What it means to live in a body. How writing takes me out of my body—how I forget my body. And—thump—I’m back. When I write I am not here. Or: I am more here than ever when I write.
But here I am at a protest in the rain outside Her Majesty’s Pen with a handful of other people. I only stay for a short while, and the others have been here for hours; in fact, they have been coming for a week just to be present. The woman beside me is wearing a soaked-through windbreaker suctioned to her body so that the nylon is semi-transparent in patches and I can see the floral pattern of her blouse. She’s shivering. There are signs on bristol board or pieces of brown cardboard scribbled with Sharpies and wrapped in Saran Wrap to keep them dry. I have a red umbrella, left over from the protest about safety for sex workers two years ago.
The signs say Free Beatrice and #MakeMuskratRight. I know a couple of these people from the other protests about the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam. I introduce myself to a couple I haven’t met before. We shake hands; talk about the weather. One of the women tells me Beatrice Hunter has been subjected to strip searches in there.
Hunter was sent to prison because she told a judge she could not promise to stay away from the Muskrat Falls Nalcor site, where she is trying to protect the land and water from methyl- mercury poisoning and further flooding. The prison is an ugly fortress, dull and falling apart, full of rats. My sister, a lawyer, is trying to sue the government in order to shut this prison down because it is not fit for human habitation. It’s not fit for animals.
If you tried to give this prison to the SPCA, my sister tells me, they’d say, No, thank you.
Beatrice Hunter says, in a tearful CBC interview, that when she was sent from her home in Labrador to the prison in St. John’s, she feared she would become one of the missing or murdered Indigenous women.
We just want Beatrice to know we’re out here, one of the women beside me says. Five cars pass and hit their horns. One car passes without noticing. Four more cars sound their horns. We wave vigorously at them all. Beatrice Hunter is in prison because she wants to be a physical presence, to stand outside the gates of the Nalcor site, in order to register her resistance to the project, in order to protect the land and water. She is in prison because her peaceful, physical presence has proven to be a major threat to the project, to the narrative of the dam. People have heard of her presence across the country. Because she refused the authority of the court, because she insisted on standing there, the whole country is awake to the issues around Muskrat Falls.
I only stay at the protest for a half hour. Maybe less, because I have to get to the hospital to visit you.
In the car I am shivering all the way to Health Sciences. The windshield wiper on the passenger side is broken and the metal rod, stripped of its rubber, screeches so loud and shrill it raises the hairs on my arms. I can feel that sound in my teeth.
The driver’s door was damaged in a hit and run and I can’t open it. I have to get in the two-door car through the passenger side and climb over the gearshift. Or, on occasions when the passenger side has been buried in snow left from the plough, I climb through the hatchback. Other than that, the car goes well enough. The brakes, though. The brakes have give. The brakes are soft. You have to press down pretty hard to come to a complete stop.
Yesterday, after a visit with you and before I hurried to my office to prepare for a creative-writing class on poetry, I was overwhelmed by hunger.
The nurse had packed a long string, as thick as a shoelace, into your wound. This string of fabric would act like a wick, the nurse tells me, drawing out what they called drainage. The nurses speak of the presence or absence of odour, the different tints and colours of the drainage, and these are the things I want to be able to recognize because infection might set in quickly. They are the signs. I want to be vigilant. I have decided I want to attend to the wound. The nurse is laying out his tools. Blue gloves and a sterile bandage he spreads over the bedside table. He cracks the seal on a bottle of clear liquid and squirts the liquid into a plastic tray. Then he rips the lid off a package and topples a pair of sterile scissors and a pair of tweezers onto the sterile bandage. He tears open a package of gauze and lifts the first square out with the tweezers and drops it into the clear liquid and pushes it under with the tweezers until it is soaked through. Then he turns to you. He removes the bandage from your wound. The word incision sounds like snipping scissors; it sounds precise and crisp.
But the word wound sounds inflicted; it sounds suffered. The word wound seems to capture the ongoingness of the bloody hole, how it is active, has depth. There are holes in your stomach, and a piece of fabric, as wide as a shoelace, is sticking up out of each of the holes. The nurse tugs one out with the tweezers. It is long and crusty with drainage. He tugs and tugs and it keeps coming out. They don’t want the wound to heal with seepage trapped inside. They want it to heal from the bottom up. The holes are deep and bright red and fleshy and ragged and the wick wiggles out, a worm from a sick rose.
