Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal ... with Benefits
Issue 4, July 2021
by John Jantunen
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 at The Balmoral Hotel, though it didn’t so much resemble a bar as it did an old dancehall, 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 own son, on hits of LSD and lines of coke, the latter 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 these 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 The 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 Streets.
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 out, 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 peak 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 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 there and see it for myself.
“Don’t be shy,” he said, coveting whatever it 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.”
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 can 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 much of 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 by then and I was back at school, enrolled in the Archaeology Department at Simon Fraser University while working fulltime 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, “Shhh. 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. I was jarred back to my senses, in the first case, by a teacher calling out my name from a nearby window 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 creak 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 planning on leaving 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 end up staying 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 giving 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 think perfectly well within my rights. “Not after you tried to rape her last night!”
“Is that P.?” 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. D., unperturbed, had meanwhile 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 but with 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 doubling down on its time-honoured tradition of creating vast 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
by Roger Nash
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,
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 Of Bad Feelings
by Mat Del Papa
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 didn’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 inside was different. The inside reminded Ellie of her grandmother. Spotless, and, she hated to admit, a bit odd. Every room 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 top floor 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 entranceway 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 said one rainy day. “Why do you have a closet of empty hangers?”
“They aren’t empty,” came the answer.
“No,” her grandmother laughed. “That would be strange.” Then, whispering, she said, “They hold bad feelings.”
“Huh?” Ellie asked confused.
“Whenever I feel bad I go up to that room and put a new hanger in the closet. Just take whatever’s bothering me and hang it up. Once on a hanger it no longer bothers me.”
Staring wide-eyed, Ellie asked, “That helps?”
“Certainly. You can’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.”
“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 anything. “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. Sometimes 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.”
“Oh yes. They laugh and laugh.”
A nervous smile on her face Ellie paused, unsure if she should ask or not. She was 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.
Sailing on Tinfoil
See You Tomorrow
Jogger at Sunset
Lamplight in Sunlight
Hat & Boots
by Tanja Rabe
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 stall wards came upon your little business, would 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 laying 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 ago, 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 shriveling up quite a few ovaries, leaving them barren much like the landscape from whence they hailed.
Nightshade plants were another issue, growing like wildfire particularly at the dumps. They seemed to thrive on toxic waste like the weeds 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, 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 along. 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.
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. Chrissake, she must have cared about me a bit, dragging me around with her through everything. Of course, having a kid to show 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 cites 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 had become a whore and business was just that, personal feelings a dangerous impediment to her survival.
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 running mainly underground, she probably wasn't even aware of it.
He hadn't been a customer. 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 I 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 city wards found some kid "accidentally" beaten to death.
She did play the game 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 hanging 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 so pretty herself anymore.
Really though, did it have to be a Natchka Shiner, 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, so terrified of him when he was in a drunken rage 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.
But she was too 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 should she even dare consider 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 so plain on his red face, I had to turn away to hide the joy bubbling up inside. 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 scream 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 intend 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 help us out. Always heading straight for the dump at the end of the slums, 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.
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, 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, and start to cry 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 suppressed the anger.
The tea was always ready for him, she'd keep it hot for a while, then make some fresh as it got bitter and carry it over to him when he woke up late, her bruised face confronting him, but 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.
Afterward there'd be some peace for a few days until the remainders 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, 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, pressed 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.
He was ranting at the ward, swinging his arms around wildly, the 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, quickly, before someone would notice and a spectacle draw me into the light. I managed to barely squeeze my hips through the narrow break I'd made.
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 took me into his office and when the interrogation was over, I held a cup of tea in my hands and he all the information he needed.
I stayed inside his stall for a few hours, 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 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 hands 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 him 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, asking if I'd care for 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 little 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."
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.
by Denis Stokes
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 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.
Last Hummingbird West of Chile
by Nicholas Ruddock
Breakwater Books Ltd., Fiction, 312 pages, $22.95, June 2021
Review by John Jantunen
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 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 fiction 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 really, 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 will speak directly to both 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 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 its 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.”
Nicholas Ruddock is a Canadian physician and writer. He has won several international prizes and was shortlisted for the Moth International Poetry Award (Ireland) in 2020. His first novel, The Parabolist (2010), was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and the Arthur Ellis Award. His second novel, Night Ambulance (2016), was a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist.
Nicholas' works have appeared in numerous publications in Canada, England, Northern Ireland, and Ireland. He lives with his wife, artist Cheryl Ruddock, in Guelph, Ontario.
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.”
I fear though, even as I retype these words, that I have already done the reader a disservice, for much of the pleasure I derived from the novel — and The Last Hummingbird West Of Chile, if it is anything, is a great pleasure in the reading — came from witnessing the pattern emerge from its intricately woven tapestry seemingly of its own volition. In my mind, there is no greater gift any author can bestow on a reader and so I will end my remarks here, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least offer Nicholas the sentiment bubbling to the surface of my thoughts as I approached his final words: