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The Globe and Mail, February 19, 1998

   Prior, Winifred Griffen. At the age of 92, at her Rosedale home, after a protracted illness. In Mrs. Prior, noted philanthropist, the city of Toronto has lost one of its most loyal and long-standing benefactresses. Sister of deceased industrialist Richard Griffen and sister-in law of the eminent novelist Laura Chase, Mrs. Prior served on the board of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during its formative years, and more recently on the Volunteer Committee of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Cancer Society. She was also active in the Granite Club, the Heliconian Club, the Junior League, and the Dominion Drama Festival. She is survived by her great-niece, Sabrina Griffen, currently travelling in India.
   The funeral will take place on Tuesday morning at the Church of St. Simon the Apostle, followed by interment at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Donations to Princess Margaret Hospital in lieu of flowers.
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The Blind Assassin:
The lipstick heart

   How much time have we got? he says.
   A lot, she says. Two or three hours. They’re all out somewhere.
   Doing what?
   I don’t know. Making money. Buying things. Good works. Whatever they do; She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, sits up straighter. She feels on call, whistled for. A cheap feeling. Whose car is this? she says.
   A friend’s. I’m an important person, I have a friend with a car.
   You’re making fun of me, she says. He doesn’t answer. She pulls at the fingers of a glove. What if anyone sees us?
   They’ll only see the car. This car is a wreck, it’s a poor folks’ car. Even if they look right at you they won’t see you, because a woman like you isn’t supposed to be caught dead in a car like this.
   Sometimes you don’t like me very much, she says.
   I can’t think about much else lately, he says. But liking is different. Liking takes time. I don’t have the time to like you. I can’t concentrate on it.
   Not there, she says. Look at the sign.
   Signs are for other people, he says. Here—down here.
   The path is no more than a furrow. Discarded tissues, gum wrappers, used safes like fish bladders. Bottles and pebbles; dried mud, cracked and rutted. She has the wrong shoes for it, the wrong heels. He takes her arm, steadies her. She moves to pull away.
   It’s practically an open field. Someone will see.
   Someone who? We’re under the bridge.
   The police. Don’t. Not yet.
   The police don’t snoop around in broad daylight, he says. Only at night, with their flashlights, looking for godless perverts.
   Tramps then, she says. Maniacs.
   Here, he says. In under here. In the shade.
   Is there poison ivy?
   None at all. I promise. No tramps or maniacs either, except me.
   How do you know? About the poison ivy. Have you been here before?
   Don’t worry so much, he says. Lie down.
   Don’t. You’ll tear it. Wait a minute.
   She hears her own voice. It isn’t her voice, it’s too breathless.

   There’s a lipstick heart on the cement, surrounding four initials. An L connects them: L for Loves. Only those concerned would know whose initials they are—that they’ve been here, that they’ve done this. Proclaiming love, withholding the particulars.
   Outside the heart, four other letters, like the four points of the compass:


F U
C K

   The word torn apart, splayed open: the implacable topography of sex.
   Smoke taste on his mouth, salt in her own; all around, the smell of crushed weeds and cat, of disregarded corners. Dampness and growth, dirt on the knees, grimy and lush; leggy dandelions stretching towards the light.
   Below where they’re lying, the ripple of a stream. Above, leafy branches, thin vines with purple flowers; the tall pillars of the bridge lifting up, the iron girders, the wheels going by overhead; the blue sky in splinters. Hard dirt under her back.

   He smoothes her forehead, runs a finger along her cheek. You shouldn’t worship me, he says. I don’t have the only cock in the world. Some day you’ll find that out.
   It’s not a question of that, she says. Anyway I don’t worship you. Already he’s pushing her away, into the future.
   Well, whatever it is, you’ll have more of it, once I’m out of your hair.
   Meaning what, exactly? You’re not in my hair.
   That there’s life after life, he says. After our life.
   Let’s talk about something else.
   All right, he says. Lie down again. Put your head here. Pushing his damp shirt aside. His arm around her, his other hand fishing in his pocket for the cigarettes, then snapping the match with his thumbnail. Her ear against his shoulder’s hollow.

   He says, Now where was I?
   The carpet-weavers. The blinded children.
   Oh yes. I remember.
   He says: The wealth of Sakiel-Norn was based on slaves, and especially on the child slaves who wove its famous carpets. But it was bad luck to mention this. The Snilfards claimed that their riches depended not on the slaves, but on their own virtue and right thinking—that is, on the proper sacrifices being made to the gods.
   There were lots of gods. Gods always come in handy, they justify almost anything, and the gods of Sakiel-Norn were no exception. All of them were carnivorous; they liked animal sacrifices, but human blood was what they valued most. At the city’s founding, so long ago it had passed into legend, nine devout fathers were said to have offered up their own children, to be buried as holy guardians under its nine gates.
   Each of the four directions had two of these gates, one for going out and one for coming in: to leave by the same one through which you’d arrived meant an early death. The door of the ninth gate was a horizontal slab of marble on top of a hill in the centre of the city; it opened without moving, and swung between life and death, between the flesh and the spirit. This was the door through which the gods came and went: they didn’t need two doors, because unlike mortals they could be on both sides of a door at once. The prophets of Sakiel-Norn had a saying: What is the real breath of a man—the breathing out or the breathing in? Such was the nature of the gods.
   This ninth gate was also the altar on which the blood of sacrifice was spilled. Boy children were offered to the God of the Three Suns, who was the god of daytime, bright lights, palaces, feasts, furnaces, wars, liquor, entrances, and words; girl children were offered to the Goddess of the Five Moons, patroness of night, mists and shadows, famine, caves, childbirth, exits, and silences. Boy children were brained on the altar with a club and then thrown into the god’s mouth, which led to a raging furnace. Girl children had their throats cut and their blood drained out to replenish the five waning moons, so they would not fade and disappear forever.
   Nine girls were offered every year, in honour of the nine girls buried at the city gates. Those sacrificed were known as “the Goddess’s maidens,” and prayers and flowers and incense were offered to them so they would intercede on behalf of the living. The last three months of the year were said to be “faceless months”; they were the months when no crops grew, and the Goddess was said to be fasting. During this time the Sun-god in his mode of war and furnaces held sway, and the mothers of boy children dressed them in girls’ clothing for their own protection.
   It was the law that the noblest Snilfard families must sacrifice at least one of their daughters. It was an insult to the Goddess to offer any who were blemished or flawed, and as time passed, the Snilfards began to mutilate their girls so they would be spared: they would lop off a finger or an earlobe, or some other small part. Soon the mutilation became symbolic only: an oblong blue tattoo at the V of the collarbone. For a woman to possess one of these caste marks if she wasn’t a Snilfard was a capital offence, but the brothel-owners, always eager for trade, would apply them with ink to those of their youngest whores who could put on a show of haughtiness. This appealed to those clients who wished to feel they were violating some blue-blooded Snilfard princess.
   At the same time, the Snilfards took to adopting foundlings—the offspring of female slaves and their masters, for the most part—and using these to replace their legitimate daughters. It was cheating, but the noble families were powerful, so it went on with the eye of authority winking.
   Then the noble families grew even lazier. They no longer wanted the bother of raising the girls in their own households, so they simply handed them over to the Temple of the Goddess, paying well for their upkeep. As the girl bore the family’s name, they’d get credit for the sacrifice. It was like owning a racehorse. This practice was a debased version of the high-minded original, but by that time, in Sakiel-Norn, everything was for sale.
   The dedicated girls were shut up inside the temple compound, fed the best of everything to keep them sleek and healthy, and rigorously trained so they would be ready for the great day—able to fulfill their duties with decorum, and without quailing. The ideal sacrifice should be like a dance, was the theory: stately and lyrical, harmonious and graceful. They were not animals, to be crudely butchered; their lives were to be given by them freely. Many believed what they were told: that the welfare of the entire kingdom depended on their selflessness. They spent long hours in prayer, getting into the right frame of mind; they were taught to walk with downcast eyes, and to smile with gentle melancholy, and to sing the songs of the Goddess, which were about absence and silence, about unfulfilled love and unexpressed regret, and wordlessness—songs about the impossibility of singing.
   More time went by. Now only a few people still took the gods seriously, and anyone overly pious or observant was considered a crackpot. The citizens continued to perform the ancient rituals because they had always done so, but such things were not the real business of the city.
   Despite their isolation, some of the girls came to realize they were being murdered as lip service to an outworn concept. Some tried to run away when they saw the knife. Others took to shrieking when they were taken by the hair and bent backwards over the altar, and yet others cursed the King himself, who served as High Priest on these occasions. One had even bitten him. These intermittent displays of panic and fury were resented by the populace, because the most terrible bad luck would follow. Or it might follow, supposing the Goddess to exist. Anyway, such outbursts could spoil the festivities: everyone enjoyed the sacrifices, even the Ygnirods, even the slaves, because they were allowed to take the day off and get drunk.
   Therefore it became the practice to cut out the tongues of the girls three months before they were due to be sacrificed. This was not a mutilation, said the priests, but an improvement—what could be more fitting for the servants of the Goddess of Silence?
   Thus, tongueless, and swollen with words she could never again pronounce, each girl would be led in procession to the sound of solemn music, wrapped in veils and garlanded with flowers, up the winding steps to the city’s ninth door. Nowadays you might say she looked like a pampered society bride.

   She sits up. That’s really uncalled for, she says. You want to get at me. You just love the idea of killing off those poor girls in their bridal veils. I bet they were blondes.
   Not at you, he says. Not as such. Anyway I’m not inventing all of this, it has a firm foundation in history. The Hittites…
   I’m sure, but you’re licking your lips over it all the same. You’re vengeful—no, you’re jealous, though God knows why. I don’t care about the Hittites, and history and all of that—it’s just an excuse.
   Hold on a minute. You agreed to the sacrificial virgins, you put them on the menu. I’m only following orders. What’s your objection—the wardrobe? Too much tulle?
   Let’s not fight, she says. She feels she’s about to cry, clenches her hands to stop.
   I didn’t mean to upset you. Come on now.
   She pushes away his arm. You did mean to upset me. You like to know you can.
   I thought it amused you. Listening to me perform. Juggling the adjectives. Playing the zany for you.
   She tugs her skirt down, tucks in her blouse. Dead girls in bridal veils, why would that amuse me? With their tongues cut out. You must think I’m a brute.
   I’ll take it back. I’ll change it. I’ll rewrite history for you. How’s that?
   You can’t, she says. The word has gone forth. You can’t cancel half a line of it. I’m leaving. She’s on her knees now, ready to stand up.
   There’s lots of time. Lie down. He takes hold of her wrist.
   No. Let go. Look where the sun is. They’ll be coming back. I could be in trouble, though I guess for you it’s not trouble at all, that kind: it doesn’t count. You don’t care—all you want is a quick, a quick—
   Come on, spit it out.
   You know what I mean, she says in a tired voice.
   It’s not true. I’m sorry. I’m the brute, I got carried away. Anyway it’s only a story.
   She rests her forehead against her knees. After a minute she says, What am I going to do? After—when you’re not here any more?
   You’ll get over it, he says. You’ll live. Here, I’ll brush you off.
   It doesn’t come off, not with just brushing.
   Let’s do up your buttons, he says. Don’t be sad.
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The Colonel Henry Parkman High School Home and School and Alumni Association Bulletin, Port Ticonderoga, May 1998

Laura Chase Memorial Prize to be Presented
By Myra Sturgess, Vice-President, Alumni Association


   Colonel Henry Parkman High has been endowed with a valuable new prize by the generous bequest of the late Mrs. Winifred Griffen Prior of Toronto, whose noted brother Richard E. Griffen, will be remembered, as he often vacationed here in Port Ticonderoga and enjoyed sailing on our river. The prize is the Laura Chase Memorial Prize in Creative Writing, of a value of two hundred dollars, to be awarded to a student in the graduating year for the best short story, to be judged by three Alumni Association members, with literary and also moral values considered. Our Principal Mr. Eph Evans, states: “We are grateful to Mrs. Prior for remembering us along with her many other benefactions.”
   Named in honour of famed local authoress Laura Chase, the first Prize will be presented at Graduation in June. Her sister Mrs. Iris Griffen of the Chase family which contributed so much to our town in earlier days, has graciously consented to present the Prize to the lucky winner, and there’s a few weeks left to go, so tell your kids to roll up their creativity sleeves and get cracking!
   The Alumni Association will sponsor a Tea in the Gymnasium immediately after the Graduation, tickets available from Myra Sturgess at the Gingerbread House, all proceeds towards new football uniforms which are certainly needed! Donation of baked goods welcome, with nut ingredients clearly marked please.
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Three

The presentation

   This morning I woke with a feeling of dread. I was unable at first to place it, but then I remembered. Today was the day of the ceremony.
   The sun was up, the room already too warm. Light filtered in through the net curtains, hanging suspended in the air, sediment in a pond. My head felt like a sack of pulp. Still in my nightgown, damp from some fright I’d pushed aside like foliage, I pulled myself up and out of my tangled bed, then forced myself through the usual dawn rituals—the ceremonies we perform to make ourselves look sane and acceptable to other people. The hair must be smoothed down after whatever apparitions have made it stand on end during the night, the expression of staring disbelief washed from the eyes. The teeth brushed, such as they are. God knows what bones I’d been gnawing in my sleep.
   Then I stepped into the shower, holding on to the grip bar Myra’s bullied me into, careful not to drop the soap: I’m apprehensive of slipping. Still, the body must be hosed down, to get the smell of nocturnal darkness off the skin. I suspect myself of having an odour I myself can no longer detect—a stink of stale flesh and clouded, aging pee.
   Dried, lotioned and powdered, sprayed like mildew, I was in some sense of the word restored. Only there was still the sensation of weightlessness, or rather of being about to step off a cliff. Each time I put a foot out I set it down provisionally, as if the floor might give way underneath me. Nothing but surface tension holding me in place.
   Getting my clothes on helped. I am not at my best without scaffolding. (Yet what has become of my real clothes? Surely these shapeless pastels and orthopedic shoes belong on someone else. But they’re mine; worse, they suit me now.)
   Next came the stairs. I have a horror of tumbling down them—of breaking my neck, lying sprawled with undergarments on display, then melting into a festering puddle before anyone thinks of coming to find me. It would be such an ungainly way to die. I tackled each step at a time, hugging the banister; then along the hall to the kitchen, the fingers of my left hand brushing the wall like a cat’s whiskers. (I can still see, mostly. I can still walk. Be thankful for small mercies, Reenie would say. Why should we be? said Laura. Why are they so small? )

