Stump by Miranda Morris
2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Miranda Morris made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Stump.
You can read Stump below.
Some people called Grand a witch.
And if you also grew up in the '90s, I know what you're thinking — but no, Grand wasn't the Stockard Channing-Dianne Wiest-midnight-margaritas kind of witch. She didn't live in a big house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, or burn incense and soothe our booboos with herby poultices. She smoked like a chimney, sported a permed, box-dyed mullet and walked on a wooden foot. They have plastic ones that fit better, but nobody could convince Grand to give up her pine prosthesis. "You'll have to pry it off my cold, dead stump!" she said. But that's not how it happened.
Grand didn't cast spells. She just sensed things that happened within a certain radius of her house. Grand lived off Grackle Lake Road in an old cabin with live-edge siding, a corrugated roof and a one-room addition on the back with exposed insulation between the studs. Uncle Egg had slapped it on in the seventies and never finished the job — probably because Grand never let him move back in, according to Dad. The cabin sat up on a forested embankment, obscured from the road by a dense mess of conifers. The property included several acres back into the woods, which Grand called the bush. She liked to remind you that the old tractor-powered sawmill her father had used to make the cabin planks was still back there. This wasn't a fact that interested my brother Cody and I as kids, and we rarely ventured behind the house.
In the winter, being at Grand's meant suffocating confinement in the living room, choking on the stank of nicotine and woodstove fires, eating fig newtons and watching The Young and the Restless til Dad finished work. In the summer, we'd escape down the road to the lake to swim with vacationing city kids who wore clothes from the GAP and put lemon juice in their hair and shared issues of J-14 and Bop. Grand didn't care when we came back dripping wet, so long as it was still primetime on Global. Provided we didn't cross the 69, she always knew where we were.
Just like she knew right where the Fishers' dog went to die after it lost a fight with a bear — the same bear that had torn the lid off their garbage bin the week before. Grand didn't predict these events; she was just aware of them and could pinpoint the location of any item that waded off into the forest. The aptitude rarely benefited Cody and I, so we mostly ignored it.
Sandwiched between the bourgeois playground of Muskoka and the immense wilderness of Northern Ontario, the communities we came up in were caught between worlds. Some of my classmates were the children of dentists who kayaked and skied and spearheaded charity trips to Nicaragua. Some lived in trailers and went hunting on ATVs, or got pregnant in grade nine and dropped out of school. Ojibwe kids lived on one of two reserves that bookended town — one to the north, the other on the island. Grand's mom came from the latter, but we didn't know much about her. She'd died when Grand was a kid, and the connection to that branch of the family withered over the years, probably because of Grand's dad. He was a log driver who came to Georgian Bay when the glacier-carved shorelands were still studded with old growth white pines that loomed like titans. After his wife died, he hardened.
Sandwiched between the bourgeois playground of Muskoka and the immense wilderness of Northern Ontario, the communities we came up in were caught between worlds.
Grand had no siblings and didn't visit the island or go to powwows. In fact, the only community involvement she was known for was crashing funeral services to eat free sandwiches. She got around alright, but because of her foot she had to hitch rides to town, and she hated relying on other people. Mostly she stayed near the cabin, anchored to the land by something heavier than heritage, more resentful than sacred.
The thing about Grand's foot was it had been amputated a long time before we were born, and we never got the full scoop on what happened to it. Grand was pretty cagey about the whole thing and if cornered, she'd just throw out ludicrous explanations to distract us with laughter or terror long enough to change the subject. Had it been torn off in a cougar attack, annihilated by a boat propeller or suffered "necromantic fascism" (years later I learned this was Grandese for necrotizing fasciitis, a real and hideous affliction)? Or — and this was Cody's favourite — had it been lopped off in the night and eaten by the Windigo monster? This one had several variations, sometimes featuring Grand's second cousin Gary Noganosh who was possessed by the Windigo and driven into cannibalistic psychosis, culminating in Grand's dad catching him climbing out the kitchen window with the foot in his mouth.
There were accidents, UFO abductions, tramplings and a bunch of diseases — all horrific and presented as the consequences, in Grand's fire and brimstone ideology, of some bad behaviour on her part. The panoply of fables was rich and changeable according to her capricious moods, but the one detail that never wavered was the epilogue — a sly claim that the offending limb had been buried so she could always say she had "one foot in the grave". Dad reckoned Grand avoided discussing the foot incident because her father had to amputate it himself back in the days when there wasn't always a doctor around, and the experience was traumatic for them both. But Dad didn't really know either. Nobody did.
