Cynthia Wilson Memorial Reading

As a writer, I owe Cynthia a huge debt of gratitude, and it's to acknowledge that fact in the only way left to me now that I'm here today.

During the early 90s I found I was increasingly weary of teaching in high school. At the same time, I was stealing more and more of each day to write, mostly poetry, some short stories, a confused, messy, undirected outpouring very much like the torrent from a defective tap. Success in one or two contests, publication in some very minor magazines, and dalliance with a small self-published book for the gift store at the National Historic site in Fort St. James, persuaded me against all reason that I wasn't altogether wasting my time.

Enter Cynthia. In 1994, with the chutzpah that comes from a state of complete ignorance, I sent four short stories to Caitlin. I had ideas for others, but I cannot pretend that I had a complete manuscript tucked away in a drawer. I didn't even know that you're supposed to accumulate a collection by getting individual stories published in literary magazines. To my utter amazement, Cynthia wrote to say that it was nice to have a manuscript by a real writer cross her desk, and that Caitlin would be interested in publishing the stories. Music to my ears!

What followed was typical of the path to publication. The stories flowed, and in my innocence, I thought that was that. Over the next two years, however, I had three editors, one after the other, each one of whom wanted to start the editing process at the very beginning. I began to wonder whose stories I was writing. The publication date was delayed by more than a year. But finally, the day came when I was able to roar down the road to Prince George, edge round Bailey barking menacingly, and gloat with Cynthia over the boxes full of actual books. So euphoric a moment, that the typo on the back cover hardly fazed me.

The rest of the story was equally predictable, if I had only known it. The snowstorm on the day of the launch in Fort St. James, Cynthia unable to come, but gleeful that 70 copies were sold that day; the tour - to Smithers - with a reading at Houston where the books didn't arrive in time; the reading in Prince George for which the wrong date was published in the local paper. And Cynthia there for moral support, taking it all in stride, sweeping up in her Miata, wedged among the boxes of books and papers that crammed its interior, or dispensing soothing noises and glasses of wine at discouraging moments.

This was an education for a novice. Cynthia gave me a crash course in publishing, the disabusing-innocents reality check which has stood me in good stead ever since. And more than that, I will always be grateful because she was the first one to place any confidence in me, and by accepting my stories, gave me what has been called "the passport book", that evidence of publication history that might induce other publishers to take a writer seriously.

I'd like to read a very short passage from one of the stories in that book. It is about the aftermath of a wedding and a death. This is for Cynthia, who also enjoyed a stream that meandered through her garden.

Extract from "Ring Cycle" (Hide and Seek, Caitlin 1996)

The marquee was flat on the ground as if it had deflated, and the folding chairs were folded and being stacked in a large van. I passed two glasses and a plate with a small piece of wedding cake on it abandoned together in the grass. The lawn looked trampled and unkempt. I pushed my way through the ferns and rose bushes and willows and emerged finally on the bank of the creek, disturbing two herons as I did so. Dozens of crows were blundering noisily about in the trees, planing in, hopping sideways over the sandbars, cheerfully heckling each new arrival, as convivial and full of anticipation as yesterday's wedding guests.

As my eyes attuned to the water again, I realized that many more fish had stolen up overnight. They wavered in the water in their thousands, lying one on top of the other in layers, filling the stream bed. It was as if the creek had curdled and thickened, had become a sinuous, wavering body, each individual hair combed by the current, pliant as seaweed dancing to the invisible tug of the ocean. In unison the green backs swayed, caressing. Every one pointed upstream, obedient to the force field in the water. In the shallows the shifting reflections from the surface played over the gravel like veins of gold, and pairs of fish broke away from the main body, wriggling into the stones, oblivious. Always the eye returned to the quiet ranks marking time in the pools; the stream where they were born had reeled each one in, and now they waited to complete one revolution and set the wheel in motion once again. They had the same intent and anonymity as the brides and grooms I had seen in a photograph of one of the Reverend Moon's mass wedding ceremonies, rows of Oriental faces gravely focused on something far beyond the camera, all dressed the same, all compelled by the ritual. There was the same sense of fatality, of hypnotic surrender, of sacrifice.

And already some of the fish wore the white flowers of dissolution on their sides, and some were blushing red, and some had ragged fins that stirred feebly, and some faltered and turned in the current to slip away for a while before writhing back into place. And some, exhausted by their silent ecstasy, turned for the last time, and drifted downstream to the waiting crows, who jostled and bickered and cawed, sliding over the stones in their black haste to stab and tug at the feast. And I knew that always, always, the brides and grooms would lie in state on the stones that cradled their young, and the crows would gorge and gleam, and sisters would marry and grandfathers die, and the great implacable cycles would wheel and mesh, and all, all would be well.