Excerpt from title story in ‘Displaced and Other Etudes’

(Collection to be published early 2021)

They broke camp in quick time after the four days of diverse activities ended. By three o’clock, half the participants had left. The remainder, more than thirty boys, a handful of girls, and three teachers bided their time in the grounds in small groups, some in the shade of trees. The girls were from single-sex colleges in the area, but had been selected to see out their secondary schooling at the thriving establishment the boys attended. The orientation camp had marked a preamble to the commencement of formal studies the following week.

The seaside setting, a half hour’s drive from the school, by the side of a road that descended to the bay, was lambent and lively banter filled the air, residue of the enjoyment the camp brought the attendees. The prospect of the long year ahead was less daunting in such an informal atmosphere.

Mostly, the waiting groups consisted of three, four, or more individuals. In one instance, however, there were only two, a tall, thin boy and his shorter, chunkier companion. They stood apart from the rest. Bored with waiting for the bus due to pick them up in minutes, they contemplated whatever took their fancy. The quips of his mate kept the tall lad amused. When he first suggested they take a swim, he was only half-serious. But the idea appealed to him more as the afternoon wore on. His friend said he would come along and the pair headed off.

No one noticed their peremptory action until they neared the exit of the grounds. Their leaving caused a minor stir but neither could’ve cared less. The beach was half a mile away. They were there in minutes. They stripped down to their bathers, and entered the water – cool, clear, and delightful after the abrasive heat. After a quarter of an hour, they clambered out of the shallows, dried themselves off, and slipped their back clothes on. Rather than rejoin the others at the camp, they wilfully strode beyond it to the highway.

On they walked in the hot sunshine, arms outstretched, thumbs cocked. After twenty minutes, they heard the toot of a bus horn behind them. They looked around. The faces of their teachers and fellow students ogled them behind windows. The driver of the bus had blasted the horn in gloating triumph, and passed them without altering speed. Confident they would thumb down a ride, the friends didn’t react.

Their daring was rewarded when a Holden pulled over in front of them not five minutes later. The tall boy took the seat beside the driver. His friend shifted into the back. They settled, happy to be spared more exposure to the afternoon heat and thrilled that they’d gained a lift. They thought of it as vindication of their independent action.

The lankier of the two left the Holden when it reached Frankston, the town of his birth. He thanked the driver and in the same breath bid goodbye to his friend, who promptly replaced him in the front passenger seat. Home was to the east, more than a mile away. He walked the distance, thinking of the good things awaiting him there, the cool rooms in which he’d rest after this day and week, food and drink that agreed with him, television, music, the meal his mother would fix for dinner. All exerted an undeniable attraction and would be his soon.

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Short Stories

Preamble to forthcoming Displaced and Other Etudes:

Decades ago the Australian writer and activist the late Frank Hardy structured his little known novel But the Dead Are Many along the lines of a musical fugue. As a young budding scribe, I didn’t hesitate to purchase a copy of the book on the strength of his epic Power Without Glory. My memory of the later novel is of a ponderous, difficult to digest work, much less accessible than the tome with which he established his reputation. This reaction may have had as much to do with instinctive aversion to the morbid narrative, which deals with mid-twentieth century Australian communists on downward spirals, as it did confoundment with the fugue shape the author relied upon. Granted, some writers, like Mr. Hardy, may think in terms of concertos, sonatas, symphonies, or other musical forms when writing their opuses. Whether they are successful or not in their grandiose endeavours is perhaps best left up to music critics who also happen to read a lot to decide. In its simplicity the musical form the etude is, I feel, more relevant to any discussion of music’s influence upon literature. An etude is a short composition for a solo instrument, especially designed as an exercise, or for exploiting technical virtuosity. Arguably its closest literary equivalent is the vignette, which is a small, graceful literary sketch. Short stories, like short films, can eschew the major demand incumbent on feature films on the one hand and novels on the other, this being adherence to the concept of beginnings, middles, and ends. Life isn’t as neat and packaged as many movie narratives and novels would have us believe, and short films and vignettes, with their snapshot or ‘slice of life’ focus, are perhaps truer to ‘reality’ than longer films or written works will ever be. They can comprise a handful of brush strokes on a canvas that has no edges. Turning to the etudes in this collection … words he wrote as a young man come back to an ageing poet in a most surprising fashion in Experience at the Heights. Bird depicts a tragic, brutal reckoning in the Guatemalan highlands circa the 1980s, the height of that country’s civil war. The stories Intimidation, Walls, Cry, The Gratuity, and Run Wild are set in Australia, and feature diverse young heroes struggling to fit into, or make sense, of their surroundings. Crisis is a meditation on a world in which the citizens of a north American province suddenly become bereft of their principal outlets of diversion and entertainment. The Passenger, Sleeper, Kay, and Fortuity provide glimpses into the lives of the marginalised. The twin pieces The Ministration of Loss and Waiting cover similar terrain in a modern-day India setting, but more from the perspective of the determined Neha and her husband Ravi, who have dedicated their lives to helping those whom others overlook. An Australian – Sri Lankan journeys to the country of his forebears in The Impostor. The intransigent, under pressure Catholic cleric in Denial may bear an all too familiar resemblance to many church luminaries who in recent years have fallen from grace in the wider world. Bev, in The Umbrella, explains the significance of a pendant she wears to her old friend Rosie. A Greek humanitarian and scholar outlines the meaning he has attributed to his life in Light on the Mirror. The Asian set stories Noi and This is My Husband encompass the journeys to greater self-knowledge of two ‘rebels’ noticeably not lacking in causes. The young Czech Jaroslav in Philoctetes and Me introspects on life in his native land and America, the country he travels to in the years following the Velvet Revolution. At around 50,000 words, Displaced is by far the longest work in the collection. Initially written approximately thirty years ago, it traces the divergent experiences of two boyhood friends whose lives take radically different turns once their schooling ends. As many writers would attest, some works take a long time to satisfactorily germinate. The struggles and themes at the forefront of Displaced may no longer be quite ‘me’, but it is a high-fidelity portrait of a time. If this is the limit to what a writer can boast about when it comes to a pet project, maybe it will have to suffice. The reader can decide. My sincere hope is that this short novel is also redolent with those decided but endearing etude-like aspects aforementioned, regardless of its length. Prior publication, where relevant, is indicated.

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Personal Bests Journal Issue 1

Now available on amazon!

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‘Displaced and Other Etudes’ Sneak Preview

The opening story from my soon to be published collection Displaced and Other Etudes

Experience at the Heights

The path leading up to the Amalec peak began near the hotel where the old poet was staying with his wife. Steep even at its lowest point, it opened into a semicircle on its climb toward the forest, studded with pines. Daily since their arrival the man of letters had taken a walk at the warmest part of the afternoon. Most days he tested himself on the path to Amalec though more often than not he advanced no further than a meadow one hundred and fifty metres above the hotel.

He had commemorated his seventieth birthday the previous July. His white hair notwithstanding, he took pride in the leanness of his frame and the fact that he immersed himself in the elements every single day unless his sciatica – a scourge most of his adult life – plagued him beyond endurance.

