I've always loved short stories. I write them occasionally. This one takes place in the far north of Alberta, with two people struggling with the lives they've chosen, only to find out how death changes everything and nothing in one fell swoop.
by Christina Carson
It was the act of digging in the small window box planter that did it. Pushing the soup spoon down into the dark, root-tangled soil. Turning it bottom for top. Chopping up the clods. It had a rhythm to it and a meaning. It amazed her, the impact it had. It was the hypnotist, dangling the watch in front of her eyes, her entire body entranced in the memory. She stood staring off her fourth floor landing into the late evening sky of Vancouver, awash in the score of years she had so recently left behind.
Joanie had difficulty imagining how the act of digging could create such a powerful revisiting. It wasn't even foot on shovel sort of digging this time. Just a kitchen spoon mixing about in her six inch deep planter. She noticed she used the same motion, however. She felt the same finality even, as when she had turned the garden each fall or plowed the fields before winter shut down the world. Brutal, frigid semi-arctic winter. Cold that could freeze expiration in mid breath, which could make spittle hit the ground with a clink.
She returned to taking out the summer petunias. The last three cool weeks had them showing their age. She was readying the box for winter primulas. How she loved to walk out in gray rain-filled mornings and see their colors. Bright dots of scarlet, royal purple, gold, rose and virgin white in among the Kelley green leaves. The first winter she was here, it amazed her to see flowers blooming in December and January and February. She pushed the spoon in right to the bottom and brought up a big chunk to turn over and break apart. Maybe memories are stored in muscles, she wondered. She had read something to that effect once. What was the brain for if that was the case? She continued digging and turning and crushing the clods between her fingers, letting the freed dirt trickle out, until all was loose and fluffy again. With open palms, she evened the surface, with the dignity of a Baba smoothing her apron upon rising. In the quiet that followed, the memories flooded in.
"Jim, for Christ's sake, can't you put your boots on the mat? Is that so much to ask?" Joanie, arms laden with groceries, was trying to push the door open with her foot. Taking her foot back, she finally booted the door with enough force that it moved the debris behind it and banged into the wall. Once on the other side, she kicked it back in the opposite direction. Not hearing it click shut, she swung her hip against it finalizing the closing. She stood for a moment in the pocket of cold that is created by heat rushing out an open door into a winter's afternoon. Her fogged glasses blinding her momentarily, she waited still holding the groceries. All the while, Jim sat on the chesterfield watching a country western video. He had learned long ago how to ignore her unspoken needs.
It was a small house. Too small to hold out against the clutter that arises when you share the world with stock. Everything that could be damaged or rendered useless by freezing has to be brought inside during winter. Cans of paint, wood preservative, animal vaccines, motor oil, an endless list of them that stockmen share their lives with once the weather turns cold. It makes houses cave-like. It makes people crazy.
"Don't help or anything," she threw at him as she tripped over the step up into the kitchen. "I can't imagine what it would be like to have a man in my life with an ounce of thoughtfulness in him," she mumbled more to herself than to her husband in the next room. It took her a while to stop slamming the groceries on the counter as she took them out of the bag. Her anger finally ebbed into resignation and each action became more and more mechanical, until robot-like she shut the last cupboard door. She pulled the top of the coffee maker off and put in a clean filter. Bending to the shelf below the sink, she grabbed the coffee tin and ladled fresh grounds into the filter. The pot already contained water so she pushed the button. She crossed the kitchen and sunk into her chair at the table, her hands supporting her chin as she tried to stare out the ice-encrusted windows. The old chrome set had seen many years. She had re-upholstered the chair seats twice now, stuffing them full with new foam and choosing from a limited selection of vinyls at the hardware store. Each time she tried to capture a new look like she had seen in the Better Homes and Garden magazine. She'd change the curtains at the same time, hoping for a miraculous renewal to an ancient room in an equally old house.
Winter produced a sort of stupor in people. It wasn't so much the temperature, though that didn't help. It was the darkness and the drabness, endless grey against a backdrop of white or black. Joanie lit a cigarette and let the curling smoke carry her away. She wondered where the smoke went. Did it eventually end up on some tropical beach? Or get breathed in by dancers at Mardi Gras? Or float off into the upper reaches of space to rub shoulders with the universe? It felt good to let her mind go. Anything to lift her out of this tiny little backwater. To separate her, if only momentarily from all the shattered illusions of life and love and marriage.
The coffee maker stopped gurgling. She pushed herself up from the table and hunted for a clean cup. Pouring the dark liquid into her cup, she got lost again, this time in the coffee’s flow. As the coffee splashed onto the counter, she was jolted back.
"Shit," she hissed through her teeth, pulling the damp dishcloth out of the sink. "You want some coffee?" she called to her husband.
"Yeah." It didn't seem to her that he ever felt this same sort of isolation that haunted her. She didn't get it. It didn't make sense. Was there something the matter with her? Was she somehow inadequate? She sighed and filled his cup. As she came round the corner, she fixed her eyes on the TV and handed him the cup without even looking. He glanced up at her as he reached for the coffee. He knew that stare. He'd seen it often. What did she want? What would make her happy? For sure he didn't know, and he'd given up some time ago worrying about it. Life was okay. What do you expect, he wanted to ask her? No use to get all head up about something you can't have. Seemed pretty straight forward to him.
She pulled her eyes back from the video and keeping them high above his vision, turned back to the kitchen, humming the tune from the tape being played.
"You gone to work tomorrow?" They often had these conversations, across two rooms.
"Maybe, if the weather smartens up. Broke three chains already this week. That hill's got too much steepness to it, especially with the wind we've been having."
"What's the matter? Getting chicken in your old age?"
When they weren't busy with the cows, Jim felled for various lumber outfits in the region. It was tough work, particularly when the snow was as deep as it was this year. It wasn't work to be taken lightly either. The bush was unforgiving. For those who got tired or careless, the trees reminded them, sometimes for eternity. Jim knew he was getting old for this work. Forty isn't old at a desk. But you remember you're forty when you work all day in the cold, in the deep snow, in the bush. Some mornings when he'd roll out of bed and start the day off hurting and tired, he'd worry. Deep down inside him there was a fear....
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