Tuesday, December 12, 2017

"Cheers and Chores"

A blizzard had swept through the city overnight, dumping mounds of snow on everything from streets and sidewalks to telephone poles. Every home looked like a gingerbread house drowning in icing; every store window was frosted over with a shimmering crystal layer of white. Ashton woke up to the sunrise, late as it was this time of year. He threw back his blankets and lept out of bed like a jack-in-the-box, fully wound up and bursting with energy. He flung his curtains aside and whooped for joy at the sight of the snow. He pulled on his clothes and rushed down the stairs so he could get a closer look.

Ashton insisted on eating his breakfast on the front porch, out in the cold, just like the starling birds. His grandmother bundled him up in all his winter things, and sent him out with a shovel to clear a path to the table and chairs that were buried up to their armrests in a snow drift. Ashton dutifully cleared a path, removing the frozen barricade by dumping it, scoop by scoop, over the railing, and into the garden. No sense in sparing the flowers now, he thought. With any luck, we won’t see them again until Spring! When the path was cleared, Ashton came inside just long enough to trade his shovel in for cereal. Happily and carefully, the boy carried his bowl over to the table, brushed off his seat, and sat down for the meal. “Thank you for this oatmeal, and thank you for the snow,” he whispered. Eating warm things in a cold place is one of the loveliest sensations that winter has to offer. When he got to the bottommost dregs, Ashton flung a few spoonfuls over the front lawn and laughed as the starlings dove down from the rooftops to feast. Ashton’s grandparents did not as easily interpret the snow as an answer to prayer. Like many adults, a blizzard is a hassle to be reckoned with in their eyes, not a joy to be celebrated. Traffic delays and aching muscles were top of mind for them, not snowmen and skating rinks and hot cocoa with marshmallows.
Ashton readied himself for school. On his way out the door, he stood beside his grandfather who was looking out at their front steps with a weary expression on his face. He was holding the shovel in his hand, like a Christmas shepherd with his crook. He sighed, reluctantly.
Ashton stared at the snow and then back to the older man. “I can do it, Opa,” said Ashton, holding his hand out to take the responsibility and the shovel from his grandfather. “I’ve got time before school, and tons of energy! I cleared the deck already, see? Let me do it today.”
His grandfather smiled gratefully. “Thank you,” he said. “That would be quite a blessing.”
So Ashton shoveled a path from their front door to the sidewalk, then cleared the snow from the sidewalk in front of their house as well. The earth still held a bit of autumnal heat, so the snow was slushy and heavy where it lay nearest the ground. When the task was complete, Ashton traded the shovel for his backpack and headed off to school.
The snow continued to fall throughout the day. Ashton asked if he could eat his lunch by the big classroom windows, instead of at his desk, and his teacher had kindly indulged him. Though his grandparents’ house was around the corner from the school, Ashton could see that people in the neighbourhood had needed to clear their sidewalks more than once since he’d made it to school, and he suspected that the job might be waiting for him again when he got home at the end of the day.
And he was right. The snow was already creeping up past his ankles by the time he dropped his backpack inside the front door. He didn’t even announce his arrival before picking up the shovel and setting to work once again, clearing the walkway from the road to the house.
When he was finished their portion of the public sidewalk, Ashton looked over his handiwork with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Then he glanced over at the driveway next door and saw that not only was it buried by this new fall of snow, but they hadn’t yet cleared it from the overnight dump! Ashton knew in a moment what he was going to do. He’d seen his grandfather do it enough, and now it was his turn to serve their neighbours. He picked up the shovel and started to dig.
Ashton cleared the snow from their neighbourhood sidewalks and paths, moving around their street house by house, one scoop at a time. It was hard work! Ashton took a few breaks to go to the bathroom or to have a hot drink with his grandmother, but he didn't go inside for long until every house was cleared of snow and every muscle in his body jiggled with fatigue.
When his grandfather came home and discovered what Ashton had done, he couldn’t stop praising the boy! “I am so proud of you,” he said, beaming. “What a blessing you are.” Ashton smiled, blushing a little, and stared out the frosty window at the snow. He knew that more would come falling down this year, and when it did, he would be ready to bless them all over again.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

"Sound Waves and Heart Strings"

Kimora’s family owned a pawn shop in the east end of town. It was a busy place, with people and their possessions coming and going all the time. Very few things lingered longer than a month or two in their store, but Kimora’s favourite piece, a large antique radio, had become such an important part of her life that her parents said she could keep it.
The radio stood on the ground and was roughly the size of a suitcase.  It was made of dark wood by an American company back in the 1920’s. Kimora liked that she could listen to modern music through the old machine, and loved to think about the many generations of fingertips that had twisted the metal knobs, trying to catch hold of a frequency that would bring far-away sounds right into their home.

