WATERY HIGHWAYS HOME
Roll down the car window –
of the winter wren.
The world’s sorrow
is fathoms deep,
is undertow –
it shapes the darkness
that contains us.
What kind of broken are we?
releases into light
above the trees.
Is it wind
What is sound
air guns detonating
shock waves of noise –
a babbling calf
trailing its mother’s
code, the audio glue
of pods on the move,
on watery highways
home. A wonder
can hear another.
Where are you?
Where are you?
Cornelia Hoogland’s forthcoming chapbook, titled Dressed in Only a Cardigan, She Picks Up Her Tracks in the Snow, is forthcoming with Baseline Press (2021). Her latest book is Cosmic Bowling (Guernica, 2020), a collaboration with the visual artist Ted Goodden. Trailer Park Elegy and Woods Wolf Girl were finalists for national awards. Hoogland was the 2019 writer-in-residence for the Al Purdy A-Frame and the Whistler Festival. http://www.corneliahoogland.com/
OFF THE GRID
The hamsters in Burnaby were assholes. One was on this gluten-free, low-carb diet and even if you bought the right brand of gluten-free, low-carb diet pellets, he’d still crap in your hand if you weren’t cradling him the way he liked to be cradled. Meanwhile, because of the special treatment, the other guy, whom the ad described as “beleaguered but friendly,” squealed and thrashed in the cage. Twice a day with this. All winter. But it was a rent-free place out west. It was a start.
Mom called every day, usually when she was at the nursing home, visiting Dad.
“Any chance we’ll see you for Christmas?” she said.
“These gigs don’t come with vacation time.”
“Well, that’s not very nice.”
“Snowbirds don’t fly home until spring, Mom.”
“Snowbirds? It hasn’t even snowed yet.”
“That’s climate change for you.”
She put Dad on the phone, and I told him about my hamsters: the high-maintenance one and the angry one.
“Rodents?” he said. “I’m on my deathbed and this is what you’re doing with your time?”
Dad had been on his “deathbed” for nine years. The stroke paralyzed his whole left side and while the doctors said—with hope, hard work, and time—there was a chance of recovery, Dad was a pessimist, so hope and hard work were out. Which left only time.
The high-maintenance hamster crapped in the angry one’s bed and I told Dad I had to go.
“You remember when you were a kid?” Dad said. “When you’d ask me what I wanted for Christmas? And I could never think of anything?”
“I just thought of something.”
“A pillow over my face.”
The angry hamster took note of the crap in his bed, looked at me, and started into some lunges and shoulder stretches. Prepping for another squealing/thrashing episode.
In Surrey it was low-chirp budgies. These were normal budgies, genetically modified to chirp a little less. For rich folks. These particular rich folks were the Smuggs, 30-something department store catalogue models who spent half the year in Montreal, modeling.
The guy next door, Steve, lived in an eco-home. Solar, geothermal, rainwater harvesting, the works. A net-zero footprint. Which was great except that it reminded me of what I left behind in Toronto. I gave up my construction job for a non-profit that traded eco-homes for inefficient detached houses. Curbing wastefulness, promoting green lifestyles—luring sheep from the flock essentially. The pay was garbage and even if the dream of being self-sufficient, owning an eco-home myself, seemed impossibly out of reach, I was doing my part to save the planet, building these places for other people. Steady, noble work. Turning 40 though, living at home, earning less than one’s mother, there are existential questions one begins asking oneself.
Steve smoked weed, so I was over there quite a bit. We lounged in his backyard amongst the stray stalks and shoots of the overgrown vegetable garden. I brought over the budgies in their cage. Steve didn’t know the Smuggs even had them.
“They’re low-chirp,” I said, taking a drag.
“So they don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers,” Steve said, throwing his head back, laughing at his own cleverness.
Steve always had his Green Day playlist going, which I thought was maybe a little too on-the-nose given his eco-lifestyle.
