What's better than reading brand new stories from talented Toronto authors? How about reading them for free? We're excited to present, exclusive on Open Book, the second set of winning texts from the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and North York Arts What's Your Story? literary contest. Today we celebrate the winners from the North York region.
The What's Your Story? contest recognizes both the wealth of literary talent in Toronto and puts a particular spotlight on the inner suburbs of Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York, and North York.
We are excited to present the 2018 North York What's Your Story winners: Lucy E.M. Black, author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket (Invisible Publishing) and Sylvia Maultash Warsh, author of The Rebecca Temple mystery series (Dundurn Press), are our winners in the Established Writer category; and the two winners in the Emerging category are Asheda Dwyer and Laura Mullin.
You can see all the winning authors, as well as the four winning authors from the Scarborough region, at a special event this Saturday, June 9 at the Victoria Village Library. The event will include writing workshops with acclaimed author Catherine Hernandez, readings, "publisher speed dating", and more.
Stay tuned for more free, exclusive, Toronto reading throughout the summer - we'll be spotlighting one neighbourhood (and one set of incredible writers) each month, presenting all 16 winning authors.
You can also check out the first posting, with all the winning texts from the Etobicoke region, here.
Established Writer Category winner, North York region
Blood Sisters by Lucy E.M. Black
Lavish willow trees bordered Wilket Creek and the ravines and streets where we lived and played. The trailing curtains of elongated branches provided whips for gentle wars, smacking bare legs in the unending games of childhood. Once, while lying indolent upon the grass, we picked mosquito bites until small bubbles of blood came to the surface. And then we pledged undying sisterhood and rubbed our bleeding arms together so that the three became one. And with that ritual began the promise of a lifetime bond.
It did not matter that the youngest of us still played with dolls, that the middle girl was a bookworm or the oldest, a ballerina. We would meet excitedly, in a neighbourhood where we could wander at will and without caution from our stay-at-home mothers. A patch of cool green became our starting point for the day, and we would idly search for four-leaf clovers in an established habit marked by the expectation of good fortune. Then would begin the inevitable singsong: Whatcha’ wanna do? I dunno. Wanna ride around? Na. So, whatcha’ wanna do? Finally, a decision was made and we would spring into action, preparing ourselves for adventure. Transistor radios in hand, CHUM Charts folded into tiny squares in the pockets of our shorts, snacks wrapped in waxed paper and sometimes a Thermos of lemonade to share, we would finally mount our bikes and ride, handlebar streamers blowing behind in bright streaks of soft plastic.
There were several ravine entrances nearby, and we would debate which of these was to be the destination. Sheppard had the easiest trees for climbing; Cummer took you down quickly and deeply into the valley; the farthest away, Leslie, had the best river clay. It was a time when the hours stretched and the complexity of life was reduced to roaming the banks along the Don, following racoon tracks, practising our balancing on deadfall splayed across the river, sharing sandwiches while perched on limbs hanging low above the murky water.
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Walking our bikes, we edged along the mudded footpaths, descending into shade that smelled damp and cool, and muffled the noise of the traffic so that we became entirely enveloped in a quiet that magnified the sound of birds and currents of water. Occasionally the river would reek with a particular dankness and we would wrinkle our noses until we grew accustomed to the odour. We had secret names for each other there, and spoke pig Latin, signalling with hand gestures to make ourselves better understood. We explored until we sensed it was almost dinnertime, and rode back quickly, not wanting to be scolded for tardiness. After dinner, we were permitted to reconvene and stay closer to home until the street lights came on. If we disregarded this signal, our mothers would appear on the sidewalk, calling our names with irritation.
The games which then so completely absorbed us were simple: truth-dare-double-dare-promise-or-retreat, hide-and-seek, and tag were among the mainstays. Acting out the newest of Nancy Drew books was another favorite. The bookworm would recount the story, and then divide the roles so that there were always three heroes, and not one of us was in love with Ned Nickerson. And although we knew that someone’s parents were fighting, or another one’s father was drinking, we did not speak of these things, or of the sadness that sometimes crept into our families. Our sisterhood was separate and distinct from such concerns.
