Cormorants fly low over the sea. They look sort of desperate as they go, as if at any moment they might skid and crash into the water. Black greasy feathers, the cool air from the sea pulling them down, hard-working wings providing what lift they can, eyes piercing the surface, fishing. You flap madly.
“If I fell in would you jump in and get me?” The little boy pipes up. His mother pretends to think about it for a moment.
“C’mon!” The little boy squeals. They both laugh.
“Of course I’d jump in after you. But I don’t know what we’d do after that.”
“Would you jump in if your wallet fell in?”
His mother grabs the railing and peers down into the waves.
“I think I’d just let it drown. All this stuff,” she says, holding up the folded hunk of leather, “I can replace. Just a few phone calls and I’ll get more or less everything back. You, on the other hand,” She grabs him under the armpits and tickles his ribs.
He squeals again, and then looks around at the other passengers.
The shore grows larger, the ferry slows down. The little boy stands at the front, his mother beside him, waiting and watching for the big boat to dock and unload. This part of the trip always takes the longest. Time slows on its course through the waves, matching the ferry’s pace. Boom, the ferry hits the bumper on the right and nestles itself in, bouncing from side to side like a pinball in slow motion. The people sway with the boat.
The boy, looking straight ahead, letting his mind travel where it pleases, reaches up to hold his mother’s hand. The gesture is automatic. Her hand is cold and rough. It squeezes his tiny warm hand like it was a rabbit’s paw in a pocket. The boy’s eyes go from the dock to the interlocking hands, tracing up the arm, and land on his mother’s face. It is not his mother. He has grabbed the wrong hand. The old man looks sad. The boy lets go.
His mother and the old man talk briefly while crossing over the ramp to the city. He had a little boy before, but he died. The old man didn’t say how. Where his eyes should have been white, they were red. The accident seemed to bring him both joy, and a bottomless sort of sadness, one that I will never be able to understand.
Passengers board the ferry. It’s heading to the island. The ocean breaks up into smaller and smaller jewels of water as the waves slosh and pound against the hull. The tinier jewels, the ones small enough to form rainbows when gathered together before the sun, land on his face and cling to his beard. The boy is a man, his mother is old. The cormorants still patrol the waves, diving when they dive, and popping back up with fish in their bills. Then they head home. Twenty-two years is a long life for a cormorant. One of the ferry operators smiles at him. She looks familiar, but so does pretty well everyone else on the ferry.
“Billy!”, he blurts out, approaching another passenger with open arms. She smiles and spreads her wings to receive the hug. He was one of the few boys of their group that she hadn’t fucked. She looks embarrassed. Her tummy is swollen. He notices but pretends not to.
“You’re back.”, she says shyly.
“Only for a couple months, and I’ll be off-island for work pretty often.”
She nods, looks him in the eyes, before her gaze falls down and lands on the rusted steel floor of the ferry. He doesn’t know what to say.
He had heard some pretty graphic stories about her. When they first met, she was seventeen and he was nineteen. She was mature for her age and had seen a lot. In and out of seedy coastal bars with her mother, an alcoholic and a drug addict, before moving in with her father permanently. Someone had once said something about her mother forcing her to sell her body, but he found that impossible to believe. She said she was part Spanish and part Native, but her father looked like your average white Canadian guy; a gut, a baseball cap, some faded tattoos, and a warmth and earnestness in his actions.
She had sandstone skin, with little freckles of a darker rock (basalt?) on her cheekbones and nose. She must be about nineteen or twenty now. Her body had always been one that mirrored what men looked for in a woman’s body, the curves and lumps in the right places, and an overall smoothness that made each part blend beautifully into another. Naked she looked like a life drawing, so consistent and graceful that her likeness could be captured with seven lines. With her swollen belly it would now take eight. A few of his friends had slept with her, had fucked her. They told him how wild and intense she was. For some reason he didn’t like hearing the stories. One of his friends had even dated her. It didn’t work out. She was too free, and he was too nice. He gave her flowers at the beach and it made her sick.
He wants to know whose child she’s carrying, but he’s afraid to ask.
“I’m living with Brandon now,” reading his mind. “Not that Brandon.”
The Brandon he was thinking of already had two kids of his own, two boys. It was the other Brandon on the island, the one that used to sell coke. He was a decade older than her.
They stood side-by-side now, looking out at the island. It was barrelling towards them at ferry speed. On the right was the rookery. The sandstone cliffs had been painted a silvery white from millennia of cormorant shit. When the seas were whipped up by winter storms, enormous waves crashed up high and carved tiny nooks and caves in the rock face. That’s where the cormorants laid their eggs and raised their young. Each day they returned with fish in their bills and dried their greasy back feathers. The shimmering silver shit went from a few feet above the surface, to eighty feet up the rock face. He had never seen any of the cormorant chicks, but he knew they were there.
The ferry is loud enough that they don’t feel compelled to talk. They unload and the ferry operator stays on board. Billy and the boy walk up to the parking lot, wave goodbye, and climb into their respective rides. For the boy it’s his mother’s little truck, while Billy gets picked up by Brandon in an old SUV. He ripped out the back seats so he could cargo stuff around the island. His friend, who was sitting shotgun, gets out and gives the seat to Billy. He climbs in the back and tries to make himself comfortable on the floor amongst all the tools and garbage. The engine whimpers as they gun it up the hill.
A new load of passengers and cars board, and the engine kicks up. Each day, the ferry crosses the channel thirty-six times. Eighteen times one way, and eighteen the other. It sleeps in the same harbour each night. The one in town, the one on the big island. She sleeps on the small island. Her job is perhaps the best job around. The ferry-operator is an aquatic Sisyphus, forever travelling, never going anywhere.
The bow of the boat cuts through the water, splitting the strait in half. The sea closes up behind her again. It’s like a busted zipper, one that travels up and down the track, but never opens the jacket. She stands by the bow, a warm northwesterly pushing her bangs back. Her cargo pants are dark blue Dickies, with big pockets on either side of her thighs. A neon orange safety vest on her top half. She looks like a pilon with big blue legs. She doesn’t see any cormorants. The town she’s headed for is no town at all, the orange-roofed condo building is a mirage. They call it a condo building, but it’s really more of an old folks home. She is not on a ferryboat, but a tall ship. They say the earth has no more virgins, that all the islands, and all the nooks and crannies of every continent had been peopled, charted, and catalogued. But look at her now, ploughing through the unknown, the crew of a ship whose sole purpose is exploration.
The black head of a seal pops up beside the ferry. Its eyes, curiously tracing the deck and the heads popping over the railing, look like two big black marbles. The seals always look somewhat jovial, wearing an expression of sly curiosity, like they’re watching and waiting for whatever stupid thing you’ll do next. In the spring you can sometimes see orcas travelling through the strait here. Their appearances have become rarer as the years have gone by.
Like a memento of both land and sea, driftwood drifts. It remains one-part forest and becomes one-part ocean. One-part human, one-part space, the Voyager’s mass is too processed, too precisely cut to be void of human intention. It has songs and pictures and chemical formulas written out. If you find a diamond to caress the grooves of that golden record, you might hear:
Dark was the night, and cold the ground On which the Lord was laid. His sweat like drops of blood ran down In agony he prayed. ‘Father, remove this bitter cup If such Thy sacred will. If not, content to drink it up, Thy pleasure I fulfill.’ Go to the garden, sinner, see Those precious drops that flow. The heavy load He bore for thee For thee he lies so low. Then learn of Him the cross to bear. Thy Father’s will obey And when temptations press thee near, Awake to watch and pray.
The aliens will think we’re not very much fun at all. Maybe that’s the point. The boat came upon a dead head; a large driftwood log, almost entirely sunken, but with still enough buoyancy and size to produce a thunderous sound against the hull. Boom.
She’s from out east. The small town led to the city, and the city almost killed her. It wasn’t the sounds or the light, or the energy; it was the people. She loved the people, and so she couldn’t bear to see their unhappiness, their expressions of hopelessness. Like watching a colour image fade to black and white. The only time they seemed to regain their colour was in the bars on the weekends.
So she headed west. It wasn’t much different, but she found it easier lie to herself out there. The last ten years flew by. She went from the new girl on the island (very sought after), to ‘Jenny’ (her name), to just ‘Jen’ with a downward inflection. She’d done the shuffling about with different male partners (and female), and now she’s just a part of the landscape. Her drum-circle, wrist-twirling, potluck life had ended. She had children, and the father didn’t stick around. Once the kids were old enough for a babysitter, she got all her certificates to work on the ferry. Thin cotton dresses, the kind that glow and turn translucent in the sunlight, revealing the perky silhouette of a woman’s body beneath, only took up space in old Rubbermaid bins in her closet. More often than not, she was wearing her Dickies and her pilon vest.
