Sanctity And Sanctuary Or Lack Thereof

I know violence.  I know menace.  I know hatred. I was attacked once by a mob of AK47-wielding men.  I was twenty-one at the time and on my way back to work from a quick lunch break.  This was back in apartheid-era South Africa.   I won’t get into the details because I hold no grudges against those men who were as much victims as I was of that skewed system based on racial supremacy but what I will say is that I should have died that day.  Three people were killed that day, a few feet away from where I was assaulted.   I escaped.  Call it what you will, I call it a miracle.

A year later I was walking home from a doctor’s appointment when I noticed I was being followed by four men in a white car.   Most of the walk home was along a main road so there was some traffic but not a lot at that particular time of day. Those men in that car did not try to hide the fact they were following me.  I remember fear rising up inside me like a cold wave as they whistled and called me ‘sweetie’ and banged the sides of the car like the hooligans they were.  I knew that once I turned into a quieter street they would get their chance to  – who knows what? So I walked into a cathedral.   It was called The Cathedral Of Christ The Saviour.  I went inside and knelt down.  Except for the tall statues of Mary and St Joseph and the flickering candles I was the only person there, so I prayed.  I let the minutes pass in that marbled sanctuary and then walked outside again to check if they were in the area or parked in the road and to my horror found them in the church parking lot casually waiting for me.

I ran back inside and prayed some more and soon noticed a woman lighting candles near the altar.  I walked up to her and asked if she could give me a lift home (I lived four blocks away).  She was very reluctant at first but on learning why she agreed and I was delivered safely to my house.  (You can imagine how that incident traumatized me – I didn’t walk anywhere after that for many many years).

The reason I am sharing this today is I was deeply saddened to hear of the murder of five people in a Jerusalem synagogue today.  I don’t believe you need to worship in a ‘special’ place, my temple has for some time now been the forest but still, I respect the fact that people of all creeds have built structures in which to serve our Creator and these structures and places of worship should be honored and respected by all.

Is this an antiquated idea?  Have our morals loosened so much since the Middle Ages that sanctity and sanctuary are no more? 

I am not saying here that murdering children or bombing civilians is acceptable or even understandable because they are murdered in the streets; what I am saying is that a word has yet to be invented to describe a person who attacks or murders another bowed in worship in a place of sanctuary.

On My iPod

I’ve been wanting to post a little something on music because the short story I have been working on for several months now is populated by musicians and also because I love music.

The main character is obsessed with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan so I’ve been listening to these wonderful storytellers almost daily but of course I also enjoy contemporary music and try to stay ‘relevant’ by listening to what’s Hip and Trending.

When you have kids you learn quickly the importance of ‘staying relevant’ which in my case involved getting to know Barney, the manga series and card game YU-GI-OH (mind-numbing stuff I tell you) and later Eminem, among others.

I turn to my eldest son for the latest on music because like me, he’s not really into mainstream pop so I have been (mostly) educated on indie and folk / rock music.  It is because of him that I have discovered bands like the following two:

1.  Milky Chance.  I love this video.  It is filled with symbolic items and gestures like the burning of a dreamcatcher but more importantly there is a tribe of wild and fun-loving children in the woods, and that dear readers always gets my attention.

and

2.  These fabulously talented Australians – Angus and Julia Stone

What are you listening to?

Counting Stars

I walked home from work last night and because a clear sky at this time of the year is something of a rarity in Vancouver, I dawdled so I could enjoy the incredible view of burning stars and golden moon.  My slow walk brought home the fact that we are surrounded by awe and wonder.

Take for example Rosetta’s (European spacecraft) successful landing on a speeding comet yesterday.  This is an extraordinary achievement and yet another leap for mankind.

Why should this audacious achievement excite me or you?  Well for one that washing machine- sized explorer is about to help us re-write history and what we know of ourselves.

Images of Rosetta landing on 67P (couldn’t they name it after a nice Greek nymph? one of the many ravaged by the insatiable Zeus? I wonder) are a reminder that we are constantly redefining our limits.

The Night Sky also brought back a flood of memories.  On warm and warm(ish) evenings my sister and I would drag one of our mattresses out into the backyard where we would lie, sometimes in our pyjamas, sometimes in our bathing suits, to watch countless worlds spin and sparkle before our eyes.

