Lily builds mazes in her dreams. When she’s awake, she draws them with colouring pencils on sheets of loose-leaf paper.
Her parents pay little attention to their child’s strange hobby until they notice rooms and passageways appearing in their house that weren’t there before. Her mother finds a door behind the washing machine that leads to a dark, never-ending corridor. When Lily’s father goes down to the basement, there are twice as many steps as usual and they lead into the back garden.
Her father finds a sheaf of drawings tucked in one of Lily’s colouring books and connects the dots. He’s unnerved, but Lily is a well-mannered girl otherwise, so he gently asks her to keep her mazes to paper only and leave real buildings alone. She’s going to hurt someone, he warns. Lily agrees and continues to draw her labyrinths in private, creating new rooms with trapdoors and hidden entrances.
When Lily is thirteen, a middle-aged man sees her walk home from school from the doorway of a run-down pizza parlour. He follows several paces behind her, watching with delight at the way her body sways with every step.
Lily takes a left into an alleyway the man’s never seen before. She then takes a right through a door that materializes in the brickwork. She jogs down a flight of stairs that appear before her and lead into an underground tunnel. The man pays no attention to these anomalies, so absorbed is he in his pursuit. He follows Lily as closely as he can but he’s soon out of breath as it becomes harder to keep up with her. Lily turns another corner and disappears from view.
“What on earth…?” the man says as he comes face to face with a dead end and no one else in sight.
And then the walls close in on him.
SOPHIE GAZARIAN is an emerging writer from Montreal. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and an MA in Library and Information Science from McGill. She is a member of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
Blooms across the night sky Like a carnivorous flower.
Illuminates its crowd Red, then green, then gold.
And the sun Does not set until midnight.
SOPHIE LUO is a student and emerging writer from Vancouver currently studying Biomedical Sciences at McGill University. From anatomy to poetry, her strange combination of passions yields an indecisive personality, a penchant for rumination, and a disproportionate fascination in ordinary things – all of which she records and expresses in writing.
In the crowded Kamalapur Railway Station, Arunima could be found wearing heavy make-up and gaudy salwar kameez. She’d vehemently clap her hands, pursue passengers, and collect money. As odd as it may seem, this was her vocation. Arunima was transgender, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah.
In the train station, she’d often sing Rabindra Sangeet when she wasn’t asking for money from the passengers. If she felt elated, she’d even prance to her melodious tunes. Her movements were graceful. The way she swayed her waist made the other hijras envy her.
One winter morning, except for a few stray dogs and a couple of slum children, Arunima was all by herself in the train station. There were no passengers either, so Arunima couldn’t start her work. To bide her time, Arunima puffed on a Derby and hummed on Bideshini.
Pressing the cigarette between her scarlet, quivering lips, Arunima stared into the fog before her. There was nothing, yet Arunima fixated her gaze toward the fog. After a while or so, Arunima heard the thumping of shoes, as if someone was pelting towards her. Almost abruptly, a dark, tall figure emerged from the whitening of the fog. Arunima shrieked and just when she was about to leap off from her seat, a middle-aged man thumped on the ground before her.
He was gasping for breath and as he did so, froth started to emerge from the corners of his mouth. As much as she did not want to believe it, the man was dying. Arunima wrapped him up with her midnight blue shawl. She woke the slum children from their sleep and asked them to help her drag the dying stranger to the entrance of Kamalapur Railway Station. By then the stray dogs woke up as well and goggled at the apprehensive scene occurring before them.
After arriving at the entrance, Arunima thanked the children and halted a CNG. ‘To Karwan Bazar, mama!’, Arunima instructed the plump driver in a panic-stricken voice. Thankfully, Dhaka streets are empty in the mornings, so the driver was able to reach the destination in a very short time. Having reached Karwan Bazar, he pulled off in front of a dreary, five-storied building. It was where Arunima lived.
Both the driver and Arunima hoisted the stranger up to the third floor. Upon reaching her apartment, Arunima made the stranger lay in her dingy bedroom. She drew the floral patterned, magenta-coloured curtains so that the stranger could breathe fresh air. After clearing the froth off the stranger with a sewn napkin, Anurima went to the kitchen. The kitchen was half the size of the bedroom. It had a single stove, a faded wooden cabinet, a frying pan hanging on a hook in the ceiling, a ceramic bowl, and a tin glass beside the basin.
As fast as she could, Arunima prepared a hot bowl of chicken soup for the dying stranger. She took the bowl to the bedroom and discovered him lying on the floor, blood spewing from his mouth. Arunima felt helpless but she was determined to help him. She hoisted him up on the bed again and sprinkled a few drops of warm water on his face. He woke with a start with an eye still half-shut.
‘Where am I?’ he inquired, alarmingly. His sight was hazy, so he couldn’t properly perceive Arunima. She spooned the soup into his mouth and he obediently gulped it down his throat. Arunima couldn’t help but feel miserable for the man. The way he was devouring the soup told her that he was starving for quite a long time. After he was done, Arunima made his head rest on the pillow. He fell asleep at once.
It took a long time for the stranger to wake up. As a matter of fact, he woke up in the afternoon of the next day. As soon as the man woke up, he was startled to find a hijra slumbering on the floor before him. He thought he had been abducted. Without interrupting Arunima’s sleep, the man attempted an escape. But he had fallen head first on the floor, waking Arunima up from her sleep.
‘What on earth are you doing? You aren’t properly fit yet to walk,’ Arunima said, while heaving him up again on the bed. She didn’t realize that he was trying to elope and the man was quiet with fear of being harassed by a hijra. ‘You have been asleep for a long time, you know,’ Arunima said with a benign smile on her face while putting a blanket over him. She was struggling to be as amiable as she could. It has been a long time since she normally conversed with anyone other than her own kind.
‘What’s your name?’ Arunima inquired with the strained friendliness almost visible in her tone.
‘Umayr’ the man replied under his breath. He was still too feeble to talk. By now, Umayr realized that he wasn’t abducted. As a matter of fact, he was far from being abducted. He was being cared for. ‘Thank you’ Umayr murmured. Arunima felt a strange delight in herself, the kind of which she never felt before. No one has ever expressed gratitude to her, so she didn’t know what to say. Instead, she smiled her benign smile.
Umayr looked around the dingy room. His sight was still fuzzy from being frail, but the blazing sunlight helped him look around more distinctly. He saw a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali covered in dust and reposed on an oval, wooden table. An imperceptible, crunching noise indicated that termites are feeding on the insides of the table. The curtains were still pulled away. In the far corner of the room, there was a retro cassette player. It too was covered in dust. On the ground below, there was a dusty tower of cassettes of Bangla classics. On the wall above, there was a shabby poster of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.
‘I’ve watched it countless times,’ Arunima said, noticing Umayr looking at the poster of Charulata.
‘It’s one of Ray’s finest,’ Umayr said.
‘Charu is a timeless character. Such poise yet so poignant. Don’t you think there is a Charu within all of us?’ Arunima said with a vacant expression on her face as if she was lost in the far end of a cave of suppressed memories.
