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Abundant Light, Valerie Miner's fourth collection of short fiction, reveals a master storyteller writing in her prime. This collection looks closely at definitions of family and asks how this fragile and frightening entity can shape us, nurture us, or even destroy us. These stories also explore friendship as it is enriched by differences in nationality, race, class, and gender. Whether set in Calcutta, Cornwall, Alberta, Edinburgh, or the Coastal Range of California, each story is imbued with a resonant spirit of...
Abundant Light, Valerie Miner's fourth collection of short fiction, reveals a master storyteller writing in her prime. This collection looks closely at definitions of family and asks how this fragile and frightening entity can shape us, nurture us, or even destroy us. These stories also explore friendship as it is enriched by differences in nationality, race, class, and gender. Whether set in Calcutta, Cornwall, Alberta, Edinburgh, or the Coastal Range of California, each story is imbued with a resonant spirit of place. Light is a presence and metaphor in each of these stories, physical light as well as light ranging through human insight and reflection, as characters face the possibilities of forgiveness, acceptance and reunion.
This collection contains stories from the best literary journals, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Salmagundi, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, as well as from BBC Radio 4 and Ms.
SHE SAT BY THE STUDIO WINDOW, SUN BAKING HER SORE NECK. STAINED FINGERS turned knots in a silver thread. Only a few grey strands, but each one a marker of time between them. Time seeping slowly, as air from a slightly pricked tire. Porous, malleable, transient, real. Did such time erase what lay behind?
They had agreed over the phone to meet tonight in the dining commons of the large arts centre. Ridiculous place, really, when they might have had a decent dinner in town. But they had made the suggestion simultaneously-neat? sentimental? romantic?-to rendezvous at a cafeteria like the one where they had met as students, half the continent away and almost thirty years before.
* * *
THIS MORNING, Jeanne was vaguely conscious of risk as she posted the sign at reception: "Ride needed to Calgary Airport. Phone Jeanne Davies, Artists' Studio #6." Would some weirdo call? Maybe she'd get a driver who would talk nonstop to Calgary. She had never imagined Ted, not consciously. After all, Canada was a large country. And this was a vast arts complex, filled with musicians and dancers and actors in repertory companies, as well as writers and painters working solo at the adjacent colony. Why would Ted be here? He lived in Toronto, for Christsake. Well, she thought he lived in Toronto. He used to. She didn't even know if he were alive. No, of course he was alive; she would know somehow if he weren't. Jeanne posted the notice because she needed a ride. Simple.
Now she should take a shower, do something with this mop of hair. Instead, she just sat in the sun wondering how she had brought on this imminent encounter. She had never been good at taking hints, and yesterday the universe had given her a massive premonition.
* * *
AS SHE SET OFF hiking the day before, the trail was miserably mucky from recent storms. Still, she told herself, maybe the Rocky Mountain air would open her imagination for those last canvases. Forward into the early summer afternoon she trudged, heavily sprayed against mosquitoes (she liked the French Canadian term for bug repellent, "contre sauvages"), carrying a book in her backpack to ward off loneliness, and harboring confident thoughts to fight against the fear, if not the existence, of bears. The seven-mile hike took her up one thousand feet, to the edge of cliffs, across fast-washing creeks and along steep switchbacks. She didn't gain artistic direction; however, she did forget about the grizzlies for fifteen minutes at a time and felt absorbed, challenged by the terrain. A gulp of fresh air, a respite, is as good as a breakthrough, she told herself; this would help her start fresh in the studio. The northern mountain light would be long and bright this summer evening. Throughout the afternoon, she had seen only two other hikers: an old woman walking swiftly along the creek trail, and a middle-aged man resting with his lunch at an overlook. She had nodded cordially to each, reluctant to break the cleansing silence. The woman had not even nodded in return. Browny-grey mud caked strange shapes on her boots, socks, cuffs. Relaxed, she approached the last half-mile with a buoyant smile.