On the north end of the island there is a wave made of sandstone. When the tide’s high, it’s about a three and half metres from its peak to the water. In the summer people jump from the peak into the bay. If you don’t like heights, you can walk underneath the curl of the wave, the overhang protecting you from any drizzle that may have slipped out of the white clouds above. Along its wall are raised letters. I don’t remember what any of them spell, but they stick out like brail along the sandstone. They used to have colour to them. Spray-paint. But the sandstone underneath, protected from the chemical colours, didn’t wear down as fast. The wind and the waves carved around the words, immortalizing them. It was probably some local teens who had nothing better to do but say, ‘I am here’.
People scratch funny things into the walls of the bathroom stall on the ferry.
Call Daniel for a dick licking 2502476578
I fucked your mom
Freddy was here
Island trip 2008
Here I sit, broken hearted. Came to shit, but only farted.
It’s not all scratched in, some of it is pencilled in or drawn with sharpie. By the mirror there are a couple partially removed ‘Hi my name is’ stickers, but where someone’s name would be is an illegible tag. Curly bubbles of letters wrap round each other, almost hugging.
She wore pink and grey plaid pajama bottoms. They sat across from each other at the back of the crowded street car. An old backpack slumped on the floor at his feet. There were holes in the sleeves of her shirt, loose threads stuck out like splinters. She slipped her thumbs through the holes.
He pointed at the book of another commuter.
“I gotta get me one of those.”
The commuter pretended not to notice.
“My book’s in your bag, right? You still have my book?” She sounded almost hysterical.
“Yeah yeah, I got it. I need another book.”
All the other people on the streetcar wore little seashell-like earbuds. They didn’t have faces, or if they did, all their faces were exactly the same. Music, talk, anything that could cure them of the mundanity of their daily commute, flooded into their lonely theatres.
The bottom row of his teeth were ratty, dark, and thick with plaque. They rubbed against the inside of his lip when he spoke and added a wetness to his words.
As the streetcar passed CAMH, she stood up, wavered, and motioned as if she missed her stop. She pointed back at the intersection.
“We going down?” She asked, sounding concerned.
“Naw, naw. It’s Evergreen down there.”
Her hair had been bleached a long time ago. Her natural hair, thick and dark, pushed all the bleach down around her shoulders. Her toenails peeked through rubber sandals. Chipped pink paint. Little toes that were dirty from the street.
“I gotta shave it off,” he said, stroking his scruffy reddish beard. It wasn’t quite full, the beard of a young man.
“No I like it! It’s so cute.”
“I just want to start again, trim it right down. I won’t shave it all the way, just trim it.”
“No, please, I love it.”
“Actually you gotta trim it for me. I’ll get some sciss—”
“I’m blind! I can’t even see. How am I going to cut your beard…Blind leading the…”
“Ok, I’ll trim it then. I just want to start it over. Like that,” he said, motioning to another passenger sitting close to them who had very thick and well-trimmed scruff.
Her voice trailed off and her eyes fluttered. He had scabs on his arms, and a scar behind his ear. He examined his hand for a moment. It was swollen and bruised. He made a fist. One of the knuckles jutted out unnaturally.
“… I was bent. I had just gotten out of the safe house, .” His fatigue bent his words.
“If you have an opportunity to go there, then go. I was there for a bit. It’s way better than any other shelter. They’re way more…like they give you a key to your room. You can just come and go. And if you’re tweaking out a bit, they just ask you to go to your room and hang out in there. They’ll even bring you a glass of water.”
She nodded in a circular motion like a sleepy drunkard. She wasn’t drunk.
“They’re way more, like—”
“Progressive?” She filled-in excitedly. Her slowness momentarily burnt away like a fog in the sun.
“No. They’re just, like, open. They want you to get better, they don’t care how you get better as long as you’re trying. There’s no system either. No script they have to read you, no rules, just common sense.”
She said something about going to jail.
“But it wasn’t just the police, it was a paramedic too.” She followed up, without fear or worry, like a child.
Queens Park Station.
“It’s just probation,” he assured her.
“They said I’d go to jail.”
“Yeah right. You’re not a criminal, there’s no way they’d put you in jail. They’re just tryin’ to scare you.”
“Do you know anything about the legal system? No. You’re not some hardened criminal,” he said, laughing. “Don’t worry about it. They’re not gunna do shit. They’re just trying to scare you off the street.”
His pants had become capris somewhere along the way. They were ripped blue jeans, quite tight on him. They might’ve been women’s jeans. They were full holes, a couple stains. He wore a blue baseball cap, backwards. On the side of the hat read: ‘Toronto’, ‘Montreal’, ‘Vancouver’. Beneath that, some symbol.
“It’s your Latina brain, it won’t let you listen to anything. As soon as someone tells you something, tells you the right way, you just shut down. You just block it out and forget it.” The words left his lips with loving sternness.
Bay Street. The person beside him got up.
“Babe,” he said, looking at the empty seat beside him. She hoisted herself up out of her seat. She lost her balance as the streetcar lurched forward, and bumped into somebody.
“Sorry,” came out automatically. The person didn’t turn to look at her.
She slumped down onto the seat and leaned on him. He put his arm around her as if they were a couple at a movie.
“If you can only remember one thing, if your brain just blocks out everything else, remember this:”
“I love you.”
He kissed her forehead.
He didn’t savour the words, and so they hurdled over his rotten teeth and rushed out of him, like they were eager to get lost in all the empty faces. Perhaps to compensate, he said them again.
“I love you.”
She smiled, eyes struggling to stay open, and probably whispered the same thing back to him.
“I could get a job picking up trash on the street. Just work like that for a year, get clean, put my headphones in, smoke a joint and just work. If I work like that for a year,” her fatigue produced more slurs, “I could save so’money.”
“Welding you can make big money. They got courses at Durham. They’re expensive, but once you start working, you’re making like a hundred. I could pay it back easy.”
“I just want to get steady.” She closed her eyes for a moment.
He tapped her on the knee. She opened her eyes and looked out the window as the streetcar slowed to a halt. They gathered their things and sleepily descended the streetcar steps.
obstacles to daydream
My left eye leapt clean out of my head. It seemed to do it out of its own volition, as if it was escaping a painful scene it had been forced to watch. Luckily I was alone in my home as I most often am. For a few moments, the eye just sat there on the ground staring up at me, its pupil dilating. I stared back at it. We sat there for a long time, staring. In the bathroom, with the mirror before me, I washed the dust and hair from my floor off the eye and attempted to return it to its socket. I pressed and pressed, squeezed and squeezed, but it resisted. Eventually, just as I was about to give up and seek some professional help, it popped right back into place. It still, however, provided me no vision. Upon examining my reflection and fixing my hair, I came to realize that I had returned the eyeball backwards. I grabbed my sunglasses, as I always do, and set out for a walk.
As my seeing eye took in all the sights, something very strange happened to me; I began to think about the things around me. Suddenly I felt myself grow curious about the strangers I passed on the street. Each one of them lived a life so unlike and yet so similar to my own. One eye, pointed outwards, showed me the world, and the other, now pointed inwards, showed me something else.
The flowers that flanked the entrance to the park divorced themselves from their sweet smell and bursts of colour and took on characteristics, qualities untethered from my senses. One became a purple explosion of fireworks, the other a bunch of grapes. I sat down on a park bench to gather myself. What was happening to me? It was as if I had just been endowed with another sense entirely, one complimentary that took all of my other senses a step further than mere reception. This sense interpreted things!
The doors of perception had always been open to me, but up until this moment I had no idea what any of it meant. It had all been all an overwhelming and indiscriminate paste, a constant stream of colour and motion. Now, with one eye watching my mind and the other taking in the world, I was able to live within meditation and action simultaneously. Sitting there, I was greeted by a taste: hot blackberries in the summer, so sweet and soft, the seeds all breaking away from each other with the gentlest pressure from my tongue. Teeth stained, warmth within and without, and the knowledge that night will come later, later on, much later. What a novel experience! To live through something as if it were taking place, while in truth it was buried deep in my past! And then the memory wafted away, just as it came.
