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A Novel
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The Music Game



In a brief lull between two customers, I headed over to the cash register and pressed the FEED button. I took the rectangle of white paper that spooled out of the printer and laid it on the metal work counter. Mrs Gélinas had gone off to get a “good coffee,” and I, the employee, was now all by myself at the stall, desperate to get a few ideas jotted down. I unclipped the pen from my apron, stuffed a handful of ground cherries into my mouth, and bent over the scrap of paper. In tiny writing I scrawled a list of things to do when I got home. Laundry. Push ups, sit ups. Read the news (thirty minutes). Research Quebec’s colonial history. Submit a poem to a poetry review. When I’d filled the whole paper, I folded it in half, slipped it into the back pocket of my jean shorts, went back to the cash and wrote a list of things I wanted to do before the end of the year. Join the Y. Finish writing poetry collection. Send at least three short stories to literary reviews. Learn Spanish. Save five hundred dollars (unrealistic?). Take driving test. Take first-aid course. Deepen connections with friends. Learn to identify local plants. Go camping (more than once). See Jess at least three times. For a split second, I forgot I was at work.

But the appearance of two customers dragged me quickly back to earth. It was a woman and a man, thirty-ish, hunting for the perfect punnet of strawberries to take to a family dinner. I spotted them out of the corner of my eye as they peered at the fruit. The guy wore a grey t-shirt that clung to his pecs and showed the first hint of a paunch; his hair was still wet from a recent shower; around his neck he wore a little cross on a gold chain that he probably hadn’t taken off since his confirmation. The woman was wearing one of those synthetic tanks with a built-in bra, its crisscrossed straps forming the shape of a sun on her back; her hair was pulled back from her face with a pair of Dolce & Gabbana shades. The pair of them gave off such a vibe of contented exhaustion, lullabies, soft words, and milky kisses that I was astonished—almost concerned—not to see a baby carrier on either of their shoulders.

“My mother loves strawberries,” the man said, raising his eyes heavenwards to indicate that his mother was rather difficult.

“Should we get those? How about these ones, honey?” the woman said, tasting strawberries, moving away from her boyfriend but still holding his hand so she tugged him with her.

“Whatever you think, bae,” said the man, in a tone that suggested his girlfriend was the one being difficult right then.

I took a couple of steps sideways and flashed them a friendly, unassuming smile. “It’s your decision,” my smile said. I noticed they were both wearing flipflops, and the woman had painted her toenails white. While they were trying to decide, I went on thinking about my lists. Take jiu-jitsu classes. Discover good music. Go to the arthouse cinema. Do more dumpster diving. Make jam. Get my name on the waiting list for co-op housing. Register for university? No. I mentally put a line through that last item.

“Excuse me!” said the woman, her mouth full of strawberries. She took a moment to mime the ecstasy she was experiencing from the little red fruit and then asked, “Where are these strawberries from?”

“They’re from the Île d’Orléans,” I said, in precisely the same way I might have said, “They’re from Wonderland.”

“These are the ones! We have to get these ones!” said the woman, handing me her strawberry tops, which I tossed into the soggy cardboard box we used as a garbage can. “This is the winning punnet of strawberries!”

She laughed and turned to her boyfriend, but his phone had started vibrating in his pocket and he was walking off to take the call.

“Yyyyeeeeello?” said the man, as the woman pulled out an enormous white leather wallet to pay.

I swaddled the punnet in a plastic bag, held it out to the woman, and took one last look around to make sure the pair hadn’t forgotten a stroller somewhere nearby. As I looked, I met the eyes of the Lebanese grocer, who was sweeping the floor in front of his stall. I said, “Have a nice day,” to the customer, waved at the grocer, and went back to my list. Just then Mrs Gélinas arrived back at the stall with her coffee and a pastry.

“A good coffee to start the morning!” she said. She perched on a stool and bit into her Danish. I nodded in agreement, as if to say the boss certainly deserved such a treat before making a start on her workday. Silently, I was filled with disgust at myself.

