The Quotable

Story Night

North of this quiet West-end neighbourhood, just across the train tracks, is a desert of asphalt that nobody looks at. The tracks used to feed the stockyards, and on hot days, a thick and putrid wind would blow into the well-kept kitchens where women screwed up their noses and shut the windows despite the heat. The yards are closed now. A slow reclamation is underway as the earth pushes itself up from underneath, showing itself in certain places. Weeds grow between the cracks, tall, stubborn and dry. There is a field bordered on three sides by maples, planted when this was still the country and the spot was used as a fairground, for courtship, and other summer games. Now they call it “Needle Park,” and it was there they found Margot’s body. Her purse left untouched a small distance away, she was laying face down on the patchy grass, shades of bruises around her neck. Wet with dew.

The police woke Jane with the sound of their hushed voices. They were looking for her father, the pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian. Reverend Parker was one of the first people they went to when things like this happened, though nothing like this had happened before. Jane studied the men from the top of the stairs where she crouched with her nightgown pulled around her like a tent. She tried to read their muffled conversation. The three of them stood in the hallway: two large, young men in blue-black uniforms and her father looking much smaller in his gray bathrobe. It had blue stripes and reminded her of the one Joseph wore when he made the slow trip down a dusty road to Bethlehem. Seeing him like this, she felt a certain pain somewhere around the edges of her skin.

At last they broke with talking, and Reverend Parker came up past his young daughter, shutting the bedroom door behind him, saying nothing. He emerged minutes later with his black hair smoothed down, wearing trousers and a clean shirt, ready to follow the men down to the station. Reverend Parker could comfort Margot’s parents. She was their only child, just twenty years old.

Jane lingered over her breakfast cereal, letting the milk turn it soft and thick. She spooned it slowly, as though something crucial hinged upon her waiting.

In the first year after the Parkers moved to Toronto from out West, Jane remembered, Margot babysat on those rare nights when her parents, freshly combed, breezed out the door on their way to bridge, off to a distant galaxy. With Margot there, she liked to imagine that they were orphans together; just the two of them in the red brick manse beside the church. For a moment, she saw the world outside fade into darkness so that only this warm interior remained, floating, a glowing field of space.

Margot was slim and delicate, and every gesture she made was precise. Before making any movement, she seemed to stop and reflect, as though pausing to consider. She said little to Jane on those evenings, sitting in the deep brown armchair in the living room, feet curled up underneath, smiling from a high and distant place. Jane only loved her more for it. Margot was as remote and lonesome as she would one day be, grown up. She was beautiful in her isolation, a raven on a high bare branch.

Together they watched “Escape from Witch Mountain” and “The Secret of Nymnh,” with Margot in the chair and Jane lying flat on her belly before the television, the heels of her palms making a soft shelf for her chin.

“Turn it off! Turn it off, quick!” Jane squealed and kicked her legs during scenes of climax, treading the thin boundary between fear and delight.

After the last film, Margot would put a hand on Jane’s small shoulder. “Come now,” she said with a practical kindness, “Come on up to bed.” It was then, after these stories of danger and determination that Jane craved her parents’ return. Yearned especially for her mother’s hand, still cool from outside as it brushed softly along her hairline. The light spilling in from the hall would restore the familiar dimensions of her room, and then she could sleep.

Though rarely, Margot did share with Jane certain details of her life. In the fall, she confided as she unbraided and brushed the child’s hair, she would begin a course in biology at a local college. She wanted to move away to school, but would live with her parents still. It seemed that nothing she wanted ever happened to her; she would have to wait. And then some lesser but still wondrous facts: orange was her favorite color, her favorite fruit as well. Now and then, when Margot’s parents had left for the evening, she would eat only a dry baked potato for dinner. “It is enough,” she said sitting straight with superiority, and then would say no more. Jane weighed these offerings deliberately in her mind, turning them over and over like a marble in the hand.

When she spoke like this, Margot’s face grew still. It was as if Jane were not there at all. She was only the anonymous space of a diary page, a silence at the far end of the phone. Then, as Margot became busy with her studies, she no longer came on weekend evenings and faded even further into the distance.

