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Issue 4

July 2021

Cannery Row Magazine

A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits

A Question of Subsistence (2)

by Tanja Rabe

Editor's Desk

“They Had Always Done It”

by Katerina Vaughan Fretwell

Poetry & Musings

No Taxation

Without Representation

by Mat Del Papa

Mat's Musings

Forest Discussion

by Rebecca Kramer

Musical Interlude

Life Has Infinite Value

by Rebecca Kramer

Can of Worms

Bread For The Sheep

by John Jantunen

Short Fiction

Rat Race

by Jerry Zucker

Screenshots

Disposable People

by John Jantunen

Can of Worms

In Praise of Skunks

by Roger Nash

Poetry & Musings

A Closet of Bad Feelings

by Mat Del Papa

Short Fiction

Fishbone Gallery

Rebecca Kramer

Photography

Nightshade Lullaby

by Tanja Rabe

Short Fiction

Safety

by Denis Stokes

Poetry & Musings

Last Hummingbird

West of Chile

by Nicholas Ruddock

Book Nook

  Born in Kingston - Made in Canada

Subsistence 2
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Editor's

Desk

A Question of Subsistence (2)

by Tanja Rabe

What-is-chocolate-s-biggest-environmenta

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.  - Ansel Adams


A balance between a sustainable ecology and sustainable human life, on the one hand, and the unfettered drive for profit, on the other, is just an oxymoron.  - David Suzuki

I see a peaceful world in which we have finally come to terms with the reality that our survival depends on abandoning conflict, working for peace, sharing what we have  and living within our ecological means.  - Elizabeth May

Welcome to the fourth edition of Cannery Row Magazine and another season of bipolar weather wreaking havoc across the planet. Droughts, fires, polar vortexes, heat waves, tornado super cells, floodings and hail, just waiting for news of locusts to round off this biblical cocktail. I better type fast before the four horsemen draw the curtain on our little show here on earth. So let's get to it.

 

In our last issue we explored what the 'average' Canadian can accomplish in an effort to provide a sustainable future for their precious progeny. So let's assume everybody is wholeheartedly on board doing their damndest to turn around the environmental tsunami, embracing the three R's and cleaning up their own act.

      In the meanwhile, we have somehow managed to put a government in place that actually reflects the will of a united citizenry and throws all its weight and the public purse behind the cause for survival. And just in case all of the following sounds a bit too fantastical to the skeptical reader, let me assure you, I have it on good authority that about 95% of the technical solutions to our conundrum are already out there or well on their way, so we'll just skip a few steps ahead and pick from the smorgasbord our global science and tech teams have so tirelessly assembled and shared generously the world over.

     

Since everyone is hooked on electrons dancing through wires, we've transitioned more or less smoothly from fossil fuels and nuclear installations (oh, the wailing and teeth gnashing!) to all-around renewable and cleaner energy production overseen as a public, subsidized utility. Windmills in all shapes and sizes, pragmatic, decorative or barely noticeable, have become part of our landscape, solar cells are integrated into our building exteriors, windows and roofing materials, the ocean tides and rivers provide reliably consistent power during dark and windless periods, geothermal taps into the earth's heat via abandoned mine shafts, volcanic hot spots and thermal springs and, of course, our hydroelectric dams are continuing to add to this bonanza.      

Energy storage research has found solutions that reduce the need for chemicals like lithium by using salts, heat, gravity and other means to safely store electricity over the longer term, which is aided by balancing high-and-low-peak consumption, like charging vehicles and storage units during low use periods. 

    All buildings, great and small, have off-the-grid capability with enough capacity to handle any external disruption so, unless your house gets razed by a hurricane, washed away with a flood or goes up in a fire - nothing out of the ordinary by then,  you can still watch the News with a cool one in your hand. So, energywise, we're just humming along.

Which brings us to the 'Circular Economy', a catchword that in simple terms encompasses a balanced give-and-take relationship with our natural and man-made resources.

     First and foremost on the agenda is converting fully to sustainable, organic and humane farming practices. The government, in its newfound wisdom, has instituted sweeping and radical landreform, phased out big agricultural complexes, abolished monocultures and industrial meat production, and restricted the amount of land any one person or business can own.

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    This initiates a large-scale return to small farming all across this fine land, supported by redistribution of farm land, agricultural education and financial incentives to bring people back to the countryside. Huge swaths of now public land in the prairies are set aside for cattle drives while ranching, old style, slowly regenerates the soil drained of nutrients from former strip farming practices. Publicly funded cooperatives provide inexpensive, untreated seeds and natural fertilizers from animal husbandry, affordable equipment rentals like tractors and combines, and farmers are exempt from property taxation to make farming a livable occupation. 

        Borrowing from Germany, where young adults have to dedicate two years of their life to serve the public good via the military or in the caregiving sector, we've instituted obligatory service after high school as a rite of passage, either apprenticing as a farmhand to support food production, or supporting the vulnerable population, both of which curtail youth unemployment, offer free training, teach community and environmental engagement and instill a sense of competence and confidence in our young people, so a win-win on all fronts.

In the meantime, decentralization is in full swing. Growth of big cities like Toronto has been put to a screeching halt, with every effort geared towards expanding green spaces therein, drastically reducing vehicular traffic via large pedestrian zones, parks and an expanding bike and electric public transit network. Manufacturing has spread more evenly amongst smaller towns and cities, cushioned by large greenbelts and family farms, creating a web of smaller centers connected by an electric public rail and transit system for transportation of goods and people, again adopting the European model. This has reduced the need of 2+ cars in every driveway, and the average family shares one electric automobile for necessary excursions subsidized by plug-in two-wheelers and bicycles.

Since we've plundered the earth's goodies for way too long now, we've literally accumulated an immense wealth of waste that's been marring and polluting the landscape, offering a perfect opportunity to clean up and reintroduce used materials into the production stream while reducing mining extractions to a bare minimum with tight environmental regulations.

       After fossil fuels have gone the way of the dinosaurs, waste collecting and recycling have taken off at breakneck speed and turned into a major industry. In fact, everything we produce is either 100% recyclable, fixable, repurposed, or composted with as little as possible falling by the waste side. And with energy plentiful, cheap and clean, the pricetag and negative impact of recycling has decreased dramatically as well, putting less strain on producers and consumers as well as on our air, soil and water, thus giving Nature's regenerative powers a chance to slowly heal the wounds of our past assault.

 

As we've been working hard to turn things around, climate change has instigated a global movement of displaced people searching desperately for a new home and spacious Canada has become a haven for refugees. (More wailing and teeth-gnashing!)

      In an effort to accommodate this influx of immigrants, the government first settles Indigenous land claims fairly, returning large swaths of crown land to individual bands for autonomous management whilst financing the necessary infrastructure to help convert their communities to fully sustainable, off-the-grid settlements, particularly in the country's northern regions that have become more accessible due to global warming.

      At the same time, with counsel from Indigenous leaders, the North is opened up for new towns and homesteading. Lured by incentives of free plots of land, building subsidies, an independent utilities and service infrastructure, new settlements - carefully planned along guidelines of sustainability - spring up as waves of new immigrants as well as citizens brave the northern frontier, many of them already well-versed in small farming and the trades. Educational centers provide free instruction and practical training to keep things running smoothly in town and countryside, whilst community hubs are home to the Arts and social engagements. Resource management of the North, particularly logging rights, have been turned over to local band councils to provide a consistent revenue stream for First Nations, with strict regulations regarding sustainability and barring all control by foreign investments.

Economic trade, particularly with other countries, has been completely remodelled. Manufacturing basic, everyday products from our own resources within our own borders has been key to an independent economy since we're done with being at the mercy of foreign powers and unsavoury, multinational business practices. Any in-country production surplus is traded fairly with other nations for products we find ourselves naturally in short supply of (think bananas and oranges), yet there will be a balanced export-import scenario solely based on need, so no more resource exploitation for profit or via foreign investment. Any nonessential imports are taxed sufficiently to prevent competition with local equivalents. Self-reliance is our primary goal in a world descending into climate chaos.

Now how, you might ask, are we going to find the money to realize these flights of fancy? All that infrastructure is going to cost us out the wazoo and crises management from climate change has hurt us financially all over the land.

      Well, some of our most privileged citizens, investors and businesses, foreign and national, have been skillfully and complicity 'evading' the CRA through cleverly designed loopholes, offshore accounts, shell companies, foreign investments or simple 'negligence' for quite a while now. The audit hounds of Ottawa-ville are finally set hot-on-the-heels of our elites, calling in all outstanding debts with no court recourse granted to delay collection. A basic wealth tax from 1% - 3% pulls in hundreds of billions in monies yearly and collecting back taxes with associated interests and penalties has garnered trillions. We also cut all funding for corporate welfare, space exploration, military armaments, fighter jets and other nonessentials which should save us a pretty penny and, lo and behold, all of a sudden the financing jumps into place.

      And if there's still any doubt left in the reader's mind as to whether we can afford or manage a speedy transition, here's a reminder that tells us we can: WW I & II. Think money, labour and resources invested worldwide to fight these wars on all fronts, the destroyed infrastructure of several countries rebuilt during the postwar periods, the short span of time this was accomplished in and voilà! - amazing what we are capable of when our way of life hangs in precarious balance. 

Naturally there are many issues I didn't touch on for the sake of brevity and, to be honest, my foray into global climate change news has been an intensely emotional roller coaster, glimpses of promise and potential dashed by 'business as usual' attitudes and apathy. Activists on all fronts are fighting a Sisyphean battle the world over whilst politicians, multinationals and the fossil fuel industry keep playing their endless shell games conning an easily distracted populace. There are no aliens to save us, there is no Planet B, Mars is madness and it's just us and the Earth, here and now. We're past the tipping point and maybe a eulogy would have been more appropriate but, as I keep saying, hope springs eternal in the human soul, however faint and illusive the prospects. 

I will leave you here with a quote of reflection. Stay well and keep engaged.

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed;

the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing,

the sea does not cease to grind down rock.

Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them

because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other,

and children cling to us.

The moment we cease to hold each other,

the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.  

                                                                                         - James Baldwin

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Always done it
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Poetry

&

Musings

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They Had Always Done It

by Katerina Fretwell

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Pins pricking a flesh-coloured map echo

acupuncture needling the body's meridians,

or an army of ants positioning an anthill,

or a war-room where cops finally traced

the missing and murdered women

to graves on Pickton's pig farm.

 

But Indigenous women are still

murdered along the Highway of Tears.

Joyce Echaquan, diabetic, allergic,

and mother, was given a fatal dose in hospital.

Her video of dying went viral. Then –

another Indigenous woman died in care.

 

What about mapping our top cops

who grope, rape, demean, yell: Don't tell,

and monitor themselves – surprise,

no whiteboard maps Mountie crimes.

Until finally – they're rightfully charged

and broadcast on national news.

 

Giving a visual of the whole and its parts,

pins-on-maps can track anything –

fires, poverty sites, offshore accounts . . .

until finally – racism and wrongdoing

are confronted globally, for a systemic overhaul.

“They had always done it” doesn't cut it –

 

don't need acupuncture's fine long needles

to find and release the pain;

don't need whiteboards, maps or royal commissions

to show what we already know.

Employing ants' cooperative industry,

we'll root out longstanding rot.

No taxation
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 Mat's

Musings

No Taxation Without Representation

by Mat Del Papa

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A friend of mine and I got into it the other day, arguing over taxes of all things. Not our own taxes but rather the fact that our nation’s Indigenous peoples don’t pay any. Normally, I avoid debating so-called ‘Native issues’ - feelings run strong, certainties are set harder than concrete and facts tend to be both few and far between. We hadn’t intended to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight. In fact, I’ve learned to stay away from anything controversial with this particular friend - he speaks five languages fluently, can quote the classics verbatim and holds a Ph.D. in a subject I have yet to pronounce, let alone understand.

 

That morning our discussion started innocently enough, with yoga. That quickly segued into the fact-free field of ‘traditional medicine’ - which we both heartily disparaged - and that led us to lamenting the fact taxpayers cover such ‘quackery’ the same as legitimate medical treatment.

      Let me admit up front that I am not an expert on Indigenous history or the Canadian Revenue Agency and its labyrinthine rules. Nor do I know what groups get tax exemptions or why. Normally, I would remain quiet when so far out of my depth but our discussion took a distressing turn when my friend - a normally insanely smart man - made one claim that struck me as stunningly ignorant; equating the Natives' lack of paying taxes to a “complete failure to contribute to society”.

      A lot people, it seems, share a similar view - so much so that most newspapers no longer allow comments posted to online articles that even touch on Indigenous issues. (The level of vitriol and ignorance found on Internet forums is stunning. Hate, it seems, thrives in anonymity.)

     

Taxes elicit strong emotions. Two hundred and fifty odd years ago, our American neighbours launched a revolution over the damn things. Still technically part of the British Empire at the time, the early colonists felt ill-used by their far-away king and resented the fact that as ‘citizens’ they were forced to pay taxes but didn’t get a say in how they were governed. Hence the phrase ‘No taxation without representation’. The war that followed - leading to independence for the original thirteen colonies and laying the groundwork for the now 50 state union - is still celebrated today in the United States. Their ‘representative government’ is founded on the ideal of equality: one man, one vote.

