Nov 012014

Gonzalez Park



The season of scrambled eggs came upon us on January 6, Three Kings Day. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit–the gifts, the piñata, the candy–that reminded my mother’s younger sisters that it was time to start planning for Holy Week, only three months away. Their appeal, made just when the day’s excitement quieted down over dinner, made my body stiffened because it was an announcement of the labor to come.

“Don’t forget everybody,” tía Luz said. “Start saving eggshells.”

“Please,” tía Chata added.

A few heads nodded in acknowledgment and this seemed to satisfy my aunts. The evening’s meal progressed as if nothing had changed, but in fact it had changed breakfast every morning. No more hard-boiled eggs or eggs served sunny side up until enough shells had been collected for the cascarón sale. My fingers twitched because they still carried the memory of the times the sharp edges pricked their tips.

On the way home I held my bag of candy, too distracted to eat any of it. My mother walked in front of me with a plastic bag over her shoulder, my toys inside. I pictured her standing at the stove, tapping the end of the egg in order to make an opening large enough to coax the contents out yet small enough to insure that the egg preserved its oval shape. Once we had enough of them, my aunts would come over with the art supplies: scissors and construction paper to make the confetti that would be stuffed inside the shell; tissue thin paper to glue over the opening; and food coloring to paint the shells pink or blue or green. Each of the tasks demanded patience and skill that I was too young to handle, but my aunts insisted–cascarones were an Alcalá family tradition, and although I was actually a González first, I was the only grandchild on the Alcalá side so far. My father had objected in the beginning, on the grounds that this was woman’s labor, but my mother didn’t take long to remind him that until I became a man I was under the care of the Alcalá women, who seemed to come around too often and stayed too long–so I heard my father mumble many times.

Making cascarones was just one of the Alcalá women enterprises. In the summers they made bolis–flavored ice, in August they made paper doves for the church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary, in the winters they made tamales and champurrado, a hot cornmeal drink. All of these items they sold at the town plaza, where citizens of Zacapu, Michoacán converged in the evenings, particularly before and after church. My aunts sometimes made commemorative keepsakes for birthday parties and weddings and brought over the materials to our house then too. I half listened to them giggling and gossiping with my mother while I played at their feet. They didn’t ask me to be part of the circle of bodies around the kitchen table and I didn’t miss it. I knew my time would come, and when it did, I wouldn’t like it.

What was more maddening than cutting paper into tiny little pieces to make confetti and then sticking them into the tiny little holes, which is how I hurt myself on the pointy edges, was adding the signature detail to the Alcalá cascarones: at the intact tip of the eggshell, I would have to dab a little drop of glue and then sprinkle just the smallest amount of glitter. Many of the clients who bought cascarones missed this detail because they were so anxious to break them on top of someone’s head–which is why they had been made in the first place. No one held the cascarón in his hand and admired the artistry, the tell-tale signs that this was an Alcalá cascarón, not just one of those sloppy ones that had obviously been made in a rush. I think this is what upset me most of all. That it took so long to make one of these and in one fell swoop it was gone–turned into trash in an instant.

I remember starting to color an eggshell once and tía Luz ordering me to stop doing so immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“The opening is too large,” she explained. “Throw it away.”

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

“We will. It’s going to look vulgar and cheap. We don’t make vulgar and cheap.”

I looked closer at the opening. Compared to all the others, this one looked like the egg had been cut in half, not carefully tapped open by my mother’s hands. The tissue covering would have to be wide. More glue would have to be used. She was right. It was going to look vulgar and cheap. I set it aside and moved on to another, which now looked elegant with its smaller opening.

I suppose that my aunts were also teaching me pride in my work. And although I still wasn’t looking forward to months of scrambled eggs, I was more comfortable with the idea. By the time my parents and I got home on Three Kings Day, I had all but convinced myself that I couldn’t wait to make cascarones.


A few weeks passed and the eggshells were accumulating in a small box next to the stove. I caught a glimpse of it once in awhile when I played near my mother when she was cooking. When my aunts arrived they always entered without knocking, so I was never caught off guard when the front door suddenly flew opened and they burst in with their art supplies.

“We’ve got a cute order, Avelina, wait until you see this,” tía Chata said.

“I’ll help you mop so that you can sit down with us,” tía Luz said.

And in no time the three sisters were sitting around the table, giggling and gossiping like usual.

This time, however, my mother brought the reverie to a halt when she made an announcement about my father that even made me stop to listen.

“Rigoberto’s going to the north to work,” my mother said.

“Really?” tía Chata said. “Leaving you and the babies all alone?”

I only became the baby when someone wanted to highlight my vulnerability. At seven years old with a bicycle that had no training wheels I hardly felt like a baby anymore. My little brother Alex, who still ate from a high chair, was the baby.

“Do you want one of us to move in with you to keep you company?” tía Luz suggested. But I knew even then that this would never happen. If my father tolerated the long visits by my mother’s family, he would definitely not tolerate any of them moving in. It wasn’t so much his objection but pressure from the González side of the family, who didn’t seem to take a liking to the Alcalás–they were too religious and too forthright. The Gonzálezes were drinkers and cussers.

“I’ll be fine,” my mother said. “It’s better this way.” And we all knew what she meant.

In the coming weeks, I didn’t really notice my father’s absence too much, perhaps because I rarely spent any time with him. Once in a while I would dream about him and I would casually ask my mother where he was and what he was doing.

“Working,” is all she would answer.

What I did notice was that my aunts stopped coming around. Suddenly the house did appear too empty and quiet without their laughter. When I asked about them, my mother would look away and make some dismissive remark. But most noticeable of all was that we had stopped having eggs for breakfast. My mother started feeding me farina, which I didn’t like much because it tasted gooey and grainy.

“I want eggs,” I said to her in protest one morning. And so my mother burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to respond. So I ate my farina without further complaints and each morning after that I was careful not to let her see how displeased I was with my breakfast. I caught a glimpse of the box of eggshells and thought longingly about those days when the dreaded scrambled eggs graced my plate. What I wouldn’t give to have them again.

And then the farina ran out and I longed for it as well because now my mother was feeding me tortillas and salsa.

I understood the word “poverty” but I had never experienced hunger. I didn’t realize they came hand in hand. At school, I recognized children who had less than I did. I could tell by their shoes, their notebooks, which were always smaller than mine. But so too I recognized children who had shinier shoes than I did and even thicker notebooks. Suddenly it made sense why my aunts and my mother would gather to make their arts and crafts–they were not just entertainment or excuses to socialize, they were economic necessities, proper ways for god-fearing women to make a little extra money. All those coins in the can they brought back from the plaza paid for staples like bread and milk and eggs. Now that my aunts were not coming around for some inexplicable reason, now that my father was gone, it was just my mother, my baby brother and me, consuming very little or nothing at all. And when something is gone it is eventually forgotten and no longer missed.


A group of boys started playing marbles in front of the house one afternoon after school and that was my cue to run into my room to grab my cache. I eased my way into the next round. I played with my lucky white cat’s eye, which other boys coveted. Half way into the game, one of them wanted it enough to cheat, so I called him on it.

“I’m not cheating,” he said. “The cat’s eye is mine now.”

“You leaned in too far,” I said. “You didn’t shoot behind the line.”

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

I picked up my cat’s eye and pocketed it. “I’m not letting it go.”

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

The other boys didn’t step in to defend either one of us. This was the law of the game. Contentious calls had to be resolved by the two parties involved. I held my stance, remaining motionless until his next move, which seemed to be evidence enough of my accusation because the boy withdrew but not before letting out a cruel remark.

“I’m letting you have it,” he said. “Because your father left you.”

I looked around at the other boys’s faces. They seemed to be complicit in this knowledge that up until that moment I didn’t have. Red-faced I ran into the house. By the time I reached my mother, I was in tears.

“What happened?” she said. “Did someone hit you?”

“Where’s my father? Did he leave us? Did he really leave us?”

My mother’s eyes began to water immediately. She had this devastating ability to cry instantly and it bothered me because that excused her from verbalizing her pain. There was nowhere to go but into silence after that. I was seven years old. What did I have to know about our broken home except that it was now as empty as my stomach, something else to get used to.


And then my father reappeared. It could have been a few days later or a few weeks, maybe months, certainly long enough for me to push him out of my mind. But there he was, smiling down at me as if he had only gone to town for an errand. And just as easily as I had buried him I unburied him, pleased that his absence could not be used against me on the streets or at school. My mother must have felt the same because she paraded him down the block, their arms locked, for all the neighbors to see. Even the kitchen went back to normal. Even my breakfast plate because there, glorious as gold, were my scrambled eggs again.

No one mentioned my father’s disappearance or subsequent reappearance–not in front of me anyway, and I didn’t ask about it. The more it remained unsaid the more it became undone this painful period of my childhood. And cascarón season came to a close with a successful sale at the plaza during Holy Week. It seemed everything was back in its place, and I even set a few cascarones aside for myself, which I had never done before. I broke one on my father’s head and he laughed as the confetti rained over him. I gave him my second one and he broke it over my mother’s head. At the end of the night I remember my little brother sleeping over my father’s shoulder as I fought drowsiness to watch the highlight of the festivities–the burning of el Castillo de Chuchurumbé, an intricate fireworks structure with firewheels and sparklers that was all whistles and explosions, a castle that shrieked and cried on our behalf so that we didn’t have to.

If happiness had come back to our house it didn’t last longer than three years. Three years later the González family was living in California, squeezed into a single house with our grandparents, my uncle’s family, and my aunt’s–19 bodies in one tiny space–a complete shift from our household arrangement in Mexico, where the possibility of having tía Luz or tía Chata move in with us for a spell was not even an option. But as usual, there was no questioning the why or how of things, there was just surrender and moving forward with the decisions of the grown-ups.

Unlike my older cousins, I was having an easier time adapting, probably because I enjoyed school and learning English. One of my first friendships was with a girl named Eve. She was half-Panamanian, and her mother spoke fluent Spanish, but Eve was monolingual. She also had a little dog named Peanut, which they kept in her backyard.

One summer, Eve went on vacation with her family, so she enlisted me to feed Peanut once a day. All I had to do was unlatch the gate, scoop half a can of dog food into the plastic dish and fill the second dish with fresh water. I accepted the responsibility, not because I cared much for Peanut, who barked too much, but because I liked the idea of a pet. We had dogs in Mexico, but they had functions–to guard the house from the rooftop–Peanut was a fat little critter who couldn’t even guard her own dish. It was an entirely different relationship with animals that intrigued me, yet I had no fantasies that we would ever have a pet, and we never did.

Eve gave me two cans, and Eve’s father gave me money to buy more dog food later in the week. I waved at the family as they drove away and then I sauntered back home. I announced to everyone in the kitchen that I would be storing the dog food in the refrigerator and no one batted an eye.

A few days later, Abuelo opened the refrigerator and asked about the can. I explained my role as animal caretaker and he simply shrugged.

“What’s it made of?” he asked, inspecting the can.

I was surprised by the question. “Meat, I guess,” I said. I read the ingredients more closely and translated what little I could.

“Meat,” Abuelo repeated. He placed the can back into refrigerator and went about his day. As did I.

The next time I took a can over to Eve’s house, I became curious about the dog food. It didn’t smell like any meat I had ever tasted, but this was the U.S., there were foods here I had never smelled or eaten before. As Peanut ate her fill I dared to take a pinch of food out of the can and place it into my mouth. I didn’t swallow it, but the taste lingered. My curiosity satisfied, I knew I’d never do that again, yet I still blushed, embarrassed at my own bravado.


Months later, as Christmas season approached, I recognized something familiar was happening in the kitchen. I knew that hollow sound of pots and pans ringing without purpose, of the refrigerator light glaring at its ribs, of the desperation in the voices of the grown-ups as they fought over supplies to feed their young. For dinner Abuelo cooked these greasy stews that filled us up with hot water, but later that night my mother called my brother and me into her bedroom and she sneaked a slice of Spam into our mouths. On those occasions, I only pretended to brush my teeth. I looked forward to going to bed with that taste locked in my mouth, swirling my tongue around and around until sleep defeated me.

School lunch was another reason to look forward to school days, and I don’t remember if we were coached or not but we didn’t reveal to anyone that we showed up without having breakfast. It was all temporary–that’s what we were told at home. No sense letting anyone else in on our shame. It was the same silence we had to keep about how many people were actually living at home. Since many of us were undocumented, we didn’t want to invite any scrutiny from neighbors, teachers, post office workers–any one of them was a phone call away from the immigration authorities. We allowed no one to look in and we certainly didn’t leak anything out.

At about this time Abuela started feeding us vitamins, huge red pills the size of a toy car–or so we joked. It was also a thing of humor to stand in a line with my brother and my eight cousins, each one of us taking our turn as Abuela shoved that monster pill down our throats. “Don’t choke, don’t choke!” the others chanted as Abuela made sure the pill was swallowed.

I can only imagine what the grown-ups went through to protect us children from really seeing what was happening in that household. If my older cousins understood they didn’t share it with us younger ones. And when I figured it out, I also went to lengths to keep my knowledge a secret from those younger than me. That moment happened when Abuelo prepared a casserole he called lasagna. It was an Italian dish, he bragged, and he was particularly proud of this because he used the oven, which was a feature of the stove none of the women in the family had occasion to operate.

As we gathered in the living room to watch TV the smell wafted among us and that made our mouths water. I thought that perhaps this might be the turning point we had all been waiting for, the sign of better times to come. It was customary for the children to eat first, so all ten of us squeezed around the table to receive a serving of this fancy lasagna dish Abuelo had made.

I didn’t admit it to myself at first but there was a familiar smell on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it so I thought that perhaps it was my mind reaching back to a flavor I had not had the pleasure of enjoying since the kitchen went bare. But when I took the first bite, I remembered: it was Peanut’s food from the can. The others didn’t know this. Their responses to the food were mixed. Some took a few bites and then started to eat around the meat, and others ate the meat willingly. It was lasagna, it was Italian food, it was supposed to taste funny. But the pasta was soft and the tomato sauce was tasty. It would do.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

Abuelo was standing at a distance. His face appeared pleased somehow, maybe curious about how effectively he had deceived us. I wanted to detect some cruelty in his gesture but I didn’t find any. Instead, I saw sadness in its pure form for the very first time. It was a look of defeat, as if he had wanted us to reject this food, to spit it out and cry foul, to accuse him with fits of anger that he had fed us dog food. It would be a moment of truth for all of us, to finally admit that this moving from one country to another had not solved our problems, had not delivered on a promise to lift us out of poverty, to satiate our hunger. And that would have meant that all this sacrifice, all this hope we had packed into our bags, all this hiding and secret-keeping, had been for nothing. I could either rip this whole theater apart and end the dream for all of us, or I could triumph over the test that had been set before me. Eat it or beat it back to Mexico.

“Are you going to eat your food?” one of my cousins asked.

I looked down at my plate. I had scarcely touched it. My fork was still buried in the entrails of the dog food lasagna. The moment of reckoning was in my hands. I was no longer the boy who belonged to the Alcalá women, I was now a young man who had joined the hardscrabble lives of the González family. Yet I knew that I had abandoned the stage of innocence even before I left Mexico, I just wasn’t ready to see the impoverished world as it really was, as it would continue to be. And so, without any further fear, I scooped out a generous portion of the lasagna and stuffed it into my mouth.

—Rigoberto González


Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He won the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.


Oct 312014

Richard Farrell


There was no indication that day would be the one, no sign that I was ready, no ceremony or ritual to mark the passage, no warning, no karmic winds blowing, nothing to differentiate the routine of that particular flying lesson from any other. We were forty-five minutes into the hour-long flight, shooting touch-and-goes into a small airfield, when Mark—my taciturn three-pack-a-day instructor pilot, who heretofore had betrayed no confidence in my ability to handle an airplane alone—ordered our next landing to be a full-stop. Under Mark’s watchful eye, I lowered flaps, flared the nose, and squeaked the tires more or less on centerline. We taxied off the runway and onto a parking apron. Mark opened his door and a rush of cool air filled the cockpit. He grinned, slid from his seat, and with one foot on the wing strut, leaned his head back inside and asked if I was ready to try one on my own.

I thought he was joking. I’m quite sure I didn’t answer. I worried that I’d misheard his question. But I must have nodded, or blinked my assent, because a heartbeat later, Mark had closed his rickety door, stepped from the wing’s shadow, and walked away. And for the very first time in my life, I was utterly alone inside an operational airplane, sputtering at the end of a taxiway in Marlboro, Massachusetts. It was 1986 and I was a sixteen year-old boy who did not yet drive a car. I was still a virgin, and would soon likely die as one. I had not, in fact, even kissed a girl yet, but I’d just been handed the controls of a sixteen-hundred pound Cessna, and told to take ‘er up. I’d been put in charge of its ailerons, engine valves and avionics. I’d been given permission to haul it aloft and bring it back to the ground, with the tacit understanding that I wouldn’t kill myself or anyone else along the way.

The Cessna-150 cockpit was thirty-five inches wide and less than five feet front to back. Crammed into a space smaller than an average dining-room table were two sets of flight controls, engine throttle, fuel mixture valve, and an array of instruments, fuses, navigation equipment, radios, lights and compasses. Not an inch of space was wasted. Only moments earlier, I’d sat knee to knee with my flight instructor, whose nicotine and stale-coffee breath provided a comforting if somewhat nauseating reminder that I had competent company. With the sudden absence of a man whose thousands of flying hours were meant to counteract my insipid twenty, that cramped space felt downright lonely.

