Facing Medusas

One thousand apologies to my great-grandfather and the generations of fishermen I come from. I want to be an astronaut.

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In the summer of 2019, a box jellyfish, known colloquially as the seawasp, stung the girl’s left ankle. She had just resurfaced after a night dive and was stargazing, lying on her back and imagining the worlds miles above and below her. She’d turned the light attached to her gear off, remembering that all sorts of bioluminescent organisms fall for flashlights, when she heard another diver shout. She swam over, suddenly overcome by a weighty fear in the bottom of her abdomen. Something’s gonna eat me tonight.

#

The largest of the cubozoans, the seawasp can grow up to two meters long, from the tip of its bell to the end of its longest tentacle. It possesses no brain, but rather a decentralized network of nerves, with a ring connecting its internal functions to the stimuli of the outside world.

In short, the deadliest animal in the ocean is a freeform bag of nematocysts and water. The Kraken and Moby Dick and Leviathan quiver next to this brain-less, poison-filled sack of jelly. Our minds, inclined to hyperbole and fable fabrication, could not make this thing up.

#

Most nights, when the rain is hot on my hands and I can feel a storm forming, I wish I could talk to Captain Zip. My great-grandfather passed a few weeks before I was born, after falling and hitting his head on the side of a cast-iron tub. The only person in my family who could tell better stories than me.

I want to ask him about the sharks he escaped and the seahorses he saved from his nets. About the billions of phytoplankton that danced beneath the Miss Andrinna and full moons. About how easy it is to lose yourself at sea.

I want to ask him why I wasn’t born in the open ocean, scales and gills and tentacles more familiar to me than our neighbors and their mailboxes. My favorite songs are the gales made from hurricane wind and octopus breath. I know my amniotic fluid was all Gulf water.

I want Captain Zip to tell me about the barometric pressures and the sandbars and the schools of menhaden he loved, but most of all, I want him to tell me about the monsters.

#

It felt like kicking a bolt of lightning. One freestyle stroke and the girl had run into the deadliest creature in the ocean. Her leg seized up, and she shouted that she’d been stung. She was hauled onto the boat, her dive gear stripped, an entire bottle of vinegar poured on her leg. And then, her limbs began to seismically shimmy, the neurotoxins kicking in. The girl convulsed for six hours that night, falling in and out of a dream-state, imagining all the little harpoons digging through the skin in her leg and shooting up her bloodstream, into her heart.

She asked the woman she was with if she was going to die, without much animation. It felt like the proper, cinematic thing to do as they leafed through marine life guidebooks and tried to understand why her body was having such a bad reaction. Through the haze, it was determined that if she went into anaphylactic shock, she’d need to be airlifted. If she didn’t, they’d let her body “ride out the poisons.”

That night and into the morning, the girl wrote down all the people she loved in a bulleted list in her head. She imagined the different ways they might tell her story.

#

Unlike many of its cousins, Alatina alata has four eye-clusters with a total of twenty-four eyespots. Although scientists are unsure as to the connection between the nervous system and these eyes, they have concluded that the species reacts to dark shapes in its environment.

It’s been documented that these sea wasps achieve up to four knots while stalking their prey, contradictory to the normal planktonic methods of most jellyfish. This is to say—the thing hunts. It is a predator. It belongs amongst our daydreams and our nightmares of the ocean.

This is to say—it was not a passive sting.

#

On those nights of cyclones, I think about how Captain Zip, shrimper and fisherman and father, turned down hundreds of mermaids for my great-grandmother. He believed in them the same way I believe in aliens.

If there are no mermaids, I wonder what pearly, iridescent eyes he actually saw beneath those waves. What monsters clung to the bottom of his boat, painful barnacles too calcified to scrape off. I wonder what spell he fell under. If it’s hereditary.

He fled to the ocean again and again and again. He passed before he could recount his monsters to me, before he could paint pictures on the insides of my eyelids before I slept.

On those nights I can’t fall asleep, I want him to tell me the genesis story of his fear.

#

If she could do it again, the girl would drape herself in pantyhose and stay far away from the flashlights. She would swim with her legs parallel to the surface instead of straight down. She would keep her mask glued to the water, not the stars.

But even now, she knows she would ignore the tiny voice in her gut, the one whispering of her trespass in a world she doesn’t belong in. The one silently screaming danger.

#

Since humanity first began telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the predators that remind us of our place. The mountain lions and tiger sharks and sea snakes and grizzly bears that have prowled the shadows of our cave drawings have also been the evils of our oral histories, and despite the growing separation between man and nature, we are still, today, fascinated by the creatures that could kill us.

These beings dictate a story we are not familiar with, one in which we are no longer the center of everything. With them, we are a cog, a part of a chain, reminded of the dirt within our blood. We revere their power and fear their potential. We give these creatures more legs and spikes and slime and poison until we have something that makes our hearts pound at the mention of its name. We mix their stories with our own.

They become the monsters of our God.

#

Most days, she thinks about Irukandji syndrome, the long-term effects of envenomation by box jellyfish. About cardiac arrest and hypertension and she convinces herself she has an enlarged heart for more than just emotional reasons. She thinks about her favorite Irukandji symptom, a feeling of impending doom. She wonders if that’s truly just reserved for people on the verge of death, or whether we all feel those effects. Impending doom. Our fear of the end.

