Watermarks of the Body
This morning: Saskatchewan; this evening: Florida. I’m a little disoriented, as if I’ve just folded a map, linking two distant places so improbably, so quickly together. I hadn’t planned on seeing Chalice again, so soon after planting season, but she’d called me yesterday, asked if I’d come and see her. Didn’t say why and I didn’t ask.
Chalice met me at Miami Dade airport, but she’d cut her hair, making her appear older than her twenty-four years, and I’d shaved off my goatee – now I look younger than she is – so it took us a while to find each other in the thinning crowd. First time we’d ever seen each other cleaned up. She smelled good, like mangoes and pepper. Her dark hair’s short now, dyed incandescent white and spiked sharp. Makes her blue eyes fade to a winter’s sky, her face look darker, less gaunt, less erased. Even her voice has changed, slipped into a low smoky drawl so thick I couldn’t understand her at first.
The heat and humidity nearly sidelined me when we stepped out of the airport – explains why the pace seems slower here, as if everyone’s moving through honey. Chalice didn’t want to linger in the city, so she took Highway 41 across the Everglades through Big Cypress National Preserve, and drove so fast I thought we’d skid into the swamp. I kept expecting the road to sink or end abruptly – as if we were on some kid’s toy track spread over marshland that couldn’t possibly support our weight.
Chalice drives a golden brown truck, rusted and banged up, windows rolled down as far as they’ll go, or punched out, topless flatbed still crammed with her planting and camping gear. Front fender’s mangled from the tree she plowed into July second. Truck probably isn’t worth fixing. I’m surprised Customs let her over the border.
We didn’t talk much through the ‘Glades, mostly because we couldn’t hear each other over the hot wind and the tapes Chalice kept jamming into the player. Jazz music filled the air as if the cool notes could beat down the hundred twenty degree heat. Only when we stopped for gas and groceries in Naples did Chalice turn to me, and really seem to see me. Reached over and smacked me on the shoulder, like we were back in the northern bush and she’d figured I’d slept enough and should wake up and keep her company.
She’d latched onto me the third day of planting season – we were on the same crew, but hadn’t so much as exchanged glances yet. Fourth of May and winter decides to make a comeback north of the Superior. Around noon the snow started, big flakes that covered the mounds of dead trees and soil so fast, everything was transformed in a thick layer of white. Ten-foot high slash piles became albino dragons snaking towards the horizons. We kept planting, though. Our seedlings like afterthoughts of trees and so fragile in the snow, I knew they wouldn’t survive.
I could have been one of the crew bosses again this season, but I chose to plant instead. I earn more, and it’s not so awkward with the other planters, since I’m one of them, not their boss. I prefer the isolation of planting to wandering through my crew’s lots. Focus on making enough money to carry me through the summer till hunting season in the fall and winter. Spring’s my chance to hibernate, get away from people for ten hours a day, although the hunters I guide in northern Saskatchewan are easy-going, fairly reticent folk.
Chalice was a rookie, but you’d never know it. She attacked those lots like she’d been planting for years. Never had to re-plant even in the worst locations. That third day, though, I saw a side of her I haven’t seen since. Chalice was working in the lot next to mine, and our crew boss, Drew, kept swinging by to check on her, flagging random trees Chalice swears he pulled out by the roots, leaving the paper pods snug in the ground. Fifth time around, Chalice caught him watching her pee next to the slash. She yelled at him. Not a coherent threat to get away from her, but a deep-throated, guttural burst of anger that reverberated through the cold air and made me scale the fallen trees and detritus to go to her aid.
When I arrived, Chalice was pushing Drew away from her, her army pants still around her ankles, her winter parka reaching to mid-thigh. I didn’t have a chance to react. She swung wide and clipped Drew on the cheek. When he saw me, he dropped his arms. Stomped back to the flagged trees, started re-planting them himself.
Chalice looked me over, her lips pursed, her eyes narrowed, then reached down and pulled up her pants. ‘You’ll do’ I think she muttered, though she later insisted she said, ‘How d’you do?’ We sat together in our crew’s van on the way back to camp, everyone huddled together for warmth and padding in the empty shell as we bounced and slid along the rutted road, Drew glaring occasionally into the rear view mirror like an angry parent, his left cheek the swollen colour of bruised fruit. As Chalice slept sporadically, her head lolling from my shoulder to the person on her right, I wanted to pull up her pant legs, touch her skin so cold it had looked dead and grey in the field. What had intrigued me even more were the markings on her legs – raised pink lines, intricate symbols and shapes, interconnecting and entwining, like the borders in an illuminated manuscript—not tattoos, but scars.
