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Authors: Rebecca Silver Slayter

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In the Land of Birdfishes

BOOK: In the Land of Birdfishes
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In the
Land
of
Birdfishes
Rebecca Silver Slayter

Dedication

For, and because of, Conrad
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart …

Epigraph

There are things that cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them
.

—Bruno Schulz

ONE

W
HEN
I
HAD EYES
, I saw my sister’s hair (yellow), my mother’s back, small rocks that the water took out and in from the shore with gasps of its deep ocean lungs. I remember my own hands, how tiny they were beside my father’s. One day he put my hands in his and showed me how they disappeared, like that, inside his fist. Both my hands: gone. I lost all this—lost everything—but slowly.

Our mother was from Scotland, like my father’s father, and most of the people and ancestors of the people in our town. She’d hardly been in Canada a summer when my father, the minister, and one of only seven single men in the town, asked her to marry him. He built her a house on a hill by the sea where she liked to walk, and I guess he thought that was enough. It looked like happiness, that little house with a blue roof and a window that looked without blinking at the shore. It looked like the end of the road—a small place where a life would grow, a family born out of the salt soil, stuck fast like stones in dirt. This was a small town, remember, and it’s true what you’ve heard about them. Your dreams are small—no bigger than your head—in a small town, where there’s nothing to look at and want that for yourself. Only what you can
imagine in your own brain at night on the pillow, or a longing that gets you in a stomach that’s fed but wants when you push your chair back from the table.

So think of this man coming home of an evening and seeing this woman, who by all accounts was pretty, sitting sewing something or another—put a candle in the room, though of course there was electricity, even on the north far shore of that godforsaken rind of the world, but just look what it does to her hair, how under that glow it becomes brass. Let every thing, every stick of wood, every door, the cracked glass of every window make a sound that is all its own. Let the wind pass through on winter nights and make a hollow howl against the roof, let the door squeak open for lack of grease, let the kettle whistle, let the boards on the floor by their bed creak every morning as they pull themselves out of it. Let them know every sound in the house. And let him love it, love watching her with her glowing golden hair and her belly swollen with twins, and the aching cry of the chair as she rocks back and forward and the crackle of fish oil in the lantern (make it a lantern!) beside her. And let her slowly go crazy in that house on the hill by the sea.

In the years after our birth, my father was rarely angry. He and my mother only spoke to each other in soft voices, and my sister and I were quiet children. Sometimes, if Aileen or I laughed, I would see both my parents turn their heads as if surprised to find us in the room. There was only ever one time that my father showed us the man he would later become.

It was twilight and my mother had left us, closing the screen door quietly behind her, and we’d all known she was going down to the shore. My father began washing dishes, and Aileen said to me, “Let’s go with Mother.” We slipped out
the door and down the hill, Aileen’s hair a yellow sail in the evening sky behind her.

When we reached the rocky beach, we could not see her in either direction and it was already darkening around us. Then we heard a splash in the water, and saw, far in the distance, a figure appearing and disappearing behind the waves. The water was rough—on this side of the hill, the land faced the open sea, and it was without end. From the other side of our house, you could walk down the road to a bay, where the water was always quiet and flat at sundown. That was the beach I loved.

“Mother,” called Aileen. “Mother!” She began wading into the water.

“Wait,” I said. I followed her. Aileen could swim already but I still hadn’t learned. I would get frightened when Da said, “I’m going to let go of you now.” I would cling to him because I wasn’t ready for him to let go. (Let him hold me forever, and I’ll kick my arms and legs the way he taught us and look up at him smiling down, and know his hands will never loosen at my sides.) Aileen began moving through the water, in the clumsy stroke Da called the doggy-paddle.

“Wait!” I said. The water was strangely warm in the cool air, but I shivered. I could feel rocks, broken shells, sand under my feet—there was life in the water. I knew it. I knew in the daytime how little animals, fish and things in shells travelled beneath the surface. Starfish slept and dreamt of rocks and the bellies of boats to wrap five arms around. All these sea creatures were in the dark sea water around me. I could feel the water moving as they stirred. I began crying. The eelgrass made slippery coils around my legs. Aileen kept paddling farther away from me, and I couldn’t see Mother anymore.
“Aileen!” I took a few steps forward and my knee hit a rock, I stumbled and was suddenly on my back in the water, crying for my mother, for Aileen, and then hands closed under my arms and lifted me back out into the cold night air.

