Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
by Tanja Rabe
by Mat Del Papa
by Roger Nash
Poetry & Musings
by John Jantunen
by Nicholas Ruddock
by Rebecca Kramer
by Rebecca Kramer
by Gregory Patrick
by Wim Wenders
by John Jantunen
Can of Worms
by Janet Calcaterra
by Tanja Rabe
by Katerina Fretwell
Poetry & Musings
by Mat Del Papa
by Denis Stokes
Poetry & Musings
by Jose Saramago
by John Jantunen
Born in Kingston - Made in Canada
A Question of Subsistence (1)
by Tanja Rabe
Welcome to the third edition of Cannery Row Magazine and my gratitude to all our talented contributors for freely sharing their creative works with this Journal.
Growing up in Europe during the Eighties was a time when society seemed to change all around us. Pop culture and artistic experimentation were literally exploding, openly gay artists smoothed the way for the rainbow movement, entertainment in its myriad forms - music, movies, books etc. - filled our lives and technology took leaps previously unimagined, ushering in the world as we know it today.
This was also a time when I first noticed the effects that humanity's refusal to let anything get in the way of the 'good life' - and an ever increasing standard of living - had on our ecology. The initial twinges of an environmental conscience can be traced back to elementary school where I recall writing a predictive tale in German class that showed how civilization was already well aware of heading for the excrement storm we've affectionately come to know as Climate Change. The story told of our planet increasingly drowning in garbage, piling in streets and yards, filling the countryside, polluting our drinking water, gangs of rats roaming the landscape . . . you get the picture. Just in the nick of time, a fleet of alien spaceships in search of fuel (garbage = energy = hurray!) saves us from our frivolous ways and waste management gets a much needed makeover.
Then in '86, Chernobyl. If living under the constant threat of the Cold War wasn't enough to put the fear of nuclear disaster into any German - as a central European country with American bases one of the first to face annihilation in the dreaded event - having an atomic power plant melt down next door certainly did the job.
News reports of a devastated dairy industry in my home state of Bavaria, contaminated milk dumped down the drains, dire warnings about irradiated food plants. This inspired an era of strong activism with concerned citizens chaining themselves to nuclear reactors and calling for an end to the split atom on all fronts. By 2022, it will have taken almost 40 years for the last plant to be shut down, with Germany well on its way to becoming a front runner in renewable energy.
Sadly, it took such a horrific event to set the gears in motion, akin to putting up a pedestrian crossing after a few token fatalities, generally children, finally prompt action.
Remember Acid Rain? Beautiful mountain vistas marred by brown-needled pine trees as if bathed in road salt. The Ozone Layer? Lobster skin fell out of fashion with skin cancer skyrocketing and sunscreen flying off the shelves.
Oil spills blanketing coastlines and wildlife with their insidiously mesmerizing gloss and flocks of cute rubber duckies merrily bobbing on ocean currents amidst giant floating islands of plastic recyclables dumped by the West onto the East who, in turn, gifted them to the Seven Seas. Definitely a message in those bottles as we consume microplastics and other man-made chemical wonders with every breath of air, sip of water and bite of food; but hell, what we can't see surely won't hurt us (cough, cough!).
Now I could go on and on, ad nauseam, down the list of our self-defeating transgressions as a species, endlessly debating causes, serving up statistics and painting an ever-grimmer picture of our trip down the toilet, but foot-dragging is the government's job and we're in a bit of a hurry here.
If we can embrace and finance arms races, war in every corner of the planet, clear- cutting and burning huge swaths of forests, drilling into the depth of the ocean floor and shooting our resources into the void that is space while hallucinating about restarting civilization on some dead rock as we work hard on turning our own, abused planet into the same wasteland, then why not refocus that energy (see 'Parenting 101: How to Redirect your Toddler') and engage wholeheartedly in a competitive call-to-arms of an entirely reconstructive nature.
Before we look at possible solutions available to us in the here and now though, we have to change a deep rooted misperception, namely that of admiring and emulating the greed and cut-throat ambition that drives wealth with all its dire consequences. It's time to turn the tables.
First off, excessive wealth needs to be made completely unacceptable, not cool, like wearing an endangered-species fur coat or one of those 'Best Dad in the World' T-shirts. Just disgraceful, embarrassing, wouldn't be caught dead . . . And same goes for throwing money around to show off; estates the size of Liechtenstein (google Walmart Heiress - British Columbia property), a car collection to rival any kid's Hot Wheels box, an army of servants (and mercenaries) akin to French Royalty - what happened to them again? - and a lavish lifestyle that's downright perverse even in this age of overindulgence. Wealth needs to be exposed for the filthy habit that it is: narcissistic, mentally deranged, sadistic and downright criminal from its exploitative accumulation to its obscene exhibition. Shame, shame, shame, it's the doghouse for you!
Next is what I like to call downsizing (though 'degrowth' has become a popular label), since the term 'austerity' has been corrupted of its original concept by punishing the poor sods already at the bottom of the food chain. In this case, it signifies voluntarily cutting back to essentials as we were so keenly encouraged during the first months of the viral rampage, limiting access to goods and services with toilet paper ironically claiming King of the Hill.
During the initial lockdown, spending money just on basics refocused our perception of the difference between Wants and Needs; shopaholics had to come clean and face their inner demons with consumerism taking a much needed break. Lack of travel cleared the air, loss of jobs left time to explore other activities, instead of hitting the malls people went for walks, biked, gardened, fixed the house, created, volunteered and took stock of their lives. Essential workers, generally ignored and undervalued, suddenly acquired hero status being left as bulwarks to fend for us on the frontlines.
Isolation painfully reminded people of the true value of human interaction, neighbours became social lifelines across fences, weekly trips to the grocery store classified as social events, internet mail and zoom meetings went through the roof in an effort to fill the lonesome void threatening to devour our hearts and minds. And there was a palpable hope out there that the flipside to this horrorshow could spell a much-needed change to the destructive, downhill trend of humankind.
But old habits die hard, bad ones even harder and defeatist attitudes take the wind out of our sails before we've even left the dry dock. Sure, our situation feels overwhelming, hopeless even, but doing something productive, even if possibly futile, is always better than giving into despair. And let's be realistic, we're not aiming for Utopia here, just basic survival for now, and even though, as individuals, we feel we have little say in the sordid affairs of the world, we can control our personal habits and lifestyles to some degree. So let's get started in our own backyard.
Reduce, reuse, recycle still ring a bell? Time to stop paying complacent lip service and embrace the concept all the way. Extravagance is out, thrift is in.
Why do we buy so much crap just to end up decluttering routinely, tossing junk we never needed or even used in the first place, causing financial woes, sleepless nights, despair and mountains of waste down the road. Take an honest inventory and start cutting back now, today, this very moment, leave the car in the driveway, go for a walk and enjoy the free things in life, you'll feel lighter in no time.
Purchase secondhand and share resources whenever possible (rides, lawn mowers, expertise . . .), buy quality if you can find it, fix what's repairable, avoid single-use items, it really isn't rocket science. And littering? My mother used to throw candy wrappers out the car window with the excuse that "it's just one little piece", but what about billions of excuses? Yuck!!
And then there's recycling . . . sigh! What the hell happened? Why are we paying other countries to deal with our waste? It's just plain wrong! I understand there's little to no profit to be made, in many cases it costs us more to recycle, but I don't think that was ever the point when we started the project. It was about resource recovery, cutting down on the environmental damages of mining and managing our disposal issues. Also the fact that it's costly should encourage the populace and producers to use less packaging and find more naturally decomposable alternatives like plant-based ingredients, especially for wastes such as plastic wrap. But we're still handing out non-recyclable/-compostable bags and cups like cheap Halloween candy. In Europe, a single-use bag runs from 50 cents to a Euro, and the cashier's disapproving frown imparts the appropriate guilt trip and reminder.
Packaging goods Christmas-present-style is costly, wasteful and idiotic. During the 80s, once again in Europe, people were so fed up with this issue, they left excess packaging at the stores in droves. Store owners in turn pressured producers to take a load off their products as they found themselves drowning in boxes. At this point in time, almost any man-made material is recyclable and what's heading for the dump is charged by weight. Even cars in the old country have a more than 90% recovery rate, so it can be done.
I know prices for groceries and everyday products are rising disproportionately to income, but a 5 to 10 cent fee for every single plastic container (that's a deserved $ 1.20 - $ 2.40 for those damn trays of bottled water) isn't going to break the bank and leaves no excuse but to refurbish the materials in-country, especially since phasing out fossil fuels, sooner than later, is going to impact availability. Besides, transporting waste around the globe has an excessive carbon footprint and costs that could be better applied to recycling expenses.
Now compost isn't much of an issue. In itself, food waste is a natural product, easily reintegrated into the production cycle with no negative impact and many advantages. Even throwing it in the trash has few side effects, besides temporarily taking up room. And since garbage dumps at the end of their usefulness generally are reverted back to green spaces like public parks, the added roughage cushions other household waste, possibly slowing down toxins from leaching into the groundwater, and, but don't quote me on this, might actually aid in breaking down man-made materials quicker with its innate army of hungry bacteria.
Obviously there are many uses for compost. First and foremost, it should be returned from whence it came; out with expensive, harmful artificial fertilizers and in with the good, old way of replenishing the soil, be that in your backyard or at a giant farming complex. Rough compost will also retain, like straw in the past, the rather runny excrement from our animal husbandry, since shit in our drinking water is a big no-no and leads to more plastic water bottles tossed. Any natural gas produced in its decomposition is an added energy bonus.
Air pollution has been flying under the radar for a while now, even though respiratory problems like asthma are increasingly pandemic around the world, killing approximately 9 million earth citizens every single year. Covid, within a year, has claimed a 'measly' 2.72 million lives, yet we shut down major parts of air traffic to contain it and managed to curb pollution during lockdowns with fewer cars on the roads. Ironic what we are capable of when confronted with an itty bitty virus. And do we really need to hop on a plane every time we get bored with where we're at? Take a staycation, play tourist in your own town or province, Canada has an abundance of diverse, gorgeous destinations, so explore your own backyard and support business at home.
And if I hear, or read, of one more 'privileged' environmental activist (not the boots on the ground) whine about air pollution at some conference halfway across the globe, the hypocrisy of it all! Conference hopping, as well as major sports events like the Olympics, need to be rethought, ultimately scrapped. Go support local events with your presence and coin, better yet get off the couch and participate, teleconference, Zoom, just stay out of the air unless you've grown wings, then, please, have at it to your heart's content. Air travel needs to become a privilege, doled out judiciously and by necessity, but it's up to us down here to start by reining in our travel urges. And with Covid paving the way, why not stay committed to this new normal for a more breathable future.
Commuting in its entirety is complete madness, turning rush hour traffic into a Godzilla-like event every weekday, wasting immense amounts of fuel and resources, impacting family time, mental and physical health . . . not a single redeeming quality to be found. The Big Stink, a.k.a. the GTA, is getting more pervasive and obliterates our precious, agricultural countryside, sucking up resources and labour at a scale simply unsustainable.
