Read Tell Online

Authors: Frances Itani


BOOK: Tell
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For Aileen Itani, Soprano,

and for my aunts Jean Stratton and Carrie Oliver,
and my uncle, Harvey Stoliker,

whose stories I’ve listened to all my life


But isn’t that why
we fall in love anyway, to be able to say the secret,
dangerous words that are in our heads? To name
each other with them in the dark?


: N
1, 1920

desk, wooden cabinet, two windows that look down over city streets three storeys below. Shelves behind the desk are stuffed with black binders. These, she suspects, are guarding secrets stored for generations.

She is in this room with three other women, a man and a baby. The baby, six weeks old, sleeps while nestled against her mother’s arm. Papers are arranged neatly before a woman who wears a tailored jacket over a grey dress. Zel sees compassion on her face; she senses it from her manner and her voice. A brooch in the shape of a miniature sleigh, with silver slats and curved gold runners, is pinned to the woman’s jacket. A tiny gold chain droops from the crossbar to represent a rope attached to the front of the sleigh. It’s as if the woman, who has introduced herself as Mrs. Davis, has a playful side, though not here, not as the official who will ensure that the documents on her desk are
duly signed. In other circumstances, Zel would ask Mrs. Davis about the brooch, its origins, its maker.

A low rumble from the street railway outside seems far off, though sounds are muffled because the windows in the room are sealed. Tracks are being laid on nearby city streets, and in some areas it is difficult to cross from one side to the other. After a rain, the roads here must be a morass of mud, Zel thinks, and she looks down at her boots as if she will have to shake them later, dust them off. Earlier, from inside the cage of the ascending elevator, she glimpsed, as she passed the second floor, rows of women at sewing machines, whirring spools, strewn garments spread over long tables in a large, open room. She had already noticed the sign outside advertising
, and her fingers itched to manipulate folds of material on her own work table at home. There had been no advertisement for the office used by adoption officials, only a number beside the door at street level, which matches the number of the room where everyone is now tensed, waiting for the proceedings to end.

The woman who holds the sleeping baby is thin, green-eyed, taut with nerves. Her arms have begun to tremble and she rearranges the baby’s knitted blanket in an attempt to disguise the shaking left hand she can barely control as she leans forward to sign. Zel moves quickly to stand behind, to place her hands on the woman’s shoulders. To help her through this moment, this day. The baby stretches. A small fist is raised to her plump cheek; there is a tiny indent like a star in her fist. She does not wake.

The young couple rise together and now, as parents, receive the baby. They cannot hide their joy, their happiness at leaving with this new and precious daughter. Each of them embraces
the woman who has given up her child. The two do not linger; they are first to exit the room. The baby, still sleeping, has shown no sign that her life has been set, this very moment, on a new path.

Zel watches the young man tilt his cap over his forehead as he steps through the doorway, shadowing his face before he returns to street level. There are many such men on the streets below, now that everyone is back from the war.

The three women who remain sit in silence, their thoughts perhaps stretching back to earlier moments in each of their lives. A noon whistle pierces the air from somewhere inside the building. Footsteps can be heard in the sewing room on the second floor. Feet clatter down the stairs to the street below as workers take their midday break. Mrs. Davis pushes back her chair and rises to her feet. She nods to Zel and then extends her hand to the mother, who has already begun to feel the physical absence of her child as if it were a spectre that has insistently returned to fill out its former shape.

“You have a long journey ahead,” says Mrs. Davis, “if you’re to travel across the lake to Oswego today.” She adds, as if she has said this too many times to too many women, “Try not to look back. It will be easier if you don’t. Put your efforts into moving your life forward.” She goes to the window and looks down. The sleigh’s golden chain sways slightly with her movement. “Somehow,” Mrs. Davis says, as if the words have been cut from the cloth of her own experience, “somehow, we manage to survive.”

Deseronto, Ontario

One Year Earlier


Local Items

The wind came howling down Main Street near midnight last night. Those who rose from their beds were rewarded with the spectacle of rain rolling along the road like a grand carpet unfurling. While looking out over the tempest, one could not help but think that a winter freeze would be a welcome sight.

