Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.
I stood on the doorstep of Ms. Magoon’s house, cradling the freezing canister and fidgeting with my eye patch. I remembered the house from my childhood. Back then it didn’t have the two-room extension on the south end facing the mouth of the Moose River. Now it was painted sea green, a modernized house that belonged to an Irish woman named Ms. Magoon. While waiting for her to answer the door, I thought about when I’d been a buck-toothed, one-eyed kid playing hockey on the frozen road with the other neighborhood boys. My teeth had since straightened out, but my eye was gone for good.
For a few months after the accident, people had noticed my missing eye. Toddlers would point and stare at me like they would a roadway accident, their mothers like police officers, waving the children ahead, saying: Move along dear, nothing to see here. The older kids gave me the nickname Captain, or as I rushed by them in the school halls they would simply call out: Shiver me timbers! But our town of Moose Factory, Ontario, was so small that nearly everyone knew everyone. Eventually, word got around that I was the kid with the eye patch, and after a while, the fuss died down.
The day I lost my eye to a pecking partridge, my ohkom, my Cree grandmother, taught me how to be a fortuneteller. That evening, as I touched the bloody gauze taped around my head, she read my fortune in a cup of smoky black tea leaves. The shape of a bluebell formed by the handle, which, according to her, meant, “You will come out of the crowd with your eyes opened.”
Ms. Magoon opened the door with a lightning bright smile. The heated air from the house warmed my face and tingled my skin.
You must be Bobby.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I grabbed the brim of my John Deere cap to signal hello.
“It’s nice to meet you, Bobby. I’m Grace. Come on in.”
The woman let off a tender sexuality that seemed to swallow me whole. Her boyishly short hair moved with her steps, her orange curls bounced like springs. Her Irish-red cheeks were permanently blushed, her breasts firm and luscious. She looked younger than her age.
“Welcome to the neighborhood, Ms. Magoon. This is for you.” I handed over the airtight canister. “It’s tea, lapsang souchong tea.”
Her smile grew to where it was a bit too gummy.
“Oh my, how nice of you and, please, call me Grace.”
“Only if you call me Robert.”
No one ever called me Robert but I was hoping it would make me appear older, more mature. She walked me to the kitchen where she placed the canister on the counter then led me outside, through the backyard and into the porous garage.
“Well, there she is.” Grace pointed to the Polaris 800 XCSP, which was stripped naked. “I think all the parts are there. If not, let me know and I’ll give you some extra cash to buy whatever parts you need.”
The snowmobile was in decent shape but I wasn’t expecting it to be completely taken apart, down to the nuts and bolts. Right off the bat, I saw that the windshield was missing, which would set her back fifty bucks or so.
“You brought tools, right?”
“Yes ma’am.” I lifted my sweater and revealed my tool belt to offer evidence.
“OK, well good luck, Robert. Let me know if you need anything.”
She swiveled on the balls of her feet and returned to the house. I couldn’t help but watch her walk away—her jeans got tighter with every step.
After the partridge pecked my eye out, I stopped collecting my father’s traps and started working on snowmobiles and ATVs instead. Mechanics came natural to me and for the amount of labor I exerted, fixing snowmobiles and ATVs paid well. I gathered the pieces in separate piles: accessories, body parts, brake pads and pull handles, drive belts, wearbars and handlebars, electrical parts, and engine parts. The carburetor and clutch were already put together.
The first two days flew by. After working on the engine I pounded out the few minor dents on the body frame and smoothed the shoddy paint job. Grace taught at the elementary school and was gone both days, but she would leave the back door unlocked for me to use the john. On day two I chose to walk around the house—for no reason other than curiosity. Off the kitchen was the bathroom—it was a throwback, comprised of a boring personality—as dull as a wet firecracker. A wallet-sized photo sat on her bathroom cabinet. The glossy paper made her celebrity white teeth reflect light like a prism. Her freckles sparkled like orange glitter. I took the picture of her standing on a mountainside and stuck it underneath my salt-stained hat.