“Ian?” Chalice says, curling an orange rind around her left index finger like a ring. We’re sitting in a Publix parking lot, paper bags of groceries with printed hurricane warnings on them, jammed at my feet.
“Marry me?” She laughs, and I’m blushing, choking on my orange. Then she’s tossing the orange rind out the window and backing up the truck. Sheet lightning startles the night sky. Chalice’s nails tapping on the cracked steering wheel are pointed triangles, sharp like her hair, like her face. Only her voice is soft.
The first time she touched me intimately, I was dozing in the sauna, lying naked under a towel. Nick and Jason were in the sauna with me. The plan had been to stay until we couldn’t stand the heat any more, tear along the dock and cannonball into the lake still rimmed with ice, then sprint back to the sauna before anyone saw us. I woke up swatting the air when something touched my face. Still too cold outside for mosquitoes and black flies, but the sensation was the same. Chalice was bent over me, her long hair tickling my mouth. I sat up, groggy and disoriented. She was dressed in her winter clothes. Only her boots were at the door.
She left before I had a chance to speak. Nick and Jason stared at me for an explanation, but I shrugged. Chalice, I was learning, was like that – sporadic, unpredictable, impulsive. Everything I think I’m not. Later, as the guys and I charged out of the sauna into the pressing darkness, I think I saw Chalice standing at the forest’s edge, watching.
The planting was rough those first two weeks. Snow and rain kept the lots frozen or mired with mud, and twice we had to turn around and head back to camp because the makeshift roads were impassable. On those days, most people stayed in the mess tent, or sauna, but Chalice made me walk with her through the forest. She’d found a hollow tree on one of her wanderings and we sat inside its trunk, feasting on sandwiches and cookies, swigging hot coffee from a thermos while the wind moaned, and snow enclosing the entrance deepened the air to twilight blue. Chalice liked to wear a multi-coloured Peruvian hat and would swirl the braids against her face, over her eyes, into the air, her hands constantly moving, seeking contact.
She told me about growing up in southern Florida. How the rain would fill her backyard pool so full, it’d overflow. How she and her older sister Faryn would catch frogs and salamanders when they washed into the water from the surrounding gardens. How the rain was so warm and heavy, it felt safe.
She drew her knees up to her chest as she talked and rocked back and forth, and I could see her as a gap-toothed six-year-old, holding amphibians in cupped hands, dark hair dripping wet around her shoulders, small face turned to the sky, wanting more. I needed to hold her, protect her, like I used to protect my sister Faith when we were younger, but Chalice had retreated, her gaze reaching back to somewhere I couldn’t completely follow. I knew she was selecting fragments, little pieces of herself she wanted me to see, keeping others tucked away. I knew they had something to do with her carvings.
We pull up in front of a jungle, or a front yard so over-grown, the house is hidden. Chalice parks on the street, and I grab the bags of groceries and my duffle bag and follow her deep into the unlit foliage, lush with flowers that burst pollen against my skin like overripe perfume. We emerge not at the front of the house, but at a cracked fountain in the back. Another flash of lightning brightens the wild garden into sudden daylight, revealing plants so tangled, the hibiscus blossoms seem strangled. Chalice’s place is more of a cottage than a house. Wooden, with a large screened-in porch, painted pink or maybe aqua—it’s hard to tell as I stand blinking in the returning dark. Conch shells stagger up the steps, line the path to the fountain.
“What’s that noise?”
“The ocean,” Chalice answers, shrugging her thin shoulders hidden under a long-sleeved cotton shirt. She climbs the steps in front of me, and I am surprised at how even summer fabric and shadows can’t soften her angles.
On her porch, before she unlocks the door, she reaches up and hugs me, pulls me so close I can feel her ribs rising and falling. “Welcome.” Her mouth is a tickle against my ear. She lets me go and I feel dizzy. The air is cloying, like oil in my nose and throat.
Heat explodes through the door, and Chalice walks around the cottage opening windows, until the house hums with the voices of cicadas and crickets and tree frogs. She pulls two beers from an ancient ice-box and we go back out to her porch, sit together on the wooden glider that barely moves.
“He’s in B.C.?”
“Yeah. I guess. I don’t know.” I take a swig of beer, blink as the cold liquid threads through my chest like a river splitting into tributaries. Nick would be in Salmon Arm by now. I hold the bottle against the blood rising in my face.
