Requiem

Requiem

Four weeks after my father’s funeral, I return to the church to sing in a concert. I was introduced to Mozart’s requiem as a teenager and since then I have sung it on stage, to cassette tapes, to CDs, to Spotify, under my breath in a cathedral in Prague; on five different continents; in two different centuries; in fury, in frustration, in homesickness, in love, on road trips, at the gym, while vacuuming – never once for its intended purpose. Until now.

A requiem mass is the very last thing you can do for someone you love. It sounds dignified to pray for the repose of a soul but oh it is not, not if you mean it. In the midst of death, it’s a prayer for eternal life; the last of last chances just as the words ‘too late’ begin to insinuate themselves into the fabric of your heart. My faithlessness is irrelevant. Dad has lost his voice and the job of supplicant, for better or worse, has fallen to me. The matter of fact show-must-go-on musicians around me understand the circumstances and are both tactful and practical with their advice: ‘Don’t think about the words, just pretend you can’t speak Latin.’ (I can’t speak Latin). In truth, though, the words don’t matter. Music, not Latin, is the language we speak to God.

The orchestra plays a stately and dignified introduction and for a few bars it sounds as though this will be a civilised transaction, but then the upbeat catches like a sob in the throat and we begin. Over the course of an hour we plead, we beg, we flatter, we hammer with our closed fists on the gates of Heaven. Let him in. Let him in. Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. This cannot be the end. Dad in a flimsy hospital gown, worrying about whether his life had come to anything. Salve me. Save him. Let him in. The music breaks through us like ocean swell, like gale force winds. Solvet saeclum in favilla. The world is dissolving into ashes. Let him in. Dad, teary and confused, understanding that he was going to die. It is falling apart under our feet. Let him in. Dad, praying when he forgot who he was. Supplicante parce, Deus. Listen. Listen. He has nothing. He is one tiny soul. Let him in. Rex tremendae majestasis. Let him in, you silent, uncaring, King of terrible majesty. You said you loved him and he believed you. He believed you for his whole life. Where are you now? Ne me perdas ilia die. Do not forsake him. Voca me cum benedictis. Look at him. Look at him. Call him with the blessed. Let him in.

All we have is time, and by the end of it our breath is used up, our arguments are exhausted, and I am stripped bare, sobbing like a child ‘but you promised’. You promised. Pie Jesu. Precious Jesus, please. Let him in. The final amen feels like resignation. I could not have tried any harder. The conductor is standing where his coffin was. God and I are no longer on speaking terms.

The applause sounds tinny and loud, the light shines garish through tall windows. Everything is transient. The configuration of people, the bowing, the dust motes, the settling of petals on the flowers in the soloists’ arms. I creep back to the present like a refugee. All we have is time. Time is all anyone has. Grant him eternity.

Friends

Friends

I watch for danger all night, she near the wall, me near the door. She sleeps, very noisy. In the night she tucks her chin under the cover and leaves her long black fur on the white pillow so we can be the same. Black fur, white fur, curled up together safe. Only when sleeping she purrs, not when awake. I share my purring with her. Sometimes before sleep she puts big smells in her head fur for me to sniff. I can still recognise her though. It’s our joke.

She is very playful.

Sometimes there is danger and sometimes the danger is her. If she shouts, I come running just in case. Mostly she shouts at other humans and I shout at Stupid Cat. I think they try to steal from her. Maybe territory, maybe food. She is so fierce and brave. If she is attacked, she will hiss and yowl and never give up. Even for hours she yowls and they yowl and then they go away and then I groom her wet face. Well done I say, you are so fierce and brave like a great hunter. Sometimes she shouts at tap tap laptop. Laptop is very vexing to her. She stares it down and jabs it quick quick quick. Take that, laptop. I sit with her giving her all my fighting strength. If she calls big humans to help, I sit far away but I don’t leave her. Laptop cannot be trusted.

She is very brave.

We smell together and we stretch together. Her body is not quiet like mine. It’s frantic like Afternoon Frenzy but all day. She is upside down and jumping leaping. She stares at the window and does dancing hopping. Over and over. I don’t do dancing. I groom and wait. When she is excited, she squeals and then we chase, skittering and scattering fast around corners, leaping up on bed and couch. I race her to high places where she can’t catch me and low places too. She squeezes me if she grabs me and I squeal, just like big humans squeeze her and she squeals.