Before this day, I had never given much thought to things that did not appear immediately before me. In truth I didn’t give much thought to anything. But with this other sense I created a world in which everything could be beautiful and right. These forms didn’t need permission from my sensory organs in order to manifest themselves, they were deep, underground rivers. I got up and continued walking, half in my mind and half in the world. I saw a woman on the street, her thin cotton dress clinging gloriously. I was able to translate the details of her beauty into my mind where I could control what she did, how she spoke, whether or not she looked at me. It seemed nothing was lost in translation, only gained and changed. I had walked two blocks before I reemerged out of my thoughts and into the world of chirping birds. I could take those with me as well, I thought. The whole of it, I could reproduce, examine, and imagine.
I felt like I was no longer a tiny twig on the great tree of life, but an entity that vibrated like a string between its own world and the shared world. Is it true what they say that no work is ever finished, only abandoned? Would it also be true to say, in that case, that no question is ever answered, only abandoned? Thoughts like this began to bounce around and people my mind. Where did they come from? Time went on, as it does. I began to attribute a certain significance to these thoughts. How deep could they go? How far could I take my own mental simulacrum? Or was the world in which I walked a mere simulacrum? See! There I went again, with earth-shattering revelations! Before I forgot too many of them, I decided to write them down. I left the park, my legs trying to keep up with my racing mind, visible to me for the first time.
I looked around at the other people on the street as I walked and saw their dull and eyes all facing outwards. They were victims to the world, mere copper wires conducting indiscriminately. I wondered to myself what I had been doing up until that point, attributing no meaning to the objects around me, taking no time at all for analysis, manipulation, whatever it could be called. What was once a blinding paste of vibrancy became a manageable palette of colours from which I could paint new scenes with. Had anyone experienced such bliss? Such control?
I felt like the first of man’s ancestors who, out of personal desire or external forces, happened upon the idea to walk upright. Suddenly I could look up at the sky and contemplate the larger patterns, the swinging moon, the twisting stars, and not just stare at the dirt before me. As soon as I returned home, I began writing these thoughts down for fear that I might forget them. Such richness there was in one-eyed life. I wrote things like:
Love is a low dewy valley, loneliness a solitary mountain, and one cannot be seen, cannot exist without the other.
The table of our lives, we must turn it over, let everything fall to the floor. Wipe it clean, and then replace the items properly, one by one. The problem, it seems, is that the items returned to the table all look crooked and wrong. Is it because the floor is crooked? No matter how many times I rearrange it, things are askew.
Surely sentiments as salient as these have never been written down before, I thought. But it wasn’t just brand-new thoughts that flooded my mind, I was also able to attribute meaning to the events of my past. Things I thought had happened to me simply because this is the world in which things happen were now tethered to a meaning of some kind. Maybe my father didn’t just disappear, maybe there was a reason I was alone all the time. The conclusions I made were too significant, of too much importance for me to keep them to myself. I could help someone; I mean I had access to the answers after all. I looked out the window from my desk and down upon the people passing by below. Their anemic lives, their petty concerns—but I can rescue them! No longer would mankind be a sensory funnel for reality, I pledged, I would give them the ability to think! They looked so small from up here on the ninth floor.
I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. My backwards eye grew tired, but I pressed on. Three decades of thoughtlessness, my entire life, had suddenly ended. I retroactively applied all the meaning missing from those painless thirty years that had slipped by. I slathered blue and gold upon those years in thick coats.
There was no space for nuance, my palette only had so many colours. Then I began remembering and painting my dreams with meaning. I wrote many of them down.
I was on a large street, the sun was shining down, I was warm. A few paces down the road was a crosswalk where a family was crossing. The family was all grown—mother and father quite old, sister, son and wife. The son started beating his sister and dragging her along the dry pavement by her hair. Her hair was brown. There was commotion and screaming, but by the time I caught up to them, darkness had fallen. The night was so thick that I couldn’t see my own hands. There were others searching for him too. I could sense that he was close, watching us, but I knew it was hopeless in the dark.
Everything has its own breed of significance, I discovered. Everything, even the most personal and intimate things could be enveloped in a kind of meaningfulness. The smallest details of a memory, a dream, or an insight branched off into still more and more, like veins and arteries in the brain leading to an almost infinite network of capillaries. My thoughts and ideas took on the same anatomy, abstractly and literally, of the ever-expanding network of the mind.
The next day it rained. The plants were thirsty and I could hear them gulping greedily. Or could I? I told myself stories about everything. I walked by the old church on the corner, and watched the diamonds fall from the sky, some syphoning off into eavestroughs and gutters.
Sometimes, I thought, there might be a hole in the underside of the gutter, maybe from the screw that holds together the two lengths of aluminum trough. Or maybe the troughs are old and made of iron or stone, in which case, I would have no explanation for the hole. You can hear the drip now, steady, unfussed, drip drip drip. It’s coming from the rooftop of the church. One hundred years or so, thirty thousand rains, the limestone, worn down, drop by drop into a kind of bowl. When the water strikes its target, the bowl is filled to the brim, like holy water. This basin, formed of its own accord and that of the rains, holds enough water to baptize the birds that swoop down to bathe. I could hear the dripping in my mind. But all this, where did it come from? This church had no eavestrough, and its stout foundations were made of brick, not limestone.
Soon, the things I wrote down seemed to be almost completely severed from the world that had inundated me for thirty years. I was writing in my own language, metaphors mutating from metaphors—my mind had become an island on which the flora and fauna had strangely specific evolutionary characteristics that, without context, would seem bizarre and alien to anyone visiting from the shared world. I continued to write, believing with every pencil stroke I was hacking a path through the brambly antipodes of the universal mind.
I had written my own book of revelations. I sent it off everywhere for publication; newspapers, literary magazines, book publishers, and even a group that prints religious materials for free. None of them wished to publish my words. I received one reply:
Thank you for submitting your collection with us. Unfortunately, at this time we cannot feasibly publish it. To put it bluntly, I can’t understand a single page of your writing. We mostly print pamphlets anyways, and we would not be able to handle the printing of your 540 page work.
Please do not reply to this letter.
The Association of Doorstep Religious Literature
I had feared this. Sometimes when presented with truths so vast, people can’t help but deny their significance in order to spare themselves the total re-examination of their existence. After that, the world was painted in dull colours, black and white save for the coloured scenes of my mind. I’d pace up and down my tiny flat, eyes closed, imagining fantastic worlds and more fantastical outcomes. I felt burdened by my waking moments. Everything presented itself as an obstacle to daydream. Meals that I had once enjoyed became tedious and time consuming, even my walks through the park became a nuisance; people bumped into me incessantly as I walked about with my eyes closed.
Soon an idea crept into my head: this world would have a harder time distracting me from my important thoughts if it could not be seen. I retrieved a soup spoon from my kitchen drawer and stood before my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
I will not disclose the details of the operation, but I can say that it was successful; my right eye was removed and replaced facing back into my head. I gave it a few moments to kick in. Nothing. I grabbed my sunglasses from the hook by the door and set off towards the park. I had grown so accustomed to functioning with my eyes closed that total blindness did not hinder me much. As I walked, my daydreams continued as they had before, unseen by my right eye. It must’ve been damaged during the operation.
I carried on for days like this, reviewing and imagining, attaching meaning to the tides of meaninglessness. I went through every memory and experience cataloguing and categorizing. Everything was turned into a symbol, a motif. Nothing was safe from the scalpel blade with which I cut my entire life’s experience into its own little unique corners of aesthetic quality. Then my palette was empty. I had nothing more to draw from. I squeezed the paint tubes of my mind desperately, but they relinquished nothing. Then my daydreams became tedious and dull just as the world had. I had dashed the cup to the ground and could not hope to fill it again.
I sat there at my desk, pencil firmly gripped, and stared into my empty mind. There was nothing left to write down. I traced old memories, hoping there was something I had missed, but the memories had changed. They had become my symbols, mere shortcuts, signs took the place of the things signified. City limit signs along the barren highways of my mind that led only to ghost towns of memories. I wrote down what had happened to me and made it my final interpretation of experience. Now I must retire to my bed and close my eyes.
and the fishing was good
A fisherman brought his rod down to Berry Point, the closest thing to a headland that this island offered, and sat upon a rock. The point was named for the tall brambly blackberry bushes that lined the road. Thimble berries grew there too, but only in the shady spots under the canopy of Douglas firs, balsam woods, and arbutus trees. The blackberries were brought over on European ships centuries ago, and much like the people brought here, they choked out most of the naturally occurring species. But the thimbles managed to survive due to their preference for shade.
