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 PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
38:4
CONTEMPORARY
WRITING
AROUND
WORLD
1 999   FICTION   CONTEST   WINNERS
SUMMER   ZODD  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
/QQQ SHORT FICTION
CONTEST WINNERS
GRAND PRIZE - $2,000
"A Narrow Fast Current"
Kate Small, Portland, OR, USA
2nd PRIZE - $350
"Religious Knowledge"
Cynthia Flood, Vancouver, British Columbia
3rd PRIZE - $250
"Machaya"
Heather Birrell, Toronto, Ontario
RUNNERS-UP - $200 each
"Life Skills"
Jan Thornhill, Havelock, Ontario
"Rhymes with Useless"
Terence Young, Victoria, British Columbia  PRI/M
INTERNATIONAL
Editors
Jennica Harper
Kiera Miller
Business Manager    Executive Editor
Belinda Bruce    LaishaRosnau
Advisory Editors    Associate Editors
George McWhirter    Chris Labonte
Bryan Wade   Andrea MacPherson
Residency Prize Coordinator    Editorial Assistant
Steve Galloway    Nancy Lee
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Elizabeth Bachinsky
Charlotte Gill
Nancy Lee
Anthony Schrag
First Readers    Second Readers
David Anderson
Anosh Irani
Doretta Lau
Cristina Panglinan
Hannah Roman
Clayton Mackee
Theo Armstrong
Amanda Burrus
Catharine Chen
Karin Gray
Kuldip Gill
Stephanie Maricevic
Pam Galloway PRISM international, a magazine of contemporary writing, is published four times
per year by the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, BC, V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, MI, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation,
New York, NY. The magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals
Index.
E-mail: prism@interchange.ubc.ca
Website: www.arts.ubc.ca/prism
Contents Copyright © 2000 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover illustration: Untitled, by Maria Capolongo.
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and institution subscriptions $27.00; two-year subscriptions $40.00; sample copy
$5.00. Canadians add 7% G.S.T.
All manuscripts should be sent to the Editors at the above address. Manuscripts
should be accompanied by a self-addressed envelope with Canadian stamps or
International Reply Coupons. If requested, Editors will reply by e-mail. Manuscripts with insufficient return postage will be held for six months and then
discarded. Translations should be accompanied by a copy of the work(s) in the
original language. The Advisory Editors are not responsible for individual selections, but for the magazine's overall mandate including continuity, quality and
budgetary obligations.
PRISM international purchases First North American Serial Rights for $40.00
per page for poetry and $20.00 per page for other genres. Contributors receive
a one-year subscription. PRISM international also purchases limited digital rights
for selected work, for which it pays an additional $10.00 per page.
Our gratitude to Dean Alan Tully and the Dean of Arts Office at the University
of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council ($16,500)
and the Government of British Columbia through the Ministry of Small
Business, Tourism and Culture.
Publications Mail Registration No. 08867. August 2000. ISSN 0032.8790
A
BRITISH
COLUMBIA
The Canada Council     Le Conseii. des Arts WT^^^^m}       AKI J  V_>OU]NC^lL
FOR THE ARTS      DU Canada Supported by the Province of British Columbia
SINCE 1957 Contents
Vol. 38, No. 4 Summer 2000
7QQQ SHORT FICTION
CONTEST WINNERS
Zsuzsi Gartner
Judge's Essay
Meals on Wheels   7
Kate Small
Cynthia Flood
Heather Birrell
Jan Thornhill
Terence Young
Marika Deliyannides
Fiction
A Narrow Fast Current   9
Religious Knowledge   18
Machaya   32
Life Skills  49
Rhymes with Useless   59
Tracks   69
Contributors    76  Zsuzsi Gartner
Meals on Wheels
"To the mind, the short story is the French Resistance,
it is the Red Cross, it is Greenpeace, it is Meals on Wheels."
—American short-story-writer extraordinaire, Lorrie Moore
What is a short story?"an older man in my continuing-ed fiction
workshop a few years back demanded during our first session,
as if once he had tucked a definition safely into his pocket like a
handkerchief he could get down to the messy business of writing a story. I
felt like trilling, in the manner of the nuns in The Sound of Music,"... how do
you catch a cloud and pin it down!"The thing is, if you need to ask...
What I did say to him was read. Read fifty, a hundred, five hundred short
stories, and ask yourself, what is it about the good ones, the ones that make
your insides leap, mind race, and heart contract? This just made him angry.
He wanted rules. He wanted epiphany-by-numbers. He wanted English
101.
Oh, there are rules. That is, until someone comes along and breaks
them, or conversely, does the same old thing yet through some sleight of
hand makes it new. All good short story writers know they must reinvent
the form every time they sit down in front of the black page or screen.
I happen to think that a great short story has no evil twin. California
writer Kate Small's "A Narrow Fast Current" is a story of such breathtaking
originality—combining elements as seemingly diverse as the NRA and Ted
Nugent, love, plastic surgery, and WWII-era Japanese-American internment
camps—and told in such an odd, intelligent and subversively humourous
voice, that I found my mind and heart jitterbugging as I read it. The story
itself is a narrow fast current, saying follow we, and I found it impossible to
resist.
There were two other stories of such emotional intelligence and linguistic verve that I badgered the editors of PRISM to break the rules (those
damn rules again!) and allow for a second and third place, instead of the
usual equally weighted five runners-up. And they graciously agreed.
Vancouverite Cynthia Hood's second-prize "Religious Knowledge" is a
morally rich, almost cinematic story set in an all-girls boarding school in England in the early '50s where the atmosphere is rotten-ripe with sexual
repression. The third-prize story, "Machaya," by Torontonian Heather
Birrell, captures the complex inner-life of a young boy from Montreal,
vacationing in Florida with his mother, in a way that is both charming and
heartbreaking.
Still two more stories demanded recognition. The runner-up "Life Skills,"
by Ontario's Jan Thornhill, is brought alive by both its jaunty language and
its heroine, Alouetta, whose father has taught her to drive and shoot, but
little about the wiles of men. Victoria-based Terence Young's runner-up
story, "Rhymes With Useless," is a sly tale about a man revealing an incident from his past to his wife—told in a loose and easy manner, but with
delicious tension bristling at its edges.
What is a short story? Like that troublesome Maria who sent Rodgers
and Hammerstein's good sisters into a tizzy, it's not always what it appears
to be at first glance.
Read on. Kate Small
A Narrow Fast Current
My name is Hiroko Yamate. You have asked me to provide on the
occasion of my retirement some thoughts on my pursuit of excellence in marksmanship and my life as a Japanese American
woman. I have four children. Three sons, ages thirty-eight, thirty-six, and
thirty-three, and a surprise-daughter, age seventeen. I have a very attractive husband. We enjoy the true-crime programs, we enjoy a vigorous discussion of literature.
We met standing next to each other sewing tents and pajamas, flags and
awnings.
"I am reading early Edo prose," he yelled over the steam-press. "Ihara
Saibaku was the foremost master of this form." Like me, he is camp nisei.
What we know is Jack Benny and hit parade music. We know how to jitterbug, we know how to conserve toilet paper, and milk.
'What's the plot?" I ask him over the roar of the stitcher.
"Koshoku ichidaionna," he says. "It is an ironic look at a world of pleasure
and eroticism." These days my husband is reading about bamboo.
I am pleased to see so many of my pupils here this evening. You have all
heard me say, "One must practice several hours every day to be good at
Aikido, Karate or Judo—who has time? Get a gun." You also know of my
devotion to the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Like
you, these words make my heart beat faster, but I can conceal no longer my
worries regarding the dependent clause which precedes it: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state." I must confess,
this has echoed in my head for twenty years and I have turned away from
it, yet it haunts me like the chorus of a war-time popular song, bouncing off
concrete.
I must make several digressions in order to explain. I hope I do not bore
you. Perhaps I may offer as a model for my remarks, the musical form,/o-
ha-kyu, which is based on the wind: there is an introduction, a scattering
effect in the central section, a rushing effect near the end of the piece.
My mother was typical issei. She was pleased enough with the portrait of my father which she received in Japan, but as it mrned out, the picture was
fifteen years old, and falsely tinted. When she got off the boat from
Yokohama, there was on the dock an old man with tuberculosis waiting for
her.
My mother is a polite woman—she does not say she is grateful—but my
father's heart lasted only long enough for my conception. He died during
the separation of the loyal from the disloyal, during which my mother was
deemed dangerous by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and sent pregnant to the Tule Lake center, where she was employed plucking turkeys.
Later, when I was old enough, there was beet topping, fruit picking and
onions so sweet we stood in the field and bit them like apples. For years
however, my mother dreamt of turkeys, and the burlap sack she tied around
her waist, on which to wipe her hands.
My first memory after the fence was her bicycle. She bought it secondhand
for two dollars when I was six or seven. At night we went to the beach and
practiced riding. Nobody was there, so when we fell down we laughed out
loud. It was cold at night from the wind of the fast current, but we lay in the
wet sand and laughed. Once she could ride, my mother went to work cleaning houses and that's how we met my step-father, also camp nisei, a gardener. He was bald, but young and beautiful. He taught her the words.
"This is a broom," he said. "This is a dustpan." He would dry the dishes,
so that he could stand close enough to smell my mother's hair. He carried
pears and tangerines in his pockets.
"Should we learn to eat with spoons?" he asked her. After the fence all of
us ate much too fast, at first.
"It's not worth the dish-washing," she said, and she laughed the way we
did on the sand.
"Eat more slowly," he said. He wiped the juice off her chin.
She chose him herself, that is the point I wish to make. I am fortunate in my
mother's embrace of the American ideal of marriage. Ordinarily, issei view
love as something which might or might not evolve over the course of an
arranged union. Since I had no hashiakunin to choose for me, many rules
of marriage were left behind in the desert. This is why I am able to own so
many guns and shoot as much as I want. I am the warrior, and my husband
is not. He loves to go into the world with me, himself empty fisted, unarmed, because I do, I will. We savour this between us.
Perhaps you recall, in 1988, President Reagan signed a bill granting each of
the 120,000 surviving internees a tax-free payment of twenty-thousand
dollars and a letter of apology.
My husband's cheque came on a Tuesday, mine on a Saturday.
10 "What are you going to do with your twenty G's?" he asked me.
"Quit my job and invest," I said.
My husband put his check in his pocket, and attempted to fold Mr.
Reagan's letter into the shape of a strategic defense umbrella.
"That looks more like a spider," I said.
My husband balanced it on the fence to gauge its effect. "Or a squid," he
said.
I picked up a rock and threw it from fifteen yards; it broke through
the paper, and rammed the tattered remains into a pile of cow dung.
'You have good aim," my husband said, "you are very talented."
He bought me a gun, and for himself, a book of origami instructions.
But I am here to tell you I have hidden in the sanitary sphere of paper
shooting. I wish to narrate the four incidents which have brought this to my
attention. Please bear in mind the song structure I told you about. Japanese
music is of uneven phrase length, and the intricacies of the independent
drum rhythms tend to obscure the beat to Western ears.
Recently, my daughter asked me to purchase bigger breasts for her.
"And while I'm at it," she said, "how about a nose and eye job?" She
showed me a colour cosmetic surgery brochure from Johnson & Johnson
Pharmaceuticals.
'The surgeon will taper the thick round tip of my nose," my daughter
said. "The surgeon will build up my flat bridge with strips of cartilage." My
daughter is seventeen. "A simple slash along the eyelids to remove the fat
cells, and presto: my eyes will spring open double-lidded!"
Having raised three sons past their teenage years, I know this is not a
moment in which to piss her off. Etiquette is a folk custom; most people
have emotional ties to the forms of their youth. That is one reason why
there is such hostility between generations in times of rapid change. I tell
her I will think about it.
I have a dream that night. A surgeon is about to cut into my daughter's face
on a gray winter morning. Lights glare, my daughter lies draped on a stainless-steel table. Shiny tools rustle in trays, the sound of knives and forks
pushing chopsticks under a house. My daughter's neck is long and exposed. I see her shivering under her sheet in the air-conditioning. I wonder
if the anesthetic has reached her brain. I want to cry out.
"The Japanese nose has no definition," the surgeon says. "The Japanese
eye looks dark and tired." The surgeon pencils black lines on my daughter's seventeen-year-old face. I struggle to stand. I will stab the surgeon
with her own tools. But I am frozen and the surgeon cuts the upper eyelid,
the surgeon slits the nostril, carves cartilage, bone and tissue. The eyes will
11 be round, the nose pudgy, my daughter will wake up and claw herself.
Shikata ga nai, It can't be helped, I think in the dream. I feel a deep sloppy
grief I cannot stanch, and wake up reaching for my gun.
"I am troubled," I say to my husband. He gets up to make me a grilled-
cheese sandwich. This is the first incident.
Shortly thereafter, I go to a shooting competition. I am booked in a hotel,
which, I discover, provides free pornographic movies. I do not object to
pornography, it has its place and a long and sophisticated history. But this
one is called Samurai Revenge, and a man on a horse is raping a village
maiden. I find that I want to shoot the television. This is the second incident.
We in the NRA are ignored when we point out that people defending themselves kill three times more attackers and criminals than the police do. We
believe a firearm, intelligently wielded, can provide an elegant measure of
safety. But it is that proviso, intelligently wielded, which is the trouble. This
brings me to the third incident.
Here I will read from a letter of January 18th, 1999, written by Mr. Ted
Nugent, to John Snobelen, Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources, who,
three days earlier, canceled the Province's Spring Bear Hunt after pressure
from various hysterical extremist animal-rights groups. Mr. Nugent, my
daughter tells me, is an interesting and stylish Rock Musician.
Mr. Snobelen:
Ending Ontario's spring 1999 bear harvest is an insult to anyone who truly cares about a healthy, balanced wild. There is no
excuse for this nonsense. Giving credence to the rantings of a lunatic fringe of animal terrorists is nothing short of a sin.
Let it be known that as the president, director, chairman, or
lifetime member of nearly every sporting/conservation organization in North America, my family and these organizations, forthwith, will dedicate our every waking hour to boycotting Canada. We
will rally all spotters and all citizens to avoid Canada like the
plague. After this gesture of buffoonery, we refuse to tolerate any
more indecency. No walleye fishermen, no pike, no trout, no salmon,
no waterfowl, no deer, moose, bear, caribou, topless bars, casinos.
It's over.
Keeping the spirit of the Wild Strong and Free,
Ted Nugent.
12 Let us examine this letter. You may recall that in my speech last year to
Congress regarding child safety locks, I discussed the writings of Jose
Ortega y Gasset. "Death," he says, "is a sign of reality in hunting. One
does not hunt in order to kill, on the contrary, one kills in order to have
hunted." Many of us in the NRA have tried to live this philosophy. On
the occasion of my speech, I merely added this thought: it is truly an
American spirit which reverses the Ghandian doctrine of non-possession: Alive, the beast belongs only to itself. Safety locks are an obstacle
to the patriotic frontier urge, to get as many as we can.
Mr. Nugent vitally exemplifies this creed. And yet, there are rhetorical
constructions made by our ardent supporter which are, perhaps, best left
unexamined. Let me say, simply, I am struck by the juxtaposition of caribou, to breasts. I find that I want to blow Mr. Nugent's toes off with a shotgun—I want to see him fall from the branches so that he may be torn apart
by his own pre-starved dogs. I want to see this myself, like so much nature
footage in his rock-and-roll videos.
"I am troubled by these thoughts," I tell my husband. "I am sorry to tell
you, I want to stuff Mr. Nugent into one of his immense coolers full of beer
and body parts."
My husband brushes my hair and pours me a cup of warm plum wine.
Here is the fourth incident. I drove my daughter home from a basketball
game recently. A car with bright lights squeezed us against the railing of a
narrow steel bridge. I was reminded of the floodlights of the sentry towers
of my early childhood. Four men emerged from the car and the locked
door between them and my daughter looked thin as gauze.
"Moon face," one of them said to my daughter through the window. He
shined a flashlight into her eyes, then down upon her thighs.
I buzzed my window down four inches. "Please let us pass," I said politely, but one of the men replied by urinating on the hood of my Volvo.
I drew my pistol from my purse, and pointed it at the man's penis. Pants
were zipped up, doors were opened, the men drove away.
I believe this incident illustrates several principles. The men's response to
the request of a polite woman was to use their size and penises to inspire
fear. The gun was a response in the same language—indeed, it is a concise
universal symbol. For a moment I was pleased, gratified with the weight
and precision of the reduced thing in my hand, it changed the balance of
power.
But that night as my husband and I watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,
I thought what if they'd had guns, and why didn't they, since we mostly do?
The primary fallacy of the NRA, I believe, is that it assumes that everyone has manners. You, as I do, pledge your belief in personal responsibility,
13 moral and ethical conduct. But acceptable social behavior does not follow effortlessly from personal virtue, especially for American men.
Here I must confess I sometimes miss the language my mother lost,
particularly its extensive use of honorific forms. Unlike Japan, where many
forms of etiquette are employed to disguise the antipathies which arise
from irreconcilable differences in order to prevent mayhem, we in America
do not believe in a civil code of conduct, because, as Mr. Nugent says, it
would prevent us from keeping the spirit of the wild strong and free. And
yet, that night on the bridge, the patriotic absence of manners left those
citizens standing naked, the mores of their individual exposed like a worm
in the moonlight. I did not wish to see the mores of the man peeing on my
Volvo, just as I did not wish to see his penis.
In theory, a handgun might be likened to a car: both are tools, both can be
lethal if used improperly. We at the NRA favour this sort of rational analysis.
Unfortunately it is a false comparison, because it only applies to women.
Full of great frontier urges, men only understand guns as instruments of
power—indeed, it is only natural that a man committing an attack is responding to deep historical imperatives far below the knowledge that he is
breaking the law, and, as we at the NRA are at pains to point out to the
public, laws are often artificial, un-American, and irrelevant. A true
outdoorsman does not weigh another's rights against his own before he
pulls the trigger, that is for women to do. So while I am nostalgic about the
time-honored tradition of giving a boy his first Daisy Red Rider BB gun on
the occasion of his ninth birthday, I believe this is like giving the gift of
candles and gasoline to a pyromaniac tot.
For some time I have wondered whether we should adopt a system of
gun-ownership based on gender. My husband points out that most great
Samurai literature of the 11th century was written by aristocratic women.
Foremost among them was Marasaki Shikibu, whose Genji monogatari
has been translated into forty-three languages and is ranked with the world's
great novels. You should read it. And I hope you will forgive me if I say out
loud what everyone here knows: not only do women view guns with more
caution than men, they make better shots.
But I have come to my senses. I have discovered as a result of the four
incidents that I could shoot someone completely irrationally, like you. And
like you, I believe that the right to bear arms is the most important part of
our American heritage, I believe in a government that remains within the
constraints placed upon it by the constitution.
Let us consider, therefore, some particularities of that great document's
language. Like Ki No Tsurayuki in his diary Tosa Nikki of 936,1 will be
blunt: if we examine the other clause of the Second Amendment, it neces-
14 sarily leaves many of us, including myself, unarmed.
"A Well Regulated Militia": Does this not mean, any person who
chooses to possess a firearm of any kind—any person who is not already a
member of the police or the military or some other government agency,
would be obliged to enroll in a rigorous citizen's Militia for the service
for a variety of urgent civil duties?
We have seen the American male is restrained by fussy artificial gun
laws about as effectively as a tsunami is stopped by a beach-front motel.
