes a few steps.
‘Shall we sit by the window?’ He’s pulling out a chair; sitting. As Sarah joins him, he says, ‘What can you see?’
Sarah pulls out a chair directly facing the window, drops her purse to the floor and says,
‘Lake Pupuke, a large buoy and a small one.’
A waiter brings one pot of tea, one cup and one jug of milk. In the cup is a tea bag. Sarah stares at it until the waiter’s back at the counter then says, ‘I can’t get the lid off; I don’t know why they don’t put the bag in.’ She reminds herself of Dame Maggie Smith in a film Nathan paid for her to see, lecturing American businessmen in front of an Indian, about tea, herbs that require boiling water to properly infuse. She didn’t think he enjoyed it, thought it was one of his ways of passing time with her without having to talk about –
‘For a moment I thought there was a clown in the water, but it’s a yellow buoy. I didn’t know there were buoys in the lake,’ Nathan says.
‘I just said – ’
‘Did you? Oh, look, there is a person, they look like Ronald MacDonald.’
A woman wearing a yellow jacket and red hat is leaving the jetty.
‘Or a Surf Life Guard,’ Sarah says. If Lifeguards wore full length puffer jackets and carried cameras instead of rescue tubes. Sarah lives close to the sea.
The waiter brings two mini quiches. Sarah watches her proffer them both to Nathan before putting them on the table and disappearing behind the display cabinet, which is empty, then says,
‘Do you think she forgot our order?’
Nathan puts down his fork, chews.
Sarah pushes the teapot to the side of his plate. ‘You have that.’ She picks up her purse, stands.
The waiter who served them is kneeling with her back to the counter, replenishing the drinks stock in a small fridge. Another, taller, waiter appears from a door next to the fridge, that leads to the kitchen. She smiles at Sarah.
‘I ordered two teas,’ Sarah says.
The kneeling waiter stands, looks to the taller one. Together they check the bill and the tall smiling waiter says,
‘She only wrote the order for one tea.’ She has a thick French accent. Sarah suspects it’s fake.
‘I said tea for two.’ Sarah shows two fingers.
‘We don’t have teapots for two.’ The waiter’s smile has straightened out.
‘I’ll pay for another.’ Sarah opens her purse.
Both waiters smile broadly, then, until Sarah says, ‘Could you put the teabag in the pot, before you put in the hot water?’ She almost turns to Nathan, but decides a quote from Dame Maggie will suffice for borrowed authority: ‘It needs to be boiling.’
Nathan is dabbing crumbs from his plate. He sucks his finger and says,
‘Did you ask about the slice?’
‘I saw it written on the order.’ Sarah unfolds the red napkin on her lap.
The smaller waiter has followed her, puts the pot of tea on the table and says,
‘Do you want another cup?’
Sarah is overcome with a strong sense of déjà vu. When it passes, the waiter is pushing a white mug toward her. She tilts it. Nathan’s watching her and when the waiter returns to the counter, he says,
‘I think they forgot the slice.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I’ll just stare meaningfully in the direction of the counter,’ he says.
‘I can go ask.’ She strokes her napkin over her purse, tucked between her thighs.
‘No, you’ve done enough asking.’ He gets to his feet.
Sarah wishes she hadn’t asked for the salmon quiche.
Three gulls hang in the air in front of the window the way a mobile is suspended over a baby’s cot. Silent as memory from inside the café.
Everything inside the café is French, from the décor to the pastries. There was a piano, too, a year ago, like the one in Nathan’s home. She wonders where it is now.
‘Got it,’ Nathan says. He puts the slice next to his empty plate. Two forks, inter-tined on a flowered napkin, are separated. One sidles the cake in two, unevenly, largest on Sarah’s side. Prunes protrude like stones from a layer of finer sediment. ‘What is this, do you think?’
Sarah thinks of the bodies found at the foot of mountains, in glaciers; the ancient peoples preserved but blackened from the long sleep in the ice from which, riffing off Snow White, they are waiting for release from their glassy coffin only in order to decompose, to properly die. Or those expected to pass into a better life, like ‘The Maiden’, an Incan who suffered from a type of tuberculosis before she was sacrificed on a volcano in Argentina.
‘You asked that last time.’
‘Have we had this before?’
Sarah raises her eyebrows in an echo of the gulls that have flown up like Nathan’s voice, and says,
‘Here.’ She wonders how the gulls move so fast with full stomachs. Nathan is staring at her. She wants to ask if he remembers her poem but instead says, ‘Yes.’
He rests his fork on the surface of the slice, the tines sinking in as far as physics permits without breaking the skin, and says,
‘We’ve been here before?’ He digs a chunk out of his piece and hoes it to his mouth, mumbles through it, ‘Far out.’
Shoving her fork into a prune, Sarah wiggles it free of the slice but can’t lift it.
‘I wrote a poem about it.’
‘Did you?’ He forks another piece. ‘I’d like to read it.’
Sarah puts down her fork. ‘It isn’t finished.’ She wonders if she should revise it.
‘When it is.’
‘Finding your way back into a poem to continue writing is like returning at dusk to the field you walked at dawn, trying to find the place where your feet bent the grass;’ like finding your way back to love.
‘That’s nice,’ he says. Some people have ears the way some have pianos: they appear capable but the instruments are seldom used as intended. ‘Are you ok, love?’
A group of women are passing the window. One, taller than the others by some inches on account of her wedge heeled sneakers, is looking in, is smiling. Sarah smiles back automatically then genuinely, remembering an article she read about mirror neurons, in New Scientist, before she realises the woman is smiling at her own reflection and likely cannot see Sarah at all.
Sarah had wanted to be a scientist, briefly, when she was young; until a teacher said he didn’t see the point if she couldn’t count. But as children intuit, Sarah didn’t need to know numbers to recognise unfairness when she experienced it. She could count to two, one plus one, a couple. Company. Any more than that only counts as a set, like the Bloomsbury lot or a hunting party.
‘I’m fine,’ she says. ‘But this place is quite gloomy.’
Nathan looks around as if for the first time and, smiling too now, says,
‘What is it with Aucklanders wanting to be Parisians?’ It’s an in-joke between them.
It isn’t just Aucklanders, or Paris. Sarah says,
‘Blame Katherine Mansfield.’
Nathan is pushing the flowered napkin, still folded like a sheet, like a ouija planchette.
The joke’s been long-running. The increasing numbers of pop-up French markets around the city; the boastfulness and snobbery of those Europhiles they know who were born here but have been or are travelling to France, obsessed with French designers, artists, wine, cheeses, the place Katherine Mansfield went to get well (before she died of tuberculosis); the writers and their entitled attitudes that make them take up the whole pavement, mean that Sarah always has to move or step into the road to get by. But Nathan isn’t smiling now. Evidently his memory isn’t totally defective.
Sarah would like to ask him why Mansfield has so many New Zealand experts on her, if they all know each other. Mansfield spent the sum of both hands and another one in NZ yet is widely considered to be NZ’s most famous writer. Sarah’s been here as many fingers and is still considered an outsider.
Neither of them ask what’s behind the curtain, behind them. It must once have appeared opulent, the red vibrant and alluring, before the sun faded spots like heliographs of roses the colours of urine and old blood. Sarah thinks of the conspiratorial couple sitting by them and wonders if they’d be so cosy sharing pastries and exchanging messages under Katherine Mansfield’s sheets at Menton.
She pours her tea, holds the cup close to her mouth. There should be steam, it should fog her eyes, make her sight blurry, like a trashy magazine life hack for romantic vision. She takes longer than she needs to drink it.
‘Is your tea alright?’
‘I was just imagining it was bitumen of Judea.’
‘It’s a type of light-sensitive tar that, ground up, was used to create the earliest photographic copies of real life.’
‘Wow. Who invented that?’
‘It was conceived in France.’
‘Shall we go back?’ Nathan is already standing.
The lake appears still. Between the buoys, a cloud is reflected. It’s almost as round, and as the wind blows the original the copy cloud slides toward the large buoy as if on an abacus.
A sparrow alights from where it has been eating crumbs on the path to a branch above it.
‘Wait.’ Sarah holds Nathan, preventing him from walking beneath the sparrow just as it takes a crap.
‘Wow, thanks. You knew it was going to do that?’
‘Fight or flight; it’s the body’s way of ditching excess material to redirect all energy for conflict response. It’s rare to see a picnic on a battleground.’ Sarah would like to note an exception and point out the contradiction of writers eating at a book launches, where there’s always shit flying, but she doesn’t want to have to let go of him. It occurs to her then, the shit they’re always dodging is never from the species native to New Zealand.
She rests her head against his shoulder as they walk up the sloping path to the car park. The bump she feels with each step makes her imagine her head dragging over large stones. Pain, the difficulty of learning to count past three.
Nathan opens the car door for her and she gets in. Opening the driver’s side, he says,
‘Someone’s left a mirror in the hedge.’ He walks over to it. Sarah sees him put his hand on the frame, fingers slipping around the back of it, tilt it toward his body, lower it back again gently as an old lover.
The car settles under his weight. ‘There was some damage,’ he says, then drives her to her place.
First published on The Lonely Crowd in issue guest edited by Valerie Sirr
Rachel J Fenton is an award-winning writer living in the South Island of New Zealand. Her fiction has won the University of Plymouth Short Fiction Prize, the Auckland University of Technology Creative Writing Prize, she came second in the Dundee International Book Prize, was longlisted for the Inaugural Michael Gifkins Unpublished Novel Prize, the Bristol Prize, and was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize. Her short stories have been anthologised in Stories of Hope Bushfire Relief Anthology (Aussie Speculative Fiction), Remembering Oluwale (Valley Press), Refugees Welcome (Co-Boox), Cooked Up, Food Fiction from Around the World (New Internationalist), and others. Also known as Rae Joyce, Rachel is Co-editor of Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik).
Baloney, Hot Mustard and Metal Filings
by Mitchell Toews
Arnold blew a soft puff of air out, cheeks rounded. He sat in his motorhome, parked on his daughter’s driveway in Aldergrove. His granddaughter Isabel slept soundly next to him under a homemade comforter on the fold-out bed. Looking at her, he thought of his mother.
Such a long time ago. She’s still back there, Mom is, ploughing up a big furrow wherever she goes in that Kuhschieße village, half the town scared to death of her, the other half treating her like she rode a donkey side-saddle, and they held the palm fronds.
“Maybe I shoulda been more like her. Maybe Brenda and I shoulda stuck it out, instead of scooting out of town,” he said aloud to the room, his quiet words swallowed by pillows and stuffed animals. He recalled the roaring echo of his motorcycle on the deserted main street, him gunning through the lone red light, flipping a final baritone bird to the churchy little town as Brenda and he lit out for the West Coast; Vancouver and all of its worldly delights.
He turned the envelope over in his hands once more. Why did I bring this thing along? What good’s it gonna do to hash it over again?
Undisturbed by her grandfather sitting on the edge of the bed, Isabel slept on. Tomorrow would be a big day for her. With “Gramps and Nana” in town for a visit, Isabel was eager to share the morning with him at the Vancouver Zoo in sleepy Aldergrove, the Vancouver satellite where Arnold had worked, years ago.
Beads of sweat stood out on the Isabel’s upper lip and the hair was damp on her temples. She looked like his mom, a bit anyway, petite and animated like “Oma” as she called her great-grandmother Ruth. The two of them would sit for hours and read books or do a puzzle, chattering away agreeably until one or the other flared up over some insignificant disputed point. Then the kettle would boil momentarily, only to subside soon after, returning to a convivial murmuring simmer. Turf defined, boundaries negotiated.
He opened the envelope, taking care not to let the brittle paper crunch too loudly. Arnold had received the letter years ago, not long after their daughter Rhonda was born. He worked at the zoo in Aldergrove back then, the same place he and Izzy would visit tomorrow. It was spread out on a few acres near the ticky-tack rental house Brenda and he had settled into all those years ago. They had sought the secular humanism of Vancouver, but had landed just short — in the quilted familiarity of the Fraser Valley.