But I leave, in the middle of the dressing, because I think I might faint. I go to a room down the hall where there is a large flatscreen TV. It’s a room for family members who need a bit of quiet.
There are three middle-aged sisters in there with white paper napkins spread on their wide laps and smudges of shiny grease on their lips radiating all over their chins. A giant platter of barbequed chicken legs in front of them. They’re licking their fingers and they’re very hungry. I realize I really want a piece of that chicken. Watching over the sick can make one ravenous.
Where did you get that chicken? I ask.
This is takeout, one sister says. She’s wearing acid-washed jeans and a white blouse with brass buttons.
It’s hard work, I say.
Being here, one sister asks. Is that what you mean?
Being here, I say.
And yes, my dear, that’s what it is, another sister says. Her gnawed bone drops down onto a little mountain of bones, an augury, and she picks the napkin off her thighs and wipes her face.
There’s a music video on the flatscreen that’s hanging over a faux fireplace with plug-in logs. This room had been a gift from a philanthropist who probably spent a lot of time with a loved one in this wing of the hospital. There’s a plaque that says the philanthropist’s family name. And there’s a poster of a pie chart and this same poster can be found in lots of different parts of the hospital.
The biggest wedge of the pie indicates how much of the province’s austerity budget goes to health care. It’s hard to tell if the poster is a cautionary tale: they are going to cut. Or if they are asking us to be grateful. I’ve overheard the nurses talk about a shortage of shifts. They can’t get enough work.
In the video on the flatscreen TV, a man is singing a pop song: I love your body. Just that line, over and over. I love your body. A chant. The melody is catchy. I am swathed in the sweet stink of barbecue sauce and charred meat and the image of the wound that I can’t blink away, the tattered flesh, and the inside, and the wick—the inescapable, obdurate truth that we are finite, we are just breath and pumping blood, and it can all fail us. It will stop irrevocably and without argument and of its own accord, and we can intervene and beg and be still in the face of it, and sometimes it relents and heals, but, yes, it will stop. It stops. The thought of all of this falling away, disintegrating, being gone, makes me so hungry—for the light on the snow, veils of it shuddering down and shimmering, as if I could put the sudden May snow squall inside me, could swallow it. All the ephemeral splinters of light and ice, and the sugary burnt meat and the love of being here. Of being in a body.
What if I could hold it in my fist? All of it? Can I write it down? The pop song was bringing me to the point of tears. I thought: What a good idea, to love someone’s body. I love your body.
Being here, I say again. I leave the hospital without saying goodbye to you, and I go to the university cafeteria. The noise and crowds, the fast food, and someone in the far corner setting up to play some music. There’s the static and splats of harsh noise, amps being plugged in.
I sit at the window and the traffic of the parkway drives under the cafeteria and comes out the other side, six lanes and a median. The Health Sciences complex is visible from where I’m sitting, the snow squall chafing at it, rubbing it away. I wonder which black window your hospital bed is behind. From this distance all the windows are no bigger than my pinky fingernail.
I will be teaching about point of view soon in my next fiction-writing class. I will talk about stories that begin with “once upon a time.” The phrase lets us know the events in the story happened in the past, and at least one person survived the ordeal (for there will most certainly be an ordeal) in order to tell the story. We also know the story has lasted through time, has been passed down in some way, and so it’s worth hanging around to hear it. There will be a golden truth from long ago.
But the urgency of the present isn’t there with “once upon a time.” That’s the trade-off. And my husband is reading about the anthropocene, he tells me, and how nature will act upon us, how nature might have a subjectivity, bite us back. How we might not matter so much, when you take the long view—all this capitalist charging forward and unfolding, the toiling and philosophy, the poetry and pain. A blip.
And you are a long way off, too, the streams of traffic, brick, and a tiny window, flashing like mica in the sun, and you and I started this way, with just a wick connecting us in a black tumbling universe.
