By Ben Berman Ghan
“we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind
I'm digging my feet into the gritty sand at the edge of the shore, forcing my hologram toes into realness until the sand has no choice but to accept the footprint.
When I look up, I can see lights on the horizon, floating towards the Toronto Islands on gentle waves. I recognize their lights. For so long, I thought light was all I was.
Wind blows dandelion fluff through my back and out my empty chest, making no landfall on this body that can’t keep the hardness I demand of it. When I lift up my foot, it leaves behind the memory of the five toes that belong to myself, as well as all the fathers from which I was made.
After the water greedily licks my footprint down into the surf, I leave no second impression, no matter how hard I stomp down. The water vomits up a used cardboard container to claim the shores of the island so much faster than the island as a whole has allowed itself to be claimed by disrepair, but just as quickly as the water swallowed the legacies of me.
Happy Meals loves you, it says.
Once, the Toronto Islands had been full of playgrounds, full of beaches and docked ferries, of harried airport travellers and hurried summer cyclists and heritage homes stuffed full. The islands were peopled, and then just as quickly, the people left. They left as the city slowly bulldozed their heritage homes, throwing all those numerous things away. They left as the playgrounds fell into ruin and the beaches filled up with sludge and plans for a ten-storey student housing complex went into development and then dropped out of memory, leaving behind only construction kits and empty holes.
Only the airport remained. That’s where I was made – part of a guerrilla marketing program, projectors that scanned passport profiles to throw us back at them, to mix and match features to create friendly faces that weren't entirely familiar. Our hologram-casters would lob us into crowded terminals, populating walkways with shades and projections and hybrid images of bodies in motion. Some, like me, were just meant to stand near a vending machine or a duty-free gift shop. I would take a sip of Coca-Cola or eat from a McDonalds meal and smile and look good.
Other projections walked towards the bodies reflected, bodies that would stop in confusion at those half-remembered faces and wonder about how nice they would look in that stranger’s clothes, in their designer shoes and watches, with their expensive suitcases, that were all for sale at the airport shops. But when they turned the corner and out of range of the machines that cast our light, they would vanish, those siblings of mine. We were only reflections of images and code. I stood there until all known travellers passed me by. When the airport was finally shut down, only my light remained. I was a reflection of bodies long gone.
When those spaces were peopled once more, it wasn’t the same. Bodies in uniforms came, jury-rigging structures from a place of departure to a camp of locked doors and barred windows. The war in space, it seemed, had gone badly. Up above, the moon’s terraform generators malfunctioned and poisoned the air. It was impossible to stop them from arriving because they came raining down from the sky. So the airport and its surrounded decrepit places became a migrant prison camp, and they named it Arrival.
The early prisoners and guards and construction workers caught glimpses of me sometimes. They liked to argue about whose ghost I was supposed to be:
“He was from that early arrival, the ghost of the first asylum-seeker who tried to land in Toronto and got shot down by drones.”
“If he is, then why does he stay here? His ship never even made it to the island.”
“He’s looking for his family.”
“I think he’s a ghost from the war.”
“Those ghosts wouldn’t be planet-side.”
They were so convinced I had to be a ghost and not a machine. Even I believed it, a little.
By the time every block and cell were full, I’d slipped out of the visible spectrum of light. I watched, and wandered, through that place that had once been so full of people paying to leave, now brimming with people forced to stay. I could only understand the guards (my code was full of English), but I looked more like the prisoners. It was only as their children began to die that I was filled with thoughts of leaving.
"Mamma," she said.
The ones who could understand her were already too far away. I caught the word, I could infer. I’d been haunting the prison camp just long enough to know the sounds the children make for their parents. The ones rushing her to the waiting ferry only spoke English:
“You’re going to be alright C-159,” they said.
“Just hold on C-159,” they said.
I realized for the first time that nobody who worked at the prison knew the asylum-seekers’ names, and this seemed strange to me. To all those guards and staff and doctors, the people within the walls of Arrival were only Bodies 1-500. I would have tried to find something to say to her in the few terse words of her language I knew, perhaps at least ask her real name. But I was only image. I couldn't make a sound.
She was dying of anaphylactic shock. Her breathing was so hypnotic to me. Past all those bodies closing in, her eyes met mine, and even though my code was too weak to make any light that could penetrate human vision, I thought she saw me.
