“I feel like death,” a man standing behind Keriman said. “I’m totally awake, but I start reading the little cards and all I want to do is sleep.”
“One hour tops,” a woman next to him says. “Then I want out. Never to come back. We’ve already been here that long. Let’s go.”
“But it cost twenty-five dollars each!”
“Okay, so let’s go find the café,” the woman says. “We can get a coffee and pretend we’ll go see the canoes after.”
“Let’s have cake, too,” the man says.
And before Keriman can turn around, they click-clack away, and she’s alone in this part of the exhibit. Keriman wants to follow the couple down to the café and sit with them and talk about anything. But she can’t make this socially inappropriate move. Just like the man, she’s exhausted, lethargy crawling up her legs like baby spiders. She wants to kick them off and walk every floor of this Quebec museum, the building just over the river from Ottawa, the Canadian capital. Instead, she’s been circling this dark room, staring at the exhibit on Voodoo.
She digs in her purse for a breath mint, but only finds a Lifesaver, green, the worst flavor of all. Keriman pops it in her mouth anyway, feeling tiny bits of lint on her tongue, the green a taste of fake lime or fake spring or something that she recognizes as green. Red’s no good either, tasting like old-school cough drops, Vicks or Sucrets. Maybe orange is best, but there’s only this one sad O of green candy left. The slight sugar gives her a buzz though, and she crunches down on the slightly soggy sugar and the lint and moves along.
The room around her is filled with the sounds of ritual and chant, the walls, ceiling, and floor muffled black, the Voodoo artifacts a vibrant splash of all colors, but there’s a lot of red, bright blood splots against the dark wall. Are there many Voodoo believers in Canada? This is the least Voodoo-type place she’s ever been. Over the bridge less than a mile away in Ottawa, the Parliament Building sits on a hill, a vision straight out of Scotland or at least the English moors or Lake Country or maybe Harry Potter, the building copper-roofed and stone against gray skies. The St. Lawrence River is majestic, wide and swift, the city streets clean and full of cabs, the people polite and formal, some slightly and stoically French.
But all around her are recorded moans and calls out to the dead, the beating of drums and the clapping of hands. On TV screens in each corner is a wild flurry of white fabric, the prostrations of bodies, a woman scrabbling on the floor like a crab. In the exhibit right in front of her now, a large wooden table is set, skulls set out like treasured family heirlooms. And maybe they are. According to Voodoo belief, everything is alive, even people and animals that are dead. The informational card states the dead can effect the living, in good and bad ways. It’s important a soul gets a proper send off and then welcome into the afterworld. If not, well, that’s when rituals are needed to calm all those angry spirits.
This table, the card reads, is about the dead and the living sitting together around the table, inter-connected, combined, everything all at once jostling for energy.
How crowded it must be. Keriman thinks of her small condo in San Francisco. There’s barely room for potted plants much less her live family—her two sons—not to mention all her dead: grandparents, father, mother, husband, generations of family stretching back to the beginning of time, or, at least, cavemen.
Keriman shakes her head, moves away from the table to an exhibit of wooden crosses, some hung with large doll-like figures, some faces leering, some blank. She’s not a Voodoo believer. Dead things are dead things. But Voodoo folks see things differently. For instance, a cross isn’t about Christ but a symbol of a crossroad. An origin, a destination. Heading to death, returning to life, the back-and-forth spot.
A weigh station, Keriman thinks, moving past the rows of crosses.
But isn’t life the weigh station? And isn’t life hard enough without making it more confusing? It’s difficult enough talking to the alive people. Who needs all these rituals and crosses and dolls and prayers to converse with the dead ones? The dead need to be silent, so those left behind alive can try to figure it all out and just go on without them.
“Keri?” someone says, and Keriman closes her eyes. She hopes it’s a dead person she can ritual away back into the spirit world. She will sing and dance and beat the drums. She can sit this dead person down at the skull table and lift a glass of blood in farewell. But no, it’s Agnes, her cousin from Portland.
