This is the place where you'll find my most recent creative writing endeavours: short stories, scripts, and so on. Enjoy!
"Something beginning to end"
Early Version of The Last Hunt Story. Full project appears on nfb.ca/interactive
By Jennifer Moss - based on interviews with Montreal photographer Alexi Hobbs.
It’s dusk. We’re out in the woods of Northern Quebec again, staying at the family cabin. There’s a small, dark lake here, and the cabin is perched right next to the rocky shore. Old, and made of peeling, red-stained logs, perpetually reflected in the still water, the cabin belongs to my grandfather, Antonio ‘Pit’ Allard, who has had it for as long as I can remember.
Pit is old now too, even older than his cabin. His tall, white-haired form stoops like a tree under too much snow. This year, he is on his last hunting trip to these woods. He says this every year of course, but this time it might be true. When you’re over ninety, all bets are off.
Inside, there is the clatter of activity. My uncles and cousins and I, we’ve come here to ensure there are no mishaps, and that the old man has a successful trip. Nothing much is said about this being his last time. No one wants to be unkind.
Today, like in all the years before, we went out to shoot partridge and snare hare. Pit showed me how to lay the trap, and make a wire collar. I haven’t actually done these things since I was ten. Pit says I used to enjoy hunting and fishing back then, even though I was a city kid. Not like some kids that won’t so much as stick a hook in a fish. Not like that.
We caught plenty of hare this afternoon, but wet weather muddied the tracks in the snow, and the partridge mostly saw us coming. Pit can’t get around like he used to, but he is still very proud. So when he let me drive him out to the hare traps, that meant something. He knew it, and so did I.
These days I’m clearly no hunter. I don’t even carry a gun. Instead I bring my camera, and follow Pit around, taking my own kind of shots. I notice little things. I always have. Like the way the old man’s hands are huge, yet capable of great subtlety. How they can skin a rabbit perfectly every time, without making a mess. And how, on his left hand, there is a big space between his thumb and index finger, for no real reason as far as I can tell. Just a space. It used to baffle me as a kid.
I take a lot of pictures: some, where Pit is smiling in his orange vest, and some, where he’s not.
Earlier today, I photographed a dead rabbit in the snow. There was something about the perfect stillness of its limp outline against the white, frozen ground. I snapped it – thinking about how hunting and photography both have the power to freeze a moment in time. Thinking too about rabbit stew.
In the cabin we finish the business of hunting, the skinning, butchering, washing. Later, the Scotch comes out. Jokes. Warmth. Closeness. Family. We owe all this to Pit, who has fathered five children, including my mother. The old man is the reason we’re all here, huddled in this room at the end of a long, bumpy road, and none of us forgets it. Pit is the star tonight. This trip is for him.
An old metal kettle sings on the white enameled woodstove. Wet wool. The smell of the propane lamp fills the small room, along with the smoke from cooking.
After dinner, before the dishes get rinsed in lake water, there is a pause where Pit gets ready to tell one of his famous stories. We lean in, closer. Though we’ve heard them all before, we somehow crave this moment in time, feeling it slipping away even as he speaks.
There are lots and lots of these old stories, some of them true, some mightily false. They are stories of hunting, trapping, working the woods, the farm…. There’s the one about Pit killing the huge bull moose and dragging it through the woods single-handed, the one about meeting my grandmother, Jeanne…
Then there’s my favourite story, the one about the train.
1941. Pit left the army hanging, and good riddance too. Took the train to Montreal with the rest of his unit for one last leave, one last fling in the big city before they shipped them all off, all those good Quebecois farm boys, to get killed. It put a damper on the party somehow, knowing what it was for.
Pit was only 19 then. He was in love, madly in love, with Jeanne. She was a spitfire, all right. Capable of standing up to him, when most didn’t try. Wild horses couldn’t drag him away. The Canadian army didn’t stand a chance.
So when his leave was over, when it was time to go, as the family tells it, Pit ‘jumped the train.’
As a child, I pictured my grandfather, invincible, literally diving off a moving locomotive, soaring through the air on his way to freedom. Pit seemed like the type who would do something like that. He seemed like the type who would do what he thought best, not what someone else told him to think.
I’ve always admired that kind of hard-headedness. I think maybe a little of Pit’s certainty rubbed off on me. Like with my photography blog. I post my photos in a certain order. I can’t tell you why, exactly. I just know this is how they should be.
And now that I’m grown up of course, I know the real story of the train.
Pit never actually jumped. He just didn’t get back on. The train, the one that would have eventually taken him to the front, left the station without him. It was a decision that made him who he is. Back then, you didn’t just leave the army. It wasn’t allowed. That was desertion, and it meant jail.
But as Pit tells it, jail was for people who didn’t know the woods.
So he went into hiding in the bush. Changed his name, went underground. During these years, he worked as a logger, a farmhand, whatever he could get. Lived like some French Canadian Paul Bunyan, an exile in his own land.
