Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

One Afternoon in the Library

It was very quiet in the library. Daylight slanted in through the second-story window, and golden dust motes danced along its blinding beams. The books on the shelves glowed in the afternoon sun, glinting gold themselves as the gilt lettering on a spine or the gold leaf along the top of the pages reflected a gleam of light. A smell of leather binding and dry paper hung in the air, and the general silence was punctuated regularly by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the entryway. It read 4:44 p.m., getting close to closing time.

The few remaining patrons would be thinking about leaving soon, gathering up their belongings, putting on coats and hats, checking out books and going home for supper. But right now it was calm and peaceful. Miss Pringles in the English literature section was completely engrossed in A Tale of Two Cities, occasionally making notes on a pad as she deciphered Dickens. Jenny Bealey was quietly poring over the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the reference section, also taking notes as she researched the human digestive system for biology class. In the periodicals, Mr. Grub was lazily turning the pages of this month’s Car & Driver, stopping now and again to look hungrily at pictures of the Lamborghini he could not hope to afford on a vice-principal’s salary.

At precisely 4:45 p.m. the grandfather clock broke the stillness by striking the three-quarter hour. The door flew open, and a tall man entered the library, carrying a large bag over his shoulder and smelling in some indefinable way of cat urine. A gust of wind followed him into the building, and a lone oak leaf fluttered in and came to rest on the rotunda floor as the heavy door swung to. Miss Hobbs, the librarian, looked over the tops of her little, half-moon glasses and said in a voice barely above a whisper, “May I help you?”

The tall man put his sack down on the floor and took off a cap, revealing deep-sunken eyes in a craggy, emaciated face. His jacket was mustard yellow, his pants brown, and his shabby shoes looked down at heel and out at toe. In a voice that sounded like coarse sandpaper being rubbed on a rasp, he said, “Have you got any books on Italian Renaissance art?”

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Old Man Partington and young Sarah Billingsworth

The old Partington place sits alone off the road a ways. You can approach it from the weed-ridden driveway, but Sarah Billingsworth always comes at it through the brush and woods that have grown up around it over the years of neglect. It’s not that the place is vacant, boarded-up windows staring blankly as the world continues on around it. Oh no, old Mr. Partington still lives there and keeps up with its basic maintenance. On a summer day you can see a lace curtain flutter through an open window. In the winter smoke curls out of the brick chimney, fed by the wood stove the old man keeps fueled with the logs he gathers and chops each summer from the adjoining wood lot.

But it’s a big, rambling house, and the old man gets lonely. Once the house was full of life, when he and Mrs. Partington were younger. They had five children who filled the rooms with laughter, and eventually a myriad of grandchldren would come to visit. But those days are over. Mrs. P. is many years dead, the children moved away, the grandchildren caught up in their own adolescent lives. Old Man Partington gets very few visitors these days, but he does have one regular.

Sarah Billingsworth isn’t from around here. She came to the town from England to work as an au pair at the Stilton house. The work meant that she could escape her oppressive family life in Manchester and strike out in the New World to make her fortune. She discovered the Partington place quite by accident when she was out in the woods with her little Stilton charges looking for blueberries. Mr. P. was chopping wood, stacking it neatly behind the house on the lee side where it was less likely to get rainsoaked, when their eyes met. Sarah, 18 and Old Man Partington, 72, stopped thunderstruck as an unspoken recognition passed between the two of them. For a moment the rest of the world did not exist, the three Stilton children forgotten, the axe dangling loosely from the old man’s hand. Suddenly a blue jay called from a nearby tree and was scolded by a chickadee, and time resumed.

But from that moment, the unlikely pair became very close. Sarah would come and visit Mr. Partington evenings after her charges were in bed and on her days off. She started helping him around the house, and he saw in her a reincarnation of his departed Nellie. When they made love, as it was inevitable they would, there were no fireworks, just a feeling of homecoming. It was their secret, and it was special.

Sunday, August 01, 2004


Giving birth is full of surprises. Of course, some of them are expected, if you can anticipate being surprised. But there are sudden, wonderful occurrences totally beyond our ability to imagine. The whole pregnancy phenomenon is so well documented that there is very little pre-natal class does not prepare you for. Even that first flutter of movement in the womb at 16 weeks is anticipated, but always unexpected. That is the first unmistakable sign that you are harbouring a life other than your own, something separate, uncontrolled, and therefore surprising.

But the birthing itself is an adventure in unpreparedness. First you go to the hospital, armed with Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, having been told, “We don’t want you to go past your due date, so we’ll induce labour.” The wait, after the nurse has made a mess of your left hand trying to get the intravenous in right, is interminable. The surprise there was how little it hurt, as she pushed and pulled and jiggled that needle about. The resulting bruise is not surprising.

You wait, as you read about the boat on the Thames picking bodies out of the water, and then the first contraction slams your body like a full frontal football tackle. Where were the gentle contractions, the timing by the watch? What the hell did you learn in pre-natal class that would help you deal with this indescribable pain? “Breathe,” your partner says, keeping eye contact until the pain subsides. Then there is calm, briefly. Once more, a mine explodes in your abdomen, leaving you sweating, short of breath.

“Please,” you implore the nurse, “I’m not trying to be a hero. You can give me something for the pain.” So they inject you with something in your thigh that actually works, makes the contractions bearable, but just barely. All the pre-natal preparation is for naught. Effleurage with a monitor strapped to your belly? Forget it. Walking around the delivery room with an I.V. drip in your wrist? Impossible. The drug has worn off. But there is a giant goose egg at the site of injection, an obvious allergic reaction. The medical staff is loath to give you another. You get a shot of Demerol® instead.

As the new drug takes effect, you find yourself shunted off to the side, not aware anymore of your situation. Then the next contraction grabs you with jackhammer force, sending blinding pain into your befogged universe. There is no respite. There is no time to steel yourself against the next contraction because there is no warning. One moment you are barely conscious, the next you are battling the undertow in a sea of pain.

The talk of the doctors, of your partner, is happening through a haze. They are asking him to sign a permission form so they can perform an emergency cæsarian section. “Oh no,” you think to yourself, “they’re adding injury to insult.” Another surprise when the epidural enters your spine: there is no more pain. But you are shaking like a leaf and feel as though you will never be warm again. And then the nurse lays a hot blanket on top of you and the warmth is like a hug, a surprise kiss from a loved one.

Surprise! All of a sudden a baby is wailing where there were only adults a moment before. You think, “Another soprano!” and then that baby is wrapped up, lying in the crook of your arm, eyes closed, long blonde hair framing a heart-shaped face, tiny rose-bud mouth pursed, ready to root when hunger strikes. A life that emerged from your poor, torn flesh, another human being. The most wonderful surprise possible, that through an incredible ordeal of pain comes such perfection, such poetry.