When I pulled open the freezer drawer, I was looking for blueberries. What I saw instead was a package of raw bones. The bones looked like a tibia or an ulna. Or possibly a femur. They were red and raw, sawed into pieces, and frozen in a plastic bag. They were bones for the dogs. But the dogs didn’t like these bones. So, I’m going to give them back to the man I purchased them from. With these bones in my freezer, I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep anyway because I’m thinking about you and that girl. That girl was on the news tonight. Some guy in a green bike helmet was on the news too, saying how he found her lifeless at the bottom of a slope beneath some leaves when he was out riding his bike. He slid down the path, and the girl was lying there like she’d slid too. Only the girl wasn’t moving. He uncovered her forehead and her nose and her mouth, and he could see she wasn’t breathing. How did she get there? Today was my birthday. Birthdays remind me of coconut cream cakes discovered in summer holiday town bakeries and of chocolate ripple ice cream and long days at the lake in the scorching sun. No, they don’t. That’s the shred of a memory I cling to, like the flapping flag at my childhood summer camp, the canvas faded by wind and weather after summer was gone. Birthdays stir up a long trail of memories. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years, how many birthdays; still, the black clouds gather. I was leafing through photographs. Against my will, my thoughts started swirling like a twister until they’d picked up everything in my cluttered past and dropped it into the present. Before I knew it, I was staring at a heap of detritus and trying to make order out of this jumbled life. Maybe I’ll never know who’s good and who’s bad. Who’s guilty and who’s innocent. No one will help me with this. It would be easier to walk away and forget everything. Except that my hands are the same as your hands. And I eat my oranges the way you did, cutting them into quarters with the skin on, sucking out the juice like a lemon, until the four emptied out quarters are all that’s left on the plate.
When we were children, you used to walk me home from school. Mom and Dad were never home after school to greet us, so you said, What’s the hurry? We could walk all over town on the way. We wouldn’t get into trouble. Time didn’t matter in our family. We would walk down Main Street peering into shop windows until you saw something you wanted to look at and then we had to go inside. You’d sit on the floor at Sorbie’s store reading comic books, gone. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d walk up and down aisles, look at magazine covers, think about crossing the street to the candy store, but you said, No, we’d go later. One day I had to pee so badly, and you wouldn’t help me, so I walked into the alley between Sorbie’s store and the Rexall Drugs. No one was there. I backed myself into the wall, closed my eyes, and tried to hold on. Then pee dribbled down my leg and over my lace ankle socks and onto my shiny black shoes. I leaned into the wall, not moving, wet and alarmed at what I had done. And finally, when I came to get you, still sitting on the floor reading, you looked up, said nothing, and took me home. Do you remember the summer at the lake you stabbed those largemouth bass? I didn’t even know you owned a knife. You’d caught two or three fish. Maybe more. I figured we would have them for dinner. Dad would have been proud. When it was time to go, you took the fish out of your creel, lay them carefully side by side on the end of the dock. You forgot I was there. You whispered, You are beautiful. Then your face grew dark, and you yelled, You’re nothing, and pulled open your sheath and slammed your silver blade, one by one, into their bellies, until the fish stopped wriggling. Hairs crept cold up my neck. A black cloud rolled in over the lake and the air grew icy. I was jittery and chilled and wished for mittens and a wool hat. You never looked up. I didn’t know you then. Not really. Even though we shared the same bungalow, the same parents, most of the same friends, a split classroom in school. Do you remember the green Peugeot? Our first ten-speed. How I dreamed of that bike after I saw it in the window of the bike shop on Wyandotte Street. I begged Dad, never giving up until he couldn’t be in the same room with me without covering his ears. If we’re going to buy you two a bike, let’s look at the hardware store, he’d said at first. I knew if he could see for himself how elegant and perfect the Peugeot was, all alone on display in the shop window, he’d fall in love with it too. Been looking at this bike in the window since it arrived, he said to the salesman, and shook his hand the way he shook everyone’s hand down at The Observer. Editor
of the paper, he said. He was proud of that. Now here’s a bike I would have loved when I was young. A real air of confidence, acting like the whole thing was his idea. Which was weird, because what he said to us was that that bike was a racing bike and not a bike for a couple of kids. The salesman described all the fancy racing features: the steel construction, Japanese gears, and French Reynolds tubing. What was a derailleur? I didn’t dare to ask. He did it naturally, not pushing the sale. Then he looked at me, saw the light in my eyes, and said, Can’t think of a nicer way to get to school than this baby. I still can’t believe Dad bought the Peugeot. He was such a tightwad. But he did buy it. And we had a kind of freedom with that bike, didn’t we? For a few months. Then you stopped bringing it home. It’s at Mitch’s place. Go get it if you want it, you said, when I pestered you. Your eyes never leaving the television. I’d go after it for a while. Then I got fed up and asked Dad to make you bring it home. You never did. One day Mr. Greeling, our math teacher, brought it back to our place. Said he found it on his front lawn and recognized it right away. The chain was rusted, and the gears were locked up, and I was shocked at how old and creaky it was. The paint was chipped, and I could barely make out the block lettering that spelled PEUGEOT on the tube. My eyes got watery. I knew no one in our family was going to repair that thing. I never rode our bike again. Where did you go? Once or twice, in my dreams, I found my old walking shoes and met you on the road. I’d be on the path we used to take, out of town, over the Maitland River, where we’d climb up the east bank, then walk along the CPR tracks, listening for the train. I loved our walks. Going nowhere. See where the nose takes us, you’d say. Mostly we were silent together. Once I asked you about what she’d done. I’d heard you crying in your room. You plucked a leaf from a hanging branch. I don’t care, you said, nonchalant. It was the only time you spoke of her. I never forgave her. She’s an old woman now, the one who pointed your nose into a filthy brown carpet and kicked you with her heavy brogues. You were braver than me; you walked all alone into the cemetery and ate your lunch among ancient red oaks and our French-Canadian Scottish ancestors, and yelled back at me, Come in, there are children in here. I never did. I said I was afraid we’d get caught. I was actually afraid of the small headstones with angel wings. Then you met me back on the trail, clicked open your pocketknife, aimed it at a tree, flung it until it stuck and we were wild with laughter.