I’m a graphic designer for an architecture firm in Montreal. Unlike Pit, I’ve never rolled a log, or gone into hiding, or anything nearly so exciting. And I’m no storyteller, either. I have a hard time with words sometimes. But I do know that there’s a story here, in these pictures. It’s a vocabulary you start to pick up on, like anything else: Buckets of feathers. Hare stripped of their fur. A sideways wind blowing in off the lake. Smoke. Us.
Back in the city, in a darkroom with no work light, I sort through these images from the trip: Images like the rosary and crucifix tacked to the cabin wall. Above it, a row of baseball hats hanging off the antlers of a long-deceased 5-point buck. A practical solution, using every part of the animal that way. I think I’m more practical now than I used to be. Something else I get from Pit.
Pit survived alone in the woods for four years, eating mostly lard and beans. It was a desolate diet for a desolate, solitary life. But there were bright spots. He got Jeanne a job at a nearby farm, so he could invent excuses to see her. They were of course together, but no one could know. She loved him, but couldn’t risk revealing who he really was. To this day he can recall the glorious tension of it all.
And of course, he could still hunt for food… for deer, moose, or partridge, or lay delicate traps for hare in the bushes. This made dinner more bearable, and this is how Pit Allard waited out the war.
When it was finally all over, he promptly turned himself in. Enough was enough.
I picture this moment – Pit coming out of the bush – defiant, facing hostility, but robustly alive unlike so many others. A tall man, using his real name for the first time in four years. Probably carrying a rifle. Scarred by the war, despite having stayed home.
Pit went to deserter’s jail for about a year… till he managed to bribe one of the guards to let him go. It cost him something like five dollars for his freedom. That was how it was back then.
If Pit was a hare, he would never have been caught.
Once he was free, Pit went home to Jeanne. They moved to a small town and started their family. Pit put those hands of his to work and became a blacksmith.
The train got him in the end though. Being a family man, he couldn’t turn down a good job with CN Rail. The new job meant a move to Montreal, away from his beloved woods.
Montreal. My town. Where I grew up, and where I understand the light better than anywhere. Still, sometimes even I feel the pressure to get out, as if an invisible snare were slowly tightening somewhere out of frame.
Pit never lost the will, or the need to hunt. Something about it reminded him of who he was, where he came from. The deep and unrelenting solitude when you’re out in the woods. The way a hunter can read the signs in the forest like so many words in a book. The unspoken bond that exists between hunter and prey at that quietest of all moments, taking aim. There’s nothing else like it. Nothing. In all his years, he has never found anything better.
Maybe that’s why, at least once a year, his wife sent him back out to the bush. They said it was for sustenance, and it’s true that the kids grew up eating the meat their dad brought home from these trips. But it was more than that. It was a way of life.
1964. No one knew quite how Pit acquired the cabin at the lake in Northern Quebec, but it soon became his second home. He liked the silence around there in the wintertime. The early morning call of loons in summer. He even founded a hunting club up there, with about 20 members. They all took turns chopping wood, keeping things clean, squared away.
For years, the family gathered at the lake: The uncles, the cousins, the kids and grandkids.
At the cabin there is that little jetty, a rock formation on the lake, and you can walk out into the water without actually being in the water. I would get up in the morning and go down to the jetty, lean over the lake, and splash water on my face. Bracing myself.
This year will be the last time… maybe.
I lay the photographs of this hunting trip out on my floor. Pit’s face everywhere, staring up at me. For days, I struggle with the order of the images. Then one day, on the way to a friend’s studio, I get the call. Pit is in hospital - a clot, in the main artery to his brain. He is fighting back, but right now he can’t use his right arm. Shuffling the photos, I look hard at the one of an empty chair on the cabin porch, facing out over the lake. Staring at that image, there is the sense that something is beginning to end. That’s why the pictures matter. Why they have to be right.
Before it was Pit’s, some natives from the area used the log cabin to pass the winter. Then they just abandoned it, and there it sat, waiting for Pit.
Outside the cabin tonight, there is stillness. Dark trees, as far as the eye can see. A skimming of snow covers everything: the clearing, the woodpile, the footpath leading into the woods, and underneath it all, a faint trail of blood.
- By Jen Moss, based on interview with Alexi Hobbs, 2011.
A Modest Silence
By Jennifer Moss
“A Modest Silence is a Woman’s Crown”
- Euripides' Andromache
“We are the stories we tell, and we are compelled to create stories to understand ourselves.”
