Red Leaf Travelling Blues
By Nathan Turowsky
Allowed by the conductor to get on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus despite not having enough money and being at the very edge of the PVTA service area at best, they settled down into two isolated seats at the very back, their heads resting against the cold metal behind them as they listened to the power train’s almost maternal hum. They went through the fields south of Bernardston and down the old streets of Greenfield. Past there, they crossed the big river at Turners Falls, where it fell over the power-dam in triple cataracts. South of Sunderland they got off and looked down past Amherst to the distant humps of the Holyoke Range. The hills north of the Quabbin were blazing with foliage to the east beneath the morning sun.
‘So what’s new with you?’ asked one of them casually, clapping her hand down on her friend’s shoulder.
Her friend cleared her throat and said ‘Not much. Not much.’
Mattie nodded and blushed and looked shyly down at her girly little black shoes. ‘Well…’ she said, and seized up. She looked up a little—only a little. Ellie was short enough that Mattie needed only to change her gaze a tick upwards for her face to come into the top edge of her vision. It was a pretty face, firmly round with heavily-lidded grey eyes and unevenly cut auburn hair falling down to either side. Ellie had a big forehead, which years ago she had self-consciously covered with bangs. She didn’t do this any more. She looked better with the forehead visible, Mattie thought.
It was a chill day at the beginning of October, one of the first sub-fifty temperatures of the year. Mattie was dressed in a long coat and a scarf and boots and a fuzzy hat—but then, she had been dressing like this for a month. Traditionally, as soon as school started, she would hurry her skimpy summer clothes back into her closet (‘skimpy’ by Mattie’s own definition; by anybody else’s they were quite modest) and put on her full cold-weather gear. Even now, out of college for a little over a year, she still did this at around this time of year.
Ellie, on the other hand, was underdressed, Mattie thought. She was dressed quite well for what the weather had been like a few days ago, before the storm from the sea that had broken against the Berkshires and harrowed the valley from Springfield far up into New Hampshire and Vermont. As it was, though, after the storm, she was shivering.
‘We’re about fifteen minutes’ walk from Sunderland Center,’ Mattie said, ‘and twenty-five from Amherst Center. What do you want to do?’
‘Why don’t we go for a hike?’ asked Ellie with a smile.
‘Forget it,’ said Mattie. ‘You’re too cold.’
‘No I’m not.’
Mattie sighed. ‘I can tell that you are, Ellie,’ she said. ‘Come on. We’re either walking to Sunderland or we’re walking to Amherst. Either way it was stupid to get off the bus here and you’ll catch your death of cold.’
They started walking—towards Amherst. The maple trees blazed red and the beech boughs seemed to drip with gold. The road was poorly paved hereabouts, if at all, and soon enough they were in a little hollow from which the broader lay of the land was invisible.
‘It’s a good thing we know this country,’ Ellie observed as they passed a whitewashed old Congregational church. ‘Otherwise I’d be worried we’d get lost.’
‘Mm,’ said Mattie with a nod.
‘You used to get lost all the time, you know,’ Ellie continued, prodding Mattie for a more involved conversation as she so often had in the past.
‘Mm,’ said Mattie again.
‘Remember when we went up to Stratton Mountain that time when we were, I think it was when we were about ten or eleven?’
‘You had just had to get your first pair of glasses,’ Ellie said, casting her head up at the trees above as she remembered. ‘You still weren’t accustomed to seeing with them and you somehow misplaced them on your person or in your backpack or something while we were on the ground waiting for the air car to take us to the top of the ski slope.’
‘I don’t think it’s called an air car,’ said Mattie. ‘I think there’s a different word for it.’
‘But you admit that you were lost and started crying?’
‘It’s not a question of admitting it, Ellie,’ said Mattie. ‘That’s just what happened.’
‘Well, but Mattie was cute that day, too!’ Ellie said, spinning under the flame-touched trees and across the dusty road. The ground was very hard and her shoes were way too thin. In her happy little fall pirouette she hurt herself a little and nursed a limp behind the taller, quicker Mattie for the next two thousand feet or so. By the time she felt better they were in a landscape of sparse undulating woodlands interspersed with old, staid New England houses and at least one golf course. The links were turning an unappealing brownish-yellow as a sign of the season. Trees were so much more worth looking at than grass in this time, which was part of why Ellie’s three semesters at the University of South Dakota had been such a failure.
Mattie had still not said anything by the time they reached the intersection of Montague Road and Pulpit Hill. ‘Mattie?’ asked Ellie, peering over with her neck stretched out forward and her small tufts of pigtail falling beside her chin.
‘Not really,’ said Mattie, ‘no.’
‘I’m sorry if I upset or embarrassed you.’
‘You didn’t,’ said Mattie. ‘It’s just…’ She sighed and looked down at the ground again. ‘Ellie, I don’t know if you picked up on this when you started seeing me again a few months ago, but in the, you know, the almost four years we were apart I had some pretty bad stuff going on. Nothing really horrible, but stuff that just makes me not want to think about what a shy crybaby I was.’
‘You’re still a shy crybaby,’ said Ellie flatly, and regretted it as soon as she said it. But Mattie did not protest this description.
They hung a right on Montague Road and very soon came to an open space with relatively widely spaced-out homes and business. It was set up in a vague sort of half-assed triangle with Montague Road, Cowls Road, and some kind of slashing connector between Montague and Route 116 forming the sides.
‘Oh,’ said Mattie. ‘We’re not in Amherst Center. There’s North Amherst.’
‘Yes,’ said Ellie. ‘Did you forget that there’s a North Amherst?’
‘I suppose so.’ Mattie wrapped her coat more tightly around herself as a gust of wind blew a torrent of fresh-fallen leaves across the road and shook the trees and telephone lines. ‘I didn’t really have much occasion to come up this way when I was at UMass, and I’ve spent the rest of my life in Franklin County. Even when I went to a movie when I was little, or had to do a lot of shopping once I got older, places like Greenfield and Shelburne Falls and even Brattleboro were closer and more relevant to my interests than anything down in this area.’
‘Then why did you have us come down this way?’ Ellie asked. ‘I could have driven us up to the Amtrak station in Brattleboro and then we could have gone pretty much anywhere in New England. Why these parts?’
‘Because they’re pretty in the fall,’ said Mattie. ‘I mean, specially so for me. I don’t know why but the foliage on a road like this always amazes me more than those cheap ‘scenic spot’ views from the highway.’
‘You always liked being more down in the dirt,’ said Ellie, ‘so to speak.’ She coughed and instinctively wrapped her arms around her chest. Mattie gasped in a sudden fright.
‘Let’s get inside.’
‘You know, there’s more to North Amherst if you go a little while longer down this road. There’s a road that cuts across east to west. It actually goes all the way out to the Quabbin if you follow it far enough and in the right direction.’