It wasn’t until day three when she invited me inside for a ham and cheese sandwich.
“I can’t thank you enough for this,” she said.
“No biggie, besides, my mother made me,” I said, halfheartedly joking.
“Your mother has been so nice to me since I moved to Moose Factory.”
“She’s really nuts once you get to know her,” I said.
Grace gave a solid laugh, almost a bellow. It was a loud but sweet laugh that made my body tingle, just like the first time I saw her. To keep from hurting my feelings, or maybe to show that she was well bred, she boiled a pot of water and made some of the lapsang souchong tea. After her first sip, she told me how tasty it was. We enjoyed the rest of the tea in silence.
It wasn’t until afterwards that I told her I knew how to read fortunes through tea leaves. I was worried that she would label me a gypsy. “Only a gypsy can reveal the future by swirling leaves in a cup,” she might say. But it was a risk I decided to take. In the few hours we’d spent together I realized that her name couldn’t have been more fitting. If she thought I was a nut job, at least she would have said so with grace.
When I told her about the fortunetelling, she looked puzzled but interested. I could tell by the way she tilted her head and focused in on my words. At a petite 5’4”, Grace was a pixie. Then you saw the muscles in her upper back, her raw athleticism, her dry hands with short fingernails, and the incongruity of it all reeled you in.
“You can read tea leaves?” she said, brightening.
“Do you have any sugar?”
I dropped an equal amount of tea leaves and sugar into my mug then dumped hot water on top. After stirring vigorously, I removed most of the leaves while allowing the rest to sink to the bottom, and with the reflexes of a prizefighter, I up-ended the cup into the saucer. Grace was startled by the sound of porcelain banging together. She had the face of a child, as if I’d just captured a mouse, amazed by the accomplishment.
“The first thing you need to consider is the person whose fortune you are reading,” I said, my hand on the cup. “An older person will have fixed ideas compared to a younger person, who will have a different outlook, more unformed views and opinions.”
“I’m still young,” she said, smiling.
I lifted the cup. Inside were the remaining tea leaves stuck to the inner lining. I began the reading.
“The handle of the cup symbolizes the present, or the very near future. Closer to the rim of the cup means the symbols are weaker, near the middle means the influence is stronger.”
Grace studied the cup like an archeologist on a dig. She wanted to touch but I told her that would ruin its preservation. The first symbol I noticed was an ear, located near the brim.
“You see that?” I pointed, “That one means there is pleasing news, a secret interest is coming.”
“But it’s right on the rim of the cup.”
“That’s true, but it’s still in your future. Maybe not tomorrow, but it’ll show up sometime.”
The next symbol was in the middle and easier to make out.
“This one is a broom. It means your old difficulties have been swept away and now it’s your chance to start anew.”
Grace released her sweet laugh. “Well, that one is definitely true. I left my difficulties when I moved here.” Her tiny hand grazed my shoulder. It was no accident.
The third symbol was in the center, a direct bull’s eye. It was a bear. Thank god, it was a bear.
The bear: You need close loving contact to renew your energy.
The next morning I made it to work before Grace had woken up. Outside the trees nodded. The sky went from gray to blue to gray again and the temperature took a severe nosedive. It was a black tea type of day, I thought, maybe Keemun Supreme or a hearty Irish Breakfast tea, one that would stop my nose from running. I was working on the brake pads when something startled me, the whine of a snowmobile approaching the house with a salt-and-pepper haired man in the driver seat. I watched him through a hole in the garage siding. I saw Grace greet the man with a gentle kiss on the cheek.
I decided to take an early lunch break.
By the time I made it to the house, the two were already nestled on the couch and engaged in light chatter. I wanted to disrupt their bonding but I needed to make it seem accidental—knocking my hat to the floor made just enough noise for them to look up.
“Hey, Robert, how’s it going out there?” Grace asked.
