Image credit: Jennifer Pagliaro / Toronto Star
Writers André Babyn and Jess Taylor became friends in Toronto, Ontario, but are originally both from Caledon, Ontario, a rural area known for its wide-open spaces, beauty, and rolling green hills. Moving to Caledon, for most, is a choice to have a new lifestyle: peace and quiet, property, friendly neighbours who aren’t watching your every move, an escape at the end of a long day of work. But there was another side to that escape, with consequences that outsiders couldn’t see from their car windows.
André Babyn: Around seventeen I used to leave the house in the middle of the night to stand out on the edge of the road—where it was pitch black and cars were screaming past at ninety or a hundred kilometres an hour—and wait still like a statue for them to pass, to be briefly revealed to them, like a ghost or a deer, in the narrow cone of their headlights. It gave me a weird satisfaction to think that I might have momentarily thrilled them or at least given them something to think about later, but it was an impotent gesture, an emblem of how stuck I felt in Caledon, representing a feeling I think common to most teenagers, no matter where you live. The desire to act when you don’t feel quite ready to. When you don’t know how. It would also have been a really dumb way to get killed. But there was something that made sense standing out there that seemed particular to Caledon, at least at the time, a kind of resignation or hopelessness mixed in with my clumsy teenage darkness. A friend would later tell me that when she was driving alone at night she sometimes had to pull her van over to the side of the road and wait for people standing out on the highways to cross. That this happened with some regularity. My friend wasn’t quite sure whether these people were living or dead, real or imaginary. But she always pulled over and waited for them. It was something I never encountered, but I believed her—where I lived the road was the entrance or exit to every place we had to go, and it made sense that it would be in a state of confusion, somewhere between life and death.
Sometimes people like to assume that there’s a kind of innocence that comes with living in a small town, like because people are isolated they are less likely to do you harm. But that innocence is belied by the way that you become disassociated from your surroundings when you’re driving on the road, because that is also the main way you engage with the world. You cut through the countryside moving at incredible speeds, slicing through like in that game that children play, imagining a scythe out the passenger window, mowing down all of the electrical poles and mailboxes. Our mailbox was in fact a good target, and we had to replace it more than once thanks to bat-wielding teenagers who came across it at night. In the country there’s lots of time to feel the ticking heat of the day come across you in midsummer, to feel the weight of the quiet and emptiness bear down at all hours, and there is a kind of innocence in that, though there’s something existentially unsettling about it, too. And then you get in your car and you do violence as you speed across the asphalt, following the wounds drawn into the land by the surveyors who planned their cuts into the treeline so many years ago.
Jess Taylor: I was terrified of the dark as a child, and this fear kept me from pulling the stunt you did, or from being one of the people waiting to cross in the dark, or even driving in the dark. My street was lit by one or two street-lights, spread out, so that they were the strangers on the street, beings made of light, puncturing the darkness.
The living room in my parents’ house had big windows, yet the house always seemed dark, and at night, the darkness was even more consuming, as the outside was revealed through unavoidable dark squares. Something about that type of dark, in knowing there would be no one around to help me, left me feeling trapped and stranded. I went to bed like clockwork at 9 p.m. as a kid. As a teenager, rare nights I stayed awake, I listened to punk and ska music on my discman with all the lights on, while I read or wrote or made zines on my bedroom floor. I felt that writing and music would get me out of Caledon. It seemed like if I made my life loud, bright, and full of creation, that fear wouldn’t be able to get a hold on me.
We kept the door unlocked, but my parents were still afraid. They moved to Palgrave, a move they claimed to be tied to nature, to a childhood outside, but was really escape, hiding. In a small bungalow surrounded by hillsides and barricaded mansions, there was safety in seeming like you had nothing to offer.
Then one night, a woman was murdered. Just a few roads over. Her husband had come up behind her in the garage and killed her with an ax. He had swung the ax down into her skull. And then he had run.
He ran along the dirt roads and through forests. He ran across the fields of grass. My parents locked the back door, just in case he’d try to get in. Then they locked the front door too.
