Throwback Thursday | An ON FIRE Excerpt: “Setting Fire to Water” by Phoebe Tsang

The end came faster than he could have hoped.

Coyote, twenty-nine and balding since seventeen, who could be seen each morning at his company’s office building through the tinted windows of the fourth-floor gym, a ghost with fluorescent aura slowly erased by encroaching daybreak; who hadn’t taken a vacation since joining this above-average, medium-to-large corporation of chartered accountants specialising in US taxation and non-Canadian residents as an intern fresh out of York University; who’d finally proposed to the stylish and almost-always confident Emmeline from Excellence! magazine on floors six and seven, had conclusively determined once and for all, six weeks post popping the question, that this engagement was as stalled as an out-of-service elevator ever since Emmeline claimed to have lost her engagement ring at the indoor pool only for it to resurface a week later in the ground floor Recycling Room.

All Coyote could think, on opening his office door to the zealous, newly-hired cleaner who answered his LOST notice in the VIP lounge, was that traces of his own recent yet utterly foreign youth were painfully reproduced in this boy’s hopeful, African-American visage. Three longitudinal creases scored his otherwise untroubled forehead, above his expectant eyebrows–a synchronous symbol, no doubt. Why else should the cleaner’s brow suddenly bring to Coyote’s mind the last three rocky years of his on-again, off-again courtship–punctuated, sometimes, by diffidence on Coyote’s part, more often by the lady’s penchant for sudden, explosive affairs with shaggy-haired guitarists invariably California-bound? At least Coyote had the presence of mind to tip the boy a fifty-dollar bill. Was the reward too small or too large?

Named Young Accountant of the Year in ’08 and ’10 by the Institute for the Personal Growth and Enrichment of Chartered Professional Accountants, Coyote was halfway through the eighty-hour Certification in Advanced First Aid complimentary for employees keen to upgrade the basic requirements of workplace health and safety, which seemed rather, well, basic, when he suddenly found himself divested of the townhouse he’d acquired mere months ago in hopes of matrimony.

“It’s a seller’s market,” his estate agent assured him, “Not so good for the buyer, but leave town for long enough, and the wind will change.”

She may as well have been an oracle.

Two short weeks later, as the airport limo pulled away, Coyote rolled down the tinted window to glance back at his agent’s oversize, crimson grin on the SOLD sign fastened to the front porch railing, and thought he should have waited until after the closing date before he handed over the keys, but it was too late. His wardrobe was condensed to a couple of Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Banana Republic chinos in an Eddie Bauer duffel bag, his resignation approved with moderate reluctance by the company, and an open-return air ticket to India tucked between passport pages in the interior compartment of his fanny pack.

The fanny pack was a relic from his first and last trip abroad, aged eighteen, on a European tour bus. Buckled around his waist, he remembered he’d always hated its embarrassingly protuberant bulk. And now, as if to underscore the point, a fist-sized cavity gouged the soft flesh of his lower abdomen, uncomfortably close to the pubic bone, as he strained over the edge of a small motor boat somewhere along the River Ganges, a box of matches in one hand and an unlit tea-light in the other.

Less than an hour ago, one hundred rupees had bought him the white candles in pleated paper cups, each one garlanded with withered marigolds in a banana-leaf boat. He hadn’t wished for thirteen of them, but the street vendor snatched his vaguely proffered bank bill, leaving Coyote with the familiar sensation of having gained more than he’d bargained for—except there had been no bargaining.         

“You have no initiative,” Emmeline had said. “It was my idea to get engaged.”

“I arranged for the photographer and the bandoneon.”

“You know I don’t like French music.”

“It wasn’t French. We just happened to be in Montréal that weekend—”

“Forget it.” She sighed. “Why don’t you try using your imagination?”

Coyote could see her dissatisfaction with increasing clarity as he pounded the treadmill, and watched his reflection in the floor-to-ceiling windows disappear. In the week of the engagement ring’s absence, he carefully sifted through the contents of every vacuum cleaner in the building. Had she actually put the ring back on after it was returned?

Now, the sun rose above the Ganges, a pink orb grazing the far shore. On the opposite side, a crescent moon floated above a crumbling palace, an open-air crematorium, and men and women bathing in the thick green waters. Submerged to their waists, still clothed in their undergarments, the bathers seemed oblivious to the proximity of corpses laid on the shore beneath colourful, patterned shrouds. Coyote had seen similar designs on bed sheets and tablecloths hanging from washing lines and amongst market wares on his ride from airport to hotel, bouncing in the back of a tuk-tuk, blasted by exhaust fumes and the inescapable stench of burning waste that seemed to permeate the whole country—paper, plastics, cow dung, human flesh.

