Magical Realism

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Split Tooth
Excerpt

1975

Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar. Knee to knee, we would sit, hiding, hoping nobody would discover us. Every time it was different. Sometimes there was only thumping, screaming, moans, laughter. Sometimes the old woman would come in and smother us with her suffering love. Her love so strong and heavy it seemed a burden. Even then I knew that love could be a curse. Her love for us made her cry. The past became a river that was released by her eyes. The poison of alcohol on her breath would fill the room. She would wail and grab at us, kissing us, kissing the only things she could trust.

Fake-wood panel walls, the smell of smoke and fish. Velvet art hung on the walls, usually of Elvis or Jesus, but also polar bears and Eskimos.

The drunks came home rowdier than usual one night, so we opted for the closet. We giggle nervously as the yelling begins. Become silent when the thumping starts. The whole house shakes. Women are screaming, but that sound is overtaken by the sound of things breaking. Wet sounds of flesh breaking and dry sounds of wood snapping, or is that bone?

Silence.

There are loud pounding footsteps. Fuck! Someone is coming towards us. We stop breathing. Our eyes large in the darkness, we huddle and shiver and hope for the best. There is someone standing right outside the closet door, panting.

The door slides open, and my uncle sticks his head in.

Towering over us, swaying and slurring. Blood pouring down his face from some wound above his hairline.

“I just wanted to tell you kids not to be scared.” Then he closed the door.
 

a day in the Life
 
It’s 9 a.m., late for school
Grade five is hard
Rushing, stumbling to get my pants on 
Forgetting to brush my teeth  
Dreading recess
The boys chase us and hold us down
Touch our pussies and nonexistent boobs 
I want to be liked
I guess I must like it 
We head back to class
The teacher squirming his fingers under my panties 
Under the desk
He looks around and pretends he’s not doing it 
I pretend he’s not doing it
He goes to the next girl and I feel a flash of jealousy 
The air gets thinner and tastes like rot
School is over
I leave for the arcade
Watch out for the old walrus
The old man likes to touch young pussy 
We try to stay away
I wonder why nobody kicks him out 
Things are better at home now
Three’s Company and a calm air 
Archie comics and Lego 
Goodnight

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Petra's Ghost
Excerpt

The sea is missing.
Daniel stands tall in the early morning on the soaring ridge of Alto del Perdón, searching for a phantom ocean. All he can make out are a patchwork of farmers’ fields. They hover in and out like a mirage beneath the thinning mist settled in the valley below. His navy nylon jacket snaps and billows in the stiff breeze of the exposed hillside. Half a dozen towering wind turbines emit low moans as their mas¬sive metal blades turn steadily behind him. At the base of one is a boldly coloured framed backpack, lying open where Daniel has left it at the side of the trail. In his hands he holds a small burlap bag, with Petra inside.
A long line of rusty cut-out men and women are posi¬tioned sentinel-like on the ridge, a flat metal monument to all those who, over the centuries, have walked the Camino de Santiago, the five-hundred-mile pilgrimage they call “the Way.” Daniel watches as the silhouettes of the heavy sculpture shudder with the force of the wind. He takes a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. The scent is all wrong to him. Unnatural, without a taste of seawater in it.