‘No,’ said Mattie, ‘I really think you should get inside. We can rest up and wait for another bus. You’re coughing. It’s not a good sign when you cough.’
‘Right,’ said Ellie with a nod. There was no use pressing this issue when Mattie got into so maternal a mode of thought. So they went into a building supply place. Ellie seemed to remember it having been an Agway at one point, but she wasn’t sure.
‘Also,’ said Mattie once they had sat down and warmed up a little, ‘I don’t think Pine Street goes anywhere close to the Quabbin. Are you maybe thinking of Shutesbury Road?’
Ellie nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she said.
Mattie thought ruefully about what the last few years had been like. She could have had a reasonably happy relationship with Cathy, even if there hadn’t been any future to it, if it hadn’t been for that stupid ass from Boston who’d just swept in one day with his slicked-back hair and macho ‘hey baby’ attitude. The level of insensitivity that Cathy had shown her completely eclipsed any sympathy that she otherwise would have had for any woman getting into a relationship with somebody like that. Now Cathy was dating somebody sort of like a much, much younger John Olver and trying to get over the man from Boston in the same way that Mattie was trying to get over Cathy.
It fell to them to next determine what they would actually do once they were in Amherst Center. They decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant called La Veracruzana, which Mattie vaguely remembered from her first two years or so at UMass was less inundated with pretentious undergraduates than most of Amherst’s dining establishments. Five more minutes of walking and another ten minutes of bus and they were there.
‘Do you like tacos, Ellie?’ asked Mattie.
‘Yep!’ said Ellie happily. ‘Do you?’
‘Not really. I’ll order one, though.’
‘Who said we were splitting it?’ Mattie smiled wanly. ‘I’m having the same thing I used to have here when I was a student. Corn chips with salsa.’
‘There are five kinds of salsa.’
‘I like all five. I’ll have just a little bit of all five.’
Ellie nodded. ‘I didn’t know you liked spicy food.’
Mattie threw her head back and shook out her long brown-black hair. ‘I didn’t used to,’ she said.
Ellie was a little perturbed at this and similar things that Mattie had been saying to her recently. It seemed that Mattie’s personality had over the past few years changed in some apparently inconsequential but possibly indicative or ‘bellwether’ sorts of ways. The basics of who Matilda Greer was as a person seemed to be the same—she was shy, easily-upset, quiet, and a little selfish in her solitude. She reminded Ellie of a younger version of one of the tactfully withdrawn Yankee matriarchs who had scared Ellie a bit growing up in the Vermont village of Putney. This may not have been far off. Ellie’s family, the Sorens, had come over from Denmark about a hundred and forty years ago, so she did not have the way these things worked bred too deeply into her bone, but Mattie did. The first Greers of Western Massachusetts had come over to Rockport while William Bradford was yet Governor and moved out to the valley, then wild and rough and full of bears and red Indians, after King Philip’s War.
Mattie was as ancient as her name, it sometimes seemed. So great was Ellie’s love for her…
After eating, Mattie and Ellie decided to take the train from Amherst to Brattleboro and spend the afternoon in an area more familiar from childhood and less from later years. Mattie being from Bernardston just on the Massachusetts side of the state line, and Ellie being from Putney a bit further up the river (though she now lived in Charlemont, one of the Massachusetts Hill Towns along the Mohawk Trail), Brattleboro made sense.
The train station in Amherst was set a little bit away from the centre of town, but the train station in Brattleboro was right in the middle of things. Immediately across the large open swathe of road where Main Street, Bridge Street, and Vernon Street met was the Brattleboro Food Co-op, a heart of commerce and good friendly society; to the other side of the station, almost immediately with only one street and yet another line of blazing trees intervening, was the Connecticut River with its long low bridge into New Hampshire. It was colder in Brattleboro than in Amherst by about two degrees Fahrenheit, but not as windy. Mattie felt comfortable with Ellie’s health for the first time that day.
It wasn’t that Ellie really got sick that remarkably easily, Mattie thought as they walked past the co-op and over a footbridge across a little stream. Mattie simply worried a lot.
Ellie became gregarious again now, pointing out the objectively unimpressive sights of Flat Street, which was about as interesting and bustling as its name suggested, as if they were the cathedrals of Paris or the colonnades of Rome. She made the Insight Photography Project sound like St Paul’s, and Northeast Home Loan a new Holyrood on a Royal Mile that went from Windham Wines past TJ Buckley’s, which was a restaurant that was in a train car or something very like one, to, wonder of wonders, the Vermont Country Diner.
‘This is a hippie town,’ Mattie observed at one point.
‘Yes,’ said Ellie. ‘It is. It’s also a non-hippie town. There are hippie and not-hippie populations. Do you have a problem with that?’
‘It’s just an observation,’ said Mattie.
Ellie looked at Mattie with the old familiar desperate feeling. It was an inversion impulse directed on her own identity, a drive to be close to and like unto her friend. Mattie was tall at five feet and ten inches; she was appealingly thin at a hundred and thirty-five pounds; she had a gaunt, angular, pale Yankee face with hazel eyes that smouldered like the limekilns below Mt Greylock in the days of Hawthorne and Melville. Those eyes were so keen. They were the only consistently vital and vibrant and happy and alert part of Mattie Greer’s generally quick and queer and questioning physical frame. They sat burning as the trees burned behind little round rimless lenses like a communion wafer in a monstral. When they took in the sight of the covered bridge near where they had the farmers’ market in the summer the eyes themselves took on a new and more joyous colour. As if responding alchemically to the redness of the bridge-walls and the greyness of the roof the hazel flashed redder and the tint of the glass seemed greyer.
‘Let me tell you why I might seem so on-edge, Ellie,’ said Mattie.
‘Please, Mattie,’ said Ellie, ‘do.’
‘Two years ago,’ said Mattie as they went looking for something to eat again—so hard was the walk from the river to the flanking hills—‘I met this girl named Cathleen Ditchfield. She was a history major at Mt Holyoke who specialised in New England regional history, she was exactly my age, she was really pretty, and she was from Turners Falls. So naturally I fell quite in love.’
‘It’d almost have been remiss of you not to have,’ said Ellie cockily. ‘Remiss.’
‘Yeah,’ said Mattie, apparently not seeing this as a joke.
‘So what happened?’
‘We were blissfully happy,’ said Mattie, as another part of her mind recalled the presence nearby of a bakery called Ziter’s, ‘for…weeks.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Ellie.
‘Then she started blowing me off and…honestly, yes, I started blowing her off sometimes. She would always call me up and badger me with questions that I didn’t know the answer to, like ‘what were things like on Beacon Hill when Nathaniel Prentiss Banks was Governor?’ and get annoyed when I didn’t know. I started wondering if she liked me-as-me at all, not only just if she loved me.’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Ellie. They walked into Ziter’s. ‘I’m listening.’
