About the Author

Ursula Pflug

Ursula Pflug is author of the critically acclaimed slipstream novel Green Music (, 2002). She has published over 70 short stories in professional publications in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. She has published dozens of art and book reviews in Canada and the U.S., and has had several plays professionally produced, one (Nobody Likes The Ugly Fish, 1994) solo-authored, and the remainder collaboratively created. Recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Works In Progress Award in 2005 to complete a new novel, Thin Wednesday, Pflug was short-listed for the K. M. Hunter Award the following year. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has also been shortlisted for the Aurora, the Sunburst, Pulp Press's 3-Day Novel, Descant's Novella Contest, and many more. Currently, she edits short fiction for The Link and teaches creative writing with a focus on the short story at Loyalist College. Her long awaited and highly praised story collection After the Fires appeared in 2008. Harvesting The Moon, a new collection, is forthcoming in 2013. from PS Publishing, a UK boutique press specializing in literary speculative fiction including the Bradbury estate. Her latest novel, The Alphabet Stones, was published by Blue Denim Press in 2013.

Books by this Author
Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness

by Ursula Pflug
illustrated by SK Dyment
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Strangers Among Us
Excerpt

The Cullng by Kelley Armstrong

We grew up with stories of how the Cullings saved us. Stories of the famines and the aftermath, a world that once grew grain and corn in abundance, the forests overrun with rabbits and deer, lakes and streams brimming with trout and salmon. How all that had come to an end, the water drying up and everything dying with the drought—the grain and the corn and the rabbits and the deer and the trout and the salmon. And us. Most of all, us.

Left with so few resources, it was not enough to simply ration food and water. Not enough to reduce birth rates. Not enough to refuse any measures to prevent death. We needed more. We needed the Cullings.

The Cullings removed surplus population by systematically rooting out “weakness.” At first, they targeted the old and infirm. When that was no longer enough, any physical disability could see one culled. Even something that did not impair one’s ability to work—like a disfiguring birthmark—was said to be enough, on the reasoning that there was a taint in the bloodline that might eventually lead to a more debilitating condition.

The population dropped, but so did the water supply, and with it, the food supply, and eventually more stringent measures were required. That’s when they began targeting anyone who was different, in body or in mind. If you kept too much to yourself, rejecting the companionship of others; if you were easily upset or made anxious or sad; if you occasionally saw or heard things that weren’t there . . . all were reasons to be culled. But the thing is, sometimes those conditions are easier to hide than a bad leg or a mark on your face. It just takes a little ingenuity and a family unwilling to let you go.

 

***

“Who are you talking to, Marisol?” my mother says as she hurries into my room.

I motion to my open window, and to Enya, who had stopped to chat on her way to market. She says a quick hello to my mother and then a goodbye to me before carrying on down the village lane.

I murmur to my mother, “A real, living friend. You can see her, too, right?”

“I was just—”

“Checking, I know.” I put my arm around her shoulders. Having just passed my sixteenth birthday, I’m already an inch taller and making the most of it. “I have not had imaginary friends in many years, Momma.”

“I know. It’s just . . . I’ve heard you talking recently. When you’re alone.”

“I argue with myself. You know how I am—always spoiling for a fight. If no one’s around to give me one, I must make do.” I smack a kiss on her cheek. “I don’t hear voices, Momma. I’m not your sister. I have a little of what she did, but only a little, and I know how to hide it. I don’t talk about my imaginary friends, even if they’re long gone. I don’t let anyone see my wild pictures. I don’t tell anyone my even wilder stories. I am absolutely, incredibly, boringly normal.”

She makes a face at me.

“What?” I say. “It is boring. But I will fake it, for you and Papa.”

“For you, Mari. Our worries are for you, and yours should be, too.”

“But I don’t need to be worried, because I am very careful.”

“The Culling is coming.”

“As you have reminded me every day for the past month. I will be fine. I’ll even stop arguing with myself, though that means you’ll need to break up more fights between Dieter and me.”

“Your brother will happily argue with you if it keeps you safe.”

“It will.” I give her a one-armed hug. “I’ll be fine, Momma.”