Then they appeared, the mirage people. The permafrost yuppies. Two women, daisy wreaths in their dark curls, wearing long pink flowered gowns. Behind them were three men in grey suits, one carrying a baby. Then a flushed fellow in a tuxedo, clutching female shoes in one hand, and with his other offering support to an ivory-gowned, veiled woman, who lifted the hem of her lacy dress to reveal hiking shoes. On second glance, she noticed the bridesmaids' brown boots.
Jeanne hoped they had brought bug spray. The baby, in particular, seemed vulnerable. She supposed this ritual was no stranger than getting married in a hot-air balloon, or in the ocean thirty-five feet below the surface, wearing matching Aqua-Lungs. Truthfully, it was the getting married part that unnerved her-although she didn't know why, since she had done it twice. Maybe the baby had been conceived at this very spot (at a dryer time) last summer. Or maybe the best man had brought his offspring as a fertility talisman. Jeanne told herself not to stare. Still, the image remained embossed on her brain. All evening, she reviewed the wedding photograph in minute detail, down to the maple leaf in the groom's lapel. Painting was hard going that night, so she spent the time stretching canvas and cleaning brushes. Not until she lay awake for an hour did she realize that this was July thirteenth, and if she and Ted hadn't split up decades before, they'd be celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. Right then, she should have decided against posting the sign. She could have booked a damn bus to Calgary.
All night after the hike she lay shivering under thick covers in her well-heated room. Tears streaked down her face. What was going on? She had a lucky life in California. A lover she loved and who loved her. Two grown kids, who were healthy, happy, and good company. A rising reputation as a painter, a secure teaching job. Her life was a small sanctuary in a world of wars, starvation, homelessness, carjacking, AIDS, cancer. Yet she felt overwhelmed by grief. Surely not about Ted, this man she hadn't talked to for ten years, hadn't seen for over twenty. She had left him. The decision to divorce, like all decisions in their life, had been Jeanne's. The right choice-for her and, she hoped, for him. Then, why this weeping? Maudlin anniversary nostalgia? She should get some sleep, embrace the precious opportunity to focus on her work, and finish the paintings for next month's show.
* * *
THIS MORNING, remembering yesterday's resolve about getting on with things, she tacked the ride sign on the big bulletin board near the registration desk. It was such a long shot that Ted would see it, that he would be at the arts centre. Inconceivable, really.
Dinner line at the cafeteria was crowded with the cast of Carmen-people whose appetites matched their large voices. The cook had run out of eggplant parmigiana and was about to serve the last of the chicken. Shifting from foot to foot between two gregarious tenors, she hoped she wouldn't see Ted in the line. So much for her careful plan to arrive at the designated corner of the dining room first; she had spent too much time primping and reassuring herself. (Should she have worn the turquoise shirt that brought out the green in her eyes?) Jeanne had amazed herself modeling outfits in front of the mirror for half an hour. Returning to the present, she snagged a chicken dinner and walked to the appointed table.
Empty-good; she took a long drink of water. Checking her watch, she noticed she was five minutes early. The hard-won chicken would be freezing by the time he arrived. But she had no intention of greeting him with her mouth full.
Occasionally, over the years, she fantasized about his life. She worried he might have stayed alone, growing more and more eccentric with his guitar and bird photographs. Did he still get up before dawn on the weekends to settle his tripods near nesting sites? On the other hand, she worried he had met some harridan (who easily could have been her older self if she had not met Carey and learned the happy side effects of humility). Of course, he could have met Ms. or Mr. Right. If he had found a good partner, would she feel a little jealous? Yes. More than a little. Mostly, though, she was curious. What did he look like? Was his red hair now grey? Did he still have the beard? Had he stopped smoking? Was he writing plays? Did he have children? Who was this man to whom she had once promised the rest of her life?
Maybe she should have bought a carafe of wine. She needed to relax. No, the cheap wine would only make her speedy. Eyes closed, she felt how tired she was from her almost sleepless night.
"Mind if I join you?"
