EVIL EYE by Ann Diamond

BOOK DESCRIPTION AND REVIEWS - EXCERPT

 


ROADS TO FREEDOM By Ann Diamond

In 1967, a UFO made a brief landing in the field of a farmer who lived up the road from our summer cottage. Craig Robertson and his son, Warren, were out late mending fences when they saw the bright disc appear out of a clear evening sky a few hundred yards from where they stood. Small lights flashed around the rim of the craft, which hovered a small distance above the ground, dead-centre in a field of young oats. The two men decided they’d been working too hard, and turned to go home. As they walked toward the wood-frame house on the hill, they looked back and saw the object as it ascended slowly over their heads and cruise rapidly in the direction of the next farm. That farm belonged to a cousin of theirs, Norman Patterson. When they came into the kitchen, the phone was ringing, and it was Mrs. Norman Patterson, all flustered. She wanted to know if they had seen something strange fly over their land a minute ago. She and Norman had been digging in the garden and seen it streak over, lights flashing, before it headed toward the Ottawa River and disappeared somewhere in the skies of Quebec.

The next day, Orville and his nephew returned to the field, and in the spot they’d seen the craft hovering, they found a perfect circle of oat stalks cut down to the ground. They had never seen anything like it before. Later, there came reports from all over Renfrew County and across the river in Quebec’s Pontiac County, of UFO sightings and crop circles left behind in farmers’ fields.

It was the summer of Expo 67, one of my last summers spent at the river. I was sixteen years old. In June my seventeen-year-old cousin, Nancy, had come to Montreal to see the World’s Fair. In the two years since I had last seen her, she had turned into a voluptuous blonde whose style of hair and dress owed much to Brigitte Bardot. She wore bright orange lipstick and tight clothes in slightly diaphanous pastels. That summer she would begin studying English literature at Queen’s, where she would quickly change into a matronly bookworm, but this vacation was reserved for youth and wildness. She brought along a copy of Leonard Cohen’s new, controversial novel, Beautiful Losers, and as we stood in the two-hour line-ups outside the Czech and American Pavilions, she would read me selected passages or, more often, absorb them silently and then pronounce them “too racy” for my ears. I was her gawky, innocent, socially backward cousin, and I was only along for the ride. I stood patiently, holding our tickets, avoiding the looks of men which tended to fasten on my cousin Nancy.

I think she liked Beautiful Losers because much of it is written in the present tense, which was where she spent most of her life. Since I had last seen her, she had blossomed into sexual flamboyance -- or perhaps this was a side of herself she felt she could more easily display on a trip to Montreal, than back home in Mississauga. She stayed with us for a week, sleeping on our living room couch, but as the visit wore on and she expanded her network of contacts, we saw less and less of her. She came in progressively later and finally one night, she didn’t come in at all. My parents, who were displeased, said nothing. I simply waited, hoping for one last trip downtown to St. Helen’s island, which for me had become a place of magic and self-discovery. I was so naïve. She finally did return, the following afternoon, but it was only to collect her clothes and leave again with a red-haired man called Tom, who did not come up to the house to be introduced, but sat parked in our driveway in a small white sports car with the engine running.

After that high-water mark, I went less often to Expo, and by mid-July I was thoroughly bored with my sporadic study of twentieth-century existentialist fiction. I abandoned my self-improvement plan and opted instead to go with my father to our cottage on the Ottawa River. My cousin Nancy, who now had her own car, had said she might come up for a week or so, and I looked forward to seeing more of her.

My father was now sixty-five. Normally he and my brother would have gone up to the river together, leaving my mother and me behind in Montreal, but my brother was at summer school trying to make up a failure in Math. So my Dad and I decided to spend a week together at the cottage. We got along well enough in those days, perhaps because we hardly talked, and certainly never about anything in important. Now and then we argued about politics, but without the passion my parents had for bringing up and attacking the past history of each other’s respective parties. On most issues, my Dad was a small-c conservative, and I believe in his entire life he had never voted Liberal. The same went for my mother, but in reverse. As a result, early on in their marriage, they had stopped bothering to go to the polls, since their votes always cancelled each other out.

