John King

Writings

Sugarcane

When Dorothy was eight her father hit her mother as they fought in the kitchen, a swinging lamp with yellow light dampening the green linoleum floor where her mother stood, when she was building a fort from the cushions of the couch stained brown by coffee that morning when her father, who she never saw again until she was 12, spilled his early morning cup all over himself as the babysitter gave him a blow job after a booze-filled night out before she left the house.

Dorothy turned to watch the assault as the cushion fell in a heap in front of her, bouncing into her, and sending her crashing to the floor of the house they had just purchased. Her parents bought the place from a hippie couple, and the man wore a pink shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button and woman’s nipples poked out from the thin fabric of the peach dress with fainted magnolias the day her mother and father brought her to see the place. The hippie couple liked shag rug, this one a thick purple kind that looked like moss on the trees outside her school where the other kids went when they fooled around with each other.

When she turned her head to watch the way her mother’s face bent as her father slammed his hand into her cheek, she rubbed the thick shag against her face, her mouth opening like it does when she watches her favourite movie, The Wizard of Oz, that was playing on the television, muted though, because her mother told her to turn it down so she could talk with her father. Dorothy liked the way the soft thick bristles of the thing felt against her own cheek, and rubbing her face against it, she asked herself what it felt like when a person hit another person in the face. She was even more interested in knowing what it was like for her mother when her father hit her, and she thought about this when her mother fell to the floor and lay there sobbing as her father began to pick her up. Dorothy turned away then to watch as Dorothy, the lead character who shares her name and who she often looked up to like a mother when hers wasn’t around, inspect the magic ruby red slippers poking out from under her family’s Kansas home, the dreary leftover from her previous life on earth where everything was black and white.

She wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Up in Oz there were colours and Munchkins dancing, and later Dorothy would meet a Tin Man, a Scarecrow, and a Cowardly Lion who all searched for something like she did. Sometimes she imagined searching, like when she went up to the top balcony of the house and looked out her father’s telescope searching amongst the stars for the falling ones streaking across the sky. Or sometimes like when she took her little red wheel barrow, the little red ones they used to make but don’t no more, out to the road where there are rocks. She mined for gold as the cars and trucks passed her on the highway kind of like the highway she fantasied was in Kansas where the real Dorothy was from. The real Dorothy in the movie.

Her mother pushed her father away when he reached for her and he knocked his head against the kitchen light hanging from the ceiling and it swayed even more than before through the air, causing shadows to move across the green linoleum. Her mother collected Dorothy and they left. It wasn’t until she was twelve when she saw her father again. In fact it was on her birthday when he arrived in Australia, the real Land of Oz where her mother moved after she left her father.

Adrian Faulk glanced at her daughter as she sat in the passenger seat of the rental car he picked up at the airport when he flew into town the day before. They were in the country now, a flat sort of place in the sugarcane fields. She wore a red dress and crossed her legs toward the car door as she scooped out ice cream from a white plastic spoon that bent so bad it almost broke in two because the grape ice cream was so cold and hard even in the heat of the Australian summer north of Sydney somewhere. The red dress she wore was the kind little girls wear with white stockings and black-polished shoes. To Adrian, she looked as if she were dressed for church, like a child standing in the front row singing hymns with her rosy cheeks and quick glances out the window, wanting to escape the confines of the wood pews and stuffy Sunday church women who sold brownies afterward. He watched her slip quick glances at the sugarcane as a wind moved the stalks like her hand moved the grain when she passed her hand over the grain in the fields back home.

“It’s sugarcane, honey,” Adrian said.

“I know that daddy,” she replied, licking her spoon of grape ice cream.

“Grape. I didn’t know they even made that flavour.”

“They have every flavour, come one daddy. Every flavour.”

“Oh I’m sure they don’t have some flavours, honey.”

Dorothy jammed her spoon into her ice cream, rolled down the window, and threw it out, then turned to her father crossing her arms as the grape ice cream smeared across the white paint of the Camaro he picked up at the Budget counter at 6 a.m. after a red eye where the brunette who sat beside him leaned on him sometime in the night after too many glasses of chardonnay and asked he meet her in the washroom. Pressed up against her, his dark blue suit creasing against her black knee high business cut dress, his hands finding their way in between the buttons of her white blouse, he could taste the wine in her mouth before he forgot about the way things taste. Later, when she fell asleep she placed her head on his shoulder, and when they landed and she walked off the plane ignoring him, he tightened his light blue tie around his neck and took a swig from a solid silver flask he kept in his breast pocket.

“That wasn’t very nice, honey,” he said.

“Mom doesn’t like it you’re here. You should’ve phoned,” Dorothy said.

“Right. Sorry about that sweetheart. Last minute business trip. I thought, you know, I thought it would be a good time to see you. It’s been what, three, four years. Long time. I missed you. You miss me?”

“Not really.”

“Not really? Come on, you can’t really mean that.”

“Yes I do. I mean it.”

Australia was good to Dorothy. On her first day in Oz she woke up in the middle of the night hot as the heat of the place crossed her body like a finger slipping along her skin. Her sheets were wet and at first she thought she was just sweating. Then feeling around the sheets in the darkness she thought she peed herself so she stood up and rushed over to switch on the light. Looking down, cupping her night gown, she realized she was bleeding between her legs, light almost transparent blood dripping from her body as sweat poured down her face and tears welled in her eyes. She looked over to her bed, the sheets covered in blood from her fumbling around in the dark, where she spread her blood everywhere across the linens. She glanced at the floor, long wood cedar planks, blood smearing across where she had walked, dragging her feet the way she does, to where she stood at the light switch. She turned the light back off and went back to bed soaked in her own blood. The next day she meet her first boyfriend after waking up that morning almost a full hour earlier to clean up the bloody mess in her bedroom.

It happened in the morning before second period when she had gym class. The teachers made the girls change out of their clothes in the change rooms and if you didn’t you weren’t allowed to participate and if you weren’t allowed to participate you weren’t allowed to pass. It was there Dorothy looked at the other girls as they undressed, their bodies bunched up together in the small locker room as they swam out of their dresses and jeans into their shorts and shirts. Walking to the gym she bumped into him and he smiled at her and said sorry. She fell in love and she thought about him as she undressed. She thought about him when the other girls pressed in around her when they played volleyball, running plays as they held each other, their arms stretched over each other’s shoulders, and again when they squirmed their dresses and jeans back on in the locker room, and yet again at her desk in English class as they passed notes to one another when the teacher’s back was turned away from them, writing on the chalkboard as the minutes on the clock above the door wore on and on.

She saw him the first time when he invited her to his place when his parents were gone after he walked up to her while she stood at her locker. He made her wet when he groped her in his parents’ basement, and she almost took off her clothes when he asked but she left because she was scared. She shivered when she walked home.

“I missed you. Four years. That’s a long time. You’re all grown up. I don’t even recognize you anymore,” Adrian said, taking a corner too fast as he looked on his daughter, crashing into the sugarcane, tearing a hole in the clean beauty, unspoiled until he drove the Camaro into the 12 metre tall plants, trying to gain control of the car as it careened deeper into the field. Dorothy screamed when her head hit the window, falling silent as the Camaro slid to a stop somewhere deep in the sugarcane. Adrian looked on her again as a thin streak of blood slipped down her forehead onto her cheek and then down her neck to where her red dress covered her breasts.

He didn’t want the blood to touch her dress. Touch her little red dress, but it did, it stained her: deepening the colour from light red to crimson along the top edge as she tried to awaken from the bad dream she was having in the middle of the sugarcane field her father had plowed into when he wasn’t looking. She stooped down beside the dead witch beside the house from Kansas, beside the legs that stuck out from under that house, and took the ruby red slippers from the Wicked Witch of the East. She took off her own black polished shoes and slipped the ruby red slippers onto her own feet, claiming title of witch.

“Dorothy? Dorothy. Please honey. Wake up. Please wake up” Adrian said, reaching toward his daughter’s face as the blood smeared down her cheek from the deep gash along her hairline where the pale grey white bone of her skull appeared through the flesh as a flap of skin dipped down along her forehead. He touched her cheek where the blood flowed down onto the edge of her dress, and wiped it across her cheek before pulling away when she moaned.

“Dorothy? Dorothy? Honey. Wake up,” he said.

Dorothy stood up after placing the ruby red slippers on her feet and smiled as she looked up at a Munchkin staring at her, wearing a little green suit with red cuffs. In his hand he held a black gun, a Glock 26 Gen4 as walked to toward her.

“Witch,” he said, pulling the trigger.

Adrian reached again toward her face, brushed his index and middle fingers against her lips, a bit moist from the cherry lip balm she put on before seeing her daddy, then he pushed her lower jaw down and reached in close to her, his seat belt pressing against his suit, creating a crease against his jacket that stayed there until he would undress and leave the suit in a motel on the coast. He leaned in and looked at her lower teeth, slipping his fingers along her incisors, canines, before reaching his fingers deeper to feel her molars as he pushed her lower jaw down further, taking his free hand to tip her upper jaw to inspect her top side, then he used both hands to open her jaw as far as he could. He sat back in his seat and watched his daughter’s mouth shut slow, listened to her teeth click shut, and checked for a pulse, her heart still beating slow and irregular – a staccato that reminded him of the way she knocked on his hotel room in Sydney, two knocks then one tap followed by three swats.

