|The Birth of Canadian Literature
Theodore rounded the corner, imagining a man rounding a corner in very much the same fashion, looking at his watch, late for an appointment at the café on the next block. Every story Theodore wrote took place in a café. Two people sat and talked, their rich food equally rich in metaphor for hierarchies of class, love affairs gone wrong, the effects of aging on resistant youth. He pictured his man tripping on the sidewalk. What next? A beautiful woman comes to his aid. They marry and have children and remember today as the day he fell for her. They never cease to smile broadly when today comes to mind.
Theodore hadn’t smiled in weeks. He no longer carried a satchel in public, to avoid suspicion that therein was contained sheets of loose-leaf scribbled over with sentences detailing the victories and losses of innumerable characters, each with their own hang-ups, each exuding beauty to the best of their wonted capacities. The stories of half-people searching for completion - those were the ones he liked writing best. He would always complete his characters, never allowing them to flounder in oceans of confusion for too long. It wasn’t fair to them. His late man who tripped in the street would find love or Theodore would halt the craft of writing altogether.
Like his character, Theodore was late, but it mattered little to the man he made his way with steady steps to see. Dennis was a friend, a great writer he had known for years. They had helped each other through the anxiety brought on by the recent, inarguably fascist actions of the federal government that forced them to continually look over their shoulders for whom the two had dubbed the “clause cops,” undercover officials employed by district to confiscate all fictive writing and prosecute those carrying it. Several of their friends and colleagues had been imprisoned from crimes ranging from posting newsletters on telephone poles to giving public readings in protest. The latter of these charges could result in life imprisonment if the writer was convicted. Theodore constantly recalled the story of a former Governor General’s Award Winner who two summers ago committed suicide in the Kingston Penitentiary while serving back-to-back life sentences for reading his kid a story in the park. The author’s fate continued to force Theodore awake from nightmares in which the threatening tip of a ball point pen loomed ever closer to his jugular.
He spotted Dennis through the window, burying his face in a newspaper at the back of the café, unable to see the expression in his eyes. The men were losing their vitality. They met at least once a week, but each always looked as if he had aged 3 years in the interim, the fatigue and frustration taking a drastic physical toll on the authors. Theodore was 30 but he looked 45 some days; his body aged under the weight of his mind, robbed of the permission to write as freely as he longed to. His mind was an aching universe of hope and lust, fear and promise, forbidden to express itself. Theodore was a man half-full.
He entered the café and Dennis coughed cancerously at his approach. “You carryin’?”
“Not a pen on me.” Theodore eased into the chair opposite, sighing heavily.
“That’s too bad. I just thought of a great old word that I haven’t heard in forever and I wanted to write it down. ‘Codger.’ You remember that word? Describes us perfectly. We’re turning into a couple of real old codgers. A breed apart.”
“It’s gotten that bad for us, has it?” Theodore asked, squinting across the café at a woman sitting alone by the window. Like Dennis, her attention was absorbed in a newspaper, an old word now used as loosely as possible, the news broadcast solely via video transmission on millions of screens across the country. Five cents would run a single “story,” though that was a word that had been all but abolished entirely, acting effectively as an expletive for fabrications. Live footage of an event was now the only way to be sure it was happening; all else was regarded as hearsay and therefore likely false.
Theodore looked at his electronic order palette and frowned. “I hate touching these screens. They make my fingertips tingle, like the flesh inside them is going dead.”
Dennis grumbled. “It’s spilling into other areas. I was at the grocery store yesterday, walking up the dairy aisle, and I accidentally bumped into this guy as he was bending over in the freezer looking at milk. I apologized and said it was an accident, but he was furious. He screamed at me, calling me a liar - that I did it on purpose and I was telling him stories. He actually grabbed one of the clerks and told him I was telling stories. And the clerk stood there. He was shocked. He told me to leave or he’d call the police.”
Theodore’s voice lowered, his shoulders hunching forward to conceal the motion of his lips. “Have something new for me?”