Such a militia would require, therefore, exceptionally rigorous training. Let
history be our guide:
All units of such a militia should be decamped to compounds—fairgrounds, racetracks, and other uninhabitable spaces of the interior—that
they may learn maximum resilience in extreme field conditions. Might I
recommend Topaz, Utah, Poston and Gilla River, Arizona, Amache, Colorado, Manzanar and Tule Lake, California, Heart Mountain, Wyoming,
Minidoka, Idaho, Denson and Rohwer, Arkansas. All of these are either
desolate deserts subject to dust storms and extreme temperatures, or
they are swampy lowlands, thereby offering varieties of training conditions. Once encamped, the militia will learn good marksmanship, and the
erection offences, walls, fortifications, towers, bivouacs and mobile hospitals. The militia will learn to dig: foxholes and trenches at first, then onions,
beets, and yams, potatoes, turnips, and carrots, for the sustenance of, not
only the militia community, but the entire west coast of the United States.
Their crops will be eaten by rabbits and ravaged by insects, but they will
plant again. The women among them will bear children in 114 degree heat,
they will carry their babies to fields so they may nurse them at the end of
each row of grapes and other truck-farm crops. Once old enough, their
children will haul rocks from the field and plant Christmas trees for the rest
of us. They will grow blueberries when there is water, possibly asparagus,
lilacs and crab apples in the good years. They will dream of angling in
streams in ponds with fish, but they will savor their guns instead. This work
will be advertised as a new opportunity for travel and education. They will
pluck turkeys. Militia members will understand that modern war and other
conflicts call for the regimentation and coordination of peoples and resources. Other conflicts maybe defined as: floods, earthquakes, drought,
fires, riots, hurricanes, looting, shortages, border disputes, immigration
disturbances, etc. In collaborating for their mutual survival, militia members
will \eaxngiri, which is obligation, omoiyari, which is empathy. When, upon
occasion, they merge with civilian populations, they will demonstrate humility and reticence—nomen no yo, we say in Japanese. The face is like a
mask.
During peace-times, and these will be defined as those intervals in which
no third world countries manufacture the instruments of chemicals or nu-
15 clear warfare, militia members will return to mining and lumbering, or
they will work in laundries, bathhouses and pool halls, boarding houses
and grocery stores. They will launch small enterprises, curio shops,
bakeries and plant nurseries. These will be relinquished, should any
subsequent internments be deemed necessary. If they have children,
these will be secretaries, typists, file clerks, beauticians and factory
workers—perhaps they will make pajamas, tents, and flags. Failure to
appear for any subsequent training exercises should, logically, result in
dismissal from the service, the forfeiture of badge, pay, and firearm,
possible court martial and imprisonment, in which event, let them drink
their sun through a chink in the prison wall. Each member of the militia
shall receive twenty-thousand dollars, payable forty years after the end
of conflict.
Yes, let us follow our Second Amendment to the letter, let us quote it with
the zeal we reserve for the First Amendment. Having done so myself, I
must now relinquish my own membership in this particular organization, as
well as my weapons, as I am not willing to service in a well-regulated militia.
Rather I choose, with my succulent husband, to raise ornamental cucumbers, and to bed with him in a small thicket of melons. We will sip sake and
discuss the subtleties of the Thirteenth Amendment, which, you may remember, is the one forbidding open and avowed slavery.
In truth, I will miss my guns. My hands and ears will ache for them. Even
with earphones, the explosion is exquisitely piercing. A bullet can be exact,
like the dot at the end of an American sentence, like the white space beyond a fine line of poetry. It has been a nice hobby. It has been, if I may offer
a metaphor, my tea ceremony: I have tried to isolate and understand each
of its movements. My mother was too tired to teach me that older art, but
shooting has centered the fine tissue of my eardrums. When I hold a gun in
two hands, when I look down the sight, I see a man on his bicycle carrying
a new pair of wooden clogs and a bag of tomatoes. He rides past a woman
mopping. She looks up at three parachutes. In the gap between detonation
and impact she thinks of the thousands of hibachi, filled with hot coals
which will become torches for their wood and paper houses. There is a
newspaper on her table, and, twenty seconds later, the black letters burn
out of the white field around them and down, through the table, and into the
mat on the floor. The woman watches men emerge from a flattened factory.
She sees their shirts are like the newspaper: the dark strips burn into the
skin, but the lighter strips hang in ribbons. She makes a note of what remains standing, handrails on bridges, pipes and poles, things which offered
minimum resistance. A strange black rain comes—black snot, balls of hot
liquid. She looks for the road but it's gone.
16 I have been proud to excel in so contemplative an art. You honor me. I
have saved all the charred holes of my target reports. I have accumulated six tall stacks, I have begun cutting them with scissors. I am assembling a pile of punctured squares. These I will assemble in a paper
quilt of holes. It will be nearly weightless, nearly nothing.
Some final thoughts about my daughter, and the youth of today. When she
was born, my husband named her Tsushima, and I did not object. Perhaps
you have heard of the kuroshio. It is the warm current of the Pacific Ocean,
off East Asia. 36 degrees north of it, the tsushima is the fast narrow current which pulls hard away from the main stream. The tsushima divides in
three: one arm flows toward Pearl Harbor, another into the sea of Japan.
The third flows northward, to join the Equatorial current. Dense fog develops along this last, and in it I see my daughter's cut bits of nose floating, and
picture brides scooping bowls of rice into their hungry selves.
"There is a Zen koan," I say to my daughter. "It asks, What was your face
like before you were born?'"
'Whatever," she says, "I'm getting a tattoo instead. Me and my whole
basketball team, the second we graduate."
"Ittaikan," my husband says, "it is the longing for oneness with a person
or group. Let's send her to horse-camp and go back to the desert." He
returns to his origami.
He is right. I am fifty-eight years old, and like him, I feel that one's
reward for a successful life should be the opportunity to avoid the people
one finds annoying.
My husband pours me a beer in a tall glass. He is planning a low, quiet
house with a series of open porches. "Let the sand blow through," he says,
"let it settle in the grooves of the moveable panels."
Perhaps this seems like a retreat or renunciation, but that is impossible,
everywhere is downwind now.
'We'll bring nothing but your quilt of holes," my husband says. 'We will
lie naked under it and suspend it in the air above us with our breath." My
husband is a cheerful man. I will go with him. I will watch the moody circulations of the north continent tsushima kick up the dust, look at the desert
without a fence, and taste it in my mouth.
17 Cynthia Flood
Religious Knowledge
"£"^1 illy old virgin and martyr"—thus St. Cecilia is designated at St.
^V Mildred's. Her Day, the twenty-second of November, in 1953 falls on
^J a Sunday. A weak sun shines. As always, early morning brings peace
to Miss Flower, especially after the night's tumultuous quest. Before matins she readies herself, spiritually and as a teacher, for the week. As her
own Bible study this term Miss Flower has chosen Corinthians 1:13. Charity suffereth long, and is kind—she writes out this and other verses to stash
in pockets, handbag, prayerbook.
After Lights Out in the dormitory on Sunday, the ritual of St. Cecilia's
Dirty Night will unfold. "Just wait until Dirty Night!" For weeks Amanda and
Helen have heard rumours and snickers and odd pleasurable sighs. "On
Dirty Night, you'll see!" Amanda wants to discuss and speculate, but Helen
is silent.
Charity envieth not, Miss Flower writes neatly.
That night in the dark dormitory, on her back, Amanda Ellis lies naked.
She gets an early turn, being one of the youngest.
Sunday mornings are also for devotional reading, the adjective used
liberally: Richardson's Preface to Bible Study, novels by Rose Macaulay,
Elizabeth Goudge's God So Loved the World. At Screwtape Miss Flower
titters anxiously. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is more to her
liking.
Late November, the dormitory unheated—but the torches flashlights
held by other naked girls warm Amanda's thighs. Her smooth private skin
feels light, embarrassment, pleasure, fear.
Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.
Someone holds Amanda open. Fingers go inside a place she did not
know of. To expand the view, someone holds a pocket-mirror.
More daringly, Miss Flower attempts Little Gidding but is quite dismayed and lends it to Mr. Greene in hopes he may explain it to her and
notice her blue eyes.
Next in the drama, Amanda must walk down the aisle between the beds
crowded with naked watching girls. Her heart bangs. The spots where her
breasts haven't yet appeared feel huge, while the small territory between
her legs, to date used only for peeing and number two, has swollen into a
giant three-spouted delta. With Murder in the Cathedral Miss Flower does better; there is proper
history, after all, under all that poetry.
Bulging globes of flesh are Amanda's tummy and bum. The dormitory is
one absorbed stare, though not urgently breathless as when pretty Tessa
and prettier Rose glide by the peering beds.
At the invitation of Miss Gregson, Science, Miss Flower even attends a
local performance of Murder. She is upset, thrilled, puzzled. (Miss Pruitt,
Literature and Composition, does not go, having read Eliot's work and found
it in very poor taste)
When it is Helen Hepworth's turn for centre stage, Amanda squeezes
her hand. It's slick and cold. Dew gleams on her white forehead; paleface,
Amanda teases her when they play Indians in the beechwood. Helen gasps
as the torch-beams touch her eyes.
Miss Flower studies today's appointed Lessons, turning with relief from
Ecclesiastes' gloom and Malachi's curses to Paul, who delivers for the
Hebrews a paean to faith's powers. Then in prayer she rededicates herself
as a teacher. The Third Form is to study a few of the Forty-Nine Articles.
"Please ask questions," Miss Flower whispers earnestly, rehearsing her
introduction.
Helen Hepworth has knotted the cord other dressing-gown, and when
the girls snatch at the tassels she slaps them.
Miss Flower lays Bible and prayerbook aside. In watery sunlight before
the mirror she brushes her hair—thin, feathery. (Later in life Miss Flower
thinks A perm might help and then, correctly, that her crimped head looks
unnatural. Girls giggle.)
Savagely Helen kicks at the girls crowded round her.
Beholding herself in the glass, Miss Flower raises a frilled blouse on its
hanger before her slight frame.
By the time the girls peel that first layer of fabric off Helen's body, she
is biting and scratching as well as kicking.
City of mirrors. In Paul's writing days, that was Corinth. Burnished metal
the mirrors were then and shimmered softly, not firing back these sharp
reflections. Miss Flower lowers the frills and sees her white cotton chest.
At the memory of how her hands touched that bosom while on quest last
night, a blush rises. She raises a plain v-neck blouse and checks the mirror.
Under Helen's pyjamas are her knickers and vest. Her shoes, doubly
and triply knotted, still hold her feet. Bigger girls, more girls move in to
control Helen and strip her.
Yes, this blouse is more modest Quickly buttoning, Miss Flower refuses
to recall where these fingers went last night.
When hands at last slip under fabric onto Helen's struggling flesh, she
shrieks so loudly that one girl, startled, falls back against a bedstead to split
her lip and crack a tooth.
19 Miss Flower hopes that after general confession she may approach the
communion rail inoffensively. She garters her hated lisle stockings. Oh for
nylons! On go her grey coat and skirt.
Helen shrieks again.
At matins Miss Flower receives the wafer and wine, at noon eats mutton
and boiled kale and roly-poly pudding.
For an hour she supervises the Third Form while the girls write their
weekly letter home. This is a new duty; she watches the girls, some smiling
as their nibs race, others labouring. Miss Flower writes too. She uses a
larger script and leaves wide margins, and thus fills out the blue Basildon
Bond.
.. .yesterday at tea Kate Gregson showed her holiday snaps from
Donegal and the Aran Isles. I told her of the old Druidic beliefs, there
and here in England. Mr. Greene is in School just now; he had a good
deal to say about Stonehenge.
This week we will be choosing the girls for the Lower School's
Nativity Play. Miss Hodgson suggests that our Canadian girl, Amanda,
be Narrator, in spite of her accent, or perhaps indeed because of it,
since the Commonwealth now...
What else, to her widowed mother? The weather. Love Elizabeth appears on the fourth sheet—and there's duty, done.
Helen shrieks madly piercingly unstoppably.
On this St. Cecilia's Day Amanda writes to her parents,
Probably I'll be Narrator. Then I'd be "essential to every scene,"
Miss Murdock says. Wouldn't you be proud?!!
In RK we are learning Articles. What a funny word. The Professor
writes Articles, doesn't he? Articles of clothing, article anything!!!
Cheese or chocolates. These ones are Of Both Kinds. Of Free Will. Of
the Unworthiness of Ministers. Of Baptism. Of the Civil Magistrates.
Funny!
Miss Flower notes the complete absence of humility and goes on to
Amanda's friend, Helen. She sighs, reading. A puzzle, this bright Helen
who slouches about indifferent to poor marks and athletic performance
and all criticism. Her prep is routinely lost. "She is not even a good liar!" Miss
Pruitt exclaims.
Dear Mother and Father, Thank you for your letter. It came on
Thursday. The weather has been quite nice. It has not rained much.
Today was roast beef and potatoes and carrots and steamed pudding.
20 The Fifth Form is going to see As You Like It Lucky! We won all our
matches this week. In Latin, we have begun the fifth declension. It is
hard. I hope you are well. Love from, Helen.
Helen's ungainly hand ekes out these seventy-three words to a third
page. At home, once, Miss Flower found a drawerful of her own school
letters with their patterned paragraphs, carefully kept by her mother. This
memory swells into a dark angry wave—then, too, Miss Flower hated
to go home—which overwhelms the questions her brain is trying to
raise about Helen's letter.
Helen shrieks. Throughout the dormitory building, mistresses hear
her cries.
Miss Flower collects the envelopes and the crisp aerogrammes for India, Malta, Burma. All are unsealed. The girls jostle out of the classroom,
and she reads every word they have written. Elsewhere in the School
other mistresses do likewise. Then the staff lick and seal, for no letters are
withheld from the post. 'We are guardians, not censors," says Miss Pringle,
Headmistress.
At Sunday tea in the Head's sitting-room all report on anything untoward
in the letters. Classics, Geography, and Games dominate these sessions;
Miss Flower feels Religious Knowledge's low status. Bitterly, it is her fault.
Strong Kate Gregson, Miss Lincoln in peacock blue and nylons—all would
listen, if they were RK! She is shy; no, weak; no, cowardly. Hear Miss Pringle
rap the table so the cups jump! "Look between the lines. Girls know many
ways to hide meaning." The Assistant Head takes notes while her spaniels,
Fred and Nelly, slobber at biscuits. Often no action ensues, for the Head
trusts greatly in Time the great healer, but sometimes a trunk call is placed
or a pupil summoned.
Helen shrieks. From chairs, from desks, from prayer, from lavatory
seats, from beds, mistresses rise.
Not everything untoward is reported. Once in a girl's letter Miss Gregson
reads, Mummy, make lemon pudding and be careful not to burn it. Metaphor bangs in her brain.
"Brilliant!" says Miss Flower. "I'd never have caught on."
Miss Gregson lights a candle, and lemon-juice writing under Waterman's
Blue tells all. St. Mildred's many-cubicled lavatories embarrass this child;
she cannot perform. She seeks out the few singleton water-closets, but
mean girls follow her and stand by the door calling names. "She doesn't
need any more publicity!" Miss Gregson exclaims, and proposes that she
and Miss Flower shoo the taunters away. They do, and deduct conduct
marks for loitering. "Problem solved, parents unalarmed!" Science boasts.
"And Miss P kept in the dark. Time the great do-nothing.1"
Helen's shrieks continue as the mistresses rush along the corridors
21 and rush in to shout amidst the naked shouting girls.
After Sunday supper, a solitary walk leads Miss Flower to evensong on
the BBC, cocoa, curlers, book, bed, and no questing.
Helen screams until Miss Barnes, Games, slaps a cold wet flannel across
her face.
Miss Flower has not arrived yet. In her room with soft music playing,
she is intent on the pages of The Man Who Would Be King.
Helen folds and falls.
When the uproar finally compels Miss Flower, the dormitory is all lit up.
Matron is everywhere at once. Limp on the floor, Helen stares unseeing, as
though she were someplace else. Miss Flower recoils, the child with the
split lip weeps and smears her face with red. Girls scramble for nighties,
plead with angry mistresses. Furious, Miss Lincoln has laddered a nylon.
Miss Flower is revolted by the hot hysteria and thinks With so many, lam
not needed here. She returns to Man and wireless.
Helen is carried off to the San by Classics and Geography. On Monday
the Third Form starts on Article X, On Free Will. Miss Flower tries not to
be annoyed at Amanda's many questions. Also on Monday, authority withdraws from the junior girls involved in Dirty Night their tuck-shop access
and hot water bottles on cold nights. Older girls lose pocket money and all
town privileges. Prefects' badges are cut from their tunics.
An extra bed is set up in the Dirty Night dormitory, and the mistresses
rotate supervision duty. Soberly the girls prepare for sleep. At Lights Out,
silence is immediate. Girls who wake to visit the loo feel uneasy because
the lump of Miss Maywood or the sprawl of Miss Pruitt looks alien, while in
the narrow girl-bed the adult herself feels strange.
In the San, Helen curls up with her face to the wall.
Repeatedly Miss Hodgson visits. 'What is wrong with you, Helen? For
goodness' sake, child!"
Matron, run off her feet with influenza cases, has neither time nor inclination to cajole this sulky girl to eat.
When Amanda visits, Helen sips Lucozade. From Morning Break Amanda
brings stale buns and to make her friend laugh tells about Canadian oddities
like Orange Crush, maple syrup, chocolate milk. Helen smiles but says
hardly anything. Amanda longs to talk about the puzzle of Article X but
instead brings her Indian box, so Helen can smell the sweetgrass and stroke
the bright quills.
Good tone in School will be most quickly restored if lessons and games
proceed as usual, Miss Pringle claims. 'To resume normal routine—that is
our aim." Her directive is congruent with Miss Flower's hope not to think of
Dirty Night. Earnestly she prepares lessons, trying to predict questions
about the Articles.
Routine. Her mother's response arrives.
22 ...Mr. Greene's age? Remember, men dislike women to exhibit
knowledge. As the most attractive of the younger mistresses you may
easily distinguish yourself. Remember, you are getting on.
Is it wise to feature a foreign accent in a traditionally English,
indeed sacred performance? Will it not distract?
You do not mention in what company Miss Gregson travelled.
Tramping about primitive islands does not sound very...
It is just as well that her mother has not seen Kate Gregson's holiday
snaps of a dozen youngish cyclists, women and men, wearing shorts and
picnicking on headlands and beaches—Fanad Head, Inishmor, Annagry.
They laugh. Their bicycles lie companionably nearby. None, Miss Flower
feels sure, is married or even engaged to any of the others. One photo
shows a caravan where wildly unkempt children cluster and grin at the
friends.
"Gypsies. Travellers." Then Miss Gregson asks cheerfully, "Care to
come along on our next jaunt, at Easter? Kerry this time, Dingle Bay, Lakes
of Killarney. Wonderful cycling, I'm told, and ruined cathedrals galore! You'd
be most welcome."
Miss Flower blushes, thanks, promises to think about it.
St. Clement's, St. Catherine's—the drear days come and go. Wintry rain
whips at legs; still Miss Flower longs for sleek nylons. Helen lies almost
speechless, but says when Amanda runs in breathless after hockey, 'You
smell of grass."
Amanda describes the smell of cedars and pines in Muskoka. Brittle as
spider-legs, needles cover earth and pink granite. 'You don't leave tracks.
There's no sound, either."
"If we were there, we could run away into the forest," Helen yearns. 'We
could be Indians."
No—unimaginable, an English girl, even this one, in Muskoka! Instead,
Amanda leans close. "Helen, why were you so scared at Dirty Night? Please
tell, I could help?"
Helen's freckles look like pepper on milk. Amanda does not ask again,
knowing her friend will turn away.
