It’s the morning of your birthday, the first birthday you’ve ever spent without your mother—not because she’s dead, she’s too proud for that—but because the week of your birthday happened to be the only week your partner’s family, dispersed now across Canada, could meet up at the family home on Vancouver Island. You have made it down the wide, creaking staircase without waking any child, you have crossed the hallway, littered with shoes and sleeping dogs, without stumbling or stepping on anything that barks, you have entered the kitchen and closed the door and are walking towards the kettle and the French press when a pain in your foot collapses your leg and you curse, which wakes Brandy, your brother-in-law David’s deeply compassionate golden retriever-German shepherd mix, who scrambles up, her nails scraping the hallway floor, which wakes Harold, your sister-in-law Stephanie’s boneheaded boxer who barks and whips his head around desperately to try and figure out why, why, why he is barking. “Oh, shut up,” you say, your voice an eerie emulation of your father, though you make this observation so quickly that it slips through the net of your memory of the event and swims back into the sea of your subconscious.
A toy unicorn. Someone’s fucking toy unicorn.
And now someone is crying. Harold has stopped barking but he and Brandy seem desperate to go upstairs to help.
In the moment it takes you to figure out if it is your youngest daughter or your youngest niece crying, you toss the unicorn towards the living room then see your brother-in-law Stan asleep under a nylon sleeping bag and glistening with sweat. The unicorn hits him near his feet. It slips sibilantly off the sleeping bag, bounces from the couch and thumps against the floor. Stan rolls over mumbling something about stupid dogs and covers his head with a throw pillow that you can’t tell for sure in the dark but you think may have a Popsicle stick stuck to its coarse fabric.
It is your daughter. The crying is your daughter.
So you tell the dogs to “stay” and charge upstairs as fast as your tiptoes can carry you up the creaking stairs. When you see your youngest daughter, Erica, standing against the netting of the Pack ’n Play, you know that all hope of a quiet, private morning has vanished. Still, you are whispering that you are there, that it is okay, that she should, shhh, just go back to sleep. Erica is quiet when your partner comes in bleary eyed and sees you standing there. “Oh, okay,” your partner says and Erica gets excited and reaches for her mother. “Hi,” your partner says.
Your oldest daughter whimpers then and you wave your partner away in a way that you know she finds rude.
You pick Erica up and shake your head at a pace that says, I can’t fucking believe it, it’s five-thirty and I got up to avoid all this shit.
Your partner says, “I can get up,” and you flick your head quickly, No. “Why don’t you go back to bed?” she suggests.
You press your finger to your lip, telling her to shhh.
“Stop it,” she says, like you’re one of the dogs.
You hold your hand out, palm down, your way of silently saying, Relax.
You are driving your partner crazy. “Okay, I got it. You don’t want to be here.”
“Happy birthday,” she says as she turns and heads back to bed.
You manage to get out of the bedroom and down the stairs again. Erica says, “Dogs,” as you cross through the hall. Brandy raises her head. “Don’t even think about it,” you say and feel badly.
You start the kettle and hand Erica a piece of banana which she seems more interested in mashing against things or seeing how much dirt she can cause to adhere to than eating. Then, as you are measuring out the coffee, she throws the banana and starts shouting for yogurt.
Stan over on the couch mutters something. Erica gets scared and she starts crying. You take her out onto the porch, and the sound of that, probably specifically the sound of the suction on the outer door, the sticky snapping open and the woosh of air that makes any closed door rattle against its latch—or maybe whatever enticing smells flood the house—gets the dogs shuffling around, agitated, and vocalizing. You can’t be bothered.
It is cool outside and your hands go immediately cold. Your ears, too. Erica isn’t satisfied playing with the Rubbermaid bin of toys on the porch and wants to walk on the lawn with its human-scale dog feces, which is so much harder to see in the dim early morning light. You do that for a few minutes, startling the sleepy, slow flies from their shit-beds, or their shit-meals or whatever shit thing they are doing and sending them buzzing lazily in the air before you spot your stroller hanging from a large coat hook on the outside of the house where you hung it so whichever of the neighbourhood cats wouldn’t piss on it again. You grab Erica from under her arms and she laughs like she thinks you are playing. “Let’s go for a walk,” you say.
You go inside to grab a sweater for you and a sweater for her and you pause by the kitchen counter to consider making that coffee, but as soon as you do, Erica starts to strain towards the door, her arm reaching and saying, “Walk, want walk.”