‘I very much think so,’ Umayr replied in accordance with Arunima’s apparent grief.
‘What’s your story, Umayr?’ Arunima asked while shaking her head to draw herself away from her musings. Umayr was silent. His eyes reflected the persona of a man who’s striving to procure the best vocabulary to describe a difficult situation. After a long, subdued silence, Arunima placed her hands on Umayr’s, which were still cold and bony.
‘I… I…escaped from home,’ Umayr said, with great endeavour. ‘It’s not my fault. It’s, it’s not. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t,’ Umayr continued, tears streaming down his pale cheeks. Arunima pressed his hands more tightly. ‘It was too much, it was. Yes, yes, I started taking drugs. I wanted to kill myself. And why shouldn’t I? It was too much to bear. I never expected Aditi to leave. She promised she wouldn’t. But she did, anyway.’
A part of the blanket was drenched with Umayr’s dropping tears.
‘And then my family. It wasn’t home anymore, it, it wasn’t. They loathed me for who I became – a drug addict. I brought dishonour to the family, they said. It was torture. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sought peace, I sought death, and I escaped…’
Umayr couldn’t finish his sentence. His throat was dry. Arunima handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down immediately.
The silence ensued again. Umayr looked down at his scrawny hands with an empty expression. Without contemplating what’s right or what’s wrong, without giving any thought to the consequences of the unpredictable society, Arunima wrapped her arms around Umayr. It felt like the right thing to do. The two stayed like that, embracing each other until the blazing sun gave way to the crisp winter evening.
Over the next few days, Arunima and Umayr’s relationship deepened. Umayr looked at Arunima as his caring sister and addressed her as Di, while Arunima cared for him as her brother. In the mornings, when the streets were empty, Arunima and Umayr would go on a stroll in Ramna Park. A few passing pedestrians would throw dubious stares at them while they rode on a rickshaw but they knew better than to pay attention. On their way, they would see a flock of crows cawing into the brisk morning air. During their strolls in the park, the soles of their feet would get damp from the dew appearing on the surface of the grass, which they crunched on their way. If the mornings were too frosty, they would sit on a bench in the park and puff on Derby, the smoke of which made them feel cosy.
One day, Umayr found a shattered mirror on the leaves strewn across ground of the park. He picked up a shard with great curiosity. Upon scrutinizing the reflection, Umayr was taken aback. He saw that his hair was dishevelled and that his cheekbones began to emerge, making him look skeletal; his body was thin as a rake and his eyes were pale. ‘I have destroyed myself, Di’ Umayr said in a great state of melancholy. It was true. The drugs had ruined the once handsome structures of his face, making him look ghoulish.
Arunima took the shard of glass from his hand and threw it away. ‘You are my brother, Umayr, and know that you are the most handsome person I have ever seen,’ Arunima said with such firmness that it was clear that she meant what she said. She took Umayr’s hand and began strolling to the never-ending curves of the park. It was her effort to make Umayr forget about the predicaments of life.
The days passed with gusts of cold wind. Arunima made Umayr eat as many nutritious foods as possible. But to no avail, Umayr was still gaunt. She mostly relied on her chicken soup, which she prepared with a special blend of herbs. It was her medicine for all sickness, however, it wasn’t quite working for Umayr. And she couldn’t find a doctor either for hijras are often met with contempt in society. And Umayr wouldn’t go without Arunima.
Other than her effort for keeping Umayr well-fed, Arunima also tried to keep his mood elated. On Umayr’s 24th birthday, Arunima cooked a succulent dinner for him. She kneaded dough to make butter naan and kindled tandoori, which was marinated with minced garlic and onion, cayenne pepper and garam masala. She also prepared raita by seasoning the yoghurt with cucumber and mint. A bottle of Coca-Cola was bought to abate the jhal.
After spreading a tattered carpet on the floor, the two sat down and dined in gaiety. While munching on a leg piece, Umayr thanked Arunima for making the effort to make the day special for him. Arunima said nothing but she smiled her benign smile. Umayr noticed that she bore a certain melancholy in her heart. He was meaning to ask for a long time but he couldn’t get the opportunity to do so. Umayr knew about how most hijras are abandoned by their families and later regarded as pariahs in the society. This in turn leads to their joining of the hijra community, where they are taught the art of their occupation.
“What’s your story, Di?” Umayr inquired, haltingly. Arunima looked up from her plate, which had a half eaten naan, and into Umayr’s curious, unflinching pair of eyes. The benign smile gradually faded away. But Arunima wanted to tell her story, her miseries, her laments, which she suppressed in the deepest corners of her heart for so, so long.
‘My mother said I was born a beautiful baby. Such beauty was rare in boys, many claimed. As a child, I was provided with singing lessons. Yes, that’s where I picked up my adoration for Rabindra Sangeet. His notion of romanticism enchants me, truly. But I was only taught to sing and not dance. I remember the first time I attempted to dance. It was a sunny afternoon, Maa and Baba were away, and I played Aloker Ei Jhorna Dharaion Baba’s old gramophone. Oh, I tell you, Umayr, I never felt such ecstasy in my entire life. I performed kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi just by myself. I knew I did well. I felt it in my soul, Umayr.
Then suddenly the music stopped. Baba was standing beside the gramophone. He smashed the vinyl into pieces. Maa was weeping her silent tears. I knew from their faces that their worst nightmare came to life. My true identity was their worst nightmare!
By the time I was fifteen, my identity was becoming more and more apparent. I was locked in my bedroom without any contact to the outside world because to everyone, I was a hijra, a pariah. I hummed many Tagore Songs just to keep my soul alive and to pass my time, I read and re-read the Geetanjali. In those dark, doleful days, that book was my Bible.
Then one day, the locked door was open. Baba and Maa stood in the doorway, their faces heavy with regret. I thought they’d finally accept me for who I am and not what they want me to become. But I was a fool to think something like that. They came to throw me out of the house. They said they had had enough of me. It didn’t take much effort to throw me out. I remember standing in the entrance, staring for the very last time at my house, where I spent my childhood in the arms of who I believed were my parents.
I left with nothing but the copy of Geetanjali for it was my solace, my only accomplice in the forlorn days. I remember walking for miles on end until I discovered my own kind. I met my guru, who taught me how to survive with my identity. I made friends, I made enemies yet I was lonely.
Sometimes we don’t realize who we really are to the world, to ourselves. And that lack of understanding puts us in a state of sheer isolation. We spend too much time finding our place in this world that in the end, we discover that there is no place at all. We are all vagabonds in this world.
You know, Umayr, I sought my purpose in this forsaken world. I didn’t find any.’
Arunima was not weeping like Umayr did when he shared his own story. He understood that all her tears had dried up a long, long time ago. But he also knew that there was still a pang in Arunima’s warm heart, which left her confused and strayed. Umayr held Arunima’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Arunima smiled once again and kissed Umayr’s forehead. ‘You are my Di,’ Umayr muttered as he rested his head on Arunima’s lap, ‘and that’s your sole purpose in this forsaken world.’
