It’s fall now, in Calgary. I’m sitting in a cafe. The news comes on; there’s a TV up in the corner. Everything on fire on the West Coast. Australia, the same. Islands in the Pacific sinking into the sea one by one. Looks like a storm’s coming, but not until tomorrow.
One day, there’ll be a story about an oil spill. I’m waiting for it to flash on the screen. I’ve always been waiting for it. Hate is simple. Blood is simple. Say it. Say she’s become a killer. Tell me I was wrong.
Not yet. My eyes move lazily to the painting on the wall.
Athabasca, 2004. Gateway to the Great New North. This place predates the railway.
I’m six. I do not quite know what friendship is except that she sits beside me on the playground every day. Days hot and heavy, flat as the land. Morning sky as far as you can see, a pale cat stretching. The slick of popsicle drippings on barren grass. What makes up a person is their favourite dinosaur, how old they were when they learned to read, and the way they write their ‘a’s. Mine have perfect little loops and hers are backwards. She likes wolves and mermaids. Her favourite colour is firetruck red. We both wear white dresses to Sunday school but hers have grass stains and mine are hand-me-downs. Take-your-dad-to-school day: her father owns the oil company that keeps this town breathing. Mine doesn’t live here anymore.
Here is what friendship is: she paints with her fingers. She gets lice and spreads them to everyone. She takes me to her basement and we ask her brother what kissing is. Adults call me an old soul; adults call her terrifying.
So I will be mild-mannered, I vow, and she shall jerk me forward by the hand on and on across the valleys and hills towards a greater something until we have both grown very old. For that is what friendship is, as far as I can tell. I will be mild-mannered and she will drag me, bleating, into a century of pure shimmering heat, and perhaps even parties. We will live a full life— together, free as the birds and smiling all the time. And then we’ll stand in the summer snow at the very end of everything, stooped and grey and complete by then, two closed books, and she will say something like, thank you for being my friend, and simply fade away, like a hologram, or hot steam. And that will be that.
What a life, for you and me.
I’m ten. We’re in her bedroom and she’s writing about horses in a spiral-ring notebook. She’s writing about a girl who can turn into a horse. Her house is big and has a blue door and there are a thousand shiny pans in her kitchen. There’s always bags of chips in her pantry that my mom would never keep in the house. We’re eating them now. We’re talking about horses. We’re talking about girls who can turn into them.
Houses have smells, everyone knows that— mine is musty, mothballs and soup. This house has high arches and walls of windows and paintings of mountains, but its smell is like a new car. Aluminum, and cleaning fluid. Lonely like a showroom. Our girlish voices echo in the gallery. Every so often, when we creep down to the kitchen, the arched nose of her domestic helper can be seen behind artisanal lamps and aged shelving units. That phrase was rigorously drilled into me, domestic helper, not maid or nanny or cook but in fact a variable combination of them all. Sometimes the woman will ask us if we want juice in a muted voice. Mostly she does not speak much, but she keeps the pots and pans immaculately clean. I ask my mom one day if we can get one, and she goes weirdly pale.
We’re talking about girls, or horses, or something. Drawing them, too.
“This one’s me,” she says. “Her name is Starlight and she’s adopted. She was left on a doorstep as a baby because she’s magic and has horse powers. She’s the nicest girl in school and the fastest horse in the race.”
“Can I be one?” I ask. There are two horses on the paper.
“No,” she scoffs. “That one’s Starlight’s boyfriend. Actually, he can turn into a fish too.”
“Oh. Can I be a fish girl, then?”
“I’ve already written you in the story,” she counters, pouting. “You’re just a person. It’s okay to just be a person.”
We spend some more time workshopping, and she gives me the notebook so I can read up on all the stories for future discussions. When I get home I spend thirty minutes painstakingly drawing a portrait of myself with a fish head, then tear it up in raging tears because it looks stupid. Maybe I’m stupid, too. She’s right, it is okay to just be a person.
But that whole week I dream of hoofbeats.
