FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 1994

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Graham Touchie (3)
Derrick Higginbotham
Tara J. Hoag (3)
Jason Holt (3)
Nadine Herman

Prose

Otto Lambert
Michael Kahn
Peter J. Taylor
Andrew Mitchell
Andrew MacLeod
Kenneth Gordon
Urs Frei

[PDF]

Michael Kahn

 

 

excerpt from Still Life Beneath the Mandrakes

     Lined up in the rain for the shower. There’s only one shower, so it’s unisex. And since Jack runs it for only an hour before dinner and half an hour after to save on propane, and there’s twenty-four other dirty planters aside from me waiting their turn (not counting the support staff), each of us is restricted to exactly two and a half minutes to lather up, shampoo and rinse, and another half minute to dry off and get into our civies. Worst of all is the narrow vestibule between the dryshack and the shower, not knowing who I’ll encounter towelling off while I’m stripping, stripping when I’m towelling off. I should be used to it by now, but I just can’t get over the dizziness caused by the sensation that I’m always having to watch my eyes - especially when who is a her. The moral majority tells me that, in order to avoid temptation, I must cut her off at the head; the politically correct crowd demands that I correct my vision of her, make it more wholistic, by cutting her off at the head. Should my eyes wander, fall, should I fantasize - thwack! - administer the whips of self­flagellation. I wonder what the ‘primitives’ pictured on the covers of National Geographic would say - all the yellow- and tanned, and black- and coffee- and red-skinned: women suckling infants, or carrying water in great clay vases on their heads; men in loincloths more miniscule than the mini-est of string bathing suits or without cover at all? What would they have said if they could have talked back at the tribe of boys we were at ten, flipping excitedly through what was for us the uncharted geography of women’s bodies (yet, in the vagueness of a foetal memory, charted, as each of us had travelled through one before), of men’s bodies ours would soon be growing into (carved in our minds in marble, pubic curls festooning a small cluster of grapes, David, more neatly than ours would ever be carved)? They may have cracked cruel jokes about a queen of our not-so-distant ancestry, who trained her subjects to pull boners at the sight of exposed furniture legs; who, for all we know, may have been the unrecognized matriarch of behavioural psychology - a Freudian Skinner, a Pavlovian Masters and Johnston. They may have demanded to take photos of us in our own backyards, where, behind our mothers’ raspberry bushes, we played ‘swordsies’ – crossing our streams of urine as we pissed against the fence. They may have asked a price for admission.
     “Next!” a woman’s voice calls.
     I pick up my shopping bag of toiletries and slip through the tarp door into the dryshack. Rain drums on the roof. Rainsoaked and muddied clothes hanging from sapling beams above the smoking airtight are steaming: musky odours of men’s sweat watered down by women’s sweat, strong but more clean and salty. I spread my rainjacket over the back of a chair, bob and duck my way towards the shower and step through the partition to the changing vestibule.
     It’s the new girl – woman, I don’t know why I think girl. Maybe because I caught a glimpse of her small breasts as she was turning her back to me, as I turned my eyes to the ground, or because Lyndon’s been calling her that, the new girl, since she was put on his crew.
     She said her name was Cass, and when Bob pressed for her surname, “Just Cass.” He insisted he needed a last name for all the paper-pusher’s forms: TD1, Remote Worksite Allowance, the Union Due list, the Company contract; and besides, he probably thought this woman, whose face was so bugbitten that her nose was almost completely lost in the pulp of her cheeks, was doing her best to be untraceable – a popular belief in the Bigtop that night. But when she produced her driver’s licence, the only name on it was Cass. She’d proven she wasn’t a Jane Doe, an escaped convict or loonie, but she left us all wondering about what even Bob waited some minutes, the time it took him to scan her application form, to ask: “I guess you must’ve disliked your name pretty bad to have it legally changed ­uh, erased.”
     “No. Changed,” she said. “First and last. I had a dream and that’s what the dream named me.”
     Now that her face is no longer so painfully swollen, her eyes and nose becoming more and more defined, I still only catch glimpses – as she bends to dry her feet, as she throws the veil of her gaze over her shoulder.
     My mouth goes dry. I lose a button taking off my greying white dress shirt. I slip out of my sandals, peel off my sopping wet pants; silent, eyes fixed on the dirt. Finally, I step out of my underwear. The drumming of rain stops, and suddenly the tarpaulin walls of the shower shack glow orange. I try to squeeze by her as quickly as I can, without looking. But a bright red mark, five-pointed as a star, flashes like a beacon from the whiteness of her shoulder blade as she snakes a rolled towel down her back: the dried blood print of a hand too big to be human.

