Metatron Prize


for Rising Authors

 

 

 

 

 

Brendon

Holder

 

Death Card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My name is Brendon Holder (he/him) and I live and work in New York. But, before that, I lived in Toronto. I am an avid consumer of Cool Ranch Doritos, a lover of horror movies, and a freak who enjoys slushies during all four seasons. However, what I enjoy most is writing. My writing can be found in places like The Globe and Mail and The Puritan.

 

What is your book about?
DEATH CARD is a short story collection that provides an alternate outlook on what survival and reincarnation may resemble. With themes of race, spirituality and sexuality, DEATH CARD blends supernatural elements to investigate the malleability of identity when faced with conflict, asking the reader to turn over their own death card and consider who they might become.

 

Could you tell us a bit about the process of writing this book?
I felt compelled to write DEATH CARD to make sense of the changes I found myself going through as I left my twenties. In the summer of 2020, amidst the amplified cycle of Black death and grief, I found myself hardened by the murders of those who looked like me and suspended myself in writing to try to make sense of it all. To contrast with tarot, the death card rarely represents the end of life. Instead, it represents change, transformation and rebirth. An opportunity to shed a past self and emerge into a stronger and more resilient self.

 

Inspired by the idea of death as reincarnation, I began to write new deaths. Deaths that, like the card in tarot, reflected significant changes to our identity, purpose and the way we move through the world. And through these imagined deaths, the DEATH CARD manuscript was born. Stories of death and reinvention have always been a part of our cultural canon: in a spell breaking kiss a princess turns a frog into a prince; a sex tape is sold, tarnishing the image of a hotel heiress only for her to transmute into a business mogul; a rapper is shot dead but immortalized forever in legacy and culture. Despite these much-studied tales of reincarnation, why is our view of death so one-dimensional?

 

DEATH CARD explores this resilience and reconstruction of identity. In a rich tapestry of psychological thrillers, DEATH CARD showcases a set of narratives in which all of the characters must say goodbye to their past lives to emerge as something new: a misguided gallerist confronts reincarnation upon meeting an emerging artist; an editor balances sex work and nannying in an attempt to reckon with her fragmented family history; a teenager seeks independence as she plots her escape from a demonic cult; an uptight man struggles to build an identity outside of a blossoming relationship with an identical lover; a trio navigates family planning in a psychedelic induced therapy program.

 

Finally, the stories of DEATH CARD are bookended by two integral essays. The opening essay contrasts my own “growth” as I exited my twenties with the tenets of tarot while serving as a preface for the subsequent short stories. The closing essay addresses the reader directly, challenging them to investigate their own resilience to find power in moments of transition drawing on the themes of the previous stories.
 

What are some books you’ve read and enjoyed lately and/or books that influenced the writing in your
submitted work?

I find myself consistently enraptured by the prose, intellect and humour of Brandon Taylor, whether it’s his fiction writing in his novels Real Life and Filthy Animals or his sweater weather Substack. Correspondingly, Doreen St. Felix (The New Yorker) and Hunter Harris (Hung Up Substack) are two essayists who I admire for their distinct voices and salient perspectives on pop culture. I try to read whatever I can by them and often find I feel more human because of it, albeit for different reasons. I find Claudine Rankine’s writing to be striking, especially her play The White Card. Finally, James Baldwin and Joan Didion continue to be two eternal literary forces whose catalogues I parse through each year, bit by bit, in wonderment.

 

How would you describe your book using emojis only?
💀🂼:🎨🚗🌄🍄♊

 

Anything else you'd like to share?
Instagram: @brendeezyy

 

 

 

The following excerpt features a sample of an essay and a short story that, together,
illustrate the theme of reincarnation and survival in DEATH CARD.

 

 

 

 

PREFACE

 

I

 

In the opening week of 2019, I found myself in the Toronto apartment of a redheaded white woman, exchanging $135 to watch her converse with my dead Jamaican and Bajan great-grandparents. The woman, self-described as a “psychic medium,” offered a two-for-one special that, if you attended with a peer, you received a reduced rate on an individual tarot reading, a curated set of crystals personalized to your future, and an opportunity to listen to her speak excitedly to the ghosts of relatives about the life you have lived and the life that lay ahead of you.

 

My preliminary skepticism was immediately outweighed by intrigue fueled by the anecdotes of successful readings from my friends. This curiosity was propelled by the desire to add to my growing crystal collection at the favourable price point she was offering. Despite being known for idiotic spending habits, I was also known to take advantage of a good deal.

