Monday, 30 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Eight: Placenta

Louka was a two year old pure bred, brindle Cane Corso. By all accounts she possessed what might best be called supernovic powers of fertility, and when all was said and done, twelve hours and fifteen pups spilled out onto the basement floor.

I don't know what we expected, but Craig had seemed to be prepared. He'd built the pen days before and had towels and blankets at the ready, and hot water nearby. I was only visiting, but even to my novice eyes it quickly became clear that we were well-intentioned but ill-equipped. Let there be no confusion: birth is a sloppy affair. Exhilaratingly disgusting and, as far as I can tell, not something that one can ever be properly prepared for. I think, to begin with, we'd expected it to happen at some time of day that wasn't midnight. I think too that we assumed it would be far more of a spectator sport. Surely the dog would know what to do. Instincts and all that. But for all of Louka's prowess at conception, the details of what went on in the departures gate were lost on her.

None of us wanted to get too close, nor would she allow it. She paced around her 10'x10' pen, circling and cowering behind whimpers. She'd sort of collapse down on her side and then crawl a little before standing again, and then she'd start all over. Eventually she just squatted, as if to expel something, though I don't think she knew what exactly, and the first purplish-red, kidney bean looking sack dropped onto the newspapered floor. She turned and nosed at him once, seemingly to bury him under the slush of a business section, and then removed herself to the other side of the pen where she proceeded to lick and fuss at her own wounds.

He was roughly the size of a Yukon Gold, and with just about the same amount of gumption. It was probably his helplessness that saved him because I couldn't bear him just lying there dying. You need to get him out of there, Craig said as he knelt next to Louka. And get him breathing. She's supposed to lick them out of it and get them started, but... his voice trailed off into the obvious. Clearly she wanted nothing to do with it.

The placenta was warm and slippery, but much stronger than I'd expected--the consistency of a balloon. It took both hands and several tries, but he finally burst out. She's supposed to lick all the mucous away to help them breathe.

All that warmth. And those tiny, little toes. The weight of him. He was almost nothing. Almost nothing. And so very...unmoving. 

I thumped at his sides with my fingers and pulled the goo away from his mouth. Nothing. I rinsed one hand in the bucket of hot water, and coned my thumb and forefinger around his nose, blowing sharply into it. It took a few tries, and more smearing away of fluid and thumping of ribs, but finally his body began to quiver and twitch. His head lolled over my finger tips and each tiny leg squirmed to life. It seemed to me that this was the greatest thing I'd ever done—the biggest, most important thing—and it occupied less worldly space than the palm of my hand.

I placed him down in front of Louka, who had composed herself in the interim, and with one flick of her tongue she swabbed his whole body. She had the hang of it then, and took to cleaning him almost frantically. She managed the next fourteen like a seasoned pro and for the rest of the night we remained in the trenches, swamping out piles of oozing papers and replacing them with dry sections, refreshing the water bucket, and redirecting wayward pups as they became separated from the heap. We took shifts lying down and re-brewing coffee, and eventually we must have slept because we woke together to find Louka, glassy-eyed, nursing, and draped across the pen. Not quite as romantic as Disney would have played it, but every bit as magical.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Seven: Clandestine

On Sundays he tends to things set aside throughout the week. In high rubber boots and checkered wool, he trudges through the swampy mill yard, around deep ruts left by trucks and tractors, towards one of the outbuildings. A belt to replace, a few blades to sharpen, or some clandestine operation of machinery to be uncovered. Shards of daylight scatter across thirty years of grease and dust pressed into fir-planked floors as a shed door swings open. The soft, damp smell of oily equipment stretches lazily to greet him.

No corner of this land is unknown to him. No tool forgotten, no task abandoned. Ask him for anything useful and he probably has three of them. He knows exactly where to find them, how to fix them, when and where he got them, and which of the three would work best for whatever it is you're up against. He'll talk it over with you in gruff kindness and an unhurried drawl.

Outside, the wind bucks and checks against a surrounding wall of forrest. Woodsmoke tangled in a low fog spreads out across the morning, reaching after him in gusts. I see this place, and him in it, and I think of my father and my grandfathers and my uncles. I want to ask him questions, or for someone to at least. I want to pay attention and to learn what would take him a lifetime to teach.

