The Vetāla of False Creek

By Kiran Kuar; illustrations by Sroop Sunar; photography by Deena Dinat
The Vetala of False Creek. Illustration by Sroop Sunar.
Illustration © 2018 Sroop Sunar.

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Did you know that the Fraser begins in the land of Mount Robson? It winds its way across the midriff of BC and down into this place where we are, before it screams, pulled with the force of the entire ocean, into the sea. You loved this area; the arms of the Fraser grasping Sea and Lulu the way arteries keep themselves drifting into the heart.

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Your mother always tells you things at the decibel of a yell, as though she and every other Punjabi ma got together and decided this was the best way to make a point of being heard, the daily mutiny has been going for women long before 1857. Right now, she is yelling across this beautiful, beige Richmond-sized house for you to come to the kitchen and eat the fresh jalebis. I stuff a pile of them into our mouth praying she won’t look too hard, syrup bleeding orange across our chin. This dead body has, after all, forgotten how to swallow.

If I told you vetālas were real, you might not believe me, the aberration of our moment torn between a future of taxis hovering on invisible energy so quiet they scare their own drivers and my existence so fleeting except when I inhabit a body, animatus animalis, double trouble, I becoming we for a sweet moment. There is nothing more revolutionary than the collective they say now. Me, a collective by my very nature, princely, no, queenly, in this kingdom of us.

Mercedes Eng with Father
Photo © 2018 Deena Dinat.

I had been roaming for a while when I found you about to shoot yourself. If I had kept on roaming, I could have told you that soon you would be lying on the taupe carpet, blood unfairly splayed like strands of jalebi, and a thin metal shotgun beside you, belly to be bloated from beer and the deep breaths of the act of dying. And if I had kept on, I could have told you that in a few minutes, your mother, sister, everyone would be running, running towards your room, with complete terror still believing that the sound was from someone else's beautiful beige house, even though deep down, the sound was too familiar, made by a gun that had been confiscated, but never disposed of, because in this world, what else are the top shelves of garages for but the things that you are not rich enough to buy again, no matter how absurd it might be to keep them. If I had kept on, I would have continued to hear the screams and whispers for days, nono,howdidthishappen and the wails of collective guilt at their failure to stop you on your third try. If I had kept on, I would have been a witness to your mother’s loss, and every mother’s loss as they called their sons to them, your childhood friends, your cousins, and how they beat their backs as though one can wail the desire to live back in to someone. There are some things that even douchey spirits cannot bear. Mine is the last face you see alive, or the first face you see dead as I muffle, between you and the gun, bracing for a quiet departure as you shoot through us.

There had been signs. The late nights, termination from your loss prevention job at the Superstore, long disappearances and even longer trips to the 7-11 down on No. 1 Street. Peculiar moods and abrupt moments, holes punched into walls and extensive apologies, broken fingers and broken noses. The fetal position is the opposite of the corpse. They had tried to treat you with pharmaceuticals, the kind that reduce you and press into flesh. And of course, self-medications, memories of that roaming, a ghostly flow and scutter that never quite leaves the body once it enters.

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The jalebis sit in your throat glommed together and then we look at your mother one last time because we think you forgot to do that and we tell her you love her, she doesn’t respond, maybe because it came out as a whisper over the bristles of bloody orange clots in your mouth, and maybe because we haven’t quite figured out how to speak you yet. We walk you through the back of the house so she won't find you where you tried to asphyxiate yourself this morning, before you realized that it would have to be the gun, because vents were put in the garage after your father underwent this same crossing last year. Your mother will be confused about the car running and the carpets on the floor, wondering where you are and if this is the ghost of her husband coming to visit. She will thank her blessings you are not there; they won't find you until three days later.

Every vetāla has its own design, but I like to place things where they belong, finding the backs to where they came from, waterwombs that resemble passages of heartache, creeks of falsehood, no room for ashes, our pilgrimage of this body to a place fitted for you. I couldn’t save you, but surrendering your body in return for whatever spirit is left of your mother is something we can try at.

Our body had to be inhabited, pulled up and thrust back into the world of the living at an hour of quiet. I forced you up, and burrowed myself in through the heart wound. This kind of service, this violent rebirth, is only ever kindness. I poured my energy with force into the nerves, occupying dendrites and follicles and cells, becoming us.

It might seem strange to be a benevolent inhabitor, a spirit to usher the body after the spirit departs from the body into the ether, but someone has to take responsibility. Your body is beautiful, dark and rippled itself. Alive, it had been a marvel, thick and arrogant from kung fu classes and a rude mother, strapped into ADIDAS sweatsuits and tevas with white socks. A little silver earring and short hair with a dream of a wave running through it. Teal convertibles with a teal light that shone under at night, the eeriness leaving parental throats dry and making nephews and nieces marvel.

You have been fooled. As they have told me, the heart is my fist and the night is my mouth and I will own you tonight. The most beautiful bodies we wish to inhabit are the tawny ones, still yet bristling with youth at the tips of their moustaches. The sweetness of breath still there. You, my boy, are a bit different, your mouth a bit overladen, and your eyes a bit too alive, glassed over from the trench of the city to the trench of the medical industry, crystals the softest of them all; once your mother found what she thought were shards of misri behind the toaster, another time, in the depths of the velvet brown couch. She would throw them out, quietly. Everyone knows Punjabi boys were never good at hiding things from their mothers, the brazen with which they barely bother; your mother, pulling the unwritten codes of silence from an ancestral bank of memory on how to live with boys ravenous.

The Vetala of False Creek. Photo by Deena Dinat
Photo © 2018 Deena Dinat.