The next morning, Arunima and Umayr went out a bit late. They felt heavy from last night’s dining. But they wouldn’t miss out on their daily walking routine. It was almost at the end of winter, so it was already sunny when they arrived at Ramna Park. The park was already filled with many pedestrians by the time they arrived. This disconcerted them a little, since there were too many unwavering stares this time. Of course, they tried to ignore them but the gazes fell heavy upon them.
Turning a corner in the park, Umayr stopped dead in his tracks, apparently gazing at the crooked branches of a tree. Though utterly ordinary to the eye, they gave Arunima the ominous premonition of some phantom gradually approaching. She was just about to convey this to Umayr, when she noticed his wholly vacant eyes. He abruptly collapsed to the ground and began shuddering.
Froth appeared on the corners of Umayr’s mouth, he was having a seizure. Terrified by his violently twitching body, Arunima screamed for help: ‘Save my brother! I beg of you! Please, save him!’, but her cries fell on deaf ears. The pedestrians far off dwelt only on what their eyes could see, and they saw a hijra attacking someone, someone of their own kind. Some soon rushed to the scene, eventually dragging Arunima away from Umayr’s convulsing body.
They threw punches at her; kicked her, while others hurled stones. Arunima repeated ‘Please! Save my brother!’, but to the crowd Arunima was a persona non grata, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah and she attacked one of them. She deserved no mercy. Her forehead began to bleed. Her skin was scathed. Her gaudy Kameez was torn in places. Someone yelled, ‘You are dead, you bloody hijra,’ but it didn’t matter to her.
She was beaten until her mind blanked, losing consciousness. The last thing she had seen was Umayr being carried away by a few people. And the last thing she muttered was his name, her brother’s name – ‘Umayr’.
Time passed by. Now raindrops fell on Arunima’s blood strewn face, waking her up with a start. A repugnant stench nauseated her, upon looking around she saw that she lay on a pile of garbage.
Her attackers left her in the filth to die. She tried to rise, but her feet didn’t allow her. She could feel some of her shattered and broken bones. Arunima clasped her hands in a silent prayer, with such effort that it were as if she were hauling a sack of stones up a steep rocky hill.
She may be a hijra, but today her hands were held together instead of one palm thumping on another. Her prayers had to be answered, for she was praying for Umayr, someone who unlike her, who is accepted in society, in religion and perhaps, even in eternity.
Feeling the damp cold sludge against the grazes of her skin, Arunima began to weep. Through her tears, through her gritted teeth, and through her devastation, she kept on muttering, ‘Save him. Please…’
Arunima’s hands then let loose and thumped on the pile of garbage. Her eyelids drooped. Arunima was no more.
In a hospital bed, Umayr woke up with tears streaming down his haggard face. In the darkness of his barely conscious mind, he knew he would never see Arunima again. Pressed onto his chest, he felt the face of a weeping woman. The scent of henna told him it was his mother. ‘I’m sorry, beta,’ she mumbled, ‘please, forgive us’, Behind the bed, stood his father, rigid, but just as sorry. Umayr barely reacted, his eyes occasionally veering off towards the foggy window.
How unusual to have rain during this time of winter, he thought to himself. Just as unusual to find someone like his Di, who may have finally found her place in this forsaken world.
AQUEB SAFWAN JASER is a Bangladeshi creative writer who appeared in an anthology titled ‘Ten Square: Hundred Word Stories From Bangladesh’ and The Elixir Magazine. Being a cinephile he also writes for High on Films. Currently, he is pursuing a degree in Marketing while working as a Content Writer.
we started at this pond in rockcliffe. there were other people around, some of them swimming, others just enjoying the sun. i arrived first and started meditating. we were talking about our past lives when we dropped. we tried these hand gestures that were supposed to open your heart chakra, and make you more receptive. she explained that the hands extend the heart whereas feet are like roots, it made a lot of intuitive sense and i realized that i have very sensitive hands. i changed into my bathing suit under a towel. it felt weird to hide my genitals. swimming felt was amazing. i felt at home in the water. she said i was probably atlantian in a past life, but i couldn’t stop thinking about my past life as an otter. we found a dragonfly head that seemed way bigger than normal floating in the pond scum and i remember thinking “show me insects.” i started pushing my hands forward underwater, creating these currents that i could direct towards her, which disturbed the surface of the water only slightly. i remember thinking, “i wish i could do this with the wind” and then realized i probably could if i tried, but i didn’t try. i started to shiver and felt everything slow down. i realized i was transitioning from one type of consciousness into another, in the same way that the world itself is transitioning from one type of consciousness into another. i was half in the water and half out of the water when this idea of “the transition” started to gain a lot of significance in my mind. someone at the pond said “where is my servant?” as a joke, and the phrase “i was a servant of the transition” kept popping into my head. i was convinced that if i was sensitive to the world around me, i could see into the past, but i didn’t try any rituals to become more sensitive. we left the pond and the space around us started to expand and contract depending on how much attention we gave it. the effect was doubled if we both focused our attention on the same thing. i became more sensitive to the moods of the trees around us, and felt a strong kinship with the wind. we got on our bikes and went through the east end of the city, which was very busy with traffic. this was when we really started to trip. my body was moving so effortlessly and smoothly. the bike felt like an extension of myself, and i knew exactly how to negotiate the traffic, biking alongside cars. the city was intensely stimulating, so i just focused on myself. this was a part of the city i’m not familiar with, but a lot of the places were familiar. i could remember two specific dreams i had that looked identical to the areas we were biking through. everything felt like it was on a bridge, very close to the sky. then we hit the river and the energy totally changed. the air coming off the river felt way healthier and cooler and full of love. i started to think about how easy it is to send out love on the air. i started dancing with my hands as i biked, feeling myself flow with the wind. inhaling and exhaling was part of the dance. the phrase “i take from the whole, so that i can give back to it” echoed in my head, and i didn’t wonder whose voice it was. as we got into the forest i started to see trails of physical bodies, like visual echoes. i started to see auras, like the wavy air that rises off hot objects, hovering around people. i also saw these auras hovering around nothing, what i called sprites; these little flying points of energy darting through the forest. i remember thinking, if we find a dangerous animal like a bear, we can just open our hearts and send the bear love and it won’t hurt us. we took a break when we got to the gatineau hills. there was a little spot with bathrooms and picnic tables on the grass. we watched the clouds for a while, and i realized clouds are conscious, but their experience of time is way more diluted than ours. i tried slowing my own consciousness and silencing my thoughts, so that i had a mind like a cloud. that’s when i made my wasp friend. i realized he was inside my helmet the whole time. he started crawling on my hand and my first instinct was fear, but the fear didn’t feel natural. he was covered in my sweat, and moving slowly, and if he wanted to sting me, he already would have. i did the gesture to open my heart chakra and sent him love and i could tell he received it. he looked me square in the face and crawled all over my head. i felt a really intense bond with the little guy. he stayed on my glasses as i walked to the