Rowe
Type
Fiction

A small cleared space

She’d set out later than she’d meant to, the four o’clock sun already sinking at her shoulder, threatening to drop behind the mountains and plunge the world into gloaming. But for now the surrounding woods were lit gold, and the frost blooming inside her visor together with the dark, vertical slashes of pine trunks flicking past made it all seem like old footage. Snow was banked up on both sides of the trail like a luge run, and she raced the ATV over other people’s tracks, trying to beat the coming dark. On either side the pines stood solemn, their branches clotted, cradling snow.

The peanut-shaped pond was nicotine yellow at its edges, ice all the way to the opposite bank. Strange for the time of year, but the freeze had come early, following a string of freak lows and silver thaws, and Wish assured her it was solid at the narrows and fine for driving on.

On the far bank his and Iona’s cabin crouched cowed in a small cleared space. It wasn’t an especially pretty thing to look at, just a boxy one-room with a single-pitch roof, built of whatever Wish and her father could salvage and haul out there in the ’70s. Its beauty was in its remoteness, its inaccessibility. There were two months of the year when it was entirely cut off, when the ice was either breaking up or still too thin to risk putting a foot on, let alone a bike. Even in the warmer months, the cabin had a solitude that had to be earned; a boat would have to be towed in behind an ATV along the ten kilometres of half-strangled trail.

One summer she’d brought Blake home to meet everyone, and the two of them had swum across to the cabin on a whim, each paddling one-handed, holding the neck of a liquor bottle, with Blake towing a makeshift foamboard raft piled up with their clothes and cigarettes.

She’d turned on her back and swam otter-like to watch him coming, the raft’s rope between his teeth like a limp weasel. Big smiley birddog, she remembers thinking.

She’d called out, Why do you have to do everything the hard way?, and he’d tried to respond but the rope made it impossible. Now she wondered what the words might have been.

 

Neisha set her teeth together and rolled the ATV onto the ice. There was a slight groan beneath the tyres, something she could feel rather than hear; a viscous fear in the belly, like when the floor drops out from a carnival ride. She held her breath and thumbed the throttle.

In a month’s time the entire pond system would be lidded over with three feet of ice, and people would ride their snowmobiles all the way to St John’s. A few years earlier a kid ran out of fuel trying to get to his father’s house in Witless Bay. He was found eight kilometres from the broken-down machine, curled up like he was sleeping. Last Christmas someone brought it up, how they’d seen his mother at the Costco, eyes like collapsed burrows, buying milk and macaroni dinner as if life was still worth living. Shame on her.

Oh come on – you can’t know. Blake had defended the woman. Who can keep their kids under surveillance 24-7? The aunts had flashed the look, the ‘outsider’ look, that Blake was thankfully either oblivious or indifferent to. Later Neisha had drawn her arms across her body, spoken aloud to her daughter through the muffle of wool and blood: Listen, you in there. Once you get out here I am never going to let you go.

 

Did Blake blame her, her body? No, of course not. Of course not. He’d held her tight by the shoulders and spoken close to her face. It was not her fault. She’d done everything right. They’d be more careful next time.

More careful, she thought, Less careless. It sounded, to her, like blame. (Why do you have to do everything the hard way?)

 

Things had slid off the rails in the fall. A footnote to a bad year, to this other disaster. She realised she felt just as cut off either way: alone in their Toronto apartment, curled up on the couch, chipping away at an Everest of backlogged emails (condolences, check-ins, appeals to go back to teaching other people’s children how to read, how to write, how to twist pipe-cleaners into vague animal shapes). Or the same thing, but with Blake pottering around in the background, trying to get her to eat things, drink things, laugh at things. These were two kinds of the same aloneness.

And this third kind, this middle-of-frozen-lake aloneness? It wasn’t so different. But there was something satisfying, even comforting in the magnitude of the surrounds, the physical apartness. It seemed important to feel small. Oh, she’s always been like this, she heard her mother murmuring into the phone at Christmas, some relative or other. Even when she was little. Remember the measles? Like a sick animal – she’d just hide herself away till she got better on her own terms.

