About the Author

Saleema Nawaz

Saleema Nawaz has published fiction in journals including Prairie Fire, Grain, The New Quarterly, and Prism International and she is an alumnus of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts. ”The White Dress,“ the final novella in this book, won the inaugural Robert Kroetsch Award for Best Creative Thesis at the University of Manitoba; another of the stories, ”My Three Girls,“ appeared in the 2008 McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize Anthology.

Books by this Author
Bone and Bread

Bone and Bread

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Mother Superior

Mother Superior

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From “My Three Girls” (Mother Superior): There is a photograph of me and Kathleen in the rec room with Maggie, our dead baby sister. She is slumped in a car seat, swaddled in a pink flannel blanket, eyes and mouth sutured shut, every crease turned down with the heaviness of death. Kathleen and I are posed to either side, legs outstretched, hips pressed into the orange carpet. We have our chins in our hands, and Kathleen has one bare foot kicked up in the air. A couple of half-dressed Barbie dolls are visible off in the corner. A picnic-pose photo, like the one of us in Stanley Park, the checkered print of our two matching sundresses vivid against the striped grey blanket, our island in the sea of green grass. In the Stanley Park photo, our faces are bright, our smiles wide and eager. Kathleen is grinning, her eyes flirting with the camera as though she could bewitch it with a direct gaze. The same sly but alluring look I can trace through all the family photos, from her class pictures to her wedding scrapbook. Behind us is a patch of blue, Lost Lagoon winking in the sun. When I look at myself half-squinting, I can remember the breeze coming off the water and our father’s indulgence in buying us swirled candy sticks on the way to the bus stop. Jockeying with Kathleen for the window seat until the end of my tutti-frutti stick got tangled up in her blonde hair. A lingering, luminous day. In the photo with Maggie, we are smiling, too, but the effect is disturbing. Our charms are displayed to better advantage by the closer angle, and beautiful Kathleen, at seven, is radiant against the drab wood panelling of our finished basement. Her smile, so beguiling and intense, barely eclipses my own here, for in this photo I actually seem to be giggling, betraying my crooked teeth as my brown ponytail flails forward in a messy signal of movement. I can barely pick out the rims of the glasses I used to hate, and I seem at home in my eleven-year-old body, unselfconscious about the exposed roll of stomach bulging in a pale band from under my purple T-shirt. The girth of my hips already large enough, as I lie lengthwise, to dwarf the car seat set before us. I cannot imagine what we could have been thinking, though it is likely that it was our mother who told us to smile. In her album, this photo is captioned “My Three Girls.” When my husband tells me he doesn’t want us to get a midwife, he invokes Maggie as a reason for going to the hospital. He thinks he is at his most persuasive after dinner, when I am full and tired and tend to agree with anything. “But your baby sister, though. I thought your mother—well, am I right in thinking that your mother had her at home?” The hesitation in his question irks me, although I know it is only his attempt at tact, at not venturing to express more than I would presume him to feel. He knows the circumstances of Maggie’s death as well as anyone in the family. As well as anyone might, having met my mother even once. “Maggie didn’t die because she was born at home,” I say. “She died because she had a birth defect that would have killed her no matter where she was born.” I remember my father, dry-eyed and harried, explaining how what had happened to Maggie was not quite as sad as if she could have lived but had died anyway. “It is a tragedy, yes,” he’d said, the side of his mouth sagging open as Kathleen and I gawked. “A tragedy has befallen this family. But it is something closer to a disappointment than a devastation.” This, though our mother’s noisy weeping kept on unabated from behind their bedroom door. “Oh.” Eric turns away for a moment, stooping under the sink for dish soap, before attempting, “But what does your mother think?” Which is his way of saying that my mother won’t like it and that, even by considering a home birth, we’re signing ourselves up for weeks of her heartrending pleas—speeches that will make me mourn my sister, and the woman my mother used to be, and the way I was once able to feel grief and pity and know that they were in no way mixed with apathy or contempt.* Until Kathleen was born, I had never liked dolls. Their puckered lips and grappling fingers were nothing to me compared to the soft snout of a teddy bear or the fluffy tail of a stuffed cat. Kathleen was squishy like a plush animal and warm besides. I was captivated by her multitude of tiny expressions, sometimes even poking her in the side with my index finger to see a ripple of unhappiness clench her amazing, volatile face. I wondered how we had ever lived without her, without someone who could take us away from ourselves and the petty tedium of whatever had consumed us before. When they brought Maggie home for the wake, she reminded me of those old dolls, as light as if she were filled only with air instead of with tiny muscles and bones and her still, imperfect heart. She was hard, too, like the dolls, except for her feet, which were soft and movable. My mother told us it was because the veins there were too tiny to be embalmed, and