Monday, 12 November 2007

Update (again)


I've changed things up a bit again. New photo slots. Hope they work for you.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Defining Religion

For a class I have to read a book on Islam called Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World by Carl W Ernst. In it is this passage, with I thought was a really interesting take on state and religion.

Another surprising definition of Islam comes from Pakistan, which since its founding in 1947 has struggled to define itself as an Islamic state. One of the most contentious issues among the many sectarian disputes that have troubled that state has been the status of the Ahmadi sect. This group has tested the boundaries of orthodoxy because of claims that the nineteenth-century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, could have been prophet after Muhammad (many Muslims regard the prophethood of Muhammad as the final revelation, so that any claimant to prophecy is typically looked upon with great suspicion). In 1947 the government of President Z. A. Bhutto passed a law that declared Ahmadis (also called Qadianis) to be non-Muslims. Subsequent challenges to this law, on the basis of fundamental rights guaranteed by Pakistan's constitution, succeeded in calling this law into question.

A major reversal took place, however, in a 1993 judicial decision that perhaps for the first time in history actually spelled out a detailed governmental definition of Islam. The presiding judge declared that the symbols and rites of Islam (such as the profession of faith, and buildings called mosques) were the equivalent of intellectual property that could be copyrighted by the rightful owners, although he never spelled out just how such claims of ownership could be established. Therefore anyone who improperly recited the profession of faith or called their place of worship a mosque was in effect using a copyrighted logo without permission and was liable to legal penalties. The implications of this decision are breathtaking. Not only is a religion being defined as a commodity or a piece of property, which the judge actually compared to Coca-Cola, but also the courts--not religious communities--are entitled to decide what is essential to any religion. Moreover, in this decision the limits of Islam are being defined in relation to a modern sectarian group. Current Pakistani passports now require professed Muslim citizens to sign a declaration that they adhere to the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad--that is, that they are not Ahmadis. Such an outcome (reminiscent of oaths of orthodox interpretation of Holy Communion during the Protestant Reformation) can only be imagined as a result of very recent local history.

Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2003.

Note: The context of this passage is the argument that any case study of Islam will be necessarily confused by local historical circumstances and so Islam should not be held accountable for any actions that seem to contradict Qur'anic teaching or basic morality. This, of course, applies to all religions. My interest in this passage is the idea of states and corporate entities holding a copyright to God, and the ideas of free trade being applied to spirituality. My intesest, of course, is a product of my disgust.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007



I've (temporarily) changed the template of my blog. We'll see how much I like it; it's quite possible that I'll switch back shortly.

Have a good day.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Catching Borogoves for Beginners


This is maybe my favourite poem ever: Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll.


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!'
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought--
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.
'Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
I apologise for the necessity of placing dashes between the stanzas. Blogspot would not format it correctly otherwise.

End of October Update


Judging by the number of excerpts I've posted, you can maybe tell my creative energy is being directed elsewhere. This is true. I am writing a fair bit, but I'm not posting much because of the vain belief that I could actually get it published. I may have to send it off to a magazine or something to actually do that, but all in good time.

I do have more excerpts to post, though, but maybe I'll follow them up with discussion.

And, in parting:


Monday, 29 October 2007

Further Excerpts from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

In a book that re-affirms old-fashioned values and conservatism, I found the following section quite fresh. Of course, I'm not advocating that it's true--I tend not to advocate very much as true--but I am suggesting you think about it, especially in light of the emphasis on "pagan nudity" in colonial missionary texts. I feel somewhat uncomfortable posting this, but I do like to instigate thought, so here we go.

From Book 3: Christian Behaviour, Chapter 5: Sexual Morality

"We must now consider Christian morality as regards sex, what Christians call the virtue of chastity. The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of 'modesty' (in one sense of that word); ie. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing harldy any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally 'modest', proper, or decent, according to the standard of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare's time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely adandoned. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or 'emancipated' people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems."

See the previous C. S. Lewis post for references.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

A Sampling of John Donne

In my humble opinion, John Donne is pretty awesome. Here are some cases in point:

Elegy 19. To His Mistress Going to Bed

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labor, I in labor lie.
The foe ofttimes having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear
That th' eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now it is bed-time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads the' hill's shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow;
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou, angel, bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
There where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies clothed must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings, made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see revealed. Then since that I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first, why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man?

And then his Holy Sonnets


Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
but is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.


Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

To help interpretation, Christ's spouse is understood to be the church . . . the more people welcome in the church, the better it is . . . so this is an interesting working of the idea that the more men Christ's wife is "open" to--read that with a dirty mind--the more he loves her.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Excerpts from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity

Lacking any writing that I feel that I can publish here--I do have some writing, but due to the theoretical possibility of publishing it in print, I'll avoid posting it here--I will post assorted excerpts from Mere Christianity to keep whatever readers I have entertained until I manage to scratch something together.

As a sidebar: recall the time period in which Lewis was writing. I most certainly do not agree with some of the things Lewis says, especially regarding gender equality or same-sex issues. However, that does not change the basis of the arguments I quote here.

From Book Three: Christian Behaviour, Chapter 4: Morality and Psychoanalysis

"When a man makes a moral choice two things are involved. One is that act of choosing. The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the raw material of his choice. Now this raw material may be of two kinds. Either it may be what we would call normal: it may consist of the sort of feelings that are common to all men. Or else it may consist of quite unnatural feelings due to things that have gone wrong in his subconscious. Thus fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind: an irrational fear of cats or spiders would be an example of the second kind. The desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind: the perverted desire of a man for a man would be of the second. Now what psychoanalysis undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, that is, to give the man better raw material for his acts of choice; morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.

"Put it this way. Imagine three men who go to a war. One has the ordinary natural fear of danger that any man has and he subdues it by moral effort and becomes a brave man. Let us suppose that the other two have, as a result of things in their subconscious, exaggerated, irrational fears, which no amount of moral effort can do anything about. Now suppose that a psychoanalyst comes along and cures these two: that is, he puts them back in the position of the first man. Well it is just then that the psychoanalytical problem is over and the moral problem begins. Because, now that they are cured, these two men might take quite different lines. The first might say, 'Thank goodness I've got rid of all those doo-dahs. Now at last I can do what I always wanted to do--my duty to my country.' But the other might say, 'Well, I'm very glad that I now feel moderately cool under fire, but, of course, that doesn't alter the fact that I'll still jolly well determined to look after Number One and let the other chap do the dangerous job whenever I can. Indeed one of the good things about feeling less frightened is that I can now look after myself much more efficiently and can be much cleverer at hiding the fact from others.' Now this difference is a purely moral one and psychoanalysis cannot do anything about it. However much you improve the man's raw material, you have still got something else: the real, free choice of the man, on the material presented to him, either to put his own advantage first or to put it last. And this free choice is the only thing morality is concerned with.

"The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathelogical horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good readon, it is quite possible that in God's eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown winning the V.C. When a man who had been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God's eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend."

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1952.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A New Update


I don't have much to update. I'm terribly busy right now.
I have labeled all of the posts, though, so if you read anything you like, you can look up others you like.
If I do get anything good, I'll post it.
Oh, and I've been updating my list of Books I Think People Should Read (August 2007), so if it's been awhile, you may want to check that out.


Friday, 5 October 2007

Benediction to Reason (A Hymn of Confusion)

God, in His infinite wisdom,
Chose not to make sense;
God, in His infinite wisdom,
Defies the laws that we obey;
God, in His infinite wisdom,
Made logic a bridgeless void.

How, God, do You dare craft a realm of reason
for the people of Your creation
to find order and solace and comfort
and then mutate it
so that You appear an impotent father,
a cruel benefactor,
or an idle warden?

Why, God, do You give us minds of reason
that explore the form of Your creation
to order and find and conform
and then demand us
to worship something rebelling against
the limits that You imposed
when You forged us?

O God,
I was comfortable in my bed
of reason in the earth;
I was comfortable contained
in the rigid box of geometry;
I was comfortable buried
beneath the weight of evidence.

O God,
I like the linear planks
composing the base of my bed;
I like the corners’ symmetry
pairing from side to side;
I like the neat stitches
marching along the fabric edge.

I hear You knock, O Grave-robber
on the logical lid;
I heard the blade of Your shovel
overturn the stones and the grit;
You pry at the lid
but I do not know what I will find
in the open spaces
above the firmness
of soil’s history and touch.

My heart pushes
in irregular rhythm
dying blood through my body,
yet it rebels against the tomb
my life resides in
and it affects my stubborn brain.

