A Quiet Place

We were out for dinner the other night with friends, talking about the dumpster-fire demise of my former publisher, and other examples of egregious business dealings in the small-press world. One of our friends asked, mostly rhetorically, why so many authors allowed themselves to be taken in. I said that I was one such author—that I’d been profoundly unsettled by my publisher’s behaviour (both professionally and interpersonally) for a good long while before our relationship ended, but that I’d done nothing about it. What they offered me was something I still desperately needed: my name on a beautifully-designed cover. My books on shelves. My books on awards lists. My presence requested at readings and on panels. The promise of a new contract.

And it’s the strangest thing: I don’t feel as if I need any of that, now. I’m not sure I even want it.

So much of the writing space in my head used to be filled with unpleasant, grasping emotions: envy and resentment of other authors, say, and the shame and chagrin that resulted. The creeping sense of being left behind and overlooked.

There were positive nooks in that mental writing space, of course. Writing, and planning for writing, can be an incomparable rush. But the pleasure was never pure, when I was mired in jealousy, or depressed about how long it was taking me to get a book done. Far too often, my hunger wasn’t just for the writing—and this hunger twisted right back around and devoured me.

Maybe I’m just down—profoundly exhausted by my latest book, which has taken over four years to write and rewrite. Maybe it’s the lingering effects of my former publisher’s demise, and the fact that none of my five books has a home where people could find them, if they looked. I don’t know, though. I don’t feel down. There’s no self-pitying, disingenuous noise in my head. What there is is quiet. It’s so odd. The last time there was writing-related quiet in my head might have been when I was a teenager, producing a slew of Alexander the Great shorts, plus three novels. It was the stories that mattered then, and not what happened to them when they were done.

One obvious move would be to work on separating hunger from the worst parts of ego. Self-awareness and self-control. Those sound good.

For now, though, I don’t know when I’ll write again. I’m thinking about finding a new, online home for my five books, and this may be enough to kick me back into hungry-in-a-positive-way gear. I can wait and see. I have a day job, and the teaching that keeps me involved in other people’s writing. For now, I feel calm, not becalmed.

This—as Johnny Carson (and then Dana Carvey) might have said—is some weird, wild stuff.


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)

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—”



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.


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.



*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?”



Ode to a Cicada

When I was in Greece 30 years ago, my classics classmates and I stayed in double rooms in hotels and got up at the crack of dawn to pile onto tour buses.

When I was in Greece last month, my family and I stayed here, at the Villa Calista on Crete.







The photos almost capture the splendour of the place. What they don’t capture at all, of course, is sound—in this case, the relentless screaming of cicadas. The place was otherwise so quiet: pretty much just wind and distant bleating and the mewing of invisible kittens. (The kittens were apparently at the bottom of the little olive orchard; while we saw their mom, and she bonked Elder Daughter Emma affectionately, we never did see them. Luckily, there were hordes of visible cats absolutely everywhere else.) But the cicadas. The metallic, grindy shrieking that swelled in waves, from olive tree to olive tree, as if each group felt compelled to be more stridently impressive than the others. “No way,” I thought as I stood by the pool for the first time, sweaty, breathless because it was so damn beautiful but also because the drive from Heraklion had been so nerve-wracking. “I will never get used to this sound.”

But I did. It faded, somehow. Became part of the beauty and the solitude. (It faded for real at night, when things went very quiet indeed.) We didn’t forget about the cicadas, though. In fact, we sought them out: stood with our noses inches away from olive trunks or branches, speaking in coaxing or frustrated tones. “Here, cicada cicada. Come on: show yourself…” The closest we came to an actual sighting was at ancient Aptera, where a couple of them bumbled out of trees and into Younger Daughter Stella, who didn’t seem quite as eager to meet them as the rest of us were.



There were cicadas in or on this tree. Possibly hundreds of them.


We ferried to Santorini, after our idyllic days in the villa. And lo: there were no cicadas. Actual, daytime quiet—except for the irritable braying of nearby donkeys…




…and the patter of kibble as it went into the bowl that fed our resident feral kittens…





…and, as it turned out, a bunch of adult cats who obviously got wind of the kibble news.




When we left Greece, I figured that would be it for cicadas and us for a good long time.

Only it wasn’t. This guy was lurking on our porch the week after we got back.




Because we’d never actually seen one of his Greek brethren up close, we had to Google it to be sure—but yes: a cicada. A single, silent cicada.

I took more pictures than I probably needed to. But come on: look at that face!





We relocated him from the porch table to the rose bush, thinking this might deter predators (like our cats) and provide him with sappy sustenance.







We checked in on the rose bush the next day: no cicada. “He’s moved on,” we said cheerfully. “Yup: he’s off finding a more appropriate home and he’ll be just fine.”