It’s 2011– I’m thirteen, red-spotted and large-nosed and simple— and I’ve never, ever let her come to my house, but this one day she follows me home. She’s bigger than me so there really isn’t anything I can do about it, and anyway I wouldn’t want to be rude. She’s got all these new friends and she might tell them things. I don’t really know what things could be so bad; I just seem like the sort of person that might happen to.
The sun’s getting a little low, doing that thing where it paints just the tips of trees this rich red-orange. I’m mad though, so I don’t even really see it. I want her to notice that I’m mad, but I don’t want to get in a fight, so I look down at the ground, real menacing-like, breathing short heavy breaths as loud as I can. I glance up at her to gauge her reaction. She isn’t even looking at me.
“My mom might get mad if you just come over without me telling her,” I venture, finally.
She looks quizzical. “I thought you said your mom was nice.” Her voice is whining but excited, almost gleeful, she’s been like this all day, like there’s some terrible secret she’s gonna get to uncover, like I won’t let her see my house because there’s something wrong inside it, like a hidden twin sister or a three-headed cat.
“She is nice.”
“So it’s fine?”
That settles it, I guess. The sidewalk ends. There’s nothing wrong with my house except it’s this really ugly pea green colour and it looks like a cardboard box, which might upset her. She doesn’t say anything though. Mom’s not home, which is nice, but there’s still dishes in the sink, and I keep thinking about those shining pots and archways. She asks for a drink and I can only get her tap water and it becomes abundantly clear that this isn’t as exciting as she thought it would be. It’s quiet, our little footsteps sinking without sound into the musty carpet. We can’t think of what to do now.
News is on, though. Blaring, quiet. Local. We don’t get fancy cable. Ticker tape headline says FOX CREEK OIL SPILL COVERS SIZE OF FIVE FOOTBALL FIELDS.
There’s B-roll playing, fuzzy in some spots. Someone in a bright yellow hazmat suit is holding this little bird in his rubber-gloved hands, drenched in black butter. It’s very plainly dead. I fumble for the remote, averting my eyes, and I don’t really know what to do with the sudden thrill in my stomach so I look over at her with a worried hum like, Did you see that?
I kind of want to see more of it.
But she’s on her flip phone, playing Snake. When she glances up, the image is gone. Just a logo now, for the oil company presumably responsible, all those adult voices faraway. It’s a picture we both recognize. And suddenly she has to be going.
I’m seventeen and getting out of here. Jury’s out on her plan, but she’s not applying to any schools and she keeps talking about how much she’ll miss me. It isn’t like Calgary’s far, but, well.
We aren’t that close these days, it’s just that we feel bad for each other and keep wanting to pretend we care a whit for childhood friendships, so she lets me sit with her friends at lunch and asks me politely about homework, and I invite her on walks where I can look her in the eye without feeling like I’m prying. I never pry, it’s just that the way I watch her isn’t always decent. And I’m not in the business of letting her know.
We’re up the walking trails near Muskeg Creek just outside of town, sat on the back blown grass at the lookout point on top of the ridge. Athabasca looks like a scattering of toy blocks in the dull brown dirt— we’re not even that high up or anything. Our glorious little anthill. I want to say something funny, but I’m not funny so I don’t. Well, she wouldn’t laugh, anyway. She’s got eyes like brick walls now and hair like honey, but I miss when it was mousy brown and she was full of glee. And we could wear whatever we wanted. And we weren’t embarrassed about anything.
The trees should be spread in armfuls of emerald like they usually are in late spring, but instead they’re rotting, red. It’s the mountain pine beetles, they keep saying— the new plague, leaping from town to town and stripping leaves from every cedar and blue pine they can reach. But we aren’t supposed to worry. Bees, though, we can worry about the bees. I feel like my stomach is full of bees, actually, so maybe they aren’t dying after all.
It’s oven-hot, plains stretching far out in every direction, dotted with trees and sliced by the highway. The sun’s yellow on our skin in the scattered shade of foliage up here, but the wind is nice and cool. She’s got her legs crossed; mine dangle off the edge of the soil.
“It’s a nice view,” she says, rather obviously.
No it isn’t. “Mm.”
So we just kind of sit there.
