White Bird

  • Post category:Fiction

The fully loaded WestJet 737 bumps down on the runway. Call me psychic. Call me crazy. But I sense presences. Ghosts if you like. One appears and hovers beside me as I wait at the baggage carousel. High cheekbones, silver-grey eyes, and fair skin. My niece is the spitting image of her. My card jams the ticket machine for the fast train to Union Station. She points to another machine. Two guys in white chuck sneakers, plaid shorts and buzzed hair run for the train. They laugh, exuding love.

            The ghost surrounds me like a bride’s veil, soft layers of tulle whip around us to conceal my skittish hair and frowning brow. My sister looks younger than ever— blond curls, full lips and a high forehead with that small triangular scar between her eyebrows. She’s astute about the machine, although no such thing existed in her time. She’s been hanging around learning new tricks from the millennials: swipe or tap, credit and Presto cards. 

            The machine spits out a ticket and I push the veil away to grab it and run for the train, dragging my suitcase. The same dudes sit with their arms looped around each other in the first seat. I’m panting as I stow my bag. Sorry, one says, the other train was revving. You have ten minutes. 

             Tension drops off my shoulders like a backpack. It was dark and raining when I left my island home on the first ferry. I’ve gained three hours and dropped into that realm where time is boundless, as I flew through space at a speed that still boggles my mind. A fading pink sky fans above the expanse of Lake Ontario. With this pause in the rush of activity, my sister wafts into the seat beside me. Her crinoline poofs up the skirt of her blue dress, faded and worn as the matching shoes worn for her third time as a bridesmaid. Her colors blend with the upholstery. The lake in her eyes. 

            Three times a bridesmaid never a bride, she once said. But she was a bride; married her sweetheart from Muskoka where she waitressed at a resort. She had no shortage of boyfriends, but he was the one she eventually chose. I liked her first boyfriend best because they included me on their dates to drive-in movies in his red convertible or swimming and water skiing at Sand Bay. 

            Love’s hard, my sister wrote in her five-year diary locked with the clasp and key. She had to choose between her two boyfriends both of whom she loved. In my opinion, the city guy, who worked as an undertaker, was dull compared to the one with the red convertible. Either way, I lost her when she married. It was me that was never a bride. Once a bridesmaid, never a bride. 

            I clutch my phone. She’s dying to send a text message, but all her contacts are written long hand in a ratty address book. Her friends are dead or relocated into retirement homes. I sign into Wi-Fi and announce my presence in the city for a writers’ summit, starting tonight. I read the syllabus and review the workshops, one of which, I’m leading. I don’t want to miss the keynote speaker. 

            She brushes a hand across the screen, draws my attention out the window to her former neighbourhood. The area is crammed with concrete condos. No trees, no gardens, no leaded windows, or solid oak doors. Her modest brick bungalow (a palace to me) on a full acre lot was demolished. Red maples once provided dappled shade in summer and shed mountains of leaves in the fall for endless raking and burning. 

            The train rumbles past the hospital where she worked as a pediatric nurse, but the name has changed, and it sprawls like a factory with wings and smokestacks. She dabs my eyes with the veil. I’m crying, remembering how she was talking on the phone with our brother, a morning call, and the line went dead. He heard a busy signal when he re-dialed. He thought – line breakdown. 

            She holds my phone, like a book, both hands curled around the side edges.  The train jerks into Union station and she disappears before I retrieve my bag. She abandoned me before. Fourteen years older, she mothered me: washed, cut, and curled my hair, then polished my nails. You have to suffer to be beautiful, she said, as she twisted brush curlers against my scalp and wedged in picks. Wrapped in glossy paper and tied with silk ribbon, she gave me suede slippers for Christmas and a quilted bathrobe for my birthday. Luxuries we couldn’t afford. I wipe away tears.

            Like a mirage in the distance, she leans on a post, a bandage wrapped around her head, her hair half-shaved off, marks left by the brain surgeon. Later, she follows me like a shadow through the long corridors. Her hospital gown flaps. I smell diesel and disinfectant, hear train whistles and engines reverberating. Past the forsaken ticket kiosks, plywood construction barriers and orange fences, there’s no one to answer questions. No paper tickets or information. It’s all on the phone, a mystery to someone from the past. She passes my phone back.

            The station is a phantom of its former grandeur except for the arches and heavy doors. I remember arriving here as a kid on my own, the smell of smoke and screeching wheels, her bright smile as she held me tight and led me out into the city into the bustle of commuters, lights and the roller coaster freeways. She looks lost with her train case, in bare feet. I need the loo. I always need a place to retreat, close the door and enter the silence. She takes my hand, leads me down a dead end. No windows, the smell of dust and dank concrete. Tomb-like and claustrophobic. My brother curls up on the floor, a cap laid out behind him with a loonie inside. 

            I open the door to an all-gender-handicap loo. Inside, a big round button says: press to lock door. Click. A fold-up stretcher is attached to one wall. She pushes a button, the stretcher lowers, and she nudges me down. The plastic surface is hard and cold like a baby’s change table with no mat. It smells of bleach. She lies down beside me and pleads with her eyes. The stretcher blocks the exit. I twist and flip off.

            A hole in the stretcher is designed for fluids to drain into a tube. Her skin transmutes to grey, and her form slowly shrinks. The stretcher retracts against the wall with almost nothing of her remaining. No, I say, not here. Let me release you outside like a bird but she’s gone. 

            The exit is locked. I’m trapped. I hear scrabbling at the doorjamb. The door won’t open. I panic. The city is no place for a woman who lives in the forest. A flat button on the opposite wall says, press here. I elbow it and the door opens. Released, as if from jail. The sleeper is propped up, not my brother, after all. I toss coins in his hat. Dried apples, raisins and a bowl of rice like an offering at a shrine, lay on the floor beside him. 

            I step out into the summer night and smell lilacs. The CN tower, a beacon, calls me toward the conference. I spot my sister flying like a white bird across the intersection, through a river of cars and bicycles. 

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