Oliver’s Underpants

My daughter and I tried our hand at some story writing recently, inspired by her little brother. For your Monday entertainment, I present: Oliver’s Underpants.

Oliver refused to wear pants.

This wasn’t a problem when he was a baby. But when Oliver started kindergarten, the other kids laughed at him.

“We can see your underwear,” they said. “We can see the polkadots!”

The teacher shook her head. “Oliver, when we go to school, we wear pants,” she said.

Oliver’s mother pleaded. “All the other boys and girls wear pants to school,” she said.

Oliver didn’t care. He went to school in his underwear, and when the other kids pointed, he shrugged.

“Pants are too hot. They pinch at the waist,” he said. “And they itch at the knees.”

The kids stopped laughing. Pants were hot. They did pinch. And they did itch.

The next day, Oliver’s whole class came to school in their underwear. Some wore underwear with stars, and some wore underwear with superheroes. One little girl wore pink giraffes.

The teacher called an emergency meeting.

“All students must wear pants,” said the principal.

“All students must wear pants,” said the teacher the next morning.

“Pants are too hot,” said Oliver.

“Pants pinch,” said a girl in a penguin-patterned undershirt.

“Pants itch,” said a boy in dinosaur briefs.

The next day, the teacher came to school in her underwear.

The day after that, all the other teachers came to school in their underwear. And so did the principal.

The day after that… well, no one wears pants in Oliver’s town anymore. Some wear stripes. Some wear cowboy stars and lassos. Some wear purple bunny panties with fuzzy purple slippers.

They’re all very comfortable.

And Oliver? He’s decided shoes are uncomfortable, too.

Crowsnest

For those new to Crowsnest, it’s a serial novel in progress. You should probably get out now, while you still can.

Still here? Well, at this stage in the novel, Elsa has taken the identity of a dead friend, Edwina. She has fled Ontario to accept an offer of marriage from a man she’s never met, a miner in the Crowsnest Pass. Staying at the local boarding house, Elsa is waiting for the traveling minister to arrive and perform the wedding ceremony. That’s when she meets an unexpected boarding house guest: Frank MacLeod, the wealthy son of her Ontario employer. And we left off last week with Frank cornering our protagonist in the hallway of the boarding house.

If you’d like to read the whole mess, look here.

My heart’s pounding and I can hear the rasp of my own breath, like the panting of prey. Looming over me, Frank looks calm and maliciously comfortable, a half smile on his face.

“So… Elsa,” he says. My eyes immediately dart from side to side, checking if anyone’s heard. A mistake. His smile grows.

“I’ve asked around, learned a little about you,” he says. “It seems I’ve neglected to congratulate you on your upcoming marriage.”

I swallow, say nothing.

“Mr. Baecker, is it? I wonder if he knows your real name.”

“Mr. Baecker and I have an understanding,” I say, fighting to keep my voice steady.

“Oh, he understands, does he? Elsa?” He says my name slowly, rolling it over his tongue like syrup. “I wonder if he understands how you left the real Edwina? In fact, maybe you could explain that. You could explain to the police, too. They have some questions…”

I hear my breath again. I hadn’t even considered the police. Surely they’d be able to tell what happened. There must have been an autopsy.

Frank is tracking my eyes, reading my thoughts.

“A girl found like that, in so much blood. You didn’t think there’d be an investigation? Very convenient to find you hiding out here.”

“What are you going to do?” There’s no longer any hope of the words sounding strong.

“I’ve been thinking about that. And I think there are some things you might do for me. In return, we’ll stay quiet about… your past.” He runs a finger, slow like the creep of a glacier, down the line of my cheek to brush across my lips.

“Think about it,” he says, before I can speak. Then he’s gone, and I’m leaning against the wall by myself, shaking so badly I can hear my shoulder blades knock against the wood.

Crowsnest

This is a scene from a serial novel in progress. At this stage in the novel, Elsa has taken the identity of a dead friend, Edwina. She has fled Ontario to accept an offer of marriage from a man she’s never met, a miner in the Crowsnest Pass. Staying at the local boarding house, Elsa is waiting for the traveling minister to arrive and perform the wedding ceremony. That’s when she meets an unexpected boarding house guest: Frank MacLeod, the wealthy son of her Ontario employer.

