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The way Maia saw it, the universe was an endless cycle of giving and taking. It had its way of keeping balance between good and bad, love and hate, this and that. For the givers, the most difficult part was trusting that it would happen for you. For takers, this was the easiest thing in the world.
Maia’s grandmother used to always warn her, “Sonnyeo, the world inside your mind is much prettier than the one out here. You must find a bridge between the two or else you will only do harm to yourself expecting the pretty things with none of the ugly that comes with them. Listen to what the universe is telling you. Don’t get trapped in your head.”
As a child, Maia always imagined finding her bridge between worlds would be satisfying, like sliding two pictures up against each other that don’t quite line up until they do. When that happened, everything would make sense. Now, she was still waiting, and it was slipping from the foreground of her mind. Her grandmother was always imparting wisdom that Maia felt she didn’t need. She appreciated her family and worked hard for a scholarship so they could prioritize her grandfather’s healthcare bills. If she took from the universe now, it was because she had compiled a surplus of giving. She wasn’t ashamed to admit she felt entitled to the current ease at which she experienced life. Though perhaps it was no bridge, Maia had found a touchstone to ground her relationship with the universe. It was called Cairn Hall.
Cairn Hall wasn’t a particularly attractive place of learning. It did not have large windows, slender designs, or impressive ceilings like the well-lit, well-funded buildings in the west end. It was a forgotten sanctuary on the outskirts of prestigious society, housing primarily those whose success was adjacent to suffering. There was an underlying understanding (see: desperate hope) that the latter would translate to the former. This dry, winter night, Maia and her girlfriend Becks were the building’s sole inhabitants. Those who frequented the dimly lit, shrubby paths surrounding it would know this was becoming a
common occurrence. Becks dragged herself home every night with twitching eyes and dust in her nose. Still, they returned. It was worth it.
Maia knew that the word busy battered around Becks’ brain with a persistence unique to contradictory things. Some days, the word was a pathetic excuse. Others, she wore it like a badge of legitimacy. Maia was worried that Becks was losing every other aspect of her identity. She was intimately familiar with the face Becks would make as it became more difficult to ignore the inclination to vomit. Giving everything in exchange for success never felt like enough. Maia watched this and vowed it would never be her. She guarded her mind and wellbeing staunchly. The universe would understand. Of course, Maia still had high expectations of herself, so if she had debts to repay, she would gladly do that later in life when she had amassed a slough of wonderful experiences and was prepared to wind down. As two students passed through the hall where they sat, Maia watched Becks duck her shoulders and poise her arm to write, tactfully appearing both diligent and destroyed. Becks was singularly proud of the dark circles stamped under her eyes. Lately, she had been feeling an amicable shift in attitude towards the mental fatigue her work was costing her. It was something to cling to when the daunting fear of worthlessness crept in. The fatigue was worthy of reward. Maia was worried that the fatigue was a punishment.
The click of heels on tile roused her from her thoughts, but when Maia peered down the hall, nothing manifested to explain the sound. Unphased, Becks rubbed her eyes and continued her work. It was possible Becks couldn’t even hear it. Cairn Hall was always working in ways it would only reveal when necessary. Trust was an essential part of the relationship it had with the students in its bowels. No one in their right mind broke its trust.
Maia sipped her tea and encouraged Becks to do the same before it cooled. The girl obliged with a half-hearted smile and received a peck on the cheek. She sighed.
Maia fiddled with a pen and took the opportunity to admire the diligent girl before her. Becks didn’t know it, but she had the kind of presence that drifted like salty air across people’s faces, softening crevices and healing cracked skin. Every step she took gave a piece of her away. I am a part of this, her shoulders said. I have a purpose. Maia could spend all day trailing behind her, admiring her earthly craftsmanship. Becks looked up at her and Maia knew there was an apology on her lips.
“You’re tired,” Maia emphasized, forgiving her before she had admitted to anything.
