Fiction

What We Are Capable Of

by
• 6,379 words

WHEN Sarah phones, Em has just torn every letter into fourths, then eighths, sixteenths, and, finally, fragments so tiny it would take years to put the m’s back together, or to match the dots with the i’s. No one will ever see these letters, though she can call any one of them into view at any time. Each word is stored in the memory part of her brain. She saw a map once, of the brain, its sections delineated like rivers: knee, hip, abdomen, thorax, and neck, face, lips, tongue. One rippled area was marked emotions. Another – more than one, now that she thinks of it – was labelled memory. This is where Michael is stored: emotions; multiple caches called memory.

Perhaps, instead of tearing, she should have spent days and weeks dismantling the letters, character by character, with her sharp-as-a-knife sewing scissors. She could have created a spectacular alphabet of possibilities. She could have thrown the lot into her deep Scandinavian bowl, the one that sits on a low table beside her desk. She could have picked out fragments and put them together again like particles of an Icelandic saga that rearrange themselves with each telling. Recently, she’d opened a book about Isak Dinesen and read that all sorrows could be borne if they were put into a story, or if a story were told about them. She wondered if for Dinesen this had been true. Or if after the telling Dinesen had ended up with both story and sorrows. The weaving of words: to bear in mind, to bear tidings, to bear down, to be born.

“Mom,” says Sarah, “are you there?”

Em hears the fullness in her daughter’s voice, the portent, and thinks, No, Sarah, I’m not. Not now. But another part of her, a slumbering part, has been roused. She has been the parent of her child for twenty-two years – the last six without Owen – and, though Sarah can surprise her, Em sometimes knows as much about the direction of Sarah’s choices as she does about her own.

She imagines Sarah’s face at this moment and matches expression to voice. Tentative. But there is something more; she senses and then sees the word wound. Open to attack. She cannot keep her mind from inventing this way – it is her peculiar relationship with words. If she knows uncountable truths about Sarah, then Sarah understands and puts up with this about her.

“I want to come home,” says Sarah. “For the summer. I’ll get a job waitressing until I go back to school. There’s a flight to the island in the morning. I’m already packed.”

“Fine. Wonderful. It’s your home, too.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You want to tell me what happened?”

“Garry walked away,” she says. She’s crying softly. “He was seeing someone else for weeks while he was still living with me. You can say ‘I told you so,’ go ahead.”

“Not on your life,” says Em. “Get yourself on a plane. Your room is ready.”

After she hangs up, Em stands at the window and looks down over the narrow field that rolls to the edge of the sea. The blue of the sky is so startling it shocks her to be part of its brilliance, its glare. She thinks about the way she and Michael turned away from each other the last time they were together and she wills her mind: Don’t think about him. Don’t.

How did it begin?

A way of speaking. They fell into it slowly. At first, neither she nor Michael allowed that it was happening. She remembers the word risk. They were excited by the riskiness of the language they began to use with each other. Perhaps she was supposed to know enough about herself that she could see what was coming and muster some counter-force to ward off the next thing. But she has never been good at predicting what will happen after the first mark is made. Not until every one of the signs has been followed to the end.

In the early morning, Em leaves the house in the dark and drives the length of the island to the tiny airport, where she waits outside the fence. Night is turning to day. From here, she cannot see the ocean, but she is surrounded by a circle of sea-sky. She is always aware, always renewed by it. Each of the island roads is drawn towards an expanse of milky-blue as if, inevitably, the height of the next curve will lead off into the sky. She would not know how to live anywhere else, so much is she a part of this place. Even after Owen drowned she did not for a moment consider leaving. And though Sarah has left, in the way young people can and do, Em knows that her daughter is part of this place, and deeply connected, too.

Throughout Sarah’s childhood, Em and Owen took turns telling stories – always stories, it seemed, that rose up from the sea. A gale, electricity out, the house rocking as if it might lift from its foundations and soar out over the Gulf – that was when Sarah begged to hear the tales: the phantom train that wailed through the night fog; ships that went down; women who raised their skirts and dragged themselves out of the sea; men and women who survived the winters and the winds, who became builders of ships and settlers of land, who created what has become Sarah’s ancestral past.

