For short story month, we’re offering up a free story from one of Invisible’s short fiction collections. Up today is “The Gamins of Winnipeg” from Seyward Goodhand’s Even That Wildest Hope.
The Gamins of Winnipeg
One June night in 2016, a meeting of the gamins of Winnipeg took place. Of course, the meeting began after midnight, in the French part of the city. No, these gamins weren’t children, if that’s what you’re thinking. They had all prevailed into middle age, residing between the ages of thirty and fifty-eight.
They sat at a cluster of small round tables under the zig-zagging iron stairs and screened-in balconies behind the Nicolette Inn, more a tenement than a hotel. A light hanging from a telephone pole yellowed the sharper points of their faces but left all their roundness obscured. They chose this location because they liked to be surrounded at all times with structures that reminded them of their youthful nightmares. When they turned their greasy, cropped heads east toward the train tracks, they could observe on the horizon the huge barrel that held water for the abattoir. Elevated on three spindly legs, it looked like an iron virus. Closer, in a park behind a chain-link fence, stood a weathered statue of the fourth-century Assyrian martyr, St. Febronia, its face blacked out by a cloud passing over the moon.
They all suffered under the particular wavering of gamins: confused by the world’s righteousness, while at the same time committed to the serious absurdity of their own dark souls. But recently their suffering had increased. They were under attack—or, at least, that’s how they saw it.
They were being put to work in a coat factory. Even at a thirty percent employee’s discount, the gamins couldn’t come close to affording coats like these, stuffed with real goose feathers and lined in fur that had been dyed Tyrian purple using the secretion of a predatory mollusc.
Of course, the people putting them to work thought they were helping the gamins by giving them an opportunity to earn a living, and maybe even the life purpose of a vocation. These philanthropists didn’t know gamins already had a life purpose, which was to exist on the razor’s edge of survival, getting by on their wits alone, never lifting a finger. When it came to work, the gamins practised conscientious objection. In their opinion, laziness was ethical.
But now the kitchens and walk-in clinics and even the shelters had closed, in exchange for the gamins getting work and registered housing. The nation demanded gratitude.
So, that night, after eleven hours spent plucking the feathers from the chilled corpses of gutted geese and tearing the tails off rabbits, the gamins gathered to discuss how they should meet this assault on their liberty.
“We could burn down the factory,” Helen said.
“Might as well set yourself on fire,” Kay said. “The next day they’d put us to work somewhere worse.”
“I want to live in a tree,” Tommie Queenie said.
“Nobody ever asks my opinion, but why don’t we open our own residence again here in the Nicolette and employ ourselves?” Delilah said.
“Too old for brothelling, never liked it,” said the gamin who for many years had gone by the name of Chappie. She was the most muscular and the ugliest of all the gamins, and their leader insofar as that was possible. Every gamin was a histrionic. Even Chappie, ugly as a devil, was no exception.
“Oh, the world’ll use force—it’ll reach inside and play us like puppets,” Chappie said. “But the power to stay useful to nobody and nothing is ours until death. Sure I’ll go get my paycheque from a coat factory, if that’s what keeps me alive, but what I’ll really be doing—and there’s nothing they can do to stop me—is living a contemplative life. I’ll pluck and think, pluck and think. But I won’t pluck much. If they want to reform me, they’ll have to cart my hog-tied body to the people who give lobotomies.”
Chappie didn’t look at any of the other gamins as she spoke. She had turned her chair away from the gathering of small tables to face Febronia’s statue. They all knew it wasn’t rudeness. It might be said that Chappie was in love with the stone Febronia—not a day went by that she didn’t visit her. And it was at Chappie’s insistence that the gamins had met by Febronia’s statue at the back of the Nicolette. While the coat factory growled for them like a greedy gut across town, many of the gamins suspected that, more than stuffing coats, it was distance from Febronia that strangulated Chappie’s soul.
Deeply committed to strange, irresolvable passions, the gamins lifted under the anger in Chappie’s voice. All except for one: Chappie’s daughter, Lene.
