My Uncle Tony was diagnosed with lung cancer when he was forty-five. That same day, he pulled on his hip waders, grabbed his shotgun, and plunged into the Sevogle. It was late fall, the water ice cold, and the crimson leaves of the river-banked birch trees were spiralling to their deaths on either side of him. He kept his eyes skyward, already imagining his sweet surrender, and held the gun over his head as his waders filled with water. After the shot rang out, he slipped under the surface until he was carried away by the current.
At least that’s how I imagined it when I finally found out what happened, much later. My father said Tony didn’t want to live like that, once he knew what was spreading inside him. He didn’t even wait to find out whether it was treatable. His body washed up to shore not far from the cabin that had been his home for the past twenty-five years. He’d tossed his fishing line into that river hundreds of thousands of times, casting his hopes on trout, the brown kind with red spots. When trout swim out to sea their skin turns silver, but back in the river the glistening silver sheds to reveal a dull brown. The thought that even fish face faded glory made me sad.
I only met Uncle Tony once, less than a year before he died. I had just turned twelve, and it was an unseasonably humid spring day. My parents had taken my brother and me on a day trip to Mactaquac, a provincial park, but our beach time had been cut short by a sudden downpour. We spread muddy beach towels over the seats for the drive home, the car smelling up like swamp. My father drove fast, my mother beside him taking furtive sips from a can of Moosehead that had been half full when the rain started, and my brother and I in back counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. The storm was gaining on us.
When we pulled into our driveway, Tony was leaning against a burnt-orange pickup truck wearing bright yellow boots and a green rain jacket with the hood up, his grey face long and drawn.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s your Uncle Tony,” my father said.
His voice sounded strangely flat.
“Really? How’s he related to us?” asked my brother.
“He’s my brother,” said my father.
This was news to my brother and me. Silence filled the car as we all gazed at my father’s brother through the rainy windshield. He was looking over us at the sky.
My mother slipped her hand into the space between the headrest and my father’s neck. She gently massaged the soft spot she found there, making small circles with her fingers. She only did that when he was upset, and it seemed to calm him down. It only worked for her, though. I tried it once and my father batted me away, laughing, as if I was one of those pretty but ultimately annoying fluorescent blue dragonflies that come out in June.
“Stay here,” my father said.
He got out of the car and spoke to Tony, who kept motioning toward the backyard with a wide sweep of his arm so emphatic I worried it was going to fly out of its socket. Tony’s hood fell to reveal crusty blond curls, hollow cheeks, a red nose, grey circles beneath wild eyes. I watched his arm go back and forth five times (I counted) before I jumped out of the car and ran past my father’s outstretched fingers into the backyard.
I found two white rabbits with red eyes. Their fur matted from the rain, they cowered in the corner of a crude cage constructed of chicken wire and plywood. They whimpered as I approached. The cage had no top, and none of the nails had been hammered all the way in.
I never saw Uncle Tony again after his truck sped out of our driveway that day, but our parents let us keep the rabbits. I named them Tony the First and Tony Two Two.
We moved to a new house on the other side of town not long after, across the river that divided the city. It happened fast, and I didn’t understand why we had to move, why I had to leave my friends behind and change schools. My favourite thing about our first house was the tree house my brother and I found out front among a protective circle of neck-achingly tall trees. I wanted to turn the smell into a scratch-and-sniff sticker to take with me: the crunch of pine needles under our feet, the head-clearing scent of fresh pine and earth after it rained.
The new house had no trees or flowers in the yard. Too new for that. But my father built the rabbits a proper cage, one that was closed in, and we filled it with hay to keep them warm. At first he said we couldn’t bring the rabbits into the house, but I snuck them in so often he finally gave up.
“Keep them in the sun porch, at least.”
My father kept his computer in there, and the rabbits chewed through the power cord. Tony Two Two was the real culprit, I knew, but Tony the First had to share equally in my father’s door-slamming wrath. I was afraid for Tony the First and Tony Two Two after that. My father’s temper had always been unpredictable. The sun porch was mostly empty after he moved the computer to the basement, so I built obstacle courses and started the rabbits on a training program. I hoped a structured dollop of education would keep them out of trouble.