The cockpit air smelled of low-lead gasoline and panic. I held the plane’s brake pedals with rigid feet. My biggest fear was that the plane would careen off into frost-browned fescue grass that bordered the taxiways. Dotting the surrounding hillsides, sugar maples and Dutch elms had already dropped their leaves and stood bare and gray against the late autumn sky. I pressed harder against the brakes.


Earth-bound for some fifty-thousand years, modern man is a recent habitué of the skies. The rapid advancement of flight, from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral, occurred in a flash, though perhaps the real curiosity hides behind how quickly we adapt to such miracles. Hardly anyone notices airplanes zooming overhead, whereas a hundred years ago, such sights would have been a dazzling spectacle. To me, it was still a spectacle. I was a gazer. Countless hours of my youth were spent staring at vapor contrails scratching the sky, or identifying airplane silhouettes, or listening to the bassy whir of a turboprop descending into Logan Airport on a winter’s night. With a lover’s desire, I had dreamed of that moment when I would join the marvelous procession of machines and pilots.

The physics of flight is relatively simple: as an airplane gains speed, pulled or pushed along by an engine, a decrease of pressure builds along the upper surface of curved wings, the famous Bernoulli’s Principle. In a sense, flight is achieved by suction, by a force of low pressure over the wings siphoning the airframe aloft. Given enough wing-surface area and enough speed, a football stadium could fly. The pilot’s job, simplified to its barest bones, is to maintain the right mix of airspeed and attitude. Transitions are the most critical: earth to sky, sky to earth. The greatest danger in flight occurs closest to the ground, during takeoffs and landings.

It is hardly surprising that aviation invented a mythology that evolved alongside its technology. Even the earliest depictions of aviators showed swashbuckling men with scarves, leather jackets and adoring females draped on their shoulders. I admired these mythical heroes growing up, and internalized depictions of pilots in a profound albeit overly romantic way.

In the summer of 1986, when my flying education began in earnest, Top Gun shattered box office records across America. But Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the man I dreamed I might one day become was far from confirmatory. Rather than inspiring me, the movie violated the sanctity of my most private dreams. Flying for me was soul-work. I had wholesale invested my identity and my future in the notion of pilot-hood. Then, overnight, pop culture co-opted my deeply revered ambitions. Thanks to Tom Cruise, everyone wanted to be a pilot, and I felt violated.


I didn’t realize at the time why I resented that movie so much. But looking back, I see that the movie commercialized and distorted many of the spiritual aspects of my dream. Top Gun also amplified the pilot stereotype. Flying looked glamorous, easy. Jets zoomed against brilliant blue skies without effort or strain. While Maverick and Ice Man dueled across silver screens in their sleek F-14 Tomcats, I spent the summer of ‘86 coming face to face with my own ineptitude as a pilot-in-training.

Though I’d been a diligent student, no amount of book learning could make up for what, in aviation lore, is called a seat-of-the-pants feel for the sky. When I started taking flying lessons, I had imagined I’d be a natural from the get go, a student so adept at the skill of flying that I would zoom through the curriculum and immediately be recognized as the heir apparent to Lindbergh, Yeager and Armstrong. Instead, I struggled with even the most rudimentary of skills. I couldn’t keep the plane straight-and-level. My airspeed control was for shit. I landed long, struggled when pulling the plane out of a stall. My steep turns were never steep enough and my lazy-8’s resembled an asymmetrical snowman in the sky. The only thing I felt in the seat of my pants was clenched terror.

My original goal, to solo on my 16th birthday, the earliest legal age, had come and gone six months before. While teenage boys donned flight jackets and Ray Bans and serenaded teenage girls with “You Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’” and while Tom Cruise buzzed the tower fifty feet off the deck, I came to the clear understanding that I wasn’t much of a pilot.

A previous flight instructor, a grumpy aviator with a fu-manchu mustache, once told my mother that I flew like a doctor. The only thing I gleaned from this strange violation of teacher-student trust was a veiled reference to sloppy handwriting.

Rich Pilot1

Of course I wasn’t supposed to be a good pilot with fewer than twenty hours of flight time. The stumbles, setbacks and mistakes were supposed to teach me. But in the pilot myth, as well as in the movie, difficulties were glossed over. The legend left no room for failure, no room for growth or learning or progress. So every miscue, every clumsy maneuver and failure felt keenly personal. Surely the great pilots didn’t start this way, I told myself, not realizing that they most likely had.

Mark stood on a nearby grassy hillock, smacking a package of Marlboros against his wrist. I waited. I prayed. Climb back into this Cessna and tell me it’s all a big joke. Ha ha, kid, I’ve got the controls. Go back to algebra class. But he didn’t move. In fact, Mark lit up a cigarette, his sandy hair flapping a bit in the breeze. A breeze? Where did a breeze come from? I checked the windsock again, which stretched out into the shape of a Day-Glo ice cream cone, indicating the wind had increased and swung around a bit from the southwest, adding a complicated crosswind to my still-not-so-imminent takeoff. Any attempt to leave the earth just became that much more difficult.

I tried to wrap my head around what was happening while searching for the before takeoff checklist. I pulled the laminated sheets from a door pocket, only to fumble the checklist between the seat cushions. My hands were shaking.

“Jesus,” I said out loud, more curse than prayer. How long had I been sitting there? I needed to act, to do something. The longer I waited, the worse my fear became.

As I fished the checklist from a between the seats, a thought slammed through my brain: I’m going to die. The only question was how, not when. From incompetence? From shame? From failure? With every second passing, the certainty of my untimely end came nearer. I worried I might drop from sheer terror right there, idling on the taxiway. The other possibility seemed to involve a blazing ball of fire at the runway’s end.

Needing to resuscitate my brain, I tried to recall the plane’s takeoff procedures. The checklist was useless now since on top of everything else I’d lost the ability to read. It appeared to tell me that I needed to adjust the trim, set the fuel mixture, and somehow force my hands to push the throttle forward, dumping 80-octane fuel into the plane’s normally-aspirated, direct-drive, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder engine, thereby accelerating the McCauley fixed-pitch propeller to 2,500 RPMs. If I could manage to free my hands to perform these tasks, if I could follow all the steps, in more or less the correct sequence, and release the breaks and speed down the runway without veering off into the grass, if I could summon the strength from my flaccid arms to pull back on the control column, all while tapping rudders to keep the plane coordinated, and if I could remember to check the airspeed, the wind and the engine oil pressure, then, in theory, the plane would fly. I would fly. I would solo.

The first solo is a consecrated ritual—a baptism and wedding rolled into ten minutes of sheer terror a thousand feet over an airfield. Some thirty years have passed and I still remember the disintegrating sensation somewhere southwest of my heart. The fear hollowed me out, an erasure that scoured the insides of my body, leaving only a shell. My skin became acutely sensitive. My mouth went chalk dry.

I remember the way light fell on indifferent hillsides. I remember spinning propeller blades, whirring gyros, a tremble in the wings, perhaps caused by my shaking hands reverberating back through the flight controls. Face to face with reality, the magnitude of fear surprised me. The heroic architecture, so long associated in my mind with brave pilots laughing at danger, came crumbling around me.

A gray cloud deck scattered above the airfield. The runway, scuffed with rubber skid-marks and brake dust, tumbled off into the somber horizon. Behind the controls of that Cessna, alone and uncertain, I searched desperately for a way out.

Once more, I glanced at Mark, hoping for a reprieve. He took a long drag on his cigarette.

I hated him. I hated his parents for bringing him into this world and hated mine for doing the same. I hated Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli and the Wright brothers and Clyde-fucking-Cessna too. The universe had ripped open a hole into eternal darkness, manifest in an empty seat where my instructor belonged. Like in a falling nightmare, the emptiness of that seat, the haunted, horse-without-a-rider sense of a pilot-less plane—unoccupied rudders, uncontrolled control column, unlatched seat belt—these things most surely represented my imminent demise. Except that airplane had dual controls, and my feet rested on the rudders, and my sweaty hands clutched the control column. I was the one strapped into that saddle, a bucking bronco of wires and avionics assembled in Wichita, Kansas, waiting for me to spur it into the air.

The runway was clear, almost mocking me with its emptiness. Fly or don’t fly, the asphalt seemed to say. Live or die. It makes no difference.

For a moment, I thought I might throw up, not an uncharacteristic response from my body when faced with stressful situations (like asking a girl out for a date). The propeller twirled and the fuselage rattled. Only two choices remained: grow a pair and get going or pull the parking brake, open the door and run screaming for the woods. Gasping for breath at the end of the runway, this couldn’t have been how Yeager got started.

Where once strength and bravery seemed embodied in the very word, pilot, the word and the act suddenly lacked meaning, because I could not remember how to do the very thing the word implied, which was to fly the airplane.

Time elongated. Each propeller revolution re-radiated doubt and fear. It felt like an hour passed while I decided. But Mark’s cigarette had barely burned down. I reflected on the absurdity of the scene, my instructor pilot watching me do nothing, the engine whining, position lights blinking, the whole airport on hold, waiting for me. At the same time, there came an awareness that I was not cut out for this sort of thing. Better to survive a coward than die a fool. But what choice did I really have? The way out certainly was no less complicated than the way through.

The metamorphosis that was about to occur was entirely lost on my teenage brain. I didn’t realize what a privilege I was being granted. On that November day, there was no way to foresee the future, or to comprehend how life decouples, like ill-fated box cars, throwing certainty and meaning off a track that then seemed iron-clad. I had no way of knowing that seven years later, my wings would be clipped for good, and that I’d be diagnosed with epilepsy and told I could never pilot an airplane again. I didn’t realize that deep fear often accompanies life’s most extraordinary moments. I had no way to realize that the minutes that terrify and most rattle us are the ones that will stand out. Like a bas-relief of memory, those moments become enshrined by their height and importance: the first girl I would eventually kiss, the first time I would fall in love, the birth of my children, and the so-many unimaginable losses and joys that would mark the path. How could I have even glimpsed a hint of that on the tarmac?

Finally, something inside flickered. The hollow sensation of fear gave way. My body and brain stirred back to life. Was that sensation what bullfighters call the moment of truth? If so, the feeling was not a triumphal one, more like resignation combined with a pinch of anger. Fear yielded to reluctance which surrendered to inevitability. Hardly a heroic procession.

I lowered a notch of flaps and picked up the mike. I called out the plane’s tail number and announced an intention to fly.

“Marlboro traffic, November-seven-one-four, Charlie Pop, ready for departure.”

The intent was for my voice to sound defiant and serious, but the words came out as a barely-whispered squeak, a child’s final desperate plea for help. Then, after a glance heavenward, and one last check of the wind, I advanced the throttle and released the brakes. The engine whirred louder. With a press of right rudder, the plane twirled around and lined up with the runway centerline. My breathing evened out. On the windscreen, the compass lagged before it confirmed my heading. This next part may not have happened, but my memory registers a shaft of sunlight piecing through cloudy autumn skies.

I pushed the throttle to the firewall and the engine revved. Torque drove the nose wheel into the ground and the plane lurched forward. The nose yawed left, which I counteracted with more rudder as the semi-monocoque fuselage reverberated atop rough asphalt with echoes and thumps.

The plane accelerated and the abyss receded. Where did the fear go? What replaced it? I don’t understand how I climbed inside the moment. I don’t quite comprehend how a timid, frightened teenager managed to fly.

I pulled back on the wheel and the wings began to generate lift. The plane entered its transition to flight, where gravity succumbs, a transition not only of the physical machine but also of the body. I may have even felt that sensation in the seat of my pants.

After that, I continued to climb out, the needle steady at 70 knots. My gut wobbled as I pushed the nose over and gained speed, a thousand feet of altitude, the propeller high against the gray horizon, trees and hills falling away. The world shrank. The runway appeared small and distant, the clouds large and close. The temperature cooled. Downwind, I aligned the port wingtip perfectly with the runway margins, and I recognized calmly, in an almost holy way, with a certainty and confidence that was entirely new, that I was actually flying, alone, no longer terrified, ass-unclenched, hands dry and not choking the wheel, and how in those few minutes of flight, all the fear and confusion receded into the background, and all that remained was flight, the pure dream man had yearned to achieve for millennia.

The transcendental feelings ended quickly. There was work to be done. A moment later, abeam the numbers, I lowered the flaps like a real pilot, and throttled back, slowing, descending. I checked the windsock and announced my intentions again—this time with a voice a sixteen year-old boy borrowed from the gods—that I was coming in to land. l turned to base and then to final, scanning airspeed and altitude, nudging the plane’s nose to line up with dashed white stripes painted down the runway, anticipating wind vectors, adjusting for turbulence, steadying the wings. Just over the numbers, I pulled back gently on the controls and cut the throttle. The nose lifted. The plane floated a second or two, caught in the magical buoyancy of ground-effect, that final transition, just before the main landing gear returned to earth, two shudders beneath me, two chirps of rubber kissing earth. Then I caught the plane’s yaw, holding the nose straight and true, and in that final moment, before the nose wheel touched down, in that final instant when the transition from air to ground remained ever so slightly in jeopardy, I realized that I’d done it, that I’ve soloed, and that nothing would ever be the same again.


—Richard Farrell

Rich Gun-001

 Richard Farrell is the Creative Nonfiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.


Oct 312014


In the slider at the top of the page for November, interviews, book reviews, and short stories by the talented Benjamin Woodard who has been publishing in Numéro Cinq since October, 2011, when he burst upon the scene with his short story “Shame,” a sweetly macabre romantic comedy about an elderly man planning to kill his invalid wife. His most recent contribution to the magazine shares the same imaginative DNA, it’s called “Chemistry” and is an oddly gentle, even sweet little comedy about a woman selling her baby. Between times he has contributed reviews of work by such authors as Richard Ford, Sam Lipsyte and Lydia Davis, also wonderful interviews. Ben is simultaneously an associate editor at NC and Editor in Chief & Social Media Extraordinaire at the magazine Atlas & Alice.

Oct 262014

Self-portrait-gouache12x9Paul Sattler, self-portrait.

I really never know how an NC issue is going to come to shape in the end, what obsessions lurk in the editors or the minds of the contributors. This one circles the macabre, with death and violence at its core, but, yes, still ardent, beautiful, uncanny.

Paul Sattler went to Italy last summer intent upon the composer Gesualdo, “riddled with violence, paranoia and personal demons – including a jealousy-fueled murder of his wife and her lover.” Mary Kathryn Jablonski curates here painting, sketches and Sattler’s own notebook entries in a piece called “Radical Amazement.”

pic 2 deathtube

Fernando Sdrigotti, the Argentinian expatriate author living in London, has become an aficionado of the contemporary art form of video death (recently made popular by ISIS with its series). Sdrigotti’s essay begins with a stringent meditation on the execution scene in Antonioni’s The Passenger.

Shot on 16 mm, in saturated colours, the grainy footage depicts a public execution on a faraway African beach. We see the prisoner handled by guards, then tied to a pole by the sea, a priest having his final say, locals gathered to witness the spectacle, a coffin waiting. A firing squad is in charge of taking this man’s life and soon the first volley of shots hits his body. The camera zooms in, to an out of focus close up of his face.

Fernando SdrigottiFernando Sdrigotti

Bruce StoneBruce Stone

And then we have Bruce Stone’s brilliant, trenchant, mesmerizing fictional portrayal of a mass-murdering teenager, reminding us of that which we do not want to be reminded, that evil can invent its own reasons. It begins eerily, and we know exactly where it is going.

This is gonna hurt a little. The shooter mouths these words in a hush, the syllables squashed and slurred, just coded exhalations of cotton mouth and brimstone, aimless as smoke rings, not quite turned to purpose vis-à-vis the face of the woman behind the plate glass. With one hand beyond the shooter’s line of sight, she’s got a death grip, he knows, on the handle of the guard door, all of the blue veins bulging wildly, desperate to halt his ingress.

Sam Savage. Photo by Nancy Marshall.

NC newcomer Jeff Bursey reviews Sam Savage’s new novel It Will End with Us. Like Modernist and Postmodernist writers, Savage prefers to dislodge certainty from its purchase rather than provide sudden plot twists. Eve sums it up: “If I had to describe my situation in a word… it would be indeterminate.”

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemSteven Smulka. “Solar System.”

From Spain, the critic Maria Jesús Hernáez Lerena sends a gorgeous essay on hyperrealism in painting and the fiction of Canadian novelist Lisa Moore.

…a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system…

San Sebastian-2014Maria Jesús Hernáez Lerena in San Sebastian.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau.

The American critic Warren Motte (introduced the NC some months ago by our indefatigable Contributing Editor Julie Larios) delves into myth, mirrors and those broody Scandinavian detective novels so popular these days.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless….

CaptureLisbeth Salander looking in a mirror in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

SharonSharon McCartney

From the amazing poet Sharon McCartney sent in poems that strike out into completely new territory, mythic, aphoristic, terse and wise, a long poem, Metanoia, a meditation on love and marriage, dry, acerbic, lonely, beautiful.

No man in my life, nothing to worry about. No one to disappoint.
A failure of nerve, perhaps, but peaceful.


All of that effort to make myself loveable only made me unloving.

Rich Pilot4Richard Farrell as a young pilot.

Senior  Editor returns to the roots of his art, the long joy and unraveling of his youthful dream to become a pilot. In this gorgeous memoir he brings to life his first solo flight, like first love, never to be forgotten, always a promise of what might have been.

For a moment, I thought I might throw up, not an uncharacteristic response from my body when faced with stressful situations (like asking a girl out for a date). The propeller twirled and the fuselage rattled. Only two choices remained: grow a pair and get going or pull the parking brake, open the door and run screaming for the woods. Gasping for breath at the end of the runway, this couldn’t have been how Yeager got started.

