Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Cabin in the Woods shortlisted for Derringer

My story, "The Cabin in the Woods" has been shortlisted for a Derringer. It was originally published in Mystery Most Geographical, a Malice Domestic anthology in 2018.


The Cabin in the Woods

          Franny eased her Civic down the scrubby drive. Branches tugged at the sides of the car in the half-light, the afternoon sun blocked by the canopy of trees. Finally, the clearing, the log cabin. Why was she here? She could easily have arranged everything by phone from Toronto. The house stood surprisingly free of vegetation, except for a few junipers held in check by judicious clipping. She couldn’t picture her mother gardening. She was eighteen the last time she’d been here, a dozen years ago. Even then her mother had been on her case. Franny moved to Montreal to get away from her mother’s soul-destroying criticism. She even stopped taking her phone calls, those attack sessions that sent her spiralling into depression.

Well, there would be no more phone calls. Her mother was dead.
            She sat in the car in front of the cabin, going over the long-distance call from the lawyer yesterday. Was it just yesterday? I’m sorry, Miss Callum, but your mother has died of a heart attack. It had been a shock, despite the animosity, the years of bitter arguments. There had been only the two of them. Her father had walked out when she was four. She was sure her mother had pushed him away just as she had done with Franny.
She left early this morning, driving the six hours from Montreal to Toronto in a haze, her body on automatic. The lawyer explained that her mother had named him executor of her estate. She hadn’t wanted a funeral, a waste of money, she’d said, and had arranged to be cremated. In fact, instructed him to go ahead with the cremation before informing Franny she was dead. Franny had just sat there, stunned, with the phone in her hand. The lawyer said her mother had wanted to spare her the morbid details. But Franny knew better. Her mother wanted the last word: This is what you get for not speaking to me for three years.
Franny picked up the pen and ink drawing of the cabin from the passenger seat. The lawyer said her mother had wanted her to have it. Why, she couldn’t imagine. Nothing like her mother’s usual style. Not artistic at all. More architectural. Just the log house with the flagstone walkway along the side of the yard. Except the walkway didn’t extend that far. It stopped after five feet. And her mother had forgotten Franny’s favorite spot, the bench on the flagstone patio in the back. Maybe she had gone senile.
In their brief meeting, the lawyer had announced that, apart from a small amount of savings, her mother had left her the cabin. Franny assumed she’d leave it to charity, or make it an artists’ retreat. She’d loved the place as a child, enthralled when her mother described how the cabin stood in a moraine, a geological feature left behind by a retreating glacier during the last ice age. Franny couldn’t fathom ice two kilometers thick, let alone how it carved out hills and valleys that turned into forests like the one that surrounded them. If only her combative relationship with her mother hadn’t spoiled the later years.  
Reluctantly, Franny climbed the rickety stairs to the veranda, slapping flies away from her face. She held her breath as she unlocked the door with the keys the lawyer had given her. The shadowy interior smelled stale. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that everything was much as she remembered, one large room with a kitchen and living area, a sofa opposite an oak table and chairs. A current calendar on the wall: August 1990. Her mother must’ve been here recently.
Above the sofa hung one of her mother’s excruciatingly accurate paintings, a still life of fruit in a crystal bowl. Perfect, but soulless. She never understood her mother’s mania for detail, obsessively adding color, then removing it until she was satisfied with the result. Well, other people must’ve appreciated it, because her art sold.  Franny preferred the interpretation of reality, impressionistic scenes. This was a bone of contention between them. Her mother had sneered at Franny’s pastel-colored landscapes with the ambiguous horizons, extrapolating from them that her world view was diametrically opposed to her own. Grow up, she said, and accept that life is dog-eat-dog. Come down to earth if you want to produce real paintings that people might buy.  
Franny had put some distance between them in order to keep a modicum of self-respect. A gallery in Montreal liked her work and hung three of her imagistic landscapes, though none had sold yet. Meanwhile she worked as a waitress, and every now and then an ad agency sent some freelance design work her way.
Pulling aside the flowered curtains, she opened the windows to let in some air. She would find a local real estate agent to sell the place because she couldn’t afford to pay the capital gains tax.
She noticed a piece of paper by the phone. Names and phone numbers in her mother’s precise handwriting: the gas station she’d passed on the highway, a Chinese restaurant in the nearby town, a hardware store, Franny’s number, and the number of someone with the initials F.C.  What was the name of the man the lawyer had mentioned? As executor, he had found that her mother had been sending monthly cheques to a man unknown to him. Franny had never heard of him either. She fished in her purse for the name she’d scribbled down. Floyd Cameron. Why was her mother sending this guy two hundred and fifty dollars a month?
Franny ducked her head into the studio with its canvases leaning against the walls. No answers there. She was more likely to find clues in the bedroom. The old flowered comforter on the bed in the tiny room made her grimace, reminding her of her mother. She opened the drawer of the night table. An old black and white photo stared up at her. With a shock, she recognized her father. She had only seen a few pictures of him besides her parents’ wedding photo, which her mother liked to hide. Franny had his longish face and square jaw, the same wave in her dark hair. Did Franny remind her mother of him? Remind her that he had left her after five years of marriage? Her mother avoided the subject and balked when Franny, aged ten, started asking about him. She had been persistent in her quest for answers until one fateful day, a letter arrived for her with no return address. She still remembered her father’s typed words, no surprise since she had read them over and over. It was the only thing she had left of him.
Dear Franny,
I am sorry things turned out like they did. But all of that is behind me. I am happy now with a new family so don’t look for me. You will understand when you are older.  
Her father was the real reason for the bitterness between her and her mother. A few years ago she had tried to find him, hoping he was still alive, but with so little information, she kept bumping into dead ends. She recalled her father had a sister, Aunt Rose, but didn’t know her married name. They hadn’t kept in touch after her father left. When Franny asked her mother for the aunt’s surname, she became unreasonably angry, screaming into the phone. That was when Franny had stopped talking to her. Water under the bridge.  
Deeper inside the drawer, Franny found her mother’s unique wedding band made of brushed two-tone gold. She had stopped wearing it years ago. Nearby, an old black iron key. Beneath it lay a yellowed newspaper clipping. An obituary. 

