Gemini Magazine
_______________
Mary J. Daley was
born and raised in
New Brunswick,
Canada. She now
lives in Toronto with
her husband and two
daughters. Her
stories have
appeared in Allegory,
Electric Spec, Every
Day Fiction and
elsewhere.
Across the entrance, May placed a heavy branch
on top of the other branches, which she had arranged in
hopes of keeping people out. It wasn’t necessary, for
the only fools who ever drove down this far were
fishermen who missed the turn-off to the camps, the
odd geologist or prospector looking for gold, or the rare
naturalist looking for nirvana; but regardless, she had
diligently placed a barrier in the hope of remaining
nowhere to be found.

The logging road, which intersected Highway 180,
traveled parallel to the Upsalquitch River for several
miles before turning north. There were two wide clear-
cuts along this dirt road, two remote fishing camps,
numerous tributaries off the larger river and three acres
of wood belonging to her brother.

Although it was her brother’s place, she considered the
narrow road that led through it, from the roadway to the
cabin, all hers. She knew this path as if it were her own
child—as if she once squatted and gave birth to it, held
it to her breast and fed it, placed the whole length of it
in a white plastic tub to gently wash the stones and tire
marks away. Her familiarity was due to the numerous
times she had walked it in the last six years, trying to
keep the past from claiming its due, and boredom from
eating her alive.

It was now mid-August, and although the nights were
aware of autumn’s approach, the days usually warmed
enough to remove all thoughts of a new season. She
walked slowly between the tire grooves, placing one
sneakered foot in front of the other, brushing her hand
across the leaves of the yellow swamp ash and tall
ostrich fern.

Her mind was on Cecil. He had looked poorly this
morning. His face was the color of watery mustard.
Serves him right. He may have escorted the devil to the
door and pushed him through it when he quit drinking,
but Cecil couldn’t expect a friendship like that to leave
him unscathed. Still, she didn’t like to think that he was
really sick this time, that she might have to drive him
into Jacquetville. She hated driving.

There was no need for a sweater now; the day was
warming up fast, but better the gray fisherman’s
sweater than the black flies that were already swarming
in front of her like a thin beaded curtain. In the distance
she heard the low rumbling of a logging truck headed
out towards the highway to the pulp and paper mill.

“Stay the hell away!” she yelled into the surrounding
trees. It always startled her to do this because the
silence fell heavily back upon itself once her words were
gone. The crickets and sparrows paused with the rest of
the forest, just long enough to remind her again that
she was common. She walked slowly on until her path
bled into their small patch of cleared land. Cecil’s black
half ton was parked facing her with pinesap, bird shit
and rust dotting its surface.

As she stepped out from under the cedar and birch the
sunlight handed her the rest of the heat that the trees
had kept from her. She pulled her sweater up over her
head and threw it onto the truck’s hood. Beneath she
wore a man’s Hanes undershirt tucked into black stirrup
pants. This extra material bunched beneath the elastic
of her pants gave her waist a lumpy look. Her hair was
short and grey with a few remaining strands of  
stubborn brown. She shielded her eyes with one hand
and looked around. Cecil’s cabin sat next to a tributary,
which had natural stone steps, leading down to clear
water and a stone bottom.

With flies for company, she walked to the outhouse. It
sat beneath three mangy looking spruce trees that
between the lot of them couldn’t hold a cup of snow on
their sparse branches in winter. The small building was
built from cedar and pine, had a hook latch on the
inside, a proper porcelain seat and a wooden swan with
a long slim neck to hold the toilet paper. As she peed,
she listened to it hit the lower sides of the deep dirt
hole beneath. Four flies darted around her, in and out of
the thin slices of sunlight that entered through the
cracks along the roof and back wall.

She opened the door just in time to see her deer, a
white tail doe accompanied by a speckled coated fawn,
crossing the property after coming from the river. The
deer stepped dreamlike on long delicate legs and flicked
ears with centers of white cloth. She knew it was her
deer, the one she had been noticing for the past three
years, because of the black tear like spot beneath its
left eye. A scratch, perhaps, from a younger time racing
through the pines or possibly from a bullet’s graze.

It trotted off followed by its skittish, leaping child into
the wood behind her garden. It wasn’t much of a garden
but they managed to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, pink
cosmos and even at times corn. Though it wasn’t easy
keeping the forest from it, they always took in a small
harvest, sometimes enough to keep them in pickles and
chow chow for the entire winter. It wasn’t necessary for
their survival, but it kept her blues at bay, gave her
something to toil at.