Tuning into a radio show was a tricky business, in those old days. It required a delicate touch and a patient ear to pick out just the right spot to stop turning the dial. It had taken a few weeks for Kimora to get the knack of listening through the static until she could clearly understand what the noises were saying or singing or playing, but as time past she mastered the art of tuning in. Kimora had a talent for tuning in other ways, too.  Whenever a guitar was brought into the pawn shop, it was her job to adjust the strings until each one played its proper note in tune. When a bicycle came in, she applied oil to its gears and scrubbed away the rust and grime, giving it a total tune-up. But the most important skill that Kimora spent her time developing was the ability to pay careful attention to conversation, until she could clearly understand what the other person was really trying to say. As with antique radios, sometimes you have to listen to a lot of static before you finally find a signal. Lyrissa came into the shop every Saturday afternoon with her dad. The girls didn’t go to the same school, but they were the same age and had formed a sort of friendship over the past few months. Lyrissa always went over to the book section first thing after arriving, and Kimora usually gave her a few minutes to look by herself before browsing the shelves by her side. When Lyrissa and her dad came through the door this week, though, Lyrissa walked straight over to the corner with the antique radio and curled up in one of the cushy wingback chairs. Kimora looked up from her comic book and watched her friend. Lyrissa was breathing through her nose, very slowly and deliberately, and keeping very still. Kimora focused her attention on the girl in the chair. She tuned out the clicking of the cash machine; she ignored the bell above the door that chimed every time someone entered or left; she disregarded the traffic outside, even when a siren raced past. All of those noises were nothing more than static. They sat like this for some time, in silence. When she thought the moment was right, Kimora spoke in a voice so gentle and soft that it was almost a whisper. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Lyrissa’s sad eyes looked over at Kimora. When she answered, her voice sounded distant and frail, as though the source of her words was far, far away. Lyrissa’s world was full of many troubling things that Saturday. Most of her sorrows couldn’t be solved by talking them out with a friend, but all of them were soothed by doing so. Kimora did not allow her thoughts to wander while Lyrissa shared her heart. She stayed tuned in, she listened. She understood. You may wonder about what else they said, sitting back in the pawn shop, surrounded by old things, but their conversation was a difficult, private affair, and they have trusted me to keep their secrets. Though most of us do not want our troubles broadcast to the world, it is so incredibly valuable to know that at least one person is listening -- that we’re not pouring our souls into the empty air -- that our tears are seen, our lamenting heard, our stories known. On Saturday afternoon, while their fathers talked about toys, trinkets, and treasures of all types, two girls sat off in a corner with heavier things on their hearts. They didn’t browse the bookshelves together that time, searching for escape into another person’s life, but by the end of their conversation they knew each other better, and both felt a little less alone.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"To Gather Together"

"Can you come and stir this pan of sauce for a minute?” Daniel’s mother called to him from the kitchen. She was trying to do too many things all at once, as usual. He hopped up from the couch and took over the wooden spoon.
“Smells good,” said Daniel, taking a deep breath in through his nose, and letting it out with a sigh. His mother laughed, and pointed to a big empty tin of red sauce on the counter. “It’s a secret family recipe,” she whispered with twinkling eyes. “But I added the onions all by myself.” Daniel liked helping in the kitchen more at the beginning of a meal than at the end of it. The house rule was that kids had to help either cook or clean, so whenever he was invited to prepare the meal, he jumped on the opportunity. Making dishes dirty was far more fun than washing dirty dishes. He stirred the pasta sauce around and around, making sure to scrape along the bottom so nothing sat there long enough to burn. As he stirred, he thought about the snow. It hadn’t snowed very much -- it hardly ever snowed very much in the city -- but two nights ago there had been a good thick frost all over the cars and leaves in the neighbourhood, and last night it had begun to snow about an hour before he went to bed. He’d watched transfixed from their back door as the soft white flakes melted into the ground, turning invisible right in front of his eyes. It was melting on the ground, but those little water crystals stayed solid on the wooden deck behind the house. Tiny layer upon layer the snowflakes worked together to form a blanket of snow, thin as a sheet of paper, as delicate as a spider’s web. By morning, the whole house had been covered over in white. It was supposed to snow again later that evening, and maybe this time it would last. The pan of sauce began to bubble, so Daniel reduced the heat, allowing the pan to simmer away without risk of it boiling over. It was quite a full pan tonight. “Are we having company?” he asked. Daniel’s mother shook her head. “No, but it is more than we need. I’m making double dinner so we can bring it over to Gran’s place tomorrow. She’s caught herself a flu, so a few of us have organized to take over meals until she’s better. Poor thing. The flu is no joke, especially for grandparents.” “Why can’t Gramps cook for her?” Daniel’s mother laughed again. She was full of laughter. “That man hasn’t cooked a proper meal in decades,” she said. “I don’t know that he could prepare even this meal of tinned sauce and noodles without her help. Besides, it’s a good chance for their community to pitch in and show them some love.” “Who else is bringing meals?” he asked. “A few neighbours, one lady from church, Auntie Maddie, and us,” she replied, dipping a spoon into the sauce for a taste-test. She cracked a bit of black pepper to the pan, and Daniel kept stirring. He thought about the people who had brought them food, back when things were a bit difficult at home. Their community had worked together to love on his family too, offering casseroles and homemade breads, cut-up veggies, roasted chickens, and occasionally tinned sauce and noodles. It was a bit like the snowflakes, he thought: individuals working together to have a bigger effect on the world than any of them could alone. He tried to explain this idea aloud, but tripped over his thoughts. His mother understood what he meant anyway. She was full of understanding. “I think it is like the snow,” she agreed. “One act of kindness building up upon another until the whole world looks kinder for the effort. It’s a lovely thought.” She turned off the stovetop elements and drained the pasta, called Eddie to the table, and served up their meals. After dinner, Eddie and their mum cleared their plates to the kitchen and started tidying up. This time, Daniel stayed to help. “You’ve already been quite cooperative tonight,” commented his mother. “You’re free to do something else if you’d like to go.” “I know,” said Daniel. “But I’m going to pitch in extra tonight, and show you some love.” Daniel packed the leftovers into plastic containers, while Eddie wiped down the table and counters and his mum scrubbed out the pots and pans. When they were all finished, they got into the car and delivered their meal to Gramps and Gran. Auntie Maddie was there too, dropping off her contribution. At the end of the night, the snow fell again -- coming together, flake by flake, transforming the world.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