She is very fast.

The big humans do not love her like I love her. She lies on them, but they never groom her for long enough. She loves the big humans, but they don’t deserve it even though they feed her. Smaller humans come and purr and play with her and share food, but they do not groom her properly either, only sometimes they tidy head fur together. She vibrates when she loves someone. If her loves are not there, she can call up pictures of them. It’s her secret magic that she only shares with me, talking to the pictures and making the pictures talk back. When the loves come to visit her again, I stare at them, but I don’t tell. Sometimes they rub my head but only a little.

She is very forgiving and kind.

Are we from the same litter? What kind of a stupid question is that? She would never ask such a stupid question. She is tricksy and clever. She can find me anywhere even if I do my best hiding, and she can solve any problem. She can even make boxes and hiding places with her clever paws. She knows all the human meows and all the cat ones, and she hunts alone for foods that she kills outside and wraps in paper and bags and brings home to share.

She is very tricksy and clever.

Of course we are from the same litter. I don’t remember when, but long ago we were kittens and we were lost and brave together. So I watch for danger all night, she near the wall, me near the door. Go away now. We sleep.

Magnet

Once again, the magnet caught my eye. I was floating past on one of the many currents that circulate through the air-ocean, not thinking about anything until I saw it. It was roundish in shape with soft edges. The colour was a warm amber, fuzzy on the outside and glassy in the centre. It was the third time I had noticed it. It glowed gently, brightening slightly as I looked.  Was that a faint humming sound? A memory stirred in me of other magnets, other times.  

I was not used to feeling curious. In the air-ocean, all is in perfect balance; we know all things and we feel all things and to focus on one thought at a time felt awkward. The image of a soft blue magnet with a taste of moonlight sparked for a while and then faded again. I would not go any closer. A moment later I let the current ease me away.  

Time does not exist in the air-ocean, except around the magnets, and even then, only when you get close. I exhaled my curiosity and continued drifting calmly, around and around as the current took me. It was … pleasant. I drifted through and around other beings and sometimes we mingled together, swirling for a moment and separating again, both changed. I had done this many times. The Whole never changed, but the parts were in constant motion. I was all things now. I did not need to limit myself. 

But there was something about that magnet. The fourth time, I let myself approach. As I drifted closer, its flavour came into focus. It was complex. They all are. Woodsmoke, heat, E flat major slipping into C minor, frustration … I pulled away. I was not ready for the details. I aimed myself into the distance with more intent than I had before. The magnetic pull had worked on me so hard that my elements were bunching together, becoming firm, making it difficult to drift. I spun away, aware of the drag.  

I was not sure what to do with my new lopsidedness. I tracked other magnets, deliberately looking now. I had not noticed how many there were; all the colours and textures and scents and sounds you could imagine. I went close to one the colour of water with a scent of snow but it did not make a sound for me. I had forgotten it even before the current took me away. A raspberry red one (I remember raspberries!) in D major smelled waxy, like the inside of a beehive, and as I nosed closer, it threw out euphoria mixed with an interesting stab of pain. Intoxicating, I thought. Maybe I could attach to that one! But I had scared myself. Why would I attach to any of them? I needed to get back into the drift, melt that clump away until I was in harmony again, smoothly floating on the current. But smooth only reminded me of the amber magnet. How the centre was glassy and smooth like a polished stone.  

Resistance feels strange in the air-ocean. We all re-enter with it of course but then we dissolve and the more you practise the easier the dissolving is. Many times now, I had entered the ocean with closed fists tightly holding to all I had been, only to release in the warmth and feel the bitter sweet pleasure of falling apart; watching with a deep sense of calm as everything I had brought spread out on the current and swirled again into the Whole. So why did I feel myself resisting now?  

I approached it at a distance and hung back, stationary as the currents moved around me. E flat major. Frustration. Was that chilli? I could have taste buds again. How strange that would be. Ears. Eyes. Skin. A tongue. Limits. I felt my being shrink and condense at the thought. I could have thoughts. The amber glowed. I drew dangerously close.  

