from Nuala: A Fable (UAP, 2017)

Nuala
A Fable

Kimmy Beach





The University of Alberta Press



She loves me the moment Seeing-Servant pulls the cables and opens her eyes for her. She is mine and I am hers.

She asks me, “Why am I called only Nuala? I knew my name when I awoke, but why am I not called Nuala-Servant if you are called Teacher-Servant?” I tell her it is because she is not a Servant as I am. Nuala is “She Who Is Served.”

She only woke yesterday. Today I shall give her all of her names so that she may become used to them. I shall call her Nuala, as she calls herself. I shall call her beloved. Little one. She will grow accustomed to me calling her when I want her attention. When I wish to teach her of her Giant nature.

I opened her eye, and she found me watching her. My eyes looking into the fire of her left eye. She gave me the gift of her first gaze, and it shook me to my viscera how quickly she understood this gift. We now transcend, spiralling in the liquid realm of thought-talk. She will not speak, for she cannot. But I may speak to her. From this moment, her thoughts and mine will become one.

When she stands for the first time, she will learn that if she wishes to see me as I tread the ground, she must look down; and I must tilt back my head, expose my throat to the wind, look up to meet her eyes. Her clear, seeing eyes, though only a day old. She will see that she is Giant and I am He Who Is Not Giant.

*

Today, we transport Nuala from the City of Servants to her new home in the Great City. We have been gradually furnishing our city rooms with objects we love best, though none of us was certain we would be chosen. Our goodbyes from those left behind—those not chosen for the Service—were necessarily swift, heartbreaking.

My lodgings are small and comfortable and I shall do my best to feel at home, for Nuala’s sake. My books are here. The cloth ribbons are here: those with which my mother once tied back my hair, her hands pushing through the long strands of it, taming it inside fabric. These shall bring me solace in the inevitable periods of loneliness to come.

We roll the great bed into the streets of the city. Seeing-Servant’s cables open Nuala’s eyes, and Head-Servant turns her head first to the right and then to the left. Her blonde hair tumbles either side of her Giant pillow.

“Look around you, little one. Soon we will walk together through these streets and have adventures such as you could never dream.”

“Oh, Teacher-Servant. What is
walk? What are adventures?”

“Patience, my love. Soon you will know all. And I have the honour of teaching you.”

We move among the small people who will soon look up as she strides through their streets among their movings and doings. Word of Nuala’s waking has spread through the Great City, and crowds are gathered in front of brick and limestone to watch her pass by on this, the second day of her life. Some of her citizens throw flowers upon her bed: a welcome to the new Puppet Queen. Others have knitted scarves for a metal throat, and mittens for Giant hands. Some have been stitching for years, making a Giant-sized quilt they feared they would never have the chance to present. They have let it blow and toss in cool wind for the last two days, to make sure it is fresh for Nuala’s bed.

A long line of citizens approaches with the rolled-up quilt. Ten Clothing-Servants and Iron-Servants climb ladders up to the mattress upon which Nuala lies, awake and seeing. The quilt-bearers pass it up to the Servants, who unroll it and lay it over Nuala’s body. Bold and proud flowers, panels of silk and cotton, some blue, some red.

My fellow Servants—most of whom I have known since childhood in the City of Servants—shake my hand, clap the shoulders of my new uniform, place shy kisses on my cheek. At long last, we are able to give full voice and heart to the blessings we have practiced on one another since we were children. The hopes we wished one another each time we met. The words were rote, then. Now, they burst from our mouths. We sing them into the cool morning air: “May our joy be trebled in the Service!”

*

I take my tea in the damp morning air outside my new lodgings. I am eager to don the unfamiliar grey Servant uniform I must wear, for it signals the beginning of my service to Nuala.

How quickly Nuala is mine. How quickly my heart is thrust into the core of her oak and brass. I am keenly aware that had she not given me the gift of her first gaze, she would have chosen another as her Teacher-Servant. My good fortune!

How my insides tumbled and burned when she chose me. I am still light-headed and giddy with the joy of it. The gift of her first gaze is a bliss transcending all other moments in the Service. A mass of exploding light pouring out my fingertips. I am the first in common memory to feel this breathlessness, this unfolding of love. I curl my hands inward and hold it deep inside of me. It is mine and mine alone.

The tea is sweet and thick. I make notes. How delicate her new hands seem. The Wrist-Servants and Walking-Servants must examine, assess, and attach her joints to the cables that will support them. But all gently.

The great bell tolls, its clapper free to swing again after such a long interval, its proud heralding of morning, the awakening of Nuala. She wakes early, and I must be ready when she does.

Seeing-Servant will not open Nuala’s eyes until I am at her side. Until I am looking into her eyes. I must always be the first Servant she sees.

Her deep green eyes take in the length of me and settle on my face.

Never have I been so observed! Her eyes pull my heart to the limits of my chest. Her eyes. They dip into the paint of my body. She paints a picture of me in her mind, her lashes the brush that spreads the colours of my arms and torso, the brush with which she will render my likeness inside her head.

“Good morning, my beauty.”

From the pocket of my grey tunic, I produce the tube of fragrant oil I work into the delicate hooks and eyes at her lids. The brush and whisk of the fine lashes against my forearms, my hair rising in response. Then the fall and curve of her throat. The welded metal and nails holding her mouth closed. This last shall not open again, and yet it must remain oiled. My beloved need never fear rust. She feels me lubricate her neck. Feels me climb next to her on the pillow to oil the hook-and-eye assemblies above her ears and atop her blonde head.

Head-Servant has arrived from his resting place and positions himself behind the great ball of Nuala’s skull, ready to lift. Even though her eyes are fully open and seeing, she is groggy with sleep. I look inside her thoughts to the milky lingerings of what was her first dream. Her mind twitches, needing to share with me the strange pictures she has seen there. Her thoughts recoil, and I see into the wildness of her eyes.

“Shh, my Nuala. I am with you. Today I shall teach you the newness of you.” Her breathing slows at my voice, her visions stilled by my words.

“Do not believe the pictures in your sleeping head, Nuala. They are not true. Between the time you go to bed and the time we share now, you lying down and me looking upon your innocent eyes, we sleep, and during those sleeps, we dream. Were you to tell me of each one, my child, we should have no time to speak of anything else.

