Keep Goin’

by Myliyah Hanna

I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO RIDE A BIKE.

In admitting to such, I reveal that a “quintessential” American childhood rite of passage was taken from me. Somewhere in a quaint suburban town, where the houses circle an untouched-by-potholes cul-de-sac, a mother watches her children, maybe two or three of them, cycle in loops on the driveway. Then somewhere in a city, with its gummy, concrete sidewalks, are Black boys standing on the pedals of their bikes as they race to the park to shoot hoops. Chicago is no stranger to bikers. In my neighborhood, families with their young kids and babies take morning rides. The kid’s helmet is usually covered in bright obnoxious cartoons. The people who ride them pedal forward, always forward, sticking their arms out to signal a turn. They wait for the green light like cars.

Growing up in New York means learning to speak the language of subways. Sit on this cart, by this door, to be closest to the station exit. Language is muscle memory. I was never taught to speak the language of bike chains and helmets. Yet somehow, in the eyes of the other, I am lacking. Everyone’s supposed to be able to ride a bike. It is always the ever-general “everyone” that gets me, the “everyone” who lies on the outside of its periphery because “everyone,” to this day, does not always account for the outliers.

*


I am seven years old. The day is sunny, spring temperature. We are in the Statue of Liberty Park in New Jersey, uncreatively named for the land’s proximity to the Lady in Green. I’m on a bike–pink, I think it is, with streamers on the ends of the handles that reflect blue and purple and green–and there’s some wind on my cheeks. My legs are moving and something warm, frothy, is welling up in my lungs. The wheels are spinning. Children in the grass, on either side of the bike path, are running with their kites, diamonds and dragons casting shadows over their heads. I’m moving faster than them. This is what it means to fly. Keep goin keep goin, he says from behind me. I am looking forward. I think I am happy in this memory. To call this new taste of excitement “happiness” is cheapening the jubilee in my smile, in the ecstatic shout that escapes my chest. I turn back to look at him–

This is where the memory ends. I do not remember my father’s face.

*


“Let’s go for a bike ride.” I’ve received an invitation just like this, or one of its many variants, plenty of times. We’d be out enjoying the nice weather, or inside lying on the couch and listening to music. I’ve made friends with a number of active, outdoorsy types. I adore these friends of mine, with their wide lawns and annual family vacations.

“I’d say yes, but I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

I know how their reaction will play out. It starts with a rapid-fire series of blinks. If you can count, it’s usually between three and five. Their brows slowly come together, mirroring the speed at which their brain is making sense of the string of words I just uttered. I imagine they’re picturing me on a bike, riding it, and yet their conscience is yelling no because that image is a fantasy. Then the mouth opens slightly or drops open if they’re more dramatic in their reaction. Something is just not adding up; everyone knows how to ride a bike. Yet here I am, telling them that I cannot do what that nosy son of a bitch “everyone” can.

For a long time, I didn’t understand the reason for the dramatic responses, the laughter. Not knowing how to ride a bike didn’t strike me as terrible–a phenomenon akin to committing some kind of white-collar crime. There wasn’t time to learn, there was no bike to learn on. This is what I would tell people at first. Simply put, I would rather take the playful shock than deal with the pity that would inevitably come after telling them that the man who was once my teacher was no longer in my life. That would inevitably lead to a deeper, more invasive conversation about where he had gone, why fathers were necessary. And perhaps there would be some truth to their statements, but it would come from the same place that believed everyone should be able to ride a bike. The pity would be stronger, uncomfortable. Pity would imply that I am feeling pitiful about it, and that, simply put, is not the truth.

*


Most of my life was spent with my mother and sister. They were all I needed to be whole.

Sometime in my junior year of high school, I attended an end-of-semester award ceremony. Families flooded the auditorium–mothers and aunts preparing their phones to catch their prodigy walk across the stage.In the crowd were men–standing brusquely–chests puffed out like pigeons– waiting for the ceremony to get to the part that mattered. Speech, speech, yada yada–where’s my kid? Once it was time, their children would clamber up onto the stage to retrieve their award, get their spotlight, their fathers’ booming applause filling the space. And suddenly I was thinking about that day on the bike, details foggy and clear at the same time, so distinctly long ago that it could’ve been entirely made up.

It was the clearest memory I had of him.

It was a sudden thought. I focused my energy on cheering and clapping for friends who were called to the stage, who stood awkwardly while their parents ran up front to get pictures. Friends did the same for me. During that particular ceremony, I was called up quite a bit for math awards despite it being my worst subject. I was filled with something that felt like longing. It didn’t feel true to say that I was missing him at that moment. Still, the idea of his proud pat on my back seemed nice. It was just an idea, something never to be given a voice.

*


On Father’s Day, I will send a text to my uncle.

*


I am seven, I think. I am in a kitchen with its white walls and oak cabinets. There’s a bowl of soggy cereal in front of me; it’s colorful, saccharine. I don’t remember why, but I don’t finish my breakfast.

Something is missing in the interim, but I blink and I’m in the living room. The walls are lined with cardboard boxes; somehow their usual brown feels muted and grey. My sister is on the right of me, and on her right is Pam, a woman we understood, then, to be our father’s “good friend.” Sometimes she would bring us back home from Jersey after our weekend spent with our father at her house. We liked her, Pam, and she liked us. At this moment, her face was wrong; normally, she was smiling, but there was something deep in her frown. My sister and I read it to be sad. She is sad. And we are sad for her. What we as mere children understand as “sad” is much more than that. We wouldn’t learn of this difference until years later.

Across from us is a deep green, seemingly black, couch. And sitting on it is my father, knees spread, head low. I think he is wearing a cap. Or is it a durag? He is looking at my sister and me; I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember the width of his nose or if his ears stick out. I don’t remember his smell or the color of his shirt, or is it a football jersey? When I remember this day, whatever that means, I try not to think of him as the focal point. The blurring of his persona from my memory seems more significant. And yet, every time I return to this day, I am left thinking that this is the beginning of some kind of childhood trauma, as others would make me feel towards it.

“Alright girls, it’s time to go.” Pam nods her head in the direction of the front door, where our jackets hang adjacent. We follow our nonverbal orders well; our mother would be appalled if we were disrespectful to anyone, no matter the relationship. Still, something isn’t right. Neither one of us can explain what it is. Our father seems sad.

This is only a guess. I do not remember my father’s face.

For six months after this day, we will ask our mother why he hasn’t come to pick us up.


*


In the beginning of September, my mother and I rented a car and drove out west towards Chicago. It was a black Jeep Cherokee, packed strategically so we could see out of the back mirror and so the weight was evenly distributed.



She was nervous about me being behind the wheel. I hadn’t had my license for even a year when I decided that driving out there ourselves would be more cost-effective. I chased the dying sun for about five hours, eyes focused, foot switching between brake and gas. The route we were taking was straightforward, hundreds of miles, riddled with construction. 70 to 45 mph, rinse and repeat.

Somewhere in the middle of Ohio, I thought about the bike. Here I was driving a car, a vehicle responsible for more deaths than most Americans would care to acknowledge, and I still didn’t know how to ride a bike. A couple of nights before the move, I watched riding tutorials on YouTube. It looked easy and familiar even though I was certain I would fall on the first attempt. Maybe I was missing out on something after all. Or maybe I was starting to crack under the pressure. Not that there was significant pressure–I was never bullied or threatened for the lack of the skill. I just figured, with being able to drive, it would probably make sense to learn how to pedal and balance and control the brakes down a steep incline.

Those were zoned-out thoughts, things coming and going through my mind as I hit the gas and entered the unbroken highway.

*


It was winter break of my second year of college. I was sitting in the passenger seat of our then-car, a silver and smaller SUV, and the heat was going. The seconds ticked away on the phone call time. It was my father’s voice booming through the car door speakers, or at least as he told me. Until then I couldn’t describe the tenor or pitch, the gravel in his voice that came with age. When he first spoke, a bell deep in my subconscious struck once, twice, and the look on my mother’s face confirmed what I didn’t want to know.

“How are you?” I think he asked.

“…good,” I think I said.

“It’s good to hear you.” I paid no attention to the sentiment in his words. I responded to his probing as best as I could: yes, my day is going well; no, I don’t go back to school for a couple of weeks. I was stoic and uninterested. Yet I felt frustration thrumming in my jugular. Minutes later, my mother told him that we had more errands to run and ended the conversation. The music replaced his voice. For a moment, I thought it hadn’t been real. Maybe I was exhausted from school to the point of hallucination. My mother said, “He wanted to talk to you,” and I bit my lip to keep the sarcastic answer to myself. So it had been real. So that was his voice.

An hour after we returned home, his voice had penetrated our apartment. He called again and she answered and his voice was coming through the speaker on her phone. He was saying he got chased out of town, that he had no choice but to leave in order to protect us. In the back of his head, I imagine he hoped I would find his story a reflection of his valiance, his heroism, and think, what a guy!, but on the surface of my frontal lobe–

What a fucking sucker.

As he spoke, I was reminded of what I grew to understand. Younger, I didn’t have the words to fully articulate it, but I knew that he was mean for leaving us, for not saying why. He swept us out, hurrying us out the door before we could ask if he would get us again for the weekend. He didn’t hug us goodbye or help us put on our coats; no, he watched Pam fasten the buttons from the couch, staring past us. No matter of storytelling and explanation would change for me that he was, and perhaps would always be, a selfish man.

On the tip of my tongue was a lack of sympathy; my fingertips were itching to press the red phone button and end this futile attempt at fatherhood before it could begin. It felt intrusive and wrong. Before the phone call even began, my mother said she wanted me to hear him out. I was jaded by the sentence; why was I expected to make space in an already tiny box for him? There was no room for him, no space to give. I accepted that my family was my mother, my sister, and me. And sure, he had been there once–before remembering and having childhood memories meant something.

My mother and sister were listening, taking it in, faces contorted with questions. I thought about how the three of us have come to balance each other out. We established our routines and understandings of our personalities. In the midst of his phone call was one of the few times I couldn’t tell what they were thinking.

