The bar was set high. Six feet. That was the height he had to clear to make it to the final round. He didn’t hear cheers from the crowd looking on as he stepped into his run and prepared to leap. There was only the sound of air as he neared the point where he would soar.
His family line was ancient. It had been known of and talked about for centuries. Virtually every human in the world had been touched by his ancestors at some point in their lives. For there had been times in the past when his forebears had literally swept through the world, bringing death to the new lands they conquered, forcing inhabitants to adapt to new realities.
Now, after a long hiatus in which his family had been largely relegated to the background, they were back on top. Firmly in control. By succeeding in his jump, he’d help to ensure they stayed there, continuing their spread and domination.
He and his team had arrived in Toronto early, well in advance of the games, to get acclimatized. To get the feel of the place before the competition got underway and the media circus began. By doing so, they’d have a chance to get established and gather strength before people realized just how strong they were. It was part of the strategy. By the time the world realized they were the team to beat, they’d be too powerful to stop.
They’d been at this point once before. Just over 100 years ago. But they hadn’t been quite ready then. Not quite strong enough, or perhaps not quite smart enough. The leaders in the communities they swept through were able to hang on, adapting to the new reality and implementing strong measures to survive the onslaught.
For three years, fear had gripped mankind as a new kind of war that they could scarcely contemplate was waged all around them by his ancestors. There had been a clear path to victory for them back then. To achieving the fine balance that would allow for sustainability, as new generations of people were born to serve the needs of his kind and older generations died off. Only his ancestors had not remained faithful to the tenets of their grand purpose. Some of them had varied from the true path. Gone their separate ways. That, plus the willingness of humans to follow the rules imposed by government in the public interest, and the trust mankind placed in their scientists, had turned the tide.
The invasion stalled, then lost its momentum entirely and was halted. Over the years that followed, his ancestors tried and tried again to regain their strength. Seasonal forays in nations around the world became the norm, but almost all were short lived. With spring, when warmer temperatures brought those countries’ people back into the field in strength, his ancestors were beaten back.
Oh, there were moments. Years when a particular branch of his family had upped their game to a new level. When they once again sowed fear into the hearts and minds of people around the world. But those moments had been short lived.
Now that was about to change. He could feel it. The conditions were right.
For the world’s people had forgotten the lessons they’d learned from the great war fought at the outset of the 20th century. Populist governments, a few of them bona fide autocracies ruled by would-be dictators, were back in vogue. Science had lost its lustre. Research funding had dried up as countries focussed on balancing their budgets and reducing their debt load. Tax breaks for large corporations became the cornerstone on which western nations tried to kick start the economic recovery needed to overcome the impacts of the 2008 recession.
In turn, the world’s corporations narrowed their own focus. Profit, resulting in ever larger dividends for investors and high stock values, become their primary measure of success. As the drive for increased profit took hold, the concept of social responsibility was lost. A me-first approach to life became the norm across generations and societies. Basic courtesy, good manners and caring were shelved, as elders were moved into long-term-care facilities to be looked after by strangers. The gap between the rich and the poor widened, as the so-called middle class struggled to make ends meet.
Perhaps it was the magnitude of the threats facing people and their leaders – from climate change, the emergence of armed racist militias in the U.S., the rise of nationalism and trade wars, and the interference of totalitarian countries in the democratic electoral processes of their rivals – that blinded governments and people to the risk. Possibly it was because governments were too focussed on the perceived threats to the global economy and supply chain.
Whatever the reason, the warnings of the world’s top scientists were largely ignored. And almost without exception, world leaders refused to consider that a new invasion force might be taking shape and could soon be sweeping the globe. In some nations, vital equipment needed to fight such a force was destroyed because it was past its best-before date, and not replaced. Some leaders even cut government spending on research and science because of the clear disconnect between what they wanted to do and what the scientific community believed should be done.
At virtually the same time, a technological and communications revolution spearheaded by large for-profit corporations was underway around the world. Facebook, Twitter, Google and other platforms were rapidly changing the way people connected with one another and accessed information. Traditional news media was in decline, as more and more people turned to online sources for their daily news fix. Fake news, bias news and downright propaganda proliferated on the internet, along with conspiracy theories. At least one world leader embraced the new communications technology to spread his own brand of misinformation and hate.
Coron was born into a world in which many people no longer trusted science or scientists, where the internet gave them access to a daily dose of misinformation and lies, and many chose to believe that fake news as near gospel truth. Public trust in government, politicians and traditional news media was at an all-time low.
In contrast, his ancestors had been smart and effective in their time out of power. They’d learned to use animals to their advantage (both as incubators, and as laboratories for the development of mutants). Plus they’d launched a few trial invasions to test the opposition’s defences, learned from their mistakes, then waited until the most opportune moment to strike.
Coron was in the vanguard of the new invasion force. From his birth until the moment he stood centre stadium in Canada, he had been raised and nurtured with a single purpose. To reproduce and survive. To create new warriors who would carry on the fight. He’d been bred for that reason and that reason alone. It was in his DNA. All his training, everything he knew, focussed solely on that.
His life began in China, although there would be some debate among the world’s scientific community later on about where his parents originated. Some suggested that they may have come from France or Italy. That Coron’s parents had been born in Europe before being allowed into China where they eventually found a suitable host to house them and reproduced. It might have been fake news, it may be true. There was no consensus.
Coron has no memories of his birth. He has a vague recollection of waking up in a nursery that was full with thousands of new arrivals, all of them looking exactly like him. Of the walls of that nursery being broken down as it became too crowded. Followed by a journey down a red passageway.