- Rewrite Your Life, Susan Gregory et al, Psychology Today
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
- Joan Didion, The White Album
Ismene pulled her scarf more tightly around her neck. The wet Vancouver wind found its way right to her small bones no matter how cleverly she hid them away. Two sweaters, a windbreaker, and a woolly scarf wrapped twice around and tucked down the front of her jacket did nothing much against the seeping cold. Truth was, she had never quite gotten used to the chill that had set in after her sister’s cremation. It was unnatural. All that fire surrounding the coffin, but no discernable heat. No smoke either, or rather the smoke that there was, that there must have been, simply whisked away like dirty smudges off a wall, carried upward and out by the tall chimney of the crematorium, while she and the other contrite survivors of Creon’s purge sat, safe and solemn, on the hard benches of contemplation. It was the kind of cold that even a hot bath couldn’t fix.
She shivered, looking up and down the street. Soggy winter gardens and sad-looking wooden houses clustered mutely alongside one another, a far cry from the warm sun and cool marble courtyards she had grown up with. It was early, the neighbourhood was barely stirring. She’d seen a few hurried commuters and dog-walkers since she got off the bus, but no one made eye contact. It wasn’t that kind of city. The morning sky was grey, as it had been for Antigone’s burning. It annoyed her that everything had to be compared to that awful day. How she was feeling, whether optimistic or dog tired, was now always gauged in relation to that wretched compass point, her new ground zero. The feeling was hard to define, and yet it chafed.
A flock of crows passed overhead, cawing loudly on their morning trajectory, indifferent as sharks to the feelings of others. She recalled reading that when a crow dies, the others in the murder will gather round, cawing and shrieking in a way that resembles grief to the untrained ear, but is really a form of collective threat assessment. An alarm of sorts. The cawing and shrieking is not mourning, but warning. As for what the crows might be warning about now, it was hard to say. There was no discernable threat. The former king, Creon, was safely in custody, her brothers long gone. The social media storm surrounding these events had died down somewhat, though she knew the lull wouldn’t last. Even Antigone was finally gone, though it had taken three whole deaths to lay her to rest. First entombed in a mountain by Creon, then hung by her own hand, and then set on fire in a foreign land by Ismene and those who were left to mourn. Three deaths and yet she still haunted every waking thought. Ismene felt a flash of annoyance. Crows were horrible, garbage-eating birds, everyone knew that.
She continued along the slick sidewalk, dodging puddles until she came to the address she’d been looking for, the one she’d found in the classified section of the local paper. A small sign hung on an iron rail at the top of a narrow cement staircase leading down to a basement entryway. It read: Grief Support Group. Newcomers welcome. Uncertain, Ismene hovered at the top of the stairs. Though she’d never been here before, “newcomer” hardly seemed the right word to describe her. True, she was new to this place, but not new to grief. Her upbringing was the stuff of Greek tragedy. Besides, what business did she have trying to “get over” Antigone’s death anyway? Antigone was dead. She was alive. Shouldn’t that be enough? And yet here she was. She’d set her alarm, caught the bus across town, and come here on the advice of her doctor, who thought she looked too thin, to “examine her lingering feelings.” As if looking at what had happened, yet again, would somehow restore the taste of food in her mouth, or make her remember what it felt like to be carefree. Ismene hesitated, considered turning around. She could spend the day at the library instead. That usually soothed her. Then she sighed, took one of her small, clutching breaths, and started down the stairs. Before she reached the bottom step, the door flew open.
“Oh… it’s you.”
“Expecting someone else, my dear?”
“The sign just said ‘Grief Support.’ I didn’t see a name.”
“Well you can never be too careful. But come in. Come in.”
Teiresias. In the wizened flesh. That must have been what the crows were on about. The old man had always had a powerful connection with scavengers. He looked none too worse for wear either, considering his harrowing escape from Creon’s death squad. She’d heard he’d had to crawl his way out of the royal city by way of a drainage ditch. Blind, ancient, but also bright and intact, he had somehow ended up on top… again. He reminded her of a vintage TV ad for batteries she’d seen recently on that modern oracle, Youtube, the one with a stuffed fluffy bunny who just keeps banging these brass instruments together. It was something about his pink, slightly flushed old-man skin and the way he just kept going and going. He didn’t seem to take each new affront personally.
Teiresias was forever laying hands on people. He was a hugger. Ismene was not. And although she’d known him her whole life, he made her uncomfortable with his constant reading of bones and his scribbling of cryptic notes. Still, people said his rheumy eyes could see things that others couldn’t. For that reason alone, she supposed he might make a halfway decent grief counselor.
“You’ll be wanting some tea.”
At least he could see that she was practically frozen. That was a start.
“The others are already here.”
Ismene squinted in the dimly lit basement. A circle of chairs, a record player etching out some ethereal medieval music, a thin carpet stretched over the cement floor. Teiresias hustled over to the corner near the electric kettle and began fussing with her tea. She could make out two other people sitting in the circle. One she vaguely recognized from her days at the palace. A low-level civil servant, she thought, from the way he dropped his gaze deferentially in her formerly-royal presence. Those days were gone now, but some people still obeyed protocol. The other person was a stranger to her. A powerful-looking woman with a beak-like nose and a mass of red hair, piled on top of her head in such a way that it threatened to come tumbling down at any minute. Ismene instinctively drew back. By her own assessment, Ismene was not a strong woman. Built thin and fine, mostly vegetarian, she felt an instant mistrust of women like this – women who looked as though they could eat a small army for breakfast. She sat down primly, opposite the woman, and stared hard at a stain on the carpet.
