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A quarterly international literary journal

Slackdrop




/ First Place, 2024 Plentitudes Prize in Fiction /

Montreal, April 2005

The first part ended with a bird and the second part started with a fish. Everything in between had been a combination of taste and personal allegiance. And of course, there's no accounting for taste. All the paper bags at the SAQ used to be printed with "le goût ne se discute pas" so that's how Phoebe had learned that taste is a touchy subject. But maybe that slogan had changed in the years she had been away from Montreal. Personal allegiance was another matter and something Phoebe had understood long before she ever watched a bottle of cheap wine slide into a paper bag, and long before she ever met Miri. 

 

It was incredibly detailed, the fish on Miri's foot. Phoebe pressed herself against the wooden moulding of the doorway at the end of one of those long, skinny Montreal apartments that ended in the kitchen. She was hoping to remain undetected for just a few more minutes, long enough to properly observe all the lines that curved and climbed toward brightly painted toes and then disappeared inside a pair of obviously well-worn Carharts. Phoebe recognized Lhasa de Sela as the singer providing cover for her to continue standing there, silently watching. The volume was up much too loud, but Phoebe liked this album, liked the way Spanish, French, and English all felt like one language, and you felt as if you could speak all three when you listened to Lhasa sing. The last song on the album was playing now, and Phoebe somehow remembered it was called, Soon This Space Will Be Too Small.

 

Hadn't Lhasa run away to a circus for a few years? The irony. Here in this kitchen her voice echoed out of a grimy boombox balanced a little precariously in the window that led to the balcony. Always a balcony. Montrealers were always watching each other from tiny boxes suspended in the air. Phoebe thought about the circus. She could picture Lhasa singing under a tent in France and making the crowd swoon. Phoebe imagined tying lengths of silk between all the balconies in the city and escaping that way. Her own best and most final performance. 

 

When the letter had arrived, Phoebe thought it was a hoax at first. But only a few people had actually been in the room when it happened. And only someone who had been there themselves could have written to Phoebe with such precision. If she was honest with herself, she knew there was only one person the letter could possibly be from, but receiving a letter from that person, after almost six years, was impossible. But the mere suggestion of an answer to what had actually happened that day was enough to get Phoebe on a plane, regardless of what was possible. She’d landed at Trudeau the same day she got the letter with no plan, trying hard not to hope.

 

Miri, alone at the table, still hadn't turned around. She was completely absorbed in whatever she was doing, a trait Phoebe would later admire when she was the object of Miri's intense focus and resent when she wasn't. But that was after months had gone by. Before Miri knew about the First Letter and before the Second Letter had been delivered. Right now, Phoebe knew she should stop staring and introduce herself, but something kept her there, frozen. So she allowed herself to stare, pulling her gaze away from the twining black fish tapping in rhythm on the right foot and taking in the long, loose curls, the too-strong-for-such a-small-body shoulders, and hands that looked like they knew hard work and yet with fingers that were so delicate, each one glittering with a thin gold ring and ending in fingernails bitten to the quick. Miri had a notebook in front of her and she was writing something, or drawing something? Phoebe couldn't tell from where she stood. 

 

Phoebe needed a place to stay and her options were limited. Rents had gone up. The city had changed in the years she had been away. Dozens of new boutiques had opened all along the northern stretch of St. Laurent. And the Mile End, which had felt like a wasteland when Phoebe first moved to the city, was trendy now, cool kids flocking there and driving up the price of everything. Black spray-painted letters spelling OUI had been scrubbed from brick walls while Phoebe had been away, and Quebec seemed to be saying yes now to tourists and hipsters and their money instead of separation. Phoebe felt herself wavering, part of her wanted to turn around and walk out. She pressed herself into the doorway, as if by leaning with enough force she could manage to disappear. She considered catching a taxi, heading back to the airport, getting back on a plane and leaving the city. She could rejoin the tour she had been travelling with and abandon any hope for answers. But you’re here now, she told herself. You came and you should see it through.

 

And now Miri was turning around and finally looking at Phoebe, with bright eyes lined with heavy lashes and obvious surprise, and a mouth turned up at one side. The mouth of a person who questions everything, a mouth that was opening now and saying in a voice that was much lower than Phoebe had expected, “Hello, are you Phoebe? I didn't expect you until tomorrow.”

