Lit/South Awards 2022
Fiction Competition – Honorable Mention
New Brunswick Enigma
The border-crossing booth was coming up fast. Kalandra’s fingers poked around the bottom of the travel case and latched onto the Ziploc bag she kept our passports in. We crossed the St. Croix River at Calais, handed over the books with a calm air, and waited. I was uneasy leaving the United States. The uniformed officer with busy eyes and an arched nose poked his head in my window to look inside our Scion xB. His spicy aftershave lingered behind my head. “Your destination? How long are you in New Brunswick this summer?” His tinny voice scraped our ears.
Kalandra pushed the AAA guide description his way, saying, “Here to explore. Why, this is the home of Molly Kool. There’s Ganong’s Chocolate Museum in St. Stephen, too.”
I cast a frown at Kalandra. “No, just driving the Maritimes and we’ll be here a week.” Canadians referred to the region as the Maritimes. Maybe he’d think we come over often.
The officer handed back the passports and shook his head in amusement or disgust. I couldn’t be sure. Kalandra always thought she was being clever dreaming up believable lies, but she was just attracting attention to us. I sighed and hit the gas. With her felony conviction for selling drugs back home, she was a magnet for police radar.
“Nora, I really want to go to the museum.” Kalandra’s light blue eyes danced. They were the kind of eyes that made you look twice, so clear, almost translucent against her coffee-colored skin. I squirmed at the delay she was adding to our plans. She pointed to a red brick building. I whipped the Scion xB into the adjoining lot without a word. Following her whims brought us mischief, joy, conflict.
Inside the museum, silver trays of assorted chocolate candies sat beneath each illustration of the process of cocoa bean transformations. Kalandra bit a creamy nougat, wrinkled her nose, and popped the remainder into my mouth. We watched candy makers through a glass window. Kalandra kicked her leg over next to mine. A little rim of chocolate outlined her top lip. Her tongue licked it off slowly. The candy offerings coated my mouth and the sugar burned under my skin.
Kalandra pointed at a chubby woman in a white uniform squeezing chocolate through a tube. “What a job.” I leaned toward the glass but turned quickly enough to watch Kalandra slip a handful of caramels from a plate inside the plastic bag in her pocket. She always had a pill or a joint in a bag in her pocket. “More for the road,” she laughed and tugged her t-shirt over her lumpy pockets. She snagged an employment application from a stand near the exit. It flapped in the wind while she held the door for three squealing girls in matching red dresses who fluttered under her arm like poppies.
“Thinking about working here?” I joked.
“Never can tell,” she tittered in her sexy lilt, ducking inside the xB. After Kalandra made a long stretch over the seat to drop the chocolate bags from her pockets into the cooler, she pressed her fingers on my leg. “What’s that bulge in your pocket?”
“It means I like you.” I laughed and pulled out my own bag of stolen sample chocolates. Although we had broken up two years ago and now she was my best friend, I sometimes lapsed into a little romantic play. There had been nobody since. I pointed. “Really, what’s with that employment form?”
Kalandra smirked. “I like it here already, might want to stay. Would you visit?”
When she talked like that, she stabbed my heart. I watched the family following the young girls into the museum and longed for that imagined joy.
The next few hours we sped across Highway 1, passing a couple blueberry stands and a few off-ramps to dismal-sounding towns, Dideguash, Canal, Back Bay. When we glimpsed the waters of Fundy Bay around a bend or across a field, the muddy shores seemed to get wider and wider as the tide went out. Near evening I pointed the xB down 114, a thickly wooded route toward Fundy National Park. The little car bounced us over the barely paved roads.
“It’s kind of creepy out here.” Kalandra’s voice rose when she pushed her nose against her window. I glanced over at her, waiting for her assessment. We passed one narrow campground road, so I chose the next, wider one that led all the way to the beach. Beyond the beach was a vast stretch of mud, over 25 feet of ocean floor exposed since the tide was out. “Won’t that tide come in on top of us?” Kalandra’s voice was edgy.
“You’re the one who wanted to see….” but I didn’t want to argue. I pulled in by the last picnic table on the trail and started throwing the tarp and tent out of the car, working around the tide debris stacked against nearby trees.
“I thought we’d be at the town of Alma tonight,” Kalandra pouted. “Maybe even see Hopewell Rocks at low tide.”
I gave her a long stare, knowing she quickly forgot her chocolate factory delay. “Are you blaming me? We’re making do, can’t make it to Alma. Now help me with the tent. We have to set up camp before dark.”