“That stain looks exactly like a dick” said the redhaired woman, raising one of her wild eyebrows and leaning back precariously on the hind legs of her chair. Ismene ignored this comment. It was true of course, but there was no need to be rude. Teiresias shuffled over with a full mug of tea, slopping it on the floor as he went.
“Got the shakes?” asked the civil servant, finally looking up.
“Hands aren’t so steady, I’m afraid.” Ismene took the hot liquid gratefully from Teiresias, feeling its warmth beginning to thaw her fingers.
“Least of your problems, Grandpa” said the redhead. Teiresias smiled, unbothered. He took the needle off the record player, sat down, and adjusted his belt. Ismene watched the others through the steam rising from her cup. There was an awkward silence as the four of them regarded one another while pretending not to. The old man cleared his throat.
“Shall we get started?”
The others nodded. Ismene blew on her tea, wishing she’d just stayed under the quilt like a normal person on a Sunday morning, or perhaps gone to Michael’s Craft for the knitting workshop she’d seen in their weekend flyer. The idea of sharing her pain with this room full of misfits was growing less and less appealing. But then again, she knew she needed to shed her guilt about Antigone. Drop it like an old undergarment. Such a thing was probably impossible, but she had to try.
“Jonas, why don’t you begin? Last week you were telling us about your job guarding the dead. Tell us more.”
At these words, Ismene realized with a shock where she knew the man from. She had last seen him guarding the body of her fallen brother, Polynices. He’d kept watch over him at Creon’s insistence, preventing her and Antigone from saying their goodbyes in the proper way. Then, he’d seemed like an implacable, unscalable wall. The picture came swimming towards her across dreams and nightmares: Antigone beating her balled fists against this man’s chest. Antigone begging to be allowed through to see their brother, who lay just a few feet away, his body torn and broken from the war. Despite her sister’s wailing – and she could be very persuasive – this man, the guard, had just continued to stand there, his hand on his weapon, his eyes like a black hole, demonstrating a complete lack of emotion. The picture vanished. Ismene stared at the man. Today, he seemed quite different. He was out of uniform, dressed in a rumpled plaid shirt and cargo pants. Wool socks, filthy work boots too, she noticed. He must have taken up a new profession. His eyes looked red, as though he might have been crying. Ismene recognized guilt when she saw it. No wonder he could barely look at her.
The man cleared his throat. “I wanted the job. Competed for it. That’s the part that kills me. They made it seem like a plum gig. Good benefits, decent hours even during wartime. And I got to stay out of the fighting.”
“Why was that important to you?” asked Teiresias.
“I’m a middle child. Peacemaker. I really didn’t want any trouble.” Ismene, whose heart was beating like the wings of a Rufus Hummingbird, felt an intense pang of recognition. She should hate this man. She did hate him with all her being. Yet there was something about him that she understood instinctively. She, too, avoided trouble at all costs. Her mind traveled back to the confrontation over her brother’s body. It had taken place in another basement – a long hallway leading to Creon’s palace dungeon. Where had she been then? While Antigone did all the talking, she’d simply stood back in the shadows, waiting, imploring silently but not voicing her thoughts. She hadn’t seen much point. “A modest silence is a woman’s crown,” as their nanny used to say, quoting someone famous. Plus, it had been clear from the man’s body language that he wasn’t going to back down, and to be fair, it would have been his head if he had. Creon was not a man to cross, especially back then, when he was riding high from his bloody victory on the battlefield. Men under those conditions should be given a wide berth. Ismene had understood that with perfect clarity. She had always been able to foresee consequences better than Antigone. Ironic, considering she was the younger sister. But follow someone into enough thistle patches, enough quicksand-afflicted swamps, enough missed curfews, and you learn quickly not to trust their judgment. That was life with Antigone, an older sister who always thought she knew best, but who so rarely did.
“You mean to say you wanted a paycheque and you didn’t care who you had to fuck over to get it.” The vile redhaired woman stirred herself, almost idly, scratching her generous cleavage as she shifted in her chair, staring straight at the man the whole time.
“Now Medea, we are not here to judge. We are here to listen to each other’s stories. I’m sure Jonas feels a lot of regret.” Teiresias sounded composed, but Ismene felt an element of senility in his words. It was the tendency of very old people to want peace over all else. She sympathized, but it also seemed to her that the woman had a good point. If it weren’t for this man’s stoic refusal to show basic human pity, her sister might still be alive. Antigone might never have taken it into her head to sneak out at night, against Creon’s strict decree, and attempt to bury Polynices in secret, a mission that had failed miserably.