He ventured outdoors again on the second to last day of his retreat at the locale Lena and he had frequented often during their declining years. He passed by stalls closed for business in the heat of the day. Their clear canvas coverings called to mind those he’d seen at camps in the same area, and depictions in an old illustrated edition of the Bible. He liked to pass hours resting, sketching, and writing at innumerable sites.

Cloud masses oscillated about the snow-capped peaks in the distance, visible against a backdrop of tenuous blue. Sometimes, as though on a caprice, they lingered in weightless repose. At other times they drifted east, on wind gusts unnoticeable lower down. Mopping perspiration from his brow with an embroidered white handkerchief, he searched for a suitable place. All around, amid the sun and shade at the edge of the forest, visitors lounged away the afternoon, sleeping, reading or chatting, many of them partly or completely naked. A succession of hollows behind the path offered nooks within which people could rest without being seen, much less disturbed, by passers-by.

The poet found his niche among a cluster of small rocks. He put down his rubber-tipped cane and balanced the weight of his upper body upon one bent arm. Here, alone, he felt that the shade of the forest, the meadow, and the vista of huts down below belonged to him and no one else. The sweep of his gaze encompassed the Lauterbrunnen valley wrapped in mist. How vast the space that separated the valley from the snow atop the stupendous mountains.

After a moment he recaptured his breath. Then, with a deliberate, slow movement he opened a small folder. The clothbound item, the work of Rudolf Mosse, had been a constant companion on his peregrinations over a period of decades. It showed little wear and tear. He opened the folder and commenced drawing with a fountain pen. He traced the outline of a garden wall, inserting in the background a wooden hut in the Bernese style standing in the shade of two maple trees. Next – further in the background – he sketched the steep incline at the foot of the mountain and its crowning glory: a sharp pointed peak. Behind this anfractuous apex stood the Jungfrau silhouette, the line of which ran off his page, a mere suggestion.

After a while the effort and concentration required left a burning sensation in the eyes of the ageing man. He lay flat on the ground and didn’t move until he made out the hullabaloo of youthful voices down below. A group of children with rucksacks affixed to their narrow backs strode into view. He listened to their Bernese-tinged German and when they came close enough estimated their ages at between fourteen and sixteen.

Perspiration glowed on their faces and the bedraggled state of their uniforms testified to the length and arduousness of their hike. But they showed no great haste. The last one of the group insisted on making a detour that brought him and several of the others to an opening above the point where the poet sat.

Seating themselves on the grass, they took food and gazed all around. Little by little their conversation waned until one of the boys broke the silence with a recitation. Now and then his recall became hazy and his efforts bogged down for an instant. The poet pricked up his ears when he heard familiar words. He recognised not only the cadence but also the lines of a piece he penned when not much older than the one who spoke it back to him now. The poem celebrated the beauties of nature – clouds and mountains – but had been forgotten by the author in the fifty years that had elapsed since.

The boy continued in the same harmonious if solemn tone. His companions heard him out in a respectful silence. Finally, he came to the last line: I hope you, beloved mountain, remember me in your dreaming. At least a minute passed before the poet stirred and gazed at the group. By then, they were disappearing from view and progressing up the mountain. He remained in the same place, marvelling at how his words had returned to him through the mouth of an unknown schoolboy.

After Hermann Hesse

First Published in alongstoryshort

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The River Yabebirí Pass (Translation of Quiroga story El Paso del Yabebirí)

In the Yabebirí River, which is in Misiones, there are many rays. Yabebirí, in fact, means precisely ‘River of the Rays’. There are so many that at times it is dangerous to put even one foot in the water. I knew a man who received a bite from a ray on his heel and who had to limp the half-league to his house. He went crying and falling over with the pain, which is one of the strongest known to man.

Because there are many other kinds of fish in the Yabebirí, some men hunt them with dynamite. They toss a bomb into the river, killing millions of fish. All the fish nearby die, though they might be as large as a house. The little ones, no good for anything, also die.

Now, one time a man went to live there, with no wish to throw dynamite because he felt sorry for the little fish. He was not opposed to the idea of fishing in the water in order to eat. But he did not wish to uselessly kill millions of little fish.

The men who threw dynamite got angry at first, but because the man was of grave character though very good, the others went to hunt in another place and all the fish were happy. So happy and grateful to their friend who had saved the lives of the little fish, that they recognised him as soon as he neared the bank. And when he walked by the coast smoking, the rays dragged themselves through the mud after him, happy to accompany him. He knew nothing and lived happily in that place.

And it happened that once, one afternoon, a fox ran to the Yabebirí and put his feet in the water, crying out:

“Hey, rays! Quickly! Here comes your friend, wounded.”

The rays heard him and ran anxiously to the bank. And they asked the fox:

“What’s happened? Where is the man?”

“Here he comes!” cried the fox again. “He’s fought with the tiger! The tiger’s running this way. For sure he’s going to cross the island! Let him pass, because he’s a good man!”

“We know it already! Already we’ve decided to let him pass!” answered the rays. “As for the tiger, he’s not going to pass!”

“Careful with him!” cried the fox. “Don’t forget that he’s a tiger!”

And with a leap, the fox returned to the mountain.

Scarcely had this happened when the man parted the branches and appeared with blood all over him and his shirt torn. The blood ran down his face and chest to his pants and dropped from the fold of his pants to the sand. He staggered toward the bank, seriously injured, and entered the river. As soon as he put a foot in the water, the rays that had gathered moved out of his way, allowing him to arrive at the island in water up to his chest without a ray stinging him. When he arrived he fell unconscious in the same sand, owing to the fact that he had lost so much blood.

The rays had not even had time to demonstrate the full extent of their pity for their dying friend when a terrible roar made them jump in the water.

“The tiger! The tiger!” they all cried, hurling themselves like arrows onto the bank.

In fact, the tiger had fought with the man and had chased him as far as the Yabebirí. The animal too was badly wounded and blood ran from every part of its body. He saw the man lying as if dead on the island and roaring with rage threw himself in the water to finish him off.

But he had scarcely put a foot in the water when he felt as if eight or ten large nails had been driven into them and instantly leapt backwards: it was the rays who, defending the river pass, had nailed the stingers of their tails into him with all their force.

The tiger roared with pain, his feet in the air. Seeing the water by the bank, murky as though something had stirred up the mud at the bottom, he understood that the rays did not want him to pass. Then he cried out in a fury:

“Ah, now I know what it is! It’s you, damn rays! Get out of the way!”

“We’re not leaving!” replied the rays.


“We’re not leaving! He’s a good man! There’s no reason to kill him!”

“He wounded me!”

“Both of you are wounded! What you do in the mountains is your business! Here, we’re in charge … ! You’re not allowed through!”

“I’m coming through!” the tiger bellowed for the last time.

No, never!” replied the rays.

(They said ‘no, never’ because that’s how those who speak the guaraní language say it, like in Misiones).

“We’ll see about that!” roared the tiger. And he went back so as to prepare himself for an enormous leap.

The tiger knew that the rays were almost always by the bank and believed that if he succeeded in making a very big leap into the middle of the river he would encounter no more rays and thus be able to eat the dying man.

But the rays had guessed it and all ran for the middle of the river, passing on the word.

“Away from the bank!” they cried beneath the water. “Go in! Toward the channel! Toward the channel!”

