Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Fiction #68

New fiction! Issue #68
Submissions now open for #69 (which will appear in September 2016)

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.


Fiction #68: Alex Carey

The Line
“It is stupid the way young men admire one another, the pointlessness of it, the non-reasons.” —Lynn Coady
 Terry came out of nowhere.

‘What the fuck do youse think you’re doing?’ He clenched his right hand on his clipboard. In the dark parking lot we couldn’t see his face.

‘Goin’ home, Terry,’ Joey said. ‘You should too.’

Terry paused and in the dark we could hear how deeply he breathed, how he needed to settle himself, prepare.

‘Everyone smelled it on ya—think you boys are settin’ a good example, here?’

We both shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ Joey finally said.

‘You’re done.’

‘What?’ I asked.

‘I’ve given youse the benefit of the doubt here for over a month. Hoping this was a phase. I don’t care what you can do on the ice—you’re off this team. I can’t have that shit in my dressing room.’

Joey and I stood there, quiet for a couple of seconds.

Then Joey said, ‘Fuck you, Terry.’

Terry snapped back. ‘Fuck you too, Joseph. And fuck you, Michael. You’re breaking my goddamn heart, boys. Go home. I don’t want to see you at our practices or games anymore.’

‘I could lay you the fuck out,’ Joey said, ‘if I wanted.’

‘You try Joseph Miller. You try and I’ll feed you right back to your old man.’

We stood like that, with Terry less than an arm’s length for us and Joey and me with our backs on the truck for what seemed like forever.

‘Go home,’ Terry said, his voice soft and quiet. He almost begged. He slammed his clipboard at the truck’s rear-view and the hard metal clip bounced off the mirror and the clipboard rattled to the asphalt. ‘Go home, boys.’

Joey and I didn’t talk to each other.

We watched Terry try to pick the clipboard up but he couldn’t see in the dark.

We respected him more than we’d ever say to each other or to anyone else.

Joey peeled out of the parking lot and hit the QEW doing one forty. We didn’t smoke on the drive and we didn’t play any music through the system Joey had painstakingly rewired the night before.

*

Joey and I only played high school hockey from then on. Girls from school (sometimes Shannon and her friends, like Ashley) watched. We got off our fourth period Functions class to play weaker, smaller schools.

Joey and I drove into Guelph one December when Loder and the Bulls played in the city. The game we watched, Loder got a nice assist, but I don’t remember how because Joey and I had brought some vodka in a plastic water bottle that we sipped through the game. We chased the burn now and then with four dollar orange juice Joey bought between in the intermission between the second and the third, sipping more carefully with the orange juice than the vodka.

We said we changed for the calories but we really changed for the smell.

Loder didn’t have to be back in Belleville until Sunday for practice.

‘There’s a bush party in the old Rockwood quarry,’ Joey said.

‘Yeah?’ Loder handed his bag to the bus driver in the cold. The driver ducked and threw the bag deep into the bowels of the bus.

‘We can crash at my place.’ Joey tried not to sound desperate.

Loder patted the bus driver’s elbow and turned to us. ‘Fucking right, boys,’ He ran a hand through his hair.

The fire burned the size of a truck, and the kids who’d come before us had made it from old picnic tables they’d stolen from the Cons. A couple indiscriminate oil drums stood watch, days of the quarry’s use long past. Tall, proud weeds grew through their ruptured centres, a faux rustic wedding décor.

‘Hey,’ Loder said, plopping his backpack down in the light. He shook a Ziploc bag from the zipper.

‘Check it out.’

‘Whoa,’ Joey said. He licked his lips. ‘You sure?’

‘Missed you boys.’ Loder sprinkled a handful of dried, twisted stems in our waiting palms. ‘My treat.’

We’d never tried magic mushrooms—not a party drug, but Loder insisted.

Joey and I were too scared to try harder stuff like cocaine. Loder knew that.

‘Plug your noses,’ Loder said. ‘Down the hatch.’

We chewed them slowly and watched the picnic tables burn. The stems tasted bitter, and our stomachs started to cramp.

The party swelled: at least forty kids huddled in small circles around the blaze.

Loder pulled out a couple mushy bananas from the bottom of his backpack.

‘They’ll help with the gut rot.’ Loder said.

‘The what?’ I asked.

He passed one to Joey and one to me and peeled one for himself. We threw the peels into the fire from a good distance away.

At some point, a bunch of the girls we knew hid in the woods trying to scare us because they knew we’d taken something else, something deeper than weed or beer or flavoured rum. We couldn’t tell where they were because their voices bounced off the limestone cliffs we stumbled under.

Some time later I grabbed fistfuls of pebbles by the Eramosa, whispering to myself ‘keep it together, keep it together.’ In the morning, I discovered I’d splintered my thumbnails into tributaries, cut rivers running to an underwater sea of black blood trapped beneath my not quite broken nails.

Eventually the cops came to break up the party—or at least there big flashlights cut through the half-dark around the picnic table fire, all anyone needed to scare high school kids, especially ones burning picnic tables in an abandoned quarry. Joey, Loder, me ran into the woods, deeper into the bush, which survived the endemic three story houses and the quarry’s development the century before. We stole through backyards lost, cold, and messed up, enduring a light fall rain, the kind that’d be nice to watch through a back window with a fire going, the kind you’d like to hear beneath three or four heavy and homemade quilts.

‘Where are we?’ Joey kept asking, at around probably around three or four in the morning. Maybe later. Loder and I ignored Joey for the first three times he asked. We didn’t know either. We may have walked around the same tree for an hour, but either way, Loder insisted we keep moving. 

Loder put a hand on my chest, and nodded over Joey, who wouldn’t leave an oak tree that we used to climb. For Joey, the tree looked familiar, a piece of our past he could cling to: thick branches, perfect for climbing without worrying about anything snapping.

‘Where are we, boys?’ Joey asked again. I could hear the first birds of the new day start to sing. False dawn washed through the forest.

We’d told Joey at least a dozen times since we’d first tried to ignore his question.

Loder and I dragged him to a street corner outside our subdivision after lying about a nearby washroom. Joey pulled down his pants and his Scooby-Doo boxers and peed right there, right against a stop sign like the sign was a toilet or a bush.

‘I feel better,’ Joey said. He tripped on his crumpled jeans.

‘That’s good. Can we go home now?’ Loder asked.

‘Sure,’ Joey said. He turned and asked us both, but looked at me. ‘Where are we, boys?’

Loder and I didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t phone our parents; Loder’s brother unhooked his phone at night. Dan would’ve understood, wouldn’t have made fun of us until after we’d had some sleep and food. But instead Loder phoned the paramedics.

‘Yeah, our buddy,’ Loder said into his phone. Joey tried to fit his fist in his mouth. A thin stream of saliva ran across his knuckles and his huge hand.

Soon we heard sirens coming and we sat on someone’s lawn. Joey fell over, his exposed, cold-shriveled penis trapped beneath him. We pulled his boxers on and battled the friction of the wet grass and his slick, hairy legs.

The ambulance hopped the curb onto the grass. The lights splashed against on the windows of the houses nearby. We brushed Joey’s sweat on our jeans.

The paramedic got to the point: ‘What he’d take?’ They hadn’t left the ambulance.

‘Mushrooms,’ Loder said, meeting the woman’s eye. ‘We’re on mushrooms.’

She nodded and wrote something on a thick, fancy looking clipboard. ‘And how much have you boys had to drink?’

‘Three or four beers, maybe.’ The truth.

The woman looked at the man who’d come along with her. She took our names and then threw her clipboard onto the front seat. They both put their hands on their belts, trying to look official. ‘Can you get him home?’

Loder and I looked at each other. ‘Yeah,’ Loder finally said. ‘We can.’

‘Otherwise we have to take him to the hospital. They’ll send him to the Homewood for a weekend involuntary.’

‘They will?’ Loder asked.

‘That’s just policy, boys. I don’t make the rules.’

‘Sure,’ Loder said, ‘sure.’

I thought Loder would be the one to lose his mind on mushrooms, because I thought Loder was permanently bent inside.

‘We can get him home,’ Loder said to the paramedic. ‘Honestly.’

Joey rolled over, blades of grass sticking in his long hair. ‘Where are we, boys?’

The woman said, ‘If we see you again, or if we hear about you again, all three of you are going downtown in bracelets.’ The male paramedic didn’t say a word.

Do paramedics carry handcuffs? We didn’t ask.

The paramedics walked back to their ambulance and left. Calling them seemed so pointless. We probably became a good story around the coffee pot at their shift change. A call to witness three degenerates strung out past the town line. One might’ve been that hockey-playing kid.

Loder put an arm under Joey’s left shoulder and I put one under his right. Joey could still walk, but he tried to wander away from us, like those autistic kids who walk away every summer, the ones you hear about on the news who end up trapped like logs against the mesh of the dams down the Eramosa or the Grand, waterlogged heads and limbs bloated into cartoon disproportions.

Loder looked at me and then looked at Joey. ‘Let’s get him home,’ he said.

With his free hand, Loder texted Shannon and told her to unlock her basement door.

She let us through the fence and the four of us crossed the Millers’ yard without speaking. The bottom of the door to the house caught the overgrown weeds.

‘I don’t even want to know,’ she said, her eyes bleary and her hair arguing with itself. Dawn light looked soft and kind. ‘But is he ok.’

‘He’ll be fine,’ Loder said. ‘He’s just wiped. We all are.’

I looked at Joey and avoided looking at her. I could feel her eyes on me.

Loder fireman-carried Joey over to the sectional and there Joey fell asleep, in his pee-soaked boxers, with scuffed-up hands and forearms, but alive, not hypothermic, not freezing on a bed of pine needles. I took a blanket from the tiny closet by the bar fridge and sprawled on the island of throw rug before the great flat screen, while Shannon went back upstairs to bed, her slippers whispering on the hardwood as she left.

Loder poured a glass of cold water from the basement fridge and left the glass on the coaster near Joey’s head. He ran his hand through Joey’s hair, tugged at the knots. His eyes bounced from Joey to the backyard to the stairs.

‘Alright man, I’m going home,’ Loder said to me. ‘Bus leaves in an hour.’

‘See ya.’ I pulled the blanket to my chin.

He winked. ‘When the angels win the pennant.’

Loder slipped out the sliding door and disappeared behind a stand some kind of coniferous tree. He blended with the trees and the mist, an early morning ghost.

*

ALEXANDER CAREY was born in Guelph, Ontario. His work has previously appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rusty Toque, and Feathertale. He recently finished his MA in English and Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick, where he wrote a hockey novel. He lives in Toronto.