I asked question after question until I had the story pieced together. Why had he killed her? How did it happen again? An ax? Did he chop her head off? Did the ax get stuck in her head? Was he coming to the house? Was he coming for me? Why did he do it? Weren’t they married?
The door was always locked after that.
Sometimes, my dad would feel carried away by the dark night, especially if the moon was bright. He would make my brother and I go outside and look up and appreciate the stars, the moon, the fact that we could see everything in the night sky, undisturbed by artificial light. His hand on my shoulder, which normally made me feel like I needed to squiggle away, would anchor me to the ground. In the dark, he was the only person who kept me safe, who would protect me if a man emerged from the bushes carrying an ax. Although I feared him as well, perhaps for no reason.
The kids I knew were all looking for a means to escape the undercurrent of anger in the adults around us, that was beginning to fester in us as well. Usually we escaped outside. I had my first boyfriend the year I was ten. Rather than just playing, we found space outside to talk about if there was a God, and the death of our family members, and, most of all, how we were going to get out of Caledon and become something bigger and better than our surroundings. A year before, Caledon had started to feel like something that only existed to contain me, keep me from being who I wanted to be.
One day, he led me across my street to the equestrian park. We never paid to get in. Instead we all jumped the fence. Paying admission was for people who came in from out of town. In the winter, the hills of the equestrian park were perfect for sledding. We left our bikes in the tall grass at the bottom of a steep hill and then climbed another hill where the forest started. Although it looked closed with brush and trees, my friend pulled back a branch and there was a gap big enough for us to squeeze through. Inside was another world. Red cedar trees formed a roof with their branches, so that if we ever got caught in the rain, we still had a place to go without going home. Cedar leaves had fallen, making a brown carpet for us to walk and skid along. Narrow paths led through the forest and when we were feeling brave, we’d run along the paths or even try to ride our bikes, although we were always at risk of slipping down the slopes to the water below. Sometimes we’d fall on purpose, grabbing at the branches, at the trunks that stripped bark underneath our fingers. It seemed that death could come so easily there, another escape.
The paths led down to the shore of the water, which we called the lake, was actually a pond. Locals called it The Mill Pond. From this secret side, we could see loons and Canada Geese swimming, were totally hidden from the road that bordered the pond’s other side.
It was this road, Highway 50, that served as the exit to Caledon. One way connected the road to the north and one way to the highways that led south to Toronto. Many people in Caledon think that this road, the only way out, was the reason why a body was found in the Mill Pond in the summer of 2011. Only an outsider would think it was a safe place to dump a body — they didn’t know about the ice rink that was dutifully cleared every year or the walking trails that looped around it. People in Caledon liked to think that the rest of the world didn’t think anyone lived there at all; that it was dark, deserted, a land of trees. To the rest of the world, people of Caledon were invisible, had disappeared.
A: In the country, as readers of Gogol’s Dead Souls will know, whatever is wrong inside you gets amplified—it grows to fill the emptiness. Your anger gets louder. The violence that comes from proximity gets louder, too. Even though you’re surrounded by nothing, even though it’s yours and you can enter into it whenever you want, paradoxically there are fewer places to go, fewer means to let off steam, especially after dark. Whereas in the suburbs there was a shame to every explosion—wondering if the neighbors could hear what was happening, if they caught the echos and the tears inside—in the country there was no throttle. And without it there is a violence or a meanness that can seep into you, if you don’t acknowledge its presence or pay it the respect that it deserves. I’ve told more than one person that growing up in the country was like growing up in a house full of velociraptors, a place before language, of stifled and confused emotions. In a loneliness without expression because of the threat that loomed on every side, like the jungle pressing in. When I briefly moved back—as an adult, my parents now gone—for weeks I dreamt about giant lizards, pregnant and horrible, slithering across the floors. A bad premonition.
Maybe that all goes part-way to explaining how someone I knew who grew up in the area told me that once he determined that he knew dozens of people who had either killed or been killed themselves, a statistic tempered by his six-plus decades and brief flirtation with members of the Hells Angels, but shocking regardless. The first he could remember vividly, because he saw it himself at the age of seven or eight, when the mother of one of his friends was murdered by a jealous husband who shot her in the street, shotgun stuffed up her dress. He said this without horror, almost laughing, not because he didn’t understand how terrible it was but because that kind of violence had become a regular feature of his life. He’d outlived so many people by that point that it could no longer shock him the way it once must have.