“What’s this?” Agnes stares at the crosses, a hand at her throat as if she’s about to genuflect. “It’s creepy. Come on. Let’s go look at the totem poles.”
Keriman breathes in, nods, follows Agnes. That’s what should be in a Canadian museum: Inuit artifacts, canoes, teepees, totem poles. Fur trader hats and tools. Maple tree exhibits. Queen Victoria ephemera. Not this, this crossroad of life and death, this black box room that pulses with everything that should have been finished long ago. Once and for all.
“So we can go to Parliament. They have a library with an iron door! For fires, you know. And then there’s the art museum. And dinner. I have reservations at this place. All I did was Google ‘best restaurant in Ottawa.’”
Agnes laughs, sips her coffee. In the corner of the café, Keriman sees the couple who left the Voodoo exhibit. He seems wide-awake now, sitting back, looking at his wife or girlfriend, a smile on his face. The woman leans forward, her coffee cup in her hands, telling him something he wants to listen to.
“Sounds nice,” Keriman says absently. She picks up her bagel and takes a bite, trying not to look at Agnes. After the long four days in Alberta, Keriman can barely stand to even glance at her cousin, the sound of Agnes’ voice making her want to fling open the rental car door and twirl to the asphalt. She knows it’s her own fault for agreeing to the trip, but the memory of Agnes’s mother made her say yes when her cousin asked her to accompany her from Portland to Quebec City by car, Agnes’ treat. Agnes’ mother Lucille and Keriman’s mother Martha had been close, sisters born less than one year apart. All their lives, they talked every day, even after Martha married Keriman’s father Doruk Unal, a Turkish man she met in college. Even when Martha was half a world away, living in Istanbul, Lucille sent Christmas presents and birthday cards. Even after Martha died, Lucille checked in on Keriman until the day before she died.
How could Keriman say no?
The only good news was they weren’t going all the way to Labrador.
“More than nice!” Agnes chews her own bagel, a smidge of cream cheese on her upper lip. “It’s that nouvelle cuisine. You know, Michelin Starry kind of food.”
Two weeks so far. Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria Island by ferry boat. Victoria to Vancouver by ferry. Then in quick highway order: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and now Ontario. Only one more province to go, Quebec, the one more seems like forever. Canada seems longer and bigger than the United States. Greener and hotter, but more rain in the summer, this June pounding with rain and sudden thunder.
“Okay,” Keriman says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Agnes looks up over her bagel, beams, and Keriman turns away to watch the couple, but only their coffee cups remain on the table, chairs pushed back, napkins crumpled. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe in some Voodoo way, their energy is still there, telling stories and laughing.
The next day, the weather is hot and humid once again, the sky a mix of vibrant blue and wet, hanging clouds hovering on the horizon. Agnes drives and talks, both of her small hands on the wheel. Now and then, she lifts one in emphasis, flexing her hand, her fingers short and white and erect. But then her one-sided conversation turns, and she puts it back on the wheel. Too keep Agnes going, Keriman “umms” and nods, making the sounds that will keep her cousin on a plot path as well as on the highway. But it’s almost impossible because Agnes likes to stop, the last bathroom break at a place called The Big Apple. When she walked into the building, Keriman saw the largest apple pie factory she’d ever and only seen, rows and rows of pies heading toward an oven. The sweet sugary smell made her sick, and she made excuses and walked out to feed the llamas and sheep at the odd and impromptu petting zoo.
She put two quarters into the dispenser and out spilled alfalfa pellets the animals nibbled from her hands. For a second, she remembered her little boys at the petting zoo in San Francisco, the fat black goats and the warthog. For a second, she was able to forget about the pie.
But now Agnes is pointing at a sign for a sugar shack, a Cabane à Sucre.
“My friend told me we had to stop for maple syrup. And candy. And all sorts of specialty stuff,” Agnes says. “Like this butter. It’s just whipped syrup, but it’s apparently divine. You can spread it on toast! Can you believe it?”
