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Fiction: The Story of Canada

The Ice Storm

the Ice Storm

The city had completely shut down because of the ice storm. The radios and televisions kept saying that you shouldn’t leave your home. Everything was encased in ice – the trees, the cars, the light posts, the buildings, the sidewalk.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

A lone figure walked down the middle of the street: A girl in a white coat, white stockings and small white boots. She looked dressed as though she was about to perform an ice skating routine in the Olympics. In her hand was a white cardboard suitcase she carried with ease as though its contents couldn’t possibly be heavy. She was sliding across a sheet of ice when the wind decided to spin her around and blow her backwards. She put her arms out to regain her balance.

She stopped to look around her as if to say, “What a sight!” As though she had never seen anything more lovely in all her life.

Her hair was so blond it was almost white.

There was a great crack, and a load of icicles fell from a light post, coming down like daggers and landing all around her. She seemed unfazed, however, and continued walking, eventually turning the corner. It was as though elephants had been in a huge war and their body parts were dispersed everywhere. An entire tree had fallen across the street. Its roots were sticking out of the ground, like some sort of mad, wild sea creature. She climbed over it.

Later, she was twirling in a pirouette on a patch of ice in a square next to a fountain. She stopped in front of the statue of an angel, which wore a shawl made out of snow on her shoulders. The girl seemed to admire the statue’s fashion sense.

A tiny white kitten skittered across the ice, distracting the girl. She went in pursuit of the cat through the park and into the middle of a wide street. She was just as lithe and light as the kitten. Finally, the cat accepted that the girl was worthy of capturing it, turned and opened its little mouth as wide as if could and let out a miaow. The girl bent down gently, her suitcase at her side, and picked up the the kitten. She held the kitten in both her hands as though it were a snowball that she had made herself. She then placed the kitten in her coat. The kitten had clearly been rendered completely exhausted by its own hysteria and fell asleep inside her pocket. It purred. It was as though the girl now had a heart murmur.

She looked around, as though determining where she should go to next. A stream of people were heading towards a door on the side of a church. The electricity on the street had shut off all at once and everybody was being evacuated and temporarily housed in public buildings.

A man was leading his children into the church when he saw the girl. He couldn’t quite make out how old she was. Based on her build, she seemed to be a young teenage girl. She might have been 13, she might have been 21. He assumed she must be looking for shelter – why else would she be carrying a suitcase? He called out to her: “Come, come, come, sweetheart. You can’t be out here. You’ll get hurt. It’s not safe at all.”

The girl looked at the man blankly. Perhaps she was on drugs, he thought. Sometimes in this neighbourhood, in the dead of winter, you would see someone stoned and standing in a T-shirt on the sidewalk. You could speak to them, but they were already one foot out of this world, in some eternal summer.

Suddenly she looked into his eyes and smiled sweetly. He decided she was lost and he would save her. Everybody had been rescuing one another since the storm began. It was a good time to be a hero. He knew what was best for her, so he reached and put his arm around her. She lowered her shoulders for a moment, as though she was about to bolt and escape the man’s grasp. But, at the same moment, the cat muttered a sound. She seemed to be considering the kitten’s safety as much as her own as she allowed herself to be lead into the church.

She stepped over the threshold very carefully. As though she were going from one dimension to another. The church basement was being used as temporary lodging for people whose homes had lost electricity. There were makeshift cots spread out in the hall. Each cot had a square demarcated around it with masking tape and a number, as though it were a tiny apartment without walls. The people were waiting in line to be given their respective number.

The man left her at the desk, where she had to sign in. A woman sitting behind the desk asked: “Who do you belong to? Who are you with?”

The questions seemed to make the girl uncomfortable, but there were so many people behind her she felt she couldn’t turn around and escape.

“Nobody,” she whispered.

“Do you have any family to go to? Anyone we can call?”

“No.”

“Your mother? Your grandparents? Siblings?”

“No, I’m just a girl,” the girl said. She spoke in a soft voice. The people found themselves lowering their heads in order to make out what she said.

“What do you have in your suitcase?”

“My favourite things.”

“Do you have a Medicare card or anything like that?”

“No.”

“What is your address? Where do you normally sleep?”

“I like to sleep downtown. I like the way the city lights reflect on snow. Sometimes I sleep on rooftops. There’s a doorway I like.”

The woman shook her head sadly when the girl told her this. She took the girl’s hands in hers and patted them. She was surprised at how cold they were.

“You’re freezing. You’ll die out there all alone, my dear.”

“There are others like me. I have a friend with long black hair. He likes to sleep in the roots of trees on the mountain.”

“It’s not safe for a girl to be sleeping outside. It was worse than for a boy. You could be violated.” As the girl did not react, the woman continued, “Aren’t you frightened of the ice storm outside?”

“No. It’s the most beautiful thing. I love ice storms. This one is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I wish there was an ice storm every day.”

The woman, annoyed by this response, didn’t give the girl a number for a cot. She told her instead to wait around, that there would be someone else who would be better equipped to deal with her situation. The girl started to back away from the desk.

