If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Richard Hartwell: The Sea Turtle

“A month. Perhaps two. This type advances rapidly.” Not that it was unexpected, at least some pronouncement had been, this was a second opinion after all, but this compressed economy of the rest of your life has a certain shock value attached to it nonetheless.

“Are you certain it’s that short?” The grave-looking man in the white coat squirms in his leather chair behind the oversize walnut desk; files and medical magazines piled in neat stacks to his right since he is left-handed. This last observation makes you think about all you have read concerning the intellectual and artistic capabilities of left-handed individuals. In turn, this thought makes you elevate this doctor a step higher. You are right-handed. You listen more intently.

“No one can be that certain of course. You must understand, there are so many variables: diet, surroundings, and the mental outlook of the patient. What about you?” A longish pause as you think about this again. You don’t respond. “What about you; what are you going to do? What are your plans? Is there anyone at home to help? You know we can control the pain. I can recommend several hospices.” You feel ambushed by staccato questions, always have. Yes, you feel lousy. No, you have no one to help at the end; three husbands, no children, a diminishing number of friends scattered to the ends of the earth, none close or close at hand. Ends of the earth? What a shitty concept. Pain? What kind of pain: physical, mental, emotional? Yes, you have an increasing trifecta of pain. Trade-offs? Always something, always hoping what is gained more than offsets what is lost. Hospice? Hell no! Knowing you, you will finish where you are most comfortable. But just where is that now? A small, sardonic chuckle, mirthless, doesn’t quite escape your lips.

“Yes, sure, I have help, of course. And no, I don’t think a hospice is necessary.” God, the workload on your desk: submissions to read, reviews, responses to write, you still have to coordinate that opening for . . . Oh, to hell it! What does it matter? As if these things are going to be your legacy.

You travel down the elevator in a sort of petit mal trance until the arrival bell in the mezzanine cancels your zombie-like indifference and brings you back to the present moment. Taking out your cell phone, you hit your office number, key for voicemail, and leave a curt message for your assistant: “I’m not coming back in today. Cancel that 4:00 o’clock meeting and I’ll email some instructions later. Have a good weekend.” After you disconnect, you realize you didn’t add, “Best and see ya’ later,” sort of a simple tagline with you; changes are starting already.

* * *

The woman finds that she longs still for the majestic trees along the embattled coast of Northern California and Oregon. It is not so much that she has forgotten about them as that their influence has been superseded by urban seduction for many years. Continuing north, she searches in her mind for memories of the cleansing scenes of the trees as early morning fogs burn off slowly to reveal first their trunks, so contoured with crags as to mimic the face of aged Indians who once roamed about these woods. Then slower still, with the thinning and rising fog, upper branches are disrobed while still their uplifted spires thrust through the fog in challenge of wind and the earthly energy of gravity.

These scenes are not pristine, neither in the woman’s memory nor in reality, nor is there any pretense that they are, regardless of all that has happened to the forests and to her, too. She recollects also those rotting trunks of fallen giants, leveled by forces even greater than the two-hundred-year-old pines or the thousand-year-old redwoods. Through storm and quake and slide, and even through the fury of volcanoes, some of these trees survive to their majority and have now become passionately identified with longevity in the natural world and environmentalism in the wider world, not so natural. Only, only -- longevity itself is the unnatural element. For only with constant change, for only with cyclic re-growth, can these giants be re-membered, dropping cones to seed themselves, re-newed.

The bits and pieces, the shards that they drop, their seeds, become the continuity by which they will be re-placed. But if they do not fall, if they are not periodically vanquished, the very shadow of the parent can preclude the growth of the child. For only in the death and downfall of the mighty giants is there sufficient light and life to sustain new seedlings. The woman knows this without conscious connection. She was born just north of here and raised there and grew among these coastal forests. There is a level of comfort that attends the growing familiarity of her surroundings. The woman didn’t expect to return now, but chance also re-seeds lives.

Nature is random and sporadic and often allows for multiple actions. Only man creates an environment in which the growth of the big trees becomes an “all or nothing.” Even the forest fire cleanses, providing a random change and a chance for escape and continuity. To a degree, perhaps, it has been a cleansing mental fire that has allowed the woman the chance to escape from San Francisco.

The woman has driven several hours through the night and into a dawn that hardly differs from night. True, dark ideas slowly become gray shadows and then transform into washed and indistinct realities. By true dawn, trees become trees and buildings become buildings; even the water-dazzled, yellowed dual lights with their spinning rays as they draw closer finally turn into cars with headlights. They also are random and sporadic. None appear in her rearview mirror. It is just a fleeting thought, but she realizes she isn’t really chased, not even running away. Why has she chosen to come back?

She passes the border with a mental connection that it is just one more line crossed, one more boundary ignored or suppressed or willfully confronted. Most of her life has been premised on a self-sufficiency that borders on the manic. To honor the border crossing, she rapidly depresses the horn button in the center of the steering wheel three times and is less than gratified with three spastic, tinny squeaks. She laughs at herself for retaining a childish belief in the magical effects of certain rituals. So much of her life is still ritually obsessed.

About an hour after crossing the border, the woman slips into the town of her birth, childhood and adolescence. She isn’t hungry and doesn’t seek out a restaurant. She is tired, but not enough yet to seek out a motel. It is still fairly early with practically no Saturday morning traffic on the business bypass, let alone on side streets. She starts driving up and down some of these streets not really knowing what she is seeking, but not without purpose either. Her elementary school is still here, but her high school is now a middle school and a fancy new high school, new at least to her, lies farther up the hill away from the ocean side of town. For some reason this saddens the woman more than seems reasonable. The new school looks like a model prison, rising out of a nearly empty parking lot. She recalls walking to school, her school, and only rarely catching a ride with a friend or neighbor. Everything was closer then, smaller and more compact.

