The Language of Animals

A Fable

Once upon a time there lived a shepherd who served his master faithfully and honestly. One day whilst keeping the sheep in the forest, he heard a hissing, and wondered what the noise could be. So he went farther into the wood to try and find out. There he saw that the forest was on fire, and a snake was hissing in the midst of the flames. The shepherd watched to see what the snake would do, for it was quite surrounded by the fire, which approached it nearer and nearer.

Then the snake cried out, “For God’s sake, good shepherd, save me from the fire!”

So the shepherd stretched his crook across the flames and the snake glided rapidly over the staff and up his arm onto his shoulder, till at last it wound itself round his neck. Then the shepherd was terrified and exclaimed, “What shall I do? What an unlucky wretch I am! I saved you, and now your are about to kill me!”

The snake answered, “Do not be afraid. Only take me to the house of my father. My father is the king of snakes.”

But the shepherd, being already in great fear, began to excuse himself, saying he must not leave his sheep. Then the snake said, “Nothing will happen to your sheep. Do not be anxious about them. But let us hurry home.”

So the shepherd went on with the snake through the forest, until they came to a gate made entirely of snakes. Then the snake on the neck of the shepherd hissed, and instantly the snakes untwined themselves, so that the man could pass through. As soon as they had gone through, the snake said to him, “When you reach my father’s house he will offer to give you whatever you like — gold, silver, or precious stones. Do not, however, take any of these things. Choose, instead, the language of animals. He will hesitate at first, but at last he will give it you.”

Meanwhile they arrived at the palace, and the king of snakes said, weeping, “For God’s sake, my child, where were you?” Thereupon the snake told him all that had happened, how he had been surrounded by fire, and the shepherd had saved him. Then the snake king said to the shepherd, “What do you wish that I should give you for saving my son?”

The shepherd answered, “I desire nothing but the language of animals.”

The snake king, however, said, “That is not good for you, for if I give it you, and you tell anyone about it, you will instantly die. Therefore it is better that you ask me for something else.”

“If you wish to give me anything,” replied the shepherd, “give me the language of animals. If you will not give me that, I want nothing — so good-bye,” and he turned to go away.

Then the snake king called him back, saying, “If you indeed wish it so much, take it. Open your mouth.” The shepherd did so, and the snake king blew into his mouth, and said, “Now blow once yourself in my mouth.” The Shepherd did so, and then the snake king blew again into his mouth, and this they did three times. After that the snake said, “Now you possess the language of animals. Go, in God’s name, but do not for the world tell anyone about it. If you tell anyone you will instantly die.”

The shepherd returned across the forest, and, passing through it, he understood everything the birds and animals, and even the plants were saying to each other. When he came to his sheep he found them all there, safe and sound, so he laid himself down to rest a little.

Hardly had he done so before two or three ravens settled on a tree near him, and began to converse together, saying, “If that shepherd only knew that just on the spot where the black sheep is lying there is, deep in the earth, a cave full of gold and silver!”

When the shepherd heard that he went off to his master and told him. The master brought a cart, and dug down to the cave, and carried the treasure away home. But the master was honest, so he gave up the whole of the treasure to the shepherd, saying, “Here my son, all this wealth belongs to you. For to you God gave it. Build a house, marry, and live upon the treasure.”

So the shepherd took the money, built a house, and married, and by and by he became the richest man in the whole neighborhood. He kept his own shepherd, and cattle driver, and swineherd. In short, he had great property and made much money.

Once, just at Christmas, he said to his wife, “Get ready some wine and other food, and tomorrow we will feast the shepherds.”

The wife did so, and in the morning they went to their farm. Towards evening the master said to the shepherds, “Come here, all of you. You shall eat, drink, and make merry together, and I will go myself this night to watch the sheep.”

So the master went to watch his sheep, and, about midnight, the wolves began to howl and the dogs to bark. The wolves spoke, in wolf language, “May we come and take something? You also, shall get a part of the prey.”

And the dogs answered, in dog language, “Come! We also are ready to eat something.”

But there was one old dog there who had only two teeth left. This old dog shouted furiously, “Come on, you miserable wretches, if you dare. So long as I have these two teeth left you shall not do any damage to my master’s property.”

All this the master heard and understood. Next day he ordered all the dogs to be killed except that old one. The servants began to remonstrate, saying, “For God’s sake, master, it is a pity to do this.”

But the master answered, “Do as I have ordered you,” and started with his wife to go home. They rode on horseback, he on a fine horse and his wife on a handsome mare. But the master’s horse went so fast that the wife remained a little behind.

Then the master’s horse neighed, and said to the mare, “Come on, why do you stay behind?”

And the mare answered, “Ah, to you it is easy — you are carrying only one weight, and I am carrying three.”

Thereupon the man turned his head and laughed. The wife saw him laughing, and urged the mare on quicker till she came up to her husband, and asked him, “Why were you laughing?”

He said merely, “I had good reason to laugh!”

But the wife was not satisfied, and again begged he would tell her why he laughed. He excused himself, exclaiming, “Give up questioning me. What has come to you, my wife? I forget now why it was I laughed.”

But the more he refused to tell her, the more she wished to know. At last the man said, “If I tell you I shall die immediately!”

That, however, did not quiet her, and she kept on asking, saying to him, “You must tell me.”

In the meantime they reached their house. When they had done so the man ordered a coffin to be made, and, when it was ready, had it placed in front of the house, and laid himself down in it. Then he said to his wife, “Now I will tell you why I laughed, but the moment I tell you I shall die.”

So he looked around once more, and saw that the old dog had come from the field, and had taken his stand over his head, and was howling. When the man noticed this he said to his wife, “Bring a piece of bread for this poor dog.”

The wife brought a piece and threw it to the dog, but the dog did not even look at it, and a cock came near and began to peck at it.

Then the dog said to the cock, “You think only about eating. Do you know that our master is going to die?”

And the cock answered, “Well, let him die, since he is so stupid. I have a hundred wives, and often at nights I gather them all round a grain of corn, and, when they are all there, I pick it up myself. If any of them are angry, I peck them. That is my way of keeping them quiet. Only look at the master, however. He is not able to rule one single wife!”

The man, hearing that, got out of the coffin, took a stick, and called his wife to him, saying slyly, “Come now, and I will tell you what you want to know.”

The wife, seeing she was in danger of getting a beating, left him in peace, and never asked him again why it was he laughed.

The man nodded to himself.  Learning to be smarter than the animals is hard. I am learning.


  • Source: Csedomille Mijatovies, Serbian Folk-Lore (London: W. Isbister and Company, 1874), pp. 37-42. (With the addition of one line by G. Opacic)

Specificity

In the mega-increasingly fraught discourse people are having on websites, blogs and social media, distractions form endless pathways away from topics that matter. We are easily distracted away from matters that could be solved, as we did do when faced with the existential threat of our current pandemic. A laser-focused response created remarkable scientific and technical achievements within a previously unimaginable timeframe.

When not laser-focused, distractions take us off into the boonies. For instance, asking an acquaintance, “Are you well?” is often taken as either a “scotch-egging” query, or one which may be viewed through the tinted glasses of tribalism. Tim Harford recently explained the concept where your acquaintance was “…treating a scotch egg as a ‘substantial meal’ with your drink in a pub”, thereby, in the mind of the listener, placing such an assertion into the column of self-delusion: https://timharford.com/2021/02/were-living-in-a-golden-age-of-ignorance/. The distraction of scotch-egging equals self-delusion.

Harford adds that our general ignorance is also made worse by political tribalism: “In a polarised environment, every factual claim becomes a weapon in an argument. When people encounter a claim that challenges their cultural identity, don’t be surprised if they disbelieve it.” Or storm the Capitol.

A further component of our “golden age of ignorance” is the acceptance of epithets that quickly lose real meaning. Media writers and mouthers of endless breathless BREAKING NEWS blithely pronounce things such as, “The overdose crisis claims a record number of lives this month…” Such a statement places the blame of each death on the very victims themselves. Meanwhile, the neutered epithet becomes a convenient way of washing one’s hands of any action that might be done. We ignore the very complicated set of circumstances that are different for each tragic death.

Were we to parse out some of the complications, however, we might find that meaningful actions could be accomplished. The victim was not a “drug addict”. The victim was somebody’s son or daughter with a personal history. Further, there was, in most cases, no “overdose”. The street drug was deliberately poisoned with something that the drug dealer found to be cheaper and yet more addictive. The BC Coroners Service correctly terms this as Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths. And so on.