And in a second the army of rays hurled themselves inside to defend the pass, just as the tiger made a tremendous leap and fell in the middle of the water. He fell beside himself with happiness because in the first instant he felt no stings and believed that the rays had remained behind on the bank, tricked.

But he had scarcely taken a step when a rain of stings, like stabbing pain, stopped him dead; again, it was the rays that riddled his feet with bites.

Despite that, the tiger wanted to go on; but the pain was so awful that he emitted a shriek and ran back to the bank like one possessed. And he threw himself on his side on the sand because he could take no more suffering. His belly rose and fell as if he was exhausted.

In fact the tiger was poisoned with the rays’ venom.

But though they had defeated the tiger the rays were not calm because they were afraid that the tigress might come, as well as other tigers, and others … And they would no longer be able to defend the pass.

In fact, the mountain roared anew and when the tigress appeared and saw the tiger lying on his side on the sand she worked herself into a fury. She also noticed how the rays’ movement stirred up the water and drew near the river. With her tail almost touching the water, she cried out:

“Rays! I want to get through!”

“It’s not allowed!” replied the rays.

“Not one ray will be left with a tail, if you don’t let me pass!” roared the tigress.

“Even if we lose our tails, you’re not allowed through!” replied the rays.

“For the last time, let me through!”

“No, never!” cried the rays.

Furious, the tigress had put a foot in the water without meaning to and a ray, closing in slowly, nailed her whole stinger in her toes. Hearing the animal roar with pain, the rays responded, smiling:

“It seems that we still have our tails!”

But the tigress had an idea and with this idea in her head she left without a word, going upriver.

But this time too the rays understood what their enemy planned. Their enemy planned to do this: cross the river at another place, a place where the rays there did not know they needed to prevent the tigress from passing. Tremendous anxiety took possession of the rays.

“She’s going to cross upriver!” they cried. “We don’t want her to kill the man! We have to protect him!”

And they turned desperate circles among the mud until the river became cloudy.

“But what will we do!” they said. “We don’t know how to swim swiftly … The tigress will cross before the rays there know that they must stop her at all costs!”

And they did not know what to do until a very intelligent ray said suddenly:

“This is what we should do! The golden fish should go! The golden fish are our friends! They swim faster than anyone!”

“That’s right!” they all cried. “The golden ones should go!”

And word went round in an instant and in another instant there appeared eight or ten rows of golden fish, an army of golden fish that swam upriver at full speed and created furrows in the water, like the torpedoes.

Despite everything, they scarcely had time to give the order to close off the way to the tigers; the tiger had swum and was about to arrive at the island.

But the rays had run to the other shore and as soon as the tigress stood up the rays threw themselves at her feet, tearing them apart with their stingers. The animal, furious and beside herself with pain, roared, leapt out of the water, clouds of which smacked against the surface. But the rays continued throwing themselves against her feet, blocking the pass in such a way that the tigress turned about-face, swam again and threw herself in turn toward the bank, her feet monstrously swollen. She would not be able to get to the man from here either.

The rays too were tired. What was worse was that the tiger and the tigress both had picked themselves up and entered the mountain.

What were they going to do? The question left the rays uneasy and they conferred for a long time. At the end they said:

“Already we know what it is. They’re going to look for the other tigers and then they’ll all come here and cross the river!”

No, never!” cried the youngest rays that did not have so much life experience.

“Yes, they’ll cross, little comrades!” the old ones replied sadly. “If there’re many of them they’ll cross … We’ve got to consult with our friend.”

And they all went to see the man. Busy defending the river, they had not yet had time to do it.

The man still lay flat because he had lost a lot of blood. But he could speak and move a little. Quickly, the rays told him what had happened and how they had prevented the tigers that wanted to eat him from crossing. The friendship of the rays that had saved his life touched the man and with great affection he gave his hand to the rays closest to him. And then he said:

“There’s nothing we can do! If there are many tigers and they want to cross, they’ll cross … ”

“They won’t cross!” said the youngest rays. “You’re our friend and they’re not going to cross!”

“Yes, they’ll cross, little comrades!” said the man. And he added in an undertone:

“The only way would be to send someone to the house to look for my Winchester rifle and many bullets … but I don’t have any friends living by the river, besides the fish … And none of you know how to walk on the ground.”

“What do we do then?” asked the rays anxiously.

“Let’s see, let’s see,” said the man, passing his hand in front of his brow, as though in an effort to remember something. I had a friend … A little rodent that was raised in a house and played with my children … One day he returned to the mountain and I believe he lived there, in the Yabebirí … But I don’t know where he would be … ”

The rays then cried out with joy.

We know him! His den is at the tip of the island! He spoke of you to us once. We’ll go and look for him immediately!”

Thus agreed upon, a large golden fish flew upriver in search of the little rodent while the man moistened a drop of dried blood in the palm of his hand to make ink and using a fish bone like a pen wrote on a dry leaf, which served as paper. He wrote the following letter: With the little rodent send me the Winchester and a box of twenty-five bullets.

He had scarcely finished writing the letter when the entire mountain shook with a dull roar: it was the tigers coming close to strike up the fight. The rays carried the letter with their heads out of the water so that it would not get wet and gave it to the little rodent, who ran through the straw field and carried it to the man’s house.

Not before time, because the roars, although still far off, came nearer quickly. The rays then reunited with the golden fish, that were awaiting orders, and cried out to them:

Quickly, comrades! Cover the whole river and raise the alarm! That all the rays should immediately gather in every part of the river! That they should gather all round the island! We’ll see if they’re going to cross!”

And the army of golden fish flew off at once, upriver and downriver, appearing like stripes in the water because of the speed with which they moved.

There was not a single ray in the entire Yabebirí that did not receive the order to gather at the riverbanks all around the island. They showed up from everywhere, from among the stones, from among the mud, from the mouths of the streams, from the entire Yabebirí, to defend the pass from the tigers. And the golden fish crossed and crossed a second time in front of the island at great speed.

Not before time, again; an immense roar shook the water at the bank and the tigers streamed toward the coast.

There were many. It seemed that all the tigers in Misiones were there. But the entire Yabebirí boiled with rays too. They threw themselves toward the bank, ready to defend the pass at all costs.

Let the tigers cross!”

There’s no way through!” replied the rays.

Let us cross, again!”

It’s not allowed!”

If you don’t let us cross, there won’t be a ray left, or the child of a ray, or the grandchild of a ray!”

It’s possible!” replied the rays. “But neither the tigers, nor the tigers’ children, nor the tigers’ grandchildren, nor all the tigers of the world are going to cross here!”

So responded the rays. Then the tigers roared for the last time:

We’re asking to cross!”

No, never!”

The battle then commenced. With an enormous leap the tigers threw themselves into the water. And they landed upon a floor of rays. The rays riddled their feet with stingers and at every wound the tigers roared with pain. But they defended themselves with their claws, slapping the water like crazed creatures. And the rays flew through the air with their bellies opened by the tigers’ claws.

The Yabebirí resembled a river of blood. The rays died by the hundreds … but the tigers were also gravely wounded and retreated to the beach, where they lay down and bellowed, horribly swollen. The rays, trampled and smashed by the tiger’s feet, did not give up; they never ceased turning up to defend the pass. Some flew through the air, fell into the river, and attacked the tigers again.