Another protest, this time about tuition at Memorial. The students gathering at the clock tower. The government came down hard on the university because of the mounting expense of Muskrat Falls. We will walk to the Confederation Building from the clock tower. But that was once upon a time. That’s already happened. The tuition freeze is gone.
I’m explaining in class about Jesus being made into flesh. How he had said: Take this cup. But there was no getting away from it for poor old Jesus. He was flesh all right, nothing he could do about it. Ranted against it in the desert, but nobody listened.
I’m talking about how the character Ray in Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness is a Christ figure.
How do we know that, I ask the students. What’s in their backyard, I ask. Anybody? I say.
Somebody says, A cross.
And then Ray comes across the field to Nomi with coffees and the muffins, I say, and he’s Jesus, but he’s dressed in her dad’s suit and she’s waking up in the field after taking hallucinatory drugs and it’s her dad but it’s also Christ, remember, I say. That’s Christ made of flesh. Take this cup; it’s a takeout coffee cup. See? That’s Miriam Toews being funny. She’s really funny.
You tell me your phone is almost dead.
That’s going to die, you say. I was talking to somebody this morning and I lost her.
Where’s your charger, I ask.
There’s one in the drawer. Have a look in the drawer, will you? The trouble is they have all these things attached to me, these tubes. I can’t move. I can’t get up.
I’m going to plug it in back here.
And my mouth is dry. These girls, they don’t stop. They’re going all night.
The vampire is here, says a nurse, announcing herself. You roll your eyes at her, a parody of a complaining patient. But you hold out your arm.
I’m going to take some blood, she says. Another nurse, who is checking your temperature, confirms: She’s going to take some blood now.
I’m going into the same vein so it won’t hurt as much, the nurse says. And then you won’t see me no more. She has a tray of glass tubes.
Got it, she says, as she presses the needle into your arm. The blood glugs into the little vial and you turn your head from it, so as to feel the sensation without the image, the blood spilling out, tumbling all over itself into the glass tube.
The veins are wiggly, the nurse says. But sometimes I get it on the first try. And the other nurse says your temp is up.
Is it up, I ask. How much is it up? The nurse’s mouth is in a hard, straight line as she reads the thermometer against the light.
It’s up, she says. Significantly.
Watch out, you say, and you point to me. She writes books. She’s likely to put you into a book. That’s what she does, and then you’re in a book.
The nurse glances my way, assessing. I try to look innocent.
You say: This is going to die. And you hand me your phone.
I am trying to get the car out but it’s stuck in the ice. The road slants in front of our house and it means the water runs toward the curb and freezes around the tires of my car. I am reversing and going forward with the tires cranked out, the car filled with exhaust and the squeals of the engine. If I go too far back there will be no going forward. Sleet. Rain freezing as it falls.
There’s a sharp rap on my window and a woman puts her face too close to the glass, her nose almost touching. Just the window between our faces. Her eyes are ringed with runny black mascara. Teeth cracked and black and missing. Her face so drawn it looks as though her skull is pressing through the translucently white skin, but she is in her early twenties. Her hair is long and wavy and soaking wet. Her little jacket is half unzipped. Sleet slips down the glass between our faces and I scream. It is a scream from my gut, from deep inside, full of terror.
I shout: What? What do you want? But I recover the way you do when you think: not an apparition but a person. Just a stranger, rapping on the window with her fist.
I’m going to give you a push, she says. All you need is a little push.
Now I have the window rolled down a bit so I can take her in; she’s very tall. She’s wearing a miniskirt and her bare legs are flaming red with the cold and boots to the knees and heels that are chunky but very high. Maybe three inches? And the whole road is ice and slanting down.
No, I say.
Yes, I am, she says. I’m going to push you out. I’m going to get behind you. She has command and vehemence. She can see the logistics of this. Or algebra or geometry or whatever-it-is required to get me off the ice and on my way. On my way to poetry class where I am going to talk about metaphors.
But here’s what you have to do, she says. You have to straighten your wheels. Straighten them up, she commands.
You have on high heels, you’re not pushing me, I say.
I’m pushing you, she says. Now straighten the wheels. Then my husband appears. He’s banging on the passenger door for me to unlock it.
