Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Vessel

Karina looked in the mirror and wondered when she got old. It wasn’t yesterday. It wasn’t that morning. When, then? Yesterday she was walking the dog, briskly, feeling the morning sun on her face, a knitted hat keeping the tangle of her hair under control while it kept her ears warm. She had gone out to the Mortons’ dinner party with Ralph, feeling sleek and sexy in her black satin cocktail dress. This morning she had lain in a bath of mango-scented mousse and read a few chapters in a novel, and had not felt old. Even seeing her reflected nakedness in the big bathroom mirror had not convinced her otherwise.

But here in the Simon’s dressing room, squeezed into an outfit meant for a girl a third her age, she suddenly realized she had made a mistake. She wasn’t 25 anymore; she couldn’t pretend that she was. Her hair, naturally curly, looked like a witch’s thatch, the skin on her arms was loose, and her breasts sagged. Where was the flat stomach she had always prided herself on maintaining? An old woman stared back at her from the mirror, skin pouched under the eyes, jowls instead of a smooth jaw line, and her neck a mess of ropey wattles. Her eyes filled with tears and she changed back into her own clothes, sniffling.

“What’s the matter, Kar?” asked Ralph as she emerged from the dressing room. “Are you crying?”

Karina handed the clothes to the clerk and took her husband’s arm. “Let’s get out of here,” she said quietly. “I don’t belong in this place.”

“Want to get a coffee?” asked Ralph. Karina nodded and sniffled again.

Later in the coffee shop, over their lattes, she told her husband about her experience in the dressing room. “I don’t know if it was the light in there or if I’ve been deluding myself for years now,” she mused, “but I suddenly realized that my body has gotten old. I still feel good, but I look awful.”

“No you don’t,” soothed her husband. “You’re beautiful!”

Karina smiled. “You say that because you love me,” she said. “It’s sweet, but not realistic.”

Ralph sighed. “Don’t be so down on yourself,” he admonished. “All those flaws you think you saw: you’re the only one who sees them. You’re being overly critical of the vessel housing your spirit. It’s inevitable that our bodies are going to age. Human beings have built-in obsolescence. But no one really notices it. They’re seeing your soul shine through your eyes, hearing the love in your voice. Your body, how you choose to clothe it, isn't really important. It’s you we love, I love.”

Karina looked up from her coffee, eyes bright, and smiled.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Between the Cracks

     The edges of things are what fascinate him: the changing of seasons, waves lapping against the shore, the first glow of sunrise. As he lies on his pillow, before putting on the eyeglasses that will throw everything into sharp relief, he savours the blurriness around him, the softness that his sleep-filled, myopic eyes afford him in the morning. It is now that he can see the spaces between the molecules that make up reality, the passageways that should allow him into different worlds. Alas, he has never found the way through those openings. He can only gaze at them and wish in vain.

     Washed, shaved, dressed and bespectacled, Albert is every inch the unimaginative accountant. His world consists of ledgers filled with numbers and hard facts. There is no room for the unknown, the speculative. He wears dark suits with crisp white shirts, neatly knotted, unassuming ties, and his thinning hair is cut short. You would not notice Albert in a crowd; there is nothing remarkable about him. In a police lineup, you would most likely gloss over him.

     But for some reason after work that particular Thursday, after reviewing a difficult client’s complicated accounts and developing a headache that made his temples throb, Albert decided to stop at a bar on his way home. He’d never gone in before, but it looked dark and quiet inside, and he needed darkness and calm to settle the pounding in his head. He found a seat in a corner where he couldn’t see the television—mercifully with the sound off—advertising some product for premature, male-pattern baldness on an eternal infomercial. The bartender came over to get his order and he asked for a single-malt scotch with no ice. When it arrived, he sipped it slowly, appreciating the slow burn as it made its way down his esophagus.

     Albert fumbled through his pockets looking in vain for aspirin. He took off his glasses and rubbed the sides of his nose where they left imprints, trying to shake the headache. Someone appeared to have joined him in his booth, so he put his glasses back on, only to see an empty seat. ‘Strange,’ he thought, and took the glasses off again. Once more there seemed to be someone sitting opposite him, out of focus, but solid enough that he could not be mistaken.

     “Excuse me,” he said aloud, addressing his visitor, “do I know you?”