   I didn’t want any breakfast. I drank a glass of water, and passed the time in fidgeting. At half past nine Walter came by to collect me. “Hot enough for you?” he said, his standard opening. In winter it’s cold enough. Wet and dry are for spring and fall.
   “How are you today, Walter?” I asked him, as I always do.
   “Keeping out of mischief,” he said, as he always does.
   “That’s the best that can be expected for any of us,” I said. He gave his version of a smile—a thin crack in his face, like mud drying—opened the car door for me, and installed me in the passenger seat. “Big day today, eh?” he said. “Buckle up, or I might get arrested.” He said buckle up as if it was a joke; he’s old enough to remember earlier, more carefree days. He’d have been the kind of youth to drive with one elbow out the window, a hand on his girlfriend’s knee. Astounding to reflect that this girlfriend was in fact Myra.
   He eased the car delicately away from the curb and we moved off in silence. He’s a large man, Walter—square-edged, like a plinth, with a neck that is not so much a neck as an extra shoulder; he exudes a not unpleasant scent of worn leather boots and gasoline. From his checked shirt and baseball cap I gathered he wasn’t planning to attend the graduation ceremony. He doesn’t read books, which makes both of us more comfortable: as far as he’s concerned Laura is my sister and it’s a shame she’s dead, and that’s all.
   I should have married someone like Walter. Good with his hands.
   No: I shouldn’t have married anyone. That would have saved a lot of trouble.
   Walter stopped the car in front of the high school. It’s postwar modern, fifty years old but still new to me: I can’t get used to the flatness, the blandness. It looks like a packing crate. Young people and their parents were rippling over the sidewalk and the lawn and in through the front doors, their clothes in every summer colour. Myra was waiting for us, yoo-hooing from the steps, in a white dress covered with huge red roses. Women with such big bums should not wear large floral prints. There’s something to be said for girdles, not that I’d wish them back. She’d had her hair done, all tight grey cooked-looking curls like an English barrister’s wig.
   “You’re late,” she said to Walter.
   “Nope, I’m not,” said Walter. “If I am, everyone else is early, is all. No reason she should have to sit around cooling her heels.” They’re in the habit of speaking of me in the third person, as if I’m a child or pet.
   Walter handed my arm over into Myra’s custody and we went up the front steps together like a three-legged race. I felt what Myra’s hand must have felt: a brittle radius covered slackly with porridge and string. I should have brought my cane, but I couldn’t see carting it out onto the stage with me. Someone would be bound to trip over it.
   Myra took me backstage and asked me if I’d like to use the Ladies’—she’s good about remembering that—then sat me down in the dressing room. “You just stay put now,” she said. Then she hurried off, bum lolloping, to make sure all was in order.
   The lights around the dressing-room mirror were small round bulbs, as in theatres; they cast a flattering light, but I was not flattered: I looked sick, my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water. Was it fear, or true illness? Certainly I did not feel a hundred percent.
   I found my comb, made a perfunctory stab at the top of my head. Myra keeps threatening to take me to “her girl,” at what she still refers to as the Beauty Parlour—The Hair Port is its official name, with Unisex as an added incentive—but I keep resisting. At least I can still call my hair my own, though it frizzes upwards as if I’ve been electrocuted. Beneath it there are glimpses of scalp, the greyish pink of mice feet. If I ever get caught in a high wind my hair will all blow off like dandelion fluff, leaving only a tiny pockmarked nubbin of bald head.
   Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea—a slab of putty, covered in chocolate sludge—and a plastic screw-top jug of her very own battery-acid coffee. I could neither drink nor eat, but why did God make toilets? I left a few brown crumbs, for authenticity.
   Then Myra bustled in and scooped me up and led me forth, and I was having my hand shaken by the principal, and told how good it was of me to have come; then I was passed on to the vice-principal, the president of the Alumni Association, the head of the English department—a woman in a trouser suit—the representative from the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and finally the local member of Parliament, loath as such are to miss a trick. I hadn’t seen so many polished teeth on display since Richard’s political days.
   Myra accompanied me as far as my chair, then whispered, “I’ll be right in the wings.” The school orchestra struck up with squeaks and flats, and we sang “O Canada!,” the words to which I can never remember because they keep changing them. Nowadays they do some of it in French, which once would have been unheard of. We sat down, having affirmed our collective pride in something we can’t pronounce.
   Then the school chaplain offered a prayer, lecturing God on the many unprecedented challenges that face today’s young people. God must have heard this sort of thing before, he’s probably as bored with it as the rest of us. The others gave voice in turn: end of the twentieth century, toss out the old, ring in the new, citizens of the future, to you from failing hands and so forth. I allowed my mind to drift; I knew enough to know that the only thing expected of me was that I not disgrace myself. I could have been back again beside the podium, or at some interminable dinner, sitting next to Richard, keeping my mouth shut. If asked, which was seldom, I used to say that my hobby was gardening. A half-truth at best, though tedious enough to pass muster.
   Next it was time for the graduates to receive their diplomas. Up they trooped, solemn and radiant, in many sizes, all beautiful as only the young can be beautiful. Even the ugly ones were beautiful, even the surly ones, the fat ones, even the spotty ones. None of them understands this—how beautiful they are. But nevertheless they’re irritating, the young. Their posture is appalling as a rule, and judging from their songs they snivel and wallow, grin and bear it having gone the way of the foxtrot. They don’t understand their own luck.
   They barely glanced at me. To them I must have seemed quaint, but I suppose it’s everyone’s fate to be reduced to quaintness by those younger than themselves. Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious.
   Next came the prizes—Computer Science, Physics, mumble, Business Skills, English Literature, something I didn’t catch. Then the Alumni Association man cleared his throat and gave out with a pious spiel about Winifred Griffen Prior, saint on earth. How everyone fibs when it’s a question of money! I suppose the old bitch pictured the whole thing when she made her bequest, stingy as it is. She knew my presence would be requested; she wanted me writhing in the town’s harsh gaze while her own munificence was lauded. Spend this in remembrance of me. I hated to give her the satisfaction, but I couldn’t shirk it without seeming frightened or guilty, or else indifferent. Worse: forgetful.
   It was Laura’s turn next. The politician took it upon himself to do the honours: tact was called for here. Something was said about Laura’s local origins, her courage, her “dedication to a chosen goal,” whatever that might mean. Nothing about the manner of her death, which everyone in this town believes—despite the verdict at the inquest—was as close to suicide as damn is to swearing. And nothing at all about the book, which most of them surely thought would be best forgotten. Although it isn’t, not here: even after fifty years it retains its aura of brimstone and taboo. Hard to fathom, in my opinion: as carnality goes it’s old hat, the foul language nothing you can’t hear any day on the street corners, the sex as decorous as fan dancers—whimsical almost, like garter belts.
   Then of course it was a different story. What people remember isn’t the book itself, so much as the furor: ministers in church denounced it as obscene, not only here; the public library was forced to remove it from the shelves, the one bookstore in town refused to stock it. There was word of censoring it. People snuck off to Stratford or London or Toronto even, and obtained their copies on the sly, as was the custom then with condoms. Back at home they drew the curtains and read, with disapproval, with relish, with avidity and glee—even the ones who’d never thought of opening a novel before. There’s nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy.
   (There were doubtless a few kind sentiments expressed. I couldn’t get through it—not enough of a story for me. But the poor thing was so young. Maybe she’d have done better with some other book, if she’d not been taken. That would have been the best they could say about it.)
   What did they want from it? Lechery, smut, confirmation of their worst suspicions. But perhaps some of them wanted, despite themselves, to be seduced. Perhaps they were looking for passion; perhaps they delved into this book as into a mysterious parcel—a gift box at the bottom of which, hidden in layers of rustling tissue paper, lay something they’d always longed for but couldn’t ever grasp.
   But also they wanted to finger the real people in it—apart from Laura, that is: her actuality was taken for granted. They wanted real bodies, to fit onto the bodies conjured up for them by words. They wanted real lust. Above all they wanted to know: who was the man? In bed with the young woman, the lovely, dead young woman; in bed with Laura. Some of them thought they knew, of course. There had been gossip. For those who could put two and two together, it all added up. Acted like she was pure as the driven. Butter wouldn’t melt. Just goes to show you can’t tell a book by its cover.
   But Laura had been out of reach by then. I was the one they could get at. The anonymous letters began. Why had I arranged for this piece of filth to be published? And in New York at that—the Great Sodom. Such muck! Had I no shame? I’d allowed my family—so well respected!—to be dishonoured, and along with them the entire town. Laura had never been right in the head, everyone always suspected that, and the book proved it. I should have protected her memory. I should have put a match to the manuscript. Looking at the blur of heads, down there in the audience—the older heads—I could imagine a miasma of old spite, old envy, old condemnation, rising up from them as if from a cooling swamp.
   As for the book itself, it remained unmentionable—pushed back out of sight, as if it were some shoddy, disgraceful relative. Such a thin book, so helpless. The uninvited guest at this odd feast, it fluttered at the edges of the stage like an ineffectual moth.
   While I was daydreaming my arm was grasped, I was hoisted up, the cheque in its gold-ribboned envelope was thrust into my hand. The winner was announced. I didn’t catch her name.
   She walked towards me, heels clicking across the stage. She was tall; they’re all very tall these days, young girls, it must be something in the food. She had on a black dress, severe among the summer colours; there were silver threads in it, or beading—some sort of glitter. Her hair was long and dark. An oval face, a mouth done in cerise lipstick; a slight frown, focused, intent. Skin with a pale-yellow or brown undertint—could she be Indian, or Arabian, or Chinese? Even in Port Ticonderoga such a thing was possible: everyone is everywhere nowadays.
   My heart lurched: yearning ran through me like a cramp. Perhaps my granddaughter—perhaps Sabrina looks like that now, I thought. Perhaps, perhaps not, how would I know? I might not even recognize her. She’s been kept away from me so long; she’s kept away. What can be done?
   “Mrs. Griffen,” hissed the politician.
   I teetered, regained my balance. Now what had I been intending to say?
   “My sister Laura would be so pleased,” I gasped into the microphone. My voice was reedy; I thought I might faint. “She liked to help people.” This was true, I’d vowed not to say anything untrue. “She was so fond of reading and books.” Also true, up to a point. “She would have wished you the very best for your future.” True as well.
   I managed to hand over the envelope; the girl had to bend down. I whispered into her ear, or meant to whisper—Bless you. Be careful. Anyone intending to meddle with words needs such blessing, such warning. Had I actually spoken, or had I simply opened and closed my mouth like a fish?
   She smiled, and tiny brilliant sequins flashed and sparkled all over her face and hair. It was a trick of my eyes, and of the stage lights, which were too bright. I should have worn my tinted glasses. I stood there blinking. Then she did something unexpected: she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Through her lips I could feel the texture of my own skin: soft as kid-glove leather, crinkled, powdery, ancient.
   She in her turn whispered something, but I couldn’t quite catch it. Was it a simple thank you, or some other message in—could it be?—a foreign language?
   She turned away. The light streaming out from her was so dazzling I had to shut my eyes. I hadn’t heard, I couldn’t see. Darkness moved closer. Applause battered my ears like beating wings. I staggered and almost fell.
   Some alert functionary caught my arm and slotted me back into my chair. Back into obscurity. Back into the long shadow cast by Laura. Out of harm’s way.
   But the old wound has split open, the invisible blood pours forth. Soon I’ll be emptied.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The silver box

   The orange tulips are corning out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me. Sometimes I poke around in the debris of the back garden, clearing away dry stalks and fallen leaves, but that’s about as far as I go. I can’t kneel very well any more, I can’t shove my hands into the dirt.
   Yesterday I went to the doctor, to see about these dizzy spells. He told me that I have developed what used to be called a heart, as if healthy people didn’t have one. It seems I will not after all keep on living forever, merely getting smaller and greyer and dustier, like the Sibyl in her bottle. Having long ago whispered I want to die, I now realize that this wish will indeed be fulfilled, and sooner rather than later. No matter that I’ve changed my mind about it.
   I’ve wrapped myself in a shawl in order to sit outside, sheltered by the overhang of the back porch, at a scarred wooden table I had Walter bring in from the garage. It held the usual things, leftovers from previous owners: a collection of dried-out paint cans, a stack of asphalt shingles, a jar half-filled with rusty nails, a coil of picture wire. Mummified sparrows, mouse nests of mattress stuffing. Walter washed it off with Javex, but it still smells of mice.
   Laid out in front of me are a cup of tea, an apple cut into quarters, and a pad of paper with blue lines on it, like men’s pyjamas once. I’ve bought a new pen as well, a cheap one, black plastic with a rolling tip. I remember my first fountain pen, how sleek it felt, how blue the ink made my fingers. It was Bakelite, with silver trim. The year was 1929. I was thirteen. Laura borrowed this pen—without asking, as she borrowed everything—then broke it, effortlessly. I forgave her, of course. I always did; I had to, because there were only the two of us. The two of us on our thorn-encircled island, waiting for rescue; and, on the mainland, everyone else.

   For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical. For some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such ambition, or no such hope.
   Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
   I’m not as swift as I was. My fingers are stiff and clumsy, the pen wavers and rambles, it takes me a long time to form the words. And yet I persist, hunched over as if sewing by moonlight.

   When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more. Older, then. Sometimes I see an older woman who might look like the grandmother I never knew, or like my own mother, if she’d managed to reach this age. But sometimes I see instead the young girl’s face I once spent so much time rearranging and deploring, drowned and floating just beneath my present face, which seems—especially in the afternoons, with the light on a slant—so loose and transparent I could peel it off like a stocking.
   The doctor says I need to walk—every day, he says, for my heart. I would rather not. It isn’t the idea of the walking that bothers me, it’s the going out: I feel too much on show. Do I imagine it, the staring, the whispering? Perhaps, perhaps not. I am after all a local fixture, like a brick-strewn vacant lot where some important building used to stand.
   The temptation is to stay inside; to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and weeds grow up, to allow the doors to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and let my hair lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout into claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet. But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism. I prefer to be upright and contained—an urn in daylight.
   Perhaps I should not have moved back here to live. But by that time I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. As Reenie used to say, Better the devil you know.

