BLUE SHADOWS

 
 

The humid summer heat never fails to rekindle memories of childhood holidays, taken to coincide with blueberry season in rural Nova Scotia where our relatives live. Wild blueberry bushes grow boundlessly there in fields, ditches and along roadsides, enticing all who pass by. Until my eleventh year, I was blissfully unenlightened about their role as naïve keepers of dangerous family secrets.

Following routine assurances of the contrary to our mothers who went to lunch in town, I became lost. Separated from my berry-picking cousins, I contentedly wandered among the bushes, leisurely plucking and eating my way across the fields. My bare feet navigated earth so warm that I longed to stretch out on it to daydream under the cloudless sky but I resisted because of a fear of snakes inherited from my mother.

On the advice of my aunt who claimed that earth vibrations send snakes the other way, I rigorously marched every so often and, figuring that a little extra racket wouldn’t hurt, I bellered out songs made popular by the Carpenters and the Hollies. By the time the fields were bronzed in late afternoon light, my blueberry enthusiasms had sufficiently flagged and I started homeward.

My aunt’s white clapboard house stood oddly silent, all the leaves on the stand of alder trees beside it so motionless it appeared that they, too, had succumbed to the wilting heat. Despite the scolding I knew I’d catch for the map-like stains purpling my yellow cotton dress, I was so focused on getting something to drink that I was more annoyed than alarmed when an animal mewled from within the screened sleeping porch. Knowing that my cousins did not have any pets, I quietly set down my half-full berry pail and peered in over the scorched remains of a window box. With my visor-cupped hands barely touching the screen, I strained to make sense of the shapes and shadows beyond it.

Everything seemed calm inside the porch, too, not a squirrel, raccoon or barn cat in sight. Thinking I had imagined the cry, I was about to give up when an embracing couple emerged out of the dimness. It struck me that they were not aware of my presence and, although I did not yet know the meaning of the word ‘voyeur,’ panic paralyzed me. I dared not move or even attempt to conceal myself lest they notice me.

Giant lemon and lime flowers adorning the woman’s snug fitting dress bloomed anew when she stepped backward into a narrow shaft of sunlight, her sleek, dark hair swaying with every motion. Flinging her head back, her body arched and in one tinkling, charismatic laugh, I recognized Jeannie-Marie, a young woman our parents had hired to mind us on Saturday night while they attended a dance.

Mesmerized by this movie-star Jeannie-Marie, far removed from the pony-tailed girl who had seemed near my own age when we had cooked hotdogs and watched our favorite TV shows together, I could not tear myself away. A crimson lipstick smear on one of her cheeks seemed only to heighten her flawlessness and the perfection of her full, glossy lips. In that instant, I longed to be just like Jeannie-Marie when I grew up. Often praised for my brains but not my looks, I was certain it must feel wonderful to be so beautiful, so irresistible.

Tension rose with each heat wave around me, making the air seem hotter still and I could feel more moisture leeching from my body with every wary exhale. My mouth grew so dry I could not muster spit enough to swallow.

The man abruptly tugged Jeannie-Marie toward him, his strangely familiar hands on her back and his face shielded from view by her hair. A sickly feeling overcame me and I wished I hadn’t eaten so many blueberries. With fear prickling through my veins, I decided to leave before they discovered me.

At that same exact second, Jeannie-Marie began leading the man toward the cot by the screen I was staring through, her mouth pressed to his all the while as they turned so that she was backing toward me. Suddenly my father’s sun-stricken features were caught in a ray of light beaming down into the murky porch, his widened eyes mirroring the shock and sorrow in my own.

Thirst forgotten, I bolted past the empty rain barrel to the field behind the house where bird-ravaged blueberry bushes had drawn all the goodness out of the parched ground. I didn’t stop running until I reached the river where I dove in and swam until I was weak and my brain was amply saturated with the notion that I’d suffered heatstroke. The unmerciful summer sun was to blame for my temporary delirium.

Near dusk, I found my mother and aunt amiably fixing dinner together in the cozy kitchen the way they did every night of our vacation, the air sweetly fragranced by three pies cooling by the sink. But the dusty white jackets on my blueberries proved no protection from the withering sun and I had to throw them out. Still, I didn’t learn the meaning of ‘adulterer’ until much later and despite my mother’s assertions that they have none, to this day my most vivid recollection of blueberry picking is the prickles.

© Janni Styles

Note: This story placed first in 1999 in an international writing contest against over 700 entrants. Fiction writing, especially “slice of life” fiction as in this story is what I most love to write along with creative non-fiction. This short story was first published on this blog on March 19, 2011.