Excavate me O God
drag my corpse from the dying grounds
steal my cadaver
from the structure of plots
take my body through the formal cemetery gate
and into your paradoxical paradise

I think that I can do better than this. Sometime soon I will try to render this into something that starts out with form and then changes to free verse. But I wanted to post something new and decided that this would have to do until then.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Creationism v. Evolution: Why I Don't Care (A Rant)

Perhaps it is about time that I make my views on this clear. There may be a few of you who are reading this not because you know me but because you've found your way through external sources likely don't care all that much, but then I don't suppose that you actually exist at the point of writing this. If you do exist, I'm pleased indeed and ask that you show this to all of your friends, if you think it's worth it.

Those of you who do know me have occassionally asked or wondered aloud about this, but I doubt I've given a straight or complete answer. One of my housemates asked the other day, and I gave something similar to the following answer. Having discussed it aloud with them, I figure I can broadcast it to the world, provided the world listens. (I know; there's a gap in the chain of reasoning. Watch me not care.)

I have posted a link, called "A Rather Upsetting Turn of Events," or something like that, under my Interesting Links section. This will take you to a newspaper article concerning the Rally of Reason, a protest against the Creation Museum in Cinncinnatti (did I spell that correctly)? That museum has exhibits of the Garden of Eden, with naked human children frolicking with dinosaurs, a model of Noah's ark and an explanation of how the Grand Canyon was formed by the Deluge, and other literal interpretations of Genesis. The Rally of Reason consisted of scientists and Christians who disputed the literal interpretation of Genesis protesting in front of the museum on the grounds that it a) would corrupt the minds of their youth and b) gave Christians a bad name as silly and ill-informed.

I should note that I have been unable to find evidence for this, but if I recall correctly, a little while earlier an Evolution History Museum was protested by a group of Christian activists.

My immediate response to this was that the Creation Museum was being silly and giving Christians a bad name, and that the protesters were being silly and giving non-Christians and liberal Christians a bad name. Overall, I think that protesting about someone else's freedom of expression is both idiotic and ironic.

Upon examining that response, I've come to understand that maybe the Creationists have a point and aren't completely ridiculous, and that the 'Reasoners' should be worried about the spread of misinformation, provided that Creationism is misinformation.

It is in the wake of this event that I more firmly articulated, to myself, my opinion of the Creationism v. Evolution Theory debate. That opinion is that both are true and that which is 'truer' is utterly and completely irrelevant. To claim that you know which is true and which is false is gross arrogance, and we all know where pride takes us.

Here's my reasoning:

To all of our knowledge, the scientific explanation is usually quite good at predicting phenomena in the physical and natural universe. Science is a really good heuristic device, and, used as such, we can talk about a theory being 'true.' By true, I mean that it accurately models what will happen in the future, so far as the physical world is concerned. Evolution theory helps us understand the on-going changes in organisms; we can hardly deny that evolution is at work today. Looking at the fossil record improves our understanding of the process, and therefore is useful and 'true' within the scientific heuristic. At this point I am not claiming that it is historically true (ie. that it actually happened in the past) that all life evolved from micro-organisms. I'm just saying that it is useful to discuss evolution as true when we make predictions.

To all of my knowledge, ethics, morality, and spirituality do not exist in a void, but within a context. For Christians, part of this context is the Old Testament. The Genesis myths (note that I do not mean myths in derisory sense, but in the sense that they are actually meant--if you don't know what that sense is, go look it up) explain spiritual and social realities to us: that we are fallen, true goodness is inaccessible without God, that God punished sinners and rewards believers, etc. It is obviously a more complicated picture than that; I'm just giving examples. In this sense, the Creation account(s) are true. Here 'true' means 'has meaning that is relevant in reality.' At this point I am not claiming that it is historically true (ie. that it actually happened in the past) that all life forms were created as they are now in the Garden of Eden some 6000 years ago. I'm just saying that it is useful to discuss Creation as true when we make moral decisions.

To all of my knowledge, we will never know which is historically true. Of course, we will never 'know' in the same sense that God is forgiving, just, omniscient, or even extant. So, you may say, if you are willing to take one on faith, why not take the other?

For a while there, I had believed that both were historically true; Genesis explained the whys and the whos and evolution explained the whens and the hows. This, I think, is a fairly moderate and fairly common stance among the average non-vocal Christian. Vocal Christians tend to lean toward a strict Genesis account. Non-religious people, of course, more than lean toward the evolutionary account. I thought this was a perfectly reasonable synthesis, a perfectly pious synthesis, and a perfect safe one, too.

Then I realized that even this had some holes. While I was inclined to say that forcing a literal interpretation on the Bible was limiting God, a lot of the old poets (read Donne) point out that not allowing for a literal interpretation was what really limited God: must God bow to science? Here, of course, we enter the delicate dance of spinning the truth and arguing both sides and other forms of sophistry. The notion of the best rhetorician taking the prize of Truth disturbs me, so I refuse to participate. They could be right; I could be right; who's to judge? That is, how am I to know, in this world and not the next, which is true? Looking at the Bible doesn't seem to help here, since what I'm concerned about is the proper interpretation of the Bible. It would be working in circles to try and get that information from the very thing I'm trying to learn to read. I needed another way.

What eventually occured to me was that historical truth was irrelevent. I would never be able to know what is Truth in this case. I do know, however, everything I need to know to work with. If I want a prediction in physical phenomena, I'll turn to the heuristic of science. If I want spiritual and moral lessons, Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) will contain those answers, as will fervent prayer. I really don't need anything more. If I tried to assert one account or another, one interpretation or another, it would be akin to asserting some detail about God that God himself hasn't revealed (ie. whether He speaks in metaphors or literal truths). It is when you make an assertion at all that you are limiting God and robbing Him of His mystery. This, of course, is pride. I would like to avoid pride.

So this is where I sit: both creationism and evolution theory are useful, and therefore 'true'; anything else is irrelevant to my life and I actively refuse to care or commit. In doing so, I become that much more comfortable with the mysterious nature of God and surrendering everything, even my curiosty, before Him.

After this realization, I really began to understand why I felt that both the Creation Museum and the Rally for Reason were silly and destructive. They made assertions they had no right to make. If everyone had this feeling of pious apathy, there would possibly be less conflict and more harmony, and really, is that not one of Christ's primary lessons--peace?

I suggest that you seriously think about this. Come to your own conclusions--don't let my rhetoric persuade you of an untruth.

After all, I have no right to assert even this lack of commitment as right.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Vesper of Mythology

Did You come to see me last night
in a dream?
I dreamt of many things
between the churning of buried thoughts amid the sheets
and my alarm clock’s clarion buzz
I did not recognize You among them
but You might have been there nonetheless

Last night I dreamt of her before I slept
last night I rolled with my burdens in my bed
last night I sprawled on my trove of ambitions
before I surrendered

Somewhere between the light shutting off and the cold cereal
I climbed a hill
passed grandparents prime ministers and pharaohs
dragging a stone slab behind me
staggering to a peak obscured in cloud
that rained ash and sulphur and the smell of oil

Last night I dreamt of her before I went to sleep
Not by her latest name
she has been unchristened
she is not forgiven fruit

and she follows wanderers in the desert

Somewhere between the pillow’s collapse and consciousness’ rush
As I scaled the mount
I witnessed a fierce wolf with galactic jaws
chained next to a knifing river with a ribbon formed
of a spirit’s spittle a seraph’s footfall and a ghost’s breath
ripping a dwarf star with its teeth

Last night I dreamt of trouble before I went to sleep
My lies’ feather weighs heavily against my heart
as the jury of my peers
imagines my trial
and I concoct an alibi for every faith and each infidelity

Somewhere beneath the bat’s first fall and the fresh socks
while I ascend the rock
a woman approaches with a fair face
but for the right half’s cadaverous pucker
the locks of seething hooded snakes
and her tail’s scorpion whip

Last night I dreamt of power before I went to sleep
From an obsidian tower I commanded
a babbling multitude
an army of rats with claxon pipes
and jealously drummed a monolithic name

Somewhere between my glasses’ encasement and my legs’ resurrection
I broke beneath the world on my shoulders
I gave up my load and the black mist entombed me
In the fog I saw my forebears divide
the hound retch up the sun
and the woman’s faces petrify each other

And my eyes opened to the sun

Until tomorrow night’s old miseries

I don't even understand what half of this means. I get most of it, but I'm sure not going to suggest it's supposed to be accessible. It's not a Hymn of Confusion, though it might be confusing. And it is pious . . . it's just really dark. Not what I usually write.