This fierce battle lasted half an hour. At the end of this half hour all the tigers were again on the beach, sitting from fatigue and roaring with pain; not one had crossed.

But the rays were also dead tired. Many had died and those still living said:

We can’t resist two attacks like that. Let’s hope the golden fish bring reinforcements! Let’s hope all the rays in the Yabebirí come at once!”

Again the golden fish flew upriver and downriver, moving so quickly that they left furrows in the water like torpedoes.

The rays then went to see the man.

We can’t hold out any longer!” they told him sadly. Some of them even cried because they realised they would not be able to save their friend.

Go, rays!” replied the wounded man. “Leave me alone! You’ve already done too much for me! Let the tigers through!”

No never!” cried the rays as one. “While there’s one ray left alive in the Yabebirí, which is our river, we’ll defend the good man who defended us!”

Content, the wounded man then exclaimed:

Rays! I’m close to death, scarcely able to speak, but I assure you that as soon as the Winchester arrives we’re going to have a long spree here. I assure you of that!’

Yes, we know,” answered the rays enthusiastically.

But they were unable to go on speaking because the battle recommenced. Having rested, the tigers got to their feet suddenly and bending as if they were about to leap roared:

For the last time, and once and for all, let us through!”

No never!” replied the rays throwing themselves on the bank. But the tigers had leapt into the water in their turn and recommenced the terrible fight. The whole Yabebirí, from one bank to the other, turned red with blood, and the blood frothed on the beach sand. Smashed into bits, the rays flew through the air and the tigers bellowed with pain; but none backed off.

The tigers not only did not back off, they advanced. The army of golden fish went upriver and downriver at great speed, calling to the rays in vain; there were no more rays. All were fighting in front of the island and half had died already. Those that remained were wounded and losing strength.

They understood then that they would not be able to hold out another minute and that the tigers would cross. The poor rays, who preferred death to surrendering their friend, launched themselves against the tigers for the last time. But it was already a lost cause. Five tigers swam toward the island coast. The rays, in desperation, cried out:

To the island! Everyone to the other shore!”

But this move also came too late. Two more tigers had begun swimming and in an instant all of them would be in the middle of the river, only their heads visible.

But in the same moment a little animal, a little hairy red animal swam across the Yabebirí at full strength. It was the little rodent, who arrived at the island carrying the Winchester and the bullets on his head so that they would not get wet.

The man gave a loud cry of happiness because there still remained time for him to come to the aid of the rays. He asked the little rodent to push him with its head so that he could balance on his side, something he could not accomplish by himself. On assuming this position he loaded the Winchester with the speed of a ray.

In the precise moment that the torn apart, squashed, bloodied rays realised with hopelessness that they had lost the battle and that the tigers were going to devour their poor wounded friend, in that moment they heard a bang, and saw the tiger at the front, which had already reached the sand, leap high and fall dead, its forehead pierced by a shot.

Bravo, bravo!” cried out the rays, delirious with joy. “The man’s got the Winchester! We’re saved!”

They made the water cloudy in their delirium of happiness. But the man quietly continued firing and every shot killed another tiger. And whenever a tiger fell dead with a roar, the rays responded with prodigious shakes of their tails.

One after the other, as if lighting struck between their heads, the tigers died from the shots. That lasted only two minutes. One after the other they sank to the river bottom, where the palometa fish ate them. Some floated afterwards, and then the golden fish accompanied them to the Paraná, eating them, and making the water fly up with their contentment.

In little time the rays, which had many children, became as numerous as before. The man got better and felt such gratitude to the rays that had saved his life that he went to live on their island. There, on the summer nights, he liked to lie on the beach and smoke by the light of the moon, while the rays, speaking slowly, pointed him out to the fish, who did not know him, telling them about the great battle that, allied with this man, they once had with the tigers.

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The Story of Two Coati Pups and Two Human Pups (Translation of Quiroga story Historia de Dos Cachorros de Coati y de Dos Cachorros de Hombre)

Once upon a time a coati had three offspring. They lived in the mountain on fruit, roots, and birds’ eggs. When they were up in the trees and heard a great noise, they threw themselves to the ground headfirst and went running with their tails raised.

As soon as the coatis were a little bigger, their mother gathered them together in an orange tree one day and spoke to them accordingly:

“Little ones, you’re old enough to go out looking for food on your own. You ought to learn how to do that, because when you’re old you’ll always go out alone, like all the coatis. The oldest of you, who is fond of hunting beetles, will find them by rotten posts, where there are always many beetles and cockroaches. The second one of you, who likes so much to eat fruit, will find them in this orange plantation. There are oranges until December. The third one of you, who only wants to eat birds’ eggs, will be able to go anywhere, because there are birds’ nests everywhere. But don’t ever go looking for nests in the countryside, because it’s dangerous.

“Little ones, there’s only one thing of which you should be very frightened. The dogs. I fought with them once and I know what I’m talking about. That’s the reason I have a broken tooth. The men, making a great noise as they kill, always come behind the dogs. When you hear this noise nearby, throw yourselves to the ground. The tall trees will conceal you. If you don’t, they’ll surely kill you with a shot.”

Thus spoke the mother. All left the tree then and went their separate ways, walking right to left and left to right, as if they had forgotten something, this being the manner in which the coatis walk.

The elder, who wanted to eat beetles, looked among the rotten posts and the weeds, and found many, which he ate until he dropped off to sleep. The second, who preferred fruit to anything else, ate as many oranges as he wanted, because the orange plantation was in the mountain, which passed through Paraguay and Misiones, and no man came to bother him. The third, who was crazy about birds’ eggs, had to walk the whole day to find just the two nests, one a toucan’s with three eggs, and one a turtledove’s, which only had two eggs. In total, five small eggs, which was very little food, and as afternoon fell the little coati felt as hungry as he had done that morning, and sat down sadly at the edge of the mountain. From there he saw the countryside and thought of the advice his mother had given.

Why doesn’t mama want me to go looking for nests in the countryside, he asked himself.

He was thinking along these lines when he heard, far off, the song of a bird.

What formidable bird song, he thought admiringly. That bird must have huge eggs!

The bird sang again. And then the coati ran through the mountain, taking shortcuts, because the song had sounded to the right. The sun was already setting, but the coati ran with his tail raised. He arrived at the mountain border finally and looked at the countryside. Far off he saw the men’s house, and a man wearing boots guiding a horse by a rope. He also saw a very big bird singing and then the coati struck himself on the brow and said:

What a fool I am! Now I know what kind of bird that is. It’s a rooster. One day mama pointed one out to me from a tree. The roosters have a lovely song and have many offspring that produce eggs. If only I could eat one of the offspring’s eggs … !

It is a fact that nothing tastes as good to the little wild animals of the mountain than these eggs. For a moment the little coati remembered his mother’s advice. But his hunger got the better of him and he sat at the edge of the mountain, waiting for the onset of night to go to the hen house.

Night fell at last, and then, on tiptoe and little by little, he made his way to the house. He arrived there and listened attentively: he could not hear the faintest sound. The little coati, beside himself with happiness because he was going to eat a hundred, a thousand, two thousand eggs, entered the hen house, and the first thing he saw clearly from the doorway was an egg all by itself on the ground. For a moment he thought of leaving it to the end, for dessert, because it was very big. But his mouth began watering and he sunk his teeth in the egg.