There were things in the passageway. Nasty things. He saw them surround, then kill and eat, several of his fellow travellers. The nasty things followed him all down the passageway, trying to close in on him. As he travelled the temperature rose. It made the journey more difficult. Made him feel sluggish and weak. But his spikey armour protected him, and he persisted.
The passage way opened into a large chamber. Its walls were coated with a fibrous substance that offered places to hide from the nasty things. Places where he could settle in, meet a mate and reproduce. The deeper he went into the chamber, the better the potential hiding places seemed to get.
Coron had kept the nasty things at bay so far. Plus, they seemed to be losing their strength as he continued moving down into the far reaches of the chamber. The fibrous substance on the chamber’s walls at this depth was virtually perfect. He could latch onto it, burrow in, and get established. The nasty things wouldn’t be able to get at him down here.
As Coron settled into his new digs, a storm seemed to be coming. On his way down the passageway, there had been brief periods of turbulence – medium-strength wind gusts. Now the chamber walls had begun to contract suddenly and violently, again and again. Still, he was safe enough in the domicile he’d found, latched onto and entered at the side of the chamber. And so he reproduced, creating thousands of little Coron’s exactly like him and a few that were a bit different – seemingly stronger and more aggressive. Not quite a chip off the old block.
As Coron reproduced and his offspring reproduced, his domicile became overcrowded. The family was bursting out at the seams, which soon gave way, releasing Coron and his brood back into the large chamber. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he’d travelled deep down into the chamber, and in some ways it was, although it had only been a week in human time.
Suddenly, Coron found himself and his family being expelled out of the chamber when its walls violently contracted, sending a rush of air and vapour droplets upwards and through the passageway that he’d followed to reach his temporary home. They came to rest embedded in a droplet, along with hundreds of his kind. The droplet was suspended on tissue at the rear of a small cavern. It was different than the larger chamber he’d been forced to leave just moments before. Much of it was surrounded by a white picket fence, with narrow gaps between the planks, and its floor was very different from the ceiling. The ceiling was smooth and hard, while the floor was made from a softer tissue that had little buds protruding from it. And that tissue seemed to have a life of its own. It moved up and down in the cavern, often in sync with a procedure that cleared the moisture dripping from its walls and ceiling away, forcibly sending it back down a passageway that ran parallel to the one Coron had emerged from.
But the biggest difference was that the small cavern opened and closed, and when it opened, there was light. It was in that light that Coron knew the time had come for him to achieve the destiny his ancestors had set out for him.
The bar was set at six feet. That was the distance the two nostril holes he had to reach and get into was from the mouth where he waited in his vapour droplet for his moment of glory. If he made his leap successfully, and enough of his compatriots were able to make it with him, his mission in life would be achieved. He’d travel up the nasal passage of the rotund man standing across from him, and travel down into the man’s throat. There he’d pause, using his armour spikes to attach himself to and pierce a cell. He’d send his essence into it, then reproduce. When his temporary home became too crowded with his offspring, and its walls burst, he’d travel down through the man’s trachea and deep into his lungs, then repeat the process.
That was his mission. His sole purpose. Survival and reproduction. The continuation of his kind. It was irrelevant to him if the human hosts he and his kind occupied suffered or died from the havoc his takeover of their respiratory systems might cause, or if mankind and the nations they’d created felt as if they were under siege, fighting a war against an elusive, unseen enemy. All that mattered was that there continued to be enough unprotected human hosts available to take him and his kind in and nurture them. That mankind continued to fail in its attempts, whether through protective measures or vaccination, to stop the spread of the invasion force and buildup a herd immunity to keep it at bay over the long term.
So far, that didn’t look like it would be a problem. Not when the rotund man with the yellow hair had reached up to his face and pulled off his protective mask as he walked up to a microphone. Not when that man had leaned forward as he reached the hand holding the mask down toward his pocket. Not when the unmasked man whose mouth Coron was waiting in chose that exact moment to cough, expelling Coron and his family out into the open air that separated him from the man at the microphone.
Coron didn’t make it. He came to rest on a plastic sign attached to the front of the lectern at which the rotund man had begun to speak. The sign read “Open for Business.”
Although he’d failed in his first attempt, Coron was not about to give up. He’d wait for someone to handle the sign, and transfer from it to that person’s skin or glove. Then all he’d need to begin his second attempt at six feet would be for that person to touch their lips, nose or eyes.
And all was not lost regardless of what happened to Coron. Several of the variants in Coron’s family, the ones that hadn’t been created as an exact chip off the old block, had made the leap successfully and even now were beginning their journey down the rotund man’s nasal passages. In a day or two, he would start to sneeze, then cough.
The Lord was bored. He’d inherited his father’s mantle too young, unready to be king of heaven. There had to be something more to existence than the infinite void, the spirit chatter and inner contemplation that occupied him. He needed a project.
Perhaps, he mused, he could fill the void. Create something with matter, something he could see. Then when he set loose the Holy Ghost, exercised his omnipotence, it might be more worthwhile.
The project became an obsession. First he had to overcome the blackness of the void. So the Lord lit a figurative match, invented light, and divided it from the darkness. Then he made a firmament below heaven, and covered it with water. But the firmament was dull. Endless blue. So the Lord raised it in places, creating dry land. Now there was contrast, brown and blue, but the overall effect was still boring.
So the Lord created plants. Now there was a full palette of colours adorning his earth. Greens of all shades, vibrant reds, bright yellows, blues, pinks, whites and oranges. It was good, until the plants started to wither and die.
Something is missing thought the Lord. An ecosystem, perhaps. So he created day and night, the stars, sun and moon, along with the seasons, days and years. With them came the tides, rain, hot and cold, wind, seeds and falling leaves.
