"Cupcake Crumbs." Lida Magazine, no. 1 (excerpt from Pretty Delicate) Wren has a copy of Cate’s schedule, a photo Cate messaged her. Not at the very beginning, but about two weeks after being admitted to hospital. After Cate was supposed to be cured and back home. After the doctors agreed she needed more time in their care. James thought about asking Wren for a copy of the schedule, but that would mean speaking his plan out loud. And then he would have to follow through and he really isn’t sure if he’s actually up for visiting Cate. Instead, he located the schedule on Wren’s phone. Wren’s phone uses a swipe-pattern as a lock—a simple ‘Z.’ Easy to grab the phone from the coffee table in their living room, unlock it, and scroll through her messages with Cate to find the image. He didn’t mean to read any of their exchanges; he didn’t have time to analyse their conversations while Wren cooked a stir-fry last night. James’s eyes caught mentions of Wren’s new love interest and he thought ‘good for her’ and ‘thank god she didn’t think we were anything serious.’ Cate’s schedule found, visiting hours highlighted in purple, he forwarded the image to himself, then deleted evidence of sending that message on Wren’s phone and replaced her cell on the table while veggies and noodles simmered around the corner. Now James stares at that schedule. He has a forty-minute window to see her this morning and has already paid for parking at the hospital. All night he agonised over the best time to come, weighing the pros and cons of earlier or later visits, the duration. He settled on the first visiting slot because it’s in the middle of the morning and he doesn’t think anyone else will be visiting this early. They’ll come later today, and he’s not sure he wants to run into them. Her family. They’ve always gotten along, but James worries they might blame him for Cate’s illness, as if he told her to lose those extra pounds or to tone her muscles. As if he’s somehow responsible. He holds a cupcake in a plastic container and paces just outside the front doors, setting off the automatic sliding doors as he crosses the centre point. Back and forth, the doors rasping out and in. James checks his watch. Visiting time started four minutes ago. At this rate, he’ll barely get half an hour with her. More worried about missing time with Cate than about her reaction to him, he squares his shoulders and steps inside, across the tile floor, and to the elevators on the left. Wren mentioned that Cate’s ward—unit—is on the third floor, so James punches the round button for it and waits for the elevator to rise. He shuffles the cupcake from one hand to the other, then settles on carrying it with both hands. So far, he hasn’t smushed the icing into the top of the container, and he plans to keep it that way. James got up early and was at Crave before it opened—was their first customer of the day. He had to get the right cupcake. The chocolate one with blue icing is her favourite. Was? No, James is determined to believe Cate hasn’t changed that much, that she is still the same and that she still loves what she always loved. Part of him worries that if she can give up on sweets, she’ll have no trouble moving on from him. James finds the sign for the Eating Disorders Program but is barred entry by a set of imposing doors, stickered with red and white labels reading ‘restricted access.’ He thought there would be a nurse’s station or something, someone he could talk to who could summon Cate from her room. James did not want to have to text or call Cate himself. His foot jiggles nervously, half tapping, half sliding as he debates calling Cate or leaving. A girl exits from the doors between him and Cate. Small, and obviously young, she’s closely followed by a nurse-like figure. They head toward a smaller door under the sign, probably an office or some sort of private room. “Can I help you?” The nurse-lady greets James without warmth or hostility. A perfect neutral. The girl wraps herself in the blanket she carries over her shoulders. “Yes, uh, maybe. I’m looking for Cate. This is a time for visitors, right?” She selects a key off her key-ring and inserts it into the office door. “For the next twenty minutes or so. Do you want me to call her for you?” “Would you? Thanks. I don’t have my phone and I…” James trails off as he worries that his lie might be detected in the shape of his phone in his jeans pocket. The girl, looking even smaller bundled in her blanket, stares at James. No, she stares at the cupcake, her expression somewhere between fiery and exhaustion. She licks her chapped lips and pulls the blanket over her ears. James assumed the nurse—he has decided she must be a nurse—would enter the office and call someone inside the double-doors on the hospital landlines, but instead she withdraws a cell phone from her pocket and hits a few numbers. “What’s your name?” she mouths as the line rings. “James.” His reply automatic, he holds his breath, part of him wishing Cate won’t answer. “Hi, Cate. You’ve got a visitor out here. A young man named James.” The nurse hangs up and addresses James. “She’ll be out to see you soon.” “Thanks.” “You can have a seat there, if you’d like.” She points to the armchairs, perpendicular to each other, in a corner, before ushering the girl into the office with her and closing the door. James looks at the chairs but decides to stay standing in case Cate asks him to leave. His eyes dart to the doors he knows she’ll come through. Palms sweating, he smears his hands on his thighs one at a time, and hopes the container isn’t too damp. He thinks he should leave. Find a piece of paper and write a note for Cate, stick it to the cupcake and go before she sees him. Interrupting the nurse and the girl again seems annoying, but James reasons that it’s his best choice. As he raises his fist to knock, Cate comes through the other set of doors. His first thought: ‘she’s beautiful,’ followed by ‘she looks so sick.’ Cate, who always had a round face that James loved, like a porcelain doll or cabbage patch baby, or something else adorably innocent, now has definition along her jawline and hollow cheeks. Not the pretend lines she would contour on, the ones he made fun of. When did this happen? James doesn’t remember her looking like this before, but Wren insists she looks better now than a few months ago. Her collarbones leap from her chest and her ribcage presses against her tank top. Wren told him that being able to count her ribs is an improvement, that before, Cate’s shirts hung so loose you couldn’t tell she had a body underneath the fabric. James didn’t believe her, until now. “James?” Cate hugs herself, stands just out of reach. James can’t believe he left her. Can’t imagine how he could leave her when she looks so helpless. “Happy birthday. I, I brought you this.” He holds out the cupcake and her last birthday flashes before him. The cupcake, the same one he holds now, left on the counter, then smashed into a black and blue mess, then eaten, and then, finally, James holding her hair as she vomited it into the toilet. “Thanks.” She takes it, and James can see from her little frown that she remembers the other cupcake, too. “Do you want to share it?” “You don’t have to eat it. I just…” “Let’s share it.” Cate leads them to the chairs and pops open the container. She tears the top of the cupcake off and replaces it, icing-side down, making a sandwich. Cate takes a bite and chews, her eyes closed, and a smile lightens her gaunt features. After she swallows, she passes the treat to James, who takes a small nibble, unable to look away from her. They continue eating the cupcake like that, one bite at a time, until it’s gone, and Cate runs her finger along the inside of the container to retrieve the last of the icing. She licks it from her finger and smiles, her teeth and corners of her lips stained blue. James smiles and knows he must be similarly dyed, but it doesn’t bother him. “My free time is up—I have to get back to the group. Thanks.” Cate stands and leaves without a goodbye hug, leaves without disposing the cupcake container. Leaves without any real conversation. And yet, James senses something in the crumbs still on the table. James leaves, and as the elevator doors close behind him, he doesn’t see Cate cross the hallway into the section marked “Burn Unit.” Zipping down floors, he doesn’t hear her vomiting the cupcake the same way she did last year, only this time alone. No one does. The burn nurses don’t monitor for those sounds, don’t insist on accompanying patients into the washroom. James locates his car in the parking lot with eight minutes to spare on his metre, and he will never know that Cate’s favourite flavour of cupcake is red velvet. Not that she would have kept it down if he’d known.