‘Hold on a sec’, Ellie,’ said Mattie. ‘I need to look at this menu.’
‘I’ll order,’ said Ellie. ‘You can keep talking.’
‘No, I was going to make a very specific bagel order, okay?’
‘Very specific. It’s what I’ve been ordering for years in terms of bagels.’
Mattie looked up at the menu. ‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Hello, miss,’ said the man behind the counter in the sort of easy drawl common only to people who have worked at one bakery counter for a matter of decades. ‘What’ll it be?’
‘I would like two bagels,’ said Mattie. ‘One sesame seed, one poppy seed. Both toasted. The sesame seed with butter, the poppy seed with cream cheese.’
‘That’ll be three-eighty,’ said the man without missing a beat. ‘Anything else?’
‘If you have day-old dollar bagels for those kinds of bagels, I’ll actually have that,’ Mattie said, looking in her wallet with a frown. ‘And some orange juice.’
‘Okay,’ said the man, ‘that’s still three-eighty. Two-eighty for both bagels and one for the juice.’
‘Fine,’ said Mattie, ‘that’s fine,’ and gave him four dollars. Within five minutes she had her bagels, and Ellie had a cinnamon roll, and they were off again.
It was colder outside, almost down to forty. The wind had picked up and Mattie felt a few raindrops on her forehead.
‘Well, Ellie,’ she said. ‘Coming way up here was a stupid idea.’
‘We’re something like two and a half miles from downtown Brattleboro,’ said Ellie morosely.
‘I know,’ said Mattie. She sat down on a bench outside the bakery and started to cry.
Ellie had always hated seeing Mattie cry. She had always done it quite a lot. They had first met, in point of fact, in 1992, when Mattie was five and Ellie was four, because Mattie was crying during a Greer family hike on the Pinnacle, a mountain in Westminster West north of Putney. Ellie had heard her from her own position elsewhere on the mountain looking for fairies and gone off through the woods with her twelve-years-older sister to see what was the matter. And ever since then, Ellie Soren had hated to see Mattie Greer cry.
‘I met Cathy in the rain,’ Mattie said.
‘Who, Cathy Bitchfield?’
‘I’m sorry, based on what you’re saying, I’m going to assume she hurt you.’
‘Yes. Apparently she actually only really likes men and was messing with me as some sort of ‘fun experimentation’ bullshit.’
Ellie frowned. It was rare, Mattie swearing. She was particularly vehement in her sadness here. ‘So,’ Ellie said. ‘Cathy Bitchfield, basically.’
Mattie laughed weakly. ‘You could say that. So.’ She pointed up at the louring grey sky. ‘What are we going to do about this?’
‘Well,’ began Ellie with a rising tone, ‘we could try hoofing it to the Brattleboro Country Club and begging someone to give us a ride back to the train station, and then we could take the bus from Amherst to around Turners Falls, and then walk home, since the bus only sometimes goes up as far as Bernardston…’
‘…none of which sounds very appealing…’
‘—No, of course it’s not. Plus it would take exactly as long as just going back if not longer. The country club, from what I know of it, I’d guess is about as far away from this bakery as this bakery is from the downtown.’
‘If we just went back downtown,’ said Mattie, ‘we could sit in the co-op or that wine store or something until the train comes again.’
‘What wine store, Windham Wines?’
‘I don’t like wine, Mattie.’
‘Oh,’ said Mattie.
Silence for several minutes. Then Ellie said ‘So what did you do after the thing with Cathy Bitchfield?’
‘Ditchfield. Nothing, really. I finished my degree. It was a communications major. I really don’t know what the heck to do with it.—So hey. Let’s…let’s just go back downtown. It should be quicker, actually, since we’re going downhill.’
‘You’re the one who’s worried about me being cold.’
Mattie nodded. She looked around at the trees. Somehow they were much, much less spectacular in the rain, a difference not solely caused by the different light from the sky. It was just a difference in how the world felt. Such things could profoundly affect Mattie and her mood. Ellie, remembering this from their early days, reached out and grasped for Mattie’s hand. Mattie grasped back, and smiled in a way almost without shyness.
Suddenly Ellie said ‘Mattie, are you gay?’
Mattie’s smile evaporated. She got up and began walking downhill. Ellie tagged after her, also without words. They passed the same sights again and it was not until they got back to TJ Buckley’s, a walk of a little over half an hour, that Mattie spoke.
‘Shouldn’t that have been obvious?’
‘I don’t know if you’re gay or bisexual, ‘bi’ if you will, or…’
‘Uh, I’m a lesbian,’ said Mattie, ‘but…Ellie, if it’s not something you’re comfortable talking about with me, I can…be quiet or…’
‘No,’ Ellie said firmly, and vigorously shook her head. ‘Don’t police yourself like that and don’t fool yourself with false nostalgia. You were never Miss Perfect Normal Girl in the first place. I never asked you to be and I still don’t want you to be.’
Mattie gasped and turned around and studied the roundedness of her friend’s features and the pleasantness and the code of happiness therein through the drizzle. Blues music was drifting out of the door of the restaurant.
Ellie could make out a Delta bluesman’s voice singing about a hellhound on his trail but not register it coherently in her mind or memory. She was thinking very intently about something entirely else. The sky was clearing up and the sun was peeking out, in the west now. Church bells were clanging in Ellie’s head. Mice were running on wheels. There was some very important, very big thought forming there, maddening in its ponderousness as she tried to grasp at it.
The full-moon face of Elinore Soren looked upon the crescent-moon face of Matilda Greer with a new sort of love. Scales fell from Ellie’s eyes and she suddenly stopped up, swayed on her legs, and nearly collapsed into Mattie, who had begun walking again back towards the middle of Brattleboro.
Now it was fully sunny again. The trees on Mt Wantastiquet across the river stood proudly in their full glory, the autumnal and the evergreen radiance.
Once, when Mattie had been about eleven and visiting Ellie at school on a day that Massachusetts public schools had off but Vermont ones didn’t, an old and powerful senator—very important, crusty, maybe a little scary—had come to visit for some reason related to a fact-finding mission for an educational bill. Vermont, because of its very small population, was a state with a long tradition of highly personal stakes in statewide politics and this senator’s visit evoked strong reactions—most of them positive, since he had just been re-elected with three quarters of the vote after even his own opponent endorsed him. Mattie had been crying about something or another, as usual, when this senator found her huddled in a hallway.
‘What’s wrong?’ he had asked.
‘Some girl called Emily Wilson hit me and took my daisy chain,’ Mattie said. ‘Then she told me I was a little whiny…’ She trailed off. ‘Elinore said I’d get in trouble if I said what she said.’