If you're looking for what inspired this nightmare (though it ends well, technically), see T. S. Elliot, Greek myth, Norse myth, Egyptian myth, Milton's PL, Biblical tradition, and fairy tales. But don't try too hard.

I don't even know what I'm supposed to make of this.

Status Update: End of September

This is a brief status update:

I added some pictures to the side to make this page more interesting visually. Maybe I shall refresh these more often and add a gallery of photos as a post sometime.

I am thinking of some new psalms and sonnets, so hopefully I will get a few new ones written and posted soon.

And that's about all . . . for now.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Psalm of Distraction (A Hymn of Confusion)

O Lord
I try to keep You before my eyes.
I open my throat with song and mouth Your praises.
I try to remember Your name
and think the words that rise from my lips.

But Lord
my mind wanders.
It moves on its own; it creeps from the hymns
and visits the slopes of her hips in the pew in front,
the radiant locks of the girl under the many-hued glass,
the silken hands on ivory keys.

O Lord
I try
to catch the sermon’s words
and stop my thoughts on Your gospel
to reflect and to plan to bring it into my life

Yet Lord
my thoughts
catch on a certain word
and spin a rambling chain of disconnected chords.
Myths and explanations of my vice and lust
revolve about my mind, apologizing.
I dwell on my transgressions, on my thoughts that focus
on the rise and fall of her breath beside me,
sitting on the laminated pew.
Ineffable aroma arises from her skin
and her hands twine neatly in her lap.

O Lord
I hold Your flesh in my mouth
and want to taste Your suffering.
Like wine I savour Your blood
and try to know Your sacrifice.

And Lord
Your blood reminds me
of the scent of midnights.
My lips cry that another’s flesh would touch them.
I want to turn the million thoughts that keep my brain alive
into memories.

O God
I want to keep my mind upon You,
to shepherd it home.
But God
it is sometimes so hard.

O God

Snapshots of the Fall Fair: Short Fiction

For this one, it seems I took a flying leap into sentimentality. My apologies in advance. Also, the format isn't publishing correctly, so I apologize for any inconsistencies there.

A Ferris wheel car, seen from the ground. Empty, against a block of blue sky.

A woman watching a merry-go-’round, while kids were shaded and blurred on the polished mythical beasts.

On equal level, an ugly purple elephant doll, left in a mud puddle.

From behind, a nicely figured high school girl with her arm stretched forward, having just thrown a dart.

A lone man in the parking lot, smiling to himself as he gets in the car.

Proud and blind, a dog and his boy, inseparable friends.

A seagull wheeling in the sky.

The yearbook photographer flipped through the pictures in his digital camera. It had been a good day. Several shots of the fair, several different stories, unattached but all at the same day at the fair. This was his first assignment of the year, and he thought he had good material from this annual, traveling fair, erected temporarily in the local mall parking lot. He put his camera into his pocket and went home.

~ ~ ~

So the four of them went to the fair that Friday afternoon. Who cared if they were too old? Nothing ever happened in this boring town, so whenever something new did come by, they’d check it out, even if it was just the fall fair. At least, that’s how Don looked at it.

And it was interesting enough, wasn’t it? There was tons of cheap junk food, especially those hot dogs. And most of the town showed up, so they kept running into friends from high school. Most of the rides were kiddie rides, but they went on the Zipper and the Pirate Ship. Best of all, the other schools came here, too, and those Catholic girls looked real nice dressed for the warm weather.

The guys were just passing some kid tugging on his dad’s sleeve when TJ spotted the blind kid. Don couldn’t really think of why a blind kid would want to go to the fair, but there he was with that dumb-looking dog, smiling around at everyone and not seeing the weird looks people gave him. The other guys were still working on their caramel popcorn because they couldn’t figure out you had to shut up to eat something, and this gave TJ an idea.

“Hey, isn’t caramel corn supposed to stick in dog’s mouths or something?”

Don didn’t think that was right, but Garret said he might have heard that somewhere, so they went up to the kid and his mutt and asked if they could pet the dog.

“Sure,” the blind kid said, not suspecting a thing.

So TJ bent down and scratched it behind the ears, and all it did was wiggle its tail a little. TJ put the popcorn in his hand, and Garret and Mark started laughing, but tried to keep it behind their mouths so the blind kid wouldn’t know. But the dog just ignored it. TJ never was that bright, so he pushed the corn at the dog’s face, but it just turned its head away. Mark was really starting to crack up, and the blind kid started to pull his dog away, but Garret got bored and Don noticed him looking around.

Don saw them at about the same time Garret did. They must have been Catholics, because Don didn’t recognize them from school. Four girls were at a booth, and one was throwing darts at balloons. Don figured they would have been grade nine, grade ten. Two of them were okay-looking, wearing tank-tops and jeans, and one was that skanky-ugly kind of girl who thought she was hot and really wasn’t. But one was a serious head-turner. She was the one throwing the darts. Her figure was more like a grade-twelve, and she wore a girl’s t-shirt that was tight in all the right places, over a pair of short shorts. Don knew what Garret had in mind.

“C’mon, guys,” said Garret, “let’s go say hi to those girls.”

So the four of them went over to the booth, and quickly saw a good sign: there were already five darts in the board, and none of them anywhere near a balloon.

“Hey, ladies,” Garret said. “How’s it going?”

One of the two decent-looking ones, an Asian, gave Garret a look of death, and Don knew she could tell what his friends were right off. But the other two’s eyes perked right up, and the hot one got a kind of look in her eyes that said she was willing to play keep-away.

She threw her last dart, and it popped a balloon. The carnie shrugged and passed her a tiny teddy bear.

“Here, let me give it a shot,” Garret said.

He gave some tokens to the carnie and took his darts. One, two, three, four, and a miss. All the practice whacking pebbles off the backs of junior-high heads paid off right there. Even though the Asian rolled her eyes, the other three squealed and clapped. The carnie took down a hideous purple elephant and gave it to Garret, who gave it to the girl.

“Now, I have a couple of rules,” he said, “and one of them is to never give a pretty girl anything if I don’t know her name.”

“Ashley,” she giggled, and shook his hand.

“Well, I’m Garret. That one’s TJ, the guy who never talks is Don, and the stupid one is Mark.”

TJ nodded stiffly, while Don smiled and Mark kept looking at the girls’ chests.

“Thanks so much for the prize,” said Ashley, forgetting to introduce her friends, though Don could tell the Asian didn’t mind at all.

“You’re quite welcome,” said Garret, taking her arm. “Now, let me tell you about another of my rules . . .”

~ ~ ~

Something buzzed on his hip.
The office.
“Here, honey, hold this,” he said, and passed the balloon to his wife.
He tried to ignore the glare she gave him as he unclipped his cell and answered the call. Toni was supposed to call this evening, but he’d thought it would be easier if he didn’t tell his wife he knew that.
“Brett Lewis speaking.”
“Hey, Brett, this is Toni,” answered the phone. “Is this a bad time?”
“Not at all.”
“Good, good. About the Kavinski firm . . .”
Five minutes later, Brett bid his secretary goodbye and hung up.
“Look, honey, I’ve got to go,” he told his wife.
“But, dear, you promised Michael you’d win him a teddy bear,” she replied.
“Liz, we can’t go over this every time. This is a big deal right now, we need this client. I simply cannot leave the office hanging right now . . .”
“Brent, come on. You promised your son.”
Against his will, Brett looked down to his eight-year old. Mikey’s eyes were big and pleading. To stop himself from feeling guilty, he felt annoyed by his son’s childishness. The kid needed to grow up and let go of his toys and tears; that was the only way he’d start making friends.
“Big guy, look,” he said, trying to get this on a more man-to-man level. “There’ll be other fairs, okay?”
Michael still looked sad.
“Tell you what. Tomorrow, I’ll buy you some comic books. How does that sound?”
“Alright,” Mikey said, but he didn’t sound as excited as Brett thought he should.
“Alright,” Brett said, ruffling his son’s hair and turning to Liz. “Give me a kiss.”
His wife pecked him on the cheek and looked away.
As Brett left the fair, he thought irritably about how little they appreciated him.
~ ~ ~