“Robert, I want you to meet Angel,” Grace said as she stood up.
Angel approached me, and as we shook hands his face gleamed.
“Bobby! Long time no see! How have you been?”
Angel Mikisow, a well-known and well-respected Cree, was generally considered the friendliest, most polite man on the island. He stood directly in front of me, wearing his usual grin that stretched and lifted his five o’clock shadow.
“You two know each other?” Grace asked.
“Sure we do. Bobby’s father is one of the greatest men I’ve ever met.”
“You mean was,” I said.
“Yeah, right, I mean was.”
Angel had several times had lunch with my mother following my father’s sudden death. Their relationship was not sexual. He was not devious. Every bone in his body was compassionate. She says that if it weren’t for Angel’s companionship, she would have never made it through her months of mourning. Everyone in town loved Angel. At the moment, I couldn’t stand him.
Grace looked past the awkward moment and resumed the conversation.
“Robert is building a snowmobile for me out back,” she said.
“That sounds like fun. What kind of tin-dog are you building?” Angel asked, maybe to try and stump me, to make me look like an ignorant fool in front of Grace.
“Polaris 800 XCSP,” I answered without delay.
Angel looked at the ceiling and whistled.
“I bet she’s a beauty,” he said.
Angel wanted to talk, to catch up with my life, but I quickly told him I needed to get back to work. His presence gave me a queasy, earth-shaking sensation. The three of us—in a triangle of chatter—would seem to be a combustible mix. I was just kidding myself about getting back to work. My concentration was broken, with Angel now inside, engrossed in deep conversation with Grace, his charming character erasing any good qualities Grace noticed in me.
The sun sank below the tree line and Angel’s mobile stayed parked out front. I refused to stop working and call it a day. I holstered my wrench and sat on the padded seat. I couldn’t take my eye off the wood-framed house. For two hours I heard noise and laughter spill out of it. Then the waves of jazz music stopped and the living room lamp went dark. A few seconds passed before the bedroom window in the two-room expansion lit up, blinding my eye. I swung my patch to the left side of my face to cover my eye and cap the painful sight. Now I couldn’t see the two make love.
All that week, between bathroom and cigarette breaks, I spied on Grace through the house windows, plagued by the uncertainty that she noticed me watching, gazing at her blushed cheeks, ears, and forehead, wishing she would step outside with the boiling white teapot and wave me over, her hair shining from the arctic sun, revealing her initially blurred feelings for me that finally began to take focus. But Grace never appeared.
On Sunday I finished the snowmobile. I hadn’t seen Grace all day but the smoke from the chimney told me she was home. I hopped on the mobile to test the final product. The harmonious blend of a bustling engine with the rotation of a caterpillar track was music to my ears. It signified a job well done. I made a mad dash for the house without cutting the engine, too proud and excited. I imagined the expression on Grace’s face as she stood at the kitchen counter, contemplating which tea to pick for the celebration.
I wiped my feet before entering the kitchen where Grace was pouring tea into two mugs. It was the moment I had been waiting for. My dream. The two of us drinking tea, together, our relationship coming full circle to when we’d first met, sparks flying on the front porch.
“You’re just in time,” she said. “Grab a third mug from the cabinet.”
A third mug?
“I’m going to try to read Angel’s fortune.”
She flashed her teeth and twitched her nose, asking, “Do you want to supervise?”
I thought long and hard about the question and realized I had no answer. I kept silent and watched her pure steadiness as she balanced two full cups of tea.
Suddenly, the memory of the partridge that poked my eye out surfaced in my mind. It was the smallest partridge I had ever seen, an angry runt, no doubt about it. But it was also born with perfect proportions, a beautiful pheasant, pretty but in a tough way. That’s why I picked it up and raised it close to my face—to stare and marvel at the handsome bird.
“I’m sure I’ll need your help.” Grace smiled.