bathroom and just hung out with us for a while. then i had these vivid flashbacks to camping last weekend at sandbanks, where a dragonfly landed on my hand by the fire. this whole time, she was lying on top of the picnic table and i pressed my thumb against her third eye and then all these really bright neon patterns started flowing across both of our skins. they were like moving tattoos that covered our entire bodies. we biked on further up the mountain, through a deep part of the woods. i inhaled the clean energy from the forest, feeling that energy turn into fresh ideas in my mind, and then exhaled love back into the forest, it was like an exchange: we traded love for ideas. then we biked up this really intense mountain and i remember thinking how i don’t “have” power but i am made of it, i am power manifest, my existence is itself a monument to my will to exist, and pushing against gravity was so easy. i didn’t actually feel like we were going uphill–there was no up or down–it just got harder to pedal. i remember thinking the trees are way older than me, they carry more spirits, and more wisdom, but i’m still young and innocent. right then, when the word innocent crossed my mind, we went downhill and i biked with no hands and so much wind rushed by my face and it was such a rush of bliss, innocent. then we got to the lake and locked our bikes and climbed up these rocks. i remember thinking, “how does this rock want to be filmed?” and i let the rock show me how. i started filming the lake, letting the water tell me the right composition. we found a spot really high up, where we lay down and watched the lake move with the wind. i could see sprites flying all over the water, moving the wind, but i knew our energy contributed something to the wind’s movements. the frogs were singing for us. a really cute yellow beetle fell in love with me. she was staring up at my face for a long time and then climbed on my cheek and stayed there for a long time. ants were tickling me everywhere, then a spider crawled on me. he was so funny, he danced for me with all eight legs. he strung a web around my head and then swung away from my glasses to the nearest tree and back. he was a pleasantly chaotic character. i’m pretty sure there was a UFO or something, some crazy unreal sounds came out of the sky really suddenly, and the clouds shifted really suddenly, but we didn’t see anything directly. it sounded like music composed of thunder, and then shortly afterwards, the sounds turned into regular airplane sounds. i was very confused about that but didn’t dwell on it. i had all kinds of realizations that i managed to remember and write down. got ideas about film theory, and meditation, and yoga, and all kindsa stuff. we ate a cliff bar and i remember thinking this is how people should do it, exercise a lot, and then eat very little, it actually feels awesome. then we meditated for a bit together and left. the way back was mostly downhill so we rode so gosh darn fast and the wind was so intense and so invigorating and i cried a little. i felt like nature wanted me to succeed in life and was giving me all the energy that it could, and i kept thinking thank you, thank you, thank you. on the way back we crossed this really old train bridge from the quebec side back to the city. it was rusty and beautiful and covered in graffiti that looked to me like the same neon colours i saw floating on our skins, except this was actual graffiti, not hallucinations, which was confusing in the most delightful way. we passed some friendly teenagers who were drinking and smoking pot and they said some things as we passed by, we couldn’t really hear them, and we said something back, i can’t remember what. as we got into the city, you could feel the energy change entirely–it was way less integrated, way more chaotic, but it wasn’t evil or dark necessarily. just confusing. we biked past the locks at the end of the canal, and we had a bittersweet farewell, because we hadn’t kissed or even hugged this whole time, and it felt for some reason like a “farewell” rather than a “see you later,” and we parted ways, and i biked through downtown alone, feeling the chaotic energy around me, but not letting it enter me, farewell. all these images of a beautiful future were bouncing around inside my head and i started to cry, like really cry. when i got home, i just wept and couldn’t stop weeping because everything was so beautiful, the future was so beautiful, and i knew exactly what to do.
JOSHUA SCAMMELL was born in Ottawa, where he learned to read and write. He then lived in Los Angeles, where he forgot to read and write. He now resides on Vancouver Island, where he is remembering how to read and write.
Bellow into the wind all weakness rooted in the fears of an overbearing society,
the one that robs you of your femininity, a country that drains you of your fierceness.
Let the current take with it the burden of your ancestors,
a toll taxed with the memory of a nation struggling to accept that which is sown into the land,
into the cane, into the coffee, into the cotton, into the sweat dripping down the forehead
of your great-grandfather who tried to love a woman in the hopes that he might outrun his queer transgressions.
Feel the air lift you pass the disquiet of your aunty, the one who would visit Trinidad to indulge in her female friend,
the companion who never earned a name, a face, her body bursting with affection of the flesh
for your aunty who preferred tank tops, and cargo shorts and flip flops paired with alluring red lip stick and a full face of make-up,
aunty’s own tiny rebellion against the unsympathetic consciousness of a region denying her embeddedness.
You are in the sky now between the earth and the stars,
free to write your own history of desire, able to make love to your partner in all three spaces;
below the earth, above the sky, between the stars as they ravage you,
as you delight in him, as all five bodies devour each other.
We unmute history with every touch, every sigh, every tear, paying homage to our decadent ancestry.
LINZEY CORRIDON is a Southern-Caribbean guy who drifted North. His creative and academic research remains rooted in the experiences of queer Caribbean and diaspora peoples. Linzey’s writing can be found in publications such as The Puritan, Insight Journal, and Emotional Magazine. He is a PhD student in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.
Origamied inside her Vuitton bag—bought at the Marché aux Puces—for the time being. A Legend doesn’t walk a rollcall in the showpiece of the night.
Especially not at the Olympus Ball.
It’s the biggest event of the year.
The moment everyone’s been waiting for. Prepared and spent for.
So worth it.
For a glimpse into another life. One where heartache isn’t.
For a bleep of an instant.
Who you are, where you are, what is or isn’t.
Circumstances disappear and make way for the dream to live, for being.
And she walks the runway.
Serves on the runway.
Brings it to the runway.
Just poses. Poses. Poses…
For them. But mostly for her.
It’s all about attitude. Resilience. Spitting in the face of adversity and all the bullies.
While strutting in six-inch heels.
All eyes on her.
Hoping to get tens across the board. Anything but getting read for filth by the judges, and that only happens if the category isn’t met. It’s not a beauty contest…except for Face; that category is all about cheekbones and finding your light.
Legends like her rarely get read though.
Comes with the territory.
All the great Houses are attending tonight: Ebony, Mizrahi-Mugler, La Durée, and the Legendary House of Mermaid, her clan, to name a few.
Paris is literally burning tonight, lit with glamour.
Too much is just right.
Especially at the Olympus Ball.
A-game is the only game to bring at this kiki.
Eva flips her hair back and forth as she twirls one last time for the crowd. Beyoncé wishes.
Having 32” extensions is one thing; knowing how to work them is entirely another. Her cousin does the best weaves, and Eva is the Queen of hair-ography. Fan, or not.
She runs backstage.
Mother Mermaid is holding court in the dressing room when she sees her:
“Bonsoir Eva! Come here, baby!”
Her signature scent embraces before her motherly hug does.
Opium by Yves St-Laurent.
Most people do one, but she does three: sprays…then, the traditional delay and walk-away.
Mother assembles her favorite butch queens to get Eva runway ready.