On Sundays during her father’s sermon, Jane couldn’t follow his words and so she let her eyes wander from the pulpit where his dark head bobbed above his dark robe. Among the rows of quiet faces, Margot’s was the most visible for being the most pale. She sat with her parents, an older couple who waited too long to have a child, so people said. Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter had faces stretched long and thin from constant sobriety. Both curved like question marks over their hymnals. Mrs. Carpenter would arrive wearing a patterned rain bonnet tied tightly under her chin. Just inside the great wooden doors, she would pause to take it off, shaking it furiously for just a little longer than was needed to get it dry. Mr. Carpenter was a high school principal. He said nothing when you wanted him to, but when you didn’t said things like, “Let’s get something straight,” and “These days, boy, I take nothing for granted.” Sitting beside them Margot was both congruous and contradictory. She looked the part of their daughter, but something in the attention she gave the sermon seemed to challenge them directly. Listening to the preacher’s drone, the precision of her face was lost, succumbed to a dreamy vagueness that hung and swirled around her like a fog.

Reverend Parker stood before his church, arms spread wide and palms facing the ceiling. “Hear now the word of God,” he began, before reading a short passage to illustrate. What did he mean? The stories themselves Jane could get close to. She could see clearly the dry, barren earth where those few and precious seeds were thrown, left to falter in the brutal heat of the sun. Jesus’ hands threw them there, she thought, with a satisfaction close to violence. As the tales were read, she knew with tactile clarity how the curling locks of the fleece felt between the fingers: now wet with dew, now dry. These textures spoke of God. But her father’s interpretation closed down upon the stories like a darkness. The man speaking from the pulpit was a stranger, an abstract figure on a flattened screen, spreading and contracting his hands. The other parishioners—not more than seventy men and women—sat inside their jackets, blue and brown, or held them on their lap, cinching them in the middle to make them tiny women’s waists. They looked on with incommensurable expressions.

“Today’s announcements,” Reverend Parker’s voice rang out, becoming all at once intelligible. “Mr. Love is in hospital, recovering with his brand new hip. Our hearts and prayers are with him.” Hearts and prayers, Jane repeated to herself, keeping rhythm between her thoughts, his words. “And starting next Thursday, Margot Carpenter offers the first of what will be a weekly series of story nights for the children of St. Andrew’s. Please see Margot to sign up after the service and if you would like to donate snacks and juice.” Then the people sang As the Deer Longs for Water and there was the familiar final prayer.

“God be with you,” Reverend Parker said, “And with you” the people answered, but Jane stayed silent, sitting outside the circle of voices.

Her father kept his chest high, smiling as he went, turning his shiny black head from side to side as he walked down the aisle, towards the doors at the back of the sanctuary. Occasionally, he gave a little wave to someone who had caught his eye. The wave said, “Oh, there you are! Hello!” Jane turned in her pew seat and watched him disappear like an actor from the stage.

At coffee hour, the large hall echoed with a multitude of voices, the clattering of spoons inside cups.

“Are you coming to story night?” Margot’s face appeared suddenly at Jane’s elbow where she leaned down to match the girl’s lesser height. Jane had thought that Margot must not remember her; it seemed years since she had come to the house. She had watched her so long from afar that having her near like this, so suddenly, felt like a leap into cold water. Margot’s face looked tight and shiny at this close distance, flushed with intensity.

After dinner the following Thursday, Jane stepped along the thin concrete path between her house and the church. As she walked she pushed the wand-like limbs of the overgrown shrubs away from her face. The last of the November leaves hung limp on black branches, dripping from a rain that had only just ended. The deep fertile smell of earth, released by the moisture, was everywhere.

Using the back entranceway, the girl stepped into the long, yellow-lit hallway that ran behind the sanctuary. The hall was lined by a series of doors: behind one was the secretary’s office; behind another, the organist’s chamber; one led only to a closet with a photocopier; yet another fed into the Reverend’s study, which had an additional outlet leading to the sanctuary itself. Spaced between the doors were a series of photographs in thin black frames.