“I’m sorry – but isn’t he still collecting a palace pension? So how much ‘regret’ is he really feeling?” Medea tossed her hair, defiant. Jonas looked down at his boots. Teiresias clicked his tongue, then turned his attention to Ismene, as if realizing for the first time that it might be difficult for her to be in the same room as the man who had guarded her brother’s corpse.
“My dear, do you have a recollection you’d like to share?” Ismene scanned the room, looking for some cue of what to say. Her whole life was a recollection. Nothing about it seemed anything to do with the present.
“Just that…” Ismene took a deep breath, “I remember you. Jonas-the-guard. I remember what you did. I also remember what you didn’t do for my sister.” The words barely out of her mouth, Ismene felt instantly terrible. Jonas seemed crushed. He could barely look in her direction. He started to speak, sat up and opened his mouth like a Chinatown carp, then closed it again, slumping back down.
“That’s right, loser. Suck on that.” Medea glared at Jonas, and gave Ismene a wink. Jonas stared at her for a moment, pain and disbelief registering on his face, then anger. Then the stone-coldness of his former job seemed to rise up in him, and he said evenly,
“I’m not listening to a child murderer.”
Nobody moved. Child murderer? The words were simple enough. But they sat inside the silence in that basement circle of chairs like a low-lying toxic fog, close and overpowering. If the words had a colour, Ismene thought, they would be green, and horrible. So that was who this loud-mouthed woman was. She couldn’t believe she was in the same room with that Medea. The jilted wife whose righteous anger at her husband’s betrayal led her to kill her own children out of spite. Medea was legendary, and not in a good way. When it had happened, her name had been splashed all over the news. Jason, the husband, was interviewed endlessly and held up as the longsuffering hero. He’d recovered quite ably, considering. But Medea, banished from her city in disgrace, left behind a trail of bloodshed so deep, so troubling, that mothers everywhere hugged their children a little tighter when they heard the gory tale. The Medea Affair. There had been books written on it. Ismene and Antigone had had a big fight over it, in fact. Antigone had admired Medea. Spoken in hushed tones of her “courage” and “principles.” Ismene had pronounced her a monster, loathing the thought that someone could achieve such an incredible level of selfishness.
Though she was no stranger to violence, Ismene abhorred it. Antigone, on the other hand, used to find it exciting. Their mother would say that “on sunny days, Antigone would walk miles to find the rain.” Ironic, since as their mother’s tragically short life had proven, usually the rain will find you all on its own. But Antigone was drawn to violence. She sought it out, like an insect drawn inexorably to fire. Insects were in fact the first victims of Antigone’s fascination with violence. She would make Ismene watch as she pulled off their limbs, one-by-one. Cicadas, beetles… her favourite victims were dragonflies, with their shimmering wings and beautiful iridescent bodies. “Stop!” Ismene would sob, hating every second of these torture sessions. But Antigone, often urged on by their brothers, would never stop until all the legs and wings were gone, and the insect was left, writhing aimlessly on the ground. Then she and the boys would grow bored, and scamper off somewhere to swim or play darts, leaving Ismene to watch the poor creatures die. Sometimes she just watched as their life slowly left them. Sometimes she stepped on them, to end their pain. To this day, she wasn’t sure which was worse.
Medea coughed. “Well, there it is. Now you know.”
“My sister was a fan of yours,” said Ismene.
“Yes,” said Ismene, surprised at her own courage, “she tended to like violent things.”
“Many women do,” said Medea. Teiresias piped up,
“Tell us more about her.”
How to encapsulate Antigone? She had been so many different things. Inspiration, aggressor, fool, heroine to name just a few. Men had thought her fascinating and different. But girls and women mistrusted her, sometimes for good reason. Insects were her first violence, but certainly not her last. She was fond of all the trappings of violence that were normally the purview of males. She sat and listened, enraptured, to their father, before his demise, relating news of distant wars, quests, and battles. “Tell the part again where he cuts off the monster’s head,” she would cry gleefully, while Ismene paced in the garden, trying not to hear. Antigone snuck out to the market where she learned to learned to fight with her fists. Sometimes, she would knock a jug of milk over in the kitchen on purpose, and laugh while their poor nanny had to bend over and clean it up. She kept that nanny very busy. Antigone wasn’t a kind girl. But she was, somehow, lit from the inside. Ismene sighed.
Finally, she said,
“She tied me to a tree once. Left me there.”
“Why do you think she did such a thing?” the old man pressed.
“She was furious that people called me beautiful. They only ever called her spirited.”
“And so you are… and so she was. How did that make you feel?”
A complicated question, but the old man waited patiently for an answer. At the time, Ismene felt shame. She had been left tied-up so long by her older sister that she had wet herself. When their nanny finally came and cut her down, Ismene had already spent all her tears. She didn’t speak to Antigone, or anyone else, for days. Antigone had regretted her actions and apologized, but it had never been the same between them after that. She remembered Antigone trying to make it up to her by offering to let her punch her in the chest. “Come on – do it – you know it will hurt more on the tits. You know you want to.” Ismene didn’t want to. She wanted a sister who did not solve every problem with action. Who didn’t use words like “tits” just to shock her.