   Unfortunately, in modern-day America, they are suffering the opposite problem of their revolutionary forefathers . . . and no one even notices. There are whole subsets of people who pay little or no taxes and yet have inordinate political influence.

Look at the wealthy. Millionaires and billionaires have off-shore tax havens in which to hide their money, high-priced accountants to cook the books and a thousand cleverly hidden loopholes to escape their social responsibilities - meaning that many of the wealthiest citizens pay less tax than those in the Middle Class. Despite that, the rich (and ultra-rich) have a disproportionate level of government representation.

    Churches, too, have gamed the system. Existing in tax-free bubbles but exerting immense influence on governments (especially in the United States). Religious schools indoctrinate, religious leaders pontificate and religious believers donate millions to extremist political figures.

       And yet no one in their right mind would dare claim either the wealthy or the church have failed to contribute to society. So why do so many single out Indigenous peoples for resentment? The answer is, sadly, obvious. Prejudice.

 

Ignore the racial aspect for a moment and instead think about what modern society values. Decades of crass consumerism have biased us to believe that a person’s worth is contingent on the size of their pocketbook. Being rich has become equated with being good. Westerners have been taught that hard work leads to success. We’ve been indoctrinated by WASP beliefs that virtuous living - thriftiness, self-sacrifice, and forethought - got the wealthy to the top, a comforting delusion ignoring the fact that most of the uber-rich are descendants of crooks, thieves, and conmen - those that are not the scions of murderers and sociopaths. Which, by logical extension, means that poverty (our culture’s one unforgivable sin) is the result of laziness and stupidity.

       Thanks to a number of factors (historical, geographical and socio-economic), Indigenous Peoples in Canada tend to be poor - and the poor are easily ignored and even more easily vilified. Speaking as a disabled man, another community too often belittled and forgotten, I know the power of prejudice. My tax ‘contribution’ is negligible. But does that mean I am nothing but a burden on society? Many would label me such. I used to count myself among that ignorant number.

 

It has taken me a lifetime to realize that each and every one of us contributes to society in innumerable, unquantifiable ways. A person’s T4 isn’t an accurate measure of value, neither is the size of their bank account or the luxury of their lifestyle. Thinking otherwise lessens us all.

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To learn more about Indigenous Taxation visit the 'First Nations Tax Commission' website.

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Musical

Interlude

Forest discussion

Forest Discussion

by Rebecca Kramer

 

A day of thick cloud cover breaks for a moment
Revealing the forest transcending in sun
A roomy display of rich elegant grandeur
Where wood antiques stand on a gold Persian rug

 

As if in a castle we wander unguided
And find Rembrandt paintings with orchestral skies
With curious precision we gather our findings
Of secrets alluding to history’s lies

 

Many strong figures are lost through the Ages
Their genius ignored by the people in power
Where healers are banished and witches are burned
And arts are not funded…their cultures can’t flower

 

Each person evolves and matures in their lifetime
Through desolate prosperous pendulum swings
They leave what they can of their knowledge and insight
In paintings and books and a myriad of things

 

But who can interpret the life of another

And not be subjective quite blinded by self?
And who has the right to esteem or belittle
Another’s experience, their sickness or health?

 

And why should we further the falsehood in history
And lie in our own works while coveting praise
The people want mentors and guides who are honest
Stay true to themselves creating new waves

 

The waves of the future are held in the hands
Of all who will integrate parts of themselves
And speak out their honesty attuned to their times
And listen to forest discussions sublime

Infinite value
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Can

of Worms

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Life Has Infinite Value

by Rebecca Kramer

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The Problem with Vertical Structures

 

In an attempt to organize our world, we set up vertical structures in every facet of our society: from top to bottom. These constructs are simple to create by policy makers and simple to enforce by policy keepers. But life is not easy for those in society who find themselves at the bottom of any vertical structure. 

      Imagine this: there is a lake 20-feet deep where we stand up a tall ladder 22 feet high; and on each rung of the ladder sits a person with their profession and a dollar sign attached to them; those who sit on the lowest rung earn no pay at all; those on the next rung earn minimum wage and so on, all the way up. The top 2 feet are above the water - only the privileged who sit there can breathe freely but all others struggle for air. Struggling is suffering: a bi-product of a convenient vertical structure! 

 

Every human being has infinite value yet we attach finite price-tags to all things and people, making one more or less valuable than the next. With money comes privilege; it makes us eligible to acquire stuff, travel and get an education. Money is also a reward system where, hopefully, after being a poor student for many years, we finally get a well-paying job. Without money we can't start a family, we can set few goals to pursue our dreams and, worst case scenario, we can't afford a home and food. Do we deserve to starve for lack of money? This is where the monetary system fails.

     If it were true that love of money is the root of all evil, then shouldn't we wipe out its usage entirely? No! Not yet! Money in itself is a neutral technology; in greedy hands it leaves others destitute while in kind hands it can make the world a fairer place. The same concept applies to math. The proper function of math is to quantify the world. Wrongly used, it ranks us financially - from most to least valuable depending on the amount of our income.

       All our lives are ruled by this abstract money-value structure; it dictates what we can and cannot do. To achieve freedom from its tyranny, we need to see ourselves as beings of infinite value. Regardless of how others dismiss us if they see a low price tag attached to our name, we need to realize and celebrate the fact that, by right of birth, we have infinite value. We are priceless.

I believe all our suffering stems from vertical structures with money simply locking them into place. When one person is placed above another, all kinds of social parasites occur such as: sexism - the ranking by gender (he/she/they); racism - the ranking by race (white/above all other races); sectism - the ranking by religion (Christianity/above all other religions); and classism - the ranking by monetary value (have/have-nots) . 

     All of us are born with certain skill sets beneficial to society. Our Creator intended horizontal equality, while we rank occupations in a vertical structure. No one should feel ashamed of their inherent talent or profession: custodians, daycare workers or artists! But we do feel diminished because others compare us, and we compare ourselves to the professions at the top of the heap, such as scientists, doctors, lawyers and business leaders. Their pay is high whilst the artist’s pay barely exists! And both work just as hard! This is neither fair nor just. Let’s consider a flower garden for a moment. Wisdom lies gently therein.

 

The Flower Garden

I like to think of the mosaic of occupations in our society as different flowers in a garden. It is excusable to want to rid the garden of certain weeds, but less so to remove species of flowers simply because they don't appear as spectacular. Many flowers are seasonal; surely we shouldn’t weed them before their time. I trust in a Creator that made all flowers equal in partnership in a garden, even the wildflowers which are labeled weeds. Some flowers are visually more attractive than others and, even in a patch of beautiful flowers, there is always one which outshines all others. Why would a Creator do this?

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     Our Creator obviously loves biodiversity. There is an inherent pleasure to the eye regarding focus and contrast and composition (all the considerations that excite an artist) besides the natural benefits of diversity. Even though flowers like the rose raise the visual quality of a flower garden, it is just another flower, as is the much maligned dandelion. All flowers deserve light, air, water and soil, simply because they exist. In our Creator’s eyes, every flower has intrinsic value and adds to diversity without the imposition of vertical structures. Humans generally emphasize the importance of visual and useful differences and neglect to consider the basic value of all life. Therefore our beautiful rose decides for our ugly dandelion who gets to live and thrive and who gets uprooted and dies.

 

I’m sure our obsession with vertical structures confounds our Creator and breaks their heart. This is not what was intended for us to practice. Let’s look at another culture to see if we can overcome our obsession with mangling flowers through the revival of some ancient ideas. 

Comparing the Caste System in India to the Class System in Canada

(in descending order)

 

India’s Caste System: Artists - Military - Trades - Untouchables

Canada’s Class System: Health - Business - Services - Artist

 

A historical trip can be taken into any nation: first we explore how old that nation is and then we study its vertical structures. The class system in any country tends to dictate which occupations will earn higher wages than other occupations. The vertical ordering of this class list is unique from one country to the next and it is a predictor of positive or negative outcomes within that nation; change the list . . . change the nation. But if the bottom class in any country earns barely anything at all, the people within it will starve slowly, as do many artists in Canada; therefore we end up with the term 'starving artist'. Here an artist works often for free and cannot fill his basic needs  so they frequently give up on their calling or risk withering away. What a shame. East Indian society employs a structure that might bring hope to this waste of artistic talent. Comparing the top and bottom occupations in both countries, I have whittled these down to just four for the sake of simplicity.

 

East India has been evolving for 5,000 years. Its castes are impenetrable. The caste you are born into is the one you die in. This fact may trigger in us a feeling of injustice for what is being done to the 4th rank of the Untouchables but, taking a closer look, we see that the Artist has been ranking at the top for 5,000 years; no wonder their land is filled with such beauty.

      In India, out of all the Art forms, music takes the lead with drummers reigning supreme. What do we do with our drummers? We tuck them at the back of the stage. The Indian drummer sets the stage for maintaining the morale of their society; their job carries the highest of responsibilities. Whether that drummer is on stage playing at a concert or casually walking down the street, they are tapping out the beat for society by either bringing it to a celebratory pitch or settling it into a calm simmer. India has successfully set the drummer on top for thousands of years.

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Now compare our 150 year-old settler culture with 5,000 year-old India. Canada presses the Arts further and further to the fringes of society. The government excuses its financial austerity in the Arts sector with “Money is too tight”. I say this: “The fiscal crisis in Canada will only get worse the more the Arts are neglected!” Canadian children are no longer taking regular classes in music, arts or dance in schools. The educational system has been known to cover up the windows in classrooms to keep kids from getting distracted by the world outside and reduced recess, cutting down on much needed fresh air and exercise. Welcome to Canada. We lock our children in institutions to learn how to become upstanding citizens?What kind of a generation will hatch out of this backwards treatment of our young? We need to learn strategies from other nations older than ours such as India. 

The Arts as Prevention

 

With few outlets of creative expression, violence, depression and suicide are often the consequence. Strange that our country will fund all kinds of establishments after trauma has already occurred in people’s lives, mostly to traumatize them further by locking them up in jails and psych wards. The government pays the wages for myriads of respectable positions in these places.

    It does not have the foresight to envision or value that a child learning to play a musical instrument becomes an emotionally self-sustaining adult! By learning to play an instrument they gain a skill set, create beauty and find a way to safely express their feelings. Then, no matter what crisis they may find themselves in during their life, they will not only survive but also thrive!

 

The Arts are therapeutic and preventative! Canada needs to sink money into its creative sector, not into monitoring an artless society where every hell imaginable is thriving! We shake our heads and lift our noses at the Indian treatment of their Untouchables. I wonder what people in India think of us as Canadians: at how we treat our own artists? Our young country is experiencing a dark time, but it doesn’t have to stay that way if we emulate what works for other cultures.

     If we were to compliment both systems - the East Indian caste system and the Canadian class system - we could say that India’s vertical structure of placing the artist on top results in a very beautiful country after 5,000 years of practice. And Canada’s vertical structure of placing health on top, after only 150 years, results in a country encouraging wellbeing and longevity. Imagine Canada with both the Arts and Health on top as complimentary occupations! We would achieve a beautiful, healthy country all in just one generation.

 

As good as this suggestion might be, there is still a fundamental problem with caste and class in both countries: they are still operating vertically. And, remember, vertical structures bring hell to the people on the bottom rung. The politics of both countries differ like this: India freezes its professions while in Canada we are permitted to go up and down the class system.

      But let me say this: The promise of freedom of movement in a democracy is deceiving due to the rigidity of our class system, which fixes a pay-scale to professions. This inflexible money clamp brings us all kinds of mental/emotional inner conflicts. We tend to feel disillusioned because all of our efforts to rise up the ladder can amount to next to nothing at the expense of everything. A very conflicted nation results when a country combines the freedom of democracy with the trapping of class. The feeling could be expressed in this way: ‘I’m free, mentally, in a democracy, but I’m trapped, physically, in my class, So, am I really all that free?’

Beach Party Politics

A classless democracy is a wonderful concept, but could it be achieved? And, if so, then by what means and how long would it take to be put into place? The thought intrigues me. Democracy is already in place, let’s keep the good and get rid of the bad: the class system.

To do this, first we must picture in our mind’s eye a fundamental outer form change. We still have the lake where the stepladder stands vertically 22 feet high. Now replace that ladder with 22 beach balls floating gently on top of the water in a flexible community together. Is any one of them on a ladder 9-feet under the water, miserably drowning? No! It is merrily bobbing amongst the others, spinning wildly from crest to trough of lazy waves. The fundamental form in this picture is horizontal! Haul that ladder out of the lake, for God’s sake, so that no one will ever be tempted to fire up vertical structures again. Now relax and join the party!  

Beach Party Politics is not simply a horizontal structure; it is more of a horizontal collaboration, which makes away with the word ‘structure’ completely. Collaboration is a big promoter of friendship, whereas ‘structure’ promotes intimidation and control. Friends are equal. We do not keep a friend for long if they dominate us or vise versa. Let’s befriend one another like people do at a summer party tossing beach balls around.

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        Let’s imagine each of us has a beach ball representing our specific occupation and we write each profession in permanent marker across each ball. Then we let them float side-by-side. Suddenly, we see all of our professions bobbing horizontally together and we realize that class is passé. We begin to catch on to the wisdom of our Creator as to how important it is to use all of the diversity of our human occupations: in collaboration. It is fundamentally important that we give one another a positive spin on what we offer everyone from our own work. If we exist in this time, we serve a purpose; our skill-set will be required by all.

