canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Sandra Huber

VISUALIZE A GIRL, blonde hair big teeth red coat and walking. Slightly ahead of the rest, hands in pockets of crimson cashmere. Her and the other visitors are lost and she takes the lead to find a way back, looping herself and them around a town called Otis or Oaken or nobody read the sign. Beginning with O and continuing in a speckle of warehouses, the drizzle of corner stores, an abandoned community centre signaled by frost on a once prim flower garden, this town, its name, the visitors, astray. Where, says the girl and the visitors say nothing, and everyone is worn from the snow with its simple cold and its monotonous white. She hugs her coat against her body, nestles her mittened hands under her arms, pivots her neck left right and back to centre. I want to leave, is all the girl can think. Lets find a way and scat, she says.

There's a café. It has a regular name and a brown wooden sign and the casual appeal of customers with legs up on a table and woolen gloves folded beside an earl grey. The girl approaches a table, removing her mittens, placing one in each pocket. Ahem, she clears her throat and a man turns towards her. She begins to say something and stops. His features appear askant, inflated: nose enlarged, eyes widened, lips full and bowed, lips opening. Yes? he asks in another language. There is no earl grey, no woolen gloves. There is a cup of coffee that hasn't been touched or if touched has not been sipped. A room of people with their heads turned away (sugar packets unopened), mostly dark hair. Oh I do apologize, says the girl after a pause, but I'm afraid we are lost. The man smiles and shrugs, looking blankly into her face. Je m'excuse, says the girl, but the man does not understand. She looks once more at his cartoon features, squinting curiously before flicking her head in the direction of the others. She turns towards the visitors, all scattered around the small café, easily discernible in their black and formal clothes; she faces them and feels instantly a peculiar force, like a magnet being pulled from the centre of her palms or the roots of her fingernails, cuing her to a tension, the tension of a power, yes, there it is: in each face of each visitor, whether looking at her or away, a waiting awe, a compliance to her movements, however minute, a hand laid down in deference, a shoulder bent forward, surrender. The girl snaps her gum, blows a bubble and looks at one visitor in particular who has gone to speak with the lady behind the counter about changing the music. There is thunder on the radio station, the crackle of storms and dry air, the familiar pellet of rain that sounds like static or could be static. (The café is neither bustling nor calm, but slightly agitated as if the walls have been rubbed with the electricity of airwaves, make-believe summer storms.) The girl's hair falls neatly past her shoulders, down her back, blonde tendrils wet with snow and ice. As she turns, small dots of water flicker from her strands onto the floor, a lock brushes against her neck and cheek with the swoosh of an underwater tail. "Posse out," she says and the door opens with the jingle of a bell as rows of wet footprints clutter after hers, scuffing the welcome mat in gone.

OUTSIDE IS THE TOWN, a miniature grid of streets. Back and forth. The girl and the visitors have not been here long but cannot seem to leave. Besides the girl are five or six or seven other people, she doesn't know, she never counted. She turns her head and looks to where the snow falls. Hands in pockets and head towards the sky, she is well past finished with being here. The utilitarian stare down of factories on either side of her, the hooded anonymity of passing locals leashed to skinny pets, her loud red coat dazzling against blank white drifts. She thinks of the city (home) with its random conversations and colours and easy accessibility. Trains, perfumes, amenities. She tosses her yellow hair gleefully and begins to chatter ideas behind her shoulder, glancing in clips at the ones who follow. Fast times, she says, shaking her head fondly in remembrance, her bubble inflected speech portending dance trends of the hip set and new sensations of la-di-dah to no one in particular. She turns toward the visitors because she knows they'll be amused. Whatchya starin' at, asks a boy who showed up an hour late and has been no help navigating out of here. He has a slight limp and a dark lock falling greaser style in his vague eyes. She snaps her gum in annoyance, tosses her hair over her shoulder and walks a straight line with no feigned purpose.

Any straight line here will lead you eventually into a district of orange rectangles, a barren field of metal structures glowing dull and potent despite the frail precision of falling snow. The imposition of dated abandoned scaffolding weaves around each doorless structure; splintering wooden beams slouch into a bored network of rejected repair, as awkward across the plain seamless metal as a bandage on unbroken skin. The day is at its height: and still only wisps of light condescend onto the town and the frosted shoulders of the people within it. Each visitor's face is upturned, lengthwise, neck stretched toward the niche where warehouse blinks into grim sleepy sky. Their feet walk and their eyes look and there is not much of interest to either feet or eyes so mouths begin to speak the ordinaries surrounding.

The sky is grey, says one.