“Third stall toilet tank.” Dennis’ eyes glinted like a car’s headlights peering up and over a distant hill. Begging a pardon of his smile, Theodore rose and disappeared into the café washroom. Alone, he counted the stalls and locked himself in the third before quietly removing the lid to the tank and fishing out a plastic bag floating at the surface. Seating himself, he withdrew Dennis’ spiral notebook, an old one squandered from the days when paper was in abundance. Damn Canada’s warping sense of environmental policy. A group of people in space suits posed on the cover: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. People would always have no earthly clue of what the future had in store.
Flipping backwards through the pages carefully, Theodore looked for Dennis’ most recent piece. The size of the writing lessened as the pages ran low – old men writing out their wills and going blind with the exercise. Soon the piece appeared, starting at the top of a fresh sheet and ending just under halfway down. He withdrew his glasses and read the words carefully as the porcelain warmed under him:
Lights Written for Birds
I want to tell you that love isn’t what I expected it to be.
It’s more comforting than they told us,
holding proudly to another while
facing lights that look written for birds,
birds that breathe more softly than we imagine
even though we do imagine
and even though we breathe just as softly at our best.
And even though there is so much of death in the world
that poems can’t ignore,
when we’re together I see only life.
And my favorite things now
are those named for memories.
I want to tell you that love isn’t what I expected it to be,
and that your beautiful outdoes any I’ve seen.
A love poem. Good.
Theodore flushed under force of habit and had to wait for the water to rise in the tank before replacing the book as he had found it. He returned to the table, juggling the imagery around in his mind, preparing to lend his thoughts to Dennis, who wrung his hands nervously in anticipation at his approach. Theodore sat again, gazed momentarily at his palette and pressed “coffee” before waving it aside. He looked Dennis in the eye and nodded once, slightly but clearly.
“Thank goodness,” Dennis wilted. “I can’t afford to waste paper on shit.”
“Bit of a marathon we’re running, isn’t it? Can’t afford to waste a breath. Too bad the notebook is almost finished.”
Dennis’ coffee had already arrived. He sipped forlornly. “Yes.”
“It’s better than the one you jotted a couple of months ago about Kim by a hair. Who is she?”
“Who is who?” Dennis was attempting to become an expert at telling lies by avoiding stating them outright. He was one of the few writers left who still believed in the infinite possibility of Canadians arriving at individual conclusions. It was hard to make a case for imagination under the current social circumstances.
“Give me a break, old codger. I read you like an electronic menu.”
“The former librarian? Awesome! That’s like netting a catfish at the North Pole.”
Dennis cringed. “Keep your similes down.” He grunted, slapping money down on the table, and made his way back to the washroom. Theodore glanced over at the woman, still rooted in place at the window, gazing out at the street now in thought instead of burying her eyes in a screen. At least they can’t touch our thoughts, Theodore considered. At least we can think.
Patting his jacket, Dennis emerged and nodded significantly at Theodore as he passed to make his exit. “I’ll see you next week. Your turn. Maybe there will be something in the next one we can use.”
Theodore nearly shouted after him. “Don’t disregard the power of love, old codger. Love is…” Dennis turned sharply and swiped his thumb across his throat in panic. A metaphor used in public could see a person in prison for a maximum of two years. Theodore had already paid sizable fines for calling a woman at the DMV a tall drink of water. His mouth went thin and he felt a twinge in his chest. It broke his heart to keep beautiful observations to himself - things that could only be said by saying they are other things. He followed this trail of thought over the rest of his coffee. The café was turning light purple as dusk settled on the deadening street. The woman by the window, who was now beautiful to him in the way strangers become beautiful to writers, looked as if she dreaded leaving.
He drew money from his pocket slowly, letting the bills drift from the height of his hand, and watched them fall with overcome eyes. Like leaves, he thought. Leaves jumping ship in autumn. I’ll never be able to tell a woman how like a flower she is without worrying about being arrested. Never be able to tell a new friend where I’m from without declaring the accuracy of my guesses at the current population of the town. I’d die to be vague, to make creative grasps for words and give the words that I snatch to other people. I miss the selflessness of storytelling. More than anything, I miss that.