“Dear Diary.” Release Any Words Stuck Inside of You II: Canadian Flash Fiction and Prose Poetry, Applebeard Editions I have an envelope pinned to my bedroom wall labelled: Letters that Never got Sent. I think of it as a book-cellar. Well, it was on my wall, but I moved, so I put it in a box with Post-It notes and lost it. Maybe the dog ate it (I don’t have a dog, my sister does, it ate my bras and two pairs of shoes and her bedroom carpet). Let me begin again. I never figured out how to write a diary because I smooth over details that show my toddler’s temperament or exaggerate my skills at angle parking or purely make up events (sometimes life, like a chicken breast, needs a little spice). But letters, I’ve always found them a little too tempting, like a Hollywood rendition of confessionals. What I’m trying to say is that my sequence of letters is a cache of almost-memories. Too honest to send. And anyway, who knows how to address envelopes anymore? Where do you buy stamps? I’ve driven myself insane looking for my bundle of letters. Lost in my move from childhood bedroom and concerns about love, the girl, the boy, how I thought I was a mirror. I’ve checked pots, the pull-out couch, inside pill bottles. It shouldn’t matter. Adults don’t keep diaries; they have journals and agendas and schedules. (Don’t tell anyone, but I need to find my letters. That’s where I hid myself, and I’m exhausted from trying to find her in bottles of red wine). You all said it would get better.
“Cappuccino.” In Medias Res, vol. 23, no. 1 (excerpt from Disappearing in Reverse) An old lady, crumpled over her walker hobbles to the counter. I’ve seen her before. Every few days she’s in with a younger woman; well, a woman in her late fifties. Mother and daughter alike will go off on whoever’s working the till. The old lady always asks for the foam stuff. I’m officially certified as a barista, meaning I can make coffee unsupervised and usually manage to avoid exploding anything. I think she wants a dry cappuccino. Today the old lady came in alone. She waits at the till, skin around her eyes pulling down and mouth parted enough for me to see coral lipstick on her front teeth. The girls on the front ignore her. Except Trish, who cups a hand around her ear and leans over the counter. “I can’t hear you!” she says, as if the old lady is deaf and mute. “The foam! The one with foam, you stupid girl. Is there anyone around here who knows how to make coffee?” “Dacy, you’re up.” I look at the lady as I approach. She has thick, grey-white hair set by rollers and a floral t-shirt exposing flabby triceps like limp wings. “Hi, what can I get for you today?” I smile, maybe too wide. “You’re going to make me repeat myself again? Idiot girl. I asked you to find someone who can get me the foam stuff.” “Okay, so a dry cappuccino? What size?” “No, none of this fancy shit, just a small mug of the foam.” “Okay, I’ll get that for you. Want to find a seat and I’ll bring it to you?” “Wait, wait, I have to pay first.” She holds out a handful of loose change. Mostly nickels and pennies, but a loonie too. “Is this enough?” I’ve already rung her order through as one of my free drinks for the day “Yes, that’s perfect.” I take her $1.43 and deposit it in the tip jar. Everyone’s fled to the backroom except George, who’s on drive, so I go to make the drink. Put the espresso grounds in the machine. Push the button, pour the shot into the mug. I give her one of our ceramic to-stay mugs because she likes to sit on the patio with her drink. Steam the milk into the shot six seconds after the espresso. Any longer than ten and the shot goes dead: tastes burnt, like coffee left in a pot too long and made without a filter so the grounds get stuck in your molars. I had to drink dead shots as part of my training—had to learn never to serve them. When the cappuccino is done most of the cup is filled with foam and light to pick up. I wish I could make a fancy design on the top for her, a leaf or heart, like I’ve seen George and Priss make, but I’m not that good. Instead of setting the mug on the counter and hollering out the order I walk it to the old lady. “Here you are, one mug of the foam.” She looks at me, eyes wide and a bit watery, as if she can’t control her body anymore. Both hands on the mug as she takes a sip. I start to turn away, but she stops me. “What’s your name?” “Dacy.” “Dacy.” She repeats, foam caught on her upper lip hair. “Thank you. I’m Gwen. This is perfect.” I move to leave again, to go back behind the counter. Gwen reaches out and touches my wrist. “Will you sit with me?” “Where’s your daughter?” “Daughter? She left years ago. Called me a miserable witch and left because I didn’t like her fiancé.” “But the woman who comes in with you?” I sit across the table from her because she still holds my wrist. “Her, I pay her to be with me. I’m in the home just down the street. It’s Linda’s day off.” “Oh.” “She takes care of me, but she can be downright nasty. Always talking over me—clarifying, she says. Like people don’t understand what I say. But you do.” Gwen takes another sip. I should get back to making drinks, but then this little old lady would be alone. “Dacy, you’re a sweet girl.” “I’m trying, I really am.” Gwen finishes her foam drink in silence and leaves, patting me on the shoulder with one hand, the other still clutching the ceramic mug. “I’ve never seen her so pleasant,” George remarks. I grab a cloth and start wiping the counter. “Did you tell Dacy what the old hag wanted?” asks Trish, hands on hips. “You knew what she was asking for?” I bristle. “Everyone does, she’s in here all the time.” “Then why didn’t you take her order?” “She’s a bitch. Calls me stupid every time she’s in here. Calls everyone stupid. You get what you give.” “She’s lonely.” “Doesn’t mean she can yell at me.” “Have you ever tried to be nice?” “Why?” I throw my cloth beside the bucket of sanitizer. Untie my apron and toss it in the bin with the other dirty ones. Leave.
“Evaporation.” Nōd Magazine, no. 22 (excerpt from Disappearing in Reverse) I fill two plastic pitchers with ice and water and pick the bathroom lock with a penny. It’s an easy flat line to twist. Morgan’s showering, but we’ve seen each other naked and I have no compunction against yanking the curtain back and dousing her. Arms up, fingers lathering soap in her hair, my attack hits her from the neck down. Then I run. I manage to refill my pitchers and dash outside before Morgan thunders downstairs. Panting, I hide underneath the back deck. It’s raised so I can stand and crane my neck up, see through the cracks between the wood panels, be ready when she comes out. Before she realises I’m here, I jump onto the stairs, swinging my water pitchers. Too exuberantly. One jug empties over her still soapy head, the other connects with her nose. Blood doesn’t gush, but drip, drip, drips. Over her top lip, onto her white front teeth. Two breaths, that’s all I wait. I start running before Morgan, but she faster than me. And smarter. She grabs the hose and drenches me, unconcerned about her own soaked and unraveled robe. We collapse into a wet heap, laughing. That was the day we both got hypothermia in the middle of summer. At home I take a hot shower. Let the water pound me until I’m crouched in the bathtub, running my fingers over the swirling pattern on my anti-slip mat. I try to breathe, but can only gasp inwards. No air escapes. My stomach pulses in, out, in, out, my bellybutton disappearing and reappearing in a fold of skin and pudge. I can’t take any more air. I rock on my heels, mouth open, water hissing over my cheeks and down my chin. No sound except for the water. And it sounds like the blood drip, drip, dripping from Morgan’s nose over her teeth stained pink. But faster, faster. Dripping in my hair, down my back, my arms, legs. Not my teeth, my white teeth. Molars shivering as the water gets colder. My shoulders clench against the downpour. Eyes closed I unwrap myself and reach for the tap, turn off the water. Curl back into my limbs.
