Authors: Alison Preston
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
© 2004, Alison Preston
Print Edition ISBN 978-0921833-99-4
Ebook Edition, 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, for any reason, by any means, without the permission of the publisher.
Cover design by Terry Gallagher/Doowah Design.
Cover photo of Alison Preston by Tracey L. Sneesby.
Thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for their generous support during the writing of this book.
Thanks to Brenda Bourbonnais, Steve Colley, Terri Colley, Gerry Cook, Eric Crone, Jacquie Crone, Karen Dudley, Kate Graham, Marc Horton, Catherine Hunter, Dr. David Lyttle, Lorraine Ogilvie, Mitch Podolak, Reg Quinton, Cathy Small, Chris Thompson, Karen Zoppa, and especially Bruce Gillespie, Karen Haughian and John Preston.
We acknowledge the support of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for our publishing program.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Preston, Alison, 1949-
Cherry bites / Alison Preston.
PS8581.R44C46 2004 C813’.54 C2004-906003-1
Signature Editions, P.O. Box 206, RPO Corydon
Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3M 3S7
for Arthur Milford Preston
1908 – 1981
I bit a dime-sized morsel of flesh from the tender cheek of my brother, Pete, while he napped in his basket on the porch swing. I had been playing Nurse with my stuffed rabbits and he kept interrupting us with his constant whimpers and moans. I lost my temper. Even in sleep he couldn’t shut up.
The baby’s screams when I bit him sounded different from his usual carrying-on. The cries had an edge to them that cut through to the inside of me. I could tell from the screams that this was the worst thing I had ever done, by a long shot. It didn’t feel good.
I don’t remember the taste of his skin as much as the feel of it: soft and then slippery. I spit it out in the cotoneaster and ran away.
It was July 11th, 1954. A dusty day. Dry topsoil blew in off the fields, forming a mist of grey cloud over the western edge of the city.
I didn’t run far, just two doors down, to the Wideners’ caragana hedge. Murray called for me, but he had to take Pete to the hospital. Nora didn’t drive. As I recall, it was soon after that day that she asked Murray for lessons and went for her driver’s licence. She wanted to go to the hospital with them, but someone had to stay behind to look for me.
“Find Cherry!” Murray shouted out the car window as he drove off, as though she wouldn’t have known to do so on her own.
She called my name a couple of times, but she didn’t leave the front steps. I waited till she went in the house and then I crept home and hid in the crawl space under the verandah. An hour or so later Murray returned and I slipped out of my hole.
Nora was putting on her gloves. She had called a taxi to take her to the hospital where my little brother stayed on.
“Go to your room,” she said, “and stay there.”
Nora and Murray are my parents. They didn’t know how to punish me for a crime of such proportions. A spanking wasn’t even mentioned. I waited for the punishment to come and it never did, unless you count the silence from her and the new way Murray had of looking at me sometimes, as if he didn’t know who I was.
Right from the start Pete irked me. I had been so excited when my parents told me I would be getting a baby brother or sister. I remember waiting, a little quivery, for them to come home from the hospital, watching out the window with Elaine, my babysitter, on the crisp December day when my father drove up with Nora and the baby in the front seat of the Studebaker.
“When will I be able to play with him?” I asked. I hadn’t given any thought to the types of games I would play with a being so small, but it seemed a valid question.
My mother ignored me, just fussed over her tiny bundle.
“Not for a while yet, Cherry dear.” Murray chuckled nervously. “He’s just a little bit of a guy.”
I think my dad was smart enough to sense right from the start that the new baby was going to be a piece of work. He was tiny, five and a half pounds at birth. I had weighed eight pounds, ten ounces when I was born. It was satisfying to me that I had been a sturdy baby.
When I reached up to move the blanket aside so I could see his face, Nora pulled away. Then she immediately thought better of it and allowed me a peek at the baby boy.
Peter, they named him, after my uncle Pete, my dad’s older brother who was killed in the war. I never met him; World War II happened before I was born.
The baby started crying and he never stopped. That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. His wails were explained away as colic. He ran Nora and Murray ragged and made me want to scream.
He vomited a lot, more than the average baby, I was sure of it. I was also pretty sure that my brother would never be the playmate I had imagined; he was so frail and disgusting.