Helping my mother unpack one afternoon, I came across a box of old photo albums. In an envelope of outtakes, I found a crinkled photo of my father and Uncle Tony. I knew it was them because their names were pencilled on the back: George, age 8, and Anthony, age 11. In the photo Tony is a foot taller and has his arm slung around my father, who’s holding up a fish almost half as big as he is. They wear identical sun-slackened grins, two brothers content after an afternoon of fishing. They used to love each other, I thought.
I was in a theatre the night Uncle Tony died. My mother took me to see Before Sunrise because she knew how much I liked Ethan Hawke, and I went even though I was too old to go to the movies with my mother. I made sure we arrived late and sat at the back where no one would see us. My fingers got greasy from the buttery popcorn and I drank so much root beer I had to go to the bathroom halfway through the movie. I didn’t dry my hands, lamenting those lost four minutes of Ethan time.
When we got home, my father was sitting at the kitchen table drinking a beer in the dark. My mother turned on the light and asked him what was wrong. He blinked in the sudden brightness, his expression more raw than I’d ever seen it.
“The rabbits are gone,” he said.
“What?” I demanded.
My father shrugged, his eyes on his hands.
“They must have run away,” he said.
I stared at him, but he still wouldn’t look at me. Then he told us about Tony. Not the details, just that his brother had “passed on.” No one said anything for a few seconds, and then my mother suggested I go find my brother and watch a movie.
“I just saw a movie,” I said.
“Your father and I need to talk.”
My father looked up. After seeing the expression in his eyes, I never brought up the rabbits again.
My brother was on his stomach in front of the TV, face propped up by small hands. He was two years younger, so breaking the news was my responsibility.
“Uncle Tony died,” I said.
“Who?” asked my brother.
“Tony. Dad’s brother?”
He looked up at me, confused.
“Don’t you remember, when he brought the rabbits?”
He turned his attention back to the TV, where Steve Urkel was on the screen in a rerun of Family Matters. When the commercials came on, he sat up and turned to face me.
“Are we supposed to cry?” he asked.
“Um, I guess? I don’t know. We didn’t really know him.”
Neither of us had ever known someone who died before.
“I can’t remember his face.”
“Talking to Mom.”
We both understood that when my mother said she had to talk to my father, we were to make ourselves scarce.
That night, I dreamt about the rabbits. I was in the woods, chasing streaks of white and the glow of red eyes, and I couldn’t catch them. Finally I stopped, unable to catch my breath, and when I straightened up I saw them in a small clearing several feet ahead of me. They too had stopped, in front of a man. He had Tony’s face, hooded by his green rain jacket. He looked at me and seemed about to speak. I had a hundred questions on the tip of my tongue, and something told me he was ready to answer them. But then I woke up.
My mother was alone in the kitchen when I went downstairs the next morning.
“Morning, honey. How about some breakfast?”
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
My father made breakfast on Saturday mornings. He took pride in his poached eggs. The secret, he said, was to swirl the water into a gentle whirlpool before cracking the eggs. He always scooped two perfect fluffy white mounds onto my plate, and I loved to cut into them right away, watch the shock of yellow ooze out over my mother’s fancy white plate and catch it with my toast. My brother got picked up early on Saturdays for hockey practice, and it was the only time I was ever alone with my parents. Sometimes they even let me drink a small cup of coffee with maple syrup. I took a section of my father’s paper to read while I sipped.
“He’s out,” she said. “French toast sound ok?”
My mother’s manner was excessively chipper. She looked different. Peering at her, I finally realized she wasn’t wearing any makeup. I rarely saw my mother before she’d applied her rouge. She was a watered down version of herself without it. And until now I’d never noticed that she must colour in her eyebrows every morning, too.
“He’ll be back later,” she said.
“I don’t know, honey,” she said, strain starting to snake its way through her voice. “Let me make us some breakfast.”
While we ate the soggy French toast, which I didn’t like nearly as much as my father’s eggs, I asked why my father had never told us about Uncle Tony. How could I have gone twelve years without knowing my father had a brother?
“Tony and your father didn’t get along,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, your father didn’t approve of some of his decisions.”
“We used to have to drive up to his cabin when the neighbours called,” she said. “When you kids came along, your father decided enough was enough.”
“But what was wrong with him?” I asked.
“Your father never wanted to drag you kids into it,” she said.
I could see she already felt like she had said too much.
“Seriously, Mom, you don’t need to baby me.”
But she had already forgotten about me and was looking out the window, moon-eyed. I sighed loudly, but she continued to ignore me. I followed her gaze. Two chickadees were sitting at the bird feeder, pecking at each other. I couldn’t tell whether they were kissing or fighting.