They survived on Cecil's pension. She wasn’t entitled to
hers for another two years. Maybe if they lived in town
his check wouldn’t have been enough for both of them
but out here it stretched to cover the gas for the
generator and truck, and for food. Lately the food bill
was less with Cecil’s continuing inability to eat much
except for soup and tea and the occasional biscuit.

She approached the cabin with thoughts of lying down
for half an hour.

The house had two rooms. The kitchen area was a large
square space with a wood stove and a fridge. There was
also a short, white counter top, a wooden table and a
green vinyl sofa taken from a defunct railroad station.
The small bedroom was at the back. It contained two
single beds with a narrow aisle between them. The
bedroom had a proper wooden floor, even though the
kitchen’s remained dirt. Cecil had told her he would put
a floor down in the kitchen but never got around to it.
He had, however, built this bedroom and it came as a
blessing more often than not, especially in the winter
months when one room might forever separate two
people.

As soon as she entered the much cooler house, which
was due to keeping the heavy windows curtained at all
times, she heard him calling from the bedroom.

“May, is that you?”

“Course it is! The grim reaper isn’t here to get you yet,
Cecil.” She went to the tiny fridge and removed a plastic
pitcher of water, grabbed a tumbler from the counter top
and went into the bedroom where he laid. The smell of
sickness was strong in the room.

“You want some water?” She looked down at her brother
lying on his side, his head resting on a flat pillow with
his long hands hidden beneath it. He had on a grey
sleeveless undershirt that showed a shoulder that
looked like a large bone yellowed with age. His chin and
upper lip held short, hardened, well spaced silver hairs
and his pale blue eyes looked piercing in their frame of
yellow.

“No, I can’t hold it down.” His voice was hoarse and low.

“You throw up that soup I gave you?” She set the cup
down on the windowsill and reached for the bucket
beside the bed. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to empty
this.”

She walked with it a ways into the wooded area behind
the outhouse to dump the contents across the patches
of ferns, stagnant moss and littered deadwood. She
took it to the river and washed it out. She hesitated
there for a moment, squatting on her heels upon the
smooth stone with her fingers in the cold water. Their
river was shallow in most places except for two dark
pools that the salmon liked to get into. Roots from
cedar trees held to the rocks above the river with thick,
fibrous black claws, so that the great trees could lean
out over the water as if to catch their reflections.

Her submerged fingers grew numb with the pushing
sensation of the river. She was frightened. Cecil had
never been a well man since she moved out here with
him six years ago, but at least he had been well
enough. Though his stomach acted up time and time
again, it always settled. His skin color often changed
from dusty grey to yellow but at times it painted his
cheeks with a bit of pink again and cleaned his sclera
white. He seemed very ill to her now, though, like he
might need to be in a hospital. She grimaced at the
thought of going into town, having to make conversation
with the nurses and doctors. She had been away from
people too long to want to be bothered with that now.
Maybe he would get better if she just left him alone for
a little while more. It had only been four days since he
had started looking really bad.

Coming back into the house, she was startled to see
him up and standing in the frame of the bedroom door.
One of his hands held the wooden frame, the other held
his undershirt down in front of his privates. His legs
were bare and vibrating with a tiny, steady shaking
movement.

“Where’re you going?” she asked. She put down the
bucket and walked over to him.

“Need to use the outhouse.” He reached for her hand.

“Use the bucket.” She took his hand and let him lean his
weight on her.

He shook his head and began taking shuffling steps
towards the door. She walked awkwardly beside him,
supporting more weight than she wished was required.
The sun was directly over their patch of ground now as
they slowly walked to the thin wooden structure
beneath the spruce trees.

“I seen the deer with the tear just before I brought you
your water. Right out front here,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said with a quick escape of breath.

“Yeah.”

She left him to his privacy after helping him sit down,
but stood just outside in case he shouted for her.
Minutes passed in silence, with only the song of
sparrows in the air, as she stood there peeling a small
splinter from the wood.

“You okay?” she finally asked.

“Um, yeah.” He pushed the door open in front of him.
She took him by the arm and helped him back to the
house. She turned once to look back at the little wooden
structure and frowned. She didn’t like the coppery smell
of blood. Something was seriously wrong with Cecil this
time.