The plants grew healthier, more robust, but didn’t really thrive. The Lord realized they needed nutrients, pruning. So he created fish, whales and birds, animals and creeping things. Their excrement and remains fertilize the plants; the foraging animals trim them, and the birds carry their seeds to distant soil. Nature is in balance.
It was good at first, but soon became dull. Eat, sleep, fornicate, give birth and eat again. That’s all the animals, whales, fish, birds and creeping things did. As for the plants, some blossomed, some grew tall and sprouted leaves, all flourished, but it was a slow process.
The Lord grew a bit tired of it all. His project needed some pizzazz. He decided to create a being in his own image – a man – with free will, intelligence, emotions, a conscious and hands with opposable digits. His man would be able to both grasp things and invent them. Plus, the Lord would give him dominion over all other living things. That should be entertaining.
But the man, Adam, became despondent. The wonders of earth had become commonplace. He had no one to talk to; nothing to do.
So the Lord created a garden for the man. Within it he planted the tree of knowledge and told man not to eat its fruit. That, thought the Lord, should keep man occupied, balancing the desire to taste, to know, against the fear of disobedience, the unknown consequences. Plus, tending the garden would give man physical work to do. Just to be on the safe side, the Lord also tasked Adam with naming all the beasts and birds on earth.
Man’s happiness faded after the naming was done. Tending the garden gave him no satisfaction. The Lord finally grasped the problem. Adam had no helpmate, a bit of an oversight, really, given that the Lord had created two sexes, male and female, of all other living things. But he’d only created a male man. So the Lord created a woman, Eve, who soon took charge of tending the garden.
Perhaps woman was more inquisitive than man, or perhaps a serpent tricked her, but Eve did what Adam had not dared to do – she ate fruit picked from the tree of knowledge. Then she convinced man to eat it. Both saw they were naked, and hid from God.
The Lord was furious. He’d given man everything. All he’d asked in return was that man obey a simple edict. Well, he’d show man who was Lord. Make him pay for his disobedience, make woman suffer for hers. He’d drive them out of the garden, make childbirth painful, force man to survive by his own devices.
Years passed. Man and woman were fruitful and multiplied. The Lord sent the Holy Ghost down to earth, spoke to man directly, set edicts, demanded offerings. But his attention was also on other things. For the Lord’s sons were misbehaving, taking the daughters of men as wives.
When the Lord looked down on his earth, he saw it had become a wicked place. He was angry, furious that his people had forsaken him. He’d show them.
The Lord took time to plan his revenge. Then he told Noah to build a massive ark, to load it with a male and female of every nonhuman living species on earth. When Noah was done, the Lord flooded the earth. He looked down from heaven as men, women and beasts – all the animals, creeping things and humans not in the ark with Noah – drowned. Then earth grew boring to the Lord. Blue water, a tiny boat, the smell of rot. He turned his attention elsewhere.
Half a year later, as the flood waters began to recede, the Lord looks back down on earth. He sends a sign to Noah that it’s safe to quit the ark, tells him to be fruitful and multiply. Noah complies.
Generations are born, cities built. The Lord finally takes an interest in earth again. He speaks directly to Abraham, makes a covenant with him: “Go to Canaan and I will make you a great nation.”
The covenant works for a while, then Abraham runs amok in Egypt. Fearing for his life because his wife is beautiful, he trades her to Pharaoh in return for oxen, sheep, asses and maid servants. The Lord is furious and sends a plague on Egypt’s ruler. Abraham returns to Canaan wealthy.
When the Lord has regained his equilibrium, he thinks about what happened, about why his covenant with Abraham failed. Perhaps it was unbalanced. He’d promised to make Abraham a great nation. All he’d asked in return was to be worshiped and obeyed, for Abraham to settle in a new land, leaving his kin and home behind. The Lord convinces himself that the covenant would have worked if the cost to Abraham and his offspring had been higher, if it had been sealed in blood.
So the Lord makes a new covenant with Abraham, promising to make him the father of many nations, and to make a new and everlasting covenant with Abraham’s yet to be born son, Isaac. In return, Abraham is to circumcise all male children, plus he and his followers are to worship the Lord. Many foreskins are removed. The ground is soaked with blood.
Like its predecessors, the covenant fails. Perhaps it’s because the Lord decides to test Abraham, by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. The Lord isn’t sure why he does this. He’d been pondering the ultimate test of faith, decided it was to sacrifice one’s son, then acted impulsively. The Lord felt badly about it afterwards, even though he had stopped Abraham from yielding the killing knife. What had he been thinking?
History repeats itself. When the Lord looks down on earth, he sees wickedness and evil. He can’t take the goings-on in Sodom and Gomorrah, the rampant vice. The Lord loses it, decides to destroy both cities. But he feels a brief flicker of compassion. He’ll save Lot and his wife. Allow them to leave town before Armageddon strikes. Only Lot’s wife looks back on Sodom and the Lord is overcome by anger. He turns her into a pillar of salt.
Years later, when Isaac is a grown man, he calls out to the Lord, asking for help in a time of famine. The Lord remembers his covenant with Abraham, then makes a new one with Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, promising her that two nations are in her womb.
Twins are born, one dull, the keeper of his father’s flocks; the other intelligent and handsome, a deceiver who steals his father’s blessing and robs his brother of his birthright. Esau and Jacob.
Perhaps the deceiver is somehow more pleasing in the eyes of the Lord, or perhaps it is because Jacob has Isaac’s blessing. Whatever the reason, it is Jacob’s line that the Lord favours, Jacob the Lord speaks to. There are hiccups – he’s tricked into marrying a woman he doesn’t love; his favourite son, Joseph, is lost – but Jacob has a good life.