As for me, I was making my way through French existentialist literature, and was now reading the first novel of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, hoping to have the whole movement under my belt by the time I returned to high school, so that I could discuss it with Gary Clabber at lunchtime. During our week together, my father and I spent much of time reading in our bedrooms, cooking simple meals, and taking our daily boat ride downriver to the deserted sandbar below the dam, where my father fished while I swam in the swift, shallow water, or sunbathed on the beach. It was always just the two of us, in those days before the White Water Rafting company arrived. Our daily rituals dated back to childhood. I missed my mother’s hand in every ordinary daily event -- I couldn’t properly take her place, because my tendency was to withdraw into books, or thinking. These were also my father’s hiding places.

As the days passes, he and I had less and less to say to each other, but there were undercurrents, as if some ghostly remnant of the past had settled between us, demanding that we repeat some drama which was unknown to me. Sometimes I felt I’d become a substitute for my mother, a means of replaying the broken fragments of my parents’ marriage.

The feeling intensified late at night when my father would turn on the radio and search for stations through the hum of static he said was caused by the aurora borealis.

One night Leonard Cohen was being interviewed on CBC. My father got up from his chair and crossed the room to switch it off.

“I was listening to that!”

My father shook his head in disgust. “There’s a guy who can’t open his mouth without saying something poetic.”

The remark struck me as odd -- the interview had only just started and Cohen was being relatively plain-spoken.

“Hey, Dad -- turn it back on.”

It stayed off. That night, in protest, I took my sleeping bag and slept outside. I tried to think poetic thoughts about the stars overhead, how they were spread like white powder over the universe, and seemed to outnumber the words in Sartre’s trilogy. The damp crept in off the river, and around two in the morning, I fell asleep, waking at dawn at the sound of raccoons rummaging in the fireplace. I grabbed by sleeping bag and pillow and snuck back to my own soft bed.

A couple of evenings a week, a pickup truck would drive up to our door, and Harvey Robertson would jump out, carrying a six-pack. If we were outside, he’d walk to the riverbank and make a comment about the water level. “By the Holy Moses, Daniel, she’s high this summer! What are they doing down at that dam?” Harvey was a wiry, nervous man who couldn’t wear a watch because they all stopped on his wrist, due to his energy being so intense. His natural form of speech was storytelling. His tales were all about real things that had happened, and began with “Well, I mind the time…” and followed a simple yet riveting pattern, usually ending with some odd twist.

He had only a grade seven education, while my father had his senior matriculation as well as a teaching certificate from Ottawa Normal School, and also a Bachelor of Music earned in Montreal after the war. Beside my father’s bed, was a copy of The Annals of Tacitus which he read every night to put himself to sleep. Still, he would listen with total attention to Harvey’s fishing yarns and stories of the lumber camp, or his latest scheme for transforming our cottage into a fabulous fishing resort to make millionaires of us all. Inspired, Harvey would describe his vision of the super-highway which would one day criss-cross the bay directly in front of our cabin, or the hotel complex he was planning to construct out there on the rock where a giant pine tree now leaned precariously over the river.

Sometimes, my Dad would interrupt him, gently. “Calm down, now, Harvey. You wouldn’t be able to come down here in the evenings and shoot the breeze anymore.”

“I wouldn’t need to, no sir! I’d be rich and off in gay Paree having a gay time with the ladies!” And he winked at me on the sly, as if I looked like a possible travelling companion. I gave him my wan smile and returned to my reading. What was Gay about Paree? I was still immersed in The Age of Reason, the story of a disaffected intellectual and his pregnant mistress.

After another beer, my father would start to warm to Harvey’s fantasies. “Well, now. On a smaller scale, you could get people to pay to fish from your dock over there. Rent out boats and rods and tackle to the tourists. That’s a good living.”

My father’s idea of “fun” was trolling out of the back of the boat, using a fishing rod to which he attached a series of striped, feathered lures. There were lots of catfish around, and now and then he’d bring home a pickerel or a pike.

