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Mister Sandman
By Barbara Gowdy

Chapter One

Joan Canary was the Reincarnation Baby. Big news at the time, at least in the Vancouver papers. This is going back, 1956. Joan was that newborn who supposedly screamed, "Oh, no, not again!" at a pitch so shrill that one of the old women attending the birth clawed out her hearing aid. The other old woman fainted. She was the one who grabbed the umbilical cord and pulled Joan head-first onto the floor.

Joan's mother, Doris Canary, attributed everything to the brain damage. Joan's inability to talk goes without saying, but also her reclusiveness, her sensitivity to light, her size, her colouring ... you name it. Joan's real mother, Sonja Canary, attributed everything to Joan's past-life experiences. Sonja was there for Joan's famous first cry, and it's true she had thought it was one of the old women screaming, "Flo! Flo! She's insane!" but that didn't make any sense because the woman who could have screamed it had throat cancer. If Joan was either brain-damaged or reincarnated, Sonja preferred reincarnated. She would, being the real mother.

To be fair, though, there was something unearthly about Joan. She was born with those pale green eyes, and the hair on her head, when it finally grew in, was like milkweed tuft. That fine, that white. And look how tiny she was! Nobody in the family was tiny. Nobody in the family was anything like her, her real parents least of all. Sonja was fat, and had dark brown corkscrew hair and brown eyes. The real father was an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic. He had remarkably white skin, and Joan did, too, but without the freckles, pimples and hair. Flawless. Joan was flawless. Another way of saying not like any of them. Sonja, of course, went further, she said that Joan was not of this world, and it drove Doris Canary crazy. Baloney! Doris said. Brain-damaged, brain-damaged, brain-damaged! she said. Face it. Ask the neurologists.

Doris even told strangers that Joan was brain-damaged. Her husband, Gordon, never publicly contradicted her but he winced and sighed. "It's the truth," Doris would say then, as if normally she wasn't a brazen liar. As if Gordon had ever agreed with the brain-damaged diagnosis let alone that you could point to anything and call it the truth. "The truth is only a version" was one of his maxims.

(Which Sonja heard as "The truth is only aversion" and, although she had no idea what it meant, automatically quoted whenever the subject of truth was raised.)

© 1996 Barbara Gowdy

Steerforth Press

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