“We may dream of being in another city, or we may dream of somewhere that exists only in our time of sleep. We may dream of being unable to move, Nuala. I saw your dream. No other Giants can harm you or take you from me. No other Giants shall cause you to be immobile. Do you understand? I will ensure that you can always move. I am yours, and you are mine. This shall ever be.”

“I am yours and you are mine. This pleases me, Teacher-Servant.”
The Engine is quiet for the moment. The pulleys have been tested, the wires and hooks are connected and secure. We wheel her bed from her sleeping place, and uncover her under the early morning sun.

“Soon you shall be clothed in a pretty red dress, little one. Would you like to see it?” A “Yes” flickers from her thoughts to mine. “But first, you will need to shower in warm water. Would this please you?”

“Oh yes, Teacher-Servant. I would like to feel what you call water upon me.”
Two Engine-Servants bring the Engine to life, and steam hisses in its belly. Head-Servant helps raise the globe of Nuala’s skull. The Engine pulls her head up slowly. It stretches its long arms over Nuala, and lifts, lifts her until she is seated, her legs over the edge of her bed, the sun casting long, shivering shadows of cables on her face. Clothing-Servants undo the great buttons at Nuala’s back and pull the nightgown from her air-cooled arms. A ribbon at the gown’s sleeve catches the hook above her wrist. Clatter of her hand from her lap to the bed beside her. “Careful. Careful.” These clumsy Servants!

Then it extends the red metal lizard that will snake into Nuala’s lower back to keep her upright and steady.

I pull the long ladder out from under her bed and rest it against her child-hip. “What is that you climb me with?” Nuala asks me, alarmed by its long and spindly legs.

“It is simply a ladder, one which I will use today to reach your shoulder and which your Servants will use to take care of you. Remember its shape, for it will never harm you.”

I pull soft grey slippers from my uniform pockets, remove my shoes, and place the felt slippers upon my feet. This is my Walking-Upon-Nuala footwear: that which I don to tread on the hard shoulders and unyielding lap of my beloved.

I pull the ladder up behind me and lay it against her child-breast. Up I crawl to sit on her left shoulder, my hands inside her hair, my own long locks tickling her earlobes as I kiss the whorls of her inner ear.

The iron serpent unfurls and stretches toward her back. Below me, a Walking-Servant parts the curtain of fabric that covers the tender opening at Nuala’s lower back, its maw awaiting the Engine’s stabilizing mechanism.

I whisper her this: “A beautiful wooden girl woke one morning to find that the world she knew was much changed. Instead of being surrounded by the tiny people of the Great City as she was used to, she now found herself in the company of Giants. Some could look down upon the small Giant, and others, younger even than she, looked up at the young Giant. Some were as tall as the tallest of trees at the edges of the young Giant’s city.”

“What are
trees, Teacher-Servant?” Nuala asks. She does not feel the pincers of the Engine’s great fist as it wraps itself around her spine.

“They are tall beings, my Nuala. As tall as you, and some taller. Trees are fixed to the earth and may not move, but they love and breathe as you and I do. One day we will see the trees together, and soon, I will show you a picture of a tree. For now, do not fear what you do not know. I will teach you. Patience, my Nuala.

“The other Giants cherished the young one. They embraced her and called her Our Beloved. She was pleased to be among so many Giants, among those of her own kind.”

I tell her of other Giants, and of the great trees, and while I speak, Head-Servant attaches the clasps to the metal loop atop her head, and to the clamps on either side of her face, so that she may turn her head and gaze upon the city’s tiny people, who will want to walk with her. The new living Giant for whom we have waited the length of our lives.

*

The Engine lifts Nuala and sets her feet upon the soft cloth I have laid on the ground outside her room. A long spigot extends from the Engine’s great arms, and expels warm water over my Nuala’s head. Seeing-Servant closes her eyes so that water will not run into them. I open my umbrella, my hand on her ankle, so that she will feel me and not be afraid. The water pours over her, pours down her knotted throat, the pine and rosewood of her. Runs from the edge of her fingertips and over my umbrella. Huge drops reach the earth and soak my legs. Water ricochets from the ground, drips from her knees and soaks my arms and torso. I toss the umbrella aside. Why not be as wet as she? I step back dripping, and vow to forget my umbrella for the morning showers. I look up at her through the warm water falling from her thighs and wrists, to feel the cascade as she feels it. An ant in the splash of a heavy raindrop from the tallest reaches of pine.

“I like this feeling, Teacher-Servant. It is as though all of me is moving. What is this called?”

“It is called a shower, my love, remember? And you shall have one every morning.” I remove my soaked tunic and hand it to my best friend, Senior Iron-Servant. She will dry it for me. It is chilly, but I do not feel the cold. Bare-chested, I climb the Engine and crawl over the long arms holding up her head. I hold the rope ladder designed for this purpose and the Engine lowers me so that I am hanging before my beauty’s face. Other Servants lean ladders of varying lengths against her legs and hips. They climb her knotted surfaces, towels at the ready to dab beads from her thighs and wrists. Only I am permitted to touch her eyes, her cheeks. Touch the soft towel to the slope of her nose, the rigid pout of her lower lip.

Seeing-Servant has opened her eyes so that she may see me work about her face. A fat drop from an eyelash lands on me. Its warmth courses across my forearm. My fingers brush the water from around her eyes. Her gaze shreds me; her attention crumples me. I am reflected in the glass of her eyes. Seeing-Servant closes them so that I may wipe the water from the lids.

“Where are you, Teacher-Servant? I cannot see you.”

“But you may feel me. And this is my scent.” I hold my long hair under her nose and rub it between my fingers to release the fragrance. “Remember it. It is always I who shall gather your hair to wring the water from it as I do now. Always my strong arms that will shield you and wipe the drops from your eyes.”

“I think that this is the reason you have hands, Teacher-Servant. To place them in my hair, to sweep the water from my face.”
*

In the mornings, before dawn and while Nuala sleeps, the Iron-Servants gather in their workshop.

In this bustling room stands a table many feet wide and longer still. Laid out on it before the Servants is Nuala’s red dress, which two dozen Iron-Servants have laundered and will now press. They wear grey suits as we all do, but theirs are lighter, as their work is hot and strenuous.

My insides thrill watching the Iron-Servants work. The dress had lain so long in a musty trunk. It required a thorough wash, an airing, and a tuck of the hem so the dress could fit a Giant as small as Nuala.