Kathleen stroked the soles of them with one finger, crooning “Cootchie-cootchie-coo” until my mother slapped her hand away and took Maggie upstairs to be passed around among the guests. Eric is incredulous that my mother still hasn’t seen our baby in anything besides the dozens of snapshots taken by Kathleen. “Your daughter has a baby, you go,” he says. I smile at him because I find his indignation, when it is on my behalf, charming. His bottom lip juts outward as his head begins a concise quiver of disapproval, his hands rubbing up and down against the small of his back in a flap-wing posture of concern. My hand on his cheek stops him, and he leans into my touch before shrugging his shoulders. He collapses into the chair beside Ava’s crib, the one with the best vantage point for parental doting and gloating. “My mother has been practically living here for the past four weeks,” he says. “I know.” Laundered little outfits are folded neatly in piles near the changing table, and prepared meals are stacked deep into the freezer, their mottled surfaces speckled with frost like snow-capped peaks. “She’s been a big help.” “Well, then. Doesn’t your mother care at all?” And because there is no answer to this question that he will understand, I tell him I will call her and invite myself over. My mother paces the kitchen, drying dishes, stirring the soup, following a nervous course around the perimeter of the table where I am sitting with the baby. Ava fusses in a way that is unusual for her, her mouth falling open in an impression of wild anguish. As I soothe her, I imagine she senses my mother’s nervous energy, her inability to comprehend good news. Despite my father’s best rallying attempts, my parents’ circle narrowed with Maggie’s death, whittled down to relatives and those with a taste or tolerance for grief. Even now, with the evidence of a healthy baby right before her, my mother’s interest is on Ava’s narrow escape. “So are you in a lot of pain?” she asks. She nods with sympathy toward my belly, which beneath my shirt is now scarred in a red and glistening line from the surgery. “A little.” My mother’s predictions of calamity have stifled certain aspects of our conversations. When, during my third trimester, I confided that I hadn’t felt the baby move in a day and a half, she surmised aloud that the baby was probably dead. She looked huffy and bewildered when Eric, arriving to pick me up, gave her only a curt hello before helping me out to the car. My mother begins scrubbing new potatoes in the colander. She looks over at me from the sink. “You ought to have tried to lose some of that weight before having a baby,” she says. “It isn’t healthy.” “That’s true.” I raise my eyebrows at her before looking down to stroke the side of Ava’s cheek, watching her cries quiet down as her exhaustion takes over. “Remind me to give you your clothes back as soon as I start to drop some of these pounds.” “Oh, you.” My mother shakes her head and brings the washed potatoes and a peeler to the counter nearest to the table. “It’s true, you know. You shouldn’t be like me.” My mother is drawing closer to Ava bit by bit. She grabs a handful of potato peels and steps toward the garbage can to the right of the table. On her way, I see her shoot a glance at the baby, her pupils dilating until her brown eyes are suffused in black. “Why don’t you sit down?” I kick with my foot at the chair opposite me until it budges out from the table. Its clatter against the linoleum makes Ava open her eyes and give a small, plaintive cry. My mother throws the peels in the garbage and settles on the chair, clucking her disapproval. “Honestly, you should know better,” she says. “Give her here. I’ll quiet her.” And so I hand her the baby, and she takes her from me with strong, sure hands, her lips moving with the start of a lullaby. In bed at night, we pretended Maggie was a ghost who was watching us. Not an angel, because it didn’t seem possible that she could wish us well. Not after we had seen her in her grim final repose. “If you don’t get up and close that closet door,” I said, “Maggie will try and choke you to death in your sleep.” “Why would she try and do that?” Kathleen’s voice was piteous with a rehearsed tremulousness of fear. The conversation was a kind of game we liked to play. “Because she’s jealous of us. Because we’re alive and she isn’t. Because she knows we’re happy that she’s gone.” “I’m not,” said Kathleen. “Yes, you are. You’re happy because if she was alive you wouldn’t be able to take ballet lessons because we wouldn’t have enough money.” I didn’t know if this was true, but it struck me as a brilliant inspiration. “Really?” There was a rustling in the darkness as Kathleen half-sat up in her bed. “Really. And she knows you think she’s ugly. She knows you told me that you thought she looked weird.” Another inspiration on my roll of cruelty. In the confused weeks after the funeral, Kathleen had confided to me that she thought that Maggie didn’t look like a normal baby. “She was a funny colour,” she’d whispered to me, as our mother arranged a tiny framed photo of Maggie on the centre of the mantelpiece behind a white tea light. Maggie’s mottled face was patchy purple and red from the poor breathing that never really got started. “How does Maggie know that?” asked Kathleen, who by then was fully sitting up. I could see the shadow her rumpled hair cast against the wall by the glow of our snowflake night-light. “Will she tell Mummy?” “No,” I said, and my shoulders shook in a sudden quake as I pictured a bundled Maggie hovering near my mother’s sleeping face. Sometimes I scared even myself in these late-night chats. “No, I don’t think so.”Copyright © Saleema Nawaz, 2008

