surviving the arctic (short story excerpt)

Posted: March 13, 2014 in (Re)Memory, Adaptations, Canadian Literature, Mary Shelley, Monsters

Justine knows this wrought iron bridge well enough.  As she looks up at it from the riverbank, she can see the full length of it. She knows the exact place where her name was carved on its bowstring truss one night a hundred years ago by someone who thought he loved her. A car passes across it, jostling its iron body, and stops her from thinking about how she watched his hand etch the letters deeply into the layers of thick green paint.  Something moves below the bridge and catches her attention.  A young boy crouches beside the dark river on the other side.  He’s not looking at her as he touches the surface of the water with his open hands. Testing the temperature, she guesses. Trying to see his reflection, maybe. Justine considers the slow way the river moves between them.  The skin of a beast flashing a thousand brilliant points of breaking light. Further along an overturned shopping cart is caught in flowing brown-green reeds of river-hair. A Dominion grocery store artifact stuck fast. A rusting discard. Its edges glinting as if new in the morning sun after a midnight joy ride down Blackfriar’s Hill.  On this side of the river, her two children have fallen under the shoreline spell of finding green bits of seaglass.

“Not too close to the water, okay.” Her two young girls in oversized black rain boots and unzipped spring jackets, take one, then two steps back before sitting on the pebbled shore, racking grey gravel for colour with tiny pink fingers.  Small handfuls at a time.

“Mommy, look at this!”

“That’s pretty, honey. See if you can find ten pieces each.”

Her children’s heads bow without question into the task. Justine’s attention wades back across the river. “He can’t be more than fifteen,” she whispers to herself.  The boy stretches his frame and peels off his torn parka.

She watches the boy disappear inside an oversized refrigerator box and re-emerge with a large green knapsack.

“Mommy, we’re hungry!”

From across the river the boy looks up at her, as if the words came from him.  She sees his eyes squint from the white path of sunlight that unfurls across the water.  Reaching.

“Yes, I know.  I can see that,” she says quietly, not taking her eyes away from the boy.

She watches as he turns away, as if he saw her but didn’t see her. He begins to climb using his hands and feet a-quarter-of-the-way-up the breakwater’s inclined grey cement wall.

“Elizabeth, watch your sister.  I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” her daughter says quietly as she peers up briefly before resuming her search, examines her kneecap where a small pile of sea glass has been sorted – three green one brown one pink stone

Justine makes her way up the embankment carrying a white plastic grocery bag.  The bridge reverberates with the thump-thump of passing cars, crossing from road to bridge to road.  From here, in the middle of the bridge, she can see a long way:  her girls on one side of the river looking for shiny broken pieces and on the other side, a boy.

“Hey!” Justine shouts, a bit surprised to hear her own voice.

Butch looks up.

“I’ve left something for you.”  She holds the bag up against the blue sky like a flag.  And without knowing it, her fingertips briefly touch letters from another time.

The lady who was across the river a minute ago is now on the bridge – waving like she knew him. A white bag hangs from an iron post in the middle of the crossing. Butch dusts some dirt off his shirt and makes his way, slow but not, to the iron-mouth-opening of the bridge.  He instantly catches a waft from the ancient black oil soaked into the bridge’s long wooden planks.  Its wetness, from last night’s rain, gives off a languid layer of steam under the heat of the morning sun. He feels the warmth on his face. Butch sees the lady as she stands on the other side, directly across from him. For a moment they both hold each other’s gaze. He thinks that maybe her lips try to make a smile. Her eyes shine like small stars. Then she’s gone.  Butch leans his body over the iron railing of the bridge to catch one more glimpse.  The lady collects her children. Seaglass clasped tight in small fists. Butch waits for her to look back over her shoulder so he can tell her that her eyes are like stars. But she doesn’t look back.

On the breakwater’s inclined cement wall Butch opens the bag under warm sun. Three sandwiches, three juice boxes, three small clementines, three chocolate chip cookies. He studies the way the sandwiches are wrapped.  Wax paper carefully folded in the middle, and the triangles of extra paper are tucked under, like a gift.  It dawns on Butch that some people make an effort to wrap a sandwich.  It was probably still dark when she made them.  Bare feet on the cold kitchen floor.  A cutting board ready.  She opens her refrigerator.  Full.  She has to move the carton of milk and leftovers out of the way to reach packages of cheese, liverwurst, turkey. Butch thinks about opening his fridge.  The light inside doesn’t work.  Doesn’t matter cause there’s nothin’ to see.  He closes his fridge and thinks about how soft the bread is from the cupboard above her head.  She probably has to stand on her toes to reach it.  How her hands move.  A hard calm. Tearing. Placing. Folding. Tucking in. She probably smoothed her full hand across her kid’s forehead just before they woke. Butch’s stomach grumbles. He opens the folds carefully (sandwich balancing on his knees), picks up one half, eyes the filling, and takes a bite.

The river is deep.  He tries to see the bottom.  “Standing at the bottom of a deep dark well you can see the stars in a daylight sky,” he says to himself with his cheek full of liverwurst and Wonder bread. He looks to where the lady stood and imagines her.  Imagines her hand on his forehead.  He takes another bite.  A ball forms in his cheek.  His eyes close with the weight of the sun and absently he reaches into his knapsack for his book. Instead, his fingers feel the edges of the metal pipe.

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