My father carried me back to the house in silence, wrapped me in a towel and sat me on our bed. He shut the door and was gone, but I knew I wasn’t to move. A little while later, he returned and threw Aileen onto the bed too. She was crying. His face was such I hardly recognized him, this tall man who could lift both my sister and me like we were nothing, who had eyes like he could hurt us just as easily, toss me into the sea as pull me out of it.

“You are never, never to go to the water on your own.

“You will not swim at night.

“You will not leave the house at night alone.

“And you”—he knelt on the floor and grabbed Aileen’s arm with both hands—”you will never leave your sister behind.”

And then I remember Da telling us about drowning. I remember the names of every child in our town who had drowned since the ship
Hector
reached its shores and poured out the people whose descendants would one day become our neighbours and friends. I remember being asked to imagine water in the lungs where air should be. I remember closing my eyes and imagining it so hard my breath stopped for several moments and when it came again it was like water on a dry tongue, it was what the hungry word
grateful
would call up in my mind years later. And then Da got up and left, closing the door, with a look in his eyes like he had to leave the room or do us harm.

Da went back to his soft voice again and Mother stopped leaving the house after dinner. Sometimes she would stand by
the window instead for hours at a time or sit on the couch with her hands in her lap, not looking at anything at all.

Don’t look for Mother in this story. If you look at this hole I have made for her and see only the blurry lines of a sad woman who has no story at all, that is because that is what we saw. That is what we knew; a zero in a column of numbers that added up to an incomprehensible arithmetic. If you wonder what made her sad, what she was like when she wasn’t watching the sea, what the thousand details were that make a person something more than a fissure in a family that broke—please ask those questions of someone who can answer. Tell me what they say. When my father asked her out for the first time, he showed up at her door with a jar of silver dollars. Every birthday or Christmas his grandmother had sent him a dollar, and he put each in a jar, and kept them until he was twenty years old and felt a pull in his heart for a woman who was new in this country. He drove her two hours to the city. They ate dinner with the jar beneath his seat, and left a silver column on the bill as they walked out into the starlit city streets. I think of those coins, and of the simplicity of my father’s math. How the stack of coins might have looked to him like the shape of a female figure, of a woman who was polite from the other side of the table and let him kiss her when he took her home. How before they left the restaurant, he must have looked at the coins on the table and her across from them, and seen a divine intelligibility in things. My father’s math failed him, and it failed my sister and me, and it failed my mother. She became incalculable; the hole in the centre of a zero that everything gets lost inside.

The last day I saw is the day I remember best of all. Was everything more beautiful that day? Was the sky as blue as the
ten thousand skies I would never see? Were the colours, the shapes of things, complicit with the loss that was coming?

It was May and the pageantry of turning seasons was at work everywhere. The last plates of ice in the bay had pulled loose and turned to water. We were between seasons and closer, in truth, to winter than to summer, but in recent days, our family had begun to remember something. Now, suddenly, we recalled that there would be days when the hills would be filled with the warm, green, thriving smell of leaves and grass and the yellow hearts of wild roses, and Aileen and I would return at dinnertime red-fingered from strawberries eaten in the field. That memory was more sure than the dirty snow still clutching the roots of trees in the darkest parts of the woods. It was more plausible than the nights when water left in the kettle would freeze there. It was a vision so clear that we couldn’t see anything else.

That morning I was awake before anyone else and sat on the porch steps, surrounded by the bustling smell of water turning against itself, its salt and sneer. The push of tides against the sand. The thrust of green, the whistle in the grass. I still wore my pyjamas, but had pulled rain boots on because the grass was always damp in the mornings, like Aileen’s hair when she’d had dark dreams in the nighttime. Though the sun had only just appeared over the treetops behind me, I could feel its warmth on my neck and thought that maybe, all at once, spring had arrived.