All the berries turned into warm jam as the cool morning became the hot day. The fisherman tied on a heavy lure, for the seas still had some chop; the winds hadn’t yet realized that it was a calm morning. There were mountains in the distance across the strait. The asphalt road leading to the point, naturally called Berry Point Road, surrendered to the orchard owner, Ike, and his gravel driveway. A humble little fruit stand stood a few paces up from where the road ended. Passing through the threshold of the stand meant pushing a curtain of faded yellow hanging plastic strips aside, originally installed to keep the flies and wasps away, but in its raggedness now only served symbolic purposes. A chipped earthenware jar sat upon a beat-up wooden counter as a cash register. Shoppers weighed their own fruit and deposited what they owed into the cold and shady interior of the jar. The money had only been stolen once or twice.
It was far too early for apples, cherries would be out soon, and the peach plums hadn’t done very well this year. The summer’s dryness benefitted only the blackberries, which were free for all to pick. The ocean, a chameleon of waves, changed colours as the sun climbed across the sky. The chop subsided, the fisherman changed to a smaller lure. He did not fish out of need. His bread was bought with money from other undertakings, but to him, there was nothing more pleasurable than fishing. There was something concrete, primordial about fishing, he thought. Big and small, fish lurked in the depths, lords of a world so alien to his own. Their function in relation to him was simple, but there was also something abstract in the act of fishing, something ancient and true.
Fishing from shore, he often left empty handed. When he borrowed Ike’s boat, which he rarely did, he could ensure a rock cod or two, sometimes a ling cod. But the fisherman was careful not to take people up on too many favours, especially those seemingly offered only out of politeness. Ike had been a friend of his parents and insisted that the fisherman use his little row boat whenever he liked. It was white, made of wood, and while lying keel up on the sandstone shore, looked like the subject of a painting at one of the many hokey art galleries in the area. The fishing depended on the tides. Slack tide, when the war between shore and sea is momentarily abandoned, was always the best time, but there was no way the fisherman could get his line deep enough at low slack. And so, he always fished at high tide, when the waves climbed as far up on the sandstone shore as they could. Like the game of tug-o-war waged between shadow and light upon chests, backs, and legs in the summer at the park in the city, the tides were an endless tug-of-war between land and sea. He thought back to the park, to his time spent in the city. Sometimes it was like fishing. People gathered. They were on display. It was a zoo where the attractions and the visitors were one in the same. They removed as many clothes as they could, as if thin cotton shirts and dresses suffocated them. He used to walk through the park, eyes automatically tracing bodies. We are animals.
It wasn’t about finding someone to slip and sweat with in his single bed, but rather basking in potential. Like any of the park-goers, he felt that any one of these bodies, with the right opportunity, could sweat in his bed. It’s Christmas eve and all the presents are barely even wrapped. They’re not all for you, but you can see that someone will be receiving the gifts, someone will be enjoying them, such items really are out there, and one day you too may be able to do the unwrapping. Half of the path that cut through the park was unpaved. It was created and maintained by its own function, its purpose. Millions of footprints wore the grass away, bicycle wheels sliced into the dirt, scarring it, the path became its function. Without use it would cease to exist. When people let their legs do the thinking, they zig-zag their way through the world. Paths formed out of their own use, vanity paths, are never straight and perfect like boardwalks or paved pathways. They’re always loose, improvisational—uninhibited. The other half is paved.
You may try to refrain from looking around too much in order to hold their satisfaction hostage, to remain aloof, muttering to yourself: ‘Oh you’re beautiful and half-nude? I hadn’t even noticed!’. But you’ll soon find that no one is looking to you and to your gaze for satisfaction. In fact, none of them even notice you. It’s a terrible dilemma; you feel yourself the father to a child you wish to punish, but your child has no fear of such punishments. It is an arms race of disinterest. And then you carry on down the path, looking at the ground or the skies, while your eyes continue to steal glances off to the side. The fisherman has been one of those shirtless sun-worshippers before. But there’s something very different about playing that part in the city. Out here there aren’t crowds, and often he would be the only animal on display. Others may eventually trickle in, but it’s not like the park in the city. Without the crowds he can maintain the illusion of significance. In the city he would lose himself in an ocean of flesh. We’re afraid of losing ourselves, blending in with others. Perhaps we intuit death as the mixing, blending, amalgamation of souls in an ocean of selflessness, and that is where our fear stems.
The waves crawled up and licked the bottoms of his gum boots like a faithful dog. The ticking of a clock; cast after cast, wave after wave, the moments announced their leaving. He grabbed a beer from his backpack. It had gotten warm over the morning. He cracked it open and poured a little out into the sea as he always did and raised the can up as if for a toast. The fish need a drink every now and again too, he thought. Then whack, a fish hit his line. A decent size too, by the fight in it. He took his time reeling it, giving it a bit of play here and there. When it was close enough, he grabbed his gaff hook and slipped the hook underneath its gills. A nice sized salmon, a Coho. The fisherman was surprised to catch a Coho so close to the surface. This time of year they were usually hundreds of feet down, and required Ike’s row boat to catch. Landing a fish was always bittersweet for the fisherman. On the one hand, he loved feeling the fight, the weight of the fish, the flick of its tail, the mystery; what kind of fish could it be? Its enormity? Hope and potential poured in and filled him to the brim. It was like writing or fucking; when you first get going, everything is still malleable and full of potential, you’re writing a story and you have no idea how it will end, or you’re pumping vigorously and when and how it will pan out is still mysterious. It’s creative, you find yourself living half within your body and half within something else, the same force that sends waves across the ocean, or rustles the uppermost branches of the whispering aspen trees. Subjectivity and objectivity overlap, the world can feel you and you can feel the world. And then it’s over, climax. You grab a rag out of the laundry hamper and wipe the cum off her back, or maybe you look through the papers filled with your scribbles, sink your head into your hands and wonder why you were ever hopeful about such an odd string of words. Selfness finds its way into every part of you, like a disease of the blood. And so he stood there, his middle and forefinger holding the fish underneath the gills as if they were two hooks. The fight was over, he had won, and it made him sad. Winning is possibly the most detrimental thing in our lives. It makes us feel important, entombs us; erects a dead statue where something full of life and mistakes once lived. Failure is wet clay—it’s malleable, it shapeshifts, it is a series of prototypes. The failure forever lives right around the corner from a win, while the winner forever lives in fear of a loss.
And so part of the fisherman almost preferred when he hooked a big fish and it got away. Maybe the line broke, or it spit the hook, or maybe it just slipped off the gaff. Even a snag gave him a more fulfilling moment than actually landing the fish. For a split second, as the hook caught onto the bull kelp, he could imagine it was some new and never before seen fish. Why do we desire virginity in everything? The ocean changed again, from quicksilver to brown to deep blue and finally paused at purple. He turned the fish around and examined the iridescent blueness along its spine, watching it fade into the whiteness of its flanks. On its left side was a scar—maybe it had been caught before? The scar zig-zagged along the length of its body like the path. He held the fish up horizontally before him. As he stared, the scar seemed to form the shape of letters, just as clouds, when we look at them for long enough, surrender to us the shapes of animals, or people, or an old rotary phone, but with only a glance, they remain mere clouds. Six words strung themselves together, carved into the sides of the fish. As he read them aloud, the fish wriggled out of his hands and plopped back into the water with an unceremonious splash. Six words bounced around in his head until his skull could no longer hold them, and so they found escape through his lips. The wind heard what he said and paused in astonishment. The sea’s waves stopped rolling. The entire earth stopped, waiting for him to repeat again what he had read. The words escaped through his lips once more. Upon hearing them, the winds and the waves resumed their endless journey, now carrying the words of the fisherman. It was a truth. Not one that he knew, but one that he could feel. Like a bird in the sky, not to him, but before him.
When such thoughts, such ideas, are borne up into this unwatery world, they suffocate and die. Mouths agape, they only last a couple minutes up here in our hands before they fade away. Then they must be consumed, stuffed, or released before death has its say. Those among us driven by glory choose to have the fish stuffed. Those who live for pleasure consume the fish. And those who choose to release the fish will never be sure if they had ever even caught it. But this string of words carved into the scales of a salmon was an iron fish, an idea not at the mercy of subjectivity, hovering too high for him to yank down, and yet low enough for him to understand. The six words never found their way into the cities, not by the winds nor the waves, for the city is too loud for its inhabitants to hear anything but the city itself, an echo chamber of endless clamour.