Once she helped him back into bed she forgot her own
wish for a lay down and went into the garden. Kneeling
down in the soil between the rows of tomatoes she
pulled at the new eruption of tiny weeds. The sun lay
thick on her bent back and exposed neck but her
thoughts went elsewhere.  With each new green sprout
she scratched from the earth, it brought her back to
Lornly, many years back.

                         * * *

Their first house also had a dirt floor kitchen, but with
enough separated planks of plywood lying across it to
give it some feeling of sound. It was the first day of
school for her and she sat next to Cecil on the small
step leading off the front door. She held her lunch box.
Her nerves were all a fire and her heart thumped
beneath her brown sweater as they waited for Mr.
Thomas’s school bus to come around the corner. She
was mad at Cecil cause he wouldn’t talk to her. Wouldn’
t say anything about what school was like, even though
he had two years of school already under his belt. For
some reason, he hung onto the experience like it was
too precious to share with her.

They sat in silence. All the small things could be heard—
the buzzing of a house fly, the chickens around the side
scratching at the dirt, their mom moving about the
interior of the house, cleaning. Cecil sniffed loudly and
wiped the back of his hand across his nose. The
September sun was brilliant, adding color and vividness
to things that often went without much notice. Cecil’s
blue eyes for one—when he looked over at her his pupils
were so tiny they magnified the weightless blue in the
space they no longer took up.

“What you looking at?” he demanded as he looked away.

“You got nice eyes when the light shines on them,” she
answered.

He gruffed and got up off the step. His plaid shirt was
too big on him, his pants too small. His nose was
crooked, broken in a fall from a tree the summer before.
She had witnessed the fall. He hit his nose across a
lower branch. She had watched him pick himself up and
run to the house holding his hands over his nose. She
even yelled for their mom.

But their mom wouldn’t come out nor let Cecil come in.
Blood bubbled from his nose like simmering tomato
sauce as he stood a few steps outside the house,
leaning forward so the blood wouldn’t soak his shirt.
May, who thought her brother would bleed to death that
day, stood off to watch him die from behind the safety
of a tree.

They heard the rollicking, tired old bus coming up the
road. Both walked to the dirt roadway to meet it. They
were the first passengers aboard for they were the
farthest from Jacquetville. There was nothing past their
house but jack pine, birch, alder, spruce and balsam fir.
May sat wide-eyed, squished up next to her brother as
the bus rocked and jaunted towards the main road.
Children materialized here and there along the side of
ditches as the bus turned corners or left the main road
for smaller ones. By the time they reached Jacquetville
there were fourteen children on the bus.

The brakes of the bus sang out loudly as it pulled up in
front of Jacquetville’s Elementary. May reached for her
brother’s hand but he wouldn’t take it. He walked on
ahead, hands in his pockets, head slightly down. She
followed. Nine steps from the bus a rock hit him just
above the ear. It hit hard enough to make a noise but
he barely flinched. He kept walking across the
schoolyard, kicking up the dry dirt with the soles of his
black rubber boots. May looked over at four boys
standing near a small chain link fence just behind the
stopped bus. They were laughing. There was a snarl to
their laughter and it was directed at Cecil.

“The loser from Lonely is back,” the tallest one yelled.

May started to trot after Cecil but he turned and gave
her a glare that almost cut her in half. Panic filled her. A
teacher now stood near the front doors waving a copper
bell up and down. The sound pulled the children forward.
May followed, now noticing how shiny most of the girls
were. They wore new sweaters over ruffle dresses and
wore laced shoes that held not a scuff or grass stain.
She looked at the dress her mom had made. It hung
almost to the thin edge of the rubber lip of her boots. It
all came to her, what her brother had refused to tell
her: school would be one long hardship.

                           * * *

“MAY!”

She stood up in the garden, the heat giving her vertigo
amid the acrid scent of the green tomatoes. She
straightened the bobby pins that were coming loose
from her long bangs. As she pushed them back their tiny
metal edges scraped her scalp a little.

“May!”

“Yes, yes I’m coming,”she muttered.

He was sitting up in bed with his head leaning against
the panel wall.

“You want more water?” she asked. He shook his head
no and patted the spot of blanket beside him. She sat
down on it.

“What is it, Cecil?”

His voice was shaky. “Just want to get a few things off
my chest. First I don’t know if I ever thanked you for
getting me that train ticket and bringing me home.”