A brief glance at the final pages of the narrative.

#

Despite the seven-inch constellation on the back of my leg and the phantom shakes I get when my nerves set in, this girl returns to the ocean again and again and again. She stares for hours into the salt water and prays for the universe to open up to her, to let her explore the infinite blue-tinted spaces she needs to be a part of. She retells the fish fables that run through the estuaries of her family.

I must admit that my gulf swims are a little more hesitant now. I wade out into the water with my eyes on the surface, shuddering at the shreds of plastic bags and Sargassum seaweed that climb up my legs. I think about the slippery things that rule the waves, about how easily I could be taken under.

Once ashore, I grapple with my strange fondness of this unknown, my odd comfort in the places that speak of everything but safety. About my need to fill the empty, terrifying spaces with story.

#

Tonight, with my fingertips dipping into waves, I imagine what I’ll tell my children when I get back from space.

The unbreathable air. The deep, unblinking abysses. The edges of matter that expand and contract like tides. Alien creatures that stalk our shadows, beings that look at us the way we look at them.

I decide that when typhoons touch the edges of our town and my children climb into bed with me, I will tell them that they have inherited the best parts of storytelling from Captain Zip. I will promise them that they will grow into their craving for danger, just like their mama.

With their warm fingers wrapped around mine, I’ll tell them the story of a girl who almost died at sea, just looking for a place to be weightless.

On the Destruction and Restoration of Habitats

The forest preserve district wants me to cut down trees. With a saw in one hand and loppers in the other, I oblige.

As a child I got my destructive tendencies out in videogames and martial arts. Beating all of my friends at Street Fighter—and gloating about it—was fine. Plucking flowers was not. Even the ubiquitous dandelions like tiny weak suns in the lawn grass were meant to be seen, and only pulled once transmogrified to puffball form, wanting dispersal.

At the beginning of May this year, I ripped those vivid yellow heads off every single dandelion in my parents’ yard, and then when more had bloomed the next day I did it again.

After I’d dumped the pile of them into the trash, I went to the little patch of trees across the street. The grass here was sparse, a bloom of mushrooms welled from the drying mud. I squatted down and took a minute to admire a single violet plant. Heart shaped leaves framed purple flowers. The flowers are easily recognized even when they aren’t purple. The white ones are indigo-streaked to lead in the pollinators, but my favorite, for the irony and more, are the yellow violets. They are bright, though nestled close to the ground, and not as shiny as the five-petaled swamp buttercups that, as their name suggests, thrive alongside Illinois’ transient and permanent wetlands.

All these native plants and more—the mayapples, trillium, spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, woodland phlox; and those are only the current season’s more common flowers—evolved to thrive in specific conditions. Varying degrees of sunlight and wetness will even introduce variations within a species. The most vivid specimen of spring beauties I have ever seen, with shocking pink anthers that would put Barbie to shame, was about a minute after my sneaker filled with muddy water because of snowmelt on the unpaved trail. But I’ve also seen them growing in flocks in the grass, out in full sun, the characteristic pink lines on their petals faded to a more solemn hue.

But none of these thrive in the presence of invaders.

Garlic mustard pops up in the spring, leaves somewhat reminiscent of violets’, with little clusters of four-petaled white flowers. The roots smell like garlic, which is how it got the name, and it generates chemicals that kill its neighbors. When I see it, I rip it out—it’s not as persistent as dandelion. My family finds this very annoying when we’re out walking, but how can I squander the privilege of this knowledge, this access to the woodlands?

Before I found the local forest preserve, I joined whatever volunteer opportunities in habitat restoration came my way. Some of these included local youth. They came from various backgrounds, but the important thing was they were interested in the program, even when their destructive tendencies were less delicate than mine.

One year we were supposed to take a group of middle schoolers to plant trees in an impoverished neighborhood, which had its nature overwritten in concrete and scraggly grass. Of course, a group of middle schoolers and a few adults can’t dig all the holes needed for oak saplings. So the plan was—if I remember correctly—for the community service workers to dig the holes, leaving the saplings with their root balls for the kids to plop in and cover with dirt. Satisfying, right?

When we got there, there had been a mix up. The holes were not dug and there were only a few saplings.

Unable to do anything, the leader improvised a plan: cleanup. We would walk around picking up trash. Dime bags the kids didn’t understand (and we didn’t explain), thankfully—that time—no condom wrappers, and the litter of any place, even those where everyone has a reusable tote bag. Organic bars come in the same metallic wraps as their cheaper cousins.

We came to a tree, a slim thing caged by its surroundings, spreading thin leaves despite the mound of cigarette butts around it.

I’ll never forget the look on the kids’ faces. Why would people make such a mess, right there? It was a learning opportunity, to see the bar across the street and recall the order banning indoors smoking. Unintended consequences. Easily changed by being mindful of one’s own behavior. They cared, and I hope still care. I hope that when they are adults out on field trips, they don’t have to try to hide, at the end of an otherwise excellent kayak up our manmade lagoons, surrounded by squawking birds and shy turtles and the sinuous movement of water gliders, in the middle of the clear summer sky a blot of a cormorant dangling from a tree by the fishing line stuck in its throat.

My pathetic diversion didn’t work, because these were curious kids with functioning eyes and senses attuned after a solid hour looking for animals. But it didn’t stop them from continuing to participate in learning about and restoring nature. Not everything we do outside has to be a conquest.

