Author Archive

Min

Min hid, at the beginning of her life with us. She was a three-month-old street kitten, and she cowered under a bed for days. The walls must have felt constricting: where were the plants and trees, the green and earthy places where she’d lived before, alone?

Min hid, at the end of her life. She was 12 years old, dying of kidney disease. Or maybe she wasn’t hiding: maybe just taking herself quietly and calmly away from the noise and smells of us, the house, the other cats. She curled up under plants and trees, in green and earthy places. We knew where some of the places were, but not all. Her secret ravine paths always led her home, though—even on her last morning, when she died in our garden in the sun, in the green, alone.

I’m so grateful for her love.

To Play the Game of Men

I wrote a short story once, back in 2007, when my life was falling apart. Julie Czerneda asked for it. She had no idea that my life was falling apart. She might have known that I’d never published a short story before, but if she did, she didn’t let it dampen her (always indefatigable) enthusiasm. So I wrote it. And it was wondrous, going back to the Alexander the Great/short story phase I’d begun, and ended, in my teens. It was liberating, being able to assume a voice that needed to speak for only 4,000 words, not 100,000. (I was having a considerable amount of trouble with 100,000, then. Still am. Funny, that.)

I re-read it today, after I’d sent it to my husband (who hadn’t read it, and wanted to). I’d forgotten how much I liked it. So here it is.

To Play the Game of Men

 

It’s lonely, being the only horse in hell.

There are diversions, certainly. The Abyss is fairly dark, but the sounds are loud and often entertaining: The Toiler’s grunts, the faster-faster rumble of his stone, and the gusty sigh he always heaves, in the silence after its descent. The Tantalized’s infuriated shouts are so dramatic that my ears flick, and when the First Giants roll over in their sleep I actually wish for human ears, and human hands to cover them with. At least the Giants have each other. At least the Toiler and the Tantalized can shout back and forth through the gloom – even if all they ever do is whine about too much exercise and not enough food. But I’m alone. My own fault, but I’ll complain anyway.

I still have my looks, which is something. As I’ve said, it’s dark here, thanks to the smoke, and of course the three layers of night that hang over the bronze wall. But sometimes the night thins, or a gout of flame shoots up from the pit, and I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the wall. A handsome beast, even if my brown-black sides aren’t quite as glossy as they used to be. The blaze on my forehead looks wonderfully white and unsullied. You can still see why I was so popular, on the Peak.

It wasn’t just that I was handsome, though – I was also dependable. From the moment I was given my first assignment among men, I performed precisely as my divine audience expected me to. “They’ll love you,” hissed my harpy mother, tangling her claws in my mane as she always did, when she tried to stroke it. “They’ll name you and feed you and think you’re theirs,” whispered my wind father, his breath warm, and sweet as flowers. Neither of them mentioned that these men would sit on me, their bodies sharp and lumpy and ungainly, or that they’d strap me to chariots so loaded down with bronze that even I grew tired of pulling. But I was eager to please. When the Father of all Gods cried, “Lead them to glory and ruin! Make us laugh and weep!” I tossed my head and pawed at the mountain earth.

I never expected to disobey – but then, I never expected the Boy.

*

“There’s a boy,” the Judge said. Everyone squinted at her. You could only ever really see her on rainy days; in sunlight she was far too sparkly, all that armour, and the spear. “Looks promising.”

The Warrior grunted. “That’s what you said about the one who ended up goring himself on a boar. My magical hounds wasted a lot of effort on that one.”

“No,” the Judge said slowly, “this one’s different. He’s a prince. Adores his mother, hates his father. Small, but already good with weapons. Great wrestler. Thinks deep thoughts.” She turned to the Father in a blur of gold. “I say he’s next.”

I say we choose a girl,” the Huntress put in. Everyone laughed and shouted at her, and she ran down into the woods, her bow bouncing off her back. (She never could deal with criticism.)

“Very well, then,” the Mother said, shifting on her throne so that the folds of her gown rippled. “We’ve already let them figure out fire, and mining, and smelting – all very entertaining. We’ve blown their ships off course and allowed them to discover new lands. And their music and writing – we’ve done well, there. What will we have this one do?”

The Father set down his wine jug. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, trailing a new, glistening swath of purple through his beard. “New lands.” Even when he spoke quietly, his words shuddered with thunder. “Been a long time. There’s blood, in that. Burning. Lots of ecstasy and anguish. Yes.” He nodded. His brown eyes had already turned silver with tears.

“The kid’s good with horses,” the Strongman commented. (He was spending the summer with us, even though the Mother hated him.)

Everyone turned to me. I took one more nibble of grass, trying to seem nonchalant. It had been more than a thousand years since the last War, and I was young, for an immortal: I was giddy with excitement, but too proud to let anyone see it.

“You,” the Father said. (Men give us names; we have no need of them, among ourselves.) “You’ve been idle, while your brothers have been busy below. Go” – the thunder rumbled, through wind and sunlight – “Go and make him yours, and you will be rewarded.”

I went, and even when the high, thin mountain air gave way to the oppressive sky of men, I felt light with joy and purpose.

Innocence only turns into ignorance when it’s too late to matter.

*

The Boy was small. He was twelve years old; at the same age, my former master, the Hero, had looked like a man. I wondered whether the Judge knew what she was doing, with this one.

The Boy noticed me immediately. I was making quite a show of it, of course, bucking and rearing so that the men around me scattered like frightened birds. He tugged on his father’s tunic and pointed at me.

“No,” I heard the King say, as he regarded me with his good eye (his blind one was puckered shut). “No – and how dare you bring such an unruly beast onto my grounds?” The question he addressed to the horse trader who had brought me to the palace, along with several other, more docile (and mortal) creatures. The man stammered and flushed; the King’s rages were legendary.

“I will ride him.” The Boy’s voice was as high and clear as water. The crowd was quiet, suddenly. I gave an especially piercing whinny and a snort that ruffled the hair on the nearest man’s head.

“No” – more growl than word, but the Boy’s grey eyes remained fixed on the King.

“Yes, Father. I swear by the King of all Gods that I will ride him.”

A wind from the east swirled around us all, raising dust from the riding ground. I knew the wind would carry the Boy’s words and image to the Father, and that he would laugh with delight.

The King’s hands were shaking. “You are a boy,” he said through gritted teeth. Spittle shone in his dark beard. “Do you think you will succeed where your elders have failed?”

“I do.” The Boy looked at me; a child with golden hair and a gaze like fire. Maybe it was too late for me, even then? (A sentimental thought. I have too many of these, in the Abyss, but who can blame me?)

After the King and the trader had murmured to each other, the King swept his own gaze around the assembly and gave a broad, false smile. “He costs thirteen talents, Boy. If you are unable to make good on your intention, you’ll have to pay for him yourself.”

The Boy nodded solemnly. “I accept your terms,” he said, “but only because I intend to succeed.”

The gods are going to love this kid, I thought as I wrenched my bridle away from the man who held it. The laughter that had risen after the Boy’s declaration turned to concerned muttering. He ignored everyone. He walked slowly toward me, his head high, shoulders back. I pawed sharp grooves into the dirt. I could have killed him with one blow; could have killed all of them. This knowledge had helped me endure many unpleasant interactions with men in the past.

He glanced at the ground, where my shadow shied and shivered, then back up at me. The Strongman had been right: the Boy knew horses – mortal ones, anyway, which were frequently startled by their own shadows. The Boy approached me, his face serious. “Hello, Ox-Head,” he said – and so he named me, before he had even touched me. “Ox-Head,” after the shape of the white blaze on my forehead. “You’re the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen – do you belong to the gods?” Before I could master my surprise, he had grasped the trailing bridle and turned me directly into the sun. “Now, then,” he continued, “there’s no more shadow; nothing to be afraid of. And as you can probably see, I’m very light. My father says my sister looks like more of a boy than I do” – and he was up, somehow, mid-sentence; up, a slender shape in the air beside me; a slight but firm weight upon my back. “I’ll be a man soon, though. Let’s show him, Ox-Head.”

