By Dorothy Speak, with thanks to Simon Tookoome
Illustration by Amy Thompson
Men in kayaks,
come hither to me
And be my husbands;
this stone here
has clung fast to me,
and lo, my feet
are now turning to stone
The nurse started to come in the mornings soon after Louise moved home. Louise was finishing her thesis in her father’s study, and from there, she could hear the nurse getting her mother into the shower and then back to bed, all the while talking cheerfully. The nurse was no bigger than a 12-year-old girl. The first day Louise opened the door to her, she was tempted to go straight to the phone and call the agency and ask, “Why have you sent us this child?”
Instead, she said to the nurse: “My mother is a sack of bones, but she weighs a ton. I can’t budge her, and I’m twice your size. I don’t see how you’re going to be able to move her.” The nurse smiled and touched Louise’s arm. “That’s my worry now,” she said softly.
The nurse had worked for years with cancer patients at the hospital, she told Louise out on the deck, where they sometimes drank iced tea while her mother slept. She hooked these patients up to chemotherapy, and when they went home, they had her phone number to call with their questions and their fears and their despair. She’d loved this work, but sometimes she’d cried all the way home from the hospital because of the things she’d seen. The weight of it became too much. Too many stories to keep in her head. Then she’d turned to private nursing. One story at a time. Louise’s mother was to be her last patient. After Louise’s mother, she planned to retire. She needed to rest and enjoy life, she’d decided. She was only 50, but she was worn out. Louise thought she looked 60.
After the nurse arrived, the house seemed livable, as though she’d thrown all the windows open and let out whatever had been choking them. She asked how Louise was bearing up. She had a way of holding you with her eyes so that you couldn’t get out of answering her questions. Her tiny face was lined with the sorrows of others, her body held in tightly as though her joints were locked in sympathy, her skin dark and leathery looking like someone who’d spent a lifetime too close to a tremendous heat.
The mother’s bedroom was on the front of the house, overlooking a strip of park and a narrow canal and then a handsome old red primary school. The children poured out of it to play tag or bounce balls in the paved yard. Their bright clothes flashed through a screen of poplars. In July, her mother had said, “If I can just hold on until the children come back to school.” On September 5, Louise went into her room and said, “There you are, Mom. You got your wish.”
It was a hot, gusty autumn. The mountainous, shiny clouds of August continued to scud across the sky. It did not seem possible that anyone could be dying in such robust weather. Her mother’s skin grew translucent; it acquired a bluish tinge. Her eyes were bright and fiery, like dying embers, the flesh around them melted away so that the sockets looked hard as stone. Months before, she’d let her stomach swell up until she looked pregnant before she consulted a doctor. The surgeons opened her up and found the cancer had spread from her ovaries to her liver and kidneys. She’d refused chemotherapy, which might have bought her a few months. “Oh, why bother with all that destruction?” she’d said.
“You waited so long to go to the doctor,” said Louise. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Something happened in my head.” She looked at Louise, hoping she’d understand. Louise couldn’t. She was 26 and her mother was 59.
Her mother asked Louise to open the window. “Won’t you be chilled?” Louise said, because now she was skin and bones. “I want to hear the children playing,” her mother said. It was only little boys banging sticks on metal tins and little girls running and screaming their high-pitched, hysterical screams as they played tag, Storm the Mountain. “It’s like music to me,” her mother said. “They’re so happy. Their naïveté makes me feel alive.” Louise wondered if this was some kind of reproach to her for growing up, for going so far away to study.
Louise’s father had called her in England and said that her mother was dying and that it was important she get on the first plane home. But as soon as she arrived, he told her he was leaving for the Arctic. He was to participate in a collaborative dig with colleagues from Greenland and Siberia. Louise followed him around the basement while he gathered together his sealskin parka and mukluks and his trowel and brushes and measuring instruments and sifting screens and field books. Tentatively, she said, “Dad, I don’t know if you should be going.” He was not a man to be opposed. He’d never been questioned at work and Louise’s mother had never challenged him, and since she herself did not think she even knew him and also because she feared him a little, Louise could not confront him either. He answered impatiently: “This dig has been in the planning for five years. It’s the biggest circumpolar effort ever held. It was my brainchild and I’m the chair and I can’t not be there.”
“But what about Mom?”
“That’s why you’re here. I need to be able to depend on you.”
“But what if she doesn’t last? What if she dies while you’re gone?”