Then I say, “Do you ever feel, like… really weird?” into the hanging silence, because I’m seventeen and that’s the sort of thing I think constitutes a normal conversation. “Like you’re the only person in the entire world who has ever had your specific feelings before?”
“No,” she drawls, naturally.
Silence again. It occurs to me that this is why I don’t have friends.
She turns onto her stomach like a restless cat, long grasshopper legs splayed out. “Did you finish that writing assignment from Crofter? God, he’s annoying, I thought English 12 was supposed to just be Shakespeare, or whatever, dunno what he wants me to write about. I don’t remember anything from my childhood. Who the fuck remembers shit from their childhood?”
I do. I remember everything. Little girl-shaped things in the blurry distance of recall, giggling in an empty house. Girls turning into horses. Of course I do. I say, “Yeah. Yeah, exactly.” I didn’t write about horses. Not for Crofter. I wrote about my dad, who doesn’t live here anymore.
“No but seriously.”
I groan. “I know you’re not actually an idiot, so this is just some stupid, like, mental block.” I turn over on my stomach to match her. “You used to love writing, remember? When we were little?”
She looks almost shocked. “I did?”
“Horse girls and shit? We were, like, nine.”
“Oh. Huh.” A pause. “You remember that?”
“…Yeah.” I do; I remember everything. Of course I do.
“I just mean.” She cocks an eyebrow. “That’s very thoughtful. Sweet. You’re sweet.”
There’s something swelling in my chest. Could be a lung. “Aw.” I roll my eyes very deliberately, injecting something saccharine into my tone. “You’re just saying that.”
She scoffs. “When do I ever just say anything?”
“Oh my god, listen to us,” I muse, “the heiress and the wet blanket.”
“Heiress,” she repeats, dumbly.
I elbow her and throw my arms out wide. “Look, Simba. Everything the light touches will be your kingdom.” By which I mean, this land. The underworld of this land. The mountains and the plains, cobalt giants of the middle distance. Felled trees and undersoil. Thundering through caverns. Slick drippings on barren grass. Metal pipes you can ride a horse through. We’ve been learning about fossil fuels in Social Studies and now it’s hard to look at her without thinking about it. Sometimes it makes me so angry, but only sometimes. I don’t know what that says about me.
She rustles, a charred silhouette against the blue crush of the sky. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, one day.” She sits quietly for a little while, and idly bashes an ant with her fist. “Hey, do you ever think about kids?”
“Uh.” I think about it. “No.”
“I think I want kids,” she says. Matter-of-fact.
I grumble. “‘Spensive. Having kids.”
She doesn’t reply, just leans forward on her haunches. Takes a photo of the view. I am struck, suddenly, with the thought that she looks like a totally different person from this angle.
What we don’t know is that this is the last time we’ll ever see each other. I’m going to get acute bronchitis and finish the school year from a hospital bed, and she’ll go to Spain for the summer. She won’t text me when I move to Calgary for school, and I won’t ever call. I won’t even remember this clearly, afterward, what we said, what our last words to each other were.
Just the trees, eroding gently. The bent backs of grass stalks. Sunlight caught on the turn of her cheek.
I have dreams about her, though— after.
Columbia Icefield. The Athabasca glacier, though it’s really nowhere near Athabasca. We’re climbing to the top, scrabbling for toeholds in the ice. She’s flying up, almost, pools forming wherever she places her daring feet. There’s nobody else here, not anywhere, not in the entire world. And what a world, what a skyline, birds nesting in tall tall treetops, calling out for home. But I’m lagging. I think I’m always lagging. I follow her bootprints. At first I think they’re full of icemelt, but when I peer closer there are greasy rainbows shimmering in there.
She’s waiting at the top. Hand outstretched, pulling me up. Her hair, so pretty and yellow, is dripping dark and wet. The landscape looks like a painting, all oils. Yellow ochre. Prussian blue. But as I watch the trees they start to sink. It’s like quicksand, black sludge, everything pulled downwards in a terrible spiral, a mountain range suddenly circling a storm drain. Blistering black. Everything eroding. Clouds move in, sunset knifing through them, red-hot. She’s looking at me and I’m watching the land bleed. Blood is simple. I want to leave it better than I found it but I can’t. I want to take her by her cheekbones but I can’t. The glacier’s glistening under our feet.
