This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.
This short fiction Phosphorescence about love, pregnancy and beluga whales from Room Magazine’s Queer issue, now online.
the new book
Over at Vulture,
The world opened for Matthew Klam, and his list of early awards and honours was daunting. He had it all except for a second book. As the years passed, he still didn’t have a second book. He wrote continually, he tossed continually, he taught instead for its anonymity.
I didn’t have an MFA program to weed out weaknesses. I learned slowly. Sometimes folks went mad for one story or essay, but when they wanted more, the more was always so different they didn’t like it. This is a problem with range and writing across genres (and letting my heart have its way).
I needed an imprimatur I didn’t have. A Menaker imprimatur, maybe. Once Ellen Seligman at M+S spent six months telling me yes, telling me no, telling me I don’t know, I go one way, I flop the other way, and I wonder what would have happened if she had said yes eventually, whether that profound novel about child rape in the world of wild mustangs I was then working on would have come to fruition. All these years later, I’m still curious about what would have broken out of me if by chance I had just been valued and nurtured, and really had to work to an editor’s expectations. I would have risen, I know, because I am like that, but in what way, to what end?
What literature did I not produce because I:
a) wasn’t quite good enough?
b) wasn’t repetitive enough?
c) there was discrimination (even inborne and unacknowledged) against certain categories of writers (disabled/queer/feminist)?
d) wasn’t from the US?
What would those stories and books have been?
I was low-income and a sole-support parent a lot of those years. And of course I asked the same questions Matthew Klam asked himself: What does this matter? Who needs another story? Another novel? To what purpose? To win a prize and still be unable to pay the bills? I certainly never cared about a postmortem reputation–that and $5 I’d get a plastic glass of latte at Starbucks to set on my gravestone.
I won the CBC contest a couple times. I published in the NY Times, the Sun and other strong periodicals (back then and again this year). But no successes ever built, no one ever tucked me under her mentor wing. I still write in my self-propelled bubble without much response. I certainly write now without any hopes at all for the marketplace–really, only to please myself.
I had my perfect form and lost it. I quit writing stories and nobody noticed. I quit writing stories and only a friable piece of my heart noticed. I struggle to write novels, but I am no novelist. I am no novelist.
Maybe Matthew Klam is. I look forward to reading Who Is Rich?
I got home from a trip, picked up my mail and found my contributor copies of the July 2017 issue of The Sun Magazine (along with the welcome cheque). A couple of weeks ago, I went to add The Sun to my list of places I’ve published, and it was already there. I was puzzled; I didn’t remember having already added it. But then I explored a little further, realized I’d published there a long time ago, and sought out the issue, the cover of which is above. I was bemused to find that the subject matter was quite similar to the recent essay since I haven’t written about my childhood in ages.
Here’s that original and second-person story, which was still on my desktop: Hearts
My piece this time around is called Skinning the Rabbit. I explored my relationship with my father through our collision about animal welfare, and through the bullying I experienced when I got alopecia totalis at six. I hope you like it. Tell me if you do, k? It’s not online, but you can find The Sun almost anywhere that carries literate magazines, even in Canada.
I am proud to have had essays in the NY Times and The Sun this year.
The Sun November 1993
I used to skate when I was a kid, and over the winter, I wrote a piece about skating and resistance, which Gayle Brandeis has been kind enough to publish at the new Lady Liberty Lit. Thanks, Gayle!
P.S. Gayle’s first novel ‘The Book of Dead Birds’ thrilled me. If you too are pelican-crazy, and want to understand more about the mother/child bond, and just admire great stylists, you should read it.
A little something in French…
NUITS D’OISEAUX by Jane Eaton Hamilton
Traduit de l’anglais (Canada) par Cécile Oumhani
Voici une histoire. Elle est vraie, mais elle est aussi pleine de mensonges. Et de hachures, le genre qui laisse de tout petits quadrillages sur les cœurs.
Un chirurgien a ouvert la poitrine de ma femme et lui a retiré son sein : des points et des agrafes. C’était il y a plusieurs années. Pendant qu’elle dort la fermeture éclair de sa cicatrice s’ouvre (ruban rallonge du haut, vis de butée supérieure, curseur, tirette), sa chair s’ouvre comme un sac de couchage. Certaines nuits je ne vois que les baleines de corsets qui entourent ses poumons, des éclats de lune luisants dans un ciel rouge foncé, et je fais une prière pour eux, ces pâles nervures de canoë, ces baguettes à ramasser qui sont tout ce qui la sangle. J’aimerais pouvoir faire ça : j’aimerais pouvoir la maintenir. Certaines nuits je crois qu’elle pourrait partir dans toutes les directions, nord, est, sud, ouest, une énorme éclaboussure. Elle ira si loin si vite que je pourrai juste regarder la bouche ouverte. Elle sera partie, et tout ce que j’aurai c’est un grand gâchis rouge à nettoyer et un éclat de côte qui sortira de mon œil.
Les arbres à carquois sont assez étranges de toute façon, mais ajoutez-y le nid d’un Républicain social et vous serez dans un vrai pétrin visuel. Des furoncles verruqueux qui ressemblent à des toffees, ces copropriétés d’oiseaux faits d’herbes sèches ont plus de cent trous différents pour chaque famille ; les nids peuvent abriter quatre cents oiseaux. Il est intéressant de noter que les Républicains sociaux sont polyamoureux, et ont même, apparemment des relations avec des barbus et des fringillidés.
Au Namaqualand, les Tisserins du Cap se suffisent à eux mêmes. Les mâles courtisent les femelles en tissant des sacs qui ressemblent à des testicules, et si une femelle reste indifférente, le mâle construit un deuxième sac sous le premier et ainsi de suite, jusqu’à ce qu’un coup de vent fasse tomber tout le tralala.
Chez les oiseaux, comme chez les humains – c’est pas mal de bousculades pour avoir la fille et la garder.
Certaines nuits quand l’incision de ma femme défait sa fermeture éclair, une côte sort et dessus il y a un oiseau jaune perché, qui se balance comme par grand vent, les plumes ébouriffées en une crête jaune citron. J’adore les oiseaux. Cela me remplit de bonheur de l’entendre chanter, comme j’ai du bonheur lorsque ma femme chante. (Une fois au début que nous étions ensemble, ma femme a traversé la cuisine en dansant nue tout en chantant à tue-tête des chansons de groupes de filles des années 60). Le petit oiseau gazouille et trille, puis s’envole de la côte pour voler dans notre chambre. Il attrape un moustique près de mon oreille. Il volète dans les coins autour des luminaires, et rapporte des morceaux de fil qu’il tire dans les pull-overs, les toiles d’araignée, les pointes des étiquettes de plastique, les moutons. Il fait un nid, se glisse dedans en frissonnant, et pond de petits œufs gélatineux, des œufs dont je pense, de façon simple et candide, qu’ils deviendront des ganglions pour ma femme.
Ces nuits d’oiseaux, j’ai du bonheur, tant de bonheur. De façon implicite, je sais que le petit oiseau jaune sera de notre côté et je m’endors sur des trilles de chant d’oiseau mielleux.
Je traîne sur les sites d’amis des oiseaux, où abondent les questions : Pourquoi mes inséparables changent-ils de couleur ? Les pucerons – mon oiseau n’a pas de problèmes avec eux, mais moi si ? Le picage des plumes d’inséparables ?
La perte de plumes dit Web Aviaire, est un problème difficile à traiter quand le comportement de picage est déjà installé. Il faudrait montrer les oiseaux au Dr Marshall dès les premiers signes de picage. Ma femme et moi nous piquons nos plumes. Nous ne sommes pas allées chez le Dr Marshall et c’est peut-être notre problème. Notre relation souffre d’infection buccale, de bactéries, d’une mauvaise alimentation. Ma femme et moi nous étions autrefois des inséparables. Autrefois, le temps d’une nanoseconde, Nous Deux N’étions qu’Un. Puis, pendant des années, Nous Deux Etions Un et Demi. A la fin, Nous Deux Etions Deux. Maintenant, tout porte à croire que Nous Pourrions Bien Etre Trois.