Stan Timinsky, peacefully May 20, 1985 in Etobicoke General Hospital after a brave battle      with cancer. Beloved husband of Rose (née Callum), brother-in-law of Arthur Callum and Charlotte Callum, loving father of John and Linda. Visitation at…

Bingo! Franny checked the date of the obituary again. 1985. Only five years ago. Maybe she could still find her. Maybe Aunt Rose could help her find her father. The longing for him that had never left, now surfaced irresistibly.
She ran to the kitchen and looked in the cupboard for a phone book. Along with the local one, her mother had kept an out-of-date Toronto directory.
She flipped through impatiently: Timinsky, Timinsky. A half dozen but only one with the initial R.  She dialled the number, heard it ringing through. A woman answered.
“Is this Rose Timinsky?”
“Who’s this?”
“I’m Charlotte Callum’s daughter. Franny. Your niece.”
Silence. Maybe she had the wrong person.
Artie’s girl?”
Franny smiled. “Yes. Artie’s my father…”
“Well, well. I remember you when you were three or four years old. How old are you now?”
“Well, well. It has been a long time…”
“Yes, it has. I thought you might want to know—my mother just died.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Was she ill?”
“Sudden heart attack.”
“Haven’t seen her in years. She was a talented woman.”
 Franny counted a few beats before going on. “I was wondering… well, I was wondering if you knew where my father was.”
A moment of silence. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way—I have nothing against you, mind. But the next time you speak to him, give him a message from me: he’s the most selfish bastard in the world. After all these years, not to bother to pick up a phone…”
“When was the last time you spoke to him?”
“1964. I called to wish him a happy birthday. He was already drunk.”
Franny thought her mother had exaggerated about the booze. “Did he say he had plans to go somewhere?”
“Not outright. But he owed people money and asked if could I lend him some. Imagine the gall! He was always short of cash. Wouldn’t be surprised if he ripped somebody off, high-tailed it out of the country with the money.”
Franny didn’t know what to say to that.
“Wouldn’t put it past him. I’m sure he’s very happy somewhere. Who needs a brother like that?”  
Franny tossed and turned in her mother’s bed that night, wishing she hadn’t located Aunt Rose. She preferred the fanciful image she’d had of her father to the real thing. Finally, she fell asleep toward dawn, but her dreams were full of shadows and eyes. When the sun was barely up, she startled awake. Someone had climbed the stairs to the porch.
She flew out of bed in her pyjama sweats, moved the curtain in the living room an inch to see out. An old guy stood there wearing a plaid shirt and a baseball cap over a long white pony tail. He caught the movement of the curtain and nodded. Now she had to open the door.
“Where’s Charlie?” he asked.
With a start, she realized he held a dead rabbit by the legs in one hand and a rifle in the other. “Who?”
“Woman that owns this place.”
“Oh. Charlotte. That’s my mother.”
He squinted at her. “You used to come here when you were a kid?”
She nodded. She vaguely remembered the creepy old neighbor, only his hair and beard had been dark then. What was his name? Ronnie?
“She likes to make rabbit stew.” He raised the dead animal in explanation.
Franny kept her eyes off it. Her mother would not be making any more stews. “She died a few days ago.”
He lowered the rabbit, the colour draining from his face. After a minute, he said. “I’m sorry… How?”
“Heart attack.”
He shook his head. “We were friends. I knew her a long time.” He looked down at the bleeding rabbit. “I’ll leave this with you then.”
She waved her hand vigorously. “I’m vegetarian.”
He gave a crooked smile. “You’re not much like her. What’s your name?”
“That’s right. She talked about you. I’m Floyd, your neighbor.” He pointed the rifle behind himself.
“Floyd? Floyd Cameron?” He stared at her. “But my mother called you ‘Ronnie’.”
“My mother has been sending you cheques every month.”
His small eyes widened in surprise. “You know about that?”
“Her lawyer told me. What are they for?”
“I… I take care of the place for her. Maintenance and such.”
So he was the gardener. “It seems like a lot of money for that.”
“She is…was a generous woman.”
“Not the person I knew.” Franny could’ve used that money.
He watched her as if he guessed what she was thinking.
She felt uneasy with the rifle. “What did she say about me?”
“Oh, this and that. She said you turned into a beautiful young woman.” He squinted at her. “She was right.”
Franny thought, she never told me that. “She ever talk about my father?”
“Not really. Good riddance, I say.”
“You knew him?”
“Enough to know she was well rid of him.”
“Because he drank?”
“Because he was a mean drunk.”
Could she trust what this man said? “What did he do? When he drank.”
He looked past her into the cabin, making her more uneasy.
“Don’t recall.”
He was lying.
After mumbling some parting words, he stepped down from the porch and across the clearing before disappearing into the woods. Fast for an old guy. He recalled, all right. Why wouldn’t he say?
When she was sure he was gone, she headed for the back of the yard where a bench stood on a small flagstone patio. The stones had seen better days, some shifting out of alignment in the sandy soil. She sat down on the bench, trying to erase the picture of Floyd Cameron with the dead rabbit. The man had his nerve, bad-mouthing her father.