Knowing she was early, Jane lingered there in the hall, stopping to gaze at the images she had looked at numberless times before. It was a history of the church in pictures. Once, the photographs told her, this land was just field and trees. She walked slowly down the hall, lightly touching the glass between the frames. “There,” she said, putting a finger up to the spot where her house would have been. But in that space there was only a small rolling ridge of grass, and beyond that, a thick patch of pines that no longer stood. Another frame showed rows of women in high-collared dresses, standing in the shade of their own parasols. None of them were smiling. Their bodies were lined up so close they seemed intended to block the view of something just behind them. Something Jane would never see.

The silence in the church was nearly perfect except for the murmur of her father’s voice sounding softly from behind the door of his study. The words rose and fell, living only as tone and timbre. His voice was low and calm; a voice used for coaxing small animals closer. It cast a spell over instinct; Jane stood still, listening, not a thought running through her head. When a softer voice answered—one she recognized as Margot’s—her stillness was broken and she hurried away down the hall.


In the elder’s room, the children were gathering for story night. In ones and twos and threes they entered smelling of the leaves outside, their faces round and blushed. Clusters of small bodies wrapped in wool and cotton pullovers filled the surface of the thin carpet, mottled with green, grey and brown.

Margot sat before them, straight-spined on a high-backed chair, with both knees and feet pressed together. She held the book high in front of her so that it covered some of her face, but lowered it now and then at the end of a phrase, turning her head this way and that, including everyone in the story. “Would you like to guess what happened next?” she asked the children as they prepared to turn another corner.

The story told of children who had a playhouse at the bottom of the garden. It was a small wooden structure, sheltered in the privacy of trees. They would go there to pass the time before dinner and chores. Then one day, the youngest of them discovered a door in the floor that led to a world entirely different from the one they had always known. It took all of them together to heave it open. And when they had, they peered in and dropped themselves down, one by one, into something unguessed at and dark.

Later, when Jane had grown much older, she would remember little of those evenings — nothing except the detail of that door. Not knowing where it came from, she would dream the image while still awake. The dream of a door laid within the floor, so fine edged and subtle that you could easily miss it. She would be sitting on the bus on her way to work, or crouched near the tub washing her son’s hair, when something in her would suddenly turn over.  Then she saw it, right there in front of her, the faint outline of a square door cut away from the background. She reached down to touch it with her hand, brushing the thick dust away. “How could I have forgotten this?” she would ask herself, incredulous and almost out loud. Pulling the door open, she would look down into that black tunnel, feeling the warm wind blowing up, touching her face. It pressed upon her heavily, weighted with something invisible. Then she would snap back to the wide-awake world, sometimes laughing to cover her vagueness and carrying on where she left off. But things looked different for some time after, older and newer both.

The summer day was cooling when Reverend Parker came home from the Carpenter’s. Jane was playing out back. She could hear the hollow toc-toc-toc of the engine cooling long after he slammed the car door and went inside; the neighborhood itself was so quiet.

In a few short minutes, she stood to go in, dusting bits of broken grass off her knees. None of the inside lights had been turned on yet, save the single fluorescent bulb over the sink. It shone. Mrs. Parker’s soft wide buttocks and grey-brown bun greeted her. Mamma washing up the dishes.

At the top of the stairs, she looked through the crack of space between the door and its frame. Reverend Parker had failed to close it completely. Her father’s profile was a shadow in the blue gray space. He sat on the edge of the trim sheeted bed. A thin man, pale, with dark features. He cupped his skull between his hands and balanced his elbows on two knobby knees. Not moving.

Jane had climbed the stairs to see her father’s face and for him to look at her. If this happened, she thought, maybe things could start over at the beginning. But all at once this hope fell away to nothing. She changed her mind, seized by a sudden need not to see, not to know what he hid under the cover of his hands, what his eyes said.

She flew down the stairs and out the door to where the sun cast itself grey and golden over brick houses lined one upon one. After a time, Mrs. Parker called her in through the screen. Her voice was soft and lilting. Jane ran, a child in a dark wood, something swallowing the air behind her.


Elisabeth Oliver is a writer and college English professor living in Toronto. She holds a Master’s degree from The University of Oxford and a PhD from Queen’s University, Kingston. Her essays on modern poetry and decorative art have appeared in Modernism/Modernity and Journal of Modern Literature. This is her first published story.

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