Heaven is Just One Step Away
By Nathan Turowsky
The wind blew in over the estuary and buffeted the grey paps of water around the lower rocks of the sea-wall, and at the brink of the drop into the brine she stood with the sounds of the weekend’s last shanties swelling in her ears. The wind blew her hair around her face like a shifting shoggoth of a curtain, lapping at her glasses with the soft black insistency of crows’ feathers. One hand was holding the two breast flaps of her coat together; the button had come off several days ago, when she was fumbling with her clothes after voiding some bad Chinese food in a PetroCanada bathroom in Sherbrooke. The other hand, whose fingers were splayed down against the palm like a folded wing, gripped a brochure that sagged with the weight of the fog condensing along the top edge. It was a simple length of white paper that had been printed and then folded up like an accordion. On the front it bore the legend ‘Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, La Fête des chants de marins’ over a picture of a sailboat.
This woman with her corvine cast, a raven of the mountain fields standing amidst the gulls of the sea’s gullet, stood with her back to another woman, shorter, with some feline energy about her, who was running along the jetty to the sea-wall in hob-nailed shoes that she had used these past few years for hiking and moving about in treacherous circumstances. Such as, for example, sprinting full tilt down a stone spit soaked with the mingled leavings of sea and sky, the grey St Lawrence lapping only a few feet away to both sides. ‘Mattie!’ she cried as she ran. ‘Mattie, don’t turn your back to me!’
Mattie was not actually turning her back to the other woman—Ellie, her dearest friend, the mate of her heart, though she would not tell Ellie so in as many words for fear of Ellie’s response. She had this fear for the same reason that she was facing away from Ellie now. It was an inarticulate, almost babyish horror that seized upon her at times like this, a horror at the idea of having to face anything that might reward her gaze by casting her away. She shivered as Ellie’s footsteps behind her slowed and then stopped, the last few wet slaps of boot against water and stone very close by to her left. She shivered and she would have liked to think it was the weather but she wasn’t going to fool herself with false roaring-boys’ bravado.
‘Mattie,’ said Ellie again, her thin, artificially tense voice cutting to the quick through the music of the water and the hearty tones of the singer in the white tent on the shore behind them.
‘I’ve decided,’ said Mattie, ‘that I really love this place, you know.’ Her voice cracked a little; again, she was not going to tell herself that it was the wind. ‘I think we could be happy here for much more than a few days if it came to that.’
Ellie frowned, which made little difference to the actual cast of her face out here in the sea wind, and said ‘I really don’t think you realise the full import of what you actually did, Mattie.’
Mattie at last turned. The turn seemed awfully slow to both of them. Mattie was wearing shoes with not-particularly-modest heels and had to tread carefully on the jetty and sea-wall, unless she wanted to go kiting into the drink and turn up a corpse two weeks later on Labrador’s coast—tempting, but not right now. At last they stood regarding each other while a gull plaintively called out somewhere above them and applause broke out from the tent.
‘In Montmagny?’ asked Mattie.
‘Yes, in Montmagny!’ Ellie snapped back. ‘Considering that’s what we were up to yesterday, that’s where this whole mess started, and that’s what you’ve been avoiding talking with me about all day to-day so far, what the Hell else would I be referring to?’
Mattie looked down at the water, which remained temptingly shallow where it surged around the sea-wall to break against the jetty and the flinty shore. Before she could speak or move or do much of anything, Ellie yelped and grabbed her around the arms from behind, putting her in a sloppy full-nelson and dragging her back a few feet over the sea-wall. ‘Hey!’ shouted Mattie. ‘Are you trying to…’
She trailed off. Ellie stood there panting with a wild and fearful look in her eyes. Mattie realised that, far from trying to hurt her, her friend had followed her gaze down into the water, leapt to a conclusion, and, time being of the essence on even the remote chance that this conclusion was correct, pulled her back from the edge.
‘Please don’t think I could do something like that,’ she said flatly, the wind blowing in a roil of fog that swirled up against her glasses like vines. ‘Even if we’re on the rocks.’
‘This is hardly the time for puns,’ snapped Ellie. ‘Come on. We need to talk.’
Mattie bobbed her head meekly. ‘We do,’ she said. ‘You want to talk up at the church and grotto?’
‘That would definitely be better than this,’ said Ellie. ‘And I know you got out here all right, but please take those shoes off. You’re making me nervous.’
