Fiction, by Heather Birrell
(Illustrations by Charles Checketts)
The Bookninja Magazine is very pleased to present this new short story by Journey Prize winner Heather Birrell. Birrell has appeared previously on Bookninja when interviewing and reviewing Deborah Eisenberg last fall.
Impossible to Die in Your Dreams
Eliza: Soup Out Of Stones
When my granddaughter Annie was ten she started talking like a wrestler from a fable. ‘I regard you as a nail in the eye and a thorn in my muscle,’ she said. ‘I will trounce you,’ she shouted, with her arms raised, fists clenched. That was after the three-month period where she insisted on watching As the World Turns standing on her head with the backs of her knees propped against the recliner. She said it made more sense that way. There’s no contesting the wisdom of children. Now, there she is, all dolled up to the nines and tens, ready to wed. And in such a place! I’m not one for religion, but still, a brewery tugs at the old constraints of credulity. And her sister Samantha, always the ornery one, scowling in the corner. Went and got herself a P-H-D and traipsed around the world. Places herself above weddings and other normal human interactions. Thinks tripping through a rice paddie in Vietnam lends her some smarts inaccessible to the likes of me and Bea.
‘Why the beanie?’ says my friend Bea, nudging.
‘Not a beanie, Bea, yar-mah-kah. He’s Jewish. But not strict or anything. Eats whatever’s placed in front of him.’
‘Shh,’ says Samantha, who has now seated herself behind us. She refused to be a part of the ceremony – said it was antiquated and patriarchal. But now she sits shushing, blinking back tears and choking on love. Guess they never put the term hypocrisy on the syllabus at her fancy schools.
Annie’s a beautiful girl, willful and often ill-mannered, but a survivor. It’s odd seeing her in white, in a gown, looking like a Cinderella doll with shiny cheeks and teeth. I had them like that – bones and teeth that thrived and gritted and bolstered. Not so anymore. But I still got a couple of gnashers, rising proud like tombstones from the gum. I once heard a sprinter on the TV talk about hitting his stride. I had my legs under me, he said. I’m the same, legs still under me. And I know some things.
Ah, here they are now, pronouncing the same old promises we go on promising: to be true, to take care, grow old together.
And the kiss – under the silk hupa, the clean, striving buildings and the blue, blue sky. Perfect. And impossible to fulfill, though we sweat and ache and die trying.
‘Jewish, eh?’ says Bea as the bride and groom stride past, well-fed youth with years ahead. ‘Will she have to wear that scarf?’
Bea’s sparky and tough, but crosses wires.
‘That’s Muslims, Bea,’ says Samantha, sighing. ‘There are some of those here too. Plus some Gentiles turned Jews, a couple of Catholics with questions, some lapsed Buddhists, or Buddhists ascending.’ Samantha scans then sighs again. ‘Some who just do a lot of yoga.’
‘Any Lesbians?’ says Bea.
‘That’s not a religion.’ Samantha gets up to congratulate and circulate.
‘Coulda fooled me,’ says Bea. ‘What with the protests and parades.’
After the snap-snapping of photos, the well-wishers are herded by Samantha, through the shipping doors – passageways from a far-off, enchanted land, too tall for mortals – and into the dining hall, with its soaring ceilings and portentous, yeasty smells. Long medieval tables dressed in white have been set up along the walls. But outside there is the CN tower, that spire of silver and concrete, people being sucked up through its centre as if caught in God’s gigantic straw. Bea and I sit out on the patio, watching it all. The rabbi who married the couple – a humanistic feministic Jew with a batik scarf draped around her large bosoms – is mingling with the crowd. I can tell that Bea approves of the woman by the way she followed the ceremony, mouthing along as if at a rock concert.
‘Do you remember your own wedding, Eliza?’ she asks me, then pauses to reflect and point towards the hustle and bustle of celebration. ‘Do you remember this?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, I do.’
And she nods the slow, sad nod of the never married.
A blue jay wings its way across the sky, alights on a scraggly shrub.
‘Did I ever tell you about my neighbor’s canaries?’ Bea is alert again, ready.
Once, twice, thrice, goes the refrain in my brain, but I shake my head no.
‘The sweetest songs they sang. So peaceful for such yellow, obvious things. And none of us knew the reason why. Helen would bring them out in their copper cage to the garden, and I’d listen to them while I weeded. Well, it wasn’t until years later I learned the reason for their drowsy, dreamy song. It was cannabis seeds she fed them! Carted the seeds from Greece every time she went back. No one ever blinked an eye or sniffed her out. Picked them from her brother’s field. A whole crew of chirpy little drug addicts keeping me company as I plucked dandelions from the soil. Do you believe it? Would you ever have dreamed that one up?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘No, I could not.’
We shift from side-to-side, heave ourselves up, and begin the trek inside. There is a beat or two while we breathe and step. We have it down, our rhythm, our particular intermissions.
‘But that’s not the whole story when it comes to canaries,’ I say. There are times when it is important to come back at Bea with an interesting fact, a tidbit of information. ‘My grandfather kept his at the back of the garden – was determined to breed them with the pigeons. Figured if the damn flying rats were to be a nuisance, they could be nuisances with some talent.’
‘Yes,’ says Bea. ‘Right you are.’ We shuffle our way past a thin, glowering waiter, placing cutlery and napkins just so, last night’s libations weighing heavily on his brow. ‘Couldn’t get them to do it though, could he?’ Bea nudges me, something lascivious in her eyes.