“Don’t matter. I think you paid for that ticket and more,
letting me stay out here with you.“

“I never liked Toronto," he said. "Wish I never went.
And I shouldn’t have went without telling you and all
that.”

“I understood why you went. Just didn’t expect you to
stay as long as you did.” She smiled. “You of all people
in the city. Couldn’t figure that one out. You could have
drank yourself stupid here just as well as there.” She
stood up and smoothed his thin hair back from his
forehead. “I should drive you into town. I think you need
to see a doctor.”

“No.”

She felt a moment of shame that came with her relief.
“You should go in. You probably only need a change in
your medication or something.”

“No.” He closed his eyes and continued after a small
grimace. “But May, you can’t tell me you weren’t sorry to
see me go.”

“To Toronto? Yeah, probably. It was best for that time,
anyway.” She looked at her hands.

“Tell me this,” he started.

“I don’t want to tell you anything, Cecil.” She pointed to
the doorway. “I got work to do and even if you don’t
want to go into town to get your stomach checked, I
still need to go in at some point. And I don’t want to
talk about the past anymore, either. It’s over and done
with.”

“Just one thing.”

“What?” she sighed.

“If Billy didn’t die would you have still been keen about
me coming home?”

“I think even Billy missed you after awhile. Thirty-seven
years was a long time to stay away on our account.”

Cecil was quiet. She stood for a moment listening to the
heat bugs chiseling away at the day.

“I’m so sorry about what I done,” he whispered. “I only
ever wished to make it right somehow.”

“Don’t talk so loose. I told you not long after it
happened that I didn’t want to hear sorry from you.
Remember? Me and Bill played our parts too.” She spat
and left the bedroom quickly, then stood for a few
moments in the dark shadows of the kitchen. How she
didn’t want sorry. How she never ever wanted sorry. If
Cecil was dying then that was what was happening, but
no deathbed sorries and would haves and could haves
and should haves. What was the sense in him bringing
it all up again? After all these years. It was still a
fucking accident.

She left the house and trotted towards the path. Once
beneath the trees she slowed to a walk and took in her
surroundings. Shadows and sunlight, dark and light, soft
greens and harsh greens, cool brown pine needles and
warm brown pine needles. What sat in the sunlight and
what sat in shadow. She breathed in her stretch of
road—her road that was barely wide enough to get the
truck through, which had never seen a visitor, never
seen a child. This she walked again for the second time
that day trying to still her thoughts, following invisible
bread crumbs hoping it would lead her somewhere safe.

When she got to the logging road she stepped out onto
it and looked down its wide maple fudge softness. If
she tried she could hear the Upsalquitch roaring down
through the rocky hills but the noise of the river was so
constant in her mind she had always treated it as
silence.

Who needed another sorry? Not her.

She rarely left their place, but now she found herself on
the crumbling shoulder of the road, walking towards the
main highway. She was shaking. She just needed to
walk a little further today. A bit of a change. The
chances of her coming across a vehicle were still slim
and if they asked where she was coming from she would
simply tell them to fuck off.

A small grey rabbit leaped out behind a jack pine and
bounded off across the road and into the bush on the
other side. She walked on. Skittish rabbit. All she really
was. All she ever was. Her brother should go to a
hospital. She should take him in but if he didn’t want to
go in, then it wasn’t her fault. He always took suffering
willingly, and it was hard to watch and it was harder
still not to watch. When he came home from Toronto
and found out that he still held a deed to the property,
he thought it was as good a place as any to right
himself. She joined him, and sat and watched while he
worked years of drinking from his system. And they both
ended up staying. Almost six years, constantly together,
and they never brought it up. And now the fool thinks
he’s dying and he figures he got to say how he’s sorry.

Sorry that he backed his truck over her baby boy as he
waited for shooting stars. It happened over forty years
ago but her heart once again tightened into that same
old knot.
                          * * *

They were drinking that night. They always drank on
Saturday nights. Most often it was at May and Billy’s
house out on South Cross Road. They had the card table
set up in the living room, TV on in the background and
were playing Auction Forty-Five. James, who was four
years old and would never get a year older, played on
the linoleum floor beside the small table with his two
toy warriors, giving both of them voices much deeper
than his own.

“Meteor shower tonight, they were saying at work,” Billy
said casually as he reached down and pulled a beer from
the box beside him. James looked up at his dad with a
question forming but waited in case it all got explained
over the cards.