 

In my profession as an artist with a creative vision, I see the potential of every last Canadian achieving this fundamental, active truth I call thus: YOU SEE IT? YOU SOLVE IT!

      “When you see an answer where few others see one, you know that you have been chosen to solve that problem. Therefore take courage and learn leadership skills to gain confidence. And when an opportunity presents itself, lead with all your resources. Until then learn humbly from others who have preceded you, or from those who are already there!”

 

If we cannot physically remove our class system any time soon, we can crush it in our minds so that we don’t suffer from shame for living in the bottom class. Let’s view each other as necessary flowers in the garden of our Canadian nation; we are all priceless and therefore we are all deserving of validation. Also contemplate the mental picture of the beach balls on the lake. This collaboration image is free from vertical structures and brimming with a political theory for a friendlier, kinder society. We all have valid occupations, which are all needed for the survival of our nation. And lastly, ponder this: no nation can thrive or even survive without artists. India has proven that the longevity of a nation is based on the relevance of the Arts. Consider all of this carefully and please pass it on from one Canadian to another.

bread for the sheep
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Short

Fiction

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Bread for the Sheep

by John Jantunen

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Above all else, Mrs. Haas prided herself on being thrifty. Her husband Gunther had once thought it amusing the way she would spend Saturday mornings at rummage sales and come home holding a new doll or a rolltop desk.

       When they were first married, there had been lots of space. They'd bought an old farmhouse with Gunther's inheritance and the little money Ingrid had received from her divorce. It was in the European style with the stable attached to the house and that had pleased her. One section of the stable Gunther claimed. He was a mechanic and had agreed to the house, although it was far too large for two people, because it meant he could work indoors during the winter. That left plenty of room for her. Never one to shy away from hard work, she spent every weekend for several months cleaning out the old hay and manure and putting up shelves. Finally, Mrs. Haas was satisfied that she could do no more and she announced to her husband, with a firm air of ceremony,  “Now I can begin.”

   

Gunther did not know what she meant but then, it should be said, that he’d had very little experience with women before he married Ingrid. He was thirty-five and had lived with his mother. His father had died just after Gunther had finished high school and left almost nothing except the house and five acres of property. Gunther, as the youngest son, took on the responsibility of providing for his mother. She had few needs and let it be known that she was far better off  than when her husband was alive. 

       “Never listened to a damn word I said,” she remarked to him one night at dinner, a week after the funeral. “I told him to listen to the doctor, didn’t I? How many times did I say to him, Doctor says you can’t be drinking and smoking no more and you can’t be eating red meat five times a week. How many times?” Gunther kept quiet but he was thinking, It’s all right mom, it’s not your fault. 

      He knew his parents' marriage had been a fairly happy one and that she blamed herself for his father’s death. He wanted to reach out to her, to hold her hand and offer comfort, but he was awkward in these things so the matter hung suspended between them like an unfinished sentence. After a year, she'd bought a dozen sheep, saying that she had always wanted sheep but “He thought it was too much of a bother.” That was the last time she mentioned her late husband and Gunther was content to believe that she had finally resolved what was troubling her. 

 

In the years that followed, his mother and her sheep had become a minor spectacle in the community. Their property was not capable of supporting a dozen sheep and she arranged with a number of friends to let her use their land during the summer months in exchange for a cut of the meat.

The closest of these friends was four kilometers away and the farthest was ten. Gunther’s concern that it would be far too dangerous for her to be shuttling her sheep such a distance was met with a look of indignation and the pronouncement that, “Short of chaining me to the stove, I don’t see how you’re going to stop me anyway”. From the onset, she donned a poncho someone had given her as a memento from Mexico and carved a piece of driftwood into a walking stick so as to look the part of a shepherd.             The road they lived on was not a busy one, though it was paved and was classified as a highway. It had a wide gravel shoulder and a ditch with plenty of grass in it for the sheep to graze along the way. On her first excursion, Gunther trailed behind her in his pick-up truck until she threatened to bash his brains in with her walking stick. So he returned home and was not surprised that the phone was already ringing when he opened the door.

       He arrived at the scene five minutes later. Two police cars and an ambulance with flashing lights had collected a group of onlookers while a tow truck pulled a car out of the ditch. He was relieved that he saw his mother, unharmed, amongst her sheep, trying to calm them down, and approached an officer taking a statement from a man with a bandage on his forehead.  

        “She’s crazy, you know that?” the man with the bandage said when Gunther explained who he was. Gunther nodded, happy that no one had been seriously injured and that this would spell the end of his mother and her sheepherding. 

        But in the lawsuit that followed the man was found entirely at fault. He'd been speeding. When he saw the sheep, none of which were within five feet of the asphalt, he panicked and switched to the far lane, not noticing that a car was coming from the other direction. His mother’s lawyer cited a bylaw from 1947 that not only allowed for the transportation of farm animals along municipal highways but placed the onus on the owners of motor vehicles to remain alert when driving on said roadways. Gunther’s mother had stood up in court, shooing off her lawyer’s attempt to keep her quiet, and had exclaimed, “My sheep got to graze, don’t they!" For her it was this appeal to common sense that had won the day.   

 

During the remaining fifteen years of her life, she'd herded her sheep without further incident. Her notoriety increased, climaxing in an inclusion in a book of local attractions which was still selling a few copies every year, mostly to tourists.

        After she died, Gunther noted not without a small measure of pride that, in the same edition of the paper as her obituary, there was an article reporting that the bylaw from 1947 had been amended. The transportation of farm animals on municipal highways was now prohibited without prior authorization and strict supervision.

         He had thought, It is true what they say, life works in circles.

A new circle started for him when he'd met Ingrid. She was working part-time in the office at the auto wrecker where he spent many long afternoons salvaging parts. He had a regular job at a garage in town but they only called him when they were busy. Most of his money came from buying old cars and giving them one last leg to stand on. He sold them cheap to local kids and housewives with extra money to spare.

       Ingrid was twelve years older than him. She was not used to working outside the home and treated it like an adventure. She was also recently separated. Her marriage had lasted just long enough for her two kids to move as far away from their parents as they could, then collapsed. Her husband took early retirement and fled to Florida. Ingrid said he was waiting for her to come back to him but that she had no intention whatsoever of doing that. He was a drunk and, besides, he was a weak man.  She was sick of weak men.   

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        Ingrid would openly flirt with Gunther. She'd talk about her ex and infer that all of the qualities he had lacked were present in Gunther. She would touch his arm and press lightly on his biceps and sigh. Her fingers would linger, softly imprinted on his skin. In those moments, Gunther knew that Ingrid was looking at him and expected him to return the gesture. One time he did and when he met her gaze she asked him out to dinner.

 

As with almost everything that followed, the farmhouse was Ingrid’s idea. Gunther was nervous about putting his mother’s property up for sale. His brother, who was four years older than him and had two children, knew this and invited him out onto his porch one evening while Ingrid and his wife played cribbage in the kitchen. They drank dark German beer out of half-liter bottles and talked about how the night sky seemed so bright these days.

         “The city’s getting closer,” Jeremy said.

         “Maybe it’s a good thing,” Gunther replied. Jeremy offered him a cigarette and Gunther declined. 

         “She’s got you on a string.”

         Gunther took his pouch of tobacco from his breast pocket and packed his pipe.

         “Maybe it’s a good thing,” Jeremy said when he extended a match to his brother.

         They sat and smoked in silence for a spell.

         “Talked to Jane yesterday.”

         “She’s doing fine, I expect.”

         “Real fine but mostly we talked about you.”

         “That so. I’m doing fine too, I expect.”

        “We want you to sell the house. Me and Jane don’t need the money, so whatever you get is yours. We figure that you earned it. Mother was none-too-easy to get along with those last few years.”

         “She was all right.”

         “We think it’s what she would have wanted.”

Ingrid was relieved to hear the news and contacted a real estate agent the very next day. They arranged their wedding around the sale of the house and moved onto the farm the day they got back from their honeymoon in Cuba.

        “I don’t see why we need to have any sheep,” Ingrid said, after he'd paid the man who had brought the sheep in his ten-ton truck.

         “We got a farm, might as well use it,” Gunther replied matter-of-factly.

         “But do we need twelve of them?”

        Gunther compromised and sold four of the sheep and slaughtered two. He gave half of the meat to Jeremy and kept the rest in his mother’s large freezer, now sitting next to the new washer and dryer Ingrid had purchased through a mail-order catalogue. Tanning the two hides cost three hundred dollars and Ingrid initially balked at the expense. She hated to see them go to waste, though, so she agreed that, just this once, it would be okay. One she used as a bed for the Great Dane she’d seen advertised in the Gazette (“Moving:  Friendly Dog needs home. Immediately. Free.") and the other she put on the couch in the living room. A week after she made her fateful pronouncement, “Now I can begin”, the hide on the couch was replaced by a patchwork quilt she'd found at a church bazaar and was the first item that found its way to the shelves in Ingrid’s storage space. 

 

From then on, Ingrid and Gunther’s marriage was a success based on the solid principle that Ingrid would try to ignore the sheep if Gunther didn’t complain about her being 'thrifty'. They did have their bumps, but none that the above formula couldn’t smooth over. The worst of these bumps arose three years in and, ever after, was referred to as the end of their 'adjustment period'.

      Ingrid had taken a job at the bank in town to earn extra money. Gunther, now a partner in the garage following the owner’s retirement, thought it unnecessary but, as it was only three days a week and she enjoyed the break in routine, he could find no reason to argue against it. One Saturday shortly afterwards, as Gunther tinkered with an old BMW motorcycle, Ingrid appeared at the door. She asked him if she could keep a set of four mahogany chairs in the corner of his work area. 

         “Barely enough room to breath in here as it is,” he replied.  “I thought you had plenty of space.”

         “I thought so too,” she answered, then added, “You can see for yourself.”

        Gunther rubbed his dirt and grease stained hands on his coveralls and followed Ingrid down the hallway to her storage room. It was twice the size of Gunther’s workspace but so packed full of furniture and boxes, and god knew what else, that he could do no more than stand in the doorway, gaping in amazement.

         “What about in the house?” he’d finally asked.

         “You know the house is full.”

“I know no such thing,” he said and proceeded to conduct an ad hoc inspection of the three main floors and attic. What he found was almost beyond his comprehension. Almost, because every item, every trinket, every wall hanging, bureau, chesterfield and table cluttered about the rooms was vaguely familiar. The larger items he’d helped carry up the stairs while the smaller, each in turn, had been presented to him over the past three years along with the common refrain, “I know just where to put this.”   

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       How many times had he heard that? he wondered. Thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred times. More? How could it be more, we haven’t lived here that long. His mind was awash with the memory of fleeting glances cast at Ingrid proudly holding a new acquisition. He’d nodded and said fine.

        “It was a steal at three dollars,” she’d say or “When it’s refurbished it’ll net ten times what I paid for it.” Fine, fine. “You don’t see quality like this anymore.” Fine. “They were just going to throw it out.” And again fine. Always fine. 

 

Gunther came back down the stairs aghast. Five porcelain dolls sat on a shelf beside a guitar with only two strings. He reached over and took a Spanish-looking drummer boy in his hand and walked to the kitchen as if this was all the evidence he needed. He set the doll on the counter.

     “So, can I keep the chairs in your workroom or not?” Ingrid asked, before he could collect his thoughts.

         “Like hell,” he retorted, more gruffly than intended. “Listen, Ingrid, this has got to stop.”

         “What has to stop?”

         Gunther picked up the drummer boy and shook it hard enough that its neck cracked. 

         “This.”

         Alarmed, Ingrid snatched the toy from him and held it tenderly out of harm's way.

        “Being thrifty doesn’t mean you have to buy everything just 'cause it’s cheap,” he explained, trying to soften his voice.

        Ingrid shot him a look so severe that it seemed rehearsed.

       “Someday this,” she held up the doll ostensibly, “this is going to be our retirement. It’s an antique, do you understand that? What am I talking about, of course you don’t understand. How could you? The way you grew up. You have to trust me, Gunther. We don’t have any kids to look after us. Did you ever think of that? We have to look out for ourselves. Twenty years from now we could be rich. Off one piece as simple as this doll. It’s not an exact science. You need to invest money to make money, Gunther. One day, you’ll see.”  She paused long enough to catch her breath and to make sure he still was listening, then spat out: “We sure as hell aren’t going to get rich off your sheep.” 

The sound of the door slamming behind him woke him to the realization that he’d just walked out on his wife. His keys were in his hand, he’d snatched them from the hook beside the coat rack only seconds ago, so he walked towards his car parked in the driveway.

        How dare she, he thought. “How dare she!" When his thought found words, they were tinged with anger and had a welcome audience in the empty car. Trying to enforce the mood, he repeated, “How dare she", but oddly it rang empty the second time. He thought of his mother and how she had been after his father died. By the time he'd reached Jeremy’s yard and found him fixing the axle on his wheelbarrow, he already had a pretty good idea what his brother would say.

       “You got to look at it from her perspective,” he said, popping the cap on a beer and handing the bottle to Gunther. “She’s a woman, that’s the first thing you got to remember. And she had a whole other life before you, too. A husband, kids, waiting on their every need, she’s just letting loose a little.” 