The plane taxis in and Em watches her only child shift her backpack and descend the steps to tarmac below. Sarah spots her mother and raises a hand in a wave. She has to go through the terminal first, and Em heads for the door to meet her.

Sarah is wearing her brave face and moves to her mother’s arms. As Em draws her in and they lock together, she feels her daughter’s body let go. Now she knows what Sarah is holding: real loss, real sadness. In a fleeting moment, she wonders if Sarah detects her mother’s own comfortless shell.

During the drive home, they face forward in silence as they re-cross the island and witness the opening of the day. The dark red of the earth spreads before them. Wisps of mares’ tails curve in a row of feathers across the sky. The car crests the last hill and eases down the long sweep to the house. Em sees what Sarah must, returning: whitecaps sliding in from the northeast, gulls sailing low over the bottom field, tall hillocky dunes that block the view of the beach. At this time of year, spears of marram grass will be thrusting through the sand. Everything is fresh, starting anew. The sea beyond the surf is dark, almost black. Huge to a human eye. Waters give, waters take away, Em says to herself, thinking of Owen. Both she and Sarah draw a breath. Aloud, Em says, “The healing sea.”

Sarah leaps out of the car with a whoop and runs down the slope towards shore.

Though part of Em desires solitude, she is glad that Sarah is home. Even unhappy, Sarah has energy enough to fill the rooms. She says little except that the past month has been the worst of her entire life. For the first few days, she goes to bed early and gets up late. She seems battered, slugged. This shows in her face, in the movement of her hands, in her walk, in her forced smile. Every morning after breakfast, she laces her boots, heads out the door, follows the path through the field, and stomps over the dunes. Each time she goes out, she leaves something of herself behind. Em, accustomed to being alone, is aware of the extra presence in every shadow of the house. Sometimes Sarah does not return by the time Em leaves for the Centre, at noon. Em works four afternoons a week and is grateful that she’s been able to switch from her former morning schedule. She has five new Vietnamese families in her care and at times she admits to feeling hopeless about the extremes of their neediness. But she has learned to set hopelessness aside. It is her job to provide the families with language.

I hav pasport. This issa potato. My babees namis Hang. Here is good countr
y. This is what they tell her as they write lists to show off their English: boat, wood, matchis, soljer, rats. At one of the camps, during the six-year journey that brought them here, they slept in hammocks high off the ground so rats would not crawl over them in the night. They had been robbed by pirates. Two of the women were raped. They speak with buried expression. On the surface, the information appears matter-of-fact. They want their new country; they want everything about it. They want to know about Em, too. In his note-book one young man drew a picture of her in long dress and high-heeled shoes, though she wears neither. Beneath the picture he wrote: Teecher pritty. Mikel say she has round eyes.

Only once has Em bumped into Michael. The face-to-face encounter in the hall caught them both off guard. He could not, she remembers – though he would never admit this – he could not look her in the eye. What she saw in his face was discomfort, evasion. His classes were over and Em’s were about to begin. But before she could enter the room where the families waited – mothers, children, uncles, aunties, babies; they brought their babies, who else would look after them? – she went to her office and closed the door and stood by her desk, shaking. Later, at the end of the two-hour session, Trinh, the old auntie of two young women in the group, reached up to pat her shoulder and said, “Teacher sad.” Trinh tightened a cardigan about her shoulders and bent to pick up one of the babies who was playing on the floor. She tucked the baby to her hip and patted Em again, and made her way slowly out the door.

Taut, says Em, thinking of this. Kindness, parting, grief. Old Auntie Trinh had experienced countless partings before being forced to start a new life. “Hope,” says Em aloud. This is one abstraction she will not have to teach.

“We had a great time together,” says Sarah. “He was funny. He had a way of joking about himself that made me love him like crazy. I can’t figure out how things went wrong. What did I do? He didn’t have the guts to look me in the eye and say, This isn’t working. The worst part – are you ready for this? – is that I feel unworthy.” She sinks to the rug in the living room and digs her hand into the bowl of popcorn she’s carried in from the kitchen. “Why should I be the one to feel unworthy?”