Les oiseaux m’enchantent. Une fois nous avons emmené notre fille voir une volière, les Combles des Loriquets au parc national des oiseaux de Jurong à Singapour. Un parc de vingt hectares sur un flanc de colline entièrement dédié aux oiseaux, c’est la garantie qu’une personne comme moi aura le vertige. Les loriquets ressemblent à de petits perroquets et dans les volières, alors que vous poussez des cris, vous vous tortillez et criez encore en passant sur des ponts suspendus, venus de haut dans les arbres, ils se posent sur vous, ils vous couvrent. C’est comme si les gardiens étaient installés sur le toit en train de vider des tubes de peinture sur vous, orange-cadmium, bleu cobalt, carmin et vert viridin, des couleurs territoriales criardes avec beaucoup de battements d’ailes et de coups de bec.
Les ornithologues au parc répondent à des questions comme : Est-ce qu’un œuf d’autruche résiste au poids d’un adulte humain ? Je me débats avec celle-ci : Est-ce que mon cœur humain résistera au poids changeant des allégeances de ma femme ?
Recherche : La Manière d’offrir Stimulation Mentale et Bonheur à Votre Femme
C’est moi qui recherche. Regardez-moi certains soirs quand je passe en revue les billets de théâtre (Wicked ! Les Monologues du Vagin ! Avenue Q ! Mon Année de Pensée Magique !) et les expositions dans les musées (Dali : Peinture et cinéma ; Picasso et la Grande-Bretagne : Carr, O’Keefe, Kahlo : leurs lieux) et les détritus qui sortent de sa cicatrice, qui bougent dans des lapins mécaniques et des poupées vaudou qui dégringolent et se libèrent, tous les secrets et la souffrance qu’elle garde profondément enfouis en elle.
Qu’est-ce que je cherche ? Quelque chose à manger peut-être. Des graines pour les oiseaux. Un steak.
Nous avons rencontré une femme en Namibie qui avait perdu presque tout un sein suite à l’attaque d’un crocodile. Elle appartenait à une tribu polygame, les Himba, dont les femmes ne portent que des pagnes. Elle s’était penchée sur la rivière avec sa gourde à eau, les seins pendant comme ils pendent quand on a eu une flopée d’enfants, et les dents d’un croco s’étaient refermées sur son sein droit.
Qui sait ce que le mari de cette femme pense quand il prend dans sa main son sein droit desséché et massacré par un croco ? Retrace-t-il son histoire avec respect ? Crache-t-il de dégoût et choisit-il une autre épouse ?
Il y a ici des histoires d’épouses qui se changent dans la salle de bain, portent des soutien-gorge et des prothèses au lit, et des maris qui se détournent d’elles. Il y a des histoires de désintégrations maritales, et par là je veux dire ce à quoi vous pensez probablement : le mariage hétérosexuel. Je ne connais pas les statistiques des ruptures de mariages homosexuels après un cancer du sein. Ce que je sais, c’est que même après douze ans, quand ma femme ou moi nous passons devant la Cancer Agency, sans même penser à ce qui est arrivé, alors que nous sommes en route vers d’autres rendez-vous et en plein bonheur, l’une ou l’autre de nous deux fond en larmes.
Vancouver a des meurtres de corbeaux et notre maison est sur leur trajet. Si vous sortez alors que l’aube commence à poindre, comme lorsque vous sortez pour une chimio, ils remplissent un ciel à la Hitchcock de leurs cris noirs, et si vous pouviez les compter, vous manqueriez de chiffres avant de manquer d’oiseaux. Les corbeaux ne sont pas protégés en Colombie Britannique, et la forêt qui leur servait de perchoir a été récemment arrachée pour construire un supermarché Costco ; maintenant des dizaines de milliers d’entre eux perchent dans un enchevêtrement de fils électriques et de palettes de matériaux de constructions. Le bruit qu’ils font est assourdissant.
Le réalisme magique mis à part, la cicatrice de ma femme est vraiment juste une cicatrice, ordinaire, quelconque, qui a pâli avec le temps. (Ordinaire, quelconque. Je vous le dis. Ordinaire et quelconque.) Voici la vérité de piéton : elle est un peu concave là où il y avait son sein avant, un nid qu’on a creusé. Elle a fait le choix de ne pas se faire faire de reconstruction. Son unique sein est très petit et elle ne porte pas de soutien-gorge et de prothèse, ce qui est une histoire à voix haute, en fait, la seule partie qui hurle dans son histoire de piéton, frappée de réalité ; elle n’a à l’évidence qu’un sein, et cela se voit quand elle porte des t-shirts et elle fait masculine, alors les gens la regardent. La semaine dernière à un vernissage, un petit garçon d’environ sept ans s’est arrêté net alors qu’il courait et il a promené son regard sur elle de bas en haut, de haut en bas, essayant de lui faire comprendre.
(En ce moment, je fais la même chose, je passe mes yeux sur elle. Le petit garçon a raison. Elle ne comprend plus. Elle est toujours en train de dire au revoir à ses actions alors qu’elle dit bonjour avec ses lèvres qui sourient.)
Mon cœur est une grosse et vieille pompe à sang dont certains endroits sont engorgés comme un ballon (j’ai une grosse et vieille cardiomyopathie pour toi, dis-je parfois à ma femme, mais en fait c’est une insuffisance cardiaque.) Mon cœur est en train d’abandonner, et il a des taches de nécrose qui ressemblent à de la rougeole, des morceaux morts qui sont morts depuis vingt-cinq ans, quel anniversaire ! Faisons un gâteau avec des bougies, joyeuse nécrose à moi !) Parlant de ma circulation sanguine, un cardiologue m’a dit une fois : l’arbre que vous êtes est en train de mourir. Nul doute que vous avez eu trop de Républicains sociables polyamoureux ? Comment vous sentez-vous ? Mon thérapeute m’a questionné sur nos vies, notre relation – oui – les seins en l’air, trois seins en l’air, j’imagine, au lieu de quatre, et voici la réponse, la lettre à ma douleur : cela fait la même impression que mon cœur qui me lâche. Maintenant il balbutie en arythmie, mais il ne peut pas pomper à travers toutes ces émotions et les vieilles cicatrices qui ont lâché, alors il peut bien continuer à s’engorger jusqu’à ce que j’éclate comme un –
J’ai été autrefois la copropriétaire d’un cacatoès qui s’appelait Hemingway. Hemingway avait l’habitude de sautiller sur mon os scapulaire et de picorer de la nourriture sur mes dents tout en perdant des plumes grises sur mes seins ? C’était un oiseau heureux avec une crête jaune, mais il n’a jamais écrit de grande nouvelle à ma connaissance.
Au Cap de Bonne Espérance en Afrique du Sud, ma femme a couru vers des autruches pendant que le courant de Benguela lançait ses vagues sur la plage. Les autruches ont une griffe qui peut ouvrir quelqu’un aussi efficacement que la lame de n’importe quel chirurgien. Je me suis levée d’un bond, mais les autruches n’ont pas attaqué, elles ont seulement couru, en déployant leurs ailes mal développées. Puis le mâle s’est retourné et a envoyé d’un coup ma femme par terre. Il a dansé sur sa poitrine jusqu’à ce que son cerveau de la taille d’un petit pois s’en soit lassé.
Ce n’était qu’un jeu, rien qu’un jeu, m’a-t-elle assuré après, d’un air évasif, sans trop de peur. Je n’étais pas vraiment mort.
(C’est un mensonge).
A Okonjima pour des guépards, j’ai été fascinée plutôt par les calaos – ces becs et ces casques ! Des calaos femelles utilisent leurs déjections pour s’enfermer dans leur nid. Je l’ai fait aussi, quand on a diagnostiqué le cancer de ma femme, mais j’ai utilisé un système d’alarme au lieu d’excréments. Je le fais encore, maintenant, mais j’utilise de l’éclairage périmétral, comme si des rayons lumineux brillant dans les ombres de ma femme protègeraient mon mariage.