“These guys are probably average environmentalists at best,” I said. “They’re more anti-establishment.”
“What do you think environmentalism is?” Steve took the joint from me. He pointed to the Smuggs’s house next door. “You know these pricks have a second monstrosity in Montreal? How’s that for a footprint?”
My high was coming on strong now. The Smuggs: younger than me, set for life with money, and I was taking care of their stupid birds. How did everyone get so far ahead of me?
“It’s all temporary,” Steve said. “Time is borrowed. You give everything back to the Earth when you check out. A house here, a house there—what’s the point? People gotta feel important.”
I closed my eyes, felt myself drifting.
“You know, those budgies really are pretty quiet,” Steve said. “It’s nice.”
The pygmy goat in Coquitlam was a hush-hush job—the municipality frowned upon keeping them as pets—so Mr. Jenkins and I usually stayed home. But his owners had a leash for him and said he liked walks along the mountainside. Which was perfect: after the ocean, the Rockies were the main draw for me out west.
It was surreal, the humbling perspective of seeing the endless range of wave-like peaks up close. Mr. Jenkins led the way, his little bum wiggling along a mountainside trail. He was 15—I read online that these guys live 8 to 18 years. He was just happy to be outside, looking for adventure, oblivious that the clock was ticking.
Mom called. She was at the nursing home visiting Dad.
“Your friend Derek phoned,” she said. “Apparently you cancelled all your social medias? He said you went AWOL. You didn’t give him your cell number out west?”
“Not really looking to be reached.”
“Apparently they’re planning some boys trip to Vegas.”
“Ah, the mid-life crisis tour.”
Mr. Jenkins went off road, bounding through tall grass, westbound toward the setting sun, which somehow, within minutes, turned the sky from blistering orange to an almost artificial pastel pink. I imagined Mom, had she been here, shitting on the moment, warning about the imminent threat of ticks. You’ll get Lyme, she’d have said. That’s what you get for straying from the trail.
“Dad’s going downhill,” Mom said. “I try to keep his spirits up, but he checks out, isolates himself.”
“He’s got stuff to process,” I said. “Things to come to terms with.”
“He shouldn’t be doing it alone.”
“We come into this world alone…”
“Ugh. Please come home,” she said, her voice breaking. “I can’t keep this up by myself.”
I could have moved away from home before 40. Living with one’s parents until one was nearly middle-aged wasn’t exactly the path most travelled, but somehow it was always easier to stay. Comfort, fear, whatever it was, I just went with the flow, let life happen to me.
“I’ve got my own stuff going on now.” It was weird hearing myself speak up, risking ruffled feathers. “I have my own things to process, to come to terms with.”
Mom cried. “Is it selfish that sometimes I wish the stroke killed him?”
It was a Sunday morning. Mom was at the butcher’s for her monthly haul of resource-intensive animal flesh. She came home and found Dad slumped over the living room ottoman. Doctors said he was 20 minutes from being a goner. So close, Dad said.
“You’re allowed to put yourself first,” I said.
She gave Dad the phone. He told me about bingo night at the nursing home.
“Won six dollars in change,” he said. “You know the difference between me and this handful of coins?”
Here we go.
“They’ll still be in circulation next year.”
Mr. Jenkins veered back to the trail and stopped to pee under an enormous tree, a lone Douglas-fir, set apart from a dense patch of other Douglas-firs higher up the mountain. Probably a hundred feet tall, this tree. Been around forever. Pissed on by generation after generation of domesticated animal to walk this trail. Resilient though: growing despite urine-soaked roots.
I was supposed to be a veterinarian. Couldn’t get the squeamishness under control though. I failed Grade 11 Biology because I passed out when they set the scalpel and frog corpse on my desk. This was a disappointment for Dad. He worked at an oil and gas company with the dads of my classmates: he heard about it at work; I heard about it at home. I was the “bleeding heart.” Every family had one, a sheep of a different colour.
