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Swimming with Piranhas


A Play For One Actor

By Colette Nichol

Colette Nichol
308-2170 W. 3rd Ave,
Vancouver, BC,


MAGGIE is in her dressing room. She is

examining her tongue in the mirror.

(on stage)
You wanna know what it’s like? It’s like having a patch of seared yet
extraordinarily delicate chicken flesh on the side of your tongue. It bleeds if I
eat anything crunchy. At least I don’t feel the pain when I’m on camera. We’re
shooting the last scene of the last episode of the year today. Season 4 -
Episode 16 - The Price of Madness. Starring myself and a schizophrenic
magician who accidentally swallows 12 nickels while doing a disappearing act.
Riveting stuff indeed.

Maggie is on camera, playing the role of

Dr. Griffin.

We need an intravenous with 4 grams of Ativan, 2 grams per minute, 21 gauge
needle. Kurtz, get the ventilator ready. We’ll need it if his respiration is
compromised by the sedative nature of the drug. Krump, how will you not
inject the intravenous?
(long beep)
(off the beep) Shit! Code Blue!

Maggie comes back to the present

moment and continues addressing the

As I said: riveting.

Stares at the audience for a few moments.

This right here, right now, is the part of the story, the part of the play, where I’m
supposed to be making you like me.

Screenwriters call it the “saving-the-cat” part of the story because the hero is
supposed to metaphorically save the small child’s cat from up the tree; thus
making us like him (the hero) enough to accept his fumbling and innate flaws
as well as forgive him for the moment later on in the film when he accidentally
blows someone’s head off, as he invariably does. Like most things it’s a
And yet it works.
Even when you know it’s happening.

It’s the same in the theatre. If I don’t make you like me within the next 10
minutes of the play, you might just get up out of your seats and go home. Or
worse, sit there resenting me for the subsequent 55 minutes.

And I’m not complaining, but this “saving-the-cat” business is a lot more
complicated on stage than it is on screen. Look at Hamlet. Within the first ten
minutes of the play Hamlet acquiesces to his morally corrupt mother, agrees to
stay in a place which he considers to be a prison, has a heart to heart with his
dead yet still fearsome father, and dedicates himself to finding out the truth
about his father’s most untimely demise. Thus proving himself to be a good
son and an all-around up-standing chap. Which is important because
otherwise we wouldn’t put up with his constant bellyaching and indiscriminate
curtain stabbing later on in the play. See, even Shakespeare believes in saving
the cat.

But enough about my obsession with Hamlet; there’s nothing quite so painful
as a frustrated television actress going on about the classics.

The thing I’ve learned about ingratiating yourself to someone is that you either
have to be likable in the first place or committed to the illusion of likeability.
And I am neither.

But without being disingenuous, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to make you
like me. I’m not a particularly likeable person. And nobody really likes the
independently wealthy anyway, unless they have some noble redeeming
merit; which I don’t. And which I suppose is fair - with the same caveat nobody
really likes the independently poor either. You have to be middle class,
middle income, middle of the road if you want any to ever like you for who you

How did I get to be so bitter? I don’t know.


I might have started out fine, but over the years I’ve ripped the sweetness, the
vulnerability, the likability out of myself, in order to succeed.

I can play likable! Sure. No problem.

(Maggie speaks to an imaginary


John Stuart! Maggie Swanell. So nice to finally meet you! I loved the script!
Very compelling.

(Back to the audience.)

See. But that’s not the real me. The real me hated the script and thinks that
John Stuart is a Grade A asshole!

Look, you do not get to where I am in this business by being A) honest about
your every opinion, and B) really truly likable on the inside.

And just to be clear, it’s not luck either.

Good looking actresses, likable actresses... they’re as common as grasshoppers

in a fallow field in August. But bullish, unyieldingly persistent ones are not. In
this business it’s all about making people think that you’re stronger than you
really are. That no matter what happens, you will give them what they want.
And I have.

Who would have thought that being a television actress could be so intense.
But it is. You’re not impressed are you? Well nor should you be. It’s not as
though I’m making the world a better place. As of yet there’s no Nobel Prize
for television. Although we are all waiting with bated breath.

I shouldn’t complain.
I chose it.
I could have taken the path of artistic fulfillment and poverty.
Found my own way.
But I didn’t.