‘No, he couldn’t. They’d screw their own kind silly, but you couldn’t get them to give the time of day to a stranger.’
‘Too true,’ says Bea, sated. ‘Too true.’
It’s like this with us. We know each other’s stories like we know the shapes of our own noses.
Samantha comes over and settles us into the reception area, hands us tall glasses full of fizzy, pink drink.
‘Cheers.’ She clomps off, too thick-waisted and heavy-footed for her delicate get-up. She’s an odd duck that one. As pretty and petal-like as her sister when she wants to be, but het up with notions of a world out of her reach. Out of everybody’s reach.
Last week, I had a dream where I flew. But it wasn’t the flying you expect from a dream – the soaring freedom of being airborne, carefree. I could only fly a short distance off the ground, and for me, flying was like swimming. I breaststroked my way around town, just over the heads of my friends and family. Not hovering, but floating as if on water, supported and stymied by the thickness of the air. There was my daughter, teenaged and bold, holding a pantsuit aloft, wanting a button stitched, the hem fixed. And my husband, with a teacup outstretched, his Brylcreemed hair flopping sideways, a sly eyebrow in view. The town, which was my world, had gravel paths instead of roads, a pink stop sign at every corner. Bea was there, in an easy chair by the river. And that bastard Bobby, sitting on a bench by the newsstand. Annie was inside buying penny candy, her pigtails straggling free of their fasteners. I swum over to cuddle her, to hold her in my arms, carry her on my back, so we could swim away from Bobby and his groping fingers, his eyes that stroked and cajoled. But it was hard-going. I could not reach her, my kick was weak and tadpole-like. She strode out of the store and he called her over – three times her age and one third of her intelligence! Annie! I shouted. And she turned to look up at me, her inept angel. But I could only ever say her name. Whatever warning was blossoming in me stuck like a lozenge in my throat. She smiled and waved. She sat next to Bobby and counted out her sweets with him, put them in three piles in his outstretched palms. Annie, I said. She smiled up at me again, her cheek bulging with the shape of a jujube. And then I woke up.
‘I don’t think it’s about death,’ I say to Bea. Atonement, maybe. Not death.
‘No, no, not death,’ says Bea. ‘Impossible to die in your dreams.’
But this is not what I mean. To die in a dream would be nothing. But to feel it coming down the pipe, to have to do battle with all your willed innocence and slick helplessness. And my daughter, with the same cheery sense of entitlement she wore as a child, a blamelessness she cannot really feel in her core – where is she today while her own daughter twirls and basks?
Bea grunts softly over her supper, concentrating like an animal. My husband Frank would make these same noises, little sighs and half-words dedicated to himself as he ate. There were days I could clock him for it – a right hook to the jaw – or end it swiftly, bringing the cast iron down cleanly on the top of his head. Other days, the tiny clicks and deep echoes of his very swallowing filled me with such brutal tenderness it took my breath away. Still, I never begrudge Bea her private sounds and satisfactions. It is one of the luxuries of the elderly – to skirt niceties in the name of infirmity. But now here they are, the couple of the hour, rising to thank us and praise each other.
‘Would you look at our Annie,’ I say. Bea is licking her index finger to collect crumbs from the table. She looks. We both look.
Who is this young woman – mouth open in declamation, hand over her heart – if not a patchwork beacon to us all? There was a story – her favourite – I read to her when she was a child. In the story a village was starving, hoarding what they little had. And into this village came a hobo with less than nothing. But faith in life’s little improvisations – this he had. He helped them make soup out of stones.
‘He’s got a good shape does he not?’ asks Bea of Philip, the groom.
‘So he does,’ I say. It’s true. A birth mark like the boot of Italy down the side of his face, but a good shape, and even better sense.
A pretty girl with chunky arms comes to clear our dishes, the wedding cake is wheeled onto the dance floor. Annie and Philip step forward, sink a knife into the creamy frosting.
Everything speeds up, tightens, then expands inside of me. I am at the park with Annie. Samantha has skulked off to the pool with one of her pals – covetous with her plans and preparations. Annie is wearing dungarees and the sleek, capped hair of the seventies. She is eleven, with two new soft knobs for nipples. She runs from tree to tree, actually leaps to catch a white and blue butterfly, and succeeds. She comes to me, her hands clasped around the creature. ‘Gran,’ she says. She looks me in the eye. ‘Bobby calls me his butterfly.’ She opens her hands, exposes her palms like a beggar. We watch it together, the darting, fluttering thing, as it spirals up into the sky like ash. Like confetti. Like the suddenly free, short-lived secret that it is.
Ah, but now she dances. And now she is in the air herself, on her throne, a queen hefted high by friendly drunks. Our Annie, clutching the sides of her chair, terrified, alone, triumphant.
‘Earth to Eliza,’ says Bea. ‘Who’s that Samantha’s talking to?’
‘Couldn’t say,’ I reply. It is a man carrying himself well, older than Samantha, though not by much. He is taking her hand for the hora, leading her into the fray.
‘It’s a good dance for the Hebes,’ says Bea, clapping along. ‘For everybody.’
‘Yes.’ It is a good dance, bodies linked in circles, grapevining around the dance floor, shoulders shifting this way and that, the elation of arms raised. ‘Lachaim,’ I practise softly.