Time to think small, small city that is. Ontario still has an abundance of unpopulated space, let's spread around a bit more, create vibrant, sustainable communities linked throughout the province, work where we live, encourage business to follow talent instead of the other way around. Best yet, find a job within walking distance and give the car a break, it'll last longer, you'll save money, get some fresh air, have more energy, feel more productive . . . you get it. And that suffocating smog might yet go out with our (carefully sorted) trash.
That's it for today, folks. Before I log off, let me state the obvious: Anticipation is the key to transition and I am certain there are a multitude of individual and collective solutions out there I haven't brought up or am even aware of, but I'm not trying to write a book here, that's been done many times over by more qualified minds than I could possibly claim.
Join me in the July edition for the second part of my rant where we'll pretend that the top honchos running the show on our precious planet have seen the light, set up a game plan, dusted off their boots and set out to do the good work. As always, hope springs eternal.
Stay well, keep engaged and enjoy the Journal!
Vanishing (Watercolour), Robert Michelutti
Spring’s Yellow Horde
by Mat Del Papa
Spring is about to be sprung and many homeowners are gearing up to fight the inevitable invasion -that’s right, the pestilential dandelion is about to make its annual return! And, with the province’s gutless capitulation to the environmental fanatics on the whole herbicide issue several years back, all we can do is watch. Well, watch . . . and eat.
The thing most modern Canadians overlook in their duel with this particular perennial is that it’s edible. That’s right, every part of the dandelion, from its yellow head to its buried taproot can be eaten. Not only edible, but tasty - and, miracle of miracles, this weed is good for you too!
A natural diuretic,dandelions have been used in traditional medicine for centuries to help with liver detoxification and to fight inflammation. It contains significant amounts of Vitamins A, C, K and H. Is an excellent source of calcium, potassium, manganese and iron. And don’t forget the regulating value of roughage! And all that comes just from the leaves (which make a nice, if somewhat bitter, addition to any salad -just remember to always wash thoroughly). So rather than try and fight this garden aggressor - an unwinnable war if ever there was one - harvest them. Make nature’s bounty work for you. Eat the enemy.
There’re plenty of ways to do it beyond just using the greens. Most people have heard of dandelion wine but how many out there know about dandelion honey? Or what about dandelion coffee? I've only learned of the first last year. The preparation is long and involved (according to the recipe I found online) but it sounded not entirely disgusting. Dandelion coffee, the second concoction I discovered, seems simple enough to prepare. It is apparently a drink of last resort - like when there’s no other caffeinated brews around . . . not even that Chai tea garbage! - mostly because of its ‘unique’ taste.
It was while scouring the web that I learned about the once-popular soft drink ‘dandelion and burdock’. Admittedly, it was only ever popular in England and, as a nation, their taste is somewhat suspect. But still, dandelion pop . . . who’d a thunk it?
There are dozens of other uses for dandelions: flour, for instance, can be made from it; soup, sausages, baked goods (cookies and muffins), and even vinegar (just let the wine sit around a while). Honestly, your yard is a veritable Garden of Eden, even if you’ve never planted a single seed! Weeds are plants too, and all plants are useful for something . . . even if it’s just as a garnish.
So this year, rather than despair when your yard sprouts an army of yellow invaders, grab a fork and enjoy. Victory is only a mouthful away.
 Dandelions were once named ‘Pissabeds’.
 Which is more a ‘syrup’ than a honey (no bees involved).
 Unlike real honey (glorified insect vomit!)
 The Confederate army consumed it during prolonged shortages in the US civil war.
 Is there any food our limey cousins can’t boil to ruin?
(The Capreol Press, 2011)
by Roger Nash
Grandfather didn’t bother with holes in his socks.
“Holes are a part of life,” he said.
Then, to stop arguments to make him buy
new ones, he ruled, as incontestable,
“Holes can fill any vacuum.”
As mere kids, we accepted he was right.
A burrow jams up with rabbits,
and even foxes squeeze into the shaft.
One day, when grandmother died,
“It’s made a big hole in my life.”
But a hole there, of all places,
was totally unacceptable. So he swamped it
with whiskey, until the bottle even began
as an empty. “Empty’s not a hole,
but loaded only with yesterdays,” he said.
When his front teeth fell out,
he chewed with crammed smiles instead.
When Alzheimers came, he was choc-a-bloc
with forgetting, standing by the open door
of the fridge. “I’ve never been here
before, but plenty of times,” he insisted.
Near the end, so many
holes now, they jam-packed his days.
As mere kids, we were obediently sure
he must’ve died happily enough,
after the very fullest of full lives.
by Roger Nash
Each night, full moons
rise with new chips out of them.
Grease drips off onto the cutlery
of stars. Love-notes float
on the screwed-up clouds of napkins
abandoned among hastily
unfinished dessert bowls.
We two new hires stack up
our own draining chances for dates
tonight, drying them quickly as we can.
Never mind reading the horoscope,
just get dishes in cupboards before 2 am.
And leave with a laugh on your face
the size of ketchup-grins
across plates of mains.
A lid must be found for every pan,
and at least a half-fitting hope
for every scoured and dented, scratched,
but always to be re-used, dream.
by John Jantunen
It wasn’t until after his funeral that I heard the whole story. I’d got bits of it from my mother but only his daughter knew the details and that’s who told me the rest. She was, I suppose, my step-sister, although I didn’t think of her in that way. We had never lived together and didn’t, in fact, meet until Malcolm Craddock’s viewing.
My mother had seen the notice in the obituary section of the local paper and she asked me to drive her. “But why?” I'd asked, “You haven’t seen him for almost fifteen years.” She didn’t answer but I drove her anyway.
I’d planned to stay in the car, she'd said she wouldn’t be long, but it was cold for November and I was hungry. I thought there might be sandwiches or at least some fruit or cookies and coffee. It was the coffee that made up my mind. I waited until my mother had gone in, then walked to the front doors of the funeral home. It looked like a smaller version of those stadium-sized churches you see on the highway, uniform and anonymous, but without a cross or any stained glass. Inside the lobby there were three closed doors and a staircase. A sign at the top of it said Reception Room with an arrow pointing down. The name written beneath it was Mathews or Mayhew or something like that, certainly not Craddock.
“Are you looking for the Craddock viewing?” The woman who’d asked was standing beside a table near the middle door. I hadn’t noticed her until she spoke. She was tall, six foot or more, with long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and wore a plain brown dress with a faint design on it, triangles and squares. But it was her feet that I saw first. They were huge and clad in high heels, with sharply pointed toes. They stuck out from under the hem of her dress at odd angles, as if she had a third one hidden in the back, and they made her look like a coat rack. Perhaps that’s why I’d missed her. I’d mistaken her for a piece of furniture.
She smiled at me and I walked over to the table. “You must be James.”
“Your mother just came in.”
“I’m Mary, his daughter.” She raised her hand and I took it and gave it a gentle squeeze. Her skin was rough and she didn’t so much as move a finger. “The reception room was extra but they said I could bring food. There’s coffee and some donuts inside.”
She opened the door and I thanked her and went through into the viewing chamber. The room was empty except for a small fold-out table, a few chairs scattered around the edges and my mother, standing with her head lowered in front of the casket. Two of the walls were made up of windows, floor to ceiling, but the drapes were drawn and the light came from fluorescents in the ceiling. A familiar hymn played quietly through hidden speakers. A coffee thermos, the kind with a pour spout, was perched on the table along with a box from Tim Horton's. Every one of the donuts inside had a dimple in it, like a child had pressed his finger deep into the dough.
I poured myself a coffee and stared at my mother’s back for a few seconds, then returned to the lobby. Mary was still there, standing as still as a frozen tree, and I thought, I was right, she does look like a coat rack even though she’s taken off her shoes. I could see them poking out from under the table.
“Not much of a turn out.”
She startled, alarmed at my voice, but recovered quickly.
“He didn’t have many friends.”
“What about his children? The others, I mean. He had three, is that right?”
“Yes. Two daughters and a son. I’m the only one who still speaks to him. Or spoke. It’s hard, these transitions. Words fail me sometimes.”
“You live in the city?”
“Yes, with him. It’s his house, I pay him rent. I suppose it’s mine now, that’s what the will says, though I’m expecting a fight from my brother and sister so I may end up moving after all.”
There was a question I wanted to ask but it didn’t seem like the right time, so I joined her in watching the front doors not opening and drank the rest of my coffee.
“Is your mother going to stay for the service?” She sounded angry asking it, but she didn’t look my way and I couldn’t tell for sure.
“She didn’t say.” Then, remembering that she had told me she wouldn’t be long, I added, “Probably not.”
“It’ll just be me then. It’s fitting, I suppose.”
“She thought he might be here. My mother I mean.”
“The person - that is, she thought he might come by to gloat or something. I told her, it was such a long time ago that he wouldn’t care anymore, whoever it was.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“The man who attacked him.”
“Of course. No, he won’t be here.”
“How do you know? They never caught him, isn’t that right?”
“Were there even any suspects?”
“So he could show up then?”
She said it in a way that told me she was bored with the conversation, bored with standing there, bored with the day, maybe her whole life. One slowly oozing spill of boredom.
“I should check on my mother,” I said but didn’t move.
“Are you busy later?” she asked.
“Yes, I mean no. I have to drive her home, but afterwards I’m free.”
“Would you like to come for dinner? My son is at his father’s. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
She glanced at me sideways and I knew we would sleep together, or rather we’d fuck and then we’d sleep. She’d make me breakfast and then I wouldn’t see her again until we bumped into each other at the grocery store. There’d be an awkward silence as we passed each other in the aisle, perhaps an invitation for coffee in the checkout line, and then who knew?
I left it to the future and returned her glance. She was not an unattractive woman. A few too many angles from her face to her feet, but pretty, like a Barbie doll melted with a blow torch and stretched to half again its height. I asked her what time.
“I’ll be there.”
Later we sat on the couch, dinner between us and a bottle of wine. We each held a cup of coffee, mine black and hers with cream and several heaping spoonfuls of sugar. On the coffee table there was a plate of cookies, soft with jelly in the center, grape or maybe blueberry. She sat with her legs tucked under her, like a horse lying down, and when she sipped from her cup she winced as if it stung her teeth.
“How much do you know?”
“Same as my mother. She wrote a story about it. I think she hoped it would become a novel. She took a writing class when she retired. She was having a hard time coming up with an idea. The instructor told her to choose something from her past, an event. Something important that she’d never resolved. Writing about it would be cathartic, he said. She chose what happened to your father. She didn’t get very far, just a few pages. She dropped out of the class after three weeks.”
“I’d like to see it sometime.”
“I brought it with me.”
I took the five sheets folded together from my pants’ pocket and passed them over. She studied them for a moment.
“It’s told from my father’s perspective. The instructor said, to choose a point of view other than her own. He said it would shine a new light on the incident.”
“I see.” She read it aloud as I drank my coffee.
By Doris Milner
When I opened my front door to collect the morning paper, the last thing I expected to see was a large man wearing a black ski mask. The man was holding a bat, poised over his head and ready to strike. Distracted by an argument with my wife that had carried over from the previous evening, it didn’t occur to me that he meant to do me bodily harm.
“Hello,” I said congenially, as if the man was there to sell me life insurance or to conduct a survey of some sort. The “Hello” seemed to catch my assailant off-guard and, had he not been wearing a ski mask, I’m sure I would have seen his mouth open to respond in kind. It took him only a second to recover his resolve and, without further delay, he delivered a bone-shattering blow to my left knee, then made his escape around the corner of the house.
