The following is the first chapter of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, to be published by Counterpoint on September 15, 2004.
I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.
Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together.
I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.
I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.
One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.
I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.
It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.
Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.
Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird”, again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.
This town is so severe. And silent. It makes me crazy, the silence. I wonder if a person can die from it. There’s an invisible force that exerts a steady pressure on our words like a hand to an open, spurting wound. The town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness. Silentium. The only thing you hear at night is semis barrelling down the highway carting drugged animals off to be attacked with knives. Do not make eye contact with those cows. People here just can’t wait to die, it seems. It’s the main event. The only reason we’re not all snuffed at birth is because that would reduce our suffering by a lifetime. My guidance counsellor has suggested to me that I change my attitude about this place and learn to love it. But I do, I told her. Oh, that’s rich, she said. That’s rich.
We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Ironically, they named this place East Village, which, I have learned, is the name of the area in New York City that I would most love to inhabit. Others ran away to a giant dust bowl called the Chaco, in Paraguay, the hottest place in the world. My friend Lydia moved here from Paraguay and has told me stories about heat-induced madness. She had an uncle who regularly sat on an overturned feed bucket in the village square and screamed for his brain to be returned to him. At night it was easier to have a conversation with him. We are supposed to be cheerfully yearning for death and in the meantime, until that blessed day, our lives are meant to be facsimiles of death or at least the dying process.
A Mennonite telephone survey might consist of questions like, would you prefer to live or die a cruel death, and if you answer “live” the Menno doing the survey hangs up on you. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’ n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
There is also something annoying about a man who believes in complete humility naming a group of people after himself. And using his first name. Nominites. Hmm. Maybe after my sojourn at the slaughterhouse I’ll start a people. At times I find myself imagining Menno as a delusional patient in an institute off some interstate in a pretty, wooded area. Shuffling off to Group, hoarding his meds. That I belong within the frightful fresco of this man’s dream unnerves me. I wonder what exactly happened in Menno’s world that made him turn his back on it. I wonder what a re-enactment of a typical day in the childhood life of Menno Simons would look like. I’ve heard of Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin and the guy who wrote Watership Down, that delightful allegory about rabbits. But I’m not a fan of fantasy. There’s so much of that being crammed down our throats every day in this place. The mark of the beast? Streets paved in gold? Seven white horses? What? Fuck off. I dream of escaping into the real world. If I’m forced to read one more Narnia series book I’ll kill myself. I would love to read the diary of a girl my age―a girl from the city. Or a textbook on urban planning. Or a New York City phone book. I would kill to own a New York City phone book.
Trudie always said her eyes were hazel, but in fact they’re the same smoky green as Ray’s. Trudie and Ray are second cousins. Which makes me and Tash not only sisters but also third cousins. There’s no deep end in this town’s gene pool. That sounds like a worn-out joke, but it’s not to us. No, she said, they’re hazel. I’m putting hazel on my passport. Look again. Tash and I looked and saw nothing that looked like hazel, no flecks, no dots, no threads, but we said okay, they’re hazel, fine. And what do you need a passport for anyway, my sister had asked. Trudie said for identification. I think it made her feel adventurous to own a passport, to think she actually might one day get on a plane and fly away to a magical place with a temperate climate where people dance.
Mennos are discouraged from going to the city, forty miles down the road, but are encouraged to travel to the remotest corners of Third World countries with barrels full of Gideon Bibles and hairnets. Maybe that’s where she is now―planting churches in the Congo, wearing a pretty floral ankle-length dress, rubber boots and a straw hat. But I doubt it. That’s what The Mouth did with single older women who were probably gay but were called spinsters―sent them off to hot places with a shovel and a monthly allowance and a camera so they could come back every couple of years and set up a slide show in the church basement for all the little Mennos. At the end of the slide show the surliest guy from the village always comes around to see the light and starts wearing clothing and helps the white gay women with their good work in spite of threats and disapproval from his own people. Sometimes the missionaries are killed. But that’s just how it has to be. There’s usually a strange, simmering sub-plot in these slide shows that involves either running the witch doctor out of town or getting him to smile for the camera while holding up a copy of the New Testament, which means, praise the Lord, he’s been saved. After the slide show we eat cheese and buns and maybe play a little hide-and-seek, with groping, in the foyer.