This place had all sorts of smells: bread, meat, sugar, people, big animals, oil, smoke . . . He wanted to go run and investigate these scents, but he knew he had to stay by Master, because Master couldn’t get around without him. He wanted to be a good boy more than he wanted to go see where those smells came from. Good boys stayed when they were told to stay, so he stayed.
He looked around a little, and everything was noisy and busy. So many people! There were little ones and big ones and fast ones and slow ones. There were male ones and female ones and cleaner ones and dirtier ones. Sometimes they came by and patted him, and that was okay. Sometimes they would try to give him food, but he was a good boy and didn’t ever take it.
Over there he saw some big males ones who tried to give him sugar. They were making noises at some female ones. He could tell that one of the female ones didn’t want to be there, but the others were in heat. Two of them were closer together; the male one was holding on to the arm of the female one. She was happy, he thought.
He tried to listen to the sounds they made, but he didn’t know any of them. He knew lots of people-noises, but he only obeyed the ones Master made. Heel meant he was supposed to sit by Master’s feet. No meant he was supposed to stop doing what he was doing and not do it again. Max was what Master called him. There were many others. But he didn’t know what noises these ones were making.
Now the female one was unhappy. She was trying to move away, but the male one was holding on. The other female ones were all trying to leave, too. Two of the male ones were laughing, and the other one went over and put his hand on the first one’s shoulder. The bigger one shrugged, and touched the female one on the top of her leg. She hit him with a purple furry thing, and walked away with the other female ones.
He didn’t know what happened, and he was a little confused. Something said he should protect someone, but he didn’t know who needed protecting. Besides, this had nothing to do with Master, and Master was his business. He stayed where he was.
A seagull flew by and caught his attention.
~ ~ ~

Liz pushed her hair back, and tried again. The bright plastic ring wobbled in the air and hit the peg sideways, bouncing off and falling to the ground.
Bastard husband.
He had promised Mikey that he’d win a teddy bear at the fair for him, and he had promised her that he’d keep his promise this time. Just like every other time, though, he broke his word and went to the office. IT seemed to her that Brett just didn’t want to be a father any more. She already knew he wasn’t all that interested in being a husband. He didn’t know she knew that his secretary had replaced her in some way, but she did know. She didn’t know if the slut had replaced her in that way, but she was replaced. Of course she knew. What made her mad was that his clients were now replacing her son, too.
She threw the last hoop, and it just bounded off the backboard.
“Try again?” the nice gentleman behind the counter asked.
After a moment, she responded, “No.”
A little hand slipped inside hers. She looked down at Mikey, his eyes big and the yellow balloon bobbing next to his head.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “I couldn’t do it, either.”
“I’m sorry, Mikey, I’m just not very good at these games.”
He nodded and examined his shoes.
“You want to go on the merry-go-’round?”
Mikey smiled and nodded.
~ ~ ~
They didn’t talk about it until the Ferris wheel had started. It was Rachel who brought it up.
“Don’t worry about it, Ash, that guy was just a jerk.”
Maggie nodded and put an arm around Ashley. Jenn turned and looked down at the fair below, so she wouldn’t be tempted to say anything, like how Ashley had all but invited the guy to touch her.
“I mean, like, who cares,” Rachel went on. “He probably couldn’t get any, so he thought he’d try on you.”
Ashley stopped looking traumatized long enough to shoot Rachel a suspicious glance.
“I mean,” Rachel recovered, “he obviously went for the sexiest girl at the fair.”
Appeased, Ashley resumed her injured sulk.
“You know,” said Maggie, “you should be flattered. I wouldn’t have minded if one of the other guys, like, did the same to me.”
Jenn tried very hard not to laugh, but gave up once the others started, too. Maybe she laughed a little too hard, though, since Rachel looked at her funny.
“You could have got that stupid-looking one to, if you wanted,” said Ashley, speaking for the first time. “He didn’t stop staring at your chest.”
“I’m surprised you noticed that, you were so distracted,” Jenn couldn’t help herself from saying.
The others looked at her askance.
“Well,” said Rachel, “I noticed that the quiet one was pretty interested in you, Jenny.”
Jenn blushed and looked away. They knew she hated that name.
“Ooo, she’s going red!” Maggie squealed.
Ashley smiled. She seemed to be coming to herself again.
“He was kinda cute,” she said.
Jenn wasn’t sure which one Ash was talking about, but she supposed it didn’t matter. Either way, Ash was right.
“I notice,” Jenn said, “that you still have that stuffed elephant.” Ashley looked about herself and saw that she did.
“Oh, I do. Kinda ugly, isn’t it?”
Rachel and Maggie giggled.
“Hold on, I know just what to do with it,” Ash said.
And with that, she threw it right over the edge of the car.

~ ~ ~
The afternoon was finishing up when Michael walked with his mom back home. They left through the gates and walked around the fair on the sidewalk. Neither he nor his Mom won any prizes. He wasn’t mad at Dad, but he did wish Dad had stayed and won something. Bear back home was getting lonely on the pillow, and needed a friend. But Mom did let him go on the saucer ride, even though she said he wasn’t big enough last year.
It was as they turned the corner, the Ferris wheel high in the sky above him, that he saw the purple elephant in the puddle. He stopped, but his Mom kept walking.
“Come on, Mikey, it’s getting late.”
“Hold on, Mom,” he said.
He walked over to the puddle. The elephant was weird-looking. It had big eyes and a stubby trunk, with its mouth hanging open underneath. Mikey knew it was kind of ugly-looking, but he thought that, more than anything, it looked lonely. He bent down and picked it up.
“Someone left him here,” said his Mom. It only vaguely occurred to him that this was a silly thing for her to say.
“I’m gonna take him home. He can be friends with Bear.”
They started walking home.
Maybe it was a good day after all, thought Mikey, ‘cause now Elephant and Bear can be friends.

Monday, 10 September 2007

A Different Tonight: A Ghazal

We could have been sitting at the table, reading each other’s tea leaves tonight,/
could be predicting the stories that will happen after your train leaves tonight.

I could have made you a salad, dicing tomatoes over the sink as you sing/
a naughty lullaby and look for bad spots among the lettuce leaves tonight.

The trees are gilded, now, and we could have walked among the birches with/
our gloved hands in our pockets and our feet wading in the leaves tonight.

People in the store would have asked what we are doing buying ice cream/
and as I counted out the dimes I would have said that “he leaves tonight.”

Yesterday, I bought those novels that you liked as a kid, and we could be/
reading aloud to each other as we smelled the newness of the leaves tonight.

Today we are spending time apart from each other because neither of us/
asked to spend it together, and I think the last chance we have leaves tonight.

Stocking Shelves on the Night Shift

EDIT: 4 May 2015: This post has received some traffic lately, which brought it to my attention. I realize I had included a description of a character in this story which could be read as racist. As far as I can recall that was not my intention, but my only defense is that I was ignorant at the time that I posted it that it could be read that way. (At the time I wrote this, "brown arms" was suggest to me a well-tanned white person. I cannot overstate how much of an idiot I was about this at the time.) No one's called this to my attention or anything like that, but I'm nonetheless horrified to see what I had written and I wanted to admit it.

Spaghetti. Costelle’s. Small.

