Kilby Smith-McGregor lives and works in Toronto, Canada. She is a graphic
designer and theatre artist whose writing has appeared in The Cyclops Review. Kilby recently
returned to school to study creative writing at York University were she is also involved in a
collaborative non-fiction project within the Faculty of Education. She participated in the
University of Iowa's Irish Writing Program this past summer where Relic was co-winner of
the inaugural short fiction competition..
hen I was twelve and she was
fourteen, my sister Evy carved a wooden arm in shop class that caused quite a stir. In part, this was
because she somehow plunged the gouge right into her thigh, and when she stood up it stuck out nearly
perpendicular. But also there is something disturbing about a wooden arm, said Kravitz, the shop teacher,
and her proposal had been for a totem pole anyway. The blade had gone straight in like an expert diver,
leaving the surface of the skin itself taut, undisturbed but for the handle sticking out. And Kravitz’s
insistence on leaving it, like the moon-landing flag or the South Pole marker, until they got to
Emergency, was experience speaking. Four stitches and no blood to speak of, until she ripped them
out that night in the bathtub.
Evy fought my mother with it once, the arm. A broken bottle was the
implement of choice on the other side. Robert broke it up of course, because that was his job, being
the boy, being the oldest, the one who found himself standing in the position a father might occupy
under other circumstances: between a daughter swinging a wooden arm and a mother brandishing the
craggy teeth of a once-whisky-bottle.
In the Museum there is a shrine of the arm of a Saint, carved in stone,
and inside the shrine, which is roughly the size and shape of Evy’s arm, is the actual arm-bone of the
man himself. This was Evy’s inspiration; she read about it, and then later she took me on the ferry and
the train and we saw it, just the two of us. We both got on the train to come home, but then Evy got off
again before we left the station, to get something she’d left at the wicket. Read your book, she told me.
So I did, and I didn’t notice that they closed the doors until the train started sliding away. A man in a
blue wool coat had to hold me across the chest for the first half-hour because I was kicking to get out.
And a woman with long nails kept saying: there’s another one leaving in the morning dear. Robert came over
on the ferry and then rode it back across with me. We didn’t say much; it was dark.
Evy left her wooden arm for me, and a note on the pillow so I knew it was on
|"When I was twelve and she was fourteen, my sister
Evy carved a wooden arm in shop class that caused quite a stir. In part this was because she
somehow plunged the gouge right into her thigh, and when she stood up it stuck out nearly
perpendicular. But also there is something disturbing about a wooden arm."
purpose, and nothing for Robert, because she knew he was strong and solemn and not attracted to such
Gothic overtures. For my mother she left a pile of ash in the bathtub that had been the new poetry
manuscript. Robert and I left it like that, smelling burnt, even though my mother didn’t show up home
from Bill Kelly’s, or Jim Ballard’s, or Dawson McGovern’s, or a ditch on the side of the road, for
another two days. When she did come home to it—and us, one less—she dumped another box of papers in
the tub and lit it up again.
* * *
The young newspaperman, hunched over the slat shelf by my hearth, is
regarding Evy’s arm with great interest. It will be an easy way to find out whether he has read my
mother’s poetry at all, or at least that collection, the best known. He weighs the honeyed cedar
thoughtfully, rolling it lightly in his two hands, and then extends it toward me wagging it up and
down, ruddy face split into a big grin.
‘Well that’s a laugh, isn’t it?’ he says.
Hasn’t read her would be the verdict, as there’s no hint of the
usual question about this immortalized artifact, although this would be a unique opening for it.
I’m relieved. He won’t ask me about my sister, this one, more cub scout than reporter anyway. Says
he moved here out of college a couple of years ago. Near my own age I’m guessing, but the word m’am
keeps dribbling out of his mouth like spit up juice in search of a bib.
‘Why don’t you sit, Mr. Bullin. That’ll be the kettle now.’
He does not sit, and trails me into the cramped kitchen.
