The night Wendy’s Oma died, she had sex dreams. Only sometimes did she have sex dreams—usually Wendy had nightmares and usually she was being chased or hurt. But this morning in her dreams when her Oma died, a girl was fucking her over an old television in an abandoned gym. She woke up with her phone dinging. Her dad. Call me when you get up it’s important.
Wendy put her face back in the pillow with her hair piled around her like a hill. She trailed a long arm down the side of the bed and skittered her phone across the floor. Her bladder was pulsing; sunlight through a crack in the curtain was hurting her eyes. She was still drunk and every part of her hurt.
Wendy lay there curled into herself in the half-light, her head softly beating, not sleeping. She lay there like that for a full hour. Her pee swelled and the light grew brighter.
When the phone rang, she made her body get up and scrabbled on her haunches for where her phone had gone behind a bookcase. It was her father.
“Jesus shitstick, Dad, what,” Wendy said. Her voice was deep and raspy, a smoker’s voice though she rarely smoked anymore. Her words felt chunky in her mouth as a potato. She was still drunk. She was going to feel fuzz behind her eyes for the whole day.
Ben was crying. “Dad?” said Wendy. “Ben? Dad?” It was chilly and the first snows were sticking. She tied up the curtain and shut the window to let light and warmth into her room. Her legs were shivering.
The funeral was quiet and simple, at the EMC church out in the country. Wendy wore a simple black dress. She cried exactly once, during a hymn, silently and horribly, like a little girl told to shut up. But for the rest of the day she felt warm and blessed. She felt a lot of love for her grandmother. She felt grateful she’d had so much time with her Oma. She felt grateful Oma’d been given a long life. In that way, Wendy had a beautiful, strange synergy with all the old Mennonites in the room, the ones who ignored Wendy or spoke to her in microseconds and hushes. The ones who truly believed the old woman was in heaven. They and Wendy both, they were all sad she was gone. But they were happy to think about her too.
That’s the difference, Wendy thought, between now and everybody else she’d known who died.
When she saw someone she didn’t want recognizing her, she leaned forward so her hair made curtains around her face. It was stupid. It would be hard to mistake her around here—her hair was black and went down to her waist and she was tall for anyone’s standard.
And what, what was the point in fighting? Sacrifice wasn’t meaningless. It’d been eight years since she said to them I’m a girl and some things you couldn’t fight that long. She was angry about it, but she didn’t start anymore. She did not appear in the obituary or funeral program and her dad had warned her about it (“It’s out of my hands, I’m sorry”) and it pissed her off but she didn’t say a word. Her family had gotten kinder over the years. It wasn’t that hard.
Back at her Oma’s house, neighbours brought hot dishes and a Superstore bag of buns; then they left. Her aunts began preparing the table. Wendy came into the room with a beer, looming over them like a tree.
“Can I help with anything?”
“Oh, well, thank you Wendy, but we’re very set here! You just go ahead and enjoy yourself. You go visit.”
Wendy sat and drank her beer as her uncles and cousins in the living room played on their phones.
She listened to her aunts gossip, about their kids, about their sports teams. One of them left to fetch her daughter to run to the van. When they ate, nobody cried. It was like a normal family gathering and no one was crying and did Wendy care that she flinched every time she heard the word “guy”? Did it matter? It didn’t matter. Her grandma was dead.
Long after everyone else went to bed, Wendy was on the back porch staying up with the men.
“You remember how Mum would pack us homemade tomato juice?” yelled her dad.
“Oh! Nai jo.”
“Hahahahaha.” He was blitzed. “Complete with fuckin’ tomaaaaato chunks! You’d be trying to look all fuckin’ cool for some girl swiggin’ in your lunch and your whole mind’s on how you’re ever gonna get your hand up her shirt SPLOOSH,” and Wendy and her uncles all laughed. They laughed and drank and laughed.
There were cigars. Wendy smoked one. She enjoyed the rich ugliness of cigars. Someone took a picture that she later loved and put on her wall: Her sitting dazed and drunk on the bench next to her dad, cigar in her mouth, her hair streaming down her sides like onyx waterfalls and light snow coming down, vertically, American postcard-style snow. Ben was leaning back with his mouth tilted against the sky, grey hair flowing under him, like a mane.
“There’s probably tomato juice still in there.”
“Is anybody else frightened to look in the fridge?”
“Need the morgue more for the fridge than we did for her.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ben said. “So when Wendy’s mum—God rest her soul—when she first ever came to the house. She’s this big-city girl from university, right. Here at our fuckin’ backwater-ass—”
“—and you’re still trying to get your hand up her shirt.”