     The apparition reached across the table and tapped Albert’s spectacles. “Try them now,” he heard someone say.

     He put the glasses back on his nose and this time the person opposite him did not disappear. In fact, where the bar had been empty, it was suddenly crowded with people, the bartender obliviously wiping a glass out with a cloth. He hadn’t seen or heard anyone arrive. Where had these people come from? Why hadn’t he seen them before?

     Albert studied the person across from him. He saw a woman with long silvery hair, but her face was unlined and her eyes were bright and alert. She was dressed in what he took for rags and then realized were pelts of small animals, dozens of them, sewn together so that they overlapped with heads and paws hanging over the ones below. Those periwinkle blue eyes looked like they missed nothing. How had he missed her?

     “Hello, Albert,” she said in a voice like rustling leaves. “You probably wonder why I called you to this meeting.” Suddenly she burst out laughing, and Albert heard the tinkling of a glockenspiel, the clang of tubular bells and the peal of a carillon as all the strangers at the bar joined in her merriment. He could not hide his amazement. Either he was hallucinating because of the headache and the scotch, or he was just going crazy. The woman reached across the table and took his hand as the laughter ceased.

     “I’m sorry, Albert,” she said. “This must come as a bit of a shock to you, but you are gifted with the Sight. We’ve noticed you, we’ve heard your longing to travel through the cracks at the edges of things, but we haven’t been able to help until now. Your life is so regimented, you never let down your barriers, and it is just today that you have done something different enough that we could take advantage of your weakness. Thank you for taking off your glasses.”

     “How,” Albert stuttered, “how do you know what I was thinking?” He started to blush, wondering what other intimate thoughts this woman—whom he now realized was very beautiful—had read. She recognized his discomfort and smiled, making herself even more lovely.

     “Don’t worry, your secrets are safe with us,” she said. “Call me Olivia. These are my friends. Would you like to come with us? Would you like to travel through the spaces at the edges?”

     Albert looked around the bar, at the strangers who glittered in the dim light, shining with gems and iridescent feathers and silver and gold and he thought, ‘Why not? This is what I’ve always wanted, isn’t it?’ He considered going home to his cold and empty apartment, heating up a frozen meal in the microwave, reading his journals and going to bed as he always did at 10:30, alone, with only the prospect of more of the same the next day.

     “Just a moment,” he told Olivia, and signaled for the bartender. Albert paid for his scotch and gave the man a generous tip, then rose from his seat and said, “I’m ready.”

     Olivia took his arm and together, followed by the rest of the throng, they walked through the dusky twilight until they disappeared between the cracks.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


The sky was reverberant with geese flying every which way in their V-shaped communities.

“They’re flying the wrong way,” Nicole said to Phyllis. “That’s not south.”

Phyllis looked up from her lattè and squinted at the chaos overhead. It was true, the geese were flapping and honking, but none of the Vs was headed south toward warmer climes.

“Maybe they’re lost,” she said.

Nicole didn’t think so, but she didn’t know why exactly. She’d read something about magnetic fields and wind directions and knew the geese were smarter than they looked, and that somehow they always ended up where they were supposed to. Phyllis glanced at her watch and drained the rest of her coffee quickly.

“Got to run, Duckie,” she said. “I’ll see you at Mother’s tonight.” Then she kissed her sister on both cheeks, gave her a quick hug, and hurried out of the café. Nicole sighed.

Ever since their mother had been admitted to the residence, the two sisters found they had less and less quality time to spend together. When they met, it was to grab a quick coffee and discuss the care and feeding of their mother, who was now incapable of either since her stroke. She missed just having girl talk. Now it was all business. Nicole thought of the eventuality of the old woman’s death and wondered if she would gain her sister back after she lost her mother. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Instead she looked out the window and watched the geese arrow above, going everywhere but the right direction.

“Would you like something else?” asked the waitress.

“No thanks, I’m done here,” said Nicole. “I’ll pay at the cash.”

Leaving the café, she started rummaging around in her purse for the address of the bookbinder that she’d copied down from the phone book. She had a set of dictionaries that had been her grandfather’s, with a publication date sometime in the late 1880’s, and they needed to be rebound desperately. She’d written the address down hurriedly on a scrap of shopping list and shoved it in her bag, but now she couldn’t find it.