Adrian had taken her to the doctor’s office when she was just five, and the man opened the door to the examination room, wearing a black suit under his lab coat with a black tie, they heard the voices of the nurses in the hallway, and he was scared for her when looking at the physician’s file of chest X-rays of his daughter’s heart. The doctor sat down on the chair as he and Dorothy remained sitting on the physician’s bench, and they looked down on him as he fished for his reading glasses. Adrian admired the way the doctor parted his hair, it reminded him of a young Dick Clark, and his smile was like his father’s, a slight upward tick on the left side of the mouth with a thin wrinkle just above the edge of his upper lip below a smooth clean-shaven face. Putting on his reading glasses, the doctor opened the file and looked through the X-rays, every so often holding one or another up to the light to ponder his daughter’s heart, humming and hawing until he put all the X-rays back into the folder, shut it, and smiled that left-leaning tick of his.

Adrian rolled down the Camaro’s driver side window, watching the sugarcane rustle as the wind moving through the tall stalks sounded like the rush of spectators at the ballpark after a home run. He pulled out his pack of cigarettes and lit a smoke, the dry smoke making him cough from the stale cigarettes he carried with him since he left for Oz, the Chinese clerk at the Canadian duty free shop smelling of lavender frowning as he slid the pack of Camels across the plastic top.

“You go now,” she told him. He had stretched out his arm to take a look at the time from his Richard Mille Tourbillon Skull wrist watch, a gift from a secret admire who sent the watch in a box chiseled from elephant ivory. The watch laughs back at its wearer with a skull whose mouth remains open in an eternal gesture of damnation, and that day in the Canadian airport, the watch glinted in the light as the Chinese clerk picked up his cigarette pack to take a look at the somewhat gaunt-looking camel standing in between two pyramids against a stained yellow palette.

“Soon. Real soon,” Adrian replied.

“You go now,” the Chinese clerk repeated ringing the cash register. “$12.50,” she said. “You pay now.”

“$12.50. Sure,” he said, reaching into his pocket for some bills and change. He handed the money and watched the Chinese clerk collect it from him, his eyes never leaving hers as they exchanged the money.

“Red eye, eh?” she said.

“Looks like it.”

“Better not sleep. Stay awake. Red eye.”

“Sure. Sure thing. I will stay awake. Thanks.”

“You go now.”

He left the Chinese clerk and walked down the long hallway to the departure gate and left Canada holding the Camel pack in his left hand, tightening his grip around his smokes as he walked down the jet bridge to the airplane, Qantas flight ZC-34T56 headed for Sydney. At the door two blonde female airline attendants greeted him and told him where to sit down. He walked along the right side aisle to the first class seat he booked earlier that day by fluke after searching for a seat all morning and found one after someone cancelled. He sat down and stared out the window as a baggage handler drove a train of suitcases to the side of the plane.

Adrian finished his cigarette as he opened the door. Outside, he bent down and with a little trouble lit several stalks of sugarcane on fire with the butt end of the cigarette, walked around to the passenger’s side of the Camaro, opened the door, reached down to his daughter, took her neck in his hands and snapped it, listening to her spine break with a pop. He walked away as the sugarcane burned around the Camaro, their water-saturated stalks dampening the flames as the Camaro’s gasoline caught flame.

Dorothy exploded behind him. He had hugged her in the examination room after the doctor left, her little body rigid with fear, heart pounding irregular and fluttering against his own as he bent down to hold her.

Akuna

Akuna’s curly black hair drifted along the top of her head with the wind, a warm winter North Australian southerly with smacks of cold and heat from the south eastern Asian islands swimming above the land they call Oz. She walked in a slow way as she placed her wide-brimmed straw hat back on after straightening it out, having bent and kneaded the thatch the way she liked it with an easy long curve across the front.

She walked up to the river to see him by the river her people swam in for centuries where the rock is black and smooth. Her long white dress with flower petals painted red and pink rippled in the breeze when she stopped to take him in, the stranger from another place, his white skin burned red as he sat beside the river, a waterfall above them – its spray similar to the way ocean waves scatter across the air when a boat slips along the currents. But this is no ocean. She is not happy the stranger is here.

“Why you here?” Akuna asked the stranger.

The stranger looked up at her, smiling, two gold teeth glinting in the sun as the rush of river water drowned out the bird songs in the forest surrounding them. The stranger pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, a habit from his university days when he chatted with friends on the outside steps of his dormitory where they talked about Plato and his cave. He smiled again his is lit his smoke looking up at Akuna.

“My name is Adrian Faulk,” the stranger said stretching out his right hand in the way westerners do to extend courtesy to a new person. Akuna ignored the man as he took a drag from the cigarette.

“I didn’t ask your name,” she replied.

Adrian stood, smiling, and rummaged around his campsite for a fold-up chair, which he found by the tent. He unfolded the chair for Akuna, who glared at him with a dangerous glint in her eyes. She sat down as he took a seat on the rock again, crossing his legs as he stared out across the glassy surface of the river moving the way it had done forever.

Akuna crossed her legs and followed the direction of his gaze before taking a deep breath. When the little Bindi girl from down the street came running to her she was picking weeds in her garden where she grew chilies, limes, and green peas. Little Bindi’s feet pattered along the dirt creating little Bindi steps in the dust. Little Bindi steps she followed out the garden when she walked to the white people’s camp by her people’s river. The little Bindi girl said to her this land is ours, and Akuna said it was all of their’s including the white people’s, who made campsites on their land for strangers.

“A white man is here,” little Bindi said, her giant eyes staring down at Akuna as she knelt in her garden picking weeds. Little Bindi’s eyes were so big and gorgeous, little brown irises surrounded by milky white saucers the same startling white as the girl’s teeth when she smiled down at Akuna as she picked a pea pod from a vine. “He asks for you Akuna,” little Bindi added running her finger across the top of the pod to reveal the peas beneath. Holding the pod in her left hand, Little Bindi scooped the peas out from the pod in one fell swoop of her finger into her hand before dropping the pod to the garden floor and plopping the peas into her mouth. With a mouth full, little Bindi told Akuna about the stranger hitching a ride with Darana who drove the stranger up to the river, past the houses hiding among pineapple groves as the farmers wrapped the fresh fruit in brown sacks.

“So fella, what you up to here?” Darana had asked the stranger.

“Oh, doing a little travelling, you know, see the land,” he had said.

“Ah, I see. Going up to see the waterfall then?”

“Yes, that’s right. I hear it’s beautiful.”

Darana’s truck, a 1946 black Fargo Truck with red hub cabs veered around a corner sending a dust cloud out across a corn field as the sun sunk below a hilly tree line where a thick waft of black smoke rose up

“What’s going on up there?” the stranger asked.

Darana took his eyes of the windy dirt road to glance up at the plume of black smoke, the column rising up and spreading out across the deep blue sky. “Bit of a brush fire up there. Here it’s under control now. Just mopping up,” Darana replied.

When Akuna lifted herself off the garden floor, the soil staining her dress where her knees were planted in the dirt, she felt her age like she did when she woke up in her bed in the small bedroom she painted a week ago the colour blue. The smell of the fresh paint mingled with the small herd of Banksia outside Akuna’s bedroom window as she stared at the blue ceiling and thought about the sky and sun and her garden. She made her coffee black that morning without milk or sugar, her mood rotten from the talk with her daughter the night before who slept with a man who she didn’t like. Her daughter had told her she was with child, and Akuna was angry about this as she sipped her morning coffee on her back porch as the morning grew into day. The man worked in the fields some days, picking pineapple. Other days he drank by the river, throwing his empty bottles in the water, watching them float away.

Akuna let the man called Adrian Fault smoke his cigarette and stare at the river. She waited for him to speak but he couldn’t, not this moment because it was too silent, it was too quiet along the river, the river turning to just a hush as it passed them on its way to the ocean. Sitting there reminded Adrian of the river near his home where he swam at a bend with steep clay banks lifting up from the mud. The locals spent all day there in the summers swimming in the water muddied by the clay and silt of the land where he grew up. This place was different, the water clean and smooth as its gentle fingers moulded the rock over time, and so he admired Akuna for living in such a place of beauty without her people destroying it, this beauty.

“Why you here stranger?” Akuna asked him.

“I was told you are a healer,” Adrian replied, looking up at the ancient woman who sat in his fold-up chair, legs crossed, the dirt stains from her work in the garden making a fishbone pattern over the prints of flowers on her dress. The wind picked up and Akuna lifted her hand up to hold her straw hat as she regarded the stranger who sat on the rock, grinning like a dingo as his gold teeth continued to glint in the midday glare. “This place, it is clean. The rock is good, I feel better here, like I am whole again,” the stranger said.

“Where are you from fella?”

“Nowhere really. Here, there. Wherever.”

“Adrian Faulk is an English name, is it not?”

“It is.”

“So you’re English then.”

“Nah. I’m not English.”

“Well, stranger, you’re out of luck. I’m not healer.”

“That’s not what I heard.”

“I can’t help you Englishman.”

Adrian fished out his pack of cigarettes again, smashing the butt of his last one across the rock, leaving a black charcoal line across the grey, black rock. He lit another smoke, tossing the pack on the stone, and went back to watching the river.

“You smoke a lot,” Akuna said.

“I know.”

“You want to heal, then quit smoking.”

