Folks, if you didn’t get a chance to pick up the most recent Black Bear Review issue at the launch, you can come buy one at the Kootenay Authors table the market in Nelson on Wednesday, July 11th and then every second Wednesday for the summer. Copies are also available at Otter Books and the Kootenay Gallery in Castlegar.
It always starts with two
Two who begin the thing
Who are the trunk of the tree
The trunk of this tree
History repeats, retreats
down the trunk rooted firmly
to feed from the first mother,
swallowing the whole of the world,
Those grand-folk stories at twilight
back every tangled direction,
set by generations before,
a family network trailed back
to an old-world order,
building blocks laid
13 billion years, before life,
At the beginning of time
in a resting period
when all was pure potential,
a pairing of form not yet made.
A limbo of all-alluring beauty,
Ah! The wait —
before the singularity moved
for no reason but that it could
And why not?
– a leap into nothing
holding all the possibility of a universe,
a charging thrust,
the first instant, a separation.
It always starts with two
Two who begin the thing
Who are the trunk of the tree
The trunk of this tree
Occasion reaches forward, recreating
up, branching recklessly,
blowing in the arms of the first father,
spit forth into the whole of the world,
Raucous grandkids at
forward every opportune direction,
stemming from generations before,
a family network expanding out
through birthed family order,
at the tips of branches,
Until the end of time
a flowering period
when beauty abounds,
a coupling not yet made.
A limbo of all-alluring potential,
Ah! The wait —
where bees will buzz
for no reason but to prosper,
And why not?
– the leap into a pollen-rich feast
holding all the possibility of fruit,
a deep dive,
another coming together.
It always starts with two
Two who begin the thing
Who are the trunk of the tree
The trunk of this tree
But what if the tree should be cut?
So then just go ahead —
Plant the seed
The one you’ve been saving
In your pocket
Since you last walked
The Old Growth Trail
Under the cedar
And gazed in awe at its girth,
the tangled sprawl down below the dirt
homing to a birthplace at the core,
the perfect straightness drawn up, beyond the sky
hooked to a point in the heavens
around which all-else spins.
That old cedar.
No other will do
Its seed-germ the recall
of all that came before, and
of trees yet to be.
So it goes
On and on
All my relations.
It always starts with two
Two who begin the thing
Who are the trunk of the tree
The trunk of history
Join us on Thursday, April 19th at Expressions Cafe, Nelson for a celebration of up-and-coming local writers at the Black Bear Review launch party, featuring readings from the current issue and from this year’s winners of the Kootenay Literary Competition.
Doors at 7
Readings at 7:30
Expressions Cafe, 554 Ward Street, Nelson
Admission by donation. All proceeds go to the Black Bear Review, an independent magazine edited and designed by Selkirk College Creative Writing and Digital Arts students.
New Canadians – First Place
On October 20, 1954, my mother and I boarded the ocean liner, Vulcania, from the port of Genoa, Italy. As I was very young, (almost 4 years old), the enormity of this trip did not fully register. However, I do have some recollections of the journey. I remember waving to my Nonno from the deck of the ship and my Mom crying, not knowing what this phase of our live would bring. I cried too, as the little white handkerchief that I was waving slipped out of my hands, and drifted slowly down into the water. The journey took 13 days, and the seas were rough. Mom did not have a good experience as she suffered from seasickness. I, however, was fine. One of the other passengers would take me to dining room for meals, and ensured that I was entertained.
On November 4, the liner arrived at the port of Halifax, N.S. I distinctly remember wet snow, a new experience for me, was falling as we entered a large, cold building nothing like the terminals at airports and ports today.
We were among the many passengers that disembarked and we stood in line to await our turn to be greeted by immigration officers. We had received clearance in Italy by immigration officers, and Canadian doctors ensuring we would be welcomed to Canada. I looked around and there I saw our big, brown wooden truck with the few possessions that we had brought with us.
The next phase of our journey was to take the train across Canada to a little town called Grand Forks, BC, where my Dad was living. He had arrived in Canada in 1953. Now a new adventure was beginning. The trip went smoothly until we arrived in Winnipeg. One of the other passengers had a young child who became ill. He and his mother were taken off the train so a doctor could examine him. As my mother tells me, the young lad had been eating too many chocolates. The said doctor insisted that we, too, were to be taken off the train. My mother adamantly protested, to no avail, that I was not ill. The porter took our suitcase off the rack and threw it out the window! Thus we had no alternative to alight from the train. Despite the fact the doctor determined that I was not ill and that we could continue on our journey, we were stranded in the Winnipeg station. By the time the doctor completed his examination the train had departed.
Mom was very upset and concerned about getting food for us. Fortunately, a kind employee showed Mom the way to a small store, not too far from the station, where she could buy some food.
The next morning we resumed our journey. It was onward through the Rockies toward our final destination, Grand Forks, B.C. There we waited until the next train arrived and we were once again on our way. As we continued o travel, I recall a couple on the train gave me a treat of salted peanuts. Mom tells me my reaction way “Non me piace”. I don’t like them!
It was dusk when we arrived at the Grand Forks station. I recall seeing my Dad wearing his grey hat and grey coat. As Mom and I stepped from the train, my Dad greeted us with a warm embrace. At last we were reunited!
Our small house was in a very welcoming neighbourhood. Mrs. Rossi, an earlier Italian immigrant, helped Mom when lack of English posed a problem. Hear and dear to me was Mrs. Lulu McCabe, a retired teach who kindly entertained me and helped me learn English. Mrs. McCabe and I would sit in her screened porch talking. She was so kind and generous. She was the first in the neighbourhood have a television. She invited us to watch “Don Amice” who hosted a circus show. After the show, we would be treated to tea and cookies.
Mr. James Donaldson whom we called “Mr. Jim” was also a welcoming neighbour. Shortly after our arrival he appeared at the door with a radio and his instructions to Mom to listen to the radio faithfully as this would help her learn English. In those days, there were no ESL classes for new immigrants, and so CBC became our teacher. To this day, both Mom and I are aficionados of CBC Radio. “Mr. Jim” became surrogate grandpa. Every Christmas, he would arrive at our home with gifts.
Over the years, our family grew with the birth of my three brothers. Mom and Dad continued to work hard to provide for our family. Dad became a millwright at the Grand Forks Sawmill and spent all his working days there. Mom, a talented seamstress, sewed countless garments for us, and for the ladies in the community.
My parents decided to move to Canada because WWII had devastated Italy and work was scarce. The yearning for a better life and more opportunities led them to make this daring move. Through hard work and great courage, my parents were able to provide us with all we needed. Education was their foremost desire for us. With their hard work ethic, guidance, and great love, they paved the way for us to achieve our goals and become productive members of society.
In 1986, my husband and I, and our two daughters travelled across Canada. This was an emotional journey for me as we stopped at the various cities that Mom mentioned in our family lore of our initial cross-Canada-journey, particularly Medicine Hat, Winnipeg, and pier 21, Halifax.
To this day, I thank my parents from the bottom of my heart for their courage and foresight in making this bold move. What a risk it was. Who knew what the outcome could be. This move proved to be the best thing they could have done for my brothers and me.
I am an incredibly proud Canadian and I thank Canada for calling for immigrants in the 1950’s. It is my hope that just as I was given this tremendous opportunity, our country will continue to be open and welcoming to others looking for a safe haven and a new beginning.
Adult New Canadian – First Place
I met the old man only once, almost 30 years ago. But his words of compassion and wisdom spoken to me in a heart-breaking situation changed my awareness of life forever. My gratitude for his gift is still present; just as much as my shame not even to have thanked him.