Franny warmed up a tin of vegetable soup from the cupboard for breakfast. She ate while staring down at her mother’s drawing of the cabin. The lawyer had presented it to her wrapped in tissue paper inside a leather portfolio, as if it were a precious work of art. Which it sure as hell wasn’t. The will specified that Franny could do whatever she wanted with the paintings in the rented Toronto apartment—she had dropped in for a quick look around before driving north—but she was to hold on to the drawing. Her mother had singled it out. What was so special about it?
She couldn’t put her finger on why, but it seemed imprecise, unlike her mother’s paintings. Despite the solid lines of pen and ink, the scene was dream-like and oppressive. When she screwed up her eyes, she could detect a face like a gargoyle peeking out from the top of one of the trees. A gargoyle? Dropping her spoon, Franny snatched up the paper and stepped outside.
She stopped beside the house where her mother would have stood, trying to find the perspective of the drawing. An obvious error astounded her. Her mother had badly misjudged the crawlspace delineated by the stonework along the bottom of the cabin. In reality, the stonework only extended about a foot above the ground. In the drawing, her mother had exaggerated it to three times its height. A conundrum, considering her obsession with accuracy. She wouldn’t have made a mistake like that. What was down there?
She told herself she wasn’t climbing into the crawlspace on a stupid hunch. The place was dark as pitch.
Franny walked back into the house, into her mother’s studio. She lifted the rag rug off the floor. A shiver skipped across her. There it was: a square of wood in the linoleum, the door hatch to the crawlspace. She tried to lift it but it was locked. Too bad. Then she remembered the old iron key in the drawer.
She fetched it from her mother’s night table. Fumbling with the key in the lock, she turned it. The hatch creaked open, stiff, like an arthritic joint. A rickety ladder reached down into the murky black.
She found a flashlight on a nearby shelf and aimed the beam down. From where she crouched, she could see a few boxes amid the dust. Why was she doing this to herself?
Gripping the sides of the ladder, she eased herself down, cursing. She shone the flashlight beneath her, watched a centipede scurry away. Once on the bottom, she had to move around on her knees. It wasn’t called a crawlspace for nothing.
She opened two cardboard boxes, raising up dust. Both held old National Geographic magazines. She pointed the flashlight through the shadows, her eyes falling on a leather case from her school days. She unlatched the lid and found her ancient manual typewriter. Stashed inside were some folded sheets of paper. They appeared to be drafts of a typewritten letter with lines struck out, some words written in her mother’s hand. When she read the first one, she stiffened.
    Dear Franny,
   I can’t help how things turned out. Don’t look for me. I have a new family and am happy now.  Forget about me.  