La peau de ma femme est engourdie, l’ai-je déjà mentionné ? Vous ne pensez pas que c’est la façon dont son esprit s’est guéri de tout ce traumatisme (syndrome de stress post-traumatique), avec une grosse et vieille zone engourdie ? A l’extérieur d’elle, des nerfs coupés deviennent parfois fous, comme un orchestre de la douleur, un cri de violon, une plainte de flûte. Yowey. Quand je suis allongée à côté d’elle et que je passe mon doigt sur sa poitrine, dans son aisselle, le long de la peau près de son bras sur son dos, elle ne sent rien du tout. Ici ? Dis-je et elle secoue la tête. Rien du tout. Ici ? Toujours rien. Ici ? Non. Ici ? Non, pas vraiment.
Est-ce qu’on guérit vraiment jamais après qu’on vous a poussé hors du nid ? Les choses se réparent, les choses se cicatrisent, on continue, mais à la fin on se retrouve à nouveau en chute libre. Nos becs s’empalent sur le sol et on est coincé à battre des ailes de haut en bas comme des chats qui mangent des sucettes. Toutes les vieilles blessures se rouvrent, les vieux trous de crevaison (morsures d’insectes, cette fois où on est tombé de bicyclette, la tendinite, la hernie) se mettent à suinter. La douleur fuit de nous. Nous sommes de sacrés suinteurs, à la fin, n’est-ce pas ?
Une nuit alors que je suis couchée à côté de ma femme, sa poitrine s’ouvre et je regarde Kooza du Cirque du Soleil. L’acrobate se sert des côtes de ma femme comme corde raide ; les contorsionnistes se plient en deux à travers ses côtes et ressortent la tête comme des Gumbies. L’acrobate empile des chaises l’une sur l’autre, l’une sur l’autre, et puis grimpe à son tour, sans peur, pendant que les chaises tremblent. Je ris avec une joie toute enfantine, et ma femme se réveille, tousse et se retourne pendant que l’artiste de cirque dégringole.
Quand il a détalé, j’appuie ma joue sur ce que ma femme a perdu, mon poids la panique et elle se redresse tout d’un coup dans son lit. Elle se frotte les yeux et m’examine. Tu as une trace de fermeture éclair sur la joue, marmonne-t-elle.
Je tends la main et je touche les ondulations.
J’en suis à l’âge de « mon ceci fait mal », où se trouve « mon ceci » est en réalité n’importe quelle partie du corps que vous voudriez insérer au hasard : oreille, coude, articulation, genou, utérus. Quelle relation ai-je avec ma douleur ? Je la sens brûler comme un moteur à combustion. Je trouve qu’elle a les yeux ternes et les épaules tombantes. Elle me regarde comme une proie, la plupart du temps, je crois, et elle vient sur mon cœur avec sa petite hache, hachure, hachure, comme un milan au parc national du Seregenti qui fait un piqué pour voler un sandwich à un touriste qui ne se doute de rien, et lui balafre la joue de ses serres. Quelle relation voudrais-je avoir à l’avenir avec ma douleur ? Je veux être sa divorcée homosexuelle.
Il y a quelques semaines ma femme a battu le rappel pour un test de PSA avec un groupe de survivantes du cancer du sein. Un meurtre de survivantes du cancer, elles m’ont fait flipper avec leurs plumes noires et leurs croassements. Je ne peux pas faire face à ce qui les attend (ma femme). Le pronostic du cancer du sein de ma femme est bon mais ces derniers mois elle a mal en avalant et le chant vient au rythme de la chanson des enfants : yeux, oreilles, bouche et nez ! Sauf que pour les métastases du cancer du sein, c’est : Foie, poumons, sein et os ! Je ne connais pas bien le chant de l’infidélité… d’accord, mais je ne peux pas le chanter ici.
Certaines nuits, la cicatrice de ma femme s’ouvre comme les nymphéas de Monet à l’Orangerie, une longue bande de peinture qui est toute méditation bleue et silence vert.
Avec l’intention… de… guérir, entonne un moine dans une robe couleur safran.
Je dois rester assise jusqu’au bout de ma douleur et me cuirasser le dos. Je dois entrer dans ma douleur, la traverser et aller au-delà.
Et l’exprimer par l’art.
Mon interprétation du sein perdu de ma femme est tranchée en sections et présentée comme des tranches de pain grillé debout, la tumeur phosphorescente à travers cinq lamelles. Anatomique, directe, guerrière, pleurant des larmes de sang.
Le Sein de ma Femme, par Georgia O’Keefe : une fleur rouge et striée tout en mouvement, une côte qui sort au niveau de la ligne du mamelon. Le Sein de ma Femme, par Pablo Picasso : un sein en spirale d’où poussent des cheveux, un sein avec un œil au lieu d’un mamelon, une tumeur au lieu de la tête de son modèle. Le Sein de ma Femme, par Emily Carr : sein comme arbre sombre et tortueux, tumeur comme nid d’oiseau. Le Sein de ma Femme, par Salvador Dali : un sein assis sur une côte, en train de fondre, un cadran d’horloge qui compte les jours qui lui restent. Le Sein de ma Femme, par Frida Kahlo : ma femme et moi tout habillées, main dans la main, une grande ombre à gauche de ma femme, des blessures qu’on voit à travers nos t-shirts, une longue balafre rouge et gonflée sur le côté droit de ma femme qui pompe le sang à travers une grosse veine vers mon cœur plus qu’énorme, engorgé et arythmique, pendant qu’il le pompe à nouveau– un parfait service à thé en argent et un loriquet sur une table d’un côté.
Jane Eaton Hamilton vit à Vancouver en Colombie Britannique. Elle est l’auteur de Weekend and Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes. Elle est aussi l’auteur de Jessica’s Elevator, Body Rain, Steam-Cleaning Love, et July Nights and Other Stories. Ses livres ont été nominés pour le Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, le MIND Book Award, le Pat Lowther Award, le VanCity Award et le Ethel Wilson Prize in the BC Book Prizes.
photography by: Kelli Connell
So pleased to be part of a group of LGBT writers in this issue of Mayday Magazine edited by Chase Dimock and Amy King. My story “Territory” won the This Magazine Fiction Prize in Canada in 1998, and later appeared in my short fiction collection HUNGER (2002). So many wonderful literary artists to check out.
Dear Friends, Editors, Writers, and Readers,
We are pleased to announce the launch of Issue 34: Issue 2016. This stellar edition features fiction and poetry chosen by our special guest summer editors for 2016: novelist and short-story writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and poet Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé. As always, the issue boasts lit-centric non-fiction (essays, reviews, and interviews) that set the bar for long-form writing about books and book culture in Canada.
Guest fiction editor Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer brings us seven prose writers who are all, according to the editor, unafraid to be weird—and refreshingly, bravely so. Read Kuitenbrouwer’s introduction, “Weird!,” where she reveals all the “odd, hidden nooks and crannies” of her taste in short fiction. Both The Puritan and Kuitenbrouwer are pleased to present writers Heather Birrell, Ellen van Neerven, Trish Salah, Sarah Maria Medina, Nehal El-Hadi, M.W. Johnston, and Khalida Venus Hassan.
Our guest poetry editor Dr. Sonnet L’Abbé has selected a fine collection of poems from writers both established and still new to publishing. Start with her introduction—“A Space for the Aggro”—in which she commends the way these poets “are plumbing, in the personal way only poetry can, the angry and aggro energies that seem to dominate this global cultural moment.” Those poets are: George Murray, Stevie Howell, John Wall Barger, Barry Dempster, Tanis MacDonald, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Kyle Kinaschuk, Maria Matuscak, Nicole Chin, Steven Artelle, Jake Byrne, Lauren Marshall, Natalie Wee, Lorin Medley, and Jill Talbot.
The issue continues with non-fiction, starting with two essays. In “Punching Like a Girl,” Krista Foss writes a gripping, hair-raising reflection on violence, propriety, gender, and rage, and in “Comparative Zoology,” Sunny Chan brings us a funny, searching tour of infograpic history, animal encyclopedias, and libraries, seen through the distorting and sweetening lens of nostalgia.
