Kim Aubrey has already contributed a “What it’s like living here” from Toronto just as she was about to move to Saskatoon. This new piece actually seems better than the first, denser, more pressured, more engaged, even as it struggles with engagement, with the new, alien place. It’s fascinating to read the two together. But, of course, I also like this piece for the use it makes of my short story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon,” which is, yes, based on a true story. I did run out onto the ice to help rescue a blind man and his companion dog. But in real life we actually managed to save the dog (in the story, it dies); I brought the dog to my girlfriend’s apartment to dry it off and warm it up; it knocked over the Christmas tree and ate two of the presents and then attacked the policeman when he came to take it into custody. No doubt this will distract you from Kim’s essay. Ignore me. I had a very interesting time living in Saskatoon—but this is Kim’s story.
What It’s Like Living Here
By Kim Aubrey
You ask what it’s like living here and whether I have read your story, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon.” I read it last week, swearing out loud, “Shit, that’s a good story.” I’ve taken to talking to myself because I don’t know anyone here, except for my husband, Joseph, who’s at work all day. My experience of the place is limited, tentative, and your story has already begun to color how I view it. I’ve been planning to visit the Mendel Art Gallery, and now when I go, your narrator’s account of Mendel keeping his art collection in his slaughterhouse may conjure the sight and smell of blood.
“There seem to be so few people”*
You feel strange here. If the place you live shapes you, molds you in ways you don’t realize, subtly and slowly, Saskatoon has yet to work its magic. You’ve only been here for seven weeks in total, interrupted by a return to Toronto for the holidays and to New Hampshire to stay with your mother while she had a hysterectomy. You make yourself go out some afternoons, no matter how cold it is. Other days you stay at your desk, working on projects, answering e-mails. Or you ring your daughters in Toronto, consoling yourself that they are only a phone call away.
On those days that you make it outside, you walk the two blocks across three snow-packed streets to the South Saskatchewan river, where you can either follow the sidewalk and view the open and closed waters from above, or climb down the slippery hill to the Meewasin walking trail which stretches along both sides of the river. You could cross over to the west side on one of the bridges, but you are waiting for milder weather before venturing across on foot. Here on the east side, the surface of the river is frozen and seems like an extension of the trail, but beyond and under the ice, the river flows swiftly north to Lake Winnipeg.
“Beneath me the unfrozen parts of the river smoke and boil”
Outside, it’s minus thirty, but you kick off the covers three or four times a night, pull them back on. Your body’s thermostat is wonky. Heat blazes through you, a trial by fire, something being forged. Your period is late again. Maybe it won’t come. That doesn’t mean what it meant twenty or thirty years ago. It means the opposite now, your power to make a baby dwindling, some other power replacing it. The force of this heat kindles you even in the frozen depth of a Saskatchewan winter.
You hurry inside from a walk. Your knees and the tops of your thighs sting as the warmth floods back into them. You neglected to wear snow pants or long johns, or to wrap your scarf around your face, because you relish the bite of cold, the uncompromising crispness, hoping it will eat a clear path through your befuddled mind. You wonder how you’ll manage to make this prairie snowscape feel like home. When you first moved to Canada, your daughters helped to ground you, to root you in Toronto where you’d landed. What can root you now? You’re hoping the cold can tell you, or the tension between cold and warmth, desire and paralysis.
You gaze at the painting on your bedroom wall—an enormous hyper-real hibiscus. The yellow stalk of its sex casts a cool blue shadow against the lush red petals. When you were a kid in Bermuda, you used to strip the petals from the stalk to find the sticky heart of the flower, its hidden juiciness. You and your brothers would fix the small white cone to the tips of your noses to see how long it would take before the flower’s heart fell off.
“Winter in Saskatoon is a time of anxious waiting and endurance”
On your walk, the birds startle you; they seem incongruous in this cold with their screechy static and the way they burst from a wintry hedge or fly to the treetops. A spray of sparrows or spike-tailed cowbirds bedeck the air, and drape the bare hedges with the stringy icing of their excrement. Last night you fought with your husband about money, and the full weight of your dependency on him pushed you in the belly like a medicine ball. You know no one else here. You don’t have a job. All you have is the pencil or pen in your hand, the paper where the images and words appear. The cold helps you to feel who you are exposed, pared down to your essential sticky self. And to feel what’s coming, what’s nascent in the air, this crisp solitude holding its opposite—the promise of melt and spring—this is what the cold knows. The birds know it too. It is only you who fear that winter will go on forever.
