The Virgin, the Devil, and the Chosen One
Chapter 18


December 27, 1981




Halifax was polished smooth with sleek new snow, white against the blackness of a mid-winter's night and my memories. It was three in the morning. Derek got up to let us in. I loved his small, powerful hands and his strong hug. He didn’t work for Amin anymore.

At ten the next morning I walked the three long blocks to her house. My sacrum was loose and easy. Her door was just a door. I knocked.

“It's Daddy! It's Daddy!” Wren yelled as he opened it. Three boys piled on top of me before I could get my coat off. Caleb had the same shock of dark brown hair over his forehead, and Wren was still a hazel-eyed towhead. Neither of them had grown much, as if they’d wanted to stay the same for Daddy. Ariel had changed a lot, but three years old is a lot different than two.

“Hello,” Carol said. I looked up to see her stiff back walk out of the room.

Caleb found a lot of different ways to say how much he was going to like his cassette tape. Wren and Ariel couldn’t get enough of touching me. Carol brought out tea for all of us on a tray. The spoons rattled and clinked, she was shaking so badly.

“Can I show you my room, Daddy?” Wren asked.

“Yeah, come see my room!” Caleb yelled.

“Carol,” I called as they dragged me to the stairs, “Is it all right if they show me their rooms?”

Her steps shook the floorboards as she approached, heavy like Susan’s. “It's fine if they show you their rooms,” she said softly to the bottom of the stairs.

Caleb's room was crammed with things on display, just as mine had been when I was nine. The picture of myself I'd sent him a year ago was pinned to the wall above his bed. I barely recognized myself. He had more and more things to show me.

“Hurry up, boys, your tea's getting cold,” Carol called up.

Wren's room had hardly anything in it. Action was his focus, not things. He didn't have my picture on his wall because he knew I'd love him anyway.

“Guess how old I am, Daddy!” he said, tugging at my hand.

“Nineteen.”

“No-ohh! I'm not nineteen!”

“Umm, eight? No! Four!”

“No! I am six!”

“Wow! Six is very old.”

carried Wren and Ariel downstairs. Caleb followed, playing his recorder, showing me one more reason to love him. I pulled them into a three-boy-heap on the couch. They bubbled over with all the important things they had to tell me, jumping all over me, constantly interrupting one another. I listened with all my heart, drinking in the sight and sound of them after so many months, perfectly content to be with my children in the house of the most dangerous opponent I might ever meet in my life.

“It's time for you to go!” Ariel shouted. I laughed, he was so clearly speaking the words his mother was thinking as she clattered dishes in the kitchen.

“What's funny?” Wren asked, suddenly still.

“Ariel told a joke,” I said, smiling.

They looked at me, unsmiling. Tension like a toothache lifted me to my feet. Carol walked in. “Well, how do you want to handle this?” I asked her.

“Well, before Cary and Phyllis, you can come and get them here and play with them, then bring them back at night. I'll keep Ariel here with me.”

My heart pounded. “I want to take Ariel to Cary and Phyllis' with me.”

Her body jerked as if struck. “No.” She rapidly walked out of the room into the hallway, turned her back to me, and said, “Do you want to talk about this here? We can talk later.”

“No. This is fine.” The easy posture of my body made it fine. “Why can't Ariel come, too?”

“Caleb and Wren need you to spend time with them,” she said, turning to look at them. They stood like statues next to me in the living room. “Ariel has his Daddy here.”

“I am Ariel's Daddy.” My voice was loud, clear and loaded.

“You're confusing the children!”

“Read his birth certificate. I am legally his father and there is nothing you can do about it.”

She darted up the stairs, then abruptly sat down on a step halfway up. “We'll see about that.” The profile of her chalk-white face showed between the rails of the banister. “I want you to go now.”

Alarm suffused the air like a headache. I decided not to call the police. It would upset the children. I walked into the hall and picked up my boots, then sat down on the second step with my back against the wall so I could keep an eye on her. She perched six steps above me like a pale, nervous bird. Ariel climbed up the stairs to sit next to her.

“Do you want to see Caleb and Wren?” She slithered down a few steps and said rapidly, in an undertone, “You won't see them at all if you insist on this!”