“How do you think it made her feel? Someone ties you to a tree, you feel rotten,” blurted Jonas, suddenly back to his everyday personality. Ismene looked up at him, oddly grateful.
“Yes, rotten. The very word.”
“I see,” said Teiresias. “Anything further to add?”
“No. Just… rotten.”
Ismene glanced at the clock on the wall. Time seemed to have taken on a different quality in this basement. She wasn’t exactly sure how long she had been down here. Two robins pecked for worms and fluttered about under the dead bushes outside the ground-level window. It was early for robins. A streak of weak sunlight came through the dirty windowpane. And there was a strange smell in the air… getting slowly worse. It was like… garbage carried on a hot wind.
“Why did you have to say that word?” snarled Medea. Her voice low and frightening, she sniffed the air like a dog. That was it, Ismene realized. That was the smell. Something rotten. A sickly rot, almost meaty. Suddenly, Medea let out a deep, almost sexual moan. She put her head in her hands and pulled at her hair. A handful came right out and she held it loosely between her fingers, staring at the tangled red mass as though puzzled by where it had come from. Next, her eyes rolled back in her head, and her lips twisted into a grimace.
“I smell them. Can you smell them?”
Jonas and Ismene glanced at each other, confused. Only Teiresisas nodded sagely as though everything were completely normal.
“My babies. I smell them.” Whatever it was that Medea was experiencing – it was clearly not good. The shudderings and splutterings of a guilty conscience, Ismene supposed. She almost felt sorry for her, but not quite. After all, the woman had killed her children in cold blood. She deserved to be in torment. All anyone could do was watch as Medea, writhing in her chair as though in intense pain, fell apart. Sobbing, she slid from her seat onto the hard floor and lay prostrate, arms outstretched, pleading.
“Please, please, no. Don’t let me see them. I don’t want to see. Their little bodies, so much blood -- Stop! Why must they look at me that way? I’ve seen enough – I have seen -- I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Medea lay crumpled on the floor. She looked reduced to almost nothing, Ismene thought, a fraction of her former proud self. It seemed almost a shame. And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was all over. The rotten smell dissipated, leaving the room in the same mysterious way it had come. The four of them sat breathless. There was the kind of pause where anything could happen. Ismene and Jonas were watching Medea as she slowly came out of her tormented state, disoriented. But Teiresias was staring hard at Ismene, a strange look dawning on his face… a kind of sly knowing.
Medea sat up, rubbing her eyes. She looked at Ismene. “You.”
“Me? What did I do?”
“You made that happen. You and the old man. You’re in it together.”
Ismene had an odd feeling that Medea, crazy as she clearly was, might not be altogether wrong. After all, she had said “rotten,” and just like that rot had seemed to seep out of the walls. But it made no sense. How could she have made that happen? Teiresias hopped up and strode over to the corner.
“More tea, anyone?”
He began rummaging about in the cupboard. Ismene watched him set the kettle to boil. He seemed to be looking for something in particular.
“I’ll have some,” she said. Tea always helped. Everyone knew that. Medea raised her hand politely, like a chastened child. She looked drawn and exhausted.
“Hashtag Me Too,” said Jonas.
“You’re not funny,” said Medea… her reflex annoyance at Jonas returning some of the colour to her cheeks. Ismene inwardly rolled her eyes. Men. She mused that Antigone, had she lived, would have hated to be in the same room with this oafish man. In fact, she would likely have been at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, the riptide of raw feminist anger that was engulfing the airwaves and coffeeshops of her adopted city. It seemed there was not a woman from here to eternity who had not been raped, molested, or sexually harassed. Ismene was unsurprised by the numbers. It was the level of shock and outrage in the movement that took her aback. Surely by now people should be used to the fact that men strayed, men hurt, men had sex with whatever they pleased. Not that this was a good thing. Just that it was a thing. A thing that happened. It needed to be anticipated in order to be avoided. Both she and Antigone had been molested early and often by their brothers, who seemed to have nothing better to do. At first, Ismene had liked the attention. It was the one time her brother Polynices had been gentle with her. When she was old enough to understand that it was wrong, she simply filed it away under “lessons learned” and resolved to avoid being alone with her brothers whenever possible, and never to speak of it again. Antigone, on the other hand, almost dared their brothers to act upon her. And when they did, she wore the scars of it like a defiant badge of honour. She dressed provocatively around the boys. Paraded past them in clothes wet from swimming. Taunted them. But when they came for her, she fought them like a tigress, which only made them more determined to have her. One day, when they had finally managed to pin Antigone down, Polynices had hoisted up her dress and put his hands under there. To Ismene, standing at a distance, it had all seemed entirely predictable… like a dark extension of their childhood games. Antigone screamed and screamed for Ismene to help her. But all Ismene could do was watch. If she had done anything, they would have hurt her too. She was certain of this. She could see it clearly. So instead, she watched, thinking all the time of a wingless dragonfly.
