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Contemporary writing from Canada and around the world  PRISM international
is pleased to congratulate
Mark Anthony Jarman
author of
"Righteous Speedboat"
[publishedin PRISM, Vol. 34:2)
which will be included in the
1997 edition of
Short Fiction of the Best of Canada's New Writers  PRISM
Sara O'Leary
Executive Editor
Tim Mitchell
Fiction Editor
Rick Maddocks
Poetry Editor
Regina Weaver
Advisory Editors
Keith Maillard
George McWhirter
Associate Editors
Sioux Browning
Melanie Little
Business Manager
S. L. McFerran
Production Manager
Jennifer Herbison
Editorial Board
Ian Cockfield
Darcia Dahl
Jessica Johnson
Bibiana Tomasic Kaulfuss
Miranda Pearson
Madeleine Thien
Nancy Turnberg 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, B.C. V6T IZl. Microfilm editions are available from University Microfilms Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan, and reprints from the Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York, N.Y. The magazine is listed by the Canadian Literary Periodicals
Contents Copyright © 1997 PRISM international for the authors.
Cover photo by Paul Kinsella.
One-year individual subscriptions S16.00; two-year subscriptions $24.00; library
and institution subscriptions $22.00; two-year subscriptions $36.00; 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. Manuscripts with insufficient return postage will
be held for six months and then discarded. Translations should be accompanied
by copies of the work(s) in the original language. E-mail contributors should
contact us for electronic submission guidelines. 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 Shirley S. Neuman and the Dean of Arts' Office at the
University of British Columbia.
We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council
($16,000) and the Government of British Columbia through the Ministry of Small
Business, Tourism and Culture.
Publications Mail Registry No. 5496. July 1997.
The Canada Council
for the ajits
5INCE 19(7
Le Conseil des Arts
du Canada
depuis 1957 Contents
Vol. 35, No. 4 Summer 7 997
Wailan Low
Richard Rene
Marina Endicott
Stephen Guppy
Mark Anthony Jarman
Bryan Sentes
David Winwood
Lea Littlewolfe
Peter Richardson
Alice Major
Mary Cameron
Birney's Legacy  8
Old Woman Pregnant  12
The Giant Doreen   16
Downwind  66
Guided By Voices   81
Magonian Latitudes   9
Hands   14
DejaVu   15
Ways To Lose It  64
The Languedoc Express  80
Sea Horse  88
The Paddle  90
91  PRISM international
is pleased to announce that
Bruce Taylor
is the recipient of the first annual
Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
for his poem "My Son"
(published in PRISM Vol. 35:1).
The poem is to be included in Taylor's
forthcoming collection, Facts
(SignalEditions, Vehicule Press).
Winners of the PRISM international
Earle Birney Prize for Poetry
will receive a $500 cash prize.
The prize will be awarded annually by the editors for the
best poem or group of poems by a writer
appearing in each volume. Birney's Legacy
Wailan Low
In 1946, University of British Columbia president Larry Mackenzie
invited Earle Birney to join the English department as a full professor.
It was a plum job and Birney agreed to take it on the condition that he
could plant a seed; he would come if he could start a creative writing
workshop—just one would suffice for the time being—beyond that, he
would teach Middle English and Anglo Saxon and sit on various
committees. Between 1946 and 1965, Birney weeded, watered and tended,
and the seed of that one workshop grew into the Creative Writing
Department. During some of those same years, Birney edited PRISM,
which he made international, attracting contributors from many corners
of the planet. Birney's classes at UBC produced many of this country's
finest writers of poetry, fiction, drama and film—many of those writers
found their first audiences through PRISM international.
Birney lived a long, rich life. He was a teacher, journalist, political
agitator, writer and mountain climber. Most of all he was a writer and a
friend. He wrote poems, novels, short stories, plays, magazine articles,
scholarly papers, political tracts and tens of thousands of letters. He taught
several generations of students and, until he was suddenly disabled in
1987, he gave help, advice and encouragement to young writers, and
inspired them. ■
Birney's literary legacy is in the 1
collective consciousness of people who
have grown up Canadian in the last 50
years. His poem "David" is part of our
coming-of-age. Birney's poems are found
not only engraved in public places but in
our memories.
Toronto, 1997. Birney in 1979
The editors of PRISM international have named Quebec poet Bruce Taylor as
the first recipient of the newly established Earle Birney Prize for Poetry. The prize
will be awarded yearly to the best poem or group of poems by a writer appearing
in the magazine. The prize honours Birney: for his significant influence on PRISM,
for being the driving force behind UBC's Creative Writing Department, the first of
its kind in Canada, and for his lasting contributions to Canadian literature. Winners
of the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry will receive a $500 prize. Beginning in 1998,
funding for the prize will be provided by both PRISM international and Birney's
widow, Wailan Low. Bryan Sentes
Magonian Latitudes
...there is a certain region, which they call
Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds...
A change of dimension
not just locale
Like lungs for gills
or water to air
Horses, bison, mammoth, ibex,
numberless others unheard of
Rendered on cave-walls
palimpsest thick
Yet on the ceiling alone
in threes and fours
Flying saucers hover
over their occupants
The Cabalist Zedechias
in Pepin's reign
Sought to convince the world
Daimonas Sadaim
Neither angelic nor human in kind
inhabit the Elements
Required the Sylphs show themselves
in the Air for everyone
Which they did sumptuously
in the Air in human form
In battle array marching in good order
halting under arms or magnificent tents
Or the full sails of ships
riding clouds When winds rose and blew
black clouds overhead
The peasants ran to the fields
to lift tall poles
To stay the ships
from carrying off
What rain or hail
culled from the crops
Called up by a tempestaire
for a tithe
Which practice persisted despite
the Capitularies of Charlemagne
The Sylphs saw alarm
from peasant to crown
Determined to dissipate their terror
by carrying off men
Showing them their women
and republic
And setting them down
again on earth
Those who saw these as they descended
came from every direction
Carried away by the frenzy
hurried off to torture
Over all the lands countless tested
by fire or water
A marvel in Cloera County
interrupted Sunday Mass
It befell an anchor on a rope
caught in Saint Kinarus' door-arch
Where the line ended in clouds
the congregation saw some kind of ship
One crewman dove and swam down
as if to free the flukes from the keystone
But they seized and would hold him
but that the Bishop
On grounds terrestrial air
may well drown one celestial
Forbade it
and freed
10 Quick as limbs can swim he rose
to hands on ropes and ladders
The anchor rang and cut
the line coiled down about them
The cave is a long way in from the mouth open to the sky
Generations there stare straight ahead on haunches
Higher up behind a fire burns
A wall before those hurrying past between
Both ways up and down the track there
Their burdens their shadows
One over her share
the water over the earth
The other in the firmament
the water over the earth
The air a mirror
Whose face is an ocean
waves electro-magnetic
There they stare dreaming
A quiet blue eye flickers
11 Old Woman Pregnant
Richard Rene
Old Mam'zel Malforge, the last of the Malforge family, walks slowly
as a ghost among the waist-high green cinnamon bushes and
the shining brown backs of the pickers, wearing a crumpled
stained white sheet, once shapeless now swollen over her stomach, so
long it covers the bones of her feet, and a sleeveless blouse, red roses
and green vines overlayed by unknown stains and the drool, and a moist
brown straw hat whose brim rotted away many years before, her hair
hanging out like the silk threads that she slaps aside with hands moving
in circles when she sees me looking, telling me in the voice of a frightened aristocrat keep working d'you think I pay you to stand around and
look at me and when I bend my back again she walks on, carrying a small
blue cardboard suitcase and holding an ancient cloth umbrella over her
head to protect my skin from the sun because even though I was born here I
still have sensitive skin you know my whole family did, coming from Northern France, ah yes, we all knew how she had been destined from birth to
inherit the estates of King Louis or someone, who was robbed and beheaded by his servants many years ago, we all knew that that suitcase
was full of the clothes she packed when the last of her family died and
never wore again, vowing to return to my homeland to reclaim my birthright when the soil finally becomes barren and I can sail away and forget
that this pile of shit ever existed, but she never left because the rains never
failed, the monsoons brought pregnant clouds like day following night
and the cinnamon trees bloomed and grew so they had to be pruned, and
her eyes became sharp and hungry again and she would drift along, gesturing to us in circles, shouting instructions in her voice like a frightened
cat hung by the tail, talking, talking, living year after year in a house
poorer than ours because her family home had collapsed many years
before and she made us build another one out of the remains because a
new house in this hole is wasted money, refusing to spend money on paint
for the rotten walls, the corrugated iron roof almost dissolved by rainwater and rust, on stilts held together only by the bodies of termites, in a
bare yard occupied by a few scrawny chickens pecking in the dust, the
skeleton of a dog tied by a rusty chain to one of the stilts, that died when
she forgot to feed it because she almost never fed herself, occasionally
12 finding a windfallen coconut, slashing its head off with a knife and fishing out the meat with her fingers, sucking on her wet lips as she ate,
treating herself every Christmas to one of the chickens in the yard, clubbing and boiling it on a small black charcoal burner, sitting on her rank
stained striped sisal mattress, chewing and watching without expression
the four bare walls of her house, drawing pictures with her toes in the
dust of the unswept floors, her suitcase of clothes beside her, until it
became too dark to see and she lay back and slept with the suitcase locked
in her arms, until one night nine months ago, when someone broke into
her house and it was torn from her iron grip by one of those kafs officers
who else could it be slapping my floor with their bare kaf feet. I always knew
they'd do it to me one day! as she fell on her knees, weeping and beating
her fists on the floor.
Only then did we learn where she had hoarded her profits all those
years, and for the first time we felt pity as we watched her wandering
around the yard the next morning, gathering her scattered clothes into
the battered suitcase, and we knew that everything would be different
from then on, and we were only partly right because, though she did not
change much in the days of her suffering, it became apparent months
later that, like Sarah, God had blessed Mam'zel Malforge in her old age
by a strange and miraculous pregnancy, and now, walking among our
bowed bodies, she holds her shoulders back to balance the weight in her
womb, her wrinkled tortoise face almost beautiful, her movements slower
than ever, resembling those of a noblewoman in the court of King Louis
accepting homage from her peasants until the moment when, turning to
go back to her house, she takes a step forward, trips on a root and falls
forward, pulled by the weight of her womb, clawing at branches for support as she falls, her ancient, brittle spine, burdened for six long months
by child, snapping like the click of a tongue, her stomach hitting the
ground with a sound like leaves, and, with the sound of rotten canvas, the
sack we learned later she had hung around her neck close to my skin so
that the kafs will have to rape me to get it, tearing and spilling out from
between her withered legs the fruit of her labours since the day she was
robbed, an ocean of five rupee notes.
13 David Winwood
Home a third floor tenement, but
my mates consider us rich because
we've got an upright piano. See, the old
haunt gets the upper hand: I am
sitting next to the piano teacher,
fingers never in the right
position—not even for the easiest
quatre-mains. His hands so old, it is
as if he's wearing spotted gloves sewn
together from the skims of his milky
coffee. His cup, as always,
balancing on top of the instrument.
Unbeliever in Knock
I'm standing next to a girl balanced
in a wheelchair. A man takes
her hand and makes
it touch some stones. Slow on
the uptake, it takes a breve
before I realise they are lumps
removed from the gable where
the vision was seen. With hands
already stretched out, I shiver
then quickly refrain.
14 Deja Vu
He wouldn't have muddied his lips repeating 'history repeats itself, even though
it did. The well-trodden river bank
squelchy underfoot, the liquid
breath of fishes only two feet away, air
already seemed a foreign substance. Not at home
here in Henley, right on, and on the Thames,
Henley is a famous place. He placed
his footwear close together. "They always do
that," a navy man told me. "We once had
a lad who stepped overboard at night in
the Gulf of Mexico. No waves and water warm
as a lukewarm bath. We noticed his trainers.
Turned the ship and found him eight hours
later still treading water. But he fought
the men who pulled him into our lifeboat
like a hooked shark." Not so in Henley. Here
he put his folded specs across the insteps
as if his patent leathers were exam papers
he'd marked—Dissatisfied with the results
he strode into the water.
He could swim, one of those things, once
learnt, never unlearnt, but tried not to.
When through the mud, he moved to
deeper parts. A whole life of swallowing
then a river on top.
15 The Giant Doreen
Marina Endicott
We all talk about Doreen as a monster, a giant, a little bit crazy.
She lives with our father, Patrick. I don't have to have anything
to do with her any more if I don't want to, but Irene has to go to
the island every Christmas, because she's only eight and Patrick still has
visiting rights for her. I think he may have a right to me too, but it's fallen
into the dusty corners, with one thing and another. So I wouldn't have
gone with Irene except she said she couldn't bear to go unless I went.
Christmas is not the best time to travel if you don't want to get where
you're going, because everybody else does, and at all the airports and
bus stations everybody's being greeted by people who are ecstatic to see
them, crying and hugging, touching reunions.
There was none of that when Irene and I got off the ferry. Just Doreen
standing huge-legged, as big as a house, a mansion, an army barracks;
six feet tall and about four feet around.
Patrick was not there.
"Four hours late!" was the first thing she said, like it was. our fault.
Neither of us said anything. She didn't look in our eyes. I was pretty sure
she would have phoned to find out how late the boat was going to be. She
should have, anyway.
"You'll have to carry your own bags, girls," she told us, as if we wouldn't
have realized that for ourselves, and then she stomped away.
"She's started it already," Irene whispered to me, and pulled at my
arm as if we could still get back on the ferry and go home. She knew we
couldn't, she knew the return tickets weren't until January 2nd, and what
would we do until then in Vancouver?
"We could live in the museum like those guys in the book," she said,
as close as she will come to begging, but I had to march her forward
anyway. I picked up our bags, only knapsacks because we weren't going
to need good clothes for all the magnificent Boxing Day parties that
Doreen wouldn't give. Beside us a man was finding his mother or some
older lady—old enough that she had to be a mother or an aunt. "In Nova
Scotia," I told Irene as we watched, "they say awnt, but here they say
ant." He put his arm around her and kissed her on the nose, and her face,
which had been anxious and quiet till then, went into a million wrinkles
16 of pleasure and trying not to cry. "I miss you so much," he said, and she
said, "Oh, I miss you so much!" I think she must have been his mother.
I took Irene's hand and we walked after Doreen out into the evening
wind, the street covered with a sifting of snow.
"It's terribly sentimental," I said, "Meeting people like this, Christmas. It makes people say loving things that aren't even true. At least
Doreen is honest."
"Sometimes when you don't mean something but you say it, then you
do mean it after all," Irene said.
Doreen was half a block ahead of us by the time we got outside, and
the distance didn't shorten even though we almost ran to catch up with
her. She had on a red coat that wouldn't button up in the front, because of
her belly, so it flapped in the wind. We could follow her like a ship with
red sails. She has stumpy legs that don't wind down at all at the ankles,
straight sausage from knee to foot. She also has red hair—hennaed, my
mother Isabel says. She's got a big messy mouth that goes up on one
side and down on the other and little pebble eyes you can't tell the colour
of. The big mystery is why Patrick likes her at all. She's an editor at a
fancy press, maybe he thinks she will advance his career. They are not
married; apparently he told her he'd had enough of getting married.
Katherine and Isabel, our mothers, who were each married to Patrick for
a while, could probably have said the same thing. We didn't know Doreen's
position on married or not married, or whether it had changed when she
found out about having the twins.
"She must be ready to pop," I said to Irene as we jogged along. "Maybe
it makes you bad-tempered."
"She's always bad-tempered," she said, out of breath. I slowed down a
little. "Or else stupid and telling lies."
The light poles stretched out in front of us, puddles of light on the
skimpy snow and mud. We ran out of one and into the dark, and then into
light again, and in the light I could see that Irene was probably going to
have to cry.
I stopped.
"She doesn't hate us, she's just worried. Personally I would rather be
married to Jimmy Bakker or Donald Trump or somebody than Patrick.
Even when he was younger he was no picnic, and now he's old and cranky.
Plus she's going to have a baby any minute."
'Two," Irene said, putting her hand on the pole. 'Two huge babies as
big as cars."
"Anyway, we can't expect her to like us a lot, we remind her of Katherine
and Isabel."
"Mommy likes you, and I like Isabel," she said, staring at me.
"Yes, but it's a long time ago. And they're not trying to live with Patrick."
17 "When I was born did Mommy hate you?"
"When you were born she didn't know me yet, it was only afterwards
that they started living together, when you were six months old. Then
she liked me. I was surprised, I didn't think she would." I was not doing a
very good job of reassuring her. "Look, Doreen's way ahead, we'll never
catch her."
"I don't want to catch her. I want Daddy to come and take us to a hotel
instead and have pancakes."
"He doesn't have any money."
"I know."
She was crying to herself, not sobbing, a couple of tears running out
of her eyes.
"I have fifty bucks," I said. 'We could get back on the ferry and get a
hotel in Vancouver and call home, and they could send us some money,
and we'd be home tomorrow." It was a kind of plan. If she wanted to do it
I thought we should.
"Would we be allowed to get a hotel?"
"I'm seventeen, I think they have to."
A dog came running along the pavement and swerved to come over to
us. Irene put out her hand and he sniffed at it and then licked it. She
knelt down and scratched his back. He lifted up his head and sang, his
mouth in a tiny little o to let the sound out.
"If Doreen was a dog she would like me," Irene said.
"If Doreen was a dog, she would be the biggest pit-bull in the world
and someone would shoot her."
She almost laughed. 'This dog has no collar."
"He doesn't look hungry though, maybe he lost it."
"Maybe he'll follow us home and Doreen will have to let him in."
That made me laugh. The idea of Doreen coming to the door with a
lamp and maybe a couple of cups of cocoa on a tray, seeing the dog,
saying Oh poor doggie, let him come in and warm himself at the fire and
sleep on my bed.
'We could give it a try," I said, and took her hand again. But the dog
ran off, he had somewhere else to go. We could have followed him home.
Instead we went on through the snowy night, all the way down the mile
and a half to the turn-off to Patrick's house.
* * *
Patrick's house is not actually his house. It belongs to Doreen, but Doreen
didn't live in it when she was alone, she was too chicken. When Patrick
met her she was living in a room in Kitsilano in the same house where he
was staying for a week. When I try to think of how they hit it off and
decided to move to the house on the island my mind veers away. It has to have sex in it, but the thought that Patrick could possibly have sex with
Doreen or want to, after my mother and Irene's mother, who are both
beautiful although in completely different ways and interesting and intelligent—it wouldn't matter if Doreen was only ugly, but she's grotesque.
But she has a nice house, and she works for a publisher.
The porch light was on but the door was shut when we got there. It
would have to be shut, of course; the wind was blowing and it was still
snowing a little. Irene was walking blind wherever I took her by then,
and she stood numbly while I got the door open and then steered her
Doreen got up from the table. She had a hot drink in her hand, coffee
or tea, steam coming up from it.
'You'll be tired," she said. She just couldn't look at us at all. "I put the
tv. in your bedroom."
She has a face that can go dark, it can look almost black, you can't
stand to look at it when she's angry. Her eyes, which she could not swing
up to our faces, were all brown-shadowed. She stood there beside the
table, stubbing her cigarette out and holding her cup. What was she doing smoking? She hadn't even taken her coat off, it was gaping open over
the stomach.
I put the knapsacks down, took off my coat and boots, took off Irene's
coat and knelt to undo her boots. Irene stood still, her face was bent
down too. In the whole room I was the only one who could look around
the walls and see all the paintings Doreen's father had done, heavily under the influence of Emily Carr if you ask me. It was easier to look at the
paintings than at Doreen.
She didn't say anything, she didn't move.
I stood up and picked up the bags and got Irene's hand in mine again.
Nobody said anything. After a minute, when nobody, not even me, could
look straight ahead, I took Irene into our usual bedroom, the small one at
the back of the house.
It was only nine o'clock, but I opened up one of the beds and helped
Irene undress—she was crying so hard she couldn't get her buttons undone. Her little body was shaking and shaking, it made me so angry that
I started to shake too, and I couldn't talk about it, even though I should
have found some way to make Irene think it wasn't her fault. "Never
mind, never mind," was all I could say, which was stupid, because why
shouldn't she mind?
After she was lying down and not shaking so badly I went to the bathroom down the hall and got a wash cloth. I put it under the hot tap. While
it was getting warmed up I looked up at myself in the mirror and in that
sudden glance it seemed to me that I had the same brown mask over my
own face, like Doreen's. I wrung the wash cloth out and took it back to
19 our room.
Irene was calmer, she was turned towards the door waiting for me,
with her hand under her ear. "Roll your head a little," I told her, "So I can
wash your face."
"It's warm," she said.
"We can fix it, we can go home tomorrow," I said.
"It's okay."
The bed was covered with a white Hudson's Bay blanket, with beautiful coloured stripes. "Do you always get this blanket even when I'm not
"I like it."
"We're not prisoners or anything, we'll call our mothers and they'll
send us a new ticket. We don't have to stay." I was worried that maybe I
was making it worse, because she wasn't really listening to me.
'The first little bit is always hard," she said, and that filled me up with
anger to the roof of my head.
"Where's Patrick, that's what I'd like to know?"
'That's probably why she's mad," Irene said, closing her eyes to let
me put the wash cloth on them.