For a long time now, Lene had known that the only way she could give herself over to the gamin’s pledge—of uselessness, insolvency, whimsy, artifice, and profitless philosophical speculation that offered consolation to everyone’s soul but hers—was by being drunk. Lene was the most manic of all the gamins, the loudest, and the biggest prankster. Before the coat factory, she’d spent most of her time at a busy inter- section pulling antics. She especially liked to wobble into the busy streets and moon traffic. Motorists dropped money in her can just so she’d get back on the curb. I don’t need your crushed ass on my conscience! they shrieked. Sometimes she pretended to jump off a bridge just so drivers would crank their heads and smash into the back of another car. Other days she sat on a hard, wooden chair with her hands on her knees and silently wept, and if anyone stopped to look at her, she slowly met their eyes and sang “Rock-a-bye Baby.”
But despite her constant giggling, in her heart Lene knew she wasn’t really an impish embodiment of the chaos principle. She had no impulse to keep the universe on its toes, to provoke its creative retaliations. No, Lene had the soul of a nihilist. She was obedient to the silent call of the vacuum. Faced with the inevitability of death and annihilation, Lene stretched out her arms and dreamt of speed. She felt love for all the tiny, fragile things, but in the end remained loyal to the direction of time and to mortality. If Chappie was the heaviest gamin, Lene was the smallest and the lightest.
Since she began going to work with all the other gamins at the coat factory, a strange thing had happened to her. Lene discovered she liked sobriety, so long as it was paired with utilitarianism—and that was because utilitarianism was its own kind of drunkenness. The slow conveyer belt snaking from the roof of the warehouse down to the ground, and the gamins perched at each level on a series of stairs, each tasked with plucking her portion of goose and tossing the feathers into a metal suction cup that shot them into a sterilizing vat beneath the floor: these activated in Lene the same thirst for inevitability that a twenty-sixer of rye would. More than anything, Lene hated the lazy, ponderous nonchalance of the gamin who did not nakedly pluck her section of goose. And the worst, laziest offender was her mother.
So at the meeting behind the Nicolette, Lene stood up to present her idea, sulkily vaping a cloud that smelled of coumarin pipe. “Actually,” she said, “Delilah’s onto something with her brothel idea. We have to make our own money. That’s the only way to freedom. But instead of brothelling, why not our own factory? Consider the muff. Everybody knows the most useful thing for a gamin to own is a muff to keep her hands warm in the frigid winters. That way, when the mood strikes, her fingers can limberly clutch her can of paint.”
All the gamins nodded; gamins were famous for spraying illegal murals that spread the surreal quality of their souls across the cities in which they made their homes.
“Of course, none of us gamins owns such a muff. But be honest. Which one of us, sitting on a curb in winter with our hands frozen stiff between our knees, hasn’t itched to paint? Our souls sit dormant and unexpressed for at least six months a year, especially at this longitude! We can’t be our own customers, nor can we rely on the gamins of other cities to keep us in business, seeing as we’re all so cheap. So I suggest we make muffs for highly functioning, well-paid normates who wish they were gamins. At the coat factory, only the rabbit’s tail fur is used, to line hoods. The rest of the rabbit gets taken next door to the dog-food factory. Gloria, Billie, Oscar Medusa—you’re going to filch pelts. Tommie Queenie—you’ll drain off some sterilizer from the vat. Helen, Kay—you’ll steal upholstery scrap, needles, and thread. The rest of us are stuck plucking geese. But at night, we’ll make the muffs. Then in the summer we’ll all dress up in our most poignant attire and walk around the streets in our muffs, setting the trend. Come fall, we’ll sell them at the farmer’s market in West Broadway.”
Most of the gamins began to whistle and meow, excited by Lene’s proposal and the opportunity it gave them to be magnificent. But Chappie said, “Aren’t we here to discuss how to get out from under an arbitrary obligation? Why would we invent another obligation?”
And just like that, with a collective sigh of pity and, perhaps, built-up resentment—for a long time, Lene in particular had considered Chappie’s dedication to a life of contemplation, really a dedication to a life of contemplating Febronia, to be a pious and self-righteous affectation—Chappie was toppled from her unspoken role as head of their ragamuffin collective.