   Today I made the effort. I went out, I walked. I walked as far as the cemetery: one needs a goal for these otherwise witless excursions. I wore my broad-brimmed straw hat to cut the glare, and my tinted glasses, and took my cane to feel for the curbs. Also a plastic shopping bag.
   I went along Erie Street, past a drycleaner’s, a portrait photographer’s, the few other main-street stores that have managed to survive the drainage caused by the malls on the edge of town. Then Betty’s Luncheonette, which is under new ownership again: sooner or later its proprietors get fed up, or die, or move to Florida. Betty’s now has a patio garden, where the tourists can sit in the sun and fry to a crisp; it’s in the back, that little square of cracked cement where they used to keep the garbage cans. They offer tortellini and cappuccino, boldly proclaimed in the window as if everyone in town just naturally knows what they are. Well, they do by now; they’ve had a try, if only to acquire sneering rights. I don’t need that fluff on my coffee. Looks like shaving cream. One swallow and you’re foaming at the mouth.
   Chicken pot pies were the specialty once, but they’re long gone. There are hamburgers, but Myra says to avoid them. She says they use pre-frozen patties made of meat dust. Meat dust, she says, is what is scraped up off the floor after they’ve cut up frozen cows with an electric saw. She reads a lot of magazines, at the hairdresser’s.
   The cemetery has a wrought-iron gate, with an intricate scrollwork archway over it, and an inscription: Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I Will Fear No Evil, For Thou Art With Me. Yes, it does feel deceptively safer with two; but Thou is a slippery character. Every Thou I’ve known has had a way of going missing. They skip town, or turn perfidious, or else they drop like flies, and then where are you?
   Right about here.

   The Chase family monument is hard to miss: it’s taller than everything else. There are two angels, white marble, Victorian, sentimental but quite well done as such things go, on a large stone cube with scrolled corners. The first angel is standing, her head bowed to the side in an attitude of mourning, one hand placed tenderly on the shoulder of the second one. The second kneels, leaning against the other’s thigh, gazing straight ahead, cradling a sheaf of lilies. Their bodies are decorous, the contours shrouded in folds of softly draped, impenetrable mineral, but you can tell they’re female. Acid rain is taking its toll of them: their once-keen eyes are blurred now, softened and porous, as if they have cataracts. But perhaps that’s my own vision going.
   Laura and I used to visit here. We were brought by Reenie, who thought the visiting of family graves was somehow good for children, and later we came by ourselves: it was a pious and therefore acceptable excuse for escape. When she was little, Laura used to say the angels were meant to be us, the two of us. I told her this couldn’t be true, because the angels were put there by our grandmother before we were born. But Laura never paid much attention to that kind of reasoning. She was more interested in forms—in what things were in themselves, not what they weren’t. She wanted essences.
   Over the years I’ve made a practice of coming here at least twice a year, to tidy up, if for no other reason. Once I drove, but no longer: my eyes are too bad for that. I bent over painfully and gathered up the withered flowers that had accumulated there, left by Laura’s anonymous admirers, and stuffed them into my plastic shopping bag. There are fewer of these tributes than there used to be, though still more than enough. Today some were quite fresh. Once in a while I’ve found sticks of incense, and candles too, as if Laura were being invoked.
   After I’d dealt with the bouquets I walked around the monument, reading through the roll call of defunct Chases engraved on the sides of the cube. Benjamin Chase and his Beloved Wife Adelia; Norval Chase and his Beloved Wife Liliana. Edgar and Percival, They Shall Not Grow Old As We Who Are Left Grow Old.
   And Laura, as much as she is anywhere. Her essence.
   Meat dust.

   There was a picture of her in the local paper last week, along with a write-up about the prize—the standard picture, the one from the book jacket, the only one that ever got printed because it’s the only one I gave them. It’s a studio portrait, the upper body turned away from the photographer, then the head turned back to give a graceful curve to the neck. A little more, now look up, towards me, that’s my girl, now let’s see that smile. Her long hair is blonde, as mine was then—pale, white almost, as if the red undertones had been washed away—the iron, the copper, all the hard metals. A straight nose; a heart-shaped face; large, luminous, guileless eyes; the eyebrows arched, with a perplexed upwards turning at the inner edges. A tinge of stubbornness in the jaw, but you wouldn’t see it unless you knew. No makeup to speak of, which gives the face an oddly naked appearance: when you look at the mouth, you’re aware you’re looking at flesh.
   Pretty; beautiful even; touchingly untouched. An advertisement for soap, all natural ingredients. The face looks deaf: it has that vacant, posed imperviousness of all well-brought-up girls of the time. A tabula rasa, not waiting to write, but to be written on.
   It’s only the book that makes her memorable now.

   Laura came back in a small silver-coloured box, like a cigarette box. I knew what the town had to say about that, as much as if I’d been eavesdropping. Course it’s not really her, just the ashes. You wouldn’t have thought the Chases would be cremators, they never were before, they wouldn’t have stooped to it in their heyday, but it sounds like they might as well just have gone ahead and finished the job off, seeing as she was more or less burnt up already. Still, I guess they felt she should be with family. They’d want her at that big monument thing of theirs with the two angels. Nobody else has two, but that was when the money was burning a hole in their pockets. They liked to show off back then, make a splash; take the lead, you could say. Play the big cheese. They sure did spread it around here once.
   I always hear such things in Reenie’s voice. She was our town interpreter, mine and Laura’s. Who else did we have to fall back on?

   Around behind the monument there’s some empty space. I think of it as a reserved seat—permanently reserved, as Richard used to arrange at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. That’s my spot; that’s where I’ll go to earth.
   Poor Aimee is in Toronto, in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, alongside the Griffens—with Richard and Winifred and their gaudy polished-granite megalith. Winifred saw to that—she staked her claim to Richard and Aimee by barging in right away and ordering their coffins. She who pays the undertaker calls the tune. She’d have barred me from their funerals if she could.
   But Laura was the first of them, so Winifred hadn’t got her body-snatching routine perfected yet. I said, “She’s going home,” and that was that. I scattered the ashes over the ground, but kept the silver box. Lucky I didn’t bury it: some fan would have pinched it by now. They’ll nick anything, those people. A year ago I caught one of them with a jam jar and a trowel, scraping up dirt from the grave.
   I wonder about Sabrina—where she’ll end up. She’s the last of us. I assume she’s still on this earth: I haven’t heard anything different. It remains to be seen which side of the family she’ll choose to be buried with, or whether she’ll put herself off in a corner, away from the lot of us. I wouldn’t blame her.
   The first time she ran away, when she was thirteen, Winifred phoned in a cold rage, accusing me of aiding and abetting, although she didn’t go so far as to say kidnapping. She demanded to know if Sabrina had come to me.
   “I don’t believe I’m obliged to tell you,” I said, to torment her. Fair is fair: most of the chances for tormenting had so far been hers. She used to send my cards and letters and birthday presents for Sabrina back to me, Return to Sender printed on them in her chunky tyrant’s handwriting. “Anyway I’m her grandmother. She can always come to me when she wants to. She’s always welcome.”
   “I need hardly remind you that I am her legal guardian.”
   “If you need hardly remind me, then why are you reminding me?”
   Sabrina didn’t come to me, though. She never did. It’s not hard to guess why. God knows what she’d been told about me. Nothing good.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The Button Factory

   The summer heat has come in earnest, settling down over the town like cream soup. Malarial weather, it would have been once; cholera weather. The trees I walk beneath are wilting umbrellas, the paper is damp under my fingers, the words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth. Just climbing the stairs I sprout a thin moustache of sweat.
   I shouldn’t walk in such heat, it makes my heart beat harder. I notice this with malice. I shouldn’t put my heart to such tests, now that I’ve been informed of its imperfections; yet I take a perverse delight in doing this, as if I am a bully and it is a small whining child whose weaknesses I despise.
   In the evenings there’s been thunder, a distant bumping and stumbling, like God on a sullen binge. I get up to pee, go back to bed, lie twisting in the damp sheets, listening to the monotonous whirring of the fan. Myra says I should get air conditioning, but I don’t want it. Also I can’t afford it. “Who would pay for such a thing?” I say to her. She must believe I have a diamond hidden in my forehead, like the toads in fairy tales.

   The goal for my walk today was The Button Factory, where I intended to have morning coffee. The doctor has warned me about coffee, but he’s only fifty—he goes jogging in shorts, making a spectacle of his hairy legs. He doesn’t know everything, though that would be news to him. If coffee doesn’t kill me, something else will.
   Erie Street was languid with tourists, middle-aged for the most part, poking their noses into the souvenir shops, finicking around in the bookstore, at loose ends before driving off after lunch to the nearby summer theatre festival for a few relaxing hours of treachery, sadism, adultery and murder. Some of them were heading in the same direction I was—to The Button Factory, to see what chintzy curios they might acquire in commemoration of their overnight vacation from the twentieth century. Dust-catchers, Reenie would have called such items. She would have applied the same term to the tourists themselves.
   I walked along in their pastel company, to where Erie Street turns into Mill Street and runs along the Louveteau River. Port Ticonderoga has two rivers, the Jogues and the Louveteau—the names being relics of the French trading post situated once at their juncture, not that we go in for French around these parts: it’s the Jogs and the Lovetow for us. The Louveteau with its swift current was the attraction for the first mills, and then for the electricity plants. The Jogues on the other hand is deep and slow, navigable for thirty miles above Lake Erie. Down it they shipped the limestone that was the town’s first industry, thanks to the huge deposits of it left by the retreating inland seas. (Of the Permian, the Jurassic? I used to know.) Most of the houses in town are made from this limestone, mine included.
   The abandoned quarries are still there on the outskirts, deep squares and oblongs cut down into the rock as if whole buildings had been lifted out of them, leaving the empty shapes of themselves behind. I sometimes picture the entire town rising out of the shallow prehistoric ocean, unfolding like a sea anemone or the fingers of a rubber glove when you blow into it—sprouting jerkily like those brown, grainy films of flowers opening up that used to be shown in movie theatres—when was that?—before the features. Fossil-hunters poke around out there, looking for extinct fish, ancient fronds, scrolls of coral; and if the teenage kids want to carouse, that’s where they do it. They make bonfires, and drink too much and smoke dope, and grope around in one another’s clothing as if they’ve just invented it, and smash their parents’ cars up on the way back to town.
   My own back garden adjoins the Louveteau Gorge, where the river narrows and takes a plunge. The drop is steep enough to cause a mist, and a little awe. On summer weekends the tourists stroll along the cliffside path or stand on the very edge, taking pictures; I can see their innocuous, annoying white canvas hats going by. The cliff is crumbling and dangerous, but the town won’t spend the money for a fence, it being the opinion here, still, that if you do a damn fool thing you deserve whatever consequences. Cardboard cups from the doughnut shop collect in the eddies below, and once in a while there’s a corpse, whether fallen or pushed or jumped is hard to tell, unless of course there’s a note.

   The Button Factory is on the east bank of the Louveteau, a quarter of a mile upriver from the Gorge. For several decades it stood derelict, its windows broken, its roof leaking, an abode of rats and drunks; then it was rescued from demolition by an energetic citizens’ committee, and converted to boutiques. The flower beds have been reconstituted, the exterior sandblasted, the ravages of time and vandalism repaired, though dark wings of soot are still visible around the lower windows, from the fire over sixty years ago.
   The building is brownish-red brick, with the large many-paned windows they once used in factories in order to save on lighting. It’s quite graceful, as factories go: swag decorations, each with a stone rose in the centre, gabled windows, a mansard roof of green-and-purple slate. Beside it is a tidy parking lot. Welcome Button Factory Visitors, says the sign, in old-style circus type; and, in smaller lettering: Overnight Parking Prohibited. And under that, in scrawled, enraged black marker: You are not Fucking God and the Earth is not Your Fucking Driveway. The authentic local touch.
   The front entrance has been widened, a wheelchair ramp installed, the original heavy doors replaced by plate-glass ones: In and Out, Push and Pull, the twentieth century’s bossy quadruplets. Inside there’s music playing, rural-route fiddles, the one-two-three of some sprightly, heartbroken waltz. There’s a skylight, over a central space floored in ersatz cobblestones, with freshly painted green park benches and planters containing a few disgruntled shrubs. The various boutiques are arranged around it: a mall effect.
   The bare brick walls are decorated with giant blow-ups of old photos from the town archives. First there’s a quote from a newspaper—a Montreal newspaper, not ours—with the date, 1899:
   One must not imagine the dark Satanic milk of Olde England. The factories of Port Ticonderoga are situated amid a profusion of greenery brightened with gay flowers, and are soothed by the sound of the rushing currents; they are clean and well-ventilated, and the workers cheerful and efficient. Standing at sunset on the graceful new Jubilee Bridge which curves like a rainbow of wrought-iron lace over the gushing cascades of the Louveteau River, one views an enchanting faeryland as the lights of the Chase button factory wink on, and are reflected in the sparkling waters.
   This wasn’t entirely a lie when it was written. At least for a short time, there was prosperity here, and enough to go around.
   Next comes my grandfather, in frock coat and top hat and white whiskers, waiting with a clutch of similarly glossy dignitaries to welcome the Duke of York during his tour across Canada in 1901. Then my father with a wreath, in front of the War Memorial at its dedication—a tall man, solemn-faced, with a moustache and an eye-patch; up close, a collection of black dots. I back away from him to see if he’ll come into focus—I try to catch his good eye—but he’s not looking at me; he’s looking towards the horizon, with his spine straight and his shoulders back, as if he’s facing a firing squad. Stalwart, you’d say.
   Then a shot of the button factory itself, in 1911, says the caption. Machines with clanking arms like the legs of grasshoppers, and steel cogs and tooth-covered wheels, and stamping pistons going up and down, punching out the shapes; long tables with their rows of workers, bending forward, doing things with their hands. The machines are run by men, in eyeshades and vests, their sleeves rolled up; the workers at the table are women, in upswept hairdos and pinafores. It was the women who counted the buttons and boxed them, or sewed them onto cards with the Chase name printed across them, six or eight or twelve buttons to a card.
   Down at the end of the cobblestoned open space is a bar, The Whole Enchilada, with live music on Saturdays, and beer said to be from local micro-breweries. The decor is wooden tabletops placed on barrels, with early-days pine booths along one side. On the menu, displayed in the window—I’ve never gone inside—are foods I find exotic: patty melts, potato skins, nachos. The fat-drenched staples of the less respectable young, or so I’m told by Myra. She’s got a ringside seat right next door, and if there are any tricks happening in The Whole Enchilada, she never misses them. She says a pimp goes there to eat, also a drug pusher, both in broad daylight. She’s pointed them out to me, with much thrilled whispering. The pimp was wearing a three-piece suit, and looked like a stockbroker. The drug pusher had a grey moustache and a denim outfit, like an old-time union organizer.
   Myra’s shop is The Gingerbread House, Gifts and Collectibles. It’s got that sweet and spicy scent to it—some kind of cinnamon room spray—and it offers many things: jars of jam with cotton-print fabric tops, heart-shaped pillows stuffed with desiccated herbs that smell like hay, clumsily hinged boxes carved by “traditional craftsmen,” quilts purportedly sewn by Mennonites, toilet-cleaning brushes with the heads of smirking ducks. Myra’s idea of city folks’ idea of country life, the life of their pastoral hicktown ancestors—a little bit of history to take home with you. History, as I recall, was never this winsome, and especially not this clean, but the real thing would never sell: most people prefer a past in which nothing smells.
   Myra likes to make presents to me from her stash of treasures. Otherwise put, she dumps items on me that folks won’t buy at the shop. I possess a lopsided twig wreath, an incomplete set of wooden napkin rings with pineapples on them, an obese candle scented with what appears to be kerosene. For my birthday she gave me a pair of oven gloves shaped like lobster claws. I’m sure it was kindly meant.
   Or perhaps she’s softening me up: she’s a Baptist, she’d like me to find Jesus, or vice versa, before it’s too late. That kind of thing doesn’t run in her family: her mother Reenie never went in much for God. There was mutual respect, and if you were in trouble naturally you’d call on him, as with lawyers; but as with lawyers, it would have to be bad trouble. Otherwise it didn’t pay to get too mixed up with him. Certainly she didn’t want him in her kitchen, as she had enough on her hands as it was.
   After some deliberation, I bought a cookie at The Cookie Gremlin—oatmeal and chocolate chip—and a Styrofoam cup of coffee, and sat on one of the park benches, sipping and licking my fingers, resting my feet, listening to the taped music with its lilting, mournful twang.