I was afraid she would be cold, so I lay down with her for a while. The
one lucky thing was that Katherine had enough money to buy more tickets for us. So far I've found that the thing I want most often is enough
money to leave places. If Isabel had had more money a long time ago I
wouldn't have had to stay with my grandparents in Mahone Bay. She
wouldn't have had to share a house with Katherine, and Katherine
wouldn't have had to either if she'd had a job then. But then I wouldn't
have ever met Irene except maybe by accident here at Patrick's—and if
he'd had money I bet he wouldn't have taken up with Doreen. If he'd had
enough money to take off I bet none of us would have ever seen him
again. Maybe he had some money, maybe that was why he wasn't home.
* * *
When I woke up I didn't know where I was for a second. I knew I was with
Irene, but it wasn't my own bed or hers. Then I saw the wooden slat
blinds shining and I remembered I was at Patrick's. My watch was hard
to see, I had to hold it right under the window, leaning over Irene without
waking her up. The moon was out of the clouds, it must have stopped
snowing. It was eleven-thirty.
I got up carefully and put the blankets back around her. I left her my
watch in case she got worried. I put it on the pillow beside her.
Then I went out into the hall, even though I was afraid to do it—I
thought I'd better talk to Doreen. I was amazed at how scared I was.
The hall seemed long before I could turn into the living room. My
20 socks weren't making any noise on the carpet, so she didn't turn around
when I came in. She was still sitting at the table. She still had her coat on.
I couldn't speak for a minute, because I was afraid I'd start yelling. Not
only would this be a stupid thing to do and take away my dignity, I would
also lose, because Doreen can really holler.
"I need to use the phone," I said, finally.
"It's on the kitchen counter." She didn't jump or turn her head, it
sounded as if we'd been having a conversation all night.
I had to walk past her. She didn't move anything, not even a finger or
a muscle in her face, she stared down at the table like she had been
doing, like a stone woman. I was double afraid now, because she was
being so weird, but it came out of me like diarrhea or something, by
"Where's Patrick?"
She looked at me then; it took her head a while to get back in gear for
turning. "Patrick?" she asked me. "I don't know where Patrick is. He
went for coffee."
"When did he go?"
'Tuesday morning."
'This is Friday."
'Yes. It's Friday."
I had this really vivid memory of when Irene was about five, Katherine
saying "he went for coffee" when I asked her how Patrick left her. It
might have been a joke; he left Katherine long before Irene was born, a
couple of months anyway, and here was Doreen obviously nearly ready
to reproduce. In the same moment I also remembered Doreen taking me
to shop one day in Vancouver and buying me a good leather skirt and a
walkman. She must have spent about six hundred dollars in one day, but
the thing was, it was a nice day. We went to Stanley Park and I got a
peacock feather, and we had fried chicken in the park.
"Did he phone?"
She looked up then, I thought she might laugh. It was a stupid thing to
ask. I felt even worse.
"You could have called and told us not to come," I said.
"I thought he'd come back." She tapped her finger on the table. "I
wanted company."
What would you want us for? Call your friends! I wanted to say, but I
had a feeling she didn't have any friends. Even her parents were both
dead: that's why she had the house.
She got up, she took off her coat and went to hang it up. As she walked,
all lumbering, she said, "If you want to go home tomorrow, I'll arrange
for it."
That was exactly what I'd come out here for, but as soon as she said it
21 I thought maybe we should stay for a couple of days anyway and see
what happened when Patrick came back. And if he didn't, then I didn't
know what we would do.
I couldn't like her, she was impossible to like, but it looked to me as if
she was taking her coat off because she knew Patrick wasn't coming
back tonight. She wouldn't need her armour. She was so huge with babies that I didn't see how we could leave her alone right away. I would
have to find some way to talk Irene into it.
She stopped over by the wall with her hands on it, leaning into it. "Oh
God," she said in that extreme way she has. It made me afraid that she
was going into labour right there. "I didn't give you anything to eat. Do
you want a cup of tea?"
This seemed to me to be the most selfish and disgusting thing she'd
said or done yet, to offer me a cup of tea at midnight when Irene had
gone to sleep with nothing. I almost decided to phone Katherine right
away, even though it was two in the morning in Saskatoon. But Doreen
stayed bowed over by the wall, resting her head on it, looking like a child
sent to the corner; also I'd been thinking it might be more mature to wait
until the morning to call them instead of waking them up in the middle of
the night all panicky. I wouldn't have the tea, though.
"No thank you," I said. "I'll just go back to bed."
You get these notions of what is loyal and what isn't, I don't know
where they come from. Irene wouldn't ever know that I'd had a cup of
tea. But if Orpheus or somebody hadn't had a piece of pomegranate—no,
it was Persephone, even better. If she hadn't eaten a little seed of pomegranate on the way out of Hell, just to get the taste of the juice on her
tongue, it would be summer all the time, never winter, never Christmas.
I must have been tired: all the way to bed and into sleep, I was thinking
about Persephone climbing that long dark hallway out of Hell.
* * *
Irene woke me up by staring at me—she does that all the time at home.
You get a feeling in your dream that someone's watching you, and you
open your eyes, and there are her clean white and green eyes looking
into yours. She isn't really awake herself, she's just thinking and looking.
I say good morning and she says good morning, and I put my arm around
her, and then we close our eyes again and go back to sleep. So far we
could have been at home. The next thing is, about ten minutes later she
starts to draw on my face. She's painting my face on for the day.
She did that, too, so I got to lie there with my eyes closed and her
delicate fingers touching me like soft brushes, like the fronds of a juniper bush. Irene is like a smell of juniper in the room.
"What are you drawing me?" I asked her in my unused early voice. It
was almost dark in the room.
22 'You have big black eyebrows," she told me, tracing them. "And your
cheeks are full like the wind on the map, and your mouth has a sharp
edge to it." She used her fingernail.
"I am the war-queen."
"But you have a huge double chin—" Two tickling loops under my
chin made me crouch my head down to my chest. "And your ears can
hear everything in the world." Her finger fiddled inside the curls of my
ear, first one and then the other—my head went side to side on the pillow. "And your whole face is bright bright green," she said, laughing so
no one would hear us.
I pulled myself up on my side to do her. I started at her forehead and
washed my hand all down her face. 'Your skin is purple like blueberries
with sugar on them. You have a spear for a nose..." I pinched it gently all
the way down, like clay. "Your eyes see things hidden under rocks or
water." I pressed lightly on the inside other eyelids, by her nose. "Each
of your teeth—open your mouth—each tooth is three feet long and has a
bell on the end." She was laughing again, making almost no sound to
match my whispering, trying not to open her eyes. "And you have a beard
as long as a carpet, a red carpet rolling off you for fancy people to walk
'Then Doreen can't walk on it," she said, which gave me those two
hard heart beats—I'd almost thought she was okay.
She opened her eyes. She caught me watching her carefully and she
screwed up her face and burst out laughing, too loud for however early it
was. "Okay, okay," I said, "She can't, you get to pick. With teeth like that,
no one will dare to walk on it if you don't invite them to."
'You can walk on it," she said, still laughing when the door opened.
Doreen nearly filled up the whole doorway. She either hadn't taken
her dress off, or she'd put the same one on again.
We both shut up.
"I'll make you some breakfast," she said. Then she left.
We stayed shut up. After a minute I scrabbled under the pillow for my
"It's six-thirty."
She looked scared and giddy both. "It can't be, it's getting light out."
"Well, it's dawn, yes. They have daylight saving here. And it's farther
We were both about to get hysterical. It was either laugh or bawl.
We put our same sweaters back on so we wouldn't take too long in
case she was waiting for us, and we put our shoes on too, to feel more
"We are the warrior queens," I told her. 'Your teeth like spears can
vanquish any terrible spider-witch; my windy cheeks will blow her into
23 next week."
I hadn't told her yet that I didn't phone home, or that I thought we
might have to stay. Feed her up first and then get her aside, I thought,
feeling guilty for managing her but also grateful that she was so young
she could wake up happy even in this house, even without Patrick, even
having breakfast with Doreen.
The whole house was grey-blue, twilight in that early early morning. I
nearly turned on a light switch, I had my hand out, but then I thought
Doreen might want it dim.
Irene held my hand when we got to the living room. The table was set
with place mats and everything, jars of jam and butter already there.
Doreen came in from the kitchen carrying a big glass jug of orange juice,
Patrick's jug that he used for making sangria in the summer.
"Hey there," I said, being polite. "I'm sorry we woke you up."
"I wasn't sleeping," she said. "Sit down."
"Can I help you?" Why does it always have to be so awkward? Even
when Patrick's there making dumb jokes the first couple of mornings
are this stiff. Sometimes it's been worse, really. She said no and went
back to the kitchen, so Irene and I sat down like good girls. Irene's foot
kept kicking me under the table. I pinched her knee where it really makes
her laugh and grinned at her as if Doreen was a nothing, a tiny mosquito
bugging us.
"Did you call home?" she whispered, just as Doreen came back with a
plate of eggs.
"I fried them," Doreen announced with her usual too-loud voice, plunking it down in front of us. Then she stopped. "If you want scrambled,
Bess, you can make some more."
"Fried is great," I said. What else could I possibly say anyway, since
she was trying not to be the ogress this morning. She went back to the
kitchen again.
Irene turned an egg over with her fork. They were hard as rocks and
black on the bottom. I put one on my plate anyway.
Doreen came back with some toast, that special thin-slice kind of bread,
as if she could possibly lose weight at the moment. I thought she might
sit down with us, there was a place set for her, but she went out again, her
bunchy yellow feet slap-slapping in red slippers without backs. Irene took
a piece of toast and put it on her plate. It was like being in some horrible
movie that would last for three hours. Doreen would just keep bringing
things in all morning, all day, the food would gradually turn into lunch
and then dinner and we'd still have to sit there eating. The egg on my
plate had two yolks—I suddenly almost had to puke. Two hard yellow
ping pong balls in a greasy white bed.
I looked at Irene instead of puking. She looked back at me. "I didn't
24 call," I said. I was afraid Doreen would hear me, or come back. "I couldn't
call last night, it was too late." That was no good, my mother would have
been out with the papers but Katherine would not have been asleep, and
she never minds being woken up anyway. Irene just looked at me.
Doreen came in with a pot of coffee. She poured me a cup. "Irene?"
Irene looked at her instead of me; then looked away again quickly. "Do
you drink coffee yet?"
"She doesn't like it," I said, in case Irene didn't talk. "She'll just drink
'There's your breakfast then," Doreen said.
Out she went.
Five eggs on the plate, four pieces of toast.
"Can you eat?"
Irene shook her head. Shit, I thought, I am so bad at this—it's a good
thing I don't have some poor child to look after all by myself. But then I
thought that Doreen would have two soon, and they would be a lot worse
off than Irene with Katherine and Isabel and me around her.
"Eat an egg," I told her. "It won't kill you and you'll need your strength."
I leaned over. "We may not live till lunch," I said faintly in her ear. Nothing for a minute, but then she looked up at me sideways.
"Can I have some ketchup?" she asked me in a small voice—not like
last night in bed, but the good bad small voice she uses when she wants
something evil. Katherine doesn't buy ketchup, we have to get it at
McDonald's. She grinned at me a little, just showed me the top row of
her teeth.
'Three feet long," she said. Then she laughed her head off without
making a single bit of noise. I hit her on the head with my knuckles and
went to the kitchen. It was darker in there, the north side of the house.
So it took me a minute to see her properly.
Their kitchen is weird, for colour, because everything in it is plum,
even a big plum-coloured fridge and stove, and also for shape. It's a tunnel, sort of, cupboards on both sides of the narrow narrow room, and
then at the end a nook or something that used to be a greenhouse when
Doreen's father was around. They'd taken out the greenhouse shelves
and put in a daybed instead like a window seat, an armless thing with
cushions at one end. The glass goes right up to the roof, bending into the
house at the top, so it's a good place to lie down at night. You can look
down the path to the shore from there.
Doreen was crouched on the daybed like an animal, going hoo, hoo,
with her mouth, her breath. She had one foot on the floor and one knee
on the bed, both arms bracing her, her huge belly touching down on it.
She couldn't see me; even if she could have I don't think she would have
noticed me. Her heel was bare, the slipper was falling off. I wanted to
25 leave, but if I did Irene would think something was wrong. Something
was wrong, she'd be right.
Everything in that dark plum kitchen looked like blood—all I could
do was stand there. I didn't like it, I wanted to go home.
Her neck stretched out, she seemed to be looking out the window, but
she was still making that noise. I couldn't even put my hand on the counter.
"Hi," she said—the most ridiculous thing to say. I don't know how she
knew I was there. Everything smelled like fried eggs.
She stopped. She was quiet for a minute, then she pushed herself back
off the bed.
"Did you need something?" she asked, not looking at me, standing
with her back to the kitchen.
"Um, ketchup," I said.
"Ketchup. In the fridge."
I got the fridge door open. The light from inside it shone out into the
gloomy room, made all that dark red glow instead of smoulder. It lit her
back up, too, in her red dress. It was only the colour of bricks, not blood.
"Do you need the doctor?" I was getting the ketchup out, not looking
at her in case she didn't want me to.
"No," she said; you are only a child, she was saying.
I took the ketchup bottle out to Irene.
"It's no-name!" she said, yanking her mouth down—I could have
slapped her face, which really surprised me. I don't think I ever wanted
to slap Irene before. It was the surprise that fixed me up, made my mind
start again.
"I'm going to be a minute," I told her.
"Has she started?" she asked, face lighting up, shoving her chair out.
All excited for somebody she couldn't stand, and there was me being
such a baby, I couldn't even stay in the same room.
My stomach hurt. "I think maybe she has. She's—not really friendly."
"She's probably just busy," she said. She pulled her chair in again and
poured herself some ketchup. Then I could think, look, that looks like
blood too, and see how stupid I was being.
"Okay, stay out here until I say, okay?"
"Okay," she said. She cut up her egg.
I was going back, the whole six steps from the table to the kitchen,
which that morning was like walking over the Alps or something, when
Doreen started to yell.
Oh God, I thought, dead babies pouring out of her, oh God. But when
I got to the doorway, Irene right behind me, it was the pan on fire, the
pan she'd fried the eggs in—a bright little fire on the stove. Doreen was
yelping, waving her hands in the air, she looked like a scarecrow, if you
could get one that large. There was an acid, metallish stink.
26 "Water, get water!" she was shrieking.
I grabbed the frying pan off the burner, found the lid of a pot hanging
under the counter and jammed it down.
"If you put water in it, it just burns more," Irene shouted at her to stop
her yelling. She got around me and went to Doreen. "It's okay now, Bessie
got it," she said.
The handle was hot, but it was plastic, not hot enough to burn me. I
put the frying pan down in the sink.
"My grandmother does this every year at Thanksgiving," I said. I was
in an amazingly good mood all of a sudden. It's being useful, being good
in emergencies. I really like to do that. If I went crazy I'd probably go
around setting fires and putting them out.
Doreen sat down on the edge of the daybed. She used Irene's shoulder to get down with.
"She puts brown paper over the turkey. That's what her mother used
to do. But it catches fire every year."
"So Bessie puts it out," Irene said. She was watching Doreen calm
down. "With baking soda."
"Do you want a cup of coffee?" I asked her. "I mean, do you want anything?"
Doreen started to laugh, haw-haw-haw through her nose. 'You didn't
use baking soda, Bess," she said between brays.
'The lid works just as good," Irene told her. That made me laugh, a
bit. I went and got the coffee and poured her a cup. I put some sugar in it,
because if people are in shock they need it. I thought if Doreen kept
laughing like that she might get hysterical and then we'd have to pour
water on her. Or jam a lid on her head.
"Isn't this idiotic! It's simple reaction," she said. "I'm fine."
"Are you having the babies?" I asked her—Irene was going to ask her
anyway, if I didn't.
She gulped some coffee, she coughed.
"Should we phone the doctor?"
"I've got a midwife, I called her at five." She paused, she put her hands
down on her knees. 'The doctor will come later on, but Gina is coming at
"Is that soon enough?" I was surprised. The way she was panting before, I thought they were being pretty casual.
"It takes a while, Bessie," she said. She took a big breath, and then
she put her hand on Irene's shoulder. "It'll be a Christmas present," she
said. That's what people say to their own children when they're having a
baby, that it'll be a Christmas present for them, or a birthday present. It
sounded crazy coming from Doreen's mouth, but she meant it to be kind,
in her ungainly way.
27 'You should lie down," I said, trying to be kinder myself.
"Yeah, I should get out of this firetrap, anyway."
She hoisted herself up again, and we all went into the living room in a
line, playing follow-the-leader. I had this urge to duck down and crawl
under the table to see if she'd do it, but I got over it immediately.
There wasn't anything to say in the living room. We stood around.
Neither Irene nor I wanted to sit down before she did, and she didn't
seem to feel like it. It was getting lighter, even through the fir trees outside the living room windows. Doreen wandered around touching things,
flicking her big finger on picture frames and the edge of the mantle.
Irene and I stood awkwardly, trying to think what to say.
"Do you want to play cards?" Irene asked—then she looked at me in
agony in case she'd said the wrong thing.
Doreen looked around. "I can't think of anything else to do," she said.
She seemed to be pretty helpless for a big woman. It didn't take away her
size, it made it more obvious. She pouted out her lips. "Nope, I can't
think of one thing I'd rather do."
Irene got the cards out of the wooden box on the mantelpiece. It was
seven in the morning and we were going to sit around playing cards with
a pregnant woman we couldn't stand.
"If I go get some wood, can we have a fire?" Then it would be like
evening, I thought. Doreen said sure, and I left Irene to set up the cards.
She loves playing cards. I think maybe it's the only thing she and Doreen
could possibly do together. Irene doesn't like to shop that much yet. But
she would like Stanley Park, and the peacocks.
*  *   *
When I was in grade six I had to write an essay at school on Trees, and I
wrote about pine trees. We should be grateful to the towering pine which
keeps its verdant green all through the year, I wrote. My teacher sent it
home with a note on it to say I'd copied it from a book, and my grandmother went down to the school the next morning and tore a strip off
her. It was the verdant that made it sound copied. It also sounded pretentious, of course, but nobody mentioned that.
I can't remember why I thought we should be grateful to dark heavy
trees that make it feel like evening all the time. The Douglas firs were all
huge, their first branches high off the ground. Patrick and Doreen store
their wood where the guy delivers it, by the shed they use for a garage.
Patrick is not excited about moving logs around and splitting wood for
kindling. Doreen does it, or I do when I'm there.
I went down the path between the trees, holding my arms to keep
from shivering. I wished I'd asked Doreen how far apart her pains were.
I didn't want Irene having to watch that panting action—the thought made
28 me run to the wood pile. When we saw the movie at the Nova Scotia
Ladies' Academy about having a baby it was mostly those classes you go
to with your husband where you pretend to pant; they didn't show much
of the beast.
All I could manage to carry was four small logs and some sticks—I
wasn't going to split anything while Irene sat inside playing cards with
the labouring woman. I had to go slower on the way back to keep from
tripping on roots in the semi-dark. The sun was coming up properly finally, off to the east over the water—looking almost like the sun coming
up in Mahone Bay on the other side of the world practically. Doreen
wouldn't have had her husband to go to classes with. I wondered who
went with her. Or who went with my mother, or Irene's mother? When
my grandmother was pregnant, and her mother, and that mother's mother,
they didn't have classes. I doubt if my grandfather would have gone anyway. Where were they getting all those guys in the movie who went and
sat on mats beside their heaving wives?
Doreen's father made the fireplace, although he got someone else to
build the house. He picked the stones himself while he was painting in
various spots, and carted them around the island in a little wagon with
his easel and paintbox and so on. From what I've heard about Doreen's
father, I would have liked him a lot more than her. But stories about
people are deceptive. Patrick would sound quite interesting too, if you
heard stories about him. He can sound fascinating if he tells you them
The reason I could never be a sixer in Guides, which my grandmother
insisted I had to belong to for one year, was that I couldn't get my fire
badge. For the fire badge you had to light a fire on demand, and in the
wet woods in Kejumkujik National Park in Nova Scotia I never once managed to get a fire going. All I was good at was putting them out, and they
didn't have a badge for mat. Getting a fire to go in a fireplace is the one
thing I can think of yet that my father taught me how to do. He has a
method of layers, interlacing sticks and newspaper under and over the
logs, that works every time. He also taught me to roll up a sheet of newspaper into a long spill like a torch, and warm the chimney with it before
you light the fire, so it draws better. So there is one good thing about
I got this fire going and brought Doreen a blanket in case she got
cold; I put it near her on the old leather sofa. She and Irene were playing
Concentration, where you put out all the cards face down and turn over
two at a time, trying to make pairs. Irene always wins at this game, she's
the champion. She wanted to let me in even though they'd started with-
29 out me, but I said I'd wait for the next game. She had six pairs and Doreen
had one when Doreen winced and started to pull herself into a new position.
I headed for the door, I said, "Irene—I need you for a sec, okay?"
She was watching Doreen, but she got up and came with me. I took
her down the hall to our room.
"She's in labour, right?" I said, not remembering how much about all
this Irene would know.
"Right," she said, trying to figure out what we were doing in the bedroom.
"So she's having another set of labour." I didn't want to say pains, for
some reason.
"How long does it last?"
"I think about five minutes or so."
"You're going to leave her all alone?"
"I don't think she's going to want us to watch her, you know? I think
it's something you have to do, so you don't want to have an audience or
She sat down on the bed. She looked really small and young. In the
old days they used to send the children away to stay with aunts and things
when the mother was having a baby, if they could arrange it in time.
