by Monika R. Martyn
No matter how often I’ve tried to pinpoint it, it is never a single, definable trigger that unhooks the memory. Sometimes it’s the strum of a guitar, something vintage, or the musty smell of a wet dog that will wedge the memory free. But this morning that untamable trigger woke me, waiting before I could roll out of bed.
Even after I smoked my tenth cigarette and drained a pot of coffee, she still roamed, like a wild pony, on the arid steppes of my mind. I lit another and promised myself: last one.
Did Hony ever grasp the string and hang on; to rise high into the blue on that fragile Luftballon?
That one day.
The year I met Hony was unremarkable. A wet spring soaked the gullies, I remember because the farmers complained about the planting. Then, the rush of summer parched the fields to tinder, and the farmers complained about the harvest. I was sixteen on that sweltering day in August, and Hony, turned twelve, two days after the storm broke the heat.
I learned later, Hony never had a cake. What parents deny a child a cake? My shoulders still shrug with disgust. And the fun of spraying spit all over the sugary icing to blow out the candles. Mine always had sparklers and shaped candles; piped icing rippling in unnatural shades of blue.
Hony and I were cousins once removed by another genetic pool all together. Not that it mattered to me, but half of her roots were black, all of mine as Irish as a red-clad leprechaun chewing a three-leaf shamrock. It was also the reason I was there. Family and obligation, a telltale of the sort of person festering within me. I allowed the weight to crush me—sixteen going on fifty.
When I pulled up on my motorcycle, the brevity of what I signed up for dawned on me, though it was just mid-afternoon. Life was already clouding Hony’s cornflower blue eyes. Despair does that, and at sixteen, I shouldn’t have recognized the fallen hope when it looked me in the eye.
With the wind in my face, I rode from Prince Albert along the Saskatchewan River and I couldn’t fault the scenery. I witnessed a blue horizon suffocating under cotton-cloud formations when the sun set high on the midday. On the way, I sang brown eyed girl at full lung, and probably completely off key, but I knew all the lyrics. The sights moving me along the prairies never bored me. Having grown up on the plains, I learned early to see their serene beauty. I saw it in the cackling crows perched on a bale of straw; on the spider webs glistening with dew, sparkling like morning diamonds on fences stretching for miles. It defined the epic prairie tranquility reflected in barbed wire braided ornamented with balls of tumbleweed.
The meandering river didn’t leave me breathless though. I watched as the ripples in the current shifted from steel blues to wet greys and brought me to Codette. Even in 1968, the town sold out to ghosts. As soon as I rode along the outskirts, I realized my mistake. I shouldn’t have offered to babysit a black girl whom I had never met.
I heard mention of her. Mostly in whispers; she’s born a sin. Which boggled me. How can a girl of twelve be blamed in her creation? Be blamed for which side of the fence she skittered into the world on. I’d hate anyone to think that I’m soft because I’m not. But if there’s one thing I can’t abide: it’s injustice founded on the wobbly rocks of ignorance. In listening to the whispers that her father had blown through town and knocked some woman up, I took my stance. They left out he was too selfish to care about what seeds he planted, and the blame was never Hony’s.
That was how I carved the world when I was sixteen. Although I’ve made my own blunders since, which stain me just as guilty. Asshole. That was my verdict. But since my mother hated cuss words, she knocked them from my mouth, with a quick cuff finding the tender spot where the skull meets spine.
I parked my bike, balancing it on the kickstand on the uneven sidewalk, and before I could pull the helmet and shades off my head, the porch door slammed. If the house wanted to look a ramshackle best: hallelujah—it had done a fine job. There was nothing pretty or redeemable about it. The Saskatchewan winds sanded the snot-green paint raw, down to the wooden bones in some places and had taken a few roof shingles along with it. I don’t imagine it was ever pretty enough to inspire anyone to write a weeping poem over unless they liked that it was square.