“Good thing my type is women who haven’t slept in a millennium.”
“It’s worth it,” Becks explained.
Maia rolled her eyes and kissed Becks’ palm. She pulled her girlfriend up with only some resistance. “You work so hard. I’m sure if you took more breaks Cairn would understand.”
Becks reminded Maia kindly that sacrificing sleep was part of her agreement with Cairn. But she always had more to give. She would give anything. Maia procured a sweater for her and she gathered into it with a deep breath. As they retreated home, Maia dropped a snack-sized bag of Hickory Sticks into the vending machine. That was part of her own deal with the building. Becks waited for her to finish and let out a silent prayer as they stepped into the night. She didn’t say it to Maia, but she was growing afraid that her girlfriend wasn’t giving enough. Becks tried to have faith in her, but in truth she didn’t understand. For her, the desire for success was a physical ache. She had to trust. It would all be worth it.
Killing yourself for success was not worth it. This was a hill Maia would die on, and how could anyone argue otherwise when billionaires sit on piles of money pulling themselves up by the bootstraps of those they took advantage of for profit? So, she asked more of Cairn. This was a dangerous game, but she knew her limits. Just one more request, then she would re-establish a balance.
She was at a public table in between classes, drawing in her sketchbook as Becks studied when her friend Emory joined them. The boy standing before Maia looked like he had just walked in from a spring shower with his rain-spattered shoulders, blustery hair and pink-tinged face. It was 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside in the Tennessee winter. She removed her bag from a chair for him.
“Hey Em,” she greeted as he sat. They had met in ‘Intro to 19th Century Homoerotic Literature’ and he was a formidable discussion partner. They chatted easily until Maia took a fleeting bathroom break. The toilet on the far right was flushing incessantly as she walked in. Six minutes later as she left, it was still roaring. As she walked, the sound faded to a muffled echo. The stiff, hushed atmosphere in the hall seemed infinitely more pronounced now. Soon, she promised Cairn, knowing her assurances would be received. She hadn’t had the time to arrange a suitable settlement for all that she took, but she would. When she sat at the table again, her chest was tight.
Across where Becks’ books were spread, Emory had retrieved a deck of cards and was shuffling them in his hands. He looked up as she approached. He had child’s eyes. “You like tarot?” Maia’s interest was piqued.
“It’s reassuring,” he nodded. “It doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, but it says it better than I ever could. Helps me focus my energy.”
“Do me,” Maia urged excitedly. He complied and handed her the deck. The cards were gritty, faded things, like they’d been worried over by furtive hands for years. Emory instructed her to shuffle the cards while focusing inward and choose one as it called to her. She did.
The poised lady on the card looked pensively down at the chalices clutched in her hands. Water flowed between them and around her feet where she stood, toe dipped in a pond and fertile land all around. Her wings and brow emitted a regal glow. She was upside-down.
“Temperance reversed,” Emory nodded slowly. “You out of balance, Maia?”
Becks’ eyebrows made a condescending shape. Maia scoffed, tearing her gaze away from the woman on the card. Looking pointedly at Emory, she insisted she was fine. He had dead eyes. Maia asked him what his card was.
“The Fool. Reversed,” he said. “Same time next Tuesday?”Maia nodded and watched the 1989 World Series patch on his backpack bounce as he disappeared to his next class.
Maia had everything under control. She could afford one more request. So when Becca confronted her about her behaviour later that week, Maia was sufficiently taken aback.
“You can’t keep going!” Becca insisted when Maia had shared her intentions at lunch.
“You’ve taken too much; Cairn always gets its dues.”
“And it will, I just need help one more time. You know my future depends on it.”
Maia didn’t understand. The two girls had spent countless nights awake whispering their deepest fears and dreams. Of all people, Maia expected Becca to support her.
Becca threw her hands up. “You never needed it Maia, how can you not see you’re capable on your own? You used to be so hard working, and now? You’re in deep debt.”
