Category Archives: Creative Non-fiction

Vulture

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Vulture

Katie Vautour

French-English dictionaries tell me that my family name translates directly to vulture. Nan was more of a goose—I guess because she married in—clucking at bad ideas, honking and baring her sharp teeth at anything threatening.

 

In Arizona, oranges are as common as pinecones are in New Brunswick. My brother and I throw half-rotten fruit at each other in a parking lot, dodging between cars that people will have to wash later to get rid of sticky citrus.

My phone rings. It’s Nan, saying her arm hurts where they scooped out the lump. She whispers biopsy, as if saying it quietly makes it better, or like it’s a “bad” word, or maybe God will hear and will just forget anything bad is happening.

Justin hurls an orange at a cactus. The cactus has lumps, grey knots like those I imagine cling to Nan’s arm. The orange is pierced on the spines with a thwack, juice spraying everywhere.

 

Justin and I are back in Saint John, outside Grampy’s house: blue shingles, white trim. He tells us that when the ambulance drivers took Nan to Hospice, they asked her address and stopped in front of the house so she could look at it and her eccentric collection of lawn ornaments. There is a statue of the black boy in red suspenders and white shirt, fishing amongst a forest of flailing pinwheels and glinting metal curlycues. To get to the garden, I would have to manoeuver through an aviary of wooden birds, wings twirling in the wind.

“I don’t know why your grandmother’s got so many damn birds,” Grampy says. “We’ve got enough real ones as it is. I’ve seen flocks of woodpeckers trying to drill bugs out of the suckers.”

Compared to New Brunswick, there aren’t many birds in Newfoundland, aside from the obligatory seagulls and pigeons and puffins. Occasionally, I’ll see one cardinal and wonder where all the others are.

 

Nan’s room is a white chamber. The bare windowsills are white as the nurse’s clipboard she prints on with blue ballpoint after adjusting some wires and tubes. I hear a squeak from the corner, it’s my Aunt saying, oh, well I think the pollen made Nan cough more, so I moved them.

Pollen. As if flowers caused her lungs to seize and collapse.

Justin marches down the hall in polished black boots and retrieves the flowers from the nurses’ desk. He slams them on the windowsill. A haze of yellow pollen rises like a revolt in the sunlight.

There is a variety of plants, daffodils, roses, black-eyed susans, a strange spiky plant with yellow fur (probably from our family back in the desert). Someone sent a single white orchid. I wonder if they knew how appropriate that was. Nan is like an orchid right now. People love orchids but can’t keep them alive because they don’t know how to care for them.

 

The last time Nan sees me, she stares open-eyed, sucking air with her eroded cheekbones. Smokes kept me breathing, she had told me, better than puffers, better than fresh air. I’d smoke through a hole in my throat.

I try to smile at her but I can’t.

“Did you notice how much Nan looked at you?” Dad asks later. “She was glad you were there.”

I know she wouldn’t want me, or any of us, to see this. She would rather huddle her family under a fence of feathers, shielding us all from truth.

 

My brother is the only person in the family who takes the idea of “bird” literally. He is an air force pilot, and usually flies real planes, but now he sits at the computer with fingers connected to cords and buttons as if he’s hooked up to a life support system. He flies digital planes against digital bad guys, blowing the shit out his enemies as if defeating them defeats his sadness and confusion.

I perch on the arm of the couch beside him, pecking at my fish and fries. I guess I am a vulture—not just because the dictionary suggests that denotation.

I am a scavenger by profession. I scour streets for scraps, picking through carcasses of recycling bags for objects or interesting materials. Then I rearrange them and glue them together, then call it art and people gawk at it with curiosity.

 

One of the funeral directors offers Grampy a rose to lay in the hole. He takes it and starts shuddering. The flocks of family scatter in dull black coats, huddling from the hiss of spray from the sea. Some cock their heads, observing my grandfather curiously from a distance.

I glare at them. Never mind vultures. My family is a bunch of ostriches sticking their head in the snow. I concentrate on my feet, bursting iced twigs like capillaries in a lung.