Frank Richardson bio pict 2Frank Richardson

Frank Richardson gives us a lively, fascinating essay on the art of the long sentence, the use and beauty of the serpentine text as practiced by the masters, Nicholson Baker, Faulkner, Bohumil Hrabal (who wrote a book that is one long sentence), Joyce, Mathias Énard, David Foster Wallace and more.

The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

Reid and BorgesTranslator Alistair Reid and Borges (side by side, centre).

Julie Larios does a wonderful job excavating the reputations of the great forgotten or ignored poets in her Undersung series. Her regular trips to the cemeteries of the overlooked are an inspiration to us all, and she has the rare gift of being able to write gracefully about prosody and form. This month she explores and life and work of the peripatetic Scottish poet and translator, the man who almost singlehandedly made Borges a household name, Alistair Reid.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.”

Mark Anthony JarmanMark Anthony Jarman

Mark Anthony Jarman, master prestidigitator, pyrotechnic writer, has a new book coming out in the spring, much anticipated. And we have a preview, one of the stories, “Exempt from the Fang,” from Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, forthcoming from Goose Lane Editions.

Eve and Tamika crave more sleep and the party animals cradle monstrous hangovers from their dubious cooking wine.  For a few cents more decent plonk can be had, but they scoop up huge jugs of cheap cooking wine, amazed by bargain prices, but this is stuff the Romans don’t drink.  At dawn they feel the hurt big time, at dawn they can barely move, can barely text or kill aliens.

In my arms I once carried my dead dog from the street where it had been hit by a driver who did not stop: my dog’s beautiful brown eyes lost their light to a machine, the brown eyes had no depth, no engagement, no awareness.  Some in the group have that dead canine look as we shuffle down the block to Michelangelo and the vaulted ceilings of Sistine Chapel.

Pushkin’s death mask.

Myler Wilkinson channels Russian writers, the ancient and the dead. Last year in the slush pile for a contest I found his story about the death of Chekhov (which won the contest). Here he does Pushkin, dead in a duel at 37.

I lay in the rain, in my strawberry shirt, red-on-red in a dale of Daghestan; I dreamt of mountain precipices, of crimson peaks, of a solitary sail seeking distant lands—and my blood grew cold and ran away. A fool of time.

And the Tsar said: A dog’s death for a dog.


Gonzalez ParkRigoberto Gonzalez

Sadness and childhood: perhaps no one other than Rigoberto Gonzalez can weave together a cheery boyhood, poverty and hunger with such dash, such energy. The life in the writing nearly belies the subject matter. But you ache reading this memoir.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

And, as usual, there is more, much more. A. Anupama reviews the new W. S. Merwin poetry collection, The Moon Before Morning. Charlie Geoghegan-Clements reviews the translation of  Nicola, Milan by Ludovico Pignatti Morano. Robert Day returns with another Close Encounters of the Literary Kind essay, this one about the poet Dave Smith. And, of course, Rob Gray is back with another NC at the Movies and Gerrard Beirne paints the page green with his amazing Irish Lit & Culture series Uimhir a Cúig (Number 5 in Irish).


Oct 242014

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reserved Sam Shelstad and dg at the Open Space Gallery, Victoria. Photos by Miles Giesbrecht.


Cannibal characters, love, Hermann Broch, Numéro Cinq, Jane Eyre, and sundry other topics, more or less interesting, come up in this lively onstage interview I did at the Open Space Gallery in Victoria, October 8. The nominal topic was my book of stories Savage Love, from which I had just give a reading. My charming interlocutor was estimable Sam Shelstad, a well-published MFA student in the University of Victoria writing program. As my son Jonah once observed, I never answer the question asked, just compose whimsical responses loosely inspired by the question and whatever free associations come to mind as I wander on. I don’t know if this is a fault or a virtue.


© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reserved

Oct 232014

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedDouglas Glover reading at Open Space Gallery, Victoria. Photo by Miles Giesbrecht.


I hate to inundate you with all this stuff from my Victoria trip, but you all know I don’t get out much and hence my tendency to hyperventilate if I get over the county line. Here’s a the recording of my reading from Savage Love at the Open Space Gallery in Victoria. The art work behind me is by Tommy Ting and Dong-Kyoon Nam. The story is called “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night.” The reading is preceded by an introduction by my gracious hostess, who gives all the particulars of the event.


Oct 222014

My beloved and loyal fiction publisher, Goose Lane Editions, had its 60th birthday last month. Part of the celebration was the publication of a little boxed set of similarly designed small books, six@sixty, one short story each by esteemed Goose Lane authors over the years: Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady, Mark Anthony Jarman, Alden Nowlan (whose house I used to visit when he was alive, back when I was a reporter at the Evening Times-Globe in Saint John, New Brunswick), Shauna Singh Baldwin, and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, as well as me. All the books look like mine but in different colours. It’s a lovely gesture, a limited edition, simple and elegant. Also mine is very cute, like a book you can keep as a pet.

My story, “Woman Gored by Bison Lives,” is from my book A Guide to Animal Behaviour, which Goose Lane published in 1991. It was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction that year.

It’s a melancholy love story about a lesbian couple in Saskatoon. They watch an English tourist gored by a bison, and subsequently one of the lovers dies of cancer. I was learning to write aphorisms in those days. The story ends with a little run. This is the surviving lover talking to a three-year-old child: “There are certain things you have to know. Suicide is not an option. Life is always better under the influence of mild intoxicants. Masturbation is healthy, the sooner started the better. It’s a sin not to take love where you find it. That is the only sin.”

The story as a whole begins like this:

Days, while my husband is at work, Susan and I make love on the couch in her parents’ basement. It is a desperate thing to do, and we are both a little stunned by it. But something has pushed us to the edge of caring.

Gabriela, the baby, is upstairs sleeping, while Susan’s mother does housework or watches soap operas. We keep our clothes on, manacled at the ankles by a tangle of underwear, jeans and belts.  And when Susan comes, I press my palm across her lips to keep her from shouting out her joy.

I don’t know if we are in love. But we are both in need of solace, and our sex is a composition of melancholy and violence, as though we are seeking to escape and punish ourselves in the same act.


Back Cover


Oct 202014

DSCF9318At the end of the Victoria trip, dg spent an afternoon with the Coast Salish master carver Charles W. Elliott in his studio at the Tsarlip First Nation Reserve on the Saanich Peninsula north of the city. Above is a thunderbird atop of a Charles Elliott totem pole  in front of the ȽÁU, WELṈEW̱ Tribal High School just down the road from the studio.

DSCF9299Charles W. Elliott holding a print he designed as a symbol for the University of Victoria Indigenous Governance program.

Still processing this visit. Charles Elliott is an amazingly generous and intelligent artist, very articulate and personable. He took a lot of time to describe what he does. Coast Salish art is a formalist invention (which, naturally, makes is tremendously interesting to me) — he called it the Salish “system” — that involves the use of a finite set of motifs (e.g. thunderbird, raven, orca, etc.) and design elements (eyes, bracket shapes, lanceolate shapes, etc.). Often the smaller formal elements are fitted into a larger form that derives from a utilitarian space (house fronts, paddles, spoons, bowls, etc.). The print above, for example, is circular, a shape derived from the spindle whorl used by the native women to process wool. The artist fits larger motifs into the overall form and then fills the blank spaces with either smaller versions of a motif (or in inversion) or with repetitions of the abstract design elements. For example, the thunderbird wings contain eyes, brackets and lanceolate shapes. Beneath the thunderbird is an orca, and you can see the bracket shapes used down the whale’s back. The idea, Elliott says, is to bring the spaces “to life.” The large motifs refer to legends, myths, and powers (also, in some cases, clan and social organization elements), so they carry story and meaning to the viewer. But at the same time there is a purely design aspect to the art, a pleasing abundance and vivacity of structure. What’s truly interesting is how the abstract design elements can be used to imply naturalistic details (see the shins on the thunderbird’s legs).


Here’s the school front. Note the repetition of the structure: thunderbird on top of the pole, thunderbird on the from wall of the building, and the structure of the building as a whole is a thunderbird with wings. What you can’t see from the angle is that before the front door is an entryway in the shape of a bird again. To get into the school, students pass beneath the thunderbird’s wings. Also not the bracket shapes along the roof  line. And then think what a lively public art form this is.


DSCF9281This is Elliott’s studio with a huge ocean-going dugout canoe made of old growth cedar, a work in progress. On the left is the base of a new totem pole.

DSCF9282Studio again. Note the Che Guevara image, one of several, in the studio, also mentioned by Elliott. You can’t forget that the natives are a colonized and dispossessed people who wake up every morning and look around and see commuters racing up the highway to a city that covers the land that was once theirs spiritually and economically, land they never gave away in any sense proper to their own culture and way of thinking. Put yourself in their shoes. As Elliott said, it’s as if there is a constant cloud or blanket of colonization over the natives. How they could they forget and be pleased?

DSCF9297Little things all over the studio. Here’s a spinning fish lure in the shape of an octopus, the legs scalloped with those bracket patterns. Everything comes to life in this art world, inanimate objects, utilitarian objects.

DSCF9284So here’s a bronze spindle whorl (traditionally they were made of wood) made by Elliott’s 19-year-old son, Chas Elliott, who is learning the art from his father and brought this over to show us. If I remember correctly this is a seal (but I heard so much I might be misremembering). Mouth in the spindle opening. Flippers or paws to the side. Flippers accented with eye and bracket and lanceolate shapes. Here’s a link to show where both father and son appeared a couple of years ago.

DG with a “talking stick” (you would hand this to someone who would then hold the floor whole others listened). By now you should be able to distinguish some of the motifs and design elements.

DSCF9229Outside the studio looking at a totem pole in for repair after about 20 years in the field. Totem poles don’t last forever, obviously. This one needs to be shaved down to fresh wood and repainted. And there is some rot at the top that needs digging out and a plug put in. A sad thing is that native carvers like Elliott can only work with old growth timber. For some reason, the old growth trees grew slower, their tree rings are much closer together, and the wood is harder and more durable. Newer trees seem to grow faster (perhaps because they get more light), the rings are farther apart and the wood between is “punky.” There is hardly any old growth timber left. I won’t go on. This is just a taste of the visit with Elliott, an immense privilege, not to mention fascinating; I could go on and on.

—DG, photos mostly by MF

Oct 162014


Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq’s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her first article, “Rosebud.”

Reading Trimingham’s reflections on film is for me like reading someone else’s love letters. It led me to reminiscing about my own film loves, and here, specifically, the moments that have made me gasp and filled me with wonder. We’d love to hear about your favourite film moments of wonder in the comments.

— R. W. Gray


Part 1: Rosebud


As a new mother, I used to dream of the apocalypse. B-movie stuff, but real enough to my sleeping self. The world on fire, thugs on the loose and armed to the hilt, bony-backed dogs on the prowl. I was always running with my infant son in my arms, trying to save him from whatever disaster impended. Waking life seemed much the same, with similar failure. The knowledge that despite my best efforts, the oceans are acidifying, the soil is dying, the aquifers are drying, all hell is breaking, and human idiocy and barbarism continue apace, that I cannot save the world for my son, almost crushed me. My fear of collapse zeroed in on my own body. Legs going numb. Tongue heavy. Short of breath. Heart too quick. When my palms turned itchy and bright red in a hysterical gesture of  stigmata, I called a counselor; although she specializes in troubled children, she was the only such person I knew in town and I thought she might provide direction. Turns out, she sidelines in Jungian analysis for adults,  and she was willing to take me on.

And it turns out that Jung is all about dreams, about decoding images projected from the subconscious. Dreams are films unspooled at the back of the mind; anxiety is a harshly lit breaking news broadcast in my frontal lobe: both are communications sent by far-flung outposts of my self. My analyst Sharon acts as translator with Jung’s Dreams Memories Reflections (which lies as yet unread on my nightstand), as an app for the subconscious.

The more I think about dreams, the more I think about the films I’ve watched and the films I’ve made, and how they have, in turn and in part, made me. Although my first film, about a young woman born with a tail, likely sprang full-formed from my twisty subconscious, later films have hints of external influence. I can draw a smudged line between Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, a strange pseudo-documentary about people who turn into birds after the apocalypse, and my own ficto-documentary about a singer who spreads her copper wings.


It’s been pointed out to me that I must like Bergman (I do) because one of my black and white films features a couple fighting as they drive home in the night rain. I’m the product of a mother who loves American Technicolor musicals, so how could I not want to shoot an imaginary plane-ful of synchronized stewardesses?  But these are image-to-image, film-to-film correspondences, and I keep being drawn back to the idea that film might inspire or inform a psyche, a self.

As I suspect we all do, I carry inside myself a mash-up of images and scenes culled from movies I’ve watched. The clips that stick, the films that I am likely misremembering now as I work through these thoughts, tend to bend in the direction of wonder. And of brutality. Metabolized over years, these images have worked their way into my blood, bones and brain. They are spliced into an internally projected, constantly revised reel of my own dreams, memories and reflections, all of which then make their way into my own work, which in turn can be read as a waking dream.

Wonder, brutality. Is it as simple as the beauty and truth formulation? Wonder as beauty ratcheted up, as an experience so big and so deep that it becomes mysterious, miraculous? And brutality as the hardest kind of truth, the ugliest and most naked: of man stripped bare of humanity. Are these the things that take our breath away?

Rosebud is the word made with Citizen Kane’s last breath; it is also the word that begins, that causes, that animates the film. That word is Kane’s alpha and omega, and the entire film is about wondering what that one word means. We are suspended for almost two hours in a state of unknowing, of being led by Orson Welles’ tracking shots in a spiral that leads to the center of Kane.

Citizen Kane poster

A bud, like a self, unfolds from the center. To be struck with Stendahl’s syndrome is to experience dizziness, to faint, to be overcome by beauty. That syndrome is the namesake for the man who wrote that beauty was la promesse du bonheur, he didn’t say it was happiness itself. A bud is a rose that has not yet bloomed: its beauty is the promise of a rose. The cook who lives next door to me makes a dessert of wild roses that grow by the sea: a candy glass made from rosewater syrup, a sweet foam whipped from the hips, all of it then scattered with petals. 13 Ways of Eating a Rose. And then the flower is gone, swallowed. All you’re left with is memory. Orson Welles, Rosebud on his lips, dies trying to name, to call up the memory and metaphor of his childhood, his happiness, his time of wonder.

Rosebud still

I saw my first movie when I was six and was amazed to see versions of my self – the children in Small Change – writ large upon the screen. In François Truffaut‘s film, a toddler climbs onto the sill of an open window several stories up, entranced by a cat just out of reach. The toddler slips, plummets. The neighborhood gasps. The camera pans down, an agonizing moment of anticipating a smashed skull, blood on the sidewalk. But there the baby is, sitting up, laughing. A moment of astonishment, resilience and delight that I have held onto, now for decades. Escape to Witch Mountain was undoubtedly mediocre, but it was the first movie I watched from the back seat of the family station wagon at the drive in, and it has given me forever the image of a child levitating, saint-like, in a tree.


Frogs fall from the sky in P.T. Anderson‘s Magnolia. The artless photographer frames overlooked beauty in Patricia Rozema‘s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.  A woman wandering through Tivoli’s spectacular water gardens disappears into a fountain in Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice. All of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. (A year-long stint as a volunteer at Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan imprinted me with classic experimental films). The loveliness of the wintered Ontario forest stops Julie Christie in her snowshoeing tracks in Sarah Polley‘s Away from Her. The heart-rending music in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique and in Bleu is not so much soundtrack as character or catalyst.

DLV singing

The Ice Storm has a young teen so dreamy and astonished by life that he doesn’t even notice when the football is thrown to him during a game.

When I was in film school, we learned to edit on an old Steenbeck, a hulking machine operated with foot pedals and manually loaded reels. Film clips, the actual, physical strips of frames that constituted takes of each scene, hung from clothes pins in a bin. You’d work in a cramped room with the overhead fluorescents off, squinting at the crude backlit screen, cutting and taping frames together.  Each bin was organized by act or scene.  As I write this, I notice that I’m hanging these clips of childhood and mystery, of incomprehensible beauty, all together. The bin fairly glows.

But how quickly the sublime flips into something darker: Julie Christie’s character is lost in the forest because she’s losing her mind.  As Weronika, the Polish double, solos and hits an impossibly high note, she collapses and dies, pang-ing the French Veronique with an ineffable sense of loss. The boy in Ang Lee‘s film will be electrocuted by a line felled in the ice storm at whose loveliness he has stopped to marvel.


I have become a believer in the notion that filmmaking is an act of orchestrating chance, of listening and serving, as much as it is a deliberate construction, and that something more than light and sound are imprinted on film stock.

I remember shooting “beauty crowds me” in the shower room of an old army barracks; the set was closed: it was just me, my (now ex-)husband/producer, a steadi-cam operator, and women in various states of nakedness. One woman drags another across the floor; one washes another’s back; the bathers move as if underwater. Occasionally they look straight into the camera. The viewer is complicit, implicated, acknowledged. Listening to Sarah MacLaughlin on a boombox, Carey, the camera op, pas-de-deuxed with Denise, the protagonist, as she made her way towards the shower, slowly shedding her clothes.  Emily Dickinson’s short poem has absolutely nothing to do with bathing:

Beauty crowds me til I die
Beauty mercy have on me
If I should expire today
Let it be in sight of thee.