I used to believe that the future was all that mattered. The past was nothing
but dust. And the present ... was my path to the future. But now I’m not so

Dr. James will be telling me the result of the biopsy tomorrow. Telling me
what’s wrong with me. Although I think I already know.

My dentist told me last year that I was biting my tongue. A nervous sleeping
habit. A sort of unconscious almost teretsian twitch reflecting my profoundly
damaged psyche.
He told me to relax.
Which naturally I didn’t do.
I’m not even sure I know what that means.
To relax. To relax. It makes me think of loose bowels. Or the Los Angeles
airport. Another very unpleasant lax. What do you do when someone tells you
to relax? Take a deep breath and try not to scream at them? That’s what I do.

Be that as it may my doctor was right. In a way. I should learn how to be more
calm. More at peace with the world.

Maggie chants like a deranged monk.

See. I just don’t feel it. Anyway, I can hardly pin the blame on my dentist.
Much as I might like to. Don’t get me wrong. It is more romantic to be a
blameless victim of illness or malpractice, or both. More dramatic too. You
don’t see many patient-takes-blame-for-illness TV specials these days, oddly

But no ... I knew I wasn’t biting my tongue.


Maggie is at St. Mary’s Hospital, in the

Cancer Clinic waiting room.

Grey’s Anatomy is amusingly playing on the waiting room telelvision. It’s on
silent with subtitles, thank god.

Are you a fan of the ubiquitous medical drama? Grey’s Anatomy, ER, Scrubs,
General Hospital, House, Code Blue...? That last one’s mine. It’s Canadian so
you’ve probably never heard of it. Watch it now before it gets cancelled. If
you ask me watching medical dramas is the lazy man’s version of the Buddhist
meditation on death. We’re too lazy to formally prepare ourselves for death, so
instead we just cocoon ourselves in our sweatpants and watch medical dramas
while nibbling on Pringles and Kraft dinner, hoping that the cloak of darkness
and his sickle will remain at bay for at least a little while longer.

I’ve always wanted to go in my sleep. Let death creep up on me while I’m

dreaming of paradise.
Cowardly I know.

They’re all the same aren’t they? Waiting rooms. Silent, drab, cesspools of

The receptionist interrupts Maggie’s



Maggie Swannell? You can go in now. It’s the third door on the right.

I walk down the hall in a haze of dread, hoping that Dr. James will have an
answer. And at the same time... hoping that he won’t.

Thunder clatters in the distance and it

begins to rain.

He has an answer. He very much has an answer.


Maggie is in a taxi being driven home

after her appointment.

Code blue. I should be crying right now, but I’m not. I’m sitting in the taxi,
staring at the taxi driver, at the back of his head, at the shiny grey bits of
dandruff stuck to the shoulders of his cable knit sweater. The grey-on-grey
pattern of the headrest. Feeling nothing. My father used to tell me that on a
practical and existential level we’re all dying, so today or tomorrow is irrelevant.
I see his point. In theory. But in practice, there is a difference between slowly
coming to terms with your own mortality as you watch your face wrinkle up like
a drying rose and being told by a man with the personality of a stethoscope

Without the surgery, you have at the most, a year of very painful living ahead of
you. Worst case scenario, six months. I’m sorry to have to tell you this.

Dr. James would like me to consider the option of him slicing off a third of my
visible tongue and patching up the gaping hole with a piece of my arm. A
partial glossectomy is what he calls it. I think that’s a very ambiguous name for
something as brutal as what he plans on doing to my tongue. Glossectomy. It
sounds wonderful. Like a procedure involving beautifully organized books.

I recall as Dr. James is giving me a persuasive run-down of the risks and

benefits of a partial glossectomy, that I’ve actually faked my way through this
particular surgery on the show. Season 2, Episode 12, Cat Got Your Tongue.
Typical drivel about a cat lady with tongue cancer. Serves me right.

You would still be able to speak. Eventually. Naturally your vocal patterns
would be different. For a while you might sound like you have marbles in your

Marbles? For how long of a while?

It could be a few months, or even years. Worst case scenario the rest of your
life. But that is extremely unlikely. Most people are able to speak again with
relative normality. There’s no reason to be without hope. Modern medicine
performs miracles every day!


