The Shape I Gave You

“I’m writing to you because my daughter has died,” begins Beatrice’s extraordinary letter of confession. Her only child, Ines, has been killed at the age of eighteen, and Beatrice has closed herself in her Toronto studio. Unable to speak openly with her grieving husband, Isaac, she turns to Ulrike, a young woman she barely knows. To Ulrike she retells, and possibly reshapes, the past – her obsession with the exacting and complex Gustave, and her relationship with her elusive, now vanished, daughter. Meanwhile, Isaac sets out on a journey of his own.

As Ulrike reads about Beatrice’s life and Gustave’s role in it, she reluctantly revisits the world of her own memories and starts to see her present in an altered light.

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“So?” he asked. “What are your plans while you are in Berlin?”
“I haven’t any.”
“To see you. And when I can’t be with you, I’ll visit the museums and galleries. There’s no shortage of museums and galleries in Berlin.”
“You came only to see me, and perhaps to see Berlin’s museums and galleries?”
The sky hung low. We came to a Kiosk and your father, Ulrike, bought us each tea in a plastic cup. We sat down on a bench to drink our warm drink. The small plastic cup heated my hands.
“I thought you weren’t going to come, that you’d changed your mind, that you enjoyed playing games. Your postcard, saying that your trip was definite arrived two days ago.”
“I thought you didn’t want me to come. On the telephone, you sounded as if you didn’t. I’m sorry you thought I wasn’t coming. I don’t play games.”

My father topped up his teacup. “Gustave Huguenot is the son of a wonderful fellow, an extraordinary man, Marcel Huguenot, whom I met in Switzerland just before the war and who, sadly, about seven years after the war died of a heart attack. He wasn’t yet forty-five when, just like that, he dropped dead in his own garden.”

As my father wandered out of the kitchen, I followed him. He sat down in his chair, folded the letter and slipped it into the pocket of his dressing gown.

“Well?” I asked.

“In 1938, along with two university friends, I decided to explore Europe. We crossed over on a cattle boat. It was all a great adventure. Then, as we were cycling through Switzerland, I sprained my ankle. It was the sort of thing your awkward father was apt to do.”

A cycling trip, Ulrike. My father balancing on a bicycle. I don’t enjoy writing the word bicycle. Yet I could fill these pages with that one word. Bicycle. Bicycle. Bicycle. Bicycle.

“About a year ago,” I explained, “I drove into northern Ontario and found six large, abandoned stumps of freshly felled trees, which I brought back South with me. The largest stump measured six feet in circumference. I believe most trees are merely cut down, but some are murdered, it’s a question of intention.”

“Intention,” your mother turned the word over in her mind, considering my claim. “Yes, intention plays a part. And the result? If I kill someone by accident or on purpose, is that someone differently dead? Yes, I think the result as well as the action differs. Not all deaths are the same.”

I explained that I’d hollowed out the stumps and then gouged deeply into the exterior of the remaining ring of wood, trying to recreate the tread of a tractor tire, that I’d sanded, then painted my fake “tires” black.

“I want people to believe,” I said, “that they are looking at discarded rubber, the remains of a machine, until they touch one of the rings and their hand tells them ‘Wood! These were once alive.’