Why, indeed? thinks Em, who’s so familiar with the feeling she might have invented it. But she’s supposed to know better. She’s supposed to know more.

“Get angry,” she says to Sarah. “Angry is better than unworthy.” As soon as she says this, her memory releases an image so gentle she doesn’t know what to do with it: Michael, standing in the middle of her classroom, wags a five-dollar bill and grins as he invites her for coffee. And then, without warning, he takes her hand in his and raises it to his lips as if her fingers are at the end of the most delicate limb on Earth. Her body stills as his lips brush her skin.

It’s hopeless, they say to each other. It’s complicated. Michael is married to a woman named Frieda whom Em has never met but whom she knows to be German. Michael tells her he has been with Frieda for thirteen years.

One Friday evening, Em is shopping in the pharmacy, in town. She looks out the window and sees the two of them across the street; they are speaking with a man she does not know. Frieda has beautifully shaped short blond hair and looks attractive and theatrical at Michael’s side. She is the same height as Michael and, at one point in the conversation, she stretches an arm towards him in an angular way and encircles his neck. Her elbow points out sharply. It’s easy to see that she doesn’t think about this; she’s accustomed to assuming the position. But he must be, too, because he moves neither away nor towards her. He keeps talking as if he hasn’t noticed the choking stance, the bony armour placed around him.

The next day, a Saturday morning, Michael phones her at home. Em answers and for a few minutes they discuss their work. Then his voice says, “Did you receive my message?” “Which one?” She hears a woman talking to someone in the background. She hardly dares to breathe.

“This one,” he says.

“Yes. Did you receive mine?”

“Yes,” says Michael softly, and they hang up.

How can we do this? she thinks. How can we? She is sorry she has ever seen Frieda. She can’t pretend there is not another person, a real flesh-and-blood person, involved.

Em looks at Sarah seated on the floor and is startled to see how small her daughter becomes when she pulls this far inside. Four years ago, Sarah strutted through the same room, showing off a new dress the day of her high-school formal. She was wearing black velvet – long sleeves, low back, black stockings, new shoes. A part of her, as if this were a rite of passage, was awed and overwhelmed. A corsage had been dropped off in the afternoon, a ritual Em had mistakenly assumed to be a custom of the past. For hours Sarah drifted from room to room, detached in a way that had nothing to do with anyone but herself. Her behaviour was reminiscent of her child-self, when she’d drifted in and out of rooms on her birthday, whispering, “Cake, cake, cake.” Extreme pleasure spilled out of her then, as it did the afternoon of the dance. Em did not doubt that her daughter’s more serious life was ahead of her, but when Sarah kissed her and thanked her for helping with preparations, Em was close to tears, so newly grown-up did Sarah appear to be.

Surprisingly, on that occasion, Sarah’s expectations had been met. But Em remembers something else. When Sarah left the house and turned to say goodbye, a flash of uncertainty had crossed her face. So quickly, Em might have missed it. Poised but vulnerable – Sarah, at the edge of the world.

“Mom,” says Sarah, “how can someone love a person and then hurt them this badly? Did it ever happen to you? When you were younger, I mean. When a friendship fell apart? When nothing you did, no matter how you tried, could save it?”

“It happens to everyone,” Em says. And then she adds, “But I don’t think we try to wound intentionally.” She speaks with the greatest of care.

Always an early riser, Em wakes even earlier now that Sarah is home. She needs space, time alone. Her body agrees by taking up an amazingly accurate rhythm with the sun. Every morning her eyes open at the exact moment of sunrise. Each morning the time is slightly different, but she wakes with the change even if it’s only three minutes or four. She slips into her robe, goes to the window, and watches the bulge of sun as it lifts itself out of the sea.

When she and Michael spent time together, they stood at this same upstairs window, watching the sun rise through the undersides of clouds as it spilled silver across the waves. Sometimes there was only greyness, or a thin line of navy separating Earth from sky. Although the colours of the east were often like those of the west, she was aware of the subtle difference: in the east, there was a greater sense of light, of becoming.