Another page:
Dear Franny,
It wasn’t my fault how things turned out. Don’t ever look for me. I am happy now. Goodbye.  
Franny had the final version at home in her drawer. Her mind could not get around it. Unsettled, she searched the floor with her flashlight, landing on an old cookie tin. She opened the lid. Inside, sat another sheet of paper and a rubber stamp. The printed letter was word for word the one she had received from her father. The rubber stamp was set to a date: September 10, 1970. The day her father’s letter had been stamped, supposedly by the post office. The letter he had never sent.
It had all been a sham. Her father had never cared enough to send a letter. Why had her mother done it? To get Franny off her back.
She realized something was left in the cookie tin: a slim leather wallet. She opened it and found a business card in one of the slats: Ace Motors, Yonge Street, Toronto. Beneath, it read Arthur Callum, salesman. Her shoulders tightened. In another slat she found a social insurance card with his name on it. Her hand trembled as she pulled out the driver’s licence with a tiny photo of him. Signed by Arthur Callum. Expired in 1965. A year after he had run off. Had he left behind his identity as well as his family?
When she got back upstairs, she found a magnifying glass and held it over the photo in the licence, the longish nose, the square jaw. With a chill, she leveled the glass over the gargoyle in the drawing. It hovered in the branches of the pine tree, the nose and jaw too familiar, only made of stone. And amid the pine needles, behind the head, stone wings.
Franny took the drawing outside, heading for the pine. It had grown taller in the back corner of the yard. She looked up into the branches where the gargoyle would have floated, trying to position herself beneath it. She found herself stepping onto the flagstone patio. The stones were so loose, she kicked one of them aside. Then another. And another. Her heart raced. She pushed the bench off and worked for fifteen minutes, heaving and sweating. She stared at the exposed soil, horrified at what she was thinking.
Looking around the yard, she found a rusty shovel and began to dig down into the earth. She didn’t believe she was doing it, but she dug down one foot, two feet. She stopped a minute for air. When she was nearly three feet down, the shovel hit something besides earth. She cleared the soil away carefully with her hands until she touched something hard. Something yellow-white. A bone, large and contoured. Could it be an animal? She kept moving earth away from the area with her hands until she came across more bones.  This time, several thin bones together. Something glinted among them. Catching her breath, she lifted a ring from the soil. A band made of brushed two-tone gold. Someone screamed. She realized it was her.
The bushes moved apart and Floyd Cameron stepped into the clearing.
She jumped up, crying, “You killed him!”
He took off his baseball cap and stared at the bones, unsurprised.
“You were in love with her and you killed him.”
He shook his head dolefully. “You got it all wrong, missy. She did it.”
He looked at her with pity. “She had every right—he was beating on her.”
“Might’ve killed her one day. More to the point, she was afraid he would start beating you too.”
“Beating me…?”
“I hoped I’d never have to tell you. He was mild when he was sober. Not a prince, mind you. But when he started drinking, watch out.”
She shook her head. “That can’t be…”
“I’m sorry…”
All those years of waiting for him to walk through the door. The fantasy of him loving her.
“People aren’t always what you want.”
She stared down at the bones, feeling sick. “What happened?”
He stroked his beard, gazing past her. “One night I heard a commotion going on, louder than usual. I knew how he was, so I came running. They were screaming at each other on the porch. Her face was bleeding. He’d hit her. She went inside and I thought that was that.”
He put his cap back on. “But then she came out again, this time with a cast iron frying pan. He was lunging at her when she hit him in the head. Went down hard. She hit him again. And again. Strong for a woman.”
Franny could barely breathe. “How could she…?”
“She was afraid for you. You were a little thing. She was afraid he would go after you next. She told me. She did it for you.”
Franny shook her head. “For me?”
“She loved you.”
Franny felt tears sting her eyes, the first for her mother. “She never showed it.”
“She wasn’t the type. She was a funny woman, your mother. Proud and prickly. But she loved you.”
Everything she’d ever thought about her mother, every memory was wrong.
“I wish that…” She shook her head. There was no point wishing, she almost heard her mother say. “Then what happened?”
“I buried the body.”
He picked up the drawing from the bench. “She drew this right after… Wasn’t herself for weeks. Then I took the stones from the walkway and built the little patio, like a kind of memorial. We prayed there. That made her feel better. After a while. she could let it go.
“She insisted on sending me money. Consider it a pension, she said. Gratitude for helping her, not judging her. Said she got her life back after that.”
Franny burst into sobs, grieving for the first time. Her mother was sending her a message in the drawing. She knew Franny would figure it out. She wanted Franny to know the truth.
Floyd took her in his arms gingerly and patted her back while she wept.
“I’ll get him out of there,” he said. “Bury him in the bush.”                       
In a moment of clarity, the mystery of her mother mingled with the mystery of the glacier and Franny could finally picture the two-kilometer-thick swath of ice, could hear it thunderously carving out the hills and dales where the forest would take root. She loved the huge murky scale of it, the diminishing in size of human troubles.  Her father, unknowable to her forever, would transcend whatever he’d been in his short life and merge with the forest.
She wondered what color paints she would need to depict ice. Her mother would have a good supply of oils in the studio. Franny could count on her for the important things.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Ranchero's Daughter, published in 13 Claws