Maggie puts marbles into her mouth. As

she speaks the marble impede her speech
making the word practically unintelligible.

“Cursed by the hand that made these fatal holes.”

Maggie removes the marbles and her

speech returns to normal, but she is visibly

Well, I certainly won’t be winning any prizes for elocution should I do this
surgery. And of course there’s the fact that tongue or no tongue, cancer can
always come back, and then what will they do. Keep whittling away until pretty
soon I’m more full of holes than a block of Swiss cheese?


Maggie sits at her computer.

Dear Mother comma Just to let you know comma I might be dead soon
period. Hope you’re enjoying your trip exclamation point. Love Maggie.

I save the death message to drafts. I want to send it. Magically avoid the
inevitable. Of course the problem with the inevitable is that it cannot be
avoided, unless of course, it wasn’t inevitable to begin with.

Last week, I read an article about a man who cured his cancer by laughing.
Watching comedies. All he did for six months was watch every comedy movie
he could find, and apparently he laughed himself healthy. The Jim Carrey
Cure for Cancer, was the name of the article. The doctors had said that he
would be dead in six months, but they were wrong. Ten years later he’s still
alive. I told Dr. James about this man...

How do I say this Maggie? That man was very lucky. But luck is not a science.

But maybe it wasn’t luck.
Or maybe it was.


Maggie’s phone rings. Maggie answers it.

Hi mum.

Maggie! It’s me! Mummy!

I know it’s you mum.

Oh yes, of course you do! Oh technology, isn’t it wonderful!? I’m calling from
Buenos Aires. From Argentina! Oh Maggie, it’s utterly fabulous. Hablo
español, well not quite perfectly, but I’m learning. I have a wonderful teacher:
Juan Francisco Orellana. He’s excellent. Sort of a poor woman’s Antonio
Banderas. And you sweety-pie? How are you?

I’m fine.

You’re fine? Just fine? Oh Maggie, that’s terrible. You do have a vacation
coming up soon don’t you? You’re not going to be working on the 25th of
December are you? That would be absurd! How do you feel about coming
down for a visit? I’m flying to Ecuador next week, sooo how does the jungle
sound to you?


It is hot. Wonderfully, deliciously hot. And this particular jungle I’m thinking of
has volcanoes and black caimans - they’re like alligators but with stripes,
hundreds of types of orchids and more hummingbirds than any other place on
the planet? What do you say? It would be so nice to see you and go on a little
adventure together!

When are you coming home mum?

Oh, I don’t know. Not tomorrow. Anyway, think about it. I’ll even pay for your

Right, I’ll think about it.

Okay, think about it, think about it, think about it! But do come! I’ll call you
later this week. Hopefully by then you’ll have decided to take the bull by the


Maggie changes out of her high heels and

into her sneakers.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed I would much rather send my mother a concise e-
mail informing her of my potentially imminent demise. It would be much
simpler, easier, tidier ... but no. It doesn’t work like that does it. Not in my
family it doesn’t. Not with my mother.

When my brother died, my mother drove the blue subaru into the weeping
willow tree at the bottom of the driveway. Smashed herself up. Spent two
weeks in the hospital. After my father’s death, she stopped eating. Turned into
a skeleton for a month, then sold the family farm, bought a house on the
beach, and took off for South America. And now it’s my turn to be the bad
news. And so of course...I agree to go.

Maggie is on the phone with her mother.

You’ll come, you’ll come, you’ll come! Now you have to come because you’ve
said you’ll come, and you can’t break your word. That’s against family rules!
Oh Maggie, I can’t wait to see you!

The sound of jet engines can be heard.




Maggie is sitting on the plane to Ecuador.

There is not much worse than being stuck on a piece of mid air steel with a
mind racing faster than Lance Armstrong on steroids.

We’re flying over the Rocky Mountains.

The white and blue peaks passing below us.
Their crisp points and lines melting into sweeping slopes.
The majesty of the view in stark contrast to the incessant buzzing chatter of my
How is it possible that one single world can hold such... magnificence... and at
the same time hold its utter opposite?

My mind has been stuffed so full of cancer information bites that it can’t help
shuffling and reshuffling them on auto-play. Page-after-page of digital
information about tongues being sliced into, jaws being razored, and tumors
being excised.

