There are low hanging clouds tonight. They look like steam. The city cooks us all, devours us and you wouldn’t know it but for the likes of me so I will do my bit for the illusion of progress and mimic the ritual of success. I will move without purpose. I will begin now, here, by standing. No one likes a reclining dude in the city, except if it’s lunchtime in a park and you have expensive shoes and unholy socks which display to everyone that this is a deliberate rest and not a stupour, not a cry for help or the decline of a once respected soul. Steam clouds, ice cream clouds, I scream at clouds. I feel like a hot turd meting out my miasma. People look for clouds during lunch break or smoke break but who notices clouds at night? Vagrants and poets thanking God for the cover of darkness, cursing him for the cold but grateful the noisy city workers with their high heels clakking, their cappucinos, their $500 suits and dresses have gone home to give the city dwellers some peace. Hope Malevich comes by tonight. I want to show him my black square of night, just behind you between the bank and the hotel, the road and the billboard. If you look up from where I am now there’s a perfect square of sky. I only see it unblack for a short time before sunrise, before the arrival of the masses, the walking dead as my mate Jude and I call them, the one’s who think they are safeguarded by their suits and distance from the bitch of bad timing and one more for the road. We catch you sneaking glances like the buildings catch the sky between loathing and compassion depending on how your day has gone so far. See the disgust in your eyes, the same looks i avoid in shop windows. The streets are a hall of mirrors at night. We’re all passing through, but we pass variously.
It is said she burned with holy passion. I do not know. I know she burnt. It is said that flames purify the soul. Hell must be free of blemish. It is said she heard saints speak. I hear voices. Who speaks i do not know. She heard them before she burned to a crisper version of her former self. Voices. She scared us because we hear them too. But we fear fire more. We impure ones. She spoke too freely. Damn her. There are things we know to be true and there are reasons for the great silence. We all have voices, thoughts. The voices. If you knew what mine said. It is said she was loved. It is said they respected her. Still, they watched her burn. Is this what burning love is? They must have heard the wood crack and spit back her fat. Some were sickened as they salivated at the familiar smell of roasting flesh. I always notice the one who vomits first. I want to say to him: What did you expect? A spiritual cleansing at the spectacle? A symbolic demise? No mess? The devil in a cloak to descend with her? No. He ascended an hour ago to take up his seat next to Beaufort and Cauchon. They who commanded I do my duty. With their mitres and gold they cross us. Their light. Let the games begin. I do not hate them. The heretics i burn. It is theatre. I am an entertainer, the hand of God. I am the distance between their thirst for blood and the blood. I am the interregnum. They demand satisfaction, protection, justice. But not one will step forward to do the work that delivers it. They are not bad people. They are spectators. They are mostly ordinary. Ordinary spectators hoping the warmth will pass on a degree of purity. She burns for hearing the voices of saints while dressed as a man. Heresy. Hear say, here see? It’s not her we kill but thinking. Thinking is a voice and now we fear it. Tonight we will all sleep speaking prayers to drown out the voices. They, I … I burn her. I release her soul and I lose mine. I have earned the right to say these things having despatched souls for twenty years.We are mostly all ordinary, the burners and the ones who burn. These are the two types of people in this world; those who burn and those burnt. The pure and the purified. Only gold holds back the flames. To hold gold others must burn. We must eat and they hold the gold. I think of today as an exchange. They are buying the security of purity and the soul is a weighty substance. None dare burn those who burn others. They are exempt from the fire, for they are the voice of God and are jealous of other voices. Will it not always be so?
We must be careful of voices, even our own.
Geoffroy, Rouen, 30 May, 1431.