The rocky outcrops and high altitude, the mist below, they all trick him into thinking he is back in Ireland on the coast of Kerry, where he spent summers as a child by the sea. He and his sister had explored the rugged cliffs above the shoreline for hours, standing far out on the ledges, daring each other.
“Stop being eejits,” his father would bellow from the safety of a lawn chair under the awning of their parked caravan. And Daniel and Angela would trudge back from the sweet seduction of certain death, utterly defeated. Their two older brothers would have deserted them earlier, having the sense to commit their risk taking out of sight of a parent. Maybe he and Angela were idiots after all.
Ever since his first day walking the Camino, climbing through the pass of the French Pyrenees to the Spanish border, Daniel has expected to look down and see the swell of whitecaps, to drink in the tang of brine. The Pyrenees were almost fifty miles ago now, but he still feels the want of salt in the air. He switches the rough brown bag con¬taining Petra to one hand and pulls a stash of sodium-laden beef jerky from his pocket. As if to compensate, he takes a furious bite.
He is less than a week into his pilgrimage through northern Spain, hiking from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the border in France to the cathedral in Santiago that houses the shrine of Saint James. The full journey will take him over a month to complete. He travels alongside other pilgrims of varying nationalities and spiritual intent, mostly keeping to himself. Each night after a full day of walking, he checks in at a local albergue. These are modest pilgrim hostels, where five to fifteen euros will get you anything from the top bunk at a large modern municipal, to a hard stone floor of a thirteenth-century monastery. The austerity appeals to his sense of simplicity, or maybe he’s just cheap.
“Sure, no one really believes the bones of Saint James are buried there at Santiago,” his sister, Angela, had told him before he left. “Not even the Catholic Church.”
“Perhaps,” he said, as he looked down at the map of Spain on the coffee table of his living room. The laptop perched next to it on a stack of books as he Skyped his sister from his home in the States. Even so, he had traced one finger along the lonely red dotted line of the Camino, won¬dering what he might find at the end of it.
One of the turbines groans more loudly, hitting some temporary mechanical resistance. The laboured breath of the sound makes him uneasy. He stuffs the beef jerky back in his pocket. “Fifty percent of Spain’s energy comes from the wind,” he reminds himself. He’d read it in the guidebook. This is the kind of interesting but ultimately useless fact that seems to always lodge in his brain. Like a piece of popcorn caught in the teeth, and at times just as annoying. Mostly for other people.
“Guess what the longest street in the world is,” he had once asked his eldest brother as he sat with him on the trac¬tor. Daniel had still been far too young to drive it.
“The one where I have to listen to your mouth yappin’ all day.”
The rough burlap bag has a drawstring at the top. Daniel rubs the little braided ropes with his thumb. There is a crin¬kle inside the coarse material. Plastic. He hadn’t wanted the ashes to get wet if it rained. His backpack was supposed to be waterproof, but he needed to be sure. Petra would have laughed at his practicality. “Always the engineer, planning for contingencies,” she would say. He cannot believe he has put his wife in a zip-lock bag, as if she were a ham sandwich or a dime of weed.
He glances over at the two-dimensional metal figures bent over with their walking staffs and donkeys, medieval pilgrims without the benefit of ergonomically correct back¬packs and Thermolite hiking boots from the Outdoor Store. Daniel had bought an old-style pilgrim staff at one of the tourist shops back in France, before he started on the Camino. It had a carved wooden handle and made him look like a prat. He abandoned it in a coffee shop in Zubiri, deciding he could make it to the cathedral of Saint James in Santiago without something to lean on.
The heavy sculpture shudders again. The vibration makes a howling sound, and Daniel feels a tremor echo in his own body. If his granny were here, she’d say a goose just walked over his grave. The old woman had many say¬ings. Some were old Irish; some she just made up. “These are the words of your ancestors, Daniel,” she would intone, trying to make him pay mind. The land he grew up on had been farmed by Kennedys for almost five hundred years. He couldn’t have escaped his ancestors if he tried.
Trying to shake off the feeling, he shifts from one leg to the other. His new hiking boots feel strange without the steel toe that he normally wears at home when inspecting a job, the familiar density reassuring his foot. Not that he’s been on a job site in a while. As their construction business in New Jersey grew, Daniel and his partner, Gerald, found themselves tied more and more to the office. But of course, he’s all set to sell his half of the firm — or just about. They’d had an offer from a group in New York that would be hard to turn down. There are still papers to sign that Gerald keeps worrying him about. Once that’s done, Daniel’s expected to come back home to Ireland and take over the farm. His father is ready to retire to his lawn chair permanently.
Nothing is keeping Daniel in New Jersey anymore, now that Petra is gone. He’d gone to the States for her and never regretted it, even though he had always felt the pull of the land he grew up on. Those bloody ancestors again. Petra, a child of the North American melting pot, did not have the same ties. Her folks had died in a car crash during her senior year at college. She had no siblings. But her roots were in America just the same, and he had made a life with her there.
Daniel has come to the Camino to spread Petra’s ashes. This is what he needs to do before he can go back to Ireland. This is what he has told his sister, his parents. This is what he has told himself. So he can “move on,” as every¬one keeps telling him he must do. He and Petra had always planned to walk the Camino together. Ever since they saw the golden scallop shells and arrows pointing toward the Spanish pilgrimage from France on their honeymoon. He feels that bringing her ashes here serves to keep a promise. Although so many promises remain unfulfilled when some¬one leaves before you’re ready, like a dinner guest who gets up and walks out during the main course. He could spend a lifetime trying to finish the meal that should have been a future shared with his wife, and the food would rot on the dishes anyway. Somehow, he just can’t bring himself to take away her plate. It’s been over a year now since Petra died and he hasn’t even put their house in Paterson on the market yet.
“When are you comin’ home, Daniel?” his sister, Angela, had asked during one of her weekly phone calls from her apartment in Dublin. His parents were still on the farm at Carn N’Athair in Kilmeedy, but she made the drive out every other weekend to check on them. They were all getting anx¬ious. If Daniel didn’t come home, his father would have to sell out. All those ancestors to be owned by somebody else. His granny would reach out and cuff him from the grave at the sheer shame of it. “I’ve got some things to do,” he said. He always had reasons. First it was the winding up of the business with his partner. Then it was critical home renovations he needed to make before he could sell. As those jobs dried up he created new ones, increasingly more futile.
“I’m after putting a bidet in the guest bathroom,” he told Angela.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but how many people when they come over for a cup o’ tea are looking to wash their genitals?” Of course, she had a point. He had ignored it though.
The Camino is his latest effort at procrastination, having run out of rooms to renovate in the house where he and Petra had lived since they were married over ten years ago. Happy years for the most part, until the cancer twisted her into someone he could barely recognize. As gnarled and rake thin as the carved wooden staff he had left behind in the coffee shop. Petra wouldn’t have liked that comparison. She hadn’t been a vain woman, but she’d had her pride. She said the worst part of cancer was turn¬ing into something alien, like the dwarfed extraterrestrial in the movie E.T. All she needed to do was hide in a closet full of pinch-faced stuffed animals, she teased the doctors, and they would never find her. Daniel had brought Reese’s Pieces for her the next day in the hospital to continue the joke. She had coughed — her version of laughing in those final weeks.
He should do it here. It makes sense to let the ashes float from the cradle of his hands down into the disappointingly landlocked valley below. An offering to everything he can’t accept. Like having an ultrasound diagnose uterine cancer instead of the baby he and Petra had hoped for. A ruthless surprise that had spread through her body like hot gossip. He’d be angry at God, but he has enough Irish Catholic superstition to believe it might land him in hell or on the receiving end of a lightning bolt. He looks with distrust at the metal pilgrims beside him then scans the sky for storm clouds, on the off chance.