The room sweats despite the fans and the long, low, open windows that usher in the spring winds and allow the Iron-Servants to see out into the street and watch the people their own size: those not in the Service. Cordial greetings pass through the slanted panes. “Joy to you, Citizen!” calls an Iron-Servant into the lightening street. “And to you, kind Servant!” comes the reply. “May your joy be trebled in Nuala’s Service!”

Many ironing stoves stand ready, each with four sadirons upon it. I long to help, to feel the warm cotton in my hands, but the Iron-Servants have perfected their task, and although they are too kind to say it, my
help would be hardly that.

I was a lithe and small boy in the City of Servants long ago, peppering my best friend, the future Senior Iron-Servant, with sunrise questions. “Why are these irons called
sad? What makes an iron sad? I did not know that anything but we could be sad.”

She laughed at me and explained that neither the irons nor the future Iron-Servants were sad. Did I not notice the joy with which they performed their morning duties, even though there was then no Giant to wear the dress they tended? It was simply the name given to the heavy slabs of metal.

“Why is a tree called a tree, my son?” The question had me reaching for days, reading books and finding answers. I learned that the
sad in sadiron was a form of the old word sald: solid.

I ran to the great ironing room to tell my best friend of my scholarly findings. I was permitted that day to walk—with great care—across the table to the centre of one of the false giants’ garments and smooth it with my hands. In my stockinged feet, I stepped over the weft and warp of fabric, its give and softness and promise awakening my toes to its gentle bulk and beauty. I remember the sound of thunking metal punching the morning air, just as I hear it now.

Now. She calls for tea from the kitchen next door. Servants replace their cooling irons and sit on low stools along the walls.

“Why, Teacher-Servant. There you stood—a young boy in the ironing room of the City of Servants, making a nuisance of yourself, your arms full of dictionaries. What were we to do with you?” She winks at me over her teacup. “It is not so many years ago, young man, that you found yourself trapped inside the yards of cotton in which you’d entangled your legs while trying to be of
assistance. It took us a few moments to extract you, as you kicked against the red dress, bringing it to most humorous life. We’d have rescued you sooner, but we were caught in bouts of laughter at your predicament.”

I remember. I love Senior Iron-Servant as I love my own mother, and even though I have thirty years and some months, I am a child when she teases me.

“Dear Senior Iron-Servant! You make a fool of me!”

“Oh, blame nature for that, lad. Not me.”

It is a familiar and beloved exchange. I do not find fault in her gentle mocking. Just this morning, a Wrist-Servant tumbled to the hard ground while moving one of Nuala’s great arms so that the Clothing-Servants could dry her wooden hands after her shower. The Wrist-Servants are lean and fit, but we are all out of practice. The false giants we trained upon did not fully prepare us for our work with a living, breathing Giant. We do not mock the Servant’s misfortune. We are only relieved that he was not hurt, save for his pride.

We finish our tea, and the Iron-Servants return to their task. Three Servants stand at the end of the table holding the open neck of the dress, four more at its bottom opening. They flip it, changing places as they turn the yards of cotton, tug the edges to pull the dress straight and crisp. The cool irons are traded for hot, and the sweet scent of fragrant fabric stings the air. Pressing and smoothing for Nuala’s new day.

Rhythmic swish and slide and thunk of metal on cotton on wood take the Servants into their own thoughts, and at these times, Senior Iron-Servant gives them a story.

“I am silvered now,” she begins, “but I was once as young and strong as you are now, Teacher-Servant, though I was not nearly as striking.”

“You flatter me!” I am thrilled by her attention, even though her words have not varied in years.

“He who expects flattery will hear it in every word uttered near him,” she says, her iron slapping the morning air alive with the birds of the earliest hours.

I become serious and sit near her, and the other Iron-Servants slow their work and place their irons more gently to better hear her words. In the City of Servants, I always came early in the morning to listen to her stories, and this one is sad but familiar.

“I once had a small, golden-haired girl of my own, so long gone now. So long dead. I would stand at my ironing board before she awoke. Iron the dress she would wear to school that day. We were not wealthy, but the child’s dress would always be pressed and ready to meet the day. How does one replace a lost daughter?”

Some answer as they always do: “One does not.”

“My little girl resembled Nuala in that they both have such clear, searching eyes. Though my girl could laugh and play on her own, Nuala’s curiosity matches hers. What little I’ve seen of it.

“Teacher-Servant, I can think of no one more suited to this important task than you. No one who could better teach our Nuala all that she needs to know, all that she must learn to live among us. And most importantly, to help us understand how best to serve her. To find out why she has awoken. Why now, and why for us.”

“Thank you, Senior Iron-Servant, for these kind words.” I stand and embrace the best friend I have. “I will not trouble you and your staff any longer. As you know, I can be clumsy, and if I stay, I am liable to get myself tangled in this pretty red dress!”

Small chuckles rise up and twirl in the wooden blades of the ceiling fans.

“I take my leave of you all. My duties await me, although until I know Nuala’s mind, I will not know of what they consist. I bid you good morning, and may your joys be trebled in the Service.”

“And yours as well, Teacher-Servant,” they say in unison.

Senior Iron-Servant’s wrists are lean and ready. Her greying curls tucked behind her ears, she swings the sadiron over the cloth, sometimes setting it aside to smooth the fabric with her fingers. Some wrinkles must be treated by hand.
*

The Clothing-Servants carry the heavy garment to where Nuala stands in her showering place. They fan out the crimson dress and pass it up to those standing on ladders. Those above fit the dress over Nuala’s head. Slip her wrists through the holes in the great sheet of fabric, and do up each button, down to the gap that is open to allow the long fingers of the Engine to enter her back. Her Walking-Servants lift her legs and her Clothing-Servants fit her with white socks and black shoes. I needn’t supervise the dressing of Nuala, but she needs me near.

“Nuala, do you like your pretty dress?”

“Teacher-Servant, it is beautiful. I am loved, am I not?”

“You are.”

We will not let her be rumpled. Nothing will be out of place when our Puppet Queen first walks her city, when her citizens see her full height for the first time.

*

I change into my soft slippers and Head-Servant sends the rope ladder down to my waiting hands. I climb to Nuala’s shoulder, roll up the ladder and lay the coil beside me next to her left earlobe. For the first time, we walk together. She is too overwhelmed to speak to me yet. To talk of the wonders she sees before her, above her, and below her. Now, she is content to walk and to let her Servants guide us to the fountain at the city centre. I ask the Servants to bend her at the waist so that she may see herself for the first time reflected in the great pool of water.

