By Miriam Vaswani
We used to tell the campers to look up and see the curve of the earth as they drove around this stretch of the road, but I know better. It’s the shape of my own eye that I can see, and the sky reflecting in it.
So here I am again. The old sun is pale, smeared with new clouds like one of the watercolours Merle brought home from school. There are no trees, but the land is jagged with our history.
I’ve been driving since yesterday morning and my limbs are restless. This is the version of myself I hate the most; dull, and limp-muscled. I steer the car around a tight curve with one hand, casually wishing to go through the guard rail and down the rocks. With the other hand I grope for the coffee I bought three hours earlier and suck at its cold, bitter grit. The water appears on my left, thin at first and then rapidly expanding until it’s all I can see.
The radio fizzes and there’s the preacher. His voice has the sound of years of whisky, and less rage than I remember. I think of the street preacher I walk past every day, now, outside the train station in the city which has been mine for nearly twenty years. Last week he told us our species was falling to fornicators and sodomites, and the man in front of me turned and said ‘it’s a bit early for that darling’ then descended the stone steps. The underground air lifted the tails of his coat in one great movement, as though choreographed.
This radio preacher was also preoccupied with the pleasures of the flesh. On the way to school on the mainland, and in the kitchen late at night, me and Merle used to listen for the salacious details of his latest thing. Anonymous blow jobs or sex worker collectives that he’d describe with a tremble of fury and grief. Now he talks about something I can’t understand. He sounds like he’s reading a list of numbers; the price of something, or a list of debts.
‘Six-hundred eighty-two, forgiven, cough, twenty-three fifty, unforgiven, three twenty-five, forgiven, thirty-two, unforgiven.’
I nearly drive past the ferry. It’s the same flat slab of metal attached to a set of gears, and I wonder if I’m supposed to operate it myself when I see the telephone box is still planted in the ground. There’s no number and no instructions, so I lift the receiver. It’s a long time since I’ve felt a phone like this in my hand, smeared and rattling. There’s no sound at first, then a crackle, then a woman’s voice.
‘Five minutes Ev. Wait there.’
So I am remembered.
The grass on the island is tough and thorny. A herd of something has been grazing here; I remember there was once talk of raising Muskox. Maybe Lima took on a herd, though it can’t be sensible to be stuck on an island with them, what if the males broke through and gored her through the sternum. The air is familiar, and also not. Along with the ancient, frozen smell of home there is something feral and hot that breaks across the ground.
Apart from the shed where the animals must be now, there are three small buildings on stilts, their backs to the north. One dirt road skirts the island, and beyond it the water shines like steel.
‘Ev. You’re here, are you?’
Lima squints at me from the crack in the door, as though I’m standing in bright sunlight, instead of this moonscape.
‘I won’t leave you to freeze. Get in.’
We eat salt fish and leftover potatoes at Lima’s plastic-covered table. Underneath the plastic is battered wood, and I try to remember its story. Some relative traded it for beads, for bones, for something forgotten that might be in a museum somewhere, another country where we’re only a story, and not a very good one. I chew at the food to be polite but it’s hard work. My body isn’t functional like it used to be, opening for protein whenever there was a chance. Now I expect to be seduced with wine and the smell of sizzling spices, cut with citrus, everything’s so fucking easy in the city. I’ve embellished island life for the people there so many times, my own memory of the taste of fish straight from the frozen ocean is more story than reality.
Lima looks at me and shakes her head. Like she can hear my thought.
‘Nah, doesn’t taste like it used to. Ocean’s full of shit.’
I walk the edge of the island in the morning, wearing wool socks and boots over my pyjamas that have been washed so many times the old checked pattern is colourless. I wear a coat that I found in Lima’s cupboard. Instead of a scarf I wear the blanket from the spare bed. It has the logo of an airline from the 60s.
There’s a story about this blanket, that my mother wrapped Merle in it, or maybe it was me, on a flight from the south, and kept it because who would take a blanket from a sleeping baby. It’s a story told again and again, but why? What’s so great about a free blanket?
I stop nearer the animals, who are out to graze. They’re not Muskox, they’re something else. I’ve never seen livestock like these. They’re docile, bovine, thick with fur and a smell that reminds me of urban foxes, but thinner-limbed than the kind of animals who usually thrive up here. They ignore me, standing at the chalk line they’ve trampled. This is where the surveyors have been, they’ve staked the land and made their calculations. The line they’ve drawn cuts through an old grave, and I wonder if they intend to grind our bones into the soil.
