Authors: Nina Berkhout
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and for my sister, Nadine
Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.
âPeter S. Beagle,
The Last Unicorn
the search for and study of animals whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated, such as the Loch Ness monster and the sasquatch [Etymology: literally “study of hidden animals” from Greek
Canadian Oxford Dictionary
, I saw a unicorn.
It happened the summer my father piled us into the wood-panelled station wagon and drove for a week straight to get to the Rockies.
We stayed in a motel off the highway near an old CP Rail town called Field. I looked the place up on a map recently and was surprised to see it was still there. Even back then it felt abandoned, as if everyone had left long ago.
My father planned the holiday a good year in advance, enticing my mother with brochures from the Automobile Association and buying gear he couldn't afford from the Mountain Equipment Co-op. He was no avid outdoorsman, he was a painter. But like so many family men, something in him craved that rugged, solitary landscape. This meant that every few years my sister and I wound up canoeing lakes in the backwoods of Manitoba or trekking along logging roads in northern Ontario while our friends went to Marineland, Disneyland, or the beach.
Driving across the country, my father went on about art and nature, addressing us in the rear-view mirror. He enjoyed preaching to us about the aesthetic beauty of the Great Canadian Wilderness. The day trips he planned revolved around Group of Seven haunts, culminating in a visit to Lake O'Hara, the subject of some of J. E. H. MacDonald's better-known canvases.
We travelled by bus for this portion of our trip. It was the only way to reach the lake unless we hiked the eleven kilometres in, uphill on a gravel road. My mother opted to visit the ChÃ¢teau Lake Louise that day. She forfeited her spot on the bus at the last minute, so it was just us: me, my father, and my sister, Viv.
I was glad my mother wasn't coming. She'd be in a bad mood and slow us down. She joined us on a few excursions, digging up wildflowers she later pressed or suntanning on picnic tables, massaging the olive oil meant for salads onto her antennae-like arms and legs while we walked along the riverbank. But mostly we'd drop her off in Banff so she could shop, or she stayed in the room watching soaps until we picked her up for supper.
I remember my mother clearly on that trip. Flipping through
magazines, legs stretched carelessly across my father's lap as he drove through never-ending wheat fields, golden and rippling like her hair. Her complexion was flawless. She was forever seeking the holy grail of creams that would “youngify” her skin. Behind Jackie O sunglasses, her eyesâlarge and cold like reflecting moonsâscanned the countryside in search of amusement. Or, like a teenager, she'd paint her toenails fire-engine red on the dashboard, dangling her feet out the window as she smoked cigarette after cigarette, half-heartedly partaking in I Spy or counting crows when we grew restless.
She baited us with made-up things in the scenery. I hunted for smouldering scarecrows and Zeppelins out the back window until Viv cursed, “Christ on a stick get real, Constance!” and she reached back with her free arm to slap my sister.
From the time we could talk, our mother made us call her Constance and our father Henry. North American children don't respect parents with no identity, she'd say. After that trip, Viv called her the Con, but never in front of our father. And never to her face.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
HEN WE ARRIVED
at Lake O'Hara, we climbed a lush mountainside and stopped to rest by a waterfall partway up the trail. My father pulled a Thermos from his knapsack as I perched beside him on a boulder, scouring the valley for my mother until he told me she was out of visual range. Then a mote formed at the edge of my vision, a white fleck on green that caused the hairs to rise along my spine.
I jumped up, hollering, “Uuunniiiicooooorrrn!” over the turbulent cascades.
Viv was scrambling up a rock slide and missed it.
My father put his tin cup down, got up from his foam pad, and raised a hand to his forehead to form a visor against the sun. He squinted in the direction I was pointing then brought the binoculars, which hung around his neck, to his eyes, and pulled them away then back again, focusing and refocusing. He took his time examining the animal resting on the slope, eating grass. Then he turned to me and said, “By gosh you're right. It's a unicorn, Edith.”
This was probably the last of my innocent imagination as I left childhood behind. It didn't occur to me that a male grown-up was unlikely to see this enchanted creature. I wasn't familiar enough with legends and my convictions stemmed from longing more than logic.
It would be years before I understood the unicorn was only a goat. But my father always encouraged us to use our imaginations.