When famine comes, the Lord tells Jacob to fear not, but to “go down into Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation.” Jacob complies and discovers that Joseph has become a prince of Egypt. He prospers.
Many years pass. The Lord is growing up, turning away from childhood things. He’s unaware of Joseph’s death. Doesn’t realize that his chosen people have been enslaved by the Egyptians. He’s focused on heaven, on angels and demons, an attempted rebellion.
Centuries pass before the Lord looks down on earth again. He doesn’t like what he sees. Israeli midwifes have been ordered by Pharaoh to kill all Jewish boys. Fearing the Lord, they do not comply. He intervenes.
A Jewish child is born, placed in a basket, and hidden in the Nile. The boy, Moses, becomes a prince of Egypt. He’s pleasing in the eyes of the Lord. Speaking to Moses from a burning bush, the Lord says he will deliver the Israelites from Egypt and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
The road to freedom is not easy. Pharaoh only lets the Israelites go after the Lord sends plagues down on the Egyptians and kills their first-born sons.
Moses leads the people through a parted Red Sea into the desert. There is no food, no water. They complain. The Lord sees his oversight, rains manna down from heaven. It helps, but doesn’t fully quell the discontentment.
The Lord is upset. After all he’s done for his people – the plagues and parting of the sea, the manna, their deliverance – many have no faith. He comes up with a plan – he’ll speak to Moses out of a thick cloud, allow the people to hear him. Then they’ll believe.
He mulls the plan over, decides that belief alone is not enough. There has to be a code of conduct, laws. The Lord tells Moses to ascend Mount Sinai, where he gives him stone tablets bearing the 10 commandments.
Moses is gone 40 days and nights. In that short span of time, many people turn away from the Lord. Aaron, Moses’s brother, moulds a golden calf for them to worship. The Lord is angry. He vows to consume them, and that he will make Moses a great nation. Moses reasons with the Lord. Reminds him of his covenants with Abraham and Isaac. And the Lord, older now, less impulsive, repents.
Time passes. The Israelites make their way to the promised land. They complain about this, grumble about that. Periodically the Lord loses his temper and metes out punishment, sometimes he repents. Eventually he forgives. The cycle repeats itself through generations, until the Lord needs a break. He allows Israel to be ruled by earthly kings – Saul, David, Solomon and their ever weaker offspring – lets the promised land be divided, then conquered.
The Lord has aged. He counts to 20 now before losing it, and he’s taken time to think things through. Being a god to be feared hasn’t worked, nor have his promises to make Israel a great nation. His castoffs, the offspring of Cain who escaped the flood, the descendants of Esau, are more powerful than his chosen flock. Many worship pagan gods. They’ve turned away from him, the god who created man from dust.
Being king of heaven is stressful. Lucifer has been acting up, fomenting revolt among the angels. The Lord’s wives are still mad at him about the loss of their earthly grandchildren in the flood. New arrivals aren’t satisfied with the place they’ve being allotted in the spirit world.
The Lord comes to a conclusion. He needs to become a loving god, one people will worship not out of fear, but for the offer of salvation, eternal life. And he needs to make the change in a visible and irrefutable way that will resonate with his people on earth for eons.
An answer comes to him from the early days of his earth project. He’d tested Abraham, asking him to sacrifice his son. Abraham proved himself worthy. What if the Lord offered his own son as a sacrifice to mankind? Would men worship and glorify him for generations?
The Lord has many sons, but one stands out in his mind – Jesus, a gentle boy who respects his father, who tries to put the needs of others before his own. What if the Lord sent Jesus to earth, as the child of a virgin woman, the son of God, then sacrificed him? Would that be enough?
He talks to Jesus, tells him what he’s thinking. Jesus does not refuse his father, but gently suggests that the plan won’t work. ‘Who would I be sacrificed to?,’ he asks. ‘Why would your chosen people care?’
The Lord thinks some more. Perhaps Jesus is right. Just being a loving god is not enough. He also needs to become a forgiving god. There can be no more fits of anger. He has to stop meting out punishment when his people turn away from him, stop making covenants he won’t keep. He remembers that Moses made him repent once. What if he allowed people to repent, to seek forgiveness?
He talks to Jesus again. His son says he’s on the right track, then offers a suggestion. What if the Lord’s sacrifice washed away people’s transgressions with the blood of his son, absolved them of sin? What if he extended this gift to all mankind? What if people could repent future transgressions, seek God’s forgiveness? Jesus thinks the plan would work, and he’s willing to give it a try, but only if the Lord promises to keep his new covenant for eternity, and not to interfere in earthly matters once the plan is underway.
The die is cast. Jesus is born of Mary, grows up, and begins his ministry. Crowds gather to hear his words. He enters Roman-occupied Jerusalem, on a road thronged with people waving palm branches. There he is betrayed, then scourged and crucified. He dies on the cross, is buried in a crypt. It should have stopped there. His ministry was small, his followers mainly common folk. There is no television, You Tube or internet to spread Christ’s gospel, no Twitter, but somehow it doesn’t matter. For Jesus rises from the dead. He’s seen by his disciples, lets them touch his wounded body, eats with them, and reminds them of the scriptures, saying that the repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations. He takes them to Bethany, where they watch him ascend into heaven, the ultimate risen spirit
They walked through the park hand in hand, marvelling at the fall colours, trepidation mixed in equal parts with love in their hearts. The air was crisp and for the most part fresh. There was only a hint of rot, but still no scent of decay. Few leaves had fallen yet, the grasses and bull rushes still glowed gold in the setting sun. They had yet to wither and turn brown.