The taste of the six words was still on his lips. Where did they come from? He felt he had to find out. The fishing rod slipped out of his hand and landed half in the water half on the rocks. He began searching the shore just like when he was a child looking for skipping stones with his father. Today it didn’t matter to him whether the stones were flat and disc-like, as long as they were heavy. He deposited each one into his pants pockets until he could fit no more. He tightened his belt, looked out over the waves for a moment, and then stepped into the ocean like it was the last step on a staircase.
He sank slowly, like a feather through the air. We see air as the absence of a thing, really it is just as water is to a fish. It is the ocean through which every human swims and lives out their days. We are all in the same ocean of air, underwater, slowly drowning in what sustains us. The pressure is immense, and it increases as we sink. And so he sank, looking up towards the sun. The surface of the restless ocean shattered the light, leaving the pieces to rain down around him. Though he had merely walked in from shore, the water was deep. He could see no bottom beneath him, and all around there was nothing but sea. He didn’t bother holding his breath, he let the sea flood his lungs. He sank further until the sun became a faint star in a blue night. Something silver flashed in front of his face and disappeared into the darkness. The water displaced by its path caressed his face gently. The fisherman emptied some of the stones from his pockets and swam in the direction of the disappearing silver. There was no sound, perhaps the pressure from the depth collapsed his eardrums. He caught up to the silver. It was the fish. It floated before him, treading water with nonchalant flicks of its tail.
“Are you the one who wrote those six words?”, the fisherman asked without making a sound.
“I am those six words”, replied the salmon.
She was a beautiful fish, complete, unblemished besides her pierced lip and the words on her side. The fisherman looked again for the words, but they were gone. The clouds had melted, the sky of her skin was blue.
“Can I take your words with me?”
“Yes, but they are no more my words as they are yours—do you remember them? The words are the result of a process, an overlap. They exist most sweetly in the place and time where they were found. When removed from the ocean of the moment, they lose something. No matter your talent, you will never do them justice with your pencil and your paper. Besides, even if you were to catch every fish that swims inside your ocean, what would you do with us all? Leave us to rot in a pile? Stuff us, reducing our once lively flesh to a stiff carcass nailed to a board? None of our flesh, what made us alive and true in the first place, remains in that carcass, only sawdust and Styrofoam with our dried skin stretched over. Even the colour of our scales is painted over. There’s simply no way to keep what you’ve caught intact without letting it go. Sometimes you just have to let the fish swim.”
The fisherman felt like grabbing the fish right then and there, pinching its neck underneath its gills with his thumb and forefinger and hoisting it up onto shore again. He thought better of it and tried to pay attention, quelling his ever-persistent urge to conquer and catch.
“Why did you bring me here?”, the fisherman asked. He felt stupid for asking another question.
“You think you’re the only one who likes to fish? Just as you fish from shore, your lure dangling in the depths, we fish for you from below. We have many lures; the call of a beautiful woman, the glint of a golden ring, an empty row boat drifting by, or, in your case, the fish that got away…”
Lightning, when striking the earth, does not come shooting down like a spear. It is met halfway. Lightning shoots up out of the earth and meets the falling bolt. The fisherman felt his fingers and toes growing numb. The numbness spread like water wicking up the length of a scrap of paper.
Is the earth merely a vessel for the ocean? A cup? The continents form the cup’s lip. The salmon gestured for the fisherman to follow and she swam down deeper, towards the bottom of the cup. The fisherman barely had to swim, it was as if the sea, no longer recognizing his buoyancy, pulled him deeper and deeper. The fisherman could see the rocky bottom approaching him now. He had descended hundreds of feet. He could see a gap in the rock, and in it he recognized the shiny veneer of water’s surface. There was another ocean beneath the ocean. The fish swam through the gap in the rock and became hidden behind a rippling curtain of quicksilver. The fisherman followed after her, slipping headlong through the threshold. Though he still sank, it was as if there was no ocean surrounding him now. Nor did there seem to be air, it was something else that made up the space between things, a different sort of water; the waters of nothingness.
“This is where the spirits go. There are no spirits in the sky, only in the sea. Why do you think we dream of water so often? Why too is nearly every significant collection of people, be it in cities or villages, situated beside water? There is no heaven, no hell, no purgatory really, only the deep blue.”
The fisherman thought back to when he used to look up at the night sky waiting for shooting stars. In order to notice one streaking across the darkness above him, he would unhitch his mind. His eyes would rest while open, and he would take in the entirety of the busted TV screen sky at once. Only then would he see the faint streak, a disappearing tail, like a tadpole, swim through the heavens. As he sank, he unhitched his mind again, trying to take in everything, to see his whole perspective as the foreground. In this way of looking, the fisherman saw hundreds of fish circling him. Some were large, some small. Others were colourful, while still more were dull. Some were misshapen, maimed, or scared, while others were beautiful, untouched, perfect. Whenever his focus shifted from them all, from an impression that was general, to one that was specific, the object of his gaze shifted too; the fish became a person, swimming breast stroke, cheeks puffed up with a breath of air, and plastic water wings riding up into their armpits. They all swam aimlessly like moths in the night who have yet to find a lamp, or like young men in a bar where a woman has yet to arrive, moving and shuffling awkwardly, watching the door, all conversation becoming merely a pastime, a clever way to relieve boredom.
There was no light but he could see. The fish, even when they were people, produced a faint sort of light, as if someone were shining a flashlight upon them and their scales or skin reflected its cold artificiality.
“These are your drinking buddies,” said the salmon. “They appreciate your little offerings when you sit on your rock. You have no idea how thirsty a fish can get.”
The ocean stopped pulling him down. He was superstitious, he had always thought the fishing was better when he poured out a little of his beer into the sea. Turns out he was right.
“If the oceans are the cradle to all life, this is the cemetery.”
The spirits, fish or human in form, all wore innocently placid expressions. The fisherman joined them in their dance, swimming clockwise, keeping an adequate distance away from everyone else. He seemed to fit right in.
No one knew who drilled the hole or why it was there. Some of the old folks can remember a time when it wasn’t there. At first, people wanted to cover it up or fill it with cement. They said someone could get hurt, someone could fall down—a kid maybe.
It was a big deal in the news a few years ago. I don’t think anything has brought more camera crews to our little town than that damn hole. They came in droves, interviewing anybody who feigned to have an answer. Then some specialists came. Hole specialists, I don’t know. Maybe they were geologists. They took soil samples and pointed big lights down into the darkness. They took notes in little notebooks and nodded to themselves thoughtfully. All the bed and breakfasts in town were full. It was like flies to shit with that hole.
With so much media attention, the government felt pressure to respond. Day and night, you could hear the engines barrelling through town. A lineup of cement trucks stretched for miles along the road to the hole. How many tons of wet cement the void consumed, I do not know. But it was never full, never satisfied, and after six weeks and millions of dollars of wasted work and cement, the government’s efforts ended.
After all the media vans and cement trucks dispersed, the residents of the town visited the hole. Not all at once, but all in their own time. Without exception, every single person who lived in our town had seen the hole first-hand. Some people threw things down into its darkness. First flashlights and glowsticks, which the hole slowly digested until there was nothing left of them save a faint purple dot when you closed your eyes.
We never got any answers. The specialists shook their heads and moved on. The media could only cover the story of the hole for so long before audiences got bored. Everyone moved on, forgot about the hole—everyone who didn’t live in our town, that is. For us, there was a certain pride about the hole. They even changed our town’s tagline: “Home of the world’s most famous hole”.
It’s tempting to fib and tell you that one day someone did make the descent. That they carried with them a flashlight, and I can describe all that the flashlight painted with light. But I’d be a liar to tell you that story. No one ever did, and no one ever will descend into the hole. But I will tell you what that hole did to our town.
You see, people got obsessed with dumping stuff down into the nothingness. It started with kids and teenagers like us throwing garbage and empty bottles down. The sound of the glass bottles breaking never made it to our ears, they seemed to just fall forever. Sometimes the teens would stand twenty feet back and try to toss rocks in. When something went down the hole it was gone forever. No one could get it back, not even the police. Some of the bigger, meaner kids would throw other kid’s stuff down the hole.