Then we’re on to interviews. The first is a three-part, nineteen-inning investigation of Andrew Forbes’ *The Utility of Boredom* (Invisible Publishing, 2016)—and of baseball, its boring lows and knuckle-whitening highs altogether—by Myra Bloom, Ted Nolan, and Joseph Thomas. The next is Meghan Harrison’s double interview with Dave D D Miller (“The Derby Nerd”) and Monica “Monichrome” Mitchell-Taylor—two major personalites in the world of flat track roller derby in Canada—on derby’s evolution and its pointed parallels to literature and other forms of pop culture. Third, we bring you “An Elegiac Conversation” between the mysterious artists ‘Grant Stonehouse’ and ‘Len Carey,’ as curated by writer Michael Trussler: a fascinating exchange that, we can promise, is not what it seems.
We end this issue, as always, with smart and engaged reviews of recent literary titles. Explore “LOLing with Claws,” Brecken Hancock’s take on Liz Howard’s *Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent* (McClelland & Stewart Poetry, 2015), “War without a Name,” Amanda Sarasien’s review of Mercè Rodoreda’s *War, So Much War* (Open Letter Books, 2015), “Solo Protests Against Solitude,” Myra Bloom’s thoughts on Steven Heighton’s *The Waking Comes Late* (House of Anansi Press, 2016), and, last but not least, “Pragmatic Complications of Perfections,” Aaron Boothby’s look at Klara Du Plessis’s chapbook *Wax Lyrical* (Anstruther Press, 2015).
We’re still reading submissions to Issue 35: Fall 2016 of The Puritan, and to our writing contest, the Fifth Annual Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence, judged by Rawi Hage and Jan Zwicky. It’s the writing competition that awards publication, celebration at Black Friday, $1,000 cash, and approximately $1,700 worth of books, donated from 35 Canadian presses, to each of our two winners. There’s still a whole month to enter, so please don’t be shy about those submissions! Visit our submissions page for more details.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the new issue, and share widely!
falling ginkos, Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2015, pastel painting
I am pleased and proud to have this story up on Joyland Vancouver. Thank you, Kathryn Mockler!
Tip: Joyland’s site will put the masthead over the text unless you make your viewing window half-width.
Here is a story I wrote more than 5 years ago, called “Bird Nights.” It came out first in Numéro Cinq and then was picked up by poet Marilyn Hacker for translation into French for Siécle 21, Paris, translated by Cécile Oumhani. I would be most honoured if you read it and left me your thoughts. It remains one of my favourite pieces of my writing. The news of my marital separation was still new when I wrote it, yet the story is as much travelogue as it is a raw cry from my heart. It also appeals to the side of me that likes subversive, fractured and braided narratives.
Here is a story. It is true, but it is also full of lies. And small axes, the kind that make tiny cross-hatchings on hearts.
A surgeon flayed open my wife’s chest and removed her breast: stiches and staples. This was several years ago. While she sleeps her scar unzips (top tape extension, top stop, slider, pull tab), her flesh unfolding like a sleeping bag. Some nights I only see the corset bones that girdle her lungs, gleaming moon slivers in murky red sky, and I say a prayer for them, those pale canoe ribs, those pickup sticks that are all that cinch her in. I wish I could do that: I wish I could hold her together. Some nights I think she may fly away in all directions, north, east, south, west, a huge splatter. She will go so far so fast I will only be able to watch with my mouth fallen open. She’ll be gone, and all I’ll have is a big red mess to clean up and a sliver of rib sticking out of my eye.
Quiver trees are weird enough anyhow, but add a Sociable Weaver nest and you’ve got a real visual pickle. Warty, sponge toffee boils, these bird condos of dry grasses have upwards of 100 different holes for individual families; the nests can house 400 birds. Interestingly, Sociable Weavers are polyamorous, even, apparently, with barbets and finches.
In Namaqualand, Cape Weavers go it individually. The males court females by weaving testicular-like sacs, and if a female remains unimpressed, the male builds a second sac under the first, and etcetera, until a wind knocks the whole shebang down.
Bird-land, human-land—it’s all pretty much just jostling to get and keep the girl.
Some nights when my wife’s incision unzips, a rib extends and on it sits a yellow bird, swaying as if in a great wind, feathers ruffling to lemon combs. I love birds. It makes me happy to hear her song, the same way it makes me happy when my wife sings. (Once when we were fresh, my wife danced naked through our kitchen belting out girl group songs from the 60s.) The little bird warbles and trills, then launches off the rib to fly around our bedroom. She grabs a mosquito near my ear. She flits into the corners, around the light fixtures, and carries back bits of yarn pulled from sweaters, spiderwebs, plastic pricetag spears, dust bunnies. She constructs a nest, shivers down into it, and lays little gelatinous eggs, eggs that I trust, with a simple, guileless trust, will grow up to be lymph nodes for my wife. These bird nights, I am happy, so happy. On some inchoate level, I know the little yellow bird has our backs, and I drift off to trills of sugary bird song.
I hang out on bird-lover websites, where questions abound: Why are my lovebirds changing colour? Aphids–my bird is okay with them, but I’m not? Lovebird feather plucking?
Feather loss, says Avian Web, is a difficult problem to cure when the picking behaviour is already established. Birds should be presented to Dr Marshall at the first signs of picking. My wife and I are feather-plucking. We didn’t go to Dr Marshall and maybe that’s our problem. Our relationship has thrush, bacteria, poor nutrition. My wife and I were once lovebirds. Once, for a nanosecond, We Two Were One. Then, for years, We Two Were One and A Half. Eventually, We Two Were Two. Now, the evidence suggests We Might Be Three.
Birds enchant me. Once we took our daughter to a free flight aviary, the Lory Loft in Jurong Bird Park, Singapore. Having a 20-hectare hillside park entirely devoted to birds is guaranteed to make someone like me giddy. Lories are small parrots, and in the aviaries, as you whoop and wriggle and scream over suspension bridges high in the treetops, they land on you, they cover you. It’s as if the keepers are up on the rooftop squeezing tubes of oil paint, cadmium orange and cobalt blue and carmine and viridian, screechy territorial colours with a lot of wing flap and pecking.
Ornithologists at the park answer such questions as: Will an ostrich egg support the weight of an adult human? I grapple with this one: Will my human heart support the shifting weight of my wife’s loyalties?
Foraging: The Way to Keep Your [Wife] Mentally Stimulated and Happy
It’s me that forages. Watch me some nights, thumbing through theatre tickets (Wicked! The Vagina Monologues! Avenue Q! My Year of Magical Thinking!) and museum exhibitions (Dali: Painting and Film; Picasso and Britain; Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own) and the detritus that falls from her scar, stirring through wind-up rabbits and plastic zombies and voodoo dolls that tumble free, all the secrets and suffering that she hoards deep inside.
What am I looking for? Something to eat, maybe. Bird seed. A steak.
We met a woman in Namibia who lost most of one breast to a crocodile attack. She was a member of a polygamous tribe, the Himba, whose women wear only loincloths. She bent down at the river with her water gourd, breasts hanging as breasts will do after a bunch of kids, and a croc’s teeth snapped closed on the right one.
Who knows what this woman’s husband thinks when he takes her shriveled, croc-mangled right breast into his hand? Does he trace her history with reverence? Does he spit in disgust and choose another wife?
There are local stories of wives who change in the bathroom, wear bras and prosthetics to bed, and husbands who shun them. There are stories of marital disintegration, and by that I mean what you probably assume: straight marriage. I don’t know the stats for queer marriage breakups after breast cancer. I do know that even after twelve years, when my wife or I drive past the Cancer Agency, not even thinking about what happened, on our way to other appointments and sometimes in the midst of great happiness, one or other of us will burst into tears.