One morning a week later, I went out to throw some recycling in the bin beside the porch. I turned, took a step back to the front door, and felt something crunch beneath my shoe. It was a significant crunch. I glanced down—and there he was: our lone cicada, flattened, oozing a yellowy-green liquid.

After all the shrieking on Crete and the silent, surprise photo shoot in Toronto, this was not how the cicada story was supposed to end. I was supposed to glimpse him, before my foot descended—was supposed to cry out joyfully and pluck him up and deposit back on the rose bush. He might disappear again, of course, but he’d be back: the porch of the Magic Bungalow was obviously his chosen place.

I’m possibly a little too upset about how the story did end. Stupid messy, abrupt, arbitrary smoosh, when the story had such a coherent and pleasing arc. Stupid story about a stupid bug. Get it together, me.




Living Rooms

The other night, Grace, a friend and former neighbour, invited me over for an evening of writing talk with some friends of hers. They were an inspiring, inspired bunch: women navigating the intertwined drudgeries and joys of life and art. Some have known each other for years; others had never met until that night. I talked, maybe too much (there was Prosecco involved). They listened, and asked questions of me and of each other. They were funny, warm, curious, passionate.

I don’t think I’ve ever carried all my books anywhere, before, but I took them to Grace’s. They were passed from hand to hand around the table and I felt like I was looking at them from a vertiginous sort of remove, even though I was even then describing their provenance in detail. Five books. Mine— products of Montreal, Mexico, Toronto; early love and lost love; spiral-bound notebooks and laptop screens. It’s only been 13 years since that first one, but it felt like a hugely long time as I sat there, watching it go around the table.

There was another odd moment, right at the outset, when one of the guests asked how I knew Grace. I said, “I used to live there,” and pointed out her living room window at the window of what used to be my living room, right across the street. I lived there for eleven years. I’ve been back, of course, to pick up the girls when they were too little to get to my place themselves; a couple of times, soon after the divorce, for Christmas brunch. I’ve been back to the street to visit Grace and my other wondrous former neighbours. These returns have always been difficult, but also predictable, manageable. For some reason, though, as I pointed at that house the other night, its presence was strange and sad in a way that felt old, new, tangled.

Later, when I was describing my first novel’s path to publication, I talked about getting the call from my agent. “Penguin wants it…advance of…” I’d started to cry, I told the women around the table. I sat at my desk in the dean’s office at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and my computer screen blurred and ran. I told them that I nearly hyperventilated on the streetcar ride home (which seemed to proceed in slow motion). And I told them that when I finally opened the front door of the house across the street from this one, my one-year-old daughter was standing at the top of the stairs in that denim dress of hers, with the embroidered mandala-shape on the bodice. That she cried, “I love you, Mommy!”, as her dad had urged her to. That her dad was standing behind her, smiling at me as he brandished a bottle of champagne above our daughter’s fuzzy blonde head.

I stopped talking and waved my hand around in front of my face, breathing the tears away. The women I’d just met sat there with me—funny and warm, curious and passionate, holding my books in their hands.

Time’s Phalanx (or: Alexander, Amyntas, and Me)

Alexander of Macedon, you persistent, provocative ghost, you.

A couple of days ago I did a guest Q&A at Alyx Dellamonica’s University of Toronto creative writing class. One of the students asked me what my trajectory had been—how and when I’d started writing; what I’d written. I talked about my first book, completed when I was in grade 8, whose beginning, middle, and end were shaped entirely by wish fulfillment and Portentously Capitalized Nouns. Then I mentioned what came after: something completely different in form and stylethough still motivated by wish fulfillmentwritten when I was 15, 16, and 17. This was a series of stories (which I’ve referred to before, on this blog) about Alexander the Great. It started as one story, an assignment for my grade 10 English class—but it was so exhilarating to write that the others spilled out, mostly over successive Christmas breaks. I remember how fevered the writing of them was. Who should I be now? His first wife? His lover? His sister? How about Aristotle? Sure! Why not! (Thankfully, though I wasn’t smart enough to avoid taking a stab at Aristotle’s voice, I was smart enough not to allow the result into the final draft of the collection.)

After I finished The Book Of Portentously Capitalized Nouns, I was convinced it was publication-worthy. I was 14! And I’d finished something book-esque! Surely that made me a sensation waiting to be discovered! It took me awhile to internalize (thanks to the lovingly, brutally honest feedback of some grown-ups in my life) the fact that publication was not what this book was intended for. Having railed against, then learned this lesson, I never believed my Alexander stories were destined for bookstores. But I loved them with an abiding love, and I knew that they were better than what I’d written before, and that was something.