Mattie nodded again and bent down to remove the shoes, working her way along the laces from ankle nearly to toe before tugging them gently off. Her toes squelched down into the water as she followed Ellie back along the jetty to where a lane ran up beside the village graveyard. Here the houses were small, looked directly out over the water, and had a thrown-together cast about them; the graveyard was old, some of the stones weathered into completely unreadable moon-white slabs, and the area around it reflected its character. Mattie was looking up ahead of them, her gaze one almost of expectation. Before was the red roof of the church between its two mist-shrouded spires of silvery stone, rearing up over the trees that lined the east end of the graveyard, ponderously majestic.
They came up towards a small play area for the children of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli from which a little staircase went up to the grotto down a gravel lane from the church. Ellie was silent as they went up that way. The grotto, which was a sort of spiritual diorama of the apparition at Lourdes, was wedged between the graveyard and a foreign-crafts store on the place de l’Église, with the church across a small parking lot.
‘Here?’ asked Mattie, standing next to the kneeling little girl beneath where the Virgin loomed out of an alcove in a beetling stone wall. Ellie nodded, kicking idly at the ground.
‘I don’t know if you understand,’ Ellie began, ‘why I can’t bring myself to, uh…’ She looked up at the Virgin. Her eyes were plaintive in that peripheral and strangely powerful way common to the expressions of such statues. She looked down at the French peasant girl, whose eyes were wide and a little wild, and then at Mattie, who was staring intently at a point between the two spires of the church, head slightly inclined over her right shoulder.
‘Forgive me?’ Mattie asked softly.
Ellie shook her head. ‘Mattie, you misled me about something completely stupid and only symbolically important, and then acted like an entitled eremite around my brother. It would be asinine if I hadn’t forgiven you.’
‘Then…’ Mattie knew that she wanted to make a ‘then’ or ‘but’ proposition but honestly did not know what she meant it to be. She shifted her stare, as if that carried in itself some meaning, from the grey-white opalescence of the sky above the church to an intricate wooden ‘orne au mort’ nearer by.
‘Just because I have forgiven you,’ Ellie said, ‘doesn’t mean that I’m not still angry at you. You haven’t really been thinking of what you actually did, from my or anybody’s point of view.’
‘I’m not running away from it,’ Mattie said vaguely. ‘It’s just hard.’
‘What parts of it are so hard that you have to think I’m dealing so horribly with it?’ Ellie cried, folding her arms around her chest over the fluttering greenish plastic of her old raincoat. ‘Is it that hard for you to know you’ve done something wrong?’
‘No,’ said Mattie. ‘That’s not it.’
Ellie groaned and trotted to Mattie over the wet grass, standing very near her face over the imploring white head of the reverent French peasant. The taller woman looked almost as if she was waiting for something, something specific that she could not get or perhaps merely was not going to get from Ellie. The lines of Mattie Greer’s face, always firm, were drawn as taut as the rigging on a boat setting out in this kind of weather. Ellie followed her gaze; down the path from the part of the parking lot that lay between the church and a general store two other young people were stumbling. They seemed either drunk or delirious or both and one of them, a tanned man with a shock of red hair, was dangling the keychain to a rental car from his index finger.
‘Oh!’ Mattie cried. She was seized with a sudden desire to talk to these people for no apparent reason; at least, not any that she could articulate or make Ellie see as reasoned. Simply, it was a yearning for communication in this place, some new avenue to go with the novelty of everything else that was happening. Never mind that part of the novelty was that they were having this fight in a rural part of a French-speaking country; that was just a sad excuse for a reason why not.
‘Mattie,’ said Ellie, ‘what are you…’
‘Bonjour!’ Mattie cried, running up barefooted to meet the two. There was the young man and a fierce-looking young woman with dark hair and eyes. Both seemed a few years younger than Mattie and Ellie. ‘Ah—excusez…’
‘Sorry, lady,’ said the man in a broad and somewhat dopey but not completely stupid-sounding voice, ‘but I don’t—’
Mattie laughed. ‘Neither do I.’ Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ellie coming up beside her and standing on the pavement tapping her toe. A surge of guilt threatened to overwhelm Mattie’s sudden and inexplicable confidence; she had no choice, or at least no smart choice, but to let it, and she looked down, crying slightly, while the man and woman gawked at her in confusion.