It was fenced, which made me laugh. It trapped the topsoil, sifted into a powder, and the tumbleweeds, which had escaped the barbed wire, hankering to be set free. And there she stood with a big grin on her mouth; the woman who owned this heap. Sunny and Harold. The Harold parts—my ancestors needed to be forgiven for. Sunny might have been pretty once, hence the man who knocked her up.
I’d never met her, but Harold I remember. She offered me a cold, stubby beer. I was sixteen and not going to refuse.
‘You must be Billy.’ She had already made her mind.
I shook her hand, took a swig, and said, ‘Yup.’ We stood there on the strip of dirt that was no man’s land and yup was all I had to say.
‘Harold be home soon.’ Sunny said kicking the dust on the other side of the fence.
I drained the bottle and nodded.
‘My bike okay parked here?” I asked.
I couldn’t imagine parking in the yard. One might have thought they planted garbage in the yard, the way others plant pansies and petunias, and it grew in profusion. The envy of any gardener.
Harold hoarded tires. Dragging them home, leaving them where they rotted. They were bald: though hairy with wires sticking out. While waiting in the awkward silence with Sunny, I saw them peek from behind the slabs of wood next to the house. Two grimy faces playing hide and seek. Those must be the boys—Harold minis.
Sunny cupped her mouth without warning and hollered as if she were out on the vast sea and Hony a million miles away. The boys snickered, forming some devious plan. But how bad could they be? They were only eight and nine.
While Sunny looked for Hony behind the stack of tires, and the shed leaning into the breath of the westerly wind, I unstrapped my duffle bag. I had brought gifts for the kids because my mother insisted. She didn’t care for Harold, disliked Sunny for her dope smoking, but what did that have to do with the kids? A dog barked on the other side of the house. A yelp that it really couldn’t be bothered, but maybe it should.
It’s when the first pebble nearly hit me on the head, ‘Cut it out or else.’ I already figured Sunny was powerless against the boys. They ran along the dirt packed trail following the bean-snapping caragana shrubs and vanished—I guessed to regroup. I scanned the yard for a safe place to pop my tent. I found none.
Without warning, I saw it rise like a moon: the mop. A nest of corkscrew curls bobbing toward me. She seemed to emerge out of the dirt, but I realized it was a fault in the way the land lay. That the ice-age had cut their yard into two. Sort of like where you’d expect to find the end of the world and hell on the other.
Having lived in Prince Albert all my life, hair like hers was a novelty. My family wore a crown of dark hair, cursed with cotton candy thickness. Balding would have been a blessing.
It wasn’t hard to see, they were too lazy to pick a name for Hony. She must have come out like liquid from a honeycomb. Her skin shimmered in the sun and for a moment it was hard to tell if it was really such a rich colour, or if the sun played tricks with my eyes.
‘Hi.’ She mumbled, her hand extended; her eyes anchoring someplace on my boots.
‘Hey, Hony. Nice to meet you.’
She kicked the dirt with her barefoot and then stole a look upward. The icy cornflower blue of her eyes reminded me of a wolf standing among winter trees on a snow-crusted copse. But I couldn’t stop staring at her hair. Even in the soft breeze of the afternoon it rustled. In that instant, I understood the reason teachers tortured us with Greek mythology. Medusa stood before me.
‘What are you doing over there?’ I pointed to where she had crawled out of.
‘Wanna show me?’
Sunny had already left us, whatever she had going on in the house was more important than the first meeting between cousins. I hadn’t yet noticed Hony’s dress until I followed her, two steps behind, and saw the stains, the torn hem, I had no idea buttons could break. I hadn’t yet noticed that her legs were poker straight either and painted in a uniform shade of honey. A soft fuzz, like that on a golden peach, made them shimmer.
The gully she’d been digging in ran through the yard and was dry; hadn’t seen water since Noah. But deep in the dirt, about three feet down, a blue bottle stuck out from a most recent layer of sediment. She’d been picking away at the hard dirt trying to rescue the neck and shoulders. The blue mirrored her eyes. I jumped into the gulch after her and picked at the dirt with the hardest twig I could find. I’m no geologist, but some time after Noah, the world, a few thousand years back, must have been covered in a cement age.
