My first clear memory of you, come to call, I was three years old.


y first clear memory of you, come to call, I was three years old. Playing on the window seat in the old house on Heather Street. You rode in on that handsomely striped fellow, the one with wings and a sting. I reached out to hold him still against the glass, and you said hello, making pain bloom in my fingertip, making wings stop.

Outraged, I bellowed for my mother who rocked and comforted. Who turned my face away and hid the mark of your passing with a pink Elastoplast that smelled like hot crayon.

You come for us from every direction. There is no true bearing that does not concede your eventual conquest. We hear you breathing, but cannot see your face. You shift shape, inhabiting every tick and every tock. You bide time (yours and ours), patient as falling snow.

But also, contrary seeming, you are quick.

Not quickening, mind. Quite the opposite.

But sudden. Jarringly irreversible.

I wonder about you sometimes.

I think: perhaps you’re lonely. To be pitied, even.

You beckon and call. Leave fingerprints in the chalk.

And we run from you. Hide under the bedclothes. Jam old towels into the crack under the door.

We tell you: “not now,” “not him,” “not like this.”

We drive you away with stents, intravenous drips, sticks and stones.

We want you euphemized.

When I was six, you came for the tadpoles. I thought I’d rescued them from the scum-slick ditches crosshatching the neighbourhood. I hid them around the back of the house where they’d be safe. But you found them anyway, in their clean bucket of pristine water, and taught them a trick. You taught them how to float, belly up. They were, and then they were not. Incipient frogs, unkissed. Princes translated into compost.

I thought I’d cheated you, but I only ushered you in. Flung open the door.

Later that same year you offered up another hapless specimen for my consideration. The roadkill opossum took weeks to finish its reeking transmutation, demanding daily stops on my way home from school.

Nearly ten, I clutched a plastic egg in my coat pocket when it was my turn to say goodbye. But my grandfather had already gone. Anyone could see. It wasn’t him, lying there with hollowed cheeks and greying skin. It was the trickster. Shape-shifted into my Opa’s vacated shell. Like a sinister hermit, slid sideways, crabwise.

It wasn’t him, lying there with hollowed cheeks and greying skin. It was the trickster.

By then, I knew you were a fearsome enemy. Even the grown-ups were powerless against you; they spoke of you only when they had to and never used your proper name.

The year I turned 12, you visited a car careening off the road and took a girl I knew. Just like that. Without even asking.

It was then I understood for the first time that you would even come for me. For me, though I had food in my belly, math homework, and a winter coat. For me, though I hadn’t yet (properly) kissed a boy.

So there was, after all, no real safety in keeping inside the lines. In heeding the rule-beset borders of a sanctioned life.

What then? Resolve to live recklessly, swing wildly, break the glass. Take up all the space.

But time stretches. Its ropes slacken. I nod off and rouse one day to find I’ve traded away that cold, comfortless sense of urgency for a warm blurring. A near-sighted ease.

I was in my late twenties and married before I recognized your tracks in the dust lying thick on all the unexplored lanes. The map had grown to include such mundane things ... mastering the French subjunctive, say. Pursuing that irresponsible arts degree, instead of the one with a job title already shackled to its name. Tackling a half-marathon, or (such modest, inoffensive hopes!) one proper, breathless cartwheel.

The whole process of living life seemed to be little more than negotiating terms with loss. A constant shedding of potential.

But I hadn’t thought of those things as ends. As finalities.

Walking home from work that day past the strip mall laundromat, it struck me that while my face was turned away all the not-nows had been transformed into nevers. Wings stopped. Embryonic royalty floating belly-up.

It was you, all along. Sneakthief. Opportunist. Always-hungry-never-full.

It was me, all along. Ears stuffed full of cotton. Appeasing you with toothsome morsels from the banquet table so you’d leave me my chewed bones.

Around then my father had a stroke. He rallied, recovered, refused to play your trickster games. Cheated the cheater. Or so we thought. But you just changed the rules, altered tactics, and carried him away one small piece at a time.

He grew restless. Perhaps you wouldn’t be so close in another room.

We spoke but he couldn’t hear over the smothering blanket of silence. Our words fell to the floor unheeded, as he turned away to listen to you instead. We tried to explain away the hurt. There was a time when explanations worked like magic keys, unlocking the tight-knotted secrets at the heart of the maze.

But this was different. Because you were there. Impervious to explanations, you fixed your vacant eyes upon my father. Your paper-dust scent clung to him as he paced, like something in a cage. Watching and watched.

Sometimes I wished the pain would end.

Why not invite you in?

Call the enemy.

Pretend a truce.

(Whose pain do I want to stop, after all?)

I throw myself at you, to wrest from you your meaning. For you will have meaning. I insist on it.

(Whose pain do I want to stop, after all?)

But all I see is grey rain falling from a grey sky.

All I hear is the black wings of leaving.

Somewhere in my mid-thirties I fell off an island.

It was my fault. I wasn’t listening, you see.

I wasn’t listening to the voice (don’t pretend it was yours) telling me to slow down, to detach from the fraying everyday. To prepare for what was coming.

To be fair, I also ignored my own voice—the one that said "no"—when the perfect stranger at the bottom of the sea-greened stairs smiled and told me they were perfectly safe.

The lights in the operating theatre were too bright, and they’d taken my glasses. The surgeon’s greeting sounded forced. Perhaps he’d forgotten his lines.

Hours later I awoke. A little surprised. Apparently you didn’t want me yet.

But neither did my old, familiar life. It didn’t fit right anymore.

Lying in the bath, I’d trace the trickster’s fingerprints on my skin. Map the branching fractals of every functionally dysfunctional accommodation. An ever-growing list of nevers.

I no longer trusted my body, nor it me. But we didn’t make a scene. It was—is—an exceedingly civil civil war.

But also, contrary seeming, crabwise, this rude interruption—unwelcome and impossible to ignore—cleared a space. Unstopped my ears.

You took him a week before Father’s Day.

His heart, so strong, stilled as suddenly as wings.

I was not ready. Far from. And yet … I found that certain preparations had occurred.

Loss tears us open. Grief hollows us out.

What’s left? Emptiness? Space?


Not one meaning, but many.

Name the monster, and you gain some measure of control over it. Isn’t that what the stories tell us?

But you have not one name, but many.

What if instead of raging, haggling, cowering, I simply attend? In the commonplace here and now geographies between the crashing waves and the wrack zone. Where solid rock is patiently crushed into countless grains that give beneath our feet. Where dandelions root like small suns.

I resolve to attend, to listen. To you. To myself. To the whole breathless, cartwheeling chorus.

I can’t stay awake all the time. I am not made of such stern stuff. But it’s worth trying, I think.

I think it’s worth trying.

About the author

Sylvia Stopforth is the daughter and granddaughter of Mennonite refugees and immigrants. A white settler, grateful to be living and working on the traditional lands of the Semiahmoo First Nation and the broader territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, she has degrees in English Literature and Library and Information Studies. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in publications including Room, The New Quarterly, and Pulp Literature.