   It was my Grandfather Benjamin who built the button factory, in the early 1870s. There was a demand for buttons, as for clothing and everything connected with it—the population of the continent was expanding at an enormous rate—and buttons could be made cheaply and sold cheaply, and this (said Reenie) was just the ticket for my grandfather, who’d seen the opportunity and used the brains God gave him.
   His forbears had come up from Pennsylvania in the 1820s to take advantage of cheap land, and of construction opportunities—the town had been burnt out during the War of 1812, and there was considerable rebuilding to be done. These people were something Germanic and sectarian, crossbred with seventh-generation Puritans—an industrious but fervent mix that produced, in addition to the usual collection of virtuous, lumpen farmers, three circuit riders, two inept land speculators, and one petty embezzler—chancers with a visionary streak and one eye on the horizon. In my grandfather this came out as gambling, although the only thing he ever gambled on was himself.
   His father had owned one of the first mills in Port Ticonderoga, a modest grist mill, in the days when everything was run by water. When he’d died, of apoplexy, as it was then called, my grandfather was twenty-six. He inherited the mill, borrowed money, imported the button machinery from the States. The first buttons were made from wood and bone, and the fancier ones from cow horns. These last two materials could be obtained for next to nothing from the several abattoirs in the vicinity, and as for the wood, it lay all round about, clogging up the land, and people were burning it just to get rid of it. With cheap raw materials and cheap labour and an expanding market, how could he have failed to prosper?
   The buttons turned out by my grandfather’s company were not the kinds of buttons I liked best as a girl. No tiny mother-of-pearl ones, no delicate jet, none in white leather for ladies’ gloves. The family buttons were to buttons as rubber overshoes were to footgear—stolid, practical buttons, for overcoats and overalls and work shirts, with something robust and even crude about them. You could picture them on long underwear, holding up the flap at the back, and on the flies of men’s trousers. The things they concealed would have been pendulous, vulnerable, shameful, unavoidable—the category of objects the world needs but scorns.
   It’s hard to see how much glamour would have attached itself to the granddaughters of a man who made such buttons, except for the money. But money or even the rumour of it always casts a dazzling light of sorts, so Laura and I grew up with a certain aura. And in Port Ticonderoga, nobody thought the family buttons were funny or contemptible. Buttons were taken seriously there: too many people’s jobs depended on them for it to have been otherwise.
   Over the years my grandfather bought up other mills and turned them into factories as well. He had a knitting factory for undershirts and combinations, another one for socks, and another one that made small ceramic objects such as ashtrays. He prided himself on the conditions in his factories: he listened to complaints when anyone was brave enough to make them, he regretted injuries when they’d been brought to his notice. He kept up with mechanical improvements, indeed with improvements of all kinds. He was the first factory owner in town to introduce electric lighting. He thought flower beds were good for the workers’ morale—zinnias and snapdragons were his stand-bys, as they were inexpensive and showy and lasted a long time. He declared that conditions for the females in his employ were as safe as those in their own parlours. (He assumed they had parlours. He assumed these parlours were safe. He liked to think well of everybody.) He refused to tolerate drunkenness on the job, or coarse language, or loose behaviour.
   Or this is what is said of him in The Chase Industries: A History, a book my grandfather commissioned in 1903 and had privately printed, in green leather covers, with riot only the title but his own candid, heavy signature embossed on the front in gold. He used to present copies of this otiose chronicle to his business associates, who must have been surprised, though perhaps not. It must have been considered the done thing, because if it hadn’t been, my Grandmother Adelia wouldn’t have allowed him to do it.

   I sat on the park bench, gnawing away at my cookie. It was huge, the size of a cow pat, the way they make them now—tasteless, crumbly, greasy—and I couldn’t seem to make my way through it. It wasn’t the right thing for such warm weather. I was feeling a little dizzy too, which could have been the coffee.
   I set the cup down beside me and my cane clattered off the bench onto the floor. I leant over sideways, but I couldn’t reach it. Then I lost my balance and knocked the coffee over. I could feel it through the cloth of my skirt, lukewarm. There would be a brown patch when I stood up, as if I’d been incontinent. That’s what people would think.
   Why do we always assume at such moments that everyone in the world is staring at us? Usually nobody is. But Myra was. She must have seen me come in; she must have been keeping an eye on me. She hurried out of her shop. “You’re white as a sheet! You look all in,” she said. “Let’s just mop that up! Bless your soul, did you walk all the way over here? You can’t walk back! I better call Walter—he can run you home.”
   “I can manage,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with me.” But I let her do it.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Avilion

   My bones have been aching again, as they often do in humid weather. They ache like history: things long done with, that still reverberate as pain. When the ache is bad enough it keeps me from sleeping. Every night I yearn for sleep, I strive for it; yet it flutters on ahead of me like a sooty curtain. There are sleeping pills, of course, but the doctor has warned me against them.
   Last night, after what seemed hours of damp turmoil, I got up and crept slipperless down the stairs, feeling my way in the faint shine from the street light outside the stairwell window. Once safely arrived at the bottom, I shambled into the kitchen and nosed around in the misty dazzle of the refrigerator. There was nothing much I wanted to eat: the draggled remains of a bunch of celery, a blue-tinged heel of bread, a lemon going soft. An end of cheese, wrapped in greasy paper and hard and translucent as toenails. I’ve fallen into the habits of the solitary; my meals are snatched and random. Furtive snacks, furtive treats and picnics. I made do with some peanut butter, scooped directly from the jar with a forefinger: why dirty a spoon?
   Standing there with the jar in one hand and my finger in my mouth, I had the feeling that someone was about to walk into the room—some other woman, the unseen, valid owner—and ask me what in hell I was doing in her kitchen. I’ve had it before, the sense that even in the course of my most legitimate and daily actions—peeling a banana, brushing my teeth—I am trespassing.
   At night the house was more than ever like a stranger’s. I wandered through the front rooms, the dining room, the parlour, hand on the wall for balance. My various possessions were floating in their own pools of shadow, detached from me, denying my ownership of them. I looked them over with a burglar’s eye, deciding what might be worth the risk of stealing, what on the other hand I would leave behind. Robbers would take the obvious things—the silver teapot that was my grandmother’s, perhaps the hand-painted china. The remaining monogrammed spoons. The television set. Nothing I really want.
   All of it will have to be gone through, disposed of by someone or other, when I die. Myra will corner the job, no doubt; she thinks she has inherited me from Reenie. She’ll enjoy playing the trusted family retainer. I don’t envy her: any life is a rubbish dump even while it’s being lived, and more so afterwards. But if a rubbish dump, a surprisingly small one; when you’ve cleared up after the dead, you know how few green plastic garbage bags you yourself are likely to take up in your turn.
   The nutcracker shaped like an alligator, the lone mother-of pearl cuff link, the tortoiseshell comb with missing teeth. The broken silver lighter, the saucerless cup, the cruet stand minus the vinegar. The scattered bones of home, the rags, the relics. Shards washed ashore after shipwreck.

   Today Myra persuaded me to buy an electric fan—one on a tall stand, better than the creaky little thing I’ve been relying on. The sort she had in mind was on sale at the new mall across the Jogues River bridge. She would drive me there: she was going anyway, it would be no trouble. It’s dispiriting, the way she invents pretexts.
   Our route took us past Avilion, or what was once Avilion, now so sadly transformed. Valhalla, it is now. What bureaucratic moron decided this was a suitable name for an old-age home? As I recall, Valhalla was where you went after you were dead, not immediately before. But perhaps some point was intended.
   The location is prime—the east bank of the Louveteau River, at the confluence with the Jogues—thus combining a romantic view of the Gorge with a safe mooring for sailboats. The house is large but it looks crowded now, shouldered aside by the flimsy bungalows that went up on the grounds after the war. Three elderly women were sitting on the front porch, one in a wheelchair, furtively smoking, like naughty adolescents in the washroom. One of these days they’ll burn the place down for sure.
   I haven’t been back inside Avilion since they converted it; it reeks no doubt of baby powder and sour urine and day-old boiled potatoes. I’d rather remember it the way it was, even at the time I knew it, when shabbiness was already setting in—the cool, spacious halls, the polished expanse of the kitchen, the Sevres bowl filled with dried petals on the small round cherrywood table in the front hall. Upstairs, in Laura’s room, there’s a chip out of the mantelpiece, from where she dropped a firedog; so typical. I’m the only person who knows this, any more. Considering her appearance—her lucent skin, her look of pliability, her long ballerina’s neck—people expected her to be graceful.
   Avilion is not the standard-issue limestone. Its planners wanted something more unusual, and so it is constructed of rounded river cobblestones all cemented together. From a distance the effect is warty, like the skin of a dinosaur or the wishing wells in picture books. Ambition’s mausoleum, I think of it now.
   It isn’t a particularly elegant house, but it was once thought imposing in its way—a merchant’s palace, with a curved driveway leading to it, a stumpy Gothic turret, and a wide semi-circular spooled verandah overlooking the two rivers, where tea was served to ladies in flowered hats during the languid summer afternoons at the century’s turn. String quartets were once stationed there for garden parties; my grandmother and her friends used it as a stage, for amateur theatricals, at dusk, with torches set around; Laura and I used to hide under it. It’s begun to sag, that verandah; it needs a paint job.
   Once there was a gazebo, and a walled kitchen garden, and several plots of ornamentals, and a lily pond with goldfish in it, and a steam-heated glass conservatory, demolished now, that grew ferns and fuschias and the occasional spindly lemon and sour orange. There was a billiards room, and a drawing room and a morning room, and a library with a marble Medusa over the fireplace—the nineteenth-century type of Medusa, with a lovely impervious gaze, the snakes writhing up out of her head like anguished thoughts. The mantelpiece was French: a different one had been ordered, something with Dionysus and vines, but the Medusa came instead, and France was a long way to send it back, and so they used that one.
   There was a vast dim dining room with William Morris wallpaper, the Strawberry Thief design, and a chandelier entwined with bronze water-lilies, and three high stained-glass windows, shipped in from England, showing episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult (the proffering of the love potion, in a ruby-red cup; the lovers, Tristan on one knee, Iseult yearning over him with her yellow hair cascading—hard to render in glass, a little too much like a melting broom; Iseult alone, dejected, in purple draperies, a harp nearby).
   The planning and decoration of this house were supervised by my Grandmother Adelia. She died before I was born, but from what I’ve heard she was as smooth as silk and as cool as a cucumber, but with a will like a bone saw. Also she went in for Culture, which gave her a certain moral authority. It wouldn’t now; but people believed, then, that Culture could make you better—a better person. They believed it could uplift you, or the women believed it. They hadn’t yet seen Hitler at the opera house.
   Adelia’s maiden name was Montfort. She was from an established family, or what passed for it in Canada—second-generation Montreal English crossed with Huguenot French. These Montforts had been prosperous once—they’d made a bundle on railroads—but through risky speculations and inertia they were already halfway down the slippery slope. So when time had begun to run out on Adelia with no really acceptable husband in sight, she’d married money—crude money, button money. She was expected to refine this money, like oil.
   (She wasn’t married, she was married off, said Reenie, rolling out the gingersnaps. The family arranged it. That’s what was done in such families, and who’s to say it was any worse or better than choosing for yourself? In any case, Adelia Montfort did her duty, and lucky to have the chance, as she was getting long in the tooth by then—she must have been twenty-three, which was counted over the hill in those days.)
   I still have a portrait of my grandparents; it’s set in a silver frame, with convolvulus blossoms, and was taken soon after their wedding. In the background are a fringed velvet curtain and two ferns on stands. Grandmother Adelia reclines on a chaise, a heavy-lidded, handsome woman, in many draperies and a long double string of pearls and a plunging, lace-bordered neckline, her white forearms boneless as rolled chicken. Grandfather Benjamin sits behind her in formal kit, substantial but embarrassed, as if he’s been tarted up for the occasion. They both look corseted.
   When I was the age for it—thirteen, fourteen—I used to romanticize Adelia. I would gaze out of my window at night, over the lawns and the moon-silvered beds of ornamentals, and see her trailing wistfully through the grounds in a white lace tea gown. I gave her a languorous, world-weary, faintly mocking smile. Soon I added a lover. She would meet this lover outside the conservatory, which by that time was neglected—my father had no interest in steam-heated orange trees—but I restored it in my mind, and supplied it with hothouse flowers. Orchids, I thought, or camellias. (I didn’t know what a camellia was, but I’d read about them.) My grandmother and the lover would disappear inside, and do what? I wasn’t sure.
   In reality the chances of Adelia having had a lover were nil. The town was too small, its morals were too provincial, she had too far to fall. She wasn’t a fool. Also she had no money of her own.
   As hostess and household manager, Adelia did well by Benjamin Chase. She prided herself on her taste, and my grandfather deferred to her in this because her taste was one of the things he’d married her for. He was forty by then; he’d worked hard at making his fortune, and now he intended to get his money’s worth, which meant being patronized by his new bride about his wardrobe and bullied about his table manners. In his own way he also wanted Culture, or at least the concrete evidence of it. He wanted the right china.
   He got that, and the twelve-course dinners that went along with it: celery and salted nuts first, chocolates at the end. Consommé, rissoles, timbales, the fish, the roast, the cheese, the fruit, hothouse grapes draped over the etched-glass epergne. Railway-hotel food, I think of it now; ocean-liner food. Prime ministers came to Port Ticonderoga—by that time the town had several prominent manufacturers, whose support for political parties was valued—and Avilion was where they stayed. There were photographs of Grandfather Benjamin with three prime ministers in turn, framed in gold and hung in the library—Sir John Sparrow Thompson, Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Sir Charles Tupper. They must have preferred the food there to anything else on offer.
   Adelia’s task would have been to design and order these dinners, then to avoid being seen to devour them. Custom would have dictated that she only pick at her food while in company: chewing and swallowing were such blatantly carnal activities. I expect she had a tray sent up to her room, afterwards. Ate with ten fingers.