This is the end of the island we never changed; the campers always stayed at the warmer end, near the mainland. They’d sometimes wander out here to have a look, but they did no harm. They only wanted to touch a bit of history, run their soft hands along its stony surface.
Lima has appeared with a stick. She taps it on the ground and the animals move along, picking a newer patch to chew.
‘What are these animals Lima?’
‘They’re just visiting, like you.’ We both watch the iceberg that has shifted during the night. ‘It’s not only me Ev. Lots are selling.’
She hisses through her teeth and turns to the mainland. I turn with her. There’s a small boat moving towards us, not one I recognise.
‘Them at the station, and them who got the land where the school was.
‘Lima, where will you go?’
‘Don’t worry about me when you never did before. Don’t go askin for money neither, it’s the only retirement I’m likely to get.’
‘I don’t want money. I came to see you. You don’t reply to my letters.’
She taps her stick again and the animals stroll a few paces, then resume their feed. One of them turns to gaze at me with pale, phantom eyes. I used to know every animal in the north, but these things are like strangers to me.
‘I am alive, as you can see. Just don’t have much to say to you.’
‘Can I have some of Merle’s things? And my mother’s?’
‘May as well, Merle’s not comin back from where she is, and your mother certainly ain’t.’
‘Does Merle write to you?’
‘That she does. I don’t always care to read her letters.’
Merle’s paintings. Sometimes the paper was still damp as she carried it home, held carefully between her two fingers, away from her body. Her immature shapes slid off the page, which curled and buckled as it dried, so that when we stuck them to the fridge her mountains fell into her dark lakes, and the earth rose against the red house on stilts she always drew. Lima has kept them all, cracked and curled in a box. I didn’t expect to find so much; there are clothes and school notebooks, rotting elastic bands with hair still stuck in them, even Merle’s old stash of tin cans we used to smoke murky hash. We thought we were so clever. There’s the pink synthetic dress she only wore in the house because there was no place, even on the mainland, to wear such a thing. A camper left it behind in the late 80s, along with other treasure; magazines, chocolate wrapped in multicoloured foil, two romance novels. We read out the most sinful parts, mimicking the radio preacher, enunciating each cleft and gasp of shame.
‘Cup of coffee there, Ev.’ Lima puts the mug on the floor beside me. I notice that, although she seemed wiry and able outside, she hesitates as she bends. I wonder if her balance is failing her, or if it’s just the stiffness of age. Although this woman raised me, I can’t think of a way to ask her.
‘You can live with me you know. In the city. I have a spare room, you can have it, I won’t get in your way.’
‘You know better.’
‘I think my mother would have wanted us to...she wouldn’t want you to be alone-’
‘You don’t know what your mother wanted. Neither did I, for sure.’
I want to be somewhere else. This place is too strange, the shapes are different, made by weather instead of people. I shut my eyes and summon a glass of wine in a dark bar, rain at the window, the sound of a city. To kiss a stranger in the dark, that’s what I’d like to do, in a narrow street or a room where the lights flicker, where time is thin and I have no story.
Lima does not stand on the shore to watch me leave. I drink the coffee she made me and fiddle with the radio dial, hoping for news of a faraway war to distract me, but instead I get the radio preacher. He’s reciting his numbers again.
‘Five hundred twenty-two, unforgiven. Eighty-seven, forgiven. Cough. Three. Unforgiven.’
I switch him off. I’m alone in the car, with water rushing underneath me. But I’m wrong, the water isn’t rushing, it’s the ferry being dragged along its cable. The temperature has dropped overnight and even with the airplane blanket wrapped around my shoulders I shiver with the car engine switched off. Chunks of ice knock against the metal and shards fall onto the windshield. I shut my eyes and think of the cold of it, what it would feel like to swim under this slab and grab hold of that freezing metal cable, whether I’d feel it tear my hands apart.
Miriam Vaswani is a Canadian writer and editor, currently based in London, previously in Tunis, Stuttgart, Moscow, Delhi, Edinburgh and Glasgow. She’s the author of Frontier, a novella, and her short fiction has appeared in Gutter, Valve, Newfound, Tin House, Retort, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, and the anthology Whereabouts: Stepping out of Place.
Photograph by Dean Hochman, CC 2.0.