Night time was particularly exciting because it was quiet – except for the crickets and cicadas (also known as Christmas beetles) – and the adults were in bed because as everyone knows adults are scared of the dark.  One of my most treasured possessions was an encyclopedia with a map of the Southern Skies.  I would pore over those pages with a torch and read out loud the names of constellations – Canis Major, Scorpius, Centaurus – and we would point to – well, anywhere in the sky – and link random stars and proudly tick off a constellation in my encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia told us stars are balls of gas but that didn’t stop us from imagining they were much more. Many we knew even then, were worlds.  Some undoubtedly inhabited by lizard men and robots.   We wondered if from our small backyard, we could spot the remnants of that great planet Krypton after the explosion.   Wouldn’t pieces of that great planet glow green in our night sky?

We tried counting stars.  But neither one of us could figure out how many zeros fit into a million back then.  Now that I’m older and a little more learned I happen to know words like quadrillion actually exist but I can’t bear to think of all those zeros!

It’s impossible to manipulate stars. You can’t make them explode by willing them to, like you can clouds.  A cloud is a temporary and fluffy thing with no fixed course or firm hold.  We used to lie there, rubbing the sides of our temples and will those stars to go ‘POOF!’ because we imagined we had that power.  The first time we saw a shooting star we ran into the house and hid for cover under the kitchen table.  It was our first experience with God.

And the first time we spotted a satellite tracing it’s slow arc across the sky we shook our mother awake and announced the imminent arrival of Martians.  My mother told us it was way past our bedtime and we had to drag the mattress back inside.

No one had told us we could wish upon a falling star in those early years.  We only found that out later.  Certainly wishing on stars was not a tradition in our family.

How many wishes were lost? Countless.

Interacting Galaxies

Nasa Image of Interacting Galaxies

 I try to make up for it now by watching the Perseids and Leonids (coming soon to a Night Theatre near you Nov 16) meteor showers

 

Do you enjoy the night sky?  

What is your favourite night time memory?

My Sister The Carjacker

My (maternal) grandparents were especially fond of the Great Outdoors and every Sunday my sister and I bustled into their car where we would play a game or two before being lulled to sleep by the car’s engine.  One of our favourite pastimes was waving at other drivers on the highway.  Most people waved back.  Others would smile shyly or nod in acknowledgement.

road and lake

Another favourite was counting cars (how many red ones? how many blue?).  On the longer trips we took to counting windmills and when we ran out of those we counted goats.  (This was in Africa.  There are goats. And sheep but mostly goats)

Eventually – after what felt like hoooours – we would arrive at a park or farm where my gran would take it upon herself to choose the ‘perfect’ picnic spot and we would, after unpacking a small-sized kitchen’s worth of tableware and food, settle down for the first of several meals.  If it was Summer my sister and I wasted no time in changing into our bathing suits and diving into the river/lake/farm dam.  If it was Autumn, we did the same.  It didn’t matter that more than one lake or dam had warnings posted all over the place warning would-be swimmers of bilharzia and other parasites.  My grandparents didn’t read a word of English so if it didn’t bother them it certainly didn’t bother us.

My grandparents had a knack for choosing picturesque places.   Even if we weren’t exactly welcome in some of those places. Once, we settled down to a meal of fried chicken beside a slow moving brown river only to be interrupted by the furious farmer on whose property we found ourselves. I have no idea how my grandfather convinced that farmer to let us spend the rest of our day there under the shadow of a willow tree but we got to stay.  I remember that was the first ever willow tree I climbed.  I tested her fine leafy hair for strength and durability when I swung out and into that lazy brown river.

One day stands out above all the rest.  After our third or fourth meal under a tall and fragrant Eucalyptus my grandparents and parents fell into a deep and sonorous sleep.   My parents were with us that particular day which makes this day not only memorable but also remarkable because they were separated for as long as I remember and rarely took us anywhere.  I believe they had agreed to this outing to try and reconcile but it was like forcing a lion to live with a buffalo.

