Barter, Banks and Bitcoin

In a village far away, there was a carpenter who specialized in making furniture, and there was a farmer who harvested grain to grind into flour for bread.

This village was so distant from other towns that no bank would consider locating in the village, so everyone bartered for goods. When needed, two solid chairs were usually exchanged for one bag of stone-ground flour.

When the blacksmith was asked for tools or hardware needed by the carpenter or the farmer, she had to travel a long way to buy iron bars and coal with which to fashion them. On some of the journeys she spoke proudly to people about the pleasant life in her remote village.

One day a remarkable event occurred. Strangers came to the village from opposite directions.

From the north came a salesman whose only product was paper. It was a catalogue of goods for sale, and a wad of paper currency with which to pay for the goods.

This Northerner said that he would stop by again in two weeks to take orders from his colourful catalogue. He also said he would buy local produce at this time in exchange for his paper currency, and he would pay twice the value of the produce, as listed in his catalogue. That way some people would be able to start out right away to order enticing products from the catalogue. However, he said, this special offer was only good for the few days he was to be in the village this time.

The Southern visitor told the villagers that she would leave the community two free solar-powered cellphones, which she demonstrated to them, showing how a wide-area barter network already operated among the other villages and towns of the region.

Explaining the simple procedure, the Southerner said that when a villager needed something not found in the village, all they had to do was put in a request and it would be sent along.

And, when a villager wanted to offer any of their excess products, they could place that availability onto one of the cellphone lists, and someone, somewhere would order it.

With products moving into and out of the village, there would always be a traveller who could carry the goods either way for the fee of a nightly room-and-board and maybe a tip.

At the end of a year, the Southerner explained, the flow of goods into and out of the village would be totaled and any excess would be left in the ledger, while any deficit would be noted and applied against future outside requests for village products or services.

That would provide incentive for all villagers to work together a bit harder to place more desirable products into the outgoing supply chain, and to restrict some of the inclination to bring in unneeded outside goods to the village, thus keeping their barter account closely in balance over the long term.

Meanwhile, the Northerner saw that he had to respond so he set up a bank in the village anyway, hiring a local who was good with arithmetic to operate the bank along with the store. He secretly planned to convert the bank at a later date into a currency-lending store, which would have a much higher profit than would any simple bank.

The Northerner stocked the bank and next-door store with products made by the villagers but instead of paying with barter, he gave them pieces of paper he called “bank notes”. He explained that the bank notes could be used by anyone in the village to pay for goods amongst themselves instead of doing “old fashioned bartering”.

The bank also offered to take any amount of each villager’s bank notes and put them into a safe place to be used later, held safely for a small administration fee.

The people talked amongst themselves. There were heated arguments between family and friends such as the village had not seen in generations. Some villagers preferred to carry on with the newly modified barter system that they were getting used to, while others decided to jump onto the bank note scheme.

As you can see, one system automatically monetizes everything, creating hard categories and divisions. The other system creates more community-minded actions. Where, before, discussions between villagers were sometimes extended, they had been conducted in a civil fashion while working toward a consensus. Now, positions became hardened as one side – though they were a small group – clung to their new-found and distinctive “wealth” of paper in the form of bank notes. This side knew that if they had control of the large pile of bank notes, their power would increase as the years passed.

If you lived in that village, which system would you chose?

This is the basic difference between banks and bitcoins, versus the possibilities of Blockchain technology.

A Long Time Ago

by George Opacic

In a village of industrious craftspeople there lived a young woman who could not cook.

When still a child, her mother had asked her to watch as the soup was made. Mother collected garden-fresh potatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes, along with parsley, pepper, basil and salt from the pantry. The kitchen air blossomed with the small basket of garden produce she had just gathered. The daughter added more wood to the fire to heat the water, ready on the stove in their iron soup cauldron. Mother showed her daughter how to peel and chop the vegetables, how long to boil the root vegetables and then add the rest of the ingredients each at their own times. When the soup was ready, Mother served it to her family and proudly announced that their daughter would have soup for them the next day.

In preparation for that coming meal, the daughter went out next morning. Mother told her to take along a basket so she could carry home any produce she might want to collect, but the daughter said, “I have a different idea, mother.”

Later that morning the daughter came back with a strong boy who was carrying a heavy cauldron.

Mother was surprised. “Daughter, you do not have any vegetables under your arm and why is Tommy carrying that cauldron?”