Oh good, the woman says. We’re going to give her a push, she tells him. We’ll get her out of this. The two of us. She just needs to straighten her wheels. Get behind her with me, she orders my husband. I can see now she is maybe twenty-three years old, maybe twenty-four.
I tell her that if I am driving she will get run over and so will my husband. I tell her I will kill them both. That’s a certainty. I will mean to go forward, I say, but I’d have the car in reverse by mistake. I am a terrible driver, I say. My husband, I say, he can get this out and he won’t need a push. Just watch. We’re not going to push, I say.
I have to climb out over the gearshift and the passenger seat and he has to climb in over the passenger seat and the gearshift, and then, because he’s very tall, his knees are practically up around his ears. He’s in a fetal position, scrunched up, with his head banging on the roof of the car and he reaches under and finds the bar and the seat shoots back. He’s ready to drive me out of the fist of ice and sleet and ill will of winter in May. We stand to the side and watch, this young woman and I.
You in them boots, I ask her, how could you have pushed? But she’s crossing the street and yelling directions over the revving engine.
Nothing coming, she says. Give it to her, she yells at my husband. I am sliding all over the road trying to get across the street to her.
You’re working, I say.
I’d rather not be out in this, she says, and all her charisma briefly dims to a low-watt weariness. She has one of those smiles where the corners of the mouth turn down, despite being a smile. Not grim but determined. Not rueful but complex, not a lie. But a willingness to overlook sadness.
I am on a plane as I write this (well rewrite this, in fact, because I wrote it down on the day it happened). I glance at the magazine on a woman’s lap in the opposite aisle, open to a full-page photograph of Princess Diana. In this picture she is wearing a pearl earring ringed around with gold and a string of pearls on her neck too big to be real (fake pearls on the princess?) and a pink jacket, the collar of the jacket out of focus. But her eyes, her smile. It’s a smile that could be described in the same way, striving hard to not be ironic about the whole shit show, but still vulnerable, not a lie.
This makes me suspicious of what I’ve written. Really? Do they have the same smile? Do I read the smile that way because Princess Diana has since died in a car crash? Because I know what happened, once upon a time? Of course they don’t have the same smile. Absolutely not. Maybe, maybe their smiles pass one another in the night. Maybe the smiles of everyone who is in the prison of a body share something at some point. No, we are not the same. We are the same. We are not the same. We are same.
I was out all night, the girl says. I’m from a little small place, different than this, come into town a few weeks ago. Nobody is friendly here. Nobody talks to you. You say hi on the street and nobody says hi back.
I’m going to give you some money, I say. Just what I have in my pocket.
No, she says.
Yes, I am, I say. She looks at the money.
What are you giving me this for, she says. (I know, because I’ve been told, that I have given her the price of two blow jobs.)
Because there’s sleet in May is why, I say. Because we live in this fucking weather is why. Because you offered to help me.
I’m going home, she says. Big grin. I just live over there. Get a shower. Get some sleep. She points out her house. Then the car roars away from the clutch of the ice, squealing as it breaks free, swaying and swerving and stopping and just idling there in the middle of the road.
If this were a short story I would not write that line because it’s too on the nose. The car breaks free. And maybe it didn’t happen that way. But my husband had been rocking the car, reverse, forward, reverse, forward. The ice gives up its grip. The car shoots out. She says about the shower and stuffs the money in her pocket and I look around for a pimp. (They are usually on the island of trees in front of my house and they wear hoodies and pace slowly between the trees but she might be on her own. I didn’t see anyone else.) Then she is clapping and whooping because the car is out. And me too, I am whooping and clapping. And off she goes down the road with her knobby knees and bare, red legs, not slipping or falling on the ice, hands dug into the pockets of her sopping wet jacket, elbows akimbo.
Several days later my husband will tell me there was a commotion on the street. Down in front of that house. The house where she said she lived. They brought out a body. Who was it, I say. Was it that woman? The woman, the woman? The young woman?
But I can’t find out anything on the internet. Her face scared the shit out of me. Her face appearing in the window of my car when I was so lost in thought, trying to get the car out. The rapping of her fist. I shouted from my gut. Our faces not very far apart, the glass, the water running down the window, her black teeth, the mascara. All the long wet hair. Soaked to the bone.