The couple stopped and sat on a bench, under a large red-leaved maple, facing the canal, which they could just make out through the trees. They spoke of love, of a shared future, some day. Of all the things they would do together. Seeing the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, visiting Niagara Falls, taking the train across the Prairies and over the Rockies. Of children, a family. They did not speak of tomorrow. Of the war. Of the train that would take him away from her the next day.
Later, with the sun down and the fall colours obscured by night, they did not speak. Communication still flowed between them, but by look, gesture and touch. Their language was passion. When it was spent, they slept. In the morning, his leave over, he was gone. She was alone in a small hotel room, overlooking the Rideau Canal, a baby growing in her belly.
Greens, reds and browns, punctuated by flashes of yellow, moved almost rhythmically through the haze that hung heavy over the land. He watched the colours from a distance, unable to see distinct shapes, but picturing them in his mind. He knew what they were. Soon he would join them. It would be his turn to go over the top, into the mud, the slowing, squelchy, foot-rotting, killing mud. He would see the red flag fall to the ground in front of him, see the yellow flame erupt from the gun, hear the shell speed toward him, and watch the red stain spreading over the green cloth covering his chest. He fell face first.
The telegram arrived in November, on a grey, wet day. Bleak skies hung low over naked trees. The only remaining leaves were brown, fallen like her lover, blowing away from her in the cold breeze. She answered the door, one month gone.
James Terence was born in June 1918. He was the apple of his mother’s eye, her special boy. She delighted in him. As he grew, her happiness returned to her. She could feel the joy of fall again. Thrill to the reds, yellows and oranges of the season, feel energized by the crisp, clean air. It was her favourite time of year. She loved nothing more than walking through the arboretum with her first born, marvelling at the trees, the blueness of the sky, holding his hand. Yet even as a child he could sense the disquiet in her, the tinge of grey that surrounded her otherwise bright-hued aura.
Her time alone with Terry diminished as he grew and his four siblings arrived. He was four when Michael was born. Joan and Isabel, the twins, followed a year later. John was last, born in 1925. She loved them all in her way, but none so much as Terry.
In October, when the fall leaves were at their peak, when the colours of fall heralded the dead season to come, she would leave the younger children in her husband’s care and walk with Terry to the bench where she had once sat with her lover. They’d sit on the bench, quiet, each enjoying the colours, the peace of the trees. The season invigorated them somehow. Made them feel more alive, more vibrant. Ready to face the dark nights of winter. The white, stark days. The cold.
Outside her house, even in staid, conservative Ottawa, the world seemed frantic, gone mad. Young people drifted in the wind like the fallen leaves of November, from one place to the next, unable to settle. Yet they clothed themselves in ever more showy garments, flapper dress, the colours of early fall. She found peace in her household, her children, and even her husband, who she grew to love. They were the stable foundation on which she’d built her life.
Years passed. Her children grew, went to school, made friends, had lives outside of the house. She was always there for them, the one who kissed injuries to make them better, bandaged skinned knees, made meals, loved them without question. A friend, a guardian, a mother.
Fall could not come soon enough for her in 1929. There was tension in the air. Her husband seemed worried, preoccupied. Even Terry, just 11, seemed to be affected somehow. He’d talk to her about the things he’d heard at school. About friends saying their families had to move. To sell their homes. Something to do with a stock market. She grew desperate, suddenly, to take him into the arboretum, to the bench, to let the beauty of fall, the crisp air of the season, invigorate them. To feel that all was right with the world again. To feel at peace under the trees.
The leaves had turned brown and fallen in Ottawa by October 29. She’d been strengthened by them, by the light and air of fall, renewed. But few were strong enough to withstand the bleak days of that November unscathed. Not her husband, who drove his car into the canal and died. Not the couple who lived in the house next door to them, who put their home up for sale. But she was. She knew how to overcome darkness, to persist. And she had Terry, as well as Michael, Joan, Isabel and John to watch over and love.
She found a part-time job at the local grocer. With that income, the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance policy, and by cutting back a bit on expenses, they survived. They kept their house. The children stayed in the same school. They had clean clothes to wear, food to eat. Love.
What changed was fall. Her fall tradition. Now she took all the children with her to the arboretum. While she and Terry sat on the bench, the others played in the grass. All of them felt the magic of the season. Year after year they revelled in its colours, its gaiety, its crisp, clean air. They were invigorated, renewed. Ready for winter. To live.
October 1944. Greens, reds and browns, punctuated by flashes of yellow, moved almost rhythmically through the haze that hung heavy over the land. Terry watched the colours from a distance, from the fox hole he was crouched in, unable to see distinct shapes, but picturing them in his mind. He knew what they were. Soon it would be his turn to move through the water and squelching mud into German fire. He would see the yellow flash of the machine gun, see the bullet’s orange tracer speed toward him, and watch the blood stain his green uniform red. He fell face first. The Battle of the Scheldt had begun.
The telegram arrived in November, on a grey, wet day. Bleak skies hung low over naked trees. The only remaining leaves were brown, fallen like her son, blowing away from her in the cold breeze. She answered the door. Her heart was broken.
Years passed. She could no longer walk to the arboretum. Michael wheeled her there each fall. He helped her to the bench. Covered her knees with a blanket. Stood behind her as she let the colours and crisp air of the season renew and strengthen her. As she remembered her lover and Terry.
The phone call came in October 1988. It was a young woman. “Are you Laura?,” she asked. “Jim Duncan’s Laura?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Jim’s Laura. The Laura he loved.”
“I’ve got something that you might like to see,” the woman said. “It belonged to my parents’.”
Michael was with her at her house when the woman arrived. Jennifer was carrying an old leather suitcase. She lugged it with her through the front door and on to the living room.