The senator knelt down, with some difficulty considering that he was in his late fifties and used to standing most of the time in public. He knelt in such a way that his bald head hovered like a bespectacled potato in between the ‘Putney’ and ‘Central’ in the Putney Central School sign behind him. ‘What’s your name, girl?’ he asked.
‘Matilda,’ said Mattie. ‘Matilda Greer. I…I’m not at this school…I’m visiting my friend. I live in Bernardston.’
The senator nodded. ‘I see,’ he said. A little twist in his mind turned him briefly down a path in which the most salient thought was that this girl was not in fact one of his constituents. Almost immediately he decided that this did not matter after all, because he was kneeling in front of a crying, still very childlike sixth-grader and this was simply not a situation in which ‘election mode’ was the proper mode of thinking.
‘It’s okay to cry,’ the senator said.
‘Eh?’ said Mattie.
‘It’s okay to cry when somebody you like hurts you, or when somebody you don’t like does something mean. It’s okay to cry even when you’re upset with people you love.’
‘I don’t love Emily Wilson. I only know her ‘cause she hit me.’
The senator nodded. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I cried at one point over Clarence Thomas.’
Mattie flashed back to that day now, because Ellie was crying, and like the senator then Mattie now had no idea why. It was more worrisome, because Mattie knew Ellie. She was supposed to be able to work out these things. But her thinking was confused, she was getting tired, and Ellie was almost incoherent.
Ellie gazed at the girl standing over her as firmly as she could through the tears slipping over her eyes. Mattie looked almost strong in her worry.
She was in love. She, Ellie Soren, age twenty-two and just this last May graduated from Middlebury College with a BA in English, was hopelessly in love with Mattie Greer. With the girl Mattie Greer had been. With the woman Mattie Greer had become. It was so scary…she didn’t know what to do. Ellie knew nothing about love or sex. It had never come up, and she had tried to support Mattie as best she could during the difficult and confused teenage years, but even then, nothing…
…and especially now…
…nothing in the heart, the id…
The leaves shook over the streets. The sun flashed behind them over West Brattleboro and Marlboro. Before them there were just beginning to be some streaks of purple in the sky above Wantastiquet.
‘Let’s get some dinner,’ Mattie suddenly said, and helped Ellie walk the rest of the way to a cheap little restaurant on Main Street (TJ Buckley’s was too expensive).
‘Do you know what time it is?’ Ellie asked weakly when they got there.
Mattie looked at her watch. ‘It is five o’ clock,’ she said. ‘Or—wait for it. There: Now it’s five o’ clock. It was just four-fifty-nine.’
‘This is awfully early for me.’
‘Yes, it’s pretty early for me too. But we’ve been doing a lot of walking. And I want you to be okay. Remember, death of cold. I don’t want that.’
And this made Ellie wonder. But, no…should she? What should she say? Was there anything to say?
She felt that she should sleep on this, as they said. Go home and wake up in the morning and call Mattie and say hi and maybe…maybe she could…
But she noticed things now, new things about the way Mattie was looking at her, was interacting with her. Loving glances with head held low, over the top of her glasses. Reaching her own hands out for Ellie’s hands, unselfconsciously and apparently almost on instinct, when she talked about Cathy Ditchfield. Mattie, born from the arms of darkness in the land of Ethan Brand, loved it, embraced it, made it hers, because she was a person with a heavy and loving heart. Ellie loved it. Her mind was running wild on her and she loved it.
After dinner Ellie got her car from a garage in Brattleboro. What Ellie’s car was doing in Brattleboro was not clear, but there it was.
It was dark now. Orion hung low and off-balance over the hills of New Hampshire with Hercules and Lyra rising up on the other horizon. To the north the Great Bear, to the East the Pleiades; and look!—to the south. They drove to a clearing in Dummerston, between Brattleboro and Putney, and Ellie got out, and made Mattie look. There was a single shooting star, whose path flashed immediately just over Jupiter in a sudden burst of preternatural heavenly radiance.
‘I have something I’d like to talk about with you,’ said Mattie softly as they stood there in the night so pure that the Milky Way cast a shadow on the ground before them.
‘What is it?’ asked Ellie, eyes still fixed on Fomalhaut over Massachusetts and the spangled band that stretched down to meet the river. Milk met water. Heart met head. Something pulsed in the night.
‘I think this has been a really good day,’ Mattie said in a firmness that she usually reserved for statements of sadness or disappointments. Ellie’s heart thrilled at the firmness now. The Dogs of Orion rose.
‘I think…’ said Ellie, looking back on the day’s periplus of the Middle Connecticut Valley, ‘…that I would have to agree.’
‘I want to have more days like this with you,’ said Mattie. ‘Because, honestly, you’re one of the high points of my life after college.’
‘Yes. I still don’t know why your car was in Brattleboro but I’m glad it was because I really like just standing here with you like this, underneath this sky.’
Ellie nodded. There was not that much to say.
‘And…’ said Mattie, ‘…I want to have more nights with you, too. Because there’s not that much that’s good about my nights. I have nightmares easily and I wake up and I’m too scared and often sad to get much more sleep that night. It’s always been that way, except when I would have sleepovers with you.’
Directly overhead, straight up millions of miles in the blueness and the blackness, they saw the gap between Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Division stretched between the girls’ identities and the girls. And the girls qua girls were more important to each other here.
‘In fact,’ Mattie went on, ‘that’s the case in general.’
‘Most things in my life…don’t make me especially happy. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one exception right now. And that’s you.’
Ellie was still confused and afraid as Mattie caressed her face, but it was a fear and a confusion that admitted of the hope of salvation and the wish for resurrection in the calling of a love. Twin lenses flashed in the pure light of the stars. It was a new moon to-night, and the heavens were out in full force. The rural sky was like Mattie, blazing brightly in its own darkness and ponderousness.
‘You are the only exception,’ Mattie said, ‘and that’s a fact, Ellie Soren.’
‘I’m…working out something in my head here,’ said Ellie.
‘I’m sorry!’ Mattie yelped.
‘No,’ said Ellie, her arms splaying out in a universal gesture of immediate reconciliation. ‘That’s not what I meant. You’re not an exception but you are exceptional.’
‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’
No. Best not to yet say ‘I love you’. There would be time enough for that later, decades on Earth and maybe millennia in Heaven or in other lives—maybe that stuff was true. If so, at this very present moment Ellie wanted nothing of it to change, except perhaps the confusion playing in the fear. Not the fear itself—the fear itself…she revelled in it. It thrilled her, this sudden impetus to love.
‘Only,’ said Ellie, ‘that I’m glad that our paths have finally crossed again.’ She reached out and touched Mattie’s face as Mattie had touched hers. It was crazy and it was new and it would take weeks, months, perhaps years to make sense of.
But she had to start.