…And About Dreams, Farewells…
The first years of my life my family lived in a bombed-out city in post-WWII Germany. We resided in a wet, cold ruin with a shared smelly outhouse in the yard. Rain constantly dripping through the ceiling was the only running water source. However, playing in the remains of the destroyed chaos was always an adventure for us kids, scary, when we ran into traumatized adults and stranded hobos in rags and old army garment, all former rank badges carefully removed. They hunkered down in whatever shelter they found and either tried to chase us away or draw us near. Exciting, when we played WAR, the only game we knew. In fact, it was no play for us, it was real. Gangs of boys constantly and brutally fought over property control. Younger boys fought for power over housing blocks, older ones over roads, while the oldest battle for control of entire quarters in the city. Small girls like me were not accepted as soldiers but were tolerated to assemble ammunition in the form of clay and dirt balls with a stone inside. I came home always dirty, often bruised and bleeding – and got punished for returning so filthy with my precious clothing a mess. But nevertheless, next day was a war-day again.
I was six when my family moved to a small but newly-built apartment in a remote house outside of town. It was surrounded by endless wheat fields and other agricultural land, beautiful to watch when the wind moved the grains like waves. There were no playmates and playgrounds around, not even a yard or a garden. In this isolation I was lonely. The world of books became my universe which nourished my phantasies and dreams. And here my wish to have a dog became almost an obsession.
My dream unfulfilled until Ben, a beautiful short-haired black and white Border collie with tiny ears came to join my life. I was 25 then and a teacher. Three years later, unexpectedly and out of the blue, many other dreams came true.
The man I was having a love affair with called me at school.
“Could we meet after work? I want to show you something.”
It was a beautiful sunny spring day when we drove a narrow winding road to a remote forested valley just minutes outside a small village. He stopped at a dilapidated old Tudor style house romantically nestled under two big chestnut trees in full bloom and surrounded by slopes overgrown with forest and old fruit trees. Next to the house a big square pond with ducks and other water fowl nested. I could not believe my eyes when I spotted a rare kingfisher, beautiful in his opalescent feather coat. Behind the pond green meadows with flowers and willows stretched out as far as one could see with a creek meandering through it feeding the pond. Then the waters flew through a tunnel underneath the house before they fell over a huge rotten wooden millwheel. We were at an abandoned old water mill, a romantic and somehow unreal picture, just like one of the phantasy drawings in my childhood fairy tale books.
Never before had I seen a more beautiful and peaceful setting. No wonder I immediately fell in love with it.
“If you can imagine living here with me, I’ll buy the place,” my friend said.
Of course, my answer was yes.
He and I shared a great affection for nature, animals, and outdoor activities, and yes, I was in love with him. A few months later, when Ben and I moved in, the neighbour’s kids greeted me with two little female kittens, a long-haired black one with white paws and a grey tabby. I named them Black Panther and Yellow Tiger. Soon we got more and more animals and started to operate a hobby farm along with our professional lives.
My happiest moments every day came at feeding time after finishing farm work in late afternoon. I called the animals. Our horses, Dixie, my big chestnut gelding and hazel-coloured Syracuse, no matter how far away they were grazing, galloped to me at full speed. Tony, our big hand-tame deer buck and his herd of does and offspring raced to be fed by hand; the buck with his big antlers eager to get the most. Our chickens, ducks, house and Canada geese came from far and near, running, flying and swimming. Nick and Tim, my Canada geese kids, I had bred from eggs in an incubator and fostered after a fox had killed their parents, followed in my footsteps all the time anyway. Obviously they regarded themselves human rather than animal and stayed away from their bird species. Ben seriously performed his self-chosen herd-dog job gathering the sheep, Fanny and Frieda and their three little ones, who were already waiting at the gate of their pasture. The cats, four by then, watched the whole turmoil in Sphinx like grace sitting in the windows of the horses’ stables. I was perfectly happy. All my childhood dreams had become true.
I lived in my paradise for 11 years caring for my animals. But over time my partner, a workaholic businessman, and I slowly drifted apart. However, the day for me to move-out came almost as suddenly as my move-in-day a decade earlier when I learned that he had gone on a business trip with another women. Then and there I decided to leave. Within a week I arranged to join a roommate friend and her teenage son in their big old farm house. I packed my belongings, contracted a company to move my things.
A crew of three men arrived, two strong lads and an old man who looked far too weak for this kind of job. They worked hard, and although the youngsters did most of the heavy lifting, the old man did his share. We didn’t talk much. I was trying hard to keep the pain of leaving under control. From all my animals only Alex, my young Border collie, could go with me. He came after Ben and would share my life for the next 12 years.
When the truck was ready to go the old man gently touched my arm.
“I lost my wife and only son last year in a car accident,” he said in a soft, low voice. “Life goes on.” For a blink only we deeply looked into each other’s eyes. I recall his were dark, but I have forgotten his face. This very moment eased my sadness and an unexpected calmness replaced it. Not immediately, but time later after my sorrow had eased and I had thought more deeply about the old man’s words I became aware of what he had wanted me to know: whatever happens, in any situation, if we only see our personal feelings, our very own pain or happiness, we might lose the sense for what really matters in life.
Yes, I thought. I am 39, my life will go on.
…And New Beginnings…
Imagine the old man as a Gypsy Future-teller.
Let me read your palm and I’ll give you a foresight, he could have said.
I see how many wonderful surprises life will have for you. Very soon you’ll fall in love again. This time it’ll last. You’ll go on a big journey. You’ll quit teaching. You’ll move to a foreign country named Canada. You’ll find an even more beautiful paradise on the other side of the ocean. I see a log house in a lovely valley, at the banks of a crystal-clear untamed river, surrounded by forests of huge old trees and snow covered mountains and wildlife you never have encountered. I see you enjoying new activities. You’ll be underwater scuba diving, climbing tops of mountains, kayaking wild waters, canoeing uncrowded lakes, skiing down hills. You’ll be writing, filming and photographing. You’ll make new friends among humans and animals. You’ll be able to communicate in another language. You’ll be happier than ever. And besides, all memories of the happy old days remain to be yours for the rest of your life anyway. And at the end, looking back, it only counts what you have made of your life.
30 years later now. Yes, life went on better that way. And this will be another story…
Youth – First Place
“My time’s run out,” Queen Isdron says. The dying woman is ashen, her voice steel. “Tomorrow you will be Queen.”
Although this frozen statue has raised me since childhood, her looming death doesn’t inspire grief in me. She’s a hard woman, feared throughout her land of ice. She summoned me here tonight with a final message. At dawn, the Prophets will perform the Death Ceremony. They will cut Queen Isdron’s hair to strip away her power.
“Come,” Queen Isdron commands.
I lean down so my lips almost brush her clammy forehead. She extends a hand smelling of rot and digs fingernails into my neck. They’ll leave crescent-shaped bruises to match the ones on my forearms and back from days past. My face remains impassive, just as Queen Isdron taught me.
“I made you strong,” she whispers. “I transformed a weak Veikur Skinner’s daughter into a Queen. You can’t fail.”
I nod. Sick as she is, the terror evoked by the sight of her is only slightly less potent than usual. Her hand drops heavy to the fur blanket covering her muscular body. I have been dismissed. Hooded Prophets escort me from the room.
Vinnukona awaits me in my chamber. Like all Veikurs, her head is shaved to deter her from rising above the strong. As the Prophets have proclaimed, hair is power.
Her face hints concern as she bows. Only Vinnukona can understand my feelings at this long awaited moment. Although nothing but a Veikur servant, she has always been reliable. She was there to stave off homesickness and to soothe me when I awoke from a nightmare. When I cried, Queen Isdron punished Vinnukona for defending me.
But Vinnukona is beneath me. Any hint of affection I show towards her is a sign of weakness. So, I ignore her. I stroke Blade, hanging at my hip, and stare out the window at the snow-covered city soon to be mine. From here, the hundreds of Veikur dying from cold and starvation in the streets are concealed.
I dream of my Veikur family for the first time in months. I dream of the night the Prophets summoned me.