Excerpted from Strangers Among Us Copyright © 2016

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They Have to Take You In
Excerpt

Introduction – Gordon Langill

 

It is a true honour to participate in healing conversations. My personal life and professional career as a youth worker, therapist, and program director at CMHA have been inspired and enlightened by so many moments of sharing with young people and their families, connecting through conversations, therapy sessions, crisis interventions, walks, paddles, meals, and through many forms of artistic expression. Shared experiences can be beautiful, burdensome, turbulent, transformative, for all who participate. In my work we call it the “therapeutic relationship,” the foundation of all healing. In this collection we see Arnold and Susan, two strangers awkwardly sharing, healing, at the dinner table in “Arnold Pepper Doesn’t Care.” We see the narrator in Leanne Simpson’s “Giiwedinong” finding and losing and recovering, “a place that is home” through friendship.
It is not always about healing of course, at least not directly. Sometimes the struggle is to cope with family relationships at an uncomfortable distance, as in Andy’s relationship with his father in “Just Like Rain.” Or the primary motive could be survival on the street, while therapeutic connections are carefully calculated for their utility, as in “Orange and Amber” by Tapanga Koe, or the survival of manhood in “Metro West” prison, where connection is denied while violation of self is forced by “an interpersonal feel without signed consent.” Sometimes connections are broken so that life can go on, as in Georgia Fisher’s “Murky Pinks” where subsequently Sally finds “the faintest bit of green, perhaps a sprout about to emerge.”  These stories and poems are bravely written, bravely chosen, such powerful depictions of so many painful aspects of family life, of family life changes that all of us experience on some level, from a place “outside this universe” (Robert Priest) before conception, through all of life’s complex transitions, to death and beyond.
How do people do it? How do people manage to not only survive but somehow, in the midst of suffering, find connection and even healing? The amazing drive towards connectivity, belonging, security that I have witnessed so often in my work is a powerful theme throughout this anthology. A persistent investigation of parental disappearance in “Up, Away, Here, Gone” takes the young adult children to wild places, psychologically and geographically, as does the urgent search for a lost parent in a “Winterstorm.” The stress of separation or a painful connection can generate a creative healing energy that can bend or transcend the usual bounds of reality. Alan’s entire family in “The Missing Elephant” helps him to construct an experience of his father’s connection that he can understand and tolerate. In “The Doppelgängers” a child of chaos driven parents goes further, into a creative dissociation, to find parents who will understand her torment. In “Zhezi,” Yi’s journey takes us even further, through hir grief and dreams and intense searching, until finally “Yi cracks hirself open, like an unfolding origami figure, and looks inside.” As a therapist and as a human I experience such stories not as speculative fiction, but as embodiments of the creative energy we use to manage our connections with each other and our deepest selves. I love the counter-predatory solution to sibling abuse eventually created by Eleanor in “Foxford.”  I am spellbound by Tapanga Koe’s narrative integration of street-smart connectivity and synesthetic fluid light sound reactivity, as she critiques the role of the “helper.”
Often in life, and sometimes in this anthology, there are no miraculous solutions or transformations, just reality, and connections with friends or family that both obstruct and enable our efforts to cope. Here there is a more simple, profound, interpersonal healing effect that comes from sharing our stories. This practice and its healing effects are explicitly embedded in First Nations culture and other ancient oral traditions of sustaining the life and wellness and wisdom of people through communication, through stories. Pieces such as “Dublin and George,” “Leadfoot Sally,” “Anna’s Story” and the poem called “On the Road” allow tough experiences to speak for themselves, to speak to our lives through direct representation of the characters’ lives—well, almost direct, but never quite, because something interesting always happens in the telling, in the act of narration, that brings a sense of irony, perspective, humour or understanding to those painful experiences. The healing power comes from creative energy within the storyteller, recreating themselves, their past and their future through narration, in the act of sharing this moment. Jan Thornhill’s narrator Alouetta is performative, conscious of her use of humour in recreating her difficult memories.  