Now muffs drizzled from the grey sky of Lene’s sober imagination, tantalizing her with their bitter, monotonous oppressiveness.
To market their muffs, the gamins invented an Ideal Gamin. The Ideal Gamin was grotesque enough to be interesting, but possessed the waify, unintentional beauty that would- be gamins liked so much. The city responded to the murals rising up all the bare, brick walls of the Exchange as if tick- led awake by an ancient wish. The many identical faces of the Ideal Gamin bore such radiant rebelliousness, everyone who looked at her shrugged a burden off their shoulders and felt all the paranoia of their lives fizzle away.
The teenagers of the city’s wealthy residents started hanging around the intersection where the gamins used to stand before they went off to work at the coat factory, and they began spray-painting their own variations of the Ideal Gamin in her long, folded gowns, her hands hidden in deep pockets.
The city celebrated this new atmosphere of debonair irony. The streets became trendier each minute. So many people gathered to practise sophisticated absurdity. They stood on their beds giving spontaneous at-home poetry readings inspired by guests’ blood types, formed hundred-person circles and hook-knit collective tapestries, wrote out names backwards in menses, summoning long-dead political rebels. The city became obsessed with devotional practices, so long as everybody’s devotions made a great spectacle.
Even Lene’s original plan to steal rabbit pelts and other material proved unnecessary. The owner of the coat factory, David Thompson, an ambitious and impressionable man named after the eighteenth-century cartographer, fell in love with Lene, and she agreed to marry him. He bought the dog-food factory next door and transformed it into Lene’s muff factory. He even followed her advice in turning the coat and muff factories into co-ops, so the salary of each gamin immediately quadrupled.
The country fell over itself, enchanted by David Thompson’s moral transformation at the hands of a gamin. Every other city began to look toward their own gamins for untapped potential. Soon every citizen believed that the initial prodding to work had activated in the core of the gamin population a hitherto unsuspected creative energy.
But Lene’s success only brought her unrest. Every day her eyes fled across the shiny, productive surfaces, and away from the busy, contented, increasingly well-fed faces of the gamins proudly plying their trade. Always, her eyes landed on Chappie.
If possible, Chappie had gotten even uglier over the last two years. Her grey hair receded bluntly around her head until it looked like a wool face cloth dropped over a newel post. Her eyes, always small, now seemed invisible from across a room. Her cheeks were red and inflamed and had too many swollen folds, as if her face had diaper rash. She’d lost a few more teeth, all in the front, and every few seconds she had to give a good, long suck so she didn’t dribble. Her bottom lip hadn’t had any feeling for a while.
Not once did Chappie lift a finger toward the composition of a muff. It was all they could do to get her to pluck a goose. And there she failed as well. Sometimes she would stand stock-still and stare at the conveyor belt, fixated on a stain as it moved slowly, slowly, slowly along, while her goose went by untouched.
To top it off, Chappie became pretty much mute. Her silence didn’t seem hostile, though. Once, her son-in-law took Chappie aside and explained to her how usefully her talents might be applied toward the painting of marketing material. Chappie yawned and said, “I think I’d like to paint the bottom of a lake.”
Lene took Chappie’s laziness personally. Whenever she looked at Chappie staring at a spot on the belt, not working, she would feel a tug backward, toward a hunger for the good, honest life that had always terrified her. More than anything, Lene did not want to be duped into a state of hopefulness.
Every day at three o’clock, she watched Chappie stand on the street outside the factory, her shoulders slumped and a content, an absent look on her face, waiting for the bus that would take her across town to the little park, and to Febronia. One day in February, Lene herself stepped outside the factory, looked both ways, put up the furred hood of her long coat, and crossed the street.
All the smoky nights of Lene’s youth rose up around her like a chorus of ghosts: the subtle speculations made over bottles of wine as candles burned; the dusky sky like a Venetian painting announcing to her child’s ears, Here I am, a sad illusion owing my existence to you. The stories her hideous boyfriends told her lying on her mattress in the dark as, over their scarred and bony foreheads, she would catch a green flash of the northern lights out the high clerestory window—stories about how they had resigned themselves to their ugliness and deformity by finding a body to worship. Pity is hard and even revolting, Lene concluded back then, but it is a kind of love. The only kind that could distract her from herself, when such distraction was what she sought.