Fiction #68: Ryan McCarvill

Soon the Predators

Today my father takes me to the Mombasa tusk man.

Our village is a full day’s drive from the city and longer to walk.  We are nearly there when a white man says we can ride in his truck.  My father is wary, but then he picks me up and places me in the back.  He says this is uncommon, but the white man has a pleasant face and does not question the Red Cross duffel bags we carry.  All the white man asks about is what my father does for a living.  My father says he is a farmer, and he is.  Then the white man asks my father to fill out a survey but my father refuses because he cannot write.  The white man fills it out for him.

The white man drops us off outside the Mombasa limits and keeps driving.  My father says all the whites are blind to people like us.  “They don’t understand you, Khumbu,” he says. He stabs my chest with a bony finger.  “They see your skin and tell you what you need.  They don’t think about us.  They think about cheetahs.” 

Everything in the city is new and bright and hurts my ears.  We learned about the city in school, but it is one thing to learn and another to see and listen and feel.  I think of my sleepy village and how exciting the city is, but the people here are mean and never look you in the eye.  I ask my father if the people in jail are as rude as the people in the city.  He does not want to talk about jail.

“You must do everything for family,” my father says.  He’s said this many times before and it is always boring, but I like listening to my father’s voice so I always let him finish.  “Without family, there is no life.  Sometimes you must do foul but necessary things to save your family.  Only you can do these things, Khumbu.”

I ask my father if we have to fight the drought in our village.  He says yes.  I ask my father if I can hold the elephant gun he keeps in the guitar box by his mattress.  He says never.    

My father leads me to a quiet place in the city.  The sun is peeling the paint from every wall.  My father calls it “decay.”  We don’t have decay in my village, except for the truck some white people left behind in the grass before I was born.  My mother told us to never play around the old truck.  One morning my older brother Tali disobeyed and played on the old truck and pierced himself on a rusty edge and died two days later. 

My father knocks on a crooked door and it opens and an old man looked out.  His face is dull and scabbed like the rusted metal that killed Tali.  My father doesn’t like the old man.  He opens one of the duffel bags and the old man nods and lets us through the crooked door.

We set the bundles on the floor.  My father tells me to go outside and call my mother.  I go out and call her on the mobile.  We are the only family in our village to have two mobiles and it makes my mother feel very rich.  I tell her we are in the city and will come home tomorrow.  I tell her my father wants a good meal when he returns.  My mother weeps and says another goat has died.

I wait.  My father leaves the crooked house and joins me outside.  He has money in his hand and in both pockets.  “This is yours,” he says, and gives the money in his hand to me.  I count five hundred shillings.  “Keep it secret.  If I am ever taken, you must use it.”

When we return to my village, my father does not tell anyone about his money.  He tells my mother he went to buy chickens but the chickens were diseased.  I bury my money in the clay under my sleeping mat.  My father buys a new goat and my mother gives milk to me and my brothers and sisters.  My mother and father are very happy.

                    ---

Some time later, men from the government come and take my father and all his money away.  I tell my mother I will go to Mombasa to find him.  My mother says my father is a criminal and will not come back.  My mother never smiles again.  Even when I offer the five hundred shillings under my sleeping mat, she does not smile and calls me a criminal.  Then she asks for the money. 

I buy many things for my family.  I buy maize seeds to replace the dead crops, and I buy three goats.  I buy new uniforms for my brothers and my sisters to go to school.  I am now the father of my family, and I have no time to waste in school.  I give my favourite book to my sister because I no longer have time to read.  Reading is for full bellies.  Still, I cannot give the book away easily.  It is my only book, and a gift from my father. 

I buy too many things.  I enjoy making my brothers and sisters smile, and I want to make my mother smile again.  I wish to buy rain, but they do not sell rain in the market.  The maize dies and two of the goats die.  The other people in the village are leaving.  Their crops and animals died long ago.  My mother says the white people will come to help.  The white people do not come, and we have to eat the third goat.  My mother cannot stop crying.

My father’s elephant gun is still in the guitar box by his mattress.  The guitar box was left behind by a white woman years ago.  She took the guitar and left the box behind.  One night I watched my father take the elephant gun out of the guitar box and leave and not return until morning.  As my family settles for bed, I spend a long time thinking.   

Tonight, there is no moon.  I take the gun out of the guitar box and whisper a prayer to my mother and leave my village.  I walk the trackless plain and search for elephants.  Hyenas do not laugh the way you imagine. What scares me more than anything is the thought of running into a pack of wild dogs.  I have my knife and my father’s elephant gun but the dogs have numbers and speed and fangs.

I find the elephant before dawn.  She is nestled in the shrubs near a dying pond.  Somehow she does not see me, or maybe she does not care.  She is large and beautiful, with great tusks set wide apart. 
It is easy to shoot an elephant when your family is hungry and dying.  You raise the gun, brace your shoulder, close one eye, and pull the trigger.  In the gathering light, I see the elephant’s head is split in two.  A smile spreads across my face.  My family will eat tomorrow.   

There is rustling in the shrubs and my heart skips and I think of wild dogs, but it is just a baby. He trots over to his mother to see what is the matter.  When he starts to cry for her, I cry with him. It is not easy to shoot a mother. 

Dawn breaks, and now there is not much time.  I shoo the baby away, but he stays nearby and we stare at each other. Nothing moves except his floppy ears twitching to keep the flies away.  I cannot look him in the eye.  He trumpets for mother and finally wanders off, and I hope he grows up strong and does not have nightmares. 

I do not know how to remove tusks from a dead elephant.  My knife is dull and ivory is thick.  I regret killing the mother at the water because other animals are gathering.  Soon the predators will come.

The sun is rising quickly and I wish for shade.  Sweat drips into my eyes as I work and I want to rub them dry but my arms are slick with blood up to my elbows.  I nearly have one tusk free when I hear the truck rumbling along the plain.  The sweat stings my eyes and I’m blind, and all around me the truck engine grows louder.  I think of Tali and the old rusted truck.  I saw the ivory faster now, only stopping to pry tendons loose from the flesh.  As I cut, I dream of moving my family to a new village and sending my brothers and sisters to a new school.  I dream of seeing my mother smile again...

A man shouts in Urdu.  Then there are more voices in English.  I look up.  There is a long truck filled with white people wearing dark glasses.  They point and scream at me.  They look like demons, and I am very afraid.  Two wardens run toward me carrying rifles and the white people are cheering them on.

I cannot go to prison.  If I go to prison, my family will die.  I hear boots pounding behind me.  I have to move quickly.  I muster my strength and hack at the bone, slash the tusk free and tear it from the flesh.  I stumble and meet the mother’s gaze of death from a glossy eye swarming with flies.  Then I turn and run with the tusk dripping blood over my shoulder.  It is heavy.  I abandon my father’s elephant gun.

There are screams and a terrible crack like thunder.   

I am looking up at the sky.  I lay at the edge of the pond and the dust settles on the blood-spattered tusk nearby.  I cannot move my legs, but I can still move one arm and I reach for the wet gaping hole in my chest.  I listen to the English voices screaming and wailing.  This is what hyenas sound like.

I see. . .Tali.  He is laughing.  He wants to play. . .

I hear the boots running to me.  I turn my head and gaze at the bloody tusk in the dirt. They will take it to Mombasa and sell it and give the reward to my family.  They will set my father free so he can take care of my mother and my brothers and sisters.  My mother will smile again. . .

My father will be free, and my mother will smile again.

*

Ryan McCarvill is a writer and film director from Prince Edward Island.  He wrote his first bestseller, Dinasor Safari, at the age of four.  Everything since then has gone downhill.  See for yourself at ryanmccarvill.com.

Fiction #68: Julie Roorda

Predestination

Leonard fought his way to the back of the crowded streetcar, but there were no seats available.  As he clung to a pole, the glint of light on a shiny screen in the lap of the woman seated below him caught his eye.  She was holding a tablet computer that seemed to be all silver and sparkling glass; it must be the new 3D iBall everyone was talking about, Leonard thought.  The woman swished through a series of photographs of swans and ducks, and Leonard recognized the pond in High Park which he visited every weekend.  Next was a close-up of a young woman with light brown hair and wide grey eyes sitting in a restaurant, laughing happily at the photographer.   The wall behind her was burnt-orange and there was a bottle of olive oil with a floating sprig of rosemary on the table.  Leonard couldn’t see the face of the woman holding the tablet, but from the colour of her hair and the way the ends rested in a little half-curve on her shoulders, he knew the photo was of her.  Her nose was a tiny bit beaky and the chin a little too small, but she was quite pretty, he thought, in a goofy kind of way, like a Hollywood actress who only gets the comic roles.  She was, in fact, exactly the kind of woman he found most attractive, but could never get up the nerve to ask on a date.  

Leonard leaned in closer, but when the woman swished to the next photograph, he snapped his head back so quickly it smacked against his own hand on the pole.  The photo on the tablet was of him.  Leonard.  He too was in the restaurant, smiling widely, having a good time.  Then, even more shocking, him and the woman side-by-side, leaning in together for the shot, his arm around her shoulders.  This woman he had never seen before.

Leonard’s heart hammered and he broke out in a tepid sweat while his mind raced.  It must be someone else, he thought, someone who just looked a lot like him.  But on the clear, high-definition screen, even without the special goggles that would render the image three-dimensional, the resemblance was uncanny.  His hair was the same, so were the glasses, and he was wearing a polo T-shirt exactly like the one his mother had given him two weeks ago.

Suddenly, the woman slid the tablet into her bag and jumped from her seat.  Panicked that she might see him, Leonard pushed further back into the streetcar, tripping and stepping on an old man’s foot.  “Sorry,” he muttered.  Meanwhile the woman made her way to the door and got off.  Leonard realized too late that it was his own stop as well.  Though shaky and disturbed, he managed to get off at the next stop and walk the three blocks back to his apartment, glancing around him all the while as if someone – the woman – could be watching him. 

He lived in a bachelor apartment on the top floor of a low-rise building.  When he stepped off the elevator, he could see that the door to the fire escape at the end of the hall was open, and his neighbour Veronica was at her usual perch. 

“Hey, Lenny!” she called. 

Veronica was a petite, middle-aged woman with an electric blue streak in her otherwise grey hair.  He had no idea how she made a living.  She never seemed to go anywhere except out onto that fire escape to dispense neighbourly advice and play fetch with her black cat Sabbath.  She would toss a stick over the railing, into the yard behind the building, and the cat would tear down the stairs at break-neck speed, often leaping onto the lawn from as high as the second floor to retrieve the stick and climb back up five flights for Veronica to throw it again.  Feeling he could use some guidance, Leonard joined her outside.

