2017 Evergreen Award, Forest of Reading — Nominated
A sister. A baby. A man who watches from the trees.
Fara and her husband buy a house with a disturbing history that reawakens memories of her own family tragedy. Maddy still lives in the house, once a hippie commune, where her daughter was kidnapped twenty-seven years ago. Rose grew up isolated with her mother in the backwoods north of Montreal. Now in the city, she questions the silence and deception that shaped her upbringing.
Fara, Maddy, and Rose meet in Montreal’s historic Pointe St-Charles, a rundown neighbourhood on the cusp of gentrification. Against a backdrop of abandonment, loss, and revitalization, the women must confront troubling secrets in order to rebuild their lives.Zorn deftly interweaves the rich yet fragile lives of three very different people into a story of strength and friendship.
About the author
Originally from Ontario, Alice Zorn lives in Montreal. She has published short fiction in magazines, and placed first in Prairie Fire's 2006 and 2011 Fiction Contests. Her first collection of short stories, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for the 2009 McAuslan Quebec Writers' Federation First Book Prize.
- Short-listed, Evergreen Award, Forest of Reading
Excerpt: Five Roses (by (author) Alice Zorn)
The bus hurtled along the highway. Cigarette smoke wafted down the aisle. The crackle of a bag of chips. The innocent movements and sounds of a handful of people heading north out of Montreal on a Wednesday evening.
As the lights of the city receded, Thérèse let herself relax. She and the baby were safe now, weren’t they? Who could follow them? No one knew where they were going. She hoped the embrace of her arms made the baby feel safe. That the jiggling of the old bus wouldn’t wake her. She slept now that Thérèse wasn’t shifting her from side to side to grope in her pocket for money, clutch a ticket, set down and pick up her suitcase. In the subway, if that pretty Indian woman hadn’t helped her at the turnstile, Thérèse wouldn’t have been able to lift her suitcase across. She’d never before left the house with the baby and hadn’t known how hard it would be to shove against doors, count correct change, carry a suitcase, and keep track of a ticket while holding a baby.
“You’ll see, we’ll be fine,” she murmured, as if the baby heard her thoughts. Nothing was too hard. She would manage, even if she had to hide the suitcase in the trees by the ditch.
When she’d climbed on the bus at the station, she’d asked the driver if he would let her off at the gravel road before they got to Rivière-des-Pins. He glanced at the baby and the canvas suitcase she’d packed tight with diapers and formula, a bottle, and nipples. Quelqu’un vient te chercher? Someone picking you up? Nothing but trees out there. She hurried down the aisle without answering.
A few seats away someone listened to a ballgame on a transistor radio. Bursts of tinny hollering. The escalating roll of the announcer’s voice.
Thérèse held the baby tighter. The bus window was so streaked and blotched with dirt she couldn’t tell if the moon shone. She trusted that her feet would remember the trail through the woods. The humps of tree roots she had to step across. The dips in the forest floor. So often she’d walked along that path. But never before with a baby in her arms.
She lowered her head to breathe in the tender intimacy of soft baby hair. Her lips brushed the wisps. So sweet, so delicate. She’d bathed her that afternoon. Her own darling Rose.
For the summer, they would be fine in the cabin, but in the winter she would have to keep it warm. She didn’t know how Papa had paid Armand for wood, but she would find out. She would ask. Now that she had Rose to care for, she no longer felt timid about talking to Armand.
The cabin had a table, chairs, sofa, a bed. Maples and birch circled the clearing. Around them brooded the hush of a centuries-old pine forest. Armand and the people from Rivière-des-Pins would soon know she was there, but no one from the city would ever find them.
Six months ago she’d scrubbed the wood floors, wiped the tongue and groove walls and two windows, stripped Maman and Papa’s bed. The furniture stood in place as they’d lived with it. The cast iron stove. The rocker with the rope seat. The plank table where she and Maman had kneaded dough and peeled potatoes — and where they’d eaten, Papa, Maman, and Thérèse. Meals had been silent except for the tap of their forks on their plates and the wet sound of Papa chewing as well as he could with the last stumps of his teeth.