She knew, now, as she walked toward Chappie’s dark eyes, that she was temporarily moving in the direction of the past.
“Hey, Ma. Let me drive you.”
They got into Lene’s new Telsa, went east, and parallel parked. They walked across the flat field of ice and sat on the bench. In this park, far away in centuries and space from Febronia’s fourth-century Assyria, her statue had been doodled on by children and pissed on by dogs and men passing through. Two Xs blacked out her eyes. A piece of hockey tape gagged her mouth. A plastic shop- ping bag with something used and bloody in it fluttered in the wind, hitched to Febronia’s elbow. Middle-aged pigeon shit stained her head and shoulders. It was as if human capriciousness had joined with the forces of nature to humiliate her. Not even Chappie, who loved her, ever cleaned her up.
Lene had always called Febronia Chappie’s girlfriend. But as she sat there with her mother in the cold that day, she admitted to herself that she always hated Febronia because Febronia was like a better, less manic daughter to Chappie, one who calmly endured the anxious delirium of the world. Lene put her crow-coloured head on Chappie’s shoulder. “Ma, back when you used to paint, your murals were so full of impossible longing.”
She said this knowing the time was coming when the world would no longer seem alien and surreal to her. Soon, she would open the front door of her little century home south of the river and feel, for the first time in her life, the comfort and normalcy of the family and possessions waiting there for her return. On that day, the roof would close and she would be trapped in an immeasurably small yet engulfing abyss of her own making.
When Lene raised her head again, she was angry. “What is the point of a person like you? Why don’t you do us all a favour and let the axe finally drop? We know you hate your life.”
The expression on Chappie’s swollen red face was as cheerfully impassive as ever. “You know I haven’t done anything to hurt you, Lene.”
But Lene was hurt. For, in fact, the first painting of the Ideal Gamin Lene had ever sprung upon the city, and the one that had completely beguiled it, was an exact replica of this stone Febronia: the same starkly staring eyes focused on a radiant complexity in another world, one more worthy of Febronia’s attention than the clenched jaws and wide eyes of her Roman tormentors. Up the grey side of the Richardson Building, it was Febronia’s image that leaned against the handle of a shopping cart, with her hands—just like the statue’s—buried deep in her pockets, as if clutching hidden talismans.
It was as if Lene had taken upon herself the task of exalting Febronia, for Chappie.
“Why don’t you just kill yourself,” she advised. “Then you won’t drain people dry with your total lack of interest in anything other than this statue of a make-believe martyr.”
That night, Lene couldn’t sleep.
Chappie had seen Lene at her most pitiful and cruel. Mothers know something about daughters that daughters don’t themselves know. No other intimacy in Lene’s life came close to matching it in intensity.
In the morning, she rushed to the coat factory. Thankfully, Chappie was there at her usual spot, not doing much. Lene was relieved that the worst parts of her nature hadn’t wounded Chappie as much as she’d feared. But she was also annoyed with herself for simpering around Chappie that day, complimenting her ludicrous rubber boots and professing that she had always found Chappie’s dreaminess inspiring.
Lene’s obsession with her mother only grew after that.
She thought Chappie a fake, and she wanted to scratch apart her mother’s pretensions and get to whatever lay be- neath. Lene began to berate Chappie on the assembly line in front of all the other gamins. Whenever Chappie came out with one of her homespun pronouncements—things like “We are like cacti. The deeper the winter, the more shocking the little red flowers in summer”—Lene threw back her head and rolled her eyes in disgust. She shuffled behind Chappie and her hanging lip, and criticized her mother’s hair, her nails, and her weight, as well as her failure to be a strong, self-sufficient role model.
But with every vengeance, Lene felt lonelier and lonelier.