They started painting Tehya’s room on Saturday morning. The house was pretty new, they’d only moved in a few weeks before, and everything needed to be painted. Tehya’s family had gone to the paint store last Saturday morning, and while her mother fussed over what colours should go in the kitchen and the bathroom, Tehya stood in front of the colourful wall of paint chips, lost in the dream of a brand-new bedroom all to herself. There were three kids in Tehya’s family and all of them were girls. Her older sister, Jazzy, was two grades ahead of her in school, and her younger sister, Clara, was just one behind. While the three of them made decent playmates most of the time, they weren’t always great roommates. In their old house, there had been three bedrooms -- one for her parents, and then two more for the three kids -- and because Tehya’s sisters fought like a bear and a bee hive, Tehya was perpetually required to share her room with either the eldest or the youngest of her siblings. It was a rotten deal, and it lasted nearly the whole of her childhood.  But when they moved into the new house a few weeks ago, everything changed. On moving day, Tehya’s dad made a surprise announcement right before they unlocked the door and went inside to explore for the very first time. “This house has enough bedrooms for each of you to have your very own. This is a major blessing, and a pretty big deal! And because Tehya has always had share a room with one of you other girls, we’ve decided that she is allowed to have first pick. We’re going to let her look first with Mom, and then the two of you can go upstairs and battle it out for the others.” Her sisters kicked up a fuss, but the adults were firm in their decision. Tehya chose the largest of the three rooms; it was in a corner, and it had odd little angles; it had a door and a window, and a closet for her clothing, and it was perfect. And now, starting on Saturday morning, it was about to become very-bright-purple. Tehya was wearing an old camp t-shirt and a pair of leggings that had seen better days. She was barefoot and grinning from ear to ear, hair tied up in a ponytail, and paintbrush in hand. Her mom looked much the same. She was kneeling on the floor, opening a large can of very-bright-purple paint. They had decided to paint all of the walls, the back of Tehya’s door, the whole ceiling, and even the ceiling fan the same very-bright-purple. The floor was a grey-ish carpet that had to stay as it was, so Tehya helped to cover it up with something called a drop cloth, which is like a giant tarp made of canvas. The drop cloth was cream-coloured when they started the painting project… but it didn’t stay like that very long. Oops!” said her mom, when a dribble of paint leaked off her paintbrush and onto the drop cloth at her feet. “That was a bit messy of me!” “I think that splatter looks a bit like a giraffe,” said Tehya, tilting her head a bit when she looked over. She ran into the other room where they were stashing her stuff, and came back with a thick permanent marker. The marker was also purple, but not quite as bright as the paint. She was in a serious purple phase at the moment. Tehya was careful not to touch the wet drops of paint when she made her outline, but she traced it close enough to emphasize the animal shape, with its long skinny neck. “There! A giraffe to be sure,” she declared triumphantly, and then returned to her paintbrush work on the other side of the room. Her mom looked over at the splotchy doodle on the floor. “Very creative. I like it!” And as she smiled over at her daughter, another puddle of paint streamed down to the floor from her brush. “Oh, goodness,” she sighed. “What a mess I’m making. But Tehya didn’t see a mess in the very-bright-purple splats on the drop cloth. Instead, she saw art. With her trusty marker, Tehya transformed every apparent mistake into a miniature masterpiece until the whole canvas looked like a very-bright-purple mural. After dinner that night, when the painting was mostly complete, Tehya’s sisters came into the room to look at their progress. “Wow!” said Jazzy, “The walls look good and all, but check out that floor! What a cool idea! I want to do that when we paint my room too! Clara, who was obviously impressed, agreed. “You could hang it up on the wall,” she suggested. Tehya smiled. She’d transformed trash into treasure, and all it had taken was a splash of positivity, a splatter of creative thinking and, of course, one large can of very-bright-purple paint.