My parents held him constantly, cooing and rocking to stop his crying. When I cried to see if they would coo my way, it didn’t work. They sent me outside instead. In those days there were kids in practically every house on the street so there was no problem finding someone to play with. There was always something going on: skipping, marbles, British bulldogs, work-your-way-up, hopscotch, or just tormenting the rich guy.
We called him that because he had a fussy yard with flowers all over the place, more than in normal yards. And there were trellises and tall birds and fancy stepping stones, things like that. We figured you’d have to be rich to waste your hard-earned cash on those kinds of frivolities. Nora thought so too. I heard her say it.
So they sent me outside if I was in their way, or got Elaine over to play with me, to keep me out of their hair while they dealt with the newer, more important member of the family.
Elaine was all right. She was a high school girl and I liked her fine. She was good at playing and didn’t mind when I coloured outside of the lines. That was something that bothered Nora, unreasonably, I thought. I could have coloured inside the lines; I just didn’t want to.
The plastic surgeon grafted flesh from Pete’s bum onto the wound I had made on his face. It healed beautifully; there was the tiniest of scars. Outwardly, the damage was nearly invisible.
Because I knew that part of Pete’s face was made up of skin from his bum, it was impossible for me not to call him “Assface.” It was especially mean, I know, because I was the one who caused the damage in the first place.
The cheek bite was the only major incident between us in those early years. I was just four when it happened. My resentment towards Pete lessened as time passed. Other than my calling him Assface as he turned toddler and then little boy, I treated him all right. He wasn’t so bad if you didn’t count the way he totally ignored me. I tried to play with him, boss him around a bit, but he had a way of looking through me that kind of scared me, so eventually I left him pretty much alone. It seemed best.
Almost as soon as I had done it I regretted biting my brother. It amazed me that my hate could have been so strong; I truly didn’t feel it anymore, after the event. I remembered wanting to hurt Pete and I had known it was wrong even as I did it, but it wasn’t until afterwards, in my spot under the verandah, that I began to sense the different levels of wrongness. It wrecked everything, even more than he already had.
I knew Nora wouldn’t be able to love me, not after what I had done. I don’t know that she ever had. I was sure she had never cuddled with me the way she did with Pete. But I didn’t envy him. His cuddling stopped as soon as his crying baby ways did.
My dad loved me; he couldn’t help it. But I frightened him now. It was as though I gave him his first taste of truly malicious behaviour. Or maybe he just didn’t expect it of someone so close, someone he had helped to create. He was blind when it came to Nora, to anything that hinted of wickedness on her part (like not looking for me the day of the bite). It was because of her beauty, I thought then and still do; she bewitched him.
I believed there was a darkness that lived inside of me, deep and hidden. It came out the day I bit my brother and then went into hiding again, maybe somewhere in my small intestine, I thought—there was lots of room in there for extra stuff—twenty-five feet or so of slimy twisted innards. Or maybe it was in the blood running through my veins and arteries, always there, but inactive for the most part.
One of the main worries of my childhood, besides getting polio, was that the darkness would resurface and that the good part of me wouldn’t be big enough to control it, that the good part wasn’t very big at all. That worry still surfaces from time to time, but only as a memory or in a dream.
It started with Great-Aunt Luce and Mr. Dickson Trent. I understand that it goes back further than that into the past, beyond the first ape that came to resemble my human ancestors, but for my purpose, for the purpose of this story, that’s where it began.
I’m not saying it’s Luce and Mr. Trent’s fault. Or Nora’s, or Pete’s, or mine. I don’t want this to be a story about blame. I just want to get it out of my system. Things happened. And they happened because of what went before; they just did.
It’s odd. History is my thing, my main interest. But my own family’s history never struck me as very noteworthy until I was driven by certain events to look at it a little more closely.
There are probably smarter things to do than pore over old photo albums and wonder about the dead people inside of them. But I wasn’t looking for a clever way to pass the time.
It was a late January morning in the middle of the 1990’s and we were having a bonspiel thaw. That’s what they call it in Winnipeg when the weather warms up in the dead of winter. These thaws happen so often at the same time as the Manitoba Curling Association playoffs that they have become known as bonspiel thaws.