It’s hard to describe the horror of googling a potentially terminal illness which
is now taking up residence in your body. But I’m sure you can imagine.
Something changes when it’s you, and not a friend or family member or
acquaintance. You’re no longer an archaeologist sifting through ancient
remains, you’re the dinosaur in search of a resurrection.


Would you like a complementary beverage?

I’m interrupted by an air hostess who’s wearing adult braces and a rock the size
of Gibraltar on her engagement finger.
(to the air hostess)
Just some water thanks.

I wish my worries could be summed up as the straightness of my teeth for my

wedding photos... Although I suppose you never know. She could be
suffering some silent illness of her very own.

Maggie takes the cup of water from the air


Thank you.
(out front again)
If Geoff were still alive he probably would have told me that this cancer could
be cured with some hippy-tastic alternative therapy, drinking my own urine
perhaps, or chanting inside a crystal cave while getting stung by healing
bumble bees. He probably would have gone out and bought me a massive
bag of weed like he did when I was getting migraines in high school.

Geoff was always Mum’s favourite: flamboyant and extravagant.

And I was always Dad’s: mean and pragmatic.
But now that Geoff and Dad are both dead... nobody has their favourite


At the airport.

Maggie! I’m so glad you’re here! I can hardly believe that you’re actually here!
I have a big trip planned for us. We’ll be driving to Rio Coca and then taking a
canoe down the river! The guide should be here any minute.

And then after the jungle trip, I was thinking that we could go climb Cotopaxia;
it’s the tallest active volcanoe in the world! Are you okay? You look exhausted.

I’m fine. I can only stay for five days.

Oh, I see. Well I thought we would have more time together. But so it goes...

Thankfully the guide appears before my mother can wind herself up for a
passive aggressive attack about the number of days with which I will be
gracing her presence.

MAYRA, the jungle guide, opens her arms

wide as she greets Maggie and Mayra.

Hola! You are Maggie and Melanie, yes? I am Mayra! Mucho gusto. It’s my
pleasure to meet you. Bueno vamos! To the van. The jungle is waiting.

We drive from the honking, rushing, smog-encapsulated capital. To the
sweaty, screeching, slow-motion frenzy of Rio Coca. On the way there, I try not
to speak. Letting my tongue rest as my mother and Mayra blather away
contentedly. I rely on nods and mono-syllabic smiling responses for the first
two hours, and fall asleep for the last four.

When I wake up... the pain in my tongue seems to have doubled.


The three women are in a dugout canoe

heading down a narrow river towards the
jungle camp. Mayra is paddling the canoe
easily, heading with the current, down
river. Birds call out and the occasional
howler monkey bellows from deep within
the forest.

Bienvenidas a la selva! You are sweating like pigs in a blanket, no? Don’t
worry, soon we will be in the shade of the river trees. Do you like lemon?
Tomorrow we will try lemon ants. They are ants but they taste like a delicious

As we glide deeper into the jungle trees that seem to be growing out of the
river itself arch over top of the canoe, shading us from the burning sun. From
every direction comes a new sound, a new texture, a new colour of green, a
new plant winding its way over or under or around another new plant.
Everything is in motion, and its as if you can see the jungle growing before
your eyes.
The heat is sticky.
The air so full of oxygen I feel high.

Bueno, a quick anecdote for you, a cautionary anecdote: a sexy Frenchman
said to me once, “In the jungle, you have no enemy. Only yourself. You are
your own worst enemy.” He had lived before in the jungles of Africa, but here
it is the same. You catch a baby caiman by the tail... he will turn and bite you.
Catch him by the neck... he can do nothing but look you in the eye.

I have a saying, “Head in the sky, feet on the fly, ready to die!” You like it?

Very catchy!

Yes, catchy, no?

The sun is beginning to drop into the

lowest corner of the sky as the canoe
arrives at the jungle camp.

The tributary opens up, widens into a deep pool. Tall river grasses choke up
the edges of the pool, but the centre is dark, empty and smooth as a marble
table top. We have arrived at the jungle camp.

You see those river grasses around there? That is where the caimans live. They
are asleep right now, but at night they will come out and hunt for food. So I do
not recommend going for a midnight dip in the river.


Evening. A few hours after arriving.

Maggie is in the dining hut, staring out at
the river pool.