I let him lead, though it wasn’t hard: he was strong and sure, his knees and heels pressing just enough to direct me. (The Hero had kicked me twice, the first time he rode me. He was lucky he survived it.) The Boy and I rode in a slow, wide circle before the palace. I pretended to be restive, at first, but soon I let him feel me calming. He leaned forward, said again, “Let’s show him,” and dug his heels into my sides.

I galloped. It’s never the same, off the Peak– my earthly body is heavy, as is the air – but this time felt surprisingly close. We nearly flew – away from the palace, into a stand of trees, and then in a wide, curving arc back. The Boy’s whoops rang in my ears. You have no idea, I thought, how happy you should be. I’m yours now, and you’re already great.

The crowd cheered wildly as I reared to a stop (taking care not to unseat the Boy). The King walked over to us. There were tears trickling from his good eye, over his scar-seamed cheek. “Son,” he said, as the Boy slid from my back, “we’ll have to find a worthier kingdom. This one’s going to be much too small for you.” Man and child looked at each other and smiled, a moment I knew would play well, on the Peak. Indeed, a wind from the north brought me the gods’ voices, just as the Boy was turning back to me.

“Bravo, Ox-Head!” the Father cried, obviously relishing my new name. “You’re got him!” The Lover sighed and sniffed (her sighs and sniffs were unmistakable, even from a distance). I lowered my nose into the boy’s cupped hand, warm with a happiness that seemed simple, at the time.

My first human master had ignored me – my brother and I were just another wedding present from the gods. His son, the Hero, had reveled in my ability to make him look impressive (I wasn’t even a little sorry when the Thinker decided to let him die). These two men, who knew I was immortal, had cared little for me – but the Boy, who did not know, loved me. From the moment he turned me away from my shadow and spoke my name, he loved me. I think I knew that then, though I can name it only now.

*

People think that immortal beings live lives of variety, richness and excitement. This is utterly untrue. Immortality can drag, when you’re always happy and the rain is always warm and the flowers always taste like ambrosia. (Don’t misunderstand me: I’d take this kind of boredom any day, over the dark, malodorous monotony I have to deal with now.) This is precisely why the gods were always at each other, always courting the kinds of jealousies, ecstasies and rages they so enjoyed watching men feel. It’s why they needed me, the immortal who was able, effortlessly, to go down and live among humankind, without needing to turn into a shaft of sunlight or a bull that could tread water.

I loved pleasing the gods, with my work. At first this was the only kind of satisfaction I was aware of. I’d wait for my kin the winds to bring me voices: the Father’s boom, the Mother’s regal whine, the Thinker’s clear, ringing bronze. Even the Lover’s sniffling was praise. I was lending the Boy my divine aura; I was affecting the courses of men and nations, for my masters’ diversion. It was a fine game, and I was proud of my part in it.

Things got complicated, as the Boy grew into the Great King (everyone called him this, but to me he was always the Boy). There was no reason for it: the game was going so well, had all the elements the gods so desired. The political: the Boy was a natural, intelligent, often ruthless leader, from the time he assumed his assassinated father’s throne at age 18 until he was 33, and king of the known world. The intellectual: he was insatiably curious, sent plant specimens home to his old tutor, sketched the flora and fauna he encountered in the strange lands he conquered. The emotional too, of course: he continued to be obsessed with his mother, who was overbearing even when vast distances separated them. He loved a boyhood companion, tolerated the jealousies of his two wives. Drunken murders, the burning of cities and razing of temples: he did it all, with the protection of my presence, and the gods wept and rejoiced, as he did.

But for me, it got complicated.

He talked to me. “A hard day, Ox-Head.” The darkness of a palace stable, or a tent pitched in hissing sand. “He’s angry at me; he’s thinks I’m paying too much attention to the dancing boy…” I should have been happy about this latest fodder for the Peak-dwellers – but there was the Boy’s head, heavy against my neck, and his hand wrapped in my mane. His fear and sadness dragged at me – and his joy, when the Companion called his name from the darkness outside, gave me joy.

Maybe if he had been a petulant fool like the Hero, nothing would have come of it, for me. But for every moment the Boy sulked, or declared himself a deity, or – gods forbid – called himself the Hero, there was a moment of selflessness or humor or compassion. He unsettled me so much that I forgot about the game.

“It’s me again, old friend.” Tired, smiling, brushing me until my own weariness fell away. (His long marches were exhausting, even for a supernatural being like myself.) “My men want to go home. So many of them hate what I’ve done, accepting the foreigners, adopting their dress, their ways. Marrying them to my people, so that their children will inherit my kingdom. Maybe they simply fear the strangeness of it all, and only think they hate.” More brush-strokes, and a whistled tune. He always whistled under his breath when he was worried. “They’re not ready for my vision. I’m forging one new world out of all the old ones, Ox-Head, and all they want to do is shut their eyes and run back to the memory of a place that hasn’t changed. But…” His head against my neck again. “What if they’re right? What if…I don’t know. And even though I offer prayers and sacrifices, the gods give me no guidance.”

Perhaps my doubts were born of his.

*

The order to let the Boy die came from the Warrior.

“You’re just jealous,” said the Huntress (her voice was thin, carried to me on a southern breeze).

“Ha!” the Warrior scoffed. “Never! I might just as well be jealous of you, wench” – which caused a scuffle and a yelp, and the sound of footsteps retreating into woods.

“You may be right.” The Thinker now, speaking in his careful, measured way. “He’s winning too much. He’s faced no serious trials, of late. There’s no real balance in his life.”

I gave my head a violent shake, but the wind still wrapped me in words.

“Ox-Head?” The Boy was with me. Of course, the divine conversation had to happen when he was at my side. The Companion was leaning against a tent pole, staring intently at a map, clicking his tongue against his teeth (this always made the Boy growl with false annoyance). “What’s troubling you, old man?”

I whickered to reassure him, but the words didn’t go away.

“Yes,” the Father said, “it’s getting tiresome. We’ve seen it all before. May be time to move on.”

I felt a rush of relief; after all, it had been twenty human years since I’d frolicked in the Peak’s meadows. A rush of relief, and then a rush of dread.

“Tomorrow’s battle. Do you hear me, servant? We’ll give you further orders then.”

No other night has ever seemed longer, to me. Even now, after countless nights in hell, I can say this without exaggeration. I tried not to think, and when I did, I thought ridiculous things like, “The Reveler will get them all drunk and they’ll forget.” But they didn’t forget, and neither did I.

The Boy came to get me before dawn. The river before us was nearly invisible; lightning-shot clouds roiled above it. “The Gods’ Father speaks,” the Boy said, lifting his head to the thunder, and I wished he were wrong. He led his men and their mounts down the mud-slick bank and into the water, whose cold I hardly felt. Winds tore at my mane – the dry winds of this desert country, but others as well, which smelled of mountain spring. The Boy’s legs and hands guided me firmly, as always. He sat upon me with coiled, expectant joy, as he had before so many other battles. This one was no different, to him – except for the elephants (his army had never even seen one of these before, let alone 200), and the seven-foot-tall king who sat astride the largest of the beasts. “Look, Ox-Head,” I heard the Boy say, as the gale shrieked around us and the river rose up tall and white. “Look, but don’t be afraid. Let’s show them now, you and I.”

He did show them. From the cover of an island, he determined that a direct approach would fail, for the horses were all petrified of the elephants. (I didn’t blame them.) So he deployed a lesser force behind and around the opposing army’s right flank. He ordered this calmly, addressing several soldiers by name, smiling at them, even as the distant elephants trumpeted and stamped their enormous feet. He waited for the surprise attack to have its effect; then, as daylight broke the storm apart, he cried out and drove his army back into the river.

“Let him fall.” The Father’s voice; thunder within thunder. “Leave him, now – return to us.”