Buckthorn, like garlic mustard, is allelopathic. It releases chemicals that kill its neighbors. There was one morning where, I swear, the second the last virulent orange trunk hit the earth, the frogs struck up their song, sunlight warming the newly cleared space. Thankfully buckthorn doesn’t grow amid standing water, but it had been close to the edge.

While it’s incredibly satisfying to yell “Timber!” as the creaking turns into a crash, the buckthorn isn’t actually dead. The thing about invasives is they’re not immigrants or foreigners, they are colonists. Killing their competitors is only the first step: they have to be able to grow and reproduce, too. As long as its roots are alive, buckthorn has the opportunity to send up whippy shoots en masse. When these have the opportunity to grow, they create a whole tangle that’s hard to cut down, tangled trunks and branches, and of course the thorns they’re named after.

The only solution is to destroy even the roots, by painting a herbicide onto the trunks that will leach through.

You may have heard of this one.

It’s called glyphosate.

When it’s not damaging farm workers and bees, glyphosate is saving habitats by killing off the invasives that destroy our habitats, the rare plants and animals which adapted to their niches over the course of millennia, only to be derailed by a succession of introductions both intentional and otherwise.

Paying extra for organic produce, living in a place with enough volunteers and staff to maintain the woods that release crisp, fresh air from their rich green leaves, the carpet of moss and grass and flowers underfoot attracting birds that sit up in the branches and trill away, with no consideration for an amateur photographer—it is easy to not understand why things like glyphosate still exist, are still used.

But until there is another solution, our options are limited. We cannot go back in time to save that biodiversity before it ever became threatened, before the pale furl of a blue flag iris beneath its stiff proud leaves became a rare event. We must move forward.

Until there are better options, I will be in the forest, sawing down trees and pulling weeds, with the other regular volunteers and student groups that still, in the middle of a million other assaults on nature, take the time to try and heal this piece.

You’re invited.

No More Creepy Crawlies

There are no creepy crawlies hiding in my garden. I know, because I’ve checked.

The compost, under-turned and full of fresh scraps, should have attracted all manner of bugs and buzzers. The tree hanging overhead should be bowing down with orb weavers, feasting on the to-and-fro flitting parade. The bushes should be moving, rustling, going bump in the night as our insectivore friends come out to play.

There should be corpses. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and nothing lives forever. There should be bits, unglamorous chunks, remnants of private, unseen disputes as the hierarchy of predator and prey is reinforced. A feather, a tuft, a tail. There should be beetles and millipedes and worms, seething and swarming, biting and gnawing, beginning the process of making dirt from flesh.

Should be.

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It’s amazing what you see when you pay attention. Keep your head up, they say, as if the world below isn’t stuffed to the brim with detail. In the great documentary of life, all the trailer snapshots might be happening in the trees and tall grass, but the meat-and-bones production work happens beneath our feet. The detail work, the foundations—the catering.

As a kid in the ‘Lucky Country’ of Australia, that was all I did: look down. Oh, sure, I looked up sometimes—birds and possums and spiderwebs all demand at least a little attention—but down below, things crawled. Spiders and hoppers scattered from leaf litter, careening off to safety from clumsy hands. The damp spaces under school demountables practically hoarded slugs, snails, frogs, and enough slime and gunk to definitively ruin a school uniform. Multicoloured ants swarmed the playground boundaries. The yellow-arsed ones taste like honey—honest! Go on, give it a try!

The trail up past my local golf course held so many lizards I ran out of memory on my tiny brick cellphone capturing them all in an afternoon. Christmas beetles invaded the damn living room every single summer, no matter what.

And always, always, there was the possibility of the unfiltered joy of a fistfull of dirt and the unearthing of something small, wriggling, and absolutely unsanitary.

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I’ve lived just north of Sydney pretty much my entire life. I never moved away, and I never stopped digging. I think everything else might have moved, though.

When I dig into the ground now, I find more plastic debris than worms. Hell, I don’t find any worms at all. We’ve got a few crawlers like the ever-dependable pillbug, but not much else. The joy I find in dirt is very much filtered.

I’m not really supposed to dig, of course—the strata and homeowners associations don’t want to disrupt the neat, even, conformist rectangles of yellow-brown dying vegetation. I dig, though, keeping all the plastic I find in an unmarked bag in my tool cupboard. Couldn’t really tell you why I keep it. The worry, maybe, that if I throw it all out it’ll just end up in someone else’s dirt.

We have rules and expectations, and they must be stuck to. No leaf litter. Dead grass, wilting in the summer heat as the dirt dries and roots burn, unshaded and unnourished by its blades cropped too short, far too short. No “untidy” native lawn, no “weeds”, and absolutely no food crops. These are the rules and expectations. A system, designed from the ground up to sabotage itself across months and years.

Council-managed strips wilt, full of water-hungry non-natives. Succulents, everyone’s favourite low-maintenance plant, creep like an invasive carpet, providing no shelter at all, barely holding the dry and cracking dirt in place. I plant what I can in places I’m not allowed, but I can’t always plant food. We have a whole website and mail-in service that tells you whether your soil, the damn ground beneath your feet, is too contaminated with metals to safely grow food in. This is normal, of course. The kids play and the jacaranda trees bloom, and I wonder what little joys they simply never see.

