I’ve now officially moved out of a city I lived in for my whole adult life, where I did a great deal of personal and creative work and learned different kinds of connection and tenderness. Last year I wrote this story in that city and although I only sent it around once or twice, it felt right to give it a public funeral by posting it here. I wrote several other pieces about or featuring Victoria, including Strange Places in the City and a couple still in the grinder, but I like the circannual quality of this one. Things are different for me now than they were the last time I touched this very slightly disguised piece of fey memoir. My last two weeks in Victoria were full of love, touch, care and community. I said thank you and goodbye to the house with the apricot tree that is described in this story, and somewhere in the dusk a band was playing, but I couldn’t find where.
In the summer neighbourhoods, where the cicadas went in their fallow years, syrphids and nymphs shimmered in the unmown yards.
The rest of the city napped in the sun. Every day the summer repeated itself, yawning.
I found chairs and plant-pots abandoned on street corners, and once took home a sewing machine. Students smoked hookah and played guitar on their front lawns in Fernwood. The news had said pot would be legal by July, but then time stopped and all the office-people were upisland anyway. Late at night, ambulances blared wearily past my apartment. No need to complain to us. We wish we were sleeping too.
While the city wasn’t looking, things came out. At night, raccoons ate cooling compost and never got sick. In the evening, swallows and mosquitos ruminated in nimbuses. The prime minister of crows and the king of deer held truce every noon in an alley off Cook Street. They argued their territories: lilac-bushes, bottles left empty on garbage cans, the diminishing lawns. No progress made, the Times Colonist reported.
The orange poppies at the side of the highway were called California poppies. They were far from home. I was too. We had all graduated in May. I wasn’t going home, so I clicked around for retail jobs and distracted myself from my bank account by taking long walks. My friends were packing to leave the city.
From the oak trees, summer caterpillars descended imperceptibly on long pendants of silk to disembark on me. I’d find them on my thighs and in the cuffs of my jeans. People who grew up in the city called them silkworms. They obviously weren’t, but I didn’t know what they were. Names slipped in summer.
I was wondering if I should get a new name, too, with everyone moving away. They were going to law school and to the North and to Hong Kong to teach English. It had never been easy for me to make friends. I foresaw long loneliness. I floated between nicknames, suspended like a dust mote in a beam of light. My common and feminine birth name felt flimsy, like a peasant skirt. I wanted a denim name, a leather name. I tried truncating it at various points but often the sunken pieces emerged without my meaning them to when I introduced myself. On my walks, I felt tender to the strangers I passed because I didn’t have to introduce myself to them. At the same time I wanted them all to hug me and remember my birthday.
I didn’t know where I was going. There was nothing to see but houses and imagined lives inside them. It was safe in the evening. You could look in windows and see impassive furniture: bookshelves, lamps, old men reading on couches. That way, you remained in contact with the people in the normal city.
But in the hot afternoon, everybody went inside and covered their windows so the sun didn’t gush in and flood their apartments. The windows were black and the shadows were short and blue. You could go a long time without seeing anybody at all. Even if you passed a human, you were both wearing sunglasses, so it was hard to say if your eyes met or if you even saw each other at all.
Soon I had drunk all my water and I realized I didn’t know exactly how to get back.
When I finally encountered a figure I said, “Sorry to bother you. Where am I?” My voice was muffled by the summer air like the wind off the ocean, born cold in May, that dies hot in July.
The figure reclined on a floral couch in a porch curtained by bedsheets. From the shadows, it lifted its cigarette in the direction of a street sign. The street signs had names on them, but I couldn’t say what names. “Do you have Wi-Fi?” I asked the figure, just in case. It tilted its head. Not solid, that motion revealed–a shaped cloud. From the tip of the cigarette smoke, buzzing things dispersed and burrowed back in under the armpit or the ear.
“Do you want to come inside and use the phone?” it said. The voice was a dissonant chord. It half-stood, its outline trembling.
I didn’t want to see what was in the house. “How do I go back?”
“Sorry,” the figure said. “You just have to wander and wait ‘til you see something familiar.”
“For how long?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to use the phone?”
I demurred. I could wander. I had an audiobook.
Six chapters on, the light hadn’t changed. The rainbow mirages at the horizon fled upsidewalk as I approached, but they often seemed to linger a second too long.