There is little a man can do to prepare himself for such an unprovoked attack but, in its aftermath, there always remains doubt that he did all that he could have. The measure of a man’s readiness forms much of the opinion he has of himself. Confronted with a glowing example of how truly inadequate he is, it is not surprising that the great majority of men, whether by avoiding similar situations or by masking their newly wrought fear through the artful dodge of demanding justice, shrink back from seeking further proof that they are unable to handle everything the day throws at them. Only on rare occasions does a man recognize a pattern in the seemingly random and, through this recognition, reach a genuine turning point.
No one would be more surprised than myself that I was to become one of those rare men. In the moments immediately following what I would come to call 'The Incident', my distinctiveness had not yet revealed itself and I was overcome with the sudden rage that I feel only in moments of excruciating pain. I reeled backwards, my hands clutching out for the wall, too far away to do me any good. A catalogue of faces flashed through my mind as if I’d stubbed my toe and was looking to vent my anger at the person who’d left the chair in the middle of the room. The reeling gave way to a falling and my furious search for the offending party, brief as it was, didn’t turn up any suspects before I hit the floor where I lay as still as humanly possible lest the pain, confined to my leg, would take any movement as a cue to migrate.
“Doris,” I croaked feebly.
Doris was my wife, my second, and as far as I knew was upstairs in our ensuite, well out of earshot of the feeble croak. I summoned my will for a more vigorous attempt and, my mouth open and a scream building, the creak of feet coming down the stairs brought with them a faint glimmer of hope. I followed the train of events forward into the future.
Doris bending, her fingers on my arm. She says something, doesn’t matter what, all my strength funneled towards one thing.
“Call an . . . ambulance.” Then in darkness. My eyes squeezed shut. A fumbling with the phone and a worried voice.
“My husband -”
A slight breeze brushed my cheek and I opened my eyes as Doris stepped over me. A hole in the crotch of her favourite track pants winked with the green of her underwear. I must have blacked out, I thought, she’s already on the way to the phone.
I took a clipped breath and listened for the distinct click of the receiver leaving its cradle, the beep-beep-beep of fingers pounding out 9-1-1, but heard only the distant surge of water from the kitchen, followed by the clattering of dishes and a familiar gurgle. Where do I know that gurgle? I thought. The coffee machine. She’s making coffee!
A moment of rest. There, I’ve said my piece, I told myself. Now it’s in her court. I just have to wait. Sooner or later . . . Yet the pain wasn’t so forgiving. It wanted to play the whole thing over again. Remember how much it hurt two minutes ago, it shrieked and sent a fresh pulse from my knee.
I closed my eyes and counted down from ten. In ten, nine, eight seconds, Doris will realize something is wrong. Seven, six, five, she’s cresting the corner. Four, three, two, she’s bending down. At one I felt something bump against my leg and opened my eyes. I could see the paperboy through the open door, walking towards the sidewalk.
“Call an ambulance,” I yelled, but it was no use; the paperboy couldn’t hear me over the music streaming through his earphones.
“Interesting.” Mary folded the sheets along their crease and set them on the couch beside her. “You used the phrase, vigorous attempt.”
“My mother did.”
“No, during dinner. When you were talking about university.”
“It must have become lodged in my subconscious.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“Of the story?”
“You want to know who did it.”
“My mother does. That’s why she came to the viewing. She was hoping he would be there.”
“So you said. She called it Ripe. She must have thought he was deserving. Did she have any ideas?”
“She said he’d recently been promoted. His first job was to fire everyone in his department. She thought it was one of them.”
“It wasn’t. It was me. Or rather it was my boyfriend. I convinced him to do it.”
“I don’t -”
I shook my head.
“I hadn’t seen my father in years. My parents split up when I was ten. I was the oldest. My brother was six and my sister four. They say they don’t remember him at all. I wonder sometimes if they just don’t want to. He took a job in Fort McMurray without consulting my mother. She told him not to bother coming back. He didn’t. She used to joke that she was a mail-order divorcee.”
“She had a sense of humour about it then?”
“About some of it.”
“But not about your father?”
“She never spoke his name again. Even when she was dying. I tried to locate him.”
“I take it you didn’t.”
“I didn’t try too hard. And there wasn’t such a thing as Google. It was very painful, her death. I was in college at the time, dropped out to look after her. She was dead in four months. I never went back. I suppose I’d learned that from my father. She didn’t leave any money. She’d mortgaged her house when she found out she was dying and spent it all on a trip around the world. She told us when she got back. Then she was dead and the bank took the house. My brother and sister were gone. One to the States, the other to Halifax. She works for the government there. I’m sorry, I’m boring you.”
“You were yawning.”
“It’s the wine.”
“Have another cup of coffee then.”
“It’s late, I shouldn’t.”
“Here, I’ll pour.”
“Family histories are always tedious if they aren’t your own.”
“You have been very patient so I’ll skip ahead a few years. I was still living in the city. It’s a hateful place, really. It’s all growth here and no progress, if you know what I mean. Just sprawl with nothing to tie it all together like in, say, Vancouver or Montreal. I’ve lived here for twenty years and it’s never felt like home. Odd that your mother would stay.”
“Her husband, her third, lived here. When he died she saw no reason to leave.”
“I live with her.”
“Two peas in a pod.”
“I meant us.”
“I’ve embarrassed you.”
“No, it’s -”
“I found out my father had returned to the city quite by accident. Someone, an old boyfriend I hadn’t seen in years, looked me up. We met for a drink and he told me that there was another person with my name in the phone book. Or rather another M. Craddock. He’d called the other number first and spoke to a woman. She said there was no Mary here. Her husband’s name was Malcolm. I didn’t let on that Malcolm was my father."
"We started seeing each other again, me and my old boyfriend. He was a bad influence on me, but back then I was more than willing. We lived a certain lifestyle that I won’t go into. It was not healthy. Most of our friends from that time are dead or in jail. You get the picture. Then I got pregnant. I cleaned myself up and so did he. He found a job, painting houses, and I busied myself with having a child. We were very poor but, and I know this is the worst sort of cliché, quite happy. In that desperate sort of way that only someone who has been poor can understand."
"One day, I decided to call my father, I don’t really know why. It was spontaneous. I hadn’t thought about him since that night in the bar with my boyfriend. Being pregnant puts strange ideas in your head or, I should say, he put strange ideas in my head. My son, I mean. A forceful, young man to this day. So I called the other M. Craddock and, once again, it was your mother who answered the phone. She was very friendly. We talked for fifteen minutes or so, then she invited us to dinner."
"Later, I learned she was planning on leaving him. She was having an affair, but then you already know that. She was using us. She hadn’t even told him we were coming. An uncomfortable evening to say the least. Your mother did most of the talking, she never stopped."
"She found out that my boyfriend was a painter and mentioned that she’d been after Malcolm for years to paint the downstairs. It was the same as it was when they’d bought the place. Beige and egg shell. She wanted some colour. Malcolm might have grunted. It was the most he said the whole time we were there. After dinner she left, said she had a meeting. I think she was going to meet her beau, your future stepfather. She told us to stay, there was a pie in the oven and a fresh pot of coffee on. She didn’t give us any choice."
"My father excused himself the moment she was gone. He went into the upstairs bathroom and we didn’t see him again. I don’t know what he was doing. Hiding, I guess. Hoping we would leave. He was very trusting. I suppose we looked respectable though we weren’t. Not really. It had only been a couple of months since, well, since we weren’t respectable at all and it didn’t take long for old patterns to re-emerge."
"I stood at the bottom of the stairs while my old boyfriend, his name is Marc, I don’t know why I didn’t mention it before or, rather, I do but have grown tired of the pretense. Marc searched the house for the computer. It was in a little room, a den or an office, tucked in a corner on the first floor. His financial records were all there. Account numbers, statements, the pin numbers and passwords were even written in the back of a notebook in the top drawer. He had over forty thousand dollars in his bank account alone and then some stocks and bonds, although those were useless to us. Marc wrote everything down. He had no interest in stealing from my father, you understand, but he knew people who would pay for the information. Not much, but then Marc was never that ambitious."
"Afterwards, we ate the pie and drank the coffee and left. We didn’t even say goodbye. As we were backing out of the driveway, I saw an upstairs light go out so he must have known we were gone."
"The whole night was a disappointment to me but Marc was all keyed up. We went home and smoked a joint and fucked like we always did after a job, then he went out to meet his contacts. He came back at three in the morning. He was drunk and angry and wanted to fuck again but was too drunk to get it up. That made him even more angry so we smoked another joint and that calmed him down and he told me that the numbers had been changed. When? I asked. How should I know, he said but it didn’t matter, I knew. He’d changed them as soon as we’d left.
Now both of us were angry and we talked about how we could get even with him. Marc suggested we break his legs and I said, One will do. You know what happened next.”
The whole time she was talking, she fiddled with her cup and, once in a while, leaned over as if she was about to take a cookie, then reconsidered. She secreted a glance at me both times she used the word 'fuck' which I took to be a good sign. Otherwise she might as well have been talking into a machine. When she finished, she set her cup on the coffee table. This time, she did take a cookie from the plate and looked at me and chewed but it was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
“He never suspected it was you?”
“No, but I always wondered if your mother did. Two days later, you see, she called. As sweet and as talkative as ever. She said Malcolm had had an accident and needed someone to help him around the house. She was going on a cruise, the ticket booked, no refunds or exchanges, and wouldn’t be back for a month. She would pay us, of course, and while we were there Marc could paint the downstairs. I said I wasn’t sure if we could, it seemed so strange for her to call so quickly and not even a word about her husband being attacked. She said that she didn’t know what she would do if I refused. It sounded like a threat and I quickly told her that we’d do it.”
“So you went to live with him?”
“Yes and, as it would happen, never left. Marc didn’t last the month but I don’t begrudge him and, in his defense, he has been a good father. He’s even become successful, after a fashion. He has his own crew of painters. They do mostly industrial jobs which, I understand, is where the money is. Your mother, I probably don’t need to say, never came back from the cruise. She’d gone with her beau and they decided to get married and my father never saw her again.”
“And that was that.”
“Except . . .” taking up the folded sheets again, she scanned through them. “Yes, here it is.”
She read: "Only on rare occasions does a man recognize a pattern in the seemingly random and through this recognition reach a genuine turning point. - Funny your mother should write that.”
“Wishful thinking on her part, I suppose. Though, as I’ve said, she hoped it would become a novel so it could just have been something to keep her writing."
"Well, it’s exactly what happened. After the attack, I don’t know how else to put it, he became a different man. He took early retirement from his job and devoted his life to us. He paid for me to return to college and even looked after Devon while I was in class. I couldn’t have asked for a better father.”
“Remarkable. Did you ever tell him?”
“That it was me who -”
“I did. When he was in the hospital. He’d had a stroke. He was unconscious and after sitting with him for days, I knew his time had come and I told him everything. I was crying by the end of it, with joy or sadness I still can’t say, and then I felt him touch my arm. His eyes were open and he was crying too and I asked for his forgiveness and he squeezed my hand. Things couldn’t have worked out better, he said. I kissed him on the cheek, something I’d never done before. A few hours later he was dead.”