In Vancouver, I walked Jericho Beach. The ragdoll at the duplex near the university was a social guy, ran with a gang of neighbourhood cats. Self-sufficient.
This was it: the ocean. I guess not technically. An inlet of the pacific? A connected waterway? A manageable sampling of ocean: to ease sheltered people into the experience, to curb the stupefying awe.
Guys in camping chairs fished off a pier. A lapdog—a Shih-Poo or otherwise genetically-modified animal—curled up in one guy’s lap.
My bare feet sunk into the sand, granules filtering up through my toes. The sands of time. Time slipping. Slipping between the cracks. All those nice clichés we use to process such things. And then of course the surf rolling in, erasing every footprint along the beach, smoothing over all traces. Like no one was ever there. Profound stuff.
One of the camping chair guys reeled in a fish, a huge thing. Out came the camera. Photos of the impressive catch. Then the clever idea for a photo of the thrashing fish next to the Shih-Poo—for scale. The fish, hanging from the line, hook still through its face, and the dog, pink bow on her head, locked eyes. Then posed for the camera. And the guys, they were just happy to be outside, excursioning, oblivious that the fish wasn’t having a good time. Which was fine. Because maybe they’d have strokes one day and forget about happiness altogether.
The entire flight to Toronto I was trying to calculate my share of the emissions, reconciling necessity with hypocrisy. What would Dad have said? Old Bleeding Heart’s polluting the skies.
It was probably selfish to give up the non-profit job, to stop fighting the good fight so I could “find myself” out west. But saving the planet was never about saving the planet anyway. Try self-preservation. Animal instinct. Convincing myself I had a say in avoiding carbon suffocation, heat wave incineration, etc. Because a lone wolf stands a chance against the pack, right? Because creatures of habit are eager to change?
It was shoulder-to-shoulder through the terminal. At the baggage carrousel, I stood amongst fellow cattle. Outside, I waited in line for a taxi. I was back. Back in that pack.
Was it selfish to wish an end to your fear? Or maybe the fearful just weren’t supposed to survive.
Dad died yesterday. Mom was there. She was always there. For everyone. I used to feel guilty for letting her take care of me so long. I thought leaving would unburden her. It never occurred to me that taking care of people wasn’t a burden. It was instinct.
A cab idled at the curb. Spewing exhaust. I could have taken public transit, but I was done wasting time. The sun was going down. There were arrangements to arrange.
Mom would ask me to stay. I had a return ticket. She’d offer to take care of it though—everything.
Adam Giles’ short fiction has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The Feathertale Review, The Humber Literary Review, Riddle Fence, The Dalhousie Review, and other journals. His story “Corduroy” won the University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest in 2013. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his family. Find him on the web at www.adamgiles.ca.
LIKE AN ICEBERG
“What harm could it do?” Sam says into the frozen waterfall. He holds an ice axe in each hand, a tangle of straps and carabiners jingling on his orange harness. Sam huffs mist into the air. Above us, a hundred metre wall of ice.
Ice climbing was Sam’s idea. The doctors cleared the trip to Banff, but told him not to overdo sports. He’s already weaker than he was, and he doesn’t need undue stress on his immune system. Mum went cross-country skiing on her own and Sam said he was going to the grocery store, came back to the time-share condo with his arms full of rented equipment.
“We can walk there,” he said. Lately his face has started to thin out. He was already going gaunt. But in that moment he was gleaming.
“Sam. It’s not a good idea.”
“Come on you lanky sapling!” He was smiling like a champion, the way he smiled when he talked about his art. “You were born to climb.”
I couldn’t say no.
Now he tightens his crampons and steps into the ice. “Here we go, Long John Silver,” he says over his shoulder. He climbs briskly. Lately, he’s been subtly weakening. But now his face seems to glow, and he moves quickly, even with the heavy gear.
“Like this, right?” He grins down at me, kicking his toe into the ice.
“Toe in the crampons, put the screws in every ten metres, I think.”