We sat under the red spruce filling up on peanut butter sandwiches and beer from our cooler. The needles above swooshed in the wind. The tidewater was so far away there was no sound of it. Kalandra began to hum, and I leaned back against a rock. We still enjoyed creating this semblance of home together. I loved being this far away from New Orleans. I gazed at the campfire and wondered about the Cajun ancestors of many of us from Louisiana who had once called this home. They were Acadians then.
Kalandra looked out toward the dark bay. “Molly Kool was a brave sea captain to be out there on Fundy Bay on her own.”
Since Kalandra had found a box of papers in her mother’s trunk about Acadian ancestors from New Brunswick and a scrawled note about her grandmother, Molly Kool’s, secret trip to Louisiana, Kalandra had dreamed of coming up here. There were newspaper clippings about Molly getting a lot of notoriety being the first female sea captain from Canada. She was from a town named Alma, just up the road from where we were camping.
Kalandra’s mother was the daughter Molly never mentioned in any writeups. The story Kalandra’s mother had heard was that Molly birthed her in New Orleans and left her behind with Acadian relatives. A child would hinder her adventures. Kalandra’s mother did not encourage her. “It’s too late to stir all this up,” she’d told us both.
Not long ago I was wishing for an opportunity to leave New Orleans when Kalandra called with some new scheme to find her grandmother’s birthplace in New Brunswick. I was surprised, but my heart sang to spend time with her again. Since Hurricane Katrina hit, I had been feeling guilty. My place in the quarter was on high ground. I didn’t have any war stories, sat mum at the bars, stunned at the mark the storm left on people’s lives. My heartache was still Kalandra leaving me. I wrote my heart out in weekly columns for The Levee telling other people’s stories. Maybe I could find a new story in Canada. Coping with powerlessness is a strange dilemma.
The sloshing of waves woke us in the early daylight. Kalandra raised the tent flap and screamed at the oceanfront view within ten feet of our car. “Nora, I told you the tide came in big time. We better get to higher ground.” A flash of panic pushed me out of the tent. It was stupid to pick this spot and put her in danger. We began tossing gear in the xB. We settled in for breakfast at another picnic table up the road, drinking juice and munching granola bars. Kalandra’s blue eyes shone in excitement. “See, the highest tides in the world are at our doorstep. What a place for grandmother to grow up. I can’t wait to visit Molly’s place.”
This hunt for the missing grandmother unnerved me at times. “What do you think? Her house is a national landmark?” I wondered out loud, with exaggerated interest.
“I’ve got news for the Chamber of Commerce.” Kalandra’s eyes narrowed when she said, “I’m an heir to Molly Kool.”
“Your mother would thrash you for thinking like that. I thought this trip was all about your roots, not your pocketbook.”
“That’s what you do, preach at me.” Kalandra stood up. She was ready to go.
When she saw an old gas station advertising hot coffee on a yellow sandwich board near Alma city limits, she touched my hand. “I’ll buy you some coffee.” Her eyes warmed me more than any coffee.
Kalandra squealed when the clerk told her Molly Kool was still alive, nearly 90 years old. A warm, uneasy buzz rattled in my head. I suppose we both just assumed Molly was long gone by now. Kalandra’s thick eyebrows wiggled up and down. “I wonder if we favor?” The clerk just pointed us toward town.
“She thought you were crazy.” I climbed in the car.
“What do you care, Nora?” Kalandra glared.
In tiny Alma, we had no trouble finding the waterfront dock, but were surprised to find that the monument to Molly Kool’s sea captain fame looked like a tombstone. The town had no apparent chamber of commerce. A local police officer sipping coffee from a thermos cup by the dock told us talk of Kool’s cottage was drama around town and her house needed restoring, maybe before she died. He had seen her in Alma late in June riding in the Canada Day parade.
We bumped along on the road on which the officer mentioned the Kool cottage was located. The xB dipped in the front when we pulled through a small ditch near a rusty mailbox with Kool still visible. We inched into the yard that nearly obscured a weather-beaten, tiny cottage. The only thing that looked restored was a freshly painted
sign that hung by a wire from a low limb. “This is it?” Kalandra pouted. I saw only paths that were those probably made by animals on the prowl. We made our own way through the tall weeds to a wobbly porch, rubbed dirt from a window and peered inside. Several adjoining shady rooms held wooden furniture pushed to the edge of the slat walls.