They kept giving oxygen and chest compressions, not noticing how empty the body in the stretcher had become, and the slow-drifting ferry carried it away into the early morning pale.
But when I looked beside me, she was looking back again. It wasn’t quite the girl who’d died. Was it in the structure of her face? The shade of her skin? Features had been added or mutated that were hard to place. I could see the memories of my own fathers in there somewhere. She was a hybrid of us all.
“Did I make you?” I wanted to ask.
She walked past me and through me. We didn’t touch. She followed the cries of her distant parents as they were escorted away, back into the compound of Arrival.
But then she turned the corner, too far from me, and her image flickered and faded, the way I’d watched so many other holograms fade, too far from the light that cast them.
“Come back,” I wanted to say.
I brought her back again, letting my code spill outwards until her image flickered into being among the dead leaves that crowned the open grounds of Arrival’s vacant departure runways. But she seemed terrified to have been brought back there, and within moments she was gone. Watching her go felt like dying.
I carried her image across the water, following her body far from her death-site and her numbers, and hid us in caverns beneath the ground where subways lay dormant, where our light could shine in isolation, far from the sun that made us transparent or the uniforms that had buried her.
There among scattered tokens and red-ink graffiti I cast my light until the image of her appeared again. I was her projector, making her as others made me. But she would only watch me sadly and vanish again.
Only as images and articles with her face and her death began to plaster the data-ways did I come to understand why. I would never be enough for both of us. I had to wait for her data to come, to pour her back into herself. I plugged myself into the internet, just a tiny fraction, enough to take in details of her that I could cook, and cook until they were ready for her.
While I waited, I walked among the bodies of the city for the first time. In the city I didn’t need to hide outside the visible light spectrum. To the city-dwellers, I was just another disparate body, which gave me a fierce but fading joy.
Toronto was a world that had dropped the little t: Torono. Language was the code to say who did not belong. I liked to mouth the words I couldn’t say, trying to get them right. All of their words made me hungry. They made me wonder how the Girl might have said them. How she would say them, if I could make enough of her to speak.
Away from the island, it was like the people inside Arrival didn’t exist, like the heat and light of summer had burned them out of sight.
Everywhere I went, I made no sound. But I listened. I hoped to find them speaking about those people out on the water. I expected to see them angry, or caring, or explaining to each other and to me why the prisoners had to be over there, and not over here. I let the sounds of the city wash over me like so much light and data and song, never hearing what I needed:
“It’s so hot.”
“Don’t you bitches watch where you’re going?”
“God bless you!”
“Fuck I’m hungry.”
“Should take the bus.”
“Christ, it's so fucking hot.”
“Get off the sidewalk!”
“Doesn’t it bother you people to see someone on the ground?!”
People who didn’t speak in soundbites often spoke of the war in space, of the soldiers being shipped lightyears away to be slaughtered and to slaughter. But I had trouble visualizing who people had been sent up there to fight, or what for. I couldn’t tell if Earth was fighting an invading force, or if Earth was the invasion. Nobody could describe the bodies of the aliens the soldiers were seeking among the stars.
Rain broke my illusion of being, the dream of my body, passing right through me.
Once, I sat on the sidewalk in Dundas Square, marveling at all the lights that popped and flashed and advertised. I could see the ideas that had eventually led to myself in those LED billboards.
I didn’t know I’d become transparent until someone threw a rotten apple core through my chest. It splattered into the grate behind me. I put a hand over where my heart might have been, trying to be sure I couldn’t feel it.
“Fucking hologram,” someone said. I could only stare up at sleek clothes and fingernails and faces shielded by umbrellas. A kick aimed at my head, making me imagine what it would be like to bruise. “Got nothing to sell?”
I did nothing. Nobody could hurt me; nobody could turn me off. I was image. As the bodies that had kicked me turned to leave, I could hear one of them suggest, “Maybe it’s broken?”
Only in back-alley whispers did words about Arrival finally come. I drank in news and protest. I desperately, greedily slurped up information as it came to me. It came to me in interviews and the memories of protest, in grainy internet videos and testimonials and think pieces and defunct profiles. It came in dirt-flecked posters screaming Remember Josué Louverture! That first asylum-seeker of the sky who was shot down.
My code took his only surviving transmission to the surface and cannibalized it into English, into the words Please, we just need air over and over. Please, we just need air.