Akuna thought the man was a fool, chain smoking like that, it reminded her of her cousin who died of lung cancer at the large hospital in the city down south. Akuna remembered the white walls of the hospital, the smell of bleach in the hallways, and her dying cousin with her red face and wheezing cough as the pain doctor injected her with that drug they call morphine. When her people started poking needles in themselves to get high, they asked poor Akuna for help. The elders knocked on her door, and when she answered them, they came in and she made them tea and served homemade cookies. She asked them to sit down in her living room where she had two couches and a love seat with green upholstery. A large window let in the evening light as the moon above was bright and full. They stayed up all night talking about these needles, and how it went so bad for their people. When the elders left, Akuna prayed to the rainbow snake to help her people become fertile again. They had stopped having babies, and were poking themselves with needles. Their arms were full of holes, but no blood came out of these holes, they were infected and no good for the land. She prayed that night, and later, maybe a couple of weeks later, the police came and took away the bad men who sold the needles to her people. Rain snake answered her prayers.

When her cousin died, taking her last breath, Akuna prayed with her, then left the hospital with white walls. She never went back to the city again, and swore to rain snake to never make her go again. When it was her time to die, she told her family to let her die in her home in her bedroom with blue walls.

Adrian took one last pull from the cigarette, dragged it along the rock a second time, and placed the butt beside the first one, then looked back to Akuna, smiling that same gold-toothed grin, like the one before and the one before that. She started to like the stranger then, and smiled back, her face turning young and fresh like the days when she was a young woman swimming in the pools further below the river where the giant round rocks rose up. She remembered those days for a second before the smell of smoke scared her. She looked around and noticed thick black plumes drift into the campsite and out across the river.

“Darana told me the fire was almost out,” Adrian said.

“More black smoke today. It started about a week ago, this fire. They try but in the summer, things are so hot and dry, they have a tough time putting out the fires.”

“You get a lot of fires up here?”

“Not really. We are lucky most years. Not this year. This the fourth fire this summer. The summer of fires,” Akuna replied. A chill swept up Akuna’s spine, and she shook as the wind grew strong over the tops of the trees, and the rush of thousands of trees was heard across the river. “I don’t like this fire.”

“I don’t suppose you do. I don’t suppose you do at all.”

When Akuna was a little girl, just five years old, there was a fire that burned down her village. The black smoke choked her as it slithered its way into her lungs. Her mom and dad rushed her and her brothers out of their house in the middle of the night as the fire stole into the home and took everything they had. They fled to an elementary school in a nearby town and the people there offered her water from a plastic bottle. She didn’t like how the plastic made the water taste and she gave the bottle back to the people and she walked to the bathroom and drank from the tap instead. Her and her family slept in the gymnasium that night with the other people from the village and the snoring men kept her awake all night as her mom held her close, her mom’s heart beat breathing life into her as she placed her ear against her mother’s chest. In the morning they woke to a screaming woman who found an elder who had died in the washroom sometime during the night. They left that place after this and went back home to the burnt grass and houses to rebuild their home again. Her dad was happy again when the lumber arrived from the government man.

Akuna watched the stranger as he stood up, stretching his legs, as a line of worry stretched across his face. She was just as worried looking up at the trees as they swayed this way and that, then hearing a branch crack and break, she stood and folded the stranger’s chair.

“I best be getting home now. I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“That’s quite all right. I thought I would ask. No fault in trying.”

Adrian smiled and held out his hand to Akuna who took it this time. He smiled at her again, those two gold teeth shining as the wind swept in, sending his cooking things across the rock. The sound of it made Akuna jump. On the way home she thought about the stranger, the way he sat crouched on the rock smoking his cigarettes watching the river. That night she couldn’t sleep as the wind kept rattling open the shutters of her bedroom window after she tried closing them.

In the morning she opened the window and looked down at her Banksias. They smelled fresh and good to her, better than thick black smoke. She turned her attention to the hill where the fire was and watched the thick serpent of blackness lift up to cover the sky, creating darkness everywhere. Later that day she heard the fire had consumed much of the forest leading up to the river and that a white man was missing, caught in the wind and fire as it ate the hillside.

After she heard the news she went back to her garden to pick weeds.

Dry blood on the range

by John King

The dark feathers of the crow stained crimson against the headlights of the smashed car. The bird watched the boy stoop over her – the young man’s hands cupping her where her body twisted apart. It happened when the car rolled down the sloped hill, stringing her fragile body along the summer grass. He tried holding her together as the headlights shone on them, her head slipping back and forth. The crow stood within the stream of light and watched them, its one eye unblinking.

***

“Charles, you done eating yet?” his wife Mary asked. “I wanna get to town before lunch.” She walked into the kitchen and sat down beside her husband who didn’t bother to answer. She put her hand on his and he looked at her. “You gonna take care of Christopher?”

“Yes,” Charles answered.

“You done yet?”

“Guess so.”

He pushed his bowl of oatmeal away. Mary collected the dish and walked to the sink. He liked the way she sounded in the kitchen. The way she moved her ceramic dishes around; the way she stood against the morning light that eased through the window above the sink.

He left her and walked upstairs to his son’s bedroom.

“How’s Chris today?” he asked leaning against his son’s bedroom door frame. There was no answer. Charles walked to his son’s bed. He sat down and poked at the silent ball covered by blankets.

“She was here last night you know,” Chris said.

“Who was here?”

“She was.”

Charles remembered her then. It was a spring day when she wore a light-blue dress that hung around her ankles. She walked up the driveway and Charles had watched her from the kitchen window. She had never known it, but she reminded him of his wife on the days he walked with Mary to the lake on the hill. He used to go there with Mary in spring when it rained.

“Why don’t you take that blanket off so I can see you? It’s time to get up. You missed your breakfast by the way,” Charles said, pulling at the blanket to look over the unshaven face of his son.  “It’s time to get up, huh, kid. You could go for a walk, you know, or take the car and go for a drive.”

“You know mom doesn’t let me drive anymore,” Chris said.

“Well, she’s going to town. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her now, can it?”

“Guess not.”

“Get dressed kid. I’ll leave the key to the old truck on the kitchen table.”

“Where you going?”

“Oh, I have a few things to take care of today.”

“Real important?”

“Yeah, real important. You take your pills this morning?”

“No.”

“Don’t forget. You need some light in here,” Charles said. He walked over to his son’s bedroom window and opened the blinds. Chris threw the blankets back over his head and groaned. “Make sure you take your pills,” Charles added.

Reaching for the door, Charles stopped a moment to look back at his son who had sat up – the blanket thrown on the floor. “You okay son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Chris answered.

“Good. Get out of bed.”

“Hey dad.”

“Yeah.”

“What if I told you I saw the future?”

“I’d tell you to take your pills.”

Chris laughed. “Of course you would.”

Charles closed the door and walked back downstairs. Mary had left, the butt of her cigarette smouldered in the ashtray. Charles put on his jean jacket and left the key to the old truck on the kitchen table.

Outside he breathed in the late-autumn air. He looked at the trees and watched as their limbs tugged in the wind. In his truck, Charles turned on the radio as he passed his new tractor that cost him his retirement money. Charles listened to the news. Another yard had been broken into – this time the owner was on the radio.

“These damned thieves. I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen anything like it, two tractor-trailers just gone. No witnesses, no broken fence or gate, makes no sense if you ask me. No goddamn sense. They were just gone,” the stunned man said over the radio.

Charles turned off the radio and hung a right into a driveway lined with baby pine trees. He pulled up to the small, white house at the end of the driveway and parked. The house sat within a copse of birch trees; the markings on their peeling-white bark made Charles feel like a bunch of eyes stared at him. Opening the screen door of the house, he knocked and waited.

Josephine opened the door and smiled. “Charlie. It’s been so long.”

“It has, how are you Josephine?” Charles asked.

“Well fine I guess, same old same old – you know. Wanna come in?”

“I would like that. I would. But I’m here to see Jim.”

“Jim? He went up into the fields this morning, early you know. Up at the crack of dawn every morning that Jim of mine – checking on things. You know how Jim is.”

“Some things never change huh?”

“No, guess not Charlie.”

“Well, I’ll just walk on up there then.”

“Okay Charlie.”

“We’ll be seeing you.”

“Bye Charlie.”

He turned, the stones underneath of feet crushing.

“Oh Charlie?” Josephine asked.

Charles turned around and watched her open the screen door a little wider as she stepped out.

“How’s Chris doing?”

“He’s good Josephine. He’s doing just all right.”

“That’s good to hear, Charlie.”

“You take care now, Josephine.”

He listened as she retreated back into her house. He fetched his cigarettes and lit a smoke as he walked up the hill.

Up an old road where willows had taken over and the wind moved clouds to cover the sun – the tops of long grass swayed. Hidden in an old black poplar tree was a falling-down fort made of barn wood. When looking at the old fort, Charles almost ran into Jim.

“Still taking your eye off the road I see,” Jim said taking Charles into a bear hug. “That’s right Jim.”

“Well, I was just coming in off the fields, but since you’re here we might as well go on back. I have something to show you, Charlie, something I’m sure you’d like to see.”

The pair walked up the slope to where Jim wanted to take Charles.

“You believe in angels, my friend?” Jim asked.

“Well, I’m still god-fearing if that’s what you mean.”

Jim laughed and slapped his old friend on the back. “Sure Charlie, that’s what I mean.”

