I could pass an hour or more on a summer afternoon practicing the bouncing ball game One Two Three Alairy on the driveway. The basic routine for the four-line nonsense poem involved four bounces a line, the end of each line complicated by swinging a leg between hand and ball on the last bounce. If I made it through the poem with my right hand, I’d repeat the routine on the left. With a successful performance on the left, I allowed myself to proceed to the next, more difficult execution: clapping my hands between each bounce, clapping behind me, over my head, beneath my leg, jumping both legs over the ball. Sometimes I would demand of myself a flawless routine, starting again at the very beginning if I hit the ball with my leg or failed to catch it.
My father worked in the sewers of a steel mill and my mother asked for our new house to include a separate room for him to shower in when he got home. In addition to the shower, the room had a toilet, simple sink, and mirrored medicine cabinet. The cabinet had little in it. A toothbrush for dentures, some toothpaste, a safety razor, shaving soap, and a bottle of Gripe Water my older sister had brought home from a babysitting job with the recommendation that it was useful for curing hiccups. I don’t recall it ever working. During one episode of hiccups, I concentrated on just how much I disliked the taste of Gripe Water on the theory that my aversion to taking a dose could motivate a breath held long enough to defeat the malady.
The first meal I made for myself was lunch: a lettuce sandwich. White bread. Mayonnaise. Iceberg lettuce. And a glass of milk.
“Don’t you think I know none of you like me?”
It seems unjust that this is the only line I can remember from a fight I had with my sister in the middle of an afternoon. It would have been either July or August, the months she was home from boarding school. I stood at one end of the sofa, the end her feet pointed towards. She had been propped against a pillow, reading, but by the time she cried out this truth, she was lying on her side and sobbing.
My parents took in boarders, a series of female first grade teachers who lived in a main floor bedroom and ate meals at the same time as the family and Selkirk Steeler hockey players who slept in the basement and didn’t.
Once, my parents were away for a week and I was left in the care of the teacher. I do not remember why they were away, only that we wanted the house to look beautiful on their return. I brushed the entire wall to wall carpet in the living room with a palm-sized clothes brush. It looked perfect. It showed every footstep.
One year, there wasn’t enough money for a Christmas tree. Santa left the presents lined along the living room wall. I received an Ootpik, a stuffed toy replica of a long-haired, arctic comic strip character I enjoyed. It’s felt nose reminded me of a carrot. I dutifully slept with it.
I stood at the top of the steps in our bare and empty garage and read from my mother’s bedside book of daily devotionals as though they were sermons and the rake and the snow shovel congregants. The floor was cement, the acoustics excellent.
I wanted to be a preacher. With solemnity, I confessed my dream to my father. He was watching television and recording church offerings, entering numbers off offering plate envelopes onto the pages of a ledger. My idea pleased him. I could tell it made sense to him. It was the one time I landed on a spot on the pretend-the-future game board that seemed to make him proud. I heard it as a note in his voice when he said, “I think we should tell Pastor Kornfeld.” Heard it again, Sunday morning, at the door to the church, shaking hands with the minister: “Pastor Kornfeld, Michelle has something to tell you.” Proud. Pleased with me.
This is it, I thought. This is how good things begin. This is how you start to shape your life. You begin when you are ten. You start your studies when you are ten. Then you can make your dream come true.
Pastor Kornfeld’s face transformed before my uplifted one.
“You couldn’t possibly become a minister. That would be heresy. You’re a girl.”
I drew courage from the silence, the absence of laughter. My mother was still at the dining room table. The teacher and my father had gone to bed, no evidence left in sight of the supply of construction paper circles they’d all been creating for a classroom project. My mother worked alone, papers and envelopes in stacks before her. The kitchen behind her was in darkness, the light above the table the only one on. I stood at the end of the hall, next to the built-in mahogany china cabinet, wearing a filmy, layered nylon nighty with lace straps. My feet were bare. I held my elbows for warmth.
My mother neither got up nor called me to her. When I was finished, she said simply, “Ok, now you’ve told me. Go back to bed.”
