The following excerpt is a sneak peek at the new novel by:
The Iterations of Caroline, out in February from Shuniah House Books. David (our narrator) and Caroline find themselves navigating Earth in different versions of the universe, pursued by Caroline’s ex-husband, who’s intent on killing them. In the episode below, David and Caroline are in different universes, and David has journeyed from Thunder Bay to the Pacific Coast of North America in the hope of finding Caroline again.
The Iterations of Caroline
The drive to Tulalip took less than fifteen minutes. In the casino, a set of totem poles stood in the center of the lobby. According to the explanations, at the top of the Story Pole, an eagle folded its wings around a creature with the head of a wolf and the body of a man. The creature symbolized all living things, human and wild, and the process of their transformation. It told the story of a time when humans and animals spoke the same language and shared the same culture.
A memory hung just beyond my ability to call it forth. What the hell had drawn me to the casino? It had been a mistake to come. A conviction grew that something dangerous was going to happen.
I was just about to leave when I remembered the dream—the jogger in Toronto at the beach, who’d said, “Look for the signs.” And the woman on the roof, who looked like Caroline, had said something about the brush wolf and the streetcar. Here I stood in a place I had no reason to be, looking at a pole topped with the animal of my fevered dream
I hadn’t seen the hostess approach. “Thanks, but no.”
“Magnificent, isn’t it? I see it every day, and every day I find something different in it.” She stared up at it.
“What do you see today?”
“Today?” She thought for a moment. “Today my feet are hurting because of the heels they make me wear, and one of my kids has a fever and I’m worried about that, and all the lights and the sounds in the casino make this whole place seem unreal. I’m tired and I’ve got hours to go yet. Today, the totem is something solid, made of wood by someone who had something to say. It’s the most important thing in this whole place.”
“Wasn’t there a sculptor who said he never made anything out of stone? He just chipped away to let what was inside it get out?”
“Michelangelo. He’d have liked this. Let me know if you change your mind.” She left.
I looked up at the totem again. Metaphor, Dr. Singh had said. Was the wolf turning into a man, or the man into a wolf? Would the transformation end up with a complete wolf and a complete man? Or was the transformation complete already, the creature in its final form, neither this nor that?
In my dream, when I asked the woman on the roof where Caroline was, she’d said, “Damned if I know. I just walk them.” Them.
Maybe it was the wooden canoe outside the entrance of the casino. Maybe it was the sense that, at the ocean, change is the norm. Maybe simply because I’d never been to Ocean Shores. In any case, I wanted the water, the big expanse of the Pacific. I headed south, through Seattle and Tacoma, which hadn’t stitched themselves together in this world. Then on to Olympia, Aberdeen, and Hoquiam, each smaller than the place before.
Ocean Shores—especially by the standards of this universe—was a surprisingly robust tourist community sitting on a long strip of sand. I expected something less commercial, more stripped down. I drove south along Point Brown Avenue past bars, antique shops, galleries, restaurants, hot dog stands and homes; then I angled onto Discovery Drive which, I discovered, became Marine View Drive and took me north before it meandered into Ocean Shores Boulevard. At last, I found a respectable-looking newer franchise motel.
“Any rooms left?” I asked the clerk.
He tapped a few keys on his computer and nodded without looking at me. “Ground floor or second?”
“Do you have non-smoking?”
“Non-smoking, please, on the second floor.”
“Sorry, the only non-smoking room is on the ground floor. That okay?” He was forced to look up because I had decided to simply nod until he did.
“That’s fine,” I said, to reward him. When he finished the paperwork, I asked, “How do I get to the beach from here?”
“Go north, and when you get to West Chance a La Mer turn left. You can drive on the beach and park pretty much wherever you want. Continental breakfast,” he continued as if it somehow pertained to the beach, “is from six to nine in the Pirate’s Hall.” He pointed to a small open area behind me, its wall-mounted screen tuned to a golf channel.
“You play golf?”
“No, but a lot of our patrons do. Hope you enjoy your stay with us at Knightside.”
I’d been dismissed.