A triangular park unfolded at the other side of a disjointed intersection. I still looked both ways before crossing the street, though I hadn’t seen a car in paragraphs and paragraphs. To rest my feet, I lay down on the grass under a not-quite-oak tree. I put my baseball cap over my face; it would be good to nap. Bugs hopped in the prickling grass. If I had to guess I’d call them crickets or gnats but they weren’t either of those. They lived out their whole small lives in days that must have unstretched like decades did for me, slow like honey. Then in hindsight, too short. Well, they probably had ways to spend the time I didn’t know.
Along came the buzzing noise. I shifted my cap and the cloud was walking toward me. “How long have you been following me?” I said.
The cloud pointed across the park to its bedsheet-veiled house. “You came in a circle.”
This type of thing would have never happened in my hometown. All the neighbourhoods were centrally planned. There were deviations from the grid, to indulge aesthetics, but they capped in cul-de-sacs. The worst you could get lost was because all the streets were named the same things. Sagecrest Crescent, Sagecrest Lane, Sagecrest Close, Sagecrest Drive and so on.
“What’re you called?” said the cloud.
I shrugged. It didn’t seem wise.
“Okay—“ shrug—“you have cousins or something here?”
“Just walked too far.”
“You might have some. We should check the phone book.”
“I’m going to get going.”
“Want some help?”
“I can’t use the phone,” I said. “Well, the truth is I really can’t call anyone anymore.” To say this felt like one of those boards of pins you can push your face into at the science centre.
“Let’s walk then.”
There was no point saying I’d prefer to walk alone. I probably wouldn’t get anywhere. I took out my headphones and the cloud and I left the park in an uphill direction.
“What do you do?” said the cloud.
“I defended my honors thesis two months ago. It was on little free libraries.”
“What did you find out?”
“Not much. I did this computational analysis. With neighbourhood income.”
“Really into computational analysis, are you?” the cloud said, mildly.
“Originally not.” I was surprised to remember still. “They don’t have them where I’m from. So when I ran into one…”
The little free library there was hidden away behind the reservoir. I could only reach it if I walked a long path through a tilted neighbourhood of tall houses. Lichens and mosses grew into their dark rooves.
“I noticed the different people who used the library. The Pulitzer reader, the natural medicine reader, the Newfoundland war novels. I loved them. And in my thesis I wanted to handle the books that had been handled by other people. To touch them and see them. It was too much data, though, it would have been insane. Also I think there was ethics issues. But maybe my supervisor just told me that because she didn’t want me to push it.”
We were going downhill now, through a segment of streets where every intersection contained a roundabout, like dozens of empty plinths, or miniature parks. From above it must have appeared like that optical illusion of the circles in the grid where the lines seem to bend unbelievably. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m curious,” said the cloud. “You can ask me something if you want.”
“I don’t have anything to ask you. I don’t know anything about how you live out here. No offense.”
“That’s not my problem,” the cloud said, sounding amused, which did strike me as alarming.
“What do you do?”
“Not much,” the cloud said. “There’s not much to do.”
“I wish for that sometimes,” I said.
Everything had begun to seem slippery, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so we walked in silence a little while. The cloud said, “You know, we’re almost out, but I know where we could find a little free library, if you want to go.”
I was a bit tired because everybody was always telling me about their local little free library and because I’d spent the last fourteen months of my life having breakdowns. Sometimes I’d resign myself to suicide over crises like being locked out of the university library system for entering my password wrong one too many times, or my supervisor’s email signed off Best instead of All the best.
This habit didn’t alarm me until I looked back on it a few years later, from somewhere else. In the city, everybody jaywalked wherever they pleased, so it was pretty easy to think as you skipped off the sidewalk and looked into the headlights of the oncoming vehicle, I dare you to run me over—see if I care!
In addition to the bad memories, I had counted so many little free libraries that I felt I’d seen every little free library available for seeing in my summer or any other. But the cloud sounded enthusiastic, and to be honest, I’d been very lonely the last few weeks and nobody had sounded enthusiastic about me in a while. “Sure, let’s go,” I said.
We came on the handmade box. I was now a connaisseur of the types of latches that are put on little free libraries, but this one fit into none of my taxonomies. The cloud seemed to watch me with excitement, although honestly, it was hard to tell. The library was well-trafficked. From the titles I’d estimate there were five or six people who dropped books here regularly. I could read some of them, so I assumed that the cloud and its kin sometimes borrowed books from the little free libraries on my end of the summer. There was a 2002 edition of an Ottawa quarterly literary magazine and a half-colored children’s coloring book, and other treasures.