"When I get sick, I want to have somebody with me," she said. "I know
it's not sick," she said quickly, "But she might want someone to hold her
hand or something."
I stood there looking at her.
"I'll stay here," she said. Her eyes were wide open, she hadn't caught
that brown shadow thing, but she was afraid, a little. I felt my stomach
swoop again.
"Right," I said. "See you in a minute."
I went back to the living room. Doreen was up on the couch, on her
back this time, though. I sat down on the extra part of the coffee table
without the Concentration laid out, and I picked up her hand. It was curled
into a fist. I made my hand another fist around hers. I held her hand
really tightly, while she held her breath and then made those noises. She
didn't look at me, so I could watch her face. Her eyes were shut tight, her
face was screwed up. She made a little sound, and you could see her
belly moving under her dress. When you're holding someone's head and
they're throwing up you get that gag feeling like you'll throw up with
them: I was squeezing my inner muscles together, my stomach and my
vagina, without even noticing it—I only noticed when she stopped, and I
could stop.
She let her head go back on the arm of the sofa. "Look at the clock,
Bess, will you?" she said. It was ten to eight.
30 That midwife was supposed to come at eight, but she didn't. We were
all looking up at the mantel clock every few seconds, even Irene, who
was back from exile. So we knew it was 8:04 when Doreen started again.
I took her hand and Irene picked up her feet and helped her get them
onto the couch, then sat holding her ankles for her. I jerked my head at
Irene for her to scat, but she showed me her teeth and mouthed "three
feet long," so I gave up. Doreen shut her eyes and paid no attention to us
except to hang on to my hand grimly, but we didn't expect her to—she
was busy, like Irene said before.
At the end of it she lay back with her eyes closed as usual—it's amazing how quickly something new becomes routine. Irene said, "Does it
hurt?" Doreen shook her head back and forth on the pillow and smiled
for the first time properly. She opened one eye to look at Irene down by
her feet.
"Hurt is not the right word," she said. "It's hard, it's tiring. I ieelgravid,
like gravity, a great weight moving down in me. I wouldn't say painful yet,
but it's certainly deteriorating."
Irene nodded, mouth closed up like a bud, even though she could not
possibly have any idea what Doreen was talking about. Neither could I
really, unless it was something like when you get cramps with a bad period, but all your body's trying to oust then is a trickle of blood. Doreen
was having to kick out two big babies. I wanted to ask her if she was
afraid, but I didn't have the nerve. Holding her hand twice didn't make
up for four years of making fun of her.
The midwife came before I could have asked anyway. Henna-headed
like Doreen, only brighter red; spindly and extremely wholesome. She
took off her boots and put Birkenstocks on right away. She smelled of
health-food stores which is not necessarily a lovely smell, and I didn't
like her. She brisked her way over to Doreen and manhandled her around,
stroking her hands over the belly and so on, asking questions, being
very important. Irene got off the sofa when the midwife first nearly sat
on her, then brushed her aside. Funny for a midwife not to notice a real
child. Irene came over to me and we stood behind the couch at a slight
distance, feeling out of place. I touched her arm, looked toward the
kitchen. We went out while Doreen was answering questions.
The frying pan was wrecked: it was the non-stick part that had caught
fire. I threw it out. Irene and I went back and forth getting the breakfast
dishes like the invisible servants in the story, while the water ran. At
home neither of us are exactly urgent to do the dishes, but it was so
much better than doing nothing that we almost enjoyed it. We could have
let them sit in the drainer but then Irene wouldn't have had a job, and I
thought she'd be better off busy. Busy was beginning to have strange
connotations for me, I didn't think I'd ever be able to use it again without
31 thinking of Doreen huffing and puffing.
I was fishing a little glob of egg white out of the sink, and bending
down to put it in the garbage I suddenly remembered dead kittens, little
bony bundles wrapped in mucous, Silver eating them. Horror, and then
your mind tells you, well, that's understandable, isn't it? They're protein,
after all, just like a little mouse. The smell of the blanket in the birthing
box and the look of old, indifferent dislike in the cat's eye.
My grandmother never liked that cat Silver. She let me have her but
she wouldn't touch her. But when Silver had kittens, she was down on
her ruined knees beside the box petting her before they came and talking to her, staying with her.
If you get those strong memories that almost wreck you you can sometimes beat them away by filling in other things around them, filling in my
grandmother crooning, singing while the cat stared up at her and the
cat's body rippled and shuddered. Silver had six litters before she got
run over one winter while I was away at school. The kittens only died
that one time.
I shut the garbage lid.
"Let's phone," I said.
Irene dialed, but then she handed me the phone suddenly when it was
ringing—maybe she didn't know what to tell, or what to ask. She shoved
the receiver at me, saying 'You talk! You talk!"
Katherine answered.
I said, "Hi. Merry Christmas Eve."
She said how nice that we called so soon, that my mother was in the
bathtub, and what was wrong? I was glad I got Katherine. It was going to
be her credit card if we had to go home, and she's always calmer than my
"Doreen's having the babies. She started this morning. I can't remember if that's early, I didn't ask her."
Katherine said it was three weeks early, but that was okay, nothing
unusual for twins. I should have known she'd remember when Doreen
was due.
"What's Patrick doing with you?" she asked.
I couldn't say anything for a minute. I changed my mind and wished
I'd gotten Isabel after all.
"He's not here," I told her.
"Where is he?"
She waited. She hardly ever gets mad. I wanted to hang up, I wished
I'd thought about this before I phoned.
"She says he left a couple of days ago..."
Irene was making a sort of face at me, her shoulders were hunched
32 up, she was feeling guilty with me about telling. Boy, we do a lot of not
telling, I thought, and lot of feeling guilty for things we didn't do.
Katherine was still silent.
"He went for coffee." I said, almost trying to make her laugh.
It didn't work.
"Can I speak to Doreen?" She was really angry.
"Um, the midwife is here, looking at her."
"She's not going to a hospital?"
"I guess she's having them at home."
She stopped talking again. Since her own difficulty when she had Irene,
Katherine thinks it is criminally irresponsible to have a baby at home.
She doesn't argue about this, she just thinks it.
I could hear Isabel coming into the kitchen at home, the beautiful
open room—I wanted me and Irene to be there so badly! My mother was
excited, saying "Let me talk!" and then came Katherine's slow quiet voice,
muffled by her hand over the phone. I made that tragedy face back at
"Bad?" she whispered, and I nodded. I didn't even know if Doreen
would be able to hear all this, lying on the sofa being poked at by the
Katherine came back. "Bess? I think you and Irene should come home
right away."
'The thing is, Patrick.... I don't know—" I hated having to say all this
stuff. "She'd be all by herself."
"She's a grown woman. She—" Noise from Isabel, more hand over the
phone. I could imagine them standing there, Katherine shaking with fury,
which takes her hard because she's not used to it, my mother in her
dressing gown, one arm around Katherine's waist, speaking quickly. The
glass fronts of the cupboards shining in the clear morning, not like here
in the womb of the pine forest.
Katherine took her hand away too soon, I could hear her saying in that
knife-voice, "Thatfucker, Patrick—"
My mother came on.
"You okay, Bessie?"
"So far," I said.
"I think so."
"Is it a mess?"
I felt like crying. Only Irene would see me, and Katherine would hear
me, and Doreen, out on the sofa. "It's all right," I said.
"We'll fix it," she said. Like I had said to Irene the night before.
"I told Katherine, I don't know if we should leave her, did she say?"
"Give us an hour, okay, baby? Phone again in an hour, or we'll phone
33 you. We'll do some phoning."
"Okay," I said, with that weak feeling again. I looked up at the ceiling
so I wouldn't bawl.
"Does Irene need us to talk to her?"
I gestured at her with the phone, and she shook her head earnestly.
"She's fine," I said. "We've been playing Concentration, tell Katherine."
"It'll be all right, Bessie. Call again in an hour. I bet Doreen's in a fine
"She's not bad. She made us breakfast. There was a fire."
"Oh, God." She almost laughed, but she stopped so Katherine wouldn't
get madder. "Did you put it out?"
"I am the warrior queen of the kitchen," I said. I grinned at Irene, who
was twisting herself into some weird shape, sitting on the counter. "We'll
"I love you," she said. I said it back, I hung up.
"My mother didn't seem all that surprised," I told Irene.
"What about mine?"
I suddenly realized I didn't know whether or not Irene knew that Patrick
left her mother before she was born. She must, I thought, but I couldn't
remember. "She was pretty mad," was all I said. "We have to call them
back in an hour."
We went back out into the living room to see if the midwife was still
there. She was.
"Out you go, girls," she said, actually making shooing motions. "Out!
Dory's got to concentrate here, she needs some quiet."
Dory was not a good name for Doreen. She was struggling up from
the sofa, saying that we wouldn't be any trouble, we could watch t.v., but
the midwife wouldn't take it.
'They could use some fresh air," she said, cutting right over what
Doreen was saying. "It's a beautiful day—you run along for a couple of
hours, while I get things settled here."
Doreen was trying to get a word in—the first time I had ever seen
Doreen over-ridden.
I said, "Good idea." I grabbed Irene and whipped her over to our coats
and boots. "We'll just go for a walk. Want anything at the store?" I don't
know why I said that; to convince Doreen that we didn't mind going, I
The midwife, whose name I didn't remember, Gina, just kept waving
her hand to us to get out. She was so goddamn self-important in her fake
third-world clothes.
Irene didn't say anything or fuss at all, even though she doesn't like
walking in the cold. I guess she thought it was going to be worse inside
than out, that morning.
34 There's a movie called So Dear To My Heart or something, that I
watched with my grandmother in Nova Scotia when I was six, about a
fatherless family in Switzerland. The mother dies in the first five minutes, and her dying words to her oldest son are Keep the family together,
my dear boy, so he spends the whole movie trying and trying, but he
can't, he has to keep giving away his little brothers and sisters until finally he's only got one left. But he just can't take care of her, he has no
money and no food, and he has to give her away to an old couple high in
the Alps. He pulls her up there on a sled and gives her away, and the end
of the movie is him walking back down the mountain with the empty sled
banging along behind him.
-k   -k  -k
We went down to the ferry terminal, the only place I could think of that
would have a place to sit and be warm. Plus there were phones there, we
could phone our mothers when we were supposed to. I decided that we
would go back after that, even if the midwife was still there. We would
just go straight to our room. We could play cards all day. It was a horrible
idea, being stuck all day in that small room crammed full of two beds. But
Irene wouldn't mind it as much as wandering around.
She had taken off her mitt so her hand could touch mine properly. It
felt really warm. She has the nicest little hands. The wrinkles in the smooth
knuckle skin look like she's got thread wound too tight around her fingers. Even when her hands are perfectly clean they look a bit earthy, as
if she's been playing in some dirt. She has that same brown shine that
Katherine has, but you have to admit the look of Patrick in her too, in the
kind of smoothness her skin has all over, not just her fingers. Also her
eyes are more like his, although I would never tell her so. She'll be taller
than him, though; Katherine is tall. And Doreen is a giant—Patrick must
have been going consecutively for height. If you lined up his wives in a
row you could lay a board on their heads and have a slide. Isabel is shorter
than me, and Katherine is medium, and Doreen goes on forever in all
directions, especially packed tight with babies.
We got a booth in the restaurant by the ferry, an old place with red
fake leather seats and hooks at each table for your coats. We could have
had a proper breakfast except unfortunately neither of us was hungry. I
tried to talk Irene into it but she would only shake her head. We sat there
for a minute.
"Where do you think he is?" she asked. It was the first thing she'd said
since we got thrown out. I wondered if she was missing him. She still
likes him.
I thought I should make up a legitimate excuse, some reason why it
wasn't completely stupid and cruel of him to go off like this. Only I thought
35 it might be worse if I got into the habit of lying to Irene about things in
order to preserve her innocence or something grandiose. It's very difficult to avoid putting a false but better light on events when you're supposed to be looking after a child, I find. But then I thought that I should
be careful not to shine a false worse light on Patrick either.
"You can just say," she said, finally. She has a look that makes me feel
like the foolish earthling, lacking her knowledge of the eerie reaches of
The waitress came over. "Just a cup of tea," I told her. Irene surprised
me and asked for a chocolate milkshake. The waitress waited for me to
nod, as if I was the mother, which made me feel helpless. Then she left.
"I think he has buggered off for good," I said. "Since I can just say. I
think he's gone. He'll send you a Christmas present though, I bet."
For a minute it looked like she might cry again.
"I think—" I didn't know what to tell her. "I think he has a little problem with wanting to be a kind of a romantic figure, you know? So he
doesn't like to think he's a husband and a father, except the kind of romantic father he is to you and me, off somewhere else agonizing about it,
writing us poetry."
"Maybe he's just scared of the babies."
"Maybe. We might as well be charitable, because nobody else will be.
Or maybe he didn't run away, maybe—" I stopped because I was going to
say, maybe he's dead or something.
"Maybe he's making a surprise for her!" Then she blushed for having
said something so naive.
It made me furious that she had to blush like that—our father should
be somewhere making surprises for us all, instead of deserting Doreen
and also us, instead of having left Isabel, and Katherine too. Sometimes I
get so mad at him it makes me worried that I'll never be able to love any
other man, I'll have to be a lesbian or refrain. You're supposed to have a
good relationship with your father, you read about it in all the books.
How could anybody have a good relationship with Patrick if they're his
daughter? Maybe he should have had some sons. Irene still likes him,
she really does. She's not old enough yet to stay angry.
I got out of the booth and went and sat on the same side as Irene. It
made me feel better, although I should have been doing it for her. Oh, we
were pretty miserable, sitting there in the terminal cafe. It was the kind
of restaurant with mirrors everywhere, so we could see ourselves sitting
there with our backs to the window.
We could also see the people reflected walking by outside. We were
mainly looking at how lonely we were in this cold restaurant, but we saw
him anyway.
We saw Patrick walking by the window.
36 He has a scarf he was given in Afghanistan which is one of his best
stories until you know which parts are lies, but you can't mistake him
anyway, his head slightly forward and looking slightly up, always seeing
something amazing ahead that he's got to get to, got to touch. I was
shocked at how my heart jumped to see him. Maybe the worst of all of it
is you can't help loving people even when you don't want to.
We slid out of the booth, untangled our coats from the hook, made it
out the door of the restaurant. But it was disorienting, the mirror, having
seen him reversed—you couldn't figure out which way he'd been going,
and there was no sign of him.
Irene kept turning around, her head going forward just like his goes,
that seeking thing: she is made out of his bones and body, and so am I,
and we wanted to find him.
"Run," I said, "You run to the end that way—don't go any farther without me." I took off the other way, towards Doreen's. I thought he was
more likely to be going that way and I wanted to catch him before Irene
did. I ran as fast as I could, like a bad race in a dream, faster than I thought
I could, but when I got to the cross street there was nothing. Behind me,
far away, Irene was looking from side to side at the cross street, her small
arms flapping up and down in despair. She turned back to me with that
old tragedy face on, but this time from the real feeling, not the pretend
scared one. If Patrick had come out of a doorway just then I would have
tried to hit him, I think I would have. I don't know why people have to be
able to feel as hugely as they can, when so much of what you feel is so
My heart was pounding so hard I couldn't run properly. I trotted back
to Irene. She didn't come towards me, she kept looking both directions,
and past me, too, with a superstitious energy as though she could make
him appear just by never ceasing to look.
"Maybe we made a mistake," I said, but we knew we hadn't. There
wasn't anywhere for him to go, unless he'd got into a car very quickly.
The ferry hadn't come and gone that fast, it couldn't have. We stood there
for a while, both looking around and around, Irene turning like a weather
vane first one way and then the other. My eyes were smarting all the
time. I was afraid to listen to my own thinking or I would cry.
Instead I remembered that we had to phone home. We went back to
the ferry terminal.
I got Isabel—she must have been waiting right by the phone to save
me from talking to Katherine when she was in a state. She said, "Hello,
my baby/takes the morning train," from this game we play, and I did
start to cry. I didn't say anything about seeing Patrick, I just said hi back.
They'd decided they should both come to help. Katherine had managed to get seats to Vancouver that day by some miracle, Christmas Eve
37 and everything, so they would be arriving late in the evening unless they
missed the last ferry, but they thought they'd make it. My mother made
me describe exactly how to get to the house, and said she bet they'd be
there before the babies were. She said to keep on the alert for fires, with
that laugh in her voice even though Katherine was standing right there
steaming. It made me cry even more, the tears falling off my nose and
onto the black plastic phone. I pretended I was still talking after she'd
hung up, so I could lick the tears off my top lip and rub my eyes before
Irene saw me.
She knew perfectly well anyway, of course. But she just said, "We forgot about the tea and the milkshake." She let all her worry go into that,
which we could go back and pay for.
I was glad they were coming in a way, but in another way it seemed
like Irene and I could deal with Doreen better alone. Also if I were Doreen
I would not be too thrilled at having the two ex-wives appear just as I was
having babies; it sounded to me like everybody was going to be very
upset for a long time. Probably I should have turned right around with
Irene when we first got there and Doreen was so rude, and gone back to
Vancouver. This is why people of my generation get so excited about
credit cards and want that kind of stuff that means you can have what you
want exactly when you want it: it's all because of all the divorces in the
world and all the incredibly awkward scenes that happen all the time.
The ferry terminal was cold, Irene was cold, that midwife must surely
be done picking and poking, I thought. We went back, through the same
streets as last night, with almost the same reluctance, but this time not
for Doreen.
* * *
The foxwife was gone. Before we knocked I tried the door—it was open
this time. Doreen called hello from her bedroom, and then "Irene? Bess?"
which made her sound young and frightened, imagining burglars and
axe-murderers coming in to kill the defenseless pregnant woman.
I said, "It's us!"
Irene got her boots off quickly and went over to the hall, peeking
around to see if it was all right to look into her room. I went over too. You
could see a dim mound in the middle of the bed. The room was a sty.
Clothes and things everywhere.
"Gina left about an hour ago," Doreen's invisible mouth said. Boy, she
was big in the bed. She looked more like a geographical feature, a barrow or a butte, than a human being in a bedstead. The room was like
ours, naturally dark because of the wood panelling and slat blinds, but
even more shadowy with the curtains closed over the blinds.
"Do you want some tea?" Irene asked her.
38 "Oh, if you want some yourselves..." A thin voice for that huge mound.
"We ordered some but we didn't drink it," Irene said.
I pinched her elbow and glared to tell her not to talk about Patrick.
She stared at me in surprise, then mouthed, "I wasn't going to!"
Doreen was trying to get up on one elbow, grinning in another spasm
of labour. I went into the room in case she needed help, but I didn't quite
dare to touch her. She'd gotten out of her dress, finally, and she was
wearing an enormous nightgown. Her bare arms were bigger around
than any man's I'd ever seen.
"Is, um, Gina coming back?" I asked her, when she'd stopped heaving
and laid her head back against the wall.
"Not till this evening, with the doctor," she said. "She's got another
baby over in Hubbards. But I can call her if I need her sooner. Apparently
everything's going according to plan, but they expect it to be quite a
while." She sounded pathetically vulnerable; it was not very pleasant
because she was too big to be helpless, no one could help her. Irene and
I weren't up to her weight.
I didn't know how to tell her about our mothers coming. I stood there
awkwardly, not knowing where to look. The top of the dresser was covered with a mess of things, shiny things like cuff-links and dimes and
marbles—it looked like she'd turned out an odds-and-ends drawer on it.
Bits of paper, feathers, earrings, string. A bird's nest.
Irene came in too, she almost sat on the end of the bed, just perched
her hip there. She didn't look right at Doreen, though, in case it was
impolite. There was another long silence in the room.
'That's a nice picture," Irene said finally, pointing to the one on the
right-hand wall.
"My father did that," Doreen said, turning her whole head to look at it.
A big picture of a white church in some woods. Almost exactly like another painting I've seen. "He was a kind man, my father. He didn't do
anything much, but he was kind. My mother's second husband was rich
but bad-tempered, so I loved my father even more." She was staring at
the picture, her head straining over.
"Did you still get to go visit him?" Irene was being kind herself, thinking we all had something in common after all, I could tell.
"He was dead. That's why my mother had a second husband." Even
weak from pregnancy, her voice was mean and sharp, trying to make
Irene feel stupid.
Irene blushed again, you could see even in the dim light, and slid off
the bed. I went over to her and put my arm around her; it reminded me of
our mothers standing together in the kitchen in our real house.
"We'll go and make tea," I said. Then I just went ahead and told her
anyway. "I phoned our mothers and told them that Patrick isn't here."
39 She shoved herself up on stiff arms, glaring at me.
'They're coming here." I was quite afraid of her, and I talked fast to
get it all out. "They're getting here tonight."
"Get out," she said. Her voice was terrible, her face had gone all purple.
It looked frightening, like her cheeks or forehead might split open.
We went scuttling out practically backwards, we were out so quick.
We were in the middle of the living room before we stopped.
I knew she would be mad, I knew it, and Irene and I were stuck and
nothing we could fucking do about it, and Patrick somewhere roaming
around the island making everything like hell, making all this misery for
all of us. We stood there by the coffee table which still had the Concentration cards on it, listening in case she got up to come after us, but there
was no more noise from her room at all.
My legs felt fatigued, like some airplane wing that had suddenly gone
to pieces. I had Irene's hand tightly in mine, but I put my arms around
her instead, I hugged her until she was nearly all right again.