I could have obeyed my master and thrown the Boy, or pretended to stumble – something that would have left him unprotected, vulnerable to a spear or an arrow or the underside of an elephant’s foot. (I had so often saved him from these sorts of disasters, simply by bearing him.) This might have been easier for both of us. I could have sped home to the Peak; he could have died quickly and gloriously, just as the Hero had, after my brother and I removed our divine protection from him, during the War.

“The Father of all Gods commands you: Leave him now!”

I carried the Boy up the steep, muddy bank. I carried him through ranks of elephants and men, which parted before us and fell behind. The screams and clashing of metal were muffled, for although the skies of men had cleared, the storm still roared within me.

“You have one more chance to obey – one more chance, and if you do not take it, you will be punished. You cannot imagine the suffering…Look there, to your left. The Great King’s enemies retreat or die, save that one – he has an arrow, and it will fly soon. Let it find its mark. Let it find its mark.”

I did.

I reared, higher than I’d ever allowed myself to before, among men. The Boy slid and clung but didn’t fall. I held myself like this, too tall and still to be a mortal beast – held myself, until the arrow had sped past the place where his throat had been and found my own, instead.

I had been injured in battle before: slashes, stabs, glancing blows. The gods’ favor had kept me safe (though they did have me shed some blood and retain some scars, for the sake of credibility.) There was no such favor now. A maelstrom engulfed me: words and winds, agonies of mind and body. I assume the Boy cried out my name, or something of the sort, though I wasn’t sure: the gods allowed me no more time to play the game of men.

*

I know what happened, afterward. (The winds still reach the Abyss, though their news is often out of date.) The Boy won the battle and granted clemency to the giant-king. The Boy mourned me, built a city in my honour. His men mutinied. The Companion died. The Boy went mad. He fell ill in a city of gardens and then he died. His worlds fractured, and yet the one that was born was still his. The stuff, all of it, of divine desire. It must have frustrated the gods to no end that there was no divine design involved.

I protested my innocence, after the river battle. I had to: I knew where I’d end up, and I was terrified. “I was sentimental,” I stammered, hanging my head. “I was confused. I made a bad decision.” I didn’t look up at them, even when the silence stretched on.

“Down,” the Father rumbled at last.

I fell, through layers of sky and then the hard, jagged flesh of the earth. Down, down, into night and smoke and stink, until the stones of the pit broke my fall.

And now here I stand, chewing on blackened straw (though I suppose I should be grateful, listening to the Yearner’s racket, that I have anything to chew on), remembering the dew-sweet grass of the Peak and wondering, as I will for all eternity, what I was thinking. Sometimes, when I catch one of those glimpses of myself in the bronze wall, I imagine for a moment that there’s a rider on my back – a boy, a youth, a man? – and that both of us are gilded with sun. At such moments my foolishness almost makes sense.

“The Great King rode to glory,” men will say (of this, at least, I have no doubt). “The Great King rode into a new world.”

Only the world’s old winds will know the rest.

“Hark! the footsteps of the Groan!”

I found Gormenghast in Israel. Twice.

#

This country. I attempt to process what I’m learning of its past and its present as I follow Adam, our host and guide, through Jerusalem’s Old City, and Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station—but there’s too much. I hear, and I try to absorb, but even in the moment, I know I won’t be able to truly understand. Maybe this is why Gormenghast is what I think of, first and most persistently, as I walk. It’s the wrong way ’round, of course—saying these real places evoke a fictional one. Backwards, and also unjust, to compare (mostly) lived-in spaces with one that’s forever crumbling to ruin.

And yet.

#

Jerusalem’s Old City is first.

It’s a labyrinth, and it’s Bronze Age all the way up to now—with the “now” being the most mind-boggling part, to me. I’ve been to ruins before. I’ve wandered through them, marvelling at fallen columns and half-buried walls, trying to rebuild them in my imagination, and people them with historically-accurate citizens. But this Old City teems with actual people—people who live here now.

“How late can you come here, at night?” I ask Adam.

“Um,” he says, “it doesn’t close. It’s a city.”

I commend him for not laughing at me. It’s just that I find it so hard to wrap my head around the combination of ancient stone and the bustle of markets that aren’t just for tourists (though on David Street it’s pretty clear that tourists are the targets). People live here and work here, passing from quarter to quarter as gawkers like me get underfoot.

But as for Gormenghast. We follow partly-covered market streets laid out before the Romans arrived, each of their arched alcoves filled with wares: bags of spices; pails of bright pink pickled cauliflower and olives; bolts of cloth; Sponge Bob t-shirts and Blundstones. We turn a corner and walk some more, along quieter alleys. Butchers hack away while cats wait on their stoops. The air is heavy with blood and fruit smells, and some other musky thing (kief, I hear someone say, nearby). Turn and turn again; walk up one cobbled lane and down another, past people’s doorways and menorahs that are almost as tall as we are. Up and down, up and down—for the labyrinth is vertical as well as horizontal.

The Holy Sepulchre is a Gormenghast unto itself: glorious, above-ground chapels that dazzle with gold, blue, green paint; subterranean chapels that haven’t been fully excavated yet, full of ragged stone and dust.

We end up on the rooftops. Muezzins’ and rabbis’ voices drift around and past us, sometimes almost hitting harmony and synch. We look down through metal lattice at the market alcoves. We walk across people’s roofs, all of them connected, though unevenly, so we sometimes have to jump down or up. Bikes lie strewn about, and strollers, toys, lawn chairs. There are damp patches from all the rain.

I go into the Old City on two separate occasions. I remember some of the alleys and streets, the second time, and I have a sense of which quarter’s where, but mostly it’s Gormenghast: Every time I turn around it’s a new hubbub or quiet, a new smell, a new vista opening up, at the top of a wall or the end of a street.

#

Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is second.

Adam tries not to tell us too much about the place before he leads us there, on a day of unwontedly torrential rain, but he kind of fails. “It’s amazing,” he says, practically bouncing on his heels. “I don’t want to spoil it, but…”

Construction began in 1967, he tells us, but there was financial trouble, and the station wasn’t operational until 1993. Seven floors of retail space! A hub of transportation and shopping! A place where people would meet, whether or not they were taking a bus, or alighting from one!

Only it didn’t work out that way. From the very first day it was open, the station took on a life of its own. Now, Adam informs us as we make our way toward it, it would be more expensive to demolish than it would be to leave alone. “Just wait. We’re nearly there. I hope you like it. It’s amazing.”

It is.

Once we’ve passed through the magnetometers (manned languidly, at best), we emerge into a space of light and noise—a market where people sell electronic kittens that pounce and meow and fall helplessly onto their sides, and sunglasses, and Christmas ornaments, and t-shirts, undergarments, carpets and kitchenware and CDs. There’s a McDonalds just inside the entrance. There’s music. Voices yelling and laughing, buying and selling.

Adam’s still bouncing on his heels. “Let’s go this way…”

It takes only moments to move past beyond lights and voices. Glass doors and windows extend out of sight, like post-apocalyptic versions of the Old City market stalls. “Artists sometimes use these stores”—and we see evidence of this almost immediately. The “stores” are tiny. Some are empty; some contain blind child mannequins and birds, pendulous eyeballs, shelves with old-fashioned sewing machines and dolls in lace dresses. Others are awash in newspapers and dust. We wander, taking photos that will never do any of it justice. The stink of urine is suffocating.

“Let’s go down.”

It seems we’re on level 3. We descend to 2. I think it’s here we come upon a guy leaning against a railing. He’s got some items lined up on the ledge in front of him; he sweeps them all toward him, as we approach, and moves to the other side of the walkway. He bends, fiddles, ties and tightens. He’s alone in this dank, dark place, shooting up, shying away from us as we take yet more photos of cement and decay.