The last time I visited our mother, I stole a handful of photos. When she wasn’t in the room, I stuck them in my coat pocket. There was one grainy black-and-white photograph of you and me. We were five or six then, crammed around a picnic table in party clothes and paper hats, with a bunch of our friends I don’t even recognize anymore. We were young children with fathers and mothers. The picnic table was set with wildflowers and paprika eggs, fresh peaches, and lemonade. And birthday cake, of course. Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday, too. He would have been ninetynine years old today. He was eighty-seven when he wrote his autobiography. You mailed his book to me one summer for my birthday. No return address, not even a note. How long are you going to go on like this? I read once that when the wheels come off a chariot, they don’t all come off at once. They fall off one at a time until one day the chariot is parked and abandoned on a rutted road and it doesn’t run anymore. I read the book, all 630 pages, the day it arrived. I sat out in the backyard until the sun was overhead and my eyes were seeing dots instead of words. Then I moved inside, poured a bowl of blueberries, and flattened myself out on the couch until I was halfway through. By noon, the dogs managed to position themselves, one at my feet and the other one at my arm, desperate to go out. So, I took a break and walked them to Spanish Banks. They rolled in the mud at low tide. I walked barefoot, the thick mud oozing between my toes like frothy pumice, farther and farther, toward the sea. The Goodbye Graffiti guy was at the beach again, spreading paint with a giant roller over the retaining wall. One day, graffiti, the next day, paint over. Back and forth. I wanted to read the whole thing from the very beginning. All the words written under that putty-coloured paint. Somebody was trying to say something. The Goodbye Graffiti guy drove off. I laughed at myself staring at a blank wall, leashed up the dogs, rinsed my feet, and we climbed the hill back home. After that, I spread my yoga mat on the ground, lay down and read until I’d finished the whole thing. Mandela’s eighteen-year imprisonment on Robben Island, his lifelong struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and his life after his release when he became president of the African National Congress. That’s a lot of life for one man. There are parts of his story I never knew. His given name was Rolihlahla. It means to pull a branch of a tree.
If you want to understand forgiveness, you should have a dog. Once I was so angry with you for hanging up the phone on me, I threw my coffee cup across the room. It landed on the floor and shattered like mirror glass. I cried and pushed one of the dogs out of the way when he raced to me. Still, he licked my face and sat by me. A dog will offer forgiveness, not once or twice, but endlessly. Like it says in the Bible, seventy times seven. My two terriers come from the West Highlands of Scotland. They are tough and stubborn, their temperaments forged from the harsh northern weather and geography, like ours are supposed to be. But they are hunters, too. In the eastern corner of Jericho Park, where we walk every day, there is a rabbit warren. I was shocked at how crazed the dogs became the first spring day we walked there. I wasn’t thinking, and had both the dogs off leash. The rains had stopped, and the smells of the earth and the sea and the first blooms of crocuses were in the air. The kind of afternoon you want to bookmark. Then, their stubby noses rose up. I forget they have an olfactory bulb forty times the size of ours. When they smell something, they don’t ignore it. They took off, effortlessly sliding under thorny brambles I had to shoulder my way through. Branches and more branches until I was inside. Then it was like a door had closed. Suddenly we were in another world, of circular paths worn like a racetrack, and smaller paths, and blocked paths, and dirt piled into heaps where the holes hid the entrance to burrows and underground tunnels. I could see nothing but the hind ends of them as they spun around out of sight. They raced through the warren with me chasing after them half mad with fright. Finally, they positioned themselves, motionless, at the opening of a burrow, waiting. It was raining again by then, and they were soaked and shivering, and the daylight was ending. Their focus unnerved me. If a rabbit had come out of that hole, it was not going to go free. And who would be to blame? Why did you send me that book? I want to ram somebody with the heel of my boot. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. The problem is I don’t know who to ram. I am glued to my seat at the dining room table and watching as she yells at you. Where were you? All I asked you to do was to mow the lawn. Can’t you do anything you’re asked? Come and go as you please—what do you think I’m running here? A boarding house? I’m shaking so hard I spill my milk. Then she yells at me, too. But it’s you who has to go sit in the cellar until dinner is over. If Mother were here now, I’d lock her in the coat cupboard. I’ve
