Archive for August, 2015

gods among men

Posted: August 31, 2015 in stories

When I was seven years old, me and my friend Tyrone had the oddest belief. We believed that there were ghosts in the trees in the small park across the street from my grandparents old wooden house on the boundary of the Musquem Nation in Vancouver, BC.

We’d go into the tiny forested park, a park due to be bulldozed, the old oak and arbutus replaced with pink stucco seven-rooms with two-car garages intended as single-family homes. People have to live somewhere. Even at seven, I was aware of this fact. I was realistic. A realistic seven year-old who talks to ghosts in the forest.

But when the ghosts were exorcised along with their homes, another exorcism happened within. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later when my neighbour Brent led me to the inner harbour in Victoria that I felt it. Brent would often talk of a time when gods walked with men, in his characteristic hazy beat of speech, this man, a dreadlocked bass player in a cover band out east driving his cherry-red convertible pig-bait.

He led me by bicycle to an old galleon moored for the tallships festival. We parked our bikes out on the dock and gazed at the spectacle before us. I had no idea a galleon would be so large in real life. No idea that it would occupy so much of the tiny harbour, or so much of my dreamspace. I was so mesmerized by the site that I barely noticed Brent was boarding the vessel.

“Leif, c’mon. It’s time.”

I looked up at him. I blinked to make sure that what I was seeing was accurate.

“Cut the rope, Leif. It’s time for our adventure to begin!”

I just looked at the man, a man older and in many ways wiser than me. A man who moved through life in his cherry-red convertible doing the things he loved to do.  A man born on the wind and carried by it regardless of the limitations of our imaginations. Then I looked over at harbour security, a man who did not look fit to run after us for two minutes, a man who was obviously radioing for backup.

“Quickly Leif, we don’t have time! Cut the rope for the love of gods!”

I stood, paralyzed. I was thinking about my family. About my future children with my newlywed. About my home, my education, my student debt, everything I’d been planning for, all for naught if I ceded to the bizarre request of this man so intelligent in the cosmic flow of life he had become insane. Harbour security approached.

“Don’t fail me, no!”

My gaze dropped. I gave one final look to Brent, his eyes shaped in anguish as I turned to harbour security.

“I’m sorry about my friend. He’s a manic-depressive. Just let him play for a couple more minutes, and I’ll get him out of here.”

The officer filled his body with a contemptuous breath. He feigned concern. “Oh, uh. I’m sorry about your friend, but…you realize this is a restricted area.”

“Yes I realize. He just wants to touch the steering wheel. He has an overactive imagination. I’ll get him out of here.”

Brent could hear the transaction, despite how hushed I tried to be. He lifted one leg slowly after the other over the small security fence and walked down the plank, me and harbour security staring in unison, mouths wired shut.

We picked up our bikes and rode home in silence. His disappointment never left our interactions. He spoke more and more about damned Whitey, which my newlywed, a white woman, didn’t much care for and she soon dismissed the man as a calloused reverse-racist.

The Whitey he spoke of was the one who came first. The one who came in a time when gods walked among men and chained our imaginations, allowing only approved visions to flash across our screens. I see Whitey in dreams, even now after my newlywed has gone, my education is worthless, and my home is broken. Even now after I’ve crossed the ocean, the proper way, with a passport, through security.

My imagination is an albatross still hanging in my closet. I know it’s still there because every friend I’ve told this story to tells me the same garbage Whitey painted in blood across our screens.

They don’t see the irony, that I’m not the hero of this story. They point out the reckless, impulsive foolishness of the dreadlocked bassplayer. What a crazy man. You did the right thing. I’m glad you didn’t go with him. You would have gotten in serious trouble. It’s fun to think about, but in reality you would be a thief. There’s no mercy for thieves.

There’s no mercy for vagrancy.

There’s no mercy for criminal acts.

There’s no mercy for gods walking among men.

Images courtesy of ADROIT Fashion Media. For some lovely listening, try this.

I was out driving my first truck, a maroon 1985 Chevy Silverado pickup, half ton. I took a turn onto the highway when I thought I saw something strange. The unforgiving dry August heat boiled lines in the air half a metre above the road. Those days were given to hallucinations, the hallucination of prosperity, the hallucination of love, the hallucination of trust.