We descend to 1. The floor isn’t uniform: its tiles rise or shift underfoot, with a bizarre combination of squelching and clinking. It’s very dark. We pass a ticket booth for a movie theatre Adam hasn’t ever found, in all his forays here. We see a painted wall that was maybe never a gelato place. Ramps up to bus bays that were never used, though the signs are there, waiting to inform passengers of the arrival time of the next bus. Long, red benches, and chairs arranged in a semi-circle—empty, all of them, and sunk in shadow.

Adam’s our Titus. He’s the guy who knows many of the deserted corridors, the turnings down into darkness and shattered tile. Many, but not all: “I haven’t been here before,” he says, as we hesitate before an open door in the deepest part of the station. We glance at each other. We cross the threshold.

Bats chitter and squeak, invisible within recesses high up in the wall. As we walk, they swoop above us: enormous creatures with wingspans that make me cringe. Everything here induces both cringing and awe. The locked iron door of the shelter built during the first Iraq war. The puddles that might not be just rainwater. A school desk, an armchair, a child’s purple plastic wheeled toy, covered in grime. Filthy cats, slinking out from under dumpsters and then back again, when we coo at them. Coils of pipe and giant bags of cement. Cobwebs festooning a wall by a door we hope and fear will be unlocked, but isn’t. Unfinished half-walls and dirty columns, stretching up to networks of pipes and stained ceilings.

There are so many elements here that make me think of Jerusalem’s Old City. This strikes me as a sacrilegious thought, but it persists, as the idea of Gormenghast does. There are columns and sunken places and soaring places; spaces where people meet and spaces where all is quiet; smells and sounds that are warped and strange with distance or enclosure.

#

Only now, as I’m typing this, have I decided that comparing the Old City to Gormenghast is more than backward or unjust: it’s wrong. There’s no similarity, other than the ancient quality of the stone, and the sense of a labyrinth that’s unfolding and constricting at once. The Central Bus Station’s the real analogue; it has Gormenghast’s weirdly noble, utterly awe-inspiring malignancy and squalor.

The fact that all of these places are now tangled together in my head, though, knotted up in confusion and wonder—this makes an addled sort of sense.

#

“Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.” (Titus Groan)

Danger Zone

Goddammit, Top Gun: I kind of love you.

I saw you again last night, at Ontario Place’s Cinesphere. The venue alone was enough to prompt a surge of nostalgia: I sat there often in the 1980s, heart hammering in anticipation of EVEN BIGGER Lukes and Leias and Hans, Indianas and T.E. Lawrences (and possibly even Marty McFlys?). Last night, there you were, Top Gun, you big, dumb, Bruckheimer movie. And not only that: my friend Katherine, with whom I first saw you in 1986, was sitting beside me. (This wasn’t the first time she and I had strolled along memory lane together.) Yup: Nostalgia central, for us and the hundreds of other middle-aged people who surrounded us, clutching the cans of beer and plastic cups of wine that are miraculously available at movie theatres, here in 2018.

Pop-cultural nostalgia can be creepy and cancerous. It can drive middle-aged people to spew hate because there’s now a black Stormtrooper in the Star Wars universe, and also a bunch of female characters, some of whom have clearly failed to be white. Oh, and because there’s a female Doctor in the TARDIS. “This has killed my childhood.” “Thanks for ruining everything with your political correctness.” (Those are paraphrasings of much more vitriolic statements that I don’t have the heart to seek out now, even in the interests of direct quotation.)

To my great surprise, I discovered last night that I don’t feel terrible about you, Top Gun. Not like I do about the John Hughes movies I also loved, which, when I’ve re-watched them, have made me wonder how the fuck I, and really mostly everyone else, could have been so oblivious in the ’80s. (“I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.” “What are you waiting for?” To say nothing of Long Duk Dong. Really, Sixteen Candles?)

Those other heinous ’80s movies—hell, most of today’s big-budget Hollywood movies—set such low bars that I’m likely overstating your just-fine-ness. But it was so unexpected, to discover this where I thought I’d find only retroactive horror.

I repeat: You’re a Big, Dumb, Bruckheimer Movie, from your “Danger Zone” soundtrack to your fighter jet porn to your cheesy (and thus eminently quotable) dialogue to your cirrus-thin yet also bombastic plot. You have one black character and three female characters (two of whom are navy wives; one of whom has only one line). You’re macho and loud, swathed in stars and stripes. You are, pretty simply, bad.

What you aren’t is heinous.

Strangely, for a Big, Dumb, Swathed-in-the-Flag Movie of your ilk, you lack brown-skinned terrorists or soldiers with strange accents. No nation’s name gets invoked again and again, making American blood boil. It takes nearly two hours for anyone to even die, in this movie that’s about boy-men who fly war planes, and we don’t know who, exactly, has died—just that they were flying MiGs (so the U.S.S.R. is the closest we’ll get to an I.D.) above the Indian Ocean. We don’t see them die; we just see their two jets explode. We don’t see their faces; we just see their menacingly tinted helmets. This is cartoon violence, yes—an easy, bloodless way of making it all a game, keeping the audience’s spirits high and existential questions low. But this also means there’s no targeted hatred. And that means you’ll age better than most of your Big, Dumb friends: your Enemy could be anyone, because they’re no one. (Also, as is made clear with the subtlety of a megaphone and jackhammer combined, Maverick’s true Enemy is himself.)

Then there’s Kelly McGillis’ Charlie. She could be dismissed as just another sexy librarian type—but you know what? She’s actually, genuinely (in Big, Dumb Movie terms) intelligent. She has an established career of her own—she’s a goddamn astrophysicist. She’s beautiful, but she’s not Barbie, and other than that one lingering shot of her stilettos and seamed stockings during the Big Reveal, the camera is most interested in her face. (IMDB provides this tidbit about Kelly McGillis: “Was fired from the film Bachelor Party (1984) allegedly because the producers thought she wasn’t pretty or sexy enough.”) Sure, Charlie exists, narratively, to shape Maverick’s arc—but so does Val Kilmer’s Iceman.

Maverick pursues this idiosyncratically gorgeous, smart, older woman…without being a rapey asshole. There’s an early scene when he follows her into the women’s bathroom at the bar after she’s gently, smilingly, banteringly told him she has friends to meet and that his pick-up attempts must therefore come to an end. She asks him, after he’s followed her in, if he expects them to drop and do it right there on the tile; he suggests the counter. She laughs and walks out. The whiff o’stalking wasn’t great, Top Gun, but you made her firmly in control and him an impetuous but totally unthreatening idiot, and it could have been worse. Lowbaritis strikes again. (Sadly, at the very end of the movie there’s more than a whiff o’quitting-her-awesome-Washington-job-because-she-wants-to-be-an-instructor-with-him. She doesn’t say it outright, but the whiff is pungent.)

Her beauty and intelligence get to him. His beauty and vulnerability get to her. And hoo boy, but Tom Cruise was beautiful to me, in 1986. Not so much when he was flashing that toothy grin (the largeness of his teeth is unsettling today, probably because they’re no longer that large; he’s definitely had work done), but when the camera catches him in repose, his eyes bright green with tears (there are copious tears, in this Big, Dumb Movie, though they mostly gleam and don’t fall). Cruise has become this thing—this crazy Scientologist bone-breaking stunt-doing machine thing. It’s hard to remember that, in 1986, he was just a boy-man who looked beautiful when he cried.

Yes, Top Gun: Your hot boy-men. They talk tough and fly killing machines but they’re also grieving for their dead pilot dads and loving their wives and kids. And, in not even slightly subtextual ways, each other. “This is giving me a hard-on,” murmurs one trainee to another as they’re watching footage of a plane being shot down. “Don’t tease me,” the other murmurs back. And the locker room scenes. Hardly-there towels draped across boy-men who are, in turn, draped near other boy-men. And sweaty, shirtless (except Goose) boy-men grunting and lunging, making beach volleyball look like a completely new and shocking thing, to the teenagers of 1986.

I’d never seen this kind of male objectification before. I was used to getting eyefuls of the female kind, but this…Well. Then and now, I just want to wrap all those hurting, reckless, six-packed boy-men up in a horny, compassionate embrace. It’s not a very smart or enlightened instinct, but instincts seldom are.

