03/18/2014 § Leave a comment
After Mom got herself killed, Miriam was the first to receive the call. She called me four times on her way to St. Paul’s. I was only three blocks away at Scotiabank Theatre with Joseph and Elaine but my phone was turned off. It was for Harry Potter. The twins had on their Hogwarts garbs, wands and all; I wore a sharpie lightning on my forehead, Elaine’s clumsy handiwork.
After the movie ended with a cliffhanger, after I checked my messages, we walked over to the hospital. Miriam met us outside and took over the kids. She told me she’d viewed the body and filled out the Notification of Death form but held off from signing it. She wanted me to do it. She took the kids to the cafeteria. I found my way down to the morgue.
Mom was lying on a gurney. The nurse pulled down the sheet so I could see her face. She looked quite dead. Eyes shut and lips sealed. For once she didn’t smell like alcohol or burnt plastic. I don’t know why that made me so angry but it did. I told the nurse to cover her up again.
The nurse handed me the NOD form. “This isn’t exactly legal,” he said, “but as long as you can verify the information your sister wrote down there shouldn’t be a problem.” Miriam had put down my name and address and phone number for everything. She’d even ticked the relationship box where it said I was Mom’s Executor. I signed the form and handed it over.
Afterwards, Miriam, the twins, and I walked over to their apartment in West End. Joseph was still mourning Dumbledore’s death with childish exuberance but Elaine had caught onto our unusual quietude. She asked me why we were at the hospital. I looked at Miriam. She gave me a shrug. So I told her, “Grandma passed away today.”
“Oh.” Elaine looked at her mom. Miriam nodded.
“Like Dumbledore?” Joseph chimed in. “Trevor says he’s only sort of dead!”
“Shut up,” Elaine told Joseph. Then she started crying. I picked her up and she clung onto me, sobbing bitterly into the side of my neck. I carried her the rest of the way with Joseph trailing behind; he kept apologizing without really knowing what for.
After we put the kids to bed Miriam and I went into the kitchen. She made coffee. It was paper thin and scalding hot but we sipped at it anyway.
“What do we do now?”
“I’ll call a funeral home in the morning,” she said. “You—you go take care of her things.”
Then we just sat there for a while, looking down at the matching IKEA mugs and not saying anything.
I got up. “I better get to work.”
Miriam walked me to the door. “Thanks for taking the kids out today,” she said. She gave me a little hug.
“They’re good kids,” I told her. “You’re doing a good job.”
Mom had been a junkie most of her life and it showed in her apartment. It showed in the sink full of dirty dishes and fungal blossoms; it showed in the expired perishables rotting in the fridge; it showed in the filth-encrusted toilet and the bin overflowing with soiled newspaper. And it showed, next to the yellowed bare mattress, in the instruments of her addiction: a bent spoon, boilerplate, half-empty box of Arm & Hammer.
It took me three hours to clean out the place. I didn’t find anything worth keeping except a photo of us all dressed up for Halloween. It was stuck on the kitchen counter, under an empty beer bottle long stripped of its label. I peeled it off as best as I could. I was Jack-o’-lantern and Miriam was some kind of fairy, both sitting on a couch looking vaguely bored; behind us was a life-size mirror in which Mom stood like a succubus or cat-woman, all leather and cleavage, her face obscured by the flash. Only the crescent of her lower lip hinted at her mood. I flipped the photo to its back, where she had written: een ’97. 48 days cle. I put it in my wallet.
Just as I was about to haul out the last bags of trash, Miriam called and asked if I needed any help. I told her I was almost finished. She invited me over for dinner. I said I would.
A woman was leaning against the wall in the hallway. She had greasy black hair and a terrible case of meth-mouth. One of her eyes seemed off—cloudier than the other. When she saw me, she stood off the wall. “You’re Sheila’s, yeah?”
“So she’s… dead then, is she?”
I didn’t answer.
“Fucking hell. I called the ambulance, you know?”
“I’m just cleaning out her things.”
I tried to brush past her but she didn’t budge.
“She left me something for you, hold on a sec.”
She slipped inside a door and then came back out after a minute or two. She was holding a paper bag from Whole Foods.
“I didn’t touch it, I swear. Okay? I thought about it, but I didn’t.”