   Avilion was completed in 1889, and christened by Adelia. She took the name from Tennyson:
   The island-valley of Avilion;
   Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
   Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
   Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard lawns
   And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,…
   She had this quotation printed on the left-hand inner side of her Christmas cards. (Tennyson was somewhat out of date, by English standards—Oscar Wilde was in the ascendant then, at least among the younger set—but then, everything in Port Ticonderoga was somewhat out of date.)
   People—people in town—must have laughed at her for this quotation: even those with social pretensions referred to her as Her Ladyship or the Duchess, though they were wounded if left off her invitation lists. About her Christmas cards they must have said, Well, she’s out of luck about the hail and snow. Maybe she’ll have a word with God about that. Or perhaps, down at the factories: Seen any of them bowery hollows around here, anywheres but down the front of her dress? I know their style and I doubt that it’s changed a lot.
   Adelia was showing off with her Christmas card, but I believe there was more to it. Avilion was where King Arthur went to die. Surely Adelia’s choice of name signifies how hopelessly in exile she considered herself to be: she might be able to call into being by sheer force of will some shoddy facsimile of a happy isle, but it would never be the real thing. She wanted a salon; she wanted artistic people, poets and composers and scientific thinkers and the like, as she had seen while visiting her English third cousins, when her family still had money. A golden life, with wide lawns.
   But such people were not to be found in Port Ticonderoga, and Benjamin refused to travel. He needed to be near his factories, he said. Most likely he didn’t want to be dragged into a crowd that would sneer at him for his button manufacturing, and where there might be unknown pieces of cutlery lying in wait, and where Adelia would feel ashamed because of him.
   Adelia declined to travel without him, to Europe or anywhere else. It might have been too tempting—not to come back. To drift away, shedding money gradually like a deflating blimp, a prey to cads and delectable bounders, sinking down into the unmentionable. With a neckline like hers, she would have been susceptible.
   Among other things, Adelia went in for sculpture. There were two stone sphinxes flanking the conservatory—Laura and I used to climb up on their backs—and a capering faun leering from behind a stone bench, with pointed ears and a huge grape leaf scrolled across his private parts like a badge of office; and seated beside the lily pond there was a nymph, a modest girl with small adolescent breasts and a rope of marble hair over one shoulder, one foot dipping tentatively into the water. We used to eat apples beside her, and watch the goldfish nibbling at her toes.
   (These pieces of statuary were said to be “authentic,” but authentic what? And how had Adelia come by them? I suspect a chain of pilfering—some shady European go-between picking them up for a song, forging their provenance, then fobbing them off long-distance on Adelia and pocketing the difference, judging correctly that a rich American—for so he would have tagged her—wouldn’t cotton on.)
   Adelia designed the family graveyard monument as well, with its two angels. She wanted my grandfather to dig up his forbears and have them relocated there, in order to give the impression of a dynasty, but he never got around to it. As it turned out, she herself was the first to be buried there.
   Did Grandfather Benjamin breathe a sigh of relief when Adelia was gone? He may have grown tired of knowing he could never measure up to her exacting standards, though it’s clear he admired her to the point of awe. Nothing about Avilion was to be changed, for instance: no picture in it moved, none of its furniture replaced. Perhaps he considered the house itself her true monument.
   And so Laura and I were brought up by her. We grew up inside her house; that is to say, inside her conception of herself. And inside her conception of who we ought to be, but weren’t. As she was dead by then, we couldn’t argue.

   My father was the eldest of three sons, each of whom was given Adelia’s idea of a high-toned name: Norval and Edgar and Percival, Arthurian revival with a hint of Wagner. I suppose they should have been thankful they weren’t called Uther or Sigmund or Ulric. Grandfather Benjamin doted on his sons, and wanted them to learn the button business, but Adelia had loftier aims. She packed them off to Trinity College School in Port Hope, where Benjamin and his machinery couldn’t coarsen them. She appreciated the uses of Benjamin’s wealth, but preferred to gloss over the sources of it.
   The sons came home for the summer holidays. At boarding school and then at university they’d learned a genial contempt for their father, who couldn’t read Latin, not even badly, as they did. They would talk about people he didn’t know, sing songs he’d never heard of, tell jokes he couldn’t understand. They’d go sailing by moonlight in his little yacht, the Water Nixie, named by Adelia—another of her wistful Gothicisms. They’d play the mandolin (Edgar) and banjo (Percival), and furtively drink beer, and foul up the tackle, and leave it for him to unscramble. They’d drive around in one of his two new motor cars, even though the roads around town were so bad half the year—snow, then mud, then dust—that there wasn’t much of anywhere to drive. There were rumours of loose girls, at least for the two younger boys, and of money changing hands—well, it was only decent to pay these ladies off so they could get themselves fixed up, and who wanted a lot of unauthorized Chase babies crawling around?—but they were not girls from our town, and so it was not held against the sons; rather the reverse, among men at least. People laughed at them a little, but not too much: they were said to be solid enough, and to have the common touch. Edgar and Percival were known as Eddie and Percy, though my father, being shyer and more dignified, was always Norval. They were pleasant-looking boys, a little wild, as boys were expected to be. What did “wild” mean, exactly?
   “They were rascals,” Reenie told me, “but they were never scoundrels.”
   “What’s the difference?” I asked.
   She sighed. “I only hope you’ll never find out,” she said.

   Adelia died in 1913, of cancer—an unnamed and therefore most likely gynecological variety. During the last month of Adelia’s illness, Reenie’s mother was brought in as extra help in the kitchen, and Reenie along with her; she was thirteen by then, and the whole thing made a deep impression on her. “The pain was so bad they’d have to give her morphine, every four hours, they had the nurses around the clock. But she wouldn’t stay in bed, she’d bite the bullet, she was always up and beautifully dressed as usual, even though you could tell she was half out of her mind. I used to see her walking around the grounds, in her pale colours and a big hat with a veil. She had lovely posture and more backbone than most men, that one. At the end they had to tie her into her bed, for her own good. Your grandfather was heartbroken, you could see it took the starch right out of him.” As time went on and I became harder to impress, Reenie added stifled screams and moans and deathbed vows to this story, though I was never sure of her intent. Was she telling me that I too should display such fortitude—such defiance of pain, such bullet-biting—or was she merely revelling in the harrowing details? Both, no doubt.
   By the time Adelia died, the three boys were mostly grown up. Did they miss their mother, did they mourn her? Of course they did. How could they fail to be grateful for her dedication to them? Still, she’d kept them on a tight leash, or as tight a one as she could manage. There must have been some loosening of the ties and collars after she’d been properly dug under.
   None of the three sons wanted to go into buttons, for which they had inherited their mother’s disdain, though they had not also inherited her realism. They knew money didn’t grow on trees, but they had few bright ideas about where it did grow instead. Norval—my father—thought he might go into law and then eventually take up politics, as he had plans for improving the country. The other two wanted to travel: once Percy had finished college, they intended to make a prospecting expedition to South America, in search of gold. The open road beckoned.
   Who then was to take charge of the Chase industries? Would there be no Chase and Sons? If not, why had Benjamin worked his fingers to the bone? By this time he’d convinced himself he’d done it for some reason apart from his own ambitions, his own desires—some noble end. He’d built up a legacy, he wanted to pass it on, from generation to generation.
   This must have been the reproachful undertone of more than one discussion, around the dinner table, over the port. But the boys dug in their heels. You can’t force a young man to devote his life to button-making if he doesn’t want to. They did not set out to disappoint their father, not on purpose, but neither did they wish to shoulder the lumpy, enervating burden of the mundane.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
The trousseau

   The new fan has now been purchased. The parts of it came in a large cardboard box, and were assembled by Walter, who carted his toolbox over and screwed it all together. When he’d finished, he said, “That should fix her.”
   Boats are female for Walter, as are busted car engines and broken lamps and radios—items of any kind that can be fiddled with by men adroit with gadgetry, and restored to a condition as good as new. Why do I find this reassuring? Perhaps I believe, in some childish, faith-filled corner of myself, that Walter might yet take out his pliers and his ratchet set and do the same for me.
   The tall fan is installed in the bedroom. I’ve hauled the old one downstairs to the porch, where it’s aimed at the back of my neck. The sensation is pleasant but unnerving, as if a hand of cool air lies gently on my shoulder. Thus aerated, I sit at my wooden table, scratching away with my pen. No, not scratching—pens no longer scratch. The words roll smoothly and soundlessly enough across the page; it’s getting them to flow down the arm, it’s squeezing them out through the fingers, that is so difficult.
   It’s almost dusk now. There’s no wind; the sound of the rapids washing up through the garden is like one long breath. The blue flowers blend into the air, the red ones are black, the white ones shine, phosphorescent. The tulips have shed their petals, leaving the pistils bare—black, snout-like, sexual. The peonies are almost finished, bedraggled and limp as damp tissue, but the lilies have come out; also the phlox. The last of the mock oranges have dropped their blossoms, leaving the grass strewn with white confetti.

   In July of 1914, my mother married my father. This called for an explanation, I felt, considering everything.
   My best hope was Reenie. When I was at the age to take an interest in such things—ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen—I used to sit at the kitchen table and pick her like a lock.
   She’d been less than seventeen when she’d come to Avilion full-time, from a row house on the southeast bank of the Jogues, where the factory workers lived. She said she was Scotch and Irish, not the Catholic Irish, of course, meaning her grandmothers were. She’d started out as a nursemaid for me, but as a result of turnovers and attrition she was now our mainstay. How old was she? None of your beeswax. Old enough to know better. And that’s enough of that. If prodded about her own life, she would clam up. I keep myself to myself, she’d say. How prudent that seemed to me once. How miserly, now.
   But she knew the family histories, or at least something about them. What she would tell me varied in relation to my age, and also in relation to how distracted she was at the time. Nevertheless, in this way I collected enough fragments of the past to make a reconstruction of it, which must have borne as much relation to the real thing as a mosaic portrait would to the original. I didn’t want realism anyway: I wanted things to be highly coloured, simple in outline, without ambiguity, which is what most children want when it comes to the stories of their parents. They want a postcard.
   My father had proposed (said Reenie) at a skating party. There was an inlet—an old mill pond—upstream from the falls, where the water moved more slowly. When the winters were cold enough, a sheet of ice would form there that was thick enough to skate on. Here the young peoples’ church group would hold its skating parties, which were not called parties but outings.
   My mother was a Methodist, but my father was Anglican: thus my mother was below my father’s level socially, as such things were accounted then. (If she’d lived, my Grandmother Adelia would never have allowed the marriage, or so I decided later. My mother would have been too far down the ladder for her—also too prudish, too earnest, too provincial. Adelia would have dragged my father off to Montreal—hooked him up to a debutante, at the very least. Someone with better clothes.)
   My mother had been young, only eighteen, but she was not a silly, flighty girl, said Reenie. She’d been teaching school; you could be a teacher then when you were under twenty. She didn’t have to teach: her father was the senior lawyer for Chase Industries, and they were “comfortably off.” But, like her own mother, who’d died when she was nine, my mother took her religion seriously. She believed you should help those less fortunate than yourself. She’d taken up teaching the poor as a sort of missionary work, said Reenie admiringly. (Reenie often admired acts of my mother’s that she would have thought it stupid to perform herself. As for the poor, she’d grown up among them and considered them feckless. You could teach them till you were blue in the face, but with most you’d just be beating your head against a brick wall, she’d say. But your mother, bless her good heart, she could never see it. )
   There’s a snapshot of my mother at the Normal School, in London, Ontario, taken with two other girls; all three are standing on the front steps of their boarding house, laughing, their arms entwined. The winter snow lies heaped to either side; icicles drip from the roof. My mother is wearing a sealskin coat; from underneath her hat the ends of her fine hair crackle. She must already have acquired the pince-nez that preceded the owlish glasses I remember—she was near-sighted early—but in this picture she doesn’t have them on. One of her feet in its fur-topped boot is visible, the ankle turned coquettishly. She looks courageous, dashing even, like a boyish buccaneer.
   After graduating, she’d accepted a position at a one-room school, farther west and north, in what was then the back country. She’d been shocked by the experience—by the poverty, the ignorance, the lice. The children there had been sewn into their underwear in the fall and not unsewn until the spring, a detail that has remained in my mind as particularly squalid. Of course, said Reenie, it was no place for a lady like your mother.
   But my mother felt she was accomplishing something—doing something —for at least a few of those unfortunate children, or she hoped she was; and then she’d come home for the Christmas holidays. Her pallor and thinness were commented upon: roses were required in her cheeks. So there she was at the skating party, on the frozen mill pond, in company with my father. He’d laced up her skates for her first, kneeling on one knee.
   They’d known each other for some time through their respective fathers. There had been previous, decorous encounters. They’d acted together, in the last of Adelia’s garden theatricals—he’d been Ferdinand, she Miranda, in a bowdlerized version of The Tempest in which both sex and Caliban had been minimized. In a dress of shell pink, said Reenie, with a wreath of roses; and she spoke the words out perfect, just like an angel. O brave new world, that has such people in’t! And the unfocused gaze of her dazzled, limpid, myopic eyes. You could see how it all came about.
   My father could have looked elsewhere, for a wife with more money, but he must have wanted the tried and true: someone he could depend on. Despite his high spirits—he’d had high spirits once, apparently—he was a serious young man, said Reenie, implying that otherwise my mother would have rejected him. They were both in their own ways earnest; they both wanted to achieve some worthy end or other, change the world for the better. Such alluring, such perilous ideals!
   After they had skated around the pond several times, my father asked my mother to marry him. I expect he did it awkwardly, but awkwardness in men was a sign of sincerity then. At this instant, although they must have been touching at shoulder and hip, neither one was looking at the other; they were side by side, right hands joined across the front, left hands joined at the back. (What was she wearing? Reenie knew this too. A blue knitted scarf, a tarn and knitted gloves to match. She’d knitted them herself. A winter coat of walking length, hunting green. A handkerchief tucked into her sleeve—an item she never forgot, according to Reenie, unlike some she could name.)
   What did my mother do at this crucial moment? She studied the ice. She did not reply at once. This meant yes.
   All around them were the snow-covered rocks and the white icicles—everything white. Under their feet was the ice, which was white also, and under that the river water, with its eddies and undertows, dark but unseen. This was how I pictured that time, the time before Laura and I were born—so blank, so innocent, so solid to all appearances, but thin ice all the same. Beneath the surfaces of things was the unsaid, boiling slowly.
   Then came the ring, and the announcement in the papers; and then—once Mother had returned from completing the teaching year, which it was her duty to do—there were formal teas. Beautifully set out they were, with rolled asparagus sandwiches and sandwiches with watercress in them, and three kinds of cake—a light, a dark, and a fruit—and the tea itself in silver services, with roses on the table, white or pink or perhaps a pale yellow, but not red. Red was not for engagement teas. Why not? You’ll find out later, said Reenie.
   Then there was the trousseau. Reenie enjoyed reciting the details of this—the nightgowns, the peignoirs, the kinds of lace on them, the pillowcases embroidered with monograms, the sheets and petticoats. She spoke of cupboards and of bureau drawers and linen closets, and of what sorts of things should be kept in them, neatly folded. There was no mention of the bodies over which all these textiles would eventually be draped: weddings, for Reenie, were mostly a question of cloth, at least on the face of it.
   Then there was the list of guests to be compiled, the invitations to be written, the flowers to be selected, and so on up to the wedding.
   And then, after the wedding, there was the war. Love, then marriage, then catastrophe. In Reenie’s version, it seemed inevitable.