A ruddy hand, narrow-palmed but with thick and fleshy fingers, stretched out over the gap. A pale hand and then a dusk-coloured hand came and met it. Ellie shook with the man and the woman in turn, a rite of transitive reconciliation to Mattie’s strange behaviour. Mattie watched her through heavily lidded eyes, now indefinably afraid.
‘Ellie Soren,’ said Ellie. ‘Mattie Greer. Hadley, Massachusetts.’
The man—boy, really, couldn’t have been any older than twenty any more than he could have been younger than seventeen—nodded and said ‘Osbourne Carillon Page. The Woodlands, Texas.’
The woman, or girl, who at a closer look seemed not so much fierce as vaguely defensive about everything and nothing, said ‘Esperanza Fabiola Pavia y Albeniz. Houston.’
‘That’s a long, long way. What brings you to this part of Quebec?’ Ellie forced the words through her lips, still turning over in her head the way Mattie had fed her that bullshit about being able to tell a Fender from a Les Paul by ear because she thought it would impress her, the way she had ‘apologised’ by insisting on Ellie spending their time in Montmagny with her rather than Bran, the beloved brother who Ellie hadn’t seen in months, the way she was standing now, obviously contrite, casting furtive glances back at the Virgin, but too proud, too hale for her own good sometimes…
And Ozzie and Fabbie weren’t sure exactly how to answer the question. It wasn’t because there was anything that they were uncertain about, but it cut, unintentionally to be sure, into a private place that they had taken three trains and five buses over the past week to create for themselves. It wasn’t on purpose. There was nobody blameworthy here that they knew of.
Mattie stood watching the situation progress until they began walking half-aimlessly towards the church, her bringing up an unexpectedly awkward and perhaps too profoundly self-castigating rear. She had no idea what was going on or how Ellie and the two strangers had turned her attempt to change the tenor of the situation into some sort of bizarre continuation of her trial, but she thought she liked it, in the masochistic way of one perceiving herself as obviously guilty. She reached down inside herself for a bubble of cheer to force to the service—got to make a good first impression, even if it wasn’t technically called for—but inside her soul felt like a stain on itself. As her bare feet touched the stone on the way up to the church her soul followed her eyes up to where Esperanza Fabiola stood with the guarded expression of an unwitting bailiff.
They went inside. The church of St Jean served a village of thirty-three hundred people, a parish of only slightly more; but it was bigger than many cathedrals in the United States, the bowed white ceiling flecked with embossing traced in gold, God Himself descending out of the golden clouds where the barrel vault of the nave met the groin vault over the altar. The church was full of bright wooden carvings, the patrimony of the village and area.
‘Why are we here?’ Ozzie asked. It was a question that had a lot of relevance to his recent straits. Fabbie was Houston-born, from a well-off family legitimately immigrated from Nicaragua, where they had been comparatively even better-off, so that her father could do geological surveying in actual oil fields, something profitable and ‘real’, instead of going over the same five or six alpine agricultural zones in the cordillera for the rest of his life. She’d met Ozzie, son of a family that fancied itself ‘old money’ but was really just old, at one of the dire summer offerings of the golden valleys of California, where they were standing in an interminable line for tickets and began mutually complaining about friends who were in the bathroom and expected them to do everything for them. After exchanging phone numbers their friends came back and they had not spoken during the movie or after it for quite some time, until one thundering day last summer Ozzie had seen ‘Fabiola P.’ scrolling through his cell phone directory and called her on a whim to go see, in her paraphrase of him at a time of reminiscence later on, ‘something shitty, maybe involving an X-Man, or more than one if we are very lucky’.
Things had gone well until the beginning of the present summer, at which point Ozzie and Fabbie had decided that it really was not in their best interests to stay in the Greater Houston area. It wasn’t because there was anything inherently wrong with Houston. Shit was just getting dicey, as she put it. They’d crossed the border, Fabbie’s first time crossing the northern one and Ozzie’s first time crossing any one at all, in a woody area of Vermont and then Quebec early on Friday, hitchhiking in some aging pothead’s freak bus. Through the whole North Country from White River Junction to Sherbrooke the mountains reared up in deep greens against a relentlessly blue sky, courses of water flashing silver below sudden drops that the trees seemed to tumble into like the serried ranks of teeth in the ravaged maw of a beached shark. So beautiful. It felt as if they had never seen woods or mountains before.
