From The Promise of Water. Published by Oolichan Books in 2017.

Your dead brother walks toward you on the beach.

“It’s time you got here; there’s been nothing but trouble with Mom,” you say.

He stops in front of you, drops his crossed arms to his side, tilts his head and smiles as if he saw you only yesterday. There’s colour in his cheeks and not a trace of grey in his hair. He looks better than he did in those last days in the hospital when his skin was a pale membrane stretched over bone.

You want to welcome him back, but what slips out in your excitement is, “Nice dye job.” It used to irritate him when you said that. Why did you say that?

He touches his head and grins; tiny lines and a dimple appear at the corners of his mouth. The night he died, after not speaking for hours, he’d opened his eyes, clicked his tongue and said, “I told you I didn’t want company.” Then he’d stroked his chin like he wished he’d had time to shave.

You glance behind you on the bank as if expecting to see his car parked there, but what you see cradled in the branches of a gnarled and monstrous cedar is a canoe. As far as you know your brother never set foot in a canoe.

He wears a cotton sweater the soft grey of the morning fog and he sits on the rock beside you. The sun will burn off the fog and fill the sky with light; then you’ll invite him to join you back at the house on the patio. You’ll make him a gin and tonic—he always liked a gin and tonic on a summer day. He’ll stretch his long body out on the lounge chair and you’ll remind him of that time when you were kids and you built a raft from logs on the beach; you were going to sail to China. He’ll admire the new house, your very own since the divorce. You’ll tell him he was right about your ex. You’ll have another drink and tell him his nephew is in university now. A lot of years have passed. You won’t ask him about where he’s been. Though you’re curious, it seems an invasion of privacy to interview a man about his afterlife—and maybe you don’t want to know.

“What’s going on with Mom?” He picks up a rock and turns it over in his hand.

It so happens that you’ve been thinking about rocks, how they embed their deep geology in telltale striations while changing their appearance and shape over millennia. In that sense, if they were alive, they would never actually die. You might explain this to him, but you are reluctant to speak of death.

He didn’t like to talk about death when he was alive. He’d sooner talk about everyday things: the rudeness of the fat woman at the checkout in Loblaws, how she twitched her nose at him like a rabbit and wouldn’t honour his expired rain check. You would point out that inarguable fact of an expiration date, but he would obsess about these kinds of affronts for hours, the checker becoming more gargoyle-like with every telling so that the event morphed into a black comedy and in the end he’d have you laughing. Or he’d roll his eyes at your husband or your kids, how you handled some domestic problem and he liked to give advice that you sometimes took even though you considered him clueless about the tedium and heartaches of family life.

Heartaches he knew though he spoke of them rarely, and usually only with the assistance of plenty of burgundy-coloured wine. A year before he died your brother returned from a holiday—he was always going south to Tiquana, to Acapulco, leaving Toronto behind then returning—to find his partner had rented a basement suite in a neighbourhood far from the Beaches where the two of them had lived for eight long years. The partner, a man not nearly as good-looking as your brother, had moved all of your brother’s things into this apartment and demanded the keys to the house in the Beaches. This struck you as an act of cruelty, but unlike the incident in the grocery store, your brother saw his former lover’s actions as justified and reasonable, and in spite of them, maybe because of them, he continued to be in love with this man.

But now you don’t want him to talk about these things—they are in the past—you want to keep him focused on the business of your mother. “What’s going on with Mom is old age, mostly,” you say.

Of course he looks puzzled. What would he know of aging? You say nothing because you don’t want to sound resentful.

His gaze shifts across the beach to the low tide line and you feel uncomfortable because that’s the place where your mother and you spread his ashes years before.

“She wants to die,” you say.

He whirls his head around and for a second you’re afraid it might spin full circle on his neck like that scene in The Exorcist, but it stops at his shoulder.

“She told everyone she had cancer. So Auntie went out and rented a Karaoke machine and set it up in Mom’s apartment. She propped Mom up in the recliner with pillows and blankets. Then Auntie made us listen to her sing, ‘Wind Beneath my Wings,’ you know…”

“The divine Miss M.” He smiles and sings Bette’s song, carrying a tune in a way he never could when he was alive, and you feel some of the old jealousy. He finishes one verse and says, “What did Mom do?”

“She threw a hot water bottle at the machine and told Auntie to leave, just leave.”

He laughs. “What a bitch.”

“Then I phoned her doctor even though she hates me talking to him. He said she didn’t have cancer, but that she should quit smoking.”

Your brother wouldn’t have bothered phoning the doctor. You see now that it was only because he was the youngest. Still, habit makes you say, “It’s not fair that everything falls on my shoulders.”

He shrugs. “Not much I can do from here.” He’s said this before.

“She carts that oxygen tank around in one hand and a cigarette in another. She’s going to blow herself up.”

He pats the place where he once kept a pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket. Your mom and he shared that: the smoking. You could hear them laughing on the back porch while you did the dishes in the kitchen.

“She’s never been the same…” You don’t finish what you were going to say. “You could go visit her, couldn’t you?” You’ve said this before.

He grins and looks at you from the corner of his eyes. He opens his mouth and inside it’s hollow as a cave. “I do.”

“She never tells me.”

“You’d tell her it was impossible.”

You are both silent for a moment.

“All she does is cry,” he says.

“Some things never change.”

“And then they do.”

You trace a stick in the sand and see that his feet have disappeared. You panic because you haven’t yet gone for the gin and tonic. There are things you didn’t say before and you want to say now. There’re things you want to know. “Is there anything you need?”

He looks puzzled again. “What will you do about Mom?” he asks.

“What can I do?” Surely now, after where he’s been he must know something, have access to answers, some certainty that you don’t.

He shrugs. Beyond him far out on the water you catch a glimpse of a canoe rocking in the waves, as if it’s waiting for a passenger. Your brother is submerged in a cloud, above which floats his head and shoulders. “It’s up to her,” he says.

“Should we go for a swim before you leave?” You used to like to swim together.

He shakes his head. He no longer has a tongue or a mouth, only an empty space there. The wind catches what’s left of him like it did his ashes.

You stand and scan the blank surface of the sea. “It wasn’t anything I said, was it?”

But he’s gone and you’ll never know for sure.

No items found.


Judy LeBlanc is a writer from Fanny Bay, located on the unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation. Several of her stories and essays have been published in Canadian literary journals, and her collection of short stories, The Promise of Water, was published by Oolichan Books in 2017.

Her work has been published in filling Station, Malahat Review, Prism, Antigonish Review and Grain. She has won the Island Fiction contest (2015) and the Antigonish Review Sheldon Currie Fiction contest (2012).



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