"Along the Path"

Marek’s family was incredibly athletic. His mother ran marathons for fun, raising money for charities every other weekend of the year. His uncles had travelled all the way to Brazil to train as professional soccer players (though in that country the sport is called football, as it is in many places). One of Marek’s grandfathers had even ventured to the summit of Mount Everest, and had lost three toes while climbing back down. All of his siblings were on school teams, and joined up with one neighbourhood program or another. They even jogged to class every morning. But Marek? Well, he was a naturally stationary sort.  Very few things in life pleased Marek more than standing still in one place and listening as the world moved around him. He loved the shoosh-shoosh sound of people passing him by, especially in the fall and winter when their coats would briefly catch on his sleeve, if they were close enough. He also loved the quiet, squeaky-crunchy sound that shoes make on a fresh layer of snow. It’s not a sound you can hear well when you are making it; you have to wait until somebody else lifts their foot to move, and then hold your breath and listen. It’s magical. He never said these thoughts aloud, of course; people don’t always understand the joy of little moments like this and sometimes it’s safer to keep certain treasured ideas to yourself. Marek was like that with coat sleeves and footprints. But other thoughts he made known. I don’t want to go on a hike!” he protested, as his Mum packed salami and cheese and carrot sticks into her backpack. “Can’t I stay here and… read, maybe? Reading is good for me too!” “It is,” agreed his mother, reaching for a box of crackers. “But so is hiking. Today we’re going hiking. Besides, the book will be here when you get back. Fictional characters are very patient that way; they never do very much when you’re not looking.” She took the sealed bag of crackers out of the cardboard box and added it to her satchel before pressing the box flat and handing it to Marek. He carried it to the recycling, and stood over the blue bin ‘til he could think up another argument against physical exercise. Behind him, in the kitchen, his mother was starting to make sandwiches for the trip. They went on a hike like this once a month, piling into their minivan and trekking to a provincial park, sometimes quite far away. They would hike for several hours, until every part of Marek’s body felt blistered and worn. He didn’t look forward to the trips like the rest of his family did, and he found them much more work. He tried once more with his mom. “What if I stay home and clean the house? I’ll even scrub the toilets!” But his mother was immovable. They left within the hour.

When they arrived at the park, Marek’s mom went into a little cabin-style office to register their vehicle, and came back out holding a folded paper map. “I was thinking,” she said to the group, “that we would tackle ‘Centennial Ridges’ today. It’s only 10.4 kilometers long. The map says it takes an average of six hours to complete it, but I think we can do it in less.”

“SIX HOURS!?!” cried Marek, in obvious distress.

His mother simply nodded. “The trail is marked along the path with a plaque at each kilometer.” She handed Marek the map and pointed to a series of red dots. “Every time we come up to one of those, we’ll take a little rest and have a snack, for those who want it. It’ll be a helpful way to mark our progress. Why don’t you be our map-keeper?” she suggested, slinging her backpack over her shoulders and tugging the straps tight. “Alright troop, let’s march!”

The trail was long, and hilly, and covered with fallen leaves that sometimes camouflaged tree roots, so you really had to pay attention. At the first kilometer marker, all Marek could think about was drinking water and catching his breath. At the second he felt weak at the knees, so he ate some of the food his mother had brought. By kilometer six or seven, he’d hit a bit of a stride, and his body wasn’t fighting the hike quite so much. The second half of the hike was almost enjoyable.

Just as they were about to leave the trail, Marek stood completely still, and listened. He heard the smallest cracking of a twig in the brush, breaking under the weight of a scampering squirrel; he heard the pulsing sound of his heartbeat, drumming in his ears; he noted the dry autumn leaves rustling in the wind, and it sounded like distant applause. Marek looked down at the map in his hands, with all the red dots now circled -- a record of their progress. Maybe he wasn’t a could-be Olympian like the rest of his family, but he could be proud of these little victories over his own fear and reluctance. Maybe next time his family packed up for a hike, he would remember the pleasure of hearing new sounds, and of getting to each new milestone, instead of being hopelessly overwhelmed by the challenge ahead.

He smiled, satisfied, and got back in the van.

Monday, November 13, 2017


In the short story The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde tells of a statue and a swallow, and the cost of compassion. It's a melancholy tale, and I love it dearly, listening to an audio version at least once a year, and reading it from time to time. In one scene, the swallow has the following interaction with a discouraged playwright:
The young man had his head buried in his hands, so he did not hear the flutter of the bird’s wings, and when he looked up he found the beautiful sapphire lying on the withered violets. “I am beginning to be appreciated,” he cried; “this is from some great admirer.  Now I can finish my play,” and he looked quite happy.
I love this scene. 
When I entered my story The Comforter into Hamilton's Short Works Prize contest last year, I was in a rough season, creatively. Like Wilde's playwright, I was discouraged and numb. The news that I had received an honourable mention was exactly as valuable as a rare and precious sapphire from India. That certificate of achievement lived on our fridge for months and months, as tangible proof that people beyond my family liked what I was doing. It was a wonderful encouragement at just the right time.

