Veronica had been clean for six years. That’s not to mean she was a recovering addict but that she was clean in the most literal fashion. Never grime beneath her fingernails, never dirt in her hair, never pasta sauce in the corners of her lips. Even in raising twin girls through their terrible twos, threes, and fours, she has stayed spotless.
She had been the other type of clean, the one that gets medals and applause, all her life––save perhaps a little indulgence during those six months where Joseph had moved in with Elle Kroeger in her trailer that was illegally parked on the strip of Crown Land that ran for fifty miles along the south shore of the river. Even as a child, Veronica knew to be weary of how a drunken decision could fetter a future. And now, as she vacuums the kids’ room she sees that the guinea pig has died.
On the night of their one year anniversary, the doorbell had rung. It was Joseph, back from the south shore, sobbing out front, saying he’d made a terrible mistake. A few months later, on the same day Veronica found out she was pregnant, the RCMP took an anonymous tip about Elle’s trailer and so it is now parked in an impound lot somewhere and God only knows where Elle herself got parked. She did not know when to leave, Veronica thinks with a tight little smile as she lifts the guinea pig from its cage, and is now drifting like an empty boat.
To convince Joseph to get girls the guinea pig, Veronica had told him about the one she’d had and how it taught her about love and selflessness. She’d of course left out the part about how inconsolable she was after she had taken it out onto the front lawn only to have it snatched up by a circling hawk and the future had arrived in a sudden, violent motion.
But now, as she places the rodent into its shoebox coffin, Veronica is more unattached than anything. She’ll now have to skip lunch if she’s to get the house in order before the twins and Joseph come home and chaos spills like grape juice across the carpet. The older you get, she thinks, the smaller grief becomes. And if she would’ve let herself finish that thought, it would’ve ended, until all that’s sad are the largest and most terrible things––things like that you no longer get sad.
The night of their one year anniversary and Veronica is in the door frame, listening to her husband. She is still three months away from being pregnant, the trailer still parked by the river. Her life is limitless in front of her, like the prairie that gusts towards a horizon that is rabid with lightning.
In the corner of the backyard, between the lavender and wild rose, Veronica claws the soil. She’d put on her dish gloves but as the grave gets deeper, the gloves are soon so caked with mud that you can hardly tell she’s wearing them, and from afar it looks as if she is touching it all.
Born and Died Here
When Noah opened his door to retrieve his newspaper and saw the baby swaddled in the basket, he assumed it was dead. It wasn’t the first time someone had left a body on his doorstep. People believed that, as the town’s mortician, he had some unbreakable bond with burials. But he did not, of course. No more than a dentist has to a buried molar or a plumber to a weeping faucet.
Lifting the baby from the basket, he brought it inside, put it onto the table, and didn’t much care when it went down with a thud. He dialled the RCMP.
“Hey Joseph. Noah here. I’ve––Pardon? Big win last night. Big win. Somebody has––yes, very warm. Unseasonably. Look, Joseph––.” But Noah froze, staring at the table.
“Christ alive,” he said, letting the phone drop to the linoleum, “you’re breathing.” Though perhaps “hiccuping” may have been more apt.
Noah was born here. So was his father and grandfather. His great-grandfather was born here too but had dreams of staking a claim in San Francisco. Yet by the time he’d finally arrived, the streets had been emptied by cholera. Back home, he learned the business of funeral rites and, after a few trials and errors, became fluent in the art.
After a restless night, Noah brought the baby into his garage where he worked, gently placing it onto the countertop, propped up in its basket.
Noah was working on a teenager who’d hung himself with a plugged-in strand of Christmas lights. Once the boy’s blistering burns were soaking in saline, Noah switched to his other client, a nineteen-year-old whose entire face needed to be peeled because he had drunk a quart of a lead-based paint named “Helsinki Blue.” “Ah,” said Noah, looking up at the baby, “All the places we’ll never go.”
By 11:30, half the boy’s face was scrubbed and Joseph had finally arrived. Noah met him outside, cradling the baby. “Sorry to make you wait,” Joseph said. “Couple parties last night got out of hand.” He nodded towards the garage. “You may need to stay late.”
Noah thought of the parties he’d gone to, the whisky and bonfires and boundless fields of wild sage, and how he’d once watched a full moon rise over Rebecca’s strapless shoulder.
After Joseph buckled the baby into a child’s seat and double-checked he’d done it right, he turned to Noah. “Maybe a beer next time.”
“Her name is Koro,” Noah said. “Means ‘heart’ in Esperanto. It’s the language of the future.”
After Noah watched the squad car disappear down the dirt road, a hawk circling above him, he went back into the garage. In his mind, Noah traced the trail of the Christmas lights. How they would have been plugged into an outlet, trailed up around the rafter, and dropped back down, dangling the noose like bait before the boy. He was sixteen.
“No matter,” Noah said, blinking his eyes to dry them, “I’ll see her again soon enough.”
Richard Kelly Kemick‘s poetry and prose has been published in literary magazines and journals across Canada and the United States, most recently in PRISM, The Fiddlehead, and Tin House. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication Spring 2016 by Goose Lane Editions.