"In Yorkshire there are fells," Helen says. "They go so far away they
look like the ocean."
Helen grows thinner. At her substantial desk, Miss Pringle drafts a letter:
Dear Canon and Mrs. Hepworth, Although Helen may not be
writing home this week, there is no cause for alarm. Preparations for
the Nativity Play have been perhaps rather too demanding. She is
suffering I think from a little nervous strain and is resting in the
23 Sanatorium. Matron is confident that soon our Helen will be her
lively self once more, and we shall ensure that you hear from her then
in her own hand...
Miss Pringle sets this draft aside with another, to the parents of a new
girl who tried to hide a note in her letter home. Surely supervisory fingers
would not...? But they did, they did; Miss Pringle smiles. Homesickness,
she has written, is "always temporary." There is no cause for alarm. Soon
their daughter will learn to laugh at her own feelings.
Next day the Head hands the homesick boarder over to Miss Hodgson
for typing, but retains Helen. Time. Wait. See.
Helen lies staring in bed. Matron says, "The look on that girl would sour
milk."
Amanda sits by her friend and tells about Muskoka. In the bush that
begins at the end of the lane and goes on forever, the hot July air is sweetly
perfumed with raspberries.
Girls who cavorted naked on Dirty Night walk singly and clothed to the
Assistant Head's doggy-smell office. The spaniels sniff their feet as they
confess. Miss Hodgson, in the shorthand learned in her youth in glorious
London, transcribes. "Speak up, Angela," she says. "Pamela, go on." Then
Miss Hodgson summarizes all into one terrible tale and carries this to the
San.
Three times she asks Helen to describe her experience of Dirty Night.
Silence, three times.
Miss Hodgson reads aloud, to Helen's back. "In broad terms, do you
verify this?" The blanket moves. "I take that as confirmation." Miss Hodgson
puts her papers away. "The Head says you have been here quite long
enough, Helen. Tomorrow, Sunday, you will resume your place in School."
Helen lies curled up tight, her back to the door.
With a sigh Miss Hodgson sets her report on the Head's desk, and then
she takes her dogs for a rainy walk. Passing the Gym, she hears the Nativity Play in rehearsal. First sounds Amanda's voice, "Then said Mary unto
the angel." The Virgin whines, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a
man?" Fred and Nelly bark madly. Miss Murdock says, "Again. Not so loud,
Amanda!"
After rehearsal Amanda arrives at the San, ready to amuse Helen by
telling her how to disguise herself with sweet blackberry juices. Perhaps
then, Article X? But on seeing her friend's back, Amanda comes round the
bed and kneels.
"Helen?" Only the top of Helen's head is visible. Mousy—why is it bad to
have mousy hair? Helen's brown hair falls smooth as Muskoka stream-
water. She is sucking her thumb.
Amanda lays her head on the pillow. 'Tell me."
24 Murmuring, Helen pulls the covers over her head.
"What?" Amanda puts her ear where she thinks Helen's mouth is.
Through the cloth her friend speaks half-a-dozen words.
At ordinary tea, Amanda holds these ordinary words in her head. On
weekends white marge does not appear; the prefect divides sleek yellow
fat equally into thirteen chunks. The dark tea steams Amanda's glasses. At
prep, also ordinary, she forgets Helen's words while declining Latin nouns,
but in the long stomach-aching pauses of not knowing what on earth to do
with dreadful sums, Amanda writes down what Helen said. Each word is
common. In combination they appall. She erases.
That night in the dormitory Amanda stares into her mirror, wondering
how she can look so ordinary.
In letterwriting on the first Sunday in Advent, Miss Flower observes that
Helen droops. Subdued—but so is the whole School, still. The girl's pen
does move. And Helen is always pale.
Miss Flower reads Janet, Tessa, Helen, Rose, Amanda, Belinda... Then
frowning she riffles back to Helen's gangly script. But the Fifth saw^s You
Like It last spring; this term's Merry Wives hasn't opened. But the lacrosse
team's "utterly wet," hasn't won for weeks. Today—apple tart. Rain, all
week.
Examining every downstroke and linebreak of Helen's letter home, Miss
Flower notes the address in Yorkshire. There's a knock; the Canadian girl
is awkwardly at the door.
'Whatever do you mean, silly child, you can't say what Helen said?" To
avert tears, she offers a pen. Amanda writes.
Reading, Miss Flower flares scarlet from scalp to nipples. She stammers.
Waves of heat flow. She tucks the slip of paper deep in her prayerbook and
for reassurance touches Amanda's shoulders, "Leave it with me," the mistress says fearfully.
Amanda hears only the words. Relief, relief—her insides loosen so she
must run for the be before she goes to Helen.
To her surprise, Helen takes no interest.
"But Miss Flower said she'd..."
"You'll see." Listless, Helen does not want to play in the beechwood, so
Amanda tells about blueberries. On the hills sloping back from the lake,
you must look down to notice the low bushes with their blue load. The
berries are sweet but not sweet. Crushed, the fruit's a paste of blue and
green, red-flecked. 'You can play it's pemmican," and Amanda explains.
Helen smiles faintly. "How far into those hills can you go?"
'You don't need to go far. The berries are near. My mother makes pancakes with them..." But Helen has no appetite.
At tea in the Head's sitting-room Miss Flower reports on Helen's letter,
identical to last week's.
25 Miss Pringle: "Do you recall the earlier letter so exactly?" Her tone
expresses grave doubt.
Miss Lincoln: "Such laziness!"
Miss Pruitt: "She simply makes no effort at all."
Miss Murdock: "Although Helen has little to do in our Nativity Play, even
that little she does poorly."
Perhaps Miss Flower could go to the Assistant Head? But Miss Hodgson
exclaims, 'Why, I get Shakespeare's titles all mixed up! A little mistake?"
and gives her dogs more biscuits. This response is manifestly so silly that
Miss Flower almost groans.
"Fifth declension?" Miss Maywood's voice is tart. "Little liar! We shall be
lucky to finish the third by Christmas."
"Nothing in haste," pronounces Miss Pringle. "Next Sunday, we shall
see what we shall see."
Miss Gregson opens her mouth and closes it.
Of the other, what Amanda wrote, Miss Flower can't speak. Not before
so many, though her weakness shames her. It must wait.
After tea, as Science and Religious Knowledge walk to their rooms, Miss
Gregson mocks, "IEes/za//see/An imperial we." Agrudging laugh. 'Temporal power. If there were lady knights in Murder in the Cathedral, Miss
Pringle'd fit right in."
"I didn't really understand what that play was about, Kate."
"Free will, I think"—but just now Science is not interested in that. "Hasn't
it occurred to Miss P that the parents will think it very odd, the same letter
twice?"
More often than that, Miss Flower fears but does not say. Feeling for her
room-key, she finds / will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.
Shame burns.
In her cosy arm-chair she opens The World My Wilderness, but in her
ears sound the only lines that have stayed with her from Murder, "the torn
girl trembling by the mill-stream," and 'This is the sign of the Church
always,/The sign of blood."
Miss Flower gets up to look in her mirror. Outside her window drip the
red rags of the beech-trees, To wear such colours! She must see the Head.
She imagines sunshine and herself in blue shorts, astride an Irish bicycle.
She must tell what Amanda has told. Her legs are nice, she thinks. She
may treat herself to nylon stockings at Christmas. She must show that
paper. Can she do it? Miss Flower longs to quest. To go to Ireland. Can
she choose to absent herself? Shorts, Mrs. Flower never even rolls up
her dress-sleeves (maroon, deep green, prune). At her side, Miss Flower
has always celebrated Easter.
By mid-week she still has not seen the Head. Surely Helen's parents will
write, wire? Someone will act. All will be well.
26 At table she notices a gap by Amanda's place. Others notice too. Helen,
found and rebuked, says mutinously, "I'm not hungry." Because she has
had rather a rough go, the matter is not pursued.
Amanda cannot imagine such a state. "I'll help you eat!" Helen makes a
face and shrugs, but when she does appear in Hall the friends giggle as
they shove beef gristle around their plates and push rabbit bones under
their cutlery. They sneak out bread and Marmite and apples, for playing
Eskimos. "A cache," and Amanda explains about crossing trackless snow
for days on end. As she listens to this tale, Helen's ennui falls away to
Amanda's relief. Miss Flower hasn't said a word. This silence distresses
her as much as Article X, but she can't say so to Helen.
Miss Flower hears from her mother:
.. .and soon you will be home. Of course I shall prepare, but I am
not as energetic as formerly. I need you for so many things!
LucindaJ is to join me for a few days. With so few old friends now,
I welcome her, yet guests are always a burden.
Prepare to be appalled at the Xmas decorations in the Parish
Hall! Mrs. Heath has got the ear of the new man, and support from
my committee has been lacking...
She sets this aside to reread a slip in her pocket. Charity rejoiceth not in
iniquity is probably a Pauline reference to the notorious sexual corruption
of Corinth. Questing would find a place in the city of mirrors, Miss Flower
fears; Paul would be furious, revolted; but she cannot stop, to her shame.
Another slip reads Charity rejoiceth in the truth. Helen has gone to
Matron. "She wants to come back to the San! Says she feels ill. Such lies!
Such nonsense!"
On Saturday Miss Flower takes her turn in the Dirty Night dormitory.
She observes on Helen's dressing-table a photo of an unremarkable man
and woman before a stone rectory. Beyond, the fells roll beautifully away.
She does not put in her curlers before the mirror. Instead Miss Flower
kneels and prays for strength, with her feathery hair sticking up between
her fingers. The girls, astonished at first, soon sleep. Miss Flower tries to
read, but through Descent of the Dove the Hepworths stare at her. The
mother's mouth turns down. Her stance sags. The Canon grins. Even now
that man may be polishing his sermon, and tomorrow morning in public he
will stand like Paul to speak in all authority.
On Sunday before breakfast Miss Flower goes to the Head to pour out
pity and anger and accusation.
'You take this"—Miss Pringle drops the slip of paper on her desk—
"seriously? You give credence to this document?"
"Helen writes gibberish, Miss Pringle, she is terrified, has lost a stone at
27 least, shocking, this explains her behaviour—"
"No, Miss Flower."
"But..."
'You fail to understand. It is my task to lead this School and to protect it.
Some little girls have played nasty games." The Head's fingertips dismiss
them. "But this, Miss Flower... Ours is a Church of England school. Do you
propose that I go before the Council of the Church Education Corporation,
to whom I am answerable, to say"—Miss Pringle takes a breath—"that I
believe a lying and undisciplined child who accuses her father, a clergyman,
of an unmentionable perversion? Do you know the term scandal? And how
it can destroy a School?"
As Miss Flower stumbles from the Head's study, Miss Hodgson tiptoes
fatly after her, a packet of sweet biscuits in hand.
"No, thank you."
"Helen was frightened on Dirty Night, Miss Flower. All the girls agree.
Her clothes..." In between mouthfuls of chocolate wafer, the Assistant
Head tells about Helen's knotted dressing-gown and shoes, her knickers
and vest, and describes how Helen struggled. "It was... as if she knew what
to fear."
'Tell me, Miss Hodgson, tell me what we can do?"
The Assistant Head's crumb-dotted face shows surprise. "Do?"
On this Sunday Miss Flower does not care that Our Lady was conceived
immaculate nor that the staff glance oddly as they move past her towards
the communion rail nor that her hair lies limp. In letterwriting, she can't set
pen to paper. Instead she reads in Britannica of Kerry's ruined monasteries, of a standing stone circle with cromlech such as she has never seen. Do
those chummy cyclists sleep under canvas irrespective of sex? She needs
shorts, a knapsack, boots. Would she look right? Sometimes Miss Flower
wants, even more than nylons, a girl's tunic or a nun's habit: a comely
sameness stating surely who its wearer is.
Miss Flower glances at Amanda's letter; little know-it-all, still fussing
about Of Free Will. Helen's is the same as before.
"Nothing to report," she says at tea. At that, does the Head relax just a
little? Later, in the privacy of her room Religious Knowledge at last confides
in Science.
Not for a moment does Kate Gregson doubt what a suffering child has
told her friend; for this, Miss Flower is grateful. Science rages at the Canon
and Miss Pringle. She deplores, commiserates, shakes her head.. .and then
has nothing more to say.
"Kate, what shall we do?"
"Be kind to Helen, of course! Hearten her. Comfort her."
Miss Flower gasps. "But Kate, we could get in touch with her mother.
We could go to the Council ourselves." Her voice shakes. "If we chose to,
28 we could do a lot of things."
Silence. Then Miss Gregson says, 'Two more years at St. Mildred's—
that's my target, Elizabeth. Not a word to Miss P, but I can hardly wait to be
off!" This is in a jolly tone.
"Off?"
"Oh Australia, Canada, Africa—anywhere still a bit wild. I've no plan,
really. Just away." She rises and smiles. "That's why I take these cheap
cycling hols, to save my pennies. Only two more years!" Kate is at the door.
That evening, alone, Miss Flower holds her pen poised so long that the
nib scrapes when at last she sets down Dear and a blot drops so she must
take a fresh sheet as the words rush out.
Dear Canon and Mrs. Hepworth, Your Helen, who does so well
in Religious Knowledge with me, has perhaps mentioned me to you?
She thinks you might permit her to spend time at Christmas with my
mother and me. I do hope you will agree. Other girls will also visit,
so she'd have company. My elderly mother would welcome...
In this Miss Flower counts five lies, minimum. Quickly she takes a half-
sheet—Dear Mrs. Hepworth, a line or two—and tucks it inside. Miss Flower
addresses the envelope to Helen's mother, praying. Then she writes rapidly to her own mother. To stop second thoughts, in her mackintosh she
walks down the School drive to the pillarbox. The envelopes fall in. I've
done it.
Helen does not do any prep at all now. Miss Lincoln, supervising the
Third Form, is sarcastic. 'You are a pupil here at St. Mildred's School, are
you not, Helen Hepworth? Or do you plan to live your life as an ignorant
savage?" Helen's smile makes Amanda uneasy. Still nothing from Miss
Flower.
"I can help you! Except for arithmetic." Helen shrugs. While Amanda
carefully draws a map, her friend looks on.
'Why not maps of here?" Helen asks. "Australia—what for?"
These ordinary words sound big. "Shall I colour Queensland turquoise
or mauve?" Again Helen shrugs.
Miss Flower carries Heforgetteth not the cry of the humble in her pocket
and in her markbook Thou hast destroyed the wicked. These stones from
her Advent reading support her in stormy water, but she cannot on schedule teach Of the Unworthiness of Ministers to the Third Form. Indeed, the
sacraments' efficacy is not less because evil men administer them—but
she can't do it. Sad Helen stops her tongue. Miss Flower prays the father
won't find her note. She prays the mother will write. She prays her own lies
to the Hepworths may find favour with God as charity.
29 Tuesday...extraordinary letter arrived a day late, which upset
my week. What have these devious girls been up to? Women! I told
you of attempts to discredit me, but you make no answer...
Wednesday...trouble you seem determined to bring down upon
yourself. You are getting on. You do not wish to end like Lucinda,
keeping farmers' accounts and taking in mending?
Thursday.. .bewildering agitation! Why is this girl your concern?
No good can come of your attempts. Believe me, I know, I know. None
ever does...
Miss Flower imagines Helen at home, the young face bent over the
breakfast table, the freckles, the thin young back. Miss Flower will prepare
a boiled egg for Helen. She will offer salt, milk, buttered toast. In this fancy,
Mrs. Flower does not appear.
Friday. ..whether you read my letters? An incredible invitation! Is
our home to be a refuge for schoolgirls with foul imaginations? Elizabeth, remember your own father! You are, of course, in charge. You
are, of course, the earner...
Miss Flower has no wish to remember her clergyman father.
On Saturday night after questing she dreams that Miss Pringle (in
tweeds) is at tea with Mrs. Flower (in wool). Tray, lemon, teapot are as
usual, but the two ladies lift off their heads and place them laughing on each
other's necks. Miss Flower is a biscuit paralyzed in sugar on the plate. Her
distress awakens her. A second questing follows, rapturous, exhausting.
On Sunday Miss Flower writes a brief, blunt letter home. On Sunday
the dreaded Amanda approaches.
"Helen's not your concern any more," Miss Flower asserts, a much-
practiced line. 'We have the matter in hand."
The child opens her mouth; Miss Flower's hand rises. No.
"Please, something else? Free Will." Amanda is agitated. "If we can't be
good unless Christ Prevents us, why doesn't He?"
"Be careful, Amanda! Sometimes we are so blind that Christ cannot
reach us. We see nothing."
"But Miss Flower, Article X says we can't be unwicked unless He helps
us!" Her eyes shine with corrupt enquiring innocence.
"Heresy! You mustn't ask that!"
The child's eyes widen. Flustered, the mistress of Religious Knowledge
tries to explain, but her words splutter into such a garble of anger and
confused theology that Amanda goes away crying in bewilderment. Miss
Flower herself cries for very shame. To bear, hope, believe, endure—clearly
she can do none of these. She has failed in charity. She sees through a
30 glass, darkly. She has not the most minimal capacity for virginity or martyrdom.
All the Third Form's letters go to the post unread.
"Nothing untoward," Miss Flower reports. Others note that Helen's
presence at lessons, meals, even morning prayers is ever more erratic.
Miss Pringle frowns. Miss Hodgson's pencil moves.
On Wednesday Miss Flower leaves her letters unread till evening. Before the mirror she sets her hair, then sips cocoa.
...traipsing about in Irish dirt! Christmas is to be spoiled—and
you now propose to spend Easter with strangers? How can...
Her mother's many pages slip to the floor as Miss Flower opens another
envelope. Helen's mother says Yes.
Clear joy flows through Miss Flower. Overwhelmed by happiness she
slides to her knees and offers deep, grateful thanks for being allowed even
a little, even for a week out of a young damaged life, to protect Helen. At
Christmas the girl will eat her boiled eggs in Miss Flower's home. There at
last a child will sleep safely and sing carols of joy. Seven days! And at Easter
Helen might come bicycling in Ireland? Kate Gregson's good heart would
be willing, Miss Flower is sure. Then next summer...
Footsteps snap down the passage to her door. Rap!
"Helen Hepworth has not been seen since breakfast," states the Head.
'Twelve hours. She has hoarded food to take along."
Boiled eggs roll away, roll away.
"The Ellis child"—Miss Pringle pulls the ear of Amanda, red-eyed beside her—"has given her money. Do you hear? The girl has run off. Disappeared." The Head gestures towards the night.
Nylons run away over green hills that dislimn in a moment, as do bell-
towers and blue cotton shorts and a bicycle.
"The Canon says that this week Helen's letter was only blank paper. His
wife was too distraught to speak to me. And you wrote to her? Miss Flower,
who do you think you are?"
Mrs. Flower's hands tighten round her daughter's wrists so she can
never never touch herself again.
"Further, Mrs. Ellis has telephoned. It seems Amanda's letter told a
very strange tale." Out of the dark corridor the Head glares and other
mistresses gather behind her. 'You have failed to report, Miss Flower.
What have you done?"
"She didn't do anything," sobs Amanda. "Nothing, nothing!"
31 Heather Birrell
Machaya
"^"^ tay away from all the big beaches, eh, all the hoo-hah. You don't need
^^ that. Just the sand and the sun, that's enough." Misha's father was
V^x sitting at the kitchen table, his empty dinner plate pushed to one side.
When he said hoo-hah he moved his arms suddenly, like a party.
"Leo, are you sure you can't come with us—the break—it would do you
good." Misha's mother's voice sounded softer than usual, and as she spoke
she fiddled with a Kleenex she had tucked up her sleeve.