I've been doing much better since then. No doubt, part of that change is thanks to some professional counselling (mental health challenges are no joke, and formal therapy was very helpful for me). More progress can be credited to Ben, who relentlessly admires and motivates his mercurial, artistic wife. So, when I entered the contest again this year, I was no longer the heavy-hearted playwright from 1888, but a relatively confident, organized and productive young author-illustrator, already on my way to concluding 2017 on a triumphant personal note. The metaphorical sapphire that came with winning this weekend was a delightful surprise indeed!

I am incredibly grateful to the people who fund and run the Short Works Prize in this city; it's an incredible honour to be recognized in this way. I am also thankful for you, the quiet blog-reader; this little stage of mine has been supported for many years by the gentle applause of clicks and shares. I could do this without you... but I'm terribly glad you're here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

"Wool and Wax"

Cornelius Chaff noticed things. He could trace the unusual patterns made by the wind blowing over a great mound of snow; he could point out the differences between two colonies of ants, busy building their neighbouring hills; and he saw in the sunsets each delicate hue, unmatched in brilliance and variety. If anyone had noticed him, they would have said he had eyes as big as dinner plates, or as wide as two full moons, but nobody ever noticed him. Their eyes were open without seeing, their vision clear without the gift of clarity. Cornelius Chaff was special.
He didn’t say much. In fact, he didn’t say anything. He had lived in a house once where he was called the Quiet Boy, and everyone assumed he was unable to speak, so silent a life did he lead. Speechless, but not thoughtless. In his mind, Cornelius Chaff was the Poet Laureate of his age, which was eight. He was a composer of magnificent music that marvelled audiences so affectingly that they were left, to turn the phrase, dumbstruck. He was a painter of fine art, a sculptor in the tradition of ancient masters. He was, in sum, a genius.
But outside this safe space inside his own head people bellowed discouraging things. The man who paid him for lighting the lamps always looked angry and called him Sinecure as he dropped candles and matches and one loaf of bread into the boy’s open hands. The young lad didn’t know what the word meant, but the man’s tone said, “A waste of good grain and bad wax.” He traded some of his matches for potatoes with the grocer’s wife, who said he was “filthy as sin itself” and wouldn’t let him play with the garden boy who was about his size. He was distrusted by everyone in daylight and ignored completely in shadow, as one might ignore an abandoned parcel sat off in a corner, or a bit of rubbish on the side of the road. He did not enter their thoughts. Every evening at dusk he took to London’s cobbled streets with a mission to light the lamps from one end of the city to the other, replacing the candles, cleaning out ash and trimming wicks as each was in need. In every case he brought light into darkness and heat to the cold. Every small flame brightened his own heart and buoyed his spirits. He could shimmy up a lamppost like a squirrel up a tree and perch at the top without fear of falling. Cornelius Chaff loved those moments dearest, watching the people moving about from high above the street. It was from this perspective that he first saw Anna.
She was beautiful.
She wore a blossom-coloured dress and leaf-coloured gloves and a rather uneasy expression on her face. She was pacing back and forth in the light, a stone’s throw from where he was watching. Every few seconds she would rub her gloved fingers together and make a quiet tisking sound with her lips. She was calling for a cat.
Cornelius Chaff noticed four things all at once. First, he saw that the sun had disappeared over the horizon and night was coming in quickly; second, that no fewer than three kittens were shyly answering the girl’s call; third, this little lady was decidedly alone and would not be safe without a companion much longer; and finally, for all her beautiful clothing and tidy, proper appearance, she wasn’t wearing any shoes.
He dropped gently to the ground, landing just outside the floodlight of the lamp he’d been kindling. The girl and the growing litter at her feet were startled by the noise. “Hello?” she called, melodically as though her voice was the shivering of a chime. “Who is there? Can I trust you?” The boy pulled a grey candle out of his pocket and held it out in front of him, extended towards the girl. With his other hand he loosed a match from its box and caught the wick aflame. It came off like a magic trick in the young lady’s eyes and without intending to do so she exchanged her apprehension for curiosity and wonder. She drew near.
“I’m Anna,” said Anna with a curtsey that would have put a ballerina to shame. “My father is Yes Sir and my mother is called My Lady, or Lemon, or Sweetheart, or Darling, but I know her name is really Anna too. We live…” and she brought her finger to level, but found she had nothing familiar to point out. She turned all around in circles, eventually letting her arm and her countenance fall in one go. “We live in a tall house between other houses, but not on this street. I’m afraid I’ve become quite jumbled, really. I came out looking for my cat.”