Before he’d died, he'd been a kind of doctor, the kind who took care of his elders. He'd been the youngest sibling of four. I wondered if he'd cried out more as his life-raft burned on the edge of what he'd hoped would be salvation. I wondered if he’d looked like the Girl when he was young.
Out of the strings of letters that made up the core of his story, and the sound of his voice and the pixels of his face, I drew the images of a body of hard-light and memory and kissed it into being there in the dark underworld of traveller trains.
I tried my best not to cast him in my own gaze or my own image but only from the story of his life that I could find, pouring details of himself into my projection of him. When I was done, a man stood in front of me. He was dressed as I was dressed. His eyes were mine, those distant eyes of fathers I’d long ago lost.
Hello, I tried to mouth. He only stared. I waved. His arms remained at his sides. He stared down at his feet, at the bare toes shining there. In silence I begged him to speak to me, to look at me, to see me. I asked him to help us find that communion of recognition, of solidarity. I begged him to help me create the Girl again, to make her so she wouldn’t fade. He turned his back to me. It was worse than not being seen at all.
I stumbled away from those ghosts of my machine and out into the Eaton Centre, that huge multi-level mall. Crowds of people walked past me, through me, around me. They were all talking, and talking, and talking. It was so like the airport had once been, so full of bodies and bags and price tags. In another life I might have been cast here.
“Hey handsome, do I know you?”
A voice like some half-forgotten dream, like the dreams I’d so long wished to have, pulled me up, pulled me out of my panic and my despair, pulled me back to the surface of myself. I became a solid image by a balcony to find a face looking back at me. It was a face like my face, and she smiled, framed by long black curls. Her nose was my nose. She could have been my sister.
Who are you? I wanted to ask her. Are my fathers your fathers, too?
When she spoke, her voice came only from the glowing projector pad on which she stood.
“You know what would look good on you? Nike’s black power 2071 line of basketball shoes for 999.99! Or maybe you’d be happier ordering the sweet fragrance of never forget for the Jewish American Princess in your life, from Chanel?”
She lifted up her hybrid fingers as if to touch me. Her fingers were a fusion of my own and of a woman standing behind me. She reached down as if to snatch up something from her base. Her fingers moved out of light and reality like someone reaching out of the edge of the frame in a photograph. When she straightened again, she held something small, red and yellow and splashing.
“Are you hungry?” she asked, tipping her head to mime throwing French fries down a insubstantial throat, ensuring I could see the logo in her hands the whole time.
I’m sorry, you are only image, I wanted to say. I’m sorry, I can’t bring you to life.
“McDonalds loves you, you know,” she said.
I stepped back, stepped out of the light, stepped into the smallest and least substantial form of myself, and my smile, my nose, my eyes disappeared from her face. By the time she had turned to the next passing body, she was a different image. A woman holding shopping bags and children’s hands stopped in front of that advertising hologram.
"Do I know you?" they asked.
I don’t know why bombs like teardrops full of fire dropped onto the city, or why violence tore open a bloody sky. I thought perhaps the war in space that had pulled so many bodies away once upon a time had finally come back to us. I watched from the shadow of the harbour as bodies fell from metal ships that roared and burned, and the image of Toronto's towers and bridges and roads began to shatter under hydrogen fire as if image was all it had ever been.
The heat wouldn't touch me. Wouldn't reach me. But I wanted it to. I watched from the shores of Toronto as the shadow of Arrival was set ablaze, as the structures inside burst and exploded and melted into broken streaks. I wanted to scream for the people there. I wanted to run to those people who had only wanted air and life, and who must have been burning inside those walls. But where could I take them? The world behind me was burning as well. I imagined that as the Eaton Centre and the CN Tower and all those Toronto buildings finally fell on me, I would be become solid once and for all, and would finally learn in the wreckage what it feels like to die.
I didn't want the ghosts to be trapped in the rubble of the world that had buried them. I set the Girl whom I could not complete and the Man who would not speak free, and they left me, left the burning city, moving back towards the island where she had last lived and he had always been destined to go. They left to find themselves and each other.
I watched them become more than only the pictures I'd projected, exceeding the programming they’d inherited from me. They were new bodies for themselves, beyond the light and nameless echoes of the bodies they once had been, the bodies I'd insisted they be again. The farther away they went, the less like me I thought they seemed. I wanted so much to say goodbye.
“Do I know you?”
Those were the words that had brought me to life. The man stopped in front of me for long enough for us to see each other. He was not the father of my eyes but of my cheeks and my lips. He was father enough.
