Authors: Susan Musgrave
Tags: #General Fiction
“[Musgrave’s] prose is lucid, eloquent and poetic. The tone of the piece is alternately despairing, ironic, erotic and fearful; the pacing of the narrative is perfectly tuned to the tension of the subject matter. This is a mature writer in her stride—giving the reader a taste of just how versatile her writing arsenal is when put to the test.”
The Calgary Straight
“A lyrical narrative sliced with dark graphic humour … Musgrave artfully turns up the tension as she twists the plot, humanizing the characters despite their ugly underbellies.”
“[Musgrave] inhabits her subjects like a second skin, injecting them with a sad wisdom and complex sympathy.”
“Musgrave’s poetic gift is evident in the powerful depiction of the island of Tranquilandia, where the narrator is held against her will. The reader feels the sweltering heat, flinches at the sound of scurrying rats and catches the penetrating scent of orchids.”
The Charcoal Burners
The Dancing Chicken
Songs of the Sea-Witch
Entrance of the Celebrant
Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries
(with Seán Virgo)
Selected Strawberries and Other Poems
Becky Swan’s Book
A Man to Marry, a Man to Bury
Tarts and Muggers: Poems New and Selected Cocktails at the Mausoleum
The Embalmer’s Art: Poems New and Selected
Forcing the Narcissus
Things That Keep and Do Not Change
What the Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970–1985
Kestrel and Leonardo
Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs
Musgrave Landing: Musings on the Writing Life
Compiled and Edited
Clear-Cut Words: Writers for Clayoquot
Because You Loved Being a Stranger
55 Poets Celebrate Patrick Lane
VINTAGE CANADA EDITION
Copyright © 2000 by Susan Musgrave
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, in 2001. First published in hardcover in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, Toronto, in 2000. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Vintage Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of
Random House of Canada Limited.
constitute a continuation of the copyright page.
Musgrave, Susan, 1951–
Cargo of orchids
PS8576.U7C37 2001 C813’.54 C2001-901548-8
This story is true.
La verdad es una puta y hay que pagar.
(Truth is a whore and you must pay for her.)
— Colombian saying
To the Virgin of Mercy,
the patron of prisoners
And to prisoners the world over:
No tenemos que pedir permiso para ser libres
Though this story is true, some names have been changed. Otherwise there have been few alterations.
The writer intended both the Spanish and her translations into English to be included in the text, but in most cases the Spanish has been dropped for the sake of expediency. A few words and phrases and colloquialisms have been retained for flavour, and she would like to thank Paul Oscar Nelson for his input. Also Gustavo Gomez, for his fine-tuning.
It is the writer’s wish that her name appear nowhere in the book.
Stop and imagine for an instant a world where someone is grateful for something.
Bret Easton Ellis
Death Clinic, Heaven Valley State Facility for Women
If you are a new inmate only recently sentenced by the courts, this will probably be an entirely new experience for you.
Inmate Information Handbook
When you find yourself listening to their keys and owning none, you will come close to understanding the white terror of the soul that comes with being banished from all commerce with mankind.
Prince of Tides
When a reporter asked Rainy to compare being given the death sentence to being hit by a train, she said, “The train was quicker, the train was softer.”
I’ve lived next door to Rainy for ten years, on the Condemned Row. They call it the Death Clinic—as if it’s a place you go to get treatment for a terminal disease. You can’t cure death, but while you wait for it, they make life impossible.
In many cases death-row inmates are not allowed to write anything longer than a one-page letter, double-spaced. That they permit me to write this story is not a right, they remind me every chance they get, it’s a privilege. If I write gossip, to spread rumours that might end up embarrassing the staff, this privilege will be revoked. So I do as I am told, and “confine all writings to inside the lines.” If you ignore the lines, you are considered “out of bounds without authorization and subject to disciplinary action.”
When I write the word
, I think of cocaine. My care and treatment counsellor, Mrs. Dykstra, would say the word
is a trigger, a connection to my former “drug-seeking ways.” Not to mention
La Reina de la Cocaína is what they called me in the papers after my arrest: the Cocaine Queen. They gave me other names, too. La Madre Sin Corazón. The Mother without a Heart. When I told one reporter I wished I’d been called Oriana Fallachi, a name that sounds like you’re having sex without doing it, he said he could understand why a woman like me would want to change her identity.
Rainy says I shouldn’t take it personally, what they say about me in the press. They always end up bad-mouthing mothers who kill their kids.