The nurse pushing a long stick, like a very long Q-tip, into your wound to measure its depth. The public-health nurse showing the result to the student nurse. Turning the stick slightly in the light so they can see where the measurements are written and they determine that the wound has closed half a centimetre. And honestly, my stomach is hardening. I am able to stand all sorts of things I could not before. I marvel at it. This hardening. This pushing back against this revulsion. Because the flesh is torn. Or because there is flesh at all. Because there is mortality. Because it holds the soul or the imagination or the essence. Or it doesn’t.
A line from the Alice Munro story I am reading about the mountains as seen through a train window: “What drew her in—enchanted her, actually—was the very indifference, the repetition, the carelessness and contempt for harmony, to be found on the scrambled surface of the Precambrian shield.”
Contempt for harmony. I know Munro is going for the unexpected in this sentence. Doesn’t everyone prefer harmony? And earlier, the narrator is thinking about Greek thought. She is a student of classics. And she has learned that the ancient Greeks have “a considerable attachment to the irrational.”
A list of irrational things: Flesh is irrational; desire is ungovernable; love is batshit crazy; Newfoundland is irrational; Muskrat Falls is an obdurate willingness to allow the machinations of bureaucracy to smash human agency. The willingness to carry through with a hydroelectric dam that will poison wildlife and water and land and destroy food security for the people of Labrador is irrational and the destruction of energy security for the whole province is irrational and to go on with the project is irrational; throwing the land protector Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother, in a high-security male prison where she has been subject to strip searches for peaceably protesting against Nalcor because they are putting the lives of her community at jeopardy is irrational. The sex worker’s high heels and her help and the danger they are in and austerity is irrational. The snow in May. Metaphors are irrational and orgasms and loss. This is an incomplete list, obviously. Completion is irrational.
A man named Angus Andersen from Nain stands outside the Sheraton while Premier Dwight Ball gives a Fortis Energy Exchange speech. Andersen and other land protectors are handing out bottles of water with a label that says the water is from Muskrat Falls and contains 10 percent methylmercury. There’s a photograph of the Nalcor site on the label.
I’ve taken a gauze bandage from your bedside table and stuffed it into my pocket. I am stealing it; fuck austerity and the budget pie chart. When I get outside the hospital I grab lungfuls of fresh air and walk the whole length of the hospital parking lot until I get to my car. I tie the bandage around the metal rod on the passenger side, the only thing left of the windshield wiper. The ice freezes it up in a big knot and it leaves a satisfying transparent band through which I can see a narrow strip of road. Of course the wiper on the driver’s side still works. Total visibility is overrated.
The filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar quotes Munro in an introduction to three of her stories: “The complexity of things—things within things—just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” Every time I read that sentence I go straight to the short story I am writing. I don’t read any further than that because it makes me want to write. That line gives me permission.
Permission to write a tangent, to throw out whole paragraphs that move so far away from the centre of the story I am working on it feels, even as I write, that they are going to have to be cut. But afterwards I see they are necessary. They have been dictated by some inner, nascent, irrational hunch, and one of two things is occurring: 1) they were always meant to be in the story, and I am simply excavating the necessary pre-existing world of the characters, or 2) the story never existed, is chimerical, shifting as I write, coming into being. Either way a mystery is uncovered. The mystery is coherence. Because there’s no such thing.
I’m driving toward the university and I am rehearsing what I will say about metaphor in the poetry class. It’s when you take two distinctly different things that have nothing to do with one another (and here I take my hands off the steering wheel and make two fists and hold them up because I am talking to myself, out loud, trying to figure out what a metaphor is), and they smack together, I say, and I smack my fists together and spread my fingers open.
And make a third thing, I say, a new thing. And they stay apart, those two things, and they come together at the same time, and the paradox is a chemical reaction, the sublime new thing that never existed before. And I put my foot down on the brake as I approach the stop sign at the intersection on Newtown Road and there is no brake. The car sails through. There is no stop.
Lisa Moore is the author of the novels Caught, February, and Alligator. Caught was adapted as a television series for the CBC. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories called Something for Everyone. She lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.