The words have always struck me as a prayer, a plea for wonder. My aim was to have Denise catch sight of some beauty that hovered out of frame, next to where you, the audience, might be. (Naked because it seems like that is the state of a soul when, like Whitman,  it stands cool and composed before a million universes.) Between takes, the women would slip into  jewel-toned bathrobes and hang out in the barracks common room with the crew. It was an enchantment: we all surrendered en masse to the music, to each other, to the poet speaking across time. When wrap was called, we emerged into a changed world: snow had been falling, and was now thick and softly blue in the twilight.


Somebody once said to me after watching the film, I don’t know where I just was, but I was there. There is something alive in the air, in the collective energy of cast and crew and story and moment, that is captured,  then shared with the audience. I’ve often thought that film’s trick of transport is reason enough to call a crew together, to paint walls, to shop for props, to dress up and choreograph, to run lines, to fire up the lights and roll camera. The cumbersome apparatus of filmmaking – machinery, logistics, personnel, budget, schedule – finds its end in a beam of light. A beam of light through which you can pass your hand yet one that moves us. Sometimes we even fall in love with the world anew.

Experiences of wonder can open us up, make us bloom. Don’t ask me to explain, but I believe that it keeps the apocalypse at bay.


—Julie Trimingham


DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically.  She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards.  Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.


Oct 152014

Woodard Bigger


Daisy sits in a fast food restaurant booth, waiting for a man named Red Carnation to arrive and purchase her soft pebble of a baby, who is propped atop the Formica table, fast asleep inside a bassinet. She listed the child online as “like new” and included photographs of him clowning with a stuffed rabbit to up the cuteness factor.

Daisy’s unsure why, but over the past month, she has traded, sold, or discarded every item that ties her to this town. Gone are her souvenirs and trinkets, her albums and yearbooks. The purge feels cleansing, and the tyke is her final fragment to shed.

Questions had inundated her inbox: Is the father strong? What is the average height of the men in your family? How well can the baby see in the dark? In the end, Red Carnation seemed the most straightforward of potential patrons: He had few queries and plenty of cash dollars. There was also the fact that he too was named after a flower. Daisy saw that as a sign.

When she described herself to him in their last telephone exchange—medium height, medium weight, medium length blonde hair—Red Carnation didn’t reciprocate.

“Those who frown upon the selling of children are always listening,” he told her in a wise, gravely voice.

Her body begins to itch with anticipation.

Has the baby reacted unusually to a full moon?

The door opens and a small man enters wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, jeans, and a red carnation tucked behind his right ear. He approaches Daisy with a smile; her pulse quickens. “Hello, Red?” Daisy says. Sitting across from her and the tot, he shakes her hand and replies, “You look conspicuous without any food.”

She eyes the blank table space in front of her. “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’ve never sold a baby before.”

“Baby or no baby, it’s about appearing normal.”

“I’m not very normal.”

“That’s all right,” Red Carnation says. He slides a five across the table. “It’s on me.”

She looks around for others. “And you’ll steal my baby while I’m away?”

“This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’m no monster, miss.” There’s a cowboy twang in his grit that appeals to Daisy. It’s the twang of trust.

Daisy slowly inches off her seat, keeping a close eye on Red Carnation as she walks to the register and buys a cheeseburger. A bead of sweat skates down her cheek. The boy serving her resembles a reflection in a funhouse mirror, and he concentrates on a Chemistry textbook resting on the counter. “You wouldn’t happen to know the difference between an ionic and a covalent bond, would you?” he asks as he makes change.

“One steals and the other shares,” Daisy says.

“Sounds like my friends.”

Daisy groans. “I’m talking electrons.” She takes the bills and coins from the boy. “Look, I’m no tutor, OK?”

Is the baby afraid of loud noises, particularly loud motors?

The child shifts as she unwraps the cheeseburger in the booth, but still does not wake. She holds the wax paper close to his face and scrunches it hard. Again, no reaction. Daisy nods at the impressive feat, at the perfect baby in front of her, with impeccable manners.

Red Carnation says, “Did you medicate him?”

“Who drugs a baby?” Daisy replies, then remembers why she’s here and feels a tad sheepish. She stifles a laugh and reaches out to give Red Carnation his change, but he tells her to keep it.

“Like a bonus?” Daisy says.

Red Carnation gently runs his fingers over the baby’s wisps of hair. He is about to ask her why she’s giving up the child. The inquiry hovers in the air, like a radio wave. Daisy inhales a mouthful of cheeseburger. “We don’t have much of a connection, I guess,” she says as she swallows. “He’s not good at reading my mind. And there isn’t a daddy.”

“He’ll be very happy with us,” Red Carnation says. He withdraws a phone from his pocket—not the phone he used to contact her, a burner most likely snapped in two and dwelling in a dumpster out back—this is his everyday phone, and he shows Daisy photos of his farm. On the small screen, the landscape looks pleasant, welcoming. He does not reveal the farm’s location, but extra radio waves tell Daisy it is upstate New York, or Vermont, or New Hampshire, or Maine, or maybe Arkansas, or Oregon.

The final photo he pulls up is of the rest of his family. They’re all dressed in white shirts, including the little ones, sitting and standing in a cornfield. There are so many faces and bodies they don’t fit in the frame.

Daisy imagines her son with this group. There would be bunk beds and campfires, sing-alongs and fishing. As a boy, he might climb trees, ride horses, pass through a screen door into a kitchen thick with the smell of broth. He could drift on vapors into a room full of couches, where a sister, the same age as him, practices a violin. The tune Daisy conjures is that of a lullaby, and the boy curls tight on a cushion and shuts his eyes. His mouth bends into a smile, a truly genuine smile. He is so very happy.

“You don’t have room for one more, do you?” Daisy jokes.

Red Carnation plucks the flower from behind his ear and hands it to her.

What is the precise sound of the baby’s cry? Have you played the lottery since the baby’s birth (and, if so, did you win)?

From here, the transaction lasts less than three minutes. A crumpled contract is signed: Daisy’s hand shakes and her name is illegible, but Red Carnation says it’s fine as he photographs her with the contract in hand. A small bag replaces the bassinet.

“Any last words?” Red Carnation says.

“You sound like an executioner,” Daisy replies, to which Red Carnation laughs. She places the bag next to her on the bench.

She doesn’t remember watching Red Carnation and the baby leave, but the flower remains on the Formica, a token, like in the movies when someone wakes, saying, “It was all a dream,” before finding an important object under the bedcovers.

Daisy thinks about that broth, the horse rides. She thinks about the sigh of the violin as she loiters in the restaurant. While she’d like to leave, she finds that she cannot separate her legs from the booth’s bench. It is as if all of her energy has evaporated during the transaction. The act of walking, of standing, feels too great, too grim.

Even as she swallows her fourth bite of cheeseburger and spies a long, brown hair, shocked golden with mustard, drooping from the sandwich bun, Daisy does not rise. Gummed to her seat, she looks back at the boy learning Chemistry, so very lost in science, in terms, then turns her attention to the restaurant’s large bank of windows. It is dark outside, and the restaurant’s neon sign, boasting of billions served, paints the night a wash of red and yellow, the colors of action and cowardice.

— Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary FictionPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Oct 152014

Swan-Osher 140503-19Gladys Swan

Gladys Swan’s first novel Carnival for the Gods, an offbeat, comic blend of fantasy and reality originally published in the Vintage Contemporaries Series, is now the first book of The Carnival Quintet, an 18-year project finally coming to completion. Carnival of the Gods has just been published by Kiwai Media in Paris, and the remaining novels will come out 2015 and 2016.

Carnival for the Gods follows the adventures of a small ragtag circus/carnival traveling through the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, located somewhere between Mexico and the U.S., the El Dorado the Spaniards were searching for when the came north to New Mexico. It is the dream of Dusty, the producer, to create a circus greater than The Greatest Show on Earth, but he is down on his luck. Most of the acts have deserted the show except for Dusty and Alta, aging trapeze artists; Curran, a midget; Donovan, a giant out of Rabelais; Amazing Grace, who dances with snakes; the Kid, who doesn’t talk, but aspires to be a magician; and Billy Bigelow, a magician-cum-handyman and electrician.

Swan did the cover paintings for the quintet, all five distributed below. For the full lowdown on Gladys Swan, see our interview, a short story, and a selection of paintings published on Numéro Cinq).

1. Carnival for the GodsCarnival for the Gods, Cover Painting, Oil, 3’x4′, Gladys Swan.




Chapter 1

It was the first time Dusty had ever backhanded her, and it was not just the blow, the pain, the blood from her lip flowing saltily into her mouth that gave Alta the shock: it was the sense that something fatal had struck at the roots of her life. Things would never be the same. It was the edge of Dusty’s ring that had cut her lip, a gold ring with a strange little head carved in ivory that he’d bought during a fit of extravagance in Kansas City and said was his good luck and that he’d never part with it. As she stood in the cramped little bathroom, looking into the mirror, teeth all outlined in red as though she’d been eating red-hearted plums or pomegranates, the lip still bleeding, it seemed as though she’d never staunch the flow. This is my life, she thought; this is time leaking away, as it has been doing year upon year. And I’m standing here letting it happen like I was born without a brain.

The whole of the little trailer had shaken with their quarrel, till even words and the clash of voices could not contain the violence. Pansy, the little curly-haired dog she kept, a cross between a poodle and a wire-haired terrier, had taken refuge under the couch and, looking at Alta with brown eyes that seemed full of the light of tragedy, still refused to come out. Dusty meanwhile had thrown himself out of the trailer and into the truck, banging doors all the way, setting up a cloud of dust as he roared off into town, leaving her there alone with the freaks and the animals in the broken-down carnival. She dabbed at her lip as she tried to calm her feelings. She was looking pretty terrible at the moment. Face blotched, bags under her eyes, broken lip, but she wasn’t all that old—forty-seven—and there was still a chance for … what? For love, for money?

Money talks-she’d learned that much. It says yes and it says no. Says, you owe it to yourself, baby; go on and have it. Be my guest. Says, you’re out of luck, sister. Says, go to the city and have yourself a ball; says, stay home and starve your gut. Says, turn on the gold-plated faucet, break out the champagne. Says, stay away, lady, you smell bad, and nobody’s gonna give you a second look. Says, dream—the sky’s the limit. Says, look at the walls peeling. Says, go hang yourself.

It says, Alta concluded, you have been with a man who’s brought you nothing but trouble and grief, all the while promising you the world. And where has it landed you? Down in the flatlands with blood on your teeth. Always full of harebrained schemes. And he wasn’t half as crazy as the rest of the outfit, only more unreliable.

“I’m sick of this life. Filled up to here.” That’s how it had begun. Dusty, sitting at the narrow formica-topped table with the bench on either side, at which they had shared what might be called their domestic life, was adding up one of his interminable columns of figures. Always trying to turn nothing into something, as Alta had it, to make less come out to be more. “Sick of it.” He looked up: “There’s no anchor hanging out of your ass.”

The truth of this observation left her momentarily speechless-a yawl in a dead wind. Then her fury unlidded, and the fine brew the years had whipped to froth came boiling over, pouring out: the salt was. in her mouth, the distillation of years of sweat and tears and gall. All she might have had-all that had gone down the drain. It was the sandstorm that finally did it to her. Bad enough to have the equipment truck break down in the flattest, most god-forsaken stretch of natural freakishness she’d ever laid eyes on. Like somebody’s uninteresting nightmare. A world created out of what any sensible being would’ve rejected in the first place or else reached for only in the dry heaves of violent boredom: things twisted and sharp and spiny and hard. Some of them reached up and out with arms dried and dead in their attitudes of empty aspiration. They seemed neither plant nor tree, these cacti and joshua trees; nor alive, these clutches of dry grass and sage brush against a rocky ground that gave off a hard glint. The rocks that rose in the distance looked to have no living thing growing on them. Only telephone poles and the blacktop to show that human beings had been here, mainly, Alta thought, to get through it and on to somewhere else: the sort of place you might consider beautiful only if you didn’t have to be there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmall Wonders, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

It was one of those undistinguished spots of blacktop, miles from the notion of a town, they’d come to a halt in the middle of, when the rear axle of the equipment truck broke down, and their little procession came to an uneven halt, like train cars piling up. There was a dull, angry look in the sky, and they’d no sooner got their vehicles pulled off onto the shoulder than the wind picked up the dust and flung it at them, striking the metal roofs and sides like a flail. It was a good thing they weren’t going anywhere, because they couldn’t have seen to get there anyway. The sun was eclipsed, the windows dark with dust. And though the doors and windows were shut, so they were nearly stifled inside, the dust sifted through anyway, a fine layer over everything. They drank it in their coffee and ate it with their food.

The animals nearly went crazy. The horses neighed and tried to rear in their trailer. The little elephant stamped and trumpeted. The tiger paced her cage all night. And what with the fray and the clatter, the bay gelding had somehow injured a leg. They needed both a vet and a mechanic, two more bills to pay. So it was no wonder that on this day, in what appeared to be the wreckage of the storm, most of the people in the show pulled out. The operators of the booths–little independent outfits that had hooked up with them and would hook on somewhere else. The shooting gallery left, and the lucky spinning wheel, the car races, the coin and ring tossing set-ups–most of the acts and all the games of chance were taking their chances elsewhere.

“Well, you gotta live,” Pearl Diamond said when she and Bates, who threw knives at her till her silhouette stood outlined upon the wall and she stepped forth unscathed, were taking off. “Be seeing you,” they said to Alta. “No hard feelings.” The first to leave, they had put the idea into the common mind, though no doubt somebody else would have thought of it too. Any woman, Alta thought, who trusted a man enough to allow him to throw knives at her was either too dumb or too lucky to have troubles in the world, and she envied her even as she wished her well.

If they hadn’t missed the turn-off, probably none of this would have happened. They were supposed to have headed north towards Albuquerque, but they’d missed the sign and hadn’t had the sense God gave a turnip to stop and look at a map. Before they knew it, they’d gone fifty miles out of their way.

If you hadn’t … And how are we going to get out of this godforsaken place? Money and blame. Bitch, bitch, bitch. As if a man hasn’t got enough troubles… Whose idea was it to … ? As if you never made a mistake. . . Money and blame. I could’ve made fifty to your one, and we’d both be better off. Brick bats flying back and forth. Pulling your weight… Whose weight?. . . Fed up with your… Because of you, godammit. You gave me nothing, not even .a child … Couldn’t plant anything that belly of yours except a fart  … I should’ve got me a better man to try.

The blood had dried on her lip. Tentatively she touched the spot, then turned from the mirror. I could’ve been… Not been–was. Was one of the best damn trapeze artists in the business. The two of them together: Gold Dust and Dream Girl. The dream had turned to dust—hah! Ashes to ashes: Gold Dust to Dusty, what a joke. The two of them one great act, till the moment suddenly came, maybe by a slip of the foot and one miss in midair too many, by too dizzying a glance down below, Dusty seemed to lose his nerve, wanted to settle for a life on the ground, but with higher ambitions: a show of his own. At the time when they could’ve had top billing in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Dusty chased his dream of something grander yet, circus and carnival together, triumphantly called “The Carnival for the Gods.” Earth wasn’t enough for him.

He was headed into the clouds, into the skyscape of the forever possible, the shape of things to come. They’d play all the big cities, bringing back the days when everybody went to the circus. Giant celebrations in the heart of every city.

But the idea never really got off the ground. It was too vast for anybody but Dusty to believe in for very long. The force of his enthusiasm—he could talk people into anything and they would follow him around with puppylike loyalty—held them for awhile. But starvation was a powerful eye-opener. The shine wore off and off they went. And now they were down to the rag, taggle and bob that had stayed because they had nowhere else to go.

There had been better days: when she was up on the high wire, and her body was a flash of motion as she swung, hanging by her heels, across the top of the tent, the faces below like rows of lightbulbs, her body light as a firefly in her blue body suit. All alone up there, no nets below, with the tight thrill that was the joy bred of danger. The tingle in the blood. God, how she loved it! It was the years that had brought her down to earth. She’d nearly killed herself once in a fall. She’d lost her timing, her body had gotten heavy despite all her efforts. The pull of gravity, the reluctance of the flesh. And all the while Dusty trying to put together his misbegotten scheme.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADancing with Snakes, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

She put some water in the kettle to boil and took out ajar of Sanka. She didn’t like the taste much, but even with the heat it was something to put into your mouth and swallow. Something to look into and stir your spoon around in while you sat. She spooned out the instant, poured in the water and sat ruminating, waiting for the coffee to cool, gazing into the dark liquid. Time out. It allowed you to sit down right in the midst of life while somewhere else people were killing each other or having babies or getting the mortgage foreclosed or carrying on a family quarrel that would leave seven people sworn enemies for life. Set a cup of coffee in front of you and none of it mattered, at least for the moment; otherwise you were out scratching and biting and clawing because the world was an obstacle you had to strike out at.

She was full of yearning, but she didn’t know what for. When

she had had money, she bought clothes, strange fanciful outfits that could have taken her to another age and fashion, or to a costume party. She loved bodices decorated with pearls and sequins and fringes that shimmied when you walked and rhinestones that danced the light. She loved bright colors: reds that could have come from the throat of a trumpet and pinks and oranges and purples that peeled your eyeball back to the optic nerve. She had trousers and a turban made of cloth of gold, and tops all embroidered. Even now, when she took tickets she sometimes dressed up as the Queen of Sheba or a priestess of the moon in a gown, her special creation, that shimmered between gold and silver, set off by a crown of rhinestones with a fan of feathers rising from the back. But nobody paid any special attention. She had the stuff all packed in the closet. And Dusty wanted her to get rid of all that rubbish, just taking up space, but it would have been like stripping off her own skin. Yet she knew she’d never wear them anymore. Most of them were too tight anyway.

No, money wasn’t good for anything. It was good to spend when you had it, but then you tossed aside what you had bought as so much junk. Dusty still had his ring–so much for the luck it had brought him.

