A Gift for Marie

Painting by Myrna Cranmer

Painting by Myrna Cranmer

            Sasha is a name that is hard to pronounce, thinks Marie, but there is no need to say names when you are splashing paint on snow and swirling it together to make wonderful patterns. Paint soaks through snow. Sasha upturns a can of yellow and Marie pats her on the cheek with a spot of green.

            You are a great artist, says Marie to her friend. One of the best. But she does not expect Sasha to respond. A finger in the snow, drawing a red river into a lake of blue, is good enough. When the dam breaks, the colours mix to black.

            A bell rings. Sasha washes her hands in the snow and races away. Marie goes to her home. Her father is already there, sitting at the fire. Headmaster, says Marie, how was your day? He looks up: you have been at the paint. Come here and tell me what you learned today and we will see if you have got it right. He listens, and when he is done, he talks to her about snow and the changing of seasons, and the glorious celebration that is coming. A dog! she cries, when he asks what gift she wishes for the holidays. A dog! He nods, looks at the fire. Of course, he says, it would have to be a dog. But there are no dogs here. What can we do? 

            Dear Headmaster, she says, you are the smartest man in all the country.

            He is drinking tea. He touches Marie’s hair. Your friend Sasha. The mute one. Do you like her? Would you wish her to be near you all the time? Would it make you happy if that were so? Marie puts her arms around his neck and tugs his beard. She nuzzles next to him and tells him that she would like that very much.

            The next morning, Headmaster brings Sasha out of class. On the field between the outhouses and the west fence, he tells her to crawl on a patch of ground that he has cleared of snow. Sasha’s clothes are soon wet and muddy, and Headmaster says that this will not do. Keep her like this until I return, he says to Marie. You are doing so well! Marie says to Sasha. When Headmaster returns, he has pads for Sasha’s knees and gloves for her hands. She walks about on all fours. Sasha is good at it. Later, Headmaster has her eat porridge out of a bowl – no hands! – as he and Marie chew on a beef stick.

            This is going better than I expected, says Headmaster. Your Sasha is well-suited to this. These people usually are. We will see if Sasha takes to sleeping outside tonight.

             The shed has shovels for pushing snow, and sacks of sand that help clear the roads. Headmaster has Sasha lie on the sacks. Sasha looks about her. There is only one window, and the sky is visible through the roof. She is staring at Marie, so Headmaster gives Marie treats that she lets Sasha eat out of her hand. Sasha is happy after that.

            In the morning, Marie races to the shed at first light – it is the earliest she has risen! The snow is dry and crunchy. Inside the shed, Sasha is awake. Her black hair is tangled, the side of her face crusted with sand. Oh Sasha, cries Marie, you look so cold! You poor girl! We’ll find Headmaster! At the house, Headmaster is finishing his breakfast. This only works if Sasha does it all the time, Marie. Down, Sasha. That’s right. Very good. Now we will see to this problem of cold. Headmaster moves through the house as Sasha warms up next to the fire and Marie feeds her biscuits and gives her a dish of water. When Headmaster returns, he puts a furred coat on Sasha and stitches the opening up so that it cannot come off.

            That day, Sasha runs through the snow. Her breath is fierce as Headmaster signals her to start and stop. The clothes are working, and Marie is thrilled. Sasha looks happy! There is a smile on her face, and Marie plays with her the whole afternoon. And can you bark, dear? asks Headmaster. Sasha shakes her head. Ah I see. Marie, to your studies. I will provide Sasha with some additional training. He goes with her to the shed and does not come back until dinner. She will be ready by the holidays, he tells her. You need not worry. Marie is so warm with happiness that she stays awake that night, looking out the window at the shed as the snow trickles down and the light from the school pushes into the forest.

            The rest of the week, the sky is clear. Headmaster patches Sasha’s clothes and trots her around the west field. They go into the forest. Marie has a leash and Sasha follows behind. I will give her a tail, says Headmaster, and he attaches a cob of dried corn to the coat, above the flap that Sasha uses to do her business. Marie leads her through the trees, into the thicker snow. Sasha follows along. In the middle of the forest, they find a rocky clearing. Will you bark now? asks Headmaster. Sasha turns her head to the trees. Ah I see. Marie, bring that stick over here. Good. Now ask her to bark, and if she refuses, hit her across the back of her legs. Firmly, if you please.