Mama had just come home, hands coloured red from a day spent skinning animals. Sakla, my sister, snuggled up behind me on a pile of scrap furs. Through a crack in the door I could see snow falling, falling, falling.
Then, I couldn’t see snow anymore because the crack in the door was filled with darkness. The door opened and Prophets seeped over the threshold. I knew they’d come for me. Mama started screaming, but she was too tired, too weak. Sakla fought so hard, her shrieks for me bled. It was no use. The Prophets took me by the arms and said, “You are to be Queen, we have foreseen it.”
I bolt upright, clawing air. Vinnukona is at my side in an instant.
“Nothing,” I snap.
My mind is a traitor, showing me the faces of the scum I came from. Queen Isdron worked hard to raise me above my shameful past.
“Are you sure?” Vinnukona presses. She cares too much.
The weeks following the summoning had been painful. I even cried tears for my family. Queen Isdron spent much time curing me of the notion that I needed people. Now I know better. The Veikur are weak because of their dependence on others.
Dawn is hours away. There’s a rap at the door. Vinnukona answers it, returning with a parchment scroll. As she passes, she tenderly smooths a strand of hair sticking to my forehead. I smack her hand away.
Vinnukona’s mouth tightens. “I’m not the one you resent,” she says. “Shed this facade that Queen Isdron has created around you.”
“It’s no facade,” I say, mirroring Queen Isdron’s indifference. “This is who I am.”
Vinnukona exhales. “Surely you’re not that infected by Queen Isdron’s poison. Where’s the girl who swore never to become like her?”
I turn on her. “That girl was weak.”
“That girl could have revived this city with her bare hands.”
Ice fills my stomach, sharp and lethal. “How dare you question me! I should send you to Gilt-Prison with the rest of your Veikur family.” I spit the word Veikur.
Vinnukona hardly flinches at my threat. She has a way of looking at me that sprouts seeds of shame in my conscience. “You forget you were a Veikur once.”
I stiffen. “I’m a Queen.”
Vinnukona’s next words are quiet. “Hatred does not equal strength.”
I snatch the scroll from her hands. Three words march across the page in Queen Isdron’s rigid handwriting.
Your last execution.
I straighten my belt and turn my back on Vinnukona.
“Fetch my cloak. I’m going to Gilt-Prison.”
Gilt-Prison is where nightmares spawn. The walls drip defeat and anguish. The first time I stepped inside, it was to cut the hair of a delinquent rich boy. He pleaded as Blade sheared his hair, cutting his power. The echoes of his shrieks haunt my memories.
Queen Isdron awaits me in the shadows. She sits in a wheeled chair pushed by Prophets. Her wine-ringed eyes do not waver from my face.
This is my last test. Never again will her presence turn my knees to slush. My heart quickens. Years of tortuous lessons have led to this moment.
We navigate the catacombs to a cell packed as full as a Veikur shack. The newest additions force skeletal arms through the bars as we approach.
Queen Isdron indicates a curled figure at the back. I unlock the door and stride inside. As bold as the Veikurs had been when separated by bars, they scurry away like rats fleeing winter when I enter. Blade swings from my belt.
I shove the limp Veikur out of the cell into the harsh circle of light. She collapses before Queen Isdron as I draw Blade. The weapon has taken many lives.
The Veikur hunched in the spotlight looks up and the shadows slough from her features. I can see every detail, revealing a familiar face. Gilt-Prison stops breathing.
This mess of bones propping up scraps of skin is my sister, Sakla. The girl who kicked scrawny legs at the Prophets at my summoning. I freeze. If it weren’t for Queen Isdron’s bold presence, I’d have lost my composure.
Ever since that night, I’ve been conditioned to feel repulsed at any mention of my family. But here is my sister, an arm’s length away, and I only have an urge to weep.
She has changed. Scars slash arms and legs, blood crusts over stubble on her scalp, and she’s thinner. But her eyes are alive and I detect the spirited girl from my memories.
I know Queen Isdron is amused beneath that chilly exterior.
The last test. I should’ve known Queen Isdron would never leave without making one last scar on my soul, like those marring Sakla’s limbs.
I stand before the insensible Sakla, numb to the core. The sand in my hourglass is nearly out. I must act.
Am I strong or weak? A Queen or a Veikur? Who am I?
“Have mercy on me,” Sakla says, “The cold took my mother, the Prophets took my sister. Whatever I’ve done, my life’s punishment enough.”
She hugs herself and I see my own broken reflection. That could be me, at the mercy of a ruthless Queen. In a way, she’s part of me. How can I hurt a part of myself?
Vinnukona’s words from earlier disturb my mind.
“Hatred does not equal strength.”
As a Queen there’s only one option. Compliance to Queen Isdron’s rules.
Deep in my roots though, I’m a Veikur, and standing over this lionhearted girl, I can’t remember why that’s such a bad thing.
When the Prophets summoned me, Sakla did not crumble. And over the years, Vinnukona has risked so much for my sake. What have I ever done? Surrendered to the Prophets dictations and groveled before Queen Isdron. Maybe it is not the Veikur who are weak but me. Killing my flesh and blood will not toughen my skin.
Sakla says, “Please.”
Blade falls from my hand. “I cannot do it,” I say.
Queen Isdron’s face is unreadable and an icicle of panic skewers my brain. But I also feel a sense of release. For once I have done the right thing.
Queen Isdron stands from her chair, her infirmity momentarily gone. She plucks Blade from the floor.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Giving you a final lesson.” She grabs a handful of my hair before I can back away and wrenches.
“What happens when a Queen displays weakness?”
Queen Isdron raises Blade to my scalp and slices through the first strands of hair.
My screams resonate louder than those of the rich boy who met the same fate. My hair falls past my shoulders and litters the stone.
Queen Isdron murmurs, “You are weak.”
Beyond the walls of Gilt-Prison snow is falling, falling, falling.
In the fall of 2017 the call went out inviting writers from the West and East Kootenay areas to submit work on the theme ORIGINS: WHO ARE WE? WHERE DID WE COME FROM?
· Adult Poetry
· Adult Fiction
· Personal Non-fiction
· Newcomers Category (new to Canada)
· Indigenous Writers Category
· Youth – any genre (grade 9 – 12)
We received 34 submissions from all over the Kootenay area; some from as far away as Invermere, Kimberley and Grand Forks. The judges were looking for originality, creativity, as well as just plain good writing.
Winners were announced in February 2018. Winners received cash prizes and publication in this winners’ anthology as well as publication in an online anthology, Black Bear Review out of Selkirk College.
Our judges were hard pressed, in some categories, to choose among the interesting and creative perspectives on the theme. The Newcomers Category was judged on merit of ideas and conceptualization rather than mastery of language because these entries are expected to be from people for whom English is a second language and possibly a recent one. All other categories were judged on quality of writing, clarity of language, originality, creativity and reader impact. We were looking for good writing that touches the reader.
The judges and the organizing committee agreed that, while we wanted to offer publication to the winning authors we were only able to provide proof reading and minor editing adjustments, not professional editing to reach publishable standards. The committee did not have the financial resources to hire an editor and we felt that it should be the writer’s responsibility to hone their work to the highest possible level. Therefore the work in this anthology should be considered work in progress and we encourage the authors to use this award as a stepping stone to hone their craft and pursue their dream.
The competition was a fixture of the literary community in the Kootenays from 2004 to 2016. Originally it ran under the auspices of the Nelson and District Arts Council then under the Kootenay Writers Society. The competition did not run in 2017 but was revived and expanded for 2018 to include two new categories: Indigenous Writers and Newcomers. The new categories honor the history of our area and the native lands on which we live plus the new Canadians who have come to this country and are working hard to settle into life in Canada.
However, we are sad to announce that this will be the last year for the KLC. The organizing committee is disbanding. The lack of active support to run the event has led to the unfortunate conclusion that there simply isn’t the need for this kind of event for writers on a local level. There are many other literary competitions on a provincial or national level and we hope that Kootenay writers continue to produce exciting work and continue to submit their work elsewhere.