          Jeremy eyed Gunther, then got to the part he was expecting. “How’s your bedroom life?” 

         “Good.”

         “What’s good.  What are you comparing ‘good’ to?”

         “She tells me it’s good.  Better than with her ex.”

         “Does she tell you that?

         “Uh-huh.”

         “That’s a bad sign.  No doubt about it, brother, that’s not good.”

         “It isn’t?”

        “No, and let me tell you why. Women are like men in some ways and, some ways, they’re not. One of the ways maybe they’re a little different is that women, and I’m only speaking from my own experience here, women usually got a pretty clear idea of what they want. When they don’t get what they want, they tend to compensate.”

         “They compensate?”

         “That’s right.”

         “And how do you figure out what they want?”

         “That's the trick 'cause they, sure as hell, aren’t going to tell you. I will say this: If, after three years, you take a real good look at her and you don’t already know what she wants, then it’s a good bet you ain’t never going to know.” 

       Gunther nodded, considering solemnly what Jeremy had said, then thanked him for the beer and drove back home. Ingrid was upstairs sitting on their bed. She had been crying, so her eyes were puffy and red. She didn’t look up at him nor make any hint that she knew he was there. The confidence with which she had attacked him earlier was gone and she looked defeated. Gunther stood inside the bedroom door but was too nervous to more than glance in her direction. Shaking off the worry that she would throw him another scalding glare, he sat down beside her. He reached his hand over and tenderly set it on her knee. Immediately she placed her hand on top of his and they sat there frozen like that for close to an hour. 

The following Saturday, he put Jeremy’s advice to the test. At 9 o’clock in the morning, Ingrid poked her head into his work area to say her goodbyes. Gunther pushed himself out from under a Minivan and lay on the dolly, looking up at her long enough to make her feel uncomfortable. 

        "What?” Ingrid asked, her face tightening, ready to spring to the offensive.

        “Give me a minute,” Gunther replied, pulling himself to his feet, “I’ll come with you.”

They took in three yard sales before noon and ate lunch at a truck stop diner on the way to Port Sydney, where there was an antique shop Ingrid hadn’t been to for nearly a year. As of yet, the trunk of their car was empty. Gunther had seen a number of items he’d thought might interest her but every one he pointed out, she dismissed with a cursory glance. She expressed her dissatisfaction with the morning’s selection while she finished her coffee and Gunther packed his pipe.

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       “I was really expecting to see something grand from that old man’s estate. Lived sixty years in the same house and didn’t have a thing to show for it. Oh well, likely his kids took everything of real value.”

       Gunther reminded her that there'd been an oak coffee table with ornate trim that looked good, but she waved her hand dismissively and said that it was a cheap rip off of a style popular in the sixties. Likewise in Port Sydney nothing caught her eye, though she did have a lengthy talk with the owner of the store who told her to return in three months. They bought a piece of cake at the bakery next door and sat on a bench overlooking the Lake Of Bays. Both agreed that it would be nice to rent a boat for the weekend and tour the islands.

 

In the ensuing months, a pattern of sorts developed. Gunther didn’t always accompany Ingrid on her day trips, but he always considered the matter thoroughly. Sometimes, she mentioned that she was meeting a friend and that made it easy. Other days, his inner ear assured him that she wanted time to herself. Perhaps once every three weeks, he sidelined whatever project he was working on and tagged along. He offered limited advice and listened carefully when she explained the hidden intricacies of buying and selling 'worldly treasures'. Rarely did Ingrid purchase anything, whether he was there or not. She ascribed this to a refinement in her tastes and Gunther said nothing to counter that. 

        At home, he noticed a change, albeit slight, as well. They took the dog for longer walks and played cribbage or backgammon and listened to the CBC more often than they watched TV. On Sundays, Ingrid often dragged a piece of furniture out of her storage room and sat on a stool sanding it or replacing corroded screws beside whatever vehicle Gunther had brought home that weekend. She even tried to take an active interest in engine repair but gave up when it took her twenty-five minutes to clean her hands after handing him a wrench.      

That left only the sheep. Come fall, invariably, Ingrid scrutinized the butcher’s bill and commented that it hardly seemed worth the effort. Tanning the hides was no longer an option. The price had gone up to 175 dollars apiece. Ingrid had personally seen sheep skin rugs with hardly a stain selling for less than fifty and she called it a crime that anyone should have to pay more. On top of that, Ingrid abruptly declared that she couldn’t stand the smell of mutton cooking much less the taste and, while she still prepared it for Gunther, she refused to eat it herself. 

      Gunther resigned himself to Ingrid’s disdain for all things sheep so, in June of their fifth year of marriage, he was caught quite off guard when she picked him up from work and magnanimously declared, “I’ve finally found a use for those sheep of yours.” She handed him a loaf of sourdough bread wrapped in a brown paper bag and, on the drive home, explained what had happened.

     

During her lunch break at the bank, she sometimes dropped by the Bear Claw Bakery and bought a muffin or a pastry to accompany her sandwich. It was raining that afternoon and she ate her lunch at one of the tables. The owner’s wife, a rather bland and simple woman whom she had managed to avoid until then, struck up a conversation with her. While they talked, the baker’s wife cut thick pieces of bread from a loaf, buttered it generously and dipped it in her coffee before devouring it in huge bites.

       “Quite a sight to see,” Ingrid assured Gunther. “She must have eaten a whole loaf while I sat there, and a couple of dinner rolls on the side.”

        The baker’s wife, Molly, excused her gluttonous appetite and blamed it on her unwillingness to see perfectly good loaf of bread go to waste. It was the day-old and her husband refused to sell it. Either she ate it or it went into the garbage. 

        “You sure you wouldn’t like a slice?” Molly asked her. “I’ve got some jam under the counter.” 

      Ingrid declined but a thought was forming in the back of her mind. She swore to Gunther that she was just about to make the first of  the few tactful observations which would lead her, like victory in chess, to the fruit of this thought when Molly, unwittingly, gave her a short cut.

       “I remember, when I was a child, my parents had goats,” she said. “Goats’d eat anything. We’d make a game of it and try to find something they wouldn’t eat, you know, as kids are want to do. We fed them orange rinds and banana peels and egg shells and even knots of rope. They ate them all.” 

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       Molly’s eyes misted over with nostalgia and Ingrid had to keep herself from playing her cards too soon. After a moment Molly continued.

       “I tried to convince my husband Luther to let me get some goats but he said it’d be too much of a bother. What do we need goats for, he asked. To eat the leftover bread of course, I said. He just shook his head like he always does.” Then in hushed tones because Luther was in the back, mixing up a batch of dough, she whispered, “Some days, I swear that’s about all he does. Shakes his head. Everything’s just an excuse for him to shake his head. Oh well, I say, you got to put up with the bad for the good. Still, I hate to see all that bread go to waste.”

        “Yes, it is a shame.”      

Ingrid smiled, her contempt for this silly woman growing by the second, but she held her form as Molly lathered up a crust with butter and downed it in two bites.

        “We have sheep,” Ingrid remarked as Molly chewed.

        “Sheep.  Really?  Sheep are like goats, aren’t they?”

        “I suppose they are.”

        “Listen, that gives me an idea.”

 

Ingrid squeezed the bread sitting in her lap, savouring the memory, and offered it up to Gunther driving. He likewise squeezed it and had to admit that it felt quite fresh.

        “And she says she’ll give us a loaf like this every day.  Just drop by at noon.”

      “I’m sure the sheep will appreciate it,” Gunther said, as he turned onto the gravel road that led to their house.

     “It’s not for the sheep,” Ingrid retorted, a harshness seeping into her tone, “I do wish you’d pay attention. You make me think I’m talking to a wall sometimes. I mean really, Gunther. Really.”

       The final 'Really' stuck with Gunther for the remainder of the evening. He tried to shake it off, but it was lodged like a husk of corn between his teeth. At dinner, Ingrid wiped her plate clean of chicken grease and then stood over the broiling pan, soaking the remaining fat into her bread. She took endless delight in comparing the texture and the flavour, “tangy with a hint of caraway”, to the bread she usually bought at the supermarket. 

        “And it’s free. An endless supply. Free!"

       Gunther nodded, grudgingly, without comment and excused himself. In the backyard, he packed his pipe and lit it, then walked to the shed. He crumbled the piece of sourdough he’d smuggled in his pocket and threw chunks over the gate into the mix of straw and wood chips that covered the floor of the pen. After half an hour and two more pipefuls, he switched off the light and returned to the house, smug in the knowledge that the sheep had no interest in the bread whatsoever. 

      It means something, he thought firmly while double locking the backdoor. Its inherent meaning evaded him though and, by the time he’d curled up in bed, he’d forgotten that he was mad at her. She stroked the hair on his knuckles with the tips of her fingers, her way of calling to him, and he turned to greet her warm kisses with a willingness that pleased them both.

 

“The nerve of that man,” Ingrid fumed. 

        Gunther scraped the remains of her almost untouched dinner into an old ice cream container and set the plate in the dishwasher. He had heard the story three times already, once in the car and twice at dinner, and knew that she was about to repeat it. He also knew that there was nothing he could do to stop her and that his after-dinner smoke would have to wait. He took a beer from the fridge and sat across from his wife at the table.

       “It’s bad enough I have to put up with the endless prattle of that dolt he has for a wife but to listen to his accusations, that’s too much.”

      Ingrid’s lunchtime visits to the Bear Claw Bakery were now entering their third month. Almost every day, Gunther was subjected to tales of Molly’s foolishness but this was the first time her husband Luther was included in Ingrid’s contempt.     

“It was her idea in the first place and he knows that. And in front of customers, too. He couldn’t wait, he just had to have an audience to turn and stare and to laugh along with. He tried to make it sound like a joke but, I could tell, he wasn’t joking. Bad enough if it was a joke, but to make it an accusation? The nerve of that man!”

        Ingrid was kneading the tablecloth furiously, picking at a loose thread that showed through a crack in the plastic. Gunther sipped his beer and listened obligingly until her anger had run its course. With a final huff, she retired upstairs to have a hot bath and read a mystery novel as she often did to calm herself. 

        The solution, in his opinion, was an easy one. 

      “You’ll just have to stop going there,” he'd advised, when her initial rage had broken long enough for him to speak.

        “Are you kidding? Then he’d know we're eating the bread.”

        “He already knows, you said so yourself.”

        “He only thinks he knows.” 

        No further advice occurred to him, so he kept quiet for the remainder of the evening.

 

The next day at the bakery, Molly apologized profusely to Ingrid for her husband’s behaviour. She accepted and came home with a twelve-grain loaf, Gunther’s favourite. She avowed that she would waste no more of her time holding a grudge against “that man” and it seemed as if everything was settled. 

     If I’ve learned anything about my wife, he'd muse later that evening as he pitched hay into the sheep’s pen, then I bet in a week or two she’ll find an excuse to stop going to the bakery. Maybe at first, she’ll cut her trips to once or twice a week, but soon we’ll be back to the thin supermarket bread.   

     Stowing the pitch fork on two bent and rusty nails inside the barn, he walked back to the house, impatient for a sign that his prediction would have come true. He removed his red-and-black checkered work jacket and scratched at a rough dry spot on his forearm. His fingers, absentmindedly, followed the itch to his shoulder. As he kicked off his rubber boots, still scratching, the porch light came on and Ingrid opened the door carrying a bag of garbage.

        “My god!” she exclaimed aghast, leading him into the kitchen to get a better look at the blotches of red that ran along both of his arms and circled his neck.

       Gunther slumped heavily into a chair at the table. His skin felt like it was trying to peel itself away from his body, but the discomfort was eclipsed by a light-headedness. He stared vacantly at a salt-and- pepper shaker shaped like a cow that was sitting on the shelf in front of him. 

       I don’t remember seeing that before, he thought, as a cool breeze prickled at the hair on his back and a voice of alarm rang in his ears. He turned to see Ingrid prying his shirt loose. The stale odour of her perfume washed over him with a pungent immediacy and he knew, he was going to throw up.

 

“Your husband will be fine,” a nurse assured Ingrid, as she led her from the waiting room to the emergency ward where Gunther was propped up, sedated, on a bed. “Allergic reactions can be very dangerous, so it’s lucky you got him here as quick as you did.”         

 The nurse pulled open the curtain and stepped out of the way. An IV tube ran into his arm and the stark fluorescent lights made his skin look vaguely like fish scales.

      "We’re going to keep him overnight for observation. An orderly will be down shortly to take him upstairs. You can stay with him if you like.”

       The room Gunther was in had an extra bed, so Ingrid lay down on it and tried to sleep. Not having the resolve to manage more than a few yawns, she stared out through the window overlooking the hospital parking lot. The faint outlines of moths waging battle with the streetlights drew her attention and she puzzled over their determination. When her eyes began to ache from the strain of following so many specks, she distracted herself by trying to locate her car amongst the dozen or so scattered around the lot. 

