Poetry by Clara Burghelea

Clara Burghelea

7th St, Garden City, Starbucks

Jeans and turtleneck, then lick cappuccino froth off a
plastic lid. Watch the slick man by the door, cigarette
hanging from pouting lips. Bask in the indulgence of
a warm pretzel. Milk teeth clouds and a glitter sun
glued to his hair. Mulch moist to instruct the senses.
At the back of your mind, a poem ready to stain the page.
Between the silent dahlias and hushed dust mote words,
the day, as éventail plisse. Here we are, awake and awed.

I haven’t thought about my mother in months

just me, these days in every window’s reflection,
same hair, different way of wearing the face.
My mother’s, thick with febrile caution. Mine,
falling into itself, a millipede kind of movement.
For a long time, pain lived in the zippered pocket
of my purse, ruffling its silver scales. Every time
an alone spell came to an end, her image would
fall and accumulate without notice, a residue
of grief, and those flakes of skin hardened even
more, until my brains cratered and I would sleep
for days, numb dawns on a string, vacant flesh.
Among the living, I stride with others, lumpy fish.



A tincture for wounds

Four months and counting, in a freefall, clocking time between
teeth. Silences fat with longing, while August feverishly unfolds
its gifts, from bursting fruit to evenings swathed in violet. This
summer pilfers our open hearts, while we gaze into old maps
where and what countries we could have held into the eyes and
mouths. The Greek sky running out under our twitching eyelids.
The saltiness of the Thassos mornings burning a hole into our
wanting tongues, children shriek into the turquoise waters, you
and I holding breath, the way one listens to something that is
always ending. The ghost of foreign voices surfacing each morning,
smell taunted by ripening flavors, body following the slow mechanics
of the swindling island, allowing us to inhabit a sheer layer of its

abundance, while swiftly satiating our cravings with more promise
of the days to come. Instead, flaky edges of our backyard thinning days.

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Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. Recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations appeared in Ambit, HeadStuff, Waxwing, The Cortland Review and elsewhere. Her collection The Flavor of The Other was published in 2020 with Dos Madres Press. She is the Translation/International Poetry Editor of The Blue Nib.

Poetry by Josephine LoRe

josephine lore

In Praise of Colour

pink and red
yellow and brown
and inbetween, blue
dark purple, pale green
these are the colours we hurt in
red, blood flowing through veins
menses from the womb
creamy, the vernix of a baby’s birth
colourless, the liquid salt from our eyes
be they brown or blue
green or grey, hazel
amber, topaz, ruby
sapphire, lapis, jade
amethyst
fields of poppy, fields of lavender
brome swaying in the breeze
blue spruce, white spruce, wintergreen
long blue shadows on January snow
the wolf, grey, grizzled
tawny, auburn, silver, black
shades and scents of roses
pink to peach, damask, vanilla
burgundy, carmine, plum
aubergine
horses dappled, bay, buckskin
chestnut, dun, grullo, roan
blue, paint, pinto
palomino
I think the creator revelled in colour
palette perfect
the contrasts, nuances, the shades
but instead of seeing beauty in colour
we draw lines     us and them
haves and have nots
enough      and not enough
cut us, and the blood flows always red
strike us, and we bruise the same colours
pink and red
yellow and brown
and inbetween, blue
dark purple
pale green

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a pearl in this diamond world … Josephine LoRe is the author of two collections which integrate poetry and photography,  ‘Unity’ and the Calgary Herald Bestseller ‘The Cowichan Series’, as well as the short story “Cornflower”.  Her words have been read on stage, put to music, danced, and integrated into visual art.  They appear in anthologies and literary journals in nine countries, including FreeFall Literary Magazine, Japan’s Mount Fuji Tanka Grand Prix, Pendemic poetry in Ireland and the upcoming (M)othering Anthology.  https://www.josephinelorepoet.com/

A Covid Recovery Road Trip. Non-fiction by Gary Fowlie

Gary Fowlie

A Covid Recovery Road Trip

Gary Fowlie

I’m sharing this with you because as a member of your family, or your friend, or fellow Covid ‘Long Hauler’, I want to thank you for your support during the past pandemic months. Obviously, Covid didn’t kill me. Not so obviously, I wasn’t able to escape its clutch.

My last dispatch from New York, the pandemic epicenter, was sent on Easter Weekend, a day or two before Covid and I had our rendezvous. That dispatch went like this:

May Easter bring strength to the young couple upstairs fighting Covid; peace to a friend whose mother passed and he couldn’t be with her; thanks for the health care workers fighting for us; courage for family and friends facing financial challenges; selfless leadership and protective equipment for all.

Count your blessings and stay safe.

We are; XO G&K

At the time, it was heartfelt. Today it sounds sanctimonious. I stand by the missive to count your blessings and stay safe, but the morally superior tone of we are—that should definitely have been changed to we are trying to.

If you read beyond this, you’ll find out that no matter how hard you try to avoid this insidious illness, it can sneak up and attack you despite your best efforts.

I’ve called this chronology of events a recovery road trip, in hopes that the journey to our cottage in Canada would do just that. It began on June 5, 2020, when we were able to rescue our car from its isolation in Yonkers and load it up in Manhattan. But to do this tale justice, I need to go back to early March, when we were unloading the same car in the same spot, after a winter road trip to the south.

What follows are the events which marked mileposts on the Covid expressway.

March 6

The Siren before the Storm

On arriving in our neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, we were greeted by police cars and emergency vehicles racing past us—an all too obvious omen of the steady stream of emergency vehicles to come. This noisy welcome turned out to be just some idiot on the next street with an attitude and access to a gun.

The first New Yorker with the virus had been confirmed five days earlier, and we would have the first Covid fatality in the city five days later. Less than two weeks after that, there would be 18,000 confirmed cases, and 200 New Yorkers would be dead. The infection rate was five times greater in New York than in the rest of the country, and it would still be five weeks before my own Covid symptoms appeared.

March 13

The Buck Stops at Barack

Common sense and the memory of my grandmother describing how a cart rolled down her street every day to collect bodies during the Spanish Flu in 1918 was enough motivation for me to begin hunting for personal protection. A century earlier, they’d worn masks soaked in camphor oil or horse liniment. With no horse and no idea what ‘camphor oil’ was, an internet search led us to vacuum cleaner bags as a good substitute for an actual face mask.

The Mayor of New York City and the State Governor dithered about what was an essential service and when to lock us down, but at least they were engaged. Better to fight over who should lead than to leave us rudderless, I figured. Unfortunately, the rest of the United States of America had begun to look like the 3,141 Disunited Counties of Denial.

In the week we’d been home there’d been an exponential pandemic liftoff. The misery that followed came with an expectation of a national strategy and guidance. Instead, President Trump let America’s states fight over essential equipment, and blamed the shortage of available virus testing on President Obama. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump told us, pointing to an unspecified “set of circumstances” and “rules, regulations and specifications from a different time.”

It was a different kind of time alright. It was a time for courage, for coordinated leadership, and a time for at least a call from the President to the Governors to find the ‘United States’ of common ground. For the latter, it was the time to exercise their collective bargaining clout to break the supply chain logjam for protective equipment that brought on a bidding war between hospitals and among states. But apparently the time wasn’t quite right for the President to act. It would be another three weeks before he stepped in—sort of.

April 5

Cuomo and the Queen

Most of us had been forced to look for guidance from somewhere other than the very top of the electoral food chain. Like many New Yorkers, I found it in Governor Cuomo. Also, unlike most, I found surprising strength in the words of Queen Elizabeth II.

I’m a permanent American resident, a Canadian who made the United States my home when it deemed my career at the UN and in the technology sector ‘extraordinary’ enough to warrant issuing me an EB-1A Green Card.

I’ve become a proud New Yorker, and I look forward to the day that I can become an American citizen. I have no plans to give up my Canadian passport, unless keeping it required that I swear allegiance to a monarch in England, who by accident of birth and colonial history is the head of country of Canada. That’s something I could no longer do.

When I was a child, we’d gather around the television at Christmas to listen to Queen Elizabeth’s message to the ‘Commonwealth’. The only thing I recall about any of those messages was how one year Liz managed to say ‘reconciliation’ a half dozen times without moving her lips. Try it yourself if you think it’s easy. Still, as I listened to her Covid address to the Commonwealth on April 5, I thought that her stiff upper lip was just what the doctor had ordered.

Cuomo had given us the kind of clear, concise, no crap talk that makes me love New York. The Queen provided the comfort and confidence I sought from a head of state. Compare that with the conflict and conceit that Washington served up.

This was not the first time the Queen had faced war-like adversity. Neither royal birth, nor bone spurs had kept her from joining the auxiliary forces in WW2 as a truck driver and mechanic. She’d done her bit to beat back the Nazi pandemic. She’d also done her first broadcast in 1940 at age 14. She’d given a message of hope to the children who’d been sent away from London for their safety.

I’m 65, yet I felt like a child forced into exile in order to avoid the battle taking place outside West 162nd Street. The Queen’s words were a welcome knock on our door:

“Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do. While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

Cue the Big Band music. Cue the tears. Cue the sense of ‘Mask On and Carry On’. Her inspiring call to ‘join all nations across the globe in a common endeavor’ wasn’t lost on me—even if the leader of the country I called home had missed the memo. At least I had Liz and the Governor of the United State of New York.

Cuomo played it like the political master he is. He knew that the tougher the issue or crisis, the more truthful the words must be. Lead with the facts, good and bad, focus on bold action, not bad attitude. Determined resolve beats the hell out of finger pointing recriminations. Be resolute! When Cuomo spoke to the New York National Guard there was no denying that resolve: “This is going be a long day,” he said, “and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day.” He charged them (and us) to fight this “invisible, insidious beast” and to “kick coronavirus ass.”

I wasn’t sure how we would do that, but at least we had a leader I felt I could trust to find a way. Cuomo led with empathy, he understood that every one of those ‘casualty numbers’ represented someone whom somebody had once loved. They weren’t just numbers on a golf scorecard. He, unlike the President, knew that you might be able to cheat at golf, but there’s no cheating death.

April 12

Easter Egg on My Face

The Corona virus had already made a stop next door. A neighbor had been visited, and was recovering. It then found its way through the door of our condo unit, up the stairs, and attacked the least likely of suspects: our 31-year-old neighbors, the ‘kids’, as my wife and I call them. They are a wonderful couple: fit, energetic, healthy, fun, smart, and respectful of their elders.

Masked and gloved, I’d made a couple of trips up the stairs to deliver parcels to them. When they asked if I could get some Tylenol and cough syrup, I hadn’t hesitated. I set out to a nearby drugstore on Easter Sunday morning, happy to play the role of Father Rabbit in search of some relief for the young bunnies. It was ironic, I thought, given my ‘senior’ risk status. Instead, I should have reminded myself that vanity indeed precedes the fall.

The drugstore shelves weren’t empty, but they might as well have been. Children’s Tylenol was all that I could find. I saw the humor in this, and even though the ‘kids’ might be too ill to get the joke, I assured myself they would when I would tell it at next condo meeting.

I kept my distance from the woman in the line in front of me. Unlike me, she had no mask or gloves, and she had a cough she wasn’t trying to hide. I stepped back further when she hacked, and only approached the cashier when summoned. How unfortunate that the stricken woman came back to demand another bag. I should have moved. In hindsight, it could have been a fatal error on my part.

April 17

My Ticket on the Covid Express

Like any sensible, science-respecting New Yorker, I heeded advice to stay inside unless I found myself having trouble breathing or with an uncontrollable fever. Five days past Easter Sunday, I had neither. However, I did wake up to a killer headache, and an uncomfortable pain between my shoulder blades that was coming from my lungs, but without a sustained fever other than a series of overheated hot flashes.

The chills set in on Day 2, and with them an eerie itching sensation, like goose bumps creeping around under the skin of my back. On the morning of Day 5, my ear started to ache. I’d had surgery on this ear a few months earlier. It demanded to be scratched, and when I didn’t, it revolted in a bloody mess on my pillow.

On Day 7, I still had no trouble breathing, and not much of a cough beyond a constant urge to clear my throat. The chills remained, and the fatigue was so bad that I could barely make it to bed when it struck. The unusual pattern of symptoms, best described as ‘weird,’ had me wondering whether I was losing my mind. How could I have Covid? I wasn’t coughing. I wasn’t burning up. I’d taken every precaution, or so I thought. Maybe it was just the stress of endless sirens, and the fact of waking up every day and wondering how many of my fellow New Yorkers had perished during the night.

It wasn’t until I’d talked to my 92-year-old cousin, a former nurse, that I was shamed into seeking medical help—at least for my bloody ear. Even then I only realized something was truly wrong when I stepped outside and became light-headed as I walked the 500 yards down the block to catch the Covid Express—aka, the M2 bus that runs from our home in Washington Heights to my doctor’s offices near Lenox Hill Hospital. The bug may have been playing tricks with my head, but there was no denying that it had taken hold of my body.