“Probably on this bench.”
Wendy laughed and hacked something up.
“You okay, girl?” said Ben.
Wendy coughed. “I’m fuckin’ grand.”
“So here she is,” he continued. “This smart and sophisticated city girl, she thinks she’s coming to the farm for some hearty country meal, right? And we’re all sitting there—”
“We know, brother, we were there.”
“Yeah, well, Wendy wasn’t.” (“Yeah shut up, I wasn’t!” Wendy said. She loved this story.) “So we’re all sitting there, and Mom comes in with a big ol’ bowl of soup, slams it down—and there’s a fuck-ing chick-en leg sticking right out of it!”
“Chicken’s probably still there too.”
“Your mother said grace on that one, God bless her.”
Wendy hadn’t brought her winter coat. She was so sleepy, and almost went in to bed, but instead got a blanket and wrapped it over herself and sipped her dad’s vodka and listened. Wendy liked being quiet around her family. And being quiet wasn’t usual for her. It was nice. She didn’t remember going inside.
Two mornings later in her dreams Wendy was being chased down a long hallway with carpet. And white wallpaper with the patterns of cherries and locked wooden doors. Her hair was short in this dream. She was running fast but they were faster.
When she woke it was morning but not daylight. She put on her slippers, and her long muscles creaked and uncreased as she stood up from the living room fold-out in her nightgown, lacy and shimmering and moon-blue.
She went to start the coffee and stood by the kitchen window and saw slivers of purple breaking through the dark. The coffee burbled and rays of orange and magenta and violet spread out over the snow. Everyone else was gone and Wendy and Ben were going back today. It was always sad leaving here. And how many more times would she be coming back now. Realistically.
“When are we leaving?”
“I thought we’d head out at noon.”
“You’re kidding me! That’s so early.”
“I know, I got this guy to meet.”
“Whatever. It’s fine.”
“Who do you—”
“Ssssh sssh ssssh this part’s important!”
They were watching cartoons. Wendy rolled her eyes and got up for more cereal; her grandparents’ old house was the kind of space it was hard not to eat in.
Then in the kitchen, the phone on the wall rang.
“Hello?” Wendy said into the receiver.
“Hello!” The voice was unfamiliar and female and old. “Is this Aganetha? No, you don’t sound like Aganetha,” the woman said.
“Aganetha?” said Wendy, confused at first. No, there’s no Aga—”
Wendy put her hand on her forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We called her Nettie. I’m so sorry. She’s dead.”
Silence. “A week ago. It was sudden,” she added.
More silence; then the woman said, “My word. Oh. My word. I’m sorry. My condolences.” Wendy thought she might be crying, then she said, “She’s with the Lord now then.”
The woman’s words were coming out slowly, like they had extra syllables. “Yes,” Wendy said.
“Nobody told me.”
“I’m sorry,” Wendy said genuinely. “I—I am. Someone should have.”
“So am I speaking to family then?” said the woman.
“And who am I speaking to?”
Wendy’s reflexes kicked in. “Well I’m more like a close friend. Friend of the family.” Her voice became higher, more melodious. “Not really here nor there. Would you like to speak to Ben? He’s just over in the living room. I’ll go get him.”
“No!” said the woman. “No. No, I don’t think Ben would approve of this. It concerns his—well, bless me. I should watch what I say. Might another family member be at home?”
“May I ask who you are?” She scratched her hand. Most people calling on Nettie liked speaking to Wendy’s dad. They got a bang out of him.
“My name is Catherine Klassen,” she said. “From Morweena. Morweena, Manitoba.”
Wendy waited for her to say more.
“That’s north of Arborg,” Catherine continued. “The Interlake.”
“There are Mennonites up there?” Wendy said before she could stop herself. “I didn’t know that.”
“Oh, yes, many!” said Catherine. “It doesn’t surprise me that some certain people may not know that. But Aganetha and I. We went to school together.” The accent in Catherine’s voice was coming out clearly now, the kind that turned Pepsi into Pahpsi. She said: “I was—oh goodness, I was really hoping to tell Aganetha about this but I guess that’s just not a possibility. Obviously. And. Oh dear. Well. So you’re a friend of the family. What’s your name?”
“Don’t know of a Wendy,” said Catherine. “You’re obviously not young!” she said brightly.
“You marry in? Or are you seeing Ben?”
“Bless me!” Wendy said acidly. “You know, perhaps I would rather not have this conversation over the phone!”