* * *
We stayed holed up in the kitchen for most of the day. In fact we were so
scared that when Irene had to pee I took her out the back door with some
paper towel and guarded her while she went. But we got almost comfortable in the glassed-over nest of the kitchen day-bed. At first I kept remembering Doreen panting over the couch in labour, but I couldn't afford to remember it any more or there wouldn't have been any place to
be in the whole house, so I stopped. We couldn't get to our bedroom
because we'd have had to pass her door. At intervals we would hear noise,
the panting stuff again, but muffled by four or five walls. I timed them to
begin with, but gradually it became part of the world. Like going on a
long car trip, when you forget that there was ever a time that you weren't
driving on and on.
Later I made some sandwiches, opening the fridge door slowly and
quietly, peeling the seal apart instead of yanking it like usual. There was
only that weird no-taste bread but there was a crinkled tube-end of
liverwurst which luckily happens to be Irene's favourite.
We were okay, after the first while. It was Doreen who was so furious
and had to deal with it, not us. We just had to stay out of her way. But it
was exhausting trying to be quiet, whispering and making an elaborate
game of "I Spy" out the window, using the little birds skittering around
through the pine trees. After she ate her sandwich Irene fell asleep on
the couch.
She'd been asleep about twenty minutes when I heard some stomping, and for a second I felt exactly like Jack and the Beanstalk cowering
in the kitchen when the ogre is coming home. But she wasn't coming my
40 way. She was going to the bathroom. I held my breath anyway and prayed
that Irene wouldn't wake up. She didn't.
Water started running. A lot of water. Doreen was running a bath. I
thought it might be a good time to get a book or something from the
living room, so I went out very quietly. It was ridiculous to be so afraid,
but I was. Socks on the carpet, into the shadowed blue of the living room,
like Red Light, Green Light, where any minute Doreen would spin around
and point her giant finger at me—GOT YOU!
Instead just as I got to the bookshelf I heard her say oh God from the
bathroom. I hardly heard it at all. It was such a quiet God, so obviously
not meant for me or anyone to hear and not at all in her dramatic usual
way, that I could feel pity welling up inside me. I didn't want it but it
sprang up anyway.
I went to the bathroom door, which was shut.
No noise.
"Do you need me?" It was a stupid thing to ask, I guess. I said it as
quietly as she had said God, so if she didn't want to hear it she could
pretend she hadn't.
I waited.
She opened the door, she was half-hidden behind it. Her face still had
the brown tinge on it, it was still hard to look at her, but I did.
She said, "I'm afraid to get into the bathtub."
I put my hand on the door.
"I'm afraid of falling—"
"Right," I said. "I'll help you."
'Then you can go away again," she said, but she didn't mean it. I ignored her, I pushed the door more open.
She was shy to take off her nightgown so I pretended to have to blow
my nose. It was the wrong thing to pretend, because I couldn't make any
noise at all with my nose, not having anything to blow, but I buried my
face in the bunch of toilet paper anyway. Then I made a business of testing the water, not too hot, that's good; and by that time she'd gotten herself out of the tent and was putting out her hand for my arm.
Her first leg went over into the water and then she balked. You could
see that she was honestly terrified.
But she wanted the water, too, so she braced her knees carefully like
a horse on ice, and pressed down on my arm with all that weight—I
thought I might not be strong enough. Then her other leg was over the
rim and she was standing in the water. She made a sound with her breath,
of great relief. Boy, she was tall, especially with the boost of standing in
the tub. I had to look up, way up.
"Okay." She stalled. "God, I don't know how to sit down." Oh, she
wasn't being flagrant at all, she was perfectly serious, perfectly undra-
41 matic. This was just a problem she hadn't thought of. For a minute I
loved her, I loved the way she was being. I wished with all my heart that
everyone in the world could be so perfectly occupied with the problem
at each minute.
"I'll hold your back," I said, "And you hold the tub, bend down, right?
And then—" She was doing it, it was working. "Right, and now put your
bottom down, right..."
She was all in the water, her hands gripping the sides of the tub till
they were red and white. The skin other back was hot and smooth, pulled
taut by the babies in front. Her whole body was a drum beating for them
I'd forgotten about my watch. My forearms were in the water, but I
couldn't let her go till her hands relented a bit on the tub. Then she could
breathe again and lie backwards very slowly. I had to get my arms out so
she could lie down. Her eyes closed. I took off my watch and wrapped it
in a towel to dry it off, but I stayed squatting beside the tub, looking at
The water lapped around the island of her enormous stomach. Her
belly button was sticking out. That happens to some women, apparently.
Her breasts were huge too—she's quite small in the chest normally, but
they were swelled up like footballs. Brown, brown nipples standing up.
Maybe that was from being in the water though. Mostly what I looked at,
what you had to look at, it filled your eyes, was her stomach. Which was
not even her stomach at the moment but a casing for the twins. Below
that, her legs dwindled away, not half as large as they looked in old times
when she was just fat. From where I crouched, you couldn't see her public hair at all, the stomach was in the way. I would have got up and left,
having made this survey of what a pregnant woman looks like, except
she opened her eyes and said, "Don't go—" and then went into another
set of labour. Another job of it, I don't know what to call it. I never saw
anybody's body work so hard. It wasn't herself working, yet, although
that happens later, it was her body going Okay, out. I couldn't take her
hand because she was using both to hold onto the bathtub, but I put my
own hand over hers and squeezed. I looked at her face mostly, although
the clenching in her belly was fascinating too.
When she was finished she lay still again. Her thick eyelids were also
brown. I began to drip water from my fingers onto her stomach, which I
used to do for my mother when she had the cysts and lay in the tub
bawling. She said, 'That's nice, that's nice," but she stayed still, she didn't
fidget. I guess she must have been pretty worn out. It had started at five,
and it was probably two or three now—nine or ten hours of this.
"How far apart are they?" I asked her, a question I have heard a million times on tv. I kept dribbling water.
42 'Ten minutes, roughly. I'm allowed to have a bath," she said, as if I
might haul her out in horror.
"It's probably really good for you," I told her to comfort her.
It was a mistake to say anything kind.
She laid her head back against the lip of the tub and wept. It was a
completely yielding weeping; the amount of water coming out other eyes
surprised me. Her face was all wet very quickly with the gush of tears. At
first it was silent, then she started to blubber loudly like a little kid would,
and her mouth stayed open in that square shape children's mouths make
when they bawl. A glistening bridge of spit stretched between her top
teeth and her tongue.
"I can't," she sobbed. "I can't do this—" Then the crying took over
again, and I wished I hadn't gone in to help her, to talk to her, but I couldn't
very well get up and leave while she was bawling. I sat huddled beside
the tub, feeling useless, with an almost moronic half-smile on my face—
I know the half-smile part because that's what my father Patrick does
when you cry in his presence or are upset at all. He's much better when
he's the one who's all tragic. I hate this also about myself.
The thing was, nothing could be done. She was going to have to do
this all by herself. Patrick was gone. How could he come back after what
he'd done? How could she ever talk to him again? And she had those
babies inside her, they had to come out.
I surprised myself with this thought—it wasn't that I'd forgotten about
the babies, I was thinking about them all the time, but I had forgotten
that they would ever be born. I'd started to see them as some kind of
affliction, some condition which she suffered from. Like a wild, soap-
mouthed dog, she had babies.
I knew that this was inappropriate. I did have compassion for her too,
since I have myself cried in this all-get-out way on occasion.
She wailed, she wailed, lying back in the water, noise coming out in an
almost-visible cloud, her swollen eyes alternately squeezed shut and flown
open. I suddenly remembered that chi-chi ad for clothing that has a skinny
woman in the tub and her husband or whatever squatting along side and
the naked baby standing by the tub. It's called "Real Life" or something,
but if you study it, there's got to be a mega-watt floodlight behind the
toilet, or where is the light coming from? Here we were in that ad, only I
was substituting for the husband, and the baby—babies—were still inside her, and her mouth was open red and wet and shrieking with pain.
The door cracked open a sliver and I leaned back to grin at Irene, who
couldn't possibly have slept through all this. I was able to smile for her
because thinking about that ad and the floodlight really made me laugh,
Irene looked around the door almost without her head appearing at
43 all, as if she'd put her eyes on stalks. When she saw me she let her mouth
show too, and she grinned back. Then the door shut again, very, very,
slowly and quietly.
Doreen put out her big hand and said thickly, "Could I have some
toilet paper?"
I rolled a bunch off quickly and she blew her nose, much more thoroughly than I had pretended to. She didn't know what to do with the wad
of paper, and I held out my hand for it. Her head turned and her eyes
looked sidelong at me from the small slit they could still open, and she
almost smiled. Instead of handing it to me, she potted it straight into the
toilet—a basket. She was proud of herself.
"Oh, I feel much better," she said. "I think I'll just lie here and cry if I
want to."
I paused—I didn't know if she would think it was funny. "It's your party,"
I said, after a minute.
"You would cry too," she sang, amazing me. Then she laughed. I think
perhaps labour makes you a little hysterical.
Doreen was still talking. "Nothing makes me feel better any more
except crying. But I don't allow myself to do it. I'm afraid to cry alone in
case I can't stop."
"You stopped pretty quick," I said, to reassure her. She had, too.
But she'd started again. It was back to that silent watery yielding. There
was something about her giving in that was attractive, in a weird way. I
tried to hand her more toilet paper, but she waved her hand at it weakly,
and her hand looked different, looked prettier, less like a gardening tool.
This got me worried: was it a possible source for women's downtroddenness that they looked better when they were vulnerable and had
given up?
"I'll tell you something," she said, tilting her head towards me so one
cheek was in the water. "I hate your father. I hate his guts. I wouldn't tell
Irene that. Don't tell her I said so."
"Right, I won't," I told her. I poured some more water on her stomach.
"I should have told him himself, the fucking shit. The piece of fucking
I dribbled more water, I didn't look at her. Her eyes were closed again,
tears welling down, but she was quiet.
There's no denying that he's a piece of shit. Anyone who would leave
a woman when she's having a baby, not once but twice, Irene's mother
Katherine too, is a piece of shit. You can't argue it. The thing is, though,
whenever any of the mothers bag about him I always think of how I do
actually like him and can often completely understand why he does these
dumb things. But there's no point in telling them that.
"It hurts," she said, in the saddest voice. I couldn't help looking at her
44 then, but she was staring somewhere else. She put her hand on her chest.
"It hurts in here—heart ache."
My own heart contracted for her.
Doreen turned her head again to look at me. She had to crane her
neck uncomfortably and the back of her hair was getting wet, so I slid
forward along the tiles, their smooth ridges gliding under my tail bone.
"It never occurred to me—I never thought he would leave. Imagine!"
She almost laughed. "How foolish! I thought he—wanted—I thought—"
She couldn't meet my eyes any more, she was ashamed. Every time I see
one of us being ashamed for something Patrick's done I want to scream.
"I'm not like them," she said. "Nothing like them—" She didn't want
to say our mothers' names. But she did, probably because it was me and
not some objective third party friend she was talking to, if she had one.
"Isabel, and Katherine. Look at me."
I did look at her, at her enormous body lying stranded in the bathtub;
I thought of how hard it had been to get her into it, and how hot her back
had been to my hand, hot skin pulled over flesh. She was nothing like
them, she was right. But in her extremity, her enormity, she was—a necessary part of us, good, important—some thing I didn't have a word for
yet. I rested the palm of my hand on her stomach.
"I didn't think I could hold on to him because of anything about me,"
she said, careful to make me understand. "Only because of himself, of
some thing he'd decided. Or because he was tired, I thought it might be
that. I thought he'd stay for good."
I could only nod; I realized I had thought so myself.
"I guess he's gone, then," she told me, looking up again, not crying;
and then her eyes went inside slightly and she started into the rhythm of
breathing and huffing and enduring that was now ordinary life. I held
her hand again.
I remembered my mother Isabel saying that men leave, that's what
she's found: they leave. But if every man always leaves, then what? A
world empty of men, just women making tea for each other for a while
and then getting on with it.
It didn't seem so bad. I had a vision of an Amazon land, Doreen the
fierce warrior (being the most recently bereaved), my mother the queen,
Katherine the chancellor, and Elizabeth my grandmother the mad widow,
sitting in state in her drawing room in Mahone Bay, bolt upright in a
Queen Anne chair, surrounded by a bone pile of artifacts left by my grandfather, whom she managed to prevent from leaving for thirty-nine years.
The mad dowager holds the record.
Somewhere in another room of the palace all the Amazons' children
sit quietly. They play I Spy with the birds in the snow-trimmed trees outside their window.
45 After the bath Irene was waiting right outside the bathroom door, listening to the water drain. When she saw Doreen was coming too, she slid
back into the shadows of the hall. I flickered my fingers at her.
Doreen settled down under the duvet, docile, grateful to be back in a
dry bed, still woozy from the warm bath and calm after crying. I told her
I'd bring her a cup of tea and something to eat, which I thought she might
balk at. But she just relaxed her mouth in a kind of smile.
Irene was just outside the door again when I left the bedroom, urgently jumping up and down.
"Look, look, come—" she whispered, pulling my sleeve out in a triangle. "Come see what I found!" She ran quietly down the hall, slipping
around the corner to the right at the end.
The hall to the left branched off to our room. To the right it led to
Patrick's study, and I had an awful flash of what she could have found,
suicide notes or his body or maybe gasoline poured all over everything
by Doreen, I don't know. But Irene wasn't frightened, just excited and
strange. She was waiting with her back to the door when I came around
the corner, her hand on the knob behind her.
"Guess," she said, her eyebrows going way up her forehead.
"It's Patrick's study, what's the big deal?" I said it to make the suicide
part not true.
She opened the door.
The room was empty. Of everythi g, I mean, not just of Patrick. It was
an empty room. The last time I'd seen it, there were books everywhere
and shelves and Patrick's table and paper in piles like leaves in fall, litter
drifted from wall to wall. Coffee cups, old mouldy sandwiches, sweaters.
Now just nothing.
"What happened?" I asked her, as if she could possibly know.
"It's the babies' room," she said, very proud of herself for getting the
puzzle. 'They painted it! Look, blue! I guess they want boys!" She was
laughing and laughing while she whispered.
"But look, look, see!" She opened the closet door slowly, guarding
with her hand, and the inside was revealed: from floor to ceiling it was
stuffed, starting with boxes and books and Patrick's computer and ending with dripping bales of paper bound by huge elastic bands.
The walls of the room were pale blue now, that colour that rompers
come in for little men.
Far away down the hall we heard Doreen shout—"Oh, God!"
We ran. We were at her door instantly, expecting at least another fire.
She was at the door too, she stood like Medea in her huge rosy nightgown, actually wringing her hands, having a fit.
"I forgot about the bed!" she cried.
46 "What about it?" I had to shout to make her hear, but Irene was shocked
and jumped.
"Oh God, it's got to be made—oh Jesus God...."
"Doreen, don't worry about the bed being made. It doesn't matter."
"For Gina!" Her big hands squeezed themselves, the stout banana fingers, no ring—her face contorted too, her hands wringing those muscles
as well.
"Is she staying over night?"
"No, no, there's a special way—"
We got her to calm down a tad, Irene mostly, stroking her hands to
stop them wringing. It was nothing, when she got it out. It was hard not
to laugh, but she was genuinely upset to have forgotten—what kind of a
mother would forget important instructions from the midwife? It turned
out Doreen had promised to make her bed twice, two sets of sheets, one
for lying on now and one for after the babies were born, so we could strip
off the top sheets with a flourish and Doreen could lie back contentedly
on a fresh bed, with a bundle in each arm and a weak smile for everyone.
To me this picture had no possibility. I could not see it.
* * *
It took a while to make that bed. Three contractions.
The contractions were still about ten minutes apart, but stronger, she
said. We put her back between clean sheets and hung around in her room
while she dozed—Irene sitting on the leftover edge of the bed casually,
all the fright of the afternoon forgotten. Aren't we all resilient and tolerant, I was thinking to myself, rummaging around folding clothes and
tidying the dresser.
"Can I put all these things back in some drawer?" I asked Doreen. All
the shiny bird's nest stuff.
She dropped her tired head towards the dresser to see what I was
talking about. "I never found it," she said.
After a minute when she didn't talk, Irene asked what?
"I've lost a bracelet, just a braided leather thong, I can't find it anywhere." She started to cry again, it must have stayed close to the surface.
"From Patrick," I said to Irene with my eyebrows, and she gave me
that look of "Do you think I am stupid?" Since she was closer, she reached
for the Kleenex box and tugged a couple out.
Doreen surprised us, though. She sat up, wiped her eyes fiercely and
stared at the stuff on the dresser.
'Throw them in the middle drawer." She had her big voice back, not
the weak one. "Wherever it is, it's only a goddamn bracelet. It has no
magnetic power. He's not coming back by magic. Your father," she said,
47 to Irene, as if she needed the explanation. "Not that I don't want him
back," she continued, with some effort, but still talking only to Irene. "I
want him to come back this minute, and never go away again, and I love
him more than you would think a person could, when someone's being
such a shithead, is that clear?"
Her voice rose slightly on shithead, but otherwise stayed calm enough.
Irene nodded silently, and smiled at her that particularly loving smile
she does. Then Doreen bent forward, all that bulk, and hugged Irene.
Doreen had said 'your father'. Usually she called him Patrick to us, as
if we were cousins of his, distant connections. Maybe it was because she
wanted him to start being a father in her family, instead. I caught myself
up on that—there were his children, roiling around in her belly. He was
a fucker, you really had to admit it. How can everything be so two-ways?
Doreen loving him and wanting him back, and also loathing him and
being furious; Patrick himself being so asinine and also so amazing and
such a good poet. I scooped the chains and earrings and the rest back
into the middle drawer; they dropped in tinging like rain on a car roof.
There was another tinging, but it was the doorbell.
Irene ran to get it and I followed after, and there was Gina again. She
said Hi! as brightly as if we liked each other, and peeled off all her outdoor Peruvian tassels efficiently. Irene and I shrank away into the shadow
of the living room, watching her, and when she barged straight past us
we didn't follow after her, we let her find her own way to Doreen's room.
It felt a bit cruel to abandon Doreen, but if I was having a baby I'd want
someone around who didn't make me shrink and avoid her.   .
It was six o'clock. There was nothing that we wanted in the fridge,
only the last of the liverwurst. I could have taken Irene down to the cafe
while Gina was there if Doreen needed someone, but I was half afraid to
run into Patrick again. Or half afraid that we wouldn't, maybe. That he
really was gone forever, like Doreen said.
So instead we put the kettle on and went out to the wood-pile so we
could make a big roaring fire and get all cheered up.
'Thirteen hours," Irene said while we threaded through the trees.
"Of what?" I asked, but of course it was labour she meant. "Oh, right."
This time I had to split a couple of sticks. I actually like the action of
splitting; I can do it quite well.
Irene watched the hatchet flick up and down, and the stick jump on
the stump. It smelled piney when the wood split, and the sound echoed
under the canopy of trees.
"How long did you take?" she asked me.
"Isabel says seven hours, but I think she's exaggerating for ease."
"And me?"
"You were twenty-three hours before they operated. But it can take a
48 really long time, sometimes."
"Do you think it makes you different, being born out of a slot?"
She makes me laugh so much, Irene. "No! It makes your head look
prettier for the first few days because you don't get all mashed coming
through the rye, that's all."
'This boy at school, Kell? He says he was traumatized by being c-
section." She was picking blobs of pine gum off a tree and smearing them
on the garage wall. Her fingers would smell delicious and stick to everything.
"Ignore him, he sounds like an asshole already," I told her. "Come
back here—I'll load you up."
She stayed looking in the windows of the garage. "You know what? All
the baby stuff is in here."
I dumped my logs and went to see. It was, too. Two cribs still in their
crates. A lot of boxes, one of those high tables for changing diapers. The
door wasn't even locked. We went in.
Just an empty, dusty, garage, like everybody's, full of boxes without a
purpose. These did have a purpose, though. Right this minute their destiny was being fulfilled. Even in the cold they smelled faintly of cardboard and some manufacturer's baby perfume. It was kind of eerie: Miss
Haversham's house stuck at babies instead of bridals. All this seemed
like terrible bad luck, suddenly; it made the babies' coming seem doubtful, doomed. The garage was cold, and full of cobwebs.
'This is about the most miserable time I've ever been to," Irene said.
"Don't babies get born any more with big parties and cigars?"
"I think they must," I said. We shut the doors and left the horrible
place alone. 'You still see announcements in the papers, with stupid jokes
and proud parents and grand-parents. Plus this isn't nearly as bad as it
could be. At least Doreen wants them."
"Do you think she does?"
"Well, at least she isn't a crack addict or something." We loaded ourselves up while big flakes of snow fell mildly down on our faces and hair
and hands.
"It's pretty," Irene said. "I would like it here if it was just you and me."
"We'll come some time when they're away," I told her, as if there was
still a they. I held the snapping back door open to let her through.
Irene made the tea while I cleared the old fire out and got the new one
going. In the bedroom Gina went on laying down the law and the prophets in her nasal unappealing voice. Even rumpling up the newspaper as
loudly as possible couldn't drown out that bleat. "Water hasn't broken...."
then Doreen rumbling for a minute, then Gina,"... back to check when I
have to...Dr. Magruder...." more inaudible Doreen. Miss Pokey Nose:
"Nothing to complain about..not even five centimetres...." Then there
49 were slapping sounds, as if she was trying to wake those twins up and
get them out of there.
