HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Birding with Dad
As he always did when his parent bickered, Paul kept his head down and poked at his food, while he tried to interpret the intentions behind their words. Sometimes their exchanges seemed no more threatening than a verbal snowball fight. But sometimes his parents armed their words with more lethal purpose, as if they truly wished to inflict harm. On these occasions, Paul’s head ached from the tension. He could feel the blood coursing through his veins as he stared at his plate until his parents exhausted their arsenals of razor-sharp accusations. Tonight was one of those nights. It ended as it always did, with Paul’s mother gloating in triumph while his father sat with his fists clenched and his head turned to the side, visibly resisting the urge to strike out. Go ahead, she seemed to say. You can hit me and prove yourself a bully and a coward. Or you can accept your defeat as conclusive proof of your impotence. Either way, she seemed to say, I win.
At moments such as this, Paul felt shame. He regarded his mother as a bully and wished she would stop picking on his father. But he regarded as a weakness his father’s reluctance to stand up to her. Without the wit to overpower her antagonism or the patience to dismiss it as irrelevant, he would continue to seethe at her provocations and remain a victim of her hostility. Paul had seen the disdain in his mother’s face tonight when Paul’s father said, “At least I can hold a job.” His mother had risen dramatically from the table. “You’re pathetic,” she screamed. She whisked Paul’s plate away and retreated down the hall to her bedroom. “You can have your dinner later,” she cried. Then she slammed the bedroom door behind her.
Paul’s father tried to make light of the shabby drama. “Guess the carrots didn’t agree with her,” he said.
He started to push his own half-eaten dinner toward his son when Paul’s mother appeared again in the hall. “Don’t you dare feed that boy!” she screamed. “He doesn’t need any favours from you.”
His father sighed, then stood up and cleared the table. Turning to his son, he said, “C’mon, let’s go for a walk.”
The last time Paul went for a walk with his father, they’d trudged through the hydro field behind the apartment building where they lived on the fifth floor, pushing through the long grass until their pant legs were damp and covered in seeds. Before they reached the other side of the field, his father twisted his ankle in a gopher hole and had to lean on his son as they made their way home again. Paul had felt proud to feel his father’s weight on his shoulder, but his father had been grumpy for the next week.
Despite the shame that he felt, Paul liked it when his dad included him in his walks. It made him feel hopeful and mature, as if his father regarded him as a partner rather than a nuisance or an enemy, a loyal servant of his mother. This time, he let Paul run ahead of him along the path that led from their street through the hydro field. The sun was starting to set. A man walking his dog angled through the long grass ahead of them, to a barrier where another road dead-ended at the field. The man loaded his dog into the back seat of a black car and drove away. The damp grass soaked Paul’s canvas running shoes. Small green seeds stuck to his arms as he plunged off the trail and dived through the thick grass ahead of his father, then returned to the path and waited for him to catch up.
The skeletal hydro towers looked as if they’d marched into the field and positioned themselves with black cables hanging from their outstretched arms so they could play some weird giants’ game of skipping. Standing near the base of one of the towers, Paul and his father gazed upward into the maze of metal beams and porcelain insulators until they spotted a birds’ nest wedged into a corner. Paul’s father took a slingshot from his pocket. He picked up a rock and fired it at the nest. He tried three times, but each time he missed the nest. He handed the slingshot to his son. “You try,” he said.
Paul kicked at the dirt around his feet until he found a smooth pebble. He looked up at the nest, placed the pebble in the leather pouch of the slingshot, pulled back on the rubber bands and fired. The pebble struck the bottom of the nest. It dangled above the ground like a spectator’s dislodged hat. Paul could see a cluster of chicks clinging to the ragged edges of the nest. They squeaked like rusty hinges as they blindly opened their beaks, waiting for food. “Try again,” his father said. When Paul hit the nest a second time, one of the chicks spilled to the ground. Paul’s father walked over to the stunned bundle of feathers. He looked down, raised his boot and stepped on the bird. “Sometimes I’d like to do this to your mother,” he said, and then he made a short, guttural derisive sound that he intended as laughter.
In the pause between the words and the chuckle, Paul caught a glimpse of his father’s anger. It was no joke.
When they walked home, Paul’s father told him to ask his mother if he could sleep in his own bed. “A boy your age shouldn’t be sleeping with his mother,” he said. But when they got home, Paul’s father lay down on the couch and turned on the TV. Paul walked down the hall to his mother’s bedroom, knocked and waited for his mother to give him permission to enter.
He had heard the same story from his mother many times. It all began, she told Paul again, with her wish to protect him from harm. “The world can be a dangerous place,” she said.