 

Phoebe had mastered Crucifix at a young age, and she felt in this moment exactly as if the silks were tightening around her legs, and she was flipping upside-down with her arms spread wide, willing to offer everything she had to Miri. But, no. That wasn’t why she was here. So instead she imagined the pressure of the silks, criss-crossed against her back, offering support, and took a slow breath to steady herself before answering, "Hello. Yes, I'm Phoebe. I rang but (she gestured to the boombox which suddenly fell silent as the CD finished) I guess you didn't hear me so I let myself in. I hope that's okay.” 

 

She knew that Miri worked at Cirque du Soleil and she knew she wasn't a performer, but that was all she knew. Her old friend Antoinette had given her the contact and told her it would be a "good fit," which made Phoebe feel strange, which she had ignored. But she knew that Antoinette knew everything that had driven her away and everything that was bringing her back. And she also knew Antoinette thought that Phoebe should have moved on long ago. Doubt and confusion churned together in her stomach. Phoebe had resolved that she wouldn't share anything with Miri. This woman, however captivating, didn't need to know about her past.

 

Phoebe had resolved not to let on that she knew every inch of the Cirque’s sprawling campus in the northern part of the city. Even if part of her did ache to ask Miri to take her back there so she could wander through the gardens. Fruit trees and medicinal herbs, enclosed by low brick walls, a strange juxtaposition with the modern buildings that made up the head offices, rehearsal spaces and production shops of the Cirque. She had a sudden, almost physical memory of the sensation of a large comfrey leaf in her hand, idly stroking the slightly prickly fuzz and watching a small honey bee wiggle its way up into one of the purple and white flowers that hung downward like little bells in a cluster, surrounded by strange white spikes that looked like porcupine quills. Suddenly she heard Luisa’s voice as if Luisa was standing next to her. “That bee looks like you, hanging upside down in that flower!” she laughed. “Rivka says this plant is called Bone Knit. Remember that. We will need it to patch each other up if either of us ever falls from the sky.” 

 

Phoebe became aware that she was moving her fingers over her thumb, as if stroking a comfrey leaf and then realized Miri was staring at her with a question in her eyes. Had Miri spoken? “I’m sorry!” Phoebe said, trying to orient herself. “Why are you sorry?” Miri said, “I just said it was totally fine that you let yourself in. Antoinette said we would get along, so I’m glad you’re here. It’s been a lonely few months and this place is too big for me. Come on, I’ll show you your room.”

 

Shifting her duffle bag on her shoulder, Phoebe followed Miri back down the hallway to the front of the house, where Miri opened the door on a large, sunny room already furnished with a futon couch and an overflowing bookcase, books stacked sideways on top of each other. “You can move any of this out, if you want, but you’re welcome to use any of it too. Antoinette said you might not have much stuff with you? You’ve been travelling for a while? I know what that’s like.” Phoebe didn’t speak. Miri raised her eyebrows and took a breath. “Ok…well…make yourself at home? I still have to get a key cut for you. I’ll walk over and do that later today. Oh and the phone number here spells CUNT-X53 so, pretty easy to remember.” Phoebe blinked and then nodded and then managed to say, “Thank you…” but then she trailed off. “Miri,” Miri finished the sentence for her, supplying her name and touching her small, right hand, covered in gold rings with a confident gesture to the centre of her chest. Phoebe wondered vaguely how someone could be so sure about who they were. Miri stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her.

 

Phoebe looked around her new room, and then crossed the hardwood pine floors to peer out her window at the brightly coloured row houses across the street. Gazing out on Montreal for the first time in years, she was immediately lost in memory again. This time, not the gardens but the giant room with large glass windows and strange, oversized orange sofas with backs so tall she and Luisa had always felt absurd sitting there. It was the room where all the costume samples were kept. Endless rows of hangers dangling with garments of every single colour and texture, meant to take you beyond your imagination, all numbered and ordered and labelled for the costume designers who’d stroll among them, picking this and that to create a new show. Rows and rows of clear plastic bags holding samples of lace and velvet and fabrics invented just for Cirque, including artificial feathers made of every kind of material, but not a single plume from an actual bird in sight. Importation of real feathers was regulated by different laws in different countries, which made them an administrative nightmare to take on tour. So every feather in every costume was actually made of something else. A fantasy of feathers.

