“Lord,” then said I, “on me one breath,
And let me die before my death!”
I remember Calvin and Darwin being spoken of with the same tongue, seeing our King James Bible beside A Brief History of Time, and the theory of relativity being used to prove the immanence of the divine. My mother was a chemist, spurned Hell and the Eucharist, yet kept the idea of God close to her heart. When I was a teenager, I asked her how she was able to live with her faith.
“Some things we aren’t equipped to know,” she said.
She took my father and I to the Unitarian church in Britannia, a building of deeply stained pine, a spire covered in shingles that shot up from the low roof. A glass wall behind the lectern faced the river. The reverend read excerpts from the Fire Sermon, Leaves of Grass, Kapital, and William Blake’s poems. But most of all, I remember the parable of Jonah, who disobeyed God and was swallowed by a whale for his sins. Every time I heard that story, I’d imagine a high ceiling of flesh for days afterwards.
My parents were high-ranking civil servants in the federal government, my mother working for Health and my father for Industry. They’d climbed as high on that corporate ladder as they could. My father worked hard, primarily to avoid backsliding into the poverty of his childhood outside Kuala Lumpur. “Without work, there’s nothing,” he’d often tell me. My mother came from a long line of government workers stretching back to clerks in Inverness. She had to live up to expectations.
One winter morning, I accompanied my father from our house in Ottawa to his office in the Portage Building across the river in Québec. I now associate the idea of work with the vista I saw from the suspension bridge. Through the passing struts, I could see the frozen river, the shoreline, and the Domtar paper mill; tessellations of concrete, high windows, striped smokestacks, and, over a slip of space, a white plume of smoke. From that view, I felt we were driving towards desolation.
There she is; I dream of Alice now – sitting in her small wagon, wearing a blue dress with her mouth open. She appears to be in pain. I feel frantic and sad and know I need to help her, but I can’t move my body. That’s when I wake up. Every time, the dream is the same.
I never knew the name for Alice’s sickness, but one night, I overheard my mother through the dining room’s sliding doors. She was gossiping to my father about their monthly reading group, of which Alice’s mother was a member.
“The proteins that bind the skin to the dermis are missing,” she said. “So she has skin like glass.”
It was true. If someone grazed Alice’s arm in passing, a fist-sized scab would open the next day. She couldn’t touch her feet to the ground for what it might do, so she had to be conveyed around in her wagon by her mother. One day, she tried to walk home from school – only a couple of blocks. Her feet were so mangled and swollen that she had lost three toes – blackness ran up her shins to her knees.
Her condition meant she couldn’t be a child in a normal way. She couldn’t roughhouse, wrestle, or be poked. Our friendship lacked the tactile. We had to be completely cerebral. It was like closing my eyes with my arms submerged in dishwater, searching for a single obscured utensil.
In 1998, my grandfather died. My grandmother, having no income of her own, moved into the third floor of my parents’ house. She was quiet. She’d often sit in our living room with the family Bible in her lap, clutching the two covers and compressing the gold-edged pages closer together until they shined brighter. I tried to avoid her, doing everything I could to stay out of that room. But when I passed the living room to get to the kitchen, and she spotted me through the doorway, she’d say,
“Why are you still a child?”
“You’ll all get your milk in Heaven.”
A smaller part of me would like to say I had a precocious awareness of her vulnerability, and after my grandfather’s death, by ignoring her, I avoided quickening her grief. But to be honest, her presence terrified me.
“Okay,” I’d say, frantically filling a glass of water and running back up to my room.
I asked my parents what I was supposed to do.
“She’s not your problem,” my father said.
“She needs a wide berth,” my mother said. “You don’t have to be in the house. Go see Alice.”
Alice’s house was a three-story, red brick building with a wooden gable on top. I could see her house from my bedroom; one street over, between two garages. Some nights, I saw a lamp shining from the gable’s windows. Her mother answered the door and showed me to the third floor. Alice was sitting on a crimson piece of foam in a sunken section of the floor. The balcony door was open to a square of tree leaves. She’d pushed her stuffed animals into the corners so the carpet was bare. Her legs were covered with craggy purple scabs around red welts that she was picking at when I entered.
“Play house with me,” Alice said.
She gathered her dollhouse from the corner.