“This is what I wanted to show you,” she said, putting the suitcase down flat on the floor and opening it. Laura peered inside the case. There were tarnished sports trophies, faded photographs, yellowed newspaper clippings and an old green wool uniform jacket inside, along with school report cards and a bundle of letters tied with together with a piece of red string.
Laura reached into the case. She picked up the letters first, as if she had a premonition. Treating them with what approached reverence, she untied the string and unfolded the top letter slowly. It was from Jim to his parents, the last they ever received from him, telling them about the wonderful girl he had met in Ottawa. About his plans to marry her and begin a family, and how he would bring her to meet them when he got home. It said he would be in the thick of it soon.
“On the day the telegram arrived at the house informing them that Jim had been killed my grandparents took this suitcase down from the attic and put everything they had of his into it. His uniform jacket and personal affects, including the letter you have in your hand, were added to the suitcase last, after they were sent to my grandparents by the War Office. They looked through it often, to remember him.
“When the suitcase came into my possession a year or so ago, after my aunt died, I looked through the contents. After I read that letter, I decided to try and find you. It wasn’t easy – but here I am.”
Tears streamed down Laura’s face.
She kept the suitcase for a week, touching the uniform, smelling it, holding it close to her. Then she returned the case to Jennifer, asking only if she could keep the photograph of Jim in his uniform and the letter.
The children did not understand, at first. This Jim was not their father.
She asked them to go with her to the arboretum, to the bench, where she told them the story, surrounded by the glorious colours of fall, breathing its crisp air, feeling the peace of the place, remembering. When she had finished speaking, she asked them to read the letter, then the telegram that had come to her in November 1918, which she had kept all those years.
“Terry was Jim’s son,” she said. “Your father knew that, but he loved Terry regardless. I loved your father for that, and for being a wonderful, caring man. But I never stopped loving Jim. Your father knew that too, I think.”
In October 1993, an envelope arrived through her mail slot. She had not been to the arboretum or the bench that fall. Her legs were too weak, her hips too sore. Inside the envelope was another smaller envelope, and a note.
The note said: “I could not bear to go through the pockets when Samuel’s uniform jacket and cap were sent back to us by the war office after he was killed. It was only this year, when fall came, that I felt strong enough to do it. Somehow, as the colours of the season faded, I knew that it was time. I found this envelope, addressed to you, in one of the pockets. It seemed right to send it on to you. Best wishes, Deborah Fienberg.”
She stared at the smaller envelope. It was addressed to her in a hand she knew. Terry’s hand. There was no stamp on the envelope, no postmark. She opened it carefully. Inside there was a photograph of Terry in his uniform and a letter.
“Dear Mum,” it read. “I gave this letter to a friend who is being sent back home to post for me. We’re going into battle tomorrow, I think. It will be a tough one.
“I just wanted to say I love you, and how much I missed not being with you in the arboretum this year. The reds, yellows and oranges of the trees were magnificent here, when the photo was taken, although you can’t see them in the picture. I felt so alive that day, with the wonderful air. The colours. That peaceful feeling. I thought of you.
“The fall colours are fading now. It looks like an early winter…
“All my love. Terry”
The woman got out of bed. She dressed herself with difficulty. Jim’s picture was on her dresser. She put it and the picture of Terry in her purse.
Her scooter was in the garage. It had been a long while since she had been out on it, but it still had power.
At the arboretum, she parked the scooter as close to the bench as she could, then slowly, painfully walked the rest of the way to it, and sat. She put the picture of Terry on her left, Jim’s on her right. The peace of the place and the fall colours washed over her.
She heard Terry’s voice. “It’s so beautiful Mum – I’m so glad Dad could finally be here to share it with us.”
The Police told Michael that his mother had been found on a park bench in the arboretum overlooking the canal. She was smiling.
It was in the attic room, in the back of a cupboard, out of sight, forgotten, dusty. A black leather suitcase with tan leather trim and straps. There were no Post-it notes affixed to the case – no one had seen it, or no one wanted it. Jack wrote his name on a note and stuck in on the case. For good measure, he also staked his claim to the old desk sitting in the corner. Then he took a moment to look around. He wondered briefly what his grandfather, Pop, had done up there when he was alive.
Her grandchildren and children were gathered at Jack’s grandmother’s house to go through her things. Each armed with a pad of Post-it notes and a pen. The rules had been explained. They could choose one small item, something with no price tag on it, as a memento. If they wanted a more valuable item, they had to pay the sticker price. Names would be drawn – from an old, faded garden hat that his gran had loved – should more than one of them want the same thing. The proceeds from the ‘sale’ would go to the estate, and ultimately the beneficiaries of Gran’s will.
Jack didn’t know why he put his name on the case and the desk. The concept seemed morbid to him. Scavengers wandering through the house, sniffing around, pawing through her things. Feeling they had to take something, to show they’d loved and would remember her, but thinking that it was all just worthless stuff. It didn’t fit their décor.
He took the suitcase home. It was heavy, but he didn’t look inside – he was late for his run. The need to dash overcame what little curiosity he had about the case’s contents. Jack put it in his basement storage locker on his way out the door.
When he got back from his run, head cleared, pores cleansed, feeling good, he took two minutes to arrange for the desk to be collected and put in storage, checked his phone for texts, answered three of them naked, then stepped into the shower. By the time he was soaped, rinsed and dried, he’d forgotten about the case.
Jack found it again 10 years later, when he moved to a trendier part of town. The movers had left the case in his bedroom. He picked it up to carry to the storage cupboard in his new place. It seemed heavier to him, somehow.
That night, he dreamed about the case. He sensed there was something inside it, wanting to get out. In his dream, when he finally opened the case, he couldn’t make out the contents. They were fuzzy, intangible.
