by Alison Trottier
Black words on a white screen, black fissures in the ice, widening and cracking. I should have known, and now I know. I close the browser, then open it again, creeping back to the message like a skittish animal enticed by the possibility but afraid of the trap.
I set the trap myself. I took the test. I should have known she could be there waiting for me, but what were the chances? I had soothed myself that way: not much of a chance—there was a chance, but not much of one—there was a chance.
“DNA Match”—the subject of the message—stares out at me from the dark of a cold closed room, from around a door cracked open, from the top of the Results page. It lurks just under the words “Close Family” and a box which demands I confront the possibilities: uncle or aunt, grandparent or grandchild, nephew or niece. I don’t have to guess.
She’s there in the small round photo by her name: a blonde woman wearing sunglasses, standing on a boardwalk with the ocean behind her. I inch closer to the cold glow of the monitor, trying to make out what else is there. There’s a shadow on the water, but I can’t see what casts it.
I retreat from the photo and read one more time the woman’s message:
“I was adopted. I am searching for my family of origin.”
It sounds cool, detached. Black words on a white screen, almost sterile. As though we
could both stand a little apart from it, a little askance, ignoring the shadow it casts over her life,
It’s been forty years, maybe more, but that one summer still sits cold in my centre like an ice floe in the bay that never melted.
Catherine was back. She’d left when I was nine, and now I was thirteen and didn’t know how to look at her. Mum was right; she could have at least told us she was coming, warned us before she showed up on the porch with that girl on her hip. I couldn’t understand why my sister had her. Those people were supposed to find someone to care for her. Mum said we couldn’t, the Stanleys wouldn’t, and Catherine couldn’t, either. But Catherine kept trying. She kept telling them that she was going to get married, and then she would take the baby.
Three years of trying. Frank Stanley went to work in the States and all the wedding talk froze over. Catherine went to Montreal, but I didn’t know what she did there, and I couldn’t understand why she was back here now. Later I found out her time was up—those people in Campbellton had told her that she could take the girl right then or give her up for good. That should have been the end of it.
But she took her. She brought her to us, and I knew exactly what Mum was thinking as she looked at Catherine standing on the porch that night like a beggar: Still?
It was the first time I’d seen my sister’s daughter, my niece. Her fine, fair hair was tangled; her skin was like thin ice, pale and blotchy; her white cheeks streaked with tears. She was small and fragile, and Catherine held her like a dead weight. She looked so much like her.
Dad wasn’t home, so Mum let them in. They had come a long way from Campbellton to Gaspé. It was cold for June, and it was raining. They smelled of sweat and urine and hours on the train. I used to dream of Catherine coming home—running to her, hugging her, hearing her laugh—but now I only wanted to get away. I went up to my room and stayed there. When Dad came home, I listened to the voices rising and falling down in the kitchen, the front door slamming, and a sick stillness settling.
Catherine soon disappeared just as she had before, but she left the girl with us. I found out her name was Margaret, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone. My brothers mostly ignored her. Dad never looked at her, wouldn’t even speak of her, just like he’d never look at or speak of Catherine. The girl didn’t talk much. Sometimes she cried, but never for my sister. She cried for Mabbie. “Mabbie! Mabbie!” We thought Mabbie must have been someone from the house where girls like Catherine left their babies.
“Cruel,” Mum said. To take her away from Mabbie. To bring her here. To leave her with us. “I heard some Americans wanted to adopt her,” Mum said. “She won’t ever get adopted if she gets much older,” Mum said.
Cruel, I thought. I thought it when I watched Mum struggling to feed her, when I watched her playing with an old doll of mine that had been dragged down from the attic, when I heard her cry in the night, and when I heard Mum and Dad fight when they thought the rest of us were sleeping.
The arguments down in the kitchen got a little longer and a little louder every morning before Dad left for work until one morning when I crept out of my room, and everything was quiet and still—the girl was gone. I didn’t ask. Asking would make me a part of it, and I did not want to be a part of it. Mum had told me Catherine was back in Montreal getting started at a new job. I thought maybe someone had brought the girl down there to her. Maybe.
That night after the sun set, I went across the road to the beach to look out over the bay to Gaspé. I liked to watch the lights of the town at night. I felt safe knowing they were always there, steadfast as the stars, fading with the dawn and returning with the darkness. But that night I felt different. It was something about the water. It was still and flat like I had never seen it; and I stood there staring at its blackness, wanting and not wanting to know what was beneath it. I thought of how the bay froze in the winter, and how loud it was when the ice broke up in the spring. You’d hear it cracking in the night sometimes.
Once when we were children we were playing on the drift ice near the shore, just me and Catherine, and we found ourselves drifting farther and farther out into the bay. I felt no fear at first, only cold. We wouldn’t get that far, I thought. We couldn’t. Someone would pick us up before we floated out into the ocean. But then I thought of the ocean, the high waves and the whales and the cold, dark water. I watched the shore get a little farther away, a little farther, farther, and I wanted to scream but something stuck in my throat.
Catherine jumped in and pushed us back to shore. I don’t know how far or how long she pushed us—my mind made it a mile and an hour—but she had always been a good swimmer. Sometimes I’d watch her swim in the summer, watch her get farther and farther away until she was nothing but a speck in the distance, and I’d feel that awful knot in my throat just before she disappeared completely.
It was two more weeks before Catherine came back again. We were sitting on the front porch, and the sun had just set—the last of the light retreating from us into the Chic-Choc Mountains—when our cousin Helen drove up. She pulled off to the side of the road in front of our house, but Helen didn’t get out. I saw all the colour retreat from Mum’s face as Catherine emerged with her suitcase. Just like before, there had been no call, no letter. No warning, no time.