"Sophie, you know we've been over this before. This is a crucial time,
what with the new shipment coming in. It would be completely stupid for
me to leave."
'Yes, yes." She ran her fingers through Misha's hair, tugged on his ears,
whispered into one of them. "Alors, ce sera nous deux, seulement, habibi."
'You'll have to take care of your mother, eh, Misha? Hold her hand on
the airplane." Misha's father looked at him, waiting. Misha nodded, then
watched his father's gaze shift and reconfigure as if there was an interesting TV show playing in the next room.
But Misha had not been altogether sure of the whole idea of a vacation
and what it would entail. It seemed to him there were perhaps more pitfalls
involved in the process than his father was letting on; more sneaky obstacles to be overcome than were initially obvious to the untrained traveller.
He thought he might like to stay home.
Misha's room is at the back of the condo; a small room with many windows,
so that, in the morning, he wakes to an intense red, his eyelids made
transparent by the strength of the sun. At the edge of dream there are
sounds; tennis balls donking against the court, or thwanging against tautly
strung rackets. And this is where he thinks, Today, Vacation, his red eyes
still closed, and the so-very-new sensation of saltwater pulling his skin tight
across his bones. He remembers, in the porousness of half-sleep, one
hundred watchful shore birds, their legs like oversized french fries, who
stood guard around his bed somewhere in the night. He remembers sleep
itself, the sensation of being held, gently, by his own body. When he finally,
forcefully, opens his eyes, the slow red sun bursts into the white light of
southern hospitality. 'Tall," says the sun, and really means it, 'Vail!"
32 He spends his mornings in the sand, sand stuck like sugar on the backs
of his legs, sand clumping in folds in the crotch of his swim trunks, bits
of grit caught with sunshine and saltwater in his scalp. He meets people
on the beach: Jocelyn, a gorgeous bossy ten-year-old with sparkly nail
polish on her toes, and Evan, a four-year-old whose sun-bleached hair
falls in a chunk across his blank blue eyes. Misha hates Evan. Misha
makes him dig the moats of the castles they scoop together, then shoves
handfuls of sand back into the shallow trenches while Evan is fetching
stones or shells from the edge of the ocean. He hates Evan because
Evan lets him give the orders and sabotage the results, hates him for
the floppiness of his manner and his slow, unblinking trust.
"I saw what you did to Evan. You're nothing but a piece of dirt under my
feet." Jocelyn crosses her arms over her chubby torso, her puffy new
boobs caught in the crooks of her elbows. "I'm gonna tell my mom, and
she's gonna tell your mom, and then you're gonna see what you're gonna
see."
Jocelyn has a way of stretching out her threats, elaborating on what
would otherwise be more effective retorts. For Misha, this makes her
both more attractive and slightly less intimidating. It means he has time to
think while she is talking. He knows she will only turn him in if there is
nothing better to do. Above him, the sun is a clean white ball high in the
endless sky. The ocean laps at Jocelyn's perfect pink toes. She stares at
him, then grabs her beach bag and stomps off.
Misha's mother is wading out into the ocean, on her tiptoes, her palms
poised above the glitzy waves. Misha is watching her, and she knows it. She
looks back at him, sprawled like a doll on the beach blanket.
"Machaya!" she shouts out. 'What a life!"
Misha says the word to himself, machaya, and pulls a smooth green
piece of glass from the sand. He holds it up to the sun, peers through it and
scopes the length of the beach. He can see Jocelyn and her mother making
their way down from the motel. Jocelyn is half-running, her feet crazy and
uncertain in her flip-flops. He doesn't feel like dealing with her, traipsing
through whatever elaborate punishment she may have concocted. He is
weary of this whole vacation with its constant state of sand and sun. He
misses the quietness of his playroom, the grit and dash of the schoolyard.
Snow.
Misha's mother, now waist-deep, is already moving her arms in heart-
shaped formations in the water in front of her. Jocelyn has spotted Misha
and is flip-flopping purposefully in his direction. He turns away from her
pushy girl's body, squints through the glass at his mother, who is still fake-
swimming. Then she trips, he thinks, is caught for a second in an underwater crumple. Then, screaming. Like he has never heard before and at first
does not believe, until he sees other people running towards the sound
33 that has pierced the endless morning.
Later, after the intermittent light of the ambulance has retreated into the
stew of pink balconies, magnolia blossoms and asphalt that coats the city,
and Jocelyn's mother has taken charge of him, Misha will close his eyes
against the worry tattooed across her face.
"I'm going to call your dad, okay, Misha? Okay?" Misha stares at her, with
her orange and yellow sarong, so strangely tied, so that the ends stick out
like tiny extra hands from her hip.
"It's the shock," she whispers knowingly to Jocelyn, and leads her away
by the elbow. Jocelyn peers back at him over her shoulder. Shock, her eyes
say, it's the shock.
But Misha does not feel shock, a sensation he associates with suddenness and electricity. Instead what he feels is a slowness like swimming, and
an unwillingness to become excited by the events of the day, which, it
seems to him, have been unfolding at a safe, shimmery distance. Jocelyn's
mother has draped a blanket across his shoulders, and plumped the pillows
on the sofa bed to make him more comfortable. He is not tired, and he can
hear rustlings and murmurs from the kitchen: a steady lowing of anxiety.
He shifts the pillows around to create a small fort for his head, buries his
nose in the cracks between the cushions.
Misha understands that somehow, in some way, he is guilty of something. A lack of vigilance, or a misunderstanding grown fat with its own
mistaken importance. He has allowed himself to fall, artlessly, into this
vacation and its trappings, and, in some small, whispered way, is responsible
for the terrible way it has evolved.
When the plane first touched down in Florida, Misha had watched as people clapped and turned to each other with congratulatory smiles and brisk,
happy nods. The stewardesses fussed dutifully and warned the passengers not to unbuckle their seat belts until the bong that accompanied the
warning light had sounded. But Misha saw that his mother unbuckled anyway, sighed and filled her abdomen with air as if it were the seat belt itself
and not their airborne state that had kept her movements restricted, stilted.
He reached out his hand to hold her back, then changed his mind and
turned to the woman next to him, who shifted from side-to-side, pulled a
make-up bag from her carry-on and fished out a tubular case with tiny
snaps on the front. Inside was a lipstick in the sleek shape of a bullet, and a
small rectangular mirror was fastened onto the case's flapping lid. The
woman, whose name was Christa, Misha knew, unscrewed the lipstick lid
and swivelled the stick of colour up into the stale atmosphere of the
airplane's cabin. She brought the case up to her face, angled it, then pressed
the lipstick along her bottom lip. Then she turned to Misha, held the tiny
34 mirror up to his face and passed him the tube.
"Here, you try," she said, and smiled, her darkened lips stretched to
either side other small turned-up nose.
"Okay," he said, took the lipstick and tilted his head to see in the mirror.
His mother was also sifting through her bag, stacking passports, pens and
brochures in her lap.
He finished putting on the lipstick and puckered his lips at Christa, sucking in his cheeks as he had seen his mother do. Christa laughed and puckered too.
"That's it, sweetie. Perfect." She reached across the seat and cupped his
chin in her hand. 'You look perfect."
Earlier in the trip there had been a meal in tiny plastic compartments—
chicken and round tasteless potatoes, then sweet icinged cake for dessert.
At the end of the long narrow aisle next to Christa was a metal bathroom
with a swift sucking toilet and a Kleenex box stuck to the wall. Misha had
visited the bathroom twice, by himself, following the curved sides of the
plane that surrounded him like a shining city nighttime, its long line of
peepholes blinking out into the blue, seemingly solid air. He had watched
as his mother slid one of the peephole's sliding panels back like an eyelid,
had leaned over her to look out, and down. Below the plane, on the ground,
unadulterated blobs of turquoise and hunter green nudged up against each
other. Above the blobs, everywhere, always, were the odd top sides of
clouds, stretched, puddled, or piled under the plane's sharp silver wings.
And through it all, his mother, with her voice like an animal that lived inside
of him, nuzzling and fierce. On the ground, behind him, in a newly snow-
whitened city called Montreal, was his father, with his smooth blue suit, and
quick hard hugs.
'You'll be alright alone?" he had asked, Misha thought, but it was less
like a question than an announcement, his mouth shaping the words that
would carry them through to the other side, the other country. "Remember, you'll take the St. Petersberg shuttle—it leaves every half hour," he
said, his eyes skimming over the other passengers boarding. "Looks like
you've got a lot of Peppers on your flight."
"Leonard, ne soyez pas raciste." Misha's mother leaned into his father,
placed her hand on the lapel of the blue suit.
"I'm not being racist, I'm being realistic. They're a buncha meshuganahs,
always with the smoking and the drinking and the junk food..." He looked
down at Misha, winked at him. Misha winked back with both eyes, feeling
stupid and pleased, which was how he always felt with his father.
'Viens, mon cherie." His mother pulled her purse up on her shoulder,
then took Misha's hand and reached up to kiss her husband.
Then it had all been like a big show: the handing over of things—tickets,
small pillows decorated with tiny maple leaves, scratchy blankets, empty
35 trays and bulging brown wastepaper bags, the view from the peepholes,
Christa the friendly seatmate, and the smiling-strict stewardesses, with
their questions and pats and pinches. And now, finally, the applause, and the
deep pilot voice wishing them a pleasant stay and informing them, convincingly, of the time and the weather.
"There's a dead snake on the beach. I'm going to operate on it." Misha flung
out his arm in front of him, half-point, half-showmanship. 'You can come if
you like."
Jocelyn and Misha had been playing together for three days, their friendship half-buried like an abandoned pop bottle in the sand.
Jocelyn hurled a dismembered crab claw at him, but agreed. Evan, who
was busy scrabbling in the sand castle's shallow moat, followed them, looking a little like a crab himself
The snake was not actually a snake; it was a trailing stem of seaweed that
had washed ashore, but once the fiction had been established, neither
Misha nor Jocelyn felt any need to dismantle it.
'Water snakes are the most deadly of all snakes," Jocelyn pronounced,
and held her arms out in a prohibitive, parent-like gesture. "First we must
ensure the area is clear of any dangerous particles." She marched around
the periphery of the snake site, inspecting the sand, reaching down every
so often to nudge at something (a particle?) with her finger. Misha and
Evan stood at a respectful distance, eyeing the snake with the reverence
and caution it deserved.
Finally, Jocelyn declared the area safe, and the boys moved in to begin
the job. The snake's skin sliced open easily with the edge of a seashell,
although its innards were not as satisfyingly gunky as they had hoped.
Misha sent Evan to fetch a bucket and spade to aid in the dissection, and
reabsorbed himself in the work.
When Jocelyn was concentrating she sometimes sang a little, under her
breath, tuneless. "I feel good, da, na, na, na, na, na, na, I knew that I would
now, I feel nice, like sugar and spice..."
'What is that song?" Misha asked, after they had been hacking at the
snake for what felt like a long time. Jocelyn didn't hear him at first, continued picking and peeling at the snake's skin with her stubby fingernails. He
leaned over her, spoke into her face like a microphone.
"Jo-ce-lyn. What is that song?"
And her eyes changed somehow, the quiet fixedness required by the
task at hand replaced by something momentarily wild and zinging. She
stood up, cleared her throat.
"It's James Brown. It's my dad's favourite song." She pushed the sand to
either side of her with her feet to make a stage, closed her eyes and tapped
her open hand against her hip.
36 "I FEEL GOOD!" Her eyes snapped open and skidded over Misha
and Evan to the cheering throngs she had conjured on the beach. "I
KNEW THAT I WOULD NOW!"
A couple of teenagers wading in the water stopped for a moment, then
turned and snickered, lording their beautiful hybrid bodies over the show.
Jocelyn, undeterred, increased the volume, stomped forward semi-sexily.
"LIKE SUGAR AND SPICE, YEAH!" She threw back her head, opened
her mouth to the Florida sky.
The teenagers were now laughing raucously, adding their caws to the
cranky din of the seagulls. Jocelyn stopped singing, and it was like a power
outage or an eclipse. Misha inched his way over on the sand, reached up to
touch her elbow. She flicked his hand away angrily, shoved his shoulder
out other performance space, then turned, trembling, towards the shore.
"Fuck. You." She was crying, shaking her fist at the teenaged boy and
girl, who had already begun kicking their way through the surf, untouchable.
The girl smiled apologetically at Jocelyn, then, with a delicate laxity,
spoke: "This machine's out of order, fuck yourself and save a quarter. "She
shrugged, orbited gracefully away from the singer, the two staring boys
and the stringy seaweed.
All of this made Misha tired. How long before he could stand and sing,
like Jocelyn, two young disciples snared in his glamourous wake? And how
long after that before he could kick his way through the sand, his supremacy glaringly casual and far-flung?
Evan had returned dutifully to the problem of the snake, which now
looked truly less like a reptile than a soggy mess of vegetation. Jocelyn
crouched to poke at a silvery strand, sniffed, then stood up again.
"I'm bored. I'm gonna see if the ice cream guy's here."
Misha didn't want to leave but knew that without Jocelyn the game would
devolve into something of a sham. This was the alchemy of play; a game
could spring, like a god or a genie, from the ether, and dissolve just as
quickly, leaving nothing but curious babblers and wrong-headed believers
in its golden wake.
Evan was already scrambling after Jocelyn. Misha sat still and stubborn
for a moment before following.
On the sixth night of the vacation, Misha woke before dawn, having dreamt
of his father. He stumbled to the window, checked the tennis court and the
pool for a sign. In the dream, his father was laughing, his head cocked to
one side under the half-hearted spray of the poolside shower.
"Met any little friends?' he called out to Misha, then spat a smooth two-
pronged plume of water between his teeth. The water landed with a splash
on Misha's shoulder and ran, tickling, down his chest. Misha stared at his
3 7 father, who grinned, then shook his head briskly, sending more tiny bits
of water flying through the air. "Bon voyage, eh, Misha, bon voyage!"
he called, then stepped easily from the shower, dry and dressed, his
blue suit aglow in the sunlight.
After breakfast, it began to rain, the drops tippling down from the undersides of large taffy-coloured clouds. Misha wandered the apartment, which
had a clean, boxy feel to it, so unlike his apartment at home with its creaking wooden floors and sloping walls. The low ceilings and sharp angles
made him feel large and business-like. He stepped outside to patrol the
hallway, which was also a long strip of balcony that girded the outside of the
building. The wind was strong, and for a moment, Misha was scared at the
way it whipped through the large American flag in the parking lot. The
sound made him think of wrestling and choking.
Through the window next to his apartment door he could see a TV
glowing like a friendly beacon. Misha knew TV, he liked TV. He leaned in
close to the window, and cupped his hands around his face to cut down on
the glare. The show was a funny one; he could tell by the way the people
moved, as if they had important places to go but not really. Misha watched
until he saw a man inside the apartment coming towards him with a cereal
bowl. Then he ducked and ran back inside for his own breakfast.
"No beach today, 'tit chou," said Misha's mother, and poured herself
another cup of coffee. "No beach today."
No beach, but after Misha had finished his toast, Jocelyn's mom called
to invite them to the outlet mall, a glorious cluster of shops with stuff for
cheap. They took the rental car, a white Ford with a whirring air conditioner
and a smell like lemons and dirty pennies. On the bridge into the city the
sky began to clear, sending a rainbow arcing down through the yellow-grey
smog that hung over the buildings. Jocelyn pointed out the window to a
salmon-coloured condominium complex with two matching kidney-shaped
pools.
"Someday," she whispered loudly, "this will all be mine." Then she poked
Misha in the ribs and drew her mouth into a lipsticked pout Misha crossed
his eyes and stuck out his bottom lip until she laughed.
"Here, try this," Jocelyn said, and drew Misha's head towards her, so
that their foreheads touched. "Stare into my eyes."
"No," said Misha, "gross."
'You are such a baby." She took his head again. "Now, just stare into my
eyes as hard as you can."
Misha stared. Jocelyn's eyes were a flat brown colour, the irises ringed
with bands of tiny green stars. As he stared, her eyes floated together,
linked themselves above her nose. He blinked. Behind Jocelyn's linked
eyes, out the car window, the world went rushing past, street signs and
palm trees and cars just like theirs, going shopping.
38 "Ha! You see!" she shouted, 'We're Cyclops!" She shoved him away
triumphantly.
'What's a cyclop?" Misha asked, and felt immediately ill-equipped.
"It's a monster? With one eye? I can't believe you've never heard about
it before. It's like the song." She looked at him, waiting.
He shook his head and looked out the window.
"My one-eyed only love!" Jocelyn belted it out.
"Quiet in the back you two," her mother called, but in a nice way.
Jocelyn swore under her breath and turned her back on Misha.
Once arrived, the mothers insisted on entering every beckoning store,
where they fingered fabrics and flipped over price tags to compare. Misha's
mother tried on a pair of half-price cross-trainers at the discount store but
they were too small, no luck. Jocelyn tried on a pair of platform sandals with
daisies glued onto the toe strap.
'You look like a hussy," said her mother, and pulled the shoes from her
feet.
Misha lingered over a pair of black and white wingtips. Magic shoes. Or
at least the type of shoes a magician might wear.
In a jungly beachwear store, both the mothers donned sarongs, then
stood like overstuffed tropical birds, eyes squinting in appraisal, in front of
the long mirrors.
'You're so slim," said Misha's mother admiringly, patting down her thighs.
'Well, you know, you don't get fat drinkin' diet coke and sleepin' alone."
Jocelyn's mother patted at her own thighs and sucked in her cheeks. Misha
watched his mother watching Jocelyn's mother, her eyes widening and
narrowing in a shuttering of understanding. There were lessons to be
learned at the outlet mall.
In the food court you could get fast food from any part of the world.
Misha chose China because of the triangular hats the happy men in the
picture were wearing. Jocelyn chose California because of the waitress'
deep tan and unerring smile, and the mothers ordered sandwiches and
salads from the deli, which was just plain American food. They found a
booth near the centre of the court, and Jocelyn slid her bum in next to
Misha's.
"Mom, after this can we go to the drugstore? Cause I really wanna try
that new hair stuff to lighten my bangs. So can we?" Jocelyn reached over
Misha to tug on her mother's sleeve.
"Honey, Sophie and I just want a bit of peace and quiet to chat. Why don't
you and Misha go get some ice cream?" The mothers pulled money out of
their wallets, and Jocelyn glared at Misha, but grabbed his hand and pulled
him away.
Their first night in Florida, Misha and his mother had gone for dinner,
just the two of them, like a secret club. They chose a fish place near the
39 beach which was also a bar, but you could get pop if you didn't drink
beer. The waitress' name was Suzanne and she smelled like something
close to the earth and bursting. Misha's mother wasn't very hungry so
Suzanne let her have the kid's portion, and she refilled Misha's pop
glass for free. The grouper sandwich was delicious; the white bun giving way to the crunchiness of the batter between his teeth, and his
mother looked so beautiful, with her hair pulled off her face and her
green baseball T-shirt. He wished his father could see them, and this
wishing, this picturing, made Misha glad—his mother, himself and
Suzanne, all bent over the menu, deciding, and his father watching them
from an unimaginable distance.
At the ice cream counter, Jocelyn ordered bubble gum flavour and flirted
with the scooper, a fourteen-year-old boy with an earring in his lip. Misha
counted his change and came up short.
"God, you practically have to know another language to order coffee
these days," Jocelyn's mother was saying, pointing to her cafe-au-lait as
Misha approached the table. "Where I come from we call that milky coffee."
Misha's mother looked down, sipped twice at her milky coffee. "How
long have you been separated from your husband?"