Over time, Grand's moods became a growing problem. Since Mom wasn't around, Grand should've taken a maternal role — but the older I got, the meaner she seemed. She mocked me when I suffered intense period cramps, and laughed when I shared my university ambitions. By the time I got my acceptance letter from The University of Toronto, I had one foot out the door. I packed for the city the day after graduation and didn't look back.
Since Mom wasn't around, Grand should've taken a maternal role — but the older I got, the meaner she seemed.
A year later, the government made plans to extend the 400-series highway past Parry Sound. Grand was notified that her lot would be a casualty in the expansion, and there was nothing she could do about it. She was offered market value for her home and compensation for moving costs. She didn't take it lying down and fought harder than anyone on Grackle Lake Road, but it was a lost cause. After the expropriation notices came in the mail, Dad and Uncle Egg went over to try and help her pack up, but she pointed her old .22 at them from the doorstep and screeched until they backed off. One day, Dad called me in my dorm room, his voice thin and weary.
"Grand's in emerge. She's had a stroke. I think it was a bad one."
I caught the Ontario Northland bus from the Dundas and Bay terminal, and settled into a crusty window seat with my psychology homework and my iPod. Most of the way home I just gazed out the window. At some point past Barrie I drifted off and dreamed of Grand, standing naked on a granite outcropping over the lake with outstretched arms, wailing into the wind. I woke up as we pulled into the Harvey's on the edge of town. Uncle Egg was leaning against his van, holding two double-doubles.
The air smelled better than I'd ever noticed before. I realized it was actually just the absence of smells that had become air to me in the city — garbage, fry grease, Chinatown fish markets, the ubiquitous concentration of vehicular exhaust. I breathed greedily, wolfing down oxygen like a parolee relishing his first home-cooked supper. Uncle Egg drove directly to the hospital and a nurse let us into Grand's room.
Outside the confines of the cabin, Grand seemed smaller. Her once leathery brown skin looked papery in the white sterility of the ICU, and the fruiting bodies of unaddressed whiskers protruded from the topography of her face. The nurse explained that before slipping into a coma, Grand had started mentioning the proverbial "journey" people on their deathbeds often talk about. There was discussion of moving her into hospice. She wasn't responsive and the nuances of consent weren't fully clear. Nobody wanted to make the call, so we played the waiting game of the strong, silent types. Her sons had already taken the opportunity to clear out the cabin while she couldn't protest. They'd been surprised to find most of her things already packed up.
One afternoon during my solo bedside shift, Grand awoke with a start and grasped my wrist in a fervent grip. I was too shocked to cry out. She spoke with a quiet precision.
"You have to go get it before the bastards bulldoze. I can't leave without it."
"Grand, I don't know where it is —" but she was shaking her head, gripping tighter.
"It's in the bush." Her eyes flashed. "The boys won't find it. You go. Please!"
So I got up, went to the waiting room where Dad napped, and slipped the car keys out of his pocket.
I got to the cabin after the work crew left for the day, thankful I wouldn't need to explain myself. I'd have at least an hour of daylight to find the spot. I skirted around the cordoned-off house, resisting the urge to peer in the windows one last time. The back addition was already partially demoed and the corner of a table peeked out from under a bolt of pink fibreglass. It made my heart hurt so I hurried by and into the bush.
I was hit by the fact that I couldn't remember the last time I'd been back here, and didn't really know what I was looking for. The woods were dense and jumbled. Twice I stepped in scat. At some point it opened up, though, and here the ground was spattered with wintergreen growing amidst thick, bouncy sphagnum and ferns that surrounded the trunks of hemlocks, spruces, birch, and pine.
That's when I saw it.
I remember it like this in my dreams:
I notice the auger first.
I don't know what I'm looking at — tenacious rust the colour of pine brush, its foreign citizenship to the woods only betrayed by shape.
I don't know what I'm looking at — tenacious rust the colour of pine brush, its foreign citizenship to the woods only betrayed by shape. A segment of corkscrew the diameter of my arm, protruding from the back of a hill. On closer inspection, the mound is shaped by detritus and leaf litter settled into the hard-angle hollows of machinery, reclaiming and conforming its decrepit metal body to the undulations of forest floor. I brush away needles and soil, feeling the first vibrations of what I can only describe as a sort of humming deep in my guts. There's the track, the rack and pinions, and — most gingerly excavated — the circular blade itself. All components painted in the ruthless residue of time, but each swooping tooth of the blade retains an anachronistically lethal edge.