“This is your wife, Laura,” she said, showing me a Barbie doll with its right arm extended accusingly. “She’s graceful, like a fish. She makes orange and cranberry scones every day and owns necklaces like the Queen. She likes to wear all black and read on the floor of her kitchen.”
She sat with her legs crossed, stroking the doll’s hair and curling it around her fingers as she said this. She was looking plainly towards the doll, but not at it – more at the general space in front of it.
I didn’t know how the game was supposed to be played, so I took the doll from Alice and started swinging her arms back and forth. I reckoned she was a runner, what with her athletic figure. But Alice snatched Laura back, scandalised.
“You can’t do that to your wife,” she said.
She opened the wings of her doll house and slid swim trunks and snorkel gear onto a Ken doll. She handed him to me, and I placed him in the upstairs washroom with his legs spread eagle and his arms above his head, as if he were celebrating a new personal best at the community swimming pool. I wanted to make Laura seem just as happy, so I placed her next to Ken with her arms raised, too. It was quite a tableau. Alice laughed.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. Then she bent both dolls at the waist and lowered their arms so that they stood on all fours. “They have a pineapple garden. They’re working on it.”
“So, they’re in Hawaii,” I said. “Give them a crocodile.”
Her eyes widened.
“To eat intruders. He goes for the neck.”
“No!” she said, excited.
“And he should have powers.”
Alice had to think for a moment.
“Right. The crocodile speaks fluent Dutch,” she said. “There’s a lot of oop sounds in Dutch. Everything sounds like a slide whistle.” Alice pressed her tongue against her two front teeth and hissed. A drop of spit ran down her chin from between the gap in her two front teeth. She stopped a moment, wet her lips, and the hissing turned to a high-pitched squeal. I smiled, finally recognising what she was trying to do.
“Scary!” I said.
“But he’s gentle,” she asserted, turning serious.
We carried on like that, remaking both Ken and Laura as geologists, secret agents, lion tamers, then back to secret agents, then magicians.
“I’ll only have them have tasteful occupations,” she said. She heaved with laughter while softly batting the carpet, giggling, then lifted her arms and cheered. I felt grand for inspiring such animation.
“I’m having fun,” she said. “Loads.”
“My house isn’t like this. My grandfather just died. Everything’s different now. My grandmother moved in. She sits in the living room asking why I’m a kid.”
Alice went quiet and nodded for a moment. “The paediatrician told my mom once that I should be dead. He says he’s inspired by me every time I come to his office. But he’s just being nice.”
When I left, I saw Alice’s mother crying on the staircase. “Thank you,” she said unevenly. “She hasn’t laughed in months.”
That autumn, a melanoma developed in my grandmother’s eye from a dark spot in her iris. It was odd, since the only sun she got were the bars of light surging in from the living room window. She hadn’t shown any symptoms until she woke one night and sent the house up with a scream. At the biopsy, a doctor sucked fluid out of her pupil with a needle. Relatives came from Saskatoon and Toronto, acting as if she were already dead. Coming, hugging, leaving.
I had to get out, so one day I walked Alice to the river. As I pulled her through the park, she extended her arms into the timothy growing beside the bike path and pointed to the water where the mouths of trout blinked – sending out ever-expanding Os across the water. I pulled her into the shade cast by two maples growing out of the embankment. As we watched a flock of ducks bobbing for food, a small scab detached from her forehead and landed in her lap. She picked it up and popped it in her mouth.
We went on. At a fork, we took the dirt path through a grove edged by houses. Smashed crab apples were rotting on the ground. Spiders climbed their threads. Squirrels leapt elegantly between branches, disturbing the leaves, their haunches and feet flashing above us. Then we came out to a bench by the water’s edge. Cicadas were crying all around.
“Could we stop?” Alice said.
She was tired. We watched the water. The same ducks drifted down the current, honking, until one swam to the embankment and waddled over. It had a two-coloured bill, a bright sheen, a white stripe around its neck, and white flecks all over. It quacked directly at me. Then at Alice. Its companions made a racket. It shook its feathers, and its head and eyes seemed to twitch in opposite directions. The duck was a thing to see. Suddenly, it opened its wings, flapped two feet off the ground, then launched itself in one clean glide to the other side of the river, and slowly returned to the flock.
“What was that about?” I asked Alice.
She’d fallen asleep.
