In the month of May, 1898, on his wedding night, Thomas Griffith Smolders was chased around his hotel room, not by his bride, as you might expect, but by a ball of fire—luminous and strangely cool. Needless to say, this was a clandestine event, occurring as it did in a private room in a small hotel located in a provincial city in Canada. The world was looking elsewhere, already busily nurturing the Twentieth Century in its dark nursery. Mussolini was fifteen, Hitler a boy of nine, Franco, the “little sausage,” only six. The ball lightning, that rare phenomenon, was scarcely moments old, having been conceived in the heat and humidity of the day, born out of the belly of omen and mystery. The thing sailed in through the open window of the Belvedere Hotel in London, Ontario, hissing like an angry cat.
Only moments before, Grif had taken off his shoes and arranged his morning coat on the back of a chair, fastidiously straightening it, dusting off a few specks of dandruff, attending to it as if he were dressing a younger brother. He was prepared to take much longer over the matter of his trousers, and had begun to pace the floor while he considered what their removal would ultimately entail. He suspected that his bride knew much more than he did about how the evening’s scheduled pleasures were to be conducted, and he was right. She was waiting for him in the adjoining bedroom, dressed in absolutely nothing but her frightening knowledge.
Grif, pacing pacing, heard someone cry out in the street below, the voice plaintive and slightly crooked with wonder. He stopped and glanced toward the window, then stood frozen as he watched it float in, a yellow ball big as a head, haloed with white light. A live chicken would not have been unexpected, or a string of firecrackers; some of the wilder boys he knew might have ridden into the city to charivari the bride and groom with lusty drunken songs, and the odd boot or brick pitched through the window. But this. This was so far beyond being even the unexpected that it stripped him completely of comprehension. His eyes might have told him that, really, this was nothing more than a swarm of brilliant insects clustered tightly together in a mating dance. They did not tell him this. They didn’t tell him a blessed thing, and he stood gaping, dumb as a doorknob, as the ball advanced toward him, sizzling and crackling, as if in the uncertainty of his newly married state he had become a magnet for impish and unruly phenomena.
The glowing sphere suddenly dropped and hit the floor with such a sharp whip-snapping crack that it woke him from his dreaming disbelief. It was then that he was struck through with a presentiment of danger—not merely from this fiery harbinger, but from the whole roaring marital furnace into which he had stepped that day so unguardedly. He took to his heels, and the ball lightning pursued him so closely that it ate holes in his socks and fried the leftover wedding rice that he was shedding profusely out of his trouser legs and shirt cuffs. A plucked Mercury, he made a dash for the open window and clambered out. The fire escape’s rope burned into his palms as he slid down, but no matter, for as soon as he hit the ground, he was gone. He landed in a soft pool of street light, his stricken face illuminated briefly, and then he was off, running blindly into the night, certain that his life lay before him and not behind in that small, suffocating hotel room.
The ball lightning, meanwhile, fizzled to nothing. It simply faded away, this amazing electrochemical manifestation, witnessed by no one but Grif Smolders and leaving behind only the trace of an odour, pungent and sulphuric, and a faint crescent-shaped mark on the floor.
Posed puris naturalibus on the bed like an odalisque, Avice Marion Smolders, née Drinkwater, heard the commotion in the adjoining room and smiled to herself. She pictured Grif in his virginal anxiety tripping over his own feet and crashing into the furniture. Then there was that noise, goodness, that sounded very like a shotgun going off. Someone playing pranks, no doubt, perhaps even Hilliard Forbes who was dead mad for her and would play them more seriously than some. Grif would be rattled by it all, and then more so if he ever got up the nerve to open that door and see her, behold her, stretched out naked on the bed. The gift of herself too beautiful for wrapping. Besides—she ran an admiring hand over her breast, down her thigh—she didn’t need a man to undress her, to inch her nightgown up over her knees in the concealing dark, while they both pretended it wasn’t happening.
Avice was a virgin too, of course, but she believed in research and had given Judith, the Drinkwaters’ maid, the silver breakfast cruet from her trousseau in exchange for the details. A scene you might imagine conducted with much whispering, blushing and giggling, yet it was a fairly businesslike and frank transaction. Silver for sexual information—a bold if secretive female bartering, and all the more satisfactory for that.
