The following is excerpted from Vanishing Monuments by John Elizabeth Stintzi, published by Arsenal Pulp.
Vanishing Monuments – excerpt
I wake up in my car in the parking lot outside the home, Mother’s Leica still around my neck, its old Summar lens folded into the body and capped, gut filled with the roll of film I’d been failing to fill for the last two months. Film that’s empty because nothing of note came my way. No idea. No image. No body or variation in my psyche that needed to be pasted onto the reactive plastic. Nothing came to me but the old, thick fog of dissociation, the feeling that I was not myself, and if I were, I’d rather be dead.
My neck itches from the weight of the old leather strap. My packer and binder and clothes sit tangled beside me on the passenger seat. When I parked here last night, I didn’t make a pillow out of anything; I just leaned my seat back and closed my eyes and eventually opened them to today rising into the grey sky.
Morning in this new place, clutched by the same old place.
It isn’t raining right now, but it will. I open the door and stand beside the car, stretching, breathing out my popping muscles, shaking out my stiff legs, straightening the dress that feels wrong.
All I want to do is give up, get back into my car, and drive away. Turn on my phone and text Genny: just kidding! be back soon. But I know that I won’t be able to make it. I’ll just slow down and turn around again, get back here and turn around again, again and again. Slowly making it through the labyrinth of back and forth before my inertia surrenders to here. To her.
As I walk toward the home, the time between myself and Mother shrinks. Her camera hangs at my belly like a pit. The door opens and there’s a nurse at a desk, in scrubs that are not supposed to look like scrubs, in the same way this home is not supposed to look like a hospital.
“I’m here to see my mother? Hedwig Baum?”
“Oh, of course,” she says, standing up behind the desk and handing me a clipboard where visitors sign in. She’s short, a good foot shorter than me, hardly taller now than she was sitting down. “She woke up a little early, but she’s usually sharpest soon after waking,” she says, while I finish writing a name that doesn’t quite fit over me—Allie Baum—and put the clipboard down. I follow her down the hall. She walks so slowly.
“How long has it been since you visited again?” she asks.
“Sometime around Christmas,” I say, because it’s a shorter sentence than: Never.
“Well,” she says, quiet, as we inch along a hallway of closed doors and cold tiles. “She’s changed some since then, as you know. She has more difficulty hearing, especially lately, so you will want to talk a little louder than last time. But you will want to make sure to use a conversational tone. She responds better to tone. We also cut her hair, so don’t be alarmed. She was having trouble with it being so long— getting it tangled up in things, tying it up in knots, trying to braid it. Things like that.” She stops, looks up at me, smiles in a way that is supposed to feel warm. I don’t tell her that Mother had never once braided her hair. “It’s a lot more manageable now.”
The door is open a crack, and beside it is an aging piece of card stock printed with Mother’s name.
“Thank you,” I say, trying to place a smile between us as I stare over her to the door. I start to move around her toward it.
“Would you like me to come in with you? Help you? I’ve worked with Hedwig a long time, and I know all the little tricks to get her to notice me.”
I grab the door handle before that girl starts to panic, tries to tell my body to run away. “I’m fine,” I say, forgiving her duty with a half wave of my free hand. “I still remember all the tricks.”
I push the door in.
When I think about Mother, the first thing I remember is her body. Small chested, a dim scar on her belly from where I blew through her. Tall. Her long bright hair—brighter than mine. As much as I try not to, I can see her in my height in the mirror. Which is why I don’t own a full-length mirror. Which is why I avoid them. Why I rarely try on clothes in a store.
When I think of her in motion, I imagine her body doing yoga. I imagine it through the bars of the vent between her studio and my bedroom.
After her body, I remember the feeling of her presence, the gravity she held in our creaky house. The gravity of the noise and the silence both, depending on the year, the month, the day. I remember being pulled back to that house after those long expeditions at night with Tom. Every time—every time but one—finding her there. Waiting up for me. And every time, not a single word between us.
What I don’t remember is the sound of her voice. I’ve been trying not to. It’s easier to believe she never said a word, that she was mute, than to think of her falling in and out of her muteness. First, because of the electric storm of depression. Now, because her brain has lost so much of its charge.
But as I’ve driven closer to her, I’ve heard her a little. Not the words themselves but her voice stacking upon itself in an unintelligible cacophony. Into static.
I walk into Mother’s room, and there she is: a silhouette against the grey light of the window. She’s sitting in a chair in a baby-blue blouse, and her hair is very short—manageable. Her back is to me. I don’t know if she’s actually looking out the window, and if she is, if anything is registering. I’ve never seen her stare out a window from behind before; I only ever saw her staring out a window toward me, at night, waiting for me to come home.