We are the audience. We are witnesses without voice, unlike the witness in “Witness” by Ruth Clarke. It is our activity as readers, looking for storytellers telling stories, listening as they tell, smiling and crying. Here lies the healing connection. When I read “McLoneliness” by Ron Chase, I am transported there, I have been there, observing that couple “looking away from each other in silence,” feeling for them, empathizing.
Our stance, as readers, as witnesses to the narratives of others, is so much like the stance that we are privileged and honoured to adopt as listeners, in the field of mental health recovery work.  As I read these stories and poems, I feel the same respect and admiration that I feel towards the actual recovery experiences of people whom I have been honoured to know in my professional and personal life.  I met Dana Tkachenko on the street in Peterborough, and began working with her during a hospitalization in 2005. Our Lynx Early Psychosis Intervention program supported Dana’s recovery until her death in 2010, continuing to support her family until the present time. Dana was a marvelous, brilliant, mischievous person, an enthusiastic mental health activist, a formidable teacher.
Here is how I put it at her memorial service: Can we really know another person? I wonder. I can know myself by what I experience when I engage with another person. I can tell you how Dana’s presence changed us, how Dana’s time with us was so therapeutic, and so educational, for all of us.  When I first met Dana, she taught me to do nothing, to stand back. I learned to wait, to respect a person’s right to choose, whether or when to engage. To listen carefully, with all my senses, to pay attention to everything. To think and speak and act without judgment, without patronage, without agenda. To shed stigma, to lose all preconceptions of what is illness, health, recovery, reality. To understand each person’s uniqueness, each person’s condition, exceptionality. To get with gender differences. To embrace all differences, to totally go with the reality of each individual we meet.
When Dana first shared “Anna’s Story” with us, she was conscious of the healing potential of this narrative, for herself and others. The excerpt in this anthology is from a longer and more complete version of “Anna’s Story” that may someday find its way into the hands of readers. Dana told me she hoped that if people could read and understand the detailed experiences of one person actually living with an ‘exceptionality’ (Dana’s word), it could help to reduce stigma, the brush that people use to paint, to misrepresent, and to disrespect the experiences of many other people. For a while Dana took this idea even further, suggesting we could develop a parallel line of “professional commentary” (Dana’s words) to run alongside of her own narrative, to add an even more explicit educational aspect to the piece.
I am glad we never did this. I am so happy to see Dana’s piece of semi-autobiographical fiction here, alongside the others, doing what narratives do best, as she intended. Margaret Slavin Dyment in “Belvedere,” and Linda Rogers in “Paper Stairs” take this anthology to that next level, raising our awareness of how narration and connection with people and places can generate understanding, growth, healing, as we work with each other and our memories to find “the story behind the story,” harvesting the healing as “we are reading our way out of sadness.” 
The healing power of this anthology will be felt by readers, and also by young people and families in transition who will benefit directly from the funds raised by this publication. The Dana Fund that was established after Dana’s death in 2010 will pass along any royalties from the publication and sale of this anthology to provide financial assistance with the very real costs of transitions that necessarily occur along the pathway to recovery. I want to thank everyone who has already contributed to this effort, especially the poets and authors whose works are published in this anthology, the editor Ursula Pflug, the publisher Richard Grove, and everyone who supports this effort by purchasing or reading this wonderful collection.