The KLC Organizing Committee consisted of:
With the able assistance of Marisa Varley.
We would like to thank our wonderful judges:
The Kootenay Writers Society gratefully acknowledges the funding support of the Columbia Basin Trust Community Initiatives Program through the Regional District of Central Kootenay. Without this support the project would not have been possible. We are also grateful for the assistance of the Columbia Basin Trust for Literacy, Selkirk College and Black Press.
Adult Personal Non-Fiction – First Place
I do not iron. My mother, however, approached this chore in a unique and careful way, which was startling in such a chaotic, tumbledown house of five children of all ages. She, who was usually so free in all things, had three strict rules.
One: she always worked in front of the T.V. in the living room. Two: she only devoted an hour a week to the task. Three: the family must be still and had to stay at least three feet away from the ironing board probably because of our usual rough housing every minute of every day.
She broke these rules only once.
December 1959. Saturday afternoon.
When I was seven years old the Christmas heavens opened without warning, gifting me an hour alone with my mother. Carols blasted from the transistor radio in the kitchen. Baking shortbread filled the house with the smell of hot sugar and butter. Rolled dough waited on the floured table to be cookie-cut into shapes. The combined oven heat and the problem water radiator in the living room for once made every room cozy to the brink of toasty.
As my mother stood by the front bay window, the decorative angel hair swirled around the string of blue lights on the pine beside her. She smiled. Presents rested under the tree as snow fell outside the window. My senses were so full to over-brimming that I laughed aloud.
She straightened an ornament and gazed out the window at the street, then pulled back the curtain further to get a closer look. I could hear her curse quietly. As she walked back through the living room, she kicked the metal heater that instantly pumped out a cloud of dust.
Then, my mother broke the rules. Although all my father’s shirts had been neatly pressed the night before, she lugged the ironing board towards the kitchen. My stomach lurched. I could feel my heart pounding. Something was wrong, so very wrong.
There was a knock at the door.
The night before.
This Friday, as every Friday, our household lived a ritual that created a rare quiet for a full sixty minutes. It began with a settling– the baby into the crib and me onto the middle of the couch with my dreamy-faced younger sister propped up against me. The two older brothers sat cross-legged on the floor organizing an antique stamp poster. Concentrating deeply, they worked in tandem coordination. My father’s armchair in the corner remained empty for he was out doing something of which I knew nothing. If he had been there, his head would have been nodding rhythmically in sleep.
Then, when all the children were ready, my mother began. A petite woman, she dragged the heavy ironing board across the room to just the right spot beside the crib where she could watch her work, the T.V. and the baby all at the same time. A white table cloth was draped over the board as if it were an altar and she smoothed it in long hand motions until wrinkle free. Next, the iron was filled with distilled water and turned to the steam function. My father’s button-down-collar shirts for his office job, now that he had been promoted from the factory shifts, were sorted in the laundry basket. Then, the first one was laid out in waiting. Hangars were hung against the back of hard-backed chairs to receive the finished shirts.
Right at seven o’clock my mother gave the nod to the oldest brother who turned on the television set to ABC for Walt Disney Presents. Walt, the father of all fathers, introduced the show of the evening, Davy Crockett. As a family, alone and together, we entered into the thrilling world of technicolor adventure.
In secret I watched my mother more than the program. I felt spellbound to see her work so calmly and intently. She patted the sleeves into place and checked the water level in the iron and tenderly unruffled collars. All the rest of the week she was a blur of activity, so much to do and so little time, and yet here in the dim room I could watch her unnoticed. The TV talked, the children watched, the iron hissed and the steamy smell of freshly warmed, pressed shirts filled the room. I was with Walt and my mother. They embraced me until by half past the hour I relaxed safe and protected. I felt loved.
That Saturday afternoon before Christmas.
There was a knock. After opening the door, my mother and I stood side by side as we faced the stranger. My head was level with the man’s waist. I noticed the torn corner of the worn wool coat and that he was missing a button, jobs that in our house would be mended up in a flash. I gazed up at his face which looked waxy, pale instead of bright with cold. I was glad that his heavy toque covered his ears. The man looked like a certain type of character from my Disney movies, the one Walt would call ‘down on his luck’.
He was a vacuum cleaner salesman with an upright Hoover beside him to prove it. My mother spoke perhaps unkindly, “That machine sure looks like it’s seen better days.” She listened to his full speech but she wasn’t interested.
The salesman persisted. “Miss, you may not buy a Hoover today but you could help me out in a big way if you’d let me do a demonstration. I need one more to earn my bonus. We both win as you get a cleaned living room rug out of the deal.”
My mother hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry but no. The baby is asleep but thank you.”
I wanted to be seen and heard. “Yes, all the babies are asleep.” My mother looked at me sideways and slightly shook her head.
She said, “I would love to help you but we have a fairly new vacuum cleaner. And I really don’t need a cleaning at this time.”
I offered, “Good luck!”
“All the best of the season,” my mother said as she tried to shut the door but the salesman put his big booted foot in the way as a block.
My mother stared at him. He stared at her. After a long pause he said,“Just a signature then. I’m not asking for much. Look, lady, I need this real bad.”
My mother’s mouth hardened into a line. “Do I need to call my husband who’s upstairs to handle this?”
I added, wanting to help, “Really my father is out shopping but he will be home soon, very soon.”
My mother frowned at me. The man at the door smiled tightly as he glanced around the house with a gaze that lingered on the Christmas tree. Dressed only in a housedress, my mother shivered. I felt the air of cold December blow in towards us as the smell of shortbread, pine, and season good cheer wafted out and away into the early winter dusk.
Earlier that same Saturday, mid-morning.
We, two sisters, waited in the hall for the stroll through the neighbourhood. We overheated in snowsuits, wool hats, mittens and scarves. The baby, strapped into the stroller and so heavily dressed against the cold, appeared as stiff as a log. My mother waltzed down the stairs from her bedroom in a cotton dress with a peter pan collar. She also wore a cinched black belt and kitten-heeled shoes. I was stunned and frightened. She could freeze to death.
She donned a light all-weather coat and wrapped her head of dark curls under a flowered kerchief. “Just a moment!” she said as if we hadn’t already been waiting for an eternity. She slipped into the downstairs bathroom and returned with lips painted a fire engine red. Her beauty stunned me and my chest clutched.
My cheeks burned with wooly heat. She kneeled down in front of me, zipped up my snowsuit to under my chin and put up my hood. She looked me in the face and said, “Oh, sweetie. You look like your little heart is asleep.”
I wanted to cry. She talked to the younger ones in that tone and words. I was seven years old and a big girl now. Just as she protected me so did she need protection. I leaned towards her and pulled the zipper on her jacket up towards her chin. I tugged her head scarf down further on her forehead. Her mouth formed the O of surprise.
That was my first glimpse into a new world that held possibilities. I knew that I came from my mother and I was not my mother.
I’m sorry to say that already there are discrepancies and errors in my story. Surely my mother, who was a practical woman, who came from a prairie farm family, would not be wearing a housedress in below zero temperatures.
Also, time is definitely an issue. Colour television didn’t get invented until the sixties and yet I’m sure that on the Fridays nights of the late ‘50s our darkened living room blazed with Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By 1960, our family would have been firmly planted in a different house and the said baby would have been running and screaming all over the place like the rest of us.
And the ages of the older brothers don’t match up. They would have been out on a weekend night looking for girls or a basketball game and a flask of gin, not doing stamp projects on the floor with too long adolescent legs.
To be more accurate, I was not exactly alone with my mother that Saturday afternoon before Christmas when the knock came at the door. Yes, my father was out. Distant hoots and hollers announced that the older brothers were playing street hockey with neighbourhood boys. The baby slept in the crib and my younger sister napped almost hidden by stuffed animals on the living couch. But, in the truest sense of the word, my mother and I were alone.