“You know how they say everyone has a double,” he said.

“Ah yes.  The evil twin.  Unless, of course, you are the evil one,” Veronica said.  “In which case, meeting your doppelganger could have its advantages.”

“I haven’t actually met him yet,” Leonard said.  He told her what he had seen.

“Are you adopted?” she asked matter-of-factly.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe you had a twin that your mother gave up for adoption,” she suggested.

Leonard frowned.  “That seems unlikely.”

“Seems, schmeems.  How often do you hear about some genetics study that is based on observations of identical twins separated at birth?  It’s the premise of the entire nature versus nurture debate.  You’d expect the separation of identical twins to be a rare scenario, but obviously it happens more often than we think, since there appears to be this bottomless pool of potential study subjects.  It might even be a conspiracy.”

Sabbath slipped between Leonard’s ankles and dropped the stick at Veronica’s feet.  She picked it up and sent it twirling through the air like a baton.  The cat raced after it.

“There is another possible explanation,” she said.  “The old switcheroo.”

“What do you mean?”

“Another woman, in the hospital at the same time as your mother, gave birth to twins.  Your mother took home one of the twins instead of her own baby,” she explained.  “I mean, they all look the same at that age.”

“But they would have noticed eventually, the parents with the twins who grew up looking nothing alike,” Leonard said.

“Yeah, that would have been awkward.”  Sabbath nudged her again and this time Veronica tossed the stick up in a high arc before it made its downward turn and the cat reached the ground at the same time.  “Was she pretty?” she asked.

“Who?”

“The woman in the photos.  Don’t tell me you didn’t notice.”

Leonard blushed and turned away from Veronica’s smirk.  “I think I’ll go give my mom a call,” he said.

“Give her my regards,” said Veronica, who’d never met her.

*

His mother answered in the middle of the first ring.  “Hello-o?”

“Mom, am I adopted?”

“Of course not.  You’ve got my cheekbones and the famous Woodward pigeon toes, just like your father’s entire family.”

That eliminated Veronica’s switcheroo scenario as well.  The only one left was the abandoned brother.  “Would you have liked to have twins?” he asked.

“It’s funny that you should ask, because when I was pregnant with you, I really thought there might be two of you,” she said.

“Why?  Were there two heartbeats?”

“No.  And there was no ultrasound back then to confirm these things.  It wasn’t the doctors who put the idea in my mind, it was your Aunt Martha.  You know, the psychic?”

As far as Leonard knew, the only accurate prediction Aunt Martha had ever made was of the famous Mississauga train derailment in 1979, but her reputation persisted.  No family celebration was complete without Aunt Martha and her crystal ball. 

“Martha told me she’d had a vision of me with twins,” his mother continued.  “She insisted there were twins in my future.  The truth is, as delighted as I was with you, I was a little disappointed that you weren’t two.  It runs in families, you know.”

“Twins?”

“Psychic power.  There’s a long history of it on my mother’s side.  My grandfather was famous for it.  Did you know he predicted Hurricane Hazel?”

*

Leonard had trouble sleeping that night.  Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his own face grinning back at him. Would he and his double share personality traits, he wondered -- even if they weren’t genetically related -- or would they be opposites?  Good twin, evil twin.  Leonard was sure he himself was not an evil person, but he didn’t think he was exceptionally good either.  He helped out at a food bank a couple of times a year, but he also stole Scotch tape from work. 

As he tossed and turned in his narrow twin bed, he mulled about his mother’s catalogue of family quirks.  Why couldn’t he have inherited something useful and exciting, like his Uncle Irving’s good looks and suave ease.  Women were always falling in love with him.  Or his grandmother’s musical talent.  They said she could have been a champion accordion-player if she hadn’t given it all up to get married.  Instead, all he’d come by was a genetic predisposition to trip over his own feet.  If anything determined his future, it wasn’t a quality of good or evil, but that maddening awkwardness. 

At the first sign of light outside, he gave up sleeping and made himself some toast; as usual, he cut off all the crusts.  This was not because he didn’t like crusts, but so that he would have something to feed the ducks in the park.  Most of them were mallards and wood ducks, but there was one domestic white duck among them, probably an abandoned pet.  The white duck had mated with a male mallard in the spring and now had one hybrid duckling.  It remained to be seen whether the duckling would be capable of flying like its wild father, or earthbound like its domesticated mom.  All week, Leonard collected his crusts in a Ziploc bag.

After breakfast, he tucked the bag inside his jacket and headed for High Park, a ten-minute walk from his apartment.  Aside from joggers and dog-walkers, the park was empty and quiet.  As he crested the hill overlooking the pond, a wave of quacking rose from below on the brisk spring air.  At the bottom, he took a trail he knew led to a low bank where the ducks liked to gather.  The trail twisted and turned before coming out on to the bank; Leonard realized too late that there was someone already there ahead of him, a woman with a bag of crusts.  Ducks, including the hybrid family, crowded around her feet.  Leonard’s first instinct was to flee back the way he came, but the ducks had already begun to swarm in his direction, sensing another hand-out.  The woman turned to look at him and a cold shiver climbed up his back and covered his scalp. It was her, the woman with the photos. 

Leonard stared, wondering how she would react to seeing what must be to her, a familiar face.  But her expression revealed neither surprise nor recognition.  “Good morning,” she said pleasantly.

Leonard tried to say good-morning back, but it came out as more of a cough. 

“You brought some bread as well,” she observed.  “Good thing.  They’re greedy this morning.”

If she wasn’t surprised to meet the spitting image of a man she obviously knew well, Leonard wondered, was it possible she was expecting this encounter?  Had he been lured into some scheme, a diabolical plot orchestrated by this woman and his evil twin?  Maybe she’d been following him, he thought.  But she was in the park first.  Leonard didn’t know what to say or do, so he reached into his Ziploc and began tossing bits of toast to the birds.

“I don’t know why I love ducks so much,” the woman continued.  “I always have.  I remember in kindergarten we had to pick an animal sticker to put above our coat hooks to remember which one was ours.  The others all fought over the cool animals:  the cheetahs and crocodiles.  But I chose the duck.”  She looked up at Leonard with such a radiantly goofy smile, that he couldn’t help but smile back.  “My name’s Charlotte, by the way.”

“I’m Leonard.”

She held out her hand and Leonard reached for it, realizing too late that the traces of butter from his toast had made his hand greasy.  He felt himself turn red, but Charlotte didn’t seem to notice.  The hybrid duckling stepped a webbed foot right on top of her shoe and snatched a piece of bread from Charlotte’s hand.  Her laughter trilled out across the pond and Leonard’s heart fluttered.  He was confused.  How could he be so attracted to the woman who was quite possibly in cahoots with his doppleganger, planning his demise?

An awkward silence developed, punctuated by quacks.  Leonard searched desperately for words that might bring some clarity to the situation, or at least make him look a little less of a bumbling fool.  He needed some small talk, some popular topic of conversation.  “What do you think of the new iBall?” he blurted.

“Ah!  Don’t get me started!”  Charlotte said.  “It’s sooooo unfair that we have to wait a whole month longer to get them in Canada than in the States.  I’m just dying to get my hands on one.” 

Leonard stared.  His hand inside the bag of crusts trembled.  “You haven’t got it yet?” he half whispered.

“Of course not!”  Charlotte laughed.  “Nobody does.  Not this side of the border.  But I’ve reserved one from the first batch when it arrives.  I can’t wait.  I’m so excited about using the 3D camera!””   She emptied the last of her crumbs on the ground.  “That’s me done,” she said. 

The hybrid duckling waddled furiously after its mother back to the pond.

“Do you think --” Leonard sputtered, gulped, then tried again.  “I mean, I’d love to know if the iBall is as good as they predict.  Maybe we could get a coffee sometime?”

*

The restaurant Charlotte chose for their one-month anniversary celebration was exactly as Leonard had foreseen:  burnt-orange walls and a bottle of olive oil with rosemary on each table.  Leonard knew exactly which shirt to wear and had no trouble deciding on red wine over white.  They passed the brand new iBall back and forth, then handed it to the waiter who gushed over the sleek and sparkling tablet before snapping a photo of the happy couple. 

They shared tiramisu for dessert, but after three bites, Charlotte pushed the dish at Leonard and leaned back in her chair, exclaiming that she was stuffed.  He continued to eat, gazing at her all the while – he could have stared at her all day.  She glanced up as a group of people passed their table.

Suddenly a startled look crossed her face.

“Is something wrong?” Leonard

Charlotte waited a few moments until the passers-by were out of earshot then leaned in across the table.  “Didn’t you see that guy?” she said.  “He looks exactly like you!”

*

Julie Roorda is the author of three volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories and a novel for young adults.  She lives in Toronto where she works as a researcher, writer and editor. 

Fiction #68: N.T. McQueen

Badon-napoti

He did not wear headdresses and dance among the flames in his front yard beckoning rain with black hair braided to his topless waist. When he was sick, he visited a doctor, not a shaman. He lived under a roof in a cul-de-sac, not a buffalo canvas, and was born with the good Christian name Andrew. His parents and sisters worked on the southern side of the lake, on the government appointed land and the ever growing casino that expanded on it. From his bedroom, he could view the dry horizon of the island his parents called Badon-napoti which caused their eyes to glaze and the past took them away for a brief moment. As a boy, he wondered why their eyes stopped moving when they talked about the island and, in his pajamas, he would creep from his bed and rest his chin on his hands propped on the window sill and watch the island in the full moonlight. His oldest sister had told him that the full moon’s light illuminates the blood spilled there from that one day, though no one had told him what day she spoke of.

At his father’s caution, he had never gambled and gotten drunk once in 7th grade behind the gymnasium on the reservation and loathed the burn of vomit in his throat enough to stay him from alcohol for the remainder of his life. Swift Coyote and Firstborn teased and mocked his sobriety, his Christian name, and the reality they were all just drunk injuns waiting for the Great Drink to wash away centuries of the white man’s influence and sweep them from the reservation. Andrew argued against their cynicism and attempted to reason with his peers but they waved dismissive hands and up ended long bottles into the sky to perform what they called the true Pomo ceremony. Other than playing basketball and chasing white girls.