I bite my tongue and keep my head down, keep looking. There’s definitely evidence of death. Corpses, the byproducts of a suburbia red in bloody cats and cars. Lying by the side of the road, deposited by feline indifference or automobile impacts, the possums, bats, and rats come to rest. Always whole, sometimes flat. They don’t rot or get eaten; just mummify, slowly, in the beating sun. Ignored by pedestrians. I make a point of taking them away and burying them. Feeding the soil. Sometimes, there are flies and maggots. Sometimes.

Our local council cares, though. Cares about the environment! About the animals! These pests might hurt our cats, so we poison them, bait them, trap them. Gas them. Hunt them down and ferret them out. A petition saved a den of people-shy foxes from being gassed, but for every indignant act of suburban outrage, there are dozens of systematic plagues against nature.

Suburbia. So damn sterile you grow to miss the cockroaches—yeah, even the ones as long as your thumb. The ones that fly. Can hardly believe it, but I miss them.

#

I used to dream of escaping up north to tropical Queensland, but when I visit there are always fewer clouds and more bones, more cane toads and dust. Farmers north and west don’t seem to be doing much better—parched by the drought, then flooded by storms that the dead ground can’t absorb. We shrug. Our supermarkets raise their prices to help farmers, but somewhere along the line forget to pass on the money. Everyone shrugs.

It goes without saying that our reefs are bleached and dying. That’s not news anymore. We know this. We’ve accepted it. Internalised it. We don’t even shrug.

I used to look with hope to the mountains and the coast, surely untouched by the creeping rot of suburban sprawl; no coddled cat vanguard, no lead in the soil, no strata rules. I looked to the same mountains and coast whose rivers are now clogged with algae and dead fish. The same mountains and coast that have burned, cloaking Sydney in hazy orange, hungrily devouring millions of acres of bushland in a single sweep. Thousands of homes, dozens of people. We shrug.

It’s been more than a month, and not a single day goes by without the smell of smoke hanging thick in the air. Ash drifts from the sky. The sun rises and sets a vile, neon red, so shrouded by smoke that it’s dull enough to look directly at, dull enough to be mistaken for the moon. Mood lighting, if I’ve ever seen it.

“Oh, it’s all theoretical. It doesn’t affect us! I’ll believe it when I see it,” they say, as the sky fills with smoke and the earth shrivels dry. “We have to think about jobs and growth. We’re a nation of innovators,” they say, as our livelihoods crumble and we repeat our mistakes over and over and over and—

I don’t understand how we’re not all furious. Look down. Look down, you fuckers. Look down, beneath your feet, under your fingernails, at the debris in your lungs, and into the silent night. Dig your hands into the dust, watch as it slips through your fingers—any damn metaphor it takes to get you to realise this country is dying around us.

Please. Look down.

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These recollections were written on Gadigal land; land we have sorely mistreated. The Gadigal peoples are one of 29 clans that comprise the Eora Nation—traditional custodians of land we now call Sydney. Their sovereignty was never ceded.

Green Papayas on a Sunday Evening

TIDINGS

 

A harried wind has come

bearing in his arms

ill tidings.

 

Ratt-a-tatting timidly

on my door,

head hanging low,

hat in hand, my rain-drenched wind

pleads to be let in.

 

But I do not want him

in. I quickly shut my windows, and

stuff all the nooks and crannies.

I even cotton up my ears,

because I know.

 

Oh! I know. Don’t I know what my wind

has come to say?

 

He’s come to say the world is in utter disarray.

And, that I am weak and powerless. That I

can do nothing! Dear God! I can do nothing

but watch the horror unfold.

 

Perhaps I was being prescient when I wrote this poem before the world changed. I don’t know. All I know is that there is an odd stillness in my heart now. And the face of that woman selling green papayas is haunting me.

That Sunday evening seems like a distant dream today. We left the city of Hyderabad a few Sundays ago, and are still settling down in our own home, even as I write this piece. The shadow of the virus dims our sun. The numbers have climbed up so high, India now practically leads the global pandemic. Covid 19 has swept out from the cities into the hinterlands, where basic healthcare is negligent, forget Covid care. The virus has even entered our tiny community of seventy-two homes. An eerie silence wheels around the children’s play area. And that mainstay of Indian homes, the daily help, is missing. The sharp edges of people have softened since the early days of Covid. Neighbours are no longer discriminatory towards those in quarantine. Our face masks have created a fraternity which wasn’t there before. There is little difference between our lives in Hyderabad and Chennai. Except that here, in lieu of a large balcony, I have a terrace I can run up to, and stand beneath a vast rolling sky. It provides a respite from the walls. In Hyderabad, we needed to rush out of our homes just to get some fresh air.

That Sunday was no different. My husband and I drove towards Hyderabad’s older parts, where people live cheek by jowl, and the shops are open-to-the-sky carts and wooden platforms. Hyderabad’s historical monuments, the Golkonda fort, Kutab Shahi tombs and further down, the Charminar and Falak Nama Palace, are located there. I wanted to see them as we drove past. So, we went, armed with face masks, hand sanitisers, a large bottle of water, and a shopping bag, in case we found something to buy!