One evening, Michael drove to the house unannounced. The two of them sat outside on the veranda and a great horned owl flew past with such grace they did not speak for several minutes. The owl had been as startled as they were. It hovered momentarily between house and shore and then abruptly changed direction, turning back with its wondrous undulating wings. Em didn’t ask how Michael was able to get away. They both knew what they were doing. There was nothing to say.

Everything is said in the letters. Michael goes to a tiny island in the South China Sea for fifteen days to receive applications from the camps.

The work is hopeful and hopeless at the same time, he writes. Conditions worse than expected, worse than we’ve been told. Every day, thousands of faces at the high, barbed fence. When I enter the enclosure, I’m surrounded. People beg to be sponsored but this time we have only enough funds for two singles and an extended family of five or six. When I come back to my room in the evening, I try not to weep. I think of you, your spirit, your voice. In this place, where humanity is crowded and shoved together, I imagine you alone on the shore, singing, walking into the wind. Or looking up at an indigo sky, convinced that every star is alive. The Big Dipper tipped upside down over your roof.

Country big, the class writes. The peeple big. They hav big hans. We laff and laff when we trying clothes they giv. Diep is cry from laffing hard. When autum comes we go with teacher to by boots. In winter our children play in snow like children here.

Do you remember when we drove to pick up the lemon pie at the bakery on the highway? he writes. How you sang the Emperor Concerto all the way back? You’re the only person I know who can sing the Emperor Concerto.

The concerto had stayed in her head for days. The music forced her to acknowledge the wonder, the happiness, the sure knowledge that this had to end.

Sarah finds summer work at Stan’s, a seafood restaurant next to the wharf, two miles down the highway. Sometimes Em drops her off on her way to town; other days, Sarah walks. On Em’s day off, Sarah takes the car. She works afternoons and evenings, alternating shifts with two local women.

Something about Sarah is changing, but Em is not sure what. A hard edge is creeping in. Sarah has phoned Garry, she tells her mother, but the call was not satisfactory. They discussed books and a sweater he’d left in her apartment; she’d given permission for him to contact the landlord so he’d be allowed in. “It’s all right,” Sarah tells her. “Don’t worry. He sees things one way; I see them another.” To herself she mutters, “But there has to be an explanation I can understand.”

Sarah is still stomping over the dunes, taking long walks by herself. She has made no effort to contact friends, though several former schoolmates have returned to the island for the summer. Em feels as if she can read Sarah’s behaviour like a program that has been opened, bent back, frayed at the edges. First, you blame yourself. Occasionally, you get angry. Mostly, you’re sad. There is no explanation that you can understand.

Who tugs whom to the centre of this dark circle? She closes her eyes. After a late meeting at work, they stand together on the first floor, sinking, sinking. “I didn’t know this was possible,” he says. The streetlight outside illuminates the stair-well, but casts them in shadow. “Even if I wanted to stop,” Michael says, “I don’t see how I could.”

“The one place you can’t get away from is inside your head,” Sarah tells her, as if Em has never thought of this before. Sarah has been home four weeks now and though she’s beginning to look rested, she hasn’t let go. “Do you know what people say to me? Time heals. As if I have a chronic disease. It’s the biggest cliché in the language and it isn’t true. Still, it makes me furious that I feel like this. How could I have given up so much control?”

It happens, Em wants to say. It slips away little by little, when it has nothing to do with control. When it is called connection, joy. It’s only when you try to recover, pull back, that you become aware of how much you’ve given away.

“Sometimes,” she says to Sarah, “it’s a miracle to believe that even the smallest insight is possible.” And there’s the practical matter, she adds, but not aloud, of what to do with so much pain. Now that she works afternoons, Em takes her long walks in the morning. She watches the boats rocking side-to-side offshore while the lobster fishermen lower their traps. One early morning, there are two Cape Island boats, then a third. These turn, and turn again, while a stick figure leans over the side of each. The little boats circle like game players, as if the movement of one affects the movement of all. They change direction and begin to circle again. When the wind rises, the gulls make brave attempts to drift, land, settle on the waves. Sometimes the boats rock right off the horizon. Em climbs back over the dunes and sees how high the marram grass has grown in only a few weeks. She runs a finger up the smooth surface of a single blade, knowing that her skin will be cut if she slides it down in the opposite direction. The grasses grow in clumps, different shades of green, deep and dark at the base. Hidden underground is a vast network, spreading beneath the sand.