It’s dark now. On the equator, the sun drips from the sky by 7 every night, and
in the jungle the darkness buzzes with the sound of trillions upon trillions of
A breeze drifts up from off the river cooling my skin.

After dinner my mother and I walk along the dirt path that runs from the dining
hut to our campsite. Mayra has gone back to her home in the community. My
mother is strangely silent. I know what she’s thinking about, but I don’t say


It’s early morning, and the three women

are hiking through the jungle.

If you ask me bird watching is one of those activities a person does when she’s
given up on trying to make sense of humanity. But I am apparently
outnumbered. Mayra is impervious to the early morning heat. Zealously
pointing out bits of flora and fauna as we make our way to the observation
tower where we will be partaking in some casual bird watching.

And here we have the Vilcacora. Uncaria tomentosa in Latin. Uña de gato en
Spanish. Cat’s Claw in English. Many names for this little anti-inflammatory

We arrive to the tower and climb the 100 green metal steps to the top.

98. 99. 100.

Mayra and my mother busy themselves with their binoculars, pointing out
barely visible birds to each other, and scurrying from one side of the platform
to another.

I lean against the railing of the observation tower and catch my breath. From
here it seems like the jungle could go on forever, and home is nothing more
than a figment of imagined memory.

I’m musing on the possibility of home not existing when my attention is caught
by the pairs and triplets of bright green birds piercing the boredom of blue
sky. They fly in twos in threes, sometimes in fours, but never alone.

I’ve been sucked into the world of birdwatching.

These birds you are watching are very Latino. The ara militaris. Always with
their family or their lover. Never, never alone. Just like us Latinitos. For fifty,
sometimes sixty years, they fly this way. First flying with their parents, then with
their lover. Never, never alone.

I want to ask Mayra how these green birds manage not to kill each other.
Spending all that time together. Day in and day out. Don’t they ever fight?
Want to peck each others’ eyes out? I can’t even keep a boyfriend for longer
than six months and here are these birds that never even fly alone. And if they
never fly alone, what do they do when their partner dies? Do they die
Like Romeo and Juliette?
Star-crossed parrots in a mangled mess of feathers? What do parrots have that
humans don’t? Aside from the feathers and flying of course. Maybe if we flew
everywhere and slept in the tops of trees we could live together more

The pain in my tongue is softer...


Maybe if I stay here and never go back it will go away.

Maybe I only have cancer when I’m back home.


Insects hum softly. There is the sound of

not-quite-still water. The three women are
fishing for piranhas, sitting in a dugout
canoe in the shade of some river trees.

They are attracted to movement.

I thought I was home free when the bird watching came to an end. But
apparently not. We are fishing for piranhas. I don’t see why we can’t fish for
something more normal, but it would seem that piranhas are the easiest to

Pygocentrus nattereri. They are not like the piranhas you see in the movies.
Aye the American movies love to do it wrong don’t they!

Mayra cackles as she catches a fish, pulling

it up from the river and staring it in the
eyes before she grabs it by its belly and
tickles its many-fanged jaw.

Hola bonito! Que lindo que eres!

We catch six piranhas. Enough for dinner. And then Mayra decides that its
time for a swim.

Aye, don’t worry so much. You know the piranhas are afraid of live animals.
Mira, if they were really hungry, they would swim off into the river grasses and
nibble the caimans into a short death. Vamos! Ya!

Mayra canonballs into the river.

Come in! Come in! That water is delicious!

My mother leaps in after her.

The water’s great Maggie! Very warm!

My mother treads water nervously, trying to give herself over the jungle
experience. Mayra splashes about like a labrador puppy.

Don’t be a silly chicken afraid of fishes! Take the river by the horns, my friend!

Needless to say, Mayra’s mixed metaphor does not make me want to go
swimming with a school of piranhas. But then she starts doggypaddling back
towards the canoe and I can tell by the look in her eyes that she’s about to...

Mayra tips the canoe, and Maggie goes

flying out into the piranha-infested waters.

All I can feel is the silky touch of warm water and my heart beating in the center
of my throat as I tread water waiting for the piranhas to come and eat me alive.
They don’t come.
Fuck it.
I float into starfish on my back. Let them come if they want. What do I have to
lose really?

And then something changes. Like the gears of a bicycle clicking into place.

