Authors: Alissa York
Tags: #General Fiction
for my brother, Ben, and as always for Clive
nimals don’t behave like men,” he said. “If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill, they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.”
he wakes to the sound of claws—a busy scrabbling on hardwood, not far from her ear. Pre-dawn darkness, a drift of warm, weak light from the bathroom down the hall. Slowly, warily, she turns her head. The mouse halts, whiskers quivering. Less than an arm’s length from her face.
Letting her breath out in a thin, steady stream, Edal does what she can to soften her gaze. The mouse is unconvinced. It holds its position, flank pressed to the skirting board, fur jumping with the panic of its pulse. She knows better than to try soothing it with words; years of experience have taught her few sounds trouble the wild ear so much as human speech. A small shock, then, to herself as much as to the creature before her, when the sound escapes her lips.
“Hello,” she says softly, and the mouse swivels and runs.
Looking up from the sink, Edal meets herself dripping in the medicine cabinet’s mirrored doors. The centre seam draws a line down her nose, her unremarkable mouth. It separates her
eyes, brown and large, already set slightly too far apart—a little odd, but not unattractive, perhaps the best feature in what she hopes could be called a heart-shaped face. Shoulder-length hair lies flat and brown against her skull. She would cut it short and be done with it, but she needs it to cover her ears. No one’s ever told her they’re too small—she reached that conclusion all on her own. They feel almost vestigial, like a dewclaw, or the ancestral nub of a tail.
Reaching for a towel, she thinks again of the mouse. Its ears are in fine proportion, sweet little petals folded neatly against its head, designed to lift a thousand times a day in alarm. There must be a hole behind the dresser—it shot back there and didn’t show itself again. She should deal with it, find the breach and block it up.
Back in her bedroom, she folds open the closet door. Her work clothes take up half the space: short- and long-sleeved duty shirts, three pair basic cargo pants, two pair tactical pants, patrol jacket, fleece—all in peaceful forest green. She’s only been off duty for three weeks and already she’s starting to feel as though the federal wildlife officer uniform belongs to somebody else. As though she’d be committing an offence—
personating a peace officer
—if she tried any of it on.
She touches a summer-weight sleeve, laying a finger to the crest. She can remember exactly how it felt the first time she sported that blue and gold insignia on her arm—the mixture of pride and relief. And now, only five years on the job and she’s living off a store of sick days, unsure when she’ll feel steady enough to go back. It’s one thing being off work because you’ve caught a nasty bug, quite another because you’ve broken down on duty, sat down on the floor and buried
your face in your hands. At least the crying jags seem to be easing up. The choking sensation still comes, but it’s been days now since her eyes ran like faucets. Some inner salt reservoir finally running dry.
She sweeps a palm down the front of the shirt. In the breast pocket, a familiar bulge. Her notebook, perhaps two-thirds full, every workday set down in its relevant details. She draws it up out of the pocket and flips to her final entry.
Canada Customs paged her first thing that morning. She made it to Pearson International in good time, arriving half an hour before the flight from New Delhi touched down. Anna-May Button had been flagged due to previous violations. She looked like a TV granny, a plump, apple-cheeked woman whose bags should have been crammed full of presents for the little ones back home. Instead, they were stacked with cardboard egg cartons—nine in her carry-on, twenty-four in the one she’d checked. Nearly four hundred little egg-shaped depressions, a juvenile Indian star tortoise in every one.
Those in the carry-on bag fared better: a third of them had suffocated and only two had been squashed. Those that had travelled cargo saw the worst of it. Edal opened carton after carton while the sweet-faced lady looked on. Every crushed carapace leaked colour, the cardboard soggy in places, swollen with blood.
Edal had seen as bad or worse. So why did the tortoises get to her the way they did? Why, as the day wore on, did she find herself gripped again and again by a sorrow so intense it threatened to close her throat? She fought it long enough to drive Mrs. Button back to HQ, take her prints and record a video statement. It was only later, when she was alone in the
live evidence room, that the strangled feeling became more than she could bear.
She can’t be sure how much time passed between the moment she gave in to it and the moment Barrett poked his head round the door. Even if she hadn’t been crying too hard to speak, it would have been impossible to explain. By then she was beginning to suspect that the state she found herself in had less to do with baby tortoises than with the phone call she’d received the night before. She’d known something was wrong even before she’d answered—the hometown area code attached to a number she’d never seen. If she’d mentioned that call to her regional director, it would have been the start of a very long story indeed.