 

The bike carried her over the bank, up on to land, and she parked it in the open-faced shed that housed firewood and a diesel generator. Neisha shook her hands out of her riding mitts and felt behind a fuel can for the key, hoisted the panniers off the bike and half dragged them across the snowy clearing to the cabin’s door. She fumbled the key against the lock, her hands untucked from their mitts and stupid in the cold.

She’d been expecting a friendly, musty squalor, the familiar disorder from her teenage visits, but she shoved the door open on a room that was prepped as if for a paying guest. Iona must’ve sent Wish out there that same day, or perhaps – it was possible, given the situation – he had thought to go himself. One of the bunk beds that lined the back wall was already made up with pillows and three layers of blankets. A few logs were stacked beside the wood stove and a nest of kindling waited to be lit. On the table a yellow chequered tea-towel swaddled a fresh loaf of dense molasses rye, and next to it a note read Dear Neesh, Welcome! followed by dot point instructions for the new generator.

From the panniers Neisha unpacked the supplies she’d brought out, adding them to the pantry shelves. These were stacked with field rations, as her uncle called them – tins of things that could be eaten cold if worst came to worst and there was no fuel, neither dry wood nor propane. Canned tuna, beans, pasta dinners. Bomb shelter food. There were also the perennial jars of home-preserved meat, replenished each fall when somebody got his moose. Metal screw-top lids corroding with spilled brine. Through the glass, Neisha saw the stringy pink meat and die-sized lumps of white fat. Strange webbing, like something preserved a long time ago in formaldehyde. She hid them behind tins of chilli and Italian wedding soup, foods whose contents were masked by bright paper labels.

While there were a few shreds of light left she went out to meet the generator, and startled a cat hunkered down amidst the pile of birch logs. A cub-sized black thing, yellow-eyed, its flattened ears finishing in owlish tufts. She hadn’t noticed it when she parked the bike, but it must have been there. Now it crouched yowling over a stumbling brood of half-blind kittens.

Stupid time of the year to be having babies, she told it. Don’t they teach you that in wildcat school? But the cat only spat more viciously, and the kittens, if they survived through to March, would grow into vicious things too. Wish would’ve shot the cat and melted a bucket of snow just to drown the kittens, Fer der own good.

Fine, she said, coaxing the generator into life before carefully extracting an armload of firewood from the cat’s adopted fort. Sweet dreams.

 

The body has no memory for pain. She’d read that somewhere and believed it was true. Now she knew it to be. The year had been an agonising parade of firsts, and each time her grief astonished her. She wondered if it would be easier to have something to point to; slipping in a wet stairwell, falling from a bike, getting rear-ended at an intersection. But then there would just be different whys, equally useless, and there would still have been enough room for guilt, cunning shape-shifter, to creep in at the edges.

When she’d come home from the hospital she found that Blake had pushed all of the baby’s things into the spare room – that’s what it was demoted to, a spare room – and locked the door.

Have you set up a hydroponics lab in there? she asked. She felt equal measures of pity and disgust at him thinking he could screen her from any of it. It was his loss too, she knew, but not his failure. It was not his body that seemed simultaneously to mourn and to deny the loss of the child, producing milk, making provisions where none were needed.

Come on, she said, I’m not a fucking kid. He gave her a wounded look along with the keys, and she went in there and wailed amidst the crib, the bassinet, the pastel drifts of bunny rugs soft animals. Couldn’t it at least have happened sooner? Before they were fitted out with all this stuff? Of course the stores took things back under such circumstances, some sort of policy, but who had the energy? Other people, apparently. Her brother-in-law Jacob had come with the truck, while her sister Molly had helped sort through the receipts and credit card statements. The gifts though, the hand-knitted giraffes and mittens and red felt Mary Janes – what could you do with those? Hold onto them, Molly said. You’ll try again. It’s hard to think about now, but you will. She had nodded, knowing she wouldn’t.