“Sounds wonderful,” Keriman says. At least the sugar shack is fifty kilometers away. There is time for Agnes to forget and forge on to Quebec City, where at least once they check in, Keriman can slip under the sheets in her own hotel room bed.
Agnes chats on as they pass farms, houses, the river a constant beside them. When Agnes first called about the trip, she said, “We both turn 66 this year. Six plus six is twelve. Twelve is one plus two which equals 3. Get that? Three! In numerology that’s an amazing number for women. You know. The stages of a woman’s life. We’re crones now. And crones need vacations, too.”
When they were little girls and both their families still lived in San Francisco, Keriman and Agnes were dolled up for their joint birthday party in June, the month of both their births, born exactly a week apart in 1947, a strong, safe year, a prosperous year. Their fathers had steady jobs, their mothers back at home tending their brand new babies. So what that Keriman was suspiciously darker due to Doruk’s nationality? The good news was that mostly, she just looked tan, her light brown hair almost blond against her skin, her eyes flecked with gold and emerald. So what Agnes turned out to be a little round, a little pasty, a dough girl in a pink dress? They were imperfect, but neither girl knew it till they entered school, such was the circle of family love and admiration.
“What sweethearts,” their mothers used to coo. “What beautiful girls.”
Keriman can still feel her father’s shoulder as he carried her down Elizabeth Street in Noe Valley. She’d been so safe there, bouncing as he walked, her family, her neighbors, even strangers giving her wide smiles. And when she looked up? All blue sky.
After high school graduation, Keriman never celebrated another birthday with Agnes. She fled to NYU and then Europe, landing a job with the State Department as a travel consultant. Then she met Ted—dashing in his dark suit, white shirt, and black tie– and they were never still, living in country after country, moving from Milan, Paris, Istanbul, Madrid, first as a couple and then with first one and then two boys. And Agnes? She married her high school sweetheart Roger, moved to Portland, and produced four children who were just like her, blonde and pale and springy to the touch. Whenever Keriman thinks of her cousin’s children, she thinks of hats and sunscreen.
Agnes still lives in their Portland house, even though Roger left her years ago, and her two girls and two boys are in Tampa and Raleigh, Bangkok and Austin with families of their own. After all these years, this Canadian trip was her first big adventure.
Keriman’s only stipulation for the trip was that they had to have separate rooms, holding firm even when Agnes pulled out the “slumber party” card.
“I have a hard time sleeping,” Keriman said into the phone as Agnes pressed on. “I wander around. No, really. I read. I turn on the lights. I watch TV. Really. Yes. Really.”
Finally, Agnes agreed, though in every hotel, there’s been a connecting door. Locked, but a maybe, just the same.
“Oh, my god,” Agnes says, pointing a finger at the sign. “Only thirty kilometers to go! Sugar shack, here we come.”
Keriman nods, closes her eyes, sits back, the rumble under her back like wooden drums.
Finally in the hotel, Keriman takes a shower and pulls back the blankets. Agnes selected this Quebec City hotel because it is the most photographed in the world, a castle jutting up into the air like a giant fork. A pretty, ornate fork, though much of the hotel rings this edifice like a small village. All that’s missing, Keriman thinks, is a moat.
Lying down and putting her head on the pillow, she feels as though she has jetlag, the kind she used to get after flying home from Asia or Australia, her mind fuzzy with exhaustion, her body dead weight. Those were the best sleeps she’d ever had in her life, not one second of consciousness for twelve hours. Like being under anesthesia. Like being dead.
But it seems only moments later that she’s awake, her heart pounding, the weight of Ted next to her on the bed. Keriman blinks into the strange gloam of the afternoon hotel room. She swallows and wonders if she by mistake took the sleeping pill her friend Maya gave her before Keriman left, the medication that makes people wander the house at night and eat buckets of chicken and slurp down ketchup from the bottle.
