Various miracles, p.1
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       Various Miracles, p.1

           Carol Shields
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Various Miracles

  Carol Shields is an internationally known author who has won many awards for her novels and short stories. Her most recent novel, The Stone Diaries, was the winner of the 1995 Pultizer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the McNally Robinson Award for Manitoba Book of the Year and was also short-listed for the Booker Prize. Her other books include Happenstance, The Republic of Love, Swann: A Mystery, Various Miracles, The Box Garden and The Orange Fish. Shields lives and works in Winnipeg.




  The Box Garden

  The Orange Fish

  Small Ceremonies

  The Stone Diaries

  The Republic of Love

  Copyright © 1985 by Carol Shields

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada in 1995 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Originally published in 1985 by Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, Toronto.

  Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

  Shields, Carol, 1935–

  Various miracles

  eISBN: 978-0-307-36723-5

  1. Title.

  PS8587.H46V37 1996 C813’.54 C95-932886-6

  PR9199.3.S55V37 1996

  The author wishes to thank the Manitoba Arts Council for its support.


  For my daughter Meg

  The author and publisher wish to acknowledge with thanks previous publication of the following stories: “Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass,” Arts Manitoba, “Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls,” Aurora/CBC Anthology, “Sailors Lost at Sea,” Dandelion, “Purple Blooms,” Quarry, “Flitting Behavior,” CBC Anthology, “Various Miracles,” Canadian Forum/Anthology of Prairie Women Writers, “The Metaphor Is Dead,” Prairie Fire, “Accidents,” “Love So Fleeting,” The Malahat Review, “Fragility,” Saturday Night, “Invitations,” “The Journal,” “Home,” Fiddlehead, “Salt,” The Antigonish Review.

  Table of Contents


  About the Author

  Other Books by this Author

  Title Page



  Various Miracles

  Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass


  Sailors Lost at Sea

  Purple Blooms

  Flitting Behavior






  The Metaphor is Dead—Pass it On

  A Wood

  Love so Fleeting, Love so Fine

  Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls


  Taking the Train


  The Journal



  Tell all the truth but tell it slant

  —Emily Dickinson

  Various Miracles

  SEVERAL OF THE MIRACLES that occurred this year have gone unrecorded.

  Example: On the morning of January 3, seven women stood in line at a lingerie sale in Palo Alto, California, and by chance each of these women bore the Christian name Emily.

  Example: On February 16 four strangers (three men, one woman) sat quietly reading on the back seat of the number 10 bus in Cincinnati, Ohio; each of them was reading a paperback copy of Smiley’s People.

  On March 30 a lathe operator in a Moroccan mountain village dreamed that a lemon fell from a tree into his open mouth, causing him to choke and die. He opened his eyes, overjoyed at being still alive, and embraced his wife who was snoring steadily by his side. She scarcely stirred, being reluctant to let go of a dream she was dreaming, which was that a lemon tree had taken root in her stomach, sending its pliant new shoots upwards into her limbs. Leaves, blossoms and finally fruit fluttered in her every vein until she began to tremble in her sleep with happiness and intoxication. Her husband got up quietly and lit an oil lamp so that he could watch her face. It seemed to him he’d never really looked at her before and he felt how utterly ignorant he was of the spring that nourished her life. Now she lay sleeping, dreaming, her face radiant. What he saw was a mask of happiness so intense it made him fear for his life.

  On May 11, in the city of Exeter in the south of England, five girls (aged fifteen to seventeen) were running across a playing field at ten o’clock in the morning as part of their physical education program. They stopped short when they saw, lying on the broad gravel path, a dead parrot. He was grassy green in color with a yellow nape and head, and was later identified by the girl’s science mistress as Amazona ochrocephala. The police were notified of the find and later it was discovered that the parrot had escaped from the open window of a house owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, who claimed, while weeping openly, that they had owned the parrot (Miguel by name) for twenty-two years. The parrot, in fact, was twenty-five years old, one of a pair of birds sold in an open market in Marseilles in the spring of 1958. Miguel’s twin brother was sold to an Italian soprano who kept it for ten years, then gave it to her niece Francesca, a violinist who played first with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and later with the Chicago Symphony. On May 11 Francesca was wakened in her River Forest home by the sound of her parrot (Pete, or sometimes Pietro) coughing. She gave him a dish of condensed milk instead of his usual whole-oats-and-peanut mixture, and then phoned to say she would not be able to attend rehearsal that day. The coughing grew worse. She looked up the name of a vet in the Yellow Pages and was about to dial when the parrot fell over, dead in his cage. A moment earlier Francesca had heard him open his beak and pronounce what she believed were the words “Ça ne fait rien.”