Kalandra’s voice was squeaky with excitement imagining her grandmother and great-granddad around the old wooden kitchen table sharing their seafaring adventures on Fundy Bay. Stepping behind the house, Kalandra got grumbly when she gazed up at the little cottage in shambles, the condition making it hard to think of her grandmother ever living here. I tried to ease the impact when I heard her sniffle. “Go ahead and take some pictures. I think it’s enough that we were able to find it and know that she lived here.”
Then I heard the whine of squeaking brakes from an approaching olive-colored car that rocked to a stop next to our xB. Burning oil fumes crept from under the wide hood. From the passenger window, a deeply wrinkled face topped with styled white hair shouted, “Whatcha doing out here on my property?” She waved a small fist at me.
A thin woman in a red plaid shirt and black jeans jumped out from behind the steering wheel with an extended hand. “Hi, I’m Jessie. We know folks are curious but appreciate you not staying on our property.” Her narrow face held alert eyes and an even smile.
“Your property? Who are…? Uh, sure, but we’ve come all the way from New Orleans. My friend Kalandra just wanted to see her grandmother’s house.”
My eyes flew past Jessie and were locked into the pale blue eyes of the elderly woman in the car. The eyes narrowed, the mouth exploded, “I got no kin from down your way.”
I still held her stare. “Your name is Molly?”
“Indeed, I’m Molly Kool Carney, and well known at that.” Her yellowed teeth broke past her firm lips in a quick smile, then disappeared behind tightened lips.
Kalandra’s footsteps swished through the tall grass behind me. She ran up to the old woman. “You’re my grandmother, the sea captain, right? Oh, I didn’t know you were still here. I’m Kalandra. My mother is Caitlin. I found letters you wrote and….”
The old woman thumped her veined hand on the Buick door. “What the hell. I got no granddaughter. Don’t be talking that way. Let’s go, Jessie, right now. These are crazy people.” The old woman’s shoulders bent forward, her arms slipped tightly across her breast, and she dropped her head forward with a groan, like she’d struck herself. Jessie’s jaw clinched when she pointed at us both. “You need to leave now. Your lies have upset Aunt Molly.” The Buick sped out of sight, leaving lingering oil fumes and little pebbles rolling on the roadside from the spinning tires.
Kalandra’s eyes were streaming wet streaks down her cheeks. She leaned against the xB and sobbed. “She won’t know me, but did you see her eyes? They’re my eyes. Didn’t she see my eyes?”
I held out my arms to her. “I’m sorry, Kalandra. She was clearly surprised. Yes, I did see her amazing eyes.”
Kalandra slumped inside the xB, letting crumpled tissues fall around her feet. “I’m so sad she doesn’t want to know me.”
I touched her shoulder, but she shook off my hand. I leaned in front of her so she would listen. “Let’s go over to the Hopewell Rocks. We planned to see the tide go out there. We can walk the beach while we think about it.” I backed away from the weedy yard before Kalandra could change her mind.
We rode almost to the Hopewell Rock Park in a silence as thick as the pools of gray clouds settling in around us. As we rounded a sharp turn, I swerved hard to avoid a large branch in the narrow road. Kalandra looked up. “Watch it. Why are we even on this road?”
“It’s part of our carefree yearning for adventure,” I joked, not wanting to argue about going to the park.
“Well, careless can be thrilling,” said Kalandra, pushing a finger through the dust on the dashboard to form an upside-down smiley face.
I said, “I prefer carefree to careless.”
“That’s why you can be boring, Nora,” Kalandra said.
My eyes flared. An anxious twinge pushed against the warmth I always held around Kalandra. She had been reckless in returning my love. It was her way.
“Boringly lovable.” Kalandra gave me a playful pat on the head.
Just ahead, I caught sight of the red and white park sign. At the entrance, an official in a pressed green shirt and baggy slacks hovering over dusty hiking boots flagged us to stop. He rolled his arm, indicating that I squeeze the xB outside the fence near a tall spruce. “Park’s closed. So hike in at your own risk. Tide’s already coming in. You didn’t hear me say any of this.” He winked and turned his back.
I parked and started tugging on my hiking boots. This natural wonder was the only place I really wanted to see in New Brunswick. Kalandra was immobile, just staring over the un-smiley face into the woods.
“Not a lot of time. Put on your boots,” I urged. From outside, I tapped on her window. “I’m going without you.”
“Okay, I’ll just wait here for you, honey.” She offered a slight smile, her blue eyes forlorn. Then she dragged a bottle of Xanax out of the travel bag and waved me on.