 

Phoebe told herself she would not tell Miri that she used to hang in the air in the largest rehearsal space, the one lined at the rooftop level with meeting rooms where the people in suits must have been distracted from their very important business whenever the artists appeared and disappeared in the windows as they worked the trampoline, leaping into the air where Phoebe was often swinging, impossibly high, wrapping her leg again and again and then pulling to release her weight and sliding down until the silks snapped. Slackdrop, falling without falling at all.


Montreal, August 1998

Luisa was standing in front of the mirror in the dressing room when Phoebe first saw her. Cirque performers were trained to apply their own makeup, so after one in-depth session with a makeup artist, you were on your own. This meant performers often spent hours alone in the small dressing room, trying to get their makeup just right. The first time Phoebe saw Luisa, she was concentrating and leaning close to the dressing room mirror so Phoebe thought at first that she was trying to perfect her makeup. But as Phoebe watched, she realized that Luisa wasn't painting her face. She was twisting her impossibly long hair very, very slowly, creating an indecipherable pattern. She sang as she worked, with a private smile playing at the corner of her mouth, and may or may not have noticed Phoebe standing there, transfixed. Weeks later, when a half-asleep Phoebe twisted that hair around her own fingers as she kissed Luisa awake, she knew everything about the precise arrangement required of each shining strand that allowed Luisa to float in the air suspended by only her hair twisted around a golden ring clipped into a golden hook. She knew every minute of the two full hours it took to arrange each strand just so, to coax and whisper the hairs into place so that the feat could be accomplished. No hidden mechanism. No additional supports.

 

Phoebe also knew every quirk and twitch of those dancing eyes, always offering a dare; of that nose, wrinkling with laughter, and that mouth she had kissed a thousand times by then and fully expected to kiss a thousand more. But then there was an argument. And then another and another. There was pacing back and forth for hours. An insistence from Luisa that anything other than real feathers would be inadequate. Phoebe tried and failed to reason with her. Inadequate for what? Luisa wouldn't explain, even to Phoebe. Instead she sent dozens of emails to the people in suits who sat behind the high office windows. Phoebe walked into the rehearsal space one afternoon and looked up to find that Luisa had installed herself, hanging by her hair, in front of their high office windows, glaring at the people in suits. “Luisa!” called Phoebe from the floor. Luisa didn’t look down. “I refuse to be ruled by policy or costs!” Luisa shouted, less to Phoebe and more for the benefit of the people in suits. Phoebe hoped Luisa wasn’t going to be fired.

 

Luisa required real feathers. None of the ingenious imitations and inventions that had sufficed for every other show and every other performer would do. Her artform was precise, and precision could not abide imitation. The weight must be precise. The colour must be precise. And the material must be precise. Her performance had been dubbed “Bird of Paradise,” and paradise would not compromise, so real feathers from real birds were a must (never mind that a Bird of Paradise is a flower; it was the principle and it was what the artform demanded). Phoebe gave up trying to understand.


Montreal, June 2005

It turned out that Miri was a builder and designer for Cirque. There were two different large shops at the Montreal headquarters for Cirque du Soleil and they produced all the props and sets and costumes for all the shows worldwide. Most people were assigned to work in one shop or the other, but Miri somehow got away with wandering freely between both of them. She was well-liked and talented in both design and fabrication. She never ran out of ideas or grew frustrated when presented with a new problem. She thrived on the puzzle of it all, and people always came to her when they were stuck. How to keep the flexibility here, but improve the strength so it can carry the weight of three jumping humans? How to hide the mechanism here so beauty isn’t sacrificed to functionality? How to make this release without effort? She would always find a solution.

 

Miri was also a mystery. She didn’t tell many stories about herself, but there were plenty of rumours. That she’d spent time in Vermont learning ancient hand-tool techniques from a reclusive Japanese woodworker. That she’d been a boat builder in Venice for three years. That she’d spent one summer in Victoria doing the millwork for the bespoke interiors of cabins of private jets. Along with various stories about which private jet owners had invited her to travel with them in those bespoke cabins.

 

Having grown up in Montreal, Miri had gotten used to the question: but where are you really from? And when people asked Miri that question, she had long adopted a policy of agreeing with whatever they guessed. Icelandic, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Italian?

 

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

 

Yes, she knew Bjork. Yes, her great-great-great grandfather was an important chief in Hawaii. Yes, her father was one of the Boat People who came to Canada in ’78. Yes, her grandmother was interned during WWII. Yes, her whole family fled Hong Kong in ’97. Yes, her grandmother still lived in Grado near the Slovenian border and Miri visited her every summer. Anyone who asked that question got exactly the answer they deserved, even if it wasn’t what they were looking for.