The leaves of the trees are brighter, shinier. My heart’s panicked beating
slows. And for a moment, I’m acutely aware of how perfect everything is.
And then it’s gone. My mother asks what time it is, as if anyone’s wearing a
watch. And I remember why I’m here, and the stillness disappears.



Inside our tent, lying in my sleeping bag, there seems to be nothing
separating me from the jungle, so full are the sounds of the night. My mother
gets up, fumbling in the darkness even with her flashlight. I keep my eyes
closed. Hear her unzip the tent and flip flop her way down the wooden
boardwalk. We were told to wear our rubber boots at all times, but as usual my
mother is flouting the rules. I’m just about to fall asleep, when I hear my


A piercing scream bites through the



Melanie is nearly doubled over in pain, her

face is contorted and her breath shallow.

Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god. My leeeeeg! Oh shit, it huuuurts!

Mum! What happened, what’s wrong?

I got up to pee, and oh my god! My leg. It hurts, it hurts, it huuuurts!

Mum, don’t move. It might be a snake bite.

A snake bite--

I read about this in the guide book. If there’s venom in your leg, you shouldn’t
move it. Just stay where you are; I’m going to get Mayra.

Maggie, don’t leave me!
(wheezing now)
I can’t...I can’t breath...

(out front)
I carry my thankfully skinny mother for ten minute, through the jungle, to
Mayra’s house in the community. Mayra’s brother calls the nearest petroleum
station. Twenty minutes later a helicopter lands on the village soccer field.
We’re taken to the roof of the Rio Coca hospital where a medical assembly line
meets us, rushing my mother down the stairs and into the emergency room.
They move like choreographed dancers, and I half expect them to break into
show tune...
(belting out)
“Here’s to the ladies who lunch--”

My tongue is throbbing.

Maggie, don’t leave me!

I’m right here mum! You’ll be okay.
(out front)
They don’t let me go with her. Hospital procedure. And so I’m left to wait.
And wait.
And wait.

It would be better if she did die. Because then I wouldn’t have to tell her. That
sounds terrible I know, but it’s what she wants. To die first. But as much as my
mother drives me crazy I don’t want her to die of a snake bite in some jungle
hospital. I want her to die of old age after thirty more years of annoying the shit
out of me.



A few hours later.

Finally a doctor comes to the waiting room. He’s about five feet tall, and he
looks like a character from a Latino version of the Lord of the Rings. Dr.
Cordova. On the way down the hall to my mother’s hospital room, he tells me
that she’s going to be okay.

Your mother is lucky, very lucky. You know only last week we had to amputate
the leg of a child. Díos Santo que terrible eso. He had a bite from a bothrops
asper. A snake. A viper. But the doctor of this child’s pueblo is an idiot. A
student from the city probable. Gave him antibioticos. Que béstia. The leg
was black, BLACK, when the child comes in with his mother. Tissue necrosis.
Can you believe? Increible. We couldn’t save the leg. We had to amputate.
So as I say, your mother is lucky. I gave her an antivenom, and she will be fine.
Bueno. I leave you with your mother. She is just awake now, maybe a little
painful and grumpy, no mas.

Maggie enters her mother’s hospital room.

How do you feel?

Like I’ve been run over by the Calgary Stampede. I’m not going to die?

You’ll have to wait at least another thirty years for that mum.

I wasn’t wearing my rubber boots.

I know.
It’s okay.


I walk along the dark empty road which runs next to the tiny hospital, looking
for the hotel one of the nurses told me about. It’s called L’Araña Verde: The
Green Spider. And it’s lit up with a green neon sign over the front door. It
looks like it might have been a brothel in recent history. I get a room with two
double beds, and I try to sleep, but I can’t. An image of Geoff and my father
on our first family vacation to Hawaii keeps playing through my mind. Geoff is
standing next to the ocean with his arms crossed. My dad is gesticulating
wildly from amid the waves. Geoff had read an article about shark attacks in
National Geographics the month before and he absolutely refused to go
swimming for the entire two week vacation. Dad couldn’t stand it. He thought
that Geoff was being a fucking baby as he so eloquently put it.