The woman makes the rounds of a few more disappointing changes in town then seeks out a motel near the beach, to the west of the bypass. The VACANCY sign flashes in front of an older motel, not one of a national chain. She turns into the drive and parks in front of the single-story appendage marked OFFICE. Her check-in without a reservation is uneventful; she pays for a day with a card, but leaves the account open, not knowing if she will stay longer. She doesn’t know why. It just seems right. She finds her room easily, unlocks the door with the bronze key on the end of a diamond-shaped, maroon tag, and lets herself in. The room is nondescript, basic, functional, but without warmth. It sort of reminds her of the house on Fish Trap Road farther up the river valley. She didn’t go out there this morning. It is, after all, just a house now, assuming it is still there, and built of sad memories, but un-peopled now. She won’t go out there; doesn’t need to. But there are other places she needs to go, things she needs to do, or wants to.

* * *

You, Cyndi, slip out of your shoes before you open the motel door. You don’t carry them, but leave them there by the TV stand. You want to walk on the beach, have to, embracing a solitude and winter chill, transporting you back thirteen years. Over your white turtleneck sweater you pull on a light windbreaker, more fashion statement then protection, zip it up and pull up the collar. You still have on your work pants, but these are wash-and-wear and lightweight. You check the locked door behind you and pocket the key in the jacket pocket. You turn to your right, past number eight, and then right again, through the passageway and past the ice and soda machines and the glassed-in fire extinguisher. The breeze freshens here, more than in the motor court, funneling from the beach, choking down and speeding up as it passes through the valley between the two buildings. You fight against the wind to escape the motel and shoot out onto the beach.

Much is as you remember, perhaps more than you have any right to expect after seeing the changes in town. There is an expanse of hummocks, ice-planted in rusts and browns and tans. Some of these mounds have undoubtedly shifted around all over the beach. Some have probably shifted back; like you, too. There are the lattice-worked passages of sand, wrapped like the tendrils of jellyfish around abstracts of ice plant, licking through the rise and fall of the dunes. And there is the wide expanse of the ocean, slate today and without horizon, lost against a lowering afternoon sky crushing the water. Near the shoreline is an older couple, two elder gentlemen holding hands, one of them bending occasionally to turn over shells, pocketing some surreptitiously, as it remains against the law to remove anything from the beach. It is now a posted, formal marine sanctuary; you saw signs at the top of the bluff. Years ago it was just a beach and a make-out rendezvous for local teenagers.

In the middle distance you see the gray-white flash of foam as the winter storm surf breaks against the jetty. The deep resonant boom of the breakers measures a syncopated back-beat, interspersed between each visual splash of wave; sight, then sound, then sight, then sound: crosscurrents of rhythm sometimes overwhelm both senses. The evening gulls float and drop and rise again. Balanced against the cycle of onshore winds, they search the tangled remains along the high tide line. One group of gulls continues to swirl and swoon in a merry-go-round pattern off to your left. By ones and twos they are joined by others of their race and, as in any crowded neighborhood, arguments arise. It is the louder-toned screeching of these quarrels that catches your attention.

* * *

Thirteen years is not enough time to forget the big bitter things or the important small things. You know that the gulls must be squabbling over a meal, possibly disgusting, but you are drawn in that direction anyway, more to prove the rightness of your recollection than out of any real curiosity. You have to traverse the intervening hillocks and the windswept sand keeps crumbling and shifting beneath your bare feet as you slip back down the slope, a half stride back for each one you take forward. You realize it is sort of a familiar feeling and smile in spite of yourself. You begin to feel the futility of this exercise in the ache of your calf muscles and then recall that as a girl you used to scrabble across the dunes using the better footing found on the aprons of ice plant draped from the edge of the eucalyptus groves out to the high-water line.

Out of some latent habit of adult insecurity, you turn to make certain you are not observed. The beachcombers are far down towards the jetty looking away together, far off out to sea, too far to see what you are doing even assuming that they care. No one else is on the beach, out of place. There are no silhouettes above and behind you, outlined by the gas station and motel glare from the highway.

You step out of the sand path and onto the rust carpet. The slimy scrunch of ice plant is slippery momentarily until your toes automatically recall to curl down like ice crampons taking purchase on a glacier. The broken ice plant is almost that cold. After two or three strides you re-catch the hang of it and quickly trudge over the first of the low brows towards the growing crowd of gulls. As before, you leave a trail of crushed imprints in your wake.

Your feet turn colder quickly as the night wind play against the juices from the trampled plants. The cuffs of your pants darken, dragged through the syrup of the ice plants. You hardly notice. You concentrate on angling towards the gully where the birds frenzy, approaching from upwind now that the breeze is turning offshore in the gathering deep twilight and dropping temperature. So many small things seemed to return of their own accord, unbidden, unshared. You crest the last incline with the dim glow of the town behind. Your darkened shadow spooks the gulls feasting below. You know you can’t scare them off for long. Arrogance and hunger will quickly defeat fear and they will swarm again in waves, relying on sheer numbers to overcome the intruder. But the brief interlude brought on by your surprise is enough for you, alone.

Captured in the instant of mergence of focal point and shutter speed, your pupils expand in the darkening gloom. You see the great green sea turtle lying in the bottom of the shallow depression. The turtle is upended; the belly has been pierced by the gulls’ orange-tipped spears; of a hundred frenzied soldiers of the beach.