Having just purchased two bars of splendidly wrapped bars of dark chocolate which were in a state of specialness and therefore acquired with unexpected gain, Elmore Slowdrizzle proceeded to exit the store in his usual state of deliberate panic. While standing in a queue of weathered proletariats short of hands and patience Elmore thanked God for inventing the Swiss who begat chocolatieres who begat the notion of placing finely dessicated coconut, delicately shred orange and fragrant whisps of mint into thin slabs of chocolate. He marvelled at how, in these modern times of drive through food and internet shopping he willingly risked the inconvenience of rush hour traffic and road rage to buy these bars. Was it even the Swiss? This must surely be one of those enduring mysteries of the ages? To think he might die without ever knowing the truth. How bleak life was. So many unanswered questions, so few queues to ponder them in. Answers never interested Elmore, everyone had plenty of those. But, good questions, now that was a different matter entirely. Chocolate is perhaps the only good thing to come from colonization. Perhaps he might amend his note of divine gratitude to include the Spanish? He should learn Spanish. Who first used mint? Did they not also deserve an ounce of gratitude? Gratitude delays gratification. There are simply too many things to be grateful for. Elmore yearned for a simpler life. Would gratitude for chocolate imply a complicitness in the 20th century and post truth decades of cocaine smuggling, the second wave of colonization? Strictly speaking, it could not be the second wave but the first North American wave after the first Spanish wave. Wave? Seemed like an odd word for the colonial adventure that delivered smallpox, syphilis and general genocide to the New World in exchange for gold, tobacco and chocolate. Not the fairest of swops. Chocolate is not an innocent indulgence. Not anymore. Now, some 500 years later he finds himself in this shop, in this human chain of consumerism because of Spanish Imperial notions of heaping up wealth with superior steel and germs. Crossing the threshold of the store he was accosted by an official patron of a charity organisation who thrust upon Elmore a pamphlet and ignited 30 years worth of lapsed Catholic guilt. Elmore thought it improper to ask the first question that came to mind. How would blind children play cricket? Would it not constitute an unfair advantage to their opponents? Might it not be dangerous, indeed, even lethal? He assumed that all of these questions had been cafefully considered prior to the clearly labour intensive process of bringing to the storefront the two fold up tables, the tablecloths, reading material not to mention the efforts of finding volunteers (also work weary), appropriately sized neon yellow T shirts and peak caps which would all have to be collected, unpacked, transported then unpacked again by the men whose work schedules would need to have been carefully manipulated in order for them to be here. Most likely they began their duties smiling but these seemed long gone and had given way to something else. They operated with the passive aggression volunteers most likely feel justified to adopt after 2 hours of friendly begging with nothing but patronising dismissals from passers by who have suddenly answered calls on their mobile phones whilst pointing apologetically to said devices. Elmore did not wish to display this customary rejection but neither did he wish to engage in discussion which would conclude with his guilt for being a fully sighted, otherwise challenged human being after which he would complete a debit order in duplicate to the sum of $20 a month he did not have. He therefore hastily presented the custodian of the unfortunate children with $5 and his best smile.
Sorry mate, we can’t take donations, only debit orders, the man yawned with a gesture. It was a gesture difficult to define. The one might use to gently prevent an aged aunt from filling ypur glass with chardonnay. Elmore’s panic began to surge through him in waves. A more suitable use for the term.
I‘ve just purchased two bars of coconut dark chocolate, it’s delicious. Would you like a square? While Elmore immediately recognised the inappropriate nature of this invitation it was all he could say that might defuse the incredibly tense moment and he immediately relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. The man’s response somewhat bewildered Elmore for he did not expect the man to be surprised. No, more shocked than surprised.
No thanks, he said and walked past Elmore to confront the next wave of shoppers.
Should he offer the man’s assistant proseletyser a piece? He had been watching the whole affair and might feel neglected. As Elmore took a step towards him the man quickly darted off in pursuit of an elderly lady pushing a trolly while simultaneously straining against it for support. She found her mobile phone with remarkable agility.
As he made his way through the car park and crossed the road next to the park beyond which his home stood Elmore regretted not purchasing three bars of finely crafted Swiss chocolate to delay his next visit by a bit longer. Was it even the swiss? When did coconut first encounter Europe?
In the quietude of his dimly lit home with only the dull hum of his air conditioner Elmore settled down to two squares of coconut infused dark chocolate and a cup of Earl Grey tea with just a dash of full cream milk. As the chocolate melted on his warm tongue he smiled and then frowned. Why had he not thought of thanking the Aztecs? To amend for his shameful lapse of misdirected gratitude he returned the uneaten slab to its silver foil and retired, unsatisfied to bed. Modernity does not guarantee perspective he thought and slipped into a dream of bloodied, metalled conquistadors disembowling gentle Aztec chocolatieres.
At 50, Don has finally relinquished the burden of immortality, that most endearing quality of youth. His consciousness is now fully settled into his body. Pain has facilitated the descent. The weight of discomfort displaces the emotions forcing reflection to the surface of consciousness. Pain is a catalyst for enlightenment. The body he has condescendingly inhabited has gained the upper hand; established its dominance.
We are one and the same, you and I, it says.
The body, which is his, now requires one 1500mg tablet of Glucosamine Forte (a bomb of a pill) each morning to relieve osteoarthritis and 150mg of Desvenlafaxine to throw a veil of contentment over his major depression. The former helps him perform his job of night-fill at the local IGA; the latter generates the will to get there. Medicine delivers him of most constraints that might otherwise hinder a contented life. He is for the most part satisfied with his life. He would not, however, call himself happy (the diagnosis and medication suggest otherwise). When he feels pleased there is always the devil on his shoulder whispering ‘drugs have made it so’. Life is a matter of routine activities punctuated with reading, walking the dog, talking to the dog and coffee. Reading is less a pleasure than a declaration of willingness to sustain a measure of curiosity; a cautious act of rebellion against suicidal thoughts. He feels that he will ultimately survive life and die naturally. He wills it. However, on the matter of ‘will’, Don is still troubled. Does will not speak itself as desire? What is desire? The will to be pleased? What is the will to have will called? I think it is called the working life. He smiles. Sancho my brother, we are free, we have will, Praise be to God! Sancho wags his tail but does not lift his head. He closes the weathered paperback edition of “The Waves”, strokes the cigarette burn on the cover. He understands Virginia Woolf and her stones. He, however, does not have pockets big enough for rocks. He also has no river. There is the ocean but stepping into its crashing waves with a pocket of rocks seems absurd. Besides, beaches are public places. So, he resists that urge and also the urge to buy vodka and lights another cigarette and squints against the blinding light of another dawn. Despair will pass; again, into something else … he forgets what it is called. This is his burden of hope. He must carry it for the children. It is not as bad as it feels. Feelings are unreliable indicators of the value of life. There is value, he has value, and even if he does not feel it now he must trust that he will feel it again. He must trust that value exists without feeling it. He must have faith, or at the very least, cultivate faith. Freedom Sancho, is the ability to hope for something better … no it’s not. That is habit. But, we are free Sancho to walk in the park and poop where we want? Well, you are anyway.