The day Geoff died, I forgave him for killing himself. I know why he did it. He
wasn’t trying to leave me...he was trying to leave himself. But my father... I
don’t know how to let go. Or maybe I just don’t want to. How does a person’s
heart just stop for no reason, no warning, no nothing, just done, gone, over

As the sun comes up, I’m still awake. Lying in the scratchy poly-cotton sheets,
contemplating the dusty slow-moving ceiling fan, and wondering if it’s
possible to ever simply not care if you live or die, to truly accept that death will
come no matter what you do so it really doesn’t matter when or where or how
you just do.



It’s raining in Vancouver. Surprise, surprise. Drizzling drops of half-hearted
rain. The sky is gray. The trees are bare. Crows are hopping on the beach in
front of my mother’s Kitsilano semi-mansion. I put my mother to bed, thankful
that she had been shelling out for a cleaner the entire time she was away.
(to Melanie)
I’ll come by tomorrow to see how you’re doing...
(out front)
No response. She’s already fallen asleep.


At Maggie’s home. Maggie presses play

on the answering machine.

You have twenty-five new messages. First message.


Hi Maggie, it’s Dr. James from St. Mary’s. I’m calling regarding the surgery-

I stop the message. I don’t want to hear any more. I don’t want real life to
infiltrate the barrier of magic the jungle had created for me. From the jungle,
from the fertile heat, where the decay of plants and the turnover of animals was
so obvious, nature so unavoidable, death had started to seem more
acceptable, more inevitable. But not anymore, not now. The indefatigable Dr.
James has swooped in with his scalpel, slicing away whatever illusions of poetic
grandeur in death I had created for myself. Now all I feel is fear: fear of the
unknown, fear of pain, fear of fear. I want someone to save me. To tell me that
everything’s going to be okay, and I want to be able to believe them.

Maggie dials Dr. James.


Hi Dr. James. It’s Maggie Swanell returning your call. I was visiting my mother.
I just got back. --- I’d like to do the surgery as soon as possible. --- Sure, of
course. I will. Thank you.
(hanging up the phone)
I go to bed.
And I fall asleep.
And I dream.

In my dream I’m walking on water.

The sky is blue.
My father is singing Simon and Garfunkle.

“Hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you.
But my words, like silent raindrops fall, and echoed, in the wells of silence.”

And then I’m drowning, falling through meters of water, my lungs filling with
water, and as I die the water feeds on me, ripping my body to shreds.

I wake up. My shirt’s sticking to my back, my pillow’s wet, my head feel’s like
it’s full of burning cotton balls and my mind seems to have turned into that
terrible Edvard Munch painting: the scream.

I go to the bathroom. Splash water on my face. And as I look in the mirror,

water rolling down my cheeks and falling onto the floor, my eyes have stopped
working. Is it my eyes, or the mind connected to my eyes. The face in the
mirror looks familiar, like something I’ve seen before, maybe on the street or a
magazine, but not me, my face. I search my brain for something that will tell
me what to do, what to think, but all I find is a jumble of contradictory advice,
quotations suspended out of context. “For there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.”

Hamlet, always helpful.

I’ve sewn myself into so many stories that now I don’t know what’s me, my
thoughts, my dreams, and what isn’t. I don’t even know my own face.

“To me it is a prison.” Hamlet’s right, this time. It is a prison. I’m choosing

between letting my tongue live, free, let it do what it wants, until maybe I die
or maybe I don’t.

Because who’s to say for a certainty that I have to die just because I choose not
to do the only thing they say will save me, because I hope that there might
somewhere be something better.

And then I’m crying. Huddled on the bathroom floor, my arms wrapped
around my body, rocking myself back and forth, back and forth, back and
forth, as my eyes well up and turn red, and the tears just keep coming and
coming and coming, until the stop. Just like that. Dry.

I get up and walk back to bed. And as I’m pulling the sheets up around my
chin. I remember the feeling of blue silk and the fear evaporating into stillness
as I lay in the warm water, sun shining through the jungle leaves. That was real,
wasn’t it?


Maggie and Melanie sit in Melanie’s living


My mother is perched like a robin on her favorite red velvet arm chair, staring
across the room at the urn which sits on the mantle, still holding my father’s
ashes, still waiting for the right moment to be scattered, the right place. Just
as I am waiting for the right moment. The right place.

I don’t know what to do with your father’s ashes. He said he didn’t like the idea
of his dead hair and nails growing and growing until he looked like a member
of the rock band KISS. That’s why he wanted to be cremated. He said that the
universe had better things to do with itself than grow a dead man’s hair and
nails to inhuman lengths only to have it eventually rot away into nothing.