‘I’m so glad to see you again, my dear friend, Mattie Greer.’
Winter’s Night Sojourn
By Nathan Turowsky
It was two o’ clock in the morning by the measure of the chimes in the old church-tower and in her cluttered little nine-by-eleven room Mattie Greer was tossing furiously. She was in get-up that had maybe more in common with the sybaritic robes of pale kings and princes than with normal pyjamas, and she had her mother’s quilt pulled all the way over her head, yet still the cold penetrated. It was the first sub-zero night of the winter and windy also. Mattie got cold easily, always had, and she was really very uncomfortable.
A few years ago she had participated in a sleep study while an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, the school in whose shadow—the shadow called the town of Hadley, to be specific—she now lived. In this sleep study nice ladies and men in white coats had taken Mattie and folded her and spindled her though thankfully not mutilated her and in all of this had discovered the following facts: Mattie had mild sleep apnoea that could probably be controlled with little nasal strips; she had slightly delayed REM onset but could generally be trusted to get up in the morning if she really had to, which she usually did; and the general ambient temperature beneath the blankets when she slept at her best—not at her average, at her best—was about ninety degrees Fahrenheit. ‘This is ridiculous’, Ellie had told her a while ago when Mattie had related the story of this to her, but it was not Ellie’s job to determine in what circumstances her friend could and could not sleep comfortably, and Mattie had been frankly a bit annoyed with her at that time.
But now Mattie thought that she was beginning to understand Ellie’s point. She could hear Ellie’s snores from the next room, loud yet with an oddly melodious quality, a bit like the lower members of the woodwind tribe in an orchestra pit. If Jack Bauer or Dexter’s Dexter had held a pistol to Mattie’s head and ordered her to choose between Ellie moving out and Ellie continuing to sound like a bassoon from midnight to seven a.m. like clockwork every night, Mattie would actually take a few minutes to decide to let Ellie stay. At least at times like this—not so much during the day when the incessant droning of Ellie’s atonal nighttime masterpieces was not currently ringing in Mattie’s ears. It was ridiculous. Mattie had a job now, and thus extra incentive to sleep better than she did. She was an assistant librarian at the Jones Library in Amherst, on Amity Street near the big Bank of America on the corner of the common. She usually went in at around eleven and left at around four, which meant that it was technically ‘part-time’. But the going rate for an assistant librarian was pleasantly high, albeit in this case only meaning high enough that Mattie could maintain her tenement next to her friend’s or girlfriend’s. The ‘friend or girlfriend’ question wasn’t one that Mattie was able to answer even now, despite having been forcing it over and over in her head for months now. Money talked, but not much. Somewhere in the area of one thousand four hundred dollars had gone into maintaining this place since she had moved here around Thanksgiving, and Ellie had moved in a week after that. It had all been very sudden. Mattie had come down from the farmhouse bed-and-breakfast in Bernardston that she had been crashing in for ages—the couple that ran it were kind, gave her breakfast-lunch-‘n’-dinner, and lent her some cash—when she had got the job in Amherst; Ellie was in because Mattie was in.
It was this motivation a lot more than the simple fact that they lived right next to each other that was the strongest argument on the ‘pro’ side of the ‘Mattie and Ellie are girlfriends’ argument, or second-strongest after the fact that they were in love, though neither was as sure of this as she’d like to be, which said more about themselves than about one another. The only ‘contra’ argument really worth considering any more was the two women’s simply stupefying inability to leverage common terminology like ‘girlfriend’ at all, whether or not they wanted to or had even discussed doing so. Which they had avoided doing. Avoided at some length. Continuously, since October now, and it was January.
Slightly less stupefying was the fact that they had not done anything expressly romantic in a physical way yet. Mattie and Ellie had known each other for a long time, neither woman knew much about sex except in the technical sense, and part of whatever sexuality they did have underneath the Atlas-duty mass of psychological and emotional baggage that they jointly shouldered every day in every way was distinctly bound up in Mysterium, Babylon the Golden, or something. Something glamorous and pre-Raphaelite was required for Mattie’s mind to go there. Something pretty was needed to strip away to reveal the naked beating heart and body of love beneath. The sight of Ellie in a t-shirt and underwear tottering into Mattie’s room looking for a bag of pretzels, then grunting in thanks when she found them and collapsing on Mattie’s bed after a long day of driving around profiling local small producers for her Forever Farmland organisation, had set back the potential for them having a real sexual relationship of some description possibly by years.
Mattie turned over in her bed as one of the trees outside cracked along a large but old and already decaying branch. Something that the housemother would have to clean up in the morning, then. Mattie sighed, turned on her light, crammed on her glasses, opened a dog-eared paperback copy of Mosses from an Old Manse that she was on her fourth re-read of, and settled in to her favourite story from the collection, ‘Feathertop’.
‘Beyond all question the pipe was bewitched. There must have been a spell either in the tobacco or in the fiercely-glowing coal that so mysteriously burned on top of it, or in the pungently-aromatic smoke which exhaled from the kindled weed. The figure, after a few doubtful…’
Mattie looked about in surprise. Tap-tap came Ellie’s hand on her side of the wall. Again: ‘Mattie!’
Mattie was genuinely surprised by this development. Ellie was such a sound sleeper. None of her night problems had anything to do with not sleeping soundly enough, goodness no!—Yet, on this night, apparently there was an exception to the rule.
‘Ellie?’ Mattie hissed. ‘What in the world are you doing awake for?’
‘I get scared when branches and things break off like that,’ said Ellie. ‘I heard it. I was dreaming about this dairy farm over in Pelham that I visited a few weeks ago to see how they handled their cows over the winter, and then whammo!—into my dream there comes this huge log falling from the heavens. And I woke up and that rotten branch on the old maple tree was on the ground. I don’t want one to come into my room and kill me. Can I come over there?’
Mattie, perhaps a little maliciously (—but, then, it was almost two-twenty now and she had not slept at all), said ‘What if you come over here and a branch comes through my window and kills us both? Is being together in Heaven enough for you?’
‘It’s better than being, separated, isn’t it?’
Ah. Of course Ellie wasn’t taking this altogether seriously. Mattie tried to force herself not to smile and failed.
‘I’m reading Hawthorne in bed,’ said Mattie.
A pause. The wind howled some more and a clump of snow fell from the roof of the building through the remaining branches of the maple tree. It was a soft but still somehow grating sort of rustling.
‘What are you wearing?’ Ellie asked.
‘Pyjamas,’ said Mattie. ‘It’s cold. Why do you ask?’
Ellie was a little more willing to sexualise Mattie than the other way around, but she did it with all the taste and respect that Mattie could ever wish for. That was the thing about Elinore Soren. For everything about her that Madeleine Greer found absolutely and unmitigatably infuriating there was something absolutely wonderful, and then on top of that dialectic there were enough good traits more left over to push Mattie’s feelings for Ellie over the top, so to speak.
‘I want to snuggle up with Mattie ‘golden head by golden head, like two sparrows in one nest’! Lots of clothes make that difficult, or at least not really the same.’
Ellie was so strange late in the evening and into the night, anyways. Mattie could swear she could hear the pout on her face.
‘That’s a wrong Romantic writer,’ said Mattie. ‘Rossetti, not Hawthorne.’
‘That’s not the point,’ Ellie mumbled.
There was a sudden flurry of movement audible in the other room. Ellie was getting up and stumbling groggily towards her door. Mattie sighed, flopped on her back again, laid her book open on the top of her breasts tilted up towards her face so she could read it a little, and waited for Ellie to come in.
This took less than a minute. Ellie, who was to heat what Mattie was to cold, was almost completely naked, and again, the series of restraining bolts and checks and balances that characterised Mattie’s mind in general and her id in particular made her totally, and in this case perhaps mercifully, incapable of finding this at all sexy.
‘Mosses from an Old Manse again?’ Ellie, who could not see the book clearly from her position, guessed.
‘You know it,’ said Mattie.
‘Seriously.’ Ellie picked her way over a pile of books that the Jones Library had got rid of and given in all its graciousness to its youngest and gayest assistant librarian. ‘You read old novels and short stories like I read back issues of the Farm Report.’
‘No,’ said Mattie. ‘You read back issues of the Farm Report like I read old novels and short stories.’ She twisted in bed to gaze up at Ellie with a little smile. ‘I think society at large would consider yours weirder.’
‘Right,’ said Ellie, sitting down in a chair next to the window. Subzero air flowed in through a crack directly against Ellie’s back well below the part of it that her hair and bra straps covered. She did not seem to mind this at all so Mattie minded on her behalf.
‘You are going to catch your death of cold.’
Another branch fell off the old maple tree. ‘Do you think it’s possible that the maple might actually die this winter?’ Ellie asked. ‘It’s not even that windy. It’s just too cold for it or something. Do we know how old the maple is?’
‘You can ask the housemother in the morning,’ said Mattie. ‘I’d guess older than this building, at least, and the building was built when Caleb Strong was Governor. Maybe King Philip’s War, that general time period? I’m really not sure.’
Ellie nodded. ‘If the tree dies I hope they plant a new one,’ she said.
‘I’m sure they will,’ said Mattie. ‘Grandma Vernon likes trees a lot.’ Mrs Egbert Vernon (she was very old-fashioned and insisted on this form of address, at least in writing) was an incredibly old woman living on a pension of some description. She had owned the building once, sold it for reasons of her own, but not stopped living in it. She was now in a complicated sub-letting arrangement. She had had the same bedroom for seventy-three years now, sixty-nine with her husband and four since his death at the age of ninety-one, and was one of the most respected people in Hadley. Even the housemother deferred to Grandma Vernon, and Mrs Vernon really liked trees.
‘I love Grandma Vernon,’ said Ellie with a smile whose brightness was undercut by the lateness and their mutual exhaustion. ‘She should run for Mayor of Hadley or something.’
‘Grandma Vernon is ninety-four now, she’s voted Republican since the 1946 midterms, and Hadley has an open town meeting, not a mayor. I love her too.’
They were both silent for a few minutes. Then Mattie said ‘I wonder if I’m going to get an off-day at work one of these days.’
‘Really?’ said Ellie. ‘Does the Jones Library close, like, ever?’
‘They were flirting with closing it in that blizzard earlier this winter.’
‘Did closing-it-in-that-blizzard-earlier-this-winter slap them and tell them she’s not that kind of girl?’
Mattie raised her eyebrows. ‘Met—metaphorically you could say that, I suppose, yes,’ she said. ‘You could.’
Ellie nodded, reached down beneath the chair to where Mattie’s tiny refrigerator stood bizarrely on the floor, and took out an apple. ‘I bought five apples the other day,’ Mattie said. ‘Now I have one left.’ Ellie took a bite of the apple. ‘Less than one left.’ She smiled, again in spite of her ostensible annoyance. ‘Ellie, there are starving conservation activists in Africa who don’t have any of my apples to eat.’
‘And there are starving librarians in Africa who would be jumping on me now and trying to grab it back because it was literally their LAST apple,’ Ellie retorted.
‘Don’t make me feel like a global power elite,’ said Mattie. She rolled over to face the wall and pulled her book sharply up to her face.
‘Mattie…’ Ellie said.
‘What is it?’
‘To-morrow morning, if we’re awake at a decent time, let’s build snowmen or have a snowball fight.’
This made Mattie perk up immediately and noticeably. ‘Or?’ she asked, flopping over yet again with a suddenly broad grin cracking her Old New England granite visage. ‘Ellie, we are going to build so many snowmen and I am going to pelt you with so many snowballs you’ll be wringing water out of your clothes for hours.’ She sat up and closed her book. ‘In fact…’ she said ‘…I’m in a much better mood now that you’ve suggested that than I have been in for most of the past few days.’
‘I think it’s amazing that as soon as I mention snowballs you go from huddling in bed with as much cloth on top of you as possible to grinning and jumping around like a retarded bullfrog,’ Ellie said, and took another bite of apple.
‘Can we built snow forts also?’ Mattie asked.
‘Eh? Of course!’ Ellie laughed. ‘Of course we can build snow forts. How ridiculous would it be if we didn’t?’
‘We could also use the buildings and streets on their own, like Stalingrad with snowballs!’ said Mattie.
Ellie set down the apple, jumped up, and reached out to clasp the now-half-standing Mattie’s hands. They squealed and shook and jumped around a bit, Mattie’s clothes flapping a bit about her and Ellie’s lack of clothes not doing so. Their jumping shook the room enough to actually bring the window the rest of the way down and close the little draught for the first time in days.
‘If you’ll put on some clothes, Ellie,’ Mattie said, ‘we could go outside now and not disturb the housemother or the couple below us!’
‘I don’t wanna,’ said Ellie.
‘You don’t want to go outside or you don’t want to put on clothes?’
Mattie sighed and pushed her glasses up her nose. ‘Ellie,’ she said, ‘why the Hell do you like being underdressed so much?’
‘At night?’ said Ellie. ‘It’s because I’d rather be in bed. I only put on the bra and short shorts to come over here because you have—had that draught. I don’t want to go outside at two-thirty in the morning. I just couldn’t sleep.’
Ellie seemed genuinely annoyed by Mattie’s misreading of what she had been suggesting, and this came to concern Mattie a little when the conversation died the death and silence reigned for the next few minutes.