Once he hung up, silence spilled into the living room. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Silence like that–cold and stiff–a body dredged up from under the floorboards–unnerved all of us. I pressed the tendon between my thumb and my index finger for one, two, three, then release, then one, two, three, then release, until my sister sighed and the silence gave us a moment to reach out for breath.

I imagined for my sister the phone call was closure, finally being able to relax a fist that had been shut tight for years, muscles aching with tension. I listened to my sister and mother teeter-totter off each other, both nodding slowly and coming to conclusions from his words. Eventually, I removed myself from the conversation. I would grow to understand the human desire for completion, for the two ends of a circle to finally meet. One day I would feel that towards him. And one day this wouldn’t be an interruption–it would merely be an alternate route to the same place.

And I think, had he been truthful about being a changed man, that that is the end we all would’ve wanted.

*


Sometime during this fever dream of my father’s peacocking, I remember my growing persistence to understand why I needed to interact with him at all. In response, my mother said that the relationship with my father would affect my future relationships. I thought about the many times my maternal grandfather would call our house, sometimes drunk, sometimes plain irritable in his attempts to reconnect with my mother. “I didn’t think it would affect me,” she said, “but it did.” I shuffled it away in the file of Black mother wisdom.

As time went on, as I dated more, I think back to that conversation. How unfair, that parts of my life will somehow be guided and shaped by a man who wasn’t present in my puberty or the end of it. How on point, that the life of a growing woman is determined by the presence or lack thereof of her father, a man who chose to leave. Men are given choices, and women are given consequences. I think about the women who sit at award shows, who attend the annual company barbeques, who no longer go after their passions in an effort to see their husbands through to their success. Soft, tender kisses to their cheeks. “You’re my rock,” the husbands will say; and in this teeny little box all of us exist in, we’ll read the husbands’ words as endearing. Unconsciously, we will know what the husbands mean: their greatness matters more than their wives’.

You were meant to be small.

I don’t believe my mother thinks I should shrink myself for a relationship. Still, I wonder why a man who made the conscious decision to leave deserves space in my life, why I’m encouraged to give him that real estate. I suppose the question, then, is what does it mean to live as an incomplete circle?

*


What is a daughter without her father?

*


Soon it’ll be March. The sun has started to peek its head over the horizon a little longer. Chicagoans are still wrapped in wool scarves. People are standing under the heaters on the train platform less. When it’s warm enough to wear just a cardigan, just a light jacket, I will climb atop a bike, one leg planted on the ground, a childish grin on my face.

When I take off, struggling to balance, I’ll think of the seven-year-old on her bike with training wheels and duochrome streamers on the handles, how she never finished learning how. I’ll keep goin for her. I’ll learn how to ride a bike, maybe on my own, or with the help of others. And maybe then we won’t feel the sting of others thinking we’re unfinished, somehow lacking. It’ll be the ending we deserve. It’ll be my love letter to her, my cheer and support–the world is too big to be trapped in such a small box. A girl like you needs all the space she can get.

Now start with one foot off the ground. And push, push, forward.



Myliyah Hanna is an upcoming essayist from the Bronx and a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Cheap Pop and Zora. She maintains a personal blog at myliyahhanna.com. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of Small Fictions award. She lives in Chicago with her cat Jasper. 

The Forests I Have Lost

by Theophilus Kwek

And, after all, it is to them we return.
Their triumph is to rise and be our hosts:
lords of unquiet or of quiet sojourn…

— Geoffrey Hill

I.

The first was one I’d never even ventured into. It lurked on a low hill behind our house, and, by the time we moved in, had been parted down the middle like the Red Sea – or the neat path through my father’s hair – to shorten the journey to our MRT station. For years, I went to bed terrified of the creatures that might dwell within (Singapore’s last wild tiger was, alas, killed in 1930), before finally daring to cross it on my own, aged ten, to catch the bus to school. 

It must have occurred to me even then that our darkness-defying footpath, recently paved and still brightly lit, was a sign of things to come. But the developers dragged their feet and our forest stayed, unruly and unruled, to shield us from the world. On occasion, a ten-foot python would steal into someone’s drainpipe, but a quick call to wildlife rescue was all it took to return the creature to its haunts. For the most part, I grew up with friendlier neighbours: kingfishers on our back gate, the odd civet-cat, bats feasting among the fruit-trees next door.

We moved into public housing when I was twelve, and after seven years I moved again, to another country. So the end, when it came, was muted by time and distance; relayed, like the death of a relative, through cousins who still lived in the estate. 

What happened – I imagine – was this. One weekend, men with name-tags and shovels would have come to breach the fence around our forest’s fringe, clearing the perimeter for heavier equipment. Then the toughest work: trees sawn at the base, split and piled; denser understory dug from the earth. More men arriving afterwards with more machinery to stamp recalcitrant roots in place, level the overgrown hilltop to a surveyor’s plane. 

By the time I returned home, four years later, a housing project had taken pride of place at the top of the road. Someone had thought to name it ‘The Glades’, even if barely a sliver of the old canopy remained. All steel and glass, it barely seemed to fill the space: dwarfed, almost, by the ground beneath it. Even our home felt smaller. Stopping by one weekend, we realised the new tenants had re-done our yard, where a dishevelled palm had once held court. The new, neat porch felt like a scene from a film shot on location, with the plots of impossible lives layered over ours. 

With an image of that now-shaven hill in mind, I began to realise that I lacked a vocabulary for its disappearance. I had read plenty of books that dealt with more personal losses, but none that quite prepared me for this – losing a forest that I loved and feared at a distance. 

I come from a part of the world, after all, that has acquired new literatures as quickly as it has lost old landscapes. Poets and novelists from our region observe how built environments have been transformed by urbanisation and globalisation, turning established social worlds on their heads. Fewer have written about the contests that continue to take place on the city’s edge, pitting tightly ordered streets against the rooted knowledge of field or forest. 

This is especially so in Singapore, where I live. On the one hand, the loss of natural habitats has formed a rallying-point for civil society: over the last decade, the government’s plans to run a highway through different segments of the Central Catchment Reserve have earned sustained opposition from a wide and colourful lobby. But ruffled feathers do not translate easily into the landscapes of our imaginations. Instead, jungles of the concrete variety have come to lend their ersatz backdrop, of a flourishing literary scene with thoroughly urban sensibilities. 

During my time abroad, I attempted to make sense of my lost forests by turning to a rich tradition of landscape literature in the English language – a genre which, in 2014, was being revived under the label of ‘New Nature Writing’. 

Many authors claimed their places in this lineage with close observations of local landscapes; from Gilbert White’s landmark Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne to Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, a paean to the no-man’s-lands of the 1970s. More recently, writers like Kathleen Jamie, Helen McDonald, and Elizabeth Jane-Burnett were reinventing the genre, taking the natural landscape as a foil for the personal and global anxieties of a new millennium. 

All these writers could name native species as if they were friends, map every hollow of a habitus, or habitat, locations which they knew from inside out. But though their deciduous worlds welcomed me in, I still grasped for words to describe the uprooting of what had, for me, always been at arm’s length. 

Like everyone else I knew growing up, my own forests grew almost exclusively in the past and conditional tense, as what had already been cleared to make way for the city, or what would one day be paved and signposted for a weekend’s walk. It seemed a privilege to have such intimate awareness of one’s landscapes, even to know where to look for a knowledge of what was gone. 

It was too late for me to tear down that fence at the edge of my wood – but here I was, miles from my own disappearing forests, trying to come to terms with a more peripheral loss. 

II. 

Flying home each summer became synonymous with such absences. Fighting off the jet-lag on my commute from the airport, I’d keep count of the new malls and condominiums that had sprung from once-empty fields. The forests of my childhood hovered like a ghostly presence above the shape-shifting landscape, refusing to give up their place in my subconscious. 

One year, it was the deep wood behind our church, yanked away like a scab to show the red earth beneath. The next summer, it was a forest that arched over the side-gate of my secondary school, the last outcrop of an overgrown cemetery dug on its slopes. Years after the graves were exhumed, the last pockets of remaining forest were to be replaced by astroturf. All that remained were the old columbarium’s jade-green tiles: the boys would have their artificial grass. 

Back in 2007, when I first went to school there, the Land Transport Authority announced plans to fell a century-old tree that stood by a traffic flyover behind the campus. The decision – ostensibly, to protect motorists who might veer too close to its trunk – was thought to be prime-time material, and every news outlet reported on the tree’s fate. What seemed to grate on everyone’s nerves was that two years earlier, the same Authority had chosen to preserve the tree by building the three-lane flyover around it, but now decided that this was too dangerous after all. 

Never ones to forgo a ‘teachable moment’, our teachers organised classroom debates around the Authority’s decision, taking the chance to fix sentence structures as we made fervent arguments about ‘The Disasters of Development’ or ‘The Powers of Compromise’. It may be that too long has passed since then, but I struggle to recall if any of us actually took notice when the old angsana was felled. Like other roadside trees that had become inconvenient, it must have been hewn down under the cover of night; branch by branch, and out of sight. 

This episode is memorable for many reasons, not least for what it revealed of a school that dared to prepare us for the big questions of running the country, but not always for the small truths of living in it. For more than 150 years, it had produced men who thought themselves planters and planners; under their leadership, a gregarious young country had come of age. By the time I enrolled, the school had come to see itself as no less than a seeding-ground for the city’s elite. 

One Chinese proverb puts it this way: it takes ten years to cultivate a tree, a hundred to cultivate a man (or a people). The character for ‘cultivate’ has shades of meaning; here, it reads as the verb ‘to nurture’, but also as the noun for ‘tree’. Just as a garden must be pruned before it comes into bloom, I can almost hear my teachers say, one’s character can only flourish if it is trained and taught. Needless to say, the old colonial institution found itself faithful to the task.  