The fire went whooshing up the chimney, a beautiful blaze. I sat on
the stone ledge to get myself warmed up again. Ideally someone would
have walked in the door just then to see my handiwork, like Isabel and
Katherine, or Patrick for a miracle, but only Gina came buzzing through,
and she paid no attention at all.
She changed her Birks for boots again, bending lithely from the waist
to impress me with her natural flexibility. She told me to watch out for
Doreen, as if I wouldn't, if she didn't tell me to. I thought she was a jerk,
and then I thought maybe I was a bit cranky because I was hungry.
Irene and I rummaged through the kitchen again and found a can of
kidney beans, which were not too bad, heated up with some chili powder
in them. For Doreen I made some toast and put a little honey on it without asking her, and took her a cup of tea and a soft boiled egg. She didn't
want the egg, but I told her it was the only protein in the house and she
needed it. It was a sort of kindly revenge on her for breakfast. I enjoyed
watching her eat it.
Then there was nothing to do except wait with Doreen.
Irene played Concentration with her on the bed, but the game kept
getting wrecked every time Doreen laboured, until Irene thought of playing with only half a deck on the back of the old Crokinole board, which
could be moved off to the dresser every time. None of us talked about
anything real, like the babies, or where Patrick was—we were amazingly
interested and chatty about where that of three of clubs could possibly
be hiding.
When Irene started waking up in jerks every few minutes I took her
to bed. I carried her, to let her feel like a baby safe in my arms, and I
didn't wake her up by undressing her, just undid her stiff buttons and
took her socks off and slid her under the coloured blanket. I stood there
for a while watching her in case she woke up, her hair falling away from
her pretty face, her lips pursing slightly with each exhale. For the first
time I thought of Irene as having been a baby once, the tiny baby who I'd
seen nursing mindlessly at Katherine's breast while Katherine wept because my father had left her. I went back in my thinking and erased my
father from it, because he was only complicating things. I just looked in
my mind's eye at the baby Irene, and compared that thing to the person
Irene now sleeping in this bed. What a strange and mysterious thing it is,
becoming conscious of the world, becoming a specific particular person.
And then later it's strange too, becoming part of some group of people
who love you so much, as Katherine and Isabel and I love Irene.
Oh Daddy, I thought. I felt sorry for him not being here seeing Irene
go to sleep. Too bad for him for being dumb at the wrong times, losing
50 Irene. In her sleep she looked a little like him, maybe that's why I was
thinking so kindly of him, even in this House 0' Pain which he had created himself.
I shut the door tightly, to make her safe, and to try to let her sleep
even if Doreen yelled or something, later.
* * *
Doreen was mid-seizure when I went back, and really exhausted. It was
past nine o'clock, it had been dark for a long time, but we'd never taken
advantage of my beautiful fire in the fireplace.
The pain got bad during that bout, I guess, because something snapped
in her and she started in on Patrick. She had a gut-full of bile and nowhere else to dump it. She hadn't said a thing about him while Irene was
there, but she'd gotten used to bad-mouthing him to me.
She was so vicious about him that I began to be afraid—the words
running out of her mouth like drool, telling me stuff that no one should
tell somebody's daughter. Horrible anecdotes and rumours, unsavoury
habits of his, sexual things, lists of women, suspicions she'd been nursing. She knew where he was, she said, she knew who he was with, she
wanted to hit him with a baseball bat. It seemed to me that it must be
very bad for her, and really very bad, very very bad, for the babies. I
knew it was only superstition but it seemed like a bad whammy to have
this ranting about their father, half their genes, going on while they were
making her way out of her body. It felt like curses.
It got so I couldn't speak, even to say yes, or / know. I sat on the end of
the bed and tried to wait without leaving. When she was struck by another contraction she heaved herself up on her knees again and rocked,
almost howling, in pain. From what they said in school I hadn't thought it
would hurt so much.
I was afraid for the babies, I was afraid they would be born dead. I was
afraid Irene would come back in, terrified at these noises, and would be
doubly frightened by those huge thighs swaying on the bed. At one point
I thought I would have to throw up, because it was all so hateful and
disgusting, men and women and sex and this result: you see I went a
little crazy with Doreen, which is often the danger when you're trying to
comfort somebody.
But it went away after a while, she stopped, she calmed down at least
enough to stop crying. I think she'd been hysterical and I just hadn't
known enough about it to slap her. The howling receded into huh-ing
and panting, and her raging went out too, like a tide. It was quiet.
"I'll get you a hot wash cloth," I said. She was on her back again, having rolled there in the last grip of pain, and she opened her eyes and
nodded. She looked like a human being again in there somewhere.
51 In the bathroom I let the water run for a long time. Every part of my
body was really tired. My muscles felt stretched and sore—how must
Doreen's feel!
I get so tired of only hearing the sorrows of women. I would like to
hear some hard lines from some man. Once a man told me his tale of
woe, but he was a Salvation Army guy at the church my grandmother
made me go to, and all he would really say was that he 'scraped the bottom of the barrel'. From people's own accounts, when men go bad they
do it to themselves. When women go bad they've been betrayed. This
may be the essential natural difference between men and women that
everyone's searching for.
I wrung out the towel and rolled it to keep it hot, like in Japanese
restaurants. It made me imagine Doreen in her present state lying in one
of those tidy paper rooms, sprawled all over the squat table, taking up all
the space, the dainty waitress at the paper door puzzled but still polite.
Almost, almost, it made me laugh; it certainly took some of the clot of
despair out of my chest. And Doreen would appreciate the hot cloth much
more than patrons of those restaurants usually do.
I took the washcloth back to the bedroom. She sighed and lifted her
face for it, and in the next second she was asleep. Poor Doreen, poor
Doreen, what else could I think? In this extremity she was less grating
than usual. She needed help and took it, with no uncomfortable over-
politeness. Also she'd retained enough control and decency to keep her
fury from Irene, which put her up many notches in my opinion.
Oh, she was just becoming a regular queen of the universe, lying there
drained white and horribly large. She was immense, a Henry Moore statue
or some older thing; her open mouth became for a moment the maw of
the world, and under the blanket her body was opening too, the world
being born.
But it's only Doreen, I told myself tiredly, only elephant Doreen who
we can't stand, only Doreen. It was eleven o'clock. Our mothers must
have missed the ferry. I wanted to go to sleep too. There was a pile of
clothes on the only chair in the room, but I dumped them on the floor of
the open closet and shut the door. That made the room look better, I
could slide down in the chair in that subterranean twilight and not feel as
if I was sleeping in hell. Or limbo, which you always think of as being
very messy, nobody ever making up their minds to clean, everyone always saying, in a minute, in a minute I'll get to it.
* * *
Ringing woke me up. It sounded very loud, as if it had been going on for
a long time. Doreen was still or again asleep, muttering to herself, blunt
fingers of one hand trembling near her mouth. I was in the hall shutting
52 her door before I was really awake. It didn't sound like Irene had stirred.
Probably I'd only slept for a minute, but I'd gone so deep I couldn't get
myself oriented in the hall, I couldn't find the front door. The bell went
again before I could get to it.
It was a man standing there, and for a minute I thought it was my
father. I was almost certain. I wouldn't have made such a mistake except
I wasn't out of sleep yet. My hands went out, ready to throw myself on
him or hammer him one, but it was the doctor. A much smaller man than
He was a little shy or something. He couldn't talk straight at you, he
had to look at the wall. He said who he was and asked for Doreen and I
ducked out of his line of vision to let him find the right door. He was
extremely shy.
He didn't turn on the big light, just the lamp on the dresser. He was so
quick and quiet that I'm not sure she entirely woke up, even when he
pressed on her stomach in the usual places and got his glove on to examine her insides. I was leaning by the door, inside the room, but I couldn't
quite hear what he murmured to her. She nodded or shook her head
depending on the question, and he nodded back and asked her another,
all the time moving his hands around under the sheet. The back of his
head was perfectly still while his arms moved; everything in the room
calmed down, lost its jittering. I imagined even Irene lying less tensely
on her bed, going deeper into sleep. He had some kind of spell on him,
that guy. He had a strange Scottish name—Magruder.
"Ah, there now," he said without surprise. 'There." Doreen raised her
head a bit, and gasped. "You'll go along easier now," he said. I liked his
burry voice when I could hear it. He was mopping around with a big
She said, "Oh...." a slow sound, and the doctor got off the bed and
went to the hall. He asked me for a cup of tea as he was going into the
bathroom with the towel, and I didn't even mind nobody telling me anything. I went to make the tea.
In the birth-canal kitchen I was so tired that I braced myself against
the plum counters while I waited and waited for the kettle to boil. To get
some other colour than blood in the world I used the little teapot shaped
like a lettuce, pale bright green, a shoot of something new. Then I stood
for a long time with an Earl Grey teabag up to my nose, breathing it like
a gas-mask. It woke me up.
The doctor didn't go away, he stayed. He was in the living room when
I went back with the teapot, poking at the rubble of the fire. I left the tea
on the table with cups and traded places with him for the fire, which I
didn't want anyone else to fiddle with. When I got it going he was back in
the bedroom, sitting on the side of the bed with one knee crossed over
53 the other delicately, drinking tea with Doreen. His very thin legs folded
over each other perfectly. She was sitting more upright, looking awake
"Right!" said the doctor. He gave it a Scottish twist, so it sounded like
the summing-up of everything. "I think you've done all that you can usefully do here," he carried on. "I'll get the car sent over, and soon have you
up on blocks in the shop."
Doreen hiked herself up again on her elbows. "I want to walk," she
He just looked at her.
'There's no ice," she said, in a logical, sensible, pleading voice. It's
only snow. It's five minutes, going slow. I would like to walk."
I had no idea what was going on. I thought she was having them here.
She would never be able to sit on the ferry.
She must have thought he would force her into the car, because she
put her hands together like praying, big hands and big fingers locked
together. She tried one more time.
"If Patrick was here," she said, looking right at him with some difficulty, 'We would drive, but as it is, I'd like to walk. It would be important
to me."
I think she won because he had that problem of looking people right
in the eyes, and she wouldn't let him loose until he let her have her way.
But maybe this is unfair to the doctor. Maybe he felt sorry for her about
Patrick. I certainly liked him.
He gave in very gracefully, ducked his head out of her gaze and looked
at the wall for a rest, then said, "Up the lane it's no more than a four-
minute walk from here."
"And it's two in the morning," she said. "No traffic to watch out for!"
She smiled the first happy smile I ever saw on her face.
* * *
So suddenly we were moving to the clinic which I hadn't ever known
existed, a hundred yards up the road from Doreen's house. One of the
chief delights of being a full adult must be all the additional information
that everyone will give you. All this time she was just staying home for as
long as possible to be comfortable in her own bed. Gina arrived and took
over from me at Doreen's elbow, not that I was doing anything useful.
The bedroom was suddenly full, so I left.
I went to wake up Irene. If everybody was going on an expedition I
thought she'd better come too; also I missed her.
She was already sitting on the bed, blinking and opening her eyes
wide to wake up. All her hair had stuck up on one side. She looked beautiful, complete, a finished child. Already made, not like those mythical
54 babies who were still gelling in the inner workings of Doreen.
"What now?" she asked me, ready for any emergency.
"We're moving. We'd better get you dressed again."
"Where are we moving to? Is it going wrong?"
"Apparently there's a clinic up the road, and this lovely doctor guy
came finally, so she's going over there to finish off. They've been planning it all the time, they just never told us."
"I thought it was weird that she got to have them at home when she's
so old." She held up her shirt sleeves to be buttoned. "What if they needed
to be caesarean like me?"
'That was Katherine's question. I guess they must be pretty sure she'll
be okay."
"Maybe this is all because it's too early. You should put your big sweater
on." Irene got it out of my knapsack for me, reaching way over while I
was doing up her shoes. She also got out the huge chocolate bar that
we'd bought for supplies at the Vancouver airport. I don't know how we'd
managed to forget it for so long.
Two more ladies had turned up while Irene and I were dressing, friends
of Gina. They frittered around poor Doreen, hopping like water in a hot
pan, none of them tall enough to put her hat on her head. They were all
talking in low important voices to Doreen and each other, making about
as much sense as mmm, mmmm, mmm.
Dr. Magruder was staying out of the fuss, sitting with his narrow legs
crossed, watching them all. He blushed when he caught me looking at
him. What a strange doctor. It would have been cruel to introduce Irene
to him, I thought, so we just stood quietly near him.
Finally Doreen was ready to go. Her feet were planted in those huge
40° below boots with rubber soles. She was wrapped in her red coat, and
then a quilt over that like an old Indian chief in a book. One of the women
had a stool and a big blanket in case Doreen wanted to sit down during
the journey. They were trying to put her gloves on her when she waved
them all away, her arms flailing at them. The doctor leaned forward to
get a view of her face, but sat back again. It was only another bout. She
grunted at them to leave her alone and half knelt, half squatted by the
hall bench, looking like when I first saw her in the kitchen with her shoe
falling off, about six years ago by now. It seemed intolerable to me that
these babies were not yet born.
"Better go now," she said when she came out of it, rising out of her
crouch, heading for the door. The women scurried to open it, and swirled
around her in eddies as she sailed out. The doctor and Irene and I followed them. He had longer legs and also a duty to Doreen, so he caught
up with them. But Irene and I lagged behind, watching Doreen stride
along. I guess she didn't want to be caught outside in another wave of
55 pains.
It was a still night. The procession we made reminded me of a picture
in a book, red Doreen at the forefront, the Troll Queen, and all of us in
graduated sizes behind her, right down to Irene.
Everyone was quiet while we walked. We could hear our feet on the
new snow. The darkness was filled with light reflected from the snow on
the ground and the snow still held in the clouds. Tall outlines of trees
moved back from the road as we walked onward. Irene crept up beside
me and put her hand in my mitt, and our hands squeezed together comfortingly. The night was empty, light, not full of death. It was all right.
The pale porch light of the clinic was on, and one of the little attendant
women ran ahead to get the glass door. Irene tugged at my hand, though.
"Let's stay out a minute," she said, so we did. We stood in the clearing
where in daylight cars would park, now covered by snow to make a forest glade. 'There is Orion," I told her, although of course she already
"Has anyone thought of names for them?" she asked.
'They must have occupied all this time of her being pregnant somehow. He only left this week."
"I can't imagine what he would name them."
"Something loaded," I said. Both Irene and I had been named by our
"Maybe they already know what sex they are."
That seemed unlikely to me. "None of this is exactly technology-heavy."
"Would you want to know?"
In the middle of wondering I suddenly thought, looking at the stars—
"It's Christmas now!"
Irene looked up too. She put her arm around me, as I already had
mine around her. 'Well, Merry Christmas, Bessie," she said to me. "They'll
be a Christmas present for us!" She started to do that gurgling laugh—it
was pretty funny, standing in the parking lot in all this drama, looking up
at the stars, already Christmas Day. I picked her up and hugged her and
held her on my hip like a sack of potatoes, like she likes me to. We were
laughing and laughing, in the bleak midwinter.
Then the doctor came and yelled for Bess, not knowing it was me. He
said "She wants Bess, can she have Bess, please?"—without looking at
anyone. He went back inside.
Irene had the hiccups. She followed me in the door of the clinic and
plumped down on a turquoise blue plastic couch in the alcove which they
probably called the waiting room. I gave her the chocolate bar out of my
jacket pocket before I went farther in.
56 Doreen was up on a table-bed, slightly wider than in the movies, not so
awkward. After the bedroom and the beautiful night, she looked in that
bright clinic-coloured room like I imagine people look who've been exposed, who are suffering from exposure and brought into the hospital.
Her face was swollen, and her body of course bizarre. She saw me come
in and reached out her arm to get me to come closer. "Get away," she
said to one of the other women, who was between us while I was getting
my hands washed. When she could see me, she said, "Bess!"—all surprised. 'You look like your father!" And then she started in panting and
blowing again. I don't look anything like him really, she must have been
The doctor shoved some pillows more stiffly behind her back and
gestured me in.
"You hold her knee," he told me. 'Then she can get down to it. The
baby's crowning."
She grabbed my hand—my wrist, really—and hauled on it while she
worked. It was because it was twins that I was afraid they would be dead.
It was too much, too much for one poor woman to do, and her such a
basket case as Doreen. Just as she manages to get one out, I couldn't
stop thinking, the next one will start. It seemed like a sadistic punishment to make her go through this knowing she'd have to do it again. I
tried to think of it all as a natural and beautiful process which is what
Isabel would say, but mostly I was with Katherine on this. I just wanted it
to be over.
My grandmother told me a long time ago that the human race would
have died out early except that women forget every time they have a
baby how dreadful it is. I think everybody forgets, not just the women
themselves. I bet even doctors and midwives and nurses who see it all
the time can't really keep it in their heads. I know she was in very bad
pain, I watched her, but when I think about it mostly I remember it as
But at the end of that exertion, the doctor said, "See?" and there was a
dark blob, and I saw it was a head showing! An amazing thing! Everything went rippling through me, I couldn't believe she was having these
babies! That was what crowning meant, a head showing, coming through
her opening, now swollen and distended and nothing like a vagina, and
of course now she was being allowed to push instead of going hoo hoo,
so in a second when she had to bear down again—oh, the strangest
thing!—this bundle of slime came pouring out other, all at once, slipped
out, not looking like anything even though of course I knew, but for a
second, my mind was horrified.
This was a live thing coming from inside her, a thing which her body
had been making and feeding for months and months without any of her
57 conscious volition or control. It seemed like an alien, a parasite. I was
horribly ashamed to be thinking such a ghastly thing on this traditionally joyous occasion, but the thing was all silvery-bluey wrapped in mucous and gobs of yellow thick cream, like zinc oxide—and the cord, attached to this creature, went swooping back up inside the woman. Oh, it
was a monstrous thing.
And then the baby moved as the doctor caught it, its fists clenched in
the air, and every idea slipped back into its socket, my mind's eye blinked
and cleared, and it was all right. It was lovely, it was the loveliest thing.
Doreen was reaching through her legs and her face had completely
changed from tightly-screwed-up working to wide-open looking.
"Oh my," she said, all her voice going in one direction into the baby's
The doctor was gently wiping the baby off, not with a cloth, just rubbing with his hands, and as he did so the baby squirmed and spread its
arms again and made a noise, not exactly like crying, and then its mouth
was open, it was truly born and breathing in the air. Doreen was not even
crying although I understood all mothers do this. She was looking so
hard and reaching I think she forgot about crying. The doctor laid the
baby on its back on her great belly where she could touch it herself, still
hardly wiped off at all but nobody would have minded.
There were cloths coming and warm water on a table and more cloth,
all with Doreen still touching her baby. The tiny toes, the spidery legs,
the delicate parting of skin at her perineum, her urgent tiny rib cage
fluttering, her chin—like Irene's chin.
"When will the next one come?" I asked the doctor, even though he
was busy picking the baby up and looking at it and handling it like putty.
"Oh, could be in a minute," he said, far too casually, I thought.
"I have to get Irene," I told him and Doreen, and I sprang off to find
the waiting room place.
"You've got to come see this," I cried to her. "You can't possibly miss
this amazing thing!"
She jumped up and ran up light and quick, pausing at the door to see
if anyone sent her away. They were very busy with the baby so they
didn't stop her, and I made her wash her hands at the basin inside the
door just in case anyone fussed later.
The baby's cord was still pulsing gently, silver and blue and shining
mauve. For a second I was worried about Irene maybe feeling sick like I
had, but she just patted me to be picked up in her old childish way, so I
did, and leaned her down to say hello to Doreen.
Doreen smiled at her, hardly at all tired. She'd gotten a big boost from
that first baby. But she was gearing up again, getting ready for more
58 I put Irene down and she fit herself in under my elbow while I held
Doreen's hand again. We were just in time, too, the other baby was pushing itself out already. Another dark head coming, and Doreen yelling her
head off, but without the earlier note of pain and fear.
Then she was speaking suddenly with a firm, flowing, forward and
free tone, like my singing teacher says. Saying the beginnings of words
and never getting to finish them because she was always on to the next
one already. One whole sentence came out—she said, "Even if I can never
be forgiven." These were words she spoke clearly to the opposite wall,
but I would have thought she'd be saying she could never forgive, instead. Probably she thought Patrick being gone was all her own fault. Oh
well, I thought, no one is thinking of him now.
Just then the baby spilled free again, the second baby.
It was not so covered with muck, this time, more clearly lavender-red.
And more wizened than the last one for some reason. But Irene gasped
too and stood on my foot with all her weight, hopped on it, and it didn't
hurt a bit.
The doctor was juggling babies, one cleaned off and lying sideways
on Doreen's belly with someone's hand bracing it there, and the cord
still not cut, and the other sliding into his hands again. Two babies was
too much to look at, it was a mystery beyond looking—and yet with dogs
and cats there are more than one, and that's always seemed scientific to
Irene started to say something but she had to start over. "It's a boy,"
she said.
I looked at the new baby in astonishment. It had not seemed possible
for there to be a boy born. But there he was, lying in the doctor's hands,
a boy, obviously. He was quieter than the first baby, hardly moving as the
doctor's other hand swept over him. I remember the small flexed angularity of this baby's red foot, terribly small.
"Well, it will be a boy," Irene said, looking at him again, "When it gets
There wasn't any noise coming out of this one. It was getting scary. It
was impossible to ask, of course. The doctor kept sweeping mucous out
of the baby's nose and mouth, kept rubbing the chest and down over
stomach and legs, and the baby just lay there, worn to a frazzle. Doreen,
reaching forward carefully over the first twin, pushed farther ahead suddenly, and the doctor looked up at her.
