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Sanctuary Line
Excerpt

Look out the window.
 
The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination. Even by the time I was in my early twenties, the terrain had already altered – almost beyond recognition – what with the bunkhouses deteriorating and the trees left unpruned and therefore bearing scant fruit. But that was during the period when my aunt was beginning to sever parts of the property so that it could be sold to developers; a step, I believed then, in the march toward some kind of future, or at least a financial future for her, and for my mother, who had just begun to live here as well. Now my aunt is dead and my mother lives at a place called The Golden Field, an ironic moniker if there ever was one, especially in relation to the one remaining field at this location, its greyness in the fading light.
 
It’s true, certain vestiges of the past remained for a while: the rail fences built by one of the old great- greats and the odd cairn of stones the great- greats had hauled out of the fields. “The first harvest every year is boulders,” was the news they passed down to us, their lazy descendants. My uncle repeated this statement often, though there was little enough ploughing in his life. In the end, he told us, many of the fieldstones had gone into the building of this capacious farmhouse that has stood in place, firm and strong, since the middle of the prosperous nineteenth century, when it was built.
 
What’s more, according to my uncle, the very first harvest would have been the slaughter of acres of forest in order that a field, any field, boulder- filled or golden, could be seeded at all. I seem to recall that during my childhood, there was a trace of the shallow foundation of the original log house in which those pioneer tree- choppers must have lived. Evidence was so faint, however, that only someone like my uncle could find it, point to it, and insist that you look at it. I remember him showing the few scattered stones to Teo, who stood at his side gazing obediently at the ground, then turning to me with a quizzical glance, trying, I suppose, to fit me, a spoiled girl from the city, into the rough stories my uncle was telling him about the spot. Dead babies, young men lost in blizzards, horses stumbling through storms. Teo listened politely, his brown eyes coming to rest on my uncle’s handsome face, but during the moist heat of those summers of the 1980s, when the farm was a flourishing business, those tales must have been almost impossible for a child like him to believe.
 
Sometimes in the evening after I have washed my few dishes, I find myself examining the splendid furniture of this old house, a collection of cold artifacts. In spite of my intimacy with each table, every chair, and the knowledge that the hands that either purchased or constructed them – and the bodies that touched them – made me what I am, they seem to come from a culture so brief and fragile that no one can name its properties, never mind care about its persistence. These solid shapes, so esteemed by my uncle and his wife, so carefully maintained, so talked about in the development of family tales, now stand in one corner or another as dead as the grandfather or great- aunt or distant relation who gave them a story and a meaning. Now there are nights when I wonder who I am keeping the clocks wound for, or why I continue to remove dust from the pictures and mirrors. Like someone of uncertain lineage in an undiscovered tomb, I have all the furnishings and comforts I will need for the afterlife carefully arranged around me. Except I am alive and forty years old. And, unlike you, I do not believe in any kind of afterlife.
 
Another thing. Because my aunt was fond of glass and, by extension, indoor light, this house is filled with reflections. Images of the great lake, therefore, swing into sight where you least expect them. North windows that face south windows reproduce and scramble marine views, mirrors refract lake light, and now and then poplars from the lakeside flicker on the old painted landscapes framed under glass and hanging on the parlour wall. Glass doors open to rooms where shutters are flung wide to a view of water. The stone walls that once surrounded my aunt’s rose garden are mirrored in the round looking- glass over her dressing table. At certain times of the day, if you pull open one of the glass doors leading from her room to the patio, the view of those garden walls will be overlaid by a series of waves chasing one another toward an unseen shore. In August the monarchs rise against blue lake water on the glass of a storm door, and surf often feathers the face of the wall clock. I never noticed these reflections when I was in my teens and the house was merely a place one entered unwillingly after the action of the day was finished. But all this confusion, this uncertain, changing imagery, is mine now. There is no one else who needs it.
 
 
As you know so well, it is one year after Mandy’s burial, a full year since those of us who remain went to the air base to attend the repatriation ceremony, then drove in the slow cortege down the highway renamed to honour the heroes of the current war. It felt like a lengthy journey, though Toronto, where the military autopsy was performed, is only ninety miles west of the air base. As we moved toward that city, we passed beneath dozens of overpasses filled with onlookers respectfully holding flags and yellow ribbons. I had read that crowds always lined the route when a soldier was brought home. Still my mother and I, and the boys too, were surprised and moved by the sheer size of the turnout. “Poor Mandy,” my mother kept saying each time we approached an overpass. “Who would have thought it?” At the air base she had said, “Poor little Amanda . . . she always called me auntie, even when she was a senior officer.” Then she had begun to weep, and I could feel my own eyes filling as I put my arm around her. The words improvised explosive device kept repeating in my mind, the sound of them coming out of the mouth of the official who had delivered this impossible news a few days before. There was something too surprising and playful about that phrase – a jack- in- the- box, fireworks – and if I couldn’t erase it altogether, I wanted to reshape it, slow it down, give it more dignity.
 
The whole town of Kingsville came out to meet us two days later, once we arrived here in the deep south of this northern province: all of Mandy’s high- school friends, the women who had helped my mother look after my aunt during her last illness, the mayor and council, and the people who had known my uncle when he was still in the vicinity.
 
Various attempts had been made to find him on this terrible occasion. Don was on the Internet day and night, and Shane contacted Interpol; messages were sent off to embassies – all to no avail. He has been gone, after all, for well over twenty years. He must be dead, Don said, during one of our booze- soaked evenings that week or the week after, or he would have come home for this. He may very well be dead, I thought, but I wondered if he would come back even if he were alive and in any condition to travel. Neither Don nor Shane had been caught in the drama the night their father disappeared. And Mandy hadn’t either, thankfully, though they all were witnesses to the coda of that drama.
 
But I had been there, right on the spot, at the wrong time.
 
What would there have been for him to return to anyway, even if he’d been able to do so? All his older relatives were gone, his wife as well, his dead daughter so changed by military glory even his memories of her would have felt unreliable. His sister, my mother, is still nearby, but after all this time she does not really resemble the woman he knew. And then there is me. And the farm, well, it barely exists.
 
Except for this house, now inhabited by me.
 
During the course of that long- ago summer when there were still many of us and the days walked slowly across the calendar, more or less in the way they always had, my uncle’s farm felt as certain and as established as a time- honoured empire – he, the famous Lake Erie orchardist, the agricultural king of the oldest part of southwestern Ontario, his territory and its lore delivered to us on a regular basis at dinner tables or beside campfires on the beach. Even now, when I wake on summer mornings and look out over the two remaining meadows filled with stumps, dead branches, and milkweed, I am startled by the disarray of the orchards, briefly surprised that there are neither ancestors nor Mexicans busy in the fields and trees – although, as I said, everything has been gone now for a considerable period of time.
 
I know something about orchards in a way that I never did before. Being the summer cousin, I wasn’t born to it, as Mandy was. By the time she was ten years old she could sort a basket of produce blindfolded: the ripest fruit on top, the too- soon harvested lining the bottom. I would watch her as she did this, a faint wrinkle of preoccupation on her smooth forehead, her busy hands assessing the firmness or softness of each fruit. Later, I would think she looked something like a blackjack professional dealing cards when she was sorting apples or pears. But when we were children, these quick, confident movements were to my mind a magical skill, made more magical by my uncle’s nod of approval when she had completed the job. She could also climb trees and shake cherries into the lap of the waiting apron of a tarpaulin, while my role was to stay earthbound and collect the few pieces of fruit that had rolled into the grass. Not that either of us had an official job as children, as Teo did. Teo, the picker. He could give Mandy a run for her money, his small brown hands darting along the ground of the fields or moving in the trees of the orchards, his eyes on the task.
 
Strawberries, cherries, peaches, pears, tomatoes, apples: that was the rhythm of ripening, put in motion by my great- great- grandfather on what was still a mixed farm, then improved by my great- grandfather, and perfected by my grandfather, who became the fruit specialist, obsessed by orchards, dismissing the animals and crops as if they had been mere incidentals and not what had come between his ancestors and certain starvation.
 
Oh those ancestors with their long shadows and their long stories. By the time we were teenagers, Mandy and I would exchange ironic glances whenever my uncle began what we called “the sagas,” tales in which he often called the head of each ancestral household “Old Great- great” rather than having to work his way mathematically back through the generations. It was as if all previous Butler males were the same Butler male anyway: obdurate, intractable, given to prodigious feats of labour in impossible conditions, one reign after another. Possessors of impressive strength, they were achievers of glorious successes and victims of spectacular failures. In the old photos, the full white beards and stern expressions of the great- greats resembled the frightening Old Testament figures – perhaps even Yahweh himself – illustrated in the family bible. You see, religion did play a role in the family once, but it was an unforgiving religion, one that became less essential to us as the generations progressed, while those things it was unwilling to forgive gained in importance.
 
Mandy and I were at our closest in our early teens, could communicate through eye contact, and were prone to shared fits of uncontrollable laughter at moments not entirely appropriate for laughter. Often these bouts of hilarity were at my uncle’s expense, though I am fairly confident that he never knew. This was in spite of our love for him. We were trying, I suppose, to separate a little from his power and his presence, which had dominated us since our earliest childhood. Or perhaps we were attempting to step away from the genetic inheritance that he enforced almost on a daily basis, though we certainly wouldn’t have known that at the time. We were part of the family. It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t be part of the family. Had we been asked, we probably would have insisted that our forebears had created the ground we walked on each day because without them there would have been no orchards, and without the orchards there would have been no sustaining livelihood.
 
Yes, having watched them wither and decay, I know something about orchards. I am intimate with the shortness of their lives. Sixteen years, tops, my uncle told us, or anyone else who would listen. The good fruit is borne between the third and the twelfth year, after which the yield begins to thin out. At the end of each season the “old” trees were cut and dismembered by the few Mexicans who stayed to complete the task. Teo, who had by then always returned with his mother to his home and presumably to school, was never among them. But that last summer I’d heard that he’d come back in April in time to burn the tangled brush of the previous years’ discards. I wasn’t at the farm until late June, but he told me about the burning when I arrived from the city with my mother.
 
When a job at the Sanctuary Research Centre brought me here and I took over the house, a few trees were still producing in what remained of one peach and one apple orchard. The cherry orchards along the lake had been sold almost immediately to developers and the wood harvested by specialty craftsmen. The tomato field behind the house gradually filled with wildflowers and, happily for me and for the butterflies, milkweed. I tried to keep a half- dozen apple trees going without the help of the sprays that I had come to detest because of what they had done to the butterflies, but the trees stopped producing. And then, of course, other life forms took up residence in their flesh, and the orchards began to die.
 
As for the monarchs, in those early summers we didn’t even know where they went or where they came from, depending on your point of view. We simply accepted them as something summer always brought to us, like our own fruit, or like strawberries or corn at roadside markets, or, for that matter, like the Mexicans. It would be years before the sanctuary on the Point began to tag the butterflies in order to follow the course of their migration, and several years more before the place where the specimens from our region “wintered over” would come to my attention.
 
Still, each summer we were stunned anew by what we came to call the butterfly tree. In the intervening months with winter upon us, preoccupied with school and other pursuits, we would have forgotten this spectacle, so its discovery was a surprising gift at the end of the season: an autumn tree that is a burning bush, an ordinary cedar alight with wings. Glancing down the lane, we would presume that while the surrounding foliage had retained its summer green, the leaves on that one tree had turned orange overnight. Then, before the phenomenon had fully registered in our minds, we would recall the previous occasions.
 
Not that the butterflies hadn’t been around all summer: one or two could be seen each day bouncing through the air in the vicinity of flowers and feeding on nectar. But, until the butterfly tree, they would never have gathered in such stupendous numbers. This multitude, this embarrassment of wings covered every available inch of leaf and bark, or sailed nearby, looking for a place to light. We would take the image of that tree with us as we turned toward the day, not remarking on it again until the shock of it had dissipated and the tree and its inhabitants had become a statement of fact. The butterflies are back on the tree. That announcement, more than anything else, was the beacon that lit the close of the season, the code that told us the games of summer were over.
 
Oddly, in those days we asked no questions about such an occurrence. Not one of us had ever witnessed the moment of the monarchs’ departure, which I imagined – not incorrectly – as an enormous orange veil lifting from the tree, then floating out over the great lake, heading for Ohio. They had surprised us and were no longer among us. We were blessedly young. We had no time for reflection.
 
Old enough to require explanations now, suspicious of unpredictability and impressions, I complete my fieldwork and my labwork with a meticulousness I couldn’t have even imagined in the thrall of those summers. These days it is all pinned specimens, tagged wings, and permanent records.
 
