Monday, June 27, 2005

from “Missing Persons” (a work-in-progress)

From the time she was small, Alberta could see forever; she could see through walls. When her dog ran away from home, she watched it for three days across the prairie. The storms as they came in, and the swirls of dust and light that created accidents on the horizon. Of buildings, hills and trees that she knew where not there. What she could see between.

A few miles to the south, the valley. Invisible, until you were on it. The two sides that folded together like an envelope, sealing everything in. A swath in the brown earth a green scar, where stitch of water ran. Beneath the earth. Beneath her view.

Looking back to the house, she could see her brother Paul, walking out from the house to find her. In dress pants and jacket, his hair slicked back with comb, face cleaned with swipe and spittle. She watched him, walking up and over the lump they called hill, long before Paul could see her. Indistinguishable from the mounds of earth or bushes. Alberta a smudge on pale horizon.

Still. As varied as her places were, for escape in whatever form, Paul knew them all. He could feel her on his skin.

Deaf from birth, there were six years between them.

As he got closer, he saw her. He signed. Come back to the house, Paul said, mother is looking for you.

It was the day of their father's funeral. Three days after the truck had rolled, crushing his pelvis at the end of a speeding curve. Where did he have to go so quickly, she wondered. What she knew not to ask.

Alberta was fourteen years old, and she wondered about the end of her life. Approaching from the house, Paul saw Alberta rise to her feet and move toward him, brushing flecks of green and gold from her legs and hair. Paul turned and ran ahead, back through the weeds and the underbrush. Back through the branches and the fence. The dirt path between fields, dual tire ruts as old as anything, that led back to the barn.

Alberta saw their mother wearing her best dress, standing outside beside Mr. Cooley's green pick up truck. Her dark eyes red forever from crying.

Her parents were very old, born and married to that place before. The old country. A fiction to her, but a story told with every breath. A history of countless wars and thick skin, of myths that multiplied and overlapped and spoke in the air. Tales of Baba Yaga. Alberta, named for the destination that they never quite made. Born en route, her parents arriving on new world soil and giving her birth. Giving her breath on a Montreal shore. Two weeks before they moved again.

The day after her father’s funeral, Alberta in the local pool, a floor below the hockey arena. One-piece suit and goggles tight over eyes and white cap over her thick dark hair. The world at this moment becomes mercurial, almost uteral. Alberta dreams of one day becoming an olympic swimmer. Her father used to joke, only in these prairies could anyone dream of being an olympic swimmer. Only in this dry, mutable heat.

Her father always thought it strange, and her mother too, but there was never any argument. In larger prairie towns, the hotels boasted pools and water slides alongside other perks such as colour television and free cable. A benefit for those completely rural, or simply passing through. To escape for a weekend of collecting supplies. Foreign concepts introduced no longer foreign, as they became indelible. As much the land now as wheat, and cracks in the soil.

For her parents, to Alberta, even older than the soil, the notion remained foreign. Foreign, but unchallenged. Drives to the pool twice a week after school and once on Saturday for her to swim laps. Her mother, with constant book or magazine on imaginary shore. Harlequin romance novels, or Chatelaine. Waiting behind glass in the hall instead of beside the pool. The scent of chlorine a bad perfume. As she said, the damp always bothered her skin. Left welts the size and shape of a slap.

To Alberta it made perfect sense. Only on the prairie dry as dry would she dream of such a thing. Would she even dream. An absence from her pores she deemed necessary. To immerse herself in this weightless environment. Outside, beyond the protective glass, she would go through lip balm by the case, her father said, and often did. Soaked up into her. Strawberry, grape flavours soothing skin. During the drive home, her lips would always come out cracked.

In the community pool, Alberta lives between the strokes. Thrives. A creature born of water. Weightless and aiming her body like an arrow, legs and arms tight in a path drawn a straight line, thrust from one end of the pool to the other. Her only goal is speed. Speed, and breathing. But anything can be held.

For the time she exists in the pool, all else around her is suspended.

Alberta has seen what kills fathers – farm equipment, disease, physical labour. The cost of what they do against the land, above it. For mothers, it became more devious, killed by what was not. Living their lives beneath, instead of the surface of land. An absence. By the immediate lack that tore through bodies, and shriveled up what was left. She could see it in her mother, the part of her father that existed in her suddenly gone, as physical as had her lungs been removed as she slept, or her heart. What she could not live without.

For her mother, it was as though a switch had gone. Immediately moving to overtake the other role, but without the innate ability to quickly adapt. Her resources here stretched thin as it was.

Her mother moved through her day and days and withered. Rose into and eventually waned, like the moon.

Alberta remembers her first crush. Brian Friesen behind the skating rink when she was twelve years old. His round face and freckles, red hair like fire. The thin hairs on his arm that stood up, as his arm brushed up against hers. Glowed yellow against his freckles and permanent tan. The tight fist of veins constricting in both their chests when they were close, a proximity that made the whole enterprise dangerous, and exciting. The word “heaved,” that she had read in one of her mother's pulp novels that to them, didn't mean a thing. The flesh of their hands that burned like wax in equal vice and first kiss, melting away the borders. They were the same.

They were the same for a week, maybe two, before he did the same with the Simpson girl a grade ahead with the early breasts and flirty mouth and that was that.

Alberta, suddenly on the wrong side of a line she hadn't drawn.