      The bowl she'd propped under Gunther’s chin for the mad rush to the hospital was still sitting on the hood. It had been half-full by the time she'd pulled into the emergency entrance and run frantically to the admissions booth inside. Two orderlies had followed her back out and lifted Walter into a wheelchair, then told her that she would have to move her car as soon as she talked to one of the nurses. The nurse, a small, middle-aged lady with a braid of hair nearly touching the floor, stopped her in the hallway outside of the emergency room and asked her, if Gunther had any allergies to medications? No. Was he taking any medications? No. Did he have any allergies to food? No. Had he eaten anything out of the ordinary lately? Not that I know of. The nurse thanked her and asked her to fill out a form in the waiting room.

        “My car!” Ingrid almost shouted. “They told me I have to move my car.”

       The nurse smiled and said the forms could wait for a few minute. Ingrid set them on a chair and stepped back outside. 

The inside of the car stank like bile and she rolled down the windows as she drove to the guest parking lot. She dumped the bowl of reddish-brown vomit in the grass, then set it on the hood and walked back to the hospital to get a wet rag. The nurse with the long braid was waiting for her and informed her that Gunther had said, he was allergic to walnuts.          

        “Yes, that’s right,” Ingrid replied, “I’d forgotten.”

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      It was an honest mistake, she thought defensively as she sat down to fill out the forms. An honest mistake. The pen quivered in her hand and she had to take a deep breath before she was steady enough to fill in the remaining blanks on the papers in her lap.

 

Now, as she lay deliberating as to whether she should go and close the windows in the car and wash out the bowl, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had betrayed her husband. She had lied, there were no two ways about it. She hadn’t forgotten. In fact, it had been the only thing on her mind from the time she'd seen the hives on his back and realized that he needed immediate medical attention.  

    Poor Gunther, she whispered, as the rasp of his strained snores prodded her own drowse and ushered her into a fretful sleep.

In the morning, Ingrid borrowed a cloth from a man mopping the hallway and set about cleaning the car for the return home. Gunther was feeling much better when he awoke at eight. She had smeared some pink lotion over his blistered skin, then left him to his breakfast. He wasn’t going to be released until noon and, after finishing with the car, Ingrid decided that she would go for a walk. It was Saturday and there was a garage sale not more than two blocks away. 

     She dropped the soiled rag by a closet as the Janitor had instructed, then walked to the public bathroom to wash her hands.  At the door, she heard her name called out and turned to see Molly waving at her, smiling and cheerful as always. Behind her stood Luther. He touched Molly’s arm and said something which Ingrid couldn’t hear, then moved to the elevator a few meters away. 

        “Tell him, I’ll be right up,” Molly called after her husband, then stepped over to Ingrid.

        They said their hellos and Ingrid accompanied Molly to the drink dispenser to get a coffee. 

      “We’re visiting Luther’s uncle,” Molly explained, as her double-cream, double-sugar blend drained into a cup. “He’s in critical care. He had a stroke three weeks ago and we don’t know if he’s going to make it. Funny, how Luther was so adamant that we see him today, though. To be honest, I didn’t think he cared too much for Charlie.” Bending, Molly took her cup from the dispenser and blew at the steaming surface, cooling it. 

        “You say, your Gunther’s here. Nothing serious, I hope.”

        Ingrid described his condition.

     “Walnuts. Yes, I believe you mentioned that Gunther was allergic to walnuts. Of course, with my Luther it’s chocolate. Blows up like a balloon. I have to be on constant guard, but then you know how that is.”  

      Ingrid agreed she did and, together, they rode up to the second floor in the elevator. The Critical Care ward was on the opposite wing from Gunther’s room and Molly went off in search for Luther’s uncle. Ingrid remembered her plans for a walk and consulted her watch. Seeing that it was only 9:30 and that she had plenty of time, she checked back in on her husband.

        

“Damnedest thing just happened,” Gunther said, while Ingrid applied some more lotion to his back. “Not more than two minutes ago, I was sitting in my bed and a man walked in. He asked me if my name was Gunther Haas. I said yes and he stood there for what must have been twenty seconds, just shaking his head. I asked him if there was something I could help him with and you know what he said?” Ingrid admitted that she didn’t.

       “He said, ‘Best investment I ever made.’ What do you think he meant by that?” 

Rat race
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Rat Race

Director: Jerry Zucker 

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Screen Shots

with Tanja

2001, PG-13, 1h 52min, USA, Adventure-Comedy

 

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr.,

John Cleese, Kathy Bates, John Lovitz, Seth Green, Amy Smart,

Wayne Knight, Lanai Chapman, Breckin Meyer, Kathy Najimy

And now for something completely different . . .

        In case this little gem has been flying under your radar and you're in need of a good laugh tonight, Zucker's slapstick comedy, studded with some of the trade's funniest goofballs, might be exactly what the doctor ordered. And yes, I'm completely aware that this is pretty much an antithesis to the Art House films I've brought to your attention thus far but, after a few weeks of being inundated with news of climate disasters and the coming apocalypse, I needed a seriously humorous recharge.

      Besides, it's summer, a time generally reserved for mindless entertainment with the heat reducing our mental abilities to barely a quiver, so let's just roll with tradition since this flick fits the bill perfectly.

As you might have guessed, Rat Race is a bit of a remake. Some call it a loving tribute to the spirit of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1965) - a movie I recall fondly from my childhood days - and, since both titles aptly reflect the world around us with a decided focus on greed and wealth, their themes could well be considered relevant and thought-provoking - without twisting our brain into knots. 

       Its basic premise is, true to the original, a mad race for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A Las Vegas casino tycoon (John Cleese) entertains his wealthiest high rollers - a group that will bet on anything - by pitting six ordinary people against each other in a wild dash for $ 2 million, jammed into a locker hundreds of miles away. The organizer and his wealthy friends monitor each racer's every move to keep track of their favourites. The only rule in this race is that there are no rules.

Now, I discovered this film a good 10 years after its release, searching for anything relating to Rowan Atkinson who, after we'd turned the kids onto the 'Black Adder' series, had quickly become one of their favourite comedians and they were clamoring for more from the parental units. We suggested it to our local library for purchase, they obliged and, six months later, we got to indulge our funny bone.

      And even though Rat Race doesn't quite measure up to the brilliant genius of 'Black Adder' and Atkinson's role veers decidedly towards his 'Mr. Bean' character, there are plenty of moments of genuine hilarity and silliness to entertain the brood and you could tell the comedians involved had a fun time pulling off their parts (watch the outtakes if available). I'm usually more a fan of acerbic, British wit than American 'Naked Gun' type spoof ball, but I still got a lot of kicks and some substantial chuckles out of this cinematic mayhem.

 

Despite mixed and decidedly polarized reviews (love it or hate it), this somewhat overlooked and underrated comedy has acquired something akin to a cult following, which definitely puts it on the shelf for any movie geek with a passion for slapstick. And, compared to some of the lukewarm, mediocre attempts at comedy brought to you by Netflix and Co. nowadays, most movies produced 20+ years ago mysteriously got so much better with age (like the 'American Pie' series) and Rat Race is no exception.

       It revives a genre Hollywood has neglected since the sixties: the big event, ensemble chase comedy played out by an amazing cast, with gags coming fast and furious. It exemplifies over the top, absurd, outrageous and wonderfully stupid nonsense with quite a few memorable quotes and might just become one of your favourite family movies.

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The Mercury News

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radiofreethinker.wordpress.com

Disposable people
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Can

of

Worms

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Disposable People

by John Jantunen

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I’ve come to call the time I spent in Vancouver between 1991 and 1999 the 'Pickton Era'.

        I, myself, lived in Robert Pickton’s preferred hunting grounds on Vancouver's East Side, off and on, for several years, the first time in an old boarding house converted to apartments on Franklin Street, a half-block from Nanaimo Street to the east and not much further from the Hallmark Farms chicken rendering plant to the west which provided the neighbourhood with its distinct aroma - an unbearable stench of rotting meat which forced me to keep my windows closed at all times, regardless of how sweltering my third-floor apartment became during the summer months.

     

I also spent a fair number of evenings wandering East Hastings Street and Gastown with an ex-girlfriend I’ll call D. Most often, our nights would start in the lounge of the Balmoral Hotel, though it didn’t so much resemble a bar as it did an old dance hall, replete with an expansive stage and a sign on the front door warning: No Ladies Permitted Without An Escort.

       D. knew a dealer who’d invariably be camped out at a table in an alcove towards the back and we would use the money we should have spent feeding D.’s five year old daughter - and later our son together- on hits of LSD and lines of coke, the second one snorted right off the dealer’s table as a quick pick-me-up to tide us over until the acid kicked in. Afterwards, we’d smoke a joint to take a little of the edge off while we made our way to the Cambie Bar & Grill in Gastown, lured by the prospect of $2 pints, or, if it was too busy or simply too full of university students playing pauper for the night (as increasingly became the case), we’d head over to the slightly scuzzier Old American or the Ivanhoe on Main Street.

      D.’s aim, and thus mine by extension, was to search out an endless succession of, what she called, 'disposable people' - down and outers worse off than ourselves who were good for a laugh, or maybe a toke, and who D. would derive no endless amount of amusement from provoking into paroxysms of rage, mostly for not holding such enlightened views on race and sexual orientation as she did (D. was, if anything, a paragon of virtue in those regards).

           

Over the ensuing years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time reflecting on these acid-washed forays into Canada's poorest postal code and, as reports of an epidemic of missing women who frequented the same streets began to appear in the city’s two daily newspapers during the late-nineties, it became increasingly difficult not to divine a deeper significance to D.’s oft-touted 'disposable people'.

My own growing awareness that a serial predator was preying on the seemingly inexhaustible supply of the interminably vulnerable consigned to Vancouver’s Downtown East Side reached its apotheosis, as I’m sure it did for many, by way of Missing On The Mean Streets, a two-part feature article published in The Vancouver Sun a mere two months before Tanja and I were set to leave this so-called 'Pearl of the Pacific'. A similar article would become a cornerstone in A Quiet Man, a script I’d write some ten years later about a young woman who finds refuge from a life on the streets by posing as the girlfriend of a man suffering from a brain injury and then must conceal his past from a determined police detective after she discovers he’s the killer responsible for a slew of missing prostitutes. 

       It was while researching this, that I’d come across a comment by a police detective involved with the Pickton case who speculated that as many as five serial predators were operating at any time in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland alone. Reading this, I immediately thought of a friend D. had met at another downtown bar - the Railway Club - some years before we’d hooked up during a party at an artist’s (illegal) underground studio, not a block away on Hastings between Seymour and Richards Street.

Let’s call her barfly buddy P.

       P. was an ex-soldier in his late-thirties living alone on a farm in Richmond, BC. He was an affable sort, for sure, and would generously bring over twelve-packs of beer when our own funds had run dry, and was equally generous with his weed, smoking endless joints with us and often leaving a bud behind to tide us over in the leanest of times. Mind you, I did have some concerns regarding D.’s admission that, prior to our relationship, she’d frequently given blow jobs to a number of 'friends' in exchange for the same. She assured me, she’d never extended this 'courtesy' to P. and, for the sake of maintaining a semblance of the increasingly fragile domestic harmony even then cracking at the seams, I took her at her word. My feelings were that P. simply had no other friends and that was the reason why he didn’t mind sharing his bounty with us. It was a feeling only amplified after he offered to drive us up to his farm so that D.’s then six-year-old daughter could spend an hour or so frolicking on his trampoline.

        He sweetened the deal by buying us a bucket of KFC with all the fixings and we ate through that on a picnic table in his front yard while D.’s daughter bounced away to her heart’s content. The main attraction for me was the barn. Having lived on a farm myself between the ages of eight and eleven and having spent considerable time thereafter at my uncle’s farm in Bracebridge, I was naturally drawn to it, if only to get a whiff of hay and manure impregnated with that heady bovine musk, which to this day is one of my favorite aromas. While P. was in the house disposing of the garbage from lunch, I wandered over to it, intent on at least sneaking a peek inside. I was just reaching for the barn door, when P. came hustling out of the house, yelling as he hurried towards me, “What the hell are you doing over there?!”       

I told him I was just checking it out, whereby P. informed me that there was nothing in there worth seeing, a sentiment starkly at odds with the urgency in his voice and etched on his face as he steered me away from the door with a firm hand on my arm. I mounted a somewhat feeble protest, reminding him I’d grown up on a farm and just wanted to take a look-see.

     “The whole, damn thing’s about to collapse,” he replied, though, truth be told, it looked in far better shape than my uncle’s. “It’s too dangerous. Come on inside the house, I’ve got something much better to show you.”

      He was already leading me towards the house, a standard, two-story brick that could have been any number of one hundred-year-old farmhouses in the country. The place was spartan, to say the least. The only furniture on the bottom floor was a table and two chairs in the kitchen, the living and dining rooms both barren except for dust bunnies and cobwebs flourishing in the corners.

       “I sold off everything after my parents died,” P. explained, rather self-consciously, as he led me up the stairs to the second floor. All the doors in the hallway were closed and there was the none-too-faint taint of mildew seeping from the carpet, likely the result of a leak in the roof, the evidence of that unmistakable in the rust-coloured stains on the ceiling’s stucco, its series of concentric circles calling to mind a tree’s rings so that I knew it had been leaking for years (maybe even decades). The door to P.’s room was the last and opened up into, what I can only speculate, was the smallest of the house’s four bedrooms. There was hardly room to walk between the single bed and the lone dresser and P. was heading for the latter while I held up at the door. He retrieved what he wanted to show me from its top drawer. From the way he hid it from view, he seemed, all of a sudden, reluctant to reveal what it was, though - I’d shortly learn - he simply wanted me to come over and see it for myself.