We cruised around, safe inside our mobile egg (that is what Arvind Adiga called cars in his Booker award winning book ‘The White Tiger’). The evening sky had turned into a violet velvet cape, pinned up by the brightest Jupiter of the year. The narrow roads were chock-a-block with people. It was in fact a scene straight out of a village fair, a mela. There were men selling shocking pink cotton candy on sticks, balloons, cheap plastic toys, spicy crispy fried snacks in newspaper cones, corn on the cobs roasting on charcoal stoves on trolleys. People sat with their wares laid out on plastic sheets on the dirt tracks beside the narrow road. Second-hand clothes, rubber footwear, folding umbrellas, fruits and vegetables.

Nobody seemed to care about safety. Most of them did not have masks on. They were obviously not practising social distancing, but were laughing, talking, backslapping and hugging each other with abandon. Some women and children crowded around a handpump, gossiping or playing as they waited their turn to draw water. The scene was a far cry from the other India of glass and concrete towers, air-conditioned homes and malls, and all the necessities and luxuries available in all developed countries. A world we too are privy to.

If anything, Covid 19 has outlined the thousand-headed social divide in India with thick black indelible lines. The have-nots out-number the haves by far despite the strides India has made in the past decade. Online classes are a privilege the majority of Indian school children cannot afford. What the world knows about India is always a few notches off the mark, whether it is the good, the bad or the ugly. This subject is so complex and convoluted that it cannot be explained away in a few lines or even chapters! But if I were to draw a quick sketch, I’d say that those who are subjugated and deprived in India face it from so many angles that they have no fear left. They leave it all to fate. In their world, they have only each other. This was the spirit I observed all around me from behind my rolled-up car window, as we negotiated our way past the human throngs, stray goats and cows, and unruly traffic. And, we also saw the papayas!

“Want to pick up a few?” said my husband in all seriousness.

The woman selling the fruit understood from long experience that she had a potential customer. Her body shifted, almost imperceptibly. I knew if I gestured, she would bring a few over for me to choose.

Raw-green papayas are nutritious and delicious. Their most famous avatar may be the Thai salad, but their buttery texture when boiled and mashed makes them a great substitute for mashed potatoes with roast pork or beef. A pat of butter, salt and pepper is all you need. Bengalis, like us, love them grated and steamed with whole aromatic spices like bay leaves, green cardamoms, cloves and cinnamon, and topped with shredded coconut and clarified butter. My mouth watered. It had been a while since we had eaten them. Even from a distance, and in the fading light, I could tell how fresh these were. Glossy jade green, with their cut stems still oozing the milky sap.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” I said, even as my fingers itched to touch them. “I mean, nobody’s following any safety rules here.”

My husband swerved just then, taking most of the car out of the road and onto the dirt track. A gleaming Range Rover Autobiography muscled its way forward. A man in his late thirties or early forties was at the wheel. He barely noticed our much smaller vehicle. Irritated, I looked away. At that instant the eyes of the woman with the perfect green papayas met mine. She smiled with compassion at this privileged woman, fearful of the poor and angry at the uber rich. Her eyes seemed to fling questions at me: Would I recoil if my hands involuntarily touched hers? Would I rush home to disinfect myself?

We drove back home without the coveted papayas. Some weeks later we relocated. The young men from the packers and movers kept their masks on in our presence. But took them off blithely during their lunch break. To them we were delicate creatures, not of robust flesh and blood like themselves. Yet we are all brethren under the Indian sky. And, if the little poem I wrote was prescient, my sentiments were wrong. One can always do something, no matter how insignificant. That small something may be a thought in the mind or a feeling, but it is still a shift towards change.

Gratitude for what we have. Frugal and mindful living. Respect for this world and all in it. And outrage at what we have knowingly and unknowingly done. These may sound like platitudes mouthed by a woman living a sheltered life, but to quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

From the Editors

Winter comes (in Provence, it looks much the same as summer from a distance, only crisp and windier), and with it the end of a long, harrowing year. A year of sorrow, for the families of a million and a half. A year of change, some say, though change may be less eagerly anticipated than a return to normal. An opportunity to take a break, for a lucky few, to think, to watch, to wonder. To realise that, no matter how sheltered, no one is safe from the brutal consequences of environmental destruction.

As I asked short story authors to share their sense of wonder with us, to stop and look at the world and report on the beauties they glimpsed there, I had no idea how relevant that question would be, a year later. Yet as the virus came to us out of destroyed forests and ravaged species, the question of the cost of sheltered lifestyles is more pressing than ever. How can we protect our environment if we are hardly ever reminded that it exists? Living in the heart of cities, it is far too easy to forget that there is such a thing as nature, messy, scary and uncontrollable, when trees around us are slashed into submission every year, weeds plucked out of pavements and birds driven out with spikes and hoses. Nature is no longer a fact of life, but a rumour, a holiday experience. Our lives have adjusted around its absence.

There are reports that as covid numbers soar, sales of scented candles drop, as customers report on their disappointing lack of smell. Whether it is true or not, the realisation gives one pause: we live in a world where it is plausible to imagine that thousands of people would fail to realise that they’ve lost one of their senses, so little do they use it in their lives. It is equally disturbing to hear the phrase ‘augmented reality’ used, without irony, to refer to games that restrict reality to pixels on a palm-sized screen. The enormity of the loss, when the reality itself of the world we live in, its weight, its sensorial presence, has faded away from our lives should no longer be allowed to go unnoticed.