You go into the room you and your partner are staying in and set Erica down in the nook created by your partner’s fetal positioning. Your partner say, “Hunh?” and you whisper, “Watch her for a sec., I’m just gonna grab us sweaters.” Your partner says, “Sweaters?” like you are crazy, possibly dangerously, and you say, “Yes. Sweaters.” She asks you what your problem is. You don’t answer.
You are ninja-quiet going into the room where Erica’s older sister, Virginia, is mercifully, probably delicately, still asleep. Out the open window a motorcycle screams by—it sounds like it's racing along the sill—but Virginia doesn’t even sigh. Then, suddenly, you are worried that she’s dead and you watch her chest for a minute to make sure that it is still rising and falling rhythmically. It is. You leave.
You walk into town. Erica is singing. The birds, too. The coffee shop that you love, a bastion of familiar coffee options and near-familiar feeling, is closed at this hour, which shouldn’t surprise you, you know. Shouldn’t upset you. Tim Hortons is open and you go there and order the dark roast coffee you scoffed at the ads for. You buy Erica a donut. The feeling in Tim’s is familiar too, from your youth, and if the tables and colour schemes have changed in the last thirty-years they have been changed with a delicacy and care that intends to escape your notice.
What is different is the clientele here on the Island, in Duncan, at six on a Saturday morning. The erasure and assimilation project so central to Canadian colonialism isn’t as far along here, will hopefully never get so far here as it has in the Greater Toronto Area. There are, you take pains to acknowledge, a woman your age with a stethoscope around her neck, its black rubber wrapped in beautiful, colourful beadwork and an older Native couple at a table by the front window having a quiet breakfast and conversation, the man’s hair carefully combed—slicked—and the woman smiling warmly at Erica when they spot each other. But there is also a woman who seems to be at the tail end of a substance-hammered night clutching at her extra-large coffee like it’s the only buoyant thing in her sea of suffering. There is a man with large, vicious looking scabs coming out of the bathroom who makes eye contact with you and offers a grin with gaps, maybe fresh. You nod, possibly imperceptibly, and say, “Hi,” with too little breath.
A maybe twelve-year old boy with black hair and a No Fear shirt opens the door to enter, spots you trying to leave and tells his siblings to, “Wait, guys,” and you thank him as you navigate Erica’s stroller out the door trying desperately not to spill your coffee. For whatever reasons, you apologize to the people you presume are the boy’s parents as you scuttle past them on the sidewalk.
You cross the highway and walk towards the river. Any time you slow down or start pushing the stroller with one hand and it arcs as a result, Erica says, “Go, go, go,” and jerks her body forward and back, her head slamming the back rest. This means that you drink much less of your coffee than you would like.
Before the bridge, you push the stroller off the sidewalk and down a path of flattened grass that allows you to avoid the stairs leading to the gravel walkway running parallel to the Cowichan River. The gravel is much harder on the stroller’s wheels and you are actually stopped a few times before you curse and give up.
Erica is saying, “Out, out, out,” and you are telling her to just hold on. It is hard to find a spot on the ground where you feel confident that you can set your coffee down and it won’t tip over. You decide to put it on the edge of the path a few feet away. Erica is rocking forward and back again as you approach to unbuckle her. As soon as you set her feet on the ground, she races down the slight incline to the tall plants that create a barrier between the path and the river. You tell her to hold on as you grab your coffee and with one hand swing the stroller onto the grass. You have to tell yourself to relax, and you do tell yourself. The river’s long monologue is audible in between the sound of trucks passing over the bridge on the highway. Erica is happily running with her hand out, sweeping the long grasses. The coffee is starting to work. The wind is playing ventriloquist with the leaves on the trees and the sun is drawing elongated images of houses and trees east of the path. You can feel the day cooling off your heart.
But Erica has disappeared.
You look back along the path towards the highway. You squint. You call, “Erica?”
She squeals from somewhere beyond the wall of plants.
Your coffee rocking and splashing out from the hole you tore in the lid and landing burning on your hand, barely registers against the hot humming panic animating your body, yet some corner of your mind manages to tell your left hand to grab the cup so your right hand can grasp it from the top, your fingers free of the splashing, burning beverage.
“Erica?” you call again.
She laughs again and bursts out of the grasses running on stiff legs and waving a pair of jean shorts in the air. You laugh relief, then surprise because where’d she get a pair of jean shorts. Now the pain of the coffee on your hand forces a, “Fuck!” and you again grab the cup with your left hand, this time more consciously, and flick your right hand as if that’s a way to get rid of the pain. Erica drops the jean shorts and runs back towards what you see is a concave dirt rut cut by use through the tall plants. “Where are you going?” you say and her hands and eyebrows leap up and she screams like you are playing a game with her now. “Erica!” you shout. She shudders with surprise, falls onto her diaper-padded bum and begins to cry. Certain now that she won’t go any where, you walk over to inspect the jean shorts.