I was quite young at the time, maybe five or six. I can remember my older brother taking me to the hole. Our parents were off doing something, so my brother was left with the task of looking after me. Him and his friends all visited the hole with the same intention; their backpacks full, pockets stuffed, bike baskets overflowing, all with some sort of tribute. Broken toys, empty pop bottles, a busted mug—it was all going down into the void. I didn’t have anything to throw in, so one of my brother’s friends gave me an old action figure with a missing arm. We all sat in a row about ten feet from the mouth of the hole, a pile of tributes on the ground before us. One by one the toys and things went down, consumed, like we were stoking a fire for warmth.
I saw the glint of something else. Red and silver, small. He was rolling it over in his hand, leaning forward. The swiss army pen knife caught the sun and cut a band of light across my eye, leaving a purple and green scar when I blinked. The knife flew from my brother’s hand. The red and silver somersaulted through the air and slipped into the darkness of the hole unceremoniously.
Parents started asking questions, “Johnny, where’s your other shoe?”, “Where’s that pen knife we got you?”. The kids would tell ‘em, punctuating the story with sobs. Parents would be upset for a time, they’d talk to other parents, and soon the incident would be forgotten. But the hole was remembered. Like a parasite, an idea crawled into the minds of the adults in town.
Then one day farmer Brown killed another dog that hopped the fence to pester his sheep. Everyone knew the deal: don’t go on farmer Brown’s property. Don’t let your damn dog onto farmer Brown’s property. So, Brown’s son had to get rid of the dead dog. One bullet in its head, two in the abdomen. Brown junior thought, “why break a sweat digging a hole when we’ve got one that’ll do the trick just up the road?”.
Next it was roadkill that went down. Some out-of-towner hit a barn cat. They would’ve just left it there, but the kids in the back, all broken hearted, wanted a proper burial. So they took it to the hole.
There was a hunger now. You could feel it. Like the pollen of spring, it stuck to everything, riding breezes here and there. At first the dark void had eaten only cement, beer bottles, and rocks. But something changed when prized baseball caps and beloved animals were tossed in. Everyone in town felt the hunger. Soon people were dumping things down the hole just for the hell of it.
Spring came around, and so did spring cleaning. But there was something different that year. We started getting rid of old things—sentimental things, the kind of stuff you hang onto and you’re not sure why. The oak baseball bat your grandpa made when he was young, the old jewellery box your mother bought in Morocco; all down the hole. Nobody could explain it. Sometimes they’d bump into other townsfolk down by the hole, getting rid of some antique dining set or a fur coat. They felt a tinge of shame, and then something else entirely; fraternity. They were all feeding, and therefore taking care of, the same hungry animal; the hole.
Perhaps everyone in our town suddenly and simultaneously felt the enormous weight of their possessions. Imprisoned by things—so many things. Things that would never be used, things that were collected, hoarded, from one generation to the next. Jewel encrusted ball-and-chains that would never be sold, securely fastened to their ankles with the chains of sentimentality. Freedom, they felt, was in paring down. Freedom could be granted by the hole.
A few people started going at night. After a week, nobody went to the hole during the day. Everyone had the same intuition: dump it down the hole in the dark. You could usually see beams of light bouncing and dancing around the hole at night. The little ones carried the small stuff, the men carried the heavy things, as did the women, and whoever was leftover wielded the flashlight. No one, not even the children, pointed the flashlight down into the hole. They no longer wanted to see what was down there. Curiosity had been replaced by its function, its usefulness. Nothing had to be explained, kids didn’t need to be told why, and they never asked. Everyone seemed to understand.
The hole ate memories, sentimentality—it ate whatever the people of the town felt inclined to get rid of. You see, some tucked away part of all of us saw the dark void as a key. It unlocked the prison door of things, and offered an existence unburdened by keepsakes. Some residents got so obsessed with dumping their things down the hole that they had nothing left. Anything that they could scrounge, any charity that was visited upon them went into the void. Coins, food, even the rags they called clothes. They crouched round the hole, their naked, spindly legs splayed out like the legs of a frog. They spent days and nights ‘round the hole, just staring. The other townspeople brought them food and water when they went to the hole to purge. They consumed only enough to keep their vital organs functioning and sacrificed the rest to the hole.
Soon enough the area around the hole, all its shrubbery, grass, clods of dirt, hunks of sandstone was bald; all of it was tossed in. People couldn’t help themselves. But no one, not one single person, not even the media and the geologists, went into the hole. Nobody even made jokes about going into the hole, and no bully, no matter how sadistic, ever threatened to throw another kid down the hole.
With the weight of sentimental possessions lifted, many townsfolk started taking trips. They’d just up and leave one day, and then a few days later, maybe a week, someone would see ‘em back by the hole again. It was like they meant to leave but the hole brought them back. It was like a vacuum that pulled them close to linger at the edge. The churches were always empty. Even the preachers spent more time before the hole than the cross.
Sometimes people driving through town would stop by the hole to take a look. They’d stare down into the darkness, a numbness spreading over their faces. “It looked bigger on TV”, some would say, or “It’s just a damn hole in the ground”. No matter what they said, they all spent a long time staring into the hole before loading back into their cars and moving on.
Eventually the naked, half-starved hole-watchers took it one step further; they began tossing little pieces of themselves, hair, fingernails, dead skin, teeth, excrement—whatever they could spare—into the hole. Their mutilated bodies clustered around its mouth like warts. Bedsores formed on their bottom halves, blurring the borders between their bodies and the dusty earth. Their limbs began to atrophy, so they dragged themselves here and there, never straying so far that the hole was out of site.
The satisfaction was warm and insulating, as if a blanket was wrapped around the entire town. All the townspeople had a role—none too important, nor too insignificant. The roles, like a hierarchy within a pack of dogs, arose organically. No one stepped out of place—we were governed by something infallible and internal. We all implicitly understood what our obligations were, and we carried out our duties without question.
I remember the first time we went to the hole. Four of us, looking like a real family. I didn’t know it at the time, but the foundation of our family was crumbling. We threw the pieces into the hole.
the man who died again
The engine was pumping rhythmically. Bump-bump, bump-bump. I was riding shotgun. We both stared out of her eyes. She wasn’t used to me yet—who could blame her, I’d only been with her for a little over two days.
Even after I had spent the entirety of my inheritance, I could only afford a beater like her, and only for seventy-two hours. Fifty-four hours in, her heart stopped. Right on time. They say seventy-five, twenty-five is a good split. There are some horror stories of people hitting the lot too early and never recovering. They’d transfer back into their old bodies fine, but once there, they just wasted away. There’s only so much death a mind can take before it surrenders, I guess. Time moves slower in the lot, which can really mess you up if you let it.
The windows of the passing shops surrendered little pieces of her likeness. She wasn’t beautiful. Nor was she dainty, she didn’t possess that ‘undiscovered’ beauty that seems to be the fantasy of nearly every man, nor was she meek and therefor piteously beautiful. She was an animal, and she possessed a base magnetism. Men felt ashamed to be so attracted to her, the beater that she was, and yet couldn’t help but stare and envision as she walked by. Maybe it was something in the way her body moved, jiggling here, tightening there. In a photograph, no one would experience even the remotest tingle. And yet seeing her in the flesh, her churning, quivering flesh, they salivated.
She had no upgrades—natural—considered grotesque; a jalopy among the modern. Beaters like her were susceptible to something called vapour lock. I mean a body is really a simple mechanical device, just like that hunk of metal in your driveway, and if vapour develops in the fuel line, the engine dies. Ordinarily her contracting chambers squeeze the blood out and force it through the circulatory system, but when it hits a bubble, there’s nothing for the pump to gain purchase on. Bump-stutter-flutter-stop. Dead engine.
I remember riding shotgun and witnessing her thoughts on hosting services. She suspected they were mainly used by depressed or perverted rich people. People too sick or too sheltered to have any real or vivid experience of their own. It had to be mediated through the life of another. Her roommate told her if you put a whole act together, you can get repeat clientele, but you have to really put on a show:
“If you put a whole act together,” she said, “some guys will want to get back inside again and again.”
“Is it always a guy?”, our beater asked.
Her roommate pretended not to hear her. She hated her own ignorance and tried to conceal it wherever she could. The beater, on the other hand, whipped out her ignorance willy-nilly, allowing it to be corrected—honed until sharp.