"Oh, we haven't seen hide nor tail of him since Jocelyn was two. Doesn't
even pay his support. Had to hire a lawyer again this year to go after him.
He just dumped his latest girlfriend, now she's after him too. Apparently he
owes her money. And it's not that he doesn't make enough you know—
he's a salesman, and a good one. He's just a goddamn weasel is all, excuse
my French." Jocelyn's mother took a bite other danish. 'What about you,
Sophie, what does your husband do?"
"Oh, he owns a furniture store. Quite successful, but still just starting
out, you understand." Misha's mother sat up in her chair and adjusted the
sunglasses she had perched on her head.
"Sure, I know how it is."
Misha crept up behind his mother and placed his hands over one other
eyes. Maman is a cyclops, he thought, and cleared his throat. "Maman.
Mom. I need a dollar."
Misha's mother dug in her purse without looking at him, then passed
him a handful of coins, coins that seemed less shiny, but somehow more
substantial, with their serious bunch of presidents, than the ones from
home: the loon, the leaf, the beaver, the caribou—all of them backing the
snooty queen. He jingled the coins in his palm, counted them.
Two months ago Misha and his father had driven to a small sports shop in
Cote-St-Luc where Misha's father knew the owner, Art. Misha wanted to
spend his Hanukkah gelt on a new pair of skates. Art was up front when
40 they arrived, stacking shin pads next to the counter.
"Hey, Leo, long time no see. This your son?" He pointed to Misha, a
shin pad hanging from his arm like an armadillo.
Misha nodded.
'Yes, this is Misha." He nudged Misha forward. 'We're looking for some
hockey skates. And you, how's the family?"
Art pulled the last shin pad from the box and placed it on the top of the
pile. "Oi-a-baruch! Marcia's alright now, butyou should have seen her last
week—she had the flu like you wouldn't believe...."
Misha looked around the store. He could see the skates he wanted
hanging on the wall next to a poster of Wayne Gretzky. He tugged on his
father's sleeve.
'You want my money now, I suppose," his father had said, reaching for
his wallet. "There, now it's your money." He tucked some bills into Misha's
back pocket, and pushed him in the direction of the skates.
When Art had fetched the right size from the stockroom, Misha's father came over and kneeled in front of Misha to help him. He pulled the
large stiff tongue back from the body of the skate while Misha pushed hard
with his foot. What Misha remembered most was the ridge at the back of
the skate: the way it felt scraping slightly against the back of his heel as his
toes slid satisfyingly into place.
His father was still kneeling, his head bent so that Misha could see the
hair growing above his collar on the back of his neck. He had watched his
mother cut those hairs with long silver scissors, the tips of her fingers
poking through the grips as she instructed his father, softly, to turn this
way, move that way.
"Can I have these?" Misha nodded his head at the skates, which his
father was now lacing with small insistent tugs.
'You've got to get them really tight," his father said, straightening up. He
reached down and squeezed Misha's shoulder, then looked over at Art,
who was busy behind the counter. "It's your money," he added, and dusted
off his pants with his open hands.
'Why didn't your husband come then, Sophie? He must be able to afford it,
with the store and all. Would be nice to have a man around." She made a big
clown wink at Misha's mother, and patted Misha on the back.
"Oh, yes," said Misha's mother and laughed high and quick, "he's just
very busy with his work. Very busy, you know how it is..." She sipped at her
cafe-au-lait again.
How it is? Misha thought, How is it?
"Sure, I know, they're always busy with something, aren't they?" Jocelyn's
mother laughed a laugh that wasn't really a laugh, and wiped at the corner
of her lipsticked mouth.
41 The night before they left for Florida, after Misha had gone to bed, he
had heard his mother and his father in the next room, arguing. He pushed
aside his covers, walked quietly to their door and crouched against the
baseboards in the hallway, being careful not to set the doorstop coil that
stuck out from the wall thrumming back and forth.
"Sophie, you're being so unreasonable. There is no big trick to this
decision. The store needs me, that's all there is to it." Misha's father sighed
like the sound of a book closing.
"This is not the sum of life—a dilemma and then a decision, a dilemma
and then a decision! Why do you always think we are in control? Don't you
think Misha might want you there?" Her voice reminded Misha of a crow,
the way its black wings beat for an instant against the air before it took flight.
'You waste nothing, and these decisions you make—they mean everything. Ce n'est pas comme ca qu'on vit sa vie. Dilemma, decision, dilemma,
decision..." She began to cry.
Misha had stood up then and brought his foot down heavily on the
doorstop, so that the sound of the thick coil vibrating from side to side
followed him back to his bedroom.
The condo was not far from the beach, but in the afternoons, when it was
hottest, Misha's mother liked to sit by the pool, where there was more
shade, and the water was clear and diluted. She asked him to sit on a deck
chair while she took a shower.
"I'll be right back, okay, Mish?" She pulled a towel from her shoulder bag
and spread it across the sticky white weave of the chair. Misha nodded.
There was a beefy man with a white crew cut bobbing up and down in the
pool. Misha liked his look, so unlike his father, or his grandfather, both
small and wiry. He stared at the man.
'What's your name, son?" The man had pulled himself over to the edge
of the pool and allowed his legs to float up behind him like drowned sausages.
"Misha."
"Mee-cha? Well, I'm pleased to meetcha too." The man's laugh was a
rumble that caught and broke, then caught again, somewhere between his
throat and his stomach.
Misha's mother had stopped and was waiting to see what Misha would
say next. She didn't wait long.
"Michael is his name. Mike. It's his first time here."
'Well, Mike," said the man, "are you enjoying your stay?"
"Sure am," said Misha, which was something he had heard Jocelyn say
to her mother when she asked her if she was hungry or thirsty. His own
mother looked at him, surprised, but she seemed pleased, and waved at
42 him on the way to the showers.
There was another man at the pool's gate. This one was tall and bald,
and he was with a fat woman who limped a little. They sat on the edge of
the pool with their feet in the water.
"Another hot one, eh, Walt?" The first man was speaking to the second
man.
"Sure is, got the air conditioning cranked right up." The tall man splashed
some water on his chest, then rubbed it into his arms. The woman was
lowering herself into the pool, her mouth already forming bubbles. Misha
watched her as she swam. She was breast-stroking around the edge, her
lips barely grazing the bright translucence of the surface.
"How many you gonna do today, Margie?" It was the beefy man again.
"Oh, I guess I'll just keep going till I'm tired out." Margie splashed him a
little as she passed. Misha liked these people, their big bodies and the way
their words seemed to expand as they spoke them.
'Went into town yesterday for the breakfast special. Shoulda got there a
bit earlier though, almost all the French toast was gone. Isn't that right
Margie?" Walt turned to Margie, who nodded into her chest and swallowed
water, then coughed and swam to the side. "What about you, Rick, you
make it in for the Early Bird?"
'Yeah, we were there real early. Stopped by the mall for a while afterwards. May wanted to check out the beachwear sale. It's such a pain in the
butt these days—so many of the shops been bought up by the Chinks.
Soon as you turn your back they're chattering away—Hi-yah this, and hon-
yah that." Rick was making frightening rabbit faces as he spoke, biting
down hard on his lower lip. Misha watched as he hoisted his elbows up onto
the pool deck. There was a bikinied woman tattooed on his bulky shoulder.
Margie was nodding quickly at him. "It's the same thing in Philly. You go
into a shop and as soon as you've got your back turned it's Yiddish this and
Yiddish that..."
At school, back in Montreal, there was a boy called Dickweed, even
though, Misha had divined, this was not his true name. There were times,
he knew, when it was alright to call the boy, who was lumbering and petty,
by this name, but there were other times—for instance when his mother
led him by the hand from the back doors—when it was wise to remain
silent. And it was the same with French. His mother spoke French, and
Misha spoke French, and many people in Montreal spoke French, but at
school, speaking French, being French, was a little like being Dickweed,
only worse, since it could cling to you like something that stuck on your
shoe and would not shake free, even outside the boundaries of the playground. And now, Misha understood, in this hot place, next to this rectangle
of a pool, it was unwise to speak Yiddish, that half-imaginary language of
prayer and exclamation. It was complicated but also simple how he had to
43 behave, the words he spoke—words backed by thoughts so ineffable
they were less thoughts than the elongated shadows of an impulse, the
grey aftermath of intention.
Misha's mother had returned from the shower and was sitting, dripping, on the chair next to him. "On va nager bientot, OK?" she murmured, and opened her book. Misha took his mini cars from his mother's bag and went to sit closer to Walt and Rick, who were lounging in
the shade of a palm tree.
'Where exactly did they say they're from?" Walt asked.
"Montreal, Canada. You know, part of that country north of Buffalo,"
Rick said, laughing. "But it sounds as if she's got a Spanish accent or something so I'm not so sure."
It was true. Misha was from Montreal, and so was his mother, but before
that she was from France, and before that, Egypt. His father had been
born, like him, in Montreal, but Misha's great-grandfather was from Russia,
a land older and colder than Canada. There were reasons his mother had
moved the way she did, hopping borders, straddling language. Misha knew
the word: apatride. Without country. But in his mind the stories had melded,
coalesced into something confusing or compelling, depending on the day,
or the hour, so that the Egyptian sun beat down, relentless, on the bare
head of a French schoolgirl, and an old man wearing a fur coat and a salt-and-
pepper beard galloped by on a shaggy camel towards a snow-capped pyramid. In the midst of these fantasies Misha sometimes found himself caught
in a web of anxiety not unlike the feeling he got when he heard certain fairy
tales read aloud. He could sense that the family stories, too, were hiding
something—a wolf, or a witch with a grudge. There were two things he
knew for certain: There was always something to be afraid of, whether it be
in the woods or the desert, and everyone, everywhere, came from somewhere else.
"Michael! Michael!" someone was calling. Someone he knew. He looked
up from his cars. It was his mother. This mother he knew like he knew his
own instinctive, fleeting thoughts.
"Michael, I think you've had enough of the sun, your shoulders are
starting to burn." She began gathering up his toys, then stopped and pulled
him close. "Habibi," she whispered.
And now his mother is in the hospital, felled by some underwater thing.
Misha hears the phone ring and thinks of his father, far away and perhaps
working. Or thinking, his hand swiping at his black hair. Sometimes, after
school, his mother would drop him off at Granowsky's, Your Furniture Store,
to stay with his father while she did her errands. Misha would sit in a chair
in the small office at the back of the store and listen to his father speak,
44 slow and careful—as if he was trying to convince someone to come in
from the laneway for supper—on the sleek white phone. Sometimes
Misha wandered the showroom, stepped quietly into wardrobes and
stayed there inhaling the black forest scent until he heard his father
locking up.
The ring is loud and repeats like an important lesson, jangling and hurtling through space. He clenches his teeth, wills it to stop. Instead, from
across the kilometers, he can see his father look up from whatever it is he
is so intent on doing, and peer at him across the border that separates
them. Peering and scowling, as if Misha himself has caused the phone to
ring on both ends, to interrupt. And maybe Misha has. It is possible he has
chosen incorrectly; the wrong word or gesture, a botched thought.
Behind his father, Misha thinks he can make out his mother's navy
winter coat, bulky and worn, still draped over the banister where she left it.
He wants to touch it, but it has become one of the signs and signals for
home he now strains to remember, along with the clanging sound of his
hockey stick against the metal staircase to his front door and the signature
his breath used to make on the cold air.
'The hospital called. Your mother is fine, honey, just fine. She'll be able to
come home tomorrow." Jocelyn's mom is bouncing on her toes excitedly,
again plumping the pillows beside Misha's head.
He reaches down into his pocket, feels for the piece of green glass that
is still there, smooth and waiting. Then, because it seems she expects him
to do or say something, he pulls it out, holds it up to the light, and winks at
her with both eyes.
Jocelyn has found a book on stingrays in the local library, which she brings
to the beach two days later, a day before Misha and his mother are scheduled to return home. Evan has already left, embarrassing both Misha and
Jocelyn with drooly, teary hugs. Misha's mother is fine behind her novel,
the bandage around her instep glowing against her sun darkened skin.
Jocelyn reads to Misha in a radio announcer's voice, punctuating each phrase
with a grave downturn in voice.
"The stab from a stingray not only injects poison, but also cuts and tears
the flesh, and many people that have trodden on a stingray lying in shallow
water have had to have stitches in their feet. The effect of the poison is
immediate and inflammation spreads around the wound almost as soon as
the spine has penetrated."
Then she shows Misha a picture of the stingray, photographed from
above, undulating and huge in the water. The creature hovers, just below
the surface, unfurling in the underwater breeze like the flag of some misty,
undiscovered country. It looks soft and flowing, incapable of instigating the
45 heart-stalling shrieks his mother emitted. It occurs to him she may have
been faking it. He glares at her, happy and safe and reclining on her brightly
patterned beach towel.
"Hey Joss, you wanna go for a walk?" He feels tough today, invincible. Jocelyn considers him a moment, registers the combative stance,
the shrewd challenge in his eye.
"Sure." She brushes some sand daintily from the backs other thighs.
'Whereto?"
"Thattaway." He points towards the pier and sets off, lifting his knees
slightly higher than usual as he walks. Jocelyn trails behind, holding her
sun hat on her head like a southern belle.
'We could pretend we're in the desert dying of thirst, and our camel just
collapsed," says Misha, thinking hero, thinking rescue.
"Nah," says Jocelyn, and that is that.
Misha can tell by the sun that it is nearing noon; soon the mothers will be
tapping at their watches, mouthing lunchtime as they sort through their
beach bags. He presses onward, but Jocelyn is so slow, with her ugly hat.
Up ahead he can see a small crowd on the beach, their heads drooped
down, wondering at something washed up. Behind him Jocelyn has stumbled upon an oasis, and is draped across a piece of driftwood with an abandoned teen magazine.
Misha pauses for a moment, digs his heels into the wet sand. The problem with Jocelyn is that even when she's ignoring you, she's somehow not.
She nags and frays at your plans until they unravel to the point of insubstan-
tiality.
But Misha is now nearing the attraction on the beach, and Jocelyn shows
no sign of following. He counts seven grey-haired onlookers, then skirts
the periphery of the group, stations himself at the edges, too far to see the
centre, but close enough to hear a man's gruff, proprietary voice.
"I tell ya, they're just like the trout I used to fish up in Lake Michigan—
they put up a good fight when you hook 'em, and a bigger fight when you
get 'em to shore."
Misha pushes his way closer to the man, fighting his way through the
veiny calves of the assembled retirees. Finally, he finds himself on the
inside of the ragged circle, and, crouched unobtrusively, takes in the sight
of the fisherman's catch.
It is a stingray. Smaller and meatier-looking than the one in the book, but
a stingray nonetheless. And still alive, its rubbery wings flapping and slapping noisily against the edge of the ocean.
Misha closes his eyes and allows some facts to tumble around inside of
him: His mother is fine. His father is in Montreal. You should stay away
from the hoo-hah at the beach. There are fathers who leave. They take
their bags of things and their money with presidents or snooty queens, and
46 they leave. Water snakes are the most deadly of all snakes. The whole
of the French language is actually a swear word. Shock is a made up
thing, made up by Jocelyn and her weirdo mother.
He inches around so that he can examine the tail, a long ropy extension that runs down the centre of the body. He wants to grab onto it, to
heft the stingray above his head, swing it round and round like a lasso.
Once, on another beach, Misha's father filled his small red plastic sand
bucket to the rim with lakewater, then swung the bucket up and over.
Upside down! And the water did not spill.
"It's gravity!" his father called out, to Misha's round eyes, wide above his
round open mouth. "It controls the oceans. It's what keeps us from hurtling
off the earth!" Then he set the bucket down, where it sat, rocking slightly,
the water dribbling over the edges.
Misha reaches out towards the stingray.
'You touch that you'll be sick for a good twenny-four hours, if not longer."
The fisherman is standing above him, his sneaker planted between Misha's
outstretched hand and the ridged tail. Someone in the crowd is curious.
'What are you going to do with it?" It is a petite, well-packaged woman,
her pastel pink T-shirt tucked and poofed lovingly into the waistband other
khaki shorts.
"Them's good eatin'. You just take some cookie cutters to the wings, I
tell ya, they taste just like scallops. "The fisherman grins at the woman, who
backs up a little.
Misha withdraws his hand, but the impulse is still there, surging inside
him like an ancient mission.
In the sky overhead a jet plane spews a fluffy white trail. Misha would like
to be on that plane.
Soon it will be everything in reverse: the drive to the airport, the airplane
itself, the weather, so uniform and unflappable above the clouds, suddenly
transformed into something brittle and unforgiving on the ground.
Once arrived, and seated for dinner, Misha's father will examine him,
then hold tightly to the edge of the dining room table, as if trying to make
a point, only instead he will ask a question.
"So, son, how was it?"
And Misha will long for it: the scent of suntan lotion buzzing like an
amiable insect inside his sinus cavities, the big-busted friendliness of a
Florida waitress ricocheting around inside his small heart, and the temporary relief from a life that seems, suddenly, to be accumulating around and
inside him without his sanction.
He will try to tell the vacation like a story, but what comes rushing forth
will instead be an excited verbal miscellany, punctuated by too many and
47 thens and marred by a breathlessness he cannot control.
"Mee-sha! Oh, Mee-sha!" It is Jocelyn.
Misha takes one last look at the stingray, whose wings seem to tire
for a moment before they burst into strange, violent flight, sending the
body up and over, so that the tail rests in the love of a wave.
"Mee-sha!" Jocelyn is getting closer, jerking her head this way and that,
searching. Misha jumps out from the crowd, ambushes the helpless damsel with his stealthy adventurer ways.
"Yeah. As if." Jocelyn jumps up and down in an effort to see past the
people.
"It's just a bunch of seaweed, stupid." There will be no sharing of the
stingray.
"Zero times zero is how much I care," says Jocelyn, and skips ahead,
then turns around and sticks out her tongue. "Race ya, big man!" Sprinting,
hat in hand, all the way to the mothers. All the way home.
48 Jan Thornhill
Life Skills
When I was ten, my dad said to me, he said, Alouetta, it's important to me that you never feel trapped by someone you are
the better of, especially a man, so I am going to teach you two
life skills.
I was named after the Jaunty Alouetta in a song my mother used to
sing before I was born. My dad always tells me what a perfect beaut of a
baby I was, my skull not squashed into a cone-head like some, because
I was C-sectioned out, my mother already being dead at the time from a
heart attack that surprised everyone, probably no one more than her.
She was singing the song, says my dad, just before she crashed to the
kitchen floor, a dinner plate in each hand, right in front of him. To this
day, my dad will not eat spaghetti, not if you paid him to, he wouldn't.
He let me drive to the gravel pit that was to be our secret firing range,
me sitting on his lap so that I would have the height to see over the
steering wheel.
I would like to say right now, at the outset, because I know what you
might be thinking, my dad being a single dad, with no woman to monitor
him, not then anyway, I want to make it clear that there was not then,
nor was there ever, any inappropriate touch. So get that thought out of
your mind.
My dad's sweat stunk. I remember this from that day driving. Although I was steering, my dad's hands hovered above my own. At the
time, I felt he was directing unseen powers into me, via his palms, a type
of electrical knowledge that was allowing me to pilot the car smoothly
and neatly between the lines on the highway. Perhaps, though, all I was
feeling was his nervousness. He must have been nervous, I think in
retrospect, since his license, that summer, would not yet have been reinstated.