But those hallucinations were sweet, even if now I’ve grown bitter, bitter with the reccurring dream of the bag in the pipe. That dream haunts my memory even to this day.
I stopped to see what was in the pipe. I couldn’t see it from the driver’s seat, so I slid over to the passenger side. I thought I could see something sharp and black protruding from torn holes in the thin black plastic. 
The metal of the truck door sent burn chills through my arm, but I was so mesmerized, so fixed on the pipe, that I didn’t let my weight off until my flesh was at the point of searing. What the hell was in that pipe?
I finally peeled myself out of my truck and sauntered over to the pipe through the tall flaxen reeds. The smell of canola filtered in and out of my nostrils, but it was replaced, wisp by wisp of scorched air, turning into something rank and uncanny. 
Commercial transport went zooming by on the highway, but now cars began to pause, and a few motorists with little else to do stopped. A patchy circle of murmuring faces concaved behind me as though I was on stage with the bag in the pipe and tickets were quickly selling out. 
The sunny sky behind me grew dark and gloomy with faces, voices, and whispers. Hissing. Shushing. Question marks signified through arrogant upturns in intonation. Now everyone had caught the disease. What the hell is in the pipe?
I knelt into the spongy grass, soaked with thick black bog, and now my audience looked through my eyes, breathed through my mouth, and each hiss, shush and question mark was swallowed into the vacuum I’d created. Me, the pipe, the bag and the putrid stench were the only things in existence.
I peeled back the plastic to discover it was a shroud. Shrouded was the half-rotten carcass of a short-haired dalmatian with a once-spotted coat now drenched in slimy rot. 
Time froze in the fraction of a second it took for the neural networks darkening the sky above me to process what I was looking at. Reality drew in the moment and exhaled aeons.
Those aeons passed before the comments filtered in. The audience jeered the actors, the shrouded dalmatian, the pipe and the bag, and the ghost of the twisted soul that left the bag. None of the antagonists were sentient, though. The crowd needed someone to answer for the stage set so cruelly.
I had other plans. The play wasn’t over. I wanted to see the dog’s face, despite the rippling waves of horrid stench conducted by arid heat and ill intent. No one dare say anything, but their wills repelled magnetically, no, don’t! and for the love of God. But I owed the animal this much. 
I pulled the bag back and it snapped open with the crunching gristle of the carcass’ neck, flipping its lifeless jaw to the left, dipped into the sludge of the pipe. The cowering consciousness behind me united again and bore in. It didn’t want to see the face and it wanted to desperately, still dear Lord, no! and what the hell are you doing?

All bearing in. All criticizing. Couldn’t divorce their eyes from the horror, and couldn’t stop what they pretended they didn’t want to see. I had to slip the bag under the dalmatian’s limp head to reveal its blanched snout caked in brown blood, shucking the rest of its face in the curl of my trembling fingers.
Its eyebrows arched upwards, closed black eyes sucked into the vortex of its forehead. Black tears carved cleft rifts into its schnoz, painting lines down to its stalagmite teeth piercing up past the slimy trim around its gums. This time I froze, though time did not.
What kind of sick… the admonition for the one who left it here, directed towards me.
The question to me was not a question of sickness. We’re all sick.
The question in my mind, as I stood holding rotten fur and flesh, ankle deep in bog, dalmatian’s black slimy tongue slowly unfolding into my mitt, was what I’d do if I had a dead dalmatian in a bag, driving a truck down the vast stretch of time past glowing golden canola and abandoned granaries, seeing lines of dry heat lifting a metre above the pavement, in a place given to hallucinations of love and trust.
“Kitt, yuh wit’ me?”

No, Jin. I’m not with you.
I’m a hundred million miles away. 