The balding velvet sofa against the wall was for reading the Bible. The difference between kneeling to say the rosary and sitting on the sofa, while Papa read the Bible, was that listening to the Bible was like a formal visit with God. His stories were written word for word on the pages. The rosary had words too, but requests were still possible. A plea could be mumbled between Hail Marys. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb and please may the traps not be empty tomorrow. Hope was more heartfelt when the hard boards of the floor dug into your knees. Papa and Maman prayed with their heads bent, pinching the beads of the rosary like a lifeline. Thérèse, watching them sidelong, felt less sure. Even as a young girl, she’d wondered if God listened. He’d never answered her prayers for a baby sister or brother. For the girls at school to let her turn the rope when they played skipping. For a dress bought new from the store.
At night the sofa was covered with a sheet, sewn from old bags, where Thérèse slept. The sheet had been washed so often that the cloth was soft, the lines of print faded. She could just make out the faint pink letters on the cloth tucked across the sofa’s back: FIVE. She didn’t know because it was English, but ROSES were flowers in any language, she was sure. Every morning the ghostly message whispered to her when she woke.
Roses grew in the bushes by the creek. In the forest there were tiny purple violets, bloodroot that bled real blood when you picked it, elegant white trilles, trout lilies with sleek, speckled leaves. Maman had taught her the names.
Papa brought Maman home when the doctors in Montreal could do no more for her. She lay in bed, her lungs torn by the coughing that kept all three of them awake. Thérèse fed her bread softened in milky tea, lifted her in bed, and cleaned her. Maman could no longer move herself. Only the ravage of disease moved through her.
Papa still slept beside her, because that was his place. At night, when Thérèse sat with Maman, she saw how small they both were, their bodies flattened by the heavy blankets woven from strips of rags. She was their only child, born to them late in life, a gift God sent to care for them in illness and old age.
When Maman finally died, the cabin was silent. Thérèse missed Maman, but how could she wish for Maman to keep suffering? She didn’t know what Papa felt. She cooked for him, and washed their clothes, the floors, and the windows, but they hardly talked. On Sunday they sat on the sofa, with the empty space between them for Maman, and he read the Bible.
One day Papa didn’t come home. Thérèse hadn’t noticed if he’d gone out with an axe, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, or his gun. The sun had set behind the trees, and still she waited with the marmotte stew warming on the side of the stove. From the window she watched the last light blur the outline of the trees. Her stomach watery with foreboding, she strode through the woods and across the field to Armand’s farm.
As children, she and Armand used to wait for the school bus that stopped at the end of the gravel road. Thérèse took the path through the woods to the road, Armand the long driveway from his white clapboard house. If Armand got to the road ahead of her, Thérèse paced her steps not to overtake him. He did the same when he was behind her. Both at the end of the road, they stared at the fat pods of milkweed in the ditch. Candelabra goldenrod and feathery purple vetch. In the winter they made footsteps in the snow and watched the crows in the trees squawk and flap their wings. When it rained, they huddled away from each other under separate trees. Armand didn’t talk to her. No one at school did. She was dressed in old clothes donated by the church. The other kids jeered when they recognized a sweater or a skirt. They knew she had no electricity or bathroom in her cabin, and they scrunched their noses in disgust because how could she take a bath? Thérèse could have explained, but no one ever asked. Once a week Maman heated water on the stove to pour into the tin tub. Papa bathed first, then Maman, then Thérèse. She often sniffed her clothes and skin. She couldn’t smell anything, but maybe the other kids could because they washed with water that gushed fresh from a tap.
Armand had grown into a tall, rangy man with a moustache. Only from his weak chin could she recognize the boy he’d been. She told him Papa hadn’t come home. Armand lifted his rifle from a cupboard and called for his dog. He ignored his two boys who clamoured to come along. Thérèse waited with a cup of tea his wife made, listening to the ricochet noise of the television the boys watched. When Armand finally stomped through the door, he carried Papa slung over his shoulder, dead.
By herself in the cabin, Thérèse heard each sound echo. The scrape of her spoon in a bowl touched the stove, the window, the stairs to the attic. All week she ate from the same pot of food. The air between the walls waited for what she would do next.