Scarcely had he bitten down than, snap, he felt a terrible blow in the face and great pain in the snout.

“Mama, mama!” he cried, beside himself with pain, jumping all over the place. But he was caught and in the same moment heard the deep bark of a dog.

While the coati had waited on the edge of the mountain for night to close in so that he could go to the hen house, the man of the house played on the lawn with his children, two blond creatures, one five years old, the other seven, who ran smiling, fell over, lifted themselves up still smiling, and fell over again. The father fell too, caught up in the tremendous happiness of the children. They finished playing when night fell and the man said:

“I’m going to set the trap and try and catch the weasel that’s been killing the chooks and stealing their eggs.”

He went and set the trap. Afterwards they ate and went to bed. But the children did not sleep, they leapt from bed to bed, and got tangled up in their nightgowns. The father, who was reading in the dining room, let them do as they pleased. But the children suddenly ceased their frolicking and cried out:

“Papa! The weasel’s been caught in the trap! Duke’s barking! We want to go and look, papa!”

The father agreed but only after the creatures put their sandals on; he never allowed them to go barefoot at night because of the vipers.

They went. What did they see there? They saw their father, bent over holding the dog with one hand while with the other he lifted a coati by the tail, a little coati still young that cried with a rapid, strident howl, like a cricket.

“Papa, don’t kill him!” the children said. “He’s tiny! Give him to us!”

“All right, I’ll give him to you,” the father replied. “But take good care of him, and above all don’t forget that coatis drink water like you.”

He mentioned this because the children had at one time had a wildcat that they fed every so often with meat, taken from the dinner pail. But they never gave him water and he died.

Consequently, they put the coati in the same cage where they had kept the wildcat, near the hen house, and they all went back to bed.

And after midnight, when it was very quiet, the coati, who was in great pain because of the teeth of the trap, saw by the light of the moon three shadows approaching with great discretion. The little coati’s heart missed a beat when he recognised his mother and two brothers, who had come looking for him.

“Mama, mama!” the prisoner murmured, in a voice kept very low so as not to make noise. “I’m here! Get me out of here! I don’t want to stay here, ma … ma … !” And he cried disconsolately.

But despite everything they were all content because they had found him, and they gave each a thousand caresses in the snout.

They attempted at once to extricate the prisoner. First they tried to cut the wire and the four of them worked with their teeth but failed to get anywhere. Then an idea suddenly occurred to the mother and she said:

“Let’s look for the man’s tools. Men always have tools to cut iron. They’re called files. They have three sides like the rattlesnakes. You push it one way and then pull it back. Let’s look for it!”

They went to the man’s workshop and returned with the file. Believing that one of them alone would not have sufficient strength, all three held the file in place and commenced the work. And they worked with such enthusiasm that within a short time the whole cage shook with the blows and made a terrible din. Such a din that the dog awoke, letting fly with a deep bark. But the coatis did not wait around for the dog to inquire of them the meaning of this scandal and rushed off to the mountain, leaving the file on the ground.

The next day, the children went early to see their new house guest, who was very sad.

“What will we call him?” the girl asked her brother.

“I know!” replied the boy. “Let’s call him Seventeen!”

Why Seventeen? Never had a wild animal had such a rare name. But the boy was beginning to count and perhaps it was because that number appealed to him.

Seventeen is what they called him. They gave him bread, grapes, chocolate, meat, locusts, eggs, delicious hens’. In the space of one day he let them scratch him on the head. Such was the sincerity of the creatures’ affection that by nightfall the coati was almost resigned to his captivity. He kept thinking about the delicious things there were to eat and about how happy and good the man’s little pups were.

On two successive nights, the dog slept so close to the cage that the prisoner’s family, with great regret, did not dare go near it. When on the third night they arrived and went looking for the file again so as to free the little coati, this one said to them:

“Mama, I no longer want to leave here. The children give me eggs and are very good to me. Today they told me that if I behave well they’d let me free very soon. They’re like us. They’re little pups too and we play together.”

The wild coatis felt very sad, but they resigned themselves, promising the little coati that they would come and see him every night.

So, every night, whether it rained or not, his mother and two brothers came to spend a moment with him. The little coati passed bread to them through the wire and the wild coatis sat in front of the cage and ate.

At the end of fifteen days, the little coati roamed free and returned to his cage at night of his own volition. Besides having his ears pulled because he walked too close to the hen house, all went well. He and the little creatures loved each other a great deal and when they saw how good the man’s little pups were they felt affection for them too.

Until one very dark night, a night of great warmth and thunder, the wild coatis called out to the little coati but received no response. They drew near with great unease and then saw, just when they were about to tread on it, an enormous viper coiled up at the cage entrance. The coatis understood at once that the little coati had been bitten on entering and had not responded to their call possibly because he was already dead. But they avenged themselves well. In the space of a second, between the three of them, they drove the rattlesnake crazy, leaping from here to there, and in another second they fell upon her, tearing her head apart with bites.

Then they ran into the cage and there was the little coati, lying down, swollen, his legs shaking, and dying. The wild coatis moved him, in vain; they licked him all over his body for a quarter of an hour, in vain. The little coati opened his mouth at last and stopped breathing, because he was dead.

The coatis are almost resistant, so it’s said, to the vipers’ venom (los coatís son casi refractarios, come se dice al veneno de las víboras). The venom does practically nothing to them and there are other animals, like the mongoose, that resist the viper’s venom very well. Without doubt the little coati had been bitten on an artery or vein, where the poison enters the blood at once, and the animal died. This is what had happened to the little coati.

Seeing him thus, his mother and brothers cried many tears. Afterwards, because they had nothing more to do there, they left the cage and turned to look for one last time at the house where the little coati had been so happy and went back to the mountain.

However, the three coatis went with much worry and this was what worried them: what would the children say, the following day, when they saw their beloved coati dead? The children loved him very much, and they, the coatis, also loved the blond pups. So, the three coatis had the same thought, this being to prevent the children from experiencing such sorrow.

They had a long talk and at the end decided on this: the second coati, who was very much like the youngest in appearance and manner, went to live in the cage, in place of the deceased. As they were well-informed on the house’s secrets, owing to what the little coati had told them, the children would not know anything; at most they would find some things a little odd.

So it happened. They returned to the house and a new little coati replaced the first, while the mother and the other brother carried the youngest’s cadaver in their teeth. They carried him slowly through the mountain, the head hanging, swinging, and the tail dragging along the ground.

The next day the children, indeed, found some of the odd ways of the little coati strange. But as this one was as good and affectionate as the other, the creatures did not have the least suspicion. They comprised the same family of pups as before, and like before the wild coatis came to visit the tame little coati night after night, and sat at his side and ate pieces of hard-boiled egg that he kept for them, while they told him all about life in the forest.

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Intimidation (short story)


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Kimonos and Bikinis in Shirahama


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Ministering to the Body: A Young and Not So Young Pope

The exalted position of the Vatican in the Italian mindset and, without doubt, the mindsets of millions of Catholics the world over is wryly referenced in one of the early episodes of Paolo Sorrentino’s vision of the papacy, the doubleheader miniseries The Young Pope (2016) and The New Pope (2019). Rome may be considered a suburb of the Vatican, a character drolly remarks.