Standing beside the unmarked grave, Grampy looks like a vulture: hooked nose, bald head with sprigs of white sprouting around the rim, black coat flapping over his hunched back.

He stands under snow-bandaged tree limbs, shaking fingers still holding the rose. Glistening beads of water sparkle on the petals. When I touch his arm, he drops it in the hole and shuffles away through the snow.

 

The luggage carousel in the St. John’s airport grinds to a stop. The red light flicks off. A plump lady with a bobby-pinned blue hat holds the microphone to her painted lips and cheerfully announces that they overbooked the plane in Toronto, so our luggage got left behind and we will receive it in a few days.

The crowd of people with hugs and luggage that are not mine is overwhelming, so I wait outside, standing in the ice-bitten streets, neon lights wavering on the sleet-soaked asphalt.

A tough street pigeon, complete with Mohawk, wobbles around my ankles, cooing, as if I landed here only to challenge him for his turf.

My boyfriend waits for me in the car. “Let’s go home,” he says.

Home?

 

My other grandmother, on my Mom’s side, passed away in January. The morning I am supposed to fly back to New Brunswick for her funeral, the flight is cancelled due to a storm. I might be a vulture, but unlike my brother, I cannot actually fly. When planes get cancelled, I get stuck on this island.

This day also happens to be my boyfriend’s niece’s birthday. She’s five. For the sake of normalcy, I agree to immerse myself in a world of pink taffeta, and other things I never liked even as a little girl. Under pressure to find delight in china cups, I have only an overwhelming sense of trespass. My grandmother, who was being buried under layers of ice-crusted snow, would have insisted on throwing out any food served on china that had the tiniest hairline fracture. Then cracks from those chipped teacups crawled onto her palms and into her brain until it shattered into pieces and she couldn’t put anything back together again.

I sit with hunched shoulders, sipping tea out of a teacup too tiny for tea, brooding about the web of roses wreathing the cup. My grandmother’s dementia had sprouted suddenly in her mind, a parasitic plant digging deep roots down into the darkness, thriving off her memories until they were all gone and it withered up and died with her.

Vultures are unusual creatures in this setting. Tiny birds avoid me, flapping around with blankets over their shoulders and heads, shrieking like some aviary on acid. A bold one flicks her head, throws a blanket at me and says:

“Katie doesn’t have any wings!”

I forget my manners and run away to cry.

 

I lean against the door of a car I’ll never ride in again. In a cab, I’m in a place but no one knows where I am. I hope the driver will devote the rest of his life to taking me home. Bits of me get left the air each time I fly. The idea of me and home disintegrates when I get shaken up, shaken like an etch-a-sketch erasing my one Grandmother’s memory, like the long ash of my other Nan’s cigarette crumbling on a breeze in her garden.

Duel on the Strait

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Duel on the Strait

Richard LeBlond

During my visit to the island of Newfoundland in late summer 2011, remnants of two hurricanes struck, and a third came ashore just after I left. Newfoundlanders shrugged. The Cape Ray area near Port aux Basques often has winds in excess of 190 kilometers per hour, equivalent to category 3 hurricanes. Those winds used to blow the sarcastically named Newfie Bullet off its narrow-gauge tracks before it was permanently blown off by construction of the cross-island highway and freight-hauling trucks.

Nowadays, strong winds are mostly a bother to boats and laundry. Boatmen stay ashore, except for crews on the large ferries to and from Nova Scotia and Labrador. Those vessels are part of the commercial highway and must set against the wind – and sometimes it seems, against reason.

Winds were strong along the Strait of Belle Isle during the latter part of my detour to southern Labrador. A few days before I departed, the Labrador ferry, Apollo, had set out from St. Barbe, Newfoundland, for its two-hour crossing to Blanc Sablon, a small town in Quebec about two kilometers from the Labrador border. Aboard the Apollo were some high-ranking government officials, but the winds were too strong to dock on the Quebec/Labrador side of the strait. So the ferry loitered offshore, waiting for the gale to ebb. But the wind wouldn’t cooperate, and the vessel eventually had to return to Newfoundland, a wasted six hours of official lives.