   The war began in the August of 1914, shortly after my parents’ marriage. All three brothers enlisted at once, no question about it. Amazing to consider now, this lack of question. There’s a photo of them, a fine trio in their uniforms, with grave, naive foreheads and tender moustaches, their smiles nonchalant, their eyes resolute, posing as the soldiers they had not yet become. Father is the tallest. He always kept this photo on his desk.
   They joined the Royal Canadian Regiment, the one you always joined if you were from Port Ticonderoga. Almost immediately they were posted to Bermuda to relieve the British regiment stationed there, and so, for the war’s first year, they spent their time going on parade and playing cricket. Also chafing at the bit, or so their letters claimed.
   Grandfather Benjamin read these letters avidly. As time wore on without a victory for either side, he became more and more jittery and uncertain. This was not the way things ought to have gone. The irony was that his business was booming. He’d recently expanded into celluloid and rubber, for the buttons that is, which allowed for higher volumes; and due to the political contacts Adelia had helped him to make, his factories received a great many orders to supply the troops. He was as honest as he’d always been, he didn’t deliver shoddy goods, he was not a war profiteer in that sense. But it cannot be said that he did not profit.
   War is good for the button trade. So many buttons are lost in a war, and have to be replaced—whole boxfuls, whole truckloads of buttons at a time. They’re blown to pieces, they sink into the ground, they go up in flames. The same can be said for undergarments. From a financial point of view, the war was a miraculous fire: a huge, alchemical conflagration, the rising smoke of which transformed itself into money. Or it did for my grandfather. But this fact no longer delighted his soul or propped up his sense of his own rectitude, as it might have done in earlier, more self-satisfied years. He wanted his sons back. Not that they’d gone anywhere dangerous yet: they were still in Bermuda, marching around in the sun.
   Following their honeymoon (to the Finger Lakes, in New York State), my parents had been staying at Avilion until they could set up their own establishment, and Mother remained there to supervise my grandfather’s household. They were short-staffed, because all able hands were needed either for the factories or for the army, but also because it was felt that Avilion should set an example by reducing expenditures. Mother insisted on plain meals—pot roast on Wednesdays, baked beans on a Sunday evening—which suited my grandfather fine. He’d never really been comfortable with Adelia’s fancy menus.
   In August of 1915, the Royal Canadian Regiment was ordered back to Halifax, to equip for France. It stayed in port for over a week, taking on supplies and new recruits and exchanging tropical uniforms for warmer clothing. The men were issued with Ross rifles, which would later jam in the mud, leaving them helpless.
   My mother took the train to Halifax to see my father off. It was crammed with men en route to the Front; she could not get a sleeper, so she travelled sitting up. There were feet in the aisles, and bundles, and spittoons; coughing, snoring—drunken snoring, no doubt. As she looked at the boyish faces around her, the war became real to her, not as an idea but as a physical presence. Her young husband might be killed. His body might perish; it might be torn apart; it might become part of the sacrifice that—it was now clear—would have to be made. Along with this realization came desperation and a shrinking terror, but also—I’m sure—a measure of bleak pride.
   I don’t know where the two of them stayed in Halifax, or for how long. Was it a respectable hotel or, because rooms were scarce, a cheap dive, a harbourside flophouse? Was it for a few days, a night, a few hours? What passed between them, what was said? The usual sorts of things, I suppose, but what were they? It is no longer possible to know. Then the ship with the regiment in it set sail—it was the SS Caledonian —and my mother stood on the dock with the other wives, waving and weeping. Or perhaps not weeping: she would have found it self-indulgent.
   Somewhere in France. I cannot describe what is happening here, wrote my father, and so I will not attempt it. We can only trust that this war is for the best, and that civilization will be preserved and advanced by it. The casualties are (word scratched out) numerous. I never knew before what men are capable of. What must be endured is beyond (word scratched out). I think of all at home every day, and especially you, my dearest Liliana.

   At Avilion, my mother set her will in motion. She believed in public service; she felt she had to roll up her sleeves and do something useful for the war effort. She organized a Comfort Circle, which collected money through rummage sales. This was spent on small boxes containing tobacco and candies, which were sent off to the trenches. She threw open Avilion for these functions, which (said Reenie) was hard on the floors. In addition to the rummage sales, every Tuesday afternoon her group knitted for the troops, in the drawing room—washcloths for the beginners, scarves for the intermediates, balaclavas and gloves for the experts. Soon another battalion of recruits was added, on Thursdays—older, less literate women from south of the Jogues who could knit in their sleep. These made baby garments for the Armenians, said to be starving, and for something called Overseas Refugees. After two hours of knitting, a frugal tea was served in the dining room, with Tristan and Iseult looking wanly down.
   When maimed soldiers began to appear, on the streets and in the hospitals of nearby towns—Port Ticonderoga did not yet have a hospital—my mother visited them. She opted for the worst cases—men who were not (said Reenie) likely to win any beauty contests—and from these visits she would return drained and shaken, and might even weep, in the kitchen, drinking the cocoa Reenie would make to prop her up. She did not spare herself, said Reenie. She ruined her health. She went beyond her strength, especially considering her condition.
   What virtue was once attached to this notion—of going beyond your strength, of not sparing yourself, of ruining your health! Nobody is born with that kind of selflessness: it can be acquired only by the most relentless discipline, a crushing-out of natural inclination, and by my time the knack or secret of it must have been lost. Or perhaps I didn’t try, having suffered from the effects it had on my mother.
   As for Laura, she was not selfless, not at all. Instead she was skinless, which is a different thing.

   I was born in early June of 1916. Shortly afterwards, Percy was killed in heavy shelling at the Ypres Salient, and in July Eddie died at the Somme. Or it was assumed he had died: where he’d been last seen there was a large crater. These were hard events for my mother, but much harder for my grandfather. In August he had a devastating stroke, which affected his speech and his memory.
   Unofficially, my mother took over the running of the factories. She interposed herself between my grandfather—said to be convalescing—and everyone else, and met daily with the male secretary and with the various factory foremen. As she was the only one who could understand what my grandfather was saying, or who claimed she could, she became his interpreter; and as the only one allowed to hold his hand, she guided his signature; and who’s to say she didn’t use her own judgment sometimes?
   Not that there were no problems. When the war began, a sixth of the workers had been women. By the end of it this number was two-thirds. The remaining men were old, or partially crippled, or in some other way unfit for war. These resented the ascendancy of the women, and grumbled about them or made vulgar jokes, and in their turn the women considered them weaklings or slackers and held them in ill-disguised contempt. The natural order of things—what my mother felt to be the natural order—was turning turtle. Still, the pay was good, and money greases the wheels, and on the whole my mother was able to keep things running smoothly enough.
   I imagine my grandfather, sitting in his library at night, in his green leather-covered chair studded with brass nails, at his desk, which was mahogany. His fingers are tented together, those of his feeling hand and those of his hand without feeling. He’s listening for someone. The door is half-open; he sees a shadow outside it. He says, “Come in”—he intends to say it—but nobody enters, or answers.
   The brusque nurse arrives. She asks him what he can be thinking of, sitting alone in the dark like that. He hears a sound, but it isn’t words, it’s more like ravens; he doesn’t answer. She takes him by the arm, lifts him easily out of his chair, shuffles him off to bed. Her white skirts rustle. He hears a dry wind, blowing through weedy autumn fields. He hears the whisper of snow.
   Did he know his two sons were dead? Was he wishing them alive again, safe home? Would it have been a sadder ending for him, to have had his wish come true? It might have been—it often is—but such thoughts are not consoling.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
The gramophone

   Last night I watched the weather channel, as is my habit. Elsewhere in the world there are floods: roiling brown water, bloated cows floating by, survivors huddled on rooftops. Thousands have drowned. Global warming is held accountable: people must stop burning things up, it is said. Gasoline, oil, whole forests. But they won’t stop. Greed and hunger lash them on, as usual.

   Where was I? I turn back the page: the war is still raging. Raging is what they used to say, for wars; still do, for all I know. But on this page, a fresh, clean page, I will cause the war to end—I alone, with a stroke of my black plastic pen. All I have to do is write: 1918. November 11. Armistice Day.
   There. It’s over. The guns are silent. The men who are left alive look up at the sky, their faces grimed, their clothing sodden; they climb out of their foxholes and filthy burrows. Both sides feel they have lost. In the towns, in the countryside, here and across the ocean, the church bells all begin to ring. (I can remember that, the bells ringing. It’s one of my first memories. It was so strange—the air was so full of sound, and at the same time so empty. Reenie took me outside to hear. There were tears running down her face. Thank God, she said. The day was chilly, there was frost on the fallen leaves, a skim of ice on the lily pond. I broke it with a stick. Where was Mother?)
   Father had been wounded at the Somme, but he’d recovered from that and had been made a second lieutenant. He was wounded again at Vimy Ridge, though not severely, and was made a captain. He was wounded again at Bourlon Wood, this time worse. It was while he was recovering in England that the war ended.
   He missed the jubilant welcome for the returning troops at Halifax, the victory parades and so forth, but there was a special reception in Port Ticonderoga just for him. The train stopped. Cheering broke out. Hands reached up to help him down, then hesitated. He emerged. He had one good eye and one good leg. His face was gaunt, seamed, fanatical.
   Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.
   Thus my mother and my father. How could either of them atone to the other for having changed so much? For failing to be what was expected. How could there not be grudges? Grudges held silently and unjustly, because there was nobody to blame, or nobody you could put your finger on. The war was not a person. Why blame a hurricane?
   There they stand, on the railway platform. The town band plays, brass mostly. He’s in his uniform; his medals are like holes shot in the cloth, through which the dull gleam of his real, metal body can be seen. Beside him, invisible, are his brothers—the two lost boys, the ones he feels he has lost. My mother is there in her best dress, a belted affair with lapels, and a hat with a crisp ribbon. She smiles tremulously. Neither knows quite what to do. The newspaper camera catches them in its flash; they stare, as if surprised in crime. My father is wearing a black patch over his right eye. His left eye glares balefully. Underneath the patch, not yet revealed, is a web of scarred flesh, his missing eye the spider.
   “Chase Heir Hero Returns,” the paper will trumpet. That’s another thing: my father is now the heir, which is to say he’s fatherless as well as brotherless. The kingdom is in his hands. It feels like mud.
   Did my mother cry? It’s possible. They must have kissed awkwardly, as if at a box social, one for which he’d bought the wrong ticket. This wasn’t what he’d remembered, this efficient, careworn woman, with a pince-nez like some maiden aunt’s glinting on a silver chain around her neck. They were now strangers, and—it must have occurred to them—they always had been. How harsh the light was. How much older they’d become. There was no trace of the young man who’d once knelt so deferentially on the ice to lace up her skates, or of the young woman who’d sweetly accepted this homage.
   Something else materialized like a sword between them. Of course he’d had other women, the kind who hung around battlefields, taking advantage. Whores, not to mince a word my mother would never have pronounced. She must have been able to tell, the first time he laid a hand on her: the timidity, the reverence, would have been gone. Probably he’d held out against temptation through Bermuda, then through England, up to the time when Eddie and Percy were killed and he himself was wounded. After that he’d clutched at life, at whatever handfuls of it might come within his reach. How could she fail to understand his need for it, under the circumstances?
   She did understand, or at least she understood that she was supposed to understand. She understood, and said nothing about it, and prayed for the power to forgive, and did forgive. But he can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy. Breakfast in a haze of forgiveness: coffee with forgiveness, porridge with forgiveness, forgiveness on the buttered toast. He would have been helpless against it, for how can you repudiate something that is never spoken? She resented, too, the nurse, or the many nurses, who had tended my father in the various hospitals. She wished him to owe his recovery to her alone—to her care, to her tireless devotion. That is the other side of selflessness: its tyranny.
   However, my father wasn’t so healthy as all that. In fact he was a shattered wreck, as witness the shouts in the dark, the nightmares, the sudden fits of rage, the bowl or glass thrown against the wall or floor, though never at her. He was broken, and needed mending: therefore she could still be useful. She would create around him an atmosphere of calm, she would indulge him, she would coddle him, she would put flowers on his breakfast table and arrange his favourite dinners. At least he hadn’t caught some evil disease.
   However, a much worse thing had happened: my father was now an atheist. Over the trenches God had burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left of him but grubby little scraps of hypocrisy. Religion was just a stick to beat the soldiers with, and anyone who declared otherwise was full of pious drivel. What had been served by the gallantry of Percy and Eddie—by their bravery, their hideous deaths? What had been accomplished? They’d been killed by the blunderings of a pack of incompetent and criminal old men who might just as well have cut their throats and heaved them over the side of the SS Caledonian. All the talk of fighting for God and Civilization made him vomit.
   My mother was appalled. Was he saying that Percy and Eddie had died for no higher purpose? That all those poor men had died for nothing? As for God, who else had seen them through this time of trial and suffering? She begged him at the very least to keep his atheism to himself. Then she was deeply ashamed for having asked this—as if what mattered most to her was the opinion of the neighbours, and not the relationship in which my father’s living soul stood to God.
   He did respect her wish, though. He saw the necessity of it. Anyway, he only said such things when he’d been drinking. He’d never used to drink before the war, not in any regular, determined way, but he did now. He drank and paced the floor, his bad foot dragging. After a while he would begin to shake. My mother would attempt to soothe him, but he didn’t want to be soothed. He would climb up into the stumpy turret of Avilion, saying he wished to smoke. Really it was an excuse to be alone. Up there he would talk to himself and slam against the walls, and end by drinking himself numb. He left my mother’s presence to do this because he was still a gentleman in his own view, or he held on to the shreds of the costume. He didn’t want to frighten her. Also he felt badly, I suppose, that her well-meant ministrations grated on him so much.
   Light step, heavy step, light step, heavy step, like an animal with one foot in a trap. Groaning and muffled shouts. Broken glass. These sounds would wake me up: the floor of the turret was above my room.
   Then there would be footsteps descending; then silence, a black outline looming outside the closed oblong of my bedroom door. I couldn’t see him there, but I could feel him, a shambling monster with one eye, so sad. I’d become used to the sounds, I didn’t think he would ever hurt me, but I treated him gingerly all the same.
   I don’t wish to give the impression that he did this every night. Also these sessions—seizures, perhaps—became fewer and farther apart, in time. But you could see one coming on by the tightening of my mother’s mouth. She had a kind of radar, she could detect the waves of his building rage.
   Do I mean to say he didn’t love her? Not at all. He loved her; in some ways he was devoted to her. But he couldn’t reach her, and it was the same on her side. It was as if they’d drunk some fatal potion that would keep them forever apart, even though they lived in the same house, ate at the same table, slept in the same bed.
   What would that be like—to long, to yearn for one who is right there before your eyes, day in and day out? I’ll never know.
   After some months my father began his disreputable rambles. Not in our town though, or not at first. He’d take the train in to Toronto, “on business,” and go drinking, and also tomcatting, as it was then called. Word got around, surprisingly quickly, as a scandal is likely to do. Oddly enough, both my mother and my father were more respected in town because of it. Who could blame him, considering? As for her, despite what she had to put up with, not one word of complaint was ever heard to cross her lips. Which was entirely as it should be.
   (How do I know all these things? I don’t know them, not in the usual sense of knowing. But in households like ours there’s often more in silences than in what is actually said—in the lips pressed together, the head turned away, the quick sideways glance. The shoulders drawn up as if carrying a heavy weight. No wonder we took to listening at doors, Laura and I.)