It is a line of dialogue deserving of a smile. Hearing it, cineastes familiar with the director’s previous output, most notably his Academy Award winning The Great Beauty (2013), are also liable to think back on the Rome Mr. Sorrentino has depicted, lovingly if critically, in the past. This could definitely be interesting viewing, they may say to themselves.

But first to the titular popes. The young pope, the American Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), is a compromise choice as pontiff, in certain respects a highly unusual spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but at heart a conservative. His stubborn camera shyness, so frustrating in the beginning to both his Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France), the Vatican marketing guru, may be construed in different ways. He repeatedly butts head with these two principal advisers over a range of issues as he bids to gain his own way and put his unique stamp on the office.

Raised in a religious order run orphanage in the US after his hippie inclined parents literally leave him at the front gate, he is associated with miraculous happenings from an early age, an association he later attributes to coincidence. I just happen to be around at the time, he says. This is an understandable stance from a man prey to serious doubts about his faith, doubts he is open about expressing, especially to his closest confidants, Don Tommaso (Marcello Romano) and Monsignor Gutierrez (Javier Cámara).

As a young man Lenny once travelled to California and strutted his stuff at the beach (a sequence amusingly visualised as an accompaniment to the credits in certain episodes.) The direct outcome of his independent action is a girlfriend, to whom he later pens love letters, letters that are never posted.

Miracle worker though he may be Lenny has plenty of human weaknesses. He is not above dispensing favours to friends. Among the beneficiaries are the wandering man of the cloth Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), his boyhood chum and fellow orphan, whom he elevates to a cardinalship, and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the basketball playing nun who was the boys’ rock at the orphanage. But their respective appointments – the latter as his chief adviser cum personal secretary – are as much a holding fast to what little ‘family’ he has left in the world as they are cynical exercises in the shoring up of his power.

On the other hand, nor is this pope above exiling those who incur his displeasure. More than one, including an erring erstwhile colleague from his New York days, Archbishop Kurtwell, are summarily dispatched to dioceses in the coldest, most barren reaches of Alaska.

One characteristic the new pope, the Englishman Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), shares with Lenny is doubt. He is particularly doubtful of his own ability and rightness for the role he is coerced into assuming. He too sees in the gentle Gutierrez a quiet wisdom that it might do him good to heed. The monsignor and Sofia become his sounding boards in the lonely post at the top, the friends he needs when he is bitterly estranged from his own parents.

His familial heartache is different to his young predecessor’s but as great if not greater. This renders him a figure even less accessible than Belardo though his popularity markedly increases when pictures of the young Brannox sporting a punk hairdo are published in the press. He is relatable after all. A biographical fact that might have been thought capable of discrediting him instead has the effect of increasing his humanity and eminence.

By the same token when Lenny seeks to bring to heel, for serial sexual abuse, his erstwhile New York City colleague Kurtwell and the latter threatens to disgrace him by having the unsent love letters of years before published, the move backfires. Lenny’s already burgeoning cult regard is given a further boost. The letters are extolled as touching paeans to a human love that bordered on the sacred.


Those surrounding these daunting if disturbed popes are a motley crew overall but, arguably, more empathetic figures for being so. There is an inherent goodness in some of them in spite of their flaws. Monsignor Gutierrez ritually seeks the company of a young male lover and also struggles with alcoholism but is no less likeable and sympathetic a human for that.

Dussolier is patently aware of his shortcomings. Just prior to his relocation to Rome to take on the cardinalship, he starkly highlights what he terms his lack of heroism in a valedictory address to his flock in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city where he has been based. Fortuitously, he makes no mention in his speech of the lengths his priestly ministration has gone to in the case of a couple of his parishioners. In the final analysis, however, this makes no difference. He goes on to pay the heaviest price for his failure to live up to the exigencies of his calling.

The most decisive, resolute and self-aware character in the papal inner circles is Cardinal Voiello, the Secretary. Understanding only too well the machinations of the power structures at play in the city state, he knows what to do and when to do it, and unashamedly acts upon his instincts. Yet one always feels he has the Vatican’s standing and best interests at heart.

Apparently immune to fleshy temptation, while attuned to every last one of the peccadillos of those in his midst, outside of work his passions are the Napoli Football Club and the disabled Girolamo (Edoardo Bussi), with whom he spends a great deal of time. The unconditional love between the two is the purest depicted in the series.

When the time arrives for Sofia to divulge her inclination to pursue a new human love in the wake of disappointment with her philandering, sex-obsessed spouse, the secretary reacts with resignation. In the end you all fall in love, he says. He has seen this coming, but still.


In the end you all fall in love. Herein may lie the ideal snapshot of Mr. Sorrentino’s fantastical if earthy outlook. This is a director who likes his actors to boogie. In particular in this series it is the sassy – when left to their own devices – nuns and assorted other women who jive and flash flesh the equal of the best of the plastic party people in The Great Beauty, though in some instances they do so in accompaniment to the credits, in the same way Lenny’s California beach promenade is a credit add-on.

Some of the sleazy characters at the centre or on the fringes of this labyrinth, the Holy See’s Ambassador Bauer (Mark Ivanir) for example, could have come direct from the set of the blood and corpse laden Il Divo (2008), the director’s examination of the life and times of Guilio Andreotti, the 7-time Italian prime minister notorious for his links to the Mafia.

Beautiful? Maybe. But the dividing line between this Vatican and the ‘suburb’ it has spawned is loose and vague. What chance any true believer with an eye on higher ideals finding a little enclave of this nature a suitable environment for their calling? Off screen, of course, disgraced Catholic clergy around the world have not fallen in love. What they have tripped up on is sex.

There is something deeply disturbing and tragic about people who make a vow and then break it, or do not exhibit even the remotest inclination to stick to their commitment when the going gets tough. The Catholic Church has imposed chastity on its clergy but have been clueless when it comes to offering ways for them to creatively sublimate the impulse. Suppression has proved a miserable failure.

Many of Mr. Sorrentino’s religious are regular guys and girls beneath their finery. As comforting and equalising as the thought of this may be when translated to the motion picture show of daily life, it would behove one to be wary of any elevated standing attributed to them, by themselves or their church. Conduits to God? Spiritual guides who might inspire and lead genuine seekers? Hardly. The blind cannot lead the blind. And, naturally enough, the knowledge that the be-robed figures who destroyed their lives were motivated by lofty ideals they were unable to reach will provide no comfort to the untold numbers of victims of sexual abuse.

Pope Lenny is dead against incontinent clergy. Sagely, he comments that were the church to emulate the outside world (in this and other respects) it would run the grave risk of becoming as puerile and self-indulgent. He has a point. Heaven forbid were this church ever to relax the clerical celibacy requirement. An attempt is preferable to nothing at all, and they might make a better job of it in future. The fact that it is a hoary old buffer against the world, unlikely to ever change in essence, is the Catholic Church’s strength and its weakness.

Organised churches tend to compartmentalise, which can result in their members gaining the false impression that a spiritual path is an easy road to hoe. Airing transgressions in a confessional box and saying the prescribed penance afterwards is all well and good. A compassionate Father / Mother will forgive His / Her erring children and allow them to make a new start, again and again and again if necessary, though Jesus Christ, in offering forgiveness to a repentant one, also advised go and sin no more.