I stuffed the list into my pocket, smoothed down my apron and headed over to the walk-in fridge. I got out some crates of strawberries and raspberries and laid them on the work counter. I grabbed the all-purpose knife lying on the stainless-steel surface and, forcing myself to repress the vivid images of bloody accidents parading through my head, I cut open some of the boxes and arranged them in rows on the fake grass display. Mrs Gélinas had already had to abandon her breakfast to deal with a regular, an old guy wearing a canary-yellow suit. I opened a cupboard underneath the display and took out a variety of small, medium and large baskets. An idea for a poem came to me (red fruit, canary-yellow suit, bloody workplace accident, dull people) and I plunged my hand into my pocket to find some paper to scribble it down—but then I noticed a customer in his fifties wearing cycling gear waggling his chin at me, waving a punnet of raspberries to get my attention. I wiped my hands on my apron and went over to serve him. When I was done with the cyclist, there was a young Anglophone woman—tattooed arms, half-shaven head, red dress with white polka dots—then a gangly French guy in his twenties, then a retired Italian, and then half a dozen other early risers.

Whenever I had a spare moment, I got some more paper and wrote more lists. Things to do every day: write, eat well, do more push ups and sit ups, study film or read (postmodern philosophy, Russian literary classics, and so on), write a letter to a friend or to someone in prison. Write to Jess. I drew a heart around Jess’s name. I’d remember to write to Jess without putting it on the list, but I liked forming the letters of his name. A list of things I should stop putting into my body: alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, sugar. A list of friends I ought to write to more often. A list of books to read. A list of nice clothes I’d buy myself one day.

I yawned and glanced at the clock. Still only nine. On the other side of our displays of strawberries, raspberries, and rhubarb, a constant stream of customers had started pouring into the Jean Talon Market. The typical customer wandered around, latte in hand, eyes half-closed or hidden behind smoked glasses, a satisfied smile playing on their lips, delighted that spring had finally arrived. I remembered sadly that I too had once loved spring; that I too had once been a customer at this market, wandering around the stalls with a latte in my hand. But this year spring left me cold. That wasn’t quite accurate, though. It was more that I felt as though I’d become part of it myself, that I was simply another adorable bud on the verge of blooming, a young shoot engorged with sap, just one more detail among all the charming elements of the Jean Talon Market. I was ornamental. I’d now become something akin to the coffee they offer customers at a car dealership: nothing more than a nice little touch.

Anka arrived at the stall pushing a cart. She didn’t say hi, and I didn’t say hi to her either. Anka made me nervous. She managed the second Gélinas Fruits stall, on the other side of the market, so I never got to work with her. Every morning when she arrived, I tried to do something interesting so she’d notice me. But what could I do, other than sort strawberries and serve customers? How could I know what Anka was interested in since I’d never talked to her? I groped my way forward. Some days I directed tortured looks her way, other days I smiled at her. Today, I pushed the sleeves of my t-shirt up to my shoulders and tried to ignore her.

“Hi, Lucille,” Anka said. She’d been at Gélinas Fruits for long enough to be on first-name terms with the boss. Her voice was husky, low, sweet.

“Hello, Anka,” Madame Gélinas said.

She put her bag in the cupboard (“right next to mine!” I thought), disappeared into the walk-in fridge and came back out with at least six crates, which she carried as though they weighed nothing. She piled them onto her cart and repeated the operation several more times. Then she came back over to her bag, took out a cap, which she put backwards on top of her curly hair, and went off pulling the cart, like a calm warrior heading out to the battlefield. She was wearing a t-shirt with wide stripes and overall shorts that revealed long, muscular legs a basketball player would have been proud of. I sighed and closed my eyes, overwhelmed by desire, and then I tidied up the metal counter.

During my lunch break, when I spent ten dollars because yet again I’d forgotten to bring a sandwich, I got my notebook out and started writing a serious list: Staying in Montreal vs Getting the fuck out to the country.