When I was in graduate school and was first told about the tagging of the monarchs, I considered the whole notion of fixing adhesive to something as fragile as a butterfly’s wing to be barbarous. But now I myself am a tagger, a labeller, one who is driven to track down the last mysterious fact until there is no mystery left. Yet I cannot explain how something as real and as settled as my uncle’s world – which was also our world – could shatter in one night. And while I might partly understand why he vanished, it is not possible for me to determine where he has gone. I picture him sometimes, standing on a mountain in Mexico surrounded by exhausted, tattered butterflies. Mating accomplished. Journey’s end. The temperature too cold for flight. Everything grounded. Not a single monarch ever returns, incidentally. The ones who come back to us may look exactly the same as those who departed, but it is their  great- grandchildren who make the return flight, the twoprevious generations having mated and died at six- week intervals in springtime Texas and Illinois. The third generation we welcome in June mates and dies six weeks later in our very own Ontario fields, engendering the hardy fourth Methuselah generation, which amazes us on trees like the one at the end of the lane and lives an astonishing nine months in order to be able to make the long journey back. All that travel and change, all that death and birth and transformation takes place in the course of a single year.
 
And yet the pieces of furniture that surround me now, the mirrors that reflected our family’s dramas – even those we should never have been witness to – remain firmly in place, unmoved, unchanged. The mystery of Mandy: her march toward order and regimen, passion and death remains in place as well, unsolved. I cannot explain the perfect symmetry of a boy’s eyebrows or the exact design of a butterfly’s wing. And then there is the mystery of that Mexican boy himself, and what did and did not pass between us.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Stone Carvers
Excerpt

There was a story, a true if slightly embellished story, about how the Ontario village was given its name, its church, its brewery, its tavern, its gardens, its grottoes, its splendid indoor and outdoor altars. How it acquired its hotel, its blacksmith’s shop, its streets and roads, its tannery, its cemetery, its general store. This was a legend that appealed to fewer and fewer people in the depression of the early 1930s. Times being what they were, not many villagers had the energy for the present, never mind the past – the tattered rail fences and sagging porches of the previous century seemed to them to be just two more things in need of repair. The tannery and blacksmith’s shop had disappeared years ago, and though the general store was still a fixture, its counter was so warped and scarred it looked as if it might have once served as a butcher’s block.
 
It was difficult to believe, in those days, with the older parts of the village in a state of decay usually associated with the decline of a complete civilization and the newer sections consisting of sloppy, half-finished attempts at twentieth-century industry, that one hundred years ago there was no sign of western European culture in the region. Difficult also to believe that it took only one hundred years for this culture to break down under the weight of economic failure.
 
Still the tale continued to be dear to one thirty-eight-year-old spinster who lived half a mile away from the village at a spot known as Becker’s Corners and all of the good Sisters at the small Convent of the Immaculate Conception near the top of the village’s only hill. These women believed the story connected them, through ancestry, through work and worship, and through vocation to the village’s inception. They believed it also connected them to the great church, under whose shadow, in the seldom-visited cemetery, their forebears slept beneath iron crosses that leaned at odd angles to one another, as if trying to establish contact after a long season of isolation and neglect.
 
The nuns and the one spinster clung to the story, as if by telling the tale they became witnesses, perhaps even participants in the awkward fabrication of matter, the difficult architecture of a new world.
 
 
In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the small village of Inzell, Bavaria, the wonderfully named Pater Archangel Gstir had no opinions about difficult architecture. In fact, Father Gstir was such a contented young man, a young man filled with such happy certainties, that beyond his faith and his fierce desire for a suitable bell to adorn the Romanesque belfry of the little parish church of St. Michael where he was pastor, he had few strong feelings about anything at all. He was troubled by neither women, nor fashion, nor financial insecurities – the usual afflictions of young men. In his church he was surrounded by a devout and devoted flock of parishioners, and once he stepped outside he was presented with a view of some of the finest mountain scenery in Bavaria, a region not now, and certainly not then, impoverished when it came to ravishing landscape. He spent his weekdays after morning mass cheerfully encouraging German-speaking boys in the study of classical languages, history, natural science, and liturgy. He ate well, enjoying Bavarian beer and his choice of European wines with his meals, and after these meals he took long walks along the edges of the gorgeously scenic Knappensteig, where he was able to admire the peaks of the Watzmann, the Hochkalter, the Hocheisspitze, and the Reiter Alpe. It was his habit on these promenades to pray to the Creator of all this beauty at the charming outdoor shrines and crosses scattered liberally across the hills and mountains. During one of these periods of reflection, just as he was beginning to be distracted by a rare wildflower – blue with black markings, quite unlike anything he had pressed in his album so far – he was startled by an announcement from God Himself with whom he often carried on conversations in his mind. “Go to Canada,” He told him now. “There is much work for you to do there.”
 
Father Gstir was astonished. As far as he knew he had not, until that very moment, even thought about Canada. Snow, he mused vaguely, and savages. “The English,” he whispered aloud, “and, I believe, some French.” He plucked the wildflower from the grass, placed it inside his breviary, and tucked the small book firmly under his elbow. “There must be some mistake,” he said to the Creator and continued along the mountain path, forgetting about Canada altogether.
 
The spinster was particularly fond of this moment in the story because it always brought to mind an increased awareness of the serendipitous quality of one’s presence here on earth. Where would she be had Father Gstir resolutely decided to ignore God’s call? Indeed, where would anyone be had the slightest incident not occurred in the chaos of details that led to their birth. The past need do no more than shrug its shoulders or lift its eyebrows for us to cease to exist. But the wonderful thing about saints, the spinster had been known to remark to the nuns – for she was confident that Father Gstir, recognized or not, was a saint – is that saints have no choice.
 
God forgot neither Father Gstir nor Canada and was moved to remind the Bavarian priest of His wishes in a direct and ultimately fateful way. In the middle of a spring week, while Father Gstir was removing his vestments after morning mass and silently preparing his Sunday sermon in which he would compare each of the virtues to a mountain wildflower, the postmaster knocked at the door of the vestry.
 
Father Gstir pulled back the bolt and invited the man in. “You were not here at mass, Johann,” he said.
 
This was a joke between them. Johann Heipel, postmaster of Inzell and a very devout man, could never attend weekday morning mass because of his letter-carrying duties. He felt this very deeply and often confessed it – much to Father Gstir’s amusement.
 
But on this day, the postmaster did not respond with the customary explanation. Instead he reported excitedly that there was a letter from the bishop.
 
Father Gstir had never received a letter from the bishop, despite his writing regularly to this venerable person petitioning for funds to replace the bell and, in his braver moments, for a limewood altar for a side chapel in the church. A wonderful ringing was in his mind as he tore open the envelope.
 
The message, which made mention of neither bell nor altarpiece but which nevertheless made quite clear that the bishop had received Father Gstir’s petitions, read as follows:
 
May 30, 1866
 
Our esteemed King Ludwig, benefactor of the Ludwig Missions, has lately interested himself in a small group of our people who have established themselves in the wilds of Canada where they have no priest to minister to them or to instruct their children in the ways of the Blessed Church of Rome. I have noted from your many letters that you reside in an alpine district where the air is necessarily much colder and fresher and therefore more like the air of Canada. Because of this, and because of your rumoured great good humour, you have therefore been chosen by me to complete this Holy Task & etc. . . .
 
The Sisters at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception knew the contents of this letter by heart, as did the spinster, who had memorized it in her youth. They also knew that Father Gstir would have been moved by the letter to recall his inner conversation on the Knappensteig and at the same time the authority of his holy vows. Some of the nuns wondered why the spinster had not taken holy vows herself, since she had no husband, and it was unlikely at this late date that one would appear. But most of the Sisters suspected that the spinster was completely unsuited for convent life, and were content to appreciate the way she dusted and polished the church pews, washed and sewed the altar cloths and linens, and decorated the altar with flowers in the summer.
 
They were also very grateful for the small Madonnas she carved for their rooms, and the complete crèche she had made, down to the last animal in the manger, to be assembled outside the church in the Christmas season, though all of them believed that carving was men’s work. They knew the spinster was unsuitable for convent life because of her fondness for men’s work – carving, farming, tailoring – her fondness, and her skill.
 
 
Like every other man, woman, and child in Bavaria, Father Gstir was well aware that King Ludwig was mad, and he knew that an interest in Canada was precisely the kind of course the King’s mad mind was likely to take. Was the bishop mad as well? Were the alleged Bavarian settlers also suffering from diseases of the brain? Instead of being ministered to in that wild place, should they not instead be encouraged to return to civilization? He put the last of these questions as delicately as possible to the bishop in an eloquent letter that also included a list of reasons why he, Pater Archangel, was a completely inappropriate candidate for the task, ending with a hopeful reminder regarding the bell. The bell, he told his superior, would ring out from the beautiful Romanesque belfry, the last vestige of the original parish church that had been founded in 1190 by Archbishop Albrecht II of Salzburg and that had unfortunately burned in 1724. Did the bishop not agree that the fact that the belfry and its splendid onion dome were spared in the conflagration was surely a kind of miracle, one that should be celebrated by a perfect bell, with a perfect pitch, rather than one filled with cracks that therefore emitted a disturbing sound that put the pastor in mind of a choirboy singing a Bach chorale just slightly off-key.
 
The bishop did not reply but sent instead the necessary documents for the journey.
 
 
Until Pater Archangel Gstir came to Canada, he had been able to walk along the edges of life in much the way he had walked along the edges of the beautiful Knappensteig. He had been an observer, albeit an appreciator. The mountain tracks he trod were lined with wildflowers; the views were gorgeous and distant. He loved climbing up to heights, but even more he loved gazing into depths. He turned from prayer at an outdoor shrine and looked down into deep green valleys. He stood in the altar and smiled upon his parishioners. Occasionally he climbed the miraculous belfry to inspect the faulty bell, and then he was able to look down on the whole village as it went about its business. All this would change when he came to Canada. He would become, as a result of geological, geographical, and meteorological necessity, a participator.
 
 
A year almost to the day after he had received the bishop’s letter – a year that had included a six-month-long hellish journey over water and land to the place then called Upper Canada – Father Gstir found himself in a pinewood forest trudging over an uncompromisingly flat terrain with a cloud of the Devil’s own insects, called blackflies by the English, buzzing over his head and the head of his horse. His territory – his parish – covered approximately two thousand square miles of practically unpopulated backwoods, an area filled with all manner of birds, beasts, and insects of prey. His task was to travel from one squalid cabin to another, avoiding those dwellings occupied by Protestants, known in these parts as Orangemen, bringing joy, comfort, and spiritual guidance to the German Catholics who had squatted on the land. Most of these settlers were so busy removing trees – and in a most unattractive fashion – that they hadn’t thought about the Blessed Virgin since they were children, if they had thought about her at all. The women had been glad to see him because his appearance suggested there might be someone – anyone – to administer last rites when they died in childbirth, as they so often did. The older men were respectful, though few had the reading skills or the time to study the catechism. The young men were difficult, sometimes almost surly, for it was they who ruled this domain, where physical strength was the key to survival. Still, it was one of them who had suggested that the good Father travel ten miles farther north, where a number of Alsatians and a few Bavarians were settled around the establishment of a sawmill.
 
“Don’t bother with us,” said one of two young and alarmingly large backwoods brothers to Father Gstir as he tried to intercept them in the muddy yard of their cabin. “Leave us alone, old man, we’ve no time for redemption.”
 
Father Gstir deeply resented being called an old man, for he was far from old, in fact not much older than the brothers themselves.
 
“Go to the settlement ten miles to the north,” they told him. “Storekeepers and millers there have lives soft enough for religion.”
 
The priest decided to forgo the correction he had been planning in regard to his age. “I’ll not give up on your souls,” he said. “But what then is the name of this village?”
 
“Doesn’t have a name,” said one of the brothers. “Ten miles north, sawmill, gristmill.”
 
Father Gstir set off in the direction the two brothers had indicated, the black cloud of flies accompanying him. When he had imagined Canada and his posting there, it had been the cold, the endless wastes of snow that he had dreaded. Now he longed for winter, prayed for it, for at least in winter there were no flies and the swamps and rivers would freeze, making his progress easier and the way shorter. But as he rode mile after mile in the heat and humidity of that early summer afternoon, he became aware that the swampy areas were becoming less frequent, that the ground was hardening underfoot, and that there was a slight rise in the level of the earth. He was enchanted by the appearance now and then of perfectly round ponds of water, a geological oddity he would soon learn were called “kettles” by the locals, though no one could explain why. It was shortly after he had skirted the edge of one of these that he emerged from the forest at a cleared area on the brow of a hill.
 