It was not too late to resist. The pull of the magnet drew me nearer and tighter but I could still dissolve if I wished. Did I wish? I had missed desire. And hunger. And, surprisingly, time. I turned back reluctantly into the air-ocean but it was hard; the magnet was huge now, my being tight and small. I kicked, hoping to propel myself backwards. My bent legs were strong, my tiny feet stretched wide like fins. I kicked and bounced back and forth. My fists bumped loosely against my face. A thumb found its way into my mouth. How good it felt to suck. 

Love Birds

The birds were so loud. Half asleep, she wondered what they were talking about, before she slipped back into the dream where they were discussing their plans for the day. One intended to find softer nesting materials after seeing Two pluck fur from a wallaby’s back. Three was speculating about a great feast of bugs in an unfamiliar tree. Four was making rude comments about Five’s feathers, and Five (she felt the words before she heard them) hushed the other birds so he could make an announcement; The human watching them had been dumped by her boyfriend. With that, all the birds turned their heads in her direction and stared accusingly. She was an imposter who had been found unworthy of love. Their distain woke her exactly three seconds before the alarm. 

On the other side of the city The Boyfriend, Drew, slept peacefully. The sun poking its fingers under his blinds was already hot, and yellow as yolk. Unable to pass the fortifications of curtain and blind, it blasted instead onto the outer wall of Drew’s house until the room inside was stuffy and thick with heat and Drew woke dehydrated and stumbled out of bed, scratching his naked torso, to drink from the bathroom tap. He wiped his face on his arm and blinked at the day. Muffled traffic noises came from outside, ornamented by the raucous cries of a flock of galahs trashing the apricot tree. The back yard, viewed from the bathroom window, was an urban jungle of long grass, sticky weed, unidentified shrubs, and gum nuts that got painfully underfoot on the way to the rusted BBQ. Drew yawned luxuriously. He may as well go and sit on the step in his undies while he ate his cornflakes. It was too hot indoors. 

Paige checked her phone again. No messages. A sharp jab to her heart. She fantasised, not for the first time, about being together enough not to look. Her last breakup had been different. As in, she’d confronted him and demanded to know what was going on and he’d told her he was no longer interested, and she’d turned her back and walked away and stopped wondering. Well, to be fair, she’d cried a lot, but it was a clean cut, sharp and painful but not infected by second-guessing or creeping dread. She scrolled back over the last two weeks of her correspondence with Drew. She had initiated contact with him at a ratio of 3:1. Her texts were approximately six times longer than his, and included humour, reference to in-jokes and shared history, and intelligent but not nerdy comment on current events. His, depressingly, were short and functional. Had they become sparser of late? She compared the past week with the previous one. Yes. The ratio of contact initiation had slumped to a humiliating 5:1. For completeness, she considered social media. Hardly any snapchatting, Facebook loves had been replaced by dutiful likes, and although he had posted on Instagram (a night out with mates and a sunrise over a surf beach), he had not acknowledged any of her posts for a week. The results were in. The stats were clear. Yet … his Tinder profile wasn’t yet back in action. Hope? Or someone else? She fingered her phone. She could send him a causal, breezy text about meeting up, as if nothing was wrong. Nobody loves clingy. Maybe she could turn up at his place tonight with beer – surprise! But what if he ignored the text, or said no? What if he came to the door and looked right through her? The thought of his rejection made her shrivel inside. She was not brave enough. She’d wait instead, despite the agony. And then when the agony got too much, she’d dump him herself. Except she knew she wouldn’t. She finished her cornflakes and left the bowl in the sink. She was too depressed to wash up. 

Drew went back indoors, leaving his bowl on the back step. It was his first day off after six late shifts. He should still be asleep but fuck it, he was awake now and the glittering sea was a ten-minute drive away. He rummaged around for some shorts, grabbed his wetsuit off the fence, and chucked his surfboard in the van. He’d catch some waves, have a feed at the fish and chip shop, and come back for a shower. After that? He’d probably drop in on Paige; it had been a while. They could have sex, swop stories over a beer or two and maybe go out that night if she was free. Yep. Sounded like a plan. He started up the van.  

The Forest and the Hood

Once upon a time there was a forest, and into that forest, once upon a time, there skipped a little girl in a red cape.

Stop right there. You think you know this story. I suggest that you don’t.