“She won’t die while I’m gone. She’ll wait for me. She always has.” He was over six feet tall, with his same youthful wiriness and explosive energy. As a child, Louise had seen his picture in the archaeology journals stacked on their coffee table almost more than she saw him. She remembered studying the long vain face, the biting eyes, the high forehead obdurate as a stone tablet, the 19th-century goatee.
The nurse knocked lightly, entered Louise’s room, and put a sandwich on the corner of her desk. What was Louise working on, she asked. Louise flipped through her thesis, showing the nurse the drawings of tattooed women, the lines and ellipses fanning out from the nose and mouth, the deep V shooting down between the eyebrows, the decorative patterns of dots and spurs. A thread was coated with soot from the stone lamp, she explained, and drawn under the skin with a needle. Tattoos were a sign of beauty and power, she told the nurse.
“So, through your studies, you are following in your father’s footsteps,” the nurse observed.
“I truly hope not,” answered Louise.
Louise remembered being young enough to forget she had a father, he being absent for such long stretches. When he reappeared, she ran, frightened, to her mother, burying her face in her skirt. He followed, knelt before them, tanned, radiant, vigorous from months of camping on a landscape that had changed little in 4,000 years. He smelled powerfully of wild game and animal clothing and seal-oil smoke. From his pocket, he had pulled something protected by a soft cloth, unwrapped it. It spilled out into his hands, which were scarred from digging, with lost fingernails and knuckles scraped and bruised. The object was so small, it swam in his palm: the tiny figure of a man no more than an inch and a half long with a bulbous head, stiff arms, legs curved as though he suffered from rickets, sockets for eyes, a flattened nose, coarse parted lips. Louise remembered thinking it ugly and wondering how the pursuit of something so insignificant, so crude had distracted him from them for so long. It was for this that they’d been abandoned?
“You can’t look at your mother’s death as a rejection of you,” said the nurse.
“But I’ll be the one left behind, won’t I?”
“What about your father?”
“He’ll have his ego to keep him company. He’ll have his prop-aganda.”
Early on, the nurse had asked Louise: “Is there a husband? I haven’t seen him around.”
Louise laughed bitterly. “Oh, yes, but he chooses not to be here.”
The nurse searched Louise’s face. “You’re angry about this.”
“I wish she were.”
“If she were angry, maybe she couldn’t die in peace.”
“He’s never been here for anything important. Why would he be here for this? This is only a death.”
One afternoon when her mother was sleeping, Louise sat down in the living room and picked up an anthropology journal. There she read an article her father had written describing his 30-year friendship with an Inuk named Josephee, a rebellious camp leader who still clung to the land, refusing to take a christian name or to live in the white man’s prefab houses, which he found hot, noisy, and hard to maintain, with doors on which one was expected to knock before entering. This Inuk maintained a large dog team, could build a snow house in half an hour, was so skilled with the use of a 40-foot whip that he could snap the head off a ptarmigan from that distance. He recounted to Louise’s father a bygone time when the migrant caribou herds were so vast that you could hear their approach for two days, when the passing herd was thick enough that a hunter was able to walk among them at leisure, looking for the fattest one, kill it with a knife strike behind the ear without frightening the rest. He’d taught Louise’s father not to travel across the snow in a straight line, but to walk the way the surface moves, always searching the horizon for animals. He instructed him in the practice of placing a down feather over the ice hole in order to detect the breath of the rising seal and thus know the precise moment at which to strike with the spear. He showed him how, when a hunter killed a caribou, it was important to offer the dead animal a drink of water to ease its suffering, shake its hooves as a sign of gratitude, remove the sinews from its legs gently so as not to cause it pain.
Looking down from her desk, Louise saw that the trees in the park were turning now, muted tones because of the persistent balminess, no drama to their colour, just a quiet, golden dying. The leaves rained steadily from the trees, drifting down in the now windless afternoons. Each day the sun dropped lower in the sky. Inch by inch, it crept across her mother’s bed, over the shallow hills and valleys of her figure. So brittle had her skin grown that it split open at will as though perforated. The nurse dressed these lesions. She drew blood samples from her mother’s ear lobe because the veins in her arms had collapsed.
The nurse told Louise, “You should go out. Isn’t that the reason I’m here?” One afternoon at a coffee shop on Bank Street, Louise ran into Vito, a colleague of her father’s and a family friend. As a child, she’d called him “uncle.” It had been Vito who came to the house at Thanksgiving when her father was up North and at Easter or Christmas when her father was lecturing in Europe or Russia or Australia or when her mother needed advice about a leaky basement or an icy roof. He had none of her father’s physical presence. He was short and homely, bald, with wire-rimmed glasses and a soft gut. Not handsome, but attractive because of his warmth, his shy, modest, friendly manner. A nice man in nice blue shirts. Now, at the coffee shop, he leapt up and pulled out a chair for Louise to sit down.