       “Don’t be shy,” he said, coveting whatever was at his belly, “I ain’t gonna bite. Get over here.”

       Dutifully, I obliged and, when I’d stepped up beside him, I saw that he wasn’t so much coveting the gun at his belly as he was wiping it clean with his shirt.

       “I stole it when I was discharged from the service,” he told me, holding up a rather ubiquitous-looking black, nine-millimeter, semi-automatic handgun which Google now informs me was probably a Browning Hi-Power - the pistol favoured by the Canadian military.

        “Go on,” he coaxed when I responded to it with only a blank stare. “Take it.”

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Now, if there was one lesson that watching an endless stream of crime thrillers had taught me, it was to never put your fingerprints on, what amounted to, an illegal firearm if you could possibly avoid it. This held doubly true if you’d just witnessed its owner wiping his own prints off the same and so I politely declined, adding rather meekly that I never was a fan of guns. That earned me a sanctioning scowl but, regardless, P. returned the gun to the top drawer and, a short time later, drove us back to our co-op on Sixth Ave.

It would be some time before I saw P. again, a year or so anyway. D. had since given birth to our son and I was back at school, enrolled in the Archaeology Department at Simon Fraser University while working full-time at The Capitol Six movie theatre on Granville Street to supplement my student loans. One night, upon returning from the latter sometime around 1 a.m., I heard D.’s voice raised in alarm from behind our bedroom door at the end of the hall. She was muttering a litany of drunkenly slurred, “Get off me! Stop! Stop it! Get off me!” and I heard a male voice too, whispering in response, “Shh. Quiet. You’re going to wake the kids,” as if that should have been any concern at all for a woman being raped in her own bed which is what, I’d shortly find out, P. was attempting to do.

       

I’ve been in a few fights in my life, mostly of the schoolyard variety and generally on the losing side of those - with two rare exceptions. In both those instances, my 'success' wasn’t a result of anything akin to even the most basic fighting acumen, it was pure, unadulterated rage. In neither instance do I have any real memory of what happened, other than that Donnie Mayhew and David Stewart must have said the exact wrong thing to me on a particularly bad day. In the first case, I was jarred back to my senses by a teacher calling out my name from a nearby window, only to find that I was sitting on top of Donnie with my hands clenched around his throat and his face darkening into an ever-deepening shade of purple. Memory returned to me in the second case with David lying on the ground, clutching at his back and whimpering (a friend later told me that I’d slammed him up against a wooden pole in our school’s jungle gym and then executed some form of purely instinctual judo throw, which was why he was lying on the ground crying).

     

P. was significantly larger and more heavily muscled than either of them and the fact that he’d recently been discharged from the military certainly didn’t bode well for my prospects, if it came down to a fight. But then, the sight of P. on top of  D. in our bed with his pants around his ankles while she tried to fight him off in a drunken stupor was about as far removed from whatever perceived slight Donnie or David had levelled at me as a dried-up creek bed was from a raging river filled with the spring thaw. Regardless, I do distinctly recall screaming, “Get the fuck off her!” on my way to grabbing P. by two handfuls of hair and flinging him off D. with such force, that his head cracking against the door frame was enough to snap him to full attention.

       “I was just about to leave anyway,” he slurred, before pulling up his pants and I’ll never forget the petulant smirk on his face while he spoke, like he was doing me a favour by not beating the living shit out of me for the sin of walking in on him while he was trying to rape my girlfriend, not ten feet from where our children were sleeping.

      I followed him, stumbling and banging against the walls in his drunken lurch, to the front door, dead bolting it after him before also locking the sliding doors leading in from our atrium and, by the time I made it back to the bedroom, D. was already passed out. I, myself, would stay up the rest of the night, sitting on the couch cradling the phone, thinking about P. and his stolen gun and guarding against the prospect that he’d shortly return with it to exact his revenge.

When D. woke up the next morning, she had no memory of the preceding events, or so she told me anyway after I’d related a fair approximation of the above. If my account of P. trying to rape her bothered her in any way, shape or form, she made no sign. My protestations over her lack of concern for what had happened were interrupted by the phone ringing and it’s hard to truly express the shock I felt when I picked it up to discover that it was P. on the other end.

     “Is D. there?” he asked, dispensing with any notion of a greeting, and the joviality in his voice gave me every indication that he’d forgotten, or at least was trying to forget, what had happened not eight hours previous.

      “You don’t get to talk to D. anymore!” I shouted, I believe perfectly well within my rights. “Not after you tried to rape her last night!”

       “Is that P. out there?” This from D. who was holding her hand out, asking for the phone. “Let me talk to him." From the tone in her voice, I expected she was in a conciliatory mood, but mine was the furthest thing from it.

        “Leave us the fuck alone!” I yelled into the phone and hung up.

        D.’s response was to scold, “Hey, you can’t talk to my friends like that!” and I was still gaping at her in wild disbelief, when the cordless phone in my hand rang again. I answered and this is what I heard: “You’re a dead man.” Click.

       My hands were shaking from the menace in P.’s tone as I call-blocked his number. Unperturbed, D. had since wandered into the kitchen to fetch herself a cup of coffee, leaving me alone in the hall consumed by the memory of P. showing me his gun and growing evermore convinced that he’d stolen it precisely for eventualities such as this. Over the next seven or so years that I’d spend in Vancouver, his gun was rarely far from my thoughts, and never closer than when I was leaving the Capitol Six after the late show, my mind conjuring the image of P. and his sidearm lurking in every shadowed recess I passed on my bike ride home.

 

But in the years since Tanja and I left Vancouver, it’s not P.’s gun which has so possessed my imagination, it’s his barn. What he was hiding in there, I’ll likely never know. Considering though, what the police detective said about at least five serial predators operating in the Lower Mainland at any given time and with Canada even now creating ever-vaster pools of the intractably vulnerable by way of the coalescing housing, homelessness, mental health and opioid crises, it’s been increasingly hard for me not to wonder how many of these supposedly 'disposable people' might have succeeded where I'd failed and had caught themselves a glimpse of the inside of P.’s barn - fleeting though as it may have been.

        Hell, could be they’re still in there now.

In Praise of skunks
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Poetry

&

Musings

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In Praise of Skunks

by Roger Nash

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One Fall, my dog gave chase
to a skunk on the woodpile. By the careful planning
of chance, it ran towards my cabin, not away,
and could escape only by jumping through the mesh
of an open window, into the earth basement.
There she stayed, in full occupancy,
for the snows of Winter, which began the next day.
And occupancy, for skunks, as my dog discovered,
is more than eleven tenths of the law.
My dog and I learned much from that skunk,
carefully keeping to our side
of the creak-obsessed maple-wood floor.
For every time we walked across it,
squeak-rasp-crunch-yawp,
the skunk sprayed below us in immediate
and firm response, which drifted up to us
as an halitosis, if not completely other-worldly
putrifaction, of floor-boards. Not surprising
that early Jesuits in New France
demoted skunks to be symbols of the vile
whiffs of sin in the world that St. Catherine
of Siena smelt in her heightened trance.
But as theology is as precarious as a floor-board
about to squawk and snort, why not, alternatively,
elevate skunks to sainthood themselves,
for their gift of raising people – and dogs –
to float above braying floor-slats,
not walk? For my dog and I
learned to cross the room on the mandatory
hover-craft of double-thick socks.
If angels float around us in our lives,
that’s the closest we’ve ever got to joining them.
When our sainted skunk left that Spring,
she left us almost ready to fly.

the Closet
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Short

Fiction

The Closet of Bad Feelings
by Mat Del Papa

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Ellie loved her grandmother . . . it was the reason why she got so angry when her mom described Gran as strange.

      “Eccentric,” her mom would hurry to add, when she noticed that Ellie overheard. Mom thought that sounded kinder. It didn’t, not to Ellie. The ten-year-old couldn’t see anything wrong with Gran. At least nothing that came from Gran’s rattling around in her big house all alone every day.

      That old house spooked Ellie something fierce. Spooked her bad enough that, no matter how much she loved her grandmother, Ellie never wanted to spend the night there. She felt bad about that, always turning down her grandmother’s well-meaning invitations just because she was scared.

 

Sitting by its lonesome, up on top of a big, steep hill, the old house had not a tree or shrub growing anywhere nearby. Almost like the plants were afraid to get too close. Ellie shared the feeling. She felt a chill run up the back of her neck whenever she went to visit. Even when it was sunny and bright, the house seemed to stare out at the world all cold and sad. Nothing but peeling paint and broken shutters on the outside.

     But the inside was different. It reminded Ellie of her grandmother. Spotless and, she hated to admit, a bit odd. Every room was decked out in a different colour. Walls, ceilings and floors . . . even the doors were painted. All the furniture matched their rooms, from lampshades and bedspreads to throw rugs and shelves.

        The upstairs bathroom was blindingly white, the main floor one a bright yellow. The kitchen wore a coat of light green, the living room a dull red. The basement, one big room, perfectly matched the cardboard boxes stored in neat piles along every wall. Even the entrance way had its own colour - grey. Five bedrooms, all in pastels: pink, orange, brown, purple and blue.

       The colours weren’t even the weirdest thing about the house. No, that stood in the blue room. A huge walk-in closet that Ellie’s grandmother never used. Just kept empty. Almost a room of its own, that closet took up an entire wall. Inside, there was a rod and empty hangers - hundreds of them. No shirts. No sweaters. Just plain wire hangers . . . and every time Ellie came to visit there seemed to be more.

        “Don’t pester Granny with questions,” her mom always warned Ellie before dropping her off. The ten-year-old tried to be good, but finally she just had to know.

“Gran,” she asked, one rainy day. “Why do you have a closet full of empty hangers?”

        “They aren’t empty,” came the answer.

        “They’re not?”

       “No,” her grandmother laughed. “That would be strange.” Then, whispering, she said, “They hold bad feelings.”

         “Huh?” Ellie uttered, confused.

       “Whenever I feel bad, I put a new hanger in that closet. Just take whatever is bothering me and hang it up. Once on a hanger, it no longer bothers me.”

         Staring wide-eyed, Ellie asked, “That helps?”

         “Certainly. You shouldn't keep bad feelings inside, you know . . . they’re not healthy.”

     “Better out than in?” the ten-year-old laughed. Smiling, Gran nodded, “But that only goes for feelings.” After a moment’s pause, she continued, “You shouldn’t bottle feelings up. Sooner or later they’ll break out. Usually when you don’t want them to.” Shaking her head at such foolishness, she finished, “I’ve had that happen often enough. Tears coming for no reason, anger bursting out at silly or stupid things.”

        “Really?”

      “Oh yes. I once threw a whole bottle of milk across the room because I spilled a drop. Bit of an overreaction that, wouldn't you say? Then I realized the problem . . . I wasn’t letting myself work through my feelings. Just pushing them deep down inside and locking them away.” Ellie didn’t know what to say. She did the same thing herself.

       Her grandmother didn’t give her a chance to say something. “You see, dearie,” she said, “feelings are natural. Happy feelings, sad feelings, they’re all the same. The only difference is how people treat them. Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you, but cry, and people think you’re sad - and nobody likes being around someone who’s sad. So I put my tears in the closet.”

        “What makes you sad, Gran?”

        “You and your mother mostly. How far away you live. How much I miss you both,” she said with a smile. “And my friends. Seeing them getting old and living in pain. Sometimes, I don’t need a reason.” Then she added, “But it’s not all sadness. At times, I put up a hanger full of fear or doubt or anger.”

        Ellie thought about taking out her bad feelings and leaving them hanging in her closet. “What do you do with all the good feelings then?” Laughing, her grandmother said, “Those I save to share with special people . . . like you. All my hope and joy and laughter, I hang onto them. Gently though, so as not to crush them.”

        “Is that why you’re always happy to see me?”

        “No dearie, seeing you makes me happy. And sharing that happiness with my friends makes them happy. I can’t wait to tell them about your visits and the things we do together.”

        “Really?”

        “Oh yes. They laugh and laugh.”

       A nervous smile on her face, Ellie paused, unsure if she should ask or not. She was just about to swallow her worries when she stopped, thought of what she’d learned and asked, “Uh, Gran . . . do you have any extra hangers?”

        “Lots,” came the answer.

 

That night, the big closet gained several new wire hangers. And, much to her grandmother’s surprise, Ellie slept over.

Fishbone Gallery
Fishbone Gallery
 
Rebecca Kramer
 
Photography
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Sailing on Tinfoil

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Mushroom Family

Filigree Leaves

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Magnificent Poppy

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Autumn Kite

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Diving Dragon

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See You Tomorrow

Jogger at Sunset

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Pointing Stick

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Mossy Trees

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Southern Icestorm

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Lamplight in Sunlight

Sleeping Ship

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Cloudy Lake

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Hat & Boots

Nightshade
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Short

Fiction

Nightshade Lullaby

by Tanja Rabe

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She should have sold me. I mean, that's what the Market was for.

       It wouldn't have been a big deal, since that's generally how it went with kids, unwanted or bred on purpose. There was never a lack of buyers and the plastic chits you got, especially for girls, could keep you going for almost a year if you knew how to pinch it.