I was sitting up in bed reading a book called
In Search of History
by Theodore H. White when I noticed that the paint in one corner of the room was stained and buckling. I stood up to have a closer look. The room had just been painted the previous summer.
My roof was leaking so I called a roofer. An ice dam had built up over the winter and then, during the thaw, water crept inside the twenty-five-year-old shingles and stained my bedroom wall. The roofer drew me a picture, called the formation the mother of all ice dams. He wanted to have a look at the attic, which is accessible only through a trap door in a closet. He borrowed my stepladder and hoisted himself up. I heard him whistle.
“You oughta have a look at this,” he called down to me.
“Do I have to?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
I had never been up there; there had been no cause. I remembered watching Nora go up, her bare summer legs reaching up into the darkness. This house where I live is the same house that I grew up in.
The roofer’s name was Roy and he was a guy who liked to explain things. I appreciated that but I didn’t want to see the attic. My dog, Spike, did and he tried unsuccessfully to climb the ladder. Spike is a wiener dog.
“You can see where the water came in,” Roy said.
“Hmm,” I said. “Is there anything else up there? Anything I should know about?”
I could see the beam from his flashlight darting about.
“No, not that I can see,” he said. “Oh, wait. Here’s something.”
“Please don’t let it be bones,” I said quietly.
“It looks like an old photo album. Do you want me to hand it down to you?”
The album was covered in sawdust and bits of fibreglass insulation.
“I’ll leave you to it,” I said. With Spike under one arm and the photo album under the other I made my way downstairs to the main floor.
“I’ve seen everything I need to see up here,” Roy said and followed me down.
We went outside to the yard and stared up at the roof.
“You might wanna get rid of some of that snow,” he said.
“How do I do that?”
“You go up and shovel it off.” He chuckled. A manly sound.
“Do you do that sort of thing?” I asked.
“No, but I could send one of my boys over to do it.”
“Will it cost me an arm and a leg?”
“Tell ya what. If ya get us to do the roof it’ll cost ya nothin’.”
“That’s kind of like bribery, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, a little bit.” He chuckled again.
I decided to think about it. Maybe I could go up on Murray’s old extension ladder and shovel the roof myself.
After Roy left, with a promise of an estimate to be popped in the mail, I leaned out the back door and brushed bits of insulation off the photo album into the melting snow on the stoop. Then I sat down with it and a cup of coffee at the dining room table. Spike lay down with his chin resting on my feet.
The pages were made of black construction paper and the photos were stuck into black triangles glued to the pages. There was white writing beneath some of the pictures.
I drifted through the album, through old-fashioned white dresses and stockings and suspenders and hats. Through picnics and haystacks and barn-raisings and camp. Shots by a lake. People seemed very sociable in those long-ago days, especially the country folks. The city slickers seemed less so: a man and a woman posing by their first automobile, a toddler hanging onto a sapling, her only companion.
In the country shots women smiled and put their arms around each other, kids had tea parties in the shade of old trees. There were ponds and food and sheep and hired hands. Favourite uncles and blacksmiths, recitals and prizes.
I knew my mother’s parents were both raised on farms. Maybe some of these people belonged to her in some way. There weren’t enough pictures with writing underneath. Whoever put the album together hadn’t been thinking about the future.
My grandparents had been killed in a car crash when Nora was very young. They were taking a road trip to Saskatoon when the driver of a car heading east crossed the centre line and smashed into them. Apparently, no one was speeding; both parties were going quite slow, but still, it was a head-on collision on a highway. All three adults were killed outright.
Nora was in the back seat. She was just three years old that day in 1932. She crawled into the front seat and when help finally arrived she was found sucking at the breast of her mother’s torn body.
I hated hearing Nora say the word suck; I hated hearing her tell the story at all. It always sounded to me as though she was bragging. She said “teat” once when she was telling it. I was just a kid. My friend, Joanne, was there and I felt like dying.
Nora’s father’s aunt raised her. That was Great-Aunt Luce. She lived with and kept house for a man named Dickson Trent. I never met them; they died ages ago. And it didn’t occur to me till it was too late to ask anyone all the questions that I had: did they live together as man and wife? Why did neither of them marry? Who was this guy, anyway?