Points in Montreal’s favour: it’s a place where you never run out of possibilities. So many stories mingle here. I like living in Montreal because there are books and music, readers and musicians. The people I know who’ve moved to the country hardly read at all any more. The only things they read are Margaret Atwood or The Big Mushroom Guide. In Montreal, you have a lot more opportunities to meet people, to develop trusted connections, to form groups with people like you (which is necessary for the struggle). I don’t want to save myself alone, I don’t want to be an individualist. You have to be strategic: there are more opportunities for the struggle in the city (at least for now).

What options would I have for a social life in the country? A) end up in a polyamorous collective, B) become the village hermit to the detriment of my mental health, C) try to integrate into village life also to the detriment of my mental health. I wrote “alienating” in my journal, landing on the mot juste. If I leave here I might never make another friend, never mind find comrades or lovers. When I reread, I noticed that I’d moved from listing to editorializing. I took a bite of my shawarma and a sip of Canada Dry. Then I picked up my pen again and wrote: Also (by this point I had greatly reduced the size of my handwriting), maybe one day I will publish books or find myself a job in journalism or something like that, and there are more potential contacts in Montreal. I sighed.

Points against the city: there is no life except for human life. There are no lakes, rivers, forest. There are no deer, clearings, fish. Just a few stars one night in ten. It fucking stinks. The tap water tastes of chlorine. I live on the third floor of a triplex on Saint-Denis with two other girls. I can barely get three tomatoes to grow on the balcony.

I have to buy, steal, or dumpster dive for all my food. I can barely even get a job in a café because jobs are so scarce. You practically need ten years’ experience just to get a minimum-wage job with barely decent conditions. If I stay here, I’ll probably die without ever seeing a fox. Everything irritates me, everything makes me sick, the cars, the buses, the trucks, the police, the Métro, the jobs at the Jean Talon Market, my friends’ careers, my friends’ studies, my friends’ alcoholism, my alcoholism, the Place des Arts, the Grand Prix, the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, the Petit Laurier neighbourhood, Tout le monde en parle, the cat grooming places, the twenty-dollar fish and chips, the Mile-Ex, the gay parties where everyone is too cool to talk to you, the men who call out “nice ass,” the crooked bosses, the crooked landlords, the crooked friends of friends, Jarry Métro station, and the hundreds of people who every single day walk past old beggars and the homeless woman who sells the Itinéraire and the people who hand out the 24h newspaper, staring at the ground and then buying themselves a five-dollar coffee a block later. I feel alienated, I wrote again, stating the obvious, not caring, because it was my own personal list and not something I planned on publishing. (Sip of Canada Dry, bite of shawarma.)

Conclusion: it’s lose-lose. “I’d like to quit, but where would I go?” I scrawled. “The things I want to be free of are everywhere.” I underlined the word “everywhere.” And then I felt anxiety swoosh up in my stomach like an elevator when I thought of the career I still didn’t have, of my bank account, which never had more than seven hundred dollars in it, of my single film-studies class that had cost more money than I would make this summer (I still wasn’t an official resident of Quebec), and from which I’d gained nothing except the certainty that I was the least audiovisually talented person in the world and that I would never have another good idea again (I’d had my last good idea when I was fifteen). I thought of my savings account once more, which I’d dipped into regularly over the past year and which now had only two hundred dollars in it, of the three unpaid internships for various cultural organizations which hadn’t led anywhere, of my friends, who were disappearing one by one under mountains of stress, work, trials, and relationships, of Jess, whom I could probably never sponsor according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s criteria, of the money I owed my friends, of the money I owed the City of Montreal, of the money I owed the library, of the money I owed my father, of the cavities in two of my teeth that I hadn’t yet had filled, of the ideas for my book that would go with me to the grave, and which would rot along with me, never developed. Around me, the clamour, whiffs of coffee, ice cream, fish, Mexican pulled-pork sandwiches, children crying, the admiring oohs and aahs that kept me from eating my shawarma and writing my list in peace. Some buskers were playing Hallelujah on an electric keyboard and improvising on the flute. Children were asking, “Can I have this?” Adults were exchanging dirty twenty-dollar bills for smelly small change. Carbon copies of me pulled on aprons and invited customers to taste the plums and tomatoes. Trucks backed up, car trunks opened, cart wheels squeaked against the concrete and the gravel. Couples with their arms around each other’s waists exclaimed, “Oh, I just want to stop by Première Moisson,” and parents commanded, “You have to stay with mommy and daddy.” Nothing ever happened that didn’t fit with the idea of the Jean Talon Market. I was imprisoned in an ad for the market, an ad that had already been running for several weeks. Was this endless carrousel of customers real? Maybe it was just a hologram projected by the market management in the hope of attracting real customers. I lowered my eyes to avoid the gaze of these virtual customers to whom I would soon be selling fruit. I was hot, I was trembling with nervous tension, and my lunch break was coming to an end.