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STITCHING JUDITH

The cost of peace sign earrings… priceless..

Pearl Webster was one of my mother’s friends when I was in the eighth grade.  Pearl was a retired veterinarian assistant with a blunt but forgivable edge to her character.

“Don’t waste ten bucks downtown. Save your money. I’ll pierce your ears for free,” Pearl promised, her medical background the basis for appointing herself head surgeon in my procedure.

“Nothing to it,” she said. “Trust me.”

Desperate for pierced ears like my friends, I was thrilled to win my mother’s approval as soon as Pearl got involved. We left our house early one Saturday morning for Pearl’s big two-story brick house with a sprawling veranda. My brand new surgical steel studs were in my jeans pocket along with a new pack of chewing gum.  Mom carried her puffy blue topped sewing basket in one hand, a fresh cigarette in the other. As a part-time seamstress, Mom possessed a great number of needles which she was well accustomed to forcing through fabrics of various resistance and thickness.

“Your ear lobes,” she said, “will be a cinch.”

Already four inches taller than my petite mother, I could easily see over her head but questioning her judgement under any circumstances was unadvisable. Luckily, we had reached Pearl’s house before I could voice any concerns about the menacing images of  needles I couldn’t help envisioning.

In Pearl’s cozy kitchen, I sat down where she motioned me to, in a yellow vinyl chair with chrome legs next to the matching table. Pearl’s 100 pound Shepherd cross dog, Shane, lumbered over to me. He braced  his front paws, one on each of my knees, his foul breath forcing me to hold mine while the loosed hairs from petting him wafted lazily through the coffee spiked air.

“Get down off of her,” Pearl said.  Shane moved slowly, eyeing Pearl for  a change of heart.

The familiar olive ceramic lamp of a rearing donkey sat on the kitchen table by the window. I’d spent many a lamp lit night with my elbows parked on that yellow flecked arborite earning pocket change by beating Pearl at cards games she taught me.

“Would you like something to bite on?” Pearl asked.

I nervously glanced at Mom who was intently sorting through her needles. Her fingernails were always so naturally long, strong and white. I curled my hands into fists to hide my short, weak nails.

“I’m alright,” I said.

The truth held for a few more seconds.

“Hold still, Judith,” my mother said.

Determined nurses tending captive patient, the two women fastened wooden spring hinged clothespins on each of my ear lobes. Pearl’s insistence that my ears would numb wasn’t doing much against my unravelling resolve. Heat blazed first from my ears to my cheeks, then flooded my entire head. I started panting just like Shane when he gets excited. And that was when Pearl jammed a lit cigarette between my lips.

I reached up to remove it but she shoved my hand back down.

“We know you kids all smoke,” Pearl said, one hand on her hip like she wasn’t taking no for answer.

Again, I looked at Mom but again she was fixed on my ear lobes and didn’t say a word in my defense.

Coughing and sputtering now, I reached up again but Pearl beat me to it, bringing the cigarette to her fuchsia lipsticked mouth for a good long drag before speaking.

“It’s okay, kid, you don’t need to pretend,” she said. “Your mother won’t get mad. A puff’ll get your mind off your ears.”

Barely catching my breath, I found the cigarette stuck between my lips a second time. Choking immediately, my passages seared painfully from smoke that proved Pearl right. My burning ears were forgotten.

Ice cubes followed clothespins and by the time the needle appeared, I was beyond caring. The piercings were quick and smarted far less than my breathing passages. I didn’t even notice the stinging from the alcohol that my friends had warned me of.

“For good measure,” Pearl claimed.

“To stop infection,” Mom said. But infection didn’t sound so bad just then.

“Have a smoke,” Pearl said, extending her king-sized cigarette pack through a perfectly executed smoke ring.

“But I’ve never even smoked before,” I said.

“Come on, kiddo. No need to lie anymore,” Pearl said.  She smiled, her gold tooth flashing me encouragingly.

“But I’m not,” I said. I had tried smoking with my friends in the school ground but it choked me and made me so dizzy, I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to do such a thing. Ever.

“Take one,” Pearl urged.

“Mom…” I started.

“Go ahead. It’s alright,” she said before I could utter more than her name.

Holding back her drug store blonde shoulder length locks, Mom leaned into Pearl’s flaming match to light her menthol brand cigarette. My mouth felt unhinged and fell wide open but all I got out was breath. Pearl shook the match and tossed it into the ashtray on the table.

“What? You don’t want one?” Mom asked.

“No,” I said.