For 20 years, despite the abiding love thing, I mostly forgot about Alexander. In 2005, casting about desperately for my next idea, I remembered him. At last it was time to base a fantasy novel on Alexander’s life! Three novels, even! Yes!

But, after 40,000 words, no.

I mostly forgot about him again—until 2007, when Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin asked me to write a short story for their anthology, Ages of Wonder. An anthology about myths. About history. About…well, why not. Surprised and delighted that I could go back again, I wrote one more Alexander story, “To Play the Game of Men”, narrated by Bucephalus. His horse.

Back to a couple of days ago. When I got home from Alyx’s class, I discovered that an interview I’d done back in the fall with Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille was online. There was Alexander again, mentioned as Derek and I talked about the influence Mary Renault’s books had on us, as much younger people.

And just last night, out for dinner at the home of some friends, there he was again: Mr. Macedonian Conquerer, raising his golden, widow’s-peaked head in a conversation that started with long-range sniper rifles, moved on to Zweihänder swords, and ended up waaay back, with Alexander’s perfection of the phalanx.

There are salient, craft-related things to be gleaned, amidst the nostalgia. Like: Trying to write about Alexander without actually being in his head taught me a whole lot about point of view. And: I learned how to interpret a historical period I could never truly know. And: I found out what creative failure felt like, and I lived.

So it might not be too much of a stretch to say that Alexander made me the writer I’ve been, from 1984 to the present. And the beauty of his permanence is that I get to forget him, then remember, making the very old very new, all over again.

For those of you who are still with me: here’s one of the (shortest of the) stories, written when I was about 17.


Amyntas, to Macedon

I know not what to think, Father, nor what to feel but this emptiness. I have just seen him, I think for the last time. Alexander barely lives.

The omens of late have been bad, to be sure. The first portent occurred shortly after we left Ecbatana, and the shadow of Hephaestion’s death. Alexander and his officers were taking refreshment in a room outside the throne room; Straton and I were nearby. We heard, as the officers did, the first terrified wails of the eunuchs in the throne room. We arrived shortly after Alexander did, and stared with horror at the scene.

There was a man upon the throne. He was bent and frail, with bony hands and wrinkled arms. A stream of unintelligible words came from his mouth as he rocked himself slowly back and forth. I remember that his eyes were bright, glittering with madness. And there he sat, on Alexander’s chair, while the eunuchs moaned and did nothing.

In Persia, it is a capital offence to sit on the Great King’s throne. We all knew this. Seers were called to interpret the event; they told the king that this was far more serious than simple disrespect. This, they said, was a symbol of disaster. The madman was tortured; it was thought that he might have been involved in a plot. However, no evidence was found. The creature babbled only that he had felt like sitting there, and knew of no reason. To prevent the bad luck that this confession suggested, he was put to death.

The portents did not end there. A second was observed as Alexander was sailing back to Babylon after investigating the irrigation of the farms downstream. He was apparently in good spirits, and had taken the tiller of his own ship. There was a wind over the floodlands that day; it caught the hat he was wearing and swept the band off, into a clump of rushes. These rushes happened to be growing beside a tomb. Alexander seemed to be concerned only at the loss of the diadem, which bore the royal colours of purple and white. As he worried, a seaman leapt off the boat and swam over to retrieve it. He discovered that he could not carry it back without getting it wet, and therefore tied it around his head. Again, the seers foresaw disaster. Alexander appeared untroubled; he had the man beaten, but later gave him a talent of silver for his efforts.

I suppose that we should have seen. But the Persian Gulf expedition was near, and Alexander had shown himself to be immune to both sickness and injury; we did not think of death. But then, as far as we could see, neither did Alexander.

He was stricken with fever after drinking at Medius’. There are rumours of poison, of course, but I doubt them. Medius is a good man, and a faithful friend to Alexander. In any case, the King fell ill. He had to be carried by litter to make the daily offering at the altar, but still he spoke with confidence, as if the sickness would soon be out of him. The plans for the expedition continued; Alexander only altered them by a few days. A week went by, and he worsened. Soon he could no longer make the offering once at the altar. Yet still he briefed his officers, still he spoke (though weakly) of the coming campaign. No doctor was summoned, for he had lost all faith in them with Hephaestion’s death.

He had been staying in the gardens, but on the tenth day of his illness, he ordered himself to be carried back within the palace. He called for his chief officers to stand before him, and for his junior officers to assemble outside the doors. But when all were there, and an expectant hush had fallen, nothing could be done. Alexander had lost the use of his voice.

He remained in the royal bedchamber after that, only able to whisper a word or two. Of course, we the common soldiers knew nothing of this. We had all seen him being carried about; he always smiled at us, or waved. We imagined that he would soon be well, for most of us had fallen ill somewhere in Asia.