For him to float his hands above mine, his arms were by necessity
held outwards and rounded, girdling me without touching me, as if I was
a tree with thick invisible bark. This made his armpits more exposed
than usual and, what with the rushing breeze from the open windows
moving air around and it being an unseasonably hot afternoon, they
smelled rank. The thing was, though, that I was pretty thrilled to be
driving (well, steering, to be more accurate, since my feet could not,
49 from where I was perched on my dad's thighs, have reached either the
gas pedal or the brakes), so the memory is sensuously strong.
I have driving dreams, even now. They are unbelievably exciting. I
am, in them, such a novice.
My own sweat smells the same as my dad's. Some days I cannot stand
it, not even a hint of it. It is like a poison gas with the colour of a bus
station's walls. Other days it is a secret pleasure. I inhale it the same
way that, sometimes, I inhale highway skunk. Pleasure can be taken
from extremes, from either end of the spectrum. That confusion one
occasionally gets, when, for instance, the touch of an ice cube feels hot
instead of cold. Think of freezer burn.
The gravel pit was private. The gate was padlocked back then, unlike
now, and old metal No Trespassing signs were wired to the fences and
dutifully peppered by gun-owning members of the local populace with
perfectly circular holes of light, not too distant planets or stars ringed by
coronas and sunspots of rust. I put my own holes in those signs, eventually. But not that first day.
My dad let me take the keys from the ignition after I had parked the
car, roadside, let me be the one to open the trunk, let me be the one to
feel that satisfying pull on the key from the weight of suddenly released
metal. I had never looked into the trunk like that before, it seemed fresh
and full of possibilities, particularly since it held a 12-gauge shotgun and
the .22 my dad had pegged squirrels with when he, himself, had been a
child.
I see, sometimes, in movies, on TV, even in cartoons, men teaching
women how to handle men's tools, golf clubs, for instance, or bowling
balls, or guns. Always, the men drape themselves around the women,
seemingly without the vaguest idea that the desires of the women may
not, necessarily, match their own. My dad draped himself around me
like that, but all he wanted was to teach me how to take care of myself.
Here is something you might not know. If you do not hold a shotgun
tight to your body when the trigger is pulled, you can be injured by the
recoil of the stock. If you are ten years old, you might just as well stand
behind an irritable and large-hoofed horse and poke at it with a stick.
The bruise would probably not have been so bad if my dad hadn't
been backing me, kneeling while cloaking me in his cape of instruction,
if I'd been able to go with the blow, but I was trapped between him and
the butt end of the stock, braced, still, by the tutelage of his large and
dense body.
He was laughing even as he lay me out on the ground where I waited
for my lungs to rediscover breath. I stared up at the sky, listening to that
laugh—he was killing himself—staring, almost lazily, at some faint wisps
of cloud and a couple of jet trails, their nether ends being absorbed by
50 the blue, seemingly by osmosis, the thick and sharp, dark and shiny
smell of burnt powder finally, once I could breathe again, penetrating
me, tattooing itself into the memory of my nostrils, the only pleasure
offered me to counterpoint the thumping pain where my shoulder blade
and breastbone met.
In the schoolyard, kids sang the song at me. Song as weapon.
You got a French name, said my dad, be proud of it. Not that French
was part of my heritage. Both my parents were Anglo-Canadian, through
and through.
Sometimes, even now, I will catch myself humming the tune. I always
stop immediately; it feels too much like I am singing a hymn in praise of
myself. That, or the opposite.
* * *
Fight or flight, my dad would say. It's your choice. Remember that.
* * *
I was, am, a wicked shot. With the right weapon, particularly. One looks
for perfect balance. Even a heavy, wooden-barreled rifle is easy for me,
a small woman, to sight with if it has the balance. That harmony of weights
can make the hand and body more steady than on their own, empty and
light. To hold oneself motionless is a gift. To hold a weapon that makes
one more still yet, is a greater gift. It's from this type of stillness that I
am sometimes given moments of absolute knowledge, heart-stopping
glimpses into the future that occur the instant before I discharge my
weapon, instances when I know, in advance and with absolute certainty
and clarity that my aim is true. Stillness that makes all that jive from high
school physics about the time-space continuum that is so hard to grasp
intellectually, a gut truth.
* * *
I wish, though, that my dad had taught me more than two life skills.
** *
There was a short article once in the Lifestyle section of the paper about
a study they did somewhere in Northern Europe—Finland, I think it
was. A group of men was asked to wear T-shirts for several days without washing or wearing deodorant. The shirts were then collected and
catalogued. Women were asked to smell these soiled shirts and rate the
odour of each. The results were tallied and genetic tests of each group
were compared and correlated to the findings. It turned out that the
closer, genetically, a woman was to a man, the more foul she found the
smell of his perspiration. Conversely, the further apart she was, geneti-
51 cally, the more appealing she felt it to be. According to this article, some
women were so attracted to the musk of their genetic opposites that
they asked the researchers if meetings could be arranged with the corresponding men. At first glance, you might think that these results confirm and give credence to the age-old adage that opposites attract. The
proof is in the pudding. But, wait! There was more. Some of the women
sought introductions to the men whose sweat, they had clearly stated,
they had found most offensive. Go figure.
** *
When I was twelve and tall enough to reach the gas pedal and drive alone,
I'd cruise through town at night, after my dad had passed out. No one ever
knew, least of all him. I used to wonder what he thought when he looked at
the fuel gauge on his way to work—that gas shrinks in the wee hours of
the morning? Maybe he did know, he just never said anything.
My friends would all have been asleep by the time I was out and driving around, most of their parents, too. Late and quiet. I was insulated,
made somehow untouchable by the hour. That was how I first discovered the meditative, reflective side of driving alone, cruising up Mary
Street, down Ottawa. I'd hang a right on George, practice a parallel park
on Maple, two on Elm, I'd back up the whole length of Water, which
always felt, oddly, like swimming upstream, before hitting on Mary again
and repeating the entire sequence.
Other times I'd do a loop out of town, go along the river, past the
rakes, see the moon in the water broken by jumping fish, farm fields,
forest, foxes streaking before me, elongated flashes of orange, pointed
at both ends. Sometimes, with the windows rolled down, it was so quiet
I'd hear owls hooting, black lumps perched in the silhouettes of hedgerow trees. Other times I'd smell things falling, dew in the summer, snow
in the winter, frost-bitten autumn leaves.
An interesting thing about the human sense of smell is that it's the only
one that doesn't go through any intermediate steps, as do the other
four, before information is assimilated by the brain. There is no brokerage house, as it were, no packaging plant, no filters. This is probably
what makes smells, and, particularly, the memories contingent to smells,
more visceral, more emotionally charged than, for instance, memories
based on visual stimuli.
Sometimes there is a fine line between love and hate. It's those opposite
extremes again. Sometimes one is tricked. Is that what happened to
those women in Finland?
52 I can see my dad's thinking, of course, teaching me to drive and shoot.
But both, it seems to me, are after-the-fact useful. What I really needed
to be taught was how to choose those situations from which I would
require neither of the previous abilities to extricate myself.
* * *
I fell for Samson—can you believe his name?—the first time I got a close
look at him, which was the moment he climbed into the passenger side
of my dad's car. I was not yet licensed, not yet of legal age for anything,
but I drove all the time. In daylight, too. My dad's style of parenting was
to encourage independence. Besides, he didn't much like going to the
grocery store.
Samson was hitch-hiking because he had lost his own car to a joyrider. It was driven off the edge of an out-ofbusiness quarry, the spring
water that filled the hole reputedly two-hundred feet deep. I'd swum
there. Everybody had. I knew about his car.
"A '79 Ranchero, right?" I said. "Dark blue?"
"That'll teach me to leave a vehicle running when I go into a store to
buy smokes and I don't even smoke," he said. "It's the wife's got the
habit."
Samson wore a cast on his left forearm, a weight somehow both
friendly and sexy against the nape of my neck, pressed into my ribs,
braced against the small of my back, its cool hardness arching my spine,
when we were necking, later, in the rear seat of my dad's car. A wife was
no deterrent to Samson and nothing more than flattering to me.
'You got a coathanger in here?" he asked afterwards, when we were
smoothing ourselves out, an insane question I thought, and told him so.
"Used to have one in mine," he said. "For when people lock keys in
their cars." A good kisser and Samaritan all in one. How lucky could I
be?
"Could use one now," he said, "to scratch inside this thing. Itches like
a bugger."
Kids used to bring their spent casts to show-and-tell back in grade
school. The doodled-on, dirty plaster shells would get passed up and
down the rows, awing everyone with their sweet and sickly smell. How,
back then, because of that, I longed to break a limb.
***
My high school biology teacher gave me a job as lab assistant since I
showed promise in the field of science. It was only an hour or two a
week, after school, mostly cataloguing his collections of bird nests, blown
eggs and various creatures and parts of creatures jammed into jars of
53 formaldehyde. The liquid would occasionally become murky over time
and require replacement with fresh solution and this was another aspect of my job.
Mr. Tattom's preferred subjects for faux immortality were lowly
worms and grubs and caterpillars, weevils and beetles, some jars so
densely packed with, for instance, fat-bellied barn spiders or tomato
hornworms that the creatures were not immediately identifiable. The
spiders, at first, looked like scrunched up bits of fancy brocade torn
from someone's couch, the caterpillars like the puffy-armoured arms of
plastic action figures. Mr. Tattom also mixed and matched. He layered
pink earthworms with bristly tent caterpillars, topping them with an inch
of bronze-shelled June bugs for good measure, the way some women
build bean and lentil scenery in snap-top jars for use as kitchen decor.
"Don't muss the layers up, Lou," he'd say. "Let me show you how."
As if the jars were baseball bats, as if draining and relayering them was
a skill I needed to be tutored in, Mr. Tattom, breathing heavily through
his partly-congested nose, draped himself around me. All I could smell,
can smell, is formaldehyde. It, also, is sweet and sickly.
* * *
Samson and I met constantly, clandestinely. We would prearrange where
I would pick him up, then spend time either in the back seat of my dad's
car out on a dirt road somewhere, or, when Samson could spare the
money without his wife's noticing, in the Starshine Motel. The Starshine
was down the highway, past the next town. It was clean. Each room had
a fly-swatter trimmed in lace hanging by the door. Samson would rent
the room while I ducked down low in the car, like a criminal. I knew how
young I looked, how young I was.
The very first time in there, Samson let his wife's name slip. Mandy.
I hated knowing it, hated him for giving it to me. I don't even know why
he was talking.
I did feel powerful, those days, driving, particularly with Samson as
my passenger. Something about being in control of the wheel, the wheels,
while a man, more than ten years my senior, leaned back, arms folded
behind his neck, his good wrist and his cast both supporting his head, a
cocky kind of pose, his eyes, on occasion, sideways slipping from the
road, from the long focus ahead to the short, to my legs, stretched out
to the pedals, parted as they were, for driving comfort, his tongue, too,
sometimes moistening his lips.
Of course, having firearms in the trunk didn't hurt.
Pasty Williams trapped me against a locker, hands on either side of
my head, leaning into me but no part of him, then, actually touching me.
Tilted his head, his mouth open sneering, bubbles of spittle at the cor-
54 ners of his lips from chewing gum. Cinnamon.
'You think nobody knows," he said. His sweat smelled like floral room
deodorizer.
He flicked his finger against my breast before releasing me. Even
through my brassiere it made my nipple sting.
* * *
I do not know how Samson's sweat smelled, whether or not I would
have found it foul, for he was cleaner than any other man I have ever
met. This is not to say I was not, when it came to him, influenced by
odors.
Lying in the motel room, after he and I had done it, sometimes we
didn't get dressed right away. Once, early on, with my head resting on
his cast, I turned my face towards his open palm. My nose was almost
touching the grubby gauze that protruded from the plaster. I could smell
why he itched.
***
June came and I drove us to the gravel pit. I still practiced there, alone
and often. It was my secret place. Unlike the swimming quarry, there
was no water at this gravel pit, nothing to attract teenagers or anyone
else.
Samson and I cozied into the back seat. It's amazing how one can find
comfort in the familiar, even when the familiar is a cramped Cavalier.
While I was on my back, I could see, out the window, dragonflies alternating with bank swallows in the sky. The dragonflies flew closer to the
car than the birds, so they all seemed of equal size.
We got out afterwards to stretch and tidy. It was a strange spring, it
hadn't rained in weeks.
'Watch," Samson said, unzipping again.
He tried to pee my name onto the dry ground, got as far as the "a"
and "1" and part of the "o," dust rising in puffs, before he ran out of ink. It
was so dry his urine didn't even soak in. It just sat there, balanced precariously and unnaturally, some of it beaded, some domed. If someone
had tilted the earth just then, it would have rolled away.
Samson's mood changed. He was like that.
"Nobody knows, do they?" he asked. He was winging pieces of gravel
towards the sand bank, aiming for the birds.
Pasty came into my mind right away, pale as raw dough and slobbering, like a dog. Since he'd trapped me against the locker, he'd taken on
cartoon proportions, had become both more menacing and more laughable at the same time.
"No," I said. 'Why?" I felt innocent, I had told no one. Not a soul. How
55 Pasty found out, I didn't know.
"Just nobody can," he said. He looked harder at me than seemed fair.
"Nobody."
* * *
Mandy had blonde hair, wouldn't you know. And swollen, perfectly
rounded breasts, as if she lived in California. I watched her carry groceries into her and Samson's house. The boy was a surprise. I hadn't
suspected he existed until he popped out the back door of the minivan,
a five-year-old both gangly and clumsy. How sad, I thought. It made me
feel sick to my stomach, that pathetic little boy Samson had never told
me about. But I felt bad for Samson, too, having to hitch rides while his
wife cruised town in a shiny new minivan. I was that young.
* * *
Mr. Tattom had no dragonflies. I asked him why.
"Can't justify the killing," he said. "They eat too many mosquitoes,
though they'd look good jarred up, wouldn't they?"
I agreed they would. I'd looked at some, close up, that got stuck, spread
out like Jesus to the grill of the car. Dragonflies have eyes like gasoline
on water, all the bright colours together at once, side by side, yet not
bleeding into murky brown as they would if they were paint. I'd noticed
in art class that you get the most boring browns by mixing the brightest
colour extremes, by mixing orange and blue, for instance, or red and
green. It's some kind of rule. Like combining black and white to make
dreary old grey. It made me wonder, though, would the same thing happen with smells? If you combined two opposites, something awful with
something ambrosial? Would they cancel each other out and disappear?
Or would they turn into a muddy, throwaway smell, the scent equivalent
of beige?
I watched the dragonflies at the gravel pit the next time I went there to
target practice. Aiming at them, but not shooting. I could see them better that way, standing so still, so composed, so in control. There were
hundreds of them, it seemed, darting about like space-age helicopters,
up and down and backwards. They'd take turns resting, or basking, sat
in formation, eight at a time, on the dried landing platform tips of last
fall's milkweeds, pods long gone but little brown knobs topping the stems,
the whole squadron facing in the same direction, the way cows do during
weather, or geese on water in a wind. All pretty much identical. But even
thinking of Mandy, I couldn't pull the trigger. I'd never shot a living thing.
Samson mumbled things to me that made me want to die for love. No
56 one had ever murmured to me like that before, spoken kisses, lips dragging on the skin behind my ear, down my cheek, my jawbone, my throat.
I almost believed the things he said. That I was unbelievably hot, that I
was soft, that I was smooth. That I was good and his wife was bad.
* * *
Mr. Tattom locked me out. I could see him through the window in the
door, standing across the room, staring at me, shaking his head, his face
a puddle of misery, mouthing a single word, 'Why?" which made no
sense until I got outside.
Pasty was hanging out with a bunch of other bus kids under the smoking tree where running shoes had rubbed away the grass leaving only a
circle of raw earth around the trunk. Cows do the same under shade
trees, but don't leave cigarette butts behind.
Rumours had been spread.
"Geezer slut," I heard someone say.
One of the girls stepped towards me, jabbed her pointed finger into
her gaping mouth. "Tattom," she said. 'You make me want to vomit."
Pasty was pleased as punch. "Now everybody knows," he said.
Even the idea of walking into a school now, any school, makes my
nose curl.
Fight or flight. What was my dad thinking, giving me only two to choose
from? I considered briefly, took the easiest. I flew. On wheeled wings I
flew. I drove all over the place, trying not to feel the buoyant weight of
weapons in the trunk behind me, trying not to smell the charred denim
where the bullet would pass through Pasty's jeans. I drove way north of
town, beyond anywhere I'd ever been before. I drove back again, the
car's wheels straddling, at one turn, a pyramid of bear shit in the middle
of the road. I drove to the quarry and looked down at Samson's sunken
car, a shimmering dark blue patch in the turquoise, the size of a Hot
Wheels, scabbed with rust. I drove to an ice-cream place and bought a
cherry cheesecake cone. I drove to the gravel pit.
The dragonflies were gone. Milkweed was in bloom. While the sun
set, I blasted holes in dirt and pinged lead shot off limestone slabs. I saw
swallows exploding in the air, tiny pillows bursting, Pasty lying dead,
Mandy, bleeding from the heart. I could smell the heat of the rocks, the
hard-packed gravelly ground. Weed pollen prickled my nose.
When it was dark, I drove to Samson's house, parked a few doors
down. I wanted to see with my own eyes just how bad she was.
The streetlights had dancing auras, moths and gnats, festering sparks
of activity, spinning like electrons in and out and around some unnamed
57 atom's giant and brilliant nuclei. My shadow on the sidewalk trailed me,
then caught up and passed me. On Samson's lawn it swung around to
my right, its edges spiking off like fur, my grassy hackles up. Beside the
house, it disappeared into the vaster shadow of night.
The lights were on, the side living-room curtains pulled not quite shut,
leaving a shaft of clarity down the middle, a sharp sliver that stabbed me
in the heart.
Samson was in there, with his wife. She was lying on the couch, a
floral sectional, her T-shirt bunched up around her neck. Samson was
kneeling beside her, stroking one pink and pert nipple with his chin, his
lips on her breastbone—murmuring, I could tell—his cast wedged between her bare legs, rhythmically rubbing against her crotch. Her panties were shiny and beige, trimmed in lace. Beige!
I went numb. That's what happens when you mix extremes. Outrage
and grief. Pain and anger. They make beige. But I kept watching, staring
at this slice of life, of Samson and Mandy's life. I could not help myself.
It didn't even feel like I was spying, I was simply catching two strangers at an awkward moment, an embarrassing moment, of which they
were unaware, like looking through a brilliant space between barn boards,
from a hayloft, and seeing two young and confused heifers, one mounting the other, goldenrod applauding beside them in the breeze, and me
wanting to look away, but unable to. I stood as still as could be, as still as
I have ever stood, waiting for that moment of convergence, for that
glimpse into the future I have always been so smitten by, the smell of
cooling vinyl siding, of sweet williams, of maple pollen, of sweat, corroding metal, smells of love and hate, each one staining my nostrils with
permanent, colourless dye.
58 Terence Young
Rhymes with Useless
Billie talked. I did math. Two months without sex, pushing three. In
my left ear, Billie was saying how it didn't matter if Linda McCartney
had been more tone-deaf than Yoko, at least she'd had her head
screwed on right.
"She wouldn't talk to meat-eaters. Wouldn't even talk to them. If Linda
found out you were eating meat, that was it. Game over. You might as well
have been a rock."
I shook my head. "She was a strict one, that Linda," I said.
"Go ahead and laugh—"
"I'm not laughing."
"—because the woman made sense. I understood her perfectly." Billie
had her fingers spread, ready to list off points. "There are two types of
people in this world. Those that eat meat and those that don't. It's that clear,
Eustace. Don't let anybody tell you different. A meat-eater is the kind of
person who says it's okay to murder and exploit."