“Well, I can’t stay long,” Louise said.
He bit his lip and looked out the window at the passing traffic, avoiding her gaze. “It’s a goddamned shame about your mother,” he said, and when Louise didn’t answer, he became nonplussed and said, “I know you’re wondering why I haven’t dropped in.”
“No, not really,” said Louise coolly. A lie. His emotion seemed a sham to her. She did not need him. She did not even know if she liked him anymore, to be truthful. She didn’t like her father either, and possibly she no longer loved her mother. If her mother had had any sense, she could have had this cancer nipped in the bud. Now she’d trapped them all in her demise. She was stupid, stupid.
Louise had come home full of ego, believing her thesis solid, infallible. But when she read it over, it seemed facile, shaky in logic. Her confidence in it crumbled. She’d begun to write round and round the chapters, adding and deleting. It was being back here, in this goddamned intellectual wasteland, that had undermined her. She was afraid of getting stuck here, of somehow not getting back to London. These people were pathetic. She hated them. When she was young, she’d loved Vito like a father. She remembered sitting on his lap when she was very little. The thought of this repelled her now. She knew this was probably unfair, but she didn’t care.
“I just feel so worn out by it all,” said Vito.
“What do you mean?” asked Louise impassively.
“I just can’t step in for your father anymore. It’s too much.”
“Well, I don’t think we expect you to.” She was bending over now, angry, gathering up her sweater and bag, preparing to leave.
“No, wait,” Vito said, holding up his hand. “I’m sorry. But at this point, you must know.”
“You must have guessed by now.”
“Look,” said Louise, irritated, her nerves frayed, “I really have no idea … ”
Apparently, her father did not sleep with the members of his excavation teams, the passionate archaeology students on their summer field assignments, the young and adoring neophytes, their faces bronzed like his, their ponytails streaked blond by pure Arctic sunlight, earth embedded beneath their fingernails, wearing thick wool socks, hiking boots, down-filled vests. Sensitively removing half an inch of soil at a time, delicately probing with their trowels and brushes, learning from her father the techniques of stratification, hoping to pick up from him the sixth sense of the archaeologist — an intuitive feel for the subtle distinctions between layers of earth, the textures of the soil. He evidently was professional enough to resist creeping into their tents at night, though they no doubt excited him with their discoveries of broken harpoon heads, ivory knife handles, sealskin buckets, all so pristinely preserved by the cold, dry climate, the deep permafrost of the North.
No, instead, he bedded the Inuit women, the throat singers, the snow goose hunters, the kelp gatherers, the collectors of eider duck eggs, the keepers of the stone cooking lamp. Some of them still wore their hair wrapped decoratively around sticks, tattooed their faces and arms and breasts, had been forced to abandon newborns in the snow.
When Louise told her, her mother just smiled in a sad, deep way, her skin luminous, shining with its own ineffable light. She said: “I think Vito always had feelings for me. Didn’t you ever wonder why he never married? He was in love with me. And I think he imagines things about your father. He’s always coveted your father’s job. He wanted his fine office. He wanted to be out in the field, not behind a desk. Now it’s too late for him. He’s turned bitter. And besides, what if your father did sleep around? I still love him and I know he loves me. We’ve had happy times. Compared to your father, Vito is a very small man.”
Her mother had met Louise’s father 40 years before at the museum. He’d plucked her out of the secretarial pool, the daughter of Polish immigrants, pig farmers who spoke halting English. Their greatest pride was that she’d married well. “If I hadn’t met your father,” she’d told Louise more than once, “I’d still be a typist. People sit up and take notice of me when I tell them I’m Attila Kaplan’s wife.”
Louise, standing beside her mother’s bed, exploded. “Why do you have to be so passive? Why have you never wanted anything? Why did you decide to die?” Then she burst into tears, out of shame at ever telling her mother what Vito had said in the first place. But her mother’s refusal to discuss it further was, for Louise, a betrayal. Her mother’s solidarity with her father — she could not accept it. She felt like an outsider, a door slammed in her face.
Later that evening, her mother told her: “What Vito said — that’s just mythology. Your father is famous. Larger than life. Legends spring up around a man like that.”