My mind began its warm buzz. Here’s another reason I’m on my own. She won’t share what’s special to me, always full of delays or needs a drug. I’m incidental to her reckless whims. Did she really call me honey?
I hurried under the locked gate bar and across the parking lot toward a worn shortcut away from the main entrance. I was breathing hard on the path and wishing I had given Kalandra a little more time to decide to come with me. Eventually the path ended at tiers of metal steps stretching down between two tall rocks protruding from the ocean floor. My boots made tiny pinging noises on the metal steps as I rushed down towards the amazing sight. The muddy bay waters splashed against the base of tall rocks higher than most city office buildings. Exposed mounds of seaweed and gravel spotted the muddy ocean bed. At the end of the steps, I lifted the chain with a Closed sign hanging across it. Kalandra would love this defiance.
My feet touched the muddy ocean floor, and I was mesmerized. I was walking on ground that was underwater part of every day. The tides would rise twenty feet to cover this muddy ground and drench the rock wall caverns that now exposed seaweed and debris clinging to its sides. With each step around little tributaries slowly filling up with water, I inched into new openings between rocks further along the barren, muddy coast. I often stopped, enthralled by each jagged narrow rock formation, exposed by the receding water, that jutted from the muddy ocean floor. The winds picked up and tiny pelts of rain pricked my face. Finally, I stared at the furious gray clouds pushing against each other, and my fascination snapped. So this was the thrill of recklessness? I didn’t like the panic that tingled in my scalp. I studied the rock walls surrounding me, trying to orient myself back toward the stairs I had descended.
Water was near my knees when I slogged my way along the muddy beach to the bottom of the stairs. I climbed over the Closed sign, but on the next level, a tall, webbed metal gate I had not noticed on the way down was now blocking the next flight of stairs. It was fastened shut with twisted wire high along the side and the top. A ping of footsteps echoed above me. “No, don’t close the gate,” I shouted. I lunged against it. It didn’t budge.
Below me, muddy waves chilled my feet and sloshed up toward my waist. A hot gush of panic surged into my back as I clawed at the huge metal supports, trying to find something to grip. I scanned the sheer rock walls around me that offered me no scalable paths up and away from the water. I cried out, “Help me. Kalandra, please find me.”
Pounding against the gate bruised my hands into swollen lumps, and shouting caused my throat to burn. I barely clung to the wire gate that blocked my path. The cold water began to numb my fingers, and my feet floated off the metal steps. I watched the water rising slowly above little metal triangles in the gate. A sparkle of hope. The waves would rise above the gate in a few hours. I resolved to hang on.
The gray sky darkened into a black wool canopy. I wondered why Kalandra did not come. Excuses floated by… she couldn’t find the trail, she dropped the flashlight, she fell asleep, she got drunk, she drove for help, she was kidnapped, she was oblivious…
but I let them all go. I listened to my deliberate breaths.
After hours of clinging and floating, a whoosh of tide pushed my soaked body over the gate and into the handrail attached to the metal-grate stair platform above. I grasped the cold steel and crawled onto the platform, thankful for a solid base underneath me. Immediately I felt in the dark for the next flight of steps. I pulled myself up the cold stairs before the next wash of tide knocked me off the grate and into the rocks in the cavern behind it. Then numbness in my legs transformed into painful, sharp tingling as I began climbing, my wet clothing adding weight to the struggle. When I reached the top tier, a streetlight from the parking lot shone in the distance. I slumped onto a bench and listened to the pounding of my heart, the gasps from my lungs. I reached down and patted the muddy earth beneath my dripping boots and cried.
I staggered the gravel path through the woods, stepping cautiously in the dark but feeling the even, flat trail beneath my boots. A shaft of light from the streetlight occasionally broke onto the trail. I kept my arms outstretched to block stray branches. Finally, I stepped into the illuminated parking lot and crawled under the locked-bar gate across the park entrance toward the lone xB, a bare silhouette under the trees outside the gate.
I moved out of the light again, lunged at the door and fell into the driver’s seat, exhausted and shivering. The dome light illuminated a scrap of paper on Kalandra’s seat. Her handwriting scrawled, Changed my mind. Gone down to the rocks to find you. If you get back first, don’t forget we still have chocolates, ha, ha.
I closed the door. “Oh, no, Kalandra,” I wailed at the darkness.
Fiction judge Ron Rash writes: This story of a woman’s tragic attempt to transcend her own nature has an ending that is both surprising but also inevitable.