She looked up to a slightly faded version of his former self. One could say that his youth had been a slightly vivid version of his current self. Emerging from her reverie, she caught similar disappointment in his eyes.
"Not at all!" She stood. They both reached into a quick, congenial hug.
"Long time no see." He shook his head nervously.
"So how are you?" She was racing. "What are you doing at Banff? How long have you been here?"
He smiled, erasing his familiar irritation at her impetuous barrage of questions.
She had been an unusual girl. Unique. He fell in love the first time she flashed that brilliant smile and said, "Hi there," in her open American accent. A Californian come to snowy Ontario for university. A scholarship girl, an orphan, who earned expenses in the cafeteria where he, too, served breakfasts because his famous architect father thought it was character-building to work one's way through school.
Now, Ted reminded himself to sit up straight. Lately, Monique complained about his hunched look. He was beaming at Jeanne, but that was OK; she was still someone to beam at. Fit, beautiful in an elegant, middle-aged way, although he admitted he missed the youth-more her youth than his. She was just as attractive as he imagined his wife would be at forty-five.
"What are you eating?" she asked, to break the silence. He was staring so closely, she felt like a museum exhibit.
He prodded the meal curiously with his fork. "Beef medallions, I think they called it. They were out of chicken." Now how stupid did that sound?
"Yes." She blushed at her prize. "There was an early run on it. Would you like half of mine?"
He laughed, noticed his shoulders releasing, his stomach. "Just like old times, eh?"
"Pardon?" She always loved his rueful, upside-down smile.
"Jeanne arrives early. Jeanne snares the best dinner. Jeanne offers to share it with tardy Ted."
They laughed together. Impulsively, he took her hand, although he never did anything impulsively. Soon each was on the edge of tears from melancholy laughter.
"Well, how do we catch up on all these years?" he asked. "I mean we've had a couple of conversations over the decades, but there's the great unknown. When did I last see you-eight, nine years ago?"
"Try twenty-one"-she shook her head-"at Sandra's funeral." "Poor Sandra," he murmured. "At least we're not dead."
"Not close to it, I hope." She peered at him meaningfully.
"No bad news from this quarter!"
They returned to their tepid dinners at the same moment. Around them, the huge cafeteria erupted in conversations, banging plates, screeching chairs.
"So how's Corey?" he tried, after a couple of mouthfuls.
"Carey," she smiled. "He's fine. Good health. Great spirits. His magazine just won a big design award." What would Carey think about this reunion? Would he feel threatened? Amused? She was afraid that in her recollections, she always framed Ted as a bit of a buffoon.
He blanched, as if there was something off in the dinner, but quickly recovered. "And your children?"
"All grown up now," she said wistfully. "Almost grown. Jennifer is starting medical school, in an accelerated program, and Brian works downtown with 'at risk' youth, finishing up in psychology."
"Downtown?" Ted asked. He wondered, would she think him a lush if he bought a carafe of that foul red wine to the table?
"San Francisco." She was taken aback that he didn't know. "We've all stayed in the city." How chance this meeting. They might have lost one another forever, without addresses, phone numbers.
"And you? Are you still in Toronto? Writing plays?" She felt oddly shy about asking if he had a lover, a wife.
"Toronto, yes, still Toronto." He picked around the plate, but couldn't stomach the food. "I'm doing more directing than writing these days."
She was nodding with a distracted air.
He sighed heavily. Why hold back? "My wife, Monique, was more successful as a writer."
"Was?" Her voice grew concerned.
"When the kids came, she shelved her plays for a while. You know ..." He remembered what a passionate feminist Jeanne had been. Maybe Corey had raised their kids. "But she teaches the odd workshop, and plans to return to writing once the boys are in high school."
"They're young, the boys?" It sounded like an accusation, but she was startled by these big differences in their lives.
"Yeah, Clay is eleven. Ronnie's nine."
This wasn't what she imagined at all. They were drifting further and further apart with each exchange.