And now some nerdy girl from Massachusetts was standing in front of a pulpit with a carved pelican on it in an enormous and ornate Catholic church in French Canada, some weird morose and almost guilty expression on her face, with the strains of sea shanties still coming up from the seashore. And another girl from Massachusetts, less nerdy and more just kind of weird, was trying once again to strike up a conversation with Ozzie and Fabbie about who they were and where they had come from, but her heart didn’t really seem to be in it somehow.
Ellie, for her part, barely even registered Ozzie and Fabbie as people right now. Of course they were; of course she intellectually assented to their being-there. But it wasn’t why she cared. Her eyes were restless in their analysis of the silhouette of erring and beautiful Mattie.
‘—But you have to understand that you were wrong,’ Ellie said insistently.
‘What are you talking about?’ asked Fabbie.
‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ said Ellie. Mattie looked up and made an inchoate murmur and looked down again. It was as if her gaze had never really left the carved pelican feeding its young with its blood.
‘I said I was sorry,’ Mattie said.
There was a span of silence. Then Ozzie said ‘Uh, are you guys gay?’
An elderly, thank-God monophone French-Canadian man at the other end of the church, beneath a carved frieze of some Bible scene too old and weather-worn to really what it was exactly, coughed and then unwrapped a cough drop so that he wouldn’t cough again. These were the only sounds in the church during this interval other than the ones coming from outside. Mattie stared down the pelican pulpit like a barn cat. Ellie looked at Ozzie with more or less the same expression on her face, then shifted gears and gazed in some sort of bizarre reverie at the back of Mattie’s head. Then her hand came up to her chin and scratched it. Once, twice, thrice.
Fabiola had decided to take some photograph of the carvings on the pews and the picture of Christ before Pilate behind the altar, and had wandered off forthwith. Ozzie reached out for her hand and found air, so he folded his arms and looked at Ellie, who was looking at Mattie, who was looking, no longer for a change at the wooden pelican, but at a statue of St John the Baptist. The statue, and two similar ones of the Evangelist of the same name and of Augustine, stood below another scene from the Passion and next to a driftwood baptismal font that reared up from the floor like a gnarled alien fist, its uneven bowl catching a ray of diffuse light from outside and throwing it back at Mattie like a finger held in accusation. The statues and the font held Mattie’s gaze for another few moments, in which something important yet not quite definable changed or whirred or clicked in her head and she felt both truly sorry and truly concerned about however, if at all, Ellie was going to answer Ozzie’s question, since which by now twenty or twenty-five seconds had passed.
Ellie nodded and said ‘Yes.’
Mattie’s head finally whipped around, so sudden, and her gaze flashed across Ellie’s like an ascending lark and in her face there was a wide-eyed and oddly terrified smile. Her heart was surging with delirious light. Ellie reached for Mattie’s hand the way Ozzie had reached for Fabbie’s; they were too far to touch, but Mattie reached back anyway, and they stood for a second reaching for each other before letting their arms fall back into more natural positions.
Ozzie said ‘No fooling.’ He clasped his hands in front of his stomach. ‘No fooling.’
‘Querido,’ said Fabbie, ‘would you like me to go to that shitty-ass store across the way and get a souvenir to send back to that friend of yours, Bruce or whatever?’
‘His name’s Blake, and yeah, he’d like that.’
Mattie still stood like a stock, a stone, with Ellie like an esk, an adder, walking around her. ‘So you aren’t angry any longer?’ Mattie asked.
‘No,’ said Ellie, and it was like an operation of some sinuous grace. The girl sometimes so like a kitten had transformed to hold Mattie transfixed in a coil of mercy, and Mattie stood wondering how she could ever have asked for or expected anything else. Osbourne Page was sitting in one of the front pews; Fabiola Pavia was going across the parking lot; the old local’s cough had come back as he stood scrutinising the same marriage banns on the church bulletin board that he had been looking at for what must have been at least several minutes now.
‘I love you, you know,’ said Mattie, ‘whatever we mean.’
‘I love you, too,’ said Ellie.
Ozzie coughed. He shifted uncomfortably and did a little piece of work with his thumbs. ‘Maybe I should…’ he began. ‘I mean, that is, if there’s something special here, and maybe Fabbie wants me…’
‘Sorry about that, Mr Page,’ Ellie said vaguely. Mattie’s gaze went around to the wooden statues and the gnarled alien baptismal font again. On a table before it there was a full, open, public baptismal book, the kind you didn’t see much in the United States any more. The sea shanty now wafting up from down below the graveyard was much livelier than the one that had preceded it and Mattie’s spirits were finally lifting also.