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Blue-Skinned Gods

The driver slammed the brakes, whipping my head forward and back. A chorus of honks crescendoed in the muggy New Delhi night.
     A few cars ahead, in the middle of an intersection, an auto rickshaw lay on its side, its three wheels still spinning, the metal poles of its sides cracked in half. Tire tracks swirled into a small blue car with its front end smashed. Glass littered the road, glittering pinpricks of light.
     People surged around us. My father, Ayya, opened the door of the taxi, and we pushed our way into the crowd.
     Ayya weaved to the front. I walked in his wake.
     An older woman was sprawled on the ground next to the auto, thrown out as it tipped over. The auto driver was on his back near her. His eyes stared right up at the sky. Red slashes glistened over their bodies.
     People shouted in Hindi to call the police, call the ambulance. The woman was still breathing. Two men tried to lift her.
     “Stop,” Ayya said. He raised his voice and yelled, “Stop! You could make her injuries worse if you move her.” He pushed his way into the clearing. I followed out of instinct, as if we had a string tied between us. “I’m a doctor,” he said. “Let me look.”
     The men put her limbs back down. Ayya crouched over the woman. He opened her eyes and checked her pulse.
     “She’s losing a lot of blood,” he said. “She needs help, or she won’t last.”
     “Look,” someone said. “Kalki Sami can heal her.” A man pointed in my direction. I wondered if he’d been at my prayer meeting earlier, or if I’d healed him before.
     A hundred eyes turned toward me.
     “Yes, Kalki Sami,” another man said. “You can heal her.”
     I walked toward the injured woman and knelt near Ayya. Up close, the overpowering smell of iron and urine. So much blood. Cavernous slashes in their bodies.
     I put my shaking hands over the woman’s head, where a pool of blood grew on the asphalt. I chanted over and over, my lips quivering with the words. Om Sri Ram Om Sri Ram Om Sri Ram. Some of the crowd prayed with me. I closed my eyes against the lights. I chanted and chanted. Om Sri Ram. Om Sri Ram.
Twelve years earlier, a girl named Roopa arrived at our ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, dying from a sickness only I could cure. This, my father told me, would be my first miracle.
     It was the eve of my birthday, an important transition. I was the tenth human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and I was turning ten years old.
     Like every Friday, the villagers filtered in with rice and lentils, fresh milk from their cows, spinach, moringa, and bitter gourd from their gardens. They put these gifts in front of me as I sat on the only pillow in the room and took their seats on the bedsheets we’d laid over the cement floor. My father, Ayya, sat to my left, and my cousin Lakshman to my right. We faced the open green door that led to the veranda.
     The village kids played outside. As a birthday treat, Ayya had promised to let us play with them after the prayer session, if Lakshman and I were well-behaved and lucky. My mother had wanted to have an eggless cake made to celebrate with the villagers, but Ayya thought it too Western and decadent.
     One of the village kids had brought a cricket bat for the first time, and he showed it to the others, beaming as they touched it, demonstrating how to hit the ball. I’d asked my parents for a cricket bat for my birthday. I imagined holding it, showing it off to the boys when they came for next week’s prayer meeting.
     Ayya nudged me with his elbow and I snapped back to attention, ashamed I’d let myself be distracted. Now was not the time for cricket fantasies. Now was the time to focus and prove myself in whatever test would be demanded of me that night.
     Lakshman jiggled his legs up and down, watching the kids too. He was my first cousin, a year younger but almost as big and much braver. He had the round face and big eyes that painters always gave Hindu gods. All I had was blue skin.
     The Sri Kalki Purana, the Hindu text that prophesied my birth and life, said it was on my tenth birthday that my trials as a living god would begin. I would be tested three times, and I would have to prove myself worthy of my birth. Ayya had reminded me of the scripture that morning, though I read the Sri Kalki Purana regularly, and had been anxiously counting down the days to this birthday for over a year.