In 2015, some years after I graduated, the school was designated as a nomination centre for the parliamentary elections, and I made my way back to hear the candidates make their maiden speeches. One of the ruling party’s new faces that year was an alumnus, who happened to be running in the same constituency where the campus was. Stepping up to the podium, he gestured to the high-rise apartments on all sides, reminded of how his party had turned ‘swamps into showflats’, a success mirrored in the life-stories of his prospective constituents. 

Except, of course, it hadn’t – or at least, not here. A century and a half ago, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants had chosen the hilly, wooded area as a communal cemetery, and built two villages in the vicinity. One village came to be run by a federation of sixteen Cantonese clans, which oversaw a population of more than two thousand by the early 1900s. When the Japanese arrived in 1942, the high ground of the cemetery made it a natural staging-ground for many skirmishes, echoed in the bitter gang fights that erupted in the area after the British returned.   

From at least a century before the postwar government began its first housing project in Bishan, then, the area had been of no small significance to local communities, who negotiated their forested slopes into a precious resource for the living and dead. Perhaps I was naïve to expect more from a moment of glib electioneering, but something about how he waved history aside troubled me deeply. Our forests, it seemed, were forgotten long before they were even felled.  

III.

It is safe to say that no state has had a straightforward relationship with its forests. The word itself has tangled roots, signifying in Old English both woodland and hunting ground. Not long after the Norman Conquest, it became a legal term for the new aristocracy’s game preserves, and the ‘New Forest’ in South England was one of the oldest, so called. Later, the crown would find more uses for its forests: timber for the ships of empire, or vast tracts of land to reward loyal nobles with.    

To those in power, forests have always been equally tempting and forbidding. Abundant in riches, yet careful guardians of secrets, forests are fertile for conquest, but lend a safe haven to the rebel and exile. Little wonder that so many tales of resistance are set in sylvan surroundings, from the Green Knight’s duel with Gawain, to Robin of Sherwood’s egalitarian heroics. These stories have since arrived on stage and screen, most memorably in Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods.   

Here, the same dynamics are evident. From the clearing of rainforest for plantation agriculture to the making of Western reputations on indigenous ‘discoveries’, Malaya’s forests were exploited by generations of colonial administrators, aided by the business classes that flourished on their watch. Early traders dealt in rare produce, while later merchants shipped rubber and tin to fuel a distant ‘industrial revolution’. The jungle itself was held at bay: one well-worn tale from my alma mater involves a former Headmaster shooting a tiger under the bar of the Raffles Hotel. 

After the Japanese left, the Malayan National Liberation Army took to the woods for a decade-long guerilla campaign against the British, and the tiger came to stand for Communism itself – or at least, the righteous and unpredictable fury of the anti-imperialist movement. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was said to have won power by ‘riding the tiger’, but the image of a ‘Garden City’ that he later promoted was far more amenable to investors from the West. Without irony, the country successfully applied for its colonial-era Botanic Gardens to be accorded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, exactly half a century after political independence. 

Much of this history remains visible in our urban geography. Old Peranakan houses financed by the plantations of an earlier era still stand along Orchard Road, which now serves as our main shopping belt. The Thai Embassy occupies the site of one such mansion, first acquired by King Chulalongkorn in 1880. A stone’s throw away, the President’s official residence – built entirely by convict labour – sits on the sprawling nutmeg slopes of Mount Sophia.  

Though sizeable tracts have already been lost to developmental projects, even the forests that survive are enlisted to the national purpose. During National Service, we’d drive out to ‘training plots’ across the island to watch 18-year-old recruits practice against an imaginary enemy. Occasionally, we’d find the ruins of demolished or abandoned villages, their crumbling walls now used as props for infantry maneuvers. No doubt, some of their former residents are still alive. Yet the Singapore they knew could well have been an altogether different place. 

These days, one hardly encounters ‘true’ forests in urban Singapore. Larger tracts line our landlocked reservoirs, and others fringe upon our mangrove waterways. Those closer to the city centre are whittled down or hemmed into ‘park connectors’, while rooftop palms cast a semblance of long-lost shade. We take perverse pride in our roadside trees and verges, tended to evergreen perfection by low-wage workers who spend difficult hours on these modern ‘plantations’. The Garden City remains verdant, while their labour provides the window-dressing.  

In late 2016, Singapore made an appearance on Planet Earth. It was the city’s debut on the series, despite playing host to an astonishing range of flora and fauna (including five hundred species discovered in the past five years). As David Attenborough’s narration went on, cameras homed in on the gleaming ‘Gardens By The Bay’, a 101-hectare development at the mouth of the Singapore River, which, the producers hoped, would point a way forward for urban greening. 

Unmentioned was the fact that this billion-dollar project sat entirely on reclaimed land, part of a coastline altered forever through the bulk purchase of sand from across the region – not to mention the destruction of marine ecosystems. And all the more unnoticed: how the Gardens’ two iconic greenhouses, built on earth stolen from the sea, seemed to represent the way in which a country had tamed its forests at long last, building for them an oasis of air-conditioned calm.    

IV.

The lines at the beginning of this essay are taken from Geoffrey Hill’s poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ (1968), where they refer to the warm, cathedral stillness of the English church, open by custom – as they would have been in Hill’s day – to the homeless and destitute. There’s a wry nod to the 19th-Century architect Augustus Pugin (best known for having designed ‘Big Ben’), whose eponymous tract urged a return to an architectural style he saw as the ‘correct expression of the faith…and climate of our country’. 

Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, those lines seem better suited for an older and more universal calm: the sense of earthy resolve that settles over us once we step into a forest’s hush. Despite our penchant for depicting forests as untamed and dangerous, they retain a capacity to carve reflective pauses out of our hyper-active days, even in the mere moments we spend beneath their canopies. Gone is the hard asphalt from beneath our feet. We feel the spring and crunch of leaves, a pleasing cool in the air, and the trees take us under their wing. 

It is for this reason, perhaps, that forests seem inseparable from belief. In January 2019, National Geographic ran a story on Ethiopia’s ‘church forests’, some of which date to the fourth century. Surrounded by harsh desert, these pockets of green envelop hand-painted buildings of wood and stone, lovingly maintained by the congregations of the Orthodox Tewahido Church. To them, the forest has always been ‘as much a part of the religious space as the church building itself’. 

A similar association persists in Singapore, albeit on a more prosaic scale. It’s hard to walk through any of our older estates without encountering a ‘tree shrine’: one of many meeting-places of Hindu, Taoist, and Islamic tradition, as ancient in their syncretism as this port-city itself. 

The question of where, and how, we worship is inextricably tied to what we rely on for a sense of welcome and security. Though our oldest ‘tree shrines’ are lost to time, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how those coming ashore in an earlier era would have found, in the forests’ calm repose, a refuge from the threatening seas. Or how the trees’ agnostic shade would have afforded a natural gathering-place for those with few shared languages or traditions.   

The part of Singapore where my first, lost forest is located is known as Tanah Merah – literally, ‘red earth’. Among the manuscripts available to us today, the name first appears on a 1604 map of the island by the Bugis-Portuguese travel writer Manuel Godinho de Erédia. It was, as historians have surmised, a reference to the blood-red cliffs on the island’s eastern flank, which served as a navigational landmark for the orang laut, who have frequented our waterways for centuries. 

Those heights, once so reliable a guide, no longer exist, having been levelled in the 70s to extend our southeastern shoreline. Part of the area which became the housing estate where I grew up, while what was once known as Tanah Merah Besar (the ‘greater cliff’, as opposed to Tanah Merah ‘Kechil’, the ‘lesser’), was shorn down to make way for Changi Airport’s third terminal.  

I like to imagine that my own tree-topped hill was once part of another history, a past that reaches much further back, and remains open to much wider possibilities than the timeline we have grown accustomed to. In that history, its indomitable forest still stands, the crown jewel of a long red ridgeline beaming welcome and journey’s end to those out at sea. 

Being orphaned of that forest, what gives me a sense of refuge now are individual trees that, defying the city’s logic, have come to root deep in the mind’s terrain. In my final year at Oxford, I lived on the ground floor of Grove Building, an old house that looked over the city wall onto Merton Field, where James Sadler made England’s first hot-air balloon ascent in 1783. A tall redwood rose like a sundial over the lawn outside, throwing its deep shadow across my study table. 

Five years on, I am writing this in my office, nestled beneath the austere blocks of the Singapore General Hospital. Across from me, separated by a pocket of green, are the old dormitories of the King Edward VII College of Medicine, reassuring in their bauhaus simplicity, while a rain tree of unknown vintage reaches over the low buildings. On hot September afternoons, it casts a clean circle on the grass, as if inviting us to step away from our desks and breathe its cool. 

Trees such as these offer a universal, age-old belonging that seems radical in the modern metropolis. Unlike malls and cafes, islands of bourgeois respectability which have come to pass for ‘public space’; trees insist on their own place in the landscape, creating misshapen zones of rest, reverence, and play that are as safe as they are open. All are utterly welcome beneath their shade: their generosity, so unnatural to our present ethos, astounds us.

Lest we miss the forests for the trees, our true loss may well be this: a sense of the wider ecology in which we have lived and must live, a knowledge of the messy, mutual dependencies that belie the straight lines of our streets and stories. I started this essay to seek a language for the forests I had lost, but the histories retold here only begin to shed light on what new ways we might find to speak to each other. 

Words we might learn, that take our collective past and present into account. And make a path, perhaps, through the trees.


Theophilus Kwek has published five volumes of poetry and was shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize. His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and The London Magazine. He has edited several books of Singaporean writing and serves as editor of Oxford Poetry. His next collection, Moving House, will be released by Carcanet Press (UK) in June 2020. 

Notes from the Latigo Pasture: a Summer on the Colorado Steppe

by Bruce Hoppe

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Don’t call me by that name. A tawdry developer’s hawking. West Coast investor speak. A peddler’s cinematic hustle to conjure up images to families of the chance to have their very own cul-de-sac piece of the Wild West out there on the Colorado plain. You will get me soon enough this I know. My great grassy expanse will bear the scrape and scour of hulking yellow diesel motors until I am carved into a modest domestic grid—a mélange of civilized defeat. But I am not done yet so don’t call me by that name.”