Suddenly, Maia’s confusion landed in a far more substantial pit of anger. The chill of understanding settled over her. She felt she was seeing her girlfriend with a new clarity, and she let out a cold laugh.
“Oh, I see,” Maia barked. “You want it all to yourself, is that it? And god forbid anyone threatens your precarious little affair with the only thing that can help us.”
“I-, what?” Becca looked taken aback. “Maia, I’m careful, I always give Cairn an equal exchange, you think maintaining this balance is easy? I’m tired too!”
Maia was dismissive. “You clearly don’t want to see me succeed. You just like having someone you can tote around through all your accomplishments but as soon as I might get enough help to be better than you, you’re trying to hold me back!”
“How can you say that?”
“Maybe I should just give up this relationship to Cairn since it’s founded on nothing but your selfishness. Maybe I’m tired of being controlled!” Maia watched with a sick sense of satisfaction as Becca’s face shifted countless times in a desperate scramble to comprehend the situation. Meanwhile, Maia felt as though she had just had a massive weight lifted off her chest. Breathing heavily, she gave a firm nod. This was what she had to do.
Becca stammered. “Maia that’s not—it won’t—it has to be a sacrifice.”
“So you’re admitting there’s nothing in this relationship worth clinging to. Well, it’ll have to do. Cairn will understand.” With nothing more to say, Maia sauntered off with a sick sense of satisfaction. As she distanced herself further and further from the conflict, a lump crept greedily into her throat. She ignored it.
It didn’t take long for Maia to find Emory and unload her frustrations on him without a word of warning. He only nodded several times throughout her rant, and motioned for her to sit, sliding Temperance across the table.
“Are you going to ask for more anyways?” he asked dangerously. Maia didn’t see how she had another choice. Petty rage had seized her, and she would do anything to prove Becca wrong. She had it under control. In the end, it was a swift request, a hefty plea into the atmosphere, and the deed was done.
Now, she could only wait to see the results. Emory was nodding again. There was a tightness to his jaw.“Let’s try something new,” he said. “I know a good studying spot.” His bitter voice did not match his youthful eyes at all today. Maia, prideful and impulsive after her recent actions, agreed. He guided her to the rearmost staircase.
“Does this one have windows?” Maia joked.
“There’s a really great view.” Emory’s voice was strained, presumably from the ascent.
When they reached the uppermost public access door, he didn’t even glance, instead continuing to a mall utility entrance against a shoddy metal railing. The ceiling was low in a way that was agonizing to Maia’s peripheral vision. She swallowed down the churning in her throat and focused on how she adored the charming, nagging sensation that she was part of something more. Her chest was tight.
Emory approached the door with an unexpected hesitation. A dull buzzing filled the space between their breaths as it swung silently open. Fluorescent lights flickered almost imperceptibly fast, harshly illuminating the white floors. Maia waited for Emory to move.
Then, she prompted him forward and he seemed to jolt, like she had woken him unexpectedly from a dream. Nodding slowly, almost to himself, Emory stepped inside. Maia was unsurprised to find the room dusty, dim, and yellowing. What she was not expecting, however, was the pristine, carefully crafted paper model of the city that spanned its entire floorspace. She made an involuntary sound and took a step as if it would disappear at any sudden movement. Weaving through the gentle craftmanship, Maia admired the delicate skyscrapers, tiny cars, and people frozen in time. It felt uncomfortably intimate. Her eyes landed on the unmistakable figure of Becca in the class Maia knew was happening right now. The pattern of her own sweater was immaculate in the fluorescent light. She had forgotten Becca was still wearing it. Maia’s eyes flew to Emory in alarm.
“Did you make this?” Maia asked, but she already understood the impossibility of that. Everything in the room felt impossible. “Is this now? Where are we?” She didn’t mean physically. Her eyes scanned the model almost frantically.