Another issue with a lack of specificity in general discourse is “the social media”. A globally recognized expert stated, “…that the internet, especially social media, is having an increasingly toxic influence on our lives.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=006GMXEtoHI

In asking for specificity, in this case, I am not looking to atomize all the types of social media, then join the rants against Placebook or Flitter.

My focus would be on the use of this epithet for a complex collection of disparate actors. If a commentator uses the term “social media”, then proceeds with a wide brush to attribute nasty actions to the whole field, what is the point?

Saying that “social media” exerts a toxic influence is, in effect, throwing up one’s hands and walking away from any action. If we were to outline a cause-and-effect situation, then the discussion could come back to the possibility of control and change.

For instance, it was noted recently that the way Rush Limbaugh was able to take over the lucrative sphere of misogynist loudmouths was due to Ronald Reagan: ”In 1987, the FCC abolished the decades-old Fairness Doctrine which mandated that TV and radio broadcasters present both sides of controversial issues.” https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/rush-limbaugh-talk-radio-dies_n_5fe4e082c5b66809cb30ad57?ri18n=true

Limbaugh’s success allowed Breitbart News and Steve Bannon’s success, along with Fox News. All of which led to Trump.

Specifically, one can trace the odious and toxic elements found in a portion of “social media” to these and other roots. That finding can lead to actions that would offer a path to mitigation of said odious toxicity. Admittedly, once Pandora’s Box is flung open, the task becomes infinitely more difficult.

Lastly, there is The Virus. We lay at the feet of covid-19/20/21 an array of negative situations. Knowing people who have been seriously and even fatally infected during this pandemic, I would be among the last to minimize it. But, may I politely point out that h. sapiens can be found to have treated its elders better, before, than they have been treated in “long term care” facilities, in a few instances. If we dig deeply. Over the past 200,000 years.

Blaming the disproportionate number of seniors’ deaths solely on covid-19 is like blaming deaths of (hypothetical) babies to cars, if the babies were left in rows along the shoulder of busy highways. We would never do that to babies.

So why do we cram our elders into the least costly facilities, cared for by the least-paid workers? And when the pandemic comes along, why do we callously remove from our elders the only thing that might contribute some joy to their last days on this planet: seeing their children and grandchildren?

Of course, we do not want them to be given covid-19! But what accommodation was done to allow such visits? What lengths have been gone to, to allow sports teams to continue playing during the pandemic? May I ask which sports team built our country through lifetimes of effort?

The Virus did not kill all those seniors, with or without comorbidities. Not all these deaths were in for-profit facilities.

If better, specific questions are asked, perhaps we could take effective mitigation measures. As a society.

It is about time to stop hiding behind epithets, memes, and as Harford calls them, bionic duckweed: https://timharford.com/2021/02/miracle-tech-that-is-anything-but-a-taxonomy-of-bionic-duckweed/

Breaking News!

(Sorry. Feeling burn-out with the breathless newscasters all bringing us announcements of BREAKING news – or more often, the OLDS. Followed by ever longer streams of commercials and further teasers about the upcoming BREAKING NEWS item…)

To the South Sea Islands

This is an extract from my new book, Albert Quimby.

In the station’s small coffee shop, drinks in hand, they make like a loving couple, sitting on the same side of one of the few tables.

After a while, Cloe notices a rack of road maps for sale. It reminds her of their mission. “Where you taking me, Albert?” She peers coyly at him, “And, do you mind if I call you Bert?”

He chuckles, “As long as I can call you Ernie.”

She gives him a solid love-tap on his shoulder. “Oohh!…” Thinks about it. “Well, why the hell not? Call me Ernie. My new persona.” The thought brightens up her face even more.

He enjoys her much improved composure, then ploughs ahead, “Ok, Ernie. So where we going? I assume someplace away from Oscar the Grouch?”

“Far away…” She stares dreamily out the window.

“How about the South Sea Islands?”

Cloe-Ernie nearly jumps off her chair. “Can we? Can we?”

“Well, yeah. Like, Pender or Hornby Island, or Galiano. I always kinda liked that na…”

She clobbers his arm; hard, this time.

“Hey!…” He grins. “Was that a lover’s swat?”

“Whadya mean Hornby Island? When you said South Seas…”

“They qualify,” he pleads. “They’re in the Salish Sea and they’re south of us. Like, I…”

She is about to clobber him again. He flinches. She grabs him and drags him closer for a long kiss. The server working behind the counter enjoys a few glances at them as she replenishes one of the donut trays in the display case.

After they slowly part, he nods. “I like the making-up part better.”

The dusk outside is pierced by lights from cars and big rigs passing on the highway next to the station. Albert-Bert stares at the traffic absently. He mumbles, “Tempus fugit.”

“Is that a play in London? Can we go to London?”

“Latin. Means time is passing, but the root for fugitive…”

“Ohh, stop. That hard-drive of yours is loose again.” She pulls his face close for a kiss.

He smiles inside and out.  Used to have to let the hard-drive topic finish or it hurt somewhere. Doesn’t hurt anymore.

They get up to leave, walking closely arm-in-arm, step-for-step. He isn’t skittish now. His pace and hers are merged. I must have changed into a different persona, too.

Slipping through the aisle of hats and tee-shirts and maps for sale, the glare of a parking vehicle shines over their heads from the back window. Ernie notices the driver as he gets out of his car and walks to the entrance. She grabs Bert’s arm. “It’s him.”


Shipping included in this introductory price!

Albert Quimby

CA$32.00

Persistence of Memory

My locks shall not be shorn ‘ere my arm receive its poke

In a King’s glittering dome, far far away

Persistence through random latency


The being contemplates those recent creations and is more or less satisfied.

A wave through this app produces a myriad scenes, sparkling with potential vigour, each ready to be activated.

The being tickles each meme gently, feeling its power, then chooses the last one. It is pulled across the possible scenes, searching for affinity. Sparkles occur over one of the scenes. An attraction is found.

The meme is infused into a scene of rough stone buildings arranged in a long circle around a central Commons.


In the dark of the night, a dog barks, then is answered by another. A third begins to bark. One of the dogs yelps painfully. The barking ceases. Tinkling echoes from one of the open windows.

The suggestion of pale light tickles the far mountains of the valley. A silent whoosh of a winged demon passes the rear window of a house. Desperate scrabbling on hard-packed clay. A minor thud of claws into fur. The slightest squeal, marking the end of a tiny chapter of life. The whoosh passes again, flapping, gaining height, to return to its nest to add to another chapter.

The pale light begins to gain substance. Mountain peaks are outlined from behind. Their snowcaps glisten. The light marches down their backsides gaining strength, then erupts past their shoulders to fill the sky with a swath of orange broken only by pastel blue streaks of clouds.

In the hamlet, a cock crows his dominance. Another begs to disagree. Shuffling of leather soles, and doors are clumped. Pails-full of swill are sloshing, then emptied into troughs. Cattle rise from sleep; they exhale and snort under their weight. Calves thump their mothers for milk; swine grunt through the trough then are shoved away by others, finding solace by pushing against wooden fence rails smoothed with a thousand pushes. The fields beyond beckon.

This hamlet awakens. Chamber pots are emptied from second-storey windows onto the well-trod clay in front of the houses.

From the stone house farthest away from the sun, still partly in the shadows of the other houses, young Gorman emerges. He adjusts his leather cloak and his wide-brimmed hat. He tightens the handle on his broad-bladed wooden shovel. Girding his loins, Gorman proceeds with his rounds. Shoveling the brown stuff that has appeared below most windows, pushing across the wetted clay sidewalk, down one side of the Commons, then back up the other.

His pattern is to make piles at every fifth house so that the filth he pushes does not accumulate, thereby scraping a brown streak. Woe be the Mucker who leaves a slippery mess before the house of a higher caste. For that crime, and perhaps out of dark whimsy, the aggrieved resident will wait until the Mucker is below, then empty their chamber pot over him. Hence the leather cloak and wide-brimmed hat.

Later, Gorman will do his rounds with a narrower shovel and a wheel-barrow.

This morning, Gorman feels the persistence of random latency – a blurring shiver through his soul – as he approaches the house of Morbrent. A quick glance up at the window shows Gorman that their candle is lit. A shadow passes before it. Gorman continues scraping under the window then jumps back in time to witness the splash and splatter of the accumulation from a satisfyingly large deposit. He’d remembered the absence of product from the morning before. Sometimes he couldn’t remember in time. Long latency.