Bran Soren lived in a little clapboard house in Montmagny and worked as a freelance computer programmer. Mattie didn’t like him very much but this was scarcely his fault; she had, however, been jealous when Ellie had been spending time with him instead of touring a dairy farm with Mattie as promised, on their first day out of Québec City. So Mattie had been very surly to Bran, slightly surly to Ellie, and stormed off to go on the tour by herself. The tour had been very edifying about how Canadian agricultural standards differed from American ones, a subject which she had taken extensive notes on in the event that they might be useful to Ellie at some point. Ellie did a lot of her work in conservation activism in areas involving traditional agricultural practises. Mattie had got back and Ellie had been a lot angrier at her than expected, partly because she was remembering the bizarre and unnecessary lie that Mattie had told about her capacity to identify guitars by sound for conspicuous reasons after an argument some weeks before. And, right now, she realised that she had in fact been wrong. She had known that she had been wrong before but it had not really hit her until just now. Now, it slammed into her, and she folded sideways against Ellie, who stumbled back and then held her there in front of a rainbow block of votive candles, a portrait of the immediate past Pope, and a carving of the Crucifixion in which Jesus looked more bored than actually dead.
They spent the rest of the day with Ozzie and Fabbie, after they finally managed to convince them that they were not, technically, having ‘a moment’ in a sense that would require any more privacy than was easily enough afforded simply by Ozzie’s reluctance to discuss certain matters. It had been early afternoon when Mattie had first run out to the sea-wall and mid-afternoon when she had had her redemptive and reconciliatory moment in the church. Everything actually being done in the church for the day, or relative to this year’s Fête des chants de marins, was done by the time they all met up again in the parking lot where the place de l’Église intersected the avenue de Gaspé.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Fabbie then. ‘I’m sure he’s perfectly nice, but I had to leave. That dumb slut was really bothering me. All that coughing.’
Mattie had a sudden urge to correct Fabbie’s use of ‘dumb slut’ to describe a Québécois man who appeared to have been at least eighty years old and almost stone blind, but Ellie put a gentle hand on her arm and said ‘We need some levity’ under her breath and Mattie said nothing.
They ate dinner at a spot overlooking the St Lawrence just south of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, using a little portable cooker to prepare food that they got at a market in the village. It was high tide, covering sea-grass up to a rocky bank and a short drop of cliff, with gulls and puffins squalling, the rain having stopped and not quite so much mist blowing in any more. Ozzie and Fabbie here opened up just a bit. Ellie tried to make them comfortable with sharing just as much as they wanted to share; it struck her as being fair, considering that they had witnessed what had been, despite their feeble claims otherwise, a moment between her and Mattie in the church. Indeed it had been the first such in their past six or seven months of listless half-romance since that time they’d stayed up half the night fighting over (among other things) a Carl Sandburg book which Ellie had ended up having to replace.
‘It isn’t important why Ozzie and I decided to leave Texas,’ Fabbie said as they ate cooked and seasoned vegetables out of little plastic bowls and watched the sky erupt into a field of fire over the miles-wide river. ‘All that’s important is that a motherfucking douche was involved and shit was getting so fucking dicey so we wanted to…’ She frowned. ‘Will you help me here, querido?’
Ozzie nodded. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Well, I guess you could call it an elopement. We’re engaged, technically.’
‘How are you ‘technically’ engaged?’ Mattie asked. She thanked her voice for being high and soft, if somewhat shrill; this did not sound accusatory, which was good because it was not meant to.
‘We’re engaged but probably won’t actually get married any time…any time particularly soon,’ Ozzie said.
‘But you’ve eloped,’ said Ellie.
‘Yes,’ said Fabbie. ‘We have, to get as far away as we can from what was up before. Eloping just makes it sound more romantic and shit. Ozzie likes that. We’re not going to stay up here forever; we’re going to go back eventually and get married either in Texas or Nicaragua.’
Ellie shifted herself on the hood of her car and glanced sideways at the hood of the rental car on which Fabbie sat while Mattie and Ozzie stood around in the grass over the top of the cliffs. She yawned. It wasn’t particularly late but it had been a long and trying day for her and Mattie. ‘So is Nicaragua where your family’s from, Fabbie?’ she asked.
‘I was born there. Moved when I was twelve.’
Mattie and Ellie slept on the fully reclined front seats of their car that night, which was more comfortable by far than trying to force themselves both into the back would have been. Ellie snored a little, but less than she usually did, and a bit strangely for them Mattie, who was emotionally as well as physically exhausted, fell asleep first. Her dreams were particularly vivid, but she remembered less of them than most nights. As she slept her hand migrated towards Ellie’s; they awoke with their fingers curling around opposite sides of the transmission shift. Ellie had a little drool on her face and Mattie’s back hurt. Ozzie and Fabbie were at some bed and breakfast; they had their cell phone numbers and email addresses now. The river glowed in flaky flashes in the sunrise that suffused from the fields behind the car.
‘Good morning, love,’ Ellie said. Mattie, half-awake at this point, fully woke up blushing. Granite regressed to sandstone.
‘Good morning,’ she said. She sat up and looked around and saw a wood-carver artisanal shop behind them. ‘You want to go over there?’
‘I’d actually like to go back into the village. Is that all right with you?’
‘That sounds just as lovely,’ Mattie replied. ‘Also my back is killing me. Can we find somewhere that has aspirin?’
‘Sure,’ said Ellie.
It took them, though, several hours, because Mattie was distracted by a little chapel with the same steep red roof as the church in the centre of the village. The chapel had a few years ago been laicised and was now under the ownership and use of a gang of painters who used it as a free walk-in display of their work. By the time they finished with that it was about noon.
They were walking in the streets—it was sunnier than it had been yesterday—and ran into Osbourne and Fabiola in their rental car, which they slowed down to talk to them. ‘We’re driving up to Rimouski and the Gaspé Peninsula,’ Fabiola explained. ‘Ozzie wants to go see the seals and shit.’
‘Great,’ said Ellie. ‘Hey, uh, our vacation’s just a couple more days, so are you going to have internet access? I was thinking it might be nice to share more contact information after Mattie and I get home.’
‘Oh, yeah, sounds great,’ said Ozzie. ‘Fabbie’s got one of themthere smart phones and I’m toting a laptop, though I’m not sure it’ll work some of the places we’re going.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Mattie. She dipped her head. ‘It was nice meeting you two. Sorry things got a little awkward at points.’
‘No crime being a mopey bitch,’ said Fabbie brusquely as if she could not possibly care any less if this were a stranger a thousand miles away. But when she said this it felt to Mattie as if it was a proclamation from on high justifying and confirming yesterday’s reconciliation. She smiled like a schoolgirl.
Ozzie smiled back and waved and honked his horn as he and Fabbie drove off up the avenue de Gaspé.
They spent the next few hours getting aspirin for Mattie and various other sundries the better with which to spend the next few days travelling back down to the Pont du Québec, then up around to the Chicoutimi area, then back down through Centre du Québec, the Eastern Cantons, and Vermont again to the little valley at the brink of the north that was home. This included many more vegetables as well as some bizarre and slightly unnerving Canadien snack foods that Mattie, whose idea it had been to take this vacation to Canada instead of the Grand Tetons out in Wyoming like Ellie had wanted, had been meaning to try for some time. Mattie had done her thesis at UMass on the Conquest of 1760 and how it was presented in British, French, American, and Canadian libraries and textbooks, a topic which barely but only barely fell within her ostensible major of library and museum science, and so she knew a lot more about Canada than did Ellie, who had majored in English at Middlebury with a primary focus on Twain before her interests changed and she started reading mainly treatises on traditional New England farming practises. One of these things that Mattie bought was a bag of what looked like cheese puffs but purported to be poutine-flavoured. Another was actually in Korean and was something that Mattie had spotted and decided to buy in the heat of the moment. It seemed to be a little thing of shrimp-flavoured crackers.
Ellie, while Mattie was buying her bizarre snacks, went and looked at the wood-carving place back along the point with the sea-birds, not because she was particularly interested but because she wanted to surprise Mattie with something nice. She got her a small model ship, the hull and masts of which seemed to have been a single piece of driftwood, for eighteen dollars Canadian and had the box gift-wrapped and drove back into the village. If you had asked Ellie why she was buying a make-up present for Mattie instead of the other way around, Ellie might have had consciously the epiphany that had been percolating in her subconscious since the incident in the church the previous day. She was of course unable to ever entirely understand Mattie, only to love her; if she had had a more religious character she would have said that she had lost the language of Eden and with Mattie could only use the language of the Priests, which was to say love, communication, hopefully sex some day, and whatever faltering and uncertain steps to understanding could flow from those things. It wasn’t actually understanding Mattie, but it was the next best thing. And she knew, beneath the higher functions of analysis and insight and articulation if not within them, that even if she had been wronged, even if her brother had been left with a needlessly bad taste in his mouth after her visit, even if Mattie said ridiculous bullshit to cover her ass sometimes even though she really didn’t need to, it was still behoovely to make amends, because grace couldn’t be trusted to find them from outside, on its own.