An hour later I was ‘presumed’ Covid positive, pending test results. They cleaned up my bloody ear, found my ‘inflammatory’ condition unusual, but interesting, and I was sent home with ear drops to manage the itch, along with instructions to quarantine.

There were ‘only’ 544 deaths in New York City the day I was presumed positive. That was already down from the peak of 813. These were people who’d succumbed in a single day. Three days later, when my Covid diagnosis was confirmed, 1400 more bodies had been added to the pandemic pyre.

I greeted the confirmation of Covid with a surprising sense of relief. I wasn’t crazy, and more importantly, my wife, whose health was already at risk, and who, after being exposed, had an afternoon of chills so bad that she spent it in bed fully clothed under two extra blankets, was thankfully spared anything worse. Our shared fatigue turned into shared, albeit selfish, gratitude.

New York City remained the epicenter of the attack on the USA, even though the body count was at a two-week low. In fact, things were still so bad that the cool, clear, and credible Governor Cuomo had compared the ravages of the pandemic to the “same evil that we saw on 9/11.”

The number of New Yorkers who’d died on that fateful day was one third of those that had been felled by Covid—an airborne terrorist of a viral stripe that didn’t give a damn about race, religion or creed. The number of dead was “so shocking and painful and breathtaking,” Cuomo told us, that “I can’t, I don’t even have the words for it.” Many others did. They called New York a war zone, an analogy that was soon turned into an overworked cliché by the media.

The battle imagery was easy enough to relate to. While the front-line warriors of today only differed from the ‘grunts’ that pushed back evil forces in the past by the uniforms they wore, it wasn’t until a friend from Canada called, and I held my cell phone out the window to share the sound of wailing sirens, that I heard the truthfulness of the war zone analogy in his reaction. “It must be like London during the blitz,” he said. Indeed it must have been. This was war and New York City was in the midst of it.

We woke up every day anxious to know the overnight casualty count, and grateful for having escaped the nightly bug bomb. The anxiety and the sirens were quelled only by the 7pm catharsis of opening our windows to express our gratitude for those on the medical and food front lines who were keeping us alive.

I’ve only lived in the city for 15 years. I’ve survived a transit strike, two hurricanes and the normal indignities of Gotham life—like being bitch-slapped by an Amazonian drag queen on the Uptown 4 train at ‘Lex and Loony’ (125th Street and Lexington Avenue), when I accidentally stepped on her size-13 heels. Yet when September 11 rolled around, and 9/11 was commemorated, I never quite felt like I belonged in my adopted home. I will now.

According to the CDC ‘micro mort’ data, anyone living in New York City between March and May had experienced roughly 50 additional micro morts of risk per day because of Covid-19. This meant we were roughly twice as likely to die, than if we’d served in the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan in 2010 (which was a very bad year).

Micro mort data or not, two months after the first New Yorker succumbed to Covid, every New Yorker either contracted Covid or knew someone who did. I’m sure I’m not the only one who kept a Covid casualty hit list. Here’s my tally from March through June in chronological order:

  •  A colleagues father – may he RIP
  •  A friends mother – may she RIP
  •  A Met’s baseball fan & friend –  may he RIP
  • A next door neighbor – fortunately, recovered
  •  The ‘kids’ two floors up – they’ve recovered too
  •  The virologist one floor up – she’s back in her lab
  •  The neighbors across the street – they’re almost there
  •  Another neighbor further down the street – may he RIP

And finally

  • A United Nations colleague – may he RIP

May 5 

Return of the Covid Trickster

Two weeks passed. I felt better, not best, but better. I chalked up the lingering fatigue and aches to the fact I’d done nothing but sit, lie, or sleep. I decided that a bike ride on Day 15 would be the thing to get the lungs and heart pumping. It worked for about an hour.

I ignored the shortness of breath and the ache between my shoulder blades that had been the canary in my pulmonary playground, but by the time I got home there was no escaping it. I dragged myself back to bed, hoping all would be well after a good rest.

Twelve hours of sleep only resulted in a return of the symptoms—not all at once, and not in the same order. Some were worse: the headache, and the itchy goosebump skin crawlers. some were better: chills, aches, and fever. And some were completely new: the cough that had been fairly light showed up again as a dry hack to taunt my foolishness. To add insult to itchy injury, my earache returned, and I broke out in hives and a funny slash-like rash on my arms, legs, and feet.

The lingering weirdness of Covid continued. By the time Day 15 had turned into Month 1 and then Month 2, it was clear that there was no end to its surprises. Distorted taste had already joined the long list of symptoms, and when I felt well enough to try a beer after six weeks, I faced a new and depressing reality. My barley sandwich came with a metallic sting. I might as well have been chewing on the beer can, and by the time I was almost able to taste the hops again, a few sips would set off the killer headache.

Weekly trials yielded the same results, and I’ve accepted the reality that I may never be able to drink a good Canadian pilsner again. I console myself with the fact that at least I can swallow. I hadn’t had to check myself into an undersupplied and overworked New York hospital, or to be separated from my wife and loved ones. I hadn’t been left to wonder, when the lights went out and the ventilator went in, if I’d be one of the 25% to survive this drastic procedure.

Small mercies become big blessings when you’re the lucky one. It was and still is so much worse for so many. Eight percent of people have mild or no symptoms, and those who do, recover in two weeks on average. Then there are the Covid ‘long haulers’, a group I seem to belong to. I have manageable symptoms, but they’re not managing to go away.

May 10

A Mother’s Day Martyr

I’ve been a regular obituary reader most of my life. We won’t go down that Freudian alley, but suffice it to say, I find comfort in a good death notice because inevitably you discover someone whose life is remarkable. There’s been endless examples of this truth during the pandemic, but I’m only going to highlight one such person. Her life and death have hit more than one of my nerves, including a belief I share with many others that no one should die alone.

Nina Pippins was 93, a product of Dothan, Alabama, and a retired registered nurse who’d reluctantly come to New York in 1987 to look after her only child, 33-year-old Nick, who had AIDS. She loved him but hated New York, and had no intention of staying. She would spend three years nursing him before he died. By then she’d become a New Yorker.

Ms. Pippins watched her son suffer and had seen many of his friends die alone—forgotten by families who shunned their children, rather than rise above the perceived shame of a disease they didn’t understand. Nina became a replacement mother for those estranged from their own; she would hold their hands as they died. First though, she’d call the families and tell them to set aside their differences and come to be with their child. She would volunteer to meet them and answer any questions they had. Having a conservative Southern background helped. She could easily relate to their fear of being ostracized back home.

Still, Nina Pippins was what I call a ‘WTF’ New Yorker. There are, by my non-scientific estimation, only three types: those born in the tristate area, who think life in the Big Apple is perfectly normal; non-natives, who’ve spent their life finding their way to the city because, well you know, ’if you can make it here….’; and people like Nina and myself. For me it was career and coincidence that drew me in; for her, parental conscience. Yet for anyone in one of those groups, there’ll be some Gotham madness that they’ll bear witness to at least once or twice a year, which will make them ask themselves, “What the fu#k am I doing living here?”

I don’t know exactly what secured Nina’s New Yorker status, but according to her NY Times obit, she wanted to give something back to the city after her son died. “I needed to have something to do that made me feel better about me,” she said. My own reasons for staying weren’t as noble. It took one Mets Opening Day, a visit to the Strand Bookstore, and the bread at Orwashers Bakery to seal the deal.

There are three things that make Nina’s Covid story resonate with me. I, like Nina’s son, am an only child, and I can’t imagine my parents forsaking me on my deathbed for any reason. I’m also the father of a gay man and two straight ones, whom I could never forsake, no matter what. Finally, and of least significance, I’m from a conservative family in Saskatchewan, who by the grace of a scholarship ended up at the University of Alabama, where I made lifelong friends with Bama natives, and who, like Nina, Roll an honorable Tide through Christian principles.

Second Corinthians 4:8 tells us: we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.

            Truth be told, I was being driven to despair by the thought of all of the Covid victims who, through no fault of their own, and despite the heroic effort of others, were on their own during their darkest hour. Nina Pippins was one of those poor souls. A loving mother, who had done her best to stand in for the parental affections for so many, died alone on Mother’s Day.

May 24

One Hundred Thousand and Counting

The United States had reached a grim milestone. One hundred thousand people had died. Countless Nina Pippins, and maybe some with even more heroic life stories. No doubt there were some who would never have found redemption had they lived until 100. It matters not. How many of them could have been saved if there’d been coordinated action by the government for the people and by the people? Of course, hindsight is crystal clear, and justice is a long game, but there’s little comfort in a history that will be written to celebrate the heroes who set their sights above their self-interest. Still, Dan Barry’s tribute to those 100,000 (and counting) American victims was some consolation, despite that the fact that many thousands more were bound to die. I reprint it here, without Mr. Barry’s permission.

One Hundred Thousand

A threshold number: It’s the number celebrated when the family car’s odometer ticks once more to reach six digits. It’s the number of residents that can make a place feel fully like a city: San Angelo, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Vacaville, California.

So imagine a city of 100,000 residents that was here on New Year’s Day, but has now been wiped from the American map.

One hundred thousand.

Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9, Manager of the produce department, Tavern owner,  Nurse to the end.

Loved baseball. Loved playing euchre. Loved seeing the full moon rise above the ocean.

Man, she could cook. Always first on the dance floor. Always ready to party. Always gave back.

Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Awarded the Bronze Star. Served in the Women’s Army Corp. Survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Competed in the Special Olympics. Immigrated to achieve the American dream. Could quote Tennyson from memory.

A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. One. Hundred. Thousand.

May 24

My Memory in Mourning

I said I’d relate only one Covid victim’s story and that’s true. However, as I read the obits (and as previously stated, I always read the obits), I was struck by a picture that brought back my first experience with death. John Loengard, a great American photojournalist had died. His death foreshadowed the racial firestorm to come.

John passed one day before George Floyd was murdered. His death was not Covid related; it was just good old heart failure, like my father’s. Loengard had given us dozens of iconic photos during his lifetime: the Beatles together in a swimming pool; a pensive Georgia O’Keefe contemplating a rock; Louis Armstrong applying lip balm. But it was the picture he took at the funeral of the Civil Rights Leader, Medgar Evers, on Juneteenth 1963, that grabbed my attention. It focuses on Medgar’s son. Nine-year-old Darryl sits with his mother in a church pew. He’s inconsolable. Tears roll down his face as he stares at his clasped hands. I’d been there—or more precisely, I would be there. Exactly two months later, we laid my father to rest. I, like Darrel, was nine years old.

The lives of Darrel’s father Medgar, and my Dad Pete, couldn’t have been more different, but to a nine-year-old smothered in the grey fog that rolls in when a parent is lost, circumstance is meaningless. When I looked at that picture, I could still conjure the hurt. I could also feel the unspoken bond between children who’ve faced the grim reality of death at too young an age.

Medgar Evers once said, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” He was right. It took 31 years and three trials before his assassin—a white segregationist with the vainglorious name of Byron De La Beckworth—was convicted of his murder. It would be another 19 years, before Medgar Evers’ idea of racial equality would be rekindled by another photojournalist who captured the horror of George Floyd’s sadistically inflicted death. Another martyr’s child would be immortalized too. George’s daughter Gianna had joined the ‘Children in Mourning’ club when she told us, “Daddy changed the world.”

May 25th

Pestilence Meets Prejudice

I’d never met a black person until I left Saskatchewan for Alabama in 1976. It wasn’t that I didn’t know any people of another race or that I didn’t have some understanding of racism. I grew up a few blocks from an Indian Residential School where children who had been ‘scooped away’ from their families were warehoused, and taught to be good little English-speaking Canadians.

I’m not saying I’m color-blind. No one is. But I’ve lived in Harlem and Washington Heights long enough to really only be aware of color when I look up from minding my own business on a downtown train and wonder ‘Where the hell did all these white people come from?’ There are two things I’m confident enough to say about systemic racism: one is that it can be as subtle as where you stand in the subway car; and two, it can cut both ways.

There’s probably no greater racial or economic divide in New York, if not America, than the one that separates the 86th Street and 125th Street stops on the #4 Subway line. In less than 10 minutes you go from the center of the rich and richer Upper East Side at 86th Street, to the heart of poor and poorer East Harlem at 125th and Lexington.

‘Lex and Loony’ had been my subway stop during my first six years in the city. I lived in Upper Manhattan. It took about a week of rush hour commuting from the United Nations in midtown to realize that if I wanted to get a seat on a crowded uptown train my best bet was to stand in front of a white person who was already sitting. Odds were about 80 to 1 that they’d get off at 86th Street, and I’d get to sit.

This harmless, yet systemic race game, is played by both races every day. I only realized it when I noticed a young black woman who’d sidled up in front of a seated me on the Uptown 4. When I didn’t get off at 86th she muttered ‘damn’.

“Fooled you!” I said, and we both laughed.

The other insight I have on the issue of racism in America came from the first black person I could call a friend. RT was from Chicago, and like me he was at the University of Alabama because of a scholarship. Unlike me, however, he probably could have received the same financial support for his studies anywhere.

