Castles in the Air

Castles in the Air

Fiction

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About the book

This debut short-story collection showcases Mary Hagey’s uncanny ability to capture the essence of being human. These richly satisfying stories, told with wry humour, intelligence, and verve, take us into fictional territory that is at once utterly original and as real as the world around us. These are people we know.

Some of them might have fared better in life if they’d had different parents perhaps, or married someone else, or worked at pleasing themselves instead of others, or if unforeseen circumstances hadn’t tripped them up and held them back. But now they find themselves caught up in salvaging what’s been lost or maintaining what seems to be slipping away. Whether it’s a woman on a timely mission to reunite her dying mother with her estranged twin, or a man in a troubled marriage trying to comprehend his wife’s mysterious grief when Princess Diana dies, or a dropout returning to school far from her Newfoundland home, these characters persevere in ways that illustrate the fundamental courage required of all of us. As they grapple with their situations and try to assert themselves in their lives, they—and the reader—come to regard their circumstances in a new light, and sense a quiet unfolding of truth.

About the author

Hagey, Mary

Mary Hagey grew up on a dairy farm in Southern Ontario near Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo. A long-time resident of Montreal, she attended Concordia University, majoring in studio art with a minor in creative writing. She has worked as a personal support worker, a housepainter, a clerk in retail books, a copywriter for a mail-order house, an English composition instructor at Concordia and an art instructor at McGill’s summer school for gifted children. She received her M.A. in English in 1994 while employed as a travel companion, a job that allowed her to see the world. Her work has been published PRISM International, Matrix, Grain, The New Quarterly, Room of One’s Own, Descant, and Rhubarb. Her writing has been nominated for the Journey Prize, the National Magazine Award, The Western Magazine Award, and a work of creative non-fiction was short-listed for the CBC Literary Award. 

Excerpt

from From 'Home Remedy'