The Catholic Church has taken this readiness to forgive all manner of infractions, to turn a blind eye, to extreme and absurd lengths. In this way it has let down its widespread congregation. The lack of accountability in recent times has enhanced the holier than Thou, above the law, boy scout club status that has surrounded the church for decades if not centuries.

What, when all is said and done, are churches? Churches are buildings, buildings that can often promote ‘churchianity’ at the expense of spirituality, that are more representative of style than substance. For their adherents, Eastern religious philosophy and practice go hand in hand, becoming a way of life. Great saints abound in India though tellingly they almost never become household names. The reasons why there are so very few in the Catholic Church (and why those few are so lauded) are painfully obvious.

There is, thankfully, hope. Indeed, if a saint is no more nor less than a sinner who never gave up, there is hope for us all. May a better calibre of individual, fitter for the enterprise and genuinely capable of walking all the upstanding talk, don the cloth in the future. It will aid in the Catholic Church regaining some of the respect that has been lost.

A thoughtful, entertaining series. Messrs Law, Malkovich, Orlando, and Cámara head a top cast.

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In a Time of Crisis Time to Look Back at Crisis!

(First Published by Diverse Voices Quarterly 2016)

Would you come here a minute, Jeff?’

Hilda’s husband, seated at the table in his room, shut down his computer following a three-hour session, closed his eyes and rested his hands upon his lap. He did not perceptibly react to his wife’s voice. Rather, he contemplated the pain in his right arm, customarily felt after a lengthy spell at the keyboard. The voice sounded a second time moments later.



His one-word response possessed an edge, as if spoken by a man who did not appreciate being disturbed in his element.

‘Come here a minute.’

Cajoled out of the doze fast descending on him, Jeff entered the living room and found his wife pressing the channel button of the television remote. But instead of pictures he saw nothing but oceans of flickering darkness or white noise crossing the large screen in zigzag patterns.

‘How long’s it been doing that?’ Jeff asked, standing at his wife’s shoulder.

‘Since I switched on.’

Jeff took the remote from Hilda and flicked through the spectrum of channels – one hundred or so – with the same result. Nothing distinguished one from the next except the changing yellow digit in the top right-hand corner of the screen. He handed the remote back to Hilda and went down on his haunches, with some difficulty. His perfunctory inspection of the tangled leads behind the set unearthed no evidence of a loose connection. Regaining his full height, he relieved Hilda of the remote control unit a second time and ran through the channels again.

‘One hundred channels and nothin’ on,’ he said, with a chuckle smothered when he caught a glimpse of the reproachful expression on his wife’s face.

As a last resort he brought the open palm of his free left hand hard down on the top of the set. In years gone by his deceased father had resorted to this method as a means of restoring life to a bugged up set.

‘Don’t!’ Hilda said, when her husband raised his hand preparatory to rapping it against the wood a second time.

‘We’d better call in a repair man.’

He resigned himself to the course on account of his limited knowledge of electronics. A handyman par excellence, he spent much of his free time assisting neighbours with complex jobs. But when it came to electrical items he had to rely on professionals.

He went back to his room. Left alone, Hilda put the remote unit aside and tried her luck with the buttons beneath the screen, buttons left untouched as a rule – unless the remote unit had been misplaced. But the identical blackness, or white noise, reflected in the lens of her glasses.

Meanwhile, on an impulse, Jeff rebooted his computer. With a sinking feeling in his entrails, he discovered that this screen too was void of life. He interrupted his vain attempts to rectify the situation when Hilda called out anew. Rejoining his wife, he noticed that the lens of her glasses now reflected the lettering of an announcement scrolling from the bottom of the screen to the top, much like the closing credits of a movie. Jeff read it to himself twice before reading it aloud.

The regime has decided that as of 3 pm on the afternoon of Friday, February 1st until 3 pm on the afternoon of Friday, February 29th television transmission will be suspended across the province. A blackout will be in effect for the same period for computers, movies, radios, sporting events, newspapers and magazines.’

Hilda and Jeff exchanged a look of shock and disbelief. Both turned pale at the prospect of life without the signature tunes of their culture. Jeff activated the radio connected to the stereo system in the room. The only station emitting other than a blur of static, the regime owned 8 LO, regurgitated the same message as the television.

‘First they send thousands to the dole court with their cutbacks. Now they stoop to this,’ Jeff said. ‘Have they gone nuts?’

First and foremost, he thought of the time he would lose at the computer, which had garnered hours of his attention on a daily basis for years. Unlike Hilda he would barely notice the loss of movies and television. He assumed the blackout on sporting events would only affect those in the public domain. Hence, he would be able to go on enjoying the curling he and his closest friends gathered for each Sunday afternoon.

In recent weeks he had terminated his subscription to the town’s one and only daily. But, more out of habit than intrinsic interest, he leafed through the local papers delivered gratis to the door. He also read every last word of the weekly current affairs magazine he had subscribed to for a decade. They were as integral a part of his retirement ritual as the walks around the neighbourhood with Cosmo, the family pet. Now he would have to do without them.

Jeff heard a rattle at the front door and watched an item fall though the mail shoot. At the same time, the little dachshund scurried down the steps leading to the door. Cosmo barked until Jeff appeared and gathered up the offending circular. The words printed upon it in bold lettering conveyed a message similar to the one viewed on television and heard broadcast on the radio. But in addition it painted an attempted justification for the regime’s action. Jeff made a point of reading this section to his thunderstruck spouse.

‘One of the Communication Think Tank’s conclusions was that given more time for quiet reflection the general populace will gain a deeper appreciation of their inherent spirituality. For the majority this is all but impossible amid the daily distraction of movies, television, radio and other facets of the mainstream culture.

‘We encourage people not to panic at the sudden loss of the principal sources of their entertainment and leisure. We advise all to practise presence of mind to the fullest extent possible. To that end observance of the simple breathing exercises outlined in the leaflet accompanying this statement is strongly recommended.’

Jeff scanned the basic diagrams and instructions before resuming where he had left off.

‘The general blackout will extend to escapist literature and popular music. None will be available, or aired, anywhere. Upstanding literature and music worthy of the name will not be affected and there will be no interruption to the supply of food and other physical comforts.’

Jeff handed the leaflet and letter to his wife and moved into a chair. ‘They’ve got to be kidding.’

‘There’s the evidence before your eyes,’ Hilda said, indicating the black television screen.

‘I haven’t a spiritual bone in my body. Never have had.’

‘You’d do well to look for one over the coming month.’

Jeff made no reply.

‘I don’t know,’ Hilda said, overcoming her initial disquiet. ‘It sounds kind of appealing. Can you imagine how peaceful it’ll be with no radios and televisions blaring?’

She came to regret little the temporary absence of her favourite programmes. After a few days she forgot she had been partial to them, let alone admitted as much to family and friends. Since retiring from her job as a teacher she had never allowed herself to drift in the thick of the many hours freed up.

This stood her in good stead in the earliest days of ‘the experiment’, as the regime’s extraordinary action became known. She embarked on long walks, thus filling the hours previously spent in front of the television or at the cinema complex blocks from where she and Jeff resided.