Maia froze. She couldn’t breathe. In the rafters of the university theatre a paper person swung gently from a paper rope. Through the pallid, translucent skin of the doll, Maia’s own angular nose was unmistakeable.
“But…I’m right here,” she said with a growing sense of desperation. “Em? I’m right here!”
“I was too,” Emory said sadly, and his face flickered like the lights. Cairn Hall was watching.
Maia whipped towards the door. Locked. She turned back. Emory was staring at her.
Maia wondered if he’d always looked so defeated. Without breaking their gaze, he
drew his gritty tarot deck from a pocket. Took a deep breath. Plucked a card. In his
outstretched hand, the winged woman wore Maia’s face.
“Oh,” she whispered. “Oh.”
When my great-grandmother died, she was taken back to Greece and laid to rest in the
village cemetery. This was the last time my pappou left Canada and visited his home. It’s been
Now, here I am. After a month in Greece with my sister, we’ve found ourselves in our
valley. A smattering of small, Mediterranean villages spill down the sides of the mountains, and I
can call four of them my own, one for each grandparent. Being here feels like going on vacation,
but also like coming home. I shuffle into flip-flops and onto the heat-drenched porch with my
coffee in hand. Inside, my aunt curls her hair. My sister is still sleeping.
The olive trees for which my maternal grandmother’s village is named grow in well
organized patchwork groves which rest, intermixed with fig and orange trees, like a quilt draped
over the valley. They have settled comfortably between the mountains and the ancient sea.
Sunlight and the breeze occasionally tease the olive leaves into rippling like silver-green waves
across the earth, and a short distance below, the foamy sea waves lap at the crumbling banks of a
serrated cliff. The earth never quite decides on sand or dirt or stone. Paved roads, dusty roads,
and donkey roads cut through the groves and weave up the sides of mountains like red seams
hinting at generations of travel. The mountains themselves are a comforting presence which
stand proud and untouched. Lazy clouds wash their edges smooth, like stones in a river so large
it doesn’t have to obey time. Shadows drift across the face of the mountain and shapely groves.
The arrhythmic buzzing of cicadas provides background music for every moment of existence,
impervious to it all.
I stand in the shade of the porch. The olive trees ripple. Cicadas buzz. The waves roll
onto the shore. I take a sip of coffee, and my aunt emerges from the house. My hands find
themselves in my wind-tangled, morning hair. She, of course, is always meticulous. She is my
father’s sister who also lives in Canada, and it’s our first time in Greece together. Though born
across the Atlantic Ocean, she radiates with the unique intersection of love, carefully crafted
poise and the animalistic tenacity it requires to endure life here. Her name is Aphrodite.
We spend the day on the beach. That evening, we have dinner with family in my
pappou’s village of Sykea. We sit at the long table outside in the platea at the center of town. My
great-uncles sit at one end, and the women at the other. The men communicate in story, grunt,
shrug, laugh, grunt. I see exactly why the word laconic was named after this region of Greece.
They’re endearing in their stubbornness. My aunt is a product of their iron-clad hearts. Their
love is all-consuming yet well-concealed. I think that my pappou should be here.
My Theio Lambro is my yiayia’s younger brother, and my Theio Giorgi is my pappou’s
younger brother. They know each other well independent of their siblings’ marriage. Everyone
does in these tiny villages. Theio Giorgi’s laugh lights up the dark streets. Through deep crevices
and crooked teeth, he embodies true happiness. Theio Lambro is recalling a story from their
trouble-making youth. Theio Giorgi was driving them in a pickup truck on a cliffside, and Theio
Lambro took a turn so he could nap. What Theio Lambro never revealed until now, at least 45
years later, is that he had no idea how to drive manual, and with Theio Giorgi sleeping in the
passenger seat, they barely got home alive. Theio Giorgi exaggerates his shock. We’re all
The best stories in my family are revealed at the dinner table, in the kitchen or kouzina,
after some wine and good food – it’s the picture of Mediterranean indulgence. Food is love.