“Do you have a story?” he'd ask me each night at bedtime. The story could be about anythingâa leprechaun, an ant, a sidewalk crack, or a sound. “If at the end of your day you haven't got a story, your day has been wasted.”
“I have a story for you.”
“Tell me,” he'd say.
Y SISTER WAS A
child beauty queen. Whenever she'd win another ten-pound crown, our mother would regurgitate the epic tale of Viv's first pageant as though it were a feat comparable to conquering Everest. Constance was eight months pregnant with meâ
âwhen she snuck her blue Chevy Malibu out of the garage and drove her three-year-old daughter all the way to the Kingston pageant and back, through a freak blizzard, without winter tires.
Arriving at the local Legion, she yanked a half-asleep Vivienne from her snowsuit. Opening her umbrella against the squall, she got out of the car and ran around to the trunk to extract a tutu obtained at Goodwill, which she'd refashioned the week prior.
Diving into the back seat, she groomed Viv in record time, painting her face and costuming her. She used a butane curling iron and an Avon travel kit bought from a neighbour for the occasion. The kit was made up of a wing for brushes and applicators, and three drawers containing six eye pencils and one liquid eyeliner, three lip pencils, forty-six eyeshadows, thirty lip glosses, six press powders, one mascara, three lipsticks, and four nail polishes.
With seconds to spare, Constance ushered my sister through the stale-smelling pool hall to the registration table. She pinned a number onto the stiff netting of Viv's skirt and shoved her onto the makeshift stage, reminding her to wink at the judges.
Over the next few hours, Vivienne competed against girls with names like Isis, Aurora, Mercedes, and Trinity. The panel was tickled by her uncompetitive, laissez-faire attitude. With her crystal-embellished outfit, her spellbinding eyes and pouty lips, she was awarded the highest honourâthe Mini Supreme Queen crownâalong with five hundred dollars, a Red Lobster voucher, and a hot pink double-column trophy standing twice her height.
As the story goes, I kicked so hard when Viv won that my mother thought she'd deliver me on the Precious Cutie-Pie pageant floor. She sped home before my father arrived from work, hastily spreading Viv's loot across the dining room table. Thanks to our selfless mother's adventurous spirit, my sister's fate was sealed on that tempestuous day.
Moreover, Constance was unashamed to admit to living vicariously through Vivienne. “
have such opportunities,
” she'd exclaim in her sophisticated accent as she considered my sister's prizes.
When she was younger, our mother dreamt of becoming a celebrity. She left France for
without looking back. In New York, she endured the drudgery of au pair work, and saved every cent she earned for her intended move to Hollywood. Then she met our father.
Fresh off the Greyhound from rural Ontario, he painted Hopper knock-offs in an unheated loft, took night classes at the Art Students' League, and worked as a cleaner during the day. Modelling for extra cash, Constance was intrigued by this unconventional man who sketched her hundreds of times in their first weeks together, or so she said.
Nulla Dies Sine Linea.
No Day Without a Line. That was the League's motto. And Henry Walker fed Constance Moreau plenty of lines, reciting Leonard Cohen to her through the night, promising her the moon. But he got to New York too late, studying in a place whose importance was dwindling. Influential artists had been replaced by untalented kids with hefty allowances, and my sister and I ended up being named after the songstress and the star our mother never became: Vivien Leigh, the manic actress who died of TB, and Ãdith Piaf, who also perished in a rundown way.
After two years in New York, Constance was ready to move on. Henry's paintings weren't selling and nobody would take his work for barter anymore. He couldn't make the rent or pay for classes.
My mother bought herself a one-way ticket home to her Paris
settling back in with her parents. Soon after she found a job at a cosmetics counter, the morning sickness began. Her mother insisted she send a telegram to
and return to him at once. Henry wrote back, proposing.
Constance wanted to live in Montreal because she'd read
The Tin Flute.
But in the mid-eighties, the Quebec economy was unstable and the separatist movement was intensifying. Raising a family in such a volatile political climate wouldn't be safe, my father said. They settled in the nation's capital instead, an hour away from the farm where Henry grew up, like Constance, as an only child. After his parents had died, the property had been repossessed by the Crown.