My brother slept in what had been intended to be a sewing room. It was a doorless space at the far end of our long house, on the other side of the doors to the garage and the backyard, on the other side of my father’s shower room. The closet in this room was designed for storing winter clothes. It was lined with cedar and airless. I hid there once in a game of hide and seek. The seeker tattled and my triumph was marred by rebuke. I was never to hide there again.
After watching gymnasts on television in the basement family room, I set two wooden chairs facing each other, stripped to my tights and undershirt, and leapt over them. I made it three times. Tired, I caught my foot on the fourth leap and hit my head on the cement floor. My father called my bruise a beauty of a goose egg.
My brother thought it would be helpful to use lubricant. The first product he tried was Vicks VapoRub. Although he kept it on his windowsill, I asked him the next time not to use it.
The bedroom closets had wooden folding doors. The teacher kept a carton of cigarettes in blue packages on the right corner of the shelf and often left an open pack on her dresser.
In the evening, the teacher and my mother would work together at the dining room table, my mother preparing for the kindergarten class she taught, the teacher marking awkward printing guided by solid and dotted lines. My father was often with them, making cigarettes by filling filtered paper tubes with tobacco with a hand operated machine. They talked and joked together as they worked.
I began with the open pack and wasn’t accused until I’d taken from the closet.
When the hair on my legs grew dark, I shaved during a bath using the blade in my mother’s sewing kit, holding it by the edge covered with electrical tape.
1. The children of a person or couple.
My sister’s first child was a dog. One hundred and sixty pounds of mastiff. Jowls hung to her throat, oozing slobber tentacles that reached out and grabbed my calves with each swing of her head. A full shake extended their reach to disturbing places. The dinner table. My cheek. I suppressed gags as my sister laughed and handed me tissues. To her, everything the dog did was adorable.
In December the dog, Marlowe, came to stay with me. Her parents were going away. They stuffed her into their hatchback and drove out of the city, past the glass-walled high-rises, past the commercial buildings that claimed the first edges of farmland. Exiting the highway, they took narrow roads that wound around half-frozen lakes and through small towns dusted in snow until they arrived at my house. Our twelve acres include a small lake, but the rest is mostly forested, rendering the neighbours, who had left to spend the winter in Florida, and our dead-end road out of sight. It is a peaceful place. Secluded.
The dog lumbered from my sister’s car while my sister unloaded Marlowe’s things (favourite blanket, special ball). Marlowe spotted my four-year-old daughter, Taia, and hurried to her. The dog had a strange gait when she rushed, like an elephant seal thundering across the ground. She thrust her front legs forward, then her rear half followed, careening into the front half, causing her fat to ripple in waves. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth by the time she covered the short distance.
“I don’t know.” My sister pursed her lips as she surveyed the area. “She’s never been somewhere unfenced before. What if she runs away?”
Now playing, Taia ran in wide circles and Marlowe panted and slobbered and elephant-seal-thumped after her, unable to keep up. The dog looked ready to keel over already. She was too big to run around, never mind run away.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll take good care of her.”
On Marlowe’s third day with us, I stood inside the kitchen, watching through the glass door to the backyard as Marlowe and Taia played next to the lake. Taia made a snowball and threw it. Marlowe thumped after it and stuck her face in the snow, looking for the ball that had crumbled on impact. The lake stretched out behind them, its surface a mixture of slush and ice. Dark water rimmed its edge, the ice not having yet grabbed hold of the land. A stream entered it from marshland on the eastern edge and its flow had kept that area from freezing. Where the stream joined the lake, black fingers of water spread out through the ice to the lake’s centre, holding on to the last remnants of autumn. But between the fingers and the edge, winter had laid claim.
Not having found the snowball, Marlowe turned back to Taia and barrelled forward, picking up speed. For a moment I thought she might careen into Taia, but her course was to my daughter’s side. She was making a break for the lake.
I was on the back porch before she hit the ice.
“No, Marlowe. Stop!”
Taia was shouting too.
Marlowe elephant-seal-thumped onto the ice and kept barreling across it. The ice held. We shouted. Marlowe ran. Over and over again, her movements made her folds of fat and loose skin stretch taut then ripple together like a giant accordion.
Ten metres from shore. Twenty. Thirty.
That was my sister’s baby out there.