On the few occasions Andrew’s father arrived for dinner, the family would gather around the scratched pine table and eat cold prime rib, mashed potatoes, and soggy green beans leftover from the buffet. They ate in a reverent silence, the cutlery a dull scrape on the paper plates Andrew’s mother rinsed off for another use. Andrew’s three older sisters all had strong Yuki names and worked in the Big Valley Casino across the street, waiting tables and serving drinks to the whites in slacks and dresses. One night, when his father creaked through the front door just before midnight, smelling of nicotine, Andrew waited for him in the living room and asked why his sisters had been given indian names. His father’s frown etched into the corners of his mouth like most the older tribal leaders and he knelt before his son in the dark. Under the stars his ancestors once watched, he told him he named him Andrew to remember, but he did not finish his words. The next morning, Andrew asked his mother but she only hugged him and then continued to cook.

Most of his childhood was spent being taught at home by his mother. She made her own curriculum and often they explored outside, walking along the muddy banks and spying the shallows for frogs and water striders and the occasional garter snake. Sitting on tree stumps and fallen oaks, his mother weaved baskets with calloused fingertips as the women of her lineage had for centuries while Andrew recited the old Yuki trickster tales, throwing stones into the slow, rippling water toward badon-napoti. She would nod her head and prompt him in sections he forgot, pausing and staring across the waters in a morose contemplation. On the occasion their lessons lingered to evening, he would sit on her lap and listen to her soft hum as the sun turned the sky to fire and ducks bulleted their way across that brilliant backdrop in such a glimpse of serenity, even the mosquitoes dared not intrude on an education such as his.

The system rarely checked on the education Andrew received. Though enrolled through the district, the residing governance gave no serious attention to families living on the reservation. The annual visit they made lasted no more than ten minutes and the heavy white man in khakis and darkened armpits who came often mumbled and chewed the end of his pen. A horrid glaze from his eyes as the tule dolls and other holistic emblems of Yuki lore decorated the shelves. As he hurried out and drove away in his dented Ford Focus, Andrew’s mother watched the red lights dwindle down the cul-de- sac, leaning in the door frame with her chin held high. Andrew stood next to her and kept his eyes not on the car, but on his mother’s defiant pride and the tension resting in her crossed arms. She would sniff harshly through her nose and then look down at her dark haired son with his earthy, brown eyes. She smiled and remarked how funny it is that a rich white man would be so scared of a bunch of defeated savages. Andrew smiled and they laughed the bitterness from their souls as the cool breeze blew from across the lake.

As Andrew reached ten years, his upbringing no longer rested on the shoulders and intellect of his mother. The card dealers and cooks and bartenders and cocktail waitresses each imparted their perspectives on life as he meandered through the casino’s rooms. Most were born with Christian names but never addressed one another as such since the elders wished to create an ambience of traditionalism for the patrons. On slow afternoons, Andrew lingered in the gambling rooms and heard the old Indians talk of times before the casino, the click of poker chips in the background. Quick Eagle and He Who Fishes sat with amber hued glasses and cigarettes propped on the edge of their lips and recalled the whoops and rain dances they received at Port Lake High from the square jawed boys in their letterman jackets and how they hated that god damn Indian who cried when litter landed at his feet and how stupid their ancestors were to accept treaties from murderers.

Len, who the elders called Large Tree due to his towering height, dealt cards while the older Indians gambled and drank in the musky shadows of the place. A half-mocking hoot erupted from Quick Eagle like some Apache from a John Wayne film whenever the hit gave him twenty one. With his chin on his smooth arms, Andrew listened and watched these remnants of another ancestry and wondered if the old ways could somehow be rekindled or resurrected from where they were buried. He Who Fishes downed his shot and then glared at the boy through drowning pupils. Andrew pretended to not notice the uncomfortable gaze and the gruff, flat voice remarked how the white man’s god lives off the suffering of Indians and Keme must be drinking from the same cup to give his son such a brutal name. Len stopped, an ace clasped between the ends of two fingers and warned He Who Fishes with a menacing scowl. Their black eyes locked and, with a bitter side glance, the old Indian stood and stumbled off, tossing the orange ember of his cigarette onto the green felt, singeing a black mark upon it that stayed there for several years.   

Spring Flower waited tables and braided her black hair to her knees, sometimes coiling the strand until the thickness created a bulbous bun behind her. Her wide hips and stocky frame rocked from side to side as she balanced a silver tray and the liquid encased in the glasses but managed to slide gracefully without spilling a drop. On her breaks, Andrew sat in the employee’s lounge as Spring Flower dabbled eye shadow and rouge onto her harsh features and she exhorted Andrew to look beyond the reservation and find something we all had lost. Then she would clasp the compact shut with a clack and rise, smiling, and continue to serve.

Behind the bar, a heavy man with a smooth face and colorless skin named Hal Bronson cleaned glasses with a faded dishrag and talked of the importance of a proper education and how Port Lake was founded by great men like Chuck Stone who brought civility to the primitive people here and it is a shame if these people don’t take advantage of such a luxury. He paused occasionally to pour a glass for a somber Pomo or beer-bellied farmer whose earnings now swam through the rivers of unseen cash in this new hunting ground. Andrew ran the pads of his fingers down the sides of his water glass and feigned interest in the ramblings of Hal Bronson, meanwhile watching the shells of men coming to the bar and seeking solace, not only for their present, but, unknowingly, for all of time.

Keme would sometimes find Andrew asleep in the early morning hours in the casino and he would scoop his boy into his arms and carry him through the cold, moonless nights and cross Big Valley Road to the cul-de-sac and place him gently in his bed. On those nights, he leaned over him and stroked the black hair from Andrew’s forehead and prayed to whatever god would listen on Andrew’s behalf. Then he would return in his uniform and walk toward the casino’s lights, always present that beyond the false comfort of those lights lay the shadow of the island.

Andrew’s fourteenth birthday, his mother began complaining of pain throughout her body and exhaustion overtook her so that she could hardly stand. Doctor Robert Jamison drove over to meet her and, after examining her, concluded she had fibromyalgia.  Due to work, Keme could not school the boy and was forced to enroll him into Port Lake High School. The weekend before, Andrew sat by the lake and threw stones into the water and stared at the island and the hills beyond it. Each stone he gripped harder and threw faster until his arm gave out.

Monday morning, the long bus stopped on Big Valley Road at the end of the cul-de-sac and Andrew, seated on the curb with his backpack slung tight over his shoulders, boarded the bus. The green and blue eyes stared back at him in blank, uncomprehending stares. A bony Mexican boy nodded as if he comprehended but Andrew did not know exactly what he meant. He seated himself at the back of the bus and stared out the window painted with fingerprints as the casino and the land dwindled away, replaced by brick store fronts, churches, antique shops, gas stations, and, at the end, the sprawling buildings of the school. He had never known fences and the entwining of the metal chainlink surrounding the property loomed in his vision, rising taller and longer and wider than what was physically before him. As the scores of faces lined from the bus, he followed forward until he stood among a vast and crowded labyrinth of white faces he knew not how to navigate. If the others indifference did not consume them, their malice and rancor did and what Quick Eagle and He Who Fishes had lamented of themselves had continued in some malicious tradition. By the time he had arrived at first period late, his backpack strap had been torn and dangled at his side.

A cycle of violence and mockery ensued that first week with no sanctuary. Behind the stall doors they found him. Their rough hands and apish laughs bounced from his body and he spat the taste of toilet water from his lips. Again they found him in the cafeteria, among the crowd of hungry students but, even in the eyes of others, they altered their taunts and pulled hairs from their jeans and sprinkled them atop his tray. He sulked and snuck along the halls, not as a warrior, but as a rat, tail trembling and clinging to shadows. By Friday, he moved nomadic but, during lunch, they chased him and he darted through the first door into the library. A white boy sat at a desk alone, reading Foucult’s Discipline and Punishment, and lifted his indifferent eyes at Andrew. His pursuers burst the door open against the wall and Andrew turned to face them, the pale tones of fear surfacing against his darker skin. He dropped his eyes and waited for the blows but the reading white boy stood, his finger bookmarking the page, and stepped forward toward the trio of boys. The leader of the trio glanced at the white boy and said this had nothing to do with you, Larry and they threatened to beat him but the white boy stepped closer. He folded his arms and told them Andrew came from the line of Quanah Parker and, in brutal detail, explained how protective the Commanches are of their family and the obsessive means in which they exacted their vengeance on their enemies. The trio of boys slackened faces glanced at Andrew in a fear between skepticism and credulity. The white boy then stepped aside and left a line of attack for the trio to take against Andrew. They lingered a moment and then issued threats of future abuse as they slunk through the door they came.

The white boy turned and faced Andrew then shrugged his shoulders. Andrew asked him if what he said about Quanah Parker was true and the white boy nodded and walked past Andrew and resumed his seat to read as if no disturbance had occurred. Andrew’s desire to speak with him only ran surface deep and, awash with a silent gratitude, turned and left, always an eye open behind him.

He had heard of Commanches but never known the intricacies of their history and culture. The facts spoken by Larry in the library piqued his curiosity and, during breaks and lunch, slunk into the library and perused the tall shelves of colored spines. With arms loaded with historical texts and personal narratives, he checked out with the indifferent librarian who spent a majority of her time playing sudoku and lugged the heavy load home with him on the bus, straining the backpacks fibers. The trips were short and less hostile as he engrossed himself into a heritage and battle fought years ago, thousands of miles away. He read of the great battle the Commanches fought against the U.S. Military and how, for forty years, they rode like harbingers across the lifeless plains and the wind from their mustangs carried with it the stench of death. The unyielding resistance against God and man welled a sense of vicarious pride as he scurried through pages of biographies on Quanah Parker, the half-white Commanche warrior who wielded the souls of fallen white men like the angel of the tenth plague. The thick pages of photographs in the middle of the biographies stared back at Andrew and he admired the white and the Commanche also staring back at him from those frozen pictures.

The lie of his lineage protected him the remainder of his years at Port Lake High School. He would see Larry roaming the halls on occasion but never found courage to approach and talk with him. By the end of the year, Larry had left school and Andrew missed those crossyard views more than he had imagined. Vulnerability a constant threat in his psyche. Due to his informal education, the school had assigned him tutors who had the same color skin and hair and eyes. Sophomore year was a fit, square-jawed boy with wavy black hair named John Running Bear, who spoke of his Miwok heritage in a shameful tone and detoured into discussions about Journey and his favorite television shows. When Andrew asked him if he knew who Quanah Parker was, John looked at him as if he had spoken Pomoan and stuttered back into algebraic formulas. Junior year, a cross, scowling old Mexican woman whose lips sagged at the edge and lone hairs sprouted from her upper lip and rolled her eyes in an obsessive manner scolded him at his every mistake. He assumed the Principal couldn’t tell the difference.