"The Ranchero's Daughter" was published in 13 Claws by Carrick Press in 2017. I wrote the story after my husband and I visited his old boss, H, in a swanky seniors' residence in Santa Barbara the previous fall. H introduced us to his friend at the residence, a ninety-five-year-old Honduran psychiatrist who had spent the last half of his life practicing in the U.S.  I and my husband, also a psychiatrist, were spellbound, listening to his melodic voice recounting what he had done and where he had been over his long life. His profound insights and generous spirit resonated with me long after we left. This story is not about him but was inspired by his humanity and the echo of his voice in my ears.

The Ranchero’s Daughter

       My father, the famous psychiatrist, Sebastian de Aguilar, was dying at the age of sixty-two. I had taken over his patients in the sanitarium he founded thirty years ago on the rancho. Our family still kept horses and cows and hens who wandered freely among the banana plants, to the delight of the half dozen patients. They helped in the care and feeding of the animals, an integral part of the treatment at our facility. My father understood that it soothes the mind to think about someone other than oneself.

       He was a pioneer in this kind of therapy, where patients and animals are brought together for the benefit of both. I, myself, was cheered by a tiny dog who adopted me on the street a few years ago. She was too straggly to have an owner, and though hesitant at first—she was not a man’s dog—I took her home. I named her Luz, since she was a light in my life. I have a tendency toward melancholy, which she alleviated with a touch of her diminutive paw.

       My father called me into his bedroom in the evenings to check on his patients’ progress and give me direction. He would sit up in bed, leaning back against his pillows, while I pulled a chair to his bedside. My little Luz lay curled at my feet. I glanced at the old photo of my mother on the night table, the dark eyes moist despite the radiant smile. She died when I was three.

       My father’s concern for his patients lasted several months. But as his illness progressed, he began to divert from this path and instead, wandered into memory. He would relate milestones in his career: his studies in psychotherapy in Vienna, the autopsies of the nervous system he conducted in New York, his positions in the Ministry of Health at home.

       One time he began in the same way, dredging out from dim memory the names of old physicians who had taken him under their wing in Zurich and Berlin. Then he stopped, the soft white curls on his head trembling. I had never seen him so weak. The disease was gnawing away at his identity, leaving behind a stranger.

       “Mateo, you were not yet born when a ranchero in the neighbouring valley started having trouble with his beautiful but insane daughter. He was a rich landowner from a distinguished Spanish family who had come to Honduras in the 1700s. Now, two hundred years later, the family was in danger of disappearing, with the girl being the last offspring. The ranchero’s wife had died, so the girl lost her beloved mother and became even worse. The stepmother could not control her and came to hate her.”

       This was not my father talking! He had never demeaned himself with gossip.

       “The girl was a beauty, but completely mad. One never knew what to expect from her. She whirled around when there was no music. She talked to the horses and cows and claimed they talked back. She would scream for no reason as if someone were killing her. They could not keep maids because the girl would curse them and prick them with a fork, threatening to eat them.”

       My brilliant father was disappearing. In his debilitated state, his low raspy voice arrived slowly, between halts.

       “Such a beautiful girl, with long black hair and dark green eyes like a forest. The only creature she truly loved was her Chihuahua, Conchita, a demanding little dog who ate the shredded beef out of the girl’s tortillas. She had the seamstress sew a special pocket in all her skirts so she could carry the dog around, its ugly little head poking out.”

       With effort, my father sat up and glanced at the Chihuahua lying at my feet. Luz lifted her fawn-coloured head, alert. “Your dog could be her sister, they’re so much alike.”

       I tried not to take offence at the comparison, and steered his mind back to the practice of medicine. “Did her father take her to see a doctor?”

       “In those days, they did not understand mental disease as we do now. They thought she was possessed by spirits. Because her father was rich, everyone pretended to overlook her behaviour, but they murmured behind his back. He had his heart set on his daughter marrying the handsome son of a nearby ranchero. However, this family would not hear of it, having witnessed the girl’s madness.