A steamer is rolled in to get the dress back to perfection.
Cassandra, the Mermaid’s make-up artist, beats her face for the Gods. Eva’s high cheekbones blended for days. Visage contoured. 301 lashes on.
Her Vitiligo proudly showcased in the make-up creation.
Red Velvet lipstick coats her voluptuous lips.
She strips-down to her nude colored G-string, then Randy – the newest starlet of the clan – applies matching pasties to her nipples.
The gold marvel is being brought to her by one of the butch queens.
Un-origamied into its spectacular self.
Eva sowed it herself with the help of her real-life mom. She’s so supportive, and for all of Eva’s endeavors.
Silk caresses her skin as the dress is slipped on.
Randy zips her up:
“Gurl, you look hot as hell!”
Eva spins. Randy chirps:
“Werk bitch!! Weeeerk!!!”
Finger snaps. Tongue pop.
The vaporous sheer silk shimmers, anxiously awaiting the stage’s spotlight to shine gloriously.
Her roommate and best friend, Nadine, lent her a pair of scintillating thigh-high boots to complete her look. They are like liquid gold.
Mother Mermaid acquiesces silently by batting her lashes thrice. She dry-cries because of the Botox, but you can hear it in her tone:
“Magnifique! Look at the proud woman you’re becoming. I have seen you go from caterpillar to this beautiful butterfly. Now, go spread your wings and fly, baby, fly!”
Eva can feel electricity in her spine as she approaches the stairs to the runway. She’s accompanied by Cassandra and Randy for finale touches, as the rest of the Mermaid clan invades the crowd to cheer her on.
She feels alive.
Goose-bumped from head-to-toe.
The deep bassline hits her right in the hips.
DJ White Boyie is lit AF tonight.– spinning songs together like the very fabric of life, weaving them together as if they had always been meant to, and bringing pure joy to everyone within reach of his dirty beat.
MC High Top is announcing the winner of the Butch Queen category:
Ritchie is their biggest rival, and Randy gave up competing tonight to get Eva ready. She knows how they feel, so she whispers in their ear:
“You’re fiercer than him any day of the week! And, thank you for being here for me…”
She kisses their cheek, leaving a Red Velvet signature on it.
They reciprocate, leaving a trace of tinted lip balm…which Cassandra brushes off with a loud:
DJ White Boyie slows the beat down and transitions to runway music.
MC High Top:
“A’ right, a’ right, a’ right!”
Chopping the words down to match the rhythm.
“Get ready for the Runway Divas. Run-way. Divas. Run-way, DIVAS… DJ!! Drop the beat.”
Eva is ecstatic, she can’t help but sway her hips. Sound is the only thing picked up by more than one of the five senses. The groove is something felt as much as it is heard.
And tonight, it is everything.
She lets the other Houses go first; no one would want to walk the runway after her. Not with what she’s got “up her sleeve” on her back.
It had taken a lot of ingenuity to make it work. But Eva and her mom had made it: work.
Sparks of adrenaline electrify her body.
She abandons herself to the groove, haloed by black 32” extensions, when she suddenly stops mid-dance:
Randy turns, sounding worried:
“What is it, gurl?”
“My ball came un-tucked!” Her voice is a hush.
She can’t have a mooseknuckle showing through the sheer gold fabric of her dress. Randy pulls, she pushes…and the misbehaving ball pops back-up in place.
“Thank you,” she sighs, “one more week before I’m complete. Mom is taking me to Dr. Aubry’s next Thursday…”
Her voice breaks.
Randy looks at her teary eyed.
She can’t think of that. Not now, it would ruin Cassandra’s beautiful make-up.
One last runway as a Trans person. The next one, she will walk as a fully realized woman. She will have reverted to her original self, to who should have been from the start.
It’s her turn to finally be.
It’s also her time to walk, now. And serve. And pose. And Vogue.
To teach the children how to hold their heads up high. To not bow to bullies. To spit in the face of adversity, of the nay-sayers, of the haters…of those who should walk in them stilettos before judging.
Eva is ready. Cinched, pulled, and tucked.
Cassandra applies one last touch-up of Red Velvet.
DJ White Boyie switches to her favorite song. They’ve been dating for the past few months. They empower each other. He looks at her with such passion, especially now.
His cheerful gaze helps her focus. He winks.
She smiles at him before climbing the four steps leading to the runway.
“Run-Way. Diva!! Y’all make some noise for the Legendary Ms. Eva Mermaid!!” MC High Top is screaming in the mic from excitement so much that it reverbs.
DJ White Boyie scratches the vinyl record and drops the fat beat.
Eva stomps to the middle of the runway. Naomi could never…
Strikes a pose.
The crowd cheers.
She can hear her clan chanting:
“MER-MAID, YOU HEAR US, PREY? MER-MAID, JUST WATCH US SLAY!”
They are stomping each word as though wanting to shake the earth to its core.
She murders the runway, firmly planting her stiletto in its spine with every step. Asserting herself. Strutting all over the leprotic glances she usually gets from people.
And poses and serves.
Working every inch of the vaporous fabric.
Presenting with pride.
And then, she reaches the end of the runway.
Pulling two strings, in the lower part of the corset, deploys the cape into wings attached to her shoulders.
Lustrous gold, looking ready to take flight.
And the crowd goes wild at the sight of her majesty:
“OVAH, YOU ARE OVAH!!”
Eva flips her head back and poses. Her hair moving in slow-motion almost, suspended just as time seems to have stopped.
For an instant of pure glory.
Her spirit soaring high above the crowd.
Adulation and bliss.
Galvanised, she spins one last time to the roars of the children and her family.
How she wishes this flash of a moment could last forever.
Later that night, after winning the Runway category by a landslide, after all the children and Mother Mermaid had left, Eva applies her everyday mask, the one to blend in, to not get killed in.
A darkening foundation to camouflage her Vitiligo, for starters.
Her long hair gathered in a ponytail and hidden under an oversized hoodie.
She grabs DJ White Boyie’s hand and they walk out of the community center into the Parisian night.
And so begins life’s everyday ball…
Some turn looks, but drag performer FERRAL LILITH K. chose to write books. Non-binary creature, they write stories exploring the great in-between of female and male energies.
Nathan doesn’t tell the secrets of his whereabouts nor the reason for his smile. Nathan knows he was never like other boys. Nathan knows he is not like the men we have come to know in movies. Nathan once wore a dress and danced in the moonlight leaking in his room, his face a half shadow, a half lit up terrain of mystery. Nathan once charmed a whole city with his dimples he loves to take advantage of. They are craters of the moon, and no one can deny the enigma of their origins. Nathan once swore at an officer then graffitied a statue, cursing the governed traditions we are born into. Nathan’s curly brown hair, his jade eyes, the chain on his pants, the polish on his nails, he rides the bus and people stare. They wonder where he could be going and who he might be seeing. You tell him at the bus stop his shoelaces are untied. He displays his signature smile and tells you that’s the way he likes it.