Charles could see something white in the distance as they left the trees and walked across a wheat field, clipped of its crop days before, towards Jim’s grazing land.

“You see that?” Jim asked.

“What is it?”

“It’s a dead buffalo.”

“A dead what?”

“A dead buffalo.”

“It looks white from here.”

“Well, that’s because it is Charlie.”

“I didn’t know you kept buffalo.”

“Yep, since a couple of years ago, I’ve had this one longer, don’t know where it come from – just wandered in off the range I guess.”

Charles peered down at the carcass once the pair reached the dead buffalo. The cow’s throat had been slit and blood drained from its body.

“Well, whatcha make of it?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know Jim.”

“Throat cut wide open.”

“Looks that way.”

“Had her a long time, kept her a secret, told no one.”

Charles stepped back and lit another smoke. The wind whipped about as the small herd of buffalo collected around the pair with their big wide eyes staring at the two men – curious of the visitor. A giant bull stepped forward.

“Here’s Mr. Beans. He’s a soldier Charlie. Had some problems with them wolves last year, you know, and Mr. Beans here speared one right through its gut, had to pull it off his horns. I came up to check on things, and here was Mr. Beans walking around with a speared wolf hanging from his horns. Quite a sight it was, quite a sight.”

The bull dipped its head and nudged the fallen member of its herd. The pair of men watched until Jim looked away. “Why are you here Charlie?” he asked.

Charles didn’t answer right away. Instead he looked down at the white buffalo’s dry blood on the range. “I need a favour,” he said.

“Favour? Been a long time for favours don’t you think old friend?”

“What does this white buffalo have to do with angels Jim?”

Jim bent down and touched the animal’s head and peered into its lifeless eyes. “I don’t really know, but it must be a miracle this buffalo, huh Charlie, a miracle. I hear of them you know, of white buffaloes. This one just wondered in off the range. The way I figure it, I was supposed to have her and now she’s dead. I wanna find the bastard who cut her wide open and bled her. If I do, maybe I’ll cut’em wide open like they did her. Must be a miracle though, this buffalo.”

“There’ve been a lot of miracles happening around here wouldn’t you say Jim?”

“What’er you getting at Charlie?”

“I wanna know who’s been stealing equipment from yards.”

Jim stood up and took a quick look around even though the land was empty. “Well, Charlie, I couldn’t tell you that.”

“You always knew what went on in town.”

“Now why you wanna know a thing like this anyway Charlie? It’s been a long time since you come out last to visit me and Josephine.”

“Long time.”

“Your boy gone crazy now I hear?”

“That’s one way to put it.”

“Damn shame. I was there you know, at her funeral.”

“I know Jim.”

“She was damn pretty you know.”

“I know.”

“Damn pretty. I hear about it, about what happened at the courts. I hear nothing’s going to come of it. Charlie, I did everything I could.”

“I know Jim. I know you did everything you could.”

“Well, it’s a real son-of-a-bitch. I want to help you old friend. But you stand here with me, here with my secret and you ask for favours. So I’m gonna ask you again, why you wanna know this thing you ask me?”

***

It was an ugly case and Derrick Sommers, the town’s Crown prosecutor, knew so the minute it was slapped down onto his desk by one of the law clerks who was close to the family and wanted justice done.

He had poured through the files that night drinking beer and eating pretzels until dawn broke through the curtain of his apartment downtown and he could no longer see straight. He took a cold shower that morning and drank a whole pot of coffee to himself before leaving – walking down the stairs to his car. The car wouldn’t start, and instead of phoning for a taxi, Derrick walked to work. He had forgotten what it felt like to walk to work.

The justice-seeking clerk was the first to greet him in the morning.

“There’s just simply not enough evidence,” he told her.

Her reproachful glances from that day onward made him the least popular person in the office for as long as he was to stay in town.

“That’s not good enough,” she told him, following Derrick into his office. “There must be something, something to put him away.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“You’re shameful.”

“I’m sure that’s it.”

She slammed the door behind her when she left his office, and he slid down into his chair before his boss William called. Derrick picked up the phone.

“So what’s going on with the hit-and-run case?” William asked.

“With what case sir?”

“Hit and run. You know the one where the Indian girl was-”

“You can spare me the details sir, I know the case you’re talking about.”

“You sure this is the right work for you Sommers? You know, the diner down the street is looking for a cook, maybe that’s better suited for you? Oh, wait a second – you have a weak stomach as it is – so I guess cooking is out. Especially since you’re a what – a vegan? You couldn’t bear to stare down at them frying eggs could you?”

“I don’t see what fried eggs have to do-”

“You getting fresh with me Sommers? Tell me what you’ve got because I’ve got all sorts of heat on me and I’m telling them I got my best man on it. Do I Sommers?”

“Do you what sir?”

“Have my best man on it?”

“Well, sir, I don’t think you do.”

“What in the hell do you mean Sommers?”

“I mean, sir, I can’t win this case.”

“Can’t win the case?”

“No sir, can’t win.”

“You tell that to him then, he’s waiting to talk to you.”

“I have the statement he gave police right here in front of me. I don’t think I need anything else, sir.”

“Don’t you ‘sir’ me Sommers. He’s in the lobby and you’re going to give him the answers he’s looking for.”

William hung up the phone just as Derrick’s secretary buzzed him.

“Ah, Christopher Graydon is here to see you,” she said over Derrick’s speaker phone as the Crown prosecutor cringed in his leather seat.

“Oh let him in then will ya.”

“Yes sir.”

***

“Well, you’re the seventh to be hit Mr. Graydon. I don’t understand it myself. It’s got everybody scratching their heads you know, even them city slickers down South who’ve come up here to do our work for us,” RCMP sergeant Kyle Norman said. The law man stared over at Charlie who leaned against a fence post looking at the small piece of land where he had parked his brand new tractor the night before.

“There’s no use in getting spun up about it is there?” Charlie asked.

“No, like I said, you’re not the only one. Good thing your insurance is in order. Old Jackie Boy down on the river wasn’t so lucky you know.”

“I heard about that.”

“You and everybody else.”

Mary pulled into the yard. The sergeant excused himself. When the RCMP cruiser left, a trail of dust lifted into the air. Mary saddled her car up to her husband.

“You gonna get in?” she asked him.

“Nah.”

“You gonna stand there looking like a scarecrow then?”

“Guess so.”

“Suit yourself.”

“You get’em canned peaches at the farmers market?” Charlie asked her.

“Yeah, I got them canned peaches.”

“Oh, maybe I’ll hitch a ride with ya afterall.”

“Well, get in then will ya. The milk is going bad in all this heat, been a long time since it rained last.

“Yep, real long time.”

Charlie sat down into the passenger’s seat and closed the car door before taking a close look at his wife who didn’t pay him any attention. Mary pulled back onto the driveway and headed toward the house.

An accidental activist

By John King

Minister George Feenstra and his small United Church congregation in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood near Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, fed porridge in the mornings and soup in the evenings to sex trade workers after police pushed them off downtown eastside streets in preparation of the 2010 Olympics.

“We had guests and you treat your guests well,” Feenstra says. He shifts in his chair at the small Interfaith Chaplaincy office carved out of the wall off a hallway in Old Main on Thompson Rivers University campus on a recent Tuesday.

The influx of street people from depressed areas of east Hastings and Main Street neighbourhoods in the late 2000s didn’t sit well with a local community watch group, who Feenstra says called police and the United Church to complain. “The United Church gave the police permission to drive the street people away from the church. It was a gross act of social injustice.”

The sixty-two-year-old TRU Champlain dropped out of high school and lived a transient lifestyle until he decided to enter the United Church as minister. After obtaining a Bachelor degree, he attended the University of British Columbia’s affiliated School of Theology and earned a Master of Divinity. Reflecting on his life journey, Feenstra ponders the importance of knowing who you are. “It takes courage to be who you are,” he says, adding he finds comfort in the teachings of Buddha and Socrates. “I admire them because they were unique.”

Uniqueness is a longstanding issue for Feenstra who suffered exile when he was asked to take a leave of absence from the United Church ministry. This was a result of the Mount Pleasant debacle which was followed by his arrest at a daycare during a peaceful protest in Vancouver.

“The people were unhappy Gordon Campbell was playing up the sponsors of a daycare that was privatized,” Feenstra explains. The community members gathered at the daycare where Campbell was set to give a photo-op. Feenstra decided to try and go into the daycare, and when he was denied entry the first time, he was arrested the second time and charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, and inciting a riot. “When the crowd shouted for the police to let me go, they charged me with unlawful assembly and uttering profanities.” Feenstra denies he swore, and says the gathering was peaceful.

These days, Feenstra’s life is peaceful. And sitting in the Chaplaincy office at TRU, the weathered minister looks kind of like a sage far removed from his days as a rebellious church outcast. He’s more an intellectual thinker now, who ponders the role of the church in social organization through the first half of the Twentieth Century. He also thinks about the life of Jesus Christ, who he says fought against the power structures of the day to better the lives of common people.

“If the Christian faith has anything to offer, it’s the critical nature of Jesus who fought against the religious institutions and political structures,” Feenstra says. “As a minister, I am just another capitalist wage earner. The church itself has become the benefactors of a system it should be criticizing.”

Cracktown

By John King

Indiana could feel a tooth swim around in the blood foaming out of her mouth as the woman, one of two RCMP officers, held her wrists from behind.