He sits down on their couch and shares a biscuit while he sips his coffee. He brushes crumbs from his chest onto his lap then the floor and by force of habit looks over his shoulder and experiences a nip of guilt. These philosophical interludes with the dog sustain him. People will suspect I am mad to be talking to you about such deep things Sancho. Forgive me when I exclude you in the company of others, they would not understand. Five hundred years ago they would have burnt the pair of us. What a barbie that would be mate he chuckles as Sancho licks his hand and focuses his attention on Don’s other hand, the hand with the biscuit.
We must focus on lighter things Sancho that is our new project he says you’re a bad influence, far too dark … bad dog! The dog puts his ears back. He gives the dog a vigorous rub. He settles back into the chair, head back and studies the wooden beams of the porch roof. There are ants everywhere, and spider webs. Another job put off. The porcupine stirs in his abdomen, its quills extend deep into him from within. All of his energy will be required to fight back with calming thoughts. The prospect of the fight leaves him exhausted before he has begun. A wet and heavy hessian cloth is closing in over him.
I choose my life. I commit myself to the full extent of my life. My life is good. I have all I need. I want for nothing. The past is done with. I will face a bright future he says softly.
He thinks of a pink and orange sunrise over a turquoise sea. Sancho, let’s go for a walk! The dog knows the words, the tone of the words and is in a moment running to the front door, wagging its tail, whimpering with excitement. Happiness comes easily to you he says to the dog as he places the leash around his neck. The dog licks his face with abandon and the man smiles, feeling loved. They walk through the winding paths of Lighthouse Park. The dog seems to pee on every bush it finds. How do you do that Sancho? How do you will yourself to pee like that?
They encounter several other dogs being walked. Sancho’s man, Don, exchanges greetings and sometimes a few words with familiar people he has been passing in this fashion for years. Suburban dog-walkers strolling for fitness, a change of scenery, the company of passing people and … why do we walk Sancho? The dog wags his tail every time Don talks. It stops to sniff the ground, slouches forward, pees on cue. Oh yes, I forgot.
It is summer and at ten o’clock in the morning the heat of the sun begins to burn Don’s forearms and shins. Cicada trills reverberate through the air. There are too many flies and Don decides to take a short cut home through an enclosed reserve that has a trail through thick brush. Let’s call it a day Sancho, the flies are getting on my tits he says leading the dog through the turnstile gate of the reserve. The trail is overgrown, branches of shrubs and long grass brush against his arms and legs. Flies seem to multiply and he must keep his mouth closed. Maybe this wasn’t worth it he thinks. He is walking faster now and the dog sensing the increase in pace begins to run. Don steps on a stick that jerks suddenly and the movement terrifies him to release an involuntary aaah Jesus snake and he performs a panicked jig both dancing on the spot and running away. A peripheral thought alerts him to how foolish he must look while simultaneously another urges him to flee. He runs. The Dugite is long and brown and the dog barks and chases after it, its front paws catching the snake’s tail. In a flash the snake has turned, darted at the dog, bitten it on the face, whipped away and gone with alarming speed. The dog yelps, backs into Don’s legs, nosedives into the sand and with its paws attempts to wipe away the pain. It howls an awful high-pitched wail that presses down on Don’s being. He scoops the dog into his arms and cradles him tightly while inspecting the dog’s face, which it attempts to burrow under his arm. The dog is shaking with shock. The body calms, then trembles and begins to make involuntary kicks. It’s ok Sancho I’m here. You’re good, you’re fine, we’ll get you sorted, it’s ok, stay with me Sancho.
The vet seems outrageously young to save lives. She is petite and too delicate. He fears the dog is lost. Yet she takes command with reassuring calm talking to the dog all of the time. I am not the only one who talks to animals like this Don thinks. He has the thought of buying her flowers, kissing her on the hand, coffee … Her slender hands caress the dog’s flaccid limbs as she delivers her prognosis. Sancho will live. Toxicity levels are low; anti-venom is administered intravenously with anti-histamines and painkillers. After 48 hours he is home. Don carries the dog to his bed, forms a soft nest with a blanket and pillows and lowers Sancho into it. He lies down on the bed folding himself around the animal. You scared me Sancho he says gently stroking its head and face. The dog licks his hand. They both fall asleep. It is dark when Don wakes up. A jolt of dread subsides when he sees the dog with its snout on his chest; its tail yields a slight wag. I’m happy Sancho Coyote, I think we are lucky, you and I.
A short story by Mike Scallan
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