They are cut to the edge of the back pocket, short enough that the thin, light blue front pockets would hang below their frayed hem. Through one leg hole you can see a pink, frilly fringe and a pattern of tiny black and yellow bees.
You put your burnt, throbbing right hand into your pocket, pull out your phone and take a picture.
Squatting, you pick Erica up with one arm and she rests her snotty, tear-streaked face against your shoulder. You walk her down the path. A few steps towards the Cowichan and the riverside plants already reach past your head. You see a depression that looks like a deer bed. “Is this where you found those shorts,” you ask Erica. She lifts her head and looks, but says nothing. “Is this where you grabbed those jeans?”
“Jeans,” Erica says. She buries her wet, warm face in your neck and laughs.
Curiosity walks you to the riverbank, raised and clear here. There is a path down to a rocky, shallow pool. Though called a river, the Cowichan is closer in size to the creeks you know from southern Ontario and there is something about it that makes you feel like you are home, reminds you of bike rides with your mother, Sunday drives with your grandparents, exploring with your father.
Near the water’s edge you notice a twelve pack of Labatt Ice—the box anyway—a clutter of brown empties visible through the torn top. Beside the box is a bottle on its side half in the water, rocking slightly.
As you walk back to the stroller sipping coffee, your brain writes stories. It is the need to account for the women’s underwear still in the jean shorts that seems to push each ending to an unhappy place—drunk, bottomless swim leads to drowning; sex in the grass followed with a hasty bottomless departure. You buckle Erica in and wonder if you missed a body bobbing around some bend in the river, or a used condom hanging off some tall riverside plant like the limp pupa of a monstrous butterfly.
The sound of a car door slamming means nothing to you until you see a beautiful girl, obviously tired, obviously upset, walk to the edge of the wall of plants then along it, head turned towards the hidden, monologuing Cowichan. She is wearing a long, white shirt with some sparkling design. She stops and takes a few steps down a path like the one you so recently emerged from, but before she disappears you notice that the back of her shirt has some sort of plant matter clinging to it. When she returns from down the path, you notice her breasts rocking rhythmlessly as she trots along the edge of the plant wall. You turn your head forward, conscious of staring, and you see an older woman—possibly her mother—watching the girl. There is a cluster of keys and tchotchke key chains bouncing from the middle finger of the older woman’s impatient left hand. “Found them,” you hear the girl shout, her voice tired, but relieved.
“Okay,” the older woman shouts, too loud for how close you and Erica are. She smiles nearly apologetically.
“Let’s go,” the older woman shouts.
The girl shouts back, “I’m coming.”
A hundred meters down the street, they speed past you in an old Ford Focus.
Back at your in-laws’ place, your partner and Virginia are up and they both wish you a happy birthday. David is sitting in a low lawn-chair, Brandy lying at his feet. David wishes you a happy birthday, too, then sips his coffee.
Your partner asks how you are.
You smile too wide and hold up your right hand, your thumb and index finger forming a circle. “Perfect,” you say.
Your partner suggests that maybe you go off on your own today, like go for a walk or go sit in a coffee shop and read or something. You want to tell her about the girl and the beer and the jean shorts and the underwear, but don’t know what you would say.
Virginia runs up to you and smash-hugs your thighs. “Daddy?”
She holds up the unicorn that you stepped on and tossed accidentally at her Uncle Stan. “It moved,” she says. “It’s magic.”
That makes you laugh.
“What?” she asks.
Your partner explains that Virginia remembers leaving it “set up” in the kitchen and that when they woke, it was on the coffee table by where Uncle Stan was sleeping.
Uncle Stan comes outside, trailing two of David’s kids. Virginia gets quickly distracted. Stan wishes you a happy birthday, then sits down and starts telling David about a dirt bike engine he’s trying to re-build.
Erica is chasing some cousins around and squealing.
You ask your partner if she’s good, if you can go have a shower. She says yes.
You say good morning to your mother-in-law who’s making another French press of coffee in the kitchen. She asks you if you want a cup. You tell her yes, when you are out of the shower you would love a cup. She makes a face before saying, “I’ll just make a fresh batch then,” because both of you know that there will be no coffee left five minutes from now.
It takes David’s wife, Lisa, wishing you a happy birthday to remind your mother-in-law of the day’s significance. She apologizes, wishes you a happy birthday then apologizes again.