***

     After work, it’s the ghost images of the bloody print on the new girl’s back instead of ghost seedlings that haunt every bare patch on the path to the shitters. I’ve tried all day to match that print to hands – the hands of a large man, a giant – but gradually the hands have become more mythological: sasquatch, abominable snowman ­ something with a large palm and widely spread short fingers (I hold up my shovel hand: or of fingers bent to claw).
     On the branch of the fork leading to Men’s, a faint grunt rises from the dimness of a moss-coated and treed cluster of boulders. Like the boulders, the grunt seems disembodied – picked up there, dropped here, a glacial question: what are you – carrier, or hunter? – or were you too deposited here to be taken by the mossy skin? Underbrush rustles, twigs snap.
     I freeze. “Anyone there?”
     There is a short pause, then a loud, throaty growl like a bark stopped between lips and teeth.
     I turn back for the fork, increasing my pace to a brisk step, a jog, a full-tilt run as the creature shadows – browsing, preying, barrelling through the bush – matching its speed to mine; always alongside of me but never in sight. Its sounds pull ahead, circle until I can no longer tell which side of the path it’s on. Panting with sweat and the pump of adrenalin, its panting and snorts nearby, I clamber up a tree; damning myself for not knocking the muck off my treads when, mid-shimmy, they lose their bite and I start the slide down.
     It roars. Then it claws my foot. I grab for the nearest limb but it’s too far out of reach. Peeled away from the trunk, I fall, landing on hands and knees in the springy moss.
     “Bear!” I yell. “BE-”
     A hand cups my mouth. “SHHHHHH!” It’s Lyndon. Laughing like a hyena. He releases my jaw and wraps his arm under my chest, locking it between my neck and shoulder to keep me from squirming out from under him. “You failed the test,” he says. “But now you’ll know what to do when you’ve got a real bear on your ass.”
     I reach back with my free arm, feeling blindly for his leg, his shirt – anything I can grab hold of in my struggle against being forced to satisfy him with the question he wants me to ask. But like a boa, a set of handcuffs, he constricts; forcing it out with my breath. “Alright. What? What do I do?”
     “Get down on all fours.” The dinner horn blares. Lyndon releases me from his grip, and heads up the path for the bigtop; his laugh fading as it trails back to me.
     I get up and brush myself off, watching the imprint of my hand slowly lifting from the moss; from the new girl’s back, the black, furred paw of a bear, retracting two-inch claws bloodied with a redder mystery.

***

     I wait up till dark, till everyone’s in their tents, before rummaging by flashlight through the garbage pile. The night she arrived her tent was in tatters, “Torn in yesterday’s squawl,” she said, “slashed by the branches of a falling tree,” as she assembled it outside Bob’s trailer, hoping that Bob would be able to fix it.
     “That’s funny – we had no squawl,” Therese said, and the woman’s camp was only twelve klicks away.
     “Microclimate,” Bob said, hunching over the mess of shredded nylon and twisted poles. “Could be sunny as a solstice day on our lake, pissing only two lakes over and we’d never know it.” After a minute of close examination, Bob declared, “It’s toast,” offered her one of the spares left by tree planters of seasons past who, in the grip of bush fever, abandoned camp and all reminders; or who, rolling in the fall colours of Canadian green at season’s end, donated decaying tents along with boots to charity or the woods – any takers. Ordinarily, Bob would have charged her for it, but I think he felt sorry for her, knowing that the company she’d been working for had a reputation for being fly-by-night; deducting thousand dollar sums from its foremen’s paycheques for scratches and stone chips to its trucks’ already rusted, dented and dinged finishes – sometimes defaulting on contracts and not paying any of their workers at all. Two seasons ago, Bob told her, so many workers had sued for back pay, so many M.N.R. districts had seized the company’s security deposits, that the banks decided it was too much of a credit risk to be granting it spring start-up loans and the president declared bankruptcy; moving himself, equipment and remaining assets out west to start up again under a new name. “Last season, he had the gall to visit his camps in a brand new BMW...” Cass blushed, but Thérèse said, “It’s alright – you can’t know these things ahead of time unless you have friends who’ve been in the business awhile. That’s why Mr. Bark has only greeners on his crews.”
Bob started disassembling the unsalvagable tent, then stopped; eyeing his hands before wiping them on the thighs of his pants. “What’s this sticky stuff?”
     “Oh–” Cass reddened again. “I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you. It’s sap.”
     “Sap.”
     “From the pine. It was dripping sap all over my site even before it came down in the wind.”
     Bob grunted. “Got under the fly too, I see.” He eyeballed her suspiciously one last time, but those were his last probing words and glances on the matter.

     Flashlight between my knees, I unroll the dome tent; marvelling at how neatly she bundled it together for a landfill burial. The light blue fly is beginning to mildew. Flies, wasps and bees, frozen in their moments of ecstasy, float in the pine’s blood, waiting for sap to become amber. But the red body of the tent, sticky as well, holds other moments – coarse ivory hairs left by a pastry brush; downy fine black hairs too coarse to be her shed. Tears too evenly spaced to be cut by a scraping branch, spatters and smears of blood dried a browner red now distinct from the nylon and too large to be the swatted and squashed afterthoughts of bitch mosquitoes. The clinching clue is what the sap doesn’t hold: the smell. I stick my finger through its congealing skin, touch amber to my tongue but the taste that buds is honey.

 

last updated June 29, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing | poetry and prose © individual authours
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