(Those passengers got off easy. Two weeks later, the ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland dawdled offshore for 36 hours before docking, thanks to the remnants of hurricane Maria.)

A big part of the docking problem at Blanc Sablon is that the Apollo has to back in. The ferry always noses in to St. Barbe on the Newfoundland side, so cars and trucks heading to Labrador drive on through the bow. The Apollo backs into the dock at Blanc Sablon and the vehicles drive off through the stern. Backing in is a much more difficult maneuver than nosing in, and requires more power. Wind just makes it worse.

The failed crossing with the high government officials was prominently noted by the region’s weekly newspaper, the Northern Pen (and the inspiration for the newspaper in Annie Proulx’s novel, Shipping News). The Pen reported the Apollo was in need of repair and had been operating all summer at only 65 percent of its power capacity. During my own later crossing from Labrador to Newfoundland, I was told by a crew member that the vessel had to shut down the kitchen, as well as all other non-essential power uses, to gather enough thrust to perform the backing-in maneuver. It is possible the journey of those high government officials was thwarted by an overlooked toaster.

My plans were to leave Labrador on a Monday, but I had become so enamored of the little outport of Red Bay that I decided to stay two more days. It is well I did, because the Monday crossing I had originally reserved was cancelled. Not just the crossing was cancelled, but most of the day for those with reservations, due to the particulars of the ferry operation. Had I tried to depart Monday, I would have left Red Bay about 10 in the morning to arrive at the terminal in Blanc Sablon by noon. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 1 p.m., and those with reservations have to check in at least an hour before departure. Arriving late not only forfeits the reservation, but incurs a $10 penalty euphemistically called a non-refundable deposit.

On that Monday, the winds again were too strong for docking, and the Apollo meandered to and fro just offshore before finally giving up about 5 p.m. and returning to Newfoundland. During that time, those who were booked for the 1 p.m. crossing had to sit there and wait until the decision to abort was made. I would have wasted a day that could have been – and actually was – happily spent in Red Bay.

So instead I left Red Bay for Blanc Sablon on Wednesday morning. The wind was mild and the forecast good. But by the time I got to the ferry terminal, the bluster had picked up again. Way up. The Apollo had not yet docked, and could not be seen, as the strait was clotted with a fog as thick as pease pudding. I checked in at the terminal office, where no one knew what was going to happen. I was assured the Apollo was just offshore, out there in the pease pudding. I prepared myself for a lost day, splitting time between reading a book in the pickup, and standing in the bluster on the edge of the wharf, looking for some sign of the ferry, some attempt by it to get close enough for us to cast our hope to one another.

And then, after an interminable and dismal wait, the Apollo slowly appeared out of the fog, an apparition in transit from phantom to matter, gathering detail real and imagined. At first it was the ghost ship of the Flying Dutchman, then a three-master 150 years late from a whaling voyage, and penultimately a World War II merchant vessel come in from its dance with a German submarine. The Apollo was all of these, beyond its allotted time, unable to dock, condemned to wander in sight of land as the wind and the captain stared each other down.

The afternoon wore on, and the wind actually strengthened, diminishing hope. But the captain did not blink. Instead, after two hours of posturing, he attempted to back in, despite what seemed a greater danger. Maybe it was the aftertaste of the failed crossing with the officials, or the subsequent bad press. Maybe it was a call from the owner, or a look from the first mate. Whatever it was, he did not blink. Heaving mightily against the wind, the captain swung Apollo’s stern to the Blanc Sablon dock.

After the ferry unloaded its Labrador-bound traffic, we boarded and set off through the frothing strait for St. Barbe. I bought a 5-ounce cup of black tea at the cafeteria for $1.81. A refill cost as much. The tea was already brewed and came out of a 30-gallon container. A chronic tightwad, I tried to regard it as another contribution to the needed repairs. Nonetheless, the ferry owner is walking a fine line when he risks our safety and charges $1.81 for each small cup of generic tea. “It’s the Apollo for cod’s sake,” I tell him in absentia, “not the Queen Elizabeth II. Most of your passengers are out of work for half the year.”