You’re sitting under a tree downstream from where the ducks patrol the shore. “So here you are,” someone says, and you look up to see a little old lady. “Am I intruding?” your mother inquires hesitantly, and you shake your head no. “Where’s Katie? You haven’t lost her, I hope.”
     You tell her that Carrie and Ben came a moment ago and took Katie away to be part of some game or other. “It must have required a small, willing victim,” you say, and she asks where they are now.
    “They’re playing, Ma; it’s what kids do.” You watch the tentative dance of dragonflies on the surface of the water, and feel the force of your mother’s disapproval upon you, feel it slowly surrender.
    “Gee, it’s good to get the picnic cleared away,” she says, artificially upbeat. “It was so nice to see some of the men pitching in.”
    She’s forever implying that there’s a new breed of male unknown to women of her generation, and you ought to be grateful. Greg had been one of them, in her eyes. You wonder, will he try to resume the relationship when he hears of the cancer’s recurrence? When you think of men — the faceless men of the future — you think of all the breast reconstruction you’ll have to undergo. You think of the pictures you’ve seen of botched jobs, that you’d rather be dead than risk such mutilation. Of course, death is no afternoon snooze. Is the worst thing about cancer the prospect of dying, or is it the humbling effect it has?
     “So what’s up with Uncle Neil?” you ask.
    “That’s why I came to find you, Holly. How would you like to take a drive and find his old place?” She dangles the car keys. “It can’t be more than twenty miles.”
    “Couldn’t you just sit here and tell me?”
    “Why don’t we wait until we get there, hmm?”
    “I told the kids I’d watch them run their races.”
    Instead of conceding that you’d better not disappoint them, your mother says in a pleading voice, “You’ve always made out that the summer vacation with Neil was the best time of your life. Who knows if you’ll ever be up this way again?”
    Silence.
    Laughter drifts from the picnic area, cheers rise from the ballpark, a squabble of some sort comes from the direction of the playground, a girl’s hair-raising shriek: “She’s throwing sand! Daddy, tell her to stop throwing sand!”
    “…I only meant that since you generally don’t come to these reunions, you’re not likely… Anyway, I spoke with Chris and he says to be back no later than four.” With this, she holds out the keys and you reluctantly take them.
    It turns out that your mother has a map and written directions to your uncle’s, drawn up by Chris on company stationery, not some scrap he scrounged to facilitate a whim. No, this side trip has been planned in advance. You can scarcely wait to learn what your mother is up to, but in the meantime, you enjoy the open road, the cloudless sky, the soft crunch of gravel, the dust billowing in your wake.
    The scenery is more than scenery. Each prominent feature in the landscape seems to be a treasure on this treasure hunt: a gangly aspen growing inside the remnants of a silo; a barn whose sparse boards look like cross-hatching against the blue sky; broken windmills left to stand alone in barren fields; shabby clapboard churches in waist-high grass.
    “There’s the old one-room schoolhouse we’re supposed to watch for,” your mother announces by and by, her way of reminding you to turn at the next intersection, which you do. “That’s got to be the rock pile Chris means,” she says, pointing to the fruit of endless labour, a mountain of rocks in a field strewn with yet more rubble. Nearing your destination, you anticipate the lane that once led to your uncle’s, sense it just around the next bend. “Here, Holly, turn here.”
    “I’m turning, for god’s sakes.”
    “You might signal, dear. Then I’d know, wouldn’t I? Oh, look!”
    As the house comes into view you’re tempted to make a crack about the apparent Anne of Green Gables influence, but you hold your tongue. Your mother is wildly fond of the Canadian classic about a spunky girl. Yes, indeed, conventional people find spunky fictional girls very appealing. Real ones are another matter.
    “It’s not boarded up,” your mother says. “I was told it had been boarded up for the summer.”
    “What does it matter? There isn’t anyone about.” You park under a maple tree, turn off the ignition.
    The house, when it had belonged to your uncle, was nothing like it is now. It was a simple wooden structure similar to the shed, only larger. The grounds, now as perfect as golf course greens, had consisted of wild grasses, daisies, black-eyed Susans, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace. The old pump, once the only source of water, is now the central ornament in a rock garden.
    “Who’d have guessed it held such possibilities?” your mother says. “So tell me, the, uh, the summer you spent here, did something in particular happen that made you say you were going to write a novel one day?”