A cloud burst above the lake forcing my sister to think up of some new activity that did not require wind or water.  I of course, knew exactly what to do.  A new book waited for me in the back seat of my father’s car.  I seem to think it was Wind In The Willows because I can still remember those beautiful illustrations of Rat and Mole and Toad and elusive Badger.  Ignoring my sister’s baying for attention I got into the car, closed the door behind me and in no time was lost in the pages of a book.

My sister is younger than me but as you will come to see she is the more dangerous assertive one.  She got into the driver’s seat and started ‘vooming’ and ‘vrooshing’ behind the steering wheel.  At some point I became aware of motion – the slow, forward rolling of wheels. The car was moving.

This was not my sister’s first attempt at carjacking.  In fact – and yes, I know you are going to find this hard to believe- my sister and I were rescued by a neighbour after my sister released the handbrake on my mother’s car and we went rolling down our street.  I think I was seven years old at the time which means my sister was five. Said kindly neighbour managed to throw himself through the passenger side window (my side) and pull up the brake before we rolled through the Stop sign and into traffic.

I think it was an Act of Grace that woke my father from his afternoon nap that day.  While my sister screeched with delight at the prospect of drowning, my father forced the driver’s door open and saved our lives.

Stuck In The Middle

I am one of those crazy people who jots down ideas or images for stories and poems on the back of receipts, paper towels, journals, notebooks and calendars.  I also have Evernote and more than one short story (all works-in-progress) open on my laptop at all times even when I am away at work.   What all this means is that I am a hoarder of words and ideas and paper.

Anyway a strange thing happened earlier this week that made me realize I have a serious problem.  I don’t think it requires surgery but certainly a visit to the head doctor may be overdue.

I discovered I had saved a version of one of the short stories I have been working on for oh, let’s say four months on Dropbox.  I then discovered another version of it – under a different title – in Word Documents.   To give you an indication of just how brilliant I am – one of the versions is titled simply ‘Short Story’.  Another is ‘Girl Walks Into A Bar’.  Yes.  Really.

Genius.

All in all I have discovered three versions of what is essentially the same story with the same characters.   What bothers me is how I didn’t even realize I had been doing this? Seems like I would write a new paragraph and save it without really noticing where I was saving it to.

Has this happened to you?

The good news is I now have two versions that I really like and one that needs to be deleted as soon as I pluck up the courage to do so.   The bad news is that these two (delightfully different) versions have me firmly and very resolutely stuck in the middle.  The end is apparently still nowhere in sight.

THE MIDDLE

Image:  Dallas Clayton

The Bear On The Bridge – Short Story Part II

And here friends and followers is the conclusion… if you have not read Part I please click here.

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I finally caught up with old Baker scratching his back beside a creek.  It was quite something to watch him in broad daylight; so relaxed and at peace in his wilderness.  He was rubbing his back up against the rough bark of a tree; eyes closed, lips curled in satisfaction.  When finally he opened them, our eyes met and I thought I saw in them recognition.  Certainly it was not the first time Baker and I had locked eyes.  I had chased him from my orchards with gunfire and clamoring pans more than a dozen times over the years and always he would amble away with a casual sneer.  He saw me as the two legged apple keeper and I went from seeing him as a nuisance neighbour to a murderer.  I raised my .338 and aimed at that spot between his golden eyes.  He took that bullet with an amicable smile.

I thought of old Baker three months later when my wife and I bumped into Tom Yates having dinner at the only restaurant in town with the deceased’s Mrs Yates’ younger sister Alvira.  I thought of him again when we attended their wedding the following Fall and Alvira wore her older sister’s wedding dress ‘in tribute’  she had said to me but to my wife she had said something else altogether.  She had said her sister had been a ‘large woman’ and so the dress was wide enough to hide her baby bump.

Baker started visiting soon after the wedding.  I’d wake up to the sound of falling apples and munching and when I looked out my bedroom window and down into our small orchard he would be there reaching for those apples, the bullet hole clearly visible in the moonlight.