People applauded, as the credits rolled. People took selfies and laughed and hummed that insidiously catchy theme music and got ready to throw their 3D glasses away. (3D Top Gun—now that was new.)

Speaking of credits rolling: This has to be all I have to say in defense of a bad movie. My first blog post in eight months, and it’s about Top Gun. Second-person Top Gun, no less. I’m an idiot, and I’m probably hideously wrong about almost everything I’ve written here—as blind about the object of my nostalgia as anyone else is about theirs. But there it is. Top Gun, you doof: I kind of love you.

Archer understands.

I Remember the Ansibles

Last Tuesday night, while I was at Mt. Sinai hospital, Peter texted me that Ursula K. Le Guin had died.

I was at the hospital with my friend Megan, who was in labour with a boy she’d already named Monty. Her mother was there too, exhausted from a trip down from Sudbury and a sore back and a night of only a few hours’ sleep, thanks to Megan’s, “I think my water broke…” at 2:15 a.m. Megan was still fairly comfortable, when I got Peter’s text. I clutched my phone and felt a wave of something profoundly weird: sort-of nausea; sort-of adrenalin rush. Moments later, there it was on the CP24 newscrawl on the TV at the foot of Megan’s bed: Ursula K. Le Guin, award-winning science fiction author, has died at 88.

In 2002, when my first novel was, at long last, finished and ready to go to press, I wrote to Ursula. Penguin Canada had asked me to get in touch with authors I admired to ask them to blurb the book. I spent days on my letter to her. I pared back the adulation in the opening paragraph in what I thought was a very impressive show of restraint and professionalism. I allowed the mention of ansibles to stay. I thought the result was pretty fabulous.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the letter. That was five computers ago, in a different house, in a different marriage; there’s no hard copy in any folder, or not that I’ve found, anyway.

She sent me a reply a month or so later via a handmade postcard that I immediately displayed in the most visible place I could think of: the fridge. Thick card stock, rough-edged. She’d done an ink drawing on one side, of a cat curled up asleep. On the back, more ink: my name, written by her. Other words: Thank you…will try to get to it…looks wonderful…

I can’t be sure now, though, because I can’t find the postcard. Three fridges ago. That different marriage. All the boxes I packed, while leaving that other house; all those boxes unpacked, but I’ve never found it.

And then it was 2005, and Penguin Canada sent me out to Vancouver to promote my second book. I was staying at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, wide-eyed, alone, vertiginously free of toddlers and tasks. (I almost cried when a hotel employee asked me how I’d like my coffee, in the morning, when it was brought to my room.) The hotel was full of people: a conference, I soon realized, whose theme was English literature and education. I wandered about, tippy with the vertigo, and there she was, standing in the middle of the main corridor. She was tinier than I’d imagined (shouldn’t our idols always be at least as tall as we are?). Her face was far more lined than it was in her author photo, but I recognized her immediately anyway. She was standing with an elderly man, holding his arm. I remember that they were both wearing khaki raincoats.

I wobbled over to them. I think I said, “Ms. Le Guin?”. She turned and looked up at me and smiled. And I babbled. I said something like, “I wrote to you two years ago because I had a book coming out and you wrote back—you wrote me a postcard with a cat on it—and after that you wrote a letter that said you wouldn’t have time to read the book, but that’s OK, and I’m here because I’ve written another book, and I love you.”

Something like that.

I’d like to remember that her smile didn’t waver, but I’m pretty sure it did. She said, “Ah!”, brightly. And then, “We’re going for a walk; trying to get it in before the rain.” And I, flushing and nauseous, stammered, “Yes…Vancouver…rain…” And off they went, slowly, toward the door. Her hand still on his arm.

I went back to my room. I tore a piece of paper from my notebook and I wrote to her with one of the hotel pens. I apologized for my babbling. I expressed my admiration in measured, precise terms.

I can’t be sure now, though, because I have no copy of this missive. I folded it up and dropped it with the front desk, with her name on it. I nurtured a hope, for some hours thereafter, that I’d hear from her. The hope made me feel stupid, even in its earliest incarnation. By the next day, I flushed all over again, thinking about it.

I can’t be sure about her books now, either. I have an increasingly terrible memory for books and movies, hers included. And yet I do remember how I felt when I read them. I remember that her words were, with Lloyd Alexander’s, the only ones that ever made me want to cry because they were so beautiful.

And I remember being 21, and thinking I was pregnant, and finding an essay of hers in an anthology called (I think) The Choices We Made, about abortion. She’d chosen to have one. I was thinking I’d have to, too. And these very real words of hers made me want to cry even more than her others had, because I was freaking out, and there she was to steady me.

I discovered the rest of her non-fiction around the same time. I scribbled quotes in my “quote book”, until it was ridiculous: I was essentially transcribing entire essays, because all of them shook me, made me think, “Exactly!”, made me feel vulnerable and indestructible, as a writer and a woman.

After baby Monty was born, in the darkest, deepest part of the night, I walked with him. His mother and grandmother were sleeping, in bed and reclining vinyl chair. I held him and I walked back and forth across the room, because whenever I tried to ease him down into the bassinet, he mewled, and his closed eyes fluttered, and his hard little heels thrust at me from within his flannel swaddling. So I walked, jiggling him and patting his back, swaying and patting his back. I held him, this solid, warm, new mammal, and I thought about Ursula K. Le Guin, and how she’d done this too. How she’d jiggled newborns and also hugged cats and written words. How she’d drawn pictures on postcards to send to people who loved her—to young writers who’d get older and lose the postcards and forget the words, but not the love.

 

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Part II

Part I of this story can be found here.

 

October 22, 2017

“Life is complex. Your next night in doesn’t have to be,” proclaims the Miss Vickie’s ad in the middle of my Facebook feed (because I haven’t bothered to install Ad Blocker).

Kevin is still in our backyard. When I peek out a window, he’s sometimes by the shed, sometimes on the glider, which is behind a bush (now in scarlet autumnal splendour mode) that makes him hard to see. Blueberry Panda is always near him—either on the glider beside him, or on the ground next to him, or on his sleeping bag when he’s in it. She’s more dog than cat, the way she stays by him. Then again, until a few months ago she was an indoor cat. He’s the only thing she’s sure of, now that she’s outside all the time.

Life is complex.

#

We had to kick him out into the ravine. Again. Of course we did.

“We were nice to you this time, but next time…” Finger-wagging at a toddler after having given in to the toddler. Just as fruitless as that; just as defeated-making, as the words come out. “You can hang out with Blueberry Panda in our yard during the day but you have to go somewhere else at night.” So there.

He hasn’t come to see us today. Hasn’t asked us for money, or to use our bathroom or our phone. This might mean he’s in “altered” mode. It means he won’t be charming and smiling, if and when we talk to him. His gaze won’t be clear. He’ll probably start shouting, sometime after midnight. That’s when he sees the demons most vividly and banishes them most loudly. He says he thinks he can and does banish them. He thinks he’s God, or a god—something all-powerful and all-seeing, living on the surface of the sun with his cat while nothingness fills void fills non-linear time and lava spews from the subway tracks by the ravine and his family betrays him, again and again, with their homophobic cruelty and their financial double-crossing.

His Facebook feed is an all-caps record of solitary madness—in 2017, anyway, and for much of 2016. In 2015, a couple of people made comments on his posts (a video of Blueberry playing with her favourite toy; a photo of a Madonna concert he went to in NYC); in 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, more posts, more friends. In 2010, his sister, going back and forth with him in Trinidadian patois.

A few of his 2017 posts have like and love reactions. I hover over them, hoping for a name, someone I can try to get in touch with, but the emojis are all his own.