What lay before him was a view of his first deep Canadian valley, one with signs of settlement near a shining stream, and he fell in love at once. He had to admit, however, even in the midst of his sudden infatuation, that the place was a cluttered mess, all vegetation having been recently torn up or chopped down, leaving behind acres of mud littered with uprooted and rotting tree stumps. Any attempts at architectural construction – even the sawmill and gristmill – looked temporary, haphazard, and dangerously frail, the boards from which the structures were built pale and raw in the afternoon light, men, oxen, and horses moving sluggishly around them. The humidity of the season had settled in the valley, and everything alive appeared to be swimming in a slow trance through cloudy water. Only the little river was filled with vitality – Father Gstir could hear the sound of it – as it picked up and tossed light that came from a sun barely visible in a milky sky.
 
He saw all this, but he also saw how it would be later, with crops and orchards growing in the cleared areas, and with painted houses and barns, and with gardens sprouting flowers. He beheld all that was there in front of him, and all that he believed would be there in the future, and he knew he was home.
 
Father Gstir was not unaware that most landscapes looked better from on high – from a distance – than they did once one was presented with the banalities of their details at a close range. Despite this, he dismounted from his horse and ran eagerly down the track that led to the valley floor, his cassock flapping, his fists punching the air. As he ran, the normal passage of time either collapsed or expanded (he was never able to accurately determine which) so that the surprisingly delightful aspects of the terrain through which he passed impressed themselves on his memory, as if he had been looking at them for a long, long time. Rock outcroppings and shallow caves suitable for the statues of saints, bubbling springs that were surely holy places, towering deciduous trees miraculously overlooked by the axe – important trees: oaks and chestnuts – delicate green ferns, and an array of colourful wildflowers in bright emerald grass all caught his attention as he rushed by them. When he burst into the muddy and now quite startled domain of the millers who had set up near the little river, he was gasping with joy. “You live here in this beautiful valley, this shoneval,” he told two men who were so whitened by flour that he almost believed them to be angels. “God be praised!”
 
The younger of the two men smiled and held out his hand. He was long-limbed, fair-haired, with a well-chiselled rectangular face. His skin glowed opalescent as a result of its coating of white dust, and the folds of his clothing shone. As he moved toward the priest, a chalky cloud rose from him into the sunlit air.
 
It is at this moment that the spinster herself quietly enters the story, for the young man bathed in flour who stood smiling and holding out his hand introduced himself as Joseph Becker, and Joseph Becker was eventually to become her grandfather.
 
 
Son of a Bavarian miller, Joseph Becker had been lured to Canada at the age of twenty because of his passion for wood and the rumours he had heard about an unlimited supply of this material in the forests of the New World. After his initial dismay at finding nothing but cleared land in the southern regions of Canada, he had pushed steadily northward until he had reached the bush through which Father Gstir would soon trudge. But even there the trees seemed to disappear before he could fully appreciate them, lumbering being the chief capitalistic enterprise of the time. He was searching for perfect blocks of carveable limewood, or basswood as he would learn to call it in Canada. In his imagination he had already carved ornate altars from the trunks of the massive trees he had read about before departing from Bavaria. From the ages of fourteen to nineteen, he had been apprenticed to a stern old woodcarver in his native town of Ottobeuron, but by the time he was nineteen he was becoming impatient with his master’s reluctance to permit him to carve anything larger than putti. Still, Joseph had to admit that under the older man’s instruction he had learned well and now knew how to use various chisels, the combination of delicate and forceful hammer blows employed to encourage flesh to emerge from wood. He had also become a master of polychrome and could work with gold or in an array of colours.
 
In Canada, however, he had had next to no opportunity to make use of his training for anything other than recreational purposes, and time for recreation did not come easily. For a while he worked in the very lumber camps that destroyed the trees he cherished. But he could not bear to accept employment in the sawmills, where once, and only once, he witnessed the massacre of a tree trunk large enough for a beautiful sculpture of God the Father Himself. Soon his frustration and almost physical pain, his feeling that the very saints and angels he would have carved were murdered, and his knowledge of the terrible ordinariness of planking combined to make it impossible for him to take an axe to a tree ever again. He left the lumber camps and began to work at his father’s old trade of flour milling in the nearest town, moving north again only when the opening of a gristmill in a valley surrounded by new, raw German homesteads permitted him to do so.
 
 
Flushed and panting and filled with wonder, Father Gstir came to an abrupt halt directly in front of the tall young man whose pale, powdered demeanour made the priest believe for one dizzying moment that he might actually be in the presence of the angel Gabriel.
 
Then the divine being spoke in the voice of a human. “Hello, Father,” he said, gazing at him with benevolent curiosity. “Are you looking for bags of flour?”
 
“This village,” gasped Father Gstir, his arms opening as if to embrace the valley, “this is why I am here. Suddenly I under stand why God spoke to me in my mind, why I have been sent here.”
 
Joseph Becker glanced at the sawmill, the gristmill, the log bunkhouse, and the few shanties that stood near it. “We aren’t much of a parish,” he told the priest, “though families arrive presently from Waterloo County. And,” he added, “there is no church.”
 
The priest was staring with great intensity at the stream. “Such marvellous water!” he enthused. “From what miraculous spring does it emerge?”
 
“Springs all over here,” Joseph pointed to a limestone outcropping on the opposite side of the mud track. “There’s water all over. Hard to find a dry spot to build a shed. These springs bubble up when you least expect them right under the floor.”
 
“Holy water,” said Father Gstir, and then remembering the golden liquid of his homeland he added, “Perfect for a brewery.” He turned and looked up toward the height from which he had first seen the valley, the same hill where two decades later sun would shine through coloured windows of an established convent.
 
“A church up there,” the priest said, pointing, “made of logs at first and then, in time, a stone cathedral.” He continued to gaze at the hill. “Or at least a large stone church,” he added, “with a magnificent bell.”
 
Joseph was amused, even intrigued, but not at all convinced. “The people around here aren’t much interested in religion. Most of them are in the backwoods cutting down trees,” he said.
 
“Then we must make them interested.” Father Gstir paused and placed his hand on his forehead, considering. “We’ll begin with a Corpus Christi procession,” he said slowly, turning briefly away from Joseph while he assembled his thoughts. “Colour, pageantry, perhaps singing. We’ll visit every corner of the valley, flush them out of the forest. Pageantry . . . in this place pageantry will be the answer.” He moved a few steps closer to Joseph. “How many parishioners would you say were within a day’s walking distance?”
 
“A hundred, maybe two hundred, but . . .”
 
The priest interrupted, “Do you know anyone, anyone at all, who might be able to carve a crucifix or the Blessed Virgin?”
 
Later Joseph Becker would tell his granddaughter that at that moment he shared Father Gstir’s belief that to be in this unlikely valley had been part of a great plan, a key to his own destiny.
 
“Yes, Father,” he said. “Yes, I do.”
 
 
Father Gstir applied for and received permission from the bishop of the sadly neglected diocese of Hamilton, Upper Canada, to remain in the place he would call Shoneval among the almost entirely German settlers of the incongruously named Carrick Township. (The single Irish family in the vicinity had successfully argued that because the English had changed the name of virtually every city, town, and hamlet in their homeland, they ought to be given the privilege of affixing this Celtic moniker to lands ruled by the British crown.) At first the priest slept in the bunkhouse with Joseph Becker and all the other mill workers, but his presence put such a damper on the men’s usual banter about women and their constant drinking of homemade whisky that in short order they built him a not uncomfortable log shanty.
 
These were grateful men. They knew they had much to thank God for. Had they remained in Germany, for instance, they would likely have been soldiers by now, committed to fighting a number of petty yet deadly wars, the exact rationale for which no one was able to keep straight in their minds. They regretted the absence of a suitable number of women, but they were happy to be alive and not starving. They sensed God had treated them reasonably well, and they respected the priest as a result.
 
Shortly after Father Gstir had installed himself in his new quarters, the bishop wrote to inform him that his request to stay in the valley had miraculously coincided with the arrival in Guelph, and in Hamilton, of six missionary priests from Europe who could now administer to Catholics in the rest of the territory. He was, however, to remain in contact with three or four nearby German villages about which the bishop had heard ominous rumours of planned breweries. Father Gstir, reading the letter to Joseph Becker, glanced up with fondness at the nearby crystal stream.
 
“Procession, church, bell, brewery,” he announced. “These are our priorities.”
 
Of the four, Joseph maintained that the men were only interested in the last. “We have only a sawmill and a gristmill,” he reasoned. “You have no parishioners. How can we have a church?”
 
“The procession will bring the parishioners,” the priest assured him. “You must begin work on the crucifix.”
 
And so in the low light of high summer mornings and evenings, before and after his work at the gristmill, out of a huge tree trunk grudgingly donated by the sawmill owner in order to rid himself of the pestering priest, Joseph Becker began to carve the body of Christ. He had brought his most beloved chisels with him from Bavaria, and made his mallets himself from scrap lumber found in the yard. But it was with an axe that he first approached the wood, loving the idea that he could use the instrument for creation rather than destruction. Stripped to the waist, his muscles polished by his own sweat, he skilfully chopped out the rough shape of a slender man whose slightly raised arms were extended as if to embrace the world. This was pure labour and he enjoyed it as such, his heart pumping, blood rushing to his back and shoulders. The following week, as the face and feet and ribs emerged from the beam, he remembered and recognized the joy of carving, the miracle of turning wood to flesh. By the time he began to fashion delicate details – facial features, creases in the fingers, nails, and thorns – he was almost brought to tears by the poignancy of what he had made. In the final stages, even the toughest mill workers were removing their caps before entering the hut he used as a workshop.
 
Each day in the gristmill he had been aware that in the nearby sawmill enormous virgin trees, trees from which hundreds of beautiful sculptures might be made, were being fed to the teeth of the saws. Now late in the afternoon Joseph was permitted to shake the flour from his clothes and continue with the work of coaxing muscle and bone and sinew out of wood grain. At night by the soft light of the bunkhouse lantern he brushed curled shavings from his sleeves, dropped his trousers on a planked wood floor, and lay down on a cot made from timber and bark beside men whose lungs were filled with sawdust.
 
It began to seem as if his whole life were made of wood.
 
Years later as a very young woman, his granddaughter, Klara Becker, would experience similar sensations in her own workspace, which had once been her father’s blacksmith’s shop before he gave up in the face of all that heat and effort and had his horses shod in town. She would begin to understand the joy and oppression of the material needed for the task. But only in the moments when she could permit herself the luxury of carving, the moments when she was not making something for someone else to wear. In the early part of her adulthood, before she was changed by loss, her life seemed to be a minor war fought with a chisel and a needle, each tool demanding her time and attention, the shortness of her busy days suggesting she should perhaps commit to one profession or the other. And finally, how uncomplicated that war would seem in the face of the two real wars that would follow, the war with Eros, and then the Great War itself.
 
 
As the days shortened and huge flocks of pigeons and geese flew southward, passing noisily over the roof of his shanty, Father Gstir began to write a series of impassioned letters to the Central Direction of the Ludwig Missions at Munich. Reasoning that if he were to make these epistles lively and entertaining he might more quickly reach his goal, and knowing his countrymen’s fascination with the trackless wilds of the northern New World, he decided that the Lord would forgive exaggeration if the exaggeration in question resulted in the building of a church. He described, therefore, terrifying encounters with wild beasts – particularly bears – “which approached in such great numbers that they crushed the large trees in their path,” and with wolves the size of horses “whose howls filled the night with such noise that a conversation between two men was impossible to hear.” He told of trees with trunks so wide it would take a healthy man ten minutes to circumnavigate them. When he made mention of the mill workers, he described them as hardworking, pious Bavarians whose desire for a house of worship was heartwarming to behold. “They will, of course, supply all labour free of charge,” he predicted with optimism. “But where,” he wondered, “are we to get money for stone and,” he added, “for a bell?” He had also envisaged an attractive rectory but felt it prudent not make further demands at this stage.
 
In November, once the frost had hardened the ground, Father Gstir saddled his horse, strapped his portable altar to his own back, and attempted to negotiate the unreliable tracks to the outlying farms to disseminate the news of a magnificent Corpus Christi procession held the following June in the beautiful valley after which Shoneval had been named. The majority of the settlers he visited had but dim memories of this kind of pageantry, and many had no knowledge at all of the feast days of the church. But most had lived in isolation for so long that the announcement of any kind of collective experience was met with interest, and all promised to attend.
 