Pleased to show her initiative the daughter replied, “Tommy is carrying the vegetables in the soup and it was all prepared by his mother. All I have to do is heat it up in time for supper.”

Sure enough, when Mother looked into the cauldron, it was full of prepared vegetables, spices and even water. “Tommy, why did you carry that heavy cauldron all the way from your house to here? Are you not going to have the soup yourself?”

Tommy looked a bit embarrassed. “Why, no, ma’am. Your daughter bought the soup all prepared and my mother only asks that you have the cauldron cleaned when I come for it tomorrow.”

Now it was Mother’s turn to be confused. “Bought? What do you mean bought?”

Placing his heavy load on the floor inside the door, Tommy explained. “Well, Susan, here, said she’d give my mother a coin if she would prepare the cauldron of soup. And here it is… Do you want it?”

Mother politely thanked Tommy for delivering the soup and promised that the clean cauldron would be ready for him in the morning.

When Tommy left, Mother turned sternly to her daughter. “Susan! What a complete waste of valuable coins! And where did you ever get those coins to throw away with such carelessness?”

Susan was not deterred by her mother’s attitude. “Mother, when you sent me last week to work for old Mrs. Harlow, she agreed to pay me five small coins for my work. So you see, I still have four coins left.”

“WHAT?” Mother was furious. “Mrs. Harlow is old and stiff with her joint pains and she can hardly get out of bed anymore. I sent you there out of charity, to help the poor woman! Not for you to rob her of her last possessions!”

Standing firm in the face of her mother’s wrath, Susan replied. “I did not ask Mrs. Harlow for the coins. She offered them because, as she said, she does not have much time left and she wanted to do some good with her coins before she passed on.”

Mother thought about that. “But still, Susan, I showed you how easy it is to make your soup. How will it look if Tommy goes about telling everyone in the village that you don’t know how to cook? There wouldn’t be a boy around here who would have you!”

“Have me as what, Mother?”

“Why, as a wife, of course!”

Susan thought for minute. “I have to say, Mother, that I cannot think of having any of these boys as my husband.”

“Susan!”

Seeing that her mother was about to become apoplectic, Susan scurried away to the stove with her cauldron of soup.

And so it was that Susan grew into a strong-willed young woman who made up her own mind as to what should be done in her life. She never did learn the craft of making her own food. But Susan did not go hungry while her mother was around.

And, apparently, her lack of skill in the kitchen did not deter the young men of the village from constantly asking her to accompany them for a walk in the meadow by the nearby lake. It was during the second of those invitations that Susan found herself in a compromising situation.

Charles was the eldest son of the village blacksmith. He followed in his father’s profession, of course, and was becoming a competent smith with bulging muscles.

One day, Susan was speaking to a group of young ladies about what she had learned when visiting the other village. Her stories were about the people from the great and mysterious and exciting city where the King lived.

Susan had been sent by her mother to the village on the other side of the lake to visit their relatives. Mother thought that Susan would settle down after having a bit of an adventure. Mother was wrong.

The neighbouring village was close to the highway that was used by the King’s men to travel to the sea coast, so the village had grown larger around the original travelers hotel. Now there were three hotels to serve the travelers, not all of whom were in the service of the King.

Susan had stayed for eight days with different relatives. Each night after the big supper, she was regaled with stories of the many travelers and the stories that they brought from the sea coast and from the King’s city. Susan’s mother had allowed her to take one of her small coins along and, on her third day in the bustling village she determined to spend her coin. Accompanied by a cousin who was delegated to keep her safe, Susan walked into the public house that comprised the lower level of the newest and grandest hotel in the village.

She had no idea what to expect. Whatever she may have dreamed about the public house, it was so delightfully foreign from any other experience she had, that Susan stumbled and then danced about from table to group in a trance. She had long conversations with people she had never met before and they spoke of silky clothing styles and jeweled buggy whips and food from the sea that tickled the tongue and curious relationships using words she had never heard before but which she just knew would horrify her mother if she ever heard them.

Hours later, her cousin finally managed to drag Susan outside. It was dark. It was well past supper time but Susan’s head was so filled with the wonders she experienced inside the public house that her head was spinning with colourful visions. Or maybe it was the drink that she bought with her coin.