Chalice blows across the top of her bottle, making it whistle like a Chilean pan flute. She leans against my chest and I wrap my arms around her, hold her in the heat as we drink our beer in silence. More lightning followed by thunder, and a spattering of rain drums on the tin roof. We’ve only been away from each other a week, but she’s changed. Florida’s in her blood, in her speech, her movements, as if she’s impersonating someone I can’t quite recognize. She’s more fluid here, more natural. Not like she was when Nick and Jason were with us on our nights off. Then she’d sip a single beer all evening, watch the three of us make fools of ourselves as we finished a two-four, making oblique passes at her. She’d shove us away, her eyes filmed over, opaque contact lenses deflecting desire.
One late afternoon our crew was shipped over to Nick and Jason’s crew’s site to help finish up a contract. The lot was ringed with untouched trees instead of slash, an oasis of budding leaves and returning birds in a torn land. Chalice and I worked with Nick to plant the rest of Jason’s lot before five o’clock, each of us a row apart in symbiotic silence. The first butterflies appeared a few minutes before we planted our last trees. Yellow dabs like lemon peel against a wedge of blue sky. Chalice stood with her arms raised high and butterflies swirled around her body. Jason, Nick, and I followed Chalice and the butterflies through the remaining forest where other planters were gathering. No one spoke.
Thousands of butterflies shimmered like broken sunlight, swelling in wave after wave around our out-stretched arms. They were attracted to Chalice the most, settling on her Peruvian toque, in her long dark hair, on her bare hands. Unlike everyone else, Chalice was still wearing long sleeves, but one had fallen back revealing markings that shone in the dappled light—new skin, still pink and raw. She’d been carving recently. A long blast from the van’s horn in the distance scattered the butterflies, and Chalice emerged from a cloud of yellow dust, enraptured.
Jason touched her then, smudging the powder on her face, and I could tell he was smitten with her. She turned from him, walked behind us to the vans, the smile gone.
I awaken to heat and darkness. At first, I can’t remember where I am, then the sound of rain outside the open window, slapping and dripping on leaves, drumming the roof, clears my head. Chalice is asleep beside me, her long pyjamas sticking to her body, her breathing rough, erratic, as if she’s running in her dreams. I want to rub the sharp edge of her pelvic bone, the hollow of her stomach, peel back her shirt and read her skin, but I can’t. Acts so intimate would be a violation without her consent. I lay flat on my back, hands at my sides, and try not to move. The air is so moist, I feel as if I’m drowning.
I was surprised when Chalice gave me the tour of the cottage and there was only one bedroom. She’s lived here for a few years, but the place seems like she just happened upon it one day while wandering through the woods. Thick vines cover most of the windows; the walls are peeling and cracked; the furniture looks like garbage finds; the appliances are mismatched avocado and goldenrod. Not one looks like it could work. Chalice calls her home the tree cave. “During the day,” she once told me as we sat in the hollow tree, “the light in my house is green, like being underwater, where only those who aren’t afraid of swimming through the universe venture.”
I asked her what she meant, and that’s when she kissed me—on the mouth. I was a little surprised. I didn’t think she felt that way about me. I wasn’t sure if I felt that way about her. Then she was kissing me again and I let her. There wasn’t much room for the two of us inside the tree trunk, but she straddled my hips, and we kissed for a long time. I tried to lift off her shirt, but she moved my hands away, wouldn’t let me under her clothes.
I felt strange, awkward, kissing her, but I wanted so badly for it to feel natural that I didn’t try to stop. A memory of when I was at camp the summer I was ten, lurked like a shadow between Chalice and me, and I kept holding her tighter, trying to make the memory of the incident disappear. It was a simple act, one I could have forgotten, discarded, instead of letting it linger deep inside of me, awaiting possibilities. There were eight of us to a cabin at the camp, plus our counsellor, and when we had to change into our clothes, our pyjamas, or bathing suits, it was a chaotic scramble of naked limbs and flying clothes, as we rushed to get ready.
Mid-way through the summer, on a humid day when we were all scurrying to get into our suits for an afternoon swim, one of the boys changing beside me reached over and stroked his hand against my stomach, then groped down to grab my penis, squeezing hard. I was startled at my body’s response, at the erection jabbing the air as the rest of the boys pointed and jeered, calling us both fags. I raged against them all, flailing wildly at anyone in my way.. That night, though, all I could think of was how excited I felt being touched by another boy.