Samantha: A Room Of One’s Own
‘You’re not dancing?’ He is tall, this man, his black hair expensively, if modestly, coiffed and although he does not carry one, Samantha imagines he would suit a cane, a prop of some kind.
‘No. Just absorbing it all.’
‘From here?’ he says. He takes Samantha by the hand and soon she is in it, being swept back and forth, Annie’s mother-in-law winking at her from the left, her father waving from the sidelines – his look of perpetual surprise deepened by the sight of her – of her joy. Yes, this must be it. She’s drunk and duped into sentiment, into belonging. And her father, so solemn in tone and matte in manner, seems to know something about her she never suspected. How can he, when his most fervent interest, for as long as she can remember, or at least since her mother left, has been the building of ships in bottles? She had always dismissed this hobby as an exercise in maddening patience, requiring only the miracle of single-mindedness, a steady hand and overly long pincers. She thought he had shut out the wider world for a fantasy encased in glass, but now here he is acting as though he knows her, as if he can see not into her brain, which is tangled like a briar patch, but into her future, the twisting tunnel that is her very life.
‘Your sister is beautiful,’ says the man, stooping to her ear. ‘Philip told me as much.’
‘She is incredible,’ says Samantha, watching Annie spinning in the middle of their circle, arms outstretched. When the sisters were fourteen and ten, a vast treacherous galaxy stretched between them. Annie was determined to navigate it. Samantha and her friends believed in witchcraft, blue eyeliner, and using tongues when you kiss. Annie was their doll and plaything, a floppy, earnest version of themselves. They used her to play séance, to call up the power they felt surging through their bodies like new sap.
There was a blindfold, a purple bandana they rolled and knotted, then tied tightly around Annie’s eyes. She was their medium, their conduit. ‘One more spin, then stop,’ said Samantha, then clasped her sister in a hard hug from behind, pushing her fist into the smaller girl’s abdomen to drive out the air. Annie fainted, lay in a heap on the floor while Caroline and Soula conjured love, which meant a boy’s hand moving downwards from the small of your back, his hot breath in your ear, which meant a peppery feeling in your extremities, a drowsy warmth in your lower belly, and lower still. Which meant (if you were lucky or cursed) at night, alone, under the covers, something so raw and wracked and already whole that – although it seemed strange to think it – it could not, honestly, ever be shared with anyone else. Annie woke up suddenly, flailing like a fish at the bottom of a boat, fretful with hope. ‘Did it work?’ she would gasp. ‘Will they love you now?’ And Samantha and her friends would spit out curt thanks, already weary of the conceit.
But things had been different for Annie. As initiations go, hers should have precipitated a haunting more sustained and damaging than any séance could summon. Why then, is it Samantha who pitches and yearns, is beset by a desire she can only ever faultily fulfill?
‘Bobby is a very close friend of mine,’ Annie had said, when Samantha recoiled, reproved, denied.
‘He is not your friend and this makes you a little, well, this makes you a slut, Annie.’
Samantha releases her mother-in-law’s hand, excuses herself to the propless man. ‘Just going to the bathroom,’ she half-whispers.
‘Let me get you another drink. What would you like? I’m Max, by the way, friend of Philip’s from work.’ He follows her over to a nearby table.
‘Samantha. Nice to meet you. Vodka and cranberry, please. Twist of lime. Two twists of lime.’
‘Gotcha. Two twists.’ He winks at her.
Smug polished stones cluster next to the sink beside a pile of dried rose petals resting in a shallow pewter dish, and in the mirror: Samantha’s own self, flushed from the wine and the dancing. The hair-do seems prepared to rally, but an anxious musk is mingling expertly with her perfume, clouding out from under her arms, between her legs. She touches her cheek, smoothes the shininess from the edge of her nose, taps at her emerging crow’s feet, considers lip gloss. But no, stall first. Inside, the stall is safe and square, the lock slots into place as it should. There is a completeness here. She swings her skirt up and forward, gathers it in front and works her underwear down with one hand. Once seated, she relaxes into the pee, her panties pulled taut between her knees. Everything, her whole life, shrunk now, to this stall, which is every stall, every seat where she’s ever sat to pee. A room of one’s own and all the careful deliberation of the drunken: the narrowed eyes, clasping fingers, the slow tear and the slower, conscientious wipe. The light is pleasantly bright, the walls gleaming and graffiti-free. Samantha is not dizzy, although she is experiencing some of the empty-headed euphoria that accompanies dizziness. Her gaze slides easily up the walls to the ceiling, then back down again.
The door to the bathroom opens. A gulp of ‘Dancing Queen’ before it swings shut. Ivory toenails, strappy black patent leather sandals click over to the sink, then into the stall two over from Samantha. How many times has she been here before? Alone and easy with her thoughts, the triangle of tile visible between her legs. And now her sister’s wedding. ‘Bon voyage!’ she calls softly, when she hears a neighborly flush. Bon voyage! For this is what it has become – the whole affair – watching Annie move slowly away from her, as if on the deck of a cruise liner from the forties. She’s fluttering a white handkerchief, pretending, trying on a life that, as children, they could never have conceived.