 

From one of the water bottles she filled a saucepan and set it on the stove, stirring in a few tablespoons of powdered milk as it heated. When the milk had dissolved through she splashed a little into a saucer and left it outside the door for the cat to find. To the rest she added cocoa and peppermint sugar, then rolled a thin joint from the pot Jacob had snuck her at Christmas, when she’d told him she wasn’t sleeping so well these days.

Hot chocolate and cheeba; a passport to seventeen. She wanted the soundtrack that went along with it, Castaways and Cutouts or Tallahassee on the stereo, something she knew all the words and could sing to, paid twenty-five cents to light a little white candle ...

But there was no sound system out here save an old radio and a portable cassette player with a modest assemblage of tapes and flat batteries. She fell asleep to CBC, waking at midnight to the dampened thuds of fireworks going off in the village, and remembering: New Year’s Eve. Like a child she went over to the window to look. Across the pond the trees looked soft, naked maple and dogberry with branches furred at the edges, like soft-furred at the edges velvet antler fuzz. She waited and heard another smatter of distant explosions, but none of the shed-made roman candles or the store-bought jitterbugs made it above the sooty treeline. There was just the faint glow of them spread through the dense sky, and she took herself back to bed.

In the morning she opened the door and saw the milk was still there, now solid and opaque in its saucer. The cat didn’t trust her, and why should it? It had gotten this far. Still, she felt rebuffed. Outside the day was bright and clear. A good day for it, a man’s voice in the back of her mind, falsely cheerful. She thought she recognised the voice as her father’s or grandfather’s, she wasn’t sure. She pressed – a good day for what, exactly? – but no response came.

 

New Year’s day, the last of the firsts. A year ago she’d woken to the smell of frying potatoes and eggs, Blake cooking a hangover breakfast despite the mutual lack of hangover. Look, there’s a right way and a wrong way to start a year. The right way is smash browns. He’d pointed a spatula at her. Back to bed, I’ll bring a tray. But this morning she cut a doorstop from the molasses rye and folded it over itself to eat while getting dressed.

 

Which film had been playing at the Royal that evening? It seemed impossible that she could not remember this now, when she remembered so many other details: the pale grey winter dress (now ruined), the face of the usherette, the smell of popcorn left to burn. Miss? You’re, uhm … Blake’s hands shaking as he tried to turn his cell back on. Somewhere, perhaps, in a coat pocket or a wallet, there were ticket stubs.

 

Stepping down from the cabin and into the snow she listened to the pines overhead, brittle with frozen sap and creaking like the rigging on a ship. She’d come out with vague ideas of ceremony, memorial. A package of tiny woollens, knitted animals, an engraved silver spoon. She wasn’t sure what she would do. What was fitting. Something would present itself. Years ago she’d read about cultures who buried babies in the hollows of trees, then sealed them over with mud or resin. Something like that. Or else she was going to take the hand auger out to the middle of the pond and drill a hole there, feed each item through to the water beneath, the tiny clothes in peach and pink, the toy giraffe, the silver spoon.

But it all seemed pointless now. Stupid. Leaving things to rot and tarnish in a squirrel hole or in the lonely dark of the pond. She knew there’d be no comfort in it.

Eight months. That close. She felt like howling. She might howl. This was a place where she could howl. Instead she said her name and it sounded just as forlorn. Her own name, as though calling herself back from the treacherous edge of something. It was involuntary, this utterance, this name-noise, and so she guessed this must be the purpose of it: come back, come back get away from there.

She brushed snow off the step and sat there, feeling the bulk of the package under her coat. The weight of a child asleep on her chest – it was something she’d been looking forward to. The nurses had put the baby there for a minute and in the year since she’d often found herself reaching up and pressing her hand against the spot, trying to reproduce the exact pressure.

Across the clearing the cat emerged from the woodpile, carrying a kitten in its mouth. It ran across the snow on stocky legs, giving Neisha and the cabin a wide berth, its bedraggled little bundle swinging pendulously.

Neisha watched as it trotted out across the ice, wondering what safer place it could have found.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Josephine Rowe is the author of two short story collections and a novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (UQP, 2016). Her third collection of stories, Horse Latitudes, is forthcoming from Black Inc. in 2019.

More by