I’m in a past I’ve never been able to escape
I’m in a future I’ve never been able to afford.
until after this drop.
I’m in a six-bedroom, two-story in a nice suburban development. A fuel-efficient Jeep next to a hobby 280ZX in the garage. Maserati in the drive drying in the fresh Phoenix air after a nice thorough scrub. A nice little well-stocked bar in a finished basement. A barbecue out on the deck. Tiki torches for camp value. A little hot tub next to a cedar-walled sauna. A nice box of cigars, you know, a nice box. 
She’s on a plastic deckchair catching some rays before giving a kiss of pure contentment and going inside to promote her latest. She’s busy these days, but not too busy to keep her practice going. You know, morning stretches, afternoon meditation, and then it’s back to calls, networking, profile. She’s got a contract in three days in Morocco. It’ll be a short jaunt, but enough to circulate some cards and enjoy a pint with a director and three executive producers. 
“Kitt,” Jin snaps, snaps again. I’m not here. Not in this compound, not closed in by grinning men with kalashnikovs, a cigar loosely dangling from one’s lip, the other spitting muck to stain the mud beneath him. I’m not sitting on a piss-stained cot in a cracked-brick human warehouse hearing the screeches of indentured labour underneath the strike of the whip. I’m not watching Jin wave a dossier around in a portfolio telling me what I need to know to drop and survive.

There’s a lot of standing. A lot of waiting. A lot of running. There’s the fear of being caught that never goes away. It doesn’t go away, but that’s good. It helps me run.

“Dis time,” says Jin, “dere’s a lot more.

“Dere’s a pipe,” he grumbles. “Sewage. Breath through yer mouth.”

I look down at the coat he’s got me in. The shoes. This is the finest he’s ever given me for a drop. High profile client. I have to look like a company man.

“Haven’t lookit the check, den?”
I draw in a breath as the Muslims outside begin their evening prayers. The sounds swirl around like a cosmic Gregorian hum. My hand drifts toward the inner pocket of the coat, the lining already sucking in my perspiration, all clammy and acridly sweet. The check’s wilted, damp and flattened as Jin’s eyes follow my peel of the razor-thin paper. His lips sympathetically curl with the lifting of my eyebrows. It goes back into the pocket.
“So, think I care about da damn jacket?
“Now lissen close.”
Jin looks up at me with an alchemic conflagration of condescension and disappointment. The Muslims’ chanting increases in intensity. “He own da floor.”
He fishes a half butt out of the ashtray in front of him. I shake away his pass and my yellowed cot shakes accordingly. Jin sinks into the brown leather of his estate chair and pulls a deep drag down his stick-thin throat. His brown polyester suit crinkles at the arm whenever he tucks the blunt into his lips. His smoke rises and lingers about his greased-back ponytail. His rings scrape against each other. His worn red skin is dimpled, pockmarked, and perfect.
I’m just a ghost in front of this made man. If this weren’t my last job, I’d be getting ready to be wrapped in that brown polyester. I’d be in that estate chair, looking at some poor, desperate pale kid with pipe dreams from halfway across the world. If this weren’t my last drop.
Is this the test? Is he moving up? Am I taking his place and earning my polyester shroud?
He reads my thoughts effortlessly. “There’s always some girl. She never like da sacrifices you make fuh ‘er.
“But she like dat ice. She like dat home. She like dat pool. She like dat pipe dream. She jus’ doesn’t likes think a’ men dying. She doesn’t like a’ think a-yuh riskin’ yer neck. That’s why yuh live da one life here, and d’other there. Put yerself in ‘er shoes. You wanna da pipe dream too. You don’ wanna know how she get it.
“That’s what a’ do. I’m this when a’ here. I’m me a’ home.
“Here. Yah need da puff. Takkit.”
I put the resin-browned paper between my fingers and barely touch it to my lips. I pull deeply, down into my diaphragm and hold, Jin’s grin increasing the longer I keep the kumbaka. I let it go and move to pass back, but Jin waves it. “Donnah dat.”
We sit there in silence, Jin giving me license to suck the blunt back on my terms, to finish the memory I started. But I can’t. All I can do is feel the smoke charring my throat on its way down, ripping and burning like the searing metal of my Chevy door. Little paws poking through black plastic. Limp head and bloodcaked fur in my hand. The stench, oh God.
A trail of blue steam emerges from my nostrils and I look to the door, the exit behind which the Kolkata sun eats the yellow grass and grinning, gawking men with kalashnikovs listen to radio white noise interrupted by strongly-worded revolutionaries, talking of hanging the victims of rape for their disruption of social order, for their lusty looks at strange men, for their comings-on and their goings-out. For staring out the window for too long.
The prayers intensify again.
I break the sounds with the silence of my words.
I’m here with Jin. Jin’s with me. For the first time since the escort dumped me in front of this decaying grey brick playing card house, Jin sees me on the level.
“Not long. Jus’ hold tight.”
I feel black plastic stretching over my head. I look at Jin’s brown polyester. I wane confused while waxing confident. I can’t tell the difference between brown and black, between a blazer over slacks and a body bag, zipping itself slowly from toe to nose. There’s still time to mask my disposition, so I take another full haul, nonchalantly uncover my sunglasses and press them to my face. Jin snickers.
“An old habit,” I express as I lean up against the wall behind me. Now I can smell the pungent effluent from my seat. Neither my colourblindness nor the fetid aroma below turn my disinterested gaze.
The chanting reaches its crescendo and fades to silence. I take one more puff. “Alright, I’m ready.”
As swiftly as the car brought me in, I’m raced back through the streets of Kolkata, past the Communist party murals. I can’t be seen by the client with this license plate, so that’s the last I see of Jin’s guards.
I stand there by the wall. How long will it take to send the check to five dozen accounts in the East, grab Janice, and get out of dodge before they know I didn’t pass the portfolio?
I guess we’ll find out.