If you’d like to read the whole mess, look here.

Having Frank in the house is like having an itch right in the centre of my back, where I can’t reach to scratch. For the first day I tried to pretend he wasn’t here, but the questions kept scraping at my skin. What happened after I left? What did they do with Edwina’s… body? Was there a funeral? And did Mr. MacLeod at least look contrite, even for one moment?

Then I remembered that I wasn’t here as myself. What must he think when he hears Janina call my name — Edwina’s name — across the house? What if he mistakenly calls me the wrong thing, and gives me away?

By the third day, I don’t care. I don’t care if he shouts my true name from the top of the blasted mountain. I have to know. I’ll corner him, I decide. Keep watch quietly from the kitchen entrance after dinner. And when he rises, I’ll approach.

As it turns out, he corners me, first.

I’m in the upper hallway with a rag in one hand and a bucket of water in the other when he steps from the doorway behind me and lays a hand on my shoulder. I stop so abruptly, water sloshes over my feet before I can set down the bucket. He’s so close the I instinctively lean against the wall as I turn toward him. And that leaves me staring up, into his eyes.

There was a mountain cat in a cage last week, in the middle of the village. One of the trappers had got him, and decided to show him off, I suppose, rather than kill the creature straight away. That cat was locked in a cell barely bigger than itself, yet it still managed to pace, twisting its body around and hissing at all who approached. Its eyes half-slitted, yellow and dangerous.

The same look Mr. MacLeod wears as he puts one arm on the wall above my head and leans over me.

Crowsnest

The entire text of Crowsnest can be found here.

Hiding’s not going to work. That’s what I’m thinking to myself as I hang an armload of linens outside the back step. Every minute I’m expecting my body to be plucked from the ground to start flapping like the sheets — that’s how hard the wind’s blowing through the pass. My hands are chapped and they sting each time I grab a soggy sheet, the cold seeping into the cracks in my skin.

I hadn’t intended to hide here. After all, I’m the one who took the train ticket out of Edwina’s dresser drawer that night. Not just the ticket, either. I took her last week’s wages, her clean skirt, her best blouse, her shawl, everything. All while she lay on the bed like a ceramic doll with skin with colour of paste. Not a sound in the room but my own breathing.

It was still dark as I tiptoed down the back stairs, clutching my valise in one hand and my shoes in the other, careful not to bang the narrow walls with either. As I creaked open the back door — a sound that seemed like a screeching banshee in the dark — the dog picked up his head and banged his tail on the porch boards, as if to play. I hissed at him to stay and he did, thank the Lord. Then I was off across the yard in the moonlight, practically turning into a whole new, unknown person as I went.

So there it is. Just me and no one else to blame. And even before Edwina died, wasn’t it me who wrote the letter promising Mr. Baecker a wife?

I clip the last sheet to the line and duck back inside, tucking my fingers into my armpits to thaw them. That’s it then. It’s decided. I stay out of Mr. MacLeod’s way. I marry Mr. Baecker the minute the minister finally does arrive, and they’ll be no more hesitation about it. Not a single snake.

Crowsnest

I’ve just learned that Philip Pullman detests the present tense. Which disappoints me, because I was expecting him to discover my blog at any moment now, and immediately refer me to his agent.

Ah, well. At least I’m not a blasphemous old codger. I hereby guarantee you, God does not die in this instalment of Crowsnest. Nor in earlier instalments, which you can read here. (Oh, and by the way… remember when she was opening the door? That’s where we are.)

“Mr. — Mr. MacLeod,” I stammer. I opened the door feeling as if my life were going to rock with the swing of the hinges. What’s waiting for me on the other side is far worse than I’d imagined.

(Okay, okay. That paragraph may have some tense issues. Shut up.)

“Mr. MacLeod,” I say again. My mind doesn’t seem able to move beyond that, beyond the physical existence of him here, hundreds of miles from his parents’ home. My eyes dart from his face to those of the two men looming behind him. They’re both taller and broader than he is. As if in film frames clicking by, I see them as constables, about to arrest me and pull me back across the country to face a dead girl and a deserted employer.