     “I saw a vision,” Ayya had said after our morning meditation.
     I’d seen a vision, too, early with the sunrise. I’d woken up dreaming of goat blood. In the dream, I’d wrapped my hands around the neck of a month-old kid and held tight as it thrashed, then stilled. I’d pushed my hands through its skin and felt its insides. I’d smeared the gummy blood on my face, my chest, my feet, until my skin prickled and grew fur and my nails knit together into hooves. Until I was the goat.
     But I was afraid to tell Ayya about this dream—afraid my vision meant doom.
     “I had a vision of your first test,” Ayya had said, leaning against a plaster column in our courtyard. “Someone will come to you tonight. A stranger who will need healing.”
     I’d healed plenty of the villagers already. Arthritis, back pain, bad luck. I could handle one more healing.
     “This stranger will be dying,” he said.
     I watched the angles of his face for clues as to how I should act. I’d only ever healed minor aches and pains. I’d never brought someone back from the edges of death.
     “Do not doubt yourself,” Ayya said. Disappointment tinged his voice.
     I’d let my guard down, shown my doubt on my face. I schooled my expression into something hard and impassive.
     “Yes, Ayya,” I said.
     “You want to travel the world and bring it the healing it needs? The journey starts tonight, with your first trial.”
     In those days, I wanted more than anything to make Ayya proud I believed only my own doubts and fears stood between me and my destiny as Vishnu’s tenth and final avatar. I believed that if I had enough faith, I could do anything. But doubt crept up on me whenever I laid down to sleep, wrapped its invisible hands around my throat, burrowed into my skin, and refused to let go its hold on my brain.
     Now, in the room facing the veranda, as the villagers got ready for our prayer meeting, Ayya reached stealthily toward Lakshman’s jiggling, full-motion thigh, and pinched him. Lakshman jumped. The leg-agitating stopped.
     Ayya stood and closed the doors of the large room. He lit two five-wicked oil lamps with a small one that fit in the palm of his hand. Lakshman rang the hand bell during the pooja. Om bhuur bhuvah svah, we chanted, tat savitur varennyam, bhargo devasya dhiimahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat—a prayer from the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu text in existence, calling on the sun god. I gathered up my god energy for the healing session that would take place after the prayers and meditation. If my first trial would begin tonight, I would need as much god energy as I could manage to build. In my mind’s eye, I saw this energy like fluffy cotton, accumulating at the corners of how I pictured the inside of my body—an empty room the size of the one I slept in. I walked around the room, squatting and scooping up big armfuls of the cotton, soft and itchy on my skin.
     Beyond the veranda, the village kids bowled and batted and ran around, their cries barely audible.
     I tried to focus on the chanting.
     The kid with the bat had been the hero of this game, and he ran around the others with his bat held high, pumping it up and down.
     Lakshman was watching, too, and he sighed, rubbing the spot where Ayya had pinched him.
     A man and woman from the village sang bhajans as the setting sun danced through the open windows. Two boys growing shadows above their lips played the wooden harmonium and tablas. When it was his turn, Lakshman sang his favorite Krishna bhajan, his voice achingly soft, arching high across the ceiling. Enna thavam seithanee, Yashodha, engum nirai parabhrammam Amma endrazhailkka, he sang. What great penance did you perform, Yashodha, to be blessed with a God for a son?
     Finally, the bhajan ended and the healing session began. All the villagers stood, lining up. I put the kids and their game out of my head, and focused instead on the room here, now. The villagers would sit in front of me, tell me their problems—sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes financial—and I would heal them. I spun the armfuls of cotton in my mind into fine, strong god light, blue inside my skin, and focused it outward. I chanted Om Sri Ram over and over in my head. This was my prayer to Rama, one of my previous incarnations.
