Morning Star. fiction by Chantel Lavoie

ChantelleL

Morning Star

Caked in rich mud, it lies in the husband’s gloved hand, plucked from the garden with an accidental carrot and a deliberate handful of weeds. It smells green. He hoses it off at the side of the house and carries it into the kitchen. He hands it to her, her own hand coming out of the dishwater to take it. The blue-grey stone is vaguely egg-shaped and egg-sized.

“A fossil?”

“Not sure. Maybe. Sure was close to the surface.”

She sets it on the windowsill alongside a fragment of driftwood, shells they gathered with their grandchild, and a small alien made of Playdough with bent toothpicks for antennae.

The next day she sets it on the piano between a family photo and a potted plant. An hour later she moves it to their bedroom, alongside her jewellery box on the pine dresser. Then it’s a paperweight in the small office, holding the month’s receipts against the desk. This position doesn’t last the day before she picks it up again.

The doorbell sounds while she deliberates. She shoves her hand into the pocket of her embroidered woolen vest. She answers the door to so-and-so selling this-or-that. When she removes her hand from her pocket, the egg stays behind.

Over the course of the day, despite its weight, she feels lighter. She wipes out the spice drawer, empties the toaster tray of crumbs and makes it shine with vinegar and newspaper.  He comes in from walking the dog to find her on her knees scrubbing the floor. For years they have used a mop.

“My fingers are doing great,” she says, holding her hands up and wiggling the digits. “The glucosamine must finally be working.” But the next day, she notices her kneecaps aching once more, and she has to ask him to open the jar of jam.

Her vest hangs in the closet for ten days before she wears it again. She doesn’t remember the egg in the pocket until the evening, when it’s been there all day—another easy day in which her body creaks less and she stands up from her chair without a groan. The line between her eyes that comes from slight grimaces of pain seems less noticeable when she looks in the mirror. She takes the stone outside that evening, places it on the back porch railing, and considers adding it to the pebbles that keep the weeds in front of the shed at bay. It sits on the rail as she clips coupons the next morning, holding her cup of coffee with fingers that cramp and swell, veins like twisted rivers threatening to overwhelm their banks.

She finds excuses to have it nearby. She wears the vest most days, puts the egg in the pocket of loose slacks at other times, or the pocket of an apron when she decides to make a pie. For two weeks each day, she holds a store of energy, almost youth.  Walking the dog is no longer a chore, and she is faster than he is now.

One night he kisses the top of her head, setting a cup of tea beside the computer where she types an email to their daughter.

“I’m glad you’re doing so well, sweetheart.” The cup, in its saucer, rattles a little as he sets it down. He turns to pick up a tea towel, wincing from the pivot to his hip.

“So, this is going to sound odd . . .” she begins, drawing it out of her pocket.

He listens and smiles. At her urging, he keeps the stone in his own pocket the next day, and the next.

On the third, he loops a leather thong around the stone and knots the ends together so that it can be worn around the neck. They take turns—one day on, one day off.  It remains close against their skin, under their shirts, warm when the air is chilled, cool when the air is humid. Sometimes one has the greater need.

“You wear it today, sweetheart. You tossed and turned all night.”

“No, love. Your knees have been bad. And I wore it yesterday.”

It has no effect at night. Only once the sun is rising does it begin to do the wearer good, calming the blood pressure, easing joint pain. They set their alarm to the next day’s sunrise.  She gives it a name. Morning Star.

While they stretch, creak, and rise from the flowered sheets, they start to eye the stone in the copper dish on her dressing table, sun-bright. The egg grows smoother, polished by their skin.

In the fall, bulbs; in the spring, seeds, and squirrels digging to gnaw at the bulbs. Another summer brings sweltering and swelling. The dog, vomiting and whining, has to be put down. Even sharing the stone back and forth, they feel the stoneless days more deeply as seasons elapse.

Their flesh and its weakness distract them from kindness.

They begin to start their day with lists of pain: her lower back (since pregnancy and childbirth); his neck (rear-ended by a texting driver); her swollen knuckles (genetic); his knee (hockey in his forties); his right testicle; her scalp sore from hair elastics.

They almost compare. They almost compete.