For SLOAN PORTER, the art of poetry has been an all-consuming journey since a young age. As a born and raised Montreal writer, interdisciplinary artist and proud queer, she’s most interested in exploring a darker side, the questions that linger at night, and the intense passions that drive us, but she’s often distracted by her romanticist tendencies. Find her on Instagram @sloan.porter.poetry for shades of red and black.
The sky was hung with pink the day I sent everyone away. By six minutes past golden hour, every living being except for me had disappeared from the city. I dropped the tome onto my unwashed sheets as I walked towards the door of my balcony. Stepping out into the evening air, it was bliss. The closest thing to peace I ever heard. No kids shrieking, no smokers hacking, no dogs yapping, no lovers fighting. It had worked. And I had one week.
I clutched the cool metal of the railing and let it anchor me in the moment. The thing I’ve struggled most with my entire life is being part of it, not just letting the days fall through me. If there was ever a moment that deserved to breathe, it was this. Watching that sky pregnant with peach, I grinned to myself. That was new, that grin. Or maybe I do that constantly and have no idea. Probably not, though.
My hands looked scrawny and helpless on the railing, like I’d just emerged for the first time from a life behind barred doors. Which I guess I had. There was chipped black polish on my nails. They always chipped the day after painting them. Something about that look felt equal parts regal and trashy, and that felt fine. But I was always so worried about people seeing my nails like this. Looking at them wrapped around the weathered rail of the balcony though, it felt right. It felt me.
One week with no other living being in the city. I’d tell how I did it, but I barely know. My mind leading up to the week was a fog. I was feeling something. Then I had this book, this volume. Then I knew what to do, what I needed, how to do it. And then I did it. Now, breathing room beyond measure, and a chance to think. That’s all I wanted – to think. People take thinking for granted and having a place to do it. Maybe everyone else doesn’t need that. Maybe I’m just doing a really bad job at thinking and being a part of life. At least I’m good at making people disappear.
I wanted to hurry and get this venture started. I ran back inside, and grabbed my bag as well as a leather jacket that had been bought on a whim two years ago and never once worn in public. Pulling it on with the mad energy of a streaker in reverse, I clambered out my door full of giddy, ethereal, and hopeful excitement and immediately tripped on the stairs and started plummeting to my death.
Everything got slow, the way it gets only when you are teetering on the razor of life and disaster.
“At least nobody’s around to see this,” I thought with grave solemnity.
Except this was slower than chasing my soccer ball out in front of a speeding minivan or choking on a cruel chicken bone hidden in some vindaloo. It was slow enough that I got my wits back in time to open my eyes and see them filled with pink vapor. As soon as I had seen it, my eyes cleared, and I saw the sidewalk an inch away before I plopped down on it. I shook my head and scrambled around to see what had happened, and I met a pink cloud.
A pink cloud is not a normal thing to meet, so I stared for a moment. Part of me was thinking that this was a great opportunity to really be there for that moment, really take it in. The majority of me was thinking how fucked up this was and how I almost died falling down my steps like an idiot, and how there was a little pink cloud at the bottom of my steps. It looked picturesque, somewhere between a watercolour fluff and a cartoon set-piece, just bobbing gently above the sidewalk.
“Wow, um,” I started. “Thank you so much for that.”
The cloud bobbed in silence.
“Okay I had just wanted to say thank you in case you could talk but you’re just some cloud aren’t you?”
The cloud continued its bob.
“Right. Okay. Well, I’m going to go explore a bit. Um. I’m going to stop talking now.”
I gave a quick wave goodbye to the cotton candy cloud and an inward grimace at my own ineptitude, then slung my bag over my shoulder and walked as hurriedly as possible down the nearest alley. One week.
The alleys crisscrossed the world of my neighbourhood, flowing from every major street through every stretch of homes. I had always been terrified to move through them. To be fair, nobody made much use of them. But did anybody actually twist themselves up worrying about it? Probably not. I had disappeared a city of souls, why was my heart racing as I stepped through the worn wooden fences and untended hedges? I wondered for a moment if anybody had ever done what I did, had whatever specialness inside of them to make those things happen. I felt something when it happened, something familiar but unplaceable. Maybe other people had felt that before too. Could I ask people? Would they tell me? Or would I just seem insane?
My thoughts carried me along and I realized that I had wound up deep within the arteries of the side streets. In all of my pondering, I hadn’t noticed that I stopped walking. The trunk of a crooked oak was beside me. I let my gaze follow it up to see the old tree’s foliage dangling above me, but was soon taken aback. There was the little pink cloud, hanging just above my head, billowing innocently. My body tensed for a moment, then I closed my eyes and let the taut air out of me. I was in control here. I had one week.
“You don’t need to follow me, you know,” I called up to the bit of bizarre weather. “I’d actually prefer to be left alone. Just thinking some things out.”
The cloud just billowed there. It felt like it was mocking me with its stoicism. “Well, I’m just going to carry on. So please don’t follow me.” And I scampered off down a path.
I knew that nobody was around, but I couldn’t help but feel anxious. I checked over my shoulder and darted my eyes side to side as I passed each fire escape, each back door. There was this sense of dread looming in me. What was that cloud doing? Why was it here? Did I accidentally summon it? It saved my life, but now it felt like this nagging, cloying thought. The thought had this familiarity, this feeling of something at the back of my mind. Every now and then I would look back and catch a glimpse of its pink fluff and redirect my path. The positive was that I didn’t have to worry about anyone getting in my way, or hearing people nattering, or jumping out of the way of cars as they pulled out. There was a freedom, even in this chase.
Eventually, I found myself clumsily trekking down a shrubby hill. It levelled out into a parking lot behind some abandoned brick building. I could tell from the path I had run that I was just behind the main drag of my area, but I couldn’t place what building this was. I started to circle around the side. It was nice to be looking at things from a different perspective, without the context of the buzzing world. Even a worn-down old spot like this had a freshness to it. The lens of this week. One week.
When I came out on the other side of the building, it hit me. I saw the big, dilapidated water tower rising up to bludgeon the sky. The pinks had gone blue; I hadn’t realized that night had fully set in. Now all that greeted me from above was a cantankerous thrusting wreck and the promise of darkness. I felt weird about the water tower, I always had. When I was a kid, I had these fantasies about climbing up one of those to do something spectacular. Not like I knew what I would actually do, but it would be spectacular. As I got older and looked at those water towers some more, I realized how worn down they were. My mind had fooled me into thinking they were these paragons of cleanliness and importance. But they were thumbs. And this water tower, which I could just barely see from my bedroom window, was the sorest of reminders. I had never looked at it like this before.
As I stared at the decaying tower, the familiar fluff of the pink cloud slowly floated into my vision. I blinked hard and frowned at it while it made its a scent towards the top railings of the water. Right below where it hovered, a chipped metal ladder stretched to the ground. My heart quickened at the thought, and I quickly shoved it down. Too crazy. Too unnecessary. Turning away from the cloud and the water tower, I started to make my way back along the ramshackle path I took here. I’d get some sleep and get an early jump on tomorrow, maybe figure things out a little easier with a rested brain. I took one last look over my shoulder and noticed that the cloud wasn’t following.