As he tramped wearily over the frost-covered mud, leading the horse that had developed a fear of the ice in the many pot-holes, Father Gstir fretted over the details. He knew that Joseph would successfully complete the large crucifix and the statue of the Virgin that would be carried in the procession, so his mind was at ease in relation to this. But someone in the procession was going to have to be splendidly robed, and that someone was himself. After making several inquiries along his route, a woman surrounded by whining children told him that the twenty-year-old daughter of a settler near the village had worked as a seamstress in a tailor’s shop in one of the southern towns. Interestingly, like Joseph Becker, she too had brought her most cherished tools with her to the wilderness, in her case scissors and embroidery needles. (The spinster always experienced a slight thrill of recognition at this point in the story, for the handsome young woman who agreed to embroider Father Gstir’s spare vestments, and who promised to contact her old employer about the donation of heavy red cloth, was her grandmother. “It was a Corpus Christi procession in the backwoods,” Joseph Becker would tell his granddaughter, “that brought together the chisel and the needle.”)
 
How young they were then, the carver and the seamstress and the priest, all dead by the 1930s, by the time Klara and her friends in the convent would recall and cherish the story. Younger than the spinster, and younger too than any of the nuns. But the backwoods was no place for even the middle-aged, as everyone was necessarily engaged in the act of turning one thing into another, an occupation that required an athletic form of labour, a labour that never ceased. The carver transformed barley into flour and wood into statues; the seamstress made bedsheets into altar cloths; the men in the sawmill helped turn forests into wastelands, while the farmers attempted to turn wastelands into fields. The priest was hoping to turn a barren hilltop into the site of a pilgrimage church whose bell would ring out to an established village and whose song would carry over beautifully cultivated fields. All of them were trying to force western culture into a place where it undoubtedly had no business to be. It was hard work.
 
As the winter progressed, more and more wooden Euro pean ships – ships that brought a few sacks of mail and cargoes of human beings in a westerly direction and a few sacks of mail and cargoes of lumber in an easterly direction – were tossed on unfriendly seas. It wasn’t until March that Father Gstir finally received an answer from the Central Direction of the Ludwig Missions-Verig at Munich. The gentlemen, who had been delighted by the Bavarian priest’s portrayal of life in the wilds, were full of questions regarding hunting and taxidermy. No mention was made of the church or the bell, but there was mention of their benefactor, Ludwig of Bavaria, who “had great interests in the wild beasts of the northern hemisphere” and who, having read Pater Archangel’s letter, was now requesting that the “good arctic priest” trap three or four polar bears of highest quality and snowy whiteness to be shipped to His Majesty’s property, where they would be tamed and then permitted to roam at their leisure through the Sauling; the mountains and the distant plain.
 
Father Gstir was not deterred. He had made contact with the monarch, the great king of architectural endeavour, the patron of difficult projects in preposterous locations. Surely His Majesty’s desire for polar bears would diminish when he thought about the magnificent stone church Pater Archangel planned for the wilderness. Was not Neuschwanstein being designed for an inaccessible stone pinnacle in mountainous Bavarian wilds near Pollat Falls? And were there not plans for a vast hunting lodge in another improbable spot? Father Gstir determined that in his next letter he would suggest – with great respect and humility – that, unlike the German treasury department, God the Father would smile on all of Ludwig’s architectural creations were the king to make a contribution toward a church for Bavaria’s exiled sons and daughters, as well as, he added, a bell for said church.
 
The reference to the polar bears had given him a number of ideas for the Corpus Christi procession, now only three months away. “An inventory must be made,” he told Joseph, “of all the animals in our surroundings.”
 
He had entered the carver’s workshop just as Joseph was to begin work on the Virgin Mary – now with the approach of spring there was again some light before and after his shift at the mill. The large crucifix was completed and leaned against the wall. Joseph had not decided whether he would paint it and if so where he was to get gold leaf for the nimbus.
 
“All of the domestic animals, I mean,” the priest continued. “Horses, pigs, cows, and a donkey. We must have a donkey for the procession. Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Do you know where we can find one, Joseph?”
 
“I do not,” replied Joseph, running one long finger across his jawline while staring at the block of wood from which the Holy Mother would emerge. “Shall I colour my statues?” he asked.
 
“Yes,” said Father Gstir, “it will do the people good to see colour. And what are we to do about music?”
 
Joseph said that the Irishman responsible for the township’s Celtic name played a sort of violin in a rather frenetic way. “It sounds somewhat like Bach,” he said, “but played much too quickly.” He took off his hat and shook wood shavings from the brim.
 
“And are there singers?”
 
Joseph recalled certain drunken evenings in the bunkhouse. “Sometimes the men sing,” he reported tentatively. The songs they knew were quite inappropriate but might be modified. “One of the men has an accordion.”
 
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Father Gstir. “And what is the Irishman’s name?”
 
“O’Sullivan . . . Brendan. A farmer and a carpenter.”
 
The mention of carpentry brought Father Gstir’s imagined place of worship back to his busy mind. He described his plan to interest King Ludwig in the church. But Joseph was skeptical. “He will never see it, this church,” said the carver. “He will not be interested because he will not know what it looks like.”
 
“O indeed he will,” maintained the priest. “Indeed he will see the church, for you will carve a small model for the procession, and then we will send it to Munich.” He smiled benevolently. “You may leave it unpainted. And before we send it,” he added, “the church will be carried at the head of the procession by the children who will eventually worship in it.”
 
“I have only three months!” Joseph threw his hands up in exasperation. “How can I work in the mill every day and then do all this carving for you?” He had no idea he was describing the division of labour that would determine the rest of his life, that he would always be employed at least half of the time to ensure survival while never – even for a day – letting his hand stray far from a chisel.
 
“You are not carving for me,” replied Father Gstir. “You are carving for God.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Edible Woman
Excerpt

1
 
 
I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk.
 
“You have no idea how soggy it is,” she said, “having to go through twenty conversations about the insides of peoples’ mouths. The most reaction I got out of them was when I described an abscess I once had. They positively drooled. And most men look at something besides your teeth, for god’s sake.”
 
She had a hangover, which put me in a cheerful mood – it made me feel so healthy – and I poured her a glass of tomato juice and briskly fixed her an Alka- Seltzer, listening and making sympathetic noises while she complained.
 
“As if I didn’t get enough of that at work,” she said. Ainsley has a job as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes for an electric toothbrush company: a temporary job. What she is waiting for is an opening in one of those little art galleries, even though they don’t pay well: she wants to meet the artists. Last year, she told me, it was actors, but then she actually met some. “It’s an absolute fixation. I expect they all carry those bent mirrors around in their coat pockets and peer into their own mouths every time they go to the john to make sure they’re still cavity- free.” She ran one hand reflectively through her hair, which is long and red, or rather auburn. “Could you imagine kissing one? He’d say ‘Open wide’ beforehand. They’re so bloody one- track.”
 
“It must have been awful,” I said, refilling her glass. “Couldn’t you have changed the topic?”
 
Ainsley raised her almost non- existent eyebrows, which hadn’t been coloured in yet that morning. “Of course not,” she said. “I pretended to be terribly interested. And naturally I didn’t let on what my job was: those professional men get so huffy if you know anything about their subject. You know, like Peter.”
 
Ainsley tends to make jabs at Peter, especially when she isn’t feeling well. I was magnanimous and didn’t respond. “You’d better eat something before you go to work,” I said, “it’s better when you’ve got something on your stomach.”
 
“Oh god,” said Ainsley, “I can’t face it. Another day of machines and mouths. I haven’t had an interesting one since last month, when that lady sent back her toothbrush because the bristles were falling off. We found out she’d been using Ajax.”
 
I got so caught up in being efficient for Ainsley’s benefit while complimenting myself on my moral superiority to her that I didn’t realize how late it was until she reminded me. At the electric toothbrush company they don’t care what time you breeze in, but my company thinks of itself as punctual. I had to skip the egg and wash down a glass of milk and a bowl of cold cereal which I knew would leave me hungry long before lunchtime. I chewed through a piece of bread while Ainsley watched me in nauseated silence and grabbed up my purse, leaving Ainsley to close the apartment door behind me.
 
We live on the top floor of a large house in one of the older and more genteel districts, in what I suppose used to be the servants’ quarters. This means there are two flights of stairs between us and the front door, the higher flight narrow and slippery, the lower one wide and carpeted but with stair rods that come loose. In the high heels expected by the office I have to go down sideways, clutching the bannister. That morning I made it safely past the line of pioneer brass warming- pans strung on the wall of our stairway, avoided catching myself on the many- pronged spinning wheel on the second-floor landing, and sidestepped quickly down past the ragged regimental flag behind glass and the row of oval- framed ancestors that guard the first stairway. I was relieved to see there was no one in the downstairs hall. On level ground I strode towards the door, swerving to avoid the rubber plant on one side and the hall table with the écru doily and the round brass tray on the other. Behind the velvet curtain to the right I could hear the child performing her morning penance at the piano. I thought I was safe.
 
But before I reached the door it swung silently inward upon its hinges, and I knew I was trapped. It was the lady down below. She was wearing a pair of spotless gardening gloves and carrying a trowel. I wondered who she’d been burying in the garden.
 
“Good morning, Miss MacAlpin,” she said.
 
“Good morning.” I nodded and smiled. I can never remember her name, and neither can Ainsley; I suppose we have what they call a mental block about it. I looked past her towards the street, but she didn’t move out of the doorway.
 
“I was out last night,” she said. “At a meeting.” She has an indirect way of going about things. I shifted from one foot to the other and smiled again, hoping she would realize I was in a hurry. “The child tells me there was another fire.”
 
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a fire,” I said. The child had taken this mention of her name as an excuse to stop practising, and was standing now in the velvet doorway of the parlour, staring at me. She is a hulking creature of fifteen or so who is being sent to an exclusive private girls’ school, and she has to wear a green tunic with knee-socks to match. I’m sure she’s really quite normal, but there’s something cretinous about the hair- ribbon perched up on top of her gigantic body.
 
The lady down below took off one of her gloves and patted her chignon. “Ah,” she said sweetly. “The child says there was a lot of smoke.”
 
“Everything was under control,” I said, not smiling this time. “It was just the pork chops.”
 
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Well, I do wish you would tell Miss Tewce to try not to make quite so much smoke in future. I’m afraid it upsets the child.” She holds Ainsley alone responsible for the smoke, and seems to think she sends it out of her nostrils like a dragon. But she never stops Ainsley in the hall to talk about it: only me. I suspect she’s decided Ainsley isn’t respectable, whereas I am. It’s probably the way we dress: Ainsley says I choose clothes as though they’re a camouflage or a protective colouration, though I can’t see anything wrong with that. She herself goes in for neon pink.
 
Of course I missed the bus: as I crossed the lawn I could see it disappearing across the bridge in a cloud of air pollution. While I was standing under the tree – our street has many trees, all of them enormous – waiting for the next bus, Ainsley came out of the house and joined me. She’s a quick- change artist; I could never put myself together in such a short time. She was looking a lot healthier – possibly the effects of makeup, though you can never tell with Ainsley – and she had her red hair piled up on top of her head, as she always does when she goes to work. The rest of the time she wears it down in straggles. She had on her orange and pink sleeveless dress, which I judged was too tight across the hips. The day was going to be hot and humid; already I could feel a private atmosphere condensing around me like a plastic bag. Maybe I should have worn a sleeveless dress too.
 
“She got me in the hall,” I said. “About the smoke.”
 
“The old bitch,” said Ainsley. “Why can’t she mind her own business?” Ainsley doesn’t come from a small town as I do, so she’s not as used to people being snoopy; on the other hand she’s not as afraid of it either. She has no idea about the consequences.
 
“She’s not that old,” I said, glancing over at the curtained windows of the house; though I knew she couldn’t hear us. “Besides, it wasn’t her who noticed the smoke, it was the child. She was at a meeting.”
 
“Probably the W.C.T.U.,” Ainsley said. “Or the I.O.D.E. I’ll bet she wasn’t at a meeting at all; she was hiding behind that damn velvet curtain, wanting us to think she was at a meeting so we’d really do something. What she wants is an orgy.”
 
“Now Ainsley,” I said, “you’re being paranoid.” Ainsley is convinced that the lady down below comes upstairs when we aren’t there and looks round our apartment and is silently horrified, and even suspects her of ruminating over our mail, though not of going so far as to open it. It’s a fact that she sometimes answers the front door for our visitors before they ring the bell. She must think she’s within her rights to take precautions: when we first considered renting the apartment she made it clear to us, by discreet allusions to previous tenants, that whatever happened the child’s innocence must not be corrupted, and that two young ladies were surely more to be depended upon than two young men.
 