Marriage: it was a place where dolls lived, stiff-limbed and polite, dry humping on piled up napkins, a mini Kleenex package for their pillow. And Annie now is stepping into it, as if through a gate in a tall brick wall no one can see past or over. How can this be true? Samantha does not want this to be true. Because the only forts in which she still has faith are those built in the deep days and nights they spent as sisters. If asked: ‘Do you love your sister?’ how else could she reply? Yes. Yes. Yes. But love is watery thin – impotent! – compared to what she feels. ‘Bon voyage,’ she says again, to the impassive tile. Bon voyage. To the purse rack, with a queen-like wave. The pomp and circumstance, cummerbunds, tulle and pageantry. The solicitous man, gazing over her shoulder into the gaping crevasse of his future. It is not what Samantha wants. Then what is it that eludes her? She braces herself against the wall to work the panties back up into position. A baby, she has been thinking lately. Or not thinking, but feeling in the ache that ripples through the crooks of her arms, the ghost town of her lap. A baby. She washes her hands, dabs them dry with a paper towel, then shakes them gaily under the blower for good measure.
Back at the table, Max is holding a lime slice in each hand, grinning.
‘Two twists.’ He passes them to her. She squirts the juice into the redness, pokes at the ice cubes with her straw. ‘Thanks.’
‘So, what do you do, Samantha? I mean when you’re not cutting a rug.’ Max laughs as if he’s not sure how.
She likes that: cutting a rug, the nervousness. ‘I’ve been traveling quite a bit, working wherever I can, trying to get a bit of a handle on the way the world works.’ She recoils. How the world works?
‘Really. Where have you been?’ He focuses on a point just above her collarbone.
It is possible she is losing him here, and although she is still not certain he is worthy, she wants him to pay attention, to validate whatever Samantha-style missives she can toss his way. She craves the spotlight but knows she’d feel overly warm in the cheeks, fraudulent, if she managed to get there. Has she always been this way? Crippled by self-conscious righteousness? Oblivious to others in all but the most superficial way? It is likely, she muses, that she will produce a maladjusted, misanthropic child – no matter how much Mozart or Mandarin to which the baby is privy in utero.
Max clears his throat.
He likes her. So it is settled then. ‘Well, I was working on a farm in Mexico for a while and I’ve just been teaching in Vietnam – English, to teenagers mostly. Sort of the equivalent of our high school, but more structured and rigid. Which wasn’t really a bad thing. I mean I had some wonderful students, hungry for what I could give them, hungry for what we have. Hard to get them to loosen up though, they’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders. So much expectation….’
‘Right. That must have been challenging for you.’ He is feigning or not feigning admiration. Either way.
‘More challenging for them.’ She can feel herself being humble, and hates it. ‘What about you? Are you in marketing with Philip?’ Samantha knows next to nothing about marketing and considers this a fault. Enough people seem to do it, all day, for days on end; there must be something molten and mesmeric at its core.
‘Well, yeah, more the communication side of things really. Some graphics and copy writing. Not very interesting. I’m in a band though, and I do some, well, performance pieces, I guess.’
‘Oh.’ It doesn’t suit him, this revelation. Samantha struggles to match it up with the mannered walk, the missing cane. ‘What kind….?’
‘Well, I try to express how the banal, the menial…. ‘ He is dragging his fingers through some spilled red wine on the table, drawing diminutive snouts and asteroids that glow softly up at them. Samantha considers the weave of his linen suit and the slight lean of his nose – and finds they please her immensely.
‘You know, how the universal, the transcendental can be encapsulated in the small, seemingly inconsequential occurrences that surround us.’ Max lifts his eyes to meet hers, his nostrils aquiver with the power of art explained. It is possible she was wrong about marketing, its central mystery. She smiles like a tired sorceress.
‘I mean I write and sing about whatever happens to me, I guess.’ He smiles back at her.
Okay, this is better. ‘There’s something to be said for paying attention to the everyday, I suppose.’ Samantha nods at him, and keeps nodding, as if weighing things up. But what is now dawning on her, like a lazy sunrise, is the fact that she is no longer actually even living the domestic, or even cannily observing it, but instead attempting, clumsily, to ambush it at every turn. She has become unmoored; she is drifting downstream from her very own life. She is saddened by this, then remembers. A baby – there was an anchor, an absolute, a tangible. Without meaning to, she has begun to tap her foot in time to the music, is swaying ever so slightly, a happy reed on the shore – newly discovered by the wind.
Max nods distractedly in the direction of the dance floor. ‘Would you…?’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘why not?’
To talk while dancing seems awkward and prematurely intimate, but the silent alternative more so. The music canters up and around them, creates not so much a mood as an expectation. Samantha struggles to keep the physical distance between their bodies consistent. She knows any type of rapprochement will require careful diagnosis on both their parts.
Max leans towards her, but with a certain sanitized purpose. ‘I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, but really, in the end, it comes down to a kind of day-to-day vigilance, a certain faith in the richness of the domestic sphere. I’m not sure there’s much new I can learn through the exotic,’ he murmurs past her ear.
‘Huh, the domestic. The exotic. What do you mean?’ She can’t help it; her voice has grown edges. She thinks this Max is trying to put something over on her, and succeeding.
‘I mean, well, to put it inelegantly, to use a cliché, I mean Be Here Now, I suppose.’ He sighs showily at his own conversational ineptitude, then applies some pressure to the small of her back, leading her into the centre of the cluster of dancers. Why, thinks Samantha, do people always apologize for using clichés, then seem pleased to have used them in the first place? Annie had once told Samantha, by way of comfort and admonishment, that she expected too much of people. ‘Yes,’ she had shouted in reply, ‘Yes, I do!’