I took it from her hand and looked inside: five DVDs; all of the Harry Potter movies so far, with Salvation Army price stickers. An ear of a card stuck out from between two of the volumes. I fished it out. On the cover were two little kids, a boy and a girl, flying an antique aircraft the likes of which would have roamed the skies of Europe during the First World War; Santa sat on one of the wings, dropping presents from his huge red sack. Inside it read, handwritten in small, neat cursive: To Elaine and Joseph, Merry Christmas, Love, Granma.
“Thank you,” I said to the methhead, and left before she could say anything else.
The dinner at Miriam’s was spaghetti with meat sauce and beet salad on the side. Everything was business as usual. Joseph was eager to finish the meal and return to SpongeBob Squarepants; Elaine was being peckish with the veggies. Her eyes were still puffy from the night before and when I teased her about them she kicked me under the table. I took some of the beets from her plate while Miriam wasn’t looking to redeem myself.
After the meal, Miriam sent the kids out of the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream each. She told me about the funeral arrangements she’d made. I said I would help with the cost and told her about what Mom had left for the twins.
“Let me see.”
“They’re in the car. But I have the card, here.”
I couldn’t make out her expression as she read it. I was sure that she didn’t know what she was feeling herself. She read the words over and over and over.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about this.” She handed it back to me. “You hold onto it. Until I figure it out.”
“Was there anything else?”
I shook my head.
I kissed the kids good night and left. It was raining. I hurried to my car. Once inside, I took out the photo and stared at the frayed message on its back. 48 days. How many hours was it? Minutes? Seconds? 48 days. Just shy of seven weeks.
I ripped the photo in half. Then I put together the torn halves and ripped them again, and again, until only a handful of fine photographic confetti remained in my hands. I rolled down the window and thrust out my hands. The rain and the wind licked them clean.
03/13/2014 § Leave a comment
Again Horace woke up before the first hour and watched the diminishing sun grasp at the mountains to the east. The coldness was almost in his bones. He sat up and bent his head, but the words faltered in his throat.
The others woke up shortly and by the first half-hour the men were well on their way, walking with haste. The road stretched downward and to the northwest and as they walked the hills gave way to flat meadows, a sea of dying grass, gray with frost, pockmarked here and there by withered shrubbery and odd groves of leafless trees.
At the first quarter of the third hour they stopped near a small pond to rest a spell. A thin sheet of ice had formed around the outer edges of water’s surface, that had to be broken before they could draw water.
As Horace knelt by the water and filled his waterskin, the old man from the day before joined him and said, “It won’t be long now.”
They sat by the pond and each took a long swig of the freezing pond-water.
“You played well,” Horace offered after some time.
“Ah. Thank ye— but it was a foolish thing to do, I think. They way it ended… You saw it yourself, did you not? It would have been better not to have sung those songs at all.” Then he shrugged and said, “As my father liked to say, ‘Only the dead can afford regrets.’”
Horace knew the rejoinder. “In life, death is the only regret.”
The old man raised an eyebrow, bemused and impressed at the same time. “Good earth! The wisdom of my forefathers, from an foreigner’s lips!”
At this, Horace allowed himself a meek smile. “I’ve walked this country a long time,” he said.
“Truly? Then you must know—” The old man’s voice trailed off and became almost a whisper. “You must know what’s been done to it.”
The smile vanished from Horace’s lips. Knowing where it would lead, he regretted having started the conversation, even as that regret turned to scalding shame. “I do,” he said soberly.
“What evil does man wreak upon his own kind…” The old man shook his head, pulling at a tangle in his beard, and after a long pause he began to speak, distantly, as much to himself as to his foreign interlocutor. “Before all this, before I came to be this sorry sight before you, I lived in Austihaven. Aye—Austihaven, born and raised. I owned a woolshop in Stone Quarter, nothing grand, no, but it was my pride and joy. I’d built it all on my own, from a little meat stall in Oldtown to a proper shop with four spinners and two weavers… Something a man could pass on to his children, when his time came.”
Here the old man swallowed hard, seemingly overwhelmed with his recollection. He took in a deep breath, held it, and let it our slowly. He went on.
“The war had been going on for the better part of three years. But the shop was getting on well, and the word on the street was peace, so when a breeder in Anderfoot wrote me he’d bred a honey-coat, I went to see it. That’s—that’s when it happened.”
“The Scouring,” said Horace, in a voice that was a groan and a whisper, feeling the sickness in his stomach.