It wasn’t until after Mr. and Mrs. Ku Klux Klan handed me a flyer as I walked down MacFarland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa in 1976, which invited me to a ‘family’ picnic somewhere in Pickens County, that I got the nerve to ask RT why a black man from the North would choose to go to school in the South. His answer explains a lot. It also involves the ‘N’-word, so cover your eyes if you expect to be offended.

RT told me that it didn’t make much difference where he went to school because, “Up North a Nigger can get big but he can’t get close. Down South a Nigger can get close he just can’t get big.” I interpreted this to mean that northern and southern USA were merely two sides of the same racist coin. If you were black and lived up North, you were welcome to get as successful as you wanted – just as long as you stayed in your corner.  Down South, well ‘bless their hearts,’ a black person could have a friendly relationship with a white person, but ‘don’t be getting too successful.’ No ‘risin’ above your raisin’ or your race allowed.

The mid-70s marked the dawning of the ‘New South’ and the era that followed the election of President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia peanut farmer. Yet 55 years later, the New South and the Old North look pretty much the same to me. This is the reality I rediscovered when we moved to Upper Manhattan.

Friends from downtown brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first night in Harlem. After drinking it, we decided it was time to get something to eat. The closest option in our neighborhood was Applebee’s.

When we walked in, I was introduced to what I call the ‘Gilly Gang’. They were black men of about my vintage who seemed to favor bucket hats—the kind made popular by Gilligan of Gilligan Island TV fame. They were none too happy to find white folk on their shore. “Here come the fuckin’ gentrifiers” we were told.

It might have been foolish or just Canadian-naïve of me to think of myself as an economic refugee from overpriced downtown Manhattan. Regardless, it was the first time anyone had judged me solely on my color. Ten years have passed, and I don’t notice the Gilly Gang much. Nor have I been called out for my ‘gentrifying’ white skin too often, but I know that the privilege of my gender and race upsets some people of color. I get it. I’ve never had to worry about a cop putting their knee on my neck for eight minutes and 45 seconds just because of my skin pigment.

Social Psychology has shown us that attitudes only change with action. It’s the reason I consider myself a ‘reluctant’ economist. This ‘dismal’ science is based on the premise of Ceteris Paribus, meaning that a theory is sound as long as all the variables remain the same. The problem is that they don’t, and no matter how well you document or weigh every ‘dummy variable’, some dummy or dumbass event comes along to prove your calculations wrong.

When it comes to influencing people’s behavior, you can try and talk them into a change of heart, but it’s only when something happens to shock them silly that they’ll see the error of their preconceived economic, political, or racist ways. Then and only then will their hearts follow your words. George Floyd’s death provided that overdue shock.

The knee on his neck was that sadism-ladened moment that tipped the attitudinal scale. Perhaps we’d been prepared for it by Covid, a virus that couldn’t care less about skin color, although we have seen that African American and Latino communities are bearing the burden far more—with more than their share of the deaths. It’s no surprise, given their underpaid and under-appreciated roles on the ‘essential’ service front lines.

The Covid racial inequities are proof of what Toni Morrison, the great African American Nobel Laureate, meant when she wrote the following of the American melting pot:

“The venerated melting pot does not work for black people because we have never been in the pot. We are the pot. For to become American has meant, it must be admitted, to become a particular shade of white. And that whiteness was something to be earned by European migrants to the United States who made their way into the melting pot.”

Jason Purnell, who writes eloquently in the Common Reader, takes Toni Morrison’s theory to its ultimate conclusion: “Black people are underneath the melting pot,” he says. They are the “bodies disposed beneath it that make America possible.” They are the fuel, the kindling for the fire.

The firestorm that followed George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, and the outrage it sparked across the country ran right into our Covid recovery road trip. We’d timed our escape from New York to coincide with the first hint that the city might be opening up, and I could rescue my car from its quarantine. On June 7 the city looked like it was on the road to recovery, and it seemed like we would be too. I hoped to be healthy enough to make the 2200 mile drive from New York, northwest to North Dakota, and across the border to our cottage in Saskatchewan.

We’d booked a three-day stay in a hotel in New Minneapolis, a city that is about the half-way point on this trek. It would give me, the sole driver, a break. We had no idea it would be in the middle of an important event in the history of racism in America. That was all yet to come. We wanted only one thing—to get out of New York City.

Things were looking good: masks had been made mandatory, and the curve had been flattened. The numbers were going down by all accounts, but as I was to find out, the Covid virus in my body had a long tail, and my temper, a very short one.

To be continued in November…

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Gary Fowlie is a Technology Economist and Consultant.  He is on the Advisory boards of ID2020, a non-governmental agency that is working toward secure digital identities for all and of ‘Geeks Without Frontiers’, which brings emergency telecommunication services to disaster relief efforts. Gary was formerly the United Nations Representative in New York for the UN specialized agency, the International Telecommunication Union.  He led an inter-agency UN effort to ensure information and communication technologies were recognized in the UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Previously, he served as Chief of Media Liaison for the United Nations in New York and was responsible for communications and advocacy for the UN World Summit on the Information Society.

Legalize Embezzlement to Alienate Poverty. Satire by Bernard Gabriel Okkurut

Bernard Gabriel Okurut

LEGALIZE EMBEZZLEMENT TO ALIENATE POVERTY.

A PRAGMATIC REMEDY TO THE ENDEMIC POVERTY IN UGANDA

We live in a jungle and man has to be a lion in order to survive in this hostile universe. Man is an accident in nature and has to struggle to be identified in a meaningless world. It doesn’t matter whether he steals, kills, robs or cheats on his way to the top of the ladder.

It is a very bad sin and a moral crime if a public servant had the chance of stealing public funds and does not use the opportunity. A public servant who does not use his position to earn wealth by hook or crook does not deserve a decent burial. Imagine a traffic officer working all day under the hot sun on busy roads yet he does not even own a wheelbarrow! Police and army officers spend sleepless nights and endure bad weather guarding the nation from possible danger yet when it comes to being paid, they are rewarded with ‘bitter leaf’ soup while the people they guard are busy enjoying ‘nyama choma’ and drinking cold Nile beer. Their families sleep like refugees back at the barracks while their bosses snore in air-conditioned storied houses. The question is, why not legalize embezzlement to save such hardworking and patriotic civil servants?  If corruption, bribery and embezzlement were legalized, traffic officers, policemen and soldiers would be able to build nice houses, by new cars and afford to take their children to better schools.

The same thing applies to bank officials who yawn of hunger while counting bank notes all day long. Why not secure a few bank note like the bank of Uganda officials who managed to jump off from below the poverty line by minting a few more coins that could run their families for a lifetime?  Imagine working as a bank teller but still fail to pay your ailing mother’s hospital bills! It is really unfair, most financial workers count large sums of money for their bosses, they ensure that it is safe yet back at home their wives beg the neighbors for salt.  It would be justifiable if a bank teller in that terrible condition stole some of his boss’s money to help solve some financial problems at home. I mean why should his wife beg the neighbors for salt yet her husband can steal money to stock food stuffs at home? Why should his fridge be empty yet he could steal some money to ensure that it is always full?

I would not be pleased to hear that a medical officer working at a public pharmacy does not own a private clinic of his own yet he has all the access of stealing the drugs from the national stores. The purpose of the job is to legalize the employee’s access to public property and funds no matter the cost, after all ‘the end justifies the means.’ In rural areas, mothers die while giving birth because they cannot access better health services. A person can be bitten by a snake yet they have to travel for miles to the nearest health facility. Why not allow medical workers to steal drugs from national stores and set up private clinics which would take health services nearer to the people?  Research should be conducted to identify doctors who have stolen public drugs and stored them in their own clinics in rural areas. These doctors should then be awarded gold medals on national heroes’ day in front of journalists appreciating them for the heroic act of saving the country folk from travelling long distances to seek medical care.

Teachers too should not make noise in the media or carry out sit down strikes because they are paid little despite working a lot; a wise head teacher just needs to stay calm and wait patiently to squander some funds allocated to a primary or secondary school as Universal Primary or Secondary Education Fund [UPE, USE] and divert them for his own affairs. Part of that money would be used to pay the auditors and silence their hungry mouths from feeding the ears of insensitive masses with information that would incriminate this noble scheme. Teachers don’t eat chalk and neither do their families feed on books and stationery. Is it really pleasing to see a teacher teach the children of rich men while he or she cannot afford  university tuition for his own son? Why should a teacher teach smart children yet he cannot afford to buy a new t-shirt for himself? Let corruption be legalized in public schools so that teachers can find a way of raising  a little more income to enable them to meet their expenditure.

If fathers-in-law joined the fight and advised their sons in-law who own big government jobs to swindle some ‘unwanted funds’, poverty in homes, divorce and domestic violence would be reduced since women would become more committed to their provident husbands. Christians, more so priests, should adopt a positive attitude towards corruption. Scriptures like ‘man eateth where he worketh’ should be taught to the believers so as to motivate them to squander the money without fear. A church whose congregation is proudly corrupt cannot fail to buy their priest a car or build him a nice house. A civil servant who embezzles funds can be of great help towards the development of the church, such a person cannot fail to pay his tithe and offer a tenth of his stolen money to the church. The priest could also steal from this tithe and use it to pay his due rent and outstanding debts. The remainder of that money would also be forwarded to the diocese for the bishops to also feast on, then the Bishop would also forward this token of appreciation to the Archbishop! Do you see how a corrupt church member can be of benefit to the church and the nation at large? Legalizing embezzlement in churches would help to bridge the financial gap between the high-ranking priest and the lay readers. Corruption makes them equal since they all get a chance to steal a little money and make themselves tycoons in a year or two.

My suggestion to legalize embezzlement and corruption in both public and private offices should be applauded. Take a look at the story of Mister Hare and other animals as told to us in the folktales: mister Hare would sleep all day while the other animals worked. He was a tiny animal with little energy yet the wisest in the jungle. He never owned a garden, never went hunting yet he never lacked something to eat. When attacked by stronger animals, Mister Hare would play tricks on them and that way he managed to avoid being killed. He was simply a corrupt fellow who conned other animals for survival. That’s how man should live. One has to be smart enough to survive the horrors of this unfair world.

I strongly believe without doubt that parliament should move a motion and pass a bill to promote nepotism and fraud in state-owned enterprises. Public officials like ministers and permanent secretaries of big ministries and CEOs of executive bodies like the Revenue Authority who rob from the national treasury can then put the money into developmental activities. A minister for instance can missappropriate funds and establishes a private farm upcountry. This farm could employ more than thirty people hence solving the cancer of unemployment among the masses. On a positive note, a wise permanent secretary who secures a fortune by stealing some funds can change the lives of his poor relatives by opening for them businesses, paying for his wife’s trip to the Bahamas and a honeymoon in the legendary Zanzibar. If innovative enough, he can also be able to construct a five-star hotel on the posh hills of Kampala, a private school in Wakiso or a factory in Jinja. This in one way or the other helps in the development of this country. Matter of fact these people can help budget for public funds in the right way instead of letting the government inject the finances into unproductive sectors.

It so annoying how society expects a twenty-five-year-old university graduate to own a brand-new Benz, a house in Kampala, a business and at the same time be married to a hot light-skinned brown young woman. When such a person graduates and doesn’t find a job, the whole community laughs at him and yet if he gets one and steals some funds, the whole world still blames him! My suggestion is that the young man should be allowed by the law to embezzle as much money as he wants to enable him to meet society’s expectations. University students should be equipped with the necessary skills during their internship on how to rob from their workplaces without being noticed. They -should be warned about the heavy load of work and the little pay awaiting them once they enter the job market. They should be taught all the sophisticated techniques and forms of corruption in order to make them beneficial to their communities. Fighting corruption should be declared a crime against the law. A maximum-security prison too should be built for punishing the enemies of progress who try betray their nation by fighting corruption. The money wasted on funding Anticorruption authorities should be diverted to more productive sectors like agriculture, the nation spends a lot of money fighting a practice that is of more value to its development.

As I said before, a public servant who does not misshandle funds while in office does not deserve a decent burial. Of what importance is such an imbecile to his community? How beneficial can such a lunatic be to his parents who spent their hard-earned money educating him? I would be a proud father to my son if he grew up to head a commercial bank and swindle a few billions without being noticed. Such a son would be of great benefit to his tribe, I wouldn’t mind writing him into my will as heir.

If it wasn’t for embezzlement, my cousin could not have afforded his wife’s bride price. My next-door neighbor, a soldier, couldn’t have renovated his father’s house, bought a farm with hundreds of exotic cattle and a brand-new Toyota van if it wasn’t for securing a billion shillings from the money meant to buy machinery and other equipment at the newly constructed army barracks. These brave men deserve gold medals and songs of praise. They are better than the so-called loyal public servants who break their backs serving the nation honestly and earning nothing in return.