West Chance a La Mer was right where he’d said it would be. I drove onto the beach, where several hundred vehicles of all kinds sat in half a dozen crooked lines. It reminded me of pictures of Dominion Day celebrations in Port Arthur in the 1930s, when crowds of people who had no money to spend gathered at Boulevard Lake to meet friends and have picnics.
North and south of where I’d left the asphalt for sand, the lines amalgamated, thinned, broke into sporadic clusters of cars and trucks, and then became widely spaced individual vehicles. I drove until I had a long stretch of beach to myself, then I got out. From my stash of camping equipment, I fetched a folding lawn chair and sat watching the waves break on the beach.
In spite of my desire for the neverending vista of the Pacific Ocean, I’ve never been fully comfortable on an ocean beach. No matter how sunny and warm things are, no matter how far I can see, I always think about an approaching tsunami. When I drive toward a beach I note where the high ground is, in case I have to head for the hills. Most of the time I can control my fear, but when I find myself paying undue attention to the beach balls and surfboards, I know it’s time to leave. I don’t like being the kind of person who’d wrestle a beach ball away from some kid when a wave comes in and I need a life preserver.
I kept my tsunami-watching paranoia more or less under control, and then the woman and her dog came by. I saw the dog first—I couldn’t help it. It had legs like a small pony and weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds. Its steel-grey body was easily as tall as I was—then again, I was sitting in the lawn chair. Its massive chest and grizzled, rough-hewn head gave it an aura of power. It bounded along the water’s edge like a greyhound, then stopped suddenly where a wave retreated to sniff at something left behind, then doubled back to its owner, who jogged determinedly behind.
Most dogs are single-minded when they find something to play with. Not this dog. When it saw me, it charged.
“Clarence! Stop!” the woman yelled.
The dog stopped and sat on its haunches a few feet away, looking down at me. I tried to look as unthreatening as possible. I couldn’t remember if that meant looking a homicidal dog in the eyes or playing corpse-in-a-chair. I chose to look at the owner as she approached.
“Sorry about that. I hope Clarence didn’t frighten you.” She was trim and fit, younger than Caroline, one of those early-thirties women who make all their sentences end with a gravelly drop in tone.
“No.” However, I noticed that my hands had gone, of their own accord, to guard the family jewels. As casually as I could, I moved my arms onto the armrests.
“Okay.” She spoke to Clarence. The dog got off its haunches and padded slowly toward me, nose first.
“Jesus, he’s big.”
“Irish Wolfhound. Diana.”
“You called him Clarence.”
“He’s Clarence. I’m Diana.”
“Yes, of course. Sorry. I’m—.” For a second I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to say Richard or David. “Richard Glendenning.”
“Pleased to meet you, Richard. It’s okay to pat him. He doesn’t bite. He’s just a puppy and he likes to be petted.”
If this dog wanted to be petted, I decided, I’d pet it. Clarence’s fur felt coarse.
“Wolfhounds were used to hunt wolves, weren’t they?” That used up all the knowledge I had about wolfhounds.
“In packs. His owner told me once that they were used in warfare, too, against the Romans or something. He isn’t mine, by the way—I’m walking him for a friend. Clarence thinks we’re hunting, though. It’s weird—like following a trail humans can’t see.”
She laughed a little nervously, then asked the dog, “You’re hunting now, aren’t you?” He looked at her curiously, not quite sure what he was supposed to do.
She turned back to me. “Wolfhounds were pretty well extinct by 1800 or so, but those left were bred with Great Danes, Mastiffs and Deerhounds, tailor-made to look like the original Wolfhounds but without the aggressiveness. Clarence here is really good with children. Aren’t you, Clarence?”
The dog looked at her, glanced at the water, then returned to staring at her face.
I said, “I think he wants to go back to hunting.”
“Okay, Clarence.” The dog bounded off. “He loves running with other dogs when there are some around—plus pretending to be a brush wolf hunting ferocious shellfish.”
“Been nice talking to you. See you on the return trip.” She started off after the dog.
For a while I watched her running along after Clarence. Then I closed my eyes for a moment. That was a mistake.