As soon as I got in the door, I slumped into bed. One week. I slept in late. Extremely late. I even went to bed early and I slept clean through noon. Maybe disappearing an entire city of people takes a lot out of you. The moment I realized how much of the day I had already exhausted, I threw myself back down into the waiting depths of my pillows in anguish. Why was I wasting my day like I always do? I had gone through all the trouble of this plan and I wasn’t even doing anything differently.
Tossing and turning, I fell in and out of sleep throughout the rest of the day. My mind kept wrapping around one thing: the water tower. By the time I had gotten sick of tussling with my sheets, it was dusk. One day, gone. I sighed as I pulled on my hoodie and schlepped myself out the door and down my near-deadly stairs. My brain knew where it wanted to go. I didn’t want to. But I was going.
When I arrived at the base of the water tower, I noticed that the pink cloud was in the exact same spot as last night.
“I didn’t see you today. Was wondering where you were,” I hollered up to the cloud. It floated there with what felt like indifference.
“You know, it’s probably dangerous to be up there. I mean I guess you’re a cloud but…Well, people shouldn’t just be up on water towers, so…”
I stared as the little pink cloud buoyed in the air. Despite being on edge in its presence, it truly was something beautiful. Maybe I was so high-strung about it because I didn’t understand it, or at least didn’t understand what it wanted with me.
Then the cloud began to descend, floating parallel to the ladder and stopping right at the base. I stared long and hard at those first few rungs. I hated this. I breathed in a huge gust of evening air and grasped the ladder. Why was I letting a cloud peer pressure me? Either way, I was doing it. I took another breath and made my way up. I got to the top platform and sat down with my back against the water tower, laughing and shaking from exhilaration, and then stopped when I realized all I did was climb a ladder. Peering out through the spaces around the hand railings, I could see the lights of the city giving false life to the empty streets. Then I looked up and behind me at the bare, barrel face of the water tower. It was like a grimace of construction compared to the white and yellow dots extending out below them. But I felt for it. The pink cloud orbited around my head, and I felt my mind drift.
Being up on the water tower had this weirdly familiar feeling. I started to have visions of a night at my old friend Emerson’s house, the woods that spread behind the property, and this clearing I would go out to with them. There was a rocky sort of canyon near a highway. I held Emerson’s ankles while they shook up a can of pink spray paint and tagged the stony edifice with a big “FUCK IT”, and we laughed maniacally for hours after. Emerson was always so cool. So sure of themselves. Full of angst and full of care. We drifted apart after high school, and I haven’t seen them since I moved away from my hometown. I wonder whatever happened to them?
I woke with a start in the cold breeze of the night. I looked at my phone – 1:30 A.M. How the hell did I fall asleep at the top of a water tower? I started to panic as I looked around, expecting something horrible before remembering that nobody else was there. Nobody else was anywhere for miles. That put my mind at ease for a second, but I decided that it’s better safe than sorry. I scurried back down the ladder and ran home. The pink cloud maintained its orbit around the tower.
Over the next few days, I fell off track. All of my time was spent in my apartment, either wrestling with my bed dressings, skimming unfocused through the tome, or staring at my reflection in the black of the TV screen. I had one week. Now I had five days. Four days. Three days. Why was I so scared to go out now? I kept thinking about the water tower, about the cloud, and most surprisingly about Emerson. Why were they on my mind? I wanted to use this time to clear my head a bit and get a handle on my pre-existing thoughts – whatever those were – not to add more mess to my mind. But there they were, smirking with pride.
There was always something about Emerson that made me feel jealous. I never knew exactly what, and I definitely never mentioned it to them. Right now I wish I had. I’ve always had trouble understanding just what I’m feeling, and I could use any answers I could get. I never really thought I had an issue talking about what’s on my mind, but I guess getting rid of every living thing to be in solitude with my thoughts is evidence enough.
On the sixth day, I was so annoyed at myself that the second I woke up I jumped out of bed and headed out the door to the empty city streets. I had to do something. I was desperate, upset, and felt like a failure. By golden hour tomorrow, everything was going back to normal and I didn’t feel any different, any better. I wasted almost the entire week. There had to be something I could do to salvage this solitude. Why couldn’t I just know what I want? What was wrong with me?
My flurry of worry tensed my entire body up and I had to stop and catch my breath. Huffing, I looked at the shop window beside me. It was a home improvement shop. And there in the window was a line of spray paint cans, lined up in a rainbow. And something in my mind just clicked. My eyes were glassy and transfixed on the can’s simple glossy beauty. My whole body felt like it was reaching out towards them. I saw the pink cloud floating in the reflection of the glass beside me.
Ten more minutes with no other living being in the city. I sat on my bed, grinning. I’d tell you how I did it, but I barely know. My mind throughout the week was a mess, but I started to feel this strength, this clarity, this simplicity, and I just acted. I took a can of pink from the store display. I left cash on the counter. Then I was up on the water tower. That big, ugly, hopeful thumb, waiting to be what I used to believe it was. Waiting to be itself. At first, I didn’t know what I was going to tag. But then Emerson’s smirk filled my mind, and my arm just started moving. It was vibrant. It was simple. I liked it. At the bottom of the ladder, I had looked up to take it all in. The pink cloud had been holding close to me the whole time. But at that moment, with a thought, it hovered no more.
And as I sat on the edge of my bed, I felt something like peace. At the very least, something nice. I squashed all feelings that said I wasted seven days of solitude. Never in my life would I have dreamed of doing what I had done, and there is no way I could have wasted it. I was proud of myself. I closed my eyes and turned my head towards the window as the golden hour washed over my eyelids, preparing for the return. I let out a good sigh, opened my eyes, and beamed at the big, pink Q beaming back at me from the water tower.
BRANDON LORIMER is a writer, musician, and actor from Halifax currently residing in Montréal. He began his writing career with his play Noun, a post-apocalyptic tale of two men surviving and loving in a bleak wasteland. Since then he has worked with multiple playwriting units, including Playwright Workshop Montréal’s Young Creators Unit. He enjoys absurdity, staring at the ocean, and drink too much Arizona.
sturdy stems succumbed to the weight of dead petals.
Pollen streaked my fingers orange as I gathered
them limp and dripping from the glistening vase.
Their fragrance lingered in the winter apartment
for another three days, pungent as too many cloves
in honey, or the wet/dry after-sex that stains
my pillows and sheets. Sex? you ask. Yes, flowers
are what I caress—time is collapsing around me—
won’t live my life without them.
WILDERNESS WALK WITH TOAD, FOX, AND SNAKE
The tap tap tapping of happy feet. The pounding of sexual rain.
Our thoughts finding each other in the swirling embrace of storm clouds and wind. The toad in the pond by the waterfall,
its bulging gold eyes and silver-green warts. The snake in the labyrinth of tall dead grass, the sensual red stripe
down its slippery black back. The single blue egg
in the robin’s nest, transformed into a worm-gulping beast. Home, in bed, you ask me to please brush your hair
the way your grandmother did. It’s soft, I say,
unravelling ringlets of gold with my willing fingers. Flesh of you, flesh of us. Rabbit in jaw, nose
in the air, fox scampers back to the storm-cloud wood.