“Come, Marlowe. Come!”
I was standing in the snow at the edge of the pond with only my socks on my feet when Marlowe went through the ice.
2. A person or people to be treated with a special loyalty or intimacy because of their relation to one another.
Marlowe’s head popped up through the hole in the ice. Jowls and slobber and eyes wide open. We called to her from shore. Her front paws frantically clawed the ice, but grabbed hold of nothing.
Taia lurched forward. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She looked up at me. “She’s going to die, Mommy. You can’t let her die.”
I rushed Taia back to the kitchen, told her to stay inside, stuffed my wet feet into my boots, and raced to the garage. Our canoe spent its winters there. I grabbed the canoe by its sides, hoisted it over my head and ran with it back to the lake. The ice held the weight of the canoe and I clambered in. Using the paddle, I pushed the boat along the surface of the ice until I reached Marlowe. Leaning over the edge of the canoe, I reached into the water, grabbed the dog’s collar, and pulled. That was when the canoe broke through the ice and I found myself, still in the boat, stuck in the same water pocket as the dog. I tried again to pull Marlowe up, but couldn’t raise her even a smidge. She was so heavy that the action only teetered the canoe and I knew it would flip over if I pulled harder.
I paused and realized what I had done. It was ten degrees below freezing. I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and boots. My hands were losing mobility from the icy water. I couldn’t get the canoe back onto the ice and I couldn’t get the dog into the canoe. The only person around to help was the four-year-old staring at me through the kitchen door.
3. A group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.
I motioned to Taia and she stepped outside.
“Everything is going great,” I said. “But I need you to help me with something. Okay?”
She nodded her head.
“I need you to phone 9-1-1. Tell them that a dog has fallen through the ice and that your mom is stuck in a canoe.”
Taia disappeared back into the house. I started thinking about our phones. They were all cordless and fancy with flat screens instead of buttons. The numbers seemed to bleed together. Taia had never made a phone call before.
I had another idea. Wrapping my stiff fingers around the handle of the paddle, I held it up in the air and then thrust it down against the ice on the edge of the opening that led to shore. Vibrations surged through me as the paddle bounced off the surface. I tried again and again, determined to chisel a channel from our water pocket to shore, thinking Marlowe and I could follow it to land. But the ice fought back, sending needles into my numbing hands with each clash between it and the paddle.
Our isolation struck me. Not only would no one happen past, but my husband would neither arrive home nor call. My husband, Giles, captained a ship. He sailed the world and Taia I joined him frequently in foreign ports. But he didn’t live with us. He lived at sea. We would “meet up” every day for our video computer chat, using Skype. We had a great family, but it didn’t fit conventional models. “Unorthodox,” my great-aunt had called it with a tight-lipped smile. “Not really a family,” she said. “Because families live together, under the same roof.”
My effort to dig the channel seemed futile, but still, I raised the paddle to strike again. I thrust down with all my strength. At that moment, the idea of someone else living under the same roof had an appeal. The paddle cracked on impact and a chip of its wood shot across the ice towards that unreachable shore.
Taia emerged onto the porch. “I can’t make the phone work.”
I laid the paddle down in the canoe, defeated. “It’s okay.”
“Mommy,” she said. “Where’s Marlowe?”
4. Designed to be suitable for children as well as adults.
The mass under the surface was descending. Leaning over the edge of the canoe, I plunged my arm into the water. Grabbing Marlowe’s collar, I pulled her to the surface. She breathed immediately. A good sign. Her eyes were scared and her gaze clung to mine.
“Marlowe, you must stay up. You can do this.”
When I released her collar, she slipped under the surface again. She had given up. I pulled her up and repeated the same process. I could feel Taia watching. I didn’t want her to see this. This wasn’t for a child to witness.
“Taia, go back inside. Call Daddy on Skype.”
She couldn’t operate a telephone, but she knew well how to call Giles on Skype. That was her normal. Giles would be nearing the western coast of Africa on his ship. He could do nothing for Marlowe, but he could buffer Taia from the unfolding of events.
Marlowe’s loss of hope sent panic through me. I attempted again to heave her from the water. I pulled and pulled as the canoe tipped and dipped beneath me.