“Well, who could blame you with two new holes in your head, huh, kiddo?” Pearl said. Her raspy laugh unleashed a smoke cloud right at me that set me coughing again.

“Uh oh. She might be sick. Some people throw up when they get nervous,” Pearl said.

She rested her cigarette in the ashtray that matched the dark green ceramic donkey lamp and got a pail out from under her sink.

“It’s alright. We have to get going, anyways. Tell Pearl thanks,” Mom said.

“Thanks, Pearl.”

Mom’s closed sewing basket was back in her hand with a fresh cigarette in the other by the time we reached the street.

“Don’t think you can go around smoking just because you got away with it today,” she said.

“Jeez! Nobody believes a thing I say,” I muttered.

“Don’t be lippy. I don’t approve of teenagers smoking,” Mom said, inhaling a goodly belt of nicotine before mashing the butt out under the toe of her  sandal on our driveway.

“Don’t let me hear that you’ve been smoking, missy. Not ever,” she said, her face locked in stern mode as she jabbed the house key through the air in my direction.

“You won’t,” I said.

I extracted the gum from my pocket and held a stick out. It was her favorite flavour, spearmint.

“Thanks,” Mom said, her face softening.

“Your ears must hurt like heck.”

“Nah,” I said.

They weren’t sore enough to stop me from thinking about what all my friends would say at school on Monday morning.  Or to keep me from wondering how many card games I’d have to beat Pearl at to buy myself a pair of silver peace-sign earrings.

(c) 2003

SECOND HAND SHOES

 Accompanying Dad to visit Aunt Mags in her house perched high on the Delta hillside was something I wasn’t always eager to do despite her panoramic view of the verdant Delta wetlands and the cityscape beyond that twinkled enchantingly from dusk to dawn. The vista was merely a bonus, a consolation for all the unrehearsed family entertainment a person could stand.

“Aye, but Charlie, pubs are not the same in Canada. Nowt is. It’ll never be home to me,” Aunt Mags told my father who sat across from me sipping tea at her kitchen table.

Mags was ironing clothes on a flip-down board from a cupboard near the telephone. I watched her ready a T-shirt fit to wear straight from the dryer, spritzing it with water from a former cleanser bottle. She lifted the iron and said pointedly, “Here they go just to get drunk where in England, it’s a social thing.”

“Aye, yes, I know what you mean for I have never seen a tipsy Englishman in my life,” my father teased, raising one of his silvery eyebrows at me.

My father possessed the kind of friendly, crinkly face that convinced you he’d entered the world grinning right through the doctor’s swat on the bum. He and Mum settled in Vancouver before I was born, both smitten with Canada for all the reasons Aunt Mags claimed she wasn’t.

Mum’s determination to die a Canadian Citizen was rewarded only months before her passing right after I graduated college. For a couple of years after that, Dad and I were both kind of numbed. We simply didn’t know what to do without her. Mum’s request to be interred in her Canadian homeland was fulfilled despite my aunts’ flagrant protests. But then, Aunt Mags had spent all of her sixteen years in Canada determined not to enjoy a single minute of it, nor let anyone else if she could help it.

“Are you having me on, Charlie?” she demanded.

She raised the iron, a would be weapon reduced to sheer comedic prop value due to the shimmying hank of flesh dangling from her upper arm.

“Not at all, not at all,” he said, winking as he stood. “Home is where you make it. Now let’s see, where’s your washroom, again?”

“You know very well – OH! Go to the loo!” Mags said, her complexion turning ruddy, contrasting nicely with her sleeveless pea green blouse.

The iron hissed out a shot of steam and I focused intently on milk foam bubbles floating on my tea, watching as they popped one by one. We all knew Mags would never return to Britain. She owned a house here, a proper house with a private garden. In England all she’d had was a cramped row house with a strip of grass out back the width of her present boulevard.

“Complacent Canadians,” Mags muttered, ironing Uncle Alfred’s shirts with a heavy handedness that seemed to work out the creases better than anything else.

“Well, I was born here and you’re a citizen now, too. If you don’t like the way things are, it’s up to you to do something about it,” I said, gathering my hair into a haphazard pony tail, using one length of it to twine around and hold the rest in place.

“Dual citizenship doesn’t mean being born here, thank our Lord Jesus Christ in Heaven. I know which one is real. You’re not true to your roots, Jessie. Oh, your mother would shudder.”

“These are my roots,” I said, knowing Mum wouldn’t shudder even if she were still alive but instead of saying so, I was content to let my father resume the battle when he returned.

“Wherever did you get those hideous shoes?” Mags said, referring to his worn in brown leather loafers.