The quizzical look on his face was so clear that she felt compelled elaborate. “It got out the window, you see” said Anna as a crimson blush flooded her features. “Well, I opened the window, really. I was kneeling at my bedside, just as I ought, and then one of my eyes popped open because I heard something make a very loud sound indeed! I simply had to see if Saint Nicholas had come to call, so I opened my window ever so slightly as to listen with greater care, and my cat leapt up to the sill and out to the ground before I could even blink! It wasn’t a long drop, so I followed him this far before I lost sight. I didn’t have time to go fetch my slippers. They are in line by the fire tonight because it’s Christmas Eve. Did you know it is Christmas Eve right now?”
Cornelius Chaff shook his head. When he had lived in the house long ago he’d heard vague whisperings about firesides and presents and a generous man in red, but those blurry ideas had been gathering dust like the rest of his small frame in the years between home and here. It is much more work to remember than observe.
Anna’s cat didn’t take long to rejoin his mistress. The three of them toured the streets together, Cornelius Chaff walking with his candle outstretched like the front man of a parade. The light shimmered and shone off the frosted bricks beneath their feet. When they found her house, he helped Anna climb back in through her open window, cat and all. Soon as the pane of glass slid back into place, the boy ran to the lamppost across the road from Anna’s house, scampered up the pole, put his candle inside, lit the wick and polished the iron with his sleeve until it glowed like the silver moon and the golden sun all at once. Then he waved at her window, dropped down to the street and disappeared into the deepening night.
Every morning after their adventure together, Anna would stare out her window and wonder what had become of the mysterious elf-child she had met in the street on Christmas Eve. She thought she could see him, sometimes, clinging to the top of the streetlight across from her house, and she would wave. But the boy, if he was truly flesh and not phantom, never waved back. “He might be a shadow,” she thought to herself. “A trick of the candlelight.” But her heart couldn’t believe her own logic, because whenever she peered out at that lamppost she found it already shining away and making the whole street merrier for its glow.
Cornelius Chaff used three times as much wax and at least twice as much time tending to his labours at Anna’s house. He had to replace the candle several times a week even though candles were made rather differently in those days and lasted a good long time if the wick was kept trim. The light burned day and night and charmed the entire neightbourhood, not just the little girl who had taken his affections along with the cat. Rain did not stop him, snow failed to give him pause and while summer’s scorching sunshine made climbing the pole a painful chore, the boy, now nine, could not be dissuaded from his task. Every day for a year he walked to Anna’s house, right to Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, when hope and persistence and love and magic all meld, he climbed the lamppost across from Anna’s tall house. He breathed a deep breath of the icy winter air and let it out with a sigh. The now familiar home was decorated once again with twinkling white light. The house looked like heaven, star-filled and beautiful. And then Cornelius Chaff noticed something peculiar… heaven’s door stood open. A small child burst out of it, dancing towards him in leaf-green gloves and a long dress that moved about like a flower in the breeze. As soon as she made it to the light under the lamppost she leapt up with both feet and landed in a sudden stop. She was laughing.
“Hello!” called Anna to the boy perched above. “Come here, I have to give you a gift.”  He spiralled down the pole with the grace of a maple key and stood beside her. She looked like an angel. The girl was carrying a large box in brown paper. Cornelius Chaff’s full-moon eyes grew wider than ever as she held it out towards him. “It’s for you,” she said, encouraging him to take it by giving the package a bit of a shake. “I’ve spent the whole year making it.”
He took a long time just looking at Anna before he actually received the present. He was soaking it in, absorbing every detail of the moment. Then he carefully unwrapped the box. The box was full of paper. The paper was full of wool.
A simple knitted scarf lay folded carefully inside. He noticed the uneven tension of the stitches in each row; he noticed the differences in width from beginning to end; he noticed large lumps where the yarn had run short and more needed to be tied in to lengthen the project; and he noticed that the rich green colour was a match to Anna’s gloves. It was perfect. The little boy smiled so broadly that every single one of his teeth could be seen, even his molars. She beamed at him and flung the scarf around his neck many times. He could barely move by the time she was through, which had the convenient effect of securing his emotions in place. Had his trembling lips been uncovered, he would have certainly drowned them both in a thousand tears of joy.
Anna’s family moved out of the city before the next Christmas Eve could arrive. He knew it was coming, he had seen it before. The night before they left, Cornelius Chaff climbed the post across from Anna’s house and stayed there all night, talking to the angels about the one who lived across the street. When morning dawned he lit a new candle, humbly walked up to Anna’s front door and left it burning there on the stoop as a token of gratitude to the one who had noticed him and had chosen to be kind. Two gifts given, both treasured forever: wool and wax. And magic.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