I’d discovered an anthill that had just begun stirring after the long winter, and was watching the incredible industry of each ant, hurrying in and out of the little holes. Aileen and I used to wet peppermints with our tongues and lay them, damp and glistening, on anthills, horrified and fascinated by
how quickly the armoured black bodies would cover the pink candy and begin the slow work of carrying it home, particle by particle. Even the ants seemed not to trust the weather, and only a few moved on the surface of the hill. I watched the halting travels of one until he disappeared down into his subterranean kingdom.

“Mara,” said my mother. “You’re up early.”

I smiled up at her. I think I thought my mother was beautiful. She’d become so vague—even now I see her face more clearly than I could then, and only now can I think that I loved her, thought her beautiful. At that time, she was in the process—though of course I didn’t know it then—of untying herself from us. That day she was at the end of a very long rope, already far away and almost free, delivering herself to something that is as unknown to me now as then, as unknown to me as the substance of the rope she was untying, which I did not see or understand until she showed it to me later that day.

“Come here, little one. Let’s go for a walk.”

I held her hand and we walked not to her favourite beach but to the bay down the road. I was anxious to keep up with her even though my rain boots were loose. (They were pretty flowered ones given to us by a great-aunt in Halifax who always brought us clothes too big or too small when she visited. She only ever watched us from the corner of her eye, and from that perspective, we must have seemed bigger or smaller than we were.) But she walked slowly for me, which only later I remembered was strange for her. She never used to wait for us. We were always stumbling behind, desperate to catch up but sure we never would, while the pale gold of her hair, her narrow shoulders beneath the sweaters she’d knitted, which
were all the same colour of blue, disappeared before our eyes. We loved our mother’s back.

She didn’t speak a word as we walked to the bay. And then, after a little while, she began to hum, and I didn’t recognize the song she hummed, but it made me afraid. I looked down and saw she wasn’t wearing shoes. Her feet were streaked with mud and she seemed not to notice when she stepped on the sharp stones buried in the dirt road, though I flinched to see her walk across them, feeling in my own feet how deep they dug into her flesh. As we approached the water’s edge, I came to understand what I had not until that day. Though my mother had consented to live with us and, in her way, love us, she was another sort of creature altogether than what we were. She was not pained by the things that hurt me, and the smile she offered when my sister or I succeeded in making my father laugh was only something she had learned to do to please us. Her true smile would only be shown to creatures of her own kind and I did not know what those were.

“Are you going for a swim, Mother?” I asked as we stood there at the shore. She didn’t answer me but stopped humming. By the rocks far at the east end of the shore, gulls were circling.

“It’s Sunday,” I whispered. “Won’t Da be getting up soon? Won’t we be needing to go to church?”

The sun was well above the trees now and shone down over the bay, lighting a golden path along the channel that connected it to the sea. My mother turned her face up to the sun, looking straight at it the way she had told us never to do.

I tried to turn my gaze, like hers, to the sun, but it was too bright to look at. Even my mother’s face now seemed ablaze with yellow fire.

I stared at the sand beneath our feet, bowing my head and
wishing I had thought to wake my sister when I left the house that morning. If she were here, I knew I would not be frightened, because she was never afraid.

And then I saw the shadow my mother left behind her on the ground. When I looked at it first, it seemed to be a proper shadow, a hole in the light cast by the sun that matched the shape of my mother before me. But then, as I watched, it grew. It stretched, like something uncoiling, to reach down the beach and back to the road we’d walked on. And then the shadow began to flicker, its edges losing precision, rippling, as if the darkness that composed it was itself disintegrating.

And suddenly it burst apart, and I saw that what I’d taken for my mother’s shadow was instead the shadow of a thousand birds, which all at once took to the air, breaking my mother’s shadow into a thousand fluttering pieces that flew apart in every direction. I recognized the shapes of starlings, pipers, cormorants, and then they were gone—the dark shape of my mother was gone from the sand, dissolved into the flight of a thousand birds. And though I stared into the sky, into the trees and out across the water, I saw no wings or beaks to cast the shadows that I’d seen, only an absence. Only a departure. Only an empty sky.

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