Frenchy, my only other neighbour at the moment, is suing the railway. When the train passes the prison at 2:16 every afternoon, it whistles and wakes her up.
Rainy says, what does she expect? She sleeps all day.
Every day is a gift, I say. Who can blame her for not wanting to get out of bed?
Each Christmas Eve we are issued a new calendar so we can start X-ing off the days — until
Christmas or our date certain, whichever comes first. But aside from the barbed-wire sculpture meant to symbolize a Christmas tree in one corner of the chow hall, and the matron who has a “negativity scene—what Rainy calls it—on her desk, Christmas is like any other day on the Condemned Row. The Salvation Army used to donate a poinsettia for our common room, until one year a girl made a salad out of the leaves.
This morning in the shower, Rainy started singing, “Deck the halls with marijuana, fa-la-la-la-la-la la la la.” She would have gone on, but Frenchy, who doesn’t have the Christmas spirit, told her to shut up. The rule here is that if someone
you to shut up, you shut up. Because they’re not asking for a debate, and they’re not asking again.
Rainy says she and Frenchy are the two best friends I could “hope to never have.” She also insists that if anyone reads this book, they will want to know what my best friends
like; she doesn’t understand when I tell her I don’t care about appearances. Rainy’s expressions, actions and thoughts count for more in this story than the fact that she is so thin her elbows and knees look like they’re going
to slice through her clothing, or that her eyes are empty because she’s cried all the colour away, or that she has no chest at all and a mouth that turns down from the way things have gone.
Despite the freight of anger she carries, Rainy seems so frail it is hard to imagine her giving birth to anything heavier than tears. Rainy gave birth to twins, and six months later left them on the railway tracks. She claims it prejudiced the jury. If she’d smothered them or driven them off a pier, it would have been more socially acceptable. She might have been able to cut a deal, had her sentence commuted to life. She could have gone on “Oprah” and become a celebrity, maybe even a role model for women who are child-free by choice.
The train was quicker, the train was softer.
But abandoning your kids on the tracks wasn’t in fashion. She wishes now she’d gone out drinking for the evening instead, but she didn’t have enough money to hire a babysitter
pay for the beer.
I can hear Rainy singing, under her breath as she leaves the shower room, “ ’Tis the season to be jolly.” In prison, time does not progress, it goes round and round in a spiral of endless pain. I want to say, Rainy, there are no seasons in prison—only time.
Frenchy has a little peacock-like crest of hair shooting from the white bandanna she says she wears “to keep my brains wrapped up in.” There’s a male heaviness about her face: her broad nose, brown eyes, a mouth made for smiling and for grief. Her most distinguishing feature, though, is the
white, heart-shaped mark, shining like a beauty spot in reverse, on her cheek. Frenchy calls it her “ugly spot.”
Frenchy’s here because she killed her sixteen-year-old son. “The two of us was just fooling around, you know. Robbing a bank. I’ve made a few mistakes in life I probably shouldn’t have made.
we was doing more drinking than we probably should have, considering we was both on probation.
I was high at the time. So I think I might have overpanicked when those alarms went off, but I don’t recall shooting anyone on purpose.
“We got away from the bank, even though he couldn’t run fast and had to drop most of the money and got blood all over the rest. I was pretty hot about that. I left him by the river, thinking I could go back and find a doctor when things cooled off. The whole town was looking for us, so I stayed at Laverne’s getting high for a week. When Laverne and me went back for him, some animals had eaten on him and there was bugs everywhere, and Laverne shot his teeth out. She told me she done it so that his dental records couldn’t be used against me. That’s what I loved best about Laverne—you could count on her to take care of the details.
“The shooting his mouth part, that made it look bad, but I kept my own mouth shut and never gave up Laverne to the cops, even though I could have got a deal if I did.” Frenchy’s got a few good qualities like that—loyalty. And hindsight. She sees now she made some bad choices, but Frenchy didn’t have a lot of positive influences when she was growing up. She still likes to shock people by telling them, “I was so young when I started sucking cocks, I had to be burped afterwards.”
Her father was “good part Cajun, mostly bad part black”; her mother, who gave birth to her in a mental institution, Crow—you can see it in Frenchy’s bones. She’s got one finger missing—she gave the finger to her father when he boxed her one time; sliced it off right in front of him. Frenchy has no regrets. Nine fingers, she says, gets you a discount at the manicurist’s.