But then, for two days, we did not see him. The officers would not answer our questions. The palace shimmered in the heat, its gates closed and Alexander within.

On that second day, we could endure no more. We rushed to the gates, crying loudly to see the King. We shouted that the death of Alexander was being kept from us and demanded to see him with our own eyes, whether he was alive or dead.

The officers appeared, listened to us, then vanished within once more. They were gone for quite a while. And then, at last, we were told to come in.

I have just discovered that it was Alexander who, with a nod, ordered us to be brought in. His officers were determined to refuse, but, even without his voice, Alexander is forceful. In we came, single file, through a door at the far end of the bedchamber. He was lying in the enormous bed, covered in a light white sheet. As the first man entered, he turned himself on the pillows, drawing himself up to meet us. We passed slowly and silently, though some wept quietly. And to every one of us he gave a sign, whether it was from his eyes or with a tilt of his head. Not one of us went unnoticed.

It is now night. Very few of us are sleeping. It is too hot, and the silence is oppressive. At any moment, we are expecting to hear the first wails from the palace. Peucestas and six of Alexander’s friends are spending the night at the temple of Sarapis, praying for him. I do not know how much that will do. Now that I have seen him, I do not believe that anything will save him. His body, compact and muscular only a few weeks ago, is now thin and frail. Only his eyes are still alive; they shine from the mask of his face, hopelessly defiant.

Father, I will be home as soon as he has died. I cannot stay in this strange land any longer, not without Alexander. What would we do? Who would lead us? He is the light that has driven us on, even in times of despair. Without him, his men will lose their unity and their purpose. I am already sure that there will be much bloodshed, for he has not named a successor. I do not wish to be caught up in the chaos. I want no part in the coming struggle for power. I want only to be home, away from the heat and cruelty of this place.

How long has it been since I saw your face? Nine years? Twelve? I cannot be sure. Much time has passed, that I know, since a young Macedonian king drew me away from my country. Straton and me both. We were but boys, so eager and confident of glory.

I must attempt to sleep now, for I will doubtless have need of strength in the coming days. Strange, that I do not yet feel grief. Only emptiness, consuming and cold.

I bid farewell to you, Father, but knowing that it will not be for long. Soon I will be home.

Train of Fraught

My boyfriend dumped me precisely two weeks into the first term of our first year of university. We were both at McGill. I’d been so excited—because Montreal. My boyfriend. An apartment with a roommate I’d just met, and really liked. But he dumped me, two weeks in, and when I phoned home afterward my mother could barely understand me because I was crying so hard.

I went back to Toronto the next weekend. Hadn’t intended to be home until Thanksgiving—but no, there I was on a train in September, struggling against yet more tears because I insisted on listening to songs that I knew would make me even sadder. I listened to these songs on cassette tapes, played on a Sony Walkman. I didn’t yet have a computer, let alone a laptop (o unimaginable miracle thing). So it was just me, my Walkman, some text books and novels I can’t remember paying any attention to. I was raw and wrecked, and the only thing that even vaguely comforted me was staring out at fields and towns whose names I didn’t know, full of people I’d never know, who were nonetheless living their lives.

I loved that train. Through heartbreak and school stress and new love, in daylight and darkness, I loved the hours I spent speeding between Montreal and Toronto. (In the rain was best.) I did a lot of scribbling in journals, when I wasn’t scribbling out essays. I was pretty consistently consumed by the idea of my future self—the one who would have to be happier, or just as happy, depending on my emotional state at the time. I wondered, longhand and at length, about novels and children and jobs. About whether I’d still be yearning for things, both effable and not, when I was this future self.

And now here I am again. Across from me is my 16-year-old daughter, whose father was my first husband—that new love I scribbled about back in 1992. (I think, glancing surreptitiously and maudlin-creepily at her, that she looks a bit like me and a lot like him.) Her boyfriend’s beside her. All three of us are tapping away at silver laptops with bitten apples on them; all of us have earphones (theirs FAR higher quality than mine). It’s dark. We’re nearly at Dorval. My fifth novel will be in bookstores this week; the file that may become my sixth is open on my silver laptop, along with submissions by a couple of my writing students. There’s a magical little house back in Toronto, wherein lives a man who definitely loves me and some cats who might.

And yearning? The kind I used to feel on this route is an echo I can hear if all the conditions are right—if I’m listening to the very same songs I once knew would make me sadder, for example. But it’s not a longing for what’s to come. It’s for what was, of course, on those other days and nights between Montreal and Toronto. I’m looking back at the young woman who was looking ahead at me. It’s so dumbly, painfully Narcissus-istic, this reflection-seeking—but that’s where the yearning is now.


Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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