I never liked my step-father. Erik had narrow, thin lips, pursed in permanent smugness. Basement hoarder. We could rarely watch TV. Vegetarian. Erik fathered four kids, two of which wanted nothing to do with him, with strange Hindu names: Vasudeva, Nipuna, Sahasra and Baladeva, though no trace of that ethnicity evident on their skin. Erik came from Denmark.
I pulled my mother aside: Are you sure you want to go through with this? You don’t have to. My mother, indignant, defensive, hurt that her only daughter couldn’t support her and her decision. If you don’t like it you don’t have to come.
Always grateful I only spent the occasional summer there.
The blue man can be whoever He wants to be for whoever needs Him. A grown man, a young man with obvious feminine features, a woman, a child. Always with a bluish tint to His skin. Sometimes He plays a flute. Sometimes He’s decked with so many flowers on His head it’s hard to believe He could keep his head up. Sometimes He has four arms, other times two.
The next summer I spent in Invermere with my grandparents, working with my aunt at the Radium Hot Springs Lodge. (Trading up from my McDonald’s job in Chilliwack.)
My mother called. The family is going to Calgary, do you want to come?
What for? I asked.
Krishna Janmashtami. She couldn’t hide the enthusiasm in her voice.
I could have said no. I should have said no. I didn’t.
Blue sky stretched as far as you could imagine. We maneuvered through the city, down 16th Ave to Edmonton Trail. I stretched, searching the rows of houses and businesses, expecting magnificent spires jutting into the horizon. The road turned and we descended a hill. Only the Calgary Tower rose phallically into the skyline. The temple, as it turned out, nothing more than a community hall.
I want to say jasmine bounced with curry and cumin to the enthusiastic music pouring from carefully mounted speakers, but the truth is, I don’t remember. I remember the women, in colourful saris, bindis on their foreheads, hair pulled back in long draping braids, pressed together, kneeling on the hard floor, with men and children in the middle of the temple room. A kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, chanting, bowing.
I remember the massive curtain, satiny or velvety, draped over what could only be the altar to Lord Krishna, yet to appear before the devotees.
A man in a peach coloured dress and shaved head welcomed us, invited us to remove our shoes and partake in the feast.
Erik led us clockwise around the chanters to an open space on the floor large enough for us to sit together. I glanced around the room. Was there a proper way to sit? Would I offend anyone if I sat cross-legged, or on my knees?
Almost instantly, Erik slipped into the meditative chant, nose to the floor, my mother beside him. The boys fidgeted and whispered. Discomfort twisted inside me, strangled me motionless.
A long table, an array of East Indian food spread in front of us: simosas, rice with unusual flavours and textures, desserts sweating liquid sugar, pasta, spiced vegetables. Devotees ate with their fingers, bowls raised to their chins, shovelling food into their mouths. I asked for a fork.
You’re eating with the wrong hand, my mother nudged my shoulder, lifted her right hand to her mouth.
It’s considered unsanitary to eat with your left. That’s the hand they use to wipe their bums.
Little do they know, I wipe with my right.
The curtain was pulled back. Devotees danced before an impressive altar decked with flowers. Lord Krishna himself in the middle of it all, cross-legged on what looked to be a navy blue velvet stool. Incense smoke curled around him. A peacock feather tucked inside an orange turban. The sign of Taurus(?) painted on His forehead. Long, garish robes of gold and red wrapped around His body and a gold flute in His hand. Only two hands. Baskets of fruit lay at His feet: melons, papaya, mangos, bananas, pineapple. Did these people really think He would eat it? He’s not real? He’s a statue, with skin the colour of an oxygen-deprived baby.
I hung around the edge of the crowd, near the wall, my brother at my feet. The space where evil lies.
Concentric layers of a temple room:
Paisachika Padas – the outermost layer of a temple room, to signify evil. Bad people. Uneducated people. Not enlightened.
Manusha Padas – the second layer represents human life. We the people.
Devika Padas – Devas (divas?) represents good. Only the good can get that close to the deities.
Brahma Padas – the creative layer, represents creative energy. The other three padas surround it, like a protective blanket. Where the deities reside. Good luck getting there.
At the centre of everything. Perusa Space. The universal principle in all things. Material and immaterial? Why such a small space? There’s a lot of ‘things’ in the world.
That night we stayed at the home of a nice East Indian couple. Even after the afternoon feast, they made more food. Erik spooned food onto our plates. Eat it all, he insisted. I looked at my mother who smiled meekly and nodded towards the plate. I couldn’t stomach the thought of another mouthful of cumin dotted food.
A yellowish brown glob with what looked like hazelnuts in it jiggled on my plate. Oh, Jello. I took a spoonful and instantly spit it out. Oh. Not Jello. My mother shot me a twisted look. I nibbled some bread, ate around the gelatinous mound, chased nuts with my fork.
My brother gagged. He pushed the plate away from him. I’m not eating that. Gross. Erik roared. Eat it. Now.
Erik: I’ll force feed you if I have to.
My brother folded his arms across his chest and pulled his legs to his chin.
Erik: Sit up. Feet off the chair.
Brother: I’m gonna puke.
Erik grabbed my brother and tried to stuff his chair back to the table. He filled the spoon and shoved it towards my brother’s face.
Our hosts watched, stunned.
The Blue Man was originally published in FreeFall Magazine, Volume XXV, Number 3, October 2015
Robin van Eck is the Executive Director for the AWCS. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction. Her first novel, Rough, was released in November 2020, with Stonehouse Publishing and will be released in audiobook from Tantor Media in late 2023. Robin lives in Calgary with her daughter and acts as the emotional support human for her very anxious dog, Stella. www.robinzvaneck.com for more information or follow her on Instagram @robinvan_eck or Twitter @Robin_Van_Eck