She tucks the notebook back into her duty shirt on its hanger. Pulling on a sweatshirt and bike shorts, she walks through to the kitchen, plugs in the kettle and drops a slice of multigrain in the toaster. When it pops, she takes the butter dish down from the cupboard—the last time she left it on the counter, the block showed diminutive whisker prints—and spreads a thin layer to the four corners of the slice. She eats standing up, gulping tea between bites. In a hurry. Only she’s not.
You’ve got the days banked, Jones. Why not use them?
She’d never heard Barrett speak so gently. Stress leave. The idea being that you leave your stress behind you when you go, only Edal seems to have carried hers home with her. Besides sleep, the only thing that helps is moving—walking or riding her bike. You might even say it’s all she’s good for.
Swallowing the last of her tea, she drops a greasy crust on her plate. It’s irresponsible, she knows, inviting the mouse up
onto the counter, laying out the bait without the trap. Childish. She’ll have to stop.
Helmet and keys in hand, she eases shut her apartment door and takes the stairs softly. James and Annie won’t be up for at least a couple of hours.
It’s still dark out, porch lights and street lamps pitted against the last of the night. The maple trees stand shrouded. Within the hour they’ll ring with the multi-toned strains of spring migration, untold species winging through.
Edal unlocks her bike from the porch railing and carries it down to the front walk. There won’t be much traffic yet. She’ll cycle south to Lakeshore Boulevard then east to the Beaches, ride hard along the lakefront path.
She feels better the moment she’s on the bike, as though she’s peeled away from her miserable self and left it standing. Partway down the block, she flushes a pale tomcat from beneath a parked car. It crosses the street in low, swinging strides, pausing to turn its broad face her way.
Wheeling onto Carlaw, she glides past ranks of tall brick homes that face the darkened park, young professionals and their babies interspersed among what’s left of the neighbourhood’s older families—mostly working class, mostly Greek. Edal thumbs her bell just to hear it. The land slopes gently, guiding her down to lake level as though she were one of the city’s hidden streams.
At Langley, she changes her mind: she won’t go east, but west instead, through the city’s concrete heart. It’s been months, maybe even a year, since she threaded a path through those glittering towers—not an experience she generally seeks, but this morning the idea of deserted glass valleys appeals.
From there she can cut down to the lakefront if the mood takes her, or carry on westward, maybe even as far as High Park.
Langley ends at Broadview, where Edal bumps across streetcar tracks and jumps the curb to ride overland. The grass is springy beneath her wheels. She rounds the looming statue of Sun Yat-sen and enters the deeper dark of the trees. The long bank of the Don Valley drops away. Giving gravity its head, she splays her legs wide and coasts, gathering speed.
She joins the path near the mouth of the Riverdale Foot-bridge—a quaint name for an arcing pedestrian overpass, all concrete and steel. Pedaling hard through the narrows where the bushes close in, she pumps up over the rise.
Halfway across the bridge, Edal brakes and slows. Balanced against the railing, she twists to look down on the slate glimmer of the Don River. Clumps of growth overhang the banks; a fallen tree rakes the current, waving a snagged plastic bag. The river has been straightened here, forced into the lesser form of a canal. The lit-up parkway follows one unnatural bank, the railway and Bayview Avenue the other. The tracks lie quiet, but already cars are speeding into and out of town, some seeking space, others forming small processions, nose to tail. Edal looks north, her gaze swimming against the flow.
Not far upstream—perhaps two city blocks—the Don begins to meander as a river should. Left then right, in wide, lazy turns. The roads keep their distance. Darkness opens like a rift between them, home to marshland, grassland, woods. Given half a chance, the land would revert, clawing back through time, tearing holes in the city’s thin coat.
A path winds through the shadows, and she spots a solitary runner, visible between the trees. She can’t make out his
face, only that he’s tall and thin, with a dark mop of curls. He pelts down the path as if something’s after him, though as far as she can make out, he’s alone. Either way, he’s crazy. Edal’s trained in personal protective tactics, and she would never run alone down there in the dark.
She hears a distant rumble and lifts her head. Farther up the valley, a subway train crosses the barred undercarriage of the viaduct. On the deck above, cars dart and flash between the netted cables of the bridge’s span. Netted to dissuade jumpers. Edal looks down into the sluggish, reflective river, and wonders at its depth.