It is not a huge turtle, perhaps only two feet across -- a young adolescent really, like you were, back then -- and it is no longer the graceful ballerina of the sea it has been. One flipper is mangled, bent uselessly backwards, grotesquely, and her eggs -- for it is a she -- what is left of them, what could have become her children, cascade from what must once have been a much-swollen abdomen, are strewn across her carcass and onto the sand and into the gulls. Belly and eggs, all pierces and violations. The turtle is no longer a beautiful creature of the ocean, freedom, and the night. She is now just food for the gulls, carrion, and soon for the crabs, and then for the ants, and finally for the other opportunists of the coast. All this seems like steps on a downward spiraling food chain.

This is all captured in your first glance, but only absorbed over time as you sit on your haunches on the down slope of the nearside dune and upwind from the stench. The pungent, yet pleasing, odors of seaweed and salt, even of the mudflats, are here mingled with those of death and decay, and the slight coppery tinge of blood. The gulls quickly return to the carcass, unperturbed by your continued presence, giving you time to absorb the scene and think of us.

It was violent, for the turtle surely, but the turtle was wrong, too. Wrong beach. Wrong month. Wrong turning. Bad timing or bad karma! Something had been wrong with this turtle, or perhaps many things, and now it was being useful, in its way. We should be so lucky.

* * *

We aren’t saddened, not really, not in a large sense. Reminded perhaps. We fold our hands, one on top of the other, over our flat belly. Without movement, the chill begins to settle deep within us and we don’t linger. We take one last look as we stand back up, a snapshot for the future, and scatter the scores of birds upward into the dark. As they began to resettle, to feast again, we turn and retrace our way back across the dunes toward the motel on the bluff. It is easier this time, guided by the pale halo over the highway. We try to step into the same depressions in the ice plant. They are barely darker than the surrounding growth and sometimes we just break new trail. Above the bluff, across the highway, rising on the slopes above town, the new-growth forest has barely begun to take hold; the rape of the forest is no longer new, but the scars will remain for a long time.

We push our way up the last steep grade into the alcove of the passageway. The screams of gulls and throbbing of surf has been diminishing, slowly replaced by the whine and hum of the occasional car or truck passing in front of the motel. All these sounds echo to us, reverberating in the cavern of the passageway. We turn left past number eight and let us back into our room.

We pause in the doorway momentarily to stamp our numbed feet, hurting some feeling back into them, pounding some of the sand onto the walkway, scraping some more off on the doormat. It isn’t a very thorough job of scraping. We give up and step onto the shallow shag carpet mottled in shades of russets and umbers, much like the tongues of ice plant on the dunes. We cross over to the bathroom and drop the maroon diamond door key on top of the brown laminate table. We enter the bathroom and start the shower, then peel out of our damp clothes, letting them fall to a pile in the center of the floor; yesterday’s castaways mixed with sand and sea spray and sap from the ice plant. We start to cry; this is all so familiar: wrong turnings, lost eggs, soiled clothes, shortened expectations – even our frozen bare feet.

We realize we’ll have to wash out the clothes by hand and dry them as best we can for tomorrow. We step into the shower, still crying, adjust the nozzle to stream water over our face and plaster down our hair, drowning our thoughts behind, as well as those ahead of us, in scalding billows of steam.

Although we don’t want to, not really, not yet, we think about tomorrow. In the morning, in our rinsed-out and drip-dried clothes, we’ll turn left out the door, past number six, down to the manager’s office. We’ll take the room for another day, perhaps another week. Then we’ll go out, go to town, shop. We’ll get a heavier jacket, warmer pants, fresh underwear, maybe even some hiking boots; we’ll keep the turtleneck. We’ll look at the beach by day. We don’t feel chased anymore. Perhaps we’ll even make friends with the beachcombing couple. We’ll see if the turtle is gone by then. We’ll play it by ear.

Cyndi, through your eyes I look down at our hands still lightly rubbing our belly, you reminiscing. We stop, turn off the shower, and try to stop the tears. Yes, we’ll play the rest of our life by ear, together; long-term memories merged with short-term future; complicated but completed.

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school teacher language arts living in Southern California with his wife of thirty-five years (poor soul; her, not him), their disabled daughter, one of their sons and his ex-wife and their two children, and eleven cats. Yes, eleven! He has previously been published in: Midwest Literary Review, The Stray Branch, Flashquake, PigeonBike, Steam Ticket, Burnt Bridge, Indigo Rising, Lowestoft Chronicle, Thoughtsmith, The Rainbow Rose, Catapult to Mars, The Camel Saloon, The Shine Journal, Candidum, Red Poppy Review, and others, both print and e-zine. When not writing he wishes he were still pushing plywood in Coquille, Oregon.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tammy T. Stone: Cunjure

It finally caught up with him and he fell down and cried. Without a sound – any noise on this day would have been the aural equivalent of peeking at a cracked mirror before the lightest tap sent it down in a pile of shards – he looked in the direction of the door, just a wooden slab, really, flapping and swaying to the jerky rhythm of patrons coming and going, and started weeping. No one came to console him. If anything, the noontime din seemed to get louder.

The Last Chance Saloon was the first place he ever laid eyes on in Alberta, Canada, only the second province in the entire country he’d ever seen outside of British Columbia, where he was born. On the way here, to the tiny, bottomed-out town of Wayne – off a main road and over eleven diminutive bridges that reminded him of a mini golf course tucked between hills and valleys – in the passenger seat of a big Mack truck that had picked him up just outside of Cranbrook, he mostly remembered being ravenous. He ate: two donuts, one chocolate and one maple; one bag of Lays chips, plain; one can of Sprite, and a quarter of a bag of Smart Food popcorn. He had a hole in his stomach he was trying to fill, until the driver of the truck said no more stops. An hour later he veered into this place that was precisely nowhere, and guided him to a seat, where he slumped down in exhaustion.