‘Does your dad have a hammer and a chisel?’ I asked.
She ran ahead, and I followed. Her nest of corkscrew curls bounced, and I noticed that her arms were just like her legs. Poker straight and long, hardly interrupted by knobby knees or elbows. They were painted in the same colour; maybe a shade of richer, more fluid amber.
It’s when I saw the boys on my bike. The dirty urchins were wrenching on the knobs and jerking the handlebars going: vroom, vroom.
‘Get off! You monkeys.’
‘Who’s gonna make us?” The smaller one said with his chin jutting out.
‘Get the’ I clamped hard on my teeth, ‘off.’ I grabbed an ear each and yanked.
They snarled and flicked their dirt rimmed finger, which I swore I’d break off, and they ran. I decided then I didn’t care what their Christian names were. Lucifer and Satan are what I christened them. Interchangeable but irreversible.
Harold’s garage was a sty. I had expected it, though the shock that someone could let it get so bad that a fire would be mercy on the tools, benches, and vehicle parts he had stored, made me gape. The jars and cans of mystery liquids would make a lovely boom in a night sky, and it would hardly take anything more than the careless flick of a match. Hony found a hammer.
‘What’s a chisel?’ She asked picking up wrenches and screwdrivers, rusty nails, and crushed cans. We found a rusted chisel wedged into the vice mounted to the bench. Armed, we made off on our excavation excursion. Hony still hadn’t said much, but I could tell we were going to get along.
Back at the gully, we saw the damage a few minutes makes. Satan and Lucifer had smashed the bottle to smithereens. Shards bleed into the sand, and the piece still stuck oozed something wet. Hony bit into her lip, denting the flesh with her teeth. What she held back, I cannot say.
‘I brought you something.’ I offered as a concession. Damn the boys.
‘Hony did you feed the dog?’ Sunny hollered out the window.
I should have been setting up my tent; finding a place for it would be a challenge. It couldn’t be too far from the house, but I couldn’t see where in the front yard just yet. I set my hope on the backyard, where Hony was leading me, I expected grass or at the very least weeds.
No grass but a tree. It surprised me that it hadn’t uprooted and gone by the way of the dodo. A chained mongrel barked, and my first instinct to shoot it reared. But Hony seemed to have an affection for the dog. From its black coat and girth, it might have known a labrador at some time in its family pool.
I had arrived ten minutes ago and already longed to shoot the dog, murder the mother, and skin the brothers. This was not going to go well. But at least they’d be leaving soon, and then Hony and I might have fun. Men in my family don’t coddle, but then the men in my family weren’t such brutes as to subject one of their own to such misery. That they were leaving Hony behind, like some soot princess cursed by a hex, boggled my mind. And if I hadn’t offered, what had they planned to do? I guessed it wasn’t Disney.
Sunny was busy loading laundry baskets into the van. Baskets of clothing and bedding. Baskets of food. Baskets of boy toys. Hony petted the dog and watched. I liked dogs, but I couldn’t find it in my heart to pet it. Fleas picnicked in its fur and the urge to shoot it buzzed like the flies around its eyes.
Hony ran off with an ice cream bucket that doubled as a dog bowl and came back with it filled. A cheap kibble that the poor dog took one swipe over, but decided against.
Like thunder, we heard the throaty cough of a muffled muscle car. Harold rolled in. Surprise came at me like Christmas to a kid. The Mustang tugged on the strings tied to selfish cruelty. How could he drive an expensive car when the kids, even Satan and Lucifer, went without? He pumped my arm; a grin that reminded me of pictures from the dental office. The before, and not the after, snapshot which scared most of humanity into brushing. My tongue protectively brushed my teeth.
They’d be gone for a week. ‘Be home next Sunday. Latest by nine.’ With that, they were off. Hony and I watched them pull out and then double back as they picked up the highway going to Winnipeg.
‘Want your presents yet?’ I asked, taking her mind off being left behind.