In the kitchen, Taia called Giles, who later relayed to me the following conversation:
“Hi.” Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “Marlowe is in the lake. She fell through the ice.”
“Mommy is there too.”
“In the lake.”
“Did Mommy fall through the ice?”
“Mommy fell through the ice and is in the lake?”
“Taia, look out the window and tell me exactly what you see.”
“Okay.” Long seconds pass. “I see Marlowe’s head sticking through the ice and Mommy’s bum in the air and her face almost in the water and the canoe almost tipped over.”
“Mommy is in the canoe?”
“Yes. She is trying to pull Marlowe out.”
“Okay. I need you to go outside and tell her to stop doing that. Tell her that I said she needs to stop doing that right now.”
Taia did as he instructed and the voice of my husband, relayed through our child, stopped my panic. I heard him like he was there with me. Yes, I had to stop. Whatever happened, I couldn’t allow myself to fall in. For Taia’s sake.
I looked at the stream that flowed into the lake from the marsh. That bank was farther from us than the one we had set off from, but it seemed plausible that the ice would be thinner on that side. Could I chisel a channel in that direction and reach that more distant shore? I wanted to try, but first I needed to let go of Marlowe’s collar.
I told Marlowe I needed to let go, told her I needed her to stay up on her own. Slowly, I released her collar. She stayed up. I praised her and her head lifted higher above the surface. I picked up the paddle, but as soon as I stopped talking to her, she began to sink. I called to her again – “You can do this!” – and she struggled her head up higher. To keep fighting, she needed our connection, but I needed to turn and try to break the ice. And so I sang.
It was a ridiculous song that came to mind– the theme song from Taia’s favourite TV show, The Wonder Pets. In the cartoon, three talking animals set off to rescue other animals. Aslong as I kept singing, Marlowe’s head stayed above the surface.
I sang and lifted my paddle into the air. I thrust it down against the edge of the ice that led towards the marsh. The ice cracked. I sang and thrust again and again. Chunks broke off.
Still on Skype with Taia, Giles phoned my mother, who was an hour away from our location. My mother called 911. The 911 operator called our house. Taia answered the phone and managed to put it on speakerphone. Taia held the phone up to the laptop and Giles relayed what he knew to the operator. My mother has a farm ten minutes from our house. She called her farmhand to see if he was in the area. He wasn’t, but he called a friend who worked as a farmhand nearby. I kept chiselling and singing and singing and chiselling. Marlowe kept her head up.
Taia stepped onto the porch with the laptop. She heard the song and joined in. “. . . and Ming-Ming, too! We’re the Wonder Pets and we’ll help you!”
Giles started singing, too. “What’s gonna work? Teamwork!”
The farther I got into the channel, the thinner the ice. It broke apart easily as we bellowed the song together. “Wonder Pets! We’re on our way, to help a dog and save the day! We’re not too big and we’re not too tough, but when we work together we’ve got the right stuff!”
I had lost so much mobility in my hands from the cold that, by the time I made my last strike against the ice, finishing the channel, I was operating the paddle by using one arm in a wing-like fashion and the other hand as a club.
Marlowe had stayed put, so I paddled back to her. I called for her to follow me through the channel. She wouldn’t. I pleaded, but Marlowe wouldn’t follow and I couldn’t pull her and paddle at the same time. She didn’t understand that all she had to do to live was swim that channel. After everything, I couldn’t do it alone. I needed someone else to be physically there.
As I faced that impasse, a truck drove down our driveway. A man I had never seen before raced from the truck to the lake. I paddled to him. There were no greetings or introductions. Tears welled in my eyes as he climbed into the canoe.
“She won’t swim it,” I said, canoeing back to Marlowe. “Pull her by the collar and I’ll paddle.”
And he did. And I did. We hit the bottom close to shore. The stranger jumped straight into the icy water, scooped Marlowe’s massive body up in his arms and carried her the final steps. On shore, we threw our arms around her and each other.
The fire truck, police car and ambulance arrived. Paramedics tended to Marlowe. She had spent over thirty-five minutes in the icy lake and she was okay. Her big, blubbery body had protected her.