      So why the hell hadn't she? I'd caused her enough trouble over the years, an extra mouth to feed could push you in no time to the edge of starvation, and she'd often enough accused me of dragging her down, usually in a drunken rage when one of her guys had ditched her again after only a few nights of warming her bed. If he had generously left a few bits of plastic behind, she was quick to trade them for bottles of Natchka, our neighbour’s nasty brew of nightshade roots he'd dug up at the dump. And when that drink took over, it sure unleashed the banshee in her.

       It wasn't like any of the legit liquors you got at the stalls in our shantytown, all watered down and murky. No, it was a potent, black market homebrew which, if the stallwards came upon your little business, could get you castrated in a blink. A sure death sentence, castration turned men into outcasts, stripped of their human status, viewed with a disgust only otherwise reserved for the vermin that thrived in the food stalls. They were forced to wander off beyond the boundaries into the wastelands to the East in search for any kind of living, with the reaper always lying in wait.

      Distilling Natchka was a dangerous trade, you had to be either extremely down-and-out or some cold bastard who thrived on the high-risk gamble that could set the wards’ hounds on your heels. Ignorance was no excuse. Everybody knew of the harm their little brew inflicted on the already dangerously low number of breeders. 

     

After the collision twenty years previous, when one of the minor Eastern provinces had decided to challenge one of the major regional players to a nuclear arm wrestle - the issue of conflict so mundane it had escaped memory in the disastrous aftermath - there hadn't been just the problem of more than half the population gone to the dogs, but also the unpleasant side effect of shrivelling up quite a few ovaries, leaving them barren much like the landscape from whence they hailed.

      Nightshade plants were another issue, as they grew like wildfire particularly at the dumps. They seemed to thrive on toxic waste as the weeds once had in my mother's long-gone garden, one of the last signs of life left in the wastelands east of here, as anybody could tell you who was foolish enough to venture beyond the limits and somehow made it back. Although they wouldn't be around for long, the slow disease eating them up way before their screams started to keep you awake at night.

The wards couldn't have cared less for any man pissing his life away but, if men were drinking the stuff, then you couldn't keep it away from the women either. The risk was too high. It didn't matter that the problem was mainly found in the refugee camps, where the skill of crude distillation had been passed down. You needed any working breeder alive and the increase in illegal Nightshade liquor seemed to run in direct proportion to the decline of babies sold at the Market. So they came up with castration and expulsion, the capital punishment for anyone found sabotaging their idea of the public good.

 

I got him with that, the bastard, got his stinking balls cut off. He won't ever use his hands against any woman again, he'll be too busy digging for crawlers in the waste. It was the only thing I could do for her in the end. He'd killed her, first slowly with the booze, then finally he'd finished the job hard and square with his fist.

        I loved her, I really did. Christsake, she must have cared about me a bit, dragging me around with her through everything. Of course, having a kid to show off was a good way of getting laid, of bearing more babies for the market, and she did do quite a bit of business, six or seven I think. And some of the guys stuck around long enough to see her get big around the waist, helped feed us for a while. They were gone soon enough though, none of them could have supported us for long and they knew where the kids would have to end up.

       Better off than in the slums, we were told, at least they'd be raised by some Sterile with a good Provider in one of their gated cities up North, safely beyond the fall-out zone.

     The Providers would never have touched a woman of the slums themselves, the disgust for us bottom feeders quickly put a stop to any stray thought on that. But the babies were innocent with no visible taint, easily accepted.

       Yet, she had kept me . . . and I am glad she did, even with what I had to see. At least, I had a real mother.

I was born a few years after the collision, pushed out somewhere along the road. Things were a mess then, chaos ruled and everybody was wandering about the countryside with the cities having turned into concrete deserts after the riots. The old system in ruins, people had to fend for themselves and food was scarce.

       There was no way my mother could have kept her skirts down in those times, she had to eat and the world's oldest trade was booming. She wasn't bad looking and learned fast so there were always takers. Some even wanted to stick around, but she couldn't bear their company after they'd paid up. She knew, she'd become a whore and business was just that, personal feelings a dangerous impediment to her survival. 

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        It kept her going for a while, although, in the end, she'd sold out. Or maybe not. Not if she did it for me, as she told me once near the end and as I'd like to believe.

She never talked much about my real father, not at all unless the Natchka had loosened her tongue, bringing on a flow of bitterness towards him, and towards me, my fingers pressed hard in my ears doing little to cushion the effect her words had on me. That's when I wished she had sold me, for her own sake. So I wouldn't remind her of him.

      She had been careless. On purpose, I wonder? She knew better than to get herself breeding, the market offered no excuse, it was still in its infancy and running mainly underground, she probably wasn't even aware of it.

        He hadn't been a client, I'm sure of that. She would wail, how she'd given him everything and how had he repaid her? Ran off at the first sign of trouble, the wretched bastard, stuck her with a mouth to feed all on her own.

       "I hate you . . . leaving me with that brat. Look at my tits, she's sucked the life out of them, greedy little bugger. Oh Christ, look at me, look at what you’ve done." She'd tear my hands away from my head.

       "Listen, you! Yes, you and that no-good loser. Look at my face, you've killed it. How it hurt to feed you, always squawking for more, I was so sore, couldn't get no sleep for nights, you always screaming. You made me feel like shit, never good enough for you, both of you. I'm tired of all this shit!" And she'd suddenly squeeze me so hard against her, I was afraid she was going to break my back, finish me off in her madness.

     Then she'd shake violently, weeping into my shoulder, clutching at me as if she was drowning, sobbing how she was gonna end it all and what was I gonna do then. She'd fall asleep eventually, still holding me in her grip, and I'd spent the rest of the night listening to her ragged breathing, the stench of Natchka turning my stomach, trying not to puke for fear she'd wake up, wishing I'd be dead when she'd come to with the first light of day.

       

She could have still sold me, later on when the Market had become an open trading post, with wards and laws and all legit. Older kids sold for less though, often treated more like slaves than offspring. Raised for too long in the ways of the slums, was the Provider's reasoning when the citywards found some kid "accidentally" beaten to death.

       She did ply the trade, though, when it had become commonplace and made a living as a breeder. Her looks didn't improve with her dropping a kid every year or so, skin rough and cracked, eyes once a warm brown turning a dull yellow, breasts sagging down to her folded belly, her body all bent and worn. The booze took its toll as well.

     

She didn't stop drinking until I was about twelve years old. The poison had finally got to her, she was barren, hadn't managed to carry a fetus for longer than a few months, going on to two years by then. So she consented when our neighbor asked her to move into his shack and share his bed. She must have been at the end of her tether, there was no way she could have found anything slightly agreeable in this guy, but then, I guess, she wasn't such a catch herself anymore.

Really though, did it have to be a Natchkashiner, after all the drink had done to her? Sure, he had his bearable days when he wasn't drunk, but those occasions grew sparse as the months dragged on and his illegal operation down, with the wards starting to offer rewards to informants. So most of the stuff ended up going down his own throat and that's when she finally decided to stop drinking herself.          

      She was getting scared of him, so terrified of his drunken rages that she quit cold turkey one day. She went through hell for a week, drying out, but she fought it through, despite him trying hard to get her back into the habit. She knew, she couldn't afford to let any control she had left slip away anymore.

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But she was also afraid to leave him. Even more so, when she found out she was unexpectedly with child again and he threatened to end both of us, if she even dared to think about selling his kid on the Market.

        "If I have to feed you and your brat, then there's no way my own flesh and blood is gonna be raised a bastard," his fist crashed onto the table, driving the point home.

        She carried through but his face turned red with anger at the sight of a little dick dangling between the newborn's stubby legs.

        "A boy, what good's a boy, for fuck's sake." he groaned.

      His disappointment writ so large on his red face, I had to turn away to hide the joy bubbling up inside me. I was happy to have a little baby brother and glad the bastard would mostly ignored him, glad there'd be someone to take care of and have all to myself.

After the big letdown, things slowly got worse. He used to just yell and threaten us when he'd had a particularly bad day, wasted and having spent his last meager chits on young whores who knew how to rip him off. He'd often get kicked out of the stalls, trying to tangle with the wards, and would end up taking it out on us, his voice roaring curses and insults across the slums.

       As things went further downhill, he began to use his fists. First, to shove my mother around, hard enough to make her fall and, if she didn't get up, he'd kick her anywhere his feet could find purchase but always viciously aiming for her stomach - as if to punish her for dumping a boy on him.

       She'd try to lay still, curled up tight, hoping he'd wear himself out, but that only made him turn to the next one in sight: me. And she wouldn't stand for that, never did, never let him get a punch in on me. She'd push me behind her skirts and take every blow as he'd try to drag her out of the way, intent on his new target. Eventually, she'd duck under a swing and, with him shortly off-balance, make a break for the door, with me in tow, and we'd run as fast as we could out into the night.

We never sought refuge with the neighbours. He'd bang on their shacks first thing on his rampage, swearing and threatening to bash their heads in if they'd helped us out. Always heading straight for the dump at the end of the slum, we'd crawl into a thicket of nightshade, into the darkness under its broad foliage, a place where even the light of a full moon couldn't reach.

     It was in those secret places that I felt certain, my mother was still capable of love. In the darkness, she would hold me, not with the once-desperate grip when the Natchka had talked through her, but like something precious, cradling me close to her chest as if I was a baby.

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        Often, she would cry, silently, her tears dripping in a steady stream onto my hair, rocking me back and forth until we'd both fallen asleep, deeply exhausted. At times, she'd sing strange, little songs about women living in shoes and babies falling out of trees, or hum tunes that sounded familiar. Only once did she tell me about when she was a kid, about playing games with her friends in a giant sandpit, but she stopped too soon. I am so sorry, she'd sigh, crying again. I wanted to hear more, more about the other kids, kids having fun, her having fun, but she just kept weeping, quietly.

 

We'd stumble back to his shack with the first light of day, certain we'd be safe by then with him snoring on his cot. I'd crawl under my own blanket to stay out of the way and watch her brew some tea. I knew, it wasn't for herself, a humiliating rite that made me want to slap the hot liquid out of her hands, but I'd sink my teeth into the pillow instead and suppress the anger.

       The tea was always ready for him the moment he awoke. She'd keep it hot for a while, then make some fresh as it got bitter and carry a cup over to him when he stirred late in the day. Her bruised face evidence of the previous night's rage, he never apologized, not once. He knew what he'd done, be friendly in a scruffy sort of way, even kiss her on the cheek with the bruises right under his nose. And she'd smile, a grimace more than a smile, like a dog licking the hand that beat it. Afterwards, there'd be some peace for a few days until the remainder of his fists had faded from her skin, ready for another paint job.

     Through all of this, he never raised a hand against little brother, almost did once, but stopped himself halfway, the boy frozen to the spot, just staring up at him with his mouth wide-open in anguish. Little brother had his eyes, which seemed to hold his hand in check. That's why we never took him with us. He was safe - uncared for but safe. And my mother too weak to drag him along. Much too weak.

One morning, under the nightshade, I was woken up. Not by my mother, but by the sun already halfway up in the sky.

       Her arms were wrapped tightly around my body. I felt chill and snuggled closer against her. There was no warmth. She must be cold, too, I thought. Her chest lay still under my ear. It was so quiet that something sank inside me.

I turned my face up slowly, holding my own exhale to better hear her breathing, when my eyes met hers, gazing down at where my head had rested in the valley of her chest, a cracked, strange smile on her open lips as if caught short in the middle of a sentence. A line of dark, caked-on blood ran down her forehead, past a nostril and into her mouth. Old blood, I realized with a shudder, the dead silence around me offering no refuge from the dread slowly creeping through my body, numbing all thought and feeling, but one: I had slept in my mother's arms all night, slept as she lay dying, slept through the last words she might have whispered, the last words to remember her by, to carry with me into whatever lay ahead.

       I couldn't even cry for her - the numbness wouldn't give me that much. There was just the cold, in my bones, my belly and in the air under the nightshade around me. And the cold was what I needed at this moment, to get moving, to shake off the cobwebs, to clear my head. I had to do something and I knew exactly what that something was going to be.

      As gently as possible, I slid out from under her stiff arms, gazed at her for a moment and kissed a promise on her broken smile, my lips brushing over the rough surface of dried blood.

     

My legs moved by themselves, they knew the way, only the eyes needed to pay attention, scanning for danger ahead, any human shape in the distance watched wearily. If I could just make it to the stalls, make it there without crossing his path, without him having a chance to stop me and ask any questions. He'd know right away, see it in my eyes, enough not to let me go. He was cunning when the booze didn't cloud his mind. And he'd be looking for her by now, angry because his tea hadn't been served on time.   

        I kept to the shadows, pressing close to the shacks, ears pricked to the sounds around me in case his brawling voice should warn me at corners to change direction. A couple of times, I stood still in a panic when shouting disrupted the slum's murmur.

      It seemed to take forever to reach the busy square in front of the stalls. Searching amongst the ragged crowd bustling about, I spotted one of the wards on patrol in front of a stall entrance. His attention was on a burly figure in front of him whose back was all I could see, all I needed to see to know it was him.