When he woke, the dream still with him, Jack felt unsettled. He couldn’t find his groove. The radio newscast didn’t register. His morning coffee made him edgy. Finally he took the case out of the cupboard, brought it into his dining room, and hoisted it on the table.
Jack opened the case. He was surprised by the contents, which he took out of the case and set on the table one-by-one: A black-and-white framed photo of a man in uniform, with aviators’ wings on his chest; a photo of the same man, in a suit and hat, outside of a church in Ireland, one of him with a young woman, in Montreal; two newspaper clippings about a RCAF lieutenant from Como, Quebec – his uncle Francis – one saying he had received the distinguished flying cross, the other that he had been killed in action over the English Channel; two framed citations from King George VI commending the lieutenant; and the DCF itself.
Jack stopped looking in the case when his phone played music at him. He put the medal down on the table, and went into the kitchen to check his messages, closing the dining room doors behind him.
That night, Jack dreamed of his uncle again. He saw his father and uncle, as young men, running a woman’s bra and panties up a flag pole. Then he saw his uncle, in his plane, pushing the stick forward and diving straight down toward a ship on the water, his thumb poised over the bomb-release button. Jack became the man in the plane, gripped in fear, watching flame erupt from the antiaircraft guns, sensing the shells coming at him, wanting desperately to pull the stick back and climb, but holding tight into the dive.
Jack awoke as the plane burst into flames. He only had a momentary sense of the heat that engulfed the cockpit, the pain of sizzling flesh, the plane falling. The last thing he saw, from outside the cockpit, just before he returned to the reality of his bed, was a woman’s bra and panties on a flag pole, painted onto the plane’s fuselage.
The next morning, the dream still fresh in his mind, Jack phoned his surviving aunt. He arranged to visit her in Como over the weekend, saying he wanted to ask her about the case, about his father and his uncle.
He nearly cancelled at the last minute. There was a text from a woman he liked, asking if he wanted to go for a walk on Mount Royal, then lunch. Jack debated calling his aunt, but didn’t want to face that kind of conversation, her disappointment. He would have sent a text, or even an e-mail, but she had neither smartphone nor computer. So he texted the woman friend back that he couldn’t make it.
His aunt had fixed lunch for him. They started with a glass of wine in the sunroom, then had a second at the table with their food. Jack heard about the bra and panty incident, about the fun they had had that day, in the time between the wars, in the flapper days, that frantic decade before the crash, when young people lived for the moment. He heard that his uncle enlisted in ’39, was posted to an airfield in Manitoba to train British and Canadian pilots, but kept pushing to be sent to France, to the action, the fight.
Jack’s Dad could not go. He’d had an adenoid removed as a child. There had been a trans-Atlantic crossing to have the procedure done in England. His aunt had gone with him, held his hand before he went into the operating theatre. He’d made her seasick on the return voyage, by biting the tops off chocolate-covered marshmallow biscuits, in rough seas.
The procedure left Jack’s father deaf in one ear. Declared unfit to fight, he stayed home, went to university, fell in love, married, got polio, spent months in hospital with his legs wrapped in wet flannel, had six children, enjoyed horses, and lived reasonably happily. Not so the uncle. He was killed at 22, as Jack knew from the contents of the case. But he had not known how much fun Francis had been, how people smiled when they were with him.
Jack also hadn’t known about the wait, the months of hope and despair his grandparents experienced after the first telegram arrived. The one that said his uncle was missing in action, shot down over the Channel. And he’d never been told about the grief that followed five months later when the second cable arrived, saying Francis had been killed. By the time Jack was born, it had faded, like the fall leaves. Still there, but muted.
Pop had retreated to his attic room the day the second telegram arrived, Jack’s aunt told him. He’d taken the suitcase out of the cupboard, put it beside the desk. After an hour, he’d gone to Francis’s room, then to every room in the house, looking for his son. When he found something that said ‘this is who Francis was, this is what my son did,’ Pop brought it up to the attic, put it on the desk. He didn’t cry, he hid his grief and himself behind the pile of things he’d collected. When he was finally ready, when he could cope, he put the things in the case, closed it, and went downstairs.
Driving back to the city, Jack remembered Pop. Him reading aloud to his grandchildren from one of the two children’s books he kept in the den for that purpose; him picking Jack and his siblings up from school in the old Studebaker; him giving each of them a dime to buy candy.
Jack was remembering Pop’s death when his phone played its music. He reached for it on the passenger seat beside him, glanced down at the text.
His sister found the case and its contents on the table when she was going through Jack’s apartment, after his funeral. She saw nothing of value, only an old case and a collection of stuff that she sifted through quickly. She repacked the case, closed it, put it in her car, then storage.
Her aunt died the next year, her memories lost, the case forgotten.
He wondered how she stood it. The smell of wet flannel in her nose, sitting by her husband, day after endless day. It must have permeated her very being, the smell, the sense of despair, the gloominess of the place. How did she rise above it, the rows of beds, the crippled men in them, the tears? Where did the hope come from, the light?
Lionel had never spoken to his mother about those awful days. When she was first married, pregnant with her first child, not knowing what her future would hold. Would she be the caregiver of a broken, crippled man, a destitute widow, or a wife with a capable husband?
His mother might have told him, if he’d asked. But he hadn’t. When the time was right, when he first realized that his dad wasn’t like other fathers, he was too young. He’d been told his father had had polio, a virus, which made his legs weak. The March of Dimes was mentioned and given to. There were conversations around money, loose change, how dirty it was, how it may have carried the virus from person to person, to his father.