Gorman chances a look up to see young Morbrent grinding his teeth at the window. Gorman hurries on his rounds. They may discuss this while playing on the Commons.

Okanagan Sasquatch

by Lois Kromhoff (c)2004


Beside the Look-look-shouie stream

where silver salmon swim,

sat dear old Grandpa Kelcewas.

Minatcoe sat with him.

She liked to ask the wise old man

to tell her what he knew

of olden days and ancient ways

and scary stories too!

“Tell about those hairy men,

the sasquatches and you!

Is Stinky Bigfoot out there still?

Tell us, Grandpa, do!”

The children played and worked beside

the Okanagan shore.

They wove some willow traps for fish

and called, “Please tell us more!”

So, Grandpa slowly stuffed his pipe

and thought before he spoke.

“Those bigfoot smelly hairy beasts

were certainly no joke!

“A great big fellow captured me

and took me to his cave.

It happened many years ago,

when I was young and brave.

“This land was full of food to eat,

but Mother had a wish:

she wanted us to set a trap

for Kikeninnie fish.

“So Father took a willow trap

like you weave, very large.

He set it up this very stream

and I was put in charge.

Early every morning I

was up before the sun.

I climbed to find the fish trap full;

fish for everyone.

“Kikeninnie salmon fish,

silver fish galore!

Kikeninnie every day;

then there were no more.

“I camped beside the willow trap

and listened through the night.

I waited for a quiet thief.

I watched till morning light.

“I fell asleep and wrestled with

a horrid dreadful dream.

As cool clear water splashed along,

I wakened with a scream!

“I thought I heard the North Wind blow

a piercing whistle sound.

A suffocating sulphur stink

had drifted all around.

“A hairy hand reached out to grab me,

lift me giant high.

A bearded sasquatch stared at me.

I could not blink an eye.

“He wrapped my blanket round me tight,

then stuffed me down his vest.

I gasped and choked and sputtered

on his heaving hairy chest.

“His laugh was loud, like thunderclaps.

His whistle, wild and shrill.

He took my fish, my basket too,

and bolted up the hill.

“I peered through tufts of bushy beard.

He took me to his cave.

He huffed and puffed and scuffed about.

Oh, I was scared – but brave!

“For when he stood me on my feet

I reached his knees – no higher.

He tied me to a heavy log

beside a wispy fire.

“He scrounged around for sticks and twigs

to make the embers glow.

He muttered as he poked and puffed

and gave his fire a blow.

“He studied me from every side.

I trembled, as I feared

this hairy giant man,

this sasquatch with a beard.

“His arms were hairy, dark and long,

his palms were smooth and wide,

and tangly hairy goatskin shreds

hung round his putrid hide.

“His face was light and whiskery,

his eyes were beady black,

his brows were bushy, big and brown,

his forehead slanted back.

“He fumbled in the darkness till

he found a sheepskin rug.

He motioned me to slumber,

like a little snuggle-bug.

“He strung a row of shiny fish

upon a willow pole,

which hung beside the glowing fire –

my  fish, the ones he stole!

“Some garlic bulbs hung overhead,

with meat and herbs and roots.

While snuggled in my bed, I heard

horrendous cries and hoots.

“Another giant hairy man

had stomped inside the cave.

And from his belt hung three dead does.

The guys began to rave.

“They squatted by the fireside

to cook their evening meal,

to clap their hands and slap their knees,

to laugh and grunt and squeal.

“And then my captor set me free.

He giggled, ‘Hee-hee-hee!’

He grabbed my head and touched my teeth

and fed some fish to me.

“The giants ate with gross display

of slops and slurps and burps.

With greasy fingers, grungy beards,

they sat and spat like twerps.

“My captor howled and shook his thumb.

He moaned and groaned and sighed.

The hairy brutes sat side by side,

and whimpered, wailed and cried.

“I stood upon my captor’s knee

to see what I could see:

a fish bone, deep within his thumb,

had caused his misery.

“I seized that bone between my teeth

and pulled the dagger free.

The giants wiped their tearful eyes

and lept to dance with me.

“At night, they rolled a big round rock

to block the open cave.

Then I was free to wander,

like a wimpy little slave.

“But when the fire glowed and died,

the giants slept and snored,

I thought about my lakeshore home,

the people I adored.

“I was tied by day.

I was blocked by night.

Yet, I planned to run

when the time was right!

“The snoring beasts lay fast asleep.

I crawled across the floor.

The moonlight shone a silver gap

beside the big rock door.

“I squeezed between the crack of light

and wiggled like a worm.

I pulled and pushed with all my might

and squished with every squirm.

“I ran through groves of prickly pine.

I heard the cool breeze hum.

I climbed and clutched with bloody hands.

My heart beat like a drum.

“Small roots and berries were my food

for three full moons – or more,

until I found my friends,

along the Okanagan shore.

“Oh, what a time to celebrate!

The nights were full of cheer,

as people came to feast and sing

and dance away their fear.

“Though I have lived a long, long time,

I tremble when I hear

the North Wind’s shrieking whistle sound;

a sasquatch could be near!”

“Oh, Grandpa,” said the little girl,

“did someone find that den?

Did someone find those giant bones

of ancient hairy men?”

The wise old Grandpa Kekewas,

just smiled and shook his head.

“These mountains hide the strangest things.”

That was all he said.


First published in Canadian Stories, Special Edition Anthology, December 2004

Lois had been a teacher for many years in the Cultus Lake area of the Fraser Valley and in the Okanagan. She listened respectfully to the tales told by her students and their parents, rendering some into poetry, some into prose, as they deserved to be heard.

We are searching for an Indigenous artist who would like to partner in a book of Lois’ historical poems and prose. Please send us a Comment!

Scent of a Dream

Dissolving

Muted light dissolving the night of dreams.

Through the panes, my panes, I see

Trees’ breath is misting the air

With hues of frosty white.


Our pond mirrors a face of solitude.

Wings throb the open sky,

Throbbing against my breast,

Echoing hollow in crispy air.

Scent of silence

Scent of memories


Here, inside,

A desire deep is veiled

Seen only with eyes closed

Still alive in my nightly canopy of misty dreams.


I cast around for your tender smile

On my cheek yet distant, wafting in a celestial mind.


Scent of love

Scent of you


Entwine your mind with mine

Bring me a glowing pearl of your warmth

That I may wait for you

Please.

Always, here…


My lips smile at the sky

Knowing,

Praying you feel my love

In that pale morning light.


Scent of desire

Scent of a dream


I shimmer

In my pain

Waiting…


                     Fumie Fukuda, trans. George Opacic

Fumie had been a student who came from Japan to work through things that were troubling her. She had written this poem and others in Japanese using a particular form. While I knew some Japanese, we could never quite get the translation to the point where it had the power of the original. Fumie went back not long after competing her studies. I hope she has found peace. Not sure.

I recently had time to revisit the poem. This is as close as I can get to her intentions.

The river of time wears away who we were then.

My Garden Lives!

Incompleteness

Flittering white wings of gossamer

Push away from the pull of grasses,

Searching for life in the orange centre of yellow petals.

A bouquet beckons.

Breeze dancing,

Not that one,

This way,

Maybe there,

Yes.

A brief yes

Then push away again,

And then again.

 

Completeness

Delicately crested quail leads his seed,

Preceded by his black asterisk sprouting ahead.

Brown spotted fluff-balls scamper helter-skitter,

Little legs blurring across the open garden fringe,

Girls settling onto cool soil then digging furiously

Creating a deep refreshing bowl,

With bits of food

Here

And there.

Tricksters hide in the low rhododendrons

Bolting out to scare the bowl sitters.

Watchful hen chirps a boundary,

Coaxes her energetic dozen to this side

Then to that side

Of the wispy lattice deer fence.

Fluff-balls ricochet off the barrier,

Upset that they cannot move forward,

Until they find a gate to squeeze under.

Chubby fluff-ball, frustrated,

Reluctant to ruffle the fluff

Pokes a head in

But not through,

Marches with angry little legs

Back and forth along the barrier,

Finally pushes through the gate’s opening

To disappear into the crowd.

Crested quail, brash but ever watchful,

Chatters ownership of the garden

And proudly follows his contributions to Life.

 

Completed

Their weeks-long battle for supremacy

Confirmed

The end-of-the-row Sunflower

Is largest!