“What?” Sam smiles down, pounds his ice axe into the waterfall. He’s only two metres up, so the fat five-foot icicle he releases is relatively harmless. I’m just glad I searched “ice climbing basics” on the walk over, and that we’re staggered.
I wait for him to put the ice screws in and set the anchors. Then I climb up behind him, driving my axe in. On this side, it seems, the freeze is a little more consistent.
The desk clerk at the neighbouring hotel said this is a popular moderate-expert spot, but that it was still a little early and the ice was temperamental this time of year. I guess no one else decided to test a frozen waterfall for the first time on Christmas Eve.
Before long we’ve found a rhythm, grinding the ice axes in, huffing into the cold, blood flowing. The axes are light and powerful. The waterfall could be a little more frozen—the odd large chunk sloughs off when the axe hits. But it feels just solid enough.
We hit a hump in the waterfall and walk flat-footed across a ridge. Who would have thought simply walking on crampons would be the craziest part of all this?
The next bit is the last tongue, a sheer climb of thirty metres. Dig, toe, tug, breathe. After the last screw, Sam climbs impossibly fast. He’s a little crazed, hard to keep up with.
“Is it too late to say this is stupid and crazy?”
Sam grins down at me. “Two choices,” he calls. “Up or down.” I haven’t seen him so happy in weeks, maybe months, maybe ever.
I dig deep. Toe-in, axe, smash, pant. I’m sweaty, tired, hungry, cold. But I’m almost there. Another chop, some ice chunks off. Then I get the axe in, the last one, and I see my brother’s hand reaching out.
“See,” he says, pulling me up the top. “It wasn’t that hard.”
He’s flushed and beaming. I’m thirsty and sweaty.
Sitting on the top, we look out on the snow-cloaked vista, unpacking our sandwiches and cold trail mix. The pines droop with yesterday’s snow. Sam starts talking about water, about ice. “Staring into the ice all the way up,” he says. “It was so intimate. Wasn’t it?” I shrug like “yeah” and he goes typical Sam, saying how crazy it is, how we take it for granted that an entire river can freeze and thaw, liquid becoming solid, then changing back.
“We don’t see it,” he says. “The world’s all around us. All this surging wonder and we don’t see it. We just walk through it like ghosts.”
He pauses, swallows a bite of sandwich. All around us the mountains towering, hunching like great still gods.
“Sometimes,” Sam says. “I think it takes a sickness like this to really live.”
I don’t argue that. I just let the words hang, breathe, dangle. I let my brother feel what he needs to feel.
“Sorry,” he says eventually. “I’m being morbid again.”
In the distance there’s a road cutting through the mountains, sun glinting off the hoods of SUVs. Sam points to a distant peak and we watch an eagle drift down, then rise again, riding a thermal. A wind passes through the mountains, shaking snow off the branches of the smaller trees.
Fishing through the trail mix for an M&M, I gesture around at the vista. “It is beautiful up here. Satisfied?”
“Yeah,” he says, standing up. There’s a strange glint in his face. “Absolutely.”
Carefully, he brushes the snow from his legs. Then he smiles at me, the look in his eyes gone manic. He says, “I love you brother,” and starts to run. Races full speed in his crampons, tearing for the edge, the hundred-metre drop.
I stand up and take a step but it’s useless. He’s already at the brink. Already leaping, spreading his arms like wings. Over the lip of the frozen river my brother hangs, for a moment, and falls.
A friend once told me that grief is like an iceberg: most people only see the tip of the pain while the bulk broods in the hidden depths. I’d like to go see one someday. They don’t come up the bay, wouldn’t make it past the peninsula, especially these days. There are more and more of them now that the glaciers are calving. Some are as big as Jamaica. Ice islands floating in the open sea. I would have liked to go see one with Sam, if he was still here. Maybe one day I’ll go out to sea, and I’ll think of him as I watch one bob and melt, float out to the great Pacific garbage patch.