Their eyes hold no malice, though. They betray bemused but slightly impatient curiosity, that’s all. And when I look back at Mr. MacLeod, I can see that he’s just as shocked as I am.

“Didn’t know you had a girl out west, Frank,” one of the men says, clapping a hand on Mr. MacLeod’s shoulder and speaking into his ear, close enough to pretend discretion but loud enough that I clearly hear.

“He most certainly does not.” The words fly out before I can bite them back.

The men seem to find this amusing, and maybe it’s their laughter that finally goads him into action.

“An unusual coincidence,” he says, taking off his hat and nodding to me. “My friends and I have just arrived in town. We were told this was the best place to find lodging.”

I move aside and let them out of the rain, finally. Soon, Janina has taken over and I’m left only to heat water and reheat dinner for the new arrivals.

The new arrivals. I began the day with snakes in my belly, and here’s a real live one, slithered right into my house.

Crowsnest

I know I left you with Edwina about to open the guest house door to the minister. And that’s a cruel place to leave you, but… hey, that’s the risk you take. I felt like skipping ahead a page, okay?

The rest of this mess can be read here.

Mr. Baecker and I continue to take awkward walks through the town on his evenings off, which fortunately only occur a few times each week. One evening, as we pick our way along the dirt road, trying not to step in horse droppings, or worse, I think I see Maddie ahead of us, holding a gentleman’s arm. A glimpse of dark hair and the echo of a throaty laugh. She disappears into a saloon before I can be sure.

How could I be sure, having known her for such a short time? A train journey, that’s all.

Mr. Baecker begins to tell me things on our walks. He talks about his mother, and a breaded chicken she used to make. He tells me about the massive caverns inside the mine, punctuated by columns and ricocheting with noise. His stories are interesting but I begin to see — though this is a presumptuous thought for a girl with no family and no education — that Mr. Baecker is not a brilliant thinker.

Edwina, the real Edwina, would call it a good thing. “A nice, stable man who will let you go about your business.” I can practically hear her voice. Maybe Maddie would say the same.

These are my advisors. One dead and one imagined on a street corner. I could use something real.

Crowsnest

Lost? Welcome to the club. Oh… you mean lost in this manuscript? Well, you can find the most recent version here.

Four o’clock and the minister has not yet arrived. Bad weather in the pass, the oldtimers say.

Five o’clock, and he doesn’t appear.

The men are milling around the house now, all of them. Sniffing at the air like a pack of wolves that’s scented game.

“Give the good man another hour,” Mrs. Nowak says. She’s already informed me that he’ll be eating first thing, as soon as he arrives. Fine by me. She can delay the ceremony for the space of a hundred dinners if it pleases her.

The men protest, by Mrs. Nowak silences them with a glare. “You won’t starve,” she says.

They won’t starve, but they have nothing to do while they wait but order me here and there, while I all the time listen for the knock. I’m listening so hard I think my ears might stretch. The minister. The ceremony only an hour or two away, now. Mrs. Marcus Baeker. The name sounds impossible.

At seven o’clock, we feed the men — only after laying aside a plentiful plate for God’s servant, as Mrs. Nowak calls the minister. The man have no sympathy for his absence. If I had thought they fell upon regular meals like wild animals… well, now it seems best to stand as far from them as possible, in case they devour the meat and find themselves still hungry.

At eight o’clock, when the supper’s finished and the edges of God’s man’s plate have gone dry with crusted gravy, and the snakes in my belly have almost, finally, calmed with the thought that the minister is surely not coming… there’s a knock at the door.

I drop the plate I’m washing and watch it fall through the air, as slowly as a leaf might fall from a branch. I don’t move.

Mrs. Nowak raises an eyebrow at me. “You think I’m running a china factory?” she says, but not unkindly. “Go. Go and answer the door and meet your minister. I’ll clean up.”

I hesitate, my eyes darting to the broom in the corner. I’d rather be the one to stay.

“Go,” she orders.

