“Reading Materials for the Afterlife” by Katia Lo Innes12 min read

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Illustration by Alex Smyth

It was always easier to cut through the old landfill. The dump, which had been rechristened Euston Park, was converted into public green space half a century ago. Beth tried to imagine what garbage lay beneath its grassy slopes. She pictured broken IBM punch cards, telephone wires—technology from her mother’s near-ancient youth. Now, beautiful allergens like Queen Anne’s Lace and ragweed sprouted in Euston Park.

It was easier to cut through on bike, even during a hot summer day. The Southwestern sun and humidity radiating from the nearby Great Lakes made this type of mid-July day pleasurably uncomfortable, the heat swaddling you head-to-toe like a weighted blanket. Cutting through Euston Park avoided Wharncliffe Road’s traffic, and for a young cyclist such as Beth, offered a covert path to reach the Dairy Queen and Taco Bell.

That was how—even during a government-issued heat and humidity warning—Beth found herself standing on the pedals of her Canadian Tire mountain bike, hoisting her way uphill through the park. Her younger brother Peter lagged behind her, and she could hear his strained breaths as they powered up the steep incline. They were hungry; nothing had been prepared for supper that night, and the President’s Choice chocolate granola bars in the cupboards had done nothing to satiate the gnawing in their stomachs. Occasionally, Beth would turn back to check if Peter was in her line of vision: if he wasn’t, she would stop and wait for him to catch up, a tiny brown speck on wheels. Under the sun Beth and Peter became two shades darker than the rest of their neighbours. Beth cherished this time, secretly pleased that her dark hair lightened to reveal honey brown streaks.

Reaching the top of the hill, Beth let her feet touch the ground so that she could better survey her ascent. The sun hung low, grazing the treetops. Peter heaved his way beside her, sweat suctioning his thin t-shirt onto his back.

“Which is,” Peter asked, inhaling the soupy air in large gulps. “The way to the Dairy Queen?”

Beth paused for a moment and inspected the scene before her. The path forked into three smaller paths, one of which veered sharply into a forested lot. That definitely wasn’t it, she reasoned, so it must be the one farthest to the right that curved around the wooded area. Beth could spot the electrical posts behind it.

“It’s the one to the right,” she pointed.

Peter frowned. “Are you sure?”

Beth nodded. “I’m positive.”

She pushed forward on her bike, letting gravity’s momentum pull her downhill. Peter followed closely behind, their juvenile skeletons rattling over each bump. The path looped aimlessly through the tall grass; electric wires dangled overhead, intermittently strewn with tied-up pairs of shoes. Beth put one pedal in front of the other, inching her way closer to the main road. She counted the number of bends in the path—one, two, three. Strange, she remembered only having to turn twice.

“Beth,” Peter called from behind. “I don’t know where we are.”

Resigned, Beth’s feet fell to the ground. They had ended up near a stack of concrete barriers littered with black garbage bags. Euston Park’s former career as a dumping ground continued into its new life. Beth ignored Peter’s pleas and edged closer to the junk, her eye caught by the technicolour sheen of a magazine stack piercing through a blue recycling bag.

Beth abandoned her bike and thumbed through the magazines. People’s, US Weekly, the usual tabloid suspects. No Vogue nor Vanity Fair, nothing too high calibre. She kept flipping through and froze, landing on a Maxim issue. Not one, but a dozen Maxim issues spooning each other, sticky in the humid air. Beth had always seen these magazines behind the corner store register, eyes peering at her through the frosted plastic cover slips. Beth—who could not bear to look at a cashier directly—marvelled at the directness of these women as they stared back at her from their glossy spreads. Cautiously she picked one up—

“Dead bird!” Peter yelled. “Beth, over here.”

Beth hastily put the magazines down, brushed her hands on her jean shorts, and went to go stand beside Peter. At his feet lay a dead robin, its wings askew and head splayed to the side.

“Oh eeerck,” gagged Beth.

“Looks like a dog got to it.” Peter said. “Or a cat even. Or a coyote—did you know coyotes live in London?”

“No way a coyote did this,” Beth argued. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Wait,” Peter insisted. “We should bury it. Like tai po.