“Aesthetician.” The Fieldstone Review, no. 11 After so many visits to the promotion room I should have memorized every depression in the coffee table, however small, made by the force of so many individual mugs planting themselves on the surface. As if the degree of assertion of the mug’s position allowed the person clinging to the glazed porcelain to stay. My fingertips tease the indentations, some deeper than others, but all perfectly partial circles. I coaxed them, the aestheticians ready for their promotion, to look at me, every time feeling I had thrust my entire arm through the filmy tunnel of a black widow’s web. Immune, I continued. In my first week, Steve Sullivan summoned me to his office, gestured for me to sit on the concrete chair opposite his desk. An homage to brutalist designs. Too heavy to move closer or further, and no cushion. Sometimes Steve Sullivan called an aesthetician in to sit on the chair while he perused documents with no ulterior goal than to measure how long the aesthetician would sit still for, and he somehow equated this ability to sit, immobile, on solid stone with strength of character. In my first week, I possessed no notion of Mr. Sullivan’s proclivity for inciting discomfort. Just out of university, working an internship at the CP, and desperate to get hired as a full aesthetician. And I was the only woman. Statisticians fed us the knowledge that women were, simply, ‘choosing not to pursue such occupations or career trajectories associated with the creation of memory reservoirs.’ We did not choose to create memory reservoirs because we only saw women stored in membraries. Throughout our degrees we transposed our useless memories, factoids and experiences, to free enough space for education. And every time we did, we gave the cast-off thoughts to a woman, a grandmother. Imbued with a fear so tangible and paralysing, so real, by the repetition of women, you begin to see your face, the pattern of freckles and nearly faded acne scars on every MR until you transpose all memory of that face and find yourself unrecognisable when you arrive home and catch yourself in the mirror in the entrance way above the squat table that you toss your keys onto before removing your shoes. My best friend, Ryan, with her male-coded name to get her resume through the first screening process. Ryan. Whose parents set her up to succeed, who’s fiancée called me, slobbering because not only did she not know her own features, but she had self-induced prosopagnosia. Transposition, back then, was not as precise as today. I did not benefit from the same luxuries as Ryan. ‘Genevieve.’ A name you must prove, command attention with or recede, forgotten. I whittled away my childhood on the outskirts of a city. My parents succumbed to the fantasy of suburbia, but bought so far out the city never grew to reach us, and I made playthings of the wilderness beyond the back fence. Discarded branches became maps to alternate worlds: the hollowed inside of a cedar transformed into a cave, a hive, a place to create a new colony; leaves larger than my palms were birds, patient, ready to wrestle a vole as it trundled by; the mosquito netting cast between shrubs made luminous gloves that could direct the fantastic to overwhelm the fence for our little yard and push itself through the backdoor and into the kitchen where my mother canned tomatoes out of habit, tradition. Instead of netting, the gloves wove themselves from silk, spider’s silk, and the black widow who’s house I plunged my hand down let me know her displeasure. I flung her off, but soon my hand spasmed and every muscle in my arm, then shoulder, then across to my other arm, flinched incessantly. I upset my mother’s box of salt when I fell through the doorway. When Steve Sullivan called me into his office, I lunged toward his door with the same verve I had for those silken gloves. “You might not know, but Central Processing put out a new directive that all aestheticians, upon reaching age sixty-five are given the option of a promotion or termination.” Mr. Sullivan spoke before I sat on the uncompromising chair. “I am neither sixty-five nor an aesthetician.” “Yet. Not an aesthetician, yet. You will deliver the option of termination or promotion to Darryl, who celebrated his birthday yesterday. Here, read this. You meet with him in twenty minutes.” I took the proffered folder and began scanning the pages, still standing at almost the centre of Steve Sullivan’s office. “And do sell the promotion. Company interests and all.” “The promotion is becoming a memory reservoir for use at membraries.” “Do you have a problem advocating on behalf of our employer?” I felt my smile pulse in my eyes. “No, no problem at all.” All these men, getting older, and when they outlive their usefulness in a physical sense, repurposed as a storage facility. Statisticians market memory reservoirs as a state of being where the elderly can relive their best years through their memories while performing their civic duty of accepting extraneous memories from the working class and students. I learned from those marketing advertisements. No other aesthetician could produce the same results: a ninety-three percent acceptance rate of the promotion. And the other seven percent usually did volunteer themselves as MRs when their children left home or their spouse passed. Eventually, I delivered all company promotions. I waited twelve years to propose the ultimatum to Steve Sullivan. And I savoured every syllable. “Steve, you know what this meeting regards. You should have already decided. I expect you did decide, but upon sinking into the sofa across from me, you began reconsidering. Tea or coffee?” Bravado stolen, Steve looked at the fine creases on his hands, crumpled into them. Some part of him thought he was important enough, special even, to turn sixty-five without consequence. Devoted, he resolved to accept the promotion, until he reasoned that the company denied showing the same loyalty to him. Unoriginal. I raised my finger as if I were my younger self and still taking notes in class, tentatively positing a question. An intern brought a mug of decaffeinated Lady Grey, thinned with skim milk and laced with one spoon of sugar. I practiced variations of this move until I mastered the balance of demure deference and withheld authority. I offer both tea and coffee, but not choice. Now, I find myself in that familiar room, but opposite my armchair. I neglected to consider the ivory cotton from this perspective before, how the impenetrability of its weave added to my demeanour. Comforting to know I will not miss the feel of that straight back against my own, that instead I will relive the moments in entirety. I will dwell in this room, revel in the panicked breathing of the men across from me because I lived here, in every sense. In this room, I can linger. Taste the undulations in the air as the men curl into their knees, rendered, suddenly, infantile, despite knowing this moment would come. Perhaps the majority transpose this inevitability, choose to ignore the conversation to come. But that would be tedious, would require the transposition of the summons of every co-worker to this room and every conversation about approaching sixty-fifth birthdays. I suppose they practice a willful self-deception over an authentic ignorance. I considered signing the papers to become a memory reservoir last week, as a statement of my confidence in the company and excitement for the promotion. I had this debate with myself earlier, decades ago, when I contemplated transitioning into a memoir, the advanced version of an MR that retains other’s memories for future viewing. When my brain was young enough. No one wanted a memoir older than twenty-nine, at least not back then. Now most prefer under twenty-five. Statisticians say the age limit depends on the rate of mental deterioration and storage, but they mean to say the market determines the limit. I would have, back then, if I had already promoted Steve Sullivan, but he was too young and I waited to tell him the good news. I decided not to pre-emptively sign because I craved, almost lusted, to know my successor. Alone in the promotion room. Maybe the company wants to make me sweat, maybe they doubt my commitment to the program. Or maybe they still seek my replacement. I hope they send a man. They do not, of course. A man cannot handle, control, me, never has. Smart, they send Aliyah, dressed in her fenestration scrubs. “So sorry I’m late, Genie.” I don’t bother acknowledging her. “I mean, Ms. Marks. They told me to ‘embody a distant professionalism.’” “Why would they instruct that?” Aliyah twirls a pen between her fingers. Amateur move, which she realises and stuffs the pen into her breast pocket. She breathes outward twice. “I must inform you of the choice before you: a