  On August 26 a man named Carl Hallsbury of Billings, Montana was wakened by a loud noise. “My God, we’re being burgled,” his wife, Marjorie, said. They listened, but when there were no further noises, they drifted back to sleep. In the morning they found that their favorite little watercolor—a pale rural scene depicting trees and a winding road and the usual arched bridge—had fallen off the living-room wall. It appeared that it had bounced onto the cast-iron radiator and then ricocheted to a safe place in the middle of the living-room rug. When Carl investigated he found that the hook had worked loose in the wall. He patched the plaster methodically, allowed it to dry, and then installed a new hook. While he worked he remembered how the picture had come into his possession. He had come across it hanging in an emptied-out house in the French city of St. Brieuc, where he and the others of his platoon had been quartered during the last months of the war. The picture appealed to him, its simple lines and the pale tentativeness of the colors. In particular, the stone bridge caught his attention since he had been trained as a civil engineer (Purdue, 1939). When the orders came to vacate the house late in 1944, he popped the little watercolor into his knapsack; it was a snug fit, and the snugness seemed to condone his theft. He was not a natural thief but already he knew that life was mainly a matter of improvisation. Other returning soldiers brought home German helmets, strings of cartridge shells and flags of various sorts, but the little painting was Carl’s only souvenir. And his wife, Marjorie, is the only one in the world who knows it to be stolen goods; she and Carl belong to a generation that believes there should be no secrets between married couples. Both of them, Marjorie as much as Carl, have a deep sentimental attachment to the picture, though they no longer believe it to be the work of a skilled artist.

  It was, in fact, painted by a twelve-year-old
boy named Pierre Renaud who until 1943 had lived in the St. Brieuc house. It was said that as a child he had a gift for painting and drawing; in fact, he had a gift merely for imitation. His little painting of the bridge was copied from a postcard his father had sent him from Burgundy where he’d gone to conduct some business. Pierre had been puzzled and ecstatic at receiving a card from his parent who was a cold, resolute man with little time for his son. The recopying of the postcard in water-colors—later Pierre saw all this clearly—was an act of pathetic homage, almost a way of petitioning his father’s love.

  He grew up to become not an artist but a partner in the family leather-goods business. In the late summer he liked to go south in pursuit of sunshine and good wine, and one evening, August 26 it was, he and Jean-Louis, his companion of many years, found themselves on a small stone bridge not far from Tournus. “This is it,” he announced excitedly, spreading his arms like a boy, and not feeling at all sure what he meant when he said the words, “This is it.” Jean-Louis gave him a fond smile; everyone knew Pierre had a large capacity for nostalgia. “But I thought you said you’d never been here before,” he said. “That’s true,” Pierre said, “you are right. But I feel, here”—he pointed to his heart—”that I’ve stood here before.” Jean-Louis teased him by saying, “Perhaps it was in another life.” Pierre shook his head, “No, no, no,” and then, “well, perhaps.” After that the two of them stood on the bridge for some minutes regarding the water and thinking their separate thoughts.

  On October 31, Camilla LaPorta, a Cuban-born writer, now a Canadian citizen, was taking the manuscript of her new novel to her Toronto publisher on Front Street. She was nervous; the publisher had been critical of her first draft, telling her it relied too heavily on the artifice of coincidence. Camilla had spent many months on revision, plucking apart the faulty tissue that joined one episode to another, and then, delicately, with the pains of a neurosurgeon, making new connections. The novel now rested on its own complex microcircuity. Wherever fate, chance or happenstance had ruled, there was now logic, causality and science.

  As she stood waiting for her bus on the corner of College and Spadina that fall day, a gust of wind tore the manuscript from her hands. In seconds the yellow typed sheets were tossed into a whirling dance across the busy intersection. Traffic became confused. A bus skittered on an angle. Passersby were surprisingly helpful, stopping and chasing the blowing papers. Several sheets were picked up from the gutter where they lay on a heap of soaked yellow leaves. One sheet was found plastered against the windshield of a parked Pontiac half a block away; another adhered to the top of a lamppost; another was run over by a taxi and bore the black herringbone of tire prints. From all directions, ducking the wind, people came running up to Camilla and bringing her the scattered pages. “Oh this is crazy, this is crazy,” she cried into the screaming wind.

  When she got to the publisher’s office he took one look at her manuscript and said, “Good God Almighty, don’t tell me, Camilla, that you of all people have become a post-modernist and no longer believe in the logic of page numbers.”

  Camilla explained about the blast of wind, and then the two of them began to put the pages in their proper order. Astonishingly, only one page was missing, but it was a page Camilla insisted was pivotal, a keystone page, the page that explained everything else. She would have to try to reconstruct it as best she could. “Hmmmmm,” the publisher said—this was late in the afternoon of the same day and they sat in the office sipping tea—”I truly believe, Camilla, that your novel stands up without the missing page. Sometimes it’s better to let things be strange and to represent nothing but themselves.”

  The missing page—it happened to be page 46—had blown around the corner of College Street into the open doorway of a fresh fruit and vegetable stand where a young woman in a red coat was buying a kilo of zucchini. She was very beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and she was also talented, an actress, who for some months had been out of work. To give herself courage and cheer herself up she had decided to make a batch of zucchini-oatmeal muffins, and she was just counting out the change on the counter when the sheet of yellow paper blew through the doorway and landed at her feet.