We have received news at this office that plans are afoot to set up a scholarship to commemorate students of Deseronto High School and other young men of the vicinity who took part in the “World’s Great Struggle” just brought to a close, and especially those who made the
in said war. Further details are to be announced about a War Memorial Fund, also to be set up by the high school.

They did “their” bit for you. You do “your” bit for them.

Late stragglers: On the morning before the heavy rains, several of our citizens saw a small flock of wild geese flying in front of an airplane. The birds appeared to be frightened as they headed south, but they were keeping ahead of the machine.

A horse belonging to one gentleman by the name of O’Neill made a lively runaway up Mill Street Tuesday afternoon.

Windsor Salt is on sale in the local stores. Purest and best for table and dairy. No adulteration. Never cakes.

Chapter One

. G
blew in off the bay, gusts beat against shirts and trousers and linens pegged to the clothesline. Air pockets were trapped; sheets snapped out furiously. From inside the closed veranda at the rear of the house, Kenan Oak could not shut out the sound.

He closed the outdated newspaper he’d been reading and made an effort to align its edges. Once he’d folded it along the creases, he placed it on top of a neat and growing stack beside his chair. He had read about but had not attended the fall reception in town, nor had he attended the sports dinner or the grand ball—all of which had been held, as editor Calhoun, of the
, had reported, “to thank Deseronto’s red-blooded manhood for its sacrifices, its heroism and its gallantry on the far-flung battlefield.”

The town had waited until late in the year for the big celebration. “
Calhoun had urged the town.
“Decorate your lawns, decorate your homes, decorate your places of business, decorate your streets, decorate your autos—but decorate.”

And people had responded, at least from what Kenan could see from his parlour window. Yes, the town had decorated, and waited until everyone was home—those who were alive to come home. The nearby city of Belleville had sent a brass band for daytime events and an orchestra for evening. Kenan, who had lived in Deseronto all his life, felt far-flung indeed, having brought the battlefield home with him. Or so Tress, losing patience one day, had accused. Kenan had come back as a “walking wounded,” but he had not walked out of the house since the day he’d returned and set foot in it.

Wind hurled itself at the outer walls. The veranda windows rattled and this caused him to stand suddenly, as if he’d been yanked from his chair. He turned his back to the bay and saw a small black spider disappear behind a calendar on the side wall. He ignored the spider and told himself to escape, leave the veranda, walk through the rooms of the house.

Stay calm, he commanded himself. Stay calm.

He closed his good eye, the right, and kept it closed. He imagined himself threading a route through darkness, the way a blind man might. Did a blind man move forward because of faith in the unseen? Faith had not helped the men at the Front when poisonous gas drifted across no man’s land, dropped into the trenches, made its way between walls of dirt and clay as it sought its victims. Those men had been blinded, skin bubbling around their eyes, their lungs frothing as they choked and gasped for air. Kenan had witnessed such a group who had been
brought back behind the lines. He’d rushed to help, just before the men were led away to a dressing station for evacuation—those who could walk. Others were lying on the ground. The walking soldiers, a dozen or more, had been formed up in a line. Each had a hand on the shoulder of the man in front; each had a field dressing covering his eyes, blistered skin showing on his hands and around the edges of his bandages. The soldier who led this piteous parade of afflicted men was unaffected by the gas; he’d been ordered to lead the others out. And then, just before they began to move, they tilted their heads down, all at the same time, as if each blind man had chosen that moment to stare into the same angle of darkness. Some still wore their helmets from up the line; others were bare-headed. None would be back for more fighting. The man at the front of the line suddenly shouted out and began to walk slowly, allowing his retinue to shuffle and stumble behind. From a nearby field hospital, the wounded soldiers would be sent on to Blighty and, much later, home.

Kenan, a witness to this, had the use of both eyes at the time. A few months later, he, too, became one of the wounded, but not from poison gas. His left arm was useless and bloodied; a field dressing covered the entire left side of his face. He’d been lifted onto a stretcher. His right eye had stared into a sky of protective, merciful darkness while the stretcher bearers cursed and bumped along, carrying him away from the battlefield in the night. Thunderous noises, whistling and sobbing, accompanied him as he was moved farther back from where he’d first stumbled into a trench, his hand holding the pieces of his face together.