In the shower, you think about the girl and now that you know she is safe you feel permission to make the story positive. Sexy. You can imagine the riverside plants all around you, under your bare knees. The sound of the water going down the drain is the murmur of the Cowichan, the warm water the warmth of another body pressed willingly, thrillingly against your own.
It is only after the shower, hearing your daughters’ voices through the open window that you imagine yourself the jean short girl’s mother. Despite the guilt that the thought brings, you still resolve that tonight you will suggest to your partner a walk down by the river.
As you are getting dressed, your partner and children come upstairs to the room you are staying in. Virginia and your partner give you cards. Your partner hands Erica a package and the girl nearly gets it to you before she drops it on the ground and starts tearing at the tissue paper. Your partner tries to stop her, but you say it is okay and you get down on the floor and unwrap the gift with Erica’s help. It is a short-sleeved chambray shirt. You put it on. You thank your partner and she hugs you and kisses you.
All morning, your partner’s family compliments you on your new shirt.
After lunch, you call your mother. She wishes you a happy birthday and tells you that since she woke up this morning she has wanted to call you, but she wasn’t sure when she should call because of the time difference and because she knows it can be busy at your in-laws’ place. She asks you how you are doing and you tell her about waking up to be alone and about the dogs and Erica and the unicorn toy that you threw and that now Virginia thinks is actually magic. Your mother tells you she misses you, but that she understands. She tells you how proud she is of you. She tells you how important you are to her and how when you were born she finally understood her place in the world. You know what she means. You have heard it before. You tell her thank you, because you appreciate it. You tell her about Erica disappearing in the grass by the river and the horrible flood of fear. Your mother tells you that once she lost sight of you at the CNE and that it was only a few seconds before she found you and picked you up so quickly and with such loving force that you cried, but for those few seconds she felt— She can’t find a word. You picture the midway at the Ex: all the metal amusements, all their moving parts, all the people. “I can’t imagine,” you say, which is obviously not true, but you don’t bother to correct yourself.
You spend the afternoon with your partner’s family at a provincial park along the river. People are going down some small rapids on one of two yellow, inflatable mattresses. Virginia and you go too and the first time Virginia screams and cries, but when you reach the end of your run she says she wants to go again, so you do, many times. You collect stones at a gentle bend fifty meters up river. Erica naps under a small nylon structure that David and Lisa brought, then, when she wakes up she sits in a shallow pool with her grandmother and your partner. Your partner looks good in her bathing suit and you notice, but you have to think about other things. Three times you get up to go pee in the woods, each time walking further down a small path and scanning the bushes for deer beds and discarded clothes. As you are leaving the park, Virginia has a tantrum about a hardboiled egg that she has thrown in the sand and still wants to eat. There are no more hardboiled eggs. She says she hates you and you hug her and she tells you to let her go, that you are hurting her. In the car on the way back to your in-laws’ house, your partner tells Virginia that when she shouts like that you and your partner worry that the Child Services or Children’s Aid will come and take her away. You watch the sunlight flickering between the cedar trees.
After your girls have gone to bed, after dinner, your partner’s family surprises you with a cake. You thank them. Some people give you cards, the card from your mother- and father-in-law has a cheque for one hundred dollars. You thank them. Your father-in-law makes coffee and offers a cup to anyone who is interested. You consider it, briefly. Everyone eats their cake and you eat your cake, but you are waiting for an opportunity to ask your partner to go on a walk with you, but your partner, who misses her family for the eleven and a half months that you spend halfway across this massive country from them, is engaged in a conversation with her sister and you just don’t have the patience to wait. You stand up and announce that you are going for a walk.
“Do you want me to come with you?” your partner asks.
“It’s up to you,” you say.
“Maybe you’d like some time to yourself,” she says.
“Sure,” you say.
“I’ll come,” she says. The kitchen is quiet and her whole family is listening, because they can’t help it.
“No,” you say. “It’s okay.”
You stand for a second at the curb out front of your in-laws’ house. You are lonely and angry. Plus, your mind is constructing violent, fearful, racist narratives now. Some tricked out Honda Civic with a muffler modification rips past and your exhausted body shudders.
You go back up the walk to the house, stop at the threshold and, looking down at your shoes like you need to look down at them as you take them off, you say, “You know what? Fuck the walk. I’m beat.”
“You’re going to bed?” your partner asks.
“Yeah,” you say.
Everyone wishes you a good night, then Lisa remembers to wish you a final happy birthday and everyone follows suit.
“See you in the morning,” you say.
You ascend the creaking stairs and prepare yourself to sleep.
Toronto, June 2016
Emoji sequence: Kat Armstrong
Story: Lee Sheppard