“I’ve got to clean this out,” she thought to herself, starting to get a little frantic. There were bills, receipts, concert tickets, kleenexes, a lipstick and several matchbooks, but the torn piece of yellow paper with pink lines was nowhere to be seen. “This is crazy,” she thought.

Another spate of geese honking made her look up and there, right in front of her, was the sign, Books Rebound. She let out a sigh of relief and headed across the street to the shop, only to be greeted by another sign in the window: Closed. “Well, that sucks,” she said to no one in particular. “What do I do now?”

Nicole stood still on the sidewalk and felt like a lost goose. The passersby milled about her, traffic made a constant roar, and the honking continued overhead. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. Her purpose of seeking out the bookbinder was lost, as was her sense of direction.

“I suppose I could go home,” she said, then realized she had spoken out loud and thought people might think her slightly daft. But she didn’t want to go home. There she would undoubtedly go to the next thing on her to-do list, right after “visit bookbinder”. In her mind’s eye she saw the list on the kitchen table, the bottom torn off where she had written down the address that she couldn’t find and now didn’t need. Just then her cellphone rang, and she grabbed it as a drowning man might lunge at a line thrown to him.

“Hello?” she answered. It was Phyllis. Hadn’t they just parted ways moments ago?

“Nicole, honey,” her sister’s voice said urgently, “come to the home. Now. They think Mom might be on her way out.”

Nicole snapped the phone shut, shoved it back into her overstuffed purse and found her car keys. Suddenly she had her purpose back, and her sense of direction. “But for how long,” she wondered as her eyes were drawn once more skyward. “For how long?”

Thursday, October 28, 2010


“Pick a bottle and let your genie come out of it,” instructed the woman who had introduced herself earlier in the evening as Evening Breeze over Sweet Grasses, and the women seated cross-legged on the rush mats obediently reached toward the array of glass and ceramic vessels and chose. Paula sighed.

The entire session had been a bust, as far as she was concerned. It was Doreen from work who had suggested she sign up for the workshop. “I loved it!” the receptionist had gushed. “Breeze is fabulous. She was able to tap into all my deepest places where I was repressing emotions and memories, and I felt like a new person when it was over. You really ought to try it,” she had advised Paula. Was it that obvious? Could everyone see that Paula was carrying around a steamer trunk full of angst? Well, she thought to herself, if it would help her sleep better at night and stop obsessing over the things she couldn’t change then it was worth a shot. All she had to lose were several hours in a long line of evenings where she sat in her empty apartment, trying to stay away from the liquor cabinet and not eat everything in the refrigerator.

Evening Breeze over Sweet Grass—she told them to call her “Breeze”—was a tall, middle-aged white woman (somehow Paula had been expecting a First Nations squaw in buckskins) in a long dress of cotton homespun tiedyed all the colours of the rainbow. Her long, gray hair was braided with feathers and beads and she wore a necklace of shells and semi-precious stones. From her earlobes dangled more feathers. Paula resisted an impulse to roll her eyes when the woman introduced herself.

The workshop was being held in a small room at the local community centre which Breeze had transformed into a hippy den. The walls and ceiling were draped with printed Indian cotton sheets, the air was thick with incense and the only illumination was from a multitude of candles. A low table in the middle of the room was covered with various objects, and the floor was strewn with rush mats upon which the workshop participants were instructed to sit “comfortably”.

Breeze chanted a prayer, at least it sounded like a prayer, invoking the spirits of all the elements to join them in their journey of self discovery, as they uncovered the demons lodged in their souls and banished them to make room for the essences of sunlight and fresh air and clean water. Paula fidgeted and felt self conscious. She had never believed in the mumbojumbo the priest had spouted on Sunday mornings when her parents had forced her to attend church, and she didn’t believe this either. But Doreen had said it would help, so she was willing, at least, to try.

The workshop participants were all women. Paula wasn’t surprised. She didn’t know any men who would sign up for this kind of activity. They ranged in age from a young mother in her early 20’s to a grey-haired crone of at least 80, with Paula herself somewhere firmly in the middle. As she looked around the room, she felt as though she were between a pair of facing mirrors, watching her reflections march from youth behind her to old age in front. She shook her head to clear it of that image.