Bending deeply with the weight.

Then, in a last-week move,

Growing before your eyes

In the blazing sun,

Watered daily,

The skinny one rises high

And higher,

And highest!

As the dethroned elder spreads the heaviest load

Stooping in age, with the seeds for more life.

The runt in the shadows

Flowers last

And longest

In brighter yellow flowers

And deeper brown seeds,

Feeding late-comers

In the garden of life.

 

Forever

Not-life,

Feldspar glistens

Mica shines

Silica endures

In the ever burning solar rays

Fragments of the all-encompassing mantel,

Displaying.

Supporting.

Forever.

 

George

Writing To Heal

Margot and Ben

“Writing is a compulsion” sounds like a cliché. Writing has neither brought me fame nor fortune. I’ve spent more on my scribbling than I could ever hope to earn from such an endeavour. I’m sure most would-be authors have discovered as much. Even good writers struggle to make ends meet. However, once started, I was unable to stop. Sound familiar?

           I began writing to heal. I was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and in the midst of dealing with it, I was overwhelmed with myriad thoughts and confused memories of being eight, nine and ten during the London Blitz, living a two-fold terror with my pedophile uncle. To deal with such vivid flashbacks and a sense of incredible guilt, I found it necessary to scribble notes on endless reams of paper. That was a compulsion.

***

           “*&%#*&%!” I stood on a hilltop, a short car ride and walk from my “handyman’s delight” in West Sechelt, flinging stones with all the force in my right arm. My son, my sweet loving son, urged me on.

           “Great, Dad. Get it all out. Shout and curse as loud as you like. None but I can hear you here on this mountain top.”

           He threw his own stones. We both threw and yelled until, at last, exhausted, we sat on a log laughing. My laughter mingled with tears. He, holding me in a complete reversal of roles. Son and Father — Father and Son.

           I’d bottled so much up since PTSD. My forced retirement from teaching and resultant marriage breakdown had driven me to live alone in my tumbledown house on its own hill with a view. That yelling session was the catalyst — the moment of permission to express my feelings of anger and frustration. My young son provided what a psychiatrist had been unable to provide: permission to express previously suppressed feelings.

           “You can be angry at Mom, angry at God, angry at yourself. Let go the poison. If you can’t yell and scream, write it down. Then read it out and burn what you need to get rid of.”

***

           Later, after my son returned to university and I sat alone, I began writing. I filled entire notebooks with scribbles of emotion and scattered memories from earliest childhood to my years of teaching.

           On sunny days, I cleared the weedy hill beside the house and gradually built and planted beautiful rockeries and gardens with fishponds and waterfalls, roses and rhododendrons, azaleas and bushy ferns. On the other side of the house where the ground was more level, I built an abundant vegetable garden with a lush lawn in front.

           Through all this activity, I began having flashbacks of childhood terrors, memories I’d pushed from my mind as hidden horrors of filth and shame and an oath of strictest secrecy, suppressed for more than fifty years. All this I wrote down on tear-stained pages. 

           At last, I began transferring scribbles to computer documents, discarding garbage to an incinerator pile — and the pages mounted up. Thus began the lengthy and often tumultuous process of healing. I had to learn to forgive myself and discover my own innocence, finally washing away “my sins”.

           Forgiving is more than mere words. Forgiving involves an active choice — difficult at first but feasible with determination, effort and time. Forgiving others follows. 

           We all make mistakes in life. Sometimes we hurt those we love the most. Discovering and acknowledging them makes it easier to forgive others who have hurt us. Not always, but most of the time. Self-editing and submitting to other editors helped me discover this.

           More than anything else in writing a memoir, it’s most important to remember that no one wants to hear someone feeling sorry for themselves. Banish sadness but tell things as they were and are. The future is promising. However, old habits are hard to break.

           It took me ten years to upgrade the house and garden to showcase status and, more importantly, to complete the first draft of my healing memoir. I finally sold the house and moved to the city where I met the love of my life — a supportive partner and primary editor — and many years of love and emotional healing.

Following two editions by other publishers and extensive self-editing, Rutherford Press of Qualicum Beach, B.C. published Discovered in a Scream.

***

           My spirit healed at last, other books followed. No longer egocentric, I wrote and published poetry, children’s stories, a historical novel and the biography of one of Canada’s earliest bush pilots. My spirit had been freed and creativity followed at a gallop.

Ben Nuttall-Smith

Albert Quimby

Hitting the Wall

This is an extract from a current project:

Shaving off the stubble around his goatee, Albert daydreams of languid beaches in Yevpatoriya, lying beside a scantily-clad Cloe. Probably bombed to hell by now. He aggressively clips off the longer bits of his hair. In the bachelor-suite “main room”, he looks at the few sticks of scavenged furniture that he makes do with. This can go up in smoke and nobody’d miss it. I can take a few clothes and the USBs of my files, and… Shit is it seven-thirty already? Finish later.

He slips on his shoes and heads out the door to meet Andrew. On the drive to Port Coquitlam he wonders what his former best friend wants; what he was up to; what’s “serious”. Can’t tell him what I’m doing. Andrew might still be active. Shit! What if there’s a contract out on me, and he’s… No. Not Andrew.

Albert is uncharacteristically a few minutes late. As he parks on the street near the coffee shop he and his former long-time friend had used as their favourite hangout, he sees someone in a wheelchair making his unpowered, strenuous way up the slightly inclined walkway to the front door. Albert hurries a bit to be there to open the door for the fellow.

With the door half opened he looks down at the person in the wheelchair. Dumbfounded at seeing the unmistakable eyes of his old friend, he stands holding the door half-open.

Andrew struggles to bend his neck enough to look up at Albert. “Thanks, but I might need it open more than that, if you don’t mind.”

Albert stares at the contorted grin on the face that he used to see just about every day for years, even before their time in the GRU’s Unit 74455. Snapping out of his astonishment, he pulls the door fully open. “Andrew! What the fuck…?”

“Good to see you, too, dickhead. Let me in, will you?” Albert steps back as Andrew has to push hard to wheel over the threshold, then he heads inside for a particular table. Albert has trouble forcing his legs to follow. A young couple are already sitting at the table. It has a wheelchair symbol on it. Andrew nods at the symbol as he parks aggressively at the open side of the table. The couple look at each other, shrug their shoulders, and make a point of slowly collecting their phones and cups to look for another table.

Albert shrugs apologetically as the couple leave and he takes one of the seats. He is about to start a conversation, “Andrew, I…”

“Get me an iced tea, will you? With a straw.” Andrew keeps his eyes down.

Albert notices his gaunt fidgeting hands are tightly bent in. MS?

“Oh. Sure.” Albert gets up. “Be right back.” He avoids a strong urge to put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder as he passes the wheelchair. He sees that the chair is heavily scratched and worn.

After a few minutes, Albert comes back to the table with two drinks. He puts the iced tea down in front of Andrew, turning the straw toward him. “Is that close enough, Andrew? Oh…” He pulls a few serviettes from a pocket, “…here. In case you, like, need them…”

As Albert sits down with his coffee, Andrew’s jerked movements settle down and he is able to put an arm on the table. “Can still talk, thank god. This fucking MS is going there next.” He creeps his arm in stages, closer to the cup. A finger and thumb finally capture it. Albert is about to jump forward to help, but he doesn’t. Andrew slides the cup near the edge toward himself. He uses his other arm to awkwardly roll closer to have his mouth near the straw. Albert stares in slow-motion fascination as short, barely controlled movements finally combine to have Andrew’s mouth capture the straw. He takes a satisfied slurp. A few drips escape onto his lap.

Albert slides the serviettes closer to Andrew’s hand. “Do you want me to…”

Quietly, “Fuck off, Al.”

Sitting in stunned silence at what his friend has become, Albert has trouble saying anything further. He sips his coffee, waiting for Andrew to say something.

After a few more difficult sips, Andrew works hard to focus on Albert. “Still want me to cover your back?”

“Huh?”

“The last thing you told me was to cover your back. That game in the so-called industrial league. No contact, they said. Thought I could stick it out. Just to be… well… with a friend. Who really knows me.” Tremolo captures the voice.

Albert leans forward, “Jesuschrist, Andrew. What happened? I mean, this MS. You had it then?”

“Yeah. Got the doctor’s visit a couple days before… Floored me. Thought it had to be some secret plot to get me to spill… everything. Still don’t want to believe it. But here I am.”