“And then,” Sam says to the people gathered in the living room. “I jumped. I flew.”
It’s February now, and Sam’s confined to a bed in the kitchen. The palliative care nurse Cass’ mother helped to arrange is more or less living with us. As he waves them, excited, his arms are strangely thin. Around his mouth he has the wrinkles of a forty-year-old smoker. So wrong beside his youthful eyes.
There’s a room full of people—Mum, Cass, Jeremy, even Roger—gathered for my birthday. We’re eating my favourite: grilled cheese with singles and peanut butter ice cream cake. Sam is being as charming as possible, telling the ice-climbing story like this great exploit. Like it’s funny. Which, maybe it could be, in another place and time.
“And then he asks, ‘You satisfied?’” Sam chuckles, takes the plate of cake Cass is handing him. “We’re up there on the side of a mountain looking out over all the pines, the winding frozen river below.”
He starts fumbling for the plate. He’s clearly having trouble, getting frustrated with his fork. He’s getting some weird looks. Everyone’s waiting for him to tell the story or take a bite. He reaches his fork forward and misses, sighs, circles back.
When Sam jumped off the edge of the frozen cliff, I didn’t realize he was still strapped in. Even still it was stupid. He broke two ribs crashing into ice and sprained his hip from the drop. When I walked to the edge and saw him dangling there. “I needed to do it,” was all he’d said. “I needed to feel it. I needed to feel.”
He knocks the cake onto the ground. Everyone is tense, trying not to grasp. No one says anything. Mum watches, stunned. She stands up but can’t seem to move. “Um,” she says.
Sam is glaring at her, then the window. His jaw is set, his face thin, frail, his arms shaking.
Cass stands up. “Okay,” she says to the room. “It’s probably time to go.”
People stand up nervously, gather their things.
Sam grins morosely, perversely. “Happy birthday,” he sings with an awful off-tune melody. “And many more.”
When we were little, maybe eight and ten, Sam and I went swimming alone. There’s this beach at the edge of Sych Harbour, if you follow Hill Street all the way up and back down again. It’s a day’s bike ride there and back. Mum was working the day shift and Sam had just started looking after me on his own and he took me there. We brought sandwiches and a thermos of red juice and biked all day but when we got to the beach we didn’t stop. We biked past the hillocks and the tall grass to a place where a river led out to the sea. “You have to go hard and fast,” he said. “Straight across. There’s an undertow.” I heard “under-toe,” pictured a wire-haired gnarl of a toe that grew up from the floor of the river and tried to grab small children. We waded in and found it strangely cold in the full of summer. It wasn’t wide but it flowed fast. “Come on,” Sam said, and I waded in behind him. He leapt and started swimming and I watched the water twist him. Watched it turn his body and push him diagonal to the sea, the current taking my brother away. Stood there wanting to follow him but shocked still. The rush was taking him, torqueing him, though he was working hard, wailing his arms up and over, pushing and pushing with all his power until finally he reached the other side, crawled wheezing to shore. As soon as he had his breath he turned back to me. He’d gone far, far, down the river, halfway to the open mouth of the sea. But when he cupped his hands and called out, I could still hear him, barely. And I could hear the grin in his voice. “Come on,” he shouted, shivering with cold and joy. “It’s amazing! The river—it’s alive!”
The thing about icebergs is that they melt, and there’s something beautiful in that: ice leaking into water. Because when you zoom out, you see that ice was water all along. Water changes from solid to liquid, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
I didn’t follow him that day. I waited and watched as he swam back across to safety, through the living river. I knew, then, that I would never be as alive as he was. I knew that life was both in time and beyond it. And I knew that my brother was a tossed stone rippling the river of me.
David Huebert’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. In 2020, David published his second book of poetry, Humanimus. A new story collection, Chemical Valley, will appear in fall 2021. David teaches at The University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, where he lives with his partner and their two children.
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