Breeze asked the women to take items from the table, to hold them and feel them and let them evoke memories and emotions that they would reveal to the others. An orange stuck with cloves brought the grandmother to tears as she recalled the Christmas her husband had died, and the smooth marble egg induced the young mother to talk about her fears during her pregnancy that her child would be stillborn. Paula fingered all the items, but none moved her. They were just things. The other women seemed to draw from some kind of communal energy that Paula just couldn’t tap into, and she felt left out and vaguely cheated.

There had been one moment when she had picked up a a small bit of quartz and had thought of speaking about her own losses: the marriage that had ended in failure, the son dead in a motorcycle accident, her father in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s who no longer recognized her and her frustration at a job that she hated. But when she looked in the faces around her, at the expectation that she too could experience a catharsis that would set her free, her desire to unburden herself vanished and she simply passed.

Now she was to let a genie out of a bottle. Paula picked up a container of amber glass, only an inch high, a cylinder of a half-inch diameter and a quarter-inch narrow neck. A tiny bit of cork served as a stopper, sealing the contents away from the outside. Except, there were no contents.

Paula held the orange glass up to the light and watched as the candle flames warped in the cylinder. There was no genie in this bottle. It was as empty as the whole evening’s exercise had been. The other women didn’t seem disappointed at all, and she wondered if maybe it was she, Paula, who was somehow deficient, and not this white woman in the long hippy gown with the gray braids and tacky jewellery. She wasn’t even sure now why she had signed up for this workshop of self discovery.

Okay, she said to herself, here goes nothing.

She grasped the tiny bit of cork between her fingernails and pulled. Nothing happened. She sighed and looked up expecting to see her fellow workshoppers experiencing various revelations. They were gone. Evening Breeze over Sweet Grasses was gone. The rush mats and low table had vanished. Paula was sitting crosslegged on a sandy beach, the ocean stretching far off to the horizon where the sun, a glowing ball of red-gold, was about to plunge into the water. A cool breeze teased her graying hair from the elastic band that loosely held it, and she heard the cry of gulls in the distance.

What the…? she thought. Where was everyone? Where was she? She felt goose bumps rise on her arms and reached for the sweater she had taken off earlier in the evening during a hot flash. It wasn’t there. Of course not, it was on the rush mat she had been sitting on in the community centre. This was crazy.

Paula carefully got up, feeling her knees and hips complain as she unfolded herself from the cross-legged position she had been in for hours. The beach stretched uninterrupted as far as the eye could see in both directions. One way was as good as another, she figured, and started walking north, grateful that for once she was wearing sensible shoes. The golden sun started sinking below the horizon and she felt a moment of panic as she thought she might be stuck out there in the dark, not knowing where “there” was. Overhead the sky moved through the shades of sunset. In the east it was already indigo.

As Paula trudged across the sand, twilight became dusk and then night. Stars appeared in the darkening sky and she tried to pick out familiar constellations, but recognized nothing. Was she still in the northern hemisphere, she wondered? She chuckled at the thought that she had been magically transported to a beach in Australia. Paula had always wanted to visit the sub-continent. She and Harold had talked about it, back when they were still in love. Before Jonathon had…. She left that line of thought and kept walking, hoping she would find some shelter for the night. It was getting cooler and now she really was starting to panic.

To her left, the ocean glowed with a phosphorescence she tried to remember what she had learned about in nature shows from television. It was some small sea creature or an alga that created that effect, Paula thought to herself. The result was unearthly and beautiful. To her right the sand ended at a dense forest, the darkness beneath the trees holding she knew not what danger. Ahead, quite suddenly, she espied a flicker of light which grew, as she neared, into a small fire on the sand. Paula approached the flames eagerly and saw a small man seated beside them, roasting an unidentifiable animal on a stick. Her stomach growled and she realized she had not eaten for many hours.

“Hello,” said Paula. “May I join you?”

The man looked up from where he was carefully turning his dinner and squinted at her over the fire. He was tiny, wizened, more like a monkey than a man, she thought to herself. His skin was brown and leathery, and there was scant hair on his small head. He was dressed only in a short leather kilt, but a coat of animal skins lay nearby with a pack and what looked to be hunting weapons, a bow and a quiver of arrows. Paula smelled the cooking flesh and her mouth watered.

When he did not answer, Paula stepped forward so he could see her better in the light of the fire. “I’m lost,” she said, “and I’m hungry. I saw your fire. May I sit down?” It occurred to her that maybe he didn’t speak English. You’re not in Kansas anymore, she told herself. Suddenly the man spoke and she startled.