But it would be far too easy to answer with nostalgia. There is no utopian past to go back to; we are the direct result of the centuries that preceded us, where nature was an enemy, a poison, an endless source of fear. We did not descend from a golden age. But maybe we can make it come true.

So let’s make it happen. Let’s head towards a world where the ground under our feet crawls with life, and we don’t call it vermin. A world where glyphosate is only allowed to keep existing to rectify past mistakes, where trees grow free and rivers run clean, where the people who live off untamed forests and tundras no longer have to fight for dignity and peace, where the beasts that terrify us are left alone rather than slaughtered, when we turn the mistakes of our past into something that can thrive again.

This is a time of waiting, of stillness, but only if we accept it so.

When winter descends on Provence, the north wind sometimes turns the sky into the purest, brightest shade of blue. Such stillness can only come from the deepest turmoil, air twirling above in mighty currents, even though we cannot see it. Only when we look down to the ground do we notice the trees swaying. Only when we pause at last to look at what stands right in front of us do we realise that movement is in the nature of the world, and it only takes a strong will to steer it where we want it to go.

The present is clay, sitting cool and wet in the palm of your hand. Squash it, twist it, mold it. Shape it into something beautiful.

From the Editors: a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook

The call for submissions for Reckoning 5’s poetry started as a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook I lost years ago. It was Toronto labour rights activist and scholar Dr. Winnie Ng’s answer to a 2013 panel question on what she’d tell young organizers: that we can organize from rage, but where it was possible, you could go the long haul if you organized from joy. I lost the notebook, so I’m not going to get that quote right.

Living in a busy urban downtown sharpens your vision for the natural world living alongside and around you. You start relationships: with the raccoon that topples over your compost bin to eat tomato scraps; with the ash tree whose lowest leaves are low enough to, on the days you wear high heels to work, brush the top of your head like a benediction. You learn to truly value that ecosystem threaded through the cracks, and realize that busy spaces are full of half-visible mitzvot. You can think nobody is and then your vision sharpens to those little signs, and you realize: somebody is. That public native species garden didn’t grow itself, and those squirrels aren’t fat and happy on their own account. Someone planted chestnut trees. Someone is, just outside your frame of reference, doing the work.

Our call for poetry was about those intimacies: the seed waiting in your pocket, cupped handfuls of gorgeous things in motion, little gods. What work you were doing, and why you did it. Maybe we could all sharpen our vision, together.

We had no idea what was coming.

In Toronto, I have spent this pandemic year uneasily hibernating as part of a high-risk household. I stepped outside in May and the trees were leafing outward; the next time, in mid-June, the flowers were already going to fruit. It has been hard to know whose precautions to trust, where the future was leading.

Meanwhile, submissions poured in from every continent except Antarctica, and built a paper spine to keep my head up as the case counts fluctuated. Every week this year, I’ve spent a few hours reading poetry and essays about those little flecks of possibility: vivid, loving descriptions of the ground as wrinkled wise skin; laughing lines about coral; how far you can travel on patched-up sails; “we breathe and breathe and / breathe”. Ambivalent, pragmatic, realistic, joyous, fierce, those carefully nurtured loves started to feel like sonar, describing the shape of a world latticed with somebody is. Everything was most-beautiful. Webbed between chat servers, databases, and international video calls scheduled delicately to link three time zones—systems that felt like they should be so tenuous—what’s emerged is so solidly real.

Doing this project in a disrupted, unsettled year meant no matter what I could find to fear, somebody is. The process of putting this volume together gave us the proof. I can close my eyes and see a constellation: hundreds of people who believe in the limitless potential of being for something fiercely enough to write about it during a global pandemic.

That’s what I hope this offers you: a volume that holds the proof, that shakes with the force of that jotted-down note seven years ago, organize from joy. Even though the notebook got soaked until it was unreadable, was lost in a move, and I had to dig through old websites and event listings to find the conference and rediscover Dr. Ng’s name to properly credit her for the impact, I remembered the important part all the way through: If I love things and work from that love, my strength will not fail me.

So, here we are—not all of us, and not in equal circumstances: on our balconies, in wide-open spaces, in overcrowded housing with a half-dozen people we love, doing the work with our hands, doing the work with our mouths, holding ourselves or other people together, failing for today to do it, following instinct, following best practice, fumbling, planting, advocating, pushing back, pushing forward. Tending tiny miracles until they split the pavement.

Grieving Season

I take my father’s ghost and a crochet bird nest with me. The air is clean and clear, my body is empty, and no-one mentions the war.
It is January. The nest is a half-built tiny home for a tiny injured thing. The left-over yarn I’m using is messy as life, cobbled together. An emergency measure.

 

We already know which cities will go dry. Which will be flooded.

I tuck the nest, with hook and yarn, into a (reused) paper bag.

And somewhere there is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

In March, we are sent to our homes, while we still have them.

We’ve already forgotten islands. We’ve already forgotten fire.

I fold my father’s ghost and slip it between my ribs. I wear my grandmother’s thin Irish skin as a mask and learn how to breathe. Nothing is wasted. My liver came down from my Grandfather.

We are sent to our homes.

On the TV the rich men take turns.

And somewhere is an animal. The last of its kind.