According to his mother, no one could protect a child from harm. Danger could strike at any moment, from any quarter. How would it look, she thought, if she allowed her child to suffer? And so she kept him close to her, intending to give him his freedom as he grew older. As he grew older, she sensed his rebellion against the measures that she took to keep him safe. To instil in him a necessary sense of obedience, she withheld his food: if he disobeyed her and stayed out after dark, for example, or if he became too friendly with one of the flirty girls who were always chasing him, she forced him to come to her bedroom for his next meal, which she dished out to him in small quantities.
His mother had strong opinions about the way that people lived their lives, and she had a clear vision of the way that Paul should live his life. As she bent her son to her will, she insisted that it was for his own good.
She might have relaxed if her own life hadn’t seemed so perilous: a thief had broken into the apartment one Sunday when Paul and his parents were at church, wrote obscene words on the wall with a felt-tipped pen, stole the fox-fur hat that she’d inherited from her grandmother and, most insulting of all, left a turd in the bathtub; her own father had been arrested for sexual assault; her mother had shot herself in the kitchen of their house in Sarnia; and then Paul’s mother discovered that her husband was having an affair. These incidents convinced her that her son needed her protection. “I wasn’t going to let anything happen to you,” she told him many times.
Neither his mother nor his father could afford to live apart, but they separated themselves, physically and in spirit. In the morning, before Paul and his mother were awake, Paul’s father left the apartment to catch the 6:53 downtown bus. From eight till four, he fielded complaints behind the wicket of the parking-ticket disputes counter on the mezzanine level of the City Hall. When he returned in the evening, he made dinner for Paul and his mother. Unless one of them initiated an exchange of words that escalated inevitably into insults and an argument, they ate in silence. After dinner, Paul’s father went for a walk. When he returned, he lay on the couch with his foot propped on a pillow, engrossed by re-runs of 1960s TV shows.
As he grew older, Paul began to take comfort from the warmth of his mother’s embraces. He felt privileged to have a special relationship with his mother that other boys could only yearn for. Every day when he went to school, he couldn’t wait to go home again. Once in a while, he felt attracted to girls his own age, but he was bound as closely to his mother by then as an electron to a hydrogen atom, and he didn’t have the power to remove himself from her orbit. Eventually, his attraction to the other girl subsided, for no mere girl could sustain such a powerful hold on him as his mother. Still, his impotence with other women began to anger him, and he blamed them for arousing his lust in the first place. Compared to his mother, these girls seemed unworldly, adolescent, smug and shamefully shallow. They behaved as if they deserved their well-adjusted lives and hadn’t simply fallen into them by good fortune. Paul resented their ill-informed, unearned happiness. He had to work for his happiness, but no one ever gave him credit for his effort.
Occasionally he turned his anger against his mother, in the vague hope that he might scare her into releasing her hold over him. One day, for no apparent reason, he bit her breast. “You little bastard,” she said. She pushed him away. It was the first time she’d reacted to him with spontaneous emotion, and for a moment, Paul felt a surge of power flow through his body. “No dinner for you,” his mother said, “until you learn some respect.”
Eventually, he apologised. No matter what he did after that, he couldn’t frighten her. If he raised his fist to strike her, she just looked at him with amused disappointment, as if he’d claimed that he could fly or live under water like a fish. “Oh, Paul,” she’d say, “just look at yourself. You’re acting like a fool.” By refusing to take him seriously, she disarmed him. He found what he wanted only when he turned his anger toward other women: he saw terror in their eyes, and knew that he had regained the power that he’d relinquished to his mother. Their helplessness confirmed his strength. Their obedience reassured him of his moral authority.
Tonight when he went to her room, his mother was leaning against a satin pillow propped against the headboard, blowing on her nails. There was a bottle of nail polish on the table beside the bed. His mother was wearing a pink slip that left the tops of her breasts exposed. Paul said, “I should sleep in my own bed.”
“Who told you that?” his mother said.
His mother blew air between her teeth. “Your father’s not the man of this house,” she said. “You are, sweetie.”
She pulled back the covers and waited until Paul undressed and climbed into the bed beside her. Then she reached under the bed to retrieve Paul’s uneaten dinner. He sat beside her and devoured, in his hunger, the pork chop and boiled carrots that he’d left untouched at dinner. When he finished, she took the plate and placed it on the floor beside the bed. Then she turned off the light beside the bed, pulled her son closer and guided his hands over her body. “That’s my little man,” she said.
Born In Toronto in 1950, BRUCE MCDOUGALL has written for a wide range of Canadian magazines. His most recent books include Every Minute is a Suicide (Porcupine’s Quill), a collection of short stories, and The Last Hockey Game (Goose Lane Editions), a non-fiction novel about the culture of professional hockey, which was a finalist for the 2015 Toronto Book Award.