“Oh dear, yes yes, please forgive me, I am sorry. Well. I’ll just tell you. I wanted to tell Aganetha something that concerns her husband as well as her grandson. Ben’s son. You know Ben’s son.”
Wendy was silent.
“I know you do,” clipped Catherine. “Everyone does. Goes by Tulip now or some such name. To my understanding.”
Tulip was Wendy’s first name. For about a year. A long time ago. She didn’t count the boy one.
“I know about Tulip,” said Wendy. More silence then: “Catherine, why are you calling?”
“Is there really no one besides Ben at home? Maybe someone is coming later in the day!”
“No!” Wendy said. Suddenly she was done with this conversation. “Look,” she said, summoning up old codes, what’d pass with this woman for angry, “I do not mean to be rude, however, we are sorting out quite a lot right now. Our grandmother is dead and there is a house and there are—cats, and—There is so much to do! So. If you would like to tell me your business, I would be happy to assist you, but if not perhaps you could simply send condolences, I am sure you know our address.”
“You said you were a friend,” Catherine said quietly.
“I’m a—” she said loudly and cut herself off but a surge of anger that’d stayed down in Wendy for days suddenly raged through her blood, like she’d breathed it in with the air. She clenched her fist and bit down on her knuckles—
“Who are you talking to?” Ben yelled.
Gently, she calmed herself and put her body back down on the ground. She was about to excuse herself and say goodbye and hang up when Catherine said: “Well. Perhaps you remember William. Aganetha’s husband.”
“Yes.” Her Opa had died when Wendy was nine. He had been a quiet, internal, stable and gentle man. The opposite of her dad. Wendy had loved him deeply and been very close with her Opa. For a short time in Wendy’s adolescence, his memory provided her with the model of the kind of man she’d hoped she might be.
“Yes,” Wendy said. “I remember William very well.”
“Well, he was like Ben’s son. So there you go.”
“So there you go,” repeated Catherine. “And there are some letters and things I thought she’d want to see. I sat on them for a while because I thought, well, she doesn’t need to feel even worse about that whole situation. But then I remembered things she would say about William many years ago—and I thought well who am I to say she’s got the right to know or not. Selfish of me. And who knows, maybe it even occurred to her. Who knows! And he’s gone, so I thought what’s the harm, who am I to keep anything from her. So I decided that this morning and now I called and got you.”
Wendy opened her mouth and it was dry as plaster. She touched her fingers to her hair.
“But now she’s gone. And you won’t even tell me who you are,” Catherine said rapidly. “Perhaps I better go—no, I’ll ask you to do me a favour. I’ll ask you to tell one of Aganetha’s sisters. You obviously know them. I assume they are still alive.”
“Would you tell one of them what I told you? I’m going to trust in the Lord now that if you say yes, then you will. Might you consider doing this for me?”
“Perhaps I can, absolutely,” Wendy said dumbly.
“Good,” said Catherine. “You tell them what I told you, and then you tell them to phone me. My number’s the same as it’s ever been. They can look me up in the phone book if they don’t have it. My address is right there too, they can visit anytime they’re able. Just ask to call first. And not Saturday because that’s when grandchildren visit. And of course, you are welcome as well to come visit, though it makes me uneasy that you won’t tell me exactly who you are. Please excuse me! I don’t think I’m very capable of talking anymore! Are we perhaps clear?”
“Well. Good day to you, and my condolences about Aganetha. I thought about her often, you know. She is finally with the Lord. Hallelujah.”
Most Mennonites these days were rich. The humble old desperate towns of Rudy Wiebe and Sandra Birdsell books were gone, or at least shrunken, or fast on their way to existing only in traces, photos, myth and books and the bedrooms of old people. In their stead were McMansions and Liquor Marts and gourmet coffee shops. The Liquor Marts closed at ten and the coffee shops at midnight. There were big boxes and subdivisions and construction for new high schools and stores that sold fireplaces. The high schools had raffle prizes that gave trips to Vegas. They were the fastest-growing towns in the province. Most RMs in the province were bleeding people but Hanover and Stanley and Rhineland and La Broquerie were growing in double digits—it had been a long time since Wendy had talked, really talked, to someone like Catherine at all.
And in the city. The ones in the city. Wendy worked at a gift store close to Polo and every other wallet with five credit cards had Friesen or Penner on them. They could spend seventy dollars on a scarf and ask if there was a charge for a plastic bag. They would buy books on mindfulness and Taoism. She would see Hutterites driving Hummers.