I turned a page and saw a picture of myself looking pretty much as I did when I was a kid except that it wasn’t me. The girl wore overalls and stood in an open field with the wind ruffling her hair. She smiled full tilt into the sun. Underneath the picture, in the white writing, it said,
Our Luce, 1895, at age nine
It was a funny feeling, seeing myself that way. I searched through the album looking for another picture of the girl who wasn’t me, to see what she had looked like when she grew older, or wearing a dress, or with other people. I could find only one more and there was nothing left of the happy child.
, the white words said,
. She wore a black dress with a high neck and her hair was pulled tightly back from her square face. Her mouth was set in a grim line and her hands were clenched together on her lap. She had no eyes. Someone had carefully cut them out.
I am about the same age now, forty-five, as the woman in the photograph. I walked over to the front hall mirror and looked at my reflection. There was nothing of Luce Woodman there; I was almost sure of it.
My own effort at a photo album was in a drawer in the dining room buffet. I hauled it out now, to compare an earlier picture of myself to the one of Luce as a kid. There was a snap of Pete and me on his first day of kindergarten. Yes. I could have been her, right down to the last freckle.
I remembered the day that picture was taken. Nora had made me walk with Pete and stay to see him settled. Those were my orders. You’d never have known we were together, with him staying as far away from me as possible on the other side of the lane, poking around in the grassy ditches the way a dog would.
Mrs. Judd, the teacher, ran the kindergarten out of her home, a pale pink bungalow; that’s the way it was in the fifties.
“Peter Ring,” he said, when she asked him for his name.
“Assface Ring,” whispered Bobby Cummings.
The other children giggled.
“Pardon?” said Mrs. Judd. “Who spoke?”
No one said a word.
I slipped out the door at that point; I didn’t want to be late for my first day of grade three.
There was no writing under any of the pictures in my album. I decided I should do something about that, so browsers of the future wouldn’t get confused about who was who.
On that same page was Murray’s class picture from 1958. He had taught science at Hugh John Macdonald, a junior high school in the middle of the city of Winnipeg. When he brought his class picture home each year I would stare at it for long periods. The kids fascinated me, with their old clothes and scruffy haircuts. I recognized some of them even now.
I had asked my dad questions about them as he marked test papers at the dining room table after supper: Is this guy an orphan? What’s this girl’s name? She’d be pretty if she smiled, I bet. What’s this boy’s name? What’s his dad’s job?
As I got older I imagined some of the kids smoking cigarettes out behind the school. The girls would undo their blouses so the boys could see their chests. I wanted to be one of those kids, with their scrubwoman mothers and their wary eyes.
When I called them poor, Nora corrected me by saying that they weren’t necessarily poor; they just weren’t as fortunate as I was. She didn’t like the word poor.
Nora was a stay-at-home mum. Before Pete and I were born, she had been a secretary for a prominent uptown lawyer. That was how she put it. But she quit because we needed looking after. Especially Pete, I always added. I hadn’t liked the way she made it sound like our fault that she no longer put on her high heels and fancy suits to work uptown.
My mother looked gorgeous in every single photograph that she was in. It was strange having a beautiful mother. It seemed to me that people liked her because of the way she looked and believed her to be good on account of it. She was always being compared to Lauren Bacall because of her husky voice and the way her hair fell soft and shiny around her face.
I wasn’t even pretty, let alone beautiful. After starting out as a fat baby I turned into a skinny kid—wiry. I remember weighing fifty-one pounds in grade two. That was probably around normal for my size but I recall envying the kids that weighed over sixty. I thought sixty was where it was at.
And I was covered with freckles—from the top of my forehead to my feet. My toes were freckled.
My best friend, Joanne Avery, had no freckles and weighed in at sixty pounds in grade two. She was my idea of the prettiest girl in the world.
In the summer sun my skin turned brown and my freckles got lost. That was one of the reasons I loved summer. My hair was a deep red-brown, as were my eyebrows. It could have been worse. I wasn’t beautiful like Nora or pretty like Joanne, but I was presentable.
I put the two photo albums into the buffet drawer and there they stayed for several months. Then three events occurred that caused me to do a fair bit of looking back and the albums came out again. At first I thought the three events were separate, just eerily coincidental, but before long I learned that they were three parts of a whole.