The bathers laughed and jostled as they cupped water in their hands and poured it over each other—the same water anointed the living and the dead. Daily, the bathers prepared for their own funerals, joyfully awaiting their turns to be consumed by fire.

Coyote joined an excursion of Americans, his passage bought with his offering of candles. “For the river god,” Coyote told them cheerfully. He couldn’t remember exactly what he’d read as he surfed the net, inputting search phrases, such as “backpacking to seek meaning of life” or “atheist spiritual quest India?”

“How adorable” One lady gushed, burying her nose in the marigolds.

Coyote thought of the hawker’s blackened fingers and shuddered. Whatever their nails were encrusted with—dirt, excrement—must have transferred their bitter odour onto the flowers they proffered. At first, he, too, had lifted the marigolds instinctively to his face and inhaled, then grimaced to find no distinction between their scent and the dull, odorous breeze that seemed to grow more pungent as he neared the river’s edge.

“What an exotic scent,” said the marigold-sniffer. “I wonder if it has something to do with those spices they use in their food.”

“Not exactly Chanel No. 5,” Coyote said.

“Are you from Canada?” asked her husband. “I thought I recognized the accent.”

According to the Personal Income Questionnaire routinely given to all clients, you paid taxes based on where you’d made money in the last twelve months. Further questioning of the past was irrelevant. You filled in the form to the best of your knowledge and prayed you would pass. You spent your life wading through similar forms, inputting data against the clock. For the whole of his adult life, Coyote and the clock had been cruising neck-to-neck in a race whose outcome was fixed. Still, he enjoyed a certain unquantifiable and vicarious thrill: the sense that something of his opponent’s tireless resilience and, well, immortality, transferred to him by virtue of sheer exposure—much like the aging effects of UV rays. In rare, superhuman moments Coyote even took the lead, never for long but just enough to earn accolades like most-promising, second-in-line, probable-husband-to-be of the evasive Emmeline who had recently been appointed Beauty Editor and was poised to ascend the pantheon of Excellence! via Art Director to, one day, Editor-in-Chief.

Coyote struck the first match. You made a wish, cast the candles to the river and watched them flicker, fire on water—or so he had read online.

The match went out. None of the websites had warned him about the wind.

Coyote struck another match and sheltered the feeble flame with his hand. It took to the wick for a few breathless seconds— “Ooh,” gasped his fellow passengers—then fizzled out.

In the green water, banana-leaf boats drifted by. In the boats were spent candles, oozing and misshapen with short, blackened wicks. Most of the marigold garlands were incomplete or missing altogether.

Coyote shook the matchbox, and it rattled like a broken toy. Some of the matches landed in his hand; others fell onto the deck and lay intermingled with those already spent.

“Hang in there, folks,” said Coyote. “Too early to give up yet.”

Not his own but the voice of breakfast television, of inconsequential reports on food and fashion, and interviews with minor celebrities. The voice whiled away the grey, pre-dawn hours, occasionally interrupted by more serious segments on world news and weather. It twittered on in the background in the Cardio Corner, muffled by the treadmill’s motor, comforting as a dawn chorus. Except on TV, there was always laughter, even if it was canned.

The expressions on this audience’s faces were blank, a puzzle. The boatman gazed with inscrutable fascination at the sky. Probably didn’t understand English.

The websites called India “the spiritual centre of the world,” as if India was not a country but an essential, hidden organ without which no other country could exist. A purplish, pulpy spleen or belaboured heart, distended and riddled with veins. The world flocked to India to discharge its ills and be recharged by life-giving forces not found in the staple North American diet: the zeal of devotion, the taxation of ritual, the rapture of sacrifice. Surfing the web late into the night, Coyote pieced together a vision of a hitherto unimaginable way of life; a life which, if it had previously, incongruously been presented to him among the glossy pages of the Condé Nast Traveler, would have horrified him. He would perform the rites of penance until his hair grew past his shoulders. He would backpack through the desert until his sandals were shreds. He would learn to live without money. He would sleep naked under a sky where the sun and moon coexisted peacefully, as in some prehistoric, mythical age when there was no such thing as death.

Coyote would vanish, leaving no trace except perhaps the memory of love—self-conscious, precarious and half-baked, but love nonetheless.



On Fire new kindle

Phoebe Tsang is British-Canadian poet, short-story writer, librettist and violinist. She is the author of the full-length poetry collection Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books), and her poetry and fiction has been published in anthologies and journals including the Asia Literary Review and the Literary Review of Canada. Her short fiction was long-listed for the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize, and short-listed for the Matrix Lit POP Awards in 2016. rained, and, her chapbook of collaborative visual poems with artist John Riegert, was published in Spring 2017 by Puddles of Sky Press. She is currently completing her first solo album of poetry, music and song, through a grant from the Jack Straw Cultural Center (Seattle, WA).


Get your copy of ON FIRE!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s