“Who is this, Teacher-Servant? Who is this Giant?”

“Little one. That is yourself you see in the water. And do you see the small man standing upon you? That is your shoulder, and upon it is your Teacher-Servant. I am six feet tall, but compared to your great height, I look a tiny creature, do I not? There are not two of me. The one you see in the water is false, and yet it is true, because it is me. The Giant you see is false, and yet it is you.” I grasp the metal handle fitted to Nuala's throat for me and use it to steady myself as her Servants lift her upright.

Nuala sees the citizens standing on the far side of the fountain, their reflections doubling them, an upside-down parade of themselves. The people stand and yet they ripple on the water: waving, laughing, weeping. Finally, a Giant has come!

I tell her, “Beloved, those are the small people, the people the size of me. They are citizens who are not lucky enough to serve you. But they may stand near the fountains of the city and watch you. Did you see yourself mirrored in the water? It is the same with the citizens. In water, we see ourselves twinned; we see the rippling echoes of ourselves. We are all two, Nuala. That which we know ourselves to be, and that which we show. That which is reflected in the water.”

“Teacher-Servant, why do the small people of the city watch me as they do? Why do they cry and call to me? Have they never seen a Giant before?” Her gaze is a gift to the people she sees mirrored in the water. They wave and weep in response. This gaze is not the gift of the first gaze, but I am the only one who will feel that in our lifetime.

“No, they have not, my Nuala. You are the first they’ve seen.”

“But are there other Giants? Where are they, Teacher-Servant? When will I see them?”

“Here there is only you, little one. But oh, the stories I will tell you of Giants in other lands! When I tell you stories of the Land of Giants, your heart will fill, love will surge in and take you over, make your every oaken nerve sing with desire to see them. How you will wish to travel there with me. How you will wish to travel with me to the Land of Giants on a great ship: a vessel that sails on water.”

“This is too much, Teacher-Servant. I have learned
water, but I cannot understand ship.”

‘Look far, far ahead of you, beyond the granite buildings you see in the distance. Beyond that, you may see the foggy outlines of the great sea. On it, the ships dance on the waters. Ships larger even than you. A riding, a bumping, a misting of salty water will rock you into a deep sleep, and when you awaken, the Land of Giants will be before you, the arms of the Giants the length of this street we now traverse. Their eyes only on you.”

“I see the water, Teacher-Servant, but I do not see the ships you speak of. Perhaps my eyes are not made for such seeing.”

“These marvels are far away, Nuala, and far in the time beyond ours. For now, be content with our walking and seeing in this radiant city, and with the love I already bear you. You, only a few days old, and on your first walk.”

Her thoughts are full of what she thinks waves must be, their rolling. Inside, she tumbles and sinks with the movement of what she imagines the water must do, and through the thrashings, I am with her in her mind, atop her shoulder, my tiny weight upon her shoulder, loving her from beside her exquisite face.


Next to her left cheek, I watch the Walking-Servants look up as they lift and lower her great wooden legs. Three Servants lift each leg, jumping to pull the great ropes, and handing them off to the next in line to keep her moving, moving. The wind over the tall buildings stirs her hair, whistling through the spaces in her throat and kneecaps as they bend and give.

“Why must I see through these…what do you call them?”

“Wires, my child.”

“Wires. Everything I see is through these wires. I cannot look at the buildings, the small people of the city, or my Servants without seeing them. You may see the world as a clear place, as may my other Servants. There are no wires in front of your faces. Why am I not permitted?”

“My child, in the Land of Giants, there are no wires. No clips or ropes. No Engines. The Giants there may move any way they like.”

“Oh, Teacher-Servant. When may we go?”

“Patience. You have only just awoken here. You must learn
here. My Nuala, I know you are full with questions and each is important, but I am only one Servant and cannot spend the length of each day answering them. Practice looking and listening, for these are skills you will need as you grow and learn. Watch and learn the ways your Servants help you stride through your city. Yes, you see through wires, but the people working those wires love you. They love you above their families. Above their own lives. Do you understand?”

“Teacher-Servant, I have learned that moving my legs is difficult work. My Servants’ faces are shining up toward me, but I see that they have to run to try to keep up with my legs, which are so much larger and longer than theirs. When we find the Land of Giants, Teacher-Servant, will I still see small people there? And will they love me?”

“I do not want you to find the Land of Giants, my beloved. For then you would want to leave me to be with others of your kind.”

“I will do as you instruct, Teacher-Servant.”

“Now hush, and look. Look, my child. See the tiny city through your Giant eyes. These are birds that fly around you, curious to know what you are. They may light on your shoulders as you walk, but do not fear them. They own the skies and the air above the buildings. They want only to see who it is can command the heights over which they usually hold dominion.”

The Servants below bend and pull the great ropes that move my Nuala’s legs and arms. They, so pleased to be working for a Puppet Queen, no strain shows on their faces.

“Now see below.” I look to the chair hanging behind Nuala’s skull and signal Head-Servant to turn her face downward. “You may see the children at your feet. Watch them running between your legs and listen to them calling up to you. Do you hear how they sing your name to you?
Nuuuuuuu-laaaa. They love you as well. They are you, but smaller. For you yourself are a child.”

After a moment, Head-Servant lifts her head to look out at the land before her. The buildings and grime and beauty of her city.

“Little one, do you remember the way you looked at me when first you saw me at your bedside?” I reach for a few stray strands of hair the wind has blown into the coiled metal of her throat, and pull them behind her ear, kissing the lobe as I do so.

“Yes, Teacher-Servant. I had only just awoken, and yet I knew all that I needed to know about you.”

“You gave me the gift of your first gaze,” I tell her. “When your Servants do something kind for you, the only reward they desire is your gaze. Do not forget this, my Nuala.” I signal again to Head-Servant. “Now, look down! Look at the people walking with bags of food to eat, vessels holding sweet wine to drink. See their faces turned upward in wonder. They have heard the stories, but now you are among them. They can scarcely believe you are here.”

A citizen in a hurry drops a bottle of wine. It shatters on the stones, wine and splinters of glass shooting across Nuala’s feet.

“What has happened, Teacher-Servant?”

