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Authors: Alice Zorn

Five Roses

BOOK: Five Roses
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Praise for Alice Zorn

Arrhythmia

“An utterly compelling story written with a clear, cold eye. Zorn's women navigate betrayal by holding filaments of family and friendships so tenuous you never know which lifeline will snap.”

— Kathleen Winter, author of
Annabel
, nominated for the Giller Prize, Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction, and the Orange Fiction Prize

“Alice Zorn's debut novel
Arrhythmia
is an ambitious, deftly handled exploration of human beings in love … it seldom misses a beat.”

—
Montreal Review of Books


Arrhythmia
is a vivid and elegantly written novel with characters so fully realized, so round and warm and fraught with their own hidden desires and wounds, so sincere in both their misapprehensions and their hard-won resolutions, that the reader inhabits them, smells the rich aromas of their cooking, endures the pain of their longing for what is forbidden, rejoices in their moments of triumph and redemption.
Arrhythmia
holds the reader fast from its opening pages to its wise and satisfying end.”

— Julie Keith, author of
The Devil Out There

Ruins & Relics
,
shortlisted for the Quebec Writers' Federation McAuslan First Book Prize

“It's a treat to encounter a writer so keenly aware that writing and reading are a creative continuum.… The titular ‘Ruins and Relics' closes the book. A story of fractious love spun in new directions by the challenges of a holiday in Tunisia, it blends shimmering visuals with a nuanced probing of yawning cultural divides. Even better, it never reads like a travelogue tweaked into fiction.”

—
Globe and Mail

“In
Ruins and Relics
, Zorn delivers a strong showing and promises to be a Canadian writer to watch.”

—
Vue Weekly

“I love the range of these stories, the sense of complete worlds, the way the author quietly and remorselessly closes in on her characters. There is a crack in everything, and Alice Zorn finds it.”

— Joan Thomas, author of
Reading by Lightning
, winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book

“Zorn leaves you wanting just one more story, and the end of the book comes all too quickly.”

—
The Star Phoenix

“A collection of eleven well-crafted and deliberate stories … recommended for all those who admire the beauty of the short-story form. These are vivid and authentic characters brought to life with Zorn's deft talent.”

—
Alberta Views

 

Dedication

For Robert, who brought me to the Pointe.

Epigraph

Well, there's one kind favour I'll ask of you

Well, there's one kind favour I'll ask of you

There's just one last favour I'll ask of you

See that my grave is kept clean.

— Blind Lemon Jefferson, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”

Holding a letter up to the light

as if there should be more to the story.

— Charmaine Cadeau, “Secrets”

 

1978
Thérèse

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 had 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 onto 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 was shining. 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 birches 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, on which 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 Sundays 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 shrunken beneath the trees. The sky was overcast, but Thérèse could sense the sun behind the clouds — the imperative to stir and awaken. 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 nightgown, 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 with whom 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, a 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 at how it sucked up paper clips. 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 had given 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 unblinking 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.”

“It's flour?”

“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.”

BOOK: Five Roses
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