       “While she was a child, her father went to the church in town every Sunday to pray for the spirits to leave her. When she turned eighteen, at his wit’s end, he announced to the world that he would bequeath half of his land to the person who could cure his daughter’s insanity. You can imagine that this offer brought all sorts of schemers to the rancho to try their luck. A woman came from far away who claimed to have psychic abilities. After a few hours, she gave up, saying the devils were too strong in the girl. A man who was famous for his powers of hypnosis arrived. When he put her under his spell, she became quiet and peaceful. Her father rejoiced. But as soon as the hypnosis wore off, she started to scream that someone was trying to kill her dog.”

       My father’s voice had become so quiet I had to lean forward to hear. 

       “Men appeared from far and wide, their common attribute the conviction that their charm alone would break the spell of her madness. Two young men distinguished themselves from the others. One was a musician of medium height but well-muscled, who arrived carrying his guitar. Black hair and black eyes, he sang ballads of honour in war in a passionate voice that made even the lizards stop and listen.

       “The other young man couldn’t have been more different. Tall and fair, with well-formed limbs, he was a poet who recited his stanzas about the sky and the stars from memory. While the musician thrilled the girl with his ardent voice, the poet left her spellbound with his soft words that were laden with longing and regret. These two young men vied with each other to bring soundness to her mind, one with passion, the other with peace.”

       I had become absorbed in the story when heavy shoes sounded in the hall. Beatriz gave a knock at the open door. “El Doctor should have some tea.”

       A young boy whose parents worked on the estate carried in the tray. Beatriz could carry nothing but herself, since as a child, she had contracted polio which destroyed the muscles in her legs. She moved awkwardly into the room on her crutches, pushing along her useless legs encased in leather braces that ended in the solid shoes.

       One of my father’s first patients, she had arrived as a young woman soon after the sanitarium opened, her family not knowing what else to do with her. She was normal in every other way, though her upper body was muscular from the labour of pulling herself around. Not pretty so much as interesting, with wide nostrils and brown eyes that tended to protrude. But her small face was animated, softening the sum of the parts. Though my grandmother, my abuela, had assumed the running of the household when my mother died, her severe nature precluded any affection. Beatriz took pity on a lonely child, and loved me. She was as close to a mother as I would ever know. I was the only one she had allowed to strap her into her braces, an intimate procedure that required access to her thighs. Once I was twelve, we both shied away from the physical contact and she had to struggle, herself, to lift the dead weight of her legs into the torturous contraptions.

      Her brow creased as she gazed at my father, whom she worshipped. “He is tiring himself out.”

       I stood up, Luz suddenly awake on her tiny feet. “It’s my fault.”

       Beatriz gave me her sardonic smile, standing at the foot of the bed. “He enjoys your company.”

       I bent to kiss her on the cheek before I left the room, her powder scenting my lips. Now in her fifties, she was still vain enough to apply make-up.

       The next evening, my father continued the story of the ranchero’s daughter. By this time, I knew he was failing quickly and I was content just to listen to his voice.

       “The girl could not make up her mind between the two young men. The musician excelled at throwing knives and twirling the lasso, while the poet milked the cows with much success, the animals entranced by his words and responding with more milk than usual. Both young men made a show of treating the dog with deference, knowing the girl’s attachment to her. Neither of them knew the reason for the attachment: the girl had somehow come to believe the dog contained the spirit of her dead mother. When she asked Conchita for advice, people didn’t understand that she was talking to her mother. When she gave Conchita the best pieces of meat from her plate, she was feeding her mother. And the dog was a life saver. Once, when the girl didn’t recognize her father and thought he was the devil, Conchita kept her from attacking him with a knife.

       “It happened to be the season of banana fruiting. The poet had never witnessed the harvest and was loath to chop off the heart that sits beneath the banana clusters. You have seen its magenta blossom that resembles a heart, heavy with unopened flowers of baby plants inside. The new green bananas grow from it in clusters above like a crown. But the energy required to open the unborn flowers within the heart keeps the new bananas hard and green. The old heart must be chopped off to allow the bananas to ripen. Just as I must die and you shall continue in my place.”

       Before I could respond to this he went on.

       “The musician had no qualms about cutting off the heart of each plant with his sharp knife. The magenta blossom fell into the dry banana leaves littering the ground below, clear sap dripping from the stalk.

       “The girl was greatly agitated by the keen competition between the two young men and paced along the rows of banana plants, lamenting to Conchita. They saw the girl bent over her skirt, conferring with the dog, finally clapping her hands with pleasure at some resolution. The dog, it seemed, had an idea which the girl thought brilliant. She told the two young men to stand six feet apart in front of her amid the dry banana leaves. Then she lifted Conchita from her pocket with one hand, placing her on the ground. ‘Conchita will choose between you. With her dog instinct, she can see into your hearts better than I.’

       “The two men stood in shock, that their future was to be determined by a dog! Then the musician started addressing the Chihuahua in his sing-song voice. ‘Here, Conchita, you know I’m the best one. I’ve seen you sway to my music.’ He waved his hand at the dog to approach. She sniffed the air, then pranced toward him, her tail raised high. When he put his hand out to pick her up, she opened her little jaws and bit down hard.

He held up his bloody hand, screaming. ‘You bitch! You’re just as crazy as she is!’ “With blood dripping down his arm, he lifted the little dog into the air by her neck and proceeded to choke her with his good hand. She yipped a few times, then her tiny eyes closed.

       “The girl shrieked. She thrashed around the huge dry leaves on the ground before finding the musician’s knife. With strength beyond her size, she plunged it into his heart.

       “Immediately, he dropped the dog. He stared at the girl in silence before sinking to the ground.

       “The poet was appalled and relieved at the same time. The girl bent beside the lifeless dog, weeping, inconsolable.”

       Luz gazed at me, her bulging brown eyes fraught with terror. How could she know what was being said?

       “The poet lifted the tiny body of the dog, laying it in the crook of his arm. He pressed his fingers down on her chest rhythmically, once a second for a minute. Then he opened her muzzle with one hand and bending over, blew gently into her mouth.

       “Time stood still. The girl held her breath. Conchita`s furry little chest moved. She opened her eyes and blinked. She tried to yip but only a squeak came out. She was alive!”

       Luz growled in her throat with relief.

       “The poet buried the musician in an overgrown field on the estate. When her father asked where the musician was, the girl said he had gone home because she had chosen the poet. She was not cured, but was quieter because she loved the poet and knew he loved her.”

       My father stopped. He leaned his head back against the pillows, his face ashen.

       Beatriz pulled herself into the room on her crutches, alarmed. I had been so entrenched in the story I hadn`t heard her heavy shoes in the hall.

       “Sebastian,” she whispered near his ear. But he could no longer hear.

       I held his hand while he slipped away. I wept into my pillow all night, Luz whimpering beside me.

       After the funeral, when the visitors had left, I found Beatriz crawling on the floor in the hall near my father`s room. I placed a warning hand on Luz whom I was carrying in one arm. I had not seen Beatriz creeping along the floor for years. When I was young, she would sometimes get into a funk about the braces and how they chafed her skin; it was easier sometimes not to put them on. But then she was reduced to crawling on the ground like a lizard. She didn`t care that a child saw her pulling the dead weight of herself along with her arms. Now I was embarrassed for her.

       She was heading back to her own room. I waited until she reached it. When I heard her door close, I gave her a moment before putting down the dog and knocking.

       She called for me to enter. I found her upon the settee, her face flushed from the exertion. I brought her braces toward her, but she shook her head.

       “I loved him, you know.”

       I sat down on the edge of the bed nearby. “I know.” Luz jumped onto the settee and began to lick her face. A large tear rolled down her cheek.

       “The story he was telling you—” She bit her lip. “It was not just a ranchero`s daughter. It was Adelita.”

       “Adelita! But that was my mother`s name.”

       “Yes. Your mother.”

       I blinked at her, not comprehending.

       “She was a beauty. But quite mad.”

       “My mother?” She nodded.

       “Then—the story was about her?”

       She just looked at me and I understood. My head was spinning. I thought of the photo of the beautiful young woman on my father’s night table, how little I knew about her. He had never talked about her. I wracked my brain, trying to recall the details of the story.

       “Then—who was the poet?”

       She shook her head as if I were blind. “It isn’t so difficult.” When I didn’t respond, she said, “Your father.”

       I sucked in a breath and started to cough.

       “He had no more time for poetry after the ranchero sent him to medical school in the city. The ranchero knew your father had a gift for seeing into people’s hearts. When Adelita danced to the music in her head, your father danced with her. I think after a while he heard it too. She seemed at peace when she was with him and the ranchero thought your father could do more for her if he studied. Your father loved her more than life itself and would do anything for her. When he finished medical school, he opened the sanitarium here. He thought she was improving. You were born and she loved you very much.”

       Dear little Luz could see my distress. She jumped down from the settee and stood in front of me, begging to be picked up. When I obliged, she lay down on my lap, not taking her eyes off my face.

       “But she was afraid of what she might do to you. She couldn’t always control herself and she was terrified that she might… well, she had killed a man once. She was always whispering to Conchita—in her mind, her mother—for help to restrain herself.