"An Uphill Battle"

There was a kid in grade four that everybody called Boulder. Like the nickname suggests, Boulder was built like a rock, strong and sturdy and tough. His physical presence commanded a certain amount of respect, but the way he treated some of the other kids at school was anything but respectful. Boulder disliked people who took too long at the drinking fountain, and he disliked people who bumped against him in the hallway, but most of all Boulder disliked everyone who was left-handed.

Left-handedness is an unusual thing to find displeasing about a person, but the situation wasn’t funny; for reasons that made no sense to anyone in the fourth grade, the boy just hated lefties.  Boulder expressed his loathing quietly, at the beginning, back in September. He would whisper nasty comments to the one or two kids in his class that wrote with their left hands. “Lefties are weak,” he’d murmur. “People of strength are always right-handed.”
His comment took the kids by surprise, and they didn’t say anything in reply. In Boulder’s mind, their silence proved his point. ”Weak, weak, weak,” he thought to himself.

By the end of September, Boulder got bolder. Whenever he was writing or eating beside a left-handed kid, he would use his right arm to jab his elbow into theirs, which sent their pencils or forks flying across the room. Once he bashed his elbow into a kid eating soup, and she actually burned herself. When their teacher scolded him, Boulder claimed that it was an accident… but when the teacher walked away, he hissed, “You are the accident, Lefty.” The left-handed girl cried then, nursing a welt on her hand from the scalding soup and a wound on her heart from his hurtful words.
In October, one of these persecuted kids finally told somebody what was happening. The teacher did what they could -- a letter home, a brief detention, a stiff warning from the principal -- but as is so often the case with this kind of thing, adult intervention proved to be a temporary solution. As soon as they stopped watching Boulder’s every move, he started his assault again, even more aggressively than it had been before.
But the teachers weren’t the only people who heard about the bully’s vendetta against the left-handers. Everyone in the fourth grade suddenly knew about the war that had been raging all around them, somehow unseen for weeks. Some of the kids got together with the lefties on Saturday in the park, to talk about what had been happening. The bullied students told them everything: all of the snide remarks, the cruel jokes, the taunting and name-calling and elbow knocking. Now it was the right-handers’ turn to be shocked by Boulder’s behaviour, but if you think their stunned silence meant weakness, you’d be as wrong as the bully.
Eventually, Ronan broke the silence. “We have to do something -- but we can’t just bully him back. If we decide to be mean, we could all get in trouble or worse, make him even angrier.
Abigail nodded. “We have to stand up to him, but we can’t fight him. This is so tricky. What can we do?
Ronan didn’t smile while he explained his plan, but he did have one. They agreed that until Boulder made a public apology to all the left-handed kids in their grade, and vowed to stop acting cruelly toward them, everyone would be left-handed. They would stand together with the true lefties in a show of solidarity. They would support the minority of students who were under attack by uniting together through a peaceful protest.
They made their move on Monday.
When Abigail was called on to answer a math problem at the front, she picked up the whiteboard marker with her left hand, staring at Boulder as she did so. Then, in large, wobbly movements, she wrote out the answer. “Those numbers look pathetic,” hissed Boulder as she took her seat. Abigail shook her head, but said nothing. Two more kids went to the board to answer a question, and both of them used their left hands. Then Ronan went to the front, and then three more. Boulder scowled and seethed. Their teacher, Ms Kuenzel, gave them curious looks, but she didn’t ask them to change how they were writing. At first recess, Ronan told his teacher what was going on, and she congratulated their efforts. Then he told Boulder, who spit at him. By lunchtime, Ms Keunzel was mysteriously left-handed too. I can’t tell you exactly how long it took Boulder to make that apology, but he held out longer than you might think. It took him long enough that many kids in class got pretty good at being left-handed, and some are ambidextrous to this day. But he did eventually cave in. He made a formal apology, and he wrote letters to the kids he had bullied the heaviest. But the biggest success was this: their classroom felt a lot safer for everyone after that, no matter what it was that made them different from the crowd.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


A small group of grade five boys were huddled together at recess, discussing their strategy for trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Normally each boy was required to travel around their neighbourhood with a full set of parents and siblings, but this year the adults had inexplicably decided that the boys were old enough and mature enough to go out by themselves. Justin had called the boys into a huddle as soon as the bell rang. “Alright, gents,” he said with a smile. “If we’re gonna clean up this year, we’ve got to get organized. They’d been learning about the Age of Exploration in their history classes for two weeks, studying the ancient cartography of adventurers long since dead. It was during one of their teacher’s assignments that Justin had struck upon a golden idea. The school project was to map out their neighbourhood on graph paper, with every street labelled and each house numbered correctly. This was the first time that Justin had been able to use something he’d learned at school in real life, and he was excited. Justin pulled out his home-made map and handed it around the circle. “Here’s my idea: we work together to make copies of one version of our neighbourhood map, then we start the night by splitting up and taking all different streets. After each house, either cross it out if you didn’t get anything good, circle it if you got something awesome, and mark a check beside it, if it was just decent.” Justin paused to make a legend at the top right-hand corner of his map, putting a frown beside a scribbled-out box, a slight smile beside the check, and a wide, goofy grin beside the circled square. Then he looked up to make sure his audience was still paying attention, his face wearing an equally goofy grin. After we’re done both sides of our assigned streets, we’ll meet back in the middle and compare maps, copy down everybody else’s information, and then go out to those other roads, hitting only the best houses! Then we’ll move on to new streets, and repeat the process. Once we’ve hit every great house in the neighbourhood we can start back at the beginning and go for the decent ones, until we run out of time and have to head for home. At the end, we should all have a bit of bad stuff, a bunch of decent level stuff and LOADS AND LOADS of  awesome stuff. It’s perfect!” Each of the boys nodded their enthusiastic agreement. At lunch the next day, Jason showed Justin how to hold paper up to a window so that tracing the original map was easier, and Justin tasked him with making sure that all of the maps were perfectly identical. At recess the day after that, Danny suggested they try to find out if anybody had walkie-talkies they could use, to better stay in communication, and Justin assigned him that job. Kaleb and Caleb were sent to round up enough flashlights for each boy, and Gabriel was put in charge of getting plenty of pillowcases, and masking tape with which to seal and label them. Finally, Gavin was recruited to be their driver and treasure-guard; for an equal share of their profits, he would drag a wagon from site to site, holding the full pillowcases so the other boys didn’t have to wear out their arms by hauling their bags door to door. Come Halloween night, everything was in place. They’d agreed to meet up at Justin’s house, since the whole idea had been his in the first place. Justin, who was dressed up like a pirate, called his friends into another huddle on his front lawn at precisely six o’clock. He was met by a mad scientist, a knight of the round table, the red power ranger, a police officer, a giant squid, and Godzilla. Justin handed out maps, markers, flashlights, walkie-talkies and pillowcases, all of which he’s collected from the other boys in the days leading up to Halloween. Justin put any extra supplies into the wagon, which the giant squid then dragged behind them on the sidewalk with one of his long tentacles. Justin’s plan went off without a hitch. In four hours they’d swept through the neighbourhood twice, collecting enough sweets to last until they all turned fifteen! They were happily, blissfully exhausted by the end of the night. The sugar-high lasted for days. School was pretty rowdy for a while, but when things calmed back down to normal, something funny happened. Whenever a leader was needed, Justin’s name started coming up. More than once, he was put in charge of group projects by one of the boys who had teamed up with him on Halloween. Somehow, along with a monstrous heap of chocolate, he had also earned their respect that night -- and their respect, it turns out, lasted much longer.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Shock and Aww"