With the hottest of the summer sun, when the asphalt melted and stuck to the bottoms of our shoes, travel to the ravines or creek bed seemed too great an effort. Instead, we would recline in the shade behind one of our homes, sharing Popsicles or Lolas, hoping that her parents would agree to water the lawn. We would run for our swimsuits, jumping in and out of the spray with abandon, and whooping with laughter until the sprinkler had to be moved. Then we would wait impatiently, dripping and shivering on the sodden grass, until the arcing water resumed. Anyone’s mother would bandage a scraped knee or provide glasses of cold milk in Melamine cups and a plate of cookies. The kitchens had a familiar sameness, painted yellow or turquoise with gingham curtains and linoleum floors, and we would sit, three bottoms on one chair at Arborite tables with strips of ridged chrome along the edges.
All of the neighbourhood would gather for fireworks and our fathers would contribute the firecrackers and put on a short but dazzling show for us, with pails of sand and garden hoses at the ready. Near the end, we would each be given our own sparkler and when they burned out, it was time to leave and walk reluctantly home to bed. At other times, in a spirit of daring goodwill, we held Friendly Neighbourhood Week and would stand curbside to wave at the cars, setting goals for the number of drivers who might wave back.
Sometimes, as an unexpected treat, an adult would provide us with a nickel and we would walk to the store where we purchased Barrett’sfountain candy or a Lowney’s chocolate-covered cherry to share. And if we had been very good, we were occasionally each given thirty cents and allowed to spend twenty-five on admission to the Willow Theatre, with the additional nickel for buttered popcorn. Inside the darkened space, bumping up close against each other, abstract fixtures with pink, purple, and green Smartie-shaped lights illuminated the walls. As our eyes adjusted to the dim, we were guided to our seats by a flashlight-carrying usher. The floors were always sticky with orange pop, and we lifted our feet with great ceremony to make puckering noises before sitting down. We whispered quietly while waiting for the national anthem to play before the movie. And then we stood up like sentries and sang lustily, knowing that if we did not do so, the technician would not start the movie reel and someone might be asked to leave in disgrace.
Once a week, we were permitted to walk to the pool together, and join in the chlorine-infused free swim, our voices shouting to be heard in the echoing space, while we splashed and floated and paddled in the shallow end. On Saturday mornings, we made the trek to the Willowdale Library, through Northtown Plaza and the pioneer cemetery. Inside, we would inhale the dusty fragrance of old books and peruse the shelves, carefully pruning our choices and selecting the maximum number allowed. We would then line up to watch the librarian cross our cards and feed them through the thwacking checkout machine, firmly stamping the due dates on the paper pockets and placing our selections on the conveyor belt for us to collect. Books gathered in string bags, we would go downstairs to use the washrooms and stick out our tongues before the large mirror. Then, equipped for home, we would pass under the mural with its mysterious lettering along the outside wall.
In August, we moved from these simple pleasures to the excitement of the Exhibition’s opening, and with it, an impending sense of loss, as summer drew to an end and our parents took us shopping. We compared our preparations, the colours of our pencil cases, packages of paper, new shoes, and compass sets. And suddenly, the first of us went to The Haig, absorbed into the rhythm of that larger building and the new friends she met there. Soon after, she called us babies and signalled that she was now a teenager. At the same time, there was talk of a subway extension coming north to Finch, and our parents went to meetings and worried about the changes that would take place.
Families started to move away, and some of the tiniest houses were torn down. New ones were built, so large that they seemed out of place. We saw the first of them appear a few blocks away and went to gape. Gradually, however, they did not seem quite so strange, even as they grew closer to our own, and people we did not know moved into them. Increasingly, the blood sisters spent even less time together. But I remember still, in late summer, when the winds lost their gentleness and carried instead the coolness of change, the maples began to drop their keys, and we twirled together frantically, arms outstretched, trying to catch them before they fell.