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There are no basements in Richmond, the silt deposit too hungering for a fold inwards from tractors. The houses sit completely aboveground on foundations always at risk of sinking, and that makes our task all the more difficult, your bedroom upstairs near the kitchen and living room.

I can only inhabit such freshness for so long, unaware of the damage of dragging our body around, a destructive act. I can feel our body, musk over tendon and bone, muscles stiffening for horizons of rest. We slump as we move, a little to the right, your physique gone into algor mortis.

As we begin this pilgrimage, we can feel the sweetness of some of your memories tugging like your nieces back and forth on the comforter in the bedroom until you swooped it up over them holding down the edges until they begged laughing, little voices rising up in a chorus of mercymercymercy but ever so slightly strained with real fear; or that beautiful girlfriend – the one that made your heart thump so hard, we can still feel where the cavity in your chest widened for her – she with her bubblegum-scented hair and fishtail eyes. There is a house with pale yellow wood paneling, Vancouver special balconies most prominently-featured in Richmond, a sloping roof and mustard brick pillars, your family's first home in the city. And then the sweet smells of Steveston reeds, crickets and caterpillars billowing happily, the ghosts of Japanese fishermen with their lines and Musqueam fishermen with their nets trailing into the slough. Their heads turn slowly to watch my effort, eyes rolling back in laughter or exhaustion. I give them the finger as we go by and their eyes spool even more fervently, or perhaps I imagine that too.

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The walk is the hardest here. Ghosts may like to float, but vetālas do not, irascibly bound to the containers that we are charged with by the fear of losing them to currents. Water fills in everywhere, the ears, pores, eyes, orificial worship.

No one would remember, but I can feel our arm hairs bristling from the streams of memory, the beach on the island, Iona the provider of a deep well for pennies of disappointment. Here is where you took that beautiful girl to tell her that you loved her, the beach cold and dark and wet, a glistening mud bath from the rain with swashes of herons in their grizzled winter cloaks and seadrunk driftwood. The eel grasses flowing back and forth, and the whinny of a horse off in the distance. This is silken country you would think, running your mouth over her body as you whispered devotion.

She leaves you, respectfully, for university. She leaves crevasses where her braid would fall when she leaned her head against your chest: you are left with nothing to fault her for, nothing to salve your ego with except a brute awakening to your own inferiority.

The arm of the river between the airport and the river park is covered in waterbugs this time of year, there are eagles flying overhead, on a circuit that they believe themselves to be the makers of. Little are they aware of how all the minnows and big fish rush away from me in terror, spanning out in fractals. The banks are infiltrated with swathes of white pollen, and the thick strains of light green seaweed that wrap and grasp like the last good mother and her mother before her. The tugboat overhead is strong, its shadow opinionated and weighing. The gulls feel safe in spite of what is going on below them, smooth pebbles and salmon skip. A large tree knot sits on perpetual river watch, its third eye readied for every ship and body come. It shudders at our entry onto the bank.

We walk up Granville, industrial lights so near to the Superstore where you used to work. The stretch up from here is long and hard, our muscles already forgetting how to ascend elevation. We limp and shuffle through Shaughnessy and no one bothers us because you are not, never were, enough to be worth bothering for. Remember the time they set the dogs on you, thinking you were someone else? You held those bites in your holding cell like they were from kisses. Only now, is this a blessing, our inconspicuousness emergent.

Here along the False Creek seawall, beneath the bridges, there is nothing left but a small ledge and a bunch of rocks to cross. That night, the water shines brightly, the lights of the city glass and little Aquabuses faltering along in ripples. A red-footed bird had found its way up and out of the fjord, survival borne out of shit and the ghosts of oysters. The strangeness of coming to the paved over tarmac banks where we can feel the seeds waiting to sprout to no answer from the sun, and then they shrivel and dissolve back into the earth. The dead are, in fact, the most attuned to the living. We pass by the wisps of spirits and they wave us along on our task, to return you even if somewhat imperfectly, to join leagues of brown children who find themselves drifting at the bottom.

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If the hagfish could speak, they would whisper that the water here has a scent to it. It sluices over our arms as we pour in and trudge riverbed rush. Somehow our dead weight keeps an orientation that only these eel-like creatures with their wide mouths and pretty petty sea eyes can see. A tiny shrimp begins to poke at the bits of sugar bleed left around our lips and our mouth opens to give it a new home amongst the fissures. Seawater drenches in and you sink in a gross exhalation, tongue becoming an ebb and flow itself. Our eyelids shuffle closed. I leave you moneyless, wishing I could have caressed an earlobe, but there was only so much movement, and only so much time. Revelry is not for those like me. You still wear a single earring, playthings for squids. You can be marrow for this seabed until they find you. False Creek, they called it, never really beautiful, half filled in for the mismanaged dreams of a railway. A buried creek wanting for everything, the eastern basin covered by stone and cement echoes a lament, scaring the fish into spectral crevices. Perfect for you.

Kiran Kaur
Kiran Kaur is a writer who was born on the traditional territories of the Sinixt peoples, and the Ktunaxa peoples. They are currently at work on a queer Punjabi love saga entitled, Nerve, as well as a collection of Punjabi ghost stories. They live with their parents.
Sroop Sunar
Sroop Sunar is a London based illustrator. She's worked with clients such as Penguin, Random House and The New York Times, and has exhibited in London and Berlin.
Deena Dinat
Deena Dinat is a PhD Candidate in the English Department at the University of British Columbia. His work concerns the intersections of the nation, post-colonial capitalism and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
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