 

The session began with the psychic asking me to cut and draw from the tarot deck, only for her to reorganize the blue-black cards I selected into a Celtic Cross. She guided me through my cards meaning at a slow measured pace. The Tower, The Fool, The Magician. Then, she enthusiastically delivered her predictions for my life, introduced me to my dead relatives that (conveniently) only she could see, some who I had met and others who passed before I was born, and handed me the crystals as promised. The whole thing lasted about an hour and a half. Upon completion, when I questioned her availability for a follow-up as if going to the psychic required a routine check-in like the dentist, she cocked her head in confusion. "You don't need to see me again. I've just told you your life," she replied blankly and motioned for me to bring in my friend who eagerly waited outside for his session to start. To have a stranger confidently speak about your life's direction with resolute specificity is an uneasy yet indulgent experience. The assurance is akin to an aunt hovering over a newborn's crib and declaring"He's going to be a heartbreaker" with conviction despite the outstanding lack of evidence required to inform that conclusion. You nod and unthinkingly accept the premonition while pondering, “For this to happen, what would need to be true?”

 

Over the years, one card remained at the forefront of my memory, etched into the mitochondria of my mind: the Death Card. The Death Card is commonly illustrated with a skeleton cloaked in knight's armour on a horse. This skeleton knight is often depicted carrying a flag that bears a single white rose. Contrary to what the name hints at, and luckily for me, the Death Card rarely represents death in its literal form. Instead, it exemplifies transformation, growth, and change. The grim reaper-like figure signifies a major shift in the receiver of the reading’s life. Due to this, in some decks, the Death Card goes by another name: Rebirth.

 

During that year there wasn't a day I did not think about the blue-black Celtic Cross the psychic with the red hair spread for me. There wasn't a week I did not ponder the Death Card and the presumed change it signified. And in the years to come, my mind still meandered the card’s meaning even after all of the psychic’s predictions came true.

 

 

 

II

 

If you've ever had the pleasure of visiting a desert or a ravine or the zoo or maybe the swamp or perhaps the grasslands, you may come across evidence that a snake has once occupied the very landscape you are walking upon. That is to say, you have encountered an unsheathed snakeskin. The average snake can shed its skin a handful of times a year simply because the skin has become too tired, too old, and too damaged. In other words, the snake has outgrown its own skin and, in doing so, has outgrown itself. Contrary to humans, a snake’s skin does not grow with them as they age. As result, snakes are more prone to shedding, or ecdysis as it's termed scientifically when they are young and entering a growth spurt.

 

 

 

 

 

III

 

Two and a half years after my psychic encounter, during my first Memorial Day Weekend in the United States, my skin began to peel under the sweltering heat of the Palm Springs desert. It was my second time visiting the Californian desert and the first time that the trip was not prompted by work. I was “on holiday” as the Brits say.

 

Upon moving to New York earlier that year, my skin became increasingly agitated. I heard stories of newcomers experiencing similar flare-ups as their skin adjusted to the difference in air quality and my sensitive skin, already irritated from wearing COVID-19 masks constantly, would go from being incredibly dry to oozing a yellowy substance over a matter of days. I was able to find a dermatologist who prescribed me a couple of creams but the process to heal was slow and inconsistent. This predisposition, along with my skin prone to developing welts in extreme heat, concerned me that the violent June desert sun could only exacerbate my irritation.

 

In regards to the west coast heat, people assured me cushy things like "Yes, but it's a dry heat" as if that classification would somehow dull the brute force of the rays and make me more comfortable. They were correct in the sense that the Californian air was not the thick cloud that greets your pores with tiny, wet sucker punches like the air in New York. The desert heat is more stealthy than its humid cousin, insidious even. The desert air wraps you with the delicateness of fresh white linen but, all the while, it's drying you, draining you of air and moisture much like a boa constrictor. It leaves your skin decrepit and scaly as evidence of its entrance and withers you, making your appearance old and wilted like a white rose that's been left out in direct sunlight too long. At least, this is what I imagined.