My mother was a saint when it came to guessing what kids want. The boys were missing out on a whole battalion of plastic soldiers, Tonka trucks, new Spiderman and Superman T-shirts, and a bag of hard candies.
Hony opened her gifts slowly. Looked at them, folded them, and set them aside. She nibbled on a few pieces of candy corn. They made her smile. My mother, in her wisdom, had picked out three girly tees, frilly socks, and undies with the names of the weekdays printed on them. It’s when I learned Hony only had three dresses. The tees would be useless because she didn’t have pants, skirts, or shorts. All that came out in between sideways glances at me and the floor.
‘Should we make supper?’ I asked thinking as a decent human would. Not that I expected much, and Hony’s parents didn’t disappoint. They failed my expectations entirely. They had generously stocked the fridge with a jug of orange Tang, a package of Oscar Meyer Weiners, a half loaf of green—near mushroom growing bread, two boxes of Kraft dinner, and a few slices of cheese, scattered in the deli drawer.
I wasn’t rich. I was only sixteen. I had had summer and afterschool jobs and my parents gave me a decent allowance for doing my chores. With a jolt, I remembered the wad of bills in my pocket, and mother had slipped me an extra twenty before I left. ‘If you don’t need it, buy the kids something.’ A premonition.
Hony led the way to the small store. They were within ten minutes of closing for the night, but we managed to get something decent to eat. Ham, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches on squishy, doughy Kaiser buns. Hony ate two of them. I even bought scrap meat for the dog and decided we’d go to Nipawin in the morning.
That night, I made Hony have a bath. She said it wasn’t bath night and instead suggested she’d wash her feet in the sink. In hindsight, watching Hony unhinge her long legs into the basin would have been easier since they didn’t have a shower or working bathtub. A bath meant hauling a galvanized tub out from the closet and filling it via a hose connected to the kitchen faucet and waiting until enough water trickled out to have even a decent sitz bath. I reminded myself: what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
By the time Hony stepped into the tub, I had been at the house for five hours and had nearly reached my breaking point. I considered strapping Hony to the bike, or getting on the bus with her and heading home. A place that until then I had really not had that much affection for either. There’s nothing luxurious about the bungalow I grew up in. Except that it had three bedrooms, a clean kitchen and shiny, blue plastic tiles in the bathroom, and a working shower. Not to brag, but the orange shag my mother raked once a week and vacuumed every Saturday at precisely eight a.m made our house a home.
But what about the dog? Of course, I could ask one of the neighbours for a rifle so that I could shoot the damn thing. Or I could … no there was nothing for it. And what about Harold’s Mustang. I could not leave it to the thugs living next door. It dawned on me that I was the only one responsible enough, and I hated that. I hated it because I did not choose to be that way: I just was. I turned on the television, but there was nothing on, and when I turned I saw Hony standing naked in the tub soaping up her T-shaped body with a splinter of Lifebuoy soap we found in a grimey dish.
There was nothing girlie about Hony. Straight as a board, up and down, no hips or waist forming, no twelve-year-old girl budding breasts. Only extraordinarily long limbs, crowned by that mop. Startled, I stole sideways glances while she washed unashamedly behind her ears, the flatness of her torso, the region between her legs. She wasn’t aware of me stealing.
‘Don’t forget your hair.’ I suggested, facing away.
‘You’ll have to do it for me. The vinegar is under the kitchen sink.’
‘The vinegar?’ I thought I heard wrong.
She giggled a little. ‘I can’t use shampoo.’
Hearing that made me angry. Who denied a girl shampoo? ‘You can use some of mine.’
‘No I can’t.’
The cruelty, I thought, they had convinced her that she wasn’t worthy. I watched her scoop cups of water over her body to rinse the soap.
‘Makes my hair too frizzy.’
Even when I walked into the kitchen, she didn’t blush or duck or try to cover her nakedness. I found the bottle of vinegar among the bleach, the Pine-sol, and the disgusting scouring pads bleeding rust into a dish. She told me to mix one cup into the big bucket.