One breath, two, and she is sure she’s awake and positive it’s Ted, sitting on the edge of the bed just like he used to, his back toward her. Her eyes adjust, and she moves her body so she can stare. How many times had she seen this view? Ted tying his shoes before work. Ted taking off his glasses and putting them on the nightstand. Ted telling her about something difficult, a fight at work, his upset with her, concerns about the boys, problems with his niece.
“Where have you been?” She swallows after she speaks, amazed she was able to say one word, her throat as dry as her eyes.
He shrugs, and at that known, true gesture, she reaches out and strokes his back, his body warm under his shirt. Where did he come from? Where did this shirt come from? It’s not the white one she buried him in five years ago, dressing him the way he came into her life—black suit, white shirt, skinny tie. It was the fashion again, but she might have done it anyway.
“Are you real?”
He shrugs, coughs, his voice at first a scrabbly scratch.
But then, “I think so.”
At the sound of his voice, Keriman shakes her head, pulls herself to sitting, her breath caught under her breastbone. His Parkinson’s had been so debilitating, she hadn’t heard him speak much more than a mumble for years. And that voice! He’d lulled her to sleep every night during the twenty-eight good years they’d had. All those State Department stories. The politicians. The sheiks. The princesses and prime ministers. What they wore and ate. How they swore and spit and smelled.
He’d recount the landscapes of the travels he’d made without her and those he’d brought her to. She can still feel her arm in his as they walked into cocktail parties and lectures, the slick sheen of his silk tuxedo, the smell of his Aqua Velva, his low laugh, quiet jokes, big smile.
And then? He started to tremble. He never stopped, not until the day and hour and minute he died. For seconds, a minute, maybe five, right after he was gone, the man she’d fallen in love with was back, still and strong and whole. Until he started to turn cold, Keriman could pretend that things were just fine, the words she’d needed to say for years right there. How she’d loved the way he’d seen her that first day as he strode in the office. How he’d held her arm. How he’d picked up each boy after work and swung them around until they squealed. How he hadn’t cared she was different and dark and had an odd name, so odd he was the only one who called her Keriman.
She’d leaned down to his ear, ready to whisper it all. But he wasn’t all right. He was dead. It was too late to reach in past the tremors.
“Why are you here?” she asks, her heart beating on her tongue and throat.
“I never left.” His weight shifts on the bed.
Then Keriman remembers the Voodoo table, the one set for the dead. Had she forgotten to send him off? Had he needed a celebratory meal of skulls and blood? Had her tears not been enough? Her grief?
“Do you want to leave?”
“Like this?” he says. “Yes.”
“You could stay,” Keriman says. “You could stay and be like this. You could see the boys again. I don’t care if you’re not real. I won’t say anything to anyone. No one will know but me. You could finish this trip with me. I won’t tell Agnes.”
There’s a pause, and she breathes him in, taking in all that memory. This would work. This would be enough.
“No,” he says. “I need to go.”
Keriman reaches up to hug him around the neck, but she falls to the mattress, grabs nothing but pillow. Light pours through a crack in the curtains. Her phone is ringing. Her husband is gone.
Agnes has clearly found the best restaurant in Quebec City, one in a hotel in the old city. The waiter presents them with plate after plate of odd food, one dish cattails, the reed Keriman used to pick with her mother at the estuary. Her mother would dry them and then spray-paint the tails, placing them in the large brass vase in the living room. But now, Keriman is eating them. By the time the dessert plates have been collected—chile ice cream with odd cookies and some kind of brown foam—she’s ready for a plate of lasagna and a bowl of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate sauce.
“Wasn’t that delicious?” Agnes says, wiping her mouth with her napkin. Tonight, she looks less pale and pasty, her cheeks flushed from the day’s adventure.
Only three more days, Keriman thinks. Then she can go home. She picks a strand of cattail from between her front teeth.
“I can’t believe this food.”
“Hmmm,” Keriman says.
“Tomorrow night, we go on the ghost tour?”
