From In a Wide Country. Published by Cormorant Books in 2017. Everettgreen’s short fiction has won a silver National Magazine Award and his short nonfiction appears regularly in the Globe and Mail. He lives in Montreal.
Oh crap. Jasper, look at this thing.” Corinne held out the two pieces of the makeup compact that had come apart in her hands. She was sitting at her mirrored vanity in the semi-furnished flat we rented in Winnipeg, in the spring of 1960.
I peered at the coral-coloured plastic, and the wire spring. “The hinge is busted.”
“It’s almost brand new!” She shook the pieces at the vanity glass in both fists, with a fierce look on her face, as if she were angry with herself and not the manufacturer. Then she threw the mirrored part on the carpet. “I can still use the makeup,” she said. “Put that in the Drawer of Shame.”
I picked up the mirror and cupped it in my palm. I liked the way my mother’s compacts felt in the hand, the way they sprang open, the muffled click they made when they closed. It had taken many slaps from her to convince me not to flip one open and shut like a castanet, not to fondle the soft pad or poke the cake of skin-coloured makeup with my dirty fingernail.
I carried the mirror to the kitchen, where we reserved a drawer for things that were ugly or disappointing: an unflattering photo, a broken toy, or a dress pattern that hadn’t worked out. The Drawer of Shame also held things Corinne disliked on sight, which she sometimes swiped to include in the collection. I had mixed feelings about putting the mirror portion of the compact in there, but at least I would see it again when we sorted the drawer, as we sometimes did, discarding items that no longer meant anything.
I returned to Corinne’s room, where she was fastening her hair back with a big tortoise-shell clip. She inspected her reflection with a cool, appraising eye, as if the face there belonged to someone else, then began brushing things onto her skin.
I often lurked around when Corinne got ready for work, watching her in the mirror or drawing pictures, usually of warriors bristling with armour and ready for battle. The deliberate rhythm of her makeup ritual had a calming effect on both of us. It was a good time for talking, and especially for telling her anything bad.
“I spilled Coke on the carpet,” I said. Corinne stroked a soft brush against the closed lid of one eye, as if trying to smooth away an invisible mark.
“It’s not our carpet,” she said absently to the mirror. “Throw a rag on it.” She dabbed the brush on the narrow cake of eyeshadow, and leaned in to do the other eye.
“They’re your shoes,” I said. “On the carpet. Where the Coke spilled.”
Something between a sigh and a grunt issued from her throat. The brush continued its overlapping strokes, from the eye’s inner corner to the edge of the brow bone. “So wet a rag,” she said slowly, “and wipe them off.” Her lips moved like those of a person dropping off to sleep. “Little mucker.”
The mineral-lipped bathtub spout coughed cold water onto the rag. I wiped the patent leather pumps that lay on the carpet outside the bathroom, and pushed the rag down the slope of the inner sole, where the Coke was already drying into a sticky lacquer. The steep arch of those gleaming high heels was permanently fascinating to me, as was the creamy, popcorn-scented sole, from which her heel had ground away the silver script of the maker’s name.
I left the rag on the carpet and returned to the drawing I had started on the floor next to her chair.
“There’s nothing to do,” I said. “You’re doing something.”
“I’m sick of drawing. Tell me something.”
With a finer brush, Corinne applied a lighter tone to the crease above the eyelid. “Tell you something,” she murmured at the glass. “Like a story, you mean.” She licked her finger and smoothed the eyeshadow tones together, then drew in the eyebrow, thicker, longer and more arched than it really was.
“Once there was a boy who was very small,” she said. “He was no bigger
than his father’s nose. He never grew, no matter what he ate. The farmer took him to the fields on the brim of his cap. But a giant came and snatched the boy away, and carried him off to his castle.”
She leaned in and drew the other eyebrow, slowly and silently. She took so long about it that I almost thought she had played a trick on me and ended the story with the kidnapping.
“The giant’s wife fed the boy from her own breast,” she said. “He grew and grew until he was a giant himself. He ran away back to his parents, who were frightened to see a giant coming through the forest. He did all his father’s work, and brought his mother cartloads of flowers in his arms. But he was so big, he emptied the larder in two bites. When he slept, his body filled the house. His parents went hungry and had to sleep outside. My shoes had better not be sticky.”
“They’re not,” I said, but scampered back and again pushed the damp rag
down to the point of the toe.
“When the boy woke up, his parents were gone,” Corinne said. “He caught up with them as they ran across a bridge. He stepped in the water to stop them, and shrank back to his tiny size. He floated away, and was swallowed by a fish.”
She spat on the black cake of her mascara, made a few quick circles on it with the brush, then dragged the bristles the length of her eyelashes, several times. I started another warrior.
