Jack – his name comes up only once, which is perhaps curious – receives a call from his sister, informing him that their father has had an accident, and that their mother has dementia. Jack, a fly-in, fly-out worker in a mine in Canada, promises to come home. He talks with HR, drives to the airport, catches a plane, and then makes his way to his parent’s house.
And that’s it. The story ends.
It’s all preamble; everything written leads up to another story about which we know nothing. What’s behind his parent’s door remains hidden, unknowable. Unpleasant, certainly. Ugly, without question.
Jack is a man of memories. He’s in his forties, and he has been working in the mines for fifteen years. Isolated, cold, alone. Is he escaping from something? We don’t exactly know, but as the story unfolds we are made privy to his memories, and almost all of them are casually violent and at times suggest a callousness toward suffering which is shocking.
But he is a man of memory, and wants to make connections:
The doubt hung around, bothering me while I packed my bag, and I was distracted throughout the drive to Yellowknife with the supply rig. Had I known her, the girl? I held my hands to the heater in the cab of the semi. The driver blasted country music and we chatted about who’s from where. I relaxed a little, then got sad. I had to force myself not to chuckle. So I couldn’t remember a face. What must it be like for Mom?
He remembers a lot, but worries that he doesn’t remember everything. As he travels home, the present details of his journey are conveyed well, but the prose is mostly there to get the job done. Jack comes across as colourless, without character, and it’s hard to tell if that is because of the shock he is experiencing from the news about his parents, or if this is just who he is – outwardly a blank slate.
Inwardly, he is a different person. Inwardly, the language used by Erin Frances Fisher shifts to become luxurious, lounging about in the violence of his thoughts. An example:
I ran into a caribou, what was left of it, caught by the legs in the ice. Wolves had stripped the flesh from its back and rump, and I had a clear view of the spine and ribcage, since, by some miracle of balance, the animal had frozen standing.
It carried this huge rack on top of its gnawed face. Caribou antlers spread out at the tips like they’ve been pressed with a spoon—big scoops of bone flatten into a palm, edged with any number of points. This pair held palms at the top, mid and brow—a spectacular set, each splayed palm twice the size of my hand. They gestured like a magician, those palms, arched and spell-casting. The breadth of the rack gave me a headache, how an animal could walk around with a pair like that.
And yet, this memory, and others, are all of violence that has already occurred. Jack’s memory never turns to violence or suffering as it is happening, and it’s extremely telling that the story ends just as the door to his parent’s home opens, and he is about to witness real, current, alive suffering. No, his memories are all of the suffering past, frozen dead animals (it’s so often animals) fixed in the violence of their passing.
Some lazy dweeb had plucked geese in the corridor. Feathers and bits of blood were frozen into the gravel and on the walls. My family’s locker was okay, sparkly ice crystals coated the roof, but it was more like being in a deep-freeze than it was romantic, and when Cindy opened a cardboard box, she found—I shit you not—the heads of four dogs. One gray, two husky, one gold.
Shockingly, Jack goes on to stub out a cigarette in the eye of one of the dead dogs.
The structure of the story sets the reader up for immediate empathy. We are introduced to Jack and straight away he is confronted – we are confronted – with the very real, plausible, and sympathy-inducing situation of parental decline. Empathy is encouraged, and then –
Well, Jack isn’t very nice. He remembers two past relationships, and in them both he comes across as unpleasant, difficult to understand, impossible to control. He drinks too much. He clearly doesn’t have a problem with violence against animals, and will commit it himself.
The story, then, sets us up to confront our own too-easily given empathy. Why should we have just handed it out like that? Everyone has parents and most of us will experience those parents dying. So – why reach out our hearts to Jack? He doesn’t deserve it, although perhaps that judgement is too harsh. The bulk of the story shows us an unpleasant man with unpleasant memories, and we are forced to decide whether our already extended empathy should continue, or whether we should be as cold to him as the environment of rural Canada.
The end is obvious, but that isn’t a problem. It shows that Jack is not, perhaps, the callous man we’ve come to know. Or perhaps he is, and that everyone, no matter their hardness, still balk at difficult situations.
Fisher’s story is elegantly constructed, and works well to force the reader to confront our willingness to easily give away feelings when experiencing a narrative. The writing style is somewhat matter-of-fact, but this serves well to highlight the character’s shiny surface – for he is mostly surface.
And finally, a personal aside. It was interesting for me, as an Australian, to read a Canadian short story because some of the phrasings are so very different to how we speak here. “his back is messed”, “Old man gets his first CPP cheque last month”, “ripped right through his parka”, etc – and all of that just from one paragraph!
Winter Road is a short story by Canadian writer Erin Frances Fisher.
|Author||Erin Frances Fisher|
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