They shared laughter. Silliness. They couldn’t have stopped playing if they’d tried. She sang for him when they were walking on shore and when they were in the car. She sang every day. Is it possible that I sang the Emperor Concerto? she thinks.

It is.

I did.

They see each other at work, except when Michael is travelling. When he is away, he writes to her. Frieda is not mentioned, though her unwritten name is always there.

It might be a long time, Michael’s letters say. We’ll choose a place. We’ll work it out. Neither Michael nor Em has any idea how it will be worked out, or where that place might be.

Bed, pillow, room, write the students. We hav the television, black and wite. We learn new words. Children are sick because cold at nite. When they grow big like children here they hav educasion. Good job. By house. We not own house. In our country, small house. Gone past. Old life.

Em visits the family headed by Auntie Trinh. Seven people – she thinks they’re related, but she isn’t sure – live in two rooms. A crib has been pushed near the door and two adult mattresses are spread end-to-end on the floor. Ignored by the adults, the babies crawl up and down the mattresses. One baby bangs a glass mug against the floor as he makes his way to Em on hands and knees. There is an open purse on the floor and the second baby roots through this but no one tries to stop her. The rooms are beside the elevator; the building is old. Em thinks that the walk through the odours of the corridor would be enough to cause hope to drop out the bottom.

But this is not the case at all. Auntie Trinh makes a pot of straw-coloured tea. The young women laugh and joke in Vietnamese. A man stands and smokes in the doorway between the kitchen and the main room. He does not join the laughter. It is only when Em is ready to leave that he speaks directly to her. His English is better than that of her students, she discovers. He is visiting from Ohio, a cousin they have searched for and found. “We are trying to find the whole family,” he says. “We want to be together.”

Em wonders if the family will decide to stay here after more and more family members make themselves known. This has happened before: the island becomes a way-station for a couple of years. Even if the sponsored families were to remain, the islanders would refer to them as off-island. Welcoming in their way, but an islander is an islander who waded out of the sea more than a century ago. Michael, unthinking, said one day, “She’s off-island, isn’t she?” – referring to a colleague who had lived on a farm outside town for twenty-seven years. Em’s daughter, Sarah, on the other hand, will always be an islander, having been born on-island. Even though she lives away, whenever she returns, she is coming home.

“Come on, Mom,” she says. “We’re going to the wharf. We’ll buy fresh fish and get some roadside chips.”

It’s Saturday and they both have the day off. Em follows Sarah to the car. First stop is McCrae’s Wharf. They push back the wooden door and slop across the wet cement floor where four men are cleaning cod. The men recognize Sarah because they take their breaks at Stan’s, where she works next door. Em looks around and sees full bins of cod three feet high around the room. The fish have been cleaned, layered, salted.

“This morning’s catch,” says one of the men. He’s locked into perfect and harmonious rhythm with three partners at a slab of metal – the gutting table. Each of the men, at the same split second, slashes a fish with his blade, removes the head, chops the tail, slits the body, tears out the guts, and throws. If one of the men breaks the pattern, the guts collide mid-air. The double-X of slop drops into two gutters.

Sarah stands and watches while one of the young men, about her age, interrupts the rhythm every four or five throws so he can aggravate his co-worker at the far end of the table – someone bearded and very fat.

“Cut it out,” the fat man warns.

The young man grins, pretends he hasn’t heard, slips back into rhythm. Each of the four wears high rubber boots and a heavy apron splattered with blood. One wall in the room is made of a sliding screen, ceiling to floor, leading outside to the wharf. The screen seems to be thick black mesh, but a closer look reveals that the mesh is a cloak of flies – tens of thousands of swarming flies, all on the outside, waiting their chance to get in.

The owner, a bony man whom Em knows as Angus, wheezes in from the cannery side of the building. He seems to have shrunk into the physical frame of his former self. He is cleaner than his four employees – just.