I started doubting myself.  I woke my wife up more than once and asked her to take a look when the munching roused me from my restless sleep in those predawn hours but the occasional bear she spotted she said, was nowhere near old Baker’s size.  Besides she didn’t believe in ghosts especially not in the ghosts of animals coming back to haunt their killers. She said she worried about me and that I should go see a head doctor. Instead I took to checking on Baker’s remains in the post office and was not comforted by the fact that he was still there.  After I had shot him, Tom had Baker mounted as a ‘man-killer’ and put on display at the post office.  Such a big bear the townspeople said would draw in crowds of visitors.  But very few crossed the bridge to come and stare at Baker.

Earlier this year Baker caught up with me on the bridge.  I had been standing there in the half-light of dusk with my hands in my pockets staring down at those two rivers running side by side, wanting to think of trout and pink salmon but instead thinking of Tom Yates and his second wife and their three sons when Baker made his presence known.  He was on all fours, panting and heaving on the town side of the bridge.  I think I laughed at him.  I remember bending down to pick up a small stone and throwing it at him.  I told him I was an old man now.  I told him to leave me alone.  But Baker just kept on staring at me with those golden eyes.  When I tired of waving my fist at him I got into my truck and drove through him and into the wide cedar that stood behind him.

The Bear On The Bridge – A Short Story Part I

A Halloween week treat friends and followers. I wanted to write a different kind of ghost story.  I suppose you are the Beta readers as I have not shown it to anyone else.  I hope you like it.

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I moved to this valley in my twenties to help build the bridge that spans the two rivers we  locals call ‘The Sisters’ but in truth they are nothing more than noisy rivals, eyeing each other, as they incise their way down to the coast.   Back then the belief was ‘build the bridge and the people will come’ but our young town failed to draw in the people despite the promise of potash and a possible mine.

Occasionally we are graced with the presence of scientists and the like who come to count grizzlies and steelhead trout.  We like to regale them with tales of close encounters with bears and man-eating cougars and moose as tall as houses; stories we tell our own children to keep them from wandering deep into the forest.    But mostly this beautiful valley is ours and the bridge is a quiet place.

When I am not home, on the farm with my wife (our only daughter has long since flown the coop and now lives with her accountant husband in Vancouver) I like to stop here on the bridge.

I like it here.  I like it far better than I ever liked living in the city where I grew up.  I like the smell of glaciers and tart berries.  I like the heady odour of rotting vegetation on the forest floors and the green smell of scraggly Douglas fir.  Nothing much ever happens in our town or in the surrounding farms but from time to time the local newspaper will remind us that tragedy strikes unexpectedly and that darkness has the potential to snuff out the light.  Darkness descended when Mrs Yates was taken while hanging out her laundry.  I was interviewed by not only by the local newspaper but later by a national newspaper for my side of the story.  This happened back in the eighties when her husband Tom and I were like bobcats.   Tom was adamant that old Baker had taken her.  Baker was what we like to call around these parts a ‘trouble bear’.  He got his name because of his fondness for eating pie crust from kitchens and fruit from our orchards.  When Tom asked for my help in tracking Baker down I had my doubts.  I couldn’t understand why Baker would take Mrs Yates.  It wasn’t, as they say in those crime stories my wife likes to read, his ‘modus operandi’.  Baker ate pies and apples throughout the valley.  He didn’t take nice ladies doing the laundry.

Sure enough I found tracks leading to and away from the Yates farmhouse but I wasn’t sure they were Baker’s and I told Tom Yates so. But Tom insisted. He said it was Baker because no other bear had Baker’s massive girth or thick auburn coat.  We lost the tracks at the point where The Sisters hold hands to form a formidable bond of gushing water before going their separate ways again two miles south and had to head back the way we came and then east towards the mountains.

There was blood, here and there, dark but tiny amounts spattered on the mushy ground, but not enough I imagined to indicate Baker was chewing on one of Mrs Yates’ limbs as he ambled along.   We finally stumbled upon Mrs Yates body about three days after her abduction lying beside a fallen spruce.  She was partially covered by moss and leaves.  It was like someone had tried to keep her warm and not necessarily hidden.   But it was that surprise- filled expression – those wide empty eyes – staring up at the forest canopy and the sunlight filtering through it that still haunts me.   Her throat had been slashed, possibly by a bear or a jagged knife but otherwise she was remarkably intact.  I wanted to comment on that, but Tom Yates was groaning beside her like a wounded animal so I pressed on and alone.