  She was the kind of young woman who reads everything, South American novels, Russian folk tales, Persian poetry, the advertisements on the subway, the personal column in The Globe and Mail, even the instructions and precautions on public fire extinguishers. Print is her way of entering and escaping the world. It was only natural for her to bend over and pick up the yellow sheet and begin to read.

  She read: A woman in a red coat is standing in a grocery store buying a kilo of zucchini. She is beautiful, though not in a conventional way, and it happens that she is an actress who—

  Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass

  OH, MRS. TURNER is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord’s old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.

  The grass flies up around Mrs. Turner’s knees. Why doesn’t she use a catcher, the Saschers next door wonder. Everyone knows that leaving the clippings like that is bad for the lawn. Each fallen blade of grass throws a minute shadow which impedes growth and repair. The Saschers themselves use their clippings to make compost which they hope one day will be as ripe as the good manure that Sally Sascher’s father used to spread on his fields down near Emerson Township.

  Mrs. Turner’s carelessness over the clippings plucks away at Sally, but her husband Roy is far more concerned about the Killex that Mrs. Turner dumps on her dandelions. It’s true that in Winnipeg the dandelion roots go right to the middle of the earth, but Roy is patient and persistent in pulling them out, knowing exactly how to grasp the coarse leaves in his hand and how much pressure to apply. Mostly they come up like corks with their roots intact. And he and Sally are experimenting with new ways to cook dandelion greens, believing as they do that the components of nature are arranged for a specific purpose—if only that purpose can be divined.

  In the early summer Mrs. Turner is out every morning by ten with her sprinkling can of chemical killer, and Roy, watching from his front porch, imagines how this poison will enter the ecosystem and move by quick capillary surges into his fenced vegetable plot, newly seeded now with green beans and lettuce. His children, his two little girls aged two and four—that they should be touched by such poison makes him morose and angry. But he and Sally so far have said nothing to Mrs. Turner about her abuse of the planet because they’re hoping she’ll go into an old-folks home soon or maybe die, and then all will proceed as it should.

  High school girls on their way home in the afternoon see Mrs. Turner cutting her grass and are mildly, momentarily repelled by the lapped, striated flesh on her upper thighs. At her age. Doesn’t she realize? Every last one of them is intimate with the vocabulary of skin care and knows that what has claimed Mrs. Turner’s thighs is the enemy called cellulite, but they can’t understand why she doesn’t take the trouble to hide it. It makes them queasy; it makes them fear for the future.

  The things Mrs. Turner doesn’t know would fill the Saschers’ new compost pit, would sink a ship, would set off a tidal wave, would make her want to kill herself. Back and forth, back and forth she goes with the electric lawn mower, the grass flying out sideways like whiskers. Oh, the things she doesn’t know! She has never heard, for example, of the folk-rock recording star Neil Young, though the high school just around the corner from her house happens to be the very school Neil Young attended as a lad. His initials can actually be seen carved on one of the desks, and a few of the teachers say they remember him, a quiet fellow of neat appearance and always very polite in class. The desk with the initials N.Y. is kept in a corner of Mr. Pring’s homeroom, and it’s considered lucky—despite the fact that the renowned singer wasn’t a great scholar—to
touch the incised letters just before an exam. Since it’s exam time now, the second week of June, the girls walking past Mrs. Turner’s front yard (and shuddering over her display of cellulite) are carrying on their fingertips the spiritual scent, the essence, the fragrance, the aura of Neil Young, but Mrs. Turner is as ignorant of that fact as the girls are that she, Mrs. Turner, possesses a first name—which is Geraldine.

  Not that she’s ever been called Geraldine. Where she grew up in Boissevain, Manitoba, she was known always—the Lord knows why—as Girlie Fergus, the youngest of the three Fergus girls and the one who got herself in hot water. Her sister Em went to normal school and her sister Muriel went to Brandon to work at Eaton’s, but Girlie got caught one night—she was nineteen—in a Boissevain hotel room with a local farmer, married, named Gus MacGregor. It was her father who got wind of where she might be and came banging on the door, shouting and weeping. “Girlie, Girlie, what have you done to me?”

  Girlie had been working in the Boissevain Dairy since she’d left school at sixteen and had a bit of money saved up, and so, a week after the humiliation in the local hotel, she wrote a farewell note to the family, crept out of the house at midnight and caught the bus to Winnipeg. From there she got another bus down to Minneapolis, then to Chicago and finally New York City. The journey was endless and wretched, and on the way across Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania she saw hundreds and hundreds of towns whose unpaved streets and narrow blinded houses made her fear some conspiratorial, punishing power had carried her back to Boissevain. Her father’s soppy-stern voice sang and sang in her ears as the wooden bus rattled its way eastward. It was summer, 1930.

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