When she woke, the wind had shifted. She was confused – I told her where she was. She’d had a dream about a maggot falling out of her nose, and she squirmed and laughed in her wagon at the thought.
The ducks had gone, so I pulled her down Echo Drive, up the gradient over the limestone rock face above the Rideau Canal, where we watched kayaks and pleasure crafts passing under the Bank Street Bridge.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. I turned and saw her elbows up. She was fiddling with her dress’s collar snap at the back of her neck.
“Please? Can you?”
She unfastened the snap and opened her dress all the way to the small of her back. There was a dark redness around her waist, and two splotches over her shoulder blades.
“I can’t reach. Do you see it?”
A small black scab sat on one ridge of her spine.
“It’s been trying to come off for days. Can you get it?”
I leaned over, inspected the area, and wedged the fingernails of my thumb and index finger under the edge of the scab. But when I tried to pull it off there was resistance.
“It’s hard …”
I pulled so hard, the skin around the scab raised into a tiny volcano. It seemed like I might have to tear the skin off, but suddenly the scale released. Underneath the skin was a white-like cream. I showed her the results and she thanked me.
“It’s been getting on my nerves for days.”
The next morning, Alice’s mother called.
“Did you touch her?” she said.
“She got an infection. The doctor said it got in through a cut on her back.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“She screamed in the clinic that you didn’t do it.”
I paused. When she spoke next, she sounded resentful.
“I think she likes you,” she said.
My grandmother’s cancer metastasised to her brain. We visited her in the hospital’s chemo ward. She was slumped in an armchair with an IV drip taped to the inside of her elbow. She wore a grey cardigan, polyester blouse, shin-length skirt, and a Tweetybird shower cap to hide her bald spot. Her eyes had sunk into her head.
“Where’s God now?” she said blankly.
“I can bring things from home for you,” my father said. “The Bible.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, turning away.
When Alice returned to school four days later, she had shrunk from the infection. Her arms were as wide as canes, and when she sat at her folding desk with the compartment, she seemed too small for it. The effort it took to raise her hand made her angry.
When the bell sounded, the whole class scuttled towards down jackets hanging on low hooks in the vestibule. Our geography teacher (teaching about tectonic plates) said Alice didn’t have to go outside. But she put on her boots and coat all the same and stood by herself on the tarmac. I wanted to play foursquare, but the lineup to get in was too long, so I sat on the edges of the play structure’s sand pit, sticking in my hand. I gripped something solid that turned out to be a clump of sand that crumbled when I lifted it. Alice approached me.
“It got worse,” she said. “After you dropped me off.”
Whether she was trying to lay blame or was just letting me know was unclear. She didn’t seem angry. But even then, I knew that how someone appeared could mean little.
“I didn’t mean to.”
She glanced down at the tarmac and began swaying her arms.
“My mom said it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you.”
“I didn’t – ”
“It’s not your fault.”
She paused a moment before puffing out her chest.
“Can you come over tonight”?
I wanted to say yes, but it was the way her mother had said Alice liked me … like I was being accused of something far worse than picking a scab. I was afraid that by having plates set in front of me, by sitting with the television and the Barbies, by raiding their fridge for cans of pop, I’d be opening myself up for attack.
The next day, there was an incident. The teacher restrained Alice as she brandished a pair of safety scissors. The blunt plastic blades were open. Alice’s lips were retracted, showing her teeth and her eyes bugged. She hacked the air in the direction of Kyle, who stood two desk rows back, bewildered, his fingers touching the collar of his t-shirt. I found out later she’d started on Kyle because Nick, the class corpulent bully, was picking on him for being short. She’d been quiet, listening, then everyone gasped when she lunged at Kyle – as if to assist Nick – with the scissors, like Kyle’s weakness was something she needed to snuff out.
The hospital called one morning as my father was poaching eggs. My grandmother. She was improving.
My father put a Debussy CD into her boombox when we arrived at the hospital. In the ward, my mother squirted liquid soap into a steel bowl and diluted it for a sponge bath. “Claire de Lune” was muffled by the sound of water hitting the bowl, wrung from the sponge. I sat next to my grandmother, on her mattress, trimming her fingernails with a small pair of manicure scissors.
“I don’t deserve this,” she said, on the verge of weeping.