We were walking—Billie and I, Hay Soo our dog—shouldering into the
breeze, a salty south-western whisper that blows down the strait from the
open Pacific, talking our way along the clif ftop path we like to follow above
a pebbled shelf of beach. It's a popular place. Joggers, dog people, kamikaze rollerbladers. Hang gliders and windsurfers all year long. It gets so
you know their faces after a while. We were on the return leg, just rounding
the cairn at Holland point, when a woman passed us going the other
way. She was in her early twenties—a girl really—blonde, toothsome. I
turned to Billie.
"Did I ever tell you about the time Joni Mitchell cut my hair?"
"Get out of here," Billie said.
Billie discovered low-fat vegetarianism when her mother had a stroke just
over eighteen months ago. Seventy years of bacon grease and whipped
cream had squeezed the arteries in her mum's neck to pinholes. When we
visited her in the cardiac ward, she said she remembered seeing Venetian
blinds everywhere and then nothing at all. After the doctors had rooted out
all the plaque and sludge, they stapled her shut and sent her home. Billie
sat by her bedside and read to her. She read her John Robbins, the man
who turned down an empire of ice-cream to follow his high-fibre heart. She
59 read her Dean Ornish. She read her Susan Powter. After two weeks of
pinto beans and brown rice, the old woman's blood pressure dropped to
one hundred ten over sixty. Her GP was surprised but skeptical. He asked
her what diet she was on.
"It's no a diet, laddie," she told him. "I'm Veegan. I'm bloody Veegan."
What was good for Billie's mother was good for us, too. No meat, no
eggs, no dairy. No sex wasn't part of the plan. It just happened. These days
we look forward to a nice baked potato with a splatter of home-made salsa.
"I am serious," I said, and I was. I was serious about changing the conversation. There was only so much I could take of Billie's endless fat facts, especially on the one day of decent weather we'd had in a month. Hay Soo was
leading us like a diesel locomotive. There was some sun, and that wind, too.
The trees beside the path were shaking like a bunch of brainless dancers.
Everything was leafless. "Joni Mitchell cut my hair," I repeated.
'When?" Billie asked, her mouth mock serious. "Last week?"
"No," I said. Billie was being funny, but I had to watch it. She's got a
tongue like a truck. Step off the curb and she'll run you down. She likes to
say how people used to shake their heads at her, tell themselves only a fool
would marry Billie Pritchard. Man of the moment, she asked me once, are
you a fool? This when all my mouth was good for was yes oh yes sweet
California come on home. Sometimes I really don't know.
Billie said, "Maybe it was in the summer when I was gone for those three
days? Maybe she cut it then. Hopped in her jet and scooted up from LA.
just because you were getting a little long on top."
Billie couldn't shake me. 'Wrong again," I said. "This was before you and
I met."
'Tell away," she said. 'You can't surprise me."
I used to think sex with Billie was like two animals talking. Nice animals.
Otters or white bears. It was easy as breathing. We never got winded. We
never ran out of conversation. We jabbered to each other anywhere we
pleased. One Christmas we discovered the kitchen counter was the perfect height for a man my size. We grew fond of certain chairs over the
years, some closets, too. I remember telling Billie once that sex was a way
to say everything without words, the silent confessional. Complaints, I told
her. Guilt, too. Watch 'em disappear. Bullshit is what Billie said. Still says it.
Billie says I use sex as an excuse not to talk. She says I have no idea what
real communication is. She has said this for as long as I have known her.
"Okay," I said, "I will." I have always maintained I could talk if I wanted to,
if I had something to say, but the truth is I had no idea what was going to
come out of my mouth. I didn't feel in the mood for another one of Billie's
rants—I already knew more about osteoporosis than is good for one per-
60 son. The blonde girl who'd passed us earlier was bobbing around in my
head like a plank in a river. It seemed only natural to grab on. So I said to
Billie, 'There was a man called Beverly and there was Joni Mitchell. This
was up north where I had gone to look for work. The man's not really
important except he almost killed someone, and Joni probably isn't important either, but she was nice enough to cut my hair."
"Eustace," Billie said.
I had her attention now. 'Yes?" I said.
'What are you doing?"
"I'm talking," I said. "I am conveying a small part of my life's history
which I consider significant."
"That's what I thought," Billie said.
I stopped to tie my shoe and passed the leash to Billie. A few of Hay Soo's
dog friends were going nuts in the field beside us. They were rolling around
on the grass and making a terrible noise. Someone had brought a pig to the
park, and the dogs were crying their eyes out, the animal was that fat. I
couldn't believe how happy I was in all that wind and sun, with the waterfront spread out ahead of me and Billie all ears. Santa Claus bicycled by and
we waved like maniacs. There was only one thing I wanted from the old guy
this year.
I put my hand in Billie's pocket. 'Where was I?"
'You were saying you went north—"
"—to earn a living," I said, remembering my place. "Nothing could be
truer."
'You never said where, precisely," Billie said, "but it doesn't matter. Names
of towns mean nothing to me." And in fact they don't.
I painted a picture. "Let's say all the cars were angle-parked against the
curb. Let's say there were houses on the main strip right beside bars and
heavy equipment retailers. Let's say mountains hung around the place like
thugs and that I booked myself into the Lakelse Hotel and slept for a whole
day, right through to the maid knocking on the door. And then let's say I
went out looking for work."
'Yes," said Billie. "Let's say all of that."
I went on.
"There was a highways outfit working out of a storefront—Kewitt Construction—and an old man with a hardhat was sitting at the front desk. He
told me about a survey crew leaving the next day for the Nass Valley. They
still needed a rod man, he said, and I could be it. I told him I'd like that
because I genuinely thought I would. He asked me my name. I said 'Eustace,'
even spelled it out for him. I told him it rhymed with "useless" and I didn't
mind if he laughed.
'Everybody does the first time they hear it,' I said.
61 He pointed to his hardhat, the letters BEV written across the front in
black. He asked me if I knew what that was short for. 'Beverly?' I asked, and
he said good guess. I said, 'oh,' and he said I could have the job except for
one little thing."
"I already know about the hair," Billie said. "It gets cut off, doesn't it,
Samson?"
'Yes, all right," I said. I wanted to be precise. I wanted to get it right. 'You
know about the hair. But what do you know?"
'You were a victim of your time?"
"I was that," I said.
'You couldn't help yourself?"
"No more than a rat in a drain," I said.
'Well, then."
'Well, nothing. Beverly knew all that, too. At least I thought he did.
Asking a kid to cut his hair in those days was like asking for his right arm.
Worse, even. Oh, he knew what he was doing, all right. Didn't matter if he
did or didn't in the long run. I needed the job. I told him the name of the
hotel I was staying in as though I'd said yes' already. He said he was staying
there, too. He said he'd bring around the payroll forms in the evening for
me to sign. I said 'sure' and he looked at me while I wrote down the room
number. I felt sick. Like I was a pushover and he'd taken my wallet without
a fight. I needed to think. I walked out of the office and headed south along
the main street. Before I knew it, I'd walked right out of town. There was a
bridge over a river, but I didn't cross it. I stopped at a gas station. A girl was
pumping gas."
Billie had her hand inside my pocket now. 'Wait a minute," she said.
"All right," I said. We stopped walking.
"It wasn't her," she said. She took her hand back. I could see she wanted
to list a few points.
"Whoever do you mean?" I asked.
"The girl at the gas station," Billie said. 'You're not about to tell me
you stumbled on Joni Mitchell killing time as a pump jockey. Not the Joni
Mitchell who sang at Woodstock. You can't expect me to buy a lie as
dumb as that."
"She said she was." I lifted my shoulders into an apologetic shrug.
Billie rolled her eyes. "And you believed her?"
'You didn't hear her sing," I said.
"Really."
"There's an amazing echo in most gas stations. All that cement."
"What did she look like?" Billie asked.
"Blonde, thin."
"So was I, once."
"I remember."
62 We marched on. Our walk had the shine of a military campaign. We
might have been Rommel and Hitler inspecting the coastal defenses. We
nodded our heads at lovers like they were troops on parade. There was a
beach with waves clawing at a strip of sand and rock. The waves were rolling
in.
I told Billie I walked back and forth in front of that station with the scum
of an idea floating on my tongue. I told her how the highway was slick with
summer dust and Joni was running from pump to pump, filling the spaces
between with talk, using her hands like a cheerleader, pointing down the
highway, up at the mountains. I told Billie she was ON, lit up like a runway and waiting for the world to land on her doorstep.
"Cars came and went. Big trucks rolled by full of logs. A green light
blinked in my head and I walked over to the front door. Joni was reaching up
under a truck in one of the bays with a power grease gun in her hand,
working away at the universals. She was singing—high, swooping lyrics
that were nothing to me at the time.
'Can I use the phone?' I asked. I had no intention of calling anybody. I had
nobody to call.
She turned and said, 'Leave a dime on the counter,' and went back to her
song and the grease gun. I remember I yelled Thanks,' and then because
my mouth was already open and I didn't know any other way of saying what
I wanted, I asked really quickly, Will you cut my hair?' To hear the way I said
it, you might've thought I was asking her to top up the oil and check the
tires. The thing is I don't remember Joni putting up a big fuss or staring at
me like I was some kind of a freak. I suppose I must have explained about
the job and that I hated the idea of one of the local barbers getting hold of
me. Whatever I told her must have sounded okay because she said 'yes'
and told me to come back after her shift which wasn't over 'til nine."
We were nearing the end of the ocean path. Houses were coming into view
beyond a fringe of trees. "Now I'm jealous," Billie said.
"How do you mean?" I asked. I was scanning ahead for Hay Soo. He'd
slipped his collar a few minutes earlier.
"I'm jealous of anybody in love," she said. "Even us."
I had anticipated this reaction. "This wasn't love," I said. "All she does is
cut my hair."
"Not with her, sweetheart," Billie said. 'You were in love with yourself."
"Right," I said. I always tell Billie she should take up archery. An aim like
hers.
Billie said once she would never go out of her way to straighten out me
or any man, for that matter. "There's no real fun in something so obvious,"
she said, "and besides, it would be a full time job." There was another sex
change in the news a couple of weeks back. It was all over the Living
63 Section of the paper one morning and when Billie finished reading how
Mark/Marjory had never been happier, she said she wasn't one bit surprised.
"I'd lop mine off, too, if I had one," she said. I pointed out to her there had
been moves in the other direction.
"I've never said there aren't any stupid women." she said.
Billie says she wouldn't be a man for all the money in the world. 'Too
much pressure," she says. "Anybody with a good set of lungs can shout
that thing back down, and then what good is it? Look at you, Eustace. You've
been worrying yourself to death for months, and over what? A finger ful of
flesh that wouldn't even keep a bird alive."
Sometimes I think the switch to low fat killed my sex drive. My body was
used to eggs in the morning, a slice of fried bread. Not lentils. Not bulgar.
Not whole wheat flour tortillas. Most of me still believes in all that protein
swimming around in my glands, lighting the big fuse. Billie says I'm a classic
food victim. She says I was lucky any blood got to my dick at all the way I
kept packing on the cholesterol. I've bought books to read. Books about
impotence. I've studied up on Tantric yoga. My chakras are in good shape.
I went to Chinatown and bought thirty glass vials of royal jelly mixed with
ginseng. I took two a day until they ran out. I bought more. Lately, I'm
thinking bear liver, rhinoceros horn. It's not that sex is the biggest thing on
my mind. Billie tells me to relax. She says she could have an orgasm with
my elbow if she wanted. The way I see it, I'm far too relaxed as it is, if you
know what I mean.
"Maybe you'd better tell me about the hotel now," Billie said. There was a
bit of a burr in her voice, a kind of surliness.
'What do you need to know?" I asked. Anybody who takes the wheel
with Billie along should have some idea where he is going. Not that I was
losing interest in the telling. I wasn't. But like every other time I open my
mouth around Billie, I started to get the feeling I might be saying too much.
Hay Soo had been gone a good five minutes, and that was starting to worry
me, too. He has a habit of humping children who get too friendly with him.
Trees, too.
'What was the lake like, for instance?" Billie asked.
"Lake?"
"Lakelse," she said. 'You said it was the Lakelse Hotel."
"I don't remember there being any lake," I said. "There were some hot
springs outside of town, but I never went there."
"So, no lake," Billie said.
"No," I said. I caught a glimpse of Hay Soo. He and a lab cross were
making out next to a park bench. A man in an electric wheelchair had
angled himself next to the bench and was smoking a cigar. He could have
64 parked that thing anywhere he wanted, but I guess he felt less conspicuous where he was. I pulled Hay Soo off the other dog. Then I gave the
fellow in the chair my aren't-dogs-a-chore-sometimes look, but he didn't
bite. I thought for a minute he might be blind, too—those dark glasses
of his were very dark—and then I saw what a stupid idea that was.
"Anything remarkable at all?" Billie asked me when I returned to the
path.
"Just a lab," I said. "No tags."
Rolled eyes again. "About the hotel," she said. 'This Lakelse Hotel.
What kind of a name is that anyway? There's no lake, you said. So is it
something else?"
"Don't ask me. All I remember is there was a country lounge in the
basement."
"Is that where you waited?"
'What do you mean?" I asked.
"For your rendezvous with Joni at the gas station," she said.
"Not me," I said. "I waited in my room."
"Proceed, then," Billie said. "I'm tired of guessing now."
'Yes, all right," I said, and I told her what happened next.
"I walked back to the hotel and started feeling sorry for myself again. I lost
track of things for an hour watching the TV and then there was a knock on
my door. Beverly came by like he said he would. He had those papers he
said he'd bring and a bottle. He was stinking already when I let him in.
'Happy days,' he said to me holding up the bottle. I moved aside while he
walked by. Anybody will tell you there isn't much place to park another
body in one of those rooms, but he pulled up a chair close to the bed and
unwrapped two glasses from the bedside table before I could think of anything to say. He poured a couple of fingers in each. Then he waved me over.
'Drink up,' he said. The glass was half full of rye. Liquor wasn't important
to me then the way it is now. I also wasn't of an age where I had developed
preferences. He tilted his glass back. I sipped mine. I remember his face
was sagging like window putty. There was a kind of grease on his hair that
smelled bad. I sat myself on the edge of the bed and looked down at the
carpet.
He was quiet a minute. Then he said, 'I'm a little drunk.'
'I thought so,' I said.
'Oh,' he said. 'Is this your first job?'
'I've worked before,' I said.
'I don't doubt it,' he said.
'But this is very different,' I said.
'It will be,' Beverly said.
That's good,' I said. There was a picture of some Fisherman's Wharf
65 above the bed, and all the masts and rigging were quite realistically drawn.
Tm glad to hear you say that,' he said.
I didn't say anything. He topped up my glass.
You'll see what I mean when you head up to camp tomorrow. They're all
along the river. They lie in the sun and sometimes they hold up traffic'
The man was starting to scare me. Yes,' I said. 'I guess I'll see.'
You bet your white ass you will,' Beverly said. He got up to use the toilet
and while he was gone I looked over the papers. One was a tax form which
asked me my marital status. There was another which listed all the payroll
deductions I had to agree to. Beverly came back into the room, only now he
had his shirt off. He was holding it over his arm. He sat down beside me on
the bed.
'Do me a favour, kid?' he asked.
He still had his undershirt on. I could see his stomach.
Tm all thumbs,' he said, and shoved the shirt into my lap.
'I guess that can be a problem,' I said, but I didn't pick up the shirt. I was
calculating the distance between the bed and the door, deciding whether I
could take the old guy if things turned ugly. Beverly reached into his pocket
and pulled out a box.
There's one missing on the cuff and another on the collar,' he said. He
opened the box and showed me a needle and some thread. There were a
few buttons in a pill bottle.
'Okay,' I said. My hands were shaking when I picked up the box. I looked
at everything. The thread. The shirt The bottle. Words were racing through
my head. Cheap Canadian rye was burning a hole in my stomach. I worried
I might throw up. Some distant part of myself recognized what was going
on, was even trying to tell me to get up and leave, but another part of me
was shrugging its shoulders. You can do this, it said.
"I had never really sewed anything before, but the buttons stayed on.
Afterwards, I signed the papers and Beverly left. I fell asleep until it was
time to go and have my hair cut. I walked out of the hotel into the full light
of day. It was nearly nine o'clock, but it looked like the sun wasn't ever going
to set in that town. I learned later that sometimes it didn't. I walked the dirt
paths that served as sidewalks. I looked at the tatty little houses. I looked at
my own hands. Joni was waiting for me with a pair of scissors and a brush.
When I calmed down, we talked for a little while. She told me her name. She
spelt it with a "y" back then. I only asked because it's my sister's name, too.
She ends hers with "-ie." Joni said she wanted to go to art school. She liked
music but she really wanted to weld things. I told her some guy had just
asked me to sew his shirt for him. She laughed. Any fool could tell she was
born to sing. I was sitting on a stack of used tires out behind the station with
the northern sun in my eyes. I said maybe it was about time I got my hair
cut if people were going to bring me their clothes to fix. She said I had
66 beautiful hair. It was a shame to cut it, she said. Joni did a good job. I paid
her ten dollars. She wanted my hair, too, so I gave it to her."
We turned onto our street. Hay Soo's breath was steaming into the air. The
weather was turning colder. Billie was quiet. I knew she was adding
things up, listing the major points. Before long she spoke. She said, 'You
fixed the man's shirt and Joni cut your hair."
'Yes," I said.
"Maybe she still has it."
'What's that?" I asked, but I knew what she meant.
'Your hair," Billie said.
"I doubt it," I said.
"That's not the whole story, is it, Eustace?"
"No," I said.
"I was ready to leave at eight the next morning, but nobody showed till ten.
Even then it wasn't the survey crew. It was only Beverly and he didn't say
much except 'Get in.' I found out later he'd spent the night drinking and had
forgotten to tell the crew about me. There wasn't much else he could do
except drive me himself. He didn't say anything about my hair. He didn't
say much at all. I would like to say he whistled but that wouldn't be quite
right. There was a sound he made with his teeth by blowing through a gap.
It was only one note but he kept it going as long as he could. Then he'd take
in another big breath and start over. We drove out of town, past the gas
station where Joni worked, but she wasn't there. I remembered her telling
me she had the next day off. We drove over the bridge and up the river
road. It was a hot July. Dust came in through the floorboards. Beverly put
the fan on high to blow it back out again. I had my window all the way down.
School was out. All along the roadside there were pickups parked facing
the river with speakers out on the roofs. We had to move slow. Kids were
lying everywhere they could: on the shoulder, down the bank, out on big
boulders in the current. Some had even spread their towels on the road and
were lying in the sun. They were smoking cigarettes. I could smell dope,
too. A few longhairs floated in among the cars. I spotted Joni playing guitar
and singing to a small crowd under a tree. Nobody paid much attention to
us. Once in a while someone would yell something at the truck or slap a
fender as we went by. A couple of girls were spraying beer at each other
and laughing. Beverly didn't once speed up, but I could feel his foot getting
heavier on the gas. I had the idea in my head that he believed he'd saved
me from this crowd. That by getting my hair cut and taking on this job I had
redeemed myself in his eyes. It was quite likely he hated those kids. I think
he must have, but he never said anything. He just looked straight ahead
and whistled his whistle.
67 'We rounded a turn and for a second I thought we'd left all the yahoos behind. Up ahead, though, there were some more. Right in the
middle of the road was a kid in a swimsuit lying face down on a towel
sunning himself. There was room to go around him so I wasn't worried.