‘Just pour it over my head a bit at a time.’ She squished her eyes shut. ‘Then work it in.’
Even though she wasn’t embarrassed, I was, because her simple nakedness aroused me. What did you expect? I was sixteen and a boy. I poured and hoped she’d keep her eyes closed. As I soaked her curls, they straightened with the weight of the moisture into long strands that reached to mid-back. Another revelation.
‘What happens if you use shampoo?’ I asked.
‘Turns my hair into a giant cotton ball. And then I can’t comb it.’
I said, ‘huh’ and wondered what Hony’s chances in life were without some giant hand interfering and changing the balance. She wasn’t pretty in the TV commercial sort of pretty. Her eyes, even though a remarkable blue, were spread too wide, and the ice that flashed in them might frighten people into wrong assumptions. Out of all of her facial features, the blue was the only white part she inherited. Her nose was flat, but at least strategically placed between her cheeks. Her even, white teeth were hidden behind a full set of lips, which she seldom used to smile. Standing so close to her, was hard on me. She’d never be beautiful, but then she already was.
‘Towel.’ She said with her eyes still squished shut.
I imagined vinegar stung the eyes. The towel was a close cousin to the rags my father used in the garage. I also, a dawning revelation, understood the look my parents shared when they asked if I would look after Hony. We had had an argument, and I was still fragile from the words, about going to university. If I did, I’d have to study harder. I wasn’t dumb, but a bit lazy. I understood their plans better standing in the kitchen with Hony. This was Harold’s plan. Working for menial monies had gotten him this far. Harold, from what my mother told me, was hip once too.
I called my mother in the morning when I knew she’d be in the kitchen having her ritualistic poached egg on toast. I called her from the payphone at the gas station, because I did not want Hony to overhear. Mother listened without comment when I told her of my first night. But I could tell from the huffs whistling into the receiver, she was preparing me.
‘No. You can’t bring Hony here.’
If I was ever mad at my mother it was then.
‘I can call Children’s Aid and explain, but that’s all we can do.’
‘We can’t just leave her here.’ I nearly cried.
‘Billy. Listen. The best we can do is send her care packages. She has a home and family.’
‘Mom. This isn’t a family. This isn’t a home. It’s worse than a dump.’
‘Billy. Don’t make judgments. We’ll talk when you come home.’
While I talked, I watched Hony stand next to the bike. She had reluctantly slipped on Lucifer’s jeans, but even I could tell a girl’s delight when she put on the pink tee with the white kitten on it. I had to do something. Anything, and if that meant giving Hony the best week of her life then I would. I thought I had seen a Stedman’s store in Nipawin. I would buy Hony a new outfit for every day of the week, some of those pretty clips girls put into their hair.
We rode to Nipawin. I sensed Hony and I had found a common like: the wind in our face and the freedom of being on a motorcycle. Her spindly arms circling me, holding tight.
Inside the store, I learned Hony was afraid of pretty things. She chose the plainest, ugliest clothing she could find. All hung on the clearance rack. I like bargains too, but for Hony, that day was not a bargain special. We bought two pairs of jeans, a skirt, three sweaters, a cardigan, two dresses, and a winter coat, shiny patent leather shoes, and a pair of Cougar boots.
Outside, the dilemma struck me. I hadn’t thought far enough ahead as to how we’d get it all home. While strapping the shopping bags on the bike, Hony waved to a family in an old pickup truck. They offered to take the loot from us. I almost didn’t trust them. I had spent nearly one-hundred and twenty dollars. But the doe-eyed mother pulled me aside, thanked me for taking care of Hony, and that made me trust her.
At home, Hony laid her clothing neatly into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She fingered the buttons and lace collar. I set to cleaning the kitchen and living room. I had no traces of respect left for Sunny and Harold, but worse was holding my wrath away from Hony. I wanted to punch a hole into the panelled wall as Harold had done. Somehow, Honey and I made progress, after a few hours I was no longer afraid of the sofa or kitchen table.