promotion, where you will serve the Central Processor with your entire mind; or termination, which does not include a pension or reference letter.” “Oh, Aliyah, sweetheart. Your delivery is all wrong. You do not ‘inform’ me, you need to convince me. Refuse to offer the choice.” “But it is a choice. A personal one at that.” “No, no, no. Not a choice, a business model, a framework. The CP, the company, through you, wants me to accept the promotion because then they spend less on recruitment advertisements for memory reservoirs. You are an ambassador, Aliyah. Act like one.” “That doesn’t seem fair.” “Fair? You want to talk about fairness? What about the empty beds in the membraries that lead to increased wait times for users and elevated stress put on the MRs that necessarily means those units wear out quicker than anticipated? What about the job opening I leave for a younger, even brighter, aesthetician to fill? You cannot argue that I should stay, not with my arthritis. What if I create a stylobate one capillary too large and ruin a whole model?” Aliyah blinks, faster, restrains a thin tear from overwhelming her eyelashes. I lower my voice, almost whisper. “Forget about the company. You, Aliyah, want me to volunteer for the operation so I can continue to help people in the only capacity that remains. You do not want me cast from my office to live on what meager amounts I saved while the cost of living towers higher than the skyscrapers in this city. You do not wish that fate on anyone.” Aliyah’s palms viciously wipe at her cheeks, rubbing away tears that haven’t yet dropped. She opens her mouth to speak but emits a high-pitched keen, interrupted by a bout of hiccups. They leave her shuddering on the chair for longer than I expect. Perhaps they want her to consider a position as a memoir, and this was a last promotion for me to give. Dom enters with a blanket that he holds up to entice Aliyah to stand. His arms barrel around her, swathing her in the blue fleece, and leads her out without a glance at me. “Who next?” I cross my arms at the camera in the mirror on the opposite wall. My face, flushed, glowers back. This is my room, my home. I cannot tolerate my web callously brushed away to allow space for a timid creature to nest. They should have accepted my offer to train the other aestheticians in the art of promotions. Perhaps they will reconsider, keep me on for another week, maybe two, just to make sure someone can get the job done. By the time the door opens my skin has faded to its usual muted pink. Jeremy enters, stands with his hands on the back of my chair, the one opposite where I sit, one I know so well. “Where to begin.” He refuses to ask. I like Jeremy and his questions coated in confidence, delivered as answers. He might suffice. “Offer me tea or coffee.” “I did not ask. And you know we do not provide coffee; it destabilises the sedative used on models.” “Yes, I know. Offer it nonetheless.” “But everyone knows we do not have coffee to offer.” “Precisely.” I smile at him, all lips. “Okay. Tea or coffee, Genevieve?” Jeremy finally sits. “Do not wait for a response. Have the tea ready; force the mug into my fingers.” He smirks at me, “Oh no. We’re doing this my way.” Jeremy stands still. Eyes gouging into me. I gesture at him with my chin. “You think you’re special. How precious.” He abandons his post, moves closer. Puts his arms on either side of my face, holding onto the back of the sofa. His breath, redolent of spearmint gum, oozes into my mouth, nose. I push myself flat against the sofa back and he wedges a knee between mine. “Did you consider yourself valuable because of the results you produced in here.” “Jeremy. Stop.” “What? We’re having a conversation and I asked you a question.” I shove his shoulders and he stands upright. Laughs, while he lowers himself atop the coffee table. I feel my venom leave, evaporate from my pores. I am an old woman. “Genie, you know I respect you. Sign the promotion papers and go home. And then relive all those times you felt powerful and forget about your inconsequential impact here. Anyone could have done the job. Anyone.” I unbutton the top two beads of my blouse and lean forward. “Do you feel powerful? Bullying an old woman into submission. Do not confuse me with the interns who allow your caresses for the hope of a job.” No, my venom did not leave, instead it burrowed deeper and found my younger self sitting on that concrete chair in Steve Sullivan’s office. Trying not to blink as Mr. Sullivan’s fingers grappled inside her. Scratched her cervix and radiated pain through her abdomen. He refused to look at her, but she stared into his Adam’s Apple and envisioned herself biting into the flesh, how it would taste like a red delicious, sweet. “My relations with women are not your concern. If they did not want my affections they would simply refuse.” Jeremy still sits on the table, arms at his sides, his body language a mockery of invitation. I stand and trap his legs between mine, kneel on the table so my pelvis pins him. Grainy linen between my legs. “They could just say ‘no’?” I extend my hand beneath me, into my underwear. Jeremy wriggles but does not push me backwards, does not scream out his distress. I remove the black widow from my vagina, cloaked in a film of whiteish liquid, my own web, and ease her into his mouth. His tongue laps at the offer. I pluck the promotion papers from the inside pocket of his jacket and release him. “Do you have a pen?”
“Merlot.” filling Station Magazine, no. 67 I would say ‘mom’ or maybe ‘mom?’ but I hold myself still. Instead I take one of the lawn chairs off its nail on the garage wall, remove it from its bag and unfold the chair beside hers. Slowly, like I’m approaching a stray dog in an alley, hand outstretched for it to sniff, judge. She, mom, holds a fake flower, a cloth rose with a smooth, plastic stem. I bring two glasses of red wine with me, a deeper, purple, more bruised colour than her uncrumpled flower. Merlot. A purr, a growl, in the front of the mouth, avoiding the throat until the first sip passes through, down. But, before that, we sit suspended in the chill of the garage, me, staring at the closed door, she, mom, at the flower. The deep freezer hums behind us. The cracks in the concrete floor elongate, open beneath our toes. The wine glasses tilt at the precipice. I rescue mine, accidentally chink its edge against the other, hers, mom’s. The chime acts as a trigger, a stimulant, breaks the silence in a way the scrape of chair legs couldn’t. More absolute. “I should’ve married him, the Poet. But words couldn’t sustain me, us. I had you and your sister to think of.” Defensive or accusing, I can’t read her, mom, mother, and so I raise my glass to my lips. “I told him he was the father. As soon as I said it I knew he’d leave. He believed beyond everything that people used words to lie. He needed to see my belly grow. He needed romance and me to depend on him.” “You couldn’t’ve married him. Poets can’t communicate.” She, the mother, my mother, finally reaches for her wine glass. Grasps it by the stem and holds it just above eye level. A small whirlpool emerges in the centre, then settles. The dim light of the garage catches on the streaks of wine toppling to their whole. “You see these legs? The rivulets of wine streaming down the inside of the glass. The more, the closer they are, the better quality the wine.” We sip our merlot. Wine flavoured wine. “Tess seems to like her job. She complains, but that’s just how she is.” “He gave me this rose.” She, mother, twirls the stems between her palms, glass and plastic. “He loved me as if you were his. And in the morning he left.” I want to remind her that she married my father before I was born. That the Poet had every right to leave. Like Eli left. Because an unfaithful woman can’t be a wife. The old notions of the ring as tether, leash, are obsolete when she’s untameable. An unbroken horse or rabid dog. Instead we flourish, bloom without ever being plucked. Marianne, mother, mom and I. Wilting. We swallow our wine in turns to avoid speaking, listening. The merlot bruises her lips, stains the sprawling wrinkles over her chin, the beginning folds of her neck. I see her rotting from the corolla. Left alone too long, she, mother, Marianne, can only decompose. I need to be plucked, allowed to retain my beauty as petals pressed between pages. Preserved. We are not plastic flowers. She, this woman beside me, she knows. Dabs the space between her lower lip and chin with the sleeve of her housecoat. Both stems clasped together, mom, Marianne, seems to collapse inside her glass, to tumble downwards as if she’s become one of the legs trickling toward the pool of wine. An imperceptible drop. She finishes her glass. I tip mine back. Me, Marianne, mom, mother, me, I am not and am and yet and.