I hid this feeling, worried about it, about my dad’s and my brother Greg’s reactions if they knew. Throughout high school I thought of telling Faith what had happened, how I felt, but she was never around. In her spare time she volunteered at the hospital or locked herself in her room. Throughout the years I went on dates with a few women, but I could never get past the fleshiness of their bodies. Kissing Chalice inside the hollow tree, I thought maybe I had been wrong, that I could feel the same way about a woman as I did about a man.
That day was only our third full day off from planting in almost a month, and Chalice and I were tired. We fell asleep and I awoke to the hooting of an owl, to moonlight spilling onto the forest floor. Chalice was mumbling, and her hand reached out as if to pluck something from the air, her fingertips iron-burnt smooth when she was six, devoid of prints. Broken behind the Buddha. I couldn’t be sure, but I think that’s what she said. Then she was moaning, crying: I didn’t mean to find them. Her sudden child’s voice staggered and muttered like a scolding adult: Bad girl. Bad girl. She awoke wanting to eat pomegranates and buttered grits, unaware she had been dreaming.
I don’t understand it—this fascination I have with her, with what she hides on her body, with the scraps of her past she feeds me, but I’m addicted. She’s the Rosetta Stone, the missing language carved into her skin, but she won’t let me discover it, translate it into words I know. I think that’s partially why I agreed to buy a one-way ticket to Florida.
“My uncle’s gay,” Chalice blurts out over a late drink on the porch the next evening. We’d spent the day wandering through downtown Naples, eating ice cream and fudge, then calamari and scampi on a wharf overlooking the ocean. Anyone watching us might think we’re married, the way we’ve settled into a comfortable routine of eating and barely talking, touch reduced to platonic comfort.
I haven’t responded to her statement, but I wonder if she senses a quickening in my pulse, a ripening of my scent. What does she know about Nick and me?
“Know how I know?” Chalice continues. She’s sitting at the other end of the glider, her feet in my lap.
I pat a sock-covered foot and shake my head no.
“I exposed him.”
“I was only six.” She pauses, takes a sip of beer. “Faryn and I were playing hide and go seek at our cousin’s cabin—in the cypress forest. My cousin Willow was ‘it.’ I’d hidden in Uncle Lance’s fishing closet.”
She’s back there, inside the closet. I can see her, the same little girl who held salamanders in the rain, crouching behind rods and tackle, stumbling backwards into a stack of boxes. Glossy paper beneath her touch, the damp smell of ink, the torn look upon her face as she brings the magazines into the light.
“My aunt and mom were out on the deck, drinking rum and looking for gators. Faryn tried to take the magazines from me. We left a trail of ripped pages in the cabin. My Aunt Acacia threw the rest in the swamp. We canoed around the old man trees, no one speaking. Willow and her mom moved back home to Canada a few weeks later.” Chalice attempts a smile. “I’m half like you.”
I’m holding my breath. She’s nothing like me.
“You know—Canadian.” She tilts her head to the side, runs one foot over my chest as if I’m covered in Braille and she’s trying to read secret markings on my skin.
“Is that why you carve yourself—because of your uncle?” There. I’ve said it. Opened the wound. I have the sudden sense the ironing incident was not an accident.
Chalice stands up so abruptly, the glider makes a cracking sound and drops several inches towards the porch floor. I follow her as she rushes down the stairs, past the fountain, pushes through thick leaves and vines where I catch her. I want to pull up her shirtsleeves, run my hands over scars like seals pressed into paper, but she wrenches away, stumbles through foliage onto the beach.
I join her at the ocean’s edge, sit down beside her, wishing I could unfold her curved body. I cannot touch her, can only sift sand, listen to the crash of waves, appearing like blackened silver in the moonlight. I found her like this once, the night after we’d been planting in the burn. She hadn’t shown up for dinner, so I went immediately to the hollow tree, where she was arched into a ball and crying. She wouldn’t let me come in, had the entrance barred with her body.
I stayed outside of the tree, eventually rubbing her back until she grew calmer. That day we’d planted on a rocky range of the Canadian Shield, the remnants of forest burned to soot that smudged our skin, stung our eyes, bled our noses, so that by four o’clock Drew was calling an early day in favour of skinny dipping in the lake below our site.
Everyone looked at Chalice, knowing she’d never participate, but she trekked down the hill with the rest of us, sat on a boulder and stared out at the water while we peeled off our clothes and ran whooping and hollering into the lake. Drew was the first to splash her, taunt her into stripping. Several of our crew members joined in, but Chalice didn’t move.