If the Latigo could speak it would say: “Call me by any of the names that I am. Call me by the name that tells of the crackling ricochet of static electricity as foxfire streaks along the top strand of barbed wire in the luminescent green shadow light prelude to the monsoon wizard’s tempest. Or call me by the name of the evening song of the male lark bunting as the summer solstice nears, the musical score of his refrain perfectly synchronized to a precise patterned arc of his flight. I am these things and more so call me by the names that I am.”

This is how it was back then. The prairie primordial. You could stand at its epicenter surrounded by an ocean of grass and lift your gaze to the far horizon there the gray-purple colossus called Pike’s Peak kept its fourteen thousand foot above sea-level sentinel watch over the plain. You could ride a horse past a badger boldly sunning himself on the dirt mound earthworks at the portal of his den. You could pause within a few feet of a nesting infant antelope blended into the tawny tufts of dried prairie plants and she would not run. Too weak yet for flight and in the absence of her mother’s defense her only chance instinct and hope.

The Ute and Arapaho knew these things even as they preoccupied themselves with their running territorial conflicts. The gold rushers hurried past these things in pursuit of the material, precursors to modern times. The famous rodeo cowboy Hugh Bennett ranched this country and the older locals still called it by his name. But before it was done, before it passed into memory there was one more traveler who came to know this land the way it was, its dreams, lies and whispers—its story. Only there for a very short time. He made do. In the native beauty of his surroundings his life and his notion of place became inseparable. When he left he took nothing with him but the thought of how near he had been to the impossible. For in truth there was nothing to take, save the memory as if a forge in which he would be relentlessly tempered for the road and the things to come.


Bruce Hoppe has received multiple New Mexico Press Association awards for journalism. His feature and investigative journalism articles have appeared in publications including the Union County Leader and the Boulder Weekly. He is the author of two novels: Don’t Let All the Pretty Days Get by and The Thomas Ladies Club. He has taught writing classes at Colorado State University, New Mexico Highlands University, and Luna Community College. When not at his writing desk, he can usually be found horseback prowling Colorado pastures.

Moving Sand, Moving Water, Moving People

by Heather Marie Spitzberg

As a child I lived on a narrow street without shoulders or painted lines. Across the pavement was what we called the swamp. Beyond the swamp was a small clear lake. Our feet entered that cool water and emerged with cuts from mussels to become covered in sand and pine pitch. I wondered about that sand, misplaced as it was, at the edge of the otherwise rocky shore.

We shared that place with a scattering of other homes and hundreds of hemlocks and oaks. I glided from water to land as effortlessly as the beavers inhabiting the stream that fed the lake. My dad and I regularly walked the stream, and I delighted in beavers slapping their tails to warn others of our arrival.

In 1985 Hurricane Gloria doused us with rain, wind, and panic. Birches weren’t supposed to be horizontal against a sky the color of a yellowed bruise. After days of helping crews remove debris from the roads, we inspected the river. A fallen maple created a new bridge to cross. A sheared-off tree top blocked the deer path we followed. The beavers’ dam had broken. Water poured over the breached sticks and mud as it might out of a pitcher. The animals had begun rebuilding in a different place, further downstream. I wish my young self knew to study the advantages of that location over the other.

In 1994 I stood on the shore of a private-access beach, spiral-bound notebook in hand, salted air frizzing my hair. Finished with my count of Piping Plover nests, I slid my notebook into my waistband and walked to where the land ended at fast flowing water between me and the next beach to the south. In the middle of the river that fed acres of tidal marshes behind the beaches floated a brachiosaurus-sized machine that scooped buckets of sand onto a barge.

The beach maintenance person told me they were returning the canal to where it belonged after Bob moved it. He meant Hurricane Bob, which had devastated the New England coast over two years prior. Twenty feet away, on the other side of the flowing water, was a public-access beach. Once the birds fledge, he said, they’ll pump sand on the dunes to restore them, too. He pointed to where snow fencing and months-old Christmas trees wrangled sand into a pile attempting to grow valuable dunes.

The naturalist in me held back a scoff at the idea that a canal or dunes belonged anywhere other than where they existed, no matter human need, history, or understanding.

The young woman in me who had been raised by local government employees in the Country’s Live Free or Die state saw the consequences of twenty feet of shore on tax base, tourism, and the owner’s sense of, well, ownership.

In the mid-twentieth century, my mom grew up outside of Daytona Beach before moving north. The beach she knew formed one half of a track with cars speeding onto the adjacent Route A1A for a race’s second leg. Flattened dunes provided seating for the throngs of fans, precursors to today’s NASCAR enthusiasts.

We visited throughout my childhood, years after the beach was rescued from the racetrack. Dunes had been restored and hotels built. Mom commented on the beach’s improvement, even with its risky towers. Perhaps that was true, for a while. Until the sand eroded like the snowbirds flying north in the summer.

In 2018 I visited a town in southern Florida connected to the mainland by bridges. On the southern tip of the island, at the end of a breakwater, squatted a round structure that looked like a misplaced granary. Curious, I learned it was a decades-old sand pump that became necessary with the expansion of a non-navigable entry to the Intracoastal. The expansion interfered with natural sand drift, preventing sand from traveling further south. Now, erosion on the shore to the north of the pump created a three-foot drop between the dry sand where children played and the wet area where waves crashed and joggers ran.

Around the corner from that pump station stood a wall of white plastic sandbags. They were not temporary. Along with a grassed berm, they protected a waterfront building that appeared less than a decade old. A seawall and mighty boulders tried to hold back the waves, which crashed into the rocks, spraying warm salty mist onto my eyelids. With tide in half-way and the moon only three-quarters full, larger waves were assured

In 1987 we moved from that house across from the swamp. As much as I loved the location, I never trusted it. Our home sat dozens of feet higher than the grade of the road in a notch that had been blasted out of a face of granite. I feared the boulders, and trees, and millions of pounds of dirt hanging above us. None of those slipped; the water got us. Pouring rain on the frozen ground created sheets of water flowing overland toward the lake. The house held strong, but the window wells filled, and thirty-six inches of water flowed into our basement. Our cat drowned.

We left for unrelated reasons, but it felt right.

Heather Marie Spitzberg has over twenty years of environmental science, law, and writing experience. She lives in New York’s Capital Region with her husband, twin son and daughter, and rescued dog, Thor.

Driving West into Gary on U.S. Highway 12/20

by Ellen A. Orner

Andy’s on 20 – Vienna Beef. Drifter’s Restaurant and Lounge. Absolute Air Heating and Cooling. Depot Dog – Vienna Beef. The People of Gary Welcome You. Need a Divorce?

Marsh grass. Cottonwood. Goldenrod. Mosquito swarm. Freight train. Amtrak. Another freight train. Honey’s Gentleman’s Club. PolekatZ. Lightning Fireworks – We Have What the Others Don’t. RomantiX. RomantiX. RomantiX.

Dune grass. Cottonwood. Sand dune. Honey’s 2. Laser tag warehouse with caved-in roof. All Mart Flea Market. Asphalt. Cinderblock. Discount Cigarettes. Ponderosa Steakhouse. Smog. Wing Wah Restaurant. Mufflers 4 Less. Used Truck Tires. Republic Frame and Axle. Fresh Fish. Temptation Gentlemen’s Club. Dunes U Store. Steel Transport – Safety Inspection Lane. Trailer park. Move Your Home Here – 219-938-0772. Semi Truck Parking. Deep Foundation Contractor since 1977. R&G Pallets. Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant. Shangri-La Gentlemen’s Club. Banquet Hall/Church/Full Kitchenette with Fridge/100+ Digital Channels/Free Phone for $696 per month with FREE SUNDAYS.

Jonathan’s Pancake House. Empty sign frames. Northwest Indiana Humane Society. Fortune House Chinese Dine-in. McDonald’s. Miller Beach Home Center. Arman’s for Jolly Good Food – Vienna Beef. South Shore Line Train Station. M & M III Beauty Supply – Dollar Gifts. Darnail Lyles, Esq. Attorney At Law. Cottonwood. Maple. Oak. Miller K Market. Fagen Pharmacy Liquor. Race Way Gas. Sporting Life Liquors. Healthy Smiles. Dom and Pete’s Point View Bar: Package Liquor, Fine Food. GoLo Gas. Cottonwood. Pine. Train tracks. Long line of 1940s pre-fabs. Smog. Power lines. Concrete. Road Construction Next 5 Miles.

Danger High Voltage. Pandora’s Show Club – Now Hiring. Junction Interstate 90. Milkweed. Marsh Grass. Hurt in a Wreck? 222-2222. Motel with green roof and no walls. Cottonwood. Dune grass. Ramp to Toll Road. Junction Interstate 65. Dunes Highway/West 12, West 20. Mint-green warehouse. Door 17. Red brick. Smokestacks. Road Construction Ahead. Walter Bates Steel Corporation. Rail Road Crossing. Centennial Processing. Rusted bridge. Rusted steel coils.

Dunes Court Apartments. Lake Street Express I: Full Line Groceries – Fresh Fruits and Veggies. Handmade signs. Painted brick houses. Yard with weeds taller than fence. Yard with close-clipped grass. Ivy on brick. Grass on roof. Life-sized Christ on cross.

Avila’s Auto Repair – Body and Mechanical. The Difference Between A Parent Who Hits His Child & A Parent Who Doesn’t…About 10 Seconds! SHARKS: 1 lb. shrimp $9.98. Freight train. Ambulance. Mr. Archie’s Grill and Sports Bar – No Standing Outside Vehicles. US Steel SteelYard – Home of the RailCats. Passenger train. Decommissioned steam engine. Junction Indiana 53. Life-sized statue of Elbert Henry Gary, Lawyer, Industrialist, Benefactor, Founder in 1906 of the City of Gary.

