On March 3, 2005, four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were ambushed and murdered near Mayerthorpe, Alberta, north of Edmonton. I remember reading and reading through the reports I found on the Internet, at first mystified by how the massacre took place and then just shocked at the diabolical killing field the policemen had inadvertently walked into. Years before, in 1992, Marina Endicott, an old friend, a novelist and poet, settled with her Mountie husband, Peter Ormshaw (also a poet and journalist), on his first posting in Mayerthorpe. Luckily, they were long gone when the massacre took place. But the impact was huge. Marina’s essay “How to Talk About Mayerthorpe” is in the 2011 PEN Anthology, Finding the Words. The poems published here—“The Policeman’s Wife, some letters”—were short-listed for the CBC Literary Awards in 2006. Marina’s novel Good to a Fault was a finalist for the 2008 Giller Prize, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean, and was a Canada Reads book in 2010. Her new novel, The Little Shadows, about a sister act touring the prairies in early vaudeville, will be published this September.
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours.
Ezra Pound, “The River Merchant’s Wife, a letter”
What you taste like
Water from our own well, best known,
a coddled egg in a china cup.
You taste of yourself, golden
current runs through you.
You taste of me, of beets, plums,
blue plums in a spilling pile.
A gold bead held in my mouth,
a gelatin pearl, it will melt.
Light spills between gold curtains
in a separate room, a yellow room.
A saint over the door.
St Peter’s Abbey, Muenster, 1991
Alone and awake at night
I walk outside to the winter, babe in my arms.
We look up, black sky turning above us
stars drifted like snow, now the snow
has stopped falling.
The night is so black!
It is a black horse in one corner of the field,
snow on his back. We reach for his black mane.
Nothing is certain. Nothing to see
but the dark.
A crow hops out of the field and flies,
pulling night across the sky.
The dog runs toward us from the house,
black and gold.
The night, and then day beginning.
One said: I’m not scared
any more. It goes away.
Looked sideways out the back
to where her husband laid his whip
across the horse, whipping and shouting.
One talks to hers while he’s at work.
He calls pretty often. We’ve been married sixteen years.
Shot at twice, one partner killed,
his moonface gleams in headlights
drowsing under an overpass.
One poor woman,
It gets easier.
It gets easier. No.
I don’t think about it now.
Another, a peaceful smiler:
Well I just know
he’s in God’s hands, I’m
just never afraid at all.
(Maybe that’s true.)
The last wife shook, laughed, shuddered,
laughed—light spilling over her lower lids:
Oh nobody nobody ever talks, I’m
sick that something will happen. The whole time
he’s on shift I plan his funeral.
The sergeant coming up the walk
two of them together
that’s how you know.
Waiting for you
a cold, breath-clouded night
I breathe, I breathe, I lie in bed and try
the ten breaths of Zen
listening for sirens.
The whole house lies suspended
your children dreaming,
your dog, your slippers,
as if this was an ordinary life.
Dark tracks in your straight hand,
vehicle descriptions on scrap paper
stuck to the fridge obscure our posted rules:
1. Be kind
2. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go
I dream the night sky where you watch,
and drift along the highway while you work,
camp-following, bundling the children
one under each arm. But we can’t
see you, the air is all clouds.
A plume of breath returns to me
standing in the back door. The dog and I look up.
We shiver. You still there?
Ice crystals break, the windows wet
with tears, the mirrors all fog over.
Six a.m. Soon, soon, you will be safe
at home. I know your armour.
And underneath, warm from
Head on a fencepost
All these bits and clips, the film
running, the film running, the whirring
of the projector in your ears as the tail end flap-flap-
flaps around the reel, Ace of Spades
taped to your bicycle wheel, the summer you were ten.
The child’s head on a fencepost
after the accident; blood and cherries
exploded in the cab of that truck; brains,
matter, flecked on asphalt, clear fluid leaking
from the ears, seeping down hill. Ace of Spades.
Suicides, murdered, lost, decayed, now-numberless
dead you have attended and remembered:
you are their guardian. So much red.
Rose red, red brown, ghosts of blood
pale blotches on your field of vision.
How many deaths too many?
Some cold equation could work it through.
Corpse after corpse laid out or flung—
the child’s head on the fence, the man who’d missed
and shot off half his nose.
All these black scenes I know by association.
For me they gain a frozen dignity, caught
in the single image you’ve let slip.
For you they burr a permanent background noise,
the only movie running behind your eyes.
We no longer go together to the movies
(the children, and the cost, et cetera)
—if one of us has seen it that will count.
We don’t need to be present at the kill
to be overtaken by the death.
You say, “I guess you have no reason to remember,”
that smell of rotting flesh when the sink clogs
with day-old shrimp. I never can catch up.
Whatever deaths attend me, you’ll be way ahead,
out on that fencepost, eyes staring aimless at the road.
As a result of harm we go together
to a small office. The psychologist
will tell me how to mend.
Straight chairs, vertical blinds, tissue boxes.
How dare we be alive?
The doctor works with child molesters.
I must be sweet relief: only sad,
danger now harmless—dead.
What office can she now perform for me?
Go back there, she suggests. Lay it to rest.
We’re only here because I could not stop shouting,
because I cried all night, I was in a rage.
It’s gone, it’s long ago. Be braver! I tell myself.
I am a coward. I am cowardly.
I haven’t gone. I doubt if I can go.
I had forgotten how I took the children
to the city every time you were on nights,
because he said he’d get your family.
My fear was overblown, my caution foolish,
leaving was cowardly. Until these days.
I sat alone at the funeral, squeezed in
beside the MLA, a puzzled man, patting my hand.
Above the crowd you wandered in plainclothes, waiting for more.
The heads of state deplored. And at the end,
the band struck up a bright recruiting march.
I was kept ignorant, expected to be brave,
be silent, be awake.
I weep for years when we could not
talk or sleep
Mayerthorpe, Edmonton, 2005
More than my own death I am afraid of yours,
to suffer that great absence. Now with the year’s death,
with the cold, I fear the ice-bound house, Varykino,
and the last beat, Zhivago’s huge heart
breaking in the street. I walk ahead unseeing.
There is no God.
………………………But even as I say this,
driving the whitened road toward our house,
a bird scythes through the snowy air.
No bird I’ve seen before, no hawk or falcon.
Soft grey in a sharp curve, a bow flung near the earth,
the Holy Spirit veers across my path. Or is it just
a hawk, bent wings brooding over an empty field?
When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But still
I pray to the hawk or to the world, our consolation,
that death be kind, be late, be changed to breath.