“The king’s fisherman caught the fish and brought it to the palace,” she said. “When they cut it open, the boy popped out. The king was so amazed, he adopted him and made him a prince. The boy was happy, but told the king he would be happier still if he could see his aunt and uncle. The king sent a golden coach with six white horses to find them, without knowing they were the parents. I thought you were sick of drawing.”
“I’m doing the prince,” I lied.
Corinne took a red makeup pencil and drew the outline of her lips. The mouth she drew was better than her own, bigger and more shapely. Not for the first time, I thought of how wonderful life would be if I could draw a better me.
“The coach brought the parents to the castle,” she said, her drawing completed, the lips still pale between the lines. “When they saw the tiny prince on his throne, they bowed down low. He touched them on the shoulder, and said ‘Arise! I am your son.’ ‘Our son is drowned,’ said the father, and began to cry. Each tear became a diamond as it fell.”
Corinne wound her lipstick up from its cylinder, and daubed on the colour.
“The prince gathered up the diamonds and gave them to his mother,” she said. “When they touched her skin, they became tears again. She knew he was her son after all.”
She took a paper tissue and pressed it between her lips, and pulled the comb from her hair. Something about the tone of her last words told me the story was finished.
“Was the king angry?” I said. “Did the parents get to stay in the castle?”
“How should I know? They were happy, that’s all. When people are happy, the story’s over. Now scoot so I can do my hair.”
She brushed her hair, briskly as she usually did, tearing at it from the roots. I went out and closed the door against the coming clouds of hairspray, which made me sneeze. I picked up the Coke bottle that still lay on the rug where I had knocked it over near the shoes, tapped the mouth of the empty bottle against one glossy toe, and said “Arise!” A few last drops rolled onto the patent leather, and shone there like black pearls.
When Corinne came out, I zipped her into her dress. She gave me a long, close hug, as she often did after making herself up. Fresh makeup almost always put her in a good mood, or at least a better one. Her heart beat through the cloth, and the sharp, sweet scents of hairspray and perfume settled around me.
“We need to go somewhere and see about a modelling job,” she said. “Sounds boring.”
“Tough luck. We won’t be long, and we’ll go for supper with Dean right after.”
I trudged out to the car and sat so low in the passenger seat, my eyes were level with the bottom of the window. We had an old Sunbeam then, an ugly car that coughed blue smoke.
“Are you going to sulk the whole way?” Corinne said.
“Not if you tell me the rest of what happened.”
“There’s never enough for you, is there?”
We drove several blocks in silence. The green metal under the window vibrated against my cheekbone.
Corinne took a cigarette from her clasp purse, and pushed the car lighter in. “Okay,” she said. “The parents are at the castle and everyone’s happy. But the giant comes, and lays siege to get the boy back. The king goes to the castle wall and shouts, ‘We’ve got food for a month. You’ll starve first.’”
She let this scenario sink in till the lighter popped out, then lit her cigarette with the glowing coil.
“The giant starts throwing big stones over the castle wall,” she said. “The first one crushes a dog. The second kills an ox. The third knocks a big hole in the throne room. The prince jumps on a mouse, and rides out to stop the giant.”
“How could he stop him?”
“Give himself up. But he doesn’t get to the giant. The mouse runs for a crack in the castle wall, and a cat pounces. You can guess what happens next.”
I had seen barn cats with the mice they caught dashing through the straw. They left only the tail, and maybe the hind legs. “What about the prince?” I said. “That’s up to the cat, don’t you think?” We stopped at a light. A little girl was crossing with her mother, skipping on her skinny legs, her hand hidden in her mother’s white cotton glove.
“I don’t like this part of the story,” I said.
The light changed, and we moved on. Corinne took another drag on her cigarette. “What if the cat’s actually a witch?”
“That’s not better,” I said, with a tight feeling in my chest.
“Say she’s a good witch. She could carry the prince over the wall, and make him a giant again. He could fight it out with the big lug.”
“Just tell me the story the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Whatever that is,” she said. “I told you that already and you didn’t like it.” She was getting annoyed. “Look, forget this bit. Go back to what it was. They’re all at the castle. There’s no giant, everyone’s happy. The end.”
But I couldn’t go back. The boy was off his throne. The cat was after him. The ending had unravelled into something bloody left in the straw, or a fight with a giant that might be just as bad.
I would know better next time. I wouldn’t ask for more, after an ending that was good enough.
Control Room by Michael Love. From the photographic series The Diefenbunker. Love is a photographer whose work has been published in Next Level, Prefix Photo and Blackflash magazines. He lives in Vancouver.
Office by Michael Love. From the photographic series The Diefenbunker.
Amerikakoku. By Yoshitora Utagawa, 1865. Japanese triptych print shows view in America of a crowd gathering to watch a balloon ascension. Library of Congress.