 

I have forgotten the unfinished birds’ nest by August, until I find it on a side table. It is made of left-over strings of yarn in every colour and it is the ugliest thing I’ve ever created. I remember when I sat watching the world on fire. All I could do was twist and hook with great seriousness.

On the TV the men don’t mention tiny birds and their vaporised homes.

The people are dying (heart disease, cancer).

The people are dying (suicide, hunger, mosquito).

The people are dying (virus unknown).

“People really die and no longer one by one,” Sigmund Freud said (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

On the TV the men come and go but there’s never time to grieve.

Fire season is nearly here again.

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

I am 11 years old, sitting under a tree next to the river. A migraine peels apart my brain. My grandma’s cool hand on my face.

“Just let the pain in, don’t resist,” she says. “Relax. The pain comes from resisting.”

I relax my mind. The seagulls wheel.

The tree holds us in its shade.

 

Here’s the pain I let in: I have stopped thinking about the baby bird. (I think of it as a baby but it could just be very, very small). I’m slow at crochet and not very good with babies either, having never had one wanted one, having never seen the need.

But now the world is full of endings and somewhere an animal is the last of its kind.
My Grandma’s cool hand on my skin.

The world is full of endings and I am the daughter of a daughter.

I will never have a daughter.

And somewhere, an animal is the last of its kind.

 

There are no ultimatums with ghosts.

My dad is a ghost who, when living, would enter the country in secret, so he could surprise us after school. Thirty years before every kid in the country saw the animal corpses. Thirty years before we started baking bread with fervour, stuck at home, safe at home, neither, never. He leans in, all paper, and reminds me that it was him. That he told them where to dig for the oil and the gas.

Here, on Noongar country, I was born, he was born, his dad was born, and before that, the boat, the English towns, the Irish fields. The sky is clear, there is no emergency for white folks, until there is.

And somewhere there’s an animal. The last of its kind.

Dropping its bones for the future (what future?) to name.

 

I tuck his ghost back between my ribs, I take him with me to the protest march. But my voice is stuck, there are feathers and guilt in my throat.

On the TV, the rich men come and go.

Fire season is nearly here again.

“People really die, and no longer one by one,” Dr Freud said. “It is no longer an accident.” (Freud, via Victoriano, 2003 212).

And somewhere there is an animal, the last of its kind.

 

The Noongar calendar has six seasons, because December is different to February, but they all burn just the same these days.

The ghost of my dad folds up small. A beginning, an ending, an origami weight of never growing old.

It’s eleven seconds to midnight. The rich men wear suits and wave showbusiness hands.
Now is not the time.

Now is not time.

Now is not.

I thought there’d be more shouting, at the end.

And somewhere, there is an animal.

The last of its kind.

 

—January – September, 2020

Works cited

Victoriano, Filipe, Aaron Walker and Carl Good Fiction, Death and Testimony: Toward a Politics of the Limits of Thought, Discourse 25, (2003): 211–230. Sourced at http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389671.

In Isolation

In isolation, I thought maybe nature was the answer. No other humans, just the organic Earth and everything else that lived on it. If we were the lice, then all those other plants and animals were what? The too-tiny-to-see worms inhabiting our eyelashes? All the microorganisms living on our bodies, unnoticed until something goes wrong and the benign skin bacteria begins to rot the blood?

The metaphor got away from me. It’s useless anyway. Language is for communicating with other humans. The world doesn’t care what we call it.

And so I took long walks at midnight. Sometimes I heard frogs. Sometimes crickets. Sometimes birds whose bodies were fooled by the glow of the city that never died. Sometimes someone else walking the sidewalks, face also masked. Everything went quiet when I passed, ghosting like a dream I couldn’t shake.

In my fourplex, the sounds of my housemates were distant. Practicing drums. Loud and laugh-salted phone conversations. The thud and groans of home exercise or masturbation. There was no passing each other in the front entry. No hellos. The cars drove themselves out in the morning and parked themselves at night. Packages delivered on the front steps walked their way inside.

I was lucky to have this luxury of isolation. I had savings. A job I could do online. When I went to the grocery store, I eyed everyone with suspicion, and they suspected me right back. This would bring us closer, I remember an op-ed claiming. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. People are more compassionate with the suffering they can’t see.

A shaky claim, but I’d bought into it.

But in the grocery store and the post office where other people were unavoidable, all I saw were the eyes and the upper part of the face, eyebrows angled down, foreheads wrinkled in annoyance and fear. Do you know the way an ear moves when a person frowns so deeply their face collapses in on itself? Or how the throat visibly tightens if you’re straining to hold back a scream?

I practiced in the mirror, eliminating all the telltale signs visible around the mask. It is so much safer to be a blank slate, reflecting nothing. With all the masks, how can we know who to hold accountable? By the time the mask is off, it’s too late.

Months passed. The world evolved. Civilization adjusted. Every online meeting I attended, I blanked my camera. My cat became a great conversationalist. Television windowed a world that was and would never be again.

Oh, not even that is the truth, I can tell you now. There was an alternate universe in old photographs, one which never even existed. Or if it existed, it was always an illusion with as much solidity as a soap bubble. The illusion popped and our eyes are stinging and we can choose to keep our eyes closed or wash them out and look around us with a new, pained vision.

I say we because it’s easier than saying I.

Here’s the truth.