#

Yesterday a guy he met in a park bought him breakfast, after he left the Salvation Army shelter where he’d spent the night. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t eaten today. He’s been in our yard since 6 a.m. (after a presumably abortive attempt to stay overnight with an estranged uncle). I keep expecting him to round the corner like he used to in the summer, when he lived full-time in the ravine in the tent we gave him; expect him to wave and call out a cheery, “Hi, neighbours!” But he’s just there in the back, standing, sitting, rocking, picking things up off the ground and throwing them over the fence, methodically and decisively.

The tent was taken away when the cops and paramedics and Salvation Army Gateway workers took him away, a couple of weeks ago, in cuffs, strapped to a stretcher. He was back a couple of days after that: discharged from the hospital, sent to one shelter, then another, until he checked out and hightailed it back to ravine and fence and Blueberry Panda and us.

He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in chemistry and philosophy. His email is a utoronto alumni address. On his Twitter profile he wrote, in 2012, that he loves chemistry and music, dancing, having good times with good friends.

#

Days earlier, I emailed our city councillor and got a swift response from someone on her staff. She forwarded my message to someone else at the city; he’d get back to me. Five days later I emailed again; again she answered quickly, assured me she’ll follow up.

More days. Nothing.

#

In previous weeks we tried to bargain.

“We’ll give you a token and some cash if you promise to go to that bathhouse you’ve been to before, that’s $32 a night.” He went. We heard him coughing a few hours later, back in our yard. He told us the next morning that he couldn’t bear to be away from Blueberry Panda.

“Kevin. It’s getting cold. You need a roof over your head.”

“My skin itches at shelters. People steal things. And the itching is terrible.”

“We’ll give you breakfast if you promise to go to a shelter.” He wouldn’t promise. He didn’t eat.

#

The only shelter that accepts homeless people with pets is always full. I’m assuming so, anyway, though I’ve only been calling them for a couple of days. “Bless you for what you’ve done for him,” the shelter staffer said to me. “So many others wouldn’t. Keep calling. Something will open up.”

And if it does, and Kevin goes there, and Blueberry Panda’s afraid of the Rottweilers and German Shepherds and even the other cats? If he does, and his cat “tells” him (as she tells him other things) she won’t stay there, and they both end up in our backyard or across the fence again, as the nights get colder and the meteorological pundits continue to predict the snowiest, coldest, longest winter in recent memory?

#

I can’t stop looking at a couple of photos I’ve downloaded from his FB page and stuck together in a TIFF file. Kevin in 2009 and Kevin in 2016, side by side.

The difference isn’t simply that in one he’s clean-cut and healthy and in the other he’s all long, wild, curly hair, on head and face; the difference is in his eyes. Someone I showed the photos to said, of the most recent one, “He’s gone. You can tell.” Except that he’s not: he’s all-powerful God, vanquisher of demons, and he’s also the guy who says, “I have nowhere to go. I have nowhere to go” as he plucks at the cigarette butts he picked up near the subway station and rearranges them on the glider. The guy who feeds his cat too much and shrugs, smiles wryly as he says, “I must have been stupid when I called my uncle last night, thinking I missed him.” He’s not gone. He’s just not one.

We can’t help him. It feels like we’re the only ones helping him. His Salvation Army Gateway workers have told us they’ve done all they can, dropping by the ravine, offering him a shelter bed, a meal, a shower—and a sleeping bag, when he said no to all those other things. They’ll keep coming by, but they can’t force him to do anything.

He isn’t sick enough to be involuntarily admitted anywhere. He’s too sick to be living like this.

Does he have a doctor? A social worker? A single friend other than his cat?

He cannot stay in our yard.

#

We talk to him around 6 p.m. Mention that we heard him at 6 this morning. “Oh?” he says. “6?”
“Yes,” we say. “You were talking. Listening to music.” “I don’t remember talking,” he says. “So when did you get back here last night?” “Oh, I wasn’t here last night. No. Not here.” “So when did you get back? Considering we heard you at 6.” “I don’t really…I don’t remember.”

Gaze sliding away—canny? Genuinely confused? Calculating? A teenager trying to see what he can get away with?

Toddler teenager God and man.

#

“Spare some change?” the guy sitting on the floor in Bay subway says, and I walk past. I’m doing my bit, right? Kevin is my bit—more than a bit, in fact. Of course it must work like this, right?

 

October 23

It’s 8:30 p.m.: dark outside; raining outside. Kevin’s in our yard, and he’s looping—round and round, declaiming about being alone with Blueberry Panda on the surface of a giant sun round and round about nothing else existing in time and space nothing and no one except him almighty able to harness the power of his sun for purposes of destruction.

The paramedics arrive about five minutes after we call 9-1-1; the first cop car a couple of minutes after that. Others follow.

“Kevin? Hey, Kevin.”

Six cops, all with flashlights, tromp along the narrow, glistening, overgrown path that leads to the back of the yard. Kevin’s hunkered down with his sodden sleeping bag over his head, rocking, looping, round and round.

“Kevin—let’s get you up. Let’s get you somewhere dry.”

No,” he snaps, briefly free of the loop—then resumes. “Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown location because we are the only creatures in all of time and space. Blueberry Panda and I are in an unknown—”

“Kevin.”

No.”

I’m crying, pressed against the wall of our house.

In the end he goes with them quietly. Two cops stay behind with us in the almost-fully-dark. The big burly one says, “You guys warm my heart, you really do. Your compassion—it’s amazing. But…”

We talk about how we won’t let Kevin into the yard again. We talk about how helpless we feel, because he’s going to come back. The cop refers to the “revolving door” of these things—homelessness, mental illness, drugs, hospitals, shelters, aaaand begin again. Looping.

When we return to the front lawn, cop cars and ambulance are still parked facing the wrong way on our one-way street. One by one, they leave. We retire to bed and a bottle of wine; at last, we say, a full night of sleep for all of us, including Kevin.

At 3 a.m. the phone rings. It’s a CAMH mental health worker; she wants some background on Kevin, and wants to let us know that the hospital has just sent him somewhere in a cab, having not assessed or medicated him. As predicted, he was lucid by the time someone there spoke to him. He answered questions. He got in the cab. He was supposed to end up at a shelter, but who knew—he could walk a different way.

At 9 a.m. he rings the doorbell. He tells Peter he’s sorry about the previous night. He promises he will never stay in our backyard again. And then he says he’s lost Blueberry Panda: he was carrying all his stuff and her plump self up the alley across the street (unprecedented; he must have actually been going somewhere else) and she leapt from his arms and disappeared among the parked cars and backyard fences and tall weedy grass. She disappeared.

Peter had to get on an international call. He had to close the door. When he was done, he heard Kevin crying, in that familiar, lilting way, “’Berry! ‘Berry!” Maybe she was already back in the ravine, or back near the food bowl we’d dedicated to her. He wandered off, still calling. And there’s been no sign of him in the hours since. No sign of her, either. Did he find her and head off wherever? Will he be back to look tomorrow?

I don’t want him to be gone forever. I never did. I want to know where he is.

 

October 25

Blueberry comes back around just after Kevin does (I’m pretty sure she followed his voice). He sits in the backyard with her. Tells Peter he’ll be going to a shelter at night. And he does: at about 7 p.m. he tells us he’s heading off. I give him a token. We stand in the back doorway and talk for a bit.

 

October 26

Kevin starts a fire in our yard in the morning. Peter charges out. Minutes later he writes to me: “Told him he couldn’t light fires back here. Look at all the leaf litter. Look at the fucking fence. He insisted that his degree in chemistry gave him qualifications in ‘controlled fires’, and that I had to trust him on this. I reminded him that he went through phases where he thought that he was a great red ball of fire, and I didn’t have to trust him at all.”

And yet I want to. How is that possible? He’s starting fires.

He goes back to the ravine for the rest of the day.

 

October 28

5 a.m. He’s coughing—back in our yard, after three whole nights at a shelter. Peter goes out and tells him he can’t stay there. Reminds him he promised not to. Says he can’t visit Blueberry Panda in our yard anymore, either, as he keeps making promises and breaking them. Kevin gathers his things and moves them to the street. We watch him pace and listen to him mumble and wonder if he’s about to loop again. We don’t go back to bed for another hour, when he retires to his customary spot in the ravine. There’s a plastic Adirondack chair where the tent used to be.