I didn’t splash her, but I didn’t stop the others. I wanted her to react, to stand up and yell at us, take off her clothes in defiance and acknowledge her secrets openly. Apparently, so did Drew. Back at camp, he followed her into the forest, ripped her shirt, but she broke away, hid in the tree. When she left the hollow trunk with me that evening, she pressed the torn fabric to her chest as if staunching a wound.
I feel the rain before I hear it, and now Chalice is holding my hand, pulling me along the beach. “Swimming,” she answers, although I haven’t asked her anything.
A gate in a stone wall opens onto a palm grove. I notice a tennis court and beyond the treetops, the roofline of a sprawling mansion. Chalice follows a second flagstone path to a wrought iron gate covered in a flowering vine. Lush plants and towering cedars surround the darkened pool, and I wonder how often Chalice comes here to swim.
She’s different here, like she was with the butterflies. She leaves me at the gate, walks slowly around the poolside, pulling layers of clothes from her body, until she is stripped bare, arms raised high to the soft rain falling. Her pale skin is phosphorescent, emitting a glow like a thousand fireflies, flickering with every turn, every step. From her clavicles to her ankle bones, she has carved her flesh. Her breasts are spiraled with what may be words; her arms and legs are covered in intricate layers of symbols only she could know.
She stops in front of me, her sharp hair flattened against her skull, her expression a blank mask. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
I feel face-slapped, stung. I want to turn around, find my way back through the Everglades to the airport, leave her standing unread in the rain. But I can’t.
She backs away from me, steps off the deck edge and plunges out of sight. I search for her, but the water is a rippled surface of inky shadows. A sound like a freight train lumbers at me as rain torrents down hard, blurring my vision. Warm water from the pool laps over my feet, and something solid smacks into my heels from behind. Frogs are being washed out of the garden into the pool. Another frog lands on my head, and for a moment, I think it’s raining amphibians. Chalice surfaces, scoops several frogs from the gutter and slides them back along the deck towards the plants. Then she is gone, submerged once again.
I strip down to my skivvies, slip into the water, feeling nauseous. The last time I went swimming was with Nick, five days before planting season ended. He and Jason and I always went for a swim in the lake before going to bed every night, but Jason had sprained his knee earlier that day and couldn’t walk.
We usually swam out to the far dock and back, but this night, when we arrived at the dock, Nick and I hung onto the edge and started talking. Rising moon, but still I thought no one could see us. When I kissed him, he didn’t move away, but turned his face as if to kiss me back. Then he shoved me backwards and swung at my face, his knuckles just grazing my mouth. “Knew it all along,” he spat and swam away. A flash on shore; someone watching? I couldn’t move. I waited a long time before swimming back to camp. The next morning Nick didn’t sit with Chalice, Jason, and me, and I pretended I didn’t know why.
Chalice emerges in the shallow end where she stands in waist-deep water, rain-blurred. I swim towards her.
She takes my hand, traces my fingertips along her ribs. I detect spirals, like flowers bursting. “First day of grade nine – in Toronto.” I didn’t know she’d lived in Canada.
“The day of the scented garden,” she whispers and I feel a half circle on one side of her belly button. She pulls me closer, and although I cannot see the scars upon her skin, I know they’re there, each a story. Her body is slight against mine, boyishly flat. “If anyone in my family knew,” she continues softly, “they’d do more than disown me.” She lets go of me, brings her hands between us, palms up. Her fingertips are smooth and waxen against my face.
The rain stops so suddenly, I feel deaf in the silence.
“Cypress Gardens, behind the Buddha statue. Grade seven field trip.” On the other side of her belly button, the rest of the broken circle.
“You saw me, with Nick?” I say when she grows quiet.
She nods, moves my hand to her left arm, the one I saw exposed when she danced with the butterflies. “I wanted to touch her – in the garden. I tried.” She kisses my face. “We’re born with them, these longings, stories we have yet to live.” She cups water, pours it over my shoulders. “Imprints, lines and shapes and symbols we can’t erase, no matter how hard we try.” She lifts herself out of the water, sits on the edge of the pool, her long thin legs wrapped around my waist, and bends over me, holds me close. “I carve to let them out.”
I know I’m crying, but I hurt too much for the tears to come. Somewhere in the wet trees, a cicada begins to sing, a sound like the night sky ripping.