The snow is white, another.

The air is ice.

Our feet make tracks that anyone could follow.

There are no birds.

On each warehouse is one closed vent.

Our group is lost.

The scaffolding is useless and may disintegrate.

Today is Wednesday.

We are in this town.

A prickle of tired longing and silence. The patter of walking. The girl stops and speaks. Look: At the top of this warehouse the vent is open. The visitors halt reluctantly and peer up at the open vent. So what, says one. So nothing, says the girl and turns and continues and stops again. But I could climb up there, she says, glimpsing up at the vent, looking back at the visitors, a grin tweeking the edges of her mouth. Say there's another vent on the other side, say both vents line up and I can look through them and out of the warehouse and say I can see a train station from there. We could go to it and we could leave. Feet shuffle. Voices mutter slight impatience: Waste of time. Dumb idea. Cold. Dangerous. The boy with the vague eyes stands behind the group and looks to the girl who stands in front and their eyes meet through a lattice of visitors. Do it, he says. I think I will, she answers. Her hands splay open beneath her mittens like the stretch of amphibeans towards light, fingertips tingling warmly, lush and alive, brushing against the cloth weaving loosely around them in stiches that collect variations on the snowflake. Each mit lacquered in water from ruby to scarlet she turns and begins.

THE SCAFFOLDING acts as a ladder and the girl climbs it, slowly, her mittens catching in the teeth of splinters, hands clenching precarious beams in the repetition of ascension. Wind amplifies with height, wafts of chill bide time where cloth comes loose from cloth: wrists, the span of her face, behind her ears. Crack.

Goes the wood and the girl's foot slips through the crack and her body grasps in an armful of vertical beam, drawing herself closer to the rigging, face pressed to snow that clings to wood, feet anticipating a hold, body scrambling upwards and up, up the deadening wood, climbing and grasping, voices a muffle of no-use-to-her-now below. She stops. Draws in her air. Holy dynamo, she whispers, my my my.

Elevation is immense and quick.

She looks down the skeleton of wood and spies the broken beam: no more than a bristle of splinters, nothing to parallel fear. Her body gives in to balance. She stills. Fear sheds from her limbs in segways of loosening muscles. Seconds, moments, a minute and she smiles, face pressed to snow: the accomplishment of height piques her cheeks into rouged satisfaction. Eyes move from scaffold to building and look.

The vent is in front of her, less than a finger to elbow length away, as if it has come down to greet her, as if she has not risen towards it at all but rather beckoned it in. Her near-fall has left from behind each muscle and the girl squints into the splints and tings of the object before her. Inticing in its simiplicity, the vent faces her. There you are, she says and the vent says nothing. Each slat is no more than a centimetre from another, elegant cobwebs frozen mildly between them. This is what she came for, this rectangle within a rectangle. She could touch it but she doesn't; she could look through it and she does.

THE GIRL LOOKS through the vent and into the dark. There is no grate mirrored on the other side and anyhow, she thinks, the distance between them would have been too vast to see anything but a wink of light squinting back. She simply wanted to get away. There was no place to go but up. Her heartbeats mellow out from the climb. Vitement, she thinks, quickly did I climb. She laughs slightly at her own rush. WHOOSH, she says to the vent in front of her and the cobwebs swerve wistfully in her words, no still, no silence, not at this height. The wind ambles mischievous locks into her eyes and drags them back behind her head. The girl shifts her balance and continues looking through the vent, eyes adjusting to black, shapes making themselves visible within.

What she sees she hears first. There is the girl, looking through the vent, hearing. Water. Alive. Live water. Behind the vent, in that warehouse. This warehouse. First, the living water. What was once the noise of air is now the shush and pull of waves. Washing against four walls of metal, flickering into tails and tails flickering into bodies. Thin, long things. What, asks the girl to no one in particular, What could this be?

The girl reaches out her hand and brushes away the frail webs that cling to the vent, swinging her body in closer to the warehouse so that her forehead nearly grazes the metal aperture. One hip pressed against a beam and the other stranded in air, the heel of her boots barely hooks onto the horizontal plank balancing her.

Voices, below, calling, are curious and estranged. The girl unblinks into the opening. Where there should be water is barely any . Her eyes, not adjusting to the flux of waves, are focusing on soot coloured slender figures, moving. Clots that weave, undo, rejoin. Weaving now rejoining. Who, she asks. What is here?

A visitor, below, calls her name and that is when she knows. These things in the warehouse, they're called eels. Not air. Not water. They are eels, and they are twisting in mass, they are black and blacker still than black at all: clotting in knots, twisting in mass. White eyes muscles shone slender things breaking through and holding in.