I even thought what a stupid asshole the kid was. We drove over his
legs. Not fast. Beverly never changed his speed. Just bump and then
bump. I looked around through the rear of the cab. It was only a little
Ford Courier, but still. Beverly stopped his whistling for a bit. Then he
turned to me. He was smiling. All he said was We killed better than that
in World War Two.' Then he started up whistling again."
'You just kept going?" Billie asked.
'Yes," I said. "All the way to camp."
'Was the kid hurt?" asked Billie.
"Chances were in his favour," I told her. "It was only a compact."
Billie was quiet a minute. We side-stepped a group of people passing
around a pair of binoculars. Two bald eagles were sitting on a branch near
the top of a big dead cottonwood. The tree was shining like old bones, the
bark long gone, and the birds stood out like store detectives. Hay Soo
couldn't care less about them, he was so tired.
'You figure Joni recognized you?" she asked. "She was there, you said.
You said she was down by the river with her guitar, so it stands to reason
she might've."
"Can't say," I said.
"Even if she didn't," Billie said.
"Yes," I said. "Even if she didn't."
We were nearly home. It was getting so Billie and I were the ones dragging the dog. I opened the gate and hauled Hay Soo onto the sundeck
where he flopped down under the picnic table. When I turned around, Billie
was leaning up against the front door waggling her finger at me.
'What?" I said.
"Come inside," she said.
'You want to hear more?" I asked. Skin started to tighten around my
neck. "I cut my hair because some drunk tells me to. I do nothing while he
drives over a kid's legs. I compromise the few ideals I ever had and you
want more? There is no more."
"Oh, I liked all of that stuff," she said. "The hair. The truck. The boy
on the road. I liked everything but those buttons."
Something thick and heavy was crawling up the back of my throat. I
watched Billie turn around and head toward the stairs.
"Show me, Eustace," I heard her say from somewhere inside. 'You
show me exactly how you did it."
68 Marika Deliyannides
Tracks
You search all your life for connection. You join a reading group or
take a course in vegetarian cooking; push yourself off your sofa
those bitter winter nights when all you want is to eat greasy microwave popcorn from the bag. When it comes you back off quietly, like
you are pushing your canoe into silent night waters to escape a sudden
ambush. All of a sudden you are not sure that you don't want to skim the
waters alone.
* * *
Your mother calls to say she is putting the house on the market. By fall,
she says. I'll be headed your way by fall. You are afraid she will hear the
quickness of your breath over the line; the connection between the two
of you is so strong. Great—you compel the word from your lungs. You
exhale slowly, beginning with the diaphragm, then the upper lungs like
they are teaching you in yoga class. Then forcefully out your trachea
and nostrils. Great. No really, great.
The first class is mostly women in stretch leggings or Lycra tights. There
is one man, quite handsome, who gives you The Look. The instructor
pairs you off. The man places his hand on your back while you take the
position of the crane—one leg raised off the carpet, torso parallel to the
ground like a shaky compass. Your new white cotton underwear is too
long in the waist; you can feel it creeping past the waistband of your
tights. You have trouble inhaling deeply like you are supposed to; ifs all
you can do to keep from tugging at your underthings. I can tell you are
flexible, says the yoga instructor, who twists your leg at the socket in an
unnatural pose. She kneels down and stares at you with slightly passionate eyes. Hey, she reminds you, don't forget to breathe.
***
You walk home through the snow; the heels of your boots dig into the
ground like you are twelve years old again. The snow crunches under
your feet like hollow cardboard. The air is cold in your throat in spite of
the sun that dazzles your eyes. You are used to days like this, when the
sky is deceptively bright.
69 You have a memory from years ago: you stand watching with your
mother while they demolish the hospital wing you were born in. The
wrecking ball is smaller than you would have imagined, but explosive. It
takes out whole walls and window casements. Slabs of brick and sharp-
toothed shards of glass shower to the ground. You stand shivering, your
arms wrapped around your chest for warmth. It is still springtime, which
means one minute the sun beats so hard you have to remove your jacket,
the next minute you're wishing you had winter gloves. You rub your
hands together and stomp your feet. Your mother is pointing at the third-
story corner window. She is speaking in a too-happy voice. That's it, she
gestures excitedly, that's the one.
* **
You listen to Dr. Laura on the radio, anything to get through the afternoon hump, while she encourages a girl named Angela to boycott a coworker's baby shower. The co-worker has conceived through artificial
insemination. You figure the woman has run out of options. You figure
she is probably your age, or close to it. Dr. Laura perches on your desk
in a red power-suit and three-inch heels. Sometimes you have conversations with her, sometimes arguments. You wonder about all those things
you did when you were younger, what your life could be like now.
Whether you would have figured out your career, married?
* * *
Your mother mentions she wanted a boy first. She is not angry with you
when she says this; she is casual. As though she is telling you the answer to a crossword puzzle: The highest mountain in the world. The
Muslim name for God. Only you never asked for her help, you never
even knew you had any questions. You decide that either there is no
bad intention in her telling you this, or else there is every intention in
the world. It cannot possibly be somewhere in the middle. Later you
remember you have a silver baby spoon with your brother's name imprinted in fancy script. You always thought it was a mistake.
***
You read an article in New Scientist that says early memory lays mental
tracks. The earlier you learn a second language, say, the better your
chances of knowing the language for life. The same goes with painting
or playing the piano. Hitting a baseball. Your neurological wiring creates
permanent patterns for your brain to follow. These patterns can never
be erased. You begin to add up things you didn't get the first time around
(French lessons, music lessons—for some reason you wish to play the
70 violin). Then you scold yourself because you had more than most. But
you make a mental list of things, anyway, that you would give your child—
if you had one. Music, ballet, computers. The art of sitting still.
***
Your mother calls to say your brother is coming for a visit. She is never
this excited when you come home. You tell yourself it's because he lives
farther away but you suspect she prefers his company. She tells you
about the meal she is planning to serve him and his new wife. There are
certain things the wife won't eat, your mother reminds you, though it is
unlikely you will ever have them over for dinner. Who would carry the
conversation while you scurried back and forth from stove to table, carrying platters of free-range turkey parts and baked Idaho Blue potatoes? Bowls of organic lettuce and low-fat sour cream? You nod your
head and fiddle with the phone cord. Your mother's voice never falters.
You have never known her to be indecisive, to clasp her hands anxiously in front of her abdomen. The other evening at your reading group,
one of the women called you "a nervous type." This surprised you. You
always thought you were calm at the surface. Smooth as a new sheet of
glass.
** *
You meet your best friend and her husband in an Italian restaurant. It is
supposed to be a pre-Christmas celebration, one of those couple things
(your boyfriend of three years is sitting beside you devouring
breadsticks, there is an annoying crumb of coarse salt on his lower lip).
She tells you how her mother's cancer has spread to the liver. Like
flour sprinkled throughout, the doctor says. You shake your head in
sympathy. This is an automatic gesture, you do not mean to be cliche
but you do not know what else to do. Your boyfriend eats his breadstick
in two bites and glances down at his watch. He is anxious to order but
how can you speak of marinara at a time like this? You refill everyone's
wine glass from the heavy carafe, starting with your friend's. You knock
it back faster than you would normally; you have a tendency toward alcohol at times like these. You wonder what would happen during a time
of personal crisis. You believe you would not want the slow dulling of
senses that comes from too much drink. You would wish to be alert and
able to comprehend matters of importance. Anyway, you hope.
You learn meditation at the yoga centre, as well. The brochure appeals
to you with its talk of inner revelation. Last year you reached thirty-five,
it seemed as though you should know more. The instructor is the type
of woman who makes slow, careful movements. She wears fashion
71 sweatpants and tunics in colours like eggplant and wheat that cover her
full belly and hips. She reminds you of the women who shop at the health
food store close to your house, measuring out quinoa and couscous in
scoops from sturdy metal bins. You live in an area that reminds you of a
scruffy cat. You are fond of the large sticky elm tree that dips near your
bedroom window, and the fact that almost every house on the block has
a colourfully painted door. Yours is Mohawk Red.
***
Your mother calls to say the Salvation Army has come and gone. She
has gotten rid of everything but the furniture in the front room and the
master bed. Could you line up the names of realtors? An updated city
map? You are not sure why she is moving here, instead of the coast
where your brother lives. You inquire casually if she's considered all
the angles—weather, grandchildren? God knows if you'll have children
at all. You suggest she wait a full year before making big changes. You've
heard or read this somewhere—it seems like good advice. And you really do mean it; you believe you are saying this for her own good. You
wonder if you should ask for your father's writing desk.
***
You spend a whole Saturday going through your own bedroom drawers, rolling tights and socks into neat balls; forcing yourself to throw
away anything with holes. It is warm enough to keep the window open,
and you realize that spring is almost here, which means your mother is
almost here too. You pack up your discards in used boxes you dragged
home from the Safeway. You separate them into hold, and discard.
* * *
Your boyfriend bugs you to travel with him in July. You have the Air
Miles; you've both been talking about this for months. You've decided
on the southern tip of Italy where you can rent a small car and drive
along the border—to places like Calabria and Sicily where they make
exotic cheeses. You've run your hand along the map's outline, traced
the places you will visit with your finger. You can see the atlas in your
bookshelf; its thick white spine bulges from its place on the shelf. Jesus
Christ, he says, when you say you'd like to wait until your mother is
settled. You figure this affair will end soon, but then, you knew it would
eventually.
Things you dislike:
People who sign their notes with "cheers."
72 People who crack their chewing gum in movie theaters.
People who are rude to store clerks.
People who cross you off their Christmas card list because you don't
have one of your own.
People who look at their watches during conversations involving great
pain.
***
Your meditation teacher wears a silver medallion, or amulet, around her
neck that sways back and forth between heavy breasts whenever she
moves among the rows of students lying on their backs, on stiff blue
mats. You look at her through the slits of your eyes, which are supposed to be shut. Through the veil of your eyelashes, she is fuzzy and
unfocused. It is as though you've been awoken from deep sleep and
cannot make out what is right in front of your eyes. Mostly she sits in a
stiff-backed lotus position with her hands open-palmed in her ample lap.
By the fourth class you are given a mantra on loving-kindness. You worry
that maybe you are talking out loud.
***
You lie on your back breathing deeply. You try to push away the thoughts
that skim across the surface. You imagine you are sitting at the edge of
a riverbank, watching loose bits of earth and twigs float by. You imagine
what it would feel like to dip your hand in the stagnant water. Your own
hands are cold as ice.
Some nights you have funeral fantasies. The congregation is full of mourners, colleagues even, who know you better than your own family. The
church is bright and sombre at the same time. The women wear stylish,
wide-brimmed hats and gloves, like in the movies, though you don't know
anyone like that at all. Everyone at your funeral is much better-looking
than in real life. Someone (you haven't decided who yet) gives the eulogy. Your mother listens intently to what is said.
When you were younger (age 16) you had a breast job. Not bigger
though, smaller. The reversal of augmentation. It was your mother's
suggestion. She made the appointment, took you to the University hospital, sat in the waiting room while the doctor took measurements and
photographs. Later she waited while they drew circles around your nipples in felt pen, then a semi-circle below the fullest part of your breast
like a smile. When they wheeled you into surgery you started to cry.
What's the matter? the nurse asked sternly, eyeing the crumpled
73 Kleenex in your hand. Do you have a cold? No, you shook your head.
I'm fine. When you woke up six pounds lighter, your mother was sitting
beside you where she stayed all night.
***
You are in your mother's house (the old one), helping her sort through
photos before she moves (the new one). This is a photo of your parents
at a party; on the back someone has written New Year's 1964. Your mother's hair is fashionable, almost blonde; this surprises you. Since you
have known her she hardly ever wears makeup, certainly does not dye
her hair. Your father's arm is around her waist. You realize she is younger
in the photo than you are now. She is thinner, prettier, happier. You point
the photo toward your mother. I hardly recognize you, you say, suspiciously. Humph, she snorts, I hardly recognize myself.
* * *
Some nights you walk through the back alleys, on your way home. You
do not believe there are madmen hiding in the bushes with wild thoughts
of rape and murder. Logically you understand this is hardly a common
occurrence; you know such crimes are committed mostly by those you
know and love. From the alley you can see what really goes on inside
your neighbour's homes.
***
A woman you know—a writer—meets Sylvia Plath's daughter at a literary convention. Suddenly the daughter is more interesting than the poet
herself. God, you think with a strange sense of glee, what baggage. You've
read enough of the poems to suspect it would have been a crazy existence. You feel a rush of gratitude for your own mother, who made runny
eggs and half-toasted bread for you every morning before school. Even
if your breasts embarrassed her, you say to yourself, at least there was
that.
***
augment \6g-'ment\ vb: To make greater, more numerous, larger, or
more intense.
Some days you spend working inside your house, not sure whether to
turn the phone's ringer on or off. The tree outside your window is spouting green buds, so small you can hardly see them at all.
***
Your boyfriend finally leaves you and you are strangely relieved, though
you do miss his presence around the house. One time you reach out to
74 touch the branches of your tree as though you are holding its hand. You
tell yourself you are not going crazy, that it will take some time to forget
this particular pattern in your brain. You remind yourself that you have
been sitting alone on the riverbank all along.
* * *
Your mother calls to say the moving van has been scheduled. You offer
to drive down to help her with the loading, but you are relieved when
she refuses your offer. You call your brother, hoping he'll commiserate—but you remind yourself before he picks up that you are beyond all
that now. You breathe deeply, from the centre of your self. You tell yourself you are looking forward to this move. You imagine weekday lunches
and afternoons of shopping. You believe the realtor when he tells you
the timing is right.
***
You think you are becoming very "together." You have your meditation,
your yoga; even your boyfriend's departure has not left the hole you
anticipated. You are a warrior with a Mohawk Red door and strategically
placed canoes. You decide memory lays tracks for adults, too. So you
burn incense twice a day, and are careful what you remember. You learn
to breathe like a newborn from the bottom of your gut. Sometimes you
wish you could speak with your father. You believe he always wanted a
girl.
75 Contributors
Heather Birrell is a poet and fiction writer whose work has most recently appeared in Event and Matrix. A graduate of Concordia University's MA in Creative Writing program, she is currently completing a collection of short stories tentatively titled / know you are, but what am I?
She lives in Toronto.
Maria Capolongo spent her youth in New Salem, Massachusetts, a
rural suburb situated west of Boston. As a recent graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art (where she studied drawing and painting
and earned her BFA in Illustration), Maria is an emerging illustrator
who has relocated to the New York City area. For a viewing of her portfolio, you may contact the artist directly at mariacapolongo@hotmail.
com
Marika Deliyannides has worked as a professional business and magazine writer since graduating from the University of Alberta's English
program in 1990. Her work has been published in several national magazines, and her poetry has been published in Secrets From the Orange
Couch as well as the anthology Booking Passage: The Alternate Lives of
Artisans. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.
Cynthia Flood is a Vancouver writer. She has published two collections of short fiction, her stories have been widely anthologized, and
she has a novel and a third story collection in progress. In 1990 she won
the Journey Prize and in 1994, the Western Magazine Award for fiction.
Zsuzsi Gartner's short story collection, All the Anxious Girls on Earth,
was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1999. Zsuzsi is an
award-winning fiction writer and journalist who has worked as Senior
Editor at Saturday Night magazine, as well as Books Editor at The Georgia Straight. She is a former Fiction Editor for PRISM.
Kate Small is the recipient of the 1999 Chelsea Fiction Prize, the 1999
Other Voices Fiction Prize, the 1999 Sonora Review Fiction Prize, the
1999 Madison Review Fiction Prize, the 1999 Evergreen Chronicles Novella Prize, an AWP Intro Journals Award, an Atlantic Monthly Student
Writing Award, and a Hackney Literary Award. She is working on a novel
and an MFA from San Francisco State University.
76 Jan Thornhill lives in the woods in central Ontario. Her collection of
short fiction, Drought and Other Stories, is being published by Cormorant Books in the fall of 2000. She also writes and illustrates children's
non-fiction picture books.
Terence Young lives in Victoria. His first collection of poetry, The Island in Winter, was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1999.
A short fiction collection, Rhymes with Useless, will be published by
Raincoast in the fall of 2000.
Maximum 25 pages per piece, typed and double-spaced.   Please
include a cover page; the author's name should not appear on the
manuscript. All work must be previously unpublished. Entry fee: $20
plus $5 for each additional manuscript; this includes a one-year
subscription to PRISM international plus a copy of Fugue, UBC's
Anthology of Literary Non-fiction. All Non-Canadian residents, please
pay in US dollars.
Contest Deadline: September 30th, 2000
Mail all entries to:     PRISM international Non-fiction Contest
Creative Writing Program
Buch E462 -1866 Main Mall, UBC
Vancouver, BC V6T1Z1 CANADA
For more information, send a SASE to the above address.
77 Creative Writing M.F.A. at U.B.C.
to?
The University of British Columbia offers a Master of Fine Arts
degree in Creative Writing. Students choose three genres to
work in from a wide range of courses, including: Poetry, Novel/
Novella, Short Fiction, Stage Play, Screen & TV Play, Writing
for Children, Non-Fiction and Translation. A course in
Managing, Editing and Producing a Small Magazine is also
offered. All instruction is in small workshop format or tutorial.
The thesis consists of imaginative writing. The Creative Writing
Program also offers a Diploma Programme in Applied Creative
Non-Fiction.
&k is i? X
&
w
Faculty
Lynne Bowen
Keith Maillard
George McWhirter
Andreas Schroeder
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
For further information, please write:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462-1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T IZl
Or check out our web-site at:
www.arts.ubc.ca/crwr What? More
prize money
than ever before?
I feel...  _  faint.
Short Grain Writing Contest
$6000 in prizes! Three
prizes of $500 in each
category:
Prose Poem
Postcard Story
Dramatic Monologue
Creative Nonfiction
■ $22 for 2 entries in 1 category
■ $5 for each additional entry
in ANY category
■ Enter one or more categories.
■ Every entrant gets a FREE
one-year subscription to Grain.
■ Deadline is January 31, 2001.
For complete rules,
contact us:
Short Grain
PO. Box 3092
Saskatoon, SK
Canada S7K 3S9
Tel: (306) 244-2828
Fax: (306) 244-0255
email:
grain.mag@sk.sympatico.ca
website: www.skwriter.com
MAGAZINE
Grain, A choice Canadian literary magazine since 1973. Ralph Gustafion
$1,000 Prize>"Best Poem
$ 1000 for Best Story
Fiction: One story of up to 25 pages per entry
Poetry: Up to 5 poems per entry
Entry fee: $20 includes a year's subscription to The Fiddlehead
(US & overseas, please pay in US Dollars)
No multiple submissions and no previously published - or
accepted for publication - submissions will be considered
Manuscripts will not be returned
Deadline: December 15, 2000
The Fiddlehead Contest
Campi s House, 11 Garland Coi'rt
UNB PO Box 4400
Fredericton NB E3B 5A3 Canada
Inqi iries: Fid(S)nbnet.nb.( a  In truth, I will miss my guns. My hands
and ears will ache for them... A bullet
can be exact, like the dot at the end of
an American sentence, like the white
space beyond a fine line of poetry.
— Kate Small, Page 16
PRLTM   INTERNATIONAL
FICTION
DRAMA
POETRY
TRANSLATION
CREATIVE   NON-FICTION
FICTION CONTEST ISSUE
Judge's Essay:
Zsuzsi Gartner
Heather Birrell
Marika Deliyannides
Cynthia Flood
Kate Small
Jan Thornhill
Terence Young
Cover Art: Untitled by Maria Capolongo
7  '"72006   "86361
04

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