He was in the parlour now, the soles of his shoes pacing a
thin carpet Tress had laid over the floor. He took no step for granted; each was slow and considered. Feet could be swallowed by bottomless holes. Had he not watched men his own age swallowed by sinkholes? He had. He carried on, reached out with right hand, right arm. He felt for familiar objects as he began to trace a known sequence through his narrow house.

He did this only when Tress was out, only when he was certain that she would be away for hours, working in the dining room of her parents’ hotel at the other end of Main Street. If she were to witness the treks he made through the house with his good eye closed, she would think he was crazed by war. No, that was unfair. Tress wanted to bring him back from the darkness that held him down. She had not given up, nor was she likely to. Or so he told himself.

Now his fingertips brushed chairback, tabletop, circle of doily that slid under his hand. Upper edge of fire screen, pewter candlestick and curve of curly-birch chair. The knowledge of wine-coloured upholstery registered behind his closed eye. At the doorjamb, he dipped his knees and searched below waist level for a familiar indent. His fingers explored this smooth depression during every walk, as if acknowledging that a creature with a single tooth had dwelled here long ago. A creature who had stopped to take a bite from the wooden frame before ambling past.

He circled the kitchen, registered the aroma of bread rising in the dough box, soft butter on the countertop, an overripe apple. He smelled coal dust in the scuttle, lifted his foot over a slight ridge as he left the kitchen, never a step missed.

Kenan had lost the vision in his left eye when he’d been sent
out on a trench raid for a second time. The locations blurred. The German dugouts were deep, he remembered his surprise at that. But going out two nights in a row, he’d been tempting fate. Or rather, the officer who sent him had. The night Kenan was wounded, shells had burst around him without warning, scattering shrapnel. One side of his body had been hit. As a consequence, the left side of his face was now sealed in rippled scars. He seldom looked in a mirror, knowing the damage without having to stare it down. His good side was the right side. His legs were fine. He had a good arm and a good hand. The war had left him with one seeing eye and one ear to hear. He’d escaped total blindness. Sometimes he thought of the lineup of gassed men and wondered why one of his own eyes had been spared, the events of the carnage having been so random, so finite. There was no explaining who walked away, who returned home, who vanished into a landscape of mud roiling with bodies, dead and alive.

He carried on, moved silently from room to room—expert at the silent part—continuing to honour the blind man’s pact with himself. He kept the good eye closed. The hand of his dead arm was tucked into his trouser pocket to prevent the arm from banging into door frames or knocking over the remaining vase of a former pair—the same arm had destroyed the other—or to keep it from swinging into Tress. All of these mishaps had occurred more than a year ago, when Kenan had first come home. He did not go out into the town, because it was safer to stay indoors. That was his reasoning. He was safe when he did not have to make the decision to leave. In his home, he was not subject to interference. He did not have to look at people,
and no one had to look at him. Family members came, and he tolerated their brief visits. Dr. Clark visited from time to time, and he, too, was tolerated. Kenan had not left the house since the day he arrived home, the final day that marked the end of
war, during the winter of 1918.

He finished his exploration of the ground floor. Unable to escape the continuous billowing and snapping of the wind, he decided to include the upper level in today’s wanderings. He extended his right hand, touched the banister and allowed it to direct him up the stairs. On the landing, he took four sure steps to the left and entered the main bedroom. He ran his fingers along the metal bed frame and the solid mattress upon which, night after night, he and Tress slept. The place where he was certain of her warmth soaking into him. Where their love, their lovemaking—that, too, altered by war—had become resolute, intense. His intensity, perhaps. Or hers—possibly the other way round.

In the early months when he’d first come home, Tress had tucked into his good side at night, laughed and talked softly, evenly, pulling from the air, or so it seemed, the continued threads of story, sometimes their own.

Two children grew up in the same town, in houses on adjacent streets. They liked to run and play, lickety-split, along the boardwalk and in the schoolyard and on the paths around town. The boy did handstands in the schoolyard, so good was he at balancing. Occasionally, he was invited to the girl’s house for Sunday supper. The meal wasn’t actually served in her house; family meals were taken in the dining room of a hotel
next to her house—the hotel owned by her father. When roast beef was served, the boy was asked if he would like the outside piece and he always said, “Yes, please,” because the crispy part was his favourite. So the girl’s father carved the roast and said, “Pass your plate along, young man.”