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Songs for the End of the World

Quarantine Day One
Elliot reported himself to the authorities later that morning in a series of phone calls that escalated through a chain of increasingly flustered functionaries. Eventually he was connected to someone at the Department of Health, to whom he managed to portray himself as something more than the average hypochondriac. The woman on the phone wasn’t up-to-date on the latest media coverage, and the restaurant name he kept repeating meant nothing to her, but she believed that he thought he had been exposed.
“Okay, Elliot,” she said, after he told her his name and address. He could hear her typing in the background. “What you’re going to do is stay at home.”
“How long?”
“Twenty-one days,” she said. “Now, do you share a toilet with anyone? Are you married?”
“I’m divorced.” Why did he still find it so hard just to answer no? “What’s this about toilets?”
“You need to flush two or three times to reduce the risk of contamination for anyone else.”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to see anyone.”
“You’re not. I’m just telling you.” The rhythmic clack of typing stopped for a moment. “Most importantly, take your temperature twice a day. If it spikes or if it reaches one hundred and four, call Emergency and explain that you’re on the quarantine list.”
“Okay,” he said, already beginning to feel warm.
“Someone will call you back tomorrow,” she said. “In the meantime, make a list of everyone you’ve seen, everywhere you’ve gone since the exposure.”
“I was supposed to go out tomorrow.” Elliot swallowed against a mounting tightness in his throat. “See my sister and nephew.” If he died, what would happen to Sarah and Noah?
“I know it’s hard, but try not to worry too much.” Her voice was saturated with resignation. She sounded like someone who was not used to delivering good news. “If you already have it, there’s nothing you can do.”
Elliot asked then about the logistics of eating. “Is it better to order in or go grocery shopping? Or am I not allowed?” What was the exact calculation of risk relative to the need to eat?
She quizzed him about the closest places to buy food and how crowded they tended to be. “Okay, try to make do for now. We’ll put you on the delivery list.”
A few hours later the doorbell rang while he was taking a nap. He jumped out of bed, heart racing, confused and hopeful until he saw the text message on his phone: Your supplies are at the door.
“Here,” said the health care worker. She was masked and gloved and held out two plastic bags at arm’s length.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked as he took them from her. He watched as she recoiled and took a step backwards before adding, “Just a joke.”
There was a muffled laugh. “Good one.” She was gone before Elliot could thank her. He noticed that she had pasted a quarantine notice on his door. He wondered how long it would be before his neighbours complained to the landlord.
He called into work after lunch, and his supervisor’s brisk attitude was a comfort. “I’ll talk to Bryce, but let’s keep it quiet as long as you stay healthy. I’d rather not spread it around, so to speak.”
“Just tell the guys I’ve got something sexier, like mono.”
“Sexy, ha.” The sergeant barked a laugh. “No wonder you’re still single, Howe.”
“Hey, it’s the kissing disease, isn’t it?”