The girl does not go weak at the sight of them. Draws her body to a still, draws her breath to a close. The eels are real and they live here. Draws her breath, swallows her gum; it knots in her throat. Body strengthens, solidifies. Hipbones lock into the scaffold. Bolt.

Her entire body compresses into eyes. All force stored in calves, abdominals, shoulders, arms, collapses between two retinas, dilating, saturating the environment as if adjusting after long shadows to the sight of forms. She listens to the visitors below but cannot fathom one voice from the other, their calls ebbing up the building as if within the building, metal and wood come alive in noises she knows not from where, calling her back to a ground that loses its possibility from the sole of each clenched foot with every passing sound. In spurts she sees the shimmers of paten leather bodies are so coagulated they appear as one enormous turmoil, a ramble of minute scales varnished in water. From where. The girl focuses in on the bodies, trying to separate them, to detect their volume, counting and losing count; tails seem locked to necks, eyes crest and close the spaces between; mouths open, shudder, glean. Mouths twice the size of bodies open without a cry, live pointed teeth that feast on what or who; eyes and teeth of white glow fierce against a depth of black so strange it seems created by the eels themselves (as if, she thinks, the things do glow their surroundings into shadow).

The girl pictures, in atoms, the word 'hidden,' a nucleus. So simple a dictionary would not be needed. Her lips part to make a noise but do not.

Her hand reaches out to the vent, clasps it and tightens. Mittened fingers slice beneath the lip of metal and pull. Move clockwise around the vent and pull. Tearing at the rusted raw metal, peeling nails from sockets, pulling, loosening.

The vent unhinges from the building and falls, metal knocking against wooden beams in forced descent. Bare. Open. The girl reaches her hand into the opening, reaches into the warehouse, hand to elbow disappearing into dark, hoisting herself closer towards the warehouse, closer. She positions her face into the opening, unimpeded by grates.

There are the eels clear as sky or glass or paper.

The clicking of their speech, hungry, rattling. The swell and clot of their tangled bodies.

The girl makes herself look. The girl cannot look away. These eels are real, she asks, these eels live here?

There is a pause and it fills with nausea. She listens for familiar voices but cannot hear them, cannot discern them from the swish and flurry of the creatures, swallowing her senses into the abyss of a knot, beckoning her body forward, in.

The girl snatches her face from the vent and her hand comes away just as fast, the mitten attached to it catching on the sharp peripheries of open metal, tearing, falling. She watches it go, down and into the blank stories and ages of the stirring sea below, forgotten. Gone. Into that warehouse, lost. The girl's hand comes free and bare as scales. Her mouth opens to make a noise but does not. Distance, she thinks. It is all she wants. Distance. Between herself and this. Between all particles that make up her own skin, bones and fibres, and those that have come together to form this warehouse, these bodies: space. I never saw, she whispers, I do not see, it did not happen. The girl begins to move down the scaffold, quickly, quickly then carefully, she tells herself, slowly, feet calculating their next hold by memory or by rhythm.

Down. Down.


There is the ground and her feet, one, two, now on it. There are the sequins of snowflakes falling. There are the visitors, still as mimes.

VISUALIZE A GIRL who barely looks but looks away. Fixes on the road and walks, herself and nobody. At least not this. Though she can feel them looking at her, in deference, their feet shuffling in the snow, can feel them waiting or trying to wait, their puzzlement, their odd silence, they do not move towards her, they do not follow; they do not understand. Not one body calling after her, following. She stops walking: for a moment, there is no away. She puts her hands over her eyes and presses, astonished at their integrity. Vessels of perception evacuated though still intact.

The girl closes and opens her eyes, peering through them at the rigor of architecture. The everywhere that is the careful construction of seams. She touches her garments. Her coat holding in. The stuff of insulation. Her knit mittens, knit and closed and holding hands.

The girl continues to walk, herself and nobody, walks though there is no away, walks a little until she spots the shape. The impression of the vent, there, one-hand-deep beneath the snow. A quiet smile spreads over her mouth. Everything so simply this, the girl laughs and her laugh is barely audible. She stoops down into the snow and retrieves the vent with its flimsy frozen webs trailing from its sturdy rusting metal and holds it to her face. The girls puts the vent to her face and gazes through its slats, flinching slightly at the knowledge that upon looking through this vent she will see back-there. Them.

