Photo Credit: Facundo Gastiazoro


👤Jo Boxwell 🕔Feb 17, 2018

Tuesday. Lake swimming. Soggy grass mushed flat from the imprints she’s made before. Her body slips into the deep, icy cold, her limbs pushing rhythmically through the shock.

“Welcome to paradise,” he said when he brought her here. “Not many people have lakes to themselves.”

Marsha wouldn’t have minded a few more people.

Paul says people are trouble. Better off without them.

Ducks, though, he likes ducks. They both do. Sociable creatures, and not mean like geese. Even so, he shoots at them once in a while to keep them from fouling up the shoreline.

They see people all the time. They see them and they don’t see them. On the Via Rail. Silver with two thin stripes of colour, and the word that reminds her she’s part of the world. Canada. Tuesdays and Thursdays it rolls past. Quieter than the freight trains, and so fleeting it’s almost romantic.

The small lake is hidden on the far side of their property, at the base of the mountains, shielded from the eyes of passing travellers by a thick curtain of trees. The people on the train would never notice her anyway. They’re looking for the quintessential Canadian creatures promised to them in tourist brochures; bears, caribou, moose, not a slight woman with grey-blonde hair who could disappear into the fabric of her dress. Whenever Marsha hears the train making its way through the valley, her thoughts take her to it. She closes her eyes and the lake disappears. She’s running barefoot in her summer cotton over the dead needles and across the parched grass until she’s up against the gravelly edge of the property where it meets the railroad ties. She stretches out her hand as the train grows on the horizon, its sound having reached her first. She strains her eyes, hopelessly trying to determine whether it’s slowing down, unsure if she really wants it to or not.

It won’t stop. Not for her. But then it does, just when she thought it wasn’t going to. She fumbles in her pockets for the fare she already knows she doesn’t have. A man with a conflicted expression lets her on, quietly. She sits in the special car with the huge windows that stretch up across the roof. She stares out at the property from the train, and where the glass curves, she follows the trees upwards as they climb the mountains beyond. The beauty of it sticks in her throat. That view is home. She doesn’t belong on this side of the glass.

A soft touch on her shoulder. Standing in the aisle beside her is a little boy with neatly parted hair and that type of attire people call smart-casual. “Why don’t you have any shoes on?” he asks plainly.

She refuses to look down. Goosebumps prickle her arms as she senses the attention of other passengers honing in on her. Poor woman, they’re thinking. Can she manage on her own?

Paul’s voice. He isn’t on the train, but she hears him just the same. “You get on a train, Marsha, and who knows where you’ll end up.”

He keeps her safe, here in Paradise. She opens her eyes and unclenches her toes as she treads water, swishing her arms methodically by her sides. Her lake is murkier than it used to be, now that her eyesight is going.

She could’ve gone when the children were grown, back when she could still see the tiny fish effortlessly evading her limbs. That would’ve been the time for a new start, but he would’ve found her, and broken it.

Paul is calling her from the house. She always comes when he calls.

Thursday. Lakes occupy spaces for a long time, but the water doesn’t feel trapped because it always moves. Sometimes she thinks she’d be happier if she could slip into the clouds or the ground.

Marsha imagines that her lake is so big she will discover some great urban sprawl if she keeps paddling along its edge, like Lake Ontario, so enormous you could look out over it and think it was the ocean. People live like rats in big cities, Paul says. Crawling all over each other. They learn not to care, and then they scratch their heads at the high crime rate. It’s just as well, Paul says, that the two of them live in Paradise.

Nobody else would take her on anyway. She’s lucky he came along.

Marsha is paddling slowly along the grassy edge of the lake looking for Toronto, tall and shiny as she imagines it to be, when she hears the Via Rail train making its way through the valley once more. The sound is slower, less determined, than usual. Metallic squeals followed by a sudden quiet. Something has happened, something that gives her no time to imagine, or for her imaginings to die away into the distance with the train’s departure. Her curiosity pulls her from the water.

Marsha slips onto the shore and dries herself, hurriedly stepping into her dress. She breaches the treeline as she pulls the back of her left sandal upwards over her heel. The train has stopped on the track, almost directly in front of the house. Silver, with the word Canada printed majestically along the side. There it is; the car with the huge windows that stretch across the roof. She could walk over and touch it. She imagines there are people inside looking out. People who can see her. She could wave. She doesn’t. It’ll be on its way again soon. It’ll be gone again before she has time to think about it.

Marsha enters the house through the back way. She catches Paul locking the front door. He shuffles over to the window and gently pulls the thin curtain to one side.

“Lock the back” he barks, without turning his head.

They’ve never locked the doors. Not in forty years. The latch sticks as she moves it. She hovers in the hallway as he stoops over the windowsill. The stationary train has made him a stranger. A man who locks doors. He’s realized, finally, that he’s old. Vulnerable. The thought almost makes her laugh.