The song segues into something more rhythmic and angry. Samantha wants to jump up and down, to pump her fist and yell, but she doesn’t know how with such an audience. She makes her way back over to the tables and chairs, Max following close behind.
Eliza: There Are Limits
‘Can’t say I like this much.’ Bea nods towards the dance floor.
The music is hard and bare. A man speaks in nursery rhyme about getting naked over the steady pulse of bass. ‘That’s rap, Bea. It’s the rage.’
And what can I say? I’ve tried to pull myself by the seat of the pants into the times of today, to keep up with what is televised, but there are limits. ‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘Ridiculous.’
Somehow – how? – Samantha finds herself dancing again with Philip’s mother, a tiny, wiry woman, with dark wiry hair and a quick, wiry mind. ‘Welcome,’ she says simply to Samantha, who thanks her, twice, wishing this woman were her own mother as they waltz carefully through the crowd.
Why is it, really, that Sandra, Samantha and Annie’s own flesh and blood mother, has not mustered the courage to attend her own daughter’s wedding? In her place is a package the size of a small fridge, around which all of the other gifts have been clustered like acolytes. The gift is not a small fridge, although it could well have been for all the care Sandra has put into it. Not that Samantha thinks much of the whole gift-giving enterprise to begin with. There is a rule – made up by a posse of matrons and manners mavens (and marketers, no doubt!) – that insists the amount you spend on the wedding gift must equal or exceed the amount the hosts spend to feed you while you make merry. When had the world become so assuredly crass? But then, ’twas always thus: the obliging milk cow offered with the mild demeanored daughter with decent child-bearing hips. Sandra had called Samantha to tell her she had checked the registry and found a corresponding kitchen mixer on sale in Detroit for one third of the price, a scratch on the finish remedied by a daub of similarly hued nail polish.
But if Annie is upset at their mother’s absence, she does not show it. She runs like a sleek, white clown – fresh out of finishing school – towards her sister, who is now standing with Max in the far doorway, as if pausing regally before making an entrance. Only it is too late for such things now.
Annie releases Philip’s hand to embrace Samantha. ‘Married. Do you believe it?’ she asks, her breath skimming the underside of her sister’s chin.
‘Well,’ says Samantha. She had a teen magazine she treasured, had it still, squirreled under grade school reports and old tax returns at the back of a closet. To test your breath before a date, it instructed, blow softly into a soda bottle, then sniff. At the age of eleven, she taught Annie and together they misted up the green tinted glass. ‘Mine smells…’ Annie always said, so certain and free, even back then. ‘My breath smells like yours.’
Max and Samantha return to what has become – within so short a time, in so few exchanges, but life is lived like this, isn’t it? – their table, to find the ice in their drinks has melted into tiny translucent disks. The serving staff is still loitering around the periphery, swiping down surfaces, scowling with a handsome lack of conviction. Samantha drains her glass in two long pulls. Max places his hand on her knee like a comrade. She watches her sister and Philip on the dance floor, studies their embrace as if from far away, and farther still.
She can feel the weight of Max’s hand on her knee, can sense what was once friendly becoming something more, something her body insists she must requite. She shifts her legs to the side, makes to cross them, and Max lifts his hand up and away. Up, up and away, she thinks as a bridal bouquet sails unbidden into her mind’s eye. At the next table a baby cries out in hunger or in pain or in anger or in loneliness. The baby’s parents stick their heads into the baby’s bassinet; they are quicksilver sleuths and the most essential of superintendents. They do not emerge from the baby’s lair for a long time. Samantha understands that it is impossible to just sit back and observe a baby. You cannot pass a baby by. A baby has needs, it draws you into its orbit surely and quickly. She looks at Max. He toasts her extravagantly. A person could do worse than a marketer slash performance artist for a father. Samantha lifts her own glass, sips, then excuses herself again. ‘Bladder,’ she says, ‘like walnut.’ She holds up her hand in an A-OK sign by means of demonstration.
Max looks elated, then puzzled. ‘Okay,’ he says.
Samantha walks past her Gran and Bea, huddled together like frail football players with a plan; she steps over her six-year-old cousin Graham tying together napkins in the shape of a lasso; she notices Sebastian Newton in a pile against a wall, his hand gripping the top of a barely upright beer bottle as if it were a ski pole. Was it she or Annie who had kissed him, French-style, after a party at Suzy Ludcombe’s? Neither of them can remember, and it strikes her (although not forcefully) that this is perhaps odd. The bathroom looks different this time around. Someone has stacked the stones next to the sink in the shape of a lopsided inukshuk. So we don’t get lost! Samantha thinks, thrilled and troubled. She turns towards the mirror, although there is no need, really. She is beautiful from the booze, smart too, thoughts linking up with loud connective clicks. She bends over to check stall vacancy. Ah, shoes she knows. They are her sister’s round-toed, ivory pumps, size six wide. She reaches under and grabs an ankle. ‘Annie?’
‘Let go, you mealy-mouthed monster.’
Samantha lets go, shocked. She doesn’t like the sound of that – it sounds really gross; she imagines maggots.
Annie steps out of the stall and bumps her hip against Samantha’s. ‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Kidding.’ She rinses her hands, glances over at the towel dispenser, then wipes them on her dress.
‘That’s your dress, Annie.’