She sat on the doorstep until her legs grew numb. She knew no other life and had no one to ask for advice.
Chickadees flitted across the clearing with dry threads of weeds in their beaks. The snow had melted, except for the thin shoulders of ice shrunk beneath the trees. The sky was overcast, but Thérèse could sense the sun behind the clouds — the imperative to stir and awake. The air smelled of wet pine needles, mulch, and decay. The shadowed hollows of the forest floor. Soon the fiddleheads would poke through the felt of last year’s leaves. The tongues of burdock and trilliums.
Thérèse fiddled loose the wall plank beside Maman and Papa’s bed and groped in the dark for the glass jar. Ninety-two dollars. She packed the hairbrush, her night gown, socks, and a sweater in the canvas suitcase Maman had taken with her to the hospital. She locked the door and hooked the key on the nail where Papa used to keep it.
If she walked to the end of the gravel road to the highway, eventually a bus would pass that would bring her to Montreal. She wore her knit scarf and hat and Papa’s old parka. Her braid hung to the small of her back. It was 1978 and she was twenty-four years old, about to start a new life.
Bridges, concrete, buildings, and cars. The pudding faces of people in the subway. Thérèse narrowed her focus to see only what she needed. She remembered how to get to the nuns where she had stayed while Maman was in the hospital.
Three years had passed, though. The nun, who’d been so kind to her and brushed her hair at night and again in the morning, was gone. From behind a large, polished desk, the nun in charge told Thérèse she could only stay for a short while. Charity was not an inexhaustible resource. Thérèse had to find work and a place of her own. In the light from the window the sore on the nun’s lip glistened. Thérèse was willing to work. She had never meant simply to live there, though as far as she could tell, that was all the nuns did.
At the Employment Office a man in a pink shirt and a spotted tie determined that Thérèse’s only employable skill was cleaning.
Every evening, Monday to Friday, Thérèse wound her braid in a bun, donned a blue button-up dress, and rode the bus to a glass tower, where she steered a vacuum cleaner and a cart stocked with dusters and bottles from office to office. She’d never used a vacuum cleaner, and at first marvelled how it sucked up paperclips. But she had to stoop to scratch at bits of paper that stuck to the carpet and couldn’t manoeuvre the head of the machine into corners.
The other cleaners chattered in an agitated, voluble language, flung their hands at the furniture, their carts, and each other, shouted as if on the verge of tears, only to break out laughing. For a week they pretended Thérèse didn’t exist — the same as the kids had years ago at school. Then one of the women asked Thérèse about her family. When the others heard that her parents had passed away, they crossed themselves and invited her to eat with them. “Come,” they said in accented French. “Sit here. Eat this. Mozzarella and tomato.”
The women now sometimes spoke broken French so Thérèse could understand. They complained that life was expensive in this cold country. They had to work here and at home, where they cooked and cleaned. Sometimes their husbands were angry, but that was how men were. Their children, whom they adored, were perfette. When they called on the blessed Virgin for mercy on their sore backs, Thérèse remembered Papa and Maman.
She still hadn’t found a place to live. The rooms on the list of addresses the nun gave her were dank and airless, and often in the basement. Thérèse had always lived simply. She understood poverty. But the desperation of these rooms — a sagging cot beside a laundry sink — repelled her. They weren’t homes but steps toward homelessness.
She wandered down streets with her coat unzipped, the air so warm that she no longer needed her scarf and hat. Back home, in the woods, the violets would have spread a dainty carpet of tiny purple faces. Here, among the rumble of traffic and constant bustle, the earth stayed dead. The city was a world of engines, concrete, glass, and stone, the few lone trees imprisoned by the sidewalk. Thérèse didn’t regret having come to the city where she now had a job, a paycheque, and friends. She regretted that the city was so ugly.
Thérèse rarely looked out the windows of the office tower where she worked at night. There were only the lights of other buildings and the moving rodent eyes of traffic. She moved from office to office, dusting the radiators and raking the vacuum cleaner across the carpet. She was squirting a spray bottle along a window ledge when she saw the towering, red neon letters — FARINE FIVE ROSES —against the skyline.
Another cleaner, Gemma, called from the doorway that it was break time. When Thérèse didn’t move, Gemma demanded, “What’s wrong?”