But here, only snow. And past the snow, the visitors now segmented by lines of metal and this and nothing more. Where is your flair for mystery, she asks the vent. The girl thinks of tossing it back into the snow and watching it sink down into crisps of cold white, but already the vent has chosen to tuck itself under her arm. I was never meant to see inside, the girl tells it, pressing the metal to her body. I belong here, look around at it, see? I belong to the exterior of things, this. She looks down the length of her arm to one naked hand, gaining colour.

THE ASYMMETRICAL SOUND of feet walks a jagged line to where she stands. What is it, asks a visitor, leaning forward towards her, you're mumbling and we're worried. I want to leave, says the girl. Did you see something up there? You're quivering. The girl looks into the face of the visitor. She does not trust the visitor's face is more than foreshadowing. A glissgloss of prediction. Her neck bends down towards the snow. Eyes envision the mass of eels in the singularity of snowflakes, densely dancing, falling, writhing. Somebody painted those warehouses orange. Somebody bolted those sheets of metal together, to hold in, to hold what, to construct a thing as simple and fallible as a set of right angles and its malignant posse of vertical slats. She shakes her long yellow hair. She laughs and her laughter's a shiver.

What's wrong with her, asks a visitor; It's her mittens, says another and walking towards the girl, Why don't you put them back on? And asking, Did you see a station? Or a path, asks one approaching, and clips of voices overlap, climb excitedly out of silence: I remember we came up by a path breaks into She almost fell, Leave her, Lets get out of here, and all the voices underlined impatiently by falling snow; bodies moving towards her though slowly, towards her but barely.

I REMEMBER A PATH, says the boy with the lock of hair, grinning, his voice singular and raising above the hum of the visitors. We can go whenever we want to go. If we cut between those two warehouses (pointing) there's a bit of a slope and on it the path that leads back to the station. It's the way we came in. He looks at the girl. I just wanted to watch'er climb that scaffold, I didn't think she actually would. The visitors giggle nervously, striding together for warmth, their breath forming a net around them, a cocoon. A coven. The girl looks around for the sign of a path; the crowd has grown together around the boy like the fastidious stitching of skin to close a wound. You knew all along, she says, Well isn't that neat. Her arms are folded, pressing the vent into the chest of her crimson winter coat. She meets eyes with the boy through the wind stung air and holds. You got to climb your building didnchya, he smirks. You'll be Miss. TalkuvtheTown now. He looks chidingly down at the vent in her arms. Even gotchyerself a little souvenir I see. The girl takes the vent from beneath her arm and reaches it towards him, her bare hand becoming numb around the cold metal plate. What happened to her mitten, asks one of the visitors, Lets just go, says another, This is so lame, and a swarm of tired whispers rise up from the small crowd but the girl interrupts. It's yours, she says, I picked it up for you. The boy with the vague eyes makes no movement. Well, she asks, won't you accept my gift? He walks towards her and the snow crunches beneath his boots and he reaches his hand out to the vent and she imagines (in the second it takes for his arm to raise from pocket to vent) the eyes of eels open in multitudes and blistering through each pore of metal to meet the boy's. His hand drops. He does not take the gift. He looks at her. His mouth opens to make a noise but does not. I'm sorry, he says finally, his breath visible and close to her face. I don't get you, the girl declares, holding the vent out horizontally to bridge the space between their bodies. I don't believe you know the way out of here, it's just too easy. I'm sorry, says the boy, and moves towards her as if in consolation. He's with us in memory, he says, and the girl cannot fathom his words. The boy with the lock of hair raises the corner of his lip in a smile that is a wince and turns his face away. Who's with us in memory? The girl yells into the small crowd, and the expressions of the visitors drop blankly down into the snow. We're leaving, says the boy with the vague eyes, and his body turns, becoming a trace striding with purpose between warehouses, approaching a sloped path spotted with one set of vanishing prints from his arrival, one set of prints barely evident from the layers of snow fallen since. The visitors look at the girl and the girl nods. She consents. Feels a weight lift from the palms of her hands, sheds all polite obligation towards them, some code of silence around a fact of conduct they never asked for nor articulated. They turn and take the path without question, relieved, targeting the boy with half-playful snowballs. You could've spoken up before, We were freezing out here, and laughter, bodies disappearing down and into the station.