His final tutor was a young, half-Yuki girl he recognized from the reservation named Beth who shone with an organic, ancient beauty he had never noticed. He relished the tutoring sessions and they spoke freely of the Yuki people and the casino and life on the res. How they both knew blackjack and Five Card Draw before they could count. While doing U.S. History, he would point to sentences with his finger and touch the side of her hand and that brush sent lightning through his gut and he thanked his complexion for hiding the blood in his cheeks. By the following June, he knew he would marry her.

Despite his new love, Andrew believed he had become a ghost in two worlds. Swift Coyote and Firstborn talked with him but, in their brown eyes, he could see barriers built there that would never accept him. Even Hal Bronson, still bartending despite his dialysis, greeted Andrew as an outsider. He would visit with his mother on her bad days, laying on her side in bed with the shades drawn and tell her about his struggles and how he felt about Beth. She would squeeze his hand gently and tell him we are all in between worlds, just not everyone knows it. It is the result of our circumstance. Then she would slip away and sleep, devoid of energy and desire. He would hold her hand until her breaths became steady and then he would return to the world he didn’t belong to.

The last week of his senior year, he would sneak out each night with Beth and they would sit on the docks and watch moonlight bounce off of Badon-napoti and Andrew told her how his sister, now a single mother, would tell him that moonlight revealed their old blood on the island. Beth, despite the amount of times he told her this, shuddered and slid close to his side and he would stroke her bare arm and smell her scalp and the fragrant aroma imbued in the hairs. On that final night before he would graduate, he asked Beth by the moonlight and before Badon-napoti if she would marry him and, reaching for her hand, wrapped fibers from a dry reed around her finger and promised he would find a proper ring but she shook her head and threatened to scalp him should he remove the reed from her finger.

Two weeks after graduation, they were married like Yuki lovers on the reservation, though only few would come. They moved into a small, two bedroom home on the very cul-de-sac he had learned life. He allowed his mother to come over and decorate the home with trinkets and coyote fur and speak the old blessings of protection over the home. Beth kept a Gideon Bible in the nightstand, next to the holy beads her grandmother, a curandera, had given her as a girl. The first night as a married man, Andrew stood by the doorway and surveyed his modest dwelling and, despite his liminal name, he felt home for the first time since his birth.

Andrew started working in the casino bussing tables, vacuuming, and mopping floors under the watchful eye of his father, who beamed with a silent pride at his son’s decision. His father would smile and pat his son on the back and Andrew returned a smile somewhere between content and despair. While washing mugs, wine glasses, and buffet plates, he thought of Quanah Parker and, in his battle against the invaders, if he ever sat alone on the vast and empty prairie of Comancheria and stared into the fire of the Midwestern sunsets and longed to be absolute, to be one inside. If the expanse of his territory would ever, could ever, be dwindled and hacked down to acreage and casinos and bordered by fences without his own permission.

After his shift in the dark of early morning, Andrew would exit the casinos back entrance and, by the moonlight, walk back to his home and believe he heard the new ancient voices speak through the wind, but never had confidence in this belief.

A year after they married, Beth and Andrew had a son and, as he held the boy in the early hours of the night and jostled him gently to sleep against his shoulder, he sang Yuki rain songs his grandmother had taught him and popular songs from the Police. He walked the rooms and sang, bouncing the boy close to his chest so the timbre of his voice resonated in his son’s bones. On Wednesdays, when the casinos stood mostly empty save for gambling addicts and old men, Andrew and Beth would have dinner at his parents, along with two of his sisters. The third youngest had received a scholarship to Humboldt State and came down only for Thanksgiving and Christmas, speaking impassioned about the plight of her people. They would eat and talk and play until his mother’s energy had all but abandoned her and they would say their goodbyes and head home.

Still, he felt divided when his father spoke his name and he dwelt everlong on the island. The name chosen to never forget as his father had told him. In candid moments, he would ask his mother, if her health permitted, but she would not wish to talk of it. Nor would his father, who only shook his head at the question and repeated the same, ambiguous answer Andrew had received all his life. While vacuuming, he even inquired of Len, still dealing blackjack, who just shrugged and confessed that no one really talked of those old of days and that it was probably best to not think about them anyway. This is our life.

The desire burned longer and he believed the lack in his life rested on knowledge of his name. He told this to Beth who laughed and told him his name is just a name. But the nag of his spirit continued. They had a daughter and he remained in his position with the casino despite his father hinting he would help him advance. But when the promotion never arrived, Andrew stuck fast to the belief his name had prevented it. That his moniker had somehow offended God and the Coyote so that he would not be blessed by either. His only reprieve came when the pure faces of his progeny laughed when he walked through the door.

The morning after being passed over, Andrew awoke at dawn and, in the humid, rotting air that wafted from the lake, he left his home and sleeping family and walked to the shore. Facing him stood the island. The sun rising above its uneven horizon and the hills as legends said were the remnants of giants that once lived there, now asleep. The sun rose red into the smoke littered air. He glanced behind him at the silent casino and then back to the island. In his sweatpants and Big Valley Casino shirt, he stepped into the cool water, feeling the mud bubble between his toes and his clothes cling to his skin. He continued to walk closer and deeper, until the water rose above his head. He swam out to the island, steady strokes as water glided over him and his wet, black hair stuck over his eyes. Exhausted, he reached the shore and hoisted himself onto the ground, overgrown with grass and weeds and thistles. Each step released faint sounds he had never heard before, spoke out in lament. Not far from his landing, there stood a stone monument with a plaque.

Dripping water in suffocating clothes, he walked the dry, grassy hill toward the stones. In the language of the white man, it told of Bloody Island as a place of native gatherings until May 15, 1850 when a regiment of the 1st dragoons of the U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Captain Nathaniel Lyon and Lieutenant J.W. Davidson, massacred nearly the entire native population of the island. Most were women and children. This act was in reprisal for the killing of Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone who had long enslaved, brutalized, and starved indigenous people in the area.

Andrew leaned upon the stone monument and stared at his name upon the plaque and ran his finger over the raised letters. As he traced the letters of his name, an ancient rage and vengeance boiled inside him. The sun over the burning hills now shone upon him and he knew he heard the voices cry out from the earth of this island. The stones and trees and dust lifted in one mournful chorus and he flexed his arms outward and released his rage into the air, stinging his throat. He tore at his soaking clothes until he stood naked upon the island. He faced the casino, water and tears and blood dripping from him and he welled a voice of generations behind him and bellowed a war-like scream across the land, repeating I am Quanah until all of creation, white and Indian, heard.

When his voice had left him, he swam back and trudged down the cul-de-sac to his home and opened the door. The rising sun illuminated behind him as he stood in the doorway, dripping, and Beth, holding his daughter and his son singing the ancient songs of Andrew’s youth. His tears of his new life welled and poured their joy from him. Beth’s worried eyes looked on his soaking figure and before she could ask, he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her as a puddle formed on the floor and he told her these were his tears and he would wear his name for no one but himself.  

*

N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel, Between Lions and Lambs, The Disciple, and the children's book, Moses Jones and the Case of the Missing Sneaker. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento and his work has appeared in issues of The Kentucky Review, The Grief Diaries, Gold Man Review, Camas: Nature of the West, West Trade Review, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three daughters.

You can learn more at www.ntmcqueen.com.

Fiction #68: S.L. Fleming

Sacrifices

The high-pitched whine of afternoon prayer emanates through the fog of heat and humidity.  “Keep her in the shade.” Nola smiles and closes the door gently behind her, holding a refilled water bottle in her other hand.   Eliza is already pink and sticky from the heat, and ready for her nap. Nola knows her rhythms as she puts her to sleep at night and in the day, but packs to go out.  Eliza is the apple of her mom’s eye, until social plans get in the way.

Nola meets a tall woman on the driveway, wearing white jeans that crease at her thighs, rounded and shapely in high heels named Freya.

“Hey Eliza.”   She bends down and gives the young girl a kiss on the head. “You won’t mind taking Maggie?”  She pushes her daughter towards Nola, on a giant plastic pushbike guided by a steering handle.  Freya is Grace’s old boss. Grace ran out on her family; there were hard feelings.  Grace got herself into the sort of trouble you don’t play around with in the United Arab Emirates.  Nola knew all about it of course but couldn’t let on; you were a part of the family until you crossed them.

Grace told Nola how she had begun Sunday evening walks to avoid the sounds of family life from inside her small windowless room.  She would see the Pilipino group at church and sometimes have lunch, but she couldn’t face her little room at night listening to the sounds of family.   The sticky evening heat carried her on the abras in Bur Dubai; night-lights glistened on black waters. She would stroll when it got late.  On Saturdays Al Safa Park was a sea of Southern Asian faces, clean and smartly dressed, socializing, eating, outside.  It’s where they came together, once a week on their only day off to be themselves.  She went for the crowds, the smells from blankets lovingly layered with spreads of home cooked food, curries and jasmine flowers. Crispy pompadoms peeked out from grey kitchen towels. Love into starch and meat for hardworking middle management husbands sweating out the days for high rises that crop up like hives. No man that scaled the scaffolding could afford to keep his family local.  Babies paraded with thin gold chains kinking on their fine necks, on the arms of fathers; men in their domain. Their bodies off-gassed their joy; she absorbed it to survive.  She looked through the bent shoulders and broken strides along the river:  the abused, broken, trapped.  Then she saw him, leaning against a paint chipped Bollard, used to hold fast the great vessels long enough to unload their burdens in cargo boxes, his one leg dangling over the canal.  He wasn’t happy or sad, posed arrogant in his melancholy. He eyed her up and down.   She liked it: the surge of energy and moistness between her legs.  It’s what brought her here in the first place, to raise money for her daughter.  She kept walking.

*

He followed her down the path and spoke of home and the burden to prevent family going hungry.  He knew some of her friends, at the hospital, where she worked her first three years.  Then he told her about the bus. How they pushed it over just off the Sheik Zayed Road, two weeks ago.  It fell into the gravel and they picked up rocks and sand and threw into the eyes of their supervisors.   Men tired of crowded barracks, bed sharing bunks, long shifts in unbearable heat that sends men home in body bags with dilated hearts, and other ailments unheard of in the young.  The revolt was crushed, said he never heard from his contact again.  Men guarded now back to strolling in the orange sand to wash, wrapped in sarongs, slim as pins, solid as the earth.  Snitches paid to rat on the insurgents, quashing any group discussions.  She suspected there were meetings at Safa Park; it was just a feeling, amongst the families spread out on blankets.

