Every morning the bus flies past the hospital, climbs the bridge above the intersection
of the rivers, and we all look out to see the elm trees leaning from the banks as if to drink.
At the centre of town, an observatory for invisible things: constellations at noon,
wind sculpture melodies and husbands with their minds on darker matter, who
vanish without warning. It was twilight. Canada Day. Children flittered through the
underbrush with sparklers. Hundreds of people pushed onto the bridge to watch
the fireworks, and somehow in the crowd he lost his way. Afterwards, I searched
for him along the river banks, in the nearby bars. Dialled our number, listened
to the dark house ring. Said to myself, oh well, you always knew you couldn’t keep him.
Years later, after a baseball game, we were walking home together through the forks.
This is where you got lost that time, he said. Remember?
At the centre of town, an aperture, a flaw in the Earth’s electric field.
Across the river, George plays “Maple Sugar” on the fiddle, and behind him the neon cross
above St Boniface General marks the site our daughter first appeared to us, the place
I touched my mother for the last time. Ran my fingers through her soft white hair.
That’s where I visited my old friend Patrick, bringing books and flowers. Or tobacco,
when they let him come outside to smoke. At the exit to the psych ward, he lifted
his hands, fingered the bright holes in the air, deep fissures where a man might disappear.
North of the burnt Cathedral, the narrow Seine comes twisting toward the Red.
At the centre of town, three waterways converging, like my two brothers
and me, each entering the hospital on the same night through a different door,
wandering our separate corridors through the labyrinth until gathered once again
into our mother. Only her beautiful body at rest in a room and a stranger saying a prayer.
Above the rivers, the bright, invisible socket of departure was still open.
At Michael and Rebecca’s wedding, the bridesmaids were so young we held our breath.
At church, we heard the Song of Songs, and later at the rowing club, the band played
“Do You Love Me?” while the guests did the mashed potato. They did the twist.
I stepped outside, onto the terrace, felt in the warm night air the closeness of those things
I need no light to see because I know they’re there: the docked boats and the railbridge,
the sundial in the darkness telling time, the oak and elm trees and the paths that weave
among them, and the picnic grounds, where Patrick unfolded his paper-winged poems,
the mad itinerary of his future. Told me he was cured at last. He was going to run away
to sea, to learn to parasail, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Love is a kite, he said.
Love is a fig tree, a solar wind. He carried no more than a sparrow carries through the air.
Slipped easily into the slender opening between the words. The band played “Shake,”
and the wedding guests were shaking it. I could hear the river flicker like a flame.
The windows cast gold bars upon the water, revealed a figure standing on the pier below.
And then a sudden turbulence and rippling. Another figure running with a flashlight.
Two men bent low together, struggling, pulling something, pulling something in.
Catfish said Ravi, who came out to watch. We saw the flashlight’s flash,
a brief illumination flapping on the dock, and then the man leaned down
and must have tugged the hook out, for we saw him fling the catfish through the air.
Silver gleam of its body in the beam of light, white splash of life and it slid
below the surface, going home. Ron came out and Carolyn came out behind him.
We heard the rumble of a freight train travelling west and then another, travelling east.
A riverboat paddled south against the current, ablaze with booze and rock and roll.
We stood on the terrace, Ron and Ravi, Carolyn and me. Before us, two trains passing
on the trestles high above the rivers. Behind us, Rebecca, dancing in her white dress.
When my daughter broke into the world it was November, the power of the rivers locked beneath the ice. Still, she somehow found her way. She is a navigator. I have seen her
thread a pathway through the woods, blaze trails through mathematical equations.
At the centre of town, a naked eye observatory, to teach the stories of the stars.
Stone markers frame the winter solstice sunrise, sight on Vega, point out solar north–
a direction you might need someday. The art of calculating where you are demands
a known location. A familiar place, however distant, to help you take your bearings.
When my mother left, I could not follow, could not find the passage she had forged, though I knew it was right here. If only I could sight a line among the oaks and elms,
triangulate the vectors of the rivers, measure the magnetic declination. Instead,
I learned what I didn’t want to learn, passed through a lesser opening and became
somebody else. Working in a world that I don’t recognize.
They say the northern pass is the best route up Mount Kilimanjaro,
the wildest one, the most remote. Elephants graze on the grasslands
of the lower slopes, and leopards prowl the montane forest, hunting antelope.
They say the planet’s warming up. The ice fields at the summit have begun to melt.
The trees are thirsty, fires sweep the upper timber line. Yet still the mountain holds
its ark of families, its delicate wild flowers, heather and lobelia, rare black rhinos,
herds of wild dogs and gazelles. Still the stars above the northern peak
are breathing, close enough to touch. Patrick’s probably made it there by now.
He’s on the footslopes with a walking stick, beneath the rubber trees.
Tomorrow he’ll emerge above the clouds onto the moorland,
where the air’s so thin desire finally dissipates completely,
and climb the alpine desert to the snow.
I keep in my house a gift that Patrick gave me, a pale pink alabaster elephant
with a smooth hole through its belly. He didn’t know it was a napkin ring. It lives
in the china cabinet with the teacups and the other elephants, the brass one
and the one my daughter made of clay when she was little. Even then
we knew she was a person who could coax the earth into her hands and give it shape.
I’ve seen her walk into a room, my mother’s necklace sparkling at her throat.
I’ve seen her light the kindling in the garden fireplace and wake the flames.
On the evening she was born, snow fell against the window of the taxi as I paid
the driver. This is the last thing I remember from that life: snow that burst like fireworks
above the hospital, the neon sign, the glass doors leading to emergency. I knew
I needed to enter those doors, but first I stood in the parking lot a while, alone
for the last time, raised my head to watch the cool white sparks escape the darkling sky.