“It is nothing, my love. Sometimes the city people are clumsy and drop things. When they fall and shatter as that bottle did, we say the fallen thing is broken.” A shop owner offers a broom, and we stop to allow a Walking-Servants to brush the deep crimson liquid and brown shards from Nuala’s shoes.

“Do you see the people walking as we are doing now, running, riding bicycles between your feet? The people below you with armloads of wood for the autumn fire you see burning in the square, wrapped and fragrant bouquets of white and yellow flowers with velvet petals and swaying leaves. Look how each one stops to wave up at you, to call your name, to strew leaves upon the ground where you walk.

“See how your citizens hold long loaves of bread, or books, or their children, or pieces of machinery. Now look up. Over the tops of the buildings, birds roosting under the eaves, then nests and birdlings on the roofs. The everything of it all! All awash in grandness and height and sheets of metal and iron and stone and glass, the tops of the streetlamps down and down below.

“Remember this. Remember what you see and what you feel, and remember me here. For this is my weight upon your shoulder. This is the weight of the steps I take when I am astride you, nesting upon you, where I will always be, my Nuala.”

*

Though they are old and have not been worn in anyone’s memory, Senior Iron-Servant has pulled the purple hat and raincoat from the giant wooden trunk in Nuala’s sleeping quarters. The garments are musty from disuse and are too big for Nuala, but my friend has given them a thorough airing, a quick tailoring. Freshened them with lavender oil and wind. This morning, I fingered the weight of them as they hung on the line, the threat of clouds thick in the moist air.

Nuala and I have been walking for several weeks, and each day but today, the sun shone as if for her alone. I have feared falling asleep on her shoulder as we stride through the city, the lull of new summer warmth on my face, the heat of her wooden cheek against the cool skin of my own.

“I wish it were raining and then not raining and then raining again, Teacher-Servant,” she thinks to me as I hang from the Engine’s rope ladder, suspended before her throat, unbuttoning her raincoat. My fingers are clumsy on the giant circles, their size making me feel my hands are not my own. I have been in the rain for hours, answering Nuala’s questions over and over, and now these buttons.

“Why wish such a thing, little one?”

“Because your hands would always be here, near my face, as it is you who buttons and unbuttons me when the rain stops and starts. I am pleased with the new purple coat and hat I am permitted to wear, Teacher-Servant. But I know that you and Head-Servant must help me to take them off. I know that when the Engine gives me a shower, then that is the correct time to have water flowing over my body. Before I have my socks and shoes on and my pretty red dress.”

“What else do you know, Nuala?”

“I know your cool hands on my throat, Teacher-Servant.”

I snatch my fingers from the button with which I’m struggling.

“No, Teacher-Servant. Do not take your hands from me. I do not mind their chill, for even though they are cold, your care warms me. I want your hands upon me. I know Head-Servant is behind me now, helping you take off my rain hat. But it is your hands I want. Your hands that push the cap off my head, yours that smooth my hair and place it behind my ears. There are no hands but yours. Yours inside my hair, and against my face.”

I climb a step on the rope ladder, and reach to fix the little braid I made for her yesterday when we walked the city. I sat on her left shoulder and fastened it with a ribbon I found in a long-ago box my mother gave me in the City of Servants, and put in my pocket on impulse. As I played with Nuala’s hair, I found myself shaping her a braid.

“Teacher-Servant?” I swing back before her face. “I can see the shape of you. I can see the green in your eyes, and I can see your long curls. I feel your hands brushing my lips. Do you see how well I have learned all that you have taught me about our parts? About how we work together?”

“I am pleased with your education, Nuala.” My tasks complete, the raincoat and hat removed, her hair tidied, I have no reason to stay on this ladder before her. I lean my body into her face and stretch across the expanse of her cheek to see that the nails holding her mouth closed are secure and not in need of oil, even though I know they are not.

I feel a wooden kiss of such ardour that I am pulled toward it. My lips part against cool wood at the edge of her ever-closed mouth, and my pelvis drops. I break with love, with yearning so sudden, so violent I cannot move. Cannot read her. Cannot speak.

She is quiet in her mind, but her wooden skin is heated. Her eyes bore into me. Her child-mind whispers me, “Is this what Giant love feels like, Teacher-Servant?”

“Oh, my little one. The only Giant love I know is that which I feel from you. I do not know any other Giants. Perhaps one day you will know a Giant’s kiss, a Giant’s hands in your hair. But for now, you are mine and I am yours, and my tiny hands will have to be enough. Though they are small, they are made for no work but this. To serve and to soothe you.”

I climb up to the Engine’s long, curved arms over Nuala’s head. I am shaken. Unsteady.

*

Tonight I draw trees. A dozen for her. The trees of her body. I tint the leaves with green chalk. Set them around her room so that she may feel forest.

*

Through the windows we watch on our walks, Nuala sees tiny flickers inside the homes of the city people. “Candles,” I answer. “They are little warming fires that also give light and allow the small people to read books.”

“Tell me about books and light and fire, Teacher-Servant. I saw many fires under the sky when we first walked through the parks of the city, and many people holding out their hands to them, but why do the city people love them so?”

It is bedtime, and bedtime is the time for stories. For days, Nuala has wanted to hear of the Land of Giants. What I tell her is from imagination and not knowledge. It is a welcome change to talk of other things: things that she can feel and see.

“Tell me of fire, Teacher-Servant.”

“The small people make fires when they want to feel warm. When they want to see one another in soft light, and when they want to talk of important events in their lives. Though they have other means by which to bring light and warmth into their homes, some prefer candles as they help people feel closer to one another.

“Candles are made of wax, but fires are made of wood and when the wood burns, the warmth brings the small people together to talk and sing and drink the wine you saw some of them carrying. This is what fires are for. For love and friendliness and warmth.

“But you must be wary of fire, my love. Just as it can burn people if they approach unwisely, it can also hurt you because of that of which you are made.” I lie beside her left ear, the length of me on her great pillow. Why at bedtime? My every instinct tells me I should hold back the story of fire, and although I am fatigued and weary of her questions today, my work is clear: I must tell Nuala all she wants to know, save the Two Great Secrets.

“Of what am I made? And why may I not speak?” she asks. “Why do I have a mouth if I cannot open it to give voice to my thoughts the way you and the other Servants may do? Why may I speak only to you?”