“Does your mother… Well of course you told her…”

Andrew shakes his head. “Didn’t want to tell her. Right away. Burden her… But it gets worse sometimes. This is as bad as it’s been. Usually I can walk alright. Mom’s been a rock. She does everything for me. Reverted to speaking Russian…” He snaps his head around automatically to see if someone is listening. The tremolo gets more pronounced. “I can’t… can’t do this to her any longer, Al. She getting old, herself. Probably put years on her, being my… It’s getting worse. When I can’t go to the can by myself and I can’t eat anymore… what’s the use?” Andrew ends quietly.

It tugs on Albert’s heart. Tightens his chest. He can’t speak.

“Al, I want to end it. How can I end it? Can you… can you help me? Al?”

Albert is devastated. What’s he want me to do? Kill him? Push him off a cliff? “Andrew… I don’t know what to say. I really hate seeing you like… like this. But I don’t know what to do.”

Andrew hisses, “There’s only one fucken thing you can do for me goddamnit!”

Andrew slurps angrily a few more times, each one with extra drips falling down to his lap. Albert reaches over to put a serviette on his lap. He notices how much weight his old friend has lost. “Andrew, I want to help you. I’d do anything I can to help you. But… Maybe I can contact Vladi..” He shakes his head.

Vladi for fucksake? Is that what you want? Shoot me like a fucken dog?” Andrew fidgets hard for a minute, shakes his head, then decides to leave. “Dickhead. Just fuck off. You can’t do anything for me, now. Have a good fucken life.” Andrew pushes back from the table.

Alarmed, Albert gets up to reach for Andrew’s chair as it turns, but Andrew heads aggressively for the door. A person entering holds the door open for Andrew as the wheelchair bounces past. Albert watches, helplessly, watching with a tear forming, seeing his old friend roll away. What the hell’s he want me to do!?

From a nearby table, a young woman who had been pretending to read on her phone since Albert first sat down, looks up to Albert’s face. “He’s been a sonofabitch. Comes in here almost every day and mopes at that table. Same table all the time. Gets people to buy him a drink. Bought him a couple, myself, at first. Let him go. Just let the sonofabitch go.” She taps opens her phone to actually do some reading.

In a daze, Albert takes the half-full cups from his table to the dishes tray. He walks outside, looking for Andrew but without enthusiasm. His heart feels empty. Frozen, and yet beating hollowly. But what could I do? He wants me to kill him?

Albert can’t sleep that night. He relives what he should have done with Andrew. Then Cloe’s face floats in, shaking silently, back and forth. Over the very early morning he stares at the phone’s time in twenty minute intervals, waiting for the hours to pass. Too early, he rises to get ready for his trip to Seattle. Echoing in his mind is the phrase,  But what can I do for him?

Fog or Future?

White Rock Fog, picture by Ben Nuttall-Smith

Looking out from my balcony I saw sunlight glinting.

It’s been there forever

The glinting

The laser-sharp sparkles

Hitting empty glass and concrete artifacts

Bouncing photons that came from the sun eight minutes ago

To heat up

Images of what was once a place of promise.

See now

Image of a place where the promise was captured

By the addiction of personal gain.

Image of reaching for the stars

While stomping on the faces of those

Who reached up in awe,

Pushed up without thinking

Those who used,

Those who used up,

Those who discarded

The hands that reached up in awe

Who pushed up their beliefs

To the stars,

But ended up, instead,

Pushing up the greedy.

Eyes wide shut

Seeing only gold in the glinting of the sun,

The greedy

Grabbed,

Captured,

Obfuscated,

Made their own

The glinting sun,

Their distorted words of belief,

To own the people

The rocks

The Life.

of Our Planet.

by George Opacic

Faces

Looking out his window, Mahhi sees a cherry tree that is losing its delicate white and pink blossoms. Breezes knock a flutter of them free. They float reluctantly to the carpet of browning blossoms around the tree.

“They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

The building beyond the tree is another condominium. Painted pale blue with a beige-yellow trim, the skin hides an old structure that was the first one on the block. The ancient cherry tree in its entrance rotunda is the sole reminder of a vast orchard that used to feed thousands with its plump apples, pears, peaches, and, of course, cherries. Where a farmhouse had once encircled an industrious family, time caught up to the children of the children until, finally, the last son decided it was too much trouble to keep bringing in workers from Central America to replace his dwindling family’s labour. The farm became a mall surrounded not by an orchard, but by condos.

Mahhi learned this after he sat one day in the mall, on a bench beside an elderly lady. He had been careful to keep his distance.

He was polite. “Do you mind if I sit here, ma’am? My leg is giving me trouble…”

She had cocked her head to better hear down the length of the bench. “What?”

Directing his face toward her, Mahhi repeated a little louder to get through his mask, “I said, do you mind if I sit here, ma’am?  The other benches are occupied and my leg is giving me trouble. It’s an… old wound.”

He remembers looking at her face, her deep wrinkles, and wondering how old she was.

The old lady’s voice had the tremble of age. With an aggravated wave of her cane, “Of course you can, young man! There’s enough room for another three people…” The beginning of her rant trailed off as she looked around for someone who was going to reprimand her. Quietly grumbling, “Damned social distancing. Anti-social distancing! We’re all going crazy. Becoming robots. And I don’t care what they say.” She had looked around again suspiciously.

Mahhi had reluctantly let out a groan while sitting down, causing the old lady to glance at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his mask was slipping off his nose and he had absently pulled it down to his throat. His salt-and-pepper beard then caught her attention. “My grandfather had a beard like yours… So long ago… Better times.” She had nodded off into a daydream.

Mahhi needed to shift a few times to get comfortable. He stretched his left leg out.

The old lady did an uncomfortable double-take as she realized his left leg was a metal rod holding a shoe. She had quickly looked away and fiddled with her cane.

Amused but still annoyed by that century-old attitude, Mahhi had pointedly readjusted the pant sleeve then massaged the end of his flesh leg just below his knee. “Haven’t been able to get a comfortable replacement ‘thesis since, well, since this pandemic started.” He had turned to the old lady to see if she shivered at his handling of what some of the older generation still thought of as a taboo subject. He was pleased to see the old lady gather her inner strength to look down at his leg.

“Does it hurt?” Then she had shivered.

Empathy, he thought. I will reciprocate. “Thank you for asking, ma’am. No, it doesn’t hurt, as it did when it was blown off by a mine. I will admit to that having been painful.” Careful with the gallows humour. It may be too much for her.

The old lady surprised Mahhi. “I’m so sorry, young man. You brought forth so many memories…” Her eyes dulled as she recollected, Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse…

Brought back to the present by the noise of another passing walker, the old lady had flashed a grin at her bench companion, “My name is Lucy. I was born nearby. My family owned the farm and orchard that covered over two hundred acres of this area… Long ago…” She looked at his well-trimmed beard, then into his eyes. “Very sorry. My name is Lucy. You remind me so much of Gramps. Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse… Sorry. The memories are too fresh.” She had been playing with her cane as she spoke then finished by placing it between her legs and leaning both hands on the handle. Her pose, the colourful sweater and her cane had reminded Mahhi of the old folks who used to sit in front of the coffee-houses back home, arguing endlessly and passionately about the trivialities of life. He was certain their fate was to have been buried under the rubble of their blown-up buildings.

Mahhi had nodded at Lucy in sympathy. “That’s a solid-looking cane. I was supposed to be sent one, but I expect my request is down the list.”

Lucy had twigged to his slight English accent. “Did you… were you wounded in a war? Your accent… Sorry to be so nosy.”

He had waved his hand. “Not at all, my dear. Attended Oxford.” He had nodded at his leg. “The war was, elsewhere…” He thought it may be time to change the subject. “These days, during the few times we are permitted to socially interact, older conventions must be flung out the window. Wouldn’t you say?”

Nodding, Lucy had been eager to keep talking – to anyone. And this person’s face appears so kind, she thought. “You have a kind face, young man.” Then her old pixie had made an appearance with, “Don’t know if I’d have let you sit down if you’d been clean-shaven.”

They had both shared a grin.

Slowly, from deep behind his face, Mahhi’s thoughts started yet another spiral into the abyss. Who am ‘I’. I don’t stare at my ‘face’ so I don’t really know this thing is outside of my eyes. Does it have a beard? He had run his fingers through the beard.  Raising his head to climb back out of the darkness, “So, a year ago, you would have waved your cane at me to ward me off the bench?” Mahhi wondered, Is she quick enough, still, for repartee?