    “Happen? Nothing happened.” You scan the long-ago summer in search of an incident, some one thing that may have, after all, given impetus to the notion, but no. What you’d loved was freedom, the way days went by as they went by. No schedules. No having to measure up. No criticism. You fell in love with your uncle’s lifestyle: living alone without much in the way of material possessions. Lots of books, though, all the great works of literature, books on every subject under the sun, especially art.
    It occurs to you that were it not for that summer, you may never
have ventured far from your birthplace. You’d have married a high-
maintenance guy like your dad, most likely, and had a family. And with
this thought, a question comes to mind: would you have developed
cancer? Had it been in the cards, no matter what? You don’t really believe
in things being in the cards or not in the cards, but still, you wonder.
    “Neil didn’t…say anything to you then?”
    “Say anything about what?”
    Your mother clears her throat, the wheels in her mind turning; you imagine them as little windmills. “Well,” she says, “let’s just suppose this really was your novel, Holly, and you had a character such as Neil to deal with. What kind of a history would you give him to explain the life he’s chosen?”
    You dismiss the story angle and tell her she frets far too much over her brother, that just because he’s reclusive doesn’t mean he’s unhappy.
     “And why do you suppose the sister frets so?” she asks, sticking with third-person narration. “Oh, dear… A bee!” She swipes at the air frantically.
    “It’s a wasp,” you tell her, letting down the back windows, not solving the problem, in fact, accommodating other wasps seeking to find their way in. In a fit of exasperation you say, “Mom, why not just tell me what’s on your mind?”
    “Supposing his parents are actually his grandparents.” Your mother looks off into the distance.
    For a moment you are stunned, but you have a pretty good idea where the plot to this soap opera is going. “And let me guess, his sister is really his mother,” you say matter-of-factly. You rummage in the glove compartment and find some paper to roll into a swatter, but, wouldn’t you know, the wasps have settled on the back windshield quite out of reach. Your mother, meanwhile, is silent. “No kidding!” you cry. You are thrilled, now that you think of it, to learn Neil is your brother, but at the same time you wonder what difference it will make with him on the other side of the world.
    And now, in the rear-view mirror, you catch sight of a car coming up the lane. “Look how she stares at us,” your mother says as the car pulls up alongside. “She can’t get many visitors.”
    The woman steps out and continues to stare. “Lost your way?” she inquires. A lanky Doberman follows at her heels, circles Chris’s van, sniffing eagerly. It raises its head in recognition of a truck roaring up the drive. It wags its tail.
    The woman peers in at the two of you, and you and your mother hastily provide overlapping explanations for your presence. You say: “This was my uncle’s place and we were curious to see it again.” Your mother says: “My son built this house. We dropped by to have a look.” Is the look on your mother’s face because she was surprised to find herself openly referring to Neil as her son, or is it because you referred to Neil as your uncle, having just learned otherwise?
    A portly gentleman extracts himself from the cab of his pickup and slams the door. The frown he wears is similar to the one your father had. “This is my assistant, Holly,” your father used to say to his customers. “She’s the one who mixes up all my nuts and bolts.” There was something about his gruff claim on you that moved you then, moves you still.
    “Lyle,” the woman says, “this woman and her aunt — great aunt it must be, yes — have come to see the place. They’re Neil Delaney’s people… remember, the chap who built the, uh…original structure?”
    Your mother begs to differ. “Mother,” she says. “I am this dear girl’s mother.”
    “Excuse me,” says the woman. She peers directly into your eyes. “I seem to recall you saying before that Mr Delaney is your uncle…and this lady’s son.”
    “It turns out he’s my brother…or half-brother,” you confess.
    The woman levels a very chilling look at the two of you. “Really,” she says. “Well, I can’t imagine what you hoped to accomplish here, but I do trust you can find your way out.” She indicates the direction you should take, nodding approvingly at her husband, who is stationed at the rear of the van recording the licence number.
    Your head is absolutely spinning at the ludicrousness of this
situation. You would like to say, “Look here, lady…” but where would
you go from there? As you start the engine, the woman leans in again.
“First thing you have to remember,” she says sarcastically, “is to get
your story straight.” Bad enough she thinks you’re casing the joint; she
thinks you’re incompetent.
    “Thank you, thank you very much,” your mother says, smiling bravely, giving a queenly wave as you pull away. “What in heaven’s name was that all about?” she asks.