“Quit fighting. You’re only going to make it worse,” she told Indiana before sticking her right leg between the  prisoner’s. The officer took a hold of the girl’s dark hair and scraped her face against the cement to emphasize the point. “I think I’ve had just about enough of you.”

“Fuck you,” Indiana replied. There was the concrete wall she was pushed up against and the way it made her face cold when the rest of her burned. She needed out and they kept telling her she wasn’t going anywhere. That made her burn.

She was sick of being pushed around and could hear ringing in her ears as anger gave her strength enough to push back against the woman. Slamming her elbow into the officer, Indiana whipped around, tearing herself free. Before either of the dumbfounded officers could react, Indiana wound up a right and clocked her square in the nose. Had there been more strength behind the 18 year old’s blow, it might have broken the officer’s nose.

“Fucking little bitch. Better add assaulting an officer to the list now honey. Come on Andy, get the hell in here and help,” she roared to her partner, who looked as some men do when watching two women locked in a cat fight. “We have to strip her. Take her jeans off,” she said as she fought Indiana to the ground.

A wave of dizziness hit Indiana and she began to choke, coughing up blood.

“What’s wrong with her?” Andy asked.

“Doped pretty good I would say,” she replied directing her attention to Indiana. “You take any drugs?”

Indiana glared at the two hunkered over her. Before she went black, she thought about what was inside her as her heart pumped cocaine through her body so fast and strong it almost broke her.

▪▪▪

“Ah, my old friend,” he said to Carpenter.

Old Blue sat in the soft light of the pool table lamps. He sat where he always sat – in the corner booth of the pool hall, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee. The old man waved Carpenter to sit down across from him. “Good to see you, thought you might’ve skipped town.”

“Now why would I go and do a thing like that, Blue?” Carpenter asked.

“Ah, I know you wouldn’t kid, I know,” Old Blue said as he waved over a waitress. “What’ll it be, gin on the rocks?”

“Yeah, that’ll be good Blue.”

“Never understood why you drink the stuff, not til I remembered your mother used to drink it. She was a real beauty, a real class act, your mother. I remember she would have her suitors wait outside her house. Rain or shine, she would make them wait, taking her sweet time as she spied on them. That’s what I remember about your mother. Those damned suitors standing in the rain, it’s my last memory of her,” Old Blue said, shaking his head.

“It was our last Christmas together. She took me on a vacation to Hawaii. We went to this beach. She said the lifeguard told her a giant sea turtle was in the bay. So I went out, and I found it. I found that turtle. That’s my last memory of her, Blue,” Carpenter said.

Old Blue folded his newspaper. “So, kid, where’s your better half these days? Never see her around no more.”

“Oh, you know Blue, keeping her hidden away from view.”

“All to yourself?”

“Yep, all to myself.”

“It’ll never work, kid. You should just leave it alone, but you won’t will ya?”

“What’ll never work, Blue?”

“You and her.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re smart kid, I always liked you. I told your mother I’d keep an eye out for you. This thing you have, this girl, it’s no good. Leave it alone,” he said before taking a sip of his coffee.

Old Blue had never liked Indiana. The first time Carpenter brought her in, Old Blue said she was a black cat, bad luck, and chased her out. Now as Old Blue stared him down with those Frank Sinatra look-alike’s, Carpenter wasn’t too sure what to do. He had a plan coming in but now Old Blue had turned the whole thing into a poker game.

He supposed Old Blue already knew and was playing dumb. If that was the case, Carpenter’s chances of staying alive weren’t good considering the drug debt he owed.

“Kid, it never ends.”

“What never ends, Blue?” Carpenter asked downing the last of his drink.

“I think you know. You better have another one,” the old man said waving over the waitress.

“No, I gotta go Blue, sorry, things to do, you know,” Carpenter said getting up.

“Yeah, I know. Why don’t ya just sit down and have another. One more on me, old friend,” Old Blue said.

▪▪▪

The cigarette hung from the tips of Richard’s fingers when he fell asleep. It dropped to the carpet floor and smouldered there until his wife came home. She picked up the cigarette, put it into the ashtray and slapped her husband as he slept.

“Fuck you doing?” he asked her.

“Bastard,” she said walking into the kitchen.

He shook his head and stood. The living room was silent. The television was turned on with the sound muted. Some boxing program was airing the Rumble in the Jungle. Richard thought about the day on an American army base when he watched the fight live on television drinking beers under the mesh of a mess tent with a dozen or so other officers.

Half the men rooted for George Foreman, who was younger, and packed a giant wallop. The rest chose to stick with the Champ, the veteran boxer who never joined the Vietnam War like they did. They all respected him for that.

Richard shook his head. His mind ricocheted back to the living room where the sounds of pots and pans rumbled out of the kitchen. He followed his wife into the kitchen and leaned against the door frame.

“What you cooking?” he asked.

“The fuck you care,” she replied reaching for some pancake mix.

“You gonna make me some?”

“Fat chance.”

“So when’s this going to end?”

“Quit asking so many questions.”

Richard walked to the kitchen table and sat down just as there was a knock on the back door of the house that led into the kitchen.

“Jesus,” his wife said as she froze.

“I’ll be right back,” Richard said.

He opened the door and stepped out.

“So?” he asked closing the door behind him.

“She’s out, bail hearing this afternoon, faster than we thought. She told her whole story to me,” the man standing in the shadows said.

Richard nodded and went back inside his house. He sat down and watched his wife’s dress dance along her thighs as she made her pancakes.

“You know, I really could use some of those. It’s gonna be a cold night,” he said.

“Make your own.”

“I don’t wanna make my own.”

“Fuck off.”

“You fuck off.”

She swung around with the flipper in hand and pointed it at him. Mouth half open, eyes dangerous, she stared at her husband. “Don’t you tell me to fuck off.”

“Fuck off.”

She turned back around and flipped a pancake with a loud flop.

▪▪▪

Indiana kept making those hissing sounds, the kind she always made when she was impatient about something.

“You take forever, come on already,” she said.

Carpenter brought the tip of a lighter to the blackened bottom of the spoon he held and lit a spark to cook the cocaine mixed with water and baking soda on top. The baking soda and water bubbling, the drug began to condense into a smaller more powerful hit than before.

“There, it’s ready,” Indiana said.

“Not quite,” Carpenter answered, glancing over at her.

“Don’t spill it.”

“I got it,” he said as he relit the lighter. “Give me a shiny penny.”

“I don’t have one.”

“Look for one.”

She lifted her hips as Carpenter glanced sideways at her. Aside from a missing front tooth, a scrape along her cheek and some bruises on her neck, she was no worse for wear. In fact, if you didn’t know it, you’d never suspect just hours before her stomach was pumped after overdosing on a fortune in crack. Seven balloons and one pops in the middle of being arrested. Carpenter was both mad and happy with her, mad because they were now forced to hit the road and happy because she was back in his line of sight.

Indiana checked her pockets for change. Using her shoulder blades to prop herself up, she slipped a hand into her pocket and found a penny. She hooked it with her finger, fished it out and held it against the vehicle’s interior light.

“Weird,” she said. “I didn’t know I had that.”

“Better keep it,” Carpenter said.

“Just a penny.”

“It’s your good luck penny.”

“I never believed in lucky pennies.”

“Never?”

“Come on, quit screwing around.”

Taking the penny, Carpenter started to dab at the cloud of sticky cocaine in the centre of the spoon before lifting it out and putting it on his pack of cigarettes.

“Pipe?” he asked her.

“Let me go first.”

“Gimme the pipe.”

“Let me go first,” she said again before breaking off a piece of the hardening rock. She eased it into one end of a pipe full of steel wool, which had been hidden in her other hand, before snatching Carpenter’s lighter from him. “Finders keepers.”

She tilted her head back and lifted the pipe over her mouth. She lit the end, melting the cocaine before bringing her head back down – eyes level with Carpenter. The pair stared at each other, his green eyes meeting her wide brown eyes as she worked the lighter and pipe – inhaling a deep breath. Exhaling, she closed her eyes and was still a moment before she shook when Carpenter touched her hand. She opened her eyes.

“Don’t look at me. You always look at me when I have a blast,” she said.

He turned away and glanced out the window. From behind the driver’s wheel Carpenter watched snow collect along the car window as the blizzard outside drowned out the dark skyline in front of them.

“Snow’s getting worse, should probably get a move on before we get stuck out here,” Carpenter said.

“I wish we could stay stuck out here in the snow forever,” she said, her words drifting far apart from one another in a lazy sort of way.

Carpenter realized he forgotten about the penny and handed it over to Indiana. “It’s your lucky penny even if you don’t believe in lucky pennies.”

She looked at him and took the penny. “So, where we going anyways?” she asked.

“Well that depends on what you told them.”

“I told them everything. Why else would I be out?”

“Okay then, I guess we gotta go as far as we can.”

“Mexico?”

“Yeah, like a couple of outlaws.”

“You’re dreaming.”

“Yeah well, it’s a nice dream. We might as well keep on dreaming since neither of us will get into the U.S. in the first place.”

“I know a place we can sneak across. My dad showed me when he took me to North Dakota.”

“North Dakota?”

“Yeah, he took me there once to see a healer – some sort of shaman or something I guess.”

“Why he do that?”

“I was dying.”

“Dying of what?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember? You never told me about this before.”