Vancouver has murders of crows, and our house is on their flight path. If you go outside in the dawn gloaming, such as when you are going for chemo, they fill a Hitchcockian sky with black shrieks, and if you could count them, you would run out of numbers before you’d run out of birds. Crows are not protected in BC, and their forest roost was recently ripped down to build a Costco; now tens of thousands roost in a tangle of electric wires and pallets of home building supplies. Their noise is deafening.
Magic realism aside, my wife’s scar is really just a scar, plain, unremarkable, faded with time. (Plain, unremarkable. I tell you. Plain and unremarkable.) Here is the pedestrian truth: she is sort of concave there where her breast once was, a hollowed-out nest. She opted not to have a reconstruction. Her one breast is very small and she goes braless without a prosthetic, which is a loud story, actually, the only blaring part of the reality-struck, pedestrian story: she is obviously one-breasted, especially in t-shirts, and manly anyway, so people stare. Last week at an art opening, a little boy about seven stopped from a dead run and ran his eyes up and down her, up and down her, up and down her, trying to make her make sense.
(These days, I do the same thing, rake my eyes across her. The little boy is right: she no longer makes sense. She is always saying goodbye with her actions while she smiles hello with her lips.)
My heart is a big old blood pump with places engorged like a balloon (I’ve got a big old cardiomyopathy for you, I tell my wife sometimes, but it’s actually heart failure.) My heart is giving up, and has necrotic spots like measles, dead bits which have been dead now for 25 years, what an anniversary: let’s have a cake and candles, happy necrosis to me!). Referring to my circulatory system, a cardiologist once said to me: The tree of you is dying. No doubt too many polygamous weavers? How does this feel for you? my therapist asked about our lives (relationship) going—yes—tits up, three tits up I guess, instead of four, and here is the answer, my letter to my pain: It feels exactly like my heart is failing. Right now it’s stuttering along arrhythmically, but it can’t pump through all these emotions and old, ruptured scars, so it may just keep engorging till I pop like a-
Once I co-owned a grey cockatiel named Hemingway. Hemingway would hop around my scapula and peck food from my teeth while molting grey feathers onto my breasts. He was a happy bird with a yellow comb, but he never, as far as I know, wrote a great story.
At the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, my wife ran at ostriches while the wild Benguela current tossed waves on the beach. Ostriches have a nail on each of their feet that is capable of slicing a person open as efficiently as any surgeon’s blade. I was up on my toes with alarm, but the ostriches didn’t fight, they only ran, their stunted wings extended. Then the male turned and knocked my wife flat. He danced on her chest until his pea-sized brain got bored.
Just a game, just a game, she assured me afterwards, brushing off, none the worse for wear. I wasn’t really dead.
(This is a lie.)
At Okonjima for cheetahs, I was fascinated instead by the hornbills—those bills and casques! Female hornbills use their droppings to seal themselves into their nests. I did this too, when my wife was diagnosed, but I used an alarm system instead of poop. I’m doing it again, now, but I’m using perimeter lighting, as if shining sunbeams into my wife’s shadows will keep my marriage intact.
My wife’s skin is numb, did I mention that? That’s how her spirit must have healed from all that trauma (PTSD), don’t you think, with a big old numb spot? On the outside of her, cut nerves sometimes go crazy, like a pain orchestra, a violin screech, a flute shrill. Yowey. When I lay beside her and trail my finger across her chest, through her armpit, across the skin near her arm on her back, she can’t feel a thing. Here? I say and she shakes her head. Nothing. Here? Still nothing. Here? Nope. Here? Kinda, sorta, not really.
Does anyone ever really heal after being pushed out of the nest? Things repair, things scar, we go on, but eventually, we find ourselves in free fall anew. Our beaks impale the ground so we’re stuck flapping upside down like cat-lollipops. All the old wounds break open, the old puncture holes (insect bites, that time we fell off our bikes, the tendonitis, the hernia) ooze. We’re all leaking pain. We’re all bloody oozers, in the end, aren’t we?
One night as I lie beside my wife, her chest opens and I watch Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza. The acrobats use my wife’s ribs as tightropes; the contortionists bend double through her ribs and poke their heads back out, like Gumbies. The acrobat stacks chairs one atop another atop another atop another, and then climbs atop himself, fearless, while the chairs shake. I laugh aloud in pure childish glee, and my wife awakens, coughs, and resettles as the performer tumbles.
When he’s scurried away, I rest my cheek in my wife’s loss, my sudden weight causing her to panic and sit bolt upright. She rubs her eyes and peers at me. You have the imprint of a zipper on your cheek, she mumbles.
I reach up and touch the corrugations.
I am at the “my this hurts” age, where “this” is really any body part you want to interject at random: ear, elbow, knuckle, knee, uterus. What relationship do I have to my pain? I find it hot like a combustion engine. I find it has very droopy eyes, and shoulders that slope. It sees me as prey, mostly, I’d guess, and comes at my heart with its little axe, cross-hatch, cross-hatch, like a Kite in the Serengeti dive-bombing to steal a sandwich from an unsuspecting tourist’s hands, talons gashing a cheek. What relationship do I want to have in the future with my pain? I want to be its gay divorcée.
My wife drummed for a PSA a few weeks ago with a group of breast cancer survivors. A murder of breast cancer survivors, they freaked me out with their black feathers and cawing. I can’t handle what’s coming for them (for my wife). The prognosis for my wife’s breast cancer is good, but the last months she has had pain on swallowing, and the chant arrives in the rhythm of the children’s song: Eyes, ears, mouth and nose! Except for breast cancer mets it’s: Liver, lungs, breast and bone! I’m not sure what the song for infidelity is….okay, I am, but I can’t sing it here.
Some nights my wife’s scar opens like Monet’s water lilies at L’Orangerie, a long wide strip of art that is all blue meditation and green silence.
Intending… to… heal, intones a monk in a saffron robe.
I must sit through my pain and gird my back. I must go into my pain and through and beyond my pain.
And come out into art.
My own rendition of my wife’s lost breast is sliced into sections and presented like upright pieces of toast, the tumour glowing in phosphorescence across five slides. Anatomical, direct, confrontational, weeping blood tears.
My Wife’s Breast, by Georgia O’Keefe: a striated red flower full of motion, a rib protruding at the nipple line. My Wife’s Breast, by Pablo Picasso: a spiral breast sprouting hair, a breast with an eye instead of a nipple, a tumour instead of his model’s head. My Wife’s Breast, by Emily Carr: breast as swirling dark tree, tumour as bird’s nest. My Wife’s Breast, by Savadore Dali: a breast sitting on a rib, melting, a clock face ticking down her remaining days. My Wife’s Breast, by Frieda Kahlo: my wife and I completely clothed, hand in hand, a large shadow to my wife’s left, our injuries showing through our t-shirts, a long red, swollen gash on my wife’s right side that pumps blood across a thick vein to my over-huge, engorged, arrhythmic heart while it pumps it back–a perfect silver tea service and a yellow bird in a cage of ribs to one side.
I’ve followed my travel piece “Things That Didn’t Happen” with a second piece at Jennifer Pastiloff’s Manifest Station, site of some pretty fine creative non-fiction. I’m happy to say they’ve decided to run fiction now, too. This one’s a reprint of an older story called “Cripples” which first appeared in Paris Trancontinental Magazine.
I love when sites republish work that didn’t originally appear online!
Thanks, Jen and team. You glow, girls.
chick with docked beak
I entered this competition on the off-chance hope of having George Saunders read my work–as a lark, in other words. The good news was just announced–I won for fiction, and Michael Prior won for poetry. Congrats, Michael. I’m grateful to Lit Pop and the judges, and most of all, to George Saunders for his generosity in choosing my piece “Battery,” a hybrid fiction/cnf work, and for his great comments.
“George Saunders says congratulations and:
I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.”
The piece is a story about a newborn chick in a factory farm as it has its beak docked. It is routine for chicks to have one-third of their beaks amputated without anesthetic. It would be stellar if this piece could play some small part in erradicating the torture-chambers that are factory farms.