“I really want to go back outside, I think.” A tear formed in the corner of her eye. It sparkled like an orb of glass and then liquefied again and rolled down her face. She was hot, so she unbuttoned her coat. She was wearing a crocheted white dress, without a bra on underneath.

“You can’t be running around in that outfit,” said the woman. “It’s not proper anyways. You should really cover up. You don’t want to give boys the wrong idea, you know. You have to have more pride in your body. You can see right through that top.”

The cat started squirming in her breast pocket. As though the girl had been startled, and her heart was pounding.

The woman told a nearby police officer to keep an eye on the girl and not let her leave. There was something positively idiotic about the girl, she thought. It bothered her that she wasn’t taking anything she said seriously. But she reminded her of a photograph of a girl on a missing poster in her office. One who had been missing for several years. Perhaps she had been imprisoned and had escaped her captor because of the ice storm.

There was a generator in the church, so the building would not lose power. They were all safe to wait out the storm here. The lights flickered and there was a sudden moan. And then a burst of applause when they went back on. They sounded like people who were on a roller coaster, reacting to its ups and downs.

The girl walked by a table where food was being served. They were putting poutine in aluminum dishes. It was so warm and good. It reminded everyone of another poutine they had had at some point in their life. They tasted that perfect poutine and not the one in their hands.

There was a man with a dog, sitting on an old burgundy chesterfield.

There was a man with a tattoo on his hand playing an out-of-tune piano in the corner.

There was a woman pacing in a light blue snow suit.

There was a middle-aged woman with a brightly coloured kerchief wrapped around her head and tied in a knot at the front. She was sitting next to another woman who had a beige kerchief tied around her face, as if it was holding her face together. The woman with the colourful kerchief spoke and spoke and the other nodded and nodded.

There was an old man in a fur coat with an enormous nose covered in dark purple spider veins. He was giving out caramels to different children. He would be popular for as long as his candy lasted.

There was a man in a business suit and rubber boots who kept staring at his watch.

There was a woman with a pretty afro, sitting next to a teenage girl. They were sitting absolutely still on the side of a cot, as though they were on a bench waiting for a bus.

There was a woman in a sari. There were two little girls with her, also dressed in saris, with tiny exquisite faces. The mother was suggesting something to them lazily, perhaps trying to sell them on the idea of sleeping, but their giant black eyes were wide, wide awake. Her husband was lying under the covers, fast asleep.

The girl thought the scene in the church basement was quite beautiful. This was the type of thing the winter did: It brought people together.

There was a girl with red hair, who was a clearly a junkie, as she was on the nod and smiling. She was startlingly pretty. She must have just begun using because she still had a healthy blush in both cheeks. The girl was on the verge of speaking to the junkie, when a severe looking woman came up behind her.

“If you’re not with anyone, then you can come and help me,” the woman barked. “I can’t stand laziness. Especially not in a girl. Help me organize all these coats.”

The girl put her suitcase down. She helped the woman hang up the piles of coats. The woman gave her a mop to go around and clean up all the puddles around people’s feet. The snow from boots was making puddles everywhere. Everyone watched her work idly. They began giving her instructions too. A man handed her his aluminum tray to throw into a garbage can that was a foot away. The more the girl did, the more everyone treated her badly, it seemed. Especially the gruff woman.

“Come. I want you to help me sort some things in the back. Stop being a free loader. You’ve got to pitch in.” The woman grabbed the girl by the wrist but felt a chill when she put her hand on the girl’s skin. She stepped back, not knowing why she was alarmed, which enabled the girl to grab her suitcase and make a quick escape.

The girl noticed the pretty junkie slip out the door, her red ponytail behind her like the tail of a fox. The heroin seemed to render her invisible. The girl wondered if she shouldn’t do the same sort of thing. She wanted to be outside on her own again. She was tired of being cooped up and told what to do. She headed for the door, too, but she was stopped by the police officer who told her to sit down.

The girl went to the corner, and sat on a beat-up yellow couch. She reached into her suitcase and took out a geometry set, from which she removed a protractor with the stub of a pencil screwed into it. Then she took out a small notebook and opened it. It was filled with circular geometrical patterns, each one different from the other, each very sophisticated.

A young man approached her. He probably came from a middle-class family because he was doing his very best to look down and out, specifically like a down and out writer living in Paris in the 1930s. He was wearing a dusty looking blue suit that could have been acquired at the Salvation Army over a green and red striped sweater. He had on combat boots, and the sole of one seemed to be coming off, as he had held it together with duct tape.

“Oh my God, you’re so cute,” he said, cozying up to her. “I’m sorry. That’s such a boorish thing for me to say. I believe in fate. You know what I said to myself when I saw you? That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

She didn’t like the breath of the man on her. It was thick and heavy and hot.

“I’d like to be left alone,” she whispered, like the wind.

“Don’t be such a twat. I’m being nice to you. You should be thankful, you know. Girls are crazy about me. You should be flattered.”