“I’ve never told anyone before.”

“Well, did he heal you?”

“I’m here aren’t I?”

“Mexico it is then,” Carpenter said, ignoring her and turning the car back on.

“Carpenter, I was pregnant.”

She turned to him, the corner of her mouth lifting in that way he loved so much before breaking as a tear slipped from her eye. He took her hand and didn’t say anything for a long time.

“When did you find out?” he asked.

“In the hospital but I always kinda knew.”

He reached over and kissed her cheek. She leaned into him. For a moment they were close. And she cried.

“Oh Carpenter I lost it. I lost the baby.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Carpenter, why do people like us always choose Mexico?” she asked.

“Because it’s so darn cold here.”

Indiana smiled and wiped her tear away.

“I love it when you smile Indy.”

“Yeah you do, do yah. Well get a move on then boy. We got a lot of driving to do. How much you got left?”

“Um, about fifteen after posting bail.”

“That makes two thousand between us. Think it’s enough?”

“No,” Carpenter said as he put the car into gear and started backing out. The car strained a second before plopping back down where it had been parked. “See, we’re stuck.”

The door of the car opened and a masked man knocked Carpenter unconscious. The man reached over and grabbed Indiana by the hair. He dragged Indiana out of the car. She kicked and screamed as he tied her hands and feet with cloth. He opened the back door. He threw her in and tied her to a door handle. The man tied Carpenter’s hands and feet as well. Before slamming the doors to the car shut, the man poured gasoline over Indiana and pulled out a book of matches. Then he lit her on fire.

▪▪▪

As the flames ate them, Carpenter walked down a set of creaky wooden stairs to the beach he visited when he was a child. He looked for Indiana on the steps. He could not find her.

At the bottom of the stairs, his mother waited for him. The wind whipped the white beach dress she wore into the warm air as she pointed out across the bay. She told him of the giant sea turtle seen swimming there. Carpenter walked to the water and the cold of it struck his ankles. He looked back to his mother who smiled and waved him on.

Turning to the bay, Carpenter waded deeper into the water as the sun hit the waves further out. Waist deep, he dived in and began to swim before taking a deep breath. Sinking below the water, Carpenter drifted into the shelves of a coral reef. Getting deeper and farther, the shelves became steep and tall as a rainbow of fish followed him, surrounding him.

Carpenter caught a glimpse of the giant sea turtle as it weaved through the reef. Carpenter swam chasing, reaching out. The sea turtle led him deeper into the reef – deeper and farther into the waters.

The monastery

by John King

Teacher is late.

One time he juggled five china teacups for his niece, Mia, in the kitchen when he was to lead prayers. We sat in the temple and waited for him. From the kitchen we heard the sound of five teacups crashing, a giggle from Mia, and Teacher cursing Buddha. I am oldest in our class, so I instructed the little ones to put their hands over their ears so as not to hear our beloved cursing Teacher. They obeyed me because they fear me. They obey Teacher because they love him. Teacher says I must smile more. I tell him no. I tell him I don’t like smiling. He smiles at me when we have this conversation. He says, “Jinh Kong, my little crane, you have much to learn.”

Teacher isn’t juggling teacups this time. There are rumours circulating the monastery – rumours of war. It isn’t unusual to hear such things from outsiders. But last night a stranger arrived. I heard the stranger clang on the monastery gate. Curious, I travelled the shadows up to the second level, and paced along the narrow walkway the guards use to see out across the valley the monastery overlooks. When I reached the top of the gate, I peered down at the stranger. I couldn’t see much though. The sun hadn’t risen, and it was still dark.

The guards started to question him as I sat down on my hunches and listened to the interrogation. The stranger’s voice sounded like the ropes when we fish water out of the well for breakfast. The stranger demanded to speak with Teacher. He said it was urgent. The stranger bickered with the guards and finally got his way when he offered soft candies. I skipped away back to my bed and wondered what the stranger wanted.

It isn’t normal for the monastery to receive strangers. It’s even stranger to have a stranger arrive in the middle of the night demanding an audience with Teacher. And one who carries soft candies no less.

My mind focuses on the silence in the temple as we sit crossed-legged on the wood made from the Cypress tree. When mother took me from the orphanage in Seoul, Korea, she taught me about the King Cypress tree of Tibet. On our long journey to the remote province of Qinghai, Mother drew the ancient tree on my arm with a needle and ink. It hurt, and my arm bled for days. The King Cypress is the oldest tree in Tibet. Mother said I was old like King Cypress.

It took several weeks travelling by night to reach the monastery hidden deep within the mountains of Tibet. When she brought me before Teacher, she knelt and prayed to Buddha. Mother was horrified when I didn’t kneel before Teacher. She tried to stop me when I spoke. “We are hungry,” I said. Mother thought Teacher would have us flogged for such petulance. Instead, he just smiled and showed us the way to the kitchen.

Teacher bursts through the door looking like an angry tree raising its fist in defiance against a storm. There are always storms. They rise up like bandits in the passes, brandishing their swords of wind and rain, snow and sleet.

But never storms like this one. We are at war. The stranger was travelling to all the outlying communities. The Dalai Lama was asking for women and children to leave for protected areas, and for the men to join the Tibetan military. Teacher relates all this to us in a quiet voice as he stares down at the floor. I clap my hands and bark orders to the little ones. “You must go to your families and tell them,” I say. Once the temple clears out, I approach Teacher. “Come with me,” he says.

In the kitchen, Teacher pours a cup of green tea for each of us. “Jinh, you are a good student,” he says. “But you must not stay here. You must go to Lhasa. There you are safe.” I can’t believe what I am hearing. I throw my tea down. “No. I won’t go,” I say. There is silence, and then the sound of thuds before a guard bursts through the door. “It is the Chinese,” the guard says. Teacher and I stand at the same time. “We must protect the monastery. Quick, to the gates,” Teacher says.

Looking over the valley, Chinese soldiers move like snakes through the high grass. A rush of cold air from the mountains sloshes down over the monastery. My teeth chatter and Teacher taps the back of my head to shush me. We can see the lanterns of the Chinese soldiers as they get closer. There are many of them. “What are we going to do?” I ask.

Earlier, Teacher had ushered the women and children out of the monastery and onto a secret mountain path that would take them to Lhasa. Teacher said they would be safe.

Teacher doesn’t answer. The Chinese soldiers are closer now and we hear them call amongst themselves. “Teacher, we can leave. Life is most precious,” I say. I touch Teacher’s arm. He looks down at me before getting the attention of the guards. “We are going,” he says. Our feet fall as whispers through the quiet monastery as we make our way to a small door at the back. Before leaving, I glance at the monastery one last time.

Before she died, Mother whispered a great task would be given to me. She always spoke like that to me. We were walking deep in the mountains on a trek to Lhasa. We were lost in a snowstorm but found a river. Mother said we must follow the river to safety. She walked ahead of me and fell through the ice. I pulled her back onto land but there was no place to start a fire. The winds were like the wild cats I saw in Korea, and tore at us with sharp claws. Shivering, Mother said I would save many lives one day, and that was why she went on a quest to find me. When she died, I kissed her forehead and held her for a long time. I left her and followed the river. It took several days before I found a road to Lhasa.

Ghosts under the ice

by John King

Paul remembered the Dene man who traps from a log cabin in the forest. They called him Tobaccojuice. He invited Paul and Brigitte into his cabin late one evening when they had knocked on his door.

Tobaccojuice gave them coffee and asked they sit with him beside the stove. He presented them some chairs, and the couple sat down. Then Tobaccojuice told them a story.

When the Dene traded with the Hudson Bay Company a hundred years ago, there was a group from his tribe who trapped more beaver than anyone else. Tobaccojuice said people from other tribes, jealous of their catch, started talking about a woman among them who sold her soul to an evil spirit that hunted humans. When they began their trek to trade their furs at a nearby frontier post, a competing tribe slaughtered them at the banks of a lake known for good fish.

He said there were ghosts under the ice from when they were slaughtered for the animal skins they carried to the fur post. He said when you pass over the ice you can hear their screams. But sometimes it’s just the wind, he said.

When Paul and Brigitte left, they shook Tobaccojuice’s hand and thanked him for the company. They asked him about where the lake was, and he told them.

Paul remembered listening to Tobaccojuice tell his story as he walked with Brigitte in single file through the forest. They were four months into their time living across the sandy forest looking for oil in the dirt. It was late November, and the sand lay frozen under a deep blanket of snow that had covered the region two days ago. It had been the first big snowfall of the season. Paul and Brigitte weathered the storm in their company trailer sipping brandy while they listened to the radio and talked about their findings. They worked for an American oil company. They were gathering information about the region before the brass moved in to start digging for the oil found in the sand.

Now that it was winter, the place was different than it was in summer. It was a strange country to Paul. Of course Brigitte loved it and wanted to stay on longer. She wanted to record the stories the aboriginals told to her. But he missed their life in Seattle. He told her not to bother and she grew angry and silent. They hadn’t spoken much since morning when they fought. He woke her up after a video conference with the bosses back in Texas. They weren’t happy. Shares were down and investors cranky about spending a few billion on a project that wasn’t for certain. Of course they knew it was for real.

The temperature was dropping fast. The engineers called a day ago and warned them about a storm to hit tonight. He knew they shouldn’t be out. Maybe they should even be back in town – that tiny village at the end of the road.