In my memory, my father was always away somewhere though I knew not where. The baby seemed to be forever quietly lying in the crib. In contrast, my mother, larger than life, in a peter pan collar or a canary-yellow sweater set, smiled a cheerful splash of red.
The salesman tried again. “Would it be possible to please come in for a demonstration even if you decide to not buy? As I said, I need one more. Isn’t that an easy thing? In the spirit of the holidays.” Both of their faces pulled even more tightly.
I grabbed my mother’s skirt. Should I call for my brothers to come in from the street? The police? Where was my father?
They stood like that, her hand firmly on the door, his foot solidly blocking against us.
Then, he said, “I need the money, lady. It’s a hard time of the year.”
It was only money he wanted! I hurried to the fireplace mantle to fetch my slotted piggybank. I handed the plastic toy with all my dimes, nickels and pennies to the man. Trying hard to sound like an adult, I said, “Please leave us alone. The babies are sleeping.”
My mother looked at me, then at the man, and said, “Oh, good God! Has it come to this?” Then she added, “On one thing you are right. It’s a hard time of the year. Really, we, the whole family, are getting ready go out and I need you to leave now.”
The man handed me back the savings bank. He sighed and took his foot out of the door. When the door was fully shut, my mother firmly locked it and without a word went directly to the Christmas tree, unplugging the lights. Then, from behind the closed door of the bathroom, I could hear the muffled sound of her crying.
To a young child a milk box was a wondrous contraption. Ours was built right into the kitchen wall with an exterior door for the delivery man to put in the bottles and an interior door for us to fetch them from the box into the fridge. Once when the family had forgotten their house key, I got to crawl through the milk box to unlock the back door.
Before my mother came out of the bathroom, I opened the box’s inner door and took the milk out bottle by bottle for the first time. The box’s ledge was my chin height so I had to be very careful. No point having my mother also crying over spilt milk.
What else could I do to help? The milk box was directly beside the back door. I stood on the stool to lock the door as I had been taught. The room felt stifling with the oven heat and the jammed shut windows. I opened the outer milk box door as the family sometimes did to cool the room, then jarred the inner door also open slightly to let the cold air through. When I heard my mother coming, I pretended to roll cookie dough on the floured surface of the table.
My mother placed the next prepared tray of shortbread into the oven, then pulled the ironing board into the kitchen. She was in a mood and turned abruptly turned the radio off with a look that said no talking now. This time I did not watch as she went through the steps of setting up her ironing ritual. The room was quiet except for the electrical sounds of the oven humming and the iron preparing. She was breaking the rules. I was almost close enough to touch the blouse she was ironing.
Only because of this quiet were we able to hear the footsteps on the gravel driveway. Only because of the steps on the gravel did we see the slightest turning of the back door knob, the door which was locked. No one called hello. I thought to yell but my mother put her finger to her lips. Wait!
Then, the milk box beside my mother moved. The door on the exterior wall was pulled open wide and a large male hand reached through the inside milk window and up towards the back door’s lock.
An arm. A unknown coat sleeve. Not the brothers, not my father, not a neighbour. In a split second decision my mother raised the hot iron and knocked it directly against the back of the hand.
I remember no scream but there must have been one. There must have also have been the sound of stumbling on the gravel. What I recall is only more and more silence except for the yelps of boys playing street hockey in the distance.
My mother unplugged the iron and put it on the counter to cool. The room was filled with a strange smell like something mysterious and sizzling. She placed the ironing board back in the cupboard and went into the bathroom again closing the door against me. By the time she came out, the shortbread cookies had burnt to a crisp.
We did not call the police. That Saturday afternoon my father returned home, the brothers finished up the hockey game, and the nappers woke up. My mother told the family over a roast beef dinner about the vacuum cleaner salesman and my piggy bank and how I had saved the day like Davy Crockett. We all laughed. We talked of Christmas.
My mother and I did not talk of the attempted break-in for many years. Much later in life when I asked my mother about the iron and the hand, she denied it ever having happened and what could I say for it was only she and I who were there. Most recently she has insisted that she never ironed during the Walt Disney show. Too distracting in such a busy household, she said. She did remember the vacuum cleaner salesman at the door and laughed as one does at such family stories.
The only sense I can possibly make of that day, those times, is as the creation of a young child with a wild imagination. Yet, sometimes around Christmas when I am on a bus in my hometown or even on a subway in a strange city, I will look at the hands of the elderly men for an iron burn. If I were to ever see such a curious scar, I may not ask the man about it for fear of my responsibility or even guilt. After all, it was I who had left the milk doors open.
I do not iron, but that December day, if I had been older or stronger, I might have done such a necessary act myself to protect my beautiful mother.
Adult Personal Non-Fiction – Second Place
It’s New Year’s Eve and I begin my annual ritual. I conceal my daddy’s shotgun between the mattress and box spring of my bed, and gather my tiny brother and young sister to curl up with me on the lumpy hiding place. I tell them stories about Snoopy and talking chipmunks and flying elephants until they fall asleep. I squeeze out of the middle of my huddled siblings, tuck the blanket up to their chins, sit on the bean bag chair in the corner, and wait. Wait in the dark until he comes home. Wait for the New Year to begin.
I know tonight will be a replay of the last 2 drunken end-of -year celebrations. I wait for the inevitable return of my denigrated mother and my self- loathing father, when the bars close and their friends can’t sustain the party. They will come home and fight. It’s always a one-sided fight, with my father hurling insults and accusations at my mother, and her frightened denials.
“I saw you dancing with Gerry,” he’ll snarl, as they walk into the house.
“It was just a dance for god’s sake,” she will whimper. “Not like you drooling after that 17-year old bimbo.”
“Shut up, slut,” he’ll bark back at her.
It has always been the same. I want it to end.
He yelps his insults like a cornered coyote, looking for his escape. He knows my mother did nothing wrong, but his lascivious behaviour always makes him feel guilty. It is easier to project his guilt and anger on her instead. He likes to see the fear in her eyes. In our eyes.
The fight will wake up my little sister. She’s the one in the family who continues to hope he will change and be the daddy she wants to have. My brother is too young to know anything different. He is already developing an ulcer and has just started school this year. I know there is little hope to change my father’s violent behaviour unless he stops drinking, and that doesn’t seem to be an option.
“Life wouldn’t be worth living unless I could have my whiskey,” he flatly told us when Mom and I confronted him with a choice of his family or his booze. Whiskey was his consolation prize in life and he would not reject his best companion.
He made his choice. Soon I will have to make mine.
At 3 am I hear them pull up to the front of the house. Dad climbs out of the driver’s seat and weaves unsteadily as he walks towards the door. Mom fumbles in her purse to find the keys so she can get in quickly and check on us. I see all this from my bedroom window and take a deep breath. I’m ready.
He still has his coat on when he walks into the kitchen and pours a rye and coke. Mom comes upstairs and sees my sister and brother curled up in my bed. I feign sleep in the chair but we both know I am awake. She won’t ask for my help, but knows I won’t abandon her if he gets ugly. She leaves the door to my room slightly ajar as she walks into hers.
Downstairs I hear a commotion in the hallway. The loud thump of boxes falling from the shelf in the hallway is unmistakeable. He is on the hunt. I step into the hall, straining to hear what he is muttering.
“Where the hell did I put it?” he grumbles, flinging coats on the floor as he reaches into the back of the hall closet. “I know it’s here somewhere ” he growls as he searches. My heart pounds loudly as I listen to the tumult underneath me, and I step back into the shadows of my room.
I hear him stumble up the stairs and every muscle in my body involuntarily tenses. He has one hand firmly clasping his nightcap and the other is in his pocket, jingling something metallic. I know it is neither coins nor keys making the sound.