“Try this,” said Teiresias, handing her a fresh cup of tea. It smelled odd. “Dittany and Mugwort,” he said, as though that would explain anything.
“Good for lucid dreaming.”
“Haven’t we had just about enough of that?” asked Medea, nervously.
“Never,” smiled Teiresias, looking for all the world like an old peddler with a cartful of strong retsina. Ismene was beginning to understand that this was not a normal grief support group. For one thing, nobody was giving anybody any support. Only tea, and strange tea at that. And Teiresias was no normal counselor. The old man had a way of looking through her that she found very disconcerting.
“Tell me my dear. Did you resent your sister for dying?”
How was she supposed to answer that question, for instance? If she said yes, she would be telling only part of the truth. Same if she said no. Antigone had been the great building in whose shade she sheltered on and off for her whole life. An unstable building, one with a crumbling foundation, but one that nevertheless reached for the sky, every day of its existence.
“I can’t say.”
“Sometimes we hate those we love most, don’t we?”
Teiresias’ words made Ismene think about her boy cousin, Haemon. Her best friend. They had grown up together, meeting in the library or under the shade of the plane trees while the others played ball or teased each other down by the river. Haemon was a deep thinker, rather like his dad – her uncle Creon -- had professed to be before he succeeded her father Oedipus as king, and revealed himself to be a tyrant. But unlike Creon, Haemon had no lust for power. He was a true philosopher. He and Ismene talked of one day paddling away on a small papyrus boat, one like the river fishermen used to check their traps. Then, their plan went, they would set up a book shop, scrolls and speeches and such, somewhere downriver, away from the capital. He had seemed serious. He had never touched her, but it was understood by everyone that he was hers and she was his, and that one day they would be together as man and wife. But before that day arrived, Antigone had thrown a ball overhand, towards the blanket where Ismene and Haemon were drowsing. The ball hit Haemon square in the lap. He sat up in shock and pain to see Antigone standing over him, grinning. The sun backlit her white dress and you could see the entire shape of her long legs because she never wore undergarments. She said she found them too confining --- but she knew – she must have known how Haemon would look at her. She twisted her hair and asked him if he wanted to play. And suddenly Haemon, her Haemon, was up and running fast as wind. He never looked back.
The love affair of Antigone and Haemon was messy and notorious. They would arrange to meet after dark, in low places. In daylight they were seen at market together, her feeding him dates as bold as anything. People talked, of course. Ismene told herself she was better out of it. She’d had “a narrow miss” according to her nanny, who was usually right about everything. Still, she hoped that one day Haemon would arrive back at the spot where he had taken leave of his senses. The spot beside her on their shady blanket. But he never did. And when Antigone kicked up her great fuss… when she insisted on burying Polynices, and Creon was forced to uphold his decree… who should try to come to her rescue but Haemon? Poor, sweet Haemon. He thought he could argue with his father… use rhetorical logic tactics and convince him, in a gentleman-like debate, not to have Antigone put to death. Creon was, of course, unmoved. Ismene wasn’t the least bit surprised. She never thought there was any hope he’d back down. It wasn’t in Creon’s nature, first of all. He was a prideful man. And the world was watching to see just what kind of king he was going to be. He was new at the job, new to kingship. He did not yet know that it’s enough to hold power over others… one doesn’t need to wield it. So, Creon had condemned Antigone to death. He announced his intention to have her walled up in a cave outside the city. Ismene had been so distraught at this news that on the spur of the moment, she’d found herself volunteering to go along and die with her sister. After all, she had wanted to bury Polynices, for despite his many faults, he had been her brother too. Antigone had merely done in actuality what she herself had done in fantasy.
Creon, for his part, had seemed appalled at the whole situation. When he wrote his first kingly decree that “enemies of the state should not be buried, on pain of death,” he likely never imagined that he would end up having to apply that phrase, “pain of death,” to one or both of his nieces. Antigone was actually his favourite. She and Haemon had recently grown very close. What kind of father, or uncle, would he be if he killed Antigone and her sister? At least, that was the line of reasoning Haemon had tried.
But in the end, as always, it was Antigone who decided what would happen. Antigone who chose the path that would drive Creon mad, raise the populace against him, destroy Haemon’s happiness, and cause her sister to live forever in exile and shame. Antigone chose the heroine’s high-wire walk of death. She preferred the spotlight to remain on her, and her alone. Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you, Antigone! Faster than a Speeding Bullet! Stronger than a Locomotive! Deeper than the River Styx! Antigone said it went against her older sister programming to allow Ismene to die because of something she herself had done. And so, Antigone was borne away, shining with a kind of holy white light, surrounded, as usual, by men. Jonas had been there, Ismene suddenly recalled. He had held the door open for this procession of death. She remembered the look on his face seemed haunted, even then. Haemon had followed at a distance. That was the last time she saw him. He’d walked right past her and out the door, his head bowed. When word came back to the castle several days later that Haemon was missing, that he could not be found in his quarters or anywhere in the city, Ismene knew she had lost him too. Creon himself could not believe it. Men never can. Sick at the thought of what he might have caused, he felt the need to rush off to the cave and pull aside the stones himself in a fit of pique, only to discover Antigone and Haemon, both there, both already dead.