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Six: Porcelain

Big blonde grin hanging over all the room
watching us watching her.

A casual head toss, contrived but alluring
with eyes shining like porcelain moons
and arms outstretched to a carpet of stars

awaiting the decent.
The heartbeat of bass—
its steady breath; its fists in the air.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Five: Patience

Gracie. Tra-la-la la-la la-la la la. Sitting on the chair-swing my father had built, nothing between us but an autumn afternoon, French nursery rhymes and a stack of Oreo's. Gracie. Teaching me to play poker with a tobacco tin of buttons for chips. Tucked away at the little bridge table in the corner of the dining room, between the bay windows and the buffet. A buffet, rather—one of three in her house. All that silverware and china—enough to feed an army—used mostly for polishing, as far as I could tell, a practice I believe she enjoyed. The ceremony of it. The satisfaction of a job well done, no matter how long it took. To say nothing of the dusting. Royal Dalton figurines and a new plate on the wall every Christmas. Commemorative. Each one boasting of some delicate historical importance so unforgettable it demanded gold leaf and a serial number.

Patience is a virtue. She used to say this to me often. It must have been apparent even then that I was lacking in this regard. Perhaps she hoped to teach it to me. And indeed if anyone could have, it would have been Grace. She lived to be one hundred and one, old enough to get a card from the queen. Old enough to understand what it means to wait. Old enough to watch history fold over on itself, again and again, with little care for consequence. Old enough to know that the only things we ever learn, we learn slowly. Old enough to really understand what it really means to wait, and then understand it a little more.

At her ninetieth birthday party, somewhere behind the backdrop of finger sandwiches and fruit salad, dodging priests and neighbours, I found her resting in her favourite spot on the couch; port in one hand, rosary in the other. Well Gram, how does it feel—90? I was fourteen and knew everything there was to know about anything that mattered. Unintentionally, unapologetically, and undeniably smug. I wanted wise words in a tidy answer. She laughed at me. All my friends are dead, she said, sloshing her port around in its vessel. So, you know, a little dull these days. She raised her glass and winked. No hard feelings, kid. Tra-la-la la la.

I remember the smell of her skin (Oil of Olay) and that it was tissue paper thin and just as soft. Perched on the couch, propped up by pillows, or poised at the edge of a pew--by all appearances she was as delicate as her plates. Grace who, well into her eighties, walked the mile and a half to Sobey's every Thursday for groceries and carried them the mile and a half home. Grace who scrubbed the kitchen floor on her hands and knees at six in the morning, before anyone was up, because a mop just couldn't get those corners like she could. Grace who, during the depression while my grandfather was at work on the railroad, killed the rats in the basement that stood between her and her potatoes by throwing pots of boiling water at them. Christ, Grace. Not even rats deserve to die like that, my grandfather told her.

I don't remember her ever saying, No, or, I can't. It wasn't in her. Never a complaint. Sometimes she would shake her head slowly after hearing of some tragedy from the neighbourhood or the news, and suck in her lips, saying under her breath, what a shame, but that was the extent of her disapproval for this life. The death of her son, the death of her husband, the war after war after war—it was not for her to question or to judge, only to go on trusting in God's great plan.

There was one moment, near the end of her life. They'd moved her to the hospital by then—some sort of heart condition or other. I suppose even at a hundred and one they have to call it something. My mother worked downstairs in the x-ray department and went up to see her everyday at the end of her shift. It was perhaps a day or two before she died and my mother asked how she was feeling. Tears welled up in her eyes and she said, I think the Lord has forgotten about me, Coralie. Her head fell forward and her hands tried to steady themselves against the smooth, white beads of her rosary. I think it was her doubt, not the sense of being left behind, that saddened her. The shame of it. But only briefly. Placing the rosary in her right hand, she pulled a Kleenex from her sleeve and dabbed at her nose before returning to my mother's gaze. Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that, Grace. I imagine my mother smiling as she said this, a trick she uses to hide her heart break. No one could ever forget about you. Not even the Lord.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Four: Truncated

It was after seven this morning before the tops of the cedars outside the bathroom window began to show their shimmering orange faces to the slender morning light. A month ago it would have been six o'clock, and not so much orange as yellow, from a sharper angle. I might have noticed the beginnings of a shift and thought that it was nearly time for sweaters and slippers and morning fires.