"Watch this," he said—and he blew on the baby's stomach, a long
breath on the stomach and up to its crumpled face. The baby's back arched
very slightly and its mouth opened, and gulped, and it—he—made a noise.
He mewed all the time the doctor was wiping him off, and while Doreen
was holding him up to her chest and staring at him while the other twin
59 got her cord cut and got weighed. All the rest of the time in that little
room had the slight noise of the babies complaining about the long journey they'd made of it, the cold coming they had of it, just the worst time
of the year for a journey.
* * *
Irene and I walked home from the clinic at eight, when it was beginning
to be day. It was a diamond morning, sharp lights glancing off each particular crystal of snow. We had sensations in our arms left over from
holding the babies. Irene kept lifting her arms back into that position. So
did I, actually. It was hard to believe that they were possible once we
were out of sight of them. Who knew where our mothers were, in what
waiting room waiting for transport; who knew where our father was? Back
inside the clinic more of us was born, partly us, all to look forward to. A
giddy pleasure.
Instead of going straight into the house we veered off to the left because we had the unspoken thought of all those boxes in the garage
which needed to be put together—cribs and so on. Even though we hadn't
slept at all, I felt like staying awake forever, and Irene was dancing and
skipping down the pine-needle path. We had to do something to prepare
the house. We would have wanted to anyway, so it was a good thing there
was so much to do.
That garage has a good big gas heater, some weird kind of blast furnace mounted high up on the wall, just a big metal box to look at. I saw
Patrick firing it up once. I thought I could manage it too. I made Irene
wait outside, though, in case it blew up. The rocker was the only thing
handy for a boost, and it kept swaying underneath me as I peered into
the works of the heater. The matches were on a strut of the wall nearby.
I turned the dial to FULL and found the little hole where you stick the
match in. Then I thought about it and turned it off again, and practiced
with the match once.
"Is it on yet?" Irene called from the woodpile where I'd made her
"Go up near the house," I yelled back. I could see broken glass flying
everywhere, the dirty windows all along both walls of the garage gone
outward like shrapnel, all seeking Irene's eyes. "Go stand just inside the
back door. Cover your eyes."
"I'll be okay here, I think," she said, but my imagination was over-
bright from no sleep.
"Go! I mean it! Or I'm not lighting this thing."
I could hear her going. The back door opened, shut. Irene won't fool
you, either. If she opens and shuts a door she's gone inside, she's not
sneaking back to see.
60 Up to FULL again. The match. Into the hole while the rocker inclined,
reclined, like the poem. A soft whoom, nothing else. But in a long second
the furnace gave a larger, velvety whoosh, and the whole huge box was
working, making heat.
"Okay!" I shouted up to the house. "I got it! You can come back!"
I went back in and got busy. There were five big boxes: two cribs, two
chests of drawers, a swing-thing. Not inside a box, but disassembled over
against the back wall, one of those wooden-bar playpens. The changing
table, needing a wash. Many assorted boxes of clothes and diapers and
pathetic toys.
"Hurry up," I called again to Irene, and behind me she said, "Here I
She said, "Here's Daddy."
I turned around and there she was, arms and legs all wrapped around
Patrick, on piggy-back.
"Hi, Bess," he said, trying to look at me—I could see that as I tried to
look at him. Those dumb old corduroy pants he won't stop wearing; the
Polartec jacket Irene and I gave him last Christmas. Oh, what does that
"I thought you'd all run off," he said. "But Irene says it's more exciting
that that. Three weeks early!"
I wanted to screech at him like some huge bird, some vulture, but I
couldn't because Irene was there, standing on one foot, hoping it would
be okay. I know that hope of hers really well. I used to have it all the time.
"Where were you?" I said. I asked it pretty objectively.
"Staying in a boat house." Nothing more.
After a minute, I asked, "Does it have a heater?"
"Not as good as this one."
That seemed to be all he was going to tell us. How could he think that
he could just waltz back in with no explanation? Did he think Doreen
would go all soft and woozy and say oh Darling, come to my arms and see
our lovely children?
"What about us?" I asked him, without meaning to. I was sorry I'd said
it right away, because he looked blank. That made me more angry.
'You knew we were coming for Christmas. What about us?"
He didn't answer for a minute. No answer. He stared out the window,
but not with that confident, seeking look that he and Irene have; he looked
"I wasn't thinking of you. I was thinking of my own life. It seemed
more important." That was pretty straightforward of him.
"Well, I don't believe you," I said. I was still using a very calm, flat
voice, because Irene was defenseless and had only me to look after her,
and I didn't want to make a scene. "I think you ran off—" I was going to
61 say for a last fuck before you had to settle down, but my throat closed up
and I couldn't say it. I was too depressed, suddenly. I was so tired of
people not living up to even the most moderate expectations. It was all
really very sad, all three of us as sad as can be in the cold garage.
My father sat down on a crib box—it was sturdy enough to hold him.
He's thinner than he used to be.
He sat still, I sat still, Irene in the doorway changed feet. I suppose
herons do that, in their calm backwaters.
"I'm not a good father," he said, speaking after some silence. "Look at
you two. You're lucky in your mothers."
I thought if he dared to talk about our mothers I'd have to hit him.
"I was afraid. She's not easy, she's not an easy woman." What a clear
code voices are. From a mysterious bigness in his voice when he said
She, it was of course plain that he meant Doreen.
"And I'm no good at this," he said, waving his arms around the garage,
"Country life, handy man. Happy ending. Happy ending! Out in the garage putting up cribs. Back in the fold—how could I do that? I couldn't
find any way to come back."
"It's hardly an ending, two babies."
'There's that, too. I am an old man, Bess. I am fifty years old today."
"Christmas Day?"
"No, right, you're right. Last month. I'm fifty, I can't be a father all over
I didn't say anything about the first two times. "You're forty-nine."
"It's the spirit of it, for fuck's sake!" Then he said, "I came back, didn't
I?"—with his intonation going towards aggrieved, and I had to stop pushing at him. I could see he was losing his temper, and Irene was making
signs with her face to stop—we didn't want to ruin things now for Doreen.
In talking to our father, we are often hampered not by our own wishes
or needs (for comfort, revenge, release), but by other people's: this time
Doreen's. She wanted him still, and we knew it. So how could we ask him
where he'd been? How could we do anything except what we already do
all the time? Irene puts her arms around his neck, loves him, tries to
make everything all right; I am distant but careful and polite.
But coming from new babies and after all of the last couple of days, we
were not satisfied by this old pattern—I know I speak for us both. Irene
wished too badly to have him love her like crazy, and love the twins; I was
already looking forward to my future relations with all of the male sex,
and I wanted to fix this first one if I could. We couldn't screech at him, in
case he left for good. But screeching isn't a good way of getting what you
want anyway, unless you are a baby, and Irene and I were not the babies
any more.
So I said, "We were going to set these cribs up. Do you want to help
62 us, or do you want to see them first?"
You could see he was wavering with whether or not to bow out again.
"You should see them while they're fresh," Irene said. She was thinking of duck chicks from school, maybe? Downy and damp and peeping,
under the light bulb at the back of the class. How could he resist that?
He lifted his hand, dropped it.
'They look like you," we told him, because it was amazingly, amazingly true.
In my father's eyes for a second you could see the real person he is,
who is probably the one who writes the poetry, the inside young man
revealed and there to answer to us. Now he would tell us everything, I
thought. He could speak plainly and say where he'd been and why and
explain it all, and we would know and understand.
Instead, he said, "I'd better get over there quick, then."
He hit the blower-box on the heater and the blades of the fan started
turning slowly. "Otherwise you get gassed," he said. "Or start a fire."
Then he left.
Irene hopped over to me across the dusty floor. "After he's seen them,
he'll be back to help," she said.
It was true, he would be.
Soon our mothers would come from the ferry, with food. Finally Doreen
would walk home with the babies, and the house would be really full.
"I brought screwdrivers," she said, pulling three of them out of her
pockets. "And Daddy gave me his knife to open the boxes with." She
dangled his Swiss Army knife that he never lends anyone. "So he's got to
come back."
"We've got to make Doreen's bed properly, too," I said. "I mean, their
We had lots to do. We'd better get going.
63 Lea Littlewolfe
Ways To Lose It
get picked up by a cop on a northern lakeshore,
as your mother and aunt cry their hearts out
age six is perfect
at residential school you can't speak Dene
Sister has a soap in mouth habit
she also specializes in willow switches over bare butts
chapel wall pictures of Indians burning in hell
and whites rising to heaven!
tell you who's lost it, all right
if your parents live in wino willow camp a lot
social worker in blue station wagon grabs you off porch
it's easy to hold down a four year old with one
hand and drive with the other
white foster parents speak English only
guaranteed Cree loss
I'm not sure what all you lose when
his fingers poke into all your body openings
when you come back a university trained teacher
how do you explain to a reserve school committee
that, yes, you're Indian but you haven't learned
much Cree from your husband, yet
64 (iii)
the eldest grandchild, spend a lot of time with both
speak Micmac with one, Odawa with the other
one day your dad finds you understand no English
and you're six
he hauls you off to a medicine man
who does something you don't recall for years
but he erases the wrong languages
for a year your dad teaches you English words four at a time
as you help build fences, auger fence post holes, stook
bundles of grain, chop frozen hay
at the town school they ask, why aren't you at the reserve school
on the other side of the fence the nuns talk at you
jealous of the town school's power
the grade one teacher warns your mother
stop drinking or I'll call a social worker
I had strange dreams, thought I was white
my friend took me to sundance
the smells, sounds, feelings tugged at my mind
I asked, where are the wagons and horses?
she laughed, replied, how long have you been lost?
65 Downwind
Stephen Guppy
Ti he year I turned eleven, my mother and I ran away to Las Vegas.
This was May of 1953, and we were going to miss the lambing. I
was sad about that and about the fact that we couldn't take my
pony, Bill, which I shared with my older half-sister. We were going to live
in the city for a while, my mother had told me, and there would be no
room to keep pets in the city. We were travelling light, my mother said.
The way she said this made me believe that we were freeing ourselves of
the weight of our lives, of the burden of our worrisome possessions.
Everything we owned was in two cardboard boxes and a leatherette suitcase the colour of elderberry wine.
Mama took off her headscarf when we were still half an hour from
St.George. She tugged the knot loose and let the scarf fall to her lap,
then she gave her head a little shake and let her hair blow loose like
mine. I smiled when I saw that, my mother with all her auburn hair
streaming back around the collar of her car-coat. This is it, I thought.
We're really going to the races now. In another half an hour, we'd be
driving through St.George, but we wouldn't stop, we wouldn't even think
of stopping. We'd drive right through, past J.C. Penney's and the Big Hand
Cafe, past the Desertet News and the Liberty Hotel and the Utoco
Gasoline station. We'd keep right on driving for the rest of the day. When
the dark came, we'd be in Las Vegas.
We were ten miles out of St.George when my mother saw the cloud.
"Look there," she said. She pointed south-west across the fields beside
the road, toward the ridge of red mountains in the distance. There was
something like smoke moving rapidly towards us, a wave of black dust
maybe thirty feet high. The sky above the mountains was pink.
"Something's burning," I whispered. I started to roll up my window.
'That's no fire," Mama said. "I saw grass fires of all descriptions when
I lived in Montana. There's no fire in the world makes the sky look like
Pretty soon, you couldn't see the road right in front of you. Everything
was inky-black, and the headlights didn't help. Mama had to pull over
and park beside the highway. The radio was drowned out by static, just
66 this empty buzzing sound that echoed in your ears. Mama reached out
and turned it off, and we sat there, the two of us, looking straight ahead
into the smoke. There was no sound at all with the radio off; everything
had gone completely silent. Whatever birds or other animals that might
have been around at that time of the day must have gone to ground, I
would imagine, when the smoke hit. Anyways, I couldn't help crying. I
sat there in my eggshell-blue dress and sobbed, and my mother fished
around in the pockets of her car-coat for a hankie. She had just pulled
one out of her pocket when we heard this awful bang right close and the
car lurched ahead a few feet.
"Lord! What was that?" Mama said. I could tell she was afraid from the
way that she talked and from the nervous way she giggled when she'd
finished what she was saying.
"Somebody's hit the car," I said. It amazes me now to think that I was
calm enough to come to such a logical conclusion. I was right, of course;
two vehicles that had been trying to make their way down the road
through the smoke had smacked into each other, then one or the other
of them must have nudged against a car that was pulled over by the side
of the road behind us—we didn't even know it was there—and then that
car rolled forward and bumped into us. When the smoke cleared enough
that we could get out and see what had happened, there were three
different vehicles beside ours all tangled up.
"I guess I better see what's going on," my mother said. She giggled
again, and then she reached into the pocket of her coat and handed me a
Kleenex. 'You stay right here and keep the doors locked," she added.
She got out and waited while I got back in and pushed down the button
on the door.
I sat there in the Chevrolet and waited. Through the back window of
the car, I could see my mother walking on the shoulder of the road. There
was dust or ash of some kind falling just like rain or snow, and every few
minutes Mama would brush it off the arms other car-coat. She looked as
if she was having trouble walking in the new shoes she'd bought for the
trip. She had rarely worn heels on the farm, and now she walked as
unsteadily as a teenager trying on her first pair.
The car that had bumped us was parked about thirty feet back.
Whoever was driving it had managed to back up. One of the other vehicles
involved in the collision, a pickup with a bulbous hood and two bales of
hay on the flatdeck, was still out in the middle of the road. Mama walked
over to the truck and started talking to the driver, a man about my daddy's
age who looked as if he needed a shave. They talked for a while and then
the man with the stubble got out of his truck and so did a boy about my
age. While they were conversing with Mama, the driver of the car that
had hit us came and joined them. He was older than the other man and
67 wore a neat grey suit and glasses. They all had a look at our bumper, and
I turned away and pretended to fiddle with the radio knobs so's not to
seem to be taking an interest. By the time my mother got back into our
car, the other people had already started theirs up.
Mama settled in behind the wheel. She waited until the other car had
pulled away before she pressed the starter. I could tell she was thinking
hard about something by the way she knit her brows and looked straight
ahead at the windshield as if she still couldn't make out the road.
'That was one of those atomic bombs," she said quietly. 'They let it off
an hour before daylight, and this dust has drifted out here from Nevada."
It was after nine o'clock in the morning. The sun had been up a couple
of hours before we'd left the farm and started driving. It seemed to have
taken a considerable time for the wind to blow all that dust across the
state line and up through the canyon. I thought about the light from stars,
how many generations pass before it travels through the space between
My mother had grown up in Bitter Springs, Montana, which is just southeast of Billings. The farm where she'd lived was between two reservations,
one Crow and one Cheyenne. She'd talk about Sitting Bull and General
Custer and Little Big Horn, which I guess was what they'd taught her in
school. When she married my father, she had turned into a Latter Day
Saint, but somehow her conversion never changed her. She was one of
those people who likes a good time. When Daddy was off working, all we
did was joke and laugh, Mama and me and Big Sister.
It was a cool enough morning, but sunny. My mother turned on the
radio as soon as we got to the highway. She liked to listen to cowboy
songs, mostly, and I fiddled around with the dial until I found her a station
that played her favourite tunes. We rolled down the windows and cruised
toward St.George, Mama in her headscarf and me with my hair blowing
loose. Our car was a 1942 Chevrolet sedan, one of the last American cars
made before the factories switched over to war production. It was silver-
grey, like an airplane, and had tall white-wall tires. My father had bought
it for my mother to drive us to Gleaners and Bee Hive Girls and to pick
up things we needed from the city. Later on, when Daddy took on the
Utah distributorship for Francis Luscomb Seeds, Mama would hop into
the Chevy when Daddy was away and drive to St.George. This time, we
were going all the way to Las Vegas, where Mama was going to look for
a job. She had worked as a waitress, she said, before she and Daddy were
married, and she figured she could find work with one of the hotels.
'This reminds me of home," Mama said. "Saturdays, we'd climb into
your grandfather's truck and drive into Kayopa or maybe Bitter Springs,
68 Papa and me and my brothers. We'd roll down the windows and let the
wind blow in. That always made me feel so free and happy."
I smiled, not knowing what to say. The people she was talking about,
her father and her brothers, I had never known nor even seen. I had
never even seen a photograph of my mother as a girl, nor been to the
place she'd grown up in, and it was hard for me to visualize her childhood.
I knew what she meant, though, or at least I thought I did. I always liked
driving with the windows down, too.
My mother rarely spoke about her childhood in Montana, but she did
tell me once that her father, who was a stockman of some sort, a man
who worked with cattle, had occasionally lifted her up by her hair. I was
terrified at first when I heard this. I imagined this brutal man, my
grandfather whom I had never seen, grasping my mother's long, reddish-
brown hair in his rough cowboy's hands and lifting her clear off her feet.
I visualized her screaming, clutching at his arms as he heaved her up
clear of the carpet. My mama laughed when I told her this. Apparently, I
had formed the wrong impression. Lifting my mother by her hair was a
magic trick, a party piece my grandfather had performed with my mother,
like making a lady float through a hoop or cutting her in half with a saw.
"Pull my hair," my mother told me. She started taking bobby pins out
of her hair and putting them between her lips. When she had loosed her
hair completely, it fell down in waves to her shoulders, luminous auburn-
red, soft as meadow-grass after a rain.
"Go on," she said, talking out of the side of her mouth, "pull it!"
I grasped a thick, plushy rope of her hair between my fingers, and
gave it a tentative pull. I could smell my mother's Palmolive hair shampoo,
which she purchased at the druggist's every second or third time she
drove to St. George.
"Oh, come on!" she said. 'You can pull a lot harder than that! When
you were little, three or four years old, you used to grab a whole little
fistful of my hair and yank on it hard as you could, like you were trying to
pull a heifer out of a mudhole by its tail. I remember that distinctly. I
didn't mind one bit, though, did I baby? It didn't hurt at all."
We stopped at the first cafe we came to, a bright little place with a KikCola
sign on the door. There were cars parked all along the street, and the
cafe itself was so full that we had to sit on stools up at the counter.
'You go ahead and ask for a glass of milk, baby," Mama said. "I'll just
go and freshen up a little." She walked toward the restroom. I took off
my cardigan sweater and put it on Mama's stool to save her place, then I
pretended to read the menu while I waited for the girl. Every time I
glanced up, I saw my own face looking back at me, reflected in the mirror
69 that ran the whole length of the wall behind the counter.
I didn't much like to admire myself in those days. My skin seemed
rough and sallow and my eyes too narrow-set. My face as a whole was
thin and undistinguished. It's the bones that make the beauty, Mama had
told me many times, but my cheeks looked merely angular and horsey.
There was nothing in my image that foretold a special charm; I'd have
laughed if I had somehow glimpsed the future.
There were two policemen sitting next to me at the counter, a deputy
with a round, smooth face and a balding man with glasses. They were
both drinking coffee and conversing between sips. They both looked
straight ahead as they spoke, and they both talked in calm, quiet voices.
From the little I could overhear of what they said, they were talking about
the bomb.
"It's up around a hundred rads," the deputy commented. "Hotter than
a two-dollar pistol."
'That Snow Canyon?" the other man asked him.
"Around there. The road down from Alamo, mostly."
"A fellow from one of those silver mines called Jurgens on the phone
about eight. Said there were flakes of hot iron coming down. Some sheep
and his horses were burned pretty bad."
The deputy shook his head.
"It's worse on the Vegas road. Been raining. Fellow said his meter
went right off both scales."
"They washing cars down there?"
"Couldn't tell you."
The waitress and my mother arrived all at once. I ordered a small
glass of milk from the girl, and Mama said she wanted some water. More
people started to come into the cafe, and pretty soon there were men and
women standing in the aisles between the tables, and the waitresses were
having trouble moving.
"Well, isn't this just like a party!" Mama said. She smiled at the deputy
and he smiled—a tight, contained smile like he was smiling at her out of
simple politeness. He was drinking black coffee out of a white stoneware
mug. All the men were drinking coffee, some taking it black like the
deputy and some adding cream from the little chrome jugs on the counter.
I wondered what that coffee would have tasted like if I'd ordered some
instead of my milk. There I was, eleven years old that winter, practically
a teenager, almost a woman, and I had never tasted coffee, could not
even visualize what coffee might taste like, having grown up under the
rules of my church. That simple fact seems remarkable to me now. I can
scarcely believe I was once that poor child.
We finished our drinks and got up to leave. It took us a while to weave
our way through all the people to the door. On the way out, I heard a tall
70 man saying something to a woman with a crushed-looking green velvet
'This fall-out, it'll get into everything," he said. "Water. Milk. The air
you breathe. It'll shine right through your body, make you sick in your
blood and bones."
'The AEC people said it couldn't hurt a fly," the woman with the green
hat objected. "Less than you get from a Timex wrist-watch. Less than
you get from the noonday sun."
The man repeated what he'd said about the fall-out. How it would get
inside your body, make your bones sick, sour your blood. I wanted to
hear more, but Mama was right behind me, prodding me to hurry through
the crowd and out the door.
A philosopher determined that there were one hundred billion demons
that came down from heaven when Lucifer fell. That was one hundred
evil spirits for every person who had ever walked the Earth. They were
all around each of us, every waking hour and all night long, tempting
each and every one of us to renounce and forsake the Lord. Big Sister
told me this; she got it from my Daddy, who heard it from an elder of the
LDS church.