I’ve lived a long life, and so I’ve witnessed the swinging pendulum of prevailing belief shift a number of times. Unwavering belief in a world ‘out there’ became mass solipsism. Whoosh. Next, we had no self whatsoever and our internal world was just a manifestation of the external world. Whoosh. And now the headlines read: reality is a process involving both consciousness and the ‘out there’. One cannot exist without the other, supposedly accounting for the strange interaction between particles and the observer. We are taught that if a tree falls in the forest, it does not make a sound, it makes puffs of air, and unless something conscious is there to experience the fall, it isn’t turned into sound. Particles without an observer exist only as probabilities, and so exhibit no measurable qualities. Or at least that’s what the schools are teaching these days. At one point the shifts became so frequent that some students had their diplomas withdrawn. Their education had become obsolete. It seems that as we get more socially intertwined in the virtual realm, and more disparate and alone in reality, ideas take less and less time to become ideologies. Ideas quickly become beliefs, and beliefs become so ubiquitous that we mistake them for own intuition.
Ultimately the epistemological flip-flopping changed nothing. People still wake up to the beep-beep-beeping of alarm clocks, still crawl along highways and streets in droves, and still spend their days bent in half staring at a screen. There’s no room for inefficiencies in this world. Everything must pull its weight; individuals are services, objects are commodities, and communities charge membership fees. It’s illegal to give anything away for free—everything must be bought and sold.
Not just anyone could ride host. You had to pay a lot. At the time, it was more than your average blue-neck made in five years. The only reason I was able to afford it, was luck. My uncle was a weird fella, never had any kids, and all he ever did was work. He never bought a house, never even rented an apartment. He stayed in the house he grew up in and worked as an engineer. Very few people on this earth ever noticed he was alive. But my dad, his brother, had two kids, me and my sister. And since my parents were long gone and my sister had already been plugged in for three and a half years, all my uncle’s money went to me.
But hosting companies had to find people desperate enough to die (depending on which package you bought), and yet cash-strapped enough to do it with a passenger. Usually it was some parent trying to give their kid a leg-up; pay for school, a down-payment on a house, or a ticket out of whichever of life’s cul-de-sacs they found themselves in.
I wouldn’t say I’m on my deathbed exactly, but I will be wheeled over to it soon enough. I thought my first death would answer all my questions. I thought it’d prepare me, take all the fear away. My dreams of conquering something, my plans, and all my vain hopes of engraving my name into something deathless—they’d dissolve. I would, for the first time in my life, be preoccupied with living. Transformed, a transparent eyeball, a happy theatre-goer. I wouldn’t care what life’s underlying themes were, and I wouldn’t read the playbill. Finally, I thought, life would be enough. Nope. Like a high, the resolution of death wore off. Soon I was back in the world of vanities worrying about why some stranger scowled at me on the subway. Never underestimate the power of vanity. This world’s built on it.
My sister would’ve killed me. Blowing all that cash on seventy-two hours in some beater, driving her into the ground. See, my sister did a stint hosting. They never tell you what kind of ending a passenger paid for, so with each new client, you wonder if it’ll be your last. But she had a kid. I don’t know why she kept it. I mean, if you make a mistake, you take care of it. So, after a host decided to drive her out of this world, sis got the old plugin. At the time, most hosting companies guaranteed it with all death rides. She got unplugged a few years ago. Up until that point, she never aged, never changed, never pained, never hungered—she was plugged in for a lifetime, then simply unplugged. I never told her what I spent the money on. For all she knew, I had made it above the waterline with that inheritance.
I’m sure some people thought I was just doing it for the high. I mean, that was definitely part of it. When you’re that high, everything takes on a new gravity; the florescent lights at the hospital, the stainless steel of the operating room—everything becomes heavy and real. Looking out of the beater’s lifeless eyes, I watched the doctor touch her breasts a couple times before crunching through bone and flaying open her ribcage, searching for treasure. Usable organs don’t come easily, and don’t come cheap. Especially after the lab-grown organ scandal. But this beater was all natural. Her insides, gingerly scooped out by the man in the white coat, were like radiant rubies and dark amethysts. I can still picture them now. Every inch of the world is sublime when looking through the eyes of death. After all, you’ve got enough dopamine coursing through you to cause a neighbourhood-wide orgy.
Death should be easy for someone who has already experienced it, right? But perhaps an idea’s expression changes and illuminates more of itself, even for the one who did the expressing, like a flashlight shining both on itself and the world at which it’s pointed. The more I attempt to explain what happened, even to myself in my own mind, the better I understand it. That’s what I’m hoping. But, maybe like lives, every death is different. So, my experience of the beater’s death didn’t prepare me in the least for my own. Is living not lonely enough? Must we diverge and separate at every turn, even death?
When I first got transferred in, a thousand feelings ambushed me, a thousand memories came crashing down. It was like I was in the centre of a swarm of starlings, all dipping and diving, so coordinated, so chaotic. Every feeling was tethered to a memory or a time, some too dark for me to see. Others were warm and bright and so foreign to my own. The beater not only saw a future for herself in this dim world, she believed her life would get better. I mean, she had hope! A beater like her! Well I was hooked. With such a feeling shining through my window, not even death’s curtains couldn’t block my view. “No wonder you gotta have a chequebook like a statesman to ride with a host”, I thought. I had forgotten to ask if she could see my thoughts too, or whether it was a one-way street.
Implanted in her mind I felt like a parasite feeding off her experiences. The first few hours in her were pretty uptight. She was very aware of my watching her from within. But soon hydra thoughts started popping up, and the harder she tried to suppress them, to cut them down, the more they resisted their suppression and the more they multiplied. Eventually they blocked out the entire horizon of her mind. She tried stuffing these queasy thoughts into the underwear drawers of her mind, but again, they came flooding out, demanding attention. Shameful thoughts. One had her getting fucked from behind by a bull. Others were violent, smashing skulls with stones, while still more were simply odd; her climbing back inside her mother’s womb.
What was death before we concealed it behind a million different meanings? Perhaps concepts, like death, only exist in their representation, each new creation a little hole in the wall, allowing just a sliver of meaning to shine into the dark world of meaninglessness. Our references and our interpretations coat and conceal the real objects, while our creations provide us another view, another hole in the wall, through which we see the concept, entity, thing—that can be referenced. At the moment of creation, the form is perfect, no one but its creator has applied meaning to its surface. Once made real, once shared, it is sullied over and over again until it re-emerges, pure, within the works of another.
With this new death, I won’t bounce back. I was thinking, maybe if I write it all down, I can finally understand it and I won’t be so scared. Well here we are. It’s funny, in life we know death only as a concept, and in death, we have no concept of life. We are fully aware only in the fleeting moments that bridge existence and oblivion. And that awareness is something people pay a lot of money for—I paid a lot of money for—and yet I can hardly remember what it was like. Life has a way of erasing or reducing any experience that was too transcendental. It’s as if our minds knew if we carried around knowledge like that all day, all the simple and necessary parts of life would seem trivial. We’d just sit there and waste away. Maybe that’s what happens to those unfortunate passengers who hit the lot too early.
I can remember having no idea how long I’d been dead for. Once you’re dead, there’s no ruler with which you can measure time’s passing. Years to minutes, seconds to weeks, these units mean nothing. It’s simply a time in the dark. Time is malleable, it bends and twists, but never breaks. The less I thought, the looser my grip on time became. But I began to think about a great many things. I reflected like I’ve never reflected before. I had nothing to do but think, I was a mind and a dead body. So much of living is inhaling, I thought; we wake up, check the weather, eat food, drink coffee, read this, listen to that, check that—we are constantly inputting, absolutely inundating ourselves. And if it’s not input, it better damn well be output. Time without purpose is wasted time. You got to make something of yourself, strive and strive, first in and last to leave. It’s all absolutely senseless.
She hadn’t planned much for me, so we spent more time than I would have liked at her desk, studying and completing assignments for her classes. Her home was tiny and resembled a janitorial closet in a school or industrial building. She shared it with two other people. There was no kitchen, only a single desk that took up the remaining space around the three stacked beds. The bathroom was down the hall, and it served all the units on her floor. Considering how much she payed, it was a wonderful apartment. One of her roommates was finishing his medical school residency and the other was beginning her career as a lawyer. How my ride was able to afford this apartment and her tuition, no one understood, especially her roommates.