A Clean Slate by Sylvia Maultash Warsh
Gizela wished she could take it back, everything she’d told her daughter about the labour camps. Rachel had been too young to hear such horrors, but Gizela could not control the words escaping her mouth. Maybe she’d had Rachel too soon after the war, the memories too fresh: daily roll call in the freezing pre-dawn, dark fields of starving women trembling, she among them, the weak ones taken away never to be seen again.
With blind luck and the agility of her hands on the machines, she had survived, along with her younger sister, Sari. Her sweetheart had also survived and found her in their Polish hometown after the war. Their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins had been murdered. There was nothing to keep them in Poland, so, after a brief wedding ceremony, she and Leo moved to the country that had tried its best to kill them. Leo found work in Germany and Rachel was born.
Sari and her husband, Ben, had managed to come to Canada in 1949. It took three years of transatlantic letters, Gizela begging and finally, sending money, before Sari and Ben would sponsor them to come to Toronto. It wasn’t so easy, Sari said; they were taking a big risk. They had to sign papers that made them financially responsible for Gizela’s family.
To show they wouldn’t be a burden, Gizela offered her sister a higher rent than was typical on the immigrant street for a room in their semi-detached house. Gizela knew they’d have the money because Leo started to work immediately as a printer, his European experience securing him a job in Toronto before they left Germany.
Sari’s daughter, Marla, wore clean, frilly dresses and wouldn’t play with Rachel, who was the same age. Sari shrugged and told Gizela to comb her daughter’s hair. But Rachel didn’t care about her hair, tangled in waves, and wouldn’t wear the dresses Gizela sewed for her. Gizela herself was always elegantly clothed and couldn’t understand how she had produced a girl child who would wear only pants and cotton tops, and who liked nothing better than sitting by herself and reading. She was a desperately shy, quiet thing who rarely smiled. Gizela knew she had told her too much. How could she be a normal child, burdened with such knowledge?
The three of them slept in a small room on the second floor of Sari and Ben’s house. The double bed, cot, and narrow dresser left little space to move around in. Compared to the three-person bunk in the labour camp, Gizela thought ruefully, it was paradise. She was grateful to be free, but her heart felt like a stone in her chest. Would she ever feel joy again? Maybe if Rachel smiled.
Gizela was also grateful to be working as a sewing-machine operator on Spadina Avenue, the schmata district. She saw little of Leo; he left early and came home late. But between their wages, they were saving money. Time flew. She would come home from her job, take care of Rachel after school, then cook dinner at 7:00 p.m. She had to wait till Sari had finished feeding her family. Her sister often left dirty pots and pans in the sink, so Gizela would have to wash them before cooking. She couldn’t complain. By the time she finished cleaning up after dinner, she fell into bed exhausted.
Before she turned around, two years had flown by. Rachel would soon be eight and grow restless in the cot. Gizela had an idea, which she explained to her sister one Saturday morning. They would give Sari and Ben double the rent if they turned the dining room into a bedroom for Rachel. The room was never used, anyway, since they all ate in the kitchen. After all, Marla had her own room.
Sari’s mouth opened and closed. They had the same brown, almond-shaped eyes, but Sari was blond and Gizela brunette and people rarely guessed they were sisters. Gizela knew the money would be tempting, but her sister also fretted about what the neighbours thought. Sari said she’d talk to Ben about it.
But the following Sunday she invited a work colleague of Ben’s over for lunch with his family. She served the meal in the dining room. When Gizela came downstairs to prepare lunch for Rachel and Leo, she saw that Ben and the other man, both real-estate salesmen, were nicely dressed in sports jackets. She thought of Leo’s hands and shirts, always stained with printer’s ink.
Marla wore a short pleated skirt with attached short pants that Sari had bought for her in a department store. Gizela made Rachel a similar skirt on the second-hand sewing machine they had installed in the basement. She persuaded Rachel to wear it that day, telling her they were pants, with a skirt for decoration. Didn’t she want to look like a girl?
Sari offhandedly introduced Gizela and her family to the guests seated around the dining room table. Ben’s colleague and his wife nodded with tight smiles. Their young son just stared.
Trudy, the wife, looked away from Rachel and instantly raised her voice. “What a pretty girl Marla is!”
Sari smiled in appreciation. “She’s wearing a new skirt. The latest fashion.”