“Where the hell is my rifle?” he shouts at Mom. He opens the closet door, grabs a handful of her hanging dresses and tosses them to the ground. He shoves Mom’s storage boxes, her handbags and boots to the side, moving anything that might conceal his precious gun.
“Are you crazy?” Mom shouts. “You’re wrecking my clothes. Stop messing up the closet” she begs.
“Who the hell took my rifle? You better not have touched it, bitch,” he roars.
“I don’t know where it is,” Mom’s quivering voice responds. “I don’t know where you keep it.”
“I don’t need a rifle to take care of you if I want to,” he threatens loudly as he closes the bedroom door.
My brother and sister are awake now. Terror floods their faces and they pull the covers up to their eyes. We can hear the sound of Mom crying in her room. I put my index finger up to my lips to gesture silence as I sit on the side of the bed.
“It’s ok little ones,” I whisper reassuringly. “Just stay very quiet and stay in bed until I come back.” I blow them a kiss and walk out of the room, softly closing the door behind me. I walk the few steps from my room to their bedroom door and put my ear against it. I hear Mom sobbing on the other side as Dad continues to berate her.
“Is everything ok Mom?” I call through their bedroom door. Her sobbing subsides and I’m fearful of the silence.
“Go to sleep,” Dad grumbles.
“Mom, is everything OK?” I repeat the question, fortifying my tone and ignoring my father.
“I told you to mind your own business and go to bed,” he rages through the thin walls. “Your mother is sleeping.”
“I’m going to call the police unless you open this door right now, and let me see Mom,” I respond, steadfast and trembling, trying to decide whether or not to burst into their room or run for help.
The door opens and my father steps out to confront me. I am standing outside their door, on the landing at the top of the stairs. I can see my mother hunched over the side of the bed, wiping her eyes. He staggers towards me, red faced, glazed eyes, his fist clenched.
“Your mother is fine. What the hell is your problem?”
“I don’t like when you get drunk and then start fighting with Mom,” I say unflinchingly. Stale cigarette smoke and old whiskey fumes, emanate from his clothes and his breath. My stomach churns and the stench makes an indelible mark on my hippocampus.
“Do you know where my gun is?” He points a finger accusingly.
“I gave it away. You aren’t going to threaten this family anymore with your drunken stupidity. I’m sick of this crap.” I raise my voice to cover my anxiety in the hope it will make me sound too tough to take on.
“You did what? I ought to beat you black and blue,” he menaces, fist still clenched and rising.
“That won’t get you your damn gun.” I turn my back on him, ready to head down the stairs to call the police.
“Don’t turn your back on me you little snot,” he exclaims in anger, swinging his fist at my back. It lands at the base of my neck with the full force of his anger. Shocked by the blow, I lose my balance and tumble headlong down the stairs, coming to an arm wrenching stop as I grasp the railing.
My mother runs out of their room, screeching at her husband with all the rage of a Grizzly sow defending her cub. Her change of demeanor startles him, and even in his drunken stupor, he realizes he has gone too far. He slinks back into his bedroom, not even bothering to see if I am injured, and my mother rushes down the stairs to comfort me.
Although no bones are broken, the last remaining strand of loyalty to my father is irreparably severed. Hatred and vengeance surge through my brain, wiping out all semblance of reason. I instinctively know that we have to be free of him before he does serious damage; before he breaks someone’s neck with another toss down the stairs; before he finds the gun I hid, and uses it on us; before he strangles my mother in her sleep.
I feel detached from my body as I rise from the floor and walk down the hall. I am consumed with a single purpose. I walk into the kitchen and mechanically extract the carving knife from its sheath. My mother’s face is bathed in horror as she sees me approach the stairway, my intentions unmistakeable. She steps in front of me, blocking my path. I look vacantly at her tear stained face, black mascara and blue eyeshadow smudged to her cheekbones, and feel a stirring of repressed emotions struggling to break through.
“You can’t do this honey,” she whispers. “Don’t let him drive you down to his level.”
“I can’t live like this anymore, always terrified of what he will do to you, to the kids, to me.” I look into her eyes. “The kids need you, so it is up to me to end this,” I say woodenly.
“You are only 16 years old. You have your whole life ahead of you. You will never forgive yourself if you act in violence, no matter what your justification may be. I don’t want you to sacrifice yourself for me. We will find another way.” Her urgently persuasive voice registers in my subconscious.
“Give me the knife, and go get your sister and brother,” she says with a calm she does not really possess. I look at her, as my conscience wrestles with my fury, and reluctantly, submit to her command.
The only sound coming from my parents’ room is an odd gurgling noise. It signals my father’s lapse into alcohol induced unconsciousness. I tip toe past his open door to my room. My siblings scramble out of bed and leap into my arms as I walk in the door, their strained faces showing relief at my arrival.
“Quickly now, we are going to go for a drive so let’s get dressed nice and warm,” I whisper to them. I pull my brother’s clothes over his pajamas, while my sister dons a Christmas sweater and pants and tucks her nightgown inside. We inch down the stairway, carefully avoiding the few squeaky steps, on the flight to freedom.
My mother hands us our coats and we bundle up, ready to slip into the dawn of the New Year. The cold air hits me like a slap across my face as we walk to the car, but this is a slap I can accept. I climb into the passenger seat, after helping secure my siblings in the back. My mother’s hands shake as she inserts the key into the ignition, and the trembling extends through her body as the adrenaline wears off and she faces the unknown.
“It’s ok Mom. Let’s get out of here.”
We drive around town and eventually turn down West Street towards the lake. The kids are asleep in the back seat of the car. Mom pulls the car into the viewing area that overlooks the beach, and puts it into park, letting the motor run so we can keep the heater on. She lights up a menthol cigarette, takes a deep drag, and slowly exhales. The grey smoke curls from her pursed lips to the windshield, where it forms a thin depressing film.
“What are we going to do?” she asks, staring straight ahead.
“We could go to Toronto. He won’t find us there,” I suggest hopefully.
She inhales another drag and shoves the remainder into the ashtray. “I don’t have any money to get us there, and besides, I don’t know if I can support us. We’ll wait until morning when he’s sober and have it out with him,” she sighs.
“You know he’s not going to change,” I protest. “We’ve been through this before. He’s good for a while but then falls back into the same routine.”
“He’s a good man inside you know. We just have to try harder to make it work. My mother always said that if you make your bed, you have to lie in it. That means I have to fix this.”
“If he was such a good man, he wouldn’t have thrown me down the stairs tonight, no matter how drunk he was,” I say with stony resolve. She may be willing to forgive him and believe she is obliged to enable his manic behaviour, but I no longer can.
“His dad was an alcoholic, a mean one. Your grandma left all her kids behind when she split from her husband while your dad was a young boy. He got bounced around between Aunts and cousins most of his life, so he had no stability while he was growing up. He left New Brunswick to go look for his mom in Toronto when he was around 18. By then, he had already started drinking.”
“But he doesn’t have to take it out on you.”
“He never learned anything but hate, but in his own way, he really does love us. I have had to deal with men’s anger my whole life, and I think the best way to do that is to let them get it out of their system and hope for the best,” she says. “It could be worse you know.”
“I can’t see how” I say incredulously.
“I hope you never do.”
The first appearance of the sun on the horizon was our cue to either go home or find somewhere to have breakfast.
“I don’t know what will be open on New Year’s day.” I wasn’t ready to return to that house, back into that nightmare.
“That little coffee shop on The Square is usually open, even on holidays,” Mom responds as the kids start to stir in the back seat of the Pontiac.
Mom puts the car in gear and heads east from the lakeside lot, towards the downtown area known as The Square. It is really a hexagon, with key streets emanating from it like spokes of a wagon wheel. The old town hall stood imperiously in the centre, surrounded by oak and maple trees. I loved sitting on the park bench in the summer, under the shade of those ancients, watching my fellow townies and wondering if their lives were as complicated as mine. The trees loom grey and naked this morning as we approach the restaurant, uncannily mirroring my mood.