    “Country people aren’t what they used to be,” you tell her, sparing her any blame. “For one thing, a lot of them are city people.”
    Your mother sighs wearily. “I’ve missed my afternoon nap. I’m done in.”  
    You’d like nothing better than to take up the conversation you’d been engaged in prior to the interruption, but your mother is, after all, elderly, and it has been a tiring day. “Why not have a little rest?” you suggest. “We’ll talk later. Put the seat back and stretch out. I’ll wake you if I get lost.”
    As you drive, your mind commutes back and forth between past and present. The wasps, meanwhile, measure and remeasure the dimensions of the back window, their number diminishing as one by one they find their way out. By and by, you get the feeling that your mother is not asleep at all, but pretending to be in order to avoid you.
    “This is quite a bomb you’ve dropped, you know,” you say quietly, turning to watch her response.
    Nothing.
    So you drive on, trying to reconstruct your history. Your father, having married a woman with “a past,” seems less stuffy now. Kindlier. If only he could’ve taken Neil in as his own.
    You recall a photograph in the family album: Neil, a baby in a pram, his so-called big sister next to him seated on a porch step, holding a baby bottle in one hand, picking a scab on her knee with the other. She looks about twelve, but doing the math you arrive at sixteen. When, you wonder, had Neil learned the truth? You wonder, too, who his father might have been. Considering the men your mother currently attracts — Roy, Rev. Dick — you think you’d rather not know. Could it have been Agnes’s father? Your mother has obviously been paying visits to the nursing home — visits she failed to report, as she does every other little thing. And she responded so defensively when Agnes mentioned that her father’s mother’s name had been Holly. Good heavens! Supposing you, too, were born out of wedlock, supposing you are Agnes’s half-sister? After all, you don’t physically resemble the father who had been your father. Is it possible?
    Within your peripheral vision you catch sight of your mother’s eyes peeping open a crack. “This is quite a bomb you’ve dropped,” you say again — one of her old expressions. When you’d quit nursing school, left a so-called “perfectly good” job to go to Europe, took up with a man old enough to be your father, you had, supposedly, dropped bombs on her. “I know you’re awake,” you tell her.
    The great Hepburn rouses herself, pats her hairdo, sighs. “You woke me with that bomb business,” she says. “Little wonder I’ve hesitated to tell you things. You’re really quite intolerant, you know, judgmental.”
    You know she’s right. In your quest for what you imagine to be the truth or authenticity, you are often intolerant, judgmental. Your few friends regard you as a dear curmudgeon, but to most of your colleagues you’re simply difficult, autocratic, a nitpicker. You were going to change, become more laissez-faire, but here you are, Wallis McCarthy’s daughter, blood or no blood.
    “Surely you’re at least a little relieved that your family isn’t as conventional as you imagined,” your mother asks hopefully.
    You argue that there’s nothing unconventional about secrecy, and then in need of reassurance you broach the subject of your parentage by asking about Neil’s: “Neil’s father… do I know him?” But the timing is off. You’ve arrived back at the park, and your mother pretends not to have heard, points to a rail fence where the kids are perched.
    “Little chickadees,” she murmurs, causing you to be visited by that soft flutter of sadness, as you are from time to time, because it’s too late for you to produce even one little chickadee.
    Ben’s the first to leap from the fence to the ground, then Carrie. Chris helps Katie.
    Carrie opens the car door the moment you cut the engine and breathlessly tells you that you’ve won a prize. Such well-mannered kids: not a single whiny word from any of them about your failure to watch them run their races. Chris must have given them an explanation, instructed them not to complain. “I won a prize?” you ask. “How’s that possible?”
    “It’s for coming the furthest distance!” Ben is triumphant on your behalf.  
    “How did you do in the races?” you ask them.
    “I won mine,” says Carrie. And you can tell right away that Ben did not win his. He turns away from the family and starts throwing stones, aiming them at a garbage receptacle.
    “I winned too,” says Katie.
    “You did not win,” Ben tells her.
    “Katie ran the fastest,” Carrie explains, “but she didn’t wait for the man to say go. They had to start over four times because every time the man said three, Katie took off. It was really funny, Aunt Holly. I wish you could have been there.”
    “Dey gibbed the prize to a boy,” Katie says without resentment.
    “I’m glad you ran like blazes,” you tell her. “Next year I’ll come and watch you, I promise.”
    Yes, if you survive, you’ll henceforth commit yourself to attending family reunions. Desperate times call for desperate deals.