“The boys went out, got two nice haddie in their nets today,” he says, seeing Em. “We got plenty mackerel, too. Gen’rally, we keep the haddie for the restaurant.” He nods towards Sarah. “If you want the haddie, it’s all right with me.” He calls over to the gutting table, “Ned, come fillet these for the ladies.”

The young man at the end, without looking up, flips the guts of the fish he holds in his hand. The guts travel sideways the length of the table, past the two men in the centre, through the startled open hands of the fat man, and out again. The fat man curses, stops, and strikes for revenge. For one confused blurring moment, guts fly in all directions. The three at the table settle down again to slash, chop, slit, tear, and throw. Ned grins and hoses down his hands before he fillets the haddie.

“Ned’s not full time,” Angus says between wheezes. “Sort of apprentice, you might say. Home from school for the summer. He first showed up when the boats come in with the catch, twice a day. I tried runnin’ him out the back, he come in at the side. I run him out the side, he come in at the back. So I let him stay. I even pay him for staying.”

Ned has filleted and handed over the fish, winking at Sarah. Em and Sarah go out to the car, laughing.

“He comes to the restaurant every day,” says Sarah. “He wants to take me out. Don’t worry. He’ll get the fish smell off. I can’t believe I’ve never met him before. He was at a different school, that’s probably why. He lives with his parents in the west part of the island.”

She is still smiling.

“You’d think I’d learn,” Sarah says. “You’d think there’d be some way of getting it right. I feel as if I keep making the same mistakes.”

They’ve cooked the fish and warmed the chips and carried their plates to the veranda. Em can’t take her eyes off the sea. Clusters of pink clouds drift sideways, creating an island in the sky, just above the horizon. She looks at Sarah’s face and sees only a trace of sadness.

But Sarah is staring. “Mom? Have you heard one word I’ve said?”

“I’ve heard every word,” says Em. “I’m thinking that you’re pretty hard on yourself.”

Sarah is silent, considering.

“Maybe all we’re looking for is someone to tell things to,” Em continues. “Someone who won’t be offended if we break out in tears, or hysterical giggles, or even hives.”

But it’s the energy of loving someone
, she tells herself. It takes so long to let go because of the energy. Why would anyone want to give up the exhilaration of love?

They both laugh, but sharply. Sarah becomes serious again.

“What about you, Mom?” she says. “I mean – you can tell me to mind my own business – but it has been six years. . . .”

Em looks away, feels her skin tighten around her. “I’m okay, Sarah,” she says. “I’m okay.”

They surprise each other with their capacity to imagine, to love. It is that complicated. It is that simple.

Michael picks her up and they drive inland, for a picnic. They follow an overgrown trail, single file, until they reach the clear waters of a tiny river that empties into the sea.

They slide down an embankment and comb the dirt and stones until they have space to stretch their legs. They sit in absolute quiet – aware of the ancient smell of river, allowing the warming sun. They don’t move when the water ripples near their feet. A brown head, matted with water, lifts and stares. Unstartled, the head sinks and disappears. It’s a muskrat, its den probably farther upriver where the banks are muddy. Late in the afternoon, Michael climbs the slope, reaches for Em’s wrist, and tugs her up the bank behind him. She feels as if she is being dragged. When they emerge from the trail and approach the car, a great blue heron lifts its wings and beats heavily away. Remember this, she tells herself. Remember.

Michael is away when Em takes four of her students to the indoor market in town.

I buy chicken, says Diep, while she inspects and makes her choice. The chicken used to be a egg. The whole group is laughing while Diep counts out the money. Em looks up and into the face of Frieda, who is alone at the far edge of the market stall.

There is a moment – not exactly of recognition – when Em sees the frown that crosses Frieda’s face. Frieda’s teeth press into her lower lip. She turns abruptly and is gone.

Auntie Trinh has witnessed the exchange. Finishee, she says to Em, but Em does not ask what she means. Finishee. Em thinks of Frieda’s face and remembers that, never once, has Michael mentioned his wife by name.