While lost in thought Paul didn’t notice Brigitte had stopped ahead of him and he bumped into her.

“See that?” she asked.

They had been walking through a thin forest of pine trees somewhere at the outskirts of their camp. Paul watched the air escape from her mouth before following her gaze. He liked to watch her breathe, his eyes almost always drawing to her full thick lips that turned deep pink in the cold.

“There’s something ahead of us,” she said.

“You sure? We’re pretty far out. Be no hunters here this time of year, you think?”

“Don’t know. They’ll be out anytime.”

She shivered and bent down to take off her backpack.

She unzipped the top and pulled out a pair of binoculars. “Be getting dark soon,” she said.

“Yeah. Better we get back to camp sooner than later,” he answered.

Brigitte had been a photographer when he met her at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It had been the last leg of her journey across the globe. They met when a Navajo girl proposed Brigitte take a picture of her. He had found them while taking a hike along the Colorado. The Navajo girl smiled at them and after Brigitte took her photograph the girl disappeared among the tall rocks. They looked for her, but didn’t find her, and spent the night together.

Two years later on her twenty-fifth birthday, Brigitte climbed Mount Everest and hugged a Sherpa at the top of the world. He was jealous of her when she told him about it, and drank that night knowing he could never be better than the world she so loved.

“Could be a moose or deer,” Paul offered.

“Have we been here before?” she asked.

Paul dug out the map and traced back the land they had covered the past week. “Don’t think so. Why?”

“Seems familiar.”

“How’s that?”

“Don’t know.”

“You see anything?”

She had lifted the binoculars to her eyes and was scanning through the trees. “Oh shit,” she said, dropping the binoculars.

“What?”

“There is something out there.”

“What is it?”

“Don’t know.”

“Is it that damned old Indian?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Come on, lets go.”

“Wait.”

She was silent for a time before putting the binoculars back into her backpack. “How far we out?”

“About an hour hard walk. Be getting dark in two hours.”

“There’s something up there.”

“Let me take a look.”

“Nah. It’s good. I’m going to check it out.”

“Like hell you are.”

She lifted herself up and started forward. Paul grabbed her arm and held her back. “Brigitte, the gun’s back in camp at your orders. We don’t have the time or protection to go hunting right now.”

“I don’t know Paul, but it’s not an animal. It looks human. We gotta go and check it out. Come on.”

He followed her. The forest was silent as it always is in the dead of winter. In the weeks before, the land froze as storms rushed in from the emptiness of the north and drowned the forests. They both knew one of these storms was heading in, and the temperature was dropping by the minute.

They entered a patch of birch trees. The thing about birch is they have these markings on them – these notches – that look like eyes. It always bothered Paul to be surrounded by trees watching.

“It was here I swear to God,” she said stopping.

“Brigitte? There’s nothing here.”

“I can see that Paul.”

They stood and waited for something to happen but nothing did. She carried on.

“Come on Brigitte, let’s go back. There’s coffee on and that fresh bread those elder women made us. Aren’t you getting hungry?”

“Go if you want.”

“What has gotten into you?”

“I don’t know. I feel strange.”

“Strange? Well, all the more reason to get back to camp. You know our warm trailer with heat, hot water, music, coffee, maybe a glass of brandy. All those good things. Come on honey, let’s go back.”

“We will Paul. We will. Let’s go just a little further. We still have time, right?”

Paul glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s three thirty-three. We got about an hour and a half before we need flashlights. After that, we got about an hour’s worth of light before they go out. If we’re not back in camp, the company will call at seven. If we don’t answer, they’ll track our GPS.”

“Oh come on Paul. You’re always thinking the worst. Nothing’s going to happen to us.”

She reached out her hand to him. There was a giant space between them but he reached out for her. She pulled him close to her and kissed him. They stood alone in the forest and the silent things around them closed in and watched. “Come on,” she said smiling. “Just a little further.”

“Always the adventurer.”

“Always.”

They moved under the gathering darkness. The clouds swirled over the trees and silence.

They broke through the forest and stood before a frozen pool of water. It was one of those lakes the aboriginals say are sacred.

The untouched snow lay out before them, as the trees leaned in sipping on the cleanness of the place.

“Isn’t it beautiful Paul?”

He looked at his watch again. “Ah, real beautiful. But we better get a move on.”

“Oh come on don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud. This is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When’s the next time we’ll be here? Never. Look at this place. Come on, really look.”

She turned to Paul, reached up to his chin, and made him look.

“See. Look. You’re smiling. Told you. We’ll remember this place for the rest of our lives. Paul?”

There was something strange in her voice and he turned back to her. She was staring up at him. “Paul, will you marry me?”

She took his hands in hers. “When we’re done here and back home, will you marry me?” She squeezed his hands tight and he reached down to kiss her.

“Of course I will,” he answered.

“Good.”

She bounced back and scanned the lake again.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?”

Paul blinked as she pointed to the other side of the lake where a black spot against the snow moved along the edge of the lake – along the shore toward them.

“See it?”

“Yes.”

“What is that?” she said getting out her binoculars.

He took a look around. The tops of the trees moved and the eyes of the birch trees swayed back and forth around them. “All birch trees,” Paul muttered.

“What’s that dear?” Brigitte asked as she lifted the binoculars to her eyes.

“There aren’t any other trees here but birch trees. I hate their eyes.”

She was silent as she focused her lenses on the thing coming toward them. Paul watched as the wind whirled and created a thin wisp of a tornado along the snow and ice. It moved in circles near the centre of the lake.

“Well, what is it?” he asked.

“It’s stalking us.”

A shiver ran up Paul’s spine.

“Stalking us? What’s stalking us Brigitte?”

She put down the binoculars and walked out onto the lake ice. Paul stared after her not understanding what she was doing. “Brigitte? Come on now, that ice might be too thin. Where are you going?”

He picked up her binoculars and backpack she had left and took a quick glance at whatever had been moving toward them but it was gone.

“Come on honey don’t be crazy. Where the hell are you going?” he said, turning to her.

But she was gone.

“Brigitte?” He screamed.

Paul followed her tracks out on to the ice. At twenty feet they stopped and she was nowhere to be seen. Paul spun around as the wind kicked up.

The Dene call it the blow. Sometimes people freeze to death just feet from their homes because they can’t see where they’re going.

The storm fell from the sky then, and when Paul heard the screams, he started to run. He fell down and tried to hide his face from the wind and snow. “Brigitte,” he screamed again.

A shadow moved toward him.

“Brigitte. Thank God. I thought I lost you,” he said.

The screams grew louder when the shadow stood before him. He started to cry, his tears freezing to his face as he stood and ran away from the shadow. There were ghosts under the ice, Paul knew that now. They screamed as they watched from below.

By sunrise the storm had moved south onto the Prairies. The ravens gathered on the ice because now there was a frozen body to pick at. They needed food this time of year because there was nothing to eat in the middle of birch trees.

Superhero

by John King

For Charles King

Nobody at Adrian’s office called for help. So he started walking home under the early morning street lamps, dull as a grey sky without a sun swirled. He crossed a bridge, and walked up the long, steep hill as robins called to him from the leafy spring trees. They reminded him of his children, Brittany aged five, and James aged seven. They would be walking to school with Doris now, their next-door neighbour who took them every day, along with her own.

He could see Brittany’s bright red coat, her white hat, and hear her giggle as she ran ahead, her brother James chasing her. Early one morning last week, James woke up when he heard his dad, and plopped himself down at the table as Adrian sat drinking coffee. Adrian stared at his son before getting up to cook his son pancakes. Adrian wiped peanut butter across the pancakes, and then smothered raspberry jam on top. He poured a tall class of orange juice and sat across from James watching him devour the pancakes. Somehow, to James, they always tasted better at home when dad made them. Adrian learned how to make pancakes from scratch when he lived on the farm with his grandparents.

Adrian saw the sun slipping in through the half-open window overlooking the fields which stretched upward to the top of the hill where he had lived as a child.

“That good, eh, cowboy?” Adrian asked. James looked up and smiled. A big goopy chunk of peanut butter hung from his face. “Here, let me get that for ya.” Adrian leaned forward and wiped the peanut butter with his index finger from his son’s face.

“Dad,” James said, squirming in his seat, not liking the show of affection – a big smile covering his face nonetheless.

James smiling face disappeared, and Adrian dropped to his knees. He couldn’t see straight. The sweat poured off his forehead. Someone reached down and helped him back to his feet.

“You okay man?” asked the stranger. Adrian glanced at him, thinking all he wanted to do was lay down and put his face against the cold concrete of the sidewalk. “Man, you don’t look so good, come on, let me help you.”

Adrian pulled away. He left the stranger behind him as he started to run up the hill. There were a thousand voices inside his head. They screamed now. He was in a panic and as he ran, he glanced upwards, past the limbs of the Japanese Cherry trees in the beginning of new blossoms. He had run under the canopy of these trees without knowing. And beyond their blooms, a bit of blue sky appeared in the grey above him, and he felt like he was going sideways. He ran into the street and fell down, his face scraping along the semi-wet pavement.

A car came to a screeching halt. The driver rushed out. Traffic stopped then, and James could feel his heart start to unravel in his chest. He walked into some dream. He must have. Yes, that was it, he thought. This was all just a dream, some kind of nightmare from which he would wake.