            Bark please, Sasha, Marie says. But Sasha will not bark. Marie asks three more times before she uses the stick. Headmaster tells her she should hit harder. But Sasha will still not bark. Marie’s arm is tired from swinging. She says to Sasha, Oh darling, what’s wrong? Why won’t you bark? I don’t want to hit you! Please do it right. Sasha stares. Her black eyes are clouded, and it hurts Marie to see her that way. She whispers to Sasha about how much fun they will have, and how wonderful it will be when Headmaster makes of Sasha a gift for Marie. Sasha nods. Marie stands and asks her to bark. The sudden noise that comes from the little creature echoes in the clearing and through the woods. Marie is thrilled. Headmaster smiles, and together they sing as they walk back to the school.

            I will give Sasha an additional lesson after dinner, says Headmaster. But Sasha can bark now! says Marie. Yes, Marie, she can. But there are other things to learn. There are always things to learn, my dear. Go to your bed. I will be back later. Marie stays up, waiting for him to return, but it is a long time before he does. Marie tries to sleep but there are noises in the forest. At first she thinks it is Sasha, but it is not that kind of animal.

            Just as she is about to fall asleep, she sees light through the window. At first, she thinks morning has come early, but the sky is still dark. Outside, the shed is on fire. Marie does not wait to put on her clothes, only her boots. She races through the door. The heat from the fire has already burned a ring in the snow. The flames are higher than the trees! Sasha! she cries. Sasha, oh Sasha! But nothing can live in that fire. It is too greedy. It is too big. The roof collapses and one of walls falls hissing into the snow.

            Marie thinks of the holidays, and what they will be like without Sasha at her side. She had pictured running the forest paths with Sasha on a leash, unafraid of the creatures that lurked in the shadow. Now it is all gone. She turns her back to the fire. There before her, at the edge of the trees, is an animal. It is hunched in the shadows, eyes wild as it studies the fire. It is baying. It is barking. It is staring at her with black eyes. Marie stumbles towards it, crying out: Sasha! Oh my darling I am glad you are okay! Come back to me! But Sasha juts backwards with each step that Marie takes. Sasha, it is me! Come back, and I will let you sleep in the house tonight! But when the girl is too close, Sasha bays a final time and races into the shadows.

            Marie would like to run after her, but she is not dressed for the forest. Outside the circle of firelight, it is too dark to see. Behind her, the school is alive as people rush to the fire. Marie is crying. She is kneeling in the snow. She does not know how Sasha will survive in the forest, how she will live without Marie and Headmaster to take care of her. The forest is so big, so dangerous. It reaches forever, into the lonely lands where no one has ever gone before. Sasha needs someone to care for her. To feed her. To love and to teach her. She needs these things. Without them, where will she go and what will she be? There is howling in the forest. There is howling everywhere. Marie reaches for it as big hands take her shoulders and draw her back, away from the fire and into the cold.

***apologies for not having been around much of late, will be around more shortly. Hope you’re all doing great.

77 thoughts on “A Gift for Marie

  1. Jesus fuck, Lewin. The matter-of-fact tone to this is chilling and gorgeous. Oh, Marie — the big hands that take her back away from the fire, and into the cold, they *terrify* me. I love your voice. If all of your apologies are going to be like this, I’m going to tell you you’re in trouble more often.

  2. No ending? NO ENDING? I know…I know your non-ending endings…but THIS ONE NEEDS….okay, okay, I NEED AN ENDING! I am in distress here…great storytelling aside…this is so crazy weird strange horrid that I need to into those woods, I need to find a stick to beat that effin’ headmaster to death, I need to grab spoiled little Marie and shake what’s left of her marbles loose….NB, you listening? Okay…I’m gonna go pound my head on the wall now.

    • I think this one is done, SB. Poor little girl thinks other poor little girl needs her to take care of her, but possibly the other way around. I hate that headmaster characters, but there were worse instances of abuse at the so-called residential schools up here. Much worse.

      I specialize in crazy weird strange horrid! Man, I take that as high compliment.