“There is a feeling of the camp about Saskatoon, the temporary abode”
You’ve seen photos of people kayaking here in summer. Everything is green then. You can’t imagine it. This white city is the Saskatoon you inhabit, its quiet snowbound streets where the occasional cyclist pedals home from the university, or a woman in a parka walks her dog. You have yet to snowshoe or cross-country ski in the park, but yesterday you glimpsed a young man on a snowboard swooshing down the steep slope of the riverbank, finding a makeshift ski hill in this prairie city. This is a place of opportunity, of exigency, like the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter, a place you can adapt to your own needs, a place full of possibilities—small hills to be fashioned into ski slopes, windswept semi-desert to be plowed and planted into a field of golden canola.
After walking by the river, you stop at a triangle of land where the road forks and an art gallery sits, a gallery that has adapted itself to the needs of frozen walkers by adding a café, where you drink herbal tea, fragrant with orange peel and vanilla, tropical scents that take you back to your childhood in Bermuda, while you gaze at brightly colored paintings, one a scene of children playing on a beach.
In the evening, your husband drives you to the class in sequential art you’ve signed up for. You’ve longed to make a graphic novel ever since you read Satrapi’s Persepolis and Spiegelman’s Maus. When you were a kid, you read comics—Archie, Little Lulu, the
Fantastic Four—but the ones you loved most were four tattered and yellowing Pogo collections your father found at a second-hand book sale. You read and reread those books. Walt Kelly’s political commentary sailed over your head, but you loved the southern poetry of the dialogue, and the winsome characters—the sweet, easygoing opossum, the romantic, poem-spouting turtle, the sullen antisocial porcupine and lively, scheming alligator. You reveled in their misadventures, reassured by the way that evil could pass through their quiet lives without leaving a scar. You wanted to linger in Kelly’s idyllic swampland, where innocence could transform a tired familiar song into an incantation, at once magical and side-splittingly funny.
You can’t imagine being able to create anything like Kelly’s comic world. And you wonder what you’re doing in this class of twenty-something’s. Tonight you have to transform the person beside you into an object or creature in a series of three panels—the first a realistic portrait of the person, the third the desired object or creature—platypus, tortoise, coffee pot—and the middle frame an image showing the person half-way changed—head giving way to lid and spout, or tail and carapace. You try five or six transformations while watching the young man opposite draw you in a confident swirl of lines, making you into an R. Crumb character, then transforming you into a fish, an alien, a raccoon. After struggling to draw a man/tortoise, man/platypus, man/angel, you think of the full moon you saw when you arrived here this evening; it loomed low on the horizon behind this old building, previously a School for the Deaf. You make this bold young man who wants to be a movie producer into a dreamy dozing moon, the kind of moon you might see in a storybook.
When you walk around to look at the others’ drawings, you realize that this is another Room of Requirement, each of you here for your own pressing reasons, hoping for an answer to the question of who you are now. Fish waiting for summer in the cold depths of the Saskatchewan River? Coffee Pot perking with lustful impatience? Moon dreaming up a life for itself, for a whole cast of characters?
“We are free to invent structures and symbols as we see fit”
After class, you wait outside for Joseph. It’s minus 25 or 30 Celsius. The cold seeps through your woollen pants and heavy boots. You wrap your scarf around your face, but the cold feels welcome—the one thing you really know about this place, the one thing your friends back in Ontario think of when you talk about Saskatoon. It is the obvious difference between here and there, although global warming seems to be changing that, bringing unexpected weather into every region. Other differences are subtler, slower to make themselves felt, to seep in through your ready and reluctant pores. You stamp your feet to warm them, pull your hood closer. You can see Joseph’s white Subaru on the other side of the street waiting behind three cars for a pause in the traffic. Yes, there is traffic here, although nothing compared to the jams and snarl-ups of Toronto, but Saskatonians have full and busy lives too, lives you can only glimpse for now, as you begin to build your own new one, frame by frame.
“Life is nothing but a long haunting”
Water drips from the roof. The temperature has risen above freezing, an early teaser of spring, making you restless. You drive to the Mendel Gallery, realize that you could have walked here, joining the trickle of people celebrating the weather with a stroll or jog across the bridge. You wander through the gallery rooms, inspecting Japanese photos from the nineteenth century—geishas, samurai, mount Fuji, rice farmers, tea pickers—stereotypical tourist photos some emblazoned on lace-edged handkerchiefs—the perfect souvenir. Then a contemporary exhibit on identity—portraits of an artist’s face, features interwoven with those of a criminal or a victim. You’ve seen two of these before at the McMichael Gallery in Ontario. You even wrote about them in your memoir, how you imagined your own features interwoven with those of the uncle who molested you and your brothers when you were children in Bermuda.