Marsha slips into the kitchen. She gets to her work. Cleaning the counters with vinegar and elbow grease as the train silently disturbs their landscape. It could be a mechanical failure, she supposes. They could be stuck there for a while if they have to call somebody to get them going again.

“Could be anything,” Paul grumbles. “Could be a security threat.”

She peers into the living room. He’s sitting now, still facing the window, fingers twitching. Her husband, a man of blood and vitriol, is scared of what’s outside. The train has exposed him.

She scatters flour on the counter and rolls out her pastry. Paul moves the vase of wildflowers from the table beside the window to give himself a better view. They have more poise set on the carpet than he does in their place, on a wobbly wooden chair at the table they never sit at. He’s in his short sleeves and washed-out jeans. His arms are thin where they used to be tough. Once in a while he brushes his palm over his freckled head. It made more sense when he had hair.

Marsha pulls out the butter. There’s a postcard on the fridge. A pod of orcas in the ocean near Prince Rupert. It’s from her granddaughter, Alexa. She lives there now. That’s where the train ends up when it’s heading west.

Marsha pulls the postcard off the fridge and touches the shiny black dorsal fins one by one. Orcas were prehistoric dogs, once. She learned that from a documentary. Television is the only piece of technology they have out here in Paradise. Nobody can see in. That’s why Paul likes it.

Orcas still have finger bones; five in each pectoral flipper. She’s seen the documentary enough times to have absorbed the narrator’s half-whispered knowledge. Land mammals that learned to live in the water, orcas adapted to the most extreme of changes.

If she were the subject of a documentary, there wouldn’t be much to marvel at. Stuck on the same routines. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks, the narrator would whisper sympathetically. She will stay in her nest until death takes her. She’s much too old for new. It would be something, though, to see an orca. To see the ocean.

She creams the butter and adds brown sugar and syrup, egg and vanilla. Hums an old country tune. Release Me. Let Me Go. She drops raisins into the bottoms of her pastry shells, and then submerges them in the beige mixture. She remembers being young. The loneliness of it, always being out of place. Alexa is different. She goes her own way.

To My Sweet Gramma. The postcard is five years old, but that’s the first line on it. Marsha can recite the whole thing without even turning it over. Alexa was always her favourite.

Come visit! We’ll go to the most amazing fish restaurant, and then we’ll go for a long walk just like we used to at the lake.

Marsha has pictured that coastal forest walk a thousand times, breathing in the wet air and marvelling at a landscape cluttered with mossy logs and skunk cabbages. That’s how she imagines it, and just when her legs are beginning to feel tired, they’ll come across a secret view of the ocean through the trees.

Paul says it rains too much in Rupert. A waste of gas, going to a place like that. There’s no good reason to go anywhere when they already live in Paradise.

Marsha puts her tray of tarts in the oven. There’s no sign of activity from the train. The passengers will be getting antsy by now. When they were moving, they wouldn’t have been thinking about the fact that they can’t get out. Spaces feel a lot smaller when you start to see them that way. Paul must have been thinking the same. “They won’t be coming on my land. That’s my grass out there. I don’t want anybody thinking they can just get out and walk around.”

She watches him as he unfolds himself from the chair and hobbles into the back room. He comes back with his rifle. He leans it against his knees. Flesh and bones, he is now. The gun makes him look weaker.

The smell of sugar and butter melting wafts through the kitchen. Marsha leans against the counter and closes her eyes. She’s running across the property again towards the train. She touches the hot metal with her fingers, and it bursts into life, heaving and squealing. It picks up speed as she waves frantically after it, heading west down the valley without her.

When she turns around, Paul is there, gun pointing. He won’t shoot.

The oven timer beeps. “Switch that damn thing off!”

Paul doesn’t like to be interrupted when he’s concentrating.

Marsha takes the tarts out of the oven and waits for them to cool. The train is still there. Paul is still watching it with the gun stretched across his lap. Marsha looks back at the train; she has to keep checking on it, because in the next moment she could glance out of the same window and find it gone. The tarts haven’t cooled yet, but she crams most of them into a large container. She wraps one in a piece of kitchen roll and slips it into her pocket along with the postcard. She opens the safe and pulls out the little bit of cash Paul keeps in there. She’s been watching him for long enough to have figured out how. Maybe it’s enough; maybe it isn’t.

There is a solitary butter tart remaining on the counter. Marsha puts it on a saucer; a floral one pinched around the edges. It was a wedding present, but he won’t remember. She squirts a dollop of whipped cream on top, just the way he likes it.

Paul takes the plate out of her hand without even looking at her, his eyes fixed on the threat beyond the front window. Marsha steps into the hallway. She puts on her shoes. She stares at the front door. She unlocks it. He hears the click. She doesn’t turn around when she feels his eyes turn on her.

“Marsha? What are you doing?”

Her hand sticks on the handle, sweaty and hesitant. Bitterness in his throat, surging up as she opens the door, but that’s all that remains of him. She walks outside, into the hot sun, in her raincoat.