The girl shadows behind. The girl lingers behind them. She approaches the lip of the path and spins back towards the warehouse, lifting her eyes to its walls, challenging the walls in front of her. They gaze back. They look back in nothing of their previous opacity. Metal as if turned clear glass, ludicrously daring her not to look through at what cannot help but be seen. A frame only intensifies its content, she breathes, only isolates a version, does not see the picture, does not see the picture see. Her voice trails off, And it matters not, she says: her voice falters into the rhythm of late afternoon, into the silence of Otis or Oaken or O, the threads of visitors dangling but barely on the path before her, frills of snow ghosting into water on contact with bare skin. Her hands. She studies them. Peels away her other mitten and drops it to the ground, merely an extension of flakes falling, descending. Down. Like snow belonging to the sky now beheld to the ground. There is a girl, removing her mitten, examining her white hands growing blue.

Aren't you going to go, says a voice and she turns around to face her brother, leaning in on his crutches only seconds behind her. There is a swing beside him, moving slowly in a breeze that seems to come from some distant and aloof season. How did you get here, she asks, where have you been. He smiles and looks down at the vent in her arms. Are you going to come with us, she asks and he leans further down into his crutches. Nah, he says. Maybe next time, he says and he smiles and the girl looks at the day's shadows playing hookie on the contours of his face and she turns to leave and she hesitates and turns back, expecting to find him gone but he's there looking at her, only minutes away now. Did you hear what he said, she asks and her brother's face asks What. He said, he's with us in memory. What did he mean by that do you think? Her brother shrugs and looks past her onto the path where the visitors have only just disappeared. Do you know, she begins to ask, but she does not. His features are vivid, transparent. You look the same, she wants to say, but different. I bought you flowers, she wants to say, they all bought you flowers, there are so many varieties, even now in this cold, the fragrance is stifling. She wants to name the flowers. She wants to hear about his reasons, tell him how far she's come, from here, this town, this place she no longer knows. The city. She wants to name the flowers. Instead she turns from him towards the path and begins to walk away, thinking all the while of the warehouse, the captive swarm of wild bodies, feeling all the while the pull of their company, the gait of their hunger, shuddering at the fact of their presence, the vent. The girl walks away, slowly, and her brother's voice grazes her back in goodbye. She smiles and she knows he cannot see this but she does not turn, she does not turn around.

THE TRAIN IS A PANTOMIME of glazed passengers. Two visitors speak animatedly of the quaint town, how they loved the little café, how beautiful and untouched were the whipped cream drifts of snow. One recounts the story of the girl climbing the scaffold to an acquaintance he's run into, She almost fell, he says, I think she hurt her hands. And another: I missed the town museum so I'm going back next week, brushing the melted ice from her hair with her fingers. Excited voices extend smiling ruddy faces. A visitor has gone to speak with the train attendant about a piece of licorice she bought in the town. It doesn't taste right, she says, and keeps eating. The attendant tries a bite and they compare it to summer, reflect on aniseed and its variants. She almost fell. She hurt her hands. Snow droplets from hair in water. I can't believe I missed that museum, it was right beside the home, I was so close and I missed it. Untouched. Like cream. The smell of mouths chewing licorice, chattering on aniseed.

One by one or two, the visitors trail home at various stops, their hands buried in the cloth of gloves. Their faces beneath hoods, hats. The luxury of disappearing flesh, of the comfort of wool and cloth. The girl exits at her own stop by routine and the motions of polis blaze before her in dialogue and bent necks, in green, red and yellow. Teenage girls irradiate boredom in bangles and cool flourescents. Monumental advertisements script the covetous buildings; a woman walks past with her face in a playbill, her face a wire rim of glasses and concentration and freckles.

The city, in its massive frivolity.

The girl trembles in a beam of benign sunset glancing the side of her face, turning towards. Catches the blood taste of a snowflake on her lip, head bending into thought. The vent slips free as her arm comes away from her body, hands unbuttoning buttons 5 4 3 2 coat open. A girl taking off her coat in zero degrees fast. The girl takes off her coat, turns it inside out. Wet satin lining. Garishly ruby. She throws it down in the snow, picks up the vent and holds it to her face, watching her coat gradually become a layer of substance on the sidewalk, clipped into vertical stills. It could be a gum wrapper there or rainwater. The girl smiles, eye crinkle, glances past the clear skyline into the lustrous trimming of the day's last arc. Through the slim frames she sees snowflakes overtaking the abandoned garment like soft seeds from a dandelion swallowing springtime or like insects, feasting. Soft seeds of a dandelion blown in idyllic carelessness and insects with their black glean regardless thirst.

Sandra Huber holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and a B.A. in Literature from Simon Fraser University. Her poems and/or visual art have appeared in the milieu portfolio/anthology of canadian women writers, idea&s, Word For/Word, and Philament. At the moment, she is working on a novel length manuscript with the support of the Toronto Arts Council and living as a happy expat in Vienna, Austria.







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