"If you're genuinely faithful to the Lord," she said, "you can see every
one of those demons. They're wisps of air with little eyes, or flames or
just reflections on the surface of some water, the farm pond or a fishing
hole or a shady spot out on a river. If your soul hasn't been protected by
God, they can get in through the holes in your body. Your nostrils and
anus and ears and other places. That whole yard out there is full of them,
and so is the air that we breathe."
It was bed time when she told me all this, and I lay there awake half
the night full of worries. Was the house safe from devils? Could the evil
spirits filter through the lapped wood on the walls? Close to dawn, I got
up and looked out from between the curtains on my window. I could hear
Big Sister breathing in her bed across the room, and somewhere far
below me I could hear my daddy's snores. There was just enough light in
the yard for me to see the yellow, threadbare meadow grass that grew
between the porch and the hog barn. I could see our old dog Rusty
sleeping curled up in the shadow that the moonlight cast around Daddy's
moon-blue Fargo truck.
I imagined spirits, wisps of air, curling in and out of Rusty's nose,
writhing through his gold-red hair, raising twisters in the Utah dust around
him. Could the spirits pass through glass and wood? Could they enter
your bones and your bloodstream?
I should not, I guess, have asked myself these questions. My daddy
71 was a priest of God; he would surely preserve and protect me. There
were times, though, when I'd pause in the shade and imagine that I felt
them—writhing spirits, cold as wind—coiling in my nostrils and the flesh
around my eyes.
We sat for quite a while in a line-up of vehicles, just south of St. George on
the highway. Nobody seemed entirely sure what it was we were waiting
there for. Mama told me it was an accident, a car crash up ahead someplace, or maybe they were working on the road. After what seemed like
a very long time, a deputy came walking slowly down the line of cars.
People rolled down their windows, and the deputy bent down and had a
word with each of the drivers in turn as he walked along. Every once in a
while, he waved a car out of the line up, and it drove along on the shoulder and left the rest of us behind. When he came to us, he asked my
mother how far we'd driven that morning, and Mama told him we had
just come from St.George.
The deputy nodded and continued along down the line. He was taller
and thinner than the officer at the cafe, and he seemed for some reason
to be terribly angry, as if there were something in what he had to do that
made him mad. When we finally got going, we saw the cars and trucks
they'd waved aside lined up at a Utoco station. Some boys and men were
washing them down, hosing them off and scrubbing. There were quite a
few people, old men and cowboys, people of all descriptions, standing
around on the tarmac conversing, waiting for their cars to be washed.
It was dark before we got to Las Vegas. I was almost asleep, and I let
myself slouch down and rested my head on Mama's shoulder. The city
was a ball of light, and we drove toward it through the darkness, winging
straight for the luminous core. They were playing Nat King Cole songs
on the radio that night—each tune seemed to last for hours, until I thought
that I could feel the singer's velvet, crooning voice against my skin. When
we reached the Strip, I opened my eyes and sat upright in my seat to
watch the sights.
We rented a room at a place right on the Strip. I had never stayed a
night in a hotel before, at least not that I could remember, but I was so
tired out I hardly even glanced at the people in the lobby or paid any
attention to the elevator ride or the room in which we stayed. We
undressed and put on our night clothes and climbed into the bed. I
suppose I fell asleep straightaway. I was awakened a few hours later by
the sound of someone moving. Mama wasn't in the bed with me, and I
could see that the bathroom light was on through the gap around the
partially-open door.
I got out of bed and went into the bathroom. Mama was standing there
72 over the vanity, holding up a hotel towel and sobbing. Her head was half-
bald, like a middle-aged man's head. There were clumps other hair, black
and shiny, lying every-which-way in the sink. The towel she was holding
up was also full of hair, clinging to the nap of the terry-cloth. I sat down
on the carpet just outside the bathroom doorway, too stunned to say anything or even to cry.
In the morning, Mama's head was bald, and we were both of us feeling
ill. She made herself a turban out of a scarf she'd got herself for her
birthday with some money my daddy gave her as a present. She put on
make-up, lipstick red as cherry pulp, eye-shadow, mascara, every single
thing she had in her handbag, I think. I wondered if she had bought this
stuff recently, the last time she drove down to St.George, for instance, or
if she'd always had her makeup, kept it secret all those years. She looked
like a lady, anyway, sitting there with her head all wrapped up in that
scarf, looking down at me through those heavy black lashes.
'This just doesn't mean a thing," she said. She had sensed, I believe,
that I was anxious, and she wished to reassure me that our lives would go
on as planned. That evening, though, my mother was ill, even sicker than
she had been before. The skin of her face and arms was red, though she
was tanned from working outside at the farm and she never had the type
of skin to sunburn. She brought up what little food there was in her
stomach and then lay in the hide-a-bed the rest of the night, not sleeping
a whole lot but too weak to move. I brought her a cake pan from the little
kitchenette, in case she felt the urgent need to vomit, and then curled up
on the loveseat to sleep. The furniture in the hotel room was some kind
of plastic leatherette, and I woke up after midnight drenched in sweat. I
opened the only window and let the noise of the Strip come in, then I
drank a glass of water looking out at the neon signs. I wondered what my
daddy and Big Sister were doing at that moment of their lives, back up on
that farm in Utah. Were they worried and bereaved about us leaving like
we had, or were they sleeping in their bedrooms just like always? I
visualized them in different ways, Daddy standing at the porch door,
looking out into the night, Big Sister in her flowered housecoat weeping.
Or both the man and girl asleep, the big house still and dark, impervious
to cares and drifting spirits.
By dawn, my mother was well enough to sit up and drink some tea. I
went out and found a corner store and bought a small bag of necessary
things, then I came back to our room to be with Mama. She was sitting
up in the bed in her new flowered housecoat, with the scarf around her
head. She patted the bed beside her and I kicked off my shoes and sat
"I've been thinking," she said.
She stopped there and took a deep breath, as if something was weighing
73 on her, putting pressure on her chest.
"When I married your daddy," she finally continued, "I went over to
the LDS church. I wore my garments every single day. Your father was
an Adamic priest, with the power to speak to God and enter heaven. I
most honestly and truly believed that. He would speak to me in no more
than a whisper, those hard, hurtful eyes of his probing and prodding, and
I'd feel like he was screaming from a mountain. He used to go to the
Temple every week to perform vicarious baptism, did you know that? He
would find the bones of Utes and Shoshoni in the fields, just turn them
up with the plough or harrow, and the very next time he was at the Temple
he would baptize that Ute who was no more than bones, just a handful of
sticks like a scarecrow. He traced his own ancestors back a dozen generations, and over several years he baptized every one."
This speech seemed to take all the fight out of my mother. She lay
back against the pillows and started fussing with the sheet.
"I wish you could have met your natural father," she said. This surprised
me, because she seldom mentioned the man who'd fathered me; she
rarely, in fact, said much about anything that had happened before she'd
come down from Montana and married Daddy. I listened attentively,
hoping she'd tell me some special thing about the father I'd never known.
"He was someone who liked to see a pretty thing when he had the
chance to," she said. "He'd drive all day to watch the sun come down and
turn some worthless little sump-hole yellow, and he always liked to watch
me take my hair down."
The mention of her hair distracted her, and she had nothing more to
say about my father.
"I wish I was little, as young as you are now," she said. "I wish someone
would lift me up and spin me by my hair. I've felt so thick and heavy ever
since I had you. Women feel that way after a child."
She reached out and touched the crown of my head, as if to confer
some small blessing, then let her fingers run down the curve of my face.
I flinched, which I hadn't wanted to, because my hair was lank and greasy
and my skin was greasy too. We sat there for a long time, tired and
When I was old enough to work, an acquaintance of my mother's got me
a part-time job in a diner in Henderson, which is just south of town toward
the Hoover Dam. My mother and I moved down there from our place in
North Las Vegas and I drove to work each morning in our car. The clientele
were drifters, mostly, though at the time I didn't see that. I'd been raised
to take people pretty much as they came, and the broken-down cowboys
and servicemen let go from the Air Base seemed no different to me than
anyone else you might meet in this world. In the evenings, when my shift
74 was done, I would count up my tips at the counter and write the amount
in my little book, then say goodnight to the fry cook and the fellow who
did the books and drive back home to have my dinner with Mama.
Nothing had been right with my mother for years. She was tired all
the time and couldn't work. She complained that the strength had drained
out of her arms and her legs; even walking up a flight of stairs would
make her feel sick and exhausted. A woman she'd waitressed with, Jeannie
Craig, came to live with us in our apartment. She chain-smoked and butted
her Camels on her plate, right in with the ketchup and left-over food.
Mama told me to call her "Aunt Jeannie" and to treat her like she was my
true-to-life aunt. After dinner, Jeannie Craig and Mama would make
highballs and drink. They would listen to the radio or play records on the
hi-fi, stack five or six platters on the automatic changer and listen to Peggy
Lee or Frank Sinatra half the night. Years ago, when her hair had come
back in, my mother had let it grow until it was halfways down her back,
and she'd kept it that way even though it was partially grey now and the
ends looked split and kinky. She would sit there talking away to Aunt
Jeannie and play with her hair, rubbing those frazzled hanks between
her fingers, feeling the texture in an absent-minded way.
Those last days in Mama's apartment were a difficult period for me. I
got so I hated the company of women. Their nylons draped over the towel
rack. Their cigarettes, smudged with pink lipstick. Their misshapen
girdles. Their yellowing lingerie hung up to dry. I hated their weakness,
their endless complaining. I would sit at the kitchen table looking out at
the moon and wish I were anywhere, even back home in Utah. Aunt
Jeannie's things got mixed in with mine and my mother's, and once she
accused me of stealing a brooch of hers that had amethysts and sentimental value. The stink of her perfume seemed to fill the apartment. If I
opened a window, my mother or Aunt Jeannie closed it. It was a place I
couldn't be.
At the end of my junior year in high school, I left my mother's home
and went away. I travelled to Los Angeles, to see the ocean and learn
about acting, two things that I had always dreamed of doing. I dyed my
hair blonde before leaving Las Vegas, and a girl I knew gave me a Toni
home perm. My hair was so blonde it was silver, not gold, and I swept it
away from my face in two wings. I wore a blue dress the colour of Navaho
dream stones, with a low neck that showed off my cleavage, and my
mother's pair of shiny black heels.
I went with an ex-GI named Larry Dean Palmer. I had met him at the
place where I waitressed. He had learned to play the vibraphone when
he was in the army, and he intended to form a jazz band when we got out
to the coast. We drove up through Caliente, Alamo and Ely, then headed
west toward the Sierras with the top of his Mercury down. Larry had a
75 brother in Carson City whom he thought would lend him money. We
were going to California, where we were going to make it big.
One afternoon, we stopped at a road house. It wasn't anything you
could honestly call a casino, just a little flat-roof structure like an Esso
garage with a sign that said SLOTS LIQUOR FOOD. Inside, it was all one
big room, slots at the one end and a bar at the other, with some tables in
the middle for those who wished to play cards. The air was full of heat
and smoke. There were three men playing blackjack at a table near the
fruit machines. One was middle-aged and fat and wore a charcoal-grey
fedora. The other two were boys who looked like soldiers out on leave.
We sat down on leatherette stools at the bar and Larry ordered me a
soft drink and himself a shot and a beer. While we waited for our drinks
to come, he lit a cigarette.
"Dig the bones," he said, waving his smoke at the wall behind the bar.
At the top, near the ceiling, they had hung up the bleached-looking skull
of some animal, a small cow or a sheep perhaps, it was difficult to say.
The creature had been so deformed you couldn't tell what it should have
looked like. There was a socket for a single eye, and one horn was
branched and twisted, like the limb of a leafless tree. It could have been
a demon or a figure from make-believe.
"Cool," Larry whispered. When the drinks came, he threw back his
head and took his shot in one hard, sudden mouthful. Then he tapped
the ash from his cigarette and lifted his glass of beer as if to contemplate
its color in the murky, inadequate light.
There wasn't much to look at in the road house. The three men at the
table seemed to have as little interest in card games as I did. They lounged
in their chairs and blew smoke rings, threw coins and folded bills across
the table when the occasion required that they do so, and spent a lot of
time shuffling cards. More than once I caught the younger fellows looking
at my legs. Around dark, a couple more men arrived to play blackjack,
and not long after that a dilapidated woman in a stained khaki car-coat
shuffled over to the slot machines with a paper cup full of change. My
boyfriend nursed his second glass of beer.
"We ought to get going," I finally told him. "We ought to get along to
Carson City. It's getting on night now, we ought to be gone."
Larry waved to the bartender for another beer-and-a-shot
"Anywhere I am, I'm gone," he said. His voice was hardly more than a
whisper. He smiled and flicked ash across the counter. His eyes had
already taken on that smug look that a person's eyes get when they know
that they're going to be drunk. I told him once or twice more that I wanted
to get going, that I'd have voted not to stop there in the first place if I'd
been asked. Pretty soon, I went into the foyer, where I'd seen a good-
sized armchair, curled up in it under Larry's black windbreaker, and
76 drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened near dawn by the noise of someone shouting. I heard
the sound of splintering wood and some woman's hysterical laughter. I
walked right through the road house from the front to the rear and went
out into the yard behind the building. There were eight or ten people out
back in the lot. The glass panes in one of the outside doors were smashed,
and the door itself was hanging off its hinges. Larry Dean and another
man were fighting. By the looks of things, they'd been wrestling around
in the dust for a while. They both looked beat and heartsick, as if their
bodies were two tired animals that had no wish to fight.
It was a scene that should have made me blue, but though my back
was sore from lying on that lumpy chair all night, I felt strangely fresh
and clear-headed. I could visualize the whole of my life, every hour of it
flowing into the next hour, all the days of my existence laid out there
right before me like a Rand McNally map. I would drive to California, if
not with Larry Dean Palmer then with someone else entirely, some other
man who owned a car—with one of those fellows in the road house, perhaps, or with someone I would meet in Carson City. I would act in many
feature films, playing beautiful girls who had no luck, who were married
to unworthy men or who were menaced by evil-doers or troubled by
terrible fears. I would swagger through elegant parties, let my blonde
hair fall across my eyes. I would laugh out loud, drink cocktails, and walk
for miles beside the sea. I would never think of Mama, or that road house,
or my life.
k k k
Over thirty years later, I wait for Pilar. It is late in the day, and it's my
custom in the evenings to take a drink of plain club soda on the deck
above the pool. Pilar brings my drink on a tray, just as if she were a waitress
in a night club. I expect this amused me years ago, when I moved up to
this house. Lyman Whyte, my second husband, was the one who hired
the help, though at that time it was someone other than Pilar, someone
smaller, cleaner, and less good-natured, though also a Spanish-speaking
The summer has pretty well played itself out. The pool is streaked
with curled brown leaves from the Japanese maple, a pathway of babies'
hands, reaching for light. I sit on the balcony, looking down at the yard. I
am wearing wide palazzo pants and an equally loose-fitting jacket. My
head has been wrapped in a turban. This is also Pilar's job, to lay out my
clothes on my bed in the morning, to wind the scarf into a turban, to get
me undressed before bed. Neither of us looks at the other while she
performs these operations. At night, before she comes upstairs, I take
off the turban myself. I sit down at the vanity and look at my white, oval
77 face. Without hair, I seem unearthly, like a crone who has come back
from the dead. My hairless visage fascinates me, but I regard it without
much emotion. What has happened has happened; there is nothing to be
done. Time is just a treacherous thing, my mother would have said. Whatever you build, it blows away; whatever you put a shine on, it'll tarnish.
Not long after Mama and I moved down from the farm to Las Vegas, I
pulled off one of my fingernails when I was lying in the bath. We were
still in that room on the Strip in those days, and my mother was in the
bedroom, listening to the radio with a cold towel over her face. I was
listening to the music too, and thinking about the farm. My mind was full
of farmyard scenes, like a pack of picture postcards. Big Sister dressed
for Beehive Girls. Mama and me climbing into our Chevy. My daddy's
footprints pooled with shade in the dust beside the steps. I rubbed at an
itch on my finger, and the nail curled away in my palm. It was tougher
than pigskin and seemed as foreign as a claw. I put it on the side of the
white enamel bath and resolved to say nothing to Mama. It would soon
grow back, I told myself, and in this I was correct. A brand new nail,
baby-pink and pearlescent, formed gradually in place of the old one. I
awaited other portents, but nothing else occurred. The spirit was inside
me, marking time.
The fistfight seemed to have be going on for quite some time. Both Larry
and the other boy were stumbling on their knees. The spectators had
begun to lose interest. Some had wandered back inside the bar and others
were laughing and talking. I walked around the knot of men and went out
to watch the dawn.
The man with the grey fedora was standing a ways beyond the rest,
looking out at the southern desert. There wasn't much out there but
creosote bushes and the odd twisted tree. The sun had come up just
enough to paint the mountains red. Some kind of bird made mournful
sounds. It was an ordinary south Nevada sunrise.
"Seen one, you seem them all," I said. I was making conversation, that
was all.
"Hey, it's the Blonde Bombshell! Where you been?" he said. He grinned
at me in a friendly way and tipped back his fedora. His face was fat but
not gross or unpleasant. He seemed, now that I looked at him closely, a
more refined sort of man than his companions.
I shrugged and gathered Larry Dean Palmer's windbreaker around
my shoulders, to show him that my whereabouts were no concern of his.
He shook his head as if amused and went back to staring at the sunrise.
'There's a test shot at oh-five-thirty. That's any minute now," he said.
He pushed back the cuff of his shirt and took a glance at his watch. "Keep
78 your eyes on the edge of that ridge, it's worth watching."
When the bomb flash hit, I flinched and screamed. The world became
transparent. After that, there were winds and the terrible cloud. We all
stood and watched without speaking. Larry Dean Palmer left about half
an hour later, the Mercury spraying dust across the lot as he peeled out.
Later on, I took a ride with the older man and made my way west, crossing
through the hills into my future.
Pilar comes out onto the deck with my club soda. She puts it down without a word and then goes back inside. I sip my drink and watch the leaves
floating motionless in the pool. Like all inhuman things, they wait, their
bodies changing form, abandoned in the arid light of heaven.
79 Peter Richardson
The Languedoc Express
In my dream, I was visiting London
and my sister, now dead 10 years,
had flown up from southern France
where she had a house, a garden.
The garden needed turning over
and mulching, but she was going
south to Italy. Could I do it?
Would I turn that garden over?
Birds swooped over terraced hilltops
as we stood in that hallway in London,
discussing the French term for train fare
which I thought was tarifs des trains.
A whirring of farm machinery
could be heard over afternoon traffic
which roared around Piccadilly Circus
half a block down a small alley.
Would I run errands for her?
Drive to the village in her Renault?
Have the cistern filled with water?
Did these things fill me with wonder?
Not one bit because my sister
was fading as we spoke in that hallway—
aware of her distance from me,
and of my presence in two places at once.
80 Guided By Voices
Mark Anthony Jar man
for David Cedge
Fall from the Greyhound and my town seems so tiny: Smaller the
cage, meaner the rat, allows my best friend John Stark Lee. All the
stores have false wooden fronts pushed into each other on just
one side of the street, a soft sandy road glowing under the walls and
along the paltry riverbank, and my bus idling under the single row of
goldrush buildings with their gingerbread decks and narrow doors and
sash windows and minarets facing the violent river like a frail resolute
Hidden hilly lands stretch away east and west toward brutish elegant
storms. Like drums rolling, drums moving through your sternum or kidney—insistent—like drums our smoking skies perform and every spring
the river jumps its pointless banks. Then later the river crawls back black
and penitent over the sandy road. Got it out of its system.
September here, spider webs everywhere and wild geese veering and
a hawk low by the road. The juicy blackberries turn to hunks of fuzz.
Stars like great gears rolling over a blue norther. Stars are panels of
eyelight pinned in your polished head, like vowels you can't use, an accomplishment.
The Red Planet Theatre has lately been converted to apartments, wallflower tenants creating novel curtains, making a home. No more movies
Saturday night, no more Eraserhead on a double bill with My Darling
Clementine, no more necking up high and throwing down our buttery
The post office is clean slick brick and does not fit our little town. The
river once so stiff with fish you could walk across. The Fish & Game
people are not sure what went wrong. They're taking samples, running
tests. A young star-crossed couple from my old school drove right in the
river and drowned last Valentine's. The strange thing is they hit the deep
water in reverse, roaring backwards into the bottom. We can't leave it
alone. Across the river you can see the new pastel prison and its floodlights the colour of television.
Across the river snowy lunar volcanoes and you see scars where Ameri-
81 can scientists with toothbrushes are digging up eggs and dinosaur bones.
Vegetarians and small fast mean meat-eaters—ran from here to Argentina when they were alive.
"Check these out!" says John Stark Lee, a pale-eyed magician pulling
hickory drumsticks from his sleeves: his usual five finger discount.
Scarred face where he ran his snowboard full bore into a copse of pointy
trees, a grey branch breaking right through the soft wall of his cheek
two inches below his eye, John Lee eating and spitting wet wood and one
bloody tooth into the snow on the steep mountain.
I just paid $25 for a new blues harp in the music store, paid for an
instrument the size of two fingers, walked the dark boards to the elderly
man at the cash register and I wanted to be Sonny Boy Williamson or
Little Walter. Why do I feel like the stupid one for paying, feel like the
sucker? John Lee's stolen drumsticks have those white plastic tips. I hate
these rubber-legged noisy drummers.