“The silence in the next room began to trouble her. She shivered. How long was she going to have to display herself like a glistening haunch in a butcher’s window?”
“Avice!” her three sisters had chided, none the wiser about that chat with Judith, but disconcerted by her no-nonsense approach to the wedding, her wilful flaunting of custom. “Not in May,” they had shrieked, that being the unluckiest month in which to marry, the month that fostered unpleasantly fierce relationships. “Not on a Saturday,” the unluckiest day. “Not to him,” misfortune’s suitor, as they saw it. Delicate fingertips probed their vexed foreheads, finding nothing in those tiny furrows, not even the seed of an idea that would explain their younger sister’s behaviour. Or lack of it. Tradition was a house she swept through, cool and brisk as a wind. No, she informed them, she would not be wearing mother’s veil, nor any veil for that matter; she wanted no fogging sentimental mist in her eyes as she marched resolutely and defiantly down the aisle. Nor would she be taping a gold coin in her shoe, unknotting her laces or concealing anything blue upon her person. And yes, she would, and did, bake her own cake. The penalty for this? A lifetime of drudgery, at least according to Cecile, who stood by wringing her hands as she watched Avice slam the ingredients together like someone building a doghouse.
Avice was aware that she was living on the littoral, much closer to the edge of the new century than her sisters, who as it approached retreated further back, as if from a huge wave breaking on the shore. As far as she was concerned, if marriage was considered to be so perilously rickety that it needed the slant magic of superstition to hold it together, then it needed to change. And she would change it, a woman unafraid to lift her skirts and wade into unknown waters, however black and cold and high they might be.
The silence in the next room began to trouble her. She shivered. How long was she going to have to display herself like a glistening haunch in a butcher’s window? What if it was a shotgun that she had heard, and Grif, even now as she waited for him to bring her warmth, to kindle her limbs, lay dead on the floor, much colder than she? That could not be, she decided. More likely he had stepped out into the hall beyond her hearing to settle his nerves. Or he was preparing a little surprise for her, as quietly as he could, betraying no secrets. That’s one of the things she liked about him—he was unpredictable, unreadable. Precisely what her sisters didn’t like about him. Who is he? they wanted to know. Meaning who were his people, what were his connections. What kind of name is Smolders? He might be one of those anarchists they’d been hearing about, come to toss a bomb into the heart of their family, to tear apart their settled and prosperous Anglo-Canadian community. Wasn’t there something Moorish in his aspect, something tinged and foreign, something of the moneylender, the gypsy? To them he was like the swarthy imp in a fairy tale, who by some enchantment was about to steal their youngest, their baby, and they couldn’t bear to watch.
Truth to tell, Avice had enchanted and stolen him, or at least had chosen him like an intriguing and comely package as soon as she spotted him, a clerk behind the counter of Kingsmill’s. She had been one of those children who always brought home strays, one-eyed dogs, three-legged cats—once even a monkey, fugitive from a travelling circus—and now him. Much better Hilliard Forbes, who was solid and reliable, a young man of conservative tastes and temperament, humourless perhaps, limited in romantic accoutrements, but a known quantity. Yes, Avice might have added, like lard, thinking of what filled the space between his ears.
Had they bothered to enquire of the groom himself, her sisters might have been surprised to discover that Griffith Smolders hailed from a village a scarce ten miles away from London, and from a family of good standing, albeit on a lower social rung than the Drinkwaters. The only very unfortunate thing about him—and this was serious—was that he’d been raised in the Roman Catholic faith. (It was well known that Catholics stole into people’s homes late at night like darkness itself and slaughtered whole families in their beds.) Even so, when Grif’s father proffered his quivering and purplish tongue at the altar rail, fully expecting the Host to alight on it, a certain amount of Protestantism also drifted in. This being puritan Ontario, it was in the air, a kind of ecumenical pollution. And when those sober, joyless sentiments drifted back out of his father’s mouth, Grif caught the brunt of it. Utility, discipline, work, work, work. Grif did not mind the labour, only its wages. As a boy he had been sent several times a week to clean the church for Father Fallon, and on his return home would be soundly beaten, which was his father’s way of keeping him morally rigorous and spiritually focused. Grif appealed to all the saints in heaven during these sessions, but no help ever arrived, not even from those who had themselves been most gruesomely martyred. If there was a point to this brutal exercise, he eventually decided to take its opposite. God’s tenancy weakened in his young mind, and the Almighty became a squatter at best, in danger of being turfed out entirely at short notice to walk the streets like the unsightly and unworthy poor. When he arrived in London during the Depression of the mid-nineties searching for employment, he let his saint’s name, Thomas, be struck away from him like a useless limb. He was simply Grif.