I rest my hand on what I realize to be the remains of the last partially-milled log. Its identity is betrayed beneath layers of moss and fungi by the unmistakable ghost of one 90-degree edge, warped by biology like the covertly pyramidal hills that shroud sleeping Mayan temples. He left it here, still braced against the head block. Did he fell the pine himself or steal a rogue escapee from the Seguin River drive and cut off its company brand? Whatever the case, I know in my bones how it was never transmuted into lumber and left unceremoniously, cradled by its executioner for the best part of a century. Just as I know too that a love-starved little girl sat astride its girth, stood or danced in her sundress, perhaps scolded by her drunkard father, whose careless gestures paralleled his child's in a star-crossed instant of catastrophic consequence. I see it happen so fast — the spiralling sawdust suddenly clumping into a stained aggregate of human and tree. The pink of a little girl's dress the same hue as her macerated flesh.
The auger points the way. I follow the subtle furrow on the ground leading into the trees. The question of the log's provenance is answered in a great stump surrounded by a clearing. It's the stump of one of the smaller old growth white pines that probably stood 130 feet. I can just make out the mound of stones near its base — here too, the needles have mortared their cavities, fleshing out the bones of the cairn.
Bones. There are 206 in the human body, 26 in each foot. I don't know this when I kneel and disassemble the pile, transferring stones one at a time into a haphazard ring around the grave — but part of my brain is counting out the lost fragments of Grand's life. I use one rock to dig. The needles give way to the smell of earthy ichor, blood of the bush. It draws me down past wriggling grubs, between thick, woody tubers and webs of mycelium threads whose networks I rip apart in the process. Then I find them. They were once wrapped in sinew wrapped in flesh wrapped in birch paper and placed delicately in this chamber of soil.
I drive through the rural darkness that is so boundless, my existence feels questionable. At the hospital, I emerge into overcompensating fluorescence — the assurance that human health is as safe from the menace of nature as it is from shadow. Grand is disconnecting with the living. She was supposed to rejoin the part of her that started the journey long ago but was caught on a spiritual treadmill for 80 years. Instead, the string that pulls two ways is snipped on both ends at once, leaving a rootless stump.
We buried Grand in the town cemetery. Some cousins from the island showed up. Their kids had black smears on their foreheads. When I placed the shoebox in the casket, everyone understood the ancillary coffin. She needed all 206. I thought about asking the cousins what they knew, what Grand knew. Would they have wrapped Grand in birch bark? But the questions felt belated, chimerical. They shook my hand politely and there were flickers of eye contact. Then they loaded up into their beat-up trucks and drove off and I got in the car with Dad, who was joking about the little sandwiches, and Cody, who couldn't believe the hospital lost Grand's prosthesis. I looked out the window and thought of what I couldn't say aloud.
I still think of it sometimes, especially on that stretch of highway passing the lake. How, when I found the spot, the roots all converged there in a perfect vertex of reaching fingers, convening with the tiny cluster of skeletal puzzle pieces. How, at first, I sensed a collective shrinking withdrawal at my intrusion. But when I made the trade from the shoebox, it was answered with a familiar embrace of the borrowed piece of wood, returned at long last.
- Kids in Kindergarten by Corinna Chong (Kelowna, B.C.)
- Deville at Home by Brooks McMullin (Prince Albert, Sask.)
- Leaving Moonbeam by Ben Pitfield (Toronto)
- Her First Palestinian by Saeed Teebi (Toronto)
About Miranda Morris
Miranda Morris is a writer, illustrator and multi-instrumentalist currently based in Hamilton. She grew up in the Georgian Bay woods north of Parry Sound, where she returned to quarantine following a year of playing trombone in a 12-piece funk band in New Orleans. After graduating Ryerson University's film production BFA program (specializing in screenwriting and production design), she split her time between Toronto and Louisiana for 10 years — working in film, riding Greyhound buses and doodling. She's seen a UFO and one time she danced with Bruce Springsteen in Moncton. She's now working on a collection of short stories.
The story's source of inspiration
"Stump grew from a mishmash of characters and narrative bits from my hometown — a small community built on the Seguin River logging trade. The main character in particular was loosely inspired by a real woman who was something of a cult figure to my friends and I in high school, and whose true tale contained elements too grisly to include. I suppose the story became a meditation on the consequences of familial trauma and broken cultural bonds."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.