Marianne’s Daughters. Loft on Eighth Press, limited-run chapbook. Marianne sits on her back porch, coffee mug and cigarette in hand, French press, half-full, on the table beside her. She only smokes on mornings like this. When she wakes just before sunrise, not because an alarm clock told her to wake and shower and go to work, but because she is rested, because her body wants to rise. (Marianne wraps herself in a dressing gown, either the plush red one or the forest green silk, both ankle-length, her choice depends on the season, the day. Today, a frosted Sunday in January, she chooses the red, wanting a little extra warmth over her nightdress. The cloudless sky promises a temperate afternoon. Marianne flicks the switch on her kettle to boil. She grinds the coffee beans, the whirring crunch the first real sound in the morning. French press and mug in hand, she exits the kitchen to the porch. The wooden deck and grass both weep as they thaw. Marianne sets down her coffee and retreats inside to find slippers, knitted for her last Christmas by Cadance, who used one of Marianne’s old patterns stored in a box in the basement. She didn’t know Cadance had found it until she unwrapped the slippers from their silver paper, gold bow on top. Slippers on, Marianne retrieves a cigarette from the freezer, lighter already in her dressing gown pocket.) Mornings like this, when she can watch the sunrise over her neighbours’ houses and take time to finish a full pot of coffee, rather than just one cup from her individual-coffee-pod-machine, when she is alone in the house without urgency, without the pressure to do anything—shower, brush her teeth, write grocery lists—on mornings like this, Marianne allows herself the luxury of one cigarette. She told her life insurance advisor that she’s never smoked, argued with herself that this was barely a lie because it’s been so long since she smoked regularly and she doesn’t consider this smoking. She told her doctor she quit when she got pregnant with the twins, which was true, until she caught Tess with a pack of menthols at thirteen and instilled the fear of god in her daughter before confiscating the pack. Marianne savoured every puff of those sweet sticks, but alone, as she really doesn’t smoke. Effie’s at a friend’s right now, shouldn’t be home until late afternoon. Mandy’s, or Erica’s, or Taryn’s—the girls who alternate between inseparable and dead to each other. Alliances shift weekly based on who likes which boy and what someone said about someone to somebody else. Girls that age are a special type of evil. There’s no use offering guidance, they’re just going to do whatever they please, and so long as Effie finishes high school without getting knocked up it’ll be a success as far as mothering goes. Three daughters graduated and ready to start their lives. But there’s still half a year to go. On mornings like this, the sun a wavering haze of orange, coffee mug between her hands, Marianne allows herself to imagine a life without children. Not that she never had them, just that they’re full grown, gone. She’d sell this house, the three floors and dozen or so rooms too much for just her. She’d leave this city, move west, to Vancouver Island. Find a ranch house where she could live close to the ocean, comfortably alone. Where her daughters could visit, bring their husbands and children. Drink coffee and Baileys with Cadance and Eli in a sprawling backyard, a little granddaughter playing hide-and-seek with Effie. Tess, belly bloated, sipping on tea and unable to talk about anything other than the new crib she’s picked out. Not that Marianne wants this right now. Together five years now, Eli should propose. Then she and Cadance could go dress shopping, decide on flower arrangements. But Cadance keeps saying she won’t marry until he’s done school and they get their lives and careers straightened out. Life seems so easy to them. Graduate from university, find a good job, one that can support a family in Calgary, afford a house with a yard. They don’t realise the economy won’t help this; they’ll be waiting forever before they marry, have children, start their lives. But at least Cadance has plans. Tess, Marianne can’t figure out. A new boyfriend every thirty seconds, or so it seems, as Marianne made it clear that she won’t meet any guy Tess happens to sleep with unless Tess intends to keep him around for a good length of time. She’s in Saskatchewan—has been for the past few years—so meeting her flings is moot. Once Tess calms down, gains focus, she’ll find a good man. Or perhaps he’ll find her, tether her to one place. The sun quivers a few centimetres over the horizon. One of Marianne’s neighbours has a light on upstairs. When she moves she’ll find a place without windows into her neighbour’s bedrooms. Nothing moves except the sleeves of Marianne’s dressing gown when she lifts her mug to her lips. She lowers the mug to the table with a slight clink, rises, steps inside for just a moment, and returns to light another cigarette. Yes, mornings like this. Leaving sounds so easy. Decide you want something different, change what you can. Where you live, who you love. Somewhere between the new tablecloths in the linen closet and the vacuum stored under the kitchen table because there’s no other place in this tiny apartment where it can fit, you realise you can’t live a picket-fence dream. Not even the romantic starving-student version where love justifies—enables—a home built without money. You need to leave before he anchors you with a ring, sparkling, just what your Mother wants for you. Stability. What does it matter that he makes you eat bananas when you can only afford one fruit a week and you’ve hated bananas since your grandmother forced you to eat a bruised one when you were seven? What does it matter that he’ll climb inside you while you sleep, thrust and pump and you pretend to dream so he can finish, can plaster himself over your stomach? These are the sacrifices you make when you love someone. Staring at the bananas in a bowl, you write a letter to explain, console. You know you can’t eat another and try to tell him you’ve lost yourself. Reassure him you still love him, and to stake your claim for the coffee table. But the lines—lies—falter, are unconvincing in their beseeching, begging, for forgiveness. You must deliver them aloud, stumble over words, hug yourself close. Give him a good performance. But anxiety gnaws at your ankles, climbs higher, because you’ve never seen him angry, not according to him, not the type of angry that hospitalized him, medicated him. Anxiety blooms, stabs through your navel to reach up and throttle your trachea, the gasping pressure at the base of your skull. So furious that the wine you drank—the wine you promised yourself you wouldn’t touch—licks up your esophagus. Pinot Noir. Appropriate. But you hold everything in, except tears. Spiderwebbed in your eyelashes, your contact lenses threaten to dislodge and you thank god—someone, yourself—that you didn’t wear mascara. Not today. You imagine him leaving, his absence in your apartment. You’re left with a desk, coffee grinder, four blankets, twenty scarves, and those infernal curtains. Ceiling to floor lilac panels he refused to hang because the blinds did the job just fine. But that wasn’t the point. The curtains you hung, standing on one of the plastic chairs that belong to the kitchen table, extra screws between your lips. The ones he said would come crashing down because you didn’t find the studs, didn’t know you needed to knock on the walls before drilling into them. Those curtains are more steadfast than you. Of my childhood I most clearly remember every other weekend at Dad’s. He has another daughter, but she was never there when we were. She spent every other weekend at her grandparent’s. Addison, Addy. We slept in her room, but it was like she didn’t exist. The princess bed with gauzy canopy dotted with rhinestones and butterfly pendants was mine. The dresser and its large mirror, shelf of music boxes, chest for barbies, all mine. And Cadance’s. Addy might have been our imaginary friend. I don’t remember my—our—father except in stills, portraits with features. But Mom says I look like him. His nose, freckles. I stare in blank windows to catch glimpses of him. He would keep us up late, watching movies Mom said were inappropriate and eating candy, chocolate, ice cream. He kept bowls of jelly beans and macaroons on the living room table. He slept in every morning, so Cadance and I learned to cook. The kitchen chairs were heavy, too heavy to drag, even with both of us trying. Effie could barely walk, usually didn’t even come with us. I would plant my hands and knees on the floor so Cadance could use my back as a stool. She made scrambled eggs every time. We took turns cracking eggs into a bowl. Two each. Added milk, and I stirred while she pulled out a pan from the drawer under the oven. Cadance, still in her nightgown, barely bigger than me, climbed on my back. Turned the burner on, poured the eggs in. She undercooked them. Afraid of standing on me too long. I lean against the wall of a boutique. Plastic flowers in a wicker basket in the window beside me. Mannequins flaunt crocheted sweaters. I wait for him, Mr. Bloor. Clouds wisp behind the streetlamps, a shade lighter than the navy sky. What will he see? The bricks, rough, on Effie’s hip? That she stays, silhouetted in the window’s light? Water from the melting ice patches seeps over the