Ellie, sleep-deprived and angrier than she perhaps should be considering the relative innocuousness of the situation, slowly walked over to another pile of books—the books in Mattie’s room were not on shelves, they were just kind of stacked haphazardly wherever there wasn’t anything else on the floor—and picked up two of Mattie’s most prized possessions: A first edition of The Prairie Years, the first volume of Carl Sandburg’s seminal biography of Abraham Lincoln; and the first legal American printing of James Joyce’s magnum opus after Judge Woolsey’s famous obscenity ruling. She first opened The Prairie Years to very near the middle.
‘Oh, no, you would not,’ Mattie said softly, a few seconds away from breaking into tears.
Ellie opened the book wider, past a flat state. Mattie winced.
‘Acres of people listened,’ Ellie read aloud, ‘and, as the speaking ended…’ opening more, there was a barely audible crack ‘…they surged around their heroes and formed escorts. A dozen grinning Republicans lifted Lincoln to their shoulders…’ more, the spine could be seen to be buckling now, and Mattie was on her feet ‘…and a Republican crowd headed by a brass band saw him carried to Mayor Glover’s…’
‘I’ll Emancipate your head from your shoulders, Ellie!’ Mattie shouted, and sprung forward. Her fist caught Ellie a glancing blow along the side of her jaw. Ellie in return set down the book and bulled forward and slammed her head into Mattie hard enough to knock her back on to her bed. Ellie reached down Mattie’s side and began running her fingers along a ticklish area. The tables had again been turned, this time reversing back to the situation of Mattie treating the situation with more seriousness. Then this seriousness, too, dissolved into helpless, reflexive laughter.
And then the housemother, a broad and ferocious scowl on her face, threw open the door to Mattie’s room. ‘Greer!’ she snapped. ‘Soren!’
‘Oh…’ said Ellie, looking up from her position straddling Mattie.
The housemother fought back her natural temper and said simply, ‘If the two of you are going to have noisy lesbian sex, can you please try to finish before eleven o’ clock from now on? Grandma Vernon really needs her sleep.’
‘No, no!’ Ellie yawped. ‘M-ma’am, you’ve got it…’
The housemother sighed, and leaned against the door-jamb. She was in relatively standard-issue pyjamas and so was beginning to feel a little cold, since the low temperature in Mattie’s room remained even though the draught had been closed a few minutes ago. ‘I have absolutely no problem with it,’ she said. ‘There are a lot of genetic and environmental factors at work, so I understand that…’
Mattie by now was blushing furiously, her hard face turning from granite to sandstone under the geological hoodoo of the housemother’s gaze and words.
‘Now if you will excuse me,’ the housemother said, ‘I need to go back to bed. Doug Coltrane is going to wonder what’s going on otherwise and I don’t want to deal with a chain reaction that wakes the whole building up.’
‘We’re being quieter than we were a few minutes ago,’ said Ellie, leaning out over the still somewhat blindsided and incredibly embarrassed Mattie. ‘If Doug was going to wake up wouldn’t he have already done so by now?’
‘Doug has some sort of critical mass of the number of distinct voices he can hear in his sleep,’ said the housemother. ‘I really don’t know. I’m very tired and I don’t want to talk to you two any more right now. Just please try to keep it down. Good luck.’ She left and closed the door.
‘Mattie?’ asked Ellie, craning her neck to look into Mattie’s averted face. ‘You upset?’
‘Embarrassed,’ Mattie whined.
Ellie nodded and sat back on Mattie’s bed next to Mattie’s folded legs. ‘I know, I know,’ she said. ‘When you’re in a situation like this, like how you are with me, it’s like you’re living in an entirely different world. Different than the normal people, anyway, who…there are friends and there are girlfriends and boyfriends, for them.’
Mattie nodded. That was a very ‘normal’ world by how the ‘normal people’ who defined normality defined it. And if that was what the going rate for normal was in this age, then she and Ellie definitely moved in a far more abnormal world, no question. Even within the world of lesbians and semi-lesbians it was weird. Even in the Pioneer Valley, one of the most clearly sky-sapphire Blue parts of the entire country—maybe especially in a place like that, the liminality that they’d constructed for themselves in the division that stretched between their feelings and their understanding put them there to live in a different world.
‘Romantic love,’ said Mattie, ‘which for us is a representation of a fairly new pathos, and friendship, which is a representation of history and of understanding, crash against each other, and so confusion can set in. So,’ she went on, stretching her arms like a cat, ‘I think that we should do things together that anybody can do—that anybody can do to…to spend time having fun with each other. So, not to do things ‘only’ friendly or things ‘only’ romantic. It’s winter and it’s cold and I’m miserable and I like you.’
‘It’s winter and it’s cold and I’m happy and I like you,’ said Ellie, ‘and you’re still going to be amazingly and overwhelmingly special to me even in the summer heat when you become happier with the weather than I am and start pissing me off with that like what I’m doing to you now.’
‘That’s good,’ said Mattie. She grinned. ‘I think.’
‘Hey,’ said Ellie.
‘Hey. What is it?’
‘Do you want to go back to sleep, or try to?’ Ellie shifted a bit uncomfortably. ‘I mean, because I really am tired.’
‘All right,’ said Ellie. Without anything more she got up and left.
Mattie mercifully drifted off before Ellie got back to sleep and so Ellie’s snoring kept her awake no more. It did enter into her dreams a little bit, but her subconscious made it more melodious; it became, in essence, a concerto with English horn.
Other than this, the actual content of Mattie’s dreams was largely similar to what usually ended up in this repository of semi-oblivious recollection. Many were dicey and only half-there remembrances of childhood: Playing in a field of flowers in Bernardston. That day on the Pinnacle when she and Ellie had met. Going up to Putney to see Ellie. Going way up into Vermont to Quechee Gorge and Quechee Village with Ellie. There had been so much Ellie in Mattie’s life for such a long time. The fact that they had not seen each other at all when they were in college was really an unconscionable oversight. It was so much better now.
Mattie, then, had this tendency to think in her dreams, which was a little like lucid dreaming but without the element of control. It was more like watching a film reel, one of the old kinds where the cinema would play, say, a feature, a newsreel, and some cartoon shorts over and over again, and one could just walk in and sit down and leave when one came back round to the part at which one had arrived. Mattie cycled twice through her childhood times with Ellie before moving on to an instance last month when the two had helped Grandma Vernon to the shop to buy light-bulbs after the big blizzard right after Christmas.
‘I can tell how much you care for each other,’ Grandma Vernon had said, this being their first meeting. Since Grandma Vernon was old and quite traditional Mattie and Ellie had been concerned by this proclamation. Grandma Vernon had seen this, and had laughed, and before going into the shop had said ‘My sister Flora was lucky enough to be with her…special friend Isabel Crowninshield for fifty-one years.’ She did look a little uncomfortable saying this out loud, but not too much. ‘I was with Egbert for seventy. I did not think I was nineteen years better than Flora by the end so why should I think I am even now sixty-nine or however many years better than you two?’