“Down at the Goodwill. Aren’t they lovely?” He hoisted a foot up, holding onto the knee with both hands while wiggling his foot around like a shoe model in a fashion spoof.

“And only a dollar! Old Charlie Davies struttin’ about in shoes fit for attending the Ascot races alongside the Queen and me not even royalty!”

“Royalty, phhhhhttttt! That dollar likely fetched you a good dose of athlete‘s foot. Everyone knows you’re not to buy shoes second-hand,” Mags said smugly. “You never know who’s been wearing them. Could have been any type of foreign foot.”

“Fancy that, a foreign foot in me shoes! Well then, I guess they were meant for me, being a landed immigrant and all,” Dad said.

He had never bothered to change his landed immigrant status which came in handy, if only to shut Mags up once in a while.

I picked up the box Uncle Alfred had left by the door and said, “I’ll just toss this in the trunk, Dad.”

“That’s boot, not trunk. Trunks are used to store things and ship things,” Mags said, attacking a new shirt.

“Thanks for the tea. Thank Alfred for cutting those stakes for Jessie,” Dad said, scooting out the door on my tail.

“All that moaning wears, it does,” he said, seated in my old, reliable Valiant.

“It’s all so pointless. She’ll never go back,” I said.

“It’s a way of life for some. They start complaining of the weather in December and they’re still complaining come July no matter what it’s doing outside. It’s that or money or government, they can always find something wrong. Now, Lass, what’re doing’ with wooden stakes? Not planning to finish a certain witch, are you?”

He let out a chortle and I was close behind. Dad always seemed to amuse himself as much as he did me. He reached out to the metal peace sign hanging on a chain from my rearview mirror and gave it a twirl, spinning it around.

“I need the stakes to make signs for a protest,” I said.

“Not getting yourself into one of those political rallies again, are you?”

“Sort of. We’re trying to save Burns Bog from commercialization. Developers want to start building on it,” I said.

“It is a huge area,” Dad said.

“Yes, but big project or small, we’ll eventually lose the wetlands if they succeed,” I said, easing to the curb outside the brick apartment building where he still lived in the suite he and Mum had bought for their retirement together.

“Just stones in your shoes, lovey, just stones in your shoes,” Dad said, extricating himself from the worn bucket seat. He leaned back into the car long enough to say, “Don’t forget, I’m cooking your Sunday tea.” Then he turned on one well-worn heel and whistled himself home.

Sunday afternoon found me in my denim overalls on Dad’s living room carpet, adrift in a sea of royal blue pile surrounded by placards that my bachelor suite floor would not accommodate. Dad combed through the personals while I stenciled letters on large squares of white cardboard until Mags turned up, her voice squawking on the wall speaker when Dad answered the buzzer.

“I’ve come for your ironing,“ she said.

“I don’t need any ironing done,“ Dad said back.

“Let me in, you silly git. Alfred’s gone for gas and left me stood here in the rain,“ she said.

“Well, then,“ Dad said, pressing the black button.

Mag’s lavender fragrance and unique brand of good cheer coasted in over the aroma of roasting beef and onions. She set her umbrella down and, handbag still on her arm, put the kettle on to boil.

“I can’t understand you, Jessie. You and your young friends remind me of those hippies preaching love and peace in the sixties. With so many parks here, why ever would you bother to save one?” Mags asked.

“It’s not just a park. It’s about wildlife and unique ecological systems. Many consider the bog the lungs of the whole Vancouver region,” I said.

“Ahhh, the mountains and the trees have gone to me head. I‘m getting giddy now,” Dad goaded Mags. “Think of it, woman. The countryside in England is like most back gardens over here.”

I gathered my long hair back into a ponytail and twisted it around itself into a knot so it would stay back off my face while I worked. Dad could pass for a decade younger than his sixty-two years but Mags looked far older than sixty-five. Momentarily stymied, Mags kept quiet until she spied the personals ads spread out before Dad.

“Bit old for that nonsense, aren’t you, Charlie?” Mags asked as she gathered Dad’s ironing in a plastic laundry basket a vibrant shade of Easter purple.

“Never too old, never too old. Man shall leave his father and mother to join a woman as one flesh. Direct from your bible, I believe that is. And what’re you doin’ with me laundry again for pity’s sake? I can take care of myself, I say, I can take care of myself.”

“I know,” Mags said, “But it’s the way you take care of yourself that bothers me. You were never like this back home, wearing your clothes straight out of the dryer.”

Mags did look genuinely concerned and I felt a little sorry for her. That need to be needed was greater in my aunt than it would ever be in me.