“She has such a nice figure. So mature for her age.”
They were both cows, thought Gizela, purposely praising one young girl in the presence of another. She hoped Rachel hadn’t paid attention. But her cheeks had turned red.
Gizela wasn’t going to eat lunch in the kitchen while listening to any more drivel, so she wrapped up some sandwiches and drinks.
“Let’s go for a picnic,” she said to Leo and Rachel.
The three of them jumped into their ancient Buick and drove away. They had explored the city before, usually driving north on Bathurst. They found a parkette with a bench and ate their lunch. Gizela breathed in the fresher air, forgetting everything else. Rachel ran back and forth from a little fountain, her skirt sailing around her. Gizela didn’t want to go back and asked Leo to drive farther west. They ended up on Dufferin Street, traveling north, where green fields sometimes stretched for city blocks. Then east along Wilson Avenue, the southern edge of the Canadian Forces Base where nothing was visible but flat, bare land. The emptiness relaxed her, spreading through her brain like a warm breeze. It was a new world, sparkling under the sun, a clean slate full of possibility.
Another year and a half flew by. Once coming home after a long day, she saw Marla eating a banana in the kitchen. Bananas had been an unheard-of luxury in Poland. Here they were so expensive Gizela couldn’t afford to buy them. Rachel stood on the other side of the table, her large eyes watching her cousin eat the whole thing. Gizela’s anger leaped into her throat. How can you be so selfish? she hissed in Polish.
Marla, startled, put down the banana peel, “My mother bought it for me! She said you could have bananas too if you worked harder!”
“Your mother said —?” But she didn’t doubt it.
As soon as the snow melted, Gizela needed to get as far away from the house as possible. Leo understood and pointed the ancient Buick in the direction of North York. With Rachel in the back and the sun streaming through the car, Gizela could breathe again.
They drove around the area every weekend for a month before turning left on Dufferin, just south of Wilson. What a long winding street, and so much land between the little brick houses! At the very end, Leo stopped the car in front of a bungalow set far back from the curb, a “For Sale” sign on the lawn. They all sat with the windows open, listening to the birds warbling in the trees. When they got out of the car, Rachel ran up the hilly stretch of lawn and plopped herself down in the centre, splayed out on her back in the grass. Gizela was about to pull her away but saw that she was smiling. She looked like a normal child.
They had watched their pennies and saved enough money for a small down payment. There wasn’t much to pack, only two suitcases with their clothes, three boxes filled with food, books, and shoes. They had no furniture but the sewing machine, which the three of them dragged from the basement. Sari watched them squeeze it into the trunk of the Buick. Gizela had waited till this moment, when they were almost gone, to tell her sister. The two took a last look at one another, bewildered.
That July afternoon, Gizela stood in the bare living room, the sun pouring through the window, warming her skin. Rachel bounced from room to room, glowing, her footsteps echoing against the walls. Hope filled the empty house. It was a start.
Emerging Writer Category winners, North York region
Oversight by Asheda Dwyer
we live in skyscrapers
alighted on edge
of the northwest
on perimeters of promise
piled atop one another
like the word wallahi
in the middle of
a first-class city
all the world’s
braving a foreignness
that carries itself
into our sustenance
the ones that smell bad
until tempered by
and ethnic servitude
then it tastes good
then you write about it
then you eat it everyday
then we think that you
almost like us
why did you wait for us
to form these words
into a tongue
where you find refuge
and we become refugee — again
is a defence
living over there
amongst the ravines
from the humber river
to the don valley
where fruit trees
spoil on lawns
of victorian homes
you love to travel
so what took you so long
why do you shun
this part of the city
History of Visual Sources by Laura Mullin
“Have you ever wanted to kill them?”
Or, that’s what I think I hear him say.
I look up from my assignment. Andrew stares back at me. His bloodless complexion now even paler in the monitor’s cathode green glow. He inserts a floppy disk.
“Huh?” is all I manage.
“The professors!” Andrew spit whispers, “I’d like to blow them away.”