Where was I? What was I thinking about?
It doesn’t really matter. Eventually I’ll think about whatever it was. That’s all I do here, think. Stew in my own juices, while slicing open boxes and putting packages on shelves. Two-hundred and twenty-one. Two hundred and forty when this cart is done. And then break will be soon, because it will be three, and I’ll go and sit down for a while.
Break. If my legs weren’t tired I wouldn’t bother. I have nothing to say to them, and, as far as I’m concerned, they have nothing to say to me. Yesterday Chase was hassling the newbies, and he’ll do it again today. He’ll ask them for their piece count. What a pain, being a newbie. He used to do that to me. “What’s your piece count, Matt.” Like that, “What’s your piece count, Matt.” Not a question, a statement. “What’s your piece count.” Then I’d tell him, at first not knowing what it meant, and then being ashamed, and now he doesn’t bother anymore, because he doesn’t care. I’m Matt, and I’m here, and he can count on me for that. I’m always here. So it doesn’t matter if I do four hundred or two hundred by the end of the night, because he knows I’m not going anywhere for a while now, because it’s already September, and I’m not in school, so he figures he’s got me for another year. If he even thinks in that fat head of his. He probably doesn’t even really think I’ll be here, he just sort of assumes it. It’s been more than a year, now, right? Around here, that’s a record. Well, I suppose not. Alfie and Pete and Marge have been here longer than that. Alfie’s been here for a few years, I guess, and he’s probably been hyper and moody the whole time, throwing pieces around, and ripping them open, and slapping product on the shelves with those long brown arms. He looks like a monkey hustling across the ropes at the zoo. And then there’s Marge. If she’s not having a smoke, she’s squawking about the coffee pot, how the day people always leave it empty. She has been for a whole year now, and no one’s ever done anything about it. I guess she never told anyone. She must’ve been here for ages, seen lots of people come and go. I don’t think she liked one of them.
Pete’s a nicer guy, but that doesn’t mean anything in the break room, not with Chase and Alfie sitting there, hassling the newbies and looking over the newspaper, making gay jokes and black jokes and tree hugger jokes. I can never understand what Pete says. I’ve been working with him for more than a year now, and it’s still like he speaks another language. “Where’s de parcel at, bye?” He’s not stupid--Newfies usually aren’t--but you can’t tell if you don’t know what he’s saying.
Most of the newbies are gone, though. Off to school. That new kid, one with the early grey hair, he’s still here. Don’t know what he’s up to. Real quiet. He won’t be here long, though. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing with his life. I could tell him all about that. I’d say, “You’re just out of high school, aren’t you? I bet you’re working for a year before you figure out where you’re going? You’re not from here. I wasn’t either. I came up here from Vancouver for the same reason you did. Easy to get a job, easy to make money. Save up a bit, and then school. Well, watch out. You save that money, and you work on getting to school. Guy who lives next door to me spent all his money, and now he’s stuck. I heard him on the phone, yelling so loud I could hear through the wall. Spent all his money, and now he’s trying to get back to wherever he comes from, but doesn’t have enough to afford the plane ticket, and clearly doesn’t own a vehicle. Well, he’s got the four-wheeler he wasted his paycheck on, though I’m surprised he can afford that between the bar and the casino and the porn. You want to be careful, because this is the first time you’re away from home, and lots of guys get stuck. You save it up, and get yourself out of here in one piece.
And get started early looking for schools. It’s real easy to wait and wait, especially when you’re on nights, and in order to get to a computer on your day off, you have to be awake at ten in the morning, which feels like it should be three in the morning, your clock is so screwed up. It’ll suck for you for a little while, but eventually you’ll figure out how to sleep in the daylight and amuse yourself at four in the morning when the rest of the world is sleeping and you’re up and trying to spend your day off doing something fun. But during the days, you get to the library and rent out a computer and find some schools, and apply well ahead of time, because its so easy to put it off until the middle of the summer and by then it’s too late, you’re stuck here again for another year. Sure, you could start in the winter, but it’s better if you make a full year of it. You be careful. Now don’t worry, I’m getting out of here next year. I’ve got money in the bank, that’s for sure. Rent’s a lot, but I don’t drink much and don’t gamble much. I watch TV, mainly. Rent movies. Sleep. I used to try to read, but now it’s usually TV. But I’ve got money in the bank and I’m gone next year, off to school, to make something of myself. I won’t be like Alfie or Marge, who hate their jobs but don’t know what else to do. Or like Chase, who’s stuck looking after these losers, checking their piece counts, slowly getting sloppy and fat. How long must he have been here? Almost as long as the manager, there, Taylor. Poor, miserable Taylor, trying to run this store with no competent staff and a turnover rate of one a day. How’d he get stuck here? Got a degree in business, and got just high enough in the company to warrant store manager, but unimportant enough to get shipped up north to northern Alberta, and now he’s here for the rest of his life, just like Alfie and Marge and Chase will be here until they retire. None of them thought this would be a last stop, but it was. They came here expecting to leave soon, but there you go, it was a last stop, because they didn’t watch themselves. They didn’t get out before this place got to them, and now they’re here for good. So you get out of here, kid, before you get stuck.
Oh, that’s the last one. Break’s soon, anyway.
Where was I? What was I thinking about?

Major disclaimer: You know how works of fiction are never depicting anyone real or dead, and any coincidence (as in co-incide-ence, or two things that happen together and seem related) is just a coincidence (as in two things that happen together and aren't related). You know about that? Well, that's true of the above. Only that I think that all of these people really do exist, I just have never met them.

Monday, 27 August 2007

The Bush: Short Fiction

Flies hummed with aggravating persistence around Derek’s head as he pushed through the brambles and syrupy ground. His shirt clung to his back and his scalp itched. The hawthorn branches through which he had just come remained as rune-like scratches stinging along his bare arms and shins, and the oppressive perfume of late August pollen assaulted him. Holding his hand to his brow and glaring at the sun, he wished he had never suggested coming out here.

“Where do you think they’d be?” Julie asked.

“No idea,” he said. “They have a fort over in the corner that way.” He pointed to the north. “And one in another hawthorn grove over there.” He pointed south east. “There are lots of rusted trucks they like to look at over there.” East. “Or they could have gone home without us.” Southwest.

Derek looked to see if Julie was paying attention. Sweat trickled down her forehead as much as his, and the spiky branches had laced her calves with many more oozing scratches. Dogteeth and burrs nestled in her socks and running shoes. She never came in here anymore, likely not since grade four, three years ago, and would not know how to walk through it properly.

“Anywhere Lynn would want to go?”

Derek came back to the surface to think. “What would she like to do? There aren’t many flowers to pick around here . . .”

Julie laughed. “Us Gerbers don’t waste time picking flowers. Lynn would spend her time looking for fairies and leprechauns, or something.” She stopped smiling quickly. “If she asked Mark or Louis where to look for fairies, where would they take her?”

The van. Exploded foam and fabric. And coon prints all around it. “The junk in the end. They’d take her to the pine trees across the fence, and they always wind up at a van when they go out there.”

Straight brown hair flapping as she nodded, she began to pick her way in the direction of the van. Derek forced his way around the thistle patch she was headed toward, hoping she would take the hint and follow. She did.

The Bush, as everyone who lived in the area called it, was overgrown and sufficiently wild after the recent hurricane aftermath that Derek’s brother Louis and their neighbour Mark had been drawn to it like the flies haloing Derek’s head. They had spent two weeks clambering over rocks, wading out into the pond, trying to catch leopard frogs and making forts of fallen branches, and Derek had been surprised that they had not automatically come out here when Julie and Lynn came over. The Gerber’s parents had gone to some reunion thing, and Lynn and Julie had been shuttled between grandparents and friends. Today, however, no one would take them. Since Derek was the closest in age of the immediate neighbours, the girls had come over to his house. Not that Derek’s parents were home, either, but adults seemed to think that it was better if they were all together. So the lot of them had trekked back to The Bush at Derek’s suggestion. Lynn had been watching frogs wallow, and the boys had been sword fighting with branches they broke off the trees, while Derek and Julie gossiped about schoolmates. It always amazed Derek how quickly kids three or four years younger than him could be lured away from him in The Bush if he was paying attention to other things.

It took only a minute or two of forcing through the tangled weeds and grasses to reach the derelict barbed-wire fence snaking between Derek’s property and the neighbour’s. Here the ground was less covered, so they walked along the fence silently until they came to a place where it lay close to the ground, posts long rotted out, and they stepped over it. Half a minute later, they saw the pine grove where Lynn would have looked for her fairies.

Soft deep moss covered the rocks and bare earth in the sunny opening, just large enough for three people to share, in the midst of the tall evergreens packed tightly around. There were only about a dozen of the pines together, but the air in the shadowed places felt cooler, older, and somehow cleaner than that in the rest of The Bush, almost as though a sort of magical preservation was on it, allowing the few who found it to be isolated from time and be, however briefly, in what was left of an era when the world was fresh and innocent.

Derek went naturally to the sunny middle and Julie followed him, squeezing beside him into the dappled light. They looked silently around them. Despite the likelihood that the younger ones were here a moment ago, they felt very alone together.

“I see what you mean,” Julie eventually said. “A place for fairies, if there ever were any.”
“They’re not here now, though. Ghost stories of goblins and things in the car will call them.”
They stood looking over each other’s shoulders for a little while, reluctant to leave the isolation, but with a joint sigh, they left fairyland for darker glades.

On the other side of the grove ran triple rows of hawthorn trees, ailing and bare, but possessed of wicked spines nonetheless. The branches of the hunchbacked trees raked low, and the pair had to weave through and duck in places. Derek once knew the various ins and outs of this line; in fact, the second fort he had spoken of could only be accessed without scrapes by going down the heart of this row and among thicker spines, and he had founded it when he was Louis’ age, but he had grown several inches since then. He could no longer fit in the gaps he once could.