My great-aunt came to stay with us that Christmas and my mother recounted the story of Marlowe’s misadventure, marvelling at how many people came together to help.
My great-aunt turned to me and said, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
I knew what she meant. “But I had to,” I said. “What else could I have done?”
“You should have left the dog there.”
We looked at each other in silence. I couldn’t respond. She wouldn’t understand. She was telling me that it would have been wrong to die saving a dog. It wasn’t that I disagreed with her. I just knew that family meant something bigger.
Orange Soda Paradise
Orange soda slides down my parched throat – each fizzy bubble burns and prickles. In my seven-year-old mind, these are tiny starbursts; I imagine the bright colours erupting in my throat like the sprinkles Maman put on my birthday cake in March. Later, I will associate the sensation with fireworks splaying fingers on the first of July. But not yet.
Right now, Maman, my brothers, my sister, and I are sitting in the shade of the tall shelterbelt that protects us from the wind that’s raging across southern Saskatchewan. We rarely see Lassie during the day, yet here he is panting at our feet. Even he has grown weary of the heat.
“It’d better rain soon, or we’re gonna have another goddamn drought,” I overheard Papa say to Maman in the kitchen this morning. Her cigarette was trembling between her lips; I was about to spring up and warn her, afraid the ash might fall into her lap, and she would burn herself. “And there’d better not be another goddamn hailstorm!” Papa slammed his angry fist onto the table, and the cups and plates danced a little. Maman flinched; her eyes looked frightened as she cowered closer to her side of the narrow kitchen, and I pushed myself deeper into the tight space between the cupboard and the stove.
With each slurp of sweetened citrus, it feels as though the bursting flavour creeps up my nose and then back down my throat to forge furrows through dust dunes piled high. The soda pop is a prize awarded for days of rock picking in the fields.
For at least a week we crouched low to the earth, bent like the scrub brush, fighting to stay vertical in a relentless wind, tossing rock after rock into the box of our rusted-out pick-up truck. Maman had coaxed my brother, Lynn, to stop throwing the rocks out of the truck.
“You said five more!” he screamed back at her. His red hair, matted with dirt, stood up in a mass of stiff snarls. The freckles glowed almost greenish on the bridge of his nose and across his cheeks and forehead.
Maman sighed and rolled her shoulders a few times. “Okay.” She tried to reason with him, her eyes downcast. “This time, I really promise, but we need to finish, or Papa will be very upset.” Did I imagine a shadow passing over her face? I looked up to the sky, but there was nothing but a glaring sun in a cerulean sky. “Maybe I’ll get you and Rachel your own bottles. I’ll share one with the little ones,” Maman negotiated.
The mention of Papa’s name was enough to silence Lynn. He hopped down from the box, and we kept filling the back until Maman signalled we’d done enough. We drove to the rock pile, Lynn and I each sitting on a wheel hub in the back, and unloaded. The sun beat down on my back, on my dark hair. Then we all piled into the cab of the truck, and Maman took us all the way to the tiny store in town.
On the way home, the wind blew through the open windows of the cab and we held the cold bottles to our blazing cheeks, anticipating the moment when Maman would fetch the bottle opener and pry off the metal caps. Lynn and I would make sure to catch them as they fell to the concrete pad in the shade of the elm trees.
We’ve started a bottle cap collection, but we don’t have very many, mostly just Papa’s beer caps we pluck from under the couch in the mornings when we stealthily creep about until he disappears to the fields.
As I run my fingers over the scarred bark of the trunk I’m leaning against, I imagine I’d be happy never to see another rock again. I lean against the wide trunk and squish my bare feet into cool leaf mulch that’s accumulated beneath the trees over the years. I do not realize it, but one day I will yearn to see the rock piles dotting our fields. I will crave the reward of hurling one rock from the top of the pile onto another, far below. I will mentally wait for the crack that neatly splits the rock in two, revealing jewelled worlds within.
As we sip orange soda in the heavenly shade, we are satisfied. This afternoon, there is neither heat baking our backs nor wind whipping through our hair. The orange soda is rare, and today, for the first time in our lives, Lynn and I have our own glass bottles to drink from. I tilt the bottle, swirl down the last swig and wait for the dregs to puddle on my tongue.