Vagina Dentata

By 
Karen Hoffman

After the conference, in which we distinguished ourselves modestly on a number of issues – the colonial, the survival, the post-colonial, the post-survival, the structuralist, the deconstructivist, the Freudian, the feminist, the body, and the post-body – the organizers – that is, the those of us who always do the shit work around here – took the stragglers, those who were not sufficiently important enough to have other conferences to attend the next day in Toronto or Montreal or Corner Brook, to a lake in the mountains, where one of the indefatigable and perpetually subjugated organizers had organized the loan of a cottage.

We went in a cortege of vehicles, half of which were grey Toyota Corollas, two of which were blue Honda Civics, one of which was a shabby mini-van. Some of us who had lived in the city and taught at the institution for seventeen years had never been to this lake before, which others of us found surprising, as it is a mere half-hour drive from campus, and surprisingly cool and fresh in the summer. Some of us wondered if this lacuna was attributable to mental rigidity and/or disaffection, or whether it was an indication that some of us had more cosmopolitan lives than others, and spent summers at more distant, up-market lakes, or perhaps not at lakes at all – perhaps entombed the subterranean archives of old British universities, or kayaking with only a giant bottle of mosquito repellant and a waterproof clipboard up inaccessible northern rivers.

Some of us who came up to this lake every year, though, wondered insecurely if we should be spending our summers in more exciting ways – if we had been wasting our meagre summer terms on unimportant, unexciting, and unproductive activities. Some of us wondered if that should be blamed on our spouses.

Some of us marveled, as the vehicles we were driving or passengering wound higher into the hills, that the slopes surrounding the lake were thickly wooded, lush, velvety, dense with many shades of jade and emerald and perhaps also jadeite and peridot and malachite. Some of us reasoned out that these hills must be the backsides of the sere bluffs that can be seen from the university-college campus. Some of us felt that distinct sensation of decompression around the diaphragm which accompanies the realization that one has been, for a substantial length of time, excluded from a desirable experience, compensation, or recognition, such as invitations to the dean’s sailing trips or access to the bargain sales of chops by the meat-cutting school on Thursdays.

All of us were impressed to find that the rented cottage was stocked with fishing gear, canoe, kayak, inflatable rowboat, air-mattresses children’s inflatable devices, not to be used as life-saving devices, and beach towels, as well as a full complement of cookware and dinnerware and two barbecues. All of us observed the sign on the door that read, in non-scanning iambic couplet: If there’s sand between your toes/kindly use this hose. Many of us read it aloud. All of us winced, though some inwardly, at the dropped scansion, which some felt, synesthetically, as a bodily sensation of tripping.

Some of us noted, with disappointment, that there was not actually a beach, but that the lawn ran down a rather steep slope from the cottage to a reed-choked foreshore. Some of us noted that there was a substantial dock, which extended past the reeds, for lounging on and swimming from. Some of us helped carry coolers full of cold drinks and meats, and plastic bags full of buns and condiments and paper plates and napkins into the cottage. Some of us unfolded outdoor chairs and began inflating devices with a foot pump, or our lips. Some of us appropriated the wooden Adirondack chairs immediately, and some accepted lesser chairs of aluminum tubing and polypropylene webbing.

Some of us began to strip down to our bathing suits, and some of us felt trepidation, perhaps even horror, at the prospect of observing and being observed by our colleagues, many of whom had behaved to us in the past, especially in Faculty Council meetings, in ways that did not make us feel emotionally safe in their presence, in a state of undress. Some of us observed anecdotally that the greater power an individual enjoyed in the professional context, the more clothing he or she removed. Some of our female colleagues wore unflattering loose cotton capri trousers and shirts, and large-brimmed hats, and we remembered with discomfort their radiation treatments – was that four or five years ago now? Some of our male colleagues wore black socks with shorts and sandals, and some of us wondered if it might be time for them to retire and relinquish the helm to younger, more energetic faculty with more current research interests.

Some of the younger, more energetic faculty, who were competing for tenure-track positions, had not slept the past week, what with dealing with last-minute cancellations by presenters, “miscommunications” with the catering arm, the printers, and the roo- booking office, and a grant funds cheque requisition that was buried on an accounts payable clerk’s desk. Nevertheless, these faculty, even though their contracts had expired and they weren’t being paid, helped make salads and open new bottles of ketchup and mustard, and were mostly cheerful and kind to each other. Most of them wore short denim cutoffs or long cotton sundresses with their swimsuits underneath, or board shorts. But although they looked like twenty-four-year-old Californians, they were, in fact in their mid-thirties already and wondering when they would be able to buy houses and get parental leave benefits.

Only two of us were children – siblings, and offspring of one of the indefatigable organizers. Children were not generally encouraged at this institution.

 

Some of us were surprised to see how plump the plenary speaker was, when she came out of the cottage wearing a shining black one-piece and an unstructured kimono printed with gingko leaves. Some of us reflected that her publicity photo must be at least fifteen years out of date. Some of us thought of the popular novels she published under a pseudonym, featuring a slim elegant workaholic female detective. Some of us repressed thoughts that her novels were more interesting than her literary criticism. Some of us repressed thoughts that her detective novels, and in fact detective novels in general, are reactionary, or at least passé. Some of us wondered if we could dash out a detective novel in the remaining two months of summer, and thus at some future date, perhaps even as early as the next fall, be able to afford not to teach four sections of introductory composition.

Soon, all of us were on the dock. Most of us looked different, smaller in the outdoors. Some had the sleek, well-developed calves of runners, and a very few had boxer’s abs and biceps – who would have imagined it! - while more had the spindle-shanks and hollow chests of older men. On some, the flesh on the ribs drooped, as if losing to gravity, and even the aureole of the nipples were pulled down and to the side, and formed the shape of oblongs on the diagonal.

Among those of us who were women, there was more variation in shape and size. Some of us older women wore skirted Full Body Slimming suits that appear to be held up by whalebone – as our grandmothers would have worn – and, spider veins and upper-arm flaps notwithstanding, were nearly covered up sufficiently by our swimsuits to have appeared without embarrassment in front of our classes. One of us, a professor of contemporary Quebec literature, wore a crocheted string bikini and a naval ring. In general we tried to pretend that we did not have bodies, and to contribute to the intellectual tone.

Some of us attempted to continue a discussion that had begun in one of the last sessions of the conference. Some of us taught in this area and had important and useful ideas about it. Most of us had opinions about it.

Some mentioned Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson, in context of the geographical setting of this small new university. Some remarked that Canadian Modernism really lagged behind European Modernism by about thirty years. Some of us wondered if there was any point studying it, so late and out of date. One of the indefatigable organizers, whose research and teaching area is Canadian Modernism, blinked her slightly protuberant eyes a couple of times as if the lids are trying to wipe a screen.

Some of us said then that most Canadian writing has not even reached the Modernist period, and remains stuck in the Victorian era. One of us said then that Western Canadian writing seemed all to be about Remittance men. One of us said that Canadian writers are all still crofters fighting the Enclosures Act. One of us said that it was all about being afraid of Papa, but obsessed with defying him. Some of us said that Canadian fiction is actually Romantic, making claims for Nature and Beauty and Truth in the face of the industrial machine. Others disputed this. Some said that Canadian fiction is all ghost stories. Who, others demanded. Lists were made: Atwood, of course. Roberston Davies. Ondaatje. Kroetsch. Urquhart. VanderHaege. All of recent Canadian literature, one of us said, confuses eccentricity for genius, vandalism for iconoclasm. Are there vandals in Canada, some of who are not Canadian asked. Yes, indeed, other non-Canadians said. They scribble on people’s garden sheds with spray cans.

The best Canadian novelists, some said, don’t write about Canada. They write about American heroes or life in the Gulag or Malaysian prison camps. All the cult of the individual, others said. Where is the social novel, the experimental novel?

Are there no important Canadian novelists, then, some asked. We will permit you the short story, some said. Munro. Although some might say she is really a Scottish writer. Her stories read Scots. Rubbish, some who were Canadian said. Munro is our Chekov. Munro is their Chekov, the non-Canadians agreed, then. The smell of hamburgers and onions had reached the dock.