pavement, into Effie, exposed in pastel heels. Mr. Bloor parks his car, neatly, beside the curb. Effie arches through the window, her lace halter pinches her breasts. A pink nipple peeks around the faux rose buds. Effie smiles. Effie fingers the seam where Mr. Bloor’s shirt and pants meet. He shifts his thigh, Effie withdraws, hands knotted in her lap. Buildings sputter past, glinting through Effie’s eyes. Mr. Bloor touches, briefly touches the tender place behind Effie’s earring. | Mom, Eli and I— | Cadance holds the backspace key, the letters disappear. | Mom, I didn’t realise— | Backspace. Cadance types, retypes, retries, rewords her message. Words fail her, and she cannot explain. Not precisely heartbreak. The thrill of new, of leaving without knowing where to arrive, disembark. A flexing—tightening—in her calves because her credit card’s maxed and the milk’s expired. | Mom, I’m coming home. | | Hope you don’t mind. | Send. Tess, in my bed, under my tie-dyed comforter. Cheek on the matching pillowcase. Still. The type of still when you’ve cried all you can and sleep won’t take you yet. Still. The baby makes her sad. Not even big enough to notice, but right there, all the time. I can’t tell her I know. I understand. Her cat, Gordie, guarding her. Right at the end of the bed. I step forward, hesitate. Five more steps and I slip under the covers with her. Gordie jumps off the bed. Tess doesn’t move, doesn’t acknowledge me, except for a slight stiffening. The sheets taut over her shoulders. “It’s just me.” On my side. I reach my arm to touch her back. I loop my fingers in swirls over her PJ shirt, the way she used to do for me when I got scared or sad. Tess. Still. Cadance eats cheerios with orange pop because she can’t choke them down dry. It’s not so bad if you swallow without chewing, tasting. Don’t let the mixture touch your tongue. Cadance sits on a box of books, toes hooked on the edge of another. Waits for a reply that doesn’t come. It should be fine—Tess just moved back home. Mom’ll be happy, the family back under one roof. Maternal instinct and all. Cadance dips her spoon back into her dinner, the cheerios bloated, bobbing on the surface. Mr. Bloor and Effie in a department store lined with racks of jackets: trench, blazer, belted, double-breasted. Effie chooses leather, zippered off-centre. Mr. Bloor gives Effie a wool overcoat she buttons to her throat. Stiff, in the coat, in the car Effie watches Mr. Bloor, his baby face, flabby around the lower jaw. Mr. Bloor holds Effie’s hand, their drive measured by the swish of slush under tires. They arrive at Mr. Bloor’s apartment. His other apartment. Arms linked, Effie walks without stumbling, rests her head on his shoulder. Cadance serves me scrambled eggs. She didn’t ask how I like eggs. Poached. A single egg dropped in swirling water, a dash of vinegar. The eggs ooze on my plate, still runny. I sip my coffee. “Thanks. Just like old times.” “What?” She asks, but she pulls at her hair, hides her fork in her mouth. “You know, I could make breakfast sometime. I did spend two years of my life learning how.” “So are the next two to teach you lunch?” I reach under the table to pet Gordie. “Tomorrow I’ll make soufflé. Eggs light as mousse with Parmesan Reggiano. And hash browns baked with fresh dill accompanied by hollandaise with a fresh fruit salad on the side. I don’t know if I’ll share with you.” “Where are you going to find the money for those ingredients? I doubt Mom has Reggiano lying around.” “Asiago’ll do in a pinch. It’s not really Parmesan, but it tastes better than Padano, slightly fruitier, and melts smoothly. Most restaurants pass Asiago off as parm to cut costs.” “And I care because?” “You’re going to want some of my soufflé, so you should be a little nicer.” “I just made you breakfast—you should be a little nicer.” The egg runoff encompasses my plate, the eggs themselves already cold. “And it’s delicious.” “Thanks.” Cadance smiles, tongue pressing against her teeth, showing through the slight gap beside her incisor. Ready to retort, but temporarily stymied as she’s already quipped about my useless degree. I mush my eggs around but Cadance isn’t fooled. She taught me that trick back when we were kids. Pretended to eat dinner at our Aunt’s place when she cooked. Aunt Chris’s meals inevitably tasted like over-cooked oatmeal. Even when it was supposed to be chicken fingers and carrots. But she always bought desert pre-made, and as long as we mashed our dinners into bits across our plates she was convinced we’d eaten enough. Then she’d hype us on sugar before sending us back home. “If you hate it just throw it out!” Cadance bursts. Startled, Gordie darts from the kitchen. Cadance slams her plate into the kitchen sink just in case I missed the exclamation point. Sometimes I get her and Mom confused. That stance with both hands on the counter as if her anger’s thrown her off balance. Slight, desperate twinge to her final syllable. Asking, entreating, me to finish, please finish, my eggs. Let her know she did something right, let her take care of me. Because she tries so hard, because she didn’t mean to show me her quaver, I heap my fork with the eggs and plunge the mound into my mouth. Smile around the limp slime. “Too hot to eat earlier.” Effie, naked, except for the overcoat and heels, wants to trace a rose curve with her toes in the carpet. Instead, she graphs herself into the window, stilettoes coordinates plotted in the shag. Fresh daisies hang from the curtain rod, bound with a hair elastic and embroidery thread. Effie plucks a petal, peels it into strips lets the fragments drift to the carpet. Mr. Bloor holds Effie’s waist, a vase, turns her to face him. Mr. Bloor unbuttons Effie’s coat, The wool slips from Effie’s shoulders, collapses, covers her daisy fragments. Mr. Bloor touches, gently touches Effie silhouetted in orange from the streetlamp framed by the window, a still. Shivering. Effie pushes Mr. Bloor’s chest, gently pushes. She reaches to remove her chandelier earrings, folds them into her coat. Mr. Bloor outlines Effie, his fingers trip over her back. He hesitates. Effie steps closer, erect nipples pressed petals in his chest hair. Mr. Bloor leads Effie to the bed takes her hand. Effie’s finger recoils from the warmth of his wedding band. Mom went to bed after dinner. The plastic box of baby clothes, the knitted blanket, sits beside me on the front porch. Lid sealed tight. I can’t leave it alone in a room. I light a cigarette, one of Mom’s. I found the pack in the freezer. Haven’t had one in years. Not since I moved to Saskatoon. Snow drifts over me. Should’ve put on a sweater. The door opens and light spreads around me. Effie steps out, uses the toe of her slippers to clear the flakes next to me. Sits down, burritoed in the couch blanket, as she would say. “That’s not good for the baby.” Not judgemental, just sad. “It doesn’t matter.” Effie hugs me, the blanket cool at first, but then warm. She leans her head against my shoulder. Breathes deep and I think she’s asleep. I nudge the box with my calf. Still there. Draw smoke in from the cigarette, too fast, and deep. I hold my cough in, don’t want to wake Effie. My chest burns and eyes prickle. “You could keep it. If you want.” That little voice. The same I heard earlier, but younger. Still earnest. “There is no baby, Effie.” I toss the butt away from me, take a deep breath. “There never was a baby.” Effie’s arms redouble around me, afraid I will vanish just as suddenly. But the baby was just a work of fiction, and I’m out here. The snow falls thicker and my box of baby clothes innocent at my ankles. Did I imagine the baby? She could be real. Except no, not really. I shiver and Effie pulls away. “Why did you lie to Mom?” Because I had to come home and I didn’t know how to ask. Because even when I’m not in the same province as Cadance I still can’t get a date. Because the only man who’s ever touched me grabbed me at a party and forced himself in. Because I missed you. Why did I lie to Mom? I answer, but it rings hollow. Effie retreats, hugs herself, “I really am. Seeing a married man. I don’t know how to give him what he wants.” I should reach around her, offer comfort. “Don’t ask me.” Effie looks at me, eyes wide, I avoid them and duck my head to light another cigarette. An engine hums, tires slick through the snow on the driveway. Cadance. She sees us and joins, doesn’t bother to clear the snow off the step. I edge my box away from her knees. She gestures for my cigarette. Mom’s cigarette. “You don’t smoke.” She speaks to the burning tip, “I also don’t have a job.” A cackle escapes me, and once it’s out I can’t stop. Panting and sputtering. I laugh until my sides hurt and I need to catch my breath. I clap my hands over my face to smother the sound. Shake myself silent. “Saskatchewan is flat, Effie’s a mistress, and our golden girl is a fraud.” I wipe the moisture from my nose. “Thanks Mom! You sure did a good job!” Effie straddles Mr. Bloor, the sheets, the comforter the apartment building. Effie tip-toes her nails through his pubic hair, under his scrotum. Repeats. Mr. Bloor swats her hand his cock rigid,  Mr. Bloor brings Effie, mouth down, . My eyes open. I see Effie’s bookshelf. Composite fake wood painted pink, blue, green, orange, but not yellow, every colour highlighter neon. Cadance and I painted it with sponges, as a birthday gift. Gordie shifts at my feet. The comforter rustles behind me. A twitch of the fabric that races