More recently, Tress had become less talkative, settling, he thought, into some sort of grim resolve. She wanted a child. There was no child. She was trying to accept what Kenan had become. And what was that? She was adjusting to what she had become in response.

, Kenan thought suddenly. We’re barren, the two of us. The word startled him. He had seen barren. Charred landscapes where nothing would grow. Trees without leaves, branches without birds. Razed earth that supported no life. Villages without people. Oh, yes, he had seen barren. He had known it intimately.

And Tress’s behaviour had become confusing. Only a few nights earlier, they had made love, and afterward, instead of moving close against him, Tress had turned away and had begun to weep uncontrollably, sobbing for several minutes. Nothing he did or said would comfort her. When the weeping ceased, it was only to resume a few moments later, hiccups of sorrow escaping into the room. They’d both fallen asleep from exhaustion.

, he thought again. There was no explaining why a child had not been conceived. He pushed the word aside. What of it? War changed everything. Including what went on in the bedroom.

He crossed the upstairs hall and walked into the room opposite their own. Empty, except for a made-up bed, an extra
blanket folded against the foot rail. Back to the hall again, he reached for a door between the two bedrooms and stepped into a closet that had been lined with shelves below the peak of the house. His fingers traced towels, wool blankets—every inch of space used efficiently beneath the ceiling that sloped on both sides. On the floor beneath the shelves, a few cedar branches warded off moths. He pulled the door shut and stood inside the cramped space. He did not have to open his good eye to sense darkness. His hand began to shape words in the silent language he had learned from Tress’s younger sister, who had been deaf since she was five. Grania had helped him to recover the language inside himself, the language of words he had not been able to utter after he had come home. He had heard people well enough. With his good ear he’d understood what they said. But his own words had stormed and tangled inside his head. He hadn’t been able to separate them into patterns. In some strange way not fully understood, he’d had to relearn the language he already knew. The bridge between, while he was stuttering his way back to speech, was Grania’s sign language. She had taught him signs he could make with his good hand, words he could spell, rhymes for his voice. He missed Grania. The entire family missed her. But she had moved away a few months after her own husband returned from the war.

Here in the dark closet, Kenan had not escaped the snapping sheets below, the invasion of blunt thuds. Tentacles of sound criss-crossed like maniacal weaving through his brain. His right hand made half the sign for “peace,” for “quiet,” one side of an
arcing down. He pressed his palm over his ear as if to slow a swelling that would not be contained. He left the closet and
walked down the stairs. To keep the blindman’s compact, he did not open his good eye until he reached the bottom.

He tried to remember what Tress had said when she left for work that morning. She’d opened the front door, and wind circled its way into the house. She’d called to him over the sound to say she’d be late coming home. Someone had the day off—the name had blown away with the wind. Usually, Tress was home Mondays. She’d done a wash and hung the clothes before she left. He had spent the morning alone, working at the table, completing the work found for him by the GWVA. He had joined the vets’ association without leaving his house; the work they’d found for him could be done at home. For that, he was thankful.

The light outside was fading. Kenan returned to the veranda and stood beside the wicker chair. A one-eyed foreman, he inspected his intimate patch of backyard and bay. Shadows cast from the house next door transformed the clothesline tangles into menacing lumps. He considered the earlier snaps and thuds—benign compared to the way gusts were now battering at the windows of the veranda. He had a sudden flash of memory, an image of himself as a small boy leaving the house where he’d been raised by his uncle Oak. He saw wind puffing up the inside of his jacket. He saw himself trying to press air from his pockets, fastening the top toggle to prevent the jacket being ripped from his back and blown out over the waves. Whipped-up waves that now, almost twenty years later, distorted the surface of the bay.

He began, again, to pace. He walked to the small enclosed vestibule at the front of the house and reached up to the hook
that held his new jacket. Tress had purchased the jacket several weeks earlier: a heavy mackinaw, navy blue, hooded and lined with tweed. She’d placed it on the hook and there it had remained, hanging limply, waiting for Kenan to slide the insensate hand and arm down into the pit of the left sleeve.

BOOK: Tell
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