Eventually, she could think of only one way to pierce Chappie’s self-sustaining heart, and to make her know that Lene was really there in all the magnitude she felt was her experience alone. So she petitioned city council to remove the statue of Febronia from the park behind the Nicolette. “It’s so degraded, it’s a disgrace to her memory,” Lene argued.
One day, at the end of June 2018, Febronia’s statue disappeared. Workers power-washed the pedestal on which Febronia had stood for who knows how long, in preparation for whatever would go there next.
None of the gamins had intervened when Lene told them, one at a time, with a sadistic glint in her eye that felt almost like an offer of camaraderie, that she was off to petition city council. But when Febronia’s statue went away, they immediately suffered a collective stab of remorse, and then a flutter of panic as their hearts tried to run backwards in time. That day, silence presided in the coat factory as they all gave Chappie a wide berth. No one had the courage to tell her that Febronia would not be there when the bus pulled up to the park. Next door, the muff factory buzzed with pronouncements of innocence.
Just like that, the gamins turned against Lene. They said they’d been beguiled by a prodigal daughter. Everyone patted Chappie’s shoulder when she left for the bus that evening. They squeezed her hand and gave her little smiles. From behind the coat factory’s glass doors, Delilah pressed her garnet-coloured head against Oscar Medusa’s
tiny, malformed ear and whispered, “Are we murderers?”
Oscar Medusa rubbed his hands all over his face and shook his head. “I don’t think I can be here,” he said. “Tomorrow I won’t be able to look her in the face.”
The next day, fewer than half of the gamins arrived at work. Chappie, however, did show up. Everyone looked at her carefully, as if just the force of their eyeballs would be enough to shatter her like a plate.
Eventually, at noon, Helen said, “How are you feeling today, Chappie? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Chappie said. “How are you?” “Meh,” Helen said.
Chappie stood at her station, plucking the odd feather and staring off at nothing, just like she did every day. Be- cause they sympathized with her so much, and because they wanted to lie at her feet and grovel for forgiveness, the other gamins mimicked her behaviour. And all of a sudden, as if their eyes shifted to allow a buried image to emerge from a hologram, Chappie—who had looked so hideous and alien to them these last two years—became familiar again. So familiar, in fact, that the other gamins thought of themselves as younger, more handsome variations of Chappie.
Due to everyone’s laziness, production at both factories shuddered to a near halt.
“What? Do you really think so little of me?” Lene addressed the banditry of black-and-red-haired gamins when they confronted her in her large office with its rooftop view of chemical release flu-gas stacks. “I have a wonderful surprise, actually—a very expensive surprise, if you’d like to know—that I wanted to give my mother next week on her sixtieth birthday. It’s Febronia that Chappie loves, not some old, pissed-on statue. Just you wait.”
The gamins became terribly excited for Chappie’s birthday. It felt like an opportunity to make kind and extraordinary gestures that would redeem their past behaviour. “Thank goodness for birthdays,” they said. “Whoever came up with the idea for birthdays was a genius in group psychology.”
Lene organized an enormous party in Chappie’s honour in the basement café at the Nicolette Inn. There were gimlets. There were pastries cooked over a live fire, pea soup poutine, a room in which to dance, and a room in which to sit over cognac and have a political discussion. A woman, dressed in a rabbit onesie with the flap open at her butt, played an electric piano. There was a movie screen showing a film about legless nuns flying away from a war in hot-air balloons, but getting blown back onto the battlefield. In one corner sat a little hive on a table with bees flying all around it, to remind everyone of the sting at the heart of festivity—the gamins found this touch a bit tired and avoided the area. There was everything Lene hoped Chappie would like. But the party was one hundred percent a gesture of hope. Chap- pie was impossible to buy for.
All night, Lene hovered by Chappie’s elbow, barely able to keep the final surprise to herself.
Finally, when the room had gotten dark and vapoured, and all the gamins were dancing slowly with their arms over their heads, pretending to be anemones waving in the currents of the sea, Lene took Chappie’s dry, swollen hand and said, “Come on, Ma.” She pulled Chappie across the dark parking lot. All the other gamins followed. They awkwardly climbed the fence, catching their emerald-green nylons, and clustered around the bench, taking pictures of Chappie with their iPhones and posting them to Instagram. Not one gamin had the courage, in that moment, to look up from her phone.