I fall into a dream-spiked half-sleep. Kevin’s all over the dreams. A woman comes to pick him up in a car, and she’s a friend, and he’s suddenly clean and smiling and clear-eyed, saying goodbye to us. Because this is the fairy tale I want, of course. Maybe we don’t see him for a few months. Maybe he rings the doorbell sometime in 2018 and we don’t recognize him at first, but as soon as he says our names we exclaim and maybe even hug him—and he’ll smell like soap, of course, and his clothes won’t smell at all. He’ll tell us about his apartment. He’ll show us photos of Blueberry Panda on his new phone. He’ll say he just wanted to tell us how well he was doing, and to thank us again for being there when he was hitting bottom.

It’s a not entirely altruistic fairy tale.

#

He and Blueberry seem to be gone again. It’s raining. Her bowl is sitting under a tree, hours after we put it out, the food in it turning to mush.

Except, in the afternoon, there she is in a tiny dry patch by our porch. Which means he’ll be back.

#

I feel like my heart’s been racing for weeks: a bunny’s heart, permanently startled.

 

November 1

There’s room at the inn. I’ve called every couple of hours, as the front desk person told me to weeks ago. And at last, at last, a bed at the Bethlehem United shelter for Kevin, and a place for Blueberry Panda with him.

I’m at work. Peter hurries to the ravine and tells Kevin. Peter rents a Zipcar and hurries to pick it up at a Canadian Tire sort of near our house. When he gets back, Kevin is starting little fires. There’s no Blueberry in the carrier. “She got upset,” Kevin says. “She ran away. I can’t go without her.”

Peter yells at him—articulately, I’m sure. He convinces Kevin to put his stuff in the trunk and himself in the front seat. Drives him to Bethlehem United, way north-west of our place. He tells me later that Kevin was conversational.

He drops Kevin off at the shelter. Promises to bring Blueberry Panda as soon as we can wrangle her (which will be hard; she gets skittish when Kevin’s not around). We don’t catch her that day or the morning of the next—but that’s OK, because Kevin comes back, of course, swearing he’s going to get her into that carrier this time; swearing he’s going back to the shelter. He’ll be gone before 4 p.m., he tells Peter, who tells me that he doesn’t believe him. But when Peter goes out onto the porch at 4, Kevin’s stuff is gone. The carrier’s gone. He calls the shelter; yes, Kevin showed up, carrier in hand.

We call for Blueberry one more time that night, as we put out kibble. Just in case.

 

November 3

I wake up at 5 because I think I hear him across the fence. “Did you hear that?” I whisper. “Yes,” says Peter. But in the morning there’s no sign that anyone’s been there.

 

Walk On

Emma says, “This is my third-last night here before I go.”

We walk to Staples and buy bankers boxes. She sifts through her own baby pictures and finds some to pack. I don’t cry, when I look at the photos, but I do feel gutted. That plump baby with the fuzzy blonde hair that stuck straight up is gone. I can’t hold her anymore. Except of course she’s not gone; she’s grown into a person who is so very fully here, in herself and the world.

Her dad drives her to Montreal; I take the train. I walk out of the station into a night that feels like fall—up McGill College to Sherbrooke, navigating roving bands of toga-sheet-draped frosh. One of them face-plants on the pavement and his friends laugh and laugh. He leaps up as if he hasn’t just broken his nose and laughs too, wetly.

In the morning I walk the 25 minutes from my bed and breakfast to Emma’s place. I love the walk, which takes me past those Montreal apartment buildings I wished I’d lived in, when I was a student—the old stone ones with metal steps spiraling to second floors, and balconies. Emma’s apartment has a balcony. We sit on it after she’s given me the tour; the sun is hot and the ivy is bright green and full of teeny tiny grapes.

Her father’s here too. We go to IKEA, the three of us, and later we put together what we buy there, and then we sit in her huge living room and talk. After a bit we walk to Emma’s boyfriend’s new place. When I introduce myself to his roommate, I say, “Hi: I’m Caitlin, Emma’s sis—” Everyone laughs weirded-out, nervous laughs, including me. “Sorry—Emma’s mother,” I say—but there it is. Not early-onset dementia, but evidence of my deep, reflexive certainty that it’s still me, moving into an apartment in Montreal; that I can’t be as old as I am, with a daughter as old as she is. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was the one weaving through these wet streets, wondering what my classes would be like, or sticking photos of family, friends and cats onto the wall by my bed.

The five of us (Emma’s dad, me, Emma, her boyfriend and his mother) go for dinner at an Italian place on Laurier. Emma’s dad and I split a bottle of red.

We make references to shared things, he and I. I wasn’t sure we would. We mention the apartments we had when we met, in fourth year. The slog from mine to his—unbearably long, in the winter (which lasted most of the academic year).

I cry a little, as I walk back to my B&B that night.

The next morning we buy her a whack of groceries, a kettle, a food processor. Her kitchen—from food processor to hardwood floors to enormous woodblock counter space—is so much better than any kitchen I’ve ever had. I put stuff in cupboards and tell her she can rearrange it, of course, and then I finally internalize the fact that this is her kitchen, and realize that it was presumptuous of me to put anything anywhere in it, and I feel both wobbly and idiotic.

It’s pouring and windy and cold, but she and I go out in it, after her dad hits the road. I buy her a pair of boots because all she has are sandals and Converse, and apparently it’s already autumn. We buy poster putty and tape and return to her apartment, where we put things up on her bedroom walls. I get splinters from unfinished picture frames, and pepper her pristine white wall with pencil markings, and make her hold the tape measure because I’m not doing it right—it’s all very mathesque, and there are four pictures that have to be hung just so, and I’m certain they’re going to look terrible, if they stay up at all. They do. We reward ourselves with a trip to Starbucks (for the WiFi), and then we meet up with her boyfriend and his mother and have dinner at a another Italian restaurant—the one her dad and his dad used to go to, back when.

The pictures are, miraculously, still up when we return to her place. We go to the kitchen and I tell her again how amazing it is. She starts to cry as we walk the wonderful long hall to her room. She says she knows it’ll all be fine—better than fine, maybe—but it’s suddenly real, not just a thing she’s been waiting for; it’s big change, and it’s now, and she can’t help it: the tears have been waiting all day, since her dad left, and all weekend, in fact, ever since she said goodbye to the bunny and the cats, and she knew this would happen. I hold her for a bit, this young woman who used to be that plump blonde baby who slept against my chest when I was too tired to put her back in her crib.

After a moment she draws away and mops at her nose. I lie (hideously, gloriously replete with pasta) on her bed, beneath the photos she’s taped to the wall, and she sits, and we talk until her boyfriend comes to pick her up. They’re going to get a few groceries, before the store closes at 11. I walk as far as I can with them. My mother calls and I hand the phone to Emma. 28 years ago, when I was stacking boxes in my basement bedroom, preparing for my own move to Montreal, my mother came in and hugged me and said “Going away is the right thing to do, and I’m so proud of you and so happy for you” and started to cry. I’d seen her cry maybe twice in my 19 years, and we hardly ever hugged, so this was all very unexpected and unsettling but also right. I was leaving. I’d be back for holidays and in the summer, but things, I, wouldn’t be the same.

Emma finishes talking and hands me back my phone.

I hug her again, when we get to the street I have to turn down, and we say goodbye. She doesn’t cry this time. I don’t either, though I do tear up briefly when I turn and watch them walk together, gesturing, holding hands. And of course, being replete with emotion, memory, and their dangerous progeny, symbolism, I remember when she finally learned to walk, at 15 months. I was convinced she never would; she’d been cruising around our little house for awhile, clinging to bits of furniture and our hands, but showed no signs of wanting to be fully bipedal. She chose Home Depot, in the end, over our little house. I remember that she was wearing her brown corduroy OshKosh overalls. By then her blonde hair had grown into a wispy, sort-of mullet that curled over her turtleneck. We set her down at the head of one of the wide, gleaming aisles and off she went, bandy-legged and reeling.