One hand propped up his head and the other clutched his stomach. His dark brown hair was thin and limpid, his eyes soft brown and almond-shaped, a pleasing halfway between his Thai mother and Canadian father. Unlike the junk food he ate on the road, the cheeseburger iceberg lettuce salad lodged in his stomach like an anchor. He sniffled quietly and looked around.

The saloon was full of people who looked to him like roots when they sat and vines when they moved to the bar and bathroom, hidden around a corner. It was like an invisible series of chalk lines conjoined these people to every single other person (he suddenly imagined actual chalk lines, and the recent deaths of everyone in the room) and also to everything in the place, the oldest artifacts in the world, he felt. He couldn’t see it but he knew it was there, some kind of invisible placenta and each movement within it was made with the certainty one can only have with the comforting awareness of a shared space, that is: home. That was it! Everyone here was home.

Even the ones passing through, like the driver of the Mack truck, became an instant part of the picture, a baroque painting brought to life with dust particles and high noon light. He felt like these lightly dancing bits of dust were sprinkling something into the restaurant that could only amount to magic. A feeling crossed his stomach he couldn’t place.

On the other side of the saloon the truck driver hobbled to the front counter and ordered something from a large greasy jar. He limped heavily as he walked. He came back to the table with two smelly eggs and a beer.

“It’s their way here,” said the truck driver, referring to the Mason jar full of beer in his hand. “You never did tell me your name.”

“Boi,” he said, wiping his eyes. “With an ‘I’.”

“Berton Hart. They call me Hart. Pardon my asking, but are you okay?”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t like bothering a man who doesn’t want to be bothered. Did you want to try one of these eggs here? Best in the region. Pads the stomach good.”

“No, thanks.”

“Finally full then. Beer?”

“I’m okay. I do have a question though.”


“There’s a sign right outside that says Welcome to Wayne, Population once 2,490, now 27. 27 people? That’s like, less than 10 families. How do they know the exact number?”

Hart laughed.

“That’s a city mind for you. Caught half-dead on a road somewhere, you land in my truck and now you’re in the AlHarta for the first time in your life. Badlands no less. And you wonder if they have updated population figures.” He chuckled.

“People are born and die every minute,” said Boi.

“Not when there are only 27 of you.”

Boi looked at Hart and suddenly wanted to know every single thing about him, be his wingman.

“I’ve never heard of the Badlands before,” said Boi. Hart looked out the window as another family sedan with a license plate from somewhere else pulled into the lot outside.


The Badlands, Hart explained, can be found in Montana, the Dakotas and scattered parts of northwest Nebraska, not to mention Hell’s Half-Acre in Wyoming.

“That’s a badass name,” said Boi.

“You bet. Which brings us closer to home: the Big Muddy Badlands in Saskatchewan where outlaws used to hide. And we’ve got our very own Badlands right here where we sit. Drumheller’s not far from here. Centre of it all. Dinosaur land.”

Badlands, he said, are named quite literally: they refer to extremely dry terrain eroded over long periods of time. The soft sedimentary rocks and soils have more or less visibly fallen prey to the winds of time. Waters, too, flowed through these lands until, having left deep gaping canyons in their forceful wake (“Do not go gentle into the good night,” Boi said to himself, thinking about Blake, English class and deep, sloshy turmoil), they dried up. The Badlands, a cornucopia of shapes and dimensions, attract tourists from around the world, who also flock to the region for the canyons and ravines, gullies and other marvels of geology and form, including the strangely named hoodoos dotting the landscape.

“Hoodoos?” asked Boi.

“You’re best off asking Betty. She’s a student from some fancy college studying the hoodoos, new around here, sweet as pie,” said Hart. “Cute too,” he said, winking.

Approaching the Badlands, Boi had felt not unlike he had come upon the after-effects of a monumental fire, or cross section of what the entire earth looked like when, just maybe it was much smaller than it is now and all the colours, from sandy browns to earthen clay reds to deep, ashen greys were all on display as though to say, here, here is an offering of all the earth can be. Take us while it’s easy, before we burn completely. We so often forget to do things while they are easy. It’s elemental.


“Hart, why did you bring me here?” Boi asked. “Wayne couldn’t have been on your route.”

“It seemed to me a good spot for you to rest,” Hart replied. “You never did tell me where you were headed though. If your stomach wasn’t growling every five minutes I’m not sure we would have exchanged two words between us on the way here.”

“I wasn’t going anywhere, really. East, I guess.”

“Well, you can’t go much further west from where you were unless you wanted to nosedive right into the Pacific,” said Hart. “Most adventurers head West. Land of myths and all that. Even if we are in Canada.”

Boi played with the frayed cuffs of his jeans. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Well, why not stay nowhere until you have a somewhere, kid? If ever there was a nowhere, this is it.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Boi. “Dinosaurs, hoodoos, a wild west town with only 27 people in it. That doesn’t sound like nothing to me.”

“I didn’t say nothing, Boi. I said nowhere. Nowhere’s not nothing. It’s where you can get lost real easy, and where lots of things find you.”

“I don’t want to be found.”

“Ah. You’re escaping something,” Hart asked. “Must be a girl.”

Boi paused.

“What else,” said Hart. “Ah, young love. Breaks right through you every time.”

Boi lowered his eyes and began to play with the scratches on the table.

“Hey, do you think people see ghosts more easily in a ghost town?” he asked.

“Well, that’s a hell of a question. You might just be in the right place to find out.”