‘Don’t put yourself out ma’m, carrying anything now.’
I assure him that my condition, as people are so fond of calling
it, is not a debilitating disease so much as a little extra weight up front, though I won’t be
climbing any ladders so if he’d like to volunteer to come by and clean my eves, I’d take it,
even pay ten dollars, or whatever’s the going rate.
Robert did the whole stretch of cove road cottages for five a
pop in high school, but that was over ten years ago. Inflation catches up with even the ends
of the earth I imagine.
He looks at me in a squinty, undermined sort of way.
‘A joke, Mr. Bullin. But it needs doing before the snow, so
if you know of anyone.’ I send him, plodding with the self-importance of a ring bearer, back
into the main room with the tea tray.
‘I did read,’ he begins, ‘a bit of that New York magazine article
from a few years back, which was nice enough.’
I can’t recall any nice bits, myself.
…A little wordy though, he allows. This is just a single column
for the Guardian, on mother being awarded the prize, and since I’m back living here now, if I
wouldn’t mind, he just wants a family aspect to it.
I tell him something about us children making little books with
illustrations and binding them ourselves with dental floss.
‘We were all very artistic of course,’ I say, and the young
Mr. Bullin is over the moon.
|" Within one year from today our mother will
wake up with Evy’s wood arm in place of her own and it won’t write a single word ever
again. And that will be it, Evy says, the ghost will be banished out from her eyes and she’ll be
delivered to us in the world....And when she looks at us, she will look at us, not through.
And where once there was only art, there will be a family."
* * *
Into a cylindrical hollow made with the longest drill-bit she
could find, Evy placed an eyedropper filled with her and my blood both, a bit of Robert’s hair
from off his brush, and a rolled up photograph of the three of us standing on the icy breakwall
with our arms around each other in snowsuits and tinfoil hats. A backpacker from the prairies
had taken it and, good on her promise, an exciting brown envelope marked: Do Not Bend, had arrived
in the post a month later. It’s for the spell, Evy tells me, stopping the hole with a wad of gum.
She holds the arm in her two hands before her and raises it slowly above her head; ominus, ominus,
ominus, she intones, long dark curls closing like a curtain over her face, and I finally stop
crying about her having cut me.
We summon the Muse to unmake her. Within one year from today
our mother will wake up with Evy’s wood arm in place of her own and it won’t write a single
word ever again. And that will be it, Evy says, the ghost will be banished out from her eyes
and she’ll be delivered to us in the world. She will learn to eat proper food and wash her
hair and clean the toilet and pay the electric and work in a shop or office and talk to us
and not herself. And when she looks at us, she will look at us, not through. And where once
there was only art, there will be a family.
* * *
‘Yes, everyone loves Christmas, Mr. Bullin,’ I say. ‘The space
race was on and we went through a period, collectively, where we all wanted to be astronauts.
So we had a space-themed Christmas that year, with everything tinfoil, and my mother made a
rocket ship for the top of the tree.’
Except it was Evy, not mother, and the tree was a lamp.
And Robert scalded himself making potatoes. But we got a picture out of it.
Hovering over the squat coffee table, Mr. Bullin’s hands
seem to have come un-tethered from his mug and notepad in a familiarly entitled manner.
He has already tried to touch my stomach once. In the grocery store, the post office, at
the library, they all want to touch it. Everyone.
‘Have a biscuit.’ I check his attempt, deftly, with the
large hexagonal tin.
* * *
Local Poet Honoured
appears in Sunday’s paper.
It’s been sitting on the doorstep for hours so I bring it in.
I’m not interested in reading it. It is two in the afternoon, but I get into my November bed
, the third collection, the one she wrote when I was fourteen and Robert
had left for college, the year after Evy walked into the train station and never walked out.
It is the best one, and the one I hate the most.
I call Robert, who is a beekeeper in Maine.
You win, I tell him, the phone shaking, I’ll drive down
for the holiday.
* * *