What do you know about the forest? It’s dark and tangled, obviously; a backdrop, definitely; a metaphor for the subconscious, if you want to be smart. One can assume some kind of path winding through it but really, are we talking widely spaced trees filtering dappled sunlight onto grassy clearings strewn with flowers? No, we are not. The forest is ancient, twisted, and so full of shadows that the coat stands out like a poison berry, a startling drop of blood. Many creatures live there but the crucial ones to this story are a wolf, a grandma, the little girl, and a woodcutter. Yes, they are all human – even the wolf, really, who is so anthropomorphised he talks. They bear closer examination.

First, the wolf. He is dangerous but also sly; no impulsive roaring and biting for him. He is a cross-dressing psychopath with a penchant for the sinister wisecrack. His hobbies are lurking, building up tension, and introducing an element of fear into an otherwise bland tale. Vegetarianism is his dirty little secret. No, really. He threatens and controls but all the time he has Grandma stashed in the cupboard. Why not eat her? Even if he wanted to save his appetite for a tastier morsel, he could have a nibble. Blood is blood, surely. Sinews are sinews. While we’re on the subject of the wolf, there’s another gaping plot hole in the bedroom. Did you notice it? The clothes. How does the wolf, with his ripping teeth and his wolfish paws, effectively don a bonnet and/or a dress? Collusion? Is Grandma really who she says she is? Is the whole story a cover-up for unnatural acts between Grandma and the wolf? Is it possible that, when her innocent granddaughter unexpectedly arrived, Grandma had just popped out of bed (naked) to fetch something? Lubricant. Leather. Just a thought. She wouldn’t be the first guilty adult to duck into the nearest wardrobe.

Grandma, narratively speaking, is barely there. She must have a back story but we never hear it. (Why was she living in the forest? Was she born there? Banished? Did she kill a witch when she was a child and steal the house?) In her old age she has been reduced to a plot device, her sole purpose to lure the child into harm’s way. She also provides the costume. Thanks, granny. Still useful to society.

The woodcutter, male of course, swoops in at the last moment and heroically saves the day by brutally murdering the wolf with his axe. It’s a gruesome image, generally skipped over. Blood spattered walls, clumps of hair sticky on the axe blade, the guts and faeces of freshly dead animal soaking into the mattress. We don’t like to think of it, so we glorify the rescue instead. I, for one, would not be sleeping in that house any more, at least not until it had been industrially cleaned and fitted with proper security. Not much of a personality, the woodcutter – not even necessarily a speaking part – yet he does all the dirty work including some pretty intense manual labour. Perhaps he is a migrant worker.

Are we ready for the girl yet? Surely not. Let’s spend a moment on the coat. Sometimes it’s a riding cape, which does beg the question – where’s the horse? Too spooked to enter the forest? I like to imagine that grandma made the cape, perhaps just for dress-ups; we’ve already discussed her interest in such things. Whatever the design, we know it had a hood and we know it was bright scarlet. Why red? Because it was rare and bright and fabulous, of course. Oh, there are the obvious references, but really, it’s a coat. Do we need it to be anything more? It is gorgeous, warm, brightly coloured and desirable even from this distance. Let’s sigh over it and move on.

So finally, the title role. Little Red Riding Hood, named for her clothes. It must be said that the girl is none too bright. For one thing, she skips blithely through a clearly dangerous forest looking neither to right nor left whilst being stalked, tracked, and hunted by an undefined number of animals but at the very least one swift and sinister wolf. Not that she shouldn’t be in the forest. She has every right to be there, wearing whatever she pleases. Presence in the forest in a blood red cloak does not imply consent to be eaten. But still. Then there is the frankly unbelievable scene with her ‘Grandma’, who looks, speaks, and smells like a wolf, while Little Red Riding Hood completely fails to notice. There are two plausible explanations for this strange behaviour. First, that Little Red Riding Hood has Autism: she is unaware of social/ contextual cues that would make her nervous in the forest and her eye contact is so fleeting that she fails to take in the whole picture when she sees the wolf in her Granny’s bed and relies for far too long on the false evidence of the bonnet. Alternatively, that she is older than we have been led to believe and already suffering from teenage ennui. In possession of an electronic device that demands 95% of her attention at all times, she is plugged in and oblivious on her walk through the forest and when she gets to Grandma’s, she is so desperate to access the wifi that she does not look up from the screen until she has checked all her texts, likes, and notifications. However, she knows some kind of interaction is required, however desultory, so she fobs Grandma off with random and frankly sarcastic comments on her appearance: ‘My, what big eyes you have.’ You can just hear her reporting back to her parents: ‘I DID talk to her. I said she had big teeth. WOT???!’ True, it might be neither of those things. Perhaps she is simple, or enchanted, or fey. But you have to admit, her behaviour is questionable.