According to different reports, Hart said, Wayne had either 1,500 or well upwards of 3,000 inhabitants at its peak; the population rose and fell with the coal industry. The first mine came to the area in 1912 and it wasn’t long after that a hospital saloon, hospital, theatre and legions of houses cropped up to accommodate the miners who, all in all, were not the recipients of most of the riches the town now had to offer. Prohibition took hold of the land between 1915 and 1923, meaning good business for the bootleggers.

“Look around,” Hart said, pointing to the dozens upon dozens of photographs on the walls clustered together depicting the heady days of Wayne as a boomtown.

“Next door,” continued Hart, “Rosedeer Hotel. One of the original establishments. Used to be called the Bucket of Blood.” The brawls that began at the Last Chance Saloon would often spill out onto the street and into the hotel, where people, now battered and broken, would pass out.

By 1914 the Rosedeer Hotel was fully operational, but like the coal mining in the region, business never thrived. World War I had just begun, which shifted the alignment of the world economy. And then there was the Great Depression, which struck in 1929 and hit Wayne a few years later. Still the mines remained active give or take a few closures, until 1957, when the last mine shut down for good. The population dwindled into the hundreds, and then down to ninety souls in the late 1980s, and then to the 27 living there today, in this ghost town of Wayne.


“So we’re sitting next door to the Bucket of Blood,” said Boi.

“Once was,” said Hart. “Once was.”

“Surreal. I’ve never really been outside my suburb before.”

“This is surely different than a suburb. You need urban to have the sub. Besides, the homes here are boarded up and long empty for the most part.”

Hart wiped his face with a napkin and pushed his chair back.

“I’ve got to get back on the road. Comin’ or stayin’?”

Boi closed his eyes and heard the medley of voices, clattering utensils and the scraping of chairs against the floor. Somewhere in there a laugh surfaced, distinct and sharp and feminine. It was gone before he could hold onto it. He opened his eyes.

“I’m going to stay.”

“How old did you say you were?” Hart asked.


“Hells bells. One year on the other side of teen. Enjoy your time. The world is yours. The whole lot of it.”

“Is it? They always forget to tell us that part,” said Boi. He attempted a smile. He did know one thing, and that was that the impossible had happened along with the end of the road: Laila wasn’t going to leave his side again.


Young love, first heartaches, Hart had said wistfully. Boi sank further into his chair. It wasn’t like that. Life was torn up into before love and after love, but to Boi the more prescient subdivision was this: before knowledge of death and after. Love and death, of course, were very similar.

I don’t know death, Boi realized one day. The thought came suddenly and it tortured him, this nefarious existence that knew no bone-deep sorrow. Death was everywhere, you couldn’t avoid it, and he saw it ravaging people secondhand, watched it happen in the movies only to bounce back from the fact of its existence like he’d experienced nothing more complex than finishing a bowl of cereal. This made him wonder how he could do things that real people did as though he were a real person himself. He had all his grandparents and even a great-grandparent. His life stood in defiance to the very concept of death. Sometimes, when he jammed his neck into whiplash on rollercoasters or got so hungry he couldn’t put enough food in his mouth at once, he could almost hear the earth say, this is something. But it wasn’t death, so it also wasn’t life.

As often happens, he couldn’t remember how the relationship with Laila started, but it had to be love. A break-up with her could have taught him something about his heart, he thought later, when he started thinking about these things. But it turned out different than that. She hadn’t ended things without reason. She hadn’t gone off to be with some other guy. What had happened was that she’d looked him in the eye with her own feverish ones and said, “One day I’m going to kill myself.” He didn’t know what to say to her. He didn’t believe her. But this wasn’t the first time he felt she was slipping into a place to which he had no access. He didn’t understand how he could feel dead but not know death at the same time.

“I’m going to kill myself as revenge for the sins you will commit against me,” Laila had said.

And she did. She got dressed in the outfit he loved best on her, a purple cashmere sweater and short jean skirt, and then she waited for him to come over, which he did every day. She was in her bedroom, where he slept with her most nights, and she hung herself in front of him before he could register what was happening. She stood there, inches off the ground, staring at him with her pretty eyes that were not going to see anything else that he could see ever again.


Boi had the distinct feeling that the walls of the saloon had absorbed thousands of cartons of tobacco fumes, and that sometimes, like dragons might, they got angry enough to breathe all that smoke back into the room. The dankness mixed with the shafts of sun pouring in through grime on the windows created an eerie effect of fossilizing the room’s inhabitants and bringing the crowded artifacts to glistening life. Boi needed to get outside.

Boi paid and walked through the swinging doors. He saw he was already standing in front of the whole town. There it was, the Rosedeer Hotel conjoined to the saloon. He walked over to sit on a bench next door in front of what looked like a curio shop selling dusty things; he went in but turned right around at the sight of all the cheap goods. A few meters in front of him cars parked perpendicular to his line of view. Beyond that, sun-scorched earth – the kind of thing you saw in Westerns. Off in the distance, some hills peeped up from the hazy ground and could have been mountains. Boi couldn’t tell.

Cars came and went and with them, families with children, older couples with cameras and pouches around their waists, a few groups of friends who went into the Last Chance Saloon with boisterous energy and emerged red with drink. When the sun started to set – leaving streaks of deep pinks, oranges and blues in its wake, right over what was beginning to look like the set of the movie Dune to Boi – he started to shiver. He had one small bag with him; he fished a thick wool sweater out of it.

Soon a man emerged from the saloon and, seeing Boi huddled up on the bench, sat down next to him.

“You need a place to stay tonight, then,” he said. It wasn’t a question.


“Come with me.”

Boi looked at him. He wore a red plaid shirt and had a mustache. He had an air of stature about him.