“What does that mean?” Thérèse pointed. “Flour and roses.” She tried the strange middle word. “Fif.”
“Fayf,” Gemma said. “It means cinq.”
“Why five roses?”
“Basta! It’s a sign. Look at them — everywhere.”
“Sure, why not? Come! Ines made zeppole.”
Thérèse had never tasted sweets as delicious as the snacks these women baked.
The nuns knew Thérèse worked nights and usually let her sleep late. That morning she woke to a tap on the door. She thought she’d dreamt the noise and didn’t move. There was another knock, harder and louder. The nun said Mother Dominique wanted to see Thérèse now. Thérèse dressed and quickly braided her hair.
Mother Dominique sat behind her polished desk as if hardened into a likeness of herself while waiting for Thérèse. Her forehead was a rampart of beige skin beneath the starched white band of her veil. The sore on her lip had left a mottled mark. She said she was surprised that Thérèse had not yet found a place to live. “You were given a list of rooms, but it seems you expect —” Her tone bristled with exasperation, reminding Thérèse of teachers, who’d patrolled the aisles with soft steps, only suddenly to whack a ruler across a boy’s back. “Now you have no choice. By Saturday you must leave.”
Thérèse had understood the first time she’d been told that charity was not an inexhaustible resource. Since she began working, she’d paid for her bed and board.
She left the office and the building. She’d only slept for a couple of hours, but Mother Dominique’s words had jolted her awake. When the bus she normally took to work drew up to the curb, she stepped on. She didn’t get off downtown but stayed in her seat, watching the sky that appeared now and again between the high-rises. Not many people were left on the bus when she finally saw the scaffolding atop a tall brick building with the gigantic letters, FARINE FIVE ROSES.
She yanked the bell and got off. The sidewalk was lined with low buildings with grey plywood covering their windows. Once upon a time people must have lived and worked here. She’d never before seen abandoned property in the city. Except for the odd car, the street was empty. She began walking toward the Five Roses sign, down one street, then another, only to be stopped by a waterway built of great blocks of concrete and stone. The water glimmered depthless and murky. She peered farther along and saw where a bridge crossed it. The bridge belonged to a main street where cars and trucks passed. The Five Roses sign still loomed in the sky, but she couldn’t tell how to approach it. Directions twisted strangely — not like the city roads downtown. More like paths in a forest following a creek or skirting a marsh.
She turned onto a street of aged brick buildings, all joined in a row, close to the sidewalk. Doors canted slightly. Steps were trodden. Scrap lumber had been used to fashion a handrail. A woman walking toward her wore a second-hand coat. Thérèse recognized the hang of shoulders and hips stretched to fit someone else’s body. The cars parked along the street were dented and rusty like cars in the country. A boy, still in his pajamas and with a plastic bag of sliced bread dangling from his hand, jogged past and loped up the stairs to a house, shouting “Maman!” as the door slammed behind him.
Thérèse heard the strum of a guitar and plaintive singing coming from a house with a door painted bright orange. A hand-lettered piece of cardboard was propped in a window. Chambre à louer / Room for Rent. She didn’t hesitate. She climbed the three steps from the sidewalk and knocked. When no one came, she rapped on the glass. The singing stopped. From an upstairs window, someone called, “Quoi?” A young man with bedraggled blond hair leaned out on his arms, peering down.
“I came about the room.”
“So come,” he said and ducked inside
She waited at the door. When she heard him start singing again, she tried the knob. It wasn’t locked. The door faced a large hallway, and beyond that a broad room opening onto another. Against the walls eddied cushions, blankets, and sleeping bags. There were no tables, no chairs.
Thérèse followed the soft wailing up a broad stairway with a handsome carved banister. Along the hallway were rooms, some with their doors closed, some ajar. She saw a mattress heaped with rumpled clothes, candles on the floor burnt low in dishes, a girl sitting cross-legged, braiding another girl’s hair. Both wore long patterned skirts.
The young man stopped singing long enough to say, “The room’s at the end — on the left. Forget about the balcony. It’s for the pigeons.”