Ted noticed that although she had only eaten half her treasured chicken, she seemed finished with the meal.
"How about a walk to town?" he suggested. "I know a nice wine bar in the village where we can get a decent zinfandel."
She shivered at his recollection of her favorite wine. However, toward the end of their marriage, she was consuming quite a lot of it. The fresh air would feel good after a long, dead day in the studio.
He drummed his fingers on the table, an old habit.
She surprised herself by saying, "No, I'm in the middle of a project. I should stick with the muse; she's been fickle lately."
He inhaled sharply, as if someone had belted him in the stomach. Noticing his chagrin, feeling her own, she asked, "Do you have any other free nights before I leave?"
"A couple." He tried not to sound too hopeful.
"Well, why don't we go out for a real evening-say Friday or Saturday?"
"Yes," he said evenly. "How about Friday?"
Ted walked straight back to his room, intending to turn in early because he'd had a restless sleep. Instead, he found himself taking the sylvan path down the mountain and into the village. Banff was more like Disneyland than a town, transformed by trinket shops and candy stores and restaurants. Japanese couples came here to be married, and traffic was often stalled on the main street while a black convertible carrying the veiled bride and her black-tuxed groom stopped for photographs in front of a particularly Wild West façade. Still, he walked to town every couple of days for the exercise. He supposed he could be climbing the Rockies in his spare time, but he didn't feel sure-footed enough to hike alone, and it had been hard to make friends at the large and often diffuse arts centre. Especially since he was an artist-once-removed, a director from a small theater back east, not really a composer or a poet or a painter.
Long walks often reminded Ted of Jeanne because that's how they came to know one another-strolling at night after studying, around the U. of T. campus, sometimes up to Bloor and as far west as Bathurst. Their first kiss had been in front of Hart House on a profoundly frozen February night. He knew as he escorted her home that evening that he wanted to marry her more than he would ever want anything in the world. He was surprised when she said yes, and surprised again when his family's reactions were so mixed. His alcoholic father adored her; his mother was suspicious of her absent family. His brothers thought she was a catch. Largely oblivious to these responses, he felt grateful he won his shot at heaven.
Ted found an outdoor table at the High Country Wine Bar-away from the noise and in sight of the waiter. He ordered a salade niçoise, as an antidote to that poisonous beef, and a carafe of zinfandel. He considered asking for two glasses, but that would be getting carried away. He drank in the blessed light that lasted forever this far north.
Ted raised a silent glass to the students in his workshop, pleased that the rehearsals were going well. He was a decent director, a good teacher. On the whole, he was glad he had accepted the month's commission here. It was a nice break, and the salary would cover Clay's summer orthodontia bill. He missed Monique and the boys, but he phoned every other night to the holiday house Monique's family kept on Cape Breton. Monique was a much better match for him (his mother told him so) than the flighty American painter who ran off with a rock singer two years into their marriage.
Two years of marriage. He poured himself another glass. Two years as lovers in university before that. How could someone disappear so completely after being as close as two humans can be for four years? When she left, he simply refused to believe it. He waited. Even after the divorce, which she got easily and promptly down in California, he waited. Then one day, Monique moved in. That's how he remembered it. Or didn't remember it. His closest analogy was that he had awakened from a coma, a little older, a little depleted. Monique, a determined woman, slowly revived his will.
Excerpted from Abundant Light by Valerie Miner Copyright © 2004 by Valerie Miner. Excerpted by permission.
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|The house with nobody in it||64|
|Back home at the driftwood lodge||77|
|Il Cortegiano of Thomas Avenue||90|
|What she didn't say||115|
|Always avoid accidents||120|
|They burn witches, don't they?||140|
|All the way||151|
|Three women by the river, at one time or another||167|
Posted November 2, 2004
I thought this book was sensitive and perceptive in its look at complex human relationships. I appreciate that Valerie Miner does not restrict herself to writing about one type of person or place -- through her stories you can travel the world and meet all kinds of people.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.