He was at the door before returning to himself. He stopped and caught the woman’s eye; she returned his glance with a questioning look, wary of the strain in his features, his face sinking into tired and frustrated seas of desperation. Theodore’s step turned and his slow walk toward her began, a click of momentum becoming a new, blind trust in action. He sat across from her, pulling out his wallet, setting his identification card on the table. “I’m Theodore.” Her eyes jumped from the card to his face. Theodore smiled. “Want to hear a story?” All pigment in the woman’s skin vanished. The waitress working the register raised her head. Deer aware of a hunter’s presence beyond the clearing.
“It’s about a man. He probably looks a lot like me, for point of reference. This man is an artist. He writes, plays the guitar, paints a little. He lives alone in a bachelor apartment. He has only one or two friends, if you count the owner of the cigar shop at which he purchases tobacco every Wednesday. He has a pet canary that he keeps in a cage – its chirping is jovial and makes him feel less alone. The bird is all he paints, all he writes about, all he performs songs for. No one has ever read a line of any story he’s ever written. They’ve never heard the notes from his guitar permeate the air across a pub; neither have his paintings ever stirred an indescribable feeling within them. It’s just him and the canary.” The woman sat enveloped in silent panic at his words. The waitress had reached for the telephone, and was speaking in hushed tones into the receiver.
“One day, the man is late for an appointment at a café. I haven’t figured out who he’s going to see, but nevermind. He gets distracted by looking at his watch and trips. He falls on the sidewalk hard and sprains his ankle. A woman who happens to be passing by bends down and asks him if he’s okay. She helps him into a cab and stays with him while a doctor checks him out at the hospital. Wait, would a doctor do that? Or a nurse? I’ll have to research that.”
“Please, stop.” The woman cried slow tears that hung from her chin. Theodore looked out the window. Two police cars had pulled up outside, converging with undercover clause cops that had been patrolling the neighborhood.
“Looks like you’ll have to come with me.” Theodore grabbed the woman’s wrist and rose, dragging her to the back of the café as she screamed in protest. Two patrons fled in terror while the waitress took cover behind the counter. Halting and stretching his arm around the woman’s neck, his stomach to her back, he continued.
“So the woman and this man end up falling in love. It gets to the point where he shows her things that he’s written, plays songs for her, gives his paintings to her as presents. It takes a lot of effort on his part but he’s finally able to trust her enough to show her these very personal things. And she loves him all the more for it. She ends up moving into his apartment.”
“FREEZE! Release the hostage!” Five handguns were trained on Theodore, but his words did not falter.
“One day, the building catches fire. The man, the woman and the bird all make it out alive. But the fire consumes every single piece of art the man was able to create. All of it, gone. He is devastated. They move into a new place and she encourages him to make more things; she buys him a new guitar, new pens and pencils and canvases on which he might be able to write and draw. But he sits and stares at the tools, unable to touch them. He has lost entirely the will to create new art. His mental illness gives way to physical illness, and within the year the man dies. Here’s where it gets tricky.”
“Release the hostage NOW!”
The woman’s breathing had shortened in anticipation of Theodore’s voice. He relaxed his arm, allowing her to almost reluctantly abandon his hold. Before the police had her, Theodore’s next utterance forced its way out of pleading exhaustion: “What happens next?”
The question brought one handgun to fire, triggering a hail of bullets that collided with the writer until his body was forced to give up its balance. Theodore crumbled to the floor, his eyes fixed on the woman’s face, searching her shadowed features for an answer. Her confused look of pity silhouetted by a searchlight trained on the café window.
Like a flower at dawn.
And out of her mouth, the pollen of her words: “Set the bird free.”
(“Lights Written for Birds” by Cameron Anstee)
Back to prose - main
Discuss this work in our Forum