Back in her own village, everything seemed grey and dull and so boringly quiet that Susan felt the urgent need to tell others about her adventures in the outside world. So, one evening, when Susan was asked by some acquaintances what she had seen and heard in the village across the lake, Susan was more than ready to tell them. She did add a few things, elaborating somewhat on the experiences that travelers had recounted in the public house. As Susan spoke, more young ladies crowded round, eager to hear. The larger the crowd became, the more fantastic Susan’s stories became, and the stories changed from happening to others, to happening to her.

Charles and a few other boys wandered by to see why a crowd was collecting. When they saw that it was Susan telling everyone about her adventures beyond the lake, the boys stayed. Charles was as interested as the others at first. However, he, too, had been to the other village while accompanying his father to bring back supplies of iron and coal. He finally could not contain himself as Susan told of how she had fought off a ruffian from the coast. Charles let out a loud guffaw. “You fought him off? I’d have trouble with some of those devils!”

Susan saw that she was on the verge of losing her rapturous audience. “Yes, Charles, you might have, but this old seaman had lost a leg, which is why they called him Pegleg. As he reached out for me I kicked his wooden leg and he fell headfirst onto a stout chair.”

With delighted chuckles, the audience was back on her side.

Susan learned from her first night’s story-telling to keep closer to reality.

Despite himself, Charles was intrigued with Susan. One day when Charles delivered a packet of new nails for Susan’s father to use on a project, Susan took the lead in bartering for payment. Her father backed away with a knowing smile. Normally, the packet of nails would have been worth two bushels of fresh vegetables from their garden. Susan’s father had been prepared to offer one-and-a-half bushels then perhaps bargain up to the two.

Susan opened the packet to inspect the nails. “Two of these are beginning to rust, Charles. Were they all made this week?” She smiled coyly up at his bushy-bearded face.

He grinned down at her. “I should be careful you don’t kick my pegleg. Yes, Susan. All these nails were hammered out by me, personally, this week. I will take the standard two bushels…”

Susan interrupted him, “Why Charles…” She surprised Charles and her father with her suggestive pose, “…I am disappointed that you should be so forward.” She combed a slithering hand through her light brown curls.

Charles was speechless. He stared at Susan’s hair, then his eyes started wandering, then he suddenly glanced at Susan’s father. At a distinct disadvantage under this feminine onslaught Charles cleared his throat. “Ah, well, like, we normally exchange this many nails for, ah, two bushels, but if, well, like, under the circumstances, with those two very slightly rusty nails in the packet, I will offer my apologies and accept a single bushel of your garden vegetables.” He heard what he had just said and quickly added, “Like, if you wouldn’t mind packing it tightly and having a few good-sized potatoes on the bottom.” He had glanced over at Susan’s father with a pleading look. “If you don’t mind, sir?”

Susan nodded in satisfaction. “That will be fine, Charles. Perhaps you’d care to accompany me to our garden. I can allow you to choose your own potatoes while I collect the rest of the basket.”

Susan’s father had to suppress a laugh. As the two young folk walked back to the garden, Father couldn’t wait to go inside to tell Mother what he had witnessed. Inside, he laughed out loud while she tittered in amusement, and some wonder.

That was when Charles had asked Susan if she’d like to go with him to the meadow by the lake.

That meadow was a favourite place for young folks to meet. Some sat on the slope leading to the lake, gazing at the ripples taken by a breeze across the calm water and made plans. Some gazed at each other, saying nothing, doing much. Some didn’t know what to do and sat stiffly wishing the other person with them would do something. Anything.

Susan was excited to be in the meadow once more. The last time, with Tommy, she was in the category of wishing that something would happen.

As they found a quiet location hidden from the village by shrubs and trees, Susan unfurled her blanket with the intent of sitting down. Charles could not contain himself. He exploded into a runting maelstrom, jumping at Susan and shoving her back onto the blanket, immediately covering her with his sweating body.

As Charles was pulling his pants down, Susan twisted sideways and, in doing so, elbowed him in the side of the head. Stunned, he was easier to push off her. Susan rolled away to jump to her feet. She yelled at Charles as he scrambled to pull his punts up. “What do you think you’re doing, you stupid brute! If you ever touch me again I will scratched your eyes out! One at a time! Believe me!”

Then Susan spun around and ran across the fields back to her house, her heart racing. Before she got to their garden in the Commons, Susan found herself smiling.

Charles could get only as far as kneeling on this pants. They would not go further, the legs having been half-knotted as he yanked them while on his back. He spitted and growled and swore in animal frustration. On his knees.

They never spoke again.

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?