About the Author

Martha Baillie

Martha Baillie was born in Toronto. After studies at the University of Edinburgh and the Sorbonne in Paris, she returned to Toronto where she continued her studies at the University of Toronto, and for a time trained as an actor. It was following a year of extensive travel in Asia in 1982 that Baillie began writing, and had her first poems and a novel published. She is the author of three previous novels, and has been published in Canada, Germany and Hungary. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire and the Antigonish Review. The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach, was published by Brick in 2007. Her manuscript-based sculptural installation, Core Sample, has been shown in the Sidespace Gallery and the Type Books basement gallery. She has worked part time for the Toronto Public Library in branches throughout the city, for close to twenty years. Baillie is a bilingual storyteller (English/French) who has told in schools around the city and at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival.

Books by this Author
Sister Language

I turn the key and push. The door begins to swing but bangs against its chain -- a barrier she's fashioned from a leash. This means she's home. Mouth to slit: "Sister, hello, sister." From some room she comes. The chain unfastened, I step inside -- admitted. Begin by admitting. A good beginning, but how much either party will admit (or admit to) is never a known factor. I've brought a desire. We begin, she and I; we've begun before, and often. It so happens, this day, our desires agree: to discuss language -- the many ways it rescues and fails her.

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The Shape I Gave You

Standing at the corner of Leopoldstrasse and Theodor­strasse, waiting for the traffic lights to change, Ulrike curled her toes to warm them inside her boots. She turned her head to the left and looked in through the window of the Kosmopolit Beauty Salon, where a ­middle-­aged woman sat in a white chair, holding out her hands. The beautician was saying something and smiling as she examined her client’s ­cuticles.

A girl, no older than five, installed in the chair nearest the window, was occupying herself by drawing a picture on a large pad of paper. The child was going at her work with utmost concentration, eyebrows scrunched together, pencil gripped between her small fingers. Ulrike took a step closer and, with her forehead nearly touching the glass, looked straight down at the girl’s drawing. It was of a boy with large ears and dark, serious eyes, a thin boy holding what was either a shovel or a butterfly net in his hand. Ulrike looked up. Both the beautician and her client were staring coldly at her. She stepped quickly away from the ­window.

The light changed and she hurried across Leopoldstrasse, the child’s portrait of a young boy and the disapproving faces of the two women trading places, back and forth, in her mind. She arrived at the streetcar stop. By now it felt to her as if all the cold in the city were gathered in the skin of her left cheek, in a spot the size of a pfennig. She rubbed at this spot with her mittened hand. The brilliant, freezing air gave even the ugliest buildings, the concrete monstrosities from the 1960s, those that used to so offend her father, a newness, a sharp eagerness. The streetcar was scheduled to arrive in ten ­minutes.

To escape the increasingly loud, embittered exclamations of a man standing at the streetcar stop, clutching his cellphone to his ear, Ulrike opened the door of the nearest café and was about to go in but thought better of it. Unless she succeeded in positioning herself in the window, she might just miss the streetcar. She stepped back outside, fished in her pocket for a tissue and blew her nose. The man at the streetcar stop put his cellphone away and started to cry. When, Ulrike wondered, was the last time she’d seen a man ­weep?

In the window of the café, perched on a bar stool, elbows propped on the high narrow counter, a slender blond girl, seven­teen or eighteen years old, with thoughtful eyes and a ring in her nose, was reading a book. Though the book’s spine faced the window, when Ulrike tried to read the title she found she couldn’t. It was in Greek. A young man came and stood beside the girl, who set her book down and kissed him on the ­mouth.

For an instant, Ulrike was opening the heavy wooden door of the shop where, at seventeen, she had bought her sheet music. She was leaning over the counter and, in full view of any customer who chose to notice, planting a kiss on the skinny neck of the boy behind the ­till.

The streetcar arrived and Ulrike climbed on. Perhaps the man had not been weeping, his small blue eyes merely watering profusely because of the cold. He now sat opposite her, reading the newspaper, sturdy, with a cleft in his chin and a grey moustache that seemed out of place, it had been trimmed so small. As the streetcar glided forward, Ulrike decided which book to take with her on the train to Düsseldorf the following morning. In Düsseldorf she would give a recital, a balance of Bach and Schubert, and teach a master class. She felt well prepared, comfortable with the Bach. Her final, critical hours of practice in the morning had quieted her nerves. She’d set this afternoon aside to relax and make any small but necessary last-minute arrangements. Her errands done, she was now free to go home. On the train tomorrow morning she would read Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes to keep up her ­English.

She glanced at the man seated opposite her. His eyes were dry. But his earlier sorrow had been real. She must call her agent straight away, she told herself, and agree to play, despite her dislike of politics, at the Green Party benefit in Frankfurt at the end of April. She must also phone two of her students to reschedule their lessons. Packing her clothes for Düsseldorf should be quick. She’d reward herself with a hot bath. More snow was expected for tomorrow. Tonight she’d ­dream.

Whenever she left Berlin to play in another city, her sleep swelled during the night preceding her departure. It released dreams, surprising as flying fish. A month ago she’d set out to give a concert in Rome, followed by a second in Florence. The night before her departure, she’d found herself riding in a train headed for Geneva. Just as the truth dawned on her, that she was being rushed through the wrong countryside, the train came to a sudden stop in a field planted with sugar beets. She stepped down from the train. She walked between the rows of leafy plants, across the field, toward a burning house of a suitable size for a doll. When she reached the house, she went in. Nothing was charred or smelled of smoke, the white walls looked clean and women with soft, heavy thighs and breasts, who might have escaped from a painting by Rubens, danced from room to room, waving diaphanous scarves about. In the yard behind the house a wooden crate stood on the ground. She knew what was expected of her. She knelt beside the crate. She waited. Soon the gladiator would come and cut off her head. He arrived, but equipped with only a twisted, rusty scrap of metal, a tool clearly ­inadequate.

Whatever she dreamed tonight would be less disturbing. Approaching concerts in foreign cities of importance might bring on a burning house, buried sweetness under a leafy field, nudity and the threat of losing her head, but Düsseldorf was not a demanding engagement.

From the Hardcover edition.

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