Ismene looked around. She realized she had been silent for several minutes. Beads of sweat had appeared on her forehead and her teeth were beginning to chatter. A metallic taste filled her mouth. The others were staring at her, expectantly.
“I loved her because she was my sister,” said Ismene slowly, “although she was a terrible person. She was never very kind to me, but she turned me back towards life when I would have gone to death.”
There. She had said it. All of it. She felt a bit light-headed. Truth, when it gushes out like that, can cause a rush of blood to the extremities.
“Did you see any birds on your way over here this morning?” asked Teiresias, changing the subject abruptly.
“Birds?” The old man was positively bewildering.
“Here we go again with the birds,” said Jonas. “He’s obsessed with them. Saves the bones every time he goes to KFC.”
It made sense of course. Back home Teiresias had been known for his soothsaying abilities – he could read animal scat and bird bones like the back of his hand, people said. Kentucky Fried Chicken bones would do as well as any in a prayer bowl, Ismene supposed.
“As a matter of fact, I did see some crows, right before I got here.”
“Ah. Interesting… interesting. Crows often know things in advance.”
“And just when that smell came, I saw two robins outside the window – right there.”
Teiresias seemed taken aback by this. “It’s early for robins,” he muttered. “What could it mean?”
Medea moaned again, softly this time.
“I called my babies my ‘robins’. That is who you saw.”
“But that’s wonderful,” said Teiresias. “Wonderful.”
Ismene was not sure how wonderful it was, but the robins had seemed harmless enough.
“You’ve come a long way, Medea. Today, your children heard your apology.” Medea closed her eyes and heaved a deep and ragged sigh.
“Please let that be true.”
Jonas looked solemnly at the spot on the carpet, blinking rapidly to control his tears. Anyone would have agreed, it was quite a moment.
“And you, Ismene. I think you may have the gift.”
“Gift?” Ismene wasn’t sure if this was good news or not, but she was sure that Teiresias meant it kindly.
“The sight, such as I have. That is what let you see far enough down the road to make the right decisions… to survive. That is what brought you here. I’ll have to do some tests of course, to be sure… consult the bones…” he trailed off, muttering.
“We’re glad you came, anyway,” said Jonas.
“Yes,” said Medea, her eyes full, “we are.”
Ismene smiled at them, shyly. It was nice to be complimented again. In fact, it felt quite supportive. Teiresias let out a soft belch. And finally, there was quiet in the room. Muffled sounds filtered in from outside; traffic whooshing along wet streets, voices calling out to one another. Outside, events pressed on as they always do. But inside this room, it seemed to Ismene that a kind of peace descended. A comfortable silence between these long-lost survivors. She took a sip of her tea.
This story was inspired primarily by events in Sophocles’ Antigone. I’m rather fascinated by the non-heroic secondary characters in this play. The guard, who simply had a job to do; The sister, Ismene, who understood instinctively that standing up to the state would bring punishment, and would not bring her brother back; Also, Teiresias, the old man who pops up in several plays in this series to offer key insights, slightly too late. Then there’s also an appearance by Euripides’ Medea, who killed her own children in an act of rage and had to live with it after the fact. I began to wonder how these characters, some of whom brought their fates on themselves, others who seem more like collateral damage, would fare in modern-day Vancouver. How would their Mediterranean souls respond to wet sidewalks and basement suites in February? It struck me that the wet west coast environment might bring out their depression, grief, or Seasonal Affectedness Disorder to such an extent that, given the right set of circumstances, such as a grief counseling session, they might be forced to re-examine their stories and try to move past them. The principles of narrative therapy were another source of inspiration for the story. I happened to be reading about the idea that “We are the stories we tell, and we are compelled to create stories to understand ourselves,” in a Psychology Today article by Susan Gregory (et al) entitled “Rewrite Your Life.” It inspired me to consider how these fictional characters might step out of the bounds set for them by their authors so very long ago, and move forward with their lives. In doing so, I began to think about how I, too, might “re-write” the narrative I have been telling myself for so many years. This story feels like the beginning of an inquiry: Who am I if I am not who I think I am? What story am I imagining for myself?
Euripides. Medea. Dover Thrift Publications, 1993
Gregory, Susan, et al. “Rewrite Your Life.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2 May 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/201605/rewrite-your-life.
Sophocles. Antigone. Translated by Richard E. Braun, New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.