Angel was relaxing on the living room couch, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He wiped lipstick from his cheek. Grace had made him my lapsang souchong tea. I was her leftover cup, a floater stuck in a weird space: somewhere south of her lover but well north of being her mechanic. My feeling about Grace changed, like the liquid crystals of a mood ring set inside a hollow glass shell.
“OK, honey, Robert is going to help, since I’m sure I’ll screw up.”
Angel sat up promptly.
“Let’s do it,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
I had accepted the facts. Angel and Grace were together. A couple. An Irish woman and a Cree Indian, their skin colors like night and day.
Grace mixed the sugar and leaves just as I’d showed her, but struggled to swirl the cup without spilling water. After removing most of the tea leaves she asked, “Is that enough?”
“Sure,” I lied, watching her flip the cup upside down.
In a situation like this, when the fortuneteller is an amateur and the tea leaves come out barely legible, you must trust your instincts to make a prediction, even when there seems to be no logical message inside the cup.
“So what’s my fortune?” Angel leaned forward.
“Well, this looks like a circle or maybe it’s a ring. Is that a ring, Robert? What does it mean?” Grace asked.
“What does it mean?” Angel asked, simultaneously.
“It is a ring,” I said, “but it doesn’t symbolize what I’m sure you’re thinking.”
The two looked nervous. Grace chewed the tip of her thumb.
The ring: a sign of marriage or a close relationship.
“It means there will be an accident or danger of some sort in which you will need great care.” I swallowed my words.
“Oh no, that’s awful,” Grace said with her thumb still in her mouth.
“Well, maybe you screwed up, Grace,” Angel said. “It is your first time.”
“There is no screwing up.” I replied. “It is what it is.”
“What about that symbol? I’m sure that one is a good fortune,” Grace said.
“That one is a fountain.”
The fountain: a permanent relationship. Everlasting love.
“It means arguments and problems are coming, and that you need to keep yourself in control.”
“I don’t want to play this game anymore,” Grace said and abruptly gathered the three cups, returning to the kitchen.
“She’ll be OK,” Angel said, patting my shoulder and showing me too many teeth. He went to find Grace. I avoided the kitchen and darted out the front door.
I’d started to run home when something pulled me back. It was the running engine, its purr so beautiful that I couldn’t let it sing alone. I rushed to the garage and stared at the completed project. It was flawless. The best work I had ever done. I approached the snowmobile and crouched into a catcher’s stance.
The engine started to sputter—its ponies were dying. My wrench did the damage.
And just like the first time, it happened in a flash. The final blow to the side of the engine ended its life, but this I did not see. It must have been a loose bolt that ricocheted off my eye. All I saw was blood.
It’s hard to remember the details but I do recall Angel tossing me across his lap on his snowmobile’s seat, then driving me to the island’s only hospital, slipping around telephone poles. I also remember watching Grace as she chased the snowmobile from behind, all the way there.
In a way, Moose Factory was frozen in time, a place that felt like the end of the earth. You half expected grizzly bears to be roaming the hollow streets. A kid could grow up in Moose Factory without the chance to see a tulip or stub his toes on the bottom of a swimming pool. I have never set eye on an iguana or a grapevine, a Wal-Mart or a rodeo. In effect, Grace was the first fascinating thing I had ever seen. And now, resting in a hospital bed, a bandage covering my only eyeball, I was unable to see her holding my hand. But she could see me, and notice that my eye patch was missing. My fibrous scars and empty eye socket, all imperfection, that’s what she saw. Grace and Angel left the room when my mother arrived. Dr. Longfellow told me how lucky I was, that if the cut had been a half an inch north I would have needed a guide dog and a pole to tap objects that got in my way. He said after the paperwork was completed, I was free to go. I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital clothes and rip the bandage from my face. I would sprint to Grace’s house and hide across the cloven road, behind the collection of baby pines. From there I would watch Grace as she sat on the snowmobile with the destroyed engine—her disappointed face turned blindly towards the trees, where eventually, she would catch me staring.