She was. “Yes. But I would have used as an excuse this horrible virus thing.”

Then the Virus Chill had descended over them, with the darkness of giving up. Briefly.

She had managed to shake her cane at the slippery spiral. “Young man, you know my name…?”

“Of course! So sorry. Please call me Mahhi. My manners have become very rusty recently. Mahhi,“ he repeated, as he had seen her struggle with the name. Then he decided to open up a bit. “My leg was a casualty of the recent fighting in my home city, Aleppo. I was, had been, an archaeologist and assistant curator of one of the museums on the Euphrates River. Aleppo is the oldest city in the world and has, did have… so much history to uncover.” With the painful memories, his whole body had shrunk into the bench turning him into such a forlorn-looking man that Lucy had instinctively slid over to hold Mahhi’s hand. The shattering of social distancing protocols could almost be heard echoing off the walls of the mostly shuttered mall stores. A person who had been shuffling her walker toward the bench had stopped, mouth open in astonishment at the scene.

Mahhi smiled at the shuffler, “My mother. She is trying to support me in these difficult times.”

The shuffler had nodded to Lucy, “Good for you, girl. These poor kids need all the help they can get.” She had carried on past them, no longer worried about making a labourious wide arc around the bench.

Lucy had grinned and patted Mahhi’s hand again.

They decided that they might each come to the mall every other day and perhaps find a bench. To talk.

That had been how Mahhi had found out the story about the orchard, Lucy’s family, and the buildings all built up on their former farm. In turn, Mahhi had told Lucy about his people who used to live on the hill overlooking the headwaters of the Euphrates.

One day, in a particularly sombre mood, Mahhi had mused, “My dear, I can see so many similarities between the history of your family farm, and what my city became… with what happened to the ten thousand years of my own people living through their many plagues and invasions and family squabbles in Aleppo. Here, in microcosm, it happens again.  It makes me wonder if things ever change for humanity in significant ways. Or, are we merely reliving the same things in an endless series of different universes?”

She had thoughtfully considered his assessment. Lucy had grown found of her sometimes morose new “son”. She had made a point of asking him to help her pronounce his name correctly. “So, Mahhi. You are asking a question that a farmer does not bother with. Why is left to those who mope around the cold quadrangles of stony institutions. A farmer plants, and grows things, and places food on the table. Today and tomorrow. Here in our Farmhouse.” She had waved around at what had become their own private name for the mall, where her family farmhouse had once proudly stood.

By then, over the weeks after their first meeting, several of the regular shufflers had decided to take up positions in front of the bench. Seated on their walkers, they were more or less far enough away from each other. When one of the mall security people had come by to pass on the objections of the administration, who had received a complaint from a fast-walker who had been forced to find a wider route through the area, he was met with a chorus of “Fiddlesticks!” Or words to that effect. Later, the security guard made a point of placing tape lines the floor to mark out 2-metre sections. The next day he had stayed to listen. Then he became a regular member of what they called themselves: The Farm Family.

As the days wore into each other, some of the others added their comments or rants. Mostly, they had listened, as if watching a television show.

The devastating blow came about three months after their first meeting. For Mahhi, it was infinitely worse than having his leg blown off by the mine. Lucy had been found by a neighbour in her little room in the older condo, behind the cherry tree. She passed away next day.

It took a week before Mahhi could make himself visit the Farmhouse. By then, The Farm Family had made the bench into a flower-filled memorial. Tears flowed down into Mahhi’s beard as he stared at the memorial. He had stood unsteadily for he knew not how long until the security guard took his arm to lead him to one of the chairs that had been allowed by mall administration to be left against a shuttered window in front of the bench.

Now, a month later, he contemplated the blossoming cherry tree. “They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

He sees his reflection in the window. “Lucy, you saw my beard. I do not see my beard from my side of the eyes. I remember the mirror image of my face as it was for so many years before the beard. Before the pandemic. Every morning I scraped off the offending hair because that was tradition. But if it wasn’t for my beard, if it wasn’t for the virus, I would not have known your lovely wrinkled old face. Your smile creased the ages. I see you still, before me.”

He focuses back onto the cherry tree. “You blossomed, pink and white, shining in the sun. Until you became wrinkled and dried into the dust that will nourish another tree.” A car drives under the cherry and kicks up the blossoms. He adds sadly, “If you are not paved over, or covered in the detritus of our so-called civilization.”

Mahhi turns his head up to the clouds. “My face, her face, the faces of all those I knew, why do they not learn?”

His heart answers, She will tell me: Say not Why? Lucy will say: Plant, grow, put food on the table…

He shakes his head. And I still must ask, Lucy: Is this enough? Is there no better answer?

When The Heart Is Never Open

THAT’S HOW EVERY EMPIRE FALLS

John Prine

October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020


Caught a train from Alexandria

Just a broken man in flight

Running scared with his devils

Saying prayers all through the night

Oh but mercy can’t find him

Not in the shadows where he calls

Forsaking all his better angels

That’s how every empire falls.

The bells ring out on Sunday morning

Like echoes from another time

All our innocence and yearning

and sense of wonder left behind

Oh gentle hearts remember

What was that story? Is it lost?

For when religion loses vision

That’s how every empire falls.

He toasts his wife and all his family

The providence he brought to bear

They raise their glasses in his honor

Although this union they don’t share

A man who lives among them

Was still a stranger to them all

For when the heart is never open

That’s how every empire falls.

Padlock the door and board the windows

Put the people in the street

“It’s just my job,” he says “I’m sorry.”

And draws a check, goes home to eat

But at night he tells his woman

“I know I hide behind the laws.”

She says, “You’re only taking orders.”

That’s how every empire falls.

A bitter wind blows through the country

A hard rain falls on the sea

If terror comes without a warning

There must be something we don’t see

What fire begets this fire?

Like torches thrown into the straw

If no one asks, then no one answers

That’s how every empire falls.

Tediousness

Direct from the 21st floor of his elegant lockup in White Rock, overlooking Boundary Bay, here is our favourite troubadour Ben Nuttall-Smith, with Life Gets Tedious, Don’t It:

Here’s Us

covid-19

This is a lovely picture from a science site (? Science) of the covid-19 virus.

I put together a rather rough video on how the virus thinks of our bodies, and how to keep it from becoming as bad as the 1918 Spanish Flu.

After we come up with a vaccine and we can escape from our fearful isolation, what are we as a world population going to do? Are we going to party as crazily as we did in the 1920s? Remember October 1929?

The Soft Shoe and the Whole Damn Thing

Twenty-six union business managers are squeezed together along a row of doubled white linen-covered tables. Across from them are twenty-seven business-suited contractors. With the width of two tables separating both sides, the echoey room has to be large. This room’s expansive windows, unlike others in the smaller meeting rooms, are covered with adjustable blinds that come from the bottom. They are set at half way up, strategically allowing the sun to shine directly into the eyes of the people occupying the far side of the tables. The faces of those near the windows, union representatives from across the province, are obscured by the bright light behind them.

The central union figure, Sandy, is a large-faced, large-bodied man dressed in his severe dark blue “negotiations suit”, red patterned tie included. He is working himself up to a rousing crescendo. His angry words are hurled, along with occasional theatrical spit, toward the smaller man opposite. Even as his face is darkened by the shadow, his redden features and neck can be seen to be bulging with emotion.

The recipient of the barrage, Clay, is wearing a sober face, though his tightly shaved mustache twitches occasionally. His mostly bald head is bracketed by a herringbone suit, which manages to have the appearance of both a newly-stiff collar and worn elbow-pads. Under the verbal onslaught, Clay slowly sinks lower into his suit in an attempt to use the lapels as earmuffs.

Sandy’s body rises with his crescendo and he suddenly pulls off a shoe and bangs it on the table, Khrushchev-like, yelling. “And we WON’T BE PUSHED AROUND ANYMORE!”

Most of his own side support the outburst. They all mumble or grunt various levels of approval as Sandy plops back down, satisfied with his performance. Sandy pulls a hanky across his face to wipe the sweat away.

On the other side, all but two of the twenty-seven contractor-representatives are startled. They quietly exchange worried looks. Clay glances to his left, checking on Henry, his “Co-Chair” and newly appointed Director of Labour Relations.

With the shoe banging, Henry is thinking, May we have a translation of that please? as he remembers the 1960s story of Khrushchev’s UN shoe-banging incident and Harold Macmillan’s dry English comment.