Some of us arrived at that point, late. Some of us complained about the signage on the road, and some pointed out with more precision that the signage was entirely functional; rather the distances in the email directions didn’t correspond with the distances on the odometer. Some of us had used our vehicles’ GPS systems. Some of us, who had been organizing all day and cooking over hot barbecues, laughed merrily, perhaps maniacally.

There is some very good nature-writing, some said as they stood in line with their paper plates. But inadvertent. It doesn’t know it is nature writing; it’s trying to be Ibsen or Dostoyevsky or Calvino. But it is some competent nature writing.

Some of us had worked many weeks to organize the symposium and barbecue, and were even now bending over grills, blasted by heat and smoke and spitting meats. One of us asked querulously if there wasn’t anything to eat except dead animal. Some of us pointed out that protein-rich salads had been prepared. Some of us were rather pink, which made us look angry. One of us was fairly purple in the face, and others of us were reminded that this colleague had, perhaps for good reason, taken at year off, on disability, and was barred from entering the campus print shop staff by a restraining order. Some of us wondered, mostly facetiously, if there were any firearms on this property, and if so, if they were securely locked away. Some of us thought this joke in bad taste.

One of us arrived, last of all, on a motorbike and some of us ignored her as he swung a long lean leg easily over the saddle and doffed her helmet and shook out her long hair, which had hardly any grey in it at all. Some of us ignored her as she stepped onto the lawn in her jeans, looking neither spindle-shanked nor pot-bellied. Some of us ignored her as he opened a beer and took over one of the barbecues. Some of us felt, at this point, that the party was only now complete, but didn’t understand why we felt this way.

 

After the food had been consumed, some of us who were the younger faculty, obedient, compliant, untenured, cleaned up, tying the paper plates and foam cups into oversized black garbage bags, and then sat quietly on the beach and dock, at the admonishment of the older ones, who had had drummed into them at some point, it seems, the warning against swimming after eating. But some of us threw caution to the wind and paddled around knee-deep, or set sail on a flotilla of inflatable ducks and porpoises.

The plenary speaker appropriated the largest air mattress, a huge inflatable chaise with pockets for beverages, and drifted out into the lake with a rather down-market women’s magazine and a wide-brimmed straw hat. Some of the Europeans appeared in Speedos. The suits outlined their buttocks, their testicles, their penises. Some of us wondered if we felt intimidated. Some of us weren’t swimmers; at least, we had lessons at the pool as children, but wouldn’t have dreamed of entering this lake, with its mess of reeds and frog spawn and, no doubt, leeches. But some of us dove off the dock and swim out after the plenary speaker, resting our hands briefly on her inflatable throne, then turning and swimming easily back.

One of us, as he hauled himself, dripping, laughing, onto the warm silvered wood of the dock, said: I was afraid out there.

Afraid of what, the rest of us asked.

Of something in the lake, the swimmer said. Something that would eat me.

Vagina dentata, one of the other swimmers suggested.

Yes, I think so, the first swimmer said, squeezing water from his beard.

Some of us didn’t know what this meant and had to have it explained. Some of us were discomfited, for differing reasons.

Those of us who were visiting Europeans said: We were just discussing how exciting your life is, and how to express properly our fascination with it. How, if you will forgive us, you live here, at the edge, with your vast spaces, your new university, at the very edge of terra incognito. How very romantic and glamorous it seems to us!

Those of us who taught at the host institution laughed at the word glamorous. Mostly, we said, we felt we were in a backwater, out of the swim. Mostly, we said, we felt we had missed the boat.

Oh, no; not missed the boat; flung yourselves from it! Those of us who were European visitors answered. Flung yourself in, where you are now swimming among the teeth of the great Mother herself! Some of us wondered at this point how much beer had been consumed and if there would be sufficient sober drivers on the trip back to the city.

 

Now more of us scrambled into the inflatable dinghies and pushed out into the water, even while arguing over the possession and proper application of the ineffectual plastic oars. Some of us had lost our hats and sunglasses, but the sun had nearly set, anyway. One of us watched the backs of his estranged wife’s calves, and then her thighs, mottled with heat rash, disappear into the gelatinous water.