It’s 3:00 a.m. My heart is racing from the wake-up pills, caffeine, and the realization this project is due in six hours. I rub my eyes. The York U common room’s fluorescent lights are playing tricks again. Blobs of green float in the air obscuring everything — including Andrew’s pallid face.
I don’t really know him. Andrew lives below on the second floor of my York University residence where I’ve lived for almost six months. Those of us from the third floor rarely go down to his level. There’s an understanding about avoiding the clustering of loners and oddballs living down below. And not just Fine Arts odd. Actual weirdos.
Andrew and I have only spoken once before in the co-ed bathroom. I had wanted to see if any of the loners would trade beer for pizza. By the sinks, Andrew says he knows me from class: History of Visual Sources. He stands close. He offers cider.
In his room we drink and chit-chat about how behind in class we are. Me, because class is early and I can’t get out of bed. Him, because his dad’s depression is worse and he’s needed at home. We agree to meet in the Winters lounge to share notes on Friday’s assignment.
Word around campus is that Andrew’s mom died before the beginning of second year. This makes me feel awkward. That and Andrew looks weird. His red curly hair is long at the back with gelled spikes up top. He dresses formally for a student. Mostly black dress pants and blazers accenting his insipid complexion.
“He said he wanted to off professors?” Essi, my roommate, looks up from her computer, arranging her enviable blonde hair into a side ponytail. “What if he actually hurt someone?” Just as I’m about to defend him she mouths the words: Montréal Massacre.
It’s been two years, but it sends chills down my spine. Maybe somebody knew and didn’t do anything. Maybe I know and should do something.
En Vogue oozes from inside the don’s room as I wait for Don to open the door. “Don the don” is the upper-year student charged with acting as a role model to younger students on our floor. He’s also known as “Don Juan” for his disarming good looks and penchant for screwing sophomores.
Don opens his door a crack. Behind him I spy a pissed-off second year, poised on his bed. He gives me a wink and a flash of that magic that’s made him the topic of many late-night conversations with the girls (and some boys) on my floor. On her way out, the girl shoots me the stink eye.
Inside, Don blows out red cinnamon candles and invites me to sit on a beanbag chair. He clears empties and hands me a cold one and places an index finger over his perfect lips. Several of his shirt buttons are undone, revealing a well-toned chest. I mind-map its smooth, hairless surface and make note to describe it to Essi later. He wobbles, then sinks into a chair, spilling foam on his exposed skin. He wipes it up with his hand and looks to me to begin.
I lock onto the gravitational pull of Don’s molasses-brown eyes as I detach from my body and float above us. Unlike some girls in res, I’ve never talked to him before. I haven’t concocted some excuse about loud music or a mean neighbour to weasel my way into his lair.
Hovering from above, I hear him say, “Sandy, right?” His tongue gets caught on the s.
I didn’t expect him to remember my name. Even though I had just told him. Twice. People tend not to remember me. I have a knack for not standing out. I’m neither peculiar-looking like Andrew with his orange, prickly hair, nor especially pretty like Essi with her Nordic looks. Flying under the radar is the norm for me. I’ve become accustomed to it and it suits me fine. It gives me the time and space to observe others while they’re busy looking at somebody else.
“This Andrew …” he slurs. “He made threats against professors?”
“He says he wants to kill them.”
The words hang in the air between us. Don runs his free hand through his ash-brown hair and stares at me, cradling his bottle. A warm sensation starts creeping its way to my cheeks. I scan the dimly lit room. Looking for a way to escape.
“I don’t know.”
Don puts down his beer and looks at me, maybe for the first time.
He thinks I’m another lovesick schoolgirl. Vying for a little one-on-one. Exaggerating a story just to spend time with him.
“Exactly what did he say?” His tone is all cop now.
“He said he wanted to kill them.”
“I don’t know …”
“Simone. You need to really think. It could be a matter of life and death. Did he say he wanted to kill?Or did he say shoot?”
What’s the difference? It seems to make a difference to Don. Shooting is specific. It implies a plan. Killing is vague. Which was it? I don’t remember. What I do know is that Don is sitting up straight now. His eyes glued to mine. He’s the good cop. I’m the innocent bystander. Risking everything by reporting the offence. But no crime has taken place. Not yet.