She walked down the hallway. In her body she felt she belonged here. The Five Roses sign had led her to this house — to this room. The plaster walls were nicked with scars, the floorboards bald with age and use. There was a balcony outside the window with pigeons perched along the railing. They didn’t fly away until she knocked on the glass.
Thérèse told the young man she was taking the room. “Doesn’t work like that,” he said. “You have to come back when Stilt’s here. Talk to him.”
She retraced her walk to the main street where the bus passed. At the convent dormitory, she packed her suitcase. There was no one to whom she even wanted to say goodbye. She waited on the sidewalk for the bus and stayed on until she saw the Five Roses sign and the bus crossed the bridge. She carried her suitcase along the streets of weathered brick row houses.
She didn’t knock on the orange door before she walked in because she lived here now. She rooted through the cupboards in the kitchen for a bucket and rag. The windowsill was so thick with grime that she had to change the water before she could start on the floor. She leaned on her knees, fists balled inside the rag as she scrubbed. She paid no attention when one of the kids, then another, stood in the doorway to watch.
She had washed halfway across the floor when a man squatted next to her. “Hey, whoa! What do you think you’re doing?”
Thérèse kept rocking forward on her haunches, shoving the rag with her fists.
He lay a hand on her forearm, which made her sit back as if he’d pressed a button.
“Who are you?”
He wore strands of beaded necklaces, a leather vest without a shirt, silver rings with great stones on his fingers. She’d seen people like him in the city, but never close-up. His hair, pulled back in a ponytail, frizzed grey at the temples.
She sloshed her rag in the bucket, wrung it, and dropped the twist on the floor. She had to finish in time to get to work.
“Hey, are you deaf? I don’t want to play the heavy here, but I’m the one who decides if you can have this room.”
She understood now. Like Mother Dominique. She sat back with her head lowered.
“Are you a runaway?”
Run away from the cabin? How did he know?
“Nah,” he drawled. “You’re too old. You must be like twenty, eh?” He fingered the end of her braid then looped it around his hand.
She clenched her jaw and stiffened, wishing he wouldn’t touch her hair.
“Your braid’s cool. But you’re pretty straight, aren’t you?”
She had no idea what he meant.
“Do you have any bread on you?”
She glanced at him. Why would she have bread?
“Money,” he said.
She remembered about charity. “I have a job.”
“A job’s good.” He paused. “But I don’t think you’ll like it here.”
“Oh, yeah? I bet you’ll be gone in a week. But I guess I won’t kick you out after you already washed the floor. Don’t want bad karma.”
The next morning, when Thérèse returned from work, she saw that someone had dragged a mattress and a blanket into her room. She was so exhausted she slept despite the gamy stink of the wool and the sunlight from the window. When she woke, she didn’t recognize where she was. Then she heard the pigeons. Their roosting murmur had worked so far into her dreams that the sound was already familiar.
Thérèse never set out to explore the house, though day by day she began to clean it. She scooped towels off the floor and hung them to dry. Bagged the empty pizza boxes and takeout containers. Scrubbed the sinks. Swept the hallway and wiped the carved wood moulding.
The house was quiet during the day. The kids only woke or began to arrive toward evening. When Thérèse got ready to leave for work, putting on her uniform and pinning up her braid, she could hear the rhythmic slap of hand drums starting up and smell the strangely scented reek — like smouldering weeds — that wafted through the house. People had always acted in ways she didn’t understand. She ignored them.
As the weather got warmer, she tacked a piece of flowered cloth across her window so she could open it without the pigeons trying to fly into the room. Sometimes she woke to a grey tabby curled in the nook behind her legs. The cat liked to pad careful steps across the guano terrain of the balcony and slink in her window. She showed it the route by the hallway but it still chose the balcony, making the pigeons grunt and flutter off.
When Thérèse rode the bus to work and home again in the morning, she watched for the Five Roses sign. She knew it watched her, too, from its height and in spirit. She remembered waking in the cabin and how the words on the sheet whispered to her.