Constance stood in the middle of the room looking down at her husband, Adrian, who slept with his arms folded atop his chest. She watched his stomach lift and rise. She glanced at her watch. They’d be here soon. She sat down. Her brother and his wife were on their way, having decided to come back home from vacation in Europe. She was grateful. She needed the company. Adrian had been gone for three whole days now. She used the word gone because that’s how she saw it; he just slept the days away. She couldn’t wake him, get him back. He was just gone. The doctor told her he suffered a massive stroke. She asked about his recovery, and leaned into the doctor who held her upright. She sat down in a chair and watched person after person pass by, each on a gurney with wheels screeching down the hallway.

Later, she fell asleep. Her brother, Christian, woke her when he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She smiled, rose out of her chair, and embraced her brother. He was the strong type. A jock. And not just the couch potato kind either. The real deal.

In the winters, when the dugout used to water the cattle froze over, Christian would haul out his hockey nets. His whole world revolved around winter. She was the older sibling by four years, and she remembered the first Christmas he received a pair of black, worn-out hockey stakes – hand-me-downs from a cousin. He was only four at the time. His eyes lit up and he was out the door before mom or dad could get his jacket on him. Every day he was out on the dugout, skating. He took to it naturally, and it wasn’t long before he was gifted his first set of goalie equipment. He looked ridiculous to her, like some pumped up little monkey skating around out on the ice. He didn’t have nets then, so he just skated around in his goalie stuff. She didn’t know why. None of them knew why. He was strange that way. But when he did get his nets, he dragged her out onto the ice of every day winter gave him, and had her shoot pucks at him. He declared himself Ron Hextall. Whoever that was.

“How you doing sis?” Christian asked.

“Good. You know, hanging in there best I can.”

The three of them sat down on chairs Constance collected. They sat in silence a long time before any of them spoke.

“So, what happened?” Christian asked.

Constance took him in then. Her normally stoic little brother, battled hardened with scars and injuries she couldn’t see from the years playing professional hockey, looked small to Constance. He looked weak and scared to her. There was the smell of fear pervading the room as the closed Venetian hospital blinds tapped against the side of the wall. She stood and walked over to them, opened them. A grey wash of midday glare stretched into the room. She walked back to her seat.

“There,” she said, smiling. “I don’t know. He was walking home, I think. He just collapsed on the street.”

“The street?” Helen asked.

“I think so,” Constance replied.

“Then what happened?” Christian asked.

“A taxi driver called the ambulance. They brought him here.”

“Sorry we didn’t get back sooner, we tried-” Christian said before he was interrupted.

The door to the hospital room opened and Adrian’s doctor walked in. He smiled at the three seated before him. “Good afternoon,” he said, walking over to his patient. After checking Adrian’s vitals, he pulled up a folded chair that had been resting along the wall beside Adrian. He unfolded the chair and sat down. He looked at Constance and smiled again, then glanced over at Christian and Helen. “So, your brother made it. “ The doctor reached over and shook Adrian and Helen’s hand. “I’m sure you’re all anxious to know about Adrian’s condition? So I’ll get right down to it. Adrian’s suffered a severe stroke for his age. At 46, I’ve never seen someone as healthy as Adrian suffer this kind of massive hemorrhage. It has been quite a shock for all of us, including the staff here at VGH. I assure you, however, we have put the expertise of this hospital one hundred percent behind Adrian. We believe he has a chance at some form of recovery. That he will lead a healthy, productive life after this. It will take time of course, time and patience, and hard work, on everyone’s part.” The doctor stopped there and took in the reactions of those gathered before him. Then he carried on.

Christian couldn’t focus on the doctor’s words any longer. Instead he thought about the small journal he discovered when he helped his sister and brother-in-law move to their new house. It was leather-bound, worn, and held together by a thousand different entries. He didn’t tell anyone about the journal. It was the only thing he ever stole in his life. He took it home and read each and every journal entry there was. And when he was done, he reread them, and sitting in the bleached hospital room, he could smell the old leather book as if it were in his hand. The journal entries consisted of various quotations, observations – all the kind of stuff one generally finds in such books. But it was the last entry in the journal Christian remembered.

It read:

I am not a superhero anymore.

And that was it. It scared Christian. He was no superhero either. And with Adrian going down to this thing, this monster – this stroke – he’d have to pick up the slack and help his big sis out with James and Brittany. He bet they were scared like him. He was so scared shitless, it hurt. He was sick in the airplane restroom on the way home. He sat in the tiny space that stunk of peroxide staring at the mirror. Adrian was close, too close. In fact, this whole thing was too close. He had stayed in the airplane restroom until he could hear his wife’s frantic knocking on the door. He slid open the door, let her in, and took hold of her. The airplane stewardess let them be, and directed passengers to the other restroom on the far end of the airplane.

They stayed with Constance for several more days at the hospital, day and night, before finally taking the journey back home to get some rest. Christian finished his hockey season early because of a back injury, the same one he suffered the year before and the year before that. Now his back hurt all the time. They decided to travel to France with little Lizzy, their newborn baby girl. She was a quiet child, never cried, and was the perfect companion for a getaway – one where Christian could gather his thoughts and figure out his next move. His agent was on the case. His team would drop him in about a month and go with the rookie. He’d have to find another team, but his agent, Cody “Sure Thing” Grant, was good. Real good. Told Christian, a deal with another team was already in the works.

When they finally arrived back home, the bright-eyed nanny opened the door for them, happy to see them home after several days in the city. She asked about Adrian, and neither Helen nor Christian could bear to talk about it. So she stopped asking, and made the pair a late dinner. When she finished preparing the homemade Mac and Cheese, for which she had gained fame in the neighbourhood, she left the couple alone after taking out a good bottle of French wine along with two glasses. Just for good measure, the nanny thought before leaving.

Halfway through the Mac and Cheese, and all the way through the French wine, Christian stood up and looked out the window at the tall spruce trees standing in the slight breeze of the backyard. They always looked so strong. Today, they looked weak, and like cowards. Perhaps they were cowards because he felt like a coward, and so he turned around and looked at his wife, who had gone up and taken little Lizzy out of her crib. She glistened in Helen’s arms, like a bright water thing having jumped out of the ocean. A little dolphin, or something similar. Helen looked up, saw Christian’s expression.

“What is it dear?” she asked.

“Don’t know,” he replied.

“It’s something.”

“No, it’s nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Oh come on now, I know you better than that. Come over here and sit down with me. Tell me about it.” She reached down and patted the stool beside her. They had eaten at the counter in the kitchen, where they normally have their meals. He came over and sat down next to her and put his head in his arms with a big sigh.

“Oh, come on now big boy. Don’t you do that. Don’t you put your head down like that. Sit up straight so I can see you. Come on now.”

He did as he was told, and just then a tear slipped down his check. She reached out to him and brushed it away. Lizzy yawned, opened her eyes, and stared at her father. He looked down at her and touched her cheek. She always smiles when he does this, and this time, was no exception.

“Hey Lizzy, what you thinking little girl?” Christian asked his daughter. She giggled and yawned some more. He glanced back at Helen and tried to smile.

“Oh, you can do better than that. Try again.” He tried again. “That’s better. So, you gonna tell me about it?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s just. You know. I’m getting old you know.”

“So am I honey.”

“You know what I mean. I think. I think with Adrian going down the way he did, leaving my sis like that with James and Brittany, I don’t know. I just can’t imagine leaving you and Lizzy like that. You know, going out like a star blinking out.”

“Aww, baby, you ain’t blinking out like a star. Come on.”

“I just. You know, there’s this pain in my back all the time. It hurts.”

“I know.”

“It hurts bad, and the doctors say it could get worse if I keep playing.”

“What you saying, honey?” Helen asked as Lizzy whimpered and squirmed in her arms. “Ooh, I think she’s trying to tell me something. You hold on to that thought dear, I’ll be right back. I’m going to put her to sleep.” Helen took Christian’s hand and squeezed it a moment before going upstairs.

The phone rang then. Christian answered.

“Old boy,” said Cody “Sure Thing” Grant.

“Hey Sure Thing.”

“How’s the best goaltender in the league?”

“Well, buddy, not so good.”

“Yeah, I heard about it. Your brother-in-law gonna make it?”

“Doctors think so.”

“It’s a shame.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Well, I’ve got news that’ll cheer ya up.”

“Oh, what’s that?”

“Got a team to sign your old ass. How’s that buddy? Am I good or what?”

“You’re the best. You’ve been a good friend to me Sure Thing.”

“A good what? You feeling okay buddy.”

“I think I’m done.”

“Done what?

“Done playing.”

“What? We’re so close, close to this thing you’ve been working on. You have a couple more good years ahead of you buddy.”

“No, I don’t think so. Listen, I have to go. I’ll call you in the AM.”

Christian went to put the receiver down, held it a moment, and listened to his agent squawk on the other end. Then he hung up the phone and listened to his wife’s footsteps above him. She tiptoed around in their bedroom, where Lizzy’s crib was. In a bit she came down, having changed into her pajamas – a fluorescent green tank top with pink baggies.

“I ever tell you I love those pajamas,” Christian said to her as she walked to him. He held her for a long time. He thought about the early morning air on the farm where he and his sister grew up. Christian saw the way his sister swung her hockey stick, and how the puck came flying at him. He remembered the sky, how it was blue.

How it was good.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 608 other followers

%d bloggers like this: