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Guy Chartrand

Darrell McBreairty

     At closing time inside Bar 889 in Québec City during the winter of 2004, I accosted a plain looking man I had overheard speaking English by asking him if there was an after-hours bar or party anywhere.  I had noticed a young man I was interested in, who spoke no English, had been talking to him, and, when the man suggested that we go to his house for drinks, I insisted the young man accompany us.  On the cab ride down to Rue Kirouac in the Saint-Roch quarter, we introduced ourselves.  The man’s name was Guy.  He was soft spoken with a dry, short chuckle that was endearing.  Behind his glasses, his eyes gave off a knowing twinkle.  Inside his house, he found some red wine when I told him that the beer he offered didn’t agree with me.  He and the young man (whose name was Stéphane) seemed to be busy in the kitchen, so I sat on his couch and sipped wine.  After a while, I ventured out to the kitchen and asked about Stéphane.  Guy said that he had gone up to the bathroom.  Upstairs, I found Stéphane at the lavatory snorting cocaine.  When he turned toward me, blood was coursing toward his lip from his nostrils.  I moved to embrace him.  At first, he was hesitant and, then, relented but was not at all comfortable, so I retreated back to the living room, where I drank too much wine and fell asleep for a time.  

     Morning light, streaming through the open door, jarred me awake.  “Salut,” Stéphane said before closing the door behind him.  

     I moved to leave, but Guy suggested that I sleep in his spare room.

     It was late in the afternoon when I awoke and found Guy in the kitchen.  He offered coffee, but I settled for a glass of water.  We were both in our fifties and soon discovered that we had much in common.  He explained that he had retired after receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  As we talked about Québec, I reminisced about the clubs I had frequented over years of visiting the city.  He remembered the same venues.  He talked about his loneliness and inability to find someone to share his life with.  He was attracted to young men who only seemed interested in money or a temporary place to stay.  Although he was slightly bald and not particularly handsome, he had a charm and a sense of dignity that was very attractive.  I empathized with his dilemma but advised that he not sell himself so short.  He was pleased that I could see his good qualities and was not judgmental.  We laughed about the parade of young men he called his “nephews” that he met in the bars.  I hugged him before I left and promised to keep in touch.  I was only in the city for a few days and told him that I would meet him later at 889.  He said he was partied out but might show up during the night.

     889 was a bar where older men waited and waited for younger men to appear while they sat around the black granite-topped bar islanded in the middle of the room and sparred in varying degrees of French and English — their peripheral vision always searching the windows and entrances for the prospective conquest that inevitably ambled toward the club.  

     Against the back wall near an entry to the street, there was a row of one-armed-bandits where the nondescript sat on stools and kept pushing losing turns at the machines behind the half-wall that separated them from the main bar area that was lined with glass windows and doors that led out onto the deck where everyone went to smoke.  In summer, the glass doors were open and music was piped outside to the tables that accommodated the customers that gathered in early evening and stayed on into the night.  

     Once a packed mecca for the gay community, Bar 889 had become, by the time I met Guy, a place for straights and gays and drug dealers to hang out.  The bar was just at the north end of St. Matthew’s Cemetery where the English Protestant community had buried their dead for a few hundred years before they had been swallowed up by the predominant French Catholics.  In the second half of the 20th Century, the cemetery had become a park and the church a French language library.  At the south end of St. Matthew’s was Le Drague — the premier gay bar in Québec City housing multi-layers of bars carved into the bedrock.  

     Bar 889 was just off Rue St. Jean.  Most tourists were unaware that it even existed.  Consequently, it retained a flavor of the city not polluted by the trends that swept over the area and disappeared.

     Bar 321 on Rue de la Couronne was a neighborhood bar where older gay men also waited for young hustlers and stragglers to stop in.  Both 889 and 321 were owned and operated by the same people.  Across from 321, a male dance club had operated for years but, by the time I had met Guy, the owner had died and his children had converted it into a straight venue.  Before that, men would cross the street from one bar to the other.  Bar 321 also had a row of one-armed-bandits against the wall opposite the bar area, but the machines were more accessible than at Bar 889.  Often, hustlers would have one eye on the machines and the other on prospective clients.

     Bar 889 was located in the upper city and, to get to Bar 321, you would take a cab or traverse a system of stairs and convoluted streets and avenues to the lower city’s Saint-Roch quarter which had been a working-class enclave for generations before it started to become gentrified late in the 20th Century. 

     The next time I went up to Québec, after a number of months had elapsed, I ran into Guy at Bar 321.  He didn’t recognize me at first, but, when I reminded him of the night I had spent at his house, he made room for me at the table he shared with a group of friends, explaining to them in French who I was.  

     After that, the nights become confused.  They were numerous.  When I came into the city, I would find him at 321 or 889.  It got so the bartenders would call him when they saw me and tell him I was in town, and he would show up full of laughter and tales of his latest “nephew.”  I would tease him and ask when the next one was moving in.  

     I introduced him to my sister Ruth who soon became his friend.  They would roar with laughter discussing my foibles and crazy adventures in Québec.  

     On New Year’s Day in 2006, a group of us who had gone up to the city for the holiday, stumbled into Bar 321.  Guy had spent a few nights partying with us and, knowing that some of us were staying at a hotel nearby, he expected that we might appear.  He was sitting against the back wall and broke into a dry chuckle as he saw us enter.  Only a few people were crazy enough to be out after the revelries of the night before.  Silly laughter filled the afternoon and continued on into the evening.  Before Guy left for home, I told him that I would be back on the last weekend of winter carnival.  We agreed that we would meet at Bar 889. 

     As I hurried inside Bar 889 from the cold a few weeks later, I could hear Guy telling someone at the bar, “that crazy man from Maine should be showing up any time.”  He burst into laughter when he saw me moving toward him.  “I was just telling my friend . . . “  

     “I heard you,” I said.  

     Once again, he introduced me to a circle of friends, and we were off into the night going from club to club where laughter rang out, and we teased each other about the “nephews” we were going to meet before the weekend was out.

     One night, Guy introduced me to his friend Sandra, a trans-sexual who had been in the city for many years.  Sandra had been beautiful and still retained traces of that beauty even into late age.  She was from an English background and had found a home in Québec after escaping her small town when she was a teenager.  The repartee was biting and hilarious.  It got so I would run into one of them and we would call the other and meet in one of the bars.

     At closing time one night, Guy told me about an afterhour’s club near 889.  He explained that it was illegal but that I could go with him if I wanted.  There were several floors to traverse before reaching the apartment where one of his friends tended the operation.  A giant screen displayed the entrance to the building where a video camera was perched to capture the onset of any raid.  Guy and Sandra would often hold court there amongst the hustlers and drug dealers.  One night, when, luckily, I was not there, the place got raided.  Guy, holding his hand up to his face so that the cameras caught only his profile as he hurried in the opposite direction, was arrested.  When one of Guy’s friends in Montréal, who saw a clip on the news, suggested that he was part of the group, Guy insisted she was mistaken.  How we laughed at his deception.

     In late autumn of 2007, I sent Guy a copy of one of the books I had published.  I received no reply, but after I sent a Christmas card, he wrote to tell me that his cancer had returned.  I was in tears when I called my sister Ruth.  Both of us wrote him to express our concern.  When I called after the holidays, he insisted that things were all right, explaining that he would be in treatment under great doctors.

     When I went up to Québec for winter carnival, I called Guy from the telephone in the entryway to Bar 321 but only got his answering machine, so I went by Sandra’s apartment.  She told me that Guy was out of the hospital and was probably visiting his doctor.  I had left him a message, but when he walked into Bar 889 that night, I barely recognized him.  What little hair he had had was gone.  He was gaunt, but his laughter and mischievous energy were still there.

     He told me he was disappointed in his friends, most of whom had disappeared once he stopped frequenting the bars.  But one friend, who had driven Guy to the bar to see me that night, had taken Guy to the friend’s family’s house for Christmas, and a young man, who had spent a few nights with Guy earlier in the year, had called at least once a week.  On New Year’s Eve, this young man had called and said he would like to stop by.  Guy had explained that he wasn’t up to having company, but the young man said that Guy was the nicest man he had met in the past year and that he really would like to spend New Year’s with him.  Guy had relented and invited him over.  

     Guy mentioned that a young bartender at Bar 321, whose girlfriend was Guy’s nurse at the hospital, would stop by after he got out of work in the early morning hours.  Although the “nephews” had disappeared, I felt confident that, with the small circle of friends that stood by him, Guy would overcome his disease and his depression.

     He too felt confident, as he explained that he had stored up a quantity of his own blood to be deep-frozen and put back into his body once the cancer treatment was complete.  

     In late April, I went up to the city for an extended stay with my sister Margaret.  We got to Québec on Tuesday afternoon.  Once we were settled into our hotel, I went on my usual round of bookstores and venues I revisit on every trip.  As usual, on my first day back in the city, I searched out the bars I frequent to have a few beers before going back to my room.  Since it was the beginning of the week, I had no intention of clubbing that night.  I could find no one I knew in any of the clubs and had decided I would just go back to the hotel, but I chanced one last try and walked down to Bar 321.  It was early evening by the time I got there.  

     Guy, who was weak from his round of treatments, had gone out on Saturday night and had slipped into oblivion by the end of the night, looked up from his table at the back of the bar as I walked in and said, “I can’t be that drunk already, but that looks like Darrell coming through the door.”

     After Guy introduced me to people at his table, I sat down and he regaled me with the craziness of his Saturday night and the resulting hangover on Sunday when he had turned off his telephone and refused to answer his door.  He said, since Sunday had been his birthday, he decided, in the late afternoon, to go out and buy himself a puppy.  

     We roared with laughter.

     I had not shaved or showered, so when Guy informed me that everyone was going up to Bar 889, I told him I would have to go back to my room and dress.  He said he would give me an hour.

     When I got to 889, a group had pushed tables together and was celebrating a belated birthday for Guy.  He introduced me as his best friend.  Later, as we were up at the bar having a beer before going downtown, Guy confided to me that his loneliness had become so acute that he had been thinking of suicide.  I empathized with him, but reminded him that his cancer treatment was progressing well and that things were not so bleak.

     We separated from the group and went down to Bar 321, which was in his neighborhood.  As the night wore on, I asked if I could crash at his house.  When I awoke in the early afternoon, our beer bottles were nearly full on the kitchen table.  I emptied them into the sink and left Guy a note.

     On Friday night, Guy and I went down to Bar 321 where we met up with Sandra and then proceeded on to his house where we were greeted by his birthday gift.  When I asked what he had named his puppy, he replied, “Sandra,” his voice lapsing into a dry chuckle.  

     When I woke in early morning to go to the bathroom, I heard the two of them still talking in the kitchen.  

     Guy was asleep when I woke to leave in the afternoon.  I stood in the doorway to his bedroom and watched his frail body move with his breathing.  He seemed so fragile, but I knew there was a lot of fight left.

     When my sister decided we would be leaving a day earlier than planned, I called and left Guy a message that I would be going out the night before leaving town.  I was hurrying along Rue St. Jean when Guy called out to me.  He had gone to dinner with his first cousin, a lawyer from Montréal, who was representing a client in the city.  I joined them as they walked up the street.  This cousin had prepared all his legal papers for Guy.  Guy invited his cousin to go with us to an Irish bar we sometimes frequented, but he declined.  When we discovered that there were few people in the Irish bar, we headed downtown to Bar 321.  Sandra appeared with a beautiful young man and an admirer.  Guy and I sat at a distant table and watched the proceedings that eventually led to a liaison back at Sandra’s apartment just around the corner.

     Guy and I had more beer at the bar.  When I finally got up to go back up town, I kissed his bald head and said, “salut.”

     I tried to call him several times from Northern Maine, but I always got the answering machine.

     In July, I ended up at Bar 889 on a hurried trip up to Québec.  Chantal, the bartender, told me that the cancer had progressed to Guy’s brain and that she didn’t think he would survive.  I gave her my business card and made her promise she would keep me informed of his condition.

     I called Guy, about noon, from a phone booth the next day.  He had just returned to his house from a chemo treatment and suggested we meet later in the day since I informed him I wouldn’t be staying the night.  He said he had to have a walker to get around in his house.  “I’m an old man,” he said.  I could hear the sadness beneath the laughter.  

     Before I left the city that afternoon, I tried his number once more but there was no answer.  

     I called and left a message when I got back to Maine.  When I finally did get hold of him in the middle of August, he told me that he had been working on flowers on his patio and that people were stopping by.  Chantal had taken him out that week.  He said that he would be going to the hospital on Tuesday for a week or so.  I promised to call, but when I did, I got his machine.

     On October 10th when I got to the city, I went down to Bar 321 and tried to call Guy, but I got a message that his phone had been disconnected.  I went around the corner to Sandra’s apartment but got no answer when I rang.  When I came off the street onto the deck behind Bar 889 later that night, Chantal was serving a customer.  When I asked about Guy, she said, “You didn’t know?”  I shook my head.  “He died on September 9th, she said.  I told her that I would have come up, but she said she had lost my business card.  

     Someone had called Chantal at about 2 AM to tell her that Guy had pneumonia and that he could go either way.  It was a slow night, so she said she would clean up as soon as possible and go to the hospital, but it wasn’t long before she had a call that Guy had passed.  Fifty people attended the memorial service.  Guy had left instructions that he was to be dressed in a clown’s outfit with the fake nose and all.  The attendants at the crematorium said that they had a difficult time putting their clown into the fire.  The priest officiating at the memorial service said that he would say a prayer every time someone had something nice to say about Guy.  Chantal told him, “You’re going to pray a long while.”  Guy had left money for everyone to go out for dinner and drinks after the service.  Chantal said that in the display at the service she saw a picture of Guy as a beautiful, curly-haired, little boy and that his cousin had left a table with mementos that the mourners could take from.   I hugged Chantal and told her how much I had loved Guy.  

     “He knew that,” she said.

     I had a drink and went down to Bar 321, thinking that I might see Sandra, but she was not there.  I watched the young bartender, who had been so kind to Guy, as he laughed and served his customers.  He nodded hello to me, the twinkle in his eyes fading as he remembered who I was.  I wanted to talk to him about Guy, but thought the better of it.  When I finished my beer, I started to walk toward Guy’s house, but turned and went back uptown.  Somehow Bar 889 didn’t feel the same, so I went to Le Drague and watched the antics of the young crowd as the night wore on.

Sandra Sheridon was seventy-six years old when she died of stomach cancer in Québec City, 10 August 2017.  She had been hospitalized for about two months.  Cancer had travelled to her brain.  She was confused and rather disorientated toward the end.

It’s Almost Time

Jonathan Haughton

i flinch when i see aluminum bowls

Yan Castaldo

      she’s not breathing. she’s not breathing. boys, please help, she’s not breathing. i can’t get her to breathe. wake up, come quick.

      bloodcurdling. these words are branded into my brain stem. those shrieks were much too desperate, much too despaired to forget. other details are hazy. it might’ve been midnight, it might’ve been two, it might’ve been five. i don’t remember. who called 911? i think it was me, but i remember dad talking to them. he had tried everything. i’m turning her over. i’m trying to hear her breathing. she’s still not breathing.

      she lay unconscious on the floor next to a pile of her own vomit; her tongue lolling out, her gaze empty. nobody home. the EMTs told dad to perform mouth to mouth; mom had just thrown up. he tried until he gagged. nothing. i was crying, of course. mom. mom. i kept yelling, believing somehow that would wake her up, it didn’t.

      i remember the firemen rushing in. maybe it was the paramedics? they surrounded her, tried futile compressions. there was nothing they could do for her at home and she had to go to the hospital. they probably put some breathing thing on her. i remember mom on a stretcher or gurney being taken out. i was waiting in the kitchen at this point, and saw her pass. after that, i don’t remember much. i can’t imagine i would have just gone back to sleep, but i don’t know where else i could have gone. i don’t think i ever spoke to her again. a few days later, she died in the hospital.


      mom had been sick for awhile. i remember when the diagnosis came back. i didn’t know much, but of course i was old enough to know it was bad. mom wasn’t big on “western medicine”. she opted instead for what i can charitably call “alternative treatments”. i love her, i miss her, but for this i am still so so so mad at her.

      mom used to sit in this big gray recliner, lurched over a big aluminum bowl. she’d smile and say she’s doing great while retching and vomiting into the bowl. this lasted months. i hate throwing up. i hate vomit. i fucking hate it. i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.

      she was the kindest human being i’ve ever known, self-effacing to a fault. it made her an exceptional friend, mother, partner. mom sparked my love of reading and writing. she’d always read to me before bed. mom had a rule—she would buy me any book i wanted, so long as i read it. that “new book smell” will always remind me of her. people sometimes took advantage of her tenderness, her parents especially. it didn’t matter how sick she was, she always had more to give—her kindness ablaze, a forest fire. i could never show her that same care back.

      i hate it when people tell me they’ve “come to terms with death”, “want to die early, because getting old sucks” or “want to live fast die young”. they haven’t approached death. they haven’t seen death, not in themselves, not in others. they don’t understand.

      language is a shield. i can talk and talk and talk but of what? i’m so good at avoiding my own emotions that i’ve tricked myself into pretending to know them. it’s emotional anesthetic. i am hiding from myself in a way you wouldn’t believe: cold, stunted, cauterized. i’m just better than most at covering up my emotional blindness. feeling too much isn’t safe. i don’t even notice i’m doing it most of the time. if you’re always on defense, you can’t be caught off guard. i don’t want to be caught off guard again. i want to be safe.

      when she started being assessed for her cancer, i stumbled upon a diary entry she had left open on the family computer; it talked about her mistrust of doctors and the “arrogance of allopathic medicine”. when they sent her tissue for biopsy, i asked her to sign a document agreeing to undergo proper treatment for her cancer. i was probably seven years old, and truly believed this contract was binding. it was not. her diary entries remained on that computer until it was eventually thrown away, but i could never bring myself to read past that same first one.

      dad has been put through more than anyone ever should. he mourned and fought and protected; he never complained. he was largely thanked with rebuke. you’d expect people to support you when your partner dies—often, they don’t.

      when you’ve watched enough people die, you start to recognize the signs. i didn’t know them then, i know them now. the rattle of air forcing itself through failing lungs. that blank stare—they may not even know you’re around. the trembling hands, the fatigue, the refusal to eat or drink. sometimes, the vomiting.

      i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.

      you’re never there when it finally happens. you always want to be. you say you’ll never leave their side. maybe you went to get lunch. maybe you went home for some much-needed rest. they always die when you leave. they die alone. you hold that with you forever. you weren’t there.

      her “doctors” told us she was getting better. she was doing the right things, eating the right foods. meanwhile, most nights, she’d wail, gripping her breast. i saw it once or twice. once, when she was really hurting and wasn’t aware it was exposed. another time, when she was applying some poultice and didn’t notice me enter. it was black and necrotic; the tissue was dead, rotting. they told us she was getting better. why the fuck did i believe them?

      frida kahlo has a painting called the broken column. it’s a self-portrait showing her body split and her spine replaced with a pillar. her body is covered with nails. the mangled body isn’t fixable. we think that because we can think we are more than our bodies. we’re not. just bodies confused by consciousness; weak, vulnerable, fledgling. when the body burns and screams and struggles, when the body withers—who cares what the mind is doing?

      i have a vivid memory of going to the farm with my family. it was brisk, autumn—i was bundled up in my little jacket and hat. just a baby. we sat at a picnic table and watched the horses pass by the corn maze. mom was holding me, she looked at me and smiled. i love you.

      i always cry when i listen to the record a crow looked at me by mount eerie. it’s barely music; it’s better described as anguish with occasional guitar. it’s about a man mourning his wife who died of pancreatic cancer. there’s a song on it called toothbrush/trash. it goes as follows:

     I finally took out the upstairs bathroom garbage that was sitting there forgotten since you

      were here/ Wanting just to stay with us/ Just to stay living/ I threw it away/ Your dried

      out, bloody, end-of-life tissues/ Your toothbrush and your trash/ And the fly buzzing

      around the room, could that possibly be you too?/ I let it go out the window/ It does not

      feel good.

      it does not feel good.

      after a long day of work, dad—a single parent, doing it all himself—would come back home. he’d sometimes make me and my brother a frozen pizza. i remember sometimes wondering “why doesn’t he cook like mom did?” i fucking hate myself for that.

      there’s no impotence like watching someone let themself die. the tumours metastasize, they settle new territory; venom travelling from breast, to lung, to marrow. lung cancer, never smoker. we watched it happen, did nothing. i always do nothing.

      i’ve now lived more years without her than with her; i’m beginning to forget how she looks. my memories of her face are now memories of photos. one day i realized i had forgotten the colour of her eyes; i cried.

      i flinch when i see aluminum bowls.


      dad keeps little bird statues in his houseplants. whenever a bird lands on his deck, he always says it’s mom.

      that’s mom, he says.


Greg Grace

Morning Dove

Lisa Lahey

      Every morning, a dove rests on my windowsill surveying its kingdom beyond my window, searching for encroaching danger. The dove is never caught, never harmed. It grooms itself by tucking its pretty head beneath its wing. I open my window and the dove flies inside, sitting on my hand as it sings to me. My tears fall on its feathers, and they turn into gold.

      Father calls me to come downstairs. At the sound of his harsh voice, the dove startles and flies away. I close my window and open my wardrobe. Aaron hangs beside my dress, his slim neck swollen and purple and his tongue dripping scarlet blood seeping from his throat. 

      I wear a tight white collar around my neck. I wear a long black dress that begins at my collar and ends at my feet. I am tethered by the long white apron tied around my waist. The elders say the dress keeps me modest and this pleases God. I wonder why it pleases God that I am collared and tethered.

      When I scrub the floor, my collar pulls tighter, my neck swells and pinkens and my tongue numbs with thirst. Drops of blood fall near me. I look up and Aaron hangs above me from the stairway banister. I wash away his blood as the rope creaks, rocking him in the breeze like a gruesome cradle.

      Abraham, our spaniel, wears a choke chain and is tied to a pole outside our grey wooden house. The ox wears a yoke when ploughing the fields under the hot sun, its mouth matted with foam. In the evening, Abraham is set free from his chain and the ox is freed from the yoke. I am not freed from the tight white collar around my neck.

      When I turn thirteen, my periods begin. With the onset of menstruation, my life belongs to the village. Mother speaks to me in private.

      “Abilene, you are a young woman. More than ever, you must keep your body and your thoughts pure,” she tells me. “You will not go to school anymore. You will stay at home and learn to be a good wife.”

      By the time I am sixteen, I live the same routine every day. I wake up at dawn and make breakfast for the family with six of my siblings, three of whom are my nieces and Father’s sister wives. I scrub the floors until they shine. I care for six of the children, not having much of a choice in what I do. 

      Father will soon wed me off, and this worries me. I have a secret love, a young man named Aaron. We want to marry, but the elders claim Aaron is too young to wed. This is a lie; the elders want the young women for themselves.  

      I tell Mother about Aaron hoping that she understands. “Mother, we want to marry. We are in love.”

      “Abilene, you know you can’t marry a young man. You must wed an elder.”

      “Mother, you married Father when you were both young. Why can’t I do the same?”

      She nods and says, “Abilene, I was very lucky to have a kind-hearted father. My mother had great sway over him even when the elders disapproved.”

     “You can sway Father!”

      “Yes but only so far.”

      I implore Mother again. “Alright Abilene. I will speak to your father, but please don’t expect him to agree. You know how devoted he is to the teachings of the church.”

      I squeal with joy and hug her so hard she lets out a “woof!” 

      She laughs. “Abilene you will squeeze another baby out of me, and I’m not pregnant!”

      When the time is right, Mother asks Father if Aaron and I can marry, but he flatly refuses. He tells the elders about us, and they order Aaron to leave the village. He can never return. I want to spit in Father’s face. I can’t believe he would deceive me this way. Mother holds me in her arms as I cry. 

      “Abilene, my precious girl, you don’t know what love is. You will be fine,” she says.

      Bravely risking capture and punishment, Aaron returns for me. We meet in our secret hiding grove in the village.

      “Aaron, are you brave or foolish?” I chastise him. “What if you get caught?”

      “Abilene, I had to see you again. Will you leave with me?”

      “Aaron, if I leave, Mother and Father will disown me just as yours have done.”

      “Abilene, the outside world is not what the elders say. There is much to learn, and we will be together as man and wife,” Aaron says. 

      He kisses me on my lips for the first time. I feel his warmth with a rush of emotions and unsaid words. Aaron hugs me and slips away as I make my decision right there, right then, to pack a bag of clothes and leave the village in the morning. I hurry home, change into my nightgown and fall asleep smiling.

      That night, Father wakes me from my sleep and pulls me out of bed. He throws a coat over me and leads me outside the house. Two elders wait for me with fierce looks on their faces. I look to Father for help. He stares at me with thunder on his brow. The elders tie a rope around my wrists, and Father pulls me by the rope into the woods. Sometimes I stumble and fall, and Father pulls me upright by the rope without slowing.

      As I’m dragged into the woods with a mixture of mud and blood on my face, I see someone hanging from a tree … by the neck. It is Aaron. Father brings me to that tree. I stare and stare and then, I scream. I curse God as I throw myself on the ground and kick and tear at the grass. Father pulls me to my feet and hits me in the face so hard I fall again. 

      “You’re the devil’s spawn, Abilene! Why has the Lord cursed me with you?”

      The elders watch as Father ties me to Aaron’s tree. I cry out to him. “Father, please forgive me! Please don’t leave me here with Aaron!”

      “Abilene, you wanted to be with Aaron. Now you can.” He leaves and doesn’t look back. 

      I feel the sting of his palm on my face. I hear the creaking of the rope as Aaron moves and turns in the soft breeze over my head. I see his feet above me and his neck twisted towards the sky. His eyes are open and he stares at me in accusation the entire night I keep my unwanted vigil. When I clamber as far from the tree as the rope allows, he turns his head and watches me. 

      The morning dove flutters down from the sky and morphs into a horrid black raven. The blackness of its wings pales in comparison to that of its soul. It sits on Aaron’s shoulder and taunts me in its raw, harsh voice. 

      “Abilene! Abilene!”

      I am terrified of the woods. Wolves come from the forest and kill our sheep. I hear twigs snap, owls hoot and animals grunt. I close my eyes and wait for a wolf to pounce on me and rip out my throat.

      By sunrise, Father cuts me free of the rope and carries my limp body home to Mother. She bathes me as quietly as she can; she doesn’t want my siblings to waken. The bathwater stains red, but she says nothing. She tucks me into bed, and I stay there all day and night. Mother tells my siblings I am ill. The girls think I have my period and are careful not to shame me around the boys.

      Hereafter, Aaron beseeches me to save him or join him in death. I become weary with resistance. I think of going to the river, filling my apron pockets with rocks and slipping beneath the water.  

      I work hard to blend into the family. I ignore Aaron’s body and deafen myself to his pleas. Inside, I fear I’m losing my mind, but I don’t tell Mother. She will tell Father, and I will be punished again.


      A month after Aaron’s murder, Mother sits silently in her room. I tap on the door, and she bids me to enter.

      “Mother, you are the most beautiful of Father’s wives. I don’t understand why he wants Hannah and Joreen,” I tell her. 

      Hannah and Joreen are sisters. Hannah is one year younger than Joreen, who is only two years older than me. Father is marrying both sisters today. He has six wives in his stable and fifteen children including me. He has seven grandchildren. There will be more wives, more children and more grandchildren.

      “Abilene, you mustn’t talk that way about your future stepmothers.”

      “They aren’t my stepmothers!” I reply. “The only mother I have is you.”

      She kisses the top of my hand and whispers, “Thank you.”

      “Besides, Hannah is Father’s stepmother, is she not?”

      “Abilene, please stop this talk!”

      Hannah is my aunt by adoption. She was later married to my grandfather and is now a widow. Hannah is Father’s adopted sister and his stepmother by way of marriage to his father. 

      After Father and Hannah are wed, her belly shows, and we learn she is pregnant. Father’s affair stuns me. I know his marriages hurt Mother, but I never thought he would commit adultery. Mother encounters Hannah in the kitchen and looks at her with deliberate eyes. I glower at my stepmother. I want to slap her in the face and call her a whore. 

      Hannah births her bastard child in Mother’s bed. Her sister wives encourage her as she screams and writhes in pain. She births a girl that Father names Charity. Hannah doesn’t leave Mother’s room for seven days. Joreen, whose belly is round with child, shows Charity to the family. Father orders me to hold Charity. I seethe, but I have no choice. 

      When I hold the baby, I am overwhelmed with her smell and warmth. Like Hannah, Charity is a pink and white doll. Her tufts of hair are a soft white-gold, and her eyes are azure blue. Mother hovers over me as I hold Charity to my bosom. Father watches me and is pleased. He looks toward Mother who disguises her disgust, but something stirs in me whenever I hold Charity. 

      The following morning, Aaron’s body hangs from a rafter in the kitchen as I wash dishes. I look at him with tears streaming down my face.

      “Aaron please! Stop this! They will hurt you again, and they will shun me!”

      Sensing a presence, I turn and see Edna, my mother’s sister wife, in the doorway. Her eyes narrow. “Abilene, who are you talking to?”

      I dry my hands with my apron and lie, “I wasn’t. I was praying as I worked.”

      Edna says nothing and leaves the room. I go about my day doing my chores, mourning for Aaron. 

      Father orders the family to punish me. My siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and stepmothers won’t speak to me. Bewildered, I look for Mother and ask her why I am ignored. Mother doesn’t say a word. She scoops up a basket of laundry and leaves the room. I am invisible to everyone in the house. 

      Before I retire to bed, I kneel and say my prayers. Mother opens the door. 

      “Your father sends for you,” she says and leaves.

      I pull a robe over my nightgown, braid my hair and cover it with a cap. Father is seated in the kitchen.

      “Abilene, you aren’t well. You speak to Aaron and you see him. I am chastising you for four weeks. The elders approve of your correcting. We must cast Aaron’s spirit from you or your soul will be damned.”

      Father walks me out of the house to the shed and locks me inside. The shed is used for punishing his wives and children. I never thought I would spend time here. The shed is small and dark. There is no window. There is a bucket of water for me to drink and a bucket in the corner  to relieve myself. 

      Mother brings me water and bread. This is all I will eat and drink during the punishment. When I retrieve it Mother closes and locks the door. 

      Days, weeks and years pass. Aaron scratches at the door to get in. I hold it closed with my body when he kicks it and shrieks at me to let him in.

      “Aaron! Please let me be. Father is chastising me!”  

      The raven appears inside the shed. It sits on a rafter above my head and caws its joy at my suffering.

      “Abilene! Abilene!”

      I kneel in the dark and pray to God for forgiveness. Father appears and ties me to Aaron’s tree calling me an abomination. The sound of a baby’s cries torments me, and I crawl around in the dark looking for it. I can’t find it, and it keeps screaming.

      A thick, black bush grows from the floor and burns brightly. The fire doesn’t consume it, and it doesn’t hurt my eyes to look at it. The Book of Moses rises out of the fire and delivers itself into my hands. I throw it at the raven, knocking the bird into the fire. It shrieks and tries to fly away. I stare in wonder as it morphs into Aaron who turns to ash as the fire burns down. I sift through the embers, gather the ashes in my hands and blow them into the air.

      I hear the key rattle in the lock, and Father opens the door. The sunlight burns my eyes. I am unable to walk or speak. Father picks me up and carries me inside. Mother draws me a bath and helps me into the tub. She scrubs my body and washes my hair. I tell her about Moses and the raven but she hushes me, telling me I am speaking in tongues. Mother helps me out of the tub and tucks me into bed. I fall into the deepest slumber I’ve ever known. I sleep for a full day.

      I awake and dress the next morning. The dove flies down onto my windowsill where it grooms itself. I look at the calendar. It was July when Father forced me into the shed. It’s August. 

      Mother greets me with a smile. “You have done well Abilene. Father is pleased. Your chastisement is over.”

      I fall into Mother’s arms and weep on her shoulder. I thought the punishment would never end.

      “I know it has been a struggle, Abilene, but your correcting has saved you.”

      I am not as happy as Mother. She betrayed me. If Mother was punished, I wouldn’t abandon her no matter what the risk. 

      That night, the family celebrates my return to Father’s good favour with a special meal. There is joy and laughter all around. I feel accepted and loved. Mother taps on her glass with a fork three times, and everyone falls silent with anticipation. She stands and beams at me.

      “Abilene, there is more good news. Tomorrow is your wedding day!”

      The family smiles, and the children clap and giggle.

      I am dumbfounded. “To whom?”

      Father stands beside Mother, putting his arm around her and smiling at me. “Elder Dallin asked for your hand in marriage, Abilene. He was pleased with your correcting. I approve of him for your husband. He is a respected pillar of our community.”

      Elder Dallin is forty-seven and has seventeen wives. He is also my step-uncle. At sixteen, I will be his eighteenth wife. His wives are my sister wives, cousins, half-siblings, and nieces. Half of the sister wives are my age and three are younger.

      “Thank you Father. Thank you Mother.”

      In the evening, Ardeth and Sadie bring a white linen gown into my room. It is plain and has the same tight collar I wear every day. It reaches to my feet. There are no embellishments and no veil. They are prideful. The only difference between my wedding gown and my regular dress is that the gown has no apron.

      “We must fit you for it,” Mother says. 

      I stand on a stool as Mother and my sisters stick pins in the dress and, by accident, in me. I must cut and sew my own dress when they are done. In the morning, I bathe and have a small breakfast. I don’t want to bloat when I am wearing my wedding dress. Father arranges for Elder Dallin and I to wed in the grove where Aaron and I used to meet. He does this as a reproach. 

      I hold hands with my seventeen sister wives and repeat the words Elder Caleb intones. Kaidence is Dallin’s last wife, and she joins my hand with Dallin’s, giving her husband to me. He will bring me home this evening and take my virginity. Soon, I will have my first child and there will be more children until my body is ruined.

      I want to be Abraham the dog when he is freed from his chain. I want to be the ox when  the yoke is lifted from its shoulders after ploughing the fields. I want to be the morning dove when it flies from my windowsill into the open sky. 

      The village holds me in its iron grip. Even in the afterlife, the village owns me. I will be resurrected and reunited with Dallin for “time and all eternity.” I can’t escape the village, and there is no escape from my eternal prison.

East vs West: A Synoptic Cultural Comparison

Yuan Changming

During the great flood
Noah hid himself in the ark
          While Dayu tried to contain it
          With his bare hands

Prometheus stole fire
From Olympian gods
          While Sui Ren got it
          By drilling wood hard

Smart Daedalus crafted wings
To fly away from his prison-tower
          While Old Fool removed the whole
          Mountain blocking his way

Helios enjoyed driving his chariot
All along in the sky
          While Kuafu chased the sun
          To take it down & tame it

Sisyphus rolls the boulder uphill
Because of his deceitfulness, while
          Wu Gang cuts the laurel as a punishment
          For distractions in learning

Winter Wait

With their most tender touches, snowflakes
Have painted the whole night white
Including the darkest corner in sight
           Even within a forgotten dream

Except the plum tree, standing alone there
          Under the eastern sky, whose
Flowers are blooming boldly against
The entire season, more vibrant than blood

Save Your Own Skin

Alex Passey

      The wolf-toothed wind whipped the snow into a frenzy, and Daniel did the best he could to hold onto the calm within. His father had taught him that inner peace was a flame which no wind could touch if one shielded it properly. But the howling gusts cut so deep to the bone that Daniel fancied he could feel the flame flickering, threatening to fail. The surrounding mountains provided little cover, and the stone sentinels looked on indifferently.

      “Father, we need to set up camp,” Stefan implored. Daniel didn’t care for the quiver in the boy’s voice.

      “We go on,” Daniel said. They needed to make it down this winding slope into the dense forest below, where they might find a proper shelter to make a fire. So on they trudged through the knee-high snow, with no song to buttress them but the creaking of their horse-drawn wagon. 

      Oh, how they’d sung on the first days of their voyage. Even Bella, their old mare, had seemed chipper as they loaded her up with as many leathers as she could possibly carry.

      “Do you really think we’ll be able to sell all those at the market, Pa?” a sparkly-eyed Daniel had asked.

      Daniel chuckled as he tied down the load. “Well, there’s a good demand for leathers. I imagine after we get our spices and supplies we might have enough to fetch us a silver pound or two.”

      Stefan had never seen a silver pound before, let alone one owned by his Pa. “You really think so?” he asked.

      “You never know, Son.”

      But part of him had known. He never sold half as much as they loaded up on Bella. Daniel wanted so much for their market stall to be the grandest of any trader there, with everything on display from saddlebags to leather armor. To see his son’s face light up when they headed home with their wagon full of supplies and a few treats besides. This was to be the first trip to market for Stefan, a four day voyage on which Daniel usually hired two men to accompany him. But with Stefan in his eleventh year, Daniel believed the two of them ready to brave it alone. Master and apprentice. And for two days they went with the cool April breeze at their backs, casting joyful songs up into the blue sky above.

      He'd known they were in trouble when Stefan spotted the cougar on their third day. 

      “Look, Pa,” the boy had said. The big cat sat up on a ridge, gazing down at them with what appeared to be mild curiosity. But Daniel knew better. You never saw one of them unless they meant you to. It yawned, and Daniel suspected it was so they could get a good look at those teeth, which could rend flesh better than even the village butcher.

      Daniel raised his musket and fired, but the ball shattered on the rockface and the cat disappeared back into the woods with the grace of a phantom. The path ahead was thick with brush. The perfect place for the beast to wait in ambush.

      They should have turned around and gone home then. Struggling now through the wind and snow, Daniel told himself that he really had entertained the notion of cutting their losses and heading back. In truth, he’d barely hesitated before saying “I know another way” and piloting them towards the mountain pass, away from where the cougar had gone. It added a day to their journey, and the slopes were treacherous. But with the early spring having melted most of the snow, he believed the way clear enough that they should still be able to make it to market with plenty of time.

      Daniel had tried to keep their spirits up, whistling as they walked. But the song in Stefan had disappeared into the gaping chasm of the cat’s maw. And Stefan began to look much more like a child as his eyes were continually drawn to those dark clouds rolling in at their backs. Daniel would not let his optimism deflate. Even if it were a springtime snow squall, one last gasp of old man winter, he was sure they could weather it.

      Despite the foresight of the clouds, the storm hit them like a runaway warhorse. The wind rose like a battle-cry, and with it came a blanket of thick flakes so opaque that Daniel could barely see his own hand inches from his nose. This was no springtime squall. This was a once in a generation blizzard. But the only path left was forward. They couldn’t possibly hope to get back up the slope. So they proceeded slowly, placing each footstep carefully on the snow-covered path. The pass was wide enough to accommodate their wagon, but only just barely, and under the snow it was impossible to tell where the edge lay.

      “Father…” Stefan said. It was then that Daniel realized the tremor in the boy’s voice was not just because of the cold. His son was afraid.

      “Hush, lad,” Daniel said. “Everything is fine.” He could hear his wife’s voice in the back of his head, insisting that the boy was too young for such a trip. That putting so much pressure on Stefan was completely unnecessary. But Daniel had scoffed her aside. After all, he’d been only twelve himself when he’d gone on his first three day voyage with his pa to the city.

      “It’s not fine though,” Stefan said. Daniel turned, surprised by the how quickly the quiver of fear had turned into a flood of resentment. “I’m half frozen, and you’re still talking like nothing’s the matter. We ought to leave the cart here, take Bella and find shelter. We can worry about—”

      “I said hush, lad,” Daniel said, his own tone a rock against which the flood could only break. “We leave nothing. We are men. This is our stock and trade. Best make your peace with that now.”

      Stefan opened his mouth to say more, but then wisely shut it instead. Whether under the cold steel of the wind or his father’s glare, the boy wilted. And so on they plodded through the ever deepening snow. 

      It was only a few steps further when the frosty silence broke with a sharp crack, and Bella’s horrible shriek cut through the air. Nothing could curdle blood like the raw terror of a broke-leg horse’s scream, but Daniel knew he had no time to flinch. Not only had Bella snapped her leg, but now she pitched forward past the path’s edge and threatened to tumble right over, down a sharp incline into the rocky gulch below.

      The terrified horse desperately clawed her way backwards, one foreleg dangling uselessly, the other three unable to find purchase on the slippery ground, bleating in confused horror. Stefan dashed to grab the flailing beast’s bridle and tried to pull her back from the edge with all his might.

      “The wagon!” Daniel cried. “Grab onto the wagon and pull!”

      Stefan gave him a bewildered look, but did as he was told, scrambling to heave on the backside of the wagon. As he did, Daniel lunged forward with his buck knife and cut the tethers which bound horse to cart. Barely quick enough, because it was just then that Bella slid forward and tumbled head over hoof, her wails punctuated as she was battered by the jagged rocks the whole way down, until her broken body lay silent in the gulch below.

      Daniel and Stefan barely managed to haul the wagon back from sharing Bella’s fate. Daniel’s chest swelled with pride as he struggled to catch his breath, but the boy gazed upon him with horror.

      “You didn’t even try to save her,” Stefan accused.

      “There was nothing to be done,” Daniel assured him. “But we saved our wares, lad. Think. If we sell all this we can buy a team of horses half her age.”

      Stefan muttered something.

      “What was that?”

      “I said to hell with the wares! Bella would have been fine if you hadn’t overloaded her!”

      Daniel’s hand struck the boy’s cheek as if by its own volition. Stefan stared at him like an animal with its leg stuck in a trap, but Daniel could only look at his own hand with stupefied wonder.

      He turned his back without meeting the boy’s eye. “Up, lad. You’ve still a way to go.”

      “I have?”

      Daniel nodded. “One of us needs to stay here to mind the wares. That’ll be me. You’re lighter of foot and less likely to stumble. You just need to get down to the woods and bring back some fuel for a fire.”

      “But I don’t know the way!”

      “Nothing to know. Just follow the path there and back. You’ll have the hatchet with you, and it chops wolves as well as wood. You’ve nothing to worry about.”

      He placed the axe in Stefan’s hands, and the boy stared at it as though he’d handed him a fairy’s wand and asked him to cast a spell. “Why do the wares need minding? Ain’t nobody around for miles.”

      “Wares always need minding,” Daniel said. Did the fool boy not understand the worth of what they were hauling? “And only good habits that one never breaks can bring good fortune. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

      Stefan must have taken the lesson to heart, because he hung his head and accepted his fate. Down the path the boy slunk, disappearing into the storm. Daniel grabbed his musket and took up a perch atop the wagon full of leathers. He snuggled himself into the wares, thinking to warm himself, but they were long since frozen solid.

      They must have been on the trail longer than he’d thought, because night soon fell like a headsman’s axe. It had been impossible to track the sun’s descent through the storm, but its presence was made known by its absence. Daniels’ world was a blur of black and white, and even if could he see the trail, he knew that the path had already blown over enough to cover Stefan’s tracks. But Daniel would not abandon his post. His teeth were chattering, and he forced a mantra of something about “good habits” through the ice-covered gears in his brain.

      There was a low growl coming from down the trail. Through the haze he could see them clearly, two yellow eyes staring back at him. It was the cougar, and it had come for the skins! Daniel raised his musket and fired. The eyes disappeared, but there was no telltale howl of defeat. He must have missed. And there were the eyes again, to the side! Daniel’s frozen hands nearly dropped the gun as he fumbled powder and ball into the musket for a reload. His shot was again answered by silence. While reloading, somewhere in his mind a voice whispered that the cougar eyes couldn’t be there, floating past the path’s edge. But that voice was silenced by the sight of yellow eyes once more, coming up the path. And Daniel roared along with his musket as he sent another ball tearing into the darkness, and this time there did come a cry of pain in its wake.

      And for a moment the storm seemed to still. Time as well. For it was no cat’s scream, but that of Stefan standing there in the snow, fingers raised to the gaping hole where his eye used to be, poking the wound with the curiosity of a tot. 

      “Pa…” Then the boy crumpled in the snow, and there he lay still.

      Daniel rushed to him, wares finally forgotten, but it was far too late. There was naught to do but clutch his lifeless son to his chest, wailing at the same sky which had received their joyful songs with equal readiness just days before, as a snowy lullaby tucked them into a bed where they might finally rest.

Forested Hope

Wanda Halabis

The sky is dark,
the woods are quiet – 
footsteps in the snow like the soft hums of traffic.
A twig snaps,
an animal scampers,
and now the forest has a heartbeat of its own.
I wait with bated breath,
nerves tingling at my sides.
Shivers crawl when I hear it,
a door being leaned on.
I turn and see a light 
flash through a window through a home that’s just appeared.
There is magic in the cool air of winter.
Bitten frost shielded by furs,
I make my way to the home and knock.
I sense an eye watching me, contemplating,
and I know I won’t get what I want.
The door opens and I am blasted by it all – 
the wind, the face, the memories.
Pain and wrath and hope run through me,
and I am left desperate, urging you to feel the same.
As the moon cackles and the trees titter,
I know the answer at once.
A journey it was for me,
Another day just for you.

It is happening again.
A line said out of humour is taken as a slight – 
a twisted meaning,
an unintentional reflection.
I shrink myself in every way I know –
into myself, my hair, my words.
I am too much, 
I take it too far,
and we are roots of two very different trees.

I stutter a step back,
let the door close the words
threatening to topple over themselves in my throat:
Why not?

Asee N Silla Interview

Asee N Silla

Asee N Silla was born in a hillside village in Sicily and immigrated to Canada in the late fifties with her family. She was one of eight children. The death of her two young sisters left her with a deep sadness and continues to influence her life. After graduating from theatre, she formed a number of theatre companies. She has trained actors in Canada, India and New York City for over twenty years as well as successfully producing videos. She published her first book, ‘Love Beads,’ with Pegasus Publishers on November 30, 2023.

Love Beads is a soft version of The Odyssey. While The Odyssey is fraught with storms, fights, physical challenges and death in order to explore the world, relationships and one’s limits on the journey home, Love Beads is fraught with self-denial, abuse, self-doubt and chasing false hopes in order to explore the world, relationships, and one’s limits to return home with self-love.

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Asee that covers her hopes for the book, the journey it took to getting published, healing from grief, what it means to be an artist, and more.

Congratulations on publishing your first book! How does it feel?

      It hasn’t quite hit me—I was really excited two years ago when they accepted it, but now I’m just going through the process. I think I'll really feel excited once I know how people are going to respond to it.

How do you hope that people respond to it?

      I would like it to inspire them and give them some hope. A friend of mine who had been going through a lot of difficulties read it, and she loved the book. When she got to the end, she laid down and put it on her heart and laid there for 20 minutes. When she told me that, I felt really, really happy about it.

This book deals with very vulnerable feelings of shame, guilt, and uncertainty. How did you feel writing that, and was it hard to put on the page?

      No, it wasn't hard. What happened is I wrote it in 2006 after I picked up this tiny little book while travelling called the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, who is a Persian writer. I found myself really liking the way he wrote. The first part starts:

“Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

    And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.”

      So I found myself reading that, and then all these images came to me, and I literally wrote it in about 3 days. It just poured out of me once I discovered the rhythm and the style. 

      Like I said, this was in 2006, and I had been writing poetry all my life and kind of took it for granted, so I didn’t do anything about it. Then, about 4 years ago, a friend of mine was helping me publish–well, it’s not really publishing, but we put my poems together, and she put some images to them. So I started thinking–the reaction to Love Beads was quite strong, and I shared it with a publisher in Ottawa and they wanted to publish it, but I said no because at that time I wasn't ready for some reason.

      Then two years ago, I thought maybe I should do something about it. That's when I picked it up again, and then Pegasus took it up.

That's a long time in between. Was it just the passing time that you needed, or was there something that happened that helped you feel ready to publish it?

      I'm not sure. I was busy working in 2006. I was working full-time. I don't think I had the courage for that, and I guess it's taken me all that time. 

      Way back in 1978, I had an opportunity to be on National radio for about an hour, and it fell through, but I was glad that it didn't happen because I wasn’t ready for the attention then; now I feel ready for it. I think there's something about being ready for things when they're meant to happen. 

      There was a very popular TV series in the 70s on at 11 o’clock at night called Mary Hartman, and I had the privilege of meeting the actress who played Mary. I had lunch with her, and she said she was in her early twenties at the time and never expected the tsunami of attention she got, and she wasn't prepared for it. It was good for me to talk to her about it. Getting attention requires a certain emotional preparation, and I feel ready for it now. I wouldn't have been ready five years ago.

That makes a lot of sense. I imagine that to get that much attention, you have to be very still and centred inside to avoid getting pulled apart by other people's opinions.

      That's absolutely right. I think I've come to a point in my life where I feel very centred and very still. And very much at peace.


If you don't want to talk about this, you don't have to, but a part of what intrigued me about your author bio was that you put in the matter of the death of your two younger sisters. I figured there's a lot that you could have put in, but you chose that. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about how they influenced your life and your creativity.

      I was kind of like a mother to my sisters. I came from a family with eight children at the time, and their deaths influenced me a lot. It hurt me in a number of ways–one of them being that, as children, my siblings and I never really dealt with their deaths. We cried together, we had the funeral, we did all these things, but we never really talked about what our sisters meant to us. 

      One of the things that I've been thinking about is how we integrate deaths in our lives. A lot of people say to just move on, but what are we moving on from? What's become clear to me is that we have to integrate our past with our present in order to shape a future. Suppressing our past doesn't deepen our sense of ourselves and doesn't strengthen who we are.

      So, my sisters died. Every time I think about them, I do cry. They were angels. I think about them a lot. I've got five other siblings, and it would be really nice to get together to cry with them and talk about what they meant to us, but we've never done that, and at the time, there was really nobody that could help us do that. It was really hard on our parents. So we were there to support our parents, but nobody was there to support us. One of my sisters died in a car accident, and our youngest brother, who played with her all the time, when he goes past that spot, he’ll say, “This is where she died, this is where she died.” So it's still very present to us.

      I love the Jewish shiva because they take the time to mourn, and I find we treat death today like fast food. We get over it really quickly, and I think we need to take time to mourn or else it continues to stay within us.

Yes, it does. There’s an idea that really stuck with me from a Dr. Lois Tonkin that goes something like ‘grief doesn't get smaller, but your life grows around it.’ And there’s this beautiful image that goes with it where people expect grief to get smaller and smaller, but it doesn’t. So instead your life grows, and as you add more to it, grief gets smaller in proportion to the rest of your life, but there's this core of scar tissue and love that never changes.


Out of everything you've done, and it doesn't have to be work related, what are you most proud of?

      I think that my greatest creations are my sons. Yeah, yeah, they were. It took me a while to understand that. I was trying to prove myself as an artist and so on, then one year I brought them to Cuba with me, and I just realised this, this is the greatest creation. Good solid human beings with integrity. It's key. It's really what it's all about. 

      My sons have gone out into the world. One of them is going to France and doing trampwall with Disney and at the same time working on a PhD thesis on the impact of drugs on the brain, and another son set up his own company to deal with dogs. So I–knock on wood–just hope they continue to have integrity and contribute to themselves and to others. One of the things I said to them when they were venturing off is, “Your biggest adventure is to find something that'll give you energy and joy every day. That's the only thing worth having.”


How do you select your projects?

      Well, I did a T.V. series on the media, and that series came about because I was dealing with very small cultural groups that were having a hard time getting in touch with the mainstream media to have their stories heard. And I knew people in mainstream media who were saying they don't know who to contact in various minority groups. So I created a project that came out of that need. So to answer your question, my projects come out of a need. I don't think of a project–the need is first, and I respond to it. It's something that I see and feel in the community.

      I've never been motivated by money. It's more… yeah, I just wanted to do things because I needed to do it. I was fulfilling something. But you have to create a situation where you can earn money for yourself. I always think about Anton Chekhov. He was a doctor, and he wrote these wonderful plays, but he wasn’t dependent on them for his livelihood. I feel really lucky that I was able to teach and hone my skills and understanding of theatre and teaching, and when I left it, I have all of this time now, and I don't have to depend on my writing or my artwork to get money.

      I explained this to a friend of mine who’s a writer. She really wants to be recognised, and she wants to make money out of it, and I said to her, “If you have someone coming to your home, and they're doing repairs, would you want someone who's doing it just for the money, or would you want someone who really loved what they're doing?” 

      And she said, “The person who really loved it would go that extra mile.” 

      And I said, “Yeah, not only would they go that extra mile, you’ll want them again, and they’ll profit because people are willing to pay for them because they love what they're doing and do a really good job. And I would say the same thing applies to art. You do it because you love it, not because you're going to get money from it or because you're going to be recognised. That’ll happen in time, and if it doesn't happen, that's okay, too.”

      I used to teach theatre classes in New York, and I had to admire these people. They wanted so badly to be actors that they'd be waiting tables and all these other things, yet they'd be there in the morning, taking these classes. Because that's what they loved, and that was truly amazing. One gal was a lawyer in Montreal, and she would go back to Montreal every weekend to do her cases and to fulfil whatever it was that she was fulfilling, and then she'd be back in class on Monday. 

I’m glad we’re talking about this because I imagine a lot of people who are reading this are trying to pursue creative careers, so it’s good to hear how others start becoming actors and artists.

      When I was dealing with Pegasus, one of the first things they asked was what kind of blurb I wanted to write on the back cover. They were initially going to lay out the plot of the story, and I said no, it's a soft version of the Odyssey. When I first thought about it, I thought this was really arrogant, but then I thought about it a bit more, and the most difficult war we have is the war within ourselves, and we never really talk about it. The character is going through this internal war, wanting something but wanting something outside of herself, and it's not until she kind of realises that that's not what's going to give her what she wants that she can then settle down. I was participating in a conference last week, talking to artists, and I was listening to this one man who was very creative, and he was saying he only started to express his art when he started to call himself an artist.

      And I thought, we don't need to give ourselves the permission to call ourselves an artist. We are just creative, expressive beings, and we just have to give ourselves permission to do that all the time. If we just give ourselves the chance to experiment and be creative, not necessarily in art or music but even just being creative when planting or being creative when cooking or being creative when arranging our homes. These are all expressions of our creativity; we just have to own it moment by moment by finding the beauty in everything we do.


Do you have any closing remarks?

      Everything's an experiment, and there’s no right or wrong as long as you’re not harming anyone. Just experience things as fully as possible, and be true to yourself, and…yeah, we just have one life really. Go do the best that you can with it.

      And thank you for taking the time to interview me. I really appreciate it.

Tim Johnson Interview

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson is the CEO and founder of Couply: The App for Couples. He was previously the Director of Brand Partnerships at Wattpad and authored 3 science fiction and fantasy books, hitting #1 on Amazon. He’s been featured in Tech Crunch, Apple App Store, Well + Good, Cosmopolitan, MakeUseOf, and more.

I saw that you have three novels, worked at Wattpad for five years, worked on Couply for part of your time at Wattpad, and started working on Couply full-time after winning the 2021 Collision startup conference, is that right? How did you manage all of that?

      Yeah, that's correct. I definitely had to drop some things to focus on Couply. When I was working at Wattpad, I did write two books, which was really fun, and a big part of the way that I got them written was being part of a writing group, which I helped organize on the platform. 

      If anyone reading this isn't aware, Wattpad is a reading and writing website that helps authors connect with audiences for their stories. There's a huge problem in the book space in which only 1 in 1,000 stories actually get published, so Wattpad is a place where any author can put their story on the platform and start building an audience and a community around their novel and around themselves.

      What's so cool about Wattpad is that you truly draw an audience based on your creativity and your art more than anything else, and you could do it anonymously. I thought that was really fun when I was writing because no one knew who I was and they didn't really care. They just cared about the characters and the story.

      So I organized a writing group with other Wattpad writers who also worked for Wattpad or who lived in the area, and they'd come to Wattpad HQ once a week to write, and we continued that remotely during the pandemic. So that's how I wrote when I was at Wattpad doing Couply on the side. 

      I had to stop writing to focus on Couply, and it took some mornings and all weekends to make an MVP of the platform. I took a week off work to go to the Collision conference, and we weren't expecting to win by any means–we were just expecting to get feedback and maybe some users if people thought it was interesting, so that all came as a very big surprise. 

      I was very lucky that the founders of Wattpad were very cool and have always been the most incredibly supportive people, but I think it's important to note that even when I was building Couply, I was a top performer at Wattpad, and I made sure that it stayed off the field versus impacting my role, which built a lot of trust as well. I really was very dedicated to both of those projects and very dedicated to crushing it while I was at Wattpad, so it's not easy to balance side projects with a main job. And I think it's much easier to do if you're really good at your job and at focusing.

How much did you rely on personal motivation versus having a system?

      I've never not been motivated. I'd say I'm like an extremely motivated person once I focus on my objectives, but I think it really just became a system of waking up at five and working on Couply for a few hours, working on Couply all day till eight on Sundays, and then the rest of the time was Wattpad.

      My co-founder would also spend some time on Couply in the evening, so we’d normally connect at seven or eight for a bit before he would pass it off to me when he went to bed which was around three, and then I'd wake up and pick up the baton at five and that way we managed to make good progress. Building a startup is really hard, and I think it's really powerful if you can get some signals that this is going to work without needing to quit your day job and potentially putting yourself into some financial trouble.

      Founders have disgusting hours and work all the time, and I'm obsessed with it, and if I'm not careful, I'll just talk about Couply all the time. So my partner and I have set up rules around how much I can talk about it as well.

What was your mindset going into Couply? Did you ever have self-doubt over whether you were qualified to be working on this?

      Yeah, 100%. I did feel imposter syndrome at the beginning, and as a first-time founder, you're doing everything for the first time. You don't know how to do anything. Everything, everything is complicated, and everything is zero to one over and over and over again. So really you spend a lot of time just trying to figure out how to do stuff. And that's the job.

I was wondering how you would compare building a startup to writing a book, especially since you had a co-founder whereas writing a book is a solitary activity, but at the same time you're working on it outside of your day job, and I'm sure it takes a lot of creative energy.

      I think it's very very similar. And I think writing a book is not a solitary activity. It's sometimes romanticized to be, but for your book to get really good, you need to have proofreaders. You need to have beta readers. You have an editor. It's a true team sport with multiple rounds of feedback during which other people come in and get into your world, right? It’s very very similar to launching a product. You work on it for two years, you put your blood, sweat, and tears into it, you build something that you pray people love. You've really crafted.

      With both books and apps, you put them out, and if you've done a good thing, you'll get lots of five star reviews. But it's reviewed. It is in the public’s hands. They read it, they review it, and you get more feedback. So it's very much a group thing.

Were there any memorable reviews or conversations you had in your journey? 

      Yeah, the story where I truly realized I needed to go all in on Couply was when I was on holiday in Jamaica, and I did a user interview where this guy that had been using Couply basically said, “Hey, because of you, I've got my family back. Like, I'd moved out, I'm renting an apartment. My wife's in the house. We have four kids and have been together 20 years, and we were all but broken up as a couple. This was our last line of communication. We kept doing it question after question, quiz after quiz, and we slowly rebuilt this understanding, and using the app for two weeks meant that I understood more about my wife than I had in the last 20 years. And I've understood so many of the things that we were doing wrong, and now we've started to meet back up, and now I'm moving back in.” And that's so very very exciting and an amazing impact to have on anyone. So you do get deep into it. 

      If the analogy with books is that I was lucky to have one of my books be very well read on Wattpad–I think 850,000 times or have 850,000 page views of it, which is really cool, and I got some amazing letters and comments from that. I had people say, “Hey, I'd been hospitalized, and I’m going through something really hard, and I've just been reading this book, and I'm the same age as the main characters. I'm 15, and the main character is going through all this hard stuff, and I'm just trying to be brave like her and every time I go to sleep, I'm imagining that I'm going to a magical world like she is.” And I’m like, my God, this is wild. So it's wonderful to have an impact. It's wonderful to be read, and it's wonderful to help people in their relationships, too.

Do you feel like you would go back to writing, and do you think you would write the same things?

      There are book ideas that I'm just writing into my notes that I'm not pursuing at the moment, but one day, of course I'll go back to writing, you couldn’t stop me. I get a big creative outlet just from building a company. It’s a challenge that does exhaust every single part of you including the creative part, but I’ll go back to writing one day. Absolutely 100%.

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