    Chris loads the picnic gear into the back of the van and asks, offhandedly, if you enjoyed your excursion. Then this brother or half-brother searches your eyes, and you search his. You tell him that it had been quite the trip.
    “Please, can Aunt Holly sit with us in the back, Dad?” Carrie asks, and he has to think hard on it. He says “huddle time” and gathers the kids into a tight pack all around him. While this conference takes place, you tidy your mother’s hair, reinserting the pins that have loosened during the course of the day.
    When the huddle breaks up, Ben is the first to speak. “You can sit with us but we have to be good this time. We have to keep our socks on,” he says earnestly. He himself has none to worry about, having lost one out the window en route to the reunion, and having had the other confiscated by his father.
    You supervise the buckling up business. “Bye-bye, park,” Katie sings. Grubby, yet incredibly lovely, she plays with your bracelets, puts them on the paws of her beloved stuffed bunny, Biscuit. Ben looks troubled and says, finally, that it wasn’t fair that he had to run against boys a year older than he is.
    Chris reminds him that there’s no gallantry in making excuses. “It’s more important to be a gentleman than a fast runner,” he says.
    You whisper to Ben that you’re willing to bet that one day he’ll not only be a gentleman but a fast gentleman, and Ben, sweet innocent, is buoyed by your confidence in him.
    Katie wriggles against you and strains toward your ear. “Taste my toes to see if dey is tiger food,” she says. She presses the toe of one shoe to the heel of the other, freeing a foot.
    “Too bad Aunt Holly can’t show us her tiger-striped toenails again,” Carrie says. A bright idea flashes across her face. “Wait a minute,” she says. “You’re an adult, and Dad said you kids when he told us to keep our socks on.”
    “Show us, Aunt Holly,” says Ben. “We forget what they look like.”
    “Keep your socks on back there,” says the meany in the driver’s seat, a command that’s met with gales of laughter, laughter that fills your ears and courses through your veins, the miracle drug your doctor has prescribed for you.
    Above the anarchy, you hear your mother murmuring to Chris that they need to talk when they get back to the house, but in the meantime he’s not to say anything about Neil coming home.
    Neil is coming home. Neil, your brother, is coming home. The
timing is suspicious though, isn’t it? All this truth and togetherness.
They must think you’re not going to make it this time. What a family,
really, when you think of it. What a tainted elixir.
    But wait. Biscuit bunny is pretending to be bouncy bunny. “Are all the windows closed?” you demand of your nieces and nephew. Biscuit must not go missing as Ben’s sock had.
    Then a question from somewhere beyond the scrimmage line: “What’s going on back there?”
    “Nothing,” comes a reassuring chorus, but it is not reassuring enough for Chris. He’s pulling off the road and stopping the van. He’s been given no choice, he says. He must think of everyone’s safety.
    “We kept our socks on,” you say in your defence. Nevertheless, you’re shifted to the front, the implication being you are somehow the rabble rouser. It’s so unfair because the person at the very heart of all the family discombobulation down through the years is the silver-haired woman about to be strategically placed in the back with the kids.
    “Look at this,” your mother whispers after only minutes of being on the job, and you turn to find three sleeping cherubs and the goddess of harmony.
    Oh, the irony! Still, you know the image is one you’ll call up again and again in the months ahead. You don’t even mind that it’s more Norman Rockwell than Rembrandt; you will hold it in your mind, hang on to it for dear, dear life.

Reviews

Reading Mary Hagey's thoroughly enjoyable debut collection of short stories is much like having a long conversation with a good friend over coffee, delving into and sharing the ups and downs of life and the problems we all grapple… >>

— Cheryl Girard The Winnipeg Free Press

Mary Hagey grew up on a dairy farm in Southern Ontario near Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo. A long-time resident of Montreal, she attended Concordia University, majoring in studio art with a minor in creative writing. She has worked as a personal… >>

— Rob McLennan

Mary Hagey’s collection of short stories, Castles in the Air, exposes the bittersweet complexity of family relationships. With overlapping life preservers drifting beside feathery clouds, the cover gestures toward the power of connection and imagination embodied by the characters in… >>

— Dalyce Joslin The Malahat Review

Ottawa-based writer Mary Hagey has lived an interesting life, having worked as a personal support worker, art instructor, housepainter and English composition instructor at Concordia University. This rich body of experience is evident in her debut book Castles in the Air,… >>

— Alejandro Bustos Apartment613


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