“Don’t worry. I’m not going to chop you into bits. I’m going to get you settled at the hotel.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

After a friendly exchange between the man and the lady behind the desk, it was sorted out. Boi was more tired than he’d ever been. He took note of nothing but the crisp feel of the pillow before passing out. He dreamed of a boy who once found a lone fountain pen at the top of a mountain, and wrote without once putting his pen that wasn’t really his pen down, until the boy suddenly fell asleep dreaming about sleeping in a bed full of bones.

The next thing he knew, it was morning, he was back outside in front of the hotel, store and saloon, and the sun was rising clear and invisible over the Badlands. He noticed again how much like a movie set this looked with the new-looking old-fashioned buildings bedecked with crisp, autumn trees and mountains soaring on a slope in the background.

Boi went into the store. It smelled of dust and age; he sneezed, and asked the woman at the cash if she saw the man who helped him out the day before.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t.”

“He came to me right outside your store. I figured he must be from here. Tall man, mustache?”

“Try next door,” said the woman.

She didn’t smile or even so much as give him a glance. Maybe the man was one of the ghosts she’d seen before, whom she was used to sending off in search of nameless things, he thought, and again wondered where such thoughts came from.


Boi found him in the back corner of the saloon.

“Do you mind if I sit down here?”

“Not at all. You know, it’s not often a guy your age comes into town by himself and stays the night,” the man said. “You’re not the tourist crowd. Didn’t look like you wanted to talk much. I’m Sam, by the way. They call me Sam the Signmaker. Coffee?”

“Sure. I’m Boi. I wanted to thank you for getting me a room last night. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing at all. Don’t even think about it. Sometimes you gotta care for those in need,” Sam said. “And you needed a good night’s sleep.”

“Are you from here? Originally, I mean?”

“Indeed. Through and through,” Sam said.


Sam the Signmaker was 63 years old, he told Boi, son of James “Sweets” Jr., who was three when the Great Depression hit Wayne in 1932. Sweets was the son of a coalminer and a prostitute who, finding herself broke and destitute, killed herself, leaving a son with his father’s unmistakable red-brown eyes. James Sr. took Sweets without opposition; Sweets was raised without incident. A born performer, he took over the town’s one theatre when opportunity struck, but it sadly remained empty most nights. He travelled a few towns over and found a girl to come to Wayne to perform at the theatre. They fell in love almost immediately and she continued to perform throughout her pregnancy. When she died in childbirth, the light went out in Sweets; Sam grew up with an empty version of a once-lively man. Eventually Sweets took up with one of the maids at the Rosedeer and moved into her quarters there. This was where Sam grew up, a roving child among the town’s once flourishing establishments. Sweets died when Sam was 15, of lung cancer. Sam was cared for by the maid, who figured Sam was just about man enough at his age to make it on his own.


“I didn’t know people really had those kind of life stories,” Boi said. “Do you still live at the hotel?” Boi asked. Sam shook his head.

“I’ve made myself a decent home out there by the bridges.”

“So there’s just about one bridge for every two people who live here now,” Boi said.

“So what brings you here?”

“I have no idea how I ended up here here, in Wayne. But I guess I kind of ran away.”

“I’ve seen lots of people run in my day.”

“They were running to make better lives for themselves,” Boi said. “I’m not exactly that hero.”

“Do you know that I’ve never left the Badlands?” said Sam.

“But you’ve seen so much. You’ve seen a town die,” Boi said.

“That I have,” Sam said.

“How did you become Sam the Signmaker anyway?”

“I’ve been keeping my own town records for decades, and have more archives than you could carry in one go. With my history here I guess you can say I’m the go-to person when they need information for things like updating the population sign.”

“The real person behind the sign.”

“The province knows that Wayne has 27 people. They don’t know that old Beatrice Walker just died in Drumheller by her niece’s side, or that a young, lovely soul, Betty, her name is, arrived last week and intends to stay for her research.”

“Betty. Hart told me about her. Do you know Hart?”

“Sure do. He stops by from time to time on his runs. Lord knows it’s hard to miss anyone around here,” Sam said with a grin.

“Mark my word,” he continued. “She won’t leave. There’s another for the records. And of course you have the ghostowners who flood the place now and then.”


“People interested in ghosts, taking pictures for calendars and such, people buried in all sorts of history for one reason or another.”

“Do ghostowners ever stay?” asked Boi.

“Never. It’s not easy to live around something you fear, and all ghostowners fear what they’re actually looking for.”

“Ghosts,” said Boi.

“Love,” said Sam. “You love what you fear but what most people fear is love, in my humble experience. And most people don’t seem to be in the habit of facing their fears directly.”

“So they come hunting for ghosts,” Boi said. Sam smiled.

Boi sat back in his seat and took a sip of his coffee, which had gone cold.

“Your Laila,” said Sam. “What sin does she think you’re going to commit? Cheating would seem like the obvious answer.”

“What?” Boi’s heart skipped a beat.

“Your girl. What is she accusing you of?”

“Laila’s dead. How do you know about her?”

“You told me all about her last night before you fell asleep. It seems she’s still calling out to you. It’s on your face. I’m real sorry for your loss.”


In fact, cheating on a loved one was a common theme in the Thai ghost stories Laila, half-Thai like Boi, heard from her mother. She repeated them to Boi often, like the one about

Thailand’s most famous ghost, Nang Nak. Nang Nak, Laila said, eyes shining with a light reserved for these stories about the dead, was an ordinary farm girl living in a small village. As a teenager, she falls deeply in love with Nai Mak. They get married and by the time Nang Nak becomes pregnant, Nai Mak has to leave for army duty. Nang Nak and her baby die in childbirth but Nang loves Nai Mak so much she can’t bear the thought of being apart from him, so when he comes back from war, she rises from the grave and turns herself and son into human form, and their reunion is joyous and passionate.