As for love, that was even worse. Had she loved Dusty, she wondered, or had she just wanted a man who dreamed big, was headed for the clouds?

He couldn’t even give her a child.

Small wonder he had time to put the makings in her belly, considering where his head always was: scheming and dreaming and adding up columns of figures and charting their course around the country and talking half the night away, too excited even to make love. And though there were ups as well as downs at the beginning, things now were headed in one direction only. It didn’t seem to occur to him that they were all washed up. The gaggle of folks they’d picked up was the rout, the survivors who hadn’t quite gone over the edge, not the glittering argosy he’d always had in mind. A man with a dream was a madman.

Love. Much worse than money. A giant and a midget who fought and were inseparable. An animal trainer who was convinced a woman lived inside his tiger, the only woman he’d ever wanted. Idly, she wondered if anybody had ever tried fucking a tiger. She’d heard about doing it with cows and sheep and dogs. Probably even with trees, provided you weren’t so unlucky as to strike upon a bee hive inside. For all of which, she thought, you’d have to be pretty damn desperate. But a tiger. Even if you could get one to stand still for it, there was something in the nature of a cat that ought to make you a bit leery. You couldn’t put your dependence on them. But then the trainer, Sam, was nuts too. Love was too much. It created bizarre obsessions. It was a form of drunkenness and self-abuse. They threatened you with blindness if you twiddled your own organs, or with impotence or insanity. But they should’ve been smarter than that. Love itself was blind and impotent, insane, and ate the heart away until it was white and leprous and scarred beyond all telling. Never trust it, she thought.

Every once in a while when she needed to feel a little pride in herself, she got dolled up and ran off to have an affair with a truck driver or salesman or drifter who was looking for a little diversion. Men she didn’t count on seeing again and usually didn’t–or, if she did, the interest had passed. She used to like the thrill in the blood of having a new man, but even that had got old. She didn’t trust it anymore, no more than she trusted a greenback. No, neither love nor money had taken her anywhere–just left her here tasting her own blood.

She wanted vaguely to kill somebody, but there wasn’t anybody handy and certainly nobody worth the trouble. If it wasn’t love and it wasn’t money…. The blood was beating in her veins. It went on beating and beating. Blood, sweat and tears–maybe they were real. She found the water running out of her eyes. Real as dirt. Till you were dirt too. They’d discovered America, and what was it but dirt? She looked outside. The dust had blown off and under the blaze of sun the land was cooking into a piece of burnt toast. Maybe she should go out and start digging, see if she could strike oil. Wouldn’t that be a humdinger!

Or maybe she should pull herself together and get up and leave like everybody else. She and Dusty had fought and torn at each other, had driven and goaded and disappointed one another nearly as far as human things can go. And now he’d made her taste her own blood, and she was still here. And what if from now on he made a pleasure of beating on her? Or if she stood for it…. It made no sense. And if she left …what would she do? Go wandering through the world, probably, only by herself, waitressing at some cafe or bar. Trying to cadge drinks and lure men home. Even now there’d be snickers behind her back, not to think of the future.

She got up from the table and gave herself to the task of fixing supper: cut up meat and fried it with sliced onions and put in the tomatoes and chili peppers and set the pot on the stove to cook. What with the mechanic and the vet costing an arm and a leg, it might be the crew’s last good meal for a while. Every time you took somebody a car or a body it seemed they wanted you to set them up for life. She’d make a big pot of chili that would either tide them over for a couple of days or feed whoever happened to wander in. Once she’d done that, she washed her face and cleaned herself up a little. She was needing company. She’d see what Billy Bigelow was up to.

She could count on him. He’d been with them forever, first as electrician, carpenter, handyman, what-have-you, and now, after the defection of Carnaby the Great, he was featured as Bigelow the Magician. He could pull cards from out of people’s pockets and from behind their ears and discover scarves where they hadn’t been before. He had mastered appearance and disappearance and seemed to want to climb to ever higher steps of illusion. Though sometimes he would simply take a pile of long thin balloons and blow them up, twist them into dogs and lions and elephants and kangaroos and send them sailing out into the crowd.

She found him sitting on the couch in his trailer reading a Time magazine. Probably months or a year old, since Billy never bought one. But the dates never interested him, it never mattered to him when an event had occurred.

“Dream Girl,” he said, “come on in.” He was the only person who ever called her that, and it seemed to be the only image he’d ever had of her: up in the air on the high wire. If it were anybody else, she’d be convinced she was being made fun of.

“Been looking at some moon shots they got here. All crust and craters.”

“My God, why don’t you look out the window? Isn’t that desolate enough for you? If you get up and go outside, you could be on part of the moon they haven’t discovered yet. The lower part.”

“You really think the moon looks like this,” he asked.

“If it don’t, it’s missed a bet.” She’d come over to joke a bit, but the direction the conversation was taking her, making her think about where she was, only brought on her irritability. She wished Dusty would come back so she could throw something at him.

“You know what I think?” Billy said, taking off his glasses so he could see her more clearly. “I think they go out and take all those pictures and say it’s the moon.”

“Why’d they do a thing like that? Besides, you got all those rockets going up and men coming down in capsules and stuff.”

“Oh, you could fake that.” Billy said, with a snap of the fingers. “No trouble at all. Just take a picture, put it alongside another and say it’s the moon.”

“What on earth for?”

“Because you got to keep one step ahead of the public. You got to keep them wondering, always in suspense. Otherwise they’d get so bored and dull in their minds they’d turn back into tree frogs. There they’d be, rocking back and forth going mumbledyboo and their eyes would go crossed and their lips would droop and pretty soon they’d be squatting in clusters like fungus, just trying to keep the burner going so life wouldn’t go out altogether.”

“You got some imagination.”

“No, I mean it. That’s why you got to have carnivals. Probably they got a secret genius agency somewhere with people that do nothing all day and night but think things up, one leap ahead of the rest of us.”

“But all you’re talking about is plain lies.”

“Of course. What other kind is there? Except some lies are plainer than others. People need them, couldn’t get along without them. Think about what people have believed, beginning with the earth being flat. All you have to do is get it into their heads and then they swear it’s true.”

“But now look,” she said. “Nobody really believes you find cards behind their ears.”

“They’d like to. And if you could convince them you got some leetle secret, they’d believe that too.”

He was always playing these games with himself, and she loved the way he twisted everything around till you didn’t know whether you were coming or going. She’d lost all her anger. “Well, if everything can be a lie,” she said, “then everything can be true just as well.” She hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant.

“Because people believe it? Then anything can be the truth, can’t it? Like all that stuff about living past lives. That could be true.”

“Suppose it is. I can’t say it isn’t. I can’t say people haven’t been on the moon.”

“The people from the future would be living right now, wouldn’t they?”

“And how would you know?”

“Use your head. It’s got to follow,” he said. “And suppose you could go back to the past and you killed your grandfather, would you be alive now?”

“Of course not,” she said offhandedly, even though she knew she was being had.

“But then how could you go back … ?”

“Why weren’t you born with two heads?” she wanted to know.

“Then one of you could live in the past and the other in the future and tell each other all about it.”

“Probably fall flat on my face,” he said, “and the present would go leaking through.”

“Through the hole in your head.” She stopped, all used up.”

“How come you don’t leave like the rest?”

“The show must go on,” he said.

“Come on,” she said. “What show? This flea-bitten, half-assed …”

“I love you, Alta—you have such a high opinion of we serious professionals.” She couldn’t tell if he were teasing her or making fun of

himself, or maybe both at once. “I’m a magician.”

“And an electrician and a carpenter and—”

“A man of parts,” he said.

“Is one of ‘em a stomach,” she asked. “I’ve got chili cooking.”



Back in the trailer she stirred the chili, added some oregano and cumin and then sat down to look at the copy of Vogue she’d slipped out of the dentist’s office the time she had a toothache in Biloxi.

The sun had really turned on the juice, so she tried to get a little relief by opening the window and turning on the fan. But the flies came in through a tear in the screen and buzzed around her head, and Pansy sat and snapped at them. Now and then she glanced out the window to watch Fred taking care of his horses. He’d taken them out of the trailer one by one and tethered them over by some scrub cedar. He’d brought out hay and water and then had lingered in the heat, grooming them, talking to them, trying to soothe them and make up for a life that offered no explanations, just endless travel, unexpected stops, dust storms, injury and inconvenience—all for the sake of those few triumphant moments in the ring when Ginger, his wife, leapt and danced across their backs.

4 Dream SeekersDSC_0502a(1)Dream Seekers, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

Every now and then a car or a truck would come whooshing past with a rush of hot air and a slash of light, then go plummeting on into the distance. She had no idea when Dusty would be back. Maybe he’d just taken off like the others. Then a truck—not his—appeared, slowed and finally stopped across the road from the horse trailer. A lean, wiry man got out, took a leather bag from the seat and walked over to where Fred was working with his horses. The vet. As she watched them, a couple of tow trucks pulled up and parked. A burly man, T-shirt sticking to his chest, sunglasses, got out. Then a tall guy, cap on his head, long arms, big hands. Burt, their equipment man, emerged from the rig and came over to talk to them. Then a lot of backing and maneuvering, hauling of chains and attachments. And after a time they were towing the truck away in the direction of what she supposed was a town, though more than likely nothing more than a mirage. She’d believe it when she saw it. But no Dusty. Then the vet was gone too, and she watched Fred lead the horses back into the trailer. That done, he walked over to the trailer where he lived with Ginger, who leapt from one horse to the other while they raced round the ring, who went up into a handstand or did a flip at the height of their motion, who was beautiful to watch. There was a lightness in her. They deserved better, Alta knew. They were young and, like everybody else who’d been drawn in, had the dream painted in their heads. All full of enthusiasm. Dusty’s dream was their dream. She’d seen it happen over and over again. And he wasn’t lying when he went on painting the sky in vivid colors. He believed every word of it: it was going to happen. Then, one day, they woke up. He owed them money, like he owed everybody money. Now she knew they were leaving too. She didn’t get up to say goodbye, though she and Ginger had sat in each other’s trailers and traded intimacies. And Ginger had showed her bruises on her body in places that didn’t show. And sometimes she’d wept: Fred was fonder of his horses than he was of her, treated them better. And to tell the truth, she was sick of the smell of horse. Fred always smelled of horse. Alta didn’t go over to say goodbye, because chances were they’d come across each other when they least expected it. In this business you were never surprised.

She felt bad about the money, but there was no help for it. If their paths did cross and Dusty were flush, he’d pay off. That’s what he said, and she had no reason to doubt him because so far Dusty hadn’t had any money. She watched Ginger climb into the cab of the trailer while Fred went back to drive the one with the horses. Then they were gone. Why wasn’t she leaving with them? Was one kind of wandering any worse than another?

For a time she sat there blank and empty, all used up. The anger of the morning seemed as far away as last month. She wasn’t even waiting for anything. She turned off the chili, then let the evening move in around her. She sat with her dog in her lap. The deepening sky was a rich blue, a mingling of blues, lighter and dark, with a smoky feeling underneath; it came down into the landscape, softening the edges of the mountains, turning brown slopes to lavender, to indigo, to darker shapes yet that made all of it one vast stillness that reached far beyond her, perhaps to the borders of the world. There were only the little lights of the few trailers left: animal trainer, giant and midget, magician-cum-handyman.

That was the carnival now—the scrapings from the pot.

5  Down to EarthDown to Earth, Cover Painting, Oil, 3′ x4′, Gladys Swan

From out of the indigo she saw headlights approach, then heard a truck pull up and stop. She went outside. Dusty was back, but with somebody with him in the front seat. She bent down, leaning on the side of the truck to look in. A girl. She could just about make her out in the gathering dusk. Though she looked to be no more than seventeen eighteen, she knew everything a woman could know and then some.

“This is Grace,” Dusty said, by way of introduction. “Amazing Grace. Wait’ll you see what she can do. We’ll hit the bigtime yet.”

I know what she can do, Alta thought. Amazing, all right. Probably one of those street kids that had left home at twelve or thirteen, soon as their periods started and they had their union card for womanhood. Then they peddled it on every street of Everytown in the great U.S. of A. Double A for Amazing. Then she noticed a childish face in the narrow seat behind Dusty. A boy. But so wild he looked like some creature that had been torn away from the land and still carried in its eyes the reflection of the water hole from which it drank, the snug of the nest where it had spent the night still clinging to the fine white hairs on his arms.

“Does he talk,” she suddenly asked.

“The words have gone out of him,” the girl said, “but the singing has stayed behind. He knows the ballad of Kitty Moreno and Amigo and the Battle of Glorieta Pass and Indian Joe and his fight with a bear and the loves of Pajarito.”

These are barely human things, Alta found herself thinking, for she had learned to recognize such and they were not new to her experience. And here was another set in front of her that she might look at and talk to and never understand. She could ask questions till her teeth rotted and it wouldn’t make a ghost of a difference. There they were, almost cringing in the seat of the truck. In the back with the boy, she noticed two crates that looked to be the dimensions of their personal property and inside which something stirred and moved with a vaguely animal and somewhat sinister quality. She didn’t ask what.

“You want something to eat,” she asked, for she could recognize hunger too, though on what level she couldn’t always tell. “I’ve got a pot of chili on the stove.”

They stepped out of the truck, the girl rubbing her arms against the evening chill. Alta saw a square of light as the door of Billy Bigelow’s trailer opened. He’d be coming too.

She looked off into the distance before she went inside: over in the mountains it looked as though a storm was brewing up. A sudden flash of lightning and the mountains stood out, every slope and draw outlined in angular crossings of brilliance. If it rains, she thought, it will pick up the dust and the sky will fall down in mud. First they’d nearly been swept away, now it was more than likely they’d be mired down. Or else the water could come tearing down the mountains in a flash flood.

“Come on inside,” she said, and went to the stove to put the fire on. Dusty was still fiddling outside in the truck while these two stood uncertainly in the doorway. “You can wash up in there,” she said. The boy’s eyes went roaming around the trailer as if it would take getting used to. Alta went about setting the table.

Here they were, just another pair among the number she had seen in the procession of all the broken, ill-formed, misbegotten things headed out of the world and onto the road, moving from town to town, never calling any place their own. They were her family, if you could call it that—they were her fate.

She closed the front door. It was getting cold now as night took over the desert. She was closing the door against the night, against the rustle of lizards and the spines of cactus, against whatever shapes lay in the darkness and whatever moved in the silence. Then Billy Bigelow and Dusty came in talking about the day. Only the sound of voices and the smell of chili seemed warm and real.

—Gladys Swan

Prior to The Carnival Quintet, Gladys Swan has published two novels and seven collections of short fiction, of which The Tiger’s Eye: New & Selected Stories is the most recent. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various magazines. Also a painter, she has done the cover art for several magazines and books by other writers as well as her own. She was the first writer to receive a fellowship for a residency in painting at the Vermont Studio Center. She has taught in the creative writing program at the University of Missouri–Columbia and was a faculty member of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Vermont College. New Mexico, where she grew up, is the setting for much of her fiction.


Oct 142014


Warning: I burst out giggling every time I stick my nose in the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale. It’s a perfect example of how the author uses irony to inspire laughter. As you read this excerpt, it’ll be hard to focus on anything besides the hero, an anti-social, flea-ridden, incontinent cat called Tabby, but try and pay a little attention to this Chinese family’s reaction to the cat’s quirkiness. Tabby’s eccentricities don’t diminish their love, but intensify it. It’s truly hilarious. —Melissa Armstrong

Han Dong
A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages;  $2.99


We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat’s temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn’t get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smell—though it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours’ children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby’s owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn’t in the least anxious—she knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. Even my sister-in-law was unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)

Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat pee, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.

Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn’t care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. ‘But Tabby’s a clean-living cat,’ retorted my sister-in-law. ‘He never goes out, so he can’t possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it’s because he has psychological problems.’ Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task, and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.

My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn’t lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for her—she’d been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she’d had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her efforts—because she had a guilty conscience—and so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were delicious—that was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby’s food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby’s food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother’s confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.

It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother’s benefit. If she didn’t prepare the cat’s food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn’t he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Even since Tabby’s arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn’t get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.

Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one place—my mother’s bedding. My mother wasn’t wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother’s continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby’s collar off. Once they had heard the news, most of the fleas returned to live on the cat, although a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby’s belly made it difficult for her to complain.

After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.

My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby’s front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law’s arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman’s intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn’t want that—neither did my brother—so Tabby’s bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.

—Han Dong, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harmon


Oct 132014

Han Dong

Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat. —Melissa Armstrong


A Tabby-cat’s Tale
By Han Dong
Translated by Nicky Harman
Frisch and Co.
Ebook, 43 pages; $2.99


Remember heroic Buck from Jack London’s Call of the Wild or Lassie in Elizabeth Gaskell’s heart-wrenching short story “The Half-Brothers?” In Han Dong’s lean forty-three-page novella, A Tabby- cat’s Tale, we meet another unforgettable animal, but unlike Buck or Lassie, Tabby could never be classified as courageous. In fact the very opposite is true: Tabby’s unruly behavior is the basis of a wonderful comedy about a Chinese family’s obsession with their “morbidly” antisocial cat.

Han Dong’s Tabby may not be the stereotypical hero, but he nevertheless derives from a line of similar characters in literary history. The author’s portrayal of Tabby fits quite nicely alongside the hilarious and often eyebrow-raising wit J.R. Ackerley employs in My Dog Tulip. Published in 1965, My Dog Tulip describes the tumultuous but unconditional sixteen-year love affair the narrator shares with an untrained and sometimes downright stubborn Alsatian bitch — who bites, barks excessively, gets booted from several public places, including a veterinarian’s office and a grocery store, and delivers a litter of pups in a London flat.