If Alberta was a creature of water, Paul was a creature of land. Permanent shovel and dog by his side, the two digging holes and pulling out one thing, to replace with another. Secret treasure, and stories of pirates. Paul with a bandanna on his head. Construction paper scraps, a parrot.

In the field by the tree line, an abandoned boat slowly rotting into the ground, where Alberta and Paul would make up stories of lost ships, and weeks out at sea. Leaping out from the dusty sides into what the two of them shared, but in dreams. An ocean of land.

Alberta considered the water. It was a day during the week she would have done laps. What else she would lose. Paul's dog in the bushes tearing at roots, and gopher-holes. Barking where Paul couldn't see. Paul with a shoe box of costume jewelry as his treasure-chest. Once hers when she was younger, and used to play dress-up.

A mess of wind swirling spirals of dusty snow. A horizon without end.

Alberta swam back to shore. This is not what she wanted. Through some demented accident of birth and geography. She took some comfort there, in the sheer randomness, but knew this was not where she is meant to be. She returned to the house.

Alberta is slight; has a dancer's body. Lithe. Small. Almost wiry but more muscular. A soundless music that wove through her head, that followed her in rhythm as she walked. What her mother had done before her parents were married, what she did when they met. She had what her mother had, a form that could cleave through air and water equally, as though she were a knife. A jagged edge.

Three weeks after the funeral, Alberta's mother informed her that the weekly swimming would have to end; that they could no longer afford her membership to the community centre. It was a crushing blow.

At the kitchen table, Alberta’s mother, Emma held her cup of tea, warming her hands. Her husband had been dead and buried for three weeks, far from the country where they had been born, and their parents in turn. Alberta had come in through the back door, dropping her school bag on a chair, and opened the refrigerator. A parcel of torn envelopes and papers on the table. Alberta, she began, Alberta.

There would be no more swimming. There would be no more for so many things. Waiting on the insurance money for a new truck. The cost of funerals, even at cremation. None of this was explained to her; none of this would have mattered. It only mattered her mother.

Alberta, wide eyes turning thin, like daggers. Shooting sparks. Alberta slamming the fridge door and storming out of the room. Out of the house. Gone.

Alberta imagined Lot’s wife, or was it Job, from Bible studies. Turning to witness the destruction of their abandoned city, friends and neighbours both, to be turned by a vengeful God into a pillar of salt. A pillar of salt. Alberta wondered if this meant a small block of salt replaced where her body stood, or if the shape of her body was reformed in hard salt. As the rest of them ran, a statue of blue-white standing suddenly still.

She wondered, too, if this nameless wife began to melt with the first rain, or was dry enough in the desert that grains would begin to loosen and drift in the unforgiving wind, hammering down on salt flesh. A wind no different than her life long prairie.

Like a fish needs a bicycle. Alberta out of the water standing cool, dry behind the house where she lives. Her skin already beginning to flake.

That next morning, she noticed, bits of dead skin already appearing on her pillow.

Two months after her father died, the snow on the ground like a cancer. Alberta stomped her feet with each step, made snow-bloody footprints across the yard.

There was no part of this that she liked. Not that her approval made much difference. Her mother's swift betrayal with a man from town she barely knew. Who drove a truck down highway one, and had a beard. She would not call him father. She refused. Not that she had been asked. She braced herself for the blow. She imagined it as a bat, swung hard into the bulls-eye of her stomach.

Alberta felt herself bend at the thought of the blow, hands reaching for her abdomen. A cramp. Sympathy pains for her own imagined wound? No. A real cramp. Again. Hell damn, she thought. She swore under her breath. All she knew how. She made her slow way across the yard to the kitchen door. All the time, the wind whipping snow and geography around the house.

What if I die tomorrow, Alberta wondered. What if I die. And then, she thought, where would they be.

At school, Alberta’s best friend was a girl named Mary. Feral red hair, long and indistinguishable from the autumn hills. Layers of coloured clothes, and whose mother was about as different from her own as could be. Wild, exuberant. A visual artist, a painter, spending long hours and days in her studio in the old barn slashing abstract oils onto large canvasses. Her father, a painter too, but more quiet than his wife. Working his system of rabbit skin sketches, inspired by Dutch masters, painting 17th century lace so realistic that Alberta was afraid to even breathe in front of them. Afraid they would move, and shake her sense of reality to its foundations.

At Mary’s house, there were many absences. An empty house as her parents worked.

At Christmas, Mary and her mother baked hundreds of cookies in dozens of animal shapes, each painted by hand by the two women. Mary's mother, shortening her daughter's name to initial Em. A sound that closed seamlessly into itself. Alberta thought of her mother.

Alberta and Mary would spend afternoons in one of the fields or behind the house, after a quick pilfer from Mary's mother's studio, and lie in the snow-dusted weeds in a smoke-coloured haze. Before Mary, Alberta had never even heard of pot smoking. She had barely considered cigarettes, watching the old men on the step of the general store as though they'd been born there and forever since, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the rain to begin, and commenting on it all the while, interspersed with stories of what used to be, when they were younger men.

The day the old men made the mistake of commenting on Mary’s wild hair and clothes, a stitch and a creepy smile, and the fire in her eyes that left a swift kick on the calf of the closest one. The light that tore red through her skull. A filament of Metis blood boiling beneath her skin, mixed in with what else. Russian, Scottish, American. An ethnic soup that raged from fingertip to fingertip. Alberta knew, this place would not hold her. Alberta knew, she would be the first to leave.


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