She laughed and went into the shop. At this point Mattie and Ellie had looked at each other and thanked God in wonder. Many old people were more tolerant than they seemed, but many were much less so. Grandma Vernon, then, had just shown herself to be, at least in this particular regard, that of caring for and loving the young’uns who surrounded her, completely deserving of all of the effusive praise that the people of Hadley heaped upon her.
‘She didn’t even…think of the sex,’ Mattie said in wonder.
Ellie nodded. ‘With her sister,’ she said, ‘or with us. When was this lady born again?’
‘Sometime during World War I,’ Mattie replied, and brushed some drifting snow out of her hair in annoyance. The sky was blue, but it was a stormy almost cadet-grey blue that seeped into the outlines of trees and buildings from the middle distance on back.
‘She’s incredible,’ now, a month later, under a black sky with better visibility but colder still, she whispered under her blanket. And it was true no matter which ‘she’ was taken as relevant or meant. This building was filled with incredible ladies, as well as a few quite nifty men. Mattie woke a bit, squealed happily, and kicked out at her bed for several minutes with a rhythmic thump. With a concerted effort to imagine the horn beneath the snoring from the next room she was able to fall asleep again in only a few minutes. She sighed and rolled over, pulling more of the bedclothes around herself.
Mattie woke up at eight o’ clock. She normally allotted herself in the morning fifteen minutes to get dressed, fifteen minutes to just briefly greet the other boarders, half an hour to eat breakfast, fifteen minutes in the bathroom, and ten to fifteen minutes to make her way to the library, in that order. To-day, she was going to throw as much of playing in the snow with Ellie as she possibly could in between the second and third items as possible.
Mattie took off her pyjamas and pulled on a pair of tights, a pair of grey slacks, a tank top, a shirt, a sweater…was that enough? Plus the coat and boots and hat and gloves and scarf, yes. For now, yes. She tiptoed over her books to the wall.
‘Ellie,’ she hissed. ‘You awake?’
‘Yeah,’ Ellie said back excitedly. ‘Want to go out?’
‘Yes. I think we should apologise the housemother and say hello to Grandma Vernon and Doug and Katy on our way down.’
‘Should we also clarify matters about last night with the housemother?’ Ellie asked.
Mattie flushed. ‘N-no,’ she stammered. ‘I mean…’ She gesticulated. Her arms wheeled. She gulped. ‘Later. Yes. Later, definitely. But now, talking about it…not in the morning when we could be building snow forts.’
‘Right,’ said Ellie firmly. ‘I can sign on to that.’
They came out of their respective rooms, walked down a little hallway to the stairs, and immediately ran into Grandma Vernon, who was making her way down with her cane one step at a time. Bundled in faux furs, Grandma Vernon would have, for somebody who did not know her, be barely recognisable as human. She was, in fact, small enough to be conceivably some sort of freakishly large badger.
‘Hello, Grandma Vernon!’ said Mattie.
‘Good morning,’ said Ellie.
‘Ah!’ Grandma Vernon turned creakily to them and smiled over her scarf and below her hat. Mattie reached out to take her by the arm not holding the cane and Ellie positioned herself below them on the stairs. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ Grandma Vernon said. ‘How are you this morning?’
‘Lovely,’ said Ellie.
‘We’re going to go and build a snow fort,’ said Mattie, ‘and throw snowballs at each other, and make snowmen. What are you going to do?’
‘I,’ said Grandma Vernon, ‘intend to make my way to Agway.’
‘Agway?’ asked Ellie. ‘What are you going to do with gardening or farming stuff? At this time of year? At your age?’
‘I am going to ask,’ she replied, slowly and ponderously and a little bit imperiously and actually smacking her lips, ‘about the tree behind this house. I want to know if anybody there knows anything about maple trees. If it does die…’ She trailed off, caught her thoughts again, and went on. ‘If it does die, I would like a new one planted.’
‘I know,’ said Mattie. ‘You like trees.’
‘She does,’ said Ellie.
‘I do,’ said Grandma Vernon. They had reached the bottom floor, so she disentangled herself from Mattie and let Ellie move away. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ she said, ‘but I believe I can now handle myself to the bus.’ She tottered out of the door and waved good-bye before shutting it after herself.
The housemother and many of the other boarders were doing very normal morning things in a room.
‘Hello,’ said Mattie.
‘Sorry about last night,’ said Ellie without saying hello.
‘It’s fine,’ said the housemother distractedly, only partway hearing them. ‘Just try to be more…discreet?—or just ‘quieter’?—in the future.’
‘Right, ma’am!’ said Ellie with a cheeky little salute. ‘Right.’
‘Eat first,’ said Mattie, ‘or go out first?’
‘Out!’ said Ellie with a grin. ‘Out! I won’t notice I’m hungry if I’m having fun in the snow with you.’
‘Right,’ said Mattie. She threw the door open on the sunny but incredibly cold world, a rolling white landscape like a duvet over the midst of town. ‘Ah!’ she said. The cold blast hit her, but she grinned. Ellie was with her.
They went out into the snow. Ellie wasted no time in starting an urban snow-warfare campaign along the street between the boarding house and the nearest bus stop. The mounds of snow that the ploughs had piled up against the edges of the street were perfect for this, and Mattie was placed immediately on the defensive.
But Mattie was good at defence. She had the whole street within her fort in this situation as well as its opposite side, and there was some good slush there to pack together with ice and heave at Ellie. When it hit Ellie, her face of course would go quite red.
‘No ice!’ Ellie wailed. ‘No fair!’ Ellie wailed. And then Ellie plastered Mattie across the front of her coat with a ball made of broken bits of icicle with just enough snow to hold them together as a sort of mortar.
‘I work hard,’ said Mattie with an air of self-conscious ridiculousness. ‘I play hard.’
‘Oh!’ said Ellie. ‘Mattie, Mattie, tell me more!’
Mattie laughed and dumped a handful of snow on top of Ellie’s head. Ellie retaliated with a clump of powdery snow to the face. Mattie yelped and took off her glasses to avoid further fogging or wetting of them. This was counterproductive as Mattie was almost completely blind without them, and Ellie chased her across the street and down to an open space between two shop buildings with a huge snowdrift running across it like a dune.
‘Snowmen now?’ Ellie asked.
Mattie nodded. ‘Please,’ she said. She took her glasses out of her pocket, and cleaned them off, and put them on. The first thing that she saw this time around in this whitish temporary eternity was Ellie’s grinning, soft, reddened face. Both women laughed. This morning was going to be a good one. Laughed, and the valley rang with it.
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, in a perfect selflessness of awkwardness, ‘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.