I woke because the sun, which had been gently lowering itself into the blue-green water of the Pacific, had suddenly disappeared. Cold air, along with the crash of waves, shocked me awake. The sun hadn’t set, but it had gone behind low, dark clouds. The wind, stronger now, blew in gusts off the ocean. I shivered. It was time to go.
I folded the lawn chair and put it in the trunk, then got in behind the wheel.
As I reached for the armrest to pull the door closed, something hit the door with the force of a brawler’s kick and slammed it shut.
I saw a snarling face at the window, paws scrabbling at the door. This wasn’t Clarence, a pretender to the title of Wolfhound. This dog was the real thing, the beast that made the Roman centurions flee. Its thick leather collar had inward-facing metal spikes.
I looked beyond the teeth to see Diana, the dog-walker, running toward the car—carrying a leash made of chain. She clipped the leash to his collar and yanked him away. She mouthed “Sorry” as the dog snarled and barked. As I watched, she pushed down on his hindquarters to force him into a sitting position. After a second or two, she shouted “Home!” They headed along the beach, the dog trotting beside her obediently.
I drove slowly across the beach to West Chance a La Mer and the Knightside Motel on Ocean Shores Boulevard. As I passed Diana and the dog she waved.
I raised a hand in reply, a little too late for her to see it. My mind was on Bernie’s credit card. I hoped it still worked in this new world.
Roy Blomstrom was born in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario. He has published poetry, stories, and essays, and his ten-minute plays have been performed locally, in Finland, and at the Brighton Fringe Festival. He is grateful for support from the Ontario Arts Council for several works, including The Iterations of Caroline. He lives and writes in Shuniah, Ontario, where every day, he stares out at Lake Superior and wonders about the universe.
by Marion Agnew
What can I give you
that will be of use in your next life,
the one you will live without me?
“At your age I wore a darkness,” Maggie Smith
The ladder, its unvarnished wood cracked and splitting, rests on two walls in the corner of our bedroom. Its rails extend six feet toward the ceiling, connected by four rungs about twenty inches apart. I can wrap my thumb and middle finger around the rails at the top, but at the bottom, the rails are larger than my grip.
A ladder repurposed as décor isn’t our usual style. You’d be more likely to see ladders in decorated-from-Pinterest homes, serving as bookshelves or towel racks.
Our ladder isn’t furniture, though. It leans in the corner not only for what it holds, but also for what it is.
In a few years before and after 1970, when I was in elementary school, my mother scheduled her university teaching, research, and meetings so she could spend some afternoons with me at home. My siblings were mostly grown and gone by then. And while Mom trusted me to be a responsible “latchkey kid” most days, she didn’t feel right about leaving me alone at home after school every day.
Oklahoma’s afternoon light crept through the patio’s sliding glass doors to illuminate the family room. The wood-paneled walls embraced chairs of dark wood, upholstered in the then-popular avocado-and-orange earth tones.
I’d sit sideways in the harvest-gold recliner, twisting my too-straight, too-fine, so-long-it’s-tangled hair as I read. On the adjacent sofa, my mother spread the contents of her crocheting bag—skeins and balls of yarn plus her work-in-progress. She’d learned various needle arts as a girl in the 1920s and 30s, sewing clothes for her dolls. As a young woman, she knit sweaters for her older brother and needlepointed floral-and-navy-blue chair covers. Crocheting and knitting had experienced a grand resurgence in the late 1960s, and Mom embraced it.
At 4 PM, I’d put down my book. In the hour before I had to leave for swim practice, Mom and I watched Perry Mason reruns on TV.
Mom enjoyed mysteries and had read many of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books. She approved of Raymond Burr as Perry and Barbara Hale as Della Street. However, she often said that William Hopper was too good-looking to be Paul Drake, their private investigator.
Still, she thrilled, as I did, when Paul showed up in the last moments of the trial. He’d exchange a significant look with Della and whisper something to Perry that changed the direction of the case, letting Perry tie up loose ends and restore justice in the world of TV reruns.