*

“Things are changing.” He said.

Something about the riot broke her guard, welcomed abandonment; she let him in.  Gil didn’t work in construction; he delivered Thai food on a motorbike, for most clients he looked close enough to give their noodles an authentic taste. His round face and slightly rounded eyes, broad forearms, strong from maneuvering the moped on unpaved roads and heavy traffic, felt a nice weight on her.

*

Grace looked through the old papers in the recycling, her English wasn’t great but she could manage.  She couldn’t find any news about the insurgency.  She believed him though, as she felt the heat in the conversation amongst the men at the park.  Her Sundays became a search for places to make love.  She would iron the straps of her cotton tanks, carefully selected from Carrefour, or hand me downs from various madams tailored to smaller fit.  She put on makeup, and painted her toes.

“You’re looking lovely tonight?”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“What are you up to?”

“Seeing friends.”

She kept her romance to herself, Madam always asked after her love life, as if they were two women out to lunch gossiping.   Grace didn’t trust her with her heart, as it broke daily at the separation from her own daughter.  Her own flesh left to be raised by cast off clothes and toys, wrapped in parcel paper mailed from Dubai.  Her holiday was always cut short as ma’am always had extenuating circumstances; needed her help.  She remembered the look on Ma’am’s face when she asked for a small advance to pay school fees, the way she tensed up and handed her the crisp bills sliding them over onto her hand, each bill laid down with a reminder to remember her place.

So she kept to herself that first time, she had hired a taxi, she couldn’t wait to meet him, he kissed her long and hard, as greeting.  She slumped over onto him in the back of the van and sobbed.  He’d wiped her face with the soft animal faced blanket trimmed with satin edges.  He was kind, listened to her woes about her daughter at home with her mother. 

“She’ll have a better life because of you.” He said.

It’s the normal story here.

He was there waiting for so many Sundays, long hair tucked behind his ear to see her better, until he wasn’t anymore.  Nothing had come of the riots, working conditions the same, and now she was with child, nothing left to do but arrive back home shame faced and alone.  She thought he might be different but he always felt too good; him inside her, hot against her, his weight on her freed her from the heaviness of grief and longing she carried in the week.  She wanted to be caught up in the change, the revolt, drunk on love.

She knew she had to make a plan, straight away, long before the nausea kicked in she felt something shift in her.  Nola and some of the girls from the hospital who arrived in Dubai the same time, chipped in money for her ticket home.  One of the nurses heard there was a problem and gave them a crisp 500 dirham note to add to the pool, just like that, what a cleaner earned in a month.  The Pilipino hospital women bunked together, seven in a small room, sharing food, treats and clothing.  Some of the Western girls were shocked to find out so many shared a room; the loneliness would have been unbearable without the others.  Most moved onto better paying private jobs, but the gang met once a month.  The socializing has quieted down as so many have married or gone back home. 

They brought the money to a Sunday afternoon picnic.  Grace had cried.   Feeling thought she had hit the big time moving into that big villa seven bedrooms and her space enough to fit a cot bed and a little table. She missed the older women who had left their children before, who gave her comfort and guidance

*

She planned a recce in the closet area where she knew they kept all the important documents, the shoes were stacked in rows, near the top of the shelf that had a big box, filled with paper work, her contract, school forms and passports at the bottom.  Her passport was locked, with the jewelry.  She picked up a shoe, shiny beige, Jimmy Choo, not a knock off from Safa, set it down, and then opened the box. Getting the key hadn’t been difficult.

Grace told Nola how she had watched out for the key to the metal box; madam had it so if she needed to change her jewelry she had access.  Her key ring lay in the bowl on the console table, when she was home.

Her friends knew she didn’t have access to her passport but then everyone knew how it went.  At the hospital you handed in your passport when you signed up for duty, under the guise of them caring for its’ safety.  We all knew what that really meant after working for a few months.  So no one could get any ideas about their holidays or job changing or pulling a runner. 

Grace waited for a party night, when the drinks were flowing and she heard them drunk in the garden.  The soft rap at the door, indiscernible for most, but she was waiting.  She slipped the key through the door.

“Be back in 2 hours.” Michael said, as he slipped the key in his pocket.

The key missing from the ring wouldn’t be noticed during a night of socializing, she hoped.  Michael did a lot of night errands.  Michael was a kind and gentle handyman that looked after people in our community. He had been here over 15 years, and had seen all varieties of trouble people could get into. He and Lorraine worked to send money home to their teenagers whom they would Skype with on Sundays.  Their teenagers were distant and angry with them, so they parented the local community.   He didn’t ask the reason; he came to get a key cut for me because Lorraine said I needed it.

Two hours later, another knock and I had the key.

*

“I need the toilet, Maggie watch your show.”  Grace had said.

She turned on the TV and went to get her passport information.  She’d get it for letting Maggie watch cartoons again.  But it would be her last stupid gaze and smile agreeing with the lecture.

*

The lock popped open with a spring action the heavy bulk of it smacked against the box.  It wasn’t a fancy lock, pretty basic, but enough to keep a maid out.
   
She went in and opened the lock, checked her passport location, verified the expiry date and wrote down the number.  She was only 4 months along, yet her slim build was thickening at the middle, her body was experienced at pregnancy, baggy clothing wouldn’t hide her for much longer.

She had second thoughts for a moment, unsure of where she belonged, her daughter now 4, an abstract reality to her.  Her lover, the van, and the plush blanket that they lay on together in the delivery van his friend lent them on Saturdays.  How their slippery lovemaking on those hot nights and tender admissions of loss, sadness and rebellion were the closest to belonging somewhere.

But she knew if she stayed he would disappoint her, and she would go to jail.  She let her daughter down once, not again.  She closed the box, slipped her details in her pocket and went back to the living room.

“Grace, what have I told you about TV!” Madam said.

She came back early.

“Sorry ma’am.”  She scooped up Maggie and threw her in the air, relieved to be one step closer to her goal.

“We play now Maggie.”  She got out the puzzle and turned the pieces over to see the images.

“Can’t turn my back for a minute.”  Madam mumbled as she exited the room.

“Can you get Maggie ready to go swimming?”

……………………………

She used a kerchief to wipe her forehead as she stepped into the coolness of the van.  Grace drove with Michael and Lorraine Saturday night to buy the ticket.  Nola held her hand; it felt warm despite the air-conditioning.  Grace’s cheeks were pink and full, on a mission now, she spoke about her poverty back home as a welcome embrace, if it meant being with her daughter.  Nola didn’t allow for those thoughts to creep in, it made for such long days.

“This baby is freeing me from my prison.”  Grace said.  She was fierce then as she pounded her thigh with a fist.  But she cried when Nola put her arm around her.

All of Grace’s savings plus the pool of money paid for her ticket.  All she needed was her passport in her hands to make the flight next Saturday.

Maggie vomited all Tuesday night, then Grace began Wednesday, and Ma’am on Thursday.   Ma’am didn’t get out of bed for 2 days.

Saturday she stayed with Maggie while Madam went out.  She was careful not to let the curious girl know, she was loyal to her mother though they spent little time together and she longed for her attention. 

Maggie didn’t want to nap today.  Grace was becoming frantic, this was her chance to get the passport, and it was now or never. 

She remembered the anti-nausea tablets they had used for the vomiting, they made Maggie really sleepy.  She couldn’t read the package exactly but remembered Madam gave her two tablets, Grace crushed two from the box she found in the cabinet and put it in her juice.  Maggie went down for her nap. Grace got her passport.  Maggie didn’t wake up for dinner.

Madam was home and worried about Maggie at dinnertime.  Grace was ready to sneak out that morning at 0300 as her flight was at 0600.  Michael would wait outside and take her to the airport.

“We need to go to the hospital.”  Madam said.

“She’s just tired, too sick.”  Grace said.

“Pack her bags!” She said.  Grace packed some spare pajamas, a few books, her bunny and a bottle of water and crackers.   They drove to the hospital together.  Grace moved the two small presents for her daughter into her knapsack with her wallet and plane ticket and documents in case she needed to leave from the hospital.

The drive goes fast and they don’t wait long at the hospital.  After they assess Maggie, and take her history they admit her for observation.  Maggie starts to convulse shortly after.  They give her an IV.  It midnight Madam is screaming and they asked if she took anything, medicine.  The doctor is looking at Grace as Ma’am is holding Graces’ arm.

“DID SHE???”  Madam is hysterical now squeezing hard on her arm.  The alarm is beeping and a nurse runs in sticking things on Maggie’s chest.

“She was vomiting again.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“How much did you give her.??”

“HOW MANY!!?”

Grace shrinks away from the big pupils and her angry face, there is chaos.  She looks over to see Maggie’s small body, her chest thrusting up and down, her head lurching back.

“I’m sorry.”  All attention is on Maggie; Madam slaps Grace on the face.  She spots a young health aide, looking at her.  She points to an emergency exit that Grace effortlessly disappears into, expert at being invisible after years of practice. 

Grace finds a motorcyclist without a delivery, leaving the hospital, and gets a lift to her building for 15 Dirhams.  She hides in the parking lot waiting for Michael.  He drives her to the airport.  She is silent in the back.

She hugs him and thanks him.

The plane is on time and she boards with no trouble.  Sleep won’t come to her, flashes of Maggie in the bed; she rubs her tummy shielding her new baby from her thoughts.

*


S.L. Fleming says, "I live in London,England with my husband and two boys; I accept that Power Rangers and crowded housing is part of my life. I work part-time for a charity after years of being home full-time, and enjoy the variety, ability to focus and use of skills from my time as a midwife in Canada.  Becoming an immigrant encouraged my venture into writing because I needed to put all the transition in a place.  I listen to Joni Mitchell when I am missing my roots."

Fiction #68: Nilofar Shidmehr

Yellow Light

I have come to see Arman’s girlfriend, Aazeen. I am half an hour early. She and Arman finish their work at five. I have heard from her former boyfriend, Mehrdaad, that Aazeen has recently found Arman a job at her office. Mehrdaad has given me the address. I await them in an alley.

It is one of Tehran’s windy nights. The shadows would have played havoc with my camera’s exposure. I have disguised myself in the same black chador that I used to wear when, for ten years, I would visit Arman in prison. This morning I had to rummage in my storage closet to find it, crumpled, in a plastic bag under an old shoe box containing my childhood photographs. I am wearing my green headscarf underneath so that the dirty chador will not touch my hair. 

