Cath missed Annie. Of course, there were regular posts on Annie’s social media page, changes to her profile photo—most recently, in March, her newly pregnant abdomen, dramatically draped in stripes—but Cath wanted more from her sister than comments like “Really really tired tonight” or “Started jogging again!” Now that they were both living in small towns—Cath in the Tri-Towns as she still called them, Annie in Cobourg—she felt like they were traveling back in time together. A former history major, Cath had just finished a biography of the Strickland sisters, Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, dragged out to “the Aweful Wilderness” of Upper Canada by their unfortunate men, there to suffer pangs of British homesickness while raising broods of children. But still finding time to write letters. Cath had just processed a new volume of CPT’s letters for her college library, taken it home. While she stirred the stew she was warming up for supper, she flipped the book open.
16 April 1846
My Dearest Susan[na]
I have been trying to snatch time to write for I have much to write about but my hands are so full with one thing or another that I have not had time…. Traill has got possession of the old grey tower…. [he] is to get his nine acres of wheat sown and the garden prepared for seeds and then come for us…. If we could but buy a milking cow and a horse we should not want and in the winter I might come over to see you—*
Across the room, the phone was flashing a message. Soon her sister’s recorded voice was in her ear, “Cath—it’s Annie. Your sister, in case you’ve forgotten. . . . I need to talk to you. Give me a call, tonight . . . at nine. Please.”
Cath pushed the button again, listening. How long had it been since they’d actually talked on the phone? Mid-January—three months ago now—when Annie had announced her pregnancy, at thirty-seven, after three years of trying. Cath, not without several stabs of fertility envy, had marveled then at the happy swoop in her sister’s voice. Cath had offered then to “come down” without “the boys” (her stepson and husband) to help buy maternity clothes—or toys for the baby. And diapers, were cloth back in? Would Annie take a full year off?
“Absolutely,” Annie had said. “I’ve just been waiting to become a desperate housewife and full-time Mom. I’ve already told Rick I want a minivan.”
Cath had to smile, remembering the bravado—and self-mockery—with which Annie, the athletic, extroverted one, was seduced by the romance of stay-at-home motherhood. Cath had missed out on kids: left it too late, waiting for Jason’s divorce to become final, then for Kevin to adjust to his new step-mom. Even their divorced mother had been an ER nurse who never stopped working.
“I can’t wait to see you pregnant,” Cath had said, and laughed. Nine years older, hadn’t she always been the motherly one?
Annie didn’t seem as enthusiastic.
“You don’t mean right now—I’m greenish, and squeamish. There’s nothing to see yet. Although my boobs are bigger; that makes Rick happy.”
“And being a Dad doesn’t?”
“Well, he likes the idea of a son, I think—continue the Dunn dynasty—so I’m hoping for a girl! But he said he won’t move to the suburbs. We’ll have to squeeze Baby into our old house. For now.” The confident tone implied she would get her way; with men, Annie usually did. Rick, seven years older, had a very reliable income as an actuary, and could spoil her. He once seemed to Cath the perfect metrosexual: working on Bay Street, wind-surfing on weekends, or taking Annie on trips to Paris or Amsterdam. The Peter Pan syndrome guy. But then his mother had had a stroke. She had to move to a nursing home in her small town, and since his siblings were in B.C. or Nova Scotia, Rick chose to move with her—just temporarily, he claimed—and Annie along with him. Now that Annie was preparing for family life, well . . . maybe she was ready to settle down in a small town. But Cath still couldn’t see her singing The Wheels on the Bus all day long to Junior, or making her own baby food. Or getting a minivan, for that matter.
Annie had put off the visit, saying “Maybe in the second trimester. . . . But I’ll send out regular web updates, I promise.” Casual about keeping up social ties, Annie was obsessive about “staying in touch” electronically; at last count, she had 314 “Friends.”
After a supper eaten while watching the six o’clock news, just with Kevin, home for a few days before final exams (he divided his attention between television screen and iPod), Cath slid over to the PC mounted on the antique end table and quickly tapped in her password, looked up her sister’s page. It had not been updated for three weeks, despite the lengthening thread of inquiries from some of the 314. Restlessly, she returned to the book of letters.