‘Yes it is. Yes. It. Is.’ She grabs Samantha’s hand. ‘C’mon, Mudstick. Let’s play Concentration.’ She lifts her palms. Samantha does the same and Annie begins. It is a game less dependent on strategy than memory and association; it is an accounting of sorts. ‘Let’s play Concentration.’ She taps Samantha’s hands. ‘No repeats, no hesitation.’ She taps them again and Samantha taps back. ‘You go first, I’ll go second.’ Another tap. ‘Topic is… Names!’
‘Names of what?’ Samantha drops her hands and takes a step back.
‘Well,’ says Annie. ‘People we know!’ She lifts her hands to tap Samantha’s hands again. ‘Sebastian!’
Samantha smiles and taps her sister back. ‘Dad.’
‘Not a name,’ says Annie.
‘Yes it is.’
‘Okay, I’ll allow.’ Tap. ‘Remington Steele.’
‘You don’t know him Annie.’
‘No,’ says Annie sadly. ‘Your turn.’
‘Mum’s second cousin – she visited from England when we lived in the highrise on Southam Road. Red hair and those tight dresses with sashes?’
‘Oh yeah. Okay. Hands up.’ Tap. ‘Dominican Republic.’
‘That’s a country, not a person.’
‘Yes, but it should be a person. I think we’d be pals.’ Tap. ‘Bobby.’
‘Don’t say his name, Annie.’
‘It’s not your turn.’
‘Then you go.’
‘Why not, Mudstick?’
‘Because I would have killed him.’ Samantha leans up against the counter and reaches down to unstrap her shoe, which is rubbing annoyingly against her heel, but finds she cannot undo the buckle. Her hands are trembling. ‘I could kill him.’
Annie squeezes Samantha’s chin and gives a gentle wrench. ‘I know that Mudstick. That’s why I never had to.’ She smiles. ‘Hands up,’ she says. Tap. ‘Philip.’
‘Yes,’ says Samantha. ‘He’s a good one.’
Eliza: In The Dark
When Annie was twelve I gave her my autograph book. It was only partway full, the inscription on the first page still fierce, intact, a message from my own mother. On the first line, in careful cursive: Above all to thine. And on the second: Own self be true! I remember what I felt when she gave it to me, a thrill like eating ice cream too fast and a guilt that settled cloudily in my chest. I thought I knew what the message meant: that I must be true and never lie. And I knew the reason she had written this – it had something to do with a missing saucer and one of my unlikely falsehoods involving the cat. Still, I treasured that book, and even felt a twinge of regret when I handed it over to Annie. ‘Own self,’ she said, patting her own chest. Then, ‘be true!’ as if signing to a caveman.
Samantha is still talking to the tall man, her eyebrows meeting in the middle of her forehead like something from a political cartoon. Smile, I will her silently. Look into his eyes. There is softness in her, I’ve seen it. Post-Bobby, for an entire year, Annie refused to dress in anything but purple, right down to the skin. Left stubborn rings like bands of grape juice around the tub, in the good mixing bowls. When her mother lost patience, what little she had, it was Samantha who showed up in a lavender pantsuit and mauve eyeshadow to intercede. Softness and loyalty the girl has, it’s a certain spontaneity that’s missing. Always skidding around inside her own damn head. Still, I will give her this – there is no one Samantha despises more pointedly than cousin Bobby Mason. But our Annie forgave. Annie invited him to the wedding. It was me and Samantha who burned the sealed envelope – queenly stamp and all – over the gas flame of my stove, relished the flames licking and flickering, then feigned puzzlement when the bastard never replied.
I have arrived at many conclusions in my life whilst wrapped in the charm and force of the moment, only to cast my certainty away when the next challenge foils me. Still, here is what I know: there is a brand of betrayal that cannot ever be forgiven, but it is unique to each and every person. There is a night I will always remember. Frank had left us for a while – found something sweet and comfortable with a secretary or some such. Annie and Samantha’s mother – my daughter, Sandra – was young when he left, three years old. She got up the night he came home and stood at the top of the stairs in her nightie, staring at him through veils of sleep. He held out his arms, then reached into his pocket for the trinket he had bought in the hopes of being welcomed, re-born. She blinked and remained suspended in her place. Then she raced into her daddy’s arms and I understood in a flash how – with a child’s certainty, the most certain of certainties – I had been blamed, and how much, how absolutely I had lost.
I look around me at the leftovers of celebration. Napkins wadded like sad ghosts on the tables. Sleek, silver cameras abandoned next to bread baskets, delicate fringed swaths of cloth used to keep out the cold, tossed casually over the backs of chairs. Glasses – half full and half empty – everywhere. The couple of the hour on the dance floor, swinging each other round, holding tight to hands as their friends watch and cheer. The city night through the window, the tower – that desperate beacon – standing straight up to the stars none of us can see, here in the company of streetlights and skyscrapers.
It scares me still, how bright we keep things, how hard it is to preserve the dark. Even now I believe that darkness is where we are most safe. In the dark they cannot see you. Bea came to us in the dark, her wide eyes made whiter, more round, by the gloom. We found her mother in the morning, crushed under a wardrobe that had worked itself free, shaken loose, when a bomb hit blocks away. Six days later her father came home with one arm and three bars of chocolate. He hugged Bea lopsidedly then left her to her own devices. We shared the chocolate, and my husband booked us a passage to Canada.