Off she goes, long-legged and graceful, and I watch her for just a moment before I walk away.

She thinks it looks like she has a weird bald spot, in this photo, but I disagree.

Tyre, tyre, burning bright

I have no idea what I was thinking. What the hell was I thinking?

I was 50,000 words in, then. I’ve since written about 26,000 more. Not bad, right? Not bad for someone who usually requires years, not months, to get into the tens of thousands of words.

Except that my sense of the rightness of the story declines even as its word count goes up. It started out strong and fairly conventional (part I) and continued strong, if not quite as conventional (part II). Part III, though, is quagmire, tire fire, explosion of Silly String.

I’ve felt like this before, right? I think so, but I don’t feel so.

It’s too ambitious. That might be it. Part III is a succession of five Marys, all the same; Marys who die while giving birth to their next self. Parthenogenesis and cloning, in cave and deserted manor house and asylum. Five POVs but also only one. A single body with five internal voices that manifest as singing colours.

What the HELL was I thinking.

It’s too scattered. That might be it, too. My first three books took years to finish because I wrote them in order, chapter bit by chapter bit, in longhand. I never leapt to an out-of-sequence scene, no matter how vivid that scene might have been in my head. That changed with books four and five. The Laptop Revolution. The Dawn of the Haphazard. I got the books done, but the process felt weird. Unsettled.

Maybe this book represents the Mid-morning of the Haphazard? Or perhaps High Noon, after which some other order will prevail?

I was frequently the student who insisted that this time was going to be the time I actually did get a terrible mark on an exam. The student whose “this time” ended up being a crying of wolf, every time, because I mostly kept doing well. I’ve fretted about each of my now-published books, too, and they’ve turned out to be varying degrees of fine, but now…now I might actually lose a book at 76,000 words. (I’ve lost books at 40,000; working my way up?) “Losing it” may, in fact, mean finishing, many months from now, and sending it to interested agents, and hearing what I heard from my former agent: “I can’t sell this.” He said that about The Pattern Scars, and it ended up published—but this time. This time I just don’t know.

And yet I keep writing, hoping to god there’s no wolf.

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Keeping Score

Funny, how intense is the nostalgia generated by Decembers and epic franchise movies. Lord of the Rings, for example: Whenever I watch the first installment of the trilogy now, and catch that opening glimpse of Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Shire, I remember my sister grabbing at my hand in the theatre as both of us teared up with relief and recognition. Later, as Aragorn led the Fellowship out of the Mines of Moria, without Gandalf, I remember grabbing my sister’s hand and pressing it against my belly, within which my second child was performing a complicated underwater percussion solo with her feet. I tell said daughter (now 14) this, every time we watch the movie as a family. It is, for both of us, eye-rollingly predictable (“Here it is! This part right here! You went nuts right here!”), but tough: it has become part of the experience of this movie. Memory forever layered with image.

Sometimes the nostalgia is even more complicated: a movie remembering another movie that I remember; a tangle of personal and meta. So it was with The Force Awakens, last December, and so it was this December, with Rogue One. (Mildest of spoilers ahead…) Somewhat unexpectedly, I found that Rogue One did nostalgia better than its holiday predecessor. A mere day later, trying to figure out how it pulled this off, I’ve come up with the following: because the Big Three cast members weren’t—with one brief, CGI’d exception—involved, many of its call-outs to canon are fairly subtle, in some cases almost peripheral (that little Imperial box droid zipping along in the background; a brief appearance by that snub-nosed dude and his creature buddy, who would, only a short time later, though in a different movie, take exception to Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina; blue milk!). This makes for a story that relies more on its own merits than it does on immediate, unquestioning love for familiar faces. (I must admit, though, that that first shot of the back of Grand Moff Tarkin’s head made me giddier than I could ever have expected. I didn’t even need the CGI’d face. The hair was enough.) No lightsaber until the very end. Minimal use of Force—though there was early use of the Force theme. And that’s really why I think I liked this movie better than last year’s. The music.

Which is weird. I love the original trilogy John Williams soundtracks with the intensity of those two unlikely Tatooine suns, and Williams also did the score for The Force Awakens—so why did this music, by Michael Giacchino, hit me harder?

Something about familiarity accompanied by change. A woman dipping back into a place adored by a girl. Memory satisfying transposed.*

You know from its second frame that Rogue One is going to be the same old Star Wars experience, but different. “A long time ago”: the words are there, and the notes of the familiar fanfare are already sounding in your head—except they don’t sound. There’s no fanfare, no crawl. The (literal) tone is set.

Giacchino’s soundtrack evokes Williams from the outset, in sweep and orchestration, just as Williams’ soundtracks evoked Mahler and Holst. Listen: the skirl of oboe from Return of the Jedi! The familiar fanfare for two notes, at which point it’s inverted. Piccolo and harp. Syncopations and muted trumpets. The timpani rolls. Snippets of the Imperial March. The same dreamy violin line that accompanied the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back—but only for a moment. There are so many such moments: fleeting, delighted recognition, followed by newness. It should have felt like a giant tease, but it didn’t.

I would have been well content with Giacchino’s music alone. That’s saying something (see my comment re: Tatooine’s suns, above). This new music was enough.

But then the end. The cargo ship from that galaxy far, far away, in 1977. The gleaming white corridors; the desperate Rebels; Vader advancing. The princess draped in white (“Computer-generated face,” my brain told me as I teared up, “and super-weird, but I don’t care”)and, at last, at last, the other music. The first. Echoes of Mahler and Holst and Williams and now, like a melody inverted and transposed, Giacchino.

Meta-morphosis.

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*All of which puts me in mind of South Park’s savagely brilliant take on nostalgia, during its mostly excellent, if horrifying, 2016 election season: the “’member berries.” “We all want something new, but that makes us remember the things we love. We want to ‘member. ‘Member Chewbacca?”

 

 

Hopes Springs Infernal

I am really, really falling down on the blogging front. This disappoints me—though I have the very best reason for falling down: I’m writing with the kind of joy and focus I haven’t felt since three books ago, with The Pattern Scars.

I did a reading last week, as part of the Words at the Wise reading series at the small but mighty Wise Bar on Bloor West. I’ve done many readings over the years, the most recent of which have all been via ChiZine Publications, at my launches. I was nervous about this latest one, because it was out of my comfort zone: an organizer and other writers I didn’t know; an audience I mostly wouldn’t know either—plus (and possibly most nerve-wrackingly) an excerpt that wasn’t from a finished book.

The other two authors were Claire Horsnell and Andrew Simpson (who was also the organizer). They read before I did, and their pieces were funny and smart—totally engaging. The small-but-mighty space was full of people who were attentive and appreciative. Of course, I still got my customary right-before jitters. But once I was at the mic and talking, it was all OK. More than OK. I spoke new words—words which, despite the joy and focus with which I’ve been setting them down on the page, I was afraid might not work aloud. They did.

I fear and resent hope. Hope is an almost embarrassing thing to have felt, when it’s crushed, and I’d kind of prefer not to let it push up into my brain at all. But it does, time after here-we-go-again time, and it is now. From Gibraltar in 1781 to Quebec in 1878—from a girl named Ana de la Rosa to a man named Louis Riel—I feel like I have something, here, that might be something. I said at the event last week that reading from a work-in-progress is frequently considered seriously jinxing by writers who are otherwise perfectly sensible, non-superstitious people. Setting down the fact of my newest hope may be similarly foolhardy. But there it is. I’m 50,000 words into a story that excites me beyond even the excitement I felt writing about Bronze Age Crete. (Yes. Truly.)

“A madman came by steamer today from Montreal.” That’s how it starts. I can’t wait to find out how it ends.

Damn you, hope.

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Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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