George Saunders’ most recent book, Tenth of December (stories), was published in 2014, was a National Book Award finalist, and was named one of the best books of the year by People, The New York Times Magazine, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, New York, The Telegraph, BuzzFeed, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and Shelf Awareness. He is also the author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, both New York Times Notable Books, and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a New York Times children’s bestseller. In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the “Best Writers Under 40.” He writes regularly for The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He won a National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2004 and his work is included in Best American Short Stories 2005. He teaches at Syracuse University.
Being with her was like dipping my brain in spun sugar. She was anything delicious along the red bumpy taste buds of my tongue, melting savory, melting sweet, explosions of colour along the neural pathways of my waxy brain. Think of penny candies from childhood: Wagon Wheels, BB Bats, Jelly Babies, Lick ‘Em Aid, Jujubes, Red Hots, Jawbreakers. She was my candy shop, and I stood before her with dirty fingernails, sweating palms, scabbed knees, clenched pennies, short, the top of my scruffy head barely even with the counter, vibrating with excitement.
Chemical soup, hormonal stew, a body that was hungry for her beautiful world.
I couldn’t just eat my fill, feel sated and then not go back for more because I didn’t have a bad tummy ache, I didn’t regret it, I didn’t gain weight, I didn’t have sugar shock or brain freeze.
The melting, sticky, goo-gawing emotion that causes dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin to jig-jag into your body, warm, wet and frothing, is supposed to be temporary, and then the relationship devolves or evolves into more reasonable, adult, companionable territory. But they weren’t temporary.
All those years, her arms were open. I ran into them like a dancer from across a wide stage, launching myself spread-hearted into the air, believing she would catch me.
by Jane Eaton Hamilton
Him, my husband, that devil, a pitchfork under his teeth, a whole smelly Hell in his mouth. Wheeling his chair naughty into the kitchen where for thousands of years I have cooked his meals, the bedroom where for six hundred and sixty-six lifetimes I have frozen under his thick needs.
I have no hiding spots left.
No sugar. In all of this house, no Wunderbar, no Smarties, no Aero. Oh, the chocolate, bubbling in the tarnation of his gullet. The smell and colour of our marriage, his cancer yellow, my treats in his gut a deep violet like the underside of flame. And oh, the stink, the sickly sweet smell of putrefaction.
Alive, I am, perfectly, while that old doze oozes from room to room on the rubber wheels of his disease. Mama, Mama, he cries, give me chocolate! My bars are under the floorboards or sunk deep in the freezer chest or tucked up in the shell of a light fixture but he is intrepid, that old man who wafts, he finds them, fast and slippery out of his chair when I am gone. One more time, one more extension of that dying limb into my candy.
Oh holy. This time of year I can see Jesus knocked out every time my husband’s foul mouth parts; Jesus lying on the lawn while white bunnies clipper over the triad of his body. While inside our walls my sneaky husband steals what belongs only to me and will not stop. I hate him every second. Mommy! he cries.
How I have put up. Fifty-one years this next June and every day that husband, exudate slipping from every crevice in him. Out. Out and in. Look what he takes in, year after year, how I feed him, the animal, the greedy pig, the endless mornings of bacon fat, the noons and nights of beef. In and out until now the aureate smell of cancer and diapers, the slit devil’s eyes he casts upon me. Fire in his grasping, insatiate mouth, sparks on the steel of his wheelchair.
And Jesus on the lawn almost dead.
In the pharmacy I pick out a bunny for God, the biggest one. Dear inside her cellophane box, she wears candy pink ribbons, a yellow candy nose. She is so pretty, so sweet with her brown ears, her woven basket of tiny blue eggs in her paw. I love her enormously. And it is spring. I pick up a large bottle of rubbing alcohol; I have two more at home. Jesus will rise when he sees. Won’t Jesus walk? Our front door like the stones of his crypt and he will walk inside with frolicking white rabbits, so pleased with me. I count out change, doling the mean pennies of my husband’s pension to buy this tender body of God, the host, the blood. Then it is all mine. She is, my own chocolate Easter bunny clutched to my chest in benediction.
(Oh snaily husband, oh mincemeat, ruin, thing of nightmare, how you deplete me. Every breath is an agony as if cancer is the air and you are the bellows of my lungs, pushing your misery into me. We’ll just see. I’ll kneel in the flowerbeds this afternoon, weeding, tending, while Jesus’s breath rasps and the daffodils nod their Eastery heads. I’ll set hamburger to thaw. We’ll just see, husband, won’t we?)
Up the concrete path, up the three steps, turn the key. I call out, Darling, I’m home! I lie him tenderly out on the bed and change his malodorous wrappings, wash his wasted skin.
What a credit to womanhood I am, in Jesus’s eye. I cook his lunch like a slave. Oh petunia, oh hunchback, what can I get for you, what would your pebble heart most desire? He eats the soup and I think, Once he was young and did not have inoperable cancer and a tremulant, skinny, loose-fleshed arm and I have grown old. If there is redemption, later I will be young and unmarried, a girl with limbs as smooth as satin.
I have hidden the Easter bunny in a low cabinet. Stupid man, slime of Hell, lips opening and shutting on flame flickers of damnation, he eats and then I put him down for his nap. Like a baby he blubbers little Hell bubbles, a sick wheeze. Every day his nightmare opens as he goes under, a thousand years of sin slipping him down, down, down. Where he dreams afternoon dreams of his inevitable afterlife.
I set the house to rights. Dishes, dusting, straightening, the full-bleach bath of fabrics he has touched. Then into the shed in my floppy gardening hat to find my spade and kneeguards. In another three weeks, tulips, blood sentinels, but for now these oh sweet daffs like yellow candy and their floppy green stems. Ground covers like aubrieta, little holy purples in a downy maze, all of which Jesus appreciates, beauty at his feet like all the bunnies. Jesus’s bunnies don’t nibble at foliage, don’t even come near me, just romp in white puddles across him, loincloth and all.
Darn lucky the sky is overcast or I’d be burning up in the sun. Suffer the marriage, suffer the eternity with my husband, suffer the cancer that won’t kill him it seems no matter my patience. Here the smell of spring, clammy soil upturned, worms that aerate: is it true he’s inside and I have to go in there? I stand and brush dirt from the knee of my housedress. One of the things he inhaled: my youth, my middle age, even my decrepitude, snarfed inside that weasly, fire-spitting mouth like all my chocolate bars. Entirely gone, the old turd, the old blankety-blank, the old pitchfork penis. I move creakily, and past Jesus who now is right gone, I’d guess dead, with all the bunnies curled up for nappies under his arms and between his legs. If it weren’t Easter the son of God dead on my lawn would be a fuss as far as the neighbours were concerned.
Hush of the day. Three o’clock already. Six hundred and sixty-six bets on whether my husband’s raided the cupboards yet. Big surprise ahead. I smell like God, I notice, when I’m up at the door, all earthy and whole from the yardwork. And I’ve got to open it to him and his Hell smells stinking up the universe and too close by half to heaven. Bid Jesus adieu before I turn the knob.
Oh, and if the power of God anointed any inch of this forsaken house. He’s in the the kitchen of course, got into that wheelchair of his own accord and rolled like Hades onto the tile nearest my hiding place. Oh, I see that scared and doomed expression on his face when I catch him; oh, I see exactly that he has ripped my bunny’s cellophane, broken her box, snapped off her ears and her pink ribbons; oh, I see the smear of chocolate alongside his mouth like devil’s excrement; oh, I see his brown and guilty fingertips. Jesus on the lawn catching the sleep of eternity in a couple easy hours and this Satan in my kitchen, in my cupboards, in my chocolate Easter bunny, gobbling and glutting.
He drops it you bet when I douse him with the rubbing alcohol. You bet. My bunny tumbles in flammable liquids, knock of cardboard on the tile, crinkle of cellophane. Beautiful sound of alcohol spilling and I even get some in his mouth, upturned, crying Mama, what are you doing? No, oh Mama! And I expect he ought to self-incinerate he’s so full of the devil’s work, light up from the hot hippy flames he’s got inside. I just stand above him, slightly out of reach, waiting, pack of matches at the ready. What a picture! He’s out of his mind grabbing at me, trying to get the chair going anywhere on the slippery floor, grunting and puking up complaints and fear. Empty another bottle for resurrection. And a third for luck.