In Han Dong’s story, separated by thirty-five years and seven thousand miles, we meet Tulip’s soul mate, a cat named Tabby that lives and dies on a seventh floor apartment in Nanjing, China. In A Tabby-cat’s Tale, we follow a Chinese family’s eight-year plight, taking care of their feline, who despises people, doesn’t use a litter box, has fleas, and often displays violent behavior. At one point, the cat scars the sister-in-law for life when he swipes her nose with his “fearsome claws.” But, amusingly, instead of finding another home for Tabby, the family goes to extraordinary lengths to make life comfortable for the cat, cooking him special fish-gut soup and starting a war with the neighbors so that Tabby can live on their apartment complex roof.

Like Ackerley’s portrayal of his dog Tulip, Han Dong hilariously depicts Tabby with vivid descriptions of the cat’s bad habits. In terse, sometimes lively (vulgar) language, Han Dong exposes all of Tabby’s faults, such as his failure to use a litter box:

With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough as it was, but having to find the mess made it even worse. Tabby was a master of hide-n-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on.

Or his flea-ridden coat:

My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it on a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour, or so the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.

Ironically, the cat’s incontinence and fleas don’t stunt the family’s affection one iota. If anything, as the cat’s eccentricity increases so does the family’s obsession. At the crux of this irony — the crease between the family’s growing tenderness and the cat’s oddities – is where Han Dong achieves some of his greatest comedic moments.

Tabby’s story is told by a first person narrator, but over the course of the cat’s eight years, he has four different caretakers, the sister-in-law, the brother, the narrator, and his fiancée Xulu. Each character shares the same desire: to care for Tabby. In fact, people’s extraordinary reactions to Tabby’s weird habits are as comical as the cat’s behavior. The sister-in-law, the feline’s first steward, relinquishes all household responsibilities, working afternoons then returning directly home, in order to cook fish-gut soup for Tabby and rid his coat of the dreaded fleas. When the childless sister-in-law dies – on her deathbed — she bequeaths the orphaned cat to her husband.

In turn, the brother treats the feline like a son. The narrator relates: “After that, no matter how much my mother complained about the fleas and the cat’s crazy behavior, ripping the sofa to shreds with claws and eating all the plants on the veranda down to their roots, my brother turned a deaf ear.” At one point, the brother, realizing that his care can never equal the standards of his wife’s maternal instincts, searches for a replacement with qualifications to serve as a stepmother to his feline. The family’s fixation with their pet cat pinnacles when the narrator and his fiancée move into the seventh floor flat and become so obsessed with Tabby that they forego everything else in their lives.

There was clearly something wrong with the way we were living our lives. I wondered if Tabby had put a spell on us. He looked so young, and I had never seen a more handsome cat. The markings on his face gave him an aloof beauty, and it was this, rather than pure boredom, which absorbed our attention. We would spend hours at a time on the balcony, forgetting to eat or go to work.

Born in 1961, the author Han Dong lived through China’s Cultural Revolution; as a child, he was exiled along with his family to the countryside to live and learn among the peasants. This experience heavily influences his first novel Banished!, which won the Chinese Novelist Prize in 2003, a PEN Translation Award, and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. Before Han Dong pursued a full-time literary career, he studied philosophy at Shandong University and subsequently taught in Nanjing and Xi’an. Currently, he’s known as a poet, editor, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and blogger.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way the narrator’s philosophical — almost scientific — commentary turns a quirky tale of an odd cat into a sophisticated story about the fascination and frustration of communicating with animals. A Tabby-cat’s Tale and My Dog Tulip are anecdotal accounts of the puzzling behavior of a cat and a dog, but simmering beneath the antics of these animals is the complex problem of language. How can we understand creatures that don’t speak?

Early in A Tabby-cat’s Tale, Han Dong concedes that people can never truly comprehend animals because we don’t share a language. When the novella opens, Tabby acts like a playful kitten, but after an afternoon spent with a neighbor, Tabby returns home transformed into an antisocial feline. The narrator is away when Tabby changes; he’ll never be able to simply ask the cat what caused his drastic personality switch. And yet:

…the truth is that even if I’d been at home, I couldn’t know everything that happened to Tabby. He was just a cat, to be found under the bed or along the walls, living a life that was completely separate from mine. Besides, he couldn’t speak our language, and a cat’s thought and needs can never fully be understood by humans, no matter how carefully they pry.

This grasping for meaning outside the conventions — and freedoms — of a shared language replays itself over and over again throughout the novel and appears in every character entangled with Tabby. Whether it’s the neighbors rummaging through the feline’s perceived hiding spots on the roof or the fiancée hanging her clothes above cat feces so they absorb the smell, each character tries to predict the animal’s motivations but fails. When the narrator becomes Tabby’s primary caregiver, he sheds all daily tasks and begins writing A Tabby-cat’s Tale, while his fiancée manically fills their flat with doodled drawings of felines. Yet, ultimately, even they can’t truly comprehend the object of their fascination.

The theme of frustration with communicating outside language also appears repeatedly in My Dog Tulip. In scene after scene, whether deciphering the dog’s preferred pooping spots or finding a stud for Tulip to mate, Ackerley struggles with his inability to understand what his beloved dog is trying to say. And even though both authors understand the futility of their efforts, they never cease yearning to discern the unknowable.

In the last few pages of Han Dong’s novella, the tone turns deeply philosophical as the narrator, at his obsessive peak, contrasts his humanity with Tabby’s nature. Afraid the cat has cast a spell over him, the narrator discovers pleasure in Tabby’s ordinariness, such as when the cat tries to cover his “turds” with invisible cinders or when the fiancée catches him “wanking.” As the narrator struggles with his fanatical attraction, he also succumbs to the mystery of it.

And yet, in the end, the narrator answers his own preoccupation. When the cat “threw up violently,” instead of calling an ambulance that would have whisked an ailing human to a hospital, he lets Tabby’s illness linger until it’s too late, and he dies. After all, he’s only a cat.

—Melissa Armstrong



Melissa Armstrong lives outside Nashville, TN with her husband and five dogs. Currently, she’s working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes a blog,, about her efforts to rescue and rehabilitate animals in the rural south.


Oct 132014

The Collaborators Kim Maltman and Roo Borson in their shared writing room The Collaborators Kim Maltman & Roo Borson in their shared writing room.


I’ve known Kim and Roo since we were students together in the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia in the 1970’s. It was clear then that they were the real deal, and already writing pretty sophisticated poetry – though they snort at the idea now. We see each other rarely, but I’ve always felt a kinship because of those early days of tiptoeing – then leaping – into the writing world.

Roo Borson, poet and essayist, has published over a dozen books and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She has also co-written ‘Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei,’ a Pain Not Bread poetry project, in collaboration with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. A forthcoming volume of prose- poetry, ‘Box Kite’, is a collaboration with Kim Maltman under the pen name Baziju. A native of Berkeley, California, the daughter of two doctors, Borson did her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara and Goddard College and later received an MFA from the University of British Columbia.

Kim Maltman, long time partner/spouse of Roo, was born in Medicine Hat and achieved undergraduate degrees in Math and Chemistry with a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto. He is a professor at York University in the Mathematics department and a particle physicist, as well as being a poet. He is author or co-author of more than 6 volumes of poetry.

—Ann Ireland


Picture the poet, a solitary figure, brushing hair from her eyes as she gazes out the window at the street below. Or maybe she stares at rolling hills and grazing sheep. But she is always alone, for isn’t it in this deep communion with Self that poetry lives?

‘We have no interest in the primacy of the individual voice,’ says poet/physicist Kim Maltman. We are sitting at the dining table in a Toronto house that he shares with poet and life partner, Roo Borson. ‘I remember reading a review of Roo’s that singled out a line as being ‘classic Roo Borson’ – but I’d written it.’

Their collaboration goes back to the mid 1970’s when they – and I – were in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. It was at these hands-on workshops that they got in the habit of offering suggestions and adding lines, re-structuring each other’s work. The poetry workshop was led for a brief time by Pat Lowther. After a couple of sessions Lowther disappeared – forever. Her body was discovered in a creek near Squamish. Police arrested her husband, the lesser-known poet, Roy Lowther, and he was convicted and sentenced for her murder.

The same Roy Lowther who offered me my first-ever publication in his journal, Pegasus.

Roo would go on to win the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry in 2005.

‘We have different product lines,’ Kim explains with a hint of a smile. ‘The Borson line; the Maltman line; and various official collaboration lines.’ Notable amongst these is the Pain Not Bread project – a ten year enterprise where the pair worked closely with painter/writer Andy Patton, a collaboration that resulted in a book of poetry published by Brick Books in 2000: Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.

Kim Maltman

I ask about the process of this collaboration. Did they write on their own, then show work to each other for feedback and additions?

For the most part, no. Or not exactly.

Kim says: ‘The rule was not to let the piece get an established voice, but to put it out there (for the other two to look at) quickly so that it would really be a joint creation, starting from fragments.’

Roo isn’t so sure. ‘I’d disagree,’ she says, ‘though Kim believes this to be true. As I do in my own work, I take the writing as far as I can, then hand it to the others.’

‘As far as you can,’ Kim reminds her, ‘means you get stuck, or that you are unsure if the idea is good.’

Roo agrees: ‘Then we sit and talk about it.’

The Pain Not Bread collaborators worked off a variety of source materials, mostly traditional Chinese poetry in translation. Kim and Roo went so far as to study written and oral Chinese, though Roo claims to have forgotten it all.

How did they use this material?

‘You fuzz up your eyes looking at the source text,’ Roo says. ‘It replaces your habitual vocabulary and replaces it with another vocabulary.

Kim adds: ‘It was a structure to move us from our usual tendencies and bad habits.’

Both poets agree that the process of writing Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei was ‘addictive’. Roo goes on to say: ‘We began to craftily mimic each other. Andy has poignancy; Kim takes abstractions almost as if they have a sensual tangibility – and I do images.’

If one person didn’t like something, then it wouldn’t make it under the Pain Not Bread umbrella.

Andy Patton emails: ‘The work was very difficult but working with them was easy. In some sense, it was as though “Roo” and “Kim” disappeared, until we were through working for that day, and there they were again.’ Patton goes on to quote from one of the poems in the book:

from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)

…The range of meanings
is not important, so long as we can get together
every week or so,
make these protests against our own characters,
and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,
find out what it is that might be in our minds.


Back to the question of the solitary artist. Kim shrugs off the concept: ‘It’s about making the work better; not being ‘close to my heart.’

How interesting then, to read Pain Not Bread and sense how intimate the writing feels, how close to the ear and eye. And yes, heart, the collaborative heart.

Working with others ‘allows you to have access to more skills than you alone possess as a writer,’ Roo emails. ‘Working with Kim and Andy, and/or just Kim, means that my written world is larger than it would otherwise be. More tonal avenues. More ways to move.’

I ask Kim: ‘ How does it feel to have one foot in the science camp and the other in poetry?’

Neither odd nor awkward, he claims. ‘I’m out on the fringe of science,’ and his research field of theoretical particle physics is ‘hyper – metaphorical in approach.’ Metaphor is how one can begin to understand difficult concepts. Like string theory, I’m thinking. Pulling up Kim’s York University website I learn that he is interested in: ‘…the consequences of the Standard Model of particle physics for few-body nuclear systems and low-energy particle physics and dynamics.’ I recall something he said earlier, about how poetry enters the mind: ‘You have to sit with it and let its meaning happen.’

Glance out the window at laundry flapping on the clothesline in their backyard in the Oakwood/Vaughan Road area. Such a relief to visit an unrenovated house, no need to go on about the new kitchen cabinets and gas fireplace and shiny bamboo floors. If I squint, it’s not hard to fall back into time, late 1970’s. By then Roo and Kim and I were living in Toronto, at different ends of the city, and we’d meet at readings of the Harbourfront Reading Series organized by Greg Gatenby. This was before the famous International Authors Festival got up and running. Our faithful group consisted of Greg; the featured author(s); novelist M.T. Kelly; poet David Donnell; me – and Kim and Roo. After the reading, the gang would head to the Hayloft bar to toss back beers and chips, and to talk about literature and our nascent projects. Baby writers in those days, we all went on to win some pretty tasty awards.

My hosts’ latest project is a book of prose poems that will appear with House of Anansi Press in 2016. Box Kite is composed by Kim and Roo under the pen name Baziju. Unlike the Pain Not Bread project, this work is not intertextual nor does it riff off source material. They took turns working on the pieces, Kim picking them up at night after Roo was asleep, and the next morning they’d ponder the results together, followed by ‘further Roo-trials during the day and further Kim-trials the subsequent evening.’ One might launch a piece that was simple but, as Kim explains, ‘We wanted the work to open up and become rich and unwieldy so we banged our heads against things, waiting for a weak spot to open.’

Often they’d read aloud, ‘punching new openings in existing pieces … the structure finally yielding and producing a functional opening only because of the pressure of the collective onslaught.’ This is Kim talking, or rather writing, a day later. The duo shares an email address, and one learns to recognize phrases and quirks of language.

‘Kim and I have very different minds,’ Roo points out. ‘I’m scattered and he’s totally focused. I’m never super-focused and I can work on a poem for two minutes, go off and do a bunch of domestic duties and emails, then return to work. Kim needs long stretches of time to go in deeply.’

Roo Borson in the readingthinking chair in office

Flashback: A few years ago I’m tramping up the hills behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California- Roo’s home town. Camera in hand, I have a task to perform. Roo’s family house, built by her grandfather, burned down in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, and she’s held off checking what has become of the place, perhaps because it’s too painful to contemplate. She has written about visiting the site soon after the disaster, how the chimney, made of brick reclaimed from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, stuck up intact, surrounded by rubble. I continue to trudge upwards in midday heat, past Arts and Crafts style houses, haciendas, and countless eucalyptus trees – trees which have a tendency to explode in high heat. Roo left Berkeley in her late teens, but was here for free concerts by the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and Grace Slick singing White Rabbit.

Finally, there it is, a hideous yellow monster house built to the edges of the property line. Snap photos. Press ‘send’.

Today, Kim tells me that a ‘serious criminal’ now lives in the house.

I ask to see the pair’s writing space and we head upstairs to a small room equipped with desk, an old IBM Thinkpad, and an easy chair next to a side table littered with books.

‘I’m on my own a lot,’ Roo says. ‘More than I’d like.’ This is spoken in a matter of fact voice, not plaintively. I think of how many writers live, yearning to be alone yet feeling lonely when they are. She plunks down on the easy chair, demonstrating where she sits to read, to think, to work.

‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.

‘Not really. I’m frustrated all the time, so I’m motivated to make the poems go better.’

I ask which poets they read these days and who they read when starting out. Michael Yates, professor at the University of British Columbia, introduced them to poetry in translation, notably Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a work which opened up the possibilities of prose poetry, and Tomas Transtromer, Swedish writer and recent Nobel Prize winner. Roo emails later how Transtromer’s poetry ‘is built around stunning, unsurpassable symbolic imagery.’ This discussion of influences and touchstones continues via email. Kim and Roo both speak of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, whose work Roo reads for – ‘his intimacy and spirit, expressed in astonishingly perfect formal music.’ Kim notes Alice Oswald’s Memorial, ‘an exceptional intertextual cross-cut through the Iliad, with an amazing use of repetition and large scale structure.’

Roo reads widely. ‘Unlike some poets, who only read certain schools of poetry,’ Kim notes.

Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’

Roo Borson (all photos by Ann Ireland)

Even when working on the ‘Borson product line’ Roo counts on her partner’s immersive feedback. She’ll slip the work -in-progress into a folder at the edge of the dining table and wait for Kim’s response. This can take weeks, or even months, due to his heavy teaching and research schedule. He’ll ‘ponder’ the draft and at some point, as he describes the process – ‘I’ll feel I have a line of entry into it.’

‘Doesn’t it drive you nuts that it takes him so long to get back to you?’ I ask, thinking of the way I hover over Tim as he reads my latest attempt.

Roo shrugs. ‘I’ve learned I have to leave it for as long as it takes. By the time the poems get to the pile I’ve worked on them for a very long time.’

Kim adds: ‘I’ll write new parts and rearrange, and she does the same for me.’

Roo agrees. ‘And I’ll put two of his poems together and make it one. We’re doing this all the time.’

Kim likes to speak of the ‘voice’ of the poem and he doesn’t mean the writer’s voice, or not exactly. Nor any character’s voice within. It’s something that belongs to the DNA of the poem, its language and syntax and sensibility. ‘I have to have a sense of this (in order to work on Roo’s piece) and it can be hard to find.

‘This whole voice thing is harder for me to know about,’ says Roo. ‘I feel my way through images, whereas Kim feels his way through voice.’

Back downstairs, she disappears for a moment into the kitchen and returns with a plate containing a loaf of banana bread. We dive in.

As we sat around the rectory-style table in crumbling Brock Hall at the University of British Columbia all those decades ago, I recall the way Roo would lean forward on her chair during the workshop sessions, elbows on thighs, clutching the weekly worksheet. She’d be frowning as she sought to pin down what a particular poem was getting at. She’d press on, puzzling it out, then say something off-kilter so that we’d all laugh. Kim, beside her, hair down to his shoulders and bearded, sat upright on his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and when he talked, it was often out of the corner of his mouth, his brain working too quickly for speech.

We were learning how to be what we wanted to become.