Not far from the house, in a junk shop, she found a large bowl like the one Maman had used for making bread. She bought flour, sugar, lard, and yeast. Like the Italian cleaning women who cooked for their families, she wanted to bake bread for the kids. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know their names, or even how many lived there. Early in the morning she sprinkled yeast over warm water and waited for it to soften. With a wooden spoon she stirred and beat the dough until it was rubbery. She kneaded in the final cups of flour and covered the dough with a damp cloth. The thick ceramic walls of the bowl kept the dough warm. When it had risen, she formed two balls she set side by side in a single pan. Maman had called bread shaped like this pain fesse — buttock bread. She didn’t normally mention that part of the body, but that was the name. Two smoothly rounded loaves joined by a seam.
In the house, the kids woke in the late afternoon to the yeasty odour of bread baking. They lumbered down the stairs, yawning and hungry. Thérèse gave them thick slices. She was happy with her new life, her job, the savings she tucked in an envelope taped to the wall of her closet, the old house she kept tidy, the easy company of the kids who said her bread was the greatest. She thought about buying a chair for her room. She stroked the cat who lay on her blanket and purred. She scratched around its ears and under its chin.
One morning she came home through rain pelting down. Her shoes squished as she ran. She leapt onto the front steps and opened the door to the staccato howl of crying. A girl in a long, wet skirt sat against the wall in the front room. A baby had slid from the slack crook of her arm to her lap. Its face was crimson with rage and bawling, its legs and torso bundled in a filthy blanket.
A boy scuffed into the room, holding a mug of tea. “God, I’m glad you’re here,” he told Thérèse. “I found her in the park. She’s got nowhere to go.”
The girl clutched the mug with both hands, letting the baby slide farther between her legs to the floor. Its cry grew thinner, more choked.
Thérèse couldn’t bear to see the baby so neglected. She hurried across the room to lift it from the girl who made no move to stop her. Through the blanket Thérèse felt the sodden diaper and tiny limbs. The smell of concentrated urine made her blink. She strode to the stairs and behind her heard the boy urging the girl to come too. Why? The girl was useless.
In her room Thérèse lay the baby on her mattress. She peeled away the dirty blanket, her fingers careful with the safety pins wedged in the saturated diaper. The baby heaved for breath to cry. A girl, Thérèse saw. She tugged free a corner of her bed sheet to cover the child’s scrawny nakedness. How could she bathe her? There were no stoppers for the sinks in the bathrooms.
The girl who was the mother stood by the wall with the boy. Two other kids leaned in the doorway. “Here,” Thérèse said.
“Someone watch the baby.” When no one moved, she said more sharply, “Here!”
The boy took a step closer. Thérèse said, “Don’t touch her, just make sure she stays there.” She bounded down the stairs to the kitchen and grabbed her large bread bowl. She gushed the water hard, testing it for warmth.
As she walked down the hallway with the bowl filled with water, she could hear the baby still crying, but more weakly, exhausted. The girl sat sprawled against the wall.
“Get her out,” Thérèse told the boy. “Give her a bath. And dry clothes.”
The girl raised her head with its tangled, bushy hair. “She’s hungry.”
“Then why didn’t you feed her?” Thérèse snatched a towel from her closet, gently wrapped the baby, and carried her to the girl who fumbled with her T-shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra. Her breasts, plumped against her stomach, leaked milk. She let Thérèse place the baby in her arms. She didn’t move to help and Thérèse — disgusted by the girl’s lack of shame — had to nudge the baby’s chin toward the nipple. The baby batted her fists in protest until a dribble of milk touched her tongue. She latched on now and began sucking greedily.
Thérèse had no choice but to wait. The kids stood watching the girl with the baby. Then the boy began telling them how he’d found the girl. Thérèse saw the cat at the window, its tail lifted like a disapproving finger at the crowd in the room.
Excitement bubbled among the kids at this discovery of a girl like themselves with a baby. The girl watched them with vacant eyes, head leaned against the wall, breasts exposed, tears dried and sticky on her pale cheeks. Thérèse bent to take the baby, who’d fallen asleep. An instinct or a memory made her hold the baby upright and pat her back.
“Go,” she said. “Into the bath.” She’d several times dipped her fingers in the water in the bread bowl to make sure it was still warm. She supported the baby’s back — so small she was! — on the flat of her hand and slowly eased her in the water. The baby moved her arms but didn’t wake. Thérèse squeezed water from a washcloth over her body and smoothed soap over her slippery limbs. She ran her wet hand several times across the baby’s scalp.