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       He was ranting loudly at the ward, swinging his arms around as he tried to drive his point home, the other man just nodding impatiently, motioning for him to move along, shrugging him off with a hand on his club. He finally gave up, threw a curse at the ward and took off with heavy steps directly for my shelter.

   

And I ran back in a panic, ahead of him, turning corners in a frenzy, circling around the shacks that bordered the square until I found myself behind a stall. I had to get in there, any way I could.

      The wooden boards looked fairly old and a hasty kick proved me right as my foot went through painfully, sharp splinters gouging my ankle. I kicked again and again, hastily, before someone would notice and a spectacle drew me into the light. I managed to barely squeeze my hips through the narrow break I managed to make. Immediately, a heavy hand grabbed me by the hair, dragged me into the dimness of the stall and a voice bellowed for the ward at the entrance.

I'd made it, my whole body was shaking with excitement. I was safe. I felt the ward's hand smack my face hard, but the tears running down my cheeks must have looked odd coupled with the relieved smile on my lips. When I asked the guard for help, my eyes imploring, he frowned, suspicious at first, then hesitantly released his harsh grip on my arm and nodded grimly to follow him.

       He escorted me into his office and, when the interrogation was over, I held a cup of tea in my hand and he had all the information he needed. I stayed inside his stall for a couple of hours, waiting. He had posted another ward at the entrance with instructions that he gave pointing repeatedly in my direction. When he came back, he shook my hand, "Everything's been taken care of," and he passed me a pouch. It was quite heavy, heavier than any amount of chits my mother had ever brought back from the market.

        Suddenly I felt at a loss. Where would I go from here?

       I had to get back to my little brother, he was still at the shack. With his father out in the waste, for that’s what the ward had promised me, he needed someone to keep him, another Provider. Another mother as well. I looked down at the pouch in my hand and grinned. Why not? There was enough for two mouths to last for quite a while.

We've been on the road for two weeks now, we being me, little brother and my neighbour Teresa with her young daughter.

       I stayed at the shack for a while after they’d taken the brute out to the waste, but I knew it was time to move on. Nobody wanted an informer around, no matter what the reason.

       Teresa had approached me as I was making plans to leave, asked if I'd care for some company. She didn't even inquire as to where I was heading. Her kid's father had taken off on her a few months back, but she wasn't going to sell her daughter to make ends meet. I had to think about it at first, she didn't have much plastic, I'd have to provide until we'd find a new home.

       She knows how to make stuff out of sticky red dirt, clay she calls it, her Nana had shown her when she was a kid, just before the collision, and she's going to teach me. Also, the thought of little brother having a friend growing up and us looking out for another, like a real family, won out in the end.

We're heading west, towards the ocean. It's going to take a while, but I've heard things are better there. The collision didn't reach that far. There are a few mountains on the way, but I made sure we got some good boots at the stalls and plenty of provisions. The ward helped us get deals on everything and gave us a mule with a small wagon as a farewell gift.

     "For your little brats," he winked, gruffly, "I don’t wanna have them on my conscience."

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       When we get there, we’ll built a shack by the sea so we have a view of the water from our doorstep every morning. We’ll get our own stall, trading pots and plates and whatever else we can make. Our kids will be playing games with their new friends and we will tell them every day how wonderful they are and how much we love them. 

Safety
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Poetry

&

Musings

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Safety

by Denis Stokes

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So this, love, like that Hong Kong Alley.

Behind us, the fallen lives of all our friends,

Ahead, the snowflakes of Minshan that

Mao praised, once the dragon’s flames.

They are calling us the children of the dragon,

Not wild ducks calling across this darkness

Of moving borders. Ahead, my love,

The darkness of moving borders.

By the time this comes, you will have found

Xinjiang. Through the underbrush, Li,

Tell my people I am still happy. Tell

Of our passion, our little fire I guard

Within my teaching heart, how it will not will

Itself away, swept by the widening fires

Of love’s truth.

                         

I have made it through

The valley. At first, some monks kept us.

We craved safety. A while now, am I

That girl to you in Tai’s Alley? I wear

Her sadness like a clove flower. Now,

They say the west is moving in, their phones

And cameras. If you see Kuan,

Let him know my heart holds no coldness -

When the soldiers tramped beside my cell

(My face hidden by an old man’s beard!),

I knew how the taste of fear can teach betrayal.

Now the others wait for words. Do they know yet

The tanks that chased us down, mangled Chen

And left us for paper dolls in hate’s hard wind,

they have invaded the people’s heart?

The people escape from their own freedom.

In your eyes, Li, my unborn children,

Though between us, one vastness is all we see.

They will not know our new leader.

Her suffering will make her strength beautiful.

But I will not drift away, a soft blurring dream . . .

I am staying now with Sun’s family. I look

Like the child I was once. I gaze, ponder

Past, future, the samurai sharpening in my heart.

I gaze at moonlight, grinding rice, at sunlight,

In the dampening paddies, stooping, my face

Shines, he says, in the glowing mist.

You?

You were called the rooster, crowing light

Into each weakening betrayal. You will be

My homing bird and though you will be tired,

Your wings will carry, love, the blood and light,

Unbearable weight of each setting sun.

 

I am looking out still . . . This water gives no answer.

When you find me, the red dress over the

White - how my loveliness will enchant you.

We have passed those heartless willows beside

The sergeant’s wall. We’ve sung our speeches, spoke

Songs and somehow these words will echo into light

On young faces. They will carry their own

Alchemist’s burdens - fool’s gold

Of false care, half-lit shadows racing

Over their half-dying flames. If life is but

A smile on the face of death, I smile for you,

My love . . . Search . . . seek. In that false spring

How could we rest? Sometimes I hear

The east wind moan in me like last gasps

From our red candle, then the thought’s

Knitted, deep in God’s weaving fire,

His dragons, knits again, purls, as above my

Nipple - your thumb.  Unspun? You will gather

My fragrance in our dream, take my pink,

Thin hand. Our love for them will keep.

I wait by watered embers, your hairpin phoenix.

In that storm I trembled, like Ben Franklin’s key.

Hummingbird
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 Book

  Nook

   with 

 John

Last Hummingbird West of Chile

by Nicholas Ruddock

Breakwater Books Ltd., Fiction, 312 pages, June 2021

 

Review by John Jantunen

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I’ll be the first to admit that a new book from Guelph author Nicholas Ruddock is, for me, always a cause for celebration. We were living in Guelph when his first novel, The Parabolist, was released in 2010. I had recently discovered Chilean author Roberto Bolaño and his masterworks The Savage Detectives and 2666 which were even then kindling in me the flame that would light the way forward for my own literary endeavours. It’s hard to adequately express then, just how pleasantly surprised I was when a writer-friend, and fellow Bolaño enthusiast, informed me that a local author had used a quote from The Savage Detectives as the epigraph for his debut novel.

      I read The Parabolist with something akin to the revelatory zeal experienced by the second of Herman Hesse’s titular characters in Narcissus and Goldmund when he chances upon the statue of the Madonna and, much like the aspiring apprentice in that book, I shortly sought out the creator himself. During our inaugural meeting at The Baker Street Station pub, Nicholas proved himself as learned a conversationalist as he was a writer and, before we parted ways, he even generously purchased a copy of my first, self-published novel.               

 

Over the ensuing six or so years, there were few people I looked forward to running into more at any of the city’s myriad literary events and I was greatly bolstered in my own aspirations through his avid encouragement and support made manifest by the endorsements he provided for the first three books I published with ECW Press (and later from his and his wife Cheryl’s contributions to our fledgling literary journal).

        I relate this not so much as a matter of 'full disclosure', as to suggest that I’ve had a chance to get to know both Nicholas and his fictions fairly well over the years and, while my esteem for his prose has only increased with each of his subsequent publications, neither his superlative short story collection How Loveta Got Her Baby nor his equally engaging second novel Night Ambulance truly prepared me for the bountiful feast he’s harvested with his latest.

The fallow deer, the wary fox, the yew, the spider, the servant girl.

       

It is with this epigraph that Nicholas introduces us to The Last Hummingbird West Of Chile and while, as the reader will shortly learn, this rather cryptic line speaks directly to the thematic and narrative construction at the heart of the novel, I couldn’t help but think that the aforementioned epigraph which so enticed me into The Parabolist might very well serve the reader just as well.

 

Seek oneself, lose oneself in strange lands! But with a guiding line,

with bread crumbs or white pebbles.

 

For, with The Last Hummingbird West Of Chile Nicholas has indeed lured us into strange lands in, what is at once, an enthralling adventure and a chillingly poignant morality tale about the impossibility of escaping from one’s true self. While the book takes place in the 1850s, this is far from your average historical novel and the further I read into it, the more I began to think that Nicholas set the narrative in a distant past only to provide himself, and by extension the reader, a suitable perch from which to view the subtle machinations at play within contemporary society.

 

Its story of a young English aristocrat fleeing the violence required to sustain his family’s affluence in search of a less oppressive path, is recounted in the first person by a wildly diverse collection of characters, both human and animal (and at one point even a white oak tree fashioned into a ship), and, much to Nicholas’ credit as a stylist, his supple prose seamlessly integrates these perspectives into such a vast panorama that it came to feel like the very world itself was bursting to tell the tale of these interminably beguiling, and all-too-often irrepressibly violent yet endlessly captivating, interlopers we call human beings.

 

At times, this whirling dervish of competing perspectives produced a dizzying effect of a most intoxicating variety, such that I was reminded of the opening stanza of The Second Coming, as much for its lyricism as for the way it still provides one of the most incisive distillations of the all-pervasive dread which has been a defining quality of contemporary society from the time when Yeats wrote:

 

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But Nicholas is far-too astute a writer to allow the story to falter into mere anarchy and provides a wealth 'of bread crumbs or white pebbles' along the way to orient the reader in the novel’s right-here-right-now with an immediacy that speaks as much to our own times as it does to his characters’, while also enticing the reader - or rather challenging them - to strive for some deeper understanding within its vast mosaic. Most often, it is his creature characters who provide the requisite tether, or guiding line, which holds the entire enterprise together, such as when three wild boars are imprisoned by the humans with whom they share their island paradise and one of them laments:

     

“We were fed on vegetable gruel and various mushes and the bitter rinds of fruits, and they tossed us, in derision, the bones of our dead relatives to gnaw upon. That we refused to do until more time had passed. Eventually, to sharpen our teeth, to harden our gums, we had no choice but to chew on those same bones, not looking at each other as we did so, out of shame. Maybe, we came to think, we were always pigs, our years of ascendancy an illusion.”     

 

Or when the titular character, a hummingbird named Zephyrax, is discussing with a friend the possible folly of their flock having undertaken a journey across the Pacific Ocean as only seabirds such as the albatross are equipped to do.

       

“Each species on earth has a fundamental set of skills. For example, the albatross can, with one twitch of a wing, coast a thousand miles. Yet never in a million years could he or she take nectar from a flower. Did you ever wonder, as I have, whether we arrived into this world with that particular skill intact, or did we develop it slowly, over generations. Did we acquire, in other words, in response to particular, demanding needs, our unique expertise?” “An interesting question, Zephyrax,” my friend replied, “but personally, I find that beating wings at four thousand times a minute, remarkable though that may be, is exhausting.” “True enough,” I said, “almost I would be an albatross at this moment, however horrible a fate that might be otherwise.” Then we ceased our conversation and I wondered, to myself, whether the world we left behind still existed. Well, it hardly mattered. You are where you are, Zephyrax, bend your head to the wind.

 

Note the comic turn the conversation takes, even as it alludes to the deep-seated prejudices felt by our (heroic) hummingbirds towards another winged species, and how Nicholas waits until the final line - the final line indeed of the chapter - to bring its (hidden) significance into clear relief. So it is that when he writes, “You are where you are, Zephyrax, bend your head to the wind”, we almost instinctively recognize that this sentiment stands in perfect alignment with the aspirations of our young aristocrat, Andrew Amberly, who himself has attempted a similarly impossible feat by fleeing the violence of his past - one might say of his very nature - only to have his flight result in equally calamitous consequences as the ones experienced by the flock of hummingbirds.

Such passages are commonplace within the novel and, as the meticulous reader delves deeper, these individual threads will begin to form into the increasingly intricate tapestry the novel weaves as a whole. It’s a vibrant and bewitching picture which emerges, animated by the artful, oftentimes mischievous, way in which Nicholas reveals the individual strands - a buoyant style which he uses to tease the reader wholesale into his world, seemingly to prepare them for the novel’s darker shades of which there are plenty, ranging from the greying sky of a cloud-banked dusk to the pitch- black of a starless night. And if there’s any doubt as to what the cause of that darkness might be, Nicholas banishes them in a scene, whereby his island dwellers are debating what to do with Andrew after he is cast, shipwrecked, upon their shores.

       

“Forgive me, Headman, but I wish to reiterate, strongly, how important it is for our survival that we strike our guest down before he recovers. He looks harmless, he may be the gentlest white man in the world, but we have received terrible reports, bloodcurdling reports, from those who have experienced contact with his people. Mass slaughters, casual murdering, smoke and fire pouring from the mouths of weapons, seizure of land, rape of women and boys, new diseases that kill outright or bring suffering for months while they themselves, the white men, remain untouched. All who come in contact with them have regretted it. They offer baubles of glass and blankets as gifts, and if those are accepted, three weeks later there is widespread death from a pox.&rdq