Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tell it on the mountain


He’s never going to believe me if I tell him. Rachel sat back in her Naugahyde recliner, cracked from years of cupping her father’s derriere where he sat to watch football week after week. It was a debate that had raged on for several weeks, ever since she had stepped foot in what her family used to describe as the Sunday chore – church.

Rachel didn’t know what possessed her to enter the wooden monstrosity that sat on the corner of the street on which she grew up. It had been a gigantic presence throughout her childhood, full of stories of brimstone and treacle, heaven and hell. Yet here she was, standing on the threshold of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, balancing on the tightrope of wanting to believe yet not fully succumbing to what she describes as a really good story.

It was the day on the mountain, over two months ago. Rachel had gotten separated from her hiking group, their voices growing further and further in the distance. Her own inner monologue rumbled through her brain, like a train that had picked up too much speed too fast, and with a hairpin turn in the sightline. I’m going off the rails, said Rachel. At first, she thought it was the wind, then her friends playing a practical joke, knowing that Rachel could not find her way out of a paper bag without a GPS. The sound came again, a voice. It’s not Brett or Suzanne. But what is it?

The treeline stretched out ahead of her, beckoning to her to climb higher and higher, trampled brush turning to heavy forest, evergreens rising out of the rich soil to touch the clouds and obscure her view of the Indian Summer sky. Some invisible force was powering her legs further, her breath catching in her throat as she ascended.

Then, just as her feet found permanence on the summit, she heard it again. The voice was accompanied by music… Singing. It was melodious and haunting, yet she felt comforted at the same time. Like hands had reached around her, closing her into a hug as the notes danced around. Even the sunlight danced. And with no one in sight to see it. Exhilaration rushed through her veins, the tethers of her psyche stretching out to bring meaning and some sort of reasoning why this entity seemed to be performing just for her.

Slivers of white light lasered through the branches, rendering Rachel motionless, almost blinded by the rays finding their way to her subconscious. Was it so strange to feel this sense of peace when she was alone, seemingly lost on the mountaintop? Would her friends know where to look to find her emaciated corpse? Seconds felt like days and the hour she took to ascend the mountain felt like a lifetime. She was relaxed for the first time in years.

Such solace was a pipe dream after the last couple of years since she left her husband and uprooted her life to come to Colorado. Sure, her new job was gratifying and being closer to her dad became a second chance at reconnecting. But her life had still felt tumultuous, not knowing what was going to happen next – she realized she was always waiting for the next shoe to drop, the next stumble along the path. Yet here she was, separated from her friends, with her head in the trees, listening to a song she recognized from her youth.

Tell it on the mountain. It was a hymn she heard throughout her childhood, almost every Sunday, as Minister Eric expounded on the secrets to a happy life, a spiritual life. Surely, this was not a spirit singing to her now?

Rachel shook her head. No. It isn’t. It can’t be. God didn’t exist. There was no higher power. She’d prayed to that higher power years ago and received no answer. Only silence. And pain. And rejection. But more, she received no answers as to why her little boy was taken from her – at the age of 10 – after a two-year battle with a rare brain tumour. She shouldn’t feel this happiness, on this mountaintop, nor hear the glorious strains of a chorus she now sang with emotion, anger and tears.
Tell it on the mountain. And she did. She cried out, head held back against the crystal blue sky, her mouth forming the words in between sobs – Why God. Why did you take him? Why didn’t you take me? Why did you leave me here all alone? He was my sunshine. My only sunshine.

Tears gave way to shaking, hands over her face as she knelt before the largest tree, standing ram straight, needles reaching towards her, the sun, to the sky. And still the singing continued. Tell it on the mountain. Here, she told her story, of watching her little boy catch his last breath and look into her eyes in confusion of what was happening. All she wanted was to hold him again, to feel his heartbeat, his fingers wrapped in her hair as he invented story after story just so he could postpone bedtime as long as he could without Rachel telling him to snuggle in and close his eyes so the Sandman could take him on his nightly adventure. Rachel didn’t want him to go – adventure or not – she was most content when he was in her arms, his weight giving proof of his existence, his soft breath caressing her cheek as she sang to him.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…
Rachel knew her dad wouldn’t believe her; he’d packed his beliefs away so long ago – beliefs that would see loved ones reunited, troubles brushed off as easily as sand, and here she was, first on a mountaintop surrounded with light and love, and now standing at the large wooden door of the church she’d vowed she would never see again.