Henry is younger than all but one at the table. He is taller, with a thick black mustache and full head of black hair. Henry’s light, striped suit is calculated to blend in to most backgrounds. With this sun shining directly on it, the suit glares in the face of the union reps who look at him. So they don’t. Within, Henry is as concerned as the others in his group. Outwardly, he has learned to strictly control his facial muscles. They remain perfectly relaxed, because he has willed them so.

Allowing the reverberations to die down for a minute, Clay’s head rises fully above his collar. Seeing him out of the corner of his eye, Henry is reminded of a groundhog poking up in a field on his farm. Thinking, He’s more like the grizzly playfully scratching his back on a tree then suddenly taking off after you with a big mouthful of grinning teeth.

“Thank you, Sandy, for expressing your views about this clause. And, of course, we will take it under advisement.”

Sandy and Clay exchange neutral nods.

“And now, I would like to suggest that we adjourn talks for this first day. Over the afternoon we have been able to exchange our positions frankly. We have a lot to consider in caucus. Before we commit to the dates for further talks, are we agreed to reconvene tomorrow at eight?”

The young union rep from London has to get in with, “That’s a.m., right?”

Sandy’s head snaps angrily toward the newbie, who shrinks back into his seat, away from the glare of the Toronto union boss.

Ignoring the newbie’s comment, Clay looks across at Sandy and receives a nod when Sandy turns his head back to him, then both look up and down their sides of the table. No dissent.

“Fine, then. A productive day.” Clay turns to Henry, “Caucus for half an hour for our side, then freshen up and for those who want, we can meet in the bar at seven?” Clay is directing that to his people but glances at Sandy, whose nod comes at the same time as Henry’s.

Entering the bright, noisy hotel bar, Henry stands before the maître d’.

“Would you like a table, sir, or do you prefer the bar?”

Henry is new at this, freshly hired out of university with a degree in labour relations. He did very well in class and as a graduate student. Now in the real world, he fully understands that there are many different things to learn. Henry prides himself on being a sponge for knowledge. His attitude is, I am here to learn.

To the maître d’, “Not sure… I’m handling the union negotiations?…”

“Of course, sir. We have a quiet table in the back corner. How many would there be?”

“Make it a table for four, but it is likely to be just two of us. I think the others are going to be at the bar.”

He notices groups of his people and theirs, and a joint group happily and sometimes roughly partaking of the libations. Their main concentration appears to be on the hockey game being shown on two televisions above the bar.

As Henry steps to follow the maître d’, Clay arrives. He gets the maître d’s attention with a raised hand, “Hold the table for us, please, but we’ll sit at the bar for a few minutes.”

“Fine, sir.”

Clay heads right for Sandy, who has been alone at the bar for at least one drink so far. His tie is missing and the top two buttons on his shirt are open. Henry can’t help but notice the chest hair spilling out. Seating himself next to Sandy, Clay smiles, “Nice display.”

Sandy grins wryly, “Thanks. Needed that for… you know who.” He nods at Henry, who seats himself beside Clay. “This is new for you?”

Glancing at Clay, “Ah, yes. Very interesting.” Henry is not sure why they are speaking so openly to “the opposition”.

Clay grins.

The bartender arrives, “What can I get you gents?”

“Whiskey. Neat.”

“Ah, a screwdriver, please.”

The bartender quickly serves Clay his whiskey then prepares the screwdriver.

Henry takes his tall glass, “Thanks. Ah, please put the whiskey and my drink on my room tab? 401.’

“Of course, sir.”

The hockey game takes their attention for a minute.

Sandy then turns to Clay, patting his arm, “How’s Shirley doing?”

Shaking his head, “As well as can be expected. You know how it is. The chemo is really tough. I try to keep her spirits up, but… you know.”

Sympathetically, “Yeah. Tough. Took my Mary three months of torture… Thank you for coming to the memorial, Clay.” He pats Clay’s arm again.

Henry didn’t know about Clay’s wife. Nor Sandy’s. Much to learn.

Sandy changes the subject. “Have you filled in your new boy?”

A wry grin, “He’s a university student, Sandy. Give him time.”

“Teach him how to dance… Got to go.” As Sandy rises he leans toward Henry, “That Khrushchev was for my Ottawa guy.” He winks. “Claude still thinks he can get another two bucks plus the bump to 15 minutes break. Oh. Clay, keep away, stay away from Popovich from Sudbury. He’s spoiling for a fight.” Sandy half-nods, looking for a positive response.

“We’ll see.” Clay flashes a pixy smile on then off. “Might need to shake things up some time… Talk later.”

Sandy will not be dismissed. He puts his face close to Clay’s ear, “Fuck off. Don’t use him, for both our asses. He’s a time bomb.” Clay nods and pats Sandy’s arm encouragingly as he and Henry drop off their seats as well.

Making their way to the table, Clay lowers his voice to Henry. “The secret to construction negotiations is, it’s a dance.” He winks at Henry as they seat themselves at their table.

“A dance.” Henry takes in this next morsel of information.

Clay settles in, then leans toward Henry across the table. “It’s a dance. We all know the moves. The key is not to step on someone’s toes… Even the small fry – they can squeal every bit as loud as the others. The dance moves are already known. Everybody follows the steps. It has to be predictable, Henry. If someone screws up, there’s millions of dollars worth of projects at risk. When it comes down to it, who cares a rat’s ass about Billy’s Plumbing in Tillsonburg. But if the nuclear plant is delayed by a week, all hell’s going to break loose.”

Clay relaxes back into his seat. He looks around, satisfied that nobody is within hearing distance. “It’s not just the money on the line. If we put a crimp in the government’s pet projects, or if the public starts yelling at them, the government’ll throw some mediator at us and then cook up some artsy-fartsy legislation to threaten us and, as likely as not, the mediator’ll be clueless about what’s really going on. That would not be good for either the business managers or our major owners. Nobody wants that… Except for a couple of the old-time rabble-rousers from the bad old days who don’t know any better just ‘cause they got a commy burr up their ass. So Sandy had to make like a commy to feed them their shit… Anyway… You did well. Just follow my lead. Don’t say anything unless I ask for it… Hah! Sandy’s still fuming about the idiot from London who opened his trap. NObody speaks at the table but the two friggen speakers. If I ever ask you a question, just tell me exactly what I want to hear and then shut up…” Clay softens his tone, “Sorry. That’s one of the dance no-nos. His London guy’s your age. Still learning…” He is about to reach for papers in his coat pocket. “Here, Brian from Windsor gave me his psych notes.” Clay smiles. “Oh. You notice they’re sitting with their backs to the window?”

Henry nods.

“Old trick. It’s like who’s going to grab the baseball bat handle first. If you know how many hands it takes to get to the top… You ever play ball?”

Nodding, “Yeah. Figured that one out fast. If the bat got tossed to me, I’d take a hit on the head just to grab it at the right spot.” They both smile.

“So with the sun behind them, we can’t see their faces, their expressions. Brian is sitting off to the side and he’s really good with body language. Read his stuff.”

Clay finishes reaching into his coat pocket to pull out a small pack of sheets folded into three. He hands the papers to Henry. “Look it over. Brian also figures Claude and Poppy are the loose canons. Think about how that can be used if we ever need it. Oh, and give me your thoughts on Alexander. His company’s in trouble – lost that big pulp mill job two days ago to Fox. Don’t want him screwing us up with some behind-the-scenes deal, right? Don’t do anything yet, but give me some options. Ok?”

“Right.” Henry remembers to pull out a scrap of paper to write down his notes. “Do we use electronics –  I mean, like, hire surveillance pros?”

Clay shakes his head, “Naw. Leave that shit to the unions.”

The server arrives at their table. “Have you gentlemen decided?”

Clay is amused, “Huh! With what? Didn’t bring us the menus.”

“Oh! I’m very sorry, sir! I’ll be right back…”

Clay waves a hand. “No no. I know the menu by heart. Henry?”

“Well, I have an allergy to onions. Can you recommend something?”

During their wait for the meal and over the meal itself, Clay continues passing tidbits of information about how the real world of bargaining goes, interspersed with gossip about the characters on both sides.

Henry sponges it up. “What about Sandy. You two must have crossed swords for a lot of years?”

“We don’t cross swords. We’re the medics. MASH. When anything goes wrong at our table, everyone suffers. You remember four years ago? The whole construction industry went out. Know why?”