“I’m doing my best,” she had said, sighing and shaking her head. She had intimated that her husband, whose portrait in oils hung above the piano, had not left as much money as he should have. “Of course you realize your apartment has no private entrance?” She had been stressing the drawbacks rather than the advantages, almost as though she didn’t want us to rent. I said we did realize it; Ainsley said nothing. We had agreed I would do the talking and Ainsley would sit and look innocent, something she can do very well when she wants to – she has a pink- and- white blunt baby’s face, a bump for a nose, and large blue eyes she can make as round as ping- pong balls. On this occasion I had even got her to wear gloves.
 
The lady down below shook her head again. “If it weren’t for the child,” she said, “I would sell the house. But I want the child to grow up in a good district.”
 
I said I understood, and she said that of course the district wasn’t as good as it used to be: some of the larger houses were too expensive to keep up and the owners had been forced to sell them to immigrants (the corners of her mouth turned gently down) who had divided them up into rooming houses. “But that hasn’t reached our street yet,” she said. “And I tell the child exactly which streets she can walk on and which she can’t.” I said I thought that was wise. She had seemed much easier to deal with before we had signed the lease. And the rent was so low, and the house was so close to the bus stop. For this city it was a real find.
 
“Besides,” I added to Ainsley, “they have a right to be worried about the smoke. What if the house was on fire? And she’s never mentioned the other things.”
 
“What other things? We’ve never done any other things.”
 
“Well . . .” I said. I suspected the lady down below had taken note of all the bottle- shaped objects we had carried upstairs, though I tried my best to disguise them as groceries. It was true she had never specifically forbidden us to do anything – that would be too crude a violation of her law of nuance – but this only makes me feel I am actually forbidden to do everything.
 
“On still nights,” said Ainsley as the bus drew up, “I can hear her burrowing through the woodwork.”
 
We didn’t talk on the bus; I don’t like talking on buses, I would rather look at the advertisements. Besides, Ainsley and I don’t have much in common except the lady down below. I’ve only known her since just before we moved in: she was a friend of a friend, looking for a room mate at the same time I was, which is the way these things are usually done. Maybe I should have tried a computer; though on the whole it’s worked out fairly well. We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale- mauve hostility you often find among women. Our apartment is never exactly clean, but we keep it from gathering more than a fine plum- bloom of dust by an unspoken agreement: if I do the breakfast dishes, Ainsley does the supper ones; if I sweep the living- room floor, Ainsley wipes the kitchen table. It’s a see- saw arrangement and we both know that if one beat is missed the whole thing will collapse. Of course we each have our own bedroom and what goes on in there is strictly the owner’s concern. For instance Ainsley’s floor is covered by a treacherous muskeg of used clothes with ashtrays scattered here and there on it like stepping- stones, but though I consider it a fire hazard I never speak to her about it. By such mutual refrainings – I assume they are mutual since there must be things I do that she doesn’t like – we manage to preserve a reasonably frictionless equilibrium.
 
We reached the subway station, where I bought a package of peanuts. I was beginning to feel hungry already. I offered some to Ainsley, but she refused, so I ate them all on the way downtown.
 
We got off at the second- last stop south and walked a block together; our office buildings are in the same district.
 
“By the way,” said Ainsley as I was turning off at my street, “have you got three dollars? We’re out of scotch.” I rummaged in my purse and handed over, not without a sense of injustice: we split the cost but rarely the contents. At the age of ten I wrote a temperance essay for a United Church Sunday- school competition, illustrating it with pictures of car crashes, diagrams of diseased livers, and charts showing the effects of alcohol upon the circulatory system; I expect that’s why I can never take a second drink without a mental image of a warning sign printed in coloured crayons and connected with the taste of tepid communion grape juice. This puts me at a disadvantage with Peter; he likes me to try and keep up with him.
 
As I hurried towards my office building, I found myself envying Ainsley her job. Though mine was better- paying and more interesting, hers was more temporary: she had an idea of what she wanted to do next. She could work in a shiny new air- conditioned office building, whereas mine was dingy brick with small windows. Also, her job was unusual. When she meets people at parties they are always surprised when she tells them she’s a tester of defective electric toothbrushes, and she always says, “What else do you do with a B.A. these days?” Whereas my kind of job is only to be expected. I was thinking too that really I was better equipped to handle her job than she is. From what I see around the apartment, I’m sure I have much more mechanical ability than Ainsley.
 
By the time I finally reached the office I was three- quarters of an hour late. None commented but all took note.

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Life Before Man
Excerpt

Elizabeth

Friday, October 29, 1976

I don't know how I should live. I don't know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live. I live like a peeled snail. And that's no way to make money.

I want that shell back, it took me long enough to make. You've got it with you, wherever you are. You were good at removing. I want a shell like a sequined dress, made of silver nickels and dimes and dollars overlapping like the scales of an armadillo. Armored dildo. Impermeable; like a French raincoat.

I wish I didn't have to think about you. You wanted to impress me; well, I'm not impressed, I'm disgusted. That was a disgusting thing to do, childish and stupid. A tantrum, smashing a doll, but what you smashed was your own head, your own body. You wanted to make damn good and sure I'd never be able to turn over in bed again without feeling that body beside me, not there but tangible, like a leg that's been cut off. Gone but the place still hurts. You wanted me to cry, mourn, sit in a rocker with a black-edged handkerchief, bleeding from the eyes. But I'm not crying, I'm angry. I'm so angry I could kill you. If you hadn't already done that for yourself.

Elizabeth is lying on her back, clothes on and unrumpled, shoes placed side by side on the bedside rug, a braided oval bought at Nick Knack's four years ago when she was still interested in home furnishings, guaranteed genuine old lady twisted rags. Arms at her sides, feet together, eyes open. She can see part of the ceiling, that's all. A small crack runs across her field of vision, a smaller crack branching out from it. Nothing will happen, nothing will open, the crack will not widen and split and nothing will come through it. All it means is that the ceiling needs to be repainted, not this year but the next. Elizabeth tries to concentrate on the words "next year," finds she can't.

To the left there is a blur of light; if she turns her head she will see the window, hung with spider plants, the Chinese split-bamboo blind half rolled up. She called the office after lunch and told them she would not be in. She's been doing that too often; she needs her job.

She is not in. She's somewhere between her body, which is lying sedately on the bed, on top of the Indian print spread, tigers and flowers, wearing a black turtleneck pullover, a straight black skirt, a mauve slip, a beige brassiere with a front closing, and a pair of pantyhose, the kind that come in plastic eggs, and the ceiling with its hairline cracks. She can see herself there, a thickening of the air, like albumin. What comes out when you boil an egg and the shell cracks. She knows about the vacuum on the other side of the ceiling, which is not the same as the third floor where the tenants live. Distantly, like tiny thunder, their child is rolling marbles across the floor. Into the black vacuum the air is being sucked with a soft, barely audible whistle. She could be pulled up and into it like smoke.

She can't move her fingers. She thinks about her hands, lying at her sides, rubber gloves: she thinks about forcing the bones and flesh down into those shapes of hands, one finger at a time, like dough.

Through the door, which she's left open an inch out of habit, always on call like the emergency department of a hospital, listening even now for crashes, sounds of breakage, screams, comes the smell of scorching pumpkin. Her children have lighted their jack-o'-lanterns, even though there are still two days before Halloween. And it isn't even dark yet, though the light at the side of her head is fading. They love so much to dress up, to put on masks and costumes and run through the streets, through the dead leaves, to knock on the doors of strangers, holding out their paper bags. What hope. It used to touch her, that excitement, that fierce joy, the planning that would go on for weeks behind the closed door of their room. It used to twist something in her, some key. This year they are remote from her. The soundless glass panel of the hospital nursery where she would stand in her housecoat for each of them in turn, watching the pink mouths open and close, the faces contort.

She can see them, they can see her. They know something is wrong. Their politeness, their evasion, is chilling because it's so perfectly done.

They've been watching me. They've been watching us for years. Why wouldn't they know how to do it? They act as though everything is normal, and maybe for them it is normal. Soon they will want dinner and I will make it. I will lower myself down from this bed and make the dinner, and tomorrow I will see them off to school and then I will go to the office. That is the proper order.

Elizabeth used to cook, very well too. It was at the same time as her interest in rugs. She still cooks, she peels some things and heats others. Some things harden, others become softer; white turns to brown. It goes on. But when she thinks about food she doesn't see the bright colors, red, green, orange, featured in the Gourmet Cookbook. Instead she sees the food as illustrations from those magazine articles that show how much fat there is in your breakfast. Dead white eggs, white strips of bacon, white butter. Chickens, roasts and steaks modeled from bland lard. That's what all food tastes like to her now. Nevertheless she eats, she overeats, weighting herself down.

There's a small knock, a step. Elizabeth moves her eyes down. In the oak-framed oval mirror above the dressing table she can see the door opening, the darkness of the hall behind, Nate's face bobbing like a pale balloon. He comes into the room, breaking the invisible thread she habitually stretches across the threshold to keep him out, and she is able to turn her head. She smiles at him.

"How are you, love?" he says. "I've brought you some tea."

Nate

Friday, October 29, 1976

He doesn't know what "love" means between them any more, though they always say it. For the sake of the children. He can't remember when he started knocking at her door, or when he stopped considering it his door. When they moved the children into one room together and he took the vacant bed. The vacant bed, she called it then. Now she calls it the extra bed.

He sets the cup of tea down on the night table, beside the clock radio that wakes her every morning with cheerful breakfast news. There's an ashtray, no butts; why should there be? She doesn't smoke. Though Chris did.

When Nate slept in this room there were ashes, matches, ringed glasses, pennies from his pockets. They used to save them in a peanut butter jar and buy small gifts with them for each other. Mad money, she called it. Now he still empties the pennies out of his pockets every night; they accumulate like mouse droppings on top of the bureau in his room, his own room. Your own room, she calls it, as if to keep him in there.

She looks up at him, her face leached of color, eyes dark-circled, smile wan. She doesn't have to try; she always tries.

"Thanks, love," she says. "I'll get up in a minute."

"I'll make dinner tonight, if you like," Nate says, wanting to be helpful, and Elizabeth agrees listlessly. Her listlessness, her lack of encouragement, infuriates him, but he says nothing, turns and closes the door softly behind him. He made the gesture and she acts as if it means nothing.

Nate goes to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and pokes through it. It's like rummaging through a drawer of jumbled clothes. Leftovers in jars, bean sprouts gone bad, spinach in a plastic bag starting to decay, giving off that smell of decomposing lawn. No use expecting Elizabeth to clean it. She used to clean it. She will clean other things these days, but not the refrigerator. He'll tidy it up himself, tomorrow or the next day, when he gets around to it.

Meanwhile he'll have to improvise dinner. It's no large trial, he's often helped with the cooking, but in former times--he thinks of it as the olden days, like a bygone romantic era, like some Disneyland movie about knighthood--there were always supplies. He does most of the grocery shopping himself now, carting a bag or two home in the basket of his bicycle, but he forgets things and gaps are left in the day: no eggs, no toilet paper. Then he has to send the kids to the corner store, where everything is more expensive. Before, before he sold the car, it wasn't such a problem. He took Elizabeth once a week, on Saturdays, and helped her put the cans and frozen packages away when they got home.

Nate picks the dripping spinach out of the vegetable crisper and carries it to the garbage can; it oozes green liquid. He counts the eggs: not enough for omelettes. He'll have to make macaroni and cheese again, which is all right since the kids love it. Elizabeth will not love it but she will eat it, she'll wolf it down absently as if it's the last thing on her mind, smiling like a slowly grilling martyr, staring past him at the wall.

Nate stirs and grates, stirs and grates. An ash drops from his cigarette, missing the pot. It isn't his fault Chris blew his head off with a shotgun. A shotgun: this sums up the kind of extravagance, hysteria, he's always found distasteful in Chris. He himself would have used a pistol. If he were going to do it at all. What gets him is the look she gave him when the call came through: At least he had the guts. At least he was serious. She's never said it of course, but he's sure she compares them, judges him unfavorably because he's still alive. Chickenshit, to be still alive. No balls.

Yet at the same time, still without saying it, he knows she blames him, for the whole thing. If you had only been this or that, done this or that--he doesn't know what--it wouldn't have happened. I wouldn't have been driven, forced, compelled . . . that's her view, that he failed her, and this undefined failure of his turned her into a quivering mass of helpless flesh, ready to attach itself like a suction cup to the first crazy man who ambled along and said, You have nice tits. Or whatever it was Chris did say to get her to open the Love Latch on her brassiere. Probably more like, You have nice ramifications. Chess-players are like that. Nate knows: he used to be one himself. Nate can never figure out why women find chess-playing sexy. Some women.