“One answer at a time, beloved. I am your Teacher-Servant, and speaking to you is a gift given only to me. So it is now and so it has ever been, in anyone’s memory. It is possible that the mouths of the Giants once opened, but no Giant who has ever awoken has the power of speech. Your mouth is fixed shut with nails that no one dare tamper with.”

“Could you not tamper with these...
nails, Teacher-Servant? How I yearn to speak. What does my voice sound like? I would never stop speaking, I have so much to say.”

“Perhaps that is why you cannot speak, my child. You would never stop! No one else could ever speak again, for you would always be talking, my little chatterbox. Your Giant voice would carry across the city and it would be all anyone could hear!”

“How you do tease me, Teacher-Servant! Then tell me of what I am made.” I lift my body to stand next to her, climb the small ladder against her face, place my elbows on her cheek, and chin my face in my palms. I look into the burnt emerald depths of her left eye.

“I know that I am not made of you,” she says. “Nor am I made of that which makes my other Servants, or the people of the city. Your hands are warm and you may move as you wish without wires. I may not. Of what am I made?”

“You are made of wood and metal, my child.”

Her thoughts burst into the colour of fear. “I am what they burn in their fires!” Her cheek against my thigh tingles with her anxiety, and I must be the one to dissipate it. I do not always know if I am equipped for this work, this questioning, her every emotion drilling into me.

“I will never let that happen, little one.” I stroke her cheek. “We Servants are made of flesh and blood. What you are made of is stronger than that which forms your Servants. You are built upon a sturdy framework, my child. Do you remember the picture of the tallest tree I drew for you to look at? Imagine that great tree, that formidable and grounded tree inside of you. A tree that stretches from the earth, up through your back…”

“Where the Engine’s long arm reaches?”

“Yes, that is right.” I feel her great desire to close her eyes, but she is unhooked and Seeing-Servant is long asleep. I do it for her. First her left eye, and I walk on her pillow with my ladder, around the top of her head to the right side of her face. I climb onto her cheek and lay my body against her to pull the veneer down over the great eye. I wish her mind could quiet itself as easily. I curl into the hollow at the side of her nose.

“The tree inside you grows up, up, and up, my love. Up into your shoulders, into your neck. The great tree reaches into your head. Its thick branches spread out into your mind. Its leaves are your thoughts.” I move down her face to stroke her lips to still the wild thought-leaves now that she cannot see me.

“The thought-leaves sway and rustle in your mind, and they smell of sweet summer. It is that which supports you, Nuala. Not the Engine’s fist of steel, or your Servants pulling on the cables attached to your kneecaps and wrists. You are built around an oak of unparalleled strength, an oak as old as this city is old. Nothing can topple you, Nuala. Your thoughts are forever-thoughts. The great tree inside you is ageless and immortal.”

“When may I see this tree, Teacher-Servant?”

“How tiresome you are this evening! Tomorrow, you shall see many trees like the one inside you, my beloved, if you are quiet now and go to sleep.”

Her voice is distant and languid. “Who made me, Teacher-Servant?”

I wait until I’m certain she is on the cusp of sleep. “I cannot tell you, my tall and lovely oak. It is enough for now that you are cherished and that you cherish in return. Now sleep. Sleep and dream.”

*

She woke with intellect, with language, with the curiosity of a girl who’d been awake for a decade. And all of it inside my head, overpowering me with intensity and thrusting.

“When will we see the trees, Teacher-Servant?” The persistent question rattles my nerve endings. “Little one, I told you not a moment ago that when I see the trees, I will point them out to you. You shall not miss them.”

“But I want so to meet them, Teacher-Servant. I want to hear their stories!”

I stifle unkind thoughts of nails stopping up her voice in my head. “Remember that the trees might not speak to you,” I say. “I cannot know for certain. Yes, you are all creatures of wood, but you must be prepared. You may not be able to speak to the trees any more than you can speak with the wooden trim around the window of your bedroom. For both are made of wood.”

“But the trim around my window is not Giant, Teacher-Servant.”

Her logic amuses me, despite the monotony of her questioning, and I laugh as we round the last corner on our way to the cemetery at the edge of the city. I signal to Seeing-Servant to move her eyes to the swaying treetops. “There they are, my love. Oak and spruce and yellowwood and pine—all tall and lovely as you.”

“Why do they not walk to meet me, Teacher-Servant? How I want to hold them!”

“You may do so, little one. Remember, I told you that trees are rooted to the ground. It is that which holds them strong and tall, just as the Engine and your Servants help hold
you strong and tall. It is the wind that stirs their leaves to life. It is the same wind that moves your hair on either side of your face.”

We walk toward the tallest and nearest tree, an early-summer, moss-covered pine, its torso weaving under the sky, creaking and swaying.

“Would you like to embrace this tree, Nuala?”

“Teacher-Servant, but for the touch of your flesh-and-blood hands, I have never wanted anything more.”

We move Nuala, slowly and with great care, to the heft of the trunk. The Wrist-Servants swish through centuries of spongy needles to lift her great arms into the air so that she may feel the knotty surface against her face, the insides of her elbows.

Her yearning washes me. A pull greater than that toward me. This, for one of her own kind: a tall and steady tree in love with its motion, its resilience and beauty. It needs nothing, no one, but the earth below and the sun and rain above. Its far-above canopy rains needles down on my Nuala and me as she whispers and coos to the tree in her arms.

“I do not have a
family,” she says, “but Teacher-Servant has helped me to understand what the word means. You are my family now.”

