Category Archives: apocalypse

Queen-Esther’s dream

Pit 'o Hell

Pit ‘o Hell

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I am currently embarked on my once-a-decade revision of a novel I began nearly forty years ago – Sabra the Astonishing – and this time I’ve got the pruning shears out. The downside of this literary downsizing is that I occasionally stumble over pieces of writing that do not much to advance the plot, but of which I am inordinately, perhaps foolishly fond. That’s where having a blog comes in handy – the same way that having a ravine comes in handy when it’s Autumn and the leaves are falling.  Blow it all in and let the composting begin!

And thus it will be with the recurring dream of a favorite character of mine, Queen-Esther Washington,  the black housekeeper of Ararat, the Buck family’s estate just outside Endor, North Carolina.  She’s kind of like Mammy in Gone With the Wind, only angrier.

Here is her dream.

Black Christ . . . and he's looking some mad!

Black Christ . . . and he’s looking some mad!

It was the Last of Days. The trumpet of the Lord was blowing New Orleans jazz — smoky sweet — and the Cities of the Plain, Endor among them, melted like cardboard in the rain. The ground burst open as dead men popped out of their graves and there, plastered all over the sky, red-eyed and mad as a hornet, was Jesus Christ Himself.

Only Jesus wasn’t white.  He was black like Queen-Esther, and He was glaring down at all the poor sinners, most of them no more than bones and patches of cloth and buttons hanging on a thread as they gathered on the plain, stinking and lamenting. Those whose tongues had been torn out gnashed their teeth and struck their dry bones together to produce a hollow sound like that of a zydeco frottoir. Loose teeth and hacked-off limbs danced underfoot and aborted fetuses and miscarried ones, too, crawled around on tiny hands and knees, bleating for their mothers.

 In the meantime, Jesus is busy dividing up the sheep from the goats — there are some black goats, but mostly white — and, as He does this, a great chasm opens in the earth, from which leaks a terrible stink of rotting eggs and the howl and hiss of demons. The eyebrows and hair of all nearby sinners begins to curl and singe and people cry out, “Not me!” But Jesus answers them back, “Yes, you! You and you and you!”

Queen-Esther, avenging angel

Queen-Esther. By day a housekeeper.  By night, an avenging angel.

This is where Queen-Esther comes in, for in her dream she is an angel, an avenging angel, with big snow-white wings like those of a monstrous dove. And when Jesus roars in the voice of the lion, “Yes, you. You and you and you,” well, it’s Queen-Esther who grabs those wretched sinners by their lily white shoulders and, no nonsense now, chucks them into the stinking pit.

Goodbye, Queen-Esther’s recurring dream.  I will miss you.  Compost in peace.

Vegetarian with a twist

The bathroom at Huron Street -- in permanent restauro

The bathroom at Huron Street — in restauro

My second Toronto rooming house was a block north of Bloor on Huron Street– a rundown three story, red brick Edwardian that had seen far better days. It was one of several such establishments owned by a surly Portuguese would-be slum landlord named Rocko. Rocko trolled the streets on garbage days looking for cast off furniture, which he would collect and set out in the backyards of his various properties to season over winter before using them to furnish his rooms.  When it came to distressed furniture, Rocko was ahead of his time.

Bobbie, a lumpish middle aged woman with a limp, occupied a couple of rooms on the first floor in exchange for vetting potential tenants, collecting the rent and letting Rocko know if something needed to be fixed so that he could ignore it for as long as possible.  Case in point: the bathroom on my floor.  It was in restauro for the better part of a year.  I peed into an empty coffee can and poured it out the window.  It was all very Medieval.

As for the rest of my fellow roomers, three stand out clearly in my mind:

Creepy George, who was in Butchers’ School. One night in the communal kitchen Creepy George described in vivid detail exactly what he would do with his knives if ever he got his hands on one of the nuns who lived in the convent next door. It seemed that his  memories of  parochial school were less than fond. Bobbie notified the police and that was the last we saw of George.