Speaking of questions, here is the big one. Why this story? Of all the legends and fairy tales ever written, why is this one so loved, so frequently reproduced, so well-remembered? We could have dancing princesses, glass slippers, princes turning into swans, but this is the one we choose. Is there something elemental about the forest? Is it the simplicity of the innocent child vs the cunning wolf? Sick of royalty, are we instead drawn to the fate of the common people?

We may never know, but here is a theory.  Once upon a time there was a forest, where now there are streets. Once upon a time there was a skipping child, simple and unencumbered. Once upon a time, we were apex predators who protected our young. Once upon a time there was poor life expectancy and limited food security and people never left the area they were born in and most were illiterate – yes – but against the dazzle of once upon a time we are inclined to forget such details. The gift of this fairy tale is as follows: that it has been so handled and smoothed and worn and retold, that the minutiae have been shaken loose, revealing underneath the shape of our true desires. And what have we really wanted all this time? It turns out to have been simply this: food; a family; a common enemy; a sense of mystery, and a fabulous scarlet coat.

Mr Kawasaki

I first noticed Mr Kawasaki that Summer. I had just started working at the rest stop on the main highway and I was busy learning the job, so it took a while before I had time to stop and observe the customers. People think that cleaning is easy, but any job requires concentration if you want to do it well, and I was new and proving myself so I worked hard and did my best every day.

It was particularly hot that year, and tourists poured in by the coach load in search of some cool mountain air. To give a pleasant experience in those kinds of conditions one needs to work fast, cleaning up discretely after each guest whilst allowing people their privacy. If anything developed a fault, for instance if one of the toilets lost its bidet function, it had to be checked and fixed immediately. Don’t rely on complaints, my supervisor advised me. Nine times out of ten, people won’t complain, they will just go away with an unfavourable impression and your business will suffer. I felt that was true. Who would bother to complain, when they only had a brief stop in a place? Better to spend that time in the souvenir shop buying okashi snacks and themed keyrings to take back as gifts for your co-workers. The cheekily named ‘monkey poo’ chocolates were particularly popular sellers at our rest stop due to the famous monkey park nearby. Most people visited there, if only just to take a picture on their way to the springs.

That reminds me, I was talking about Mr Kawasaki. He probably came in every day for a while before I became aware of him. One day there was a traffic holdup on the highway just coming out of Beppu and so there was a lull between coaches. I took the opportunity to give the mirrors a good polish, whistling as I went because I assumed the place was empty. It was not until I reached the very end that I noticed the door to one of the stalls had been closed the whole time. Embarrassed, I cleared up quickly and left the building. The heat pushed back at me like a thick mattress of cloud and sweat immediately broke out all over my body like a prickling, wet, rash. I stopped, pulled out my handkerchief and wiped my face and neck. As I did so, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a man leaving the rest room. He was dressed in the olive-green uniform of the monkey park and was carrying a suit over his right arm. Strange, I thought, to change out of a suit into a uniform, and in a public restroom too. Then the first of the coaches arrived and I thought no more of it.

The following week, though, it happened again. This time I had taken a detour to the vending machine for a cold drink, holding the can against my hot skin for instant relief. A gaggle of schoolgirls had been crowding around the area fanning themselves and squealing about the heat ‘So hot, so HOT!!!!’ as they chose their sugary drinks. I moved away to a quieter spot, and there was the man again, coming out with his uniform on and this time a suit bag over his shoulder, coat hanger held steady by one casual finger.

I confess that it became somewhat of an obsession of mine. I looked out for him every morning and once, staying late because we were understaffed, I was there to see him enter the rest room in his uniform and leave in a suit. The suit was grey with a subtle pin stripe and a crisp white shirt underneath that gave the impression of an air-conditioned office. His tie was precisely knotted and his shoes, which I’d never noticed before, were expensive looking leather and perfectly polished. That was the day I named him Mr Kawasaki, after the businessman from that silly show – what was it called again? I can’t remember now. It was popular at the time.