  3. Yikes! And I was having a good day. Sheesh. This reads like a Russian fable Trent. Extremely well written. From the very first sentence, I was unaware of the words and knew only the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Superb Trent. And the lessons – so many. How we, even in our best intentions and with vulnerability, subjugate and demean others. How, when we participate in this, we enable even greater evil. How those who are different than us, become our playthings. How we so often, in our innocence, have no clue that what we are doing is wrong – except for the fact that we are pursuing our desires. The list goes on – no doubt a book could be written on the meanings and interpretations of this piece. I am sometimes wrought by the fear that I do this to others without knowing. The only hope I have to feel that I am OK, is to believe that there is a higher power that is benevolent and will not permit this provided I keep my eyes open.

    Fabulous prose Trent. I cannot recall ever reading a piece of this length that is this powerful. And,indeed, a piece that argues that Peace is only achievable through a higher power.

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • Paul, I love your outlook on life, glad that you have it and that I get to see it. I’m positive I do things like this to others all the time, I think it’s inevitable. Trent merrily going on his way as those around him suffer in his wake. One day Paul, perhaps that higher power will let us know how this could be. I suppose we will get a response back saying that it was up to us all along.

      Sorry for despoiling the day Paul, but glad that you felt the bones in this. I like to think of something like this as quietly desperate.

  4. I felt a sense of suspense reading this and had to read it carefully to try to figure out what was taking place. Lots of visual images happening quickly. It also created an uneasy feeling that something awful was coming. It definitely had a really foreign feeling to it and a darkness that is disturbing to think about as possibly someone else’s reality. I had feral children come to my mind as well as thinking they were sisters and that the father was just really demented. I’d have to read it again to figure that out I guess, or just come to my own conclusions. Definitely captured my attention and took me to a strange place, Trent. Not my favorite place with you, but a place that I know only you could create.

    • I think I sent you a note on this Kelly, but yes the headmaster is simply a father to Marie and runs a residential school in the snowy climes of Canada past. Sasha is an Aboriginal sent to this school, where the intent was erase native identity. The headmaster does a bit more than just erase it, though, he repurposes it. I kind of hated writing this piece, because I don’t think it captures even the slightest of the crimes that were enacted in these schools. This is a national shame for our country.

  5. You swallowed me whole into this story. It surrounded me and I felt every word you wrote. It does read like an old Russian fable (as someone mentioned earlier). The tales like that and those of the Grimm bothers were always quite dark in their original form.
    You certainly know how to make an entrance when you come back to us.

  6. But hands are just hands, big or otherwise, and their grasp can be broken, their strength can be overcome, especially when the fire beckons so invitingly, the warmth lends its own perverse strength, and the desire is there to taste the flames… So much more than a desire, a need.
    And, while I understand that need, I wouldn’t join the fire then… I’d risk all and brave the forest for my beloved Sasha, and postpone the comforts of the fire until after my search was successful.

    It’s good to read you again.

    • You have a good soul, Matticus. I’d run into the forest too. I know I would. And I’d freeze to a tree somewhere, and that would be it. And maybe that would be okay.

      • I have a soul which is neither good nor bad. A good soul would risk all in the forest no matter who’s Sasha was out there needing to be found and loved. A bad sould wouldn’t risk anything for any Sasha. I would risk all for my Sasha alone… If my life were a story on paper for others to read, they would not see me as the “good guy” in the traditional sense. I know that we all have flaws, even the best of us, but I do not hold myself to the standards of the best of us.

        In other news, I wrote you a fantasy today… the start of one anyway. I’ll post it tomorrow if I have time tonight to set it up in WordPress. Otherwise, perhaps look for it on Wednesday.

  7. Where do you come up with these stories. I felt like I was reading a story to serve as the basis for an episode of The Twilight Zone. Are you Rod Serling incarnate? Excellent.

    • Comes from the abyss, Doobster. This story has truth to it, this is about our residential school system where Aboriginals were sent to get new names and to erase their identity. The litany of abuses enacted there is very long, and we nationally have a real sore spot for what happened, as we should. We tried to erase a people, and in fact tried to do more than that. This story is one tiny, ineffective piece of fiction trying to capture a huge real issue.

  8. Echoing Doobster – I would love to know what inspired this.
    Well told, and terrifying, especially the contrast between what I thought was happening and what Marie saw as happening.