“Please,” he said. “You summoned me, after all.”

“I summoned you?” Paula gasped. “What are you talking about?”

“The bottle,” he said. “You let me out of the bottle. I’m your genie.”

“No!” cried Paula. “That’s impossible!” Yet nonetheless here he was, and here she was. Maybe it wasn’t impossible.

“I’m cooking our dinner,” he said. “Join me.”

Overcome with hunger, Paula obediently sat, not wanting to get too close to this wizened creature and yet grateful for the contact with another human being. Wait, was he human? He had said he was her genie. Were genies human? The little man scraped the meat off the stick with a sharp blade onto a metal plate, then cut it in two and placed the second portion on another plate. Paula didn’t see where he took them from, but at this point she didn’t want to know and she really didn’t care. As he handed it to her, he said, “Be careful, it’s hot.”

He was right, the food was hot. But it was also delicious. Paula wolfed it down, not caring to ask what kind of animal had sacrified itself for her supper, she was so ravenous. As she was licking her fingers clean, the man passed her a canteen and she drank deeply. It’s true, she thought to herself. Everything tastes better when you’re outdoors. Her hunger sated and her thirst slaked, she felt she could face whatever came next.

“Thank you,” she said. “Now, would you please tell me who you are, where I am, and I how got here?”

“I don’t have a name, unless you give me one,” said her host. “This is where you need to be, and you came here by opening the door, which in this case was the bottle. My bottle. Genies live in bottles, you know.” He winked then, or it was the flickering of the fire? Paula wasn’t quite sure.

“Wait,” she said. “I opened the bottle, that tiny little orange glass bottle that wouldn’t hold a teaspoonful of anything, and I let you out? Or did I let myself in?”

The genie smiled. “Either or,” he replied. “Actually, it was just the vessel. It was a bottle, an empty bottle. When you uncorked it, you opened the passageway within yourself that would bring you here.”

“But where is here?” Paula wanted to know.

“As I said, it’s where you need to be,” repeated the genie, “only it’s not really a place.”

“It sure looks like a place.” Paula suddenly shivered. “It feels like one, too.”
The genie reached for his animal-pelt cloak and put it around Paula’s shoulders. He seemed unaffected by the cool night air. “It’s all in your mind,” he said, and winked again. This time Paula was sure of it.

“Okay,” she said, “if you’re my genie, aren’t I supposed to ask you for three wishes?”

He smiled. “You can if you want to,” he said. “But what would you wish for? What would you change? What do you want that you don’t already have?”

Paula thought of all the things one demanded from genies: wealth, health, love. She wasn’t rich, but she had enough to live on and a little bit put by for a rainy day. Her health was good, the one thing in her life that had not forsaken her. Love. That was another story. She had known love, and she had known the loss of it, too. Harold had loved her. They had both loved Jonathon. She felt a sudden ache in her breast as she remembered her son, the day he had kissed her goodbye and then ridden off to school on his motorcycle, that vehicle she despised, always fearing he would have an accident. She remembered the call from the principal, the visit from the police, the condolences of the doctor in the emergency room. She remembered afterward Harold treating her as though it had been her fault.

Paula thought of her father whom she visited dutifully in the nursing home every weekend. He no longer knew who she was. She had gone from being his daughter to her mother, to his sister, to his mother and then to a stranger. She no longer knew why she subjected herself to this weekly torture, except that this was her daddy who had pushed her on the swing, who had taught her to ride a bicycle, and then a car; he had shown her how to thread a worm on a hook and cast the line out into the stream. When she thought of him, she remembered the tall, strong man smelling of pipe tobacco who would read her stories at bedtime and then kiss her goodnight, his cheek scratchy with five-o’clock shadow. How could she abandon him? Even though he did not know her, she still loved him. The tears that had refused to flow during the workshop came then.

“I can’t have them back,” she whispered, her voice choked with emotion, “can I?”

“No,” said her genie softly. “I’m sorry.”