She wrapped her in the towel, and holding her close, walked down the hallway. The kids had clustered around the bathroom doorway, holding up skirts and jeans they’d scrounged. The girl lay in the tub with her knees and breasts poked from the suds.
The bottle of dish detergent Thérèse had bought was on the floor. “I can’t wear jeans,” the girls was complaining. “My hips are too big.”
“Because you just had a baby!”
“No, my hips —”
Thérèse interrupted. “Someone has to buy diapers. I’ve got money.”
A girl with small gold-framed glasses said she would go. She followed Thérèse to her room, cooing at the baby. “Ooooh, qu’elle est chouette. The perfect little sweetheart.”
Thérèse spread her fingers wider across the baby’s back. The baby needed more than pretty words and noises. She wasn’t a toy.
At noon Thérèse called in sick to work. How could she leave the baby with the kids? The girl only remembered her when her breasts ached. All afternoon she lounged with the others in the next room. They giggled, shared a large pizza, traded stories about which bands they’d seen.
At sundown they trooped downstairs as more kids arrived. Soon Thérèse smelled the rank sweetness in the air. The thump and wail of music grew louder. She paced in her room with the baby, who began to cry and wouldn’t stop. Thérèse had no choice but to find the girl.
The kids sprawled on the sleeping bags and cushions in the front room, passing around a pipe. Candles lit the gloom. The laziest movement cast long, distorted shadows. Music clashed and groaned. The scene was evil — an image of hell, which had never before seemed real to Thérèse, but which she recognized now that she saw it. She wanted to flee, but the baby had to be fed. Huddled over to protect her as well as she could, Thérèse crept into the room and kneeled before the girl, who could hardly rouse herself to lift her shirt. Jaw hard, Thérèse forced herself to watch. There had to be another way. A better way. There had to.
That night Thérèse tucked the baby in bed next to her. She stroked her delicate cheek and whispered, “I’ll take care of you, I promise.”
Later, when the baby woke and began to fidget, Thérèse carried her downstairs again. The house was quiet. The girl, still clothed, lay against a boy who was naked, both snoring softly. The girl didn’t wake. Thérèse rolled her aside with her foot, freed a breast, tucked the child against it, and gave her the nipple.
For two days and two nights Thérèse cared for the baby. She hardly slept, but she had never felt more determined and awake. The baby was docile now that she was held, regularly fed, clean and dry. While she slept, Thérèse ran from the house to the store to buy more diapers and clothing. There she saw bottles and formula. Slowly, her finger on the package, she read the instructions.
The baby sputtered when Thérèse rubbed the wet nipple across her lips, but Thérèse cajoled and rocked her, waiting for her to taste the few grains of sugar she’d added. “What’s your name?” she wondered. She’d never heard the girl say it. “I’m going to call you Rose.”
That day, when Thérèse called in sick again, the supervisor told her she would need a doctor’s certificate if she called in sick the following night. Thérèse didn’t answer. A baby’s claims were surely greater than a length of grey carpet.
Rose had taken the bottle several times, but tonight she kicked and gagged on the nipple. Thérèse finally bundled her close to carry downstairs. The front room throbbed with music, flickering shadows, drumbeats, and smoke. The kids slumped in a circle around a tableau of mother and child, not unlike the other times the girl nursed the baby.
But Thérèse held Rose. A man lay in the girl’s arms, his mouth on her nipple. In the wavering candlelight Thérèse saw Stilt’s unshaven cheeks pulling draughts of milk. The girl’s dreamy smile. Farther down his body a head bobbed at his crotch. The other kids lay in poses miming Stilt’s. Some only watched or rubbed at themselves.
Thérèse charged up the stairs and slammed the door behind her. She stood with her back against it, her heart pounding hard in her throat. When Rose began to wriggle and cry again, Thérèse grabbed the bottle she’d left on the floor by her mattress. This time Rose took it.