“Aldergrove’s just Hartplatz with a view,” as the wise-asses back home told him. Arnold and Brenda were married here and found they could play crokinole with their relatives any night of the week — frintschoft lived all around them in dreary-cozy little places like Clearbrook and Yarrow and half a dozen other dittos of Hartplatz, there in the rainy delta just east of the city.
The letter he held tonight in his hands—a formal written reprimand—had come from Human Resources back then. From his employers. It concerned a work-related dispute he had with his boss. The bolded subject line read: “RE: Lead Hand Complaint — Disobeying Direct Orders. One (1) Demerit.”
Ridiculous. Still worrying about this shit, so many years later. Decades.
The paper smelled mousy. He saw the notes Brenda had put in the margin, at the section he remembered still. “Romans! How dare they use the Bible?” she had scrawled in angry block letters, her pencil debossing the paper. “The gospel according to H.R.” he remembers her saying with contempt and fear. And the two of them so new to everything and a baby to feed and rent to pay.
She could have been a pastor, easy! He thought for the millionth time. No one knew the Bible better. But all they ever let her do was make tea, wash dishes, and sing in the choir. Especially once they did the math — Rhonda’s first birthday predated their first anniversary by two months.
He read the letter again, the first time in years, but he still knew it line-for-line. Still don’t think a man should get a demerit just for disagreeing with his boss. I didn’t cuss or get lippy. But this letter made it sound like I led a workers’ rebellion. He read the portion that had bothered him so much, for so long:
“Arnold, I know our organization isn’t perfect. My encouragement is to pray daily for our leadership to be guided by the Lord. This is my prayer, and I also pray that I will support your supervisor’s efforts in a way that honours God. Furthermore, I believe that Peter wouldn’t hold his Lead Hand position if not appointed and allowed by the Lord…”
Isabel and Arnold’s day together at the zoo was almost over, and it had been a rainy one. Arnold felt broken down and his knees were close to locking up. He had wanted to show Isabel the footbridge — one of the many projects he had worked on at the zoo. He mulled on how his daughter’s small family now lived here, in the same Fraser Valley town he and Brenda had once settled into all those years earlier.
“Hey, Gramps!” Isabel hollered from the far end of the wooden foot bridge. “This stinkin’ ol’ bridge is crooked!”
“Yeah, an’ you better get used to it Izzy, ‘cuz that’s about par for the course in this stinkin’ ol’ world…”
“Whattaya talkin’ about?” she shrilled. “I’m telling you this thing’s as curvy as Robby Hull’s stick!” She crouched bug-low, close to the mossy planks, like only a small child can. Pointing at the depression in the deck boards, her little chin jutting out, she singsonged, “If you built this bridge back in the day, you dint do a very good job. See?”
“What the heck! Are you five-years-old goin’ on Building Inspector?” he asked with only partly faux indignation. “And it’s Bobby Hull—not Robby—Ms. Hockey Encyclopedia…”
“Acch, yeah.” She made an “oops” face.
The Aldergrove rain, omnipresent from November to May, ticked on her glossy jacket hood. She hunched her shoulders up in a precocious shrug, like an elfin Bronx cabbie, “Hey, I’m just sayin’…”
“Okay, okay. Let’s get down underneath this thing and check for—heaven forbid—shoddy work.”
Hands held, they slid down the embankment into the dry creek bed, damp ostrich ferns feathering dewy strips on their pants like leafy paint brushes.
“Look there, Izz…” He pointed up at a broken cross-brace. “See that there? This bridge has one cross-brace beam that broke. The board had a big loose knot in the middle and cracked ‘cause of it. Mystery solved. I’m surprised ol’ Pete missed that—”
“Who’s ol’ Pete?” Isabel asked.
“Oh, Pete was the lead hand. He was my boss.”
While his granddaughter went on with questions and pronouncements, Arnold lost himself thinking back. One of my last days of work was here, the day we finished this bridge. Raining just like it is today. They shit-canned me not long after. Best thing that ever happened, as it turned out, but it didn’t feel like it when I told Brenda the news.
“Gramps!” Isabel shouted, bringing him back.
“What now Princess Isabel?”
“If the bridge is broken, how come it doesn’t fall down?”
Darned if I know. “Oh, see here… See these long pieces that go from end to end? They hold it up and all these other little cross-braces, like the one that’s cracked, they are all still holding on. The bridge bent but it didn’t break. It’d take a heckuva thing to bust ‘er, eh?
“A heckuva thing,” Isabel agreed.
But the damn bridge is weak, thinking of it in the angry metaphorical meander he often fell into these days. Like he was making a red-faced speech at the library in Winnipeg where he spent afternoons now with a group of retired friends.
He shook his head. He picked up a handful of stones from the gravel path and began tossing them at a peculiar, snarled triquetra of blackberry vine. The stones bounced by harmlessly. Leave it be. Just leave it be.
If only he could… He remembered all those years ago, walking into work about a week after an altercation with Peter. Nobody would look him in the eye. He knew something was up. It had been brewing for a while, since that day when he and Pete had sparred, he reckoned. It felt like something was going to happen that day. It became undeniable—flood water topping a dike—when Pete’s boss suggested they talk privately.
“Sorry, Arnold,” the manager said. He was a guy named Barkman with family in Hartplatz. Closing the door, he explained, “Budget cuts. We have to let two guys go and you’re one of ‘em. We’ll give you a good reference, eh?”
“Yoma…” Arnold had said. At a dead loss for words, he instinctively sputtered out the first word of a German phrase his mother often used. The demerit letter he’d received, just a few days earlier, now seemed like clumsy foreshadowing. He should have seen the axe falling. He paused, his mouth gone dry and his head reeling, trying to think of the smart thing to say or do. The way to push back, to save his job. Instead of something useful, all he said was “So, who’s the other guy? Jared, eh? He’s only been on the crew for a few months… less than me.”
“Well, kinda… See, Jared’s been given his own crew in Queen Elizabeth Park, so he’s off our payroll—City of Vancouver employs him now—but we gotta cut one more guy. With Jared promoted, that leaves you with least seniority. Sorry, Arnold. Union job, union rules. There’s a cash severance…”
He could taste the blood in his mouth, copper — like after a long shift in hockey. Had nothing to do with that stuff with Pete and Artless, eh? Didn’t have nothing to do with the Mennonite mafia and their exclusive insider’s club, did it? Pete is Jared’s uncle, f’gosh sake!
A Stellar’s jay squawked and Arnold lurched back into the now, standing under the bridge with his granddaughter. He was in the present, but still at the zoo, as if transported by Jules Verne’s time machine. “C’mon, Izz,” he said, shaking free of the old thoughts in his head. “Let’s get outta this drizzle and get a hot dog or something.”
She nodded and they climbed out of the creek, her singing “Frère Jacques,” in a piccolo voice. As they walked, Arnold’s mind backpedalled to long ago when he had tussled with Pete, verbally. Twice in one day, in fact. He recalled the events so clearly, remembering where he was that long day from morning til night.
At noon, they had been in the Zoo’s one-ton, rain drumming on the roof. Old Pete Dueck and his buddy Art Kroeker had been grumbling about “secular politicians” and various other heavily travelled trails. Art, Arnold recalled, was the worst carpenter on the crew. “Artless”, they called him.
Both of them had relatives in Manitoba, in Hartplatz. He knew these two jo-broodas better than they could ever guess. He knew them like he knew the hump of Hartplatz Main Street. Or the dark hideaway beside the town water station where he sipped illicit beer behind a screen of decorative cedar shrubs, his back against the brick wall. He remembered how it tingled when the big pump went on, startling him and vibrating the wall he rested against.
Arnold tried to zone out Pete and Art’s monotonous conversation. He bit into his sandwich, ignoring the black fingerprints on the white bread. Baloney and hot mustard. The metal filings from his morning spent on the workshop lathe marked his sandwich with inky carbon indentations. “It just looks bad, is all. No harm. All the guys do it,” he told Brenda when she protested, dismayed at him eating the blackened bread.
Pete and Artless spoke in loud voices, their faces angry when the topic of abortion came up. Arnold wished lunch would end. He looked out through the fogged windshield at the passing traffic. Pete nudged his arm and twisted sideways in the crowded cab to face him. “What about you, Thiessen? What do you think of abortion and all that stuff? Think we should hafta pay for that? Think it’s right in the first place?”
“Why you askin’ me?” Arnold shot back at old Pete, irritable from the smell of dried sweat and the too-rich indignation of their daily conversation. He felt his eyes narrowing. “I’m not a pregnant fifteen-year-old on Hastings with no place to sleep tonight. Or maybe a girl, still a child herself, raped by an uncle. Go ask someone like that. Who’s gonna help her, eh? You guys?” — a question not seeking an answer.
Not knowing why all this had burst out of him, he put his attention back on the sandwich, but his appetite was gone.
He thought—too late by only seconds—of his wife’s almost-daily admonishments…
“It’s a great job. Dental plan! Just keep your head down and don’t take the bait!”
He also wondered what she would think of what he had just said.
But it really was too late. At least his snappish comment had shut them up. In front of me, anyway. Pretty sure their conversation continued later on, with a new slant to it, without my further involvement.
It didn’t take long for Brenda’s warning to come true. Late that same afternoon, Pete suggested they bolt together a cracked blade mount on a grader, so it could go out the next morning. It was a dumb plan and Arnold told him as much, arguing in favour of grinding it down and welding it, rather than patching it. After some skirmishing back and forth, Pete got huffy, despite how illogical his solution seemed. Even Artless had sided—via his uncharacteristic silence—with Arnold.
“It’ll just break again, unless we fix it proper,” Arnold said aloud, lost in the memory and reliving his frustration. He recalled Pete’s red face and how he had suddenly nodded and replied, “That’s not a bad idea, Thiessen, come to think of it. Not bad at all… Fix things proper and for good.”
He figured he knew me… Pete thought, the old fury welling up along with the feeling of being corralled, wedged in. Nullified. But he didn’t. He just judged me based on the flaws in his own character.
“What are you talkin’ about, Gramps?” Isabel said in a tinkling voice, scrunching her nose and staring up at him as they wandered along the gravel path.
“Oh, shoot! I’m sorry, honey. Never mind me!”
“Okay,” she said, skipping a few steps. “But what were you talkin’ about? What’s ‘gonna break’?”
“I was just thinking about something that happened to me when I was a young guy and Nana Brenda and I lived around here, before we moved back to Winnipeg.”
The little girl was fascinated at the thought of her grandparents being young and moving across the country. She loved the stories about her mother as a child, too. “Oh, yeah. After you moved here from Manitoba?” she quickly asked, hoping for more.
“An’ you guys came here on your motorcycle, and Nana just haaanging on to you, an’ you had long hair and everything…”
“Yep.” He saw the Triumph, low and wide, almost new and Brenda sitting on it, her eyes cornflower blue, her belly already swollen and rounded. “And your momma was there too, but she was hitchhikin’ with Nana.”
Nothing could have been better, happier, than those days. Nothing ever, except maybe Izzy, now, but that’s its own special thing. One thing built on the other. He felt the pride and the richness of the years. So too, he felt the resentment, salty as tears, being in this place and reliving the old thoughts again.
Isabel beamed. “Yeah, an’… an’ my mom wasn’t borned yet,” the little girl said. Then, suddenly serious, “And Nana had got in trouble,” she added, her voice level as Oma Ruth’s — level as wet cement. “And you and Nana had your get-out-of-Hartplatz-free card?”
“Uh-huh. We got let out for bad behaviour…”
“Yep, for bad behaver…” she repeated, cheeks dimpled, head cocked sideways. “That’s what my mom always says. An after you worked here at the zoo, you and Nana took my mom when she was just a baby and moved back to Winnipeg?”