Dudley Doright

Dudley Doright

Then there was Billy, a good old boy from Arkansas who had deserted the U.S. Army while on leave from duty in Vietnam and made his way to Canada. Billy slept with the lights and the radio on; sometimes he woke up screaming. This did not sit well with me. Having no noise filters whatsoever, I can’t abide the sound of a television or a radio burbling away in the background, never mind full-out, middle-of-the-night screaming, and Billy was in the room directly below mine. Shortly after he moved on to parts unknown, the RCMP came looking for him. It was during the day and, as it happened, I was the only one home.  I was wearing jumbo sized pink foam rollers. The Mounties were wearing suits and dark glasses. I was disappointed.  “Couldn’t you at least have worn your Dudley Doright outfits?”  I asked. That’s when I discovered that Mounties are sadly lacking in a sense of humour.  Lucky for Billy that I knew next to nothing about him. As it turned out, his name wasn’t even Billy.

Finally, there was a bulky, truculent woman in her thirties with a great deal of facial hair; she resembled nothing so much as a female Russian shot putter. I never did get her name. Bobbie must have known it, but none of the rest of us did. She rented one of the basement rooms. This was not a finished basement. It had mold speckled cinder block walls, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a bed with a lumpy mattress and a bedside table. Bobbie had occasion to go down to the woman’s room when she was not there. She reported that she had no possessions except a Bible — no clothes but the ones on her back, no sheets or blankets.

Later I was to pass the woman standing at a bus stop. “Yellow pills! Green pills! Red pills!” she was screaming at the people getting off and on the bus. That’s when I realized she was a ranter. I had always wondered where ranters went at the end of a long day of hollering at people. Now I knew.

One night, a few of us were in the kitchen when we heard low rumbling sounds coming from below. We opened the basement door and listened. It was the woman noisily pacing back and forth in her room, fulminating about the End of Days, the Blood of the Lamb, the Mighty Hand of God and a whole lot of smiting. According to the woman in the basement, our collective goose was just about to be cooked and was she glad.

One day I descended in to the communal kitchen to find myself alone with her. Nothing to be afraid of, I assured my trepidacious self. She’s just a poor crazy person who yells at strangers and comforts herself at night with warm fuzzy thoughts of the Apocalypse. Making a show of nonchalance, I went to open my tin of corned beef. The ranter took one look at me, picked up a pile of plates in the sink and smashed them down with a mighty clatter.  She glared at me, her mouth working,  strange gurgling noises leaking from her. Finally she choked it out: “It is not meet to eat meat!”   Then,  overwhelmed with emotion, she lurched to the door that led to the basement and staggered down the stairs.   I stared after her, agape. An eschatological vegetarian! Who knew? On the other hand, if one intended to lay down beside the lion and the lamb in a post-apocalyptic Eden, it would probably be advisable to stop eying them hungrily.

My room at the rooming house

My room at the rooming house

Eventually a number of roomers complained to Bobbie about the ranter, including me. She scared us. She made us uncomfortable. Bobbie told her that Rocko was going to renovate the basement and that she would have to move. This was a lie of course. Rocko never renovated anything.

Forty years later, I sit on the Steering Committee for the London Homeless Coalition and I feel bad for the part I played in driving the ranter once more into the wilderness that was the Annex in the seventies. She was on some kind of disability; there was a monthly cheque; she would find another cheerless room in which to exercise her demons. Still. Not kind on my part.  Ungenerous.  Not surprising that she wanted us all to die.  I wonder if she is all right.  I wonder if she is.  Homeless women die young and in Mike Harris’ Ontario she would have surely become homeless, even the bare basement room rendered unaffordable.

As for meat, well, slouching  towards vegetarianism as I have been for lo these many years, I have to agree with her. It really isn’t meet to eat meat and maybe someday I will summon the moral rectitude to stop chomping on my fellow sentient creatures. You never know.  On the other hand, perhaps you do.

The Bargain Hunter, published in Terminus, in the Autumn of 2003, is about another man who liked  to collect thrown out furniture from the side of the road on garbage day.  To read it, click on the title.