Peninsula sinking, p.1
Peninsula Sinking, page 1
A JOHN METCALF BOOK
Copyright © David Huebert, 2017
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Huebert, David, author
Peninsula sinking / David Huebert.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77196-192-9 (softcover).--ISBN 978-1-77196-193-6 (ebook)
PS8615.U3P46 2017 C813’.6 C2017-901949-X
Readied for the Press by John Metcalf
Copy Edited by Allana Amlin
Typeset by Ellie Hastings
Cover designed by Martyn Schmoll
Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country, and the financial support of the Government of Canada. Biblioasis also acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), an agency of the Government of Ontario, which last year funded 1,709 individual artists and 1,078 organizations in 204 communities across Ontario, for a total of $52.1 million, and the contribution of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit and the Ontario Media Development Corporation.
Serge is asking what more can I do. He puts his hand on my shoulder and each finger is a splash of acid. I know he wants to help but I also know what more can you do means your horse is on massive doses of tranks and analgesics, your horse is a giant skeleton walking, your horse is lame and life for a lame horse is no life at all. Serge is saying all this without saying it and I am brushing his hand away and wishing I could brush away these truths that have begun to wilt me. Wishing I could simply live inside my colossal love for that animal. Serge is saying you don’t have to make a decision right now and I am thinking her name over and over, thinking Enigma Enigma Enigma. I am thinking, as I have been for days, about what it means to founder this badly, to have to walk on bare bone. I am once again trying to imagine that animal’s enormous pain, thinking if I could only conjure that feeling I could absorb a portion of her agony. Thinking how the bone that shot through her hoof after the laminitis spread is known as the “coffin bone,” thinking that a horse injected with barbiturate becomes toxic shortly after death. Thinking how it’s crucial not to give other animals the chance to scavenge the poisoned cadaver, thinking of the taxi driver who killed my first cat before screeching around the corner. I am thinking of the three cats I have buried in my parents’ backyard and wondering once again that heinous, haunting thought: how to deal with a half-ton cadaver?
The summer after I failed math ten for the second time my parents took me and my brother whale-watching on the Digby Neck. We ate lobster rolls with lots of lobster and too much mayonnaise and cruised way out into the Bay of Fundy. We searched for two full hours and I was sure we weren’t going to see anything and then the captain stood up straight and the boat gathered speed and I could see the spouts out there in the water, two miniature tornadoes shuddering through the grey-blue sky. As if the water itself had decided to dance and soar. The spouts stopped and the guide pointed to a slick black mass, rising for the surface. The whale charged straight for the boat before swerving away at the last chance and I could see its strange liquid face cresting the water. The creature became a massive, swimming grin. It was huge and dark and sublime and I heard the guide saying “humpback” and “calf” but I did not register the meaning until the mother appeared alongside, dwarfing the boat with her rubber-glove blackness. The mother left her head underwater but I felt that I knew her more than anything I had ever known. I knew the curious joy she took in the vastness of the ocean. Knew the painful lack of her lost companions. Knew her fathomless love for that grinning calf.
The mother dipped underwater and was gone, leaving a slough of foam on the surface. The calf followed shortly and the guide explained that these were humpbacks and humpbacks were known as “clowns of the ocean” because they were so often spotted at play. Soon their twin spouts emerged a hundred metres to port and the captain turned the boat to follow and I was imagining their movements below the surface, picturing the dip and sway of tail through water, their sauntering glide through the blue-black depths. The spouts disappeared and we waited a few long minutes but the whales did not surface. I would never see these creatures again, I realized, and a bright grief bloomed in me.
As we approached East Ferry, small black dolphins began to jump beside the boat. I said to my brother I didn’t know we had dolphins in Nova Scotia and my father overheard and said maybe I should take that oceanography class at school and even though I resented any school advice from my father I thought maybe I should, maybe I should.
Serge is saying maybe spend the night at home. Serge is saying Heather it’s been four days and maybe he’s right, maybe it would be good for me but there is nothing to convince me to leave this trailer at the barn with its yellowing curtains and coffee-stained fold-down linoleum table. There is nothing to convince me to leave the horse I’ve spent ten years of my life with, the horse I’ve known longer than Serge and differently. The horse that has sensed the subtleties of my body—a nervous twitch, a feint of the reins, a remote fatigue in a calf muscle. The enigma I have known in ways otherwise unknowable.
I say you’re right Serge, just maybe not tonight. He holds me sweetly for a long time and I determine to let him and eventually it feels good. Serge leaves quietly and gets in his car and I watch the taillights streak along the pasture like grenadine fireflies. I walk out under the three-quarter moon, smelling the hay and grass and manure. As I enter the barn I hear her nicker, the wet shudder rising up from her tired throat. I open the stall and lie down beside her, feeding her mints from my pocket and falling asleep, as I have for the last three nights, with my arms around the gunmetal barrel of her neck. I dream I am riding her underwater. She is part whale, now, but still somehow the same. She swims fast and sure and weightless through the endless liquid dark.