Thérèse paced the room and thought hard about what to do. She flung open her suitcase, crammed in diapers, baby clothes, formula, nipples. Her things didn’t matter. She tiptoed down the stairs with Rose hidden against her, suitcase in hand, and slipped out the door.
A groundhog sat upright, its snout twitching at the air. The boys playing in the fields near the woods saw the banner of smoke twisting above the trees. They sneaked as close to the cabin as they dared and spied movement at the window. What if robbers were staying in the cabin and they had guns? The boys scrambled home to tell their father.
Armand paid no mind to their story about robbers — robbing what from an abandoned cabin in the backwoods of Rivière-des-Pins? But he didn’t like intruders so close to his land.
He didn’t take his gun but snapped his fingers for the dog. More annoyed than curious, he trudged through the swish of high grass, across the fields, into the woods. At a distance, the boys trailed him.
As he crossed the clearing before the cabin, he wondered if he should holler and tell the person to come out. He decided to knock.
He stepped back when Thérèse opened the door holding a baby. She hadn’t been gone that long. Was she pregnant when she left? Then who…? He blushed.
“Yes?” Thérèse tapped the baby’s back.
“My boys said someone was here.”
“I’m here. With Rose.”
He looked away, not sure what to say next. He remembered the land. “I ploughed your field when I did mine. I planted corn.”
“Good,” she said evenly.
“It’s your land. I’ll give you a percentage.”
She dipped her head to smell the baby’s hair. It was a protective, yet intimate gesture that reminded him of his wife when their boys were babies.
Behind Thérèse the house was scrubbed and swept. She had no electricity or running water. She had already left once. Why had she come back? Especially with a baby. No sane person would choose to live like this.
But she looked so content, cradling the baby. As if her life brimmed with riches.
Through Zorn’s vivid writing, one can taste the pastries and hear, see, and smell the neighbourhood even while observing the growth in the lives of these ordinary yet remarkable women.
The Winnipeg Review
A gentle, beautiful book, Five Roses shows how unexpected spaces may make room for reconnection, even love.
Literary Review of Canada
Zorn’s linguistic skills are well evidenced; she can sketch a situation with a few deft phrases.
Winnipeg Free Press
You know an author has done her job when you close the book and for a while you continue to wonder what the characters are getting up to.
Alice Zorn’s new novel Five Roses weaves incantatory magic. The warp of this novel is Zorn’s elegant prose style and the weft is her compassionate attention to the colourful interior lives of her characters as they untangle various losses. Five Roses is an arresting artwork, a compulsive read, and a moving, complex, meditation on what it is to form a good-enough life from the remnants of hard memories. A beautiful, beautiful book.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, author of All the Broken Things
A great read that offered a look into how certain events, traumatic experiences, tragedies, shape our identity.
With Five Roses, Zorn’s handiwork is delicate and hard-wearing, textured and striking. An oh-so-lovely novel you can sink right into.
A great choice for character-driven readers who appreciate a well-developed setting.
I felt that this love letter to this particular part of Montreal only added to the story, as I become invested in the neighbourhood as much as in the characters.
Lost in a Great Book
Alice Zorn is a writer of incredible sensitivity and precision, and this haunting, tender novel is her finest work yet. Five Roses weaves together the delicate dance of friendship, the intensity of love, and the aftermath of loss in a story as vivid and remarkable as life itself. Its people and places will linger with you long after you have put it down.
Saleema Nawaz, author of Bone and Bread
What a fantastic read.
Zorn soulfully articulates the pain of her characters, but also their remarkable resiliency and resourcefulness.
Quill and Quire
Part cross-generational lost-child saga, part haunted house tale, part Armistead Mapuin-style urban kaleidoscope novel and, in its own way, a tribute to a Montreal neighbourhood.
The overall effect is like that of a well-arranged piece of chamber music where a set of exquisitely wrought individual parts gradually entwines into a deeply satisfying whole.
Five Roses was a very good read.
In Zorn’s hands, Montreal is a living, breathing city, one that exists off the page.
subTerrain, issue #76
The real sweetness of Five Roses lies beneath physical details, in the glimpses she offers of human hearts.
Montreal Review of Books
Disparate narratives woven together in a way that sparks magic.
Pickle Me This