       “But when Conchita died, an old dog at seventeen, Adelita beat her breast as if her real mother had died again. She feared for you, that there would come a day when she would look at you and see the devil, and there would be no Conchita to keep you safe from her.” Beatriz stopped.

       “Please go on.”

       She shook her head.

       “Please.” I dreaded what she would say.

       She took in a deep breath. “I envied her that she could walk, but she was more broken than I. One day she walked to town, climbed up to the steeple of the church… and jumped off. She did it to protect you.”

       A sob caught in my throat. I had lost not only my father, now I was losing a mother I had never known. I tried to compose myself. “He told me she died from heart disease.”

       “He could not tell you the truth.”

       Tears coursed down my face. Luz gazed at me with moist brown eyes. I was stunned to find they were not dog eyes, but glistened with a mother’s tears, a mother’s love. A shiver skipped across the back of my neck. She had sacrificed herself for me. Such love vanquished time, transfiguring flesh and bone, to land before me.

       Little Luz finally lay her head down on her paws and let herself sleep, now that I understood. Such a tiny body, such a towering spirit.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Cormorant publisher Marc Cote

Marc Cote waxing eloquent at the launch

Book Launch for Queen of Unforgetting

We had a great launch at Ben McNally's Bookstore despite the pouring rain. Publisher Marc Cote set up a tastefully arranged table of fresh fruit, gourmet cheeses and crackers to go with the champagne on ice. Everybody schmoozed and had a good time. John Lasruk took a lot of great pictures.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010 interview

Here's a recently posted interview I did with about my new book The Queen of Unforgetting.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cormorant Books

Here's a link to Cormorant Books to see my new book, Queen of Unforgetting:

Barbara Kerslake with Northrop Frye and wife Helen at cottage

Here is a photo my friend Barbara Kerslake was generous enough to share with me. She's about 7 here, Frye considerably younger than most of us think of him. Barbara's grandfather was the well-known artist C.W. Jeffreys. And yes, Barbara's legs are still that long!

Frye is a character in my new book Queen of Unforgetting. My protagonist, the beautiful ambitious grad student, Mel Montrose, persuades him to supervise her thesis. Her area of interest is Jean de Brebeuf, the 17th century Jesuit who came to Huronia, now Simcoe County, to convert the Indians. Much of my story takes place in Midland, Ontario and nearby Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the reconstructed mission/fort.

New book is out!

The Queen of Unforgetting hit the stores last week. Came down to Cormorant Books to pick up my copies and have lunch with publisher Marc Cote on a pretty spring day-- sat out on the patio of a Spadina cafe and exchanged scuttlebutt. The Queen book has a lovely mat cover with French flaps, rich chocolate brown (my daughter said it looked good enough to eat...) Cormorant is faring amazingly well in this economy, recently branched out into poetry and young adult. Must be doing something right.

See preview of Queen of Unforgetting at

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

proofs are in the pudding

I'm one of those people who doesn't believe something will happen until it happens. When I'm working on a book, I don't believe I will finish until I actually write the last page. Despite months of final revisions, copy-editing, deciding on a cover, etc., it wasn't until I saw the lovely proofs of Queen of Unforgetting last week that I really believed the book will see the light of day. Is it a failure of imagination? My constant irrational pessimism despite all evidence to the contrary? Whatever. I went through the proofs with a fine tooth comb, then sent my notes back to my editor. My job is done.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Kim Moritsugu and I launch our new novels, The Restoration of Emily, and Season of Iron. Here we are reading to a full house at David Mirvish Books in Toronto last Sunday. Posted by Picasa
Husband Dr. Jerry Warsh, and I at the launch of my third Rebecca Temple book, Season of Iron, at David Mirvish Books, Sunday May 28th, 2006. Posted by Picasa
That's publisher, Kirk Howard, on my left, and my friend, Dr. Herb Batt, on my right at the launch of Season of Iron at David Mirvish Books, Sunday May 28th, 2006. In the left foreground, Kim Moritsugu, my launch partner, whose fourth book, The Restoration of Emily, was recently published. Posted by Picasa
My agent, John Pearce, and I, in a huddle during the launch of my third book in the Rebecca Temple series, Season of Iron.
Behind us are Dundurn publisher Kirk Howard and editor Michael Carroll. Posted by Picasa
Kim Moritsugu and I launch our new novels at Mirvish Books, a magnificent Toronto book store that incorporates a former art gallery. Posted by Picasa

Launch at David Mirvish Books

Maureen Jennings dropped into my launch at David Mirvish Books in Toronto. I launched Season of Iron on Sunday May 28th, 2006, together with Kim Moritsugu, who launched her fourth book, The Restoration of Emily. We had a great turnout and served cheese, fruit, and Stilton shortbread. Posted by Picasa