Okay, God, she whispered. I’m here. Let me in.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Trouble at Redwood Arms

There’s something about a scream. It gets people moving out of the way, scurrying like cockroaches when a light is switched on. Mark had been in a deep, dream-like abyss called black-out. It wasn’t a complete black-out; he could hear the voices of his neighbours waging another argument on the proper use of the toilet seat. Up or down. The universal question. His dream found him looking for something, moving through an apartment. He thought it was his place, yet not – in the contradictory way of dreams. Then the blood-curdling scream that sent every hair on alert. His eyes snapped open. Shit! Who the hell was this? he thought.

Glynnis was a nice lady, living in a nice apartment, living a somewhat nice albeit boring life with her cat Peaches and her turtle Slow. It didn’t matter that the Redwood Arms apartment complex was now 60 years old. It didn’t matter that the neighbours around her had changed many times over, apartments and businesses changing hands monthly. This was her neighbourhood and no amount of gunshots or sirens were going to get her to move. This is where her Harold lived. On her mantlepiece and in her memories. Moving, Glynnis thought, would lessen Harold’s presence and that was something to which she would never agree. 

It was just past 11 p.m. The nightly news had wound down, fading to black from her old walnut-encased television.  Flat screens had no place in Glynnis’ life. As she changed into her flannel dressing gown and brushed her teeth and hair the regulated 100 times, Glynnis realized that something was not quite right. She wasn’t alone. No. It’s not Harold. Glynnis was quick to dismiss that notion. Harold would never intentionally scare her; he’d announce his presence with a slight smell of his Old Spice as he always did in the past. 

She exited her bedroom that housed her 40-plus-year-old marriage bed, dust ruffle and all and her collection of Lipton Tea animals on display, flipping on lights as she went. First the hallway, then the bathroom before she reached the L-shaped living and dining room. The room was illuminated with one flip before Glynnis herself flipped out. 

There, standing in her beige-on-beige living room was a very large man with many tattoos. Prison tattoos? He had been facing the fireplace before Glynnis had illuminated the room in 100-watt florescent light.  She let out a piercing, calling-all-banshees scream that must have alerted the whole building. Who needs a fire alarm when Glynnis’ scream could be heard at the fire station three blocks away?

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” Glynnis did not normally swear, let alone call Jesus’ name unless only in prayer, but the shock of seeing her neighbour Mark in nothing but his skivvies had sent her over the edge.

“What in tarnation are you doing in my house? MY HOUSE?” Instinctively, Glynnis reached out a hand to the table closest to her, grabbing hold of the antique stained glass-shaded lamp, tugging the cord out of the socket as she aimed to throw the lamp, shade and all, at her intruder.

At 6 ft. 4, Mark was a domineering presence, and the tattoos didn’t help, splayed across his chest, stomach and arms – prime real estate for the 290-lb. man. But the confused yet dead look in his eyes belied his imposing façade.

The lamp, a worthy weapon for someone a little less full-figured, bounced off his 24-pack beer belly and landed with a thud at the base of the fireplace, the lampshade ricocheting off the red brick surround before splintering into tiny shards.

Neighbours craned their necks out of their apartment doors, curious about the melee but also a little nervous to put themselves in front of the firing range. No one moved an inch in the stand-off, least of all Mark who was just shaking himself awake to take in his surroundings.

“What the hell, lady? Who are you and what are you doing in MY apartment?” It took Mark mere seconds after he uttered the question to realize he was in the wrong. “This isn’t my place… what the hell am I doing here?”

“That’s what I asked you, young man… and for Christ’s sake, put on some pants! I can see everything that god gave you… and it wasn’t much,” Glynnis said with a scowl. “Now get out before I call the police.”

The neighbours, a little more brazen, began to crowd the doorway, witnessing the exchange between the scarcely clad man and the 5 ft. 2 senior who was now brandishing a fire place poker at the man’s nether regions. A few chuckles turned into full-on guffaws as they noticed that the tattooed ex-con standing in a few feet away from Glynnis, start to tremble in his tightie whities. 