over the hairs on my arm. My jaw freezes, tongue between my teeth. Don’t scream. Don’t. Bookshelf, Effie’s, pictures of Effie and her friends on the corkboard above it. I can’t move. The cat leaves. Fingers touch my back, almost my neck. Close around my throat and facing me, now, he dares me to move, those nostrils flared. No. A little hand on my back. Effie’s voice. I exhale, close my eyes. Her touch spells out images, shapes, forgotten before forming. Summer at our grandma’s. I shared the fold-out couch with Effie. At night she tried not to cry. I told her to look at the moon. It’s the same moon Mom’s looking at, right now. She’s not really that far away. And I drew pictures on her back, flowers and fireworks, and sometimes she’d try to guess which but mostly she’d just fall asleep. By the end of the summer it was more habit, ritual, than comfort, and yet, always, comfort. Effie can’t [ ] through the windows shut  reflecting. Effie . Mr. Bloor curls around her. The front door opens and closes. Mom’s upstairs, sleeping. Seven thirty, but it’s already dark outside. I put on Mom’s slippers, wrap myself in the couch blanket. Snow freckles the front porch and I sit next to Tess. She doesn’t move, except to draw her cigarette to her lips. “That’s not good for the baby.” “It doesn’t matter.” I hug her, the blanket follows my arms and covers Tess. We sit in silence, my head on her shoulder. Watch the snowflakes drift in front of the streetlamps. “You could keep it. If you want.” “There is no baby, Effie.” Tess flicks her cigarette butt into the garden. The orange tip fizzles out in the damp earth. “There never was a baby.” I hold her tighter, and she lets me. For a moment. But she shrugs me off. “Why did you lie to Mom?” “She doesn’t understand how flat Saskatchewan is. That the straight lines always recede. That the sky and prairie are so goddamned huge.” Her confession doesn’t immediately sink in. It feels as surreal as Mr. Bloor. “I really am,” I bring my blanket closer, “seeing a married man. I don’t know how to give him what he wants.” “Don’t ask me.” Tess lights another cigarette. The pack is Mom’s, well, the same as the one Mom keeps in the freezer. Headlights cut into the snow. Cadance’s car pulls into the driveway, but she doesn’t open the garage door. She walks towards us, slumps on the step below us. Jacket opened even though it’s windy. She extends two fingers to Tess, who passes the cigarette to her. “You don’t smoke.” “I also don’t have a job.” Tess bursts into laughter, hands holding her sides. Gasping, grotesque laughter. Just for a few seconds. She covers her face with her hands, shoulders still convulsing. I look to Cadance, but she’s staring at the lit cigarette. Hasn’t brought it to her lips yet. “Saskatchewan is flat, Effie’s a mistress, and our golden girl is a fraud.” Tess dabs her eyes with her sleeves. “Thanks Mom! You sure did a good job!” The house is quiet. Tess plays solitaire at the coffee table and only the snap of cards cuts the air. Effie’s at a friend’s and Cadance is out with Dylan. The slanting sun seeps through the clouds and window, creates an orange haze in the kitchen. “I guess it’s just us for dinner.” Marianne opens the pantry. “How do you feel about macaroni and tomatoes?” “Sounds good to me. Need a hand?” Tess gathers her cards back into the deck. Gordie pads to his food dish at the foot of the counter. “No. Just feed your cat.” Marianne pours herself a glass of homemade wine. Fills a cup with water for Tess. “I’ve been thinking.” She puts a pot on to boil, empties a can of tomatoes in a second pot. “And?” Cat kibble tinkles in the metal dish. Tess gives half her water to Gordie. “You can keep it.” Pause. “I mean, if you want to. We can make it work.” Tess lowers herself next to Gordie. Fingers his tail. Marianne puts the noodles in the pot, turns down the dial on the stove. She walks upstairs and takes the cardboard box from her closet, upsets the row of heels in front of it. She’d put together this box the day after Tess told her. Marianne brings the box to the kitchen and places it beside Tess. “Here.” “What’s this?” “Open it.” Tess does. On top is her old knitted baby blanket, the satin ribbon border rubbed threadbare in places. “You used to pinch the edges. Fall asleep running your hand over the trim. I can replace it, but I don’t know if I can get the same colour ribbon.” Tess gathers the blanket on her lap. Touches the baby booties and onesies still in the box. She looks at Marianne, eyes shining. Marianne turns off the stove and kneels beside her. Tess collapses into her arms, body convulsing with silent tears. “It’s okay—it’ll all be okay.” Gordie nuzzles Tess’s hip, kneads at the blanket. She keeps shuddering.
"How Form Informs Content: Barbara Langhorst’s “Climate Change” from Restless White Fields" River Volta Review of Books The phrase “climate change” refers most obviously to global warming, the melting of polar icecaps, the erosion of the o-zone layer, the impact of human industry on the environment. A poem about global catastrophe would make sense to follow the title “Climate Change,” and Barbara Langhorst does not disappoint, though the environment is the family, and the catastrophe is the problem of motherhood. “Climate Change” opens with the speaker addressing her daughter, then parallels her self-perceived failings as a mother to her own, “radiant” mother (27). The parallel is quite literal—the past and present exist simultaneously on the page, with the speaker’s present on the left and her memory on the right, curving outwards and foreshadowing the later shapes and melding of present and memory into grief that emerges later in the poem. On the following page, these two parallels are brought together through an italicised stanza that describes and enacts what the speaker is doing: reading. The italics indicate quotations from other written works (citations located at the back of Langhorst’s book), so that the poem shows us what the speaker reads even as she writes the poem. The tension between memory and the speaker distracting herself through reading is realised at the mention of “at her funeral,” when the reader sees that the memory of summer lake visits is overwhelmed by the presence of mosquitos at the mother’s funeral (28). The reluctance to face this other memory—or the desire to hold onto the happier memories—is indicated through word-spacing. A small stanza on the left could read “the last day/ the inevitable/ soggy three-day/holiday week/end—” and be talking about the speaker’s desire to remain at the lake as a child, or the desire to remain inside that memory (28). However, the lines “[the mosquitos overwhelming/at her funeral]” interrupt this stanza, claim space beside the end lines, so that the end of the holiday weekend becomes the funeral weekend (28). The square brackets around those lines further indicate the intrusion of thoughts the speaker would rather keep at bay. The poem then focuses on describing the mother as she was, but this is overrun by the mention of the speaker’s father, and the poem abruptly reverts to quoted lines; the speaker turns off her thoughts by returning to reading. However, the thoughts return, and the speaker soon tells us—hesitantly, haltingly, with many interruptions from other texts—that her mother was murdered, and that “three days the bodies lay,” with no other hint of her father (29). The following page retreats into quotes and memory, with the speaker berating herself and her family for forgetting their mother’s birthday, and the accompanying quotes relaying a mother-daughter experience that could have also been shared by the speaker and her own mother (30). The layout of this page positions the speaker’s memory inside a cocoon of borrowed memories (quotes) that insulate the speaker’s regret—this regret is tied to how her mother died, and that it took so long to discover her death, but ensconced inside the mundane quotation-memories, this specific instance of disappointment speaks to the larger regret without facing it head-on. Conversely, the next page is displayed in a circle, with quotes and the speaker’s thoughts interspersed together and a void left in the middle of the page (31). On this page, the poem could be read as italics, then non-italics, across the lines, or down either side and then the next, or even jumping between stanzas, so that the eye crosses over at each extra space between lines. The lack of direction provided in how to read this embodies the lack of direction experienced by the speaker, regarding both processing her grief and reconciling her ‘failures’ as a mother with her ‘failures’ as a daughter. The circle implies the cyclical nature of grief and coping with trauma, while existing as a gaping hole, but the poem leads out of this in a descending line that continues straight down the page, offering a path out of the grief and depression, while still allowing for that grief to be revisited and explored from other angles upon other (re)readings. While the end of the poem tells the reader that the speaker’s father is responsible for her mother’s murder, and that afterwards he killed himself too, the poem refuses to be defeated. The end circles back to the beginning, and returns to food and notions of nutrition, and allows room for her family climate to change again, for the better, while recognising that that change has not occurred by the end of the poem. Works Cited Langhorst, Barbara. Restless White Fields. NeWest Press. 2012.
