Bursting in through the front door of our apartment, I see my mother and father in the kitchen straight down the hall. My mother is crying hard. I have never seen her cry. She wears her brown and white polka-dotted dress. The dots look like they are adrift like on a shivering, dark sea, and I start to feel dizzy. Her Tonied hair is pretty and wavy, but she is bent double over the cupboard, sobbing. Her tears gush like in the picture I saw of Alice in Wonderland. I am afraid my Mom will drown. I stand in shock. Then my own tears start to flow.
One of my father’s handkerchiefs, which my mother washes, irons and folds for his pocket every day, is wet and soggy and wound around her long fingers. The sun hits her in the small of her back as it bends through the window over the kitchen sink. My mother is like a broken thing. It is getting hot in this small space. I am frightened.
My mother squeaks out that there has been a fire in Canada—at the storage place in Camp Borden where our belongings went to live in cardboard boxes while we travelled the North Atlantic through November storms to come to rest in a small, walled German town. This fire ate everything.
I begin to think about my toys and realize that Pluto, my glove puppet, is gone. I cry harder now as it dawns on me that he is burned to a crisp, like bacon. We are all crying now, except my father who grinds his teeth and folds his arms across his chest. I can hear his teeth rolling over each other like boulders pushed on a beach by a storm. His cheeks bulge from the effort. I wish he had on his red serge uniform with the high, tight collar and medals pinned on it, because he always looks so calm and handsome in it, just like a prince. He never grinds his teeth when he has his dress uniform on.
Safekeeping (detail) by Heather Lawson.
Photo courtesy of the Harvest Gallery in Wolfville, NS.
Mom said the security guard in the storage place had been leaning back in his chair having a cigarette after lunch when he just fell asleep. The guard burned up, taking our past, all ashes, with him. Coughing a little myself, I imagine big flames licking my eyelids. Then I think of the hot gases finding Pluto and setting him on fire. That tiny loose thread at the bottom of his hem must have flashed first with a sizzle. I see his hard, wooden head, his velvety, long ears and his shiny coat scorching in that blaze. My fingers itch to fit into Pluto’s paws again so I can make him talk to me.
My mother does not cry over the new swivel TV chair, the TV, or the rabbit-ear antennae that are now all burned and twisted. We don’t even have a TV in Germany. The army didn’t give us one. Mom doesn’t remember Pluto was in the fire. She can’t hear me tell her about Pluto. She talks between sobs about her parents and losing her mother’s china, and her own wartime uniforms. She sees the last few strands of her old life disappear. Mom talks about losing the photographs of her mother and father and how she would never see their faces again because they are dead and now the photographs are gone too. She touches her own cheek where she said her mother had a long, jagged scar from flying glass when the window came in during the Halifax Explosion. Her mother had been looking at the harbour and everyone was running. She couldn’t run because she was pregnant with Mom.
The tears keep coming. I can tell that Mom’s guts are in a knot. She leans over and then she talks about her father who died from lead poisoning from working on the letterpresses at the Herald newspaper. How he was everything to her. This makes her cry more.
Why doesn’t anyone else care that Pluto is missing? I think about when I first got him. He was a present from Jenny Genge, my best friend, and arrived when I was sick at home with the Asian flu. Jenny’s hair was the colour of Pluto’s, yellow. When the last crate was packed for storage, I cried. Pluto could not come with me. He was not allowed to go on our family adventure. Dad might have let me take him but he was already gone with the other fathers on a big boat rocking on the waves.
Dad told me he was going back to Germany where he fought in a war. He told me he had been hit by a bullet that went through his chest right there, right where that thick white scar is under his arm. It passed right through like it was on the Autobahn. It went so fast he didn’t know he had been shot at first—until he keeled over. He said he was going back because of the Cold War. He was going back, too, to visit graves of his infantry comrades in Italy.
When it was our turn to go to Germany, my mother, brother and sister and I had to take a train, and then a boat. My brother had a nose bleed on the train. Like always. My sister and I threw up all the way across the ocean. My mother lay in her bed with a wet cloth on her head most of the time, groaning. When we did leave our cabin we were tossed from side to side, and we had to hold onto a railing to walk.
Pluto would have liked it here in Deutschland. Now he is dead, just gone up in smoke. If my mother had let me take him he would be alive today, living on Wienerschnitzel with a squeeze of lemon. He could have played marbles with me in the playground behind our building, helping me sink the glass eyes and crystals into smooth holes I made in the dirt with my hands. I always go home with dirt under my nails.
Pluto could have gone on the swings with me. Maybe he too would have gotten some splinters from the wooden seats. We would have gone so high our feet would have touch the rooftops and blue skies over our apartment building, and Pluto would have screamed with a little thrill sound only I could hear. I think about how my bride doll was with Pluto in the fire box, but I don’t care about her. Her hair was all shiny and plastic. I don’t know who she was going to marry. Her bride clothes were glued to her.
Mom is crying still.
Pluto is nothing but ashes. I feel alone, but I can’t take my eyes off of my mother’s face. It is all twisted up and her lips are dry. She doesn’t even look at me. Her eyes are all swollen. Her nose is red. She talks only about her mother’s dishes and how hard it was to get these few things from her stepmother, who took everything that belonged to her family. She says how she only owned one threadbare uniform, which burned to cinders too. She says how she lost her dresses that my grandmother had so beautifully made for her. And then “ohmygod” and repeats how she lost the photos.
My mother holds the metal edge of the counter top so hard her hands turn white at the knuckles. The sound I hear coming out of her throat is low and moaning—and then she just lets loose with a big howl. I am scared. For a moment I forget about Pluto, and I think about my mother’s scrunched up face and all her tears. Auf Wiedersehen, Pluto.