Last Hummingbird West of Chile
by Nicholas Ruddock
Breakwater Books Ltd., Fiction, 312 pages, June 2021
"A stunning work of imaginative fiction, Last Hummingbird West of Chile spins a tale of adventure that is in turn comedic, violent, poignant, and thoughtful. Through the exploits of a young sailor born in questionable circumstance and a pair of murderous servants, as well as an assortment of other 19th century regulars, the vital subjects of today - race, religion, sexuality, environment - are framed in history and human culture.
Through narration by human protagonists, a tree, a hummingbird, various beasts, and the landscape itself, Ruddock tells a story of colonialism and environment, brutality and privilege, and the best and worst of human nature."
“Boldly conceived, richly imagined, wondrously multi-vocal and unexpectedly comic . . . the perfect historical novel for a world just waking up to the realization that every living and non-living thing is vitally connected.”
- Padma Visvanathan, CBC Fiction Prize juror & author of The Toss of a Lemon,
“Ruddock has a refined ear for dialogue and a mischievous sense of humour. He also knows how to bring a story to a memorable conclusion.”
- David Bezmozgis, filmmaker & acclaimed author of The Free World and The Betrayers
“Nobody can mistake the ingenuity of Nicholas Ruddock . . . Ruddock has talent to burn; he writes with verve and style.”
- Madeleine Thien, acclaimed author of
Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Simple Recipes
Nicholas Ruddock is a Canadian physician and author. He has won several international prizes and was shortlisted for the Moth International Poetry Award (Ireland) in 2020. His first novel, The Parabolist (2010), was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and the Arthur Ellis Award. His second novel, Night Ambulance (2016), was a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist.
Nicholas' works have appeared in numerous publications in Canada, England, Northern Ireland, and Ireland. He lives with his wife, artist Cheryl Ruddock, in Guelph, Ontario.
Terror in the Tub (1999)
by Rebecca Kramer
From time to time I ponder just how often my second husband King has told me of his fantasy to murder someone with his own bare hands, dismember them and bury parts of them all over the countryside. He assures me that he won’t risk this crime; for he fears getting caught because of scientific advancements in forensics nowadays which are developing at a rate he can’t outsmart. Despite this, I am always left feeling uneasy. Would he dare kill me anyways?
I have just finished the recording of my Classical Piano CD and its laborious notation of sheet music. This accomplishment lifts me with euphoria; my masterpiece Migrating Whales (in the style of Beethoven) has finally been caught in a recording and on paper. But my husband insults me and says, “You chose the wrong profession.” I tell him, “No, my profession chose me.” I am furious. When your life’s work means nothing to your mate, extremes of emotions can spell mania. (Everyone with bipolar disorder experiences many of the same symptoms; and, out of all of them, the inability to eat or sleep are the two most common ones.)
My particular manias leave me unable to eat or sleep for exactly five days. Then I collapse out of exhaustion and am usually admitted to the hospital by someone, most often by King. Today is Day 5 into my 8th bipolar, manic episode. Little do I know that I am about to experience one of the most traumatic events of my life.
Tonight, I am just as hungry as I am tired as I am cold. My first instinct is to take care of how cold I am, so I run a hot bath. I have a craving for beans and rice, so I ask King to make me a dish. My husband is a good cook and, since my mother neglected to teach me how to cook when I was a child, King generally does the cooking for us. But tonight he flat-out refuses to cook me beans and rice. I persist in asking him, which is about to prove an almost fatal mistake.
All of a sudden, I hear his voice roar through the house, “I’m going to drown you in in that damn tub!” His heavy, stomping feet grow closer and louder towards the bathroom door. Terror runs through my bones. How can I get away or defend myself? I am in a bathtub and completely trapped.
I see a red aura in front of my eyes and pray, “God, if this is how I am supposed to die, then take me; if not, then protect me.” At that moment, he enters the bathroom and puts his grubby hands on my shoulders. He pushes me down under the water, once, and then he stops. Thank God! I can’t speak or move. Without the sophisticated threat of forensics, I am convinced King would have murdered me that night.
A death threat is the crime he has just committed, but murder in the first degree he did not. He must have thought, “Maybe I better not drown my wife tonight; I’ve got a lot to lose if I get caught. I don’t want to give up my position as a pharmacist or the $80,000 I make a year. I definitely don’t want to sit behind bars for the rest of my life. No, she’s not worth the satisfaction of my lifelong dream to ultimately silence another human being by murdering them with my own bare hands. No, I better let her go.” He releases his grip on my shoulders and heads off to bed. I am awake for yet another night, now in crisis.
The next morning King calls 911 to have me committed. When the police arrive, I tell them, “My husband threatened to drown me in the tub last night.” They ignore me, slap on the handcuffs and take me to the hospital. My creepy psych doctor tells me, “Rebecca, you are delusional. You only imagined that your husband tried to kill you.”
Therefore, to punish me for my delusion, I get locked up for three days in solitary confinement, with a thick steel mesh covering the window so I won’t escape. The tiny squares of dim light coming through the mesh are too small to tell if the sky is blue or cloudy.
I'm furious and utterly alone. I decide, “I'm leaving King for good. As soon as I get out of here, I'm getting out of this sick marriage in a hurry.”
Later, after I am out of the hospital, King and I check the internet and we discover that, in Canada, a murder threat is punishable with a five-year prison sentence. I could charge him but I know the justice system will dismiss my claims and will side with my husband because he is the well-respected, tax-paying citizen while I am just an artist; an unstable woman with a mental illness, and his violent reaction is excusable. The whole situation has gone far beyond ridiculous. But the story is just getting started.
I call my parents to inform them of my current situation. I tell my father, “My husband threatened to drown me in the tub. Then, my psych doctor locked me into solitary confinement for three days, accusing me of being delusional that my husband uttered a death threat. I am now out of the hospital and want to leave this marriage.”
Immediately, before I can continue, my father slams me with his perpetually harsh, spiritual-head-of-the household German disapproval, still barking orders, “No. No, Rebecca. You stay put.”
I get off the phone. My own father has forbidden me to leave a second, hostile marriage. He is punishing me at the age of 34, as if I was a bad three-year-old child again, expressing negative emotions. “Gee, Dad. Should I be grateful that my husband refrained from actually drowning me and was kind enough to get me locked up in solitary confinement; all for a crime that he himself almost committed? ‘The husband is the head of the wife. Without him she can do nothing’, you say? You're right, Dad. If my husband kills me, then I really can do nothing anymore, now can I? Who is sick here, me or you!”
I make an effort to leave King. A girlfriend and I attempt to get me into a women’s shelter. The worker there asks, “Are you on any medications?” “Yes,” I say, “I am on anti-psychotics.” She puts on the brakes and says, “Sorry, we cannot let you stay here because we’re concerned about the children. We don’t know what you might do to them. Please, leave now.”
I am furious and feel discriminated against. Women seeking refuge in women’s shelters are known as doormats. If I am not even good enough to be a doormat, then what am I? Dirt swept under a doormat? Is there no help out there for abused women with bipolar? Is spousal abuse just left to go on rampantly? Yes, yes it is; and still is.
Then, my girlfriend takes me to a friend of hers and assures me that her friend will call the police to get my husband arrested for having uttered a death threat. But I'm being suckered. When the police arrive, they handcuff me instead for his attempted crime and take me to the hospital. So, just a week later, I’m in lockup #9.
Three years into the Me-Too Movement, I am finally safe to stand up and say, “Enough! I am not dirt; I am a composer. I am 56 years-old now and refuse to stay out of sight any longer. Now you know the story as to why 'Migrating Whales' took 22 years to be heard by an audience. Enjoy!
'Breath' by Andy Everson
By Greg Patrick
A Ghost Story
(Written in Monterey)
“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream - making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams . . . No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone . . .”
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
An oppressively eerie silence haunted the sequestered cove like a dark spell. No otters or seals basked on the barren rampart of rocks or appeared amongst the kelp. A sinister presence had intruded into their midst. A beleaguered whaling ship sought haven here.
The mist-enshrouded pines loomed like dark sentinels arrayed in the last light of the dusk. As he grimly pondered the inscrutable, pellucid shore, the whaler's captain shook himself irritably from the seduction of superstition so rife among seafarers. He was a practical man of enterprise with a quota of whale oil to fill for demanding patrons in New England.
He paced the deck impatiently as a lion confined in his cage. They had fled from a maelstrom that seemed to trail them with the tenacity of a vengeful poltergeist. Sheltered in the desolate haven of the cove, he pivoted to face the passing storm defiantly, like a mouse that had reached the sanctuary of its hole just ahead of the cat’s claws.
He studied the dark, moon-ensplendoured waters, the canopy of kelp undulating with the ebb tide. No otters and seals aye . . . but one . . . A pale head that had been following in their wake ever since they'd reached sight of shore. At first the men found the seal an amusing companion and cast scraps of fish its way . . . it had ignored them and left the morsels untouched. The creature seemed fixated solely on the captain, its unnerving, stony gaze hungrily regarding the man through strangely human eyes. Gradually, the seal's enigmatic presence became unsettling as if it were a harbinger of misfortune every time he was sighted.
But the captain had less cryptic concerns that plagued him. His recent quarry had proven maddeningly elusive. The migrating herds of whales had been hunted relentlessly for their oil that lit the newly industrialized cities, their numbers dwindling as the harpoons of the whaling fleets had struck again and again. His patience for setbacks had waned accordingly.
In a fit of fury, he'd ordered a clumsy, young sailor flogged excessively for falling asleep at his post, wrenched the cat o' nine tails from the bosun’s hand and personally administered the excessive punishment, displacing his impotent rage onto his bound victim and reducing his quivering back to bloody shreds. Infection had soon set into the ragged wounds he'd inflicted, the youth writhing in fevered sleep in his bunk and raving of home.
The crew had left the sultry island nights of Maui, the palms and saphiric waters under cerulean skies, far behind in their wake. The stars that once graced the dark skies and inspired their eyes and guided their way lay obscured as they reached the far western shore.
He stood aloof as he scanned the shore, his mind straying, oblivious to the sinister whispers of mutiny swirling around him. Many of the sailors were grizzled veterans of whaling voyages. They'd come to know him as a greenhorn who cruelly compensated for his ineptitude with tyranny, so the men avoided his eyes in fear as talk of revolt spread amongst them.
His breath steamed in the chill air as he sighed deeply. He glanced at the locket on his chest that cradled the portrait of the lady, well above his station, he'd been courting. He intended to improve his fortunes and standing by this bloody, though lucrative, trade to win her hand but his eyes betrayed neither love nor longing. She was simply another prize to him. He considered himself no man of sentiment and knew that the widows of sailors, perished under his command, cursed his name. He'd scourged men viciously and slaughtered whales in front of their calves.
He longingly recalled his first kill many moons ago. A pod of whales had been driven into the abattoir of the Red Cove, forming a protective circle around their calves as he and his crew closed in. One of the whales had breached, mortally wounded, thrashing and shuddering spasmodically as its last breath rose in a crimson vapour, the first to succumb in the slaughter that was to follow.