The next moment she’s holding a little bird in her hands. Cradled like a child. All oils. Slick and blackened, crowing out a warning, dark sludge dripping crude through the cracks of her fingers. Gently, her grip begins to tighten, the bird proceeding to die noisily. But she’s effortlessly happy.
Thank you for being my friend, she tells me finally, muted, like she’s talking through water. And suddenly we aren’t atop the glacier anymore, there’s never been a glacier here. We’re in her childhood bedroom with the pink blinds and lava lamp and she’s six and I’m six and everything’s flooded, high as the ceilings, we’re floating lazy on our backs in shallow icemelt, clinging to stains. She catches my eye. What a life, eh? And smiles wanly. What a life for you and me.
When Franz Kafka was dying, he left instructions to his friend and confidante Max Brod to burn all his writings. Max agreed, no doubt smiling through tears and nodding, clasping his sick friend’s hand tightly in his own. But after, when he found himself faced with the piles of yellowed paper, the fevered notes and diaries and countless letters and scattered aphorisms in the margins, a lit match languishing between his fingertips, he found he could not do it.
I’m twenty-three now. Her notebook is still sitting in my closet in a box filled with stories about a girl who can turn into a horse. It’s no Metamorphosis, but hey, all the same. There’s something alive in there. I want it to suckle on me like a baby. I want it to howl all night.
It’s fall now in Calgary. Some trees are turning red on my street, but none are yet beetle-eaten. I have a job in an office and Athabasca feels like a distant sunlit memory now that my mom’s moved down here too. And I’m getting by, honestly, I tread through the days and keep my head down. But sometimes I’ll think of the kitchen in that lonely big house— the way those pots gleamed!— and I’ll get a cold hard knot in my chest and have to sit down for a little while.
I imagine myself as a cedar tree sometimes when I’m stoned, or struggling to sleep— tall and billowing. Green as green gets, stretching out for the sun. There’s a beetle burrowing in through my bark, laying her eggs in me, invading my species. Blue stain fungus in my sapwood slowly turning my needles the colour of clay.
I have her on Facebook, not that it’s something I really use. But sometimes you’ll get those ghost notifications, you know? Even if you’ve made sure to switch them all off, every so often that little red number will ping and when you click it, it tells you that it’s someone’s birthday. Your old guitar teacher, or maybe a great-aunt. Your colleague from work uploaded a new header image. You have a new friend suggestion.
Once in a while I’ll see a new photo from her. Married now, oh, to some man. Isn’t it always? Working at her dad’s company, sharing pictures of herself in a hard hat and steel grey suit beside a mess of rigs and piping, eyeshadow perfectly placed. Or the reno on their new house in Fort McMurray, with Greek pillars lifting up the doorway and pretty purple details on the bathroom tiles. Hate is simple. Blood is simple. But her hands are always clean and lacquered. Last week there was a new profile picture, her belly all big and swollen. Not a killer yet. She was smiling so wide.
It’s fall now in Calgary, but my mind is up in the mountains. In a pool of still water. I’m at a cafe now, staring at a painting on the wall. It isn’t very good, but the label at the bottom says COLUMBIA ICEFIELD. It’s a landscape. Oils in white, and soft blue shadows encroaching on the hillside where the glacier meets the soil. Oils in yellow, a burning sun over a sleeping orange valley. Oils in black somewhere beneath the painting, beneath the mountain, thundering now out of pipelines cutting bloody across the back of the land. One day soon I’ll send a message through the piping, seal it up in a bottle, hope it bobs upstream to her. It’ll be the words I never said, or maybe the words I was saying all along: I wish you were more like Judas. That I felt more betrayed.
It’s fall now in Calgary. I’m sitting in a cafe and when I dab beneath my eye my finger comes back wet. The coffee tastes ancient. Like, crude. Like, unrefined. Valuable. I’m getting hungry. I’m not sure what it is I’m hungry for.