 

For the first three months Phoebe had lived with Miri at St. Andre and Cherrier, she hadn’t been able to entirely sort the rumours from reality. The first time she found herself in Miri's arms, Phoebe spun one of the gold rings Miri wore every day on each finger and asked why she wore them, given the work she did. “Don’t they get in your way?” Phoebe asked. Miri smiled, tracing Phoebe's palm when she answered, “It’s Venetian gold,” as if that explained anything. So maybe some of the stories were true.

 

Phoebe did know that Miri was Japanese because that was something they shared, though their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Phoebe’s Japanese family had been in Canada for four generations now, and all of Phoebe’s peers were mixed like her. Phoebe’s grandmother really had been interned with her family during WWII, and after the War, Canada’s “East of the Rockies” policies had had their intended effect. Phoebe’s mother didn’t speak any Japanese, and most of the culture had been wrung out of their family through a combination of these government policies and internalised shame. But Miri’s parents had come here during a wave of post-war immigration in the early ’70s. They had learned English (and French) in Canada, and Miri grew up with all of the culture and language that Phoebe hardly knew about. The two of them actually had very little in common. Phoebe wasn’t concerned with who Miri really was or wasn’t. Her focus was elsewhere. This was just a nice way to spend her nights. At least, that’s what she told herself at first.

 

The First Letter had specified a date and time and an address that turned out to be near Lionel-Groulx metro when Phoebe consulted a city map, which Miri kept in a kitchen drawer. Phoebe had returned to Montreal the same day she had received the First Letter. So she spent the weeks waiting for the appointed date trying to plan (but she wasn't sure for what) and listening to The Living Road on repeat. She spent entire afternoons on Miri’s balcony holding Miri’s CD case, reading and re-reading the printed lyrics that felt like clues, except she couldn't even explain the riddle she was trying to solve. Lhasa sang, and something tightened in Phoebe's throat.

 

Many nights that summer, Phoebe dreamt of fish turning into birds. Birds diving after fish. Two women on the prows of two ships side by side with their hair tangling in the wind, one of them holding a golden key. One with a hook, raised above her shoulder, the sharp point glinting in unnaturally white sunlight. The wind bringing a single feather, then another, then thousands. She woke up choking. Miri would run her hand up and down Phoebe’s back, still asleep, but trying to soothe her.


Montreal, December 1999

The morning of the dress rehearsal, Phoebe had woken with a start. But the dream that had woken her was gone. She lay blinking in the dark, trying to remember. Asleep beside her, Luisa mumbled something in Spanish and rolled over. Phoebe waited for daylight to creep in, feeling uneasy, but unsure why.

 

On opening night, Luisa had scheduled an additional hour on top of her normal two hour prep time, and she and Phoebe arrived together early in the day. The entire process would be different now with the feathers. The Phoenix Fowl had been sourced from Japan. In 1972, a Phoenix Fowl tail feather was measured at 34 feet, nine and a half inches in Shikoku, and still held the Guinness world record. Of course, Luisa had to have the longest feathers in existence. Like she had on the day they met, Phoebe stood watching Luisa from the doorway. Luisa slowly, reverently, unfolded the rice paper that wrapped the length of the thin, wooden box that must’ve measured at least 25 feet, maybe longer, built especially to ship the tail feathers safely. The people in suits had relented and invested a great deal, in fact, first to address the challenges presented by the international transport of the costume, and then to actually procure the feathers.

 

Phoebe decided not to stay to watch Luisa prepare. Her own costume was simple and she had her makeup routine perfected to 15 minutes, so she had plenty of time before getting ready for the show. Silently, she slipped out of the dressing room and went to the rehearsal space to warm up. When Luisa entered the room three hours later, Phoebe was upside down almost 40 feet in the air and she slipped a little, her breath catching and her heart actually physically aching when she saw Luisa resplendent in full costume. Phoebe righted herself, unwound the silks and slowly slid down to the mat, then walked to a corner to continue observing quietly, ignoring the unexplained feeling in her stomach that felt like hunger that had crossed over into pain. Luisa did not look at any of the other performers milling around the space. She didn’t look at Phoebe. She stepped forward with small, precise steps and stood below the golden hook that dangled from the ceiling, specially designed for her.