She pulled the cloak closer about her shoulders and stared into the fire which still burned high, even though the little man hadn’t put any more fuel on it. Suddenly overcome with fatigue, she lay on her back and stared up at the unfamiliar constellations in the night sky. As her eyes adjusted, she started to pick out stars of different colours and brightnesses and meteors shooting through the upper atmosphere. As a child, Paula had believed that the stars were living beings who granted wishes. She still sometimes recited the nursery rhyme “Star light, star bright” when Venus appeared at dusk, even after she had learned that she was seeing a planet and not some distant sun. She never expected to “get the wish I wish tonight”, at least not since she turned ten. Still, where she hadn’t believed in God or Jesus, she had still kept her mind open to magic; and yet, like God and Jesus, magic had never manifested itself—until now.

“Well?” asked the genie, who seemed to know what she was thinking before she spoke. “If I had the power to grant you even one wish, and I’m not saying I’m that kind of genie, what would it be?”

Paula looked over at the little man where he sat next to the fire. In the time that she had lain on her back gazing at the night sky he had changed. He seemed taller, less wizened, younger. She considered this phenomenon, and then looked off toward the phosphorescent waves lapping at the sand. “Why hasn’t the tide come in?” she mused out loud.

“Because this place doesn’t really exist, remember?” answered the genie. He was definitely looking younger now, and taller, and bore a striking resemblance to someone she knew but couldn’t name. Paula squinted at him in the firelight. Who did he remind her of?

“I don’t know what to wish for,” Paula finally answered. “The things I want most you’ve already said I can’t have. You can’t bring Jonathon back, or restore my marriage, or give my dad back his mind. Nothing else really matters to me. I don’t even know why I still go on day to day, except that I feel I should be there for my father, even though he doesn’t even know who I am anymore.” She looked over at the genie again. “Why do you keep getting younger every time I look at you?” she asked.

The genie grinned. He looked like a teenager now, his long hair falling in unshorn locks about his face. “It’s a trick of the light,” he answered.

Paula watched as he continued to age backward, and then she knew. She sat up and turned to face him. “I want a child,” she said, “I want to care for someone, I want someone to love, someone who loves me in return. Nothing else matters. Really.”

The genie snapped the thumb and middle finger on his small right hand. “Your wish is granted!”

Paula blinked. He was gone. The fire was gone, as were the beach and the strange constellations. She stared at the tiny bottle of amber glass in the palm of her hand, and then looked up at the women seated around the low table on their rush mats. They all stared back at her. Breeze asked, “Paula? Did your genie come for you? Would you like to share your experience with us?”

Paula shook her head. “I must have fallen asleep,” she mumbled. “Sorry.”

As she was leaving the community centre, her sweater over her shoulders and her purse tucked under her arm, Paula glanced at the corkboard where messages and advertisements were posted. She saw a sign with a fringe of telephone numbers hanging off the bottom asking for volunteers to help school children learn to read, and tore one off. She smiled to herself. All was not yet lost.

Monday, September 20, 2010

In the darkness of night, all birds are blackbirds.

No moon illuminated the garden, the only sources of light were the pinpoints of fireflies, flashing for their mates, or the decoys that made meals of would-be suitors, and the eyes of the cat as it stalked through the underbrush in search of its own nocturnal nosh.

Louise sat on the porch swing and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. The sun had set hours ago, bathing the yard in pinks and yellows, then slowly colours had faded and the sky had gone from blue to mauve to silver to black. There were fireflies in the woods and fireflies up above; the former winking on and off, the latter twinkling in their constant constellations.

It’s getting chilly, thought Louise. I should go inside, turn on a light, wash up the dinner dishes, start on my mending. Still she sat. The cat materialized in front of her and rubbed its dew-laden fur against her shins. She reached down and scratched behind its ears. It dropped something at her feet and she could barely see the offering of a mouse, its neck broken.

“I’ve had my supper, Puss,” Louise said. “You eat it.” Puss picked up the small limp body and carried it to a far corner of the porch to consume it. Louise looked away, even though the darkness hid the carnage.

She gazed up at the stars and felt small and helpless and lonely. Once George would have sat here with her, pointing out the constellations, telling her stories about Orion chasing the Pleiades, or Pegasus throwing off Bellerophon as he attempted to storm Olympus. He would have pointed out the Summer Triangle, the Eagle’s Eye. She looked for the red star that was Antares but couldn’t find it. She looked for George among the pinpoints of light, but he wasn’t there either.

Oh, George, she thought. You weren’t supposed to go without me. We made a deal.

The cat finished its meal and came and sat next to its mistress, delicately washing paws and whiskers. Who would have thought such a fastidious, affectionate creature could dispatch small woodland creatures so efficiently and coldbloodedly? A little Grim Reaper.