“Glynnis, there’s no need to call the police.” Herbert, her long-time next-door neighbour stepped forward. “This here is your neighbour from the end of the hall. How he ended up here I have no idea… did you lock up before you went to bed? Obviously not,” Herbert fingered the door knob and the security chain that swung from the door frame.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am.” Mark uttered the short and sweet apology, with tears in his eyes, his hands still trembling as he held onto the mantel. “I really don’t know what happened. The last thing I remember is getting under the covers.”

“Well, you’re not getting under my covers, if that’s what you were intending, asleep or not,” Glynnis shot back. “Can you kindly step away from Harord and leave me be with my nightmares?” Glynnis motioned towards the urn. “He still needs his beauty sleep.”

Still a bit woozy from his dream, Mark looked around, his eyes registering even more confusion as to where and who Harold was and why he wasn’t home protecting his wife from sleepwalking giants.

“This is Harold,” Glynnis said, pointing at the urn. “And if he was here right now, he’d kick your sorry derriere.”

Mark turned quickly and ran out of the apartment amidst the jeers and applause from the fifth-floor neighbours who were quite amused that a spry senior had scared the daylights out of the sleepwalking giant.

Monday, January 29, 2018

To catch a crow

Joe was only 9 years old, but he knew he could train the crow. He knew if he called and showed the bird shiny things it would just be a matter of time before it would come to him. I’ll will it, he thought. Just like he’d willed the shiny new roller skates he got last year for Christmas. Dad had told him it was a pipe dream. That cold, grey, freeze your tongue to the light post morning, there they were. For Joe, with love at Christmas – Mrs. Claus. 

The skates were bullet silver, and probably could go as fast as a bullet too, if Joe hit the sweet spot on top of the hill at Toronto St. Just as he’d tackled that hill on those supposedly elusive skates, he knew he’d be victorious here – it was a burning in his gut that had not yet led him wrong.

Two days in and the crow still hadn’t come to him, but Joe had proof that the bird was following him. He saw him everywhere – on the hydro wires leading out of town, at the school yard, and at the swimming hole. The crow had also left trinket gifts on the side porch of the old Victorian home where Joe lived with his parents, Sam and Mabel. A piece of red yarn, a silver bell and a skate key.

Patience. I just need to have patience. Joe set off again, tin plates in hand, silver wrapping paper and tinsel left over from last Christmas. With nimble fingers, he knotted the tinsel to his bike handles and fashioned a makeshift toolbelt from which he hung the plates. He was a cacophony on wheels and drew out the barber, the florist and the baker onto the main street to see what the racket was about. It was about attracting the crow Joe had discovered liked following him, at a distance at first but then gaining confidence and curiosity about this pied piper that all animals seemed to seek out.

Since it was a Saturday, Joe decided his first stop would be the ice cream parlour. It was never too early for a Knickerbocker Glory and a Coke Float, and the courtyard was the perfect hangout for him and Fred Peters, his best friend since kindergarten and one part of the Toronto St. Troublemakers. They were aptly named because of their penchant for spying on the religious cult that lived two streets over, late night cow tipping and a scandal that involved stealing pies cooling off on the spinster sisters’ kitchen windowsill. Boys will be boys, his mother would often say, but it also meant a long line of neighbours who had become victims to Joe and Fred’s creative exploits. And while harmless, these games sometimes led to the receiving end of his dad’s old belt.

This was no exploit though. This was a spy game of sorts, drawing out their subject, studying it and luring it to come closer and closer. Today is the day, Joe decided. He could feel it. The sky was crystal blue, with no cloud in sight, the wind hanging onto the trees as they swayed to and fro – it was the perfect day to catch a crow.

“What took you so long?” Fred asked. He was already knuckle-deep in his own Knickerbocker, ice cream dripping down his chin and landing on his chino shirt before resting on his flood-length Levi’s. Fred, only a few months younger than Joe, was tall for his age – gigantically tall. His long, meaty fingers tucked into his aged leather belt, now on the last hole and soon to receive a new hole hammered in with a nail. 