Keriman looks up, brings a hand at her neck. She can feel her pulse, a hard one, two. “Ghost tour?”
Agnes nods, waves for the check just like she might at a Denny’s. “Yes! They take us to all the ghosts in the city. And it’s an old city. Lots of ghosts.”
Keriman wonders if her own hotel room is on the itinerary.
The waiter comes by and speaks to Agnes in his very best English, cutting Keriman a glance as if to say “Just because you left those stalks on your plate, don’t mess up my tip.”
Later, Keriman and Agnes stroll the wide wooden boardwalk outside the hotel. Below them, the St. Lawrence. To their backs, the Laurentian Mountains. Everywhere around Keriman, her husband, his voice, his scent, his ghost.
“Let’s get a real ice cream,” Agnes says. “We’re on vacation. We can have everything we want.”
Apparently, Keriman thinks, following her cousin toward the ice cream shack. Even dead husbands.
Later when his ghost does not return to her hotel bedroom, Keriman wonders which mental hospital she will check herself into when she returns home. Maybe she’ll drive to Bellevue in New York, going all out with this final delusion.
Keriman and Agnes take the funicular down to Boulevard Champlain and wait with other English speakers. A breeze picks up and rolls over the St. Lawrence. Keriman buttons her sweater, listening to Agnes chatter away about surprises and ghost sightings and black cats. Finally, as dusk turns purple with night, the guide strikes a match and lights a brass lantern that flickers dim and then puffs up bright, gold, and shiny. Agnes shivers visibly and clutches Keriman’s arm, reminding Keriman of the years they went trick-or-treating together, Agnes the Wicked Witch of the West, Keriman Little Red Riding Hood.
“This is so scary!”
“Nothing’s happened yet,” Keriman says.
“But it’s going to. Any minute!”
Holding up the lantern, the young woman dressed in a long dress and cape, a ruffle at her neck, looks out at them.
“Stay with me, and you’ll hear 400 years of murder, executions, mysterious ghost sightings. I have for you this very night tragedies and haunting to unfold in grisly detail. These cobblestone streets of Old Quebec hold many secrets that locals have tried to forget. Come with me, you who are not faint-of-heart.”
“Oh my goodness.” Agnes clutches Keriman. “I’ll never be able to sleep tonight!”
Keriman turns to look at Agnes, her cousin’s face aglow and alight in the street and lantern lights. Keriman thinks to offer up one of Maya’s sleeping pills, when she feels Ted at her other side. Actually, she breaths him in first, feels his known stride alongside hers. How many cities have they walked in together? That weekend in Belfast, threats of NRA bombings in the papers, Keri’s heart pounding at every rumble of bus or car backfire. And that weekend in Normandy. What was the name of that little town, town being too big a word for the one store and broken payphone? And even now, in death, he’s with her on an adventure.
As they walked toward the place in front of the old church, the moon rises, somehow making Ted disappear, even his smell wafts away in the river breeze.
“Here we are at the site of a terrible tragedy,” the guide continues, her English aslant with French, music under her words. She’s young, her face pale, her eyes dark. Her skirts billow around her as she turns toward a house in the corner of the square. Keriman feels the eyes of the church at her back.
“This square is known for its strange and unusual occurrences. One night forty years ago, for instance, the house in the far corner there caught fire. No one was ever able to discover how or why. But neighbors say the couple living here had a fight so loud that even then, fire seemed to be coming from the roof. Later that night, a conflagration burst out on the top floor. The four children perished.”
Keriman feels as though she’s turned upside down and drained like a kosher chicken, the kind she and Ted saw dangling in the butcher’s windows in Jerusalem. Four children dead.
“What about the parents?” someone on the tour asks.
The guide turns a dramatic face to them, the lantern swinging in her raised hand. For one second, she looks like a pleasant skeleton, all her bones visible, prominent. “They both survived the fire. But later than week, the wife killed herself.”
Agnes leans into Keriman, squeezes her arm, makes a slight moan. “Four children.”