—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos





James Cook, 1728-1779

An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
Seen from here it passes in an instant,
even the time of the navigators is no more than the
blink of an eye, like the life of the mayfly we make of
all of history one immense and telescoped distortion —
island upon island —
Midway, now, halfway across the ocean, waterless, eroded,
yet it seems immutable.
In portraits of the time, Cook sits like that.
Contained. Immutable.
It is the great colonial age.
England, the European powers, vie for dominance.
They see time as flowing past and through them,
and think to fasten themselves to the fabric of it —
like enormous, beautiful gemstones,
no longer in fashion.
An age of “Destiny,” of corpulent aristocrats, for whom the
mountains and peninsulas and islands will be
named, and re-discovered, earnestly debating,
in ornately panelled rooms,
honor and glory,
notions we can hardly bear to speak of any longer.
Only death, the figure of it, seems quite real.
Cook, returning to the beaches of Kauai — sprawled out
beneath the fury of descending wooden clubs —
astonished, suddenly outside of time —
the man who, as the god, struck,
cries out, revealing himself,
and the murmur runs though the crowd,
“he bleeds.”

—Kim Maltman



Night after night on the kibbutz
they berated me for staying out late, watching the moon.
Drink your milk, they said —
in the morning you’ll have to work. All day
you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you!
Night after night they berated me.
And night after night, my cup of milk shining,
I came out anyway.
Drink your milk, I said.
In the morning you’ll have to work.
All day you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you.

—Roo Borson, from Water Memory (McClelland and Stewart)



Jilong was every shade of grey in the rain. Red-grey, yellow-grey, green-grey, grey. It had been raining all the way from Hualian, where there were mudslides. In Hualian we’d spent the night in a hotel decorated with red velvet and imitation stained glass, overlooking an intersection which shrieked the whole night through with gunning motorbikes and small trucks blaring out presidential campaign ads, live, through loudspeakers, handheld or mounted on their roofs. And now the rain-soaked sea, the blocky cement structures of the sugar towns, a cement-coloured crescent of wet beach, this or that hillside grotto of cycads, ferns the size of small houses — each time the train was swallowed up in a tunnel the world went black, swaying and rocking, only to be resurrected again the next moment. Now, at last, all this was behind us and, now heavy, now light, now drenching, now middling, the rain continued….

A map we’d picked up at the station had shown several hotels, and we’d made our way now to the nearest of these. A sailor took a swig from a mickey-sized paper bag as I squeezed past in the narrow corridor which served as a lobby, and into the tiny elevator. Passing by an open door along the way, I caught sight of one of the other guests, a young woman talking on a cellphone. Our room-to-be had an actual porthole for a window and beautiful, mildewed wainscoting, which gave off an odd air of dampness and chill. And so for the second time I passed by the young woman, who sat perched in her miniskirt on a matching circular bed, still talking softly on her cellphone, and rode back down to the lobby to return the room key and decline the room, and then we slogged our way again through the rain, dragging our luggage up and down over the labyrinthine series of pedestrian overpasses.

After tea, a hot shower, and some desultory television in a second (this time, mercifully acceptable) hotel called The Kodak, whose sewing kit I still carry with me, we made our way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. What we wanted was a bowl of rice, a green vegetable, possibly some bean curd, above all to avoid having to venture out again into that pouring rain. The menu, when it finally arrived, however, spoke more of the hotel’s elevated image of itself than of the contents of its dishes, being one of those composed almost entirely of gracious yet curious literary allusions, most of them unknown to us, and only a handful bearing names into which words we recognized for food had been allowed to slip. Among these was a dish called Xishi Doufu.

This (leaving aside the doufu for the moment), although also an allusion, was at least one that we recognized. Xishi: legendary beauty of the Warring States period. Favourite concubine to the last, doomed King of the state of Wu, so bewitching that, languishing in her company, he allowed his whole kingdom to be overrun and lost. Rice, a vegetable, and Xishi Doufu it would have to be then, although why Xishi, and what this doufu that now bore her name might turn out to consist of, we would have to wait and see.

Often when I think of doufu, I remember the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by the Chinese writer Gu Hua. The novel is set in a poor village in Hunan during the sixties and seventies, a period of great upheaval throughout the country. It makes frequent and lavish references to an incredibly tender bean curd, a bean curd which in fact turns out to be not exactly bean curd, but a ‘bean curd’ contrived out of the sweepings of rice powder gathered from the storeroom floor. The bean curd vendor, Yuyin, has been declared a “rich peasant,” dispossessed, and forced to make her living selling bean curd on the streets. Throughout the novel, numerous servings of this ‘doufu’ are dolloped out, steaming hot, into bowls, and doused with chili oil and green onion. Each appearance in the novel made me famished — so much so that, ever since, every unknown bean curd dish appearing on a Chinese menu makes me once more long for it.

At the end of Gu Hua’s novel it is 1979, and Yuyin has, at last, been rehabilitated. Her tormentor, Wang Qiushe, has gone mad and wanders the streets, calling out endlessly for yet another revolutionary political movement, long after the era of such movements, and the devastation they (and he) have brought to other peoples’ lives, has passed. I thought again of Yuyin’s doufu as we waited (patiently, and for some time — like the King of the doomed state of Wu, we joked) for our order to arrive.

And now before us stood a dish of Xishi Doufu. The cubes so white they seemed almost translucent, so delicate they registered even the slight shocks of the waiters passing, unobtrusively as always, near our table. The tremulous cubes slid away at the touch of the serving spoon and, upon being lifted with chopsticks, would pause a moment and then break in half.

Often since then I have thought of that dish, though in my mind it is now hopelessly entangled with the doufu of Gu Hua’s story. Thus, on occasion, when I come upon doufu listed in a restaurant menu, I find myself not only remembering the town of Hibiscus and the doufu of those revolutionary times, but wondering whether I might not, like the legendary last King of the once great, now long-vanished state of Wu, be living through the last days of some great tragedy I am as yet completely unaware of. Perhaps this is why the story of ordering Xishi Doufu in the restaurant of The Kodak Hotel, in the port city of Jilong, on the northeast corner of the island of Taiwan, has stayed with me, and why I am now writing it down — to (as Gu Hua says in his postscript, reflecting on the times he lived through) “comfort, encourage, mock and explain myself.”

—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite

 Roo Borson and Kim Maltman’s chair in their officeThe Borson/Maltman communal office easy chair.

Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.


Oct 122014

DSCF8995Surprisingly, there are great swathes of clear cut forest all along the coastal road in the west. Sometimes the lumber companies leave a thin screen of trees along the road and sometimes not. Depressing to see. Most of the logs go straight to China these days.

DSCF9036Sombrio Beach (photo by MF). Behind us, makeshift tents and campsites occupied by surfers trying to dry out in the dense mist.

DSCF9135The Juan de Fuca Trail near Sombrio Beach.

IMG_2248DG at the University of Victoria First Peoples House as a guest of Taiaiake Alfred and the Indigenous Governance department, talking to grad students and faculty in the program. Not a great photo and dg looks particularly self-important, perhaps conducting a symphony, but it’s the only one and it preserves the moment.

First Peoples HouseHere’s the hall (without people). Amazing place modeled on the traditional Coast Salish long house.

tshirtTaiaiake Alfred presented dg with a coveted Indigenous Nationhood Movement tshirt, which meant a lot.

DSCF9172Harbor seal off the marina wharf in Mill Bay. They were playing all along the coast, some far out and diving with dramatic tail slaps. At Mill Bay we heard the tail slaps, saw loons and a kingfisher and then a bald eagle zoomed close overhead, all in about five minutes. DG stopped mentioning the seals to the locals because it marked him as a greenhorn.

DSCF9186Cow Bay, a touristified, single-street, old village on the coast, organic foods, organic baked goods, and one store that sold liquor and tools.

DSCF9214This is the so-called butter church on Comiaken Hill in the Cowichan Reserve, Cowichan Bay in the background to the right. Abandoned, it was the first church in the area, an ancient-looking chapel, on a hill that feels lonely, mysterious and sacred, empty grass field to the left where people were once buried, though most of the markers are down, one lone oak tree, low mountains all around except in the direction of the bay. Also a place of ill-memory because of treaties signed nearby in the 1850s. The church was built in 1870 with the help of natives who were paid with money earned from the sale of butter. Apparently.


DSCF9192St. Anne’s Church, just down the road from the butter church. Back in Victoria we had run into an ancient beekeeper who said his great- or great-great-grandfather was Chief George Tzouhalem of the Cowichan band. An Irishman who fought with Pickett at Gettysburg apparently came up the coast and married the chief’s 15-year-old daughter — this was the beekeeper’s line. He said to drive up to this place because old chief Tzouhalem is buried here and his grand-daughter bought a pink granite plinth and had it raised over the grave.  We walked all through this sombre place and finally, yes, did discover the plinth, raised by the grand-daughter Ettie George, just as the beekeeper had said. He had known Ettie and had stories.



DSCF9191Christianity is dissipating perhaps. The crosses all over the graveyard were mostly temporary markers. Occasionally, there was something more indicative of a different way of being. Later, I got to talk to a man who makes the grave markers, a social role passed down through his family, and he said the crosses are just places to put names now, not signs of belief. Alarming number of fresh graves in every native graveyard, signs of hard lives, poverty and the depression that goes with being a dispossessed and colonized people.

Oct 122014


Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces. —Jason DeYoung


Daniel Kehlmann
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Panthenon, 2014
$25.95, 256 pages

F is “for people who don’t trust family novels,” Daniel Kehlmann said recently in an interview. F is for fate and family and father and fake and fraud and forgery, too. Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces.

Daniel Kehlmann is famous in Germany, roughly a wünderkind, with something akin to the American readership of Donna Tart. His first novel was publish when he was twenty-two, while he was working on a doctoral thesis on the sublime in the works of Immanuel Kant. His novel Measuring the World (2005) became the best selling novel in Germany since Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985). Just thirty-nine, he’s written five other books, many of which have been translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, including Me and Kaminski and Fame. But he doesn’t have the readership in America that he might deserve. The superb F might change that.

Broken into six sections, each part of F operates both as its own story and within the context of the novel. The opening scene sets up the family dynamics. Arthur Friedland is taking his twin son’s—Ivan and Eric—from a current marriage, and an older son, Martin, from a previous marriage, to see a traveling hypnotist show. Arthur is something of a stay-at-home dad who writes novels no publisher will take. He has a particular itch for quoting Nietzsche and a child-like disposition for arguing with his sons about animated movies and Yoda’s speech patterns.

The boys are set at odds by marriages and brotherhood. Martin is clearly intelligent but shy with his younger half-brothers whom he looks upon distrustfully because of their close bond. Eric, already at thirteen years old, is well-aware that his father is pitied by others for his failure and unemployment, and has resolved not to be like Arthur. Ivan is steeped in insecurities, worries about talent and intellectual gifts, and wonders how people without them “put up with their existence.” These opening pages subtly portray a fractured family, members who don’t know one another very well.

At the show, the hypnotist will call Arthur to the stage. Arthur will tell him that he cannot be hypnotized. But something happens, because after the show, Arthur will leave his family. In fact, he leaves them so swiftly, Martin is left stranded.

When we next meet the brothers, it’s some twenty-five years. Each brother gets his own section in F, and each section takes place on one day—8 August 2008. Martin is the first brother examined. Overweight and obsessed with the Rubik’s cube (an obsession he’s carried from youth), he has gone into the priesthood, yet his reason is too strong, and he’s not entirely certain he has faith in God. Eric has pursued money, but has committed fraud through a pyramid scheme, and he’s on the verge of being caught by his biggest investor. Lastly, Ivan has become a painter, who begins to paint pictures for a mediocre artist, yet Ivan adds innovative turns into the artist’s work, and this strange form of forgery grows the older painter’s reputation and makes him famous. With patient characterization and expansive narrative, Klehmann dramatizes each son’s fakery, each man’s simulation of their profession. The irony the brothers share is the belief that others—colleagues, family—can “see through them,” see their dishonesty and their small “wounded” selves. Of course, their sham is too convincing, their fake is too good.

Moving in and out of the novel’s story lines is Arthur who since leaving his family has gone on to write a number of successful, experimental novels, one so bleak and powerful as to cause a few of its readers to commit suicide. Whether it was the hypnotist’s doing or Arthur’s true character, we are never made privy to why it is he left his family. The hypnotist holds that a person under hypnosis will never do something he or she doesn’t want to do, but it’s a strange moment in the book, full of uncertainties and doublespeak, when the Great Linderman puts his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and says: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want to me to give you the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it cost.” The “effort” referred to is Arthur’s ambition to be a novelist, the profession he tells the Great Linderman he’d failed at doing.

Perhaps he wanted the order, perhaps not? But unlike his sons, Arthur doesn’t have the same pretensions—he is not faking. Later in the book Martin will confront him about it. “Obligations,” Arthur says, “we invent them when required. Nobody has them unless they decide they have them.” Still, he will tell Martin that he had to learn to live with the guilt and regret of leaving.

Inspired by the work of Roberto Bolaño and magical realism, the novel acknowledges without examination a supernatural or otherworldly presence within our own. Martin is convinced that the devil attacks him on the subway; Eric sees cloven feet disappear around hedges; Ivan is met several times by different people trying to tell him his future. Ivan’s experience with the supernatural is particularly interesting and delves into the book’s more metaphysical issue. Is fate true or an illusion? F’s response in this instance is that it is true, as the universe is trying to tell one of the twins “not to get involved with the three,” which turns out to be the novel’s wicked subplot. As we are told in the beginning, the twins lose track of which one is which. The universe, however, doesn’t know the boys accidentally switched places (Eric and Ivan might not know it either) and thus the message goes to the wrong brother, and for one of the twins life ends tragically.

Although the central questions of the novel are the same ones we’ve been dealing with since our beginnings, F handles its material with originality and modern sensibilities, offering responses to the questions about fate and meaning, but not real answers. As Kehlmann himself has said: “Novels are all about ambivalence.” While F is built on traditional plot mechanics, it does have some experimental turns. For example in the third section of the novel, we have a short story written by Arthur about a linage of fathers. Working from his own generation back to the Middle Ages, it operates like the information dump found in traditional family novel. While Kehlmann might be satirizing the tradition, the actual story (which does disregard traditional plot structure) tells something far more horrifying about our lives—when they are all written out, they’re all unhappy in the end, that if our ancestors hadn’t survived there would be “others in our place, others who regarded their existence as inevitable.”

Yes, something of Tolstoy’s comes to mind here, but this is also integral to the novel’s overall ambiguity, and Kehlemann’s storytelling. Fate is part-and-partial with the sublime and ineffable. As Ivan asks late in the book: “What if you could read the universe? Perhaps that’s what is behind the terrifying beauty of things: we are aware that something is speaking to us. We know the language. And yet we understand not one word.” (By the way, the only ancestor in Arthur’s story who lived contentedly was a man who accepted that God had sent him on a “mysterious path” which he walked without complaint.)

Daniel Kehlmann said that with F he wanted to write a character-driven novel, a novel for which he had no clear destination for, just a general notion of wanting to write about three brothers and their various social milieus. The success of F lies partly in the fact that it is one of those rare philosophical novels that doesn’t shackle its story to a preconceived theory but sets its characters adrift with their own conflicts and demons, allowing them to have their own life-altering insights, even if those insights are contested, if not made fun of, by the other characters. Told slowly with gradual assemblage of deceptive details which are revealed in the end to be masterfully constructed, F is the best kind storytelling, filled with doubles and switchbacks, it constantly playing with what we know and what we think we know to bare witness to how many lives are built on that shakiest of foundations: faith.

—Jason DeYoung



Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

Oct 112014



It had begun to snow. Nieves lifted his head to the slow, slanted cascade of flakes and stuck out his tongue. He savored the cool on his tongue as he watched the dog charge across the parking lot and disappear down the trail head.

There was more to savor than snow. Nieves recalled the night before. He had attended a wedding reception held at an Italian social club Nieves frequented. He was seated next to the sister of one of the club’s executive. She was visiting from Rome. “How’d you learn to speak Italian so well?” she asked him. Years before, he said, he had played semi-pro soccer in Sicily. He told her a story from those days. His crew were locking horns with a cross-town rival, a gang of savages culled from the worst of the league by a dodgy, penny-pinching industrialist. One of the goons pulled Nieves down in the box and he was awarded a penalty. Nieves sauntered to the ball and hit it clean but the ball sailed on him and rattled off the cross bar. The goalie bolted from the net towards the stands where the rabble were already celebrating with gutter fervor. Nieves stood his ground in a pose of dejection. From behind his guise, he watched the ball as it began to roll towards the goal, propelled by a furious backspin and the uneven ground of the pitch. The ball crept across the line, the referee signaled a goal and the stadium died a death.

The woman threw her head back in laughter, a genuine guffaw and her hand had come down on his. She didn’t seem like a lady who expected much. At one time, she told Nieves, she had been a stewardess for an Italian airline. “I went everywhere. And nowhere.” She was thin and tall with black ringlets piled high above a lined but open face as tawny as his own. Just under fifty, he thought, a bit younger than himself but the same breed. They danced and when it was time to leave, tipsy as they were, he slipped his hand around waist and drew her in for a peck. In a week, she would be back in Italy. The thought gnawed at him.

As Nieves reached the trailhead, the dog scampered out of the woods to meet him. Nieves teased it for a moment, playfully batting at its face. The dog pulled back and kicked up clouds of snow. Nieves began to walk and the dog settled into a crisp saunter. In the summer, some dead trees had been cleared out and wood chips spread on all the main trails, leaving them well marked. But the dog was a tireless drifter and when they came to a fork, Nieves knew where they were headed. “You devil,” he said, reaching down give the dog a rub. The dog romped away down the small path that would take them deep into the woods.