People pass by as I shuffle along a brick wall, awaiting Arman and Aazeen. Most of them seem to be in rush to get back home and have dinner with their family. I am in no hurry. My family used to be Arman who now walks past me, making me move and chase him down the sidewalk. As I have expected, he is with Aazeen—the woman whose name means bundle of lights—a bundle of lights used for celebrating, for showcasing, for illuminating something else. That something else is Arman, whom Aazeen highlights with her youthfulness and naiveté. Otherwise, she has nothing special about her. Mehrdaad, who used to be Aazeen’s boyfriend and Arman’s best friend, thinks that I am special. He has told me to come and find this out for myself.

I follow Arman’s every step like a camera boom following an actor. He strides along, pulling the woman with him, the woman he started dating when he was still living with me, the woman with whom he was on the phone on and on, the woman whose name he did not reveal to me and I had to learn from Mehrdaad—Aazeen, a bundle of lights who adorns Arman’s life.

A couple and their children suddenly turn onto the sidewalk in front of me and joins a lineup by a bus stop. I wait until they pass, still keeping an eye on Arman as he moves further away, listening to my racing heart thump in my ears. Gripping the strap of my bag on my shoulder with one shaking hand and holding the chador under my chin with the other, I quickly cut between the crowd and run up the street.

“Idiot,” someone shouts after me.

I arrive at the intersection almost out of breath. A crowd is waiting for the traffic light to change. Searching for Arman, I stand on tiptoe and finally spot him by his bald scalp. They are standing at the front of the pack. I push myself into the crowd and shorten the gap separating me from him. Now I am close enough to keep his profile in my view but not too close to be noticed.  As soon as I start marveling at Arman’s new goatee, he lowers his head towards his girl. This makes me venture closer to them and think of ripping my chador from my body, pushing Aazeen aside, and taking her place. But I stop beside a tall man with a peaked cap and hide myself behind him. From there I can safely watch Arman without having to see that woman. He looks different, even behaves differently, like a typecast actor finding himself in a new role alongside a star.

The red reflection of the traffic light shines on Arman’s face. I remember how I’d fallen in love with him when I first saw him on the stage, bathed in a red light. I made up my mind that night to play the role of his beloved in his real life. That night, wearing the green dress he found alluring, I stood face to face with him, watching his lips move. Now his lips are whispering something in the ear of that other woman leaning on his shoulder.

I peek over the shoulder of the man beside me to see Aazeen’s face but am prevented by their closeness. My fists curl on their own. They want to punch Arman in the face, but not the real me. I still desire him, I still hope to be able to gather my strength, shove the girl aside, draw my husband to me, and inhale his breath instead of this cold wind gusting in my face.

He is right there, not behind bars. Only a few steps away. Alive. The day he left me I had promised myself that the next time I’d see him, I’d raise my hand and slap him right across his face. Mehrdaad, however, says that Arman did not walk out on me, that I was the one who threw him out. He is right: I told Arman to leave. But I did not mean it and he knew that very well.

Mehrdaad says that I should have put up with Arman longer and given him more time. Strange thing to say to a woman who is called a patient stone by her family. Mehrdaad also thinks that my suspicion that Arman and Aazeen had an affair put the idea of romance in Arman’s head. “You made Arman fall in love with the idea of loving Aazeen,” he says.

I disagree because I know how old and unattractive I have become because of all I have gone through during the years Arman was in prison. Unlike me, Azeen is young. She is a bundle of lights, after all. Every time I say this, Mehrdaad laughs, “Even if she were, those lights are cheap; they will burn fast.” 

Mehrdaad tells me that Arman is a fool, a coward. I deserve someone better, one who does not take me for granted, one who sees me as the real deal. “Arman cannot see,” Mehrdaad says, “that you are the real light, the real delight, not Aazeen.”

Aazeen is hidden from my view now and all I can see is Arman. He has gained weight and his clean-shaven face seems fuller. The red light reflects on his long forehead, recalling once again my memory of him years ago at Tehran’s City Theatre. The memory makes me want getting closer to him and  catch his gaze. And then what?

Thinking of an answer, my fingers gather again, the way they have done every night with a stress-ball for more than a year. It was Mehrdaad who suggested to me to practice with the stress-ball, after I told him that my boss, one of the Channel Two TV directors, had warned me that he won’t tolerate any more blurred rushes. Nevertheless, the camera continued to shake in my unsteady fingers and my heart raced every time I remembered the day Arman left.

The same thing is happening to me now: like a love-bird whose mate has just died in the cage, my heart throws itself fiercely against the wall of my chest. The sound echoes in my head. I hide behind the tall man with the hat and try to calm down, as I continue watching the couple from the back.  Azeen is still holding onto Arman’s arm, but then lets it go and starts rummaging in her bag. At the same time, the light turns green and I start to move along with the crowd. Looking back, I notice that Arman and Aazeen are standing still. I also try to stop moving, to resist the flow of people pushing against me and driving me to the right. I am nevertheless pushed along by the tide and end up some distance from the couple I am interested in. Holding my chador tightly around me, I shut my eyes and listen to the rustling of clothes and the stamping of feet. It is as if I am standing in an ancient battlefield, refusing to take action while listening to the clash of swords and shields around me. Trying to stand straight, I open and close my fist every time somebody bumps into me. Then I let my hands go slack. I remove my imaginary armor, and bare my breast to be stabbed. Dying on that battlefield in my mind, my life plays out before me.

You, Arman, were on the phone with the woman whose name you would not reveal. Yes, on and on, on the phone with her. For many months. Early every morning when I left for work, you were in a deep sleep, too tired from being on the phone. All day at work I could think of nothing else but you and the woman on the other end of the line. When I could not bear it any longer, I started call sick and stayed at home only to watch you on the phone, giving advice to the woman I never saw, Mehrdaad’s girlfriend.

“She needs my help,” you said. From your words, I knew that her relationship with your best friend was on the verge of a breakup.

“But this is not your business,” I said.

“Yes, it is,” you answered. “The suffering of people has always been my business. This is nothing new. You know well that I stood up and fought for what I thought was right. Can’t you remember who you are married to?”

How couldn’t I remember? I was the one who every day prayed for you to survive, the one who waited for ten years until you were out of prison, waited for the man you’d changed into. During the first two years of your imprisonment when you were held in Evin prison, every time I came to visit you, I expected to hear that you had been executed. We women waited in the cold in a long line along the prison’s wall.

One time a woman received the news of a death and began crying loudly. We begged her to cry under her chador, not to be heard. They would cancel visits if we didn’t keep order in the line. When she did not stop, a few women circled tightly around her, holding onto her hands while she clawed her face. They fixed her chador on her disheveled hair, and covered her face with their black chadors. Then they took her under their arms so she would not collapse. After seeing she could not stand for long, they took her and her children out of the line.

I had taken many women away from that high cement wall of the prison with barbed wire on the top, thinking that soon a day would arrive when the women would take me out of the line, and, if I tried to bang my head against the wall, would fix my hijab and tell me that I should go home. I knew that you wouldn’t get a proper burial, and that they’d force me to keep quiet about your death. You see what I had to endure: not only the fear of your death but also not knowing where you would be buried?

Night after night, I feared the day when they would cover my mouth with their hands, eyes emerging from chinks in their tightly wound chadors and remind me that my wails would only make the situation worse, that I would be forbidden to receive your belongings: your clothes, toothbrush, watch, wedding ring, or any small thing you’d left behind. Throughout the years, the years that they moved you from one notorious prison to the other, first from Evin to Ghezel-Hesar and later from Ghezel-Hesar to Gohardasht in Karaj, further and further from Tehran, I stayed up at nights before the visit and prayed to God to keep you alive. I never told you about my prayers. I knew you would scold me for trying to believe in God. You said God was the product of the imagination of the oppressed—those desperate ones who rely on supernatural powers to save them.

“You and I depend only on ourselves for our liberation. Remember?”  You would look me straight in the eye and I would nod my head.

One day when you still were in Evin, a man from the prison called me unexpectedly and told me to go behind the Luna Park, Tehran’s great amusement park. Of all places! I thought they wanted to give me your belongings. That’s it, I told myself, as I hung up. My prayers were all useless. God does not exist: my Arman is gone, shot dead, like the others. But no, it was just a new place for visits, a place nobody would suspect, a part of the amusement park where they set up a base.  The park was closed for the winter anyway. I arrived at the gate by noon, as where a revolutionary guard asked my name and checked in a book. My hands started trembling, thinking of your belongings I would receive in a sealed package. I looked down at my wedding ring.

The place was empty except for a few large booths at the back. I felt dizzy, gazing at the empty green, yellow and red seats of a rollercoaster in the distance. The colors blurred into one another and my head started spinning. To prevent myself from falling, I squatted down on the ground. I had ridden on those seats as a child. My father used to take us to Luna Park every summer when we came to Tehran for holidays. I always chose a green seat, my brothers red seats, and my sisters the yellow seats. I continued crouching down until I saw military boots walk towards me. So I stood up, still feeling dizzy, hearing in my head the joyful children screaming.

It was crazy thinking how much I wanted to have a child of my own exactly at that moment. It was crazy because I was already old and you were most probably dead. I started laughing out loud. The armed guard who accompanied me towards the queue scolded me. He thought I was crazy. I did not care; I was crazy, waiting there without knowing how much more I would wait until they threw the news of your death in my face, along with the package with your wedding ring. But I didn’t want belongings, I wanted a child. I laughed so loud that my stomach churned.

The waiting finally ended that day. They called me inside the booth and there you were, reborn.

This is the child I need, I thought.  Right in front of me, just a few short steps away, you were sitting on a chair, blindfolded. The guard took off your blindfold and the joyful children in my head screamed with excitement, as when a rollercoaster pauses at the summit and suddenly begins to plunge toward the earth. I saw a girl on a green seat, eyes aglow.

From then on, I visited you every month at the base behind the Luna Park. My parents asked me to go back to Shiraz and stay with them. But I refused. I stayed alone in Tehran where the prison was, where the amusement park was, where you were and where I came to visit you.    

I became thinner each time I saw you until I was nothing but skin and bone. Just like you. I bit my lips to keep from crying. You were silent most of the time. You and I sat face to face, while a bulky man armed with a Kalashnikov stood guard over us, behind him a picture of the severe-looking Khomeini. Your body became diminished, your long forehead longer every time, like a man hanging on a cross. Your bones shook as you tried to say a word and the guard told you to shut up. Sweat oozed from your full-grown beard and shone on your long brow under the dim lights. Your skin was jaundiced.  I cowered, closing my mouth with my shaking fingers to prevent the screams echoing in my head from pouring out. You clenched your teeth and grabbed your knees, rocking your body back and forth.