“Thank you. Go away.”

“Let’s just try kissing and we’ll see how that works.”

She stood and he put out his foot, whether deliberately or not, it was hard to say. She tripped over it, landing on her face. When he tried to help her up and apologize, she let out a scream.

The woman from the front desk came over. She told the girl to stop bothering with the boys and getting them into trouble. The young man strutted out, satisfied that she had been shamed. The woman told the girl to go sit with a group of children.

The children were seated on a blanket in the corner. She wandered over to them. A curious boy asked what she had in her suitcase. The girl, of course, was not the only person with a suitcase. Everybody had packed essential items – all their bank cards and identification, their medications. The children had tiny suitcases themselves, bringing along teddy bears and Game Boys and colouring books.

The girl sat cross legged. She raised the lid of the suitcase and began to show off her treasures, one-by-one.

There was a small tin filled with round mints. She opened it and held it out in front of her, inviting the children to each take one. Next, she showed them a miniature hurdy-gurdy machine, of which she turned the crank; it played a tinny, uneven tune that was a cross between the noise of a wind chime striking against itself and an Edith Piaf melody. She had a small hand fan which spread open to reveal a drawing of a pretty Chinese woman; she fluttered it up and down so they could feel the effects of the breeze. There was a glass figurine of an animal. A child asked whether it was a horse; the girl said it was a reindeer and put it on the hardwood floor and made it clip clop across the surface. The sound of his hooves echoed across the room.

There was a noise, something like a branch smashing against the side of the building. The children were startled, especially one very little child who began to whimper in an inconsolable manner.

“Are you afraid of the wind?” the girl asked.

The boy nodded. “It will blow the house down.”

“No,” she answered. “The wind is the most wonderful part of winter. It is always having a good time. Maybe it had too much of a good time. Sometimes it plays rough. Whenever it does, I put my arms out and I let it lead in the dance.”

She stood on one tiptoe and stated spinning in a glorious way. It was a little bit like a ballet, but it was at once more perfect and more wild. She danced as though the wind were pushing her around. The children decided they were in love with her. One put their arms around her and pulled her down. Another climbed up in her lap.

She was feeling so sleepy and lethargic now. She was so hot she felt as though she were melting. There was so much sweat on her forehead. She felt a small drop of it slide down her forehead and plop onto her lip. She threw off her coat. When she took her coat off all the children around her shivered involuntarily as though a cold air was in the room.

The kitten leapt out of the coat, alarmed it had been discarded in such an unceremonious way. The kitten hurried up the steps of the stage at the back of the church basement. That part of the basement was off limits. There was a small paper sign safety pinned to the curtain that said KEEP OUT. The kitten didn’t heed the message and pushed itself under the curtain.

She noticed the police officer was walking towards her. Next to him was a woman in a matching burgundy jacket and skirt. They looked as though they were going to take possession of her once and for all. She took off after the cat, disappearing behind the curtain.

She stopped in her tracks. The stage had been decorated for a play that was set in a forest. There were trees that seemed to have sprung up from the stage. The trees were made out of actual thick trunks that had been chopped down from who knows where. There were cloth leaves which had been cut out of felt and attached to the branches. There was a nest in one of the branches, inside of which was a bird. Not a real bird, but the kind you buy at a dollar store: a ball of Styrofoam with some feathers glued to it.

The backdrop was painted with more trees to create the effect of a never ending forest. There was a large white full moon. The moon looked three dimensional. You could see all the dents in it that always made it look like a face that had seen everything. And there was a smattering of twinkling stars. How strange this clear sky was. The sky outside had been grey for months.

She saw the cat sitting on the floor. She went and sat in front of it, scooped it up into her arms and began to stroke its head.

When the police officer and the social worker went backstage, they couldn’t find the girl anywhere. All they saw out of the ordinary was a large puddle in the center of the stage, next to a suitcase.

Over the next several weeks, the ice storm cleared up and the city returned to normal. The girl’s suitcase sat at the bottom of a lost and found trunk for a year, unnoticed, underneath a heap of ratty, colourful tuques and winter clothes. Then the days started to get cold again. One day, someone was rummaging through the lost and found box when they spotted the suitcase. They opened it up and looked inside. Among the items – the tin, the fan – was a small snow globe with the city of Montréal inside it. They picked it up and shook it, and snow began to fall over the whole city.

Author’s Note: I was 24 when the Great Ice Storm of ’98 hit Montréal. I thought of winter as a magical, malevolent being that did what it pleased, but was occasionally kind to children, placing exquisite snowflakes on their mittens. When I stepped out of my front door, how could I believe my eyes? The world had been touched by a wand and was made of glass. And then, of course, the boughs began to break.

Heather O’Neill is the author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels, which were both finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as Lullabies for Little Criminals, winner of CBC’s Canada Reads. Her latest novel is The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She lives in Montréal.

CREDITS: Illustrations by CRISTIAN FOWLIE; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by MING WONG