In the meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, an old Ohlone shaman had been looking on in desolation from the sea's cliffs, feeling more ancient than the hills themselves as the whales met their demise. He'd clutched at his chest as if he could feel the harpoons tangibly impale him on the inside. Gathering himself, he'd begun to chant sacred, forbidden words, then turned and hobbled down towards the cove. He'd marked the name of the ship, the distinctive figurehead of a gowned woman’s pale face. He'd sensed . . . sensed in horror that the butchers enjoyed their slaughter.
That night, the shaman had initiated the Rite of the Skinwalker by the apparitional glow of the moon. He'd been cautioned against the ritual of metamorphosis by his predecessor as it was dangerous to both body and soul. Yet his old wounds still pulsed in the cold, wounds he had suffered at the hands of Spanish missionaries, painful reminders that he had reason to live and reason to kill.
The captain drew his flintlock pistol and fired a single shot into the air hailing the lone, shore-side cabin, the hermitage of two solitary tenants who hosted the procession of ships as they stalked the whale pods along this windswept shore. There was a lingering, expectant silence as the shot echoed and re-echoed amidst the otherworldly rock formations. He sensed something was terribly amiss.
“Put out a boat,” the captain ordered without expression, yet his eyes betrayed unease past the sculpted façade. Then his gaze caught on the gutted body of the cove keeper hanging from the skeletal branches of a dead tree.
“Suicide," a sailor ventured. “The loneliness must have got to him.”
“No . . . His torso’s been eviscerated like he was hunted. No. It’s been cut . . . as if he was sacrificed.”
The dead man's features were contorted in final, terrible agony as his body swayed in the cold breeze that whispered its nocturne through the dark pines. A shrine of abalone shells and bleached whale ribs had been raised around him and a procession of whales painted in blood on the cabin's weathered, wooden planks.
They found the door to the abode left ajar. One of the men reluctantly pushed it open and recoiled, aghast at the sight of the slain keeper’s assistant harpooned to the wall, the shaft pointing accusingly at them.
“ The savages got them.” The captain cursed under his breath.
“Rally the men . . . summon them here. The heathen village is not far. If we don’t make an example of them, no whaler crew will be safe in these waters. Take cutlasses, shot and rifles from the arsenal and set out the longboats.”
“We’ve already emptied the arsenal, Sir.”
“I gave no such order.”
“We weren’t waitin' for no orders, Sir. We were just waitin' for when you weren’t payin' no heed. Settin' a course back to Maui after that.”
The full import of the words finally struck him.
“We damn well have, ye bloody, mad tyrant!” the sailor cursed. The angry wound under the glaring eye of the mutineer caught his notice. From the mist-wreathed pines, the sound of drums throbbed ominously, drawing nearer.
“Take the boats and let’s shove off, lads. We’re maroonin' him.”
“You . . . you pirates can’t just leave me here!” the captain yelled as his hand slid to the pistol in his coat pocket.
He gasped as a thrown dagger struck his leg, his knee buckling under him and sending him sprawling, his pistol dropping to the ground and quickly kicked away out of reach.
“Don‘t leave me, damn you!” he sobbed into the sands and the rising tide. “Damn this cursed place to hell!” The captain’s desperate gaze rove across the water where the seal’s albino head had surfaced like a gloating skull. The beast was as pale and maddening as the full sanguine moon. The drumbeat in the distance quickened in pace with his heart. He felt himself slowly pulled into a recurring nightmare that had been torturing his sleep for the last few months.
Disembodied sailor shanties and cryptic tribal incantations drew him along with haunted visions and he had the sensation of falling into shockingly cold, dark fathoms. The siren call of whales swept his soul along, ever deeper. The wind sighed over the ebony waves that swayed the torn masts of sunken galleons like ripped banners as restless shadows reveled in the submerged necropolis. Bioluminescent particles swirled amongst armour-clad conquistador skeletons that had gone down with their ships. The skeletal hands of drowned mariners beckoned to him . . .
”Join us brother . . . Join us . . .” they rasped. And by the spectral moonbeams filtering through the dark surface, the pale seal hovered in the eerie danse macabre of undersea shadows cast on the shipwrecks overgrown with kelp.
His eyes snapped open to the night and there confronting him was the Ghost Seal.
“Alright, you devil. You want me then?!”He crawled to the edge of the cold sea, then rose swaying and steadied himself, crutching on a rusty harpoon. He looked into the dark, soulless eyes of the seal and saw himself mirrored in Gemini as two skulls. The seal bared fangs like a hound that had cornered its cowering quarry for its master. Its eyes smoldered crimson with moonlight, like reopened wounds, reflecting his face as if he was looking up from submerged perspective in tide pools of blood.
The eyes of sea creatures gathering in the cove gleamed like a circle of lit candles. The captain loomed over the seal and slashed down at it with his scrimshaw-hilted dagger, shrieking wildly. The seal pulled back, graceful in its element. Drawing after the creature, he slashed downwards again but the seal had dissolved into a reflection of moonbright shimmering on the surface. Only his own distorted face mirrored in the rippling sea.
“Damn this place! Curse it forever!!”
He struggled ashore but the tide had him in its embrace, his limbs flailing as the waves threatened to whelm him under.
He groped for shore and lay, chest heaving, half-surfaced, then paused in wonder as he caught sight of a gaunt figure atop a sandstone promontory overlooking the cove. The old shaman, cloaked in a pale fur cloak adorned with rare sea shells and dark pearls, appeared to stare straight through him from his lofty perch, standing sentinel over the teeth and hunger he'd beckoned from the ocean's depths as a huntsman would summon his hounds with a song on his lips or an Atlantean lord muster his guard of sharks.
The old man raised his hands and closed his eyes as if conjuring a storm. Small flames appeared behind him, ignited by the warriors gathered at his rear. The fire arrows flared brightly as they arched above the cauldron of the seething sea, streaking amidst the departing whalers as they prepared to raise sails. A row of men gathered to return fire with a volley of rifles, scattering in a panic as lanterns were kicked over, shattering, and flames spread quickly and greedily across the ship. The last battle cry of the night exploded visibly in the chill air as the arrows ceased.
Oblivious to the carnage, the wounded young sailor in convalescence down below deck had arisen from his fevered sleep in somnambulance and found his way into an evacuating boat set to be lowered into the water. The men sought to throw him overboard to claim the longboat for themselves but fell screaming to another flight of arrows. The pulleys lowering the vessel unleashed from dying hands, sending it swiftly to the ocean's surface.
As it drifted away from the floating inferno of the burning ship, drowning men grasped at its hull threatening to capsize it. Yet the great sharks that had followed in the wake of the whaling ship, instinctively knowing death sailed with her, dragged the thrashing sailors under, one by one, until the last man was silenced forever.
By the grey morning light, a gang of otters plays merrily with the captain’s tailored coat and gold buttons floating in the bay. A wounded seal struggles awkwardly towards the water, trailing blood from a blade wound on its flippers, looking disoriented as if a prisoner in a new form. No ships on the horizon to hail. It swims after the coat that it once knew in another body but the otters drag it away, chattering like children excited with a new toy.
Mauled bodies wash ashore amongst the charred debris of the ship as others float within the rising tide, picked at by scavenging sea birds. Yet there happens to be one who still draws breath. Retrieved from the errant lifeboat, a Brave rolls the young sailor onto his back, eager to have him share the fate of his fallen mates, but the poised blade is staid. His shaman has observed the wounds of the lash on the lad, remembers when he was once bound to a stake and whipped by a padre for praying to the old gods.
“Take him to the healers . . . gently now. He’s frail from his ordeal and wounds.” The shaman looks over at the seal settled atop a rock, eyes once again roaming along the horizon in search of a passing ship. He turns away with a deep sigh chorused by the sigh of the waves in their eternal song to the shore.
Wings of Desire
(Der Himmel über Berlin)
1987, Germany, Fantasy Drama, PG 13, 2h 8min.
Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Peter Falk
Songs by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
" When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn't know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn't make faces when photographed."
"When the child was a child, it was the time of these questions: Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn't life under the sun just a dream? Isn't what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world? Does evil actually exist, and are there people who are really evil? How can it be that I, who am I, wasn't before I was, and that some time I, the one I am, no longer will be the one I am?"
The opening shot pans across the rooftops of Berlin as the Narrator's musing voice weaves a hypnotic spell that seems to pull at your very soul, running shivers down your back. Through the eyes and ears of two Celestials, Damiel and Cassiel, we touch on the inner thoughts and contemplations of ordinary human beings, in their homes, on the streets, in moments of joy, nostalgia, melancholy and despair. Visible only to children and their own kind, they travel the city in pairs, observing, listening, and sometimes guiding anguished minds with a gentle nudge of comfort and hope.
Having watched over humanity since its beginnings, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) has grown weary of the lonesome, eternal life on the periphery of human existence and longs to fully immerse himself in the mortal experience with all its conflicting emotions and trials. As he feels helplessly drawn towards the wandering soul and life of a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he takes the leap and, irrevocably, sheds his wings to join the muddy waters of humankind.
An entrancing poetic collage on celluloid, this film ultimately exemplifies the Art House genre in all its faded glory, from the visual and oral style to the depths it reaches in contemplating the human condition.
Repeated viewings over the years have filled me with startling new insights time and again, as if the movie reflected and grew in meaning with our own gained experiences and understanding as we get older, opening doors in the mind we are barely aware of, eerily personal and intimate in its effect.
In an age where reflection and soul searching have fallen well off by the wayside, with Hollywood's vapid escapism numbing our hearts and minds, this film is not recommended fare for everyone. In this particular case, what you bring to the film is just as essential as what the film brings to you. It requires a certain commitment and frame of mind in the viewer, an openness to flow along within its stream of consciousness, to engage in a close symbiotic relationship that has its rewards in invoking those basic human traits that connect us all, rather then focusing on our disparaging lifestyles that seem to create unbridgeable chasms between us.
Such is the film's timeless message that it ties, almost as if by design, into our present situation as many of us wither in sterile isolation and lonely detachment with only our existential angst to keep us company. And the darker those storm clouds gather above our heads, the more we need to remind ourselves just how important our human interdependence is to a truly engaging and fulfilling life.
This cinematic work of art is true Soul Food for the poetically inclined and for all of those who aren't afraid to face their innermost self, to acknowledge their fear of rejection and isolation, to admit their need of others and who strive to revive their compassion for the human condition.
In the end, no creature is ever truly an island onto itself, no matter how far it strays from its fellow kind.
A Tale Of Two Kingstons
by John Jantunen
I knew right away her night would not end well.
She was sitting on the front steps of what might have been called a boarding house in bygone days - the kind of residence I knew all too well, having lived in two such places myself in East Vancouver back in the 1990s and, more recently, next door to one in North Bay. Hers was a rather nondescript two-story with white clapboard siding at the corner of Division and Raglan Streets, three blocks north of Princess, Kingston’s main drag. I’d passed by it plenty of times before and, beyond the somewhat ubiquitous sign on its front door advising visitors that “Masks Are Mandatory In The Hallways”, it hadn’t given me any reason to more than glance its way during any of my previous late night sojourns.
But then, of course, there’d never been a teenage girl hunched on its porchsteps screaming “Motherfuckers!” and “Cocksuckers!” at the top of her lungs, the only two words I could discern anyway as I approached the intersection. Rounding the corner, I’d been a little startled to find that the girl in question was sitting not three paces from where I now stood, trying to act all casual as I waited for a car to pass so I could cross the street. At first, I’d thought she was venting her ire at two middle-aged women hurrying down the sidewalk, as eager as I was to get out of range of her vitriol.