“Holy Jesus, Daniel, I tell you, there’s money to be made around here and that’s for damn sure.”

My Dad nodded and smiled. After all, he was a pensioner, not having worked since 1963. Harvey opened another beer.

“I guess you heard about the strange events around here about a month ago, I think it was?” Another story was set to begin. “We had one of them flying saucers come down right on top of us. Even had the army out, looking the place over, but they’re not telling us nothing. Some people said it was one of them Sputniks that the Russian keep sending up.”

With my friends, two girls who lived on the next farm, I went to see the site of the UFO landing. The circle was still visible if you knew how to find it. We walked around it, first -- someone had told us it might be radioactive. After a moment, we tiptoed across it, and stood in the middle, absorbing the mystery. We lay down in the stubble and looked up at the sky as if it might contain some clues. We talked about school. We talked about sex. Linda and Gail were younger than I was, and also more knowledgeable. When they were little, they had been introduced to sex by the older boys who hung around their one-room school house. Apparently this was a local tradition. At lunch, recess, or after school the boys would drag the little girls behind the outbuildings and force them to do things. The girls were always to scared to tell anyone -- especially since their own cousin was one of these bad boys.

In listened in horror to their matter-of-fact confession, and tried to fit myself into a universe where things like this happened. I groped for words that would reflect the wisdom contained in the philosophical novels I was reading. Like the life of Sartre’s anti-hero, their experience was too foreign, nearly impossible to grasp. I had know these two girls for years, played hide and seek with them and their “bad” cousin, in the dark outside our cottage when the adults sat around the campfire, talking and telling stories -- but never stories like this.

I tried to put myself in their shoes. They were looking forward to growing up, getting married, moving off the farm.

“And what will you do?” they asked.

“I don’t think I’ll get married.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t feel like it,” I said.

They nodded. “Maybe someday you’ll write a book,” they said.

“I might.”

We lay there, the three of us, sweating in the sunshine, staring at the sky, but nothing appeared.

“So,” said the younger one. “Do you think there’s any life out there? Is it better than life on earth?”

My father and I drove to the village the next day. I didn’t mention what I had heard, about the boys at the village school. Instead I asked about my aunt Jean, Nina’s mother, who had just arrived and was staying at her own cottage, a couple of miles upriver from us. She’d brought her usual stack of historical novels, and just the other day she’d driven over and presented us with a Clan Map of Scotland for our wall.

Aunt Jean was the family historian, and was compiling a genealogy tracing our roots back to the Highlands. She was at war with her in-laws, however, who lived in Aberdeen. She was my favourite aunt, because of her sense of humour, and the way she seemed to see through people, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. This had got her into trouble, and now she was on tranquillizers, but I still found her interesting, unlike my parents, who seemed to have stopped talking several years ago. I thought everyone should be as open to disclosing the dark side of life, as Aunt Jean tried to be.

We were driving past stone fences and fields of cows. It was a landscape that could lull you into a dream, if you weren’t careful. It was one of those sultry, August afternoons, and clouds were gathering off in the distance, threatening rain. I thought of Aunt Jean, who was terrified of lightning. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, she would race out to her car, and drive to the middle of a field, until it was over. She said she only felt safe inside the car, because of the rubber tires, which could protect her from being electrocuted if a lightning bolt hit the ground in her vicinity.

That seemed a little weird, to me, at the time.

“Dad,” I said, “why is Aunt Jean so scared of thunderstorms?”

“You better ask her.”

“Why does she take so many tranquillizers?”

“For her nerves.”

There was a silence while I pondered my next question.

“What about Aunt Maude?”

“What about her?”

“Is something wrong with her? Is that why she was in our cottage a few summers ago, that time when we came home from shopping and her car was parked outside?”

No reply.

“Was she in there with a man? Were they drinking?”

Deadly silence.

“Some things aren’t a sixteen-year-old’s business.”

“I just asked.”

“Women are always sick. They come to a time of life when their insides just give out.”

“I don’t believe that, Dad.” I refused to let him scare me with his outdated, unscientific opinions -- this man who didn’t even know what a chromosome was till I’d told him, back in the Sixth Grade. That thought brought bad associations, which were best shut out.

I stared out my window, while he kept his eyes on the road. I had raised the forbidden topic of “mental illness” in the family. Another mystery, as far as I was concerned. I had never actually observed any of my relatives behaving in ways that could be considered crazy, and later there were rumours, indications, that many of them had seen psychiatrists, and been hospitalized, but nobody talked about these things openly.

I had been reading Freud since age twelve, so I knew the human race was inherently neurotic, ruled by dark forces that evaded our understanding. I had discussed this with Aunt Jean only the week before. She agreed with me, and then launched on a story about her in-laws in Aberdeen, to prove the point.

No, it never dawned on my that my father, or any of his brothers and sisters, might be secretly insane, or in need of extreme treatments to halt the progress of some degenerative gene, hidden like a bad apple in our family tree.

When we got home with our groceries, I went straight to my bedroom to put on my bathing suit, taking a moment to look at myself in the mirror as I did this. I was turning into a woman, all right? Would my insides give out someday, leaving me wrecked and fearful, like my father’s sisters? But they were old, and I was still a teenager. I had my whole life ahead of me, spread open like a mystery novel, and someday I would crack it. Yes, I would.

I lay down on the bed with my book, hoping to learn the fate of the pregnant mistress, but she had already disappeared and the anti-hero, who had recently turned thirty, The Age of Reason, was also peering into the mirror, contemplating his imminent decay. What did it matter if he was decaying -- at least he was free! I returned to the mirror -- was that a wrinkle on my forehead? Could it be caused by too much reading?

My father spoke from outside the door. “Ready to go to the beach?”

“I don’t feel like swimming today!”

I flopped on the bed, proud that I was finally learning to disobey my father. Was my refusal to go to the beach an existential act?

“Suit yourself,” said my father, and I heard him slam the screen door, as he went out to continue his tinkering with the old outboard motor that he had fastened to a board nailed between two trees.

That night, I found a place in the field, about fifty yards from the cottage, to spread out my sleeping bag. I lay on my back, with my face to the stars. Were they circling around up there tonight? Would they notice I was down here?

In my dream, they had landed in a circle of bright light, but for some reason they chose to remain invisible. I heard their footsteps, crunching, as they crept toward me through the long grass. Were they coming, the Alien Ones, to take me home?

I woke suddenly, along and intact, with the first rays of sun turning the dew on my mummy bag to steam. Not far away, a black and white cow was chewing thoughtfully. Behind stood the rest of the herd, grazing and tearing at the turf on which I’d slept. I jumped up, still wrapped in my bag.

“Stupid cow,” I said. I gathered up sleeping bag, and my copy of Roads to Freedom, but the cow paid no more attention than if I had been a rock or a tree.

The next day, my dad drove me to the train station in a nearby town. He had decided to stay on alone for another couple of weeks. I was relieved to be going home to Montreal, and my friends. I had books to buy, things I needed to do to get ready for school in the fall.

As the CNR Coast to Coaster pulled in, I hugged my father, who helped carry my bags and put them on the train. I waved to him from the window, noticing once again how old he was looking, before he slid out of view and I was staring out at trees and wilderness.

We came to a level crossing and I recognized the familiar way to my father’s village, the badly-paved road we travelled almost every day for groceries, the same road he had walked on as a boy, decades ago, and suddenly I burst into tears, and couldn’t stop sobbing as the train gathered speed and the woods outside the window seemed to blur and become vague, like my father’s eyes when he looked past me into some secret place where his thoughts so often travelled, in the evenings when we sat together in silence.

Inside these woods, lay something hidden, something terrible. I had glimpsed its shape, sometimes, in dreams. Someday I would figure all of it out, and write a book that would lay it open, and everyone would be proud of me.

In the meantime, I felt relieved that I was racing away on the train, and feeling emotions for which I had no name, and no explanation, like those characters in Sartre’s novel, which lay beside me on the seat.

Before I reached Montreal, I had finished Roads to Freedom. The next day, I started on Nausea.