“You got it, Izzy.”
“How come you and Nana did all that movin’ around? How come you guys dint just stay in Hartplatz like Oma?”
“Good question, smarty-pants. Maybe we shoulda stayed in Hartplatz and maybe we should have stayed here in B.C. too, instead of moving to Winnipeg. It was a heckuva thing that made us move, each time…”
“Yeah, a heckuva thing… Like the bridge, and like Bobby Hull too,” she replied, her large eyes looking past the knotted blackberry vines, past the red leafed maples and into the dark cathedral of hemlock beyond. She slipped her hand free from his and ran ahead.
Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. His writing appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies.
Follow him on the trails, on the water, across the winter ice, or more conveniently at Mitchellaneous.com, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
The small object sat on his side table all night, where he kept examining it as he woke up intermittently until first light. He found something else wrong with it every time he looked. Frustration cursed him but there was something comforting about seeing it next to him as he slept; imperfections and all.
When he woke, he carefully preserved it with bubble wrap, then old newspaper taped outside.
Even though anxiety was tight in his chest, he knew he needed to do it. With a sigh, he placed the circular wrapping at the top of his backpack to ensure it wouldn’t get broken. He still found himself staring at the spot it occupied as he dressed, as if he might magically gain X-Ray vision so he could keep finding faults.
He didn’t see her all morning, which only gave him more time to let his mind run wild.
Why do I care so much?
It was lunch time when he finally spotted her in the cafeteria. The grip he’d been holding on his backpack tightened at the sight of her friends. He took a clean breath. He would wait until she was alone.
The gift stayed placed with care at the top of his backpack for several days before he got his chance. It was the end of the day on Friday when he found her sitting alone.
She was on the bleachers, legs braced against the row in front of her. As he approached, he could see a notebook on her lap. Right hand guided a pencil lightly around the page, making gentle curves and lines. Her pretty face was keen with focus, long copper hair dipping down to scratch the page. Certain she hadn’t heard him approach, he prepared himself to just walk away.
He turned to leave, stopped only by her head popping up. She examined him curiously, and greeted him with that smile she often wore.
Straight to the point, Lazarus came up next to her and put down his backpack on the seat. He opened it, pulling out the gift. He shoved it towards her, trying not to make eye contact while simultaneously being too curious to look away.
She took it hesitantly, setting it on top of her notebook for a moment.
Just in case it was too terrible to tell, he cocked his head toward the paper blob and said, “It’s a gift.”
He thought he saw her cheeks redden in his peripheral. He could hear the crinkling of paper as she opened it, then silence.
When he finally worked up the courage to look, he was shocked by her reaction. She held the wooden fox in her palm as if it was made of glass, admiration filling her kind, brown eyes. “Oh my goodness! Laz, it’s beautiful. Did you make this?”
Before she could give it back, or tell him that the ear was bent, he picked up his backpack and started to walk home.
Bellamy Cole comes from Red Deer, Alberta. They write songs, poetry and prose, and are currently pursuing education to become a minister.
Non-Fiction. Edited by Olga Stein
Hérnan E. Humaña, Non-Fiction
From the Introduction to Playing Under the Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile (book edited by Olga Stein)
There is nothing original about decrying human rights violations, killings and disappearances—be it in Pinochet’s Chile or elsewhere in the world. And yet, I’m convinced that this book offers a novel perspective even where this subject is concerned. The perspective is different precisely because it is that of an athlete who had a position on Chile’s national volleyball team during a period of terrible political and social upheaval. Pinochet’s Chile was a dangerous place to be, especially for anyone who disagreed with his political agenda. To do so as a public figure was to court imprisonment, torture or execution. Victor Jara, one of Chile’s most celebrated folk artists, was cruelly tortured and murdered by Pinochet’s soldiers. It would have been easy for Pinochet’s henchmen to dispose of someone like me, a mere athlete. This story, then, is unique because I was conscious of the danger. I knew that unimaginable violence could be waiting for me around any corner, yet I chose to stay. Chile was my country, and I was proud of having a position on the national volleyball team; I didn’t want to lose either.
From Chapter 15, “Coup d’état”—Night Falls on Chile
night falls on chile
Perhaps those who lacked freedom understand its value better than anyone.
— Carlos Fuentes, This I Believe
Do you recall what you were doing on September 11th? This is one of the most commonly asked questions since 9/11. I remember September 11 with terrible clarity. I was twenty years old. I was on my way to university when I heard the drone of planes overhead. As I reached the main street, Irarrázabal Avenue, to catch a bus, I noticed that people were agitated, their faces anxious. I remember feeling rage more than fear; that happens when you are twenty, with no life other than your own to protect, and not much to lose.
Tuesday, September 11, 1973, was a catastrophic day for Chile. It was the day of the coup, the start of our nightmare. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that America played a major part in the coup; it had conspired with, and supported those who attacked and overthrew the government. On that 9/11, Americans were the instigators, the perpetrators, the condemnable malefactors. We were hoping that we could wake up from this nightmare—that like any nightmare, it would end. Ariel Dorfman describes our disbelief in clear words: “This can’t be happening to us… If it’s a nightmare, why can’t we awaken from it?”
My home at the time was in the Residencia del Comité Olímpico (Olympic Committee Residence). It was a handsome, two-storey structure amply decorated with stained glass and tastefully appointed. It stood on Salvador Street, close to Irarrázabal Avenue. The building had served as the Chinese Embassy until the Chilean Olympic Committee bought it to house its national teams’ athletes. The food was excellent, the rooms clean and bright. Staying with us were two Cubans, a wrestling coach and a baseball coach; they were part of a sports exchange program Chile had initiated with Cuba.
I had many classes to attend that Tuesday. I left for El Físico early in the morning. On the way there, I noticed that cars were speeding. People everywhere where talking. The streets were teeming with rumours. When I arrived at the university, I heard the news: soldiers from the army and the navy—all those with uniforms, except the fire-fighters—had taken part in an attack on the presidential palace. Allende, a democratically elected president, had been ousted. The army, in other words, had trampled on our democratic institutions, including the Chilean Constitution, that sacred instrument that had provided political stability in the country for decades. In fact, we had always assumed with pride that Chile was the oldest democracy in Latin America (an honour that actually goes to Costa Rica, the only country in the Americas that does not have a military).
At school I encountered more worried faces. No one knew how to react, what to do….At one point during all the confusion, Chico Aviléz, a professor of administration at the school, called all the students to a meeting. Apparently, he had been appointed the interim director of the school by the new military authorities. At the meeting, he told us that we had thirty minutes to leave the premises. Everything seemed to be changing so quickly. It felt as if the country was taking its last breath.
We left the Físico reluctantly. This was our Físico, our home. Yet the situation did not allow for sentimental reflection. We vacated the Físico, crossing one of the two soccer fields where so many of our games had taken place. We headed toward El Pedagógico (the Faculty of Education), located a few blocks away. Hundreds of students had congregated there to try and devise a plan of action. On the way there, I witnessed something frightening, which only served to increase my sense of dislocation. I saw a man with a pistol stealing a pick-up truck. He shot the driver before fleeing. I wondered sluggishly who the driver was, and which side the shooter was on.
As more details about what had transpired began to reach us, hopes for any organized action faded. We did not have the weapons or the necessary military training to put up any effective resistance. Then we learned that the unthinkable had happened: La Moneda had been bombed. We could hear the planes flying overhead, but we did not know they were actually bombing the presidential palace.
All of a sudden, we were being urged through loudspeakers to leave the school grounds. Otherwise, we were warned, we would be attacked and shot at. Incredibly, as if some wild nightmare had come true, tanks were assembled outside the university, cannons pointing at us while their engines filled the air with their monstrous exhalations. The more I remember these scenes, the more I respect the Chinese hero who stood in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
We dispersed by jumping fences surrounding the compound and running away. The university was quickly deserted. I began to walk as fast as I could toward the residence on Salvador Street. When I reached it, I discovered that most of my fellow athletes were already there. In a plucky, and perhaps stupid move, we decided to lower the national flag to half-mast as a sign of mourning.
The administrator of the residence, the son-in-law of a general, a supporter of the coup and ex-plainclothes policeman, [returned] late that night. He was drunk. He called me into his office and with tears in his eyes, begged me not to do anything stupid. Then he proceeded to relate what had happened to him. He had left the residence happy. He had gone to have some drinks to celebrate the end of democracy and the death of Allende. As he told me this, I became irate and shouted that he was a fascist. Nonchalantly, he continued his story. He had been caught drunk by a military patrol and taken to the national stadium. The stadium, an emblem of national pride, had been converted into a prison and torture facility. There was killing and torture taking place there, and the administrator had witnessed some of the atrocities. He described these scenes without emotion; it was clear that the suffering of others aroused no sympathy in him. While there, he had laboured to convince the officials in charge that his father-in-law was a general. His refined manner of speaking finally won them over, and they decided to check with the appropriate authorities. His claim was verified and he was allowed to leave.
Now that he was back, his goal was to dissuade me from doing anything that would be noticed by the military patrols scouring the neighborhoods. He told me that he realized we had our ideological differences (a major understatement!), but he had always liked me and appreciated my honesty. He didn’t want me to end up in the stadium tortured like the other fools he had seen. The more he talked, the more upset I became; I was beginning to comprehend more fully the dark times ahead. That night, we went to sleep with the knowledge that our president was dead, that we no longer had democracy, and that our country was in a ruthless war with itself, implacably divided, haemorrhaging.
The next day, on September 12, a general curfew was imposed. After lunch, a military patrol arrived without warning at the Olympic residence. The soldiers who entered our residence so imperiously were young, their youth out of keeping with the cold way they stared at us. They ordered all of us to stand against the wall in the main hall and to spread our legs. As we lined up in front of them, a number of soldiers went to the second floor to search the bedrooms….While the soldiers were upstairs, it occurred to me that I had two books on Marxism in my room. I had purchased them at the Parque Forestal book fair earlier that year. It dawned on me suddenly and painfully that possessing any book with ideological links to Communism would suffice to have me promptly dispatched for interrogation at the national stadium. I became convinced that I was about to be dragged off, that I was done for!
As I anticipated, one of the soldier on the second floor shouted, “Sergeant! Sergeant!” A cold sensation gripped my spine. I was only twenty, too young to die, I thought self-pityingly. I exchanged apprehensive glances with my fellow athletes: the national champion in cycling, the national champion in long distance running, the national champion in road cycling, another volleyball player, el “Negro Ulloa,” my roommate. All of us waited with silent trepidation to hear about the discovery made on the second floor.
The soldier who had called for the sergeant showed up at the top of the stairs. He displayed a baseball bat, and stated with pride, “Sergeant, look at what I found.” The bat resembled a weapon called linchako, one that was commonly used at that time by students and other demonstrators. The soldier must have thought that he had discovered a weapon and got excited. The sergeant took one look and said with some embarrassment, “It’s a baseball bat you idiot. Come down and let’s go. There is nothing here.” In the 1970s baseball was as yet unknown in Chile. The man’s confusion was consequently understandable. After the soldiers’ departure, I sought the privacy of a bathroom to recover from the ordeal.
September 12 was also the day that Victor Jara, a celebrated Chilean folk singer, theatre director, and poet, was arrested and brought to the Estadio Chile. There is something ironic and utterly twisted about the transformation of sport facilities into detention camps and centers for torture. How does a site for venerating the nation’s highest achievements become, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, a site for inflicting the cruelest forms of degradation? Victor Jara was killed on September 15. Forty-four bullets were lodged in his body. In 2003, the Estadio Chile was renamed Estadio Victor Jara.
On September 13, the curfew was lifted for a several hours. I stepped outside the compound, which was surrounded by tall walls topped with iron spikes to protect the priceless contents inside. The day was cloudy and there was a slight wind. The side streets appeared deserted. As I was looking around, I saw one of our neighbours from three houses down waiving to me. I had spoken to him on several occasions, but I didn’t know him well. As I approached him, I could see that he was walking with some difficulty. He was short, a bit rotund, and his hair was black and curly. He wore a white dress shirt. He invited me into his house. As I entered his home for the first time, I couldn’t but notice the modesty of its interior. The living room was small and dark, containing only a few pieces of furniture, and the walls were bare. More importantly, the man was obviously in pain and in some kind of distress.
And then he described what had happened to him. It was a story of unspeakable suffering, one whose tragic outlines, like some literary genre that had unexpectedly gained wide currency, would become all too familiar over the course of the next few years. He began recounting the horror he had been through. He spoke slowly, as if seeing life around him in some terrible new light. On September 11, he was arrested by a military patrol and taken to the national stadium, where he was tortured. His interrogators wanted to know who was organizing the resistance in his neighbourhood. He was burned with cigarette butts, and electric cattle prods were applied all over his body. He raised his shirts to reveal purple bruises and burns all over his skin. It was shocking. I didn’t know what to say. How could I communicate my compassion for him? Nobody is taught proper etiquette for dealing with victims of torture.
“Anything I can do to help you?” I asked him. “Just listen,” he responded. “I was tortured incessantly for two days. This morning they released me. They released me because I gave them what they wanted—a name.” He was staring at me intently, and as I looked into his eyes, I understood. How does a human being behave when tortured? Would I be any different if the same pain was inflicted on me? As I was leaving his house, he said softly, “I am so sorry!”
My head was spinning. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I had not been in touch with my family since the coup, and now with frightening clarity it occurred to me that I couldn’t assume that they were safe. In deed, my father had been taken to a concentration camp and my mother was frantically looking for him, but I did not know it at the time.
I didn’t return to the residence. Instead, I walked the streets, feeling numb and dazed….I would stay in Rulo’s home for a couple of weeks. Rulo was a friend from Manuel and a volleyball player as well. His dad was a general, although the “wrong” kind given the new reality; he was a constitutionalist! Nevertheless, the house was well protected, and Rulo could come and go without having his car searched. The plan was perfect; I would hide in the wolf’s den.
After two weeks at Rulo’s, it was time to move on. I exchanged tight embraces with everyone in the house, and left with the notion of hiding in my grandparents’ cottage. My grandparents and my great-grandmother had retired in a small, charming town, Villa Alemana, near Valparaiso and 107 km north-west of Santiago. Rulo and I would not meet again until 2009. Nearly 40 years later, we reunited in Mexico City during a conference I attended. This too was the meaning of exile: our precious friendships lost or abandoned for decades.
It was during my time at Rulo’s that we heard the news about Pablo Neruda. Our 1971 Nobel laureate had died on September 23. The poet who had guided those in search of love, and had given solace to the broken-hearted by delving into the deepest depths of his own despair had left us. The poet who had saved so many Spaniards during the Spanish Civil War, and who had left a legacy of soulful words, had departed instead of living through another period of turmoil. Despite his absence, Neruda is deeply ingrained in those who dare to confront the dark side of life, and those who still believe in the beauty of humanity. Neruda’s passing made me see how even-handed death is; nobody, not even the greatest of poets, is immune from it. I realized too that the death of our democracy was accompanied by other irrevocable losses. In a couple of weeks Chile had lost three of its giants: Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda. My poor country! What is being done to you, I lamented.
Hernan E. Humaña lives in Toronto and divides his days between teaching, coaching, and writing. He teaches social and cultural issues related to health, physical activity, and sports, as well as the history and politics of the Olympic Games at York University’s Faculty of Health, School of Kinesiology and Health Science. His daughter, Melissa, will be representing Canada as in beach volleyball at the next Olympic Games.
- WRITING PLAYS AND POEMS WHICH NO ONE NEEDS
I had a student who fell totally in love with me or, rather, not so much with me as with what I had my students do during those fifty minutes they spent in my class. Usually, we would read a short play, each student playing the character of his or her own choosing, and once their imaginations were sufficiently tickled, I would tell them to write their own play. And they did. Without being told how to do it, without boring lectures on the structure of a play, they wrote short plays, usually about kids their own age in the throes of “a problem” with a parent, another kid, or…well, a bear or wolf. Soon enough they were writing not only short plays but also poems and stories. It all happened naturally, without my forcing them to do it, or explaining how it is done. Monica, the student I mentioned in the first sentence here, seemed so much in love with writing that I didn’t know how to stop her when the bell rang. First, she wrote only in my class, then she started writing at home, and she would report on her home writing activities on our way from their main classroom to mine with so much zest that I had to temper it somehow. She wrote during summer vacation, and when she came back in September, she showed me a folder which seemed to be bursting at the seams: “See, how much I wrote, Miss Nina!” She would write stories and poems and plays, and when I stood in front of a class, she smiled when I smiled, laughed at all my jokes, even not very funny ones, and looked at me with adoration, which I thought was almost too much. That’s why I was a bit surprised when her parents, during one of our usual parent meetings, told me that Monica was just wasting time in my class and that they want her to stop coming to me. “But she loves to write,” I said, perhaps a bit more defensively than I should have. “She is missing a science class,” they said, “and certainly science is more important than writing little plays and poems that no one needs, and which will not bring her any income in the future. “Ask her,” I said, “whether she wants to stay in my class. I’m sure she wants to stay; she loves writing. And it’s generally not a good idea to do anything against a child’s will.”
I don’t know what happened at Monica’s home, what sort of conversations the parents had with their daughter, but one day, when I came to work, I saw a letter from the homeroom teacher in my mailbox (not an email, but a real one: they still exist). The letter said that the parents decided to pull their daughter from my class as they didn’t want her to miss science. That day, when I came to pick up my group, I waved to Monica and said, “I can’t take you anymore because your parents…” She nodded and stayed in her seat. In the following days and weeks, when I came to pick up her group, she didn’t just remain in her seat — she didn’t even look at me. At first I wondered about it. How can this be? I thought she loved my class, loved to write, and she adored me to the point which seemed to be almost too much. And now she didn’t seem to remember that she came to my class every Tuesday and Thursday for two years, writing all those “little plays and poems that no one needs,” as her father put it. Ah, parents’ influence! It’s a thousand times stronger than that of any teacher, no matter what they say.
LOVE THY MOTHER
Before I tell you what happened, I have to tell you that my mother is very old, and like many old people, she needs help with sitting up, lying down, eating, all the usual daily functions, except standing, because with or without help, she is not able to stand, period. When she lived with us, she had to have a home care aide at our home all day. If you never lived with a complete stranger in the middle of your rather small living space, you wouldn’t understand why it was hard, so just take my word for it. We couldn’t use the kitchen or the bathroom; as the aide was always doing something with my mother in the middle of the apartment–no matter what part of the apartment they actually were in—it felt like a “middle”, because our place was small.
After my mother—like most Russian speakers, I call her “mama”—fell down in our bathroom two and a half years ago, she was taken to our local hospital. Doctors told me that she had broken several bones. A week later she was transferred to a rehab to receive physical therapy. To make a very long story short, she was not able to do anything in physical therapy; she couldn’t even to swing her legs while seated in her wheelchair. She certainly wasn’t able to return to the timorous perambulation of the period before her fall. Without my knowledge, she was transferred from the sixth floor to the fifth: the same place that was called “rehab” was now called “nursing home.”
I go there so often that I know every nurse and every aide by name; I know all patients by name and how often they are visited. Some are visited by their grown children every Sunday, or Saturday. Most are not visited at all. Mama is lucky: she is the only one on the entire floor who is visited every day. I’m not going to tell you what a good person I am or that I feel about my visits what Sisyphus must have felt about his rock: my visits do nothing, yet I’m condemned to go there and spend several hours a day in this place of shadows.
Mama had a roommate who was somewhat younger than her, which doesn’t mean that she was young. Valentina had two things that made her situation much worse than mama’s: she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, and she was never visited. She had two grown daughters, a son, and six grandchildren. I saw their photos on a wall near her bed, but I never saw any of them in person. When I was in the room, she would ask me to give her a glass of water or to turn off her light. One time an aide saw me bring a paper cup to Valentina’s mouth. She said not to do this, insisting that the lady didn’t want water, she wanted attention. Sitting by mama’s bed I would hear Valentina mutter: “Where did I go wrong?” or “Wasn’t I a good mother to them?” There were evenings when she mistook me for one of her kids and asked about her grandchildren. When it first happened, I told her I was visiting my mama, but the next time I remained silent. Why disillusion a person who has nothing left?
One day I saw Valentina lying with an oxygen mask on her face. I had seen plenty of patients attached to machines, so this sight was nothing special to me. Valentina was lying with her eyes closed, like usual, as if the oxygen mask wasn’t even there. That month she seemed too depressed to say anything at all; even confusing me with her children seemed beyond her strength.
She seemed to be struggling with a cord connecting her to the machine. This could be dangerous, I thought, and when she tried to pull the oxygen mask off her face, I went to call a nurse. There was no nurse on the floor, but an aide followed me into the room, untangled the cords, and placed the oxygen mask back on Valentina’s face.
When I came to see mama the next evening, Valentina’s bed was empty. She was probably taken to a hospital, I thought. The bed remained empty on my subsequent visits; after a few days, I asked a passing aide what happened to Valentina.
“She died,” the aide said. She added that Valentina’s kids had a Health Proxy, which meant they had a right to tell the nursing home staff to take her off her medications. The nursing home explained to them that she would die without her meds. They knew their mother was dying, since they themselves, basically, had engineered her death, and knowing this, they didn’t come to be with her in her last days.
That night I left at eleven thirty. When the staff came into the room at midnight, she was gone. I was the last person she saw.
A SHOP IN DUBROVNIK
When I was in Dubrovnik a couple weeks ago, I did the touristy thing: I went to see the old town. Walking down narrow streets filled with tourists, I didn’t stop at any souvenir shops because I had promised myself not to spend money and time on nonsense. I was doing pretty well until I saw a shop that looked like an artist’s studio, or a gallery. Unusual artworks, half paintings and half collage, were everywhere—on tables, on shelves, and on the floor. All the works had Jewish themes: synagogue doors, old Jews in kippahs and tallit and so on. There was only one person there, a youngish woman who was pacing the shop as she talked on the phone, and when she hung up, I asked her about the artist and why all the pictures had Jewish themes. The artist was her mother, she said, and she used Jewish themes in her works because this—she made a sweeping gesture—used to be the Jewish quarter, and over there—she waved to her right—was a synagogue… And, she added as an afterthought, people buy these paintings because they want something to show that they saw the Jewish quarter. Her mother was Croatian, not Jewish Croatian, just Croatian, and although under different circumstances I wouldn’t have cared about her mother’s roots (I make a point of not caring about such things), now I was confronted by a realization that this woman and her daughter were making money on art with Jewish themes in the old Jewish quarter that no longer had a single Jew because Croatian Jews had been wiped out in the Holocaust. I asked her point-blank about it, saying something about how the artwork made Jewish life in Dubrovnik look like a kind of glowing picnic, instead of how it was in reality. The Jews in Dubrovnik were killed, so why didn’t the art hint at what really happened? Last but not least, why were they making money by selling images of people who had been murdered?
To mitigate the harshness of my words, I used a soft voice, but she was offended anyway.
“My mother and I did not kill anyone,” she said.
“No,” I said, “Of course not. But you’re making money off the victims.”
I wanted to add a few more things, but it was hopeless; my words didn’t reach this lady, they simply irritated her, so I left the shop.
Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in US, Canadian and British journal. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myth, published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her new book of poems and translations has just been published. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.
As I talked on the phone to Aunt Layla in Damascus, I heard a bomb in the background. It was at the height of the war. It was and is my daily routine to check Facebook to make sure that the people I loved in the city were posting and, therefore, alive.
Aunt Layla was a family member by choice. I met her through my Syrian neighbor Marina in Geneva. She had visited that city three times before the war. She and Marina’s other relatives had been frequent visitors to Geneva. The entire family had taken me under its wing, where I snuggled comfortably.
During my first visit to Damascus, I was somewhat of a tourist. They showed me their country with pride. If someone had told me when I was a little girl growing up in Reading, Massachusetts, that one day I would peek into a Bedouin tent as sheep grazed nearby, or that I would watch the Syrian army on manoeuvres near the Iraqi border, I’d have refused to believe it.
Unlike tourists, I had the pleasure of living real life as if I were a Syrian woman. Marina had tried to prepare me for the lives women lead. No one is ever alone for long, she told me. Female friends see each other daily. If two friends think one is alone, they correct it by visiting. During visits they prepare food, talk, listen to music, etc. I spent one wonderful afternoon in a courtyard with three girlfriends. We opened nuts for our hostess to use in pastries. The fountain in the courtyard bubbled, the jasmine hung heavy in the air, and three turtles scoffed down what vegetation they could find.
As people come and go, there are meals usually ready all the time for whomever. Sometimes a female visitor arrives with the meal. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Lentil soup, fool, hummus, pita bread, kibi, tabouli, olives, cheese, thyme pies, etc., is always ready to be served. They drink maté. A small glass is half filled with this grass-like herb. Sugar is added, and a few shakes of cardamom. A silver straw is used to sip. Water is added several times. Once the maté is deemed too weak, the procedure starts over. The support women give each other is heartwarming to witness.
The women spoke English at various levels of competence to include me. Two took me around the city, pointing out historic sites, often accompanied by the phrase, “very, very old.” I saw the window where St. Paul is alleged to have escaped, walked the Straight street of the Bible. In one section, I watched skilled craftsmen inlay mother of pearl into a table. Craftsmen in another atelier were knotting rugs. One stop had huge sacks of nuts—more than I ever knew existed.
I spent a night in St. George’s Monastery. As I lay on my cot that night, I could hear the Gregorian chants of the monks. Dinner in the refractory was a silent affair except for a reader giving a reading from the Bible.
Nothing prepared me for the dig at Ebla. It was discovered in 1964. Archaeologists excavated there until the war stopped them. So far, they’ve uncovered three civilizations, one going back to 4000 BCE and 15,000 letters on clay tablets. The guide was a Bedouin who spoke both French and English, called me madam, and showed me where the olive oil had been pressed so long ago, as well as an example of ancient Greek graffiti. He took me to his home to meet his wife. Thanks to him, a few years in later in Rome, I met with the professor who translated the tablets until there was a complete understanding of the unearthed civilization. The book I intended to write about this has been postponed—another war casualty.
“You can’t leave Syria until you see the synagogue in the museum,” Marina said. Yara, a frequent Geneva visitor and I popped into the National Museum. At the ticket booth we were told that we didn’t need them. It was almost closing time. I got bogged down in the book room. As we were walking out with the rest of the visitors, a guard pulled us aside and took us on our own tour of the museum after it was closed. I did see the synagogue, along with several special exhibits. It turns out that someone in Yara’s French class worked there, saw us walk up the path, and called ahead for them to let us in. He then sent someone down to give us a special tour after the museum closed.
I saw the ghosts of the 1950 green Chevy that my ex-husband used to pick me up in when were in high school, and my first car, a 1951 grey Pontiac, and an old dodge with fins. In fact, I’ve seen the ghost of every car I ever had and a lot more. Most were reincarnated as yellow taxis. To cross Damascus was under $1.00, nothing like taxi prices in Geneva, which almost amount to a second mortgage.
Today, when I see the ruins of Aleppo, I want to cry. It was such a beautiful city, with wide streets combining ancient and modern. I saw Laughing Cow cheese advertisements only in Arabic and a 13th century mental hospital that practiced soothing and healing treatments that might be more effective than some current therapies. I suspect the building is rubble today.
We had late meals at restaurants—10 at night. Most had musicians who performed Western songs made famous by Englebert Humperdink, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Charles Azanavour. We heard Syrian singers. Since I’d become accustomed to the Arabian with French pop singers Faudel and Khaled, which combine rock and Arabian music, I really enjoyed each night’s music. I tried a waterpipe with strawberry-flavored tobacco. A five-course meal for six of us came to $35, which would not have bought one dinner in Geneva. But then I have to keep in mind that as a doctor Marina only made $80 a month.
In one restaurant ladies’ room, a fully veiled Moslem woman touched her scarf and pointed at me. I thought she wanted me to cover my head with the scarf I was wearing around my shoulders. I looked confused. Then she touched my hair and smiled. The woman with her said in French, “It’s your beautiful red hair.” I didn’t mention it was L’Oreal 66.6. In one town they only spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ. There was a sign that said “Sandwiches, Cassettes.” I loved the juxtaposition.
One of my neighbours in Geneva said once that she really believed as part of her religion she should be veiled. As a feminist, I’ve always found the concept difficult. In Damascus, which has a large Christian community, the veil was not that common. Older women usually covered themselves in black while younger women wore long coats and scarves. The youngest wore scarves or only normal clothing.
However, to enter the large mosque in Damascus, I had to be scarved and veiled. It felt hot and uncomfortable. The Mosque itself was beautiful and there were many areas for walking or siting on the soft carpet. I tried to understand what was so emotional in the religion. Some Iranian pilgrims were listening to the Koran and crying. My imagination, I knew, had its limits. I couldn’t feel it, only feel them feeling it.
Marina gave me firm instructions not to speak politics with anyone, but almost everyone pulled me aside at some point to talk about what it is like living in a dictatorship. Pictures of the old dead president are still everywhere, and the fact he lost his oldest son and the decreed successor is generally deemed justice for the massacre he ordered on Hamas in 1982. Each city has statues of both the dead president and the dead son. The new president, the one who didn’t want to be president, and went to medical school with Marina, had fewer photos and zero statues.
Someone told me this joke: “An American says to a Syrian, ‘I come from a free country. I can stand in front of the White House and say terrible things about President Bush.’ ‘So what,’ says the Syrian. ‘I can stand in front of the Syrian president’s house and say terrible things about Bush also.’”
There is so much people can’t learn when they travel on a tour. Hotels or even BnBs expose little of a culture. On subsequent trips there was little touring for me, but more visiting with people I cared about. At the moment they are still alive. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to go back. For now I have to be happy with seeing them on Facebook and the occasional phone call.
D-L Nelson is an American born Swiss writer who has published 15
fiction and non-fiction books including the TCK Mysteries series. She
lives in France and Switzerland with her husband, an airline journalist,
Rick Adams and her dog Sherlock.
Hollay Ghadery, Non-Fiction
Hair grows at a rate of half an inch a month. Nothing you can do to change that. Still, Porsche pulled it back into a tight ponytail after showering because she thought it would grow faster. The skin around her hairline was raw from the tension. But she was proud of her hair. Long and red, it was, she said, the most consistent thing in her life.
Porsche was a prostitute.
“Escort,” she’d corrected the first time I used the word. “I mean, yeah, it’s pretty much the same thing, but we don’t just fuck ‘em. Our guys want the girlfriend experience.”
“Escort” had been the word used in the classified ad, which had been tucked away in the back of a newspaper. I’d called the service, acquired the address and set up a meeting. Escort was the word that drew me in. If the ad had called for prostitutes, I never would have inquired. I wasn’t totally naïve — I knew that escorts had sex for money — I just hoped that maybe there were some who really just got paid to go on dates with lonely men. As someone practiced in the art of self-deception, I told myself this over and over on the day between making the appointment for my interview and the interview itself. It strengthened my resolve, even though I knew I was wrong.
Cynthia, the woman who managed the service, took one look at me when I walked through her door and said, “So, tell me your problem.”
My ex-boyfriend thought my problem was that I’d never planned my life after university. That I didn’t know what I wanted. After graduation, I tried to make the boomerang backtrack to my parents’ home, but unless I was slinging a shoulder of Smirnoff in my purse, the lack of prospects at my parents’ was unbearable. I’d expected to immediately land some prestigious job, but in all my time studying humanities, I hadn’t considered any practical application for my degree. This oversight was humiliating, especially since I’d been so confident that I’d chosen the right path by going against my father’s wishes and deciding to pursue a life of literature instead of law. I was certain a place in the world would open for me. My degree was supposed to make me stronger and more assured, but I was more lost than ever.
Then there was my ex-boyfriend. I can’t remember whether I ever told him this, but one of the reasons I left my parents and took a job in another city was to be near him. I’d sit on the edge of his bed while he slept and try to imagine his arm outstretched for me.
Within a few weeks of leaving my parents’ home again, he wasn’t my boyfriend anymore. It was too much, he’d said. I was too much.
I was sitting in front of Cynthia and she was shaking her head knowingly. “Men.” Cynthia had a rough, smoker’s laugh. “Figures.”
He wasn’t the only reason I was there, I reminded myself. I was offered a position as a writer for a media company. I thought, finally, my degree and ambitions would align with my reality. My elation was undercut by my father’s suspicions.
“He thinks you’re up to something,” my Mom had said.
“What could I possibly be up to?” I’d asked, but I already knew. It was the same thing my father always thought women were up to when they wanted their independence.
“It’s because you mentioned that boy was there,” my mom explained. “Your father thinks it’s the only reason you went back. Driven by your…well, I can’t say it. But you know.”
“He thinks I’m behaving like a whore.”
I felt reduced to a guileless, malleable mound of flesh with doll-hinge legs. I didn’t want to believe my father would think these things of me, forget about women in general. But he did. I knew he did, and I knew that no amount of discussion would change his mind. I’d tried before, but even as I was talking, I could see that he thought I was spewing lies fuelled by my base biological instinct.
“Sex,” he’d say, looking at a scantily clad woman on the street. “She just wants sex.”
So when the money I was making working as a writer wasn’t enough to keep up with payments on my student debt, living expenses and booze, and when I needed more money but couldn’t ask my dad for help without him telling me I had to come home to get it, I began to get frantic. And not just because I was broke. I’d been a student for years and was used to not having money. A financial crisis alone would not have been enough to make me answer an ad for escorts. It was a combination of everything shattered about my life: my recent breakup, my drinking, my quarter-life crisis, my bulimia and my unchecked depression and OCD.
I was an amalgam of shattered things.
“But mostly, just like I said,” Cynthia crushed a half-finished cigarette in her ashtray. “Men.”
I’d sat across from a slim, velour-jumpsuit clad Cynthia and nodded. “Yes,” I agreed. Cynthia was appraising me with practiced, professional coolness. I half expected her to check my teeth and gums. She took a deep breath and narrowed her eyes at me. I was wearing a black V-neck halter-top and low-slung black pants. I thanked God I was always two sizes smaller when I woke up after drinking. I always felt a small triumph when I shimmied into the world, dressed and deflated like that. I smiled at her, a wide, toothy grin. She smirked back.
Cynthia didn’t just manage the service. She owned it.
“A pimp,” Porsche had said, “but don’t ever call her that. She doesn’t like it and us girls try to respect one another’s delusions.”
Porsche had been assigned by Cynthia to show me around. “Show you the ropes!” Porsche had guffawed, “which incidentally are in the back-hall closet if you need them.”
Porsche had also been the one to give me the name Veronica, like the character from the Archie comic books. “Suits you. A snooty little beauty with dark hair.” She laughed, revealing a chipped eyetooth.
“I’m not snooty,” I’d said, snootily, but I liked the name; it’s aloof, cool. I could feel myself slipping away. Maybe, I’d thought, this was where I was meant to be, and bad as it was, it was bound to be easier being bad where I belonged than trying to be good where I didn’t.
Being a whore, I thought, would be nothing new for me. That word, the idea it represented, had been embedded in my psyche long before I showed up at Cynthia’s door.
According to family legend, I was named after a prostitute, a Turkish hooker my dad had met when he was doing his mandatory military service in Iran. As the story goes, my mother hadn’t known this was my namesake when she agreed to the name. My dad had told her he liked it because he’d known a girl in school by the name, and she’d been beautiful, smart and kind. I can’t even remember any longer who told me this story; it was related so long ago, and it seems I’ve been told it so many times since then, that it has become part of the narrative of my life. I do remember the tale was supposed to be funny, and it was because my dad, who extolled virtues of modesty and purity in women, named me after a prostitute.
A few years ago, I’d asked my father if the story was true, and he asked me where I heard it. His mustache started twitching so fiercely that I just shrugged and didn’t answer. And he didn’t answer me either. We just stood there, twitching at each other. How he met the woman, my next question, ricocheted around in my skull like an errant bullet, rattling my brains until I started laughing, nervously at first, and then with my whole body.
My dad raised an eyebrow. My whole body was convulsing with sobs of laughter. He shook his head at me. Crazy girl.
My name means ‘mist around the moon.’ An abstraction of a natural wonder—something visible but without substance.
Whoever had told me the story about my name was right: it was funny.
“Desire,” Porsche had said, “is a funny thing.”
She was walking me through the job description. “A guy will walk in off the street and you can think you got him pegged by looking at him, but you can never tell what type of girl he’ll want, so don’t assume.”
She pulled her ponytail tighter. Her hair was over-processed, like a doll’s hair. It was thinning in some areas as if she’d been loved too much. “And if you want to make good money here, you have to be as many types of girls as possible.”
That, I knew, I could do.
The escort service spread out over a large second-hand store on the city’s main downtown street. It had a surprising number of rooms, including a common area—furnished with two faux-suede couches, two end tables, and a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Rocky Balboa. Right off the lounge was a kitchen that was occasionally used to prepare meals but more often for smoking and drinking tea. Beside the kitchen was Cynthia’s office and a large bathroom for the girls, complete with a Jacuzzi and plush cream-coloured bathmats. Clients never saw these areas. Once they were in the lounge, they’d go right, then down an L-shaped hall where there were two deluxe bedroom suites for high-paying in-house customers, five smaller rooms for regular clients, and a well-maintained bathroom with a shower stall, toilet, and sink, also for clients.
Out of the twenty-three girls who worked for Cynthia, I ran into about a third coming in, going out, or sitting around the service during the evening I spent there. I’d come right after work at my day job and was to stay the night to see how I liked it. Other than Porsche, none of the girls spoke to me. I had not expected this—to be shunned.
“Don’t take it personally,” Porsche said. “It’s not that they don’t like you, but some girls find this job will drain them dead if they start giving themselves away to everyone who wants a little of their attention. They’re just conserving energy.”
The next morning, I was woken up by Porsche looking for something in her purse. I’d been sleeping on the couch in the common area. Or trying to. It had been a busy night so I couldn’t use a room to sleep, which is what Porsche said the girls usually did when it was slow. “As slow as we get,” she’d winked. Porsche had done an outcall, which she said to do only if you knew the guy, and the only way to know the client is if he came here first. This outcall was an 18-year-old guy—a regular. His parents are out of town, she said. They left their Jag, she’d added, rolling her eyes.
“God help me if my son grows up into that sort of little shit.”
“You have a son?”, I’d asked.
She smiled at me like I was a cute woodland creature lost in a big city.
At around 2 a.m., I’d considered going home to the basement bachelor apartment I was renting and sleeping there. It was only a twenty-minute walk away, but I’d been too drunk and lonely to want to go anywhere. I’d stayed the whole night and now Porsche was looming over me. She was wearing jeans, flip-flops, and a tank-top. This was the first time I’d seen her fully dressed, but I didn’t think that right away.
I could tell she wanted to ask me how my night was but didn’t.
“Well, I’m off today!” she said, turning away and waving over her head.
Cynthia arrived shortly after Porsche left. After spending a few minutes behind the locked door of her office, she came out, eyeing me. She asked what Porsche didn’t.
“So,” she said, taking clean cups out of the draining board and putting them away. “Good night?”
She was eyeing me over her shoulder. I knew enough about Cynthia’s business-first acumen by that point to know her question was rhetorical.
I stretched and said, “Mm hm. Yeah, just fine.” I looked around for my bottle of water.
“Well, if you’ve been out here all night,” Cynthia glances around the common area. “I can’t see how that’s too good.”
During our initial interview, after Cynthia had confirmed her hunch that I was another damaged girl who’d ended up on her doorstep because of daddy-issues, she asked if I had a university education. I’d told her I thought it was a moot point, given the job for which I was applying, but she insisted that it always matters.
“It shows depth of character. Most of the girls here have some post-secondary education.” She paused to take a sip of coffee, looking at me over her cup. “Don’t act so surprised! You’re not so unique after all, huh?”….
“So.” I looked up to see Cynthia staring at me. “Last night,” she repeated. “How was it?”
I look back down at my phone. “It was all right.”
No messages. There were pebbles in my veins; a tumbling, sinking feeling in my stomach.
“Huh?” Cynthia said.
“I said it was okay.”
“So no one then.”
I nod my head. No one.
One of the first things Cynthia had told me was that no girl had to do anything she didn’t want to do. (“A couple regulars have a foot-fetish, but more than a few of the girls here don’t want no one touching their fucking feet”). She also said protection was a must. “Condoms all the time. No exceptions. Ever. Even for oral sex. Use them. Don’t let them go down on you.”
“I let one guy eat me out,” Porsche told me later. “I just put some cellophane over my pussy and let him go to town. He has a wife so I figure he’s gotta be a pretty good guy. You know, like, pretty clean.” She shrugged and I shrugged too—a baffled reflex to her logic. “Of course, I make him pay extra for it.”
Cynthia also told me no-one was under any obligation to discuss their earnings. Each girl was free to decide her own prices and adjust them as she saw fit. As long as she slipped $40 under Cynthia’s office door for use of the room, no questions were asked. During the night I was there, I never heard any of the girls talk about the money or the men. They’d lead a guy down the dark hall to one of the rooms and then, usually just a few minutes later, they’d lead him out.
In between clients, they’d sit around the lounge in their various states of undress. One, in pastel lingerie. Another girl, with long, perfectly manicured dreads, wore a white lace bodysuit. Another carried off the Daisy Duke look with incredible precision. I wore yoga pants and a silk camisole. I knew I wasn’t going to attract many, if any, clients dressed like this, especially when stacked up against the other girls. That was also the point. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to attract anyone.
I didn’t say that then, though. When, before leaving for the evening, Porsche had questioned me about my clothing choice, I’d repeated what Cynthia had told me.
“Confidence sells. Wear what makes you feel good.”
What makes you fuckable, was what she really meant, which was why Porsche just said, “Uh huh, right,” then left. Which was also why Cynthia was now standing in the kitchen doorway staring at me. One of her arms was propped against the frame, and her hips jutted forward.
She was likely over forty but something about her stance made me think of a haughty schoolgirl. For a moment, she held my gaze, unblinking, and then sighed, dropping her arm. “Okay. Well, morning kiddo. Grab me a coffee before you come back this evening. None of that Splenda shit. Real sugar.”
It was a Saturday so I didn’t have to go to my day job. I went back to my apartment and got dressed for a run. My mouth was dry and my head pounding from all the booze the night before, but I needed to run off the nervous energy. The grungy film of guilt. Tying up my laces, I wondered briefly if anyone who saw me on the street would be able to guess where I’d come from, what I had been doing or intending to do at some point. As I ran, did I emit a bordello musk? A crimson aura? Did I look, I wondered, like I could be a prostitute?
I was six years old the first time I saw a prostitute, and I don’t know if I actually remember the girl or if I’ve just been told the story so many times that I think I do. Regardless, it goes like this: It was 1987 and I’m in Pat Pong—Bangkok’s night market and red-light district—with my family. My father was still travelling for work and had decided to take us with him.
The air was warm and smelt like fried food and high tide, even though there was no water nearby. My mom had always been a bold traveler, never shrinking from trying new food or venturing out on her own, but that night she was nervous, even though she was trying to exude an air of confidence. You had to be confident in these places, my dad had explained, or people will try to take advantage you. But my mom was tense. A few moments before, we had almost lost my younger brother after he’d fallen slightly behind. When she realized he wasn’t with us, she turned around to see him a metre or so away. A man had one hand over my brother’s eyes, and another around his chest and was backing him out of the crowd. My mother walked up to the man, a tight, rubber band smile stretched across her face. She took my brother’s hand and walked away. She hadn’t wanted to alarm my brother, or the man, she told my brothers and me years later. She tried to appear calm and even friendly. But she was terrified, she said. She’d never been so terrified in her life.
The rest of the night mom had us maintain an even closer proximity to her, my younger brother holding her hand, and my older brother and I only permitted to circle her in tight satellite orbits. My dad was busy haggling with market vendors for scarves and jean jackets and hats. My brothers and I made our way through the packed, narrow street, delighted and a little scared. In one stall, there was an ape with a hatchet, cutting off turtles’ heads. The woman manning this booth held a cobra by the throat, its tail thrashing wildly. She was trying to convince my mother to let me try a drink. Turtle blood mixed with a little bit of cobra venom. A delicacy, she’d said. It was good for the complexion and would make a beautiful girl even more beautiful.
My mom shook her head but thanked the woman before we moved on. The crowd intensified while the number of vendor stalls dwindled. And the people—they were mainly men. My dad nudged my mother and pointed to a young girl sitting on the lap of much older man outside a bar. My mother looked, her face impassive, but she’d pulled me in closer to her. The girl’s hair hung long and limp. Her lipstick was licorice red and she was wearing a white bathing suit.
I was holding a box. Packed in cotton inside were a tarantula and a scorpion, dead, pumped full of formaldehyde. Their glossy black bodies were perfectly still and this scared the hell out of me. But from the moment I’d seen them, I’d wanted them.
The man was whispering something in the girl’s ear. She smiled into her shoulder and wiggled around like a kitten. I remember thinking she was lovely.
Desire is a funny thing.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer living in small town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry has been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The Fiddlehead. Her memoir-style book, Fuse, is due out in Spring 2021 with Guernica Editions.
Poetry. Edited by Nancy Ndeke
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews
One Meaning So many words Lose their meaning. I seek the one Pure sound Of hope, love, life. Everything else is detritus. A cacophony of insignificance. Words for the sake of rhyme. Clever concoctions of the trite. I want to imagine a world Washed clean of rationalizations. People in harmony Raked of the junk of skewed philosophies. Stop displaying the gore of the killings. Enough with the glorification of error for profit. Enough of the lessons never learned. History, it seems, is the timeline of the insane and the popular The shockingly evil, the inhuman. Give me a new page. I want to stand barefoot. A child in awe of an eclipse. The ocean at my ear, in a seashell. Give me a pen and paper Where I can doodle away the inhumanities of my time Safe from the squawking of the uninformed and the disillusioned.
First published in A Jar of Fireflies, Mosaic Press, 2015
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews is a poet, an author, and a teacher. She has written seven collections of poetry. Her work has been published in many journals and anthologies. Her poems have won many prizes. Josie was born in Italy. She currently lives and writes in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.
Siti Ruquaiya Hashim
THIS LOVE This love crept slowly and I didn’t want to be in a hurry giving space to myself to my heart to my soul and letting Him showed the way and directions where my steps will take me where my heart will be in the cold silent night of the sufi rites and prayers In this dungeon of feelings Am I Or you are the one waiting? And we dance non- stop Many mesmerizing steps. Kuala Lumpur-Pogradec July 2018-October 2018 POEM FOR MY ELDEST SON In this non-stop journey everytime I pass by a duty free shops you are the one I remembered most due to missing you because I no longer go into those shops to buy CK and Hugo Boss perfumes your favorites because I don’t know when we will meet and I can't bear to see those bottles because it will worsened my missing you My son I never stop praying that you will be safe and well and we will meet again soon in loving embraces a mother to her eldest son. Pristina-Istanbul-Tunis February-March 2019. TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF Warm embracement was still felt with gleaming flickering eyes as if unbelievable the non-stop smiles in between broodings whispers of love during journey repeated again and again insanity of borderless jelousies traits disgusting but charming tight hugs when parting with whispers of sadness portrayed in the eyes asking me to take good care of myself not to go back to miseries and traps of yesterday and cemented promises we will meet again. Ah! it's like only yesterday silky thread of love tied and knotted Skopje- Tetovo Winter 2018
Siti Ruqaiyah Hashim (Rokiah Hashim) from Malaysia since 1987 published her poems and short stories in mainstream literature magazines and newspapers. From 2007 she wrote in her column in a major newspaper and published a film critic book (2015). A bi-lingual poetry collection titled ‘Katharsis’/Catharsis in English and Bahasa Melayu was published in 2015 and in Spanish (2016). She published bi-lingual anthology together with 12 other world peace poets titled News From Strasbourg (2017). She published second bi-lingual peace anthology together with 16 other world poets titled Peace Be Upon You Davos(2019). She translated Epal Tetovo/Apples of Tetovo of Shaip Emerllahu’s poems (2019). Her poetry collections was translated into Albanian titled Rerat E Sri Lavender( 2019). She published translated poems of Jeton Kelmendi titled Love In A War Time/ Cinta Di Musim Perang (2020). Her poems were translated into 16 languages. Her works appear in many International magazines. Her poems and film articles won in festivals in and outside Malaysia and she received many international awards.
The Flying Habits of Butterflies Butterflies do not fly very high. They grace forest and canyon and sunny woodland glades play on streams of light splashing through leafy canopies. They rise and fall. Pass into shadow and out. Delicate even the light might bruise them. Is that why they stay close to the ground? Is she loathe to test her wings because she might fail? What made her think she’d falter? Who told her to stay low? Someone concerned that the beating of her wings might cause a hurricane. Or that she might achieve the full potential of flight Touch the sky. Reach above The sky is never the limit. Just a page to write on. And yet, butterflies do not fly very high. Even when we could carry each other up with the collective wind of our own beating wings. A defiance against those who would have us stay low Rise. Grace the sky. And if it pleases bring forth a fucking hurricane.
Marthese Fenech is the bestselling author of historical novels, Eight Pointed Cross and Falcon’s Shadow, set in sixteenth-century Malta and Istanbul. Most people call her Mar. Research for her Siege of Malta trilogy has taken her to the ancient streets her characters roamed, the fortresses they defended, the seas they sailed, and the dungeons they escaped. Obstinate curiosity has led her to sixty-five countries across six continents.She does her best plot-weaving while hiking mountain trails, wandering local markets, paddle boarding cliff-sheltered bays, and sitting at home with her Siberian husky curled at her feet. Learn more at https://marthesefenech.com
Leadership has gone to the dogs Have you seen our leaders, of late? The way they move around in circles and curves on endless never ever streets to nowhere? The ones who talk the language of insults instead of vision and inspiration? Cloaked in entitlement suits like Heaven’s former best friend turned into proud Lucifer in alien betrayals of competition and jealousy? Forced among us to live as men yet still hallucinating over their angelic titles? Do they still live in our country or planet earth? Or feel our pain and messed up tidings? Draw closer, friends of justice Turn on that microscopic reel. Adorn your insect eyes. Roll the film into this action-packed movie Our leaders betrayed us for 30 pieces of silver And a pandemic without a head or tail Worse than the taste of bats and vultures Wololololololololo! Charisma swishes and swirls in pungent sewers overflowing rotten smelly dumpsites Of Kichinjio slums to the blocked messy drainages of city morgues. Leadership is long dead, buried under the old pumpkins in grandma’s backyard The people we entrusted with our lives have sold us for a song Before us lie stooges. Corruption swims through stench fed tunnels filled with plague infested mice into dirty money banks stashed with stolen millions Leadership has gone to the dogs Our leaders bark and wail like wolves when the justice bell sounds. Leadership has joined rebellious stray dogs in the wild streets of Survival, Fame, and Impunity Like runaway creatures, they have evaded their duties and gone rogue They live by the gun and bite bullets with reckless abandon. Bullet on neck is the only meal they serve for free. Corruption, sweats thick and red on our leader’s bodies like a lost distressed hippo uprooted from her home waters by the overflowing gushy floods of River Nyando, my beloved home. Tender after tender, nepotism trail beats the snail River-bed eggs float far and wide to hatch into mystery babies in distant lands. Babies who later feed on the populace that nurtured them to full life. Who will listen to the birds crying over lost nests and fat worms? Leadership has lost its agenda of humanity to man Empathy is the language of fools They dish out cruelty from their wallet like Bank Notes Liars with burnout for apology Leadership was once a respectable mien Till they rode the devil’s midnight train And now wear their clothing inside out Their steely laughter at our poverty and helplessness pierces through our hearts Like an electric train running the high-speed track Crashing every object within its path. Chuku chuku chuku, Chaga chaga chaga chaga chuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu Are these the sons of our fathers and mothers? Our flesh and blood? Do they bleed water instead of blood? Are these the heroes and heroines of justice and freedom who once begged us to send them to represent us? I weep for lost Charisma. Charisma, that once comprised the likes of Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Wangari Maathai, Wangu wa Makeri, Luanda Magere, Maya Angelou, Owino Misiani, Grace Ogot, Asenath Bole Odaga, Grace Onyango, Micere Mugo? Show your face to us once more Charisma now swishes and swirls in pungent overflowing sewers from the rotten smelly dumpsites of Kichinjio slums, slimes its way confidently through Kibera, Kuruu Bay, Mathare, Mburukenge, Mukuru kwa Njenga, Ajegunle, Pandpieri, Kazenga, Kennedy Road Durban, Kisumu Ndogo, Kayole, Obunga, Shomo;u, Kangemi, Ilaje, Agbobloshie, Kangemi Ushaguni, Kiambui, Kawangware, Korogocho, Makoko, West Point, Nyalenda, Nima, Alexandra Gauteng, Ezbet-El-Haganna, North Philly to the blocked messy drainages of our city morgues, state houses - and white houses Our new crop of leaders have shed off their scales of integrity like a reborn cobra slithering through dark dangerous forests to impress its snaky in-laws. They move past trees like thieves in the night as the branches whisper, “there goes another one of the human races, what a pity that they have lost the train.” Shiny on the outside, they hiss with poisonous venom inside, ready to swallow its prey before the last glimpse of the sunset, when witches begin their midnight dance. Sometimes they join the dance. Our leaders jump the campaign trails like dogs on Summer heat as our mothers, daughters, sons and partners die on ventilators, lick the floor of un-sanitized, bed-less hospitals and feed on ambulances for dinner. They feed us on masks, social distancing, lockdown, job losses and hydroxychloroquin for dinner as their families go out bowling, party beaching, homeschooling and vacationing in charted planes paid by our taxes Leadership has gone to the dogs This funeral dirge weeps for the living dead The tongue of a cow tastes sweeter than its beef Mayo, Mayo, Mayo, Mayoooo! How do you spear death when it jumps in circles? Transparency, Accountability, Integrity are their worst enemies They trample on them with heavy boots, like some deadly red scorpion that could sting them out of office They fear questions like pneumonia and gonorrhea Lie through their crooked teeth like a false witness Comedians of such great repute were never found in the history of mankind. They recommend zoom classes from their make-believe world as our children mold teachers, computers and pens from muddy clay Corruption breeds in stenches of asphyxiated watery tunnels filled with plague infested mice into dirty money banks stashed with stolen millions in foreign accounts, our money Miserable substitute for what we once called Government offices. Wild animals laugh at us from behind the bushes Turn us into their folktales at night as they warm each other to sleep They gave us their jungle job, to live in a world without rules and expectatons Leadership no longer smells of sweet perfume, a good name, experience, wisdom and role models but of the dead and living dead. Leadership is dead Transformed into a new creature, corruptible Conscience as dead as a wooden table Come let us mourn together, orphans of a rudderless nation Vision of caskets fill parliament and congress Senate is just a slip under a long skirt Leadership has changed her face We no longer recognize the disguised monster in front us Her deformed face salivating with greed and impunity Those who lead us cast tails for heads, what a checkmate! Frozen brains that see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil but yell for their gain Loud trumpets of empty nothings They only see money, hear money, eat money, sleep money Pathetic money maniacs squandering moneybags from a limping nation Leadership has gone to the dogs The world over seeks direction Charisma swishes and swirls in pungent sewers overflowing the rotten smelly dumpsites Of Kichinjio slums to the blocked messy drainages of city morgues Leadership no longer smells of sweet perfume and role models but of the dead. Leadership is dead. Vision of caskets that feed the earthworms in graveyards of lost conscience Corruption swims in stench asphyxiated tunnels filled with plague infested mice and dirty money banks stashed with stolen millions Power corrupts like stained coffee or bat poop dropped from ancient mango trees Leadership has gone to the dogs They cling to power like ticks behind ears of a sick cows They need the cow dip for healing War songs and war cries please their ears Our leaders bark and wail like wolves chasing winds Voices of reason pumped out of the brain with carbon monoxide, ammonia gas and sulphuric acid Play court jester to oppression and bullying Children yearn for leadership from parents Parents, hiding in amniotic baby sacs Sucking their thumbs in tied up placentas that stifle our freedoms and independence Parents who want to reinvent the circle and become children again Struggling to look like butternut squash and ripe Papaya As children take leadership in their own hands Leadership wastes away in squandered chances People pleasers dance lame on the stage of critical decisions Drunk with power, they topple over landmarks on the streets of sanity and accountability Leadership has gone a-roving Instability is a-prowling Cold ashes in the embers of last night’s dying fires Leaders scream ballot boxes and elections to a dying nation A nation crippled by inequity, injustice and a mysterious pandemic They have taught our children deception, insults, crookedness and selfishness They cry wolf and smother imaginary shadows for results of an un-sat exam Insulated themselves from our challenges with pride. Leadership has gone to the dogs. Leadership is in quarantine Justice weeps on the shoulders of truth and vision If hope hurries, perhaps we shall get to the boat of freedom. @omwaombaracopyright
Omwa Ombara is the Editor in Chief at Tujipange Africa Media, a diaspora based
Magazine in United States of America. A Consul at Large at
poetasdelmundo.com /POETS OF THE WORLD. A motivational speaker.
Writers Consultant with her amazing projects, Walks and Talks and Tips
for Writers Show. An International investigative journalist, poet,
vocalist, performing and visual artist. She is author of a memoir,
“God’s Child on The Run.” Published in several anthologies including
Our Secret Lives, Holding the Center and other journals of
International acclaim. Omwa is a former Bureau Chief, The Standard
Group and has published over 4000 articles in her journalism career
spanning 20 years. Her passion for standing up to power and corrupt
leaders in the media circles is unmatched. Her experience in
journalism spans from more than two decades. She stands firm against
the abuse of power, corruption and mass killings. She is an advocate
of true journalism, with a vast understanding of
global humanity issues, journalistic experiences and women rights
knowledge. She holds a postgraduate diploma in journalism and mass
communication and a BA degree from the University of Nairobi.
pj johnson, the daughter of a Yukon trapper was invested on July 1st 1994 and given the title Poet Laureate of the Yukon during a ceremony in Whitehorse where she became the first officially-invested poet laureate in Canada. A storyteller in the oral tradition, her poems stories and songs have been televised and performed nationally and globally and published widely. On Canada Day 2020 pj johnson celebrated her 26th anniversary as Poet Laureate of the Yukon. She is the longest-serving Poet Laureate in Canada.
My mother was Queen in her home This meant she didn’t toil — not in the kitchen, nor during meals. A musician, she saw certain tasks as beneath her. She cultivated an air of cultivation, attended poetry readings, enjoyed her meals while being served. Her husband sprang to his feet often, bringing and taking away dishes. My mother lorded over home and me. Whipping her hand across my face, she taught me about oppression, And to accept that someday I would have a husband with the same rights and expectation— that I would cook, clean, serve, and take away his dishes. These were life lessons, and training in womanhood. My husband’s father was King in a home, where his wife cooked, cleaned, looked after children. The father sat back at the dinner table. The mother hardly sat, was often on her feet, brought and took away dishes. It wasn’t abuse, but metrics— The math of hierarchy, or measure of uneven power, bio-politics on the home front. He was a mathematician. She had no university education. He lorded over home and wife. As luck would have it, the son I married had also been well trained To think a wife should look after his needs, Bear him children, cook, serve, and take away his dishes. Since I had an education, the calculus was different. But the hierarchy remained intact. Oppression starts in the home, and women are as culpable as men, we read nowadays. That may be true—although it’s hard to tell Who caused poet Sylvia Plath to take her life. Some blamed her wayward poet husband, He left her to write and manage her career, with children to look after, to cook and clean Some blamed her mother, conventional and rigid, who viewed domestication as a woman’s lot Some blamed the other woman, Assia Wevill. She took Plath’s place, then shared her lot. With all such tragic endings, who’s to blame? The world perhaps—mothers and fathers— for promulgating poisonous logic, and binaries that kill or maim. Homes are not meant for subjugation, But as places of love, shelter, and consideration. Poetry too when time and will permit.
Olga Stein is a contributing editor to this magazine, as well as an academic, writer, and editor. Life Lessons is part of a collection of her poems, Love Songs, which explore the theme of being a poet, being with other poets, and the writing of poetry. It is both a loving and scathing portrayal of the role that poetry plays in one’s personal life and relationships. Life Lessons also looks at the destructive forces at play, within the family and society in general, that undermine women’s lives and ambitions.
Rachel J Fenton
842 Nuts to find mesen here. Odd. That I should have tumbled from tip to root, my thoughts cast as a squirrel couriering bloody insults, stranger still. Between now and past I rest my middle finger on The World of the Northern Gods to read where Audr, a heathen seeress, left Hairybreeks, gipped up by sea to vomit out orders, the future from a pulpit: prophecies in Clonmacnoise. They were seen. Liars have been at my tale, though, sucking like fleas on gossip. How did I find thee? Via England, Ireland, Bretland, Zeeland; like myths, much of my discovery stems from theft. Freyja for Robert Sullivan My people’s fierceness is noted in poetry and prose. When I approach your ship, I steer a position to my favour, furl my sail. My mast is un-stepped before I tether my vessel to yours so that we become two islands made one. Do not try to hurl yourself overboard, there are smaller boats waiting to pick you off as if a louse from my long hair. Water surrounds us like greenstone at our throats. Now, having taken care not to damage one- another’s transport – it is worth more for future raids intact – we are engaged as equals in hand-to-hand combat. I am a Viking. But do not be outraged, when I abort, no one will have died; I am the goddess of peace, and you will have enjoyed the fucking ride. Parting Gifts Viking period silver amulet of the Norse goddess Freyja - Swedish Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm They buried me as befits the most prominent fucked-over, with my treasure intact and a heavy pendant which they say represents a völva, a seeress, wearing a horseshoe-shaped necklace, who appears to be pulling a moon, and may in fact depict your dear disgraced.
Rachel J Fenton is an award-winning writer living in the South Island of New Zealand. Her fiction has won the University of Plymouth Short Fiction Prize, the Auckland University of Technology Creative Writing Prize, she came second in the Dundee International Book Prize, was longlisted for the Inaugural Michael Gifkins Unpublished Novel Prize, the Bristol Prize, and was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize. Her short stories have been anthologised in Stories of Hope Bushfire Relief Anthology (Aussie Speculative Fiction), Remembering Oluwale (Valley Press), Refugees Welcome (Co-Boox), Cooked Up, Food Fiction from Around the World (New Internationalist), and others. Also known as Rae Joyce, Rachel is Co-editor of Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik).
Kelly Kaur and Tegan Post: A Half-Punjabi-Half Hindu Mother Interviews Her Punjabi-Hindu-Irish-Russian-English Daughter
All of us navigate the complexities of color and race. As a woman of color with an accent who immigrated to Canada, I always felt that I had to perform the insider-outsider dance. I tried to fit in, but my color, race and accent would often set me off from the inside circle. People want to know where I am from: What country, what race, what outside circle did I come from. Imagine my surprise when both my children came out looking like their Caucasian father – pure White. Now, I had to start a new dance – of the woman of color with the White children.
My 22-year-old daughter and I interviewed each other as a way of figuring out our way around the complexities of our situation around race and color in Canada.
Tegan 1 year old
Mom Kelly interviews daughter Tegan
- What race do you consider yourself to be?
- What do you see when you look at this photo of yourself when you were 1 year old?
I look so White. Our skin tones are different colours. I wish I looked more like you.
Both color and features.
- How does it make you feel to see us have different colors: White and Brown?
It doesn’t bother me. You used to get mad at me when I asked why we were different
colours. I was curious when I was a young child. I would ask you why we were different.
You said, “It doesn’t matter. Don’t say that.” You seemed upset.
Daughter Tegan interviews mom Kelly
- How do you feel about having children who are white?
I was surprised at how White you were. When you were born, you had blonde hair and blue
eyes. What a shock when the doctor put you in my arms. I was mesmerized.
However, Whiteness is considered more beautiful – definitely, by the Indians and
by the Asians in Singapore. I was surprised that you had all your father’s features and color.
None of me. I was a little sad. At the same time, I was a little relieved that you could just fit
into the predominant color of people in Canada. You would not have people, constantly, ask
you where you are from or what color or race you are. I have been in Calgary for 35 years,
and, till today, some people want to know where I am from: irritating. It was tough because
when I took you and your brother out, some people asked stupid questions. I had to,
constantly, listen to insensitive comments about color – how White you were. Some of the
annoying comments came from my friends and colleagues. “Are you sure these are your
children? Did you adopt them? How can they be so White? I found these comments to be
hurtful and cruel, especially those disguised as jokes. What’s so funny about race and color?
- Did you ever feel like your children did not belong to your family or fit in?
Goodness – Never ever. I never saw color. I just saw my children. I did not notice color. My family in Singapore loved you both, and, frankly, loved your skin color, your smooth skin, and your Whiteness. My mom would show you off in the temple – “my beautiful Canadian granddaughter,” she proudly said. I think over time, you became identified as White Canadian in Canada and anywhere that we travelled in the world. The Indian part was negated. Also, people in Singapore consider mixed race children to be extra beautiful and unique. I believe that people consider Whiteness to be superior.
February 2019, Vacation in New York
Daughter Tegan interviews Mom Kelly
- What do you feel about this recent photo?
I think we look similar. Our faces seem similar. Our behaviours are similar. Our mannerisms are similar.
- What about color in this photo? Are you White? Am I Brown?
We are still the same color as we have always been. Our color differences never bothered me. I wanted to look more like you. Because we live in Canada, I fit in with the majority of what people look like, which is White. I don’t stand out. I get White privilege. People don’t look at me different, tell me I have an accent, or ask me where I’m from. I noticed that people asked you where you are from and why your accent is different.
- What do you consider your race to be now?
I consider my race to be half-Indian, half Irish, Russian, British. I like it. It makes me unique. I wish I had more of my Indian coloring and culture. Because I have white-washed both my Indianness and whiteness, that makes me feel neither good nor bad. I am ambivalent.
July 2019, Uncle’s Wedding in Singapore
Mom Kelly interviews Daughter Tegan
- How did you feel when we went to your Uncle’s Indian wedding in Singapore?
It was nice, but I felt out of place with all the family because I was the only one who was White. It was, like, the opposite of how I felt in Canada. Now, in Singapore, I stood out. It felt different. I always feel out of place when I go to the temples in Singapore, and I am the only White girl and people stare at me. I liked getting to experience my Indian culture. However, I had no clue what was happening during the wedding. It made me feel very White. Just like an uncultured White person. When I put on the Indian outfit, I liked it because it made me feel a part of my Indian culture. It was heavy but comfortable. I looked good in pink. Everyone said I looked good.
- What did you feel about being mixed race in Singapore?
It was interesting because we were both outsiders. I felt that I looked like an expat while you, mom, looked like you belong, but you were White in your behaviour. I looked like a tourist. I felt that because I was White, I got extra privilege – people don’t assume things about me. People don’t judge me that much because of my race, which they assume is all White because I look White. They wouldn’t guess that I was half-Indian at all. I get more attention as a White person. When people find out that I am half and half, they are curious about my color and mixed race.
- What did you feel about being mixed race in Canada?
In Canada, people get surprised that I am mixed race. They think I am adopted. They assume both my parents are White. When they find out that I am half-Indian, they say, “I never would have guessed” or “What? You look so White. Even people who are Brown get surprised when I find out that I am half-brown and mixed. Because I live in Canada, a lot of the time I just feel White, not mixed race. I only feel mixed race when I go to Singapore to visit family.
Never make assumptions. Race and color are not as clear cut as they once were. We live in a fluid world, where love crosses color, race and boundaries. We must judge a person on who they are, not what they look like or what color or race they belong to. We are all special and unique!
Color No Assumptions The doctor thrusts you in my arms Wailing and flailing in protest Joined by my umbilical cord I carefully examine every familiar limb Trace my trembling finger on Your smooth stark white, white skin that glisten and shine Against my lustrous cafe latte hue a color contradiction this biology lesson forgot My Snow White. My Snow White There is no border There is no race My womb Is the twain Where worlds collide Mingle in red, red blood Colorless love Prevails
Kelly Kaur’s poems and works have been published in Sanscrit, West Coast, Singa, CBC, Mothering Anthology, New Asian Short Stories, Short Story Dispenser (Central Library), online YYC Portraits of People and Time of the Poet Republic, Canada. She is a 2019 Borderlines Writers’ Circle participant through Writers’ Guild Alberta and Alexandra Writers’ Centre in Calgary, and she has completed her first draft of her novel, Letters to Singapore.
Tegan Post is a Bachelor of Education graduate from Mount Royal University. This September, she will be venturing into Calgary schools as a teacher. She enjoys camping in the beautiful Rockies and hanging out with friends and family.
live livid hurt people hurt and it just keeps going predators lurk but your eyes keep closing cause only the strangers get blamed and only the good kids ain’t shamed even in my schools it was stranger danger to learn about relation was a game changer told everybody who would listen, missin’ the point Good Kid status is a saintly anoint My complaints were disgusting, raising havoc no, my complaints spoke a truth they were not havin’ words spray like b u c k s h o t careless, throat caught you say I’m mature for my age stage was set when you kissed my neck trapped in your truck, city in the rearview mirror I’m out of luck, praying for a way out you steer onto gravel turn the key touch my knee ill at ease I’m only 13 you’re 37 too told to be playing 7 minutes in heaven my cheeks redden but I can’t ask you to stop country so silent you could hear a pin drop wait for it to end, say thank you come again be a little slut tell me that you like being FUCKED say you want more, say my name’s Terry you started this so I plucked your cherry don’t tell me to forgive cause I get to live with the pain of wond’ring what it’s like to be free what it’s like to live in entirety while he gets to keep hurting girls like me I get to live as angry as I need to be to survive sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me alive and I’d rather live livid than die in silence the bride that complied you’ll pass the test when your hands ain’t tied when women no longer fear darkened streets when men own up, accept the feelings of being numb, not being enough of feeling dumb and mad and fucked over by expectations based in draping babies in blue.
Bellamy Cole is from Red Deer, Alberta. They write songs, poetry and prose, and are currently pursuing education to become a minister.
Photo by Darcie Freisen Hossack
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