JIM NASON has published six poetry collections, including, Rooster, Dog, Crow which was short-listed for the 2019 Raymond Souster Poetry Award. He has also published a short story collection The Girl on the Escalator and his third novel, Spirit of a Hundred Thousand Dead Animals, was recently published by Signature Editions, Winnipeg.
His stories, essays and poems have been published in journals and anthologies across Canada and the U. S., including Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008, 2010 and 2014.
“No word is oftener on the lips of men than Friendship, and indeed no thought more familiar to their aspirations.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I left Los Angeles early in the afternoon of a cloudy Thursday after surfing the morning in Santa Monica. I dropped off my rental board at the Rider Shack on Washington Boulevard and made my way out of the nightmare that is L.A. traffic, north on the 405 towards Palmdale. Past Mojave, I rolled onto the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. I would follow it from there to the Nevada border where it ends in Topaz, on my way to skiing in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe. Mammoth Mountain is on that stretch as well and my pass allowed me to go to both resorts any day of the week. I tried my best to avoid weekends and the crowds. This meant I had a few days to kill before hitting the slopes.
The East and West aspects of the Sierra Nevada take on distinctive characters. Elevation rises gradually from the west and the Great Central Valley, at an elevation of about 1000 feet, to 14,505 feet at Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The fall down to Lone Pine and the Owen’s Valley in the east, at about 3000 feet, is more rapid. While the Western face of the range rolls through towering hills covered in vegetation like the giant sequoias found nowhere else in the world, and only occasionally showing off the pure granite below like in the glacially carved Yosemite Valley, the steep faces of the Eastern Sierra are sharp monoliths, like grey teeth cutting through the brown desert.
Along the impressive route are a few well-known rock climbing areas that offer a great diversity in style and test the ability of all skill levels, from beginners to seasoned experts. Mt. Whitney’s bold face offers alpine style mountaineering. Bishop, a town north on the byway, is home to bouldering: climbing short problems without a rope, and often more technically difficult. In Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills directly below the Whitney Portal, there are countless trad and sport routes, climbs that require a rope and light equipment, what you would typically think of as rock climbing.
The Alabama Hills are maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and are a popular camping site, relatively close to L.A. County. Below Mt. Whitney are clusters and hills of round, alien looking rocks similar to those found in Joshua Tree, but brown and deceptively large – like pebbles dropped by the gods. I had heard about the area, and thought it would be a perfect spot to wait out the weekend. I am an intermediate climber, though at the time I had only climbed indoors in bouldering gyms. My plan was to hang out and wander with my climbing shoes trying whatever looked fun and safe.
Near twilight I hit dirt on Movie Road, where there were campervans and RV’s tucked in the rocks. I drove around for a while before I found an unoccupied site and settled in for the night. After a few months on the road I was used to the evening routine of reading in the dark while making dinner. Having the space to think, I felt like I had gained a heightened comfort with myself, and had ironed out many ideas I had jumbled into tight, convoluted knots.
On Friday morning, it was apparent the weekend crowds were getting an early start. I noticed some anchors and bolts on the walls, signs of climbing routes and, apparently, I had made my camp right in a prime climbing area called the Cattle Pocket. An hour later people were up on the wall behind me, families and friends enjoying the craft and the company. On my walkabout I had found a couple bouldering problems, but I quickly realized this was not the right spot for that. I returned to my campsite to soak up the sun and the rest of my beers while watching others climb, jealous of the state of flow they must be feeling.
Saturday morning, I woke up early to try to capture photos of the sunrise hitting the eastern faces. By noon, seemingly every rock had someone hanging off it. Seeing these people on real rock unearthed a deep longing in me. I was determined to find some rocks to climb. Amongst the boulders, I found a few problems I could complete and returned to my campsite pleased, but not satisfied.
Watching the climbers right above me, I chatted with some of the groups nearby. A climber from Seattle named Eric was living out of his van for the time being. He had found a few people to climb with for the morning, but they were leaving soon. He asked if I climbed.
“A little bit,” I said. “I have my shoes here, but my experience is in bouldering, and even then, its limited.”
“Have you done any here?” he asked.
“I’ve messed around, but I think the real action is up on the big rocks, and I don’t have a harness.”
“That’s okay. I have an extra one, and I need someone to belay me. Want to go climb?”
Being a boulderer, I was not practiced in belay, tending the rope while your partner is on the wall. I explained this to Eric, but he said it was no problem. He had been taught by people more experienced than him, and he was happy to take part in the tradition. We walked over to an easy route in a nearby section called the Corridors. He led the climb, placing the carabiners and coaching me on how to use a gri-gri, a belay device, from up on the wall. He flew up, and after slowly and nervously letting him down, it was my turn.
For some reason he seemed to be comforting me into trusting him, though he was the one taking the risk. Once the ropes were tied, I got on the wall and started going up. Compared to bouldering, especially in a gym, the climbing was easy, but it inspired a wholly unique experience. It was as different as running through the forest is from being on a treadmill. There was an intimate connection with the space I was a part of.
Earlier in the day I overheard a man say to his daughter, “Indoor climbing isn’t real climbing. Some people think it is, but it’s not.” In the moment I had taken offence to the comment, but now I understood.
Granite, especially the variety found in the Alabama Hills, is gritty. It sticks to hands and shoes. It means smaller holds give the same security. It stokes a confidence that everything is climbable. But as I rise, my body is aware that I am high above the ground and any mistake could be catastrophic. With each movement, my breath and heart rate accelerate, and my mind must work to settle my body before using it to reach the safety of the top. My spirit hangs inside me as my body hangs above the ground. A deep breath. My right foot moves up, make sure its secure. Okay, find something to grab with my left hand. Move up, and so on.
When I reached the end, I leaned back on the rope Eric held firm on the ground and took in the setting sun and the orange light it casts onto nearby peaks.
When I got back to the ground Eric said, “Now you’ve climbed in California.”
We spent the rest of the night exchanging stories and staring up at the bright stars of the empty desert sky. Eric was on his way to Red Rocks, outside Las Vegas, to climb with some friends before heading to Alaska to fish with his dad for the summer as he usually does. He had biked through Asia and lived in South America. He understood the life of a solitary nomad.
The next morning, we climbed the routes above my campsite that I had been a spectator to in the days before. We talked for a while after, but soon it was time for me to move on to Mammoth Mountain and another experience in the Eastern Sierra. We hugged, exchanged numbers and wished each other well. I turned on the car and pulled out onto the dirt road. When I rolled onto pavement, the road began to drop in elevation until I reached the byway where I continued north up the Owen’s Valley.
JOHN ALPAUGH is from Barrie, Ontario. He attended Dalhousie University and received a degree in physics and philosophy. His work has been featured in Blank Spaces magazine.
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