“Cool.” Cecil nodded as he looked down at his hand."
We should pull some chairs out to the driveway later
and see if we can catch some of it.”

James stood up and leaned his weight across Cecil’s
thigh. “What are we going to look at Uncle Cecil?”

“Shooting stars.”

“Shhh, Cecil,” May said with a frown creasing her
forehead. “That’ll be too late for him.”

“One night ain’t going to hurt him any.” Billy laughed
and threw an ace of hearts on top of an ace of clubs.

“Yeah I guess not.” May sighed and smiled down at her
boy. “Would you like that James? To see the stars go
whoosh, whoosh across the sky?” She gestured with her
arms, still holding her cards.

James nodded and pulled at his uncle’s pant leg. “Let’s
go see them.”

Cecil pushed the boy away and said into his cards, “Got
to wait until it gets really dark first. You play until then
and don’t bother us.”

And James played with his toy men, probably listening
to the voices of his parents and uncle, waiting on them
until he couldn’t wait anymore. He fell asleep on the
floor near the leg of the card table. May glanced down
at one point, and seeing her boy asleep, picked him up,
placed him in his bed and pulled a light sheet over him.
She ran her hands through his hair and went into the
living room to stand next to Billy for a moment before
sitting back down and taking up her hand.

They were all soon drunk and the shooting stars more or
less forgotten. Cecil, who sometimes got a hate-on
after his fifth or sixth beer, started an argument with
Billy about a mutual friend at work. This must have
been what woke young James. She envisioned his soft
downy hair tousled and his cheek red with pillow as he
climbed down from his bed. He had remembered the
stars and taken his sheet and warriors with him as he
went out the back door, up the driveway and around to
the rear of Cecil’s truck.

Sitting down on the gravel, among all those tiny stones,
he might have leaned his head back and looked up into
the night sky and there he would have viewed, she
hoped, a great forest of stars, layer after layer after
layer. As some decided to leap across the dark, trailing
slim bright streaks behind them, he probably shouted
for May and Billy and Cecil to come out and watch. He
may have watched until he drifted off to sleep, the
gravel as his bed.

Inside, Cecil finally crossed the line of tolerable and
Billy had enough. “Go home Cecil,” he said, picking up
the card table Cecil had just kicked over. “Me and May
are ready for bed.”

“Fuck you both,” he slurred, swaying slightly back and
forth. Billy looked at May and left the room.

“Go home now, Cecil and get some sleep,” May said
softly.

He grabbed his keys and stumbled from the house,
shouting incoherent words as he left. May picked up the
cards and went to bed, leaving the beer bottles where
they sat. It was almost nine the following morning when
she found her broken, still boy.

                         * * *

She couldn’t breathe but increased her stride anyway,
letting her heart flutter as it saw fit. That memory was
forty- five years old and as fresh as a fucking daisy. She
couldn’t beat it down, tear it down, run from it, or bury
it. Out here she sometimes came close to forgetting but
it only ever lasted briefly. Now completely breathless,
she stopped. The quiet road stretched away from her.
Sweat was trickling down her sides and pooling beneath
her breasts. She felt dizzy under the strong sun. Cecil
would need her. She would go back, help him dress and
bring him into town. She could do this. She had let him
suffer enough.

But by the time she left her path again and stepped
onto their property she was angry again. She stared at
the truck until her eyes watered. She went to her garden
and gathered two stones, both heavy, one smooth and
one jagged, and walked back into the house with them.
As she walked, the shadows caressed the stones in her
hands.

“Cecil,” she called, but he didn't answer. She pushed the
door open into the room, which smelled of soured
shame and helplessness, and began to cry a little.
“Cecil, you okay?” she asked, her voice soft.

He lay asleep, his skin like old paper, his breathing
regular and shallow. She stood near the bed thinking
about all the years he had carried on under the weight
of all of their suffering, how things could have been so
different if she had just let him have the couch that
night. If she had peeked into James’ bedroom even
once. If she had just gone out and watched the stars
like she had promised. It was all her fault, but she had
decided long ago to let Cecil carry the burden and he
had, never once asking her to take any of it. All this
suffering he had endured. She only wanted him to finally
have some peace from it. Any other motive was
unthinkable. It took four blows with the stones from her
garden before the burden was lifted.
by Mary J. Daley
STONES,
STICKS AND
STARS