Now every tree in the park was bare, but the maple beside her mother’s window was still dense and yellow. Every afternoon, Louise went out and gathered its falling leaves from the driveway, the quivering tines of the fan rake scraping the asphalt. The exercise made her feel alive. She filled up bag after bag. Still they fell. She looked up at the branches. The bounty of the tree never ceased. The bags of leaves stood like soldiers at the curb. At night, there were flashes of white lightning, apocalyptic, but no rain.
Louise sat in the kitchen and wrote the obituary for the newspaper. The nurse left. Her mother rang her little bell. Louise went upstairs, feeling disloyal, treacherous, the piece of paper folded in her pocket. At first there had been morphine patches, but now there was a small box that administered a continuous drip into a port in her mother’s arm. She was no longer reading on her own. Even the weight of a pocket novel in her hands taxed her strength.
Louise dreamed of her father eating muktuk and raw seal meat and sleeping with a woman beneath the luminous blue curve of the snow-house roof. By the flickering light of the seal-oil lamp, he traced her tattoos with his finger, touched her teeth, ground down to stubs from chewing his water-stiffened boots until they were soft and supple enough for him to put on the next day.
One afternoon she left the house and walked to the post office, carrying her completed thesis, its pages heavy as a child in her arms. The streets were strangely quiet, deserted, the bleached sidewalks blinding in the sunlight, the pavements shimmering with unnatural, prolonged heat. Heading home, lightened and cleansed by the dispatching of her thesis, she came to the small, picturesque bridge spanning the canal and paused at its crest to lean on the stone balustrade and look down at the water and the long, narrow lawn stretching away at its banks. The shadows of the naked lindens and acacias and butternuts fell sharp and black across the emerald grass. Not a branch stirred. The schoolyard was empty. Suddenly Louise felt the air rush out of her lungs. She hurried home. At the front door, the nurse met her.
She’d driven to the airport to get her father. She’d considered letting him get a cab and ride alone into town along the wooded parkway, friendless, daughterless, wifeless. It was what he deserved. They stood beside the conveyor belt waiting for the luggage to slide out of the chute. His shoulders shook with weeping. “I don’t know what I’ll do without her,” he said. She did not tell him he was a fool. All around them, people waiting for their bags were unmoved by his grief. This was the norm today, everything laid so bare and shameless on television, in films and grocery-store magazines. Emotions had come to seem nothing, a cheap display.
“Hello?” her father had shouted over the crackling line when she’d reached him by two-way radio. “Hello?”
Louise heard him well enough. She could have called back across the geography. She preferred to let him hang out there in the Arctic wind for a moment. The North Pole would melt before she’d comfort him.
At the airport, he turned to her, his eyes rimmed with red. His face said: You left her, just as I did. You know that, don’t you? You’re no better than I am. You deserted her for a foreign country.
The weather had turned sharply the day after her mother died. In the park, the air hung with mist. Early in the morning, Louise noticed a commotion on the inlet. She went outside to investigate, saw a small crowd gathered on the bridge. Three kilometres south, a young deer had entered the canal where there was a boat launch. He had swum before dawn across the man-made lake and into the narrow canal, dreaming possibly of thick forests ahead, soft riverbanks, succulent vegetation, asylum. Instead, he found concrete walls, stagnant water rank with algae. In the morning darkness, he became confused. Panicked, he plunged this way and that, his thin legs, his fine hooves cutting the water. Deeper and deeper into the city he headed. The morning traffic was building, and in the distance, sirens wailed.
It was seven o’clock before a jogger with a cellphone called 911. The animal-rescue people arrived. In a motorboat, they pursued the deer into the inlet before Louise’s house. The animal came to an impasse beyond the little bridge. The rangers shot him with a tranquillizing dart, hauled him into the boat, taped his hooves together, fastened a canvas blind over his eyes. He lay there, trembling, dignified, beautiful. Nearby a young child holding her mother’s hand began to cry. People crossed the road from the bus stop. They stood transfixed in their business suits, their high heels, briefcases in hand, grateful for the sight of the magnificent creature. In a moment, they would have to tear themselves away and ride downtown to the glass towers.
My mother, Louise wanted to tell them all, my mother has just died.
I speak with the mouth of Qeqertaunaq,
I will walk with leg muscles strong as the sinews
On the shin of a little caribou calf.
I will walk with leg muscles strong as the sinews
On the shin of a little hare.
I will take care not to walk toward the dark.
I will walk toward the day.