I adore the philosopher who said that ‘man is an accident in nature and has to exert his will in order to be identified in this meaningless universe.’  Since there are a few jobs in the country which are not even enough to pay the increasing number of graduates, it would be beneficial if corruption were legalized to help solve such a crisis. Before you criticize my idea and throw stones at me for offering such a pragmatic remedy to the endemic poverty in our continent, ask yourself what you have done to help make things right wherever you are. It starts with you, don’t ask what your country has done for you. Ask what you have done for your country……

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Bernard Gabriel Okurut is an enthusiast of creative writing, he is a poet, singer, songwriter, freelance journalist and a published author with amazon.com and spillwords.com. He published his first poetry collection ‘The Noisy Silence’ at the age of 23 years. Currently a student of English language and literature at Kyambogo University Kampala Uganda. He writes a poem a day. He is a Rastafari by faith and most of his works are philosophical and aimed to emancipate the reader’s mind.  Bernard Gabriel Okurut’s pieces of satire are published all over the world by different literary journals, blogs, websites and magazines.

Blog: psychichpoetrycom.wordpress.com

Poetry by Jerusha Kananu Marte

Jerusha Kananu Marete4

SALAAM MY MOTHERLAND AFRICA

Last night I dreamed of arm stretched Africa

Last night I dreamed of borderless Africa

Last night I dreamed of brothers and sisters living in harmony

I dreamed of thriving vitenge industries in Africa

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

 

Last night in Kenya I saw spears and arrows turned into farming hoes

Last night cotton, coffee and tea industries steamed

I saw genuine smiles with sparkling white teeth in Sudan

I saw brothers in Nigeria disarming and disowning Boko Haram

I saw a serene Somalia soldiering on building Al-Shabaab ruins

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

 

Last night, Africa in unison echoed political stability

Last night, Africa in unison echoed social cohesion

Last night, South Africa was umbrella for all blacks in the rain

Ethiopia in black mourned Hachalu Hundessa raising a white dove

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

Last night black trader bought jewellery from Djibouti

Last night black trader bought oils and perfumes from Tunisia

Last night black trader sold exquisite African style fabric from Dakar

Last night black trader sold beautiful baskets from Zimbabwe

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

Last night African leaders kissed Africa, we loaned west

Last night Africa imported and exported within

Last night African industries revived, African sweat streamed

Last night corruption was hanged we sang freedom songs

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

Last night P.L.O Lumumba reminding us of modern slavery

We condemned vestiges of slavery in Sudan and Libya

He paved path for Pan-Africanism and asked pertinent questions

Last night we asked why African conflicts are manufactured outside Africa

Last night I saw one Africa, one heritage loving our language and culture

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

Today rise Africa, from the grave W.E.B Dubois chant RISE

Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore chant RISE

Haile Selassie, Mwalimu Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda chant RISE

Aime Cesaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Nelson Mandela chant RISE

Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba melodies echo Africa unite

Salaam, Salaam my mother land Africa, Salaam

I CRAVED PEACE

I whispered, hoping it will crawl to the bush

Auch! An arrow fell on its side, my heart bled!

Getting from the bush was courting death

The innocent child played with the arrow

I still whispered, but clothed in God’s suit ,it played on

Lying next to it were bodies chopped

Nearby bodies wrapped in cloth were tied to long poles

Screams of women being raped echoed in the desert_

My heart was lame!

Why fight for soil they soaked with blood?

Another arrow missed the child’s head by a whisker

I threw my camera, crawled towards the baby

Three years gone by, I watch him draw

He draws dead bodies, guns and arrows

He doesn’t talk or smile.

I lost my arms but I am teaching this poor soul

Teaching him to draw a dove

How would peace look in his silent troubled world?

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Jerusha Kananu Marete, a Kenyan writer, is the author of power-packed-package anthology of poems titled Echoes of Military Souls. 

She has her heart in narrative poems

https://www.thestar.co.ke/sasa/books/20200607poetrybookputswarphilosophyinfocus/ 

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/49779503echoesofmilitarysouls

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B085DTG4X3/ref=cm_sw_r_wa_apa_i_rSS8EbJ5J7H55

Jerusha is a graduate from University Of Nairobi (English & Literature) and currently a MA student at Kenyatta University. She’s a teacher, a performing artist & a film and theatre enthusiast. She is also a loving mother to Emmanuel. Her poems have been published in anthologies and journals, including Libero America Journal, Reconnoitre: Official Magazine of the Kenya Military Academy 2019, Best “NEW “African Poets 2019 Anthology, African Writers Caravan Journal and Millennial Voices; East African Poetry.

The Beggar’s Dance. Fiction by Farida Somjee

Farida Somjee

Three excerpts from The Beggar’s Dance, a novel (CreateSpace 2015)

 

Chapter One.

Africa 1977. Age 11.

I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.

Mama yangu, my mother, frowns at me, squinting with intense effort. “Stop dreaming, you maskini boy.” The anger in her voice reminds me that I am a maskini, a beggar, and I am not allowed to dream.

“Slouch and sit like a maskini, Juma,” she whispers when an expensive car approaches the parking spot. Mama likes us begging on the footpath next to the ice cream parlour, a paradise for Muzungu, European children, where their reality becomes my dream. Mama tells me, dreams waste our time and poison our souls. Dreams do not feed us. Seated against the wall of the ice cream parlour, I cup my palm and wait in anticipation. Coins drop, though not enough for a meal. Mama is still hopeful.

Children gather outside and lick different flavours of ice cream cones. They are lost in joyful conversation and laughter. Some of them sing to the music playing inside the parlour. I do not understand the words, but the voice is almost magical, the magic that I see through the eyes of these privileged children.

Once again, I drift away and start dreaming of such a life.

Chapter Five

I wrap Mama’s kanga over her shoulder to comfort her from the shivers. Every so often, I hear her teeth chatter, or a grunt whenever she jolts. I hold on tight to her so that she does not move towards the edge. In the middle of the night, her body breaks into sweat. I feel the heat from her burning body as it touches mine, as though I am standing next to the charcoal pit at the barbeque vendors’ spot. Ignoring the discomfort, I hang on tight. What else can I do? It is too dangerous to find help at this hour. This has been the longest night of my life.

As soon as it is dawn, I ask Mama to climb down. It takes her a long time to hang her body over the container. She loses her grip and drops hard to the ground. I stretch her body and massage her legs and hands to relieve the pain. After a while, with much effort she manages to crawl to the front of the parlour.

I run to the bay and wait for the morning ferry to arrive. I am hoping that Samuel will be able to help us. He has refused to talk to me for the last two seasons. Every time we came across each other, he looked the other way. So many times when I tried to say hello, he snubbed me and walked away. I know he is still my friend and he will help me when he finds out how seriously sick Mama is.

Samuel finally arrives. I rush to him and grab his arm. “Hey! How dare you,” he says and pushes me away.

“Mama is very sick, Samuel. Help us, please,” I say.

He makes an aggressive stop. “You betray our friendship and now you decide to come to me for help?” He kicks at the stone by his foot so that he won’t have to look at me.

“Please, my friend, help us. I don’t know anyone else.” My voice trembles. I run towards the parlour and do not give him a chance to say no. He follows me.

“Mama,” I call her in a soft voice. “Samuel is with us, he will help.” Her body is limp, and she is unable to talk. I touch her forehead with my palm; the fever is still high. “What shall we do?” I ask Samuel.

 “You have to take her to the government hospital. It is the only free hospital, but that is too far, brother,” Samuel says. “The taxi will be costly. You may not be able to afford it.” I untie a knot from the edge of Mama’s kanga where she saves her begged money and hand it over to Samuel. “What is this? This will not even get you beyond two streets.” He drops the coins on the ground in disgust.

“Help me, please!” I plead.

“I do not have space in my heart to pity people like you. You should have joined my partnership and you could have saved your mother.”

I kneel and touch his ankles, begging him to help us. “I will pay you back.” Samuel pulls his foot away from my hands and walks away without a word. “Samuel! Samuel!” I call out after him as he disappears in the distance.

“I will be fine, my son,” Mama manages to say with barely any strength in her voice. “Let me stay here for the day.” She crunches her body further and goes to sleep.

“You need to see a doctor. I will find you help, Mama,” I assure her.

I knock on the front door of the church. I know it is closed at this time of the day, but I will take my chances. To be sure, I check the side door, knock and call out to anyone. “Help! Help!” There is not a soul in the building. I am sure God is. After all, it is God’s house. But God does not help me.

 

 

PART TWO

Josephine

I was in love with Josephine the first time I saw her. My heart skipped a beat and then it beat faster than normal. I gave it a thump with my fist and sat on the path admiring this seventeen-year-old beauty. I clearly remember her wearing a white dress with a thick leather belt tightly wrapped around her waist—shiny black—which made her hips look fuller. Her smooth skin did not need any makeup; her beauty shone through without it. Everything about her was perfect—except for the sadness in her smile. She stood at the corner all by herself, away from the other night ladies. I was not sure why no one talked to her, so I introduced myself to make her feel more welcome on the street.

Her pimp showed up unexpectedly and stood right in front of my face. “She is very expensive, you shitty little bastard,” he said. His coarse voice and big, red, drunken eyes scared me so much that I stepped back at once. Josephine ran to the other side of the pole, almost tripping even though the path was clear. She stuck her fingers in her mouth, biting her nails, and swayed her upper body forward and backward. I realized right away that I had got her into trouble. The pimp pointed his finger at me. “You want to have some fun there, boy? There are plenty of men interested in young boys too.” He stomped heavily towards Josephine and slapped her. What surprised me was that Josephine had no expression on her face—she showed no emotion at all. One slap, two slaps, she stood there, accustomed to it all.

Every time I witnessed those slaps, I thought of the man who tortured me and was prepared to pull out my testicles. Would I have become accustomed to the pain and beating if I had let him? If so, then maybe I would not have needed to give them the Keshavjis’ name. But there I was, at fifteen, back on the streets, a pathetic beggar. I was weak, a boy without courage, who could not even stand up for Josephine. Or was I selfish? The last thing I needed was another problem added to my life—the pimp.

Knowing what he was capable of doing to me, I kept my distance and stayed in a lit area. He was ruthless and carried a knife, which I am sure he would not have hesitated to use. Josephine ignored me when he was around. Once in a while, she would glance at me. She knew I was watching her all the time, but not even once did we exchange a smile.

One night the pimp passed out on the street drunk, his big, muscular body lifeless. The night ladies and their customers dragged him to the back of the parking lot and dumped him by the trash. I was tempted to break a bottle of beer on his head. No one would have known. Then again, I had sinned enough, I had wronged enough. God had given me a second chance; there would not be a third, so I left the scene. Was I wrong to make such a decision? I regretted it at times, especially whenever I saw Josephine suffer. But then it also made me work harder to get out of the street life, which was the only way to save Josephine too.

Later that night, I knocked on Josephine’s door once her customer had left. I told her about the pimp getting dumped by the trash. She burst into hysterical laughter. What a change in her mood; I was not expecting such a reaction. I thought she might run to tend to him, out of fear or because she really did care for him, but instead she kept laughing. She was happy, happy to know that he had suffered. Then she let me in the room. That was the night Josephine and I became secret friends.

We spoke of Dada Zakiya. Josephine loved her, even though they had never met. “She is a goddess,” Josephine would say.

I told her about Samuel, how selfish he had always been and how I got myself into bad situations with him. “You are lucky,” she said. “At least he is gone. Look at me. I am still stuck with the devil.”

The Beggar’s Dance available on Amazon

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Farida Somjee is an award-winning Canadian author and novelist. Her novel, The Beggar’s Dance, won the Whistler Independent Book Awards (2017) for best fiction. She was born in Mbeya, Tanzania, and grew up in the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. Many of her childhood memories resonate with her and come across in her writing. She moved to Canada in her late teens with twenty dollars in her pocket, a lot of dreams and God on her side. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Working Class. Non-fiction by Alta Ifland

alta ifland

Working Class

It is 1994, and after my first year in the MA program in French at one of Florida’s public universities, my English is good enough for me to attend classes in the English department. I had been eyeing classes in this department with envy because many of them include books and authors we never study in the French program, many of them French philosophers. It is the time of “French theory,” which, it turns out, in the States is being taught primarily in English departments, not in French or philosophy departments, as one would expect.

After three years of life in the US, I can’t shake off myself the smell of poverty. If there is something that defines poverty, it’s smell. In fact, I smell worse than ever—I stink. I live in a graduate student apartment complex twenty minutes away from campus, and my apartment has a stench that, for the life of me, I can’t identify. It is, clearly, a residual smell from the previous occupant, and it clings onto all my clothes, my hair, my skin. When I open the apartment door it hits me like an animal waiting for me—no, not a loving pet, but some wild monster lurking in a corner. (A year and half later, while living in a student dorm, this time in France, I would open a drawer with notebooks from Florida, and the odor would jump at me from the sheets of paper, grabbing me by the throat.) I wish I could move out, but there is a waiting list for student apartments, and I can’t afford to rent a place that is not part of the university.