My mother was obsessed with birds. She kept a diary, not of the events of her daily life, but of the birds she saw each day and their movements, their calls. She could have spent an entire day with binoculars ringing her eyes, charting birds through the picture window. Her unusually large blue eyes seemed especially suited to this. She even looked a little like a bird, with her long, pointy nose. To me, birds were boring.
My father didn’t come back until late that evening. I was already in bed when I heard the tell-tale clank of the garage door being locked. That was the first of many such disappearances in the weeks to follow. My mother wouldn’t tell me where he was. He was dealing with things and I should leave him be, she said. When he returned, he was always quieter than normal, more contemplative, calmer. He no longer noticed when I left my dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher, his temper less likely to flare out of control. I tiptoed around, afraid to make too much noise around him.
I went into the kitchen one night and was startled to see him sitting there looking through a photo album. I hadn’t heard him come home.
“Some of the pictures are falling out,” he said, holding up a Polaroid. “I guess the glue only holds so long.”
I watched as he paged through the album.
“I wish you’d had the chance to meet Tony when he was younger,” he said. “He was brilliant back then. We had a lot of fun.”
I sat down at the table, hoping he’d say more, but he shut the album.
“Time for you to get to bed, missy,” he said.
My father came home one day in an orange pickup truck laden with boxes. He’d cleaned out Tony’s cabin. His parents long dead, my father was the only person left to do it. He carted the boxes down to a corner of the basement and threw an old blanket over them. The next time he disappeared, I snuck downstairs when my mother was busy ironing. I opened the boxes one by one in a guilty panic, hurrying in case I was discovered. I was surprised by what I found. A diploma from McGill University declaring that Anthony Stonehill was a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics, sheet music for Chopin’s “Scherzo No. 2” and Brahms’ “Rhapsody in B Minor,” a collection of faded baseball cards from the 70s. A framed photo of a younger Uncle Tony and a blond woman I didn’t recognize. His wife? I heard footsteps behind me. I’d been so engrossed that I hadn’t heard my father come home.
“Put that away,” he said quietly, before going back upstairs without another word.
I returned to the basement the next chance I got, but the boxes were gone. Through the basement window I saw the rabbit cage, empty.
Early one Saturday morning, my father came into my room and asked if I wanted to come with him.
I had never fished. We stopped at Canadian Tire and my father bought me a child-sized rod. I was small for my age and I wasn’t very strong. I was pleased that my father had chosen me for this voyage and not my brother.
“It’s just for learning,” he said. “We can get you a bigger one later.”
We rolled through the Tim Horton’s drive-through. My father let me get a coffee even though my mother always said I was too young to get started on a Tim’s habit. I ordered a double double, two creams and two sugars. I rolled up the rim when I was finished, but I didn’t win. I held the cup out the window, feeling the pressure of the wind against my hand, and when my father wasn’t looking I let go, turning to watch the cup fly away into the distance until it was a tiny brown speck.
When we got to the river an hour out of town, I did cartwheels all the way from the car to the riverbank. I would have to sit absolutely still to avoid scaring the fish, my father told me as he hooked a worm on the end of my rod.
“Gross,” I said.
I sunk the worm into the river. Nothing happened for a long time, and then something did. I felt a little tug.
“Hey!” I yelped.
“Shhh … keep steady,” said my father.
He helped me reel it in and we let the fish fall to the ground. Small, it flopped around on the rocks, back and forth, its gills gulping for air and mouth speaking soundlessly. It had red spots all over its back, a pretty orange stripe along each side of its body. Its gills spasmed and seized the way my leg did when I got a charley horse. I could see its red guts underneath flexed gills.
Its impending death hit my stomach in a rush like it had a physical form, something pointy and hard, and I couldn’t breathe. I turned away from my father, thinking I might be sick.
“We can throw it back,” my father said. “It’s too small, anyway.”
I guess he saw it in my face. He unhooked the fish and tossed it gently back into the water. It didn’t move at first, but then it slowly swam away. I was embarrassed and relieved.
On the way back to the car, we passed a cabin with purple curtains in the windows.
“That’s where Tony lived,” my father said. “He loved this river.”
We stood there for a few minutes without saying anything.
“I’m sorry about your rabbits,” my father finally said.
“That’s ok,” I said, because I didn’t yet know how to tell him it wasn’t.