Before them rose a restored Febronia, a shiny white marble Febronia elevated on a clean pedestal, her hands out of her pockets and raised before her, as though she no longer needed the talismans to comfort her.
“She’s glorious,” the gamins gasped, staring into their cameras and snapping pictures.
They really needed the new statue to be glorious. And objectively, there was no denying her preciousness. This Febronia was made from bone-white Calacatta marble. A twenty-four-karat gold halo reigned over her head on a little metal post. Her sad eyes, two huge, round opals, were so pure they radiated starlight. She was so valuable that a chain-link cage had to be locked around her.
Chappie sat on the bench. She crossed her legs. A smile quivered on her face, then disappeared as she tried to restrain it. But she was not looking at Febronia. She seemed instead to be watching the moon.
Seeing Chappie so ungrateful, Lene’s mouth filled with bile. “Nothing?” she said. “I went to all this trouble just to make you happy, unlike anything you’ve ever done for me, and you have nothing to say?”
Chappie turned around and peered into her daughter’s anguished face.
“Lene, my dear,” she said. “I’ve never really told you about Febronia, have I? I waited for you to ask. You never did, so I kept her to myself. I didn’t want to impose her on you.
“It’s a true story, as true as stories of saints and martyrs can ever be. You can google it. Back in the earliest days of the fourth century, Febronia was the niece of the abbess Bryene at a monastery called Daughters of the Covenant, at Nisibis, Assyria. She’d lived at the monastery since she was two. At eighteen, she had grown so charismatic that whenever she read to the public, which was often, they immediately understood complex, abstract forms that had previously been opaque to them.
“In 304 AD, in the heyday of the Great Persecution, Diocletian sent his generals into Northern Mesopotamia to torch the monasteries there. Everybody fled to the mountains—all the monks, most of the nuns, and, at the front of the pack, the bishop. But Febronia stayed back. Her aunt Bryene stayed with her, and so did one other old nun, a woman named Thomais, who recorded this story. The Roman prefect, Selenos, renowned for his brutality, took one look at Febronia and offered to spare her if she renounced her faith and married his nephew, Lysimachus, who was one of the soldiers present.
“Febronia refused to renounce her faith and to marry Lysimachus, and was sentenced to excruciating torture. Her hands were bound and a yoke set around her neck. She was led outside, stripped naked, and tied to a tree. Her teeth were smashed, her tongue torn. Her skin was flayed from her back. Her hands and feet were cut off. Her breasts were cut off. Only beheading put an end to her suffering.
“But it is said that she never cried out any of the confessions of guilt the Romans wished her to say. The only words she uttered were, Stay with me. In the end, Lysimachus was so affected by the brutal torture of someone so powerful, he immediately gave all of his worldly possessions to the new monastery they built right after.
“Sometimes I would sit here and marvel at the degradation of Febronia’s statue. I wondered at the rude drawings on her body, the garbage that stuck to her, the piss staining her robe. I have always thought of Febronia as a gamin, even though gamins aren’t usually religious. It struck me that all the abuse the statue of Febronia endures, all the ruinations of time, only amplifies its power.
“And now you’ve knocked her down and replaced her with a better version of herself, so she can’t even be missed. I think that perfects her: removed, thrown out, supplanted, forgotten. You really are my daughter. This is an excellent present.”
At that moment, Lene understood that her own real mission had been to eradicate the gamin spirit wherever she found it—not out of hatred, but from the fear that attends a great love.
She stood in brief silence, in the cool black of this northern park with its few witnesses. Then she took a tiger lily from her hair and placed it, through the cage, at Febronia’s feet.
“Now she’s remembered a little bit,” Lene said, glaring over her shoulder at Chappie.
Lene bounded up, threw herself onto the bench next to her mother, and rested her head on Chappie’s lap. After ten minutes, it felt less humiliating. After twenty, Lene’s eyes filled with tears and she felt, for the first time, no longer young.
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