She was shouting, “Fuck yourself, you motherfucking cocksuckers!” after them and, with her suitably distracted, I skirted across Division sneaking sideways glances at her as I walked past on the far side of the busy thoroughfare.
She was a slight, young woman wearing a black winter parka with her legs pulled up inside it and her hands bundled in its pockets in deference to the cold, though after three years in Ontario’s North, a mere minus five degrees in February seemed positively balmy to me. I couldn’t see much else about her, except that she had a face so pale it appeared to have been painted on and that she didn’t look to be older than sixteen. The two women had retreated halfway down the block by then and yet she was still shouting out a bitter vindictive against, what I now began to assume, was the world itself. As I cut onto Elm Street a half block south, she’d taken to screaming “Fuck you Damien, you motherfucking cocksucker! I’m going to fucking kill you, you fucking piece of shit!” and from this I gleaned that her anger must have been of a more personal nature after all.
Had she been a young male, I might’ve felt inclined to approach him with the offer of a cigarette and a sympathetic ear. I’d often done so in the past when encountering such a scene and, while I’d found that this would often have a calming effect on the individual, I'd be the first to admit that my urge to engage with such individuals is not altogether altruistic in origin. Mason’s Jar, the novel I’m currently writing, features a cast of some thirty homeless teens who’ve sought refuge on a farmstead in Corbeil after fleeing North Bay and, perhaps rather selfishly, I’ve found that the time it takes to smoke a cigarette is often enough to provide the seedling of a character to later germinate on the page.
But a teenage girl in crisis is another matter entirely and it was hard for me not to wonder, how many times a girl in her circumstance had been approached by some creepy older man, luring her into his good graces with the offer of a cigarette. So I kept my distance and reserved my glances to the fleeting variety, though when I came to a hedge in front of the house at the corner of Elm Street and Division, I couldn’t resist the urge to duck behind it, out of view of the girl but not out of range of her rage, curious to see how the scene might play itself out.
My resolve lasted mere seconds for there’s really nothing more creepy than some old guy hiding behind a hedge, staring over at some teenage girl having a meltdown with the clock verging on midnight, and all it took was another pedestrian heading my way to tell me that whatever was going to happen would have to happen without me. Telling myself, I’d check in on her on my way back home, I turned down Elm and continued on my walk.
My destination that night, as it had been on any number of Saturday nights since we’d relocated to Kingston, was the so-called student village on the outskirts of Queen’s University. A few weeks after we’d arrived in August, I’d read a piece in the local paper about how Queen’s students were defying the lockdown order by throwing massive weekend parties in the area. We lived only a ten minute walk from campus and, the very next Saturday after Tanja and the kids had gone to be bed, I headed out to take a look for myself.
Now when it comes to students having a little fun, I’m not really one to judge. I well remember the liquor and drug fuelled debauches I’d been involved with during my first year at the University of Western Ontario and I’ll willingly concede that some of my favourite memories from those days were stumbling back drunk or stoned on weed and/or mushrooms to Saugeen Maitland (then the largest dorm in North America) with a fellow English major who’d earned the nickname Shag for his uncanny resemblance to Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoons. But I will admit to is having been a little shocked by just how brazen the Queen’s students were in their drunken revelries.
Only an estimated 6,600 of the regular student population of 24,000 had returned and, as far as I could tell, most of those must have been out and about. That first night, I’d taken the quickest route into the heart of the village, following the street we lived on - Barrie - south to Earl, the street my two teenage sons would have taken to the antiquated Kingston Collegiate and Vocational School before they were transferred in January to the newly built Kingston Secondary School some five kilometers north.
A group of a hundred or so students were gathered in front of a small apartment building across from the Queens’ Athletics & Recreation Centre while dance music blared down at them out of a third-floor window. The asphalt was littered with broken bottles, puddles of puke, discarded plastic cups, takeout containers and other assorted detritus, a stop sign had been upended - perhaps as part of some primitive rutting exercise - and a young lad had climbed up a light post and was even then trying to wrench a street sign loose, no doubt to hang on his wall or take back home with him as a souvenir.
Flashing blue and reds drew me to University Ave, a couple of blocks hence. The occupants of a house there, apparently, had defied the lockdown order by hosting a party in excess of the fifty people then allowed to gather indoors. The arrival of the cops had simply brought the party outside and, while the house’s owners were conferring with police on their front lawn, their guests were showing their solidarity by whooping and hollering and otherwise carrying on as if the five or six officers were there to deliver another keg rather than lay down the law.
I watched one young man, not fifteen feet from the nearest parked police cruiser, punt what would turn out to be a half-full can of beer at a passing car, striking the passenger's side door. What I could see from my vantage, though the young man apparently could not from his, was that the innocuous brown sedan was being driven by yet another uniformed police officer who proceeded to jump out of the vehicle and berate the kicker while his friends snickered at the offender from a few feet away. As far as I could tell, the cop didn’t lay any charges, nor even give the kicker a fine and, after gifting the young man with a verbal lashing, continued on his way as did I as well.
Over the next few weekends, I’d witness similar acts of willful defiance and see plenty of evidence otherwise that the students were continuing to ignore the lockdown order, even when the minimum fine for doing so was increased from $800 to $10,000.
While the streets were never again so crowded, the black garbage bags, covering windows that throbbed to the beat of hip hop, became an increasingly common sight which told me that the students had at least learned a little something about discretion. And instead of groups numbering in the dozens milling about, more often you’d see gaggles of only six to ten scurrying from one house to the next.
It became so commonplace, I began to muse that someone must have developed some sort of an app which automatically notified its user when space cleared up at a more desirable locale. Or perhaps, I thought, they’d adopted a reservation system, like at a restaurant or in the private study rooms at the library - a kind of party-sharing protocol that ensured maximum rotation.
Regardless, for want of any clear destination, I often took to following these ragtag groups until they either ducked into a new house or began throwing nervous or recriminatory glances my way to let me know I was an unwelcome presence. I was often rewarded for my surveillance with amusing little snatches of conversation which I’d jot down in my ever-present notebook for further use. In the review for Jose Saramago’s Small Memories, which appears in this issue, I write of how a novelist’s memory functions differently than most people's in that it’s always searching out patterns amongst even the most innocuous details and, if there was one pattern that began to emerge from my midnight meanders, it was the prevalence of drugs within these eavesdropped conversations.
This uttered by a young white male, wearing a varsity jacket, into his phone as he hurried down University Ave on the last Saturday before the end of Christmas Break: “I haven’t been high for a month. Not even smoke. Fuck, I’m going to get so fucked up tonight!”
This between a couple, the first a rather bookish-looking white woman and the response from an equally bookish Asian male: “I thought you were talking about Coca-Cola.” "No, cocaine! I was talking about cocaine!” It sounded like the beginning of an argument.
Coming from a group of three confused, young white males who’d come to the corner of Union Street and University Avenue and who couldn’t figure which way to turn towards the lakefront, though I myself could see a sliver of it between two buildings: “I swear the water’s around here somewhere.” “I can’t remember. Do we go this way or this way?” “Guys! Guys! I’m feeling, I’m feeling . . . illogical.”
And, while walking past a bench down by the waterfront, where two young white women and a white male were standing around a dreadlocked white woman rolling a joint: “When I was in first year, I used to roll for everyone on my floor.” “That’s so cool!”
A litany of drug references floating to the surface in this sea of public intoxication and, as far as I could tell, not a single whisper of anything remotely academic. On that particular night though, the chill weather must have been keeping the students inside and the only thing of note I witnessed at all was a group of five students stumbling out onto the porch of a house as I made my second pass down Earl. Neither of the three males was wearing anything more than a light sweater and both of the girls were garbed in only thin blouses, both short-sleeved. It was the girl in front, I gathered, who’d enticed the others out. She was running down the middle of the street with her arms stretched wide, plane-like, as if she was trying to get up enough speed to take flight. The others hurried behind her, singing at the top of their lungs, “There was an old man named Michael Finnegan! He had whiskers on his chin-a-gen! Along came the wind and blew them in again! Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again!”
Over and over they sang the endless refrain until they’d reached the end of the next block, whereby the lead girl ran over to a house and snatched a weathered cardboard jack-o-lantern decoration from the lattice below its porch, then turned back the way she'd come, coveting it against her chest even as one of the males chastised, “Vandalism! That’s vandalism!” One of the other males, who was drinking from a 26 oz. bottle of Smirnoff’s, countered, “That’s not vandalism!” With a defiant smirk towards none other than myself, he then drained the bottle in one fell swoop and smashed it in the street while proclaiming, “Now that’s vandalism!”
Thinking, that was as good a way to punctuate my walk as any, I turned up Alfred street and, as I headed for home, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened to the girl I’d seen raging on her front stoop earlier.
I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. As soon as I came to Elm Street, I spotted the flashing blue and reds at the end of the block. Thinking it best to give the police a little space, I walked on to the next street and cut down Hamilton. When I came to Division, I could see three police cruisers parked in front of the house where the girl had been sitting, though it wasn’t towards them that my attention was immediately drawn, it was to the man charging down the sidewalk towards me.
“Fucking pigs!” he was yelling and I quickly pulled a cigarette from my case, even though I’d just finished one, thinking that if anyone was going to be able to tell me what had happened, it was him and also, that the sight of me smoking would be sufficient grounds for him to approach me, though, I’d shortly learn, that was entirely unnecessary.
“Did you see that?” he called across the street to me when he’d reached Hamilton. He looked to be going onto forty but, I’d wager, he was still in his late twenties, his face weathered and his lips cracked and bleeding and the way they caved in at the mouth telling me, it had been years since he’d had a full set of front teeth. He was wearing a winter coat too filthy to divine its colour beyond a murky grey. Its zipper was open or broken and beneath it I could see he was wearing at least four additional layers.
“I just missed it,” I answered as he started across the street.
Well . . . it took four fucking pigs to take down one ninety-pound girl. And every one of them fucking huge. Can you believe that?”
“Damn cops, eh?” I agreed, hoping to gain his confidence.
“Fucking pigs is what they are!” he countered, then spun around holding two middle fingers up and screaming, “Fucking pigs!”
Turning back, he noticed me smoking and that seemed to calm him enough that he proffered a congenial smile on his way to asking, “Say mister, you got an extra smoke?”
“Sure,” I told him, taking out two from my case and handing them over, not so much out of any sense of generosity as because I’ve found that proffering two cigarettes instead of one is often the best way to get someone talking.
“I saw the girl sitting there earlier,” I coaxed as he lit up.
“Fuck,” he answered, “if I’d just got there two minutes earlier, it never would've happened.”
“So you know her.”
“Of course I know her. She’s my fucking girlfriend.”
“She was screaming about someone named Damien,” I mentioned, thinking he’d be as likely a candidate as any.
“That’s her cousin. She fucking hates her cousin.”
“I was thinking I should've gone up to her earlier,” I offered. “Try to calm her down. Wish I had now. It’s hard though, a fifty-year-old man going up to a girl like that.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “She’s always had a problem with fucking pedophiles.”