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The Melting Queen
Excerpt

(1) Dulled by the wearisome sameness

I go to the river every day to see if it's finally free.

Before the sun rises--before daylight comes to illuminate a miserable world, before dawn chases away the endless possibilities of night--I shuffle out onto the barren streets of this godforsaken city.

Edmonton. A prairie town, crushed flat by huge, heavy skies. A northern outpost, encased in ice for months on end. Its houses huddle together against the cold wind, which digs its claws under doors and around window frames. Its roads are lined with mountain ranges of dirt-encrusted snow, painted orange by weak sodium streetlights. Its people sleep, dreaming of summer. Dreaming of somewhere far away.

I dream of green grass and running water as I walk to the river. My boots crunch on the salt-stained sidewalks. The dry air scratches at my skin, flaying my nostrils for daring to inhale, trying to force me back to bed. But I bow my head against the winds and soldier on, driven by the tiniest ember of hope.

When I reach the stairs that lead down into the river valley, I close my eyes and look out at the landscape. I let my desperate dreams flare up, projecting my desires onto the world. I imagine myself looking out on a shattered river, freed from its icy prison. I say a prayer to all the ancient gods of the earth and the river:

Please. Let it be today. Let the ice break. Let winter end.

But every day for the past six months I've been disappointed. The world defies my dreams. I stand on the top step and open my eyes and see a solid ribbon of dead white ice. The river is held captive, its waters locked in place. The skeletal trees along its banks stretch their brittle branches toward the sky. Tufts of blanched grass poke up through heaped snowbanks. The whole river valley--emerald green in summer, golden yellow in fall, blossoming pink in spring--is trapped in grey stasis.

I swallow my disappointment and start down the stairs, to search the ice for signs of fracture.

Edmonton is a typical grid city. It sprawls out over the flat, wheat-stubbled prairie like a smashed egg oozing across a crumb-covered kitchen floor. Its perfect, rectangular blocks are completely interchangeable. They stretch to the horizon like the world's easiest and most boring jigsaw puzzle. Apartments and restaurants and office blocks. Schools and houses and strip malls. Every part of this city looks the same: short, squat, and square.

But the river valley is different. The river rips this city in two. It carves a winding path through the heart of Edmonton, pulling the paved-over prairie down into a deep crevasse. The orderly grid of streets unravels into nonsensical curves. The structured metropolis gives way to a wild urban forest. Two dozen bridges stretch across the river, pulling the two halves of the city together like stitches trying in vain to close a wound.

I've walked across each of them, inspecting the ice from above. I hunt for some hint of a crack, some hope of an imminent collapse. But the ice is flawless, pristine, spread from shore to shore like a starched white sheet. It's just as strong today as it was yesterday, and it was just as strong yesterday as the day before that. And the day before that. And the day before that.

It's been six months since the First Snow fell. Six months since that grim fall day when frosty lily pads started to clog the river. The longest winter in living memory. It should've been spring weeks ago, but still the ice locks the river in place. It's the middle of May, and there are still no signs of summer.

After a while, my inspection of the ice becomes too depressing. The sun comes up, my dreams of spring are burned away by the pale white light, and I start to believe that the river will never be free. Winter will last forever.

I stand on the High Level Bridge, stare down at the thick white ice, and wonder what it would take to break it. Would an object, falling from a great enough height, have enough force to shatter the river and free us all from the tyranny of winter? I've flirted with the idea--hauling a bunch of rocks up to the bridge deck and throwing them down with all my strength. Or dragging one of the historical cannons from the Legislature grounds and tipping it over the railing. Or just taking a tiny step forward...

"Adam?"

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