James walks into the house perched on a bank overlooking Taylor Creek Valley and finds Cecilia and Kitty in the kitchen. Kitty’s standing near a kettle, waiting for it to boil, and Cecilia’s chopping carrots and onions. “James, guess what! Guess what!” Kitty yells to him before he even gets in from the front foyer. “The principal just called, Gabriel’s not going to have to repeat grade eight, oh yes! We’ll celebrate tonight, I tell you, celebrate with a big meal of, um, Cecilia, what are we eating?”
“Carrots and onions.”
Kitty frowns. “Ugh, at least make some rice, and maybe some protein. Cook the chicken fingers in the freezer.”
“Frozen food…great,” Cecilia says, flashing a look at James.
“Not everybody can live off boiled carrots and onions, okay? Anyway; Doug, the principal, said he faced a bitter set of teachers who wanted Gabriel to stay behind, but he managed to push the trauma argument enough to account for a second academic year.”
Cecilia says, “A second year that was academically worse than the first.”
“Yes, but the point is he’s moving on to high school and in September he will go to class and do, um, do what Gabriel does.”
“…sit at his desk and stare at either a piece of nature crap or some object he picked off a shelf at a store and walked out with. He’ll sit there and ignore the teacher. He won’t make eye contact with any other kids. He’ll freak everyone out by staring continuously at whatever is in his hands.”
Kitty throws her hands up at Cecilia and turns away. “Ugh…”
“Dear God Kitty. Listen, I’m happy Gabriel is moving on; it’s great that you pushed the principal to push the teachers. My point is you’re not recognizing the real issues...are you listening to me? It’s no wonder Doug’s battle with the teachers was so bitter, you wouldn’t even listen to them on parent teacher night. You drag me along and who ends up keeping the discussions going, asking all the questions? All the while his teachers are trying to explain his absent mindedness to the mother of the child, not me, but you won’t even pay attention in those meetings. You’re not even paying attention to me…right now.”
“You know I don’t have time for all this school stuff, okay? Once you and Gabriel were no longer toddlers I stopped sacrificing the career that supports this family to keep mothering you. If you guys make it to university I’ll pay, but that’s all I can do, okay?”
“Well that’s just it, what if he doesn’t make it to university, what if he drops out of high school? Right now all he cares about is that ravine and collecting nature crap to the point of obsessiveness, and an obsessive disorder isn’t something you can ignore for the sake of work. We’re falling apart here; you may not have noticed it over the last two years, in the two hours you spend away from work to eat dinner with us, but we’re falling apart.”
James has sat down at this point on a bench at the kitchen table. The table is pressed against a bay window directed towards the backyard, and the bench is built in beneath the window. Both the large oval table and the bench are made of oak planks crafted in a rough style. Above the table hangs a large lamp featuring detailed landscapes in stain glass. The bench, table, and lampshade are all handmade and are the last set of furniture made in the house’s own garage.
Kitty sits on a stool at the kitchen counter which divides the kitchen’s sitting area and cooking area. Cecilia stands across the counter from her on the cooking side. Kitty takes a sip of her tea and says, “If there’s anything that has fallen apart over the last two years it’s this house and our meals. That’s what needs fixing, okay? Ugh, how are we supposed to heal when we live in disaster and eat these flavourless dishes? If you want to help us turn a corner I say loosen up, become a little freer with what you do with this house, what you do with our meals. Get some flowers in the gardens and let us, I don’t know, sort out ourselves.”
“Dear God Kitty, it’s always about the house and the meals; what would that really change? Nothing. We would just continue our own downward spirals to…I don’t know…you know what I feel like? I feel like everyday this last two years the four of us have drifted further and further from reality. We’re all going to become convinced that whatever it is we’re collapsing into is normal, and that’s when the rest of the world will truly start spinning without us. Do you see this? We are so completely disconnected. It’s like we lost what connection we had to a normal life, and that’s not something that can heal.”
“Um, what we lost had nothing to do with normal. Actually I think what we lost was extraordinarily different, and what made us extraordinarily different. Listen, I agree with you, okay? I have worked more and more this last two years, and Gabriel has perhaps gotten a little weirder, and James you need to start going to your therapist again. But the way you see things, Cecilia, is more to do with this rigid life you expect everyone to live, with this, um, control you want to have over everything.
“Gabriel will be fine, because now he has the freedom to be who he is and not to be stigmatized by being held back a grade. If he hates high school and drops out that’s fine, even if he never makes a friend that’s fine, because without a stigma put on him, without people determining that he’s a failure and abnormal, any decision he makes is at least made of his own free will. And who are we to judge the way Gabriel wants to live his life?”
“Who are we to judge? You are his mother and I’m the only one that seems worried about what’s going to come of this kid. What will he do if he drops out of high school?”
Kitty takes a big slurp of her tea, thinks for a moment, and then says, “He’ll become a naturalist. We’ll turn the shed in the backyard into a nature hut and he can collect his nature crap and preserve it all in there, maybe he can train in taxidermy and start stuffing animals too. We’ll build stairs coming up from the trail by Taylor creek so people can come up to the nature hut and pay to see it by donation. We’ll build a second floor so Gabriel can live above the hut, and if times get tough, he can live off insects and berries, which he may already.”
“I don’t think naturalist is a profession.”
“That’s not true. Remember when we rented a cottage up north a few years ago, and there was that shack on the grounds with all the crazy bones and spiders in aquariums and patches of moss and stuffed bats? There was a guy who ran that place—a naturalist. I remember him, he was a professional naturalist and he seemed perfectly at ease with himself. Of course we never paid anything to get inside, and the guy looked old enough to be retired…maybe he was an owner in the cottages or something.”
Cecilia says, “You’re not thinking realistically. It’s like you think all this nature stuff makes him happy, but he’s not happy. What does letting yourself go in a life threatening flood say about your happiness? Suicidal tendencies.”
Kitty, shocked, sucks in a breath and plants her fists on the counter, “My baby is not suicidal you cynical little—”
“—Fine, he’s just crazy then. James: Dinner’s almost ready, can you call Gabriel? He should be close.”
“I’m right here,” comes Gabriel’s voice from just outside the screen door, which is next to the table where James sits. He pulls open the door, walks in, and sits beside James. Kitty and Cecilia are frozen. He puts a book of black and white photography on the table and starts looking through it, silently. Kitty and Cecilia exchange looks, at a loss as to what to say, and so instead of saying anything, start filling serving dishes with food and doling out the cutlery and plates.
“Kitty,” says Gabriel, not looking up from his book. Kitty quickly comes to the table. “Yes hun?”
“Can I start putting stuff in the nature hut after dinner? I have an insect in my room that would probably prefer it there.”
“Of course,” says Kitty, flashing a quick look and slight shrug of the shoulders at Cecilia, “and Gabriel, sorry you heard us talking about you.”
After another long silence, Gabriel, eyes never leaving the book, says, “That’s okay, it’s not the first time; you guys always talk about me.”