Point taken, though it did seem a rather strange thing coming from him, given how old he appeared to be and how young she seemed and how he’d just told me she was his girlfriend. But self-awareness didn’t exactly seem the man’s strong point.
“Fuck, she had my money and my fucking drugs,” he was now saying. “Fucking meth fell out of her pocket when the pigs fucking grabbed her. Those fuckers!” One of the cruisers was even then pulling past. The driver was scrolling down his window and called out, “Keep it up, buddy! See what happens.”
Having a police officer sneering at him as he drove by was clearly one of the man’s triggers, for his body began to shake such that it appeared he was about to explode. “Fuck you!” he yelled, starting into the street as if he was about chase the cruiser down. “You fucking -”
But before he could finish, I’d grabbed his arm, holding him back and calling out to the officer, “Just leave him alone! He’ll be alright if you just leave him alone.”
“Motherfuckers!” the man called out, though he’d at least given up on thoughts of pursuit.
“They’re trying to get you worked up,” I advised. “Just forget about him. He’s being a prick.”
“Four fucking pigs tackling a ninety pound girl! Those motherfuckers! Now I got to find a way to get her out of fucking jail.”
“If you want my advice,” I offered, “I’d stay away from the police station tonight.”
“I ain’t afraid of those fucking pigs.”
“You’re just going to give them a reason, man. It won’t end well. Just stay away from the fucking cops tonight, okay?”
“Fuck ‘em. I’m fucking done with the fucking pigs anyway.” Sucking hard on his cigarette and shaking his head. “Alright, I gotta arrange a few things,” he said. “Thanks for the smokes.” Turning around, he scurried off down Hamilton Street.
I turned once again for home. It was only a five minute walk from there, enough time anyway for me to reflect a little on the night’s events without coming to any conclusions beyond the obvious, my sentiments regarding that, in the very least, providing me with a vague idea for an opening line and a possible title for our next Can of Worms.
by Janet Calcaterra
During Easter dinner, which his father spent passed out with his head in the mashed potatoes, Nick decided to finish his holidays back at boarding school. He caught his grandfather’s eye from across the table, motioned toward his father, whom everyone called Thomas, and whispered, “Can you take me back tomorrow, Grandpa?”
“Certainly,” said the balding man, “but if you’d rather, you could come and stay with us.”
“I have to study,” Nick said. “And with the other students gone, I can concentrate better.”
He knew he’d have to lie to his mother about why he wanted to return early, but that was easier than trying to ignore his father's drunkenness, always excused by his World War II trauma.
The next morning, while parked in front of the school, his grandfather pulled a metal flask from his pocket and handed it to Nick.
"This is from my World War One years,” he said. “To remind you to drink like a gentleman.”
The remark had Nick wonder whether the war also tormented his grandfather. Boarding school was tough but it wasn’t hard to survive there, and the gift made Nick feel that he had to choose between his grandfather and his father. He felt the same way about him paying his private school tuition, which his father couldn’t afford even before he was fired from preaching. After Nick took the flask, closed the car door and waved goodbye, he was relieved to get to his room and wait for his roommates' return.
Once inside, he lay on his cot’s thin, chenille bedspread. It was two days before Chip and Spence would come back from Easter vacation. Not that their presence made him like this school any better. Every day after dinner, he heard Spence in the bathroom, regurgitating the four desserts he’d eaten since breakfast, while Chip would be farting and looking for a match to light his gas. Their presence, which he couldn’t ignore because they all shared a room, made Nick long to know Alexei, another boarder abandoned by his family at this school of misfits.
Yet loneliness and boredom didn’t make Nick reach for Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, for which a book report was due on the first day of classes. Nor did he attempt to finish his losing-marks-for-lateness geometry homework, also on the bed. He could have stayed home until the holidays ended but he couldn’t tolerate another minute of his mother, eyes like wet pools, demanding polite dinner-table conversation from her children while Thomas, a former United Church minister, snored beside them.
Although he’d considered it, embarrassment at his father’s drinking was why he hadn’t invited Alexei home for Easter. The boy might have enjoyed Nana’s Russian specialties like cabbage soup, beetroot salad and blini with fruit preserves for dessert, but Nick knew his father would be drunk and he didn’t want Alexei to see that.
Now back at school with his roommates gone, Nick could get to know Alexei better. The boy, unlike small, pale Nick, was tall with broad shoulders, large hands and dark hair. His father was a Russian diplomat in Ottawa who Alexei mimicked by shaking his fist and shouting in broken English, “In Russia schools better . . . but safe here.” Then he’d chuckle deeply. Alexei’s mother lived in Russia, too far to visit for ten days, and his parents were divorced, so Nick worried the boy would be lonely over the holidays.
He’d once asked Alexei when passing him in the hall, “Why don’t you visit your father in Ottawa over the break?”
“He’s always . . . with women,” Alexei had said, speaking slowly as he searched for the correct English words. “He leaves me . . . or makes me . . . with them.” It was as if he were looking for a polite way to say something impolite and since Nick, in deference to his grandmother’s once noble Russian heritage, always strove to be mannerly, he didn’t ask what Alexei meant.
Since his first year at school when the Russians downed Gary Powers and his American spy plane, Chip and Spence had razzed Nick about his ancestry with words like “Kossak” or “Ruskie” and questioned his family’s threat to Western society. He might have rebelled at their bullying but his small build made him fear they might hurt him, so he nervously awaited their return. Anticipating Alexei’s presence at dinner was the only thing that lifted his mood. And anything, including “spy killer” slurs, was better than life with his father.
Yet tolerating his homelife involved more than ignoring his mother’s pretense that Thomas wasn’t a drunk. He had to wear his school uniform on holidays, while having tea with his father, to polish his manners. His mother, her expression like an abandoned puppy’s, served scones and sandwiches while suggesting appropriate topics for discussion, including the weather, the NHL standings and his father’s new job at the family store. Although his sisters, Alice and Ruth, only went to public school, they were exempt from this activity because of what his mother called their 'superior social skills'.
Although he’d have spoken shattered English, Alexei would have conversed intelligently, but Thomas, while drunk, might have called him a communist, another reason Nick never wanted them to meet.
Despite the inference that WW II had traumatized his father, Nick would try, during tea, to get Thomas to discuss his wartime ministry. “Did men still believe in God when they were bleeding to death on the battlefield?” Nick would ask, sipping from a Blue Willow cup and wondering how war could ruin a man who believed in God.
“Fools! Still praying as blood streamed from their bodies. No God at Normandy,” he’d mumble, then sip scotch from the bottle hidden under his desk, his tea growing cold. Even though his father babbled incoherently about this, Nick understood that others had faith while facing death, so maybe it wasn’t foolish of him to believe.
To keep the conversation going, he’d ask about Thomas’s new job in the family’s office-supply business. His father could be half-plastered and still describe the pens he’d sold since childhood. As if Nick cared about bond paper and file folders. Even when his father talked coherently, Nick still wasn’t interested in the store’s workings. It would be soon enough to show curiosity when he inherited the business. And Thomas certainly didn’t care more about typewriter ribbons than preaching: the one thing about which he did talk passionately.
Nick got off the bed and went to the closet where he’d hidden his suitcase so it wouldn’t get put in storage. The flask was in the side pocket. Next to it were the two bottles of vodka he’d stolen from the liquor cabinet. Since his father drank scotch and the vodka was reserved for rare guests, Nick knew it wouldn’t be missed. He'd planned on sampling some with Chip and Spence upon their return, unless they called him “Ruskie drunk.” While pouring vodka into the flask, he heard Alexei practicing Tchaikovsky on the piano in the music room, so he lay back on the bed to listen and took a swig. The liquid scorched his throat, but he hoped that drinking it would help him forget home.
At least during the holidays he got to have Easter dinner at his grandparents. If Alexei had been there, he’d have behaved perfectly. Although Nick’s mother only had a three-piece tea service in the Blue Willow pattern, Nana’s meals, with their many courses, were served on her complete set, which Nick’s mother blatantly coveted and Alexei would have appreciated since he was interested in antiques.
After dessert, Nana always told a story about the picture decorating the dishes. She’d start with the fishermen crossing the bridge, their poles slung over their shoulders, and have them catch a swordfish or come home with nothing to eat. And those fishermen would always meet beautiful, young maidens along the way, or the maidens would be waiting for them at home.
When the story was over, Nick would take the nesting dolls, Nana had smuggled out of her family’s Russian estate in 1917, and sneak them behind the curved sofa back tucked against the living room wall. This space was a perfect hiding place for a boy who liked dolls. They amused Nick for hours while imagining a world inhabited by round, painted, limbless people. He would even playact with the toys, using his own doll language. But Nick knew to hide from Thomas for fear of what he would say.
“Boys don’t play with dolls. Go get into trouble,” he’d slur, smelling of whiskey and weaving unsteadily as he walked. Nick also knew Chip and Spence might hear gossip about the dolls from their sisters who were friends with his. Then his roommates would call him “Russian fruit”. Even Alexei, refined as he was, would say, “That’s not . . . manly. Russian men . . . don’t play dolls.”
So even though spring vacation wasn’t over, Nick had to choose between his father and Nana’s Russian dolls or his boarding school. Besides Alexei and a few others, he had to eat with the bachelor schoolmasters, who stayed during holidays, and attend daily church services listening to the school’s pastor drone on. Before his father’s dismissal from church, Nick knew he'd preached a better sermon even while drunk than this pastor ever did. When Thomas’ rich, baritone voice had echoed through the church, his parishioners in rapt attention, Nick never had to feign fascination.
“Even though world events might cause us to question our belief and we feel abandoned by God, we must hold to our devotion, knowing He is always with us,” Thomas would say, and Nick believed him then. Now he would never hear these words from the pulpit again.
Once, when his mother seemed unusually cheerful, he'd asked her what she felt about his father’s lost ministry.
“We wrote a letter of appeal. Maybe he’ll be reinstated,” she'd said. But soon she had that same pitiful look and Nick knew, without asking, that the plea had been rejected. Although his heart still stung from the pain of his father’s dismissal, Nick wasn’t above often threatening his roommates that Thomas would damn them to hell if they didn’t stop mocking him. This always made their eyes widen with fear. Since he knew their teasing would continue upon return, he intended to enjoy some much-deserved peace until then.
With this in mind he finally picked up Jules Verne and began to read. Just as he was getting drawn into the story, he heard a tap at the door. He threw the blanket from the bottom of his bed over the flask and called, “Come in.”
Mr. Johnson, the science teacher and sports coach, loomed in the doorway. Nick might have felt intimidated by his size, but he knew that, during holidays, the in-residence schoolmasters shared the job of accompanying the remaining boys to meals.
“Dinner time,” the teacher said, his voice kindly. “Are you coming?”
“Go ahead. I’ll be right along. I’ve got a few pages left to read in this chapter.” As he’d only gotten a B- in science and this science fiction novel gave the subject a passing nod, Nick hoped to impress Mr. Johnson by reading it.
“Your call, but I smelled corned beef cooking all afternoon. You know it goes quickly. You don’t want to miss out and end up with just bread, cheese and vegetables,” then he backed from the room like a football player avoiding a tackle.
This image made Nick believe that Mr. Johnson had been employed to lend the staff some testosterone, a word he remembered from Phys. Ed. class. Hoping some of it would rub off so he'd be better able to deal with Chip and Spence, Nick put down the book, grabbed his jacket and headed for dinner.