*

from The Last Temptation of Bond (UAP, 2013)

Bond Dreams a Marquis
[P O RT R A I T D U MAR Q U I S D AF F L I T T O , TA M A R A D E L E M P I C K A , 1925 ]


Bond emerges from the dark lake, pulls off the wet suit to reveal an immaculate white tuxedo underneath. picks a carnation from a rogue bush in the garden above the beach.
inserts it into his lapel. lights a cigarette. brushes off his shoulders and enters the salon, not a hair out of place. a skinny waitress anticipates his arrival and offers him a freshly-shaken vodka Martini from a silver tray.

in the other room, the Marquis reclines in front of a garish brown- green mural. the studio nearly too small for its representations. an odd assortment of trees, some tamar. the sky is steel. a mature elm reaches, motionless, behind the man’s left shoulder.

in the cocktail lounge behind the painted forest, Garbage’s “The World is Not Enough” seethes through the open doorway. through the late night bourbon and cigarillo haze, champagne swirls in flutes of crystal. tassels on drop-waist ball gowns flit left then right. James Bond mingles, uncharacteristically chatty. Art Deco laughter reaches the painter’s studio in muffled tinkles of caviar and chrome.

in the studio, a strong hand holds the calf of a meaty right leg, holds the legs open, the thumb crooked above. the knee is bent at ninety degrees. an unseen foot in — no doubt — a patent leather shoe rests at the end of the grey settee. the left leg is extended along the length of the cushions.

meticulously buffed nails of the left hand hang in repose from the cuff of the deep midnight dinner jacket. the white shirt extends an inch from inside its sleeve. the room’s overhead lights sheen the lapels to blue-black and silver. one pale blue vein drops and splits just below the left wrist. fingers long and thin. delicately jointed. his unseen heart is as black as night. the jacket is buttoned at the groin, falls open slightly at the midriff. reveals a spotless starched white shirt, a tapered waist, a subtle twisting of the torso toward the painter. the enticing pose the subject’s gift to the portrait maker.

wide shoulders sit astride the man’s casual arms, the collar of the shirt, a burgundy-black bow tie. its knot partially hidden by the man’s chin. above the chin a mouth with the sharp edge of cruelty despite its red, moist openness. no trace of a smile. the slightest of wrinkles, suggestion of a scar near the edge of the lower lip.

cropped black hair perfectly shaved around small, aristocratic ears. shadowed eyes half closed look out at the viewer. blackness and depth. feral, intoxicating. an invitation to coupling, to power, low lidded. deep V creased into the forehead. the facial skin otherwise smooth and young.

a single button holds the subject’s dinner jacket closed. the sharply tailored hem flows over thighs and warm suede, draping open as it frames the groin. it rises to prominence, the focal point at the end of the eye’s journey from the face. full and rounded, trousers taut against its heft. the portrait maker blends ultramarine and zinc white. builds the organ’s shape and life.



Bond stands on the terrace, a chilled Martini glass in his hand. subtle. his cover unbroken until he answers this woman. her gin- soaked, lazy-lipped question. “and you are...?” she’ll recall his first name, but not his last. she’ll be screaming “James, JAMES!” into her pillow later tonight, but his face will not penetrate her
mind. he’s safe with this one. soon she’ll be out of her skull on the orgasms he’ll give. he plans to toss her in the morning.

you know what they say today’s newspapers wrap tomorrow’s fish.

the Marquis’s hands have not killed, have not pointed the way to murder, to espionage. but these hands have gripped delicate champagne flutes. have surely stroked the inner thighs of diplomats’ wives on secluded balconies while their husbands deliver stilted keynote addresses to rooms filled with stiff businessmen.

the portrait maker’s work is finished for the evening. the Marquis swings his legs over the side of the settee, stands, smoothes the jacket, lingering as he strokes the front of his trousers. he fastens a second button. approaches the painter.

places a slow kiss against the hollow of her throat, leaves the scent of himself under her chin. swings the black velvet cloak across his shoulders. leaves the studio without a backward glance. he returns to the cocktail party while the painter replaces metal caps on tubes of rose madder and yellow ochre. in the other room a skinny waitress brings the Marquis a Martini on a silver tray. two olives swim in the viscous, backlit liquor.

a darkened balcony overlooks the teeming nightcity. his hands both full now. a double vodka Martini in one, a middle-aged breast in the other. someone’s wife. holding the pose has caused a soreness in the left shoulder. he rotates the cramped socket. eager, ringed fingers massage its stiffness. in the shadows, a spy watches.

she inserts her tongue into the cleft between the jut of his chin and his lower lip. his groin at rest now. languid. eyes bored. elsewhere.

a painter slips into the night, unseen, her paints in a stained wooden box in her right hand.



Black
Brioni Dinner Jacket
[ C A S IN O R O Y A L E , 2 0 0 6]


the first time you appear in your black Brioni dinner jacket, you’re a reflection. you adjust your collars and cuffs, do up the top button of the tailored white shirt. the bathroom mirror of your suite at the Hotel Splendide admires your lithe profile. the camera over your left shoulder. large round lights pick up the
strawberry in the short blond hair on this incarnation of you. rough hands straighten the bow tie.

the cinema is full. when you enter the shot, three hundred women utter little cries, gasps, whimpers. the sight of you adjusting cufflinks, stroking the jacket over your belly and groin, gazing into your own steel blue eyes. three hundred male heads turn toward the sounds, arms encircle sighing shoulders of women they’ve brought along (some against their will: those who tend to fall asleep during Bond films so they won’t die of boredom. some more than willing to be here: those who don’t mind watching
you blow everything up as long as you wear a tux, sweat a little at your upper lip, raise a wry eyebrow while you’re doing it. those who know the first sight of you in that tuxedo — timeless, never out of style — will start the Slow James Bond Burn they’ve loved to feel ever since Dr. No, or A View To A Kill or whenever they were tempted into your world of lust, intrigue, guns, cars, and impeccable dinner jackets over chest and thighs).

the theatre full now of men reaching for kisses, whispering, calling attention to themselves, anything to distract the women from the screen, from the lips and cufflinks of this Bond.

real men are no competition. we preen and dress up before we go to the cinema, put on extra mascara, tolerate the arms around us, the futile attempts at suave conversation afterward, the clumsy ordering of Martinis in dull pubs. because we know that you’re aware of us, that we watch you dress. and you like it.


Your
Heart is as Black as Night

ONE and James Bond sit in the darkened Parisian nightclub. the lights dim. cigarette smoke blues up into the ceiling fans, whirlwinds around the tight space. polite applause and tinkling champagne goblets.

stinking red velvet curtains struggle open to reveal a four-piece combo. drums, a stand-up bass, a lead guitar
a svelte, forty-something blonde in a low-cut
mauve Jenny Packham gown. tilting on heels and three too many Martinis.

Bond snaps his fingers for a waiter More champagne. Please.
and two Rusty Nails. the singer fake blonde hair sticking in her teeth — screws the microphone with her lips, her manicured crimson nails raking its tip and stroking out the pain.
slithery lips in wet shades of quivery orange ricochet
lights above her. wrists obscured by a dozen clinky bracelets of gold and borrowed love. a cigarette threatens to burn
the tender space between the first and second fingers of her right hand.


her eyes closed, her false lashes brush her drunken cheeks, hips in a quiet dance in time with the lead guitar’s licks. ash drops, smoulders at her right shoe.

