On May 30th, KBI hosted our first ever live event, “Mapping Futures”, a night packed full of events, workshops, and a live recording of Life Outside The Box. Riding off the momentum of such a fantastic event, it seems only fitting that our two live painters from “Mapping Futures” should grace the Artist Spotlight section to keep the good vibes going.
Mikaela Brewer is a multidisciplinary writer, poet, speaker, researcher, and mental health advocate & activist.
"The Writer's Room" is s space dedicated to showcasing short stories and fiction, and the work of emerging young writers. Interested in sending us your work? Submit your work for consideration to Abbigale Kernya at: email@example.com
ABOUT THE NEWS CYCLE SERIES
"The Glass Portal" is the first in a series exploring key issues in our national and global news cycles. There are footnotes and hyperlinks for anyone who would like to delve more deeply into the topics discussed. Mass media frequently offers dehumanizing language and headlines that sell, numbing us into apathy rather than compelling us to take a deeper look into stories. Though all models of the world—including these short stories—are inherently reductionistic, storytelling via fiction can carry us somewhere, change our minds, remind us of who we are, humble us, and carve a space to see our collective, intertwined connection in a way that moves us toward liberation-focused action.
Please note: The following story discusses many forms of violence via conflict, armed forces, slavery, and sexual abuse. We wish to disclose this in case these topics activate you in a harmful way. However, please consider that there is a crucial difference between being activated outside of our window of tolerance and feeling uncomfortable. Discomfort is a gateway to feeling, compassion, understanding, and connecting. If it is safe for you to do so, we encourage you to lean into discomfort as you read this story.
"THE GLASS PORTAL"
Crunching up plantain chips, Nevaeh shivered under a fierce June sun, which could only have been a new ghost. During her walk home from the last day of eighth grade, she wondered why she still believed these tidbits her Auntie Ana had taught her: that her name being ‘heaven’ spelled backwards would eventually mean something and that sudden shivers meant a new ghost had passed through your body. Perhaps it was because she missed this version of Ana, or because she didn’t want to think about the fact that ‘new ghost’ also meant new death.
Nevaeh stopped kicking small stones spilling onto the sidewalk from garden borders because she’d started sweating through her shirt. Before she’d seen it blinking in a concrete crease, she’d paused to wipe the grease and sparkly peach blush from the nose bridge of her lemon plastic glasses. Scraping her thick black curls into a bun, damp armpits now exposed to the neighbours bent plucking weeds, she stopped, eyes fixed: cobalt blue, like a blue raspberry candy.
Nevaeh bent to pick it up with her snack-sticky fingers; a barbed chunk of cobalt glass carved into an owl’s eye. She shivered again.
“Hey, Ana?” Nevaeh called, closing the front door of her house behind her. She caught her reflection in the foyer window—the heat had turned her light brown skin to earthenware clay.
“In the living room Nev,” Ana answered with a blandness that blunted Nevaeh’s enthusiasm.
“Is this cobalt? I found it on the sidewalk.”
Ana’s head snapped up. She was sitting cross-legged on the terracotta couch sorting mail, in a lime pantsuit that looked like a highlighter streak against her paler-than-usual skin. Ana stashed letters, bills, and garbage (pizza ads) between makeshift finger-filing-cabinet dividers, sticky tabbed by hot-pink painted nails. She peered at the glass in Nevaeh’s hand with cold contempt as if she’d finally found the perfect place for her rage.
“Yes. And I don’t want it in my house.”
“Oh, okay. But it’s so beautiful. I just thought I might make us friendship bracelets or something?”
“Better you than whoever owned the bottle it broke off of,” Ana mumbled curtly. She’d gone back to flipping papers and slicing sealed envelopes.
“I don’t understand.”
Ana sighed, but not with irritation. “I know, Nev. I’m so sorry. Sit. Could I tell you something?”
Nevaeh sat in a soft teal armchair across from her aunt, eager. Ana hadn’t offered a story in weeks.
In a kind but steely voice, Ana began. “About 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used to be called Zaire. It’s very valuable, Nev.” Ana paused, bracing herself for the uneasy and upsetting venture of explaining an expanding genocide to children, and worse, why it continues so easily. “Now, about four thousand years ago, cobalt was also forged in Mesopotamia for Egyptian pottery but vanished around 1250 BC after the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt at the end of the Late Bronze Age. It reappeared in Chinese porcelain after another thousand years, and then, fuelled a Victorian obsession. It was stolen then, and pillaged now with violence, slavery, sexual assault and rape. Children are forced to work to extract it from the land because the world has learned that cobalt is quite good at storing energy and stabilizing conductors, especially for laptops and smartphones. Rampant corrupt power within and from neighbouring countries has poisoned DRC. Since 1996, six million people have died in a silent holocaust—what some people call The African World War.”