That week, we swam in the Saskatchewan River every day after I taught Hony how to swim in the shallows of the grey, rippling water. We roasted marshmallows over a small campfire that I built in the yard. We shampooed the dog twice and by Friday I could pet the scrawny thing. I even learned the mutt had a name: Blackie. Not original, but what could I expect from Harold, who named the dog, and left him to rot under a tree.
And like so many people do, as I have again since, I made promises I would never keep. I riled at the injustice beleaguering that young girl. I riled against the unfairness that there was nothing I could do, even when I called my mother again, pleading to call Child Services right away.
One night, while we sat under the prairie sky I asked Hony the stupidest question.
‘Are you happy?’
It wasn’t only stupid, but also cruel, because I’m certain that until I asked her the question she never knew there were options. I saw her shoulder go up, and down, in that whatever way we all do instead of answering. She stabbed another marshmallow and roasted it to a ballooning, gooey mess and licked her fingers when she was done.
‘One day I will be.’ She said.
I nodded. At least she still had hope. She didn’t cry when I packed up and shook her hand to say goodbye. But I did see the cornflowers in her eyes drown in extra well water when she blinked.
‘See ya.’ She watched me ride off.
My mother called Child Services. They went for a check-up but since Hony and I had cleaned the house and yard, they said it met their standards. Whatever that stick might be. Because the Harolds had just returned from Winnipeg, their cupboards were full of food from a relative who had died unexpectedly. Bedding, towels, dishes, and bits of furniture that Harold tied to an old trailer he borrowed. The worst verdict was my fault. Hony had decent clothing and a smile on her face while wearing them. They checked off her disposition as favourable.
There was nothing we could do. They had laws for things like that in 1968. I never heard from Hony. Through the gossip vine, Sunny and Harold cursed us. There was no hiding that because of me, Child Services knocked on their door. Years later, I learned Lucifer and Satan had joined a legendary biker gang. Their names stuck, and they were in and out of jail. They already knew hell better than the devil himself.
Hony ran away from home when she turned sixteen. I’m surprised she lasted as long. She never called our house, though I had left her my address and phone number, and years later I thought I saw her, or at least her hair.
It was in Toronto. I stumbled from a nightclub, out onto the raw pavement on Spadina and splashed some cookies into a gutter. I admit, I was no saint and was only there because I had landed a job that made me miserable. That year, I turned thirty and learned how deep my love for the prairies burned within me. I hated the boundary walls of North York, though as a city you can’t beat it for the trees and green spaces.
Well—I missed the never-ending prairie blue sky; the place where nothing could sneak up on you. Not even a cloud.
The day’s heat still wafted up from the pavement, and the night was warm against my bare arms. I laughed at something only drunks find funny, and I clamped my mouth shut when I saw her. She appeared like a beacon in an all gold dress. A small piece of a sequined garment that hung just a few inches below her panty lines, exposing her gazelle legs.
Hony hadn’t grown into any curves. She was flat in every direction, strung like Jesus on a cross. Seeing her took me by surprise. I know—I stared. She glanced down at me, her long fingers hooked on the extended elbow of a silver fox. A man who snapped his fingers at the long, black town car waiting at the curb. It too had appeared out of nowhere. A uniformed man opened the backdoor, and I watched as Hony slid into the soft leather seat.
Wow—she was stunning. She looked at me again with her cornflower blue eyes, and I saw myself reflected within them; the two of us during that week in Codette. She cocked her head. See, she said with a kitten smirk, and her finger pressed to shush her mouth: my one day has arrived. But it wasn’t the eyes that gave her away, or the long limbs shimmering like spilled honey. It was the hair; those untamable, vinegar, corkscrew curls.
About the Author:
Monika R. Martyn is retired, happy, married, and a minimalist. Because of life’s circumstances, she has the pleasure to travel, experience life in different countries, and devote her time to writing, for pleasure and because she must. She has a few publications to her credit and had successfully completed certificates in fiction writing, creativity training, editing, and research methods. She continually strive to improve as a writer and a human.