As soon as we were free of the Blanc Sablon harbour, the Apollo began to lurch from side to side. We were exactly perpendicular to the wind and its battering waves. At first, it was just my tea cup accelerating across the table. But soon the vessel began to roll violently. Some people, having spent years of their lives on boats, thought they could walk, but instead could only slam into bulkheads. Dishes and pots in the kitchen slid along counters and crashed to the deck. Doors banged open and shut. I threw life-preservers to the fears that kept bobbing up in my mind of ships lost at sea.

As we got closer to Newfoundland, the wind hardly let up, but a bit of sun made its way through the fog, and little rainbows sailed above the waves reeling off Apollo’s bow.

“That was one of our roughest rides,” a crewmember said as we approached St. Barbe. But the young woman sitting at the next table disagreed.

“This happens all the time,” she said. She worked for the school system and crossed over to Labrador every week. “It’s always windy on the strait.”

But rather than being a comfort, her words were a disappointment. I wanted it to be one of the worst rides ever. I had paid dearly for those fears, and she had reduced them to mere paranoia.

The Stuff of Fairy Dust

The Stuff of Fairy Dust

A Memoir by Karen Wright

I am utterly alone, in Taos, New Mexico, in a barren, dusty field off the back porch of a motel where I’ve stayed on previous trips. Alone, I am home, asleep and dreaming. The sun shines in a cloudless, transparent blue sky. Sagebrush dots the landscape. The land is dry, dusty, the dirt devoid of nutrients. This is typical southwestern soil. Take any paint of a bold, primary color, add enough dry, southwestern dirt, and the result is a muted color–cozy, warm, welcoming, safe, secure. These are the colors of Taos. These are the colors that summoned and inspired numerous artists, including Ernest Blumenschein, Andrew Dasburg, Nicolai Fechin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. These are the colors that keep me coming back in my waking life. These are the colors, thick with the stuff of antiquity and primal dust, that beckon me in this dream state.

Dreaming in Taos colors and drawn to its soil, glistening with energies felt and unseen, I think about my husband Alan, the love of my lifetimes. I etch memories of our time together in the dust, my impromptu canvas. When I finish, I kneel down and gently gather each stroke, each memory, placing the collection in a locked chest of golden memories, and tuck it away for another day. In waking life, Alan is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed nine months after we were married, six short years ago. It was the second marriage for both of us, but the glue uniting us has an other-worldly strength that cured the moment we met.

I have been Alan’s caregiver from the beginning, and I will be his caregiver to the end and beyond, if such a thing is possible. Still, watching this gentle, sweet man being robbed of his life, of our new life together, is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Holding his hand and whispering tales of love, surrender, and gratitude, watching him slip away, has taken its toll on me, has brought me to remember and cherish each shining jewel of our life together. I can do nothing to stop this transition, his passage. His remaining time here is short, and I am coming undone.

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BREAD AND SALT

Bread and Salt: What a Jewish Cemetery in Poland Taught Me about an Arab Cemetery in Israel

© Robert Brym (2014)

Department of Sociology                                                                                            University of Toronto                                                                             rbrym@chass.utoronto.ca

1977

On a wet spring morning, Marek drove southwest out of Warsaw toward my father’s hometown. During the two semesters he had spent as a postdoctoral student in Canada, he and his wife had rented the basement apartment of my parents’ house in Fredericton. My mother would periodically invite them upstairs for a meal, giving my father an opportunity to recount his youth in Poland and the war years in Russia. The two couples – one Jewish and in their mid-60s, the other Catholic and in their early 30s – liked each other, and when it came time for me to attend my first international conference, in Poland, I had little compunction about contacting Marek and asking him if he might be willing to drive me to Bodzanów, the little town 90 minutes outside Warsaw where my father lived until 1939. When I met Marek and his wife in their Stalin-era apartment bloc an hour before we set out on our trip, I saw immediately why my parents were so fond of them. They offered me bread and salt, a traditional Slavic welcome for a respected guest. Their intelligence and generosity of spirit shone.

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