Wendy stood in her nightgown and ratty skids of hair holding the phone receiver, until there came the alarm-drone noise of it off the hook. Ben came into the kitchen and re-filled his cereal. He took the receiver from Wendy’s hand and hung it up. “You miss that sound?”
“No!” she said, high-pitched and startled.
“What’s going on? Who was that?”
“Tell me,” said Ben.
“Someone called about Opa,” she said, the first thing that came to her mind.
“Yeah,” she said, returning to her normal rasp. Then: “They were behind the times.”
“Who was it?”
“I forget,” she said.
The best lies always come to you as you’re saying them, she’d been reflecting lately. It was planned untruths that didn’t end well.
“Something Hildebrand,” she added. “It wasn’t important. The guy was an asshole—oh, and he kept asking me if I was a man or a woman. Wouldn’t let it go.”
“What a dickwad,” said her dad.
“Whatever,” she mumbled. “Is there more coffee?”
“No. Make more,” Ben suggested. He poured his milk and went back into the living room.
Wendy’s head was imploding. She made another pot and then went into her room and poured raspberry vodka into her coffee mug. She rarely drank in the mornings—but. Well.
Downstairs in her grandmother’s sewing room there was a bookcase of photo albums labelled by year. Wendy put her hand on the earliest, 1961.
Pictures of her dad as a baby.
A lot with her dad and her Opa, wearing a grey shirt and huge owl glasses. Cute. Wendy’d always remembered her grandfather with bifocals.
An adorable picture of her dad on a stool, filling a cup with water.
Her grandpa in a field, wearing the same grey shirt.
She sat on the floor, sipping coffee and flipping through more pages. He was always wearing a variation of the same big grey men’s shirt—that fits, though, she thought. Wear the same outfit day after day, your brain gets numb to how it looks or feels—
Wendy shut the album. No. She hated going down that road. She hated analyzing the whys of trans girls. She had always hated it and she hated how easy it had become; the bottomless hole of egg mode life. It made her burn with anger thinking of all that lost energy. You could do it forever, and she’d played that fuckin’ game years ago when she’d needed to but she knew where that led and she was done with that game. She’d had a boy life. It was shitty and murky. So her grandfather probably had too and just never got out. So her Opa’d been a woman. Fine. Closed. She would keep the memory of her two grandmothers in her heart and that’d be that. Whatever. She drank the rest of her coffee in a slug and put the photo album back in the bookcase. Good enough.
“Hey, we gotta go back early,” said her dad. “Get your stuff.” He refilled her coffee without asking.
“I gotta meet somebody,” he said, tapping on his phone.
“This guy,” he said without looking up.
She put an ice cube in her mug and opened the fridge and her dad closed it and said “Go go go, we gotta move!”
“We have to go!”
Wendy closed and opened her fists, letting anger flow out of her.
She packed her things and added more vodka to her coffee. She lifted her moon-blue nightgown over her head and put on a white T-shirt with black jeans and a pink belt. She took off her crusted day-old eyeliner, put it back on and added wings.
She shouldered her purse and bag. Her dad was still packing.
Wendy looked out on the yard again, sunny and bright and clear. It hit her—this might be one of the last times she’d stay in this house.
Ben yelled to warm up the car. She went out and started the engine and put her shit in the back.
It really was nice out—no wind, serene, sheltered by the poplars on the side of the driveway that her Opa had planted decades ago.
She grabbed her bag, took off her boots, and ran inside. Her dad yelled something again.
“I’m coming, Christ!” She padded downstairs and put the album from 1961 in her bag. She hesitated, then picked another from the year her Opa had died and another from the early eighties.
They drove into town where a woman with a kerchief was always selling perogies and gravy out of her minivan beside the Walmart.
“Twelve cottage cheese, frozen,” said Ben.”
“I’ll have three, fresh,” said Wendy.
The woman turned to pack their containers. “I want a cigarette,” Ben mumbled.
They drove back into the city. Her dad didn’t speak. Wendy hadn’t registered any emotion from him, honestly, that Ben’s mother had died. They had been on good terms—but he didn’t seem any different. Wendy’d wanted to learn to make those perogies herself someday, but her dad had forgotten. She’d meant to ask her grandma, but she was dead.
“Little Fish” is an excerpt from Casey Plett’s novel in progress.
Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and is co-editor with Cat Fitzpatrick of the forthcoming anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers to be released September 2017 from Topside Press. Raised between Manitoba and the Pacific Northwest, she is the publicity and marketing coordinator for Biblioasis in Windsor, Ontario, where she now lives.