At home, does the gatherer of souls take off his robe, hang his scythe on a nail, put on a woolen sweater and sit on a rocker by the fire, then put his feet up and relax from a hard day of reaping? Does his wife bring him hot cider like I used to bring George? Does he have a cat? Louise reached down to scratch Puss again and was rewarded by a lick from its rough pink tongue.

“I’m going in, Puss,” she said, “it’s cold. Are you coming?” She got off the porch swing, which creaked under the shift in weight and for a moment she thought George was beside her in the darkness. No. It was just darkness. From the apple tree a night bird sang. A blackbird, for all she could see.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dinner is served

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...” Alice fell asleep before she’d finished reading the first paragraph, her cheek on the smooth page of the hardcover copy of A Tale of Two Cities. She’d read the book in high school, and felt that it set the tone for her present state of mind. However, her sobs of frustration and loneliness had taken their toll and she succumbed to exhaustion as soon as her eyes started moving across the page.

There was a tap tap at the door, and Alice roused herself enough to mumble sleepily, “Who’s there?”

“It’s Gwen,” her roommate answered through the locked door. “Are you going to come down for supper? It’s ready now.”

Alice rubbed her eyes and looked at the clock on her bedside table. Oh wow, she’d zoned out for the whole afternoon, since after her embarrassing encounter with Stephen, Gwen’s brother. It was now 7 o’clock and her stomach was rumbling again, telling her it was time to eat. She closed the book and got off the bed, fumbling with the lock to let Gwen in.

Suddenly she was hit with the most tantalizing aroma. Cooking odours both rich and complex were drifting upstairs. Her mouth immediately started watering and she felt faint with hunger. Gwen smiled at the look of amazement on Alice’s face and said, by way of explanation, “It’s Stephen cooking. He’s a professional chef. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“No!” blurted out Alice, totally overcome by desire. “I didn’t know.”

She descended to the kitchen with as much decorum as she could muster, trying to control the salivating and the rumbling of her stomach. When her eyes beheld Stephen girt in her apron, the one with the trout in the frying pan and the logo “The end of the Rainbow” on it, humming quietly to himself as he lifted pot lids, tasted for seasonings and opened the oven door to remove something that made Alice think of Christmas dinners, she nearly swooned. It was too much. He was beautiful to behold and a chef as well. The part of her mind that always set her up for disappointment whispered, “He’s probably gay.”

Stephen looked up as Alice and Gwen entered the kitchen. The table was set with linen and crystal, the wine glasses Gwen had received from her mother on her last birthday, and there was a bottle of baco noir uncorked and ready to pour. With a flourish, Stephen took off the apron and hung it on the coat tree in the corner, then proceeded to serve soup before he sat down himself with his sister and her roommate. He smiled warmly at Alice as she gingerly dipped her spoon in the creamy, golden liquid. “I hope you like it,” he said. She smiled shyly and took a tentative sip, letting the liquid lie on her tongue a moment before greedily swallowing it.

“This is fantastic!” she gushed. “What is it?”

Stephen smiled again before answering, “Carrot and sweet potato. It’s our mum’s recipe, actually. I just dressed it up a bit.”

Alice didn’t reply; she was busy scraping every last drop of the precious potage out of the bowl with her spoon. Gwen and her brother exchanged glances, but said nothing.

The soup was followed by broccoli-cheese strudel wrapped in delicate phylo pastry, golden brown and crispy on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth delicious inside. There were oven-roasted vegetables drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette and a rice pilaf, all of which Alice devoured wordlessly. Just as she thought she couldn’t possibly eat another bite, Stephen produced bowls of fresh fruit salad, fragrant with crème de cassis liqueur.

When everything was gone, Alice sighed in contentment. Never had she eaten so well, never had she had a meal prepared by such a beautiful and talented chef. At this particular moment, it was definitely the best of times.


“Typewriters are always better than computers, for writing anyway, and there are no exceptions to that rule.” Alice reread the sentence in the book in front of her and burst out laughing. You don’t write with typewriters, she thought, you write with pens and pencils. You type with typewriters, and if we were talking about creative writing, then nothing beat a pen or pencil on lined paper, double spaced with lots of room for crossing out and scribbling in additions, one-sided so you could add whole paragraphs on the blank facing pages. Crazy, she mused. Who thinks up these things anyway?