Had they stopped to look when they were halfway through the hawthorns, they would have seen the boys creeping toward the van at the end, and Lynn watching from behind the first rusted piece of farm equipment. But Derek was busy holding thorned arms back for Julie, and she was busy keeping her hands near her eyes so that the spikes could not gouge them, and neither saw anything until they were through. Then Lynn ran up to them, babbling all sorts of things about the boys.

If seen from above, The Bush would appear to be the approximate shape of a swollen horseshoe, with the prongs facing Derek’s house to the southwest. There were a few irregularities, one of which being the thin finger of trees reaching from the base of the east-most prong and running at a right angle to it. This finger was about ten metres wide at the thinnest and almost twice that at the widest. The trees were farther apart and generally smaller in this area, and the ground underneath was covered in tall grasses instead of bush. It was here that the farmer who owned this bit of The Bush had years ago dumped all of his wasted vehicles to build up rust and filth, and the van in which Louis’ goblin lived was at almost the very tip.

Julie sat on her haunches to be level with her younger sister, and asked her what was wrong. Lynn stared wide-eyed and pale, but not altogether unhappy, and scared them with her answer.

“I saw something inside the van. Something alive.”

“The coon,” Derek muttered. Louder, “What are Louis and Mark doing?”

“They’re going to look at it. Lew says it’s a gremlin. They have to sneak up on it.”

“They don’t have to sneak up on anything,” Derek glowered. “I told them to stay away from coons. It’ll bite them if they wake it up.”

Julie looked worried. “Do coons get rabies?”

“Sometimes,” Derek told her.

“It’s not a coon,” Lynn told them. “It’s a gremlin.”

“Yo, guys!” Derek shouted. “Get back here. Don’t go bothering coons!”

Louis and Mark shot glances back from the wounded plow they were hunkering behind, but quickly decided to ignore him.

Derek turned to Lynn. “Did Mark dare him to go back there?”

“No,” she said. “Louis won’t do dares. He knows better than that.”

“Why are they going back there?”

“I saw it, it was looking through the window at me. I came running back and told them. Mark said it’s an animal, and Louis said no, it’s a gremlin. Mark said gremlins aren’t real, and Louis said that gremlins are like goblins. Mark didn’t believe him, and said he was lying, and that he should go up to it and look at it, if it was a gremlin. Louis said that Mark should go with him, and he’d see it was a gremlin and not an animal. I didn’t go. It’s scary.”

“That’s the same as a dare, Lynn,” Julie explained.

“No . . .” Lynn began.

Derek had already started to follow the boys to the van. Unlike them, he had no need to hide behind the metal carcasses on his way, so he could catch up with them shortly. In the brief time between deciding where to look and finding the boys, a wind hidden from them by the screening trees had carried a thick blanket of clouds over the sky. As Derek moved into the finger, this wind played about his legs, and he already regretted wearing shorts. The coldness soothed the scratches, though, and they felt less itchy.

He came to the boys just as they started to tug on the corroding door of the van, which had warped within the frame. A fitful groan came from the hinges and overlaps, and something inside moved. Louis turned and nearly shrieked with fear and anticipation. Eyes burning with a fierce hunter’s instinct, their neighbour Mark stared eagerly at the door and beat on the side of the van with his hawthorn branch, like a warrior rattling his spear on his shield.

Anger washed over Derek. He had never really liked the violent, untamed Mark, stomping on caterpillars and stealing Louis’ toys. Now the little brat, mud smears and hawthorn slashes streaking over his face like war paint and scars, was going to get his brother bitten.

“Guys, cut it out.”

“Shhhhhhh!” Mark hissed. “The goblin will hear you!”

“He’s already heard you two pulling on the door . . . Stop it, Lew!”

A hiss and a squeal burst from the van. Louis quit pulling on the handle immediately, now that both his older brother and the thing inside told him not to. Mark, however, attacked the door with a fervour.

“Mark, I’m warning you . . .” Derek growled.

“Don’t,” moaned Julie, who had come with Lynn to the boys.

All but Mark seemed to feel the aura of blind terror flowing from the van. A hundred swords of wind cut through them, and the clouds grew steadily heavier. Muttering and stuttering came constantly from behind the door.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” Mark said, his usual war cry.

“I can when I’m supposed to be babysitting you,” Derek answered, grabbing his arm.

Mark’s pushing thumb finally depressed the button on the handle. With a grating protestation, the door opened. They all stared into the dark interior.

What looked like a small starving boy stared back.

He was thinner and shorter than the boys, and seemed younger by a few years. His eyes were set deep into his skull, nestled in a tangle of lines and wrinkles. Bunched and slack, his skin hung off his bones as though he had lost a lot of weight. Weak muscles and sinews moved visibly beneath his bare chest.

The children stared at the little boy crouching in the van, his bare feet curled under his dirty grey shorts and his skinny arms wrapped tightly around his torso. Derek looked over his sickly thinness and dirtiness, and wondered. Maybe it was all the talk of fairies and goblins, maybe it was the pent up fear of rabid coons, maybe it was an innate knowledge of the truth, but Derek felt that this was not a regular boy. There was something preternatural about this terrified little creature. What the others thought, Derek did not know or care. He knew that he was looking at something beyond any of them.

What felt like several minutes passed before anything happened. Then, suddenly, Lynn screamed, and time switched on again. The thing in the van let off a wail and a string of language-like gibberish, and rushed for the depths of the van, behind the chairs. Julie held Lynn’s hands in one of her own, and covered her sister’s mouth with the other. Derek grabbed both Mark’s and Louis’ shoulders, and tried to pull them back. Louis complied. But Mark, with a focussing of his predatory gaze, shook free and leapt up into the van, wielding his hawthorn stick. The creature in the van tittered and cried and screamed, mouth and eyes stretched wide in its deeply etched face, dodging about the strewn stuffing and coils of the van’s back. Mark cautiously stalked his way in, reaching and prodding with his barbed club. The back doors of the van were closed, and the thick metal of the van had not rotted out enough to allow for escape.

The creature was trapped.

“Open the back doors!” Derek shrieked at his brother.

Louis ran trembling to the back doors and pulled with all of his strength, which hardly seemed enough.

“Do something, please,” Julie implored of Derek, still stifling the ongoing wail of Lynn.

Adrenaline flooding his veins, Derek strode to the edge of the van and reached in at the flailing boy. He caught hold of Mark’s left arm. The vicious little boy yelped and thrust the hawthorn branch at his captor. Derek held tight and swung his neighbour up out of the van and down to the ground on his back. He did not heed the crack as Mark’s arm hit the roof of the van.

The starved child saw daylight, and with a piercing exclamation, leapt from the van and off into the forest.

“Owwww,” Mark wailed petulantly, his face clutched up as though he were about to cry. “Why? Why’d you hurt me . . . ohhhh . . .”

“You deserved it,” Derek spewed. “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that? Why’d you try to hurt that boy?”

“Owww . . . ohhhh . . .”

“Stop whining,” Julie said, her voice harder and colder than it ever had been before. “You like hurting other things so much, you should put up with it when you get it back.”

Her mouth free, Lynn increased the level of her banshee’s wail, now accompanied by the hiccoughs of tears.

Mark realized he would not receive any sympathy. Struggling to his feet, he spit, “I was hunting the goblin! It shouldn’t have been there, and you shouldn’t have touched me! You can’t tell me what to do!” As though to prove his point, he swung his thorned branch at Derek’s face.

The branch landed across Derek’s cheek. Julie gasped, and Lynn suddenly stopped crying. Louis watched uncertainly from his place at the back doors of the van. With cold deliberateness, Derek wrenched the hawthorn stick from Mark’s hand, and smote him in the face three times. He then grabbed his shoulders and threw him to the ground. “That was not a goblin. That was a boy. You were trying to kill a boy. Never come to my house again. Never come to this Bush again. Leave. Now!”

Sniffing furiously, Mark got up, and set off for home, muttering to himself and shooting dark glances back at them. They followed him to the edge of The Bush and watched him disappear across the fields in the distance. None of them spoke until he was gone.

A week later, Derek heard a story on the news about a boy who had been missing for two weeks in the area. He had Autism and had gotten lost on a school trip. That evening, while his father was reading the paper, Derek asked what Autism was. His dad told him that it was a kind of learning disability or something. It made kids smart and stupid at the same time, he had said, not bothering to glance up from his newspaper. They talked kinda funny and made weird noises and did weird things. For a long time, Derek wondered if the thing they had seen had been that missing boy. But could two weeks scrounging in the forest make someone look that malnourished?