la mortessa

Posted: August 31, 2015 in stories


Illustration from, drawn by the talented and powerful Bright Baek.

There was once a woman named Fia who loved reading. She loved reading so much that she read every approved book, even though in the thirteenth century, no book was approved for a woman to read. It didn’t matter to her. The rules were not strictly enforced in the South. In the North they would have burned her as a witch. In the South, folks just told her, “In the North you’d be burned as a witch.” Her response was to shrug her shoulders.

After finishing reading every approved book three times over, she was bored. So she read an unapproved book. She wouldn’t have, but reading was already prohibited to her, so the prohibition didn’t strike her as being very important.

The book she read had three parts. The first part was about a king who learned to turn things into gold, but ended up turning everything into gold and died alone and miserable. The next was about a woman who enslaved herself to a king after learning how to turn hay into gold and died miserably slaving away at the king’s behest. The third part was a instructional manual on how to turn things into gold.

She finished reading the book, and she was bored again. So she tried turning some things into gold. She did it until she had a great, giant pot of gold, so heavy that her mule could barely carry it. While she thought it was interesting that she was able to make gold, she recalled the stories about kings who really liked gold. It seemed that kings were irretrievably drawn to the substance, although it inevitably lead to misery and death. So she halted her travail and set out to bury the treasure below a tree, high up on the hill of Buscliagini, a land now forgotten by the chronicles of history.

She had kept, however, a small portion of the gold and descended into the vale with it. She walked into the osteria to buy a meal. You can well imagine that the innkeep eyed the unaccompanied woman askance. He said nothing, but delivered her meal in hopes that she would eat quickly and leave.

The vale was not lively, owing to the fact that so many were lost to la pestilenza. A group of three burly, well-known heroes entered the osteria and released their hilts, dressing a square table in the centre of the room. They called for three fiascoes and let their weight drop into their wooden chairs ruefully.

The burliest cried out to no one in particular, asking who had brought la pestilenza to the vale. Fia replied, “la mortessa.”

The men, noticing Fia for the first time, approached her and asked where they could find this mortessa, for clearly they could not understand her dialect. Remembering the stories of how gold led to misery and death, she told them the location of her treasure. The heroes vowed to kill this mortessa and return with his head on a lance, thus saving the town from la pestilenza.

The heroes started in to ravage Fia, as was the customary treatment for unaccompanied women at the time. Before they could lift her skirt, the innkeep mentioned that if the men should want to catch la mortessa, they would need to make haste. The heroes agreed and asked the woman to kindly wait for them to return so that they might ravage her after they saved the vale. She gave them her word.

She waited all night, but the men did not return. She waited a few days after that, though the innkeep insisted that she leave. She did not listen to him because she was accustomed to doing prohibited acts, and also because she vowed to always be true to her word. She was fed well, for her small bag of gold was valuable enough to buy many meals.

After one week, she announced to the innkeep that she would be marrying him in order to await the heroes who were scheduled to ravish her. At first, the innkeep refused, but when it became apparent that Fia didn’t intend to budge, he called the vicar in to perform the ceremony.

It is written elsewhere what happened to the heroes. Should you want to find a moral in this story, I am afraid to say I am rather lost on it myself. As soon as I discover it, I will loudly proclaim the answer to this mystery in the local osteria should you be there to hear it.