Did I ever tell you what your father’s last words were? He looked me in the
eye, holding my hand and he said,

“Melly, do you know what I’ve always hated about you. Nothing.

And considering I’m the biggest asshole I’ve ever met, that’s saying a lot.”

And then his heart stopped. And they couldn’t bring him back.

I have tongue cancer. She looks at me as if I just told her that the Virgin Mary
can go to hell in a handbasket.

Is that some kind of a sick joke? Because I can tell you right now, that it’s not

It’s not a joke. I might be dead soon, and you need to be ready for that.

What are you talking about, you might die? ... You’re not... Tongue cancer...
Why didn’t you tell me..before... How long have you... The doctors? The
doctors didn’t recommend any treatment? They just told you that you’re
going to die?

They want to cut off a third of my visible tongue. I’ve decided...that I’m not
going to do it.

Are you insane? You have to do what the doctors tell you. They know more
than you; they can save you. Are you afraid you won’t be able to speak again?
You can’t throw your life away because of a childhood obsession with
dramatics. Look at Steven Hawking. Look at what he’s achieved because he
never gave up.

They can’t help me find the truth.

What truth? Do you know what I gave up for you? I gave up everything for you
and your father and your brother, and I didn’t give up everything I’ve ever
wanted so that you could all just go and die on me. Do you hear? Now you are
going to get treatment for, and you are going to live!

It’s not a bad thing to die Mum.

Maybe not. I wouldn’t know. But it is a bad thing to be left behind, and I’m
sick of it. I’m sick to death of being left behind.

I’m not leaving you!

And miraculously she hears me.

And her face changes from red to its normal freckled tan.
The veins in her neck stop throbbing frantically. The squeezing lines of fear in
her forehead disappear.

I think we should scatter Dad’s ashes in the vegetable garden, and bury the
urn. It’s time.

Yes. You’re right. It’s time. Your father would like the thought of his former
atoms turning into lettuce and potatoes.

I’m not doing this to hurt you.

I know you’re not. But I am still your mother. And I do still want you to live.

I don’t know what to say Maggie. I can’t fix this for you. The older I get the
more mysterious the workings of God seem to be. I’m starting to think that
there are no workings of God. Just mindless chaos punctuated by occasional
bursts of love.



That night, after finally telling my mother, I have another dream. In the dream
my tongue and throat are so full of tumors they’ve blocked my trachea, and all I
can do is lie there and wait for death to come. I breathe my last breath, and
then my mind goes blank.

I’m swimming in the jungle river. I’m light and shiny and I move quickly
through the water, cutting the velvety texture of hydrogen and oxygen with
my curved face. My teeth are as sharp as razors. I breathe in and water flows
through my mouth and out my gills. I can’t see them, but I know my mother is
there, and my father and brother, swimming next to me in the jungle river.

And just when I’m getting used to being a fish, my sides start to itch and tickle.
Green feathers push through my scales and into the water around me. And
moments later I’ve breached the surface, flying up and out. Soaring, gliding.

The body of a piranha and the wings of a parrot. I’ve turned into a Salvador
Dali painting. A mythical creature without a myth.

I’m alone in the sky, flying higher and higher and higher. Until I disappear. A
dot on the invisible landscape. And then I’m falling. A single atom
plummeting through space, back to earth. And just before I land, I hear my
father’s voice.

“The most haunting words, Maggie, are the one’s not said.”

And then I wake up.

I wake up.
I wake up, and for the first time in years, I can hear the sound of real silence.
A silence which is not filled with lies or doubts or fears... a silence which is
missing nothing.


Can you hear it?



My friends, you know by now that our little jungle cannot be conquered don’t
you? It can be ripped up. Paved over. Built into little houses. Turned into
fields of sugar cane and coca. But the heat is still hot. The air still holds the
water and sticks to you like a wet bathing suit. The sun shines. And the plants
grow up from the cracks in the buildings and the streets. You must pave and
pave and pave if you want to keep it down. Only down, pero. It is still there.
Underneath. In the air. In the spaces between your human destruction. You
can’t see it all the time maybe. Pero alli está. Waiting for an opportunity. A

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