In 2010, as the Star reports, the murder rate in Caledon was eighty-eight percent higher than the national average when the overall crime rate is far below. Some of that was Caledon itself. But another part speaks to the way that homicide statistics are reported, counting against the region in which the body is found. In the summer, the ditches that lined our property filled with the refuse of suburbanites and city-dwellers heading north to Wasaga or cottage country, with empty Tim Hortons cups and McDonald’s bags and energy drinks and snack cups and diapers and underwear all tangled up and rotting. Along with that garbage were the bodies of deer, contorted and stripped of meat by scavengers, pushed to the side of the road by drivers in a hurry to escape the scene of their crime. And dogs and cats hit by cars. Flocks of crows rising from the side of the road, a shared carcass, as your car sped towards them. Ditches are also a common place for amateurs to dump bodies, husbands and lovers who have killed in unexpected violence, in a hurry to put that body and the victim behind them, driving from out of town until they feel overwhelmed by darkness, looking for the first ridge they can hurriedly hide the corpse behind. But as most of them discover, it is hard to bury something behind surface: places that look empty, even far back from the road, have eyes you cannot immediately discern.
J: A woman’s body turned carrion. And another one. Another one. I had almost forgotten to notice the pattern in the murders and bodies found in Caledon, found anywhere. Do you think about your own nose? When you are reading, walking around, talking to your friends — do you remember that there is a nose on your face? That’s what it’s like for me, the fear of being killed. Knowing the reason I may be killed.
My parents eased my worries when I was nervous about the murderer, back when I was a little girl, when we began to lock our doors, “Don’t worry, it won’t happen to you. There’s no reason for someone to kill you—it’s usually someone you know.”
Then my brother? My father?
Try to fall asleep with this knowledge in you. Try to not keep looking at the door.
A: When we first moved to Caledon, when I was eleven, we brought our locked doors with us up from Mississauga—though there were less people around to do us harm, we felt more vulnerable than ever before. But who would hurt us? Who had the potential to? When I compulsively imagined an attacker breaking in, the fire poker I would swing against their head, the long-handled saw we used for cutting high tree branches transformed into a pike, the fire ax biting into their flesh, who was I actually preparing to go to war against? We were most violent against ourselves.
My grandparents had owned the house before us, until they died, and the walls echoed with their presence in more ways than one. For a long time after I moved out, built my own life, reformed, my youngest brother would still sometimes flinch when I moved too quickly, just as I flinched at anger before him. We were outsiders and then we moved inside, squeezing ourselves ever-smaller. In Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, the narrator encounters two men who she believes must be American, because of the violence they are doing to the forest, part of an army of such invaders coming north, stripping lakes and leaving refuse behind. But it turns out they’re from Southern Ontario. “It doesn’t matter what country they’re from… they’re still Americans, they’re what’s in store for us, what we are turning into… If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them.” Sometimes it takes getting out or changing scenery to completely understand how we are the very thing we abhor.
J: And we are the very things we abhor. It’s replicated in us. The violence outside of me becomes the violence of my nightmares, the violence in my stories. Yet we constantly look to erect borders to separate ourselves from what we see as bad, immoral. Men inflicting violence on women. Women fearing men.
If only I could put on another person’s skin and live there. And not in the serial killer way. In the way that I want to inhabit someone’s experience and walk around so that I can understand what it feels like to be someone else. I want to be empathetic. I want to have a heart that beats with the expression of many.
I want to inhabit your body, André. I want to feel what it was like to stand on that road in the dark. To feel brave enough that I was the one that someone driving past would fear. Do I look scary? Do you think I could do it?
And it begins to happen. Jess closes her eyes and feels the cold of the road at night. She knows the places in the forest where André played, she knows the feeling of the sheets on his bed, knows the sounds of his brothers and sister in the kitchen in the morning. She feels a familiar shaking in her hands, as if her skin was no longer her skin but a sheet of electricity she’s forced to wear over her muscles and bones.