Looks like I’m going to have to ignite him. It’s not like my labour ever has been done, with this one.
Sound of the match scraping on the back of the match pack, sizzle into flame, and his ridiculous panic screams. I just hold it, let him look at it a minute before I throw it, casual toss that strikes his lap and sends him up, up, up, a human torch, a sparkler in my kitchen. I have to edge around him to pass by, for goodness sake, right close by the flames in their three-spiked climb up him.
In the living room I find I’m exhausted. I sag into my favourite chair thinking Jesus will just have to wake me up from a snooze. I could use a chocolate bar. Not that blasphemous bunny but a Hershey bar with almonds, dark chocolate. Lucky we don’t have a smoke alarm. Still, I have to get up and open windows so I don’t asphyxiate, if you can imagine, which lets, besides smoke, my sly husband’s screams out. Lord’s on my side if nobody hears. I lie on the couch, hands under my cheek, and try to ignore the dastardly smell. As if I’m cooking for a banquet, whole side of beef on a charcoal spit.
When I wake it’s after eight p.m.. I slept right through the supper hour. Jesus isn’t here yet. I’m stiff, so I move slow to see he isn’t on the lawn either, least as far as I can see in the dusk. Possible I could miss him, but not likely given he has white rabbits with him and they’d show up even in full dark. I suppose he could have had errands to run first.
I go check on my husband. He’s done to a turn after five hours, all right, but not dead, hardly dead, still puking and mewling under his bubbly black skin. No flame. All that’s gone though I see the ceiling’s filthy with soot, bad soot I’m not agile enough to get at anymore. I’d try torching him again if I wasn’t out of rubbing alcohol. I go past him – I think he doesn’t even notice me but I tell him I won’t call an ambulance for him till nine, till it’s been a full six hours – and pick up my poor, amputated, alcohol drenched bunny. Dear little lamb of Jesus, I cradle her in her busted box, and wait.
Santa Ana, Calif. -An elderly women doused her wheelchair bound, cancer-stricken husband with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire because he ate her chocolate Easter bunny.
detail: La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans, Degas, Norton Simon Museum
I am lucky to be included in the spring issue of Ocho, edited by Wendy C Ortiz, author of Excavation: A Memoir, with my flash fiction called “The Commitment.” I join a talented group:
Here is the piece that was long-listed for the CBC contest and won 2015’s Lit Pop, about which judge George Saunders said:
“I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.”
Battery appeared in Matrix Magazine.
You’re a chick hung by your beak in a beak-docking machine. Experience is a funnel you slide through. You are too stupid and too new to think unpain/pain. To think free range/battery cage. To think help me.
If you were able to think help me no one would help you. You have no friends at this factory farm, or anywhere, and no relatives, though in fact hundreds of your relatives have been through here, generation after generation. With a thousand thousand chicks beside you, all of whom look exactly like you, you are entirely alone in the world. Every chick is indeed an island. You are an island, a speck of a cog in a huge, grinding wheel towards a goal, which in your case is to produce food for another species. Which in your case is eggs.
You are all here as one heart, riding, riding, fleeting the grey ground currents of the conveyor belt you call home, motion-sick and dizzy. You are only just hatched, barely feathered, barely yellow, and your wings are uncertain things you flap but that take you nowhere, though you go somewhere, borne aloft on a history of oviducts into this grey motherland sky below your feet. Palaver peep until some of you are gone.
In this plant, the male chicks are Sue’s job. Sue is not your friend. She is 46 years old; for Sue, 50 looms hard-edged and cruel in the distance. For a long time, Sue had the notion that things in life would become easier as she aged, but it has not proven to be true. No matter how completely she pays her bills, for instance, every month there are new amounts owing; she never gets ahead. Sue is not married, although she once was. Three years ago, she had breast cancer. She is back, now, and of course has hair again. But she is exhausted. The only thing she likes in her life is going to bed.
Sue is a chick sexer.
She squeezes feces from every chick on the conveyor belt, opening up its anal vent to see if a chick is a female, with no genital pimple, or a male.
Sue is not your friend. She squeezes your anal vent.
You are a female.
Sue takes the males and tosses them into a hopper where they first bash against steel, then fall into a machine called the macerator, where a high speed auger sends them to a grinder, where, quite alive, they are diced into bits for dog food.
You are too ignorant and too new to think male, to think female, to think luck, to think unluck, to think grinder, ungrinder. Since you are female, you keep riding. Riding riding riding, yahoo. Keep those chickies moving, yahoo.
The workers do not imagine you as sentient. If you have any kind of genetic memory, it won’t stretch back far enough to feel the wind riffling your feathers or dust craters under your belly in the farmyard.
The workers’ eyes glaze over from repetition, from the pain of carpal tunnel and tendonitis and tennis elbow. It is just a job a job a job, they think, and really thank god for a job at all.
Jean, who lifts you into the beak-docking machine, is not your friend. Jean is 37, seven months pregnant with her fourth child, and her back is sore. All day long, five days a week, she lifts hatchlings like you into the beak-docking machine, which is similar to hanging a tie over a doorknob. She feels you struggle, such as you can at your weight, which is more or less one ounce; she feels your wing stumps flailing. But when the machine has you by the beak, what can you do? Nothing is what you can do. You hang there like an animate stuffed animal. Your beak is how you interact with your world; unlike human fingernails, it is full of nerve-endings.
Jean is only thinking about what time it is and how soon her shift will be over. Jean’s third child was just diagnosed with Asperger’s. Her husband, Mark, is a mechanic, but now he’s drinking too much, and this means money is tighter and he comes home angry, looking for fights. Five days a week, 8 hours a day, Jean lifts chicks just like you into the beak-docking machine.
Hanging out in the eternal now, you are too ignorant and small to know what’s coming next. You were an egg, you were fertilized, you were hatched and then spilled onto a belt, and none of this had anything to do with anything other than human commerce.
De-beaking prevents feather and vent pecking and the kind of cannibalism you might engage in considering your upcoming, brief life, sandwiched five in a bare wire cage and starved to provide daily eggs. This is a “battery” cage. You are given not as much room to yourself as a standard sheet of paper. You can understand, now, can’t you, why the males were the lucky ones? Why the powers that be might want your beak cut off? Now, older, you can appreciate your circumstances a little better, and it will be clear to you that no chickens are going anywhere. You don’t even know what “anywhere” is. You will never stretch your wings. You will never sit in a nest, or peck for grubs. This is just a fact. What is air? What is sun? What is dirt? What is straw? Your beak stump still hurts like hell—just pecking sends neuromas, that tangle of “phantom limb” nerves, jangling. It is hard to keep a steady mood. Even though you generally see yourself as good-hearted, you might even be inclined to go after Mabel, or Henrietta, those hens. Those goddamned hens.
Thankfully, you have no beak.
After two years, you will sent to slaughter, which means you will be slung into a crate and transported, during which handling many of you will break bones. You will be hung upside down in shackles by Doreen. Doreen is not your friend. Doreen is only 18, but she already has two kids. She is trying to figure out a way to enroll in community college, where she would like to take jewelry design. Right now, she’s living with her boyfriend.
If you asked Doreen, which of course you don’t have the ability to do (and honestly, you have more important last thoughts) this whole enterprise—which we’ll call your life—has been pointless. Her life, too, is pointless. Both make her roll her eyes. Something is born, it struggles, it dies. Like, it’s what happens. Life’s a conveyor belt, a sorting machine, a massive factory farm, and really if you stop to think about it, most of us get hung by our toes one way or the other.
But then, Doreen is a cynic.
From Doreen’s station, here’s where you’re off to:
Your body by the end of two years is so degraded by the deplorable conditions you’ve lived through that you are good for next to nothing—for chicken soup stock or pet food.