Elliot felt the strong urge to go for a drive, to speed as far away as possible from his present circumstances, but instead he spent the rest of the afternoon watching basketball, football, and even a world bowling championship while eating his way through two days’ worth of food, his tears flowing as freely as water from an open tap. When he stopped bothering to wipe his eyes, his cheeks dried with a salty film that made them feel papery and exposed.
He heated up a can of baked beans and called Sarah to cancel, bracing himself for her disappointment.
“We were really looking forward to seeing you. Noah especially. You’re always the main attraction around here.” There was a small, plaintive note in her voice that he always found moving. Growing up, his kid sister had been a whirlwind of a girl who shouted down bullies, raced Lasers at sailing camp, and liked to face any fear by tackling it head-on. But ever since Sarah had shown up on his and Dory’s doorstep, wan and fragile and fresh off a plane from Bolivia, she hadn’t coped well with last-minute changes or any implication that Elliot would fail to keep his promises. Eight years after her return, she remained solitary and tentative, leading a life confined by routine and running even minor decisions past him, like which movie to watch or whether she should get a haircut. A watercolour version of who she used to be. Things had been better, though, since she had Noah.
“Sorry,” Elliot said, “I’m sick.”
“You’re never sick,” she said, worried now. “Do you need anything?”
“No, it’s not that bad.” He couldn’t seem to form the words to tell her the truth. “Just a sore throat, but I figured better safe than sorry, these days.” His voice started to catch, but he turned it into a cough. “Have you heard about this virus?”
“It’s practically all I can think about,” said Sarah. In the background, Elliot could hear Noah tunelessly singing a song about brushing his teeth. “It reminds me of the stuff we used to talk about at Living Tree. You now, plagues, wars. End times.” Living Tree was what she had left behind in Bolivia, a communal farm run by a quasi-religious group of the same name. Though Living Tree purported to believe in harmony and radical equality, the reality turned out to be closer to an ascetic sort of doomsday cult, run by leaders who didn’t seem to have a problem with personal enrichment. Sarah had mostly looked after the children until she became disillusioned enough to return home. “Actually, I started a new rug last night.”
Making rag rugs was her particular outlet for anxiety. They used to make them on the farm—apparently to sell to tourists, though Elliot suspected it was really to keep the unhappy young people distracted with some kind of busywork.
“Perfect. I have a tiny strip of bare floor between the red one and the blue one.”
Sarah gave a little chuckle: a mere acknowledgement that laughter was called for. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I hope so,” he said. To let Sarah know about his exposure would be to commit it to the record, to confess his own mortality in a way he feared would destabilize them both. “Can I talk to Noah?”
“Yeah, here he is. Can you keep him going for a while? I need to drain this pasta.”
Elliot said hi to Noah and listened to his nephew’s meandering monologue about the things that mattered to him—the funny joke that a boy named Deshawn had told at daycare and an account of the goings-on of some cartoon fox on television. And even as he struggled to follow along, it occurred to Elliot that if he had to leave the world, there was nothing he would miss more than this: Noah’s lisped conversation, with Sarah’s loving annotations piping up in the background.

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