André is curled in bed with his cats, reading. His face feels like it’s coated with moisture, but when he puts his hand to his face, his fingers stick to his melting skin, as if it were liquid beads of wax. The thought isn’t as terrifying as he would have imagined. Almost as if part of him had always expected to walk to the mirror and see, underneath the layers of skin peeling, dripping away from his face’s surface, the eyes of Jess Taylor looking out.
But it is in recognizing Jess looking back at him that André realizes that he is no longer there, no longer in his room staring into the mirror, that instead he is walking above a carpet of red cedar, shouting at his friend slipping down the hill and grabbing at the branches in a mock attempt to save their own life. He follows after them, holding tentatively to the tree limbs for support, getting used to moving in this new body, lower to the ground, less certain, still growing. He emerges from the trees and stops, arrested, by the sight of the lake. Trees line the far edge of the shore, and he can hear the roar of cars coming from the highway. Maybe the lake isn’t very big, but it’s big enough to imagine that there’s another world on the other side, across all of that water. A better one.
There’s a disturbance at the surface, a ripple that becomes a black mass rising with dripping tubes. At first he thinks it’s the kind of monster that he sometimes dreams about, the kind that will find its way to his bedroom window and moan and scratch at the glass, but it shifts and it resolves itself, and he sees instead that it’s a diver coming up for air. He turns his head, alarmed, towards the highway, and there is a long line of police cars blocking the entrance to the pond from the road. Suddenly he is at home—the home that belongs to him now, in Jess’s body—sitting on the floor of the living room, with a pad of paper and some cut-outs from a newspaper in front of him, loud punk rock music blaring on the stereo. Neither his parents or his brother are home, and alone like that it is unsettling to sometimes look up from his work to the darkness rippling outside, the trees shifting in the wind, heavier than normal, the strangers standing in their pools of light out by the road. But it feels good to be cocooned in so much activity and noise.
Then all of the lights turn off, and the stereo cuts, and the hum he hadn’t even noticed before dies down in the belly of the house. There’s a long silence. The wind must have taken a power line down. It’s happened before. He sits in the darkness as his eyes adjust, sits in the midst of all of that settling and silence and the wind, louder now, brushing over the countryside. For a moment his back tenses up and he’s too scared to move, afraid that the outside has seeped in, that the darkness is hiding something not just beyond his purview but nearer, too. That it will take him. Then he closes his eyes, counts to ten, and stands up. He walks to the nearest window and puts his hand against the glass. The faintest outline of Jess’s body reflects back at him, and the waving trees, and the dead streetlights, and the glass, and the sky, and the clouds highlighted by the moon.
André as Jess understands the desire to fade away into a crowd, and there is a show on Saturday. Jess needs to disappear into bodies all singing the same words, people pretending to feel the same things: even if to feel the way they do, they have to be staggering, falling all over each other in the crowd.
Sometimes I can’t take my own escape. The noise and the heat and the sweat and the hands seeking me in the mosh pit, sending me outside even as they try to pull me closer. After the first band finished I left to get some fresh air, to stand looking out over the parking lot that the community center shared with the police station, to listen to the crickets chirping at the edge of the grass, watch the cars barreling down Old Church. But after a little while I decided that I wanted more than fresh air, so I walked to the town center, Airport and Old Church, past the subdivisions and the fire station, into the convenience store by the gas station where everyone passing through town refueled. Station to station, hard to ignore that we were little more than an outpost, place of necessity joined clandestinely by the road.