Catherine stood there all alone wearing the same old green dress she’d left in, arms empty. I ran into the house and darted upstairs to my room. I shut my door, shut myself away. I should have known, and now I knew, and all I could do was keep myself apart from it. I heard the ice cracking downstairs as Mum told her what they’d done.
Catherine was going back to Montreal where she said she had a job waiting for her. She stayed in Gaspé just long enough to drive me to my last day of class. I still remember how I watched my friends and cousins filing indoors under the blue sky and bright sun as we cruised straight past my school that morning. We rounded the bend, and they were gone; and Catherine was smiling, and for the first time in weeks I felt like laughing.
Then we stopped outside the Stanleys’ house, and I watched Frank Stanley come outside with his hands stuck in his pockets. He had been away for ages working in the States, and I hadn’t realized he’d come back. Frank was handsome, clean and neat; but I’d never liked him, even back when everyone else did. It was something about his eyes, the way he’d squint at you and then smile, like he was thinking things he’d never say. Catherine shooed me into the back seat, and Frank got in the front with her. “Want me to drive?” he asked, but she was already backing out onto the road. We were going to Percé.
We drove along the coast with the windows down, but the car was still too warm and the ocean was so blue it hurt my eyes. I wanted to scream at her. Why him, why again? You know Dad said he would kill him if he saw him. You know he’s only back now because he heard the girl was gone. But Frank had his arm across the back of her seat as she drove. And every now and then she’d lean towards him and touch his face, his ear, his hair; and they’d laugh. I shrank back into my seat, digging my nails into my palms to try and keep from getting carsick.
In Percé we ate at the canteen, they took me to a movie, and bought me candy from the store. They treated me like a little kid, but I didn’t complain. I didn’t say anything. Frank paid for it all, and Catherine couldn’t stop smiling.
I still felt sick and wanted to go home; but I didn’t want to ask them, so I sat on the boardwalk and stared out at the monolith of Percé Rock casting its shadow onto the blazing blue of the ocean. Hundreds of white birds wheeled above it, and I wondered what they were looking for. I thought of Catherine in her white swimsuit and swimming cap years before, cutting through the water like a seal, getting farther and farther from the shore until she disappeared through the archway in the rock. A minute later she’d emerged from the other side, and my heart started beating again.
Frank went to put gas in the car, and Catherine came and sat beside me. She took out a cigarette, and her hands were shaking as she lit it.
“Do you know what they did with her?” she asked me.
I shook my head.
“I wanted to call her Lynn,” she said.
I didn’t answer. She smoked her cigarette and stared out at nothing.
We dropped Frank back at the Stanleys’ place, and Catherine got out of the car to say goodbye to him. I watched and listened through the open window.
“You still coming over tonight?” he said.
“Sure,” she said. “Wait up for me.”
She kissed him on the cheek and then ran back to the car. I don’t know why that image has stayed burned behind my eyelids—the sun setting behind the Stanleys’ house, behind the dark green swells of the Chic-Choc Mountains, the tall grass and purple foxgloves swaying, and the breeze blowing Catherine’s green dress around her legs. Frank was just a shadow, but I could see him grinning with his hands stuck in his pockets like a kid who’d just won a prize.
When we got home, everything was dark, and the house was cool and still. No one else was there, and Catherine started packing. I thought she was running away with Frank, so I had to say something.
“Mum told me she went to the States.” It was like the knot in my throat came loose, and the truth came darting out before I could stop it.
“Who?” Catherine slammed the lid of her suitcase shut. I followed her out of her room, down the stairs.
“You’re going to find her, aren’t you?” I said. My heart beat faster than our footfalls on the stairs as she hurried, and I hurried after her.
She sat on the bottom step, grabbed her shoes, and put them back on. “I don’t have a daughter. That girl might as well be up in the stars now.”
“She’s not! Mum told me these Americans—”
“Down in the stars, then,” said Catherine.
I heard a car come rolling to a stop outside our house. Dad was home, or Mum, or our brothers. Or maybe Frank. I wanted to scream at her, grab her, shake her, stop her—how could she be so stupid—but that knot in my throat was back and twisted itself tighter as I stared at my sister’s hunched shoulders, her fair hair coming loose and catching on the frayed collar of her dress. Whoever it was kept the engine running and didn’t get out. Catherine grabbed her suitcase, and I followed her out the door to find Helen waiting in her car.
My sister kissed me on the cheek before she left. She said, “I’ll send you a postcard, honey.” Then she got in the car, and they drove off. I watched the taillights get farther and farther away until they blinked out into darkness.
I never got a postcard. I always wondered how long Frank Stanley waited.
Black words on a white screen, almost sterile. The longer I stare at them, the less they seem to mean. I close the page and turn off the computer. I can’t be a part of this right now. I need to think. I need to sleep.
So many years have passed, and so many things have happened that I find myself questioning my memory. Sometimes I wonder how far out into the bay we really drifted on the ice that day, or how long it was before I stopped checking at the post office, or whether Catherine ever really swam through the arch in Percé Rock.
Now I sleep and dream of her standing all alone on the beach in Percé, wearing her white swimsuit and swimming cap. It’s night and the whole sky is lit up by stars, and the moonlight shines a path through the passage in the rock. She walks into the ocean, walks until she’s up to her neck, and then she swims, barely disturbing the flat black surface of the water. She disappears through that archway, and I wait, watching for her to come back.
I waited. I waited. She’s down in the stars and the still water.