There is an unsatisfying end to this story. One day he stopped coming. I thought he was on vacation but after three weeks he was still not back. It bothered me so much that I even went to the monkey park one day. The monkeys were as cute and as mischievous as everyone said but my day was unrewarding, nonetheless. He wasn’t there.

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Fortune

Tubs the Cat, Companion of the Immortals,  Denizon of the Underworld, Basker under a Thousand Suns, was interrupted in the act of licking his nether regions by a jangle of chimes as the shop door opened. One ginger leg in the air, he looked up and sniffed. A new customer. Nothing interesting about her. He went back to his grooming. Tubs knew interesting when he smelled it. Tamika, his human slave, told fortunes all day while he looked on. So much banality, so much tedium, so much repetition. Whatever nonsense Tamika told them, Tubs knew the truth just by wrinkling his nose. The humans would mate, reproduce and die. End of story. Tubs splayed out a paw and chewed at the itchy webbing, absorbed completely in his task. He quite liked this body. True it was a little tubby, but the fur was soft and it could run fast. His other two bodies were not quite as comfortable. The old, arthritic one, he spent very little time in, waking it mainly to eat and groom. The younger black and white one was springy and nimble but stuck permanently indoors, or in a caged outdoor area that enabled other cats to observe his captivity. He woke that one up most mornings around breakfast time but gave it a rest in the afternoons, when he preferred to wake this one and stroll along the rooftops then drop in on Tamika at work. Tamika had a good range of kibble.

The door chimes jangled again in the middle of ear grooming. Lick, up, over, lick, up over. He had got into a great rhythm when the atmosphere changed, causing him to freeze with one paw on his head. What was that? A different scent. Tubs righted himself in a hurry and flowed quickly and smoothly down to Tamika’s chair, winding himself in and out of the legs while he chased for the right air particle. That one. That was it. He inhaled luxuriously. Interesting. The customer was interesting! Finally. Tubs sat alert under the chair, front paws together, ears pointed. The customer was a female with pale, white, legs and rich-smelling shoes that had been to many outdoor places. Each item of her clothing smelled different but underneath she was umami, like mushrooms or fish, and a little salty. Tubs longed to lick her. The humans spoke for a while. Blah blah blah blah. Tubs had not bothered with human speech since the glory days of the pharaohs. He listened instead to the vibrations of the voice, the movements of the body, and the scent behind the words. This human was powerful but her power was blocked somehow. Tubs edged closer. She thought she was weak? Something to do with mating. A rejection? But she was so powerful; Tubs could feel it buzzing like a fly in a jar. Mating should not bother her. She was alpha. The human kept talking in a high breathy voice, her body language deferential. Why didn’t she release her strength? The effort of holding it in was making her weak. Tubs concentrated his mind and sent messages to her but she didn’t hear them. It was no surprise; this breed of human was very basic. She needed to be shown, physically. She needed to fight.

Tubs held himself aloof from the human servants as a rule, but he was nothing if not gracious and sometimes, just sometimes, he deigned to help them in their plight. This would be the customer’s lucky day. Tubs gathered himself, took a deep breath, waved his bottom back and forth for a moment and SPRANG. Onto the customer’s leg, all claws out. The customer shrieked and leaped up. It was ON! They fought, they fought most gloriously. Tooth and claw and yowling and batting hands. Tamika fought too, with much shouting. Then, finally, Tubs felt the customer’s power, with a great roar, burst free. He had freed her. His work here was done. He dropped to the floor and positioned himself, head and tail erect, to graciously receive his praise. Not since his time as Aggie’s witch’s cat 400 years ago had he done such a good clean job. He still had what it took.

Imagine Tubs’ surprise, then, when he was picked up rudely around the middle and unceremoniously thrown out of the door, jangles going crazy as it slammed behind him. He was stunned for the smallest of moments and then infuriated. To be disrespected by such fools. He ran directly to his sleeping place, put the ginger body to sleep and woke his old arthritic body a couple of suburbs away. He would spend the afternoon aching by a warm fire, stroked by a servant who appreciated him. Tonight, he’d take his ginger body somewhere else for kibble. Tamika did not deserve him.

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