“And the dad?” someone else asks.
“He moved away and remarried,” the guide says. “But the incident haunted him his entire life.”
Keriman can’t swallow, can’t move. How is it, she wonders, that the people around her are chatting? How can they actually be moving, walking away from the house and moving toward the small church? How can any of them go one step further? How could the father have gone on into another life, slipping the memories of his other family into his new house?
“I want to go home,” Agnes says.
“Good idea. Let’s go to the hotel.” Keriman pulls her cousin away from the tour, leading them both to the funicular that will take them back to the hotel.
“I mean home,” Agnes says, shaking. “I don’t want to stay in this city anymore. I want to go back to Portland. Tomorrow.”
“We can get on the road—“
“No.” Agnes is shaking hard now, almost the way Ted used to, uncontrolled, relentless. Her words are full of tears, the loss of loss of loss hitting Agnes now. Not of her own four children, of course. But the family life, the thing Agnes had hoped and waited for, gone like that at her husband’s decision.
Keriman holds her cousin tight, and in that press squeeze press, they are six-years-old again, walking toward a bepumpkined front door, their parents behind them with flashlights. Just like sixty years ago, they are alone together, headed toward something scary.
Back at the hotel, Keriman takes Agnes up to her room and then heads down to the lobby and arranges for them to leave early, telling the young woman that her cousin has fallen ill. She pays their bill, makes arrangements with the airline, and goes back to her room, flicking on the lights and looking around. No ghosts here. She goes to the window and stares out at the dark river below, a swath of black ribboning amongst the city lights. She imagines she can see the haunted house, can hear the four dead children peering silent out the leaded windows.
What is she missing? Keriman wonders. What loss is she grieving besides the obvious?
She turns fast, hoping to catch Ted, but he’s no longer visible. She can’t even breathe him in, and she paces the ten or so feet from window to bathroom door. But finally, she understands. Ted has been waiting for her here, this crossroad located in the most photographed hotel in the world.
Keriman sits down on the couch and opens her bag. On the large glass table in front of her, she pulls out objects. Lipstick. Her driver’s license. A credit card. A photo of her and Ted in Oman. A photo of their two boys, taken years ago on a rare family vacation to Oahu, both of then brown and shining in the tropical sun. Next, her car keys. Her library card. Her brush. She arranges them in an order, from Ted to no Ted. It’s been a long time since she’s worn any makeup, this emergency lipstick hard and waxy. She used to have lips like a Christmas bow at all those state functions. Just like in this photo, Keriman young and gleaming, Ted still healthy. Then there are the boys, now men. Next the credit card, a platinum type she would never qualify on her own, given her during the good years. Then her brush. The library card. But next she places her license. Her car keys, one the key to the rental car she will drive to the airport to drop off Agnes.
Then she says all that she needed to when he died. She recites the list of his best things, one after the other, this time, making sure to tell him everything.
When she’s done, the room stills, the air light and empty.
“I’m going all the way to Labrador.” Keriman looks around, imagining she will find the ghost of his ghost. “I’m going to drive to the edge of the world. You can go, too. To the edge of wherever you need to be.”
She waits, breath in her throat. She wonders if she should be chanting, just like those Voodoo people. But she has no chant, no dirge, no poem. Maybe she should dance, a waft of fabric, a whirl of arms. But wait, Keriman has a song, one that Ted used to sing to her sometimes, once on a funicular headed to the peak of Braunwaldbahn in the Swiss Alps. He sang unabashed, his eyes on her the entire time.
A boy without a girl
Is a song without a tune
Is a year without a June
A boy without a girl
Is a day without a night
Is a star without a light
She sings it now to urge him over and through the crossroads without her. She lifts her hands, gazes out to the river. She sings for herself, now truly alone in the world.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Mason’s Road, The Coachella Review, So to Speak, and Salt Hill Journal. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College and teaches online novel classes for UCLA Extension. You can read more at jessicabarksdaleinclan.com