"Novel(la): Craft, from the Margins" River Volta Review of Books. Novel(la): a concise, women-centric narrative that crosses genres and defies easy categorisation. The boundaries between short stories, novellas, and novels have always been riddled with slippage. The Great Gatsby. Heart of Darkness. Of Mice and Men. The Old Man and the Sea. Death in Venice. The Metamorphosis. The End of the Affair. Where do we place these texts? The short answer: in the literary canon. Instructors will teach Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a novel or novella, depending on the course. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as either a long short story or a novella. Etc., etc. I am less concerned with delineating the boundaries of these genres, and far more concerned with creating a new space that does not exist between these previous designations, but one that instead operates in parallel. Novel(la)s are where we find the women. But, before I continue, I want to pause a moment and reflect on my nomenclature: novel(la). ‘Novel(la)’ sounds like ‘novella’ and only appears different on the page. This is crucial. Parentheses denote the inessential, an aside, an interesting piece of commentary that the real writing of the piece doesn’t need. The words that appear inside the curved marks could be removed, and nothing would be lost. And yet. Parentheses draw the reader’s eye—seem to call for attention. Aren’t we told, when we write, to make every word count? If each word matters, then why do we have a type of punctuation that implies the opposite? Parentheses are marginal. They do not often make appearances in creative writing—are relegated to academic papers. (I take this grammatological device and use its inherent aesthetic appeal to draw attention to the marginal, the so-called ‘removeable.’ Women have been living within the parentheses of academia, of writing, and elsewhere. We know that parentheses are supposed to be marginal, but we know they do not appear in the margins of a page, they insert themselves into the main points.) And so, novel(la)s are where we find women. The “la” kept separate, distinct, and always necessary. “La” an homage to the French feminists who insisted on écriture feminine, but we will return to that momentarily. Women writers resist conforming to male standards and instead have a history (a herstory, if you prefer) of conning form, of inserting their works between their male counterparts. Téa Mutonji, Larissa Lai, Nicole Brossard, Eden Robinson, Aritha van Herk, Evelyn Lau, Hollie Adams, Marian Engle. Each of these writers uses the sentence to remake the short story, the novel, the novella. Women flitting through their pages but undoubtedly present (even in their disappearing). Their stories—the writers’ and the characters’—push against male definitions of what constitutes genre, what can be written. (Because, as we know, these stories are ‘women’s writing,’ and as such are relegated to being by, for, and about women, as if women are not quite persons, their stories not universal enough.) Let me clarify ‘women’; I mean not to uphold the male/female binary, and instead am opening the interpretation of ‘women’ to include all genders and expressions, any deviation from patriarchally-prescribed norms. The word ‘women’ fits this task because we have a collective understanding of how ‘women’ stands in opposition to ‘men’. Because of the historical erasure of peoples who did not fit the traditional binary, we now have to create a new objective correlative, a new signifier to invite in those who have been and are still excluded. That is not the task of this glossa. I set out to explain the novel(la) and to carve a space for our writing to exist on its own terms. Therefore, it follows that though we find women in novel(la)s, I do not configure this categorisation as a by/for/about women only form. Merely a literary space, where this form of writing is met and assessed on its own—a place where male-centric expectations falter, cannot find purchase. A notable example of a novel(la) by a man is Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K. George Bowering, considering Kroetch’s work, argues “if The Hornbooks of Rita K is a book of poems, then it may be the best book of poems that Robert Kroetsch has ever written…It pretends to offer a list, a sequence, a narrative—and does everything it can to subvert those reassuring codes of order” (back cover). Kroetsch’s book follows Raymond as he attempts to locate the missing Rita through the scraps of poetry she has left behind. Written in prose, poetry, and / or prose-poetry, this book doesn’t place Rita, yet she appears (as if of her own accord) as a void in the center. As demonstrated by the above quote, people have difficulty describing the genre of this work because Kroetsch’s book resists traditional renderings of Rita (the woman protagonist), and as such must resist the traditional forms of writing. These ideas of resistance and of searching out new forms for women-writing (as opposed to male-writing, the types of which are found in Western literary canons) are not new. Hélène Cixous, in her theorisation of écriture féminine, states that: “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal” (875). And in writing herself, in and when writing women, I have found the form must follow, must also change. (I am lucky I found Cixous early in my writing career because in her words I found permission to write in a new way—a way that was not new, per se, but new to me, a way not taught when professors lectured on the aforementioned canonical texts.) Similarly, Virginia Woolf warns young women writers that “it is useless to go to the great men writers for help,” and there is no truer statement (88). We can learn imagery and the balance between narration and action. We can learn plot and dialogue and setting. The basic components. We take what we can, but male writers do not set out to teach us, to allow us a form or forum for ourselves, or one which allows our writing to be approached and encountered outside of comparisons to their own works. (Even when we write outside of their bonds, these comparisons are still made, we are said to have ‘subverted’ expectations or notions or any number of ‘established’ codes, as Bowering mentions in his above quote.) A novel(la), with its lyric attention to sounds and rhythm, could be mistaken for poetry, and while poetic, it is decidedly not poetry. Verse, another male-dominated realm, the boundaries demarcated. Challengers of poetic forms hail from Oulipian origins. Those men push form for the sake of pushing form. Have fashioned an exclusive club that prizes the originality of the idea, the impossibility of re-creation. A novel(la) is distinctly the opposite—a new form, a rethinking of form, for a more inclusive space. Novel(la)s therefore are unlikely to follow traditional structures or forms—such as the Freytag Pyramid—as these forms necessitate comparison to previous, male-dominated works. Characters in novel(la)s take up too much space for short stories and not enough for novels. And besides, these characters avoid the rigidity of chapter breaks—prefer instead brief glimpses, instances, loosely linked scenes, fragments of action nestled in the open. First person drifts into second, third. Often present tense with run-on sentences and fluctuating timelines that compress together and expand, blur perspectives and memories and misuse commas. This inclination, approach to writing, not common, but resonant. Works Cited Helene Cixous. “The Laugh of the Medusa,” translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1, no. 4 (summer 1976): 875-93. Kroetsch, Robert. The Hornbooks of Rita K. The University of Alberta Press, 2001. Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1928, Penguin Books, 1945, reprinted 2004.
"Placemeant: The Impact of Form on Content in Aritha van Herk’s “In Visible Ink”" River Volta Review of Books. At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic. Aritha van Herk’s In Visible Ink, 1991 How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers. “In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion. After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth). After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course). Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet. As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression. Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail. The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic. The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness. The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them. The Arctic exists outside of the boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a writer’s reflection in the ice. Works Cited: van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.