been alone in that cupboard a long time waiting for her. It’s quiet in the cupboard. The cupboard is like a mudroom, the anteroom between the outdoors and the house. There are coats and winter boots. Crates stacked in the corner with vegetables. And boxes of the old speeches she wrote for the mayor. Taped and marked with the year. All her life an assistant. Never the mayor. The cupboard is cold. After the news story with the guy in the green bike helmet, I turned off the TV and went out into the yard and gazed up at the sky. I saw only crows. Then an eagle flew overhead. I was looking for you in the cumulus clouds. At first, I couldn’t see anything, just white shapes like inkblots in the dimming sky. Then I saw your nose, your chin—saw you—the way you would run, with one arm swinging out from your side, like a busted wing. Remember when your friend Gael asked, What are you running from? I wanted to flatten her then. I’m just running, you said. I’ve only seen you once since you left home. Ten years ago, at the Granville Island Market. You were shockingly thin, sinewy as a tightrope walker, your pants hitched high and belted at the waist. I began walking toward you when I saw there was a young girl beside you tugging at her too-snug dress. Well, that was our minister’s daughter. As soon as I recognized her, I froze. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. You swatted her hand until she stopped, lowered her eyes, and gripped the strap of her purse. The girl was wearing red lipstick. She was uneasy and too young for those things. What was that girl doing there with you? I’m ashamed now that I didn’t say something before you disappeared into the crowd. I wanted to call out to you, Come back. We’ll do this over. What I should have done was call out to the girl, Look out! I walked backward, turned and hurriedly crossed Granville Island, past stalls of fruits and vegetables, the woodworking co-op, fishing boats, and through Vanier Park. The wind pushed against me. I pushed back for over an hour without stopping. You had kin. That knowledge burned into my brain with every step. I walked farther and farther from you. As soon as I reached my little house with the two white dogs and the stacks of books and full cupboards, I sat on the floor. And when I couldn’t wait any longer, I picked up the phone and called Mother. When she said hello, I started to cry. Sun burned into the room, and there were dust motes, and the room was a river and I was floating and bobbing, and the river was all current and shallows and bends and falling rock.
I asked if she’d talked to you lately. Your brother was unlucky all his life. Nothing worked out for him, she said. I don’t believe it was his fault. I’m trying to hug her. I’m hugging a slippery hollow of driftwood with stories and no podium. Assistant to the mayor but never the mayor. I should have asked about the girl. I should have phoned someone else. Someone who would have protected that girl. I crawled over the carpet. Across continents and into darkness. I crawled back onto the couch. Stop varnishing, I said to her. Do you hear me? But I had hung up the phone already. I live by a school. I see you in every child who walks by. Then I close my eyes, and I imagine that girl. Only now she is no longer a child. No one is speaking. I pull back from the scene like I’m a wide-angle lens trying to see the whole room. I’m searching for a window. Or a door. An entry place where the rescuers might have broken in to save her. The body was quiet. Her wrists were red and bent like wire hangers. I hate that my imagining takes me back to you. I can’t sleep. I toss and turn in my bed. There is pressure on my head. I push back on it with the palm of my hand. The pressure doesn’t stop. I heard voices passing in the street. Men’s voices. One sounds like a radio announcer. I remember our mother and father sitting in the living room talking in low voices. I am at the top of the stairs listening. I am wearing pyjamas. The room is dark, save for the red light of Dad’s cigarette. The red light is dancing. They are mumbling. I move down a step. Then two more steps. Straining to hear. We will . . . He has to go. There are hospitals. No. What are you talking about? I listen, stretching my ears down the staircase. I know something is wrong. We have to send him somewhere, she says. No, he says. Secrets whispered in darkness. He tapped his cigarette into an ashtray. The room is dark again. If I call the police, this will be in the newspaper. Dad’s newspaper. People will know. The dogs are restless and don’t settle until I lift them onto the bed. There is a moment in the chase when the rabbit stops running and sits still. Does it stop because it has given up or because it will blend in with its surroundings and all eyes will be averted for the time being? At that moment, it will retreat to its hole and safety. I always forget that they have done this before. No one in our family is going to repair this thing. It’s the middle of the night. I don’t even know where you are. God forgive me. Before morning. Before I change my mind. Before light washes in.