One morning—his morning—he looks smug, sitting across from her on the edge of the bed. She sees his hand resting against his chest, curved around the slight bulge under the shirt he has just put on, as though his were a sacred heart. They had both awoken in pain. She stands up and fumbles to zip up her pants, shaky, humiliated.

The air around her awkward movements is tense, visible in her shoulders. She does not say good morning, and neither does he. Instead, he walks (spry, she thinks) out the door and down the stairs. The roots of her hair hurt when she runs the brush through the white strands. Her gnarled fingers hurt, and her wrists. He is pouring coffee by the time she joins him in the kitchen. She lifts the cup without thanking him and sets it down untasted.

“When I found the stone—” she begins. She can see it clearly, before she hosed it off and brought it into the house. Her muddy gloves. Her fingers wrapped around it.

“Then you must have handed it to me,” he retorts. “Is that how it happened?” His wife’s pinched face, the aggrieved eyes now above the rim of the cup, hold no memory of beauty.  What did he ever see in her? Why didn’t he leave years ago?

Other calculations: his eight more years on Earth; her caring for his mother in those months while their daughter was young, money was scarce, and the office wouldn’t let him go before nightfall. The potatoes, finger-peeled in cold water. The mowed lawns and strained shoulders. The sleepless nights. The fall on the stairs. The surgery. The other man she might have married. The offer once made to him at a conference. Come hither.

If the egg in the dish were not sharing their room, one of them would move out, polite as a guest. Instead, they lie awake in the minutes before the alarm clock on the bedside table rings, before the sun through the curtained window illuminates the tiny golden flowers on the curtains. Tears stream down into pillows at night, and no words are spoken across the wide bed in the morning as someone reaches for the egg.

Until one night, something stronger than proud pain. One of them moves to the centre and puts a warm hand on the other’s hip. They remember, upon waking, that bodily pain is not always the worst thing. She kisses his shoulder; his hand brushes her hair behind her ear. Eyes meet and forgive.

They are aging more slowly than their friends, who die one by one until those who remain are all a decade younger. Their skin is lined, but not as it might be. Their movements are slow, except on days when they are not. The wearer, kind on his or her day, does most of the chores and speaks softly, while the other, heart pumping in a chest protected by nothing but cloth, walks slowly and rests often. They take turns with buttons and watch straps, afternoon tea, and reading fine print. They are never well together, never weak at the same time in the day.

At night, pain comes to bedevil the soft and hard parts of them both, chips its teeth on their bones. At night, they are weak together.

When he is diagnosed, the turn-taking stops. He lies in their room on the flowered sheets and breathes in, breathes out. The doctor is impressed he can manage at home with how seldom he refills the prescription. The nurse on the phone tells his wife to get enough rest herself, assumes unabated care. But days are quite peaceful, largely spent in sleep for them both, apart from her pushing his chair up the ramp to a door, holding his hand in a waiting room. There is pain, but it abates.

The Morning Star is always around his neck, and at night too, albeit useless, so as not to miss a second of the morning. Except for a few minutes. After the sun goes down and before they sleep, she boils water, steeps the stone egg as though into a broth or an elixir, clear as water. Dutifully, he lifts the cup in both hands, the porcelain chattering against his teeth as he swallows. There is nothing silly to their way of thinking, nothing they would call impossible.

But the nights are hard. They curl up together beneath the sheet garden, watch the moonlight through the opening in the curtains, carefully touching fingers, toes in their stockings, under the golden flowers.

“I love you,” they say, without knowing which one of them spoke; they say it so often. Her body is still breaking down, as is his, while the growth inside him expands. Sometimes they speak of it as the dark star, the black hole. The momentous and the mundane, it turns out, are much the same.

It is he who wakes. She is cold beside him.

There is air moving in the room, dust motes in the sunshine, and air too floating in and out of him. He buries his face in the crook of her neck, smells her powder, faint on top of no pulse.

His hand fumbles to press the egg into her palm, and curves her fingers around it, now that the sun has come again.

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Chantel Lavoie lives in Kingston, Ontario, where she is Associate Professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College. In addition to having work in journals like Arc and Prairie Fire, she has published three collections of verse, Where the Terror Lies (2012), This is about Angels, Women, and Men (2021) and (with Meg Freer) Serve the Sorrowing World with Joy (Woodpecker Lane, 2021). “Morning Star” was previously published as the Humber Literary Review Spotlight piece in March, 2022.

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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