“Yes, I do want to see them.” I spoke slowly and loudly, so the boys would hear and remember. “I want to see all my children. I have three sons.”

She skittered back up to her perch. “Amin is Ariel's Daddy!” Outrage cracked her voice. It sounded like breaking china.

“Ariel has two Daddies. You can't deny the first two years of his life. Do you want me to get a custody order?” I meant to say “court order,” but the tension was so high I was getting rattled.

“I already have a custody order.”

“And I have visitation rights.” Shock radiated out from the living room where Caleb and Wren still stood frozen. I pulled my laces tight.

“It's within my power on my home turf to keep one of them with me.” Her voice was quaking so badly I could hardly understand her words. Even her lips were white. I put on my coat, slowly. “There is legal reality, and there is visitation rights,” she said, using Amin's English.

“What's the difference between legal reality and visitation rights?”

“I want you to go now, Danny.”

“Daniel!” I corrected. She glared at me like white dust, her face distorted by little tics. I headed down the outside steps, leaving the door open. I briskly walked away—the door slammed like an explosion—and inhaled a cigarette in less time than it took to light it. I took a shortcut through the graveyard, then had to leap over a sharp-pronged cast -iron fence to get out on the other side. I wondered if she'd carry out her two-boys-or-none threat immediately. I'd been so sure I'd get a lot of time with them this week, no matter Carol what. I looked up. I was in front of an old hotel. I sat on a faded couch in the lobby and wrote out the story so far. An old man sat beside me and talked incoherently for a while, then fell asleep. I finished writing to the sound of his snores.

A few hours later I called her from Derek’s. “Hi,” I said. “I need to talk to you about what your terms are for visitation and some other things.”

“Okay. Let me catch my breath. I've just been out in the snow.” While I waited, despair and confusion made inroads on my heart. I was being witched. I shifted my attitude to paranoid defense. Strength returned. “All right, I'm ready.”

“What are your terms about visitation rights?”

“I want to keep Ariel in the house. You can come visit him here.”

“You mean I can't take him sledding?”

“I've had nothing but weird things from you for a whole year.”

“What on earth are you afraid of?”

“I'm not. afraid. you'll. kidnap. him.” Each word was like an individual ice cube. She paused to take a breath. “And you can take Caleb and Wren if you tell me where you're taking them and for how long and bring them home to bed at night.”

“So, I can take Caleb and Wren sledding, but not Ariel. I can only see him in the house?”

“Well, and in the yard. Danny, if you—”

“Daniel.”

“—If you understood where—”

“I can well imagine your reasons and I don't need to hear them.”

“Caleb and Wren really need their Daddy, and this stupid game you're playing about Ariel—”

“Game?” I shouted. “Ariel is the central issue of the whole marriage and divorce!”

She yelled back, “You can't tell everybody he's Amin's and then expect to come here as his Daddy!”

“Carol, that's exactly what I expect.”

“He's another man's son and you have no right to him!”

“Carol, you are lying in your heart.”

“Don’t talk to me of truth and lies—”

I hung up. I did not have to listen to Carol any more. I wrote out the conversation like a court reporter, getting every word, then sat down at the kitchen table with Debbie, Derek, and his ex-wife Dianne. Derek and Dianne had divorced over Dianne’s affair, but they were better friends now than they’d been when they were married. They had three little boys the same ages as mine. Debbie was also divorced and had a good relationship with Melissa’s father.

“What a select group we are,” I said when I finished telling them the story. “We're all parents who have contemplated kidnapping as a means of justice.” Derek and Dianne looked at each other, then looked away. I tactfully moved to the living room, where their boys were playing rambunctiously with Melissa.

“Where are my children?” The sudden question was a shout inside my head. I stood awkwardly in the midst of the wrong boys. My head jerked spasmodically from side to side. I scurried to get pen and paper. First, I am a man: I will only see all three of my boys. Second, I am a Daddy: I will see my boys as much as I possibly can, the first condition being met. An ominous calm settled over me. I took a nap while sleep was still possible.

The sound of one of Derek's boys crying on and on woke me in the dark of late afternoon. My jaw ached badly on the left side from grinding my teeth. I knew that meant I had to speak from my left side, of receptivity to feelings and needs. Maybe I could see Caleb and Wren by themselves, just once. I filled up with a bitterness so noxious I felt sick to my stomach. If I gave in to Carol, my gut would kill me; if I gave in to my gut, Carol would kill me by withholding the boys. That night, after hours of tossing in the dark, I finally found a resolution: I could play with all three boys in her yard. My jaw relaxed with the joy of knowing I would see my sweet children.

…The whole world is being cleaned up. I walk up to the Death table and everything moves to the left with a zip, a blur, and a dizzy of speed! Everything is the same, but the world is now to the left of where it used to be. There is stability over here on the Left Side, with both feelings and awareness. I woke up. I did not feel stable. I phoned her anyway.

“I don't want to talk to you,” she said.

“I have an idea how we can avoid conversations like last night,” I said, speaking quickly in case she was about to hang up. “Let's not argue or explain ourselves to each other.”

“I don't want to talk to you at all. I want you to go through my lawyer. I'm going to ask him to set up a visitation schedule for the time you're here.”

“Is that really necessary? As long as we put these limits on our conversation we should be able to talk. My limits are three boys. The only place our limits overlap is in the back yard, since that's as far as you'll let Ariel go. So, can I visit the boys in the back yard today?”

“No! You can't visit the boys today!” There was a sharp, black silence. “I'll ask the lawyer to set up a visitation schedule according to my limits and then you can visit all of them in the house.”

“All three of them in the house?”

“Yes, but I don't want to talk to you anymore.”

“I don't see why we can't if we keep to these limits, of not arguing or explaining.”

“Listen, you called me a liar twice yesterday and I'm not going to go through that again.”

“If we keep to these limits we won't have to,” I said, wondering what her other lie was. I'd only called her a liar once yesterday.

“Yesterday you said—”

“Carol, you're arguing.”

“I don't care—”

“Carol, you're breaking the limits.” Her voice rose to a scream. I hung up.

I stood up, saw Caleb in tears of anguish, and was catapulted into a paroxysm of grief. I began to climb the shattered stairs to psychosis—Melissa screamed. I was in the living room reading her a book before she could inhale for the next scream. When I finished it I picked up another one. Derek's boys gathered around. I read all the kids books until lunch. I played with them all afternoon, making the best of a not-my-¬boys day. That evening I put four children to bed, so kindly it made them all glow. I felt like a field of Daddy wheat, cultivated carefully for so many years then left to rot.

I could eat only a few lonely bites of shredded wheat the next morning. I wondered what my boys were having for breakfast three blocks away. My spoon clinked loudly against the side of the bowl. I was halfway through the gauntlet of old Halifax. With or without boys, I had to take the bus to Cary and Phyllis's farmhouse in two days or turn to stone.

I called Carol’s lawyer. He wasn’t in. I left a message for him to call me back. I was alone in the house. Dianne, Derek and Debbie were gone for the day, and they’d taken their wonderful children with them. I paced while I waited for the lawyer to call, kitchen sink to living room window and back again. A few hours later I tried to turn off the dripping faucet and failed. What if she doesn't let me see them again? Not even to say goodbye? My heart roared in a rush of panic. “No-¬time, no-time, no-time,” the faucet said as it drip-dripped. I'd been so sure this week would be chock-full of boys; even in my worst-case scenarios the disaster came at the end of the week. “No-time! No-time! No-time!” the tap boomed out. I sat down with pen and paper as far away from the faucet as I could get and wrote, The only way I can love the boys is by kidnapping them, but the fact is I do not have a home to put them in. The faucet screamed, “No Time!” at me from two rooms away.

“Hey!” Every noise in the house went quiet. Even the faucet dripped in a whisper. “Only a mouthful of shredded wheat! I have to eat!”

As I pulled great quantities of food out of the fridge, I realized I had no need, desire or even the slightest inclination to argue, explain myself, insult her, or change her. Or listen to her. I wasn't even curious. Susan had been a superb trainer.

As I cleaned up the kitchen I heard her lawyer tell me, “Your visitation rights are hereby abrogated. If you wish to contest your wife's decision you may do so through your lawyer.” I replied out loud to the empty house, “I have no lawyer but I have a last request. I want to say goodbye to my children.” I picked up my pen—red ink blotched all over the page like fresh blood. I phoned her lawyer again. “He just left,” the secretary said. “He won't be back for an hour or so.”

By then it would be too late to see the boys today. I collapsed on the bed—then was up and out the door, my coat half on. I stood on the steps in confusion. I hadn't decided to leave yet. The door clicked as it locked behind me. A seagull flew above my head. I followed its erratic flight over dirty, snowy streets until I found myself in front of the Tasty Food Restaurant, with a pay phone next to the door.

“I'm sorry, he's gone for the day,” the lawyer’s secretary said.

“Did he call me earlier?”

“I’ll tell him you called.”

I drank a cup of tea, wondering what Carol had told her lawyer. As day faded into dark, I slowly walked to Norman's, six blocks away from Carol’s. I was going to stay with him for the rest of my time in Halifax. My Jewish angel of mercy gave me a good, strong hug, but then a monster of grief materialized from the shadows and hugged me from the inside. My bones wept blood. My nose plugged up as if with cement. Norman, Debbie, Melissa, and I all went out to supper at an Indian restaurant around the corner. An old, drunk cripple tried to follow us, but his crutches got stuck in the door. He swore incoherently as a waiter untangled the crutches and ushered him out. He kept trying to get in, repeatedly falling on the waiter who had to stand guard at the door. As we left the restaurant, I saw him slowly hobbling down the other side of the street on his dirty, battered crutches. I was glad I'd left my last American dollar for the waiter.

Back at Norman’s, I stayed up for a while in the kitchen writing, then turned off the lights to go to bed. As soon as the room plunged into blackness, a neutral voice spoke in my head, as clear as the evening news: “This is the hardest night of my life.”

I woke up Norman. “Do you have any scotch?” He pulled on pants and a shirt, found a bottle and filled us each a glass, then sat down at the kitchen table. I took a sip. Poison. I cleared my throat and told him the story so far. I took a swig, and coughed. “Maybe it's best for the boys if they never saw me again.”

“Uh . . . maybe that’s not a good idea.”

“Listen, Norman, Carol has a life for them here. The cornerstone of that life is Ariel not being mine. What good would it do the boys for me to visit when my very presence attacks the foundation of her world like a jackhammer? I leave, she puts her world back together, I come back and blow it to pieces. It's the boys' world I'm attacking each time, the one they need to get to adulthood. And that’s the most important thing about child-rearing: getting them to adulthood.” He filled my glass. I drank half of it, coughed, then paced. “I come here, I hurt her, she defends herself by hurting them. If I never come again—“ I leaned over the table and jammed my fists into my belly to make myself inhale.

“How about some more scotch?”

With a great gasp I finally inhaled. “The only other way is kidnapping. I don't even have a roof over my own head.” I sat down and held out my glass. He filled it. I drank it all. I didn't cough.

He looked at me sideways, and a few minutes later went to bed. It was 3:30. As soon as I turned out the lights I knew why tonight was the hardest night of my life. Because tomorrow I would take my spirit back from my children. All the rationalizations I'd made Norman listen to were only fluff next to the fact that tonight was my last night as Daddy.

“How much money do you have?” Norman asked me the next morning.

“50 cents. Why?”

“I'd like to lend you $100.”

“Norman, thank you!” I kissed him on the cheek, then picked up the phone and called Carol’s lawyer.

“Jim Williams here,” he said in a nice Nova Scotian accent.

“I'm the father of Carol Baker-Toombs' children. Carol said she would have you set up a visitation schedule.”

“Oh. Well, I only had a short phone call from her yesterday. I'd rather deal with your lawyer than directly with you.”

“I'm leaving tomorrow, so there's not much point in that.”

“Oh. You're leaving tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

“All right. . .Well, why don't you suggest something and I'll propose it to Carol. I understand she doesn't want to let Ariel out of the house, and there was some kind of scene yesterday.” His voice wrinkled with distaste.

“That's why I'm phoning you, because she said she no longer wanted to talk to me. The optimum for me is seeing the three of them, but I don't know if she can handle me being in her house again.”

“I'll call her and then get back to you.”

I waited next to the phone. When it rang half an hour later I exploded into the air like a startled quail. I landed back on the chair with a great crash and picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Jim Williams here. I've just talked to Carol, and you can visit them today, all three of them, in her house, between noon and two o'clock, as long as you don't wander about the house because, after all, it is her house, and as long as you agree not to discuss Ariel's natural parentage. She says if you bring it up and things get emotional you will have to leave.”

“I can agree to those limits.”

I had to tell the boys why I left. Maybe I could sneak it in at the end.

“My advice is avoid hassles and just have a good visit.”

“Thank you for helping out with this, Jim.”

“You're welcome,” he said, clearly pleased I'd thanked him.

I danced around the kitchen for a while, then left much too early. I walked aimlessly around Halifax until it was almost noon, then headed over to Carol’s house. I turned the corner onto Wellington Street and thought of Napoleon and his Waterloo.

“Daddy's here!” I looked up. Caleb and Wren were watching at the living room window. They'd probably been there for hours.

“Come in,” Carol said, opening the door. Her eyes were filled with loathing and a forced smile was stuck to her lips.

“Thank you.” I stepped in, easily meeting her eyes.

She walked with heavy, pounding feet down the hallway, saying over her shoulder, “If you need something from their rooms please send them up to get it.”

“You mean stay down here in the living room?”

“Yes.” Her voice drifted back from the kitchen.

“Okay,” I said to the empty hallway.

Caleb and Wren and Ariel jumped all over me and I happily played with my wonderful, beautiful boys. I rubbed my head into Caleb's tummy until he giggled and yelled, then danced with each boy in my arms in turn. After a while tension began to rise. I sent Wren to check the time. It was only ten to one. My anxiety must have meant it was time to speak. “Sit down, boys. I have to tell you something.” They settled next to me on the couch. “The reason for the divorce is the disagreement—well, the argument—I mean, the fight—that me and Mommy are having—”

“And it doesn't have anything to do with us,” Caleb added in a hurry.

“What's the fight about?” Wren asked.

She hadn't told them! “I can't talk about it or Mommy will kick me out,” I said in a low voice. He quickly looked away. I cleared my throat for the last words I would ever say to them—if it came to that. “Wren, you have to be nice to others, since you already know how to be nice to yourself.”

“I am nice to others! I know that!”

“Of course you do. And Caleb, you have to be nice to yourself, since you already know how to be nice to other people.”

“I already am nice to myself!”

“Of course you are. Well, I guess that's all, boys.” I was embarrassed to be so dramatic, since I could still play with all of them in the yard tomorrow before my bus to Cary and Phyllis'.

“I'm going to Marco's for an overnight,” Caleb said suddenly. “I won't get back until tomorrow night.” I sank into the couch like an old stone. This was the last time I would see them for this visit. Or forever. Tension rose in a sudden flood. “What were you doing yesterday?” he asked.

“Talking to Mommy's lawyer.”

He fell off the couch. “No, I mean where were you?” He vigorously rubbed his hurt elbow. She hadn’t told them she wouldn’t let me visit! I couldn’t deal with it.

“I know! Let's play bucking bronco!” I said, and moved the heavy chest from in front of the couch. All three of them froze.

“You're not supposed to move that,” Wren said, with fear on his face.

I carefully moved the chest back, thinking how abused children attach to furniture because it’s more reliable than people. I got on my hands and knees in the narrow space between the chest and the Christmas tree. After an uncertain minute, Ariel got on top of me, and the other two followed. I bucked them off and they climbed on again, several times. Wren punched Caleb because he always took the best spot on my back. Caleb punched him back. I shook them off and sat up.

“Caleb, why don't you go get a comic book?”

He raced upstairs. Frantic searching noises went on for several minutes, followed by a loud bang. He came downstairs with a comic in his hand. “Something jumped onto my head,” he said, trying and failing to laugh. His face was pinched with fear. I laboriously read an issue of “Swamp Thing” about a man who keeps returning to the hero to beg for the release of death. There was no way I could be Daddy to these boys as long as they had her for Mommy. Trying to do it was wrenching my bones out of their sockets. The boys got bored with the comic book. So did I.

Dispiritedly, I picked up some blocks and started to build a tower. They joined in. My mouth went dry. Now was the time. Whenever I was in position to do it unobtrusively, I touched each boy on the head with my left hand and imagined my projections, dreams, fears, and wishes coming back into me. Something came unstuck from each boy and poured into my left side. I touched them each a second time, imagining taking my “edge” back. Again, something came off each boy and flooded into my left side. The third time, I took back my spirit. When I touched Ariel, he mimicked me and put his left hand on my head, setting up a counterclockwise spin of energy that made us both break out laughing. I had nothing to take back from him, just something to share. That was the first indication I’d ever had that genetics had any meaning.

The towers combined and crashed and rose and fell again and I snatched my spirit back again and again. My left side slowly filled up until it was impossibly swollen. I started putting the blocks away. Caleb helped me. Wren and Ariel jumped on my back and pushed me down into a muddy green feeling that was so dense I could hardly move my limbs. Caleb got on my back and started to fight with Wren. I tilted them all off, then sent Wren to check the time. It was 1:30. I moved to the couch. My hands were freezing, my face flushed hot.

“Well, I have to go soon anyway. So I might as well tell you what the fight between me and Mommy is all about.”

“What?” Caleb and Wren asked, sensing the danger and coming close.

“Mommy says I have two boys, and I say I have three boys.”

“That's all?” Caleb asked, puzzled.

“Yes, that's all. That's why we got divorced, and that's why I went away.”

“I hate people who have yellow teeth,” he said, darting a glance at mine. “Do you smoke? I hate people who smoke.”

Wren tugged at my sleeve. “But, Daddy! When are you going back to Massachusetts?”

“Today.”

I never wanted to see that look on children's faces for the rest of my life.

My heart skipped a beat, then hammered violently to catch up.

“But, is the one week over already?” Wren asked.

“Me and Mommy spent the whole time fighting.”

They followed me into the hallway. I slowly put on my coat, hardly able to move my leaden limbs. They stared up at me, horror and shock on their faces. Ariel grabbed my hand and pulled me toward Carol in the kitchen. When I didn't move, he let go and ran to her. I laced up my boots. Wren pulled on my hand to get my attention, then said, “But, Amin is Ariel's Daddy.”

Caleb moved down the hall toward the kitchen until he was halfway between me and Carol, then said loudly, “Ariel thinks Amin is his father.”

I had to get him off the fence between Carol and me, if I did nothing else. “Ariel has two daddies. Lots of people have two daddies.”

Wren perched on the bottom step of the stairs like an angry little eagle. “Did you have two daddies?”

“Yes. My other Daddy was a man named Carl Ridd.” I remembered my English Literature professor who'd asked the class, “What would you do if you knew you were going to die in two weeks?” I'd answered, “Only what I wanted to do,” and dropped out of university 13 days later. The guidance of Death he'd introduced me to was indeed my other father…Carl Ridd…Carol Rid…Carol Ridden…Carol Rid Of…

I glanced down the hallway to the kitchen. I could see her profile as she sat at the kitchen table. The lines in her face were cracks of shadow harsh against the dead white of her skin.

“When can we come to your house?” Wren asked.

I struggled to put on my wet, heavy leather gloves. “Only God knows the answer to that, and God, He keeping it under His hat.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes.” I drew two overlapping circles on the wall with my wet leather finger. “God is a circle, like this, that halfway overlaps another circle, which is you. So you're in God's middle, and God's in your middle.”

I looked at my lines marring Carol's wall and saw the Writing on the Wall. Something much larger than me had just stepped in and taken over. I hugged them, then looked at them carefully, to memorize their faces. My throat began to close. I abruptly stepped outside and shut the door behind me. I stood stiff on the front step. I wasn't done yet.

“Ariel! Ariel! Come say goodbye to Daddy!” I heard Caleb and Wren yell. I opened the door again just in time to see him come running down the hallway, his cherubic little arms open to hug me. I held him for one precious minute, swept my eyes across the faces of my children for the last time, then shut the door and staggered down the steps.

The bright white of the snow hurt my eyes. I closed them and fell into a gasping gloom. I squinted them open, turned left, and hurried on down the sidewalk. I did not turn around. I did not want them to see me crying. I pressed on through the thick snow. Down, down I went, like a rock thrown off a very high cliff, accelerating down into the grief of blood, marrow and bone. I stopped at the end of the longest block in the world, panting heavily. Cigarettes! I forgot I smoked! I grabbed at my pockets, frantic. I pulled out an empty pack, crushed it, then stood with it in my hand, unable to let it drop. I would not leave even my litter on her street. I turned around. I was lost. I turned around again. I am no longer a Daddy. Lungs heaving, I turned back the other way. I am still a Daddy, but I have no children. All the streets looked the same. Dizzy, I stumbled, caught myself—

“Hey!”

I looked up.

“Hey!” Cary's car scrunched to a stop in the snow. I hauled open the door and collapsed in the seat.

“Camels?” I squeaked. He handed me an open pack and matches, then pulled away from the curb. I felt better with the smoke, even better the farther we got from Wellington Street. “You just saved my life.”

“Good. What's up?” His long, narrow face radiated concern.

“How did you know to find me there?”

“I had to come to Halifax today and thought I might as well drive you and the boys up to the farm. You weren't at Norman's, so I thought I'd try and find you.”

“God!” I said, overwhelmed by the will of the Lord.

Cary pulled into Tim Horton Donuts, came back with two cups of coffee, then drove to the parking lot at the top of Citadel Hill. In the cold quietness overlooking gray, snowy Halifax, I told him the story of seeing my children for the last time, repeating every word of dialogue as it had been said. I could never remember what people wore or even what they looked like, but for the spoken word I was like a tape recorder.

He sat like Buddha, facing straight ahead, moving only to take a sip of coffee now and then. The city dimmed in the early dusk. When I finished it was pitch black and extremely cold. Several minutes passed. “I think I need to stay at Norman's tonight.”

“I need a break from all this anyway.” He fired up the car and drove me to Norman's. “I'll meet you at the bus station tomorrow. Hang in there.”

Norman, Debbie, Melissa, and I all went to a party. I was able to fake it for a few hours. In the middle of a conversation about which part of Halifax was the most historic, my heart stopped beating. It started again with a massive hammering. “Wren is freaking out!” yelled a voice in my head. I ran to the phone. It rang once. “Wren can't stop screaming for Daddy.” It rang twice. “His shrieking is ripping her hair out.” It rang a third time. I hung up. I could not under any circumstances speak to her.

I snuck upstairs to an empty room and scribbled poetry on a napkin. My heart skipped a beat every now and then, then jackhammered to catch up. A while later it stopped altogether. After an eternity, it frantically started again and ¬something ripped above my heart. I pushed my fist, hard, against the top of my chest. The lining of the arch of my aorta was tearing. It felt like pressure because that's all the nerves there can feel. With one hand pressed hard on my upper chest I scribbled poetry, in tiny letters now since the napkin was crowded with my markings.

“I think you're a saint,” an old friend said. “Everybody in Halifax hates Carol.”

“It's funny, but I don't,” I said, surprised I was able to speak. “This is between me and the boys.”

Another friend cornered me. “Carol cut off our friendship just like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “It made me furious, apart from how mad I feel about the way she's being about Ariel.”

“In anticipation of which Carol cut off your friendship. It's funny, but I can really understand Carol's position. This is the only way her world makes any sense.”

“Her world doesn't make any sense. I hope she gets uterine cancer.”

“It's too late for me to get into revenge. I'd only destroy myself.”

“Oh, there are ways,” she said, her Southern accent coming on strong. “Listen, don't give up. Come back and stay with us this summer.”

“Well, we'll see.” I turned away to get my coat. I hurried out to the car through the bitter cold and felt swept out of my old friends’ lives forever.

… This sermon is stupid. I took my spirit back from my boys today, I've done enough for one day. I just want to get my shoes on so I can get out of this church. But I can't find my shoes!

I woke up feeling like a burned-down house. I fixed a bowl of granola and sat down to eat across from Debbie and Melissa. I lifted the spoon to my mouth—“Daddy! Don't leave me!” Wren screamed in the air all around me. My heart stopped. The spoon was stuck halfway to my mouth. My heart slowly contracted, then painfully squeezed out a beat like a bullet. It tore slowly through my coronary arteries, ripping the lining to shreds. The spoon disengaged from my hand and fell in slow motion, bouncing with a long clatter, slowly scattering granola across the floor. I made it to my feet. The chair fell over with a drawn-out crash. I looked at Debbie slowly opening her mouth in shock, then turned and drifted into the dining room, inhaling on one step, exhaling on the next. I focused on my pad of paper lying on the table. I sat down. I forced air into my lungs. My heart clutched, then beat with a tortured bang. The weight on my eyes was trying to shut them, permanently.

I picked up the pen and held the point to the paper. It did not move. I added force. The pen made a dot on the paper. I would print, then. I inhaled, and added force. The pen did not move. I would print one letter, then. A “w,” I would print a “w.” I inhaled, used the entire force of my will, and got the first line of the “w.” I exhaled, and felt the sun on my back like a pair of great hands radiating all the peace and love I would ever need. I considered giving up on this impossible “w” and turning around to the sun. “If I turn around I will die,” the voice in my head said. I focused the totality of my existence at the point of the pen, and finished the “w.” Breathing was a tiny bit easier. With a ferocious concentration I printed out the word “weight.” I printed it again.

w e i g h t

weight pressing

weight pressing down on my eyes

three little boys dont know why

daddy came to visit then didnt

mommy says dont know why

probably holds them when they cry

my children live in a house of lies

My breathing sped up to panting and I could hardly lift pen off paper between words as I scribbled, Banished by betrayal on top of betrayal I wander like Merlin screaming in the Welsh woods the peasants still hear him screaming whenever the trees moan in the wind he was the Product of the Sexual Union of the Virgin and the Devil and what he is cannot be resolved in the minds of men so fifteen hundred years after he died he screams in the woods like a daddy howling for his sons and denied them forever. With a snap, the pressure and the weight released. I turned around, and the great hands of the sun happily patted my cheeks with love.

Norman came in and stood next to me. I leaned my head on his belly and said, “Thank you, Norman, for your great big heart.”

“You need ping-pong therapy.” I followed him down to the basement and picked up a paddle. He served. I missed the ball.

“One-love,” I said. And two lost. He served again.

“Two-love,” he said. And lose one. He served again.

“Three-love,” he said. And lose them all. He served again and I poured my remaining life into returning the ball.

“Three serves one,” he said. And one serves none. I’m no boy’s Daddy and I’m no man’s son. The words blazed across my mind like the trail of a jet in an empty sky. In the shocked interior silence that followed, my body went all funny. I could hardly finish the game. Half an hour later I climbed on the bus and left Halifax forever, wondering if I would howl in the woods to the end of my days.

At the little town of Wolfville in the Annapolis Valley, Cary’s long arms pulled me bedraggled off the bus and into a good strong hug. He drove me directly to a New Year’s party. I wandered around like a refugee. Cary found me, handed me a beer. I took a sip, then looked up. On the wall facing me was a large oil painting of the backs of two boys standing side by side as they looked out over a meadow at the trees in the Nova Scotia distance. Caleb and Wren could have modeled for it. The backs of the boys’ necks and arms, the difference in height between the older boy and the younger one, even the hair color and haircuts were exactly right. All I could do was stare.

Drunken dancers flickered between me and the painting on the wall. From time to time I’d enter deep confusion, and questions would roar through my mind. Where are my boys? Why aren’t they with me? I’d teeter on the edge of suicidal grief, and Cary would show up, every time. He’d stand between me and the painting, touch me somewhere, tell me what else was going on. There was some yelling and whistling. Shortly after that, he took me by the arm and guided me to the car. Maybe when Wren asked me to guess how old he was, I’d said 19 because that was how old he’d be when he found me. Caleb might be too scared of finding me to begin to look. Ariel would have long forgotten me by then.

The deep, quiet black of the country dark closed over me like the lid of a coffin.