At the age of six, Amara McNeil shot and killed her father. She had discovered a gun in the bottom drawer of a credenza, its silvery barrel gleaming, attractive because she wasn’t sure what it was, though some part of her must have recognized it as belonging to the world of screens and make-believe. And her father had surprised her as she held the thing. Startled, she’d discharged it, the bullet catching him somewhere in the abdomen. There followed: a brief, eerie silence, his cries of pain, the wailing of her mother and sisters.
It was a moment Amara had been parsing for forty-one years, and although small details sometimes receded from memory, the vivid things were inescapable: the handle of the credenza’s drawer (ivory), the gun barrel visible though most of the gun was covered by black velvet cloth, the recoil when the gun went off, the sudden quiet that was as terrifying, in retrospect, as the chaos that followed it.
She had adored her father, and forty-one years on, she still dreamed of him – not as he was when she shot him, or not always, but as he had been when tossing her up in the air and then catching her with a loud ‘whoosh!’ before setting her down so one of her sisters could have a turn.
Amara no longer believed her father’s death was the worst of what the world had to offer. At forty-seven, she knew that there were deprivations and humiliations beyond her imagining. One read about them daily. And it wasn’t as if she had built her life around guilt and sorrow. Rather, she’d done her best to come to terms with them.
But it did, at times, feel as if guilt and sorrow had secretly steered her circumstances. Was it really a coincidence that two of her closest friends had suffered childhood trauma that afflicted them as Amara’s afflicted her? Or, again, why was she fascinated by novels and films that depicted the worst in human nature? She preferred to reread Dracula than to finish The Wizard of Oz, and would sit through Funny Games countless times before finishing Annie Hall or Palm Beach Story.
Her tendency towards darkness, which grew more pronounced as she approached adolescence, troubled her family. It was most troubling to her mother, who walked in on her one day as she was watching raw footage from accident sites – human body parts strewn about a roadway, a digital time code on the bottom right of the screen. It took her mother a moment to realize what Amara was watching, but when she did, she began to cry, which was when Amara, until that moment absorbed in trying to figure out just what body parts she was looking at, first clocked her mother’s presence.
Thereafter, and for some time, her mother and sisters treated her with almost excessive compassion, inadvertently rewarding her for the path her psyche had chosen for its recovery. Or, it could be, deliberately encouraging this tendency of hers as something preferable to discussing the death of her father, a subject all of them had tacitly come to accept as hors-jeu, too fraught.
In either case, this suited Amara. Curiosity had done her no favours. And for years, playing up her role, Amara wore black clothes and black lipstick. She listened to Throbbing Gristle and Nurse with Wound. She cut herself, her arms mostly. And her friends were those of her contemporaries who shared not just her tastes but something of her psychic imbalance. A number of them tried to kill themselves, one succeeded.
Time in the city passed in the usual way: innumerable buildings were torn down to make way for newer buildings that would themselves be torn down, the face of the city changing so much that, were it not for Toronto’s lake-adjacent fate, its mutations poised against an expanse of blue, the city might have grown unrecognizable.
That, in any case, is how Amara figured time’s passing.
As for its effect on her: the years were kind and unkind in almost equal measure. She fell in love and was loved a number of times. But she fell out of love – or was pushed out – just as often. She took on work as an administrator at York University, but her career stalled and, in her forties, she found herself being nudged aside – gently, for now – by younger peers who, to her embarrassment, she found herself envying. She bought a small house on Cowan Avenue, but was forced to be frugal as she tended to its flaws. Friends and acquaintances began their migrations from friendship, called away from its pleasures by divorces, marriages, children and ageing parents.
Her forties, it seemed, were fated to uncertainty. And, to make matters more uncertain still, 2020 brought a pandemic, two years into which her mother died after a prolonged illness.
This death was in almost every sense more devastating than her father’s had been. For one thing, although Amara was acquainted with the dark shadows and strange light of loss, the pain of this death was more distinct for its slow oncoming. She was used to speaking with her mother once or twice a week, and visited her in Petrolia, often. And she had come to dread the very thought of her mother’s death, prefiguring the loss again and again over the years.