So for a week now, ever since that night, she's spent the afternoons in there lying on the bed that used to be his, half his, and he's been bringing her cups of tea, one each afternoon. She accepts them with that dying swan took of hers, the took he can't stand and can't resist. It's your fault, darling, but you may bring me cups of tea. Scant atonement. And an aspirin out of the bathroom and a glass of water. Thank you. Now go away somewhere and feel guilty. He's a sucker for it. Like a good boy.

And he was the one, not her, not Elizabeth, who had to go and identify the body. As her stricken eyes said, she could hardly be expected to. So dutifully he had gone. Standing in that apartment where he'd been only twice but where she had been at least once every week for the past two years, fighting nausea, nerving himself to look, he'd felt that she was there in the room with them, a curve in space, a watcher. More so than Chris. No head left at all, to speak of. The headless horseman. But recognizable. Chris's expression had never really been in that heavy flat face of his; not like most people's. It had been in his body. The head had been a troublemaker, which was probably why Chris had chosen to shoot at it instead of at some other part of himself. He wouldn't have wanted to mutilate his body.

A floor, a table, a chess set by the bed, a bed with what they called the trunk and limbs lying on it; Nate's other body, joined to him by that tenuous connection, that hole in space controlled by Elizabeth. Chris had put on a suit and tic, and a white shirt. Nate, thinking of that ceremony--the thick hands knotting the tie, straightening it in the mirror, God, his shoes were shined even--wanted to cry. He put his hands in his jacket pockets; his fingers closed on pennies, the house key.

"Any reason why he left your number on the table?" the second policeman said.

"No," Nate said. "We were friends of his, I guess."

"Both of you?" the first policeman said.

"Yes," said Nate.

Janet comes into the kitchen as he's sliding the casserole dish into the oven.

"What's for dinner?" she asks, adding "Dad," as if to remind him who he is.

Nate finds this question suddenly so mournful that for a moment he can't answer. It's a question from former times, the olden days. His eyes blur. He wants to drop the casserole on the floor and pick her up, hug her, but instead he closes the oven door gently.

"Macaroni and cheese," he says.

"Yum," she says, her voice remote, guarded, giving a careful imitation of pleasure. "With tomato sauce?"

"No," he says, "there wasn't any."

Janet runs her thumb across the kitchen table, squeaking it on the wood. She does this twice. "Is Mum resting?" she says.

"Yes," Nate says. Then, fatuously, "I took her a cup of tea." He puts one hand behind him, against the kitchen counter. They both know what to avoid.

"Well," Janet says in the voice of a small adult, "I'll be seeing you soon." She turns and goes back through the kitchen door.

Nate wants to do something, perform something, smash his hand through the kitchen window. But on the other side of the glass there's a screen. That would neutralize him. Whatever he does now will be absurd. What is smashing a window compared with blowing off your head? Cornered. If she'd planned it, she couldn't have done it better.

Lesje

Friday, October 29, 1976

Lesje is wandering in prehistory. Under a sun more orange than her own has ever been, in the middle of a swampy plain lush with thick-stalked plants and oversized ferns, a group of bony-plated stegosaurs is grazing. Around the edges of this group, protected by its presence but unrelated to it, are a few taller, more delicate camptosaurs. Cautious, nervous, they lift their small heads from time to time, raising themselves on their hind legs to sniff at the air. If there is danger they will give the alarm first. Closer to her, a flock of medium-sized pterosaurs glides from one giant tree-fern to another. Lesje crouches in the topmost frond-cluster of one of these trees, watching through binoculars, blissful, uninvolved. None of the dinosaurs takes the slightest interest in her. If they do happen to see or smell her, they will not notice her. She is something so totally alien to them that they will not be able to focus on her. When the aborigines sighted Captain Cook's ships, they ignored them because they knew such things could not exist. It's the next best thing to being invisible.

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Bodily Harm

Bodily Harm

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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Excerpt

This is how I got here, says Rennie.

It was the day after Jake left. I walked back to the house around five. I'd been over at the market and I was carrying the shopping basket as well as my purse. There wasn't as much to carry now that Jake wasn't there any more, which was just as well because the muscles in my left shoulder were aching, I hadn't been keeping up the exercises. The trees along the street had turned and the leaves were falling onto the sidewalk, yellow and brown, and I was thinking, Well, it's not so bad, I'm still alive.

My next-door neighbour, an old Chinese man whose name I didn't know, was tidying up his front yard. The yard in front of my house had been covered over with paving stones so you could park a car on it. That meant the street was going up rather than down, and in a few years I'd have to move; though I'd stopped thinking in years. My neighbour had pulled up the dead plants and was raking the earth into a raised oblong. In the spring he'd plant things I didn't know the names for. I remember thinking it was time I learned the names, if I was going to live there.

I did notice the cruiser, which they'd left beside a meter like any other car, no flashing lights, but it was a few doors away so I didn't pay much attention to it. You see more police cars down there than you might farther north.

The front door was open, which wasn't out of place on such a warm day. The downstairs neighbour, an old woman who isn't the landlady but behaves like one, has cats and likes to leave the outside door ajar so they can get in and go through the cat door. "Cat hole," Jake calls it; used to call it.

My own door at the top of the stairs was open too. There were people inside, men, I could hear them talking, and then a laugh. I couldn't think who it could be, it wasn't Jake, but whoever it was didn't seem to care who knew they were there. The key was under the mat where I always leave it, but the edge of the doorframe was splintered, the lock was shoved right out of it. I went into the livingroom, which was still piled with the boxes of books Jake had packed but not collected. Nothing had been moved. Through the kitchen doorway I could see feet and legs, shining feet, pressed legs.

Two policemen were sitting at the table. I had that quick rush of fear, late for school, caught on the boys' stairs, caught out. The only thing I could think of was that they were after the pot, but there were no drawers pulled open and the tea and coffee canisters were where they should be. Then I remembered that Jake had taken the whole stash with him. Why not? It was his. Anyway, surely they'd stopped worrying about that, everyone does it now, even the police, it's almost legal.

The younger one stood up, the older one didn't. He stayed sitting down, smiling up at me as if I'd come for a job interview.

You Miss Wilford? he asked. He didn't wait. You're damn lucky. He had a massive head, with the hair clipped short like a punker's. His was left over though, from sometime in the fifties: no green highlights.

Why? I said. What's the matter?

You've got good neighbours, the younger one said. He looked like a high-school gym teacher or a Baptist, about twenty-two, earnest and severe. The one downstairs. She was the one who phoned.

Was it a fire? I said. There was no sign of it, no smell.

The older one laughed. The other one didn't. No, he said. She heard footsteps up here and she knew it wasn't you, she saw you go out, and she didn't hear anyone go up the stairs. He jimmied open your kitchen window.

I put the shopping basket on the table; then I went and looked at the window, which was open about two feet. The white paint was scratched.

You could do it with a jackknife, he said. You should get those safety locks. He heard us coming and went back out through the window.

Did he take anything? I said.

You'll have to tell us that, said the older one.

The young one looked uneasy. We don't think he was a burglar, he said. He made himself a cup of Ovaltine. He was just waiting for you, I guess. There was a cup on the table, half full of something light brown. I felt sick: someone I didn't know had been in my kitchen, opening my refrigerator and my cupboards, humming to himself maybe, as if he lived there; as if he was an intimate.

What for? I said.

The older one stood up. He took up a lot of space in the kitchen. Take a look, he said, pleased with himself, in charge. He had a present he'd been saving up. He walked past me into the livingroom and then into the bedroom. I was glad I'd made the bed that morning: lately I hadn't always.

There was a length of rope coiled neatly on the quilt. It wasn't any special kind of rope, there was nothing lurid about it. It was off-white and medium thick. It could have been a clothesline.

All I could think of was a game we used to play, Detective or Clue, something like that. You had to guess three things: Mr. Green, in the conservatory, with a pipewrench; Miss Plum, in the kitchen, with a knife. Only I couldn't remember whether the name in the envelope was supposed to be the murderer's or the victim's. Miss Wilford, in the bedroom, with a rope.

He was just waiting for you, the younger one said behind me.

Drinking his Ovaltine, the big one said. He smiled down at me, watching my face, almost delighted, like an adult who's just said I told you so to some rash child with a skinned knee.

So you were lucky, the younger one said. He came past me and picked up the rope, carefully, as if it had germs. I could see now that he was older than I'd thought, he had anxious puckers around the eyes.

The big one opened the closet door, casually, as if he had every right. Two of Jake's suits were still hanging there.

You live alone, that right? the big one said.

I said yes.

These your pictures? said the big one, grinning.

No, I said. They belong to a friend of mine. The pictures were Jake's, he was supposed to take them away.

Quite a friend, said the big one.

He must've been watching you for a while, said the young one. He must've known when you'd get home. Any idea who it might be?

No, I said. I wanted to sit down. I thought of asking them if they wanted a beer.

Some nut, the big one said. If you knew what was walking around loose out there you'd never go out. You close the curtains in the bathroom when you take a shower?

There aren't any curtains in the bathroom, I said. There aren't any windows.

You close the curtains when you get dressed at night?

Yes, I said.

He'll be back, the young one said. That kind always comes back.

The big one wouldn't let up. You have men over here a lot? Different men?

He wanted it to be my fault, just a little, some indiscretion, some provocation. Next he would start lecturing me about locks, about living alone, about safety.

I close the curtains, I said. I don't have men over. I turn out the lights. I get undressed by myself, in the dark.

The big one smirked at me, he knew about single women, and suddenly I was angry. I unbuttoned my blouse and pulled my left arm out of the sleeve and dropped the slip strap over my shoulder.

What in hell are you doing? the big one said.

I want you to believe me, I said.

There's a two-hour stopover in Barbados, or so they tell her. Rennie finds the women's washroom in the new Muzak-slick airport and changes from her heavy clothes to a cotton dress. She examines her face in the mirror, checking for signs. In fact she looks quite well, she looks normal. Her dress is a washed-out blue, her face isn't too pale, she wears only enough makeup so she won't seem peculiar, a leftover hippie or a Plymouth Brethren or something like that. This is the effect she aims for, neutrality; she needs it for her work, as she used to tell Jake. Invisibility.

Take a chance, said Jake, during one of his campaigns to alter her, what was it that time? Purple satin with rhinestone spaghetti straps. Make a statement.

Other people make statements, she said. I just write them down.

That's a cop-out, said Jake. If you've got it, flaunt it.

Which God knows you do, said Rennie.

You're putting me down again, said Jake, affable, showing his teeth, flawless except for the long canines.

You're impossible to put down, said Rennie. That's why I love you.

In the washroom there's a blow-dryer for your hands, which claims to be a protection against disease. The instructions are in French as well as English, it's made in Canada. Rennie washes her hands and dries them under the blow-dryer. She's all in favour of protection against disease.

She thinks about what's behind her, what she cancelled or didn't bother to cancel. As for the apartment, she just shut the door with its shiny new lock and walked out, since out was where she needed to be. It gets easier and easier, dishes in the sink for two weeks, three weeks, only a little mould on them, she hardly even feels guilty any more; one of these days it may be permanent.

Rennie's lucky that she can manage these sidesteps, these small absences from real life; most people can't. She's not tied down, which is an advantage. It's a good thing she's versatile, and it helps to know people, in this case Keith. Keith has recently come across to Visor from Toronto Life. He's a contact of hers, which is not the same as a friend. While she was in the hospital she decided that most of her friends were really just contacts.

I want to go somewhere warm and very far away, she said.

Try the Courtyard Cafe, he said.

No, seriously, said Rennie. My life is the pits right now. I need a tan.

Want to do The Restless Caribbean? he said. So does everyone else.

Nothing political, she said. I can do you a good Fun in the Sun, with the wine lists and the tennis courts, I know what you like.

You finked out on the last piece I wanted you to do, said Keith. Anyway, you just came back from Mexico.

That was last year, she said. Come on, we're old buddies. I need some time out.

Keith sighed and then agreed, a little too quickly. Usually he haggled more. He must have heard about the operation; maybe he even knew about Jake leaving. He had that faint sick look in his eyes, as if he wanted to give her something, charity for instance. Rennie hates charity.

It's not a total freebie, she said. It's not as if I don't produce.

Pick an island, he said. Only it has to be someplace we haven't done. How about this one? A friend of mine went there, sort of by mistake. He says it's off the beaten track.

Rennie had never heard of it. Sounds great, she said. Ordinarily she would have done some homework, but she was in too much of a hurry. This time she's flying blind.

Rennie repacks her bag, stuffing her pantyhose into an outside pocket, the one with the clock. Then she goes to the restaurant, where everything is wicker, and orders a gin and tonic. She does not look long at the distant sea, which is too blue to be believable.