In the few days after the episode, he had followed the crashing trail the boy took through the forest. It was easy to make out for a while, as he must have run blindly through all the bushes and weeds. Once it got near the pond, though, the path suddenly disappeared. At the edge of the pond stood a pine tree, and it had a hole at its base. Small footprints littered the muddy ground around it, the same marks they had seen around the van earlier in the summer. Derek was not a good tracker, though, and did not trust his own judgment.

The interior of the van showed little sign of inhabitation. Something had torn up the seats, and many little nose and finger prints marked the windows. Derek wondered how the marks got so high up the windshield. The boy must have climbed around a lot. He also wondered how the boy got in. Had he come through the door? But if the doors were so hard to open, why would a starving Autistic child bother?

Louis told his brother that gremlins were small gnome-like spirits that had a magical knowledge of machines and technology. When asked if the boy in the van could have been a gremlin, Louis looked away and would only say that the pictures were different, but that the people who made the pictures might have gotten it wrong. He said nothing more all evening.

During the next summer, Derek and Julie came back to the fairy grove, as they called the pines. They picnicked a bit, but mostly talked about school. They noticed that Lynn and Louis were growing up and that Mark was getting more violent toward the two. More often they enjoyed the silence. Once Julie mentioned the boy they had seen, but they abandoned the subject before long. They had nothing new to say.

After a half dozen visits, they stopped going to The Bush. Their parents said that they had grown out of it, but it was more the other way around. The hawthorns crouched lower, and the pine trees cast greater shadows, and thistles sprung up as barbed wire fences. Mosses in the fairy grove were not as soft, the wind bit harder at the finger point, and the mud was deeper around the pond. The Bush gained a defensive hostility that seemed to begrudge the human children for the violence that had happened that day.

Derek never saw the boy, or anything like him, again.

This is an old one I dragged out of my computer. I do like it, though.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The House on the Corner: Short Fiction

It was not made of gingerbread. Icing did not mortar its walls, nor did flat slabs of chocolate compose the walk to the porch. Dutch lquorice door knobs did not sit in a raisin-oatmeal foor. Neither did mint ivy cover candy cane posts and a gumdrop-tiled roof.

It had no turrets. The sky above it was not stormy, nor did a pale full moon illuminate it. Bats may have lurked in its eaves, but none chose to dine on human blood. Tombstones did not decorate the yard, and that yard was not fanced by iron fate nor sinister hedge.

But there was a cat.

I heard that charities were a good way to meet people. Girls, actually, were the people charities were good for meeting, but I was not looking to meet girls, or that is what I told myself.

Lei and I were assigned as partners. She had been quiet, but she opened once we got away from the group and on our own. I had noticed the way her jeans fit, and the way her black hair hung. She was a little too enthusiastic.

We were given a section of the surrounding residential area to canvas. It was poor, and proceeds to the Green Corridor Raffle were lower than we desired. One older woman in an older home had taken care to keep the paint new and the roses blooming. The pines shading the porch were dignified. She bought the first two tickets. Most houses had yellow signs warning of large angry dogs, or proclamations that the inhabitants did not wish to be disturbed: Ye who solicit here, abandon all hope. My partner cooed and bubbled anyway.

It was late in the afternoon, and we had just been turned away from another door. I was ready to return home. Lei smiled before I could suggest it, though, and bet me dinner that the next one would buy a ticket. We walked on.

And there it crouched: the last house on the street. My first thought was that it deserved to be on some southern plantation, an old dead house left to moulder in the swamp. Its windows were glazed with yellow cataracts of curtains, set it tea-stained siding. The steps lolled from the veranda. Set back in the throat of the porch was the battered, screened door. The garden was not cultvated by any rational mind; thick stalks filled the soil, which they seemed to have won out of sheer ferocity.

I would have been cheered by the thought of Nature reclaiming its own had it not seemed so ruthless about it.

Lei and I looked at each other.

"It's creepy," she said.

"It is," I agreed.

A pause.

One of us moved forward first, but I cannot remember which.

We walked together up the splintered rocks of the path, stepping more carefully than necessary. I glanced past her into the trees clumped in the middle of the yard. Perhaps there would be squirrels shuffling in the grass, or sparrows quarrelling over breadcrumbs left by children. A cream-winged skipper flouncing across the breeze would have livened the scene a little, but there was no life.

"Look," Lei cried softly, pointing.

Lying on the bent stems of the flowerbed, was a cat. She frisked her tail at the tio, and stared at us. One ear flicked. She did not blink.

I smiled and stretched my arm out, half-bent at the knees. The cat responded with only another flick of the tail. She stared. Eventually, I turned my eyes away.

We continued to the porch, the familiar watching us all the while. Lei was the first to mount the steps, and I followed her up. Something smelled like it was rotting. I looked first to the flowerpots, but they were brimming with crazy, dangling spider plants. As I traveled the length of the porch, I saw from the corner of my eye that the window curtains did not fit tightly; in the gaps at the edges and the bottom, the rooms moved as though following my progress.

I held open the screen door, and Lei knocked on the chipped wooden one behind it.

Somehow I doubted the door would open. Images came unbidden to my mind: an old woman, collapsed on the floor inside her house. Her nightgown hitched oddly about her knees; one red plaid slipper clinging on and one fallen off. The rest of her was obscured in my imagination, entombed by the presence of the house.

Then another image: a woman opening the door, friendly and confused. A sweet little lady with an open purse and willing heart.

And then a coupling of the two, some grotesque chimaera: a dead woman opening the door, buzzing with flies and offering not a donation, but hellish knowledge.

I prayed that the door would stay closed.

Lei looked uncertainly my way.

I turned again to the windows, with some pretence of seeing if anyone was home. Either fear or prudence kept me from looking past the curtains and into the room, but I did examine what was placed on the sill. Bottles and jars of all kinds nested together. Some were corked, and others left open. Some had fancy paper labels, and others clothes only by tacky residue. One was filled with stale water; another, a festering plant; another, a few fly carcasses. Thick drifts of dust banked against them, and they were draped with cobwebs from departed and beneficent spiders.

"No one's answering," Lei finally said.

I nodded. "Let's go."

We turned, and I could feel her eye on our backs, gazing from the peep hole. I could feel her gawking from the windows, wondering how we would taste all fattened up, wondering what infernal secrets would drive us mad, wondering how many years the Devil would give her for our souls.

Down the steps we went, out from under the roof of that porch. The cat was there again, still looking, not blinking. She did not mew; perhaps she had sold her voice for the chance to go outdoors, except that it was the cat who stole children's tongues. She continued to spy for her mistress.

As we walked down the path, I noticed the scent of sulfur fade from the air, and perceived the attention from the house weaken. From the sidewalk, I turned and met the house's eye. She glared back.

"Maybe we should go get dinner," said Lei.

I wrote this for a class once. If anyone happens to recall the particular event on which this is based, I'm sure that person will understand the artistic liberties I took with this are exactly that--artistic. They mean nothing.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Sonnet 2 - Saima

Saima, I with patience write this verse
Near the time that we will move away,
To try to tell how you improved the worse
Parts of tasks, events, the dragging day.
Standing by the microwave at noon,
You would tease my eye by showing shoes,
Make my tongue with sweet desserts to swoon,
And fake our romance, others to confuse.
I will miss our summer bonding weeks,
Tattooed thistle etch'd on shoulder brown,
Secret notes in bunks, your laughing cheeks,
And talks while driving home across the town.
So when I freeze in Kingston's winter cold
I will Saima's warm remembrance hold.

See other sonnet for explanation.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Books I Think People Should Read

This is a list of (fiction) books that I think people should read. I will add to it as I think of others.

EDIT: I screwed up and put some non-fiction in here by accident. Sorry.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This book was recommended to me by a friend at one point, and I made a mental note of it. I was in Indigo a few days later, and couldn't find Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, so I bought this on impulse. It's an epistolary coming-of-age novel, and is quite insightful. In ways it reminds me of the movie Garden State.

It by Stephen King: I'm a King fan, let's be clear on that. I also don't expect others to like King as much as me. Regardless, read this book. Its characterization is magnificent and I know people who found it King's most terrifying book. It certainly draws you in, it has a full and real fantastic cosmology in the vein of Tolkein (only without the elves), and is also insightful. (I've also heard that you oughtn't bother with the movie.)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: In ways this book is profoundly disgusting, but it's also fascinating. When I think of the way it is written, the only word that comes to mind is 'delicious.' Nabokov's power over words is incredible. Of course, you have to be able to handle some seriously controversial subject matter.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: I'm not about to say that I agree with everything Lewis says. I'm not about to say that he isn't profound, either. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that makes some interesting claims for the behaviour of a practicing Christian and an intriguing attempt at an incontrovertible reason to be a practicing Christian. Even if you aren't religious, you should maybe read it to see what's going on and why some people would believe something you can't fathom. If you are religious, it's a positive must.