Stern, teasing Lambro will never tell me he’s happy we’re here. He criticizes my bad Greek
constantly. Still, he gets my attention across the table and offers me the last piece of octopus. He
buys us more saganaki because he sees how fast we ate it. He constantly refills my glass with
wine. Then, of course, he teases me about my drinking as if it’s not his fault. As if I can refuse.
But I find myself smiling. This is familiar.
“Do you girls want to see the house your pappou grew up in?” Theio Giorgi directs his
attention to us. The cicadas buzz. It’s a short walk down the road until we have to turn on our
phone flashlights to see up a crumbling path. The house is a squat, stone-and-plaster thing, built
on a hill. It’s not hallowed ground but we’re reverent. I’ve been here before, too young to
remember. There’s a quivering thrum in my chest. Theio Giorgi unlocks the door.
I blink and wave away dust. He turns on primitive, bare lightbulbs and we walk through a
narrow hallway past a bathroom. I know this is new, because my father tells stories of losing his
slipper down the hole-in-the-ground that was their outhouse one night, and dropping matches into it to see. This was another kouzina-conversation, and I can picture him chuckling as he
describes the rancid smell of burning shit.
We all disperse. The three small rooms are barren and unfurnished, but I open every
built-in drawer and cupboard frantically, searching for artefacts. My heart clenches. I try and
imagine parents and their six children fitting here. I fail. Theio Giorgi explains how his mother
would cook from a single small pot over the fireplace and how they would share bowls. He
describes how the warmth of the kouzina would bring them all together at the end of the day.
These are things I can know. Others are harder. I know my father’s oldest brother is an
alcoholic with numbers tattooed on his left forearm akin to concentration camp survivors. For
this, I have no explanation. I’ll never get one. I know my pappou was taken out of school after
grade three and sent to the mountains alone for weeks with the sheep. He would be so hungry he
wouldn’t dust the ants off his loaf of bread before eating it. As a young man he laid the
foundation for the village’s coveted church. But I also know that I’ve never known anything.
There are some things I never will.
The back of the house slopes down the hill, and there is a second, lower entrance separate
from the main living space. Phone flashlights are mandatory. The animals were kept here,
underneath their floorboards. Theio Giorgi unlocks the chain sealing the door. I think to my own
horses and their acres of grazing land, and can’t conceptualize the thought of a horse, a donkey,
goats and the occasional pig in this cramped, rocky cavern. A rat darts through the eerie
shadows. I press my shaking hands into my thighs as I crouch. Eventually, my shoulders feel
lighter and it doesn’t feel like a betrayal to leave the space. Theio Giorgi chains it closed again,
and we drift away.
Silence hangs over us. I wipe my eyes and my sister sniffles. Theio Giorgi gives a sad
smile but we can see the same tragic weight on him. My pappou isn’t here but I feel like I know
him a little bit better for having come here. Theio Giorgi tells us to buy him a plane ticket and
force him to come, but Theio Giorgi also loves Greece. I say that we’ll try but this doesn’t feel
like a bond I can repair.
Some things, like my pappou’s refusal to return to Greece, remind me even as I believe
so strongly that their stories deserve to be told, I’m not doing this for them. I can’t fix this for
him. He can never have access to my musings about whether I’d ever risk bringing a girl home to meet the family. My grandmother doesn’t understand my university degree at all. They can’t
know me. But they love me unconditionally. No, not but. And. And they love me.
The truth is I come here for me. Because I love the feeling of knowing and being known.
I don’t know very much about them, but I know what it’s like to be loved by them. I know I run
the risk of not seeing them as the whole, lively, brimming people that they are. I’m
simultaneously afraid of, and searching for, the sensation of being wholly known and loved by
the same people. It’s not something I experience in my culture.