His eyes are saucer-wide. He stands up and paces around with the room with exaggerated purpose. Deciding his next move.
“I don’t think he would hurt anyone,” I offer. “I just thought …”
He places his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. His fingers span half my back.
“We’re going to handle this.”
He said we. I definitely heard him say we. Is his hand moving down my back? Is he pulling me closer?
Bam! Bam! Bam! A knock at the door. The spell is broken. Another crisis needs his attention. Before I go, he murmurs in my ear, “I won’t do anything without talking to you. Come by tonight.”
The warmth of his breath on my neck makes me feel dizzy.
Come by tonight? Of course, this situation will require careful consideration. We will need to spend significant time together. The girls on the floor will be curious. It’s natural for them be jealous. They won’t realize we’re saving lives. And not just any lives. Their lives.
Sitting in class that morning I replay my conversation with Don. In my recalling of our moments together I omit any misgivings telling him about Andrew. I settle back into my chair with a sense of having done the right thing. Before anyone got hurt. It was lucky Andrew expressed his violent thoughts to me. On the back of my still-incomplete assignment, I scribble Don’s name.
Across the class, Andrew enters wearing a rumpled sports coat and black knapsack. He smiles at me. Even Andrew will thank me one day.
My daydreaming comes to a halt when two men in black security uniforms enter the class. A hush falls over the room as they walk up to the professor and one of them whispers in his ear, draining the blood from his meaty face. “What’s happening?!” Andrew asks, wild-eyed as they wrench him from his chair. But they’re not here to talk. I think about his dad as they drag him out the door.
Outside, students gather in quiet constellations, gossiping about a kid they never knew. At the epicenter of an all-female group shines the brightest star. Don looks up and meets my stare. For a moment he looks like he might say something. But then a girl draws him back into conversation. As if I’m not even there. As if nothing ever happened.
Years have passed since I have seen Andrew. I wonder if I will ever run into to him somewhere.
It’s a cool spring day. I’m walking to another doctor’s appointment, hoping this new one will get my meds right. I’m crossing Yonge at Dundas, a claustrophobic intersection I usually avoid.
There he is.
Coming toward me I see his shock of red hair smartly cut now. His signature jacket is tailored and chic. He is holding a small girl’s hand. She shares his striking colouring. He’s laughing at a story she’s telling him.
We walk toward one another. He looks up and our eyes meet. If he recognizes me, he doesn’t let on. We pass one another like the two strangers we are. I want to turn and run after him. I want to shout, “I’m sorry!” But I don’t.
I keep my head down and disappear into the crowd.
The OBPO and Open Book gratefully acknowledge the support of The Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Toronto Arts Council, Arts Etobicoke, North York Arts, East York Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.
Lucy E.M. Black grew up in Willowdale, Ontario. Her short stories have been published in Cyphers Magazine, Fast Forward Fiction, Gargoyle Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, Romance Magazine, Hawai’i Review, Forge, Temenos Journal, Vintage Script,andthe Antigonish Review. The Marzipan Fruit Basket, a debut collection of short stories, was released by Inanna Publications in June 2017. Eleanor Courtown, a work of historical fiction, was released by Seraphim Editions in October 2017.
Asheda Dwyer is a delinquent writer who was born and raised in neighbourhoods across the west end of Toronto. Her writing is experimental and speculates the recovery of human experiences by enmeshing poetry and political commentary. She endeavours to publish a mixed collection of essays and poems about denigrated black life in Toronto.
Laura Mullin is a playwright, director, producer, and the co-artistic director of Expect Theatre and PlayME Podcast. She graduated from York University with a BFA in theatre before forming Expect with Chris Tolley. Laura’s work has been nominated for five Doras and her shows have toured nationally and internationally.
Sylvia Maultash Warsh was born in Germany to Holocaust survivors and came to Canada as a child. She earned a master’s in Linguistics from the University of Toronto. Sylvia lives in North York, where she writes mysteries, historical novels, and short stories, as well as teaching writing to seniors. She has two adult children and a granddaughter.