Girl goes whale-watching, is overcome by wonderment of nonhuman life. Girl enrolls in oceanography course at high school. Formerly troubled girl, struggling in school, whose parents felt need to repeatedly warn about sex without condoms and perils of pregnancy, realizes that taking riding lessons for entire life and nurturing deep-seated passion for animals may translate into everyday skills. Despite former mathematical ineptitude, girl takes advanced chemistry and biology and surprises parents and teachers and self with success. Girl improves high school grades, gains acceptance into university. Girl takes biological sciences at Dalhousie, works part-time cleaning stalls and shovelling manure until she makes enough money to buy a horse with help from now highly supportive parents. Writes heartfelt application essay and is accepted to Atlantic Veterinary College. Marries tall and stoic small animal vet whom she loves because of the ridiculous side of him only she knows—the way he refers to himself as “Serge the Surge,” the way he cheerfully sings sordid profanities when he’s frustrated by someone’s driving, the way h
The farrier has helped me move the horse out into the middle of the back pasture, the pasture where she’s often frolicked and chattered in the late evening. Serge called and said he was racing over but it is better to do it alone. Hal and Summer stand in the main pasture, not grazing but switching their tails and watching. I kneel beside her and draw a slow, deliberate breath before slipping the needles into her jugular—a large dose of xylazine followed by the lethal barbiturate. I put the needles away and reach for the apples and mints. She casts her black eyes up and I can see that she is already sedated. I put a hand on her neck and rub as she nibbles an apple, the breath from her massive lungs slowing, slowing. Her head is in the dirt and when I lift it up I find it heavy, heavier than it has ever been before. That day we went whale-watching, the guide described how whales sleep—drifting downwards, fully unconscious, colliding softly with the ocean floor. Then rising again, still sleeping, to take air. As the final breath leaves her, I think this is how I will remember this horse: drifting and rising through an endless, liquid dream. A life without friction. Her breath is slowing, slowing, and I am digging an enormous hole in the ground, fashioning a coffin from the boards of her stall, and crawling into it with her. Wrapping my arms around her huge, heaving breast. Marvelling at the grey-white constellations of her coat. Clinging to this beloved enigma as the dirt scuffs over us.
She stands at the morning count with her right cheekbone bulging and purpled, red lightning forked in the white of her eye. I ask how it happened and she says she fell down. “Just me or is it slippery around here,” I say, looking down the line at the seven women shivering in front of house number six. “So many girls taking falls these days—do we need to put down some Krazy Glue?” I hear someone snicker and see Toothy Lucy biting back a smirk. When I ask her what’s funny she shrugs, straightens up. Lucy’s six one and built like a Hereford, serving life for putting a chopstick through her girlfriend’s eyeball. I puff up and tell her to stop smiling, tell her I’ve had enough of that rotten brown picket between her lips. The smirk fades and she lowers her chin like she wants to swing. But she doesn’t swing. Never has.
As I walk away Maxi gives me a look like “thank you” and I give her a glance like “don’t get used to it just doing my job.” I head into the house and aside from the reek of rotting fruit there’s nothing amiss. On the way out I tell the girls don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing with those Folgers tins and if I see one more hollowed-out tennis ball in the garbage can.
I buzz through the gate and squat down next to Brenda under the “No Smoking” sign behind the cafeteria. The “No Smoking” sign behind the cafeteria is where we smoke our cigarettes. Brenda, her voice rusty as the rims of her rusty Pontiac, asks how goes the battle. I tell Brenda about the shiner and she says Maxi probably deserved that one.
“It’s the eyes.” Brenda the diagnostician. “Seen it before. She’s got that slur in her eyes.”
I don’t tell her what I think of Maxi’s eyes—tender as crooning violins. I don’t say anything, just nod and finish my cigarette and walk away wondering, not for the first time, whether Brenda has something going on with Lucy.
It was 1966 and Judy was eight years old and she’d walked out onto Truro Heights Road. Staggered up the hill into the cool night air. Staggered away from the house where her father had brought a strange woman. A woman in a red sundress with breasts pushed together, freckles dappled about like fruit flies swarming on a pair of peaches. Judy’d asked what about her mother and her father had looked straight at her and said, “What are you going to do about it?” The freckled woman clucked and leaned back on the couch and Judy fled. Fled up the hill and along the outskirts of the golf club where she stood with the oval moon coming and going as the clouds slid fast and silver. The sweet hum of fresh-cut grass and the snore of crickets ringing through the summer night. She felt herself chilly and alone in that wide empty dark and then there it was, a blue-green disk hovering a hundred metres above the golf course like some lurid cosmic marquee. Little horns here and there and a deep humming along with the clack and shutter of mechanical parts shifting. Then a set of long sharp limbs sprung out from either side, sleek and curved like the legs of a crab. Those limbs came forth swerving and neon and began to feel their way across the cricket-blaring night.