Her dedication to her studies seems so odd in hindsight. Wasted moments before her moments would permanently expire. But what could she have done to make those moments unwasted? Which of life’s pursuits are truly worthwhile? Even in death we do not know. The studying, though seemingly tedious, gave her great pleasure—satisfaction that transcended mere animal appetites. But there is also something false in such pleasures. For the most part, the pleasure is experienced in hindsight, like looking upon the monument you suffered so many years to build. It’s not like sex or violence or a chase, which gives us something immediate and visceral. The eudaimonic pleasures are slow, plodding, and we almost have to convince ourselves we feel any pleasure at all. Where is the moment? We seem to separate ourselves from it and mediate our experience at every turn. The only time the moment is unmediated, unfiltered, is when we are in immense pain or pleasure—when we give ourselves permission to submit to our own baseness—or when we die. Death is like a reset button for us, it shakes us awake and out of the mundane. Death is life’s way of reminding us to slow down.
“I must slow down”, I thought. I rattled off a few more resolutions, lying there in her cold body. I felt like a real buddha, like I’d “figured some stuff out”. But it’s easy to be buddha in your own mind. It’s reconciling those truths with the beep-beep-beeping of the alarm clock, the daily toil, the stale bread. There is no out, there’s no cheating the system, there’s no rising above. It doesn’t matter what you do, how powerful or well-respected you are, the world will rub your face in shit. That’s just what the world does. And yet we continue our madness! Looking for that one big break, all planning the perfect heist. Some way to make it out of this situation without the grind, without the day-in-day-out long con. We work, we toil, often fruitlessly, in the hopes that one day our heist will work. All this work will relieve us of a job. We’ll cheat the system; we’ll make it out. One day, we hope, we’ll get something from nothing. One big heist. Some plan their heist in the stock market, some with a great masterpiece, others with an invention—there must be some way to get our heads above water, but the waterline rises with us. We’ll make off with a bag full of cash and a plane ticket. But then what? More heists? What we’ve stolen isn’t what we’re after. We crave the symbol, not the thing signified. We try, hopelessly, to turn everything into symbols. But something from nothing is not a concept born of human beings, it’s the universe’s trick. The perfect heist is what started it all. Nothing. Then suddenly something. We are in the universe’s heist. We are the universe’s bag of cash. It’s making a run for it.
Last week, the power had gone out and had stayed out for the remainder of the night. Residents noticed a strange coloured cloud hanging in the night sky above them. They reported it to the authorities, fearing it was some chemical cloud about to rain down upon their heads. The cloud, however, was no threat. It was our celestial neighbourhood, the milky way galaxy. So accustomed to staring into the light that when darkness affords us a view of the heavens, we suspect foul play.
No matter how soon in a host’s career they do the dance of death, hosts are always guaranteed a plug-in. Some riders want to feel pain, some pleasure, and many wish to feel both simultaneously. The hosting service lab looked quite a lot like a rundown old income tax office. The kind that spring up seemingly out of nowhere during tax season and sink back into empty store fronts with ‘for lease’ signs. The dead girl found a seat on one of the many mismatched chairs that filled the makeshift waiting room.
They explained something as she signed document after document, merely skimming over the bulk of them. At my price point, they didn’t allow the host and rider to see each other before the hitchhike, lest a rider should change their mind or find some fault in the host. Even having spent the entirety of my recent inheritance, I could only afford someone from the most desperate and inexperienced pool of hosts, and only for seventy-two hours. In separate rooms we were both hooked up to dozens of little suction cups, monitors and medical doo-dads.
A quarter of the way through the ride, there were moments when she forgot I was there. Those moments were my favourite. The only time she was not busy, not engaged in some future-building thought or activity, she was walking. Her walks were little oases from her life’s toil.
As we walked by men on the street, they would say something under their breath. I could tell that she didn’t like it. A lifetime of this kind of attention and I wouldn’t either. Thoughts promenaded through her mind to match the pace of her steps. She gave a dollar to the ragged man on the street holding an old coffee cup and a cardboard sign. When she reflected on her life she was like the beggar on the street, while her daydreams made her a god. Her dreams felt so good bouncing around in my head, boiled by the fire that grew in her belly, but the reflections made her petty, regretful, and spiteful. So much was about to change for her.
Dying is a time-consuming task. A collapse that would feel like mere hundredths of a second to you was stretched to minutes. Minds wring those moments dry, squeezing every drop of existence out of the present. The dreams of her dying mind lasted for days, but only a minute had passed before her heart gave up on pumping air. I still don’t understand exactly how they did it. For fifty-four hours her heart went on bumping in her chest, and then suddenly the bubble appeared in her bloodstream. No poison, no force, just air—something that our bodies rely on. Put a bit of air in the wrong place, and you’re done for.
That’s when the visions started. Time’s arrow grew so wide that her single experience of time and space became an experience untethered from time and space. No longer hemmed in by her selfness, she was at the fish market in a small Columbian town, she was in the forests of the pacific northwest, she was watching the sun paint the tops of the clouds bright white from the window of a jet plane. Her concepts of self died, and so her experience of self died, leaving her momentarily free to look upon the entire world unburdened by the categories of personal experience. I couldn’t tell whether her visions were memories or she—we—really were transported to those places momentarily. I watched what she saw from the shotgun side. I could feel death slowly creeping into each scene as the finale fireworks of her life’s demise were unleashed.
Before the old beater died, and for a little while after, I felt a love for her. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to witness so closely the thoughts and feelings of another without experiencing some kind of love. It’s like the love we feel for ourselves; it begins out of necessity, then if we cannot love who we are, we love what we have the potential to become. And we love ourselves as a tool, a means to whatever pleasurable end our inner self conceives. And we are able to love what we see, which is in actuality loving what we interpret, how we process what’s ‘out there’. There are no experiences untainted by our own observation. In fact, experience is really the meeting in the middle of the ‘out there’ (that which stimulates our senses), and that which is able to process and ‘understand’ those stimuli. At least, that’s what we’re taught these days. Experience of the world cuts deep into the self.
What does death mean for me now? Meaning, I am convinced, is not understood, it is only applied. We apply it to everything in thick coats, until the shape of the original object can scarcely be made out. Death is one such concept. It has meant and will mean a nearly infinite number of things. Though we see it so clearly to be the end, we invent ways in which it is not a conclusion, but a transition. One mutation breeds another, and soon we ask the question, a transition into what exactly? What was the end becomes a new beginning. What was termination is now transition.
Let me test my memory again. What I saw when her mind was dying wasn’t a series of images, but moments; a wave, stretched over the entire horizon. She was the shore, not just a single grain of sand. Change, the thing that our minds turn into time, was no longer measured in a line. Everything that did, would, and will change was changing simultaneously. The water gushed over every grain of sand on the coast.
I had never felt a rush so rushing, seen a paradise, though fleeting, so beautiful. It was no swan song, it was as if death was pulling back the curtain, showing her how bright, beautiful, and vibrant our world is when we see it naked; death let her see the world without an agenda, without a goal. She slipped out of her old skin, sloughed it off, and felt the world press up against her freshness. It’s a better feeling than your first hit of heroine, better than sexual climax, it is enough recompense regardless of how much of life’s suffering you’ve endured. Heaven is not on earth, it is within us, and we are only admitted to it in the fleeting moments that bridge life and death.
I can only relay the thoughts and memories I witnessed. Their validity is unchecked, as the distinction between memory and daydream is harder to see as the years stretch between now and back then. Even my own first-hand memories have been manipulated and sculpted at each time I have accessed them. Let this document seal some of them then, especially hers. Once they’re written down, the memories can no longer change, the shapeshifters that they are. But there are blind spots and gaps thatI will not try to fill, lest you waste your time reading a patchwork of my own imaginings.
When she was all alone, she felt a deep connection with the people of her city. Sitting there at her desk, the feeling was overwhelming; a joy spread through her like a chill. Her palms sweat, her cheeks ached. In her mind, the world momentarily shed its cloak of alienation and competition. And yet, while she was out on the street or in a classroom, the opposite feeling took hold of her. She felt terribly lost, set adrift, and saw no merit in interacting with or caring for the people she felt so tethered to while she was alone in her room. The notion of all individuals being the limbs of the same many-tendrilled spirit moved her, but she couldn’t apply it—the tendrils were severed as soon as she looked upon them, and their flopping on the ground in the throes of death depressed her. People were simply too despicable for her to bring her notions of fellowship into reality.
In death, the girl was reconciled to the world. For her entire life she had defined herself by what she was not; she was not the obnoxious girl in the short dress drunkenly hailing a cab outside the bar, she was not the beefy bald man who worked at the butcher shop. But when it came to death’s page, someone had coloured outside the lines. The border between herself and her surroundings blurred and faded away.
And then a hand cupped her face, tapping it gently.
“David, your seventy-two hours is up. We’re transferring you back now.”