   My father had an array of walking sticks, with special handles—ivory, silver, ebony. He made a point of dressing neatly. He’d never expected to end up running the family business, but now that he’d taken it on he intended to do it well. He could have sold out, but as it happened there were no buyers, not then, or not at his price. Also he felt he had an obligation, if not to the memory of his father, then to those of his dead brothers. He had the letterhead changed to Chase and Sons, even though there was only one son left. He wanted to have sons of his own, two of them preferably, to replace the lost ones. He wanted to persevere.
   The men in his factories at first revered him. It wasn’t just the medals. As soon as the war was over, the women had stepped aside or else been pushed, and their jobs had been filled by the returning men—whatever men were still capable of holding a job, that is. But there weren’t enough jobs to go around: the wartime demand had ended. All over the country there were shutdowns and layoffs, but not in my father’s factories. He hired, he overhired. He hired veterans. He said the country’s lack of gratitude was despicable, and that its businessmen should now pay back something of what was owed. Very few of them did, though. They turned a blind eye, but my father, who had a real blind eye, could not turn it. Thus began his reputation for being a renegade, and a bit of a fool.
   To all appearances I was my father’s child. I looked more like him; I’d inherited his scowl, his dogged skepticism. (As well as, eventually, his medals. He left them to me.) Reenie would say—when I was being recalcitrant—that I had a hard nature and she knew where I got it from. Laura on the other hand was my mother’s child. She had the piousness, in some ways; she had the high, pure forehead.
   But appearances are deceptive. I could never have driven off a bridge. My father could have. My mother couldn’t.

   Here we are in the autumn of 1919, the three of us together—my father, my mother, myself—making an effort. It’s November; it’s almost bedtime. We’re sitting in the morning room at Avilion. It has a fireplace in it, with a fire, as the weather has turned cool. My mother is recovering from a recent, mysterious illness, said to have something to do with her nerves. She’s mending clothes. She doesn’t need to do this—she could hire someone—but she wants to do it; she likes to have something to occupy her hands. She’s sewing on a button, torn from one of my dresses: I am said to be hard on my clothes. On the round table at her elbow is her sweetgrass-bordered sewing basket, woven by Indians, with her scissors and her spools of thread and her wooden darning egg; also her new round glasses, keeping watch. She doesn’t need them for close work.
   Her dress is sky blue, with a broad white collar and white cuffs edged in piquet. Her hair has begun to go white prematurely. She would no more think of dyeing it than she would of cutting off her hand, and thus she has a young woman’s face in a nest of thistledown. It’s parted in the middle, this hair, and flows back in wide, springy waves to an intricate knot of twists and coils at the back of her head. (By the time of her death five years later, it would be bobbed, more fashionable, less compelling.) Her eyelids are lowered, her cheeks rounded, as is her stomach; her half-smile is tender. The electric lamp with its yellow-pink shade casts a soft glow over her face.
   Across from her is my father, on a settee. He leans back against the cushions, but he’s restless. He has his hand on the knee of his bad leg; the leg jiggles up and down. (The good leg, the bad leg —these terms are of interest to me. What has the bad leg done, to be called bad? Is its hidden, mutilated state a punishment?)
   I sit beside him, though not too close. His arm lies along the sofa back behind me, but does not touch. I have my alphabet book; I’m reading to him from it, to show that I can read. I can’t though, I’ve only memorized the shapes of the letters, and the words that go with the pictures. On an end table there’s a gramophone, with a speaker rising up out of it like a huge metal flower. My own voice sounds to me like the voice that sometimes comes out of it: small and thin and faraway; something you could turn off with a finger.


A is for Apple Pie,
Baked fresh and hot:
Some have a little,
And others a lot.


   I glance up at my father to see if he’s paying any attention. Sometimes when you speak to him he doesn’t hear. He catches me looking, smiles faintly down at me.


B is for Baby,
So pink and so sweet,
With two tiny hands
And two tiny feet.


   My father has gone back to gazing out the window. (Did he place himself outside this window, looking in? An orphan, forever excluded—a night wanderer? This is what he was supposed to have been fighting for—this fireside idyll, this comfortable scene out of a Shredded Wheat advertisement: the rounded, rosy-cheeked wife, so kind and good, the obedient, worshipful child. This flatness, this boredom. Could it be he was feeling a certain nostalgia for the war, despite its stench and meaningless carnage? For that questionless life of instinct?)


F is for Fire,
Good servant, bad master.
When left to itself
It burns faster and faster.


   The picture in the book is of a leaping man covered in flames—wings of fire coming from his heels and shoulders, little fiery horns sprouting from his head. He’s looking over his shoulder with a mischievous, enticing smile, and he has no clothes on. The fire can’t hurt him, nothing can hurt him. I am in love with him for this reason. I’ve added extra flames with my crayons.
   My mother jabs her needle through the button, cuts the thread. I read on in a voice of increasing anxiety, through suave M and N, through quirky Q and hard R and the sibilant menaces of S. My father stares into the flames, watching the fields and woods and houses and towns and men and brothers go up in smoke, his bad leg moving by itself like a dog’s running in dreams. This is his home, this besieged castle; he is its werewolf. The chilly lemon-coloured sunset outside the window fades to grey. I don’t know it yet, but Laura is about to be born.
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Bread day

   Not enough rain, say the farmers. The cicadas pierce the air with their searing one-note calls; dust eddies across the roads; from the weedy patches at the verges, grasshoppers whir. The leaves of the maples hang from their branches like limp gloves; on the sidewalk my shadow crackles.
   I walk early, before the full blare of the sun. The doctor eggs me on: I’m making progress, he tells me; but towards what? I think of my heart as my companion on an endless forced march, the two of us roped together, unwilling conspirators in some plot or tactic we’ve got no handle on. Where are we going? Towards the next day. It hasn’t escaped me that the object that keeps me alive is the same one that will kill me. In this way it’s like love, or a certain kind of it.
   Today I went again to the cemetery. Someone had left a bunch of orange and red zinnias on Laura’s grave; hot-coloured flowers, far from soothing. They were withering by the time I got to them, though they still gave off their peppery smell. I suspect they’d been stolen from the flower beds in front of The Button Factory, by a cheapskate devotee or else a mildly crazy one; but then, it’s the sort of thing Laura herself would have done. She had only the haziest notions of ownership.
   On my way back I stopped in at the doughnut shop: it was heating up outside, and I wanted some shade. The place is far from new; indeed it’s almost seedy, despite its jaunty modernity—the pale-yellow tiles, the white plastic tables bolted to the floor, their moulded chairs attached. It reminds me of some institution or other; a kindergarten in a poorer neighbourhood perhaps, or a drop-in centre for the mentally challenged. Not too many things you could throw around or use for stabbing: even the cutlery is plastic. The odour is of deep-fat-frying oil blended with pine-scented disinfectant, with a wash of tepid coffee over all.
   I purchased a small iced tea and an Old-fashioned Glazed, which squeaked between my teeth like Styrofoam. After I’d consumed half of it, which was all I could get down, I picked my way across the slippery floor to the women’s washroom. In the course of my walks I’ve been compiling a map in my head of all the easily accessible washrooms in Port Ticonderoga—so useful if you’re caught short—and the one in the doughnut shop is my current favourite. Not that it’s cleaner than the rest, or more likely to have toilet paper, but it offers inscriptions. They all do, but in most locales these are painted over frequently, whereas in the doughnut shop they remain on view much longer. Thus you have not only the text, but the commentary on it as well.
   The best sequence at the moment is the one in the middle cubicle. The first sentence is in pencil, in rounded lettering like those on Roman tombs, engraved deeply in the paint: Don’t Eat Anything You Aren’t Prepared to Kill.
   Then, in green marker: Don’t Kill Anything You Aren’t Prepared to Eat.
   Under that, in ballpoint, Don’t Kill.
   Under that, in purple marker: Don’t Eat.
   And under that, the last word to date, in bold black lettering: Fuck Vegetarians—“All Gods Are Carnivorous”—Laura Chase.
   Thus Laura lives on.

   It took Laura a long time to get herself born into this world, said Reenie. It was like she couldn’t decide whether or not it was really such a smart idea. Then she was sickly at fast, and we almost lost her—I guess she was still making up her mind. But in the end she decided to give it a try, and so she took ahold of life, and got some better.
   Reenie believed that people decided when it was their time to die; similarly, they had a voice in whether or not they would be born. Once I’d reached the talking-back age, I used to say, I never asked to be born, as if that were a clinching argument; and Reenie would retort, Of course you did. Just like everyone else. Once alive you were on the hook for it, as far as Reenie was concerned.
   After Laura’s birth my mother was more tired than usual. She lost altitude; she lost resilience. Her will faltered; her days took on a quality of trudging. She had to rest more, said the doctor. She was not a well woman, said Reenie to Mrs. Hillcoate, who came in to help with the laundry. It was as if my former mother had been stolen away by the elves, and this other mother—this older and greyer and saggier and more discouraged one—had been left behind in her place. I was only four then, and was frightened by the change in her, and wanted to be held and reassured; but my mother no longer had the energy for this. (Why do I say no longer? Her comportment as a mother had always been instructive rather than cherishing. At heart she remained a schoolteacher.)
   I soon found that if I could keep quiet, without clamouring for attention, and above all if I could be helpful—especially with the baby, with Laura, watching beside her and rocking her cradle so she would sleep, not a thing she did easily or for long—I would be permitted to remain in the same room with my mother. If not, I would be sent away. So that was the accommodation I made: silence, helpfulness.
   I should have screamed. I should have thrown tantrums. It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, as Reenie used to say.
   (There I sat on Mother’s night table, in a silver frame, in a dark dress with a white lace collar, visible hand clutching the baby’s crocheted white blanket in an awkward, ferocious grip, eyes accusing the camera or whoever was wielding it. Laura herself is almost out of sight, in this picture. Nothing can be seen of her but the top of her downy head, and one tiny hand, fingers curled around my thumb. Was I angry because I’d been told to hold the baby, or was I in fact defending it? Shielding it—reluctant to let it go?)

   Laura was an uneasy baby, though more anxious than fractious. She was an uneasy small child as well. Closet doors worried her, and bureau drawers. It was as if she were always listening, to something in the distance or under the floor—something that was coming closer soundlessly, like a train made of wind. She had unaccountable crises—a dead crow would start her weeping, a cat smashed by a car, a dark cloud in a clear sky. On the other hand, she had an uncanny resistance to physical pain: if she burnt her mouth or cut herself, as a rule she didn’t cry. It was ill will, the ill will of the universe, that distressed her.
   She was particularly alarmed by the maimed veterans on the street corners—the loungers, the pencil-sellers, the panhandlers, too shattered to work at anything. One glaring red-faced man with no legs who pushed himself around on a flat cart would always set her off. Perhaps it was the fury in his eyes.
   As most small children do, Laura believed words meant what they said, but she carried it to extremes. You couldn’t say Get lost or Go jump in the lake and expect no consequences. What did you say to Laura? Don’t you ever learn? Reenie would scold. But even Reenie herself didn’t learn altogether. She once told Laura to bite her tongue because that would keep the questions from coming out, and after that Laura couldn’t chew for days.

   Now I am coming to my mother’s death. It would be trite to say that this event changed everything, but it would also be true, and so I will write it down:
   This event changed everything.