Both Ana and Nevaeh were silent for a moment. Nevaeh’s birthday was next week, and she suddenly felt ashamed of what she’d asked for.
“I don’t want the new blue iPhone anymore.” A swell of tears threatened to waterfall down her cheeks.
Ana smiled tenderly. “Come here, love.”
Nevaeh snuggled into Ana’s open arms. “You’re fourteen. It’s not your fault that there are things you don’t know. We’re all ignorant of something. But, if when we know better we choose to do better, then that’s the true staple of our character.” Ana paused, allowing a laugh. “You need some gel.” She ran her fingertips across Nevaeh’s humidity-frizzed hair.
Nevaeh giggled, freeing her tears. She understood that carrying the knowledge of these things could bring the immense sadness, silence, rage, and anger that she saw in her aunt, to which Ana seemed to have a perfect response.
Ana wiped away Nevaeh’s tears with her thumbs. “There’s much more to tell and learn, but later, after you go find something fun to do—dance, call Sarah next door, or do those colour-by-numbers you love.”
Nevaeh nodded. Ana smiled and reached over to play a record on the turntable.
“I’ll do something, too.”
Perched on the edge of her bed, Nevaeh fiddled with the cobalt glass. She couldn’t focus, wishing to protest feeling distant from others’ pain. But she wasn’t sure where to start—was diving into the deep end of the internet and front-crawling through social media accounts the best place? She shivered again, glancing over at her open window—the air was colder outside their townhome than in.
Nevaeh felt conflicted. The piece of glass was about the size of her thumbprint, breathtakingly coloured and carved, and its owl eye nearly narrowed at her. She’d just learned about owls in ecology at school, and the miracle through which they’re able to see with sound. She pulled a notebook from her backpack, cloaked in iron-on-patches, slouching on the bed next to her.
Can see ultraviolet light
Has a visual system one hundred times more light-sensitive than a pigeon
Take in more daylight + have more cells to process photons than the eyes of birds with sharper daytime vision
90% rods vs. cones that are sensitive to movement and tuned to low light (why they’re able to hunt in the dark)
One of the most sensitive auditory systems in nature
Specific auditory brain cells respond only when a sound is coming from a specific direction (geolocation by sound not satellite)
With their ears, owls see the world in 2D
The hearing nerve branches off to the sight center of the brain: auditory input is processed by the visual system. Owls can see with sound.
Nevaeh ran her fingers over the underlined ink. Is this the answer? Could we learn to see one another with our ears, if we listen? She shivered again. I wonder.
Setting down her notebook, Nevaeh slowly held the glass chunk up to her ear and listened. She didn’t hear anything. Too easy. Think.
And then, almost as if instinctually, she stood and walked toward the mirror mounted to her dresser. She looked hard, brow furrowed in concentration, and held the glass to her ear once more.
The glass glitched, as if an old television were shutting off, and then, in the mirror, there was a city block layered and merged with Nevaeh’s bedroom. Nevaeh was stunned speechless, until she saw a young girl, perhaps the same age, hiding behind a battle-tested brick building.
“Hello?” Nevaeh called, but the girl didn’t hear her. She brought the glass to her mouth and called again.
The girl’s head snapped in Nevaeh’s direction. She looked puzzled as she stood and wandered nearer, glancing over her shoulder as she did.
“What is this? Magic?” She whispered to herself.
“You can see me?”
“Yes, in the window of this shop. How? Are you in America? How are you understanding me?”
“I don’t know. I’m in Canada. Are you speaking English?”
“No, and I assume you’re not speaking Swahili.”
Nevaeh shook her head, no. Something was translating for them.
The two girls stared at each other for a moment, cautiously curious of one another. Though young and beautiful, Nevaeh could see that the girl was weathered. Beneath the dirt caked to her body, she wore a lilac blouse, matching hair bows, and jeans with the zipper and button either torn or cut away. She was still slowing her breathing, clearly having run from something. She had soft cheeks, skin the colour of rich soil, and kind smile lines despite what appeared to be a fight between vacancy and fear in her glossy eyes. Gunfire rippled the airwaves and though she turned to look, she didn’t flinch.