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis: Everything I said about Mere Christianity applies to this as well. The difference is that this is written in the form of letters from the devil Screwtape giving advice to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of the corruption, and damnation, of an ordinary man. The satire is very good, and there are some great lines.

The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pulman: These books are very heretical, but if this bothers you, I'd just do what I did and think of it all as mythology. It is mythology, after all. These are some of the most original fantasy books since Tolkein, and lack the cliche many books exude. The heroine is charming, the worlds are beautiful, and the story is heart-wrenching.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire: This is probably the other most original fantasy since Tolkein. It takes place in Oz, and gives the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. However, it revizes the story in remarkable and surprising ways, fleshing out her character and creating a cohesive, dynamic, and realistic Oz, while keeping with Dorothy's story so that we can understand how the people of Oz would believe what we think of as Dorothy's story is the truth and yet knowing that the Witch's is equally true. The sequel, Son of a Witch, is also engaging, and I hear that a third, A Cowardly War, is also coming out.
Edit Dec 1 2009: A Lion Among Men, originally titled A Cowardly War, was pretty good, better, I think, than A Son of A Witch. For those who disliked the ending of Wicked but liked the overall style, I'd encourage you to push through Son so you can get to Lion. You have to be able to handle weird sex scenes, though. (On a more literary note, I think I am detecting a tragedy-irony-comedy pattern in these three. If one more book came out in this series and it had a romance trajectory, I would not be at all surprised.)
Edit April 21 2013: I was right. Out of Oz is a romance, or at least as much of one as I'd expect Maguire to  write.

The Bone books: These are comics or graphic novels. I am up to the third one. I don't know what to say about them. They're kiddie lit, I suppose, but still good.
Edit Jan 15 2008: I have finished the entire series, and we're talking about Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials greatness here. I mean, this is incredible.

The Truth about Stories by Thomas King: Thomas King is a Cherokee-Greek author who examines the relationship between the stories we tell and our world-views. Only it isn't boring, like that sounds. The style is very interesting, too. I'm currently reading his Green Grass Running Water, which has an even more irregular style. I now want to de(in)form my writing as King does, but in my own way.

Cell by Stephen King: So this isn't exactly capital-L Literature, but I still liked it. This is King weighing in on the zombie genre, and doing well at it. These really are zombies as you've never seen them, and the ending is pure, classic King. Of course, if a revision of the zombie convention and the total melt-down of society are not elements you're interested in, maybe you'll be right to pass. It doesn't have the stylistic genius of some of his other works, notably It.

Edit Aug 25, 2008: The Grapes of Wrath: If I had to define one excellent book of the summer, it would be this. While obviously written for a time and place, it has gives insight into human suffering and is relevant to any society struggling with the knowledge that their wealth is another's poverty. It was very hard to get into, but once I muscled through the beginning, an excellent read.

EDIT Aug 30, 2009: Many Waters: Madeline L'Engle's YA novels are generally good, original fantasy. I think, like the Narnia books, there are things about them that would be more interesting to Christian than non-Christian readers, but I also think that no non-Christian reader would feel alienated or pressed upon by these books, as some feel when reading The Chronicles (which I think is an absurd readerly response, but not everyone can be expected to read properly when schools don't teach you that sort of thing). My particular favourite is Many Waters, in which Dennis and Sandy, the twins, go back to the time of Noah, and get hopelessly mixed up--both historically and emotionally--in the local community, angelic politics, and the history of mankind. There's sexual and brotherly tension, shape-shifting and beautiful angels (both of the fallen and of the loyal varieties), unicorns and mammoths, and science.

EDIT Dec 1, 2009: Jon asked me to recommend books, so I'm adding more to this list as I can think of them. I haven't been reading as much as I should be/would like to/usually do.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles: Haruki Murakami's surrealist dive into Japanese history and emotional politics, this book is unlike pretty much anything I've read before. First, of course, is the 'surrealist' part; to me it was urban fantasy, and I don't know how you'd go about constructing a definition which divides surrealism from urban fantasy. Most likely such a definition is impossible. Second, this is a translation of a truly 'foreign' book. I realize Japan is a lot like the West in many ways (it counts as the "West" in some of those break-downs), but it's still a different culture.
Anyway, this is a good book about a young man, Toru Okada (or, as the girl next door calls him, Mr. Wind-Up Bird), who is trying to rescue his wife from shadowy forces he doesn't understand or recognize. As the back describes, he "encounters a bizaree group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria." That actually doesn't cover it.
The warning I should give is that the book is a bit soaked in weird sex and in latent sexuality. Toru spends a lot of time with strange women (as in 'odd,' not 'unknown') and notably less time strange men. Just throwing that warning out there.

Neverwhere: This may not actually be Neil Gaiman's best book, but it's the only one I have with me right now. I liked American Gods and Stardust both very much, though they're in ways quite different books. What I liked about American Gods was how well it packed in and efficiently used so many different religious traditions. What I liked about Stardust was its whimsy. Neverwhere is different again: set in the forgotten parts of London, its perhaps-spineless protagonist Richard Mayhew (in some ways a reincarnation of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's, but in the end he isn't) finds a bleeding girl on the sidewalk and stops to help her, unwittingly losing the life he knew in the process. He enters a world of magic and paradox, a world that has slipped between the ancient city's cracks, and he is now sitting in the middle of a conflict between an innocent girl and the shadowy forces etc. and so forth. If you've read American Gods, then you might see the end coming, actually, but other than that it's good.
For those readers who care, American Gods has a (much) higher prude rating than either of the others. They are all fun books, though.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: This is just plain funny. You'll need a good translation (the original was written around 1357, and in case you're sense of history is fuzzy, that's a not quite two centuries before Shakespeare, which two centuries saw the most drastic change in the English language, up to and including the changes taking place today). And I should point out that I only skimmed the first half. It's the second half, when he gets to the islands, that's just wonderful. He meets and comments on all sorts of fabulous peoples and animals and plants and cultures, such as the dog-headed men who are valiant and noble and devour their enemies' bodies on the battlefield, or the desert filled with jewels but protected by colonies of dog-sized ants which only cease patroling for one hour during the hottest part of the day, or the plants which grow miniature sheep as fruit, or the island inhabited by communist, nudist, polygamists. What's even more fun about this book is that many mediaeval readers took it to be non-fiction.

The Faerie Queene: Yes, this is pretty esoteric stuff. Spenser was hard to read in his own day (Shakespeare's), let alone now. I'm used to it, but I wouldn't expect you to be. If you can get through his verse, though, I can tell you that most of the third book is worth it, and much of the first is pretty fun too. The others are likely quality as well, but I've never read them, so would't know.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories: This is a collection of some of H. P. Lovecraft's stuff, edited by S. T. Joshi. I suggest the short stories "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." That's not to say that the others aren't good, but I didn't enjoy them as much.
Anyway, what Lovecraft did is move away from the ghostly and toward the zombie-like or the cosmic. King's It comes direct from this line. I'll quote the back of the book again, because it's so apt: "Lovecraft reinvented the horror genre in the twentieth century, discarding ghosts and witches and envisioning instead mankind as a tiny outpost of dwindling sanity in a chaotic and malevolent universe." The interesting thing about Lovecraft's horror is that the climaxes have less to do with life- (or soul-) threatening situations but rather with dawning revelation of some horrific truth.
The prose is tough to manage, though. Not only were literary standards different in his day, I'd wager that he was more of an ideas man than a words man.

Through Black Spruce: Joseph Boyden's second (I think?) novel is a good one. Among other things, it's a Giller Prize winner, but I'll add that it's readable and engaging. It's a two-fold story: one stream follows a man in a coma, remembering the events of his life that led to that point; the second stream follows his niece as she tells her comatose uncle what happened to her in the last two years in the hopes that her voice will help bring him back. It has elements of both a drama and a mystery novel, as the niece tries to find her sister who went missing in Toronto, due likely to a bad encounter with an urban drug ring, and the uncle deals with tribal revenge spiralling out of control on the reservation. It's funny, intelligent, full of character, and full of heart. Also, Boyden is himself awesome, from what little I've seen of him.
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