I have no transportation, and so I walk under the burning Florida sun, with my skin constantly clammy from the humidity. I walk and I walk, with a few homeless people and the odd foreign, “ethnic” graduate student as my only companions. With rare exceptions, my classmates come to class in brightly colored, fancy cars, brands I am not familiar with because I don’t know anything about cars and can only distinguish them by color.

I feel like an alien among my fellow graduate students. In Communist Romania, a country where one needed connections to buy a book, and where the only available forms of entertainment were reading and drinking, all my friends were voracious readers, and it was shameful not to be familiar with the latest published translation. Here, by contrast, the students only read the books they study in class. Actually, as I find out, after I begin attending classes in the English department, many of them are also voracious readers of magazines. Little by little, I begin to socialize with a group of graduate students in the English department, thanks to my new boyfriend, who is doing a PhD in English.

One day we are at his place—a nice apartment in our small town’s downtown, paid for by his father. Also there is a newcomer, a nymphette from the East Coast, let’s call her Z, who doesn’t tire of narrating her amorous adventures in various locales around the globe. I, who have never travelled anywhere—except, of course, to come to the United States—listen with fascination. I make an effort to imagine the many places she’d seen, trying to invent their smells, the streets full of roaming pedestrians, the dishes she’d tasted, but her stories are very frustrating because they are all focused on the men she’d had sex with and their countless manly skills. Nothing about the places themselves. Eventually, the discussion turns to our teaching responsibilities (we are all teaching assistants) and the methods we use. Z declares that she asks her students to do Marxist interpretations of articles from The Cosmopolitan. The more she talks the more fascinated with her I become. Having arrived from a country where all my life I heard the words “dialectic materialism,” “the engine of history,” “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and other similar phrases, I can’t quite put together the ethos of Marxism (whose principles included something called “socialist morals,” and behavior that had to accord with them) with this girl—or should I say woman (it took me many years to realize that in this country females are offended when they are referred to as “girls” because they perceive it as “sexist,” even when the word is used by other females).

I could bet my life that Z hasn’t read a word of Marx, and a week or so later, I arrange a pretext to pay her a visit with my boyfriend. Well, she too lives in a nice apartment—definitely not covered with her $1,000 per month student income. The apartment is sparsely furnished, but all the available shelves are full of glossy magazines, and on closer inspection, I see that almost all of them are issues of The Cosmopolitan, with a few copies of Vogue among them. There isn’t a single book in the entire apartment. I wonder what Marx would think of this young woman, whose entire life reads like a sex travelogue, and whose intellectual pursuits revolve around The Cosmopolitan. I confess I am a little jealous. How could I not be jealous of someone who has found a way not only of reading the only thing she is clearly interested in, these glossy magazines with articles about feminine beauty, but also of making the English department pay for it and of convincing her students that they are studying “Marxism”? How could I not be jealous of her when I, working in the French department, am being obligated to teach by applying the latest methodology in language acquisition, which requires wholesale rejection of critical thinking—a point that is emphasized over and over in our pedagogic training—in favor of the immersion experience. I am being expected literally to jump up and down in class in order to teach through role playing, which forbids the teaching of grammar in an analytical way.

It also turns out that Z isn’t the only one with a passion for Marxism. The instructor in my new class in the English department—a very charming young man—gives us a list of things we can all do to “subvert the system.” As I recall, this included the suggestion that we buy a Che Guevara T-shirt for the modest price of seventy dollars. Some of my classmates point out that they don’t have enough money to subvert the system, and, very quickly, the instructor comes up with something else: working class forms of entertainment. It is the first time I hear the expression “working class” since leaving Communist Romania, and the expression bounces off the walls of my English classroom in a strange way, almost like a mésalliance. The working-class type of entertainment my instructor is so fond of is bowling, and he invites us to go bowling with him on weekends at the university club. After all these years, my memory is not very reliable, and I remember vaguely that I only went once. What I do remember very clearly is the instructor’s insistence that what we were indulging in was “working class.”

Now, I can’t claim I did a survey of all my classmates’ backgrounds, but those that I did get to know came mostly from the homes of professionals, business people, university teachers, university administrators, and so on. Judging from their cars, pretty much all of them were far from “working class.” As far as I could tell, I was the only one. My parents’ combined incomes amounted to less than one hundred dollars per month. And yet, neither my parents nor I, nor anyone I knew, ever went bowling. Well, you’re probably saying, but he wasn’t talking about Romania. Different country, different pastimes. Correct. But even in an Anglo-Saxon context, I bet you won’t find a working-class person proudly asserting their working-class credentials in the form of bowling. Or any form. I think I know something about the “working class” because, until several decades ago, in Romania, about 85% of the population consisted of peasants and factory workers, and almost all of my friends came from such families. One thing a working-class person would never do is profess having any kind of pride in his or her social status. Only someone from the middle- or upper-class would project such romantic ideas about this “Noble Savage” of our times onto the suffocating walls of one’s office.

I did experience being “working class” in the New World too. My first job as a newly arrived immigrant was at McDonald’s, where I was being paid $4.25 per hour—that is, when I was being paid. At some point, I was told that the punching clock where I had to clock in and out was broken, and that I had to enter my working hours by hand. Well, for a few weeks the records with my working hours kept being lost, and so I worked almost for free for about two months. During this time, I was close to starving, and so I asked my manager if I could have some of the hamburgers that they, according to the restaurant’s policy, had to throw away after a few hours. I was informed that if I wanted a burger, I had to pay for it.

Eventually, I got tired of working for free and found another “gig” at Wendy’s. It was while working at Wendy’s that I began to study for the GRE, hoping that I could be admitted into the MA program in French at the closest public university, the only university where I could afford to apply. Since I couldn’t spare even one dollar for anything, instead of buying a manual to study for the test, I went for a whole summer to a Waldenbooks, where, armed with a pencil and an eraser, I would hide among the shelves and study for the test. As an unexpected side effect of my surreptitious studying, I ended up being hired as a bookseller.

And this has been my life story ever since. One side effect after another.

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Alta Ifland is a Romanian-born American writer who has a PhD in French and currently lives in Northern California. Her novel, The Wife Who Wasn’t, and her translation (with Eireene Nealand) of Marguerite Duras’s film script, Le Camion/The Darkroom, are coming out in Spring 2021. www.altaifland.com

From “Three Samizdat Winters”. Non-Fiction by Katia Kopovich

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From “Three Samizdat Winters” by Katia Kapovich, an autobiographical account in the style of a Künstlerroman of Kapovich’s youth in Russia’s former Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic

I entered the bedroom I that shared with Larissa, lay down on the plaid-covered low bed, and began to scrutinize the ceiling. As I did this, I asked myself what I was going to do about all of it: about love, and poetry, about my dad being in jail, mom’s heartaches, and the problems she was already having at work because of my reputation. Problems was putting it mildly. She had been summoned to the first section, a bureaucratic euphemism for the Soviet KGB department. But my mom is tough and does everything the right way. Eventually we would locate relatives in Israel and apply to emigrate. It was Eugene I mostly worried about. Were he to say to me, Katia, this is how it is, I love you, let’s do something about it—that would be one thing. But he wasn’t saying anything of the sort. Apart from the inopportune, out-of-place proposal to “get married,” he never mentioned “us.” I recalled the clichéd joke: “Not now, silly, we’re at war!” War indeed: à la guerre comme à la guerre. He’s only twenty, and frightening things are already happening to him, I thought to myself. He has no time for you and your love.

At that moment Andrei entered the room a second time with a summons to the table.

“Which table, the one in the kitchen?” I asked. He shrugged and exited.

I’ll interrupt my narrative for a minute here to say a couple of words about something else. Namely, about why I bothered to write all this down in the first place. What is the point of describing cops, KGB agents, and provincial boys playing at being dissidents? What is the point of lavishing attention on the minutiae of those three long-ago years?

Life is an intricate matter. I knew several people who were once brave and brilliant. In time they grew weary and faded. They wasted their bravery on squabbles with their superiors at work. As for us, life couldn’t do very much about us. It might either let us be or kill us. So enough about our lives: let me say a few words about his poetry.

Mandelshtam says of Nikolai Aseev[1] that the latter’s poems “unwind to the extent that they are wound up.” Of all the metaphors for poetry, the spring seems to me the most accurate. Applying it (and why not?) to Eugene Khorvat’s poetry, let me say that he was in that regard the opposite of Aseev. His poems uncoiled far in excess of their windup. He commanded an extraordinary versificatory tempo. The reader reaches the finish line oblivious of having first stood at the starting line, of having moved her legs, and having thrust her arms through the air. The spring that is hidden in the line propels the runner far beyond the limitations of her muscular efforts. This is the effect that his poetry always had, and still to this day, has on me.

But let me return to my story.

I was awakened by a roar of voices in the kitchen. I heard Eugene’s among them and went to confirm that it was him. His back toward me, he sat with a plate of cold macaroni on his knees. He always ate very slowly. A working atmosphere reigned at the moment, a coffee pot on the stove, our Kishinev typescripts spread over the table.

Andrei gave me a peck on the cheek.

“Hey, watch it,” Khorvat said menacingly.

“Mere camaraderie,” apologized Andrei. He put me in his chair and brought a copy of Gaping Heights.

“Start reading. You’ll get a kick out of it.”

“The first issue of North South magazine,” Eugene continued, “will include Fradis, Katia, Pane, Kaplan, Shilkov and, well, myself.”

“What about Krivulin? What about Stratanovskii? What about Shvarts and, what’s his name, Okhapkin?”

“I’ve nothing against it,” said Khorvat. “You’ve got their poems?”

“Shitloads.”

“And their consent?”

“Why the hell do I need their consent?”

“All right, those are details. For now, let’s make a selection from what’s available.”

Port was opened at noon. We came up with a little game in case the KGB showed up. On the count of “one, two, three,” we had to grab the manuscripts, climb onto the windowsill, and jump out the window. With this in mind, the window in the room I shared with Larissa was left open. It being a ground floor apartment, a street bum, as drunk as a lord, climbed in through the open window from the street, and fell asleep on the rag next to our bed. We did not discover him until the morning. He failed to say anything coherent, and himself had no idea as to the method of, and reasons for, his visit.

Andrei would go to his office at two daily and come back with a bagful of photocopied poetry and fiction. Our fingers were black with toner from the pages. By day four, the contents of our suitcase had multiplied menacingly, and begun to spread throughout the apartment, while the magic pot kept cooking up more and more copies of typescripts.

We called Krivulin, who replied that he wanted in. Khorvat was happy with the conversation:

“Krivulin hinted that he can pass a copy to someone abroad.”

Andrei felt inspired and drank no alcohol the whole day.

“To hell with the booze. The mock-up has to be ready the day after tomorrow. Gene, you’ll come with me to my workplace, and we’ll do us a hell of a copying job.”

Two days later, by evening time, we had a mockup of our first issue of North South in our hands. We had guests as well: the hairdresser Olya, and the literary scholar Anya. Andrei showed them our creation.

“Better still, read us some poems,” Olya requested.

“Well then, why not.”

I refused. Khorvat agreed to read one poem, and Andrei read three. The girls liked Khorvat.

“And now let us analyze what we have heard,” proposed Anya the literary scholar. There was a poetry society at her university where people were required to express their opinions at meetings, as if those were political indoctrination sessions.

“I can’t analyze. I feel poetry with my skin. I feel tingles down my back if I like it,” replied Olya.

Khorvat said that this is the best approach to art, tingles and all that. Olya promised him a free haircut.

“I know the hair style that would look good on you.”

“Which?”

“Like Pushkin’s.”

“You mean, with sideburns?”

“What do sideburns have to do with anything?” Olya looked hurt.

“And what does Pushkin have to do with anything?”

“Pushkin is a classic of Russian literature,” Olya retorted. “He can serve as an example to everyone.”

By midnight, we managed to get rid of the girls. Khorvat slept on a camp-cot in the hallway. As I lay in bed, I thought that something was bound to happen the next day, something good that would unravel all the riddles. These thoughts kept me awake a long time. Although I was sleepy, something kept pushing me back to the surface. At first I was bothered by footsteps behind the wall, then by cats caterwauling beneath our window, one of them feeling reluctant to yield something to the other. An empty can was launched at them from one of the apartments above us. They fell silent for five minutes and then resumed their caterwauling with an irrepressible vigor. But I was asleep.

We had macaroni and cheese for breakfast. Andrei gathered the numbered sheets into a folder, then collected the extra copies, took them outside and dumped them in a garbage container.

On returning inside he commanded, “Ready, set, let’s go!”

I hid the typescript folders in the suitcase.

“How about we all drink a little port?” enquired Andrei.

“Nah, I don’t feel like it,” replied Eugene.

Meanwhile Larissa was working her magic on a jezve of coffee.

“Use a regular coffee pot, it’s much faster,” Andrei tried to reason with her.

“When I make coffee I make coffee,” she replied, quoting Joyce.

The doorbell rang.

“How can one work in such conditions?” grumbled Larissa.

Khorvat opened the door. Two cops came in, followed by a comrade in plain clothes. The latter emerged from behind their backs once the door was open. In principle, as Andrei commented later, there was no need to open the door since the cops had no warrant. On the other hand, they would have, in principle, entered anyway.

“We have received a complaint from your neighbors about this apartment.”

“What are they complaining about?” Andrei demanded.

“Noise and fighting.”

“There’s no fighting. You can see for yourselves.”

“We’ll see about that,” said cop number two.

And see they did. One went into the kitchen and opened the fridge for some odd reason. The other went into the bathroom and stood there for a long time, examining the contents of the cabinets.

The KGB guy was the only one who acted in a way that made sense. He proceeded immediately to the bedroom, caught sight of the open window, and went straight for our suitcase.

“Could you open it?”

“Are you really going to rummage through dirty clothes?” said Larissa.

It didn’t work: his reply was “yes.”

“Go ahead, comrade!”

She opened the suitcase with her foot. A quantity of dirty clothing fell out of it, and landed on the floor. The rest of the suitcase contained typescripts in folders. That was bad enough, but then I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the copy of Zinoviev’s Gaping Heights that we had left on the bed. It lay at the very edge, slightly masked by the bedsheet. Larissa had noticed it too. She now stood between me and the agent who crouched over the suitcase. We looked at each other, and I sat down on the volume.

Working silently, he leafed through the typescripts and set them aside. A volume of Mikhail Kuzmin’s poems, which he found at the bottom, dropped back into the suitcase. I tried to assume a natural pose, as if to say, I’ll just sit around here a little bit so as to keep out of your way. By all means please feel free to go on with your work, and for God’s sake take your time.

A portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung on the wall.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“My uncle,” Andrei replied unflappably.

“He reminds me of someone, your uncle. Don’t you think?”

“Me too.”

“Of whom?”

“Of my father.”

The KGB agent knit his brows and looked at me, who was trying to take my mind off the situation and to relax my facial muscles by thinking of something unrelated. Yes, I was telling myself mentally, my dad is probably right, it is time to leave this country. But where can I go? And what about my mom?

I suddenly heard: “Get up, please.”

“Huh?”

“What’s that you’ve got there?”

“Where?”

“Get up!” he said louder.

I did.

“Aha!” the agent exclaimed solemnly. “Readers of Zinoviev, I see. Where did you get the book?”

“I brought it from Leningrad.”

“Who gave it to you?”

“Leonid Palanov.”

The agent made a note in his notebook.

In the next room Andrei was arguing with the cops.

“No fighting, as you can see. Don’t believe our neighbors. The noise comes from the cats fighting at night.”

“You, Eugene, are taking a walk with me,” said the KGB man, and waved to the cops. “Eugene and I are going for a walk, and you can go, comrades.”

Khorvat moved toward the apartment door. I followed him.

“Don’t worry, miss, he will be back soon.”

“I’ll come with you.”

The agent looked at me with surprise.

“That will not be necessary,” he said, looking at me.

I sat down on a chair in the kitchen.

“It’s going to be all right. Khorvat knows how to act in such situations.”

“How?”

“Deny everything: I was drunk, a pal gave me something to read, and I stuck it in my bag without looking.”

“You think they’ll believe him?”

“They’ll believe him if they want to believe him. They can’t take anything from him. He’s a street cleaner. His mother has already lost her job anyway.”

“I didn’t know.”

“So, there.”

He splashed some port in a glass and ordered me to drink.

“I’m going to wait for Eugene,” I said.

“And I have to stop by my workplace.”

“Yes, go. Leave the mockup there.”

“Wait,” he suddenly remembered, “what about the plates?”

“What plates?”

“The photocopier plates from which I copied Gaping Heights. We’ve got to extract them, or else they’ll find them.”

“So let’s extract them? Where is the problem?”

“We’ll have to distract the watchman, or he might notice me from the gatehouse.”

“I can, if need be.”

“Then let’s go.” …

Larissa opened the door. He wasn’t there yet. He came back two hours later. He said, “It’s all right,” and sank onto the sofa. I looked at him and realized everything was not all right.

“Did they beat you up?” asked Larissa.

“No.”

“What happened?”

“We talked.”

“What did they say?”

“They said you both have to leave within 24 hours. You’ll most likely be accompanied.”

“And you?”

“I have to stay.”

None of this was easy for him. He hung his head, then picked up the out-of-tune guitar from the floor and began to pluck the strings.

“Where’s Andrei?”

“He went to the Pozdniakovs to hide the copier plates.”

“What plates?”

“From the Zinoviev photocopy.”

“Oh, here are you tickets,” he slapped the pockets of his jeans. “I bought them for you to save you the trouble.”

I have a significant character flaw: I don’t know how to put on a brave face and am not good at pretending that everything is all right, or at talking in an unnaturally cheerful voice, as others seem to be able to do. When I’m sad, I’m sad.

I went to the kitchen, opened the cold water faucet, and placed my head under the rusty jet. I guess I feel a bit better, I thought, wiping my hair with a kitchen towel.

Khorvat came in, looked at me, took my elbows:

“Look, Katia, I’m awfully tired today. I’ll come by early tomorrow, and we’ll talk it all through. I have a plan.”

I nodded my, face against his shoulder.

“Everything will be fine with us,” he yelled as he descended the staircase.

A blazing sunset poured through the entrance door. On the doorstep he looked back, but his face remained in the glare.

I had a fleeting thought: I’ll never see him again.

We were accompanied, as Eugene had predicted. A man in a grey suit materialized at the last moment. His seat was in a compartment next to ours, and he came out a few times to smoke in the vestibule, like everyone else. He didn’t bother us.

“Eugene most likely couldn’t make it,” Larissa was trying to console me. “He has a lot of decisions to make right now.”

“I am not saying anything,” I said.

“You’re not saying it, but you’re thinking it.”

“What? I’m not supposed to think now?”

“Think or not, it makes little difference. Call him when you get home, and everything will be clear.”

“It won’t,” I insisted.

“Fruit butter,” Larissa chuckled. “You’re both like fruit butter.”

The train came to a stop in the middle of the field, and remained motionless for a long time, as if deciding whether or not to continue. We could hear the sound of water being poured on the rails. Then steam was emitted, and the landscape behind the window started creeping toward the right.

“What about you? Have you forgotten that the folks meeting us are a young lady and your former boyfriend?” I pulled the blanket over my head.

Fradis and Svetlana were waiting for us on the platform. The train stopped.

“Good grief, what’s the matter with her?” Larissa asked in terror.

I took a look. “What do you mean?”

We exited the car. The newlyweds smiled ear to ear on spotting us. Svetlana patted her belly. “I’m pregnant, that’s what’s up.”

“And besides, we’re leaving,” announced Fradis.

“Where will you go?”

“To the States, to stay with Palanov.”

“You’re leaving us?” Larisa vented angrily. “I’ll remain here alone. Khorvat will leave too. Katia will follow him. And I’ll end my days here all by myself.”

“Everyone chooses their own path,” Fradis replied evasively.

Svetlana intervened, “Don’t fight, let’s go celebrate this reunion.”

“Let’s indeed, girls.”

As if nothing has happened, I thought.

While Moldova’s autumns are colorful and leafy, her winters are sludgy. They lack aesthetics and the hieroglyphs of bird paw prints on snow. Your feet tread on slaked lime. The street cleaner comes out of the door of the housing and utilities office holding a bucket of sand and wonders: There is no snow or ice to sprinkle the sand on, everything has melted of its own accord.

Larissa’s parents had given her a color TV. There hadn’t been a single TV set among any of us until then. In the fall, Victor, Arthur, and Mikhail would come by to watch soccer. “Kipiani has gained control of the ball! He is moving fast toward the opponent’s goal!” Announcements came blasting from the TV room. I could hear the words distinctly from where I sat on the kitchen’s broad windowsill. Meanwhile, Eugene would clear his portion of the street of snow and ice daily. It was impossible to go see him because he was under house arrest.

My dad’s trial started in December. It was a show trial.

Excellent timing for the denouement.

In November and December I was reading Joyce’s Ulyssus, and here is what I came to understand. Kipiani may very well gain control of the soccer ball, but one can’t gain control over enigma and beauty—nor over the person one loves. One can’t gain control over the crow gliding slowly above the grey wasteland behind one’s windows, above the pile of crates soaked through with snow, above the pedestrian marching with a string-bag first thing in the morning, with a milk can inside. No one and nothing can be possessed. All we can do is love and remember: Joyce his Ireland, Platonov the construction pit, and Proust the peachy cheeks of Albertine.

I realized that the only way to gain freedom was to love, remember, and describe. This is the only form of private property that both Aristotle and Mandelshtam, philosopher and poet, recognized without argument. Then and only then would all of this be truly mine, and no one would be able to take you away from me again, my love. Nor would anyone be able to deprive me of that vision of a crow patrolling a plot of wasteland in Ryshkanovska.[2] Wherever I happen to find myself henceforth—whether in a mental institution in Kishinev, or on a stairwell landing in Cambridge—this would remain with me always. Amen.

Eugene was summoned to the KGB’s Petrozavodsk office, and that very same agent told him in a friendly manner: “These are uncertain times. Brezhnev being ill, no one knows who’ll be in charge tomorrow. You’ve got two alternatives: either emigrate within a week, or you know what might happen.”

“There can be only one alternative, by definition.”

“Anyway, you heard me. Get your visa at 8 a.m. tomorrow at the visa office.”

Khorvat called me from Boris Victorov’s place on Jaunary 13, 1981.

“My dear, I am leaving.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow at dawn.”

“Where to?”

“I’ll try to remain in Europe.”

“Is that farther away than Petrozavodsk, or closer?”

“It’s about the same distance.”

“Say something.”

I wanted to say, I love you. Wait for me there. I’ll do anything to make sure we see each other soon. But instead I blurted out:

“Do you know that that Brodsky is now in Rome, and Tsvetkov in America?”

He did not have time to respond. Something inside the phone started screeching and whistling. A diabolical sound followed, and then a silence.

I picked up the receiver a couple of times, but the phone failed to come back to life. Night fell fast. The sky had been blue just moments ago, and now it was the color of a wet sackcloth. I lay down on the sofa without turning on the lamp and stared out the window.

It snows for real only once per winter in Kishinev: on New Year’s Eve, which, according to the old Russian calendar, is January 13.

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev

[1] A Soviet poet who was considered mediocre.

[2] An area of Kishinev.

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Katia Kapovich is the author of ten Russian collections and of two volumes of English verse, Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004, shortlisted for England’s 2005 Jerwood Alderburgh Prize) and Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Her English language poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, The Independent, The Common, Jacket, Plume and numerous other periodicals, as well as in several anthologies including Best American Poetry 2007 and Poetry 180 (Random House, Billy Collins, Ed.)  Katia Kapovich, the recipient of the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the U.S. Library of Congress, and a poet-in-residence at Amherst College in 2007, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the recipient of the 2013 Russian Prize in the category “Short Fiction”. Also, in 2019 she received an international Hemingway Prize for her book of short stories, that includes fictionalized documentary prose.

On Justice Ginsburg’s Passing, and Why I’m Seeing Red. Non-fiction by Olga Stein

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On Justice Ginsburg’s Passing, and Why I’m Seeing Red

As I started to write this, I kept an eye on the live broadcast of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Lying in State ceremony. Justice Ginsburg, who died on September 18, is only the 35th individual to be granted this honour since 1852. Holding the ceremony in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol requires approval of a resolution passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. After all, it’s meant to mark the passing of an exceptional individual—one whose service has had a transformative effect on the nation. Taking gender out of the equation, we can see that a Lying in State happens, on average, once every half decade. Yet Justice Ginsburg is also the first woman ever to be paid this tribute. It’s fair to compare this occasion and Ginsburg  herself, it seems to me, to some rare celestial event—kind of like the passing of Halley’s Comet, only far more rare.

I scanned the effusive comments popping up during the webcast. Most came from women. If words were flowers, then there was a profusion of bouquets—from shapely clusters of roses and lilies to colourful assortments of wildflowers. The words kept coming, like blooms multiplying and swaying in tandem in an expanding field. They also showed that the women offering these tokens of respect come from all walks of life. There were declarations of gratitude, and brief reflections on the effect that RGB’s contributions to women’s rights and anti-discrimination protections had on their personal lives. Many women expressed hope that the progress RGB helped bring about will be honoured and safeguarded—specifically, her work as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project (she made crucial contributions to the 1971 Reed v. Reed and other landmark anti-gender discrimination cases, such as Frontiero v. Richardson and Craig v. Boren), and as a federal and then supreme court judge (McGrath and Sandler provide a helpful summary, as does Spiggle[i]). Some of the comments conveyed fear of the possibility that the rulings RGB secured, which protect women’s professional aspirations and their reproductive autonomy, will be vitiated or overturned in the future.

Justice Ginsburg, one can’t but realize, is the very embodiment of the progress made with respect to gender equality. Career-wise, she fully realized her vast potential, and in her marriage and domestic life, from what we can see, she attained a remarkable kind of fulfillment, consideration, and respect. Her partner, Martin David Ginsburg, encouraged and supported her professional aspirations from the start of their life together in 1954. Later, in the early 1990s, he lobbied to get his wife appointed to the Supreme Court. “No other campaign for a seat on the Court had been spearheaded by a male spouse,” writes Jane Sherron De Hart in her biography, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life (2018). All in all, Ginsburg achieved what every capable person with ambition aspires to in their public and private lives: recognition of their abilities, and enough support and freedom to do the work necessary to advance themselves. Yet she also knew from personal experience that these gains were hard-won, and that for other women barriers to professional success and personal well-being (including reproductive self-determination) would remain unless rights and protections were given enduring life by being inscribed with the precision and determination of commandments—becoming acts, amendments, clauses, and provisions—in constitutional and civil law.

RBG’s passing, and the current situation in the US—the looming election, which is bound to reflect the growing polarization of American society since 2016, the undermining of journalists, the rejection of face masks as a means of curtailing the spread of COVID-19, the BLM protests across the country, the often draconian efforts to quash them, and now the Republicans’ decisions to replace Justice Ginsburg with Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is religious and a conservative practitioner of the law—have, in my mind’s eye, assumed the spectre of two tsunami-sized waves accelerating toward one another. I certainly hope that this image greatly exaggerates the animus between liberal and conservative Americans, between the country’s progressive and reactionary interests. As a Canadian, I would like my sense of a crisis in a country that is my country’s neighbour to be off by a mile, but the article penned by Shane Goldmacher and Katie Glueck, and published by The New York Times on September 27, is not reassuring. Here’s an excerpt: “[I]n nominating Judge Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mr. Trump has pushed to the forefront a complex new stew of factors as Republicans play up her personal story as an accomplished 48-year-old working mother of faith. It’s a development that could sway or mobilize key voting blocs on both sides of the aisle: evangelical and conservative Catholic voters, abortion-rights activists and opponents, women and young people.”[ii]

Do we know what Judge Barrett would do with regard to women’s right to abortion if her appointment goes through? We do not, but there is some basis for surmising that she won’t be supportive of existing protections. Kate Smith, in her September 26 article for CBS News, “What we know about Amy Coney Barrett’s Judicial Abortion Record,” writes that “the federal judge has referred to abortion as ‘always immoral’ and offers something a former top candidate, Barbara Lagoa, doesn’t: A clear anti-abortion rights judicial record.”[iii] Adam Liptak’s assessment in “Barrett’s Record: A Conservative Who Would Push the Supreme Court to the Right,” published in The New York Times on September 26, is only a little less unequivocal. He writes: “Overruling a major precedent [the 1973 Roe vs. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion] is no small undertaking, of course. But Judge Barrett has indicated that some precedents are more worthy of respect than others.”[iv]

Barrett’s nomination and its implied threat to abortion rights is part of larger national context of attacks on women’s reproductive autonomy in the form of various restrictions on abortion rights. A June 2019 article, “Early Abortion Bans: Which States Have Passed Them,” authored by Mara Gordon and Alyson Hurt, and published online by National Public Radio (NPR), a non-profit membership media organization, offers a comprehensive account of where things stand with regard to individual states’ attempts to enact abortion restrictions. Nine states have passed early abortion ban laws, with Alabama’s efforts being the most extreme. If Alabama’s ban were to go into effect, no abortion would be allowed except in instances where the pregnancy endangered a mother’s life. The ban would not make exceptions for rape or incest. None of these laws are yet in effect “either because they have a future enactment date or because judges have put them on hold in response to lawsuits, or both.”[v] Early abortion bans have, so far, always been struck in court. Currently, there is no state law in effect that bans abortion before 20 weeks, but some of the newer regulations have not yet been challenged, “so they remain on the books,” the authors tell us. Moreover, they are indicative of an upward trend in terms of efforts to attenuate Roe vs. Wade. When contemplated alongside Judge Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, it’s like hearing a siren go off a few blocks away: you don’t feel the need to flee, but the noise is audible and persistent enough to cause unease. If the danger is real, you tell yourself, someone should do something about it.

Then what can we expect when no one does? The Handmaid’s Tale series, which I have been watching on Crave for the past month, hazards to give us a glimpse of what happens when too many people fail to act—when too many become politically disengaged or abstain from participating because they’re convinced that they can’t make a difference. In Season 3, June Osborne, the protagonist of the series (written and produced by Bruce Miller and Eric Tuchman), and the dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood that inspired it, says something that in retrospect stands out for me. She says this in her whispered response to Eleanor, Commander Lawrence’s wife. Eleanor is a decent woman of delicate constitution, who has become unhinged by the realization that her otherwise devoted, brilliant husband had been one of the masterminds of Gilead’s regime. Depressed and confused, but perceptive enough to see the devastating consequences of the totalitarian theocracy her husband helped establish, Eleanor feels guilty by association. Knowing that she and her husband have been committing serious transgressions (not holding the stipulated monthly “ceremony” is just one of the laws they have repeatedly broken), and certain that they’re about to be arrested and then executed, Eleanor tells June that she deserves to die. “It’s my fault. I should have done something,” she tells June. “All of us are guilty,” June replies. Everyone should have done more to intervene when they had the chance.

June’s assertion might be argued with, but on the whole, as this disturbing series shows, many of the high-ranking women, wives of the regime’s commanders—though growing increasingly dissatisfied with the strict gender-based restrictions which they too have to abide by—were complicit in Gilead’s founding. They had, in other words, willingly and enthusiastically participated in a violent political project. The coup they supported would culminate in the colonizing of women and their bodies—not these wives’ own privileged and protected bodies, mind you—so as to ‘husband’ them as reproductive assets. In a future in which the majority of people are infertile, the most precious resource, and hence one over which Gilead’s regime aims to exert the most stringent control, comes from the bodies of the women who are still fertile: it is the children they are able to bear for couples who are childless. The powerless handmaids are assigned to the senior members of the regime and their wives like spoils of ancient wars. It is these other women whom the wives are willing to see exploited, harshly disciplined, and discarded when they can’t serve their purpose any longer. Margaret Atwood had made this argument abundantly and terrifyingly clear some 35 years ago, when her novel first came out, and the series hammers convincingly at the same point: that it’s easy to deprive other women of their sexual and reproductive autonomy when one’s own isn’t at stake.

I wouldn’t be writing about The Handmaid’s Tale series if friends of mine, particularly those living in the US, had not recently began making references to it. “Under his eye,” and “Praise be,” are phrases that are popping up now with some regularity. Some are reacting to Judge Barrett’s nomination, and to the fact that she is member of a lay-led Catholic religious group, whose official name just happens to be People of Praise. According a Washington Post article that was published in 2018 and that was recently updated, there are People of Praise groups across the USA, and some operate schools. Michelle Boorstein and Julie Zauzmer, the article’s authors, indicate that the while it’s difficult to determine with any certainty how these so-called charismatic Catholic groups function or what influence they might exert over their members, the groups are generally known to be “conservative, authoritarian and patriarchal.” When they inquired with Craig Lent, People of Praise’s overall coordinator, about members’ views on abortion and gender, “he said they believe that life begins at conception, and that men are the leaders of the home.”[vi]

There is a lot more that raises concern in the article, yet the real problem, and one that should be setting off reverberative sirens, goes far beyond Judge Barrett’s membership in a dogmatic Christian organization. One needs only to look at the website belonging to the U.S. Department of State, and the remarks it posted on September 20, which were occasioned by Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo’s visit to Pastor Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Even a cursory examination of the remarks, which come under the heading, “Keeping Faith in the Public Square,” should give pause to any American who is familiar with the first amendment to the US Constitution. The amendment, which concerns itself with the separation of church and state is worded as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson also famously spoke of “building a wall of separation” between Church and State, thus ensuring that not a single American citizen would be forced to take up religion against their will, or be prevented from practicing their own chosen faith. Why, then, do Pompeo and Pastor Graham insist over and over in their remarks—in statements which now appear on  the official website of the U.S. Department of State—that  faith doesn’t just belong  in the public square, but that the founding fathers had never intended otherwise. Pompeo, it seems, is bent on recasting history: “And I believe deeply, …that faith in the public square is not only lawful, but righteous. That faith is not only powerful but required by the American tradition….[W]e need to return to the founders’ central understandings about faith…and we must stand with it and we can’t let anybody try and rewrite history to suggest otherwise.”[vii]

The purpose of this piece is not to discredit religion. Any person who chooses to, should be able to turn to religion. I do believe that religion and religious organizations—whichever faith is being practiced—play a vital role in giving people a sense of community, succour, continuity, and in encouraging tolerance, respect, and inclusivity. Nor would I ever attempt to diminish the gravity of any decision that pertains to the termination of a pregnancy, even one in the early stages. As far as I can see, The Handmaid’s Tale series does give due regard to religious faith, as well as maternal love, and its resilience. Neither does it fail to argue that any insistence on the sanctity of human life, especially when it is supported by scripture, is profoundly at odds with all of the ways individual freedoms are expunged in Gilead. An episode in which we see countless cages crowded with women captured and held there after Gilead defeats the holdout portions of Chicago, is no subtle reminder that a pro-life position makes little sense when migrant children who are separated from their parents are routinely held in cages in American border facilities.

This is also not meant as a review of the series The Handmaid’s Tale, although I do think that it does a superb job, intellectually and artistically, of representing Atwood’s novel and its message, and of extending and enlarging upon the trajectories suggested there. A number of good reviews have been written. These can be found without too much difficulty. I would, however, like to outline briefly what are for me some of the main takeaways from the series. They are as follows: The red colour of the uniforms the handmaids are forced to wear, and which makes the women and their purpose easily identifiable, is also intended as a mark of their former iniquity or fall from grace from which their status as handmaids is said to redeem them. The colour red, then, is a signal of these womens’ inferiority, and as such, it functions like the scarlet letter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s eponymously named novel: as dubious but effective means of ‘othering’ these women, and justifying their oppression on moral grounds. Moreover, as Hawthorne saw, and took pains to demonstrate by describing the moral hypocrisy of the Puritan community he wrote about, neither the presence nor absence of the scarlet letter—nor of any other distinguishing mark—is guarantee of virtue or the absence thereof. Atwood’s novel and the series make the same point with Jezebel’s, the unofficial brothel, whose function is to enable the senior members of Gilead’s religious regime let loose. On these very same grounds, we might conclude that we should never tolerate the use of scripture as an instrument of power—political, social, or juridicial—over others. Finally, and my favourite part of the series’ third season, is what we learn about the women who are employed as housekeepers, the “Marthas.” They have been collaborating, creating a network to undermine Gilead’s regime all along, and they have done so with awe-inspiring courage and resourcefulness. Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work is an example of the same. Women’s empathy, sense of justice, and their strength to resist oppression should not be underestimated, especially not when they’re forced to step up and intervene to ensure a better future for their children and for one another.

[i]McGrath, M., and Sandler, R. (2019, September 20). Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Indelible Mark On American Business. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2020/09/20/ruth-bader-ginsburgs-indelible-mark-on-american-business/#16c603215c75).

See also: Spiggle, Tom (2019, March 13). Eight Laws That Helped Women Make History In The Workforce. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomspiggle/2019/03/13/8-laws-that-helped-women-make-history-in-the-workforce/#64c51fe717b5

Note that Justice Ginsburg helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and, as a Supreme Court judge, wrote an influential dissenting opinion in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland to assist in making the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) less prone to being instrumentalized by employers in gender discriminatory hiring decisions.

[ii]Goldmacher, S., and Glueckhttps, K. (2020, September 26). Democrats want to avoid personal attackes on Barrett. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/09/26/us/trump-vs-biden/democrats-want-to-avoid-personal-attacks-on-barrett

[iii]Smith, K. (2020, September 26). What we know about Amy Coney Barrett’s Judicial Abortion Record. CBS News. Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amy-coney-barrett-views-postion-abortion-cases/.

[iv]Liptak, A. (2020, September 26). Barrett’s Record: A Conservative Who Would Push the Supreme Court to the Right. The New York Times. Retrieved from:  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/us/amy-coney-barrett-views-abortion-health-care.html?auth=login-facebook).

[v]Gordon, M., and Hurt, A. (2019, June 5). Early Abortion Bans: Which States Have Passed Them. Retrieved from:  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/06/05/729753903/early-abortion-bans-which-states-have-passed-them.

[vi]Boorstein, M., and Zauzmer, J. (2020, September 28). The Story Behind Amy Coney Barrett’s little known Christian group People of Praise. Washington Post.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2020/09/28/people-of-praise-amy-coney-barrett/

[vii]U.S. Department of State website (2020, September 20). Keeping Faith in the Public Square. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/keeping-faith-in-the-public-square/?fbclid=IwAR1LSO06h5YrzqUOS-_NSpv714sNnkDfRK88K6aOC2xvMUJBb5keBc1vcoQ

More reading:

Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (November 22, 1971), available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/404/71;

and Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (May 14, 1973), available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/411/677.

Ginsburg, R. B. (1979). Sexual Equality Under the Fourteenth and Equal Rights Amendments. Washington University Law Review 1 (1979): 161–178, available at https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2509&context=law_lawreview.

Bleiweis, R. (2020, January 29). The Equal Rights Amendment: What You Need to Know. Centre for American Progress. Retrieved from: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/01/29/479917/equal-rights-amendment-need-know/

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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

Olga Stein is WordCity Monthly’s Contributing Editor of Non-fiction.

Watershed. Novel Excerpt by Doreen Vanderstoop

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Watershed (a novel excerpt)

Written by Doreen Vanderstoop and reprinted with permission from Freehand Books

The faint hiss of airbrakes sounded above the wind. Willa Van Bruggen looked eastward and shielded her eyes against the May morning light. The sun lay low in the sky—a beautiful, terrible, celestial raspberry coloured by dust and by smoke drifting in from forest fires in Northern Washington State and British Columbia.

Crystel Canada’s double water-tanker hove into view at the top of the hill, the shine of its silver barrels dulled by the dusty air. Airbrakes again—intermittent now, like sharp intakes of breath—as the rig inched down toward the Van Bruggen farm. Drivers had to keep their speed in check, so water surges didn’t send the vehicles careening out of control.

Last night’s conversation with her only son had been running through Willa’s mind all morning. Daniel had video-called her to share the news about getting an interview with Crystel Canada.

“I’ll be working for the federal Crown corporation keeping Southern Alberta from turning into Death Valley,” he said. Daniel shook his head as if his point were obvious and he didn’t understand why she wasn’t getting it. She wasn’t. She wanted him back. Needed him to help them keep the farm afloat. Daniel tried again. “It’s like a banker getting a job with the Bank of Canada or an art dealer with the National Gallery of Canada. Crystel operates for profit at arms’ length from government, but the feds guarantee the cash flow in case of financial trouble. They won’t let the water pipeline fail.”

As he spoke, her mind drifted back to a time when she and young Daniel crept into the loft of the hay barn to check out a new litter of kittens. She’d marvelled at how gently his little fingers stroked their silky fur. But he was strong willed, too—always arguing that he was ready to take on the next big farm job. Back then, she couldn’t imagine he’d ever leave.

He told her the job with Crystel would be a dream come true.

Smile, Willa commanded herself. Congratulate him. But the muscles around her mouth refused to budge.

The phone screen relayed the hopeful twitch of his eyebrows. “Aren’t you happy for me?” he asked. “I can finally start to tackle my debt.”

“Of course I’m happy,” she said, the words like a mouthful of sand.

Daniel ran a hand across the top of his head and let it nest in his thick hair, as yellow as ripe wheat. His blue eyes shone. “My master’s is paying off. And I’ve made great contacts. No one is hiring, but my friend, Percy Dickenson, got me this interview. Brilliant guy. Double majored in political science and hydrogeology. Now he’s a bigshot in the provincial water ministry.”

“I’m glad you can get on top of your debt.” Her tiny image in the corner of the screen looked glad, didn’t it? “I just wish you were coming home.”

Daniel’s face disappeared as he tilted the phone away. She saw the dingy ceiling tiles in his basement apartment, then his face filled the screen again.

“Listen to me, Mom. I’m a professional now. I don’t want to fight dust and wind on a few lousy acres of dried out farmland. I want to help everyone. I’ve been looking for a year. A lot of grads from the Class of 2057 are still out of work. They’d kill for this opportunity. I can’t make ends meet with half shifts at the Breakfast Barn.”

Neither spoke for a full uncomfortable minute.

“I’m staying in Calgary,” Daniel said.

Now, Willa’s eyes followed the water truck as she pulled her dual-cartridge dust mask over her head. Her fingers fumbled with the webbed strapping that always tugged at her unruly curls. “Damn this thing,” she muttered. Still, it prevented Valley Fever. Few Albertans were immune to the fungal disease that had migrated north from Arizona. Her sister, Sophie, had barely survived it.

Daniel’s description of home had stung Willa. The place where he’d nurtured those damn cats, torn down old sheds, built new ones, branded calves once upon a time—all of that reduced to ‘a few lousy acres.’ He’d once sniffed at a pitchfork full of timothy grass and said farms had the best smells in the world. Willa tried to associate “hydrogeologist” with the deeply familiar image of Daniel as a boy, but the two concepts flowed through her mind like water and oil.

As she snugged the floppy silicone mask around her nose and mouth, a desert whitetail landed on her arm. Another import from Arizona, but this one a hard worker that devoured hundreds of flying insects a day. The dragonfly wriggled its wide, black-tipped wings and chalky body. Willa had heard somewhere that they were territorial. She could relate to that. Her head began to ache. She checked the straps to make sure the mask wasn’t too tight. It wasn’t. When Willa looked up, she froze. Where the water tanker had been, an army tank now ripped through the barbed wire fence around the field. Bounced wildly through fallow ruts and divots. The main gun pointed at her. Caterpillar treads churned up the ground like enormous black teeth.

Willa staggered backward and toppled over. A horn blasted and airbrakes screamed. She turned slowly to find herself an arm’s length from the front bumper of the water truck.

Alain Dupré jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran to her side. “Willa, you all right?” Alain’s dust mask muffled his voice, but his Quebecois accent was thick with fear. “Tabernac—I thought you were going right under my goddamn tires.” He shot a frenzied look toward the house and the barn.

Willa sat up and pointed at the field. He looked over with a puzzled frown. She said, “I . . . I saw a . . .” Where the tank had been, a dust devil pirouetted across the field.

“What the hell you talking about, Willa? You fell like a sack of hammers.”

She shook her head and scanned the smooth ground by her feet. “I must have tripped over a rock. I’m tired. Not sleeping well.”

Alain helped Willa to her feet and held her elbow. He glanced back at the farm buildings again.

Willa took one long gasping breath through her mask and smacked her hands against her dusty jeans. “If you’re looking for Calvin, he’s in the barn. I’m fine.” Her and Alain’s masked voices sounded half dead in her ears. “Just fine.” She waved him on. “Go, go. Do your job already.”

He backed away slowly, then climbed back into the cab and threaded the tanker truck around the house to the cistern. Willa followed, massaging her temples. The day before, she thought she saw a coyote in the milking shed. A week ago, the sink and mirror awash with blood as she brushed her teeth. The illusions hadn’t lasted long but seemed so real. Maybe she’d contracted Valley Fever despite the mask. Could the fungus make a person crazy? She’d never heard of that happening, but perhaps it had mutated during its migration, now able to wend its way into a person’s neural pathways. She’d have to search that.

Daniel Brookes gripped the railing as he crossed the Langevin Bridge toward downtown Calgary. A hefty west wind kicked dust around the dry Bow River riverbed. He passed through the castellated wall that encircled Calgary’s core. Built to resist flood water from storms and melting glaciers, the wall now imprisoned the city’s hollow-eyed skyscrapers. Surging oceans, ruinous storms, and crippling droughts had finally sent developed and developing countries into backflips to curb carbon. Oil barons had been chased out of Calgary’s plush offices in the 2040s by the world’s intolerance for unconventional oil and its untenable footprint of emissions and tar ponds.

As Dan strode up Macleod Trail toward Stephen Avenue, he skirted an overturned sedan, half-on, half-off the sidewalk near the Municipal Building. A single file of commuters bypassed the derelict car. Most wore dual-cartridge dust masks, as he did, a line of ants weaving around an obstruction. Unfazed, single-minded. He found comfort in the pad and click of their shoes on pavement. The sound of order and determination.

Calgary had become a study in extremes: serene by day and frantically agitated at night. City police couldn’t keep up with the chaos caused by rowdy hordes that came out after dark to hurl rocks and insults about uncaring governments. A nine o’clock curfew had done nothing to quell the violence and destruction. Just that morning, Mayor Vaillancourt announced they couldn’t afford to hire more police officers. He declared a state of emergency and said he had appealed to the federal government to deploy Canadian Forces personnel to patrol the downtown core. The mayor said City Council would make sure the light-rail transit system kept running. As if the whirr of electric arms stroking overhead wires and the hum of Ctrain wheels on shiny tracks signalled that Calgary was still a civilized place.

Dan pushed his hands further into the pockets of his dress pants. Paper bags, food wrappers, and bits of fluffy pink insulation swirled in windy eddies around his legs as he rounded the corner onto Stephen Avenue. On Olympic Plaza, a wide outdoor court built for the 1988 Winter Olympics, a man half sang, half shouted through a bull horn about his saviour, Jesus Christ, who would help them all get back on their feet again. A long queue of ragged men and women snaked through the plaza. They shuffled patiently toward sandwiches and paper cups of water. Bull-horn Man had one hand on a wooden cross with the words “repent” and “believe” painted on the crossbar. A banner hung on each side of the serving table. One read, “Jesus is coming back.” The other listed the Ten Commandments. As someone with no religious affinity, Dan was curious what motivated the proselytizers to help the downtrodden—charity or conversion. He supposed it wasn’t either-or, but a complicated marriage of the two.

As Dan strode up the mall, he sidestepped islands of broken window glass and homeless people strewn along the sidewalk like monuments to a failed society. Most of the mendicants had signs propped beside them begging for money and bottled water. He imagined himself in their place. Time was ticking down on the two months’ grace Mrs. Winstead had given him on his rent after his grant money ran out. His student loans would be due soon. None of that could be managed on short-order-cook wages at the Breakfast Barn.

Outside the Telesat Convention Centre, a man sat cross-legged on the sidewalk. The mug he held out contained a few coins. His sign, neatly printed and correctly spelled, read: “Help me get back to business.” Dan tossed a quarter in the man’s cup. “God bless you, son,” the man said, grinning, a gap where his front teeth should have been. Dan looked around. Little separated him or his parents or the people scurrying to work from this man’s fate. Dan would be thrilled to get the job at Crystel, except for the catch. A surge of nerves kicked him in the belly.

“I’ll get you the interview,” Percy Dickinson had told him, “but if Landrew hires you, I want you to be my eyes and ears at Crystel. On the sly, of course.” Percy’s intensity radiated through the phone screen. “The corporation has its own fucking coffers at heart, not the plight of Albertans. They’ll fucking divert our pipeline water to the thirsty U.S.” About Crystel’s CEO, Adam Landrew, his friend said, “A bead of sweat wouldn’t dare cross the man’s brow. He’d sell his grandmother for a loonie.”

Dan made his way up Centre Street to 9th Avenue. A crowd milled about outside the Fairmont Palliser as Dan passed by on the other side of the street. Like most hotels in the downtown core, the Palliser had been recommissioned as a homeless shelter until the city could get back on its feet. People tramped the red-carpeted steps day and night, clamouring for one of the coveted luxurious beds.

When Dan arrived at Crystel Canada Square at 9th Avenue and 4th Street, two burly security guards equipped with handguns and batons stopped him as the revolving door spat him inside. The man’s neck formed a thick, sinewy junction between his ears and shoulders; the woman wore a grimace made more ominous by a fat halo of black liner around each eye. Dan pulled off his dust mask and told them he had an interview with the President of Crystel. They looked him up and down in scornful disbelief. Each of them held one of his arms as they led him to the reception desk, apparently to disprove his ridiculous story. Assured of his peaceful mission, they showed him to the elevator and stood, arms crossed, until the doors closed.

Dan shook his head as the elevator started up to the 33rd floor. Security had become a growth industry as mountain snowpacks and ancient glaciers evaporated. When thousands of Albertans lost their jobs in the oil sands, civil unrest had crept in the way cold settles in the bones. Alberta, and all of Canada for that matter, had dragged behind the sustainability innovators. Bladeless wind turbines developed in Spain and Germany dotted urban and rural landscapes. American-made rooftop solar panels on homes and many cars kept high capacity Japanese nano-batteries juiced. Cheap natural gas from China heaped efficient fuel on the transportation sector. Southern Alberta needed to rise from the ashes. The water pipeline would be a good first step.

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Doreen Vanderstoop is a writer based in Calgary, Alberta whose short fiction has appeared in Prairie Fire Magazine and online at Montreal Serai, prairiejournal.org, epiphmag.com, and Alexandra Writers’ Centre, among others. Doreen’s debut novel, Watershed, was published by Freehand Books and released in May 2020. Watershed has received critical acclaim, appearing frequently on best seller lists in Alberta. Doreen has participated in author panels at Word on the Street Toronto, Victoria Festival of Authors and the Calgary Public Library. She also appeared on the National Arts Centre’ Canada Performs series. Watershed was picked as the second book in the Alberta Reads Book Club hosted by the Book Publishers Association of Alberta. Doreen also sings, plays guitar, and performs oral stories of all kinds for audiences of all ages.

Email: dvanderstoop@gmail.com

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