     An older hunched woman came forward, holding her lower back. She touched my feet. I blessed her.
     “How did you hurt your back?” I asked. Ayya had taught me this. Diagnose early, before they can tell you.
     “Too much work for an old woman.”
     “Your sons should take care of you better.”
     “My sons don’t care.”
     I prayed and hovered my hands over her. I willed my light to spin into the muscles of her back. Om Sri Ram.
     She stood up straighter, hands at her lower back. Her face relaxed as I pushed my energy into her.
     “Thank you,” she said.
     I kept an eye on Ayya for his nod, to show me I was doing the right thing. He nodded.
     Next, a young boy who was developing too slowly. A regular. Every time I prayed over him, he came back the next week stronger and taller. Om Sri Ram.
     A man whose textile-selling business wasn’t doing well. He touched my feet and I told him he would sell more podavais and veshtis next week. Om Sri Ram. A young woman nearing thirty and still not married. Her parents had set her up with an arranged marriage; the groom was scheduled to visit their house on Monday. I blessed her with luck. Om Sri Ram.
     One family, a young father with his wife and small child, came from many miles away. The child’s legs and arms were whittled and thin. Her father carried her in his arms like she weighed nothing, though she was nearly my height, and he placed her on the floor in front of me. I shifted on my cushion to get a better look. This was it. This was my test. I was sure of it.
     Roopa’s face was sunken in, like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Frail skin stretched over bone. She looked almost like a corpse, but her eyes were pretty and large and she watched me as she lay on the bare cement floor, her chest moving up and down fast, like a songbird’s. She was almost beautiful, if I only looked at her eyes.
     The god energy filled my skin, filled the inside of me shaped like a room, and I looked around and saw the others filled with their own energies, their own people energies, but Roopa’s skin was empty. It was like her soul couldn’t find any room inside her fragile body anymore. I didn’t know if a person could leave a body and still be a person. And the body they left behind—was that body a person?
     But her eyes—I could still see her personness in her eyes.
     “Please,” her father said. “Our daughter needs healing. We can’t afford to pay.” He glanced at Ayya, at the ground, and finally toward me. He held pain in his face, and embarrassment. Ayya had told me that a lot of men find it hard to ask for help. The father dropped his gaze to the floor.
     “How did she get like this?” I asked. I always knew to ask the question, though I still didn’t know what to do with the answer. Ayya knew, and he would tell me what to do.
     “She took ill one day. She’s not eating.” The man looked at his wife, who covered her mouth with her hands. “We have four sons. We can’t afford to bring her to the private hospital. The doctors at the clinics don’t know what to do.”
     Ayya nodded at me, a signal to begin my healing prayer. I sat myself next to the girl, the cold of the cement floor shocking my legs through my veshti. When I looked only at her pretty eyes, the rest of her receded.
     I took some kumkumam powder and rubbed a red line of it on her forehead. People normally got kumkumam, turmeric, and sandalwood powders from their local market, but we also made them at the ashram. On any given day, my aunt and uncle, Vasanthy Chithy and Kantha Chithappa—Lakshman’s parents—would sit grinding sticks of sandalwood or dried turmeric roots on stone in order to make the powders we sold. Villagers bought them for the shrines in their houses, because what we made was purer, made with care, and made in the home of a god.
     I put my hands over Roopa’s face and closed my eyes. Om Sri Ram. I tried to summon up the god energy inside me. Sinewy and blue and gold. Om Sri Ram. Blue and gold and bright. I touched her forehead with my thumb. She was dying, and I was the only one who could help. This was my first test.

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