Across the room hang life-sized photos of a South African woman with a white cloth over her head and face. Black crepe flowers bleed into the white, dripping down onto the woman’s hands—a comment on the effects of apartheid—the invisibility, the blurring of identity. Here, in the black water staining the woman’s hands, you see the story’s promised blood, not the blood of the slaughterhouse, but of an oppressed people, whether black South Africans, African Bermudians, or First Nations’ people here in Saskatchewan, many of whom still flounder in the wake of Residential Schools and other attacks on their families, culture and spirit.
As you order a sandwich in the gallery café, a man waiting for coffee stares into your face as if that’s the way they do things here, or at least his way, and asks, “What color are your eyes?” “Green,” you say, your tone implying that you had forgotten their greenness, perhaps surprised that the cold has not turned them an icy silver. You take a table by the window and watch the hillside across the river where a distant figure, black against the snow, runs pulling a sled along what must be part of the Meewasin trail. Other runners follow, and a cross-country skier. You want to walk across the bridge, and keep going wherever your heart takes you. The man with the coffee is chatting with a young blonde, who asks about his website. Perhaps he’s an artist. Last night in your sequential art class, you drew yourself as a character sitting by your mother’s hospital bed, feeling faint and nauseous as you listened to the surgeon describe the cuts she was going to make in your mother’s body. Drawing the story was the most fun you’ve had in weeks, maybe months. Your cartoon self is two-dimensional, black and white, but her emotions are clear, her lines bold.
You’ve been planning a writers’ retreat in Bermuda this spring. When you first flew into the airport here, you saw that the city was an island in the middle of a prairie sea, and you knew you had entered a parallel universe, returned to where you’d started, but in another dimension. You think that this could make a good comic—The Adventures of Bermuda Girl in Saskatoon.
“My words are sad companions”
You and your husband scrape frost from the windows of his Subaru. It’s a Sunday morning in late February and you are planning to drive north to the tree line to see something of the province beyond this island of city. The plastic scratches black lines through the frost. Your toes start to burn inside your boots; all your warm socks are in the dirty laundry. In the car, you listen to the Weather Band while your husband pumps gas. A man’s voice reels off a list of temperatures and wind chills in French. He pronounces the V in vingt like a W—moins wingt-neuf—the temperature is minus 29 C with a wind chill of minus 36. Another voice states in English—“Severe Weather Watch for Southern Saskatchewan.” Your husband sits back into the car. “Let’s go another day,” he says.
Instead of driving north to find the tree line, you drive along the river and take photos of the trees blooming with frost, the mist floating up from the open water. Your husband waits in the car while you get out, one ungloved hand holding the small silver camera. A truck pulls up, releases a serious photographer with a black telescopic lens. A cowbird flits across the street, dramatic in black and white, flaunting its long tail feathers. Your bare fingers begin to ache and burn. You return to the car. “That’s enough,” you say.
You and your husband have a running joke that you are going to leave him here, to live somewhere warmer, somewhere more chic. Before the move, even your daughters joked that you were only pretending to follow him to Saskatoon, and were really booked on a plane to Paris or New York. “Where are you really going?” they’d ask. “You can tell us.”
“The usual unanswerable questions”
After a weekend of frigid weather that keeps you inside, you feel stir crazy and welcome the slightly milder temperatures and the light snow that falls on your hair. You think you might walk across the bridge today, and on towards the post office to pick up your mail. You stride towards the river, adapting your tread to the uneven ground of a street packed with ice and snow. A green balloon floats towards you. You regret not having brought your camera. Taking photos is one way you prove to yourself that this place is real and that you are really here. The balloon is unmistakably green against the white of the street. Borne by the wind, it brushes past your boot. You resist the urge to kick it, or even to pick it up, afraid that it might burst.
The balloon floats past you. You walk to the bridge, but the biting wind that blows snow into your face makes you think that this is not the day for crossing over. You cut through a side street and back the way you came, searching for the green balloon. But you can’t find it, not even a trace of shriveled green elastic in the snow. Did the wind snatch it away? Did someone else walk by and pick it up? Or did you dream the balloon because you needed something to hold onto, some promise that your life here will turn out okay?
* All headings are quoted from Douglas Glover, “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon,” Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1985).
(Post design by Gwen Mullins)