When she came to the middle of the village she saw some people clustering around the market that Mattie was presumably still in; going inside she heard an announcement on the radio and many of these people wailing. It was probably some local issue with which the people here wee wont to concern themselves. Mattie didn’t look too terribly concerned with it, though then again she couldn’t understand it. She stood placidly by an ice cream cooler, scrutinising the French-language packaging for Haagen-Dazs.
‘Do you think ‘deux chocolat’ sounds better than ‘deux caramel’?’ Mattie asked.
‘I think they both sound delicious,’ Ellie replied. Wordlessly, not trying to be cool, she set the wrapped box with the wooden ship down on the top of the cooler. Mattie reached out for it, opened it, smiled, and threw herself into Ellie’s arms again.
‘Ellie, thank you!’ she said. ‘It’s lovely! Oh, man, now I feel like I have to get you something. Probably something nicer, actually, since—’
‘There’s no need to bring up why again,’ said Ellie. ‘I’ll tell you what.’
‘Hmm?’ Mattie said, her thin feathery eyebrows shooting up her forehead like a fault-block uplift.
‘Let me have some of your shrimp-flavoured crackers and poutine-flavoured not-cheese-puffs,’ said Mattie. ‘Then we’ll be even.’
‘How will we be even then? You said that those things sounded disgusting.’ Mattie hitched her thumb into the single pocket on her short skirt and vouchsafed Ellie a smile that could plausibly have indicated any number of things but here seemed to be simply and blessedly amusement. ‘Then you called me a connoisseur of weird crap but in a loving way. Then you drove off.’
‘What was your question again?’
‘How will we be ‘even’ if you eat the weird crap I bought?’
‘We just will,’ said Ellie.
They both laughed. They walked around the village for a few hours; Ellie had proposed to drive them back down to the city by night so that they could get a different idea of the scenery along the way. Mattie wasn’t sure when they’d get to sleep next exactly but, well, they were on vacation. They went back to the painters’ chapel and to another artisan’s shop, this one with somewhat disconcerting life-sized lumberjack and sea captain carvings outside. Around dusk they went to buy more food and encountered at the market a late-edition newspaper showing the face of a moustached man against a dark background. It was about the death of Layton, announced earlier in the afternoon. Mattie bought the newspaper; it seemed like something that she should have, though she wasn’t sure why she felt that way. When they got back outside she set it against the top of a garbage bin, took a gel pen—an affectation of a child of the nineties not losing to the ostensibility of adulthood—and on a whim wrote across the face ‘Heaven is just one step away’. Then she trotted over to join Ellie in the car, to go back to where they’d eaten dinner yesterday.
‘Whatcha doing?’ Ellie asked.
‘Not much,’ said Mattie.
Ellie glanced at the newspaper; the back was to her, so she couldn’t see what Mattie had written on it. ‘Mattie, are you able to actually read any of that?’
‘Just broad strokes,’ Mattie replied. ‘I can get the gist of written French.’
‘You can? Really?’
Mattie laughed. ‘Probably,’ she said. ‘Maybe. Sometimes. –I did study the Conquest, Ellie.’
‘Should’ve guessed you’d picked a little up,’ said Ellie with a nod. ‘Tell me if there’s anything in there about Libya, okay?’
‘Okay,’ said Mattie. ‘Hey, Ellie?’ she asked playfully, twisting a strand of brown-black hair over her hand, her face looming forward like a half-moon expectantly, almost childishly, above the pink sunset of her blouse.
‘What is it?’ asked Ellie, her own face the sturdiness of an oak beneath maroon leaves already turning in August so far north.
‘I really love you,’ said Mattie lightly.
‘I figured,’ said Ellie. She started the car and they began the next leg of their journey, the ship on the dashboard, Ellie with one hand on the steering wheel, Mattie with one hand on the newspaper, their other hands fumbling and finally intertwining across the top of the transmission shift.