Of course, things can’t go on this way forever, and soon the villagers tell Nai Mak the truth: his wife and child are dead. Nai Mak soon witnesses Nang Nak’s arm stretching out longer than humanly possible through the floors of their bamboo home to pick up a knife off the ground. The story takes a horrifying turn at this point, with Nai Mak running away and the ghost of his wife chasing and terrorizing him, even killing everything standing in the way of her and her love. Eventually Nai Mak escapes by taking refuge in a temple, but Nang Nak, persisting in her refusal to leave her loved one, wreaks havoc upon everyone in the surrounding area until a gifted novice monk from afar arrives and finally puts her soul to rest.

Once Boi went to Laila’s parents’ home and Laila caught him picking up a banana from the spirit house near front door, and eating it. Every traditional Thai home, Laila had told him, has a miniature house erected for the family’s ancestors, who will protect the home against harm from evil spirits.

“What are you doing?” She hissed. “Those are not for you!” She got down on her knees and brought her hands together at her chest to pray. In this way, from the belly of the her mother’s ghost stories she grew, and when she didn’t know how to talk to him she enfolded him into the stories of her people (They’re yours too”, she said with scornful eyes) and he thought about how his mother never told him even one story about the ways of her – and his – people.


“Sounds like your Laila was carrying a lot around with her,” said Sam.

“I never realized how much,” said Boi. “And I don’t know what sin she knew I’d commit,” said Boi.

“But I somehow think I’ll do it.”

“Hey, did you want to borrow my car and head out to see the area?” Sam asked. “I’d come along but I have some things to take care of.”

“Sure,” said Boi. “Thanks.”

When they stepped outside, Sam gave Boi the car keys and turned toward the hotel. He waved to Margaret, who was standing in the window smiling onto the street. She waved back.

“Margaret told me you look familiar to her. Which is strange. I never forget a face.”

“You didn’t. I’ve never been here.”

“Hmm,” said Sam. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you. Keep the car as long as you need.”


The hoodoos were striking under the piercing sun, which emitted little heat in the late autumn afternoon. They stood in stark contrast to the bluest sky Boi had seen. In addition to the geological information the nearby placards provided about these strange-hatted formations, they said that hoodoos got their name from a form of African-American magic related to Voodoo, and that some believe these formations come alive at night to cause harm and enact revenge on intruders.

“They got some of this wrong,” a female voice said. Boi turned around and saw a woman in her twenties, pretty with red hair and freckles. Her eyes, a deep brown, stood out.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on this,” she said. “It’s fascinating.”

“You must be Betty. What are you studying exactly?”

Betty paused, appraising Boi.

“Anthropology,” she said eventually. “The liminal states of transposed and transfigured African folk practices.”

“Huh?” asked Boi.

“Stuff that’s kind of in between two cultures. Transitions, thresholds. You know,” she said.

“Oh,” said Boi.

“Like you, for example,” she said. “You’re of mixed lineage?”

“Half Thai.”

“Ah. So half of you doesn’t believe in ghosts and the other half is terrified of ghosts like Nang Nak who can extend limbs from the grave and hurl people to their deaths.”

Boi was taken aback. “How do you know Nang Nak?”

She looked at him for an uncomfortable moment.

“I study anthropology, remember? I hear some visitors around here saying all this voodoo stuff is just a show for tourists,” Betty said.

“Do you say that?” Boi asked.

“That’s an involved question.”

Actually, hoodoo and Voodoo are not related at all, she said. Both involve spells and witchcraft in the loosest sense, but Voodoo is a bonafide religion hailing from Haiti by way of West Africa, whereas hoodoo’s origins are a fairly loose system of folk-magic practices from Central Africa.

“Whites tend to make it all generic and simplify things by calling all that magic stuff Voodoo,” she said.

“Not whites like you,” Jim said.

Hoodoo, Betty went on, is also known by a few other names: witchcraft, rootwork, tricking, and conjuration – or in some dialects, cunjure. It involves the use of many kinds of dried roots, herbs and minerals to make charms and cast spells for good or bad.

“To trick, to lay down tricks, to jinx, to throw, to cross,” she said. “It’s not magic, like the way we use the word conjurer. These people, who cunjure, what they’re doing is their work. Often for healing. Or, they can fix a person, as in, put a curse on them, or manipulate them in the name of harm.”

“Why would they do that? To who?”

“There are all kinds of people who deserve harm,” Betty said quickly. “Anyway, lots of people are sensitive to this other realm. Like the dark man. In hoodoo, that’s who you meet when you are at a crossroads, and he can trick but he can also enlighten. That’s a whole other story.”

“Sam told me about you were really interesting. He was right. Sam the Signmaker?”

“You’ve seen Sam?”

“Yeah. He lent me his car,” he said, pointing to the parking lot. “Nice guy.”

“Ah,” said Betty.

“What’s that mean?”

“Heart of an angel, Sam. I just assumed you knew about him. Since you’re a seer.”

“Knew? He’s not … oh Jesus Christ.”

“Oh, you didn’t know.”

“A seer? What does that even mean?”

Suddenly Boi had a déjà vu, standing with Betty by a hoodoo as tall as they were.

“This is insane,” he said. “I … I have to go.”

“Wait!” Betty said. But Boi wasn’t listening.


He got into Sam’s car. He steered himself toward the bridges. He didn’t know how he would, but he ended up at a house he knew was Sam’s. It was modest and looked like it had been vacated for decades. There were the remnants of a front garden around the side of the house, now long overgrown. The sight of a rocking chair on the porch made Boi start to cry. He got out of the car and, wiping his face, looked in through the front window. He could see piles and piles of folders and papers. Sam’s archives, and Sweets’ before his, the stories of the living and dead of Wayne. He walked past the house and further inland. Soon he saw a small gathering of homes, all wooden and every single one completely abandoned. He went into one of them and wandered around the modest-sized rooms, which were now covered in dust and creaked under his weight.