I wake up fifty-three and a half times in the night because it’s deadly hot under the covers and my heart rate is up. I climb out of bed again and again to stand in front of the AC with ice and a cold towel and I find myself thinking of Maxi. Whether she might be having trouble sleeping too. I wonder if Toothy Lucy’s going into her room and making her do stuff. Stuff that’s hard to regulate in a progressive federal institution where women live independently in houses. Stuff that maybe some of the women want more and some want less. Stuff that maybe some of them did before they got into the facility and some of them didn’t and stuff that maybe some of them learned to like.
In the morning I bring my Earl Grey up to the terrarium
and pull a mouse from the canvas bag. I take the white rodent in the twelve-inch tongs and dangle it in front of Sisyphus, watch him eye it sidelong. He doesn’t turn his head as I lower the mouse but he tracks its descent. He stays totally still, tongue prodding the air where the rodent quivers its last. Then he slinks up and hitches and darts—ninety pounds jabbing like a pool cue. Sisyphus bites and snaps that helpless rodent’s neck before dragging it into his coiled length, crunching its bones while the warmth seeps away. He takes his time, drinking the blood first and then working the body into his throat where he pulps it with his jaw. I stroke him as he eats. Stroke that lovely calico skin and feel, as always, soothed by the power lurking underneath the coolness of those black and claygreen scales. The mouse is so lucky to die there, in the midst of all that power, in the steady clutch of this beautiful serpent.
It’s getting close to Christmas which means tennis balls packed full of PCP flying over the walls all night and the girls fully zombified each morning. Basements lined with Folgers tins and the reek of rotten fruit climbing out of the walls and swarms of maggots under every door. The girls trying to claim they’re just composting. We can try to shut it down but in a place like this you have to pick your battles. Ninety-one inmates and eleven serving life and what you want is to give some of the others a chance at recovery, not just stick them in the seg until the walls start to jabber and sing. You have to pick your battles. Which is why I don’t take the pliers to Lucy’s single brown tooth. Which is why I won’t report her until I find a roach or a baggie in her room, why I don’t send her in to have the medical team locate the contraband she’s more than likely got suitcased in every available fold and cavity. Which is why I look at a girl like Maxi with sangria sloshing in her cheek and wish there was something more I could do to help her. Which is why I’d risk my job and my benefits and my bullshit life to sit with Maxi on the front porch and take a sip of that rancid basement moonshine and ask her what she’d like to do when she gets out, what meals she might miss and whether her brother will pick her up and if maybe there’s a beach or a tree or a cat that makes her cry as she lies on her tough single bed and misses it.
On the way to work I crack the Buick’s window and light a smoke as I drive past rows of quiet farms, the fields not yet frozen but close. A fierce wind whips through the car, carrying the ocean’s chill. Half an hour in all directions and you can still taste the Atlantic from this town in the middle of the peninsula. The Mi’kmaq named this place “Wagobagitik,” meaning “end of the water’s flow,” and now and then I think of all the flows that have ended here, all the things that have sat stagnant in this place where wind and water come to rest.
After the morning count there’s a dog training session, which is where Ma
“Why do you shave your head?”
“To keep cool.”
She stares back.
“It’s a condition. Anhidrosis. Got no sweat glands.”
Most people I tell look sorry or ask whether I pant but Maxi looks at me soft, as if she knows me better now and she’s thankful for that. I wonder would she ever but of course she wouldn’t. I’m pushing sixty and she’s twenty-one and it wouldn’t make any sense but still I catch myself wondering.
The crab legs skittered and shuffled, that great dark beast scampering across the sky. It scuffled through the night until it was directly above her and she knew there was no point to running. She looked up and saw an opening in the front, like a large mouth, and then a long neck lashed out and bit her. A neck that twisted impossibly fast down to where she stood and clamped around her skull. Then another curled out and bit her arm, then her leg, and she felt herself rising up into that gaping black mouth, saw a fleet of tubes laid out beneath a phosphorescent glow and a glint like stainless steel. She did not get much more than a quick glance but she saw all those human faces sticking out from tubes that contained their entire bodies. She remembered her mother, then. Her pale and helpless body in the iron lung. Her mother who’d been diagnosed with polio and who would live her last eight months with her body in that negative pressure chamber, that gigantic full-body prosthetic lung. She remembered talking to her mother in that strange device and finding that she was happy to be there. Happy just to live and breathe. She’d chuckled one day and said there was no better feeling than relief. All of this in a swirl and then darkness as Judy herself entered that fleet of bright light and glinting metal.
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