 

Preface – Ursula Pflug

 

On Mother's Day folks post pictures on their fb page, and if their moms are, or were, artists or writers or scientists or in some other way distinguished, (although of course, being a mom is all by itself a huge accomplishment) there is often a link to a book or a gallery. I usually just post images of my mom because she was so beautiful. This Mother's Day many of my friends from those Birch Avenue years added comments about their memories of Christiane. Mainly they posted memories of her painting room, on the third floor in the front, overlooking the roof of the school. In Cottingham School with Yellow Flag, unlike many others in the series, we don't see the building because the lower edge of the painting intervenes; it's easy to mistake the roof, sheeted by rainwater, as the street.
It's also easy to miss the fact that the yellow flag in the reflection waves in the opposite direction from the actual flag on the pole; it is a second mischief after the colour switch, which, of course, one sees right away. I remember asking her why the flag was yellow and why the wind in the reflection was an impossible wind, and she smiled a little secretive smile. She was having fun, and why shouldn't she? When I read on each website and in each blurb an oddly cauterized story about the depression and suicide attempts I realize people don’t know how much fun she had while working.
My sister Esther and I drew constantly and both our parents treated our collective artistic output almost as a serious adult enterprise. During one of our mother’s shows at Isaacs Gallery several of our pastels were framed and hung in the back room. I remember being both proud and embarrassed, still a familiar feeling today at a book launch. Even though I was still a child, my mother and I talked about process a fair bit. Perhaps I was a safer sounding board than my father, who might ask her to change things, or her dealer, who wondered whether things would be ready in time for upcoming exhibitions; her large detailed paintings took so long to do. When we still lived a few blocks to the north, in the apartment on Woodlawn, she told me that she wanted to try painting the pink Sealtest ice cream cut-out, very large, in the foreground of a streetscape. Claes Oldenburg had just shown at the AGO and she had been smitten, and inspired by the potentials of pop art to elevate the mundane, to create new parameters for what was high art. But my parents often made decisions together, and my father didn't go for the big strawberry Sealtest cone. I was sad, because I had wanted to see the painting, and my mother said, defending herself, and him, for different reasons I now see, “He is often right.”
I liked talking to her about her work; it fascinated me, and it was also one of the few conversations we could have in which she wasn't expressing anger or injury. She thought we kids had a great life compared to the one she had had at our age, fostered during the war to unkind acquaintances in Kitzbühel, Austria, completely missing the fact that living in a house where there are violent episodes and suicide attempts is hardly a party even if there is enough to eat, and fab people visiting and staying, and excellent conversations about books and art, Kafka or Burroughs, Georgia O'Keefe or R. Crumb.
She had cleaning help, but did a lot of her own, and her cooking was only middling good although she never used convenience foods; partly, I imagine, because she was completely exhausted by the time the light was gone and there was dinner to be started. People who don't engage in serious deadline oriented creative work can't really comprehend the mental strain that ensues, as well, of course, as the playfulness and joy and pride.
She spent long hours in front of the easel each day, often more than full-time, and in the evenings was sometimes exhausted and crabby, trying to get the laundry folded. But there was a single bed in her painting room, covered with a woven wool Bedouin blanket in brightly striped and patterned ochre and red, which my parents had brought to Canada from Tunis where my sister and I had come into the world. We had a German shepherd/wolf cross called Nemo, who doted on my mom, and she on him, and he was usually found on this bed. If he liked you enough, he was willing to share, and coming home from school often meant climbing several flights of stairs, carrying tea in the brown stoneware pot, lying down beside the dog on the scratchy blanket, and drifting off for a few minutes.
In the last year drifting off didn't happen so much, because a kind of hard shell, a kind of carapace had formed around my mom, and she became increasingly difficult to talk to, and it was no longer a peaceful room for after school naps. It didn't have any effect anymore if I cleaned the bathrooms when I got home, just so that she would know her work was respected and acknowledged, both her housework and her painting. The peaceful atmosphere was somehow lost, and it saddened me. I felt a separation, but I didn't know what was coming although there had been threats and botched tries and both my sister and I had at least once taken the pill bottle out of her hand. 
So that is my memory of Yellow Flag and the next one, the last, Black Flag, and they are not entirely happy memories because of her growing remoteness, but not entirely sad ones either, for in one more year it would no longer be possible to make such memories at all and that was of course far worse.
And while we rightly bemoan the shallowness of social media, it provided our friends an opportunity to share this memory that I too love; of climbing the stairs in the short hours between school or work ending and the light going, the last hour before it was time to go down and start dinner. First, of course, making a fresh pot of tea to bring up, and sometimes talking, and sometimes not, and the god sighing heavily on the bed. “Did you know dog is god spelled backwards?” my mother would say, and “In my next life I want to be a dog.” She was convinced dogs were more enlightened than people, meaning nicer, and that their lives, if they had a good family (meaning a kind if not “good” one) were better than the lives of humans. 
Writer Dana Tkachenko cites a family history of suicide in “Anna’s Story,” but there are no stories centered mainly on suicide in They Have To Take You In. None appeared in the slush pile, and none of the writers from whom I solicited work submitted anything on the topic. Still, my mother’s suicide is the elephant in the room, and one of the reasons I put together this anthology. When I was twelve or so, my mother asked my sister and I whether we would like to live in the East Village with her, leaving Toronto behind. Our maternal grandmother had a little money suddenly from a family business in Germany and wanted to share it for this purpose. Our close friends, Anton and Rebecca van Dalen, were willing to support our mother in the move, and would help us get set up.
My sister tells me she liked the idea but I remember having misgivings. We liked our new neighbourhood on Birch Avenue (across from Cottingham School which my mother painted so often) where we had more friends than we’d had before we moved in 1967. New York was great to visit but it was crowded. The East Village was dirty and chaotic in comparison to Birch Avenue. We’d live in a walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen, I conjectured, and not have enough to eat. We’d walk to a lower Manhattan public school and have to fend for ourselves there. The irony of the fact that I chose exactly this life, minus the school and my mother, a few years later while still a teen, doesn’t escape me.
After a suicide, everyone wonders. What could we have done that would have created a different outcome? If Esther and I had unequivocally said yes, would my mother actually have moved? Why did she wait for us to tell her we’d go—she could have just gone and rented a flat, after all; she could have moved to New York by herself. And if she had gone, would she have been all right, or were her personal demons fierce enough they’d have followed her?
There is no way to know. But it’s always good to have options, even if you don’t take advantage of them.