'You're 18," I say, "you get busted you get a record now. You get a
record then how you going to get a job?"
"Shut up, man, you're totally paranoid. I'm going to be a sixty-year-old
punk rock grocery bagger," he says. "All right? Nice earring," he says. "I
guess that's what the cool urbanite poseur dudes wear now."
'That's what we're wearing this year."
"Why you back here so often? Bella never wants to come back. She
broke it off with me. You've been back about three times already. You
flunking out?"
"I'm doing all right."
"Yeah, I bet you fit in fine. You homesick or something?"
"As if."
"Bella's gone weird on me. Piss me off something fierce. I'm not supposed to call her anymore. Sicks the law on me. You see her? You see her
around, huh? Maybe you study?"
"I see her once in a while."
'Yeah, I bet you see her some."
Where Marshall-Wells once was I lean against an old wooden fence, trying to look relaxed, trying to look happy, wanting to be happy, my nose
full of the smell of mowed bunchgrass and bungalows and lilac trees.
Somewhere close an engine's even cadence, men working over their insults under the evening map of branches. Tonight they are going to corner the boys from Alberta, make them pay for being from Alberta. The
fights won't start for a few hours; this is a peaceful time. I love a good
engine, hearing it turn over without hesitation.
The metal paint in the sky where tiny yellow birds zip by our heads
and the ancient pine fence gives way right where I'm leaning, a scaly
82 section of fence falling over, almost taking me with the fence. Then the
weight of its slow cracking impetus drags down another thirty feet of
knotholes. I seem to be attacking the avenues and entropy of my old
lopsided town, I'm chewing the scenery, as they say in Hollywood; an
engine revs and an elderly woman's words call down the busted fence
and darkening road, "Boys, you better pick that mess up this instant!"
John Stark Lee laughs, loves this noisy destruction, John Stark Lee
gets some velocity, John Stark Lee jumping and yelling and laughing at
me: "Way to go Adam! Are we smart or what! You're a clown!"
'You heard me, young man!" Her words fainter as we flee.
This reminds me of junior high: the center of attention and not wanting to be. This reminds me of all the way back to kindergarten, maybe
I have probably been within several feet of John Stark Lee's stern grey
eyes every day from kindergarten. At least until last year. John Stark Lee
is sharp, a fever spider inside, but he's never done well in school; more
into new bands and boosting and snowboarding. Had radar for good new
bands; liked Guided By Voices or The Giggling Faggots or the Picassoles
way before anyone had heard of them. And he's a possessed nutter on a
snowboard, knees bent, arms out, living in light over the ozone clouds.
One step ahead of all of us on the plank and one step behind in school.
Did not profit at school. Flunking school. His father who was a nice guy
but looked like Hitler drove us right to the school's door and John Stark
Lee still skipped class: stride in and stride right out the other side. Not in
the cards.
In this family we never had a quitter, his parents tell him.
You know you're killing your mother, his father says.
You know you're killing your father, his mother says.
Inside Sneaky Pete's we order at the front and pay in advance. John Stark
Lee pays his tab with a mixed heap of coins. I pay mine with a twenty.
They're playing the White Album: Back In the USSR, Glass Onion, number 9, number 9.
John Stark Lee picks a corner table and we wait for our numbers to
come up. We don't talk but we're used to that. At school people get uncomfortable with silence, think silence a bad sign, and they talk just to
hear themselves, to hear voices wrap like wool scarves around their heads.
What I could say: You ever going to finish school?
What he could reply: Fat chance, I'll never go back to school.
What John Stark Lee does say: "Oh, my darling mother drove into a
Charolais milk cow by the railroad bridge, cow's big head came right
through the window and dislocated her shoulder. Too surprised to give it
a whack on the nose. My mother had to go to the hospital but the cow
83 walked away. She made the paper. Her, not the milk cow, well both. Day
and night you can find my old man playing Texas Hold 'Em Poker at the
casino and he won't even take down the goddamn Christmas lights.
Mookie and the old Lowell gang, they're into carpeting, ornamental
shrubs. New jobs, new girlfriends, new houses, or they've moved, hate
me, whatever...Same old same old. No one lately has said, John Lee I
could fall for you in a big way. I am withering bigtime, bud, I'm becoming
serious hind tit here, a small town joke. No more Navy rum. Woke up on
the drunk tank floor and this space cadet from Kamloops with no shirt
standing over me saying, Yeah I was at my sister's place and I beat the
snot out of all her neighbours for looking at me weird.' He wanted to buy
my shirt off me. Do you know what those drunk tank floors are like? Hell
yes you can buy my shirt. This was when I wanted that 4x4, was saving
up and working, working, working the assembly line—non-stop headless
chickens coming at me, even in my dreams, dreaming headless fucking
chickens night after night and HEY, no more Navy rum for this cowboy."
"Pretty fucked up, bud. Our numbers are up."
He loads up with black pepper and apple salsa and jalapenos, loads his
"Good food, good meat, yay Lord, let's eat."
"Down the hatch, bud."
I notice a woman, a bit older than us, staring at me. The woman mumbles
something to herself, then stands and walks towards me. She's wearing
fur boots and a ski jacket though it's not cold in here or even down by the
windy river. Her striped pants shift and undulate; the stripes seem alive
and her outfit matches no era I can recall, a netherworld style that seems
outside of recognized decades or fashion, like Astroturf or astronauts or
llth-hour accordions. She has incubated, rebuilt memory. I see her but
I'm still startled when she stops at our table, her snug hipbones at my
eye level in a scent of polyester and lemons.
The woman in the fur boots talks in a voice like a robot: "Excuse-me-
"Sorry," I say, "Can't help you there I'm afraid."
I glance at John Stark Lee and say, "No."
John Stark Lee says, "Hey Lady, you've been smoking too much crack."
She doesn't seem to hear John Stark Lee, stares at me only. Why is
she staring at me so?
John Stark Lee says to me, "Dude, she's a robot."
And to the woman he says, "Uh yes, this is Jeff Mieck and he's wanted
"Shut up man," I tell him.
84 "I-must-contact-the-CIA," she confides calmly and walks away.
Everyone in the diner stares at us, not sure whose side they're on, citizens watching us warily over their Sprite on the rocks and coiled spaghetti and refills of acid coffee, and John Stark Lee laughing spasmodically. The blotchy scar reddening on his chin and cheek where he steered
his snowboard into the wrong trees, where a mountain branch entered
his mouth, grey eyes open and laughing at himself, his stupid bleeding
head stuck to the mountain. Like when a shrike impales a smaller bird
on a buckthorn.
I look over: "Man, be quiet."
John Stark Lee laughs and shouts, "Hey Lady, I've got some crack
cocaine for sale over here, do you want some?"
The woman walks to the payphone and picks it up without putting in
any coins or dialing any numbers.
"Hello, is this the CIA?" she says into the phone. "Yes, I see Jeff Mieck
and I am shivering in my boots with fear." She sounds almost sarcastic or
"Will you come down here and bring him in? We are at the diner."
She looks right at me.
"Oh no Jeff Mieck! Oh no Jeff Mieck! Jeff, you scare me!"
There is something strangely sexual or theatrical in her voice; the
woman sounds as if she's mocking me, as if she's flirting, answering some
"Oh Jeff, you scare me!"
"Oh my God," says John Stark Lee. 'This is my first real psycho encounter. This has it all over TV. I'm so excited!"
"Shut up man."
I find myself wondering if she lives at the Red Planet Theatre, living
and waiting for me behind the weird curtains where the big clean movie
light used to flow straight across the room like a river in the air. I think
about telling Bella when I get back.
"Hey lady! Are you Jeffrey Dahmer's mother? What did you say to
Jeffrey when he kept going to the fridge?"
John Stark Lee does a squeaky impression of the Robot Woman's voice,
almost crossing his eyes: "Son, if you open that fridge door one more
time, heads are going to roll! Ha ha ha."
The woman leaves the phone and returns to her table. John Stark Lee
keeps abusing her, though everyone is staring at him. A year back I would
have joined in the joke. He notices a pretty younger woman looking at
him. He settles down. Old people: who cares? Males his age: fuck them.
Children: without clout. Pretty young women? Not an unimportant category to John Stark Lee.
"Holy shit," he says to me in a lower voice, "what a total freak."
85 "Okay man, I think she's had enough abuse."
"Abuse? Calm down, man," he says.
"Well I'm just saying that—"
"No, you ain't saying nothing! You used to be all right, a bad ass, but
now you're a wuss, coming back here with your earring, your fag tag and
your little answers. They got to you. Just like Bella. Both of you weird,
fucking snobs and you think I can't see it."
'This is crazy."
"So it's crazy. Big fucking deal. You're the crazy one. Everyone else is
crazy. Hey man, what's that say? Better go take Psych 100, Einstein, am I
right or am I right!"
We say nothing for a while. I try to finish my food in an uncomfortable
silence. The morsels stand on my tongue and won't cooperate.
Melt Of The Day. Kind of an ominous name really. Rinds of bright
orange cheese that stretch like taffy, and under that layer either tuna or
chicken or sauerkraut or massacred French Toast. Someone made me
something here in my home town. With their hands. I'm not too sure of
the exact contents. My parents named me and always made me finish my
food. The fast meal a living thing socked down in my stomach, fighting
gravity and digestion.
"How's the burger?" I ask. I attempt conversation. I lead with my chin. I
am not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
"Oh, it's just divine, Jeff. And hey, thanks for asking,/e#"
We rise to leave our tense table as if at a border checkpoint. Still life with
French fries. The CIA woman mutters something to me but I don't catch
it all. "Jeff! Jeff!" she pleads lowly. A wallflower calling from the wall.
As we pass the payphone, John Stark Lee grabs the receiver; he had
this planned.
John Stark Lee glares right at the CIA woman and bellows, "I'd like to
report a sighting of Jeff Mieck. Jeff's right here but he's been taken prisoner by the Robot Woman. I'm afraid it's too late. Jeff's one of them now."
John Stark Lee stares at me and laughs. I have to laugh too. He is a
But then my best friend hands the phone to me and walks out of Sneaky
Pete's, walks hard like he's dragging a suitcase on wheels, disappears
walking toward the wooden stores and curling river of ale and extinct
snowy volcanoes and the scientists' fenced-off dinosaur relics: a buried
race of kings, meat-eaters that could once run all the way to Patagonia.
Black payphone like a gun to my head I stand there, my feet disconnecting from the flat earth, getting air. The phone smells like vinegar
and someone has said, I could fall for you in a big way.
86 In one ear the xylophone sound of the hushed hyper sea, wiring's
hidden miles of copper intestines, and a jittery miniature city waiting at
the end of the fibre optics, city and citizens waiting to be guided by voices,
sprites, spooks. I discover I have nothing to say to the CIA. The metropolis' great boulevards and its night-map of tree branches that may one day
enter your head.
I've gone away but John Stark Lee is the true nomad. Like the woman
in fur boots, he is possessed, a life on the thorns.
I will fit in as a Teflon clockwatcher, a studious clerk at the Xerox
machine, a denizen of hallways. I have this knowledge, this voice inside.
The woman in fur boots slips the phone from my hand, as if stealing,
stealing me from a trance. She then holds on to my white hand and stares
into my blue eyes, prepared to wait, prepared to grovel at my feet behind
curtains. I am attempting to deserve the summons, her concentration of
powers, the tempting weight of being chosen by the woman in fur boots.
87 Alice Major
Sea Horse
What is a country, after all,
but the shadow of some mythic beast
projected on the roundness
of a sphere—the two-dimensional
skin of a tale told often.
Upon a time, when my days spun long
and legendary, bedtime was an arbitrary mark
on the clock's train-ticketing face. My bed
lay flat and quiet as a station platform
after the engine leaves. In the twilight
I curled on my side, stared up at my wall,
at the map of the world.
Found my
country. Imagined it a pink horse rearing
from the sea—Hudson Bay like a saddle
on its back, rising to the high pommel
of Ungava. Its tail lashed the ocean
with arabesque peninsulas—Avalon,
Cape Race, Cape Sable. Names flung
like fine spray on my face.
What did I feel for it? For this
name I sang in the pink-tongued
morning classroom ? OHHH CANaDAH.
The tune boring. The words orotund
as small planets in our mouths.
My map-shadow was big. I liked that.
As though we'd won some competition.
And even though I lived so small
in it. A few streets, a schoolyard,
a ravine with squirrel voices,
sumac leaves. How could I know its size
was part illusion, a trick
of flattening, a fiction shaped
by the spreading of a sphere.
Still, it was big. I learned a true tale
of its distance, told in the chuff of train wheels
all the way to Winnipeg. I was baggage, travelling
with my Scottish grandmother. She couldn't
comprehend a trip of thirty-seven hours and cried
all night, so sure we'd missed our stop.
But, for me, legends wakened with the dawn
in mist whispered from lakes. Sumac scrawled
red crayon fingers at the foot of granite cliffs.
Rock rose from water, pink and fabulous
as my sea horse in the new light of the sun.
What is a country after all
but a tale of lakes and leaves,
a myth of schoolrooms,
a certain size and shape
cast on the curvature
of thought.
89 Mary Cameron
The Paddle
Wet from the paddle's curved end
spills on the smooth surface of the lake,
the drops falling back as we glide
through lilies, fish, turtles—their sinking
shells through the green—a release of the lake
back into the lake, perceptibly
joining itself from a brief
drop-from-drop separation we slip through—
wet at the tip, warm
at the core, this is something
like holding you, holding a breath
in the stroke, a breath—the paddle's release from the lake
curved on all shores, it fills
every hollow with lake—you slide into the
grip of the paddle, your fist and your palm
and the wood of the woods surrounding us fills
every hollow with lake, every
part of us, parts and fills.
90 Contributors
Mary Cameron's first collection of poetry, Clouds Without Heaven, is
forthcoming from Press Porcepic (Beach Holme) in 1998. Her writing has
appeared in many literary journals, including The Malahat Review, Canadian
Literature, and The Thrashing Dove Review (US). Originally from Vancouver, she
now lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she is editor of Quarry Magazine.
Marina Endicott lives in Alberta and works in the theatre as a director and
dramaturge. Her story "With the Band" was short-listed for the 1995 Journey
Stephen Guppy has published a book of short stories, Another Sad Day at the
Edge of the Empire, and a collection of poems. His stories and poems have appeared in a number of Canadian periodicals and anthologies, including 95: Best
Canadian Stories and PRISM 17:1. He teaches at Malaspina University-College
in Nanaimo, B.C., where he lives with his wife and two children.
Mark Anthony Jarman has had fiction published recently in Event, Zygote,
Hawaii Review, CutBank, Queen's Quarterly, Prairie Fire, and Matrix. His work
has also appeared in a hockey anthology called Our Game (Polestar Press), and
a story titled "California Cancer Journeys" is forthcoming in Best Canadian Stories
in the fall. He teaches at the University of Victoria and his novel, Salvage King
Ya!, will be published by Anvil Press in 1997.
Paul Kinsella has documented features of the urban landscape for heritage
purposes and as equivalents of personal experience. He is currently working on
a Ph.D. in English at the University of British Columbia on the subject of 'The
Decay of Lying" by Oscar Wilde.
Lea Littlewolfe has poems and postcard stories published or forthcoming in
Grain, McGill Street Magazine, Wascana Review, Ash, Our Family, Paw Prints,
The Prince Albert Daily Herald, NeWest Review, Undertow, Descant, Briarpatch,
Other Voices, Western People, Atlantic Co-operator, and Black Cat 115, as well as
several anthologies. She is from the Onion Lake Indian Reserve on the Alberta-
Saskatchewan border.
Alice Major is a freelance writer and poet living in Edmonton, Alberta. Her
poems have been published extensively in Canadian literary magazines. Her
first collection of poems, Time Travels Light, appeared in 1992. Her new chapbook,
Complete Within Herself, will be launched by the Hawthorne Society in Victoria,
B.C., in October, 1997.
91 Richard Rene was born in the Seychelles, an archipelago of islands in the Indian
Ocean. His family left after a communist government took power. In 1989, they
became landed immigrants in Canada. Richard began writing after rediscovering
his Seychellois culture through his father's stories.
Peter Richardson was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, and works at Mirabel
Airport. He has lived in Canada since 1969 and his work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Poetry, Queen's Quarterly, and The Sonora Review.
He lives in Morin Heights, Quebec.
Bryan Sentes is the author of Budapest Suites (Pneuma Editions, 1994) and
Gloze (private edition, 1995). Awarded the City of Munich's Literaturaufentheilt
Villa Waldberta writer's residency stipend, he is presently on the Starnbergersee,
writing and translating. He normally resides in Montreal. "Magonian Latitudes"
is part of a longer book-length poem concerned with the UFO myth in all its
dimensions, of which On the Phantom Air Ship Mystery (Pneuma Editions, 1996)
is another part.
David Winwood lives in County Roscommon, Ireland. His work has appeared
in The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, The Winsor Review and other literary
magazines in Canada, Australia, Ireland. New Zealand, the UK and the US. He is
working on a juvenile novel set in the middle ages called Plague, and it sequel,
Witch Hunt.
92 jhfyffl^tional
1997   Short   Fiction   Contest
Deadline: postmarked December 15, 1997.
25 pages maximum (typed and double-spaced). Please put
name, address and title on a cover page; each page of the
story should include the title but not the author's name.
Fee: $15 plus $5/story (includes one year subscription).
Canadian residents pay in Canadian funds, all others
pay in US funds to cover mailing costs.
Entries must be original, unpublished and not under
consideration elsewhere. Entries will not be returned.
Winners will be notified in June, 1998 & published in the
summer fiction contest issue.
Send entry fees and manuscript(s) to:
PRISM international Short Fiction Contest .Creative Writing Program,
UBC .Buchanan E462 - 1866 Main Mall .Vancouver, BC. V6L IZl
Congratulations to Peggy McCann, this year's Gold Award
Winner of the National Magazine Award for Personaljournalistn
(Water Sky' Event Vol.25, No.3)
Read these B.C. writers and others in our 1997 summer issue:
Fiction by Ross Klatte, Caroline Woodward, Denise Ryan
Poetry by Tom Wayman, Susan Musgrave, Tim Bowling, Sue Wheeler
Reviews by Candace Fertile, Dallas Harrison
Subscription Rates:
One year (3 issues) $18 plus GST
Two years (6 issues) $28 plus GST
The Douglas College Review
P.O. Box 2503, New Westminster, BC, V3L 5B2
Phone: (604) 527-5293   Fax: (604) 527-5095
College Creative Writing B.F.A
The University of British Columbia offers a Bachelor 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, Radio Play, Writing for Children,
Non-Fiction andTranslation.AII instruction is in small workshop format
or tutorial.
Sue-Ann Alderson
George McWhirter
Keith Maillard
Jerry Newman
Linda Svendsen
Peggy Thompson
Bryan Wade
For further information, please write to:
Creative Writing Program
University of British Columbia
Buchanan E462-I866 Main Mall
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T IZI Prairie Fire's
1997 Writing Contests
Bliss Carman Poetry Award
Deadline: June 30, 1997 (postmarked).
Judge: Dennis Cooley.
Up to 3 poems (no more than 30 lines each) per entry.
Entry fee: $24*
Sponsored in partnership with The Banff Centre for the Arte who will award a
jeweller-cast replica of Bliss Carman's turquoise and silver ring to the first prize winner.
1st prize $500, 2nd prize $200, 3rd prize $100.
Two-Minute Tales or A.S.A.P.'s Fables
(postcard fiction, prose poetry)
Deadline: September 30, 1997 (postmarked).
Judge: Byrna Barclay.
Up to 3 pieces (no more than 500 words each) per entry.
Entry fee: $24*
Five prizes of $100 each.
Short Fiction
Deadline: November 30, 1997 (postmarked).
Judge: Susan Swan.
One story per entry, maximum 3000 words.
Entry fee: $24*
1st prize $300, 2nd prize $200, 3rd prize $100.
Long Short Story
Deadline: December 31, 1997 (postmarked).
Judge: Matt Coben.
One story per entry, maximum 20,000 words.
Entry fee: $24*
One Prize of $500.
* Each entry fee entitles you or your designate to a one-year (4 issues) subscription
to Prairie Fire magazine. You may enter all contests as often as you like.
Our address:
Prairie Fire, 423-100 Arthur St., Winnipeg, MB, R3B 1H3; ph.:
(204) 943-9066.
• Do not identify yourself on your contest entry.
• Enclose a cover sheet with your name, address, telephone number,
and the title(s) of your piece(s), along with your entry fee(s).
• Make cheque or money order payable to Prairie Fire.
• If you wish to have your entry returned and/or to be informed of contest results,
include a stamped, self-addressed envelope of sufficient size and with sufficient postage.
• Each entry must be original, unpublished, not submitted elsewhere for publication or
broadcast, nor accepted elsewhere for publication or broadcast, nor entered simultaneously
in any other contest or competition for which it is also eligible to win a prize.
• Winning entries will be published in Prairie Fire magazine,
with authors paid for publication. Fiddlesex
Whether you think it's the lowest common denominator,
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not just locale....
from Magonian tatitudes
by Bryan Sentes
Wailan Low
Mary Cameron
Marina Endicott
Stephen Guppy
Mark Anthony Jarman
Lea Littlewolfe
Alice Major
Richard Rene
Peter Richardson
Bryan Sentes
David Winwood
Cover photo by Paul Kinsella.
ISSN 0032.8790


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