Then too, occurring as it did when much of the world was masked and wary, her grief was mixed with a different kind of anxiety. Meetings with her sisters – held to decide what to do about their mother’s funeral – took place over videoconference, so that their anguish seemed theatrical, as if they were performing for each other. And the funeral itself: the four of them, and very few others, masked in a chapel with a masked prelate, a ritual observed by any who wanted, on closed circuit.
Following her mother’s cremation and the distribution of the small porcelain vases containing her ashes, there was a reading of her mother’s will. She had left property in Sarnia, to be divided equally among her daughters. Her personal possessions she left to the discretion of her oldest daughter, Warda. And the modest amount of money she’d saved up was given to her grandchildren. The will was succinct, sad and clear. And it was very like her mother, one who did not like to leave loose ends.
So, Amara was surprised when, a month after the reading of the will, her eldest sister called her privately to arrange a visit, a visit during which she would give Amara a letter their mother had left for her. More surprising still, Warda said this was something the two of them were to keep to themselves.
‘Ward,’ said Amara, ‘you can visit whenever you want. I just finished repainting the spare bedroom. You can break it in. But what’s all the mystery?’
‘You’ll see,’ answered Warda. ‘I’ll come next Friday.’
Which she did, arriving in a cloud of Warda, her tall, no-nonsense self bringing childhood with it, bringing back a time when her older sister seemed mythic to Amara. And although, over the years, Amara had fallen out with her other sisters, she’d never had any disagreements with Warda, preferring – even if unconsciously – to be on her older sister’s side.
There was something different about this Warda, though. She seemed hesitant, maybe even troubled. After they’d got current business out of the way – the virus, the dead and other causes for distress – Warda said:
‘I’m sorry about the secrecy, Mara, but Mom made me swear to keep this to myself until Dr Olson died. You remember Dr Olson? He used to visit us, after Father died. His daughter June called me last week. He died around the same time Mom did, about a month ago. Covid, June said. So, here we are.’
She handed Amara a sealed envelope.
‘This is for you,’ said Warda.
‘You don’t know what it’s about?’ asked Amara.
‘No, I don’t. I’ve been holding on to that envelope for two years, now, but I promised not to look at it, so I didn’t. If you want to tell me what it’s about, that’s great. But you don’t have to. It’s between you and Mom, as far as I’m concerned.’
‘I see,’ said Amara. ‘Okay, I’ll read it later. Come see the guest room. Did I tell you I painted it myself ?’
I don’t know where to start. I have wanted to tell you the things I’m about to write, every day since the afternoon your father died. You can’t imagine how hard it’s been to look on in silence as you suffered, unable to say anything as you lived through the worst that any child could live through.
I want you to know that I’ve suffered along with you, though I know my suffering was no help to you then and isn’t likely to help you now.
First to begin, Mara, you did not kill your father. Your father didn’t die from the flesh wound he got from the gunshot. He died because Dr Olson, our GP in Petrolia, saw to it that he died. I don’t know exactly how he did this. He was afraid to implicate me. But Dr Olson, Brad, did this because we couldn’t see any other way to stop your father from hurting us.
You were so young at the time, Mara, I don’t know how much you remember about your father. Though he was good to you, he was sometimes very troubled. I imagine Warda remembers more than a few bad moments, but some things must have faded for her too, except for when we couldn’t keep your father’s behaviour from others.
I don’t like to speak ill of your father. I never have, because I know Gary had a terrible childhood, worse than any of us. And because he could be so loving and good, as he was with you. Was it wrong to believe that his love for you, Mara, was his real self and that his flaws were something we could all fix together?
I tried my best under difficult circumstances, and when your father died I was devastated. But I was grateful, too. Grateful to Brad above all. He did what he did because I asked him for help and because, over the years, he’d seen what we went through.
It’s for his sake that I’ve kept silent, Mara. I swore to keep this secret to myself, for Brad’s sake. My only regret is that you’ve had to carry this guilt with you for so long. If I could have done anything, short of breaking my word to Brad, I would have done. As it is, Mara, I’ve told no one any of this. Not even Warda, who is the only one of you girls old enough to really remember the troubles with your father.
I understand if you can’t forgive me for my silence. I do wonder if I was right to promise that I’d tell no one. But what I want more than anything else is for you to know you are innocent.
You’ve done nothing wrong. You never did.
Your loving mother,