My grandfather, Mom’s father, made the ladder that stands in the corner—perhaps ninety years ago, perhaps only seventy—from trees he’d cut down to clear space for the camp. He stripped the bark and sanded the rails so they’d feel good under his hands. For the rungs, Grandpa chose thick, sturdy lengths and large nails to minimize the chances the rungs would split while bearing his weight.
For decades, the ladder stood or lay outdoors, its feet or rails in snow, damp leaves, mud, moist earth. Lichen and mold grew on the rails.
It’s difficult to tell what kind of wood it’s made of—it’s weathered grey now, and the rails don’t hold obvious traces of branch patterns—but spruce, balsam fir, and even cedar are possibilities. Some paint residue, shades of Atomic Tangerine and Plum, cling to its surfaces, where I cleaned brushes while repainting the camp.
Mom’s fingers knew how to crochet, even while she watched TV. She made granny squares—a pattern starting with a small square of double-crochet stitches around a circular eye. The design grows as you add concentric, square-shaped “rounds.” The finished squares, usually four or five rows, are sewn together into a larger fabric to cover pillows or serve as blankets.
Now cliché and used as TV-show shorthand to signify working-class families, granny squares can also be very attractive. Some people choose colours carefully, to complement a specific palette. Mom’s squares, though made carefully and well, were a hodge-podge of colours, like a wildflower meadow in bloom.
Through a year or two of Perry Mason reruns, she made dozens of squares of different colour combinations, unified by a final row of black. Eventually, she sewed them into a blanket as a gift for my sister, who lived on campus.
I don’t know why I imagined Grandpa’s old ladder as décor. We favour sentiment and comfort over a more intentional aesthetic, but I’m as susceptible as anyone to Pinterest, I suppose. Besides, I wanted to incorporate an object from Grandpa’s era into our home.
But as my birthdays have accumulated, I’ve become increasingly aware of how quickly time passes. Improvements to the camp that my husband and I made “recently” are showing their age after fifteen years. Exterior and interior paint and roof patching would all be welcome. The floor under the piano needs to be shored up again. In the face of such impermanence, I needed to choose my treasure quickly.
A significant advantage of the ladder as an heirloom was its portability. I couldn’t remove the peeled-spruce posts holding up the inside roof, the wall paneling from a grain car, or the wavy-glassed windows.
Through the years, the ladder had already made the transition from tool to artifact. Long ago, Mom had bought safer aluminum ladders to use. I found it hard to watch the wooden ladder rotting, returning to the dirt the trees had originally grown in. So I rescued it—to use it again, but differently.
I carried the ladder from the camp to our house, where I left it on the porch “for a little while” that became a full year, while I pondered what to do with it. In the summer of 2020, I reconnoitered. About a foot of the bottom of each rail, plus the bottom rung, were rotten beyond reclaiming, so I took the chainsaw to them. Sandpaper got rid of rough spots and lichen, and it otherwise cleaned up well.
According to Mom, Grandpa never imagined that our property, ten acres and two camps, would still be in the family after all these years. I’m not sure Mom was right about that. After all, Grandpa gave her the smaller camp after she’d gone away to graduate school, before she married. Was it a tether to ensure she’d return, at least occasionally? She did, of course, and our place sustained her through the decades when she could spend only a few weeks here each summer.
But Mom did have a point. Grandpa barely met me—he died when I was an infant—so he couldn’t predict that I’d torque my life’s path and come here to live. He could never have known how this place would continue to challenge and reward me.
What’s harder to accept: Mom never knew, either.
A mathematician, Mom prized order and symmetry, and she was a born problem-solver. During Perry Mason’s commercial breaks, we puzzled over motive, means, and opportunity. Who could be lying? Whose alibi was suspect? What would Perry’s court strategy be?
We talked about her crocheting, too—did she have enough yarn of this colour for this square’s fourth row or only the second? Did olive green or teal look better with this dark scarlet? Would this butterscotch complement the row of cream or make it look jaundiced?
Our time with Perry Mason came to an end as I grew up. But Mom still enjoyed crocheting. Eventually, she started a blanket for me—hexagons this time. We both enjoyed the silliness of the phrase “granny square hexagons.”