Lake County Superior Courthouse. Greyhound Station. Three-story brick houses. Wooden fence. Chain-link fence. Bright blue house. Molding yellow house. Charred cement house. Row of burned-out houses in pastels. New sidewalk. Row of dog runs. JR’s Liquors 2. Two-story brick houses. Single-story brick houses. Yards. Houses.


Ellen A. Orner is communications director at the University of Tennessee School of Art and reading series coordinator for The Sundress Academy of the Arts. She was the 2016 nonfiction editor for Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts and nonfiction coordinator for the 2018 Best of the Net Anthology. She was born and raised in Gary, Indiana.

The Real-life Captain Mageds

Stories of Neighborhood Soccer Teams and The Occupation

by Hasheemah Afaneh

Between my paternal grandparents’ home in Jabal Al-taweel, which literally translates to long mountain, and an Israeli settlement named Psagot that did not exist when my father was growing up in Palestine, there is a long, gravel road that leads to nowhere and to anywhere. I only realized this last summer. A person walking, biking, or driving through will eventually hit a dead end, but when a U-turn is made, the road to nowhere becomes the road to anywhere: Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Jerusalem, Haifa – even Beirut and Amman. This road could be the start to the rest of the world, but couldn’t this be said about any road?

The neighborhood’s children and youth, a demographic to which my younger brother, cousins, and their friends from ages eight to nineteen belong to, use this gravel road as a soccer field. One of the children takes rocks and sets up the goals for both teams, and another brings a soccer ball. They shout and yell as they form their teams, and then, the game begins. Often, one of the players kicks the ball so high in the midst of showing off his skills that it falls near the settlement fence. It’s usually my cousin Alaa.

“Did you have to do that?” One of Alaa’s older brothers yells in Arabic.  

“I’ll go get it!” Alaa yells back.

“Alaa, yumma, why did you do that?” My aunt yells, too, if she’s sitting outside with my grandmother.

It is the same scenario all the time.

Alaa shakes his head and runs near the settlement fence to go get the soccer ball. The players stand quiet. My aunt stands up from the plastic chair she’s sitting on with her hand on her chest, and an Israeli soldier appears out of nowhere. Both my aunt and the soldier watch Alaa as he grabs the soccer ball and runs back to the road. My aunt sits back on the plastic chair and resumes conversation with my grandmother, and the soldier goes back to wherever he came from.

It happens all the time.

The summer after second grade formed my first memories of Palestine. My mother would turn on the television every morning to a channel called Spacetoon, the equivalent of PBS Kids, and my brother and I would watch the Arabic version of the Japanese manga called “Captain Maged.” The story revolves around intense soccer games, Maged, his friends, and his rivalries. I was obsessed with Captain Maged. I wanted to be him, overcoming my imaginary opponents in my quest to become a successful soccer player. It was a phase that took over my imagination that entire summer.

One day that summer, my mother, brother, and I were at the muntazah, a park filled with sand, slides, and swings not too far from our home, when someone had informed my mother that the Israeli military was imposing a curfew on our city-town. Mamnoo’ tajawwol, it was called, which literally translates to ‘not allowed to move’. A Palestinian man from our city-town had been killed by the Israeli military a block away from our home.

Yullah, yullah,” I remember my mother saying, with a panic filling her voice. Come on, come on. She walked us home as fast as she could.

The closer we got to home, the quieter our surroundings became. The road that leads to the entrance of our home was blocked by a heavy military presence, so we had to get home from the back entrance of my neighbor’s apartment building. The details become vague after this point, but I remember three things like they occurred only the other day. First, there was a military tank situated at the top of the hill northeast of our home – and straight across from where the man was killed – for three days. Then, there was no electricity at nightfall, so we relied on candles. Finally, a mattress was put on the floor for my brother and I to sleep on in case a bullet flew through one of the windows.

I don’t recall the man’s name, but I recall what people said he was doing right before it happened. He was coaching a soccer team of adolescents when soldiers shot at him, killing him instantly. I thought of how he was someone’s real-life “Captain Maged.” That was about eighteen years ago, shortly before my mother, brother, and I returned to America and before the second intifada was to erupt.   

In the summer of 2017, as I was on a bus in route to Jerusalem, I noticed that some children do not get the soccer balls back like my cousin Alaa, and like the unnamed man, they do not get to play freely in their neighborhoods. As the bus drove past meters and meters of the Apartheid wall, I noticed that there were soccer balls kicked up and caught into the barbed wire at the top of the eight-meter long concrete structure. I imagined the children yelling at each other for who would have to go purchase a new soccer ball. Perhaps they all chip in a few shekels to buy a new one. After all, the children didn’t put up the Apartheid wall. The occupation did.

I did not understand the concept of the “right to play,” one of the many rights violated by the Israeli occupation, until I saw how neighborhood soccer teams freeze in time as neighborhood soccer teams. That is not to say these teams do not become bigger and stronger. The neighborhoods of Palestine are filled with Captain Mageds, but their opponents are larger than the opposing team. There is a limit to how high they can kick the ball before its stuck in some physical barrier.


Hasheemah Afaneh is a Palestinian-American writer currently based in New Orleans. After living in the Palestinian Territories for years, she was inspired to pursue a masters degree in public health from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, managing to keep in touch with her passion for storytelling and writing while balancing her love for community health research. She blogs at norestrictionsonwords.wordpress.com and has written for various media outlets, including the Huffington Post, the Fair Observer, and This Week in Palestine.

SNOWBOUND by Ash Parsons

1.

The first time I remember learning about a tragic death – I was a child, possibly eight, and my grandmother told me about how her uncle died.

Until this story, death was real, but Jesus had us covered, so it was okay. Besides, most people died in their hospital beds, which was good. We didn’t really go to hospitals. Bad guys on TV got shot, but then, they got what they deserved. I’m sorry, but you cash your chips.

However, my grandmother’s uncle – this nameless, faceless young or middle aged man, let’s call him Andrew – he didn’t die in a hospital bed, and he wasn’t a bad guy, and no one murdered him.

They lived in rural New York – black dirt good for growing onions, farm country, hills and valleys where it’s hard to see straight lines and Washington Irving would feel right at home.

Andrew was a young man. I guess. I think. I don’t remember, and no one can tell me. So. let’s say he was twenty one, and he worked for the Rural Power Authority. They finally got power to all the farms due to Roosevelt, that socialist, but God Bless the New Deal, anyway.

Snow storms in New York. No one needs a picture painted. Unless you’re a little girl in Alabama, sitting on rough carpet, making your horse figurines graze on brown shag as your grandmother tells you stories.

2.

The snow was huge. Monster snow. On the ground the surface of it was ice-crusted, and it blew into drifts taller than the doorway. People wore tennis rackets on their feet. Those are called snow shoes. They wore them just to walk in it. To keep from sinking.

The cold broke glass fuses. Ice coated the power lines and snapped them. Or a tree cried out and tumbled, taking a utility pole with her.

The power went out.

Sister and I were born in such a winter, in a snowstorm at the farm. I was fine but my twin was a runt – like a skinned rabbit – small and sickly and so cold they had to put her in a shoe box before the wood stove – a homemade incubator.

Because we were twins, they gave us rhyming names: Laura and Flora. But everyone called Flora “Midge” because she was so small.

That’s your Great Aunt Midge.

But the snow, the snow that night – it came with banshee winds, banked and bucketing drifts – like an Antarctic landscape but with trees and narrow, twisting, shushing ski-slope roads up and down the hills.

Uncle Andrew worked for the rural power authority. Imagine him, child. No, he’s not wearing a newsboy cap. No, he’s not wearing knickers. He’s wearing a long fur coat – black as Astor’s hat, black as his hair, it looks like his hair has grown down to cover him, like a caveman or an animal, and he’s got so many layers on he looks forty pounds heavier. The worst of the storm is over, and the cold is so crisp you feel it could crystalize the moisture in your lungs as you breathe. Uncle Andrew has a job to do. He has to go out, in the snowshoes, in the coat and matching hat, and he must follow the power lines to find the breaks.

They called it “walking the lines.”

Uncle Andrew said goodbye to us. I was his favorite. He twisted a lock of my hair, dark like his, around his finger and tugged it, saying “Stay awake until I get back, Laura.” Mother swatted him with her apron for that. She was the big sister, and he was incorrigible. But the job was good, even though it was cold. It was a job. It was the Depression.

Mother packed him a thermos of coffee and a bacon sandwich and urged him to stop if he needed. Father told him to watch his step in the drifts.

Andrew smiled and said, “Don’t worry.” And he walked out. The snow was bright in the late afternoon, as the sun broke through the clouds for just a moment. It blazed a path across the snow-packed farmyard, golden, like the path that Dorothy followed, a Technicolor bright thread in a world of white.

3.

Thinking of Judy Garland, Andrew set off, placing each foot as if they were on separate rail road ties, the snowshoes his parallel carriages.

At first it was easy. The next farm wasn’t far. The lines led him there, clean as a nun’s conscience. Straight as an arrow. He knocked and accepted the Ferguson’s hospitality – a cup of coffee and a biscuit by their stove. Then he set off again, following the line forward. A black line, crusted with ice or snow, sagging in some places, broken in others. When he’d find a break, he’d take out the Authority map and mark the spot on the grid with an “X.”

He found half a dozen like this before dark. At the farms, he’d stop, warm himself by the stove. Clear the ice crusting his nose. Farmers started pouring brandy in his coffee. The last sent him out with a flask of moonshine. “To keep warm,” the square-handed man had said, slapping Andrew’s shoulder and squeezing, telegraphing Dutch fortitude.

Andrew thanked him, and pressed out into the darkening night. Liquid warmth weighted his belly. One last section to go, and he would be done. He walked the lines as the moon rose full and bright. The lines threw fine, curved shadows across the snow.

One last section to go, and the snow started to fall again. Just a dusting on top of the deep drifts. Just a light fall, church-whisper soft.

Andrew pressed on. The snow clung to his snowshoes in great iced blocks, freezing and refreezing on his boots. The big fur coat was heavy across his shoulders, less warm than weighty, dragging at him.