 

This exaggerated fear of being “dried and aged out” under the desert sun, whether justified or not, was calcified with my reluctance to turn 30 in the next couple of weeks. Over the course of my vacation, I “noticed” a series of “new” lines in my forehead that threatened to dispose of the appearance I possessed throughout my 20s. And with the potential loss of youth and its fleshy, physical signals, I began to look towards other banal indicators of youth, and with it, freedom. Attaching freedom, or the concept of freeness, to youth is an unoriginal, dull idea. I knew this. And yet, I still housed a fear that upon turning 30 my options, my prospects, my ability to be #carefree would disintegrate, as if they too could be crisped by the hot desert heat. But the reality was the end of my 20s was anything but carefree. In the years after visiting the psychic, the poisons of the world only revealed themselves to be more threatening to my wellbeing, undoubtedly contributing to the lines that I “observed” in my forehead. Which is why, in the weeks leading up to my birthday, inclusive of this holiday, I became determined to do away with the stress incurred since pulling the Death Card. Bent on outrunning the final grains of sands in the hourglass that marked my birth and make up for stolen time.

 

And each and every night, I returned to the mirror to inspect the sun's damage on my skin. I frantically picked and peeled at layers and flakes to apply expensive ointments that promised a sort of preservation. The assurance of stagnation. A vow of survival.

 

 

 

IV

 

A year prior to the desert, there was a four to five month period commencing one month prior to my 29th birthday where my mind was immensely consumed with thoughts of death. The cause of death was always opaque and unlikely. The receiver of the death was selfishly almost always me yet the death was never self-inflicted. Irrationally imaginative ideas such as death by organ failure from medication, death by a car crash in a rideshare, or death by carbon monoxide from a leak in my apartment filled my brain. None of these deaths were plausible as I was not on any medication, I was not taking Lyfts in that era of the pandemic and my building checked its monoxide detectors regularly. Nevertheless, to a boy who was consistently reminded that so many other realistic deaths waited patiently for him that summer - death by police brutality, death by coronavirus, death by being Black and jogging in the neighborhood - these deaths and their angry absurdity fogged my brain and made me somewhat more comfortable with envisioning my own ending. The psychic's predictions all came to fruition within a year of my session yet she claimed she told me my whole life. What did this mean in relation to the years I presumed to still have ahead of me? Did this mean that I was already dead?

 

Ahmad Arbery died at 25. Breonna Taylor died at 26. George Floyd died 27 days before my birthday. I was to turn the same age as Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black-Indigenous-Ukrainian Canadian woman, who died 25 days before my birthday. To call these related by some cosmic force other than systemic and institutionalized racism would have been irresponsible but I began to spiral on these abstract details to search for meaning. To analyze the details of these deaths like the psychic had done my life through tarot. I wasn't sure how to make sense of these odd obscurities but that summer nothing seemed to make sense. And in lieu of sense, my mind drifted to produce imagined deaths of my own as my time seemed overdue. Perhaps dying at the knee of an officer would be"unoriginal" or to be chased and killed while jogging outside would be "too on the nose." As such, my mind raced to find alternative deaths from the ones that cycled through my social media feed day in and day out. That summer, I accepted that my ending could come swiftly, without much logic, like the young Black folks before me and counted down the days before the end of the year uncertain that a Christmas dinner would be in the cards. But, despite these venomous thoughts, my skin never looked better.

 

 

 

V

 

When a snake sheds, it typically rubs its skin across a rough surface such as a rock or a tree stump or perhaps a log or even a rough patch of grass or a wired fence if available to said snake. This undressing of the skin, despite how vulgar it may be imagined, leaves behind a rather stunning, well kept prism of a past self. An heirloom of a past life. You can typically identify the details of the snake's scales, the thinning of its tail and the slits where the eyes and mouth once were. To the untrained eye, it may look like the skin of a snake is a dead snake, dried up from the unwavering desert sun, but it's quite the opposite. I believe an abandoned snake skin can be interpreted as a sign of survival, a shedding of the parts of yourself that no longer serves you in order to grow. In order to continue living.

 

 

 

Past Life

 

 

The clatter from the trash cans, opening and closing, woke him before his alarm could. For a second, he believed that if he kept his eyes closed for a bit longer he could fall back asleep... But the labour of the garbage men outside persisted, coaxing his eyes open with the racket.

 

He had seen the men before. Not much older than him, hands calloused from hard work and attractive if you bothered to look closely. It was unclear to him if it was their handsomeness or youth that intrigued him, unable to reason how such unsullied beauty could exist so freely amongst the waste. He imagined the firmness of their svelte torsos layered underneath their fluorescent uniforms. Deeper, under his sheets, his ears strained to hear their grunts as they tossed his neighbours trash into the agape backside of the garbage truck. And further, within himself, he sensed the familial tug of kinship. Not for the garbage men, whose beauty and strength were alien to him, but for the garbage itself. He too wished to be used until no longer useful. To be thrown over the brawny shoulder of a man and swung into an interminable pit. To be disposed of and recycled into something of use and new again. He sensed that there wasn’t much difference between him and the trash that waited on the street corner for the garbage men. Like the trash, he felt discarded by the world, left to be picked over by vagabonds and vermin. Like the trash, he stank from the thick city heat in the summertime. And like the trash, he waited until the wee hours of the morning for the sandpapered hands of men to come for him, invite him into the doors of their vehicles and transform him into something else. To use and degrade him in the hopes that the seeds they planted in him would eventually bloom into something new.

