Narrative For Sheila
Rita’s Universal History of Iniquity
In her teens, Rita took to the road. Everyone said Canada was unsafe, then. They said it had been safe thirty years earlier, but how many girls would have hitchhiked and slept in parks back in the fifties? These days, some claim it was safe back in the eighties, but back then, no one said that. Rita assumed that, before long, some terrible possibility would confront her: the test. She took rides from smelly families, shy truckers and a farmer who offered lechery, but not in a way she found a challenge, until it was the middle of the year in the middle of the country (she had begun at its easternmost point) and she understood that no further test was to come. Saskatchewan at Summer Solstice: she had reached Canada’s apex. She stopped. Had she passed the test or bypassed it?
Twenty years later, she was a junior-high science teacher with two sons and a husband, Gordon, who passed in and out of her life in a way that she found unsettling but inoffensive. It was the way he was, and at least she wasn’t single, and at least he was likeable. She had always been quiet and he didn’t make her talk. He didn’t talk much either, but he made her laugh. He traveled, and then, when their sons were in high school, he failed to return. Rita’s intuition was that he had not intended to leave them. She imagined, as she drank slowly through the cases of homemade wine a friend gave her because he was in love with her and she tutored his kids, that Gordon had died anonymously somewhere, either his body wasn’t found or he was living under some other name, perhaps with some other family. He might be anywhere on the continent. These were not new thoughts for her.
She would think other old thoughts, on those evenings—wooden rocker, ratty damask, covered porch, wine beside her, a table left by the house’s previous owner, glimpsing a Saskatoon sky—she would think of her mother, reclaimed by India’s Space Sciences program when Rita was old enough to know her but too young to remember her.
When Rita’s sons were in university—rangy, affectionate boys with wide-open faces, slyly funny like their dad—her father died, back in Labrador. She gave permission for the old house and its contents to be sold, applied for a teaching sabbatical and researched dead-language courses: ancient Greek in Athens, Sanskrit in Delhi, Akkadian in Isfahan. Cairo called.
Shortly after she left for Africa, a notice came from the post office: 10 packages had come that she was to fetch. Three of these were boxes of her dead father’s clothes and effects, and seven boxes of his books, including his diaries: 80 small books, bound in red leather-look vinyl, with childish locks. He had been a second-generation Canadian Russian, with a name that rhymed with Kalashnikov and Molotov, but he wrote his diaries in Chinese, in red ink, thousands of pages of carefully elaborated columns, seven-wide to a narrow page, eleven pictograms high. Once, she had walked into his study, late at night, wakened from a bad dream, and he had not heard her before she was at his elbow, looking at the page. He didn’t close the book—number what?—he didn’t look at her; he just kept writing as he answered her question: “So that no one can know my thoughts.”
She knew that wasn’t true, and she was right: he had known for years that he was dying, and cleared away most of his belongings, but not the diaries. But she had never tried, never wanted, to learn Chinese. She never returned to fetch the boxes home.
In January 2011, in Tahrir Square, holding the hand of the sister of a man she had not yet admitted she loved, Rita died, her mind spinning images in a language her father could not read.