Red and yellow maple leaves danced around Melody’s feet as she walked to school Monday morning.

The weekend had been unusually warm for so late in the season, and she had gone to the park with her mother on Saturday, just to soak in the warmth and the light. "This summer weather can't last much longer, but what a beautiful day this is,” said her mom, smiling up at the sun. “I love living in Canada.”

“Me too,” said Melody, thinking about the many moves they’d made from one side of their massive country to the other. Winters came hard and fast in the prairies of Saskatchewan where they had lived last year; but here in Ontario, it seemed like the grass might never be covered in snow.

Melody and her mom were still unpacking boxes from the move that landed them in the city. They’d arrived one month before school started, moving into a tall apartment building full of families. Every floor had a different mix of cooking smells and languages. Though she was beginning to recognize some of her neighbours, the elevators that ran up and down the middle of their building seemed constantly full of new faces.

When school started, Melody discovered that some of her neighbours were also her classmates! It was wonderful to have a few familiar faces in a room full of so many strangers. One girl named Brooklyn made a special point of inviting Melody to play with her group of friends at recess. Brooklyn and her family lived on the top floor of the apartment building, and you could see the school from their balcony. Melody’s home faced north, towards the water; from her balcony, you could stare across the lake and watch as huge shipping vessels came sailing into port. Melody and Brooklyn spent a lot of time on those balconies, sometimes doing homework, and sometimes just watching the world from high above, and getting to know each other.

Walking to school on Monday morning, Melody heard a giggle behind her. Before she had time to turn around, a giant pile of those red and yellow maple leaves was dumped right on her head! Brooklyn’s giggle burst into a laugh as soon as her arms were empty. Melody started laughing too, and bent down to gather up an armload of leaves to bury the girl in return, but Brooklyn was already racing down the sidewalk by the time Melody stood up. She dropped the leaves and ran after her friend. They were both out of breath and grinning ear-to-ear by the time she caught up.

“Thank you very much,” said Melody, sarcastically. “I really appreciate it, friend.” She picked a leaf out of her hair and threw it at Brooklyn, but it fluttered to the ground without even touching her.

Brooklyn laughed again. “You’re very welcome,” she said.

When the bell rang, they went inside and took their seats. Mr Nelson, their grade two teacher, was drawing on the whiteboard in a thick, purple marker. “Good morning, class. I hope you all enjoyed the weather this weekend, because it looks like it’s going to get pretty cold this week! And just in time for our unit on the water cycle,” he said, drawing a purple snowflake on the board for everyone to see.

Melody silently rolled her eyes. There was no way it would snow this week.

The walk to school on Tuesday morning was warm and bright, just as it had been on Monday. Wednesday was much the same. When Melody woke up on Thursday morning, she didn’t even check the thermometer that hung outside their balcony door. She bounded out of the apartment, into the elevator and out to the sidewalk. As soon as the front doors opened up, she froze -- partly out of shock, and partly because it was SO COLD. The weather has snapped, and it was SNOWING.

Melody groaned. She didn’t have time to go all the way back to her apartment, find the winter clothing box and still get to school on time, so long sleeves would have to do. Just then she heard a giggle behind her. Before she had time to turn around, a giant pile of soft, warm, wool was wrapped right around her head! Brooklyn had taken off her scarf and bundled it around Melody’s body. It was the longest, fuzziest scarf that Melody had ever seen.

Thank you very much,” said Melody, sincerely. “I really appreciate it, friend.”

Brooklyn zipped up her jacket and smiled. “You’re very welcome,” she said.