My eyes adjust from the dimness of the hall. I squint, try to make a distinction between her skin and the light. The door behind me closes with a click.
I approach, slowly, counting down the tiles between us. As I get closer, my memory of her body minimizes to meet reality. She’s so small. Her shoulders are like wire clothes hangers, her wrists like thumbs wrapped in wrinkled pink leather. Her scarred hands are two collections of raw, bubbled webs. They’re wriggling on her lap, the only part of her that’s moving. When I stand over her, I can see that she’s wearing a restraining belt that keeps her from getting out of the chair.
I stand over her for a while, taking her in, fascinated and hurt. Time has brittled her. Twenty-seven years gone, turning her long hair blank white, letting it be chopped off for convenience, to make her seem more put together. Letting it all be thrown away. No strand of hair on her head was there ten years ago. I imagine the nurse from the front desk, armed with scissors and grasping those long, drawn-out strings of Mother’s dead cells. I imagine her clipping them all off.
I look down at Mother and I can smell her, that clean, hospital soap smell that lacks any breath of humanity. I could move my hand four inches and touch her shoulder. Just four inches and I could break through decades of gone.
I don’t move. I stand in her soft shadow and forget completely what she used to smell like. I’m muddled as to how precisely her hair used to tumble down her back. Suddenly unsure what colour her hair used to be. Standing near her like this, silent, I hear my heart beating and realize the cacophony of her voice is gone.
Mother’s old camera hangs off my neck. In the perfect dark of the camera’s head the film stands dormant. The camera’s eye jammed shut, capped, and collapsed into the body. The camera is a promise, weighing down at my belly, the thin leather straps digging into the sides of my breasts. As I breathe in, the camera gets closer to Mother. As I breathe out it gets closer to me.
I step back, quietly, even though I’m sure she can’t hear me. I’ll come back tomorrow. Someone in this body will. I turn and walk back toward the door, and as I go, I can sort of remember her again. As I near the door to her room, I remember my little hand buried in her tight palm, remember walking back from the liquor store with an empty wine box on my head. As I get back into the hall, I remember the smell, just a little, of chemicals and sweat and her when she came out of the darkroom, exhausted but sometimes smiling. The darkroom where faces, bodies, and angles all began to appear on wet, blank paper.
At the nurse’s desk I somehow tell her, “Mother is asleep right now” and make for the door. Mother is asleep, her eyes open. She’s enjoying letting the day into her head.
As I step out the door, into the cool air, I remember when the car stopped outside our house that morning and they carried Mother in— the man from Selkirk and Tom—to the bed where she would mumble. I remember the heat of the sun on my skin as I stood there on the lawn and watched. I wasn’t wearing shoes. The dew was nearly gone, but the grass was still cool. I could smell it. Mother’s hands were limp and one of her slippers sat empty on the sidewalk.
The light rising in the grey eastern sky is a false prophet. I get in the car. My bones fit back into the lumps of the seat better than they fit my body, as Mother’s camera floats on the waves of my uneven breathing. As I put the keys in the ignition, I remember the man handing me Mother’s keys and a bag of her personal effects—her purse, her Nikon with her fast 85 mm lens, her small coat—and telling me that she should not drive, but that someone should go and pick up her car from the Downs. Then, he handed me a bag filled with her medication.
I turn on the ignition, crank the heat, and drive, slowly, out of the lot and toward her house, away from the home where Mother is unaware that I just stood behind her, that I was only four inches away from her. I pull away from the home, south, toward the place where I grew up and ran from, the dark from which my light-thirsty stem grew wide, seeking the warmth of the sun. The horizon to the southeast of the city is dark and tall and endless. Widening. The waters of the Red and the Assiniboine are high enough, but more rain is still coming to drown us out.
History is, too.
John Elizabeth Stintzi is a novelist, poet, & teacher who was born and raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. Their work has received support from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Watermill Center, and has been awarded the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. Spring of 2020 saw the publication of both their debut novel Vanishing Monuments (Arsenal Pulp Press) and their full-length poetry debut Junebat (House of Anansi).
Stintzi’s work has been published throughout the United States and Canada, in places like Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead (see: Magazine Publications), and Best Canadian Poetry. They are also the author of two poetry chapbooks: Plough Forward the Higgs Field (Rahila’s Ghost, fall 2019) and The Machete Tourist (kfb 2018). They currently live with their partner—as well as a dog named Grendel—in Kansas City, where they occasionally teach writing. They are also the resident design ghost at Split City Reads.
Music by Catlofe