The restaurant isn't full. There are a few women alone and more in clutches, and a couple of families. There are no men by themselves. Men by themselves usually go to the bar. She knows, she's learned since Jake left, that if she spends much time gazing around the room with that slightly defiant stare adopted by women alone to indicate that they don't have to be, one of the other solitaries might join her. So instead she watches her hands and the ice cubes in her glass, which despite the air conditioning are melting almost at once.

When she goes to the gate she's told the plane is late. Lugging her bag and her camera bag, she walks among the kiosk shops: small black hand-sewn dolls, cigarette boxes and mirrors encrusted with shells, necklaces made from the teeth of sharks, porcupine fish, inflated and dried. A miniature five-piece steel band, mounted on a slab of driftwood, in which the players are toads. Looking more closely, she sees that the toads are real ones that have been stuffed and varnished. A long time ago she would have bought this monstrosity and sent it to someone for a joke.

Rennie is from Griswold, Ontario. Griswold is what they call her background. Though it's less like a background, a backdrop--picturesque red Victorian houses and autumn trees on a hillside in the distance--than a subground, something that can't be seen but is nevertheless there, full of gritty old rocks and buried stumps, worms and bones; nothing you'd want to go into. Those who'd lately been clamouring for roots had never seen a root up close, Rennie used to say. She had, and she'd rather be some other part of the plant.

In an earlier phase, Rennie used to tell jokes about Griswold to amuse her friends. Such as: How many people from Griswold does it take to change a lightbulb? The whole town. One to change it, ten to snoop, and the rest of them to discuss how sinful you are for wanting more light. Or: How many people from Griswold does it take to change a lightbulb? None. If the light goes out it's the will of God, and who are you to complain?

People from bigger places, Jake in particular, think that Griswold has an exotic and primitive charm. Rennie doesn't think this. Mostly she tries to avoid thinking about Griswold at all. Griswold, she hopes, is merely something she defines herself against.

Though it's not always so easy to get rid of Griswold. For instance: When Rennie saw the piece of rope on her bed, she knew what Griswold would have had to say about it. This is what happens to women like you. What can you expect, you deserve it. In Griswold everyone gets what they deserve. In Griswold everyone deserves the worst.

From the Paperback edition.

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Storm Glass
Excerpt

In December of 1889, as he was returning by gondola from the general vicinity of the Palazzo Manzoni, it occurred to Robert Browning that he was more than likely going to die soon. This revelation had nothing to do with either his advanced years or the state of his health. He was seventy-seven, a reasonably advanced age, but his physical condition was described by most of his acquaintances as vigorous and robust. He took a cold bath each morning and every afternoon insisted on a three-mile walk during which he performed small errands from a list his sister had made earlier in the day. He drank moderately and ate well. His mind was as quick and alert as ever.
 
Nevertheless, he knew he was going to die. He also had to admit that the idea had been with him for some time – two or three months at least. He was not a man to ignore symbols, especially when they carried personal messages. Now he had to acknowledge that the symbols were in the air as surely as winter. Perhaps, he speculated, a man carried the seeds of his death with him always, somewhere buried in his brain, like the face of a woman he is going to love. He leaned to one side, looked into the deep waters of the canal, and saw his own face reflected there. As broad and distinguished and cheerful as ever, health shining vigorously, robustly from his eyes – even in such a dark mirror.
 
Empty Gothic and Renaissance palaces floated on either
side of him like soiled pink dreams. Like sunsets with dirty faces, he mused, and then, pleased with the phrase, he reached into his jacket for his notebook, ink pot and pen. He had trouble recording the words, however, as the chill in the air had numbed his hands. Even the ink seemed affected by the cold, not flowing as smoothly as usual. He wrote slowly and deliberately, making sure to add the exact time and the location. Then he closed the book and returned it with the pen and pot to his pocket, where he curled and uncurled his right hand for some minutes until he felt the circulation return to normal. The celebrated Venetian dampness was much worse in winter, and Browning began to look forward to the fire at his son’s palazzo where they would be beginning to serve afternoon tea, perhaps, for his benefit, laced with rum.
 
A sudden wind scalloped the surface of the canal. Browning instinctively looked upwards. Some blue patches edged by ragged white clouds, behind them wisps of grey and then the solid dark strip of a storm front moving slowly up on the horizon. Such a disordered sky in this season. No solid, predictable blocks of weather with definite beginnings, definite endings. Every change in the atmosphere seemed an emotional response to something that had gone before. The light, too, harsh and metallic, not at all like the golden Venice of summer. There was something broken about all of it, torn. The sky, for instance, was like a damaged canvas. Pleased again by his own metaphorical thoughts, Browning considered reaching for the notebook. But the cold forced him to reject the idea before it had fully formed in his mind.
 
Instead, his thoughts moved lazily back to the place they had been when the notion of death so rudely interrupted them; back to the building he had just visited. Palazzo Manzoni. Bello, bello Palazzo Manzoni! The colourful marble medallions rolled across Browning’s inner eye, detached from their home on the Renaissance façade, and he began, at once, to reconstruct for the thousandth time the imaginary windows and balconies he had planned for the building’s restoration. In his daydreams the old poet had walked over the palace’s swollen marble floors and slept beneath its frescoed ceilings, lit fires underneath its sculptured mantels and entertained guests by the light of its chandeliers.
 
Surrounded by a small crowd of admirers he had read poetry aloud in the evenings, his voice echoing through the halls. No R.B. tonight, he had said to them, winking, Let’s have some real poetry. Then, moving modestly into the palace’s impressive library, he had selected a volume of Dante or Donne. But they had all discouraged him and it had never come to pass. Some of them said that the façade was seriously cracked and the foundations were far from sound. Others told him that the absentee owner would never part with it for anything resembling a fair price. Eventually, friends and family wore him down with their disapproval and, on their advice, he abandoned his daydream though he still made an effort to visit it, despite the fact that it was now damaged and empty and the glass in its windows was broken.
 
It was the same kind of frustration and melancholy that he associated with his night dreams of Asolo, the little hill town he had first seen (and then only at a distance), when he was twenty-six years old. Since that time, and for no rational reason, it had appeared over and over in the poet’s dreams as a destination on the horizon, one that, due to a variety of circumstances, he was never able to reach. Either his companions in the dream would persuade him to take an alternate route, or the road would be impassable, or he would awaken just as the town gate came into view, frustrated and out of sorts. “I’ve had my old Asolo dream again,” he would tell his sister at breakfast, “and it has no doubt ruined my work for the whole day.”
 
Then, just last summer, he had spent several months there at the home of a friend. The house was charming and the view of the valley delighted him. But, although he never once broke the well-established order that ruled the days of his life, a sense of unreality clouded his perceptions. He was visiting the memory of a dream with a major and important difference. He had reached the previously elusive hill town with practically no effort. Everything had proceeded according to plan. Thinking about this, under the December sky in Venice, Browning realized that he had known since then that it was only going to be a matter of time.
 
The gondola bumped against the steps of his son’s palazzo. Robert Browning climbed onto the terrace, paid the gondolier, and walked briskly inside.
 
Lying on the magnificent carved bed in his room, trying unsuccessfully to surrender himself to his regular pre-dinner nap, Robert Browning examined his knowledge like a stolen jewel he had coveted for years; turning it first this way, then that, imagining the reactions of his friends, what his future biographers would have to say about it all. He was pleased that he had prudently written his death poem at Asolo in direct response to having received a copy of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in the mail. How he detested that poem! What could Alfred have been thinking of when he wrote it? He had to admit, none the less, that to suggest that mourners restrain their sorrow, as Tennyson had, guarantees the floodgates of female tears will eventually burst open. His poem had, therefore, included similar sentiments, but without, he hoped, such obvious sentimentality. It was the final poem of his last manuscript which was now, mercifully, at the printers.
 
Something for the biographers and for the weeping maidens; those who had wept so copiously for his dear departed, though soon to be reinstated wife. Surely it was not too much to ask that they might shed a few tears for him as well, even if it was a more ordinary death, following, he winced to have to add, a fairly conventional life.
 
How had it all happened? He had placed himself in the centre of some of the world’s most exotic scenery and had then lived his life there with the regularity of a copy clerk. A time for everything, everything in its time. Even when hunting for lizards in Asolo, an occupation he considered slightly exotic, he found he could predict the moment of their appearance; as if they knew he was searching for them and assembled their modest population at the sound of his footsteps. Even so, he was able to flush out only six or seven from a hedge of considerable length and these were, more often than not, of the same type. Once he thought he had seen a particularly strange lizard, large and lumpy, but it had turned out to be merely two of the ordinary sort, copulating.
 
Copulation. What sad dirge-like associations the word dredged up from the poet’s unconscious. All those Italians; those minstrels, dukes, princes, artists, and questionable monks whose voices had droned through Browning’s pen over the years. Why had they all been so endlessly obsessed with the subject? He could never understand or control it. And even now, one of them had appeared in full period costume in his imagination. A duke, no doubt, by the look of the yards of velvet which covered his person. He was reading a letter that was causing him a great deal of pain. Was it a letter from his mistress? A draught of poison waited on an intricately tooled small table to his left. Perhaps a pistol or a dagger as well, but in this light Browning could not quite tell. The man paced, paused, looked wistfully out the window as if waiting for someone he knew would never, ever appear. Very, very soon now he would begin to speak, to tell his story. His right hand passed nervously across his eyes. He turned to look directly at Robert Browning who, as always, was beginning to feel somewhat embarrassed.

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The Whirlpool
Excerpt

At Halstead in England, during the last half of the nineteenth century, employees at Courtauld Limited wove secret cloth on secret looms in secret factories. Warp, woof . . . warp, woof. Like makers of Venetian glass they were devoted to their craft and frightened of their masters. They took, therefore, the coveted recipe for crape with them to their graves. The Courtaulds held the monopoly in mourning garb; it was the key to their immense fortune, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that they kept it.
 
The workers – mute, humble, and underpaid – spent twelve hours a day, in hideous conditions, at their steam-powered looms pounding black silk threads into acres of unpleasant cloth. In ten years, enough crape had been produced to completely cover the province of Quebec. In twenty, the whole empire could have been wrapped; a depressing parcel with a black sheen.
 
Still, death being what it is, there was often not enough cloth to go around. After major epidemics, or during wars, women would be forced to have their mourning attire made of less prestigious fabrics; bombazine or, in desperation, black cotton or wool. Men never had this problem. The same black hat-band did well for each bereavement.
 
Real crape did not hang down in smooth, graceful folds like cotton. It did not cuddle like wool. It encased the female body, instead, in a suit of crumpled armour, tarnished to a dull black. It scraped at the neck and dug at the armpits. It clung to the limbs and rasped at the shoulder blades. It lacerated the spine if that series of bones ever dared to relax. And it smelled, always, of grave mud and sorrow.
 
In Niagara Falls, Canada, the undertaker’s widow, Maud Grady, was forced to wrap herself in real Courtauld crape. No cheap, comfortable imitations for her; she felt duty bound to set an example. The perfect symbol of animate deep mourning, she wore crimped crape for two full years, adding, when the first few months had passed, some jet beads and a small amount of fringe to her costume. Much of her average day was spent organizing the paraphernalia of bereavement: black parasol, black stockings, underwear edged in black ribbon, black-framed stationery, black ink making black words, black sealing wax, black veil, black bonnet tied under the chin in a menacing black bow. The child, too, she dressed in crape for the first six months, moving to greys and mauves when that period was over.
 
It hadn’t been at all pleasant. Apart from the physical discomfort, there was the accompanying fear of weather; of heat and of precipitation. The smallest bit of moisture, fog, or even minor amounts of perspiration would cause the colour of the fabric to bleed through to her skin until, some nights when she undressed, her body looked as if it had been the victim of a severe beating. For a while she made use of a smelly concoction of tartar and oxalic acid in an attempt to remove the stains. Finally, however, despite a liberal sprinkling of rosewater, her whole bedroom reeked of chemicals. At that point she decided to let the black marks on her skin accumulate. Who would know? Who would care? She could fix it all later, if she survived.
 
At night, she dreamed dreams about her dead husband. Often he appeared in the very bedroom where she slept to announce that he had just died and would be busy for the next few days embalming himself and arranging his own funeral. He always had a black band wound around his hat out of respect for his own passing and a look on his face of profound sorrow. Maud would offer him a cape made of crape but he would reject it, outright, as if it had been something intended for the opera. Guiltily, in the dream, after this refusal, Maud would once again drape the heavy material on her own shoulders realizing, as she did so, where it rightfully belonged.
 