 

Acknowledgements

 

First I'd like to thank Richard Grove (Tai), publisher at Hidden Brook Press, for taking on this project. I'd like to thank Tapanga Koe, who helped put together the Indiegogo campaign for artist fees, and also talked with me about the shelter system and the need for additional no overhead funds that families and women in transition could access with a modicum of hoop jumping. Thank you to Leanne Simpson, Kate Story, Jan Thornhill, and Michael and Esther Pflug for reading and commenting on my preface. Thanks are due to Joe Davies, Richard Grove and Jan Thornhill for help with editing and proofreading, and to long-time family friend Gordon Langill for sugesting the CMHA's Dana Fund as beneficiary for this fundraiser anthology. Thanks are also due to Gordon for writing a wonderfully astute introduction and for sharing the late Dana Tkachenko's writing with us. A heartfelt thanks to Dana's husband Justin Leblanc for allowing us to publish an edited excerpt from her novel, “Anna's Story.” I'd like to thank all the authors for providing me with such thought provoking, touching work and for their patience during the times this project inched along. Thanks are due to Emily Antler, copyright officer at the National Gallery of Canada for providing us with a high res image of Cottingham School with Yellow Flag. Thanks as always to Doug Back, for his unfailing and unflagging love and support, and most especially for his humour.
Life Skills
Jan Thornhill

 

When I was ten, my dad said to me, he said, Alouetta, it’s important to me that you never feel trapped by someone you are the better of, especially a man, so I am going to teach you two life skills.
I was named after the Jaunty Alouetta in a song my mother used to sing before I was born. My dad always tells me what a perfect beaut of a baby I was, my skull not squashed into a cone-head like some, because I was C-sectioned out, my mother already being dead at the time from a heart attack that surprised everyone, probably no one more than her. She was singing the song, says my dad, just before she crashed to the kitchen floor, a dinner plate in each hand, right in front of him. To this day, my dad will not eat spaghetti, not if you paid him to, he wouldn’t.
He let me drive to the gravel pit that was to be our secret firing range, me sitting on his lap so that I would have the height to see over the steering wheel.
I would like to say right now, at the outset, because I know what you might be thinking, my dad being a single dad, with no woman to monitor him, not then anyway, I want to make it clear that there was not then, nor was there ever, any inappropriate touch. So get that thought out of your mind.
My dad’s sweat stunk. I remember this from that day driving. Although I was steering, my dad’s hands hovered above my own. At the time, I felt he was directing unseen powers into me, via his palms, a type of electrical knowledge that was allowing me to pilot the car smoothly and neatly between the lines on the highway. Perhaps, though, all I was feeling was his nervousness. He must have been nervous, I think in retrospect, since his license, that summer, would not yet have been reinstated.
For him to float his hands above mine, his arms were by necessity held outwards and rounded, girdling me without touching me, as if I was a tree with thick invisible bark. This made his armpits more exposed than usual and, what with the rushing breeze from the open windows moving air around and it being an unseasonably hot afternoon, they smelled rank. The thing was, though, that I was pretty thrilled to be driving, (well, steering, to be more accurate, since my feet could not, from where I was perched on my dad’s thighs, have reached either the gas pedal or the brakes), so the memory is sensuously strong.
I have driving dreams, even now. They are unbelievably exciting: I am, in them, such a novice. My own sweat smells the same as my dad’s. Some days I cannot stand it, not even a hint of it. It is like a poison gas with the colour of a bus station’s walls. Other days it is a secret pleasure. I inhale it the same way that, sometimes, I inhale highway skunk. Pleasure can be taken from extremes, from either end of the spectrum. That confusion one occasionally gets, when, for instance, the touch of an ice cube feels hot instead of cold. Think of freezer burn.
The gravel pit was private. The gate was padlocked back then, unlike now, and old metal No Trespassing signs were wired to the fences and dutifully peppered by gun-owning members of the local populace with perfectly circular holes of light, not too distant planets or stars ringed by coronas and sunspots of rust. I put my own holes in those signs, eventually. But not that first day.
My dad let me take the keys from the ignition after I had parked the car, roadside, let me be the one to open the trunk, let me be the one to feel that satisfying pull on the key from the weight of suddenly released metal. I had never looked into the trunk like that before, it seemed fresh and full of possibilities, particularly since it held a 12-gauge shotgun and the .22 my dad had pegged squirrels with when he, himself, had been a child.
I see, sometimes, in movies, on TV, even in cartoons, men teaching women how to handle men’s tools, golf clubs, for instance, or bowling balls, or guns. Always, the men drape themselves around the women, seemingly without the vaguest idea that the desires of the women may not, necessarily, match their own. My dad draped himself around me like that, but all he wanted was to teach me how to take care of myself.
Here is something you might not know. If you do not hold a shotgun tight to your body when the trigger is pulled, you can be injured by the recoil of the stock. If you are ten years old, you might just as well stand behind an irritable and large-hoofed horse and poke at it with a stick.
The bruise would probably not have been so bad if my dad hadn’t been backing me, kneeling while cloaking me in his cape of instruction, if I’d been able to go with the blow, but I was trapped between him and the butt end of the stock, braced, still, by the tutelage of his large and dense body.

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