Short Stuff

Short Stuff: New English Writing from Québec, Véhicule Press, Montréal, QC, Spring 2005.
A habitual stomach-sleeper, she dreams of falling. Face down, the falling is more like flying; she never hits the ground. Often in her dreams of falling there is a precipice: a clearly defined line before which, perhaps for acres on end, grow grassy, sloping fields of thistle, pock-marked by dry caked dung. And after? Arriving at the precipice all fields and fences end abruptly and fall away. Forty feet below, there lies a beach of stones; a vague sense of bottom. And beyond: an inordinate amount of ocean.

Her husband is an early riser. Lately, he takes no joy in this though. He has not been sleeping well. He lies awake for hours, as still as possible so as not to disturb her. He watches her; she sleeps on her stomach with her arms tucked neatly by her sides. She sleeps like a superhero, he thinks, like she is flying through the sky. He takes the first hint of dawn as permission to slip out of bed.
     For all the hiss and stickiness of this humid summer, the days are not quite hot. There is no breeze coming up from the ocean this year - only a fine salt mist insisting on seeping into everything, staining his soon-to-be hay. The combine waits impassively, lurking with the bailer in the dusty, sagging barn. It would not rain, not when he needed it to. Now that haying season is nearing, he fears it will rain torrentially and spoil his beleaguered bails before he can get them under cover. So far he has hidden these worries from his wife.

The dream of the precipice begins with driving: there is a grey cracked road, and God knows who-all crowded into a rusted, limping car. After the driving she walks and walks. Even asleep, she is tired from it. The walking is framed by a false horizon. The fields are humid, dull and rough - not meadows at all. There are mosquitoes, and the land is in debt. Little by lots by little, the edge edges closer, egged on by the overzealous ocean and the weak, capricious cliff. The edge of the earth is a tangible thing when the edge of your farm is being eaten away by erosion, by inches each and every year. When the end is near, she drops to the ground. The sensation of falling/not-falling becomes precise. Lying on her stomach she pulls herself forward by her elbows toward the precipice, arms twitching by her sides in her sleep.

He was glad when his wife's family came to visit; it was lonely for her, living way out here. She was like them, and he was not. Although she never said a word about it, he knew she missed the mass of them: the noise and strength of their talents and charms. They arrived unannounced along with a thunderstorm early in August. "Surprise!" her mother exclaimed, the first one out of the cramped car. She hugged her daughter while an assortment of younger siblings and cousins tumbled out onto the gravel driveway. "We just happened to be in the neighbourhood, you know, darling, driving around out here on the edge of the earth."
     During their visit, his wife's youngest brother asked him, "How many cows do you have?" He had to think about it, but he didn't want to. There wasn't going to be enough hay to feed the dairy heard this season; there was no money to buy any more. Sooner or later he was going to have to cut his losses. Livestock prices were falling like bricks. He took a walk that morning after milking. He took his young brother-in-law out for a tour of the fodder and the barn.

She watched the worry gather up behind his placid brow, invisible like the salt in the air, deceptive like the August thunder that brought no rain. "I don't mind a little bit of ruin," she said. "It doesn't matter. The farm is shrinking anyway. So what? We'll sell some cattle in the fall. You know I like the auctions ... When we're in town remind me, I'd like to give Peggy a call."

It had been quite some time since he had walked out to the furthest limit of his farm, out to where the field fell into the ocean. He had accepted the erosion as a sad fact, a reminder of his inexperience. When the precipice loomed near, he dropped to the ground. Wary of the overhang, he pulled himself forward on his stomach by his elbows toward the edge of the pasture. He couldn't face not knowing. How could his wife stand it? She worked all day and slept all night. She never looked their precariousness straight in the eye.

She lies on her stomach on her bed in her sleep in her dream on the edge of a field that juts out into a nothingness. Everyone knows about the overhang. There is an absence of soil beneath the sod, a fine line between her and falling to a rock-sharp and salt-watery grave. She lies low and spreads her weight out as evenly as possible. "What if the lemmings come?" she thinks suddenly, and in her sleep her sleepless husband hears her laugh. If, just about now, a mass of lemmings - driven mad by overpopulation - were rushing hell-bent for her particular edge of the earth, perhaps the scales would tip. Perhaps the overhang would give way as a thousand, thousand tiny claws and tails raced across her back. Pushing her over the precipice, their bitty little bodies would do nothing to break her fall.

© J. R. Carpenter

  • Winner of the Quebec Short Story Competition, 2003.
    Sponsored by CBC Radio and the Quebec Writers' Federation.
    Broadcast April 2004.
  • Now published in Short Stuff: New English Writing from Québec,
    Véhicule Press, Montréal, QC, Spring 2005.

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