Still, August seemed to sneak out the back door this year, unannounced in its departure except perhaps for the hawks with their increasingly shrill enthusiasm for flight, sounding each evening more and more like the beginnings of a bar fight. I don't hear them these days at all, and I can't say for sure if they've left or have grown, as any successful gang would, into their instincts enough to keep their mouths shut except to chew. Regardless, their silence leaves behind a shuffling sort of loneliness that lingers, scuffing it's heals on the porch, wondering where everyone has gone. 

How the gradual and never unexpected turning down of days always leaves one feeling at least a little surprised, I don't know, but there you have it--another summer truncated by fall. This year it happened on a Sunday. Rain so hard all through the night that the driveway gravel reshaped itself, and then on Monday morning we could still see our breath at quarter to ten. That afternoon the geese flew over, woeful and urgent in their calls, their long journey from winter underway once more.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Three: Nuance

At the tip of the pier, three smoke rings rose around ribbons of twilight. His thoughts trailed off into a heavy sigh. Shiny, orange embers trickled from his finger tips and seared through the darkness as he rubbed his cigarette butt between them, jerked his head to the side, and spit in one well-rehearsed motion. His lips formed around the edges of her name but made no sound. In nuance and hues of purple grey sky his love for her lit up the night.

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Two: Viscera

I've been thinking about Patrick Lane. An interview I heard once where he spoke of a boarding house in Toronto. The plight of the impoverished. The weight of incidentals. A pregnant woman and a coat hanger. Her tenderness and exposure pouring across the slanted, filthy floor towards him, washing clean if not her soul then at least her anguish and necessity. What spoke to me then was not the dying woman, nor the gore, but the viscera of his words. Inside the guts of all of us, inside all our stories, we share a pulse. It beats and breathes us full—of sorrow, of longing, of love, regardless of our circumstances. We are comprised of a vulnerable utility, and perhaps the best we can do is honour the truth of it. The pregnant woman. The coat hanger. The words of Patrick Lane. What do you do with that? he said in the interview. Well if you're me, you write a poem about it.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

After something of a hiatus I have returned. I won't get into the details of what's kept me away—mostly because I'm sick to death of talking about it—but suffice to say I have a lot more time on my hands to write. I will say this though: take care of your body, you might need it one day.

In the spirit of new beginnings and the fall season, I'm taking on a new project.  A few summers ago I participated in a writing exercise that consisted of a fellow writer and I choosing one word every other day (she one day, I the next) and each of us comprising a story, poem, sentence, shopping list, whatever, that included that word.  It didn't necessarily need to be about the word, but the word had to be present in the content.  One of the obvious tricks (not that tricks are required) was to try to use the word in some unconventional manner, but without sounding forcibly clever—always a challenge for the writer of anything.

This week the practice has been resuscitated with a couple of new people, and while I will not publish their words (unless they'd like to see them here), I've decided to post my own "word-a-day" pieces in hopes that others may participate by posting stories, poems, etc, in the comments section. If nothing else it will keep me on task. Provided I can keep the group going, we'll start with a thirty day window and see what comes of it. The practice also coincides with my reading of Arthur Plotnik's Spunk & Bite: A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style, which has little to do with anything except that it's encouraged me to be more engaged with the process of writing, and that's something I highly recommend to anyone doing anything.

Now. Some words.

Day One: Misdemeanour

East Vancouver in the middle of summer, when the heat has finally lifted away with a few cool breaths from the harbour. Dusk and just after. Among the old Italian men strolling over to the park to smoke cigars and argue politics and sport while the wives sigh or hum or smile at the grandkids and scrape sauces and side dishes into Tupperware. And along the school yard basketball courts fenced in by the vocabulary of belonging, slang, and misdemeanour. Through the heavy curtain of three day old dumpster stench and towards the open air of waterfront, the screech of seagulls and the steady grumble of machinery shrugging its dark shoulders at the moon. Ceaselessly loading; unloading.

These are the places I go to meet poetry.