“What’s your name?”
Kamia shook her head. “I’m so hungry I must be seeing things.”
“You aren’t, I promise.” Nevaeh paused, having emphasized the word to ground her uncertainty.
“Your promises don’t mean very much. Your tech batteries and cars are made from our blood.”
Nevaeh nodded. “I know” was all she could muster.
Kamia peered at her with a mix of cold and pity. “You know, huh?” She began to turn away.
Nevaeh stopped her. “Where are you right now?”
Kamia turned back, not quite all the way, and with a tinge of surprise. “Jimbo la Kivu Kaskazini,” she replied proudly, “Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.”
Nevaeh nodded. “Tell me more about it.”
“What?” Kamia’s eyes narrowed.
“Tell me about you. And your home.”
Kamia drew in a sharp breath and brought her tongue to the back of her teeth. “Why?”
“Because I want to listen.”
“Hm.” Kamia crossed her arms. “Alright,” she said hesitantly, dragging a broken table over. She sat facing the shop window. Nevaeh pulled a footstool over.
Kamia took another deep breath and swallowed hard. “I’m fifteen. I grew up here. Central Africa is so beautiful. There are over 200 different ethnicities here, and coltan, gold, tin, cobalt, copper, zinc, diamonds, and other rare earth minerals. But my people have been victims of corrupt political regimes, armed militias, and violence by neighbouring countries and investors—Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, Libya, Sudan, and more. For political gain and as part of industry-driven access to our reserve of these materials, the USA and UK give military and financial aid to Rwanda and Uganda to invade us. We’ve been displaced. Seven million of us. There is so much violence. So much pollution and theft. Genocide.” Kamia breathed out heavily. She’d said nearly everything in one breath as if it had been bursting to be heard by someone who might do something about it.
Nevaeh dropped the glass, scrunched her eyes closed, and looked away. There was silence followed by a flash that filtered through her eyelids. When Nevaeh looked up, Kamia and the streets of Goma had vanished from the mirror.
“Kamia?!” Nevaeh called, her voice cracking with fear and panic. She picked up the glass again, hands shaking, and faced the mirror, willing Kamia to come back. Nothing.
Nevaeh dropped to her knees, tears streaming. Her hands closed warmth around the glass. She looked up into the mirror.
“I want to see. I will see. I will look,” she begged, meaning every word. The same flash appeared as suddenly as it had before.
“Kamia?!” Nevaeh scanned her stunted view of the street frantically.
Kamia poked her head around the building, a hole of betrayal ever so slightly filling in. “I thought you left.”
“I didn’t mean to. I don’t know why the connection stopped.”
“You looked away. From me and yourself.”
Nevaeh was quiet, nodding softly, but her gaze didn’t shift. “Please. Tell me more.”
“You won’t leave?”
“No. Not ever again.”
Kamia breathed a sigh this time, almost of relief. “When I was little, I was forced to work for a private company extracting coltan. I was so young I don’t remember the name. I don’t remember what happened to my parents. I’m trying to find medical assistance because I was raped last night. And our humanitarian response plan is only 38% funded. I live with a host family right now. Election protests were banned and police violently broke them up in Kinshasa. I heard about these women giving birth in the flooding and landslides. I’m scared, Nevaeh, and I don’t know what to do or who cares to help.”
“I don’t know either. But I want to help.” Nevaeh ground her teeth together, acutely aware of the privilege of her innocence. She wondered how, in admiring the strength of other girls like Kamia, she dismissed their girlhood—their right to softness, femininity, and innocence. They needed nurturing, protection, support, and comfort, too. She felt overwhelming gratitude for Ana. Yet Kamia would be criminalized and treated like the adult she both wasn’t and was forced to embody to survive.
“You have. Listening helps so much.”
“But I want to do more.”
“There are some things you can’t do. But there are many you can. Listen. Don’t look away. Write to people with power. Call them until they answer. Speak up.”
Nevaeh shivered again. Wait.
“My aunt used to tell me that shivering meant a new ghost had passed through my body.”
Kamia looked confused. “And?”
“I’ve had chills and shivers since I found this piece of cobalt glass. What if it’s not a ghost, but a soul who needs help.”
Kamia’s cheeks relaxed and she smiled into doughy dimples for the first time since they’d met. “Your name is heaven spelled backwards, isn’t it?”
Nevaeh beamed. “Yeah, it is. And I think I know what that means now.”
(1) Blue Glass