 

His engagements with these men first began out of boredom before it progressed into a sense of duty. Abject and alone, he embarked on these late-night trysts in an attempt to breathe purpose into his dull, monotonous life. He wasn’t so far deluded to not know that he’d lost his way. He knew this to be true. But still, he hoped that with these men, so dominant in their demands of him, so sure of what they required him to do, that he too would become certain of his purpose. He had tried to be normal. To behave how a “good” boy should. Attempted the things he ought to enjoy like napoleon ice cream and asking to pet passerby’s Labradoodles on the street. He even tried the whole “having friends thing. He halfheartedly remained in contact with his classmates from art school through a seasonal Instagram Like or DM to score an occasional pity invite out. And although he loathed it, he loathed himself more, and burdened himself to attend these charitable invitations out of some invisible, masochistic obligation. Ahead of arriving, he promised himself to stay a specific number of hours before it was acceptable to leave. Once there, he stood, as he always did, in the kitchen, wedged between a derelict white fridge and the sink cologned with the faint smell of leftover takeout. Vietnamese, perhaps? Nursing himself with the stiff bite of gin, already lukewarm from his clammy grip, he contributed the odd 'Ha-Ha' and 'For Sure' to paint the guise of interest in the conversation before him. In reality, his thoughts could not be further, dancing from examining the protruding zit above the host’s left nostril to the shag throw used to cover the stain on the leather ottoman, only to return to the mental countdown of when he could leave and find his men. Because of his youth, his quiet presence, and the beauty he possessed that was unknown to him, his perceived aloofness presented a screen of coolness to the less discerning party goer. Behind his back, his classmates would describe him as their “mysteriously, private and cool” friend who “worked at the most established gallery in the city.” The truth was he was not “aloof” or “mysterious” or “private” or “cool.”The honest truth was he was bored. Bored of performing and exhausted by the production of interest and enjoyment. The men he met never expected him to perform because they never expected him to actually enjoy. It was he who was to be enjoyed. That was the unspoken arrangement. Which is why, quarter after midnight, and not a minute later, as his classmates foraged over half-finished bottles of Sancerre, he disappeared from his perch in the kitchen and materialized in the back seat of the vehicle to be enjoyed without the expectation of reciprocation.

 

During the day, he kept himself busy. He guided fussy patrons through new exhibits at the gallery, spewing anecdotes about the artwork that could not be gleaned from the pamphlets. He committed the lengthy list of donors to memory to craft the veil of intimacy when he greeted them by first name, offering "Barbara" or "Claus" their preferred beverage as they sauntered in. He proactively organized lunches for his boss and prospective curators as he caught whim of them being in town, namedropping to hosts at expensive restaurants to secure more premium, secluded dining rooms. He supposed he was good at his job. He earned a raise a couple of times in the past few years and was on track to promotion. But whenever his boss spoke to him about his future at the gallery, about how she envisioned him taking on more responsibility, chairing their annual fundraising event, eventually becoming her successor, he shuddered internally. On the outside, he nodded and creased his lips into a smile but, on the inside, he considered what he did, what they did, what the gallery did: pointless. He tried his damnedest to look at art with the same wonder as his boss and his peers. The same hunger as his classmates. The same critical gaze his professors had applied. But whatever talent, taste and technique they observed in the displays that came through the gallery, he was blind to. He saw and felt nothing. To him, the gallery produced nothing yet took nearly everything. In his eyes, the gallery seemed self-possessed in a way that could never be of service to others. And not in a virtuous way, as the concept of virtue was foreign to him, but in a practical, productive way. Being the largest of its kind in the city, it took up a great degree of space yet within the gallery, so many of the walls, the floor plan, was stylistically vacant - or in his mind: intentionally unused. From the few times he'd gotten a glimpse of the annual budget, he recoiled at exorbitant costs the gallery spent to procure new collections and became befuddled at the funds' donors extended to keep the gallery afloat. To him, it was all a waste. But this was a harboured belief. Tight-lipped, he performed appreciation. Pretended to be interested to get by. To be of use. To be of service.