Henry had been in third year at university. The topic had been discussed in a poly-sci class. He recites to Clay that the prof’s conclusion was that the strike had been inevitable because of the provincial political battles at the time and the black-knight attempted takeover of the major engineering firm which was bidding on the huge nuclear power station contract.

“Naw. It was mosquitoes and hunting.”

Henry is about to let a laugh escape. He turns it into a smile. “Ok. I’ll bite. What happened?”

“Ha. Ha. Bite. Ok, there was that large food plant being built in London. And the SOB business manager for the UA, the previous one. And, there was the nice sunny weather that summer. The whole f..” Clay looks around for any raging grannies, “the whole friggen industry – from the managers down – everybody’d booked their two weeks hunting vacation for the open season. So when some kid apprentice goes running to the union about there being too many mosquitoes when he was climbing the building’s outside ladders, the business manager says, Down tools! Even then, Sandy and I could have stopped it, but the boss of the project firm, who wasn’t even in London, picks up his phone, yells at both the government and the media, and we couldn’t do a damn thing. Hands tied. Two weeks later, everybody hauls back from camp with their empties and a moose or two, and we’re back to work. Millions lost. Government hopping mad. Legislation changed… ‘Course, it was that legislation that got you your job. So, good-news/bad-news, eh?”

“Mosquitoes, huh?”

Clay rubs his hands. “All right. I’m ready for dessert!” He waves for the attention of the server.

Time passes a bit longer than Clay wants. He is not in the happiest mood when the server saunters by.

“What pies you got?”

“Thank you, sir. Here is the dessert menu.”

Clay takes it and quickly settles on, “Pecan. Pecan pie. And not a little sliver, mind!”

It is Henry’s turn. “The apple, please.”

“Excellent choices, gentlemen. I’ll be back shortly.”

Several minutes later, the server returns and, with a flourish, deposits two large plates before them. Each plate has an elegant, almost visible circle of caramel drizzled around the perimeter. A hint of frosting has been introduced over the feature contents, which are each an engineering marvel of the thinnest slices, still standing vertically, of what must have been apple on one plate and pecan on the other.

Clay is not pleased.

“I said pie. Not a tiny sliver of pie. Mine isn’t even thick enough to have half a pecan in it sitting sideways!”

The server starts a chuckle, thinking Clay is joking, but Clay’s facial expression of anger stops him from digging a deeper hole.

“Sir. I am very sorry that our dessert chef has prepared these so, ah, thin. I will be back immediately with more substantial pieces.”

He is about to whisk the plates away when Clay catches his hand. “You didn’t understand me. When I said pie, I meant PIE! The whole damn PIE!”

“Ah…”

Henry jumps in. “The whole pie, please.”

Well, the server does return with two whole pies. They are big ones.

Henry has to ask for a doggy box for the rest of his. Clay finishes his pie off in record time. The whole damn thing.

On his way back to his room, Henry’s stomach is not comfortable. At all. Walking into his bathroom, he mumbles, ”He may dance the soft shoe but lord help anyone this guy wants to kick in the face.”

And I’ll Go Outside

Beaver Lake, Stanley Park

A middle-aged man is lying on a cardboard and newspaper nest. Several papers have been opened up across the length of a green bench in the lightly manicured park. The afternoon sun dapples its way through magnificent oak trees. Butterflies move gracefully and aimlessly amongst the flower beds between some of the oaks. The bouquet rising from the flowers wafts delicately over the homeless man.

His bouquet is not so fetching. Clothing of indiscriminate style, with plaids and stripes clashing, fit loosely around his gaunt body.

He groans and shifts on his nest. “Owww.”

A passing park attendant, with the name badge “Mitch”, notices the groans. “Willie. You ok?”

“Bugger off, Mitch.”

“Listen, man. I told you we’re here to help. That bed at the Gospel Mission…”

“Leave me alone, dammit. Don’t want no holy-rollers nattering at me all fucken day.”

Willie rolls sideways carefully to get at least one ear away from Mitch.

“Ahwww.”

“You can go through all the vowels you want, Willie. If you don’t want our help…”

Quietly, “Just bugger off.”

Mitch shrugs and saunters away toward Artists Circle, muttering, “Not sure they’d take the old grouch, anyway.”

From the bench, a muffled, “Heard that.”

Coming down the path from the Artists Circle, Willie hears the distinctive nattering of his arch enemies. He growls to himself, “If those damn holy-roller do-goodies stop here, I swear I’m gonna jump in the drink. I am. No fucken doubt about it…”

Three ladies come up to Willie’s bench to contemplate his back. As he tries to tighten into a fetal position, his back goes out entirely. “OOWWWW!”

He attempts to straighten his legs but spasms, and falls awkwardly off the bench. Willie’s head bounces hard against the edge of the bench.

The lead lady grimaces, “Ow, I felt that.”

Without his bidding – as he is apparently unconscious – Willie is taken in an ambulance to a clinic; he is prodded; tut-tutted over; shot up with an experimental depression drug, to which he has a bad reaction; spends the night in delirium; then, next day he is dumped surreptitiously back into the park onto a bench.

Later that day, Willie wakes up to find himself lying on a new cardboard-and-blanket nest on a different bench. His back is still sore and he now has a splitting headache; his clothes are all different and he is cold. Very cold.

Mitch comes by, holding two coffee cups, and sees someone who he thinks is Willie. His face is more drawn and grizzled than before. His body is shivering.

“Willie? Are you alright, Willie?”

With a quarter turn, Willie covers part of his exposed back. He roughly spits out, “Goddamn holy-rollers took me away again. Shot me up with something again. TELL ’EM TO LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!… Splitting headache…”

Mitch sees/smells that Willie has been cleaned up. He steps forward to pull Willie’s fresh blanket up onto his back. “Wouldn’t want the crows to peck away at your hindside, Willie.”

Showing his unappreciation for the uninvited help, Willie shifts so that the blanket falls away to uncover his back once more. As Mitch stands there for a minute, Willie begins to shiver again. He rolls ever so slowly to partially cover his back.

“What are we going to do with you, Willie? You know how I hate to load my quad with cold bodies.”

“B-b-bugger off! LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE! Don’t want your help!”

Mitch shakes his head in resignation. “I’ll just leave this extra coffee here below your head, Willie. Still hot.”

As Mitch walks away, Willie turns to peek with one eye to see if he is gone. Satisfied with his triumph of opposition, Willie turns to find the coffee. He captures the cup, wrapping his hand tightly around the warm sleeve. He slowly, carefully, puts one foot, then the other foot down onto the grass. The freshly cleaned blanket smells like chemicals.

“Damn holy-rollers. DON’T LIKE CHEMICALS. Kill you. KILL you, dammit! Want my own blanket.” He pulls the offending blanket off with his free hand and tosses it onto the bench-back.

He wraps both hands around the warm coffee cup. Fumbling and mumbling at the “stupid lid thing,” he pries it open enough to suck out a mouthful of hot liquid. “Too much cream. Makes it cold.”

After a while, Willie starts to shiver again. He absently reaches for the blanket and wraps it around his shoulders, then he shakes it down against his lower back, still holding the cup like a candle in his lap.

He slowly slips into a lean over his legs, then jerks back. Touching the cold bench slats, he jerks away. Willie shifts to find the right equilibrium, then slowly oscillates between the cold bench slats and leaning too far forward.

He dreams. The beach sand is sun-warmed hot. The bright blue sky stretches across the prairies forever. A hazy speck of darkness is away off on the horizon. Horses graze peacefully in a nearby meadow. Now a dark someone is racing through the grass, over the grass, scattering the horses in terror. The darkness flies right at Willie into his head and sticks inside, smashing around inside his mushy red head, smashing out all light, smashing…

“DADDY?”

Willie is shouting running between the oaks, past the dark pines, through the flowers, pounding, sweating… until he falls into a panting disorientation onto a bench.

No cardboard. No blanket.

He shivers in the shade of a dark hemlock.

Willie curls up like a withering fern into a tight fetal position.

Some time later, as the evening stars can almost be seen in the pastel sky, one of Mitch’s co-workers waves at Mitch from across the meadow. “Mitch!”

As Mitch nears, the co-worker points to a cold body curled up on the bench. “Know him?”

Mitch walks behind the bench to better see the heavily grizzled face. “Willie. Poor old Willie… Sad case.”

“Which one isn’t?… You wanna bring the quad?”


“Soon this place

Will be too small,

And I’ll go outside”

: Lhasa – 2003 – The Living Road