Anyway, I can’t picture my mother as a missionary. I can see her doing other things like deep-sea diving or leading groups of tourists around places in Europe. Trudie was short for Gertrude, which she hated a little less when she found out about Gertrude Stein and all those cats in Paris. She had always wanted to see Paris. She used to sing all those old Jacques Brel songs with a thick French accent. She sang them up big, comically, but Tash told me it was a façade. She said Trudie was punch-drunk crazy from the endless domestic grind-a-thon. Said her back was up against the wall of an oppressive patriarchal regime.
Trudie loved to read but mostly she read mysteries (even though the current thing to say around here is: There are no mysteries!) or books about the Holocaust. She loved to say unreal. That’s just unreal, she’d say about things that surprised or disappointed or amazed her, and there were lots of those things it seemed. She also enjoyed the word wheeeeeee, said with gusto-a reaction to whatever little thing was turning her on. We as a family in a little motorboat on big waves. We as a family coasting down a hill with the car in neutral. We as a family chopping down a Christmas tree. We as a family. Another thing she said a lot, when she was reading, and didn’t want to answer whatever question we had interrupted her with, was: Whaaaaaatttttt?? An incredibly drawn-out word with a lot of vocal range from low to high to sustained high. She’d keep her eyes on her book. Hey Mom, I’m going outside to pour some gasoline over myself and light a match! Whaaaaaatttttt? Eyes never leaving the page. I loved it.
My mother’s dream was to go to the Holy Land. She was very intrigued with Jews. There were none in our town. There were no black people or Asians either. We all looked pretty much the same, like a science fiction universe. My sister and I went to school in the morning and my mom would stand in the doorway in her nightgown and say goodbye, goodbye, I love you, good luck, have fun, until we couldn’t hear her any more, like we were foreign sailors leaving a port of call after a fantastic unreal night together, and we’d come home at four o’clock in the afternoon and she’d still be in her nightgown, but on the couch, with her finger as a marker in the book saying hello, hello, how was your day? Don’t tell me it’s after four already. It is, we’d say. What’s there to eat? And my mom would sit up real fast and say, usually, oh I sat up too fast, and we’d wait for five seconds for her to clear her head. She had bright red down-filled slippers that were almost perfectly ball-shaped. In one hour she’d have gotten dressed, gone to the grocery store, the Tomboy (who names grocery stores after gender anomalies?), bought stuff for supper, come home, made the food, and put it on the table, smiling, happy, warm and untroubled.
She was a whiz with Klik, that canned meat that looks like crushed human flesh and comes with a built-on key you twist around to open the tin. I wish I had harder facts about her, a complete picture with high tone definition, but she was hard to pin down.
There was something seething away inside of her, something fierce and unpredictable, like a saw in a birthday cake. She played content like Jack Nicholson played crazy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Ray truly was content to sit at the head of the table in his suit and tie and joke around with his two relatively normal daughters and fun-loving wife who had hazel eyes and sexy nighties and a passport with a glamorous black-and-white photo of herself tucked away in the top drawer of her dresser.
The place Trudie travelled to most often was the church basement. The women have to spend a lot of time there. If they don’t they go to hell. (Who’re you gonna serve? Missionaries in Botswana, or Satan? That’s right. Any questions? Didn’t think so.) Their job was to sew clothing and blankets for the missionaries and send it all overseas in barrels. Trudie hated it. She got into trouble for throwing a couple of romance novels into a barrel headed for Nicaragua. She was supposed to do all sorts of stuff at church, cook for weddings and funerals, quilt, teach Sunday school and just generally get her ass in humble helping gear. They were always calling her and asking her if she could spare some time to help out. It wasn’t really a question. She’d go sometimes at the very last minute saying oh I should go, I should go right now.
It didn’t help that her brother was the ϋber-Schultz. It was like being the sister of Moammar Gaddafi or Joseph Stalin. You fall into line or you fall. My dad liked it when she went to help but he also liked it when she didn’t. It seemed like he could never figure out which Trudie he loved the best, the docile church basement lady in the moon boots or the rebellious chick with the sexy lingerie. I imagine that both of those extremes were just poses and that the real Trudie fell somewhere in between. But that’s the thing about this town - there’s no room for in between. You’re in or you’re out. You’re good or you’re bad. Actually, very good or very bad. Or very good at being very bad without being detected.
—From the book A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews; Copyright (c) 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.