Following the lines which followed the rutted country road, he reached the part he’d been dreading; the creek, now frozen and hulking, spanned by a narrow bridge, and where the power lines and the road parted ways. The country road crossed the brook and twisted around a rock formation, weathered and crouched like Old Scratch himself, stubborn in perdition.

The lines crossed the creek and then slanted away from the road, crossed a small meadow, and sloped down the hill behind the rock formation. There the lines ran through a small glade and rejoined the road on the downward slope.
Andrew crossed the bridge, and set off across the meadow. Each step was a struggle as the drifts grew deeper. Blowing like a plow horse, Andrew slogged on, pausing only for swigs of burning moonshine.

The lines led into the trees. The going was easier, the glade creaking under the weight of the snow. It was darker, but still bright enough to see, the moonlight filtered and reflected all around. Every now and then, a bough shrugged, or snapped, and a showering thump of snow descended, knocking other branches, shaking needles loose, shedding snow like a bridegroom shedding his shirt. Popped buttons, dropped cufflinks, sudden naked limbs.
Andrew couldn’t tell when it happened. If he could have done that, he could have found his way back. But somehow, he lost sight of the line. Perhaps it had snapped under the ice. Fallen into a tree, then been covered by new snow, until the glade was as seemingly untouched by humans as a fairy tale forest. No sign of axe or wire, no power line, and no poles. The gentle snowfall had erased Andrew’s footprints behind him like birds eating breadcrumbs.
Andrew searched for the line. He walked steadily forward, using the moon to guide him. No pantywaist city slicker, he forged on. He drained the flask to slake his thirst and warm his innards.

Maybe he never even panicked.

4.

When they found him, he was frozen. His eyes were ice. His lips blue, his skin rigid. The great fur coat was open. The snow that continued to fall covered him, almost all of him, his dark hat, his shoulders, his hands, child-curled on his chest. The road was twenty feet away. The next farm was a quarter mile from that.

And I want to ask now, and maybe I did ask then, “Did he lay down?”

Did Andrew choose to lay down in the snow, or had he simply failed to get up after falling? Did all that brandy take a different toll? I can’t ask now. There is no one left who knows the story.

I can’t ask my grandmother, lost in a snowbank of her own a decade ago, frost white sheets, pillows, and nurses’ uniforms. She watched the lines of the IV, as it dripped the not-enough morphine into the rutted track of her vein, and moaned, “How long is this going to take?”

I can’t ask my parents, gone now as well. The loss of them, a wrenching theft, torn away by howling winds, and we didn’t even know the storm had gathered.

So I wander, walking the lines. Trying to restore power. Hoping for the flickering filament of faint recognition. But there’s nothing to follow. The lines are not just down, not just tangled. The lines are gone. They disappeared in the obliterating fall – white speck upon white speck – devouring the landscape of my grandmother’s stories, my mother’s stories, my father’s stories. Snow drifts, swept into illogical and precarious places, shrouding everything.

I tell myself it doesn’t matter if I remember perfectly. I tell myself that specificity doesn’t matter. What matters is feeling. The stories fill up the gaps in me like water fills cells.

But the stories disappear. Their pages eaten by acid, flaking away into dust, a dry burning erasure, until it’s too late, and I’m left with a smattering of words and images, like ice pellets hitting the glass, pebbles that scatter and melt before I can see them. My memory becomes an imagining, knowing I’m doing it, questing about for the story, having only the feeling. I fill in the blank spaces. Not just of his story, but of mine. What happened to him, and where was I when she told me about it? And then my imagination stretches out beyond to the larger story – why did she tell me? Did I ask? Or was she feeling melancholy, remembering him, and wanted to give him extra life in me?
Did I remind her of him? Was she trying to warn me? Tucked inside during a mild Alabama winter, teaching me to be careful of blizzards. Don’t trust the snow. Don’t trust your own body. The warmth is false. You’re dying of the cold. Never trust the surface of things.

It only takes a moment. It only takes a single mistake. It only takes the one thing you couldn’t foresee.
My own little one, with your toys and your tangled hair, I wish you could stay here forever – in the circle of your loved ones. Where even loss is cushioned by the shelter of your elders around you. Stay here, in your feeling of security.

Once, when I was a child, my grandmother looked at me, and felt the same way.

Little one on the carpet before me, little girl with your toy horses, how I wish I could protect you. Here is a story, about the cold, about danger, and trying to do your job. About the night and the deceiving snow, and my uncle, your Great-great Uncle Andrew, who worked for the Rural Power Authority and who died in a snowstorm.


Ash Parsons is the author of YA novels The Falling Between Us and Still Waters (Penguin -Philomel). She is the winner of the PEN Phyllis Naylor Award and an Alabama State Council on the Arts literary fellowship. She has taught creative writing for Troy University’s ACCESS program and Media Studies for Auburn University. She lives in Alabama with her family.

NO US WITHOUT THEM: PENGUINS, LIZARDS AND THE BORDER WALL by José Antonio Rodríguez

I love the steady and dignified waddle of the emperor penguin. It’s a beautiful species that for years I dreamed I would one day see in person on some transformative trip to Antarctica, that austere land where life affirmed itself almost in defiance of the harsh landscape. A landscape vastly different than the south Texas/Mexico border where I grew up and where I live. Eventually, though, I realized that my presence would inevitably disrupt the penguins and that my joy would come at least in some measure at their expense. Therefore, if I truly appreciated their existence, I would have to stay away.

It was this same logic that for years kept me away from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2088-acre parcel of abundant biodiversity located here in the southern tip of Texas. I appreciated that it was home to so much life, and I also understood the reasoning behind encouraging visitors who might otherwise not come to appreciate the biodiversity in our backyards. I didn’t need to go, though, comforted by the knowledge that at least a small corner of this subtropical ecosystem threatened by urban sprawl was protected. Then the unthinkable happened: Donald Trump became president. Let me rephrase that: the worst-case scenario happened.

After then President Bush Jr’s signature of the Secure Fence Act in 2006, south Texas got a version of a border wall, more like separate sections of one in different iterations – a mix and match of concrete levee-border walls, 18 foot tall bollards, and Jersey barriers. Despite the objections to them by the community, they went up, the nearest one standing adjacent to part of the World Birding Center in Hidalgo, only a 15-minute drive from my childhood home in McAllen. These sections of walls remain ugly in every way, but I found some solace in the knowledge that life in all its forms might circumvent them, though they were a proven danger for border crossers.

What the new president proposes, though, is worse and is prefaced by the most blatant xenophobic rhetoric splayed on national media outlets. His plan is an even larger and more continuous wall that would cut through the entire area, including the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. And yes, this upsets me for all the reasons that you, the reader, may already suspect: the wall would disrupt and in some cases decimate the non-human life of not only the Refuge but of the entire northern Mexico/southern Texas region. It would also wreak political havoc between the United States and Mexico. It would also damage cultural relations between the communities on both sides of the border marked here by the Rio Grande, or the Río Bravo, if you stand on the river’s southern edge. It would directly endanger the very lives of undocumented immigrants.

A few weeks ago, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club organized an event at the Refuge to raise awareness about the proposed wall. I visited and was heartened to see their representatives spreading the word through social media and signed postcards destined for Senator Cronyn requesting a public hearing. Eventually I moved away from the crowds, walked the trails among a great array of native plants and a few creatures visible to the naked eye. I suspected most of the animals would still hide away from any hint of human contact. Then I saw it—a lizard skittering away. Then I saw another one, then another. Some of them took a second to eye me before running off. For a brief moment I felt like my five-year-old self wandering through the brush in the ejido in Mexico where I was born, where I spent the first years of my life. The ejido, a collective of subsistence farming, is hidden away a few kilometers from the border town of Nuevo Progreso. Before my family emigrated to the U.S. in the name of survival, I spent my days chasing lizards through and around the one room house with its earthen floor, or eating tiny yellow berries from the granjeno, or wandering through the brush of mesquite, cactus, and huisache, marveling at the turtles with their beautiful checkered shells and love of prickly pear.

All this came back to me in the quiet of the refuge. I felt nostalgia then but also a simmering anger like a low-grade fever, anger at the myths sold to me as truths in the classrooms of American schools —the myth of the self-made man who achieves success with no one’s help and creates wealth seemingly out of thin air, the myth of Manifest Destiny which is the self-made-man myth superimposed on the nation. Under their logic, social forces don’t exist and so success comes to those who want it most. Under their logic, nature is there to be exploited, and America is wealthier because it is filled with self-reliant and therefore superior people, not because its government has exploited and impoverished other nations, like those in Latin America. Under their logic, a wall is justified because it keeps the inferior people who have only themselves to blame for their poverty out of the superior people’s nation. This is self-interest and self-aggrandizement disguised as objective reason, disguised as common sense. And unless this dangerous logic, this lie, is disavowed —unless the nation comes to understand the interrelatedness of all life, human and non-human, and the fact that wealth is only possible through the appropriation of finite natural resources— I fear that the literal and metaphorical walls won’t stop, that all life will be endangered then, even the emperor penguin in Antarctica.

But I do what I must and what I cannot help: I write and bear witness to this world evermore splintered, bordered, and policed by a people obsessed with category and hierarchy, with concrete and bullets, disdainful of a natural world foreign to and traumatized by these borders, a natural world from which we are born and from which we can never escape. The lizard, the mesquite, the river, the penguin are all made of the same elements, the same atoms that constitute us, the same atoms that are the light of the sun and the stars. This is a truth greater than any wall, a truth that the powerful ignore to the detriment of every living thing in the Refuge, which is them, which is us. And so I write. And hope. And despair. And hope.

 

José Antonio Rodríguez’s most recent book is the memoir House Built on Ashes. His work has appeared in journals and magazines like The New Yorker, The New Republic, POETRY, and The Texas Observer. He lives in south Texas and is assistant professor of creative writing at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Learn more at www.jarodriguez.org.