It was lunchtime, and Alice could feel the hunger pangs and hear the growls as her stomach insisted on being fed. She had such an appetite these days, and she never seemed to be full. It was insane. Maybe she had a tapeworm, like her great-aunt Mathilde had always joked about. But then, great-aunt Mathilde had been grossly obese. The tapeworm excuse was only so she could keep filling her maw with rich pastries and chocolate bonbons. Alice was thin as a rail and no matter what she ate or how much of it, she never seemed to gain weight.

The cat stalked into the room, looking for a scratch and a cuddle. Alice obligingly picked him up and started stroking the soft fur under his chin and behind his ears. The cat purred contendedly, shutting his eyes in pleasure. If only someone would pick me up and stroke me like that, Alice thought wistfully. It had been a very long time since she had had a boyfriend and she missed the intimacy and other pleasures that came with it.

She put down the cat, washed her hands in the kitchen sink and thought about food. That was one pleasure she could definitely afford and was readily available. Her roommate, Gwendolyn, had just come back from shopping; the fridge was full of fresh produce and the pantry had been restocked. Alice considered what was available and then settled on a sandwich: aged cheddar, dill pickles and sprouts between two slices of fresh pumpernickel spread with dijon mustard. Her mouth watered as she set it on the table with a glass of milk alongside. It seemed somehow sinful, that she should enjoy the simple act of eating so much. This was why she preferred to eat alone, so that she could concentrate on the tastes, aromas and textures without being distracted by conversation. That first bite, even of simple fare, was almost an orgasmic experience.

Just as she was raising her sandwich to her lips, getting ready to savour that first explosion of flavours in her mouth, a man, a stranger who seemed somehow familiar, entered the kitchen. Alice quickly put down her sandwich as though she had been caught in a forbidden act, feeling guilty for no reason. She felt ashamed and angry at the interruption at the same time.

“Oh, hi,” blurted out the stranger, “I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch. I’m Stephen, Gwen’s brother. I’m visiting for the weekend. You must be Alice.”

Oh my god, Alice thought as she blushed, how could she have forgotten? Gwen had told her that her brother was coming for a visit; that was why the larder was so well stocked all of a sudden. No wonder he seemed somehow familiar. The family resemblance between brother and sister was quite strong and they had the same inflections of speech. Alice looked down at her sandwich, afraid to bite it now for fear of revealing something about herself to this young man to whom she suddenly felt an overwhelming attraction.

“Um,” she stammered, “have you eaten yet? I could make you a sandwich.”

“Sure, if it’s not too much trouble,” replied Stephen. “What have you got there?”

Alice described the contents of her sandwich all the while looking at Stephen’s mouth, imagining the bread spread with the dijon, the thinly sliced cheddar, the salty pickle and the hairy sprouts passing between those lips, being tasted on that tongue. She was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. She wanted to be that sandwich.

“Look,” Gwen’s brother said suddenly, ”you eat your lunch, I’ll make my own. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just got here and Gwen’s gone to the bank, so I thought I’d get some food while I was waiting.”

Alice sighed and nodded. Quickly she chewed and swallowed her sandwich while his back was turned to her, preparing his own. For some reason, she didn’t want this young man watching her eat, and that took away from the pleasure she was anticipating in enjoying her chef d’oeuvre. She swigged down the last of her milk just as he turned around with his finished creation.

“It was nice meeting you,” she mumbled as she pushed her chair away from the table. “See you around,” and fled. In the quiet and solitude of her room, behind a locked door, Alice hugged her pillow and wept.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Burnt Offerings

When I stopped eating meat, I had no regrets, and still do not. But every so often, of a summer afternoon when my neighbours are barbecuing steaks or burgers, the smell of charred flesh reaches my nostrils and I inhale the sweet smell of the burnt offering as Abraham’s god must have done, savouring the aromas without ever actually tasting a morsel. I will not eat meat anymore, but I still salivate when I smell it cooking. It is a strange thing, this self denial, this knowledge that what I do is right, knowing that I am not tempted, that the taste of a well-done piece of beef will not seduce me; but the aroma is heavenly. I cannot resist the urge to inhale, to take in the particles that drift on the afternoon breeze from my neighbour’s yard to mine.