My dear little fellow has been very ill and is not well yet with severe influenza. The girls also, but I hope we shall manage to get well before we move—You will be sorry to learn that Sam and Mary [their brother and sister-in-law] have lost their youngest, little Richard … a fine lively boy of 15 months—measles or scarlet fever, but it is not known which, she is ill and Sam much distressed….
The vulnerability of children back then, she thought. But Mrs. Traill had birthed nine, lost two in early childhood; surely women must have been hardened to it.
At nine, when Jason was sitting in front of the TV with his whiskey and Kevin was playing on his X-box downstairs, Cath called her sister. It took four rings before she picked up. Her voice sounded fuzzy, as if she had been sleeping.
“Hey, pregnant lady. In bed already?” she teased. “I guess you do need extra sleep—”
“Yeah. I feel like I could sleep for twenty-four hours. Though I’ve finally stopped puking up breakfast. But—it’s Rick—he’s gone.”
“Okay, he dropped me off at the spa three days ago—it was a shower gift—and said he was going to take some holiday time, go camping—before the flies come out—with his lawyer buddies from work. He might be late getting back into civilization. So I took a cab home, Monday night, and wasn’t worried that his car was gone. That was yesterday. I went to work as usual. But today, when I got home, there was a message on the phone. . . .” Her words stumbled, stopped. Cath felt a jolt of certainty—Peter Pan’s left her; I always thought he would—but what well-timed insensitivity. She tried to turn her gasp of exasperation into the first of a chain of soothing clucks, even as she recalled their mother’s chirps of mingled pity and resentment, whenever little Cath came to her with some tale of woe like a lost toy or broken doll.
“Oh Cath—he said he couldn’t handle the change in our lives. That he still loved me—but—” Muffled nose-blowing.
“Hey, don’t panic, Annie,” Cath found herself saying. “It’s a normal over-reaction—becoming a father, so late—”
“But you—you and Jason—he never said—never said he didn’t want kids, did he?”
“Well, it’s different.” Cath heard Jason get up to refill his glass, downstairs. “He was already a Dad, so he was experienced . . . if it had worked out . . .” She found herself half-sighing, forced herself into action. “Listen, let’s not agonize yet. Easter Weekend is coming. And they owe me a few days at the college. I’ll come down Thursday, and we’ll work this out together. Give Rick a chance to miss you—I’m sure he’ll be back.”
“Okay,” Annie said, and with a creaky laugh, “Men—who needs ‘em?”
Hanging up, Cath quickly made a list: see her boss tomorrow, stock up on some Hungry Man dinners for Jason and Kevin, get some groceries for Annie. The boys would complain, but soon settle into their separate corners, separate screens, for a few Mom- and wife-free days .
The drive south was a drive into spring, as rocks and pines gave way to pastoral clearings of greening farm fields, probably hobby farms, and as Cath approached Cobourg, she couldn’t help but think again of the Strickland sisters, their desperate lives in what were now Peterborough and Belleville. Neither of their men did very well as farmers, and so each woman helped support the family with their own literary talents.
I have been so busy and not well and baby ill that I have not written any thing but a song called “Hurra for the Forest”—the children are very fond of it but I never know if my verses are good till I hear them approved by good judges—My dear Susy I can write no more but say good night I will finish in the morning—
As she pulled off the highway and onto Cobourg’s main thoroughfare, Cath could see flashes of the lake—now free of ice, something still weeks away up North—behind the houses. She let her window halfway down. Turning onto their street, she noticed pussy willows growing in the alleyway that still ran between the houses. A reminder of early twentieth century traffic: garbage trucks and before them, horse-drawn “honey wagons,” as they were called, on pathways still used by wanderers, dogs and children. Stopping at the corner, she could see a couple of kids—girls, from the sounds of their voices—kneeling on the new grass, the shine of a shovel. She smiled; did kids still play Digging to China?
Now she was turning into the driveway of Annie’s house, situated in an old neighborhood recently gentrified. Almost one hundred years old, the house was one of the smaller ones. It had a wide front porch that needed painting. Cath placed the groceries down, knocked, went back for her suitcase. The door stayed shut. Maybe she’s napping, she thought. She knocked again, harder. Then she tried the door, and it opened. “Hello?” she called into the slightly musty air of her sister’s house. She stepped inside, almost stumbling over a dog. The dog, Molly, yipped, shambled into the living room. Polly, her sister, was settled on the other side of the room.
Meeting no reply, Cath brought the groceries into the kitchen, which displayed a dozen dirty cups and plates by the sink. It was two-thirty. She carried her suitcase up to the spare room. This was only the second time she had been in her sister’s Cobourg home. She scrutinized the framed photographs decorating the hallway. She was surprised to see a photo of their mother as a young girl with her parents. She remembered it standing on her mother’s dresser. She had asked her sister what she wanted after the funeral, but hadn’t noticed her packing this up. Now she peered into the photo to see a frowning girl, about nine, in Buster Brown shoes, standing between two unsmiling adults who had recently come to Canada from Scotland and Ireland, and had somehow made a bargain to live together.
The spare room was obviously to be the nursery; beside the bed was a brand-new table with a shelf beneath it—a changing table. On it was a pile of tiny cotton diapers patterned with animals: elephants, cats, dogs, zebras. Imagine Annie washing diapers, eschewing modern convenience with warm bundles of cloth to be collected, rinsed out, washed (in special soap), dried, folded . . . women’s work we tried to escape, she lectured Annie in her head. There were also sleepers in neutral shades of green, yellow, orange on another shelf. She picked up the pile, sniffed its flannel sweetness, like a loaf of homemade bread. Then the door slammed downstairs, and she dropped it, feeling like a kidnapper. She went to the stairs, where she could just see the dogs, tails waving.
“Hey—”she called down, waiting for her sister’s answering echo.
“Hey. You’re here.” The flatness of her voice made Cath start down the stairs quicker. Annie was standing by the door, the dogs sniffing at her shoes. She actually had a little baby bump showing. She was wearing a man’s sweatshirt, her face red and sweaty, hair flat and greasy. Cath wrapped her sister in a tight hug, noticing the extra presence between them, before she felt Annie pull back.
“I’m all sweaty. Went for a jog. Tried to clear my head—down by the lake—and wound up crying.” Annie sagged down on her heels on the carpet, petting Molly abstractedly.
Cath sat down on the carpet beside them, trying to avoid Molly’s tail.
“I’m sorry, Annie—are you all right?”
“I don’t know. . . . I had a phone call from Rick last night. He’s staying with a colleague—because he said, he said, he’s not sure—he’s coming back.” Voice breaking.
After a moment, Cath reached over and rubbed her sister’s sweaty back. Annie tensed, but let her.
“It’ll work out—it’s just—the adjustment. He’ll be back,” she said, though she felt far less sure of this than she attempted to sound. “It’s becoming a father. . . . Maybe Jason could talk to him.”
“Would he? Jason always seems so . . . so, quiet.” Annie said. “Reserved.” She fumbled in her pocket for a wad of tissue, blew her nose.
Cath found herself defending her husband. “Oh, if it’s important, he can speak up. Believe me.” She put some emphasis on Believe, recalling the heated arguments that occurred in the car, on the way home from dinner parties she’d enjoyed, when it was “safe” for her introverted husband to “unload,” as he called it, about some slip or slight.
“Anyway, remember—you’ve got to look after Junior, here,” trying for a bright tone, though she felt absurdly false doing so. She stood up, bent towards her sister, one hand hovering. “Is it . . . may I?”
Annie, nodded, half-smiling now. “Remember that game, Mother May I? I feel like I’ve swallowed a small watermelon. But not so sick—I was feeling better, until—” She sighed, then leaned back against the couch, stretching her legs in front of her. “Feel, here.”
Cath brought her hand down to the new curve of her sister’s belly, pressed lightly. To her amazement, it was firm and unyielding, not fluid or loose. Cath felt the pressure of life, even as Annie’s breathing quieted, with a sigh suggestive of pride as well as weariness. The dogs re-settled. Feeling years and years older, Cath straightened. Annie looked up, face glowing, and Cath knew her part.
“Let’s see. What shall I feed you and Junior?”
Somewhere in the middle of the night Cath was awakened by the sound of water. Rain? She sat up in the unfamiliar room, listening. No, water running, inside. She put on her glasses to think better. After a mushroom omelet supper, the sisters had watched the news, walked the dogs, checked the messages. Nothing but a call from Jason, who wanted to know if Cath had arrived all right (she had forgotten to charge her cell again). But despite Annie’s avowed fatigue, she seemed unable to sit still: insisted on doing the dishes, making up Cath’s bed, exercising to her Yoga Mama DVD. While making the bed, Annie did explain about the diapers—they were looking into a diaper service, such services were indeed coming back—and the sleepers were gifts from co-workers.
“They’re all mothers themselves—except for Wanda, who had her tubes tied when she was twenty-nine—and got very nostalgic about the ‘nesting stage’.” This led to Annie’s dissertation on “the family bed” and “breastfeeding as a public right,” about which she was surprisingly militant. So it was that Cath found herself yawning, longing for bed, but waiting for her sister.
Now she pulled herself out of bed, switched on the light. The clown mobile attached to the changing table swung wildly as she bumped into it, opened the door. Stepping into the hall, Cath put her bare foot on something wet, started—a bath towel. Was Annie having a bath? There was another one beside it, and in the light, she could see a couple more—hand towels or washcloths—almost a fabric trail leading to the closed bathroom door. Cath picked one up, saw it was dark with blood. Her foot was streaked with it. She hurried to the bathroom, and, still hearing water running, knocked once, then twice, louder.
“Annie! Annie—what’s happening? Is everything— ” then bit off “all right,” after realizing it wasn’t, couldn’t be. The tap was shut off, leaving an eerie answering silence. Cath’s mouth was dry, breath tight in her chest, as she slowly turned the knob. The door opened easily, and in the shadowy dimness she saw her sister sitting in the old Edwardian tub which she had painted purple on a whim. The water was up to her waist, covering her belly but not her newly-expanded breasts, with bulls-eyes of dark nipples. Annie’s eyes were shut, her mouth wide in silent sobs. But even more shocking was the pink bathwater—almost matching the tub color—and Cath knew, as she sank down beside the tub on another wet towel, that there were no words here, no sisterly narrative of virtue rewarded or luck regained. She found Annie’s wet hand, pressed it. They sat that way for long minutes, measured only by Annie’s noises, until the whining of the dogs forced Cath to her feet, sent her downstairs. Polly and Molly were pressed against the basement’s doggie-gate; she released them, rubbed their ears while crooning comforting sounds—like a mother might—but the dogs were more interested in her bloodied feet. So she pushed them outside, where the birds were just beginning. She heard the toilet flush upstairs. Cath sat down on the basement steps. When she had counted to one hundred, she reluctantly pulled herself up the creaky stairs.
“Annie? Annie—is it?” Damp footprints led to the master bedroom. Cath looked helplessly at her sister, lying face down in her and her husband’s bed, the largest bath towel wrapped around her, already pink-tinged.
“Over.” Said quietly into the pillows.
Cath got onto the bed beside her, and put her hand on her sister’s back, while Annie sobbed more loudly. What can I say? thought Cath. What would Mom say? She could smell Rick’s aftershave in his half of the bed. Stiffening, Cath resigned herself to watching, not sleeping, as her sister’s breathing slowly deepened. But somehow, just before dawn, she drifted off into a dream of coming home to Jason with a baby, one that wasn’t hers, or her sister’s, but was actually their mother’s: a long-lost brother named Ricky.
It was almost ten when Cath woke up, wondering what she was doing in this bed—then shook off the dream, replacing it with last night’s reality. There was a feral smell of hot blood in the room. Annie was lying, turned away, beside her, still—too still? She nudged her gently, received her groan with relief, but also a burst of uncertainty: what came next? Her stomach growled, embarrassingly loud, as she put on her glasses, got up. The doctor—the hospital—someone had to call the hospital. She did. But she didn’t want to wake her sister any sooner than necessary.
Moving slowly, she found her way down to the kitchen, the landline sitting on top of the counter. She pushed three digits, waited for the robotic voice to come on the line: “Nine-one-one. State your emergency, please.”
“My sister—we think she’s had a miscarriage. Last night.”
“Where is your sister now, please— ”
“In bed, sleeping. What do we do?”
The robotic voice was surprisingly helpful, giving her directions to the hospital (fortunately, just a few blocks away) and reminding her sternly to “drive carefully.” And to bring Annie’s health card. Grabbing her sister’s wallet out of her purse, she went upstairs. Clearing the bitter saliva from her dry mouth, she called, “Little Chickie—”
“Little Chickie, we have to go . . . get you checked out—”
But to her amazement, Annie was already up and wrapped in a man’s sweatshirt over a cotton nightgown, her face white, lips tight.
“Good, good, let’s get you—”
But Annie pushed away Cath’s hands, clutched the towel she had wrapped around herself, and went downstairs on her own, feeling out each step.
Cath stooped to pick up the bloody towels lying on the rug. She went to her room, put on yesterday’s clothes, and went downstairs. Let the dogs in. Whimpering, one came over, nuzzled Annie’s towel. Annie pushed the dog away, started crying. Cath hurriedly found her shoes, and a pair of gardener’s duck boots, too big, for Annie. Opening the car, she placed the towels on the front seat before her sister sat down, bare legs poking out of her nightgown. At least I won’t have to clean blood off the seats, she thought, crazily.
Luckily, the streets were quiet—it was Good Friday, she remembered—and she was able to negotiate the Emergency Parking area so as to drop her sister off. A nurse had taken charge of her by the time Cath returned, and after giving Annie’s health card to the desk clerk, she was able to collapse in the waiting room, with all the other blank-eyed people, some staring at a television showing cartoons.
“I love holiday weekends,” she heard one woman in green scrubs say to another as they pushed through doors marked Hospital Personnel Only.
Cath tucked Annie’s wallet away, encountering a puzzling lump in her large shoulder bag, and pulled out the book of letters. She tried to distract herself with it from the noises of the suffering patients-in-waiting, the cartoon music, and the door continually opening and closing, but CPT’s letters suddenly seemed both trivial and ponderous. One sentence leapt out at her, though; she read it several times, until she had almost memorized it: “The game of life seems to me a difficult one to play, full of mistakes and oversights—many of our kindest and best actions seem to be those for which we suffer the most in this world.”
“Mrs. . . . ?”
Annie was being led towards her by the woman in green scrubs, face now properly composed in a sympathetic frown. Annie, with new hospital bracelet, tottered forward like an aged child.
“We’ve examined your sister, and given her a sedative. Here are some after-care instructions.” She handed Cath a pink booklet, releasing Annie’s arm after giving her a pat. Almost as an after-thought, the nurse said, “Luckily, there’s no need for D & C—the miscarriage was complete.”
Cath started, but Annie’s eyes were glassy already, all expression smoothed out.
She was still carrying the big bath towel. Cath thanked the nurse, and putting her arm carefully around her sister’s waist, steered her back through the doors, down the hall, to the parking lot. Everyone they met—patients, medical staff, visitors—gave them a wide—and respectful?—berth.
After a silent, careful drive back to the house—she had closed the front door, but left it unlocked, Cath reproached herself—Annie allowed herself to be helped back upstairs and into bed. She slept the rest of the day, while her sister read the booklet called “After a Miscarriage: It’s Not Your Fault” on the high proportion of first-trimester “pregnancy failures.” Then she phoned Jason, to let him know what had happened, and that she might be staying a bit longer. He said, Poor little Annie, and asked if she wanted him to phone Rick. She was touched, but thought she could handle that herself. Or so she said.
When she let the dogs out that evening, she trailed after them, struck by the soft, edgeless air of April. Tiny crocuses held up their bird’s-mouths by the back door. Beyond the cedar hedge which separated their yard from the alley-way, Molly seemed excited by something—scratching and pawing at the earth. Bending down, Cath was startled to see what looked like a tiny plump arm, thrusting out of the dirt. Polly came to lick it; then Cath remembered the two girls, their shovels. Still, she pushed the dogs away from the buried doll, hurried them back inside.
“That’s a good Little Chickie.”
Annie swallowed, as her sister pulled back the spoon for the last time. Sinking back into the pillows, she whispered, “Big Bird, don’t leave me.”
Saturday night. It was as if Cath was sixteen again, Annie almost eight, and Mom taking an extra shift. Sometimes Cath had to miss school because Annie was sick. She didn’t mind; school was boring for her now, and she was itching to leave. Start her own life, her own family.
Suddenly she noticed a few gray hairs standing out at Annie’s temples—shocking. She herself had been dying her faded blond hair for years.
At least she had coaxed her sister into a fresh, flowered nightgown. But the maternity underpants had to be stuffed with overnight maxi pads. Cath handed them to Annie, then turned away.
It was almost seven o’clock: time for another pill. “I won’t leave you. But you need to take your medicine.”
“Okay—” Annie lifted up the glass of water, accepted the second sedative. “But don’t leave—”
“Promise. You sleep.”
She sat and watched as the daylight waned, the outdoor noises faded away, and her sister’s breaths evened out, lengthening.
She slipped downstairs, to finally phone Rick at the number he had left. She used her cell—rather than the landline—in case he was avoiding Annie’s calls. He sounded surly when she introduced herself—maybe half-drunk—but when she told him the news, he seemed to sober up almost instantly. Apologized, said that was terrible, and was Annie okay? As okay as anybody half-doped could be, under the circumstances, she told him. Then added, more gently, it was over very quickly—no surgery. But inside, she underlined, Annie’s hurting.
“Okay—thanks for telling me. Tell her—no, don’t—I’ll tell her myself.” And hung up. His manly brusqueness both annoyed and reassured her. She had done her part.
She crept upstairs, checked on Annie—still sleeping. In her sleep, she looked younger, as if lost in a happier place. It made Cath ache.
For something to do, she gathered up the tiny sleepers and diapers, put them all in a clean white garbage bag she found in the kitchen, then left it, waiting, by the front door.
Sunday she woke up before seven, checked on Annie, who was still asleep, and went out for some supplies. A pharmacy super-store was open; she bought Tylenol 3s, fruit juice, vitamins, and another pack of maxi pads. The sleepy clerk remembered to say Happy Easter. Driving home past the closed-up homes, Cath suddenly thought of all the kids inside, hunting for chocolate eggs in living rooms and kitchens, while their yawning parents looked on, approvingly.
As she approached the house, she could see a car in the driveway—Rick’s black SUV. So, he was back. Cath parked, sat in the car for five minutes, listening to the robins. What should she do? Leave them to their privacy, of course. Relieved and disappointed at once, she quietly let herself in and put the pads, juice and pills on the kitchen table. Polly and Molly greeted her excitedly, wagging tails suggesting their happiness that the Master was home again. Letting them out, she stepped into the yard. A glimpse of something silver in the alley caught her eye. She went back to the kitchen for scissors. The dogs followed her to the budding shrub, its early furls of fuzzed silk. She cut four branches of pussy willow, brought them into the kitchen where she stood them in a milk pitcher. Filled the dogs’ water dishes while she was at it, and wrote a quick note on the fridge board: “Annie—Glad Rick’s back. I guess you don’t need me now. But rest up; call me in a few days. Love, Cath.”
The day after a long weekend was always extra busy at the College—with both a library staff meeting, and yearly budget review—and Cath found she was too busy to think much about Annie and Rick, although she hoped he was back to stay. When she finally sat down to her full email box, she was surprised to find a note from Annie.
Don’t worry, I’m okay. Poor Rick, he’s been so anxious about me. They said it wasn’t the jogging that brought it on. The nurse called it an Act of God—which made me feel terrible again—but I told Rick everything, and we both cried. Thanks for being here. I’ll be taking some time off—I’ll call you, B. Bird.
But Cath knew she wouldn’t. What had CPT written, to moody Susanna?
Never measure our mutual affection by our letters….. [N]ever I beseech you doubt that of your sincerely attached old friend and sister Kate.
Six weeks after, unable to sleep, Cath was clicking through her Facebook neighborhood. She found a post from Annie: “We’ve put the old house up for sale. Rick’s mother died last week in her sleep. We need a change of scene, anyway.” Her status had been changed to read Bereaved. A surprisingly Victorian word, her sister thought.