The cloud brushed past me in its eagerness to pick out one of the books and we touched for the first time, though to this day I don’t think it meant to touch me, and I experienced a thrilling rush from the top of my sunburned scalp all the way into my nail beds, a feeling of the membranes of my cells loosening and diluting. I think it might be the way that the year feels when Daylight Savings Time kicks in. My friend who went to Hong Kong to teach English once called it the undead hour—the one between 2 AM and 2 AM that gets daylight-saved. He said that an hour isn’t real anyway, so if legislation skipped the day ahead four or six or three hundred hours instead of one, it would still have to be true. In Hong Kong, there’s been no Daylight Savings Time since 1979.
“Sorry,” the cloud said, handing over a slim paperback. “It’s just this is a book I dropped here, so I thought it could be fun if you took it.”
“That’s really sweet of you.” I stared at it but couldn’t decipher the text. “I’m sure it’s good.”
“I won’t spoil it.”
I knew when we were back in the last sliver of the general summer because the light was occult with the smoke of a distant fire upisland. No texture to the clouds. All the office-people would have come back downtown. Nobody sat out on their lawn because the air would itch their throat.
“Thanks,” I said to the cloud. “I know where we are now.”
“That’s funny,” the cloud said, but then when I realized what a strange thing this was to say, it was already gone.
I arrived back at my door, panting, my neck damp, I entered, I sat on my sofa. The stillness cocooned me. No cars passed. I filled a glass of water and drank it, and I felt the summer’s hand slide off the back of my neck in that moment.
I picked a silkworm out of my hair. It squirmed off my thumb and explored the quilted landscape of the back of my hand. I brought it to the doorstep and let it crawl off me onto the concrete.
The letters in the book I’d gotten were familiar now, but it was gibberish. Strings of glyphs, occasionally interspersed with spaces and other punctuation, and printers’ ornaments. I mean the kind that weren’t shaped like flora but were just ink strokes and didn’t pretend to represent any object in the natural world.
The book comforted me because it reminded me that things have an existence beyond their interpretation. In previous years I had hibernated in winter, but it was too lonely that year. Instead I caressed the shapes of the words, which were like unmapped territories loved by the shape of the air. I curled up inside the valley of tksourk, admired the Martian enigma of xqex. I marvelled especially at the last word, ps? It made me think the whole book was a question, a bewildered whisper, in the back of a theatre during a confusing avant-garde movie maybe, when you can’t really hear what your friend is asking you, but you nod and laugh, and somehow a communication occurs between you regardless that makes you more fond of them.
Later, I lost the book when I moved out of town. I’d gotten used to forming ps? in my mind and would say it aloud to myself sometimes, quietly, even in public, for instance if I found something that puzzled me in a pleasing way—a rock shaped like a jaunty little hat, or a lapel pin for a Czech technoband. As you would expect, whenever I shaped it with my mouth, it didn’t sound the way it did in my head. It just sounded like ps? This wasn’t what I heard at all.
I wasn’t distressed to have lost the book, because I couldn’t derive any more meaning from it, anyway, than I already had, having plucked out my favoured words like the apricots from the tree that grew in the backyard of my landlords when I lived in that city. It turned out that the apricots ripened on a July weekend when the landlords briefly disappeared, and I picked them so they wouldn’t bloat, fall, split and bleed. I went out in my bare feet and up the ladder, into the cloud of the tree that tasted like the month, and I brought them back in my popcorn bowl. I washed the cute, irregular little apricots and ate them wetly one after another over the sink. They tasted still alive. But after you’ve picked all the apricots, there’s none left–except in molecular terms as their juices seep through your cilia and vessels–and that was how I felt about the book that left my possession.
Besides, I expect it didn’t want to leave home. It must still float as jetsam among the stout thrift shops and bookstores and occasionally wash up in the home of a curious somebody who takes something they want from it, and I even imagine who these people might be sometimes, but I can’t see their faces.
Maybe it came back to the cloud, who I think of fondly, although I wouldn’t know enough of its lifestyle or affections to say if it would remember me, as much as any of us remember anything. I class this story with other kind interactions I had with strangers in airports and marijuana dispensaries, and I wonder what things I’ve forgotten that strangers hold close to their hearts. I’d be embarrassed if the cloud retrieved the book and read those words I loved–I think they might mean something silly. I comfort myself that there’s something remarkable about any word, isn’t there, even if the word is moist, or mayonnaise. Words only exist by accident, and it would be easier for them to mean nothing, so I have to appreciate their effort.
Anyhow, after I moved out of town I learned the worms were called oak leafrollers. I’m sorry to pass this on to you, because the instant after I was told this, a profound instant of bereavement passed over me. I still mourn silkworms in some obscure alcove of my heart. I think it’s possible they really are silkworms, if you see them with your head turned a certain way.