“I never had a dryer in England. Next thing she’ll be calling me a complacent Canadian. Or a hippie,” Dad said, still scanning the ads. He struck out ads with a great sweeping motion of his pencil.

“No, too old…too independent…oh, no, this one’s big as a house,” He snickered to himself.

“How can you tell without a picture? They’re just print ads aren’t they?” I asked, colouring in another stenciled letter with black poster paint.

“Because her ad says that size is not an issue. I don’t mind telling you that if I share a bed with somebody, I need to know there’s room in it for me. Oh, oh, this one will never do, either. She’s British,” he said, giving the paper a sharp tap with the end of his forefinger.

“So are we,” Mags said.

“Yes, that’s why I’m afraid she might start moaning how everything is so much better back home.”

“Are you poking at me again?” Mags demanded. She stood with the laundry basket on one hip, her red jacket still buttoned up.

“No, not at all, Mags. Not I,” he said, grinning down at me from behind his paper.

“I think I’ll join your rally, Jessie girl, if you don’t mind that I’m technically not a citizen. I’m good at marching from my army days,” Dad grinned mischievously, his blue eyes twinkling like usual and I couldn’t be sure he meant it.

But on the day of the demonstration, he was there, second hand shoes and all, wielding a placard that said NATURE’S FUTURE IS OURS!

Close behind him, I could see Aunt Mags’s silvery coiffed hair bobbing up and down under a sign she’d obviously made: “SAVE CANADA’S WILDERNESS.”

Huffing and puffing breathlessly, Mags could barely speak at first. I passed her my water bottle while raising an eyebrow in Dad’s direction.

“I couldn’t stop her,” he said, jerking a thumb toward Mags. “She complains steady that I wore my new shoes to embarrass her because she bought those new white trainers just for this. But I see she’s still here.”

“Yes, I’m here,” Aunt Mags said, turning to me. “My sister Nora’s been phoning every day. She wants to know why don’t I move back home so we can spend our last years together and do you know what happened? It struck me that I don’t want to go.”

“Blimey. We’ve lost all opportunity for peace in Canada,” Dad said, winking over her head at me.

“Would you ever mind?” sniffed Aunt Mags, her vocal chords fully restored by the cool spring water. “This is my country, too.”

© 2003

CAMP MURMUR

Leaves on the ground already... some summers are just too short...

 

Gallivanting through the campground with my prized Christmas ice skates slung around my neck seemed perfectly reasonable. We were allowed to bring only one treasure each. Us in our sandy wet sneakers, bedding down in grassy sleeping bags, savouring fire-charred wieners and daylily friendships that bloom in morning light only to wither by sundown. Dad strumming us to the stars his idol, Hank Snow, reached not long before him, my twin older brothers’ breaking voices harmonizing along. Mom, my little sister and me trudging down to the shower house together, my sister spouting about the row of cubicles: “Hey! This is fun! We can talk to each other while we shower!” The bewildered quiet from her stall that first day when I shouted, who cares, just shutup, wouldja? Letting her baby babble course over me along with the warm water after that, somehow, made everything seem better.

Still, our parents claim that some kids hadn’t a crust of bread between them fast lost ground. We stopped complaining of missing our friends and Sunday pot roast. I watched my brothers over plates of beans, the aroma of grilling steak tormenting us, their spoons shoveling like prisoners in a movie. They swam in the lake and reread faded comic books and even helped us stage plays or talent shows in the sheltered picnic platform by the lake. Mostly, they were still like their Beatles albums and record player. I studied the lake often, equally dreading and dreaming of the surface icing over.

Newcomers revived us, some joining our father to play guitar around the campfire while we all sang loud and playful, our Mom carefree on summer vacation like other mothers laughing boisterously about the challenges of running “make-do households.” Me befriending girls with bikes who made me believe myself when I said I, too, loved camping so much, I could camp forever and never go home. My brothers teaming up with new pals to play volleyball or lounging on the dock to drool over bikinied girls and shiny boats.

Seeing those same friendly faces alter when they took another look at us and our campsite, erected since June with school soon starting. The awkwardness suspending all of us, even those free to return home to a life they no longer wished to share. A collective breath-holding where I feared them clamming up, taking away all the hope they’d given us, right along with them back to their houses with soft beds, lemon-scented polish and frilly white curtains.

Hearing the voice of a solitary angel stave off all the murmurs in the stiff, uncertain air. My little sisters face steady against flickering firelight, her doll safely in hand while she piped up, showing the way, uniting us all in laughter one night by announcing with a genuine pride no one dared argue: this is our real house.

(c) 2003