Those of us who had remained on the dock heard a shriek, which one of us recognized as his wife’s, and then a scream. Those of us still on the dock rose to our feet. The one who had recognized his wife’s scream thought: my children. Some of us who were already in the lake already began to swim out to where a little yellow boat bobbed. One of us, who had just emerged from the lake and was clambering up the somewhat slimy ladder, streaming water, turned and dove back in and was soon past the rest. Some of us thought, admiringly, that she could be mistaken for an Olympic swimmer.

Some of us on the dock didn’t know quite what to do. Some of us were still fully dressed. The one of us who had recognized his wife’s scream removed his sandals, then wondered aloud: if there is an emergency requiring a car trip, wouldn’t it be better to leave them on? He mentioned that he was not a strong swimmer, and that by the time he made it to the boat, he’d be a liability. And there would already be a group of swimmers there.

I felt it, I really did feel it, the one who had screamed kept saying, through chattering teeth. Some of us had been diving among the reeds for nearly an hour, and it was getting dark. Some of us had already left. The leaving had been somewhat piecemeal. Some of us looked around and wondered aloud who was missing. Two of us who were sessional faculty had taken the two who were children (but not their own children) with them.

Two of us kept hugging and massaging the one who had screamed. Some of us thought she was enjoying the attention. One of us very gently lifted a corkscrew of damp hair from the cheek of the one who screamed and tucked it behind her ear, in a gesture as intimate as a kiss. I felt it; I felt it, the one of us who had screamed said again, and shuddered.

What she had felt, she said, was two things: first, a hand between her thighs, as she was paddling along, resting on the edge of the dinghy, her legs vertical.

Moving or flaccid? one of us interrupted.

Moving – I don’t know! the one who had screamed said. I was moving. It seemed to grab my upper thigh.

One of us wondered if, technically, a hand could be flaccid.

Then, the one who had screamed said, I kicked out violently –

As anyone would, one of us said.

And my feet then connected with a body.

Hard or flaccid, the one of us who had arrived on a motorcycle asked. Some of us detected some irony and tensed.

Oh, soft, the one who had screamed said. I felt the naked skin, the texture. Then the thing drifted away.

No resistance, one of us observed. Dead.

But who is missing, a few of us murmured.

One of us said that it could have been a dog or a deer. After a while in water, the fur comes off – the hide softens.

How do you know this, some of us wondered. But it seemed suddenly to most of us the most likely and satisfactory answer. What the one who screamed had touched in the water was the body of a dog, a deer – perhaps even a bear cub – that had tired while swimming across the lake, or even, months before, broken through the ice.

Most of us decided, though the decision was not unanimous, to phone the police but not to make it an emergency call. Those of us who hadn’t already left disbanded then, loading our bags and damp towels into our SUVs and grey Corollas, and drove away. Some of us, who had worked indefatigably to organize the conference and the outing, stayed behind till the last, loading bags of trash and greasy salad bowls into the back of an SUV.

The one who was the plenary speaker also stayed: she had somehow arranged that she would ride back into town on the back of the motorbike. And then the one of us who rode her motorbike to the lake, and the one who would be his passenger left, too, with the clackity roar of the motorbike. That engine was missing something, some of us thought, but we knew nothing about motorcycle engines. We couldn’t say what.

Those of us who were left watched as they turned up the road, the one who was the plenary speaker pressed up against the motorcyclist’s back.

Around the two of us who were left, the lake spread, oily in the dusk. The lake’s breeze was suddenly chill. We shivered.

But the air was starred with the sounds of crickets and frogs; their clicks and thrums formed a multi-layered, symphonic concert, a piece of music with no ending. One of us opened our arms to the sound-filled air like a conductor. Both of us heard, then, all of the instruments – the clear optimism of the flute, the self-doubting reeds, the deep froggish complaint of the trombone, as threads of light, and for a few moments, ourselves the intrepid blind fisher groping among them.

Karen Hofmann teaches at Thompson Rivers University and has published fiction and poetry in several magazines, including A Room of One’s Own.  A poetry collection, Water Strider, was published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014

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