Beth weighed her options. Visions of roadkill past flashed in her mind: animals flattened across country backroads with their organs spilling out, left in the sun. The pancaked-raccoon at the foot of their driveway last fall, which caused Beth to burst into tears on her walk to school. Peter nudged it with his toe, expecting the corpse to have some give. Instead, the bird was stiff, arthritic. Jerky-like. Beth swallowed and fixed her gaze on the bird’s blank visage.

She considered turning around, getting back on her bike and leaving the bird to rot, alone. She imagined what would happen if larger mammals found it, and all the ways it would deteriorate; how its tiny white bones would protrude, feathers matted until it became unrecognizable. And the summer heat would only amplify the rotting stench of addled flesh melding with melting plastic and gasoline. A gaping hole had emerged between her and the bird: the living and the dead. The corpse taunted her—while she struggled to figure out where she would get her dinner, the bird held no anxieties towards its future. It was fixed. Unwavering, It held more certainty in its three-inch frame than Beth did in her entire body. Beth needed to act on this, and act fast.

“Okay fine,” she decided. “We’ll bury him.”

“Where?” Peter asked.

“Here,” Beth replied, using the heel of her shoe to scuff at the ground. She was on her hands and knees now, digging wildly with her fingers, trying to breach dirt in vain. Peter got on his knees to help but she pushed him aside.

“Let me do it,” she insisted.

The skin on her knuckles split against the gravel but she continued to dig stubbornly, blood peeling out from under her fingernails.

“Beth, stop,” Peter urged. She was making little progress. “You’re hurting yourself.”

Beth leaned back on her heels, her breath ragged and dog-like. Blood oozed from the lacerations on her fingers.

“We can put it here instead,” Peter suggested, gesturing to a small opening beneath the concrete barriers.

“Yeah, it can be like a, uh, what’s it called?” Beth stammered.

“Mausoleum,” Peter stated.

Beth turned to him. “You’re getting smart,” she laughed. Peter smiled.

They entombed the bird in a shoebox coffin, wedged underneath the concrete slab. For flair, they shoved in a roll of US Weekly—reading materials for the afterlife, they rationalized. With her house keys, Beth scratched a shoddy crucifix above the entrance and an estimated epitaph (b. 2009-2011). Of course they knew the cross would be the first to go, swept away with wind and rain. The magazines would decompose and dissolve into dirt. Even so, they marked the bird as best as they could. The two children stood at the foot of the tomb.

“What should we do now?” Peter asked.

Beth thought for a moment. “We should pray.”

“I don’t know how to pray,” Peter replied glumly.

“Do you just want to go to Dairy Queen instead?”

They both looked at Beth’s hands and burst out laughing.

“Another time,” she replied. “We have frozen pizza at home.”

Beth turned to pick up her bike, streaking blood on the handles. Her pulse thumped dully in her hands. She packed the rest of the magazines in her bag and slung it over her shoulder.

Peter didn’t bother with any goods; instead, he grabbed a fistful of Queen Anne’s lace and stuffed it into his back pocket. They peddled back in the dark, tire chains clicking peacefully under yellowed street lamps. It took all of five minutes for Beth to begin feeling lightheaded, black spots bursting like overripe cherry tomatoes pressed into her eye sockets. The heaviness of the night had caught up with her no matter how fast she pedalled. Her feet fell against the ground and she slung her forearms onto her handles.

“The bus,” she managed between breaths, “Let’s take the bus. I’m too tired.”

They stashed their bikes behind a dumpster, concealed deftly behind broken-down cardboard boxes. The night bus took its time. They had nowhere to go and nothing else to do, so they waited. Thirty minutes passed. The blood on Beth’s hands had crusted over and she examined them, letting the scabs crack as she stretched her fingers, feeling the new layers of skin grow taut. The bus still did not come and she grew increasingly irritated; if she could divine trash into treasure, if she could lead a bird into the afterlife, surely she could will a bus to run on time.

A seagull had perched itself on the bus sign. Parking lot gulls would be a better name, Beth’s father once joked. The bird was far from the shore but maybe it still believed it was at the sea, Maybe it wished to be at the beach but had given up on its way, landing on this street as a compromise.