Your Heart is as Black as Night. ain’t that the truth, ONE thinks. she watches Bond through the crystal pattern
in her goblet, the multi-faceted diamonds, his sweet lips lapping his alcohol
dizzies her through bubbles and brushes on a snare drum.


on stage, the singer goes into the expected routine. simulated orgasm, exaggerated “oh”-ing and lip-licking.

at the end of the number, it would be a lie to say that the crowd goes wild. the crowd — such as it is — gives its drunken approval as well as it can. the heavy, soiled velvet squeaks shut, catching the lead singer’s left wrist reaching through the opening. a kiss spiraling its way
through the haze to J ames Bond .


ONE grabs him by his tie and hauls him to his unsteady feet. she drags him to the exit, a goon of a man opening
the sticky metal door for them.


his heart is as black as night. this night. stumble him into the cab at the curb.

at the stage door, ash drops from a red velvet nail to the greasy pavement below.







Antelope

Antelope*

[for Birk Sproxton]

you and I would talk about this kind of seeing. this distinctive scan/sweep that true prairie people do on winter highways. the yellow Deer Crossing signs so much a part of our travel we almost don’t see them any more.

we’d make jokes on this long drive Medicine Hat to Swift Current.
careful! silhouettes of deer leaping against a bright yellow background for the next ten K!

in summer, our eyes spending more time on wheat and on red-winged blackbirds swaying on tall bulrushes in ditches than on the asphalt ahead. low, curved letters and vibrant gang tags on trains shunting alongside. in winter, watching for the prick of ear, the flicking tail of sudden motion. snow tossed up behind hooves. feet hovering over brake pedals.

they’re east and a hundred yards from the highway. or were a few seconds ago. what draws them so quickly to this March ditch, white rumps lifted? to the thick drifts, the buried vegetation. the black and blue roaring beasts that encase us on the long strips of gray they insist on crossing.

(does he know he cannot outrun me? that bobbing and weaving will get him killed even faster?)


you’d have said,
see what you see, Beach. it doesn’t matter if they don’t understand you. you understand you and so do I. they’ll try to pigeon-hole you. you’re a poet. or you’re a fiction writer. god forbid you try to do both in the same book. CanLit might explode on the spot if anyone tried that shit.

the antelope now at the six-at-night highway’s edge near the Maple Creek turnoff. skittish, both of us. I slow, eyes up and backwards on the semi growling up behind me at one-twenty. I need more eyes. the animal steps into the road and I’m able to swing to the fast lane seconds before it paws the hard surface full with snowblind light and sprays of slush.

(what does he think I am?)

ditches thick with ears and hooves. dirty with the twist of metal and spray of windshields from last night’s crashings. a blue Charger on its roof, its guts splashed, yellow police tape and dust of snow.
you’d have called me.
meet me at the bar. we need to talk. “the bar”: our table in JB’s Lounge at the Black Knight Inn. you’d have poured me more wine. you’d have said, don’t write poetry. don’t write fiction. write Books. just write everything and toss what doesn’t work. don’t forget it takes a heap of shit to grow a single rose.
in the slow lane, I watch backwards, powerless. the antelope crosses the path of the swerving semi. I want the driver to stay on the highway safe, more than I want the animal to live.
~~~
my note to you:
but what if they rip me to shreds? what if they don’t see what I’m doing and they kill me?
your note back: always a gentle admonition. why aren’t you writing, Beach? our way of each crossing over into the solitude of the other, a prod, a shove forward into danger, you shoving me more often than the other way round. because at the moment, I’m answering your note, “Doctor Sproxton”.
~~~
our eyes in continuous motion across medians, into ditches, scanning the fields of hay bales. our eyes the long green wand that sweeps the radar screen, the
blips the deer and pronghorn antelope we squint at in dusk.
(they see me. they only need me not to run them down.)

you’d have said,
it’s not “what if” they rip you to shreds. it’s “when.” toughen up, girl. have you got what this takes?

I didn’t know then. I don’t know now that you’re gone. what I know is that I can’t see ahead. the road is wilting with snow and ice. the antelope tries to outrun the weaving semi. a desperate back and forth in the fast lane, hooves and tufts blurring against white. the grill’s teeth slash at the buck’s hindquarters, legs thrashing in air as the animal spins through the sideways snow once, twice, three times, four. horns to the sky briefly, then clattering on pavement. I turn back to the road ahead, narrow my eyes to see something. anything but what I’ve just seen.
~~~
you know I dream of you often. you come to me just as you were. clean cotton and love. you give me writing advice that vanishes as I open my eyes. you hug me. I wake up crying, my shoulders still warm. your small kiss of beard tickly on my cheek.
~~~
forty-eight years of country living and highway driving, stuck to blacktop and plunging into dusk, backroads and four-lanes and never, not once have I seen the collision. as a girl, I asked my mom why the deer like to lie down in the ditch. don’t they have a bed to sleep in somewhere with their sister and brother? my own sister and brother leaning either side of me in the back seat, road-bounced into sleep and drooling. lolling heads and blue mittens on the floor.

no bullshit from mom.
they’re not sleeping. they’re dead. a car hit them. I began my scan/sweep seeing a decade before I could drive.
~~~

ahead of me the warp-speed stabbings of snow in the dusk of headlights. behind me is death. behind me is fur and blood and more animals waiting in the ditch.

(do they grieve? do they see the dead one in the ditch on the other side? do they cross to be near him, their whiskers thick with frost nudging the flesh of the buck?)

the truck’s hindquarters swerve on the oil of ice and salt. it rights itself, pulls over.

I can do nothing. but how to unsee this.

a few kilometres ahead, the white rump of a semi sticks itself into the roadway, its nose buried in ditch snow, lights still on. I swerve around its ass end, exhaust in plumes from two rattling pipes.

you’d have said,
they’re going to cream you, no matter what. so just write what you need to write. you’d have said, you don’t need me any more. you know what to do. you’d have clinked your glass to mine. you’d have handed me your new poem. you’d have hugged me to you, your white whiskers at my throat.

I only know to keep driving. keep going forward. into what, I can’t see.

* This poem first appeared in
Prairie Fire, 34:3 (The Birk Sproxton Tribute Issue)

Poems