The old man looked at him, stared as though he was seeing him for the first time. Then he closed his eyes, the deep and sunken lines making shallow graves of his orbits. It was the kind of look that made Horace want to gauge out his own eyes. But he could not allow himself to look away.
“When the news came, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing—how could I? How could anyone? That such a thing is—could even be—thought of… But when I returned… What I saw… My wife, my sons and daughters, my little granchildren… And all my kin, my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, cousins, uncles, aunts, all gone. Soul-sucked. Friends, family, everyone I’d ever known, just like that…”
Horace could not say that he was sorry, though the words tore at his throat like a clawed animal.
“I only wish I had died with them. I do not know why I go on like this—truly I do not.” The old man’s eyes were now open and filled with tears, the dying sunlight gleaming queerly on his pain.
Just as his own silence was becoming unbearable to Horace, the old man wiped at his eyes and cleared his throat. “Well. As my father liked to say, ‘Forgive an old man his memories.’ Tell me now, do you know the match for that one?”
“I’m afraid I do not,” said Horace.
“It goes: ‘And the young, his ambition.’”
Someone hollered that they were getting back on the road.
“Suppose we should get walking too.” The old man said and got up with a grunt.
Horace got up and followed him wordlessly.
03/12/2014 § Leave a comment
The march came to a halt at a small ruin atop a low hill, a place of charred earth and broken stones that might have been a sheepherder’s shack in better times. Under a crumbling stone wall, which made a poor shield against the mountain winds, the vagrants started a small fire for warmth. Everyone was exhausted. Even Horace, who was used to long marches and harsh countries, found no small relief in sitting down and rubbing his calves and feet. The years were gaining on him at last.
Soon after the fire was lit, a half-buried cauldron was found on the other side of the wall. A few of the vagrants dug it out and rubbed it clean of dirt and rust, and a man claiming to once have been a cook in Deephearth took it upon himself to make a proper meal for all. Each man was asked to contribute something toward the dinner, if he could. A small heap of shriveled onions and potatoes soon appeared at the cook’s feet, along with many sprigs of field herbs and pouches of cornmeal. A quarter hour later, with much aplomb, the cook pronounced the meal ready. It was a vegetable soup thickened with cornmeal that smelled better than it tasted, but everyone was eager for warm, cooked food, and many went for seconds.
Thus their bellies filled and warm, the men took to a rare show of spirit. Someone—the old man who had walked with Horace—produced a reed pipe, and another a ram’s horn, and together they began to play a tune. Sitting against the far end of the wall where he had laid his bedroll, and slowly drinking the lukewarm soup from a wooden bowl, Horace watched as men gathered in a semicircle around the fire and joined in song.
Old ballads they sang, old hill songs and valley songs, songs from a bygone era and a bygone world both untamed and raw, unknown to Alchemy and tramways and blackpowder. They sang of loved ones who killed one another for honour and stone-hearted killers who died of love, of shepherds and goatherds who settled their grievances with a skip of a stone, and of guileless men who traded their children for fae-gold under oak trees, and of children, thus forsaken, that gave up their hearts and grew up to be stalkers of the woods. It was a world full of stories, a world told and sung in stories, and they sang as though their voices, united and whole, might bring back the storied world and restore all that they had lost in this one. Austerland, Austerland, they sang, of our bones, these rolling hills. But what was lost, when their voices grew hoarse and weak, was still lost. Distant, fading, long and irrevocably gone.
The music quietened gradually, and then all at once. Silence, once suffered, was quick to smother out what small joy the vagrants might have found in their own voices. One by one they shuffled to their places under the wall, wrapped themselves against the chill, and fell ruefully to the bright sleep of the dispossessed.
03/12/2014 § Leave a comment
He was traveling with some men he had met on the road a few days past, men in fraying coats and overworn boots, men of fields and lumber camps and country roads, drifters and vagrants all. Together they made a lowly flock headed for the city of Ardour’s Rest, the only place in the Eastern Territories where men such as they might find refuge for the coming Night. There were about twenty of them, and most, if not all, judging by their accent and common talk, were Austerlings whose livelihoods had been destroyed for one reason or another during the Miners’ War.
By the last quarter of the first hour the camp was awake, and the men broke their fast on a meager feast of cornmeal and hot water, emptied their bladders and bowels on the frosted field, and set off northward along the road.
Talk was scarce. The day was colder than the one before it, and they knew they had only a few days to reach the city. Once Night rose, no city would willingly open its gates for a group of vagrants.