But let’s roll it back a bit, my little pullet, my little puisson, you of the soft feathers and dinosaur legs, you of the scratchy feet, you of the peeps, you of the black eyes. Our little egg-bottomed baby—such ability hidden in your oviduct. Chickens are said to be amiable, and friendly, more cognitively studded than either dogs or cats, and with a communicative vocabulary of 30 sounds, although, right now, so what?
Really, so what?
What is a life’s potential when it has no potential?
Still, you aren’t dead yet. You’ve only just hatched. You are hanging with your brethren by your beak from a docking machine.
There are different machines: hot blade, cold blade (including garden sheers), electrical (the Bio-beaker) and infrared; today, at this factory farm, the docker is hot blade. You wiggle and sway as you merry-go-round. When it’s finally your turn, Becky grabs you. Becky is 28. Becky is not your friend. Becky has a nasty cold and ought to be home in bed, but she’s used up her sick days because she played hookey with her married lover, five days of hookey, which today she thinks weren’t worth it at all.
Becky is chronically bored.
She brings the guillotine down.
Describe your pain, chick. On a scale of 1-10, rate your pain. If your pain was a colour, what colour would it be? If your pain was a tree, for heaven’s sakes, which tree? What trees have you roosted in?
Over the last few years, Bill Richardson, sometimes-CBC host, author of Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast, among other books, has written slightly sad and always amusing Christmas stories set in Vancouver’s West End. Here is one of this year’s.
West End Christmas Story One
There are dire possibilities you can safeguard against, grim eventualities you can take into account. You can fortify your house against burglary and bad weather. You can launder your hands against colds and flus. You can know your escape routes, pre-determine a mustering point, stay inside until the shaking stops.
A little anticipation, a modicum of planning, and a boy scout dash of preparedness will go a long way to smooth the road. Inevitably there will be potholes, but there’s no need to obsess about them, no need to fret about all the terrible tricks fate has up its sleeve. The rogue meteorite inscribed with your name. The truck that jumps the curb. The skunk that has no business being abroad on Christmas Eve, but nonetheless is; the skunk that should be hibernating, but happens to be out and about and lying in wait under the 1988 Honda Civic which has been parked on the street for the better part of a month now; the Honda Civic doubling as a rust museum that is registered to some careless miscreant who’s gone away for the holidays, taken off for Hawaii or Mexico, never giving a thought to how that car would afford the aforementioned skunk a place of concealment from which to ambush Minnie, the basset hound, when she did what any dog would do; when she tested the limits of her leash, when she went snuffling after the scent of something aberrant near the oil-pan.
“Oh, dear,” is not quite the oath Conrad lets slip when Minnie backs out from under the Honda, as quickly as ever her three legs allow. How Minnie became a tripod is anyone’s guess. She was missing the limb when Conrad found her in the shelter. Squat and sturdy, she reminded him of a damaged coffee table he’d acquired once at a yard sale; Minnie and the wonky coffee table were among the few possessions over which he and Minnie had not quarreled when they separated. Conrad’s decision to (a) acquire a damaged pound dog without home consultation and (b) to try to mitigate the offense by naming the creature after his spouse explains, at least partially, why Minnie, the woman, is now his ex-wife.
Tomato juice is the remedy that comes to Conrad’s mind as the skunk ambles into the night and Minnie yelps and whines and whacks at her face with the one front paw that’s still in her keeping. Tomato juice. Isn’t that what they always recommend? Tomato juice, and plenty of it. But where, on Christmas Eve, can he quickly and reliably find such a commodity? The one nearby convenience store is, inconveniently, closed until Boxing Day.
“Mercy save us,” is not quite what Conrad says when Minnie rears up on her full complement of hind legs and does her best to embrace him round the knees. What to do? It must be the poisonous wafts that subvert propriety: scents trumping sense. He reaches into his overcoat pocket, finds his phone, dials the number he ceded in the divorce.
The reeking dog whines.
“Thanks. Same to you. What’s up?”
“Oh. Not much. Sorry for the intrusion.”
“It’s no intrusion,” she says, but of course it is.
“What are you up to?”
“I’m just here with Conrad.”
Minnie had moved on very quickly. That Conrad’s successor was also named Conrad had been much remarked by their various friends and family members, as well as by Conrad, and also by Conrad.
“Give him my beast,” says Conrad.
“Best. Give him my best,” he says, smiling in spite of himself at the Freudian transparency of the slip.
“Merry, Merry, Conrad,” Conrad carols from somewhere in the background, well into his cups.
Conrad looks down at Minnie and imagines Minnie and Conrad, half way across town, in the house where Conrad had once lived with Minnie and also, for a short time, with Minnie. He imagines the tree and all its familiar decorations, and the table that his well-organized ex would already have set for the next day’s feast: the china and the flatware that had once been theirs, the patterns he had had a hand in choosing, all laid out in regimental array. He blinks hard. He puts the past from his mind. He gulps acrid air, comes to the point.
“Listen, Minnie, I’m just wondering if you happen to have any tomato juice on hand.”
Minnie is a bulk buyer and for Christmases past she had always acquired case loads of the stuff, enough to bathe a whole pack of skunked bassets.
“Tomato juice?” says Minnie.
Conrad had forgotten that he says “to-may-to” and she says “to-mah-to;” no wonder they’d call the whole thing off.
“No,” she says, “no, I don’t. I mean, I did, oceans of the stuff. But I took it to the food bank. Conrad is allergic.”
“Why are you asking?”
“You know. Just wondering.”
“Funny thing to just wonder about.”
“Funny time of year.”
“Fine. Merry Christmas, Minnie.”
“And to you, Conrad. Happy new year.”
Click. She’s gone.
On the door of his former fridge, held in place by a lady bug magnet, is the yellowed paper fragment Minnie pulled from a fortune cookie, in the early, happy days of their marriage. “Expect the unexpected,” it says. For Minnie, who lived in fear of an eventual earthquake—hence, the bulk buying—this is a guiding mantra; for Conrad, it’s an absurdity. Yes, there might be a bomb on the bus; yes, bees might fly up both your nostrils; yes, there might be a skunk under a Honda on Christmas Eve: but if you took it all into account, you’d do nothing but sit in the kitchen, in the dark, watching the digital minutes advance on the microwave, fearful the whole time that it might erupt into flames.
Mindless of the possibility of piles, Conrad sits down on the cold curb. Minnie plops down next to him, sighs, leans in. A pair of late-shift garbage pickers comes down the sidewalk, their two carts rattling. They are heading west, towards the park, where probably they camp. They say “Pee-you!” simultaneously and give the man and the dog a wide berth.
“Now what?” says Conrad, but Minnie is without idea or resource.
He can’t go back to his condo tower, where the dog’s legality has been the subject of an ongoing dispute with the council; the arrival of a three-legged stink bomb when all anyone was expecting was Santa would pretty much seal their fate. There is a church across the street. Perhaps they would offer sanctuary. Congregants will soon start arriving for the midnight service. Perhaps Minnie could earn her keep by taking part in the pageant, could take on the cameo role of dog in the manger. Conrad wonders if the word “skunk” ever comes up in the Bible, if they were welcomed on the ark by Noah.
Minnie would know, or could find out. She is a librarian, and has an amazing arsenal of information at her disposal. Had Conrad told her the reason for his call she could have told him that tomato juice is useless for the removal of skunk stink. She could have told him that that was just an old wives tale. Who better to hear that from than your old wife? Well. Former wife, more accurately.
But Conrad didn’t let on, and so it’s tomato juice in which he mistakenly invests his hope; it’s tomato juice in which he believes on a night when it’s good to have faith and somewhere to pin it, however thin and wonky that place or that faith might be.
“Come on, Minnie,” says Conrad, and they start to walk, with a purpose in mind, though with no specific plan or destination. At a discreet distance, and on the other side of the street, they follow in the noisy wake of the park-bound garbage pickers, who have paused a block away to look up at the stars. Soon enough, Minnie and Conrad will catch them up, and then they will be three men walking, walking on Christmas Eve, walking and walking on parallel paths, with no real where in mind, and no real certainty about what they’ll find when they get there. Wherever there might be. They’ll know it when they find it. It will be nothing like what they expect.