DREAMING HOME by Ana Menéndez

I’m obsessed with the landed aristocracy: The great-great granddaughter of a countess who lives with her husband and four children in her family’s 16th century palazzo. The heiress who grew up on a 17,000-acre ranch in Uruguay. The scion of a shipping family who just renovated the 300-year old family home in Santorini.

I meet these exotic apparitions in the pages of thick, slippery magazines that arrive mysteriously in my house, sometimes tucked between the pages of the more austere New York Times, sometimes delivered, unbid, through the mail. Over pages and pages of saturated color, I am generously offered a privileged glimpse into the daily lives of families whose fantastic wealth stretches back to the time of the Medici. Unworthy, I am nevertheless invited into sitting rooms decorated with portraits of elegant Dukes, bathrooms of double height ceilings that loom over original marble tubs. Cavernous receiving rooms decorated with 18th century tapestries, hand-carved mahogany tables and amusing trinkets collected by generations of inhabitants including this flea-market find, an oil in the style of Tintoretto, scored just last year by the current owner on a visit to Rome.

Sometimes, I learn of the rigors of a two-year renovation (dead owls, rotting wallpaper) that ends by revealing magnificent frescoes, hand-forged bricks and ancient mosaics once trod by silk-slippered ancestors.

I don’t envy these people – not exactly. Neither am I tempted – not really — to ridicule them. My feelings, as I temporarily inhabit these full-color lives, are much more nuanced and complicated. I am gruesomely fascinated by these eternally wealthy bloodlines, and I simply cannot look away. I know the next magazine will arrive, the next family will open their Tuscan Villa to my commoners’ eyes, and I will succumb to the fantasy, as surely as my own peasant ancestors did, gazing from the doors of their wooden huts to the towers of unreachable wealth beyond.

* * *

I come from a long line of emigrants. Which is another way of saying, I come from enduring peasant stock – for sometimes the wealthy meet violent ends, but it is more often the poor who leave.

My great-grandparents on my mother’s side – illiterate tenant farmers from Lebanon’s northern hinterlands – fled their homes in 1908, chased by hunger and persecution. They hopped a ship to Mexico. When it stopped in Cuba, they got off. I imagine them saying, this is good enough. Or far enough.

My mother’s father also fled the poverty of Asturias in the early 20th century. He too found refuge, at least for a time, in Cuba. On my father’s side, they were also running: from Asturias, Canary Islands and, even, Scotland.

Varadero, Güines and Havana suited them all just fine. Until, of course, it was time to pull up roots and move again. As 20th century migrations go, theirs were relatively gentle. Enough so that I can joke now that if our family had a crest, its motto would be, “This is Bullshit, I’m out of Here.”

Otherwise, no, we don’t have a crest. No Counts or Duchesses dot my lineage. There is not a drop of blue blood in my veins. My middle-class parents left their modest possessions behind when they left Cuba in the early 1960s. And then they started over, in the family tradition.

My family, unless you count the green and white plates bought with S&H stamps in the 1970s, does not keep heirlooms. There is no august family homestead for me to return to. No treasure-filled rooms. No silver for my son to inherit.

My family’s legacy is of a different sort: Of humor, myth and constant movement. My writing and my restlessness stands as a kind of resonance to their lives, the hum left over from the explosion of their collective flight.

And yet I count myself luckier than a Duchessa in a Calabrian Palazzo. For a child of the 20th century – that era of mass migration, murder and upheaval – to have never experienced homelessness or statelessness is, after all, a special kind of good fortune. My movements, in contrast to those of my ancestors, have all been undertaken with joy. I’ve lived in places that don’t reach the level of family palaces, and yet still overflow with a comfortable luxury that my great-grandmother, married at 13 and a refugee at 15, would not have even been able to imagine.

Exile, Joseph Brodsky famously noted, is a linguistic event. For those of us living in the aftermath, it is also an inherited condition. We inherit first the stories and creation myths that are always travel-ready: light, easy to unpack, containing multitudes. Even those of us who proudly proclaim that we have unshackled ourselves from the political concerns of an older generation, still carry, deeper still, the DNA of flight and its corresponding refusal to commit to any place. We know – even if not consciously so – that if things get truly bad, we can always take off. We don’t call it cowardice. We call it a sense of adventure.

*

I am 47 years old now. Since I turned 21, I have moved 16 times and lived on four continents. I am the first voluntary exile in my brave line. And, a Cuban without a home, I pray to Jose Martí, patron saint of displacement: “In exile, men lose their moorings and find their bearings.”

I was three years old when I took my first flight. And I still remember it, albeit shaped in the surrealistic contours of childhood. In memory, my mother and I wave goodbye to my father, working in his yard, and ascend into the marvelous flying machine that, after impressive shaking that spills my Coca-Cola, lands in a different place entirely.

Flight never lost its romance. Throughout childhood, I would gaze at a plane flying over head and grow wistful, imagining the great adventures that awaited those secreted within. Even now, burdened by the memory of security hassles and middle-aged fears, I still feel a surge of wonder watching a 747 take off into the haze.

But it’s never been so much the act of flying itself, as the promise of movement, of renewal. Opening the door to a new house, getting lost in the streets of a new city, the seduction of arrival and the saudade of leaving: all of these wash me onto the shores of a barely expressible land, a place that exists for me alone, my private version – amid so much wandering – of home.

Home. How many emotions – both noble and ignoble – have been heaped onto the slender shoulders of that word? How many clichés have marred its romance? Is it ever really sweet? Is it where the heart is? Can the homeland ever be secure?

What does it mean to be from a place? And can one choose to be from nowhere? I was born in Los Angeles, went to elementary school in Tampa, high school in Miami, worked in Santa Ana, studied in New York City and, finally as an adult, lived in New Delhi, Istanbul, Cairo, Amsterdam and Maastricht.

“Where are you from?” people ask on my travels. And first I have to figure out what they really want to know.

One of the many reasons I love poetry is that it reminds us that we are not so unique. Lots of others have come this way before us.

In Miami, I am Cuban. In California, I was Latina. In India, I was Western. And in Afghanistan I was Woman. So I turn to the Zen poet Wang Wei, who smiles kindly and says, “In mountain forests, I’ve lost myself completely/ identity’s nothing but the role we play in public.”

I am a journalist and novelist. But I am not too proud to admit that truth resides with the poets. I once wrote an entire novel in a half-hearted attempt to say what Matsuo Basho had economically illuminated in a few lines:

“Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander.”

I am being only half facetious when I say that it must nevertheless be a burden to live in the same house your family has occupied for three centuries. The same year-hardened walls. The exhausted thresholds. A problem unique to the one percent, of course. But still enough to blunt our envy.

For travel is not enough. To live the world, you must live in it. Visiting New Delhi is different from setting up house there, waiting out the long seasons through the other worldly heat of summer, the bliss of monsoon and the leveling chill of winter. Visiting Istanbul is different from growing so used to the haunting call to prayer that it no longer wakes you in the night. The Cairo of the tourist is not the Cairo of the expatriate is not the Cairo of the wealthy Cairene, is not the Cairo of the slum.

Only by going to sleep every night and waking every morning for years and years in a foreign place can you come to terms with your own vanity, recognize your accepted truths for the borrowed garments that they are. Only after a life of movement, do you understand where stillness lies.

* * *

 

After Delhi, I move back to New York City for a time. Then Istanbul, where my first marriage ends. After a three-year stop in Miami, I leave again — this time, and for the first time, on my own. I land in Cairo in August of 2008. Two weeks later, I meet Peter, a fellow wanderer. Born in Czechoslovakia, he went on the road as soon as the wall fell. Just recently he’d lived in Miami. We learn that until we had both picked up and moved half way across the world, we had been neighbors in South Beach.

Early on, I make sure to close off any possibility of marriage. Even the most amicable divorce leaves scars. “Marriage is the tomb of love,” I tell Peter one day. We are floating in a Cairo pool, surrounded by expatriates and I am quoting Edith Templeton.

Two and a half years later, I give birth to our son in Amsterdam. We live for a time in Maastricht. And then in 2014, we move back to Miami. Peter and I both use that construction, “we are moving back”, though neither of us were born here, though we both lived other lives here. My parents and sister still live in Miami, so for me, the city is the closest thing to home. I am glad to return, though the city, the family and I have changed, irrevocably. Landing at MIA, the relentless sprawl of traffic and construction below us, Wang Wei returns to admonish me again: …nothing’s left of ancestral villages now./Out beyond cloud, it’s all empty as origin.

We buy a house, a three-bedroom, two-bath mid-century bungalow on a street named after a philosopher. It has a small yard and a wood deck out back. Less than a 10-minute walk away is the beach, where I run most mornings. My privilege, after half a life time of travel, remains intact.

Most surprising of all: we get married. One Friday afternoon in September, we take our son and my parents down to Miami Beach City Hall and swear to honor one another in good times and in bad. We exchange rings. Then we go for lunch at a favorite old haunt on South Beach. I order the fish. And by the time we return to our house, I can hardly breathe. At first I blame it on my dress – it was a bit tight. But when I take it off, I notice that my chest is covered with a violent red rash. My windpipe is closing. I take a Benadryl. I splash my face with cold water and lie down. After a few moments, I can breathe again. Later, a doctor tells me it was likely a reaction to improperly stored fish. But on our wedding day, my new husband takes my measure. He lifts a wry eyebrow.

“Clearly,” he says, “You are allergic to marriage.”

Maybe we’re both still worried that marriage might really be the tomb of love. I broke off one engagement in my twenties. Divorced my first husband in my thirties. And discouraged a proposal or two before finally returning to the altar at the age of 44. It’s no secret that I only succumbed this time because, unless we married, I would not be eligible to join my husband on his insurance plan.

But this late and gentle marriage suits me. Family finally suits me. I have a good man by my side, someone attracted to my ambition for a change. A man willing to take three years out of his career to care for our son — our funny, exquisite little boy – so I could do work that appealed to me. It’s almost as if I’ve received not a second chance, but a completely new life; a rare and precious do-over in middle-age.

I feel content, though not settled. Because I know this is not our last move. Even after all these years, travel retains its electric joy. Arriving is a kind of transfiguration. To open the front door to a new house, to inhabit a fresh layout and walk unfamiliar streets is to be reborn into a new and wiser self.

Two years later, after the insane, anxiety-laced election of 2016, I make frequent threats to move back to Europe. My suggestion to buy a catamaran and dock in the Mediterranean for the next four years is met with nervous laughter. I remind Peter of the family motto: “This is bullshit, I’m out of here!” One blue fall day my five-year-old son, the heir to our tradition, points at the long, white contrails of a plane passing high over head.

“Look, Mami, how beautiful. I would love to be on that plane!”

And yet: here we are in Surfside. We know the climate is changing. We know the sea is rising. We know we are vulnerable to the winds of politics and fate. And yet: We put in a new roof, install a new air conditioning system. We take down the old windows and iron bars and replace them with expensive glass that promise to keep us safe during a hurricane. We buy new appliances for the kitchen. We redo the landscaping, paint the walls, take out the old attic insulation and replace it with the latest thing. We build new bookcases and fit them with books in six languages. We hang our art on the walls, lay my two Afghan carpets on the marble floor. We fill our home with old objects and new promises of permanence. We do these things even though we know it is all temporary, because everything is temporary, even for the Dukes and Duchesses, even when we imagine it otherwise.

 


Ana Menéndez is the author of four books of fiction: Adios, Happy Homeland!, The Last War, Loving Che and In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, whose title story won a Pushcart Prize. She has worked as a journalist in the United States and abroad, lastly as a prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. As a reporter, she wrote about Cuba, Haiti, Kashmir, Afghanistan and India, where she was based for three years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Vogue, Bomb Magazine, The New York Times and Tin House and has been included in several anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. She has a B.A. in English from Florida International University and an M.F.A. from New York University. A former Fulbright Scholar in Egypt, she now lives in Surfside, Florida.

THE SANTERA IN #4209 by Beverly Tan Murray

by Beverly Tan Murray

 

Yossi’s keys clanged as we trudged down the stairs. He said that back in the 60’s, this building was filled with Jews.

“You couldn’t take a shit without looking up and seeing a mezuzah,” he said. “Then the Cubans moved in. Nu? So here we are.”

When we got outside, the smells of ropa vieja drifted over from Puerto Sagua. Yossi lit a cigarette. “Look,” he began. “I don’t even want to be a landlord. This is a favor for my sister, understand? $550 a month furnished, on South Beach? This is best deal.” I nodded and took in Washington Avenue at dusk, an adult Legoland burnished in amber brushstrokes. Then, carajo! A man sped past on his bicycle, narrowly missing Yossi by inches. Yossi swore. The man shook his fist, ass muscles flexing as he rode off in his tiny pink thong with a South African parrot on his shoulder.

“Ben zonah!” screamed Yossi.

“I’ll take the apartment,” I said.

It was March 16th, 2004. My third day in Miami.

On move-in day, La Gorda came over with a case of Mountain Dew. “For when you thirsty,” she said, and told me that she lived two doors down in #4209, that my hair reminded her of her abuelita who was chinita too, and to please call her La Gorda because you know, and slapped her belly mirthfully. I stuck my hand out, and La Gorda laughed.

“Mija, you’re in Miami now, you gotta learn how to kiss hello. Like this, mwah-mwah.”

On that Sunday morning when it rained so hard that the water sloshed up over the sidewalk, I went downstairs to do my laundry. La Gorda called down the stairwell as I staggered back up, still buzzed from the vodka Red Bulls I had swilled the night before. “La Chinita linda!” she yelled. “You busy?” I said no, I had no plans apart from re-hydrating and folding laundry. La Gorda took one look at my bloodshot eyes and laughed. “Come in,” she said. “I give you cafe con leche and psychic reading. I do for you free. Porque your energy – is que amazing.”

La Gorda’s apartment looked as though it was furnished by someone who was rushing to get to her destination, but got lost and set up camp along the way. She had lived in her unit for nine years, yet there was a palpable feeling of impermanence. One fold-up card table, four foldable chairs, a futon in the corner. The walls were completely bare, save for a small picture of San Lázaro taped up above the transistor radio. For some reason, I felt like I was nine again, watching a movie that I was told not to watch. La Gorda shuffled out of the kitchen with a steaming cafe con leche and two slices of Cuban toast. “Sit. Eat,” she said. “You eat, I do reading.”

I sipped my cafe con leche as La Gorda reached into the bookcase behind her. She pulled out a drawstring purse, and emptied out its contents onto the table. They were small, round pebbles, the kind one would find at Home Depot. La Gorda explained that they were from Peru and had special powers, piedras mágicas, some extra strong juju from the old shamans whom you do not want to fuck with. She said that the stones could see everything – past, present, and future. They could foretell your destiny, divine the unique arc of your fate, no matter if you had glittering riches, or were a desamparado on the street. The stones, she wagged her finger. The stones always know.

As she mixed the stones with her hands, a low, guttural noise rose up inside of her. La Gorda rocked back and forth in her chair. Slowly, rhythmically at first. Then, faster and faster, picking up speed, until even the card table was thrumming an accompanying tune. “Convoco a los santos!” she yelled, throwing up her hands each time. “Convoco a los santos!”

I was no stranger to psychic readings. But my past experiences were limited to benign tarot card sessions with Irvine housewives in designer hippie gear. This was intense. When La Gorda’s eyeballs rolled back and she started sputtering in tongues, face flushing bright red as if running from a mob, I panicked. I briefly considered: Clearing my throat (she wouldn’t hear me), asking politely if she was communing with anyone in particular (she’d ignore me), and sitting quietly until she finished.

I chose the latter.

So we sat, La Gorda rocking and moaning and crying and pleading, arms raised to los santos for their ethereal wisdom, me eating Cuban toast in quiet horror. I watched as she invoked all manner of saints, her voice switching between a man’s bassy timbre, and a child’s soft whimper. You’re bugging out, I scolded myself. She’s being nice.

Chill.

The rocking slowed to a few quiet creaks, then stopped. I looked up. La Gorda was glaring right at me, breath rising and falling in ragged gasps, beads of sweat dotting her upper lip. Scattered on the floor were the magic pebbles, which La Gorda pointed to with a snort.

“You know what this say?”

“No.”

“You no have fe. You no believe in Jesus. You think you boss, yes?”

“I’m agnostic…” I began to say, but La Gorda cut me off. The stones had spoken, the spirits had rendered their verdict. It was clear that all my woes were caused by a terrible lack of faith. But today was my lucky day, she said. For $40, she, La Gorda, would intercede on my behalf. She alone could plead with los santos to seek forgiveness from Jesus, the better to free my blackened soul, Dios mio.

My cynical side thought her pitch was pretty funny, but my instincts screamed bullshit. “Uh, I think I’m good, La Gorda,” I said. “But thank you for your time. This was fun.” La Gorda pressed on. “$40 es nada. For $40, I make you free.” From certain misery, heartache from men, demonic possession. “San Lázaro talk to Jesus. Pero me, La Gorda – I talk to San Lázaro. Comprende?” I nodded yes, and started toward the door. One thing about living in Miami – you learn quickly when shit’s about to get real.

La Gorda stood up. “You pay me now,” she said. “For all my time.”

“You said it was free!” I protested.

She waved her hands irritably. The reading was free, the bargaining with San Lázaro was extra.

I made it out of the living room, and halfway to the front door when I heard a blood curdling shriek.

“Puta!” she screamed. I turned to see the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen. A Barbie doll, painted black, with her eyes gouged out. “You will die four years from now! Exactly four years! Maldicion hacia tu! Puta!” A spitball flew at me and missed by inches. I sprinted to the front door and flung it open, La Gorda hot on my heels.

Before escaping, I did something completely out of character. I turned to face La Gorda, who was now half-singing a stream of curses with her eyes rolled back, whipping Demon Barbie back and forth in a furious interpretive dance.

“Fuck you, La Gorda,” I said. “Those pebbles are bullshit.” Then I shot her the bird, slammed the door, and ran out.
A new case of Mountain Dew appeared on my doorstep three days later. An olive branch. By then, I had made friends with Carolina, the Colombian print model in #4310. Carolina had shrieked with laughter when I told her about my La Gorda episode. She told me that La Gorda had tried to fleece just about every newcomer to the building. That I had nothing to worry about, because La Gorda wasn’t a real santera. Just a hustler from Matanzas, getting by on quips and folksy charm, surviving the only way she knew how.

“But what do I do with this Mountain Dew?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t drink it,” said Carolina. “Just in case.”

The possibly-cursed Mountain Dew stayed unmolested in my pantry for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, La Gorda and I settled into an uneasy truce. I’d wave hello, and she’d give me the what’s up nod. From time to time, we’d make small talk about the carpet stains in the hallway, or the humidity outside. Gone were the offers of cafe con leche and Cuban toast, of prayers to save my mortal soul. On move-out day, La Gorda held the elevator door open as I trundled in a dolly of boxes. She wished me good luck, told me to call home more, and to light a candle to San Lázaro every night.

On April 16th, 2008, I did not die. That night, I went out with my girlfriends and pounded shot after shot of Jägerbombs, not caring that I would upchuck them later in a torrent of vomit. The date had been circled in red ink on my calendar, a ticking psychological time bomb courtesy of La Gorda. Carolina was right. She was just a hustler, nothing more. Still, I stopped by the corner bodega to buy a candle to light for San Lázaro when I got home.

Just in case.

 

Beverly Tan Murray is a Chinese-American author who was born in Singapore and immigrated to California at age 16. She now resides in Miami with her husband and a terrier-mutt named Larry David. Beverly is a VONA/Voices alumnus, and has been published in the Huffington Post, AWAY Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Lime Hawk. She writes short stories about life in liminal spaces, and has yet to find the perfect carne asada taco.