The dining hall, barely half-full with stranded schoolmasters and students, sounded like a football stadium filled with fans. He sat down next to Mr. Johnson.
“I had to tear Nick away from Twenty-Thousand Leagues under the Sea to come to dinner,” the teacher said, shaking his head. Alexei, who was talking to the music teacher, Mr. Dale, sat on Mr. Johnson's other side.
“That piece of music you’re working on is improving,” Nick heard Mr. Dale say.
“But I . . . need . . . cannons,” Alexei said.
“Tchaikovsky probably didn’t have cannons everywhere he played. Just hit those notes harder.”
Nick hoped this might be his chance to impress the other teachers, so he said, “I know that piece from going to the symphony with my parents. What’s it called?”
“Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor,” said Mr. Dale.
Alexei interrupted, "I don't want . . . talk music. That book leagues under sea . . . better in Russian than English.” Nick heard the boy’s disdain, suspecting that Alexei had read Russian all his life but also English.
“It’s not a scholarly tome,” Nick said. “Science fiction you know, but it keeps my interest.” Then he hoped, frantically, that besides Alexei no one present had read the novel because Nick hadn’t read enough to say anything more. Luckily, his companions ate their corned beef in silence, knowing tonight’s dessert was rice pudding with raisins, a favourite.
After dinner, hoping to get to know Alexei better, Nick turned to him and said, “My grandmother sent me back with some cookies. Would you like to try them?”
“Sure. But why . . . you here? Don’t parents live . . . in Toronto?”
“My family’s gone to Florida,” Nick lied. “And I need to study.” He didn’t want to explain his father’s drinking to a boy whose own father probably took to vodka like water.
“Too bad . . . Florida. Even if I want see him . . . my father doesn’t take Western . . . holidays. No Easter in Russia.”
“Why don’t you go to boarding school in Ottawa, near him?”
“Told you . . . father likes . . . women. Not like . . . mother. Wants me go to . . . school with religion. Religion dead . . . in Russia. If Kremlin knew . . . son went church . . . he sent Siberia.”
“Your father sounds mixed up, liking women and religion. My father would fit right into Russia. He used to be a minister, but now he works for his father’s office-supply company.”
“Why?” the boy asked, tagging behind Nick as they mounted the stairs.
“My grandmother says he left God on the beaches of Normandy,” said Nick, shaking his head. “She says he couldn’t keep preaching a lie.”
Nick knew his father’s drinking while preaching was the real reason, but he wasn’t about to tell Alexei.
“You mean because . . . war?”
“That’s how the story goes,” Nick said and opened the door to his room. He straightened his rumpled blanket to tidy the bed and the flask hidden in it fell to the floor. Before he could whisk it into his suitcase, Alexei picked it up and unscrewed the top, sniffing eagerly.
“I won’t . . . tell teachers . . . you let me have drink.” Nick’s hand flew to his mouth surprised by Alexei’s boldness. Then he thought it rude to reject the boy outright, so he nodded. Alexei took three sips, coughing slightly. Nick expected him to wince from the burn, but Alexei would have kept drinking if Nick hadn’t grabbed the flask and taken a sip himself. He turned his head away as the alcohol tore at his throat, hoping his inexperience wouldn’t show.
Soon the boys were passing the flask back and forth as, in turn, they took drinks. After about six large swigs, Nick had to lay on the bed to keep from falling over, but Alexei tilted his head back and drank until the flask was empty.
“Gone . . . what we do now?” he asked and threw it on the bed.
“Maybe we’ve had enough,” said Nick, trying to get up.
“In Russia, I . . . drink much vodka . . . with my father,” Alexei bragged.
“I’m Russian too. My grandmother was born there, but my father prefers scotch, so I took the vodka from the liquor cabinet. There’s more in my suitcase.”
“Get . . . it out,” demanded Alexei. “At home . . . I drink whole bottle!”
Suddenly Nick felt like he’d lost control. He’d wanted to be sociable and offer the boy cookies, like his mother did when he and his father had tea. Instead, Alexei only wanted to get drunk. If they finished the other bottle there’d be none left to bribe Chip and Spence with and the bullying would continue.
“ I need to keep that for my roommates. Let’s have cookies instead.”
“Cookies . . . after vodka? Russian men don’t. You not Russian,” Alexei said, opening the door to leave.
Nick didn’t want Alexei to tell anyone he couldn’t hold his vodka, so he thought they could drink part of it, then save some for Chip and Spence. He tried to stand up and get it from his suitcase, but found he couldn’t. He heard Alexei’s steps fade down the hallway. Nick knew when he'd awake in the morning, he’d only have one more day to wait for his roommates to return. Then he would show them how much vodka he could drink.
Copper Cliff Mine
In the Jack Pines
Georgian Bay Storm
Sea Lion Rock
In Praise of Inferior Virtues
by Tanja Rabe
This morning I awoke from a nightmare.
I wished it had only been the kind that kept you from opening your eyes, in fear of what had lurked in the black wings of sleep having followed you out into the darkness beyond your warm covers. At least those let you fall asleep again, hoping to find refuge in the next dream.
No, it had been worse than that. I woke up angry and knew, at once, that sleep was over and done with, the few hours before dawn giving me plenty of time to mull over the past wreckage of our marriage.
I hadn't dreamed about you, my ex-husband, for a couple of months. Usually, our encounters were fleeting and evasive, your condescension and silent reproaches thick in the air, leaving me confused and insecure upon waking, at times even haunting the rest of my day.
In this latest dream, though, I'd been unusually defiant and confrontational, you might even say aggressive. I recall finding myself right in the middle of a heated argument with you while an old friend of mine refereed the match to ensure fair turns and point out fouls. World affairs, social issues, you name it and, sure as hell, we'd disagree running heads against each other's brick walls. Our dream battle ended abruptly in a tie with you storming out of the apartment, leaving me frustrated and furious.
We didn't argue about our relationship, which wasn't much of a surprise since we rarely talked about problems between us, at least not when it actually mattered. Not that you ever noticed there to be any, you'd state after the fact.
I was still angry when I woke up. Angry for all the blame I had secretly subjected myself to since we went our separate ways, and angry about not having raised my voice much earlier, before it was too late.
On the surface, it had all been clearly my fault, according to contemporary rules and conventions. I had defected from our joint commitment, left you, or rather caused you to leave, within the space of a few days after the Date of Revelation: "I've fallen in love with someone else". What I neglected to mention was the fact that I'd had several months to fall in love, from the first confusing flush of warmth to butterflies in the belly when he was close and pangs of longing when he wasn't. Like no one else before, not even you who shared my life, he'd passed like a specter through my dreams from that first day onward, elusive and unreachable.
You, my husband, pretended not to notice, in fact seemed to grow more distracted and frequently absent in our daily life together. I was aware of this but blamed it on your being between jobs. This was a guess, of course, since you never confided in me.
About two weeks before the Date of Revelation, we go for dinner at our favourite Greek restaurant, not out of any romantic notion but simple habit. Sometimes it seemed to be the only thing we still did together, the token outing.
During our meal the conversation, little as it is, turns to him, known to you as one of my friends from work. The two of you have met on occasion when you'd join our group for a beer at the pub after work. I never lied to you about the time I was spending with him but it was sanctified by the presence of others, I admit, and you didn't get the whole story, just the main plot.
Barred from you were the undercurrents as the relationship developed, the moments we snatched away from our group, coincidental it appeared, often not even admitted to ourselves. We'd share work breaks at the coffee shop next door, meet friends for a movie but split up into pairs as we decided on different fare, walk each other to the bus stop after the pub or some get-together where we caught the other's frequent glances. Yet we didn't dare bring it out in the open. We both had our confidantes giving us their blessings but it wasn't that simple.
I was married to you. I had a reputation as being down to earth and sensible and he was afraid to make a fool of himself, to break up a marriage, to get hurt. Three months of heaven and hell, hidden feelings but unable to stay away.
At the Greek restaurant with you, my husband, I don't mention any of this. You remark, guardedly, that I seem rather fond of my friend from work. I look at you and nod.
"Yes," I admit, "I think I have a bit of a crush on him." I try to sound amused with myself for something so reminiscent of teenage infatuation, hoping to ease the weight of my confession. Your reaction is minimal, you seem in thought and composed without a trace of agitation. It is, somehow, what I expect to see. If it was different, things might have taken a different turn. But the fact that it isn't points to the underlying root of our problem.
You pass me a wane smile and share a familiar sentiment, all reason: "In a relationship, you'll often find yourself attracted to others. It's up to you whether to act on that or not." Right, will power, thank you. I almost forgot.
"A little cold," I think to myself. "If someone teeters at the edge of a cliff and you tell them sure, it's tempting to jump, it's your own choice, do you think it'll make them step back?"
On a later date, too late, you inform me that you had only wanted to give me space, not to pressure me. You'd been my first, serious relationship and resigned yourself to the possibility that someday I might feel tempted to spread my wings a bit.
"I could have lived with that," you'd say, "why didn't you just fuck him, get it out of your system, you didn't have to leave."
"We could have worked it out," you'd end by going into a rage after the separation.
As I recall our last encounter, I realise you weren't just talking to me. Someone else was in the room with us, the girlfriend you had before me who’d dragged you along in an open relationship, playing around while living together and you'd put up with it, only to be left in the end after all. I'd sensed her ghost linger about our relationship from early on, ever since the day a friend of yours had approached us from behind at the bar and called me by her name. There were remnants of hers amongst your things which you didn't mind sharing. Photos, love letters, poems, stories about her, bittersweet. I’d felt uncomfortable but told myself to be glad you trusted me with your past.
Back at the restaurant, you're all calm and on top of things. Would a more jealous reaction have made a difference, changed my feelings and turned me around? Was neglect the mother of disintegration, that slow but steady creeping up of loneliness through lack of sharing? Who knew what was going on in the other's mind, it was left unsaid.
Sometimes, it felt like waiting for a train in the Middle of Nowhere with no schedule to guide you and, if one was to stop on its way, you'd take it, to anywhere, as long as it wasn't going to drop you off at another godforsaken place in the Middle of Nowhere. When a train finally arrived and the destination seemed right, you fought with all you had to get on that ride.
Maybe it was the fight, the confrontation, that was missing most of all. Fits of jealousy, ugly emotions exposed, fear most of all, the fear of losing, of needing the other, all those vulnerabilities we struggle so hard to hide, pretending immunity to such lowly slips of composure. They should be banished, stains on our virtue. But should they really?
All throughout history, people have relied on stories of conflict to help them find meaning and comfort in their own imperfect lives, vicariously sharing the battles and triumphs of real or fictional heroes to learn more about themselves and others. And, as the saying goes, it takes a storm to clear the air. We might not always appreciate the tumult of pressure unloading over our heads but, without it, life would be stagnant, dry up and wither away.
What's left to do, though, when there is no more pressure? When, over time, frustration turns to resignation and fizzles out into indifference, that place beyond love or hate where you find nothing to work with.
After the Date of Revelation, you use the term adultery, a cliché that makes me cringe. You don't want to understand. It is an easy word lacking all circumstance. Having an affair was never the point, even if it would have made you more comfortable with the situation. It's