Sheepishly, the bus pulled up to the stop. Beth and Peter climbed on.

“We don’t have any—” she began, but it didn’t matter. The bus driver shrugged and got off the bus to have a smoke, ushering the children on.

Peter took a seat near the back as Beth watched the driver bring the lighter to his mouth. Watching the thin gauze of smoke trail from the cigarette, she was reminded of how her friend Sarah’s house reeked of cigarettes, and how the smell lingered on Sarah’s father when he walked past her. How she ached to get closer to him, just to inhale him deeper. She would remember this scent many years later; her eyes heavy with beer and desire, anonymous hands pulling her onto the bed.

Back at the bus stop another gull had landed on the bench, cooing demurely beside its companion. Then, another landed. And another. As if there were a secret signal emanating from the bus stop. Seemingly every bird in the city of London had descended on the vehicle, not just gulls, but robins, too. Birds clambered onto the bench and fluttered up to the bus, enveloping it in motion. They swarmed relentlessly, picking at the flaking paint, picking at each other. Beth could hear the din of complaint rising from the other passengers, but she didn’t mind.

“Beth, are you seeing this?” gaped Peter.

Beth watched in awe. Maybe the birds will latch onto the bus and pick it up, she hoped, carrying it far far away to somewhere where the words “lake effect” have no meaning. The throng was so dense now that it completely obscured the windows, rendering the inside of the bus dark—an avian solar eclipse. The bus rattled and shook, preparing for airborne transit. The sounds grew louder and louder into a cacophony of birdsong. Beth and Peter’s own late night chorus. Sensing the miraculous, the birds began to leave one by one until all was quiet. The driver, who had stood in awe as the flock descended, yanked the door open, and threw himself into his chair with a huff, mechanically shifting gears and revving the bus into motion.

Beth and Peter looked at each other, sharing a smile. No one bothered to look at them, or even stop to inquire about the dried blood covering Beth’s hands and jeans. It didn’t matter, because they had heard the birdsong when no one else could. The bus sleepwalked through the residential streets, dropping the children off on their block.

The lights were off in the dining room; if they had been on, they would have illuminated the fine layer of dust that had begun to accumulate on the wood table. Beth stuck her hands under the faucet and winced as the cold water flushed out the dirt and grass crusted into her skin. The red water ran clear against the porcelain after a minute. Once they’d finished sharing pepperoni pizza, Beth made sure Peter brushed his teeth, taking care not to disturb his dark curls as she pulled his pyjama shirt over his head.

“I think you’re a good sister,” Peter said to Beth, looking at her in the mirrored medicine cabinet.

“Thank you,” Beth replied.

It was the only appropriate response; she felt too young to receive such a compliment. Hot, fat tears burst out of her eyes, and she cried for the bird, and for herself, but she did not understand this yet. Peter hugged her waist, and she let her arms wrap around him. She would’ve wrapped her arms around the whole world if she could.

The house was as silent as a prayer. Beth turned off all the lights and put Peter to bed before heading to her room. She looked towards the head of her bed frame, wishing someone were kind enough to mark it with a cross.

 

 


Katia Lo Innes (she/her) is a Chinese Canadian writer, zine-maker, and journalist based in Tio`tia:ke/Montreal. Raised in the humid parking lots of Southwestern Ontario, her writing is inspired by the waterways and people from where she has lived. Currently, she is a Research Intern at Maisonneuve Magazine.

Alex Smyth is a mixed Japanese-Canadian illustrator and ceramic artist. She is self-taught and works primarily in digital illustration, animation, and ceramics. Her vibrant and playful work often draws from her Japanese heritage, exploring ideas of growing up and “adulthood,” as well as an appreciation for everyday life/objects/actions. Joy, rest, and connection are common threads between her work. Alex also curates and organizes Playground Pop-Up, a local art market-based in Vancouver dedicated to creating a platform for playful artwork and emerging artists.

1 comment

1 comment

serena lisus-reiter 16 May, 2022 - 8:13 am

This is very beautiful. Katia captured the magic of the sticky summers of my Ontario childhood….

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