The diner door sports a festive Happy New Year’s sign, indicating it is closed today.
“I don’t think we have any other option but to go home,” she says to the three of us. “It’ll ok.”
I look at her despondently. I am afraid to return home but I have no answers for her, no suggestions on what to do next. I am afraid to think of what the future will hold. Will we survive another year and if we do, will we end up sucked into this vortex of perpetual anger and helplessness? My New Year’s resolution this morning, is somehow, someway, I will break this cycle, with or without my mother’s help. With that to hold onto, we return to our car, and drive down the street, toward the rising sun.
On this New Year’s Day, my mother unwittingly takes her first fledgling step away from the cycle of abuse by leaving even for these few hours. They’re the first of many she will have to take before she can extricate herself from it. As a young woman, the sexual assault she experienced in her own home left her broken, leaving her with a self-diagnosis of perpetual inadequacy. Her worthlessness found her wherever she hid and ultimately, she surrendered, deciding to make the best of whatever life threw at her. My mother followed in the footsteps of her mother, who held her own secrets and insecurities.
I am my mother’s daughter, but I reject the matrilineal legacy lying in wait for me. I will choose my own path and redefine the basis of my origin. Origins are not always defined by where you come from. Origins are ultimately the foundation on which you become.
A few years later, my mother finally separated from my father. I was 19 and wanted to shake off the destructive behaviour I was starting to acquire. I took the train west, hoping the mountains would separate me from my past and let me start fresh. However, I couldn’t focus on my own journey, knowing Mom’s ex-husband continued to harass her, stalking her and threatening to kidnap my sister and brother.
“Mom, how would you like to move to Banff?” I asked during a weekly phone call.
“Are you crazy? I can’t afford that,” she said incredulously.
“I found you a job. You and the kids can live with us, until you get on your feet. I’ll lend you the money to ship your stuff out, if you can pay for the train fare. I want you to get as far away from him as you can, so you’ll be safe.”
“It’s a lot to think about, but it could work,” she said optimistically.
The non-violent act of moving them to Alberta, far from his clutches, and under my protective eye, cut him deeper than any knife could, allowing us to finally break free, and become.
Adult Fiction – Second Place
Paul awoke at 2:49 am fresh from the dream; not a dream, the dream. The same dream that had struck every night since he and his wife, Karen, had opened their boutique hotel in the Slocan valley. In his dream, Paul had moved out of a house where he had lived for a long time. The purchaser takes up residence and Paul’s life takes a bad turn. Invariably, he would remember a dead body buried or hidden somewhere on his old property. Sometimes the body was dry and shrivelled as if plundered from an antiquities museum. Other nights it was tumefied as if freshly plucked from a swamp. On some nights, the body was found in the flower bed beneath the picture window flanking the front door. Tonight, the new owner had decided to install a new bathroom in the basement and had discovered the desiccated corpse when he jack hammered the concrete floor for the rough-in. Most nights in his dream, by act or omission, Paul was somehow responsible for the victim’s death. Tonight, he was blameless but, through carelessness or neglect, had forgotten about the carcass pressed into the dirt where the new bathtub was slated to be installed.
Sleep was out of the question for the remainder of the night. Taking care not to wake up Karen, Paul went into the main, commercial kitchen and made a pot of coffee. Sitting at the stainless steel food prep table his thoughts flitted, like a swallow at the sand cliffs, between his chores for the coming day and his past life as a lawyer.
“Freshly retired couple from Calgary open boutique hotel in picturesque, rural setting.” The title of the article in the tiny local bi- weekly sounded like the elevator pitch for a Netflix comedy series. Paul and Karen had researched their business plan thoroughly before they purchased the property. Every room in the hotel commanded a dazzling view of the lake and the mountains, snow-capped for nine months of the year. They had determined that there was an unsatisfied demand for high quality accommodations in the area. Their guests were typically wealthy or, to be more precise, wealthier than their Slocan neighbors. The clientele was comprised of helicopter and back-country skiers in the winter and mountain bikers and fly fishers in the summer. Their self-assured customers sought the special type of luxury that comes only from hedonic amenities experienced after a physical day in a challenging environment.
By many measures, the project was a success. Construction costs had come in on budget and a mere six months behind schedule which, by Kootenay standards, where carpenters rarely worked on days when there was fresh powder in the back country, was considered timely. Now, only three months after the grand opening, the hotel was fully booked for next year’s winter and summer high seasons and it was assured that revenue would outpace projection. True, costs were higher than expected, but profits from the operation were set to exceed the business plan submitted to the bank.
Karen was over the moon. Back in their city life, Paul could not recollect a party that she didn’t want to attend. Here, in their very own boutique hotel, complete with timber framed porch and water colors by local artists, guests routinely praised the manifestation of her good taste. She could, and did, throw a tasteful, elegant soiree almost every night.
Some days, Paul chaffed against his new situation. He savored his time outdoors, especially the kayaking and hiking, activities that had drawn him to the area when they first sought out a retirement business. But, once indoors, he preferred reading to making small talk. He missed the high stakes and status of his former career as a litigation lawyer. He struggled to sound ardent when conversing with guests, inevitably, about the view or the osprey or what miracle the chef was to conjure that evening. As a lawyer, his clients had paid five hundred dollars an hour for his advice. Here, he was expected to sound interested in whether his clients had found good tracks in the fresh snow. He was accustomed to a small, close group of friends and, in his new situation, was weakened by the bloodletting of greeting and mixing with new guests every day.
Fatigued from hosting strangers, Paul looked forward to the arrival of two of his former law partners, Keith and Martin, who had reserved for a single night stay on their way to a wine festival in the Okanagan. Paul, Keith and Martin had practised law together for more than thirty years, moving lock-step through the stages of articling student, junior lawyer and partner. The three friends were now all retired but only two years ago had comprised the hard-pumping heart of the commercial litigation department of the business law firm where they worked.
Paul set aside the two best rooms for his guests’ late arrival and made sure that the quiet table with the best view of the Valhalla Range and Slocan Lake was reserved for them. Dinner that night was herb crusted rack of lamb, locally grown, and, as expected, the chef did a wonderful job. Paul reminded the new server to clear from the right, and only after ensuring his instructions were followed, joined his friends at the handcrafted butcher block table his wife had commissioned from the cabinet maker who lived in the village.
For the thirty plus years they practised law together, it had been their custom to share a nice bottle of wine when any of them enjoyed a significant win on a case. Paul came to the table waving a bottle of his favorite super Tuscan, a big red wine that he had been hoarding for just this occasion. Their conversation moved quickly through the niceties.
“Favoritewine niceplace greatjob beautifulview deliciousdinner”
Having expended the bloom of their careers working together in stuffy, crowded rooms set aside for discovery and trial preparation, Paul, Keith and Martin knew each other better than their own, current, wives. They compared notes about their old firm. It was, they agreed, indisputable that since their retirement the firm had lost some of its reputation among judges handling commercial cases. They concurred that while unfortunate this was not surprising given the shortcomings of Millennials. In this vein, they recalled with thinly concealed delight the embarrassing mistakes one of the current partners had made as an articling student.
“Called the Chief Justice ‘my lord’ and she was not impressed” recalled Paul.
“Anybody could see his problem ten years ago. Lazy and stupid. Now he’s fat, lazy and stupid” concluded Keith.
Fuelled by the super-Tuscan, the volume grew louder and the topic turned to how others had fared in retirement. Pancreatic cancer had cut short the office manager’s golden years. An unfortunate former competitor had suffered a stroke and been forced to move to an assisted living residence despite being only two years older than them.
“You can never assume good health, or for that matter, any health. You may be dead tomorrow” said Martin.
“Death comes like a thief in the night” agreed Paul.