I came out with a bag full of candy—gummy worms, sour keys, and Swedish berries, mostly—and stood out on the sidewalk, watching the cars come and go, relishing the late summer evening, on the edge of return, but hanging there: a kind of freedom, wondering if I should call my parents to get someone to pick me up or return to the show. It was about as free as I ever felt in Caledon. No one knew where I was and no one needed to. Someone was struggling to get one of the old gas pumps working—he had waved away the attendant and now he was frantically flipping switches trying to get the gas to pour out. There was something strange about him, a franticness, a desperation, that grabbed my interest, or more than I thought anyone should pumping gas in such a sleepy town. He was driving an old hatchback, and there was something large and dark in the back but I couldn’t see what. Night was starting to fall, it was coming quickly now, the moon was already shining high above us. I thought it was time to make a decision, to come back the way I came, to go back into the room and to let the music pound its way through me. As I made my way to the street the guy in the hatchback pulled out, taking the turn into traffic at an almost impossible speed, cutting me off, and instead of shouting or giving him the finger I just stared at the car dumbly, half-consumed gummy worm dangling out of my mouth. I’d seen something move in the back as his car had dropped down from the curb—a dark sheet displaced, a body, bloodied, shifting underneath. A woman.
A few roads over, Jess as André leaves football practice and hops into his parents’ car. The smell of sweat engulfs him, and he rolls down both the windows, listening before he starts the engine. Crickets, cicadas, birds he can’t identify. He starts to drive.
Now it’s just turning dark. Night. With one soft sweep, the indigo sky takes away my frustration. The tepid evening air pushes back my hair, dries the sweat. I feel myself again. Down Old Church Road, the car gathers speed as it approaches the light, and I lean on the brakes. Like an expert, I think, even though I just got my license last year. The red light floods the front of my car, and across the intersection, I see something.
A hatchback is backed up to where the grate cuts off wanderers from a thicket of trees that soon drops away steeply. The sight of the ravine used to make a pang in my stomach when I was a boy. I thought about how if the car veered too much to the right, we’d go through the guard-rail and down, down, down. I used to dream about it. The car floating and then falling, colliding and burying itself in the marsh.
A man is beside the hatchback, pulling out parcels wrapped in black garbage bags. He walks to the edge of the gulf and heaves one black-swathed package over the edge. He turns and for a moment he’s caught in the lights from my car. He turns and stares over in my direction, as the light flicks green and I drive away, the bundles and the man still in the car with me.
At home in their beds, Jess/André and André /Jess fall into the same dream.
The car is still and silent, the radio is turned off, André is at the wheel and Jess is sitting in the passenger seat watching the forest descend and ascend with the road, the trees in black procession. A heaviness sits between them, black bundles that need to be dumped, but where, when even these forested stretches of road have people hidden all throughout them, people in houses or dumped into ditches and ravines, people walking through forests, or waiting for a car to come along to spook in the night. Everywhere is somewhere, even at the same time as it’s nothing, even as it is still and empty, a landscape to cut through, to float above in the four wheels of the car. Jess takes a bundle into her lap and cradles it, tells what’s inside to hush, to not worry, because there’s nowhere to dump a body in Caledon, that all of the places are used up.
The bundle is warm to the touch and makes a low mewling sound. The plastic peels aside and the beak of a small green lizard peeks out, then eyes, then legs. Another lizard follows behind the first, and it isn’t long before the car is full of them, slipping out of the plastic and circling the feet of André and Jess. The car is stopped now, by the side of the road, the engine ticking, the cabin lights on, the door making a slow but reassuring pinging as the lizards climb out of the car and tumble into the ditch. Their bodies move over each other, seeming to multiply, more and more swarming the ditch, moving as a united mass. The car pulls away from the shoulder as the lizards climb over each other, and they are no longer lizards but women, bruised and cold, with dark rings around their eyes. As Jess and André drive on, they pass on their Caledon roads women-filled ditch after women-filled ditch, but neither of them look out the window or even say a word.
Jess Taylor is a Toronto writer and poet, originally from Caledon, ON. She founded The Emerging Writers Reading Series in 2012. Pauls, her first collection of stories, was published by BookThug in 2015. The title story from the collection, “Paul,” received the 2013 Gold Fiction National Magazine Award. Jess has also published two chapbooks of poetry. Jess’ second collection, Just Pervs, will be released in Canada in Fall 2019. She is currently working on a novel.
André Babyn is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. His fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, The Fanzine, Hobart, Grain, Pank, and elsewhere, and he is a previous recipient of the Adam Penn Gilders Scholarship in Creative Writing, and the Norma Epstein Award for Creative Writing. In 2016 he obtained his Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, and he recently served as the Fiction Editor of the Puritan.