She spent appreciably more time than usual at her downtown gym, a venue that catered to women alone. Above all, taking to heart the advice to practise presence of mind, she relied more than she had ever done on prayer, an activity that had pillared her spirituality since she was a girl. But whereas in the past she prayed for no more than half an hour to an hour every day, she now began sitting for considerably longer.

Jeff would arrive home after assisting someone with a minor repair or maintenance job and, to his chagrin, find Hilda immobile on a chair, breathing as lightly as if it had taken her no time to master the exercises the regime commended. Whenever he stumbled across his woman in conspicuous parts of the house he glared at her.

Hilda sensed this and more into the bargain. She detected inertia on the streets, in the malls, the gymnasium and elsewhere. Her husband’s unease appeared but a microcosm. Before the close of week one she encountered numerous friends and neighbours fed up with sleeping long or occupying themselves with chores they would never have bothered with in a typical month.

Her husband doubled his workload in a frantic bid to maintain his sanity. She tried to tell him, she tried to tell them all, that they were missing the point of the experiment responding so, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Jeff did not have the energy to go on with the increased manual chores for more than a week. He slowed down as a matter of course when he toppled off a stepladder while reaching for a light fitting in the house of their neighbour two houses down. After the incident his movements became circumspect.

‘Is the elbow better?’ Hilda asked.

She and Jeff were at the dinner table one night midway through the second week. He gave her a puzzled look that owed as much to his inability to grow accustomed to the changed circumstances as his instantaneous awareness of his elbow’s improvement. He touched the spot.

‘It feels much better. It must’ve been the shot of cortisone.’

‘Oh, don’t kid yourself,’ Hilda said, with a chuckle. ‘It’s because you haven’t been glued to that computer. You might remember that in future. If you learnt to sit in the silence instead of ruining your eyesight in front of that small screen you’d be better off. We’d both be better off.’

His wife’s clear-eyed view of the situation was repellent to Jeff. Masticating his food slowly and staring at nothing, he maintained a wilful silence through the rest of the meal. When she excused herself with the intention of spending sometime with ‘Him’, as she put it, he sat downcast in the living room.

For the umpteenth time he picked up and flicked through the two most recent back copies – the only two he retained – of his beloved current affairs magazine. Before the experiment he was in the habit of perusing the latest edition in the hour or two after dinner, a day or so following its arrival in the mail. Finding nothing of abiding interest in stale news, he put both aside, gaining a measure of consolation from Cosmo when the dog ascended his lap.

The experiment was two weeks and a solitary half hour old when a series of piercing shrieks shattered the neighbourhood silence. It was Mrs Robertson, their neighbour in the house diagonally opposite. Without delay Hilda rushed across the street and finding the front door ajar went in unannounced. Mrs Robertson lay rigid on the carpet, frothing at the mouth.

‘No one knows what’s H-A-P-P-E-N-I-I-I-I-N-G!’ she wailed over and over again.

She bellowed at the top of her lungs until her husband, brought weeping to his knees by her side, silenced the hapless woman with an almighty slap. The hit was hard enough to send Mrs Robertson’s false teeth flying across the room.

‘You can’t have bothered to practice the breathing exercises,’ Hilda remarked to the miserable man as she went to the phone and dialled emergency on his behalf. ‘Did either of you?’

Shame-faced, Mr Robertson shook his head.

‘If you had she wouldn’t have gotten into this state.’

Robertson’s head hung a further inch or so while they awaited the arrival of a paramedic team. The latter sedated the patient and loaded her on a gurney. By no means was hers the only collapse. Had they been printed the newspapers would have run out of space reporting the staggering number of nervous breakdowns and incidents, major and minor, underlining the state of acute anxiety thousands reached throughout the length and breadth of the province.

But Hilda kept smiling. It was the outward manifestation of inward pride that she coped so well with the imposed silence, in both sequestered and public locales, including the gym, where she carried on with her regular aerobics workouts in a place ordinarily bombarded with the racket of televisions – several monitors were attached to the ceilings – and / or radios.

In stark contrast Jeff’s face reflected blankness and inertia. In a bid to allay his obvious neurosis, convinced he didn’t have the patience to adopt a spiritual routine, Hilda presented him a couple of examples of ‘upstanding’ literature. However, he left the purchases untouched. She mouthed off, calling him a great lump, under her breath, but as a last resort, knowing he was partial to classical composers, dropped into a well-stocked music store.

She hunted high and low but was unable to find what she was looking for. Accordingly, she rushed back to the street and went directly home, in dread of the prospect of another week of the same. She arrived to an empty house. Out of sorts, repeatedly uttering the mantra presence of mind, presence of mind to herself, she pulled up a chair in the living room, angled it toward a portrait of Christ hanging upon one of the walls and began praying.

She was on the verge of regaining the peace and connectedness felt to be slipping away when her husband walked in the door with Cosmo. She could find no safe haven from the noise of Jeff moving about. Without opening her eyes she sensed his glowering disposition and agitated breathing. She flew out of her chair daggers drawn upon hearing him utter the words ‘bloody pretence’ in an undertone.

‘You’ve never respected my prayer life.’

‘Prayer life? Don’t give me that nonsense. I know the real reason you’re putting on this show.’

‘Oh? And what would that be?’

‘The same reason you go to that church. You think you’re better than everyone else. You always did.’

‘I’m trying to adjust to a difficult situation. Do you think I haven’t noticed the effect this has had on you, on most of the population? But all you’ve done with the time is look for other distractions.’

‘Well, Mrs Holier Than Thou, have you thought of doing something practical?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Of course you haven’t. Because you don’t want to get your hands dirty.’

One part of Hilda wanted to cry. Another part wanted to continue the caustic exchanges. But an unforeseen shift came over her in an instant and she did neither. Instead, she looked at Jeff, she really looked at him, in a way she had not done at any stage over the preceding three weeks. Truth be known, she had not assayed him in that way for longer than she could recall. He was not an inept, often infuriating, husband but a desperately troubled, lost human being.

‘Come here,’ she said, extending her hand and smiling at the man before her. ‘Sit with me. We have nowhere we need to go. We have nothing we need to do. Let’s just sit together.’

Disarmed by her smile, which held not a trace of the pride and self-satisfaction glimpsed on her face since the beginning of the experiment, Jeff dropped into the chair Hilda drew up beside her own. Silent, he aped her posture and measured breathing rate. The tension release was rapid and marked. The couple had been conjoined in this way for twenty minutes when the radio connected to the stereo system crackled to life.

‘Due to the adverse reaction of untold thousands the regime has decided to terminate the experiment a week early. In five minutes, at three o’clock local time, blacked out services will resume as normal. In a further restorative measure, water supplies throughout the province are to be laced with Prozac in quantities sufficient to enhance as quickly as possible the return to psychic and physical health of the general population.’

Jeff and Hilda glanced at one another and laughed out loud. Hilda spoke. ‘Let’s use the water in our well. What else can we do?’

Jeff knew exactly what to do. Hilda watched him pull the plugs of the television and stereo system.

‘Your computer?’

He vanished for the seconds necessary to pull out the lead of it too. Three o’clock struck. What signalled a massive aural and visual onslaught, as old ways were resumed (as if they had never undergone a three-week hiatus), in households throughout the province impacted the married retirees not at all. Jeff returned to the seat next to his wife and interlaced his fingers with hers.

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