Though I am a writer, not a mathematician, I too solve problems. I puzzle over memories. I know some facts about her gift to me. Hexagons, the choice of bees for their honeycombs, make for sturdy yet lightweight structures. My blanket, ninety-eight hexagons in total and edged with four black, lacier rows, has also endured. Over the years, it’s become pilled and worn, and some of the colours have faded unevenly, but it’s otherwise intact.
Though facts remain, many of my specific memories are lost in the past. No matter how intently I look, I can’t see Mom’s darning needle, threaded with black yarn, flashing in and out as she sewed the completed “hexagonal squares” tight. I can’t remember when she gave me the finished blanket. I was probably in high school, when I never made my bed.
I do remember the blanket from other eras. In the years after my first marriage, I draped it over the back of the one chair (also harvest gold) in my bare-bones apartment while I read assignments for graduate school. I wrapped myself in it on winter evenings while crying over my stupid decisions, over my brave ones.
My mother’s fingers, nimble before her knuckles grew arthritic, wound and caught and do-si-doed yarn into knots in orderly rows. Then the finished blanket disappeared into the larger fabric of my life. It became part of the background, largely taken for granted.
As was she, until her memory began to unravel permanently. She switched from crocheting to knitting, and I was grateful that knitting sometimes eased her fretfulness and anxiety. She continued to knit increasingly uneven squares until late in her disease. At a day program she attended to give my caregiver father some respite, she brought needles and yarn and taught several of the workers there to knit.
Traditionally, ladders symbolize the connection between Heaven and Earth, the divine and the mundane. In the Abrahamic religious traditions, Jacob dreamed of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending, and received a prophecy of a promised land.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is the title of a song—several songs, actually, some by rock bands as well as the moving spiritual sung by enslaved African and Black peoples in North America.
Novels and movies, trails and landmarks and sections of highway, a specific type of pocketknife and a mathematical surface all bear the name. It’s a pattern for a quilt square and a cascading ribbon-and-wood-block toy.
Jacob’s Ladder is also a figure in the Cat’s Cradle, an ancient game found in many cultures that involves a length of string tied in a circle. Working with a partner, you take turns looping the string around your fingers to form different images.
The eighty-plus Perry Mason murder mysteries depend on a ladder—“The Murderer’s Ladder,” a plotting tool Erle Stanley Gardner developed. It considers the killer’s very human motivations and temptations; how those feelings might engender a plan; and then, given the opportunity, how they could lead someone to take the next step, and the next.
A ladder’s construction echoes its purpose. Its two rails are linked by rungs, and a ladder links space on the ground to space above or below, or, when it’s laid between structures, connects this space to that one.
The very structure of our DNA, the spiral staircase of the double helix, is a type of ladder.
For many years of winters in this house, Mom’s blanket lay on the end of the guest room bed, waiting to welcome me on nights made restless by hormones or snoring. Summers, I’d fold it and set it on the closet shelf to wait for the first snow, when I’d bring it out to air before draping it on the bed.
As summer became autumn in 2020, an unsettling season in a tumultuous year, I brought Mom’s blanket down from the guest room shelf. Again, I unfolded it and smiled at its colours—the flame-orange and pewter-green of lichens; its hues of moss and bark, blueberries and snowflakes, granite and quartz and basalt.
In our own bedroom, I re-folded the blanket and hung it over a rung of the ladder, its wood silvered like the winter sky and summer twilight.
As sunlight wanes and waxes with the seasons, I press my palm to the ladder’s rails. With a finger, I trace the outline of a colourful hexagon. I find comfort and continuity, even in this time of great uncertainty.
It’s what he made. It’s what she made. These are the things they gave me, that are of use in this life, the one I live without them.
Marion Agnew’s personal essays are collected in Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s, published by Winnipeg’s Signature Editions in 2019. It was shortlisted for the Louise di Kiriline Lawrence award for nonfiction.
Her writing has received support from the Ontario Arts Council and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award.
She lives in Shuniah, mere yards from Lake Superior, and is unduly proud of her prowess with loppers and chainsaw.
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