“You know how hard it is to get anything past Mabel,” said Joe. “I know it can’t be true but she really does seem to have eyes in the back of her head.” Joe’s hands touched the plates that reverberated off each other, attracting attention to the two boys.

“Keep it down, will you?” Fred said. “My dad’s just around the corner. If he thinks we’re up to something, I’m done.”

“That’s nothing. My dad threatened me with a switch that will cut me right through. Worse, Mom will break her last wooden spoon on my butt, and then I’ll really be in for it,” countered Joe. “Hold my bike while I look for my allowance.” He handed Fred the souped-up old bike that still held his baseball cards in the spokes. Joe slinked into the shop, hoping he wouldn’t draw too much attention and he could get his own Knickerbocker without any questions about what he and Fred were up to. Mrs. Henderson, the proprietor’s wife, had her ears to the ground, and as part-time telephone operator for the town, she had the means to distribute the news in mere minutes.

Success. Joe emerged from the shop with his take-away ice cream, quickly spooning gobs of ice cream into his mouth.

“Okay, here’s the plan. We ride out to the cornfields at Old Highway 109 that separates Markdale from Meaford. We’ll start tying the tinsel to the top of the corn rows – you’ll have to do that since you’ve got the height – and then we will hide in the field until he comes flying by,” said Joe, outlining the plan in a veiled whisper in between bites.

“What about the plates – what will we do with those?”

Joe sighed. “We talked about this before. We’ll set those down just on the outskirts of the field – he’ll come in to investigate, and then we’ll slowly walk out so we don’t spook the little guy.”
An hour and a pool of sweat later, they had arrived, undetected by anyone who would have suspected this was more than a mere bike ride. Fred quickly got to the task of bending the stalks down and tying the tinsel in a staggered pattern, glistening, taunting in the mid-afternoon sun. Joe, meanwhile, unhooked the six swiped tin pie plates from his holster and laid them out haphazardly, noticeable only to those with better than 20-20 vision – and his crow.

It was time to hide. Fred and Joe walked into the cornfield, the height of the corn a foot or more above their heads, even Fred’s. Crouching down, they tried to conceal themselves as much as possible. Joe’s old school trousers had seen better days, which was why he’d chosen them. They were also the colour of the soil surrounding the corn, his hair, eyes, and the freckles that stretched across his nose.

“Did you have to wear white socks, Fred?” Fred’s pant leg had creeped up as he pretzelled his expansive frame into the crouching tiger stance he’d taken. 

Just as Fred was about to readjust, the wind changed, and with it came a muffled sound of wings against the stalks. “He’s here,” Joe whispered, pointing two fingers to his eyes and then to the Cerulean sky.

Landing only two feet away was Joe’s Crow, quick-stepping to the plates before rising to try to pluck the tinsel from the top of the corn. Giving Fred a thumbs up, Joe slowly stood to his full 5 ft. height, moving stealth-like through the rows until he stood just on the perimeter, watching the crow with his treasure. Fred stayed in position, not wanting to divulge his coordinates nor wanting to spook the bird.

Joe stood ramrod still, for what seemed like hours, but was only two or three minutes. Suddenly, the crow’s head pivoted, two beady, midnight orbs linking with Joe’s brown eyes. Neither of them moved. Or blinked. A tether connecting the two. A jump and a sqwauk, an invitation from the crow to make his acquaintance. Joe slowly stepped out, one foot, one leg at a time, with no movement on the crow’s part. He wanted to make friends, Joe realized.

A long line of tinsel still fully entrenched in his peak, Joe’s Crow hopped in closer, one eye on the Indian summer sky and one linked with Joe. He laid the tinsel on the gravel shoulder, seemingly offering up the tinsel as a present. A peace offering. Friendship.

With skillful fingers, Joe plucked the silver thread and clenched it between two fingers before holding it up in the air, a hand length away from the crow, a steady stream of air making it dance. The tinsel stretched out further into the sky, beckoning the bird.

“Look Joe, he’s getting ready to fly off,” Peter said, coming to stand beside Joe. And with that, Joe’s crow opened its wings and soared up, grabbing the tinsel in its beak before roosting on the hydro wires. The crow held Joe’s gaze with razor-sharp focus for a minute, then spread his wings and took off toward town.

It was the start of a friendship that would span years.