Keith mentioned a lawyer who had come home one day to find that his wife had left town with her personal trainer, also a woman, and fifteen years her junior. The ensuing divorce had cleaned out his retirement savings and left him no option but to go back to the firm even though he now made less than the youngest partner and hated every single day.
“She was never that into him and she worked out A LOT. When she could do a hundred push ups; he should have seen it coming” said Keith.
“If not sooner” agreed Paul.
“He was boring. Now he’s old and boring and broke” said Martin.
Paul produced another bottle of wine, this time a middle of the road California Cab Sauvignon. It was, they all agreed, not as good as the first bottle but still worth drinking.
“Paul, what do you miss the most living out here?” asked Martin.
“I don’t miss the billing targets, that’s for sure. I miss being needed. I liked it when a client depended on me, sought me out and paid a lot of money for my advice.”
“Yeah I guess we are all men who used to be important. That gets some getting used to” said Keith.
“But, like low testosterone, do you ever get used to it?” asked Martin.
Their conversation moved on to different law suits they had worked on. Some files were memorable because the client was stubborn or demanding or perhaps dishonest. They took turns describing the rapacious demands of a multitude of unreasonable foes who had sued their clients and how they had, through hard work, guile and clever argument, safeguarded their clients’ interests.
“Paul, of all the cases you handled, when you look back over the years, which one are you most proud of? Which one left you with the sense of being at the top of your game?” asked Martin.
“Funny you should ask. I was up early this morning, way too early in fact, thinking about just that. Mostly, the cases were either ‘get the money’ or ‘keep the money’ if I was on for the defendant. But the case I feel the best about…it would have to be just before I retired when I acted on behalf of Jason Holt and we sued The Alberta Freedom Evangelical Church. The church ran that boarding school for boys just south of Calgary, near Spruce Meadows, the fancy horse jumping venue. Holt went there for grades eleven and twelve. He came to me when he was twenty. Even then he was small, about five- foot seven and slight, maybe one hundred and thirty pounds. He had shoulder length dirty blond hair and looked about fourteen years old except for a tattoo of Chinese letters on the inside of his forearm. Effeminate in appearance, Jason was a target at the boys’ only boarding school. Anyway, he had a beautiful voice, a tenor, and his refuge had been the school choir. Jason had grown close to the choir master, Sig Mason, who was also the music and drama teacher”.
Keith turned his wineglass upside down and placed it on his head to indicate that it was empty and that he wanted more. Paul fetched another bottle, and without a word, removed the cork and poured all round.
“Was that the teacher arrested with photographs of a naked boy on his computer?” asked Martin.
“The very same. It was when the pornography story hit the headlines, that Jason came to see me. The pictures were of him. He said he had been sixteen when they were taken but he looked much younger. The teacher hadn’t just taken pictures. It had started with Holt being asked to stroke his own penis. Then the teacher’s. Then oral sex and on it went.”
“How long did all that go on for?” asked Keith.
“April, May and June of grade eleven and all of grade twelve. He never told anybody about Mason until the day he came to see me. That day, in my office, he broke down and cried for an hour.”
“Was there any evidence other than what Holt recounted?” asked Martin.
“Not until the pornography bust and that is why he had been quiet for the three years since he left the school. He said that, at the time, he thought the sex was consensual. Jason said he liked Sig and wanted to please him. He said that in High School he was sure he was gay but when he came to see me he said he didn’t think he was. He presented as confused about who he was and what he wanted.”
“In the statement of claim, what amount did you ask for?” asked Keith.
“We claimed millions, of course. I hired three different experts to give evidence that the sexual abuse had resulted in my client suffering emotional damage, particularly as he seemed incapable of forming close relationships.”
“Hard to quantify what that is worth” said Martin.
“Thing is we never had to. The church didn’t want a trial. Mason’s pornography charge meant they didn’t think they could successfully argue liability. The only issue was the quantum of damages and the church was desperate to avoid a trial and all the publicity.”
“Whatever happened to Mason?” asked Martin.
“I heard he served a short sentence and now works as a conveyancing paralegal. Anyway, how much did you get out of them?” said Keith.
“Well, they started at $200,000 and a non-disclosure agreement and I started at $2,000,000 and insisted that Jason could sell his story. Almost without trying, I had the church up to $1,000,000 but they were stuck on the non-disclosure agreement. Then it all went a bit weird. Until that point, I had thought that Jason was pretty confused about what he wanted. When he came in to the office to discuss the church’s settlement proposal he was sure of himself. He said he didn’t want money and he didn’t care about signing a non-disclosure agreement. All he wanted, he said, was for the school to be closed and to never re-open. Not as a school or anything to do with that church.
“How did that go over with the other side?” asked Martin.
“They fought back for a few months but it became clear that the school had been caught in a down draft for a few years. To continue as a school, the existing building needed expensive upgrades. The church had secured another possible site where they could build a new school. They were planning to repurpose the old building for something else, a day retreat or something. Eventually they agreed to give Jason what he wanted.”
‘They must have been happy to keep their money and receive the non-disclosure” said Keith.
“I guess. Anyway, Jason was delighted. When he came in to sign the minutes of settlement he had undergone a metamorphosis. He was wearing an Armani jacket and had cut his hair. In two weeks he had somehow gone from slight to wiry. He shook my hand when he left and I could just feel the confidence radiating off him”.
“That land has been redeveloped. I saw a sign saying forty condominiums are to be built” said Keith.
“I heard that. I wondered what happened. The church said they would never sell it.”
“The story I heard, from a developer friend of mine, was that there was an old right of reversion created when the land was donated to the church in the forties. Apparently, if the land ceased to be used by the church it reverted back to the donor” said Keith.
“Could be, that would explain why the church resisted Jason’s counter-offer. If they could have sold the land and kept the money for themselves they would have jumped to accept the deal. And, now you mention it, at one point we searched the title and I remember the registered owner held it ‘in trust’ but there wasn’t any trust document filed at Land Titles”.
That night, despite the wine, sleep eluded Paul. He kept thinking: land redeveloped and Mason working in real estate. At 3am he gave up trying to sleep, quietly pulled on some sweats, made a pot of coffee and, wearing his fur trimmed slippers, shuffled to his office. He had maintained access to his old firm’s computer system because from time to time one or another of the lawyers would call and ask him about a file he had worked on. He logged on and went to the file: ‘Holt vs The Alberta Freedom Evangelical Church’. It took almost an hour, but he found the copy of the certificate of title for the land where the school had been. The registered owner was shown as First Alberta Trustco ‘in trust’. Then, using the firm’s account, he did an historical search of the title and found that the land had been transferred to First Alberta Trustco in 1947 from Bar Z Ranch Ltd. Today, the new owner was ‘Modern Times Developments Inc’. The affidavit of value on the transfer from First Alberta Trustco to Modern Times Developments showed a fair market value of $18,000,000. A search of corporate registry showed that Modern Times was the successor by amalgamation to Bar Z Ranch. Okay makes sense, Paul thought; that fits with the reversion clause they had talked about. Paul read on and felt a bolt of red wine acid reflux shoot up his gorge. The sole directors and shareholders of Modern Times Developments were Jason Holt and Sig Mason.
As Paul waited for the first sign of dawn to break free of the darkness, he found himself on the porch sipping his fifth cup of coffee. He noticed a crack in one of the dowels holding the timbers together.
Many months later and, now, rooted in the twilight of his life, Paul finds himself less anxious living in the Kootenays. The dream hasn’t been back since the night with Keith and Martin and some days he enjoys meeting customers. These days, he savors the time between day and night when the colors fade to grey. In June, he says, the disappearing act can last an hour; in December, a mere few minutes. As the evening approaches, he shows his guests how the lake, now emerald with spring runoff, will soon be a thick ribbon of graphite. He tells them how the cherry tree with its light pink blossoms will, before dessert is served, become a buxom silver bush. We are fortunate to live here, he says, we have the day, the night and the in between.