But we kept on fixing her up.
I don’t remember when Alice stopped coming to class, but we carried on as if she’d been there. I went on playing foursquare and soccer baseball. I went to church. For a few months, it was as if my memories of Alice had been erased. Then one night, I eavesdropped on my mother, again through the sliding doors.
“She had to be home-schooled, but they don’t have time. She couldn’t carry on and go to the hospital as much as she did. Collette told me her mother hired a Jordanian at Carleton to teach her fractions. Five times a week. That’s sounding desperate.”
Then, after not seeing Alice at all, I saw her everywhere. Leaning against the guardrails along the canal. Sitting in the park by the planters. In her gable through the maples. She seemed healthy. Her skin was unblemished, except for a pebble-sized green scab on her left temple. I ran into her and her mother one afternoon after school.
“Alice?” she said. “Aren’t you going to say hello to Connor?” Almost instantly, Alice bristled into a tight inauthentic smile, then proceeded to ignore me.
Another day, I saw Alice on Bank Street by Brent’s Pharmacy.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“My mom’s picking me up. We’re going to Tremblant.”
“You can ski?”
“I don’t know.”
When I saw her a week later, she said, “I didn’t ski. It was too risky. I thought I could toboggan, but all the hills were too steep. My mom had to tie a rope around her waist and pull me on a sled as she snowshoed. People pointed at me. I heard them laughing.”
That summer, when visiting Alice’s house, her mother showed me to their backyard, and there I saw Alice with snowshoes strapped to her feet, lifting her knees and swinging her arms to get her stance wide enough to take a step forward.
I finished grade school, then high school, then went on to university. I majored in philosophy. When I finished, I moved to Montreal to work as a street cleaner, picking up litter with a retractable claw. Old friends, people I’d lost touch with, asked me, “What happened to you? Why have you shut down? You could’ve been so much more.”
And I didn’t know how to answer.
Something happened to me in adolescence. I became neurotic, withdrawn, and spent my afternoons and evenings indoors with my PlayStation and tubs of Ben & Jerry’s. I wondered why I bothered with school, with jobs, with girls. My parents were disconcerted. We were upper middle class. They expected me, with all my privilege, to be grooming myself for the future. So they stood me in front of a mirror one morning with my shirt off, holding up photographs of me taken three years before, when I was thinner. “You need to pull yourself back,” they said. Many mornings after that, I’d stare at my reflection in the same mirror, baring my teeth at it or screaming.
I like taking drives outside Montreal to a small Anglo village by the Ontario border. It has stream-crossed walking trails, a café beside a used bookstore, and a revitalised main street. But I like this village most for a small craft shop down a sideways-sloping road. The shop is stocked by the local artist co-op. At the back of the shop, past the dyed glasswork, sculptures made of giant mushroom caps, and tables of knick knacks in tiny cotton-lined boxes, is a display of a hunk of smooth limestone with a Celtic knot carved into the top. The carving is total: if you look through the knot, you can see through to the other side. A description on a plastic stand says, The Celtic knot was often used by the Catholic church as a symbol of eternity, or the interconnectedness of all life and flesh.
In the summer of 2012, I drove to Ottawa to visit my mother. While in the car, I spoke to her on a Bluetooth headset in order to blow out as much conversation as possible so I could cut the visit short, from three nights to two. Farmland passed on my right. Long barns, grain silos, and mowed hay fields. The sky’s blueness changed to white.
“Do you remember Alice?” my mother said. “She died last week. Just after she had the baby.”
I was driving into the sunset. The light seemed almost solid yellow-orange. I could barely see the road.
“I didn’t know.”
“She gave birth in the spring. The C-section went fine – everyone thought it would take her, but she pulled through. They incubated. She’d only carried for seven months. But at the hospital, she cut her foot on a door frame. An infection.”
She paused, as if to find her words.
“Drug-resistant, too. She couldn’t beat it.”
“Who was the father”?
“Kyle. You remember.”
“How did that happen?”
“You never really know how people’s minds work, in the end.”
My visit ended up taking five days instead of four. We visited Alice’s house. Her mother took me to the baby’s crib in a converted guest room. A mobile of airplanes and ringed planets dangled from the headboard that had a carving of flowers. Below it, there he was, looking up at me. Crying and flushed and grasping at the air.