‘Annie, she deserves this,’ sighs Bea, her plate heaped high with tarts and confections.
I give Bea a little squeeze and she turns to me, surprised, then smiles.
‘You’re not getting any of this coconut pie, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ she says.
Samantha: We Fail?
‘You know,’ says Samantha, ‘I had this one student in Vietnam who cycled for an hour and a half each morning to get to school. He wasn’t bright, average, I’d say, or just above, but my god, he tried his nuts off in every single subject. I’ve never met anyone so young and so dedicated. I helped him fill out a university application for a school in the States. Some business school whose name escapes me – associated with one of the Ivy Leaguers. Princeton, I think. I want to go to a world famous university, he kept telling me. I want to make my father proud. I must come back and get a very good job. Yes, I said, and thought, How terrible for him, to be carrying so much, to wake each morning and step, unthinkingly, into that fierce forward motion. He was one of three, the middle child, living in a house with dirt floors. His favourite book was Who moved my cheese?’ Samantha stops talking to take a sip of her drink. She knows she is drunk and holding forth. Max is making a listening-type face, his eyebrows raised generously, but she’s pretty sure he is also sneaking discreet peeks at her cleavage. She doesn’t care; a message is burning inside her, it begs telling.
‘This boy’s father told the children, when they were very young, that there would be money for only one of them to go to school.’ Although it is a hackneyed, possibly ethnocentric image, Samantha cannot help picturing the family huddled around the central cooking fire of their ragged home. She places the aspiring boy at the edge of the circle, clothes him in a Nike football jersey, some cut off jeans and a pair of worn leather thongs. She smooths his brow with one open hand, then steps back, into the shadows. ‘This man set up a scholarship fund for the child who earned the highest marks, then he worked like a dog in the rice fields to make the funds grow.’
Samantha pauses. She is telling this story for herself, more than Max. Why? Because there is a lesson to be learned. If you want something, you must not waver. If you need something, you must try your damnedest, always, to get it. While in Vietnam, she had explained to her students the difference some marks on a page could make.
MacBeth: If we should fail –
Lady MacBeth: We fail?
You had a choice between indecision and imperiousness when it came to the relative success of your plans. Like all of life, it was only a matter of intonation. Samantha leans forward and places her hand lightly on Max’s forearm.
‘Did he get in?’ says Max.
‘Did he get in to the school?’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, then, you did a good thing helping him the way you did. His father must be so proud.’ Max announces this matter-of-factly, almost curtly, so that it resonates with truth.
‘Yes,’ she says, beginning to like the way he makes her unsure of the point of things.
They go out together into the night, into the courtyard and the grassy stretch of park, over a small knoll, to a spot under a maple buttressed by chicken wire near the chain link fence. The city surrounds them, blocks and blocks of blinking, squared-off ambition. Standing there under the ozone – tattered, as it is, like a child’s security blanket – Samantha tips up her face to kiss Max.
Frank begged off with seasickness on the journey from Carlisle. Bea and I spent most of our time on deck playing games with the wind, watching it work our hair into strange birds of prey, boisterous bouffants. The ship felt luxurious and large to us, despite the crowds, and I still get shivers thinking about the red velvet ropes in the stairwells. We had notions then that we would outgrow our mothers – the way they had looked at us as if at unpredictable, endangered animals, frightened by and for us. We laughed at how they cured and rebuked us. The time my mother walked me around the gas factory to quell my whooping cough, encouraging me to inhale the sweet, eggy fumes. How Bea’s father had dunked her – first in the cold water basin, then in the hot – her bundle of a body tinted blue at the extremities, when she took fits as a toddler.
I remember Bea bouncing, her hands clutched around the rail, and turning to me with a curtsy. ‘Eliza? Do you love Frank? I mean really love him? So much you would jump over this rail and swim to shore if he asked you? So much you would risk bedragglement?’
‘Not much of a stretch from bedazzled to bedraggled,’ I said.
I found them lapping at each other on his narrow bunk, Bea’s eyes squinched shut in love or concentration – who can really tell the difference when it comes right down to it? Frank’s eyes fluttered at the sound of my step. He could always, in all our years, hear me coming. Our gazes met, magnetized, mid-air.
Up on deck the spray had real spunk and I hated the fact that the ship was my home.
Bea’s mother had embroidered her handkerchieves for her sixteenth birthday – tiny blue forget-me-nots with black staring centres sewn along the scalloped edges. I brought Bea to tears halfway across the Atlantic by snatching one from her sleeve and waving it over the churning gray of the waves. She was on her knees with nausea and frustration before long, and stayed there, sobbing, until I placed the hankie daintily, royally, on her bowed head. In this way we forgave.
Annie’s dress has been trampled at the back – the dusty spirits of footprints on the dragging train. The flowers that were worked so finely into her hair (rolled and twisted like Hammentaschen she told me, a pastry representing the hat of a Hebrew hero) are gone, and wisps have sprung free around her temples. Her nose is slick with sweat. She signals to the DJ to stop the music with a slicing motion across her fine neck, and the silence is confusing; it slows us all down and sharpens our vision. The guests trip back to their tables, await instructions. Annie has collected her bouquet from the head table: gardenias, marigolds, and dahlias, their stems wound round with a wide hot pink ribbon whose ends trail and flap. She lifts the bouquet in the air – up, up, and up – towards the bright disco ball. There are sighs and deficient giggles, and Samantha to my left, averting her gaze. Annie turns towards us; she knows how to find and hold her sister steady. They stare at each other. What is it about a room full of people waiting on love to be declared that plugs up the throat? Annie stops in front of Samantha, salutes her with her eyes. Then she turns in my direction, scoots alongside my chair, crouches close – ah! the smell of her hair, the smell of her sweet baby head! – and lays the bouquet in my lap.