    • Have a look at the comment I left to him, this is inspired by a real set of crimes though not one in particular. Just what I thought of when trying to capture a very dark period in Canadian history. I didn’t know how else to get it out.

    • Thank you Walt. I got caught up in thinking that I didn’t have enough time to write – ever had that happen? I hate it when it does. Disturbing is my thing, I guess, but not always. Next piece I’m going to go for light and spritely!

  9. Hello, you old rattlesnake. Welcome back. A curse on the obligations that take you away from this space.

    Another dystopian tale. This is a rough ride. I don’t like naked cruelty. Is there no comeuppance for the Headmaster? Or is this more like real life where none of the guilty are punished?

    • This one’s not really dystopian, more a bit of fiction trying to capture a real set of events, the Canadian government trying to erase native identity in so-called residential schools. For shame, Canada! And those folks all got away with it. We have Aboriginals walking about whose real names were erased, whose culture was erased, whose language was erased, and who were abused in horrible ways… and in turn, we sort of apologized. Sort of. I think the bad guys sometimes just win. It sucks horribly.

  10. And I thought Canada was so pure, Trent. I really have have a more idealized view of Canada. Everybody happy and pure as white as the snow. This is a story that needed to told and you did it so well. Great voice with just enough detachment. You feel Marie not knowing better, just following the rules. I want to scream out to her to stop this cruelty, but yet she has a certain innocence that is believable. What would happen to her if she disobeyed? In the end, it’s Marie who feels Sasha just didn’t make the right choice so she really doesn’t have a clue. Brilliant, Trent.

    • No purity here, Amy. We’re beset with a lot of problems. I wanted to scream at Marie to wise up too, but she’s just a kid and it’s the adults in the world who breed the corruption into us.

      You should try the story before this (I hate plugging my stuff, honestly), but it’s entirely different in tone and detachment level. It made me a bit queasy to write it.

  11. I grew uncomfortable when masterheadjob had Sasha roll around in the mud, and almost stopped reading when he alluded to her sleeping outside. To stop would have been a disservice to your writing. It is a horrifying piece, and I would like to think I’d have broken free of those arms and begged Sasha for her forgiveness when I found her. To know this was based in truth further erodes belief that we as a human race are okay.

    Chilling and well told, Trent. Welcome back.

    • Thanks Jaded. I never start out to be horrifying, but the last few pieces have been decidedly dark. I hate that headmaster guy, moreso because I’m sure people like this existed. I’m glad there’s more good folks than bad, though. I think there has to be, or where the heck would we be?

  12. holy cow, Trentster Grimm…. that was just awful scary evil filled amazing writing!! had me creeped out and hating that schoolmaster immediately. what a sick fuck! just get a fn dog you lazy ass evil bastard! 🙂

  13. This was well done -very well done.

    I had to start again and read more carefully just to be sure Sasha was really a human being. I got so drenched in the feelings and sentiments of the characters somehow without really reading the letters. I am sincerely impressed with this one. At a point, I had to pause and tell myself my inspiration doesn’t come looking like this, as cynical as I love it to come. I bow solemnly.
    In this same spirit, I wish it had been more brutal. Take note: the brutality I felt, FROM MY OWN PERSPECTIVE, was not quite about how far the man went as from how mild a frame you put around the horrid picture. The writing seemed mild in general setting, but the actual events were sharply contrasting.

    You probably can guess mt opinion regarding the human nature theme of this piece. Yes, we are so capable of things like this and we do them. We have just become smarter at convincing ourselves they are for a justifiable cause. Of course, we became able to convince others aeons ago.

    Thanks much, Sir Trent.

  14. This was a story many countries in the world have hidden where subdugation and degradation were present but hidden from society. Interesting, because before I read your comments, I pictured different races who have endured terrors and pain, felt inside and out of their bodies. Sorry to hear it was Canada. This reminded me of the Australian aborigines, the varied Asian countries and Africans, too.
    We have not covered enough growth in civilization, such a slow evolution. Thanks for this powerful story. It holds almost TOO many truths to bear.

    • Thank you… I think this is a common story in the world, unfortunately. I wish we had done better, and that we could do better now, but something seems to get in the way, and now here we are. We can only keep trying to evolve, even if slowly.

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