He walked through her dreams in a shroud of thick webs. There was nothing ghoulish about this, nothing even surprising. Apart from the art of embalming, his only interest had been in the habits of spiders. During his short adulthood he had studied them obsessively, collecting members of the species, recording their activities in a growing series of notebooks.
 
After two or three months of widowhood and strange dreams, Maud decided to have an elaborate brooch made out of a lock of her husband’s hair, his dead hair; an oval frame of gold would surround two desolate hairy willows which would, in turn, flank a hairy tombstone with his initials on it. All of this was to be placed under a bubble of thin glass; a sort of transparent barrier between that tiny hairy world of graves and weeping and the one that Maud walked around in every day. A barrier, but one that was easy enough to see through nonetheless.
 
Once the piece of jewellery was fabricated, she pinned it, after nightmares, at her gradually blackening throat each morning. Looking at herself and at the oval jewel in the centre of her collar in the mirror, she had to admit that one of the hairy willows looked remarkably like a spider that had been captured, chloroformed, and kept.
 
He had died on the same day as his parents. The epidemic, carried by him into the house after contact with a corpse, had spread like a fog into the three related sets of lungs, leaving Maud and the child (then two) completely untouched – not even a sniffle.
 
Maud, shock having cancelled fear, had nursed them all . . . had watched them die. She would always remember how the child stared from three separate doorways, his eyes widening when the convulsions set in. It simply had not occurred to her to remove him from the scene. Besides, there was no one to tend to him. The staff had decided to remain at home rather than risk the disease.
 
Oddly, she would also always remember the colours each of the dying faces had turned during the throes: Charles’ green; her mother-in-law’s red; and her father-in-law’s purple. Emotional, really, she had thought at the time, and quite in keeping with their personalities: Charles resigned; her mother-in-law flustered; her father-in-law furious with anything he couldn’t control. While one half of Maud’s brain turned to ice at the horror, the other remained curious and alert. Details, such as the way that hands picked at bedclothes or the way heads dented pillows, absorbed her. She found herself counting the number of seconds which passed between one dying breath and the next. Until there was no breath left at all.
 
All over town, behind shades drawn against the sun, people were dying. Maud knew the significance of the repetitive knocking at her door, knew parents and children were seeking the services of the undertaking establishment. She did not, could not, answer with three of her own dying upstairs and her heart inhabiting some other land where explanations were impossible. She found herself thinking of burial practices during medieval plagues; carts filled with bodies destined for huge, hastily dug pits. Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.
 
Charles died first. He inhaled deeply and smoothly, his first unlaboured breath for hours, opened his eyes, looked directly at Maud with an even gaze and, just as one heartbeat of hope reached her breast, he shrugged and disappeared, leaving behind a body that she hardly recognized.
 
His parents were more conventional. They gurgled and rattled appropriately before collapsing into absence. Maud left each of them alone, untouched, in their separate rooms with their eyes open.
 
Outside, the glorious weather of late spring continued as if nothing at all had changed – shadows of low, white, fluffy clouds on the garden and all the fruit trees in full bloom. For the first twelve hours after those dramatic morning deaths Maud spent her time at windows, the child near her skirts, silent, almost forgotten. She watched the yard all afternoon, noting how the sun moved, lending light to first one, then another of the flower-beds. The wind changed at some point and all the plants that had previously bent to the west began to bend to the east. Birds arrived and departed. A rabbit ate a third of the first crop of lettuce in the vegetable garden, unhurriedly, as if he knew he would not be disturbed.
 
In the early evening she walked into the sunroom at the opposite side of the house and looked down at the street, very empty now because of the epidemic. The breeze had picked up considerably and little whirlwinds of dust, mixed with a few petals from apple blossoms, moved quietly down Main Street. Most of the shops were closed and the rocking chairs on the verandah of Kick’s Hotel were all vacant. For a moment or two Maud wondered if she and the child were the sole survivors, if bedrooms all over town were filled with corpses. Then a streetcar rumbled into sight, occupied by three or four apparently healthy passengers.
 
She was still gazing through glass when the gas-lamps were lit. These sudden illuminations caused her to stir and stretch and begin to move around the house. Wandering from room to room of the building that had never belonged to her, lighting lamp after lamp, Maud stared at the possessions of her inlaws which, in their haphazard placement, had become a kind of testimonial to the rapidity of the disease. The account book open on the desk in the sunroom where Charles had left it, her father-in-law’s pipe resting in a bowl in the parlour, her mother-in-law’s unfinished embroidery, the needle halted in mid-stitch. She decided to visit, for the first time, the storage room at the back of the building where the strange, relatively new embalming equipment was kept. Just three years ago, Charles and his friend Sam had received an embalming certificate, each, from the school in Rochester. In order to avoid the inevitable loss of income that would be the result of Charles’ friend opening up his own business, the elder Mr. Grady had immediately hired him. Now Sam would be the only licensed embalmer in Canada.
 
In the small manufactory adjacent to the storage room, Maud examined coffins. She ran her hands along the smooth wood and downy velvet she had never dared to touch, wondering if Jas the carpenter had survived the sickness and, if so, what kind of boxes he would choose, or prepare, for her husband and inlaws upstairs. Humorous stories she had heard Charles repeat ran inexplicably through her mind: coffins too short or too narrow for certain individuals; dignified military officers with maggots crawling out of their ears; the time that Charles’ father had backed accidentally into a grave, smashing the coffin and causing even the most grief-stricken mourners to titter.
 
During that first long night, while the child slept, Maud brought every moveable source of light into the parlour and there, surrounded by scores of candles and several coal-oil lamps, she began to play the piano – loudly, fiercely. By four in the morning she had exhausted her entire repertoire; all of the Canadian Hymnal and the few pieces of classical music she had learned as a girl. At regular intervals she played and sang “God Save the Queen.” Once she rose from the piano bench to close the doors of the three rooms where her family lay. She didn’t, somehow, want to disturb them.
 
At six a.m., after playing the hymn “Unto the Hills” for the ninth time, Maud abruptly left the piano, washed her face, ran a comb hastily through her hair, and descended the staircase that led to the world. Soon she was at Sam the embalmer’s door, offering him a substantial raise in pay and a position as manager of the business. From there she went to the housekeeper’s, to Jas the carpenter, and to the home of the man her father-in-law had hired to help in the garden and in the stables. Her conversations with these individuals were terse, perfunctory. Everyone was dead, she said, except for her and the child. She intended to survive, and it was her wish that the business should continue as usual. If they did not want to retain their positions they should tell her now so that she could replace them. If, however, they wished to stay on they should report for work in exactly one hour.
 
The house looked entirely different to her when she returned, as if the colours of the upholstered furniture had deepened, as if the patterns in the wallpaper had become more pronounced during her short absence. When she entered the child’s room, vivid colour lithographs of harmless lambs and ponies seemed to leap at her from the walls in a menacing fashion. The child’s own little face among the bedclothes was so startlingly beautiful, so vehemently alive, even in sleep, that, for a minute or so, Maud was afraid to waken him. By seven-thirty, however, she had him dressed and in the kitchen. There she quickly located the utensils which, until that moment, had been touched only by the housekeeper. While the child attacked a plateful of toast and jam and swallowed mugfuls of milk, Maud fixed herself a cup of strong coffee.
 
Half an hour later she was walking down the long, dark hall, past the three separate doors, into the brightness of the sunroom. She situated herself at Charles’ desk in front of the open ledger. She flipped up the silver lid of his inkwell and lifted his pen in her hand.
 
When at the end of the morning she heard the men climb the stairs with their canvas stretchers, she leaned back exhausted in her husband’s chair and surveyed her labours. She was amazed to see that she had brought the account book almost entirely up to date.
 
Today, exactly two years after the fatal date, was her first of halfmourning. Maud was able, therefore, to dress herself in a black and white cotton stripe, with long sleeves and a high neck, not neglecting, of course, the special brooch. She sat now in the sunroom, surrounded by the pungent aroma of the tartar and oxalic acid, which she had been scrubbing into her skin for most of the morning. The results had not been entirely satisfactory but she had succeeded, at last, in turning her upper torso from mottled black to spotty grey. Short of removing two layers of skin, she knew she would have to stop there for the time being.
 
She leaned back in the chair and felt the uncorseted part of her back respond to the cool cotton. Her greatest joy would come in the afternoon when, veilless, she would venture into the streets to do a few errands. For the past two years she had looked at the world beyond her walls through the permanent cloud of her black veil, occasionally latticed, when the wind blew them to the front, by the black ribbons, or weepers, from her oppressive bonnet. Not that she had gone far. Crape was not made for strolling about in. It clung to her blackstockinged thighs (her petticoat was made of the same fabric), while the weepers stuck to the material around her shoulders, making it impossible for her to move her head. This, combined with the partial blindness caused by the veil, had led her, more than once, into the path of an oncoming streetcar or carriage. Had it not been for her acute sense of hearing she might have joined her husband in Drummond Hill Cemetery months ago.
 
Just as she had done for the past two years, she was spending the morning working on accounts. But now she held the pen as easily as a teaspoon in her hand, and the scratch, scratch of the nib was as familiar as the sound of her own breathing. The dreams had subsided; Charles visiting her bedroom, now, only once or twice a month. It was as though he was forgetting her, she thought, rather irrationally, for, in truth, she was forgetting him. Not their time together but his physical actuality.
 
She could no longer bring his face clearly into her mind. As time went by, in fact, Maud found it more and more difficult to believe that she had ever been married at all, more and more difficult to believe that the pen she held in her hand had not always been her own.
 
Disaster had not disappeared, but it had diminished in size, had become, in a sense, manageable; no larger than the words one might use to describe it.

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The Blind Assassin
Excerpt

THE BRIDGE

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.

I was informed of the accident by a policeman: the car was mine, and they’d traced the licence. His tone was respectful: no doubt he recognized Richard’s name. He said the tires may have caught on a streetcar track or the brakes may have failed, but he also felt bound to inform me that two witnesses – a retired lawyer and a bank teller, dependable people – had claimed to have seen the whole thing. They’d said Laura had turned the car sharply and deliberately, and had plunged off the bridge with no more fuss than stepping off a curb. They’d noticed her hands on the wheel because of the white gloves she’d been wearing.

It wasn’t the brakes, I thought. She had her reasons. Not that they were ever the same as anybody else's reasons. She was completely ruthless in that way.

“I suppose you want someone to identify her,” I said. “I’ll come down as soon as I can.” I could hear the calmness of my own voice, as if from a distance. In reality I could barely get the words out; my mouth was numb, my entire face was rigid with pain. I felt as if I’d been to the dentist. I was furious with Laura for what she’d done, but also with the policeman for implying that she’d done it. A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.

“I’m afraid there will be an inquest, Mrs. Griffen,” he said.

“Naturally,” I said. “But it was an accident. My sister was never a good driver.”

I could picture the smooth oval of Laura’s face, her neatly pinned chignon, the dress she would have been wearing: a shirtwaist with a small rounded collar, in a sober colour – navy blue or steel grey or hospital-corridor green. Penitential colours – less like something she’d chosen to put on than like something she’d been locked up in. Her solemn half-smile; the amazed lift of her eyebrows, as if she were admiring the view.

The white gloves: a Pontius Pilate gesture. She was washing her hands of me. Of all of us.

What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge, then hung suspended in the afternoon sunlight, glinting like a dragonfly for that one instant of held breath before the plummet? Of Alex, of Richard, of bad faith, of our father and his wreckage; of God, perhaps, and her fatal, triangular bargain. Or of the stack of cheap school exercise books that she must have hidden that very morning, in the bureau drawer where I kept my stockings, knowing I would be the one to find them.

When the policeman had gone I went upstairs to change. To visit the morgue I would need gloves, and a hat with a veil. Something to cover the eyes. There might be reporters. I would have to call a taxi. Also I ought to warn Richard, at his office: he would wish to have a statement of grief prepared. I went into my dressing room: I would need black, and a handkerchief.

I opened the drawer, I saw the notebooks. I undid the crisscross of kitchen string that tied them together. I noticed that my teeth were chattering, and that I was cold all over. I must be in shock, I decided.

What I remembered then was Reenie, from when we were little. It was Reenie who’d done the bandaging, of scrapes and cuts and minor injuries: Mother might be resting, or doing good deeds elsewhere, but Reenie was always there. She’d scoop us up and sit us on the white enamel kitchen table, alongside the pie dough she was rolling out or the chicken she was cutting up or the fish she was gutting, and give us a lump of brown sugar to get us to close our mouths. Tell me where it hurts, she’d say. Stop howling. Just calm down and show me where.

But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.

From the Hardcover edition.

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