Later on, in August 1988, they suddenly cancelled all appointments for more than a month. It was around the time the war with Iraq ended. People in the streets were happy because their worries finally came to an end. I, however, grew more worried every day. Why no appointment? I took the bus and went to Karaj to Gohardasht prison, where they had moved you six months ago. They told me to go back home and not to worry. “We are doing renovations in the prison. Soon after they are over, you will get an appointment.” I did not trust them. I came home and searched for the phone number of Ahmad’s wife. I knew Ahmad was also an inmate in Gohardasht. She horrified me with the news about what was happening inside the prisons. The news had already spread among the families. I was the only one who did not have a clue. I was the only one who was out the loop for a long time.

Ahmad’s wife told me that, since the war with Iraq was over, they wanted to clean the prisons of their remaining opponents before starting fresh—a new era. She started crying when she went to details: they took the prisoners and asked them if they believed in God and the prophet Mohammad—if they still had faith in Islam. If a prisoner said no, he was finished. Even if he was serving a previous sentence. Her words were interrupted by a constant sobbing: “For a month now, the meat trucks are brought to carry the dead bodies to Khavaraan.” It was the first time I heard the name Khavaraan, a deserted place several kilometers outside Tehran where they dumped dozens of hanged prisoners into mass graves.

After I hung up, I went straight to the closet to pull out a prayer rug I’d brought with me from Shiraz when I went for my father’s funeral. Shuddering under my white chador, I prayed all night that you would not be as stubborn as those who continued denying God’s existence—that you had faith in something bigger than yourself or your ideas, something that would keep you alive. Maybe even something like my love. Maybe you wouldn’t mock the goddess of love the same way you mocked God. 

Eventually, when you started having long conversations with Mehrdaad’s girlfriend on the phone, with the woman whose name you would not reveal, I lost faith in the goddess too. I lost faith in my power to make you love me.

“Why do you do this?” I asked you. “Your giving advice to Mehrdaad’s girlfriend makes me feel like a stranger.”

“I promised to keep everything confidential.”

“But I am your wife,” I objected.

“Confidential—not even you,” you said with a straight face.

While you were still incarcerated, I avoided everybody’s calls. Even those from my own parents. I cut ties with my brothers and sisters. I could not answer their questions, could not tell them what was happening to you. Then came the news of my father’s death and I had to reconnect. I saw my siblings at the funeral in Shiraz. They gazed at me as if it were my fault that our father died so soon and unexpectedly. They were waiting for me to apologize to them for marrying you. Only divorcing you could count as a proper apology. When I remained silent, they gazed at me as if it were I, not father, who was dead. Recently I heard from auntie Maheen that they told everyone I had behaved boldly at dad’s funeral, wearing a green headscarf, as if I were at a wedding. I did not say that father had asked me, years ago, to wear green at his funeral. He had told me that green was my color. Remember that you shared his opinion!  My siblings had also talked behind my back that I was the only one who had not shed tears. I could not remember if this were true.

I came back home lonelier than ever. But still I did not lose faith. I had hopes that you’d last for me, showing, after all, that God exists. I wanted you and I wanted a child with you. I believed that Allah would save you. And He did. Not you, but that man they turned you into. Your body shrunk in half; I could easily have lifted you up in my arms. But I was forbidden to even touch you. I had to wait until you came back home.

The first few weeks after your release from prison, you wanted to sleep alone. You had no strength to hold me, so I held you, silently. Your face, with that long forehead I used to adore, had also shrunk to no larger than a baby’s face—the baby I desired to have with you. You escaped my embrace. You said that your body hurt everywhere. You could not sleep.

Soon I gave up the thought of having a child with you. Instead, I decided to film you, to have all of you on camera, the same as I had my whole family, my parents and five siblings. Then I could look at you even when they’d arrest you again, could have what was left of you all for myself: All of the Arman you’d become, taut skin hanging on the bone, rolling over in our bed.

It could have been a perfect movie, my artistic masterpiece, but then you saw the camera’s shadow while you moved out of one of your nightmares towards me. You took the camera for a gun aimed at you and shouted. You took me for one of them and shouted again, louder than I’ve ever heard someone scream, even those women lining along the Evin prison wall.

You yelled so hard with all your bones that I was afraid they would shatter into splinters on the bed. You thought they’d come to take you back to ‘the coffin’—to one of those boxes in which they made prisoners at Ghezel-Hesar sit for months, crouched—to one of those boxes that smelled of urine, blood, and rotting flesh. In one of those boxes from which most prisoners were sent straight to the psychiatric ward at Amin-Abaad. During those long stretches in the coffin, you lost track of everything, even your name.

Between the walls of my room, I lost track of life, too. I was suspended between heaven and earth, hanging on to anything, even a thin rope of faith, which could give way at any moment. I had also forgotten who I was until one day when I came back from visiting you, clad in black from head to toe, opened the door to our apartment and accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in our wedding mirror. Only then did I know that I was a widow, an old wretched widow, one who has never given life to a child.

After that incident, when you almost destroyed my camera, you did not come back to our bed. You slept one time on the roof, another time on the balcony, even once in a hole in our yard, burying yourself in the ground, the way you saw them bury your friends alive. I slept on your side among the cold sheets, feeling like an orphan and shivering.

One night, a few weeks later, you unexpectedly slipped back into my embrace. I kissed your body when you were sleeping. Was it because you started having faith in the power of my love that your health and appetite improved? You started going out, doing errands and shopping. I left extra money on the table so you could buy yourself whatever you liked.

I had saved that money for this day: for the day when you will live with me under one roof. I wanted to save this day for myself forever. That is why I filmed you again. Yet this time I was the hero of the story. I set the camera on a tripod by the bedroom door and fixed it to take your close-up, and slept beside you in new satin lingerie, with closed eyes, watching myself in my mind, in your embrace. I was a child on a carousel, holding the bar with one hand, while clutching in the other a banana-flavored ice cream. My eyes were glowing with excitement, my mouth open,  when you started shouting and startled me out of that sweet sensation. I also started screaming.

I was falling off the carousel, both my hands grabbing on to your arm. You pushed me back and began smashing my camera against the wall. Its light continued flashing until it hit the floor. For weeks, I cried for my camera, for myself, and for you: the man I had married.

Later, however, I cried for the man I was losing.

“Stop interfering with Mehrdaad’s affair!” I implored you on and on.

But you didn’t care. “I must save her,” you said. “She is oppressed.”

“Forget her, I want you to save our love,” I cried.

“What do you want from us?”

“Us? Us? Who is us?”

“She and I,” you said, composed.

I jumped up and started beating you with my fist until it hurt. “I want you to save our love!” 

You pushed me back, “I don’t love you.”

I stared.

“Do you hear me? I don’t love you anymore. It’s over.”

A scream came from deep inside me. “I hate you. I wish you hadn’t survived!”

You should know I did not mean what I said. I didn’t mean any of the things I did to you next, either. I asked the telephone company to disconnect the phone; I stopped giving you money; I ate my food at work, hoping you were tortured at the sight of an empty fridge. I also called Mehrdaad and told him you were involved with his girlfriend. Then came my last blow. When you came home late again, I stood in the doorway and yelled out, “Go back to where you were!” You took one step forward but stopped when I said, “Tell her to provide for you from now on.”

You looked into the room behind me, pointing at our wedding mirror on the wall by the entrance.

“Look at yourself. Jealousy has gotten the better of you.”

I kept gazing at you.

“You look like a monster.” 

“Save me from the monster, Arman. Kill the beast and save the beauty.” I laughed out loud like a crazy  woman to keep myself from falling on my knees in humiliation.

“How?”

The words poured from my mouth on their own. “Make love to me before leaving. I want a child with you.”

You turned your glance from the mirror towards me. “You are beyond saving.” This time you laughed out loud.

. . .

Arman laughs and this time his laughter brings me to the present. I am on Faatemy Street. Six months ago, he turned his back on me and walked out of my life. Six months ago, I went inside and smashed our wedding mirror. And here we are today, among other passersby, waiting for the light to turn green.

Not much has changed except the new crowd of people pushing me closer to Arman. He stands there, the red light illuminating his long brow. It dawns on me that the imaginary war inside me has ended. All those clashes within have ceased and the children inside my head have stopped their screaming.

Even Mehrdaad’s voice in my head begins to fade, the voice that insisted I should go and see with my own eyes that Aazeen is nothing special: “Arman is a fool. He does not deserve you. You need a real man who knows your worth, a man who knows you are a rare diamond.” Not only Mehrdaad’s beguiling voice but also my own brooding voice, trying to convince myself to give in to Mehrdaad’s talk and invite him home for the night, go silent.

My heart slows, my fist opens. I can no longer summon up the image of my fingerprints on Arman’s face after slapping him on the cheek in front of Azeen, something I’d planned to do for months and decided to accomplish today. Neither can I recall the sweet satisfaction it gave me last night. I close my eyes, trying to imagine what I should do now.

When I open my eyes again, the tears are about to well up. At the same time the light turns green. Yet I have no reason to cross the street along with the crowd that moves steadily forward. I feel like someone just released from prison after a long time, but no one has come to take me home. Does a life of loneliness await me or a new beginning?

I remove my black chador from my head and drop it at my feet on the asphalt. Nobody around me notices what I’ve done, because I still have on my green scarf and my long grey coat and do not look so different from the other women around me. I stamp on the chador when the wind tries to lift it up and drag it in the direction the crowd is moving. In a blink, like everybody else, Arman, too, is gone. This time, however, I don’t follow him with my eyes. I am about to turn around when I register Azeen whose face I had come to see for the first time. Her back is now towards me, walking further and further away, and as the yellow light comes on for five brief seconds, her figure instantly fades as if it were an image in an undeveloped film left out in the sun.


*


Nilofar Shidmehr, PhD, MFA, is a ‎British Columbia-Book-Prize nominated poet. She is author of four books of poetry and the Farsi translator of Toni Morrison's The ‎Bluest Eye. Dr. Shidmehr is an instructor in the Continuing Education Program at Simon Fraser University. She was the 2015-2016 Writer-in-Residence at Regina Public Library. She just finished her appointment at the end of May and is going back to Vancouver. She lives with her husband in Yaletown. Website: http://nilofarshidmehr.weebly.com/ 

Photo credit: Laura Sawchuk