We are each in a tiny spaceship, a bubble just large enough for us and the supplies to survive. An attic efficiency in space. Bed. Kitchen. Exercise machine. Entertainment box. Each ship can survive indefinitely, which is good, because each of us is traveling through space for an indefinite time. Like dandelion seeds, we have been blown from Earth and shot out into the vastness of the empty black.

Food and water are effectively infinite. Air, too. Everything is recycled. Nano-machines ever carefully clear the air of the dust made by our flaking skin and shed hair. Something something relativism makes it so we age virtually not at all. And communication between us is equally magical and instantaneous. There are explanations for why it all works, but the science doesn’t matter. Whether we understand how and why we are here, here is where we are. In an enclosed space, each of us alone.

Hello? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, press the red flashing button.

One day we’ll travel beyond the Sun’s encompassing light and it’ll shrink to be just another star. Already, all the planets are invisible except by computer projection. I know your voice is out there. So just press the button to open the link.

All we have is each other.

 

—September 9, 2020

Writing in the Time of Coronavirus 2

One thing that’s been blooming in this coronavirus crisis is dreams. Near the beginning of lockdown, a friend told me hers: the landscape outside her house was destroyed. But it was replaced by a green cactus with kangaroo-bear hybrids lolloping round it. It seemed to symbolise devastation and enforced change, but something new and tougher was growing from it.

My latest story involves a prison, and a tremendous sense of longing for and guilt about what we’ve lost through our destruction of the environment. Oddly, we’d succeeded in displacing ourselves. As I’ve had more time to listen to the birds singing above the traffic, and to observe a chopped-down tree continuously sending out new shoots in the back garden, I’ve been cheered by nature’s astonishing tenacity, and saddened at how, if we don’t get our arses into gear, we won’t be a part of it. Already, we barely belong.

What has also crept into my writing is paying more attention to all of the senses, but especially touch. Currently single, not touching people feels like a dismemberment of something crucial: connection through the body. I’ve written quite a few stories about apes and this strange absence makes me think about how they touch each other continuously, and how the warmth of another body bypasses the mind and hooks into the sense of belonging necessary to all human beings.

I’ve been wracking my brains about how this sense of belonging can help overcome the enormity of the climate crisis facing us. People’s actions during the covid crisis are a giant crucible, reflecting how we’ve acted in the past and showing how we could do things differently in the future.

There are no goals for me in writing fiction, only open-endedness: feeling my way, seeing what comes up, and following it. It’s the opposite of the control and dehumanisation inherent in the late-capitalist view of what a human should be like.

Writing constantly surprises me with the answers I find, without trying to, answers that seem to come from the sum of my experience with other human beings, which is why I think of writing as a communal act.

So, who knows how writing fiction can help change the world. Some submission calls ask you to imagine a positive future. That has its place. But writing about the sadness of the world could just as easily change something. The reader’s absorption of the writing is as mysterious as the process of creation. How to put a value on such a subtle, but real, thing? Which is why it’s so hard to fund the arts in our hyper-capitalist society.

But don’t you always remember that thing you read years ago, that you’ve never forgotten, that in fact changed your life?

Whatever happens, I know I’m going to keep on with this odd activity called writing, that is all about exploring and possibilities, without pressure. The crisis has affirmed this for me.

 

—August 26, 2020

Escaping in a little boy’s play.

It’s been some cold four months. Even though our heaviest rainfalls happen between March and July, and are always chaperoned by intense heat, these months have been cold ones. Somehow, the months had the biting loneliness and endlessness one only gets on cold nights. Living, for those of us that haven’t died, has been like lying in a large bed in December with no coverings, in a room with large open windows. Alone. Wondering when morning will come, if morning will come.

What I have done the most in these days and months has been watch. I watched because in watching you’re persons removed, you’re apart from the pains and the confusion. I watched my four year old nephew who got so little time to watch cartoons when we all soaked our eyes in Al jazeera resort to staging plays with his pairs of slippers, and cups, and sticks. I watched as people who once had full lives, who went to the gym and planned diets they knew they’d not stick to and holidays they could never afford became reduced to numbers and cases. When I went out to buy vegetables from the small market at a junction not so far from my house, I watched faces that knew so little of what was happening in the world outside their front doors and stalls forced to close up shop early or close altogether and go hungry without explanations or provisions… Watching was a lot of comfort but at the same time a lot of pain.

While counting the cold days from March to July, and watching, I wrote poetry. I didn’t write poetry because I wanted to bide time as my cousin did when he opened a Tiktok account to follow trends of short videos. I wrote poems because that was the only way I could stay sane. I wrote poems because I needed to stop talking to myself and I couldn’t stop talking to myself knowing that people who once had full lives, beautiful lives, sad lives, all kinds of lives were now nothing but numbers and cases.

The poems, all twenty of them, were imagined lives and significant others of the cases and numbers. Some recovered and went home others died and others faced agony within white walls and under bright lights and the stench of disinfectants, not knowing if they will live to go home or not. I hoped that these imaginary lives would add some warmth to the coldness of numbers.

When I wasn’t watching the news, wishing I could give those cold words and numbers the broadcasters called out a hug, I was watching my nephew, all William in his Globe, casting Romeo and Juliet, and having them live happily ever after. Thinking back now, I marvel at the escapism his plays offered him and I; creativity rescued me from the chill of numbers.

 

—July 30, 2020