Later on, when he might have understood, he was too preoccupied with his own life, with playing football and kick the can in the back yard, with school, homework, television and puberty, to give his father’s condition much thought. It was a fact of life that his father had weak legs, wore a brace, walked with a cane and occasionally fell, sometimes hard, resulting in injury, the need for a wheelchair or crutches, anguish in the house. Lionel knew that his mother found it hard. He’d heard her sing in a low voice about martyrdom when she thought no one could hear, and he knew she wasn’t referring to the Jesuit missionaries he was learning about in his Canadian history class at school.
His parents had six children – three boys, three girls. Life, even for his father, became almost idyllic for a time. A house in the suburbs of Montreal with a large backyard, a farm in the Eastern Townships with cows, ponies, horses and room to roam. They skied in the winter (his dad sat in the chalet with a book and a beer), rode in the green seasons and fall, competed in horseshows, showed calves at the local fairs, went to 4-H, learned to play golf, fished and swam in the farm lake, and played in the yard until dark.
Lionel’s dad had been an accomplished rider before polio atrophied the muscles in his legs. It was part of who he was – his love of horses, his skill in the saddle. He’d tried to ride after he left the hospital, despite his new wife’s concerns, but it did not go well. With the strength gone from his legs, he fell off too often, hurt himself too badly.
When Lionel was young, his dad kept a driving horse – Star. He had a small sleigh he used in the winter, a buggy he drove in the spring, summer and fall. The children enjoyed going with him, but there was an element of fear, too, or maybe just uncertainty, at least for Lionel. It was the what-ifs, what if something happened and Dad couldn’t cope? What then?
Time went by. Lionel’s Dad found the commute to the office from the suburbs too risky in the winter, even with the phone he’d had installed in the car. They moved into the city, still going to the farm for weekends, holidays and the summer, but no longer country kids.
Lionel can’t remember when he noticed the wooden horse on the mantelpiece of their city house. It was laying down, poised to get back up on its feet. He must have asked about it at some point, because he knew that its name was Tomorrow, and that his Mum had given it to his Dad years before, in the polio ward.
He thinks about the wooden horse over the years. What it stood for. The hope implied in its name, the commitment it represented, what the gift must have meant to his father during the weeks of wet flannel and the years of rehabilitation that followed. During the lean years after his parents were first married, when it was hard for Dad to work, to find a decent job.
The horse fades from his thoughts after his father’s early death. Years pass. There’s been a stepfather, career, marriage, stepchildren, grandchildren, homes, celebrations, travel, a good life, before the memory of the horse on the mantle, its name, what it symbolized, comes back into his mind.
It’s been three years since Lionel had acute pain in his abdomen, since his wife drove him to the emergency department of their local hospital. Three years since he woke up in the intensive care unit, in a dream, with a doctor inserting tubes into his neck, stitching them into place. Three years since his wife, Sharon, told him that his family were on the way, that the doctors had advised her to call them, that his prospects were not good.
He doesn’t like thinking about those days. The pain, the transfer to Vancouver General, lying in the ER, his kidneys failing, so thirsty, thinking he would die. Listening to the woman in the next bed demand methadone. His stepdaughter pleading with the nurse to do something. The pain, a few days later, when they ripped his urethra to shreds attempting, unsuccessfully, to insert a catheter. A black spider hanging over him, descending, in the operating room. The nightmare he woke up into again and again as he came out of the anesthetic. A four-patient room of bed curtains, noise, comings, goings and discomfort. Writhing in pain through bladder irrigations, despite the morphine. Fear.
Lionel remembers Sharon holding his hand, stroking his head, being brave day after day as his stay in the hospital stretched from one week to six, as his pain subsided but he continued to bleed. Her fear that he would not leave the hospital alive. She wanted to bring him home, tried to get him discharged, but was afraid she wouldn’t know what to do if he started bleeding again, if the pain returned.
It’s only now, three years after he left the hospital, that Lionel starts thinking again about the wooden horse, what it symbolized. Sharon had given him a crystal bell when he was discharged from hospital. “To ring if you need anything,” she’d said. He’d never rung it, although he’d come close one night, when he was still sleeping downstairs in a hospital bed, and the pain in his abdomen pierced him like a stab wound.
A few weeks later the bell moved to his bedside table, upstairs, when he felt pain-free enough to sleep in the same bed as Sharon. Unlike the wooden horse his mother had given his father, the bell did not stay in its place for long. Two years after she’d given it to him, Sharon told Lionel that she’d like it to go. That it reminded her too much of the past, the fear she’d had of losing him, the emotions she’d experienced watching him suffer. They donated it to the thrift shop.
Lionel had not been sure he wanted to let the bell go. It was a security blanket, symbolic of his wife’s love, her presence, a declaration that she would stay with him, come what may. He knew that his wife’s fear had not left her, that she still feared losing him, of being left alone. It was behind their move from British Columbia back to Ontario, where they were closer to grandchildren, family. Behind the joining of clubs and groups.
He has his own fears. Not that he would bleed again and die, but that Sharon would grow tired of his flaws – the tiredness, Peyronie’s Disease and recurring yeast infection he suffers from now, his lower sex drive, his modest income, much reduced following his illness and subsequent retirement. She might leave him, find a new, whole partner. No one else would want him – he was damaged goods.
Still, in his heart he knew it had been time for the crystal bell to go. He did not want Sharon to stay with him out of a sense of duty. There had to be love, kinship, for their relationship to be sustainable.
Perhaps his mother had been right, he thought. The hope embodied in the wooden horse was much stronger than the security blanket that the crystal bell represented. It spoke to the future, not the past. Not fear, but of what could be, of what his mother had yearned for – a life with the man she loved.
Yet in the end it had not been the wooden horse that mattered, but what it expressed. Lionel knew he would have to find hope in himself, then convey it with words, deeds, to be whole again.