Horace walked alone at the tail end of the procession. He did not know the names of the men he traveled with, nor was he inclined to. He was not one of them, not truly, and the men knew he was not. Just as he had placed their origin by frequent, measured pauses in their speech and a slight upward inflection that gave it a songlike quality, they heard the harshness of his consonants and knew him to be a native son of Havertham. He’d seen it dawn on their faces after the first few words had been spoken, and had prepared himself to be shunned. But uneasy as they were, the men allowed him to join them, and shared with him what little they had to eat and drink. They saw that he too was a vagrant and a drifter, and as he had learned time and again wandering the Eastern Territories, a strange sort of camaraderie lived among those to whom their own existence was far less than a gift. And Horace for his part was glad for their company, for it rendered the dying of light a little less unbearable.
They walked until fifth hour and stopped to rest their legs for a quarter, then set off again and walked until the eighth. The road was uneven. The horseshoe-shaped valley widened gradually as they walked but the mountain winds reached them just as bitterly. Near the flat of the valley, the group came across a wreckage of an oxcart in a ditch and later saw many cairns on the roadside. Some of the men stopped briefly to pay their respects.
Soon afterward, Horace was joined by an old man he did not know, broad-shouldered and thick of waist, who wore a great white tangle of a beard flecked with dirt and grime and walked with an impressive gait despite the visible bend in his spine. When their eyes met the old man said, “No man should walk alone, when in company of others.” Horace bowed his head in gratitude.
03/11/2014 § Leave a comment
Another sun was coming to its death. Lowly it clung to the eastern skies, like a pale and bloody fist, partly eclipsed by the jagged peaks of the Spine. Its light was stark and beggarly, and it touched without warmth of life the vast stretches of valleys and hills that formed the Eastern Territories. In a matter of weeks since the first frost, the earth had withdrawn itself from the failing light and left all its rooted children to wither and be drained of colour. Now the land took on the appearance of something half-formed, not altogether real but still palpable, still and yet not altogether lifeless, like something the gods might have dreamt of before they conceived of creation. But this half-world, too, would soon vanish with the wayward sun. The world would know darkness yet again.
Horace Shaw had been awake for some time, and knew it was a half-hour past the first. He had a keen sense of time. Someone long ago had once remarked that he must have a clockwork in his skull, and this was more or less true. For the greater part of his life he had been wound up, so to speak, firstly by a father who starved him if he was not up and dressed before the first cock-crow, and later, after he had run away and enlisted in the army, by a scout sergeant who taught him to read the hour by the bodies in the sky, who kicked him awake at odd times and asked him to name the hour, and kicked him more if he had got it wrong even by a quarter-hour. His body remembered the lessons, his stomach and his bones and his muscles, even as he strove to forget those years.
Now, lying in his tattered bedroll and waiting for others to stir, he watched as the sun continued its steady spiral toward the Abyss. A few days, a week at the most, and it would be no more. Night was stirring. He could feel it in the coldness of the earth and in the sharpness of the air, and in the rigour of the very light that touched his skin. Hunger and silence, there in the suffering quietude of all that surrounded him, and all that was inside of him, a cold conviction growing in the pit of his stomach like a bone tree. The thought of it chilled his spine, sent beads of sweat down his armpits.
He sat up, bent his head, and uttered the words. From whence it came, it shall return… From whence it came… But they held no comfort for him, those ancient words, and the breath that carried them was a thin white smoke rising toward an empty sky. A meek and bloodless exaltation.
02/21/2014 § Leave a comment
I am dying
Of all the pretty girls
all the pretty boys
all the pretty lips
and all the pretty hips
all the fit jeans
all the lit screens
all the lean meats
and all the thin eats
all the neat ads
all the chic fads
all the rad scenes
and all the mad memes
all the dim lights
all the grim sights
all the tight porn
and all the right corn
all that is wrong
all that is wrong
all that is sold & bought
for fuck’s sake
all that recklessness
all that heartlessness
all that disingenuous
speaking of tongues
I love them all
I love them all
all the pretty things
all the pretty things
02/19/2014 § Leave a comment
We’re getting poorer
and fatter all of the time.
I think Heaven is a mouth that does not speak
and this city has no ears, no eyes.
Dear Mr. Weatherman, please;
Tell us what the sky holds
and for whom the rain falls—
we hear its music
and do not understand.