The previous fall, during a week’s vacation from work, there had been a wild storm. Winds from the northwest blew day and night for four days. Michael, knowing she would not be able to get outside or go very far, arrived to see if she needed help. Wind battered the front window panes. The upstairs windows were coated with sand that splattered violently out of the air. Em had not felt locked in by the storm at all; instead, she’d experienced a sense of freedom, of space. She stood at the living-room window and watched the far-off breakers build at the horizon and crash to shore, spume flying high. It was difficult to recall that the sea had any other face.

Michael walked up silently behind her. “Come to the kitchen,” he said. “I was outside and threw a bucket of water against the window. We can prop up our feet and look out and have tea.”

Instead, when she turned to him, they had gone upstairs to her room. In the midst of the storm that battered the house from every corner, Michael was more gentle and loving than she had ever known him to be – more than she’d have thought possible.

Later, he stood in the kitchen doorway, his face turned away. She was clearing the mugs, dumping the remnants of their tea. Over, she said to herself at that moment. We both know it’s over.

That night, though the storm subsided, she dreamed of waves rolling up through the field and crashing against the house. She dreamed an animal in the room, the blackest of profiles, its bleak closed jaws. She sat up and spoke to herself in the dark. “This,” she said, “was once about joy.”

Em stops at the restaurant to pick up Sarah after work. She slides into a booth and asks for a cup of coffee. Sarah is joking while she works behind the counter. She’s making her co-workers laugh.

She’s better, Em realizes, watching her. Sarah has always been capable of humour, but now it’s a tougher humour that will get her through. My adult-child, she thinks, smiling at the contradiction.

“Here’s your coffee, Mom. I hope you don’t mind waiting.

There’s still cleanup. I might be another half-hour.”

“I don’t mind,” says Em. “I’ll start the student work here instead of at home.”

She opens her briefcase and places the folder of loose papers on the table. She reads the first sheet, written by a student whom everyone calls Harry. Harry is not his real name but he’s never told anyone what his real name is. Harry is twenty-three, but she thinks of him as an old, old man.

We meet another peeple, he writes. We leev our land. Sometim him leev her, her leev him. But that okay. That what we are capable. Sometim crying, sometim laffing.

Em stretches out both hands and covers the words.

What had taken her by surprise was the sensation that she was drowning. Michael returned from his last trip and walked away. He could not tell Frieda. That was all he could say. But Em had been cut adrift. She’d felt as if she were sinking into the sea. She glances up now as a smiling Sarah comes towards her from the counter. There is nothing to be done but feel badly until you get to the end of it, she thinks. That is all. “Finishee,” Aunt Trinh had said, that day in the market. A finite word. Finishee.

Sarah slips into the booth.

“You know Ned, from the wharf,” she says. “He’s coming over tonight.” She grins. “I thought I was afflicted forever. Ruined.” She stops. “Hey have I interrupted a heavy moment here?”

Em looks at her daughter, sees the fierceness, the old capability as it moves into place. It has always been there, but until now Sarah hasn’t called it up for use.

“Yes, no, yes,” she tells her daughter. She holds the edge of the table because it is solid. She thinks of Frieda’s expression when they were face to face in the market, and admits what she has always known. Frieda knew. She slides her hand along the table. Looks through the windows in the direction of the wharf, the waves that slurp and lap over sandbars, the Gulf, the far-off river that reaches inside the continent for two thousand miles. In the distance, worn mountain ranges rise up like the slumbering backs of old whales.

She thinks of the open sea. How she strides into it every summer day, how she braces herself for the cold that pulls on her bare legs. Even on days when she doesn’t swim, she leans forward to splash water up to her face so she can taste the sudden salt.

She leans into the back of the booth behind her and has a flash of memory again: Frieda’s face at the market. Sorrows to bear, sorrows to be borne. She takes Sarah’s hand in her own and feels it relax, let go.

Run, she should have told herself, long ago. Run the other way. Instead, she had chosen love – and deceit.

“Sorry I drifted,” she says. “I was thinking about some of the things I’ve learned.” What we are capable. Meet another people. Sometim crying. Sometim laffing.

Sarah gets up out of the booth. “Let’s go,” she says. “I’m moving on. No matter what has been left undone.”