   It happened on a Tuesday. A bread day. All of our bread—enough in a batch for the entire week—was made in the kitchen at Avilion. Although there was a small bakery in Port Ticonderoga by then, Reenie said store bread was for the lazy, and the baker added chalk to it to stretch out the flour and also extra yeast to swell the loaves up with air so you’d think you were getting more. And so she made the bread herself.
   The kitchen of Avilion wasn’t dark, like the sooty Victorian cavern it must once have been, thirty years before. Instead it was white—white walls, white enamelled table, white wood-burning range, black-and-white tiled floor—with daffodil-yellow curtains at the new, enlarged windows. (It had been redone after the war as one of my father’s sheepish, propitiatory gifts to my mother.) Reenie considered this kitchen the latest thing, and as a result of my mother’s having taught her about germs and their nasty ways and their hiding places, she kept it faultlessly clean.
   On bread days Reenie would give us scraps of dough for bread men, with raisins for the eyes and buttons. Then she would bake them for us. I would eat mine, but Laura would save hers up. Once Reenie found a whole row of them in Laura’s top drawer, hard as rock, wrapped up in her handkerchiefs like tiny bun-faced mummies. Reenie said they would attract mice and would have to go straight into the garbage, but Laura held out for a mass burial in the kitchen garden, behind the rhubarb bush. She said there had to be prayers. If not, she would never eat her dinner any more. She was always a hard bargainer, once she got down to it.
   Reenie dug the hole. It was the gardener’s day off; she used his spade, which was off-limits to anyone else, but this was an emergency. “God pity her husband,” said Reenie, as Laura laid her bread men out in a neat row. “She’s stubborn as a pig.”
   “I’m not going to have a husband anyway,” said Laura. “I’m going to live by myself in the garage.”
   “I’m not going to have one either,” I said, not to be outdone.
   “Fat chance of that,” said Reenie. “You like your nice soft bed. You’d have to sleep on the cement and get all covered in grease and oil.”
   “I’m going to live in the conservatory,” I said.
   “It’s not heated any more,” said Reenie. “You’d freeze to death in the winters.”
   “I’ll sleep in one of the motor cars,” said Laura.

   On that horrible Tuesday we’d had breakfast in the kitchen, with Reenie. It was oatmeal porridge and toast with marmalade. Sometimes we had it with Mother, but that day she was too tired. Mother was stricter, and made us sit up straight and eat the crusts. “Remember the starving Armenians,” she would say.
   Perhaps the Armenians were no longer starving by then. The war was long over, order had been restored. But their plight must have remained in Mother’s mind as a kind of slogan. A slogan, an invocation, a prayer, a charm. Toast crusts must be eaten in memory of these Armenians, whoever they may have been; not to eat them was a sacrilege. Laura and I must have understood the weight of this charm, because it never failed to work.
   Mother didn’t eat her crusts that day. I remember that. Laura went on at her about it—What about the crusts, what about the starving Armenians? —until finally Mother admitted that she didn’t feel well. When she said that, I felt an electric chill run through me, because I knew it. I’d known it all along.

   Reenie said God made people the way she herself made bread, and that was why the mothers’ tummies got fat when they were going to have a baby: it was the dough rising. She said her dimples were God’s thumb-prints. She said she had three dimples and some people had none, because God didn’t make everyone the same, otherwise he would just get bored of it all, and so he dished things out unevenly. It didn’t seem fair, but it would come out fair at the end.
   Laura was six, by the time I’m remembering. I was nine. I knew that babies weren’t made out of bread dough—that was a story for little kids like Laura. Still, no detailed explanation had been offered.
   In the afternoons Mother had been sitting in the gazebo, knitting. She was knitting a tiny sweater, like the ones she still knitted for the Overseas Refugees. Was this one for a refugee too? I wanted to know. Perhaps, she’d say, and smile. After a while she would doze off, her eyes sliding heavily shut, her round glasses slipping down. She told us she had eyes in the back of her head, and that was how she knew when we’d done something wrong. I pictured these eyes as flat and shiny and without colour, like the glasses.
   It wasn’t like her to sleep so much in the afternoons. There were a lot of things that weren’t like her. Laura wasn’t worried, but I was. I was putting two and two together, out of what I’d been told and what I’d overheard. What I’d been told: “Your mother needs her rest, so you’ll have to keep Laura out of her hair.” What I’d overheard (Reenie to Mrs. Hillcoate): “The doctor’s not pleased. It might be nip and tuck. Of course she’d never say a word, but she’s not a well woman. Some men can never leave well enough alone.” So I knew my mother was in danger of some kind, something to do with her health and something to do with Father, though I was unsure what this danger might be.
   I’ve said Laura wasn’t worried, but she was clinging to Mother more than usual. She sat cross-legged in the cool space beneath the gazebo when Mother was resting, or behind her chair when she was writing letters. When Mother was in the kitchen, Laura liked to be under the kitchen table. She’d drag a cushion in there, and her alphabet book, the one that used to be mine. She had a lot of things that used to be mine.
   Laura could read by now, or at least she could read the alphabet book. Her favourite letter was L, because it was her own letter, the one that began her name, L is for Laura. I never had a favourite letter that began my name—I is for Iris —because I was everybody’s letter.
   L is for Lily,
   So pure and so white;
   It opens by day,
   And it closes at night.
   The picture in the book was of two children in old-fashioned straw bonnets, next to a water lily with a fairy sitting on it—bare-naked, with shimmering, gauzy wings. Reenie used to say that if she came across a thing like that she’d go after it with the fly swatter. She’d say it to me, for a joke, but she didn’t say it to Laura because Laura might take it seriously and get upset.
   Laura was different. Different meant strange, I knew that, but I would pester Reenie. “What do you mean, different?”
   “Not the same as other people,” Reenie would say.
   But perhaps Laura wasn’t very different from other people after all. Perhaps she was the same—the same as some odd, skewed element in them that most people keep hidden but that Laura did not, and this was why she frightened them. Because she did frighten them—or if not frighten, then alarm them in some way; though more, of course, as she got older.

   Tuesday morning, then, in the kitchen. Reenie and Mother were making the bread. No: Reenie was making the bread, and Mother was having a cup of tea. Reenie had said to Mother that she wouldn’t be surprised if there was thunder later in the day, the air was so heavy, and shouldn’t Mother be out in the shade, or lying down; but Mother had said she hated doing nothing. She said it made her feel useless; she said she’d like to keep Reenie company.
   Mother could walk on water as far as Reenie was concerned, and in any case she had no power to order her around. So Mother sat drinking her tea while Reenie stood at the table, turning the mound of bread dough, pushing down into it with both hands, folding, turning, pushing down. Her hands were covered with flour; she looked as if she had white floury gloves on. There was flour on the bib of her apron too. She had half-circles of sweat under her arms, darkening the yellow daisies on her house dress. Some of the loaves were already shaped and in the pans, with a clean, damp dishtowel over each one. The humid mushroom smell filled the kitchen.
   The kitchen was hot, because the oven needed a good bed of coals, and also because there was a heat wave. The window was open, the wave of heat rolled in through it. The flour for the bread came out of the big barrel in the pantry. You should never climb into that barrel because the flour could get into your nose and mouth and smother you. Reenie had known a baby who was stuck into the flour barrel upside down by its brothers and sisters and almost choked to death.
   Laura and I were under the kitchen table. I was reading an illustrated book for children called Great Men of History. Napoleon was in exile on the island of St. Helena, standing on a cliff with his hand inside his coat. I thought he must have a stomachache. Laura was restless. She crawled out from under the table to get a drink of water. “You want some dough to make a bread man?” said Reenie.
   “No,” said Laura.
   “No, thank you,” said Mother.
   Laura crawled back under the table. We could see the two pairs of feet, Mother’s narrow ones and Reenie’s wider ones in their sturdy shoes, and Mother’s skinny legs and Reenie’s plump ones in their pinky-brown stockings. We could hear the muffled turning and thumping of the bread dough. Then all of a sudden the teacup shattered and Mother was down on the floor, and Reenie was kneeling beside her. “Oh dear God,” she was saying. “Iris, go get your father.”
   I ran to the library. The telephone was ringing, but Father wasn’t there. I climbed up the stairs to his turret, usually a forbidden place. The door was unlocked: nothing was in the room but a chair and several ashtrays. He wasn’t in the front parlour, he wasn’t in the morning room, he wasn’t in the garage. He must be at the factory, I thought, but I wasn’t sure of the way, and also it was too far. I didn’t know where else to look.
   I went back into the kitchen and crept under the table, where Laura sat hugging her knees. She wasn’t crying. There was something on the floor that looked like blood, a trail of it, dark-red spots on the white tiles. I put a finger down, licked it—it was blood. I got a cloth and wiped it up. “Don’t look,” I told Laura.
   After a while Reenie came down the back stairs and cranked the telephone and rang up the doctor—not that he was in, he was gadding about somewhere as usual. Then she phoned the factory and demanded Father. He could not be located. “Find him if you can. Tell him it’s an emergency,” she said. Then she hurried upstairs again. She’d forgotten all about the bread, which rose too high, and fell back in on itself, and was ruined.
   “She shouldn’t have been in that hot kitchen,” said Reenie to Mrs. Hillcoate, “not in this weather with a thunderstorm coming, but she won’t spare herself, you can’t tell her anything.”
   “Did she have a lot of pain?” asked Mrs. Hillcoate, in a pitying, interested voice.
   “I’ve seen worse,” said Reenie. “Thank God for small mercies. It slipped out just like a kitten, but I have to say she bled buckets. We’ll need to burn the mattress, I don’t know how we’d ever get it clean.”
   “Oh dear, well, she can always have another,” said Mrs. Hillcoate. “It must have been meant. There must have been something wrong with it.”
   “Not from what I heard, she can’t,” said Reenie. “Doctor says that better be the end of that, because another one would kill her and this one almost did.”
   “Some women shouldn’t marry,” said Mrs. Hillcoate. “They’re not suited to it. You have to be strong. My own mother had ten, and never blinked an eye. Not that they all lived.”
   “Mine had eleven,” said Reenie. “It wore her right down to the ground.”
   I knew from past experience that this was the prelude to a contest about the hardness of their mothers’ lives, and that soon they would be onto the subject of laundry. I took Laura by the hand and we tiptoed up the back stairs. We were worried, but very curious as well: we wanted to find out what had happened to Mother, but also we wanted to see the kitten. There it was, beside a pile of blood-soaked sheets on the hall floor outside Mother’s room, in an enamel basin. But it wasn’t a kitten. It was grey, like an old cooked potato, with a head that was too big; it was all curled up. Its eyes were squinched shut, as if the light was hurting it.
   “What is it?” Laura whispered. “It’s not a kitten.” She squatted down, peering.
   “Let’s go downstairs,” I said. The doctor was still in the room, we could hear his footsteps. I didn’t want him to catch us, because I knew this creature was forbidden to us; I knew we shouldn’t have seen it. Especially not Laura—it was the kind of sight, like a squashed animal, that as a rule would make her scream, and then I would get blamed.
   “It’s a baby,” said Laura. “It’s not finished.” She was surprisingly calm. “The poor thing. It didn’t want to get itself born.”

   In the late afternoon Reenie took us in to see Mother. She was lying in bed with her head propped up on two pillows; her thin arms were outside the sheet; her whitening hair was transparent. Her wedding ring glinted on her left hand, her fists bunched the sheet at her sides. Her mouth was pulled tight as if she was considering something; it was the look she had when she was making lists. Her eyes were closed. With the curved eyelids rolled down over them, her eyes looked even bigger than they did when they were open. Her glasses were sitting on the night table beside the water jug, each round eye of them shining and empty.
   “She’s asleep,” Reenie whispered. “Don’t touch her.”
   Mother’s eyes slid open. Her mouth flickered; the fingers of her near hand unfolded. “You can give her a hug,” said Reenie, “but not too hard.” I did as I was told. Laura burrowed her head fiercely against Mother’s side, underneath her arm. There was the starchy pale-blue lavender smell of the sheets, the soap smell of Mother, and underneath that a hot smell of rust, mixed with the sweetly acid scent of damp but smouldering leaves.

   Mother died five days later. She died of a fever; also of being weak, because she could not manage to get her strength back, said Reenie. During this time the doctor came and went, and a succession of crisp, brittle nurses occupied the easy chair in the bedroom. Reenie hurried up and down the stairs with basins, with towels, with cups of broth. Father shuttled restlessly back and forth to the factory, and appeared at the dinner table haggard as a beggar. Where had he been, that afternoon when he could not be found? Nobody said.
   Laura crouched in the upstairs hallway. I was told to play with her in order to keep her out of harm’s way, but she didn’t want that. She sat with her arms wrapped around her knees and her chin on them, and a thoughtful, secret expression, as if she were sucking on a candy. We weren’t allowed to have candies. But when I made her show me, it was only a round white stone.
   During this last week I was allowed to see Mother every morning, but only for a few minutes. I wasn’t allowed to talk to her, because (said Reenie) she was rambling. That meant she thought she was somewhere else. Each day there was less of her. Her cheekbones were prominent; she smelled of milk, and of something raw, something rancid, like the brown paper meat came wrapped in.
   I was sulky during these visits. I could see how ill she was, and I resented her for it. I felt she was in some way betraying me—that she was shirking her duties, that she’d abdicated. It didn’t occur to me that she might die. I’d been afraid of this possibility earlier, but now I was so terrified that I’d put it out of my mind.
   On the last morning, which I did not know would be the last, Mother seemed more like herself. She was frailer, but at the same time more packed together—more dense. She looked at me as if she saw me. “It’s so bright in here,” she whispered. “Could you just pull the curtains?” I did as I was told, then went back to stand by her bedside, twisting the handkerchief Reenie had given me in case I cried. My mother took hold of my hand; her own was hot and dry, the fingers like soft wire.
   “Be a good girl,” she said. “I hope you’ll be a good sister to Laura. I know you try to be.”
   I nodded. I didn’t know what to say. I felt I was the victim of an injustice: why was it always me who was supposed to be a good sister to Laura, instead of the other way around? Surely my mother loved Laura more than she loved me.
   Perhaps she didn’t; perhaps she loved us both equally. Or perhaps she no longer had the energy to love anyone: she’d moved beyond that, out into the ice-cold stratosphere, far beyond the warm, dense magnetic field of love. But I couldn’t imagine such a thing. Her love for us was a given—solid and tangible, like a cake. The only question was which of us was going to get the bigger slice.
   (What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves—our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I’ve been one myself, I know.)
   My mother held me steady in her sky-blue gaze. What an effort it must have been for her to keep her eyes open. How far away I must have seemed—a distant, wavering pink blob. How hard it must have been for her to concentrate on me! Yet I saw none of her stoicism, if that’s what it was.
   I wanted to say that she was mistaken in me, in my intentions. I didn’t always try to be a good sister: quite the reverse. Sometimes I called Laura a pest and told her not to bother me, and only last week I’d found her licking an envelope—one of my own special envelopes, for thank-you notes—and had told her that the glue on them was made from boiled horses, which had caused her to retch and sniffle. Sometimes I hid from her, inside a hollow lilac bush beside the conservatory, where I would read books with my fingers stuck into my ears while she wandered around looking for me, fruitlessly calling my name. So often I got away with the minimum required.
   But I had no words to express this, my disagreement with my mother’s version of things. I didn’t know I was about to be left with her idea of me; with her idea of my goodness pinned onto me like a badge, and no chance to throw it back at her (as would have been the normal course of affairs with a mother and a daughter—if she’d lived, as I’d grown older)
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