I think maybe love comes first, because being loved invites vulnerability. It reduces the
risks associated with exposing the stripped wires of our hearts, in such a way that we can make
The cicadas buzz. I’m extremely grateful. Sitting around the kouzina table, laughing and
sharing. Transcending barriers. I’ve already experienced true love.
Demons at the Gate
Ashu M. G. Solo
Anil didn’t want to cross the border into Canada
Because of crime,
Not crime committed within Canada,
But crime committed at the gate to Canada,
Not crime committed by ordinary criminals,
But crime committed by criminal border guards,
Those people meant to enforce the law,
But who instead have become above the law.
They stop, hassle, and search anyone
Who fits their prejudices, biases, and stereotypes;
They rarely search old white females
And frequently search young black and brown males.
Then acting just like little children
Going trick-or-treating on Halloween
While dressed up as border guards,
But with real guns at their sides,
They carry sacks full of fabricated charges
To empty on anyone they don’t like,
So Halloween becomes Devil’s Night
For what’s a trick on Anil is a treat to them.
It’s not that Anil is scared of them,
But he’s better than them
And doesn’t want to waste his time
Fighting demons at the gate.
Fire in the Mind’s Eye
Ashu M. G. Solo
While he suffers through the drudgery of life,
A brilliant blaze lights his mind’s eye
And sparks new ideas
And advances in R&D
To make the world glow.
This creative inferno never burns out,
But memories can smolder,
So he casts aside all distractions of work
And scrambles for his computer
To burn his ideas and advances onto DVD
Before they die away into ashes.
I looked back on the day when I met you,
We somehow felt the connection out of the blue,
Thank god we became close in a bit,
Eventually, you become my advisor and happiness kit,
I hope you come along, wherever I go,
To bear my drama and the tantrums which I throw,
You’ve bore so much with patience and understanding,
To overcome more problems that’ll come in your way, by your side, I’ll be standing,
Your lamest jokes make me die with laughter,
You’ll be my first and the last best friend, no one before, no one after
-describing an event in reverse-
Clouds of misery and despair in her head
She lay down, motionless, on her death bed.
Unstoppable tears flowed from her eyes every second,
And she persistently tried to forget what happened.
She knew her clothes weren’t the reason for this demonic result,
If anyone touched her now, she feared and repulsed with disgust.
She didn’t even give any ‘signals’ as coward men say in their defence,
Men say that ladies were ‘asking for it’ so that their act doesn’t look like an offence.
Her only fault was that she went out when the moon was shining bright at late night
Roads all lonely, no human in her sight.
She wasn’t home because it was a very special day-
Her boyfriend asked her to marry him
And now after this, she didn’t know what to say.
I fail to understand every time I am here
Why am I so lost and empty
So tangled in this space around me
I want to let go of this
I beg someone, please let me free.
Home is where you feel warm
Surrounded by someone you can count on
Then why do I find myself disappearing-
In this hollow hell,
Why do I see myself talking to my stars,
Blaming them for tearing me apart
Into some peaceful place lies my dream
Where I can be me, and that’ll be okay.
Where someone believes I have the magic,
The magic that now seems to go away.
Why should I be the object that’s there to compare
I don’t want to be the same person you need to bear.
Can’t for once, I be the person without flaws
For once, the person who does it right,
I am tired of being shaped the way you like.
I’ve been moulded too many times.
With more pressure, it’ll hurt me,
More than you already hurt me,
Maybe the most you’d ever be able to.
The more you force me to follow your ways,
The reason I’ll leave you will always be a daze.
She made you smile when you were at your worst,
Gave you hope when you thought your life was cursed.
She helped you get out of panic attacks at 3 in the night ,
And became the judge every time you and your conscience had a fight.
She was a rainbow and you were colourblind,
She’ll act like she doesn’t care, but you’ll always be on her mind.
She put you before herself, made you a priority.
You just hurt her in return and led her to anxiety.
She put herself on fire to keep you warm,
You might not realize her worth even when she’s gone.