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This month’s Sunday Short, “A Girl in Nova Scotia” is from Kasia van Schaik’s We Have Never Lived On Earth, her forthcoming debut story collection which will be published by the University of Alberta Press in October.
A Girl in Nova Scotia
I spent one winter in a cold Montreal apartment with a view of a church. I had been alone for so long that I thought it was a special power: being unknown, living in a single unit on a one-way street running west. On New Year’s Eve I brought a semi-famous musician to my room. His band was playing the bar I worked at and my co-worker Noel first pointed him out to me.
Doesn’t he look like Neil Young? Said Noel. From After the Gold Rush. Before the cocaine.
It’s the hair, I said. I like his hair.
If you don’t go talk to him, I will, said Noel.
I’m afraid to tell you how old I am, the musician said as he sat down on my bed, which wasn’t really a bed but a mattress on the floor. Could it wait till morning? He didn’t complain about the temperature but knelt before me and let me touch his nostrils and eyelids. His hair was like grass on an ocean-facing cliff. I gripped it, held up his face to the lamp. He’d been travelling for days. There were deep lines along his throat. As he slept I counted his rings, one for every decade he’d been alive.
At noon he rose and filled the doorway that separated the kitchen from the bedroom. We drank cups of black tea, feet up on the kitchen table. His clothes smelled like bus stations, like vending machine meals. He was very thin, but when I offered him food he refused it. There was not much in my place anyway. Eggs, saltines, packaged soup. I always seemed to have some kind of unopened packaged soup on the shelf. It was more of a symbol for food than food itself. We drank more tea with several spoons of sugar.
He told me that he had a daughter, born on Halloween.
He had not met her yet. In fact, he did not know her name.
Later, he played me a song, something he usually played with his band. He’d written it years ago when he was thirty-four. There was a line in the song about being thirty-four. I liked the melody but I didn’t like his voice. It sounded wounded and a little bit out of tune. I asked him if he wanted to hear a song I’d written. He smoked while I played, not really listening, staring at the fridge, at my photographs, the miniature worlds in which I belonged, in which he did not.
I don’t remember which song I played for him. At that time I was writing a lot of songs, sometimes a new one every day. I played them in cafés and bars around the city, but I was never very ambitious with my music. Perhaps I already knew that it would be something I would only do for a brief period in my life, even though, at that time, I didn’t have a clear sense of what a lifetime was. Twenty-four was only a premonition. Thirty-four didn’t exist.
I ended the song on an unexpected E major chord and let it fill the space between us. Its bright open sound seemed vulgar and out of place in my small, sunless kitchen. He sat still for a while and finished his cigarette.
I can’t date a student, he said finally.
He was frightened of so many things. Of January. Of his wife. His nameless daughter whom he hadn’t met yet. Of the dogs that his wife had allegedly turned against him when he’d last tried to visit her. Telepathically, he said. She was telepathic.
Searching his pockets for a pen, he wrote down something and gave it to me. A list of the things he would do to me if I let him. But not in my bedroom. The bedroom was too intimate a space. In another room, the kitchen or even the hall, or the long narrow alcove beside the kitchen where I kept my books. His jacket was open in the front. A yellow dish glove hung over the edge of the sink. I remember being distinctly aware of it, of the bright yellow shell of a hand. I continued to strum major chords while he spoke. E and A. Could you stop that? he said. And then a little later he said, It’s okay if you don’t want to.
Eventually he stood up, combed his hair in the hallway mirror and went out. He returned a few days later to collect his things.
After he left I wondered what would have happened if I’d agreed to his contract, to his list of desires. Perhaps my life would have changed right then and there. I may have fallen in love. I may have regretted it. It was true what he said. I was a student, and at that time, not even a very good student. I imagined myself becoming pregnant, dropping out of school. I’d go into exile, like his telepathic wife, living on a small, forested island in the North Atlantic. There I’d bear his second child, also born on Halloween, a dark-eyed girl who, he believed, would grow up to predict the future.
I called Noel.
Don’t drop out of school, was all he said.
Things improved for me over the next few years. After a while my memory of that winter faded and I began to confuse it with other winters. Surely this is a sign of movement, of growing up? Now I remember that winter as a time of great activity and diligence, during which I created something new every day. A song, a drawing, a letter. I remember it as a time when I was still comfortable being alone.
Recently I found an image of the semi-famous musician online. I didn’t recognize him at first, but I identified his voice when I listened to a clip of his music. In the picture he is standing in a bright green field somewhere in Nova Scotia, his daughter on his shoulders. Both are turned away from the camera. She’s wearing a purple dress with an intricate flower print, similar to a dress I used to own. What is it about little girls and purple? What is it about this photo? The size of the child or the fact that she exists. After all these years, she exists in this field whose grass has been artificially brightened, whose sky seems too near. Tiny white pods on her dress. They could be flowers or stars. I zoom in to see her face but her features are obscured by her hair and the wind, which the photographer has managed to capture. A windy day on the east coast, sometime at the beginning of winter. Blue firs stab the cloud line. Her hands circle his face, gripping his hair, this man her father, holding on.
“A Girl in Nova Scotia,” by Kasia van Schaik. From We Have Never Lived On Earth. University of Alberta Press, 2022. Reprinted by permission of University of Alberta Press.
Kasia van Schaik is a South African-Canadian writer living in Montreal/Tiohtià:ke. We Have Never Lived On Earth is her first story collection.