 

Like any good story, there are many versions of what exactly happened next. However, while the particular details might be embellished (or even diminished) by the teller, anyone who talks about that day must admit the same truth: that one moment Luisa was there, and the next moment, she was simply gone.

 

Phoebe didn’t stay to listen to the useless chatter in the dressing room. She packed the things in her locker, went to her apartment near Jean-Talon Market, packed what she could carry and headed south to the bus station. There was a bus leaving for Toronto at midnight and she got on it.


Montreal, August 2005

When the date specified in the letter finally arrived, Phoebe stood still on the long escalator, allowing herself to be lifted slowly back to the surface of the earth from the tunnels below the southwest end of the city. As the round, orange tiles that covered the floor of the station receded from view, she remembered vaguely that her best friend from home, who had harboured a strange childhood obsession with the history of the Montreal Metro, had once told her she and the Lionel-Groulx station shared a birthday. As she stepped out onto the street and headed south toward the market, she realized with a sinking feeling of guilt that she had been back in Canada for months now without calling him. She resolved that she would call first thing in the morning.

 

When Phoebe returned home, walking into the kitchen just after midnight, Miri was sitting at the table holding the First Letter. She had accidentally come across it that night when she was looking for a particular tee-shirt of Phoebe’s she liked to borrow. Somehow, she hadn’t been able to stop herself from opening it. The letter seemed to almost vibrate in her hand and she had opened it slowly and then sat down on the bedroom floor as she read it several times. Now at the kitchen table, she held it up and looked directly at Phoebe, her transgression forgotten in the strangeness of it all. “I have questions,” Miri said, and Phoebe just nodded and sank into a chair. She would explain what she could explain. “I think you also might be the only person in the world who has the answers.” Phoebe said, sighing and placing the Second Letter gently on the table, then sliding it over to Miri slowly, as if the paper was weighted. Miri picked it up and turned the envelope over in her hands without opening it. She ran her index finger over a tiny ink drawing of a feather that had been torn now that the envelope had been opened by Phoebe. She looked up and met Phoebe’s gaze and held it, neither of them speaking for several minutes. Phoebe knew she was totally undone. All her armour gone. She felt like her heart was visible on the outside of her body. Miri nodded as if she understood and then she said, “Well we have all night. Tell me everything.”

 

Three weeks later, Phoebe stepped through the double doors of the main entrance of Cirque’s campus for the first time in six years and followed Miri down the wide hall toward the larger shop. Miri had built the box according to the elaborate plans Phoebe had produced that night at the kitchen table. As it turned out, no one had been at the specified address when she arrived there at the specified time on the specified day. Instead of answers she had found another letter, propped up against a wall in a large, empty room inside an unused industrial building, with instructions and detailed plans enclosed.

 

Phoebe and Miri had travelled outside the city to a small mill to find mahogany and rosewood for the box. For the key, they'd spent a week sourcing gold from pawn shops. Miri had added in four of her eight rings before Phoebe could stop her.

 

That morning, Miri knew everyone would be at their Friday meeting in the large rehearsal space, so the shop would be empty. Miri strode to a corner of the room and pulled on a heavy white cloth to reveal the tall, human-sized box she had made so lovingly, with intricate inlay across the top edge and a narrow door on one side with two small steps to allow someone to climb up and in. The entire thing was constructed with delicate Japanese dovetail joints. Miri’s Dozuki hand saw was lying on a workbench, which Phoebe knew had been brought in from home just for this (she wondered for a moment if all the stories were true). No metal other than the key. This was made quite explicit in the instructions, and Miri had followed the plans from the letter precisely.

 

Phoebe stepped forward. She didn’t look at Miri. She pressed gently on the door and it swung open. She climbed onto the first step. She felt Miri place a hand on her shoulder, and then the pressure of the hand was gone and Phoebe climbed the second step and went inside, closing the door behind her. In the darkness, she listened to Miri turning the key in the lock and then heard her leaving the shop, her footfalls fading away to nothing.

 

When the meeting ended and the shop filled with noise and activity again, there were questions. There was a click as the key turned to the right and the door swung open, revealing the empty box.  “Who built this?” someone said. “What show is this for?” Someone else asked. No one knew. They all expressed admiration for the fine woodworking. Then everyone returned to work.

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