The snow’s cascade seemed like the slow arpeggio of a harp, thought Nieves, sounding the notes in his head. It was early, too early. He woke up before dawn and the woman had already left his condo. He couldn’t fall back to sleep and waited restlessly in bed for the faint light of dawn. Nieves continued with the music as counterpoint to the whispering hush of wind and footfalls. As they moved to the back of the park, Nieves could make out the imposing hulk of the defunct racetrack through the scrim of barren trees. Its future loomed over the preserve. Developers were licking their chops as they dreamed of the wrecking ball swinging wild and hard.

The dog glanced at Nieves and picked up his pace, disappearing around a bend. He spent most of his time carousing at the farm where Nieves grew up in the county. Nieves traveled a lot for work and had only taken the puppy as a gift from one of his sisters. A dog like that had no business in the city, thought Nieves. His people on his mother’s side were tomato farmers off the boat from the Azores. His father had returned to Portugal shortly after the younger sister was born, leaving Nieves and the two girls alone with their mother. Money was always tight. The struggle marked them all, especially his sisters. They were beautiful but self-serving. Both married well. Divorced well too, with no kids to bog down future adventures in avarice.

They must be slipping some of their loot to his mother, Nieves was sure of it but she still worked a fruit stand in the summer, selling everything she could to locals and cottagers. Marie Nieves, tippling home-made wine, cajoling in broken English. Shit-faced but never showed it.

The dog returned, grumbling with short, sharp barks. Up ahead, the path was blocked. The obstacle soon revealed itself. Nieves noticed the savaged flank of the deer. The animal must have clipped itself on the fence as it moved from the grasslands on the other side of the preserve and the blood attracted the coyotes.

The dear’s gaze into oblivion caught Nieves short, as if he had bit his tongue. He felt a nature rapture overtake him. The woods suddenly seemed alive with animal spirits, inscrutable and imposing. When he was a teenager, his father had re-appeared, just like that. He behaved as if he had always been there and nobody questioned his return. One day, Nieves was driving back from the city with him. They had gone to the market to sell produce and on the way home, his father stopped at a bar. Nieves plugged the jukebox while his old man threw back rum, that was his drink. By the time they left, it was dark. His father should have seen the deer charging out of the woods but he didn’t and the deer took out the right fender before rolling into the ditch. Nieves remembered his old man pulling onto the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s have a look.” He never spoke English, never liked it.

His father shone a flashlight. The deer was thrashing about, trying to right itself. But its front legs were destroyed and blood covered its breast. His father gave Nieves the flashlight and took out a sledge hammer from the back of the truck. He stepped smartly to the deer and swung. The deer wrenched its head from the blow and thrashed again. His father took another swing. The deer made a sound and moved and went still. A car whizzed by and then another.  “Hold that light steady,” his old man said. Nieves watched his father pause at the top of his next swing, staring at the deer, choosing his place for delivery. The hammer dropped. The deer’s head exploded.

Nieves stepped around the doe, the dog holding fast to his leg. Nieves glanced through the fence at the abandoned racetrack. Tomorrow, he would take the dog there, before he was due at his mother’s for Sunday dinner. He thought again of the woman, her hair spilling over him, but the deer crowded her out.

Back in the parking lot, with the dog settled in the backseat, Nieves reached into the glovebox and pulled out a flask of rum. He took a swig and watched the snow through the windscreen. Exhaustion and longing flooded through him and it was all he could do to turn on the engine. He put the car in gear and eased out of the lot.

—Timothy Dugdale


Timothy Dugdale is a senior copywriter, brand strategist and freelance journalist who writes for a variety of luxury lifestyle magazines in North America and the Caribbean. He also composes existential novellas and poetry.


Oct 102014

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedReading at Open Space Gallery, Victoria.

© 2014 Open Space Arts Society. All rights reservedPhoto credit: Miles Giesbrecht. Artists’ works: Tommy Ting (London), Dong-Kyoon Nam (Winnipeg).

DSCF8947Mist on the water. Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sooke.

DSCF9024DG on Sombrio Beach.

DSCF9150Port Renfrew otters (just before we saw the bear).

DSCF8791First Nations exhibit, Royal BC Museum.

DSCF8764Douglas Street.

DSCF8742The bookstore founded by Alice Munro and her first husband.

DSCF8907Breakwater (dark by the time dg got to the end).

Oct 102014

with grandson arthur(26) copySydney Lea with grandson Arthur


An eagle shot from nowhere and killed
One of two black ducklings
Without the least effort as I canoed
A mirror lake at dawn.
When the small bird disappeared, the hen
Rushed to shield the last of her brood,

Urgent as my own mind, which rushed
By habit to metaphor
And by dint of will alone stopped shy
Of the poetaster’s O–
For all the sad creatures. I paddled on.
So did the two that survived.

They fossicked again for surface insects,
The mother settled her feathers,
The world went ahead with its usual business,
And I thought of my Bosnian friend,
How he opts for a sturdy manner. He tells
Good jokes in the bastard English

He learned from American comic books
And talk behind the translation
Of our television sitcom soundtracks.
He moves on in spite of all.
That poor doomed duckling’s wisps of down
Floated in air like snowflakes,

Diaphanous, after the raptor snatched it,
Beautiful, backlit by sun.
I recall the eagle as a totem of splendor
While it managed its own savage business,
Even as the pitiable rasps and squalls
Of the grown duck likewise linger,

Indelible, in the brain. And so
I may just write of them soon,
Though I think how my friend beheld the brain
Of his brother splayed against
A wall in a town so picturesque
It all but beggars the mind.

O, I’m a poet of no consequence.
The sniper picked one of a pair
Who walked a quaint old street together.
I feel guilt not envy.  Indeed,
I’m otherwise content to be
So wanting in subject matter.

—Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.


Oct 092014

Biscevic MostarSamir Biščević “Mostar”

In 2004, my first trip to Bosnia wrecked and remade me in a matter of days, altering forever the rhythm of my heart. When I returned to the States, I began immersing myself in Bosnian literature and visual arts, and I began seeking the company of Bosnians in the diaspora, in places as far-flung as Boston, Charlottesville, Atlanta, Chicago, and Salt Lake City.

This is how, in Chicago in 2008, I came to find the extraordinary abstract expressionist painter Samir Biščević, who saw the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1995) terminate his formal training at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. As much as anyone, he has helped me understand that Bosnia’s loss is our loss. Years later, on YouTube, I came across the brilliant concert accordionist Merima Ključo and soprano Aida Čorbadžić, performing live in downtown Sarajevo, poignantly marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the siege. Their art, their voices, and their stories accompanied me from afar when I traveled to Bosnia in the summer of 2012 and conceived of this essay. When I read the piece publicly for the first time early in 2013, Merima was there, in person, offering opening and closing music with soprano Ariadne Greif. It was one of the great moments of my life.

This essay is dedicated and addressed to one of my dearest Bosnian friends (you in the essay, unnamed), a fiercely private soul trying desperately, in exile, to put the pieces of his life together again. By implication and extension, it is also for all the Bosnians who have welcomed the stranger, who have sheltered and known me in the darkness. For their unflinching solidarity, for their unfiltered love, I am eternally grateful.

(A quick Bosnian pronunciation guide, oversimplified but providing enough, I hope, to help throughout the essay: for consonants that have a diacritical mark, add an “h” sound to make a soft “ch,” “sh,” or “zh.” A “c” without any diacritical mark is pronounced “ts,” as in “hats.” Each “r” is rolled like a soft “d,” each “j” softened to a “y.”)

—Thomas Simpson

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo


Sarajevo RoseSarajevo Roses

Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2012

The steep, narrow streets of Sarajevo are the only way to get to you. I stop at the base, where the cold spring water flows, and it feels like redemption before it evaporates in the summer valley heat. I join the old women walking up slow, their thick forearms carrying fresh bread. Somehow they’re impervious to the traffic that barrels down, past your mother’s roses, your brown metal door.

You say this is how you got fast, running this hill in the siege, your wheelbarrow shuttling jugs of water up from the brewery below. Sweating, heart pounding, flashing in and out of the sniper’s sights. His comrade’s shrapnel had already lodged in you, that first October, inches from your spine. The time you were in a neighbor’s field, snaking just to glean a few potatoes or pears that might have secretly come to term.

Thank God for the brewery, pumping fresh water from the underground, where the earth whispers its resistance: Take. Drink. And come back later, because we’ve got a little beer. Take a bottle down to the nightclub. Pass it to your brothers and sisters, the chalice, a couple of cigarettes the body broken for you.



My first time in Bosnia, ten years ago, I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. Ashes to ashes, the relentless headache, hack, wheeze in a fog of second-hand truth. It was worst in Mostar, the desert-dry city with the old stone bridge, the sparkling green river, and the battling sounds of the muezzin, the church bells, and the thumping dance beats pouring out of the riverside cafés.

Stari MostStari Most, the old Ottoman bridge at Mostar.

Now, at Ilidža, at the source of the river Bosna, you light the first cigarette, and I brace myself for a second respiratory hell. Desperate, I wonder if Sarajevo can help me overcome another deep aversion. I remember my smug contempt for the accordion vanishing in a heartbeat last spring, when Merima first got hold of me. She was on streaming video, playing a love song for Sarajevo: Što Te Nema, “Why Aren’t You Here?” Merima on a makeshift, outdoor stage, cradling and wrestling life from the accordion, before an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. I traveled four thousand miles to follow that sound, all lungs and tears and love. So now, I let the smoke wash over me. It fills my lungs, older, suddenly not afraid anymore, lungs that know love is everything and it will kill you quick as hate.

Tunel Spasa InteriorTunel Spasa interior.

We go to the tunnel museum, Tunel Spasa, your only way out during the siege. You tell me that English-speakers get it wrong when they call it the tunnel of hope. It’s the tunnel of salvation. Salvation for the few, crouch-digging underground in the hungry damp cold, trying to survive only for exile, trying to survive only for salvation from the ultra-nationalist Christians who burn, shell, murder, and rape. I think: Jesus, maybe we’re hopeless.



We drive north to Tuzla, the city of salt mines and salt lakes. Mima and Zilka meet us at Vive Žene, the center where women counsel tortured, shell-shocked sisters. We sit in a circle, taking small comfort in coffee, fresh cherries, and wordless understandings. It conjures a line from Žalica, the filmmaker: the microsurgery of the soul.

In the evening, we feast with a family preparing to send a son to Phillips Exeter Academy where I teach. On the back patio, the bread of life—burek, ćevapi—the stunning flowers, the setting sun. Then we walk to the town square. It’s sinking—watch your step—there’s been too much extraction and now the salt of the earth is gone. We come to the memorial, where Edina draws me close and translates the poem for the night in May, 1995, when shelling hit the square and cut down seventy-one, mostly youths. We cry. Yet it is beautiful here tonight, the teenagers striding through the square. We start to walk again, and Edina’s baby lets me hold her a little while. She seems to know I need to hold her a little while.

Tuzla Square 1

I remember a tip from a friend back home: go to the Phillips Exeter school archives, he said, and get the transcript of a talk that a young Bosnian, Vedrana Vasilj, gave in the chapel back in 1997. We were transported, he said. I find it, Vedrana in late spring, revealing that she was there that awful night in Tuzla, working at the hospital, receiving the bodies of her friends. She said, in perfect and plain English, that it was the night Tuzla’s hope died. And the crowd cried, my friend told me, a little salt from their souls for Tuzla.



I tell you I have to tour Srebrenica. You must wonder what I want to do with ghosts—you want to live. We make the slow drive from Tuzla, hugging the Drina, that river of blood. You’re as tough as they come, but when we arrive the tour guide’s talk, all those names carved in stone, it’s all too much. You have to leave. I go on earnest, reverent with the tour, the talk, the film, the photographs, the hush, the sacred remains, the thousands of graves. I fight the hallucinations: all the Muslim men and boys running for their lives, there, through those forests, over those hills, trying to make it, somehow, to Tuzla. The hallucinations that Samir still paints in Chicago—their nightmares, their steps, their path. His Guernica.

Fritz at SrebrenicaSrebrenica Genocide Memorial

When I have seen everything, I find you. You’re back from the dead, sipping coffee and charming the old widows who run the little souvenir stand at Srebrenica, in head scarves and long skirts, the women who endure only to mourn. You’ve been sitting with them for hours, enfolding them with your eyes, letting them remember their sons and grandsons a little, strong, funny, fierce, tender. They’re in love. They help us find a gift for my wife, Alexis, a scarf, dazzling pink set against pure black. We thank the women, choking back tears, and we get the hell out of Srebrenica.

When we arrive Sunday in Bihać, on the other side of the country, Zehra and Almir are waiting for us with the same coffee, the good, strong Bosnian coffee, Turkish like espresso in small cups with the grounds thick and dark as tar. The apartment building is tall, socialist grey, and all these years later you, Zehra and Almir, you still have to live within the shelled walls and cracked glass, and it makes me hate them so much. But you don’t want to talk about that—the flowers in your window box tell me all I need to know. You have kept watering the soil. It is so clear I am lost.



A couple of days later Almir notices, over coffee at the sidewalk café. He says I should stay longer, that I’m just a few days away from being a real Bosnian. He means it, and I think I know what he means. The night before, we stayed up for hours at the neighborhood pub and tattoo parlor, joking like idiots, throwing darts. But by two in the morning, I was exhausted. I really wanted to leave, but you were my ride, and you were already home. So I started imagining myself stretched long on the tattoo bed by the bar, knowing that to be a real Bosnian I’d have to do some time there, and in that haze getting a tattoo started to seem like a fantastic idea. But soon we left, I slept, and it was gone.

Back in Sarajevo, we sit by the river Bosna, at the source, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, feta, and beer, Sarajevsko, straight from the brewery. You laugh at me when I tell everyone I fell in love with Bosnia the first time I tasted the garden tomatoes, but I swear it’s true, you have no idea what the American tomato has become. Then I flash to that feast eight years ago, with Jasmina’s aunt, up near Banja Luka in the house the Chetniks had occupied and trashed during the war. It was restored now, and there we gathered, fifteen of us, the heavenly banquet, everything fresh. I was falling in love with it all when I noticed Jasmina’s uncle wasn’t saying much. Then I remembered he had been in the camps, where someone’s needled concentration left numbers on his arm. And hate was seared to the skin of my love.

We were supposed to meet Nermina, the art critic, Samir’s friend, but it’s almost 100 degrees and it’s too hot for anyone to walk to us. So we go for a drive up Mt. Trebević, one of the Olympic mountains, where bobsledders once screamed down a track that’s already in ruins. The graffiti is spellbinding. We keep going, all the way to the top, and up there what must have been a beautiful restaurant is wrecked, burned out, graffiti-tagged, no hip urban art just the scattered signatures of death.



When I look all the way down Trebević, I finally see how easy it was for them, fish in a barrel, firing down at the millions of terra cotta tiles, roofs burnt orange against blue summer sky, those perfect illusions of shelter.

Sarajevo Terra CottaSarajevo Terra Cotta.

Trembling, I step back from the edge. You’ve taken a phone call, so I’m on my own. I decide to head into that restaurant, shards of tile and brick crumbling under my feet as I move with my camera toward shafts of warm sunlight. When I come back, you hang up and say shit, man, stay out of the shadows, there could’ve been landmines. I lose my breath, thinking of the killers’ deranged hospitality. Killers high like gods with artillery made to take planes out of the sky, but they, they liked aiming it down at the city that has always been a place for travelers to rest.

Trebevic Restaurant

Back in your apartment, where your father laid red tile for you, I toe a depression in the kitchen floor. I ask if I did something wrong, and you say no, that’s where a little while ago your ex-wife dropped a heavy pot. Crash, the pot falling, your wife falling so out of reach and shattering the tile of your heart. You tell me that was rock bottom, and it was peacetime in Sarajevo.



You want to live. And if you know anything in Bosnia it’s that we can’t be afraid to be alive. So we talk, listen, laugh, cry and crank the music loud—Dubioza, EKV, Kultur Shock—yes, we rock and groove all over Bosnia in Sasha’s beast of an old red Ford station wagon that tells the mountains to bring it on and says who’s the stupid American always in the passenger seat who can’t drive a stick?

And the young women stride through Sarajevo with their eyes on the latest fashion, their hair highlighted smooth bronze, blonde, or indigo against brown. I remember Zehra telling us where to get some of that dye for Alexis, whose hair is dark like Zehra’s, her favorite color purple. So we walk into a pharmacy and I grab the box before I realize how ridiculous I’ll look holding this stuff in line. You say give me a break, just be confident, so I do it, and like magic, the American woman next to us starts to flirt with me a little. She says wow, that’s gonna look great on you. I look at you, and we laugh like we’re seventeen.

Then we step out into the mid-afternoon sun, and I see my God, we’re on the street where Merima played her song for Sarajevo, last April, twenty years since the beginning of the siege. Merima’s accordion and her inexhaustible, sweet embrace of the survivors, the sorrow, and our broken, beautiful lives, our lives with all we have left.

YouTube Preview Image
Merima Ključo & Miroslav Tadić

—Thomas Simpson


Simpson author shot

Born and raised in western New York, Tom Simpson teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Virginia. From 2002-2004, he directed Emory University’s “Journeys of Reconciliation,” an international travel program exploring the intersections of religion, violence, and peacebuilding. That work brought him to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the first time. Subsequent visits have led to collaborations with Goran Simić on a collection of Simpson’s essays about postwar Bosnia, which they plan to publish in Bosnian and English in 2015. He lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife, Alexis, and their two children, Blake and Will.