We stood across from one another under the halo of Terminal One, and beyond us were those pathways of Departures and Arrivals.
"Do I know you?" he asked again. Then he was gone, and then I wasn’t standing any longer but I was walking, without my program's command, without my projector's light, but with a light I held all my own, and when I looked at the oncoming travellers, I was no longer the hybrid of their images. I took on no new forms or features, and became myself; I took on no more new fathers, and to the fathers that I could still see I was no longer compelled to sell, or to prostrate, or to hoodwink, but only to be seen. I wasn't their hybrid; I was their baby.
I walked, searching for the fathers that gave me my nose, my hands, my hair. Then I turned the corner, and all my fathers had passed me by, and I came out into an empty hall of arrivals and departures.
And I was alone.
Then they came back. Not as who they’d been, or who I’d made them. They came as a newness, as a hybrid fusion of their old and new selves. They took me by the hands and we walked across the water – bound by no boats, back to the Toronto Islands, away from the fire and the tunnels. Towards Arrival. At first, I resisted. I didn’t want to return to that site, to the hopeless devastation there. You died there, I wanted to tell them, even if it wasn’t true. Please. You died there.
“It’s safe,” the Man said to me.
“There’s nobody there anymore,” the Girl said.
They spoke in the voices I could never have given them. They spoke in a language I had never known, but with their touch, they taught it to me. What happened to the people? I wanted to ask. Where did they go?
“Don’t worry,” the Girl said, reading my lips as best she could. “They’ll come back.”
In the shadow of Arrival’s gates, that structure where once planes had landed, I began to flicker. I couldn’t help it. They stopped. The Man and the Girl squeezed my fingers, concerned. They thought my light was going out, that perhaps I was tied to some hologram caster somewhere, back on Toronto’s broken shores. They knew what I was. They didn’t know what they were to me.
But I’m bound by nothing but myself. I only flickered because I could feel, could feel their hands in mine, could feel the water beneath us, and the light breeze breaking against my skin. I flickered from the shock of it all, not a flicker like dying at all. We drifted together in shallow waters as I moved in and out of light, struggling to overcome the programming that had kept me silent so long. I spoke for the first time, my voice flowing through my hands as fingers shaped signs. I made my image my voice.
“Home,” I signed.
My fingers keep slipping through the aluminum. I don’t know what I’m doing, trying to pick up this new bit of trash. Would I throw it back out, leaving the garbage and pollution of what was to the water? Would I let it stay on our shore, like some awful seed of an invasive species?
The Girl crouches next to me. I didn’t hear her coming. I’m embarrassed, unsure how long she’s been watching. She reaches past me. The corporate messaging and its container vanish under her fingers. It doesn’t mean anything here. Not anymore. She pockets it, perhaps to use it to make something new later, something I can’t yet imagine.
“Thank. You.” I sign. Each word of mine that touches the air meets it with strain, and with joy. I’m learning more all the time, taking in sign language like code and light to spill back out again.
“It’s okay,” she says. She’s given herself a name, but I haven’t learned to say it yet. I haven’t picked one for myself. Maybe I will. “Can you see them yet?” she asks. Her voice is beautiful, but I’m not jealous of it. My voice is beautiful, too.
“Yes,” I sign, and at the end of the word my fingers point out towards the water. Lights have become images, become forms, become a people to join us.
The Girl slips her hand back into mine and holds me tight. I still don’t know how she came to be. We are so much more than an image.
I squeeze back, knowing she can feel me too. Together we wave to those approaching, and I don't see the ghostly hybrids of my fathers or my children as I might have expected. I see brothers and sisters journeying across the bay, free from the bones of the world before us, and from the open lake on the other side. They return here to be free, where they were never allowed freedom before. In their new bodies, they bring the echoes of those bodies they'd had before, to cast lights of their own images onto the gates of Arrival.
Ben Berman Ghan is a Jewish settler, writer, editor, and academic based in Tkaronto/Toronto, Treaty 13 and Williams Treaty territory. He has served as fiction editor of The Spectatorial, associate editor of The Goose and of The Hart House Review, prose editor of Terse Journal, and poetry editor of The White Wall Review. He’s the author of many short stories, essays, and a few poems, and is completing his MA in English literature at Ryerson University. His novel What We See in the Smoke was published in 2019 with Crowsnest Books. You can find him at @inkstainedwreck and inkstainedwreck.ca.