Boi whipped his head around but saw nothing. He knew it was her. He would know Laila’s voice anywhere.

“Boi.” The sound was coming from outside.


Boi flew to the porch and slammed into the fence, knocking it over.

“Ow!” he cried, looking down. He had no idea when his shoes had come off. Then he saw a cross etched into the dried soil. There was a circle around the cross.

“Come, Laila!” he yelled. “Come and talk to me! I need to know!”

But she didn’t come. He stood up and a flash of pain soared through his leg. He thought about waiting for her but instead he got back to the car and drove back to the hoodoos. It was now early evening and the sun was going down. He scrounged around the car for his shoes and socks, but couldn’t find them anywhere so, taking a T-shirt out of his backpack, he made his way up the billowy, sanded hills and, grimacing with pain, climbed on top of one of the strange formations. His jeans and hands were covered in a thin layer of dust. He wrapped the T-shirt around his feet and then sat, completely still. He couldn’t hear the coyotes, or see the canyons and mountains in the distance, but he knew they were all roaring from a place deep inside them, and that the sounds were mixed with his own pain. He sat until he could no longer feel his legs, but he didn’t move. He could no longer move, even if he wanted to.

He was sleeping and he was awake at the same time, atop some soft kind of stone that was eroding more slowly than he could see or feel. Revenge monsters, he thought. I’m sitting on revenge monsters that might come alive any minute. He thought of Laila, more real to him than he was. Does being alive mean having mass and weight, he asked himself, being a number on a population sign? Or do you become somebody exactly in the moment of loving and dying?

Betty talked about dark men that could hurt you but that are also there to open the way. He saw himself as clear as a movie, next to one of the dark men who was sucking him right up, gobbling his decomposing body but it was because he was pieced together by scraps of love. Tomorrow, when he sat there as this mosaic of love, would there be anything left of him for the tourists and ghostowners to see?

He thought about how if you spelled ghostowner out, it could be either ghost owner or ghost towner, and wondered what it would mean to own a ghost. Did he own Laila when she took her life? Did she own him now?

His mind was spinning. If love turns someone from nothing to something, then feelings are more real than the real world. So maybe we need a reversal of things, and make feelings the barometer of the real. And if we’re reversing things, does that mean ghosts are more real than people?

Boi wanted to see them teeming around. He wanted to see the evil ones and jealous ones, the hungry ones and the human ones who fell apart. Thais lived this way, in direct fear of and reverence for their ancestors. Laila wore this knowledge like a favourite dress, and now she lured him to this place where 27 was a joke on a sign, she cunjured him with the weight of a sledgehammer hitting eroded sandstone.

It was too late for her. She was here with Boi and there at the same time, but he was never going to be there like he was here. His sin, he thought, shivering to his core, was that he was going to swallow himself in history, climb in and out of other people’s stories because he didn’t know what it looked like not to. The secret of people born into this world was that they were meant to live. To go from nothing into something. His sin: try as he might, he couldn’t get around the question: aren’t I something already?

Boi laughed until the sound of his voiced echoed into the canyons he knew were out there, swallowing the entire night. He crouched down, and using all the strength he had in his fingers, scratched Boi Was Really Here onto the base of a hoodoo. His fingers bled but he couldn’t feel them.


“Betty?” Boi’s voice was scratchy.

“I’m just here to watch,” she said softly. “You have to have some trust.” He squeezed his eyes and tried to make her out. Her face was old. She looked like Margaret, the lady at the front desk at the Rosedeer.

She was inches away from him. Her eyes were all Laila. Then he knew.

“Finally, I see! You’re not afraid!” he said. “You’ve never been. To face love, and of course the dead can never be afraid of that …” he said.

“Shh,” she said, her face morphing into Betty’s youthful one again. He closed his eyes and heard the whisper of soft, gentle things and as they grew distant he said, almost choking, Laila, can you come back now? But the voices were gone now. All he could hear was something that sounded like his heart slamming against his ribcage until it broke clear apart.


The roads were treacherous in the winter and it was spring before Hart ended up coming back to Wayne. Boi’s fine, people told him when he asked around. Just fine. He’s sure to be here when you come around next.

And one day he was, long after Hart had forgotten to ask about him. Hart was now old; he had cataracts and everything was blurry. He knew it was time to give up his life on the road, but he couldn’t ever bring himself to make one last trip.

Boi, to Hart’s aged eyes, looked like he hadn’t aged a day.

“I found it, Hart. I did!” Boi said. “Come inside for a beer. On me.”

Not long after that, Hart died in a freak accident, when his Mack truck skidded on a patch of black ice near the Saskatchewan border. This time, like Boi had been all those years ago, Hart was heading East, where myths were a lush, fragrant dream from somewhere else.

Tammy T. Stone is a Toronto-based writer and photographer. She has worked as a film programmer and is a longtime student of film: her M.A thesis examined the philosophical problem of colour in cinema, and her doctoral dissertation looks at the role of observation in everyday life and the documentary film. She is a traveler, explorer and seeker of things outside and in, and a chronicler at heart. She’s fortunate to have had her photographs exhibited, and her fiction writing and poetry published in Grace Notes Magazine, Orion Headless, Dairy River, Temporary Infinity, Splash of Red, The Broken City and The Camel Saloon. You can reach her at tammystone4444@gmail.com.

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


As of June 25, 2015, The Bactrian Room is closed to submissions.


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