Crowsnest

The most complete version of Crowsnest, in some semblance of order, can be found here.

“I shot a rattler once. Shot it right between the eyes as it crossed the trail in front of me.”

This snippet of conversation hooks my ear like a lure must hook a trout. What a strange thing, to be thinking of snakes in my belly and have one appear in words beside me.

“Shot a snake? I wouldn’t have thought it possible. How does one shoot such a wriggling, winding thing?” I can’t remember ever voluntarily speaking to one of the men before. The two oldtimers look up from their parlor chairs with mild surprise.

“Just like shooting any other creature, miss. Aim and squeeze the trigger, no?” He mimes the actions for me.

“They make a darned good meal,” the other man says.

“A meal!” I have barely adjusted to the slab of venison roasting in the kitchen, and now there’s talk of eating rattlesnakes.

“I’ve even chopped it up in flapjacks,” he says, smacking his lips. “Tastes like chicken.”

A call from Mrs. Nowak brings me to my sense. I’m supposed to be fetching water, not listening to tall tales of reptile cookery.

Crowsnest

With apologies to Deryn for the delay.

If you are new to Crowsnest, and want to read the whole mess, click here.

The minister is due on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Baeker is supposed to collect me at Mrs. Nowak’s house. All day, I feel as if my belly is a sack full of snakes, squirming and winding around one another, each reaching up, trying to escape through my throat. Again and again I have to swallow them down.

The minister has been invited to eat at Mrs. Nowak’s after the ceremony, and we’re making a venison roast in his honor. Yesterday, a man appeared at the door with an elk in his cart the size of an elephant, or so it seemed to me, never having seen either. This creature had horns — antlers, I suppose — like the winter trees laid bare on the Toronto streets. It looked as if it had once ruled the world and I felt this man at the door must be evil, to have slaughtered such a thing. But Mrs. Nowak said it was God calling, in time for his servant’s visit.

Now the smell of the slow-cooking beast is permeating the house, and my mouth is watering in spite of my judgements. The food at Mrs. Nowak’s establishment is plentiful, but plain. I’m not the only one making eyes at the kitchen door, wondering when supper will be ready.

Of course, with supper comes the minister. And with the minister comes the ceremony. And with that, I become Mrs. Marcus Baeker. Thus the snakes.

Crowsnest

Welcome, newcomers. This is a weekly installment of a novel-in-progress, a misguided endeavor that you can read here.

In the dark, listening to the creak of old wood and the scrape of wind across the eaves of Mrs. Nowak’s house, I miss Edwina so badly I can almost see her shape in the best next to me.

“It was horrific,” I whisper to her.

“Worse than my predicament? It couldn’t be that bad.”

Well, not so bad. Not when she puts it that way.

“Awkward,” I clarify. “Horrifically awkward.”

“What happened?” She turns toward me now, her curiosity awakened.

“First we went for a long stroll around the town, so we could get to know each other. But we had nothing to talk about. We understand so little about one another that we didn’t even know what questions to ask. I asked about his work, and he said the mines were no topic for a girl. Then he asked about my work, and… I couldn’t very well tell him, could I?”

“What did you say?”

“I said I was a server in a large house, but I wanted to start my own life. And that was the end of yet another attempt at conversation.”

Edwina makes sympathetic sounds.

“That’s not the worst of it. When we got back to Mrs. Nowak’s house, he tried to kiss me.”

“He didn’t.”

“Right on the front stoop. It was even more awkward than the walking. First, he took both my hands. Then he stepped down a stair, so our heads were even. That felt strange, so I stepped down a stair. Then he stepped down another stair. Then I stepped down. Honestly, Edwina, we should have been in a travelling clown act.”

She giggles.

“He kissed me, finally, and our teeth scraped.”

My eyes have adjusted to the dark now and I can see the outlines of each blanket in the mound beside me. They’re just blankets. Edwina is disappearing into the darkness. I feel better for having told her, though.

“It was the worst feeling. Like the wrong note played on a fiddle… if the fiddle were right inside your jaw.”

I hear her laugh. Or I hear the rattle of the elm branches on the tiny attic window, just as I fall asleep.