People talk about opposite points of your life like the tail ends of a measuring tape that will only meet when you’ve traveled and tallied that last quarter inch. But Frank once brought me a set of Russian dolls after he’d been out all night. He smelled of pipe smoke and a single woman’s soap when he handed them over – round-faced, brightly swaddled women nestling right down into themselves to a tiny, solid core. Sometimes my wedding – Frank’s smart, purposeful army uniform, the joy and terror doing caged battle in my chest – fits tightly around his deathbed, a too-low ceiling, and how it felt to hold the hand of a husk. Other times, a small moment or image will grow, harden like lacquer, and click into place over my entire self. The way Frank allowed his tented book to fall to the floor as we dreamt our way to the ends of our stories and away from each other. My daughter’s face as she pulled on her socks for the first time, the smell of my father’s shirts at the end of the day, Bea’s red golf umbrella snapping open above us, a certain shade of sky.
Out in the night, with Max’s arms around her, her dangerous heels sinking into the moist earth, Samantha realizes something. It is a bracketed understanding that settles outside and slightly to the left of her head, and will eventually drift into her blindspot. She remembers how she and Annie saved the Kleenexes they snotted into at their granddad’s funeral, balled them in their pockets, then deposited them in a cookie tin and wedged the lid tightly down. She remembers bestowing cast-offs on Annie – three-limbed Barbies and too-short sweaters. Her sister’s face receiving these poor gifts was terrifying in its anxious bliss. ‘For keeps?’ she’d query softly, ‘for keeps?’
‘It’s all about muddling, isn’t it?’ Samantha mutters drunkenly, good-naturedly, into Max’s shoulder. Lady MacBeth thought it wise to unsex herself; she gave demons leave to drink from her breasts so she could get on with it, the business of power, but today, Samantha thinks, well, today people go to great lengths to procure offspring, seeking out test tubes and turkey basters, or rescuing tiny, foreign tykes left behind by mothers themselves overlooked and overwhelmed. All over the world, blazing bombs in the shapes of planes or pointy fingers zoom down from the sky. The future breakdances madly on cardboard boxes laid over the earth’s mismatched plates and lava – and still we stake a claim on it!
Max kisses Samantha’s collarbone; his hands find purchase under her bum.
She keeps thinking she’s found it, the answer, and then it morphs, all sci-fi, into something alien and unclassifiable. For keeps, Samantha chants silently, as she guides Max’s fingers, unbuckles his belt, offers up important corners and foldings of herself.
‘Are you sure,’ he says kindly, but only partway means it.
Eliza: Good Luck To You
‘She didn’t have to do that,’ I say, cradling the bouquet in my lap, saltwater squeezing out from under my eyelids.
‘But she did,’ says Bea, putting her arm around me.
‘She did,’ says Samantha, teetering strangely on her heels, legs pressed together, ankles crossed as if gathering herself together, holding something in. She shakes her head and kisses the top of mine.
I reach up to grab onto her smart self. (You know, I once asked Samantha why she couldn’t find herself a fella. Can’t stay up on the shelf too much longer, I advised. She told me she was deeply involved with books. On the shelf, she said, was fine. Well, I said, good luck to you when it comes to reproducing.)
‘She did,’ Samantha says again, and takes hold of my hand, squeezing oh-so-tight.
Bea, who is in her cups, has begun asking questions. ‘A dove brings white babies, right?’
I do not answer.
‘Nothing but bleached out pigeons, doves.’ Bea is slurring, but happy. I take her hand, but she pulls it away.
‘And a crow brings black babies,’ she says.
A caution is kicking inside me. I look over at Samantha, who is frowning down at Bea. Bea knocks her knife off the table, then bends, gruntingly, to retrieve it. From under the tablecloth comes a new question, more pointed. ‘What, then…’ This is muffled by the thick linen of the tablecloth’s overhang. She straightens up, places the knife in the centre of the table, far from the edge of the known world. ‘What brings no babies?’
I shake my head while Bea smiles into her chest. Always, always, there is Bea, hurrying up the joke, harrumphing to herself.
‘Two swallows,’ she manages, between gasps. She slaps the table, overcome with the hilarity.
Samantha, for all her prudery and politics, is laughing along with Bea.
And I laugh too, knowing, in my heart of hearts, that, timing or no, this is good.
* * *
Heather Birrell is the author of I know you are but what am I? (Coach House Books, 2004), a collection of stories. A recipient of Concordia University’s David McKeen award, her work has appeared in numerous Canadian literary journals, and her short fiction has received honourable mentions at both the Western and National Magazine Awards. She is a fellow of several writer’s residencies: Spain’s Fundacion Valparaiso, the MacDowell Colony in the US, and Scotland’s Hawthornden Castle. “BriannaSusannaAlana”, Heather’s third story to be included in the annual Journey Prize Anthology, won The Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart 2006 Journey Prize. Heather is working on a new collection and a novel about a tire factory (sort of).