“Hollowed was how she felt, struck open, like a shattered window through which a chill wind seethes. She sat so completely and utterly still that she might indeed have been dead.”
After about an hour had passed, Avice Smolders, her new name still light upon her back, still bridal fresh and alluring, rose from the bed and walked to the door that joined the two rooms. She opened it a crack, then wide enough to let abandonment flood in. She saw the raised window, the curtain stirring slightly. She saw Grif’s shoes neatly placed by the wardrobe, his coat hanging on the back of the chair. She saw a sickle-shaped scorch mark on the floor, a black brand burnt into the hardwood, suggesting what? That Grif had been reaped right out of the world without a trace. Spontaneous combustion? (She had read her Dickens.) If she had known he was a Catholic, a religion rife with fantastic plots and absurd characters, she might have suspected Satanic foul play. Adamant belief, she knew, could turn the untenable into fact, the incredible into something hard-edged and real. Beware of what you open your mind to, was the gist of this thinking, for it might sweep in and destroy you. But Grif had been so evasive on the subject of religion when interviewed by her father, a member of the Protestant Protective Association, that he had been suspected of agnosticism rather than any credulous and childish popery. Despite the faint trace of sulphur that still lingered in the hotel room, Avice was certain that no devil had this evening passed through, for no one, not even old Harry himself, would dare take from her that which was hers.
Grif meanwhile had himself taken something—other than his freedom—that was definitely not his. Fleeing down Richmond Street, down Queens, ducking behind St. Paul’s Cathedral to catch his breath, he spotted an open window in the church’s manse, courtesy of the warm night, the beneficence of May in London, as well as the overheated bulk of the manse’s occupant, the Reverend Elias Bee. As fortune would have it, Reverend Bee had with slovenly panache just tossed his jacket on the floor beneath that very window, and had followed up this gift with a pair of very fine shoes, which, after hitting the ledge, landed directly on top of the jacket. He had seated himself on a chubby horsehair sofa by the cold hearth and was presently admiring his hands and wiggling his toes like a baby. They were his best features, his hands and feet, delicate, fine-boned, small but expressive, his fingers plucking meaning right out of the air as he delivered his sermons, and his feet—well, they spoke too, in their way. Quick and agile, they were built for dancing, for mincing, for occupations requiring stealth. He clothed them in only the best imported shoes and boots, in leather that hugged, that took a high shine, natty enough for Sir Wilfrid himself. Unfortunately, his shoes were a poor fit for Grif. They pinched. The jacket was overlarge and overripe, as if Reverend Bee’s pride in his person did not extend beyond his dainty appendages.
Grif had never stolen anything before. However, one church being as good, or bad, as another, he felt he had already paid more than enough for these items, the shoes especially, so soft and supple they might have been made of his own flayed skin, his child’s beaten-blue husk. He couldn’t know that the Reverend Bee was the real thief here. Steeped in satisfaction, unaware of Grif’s arm sliding through the window, the venerable man sat smiling to himself and regarding his own clever hands, thinking of the book he had snatched that evening from the archbishop’s library. It was a very old book, an antiquity, and in splendid condition. A black market existed for such texts, one that he, a man most comfortable in black, found very useful. For one thing, this sort of trade paid for his exquisite shoes, beautifully crafted examples of which Grif now stole away in. To celebrate, Reverend Bee decided to treat himself to a finger, or two, of brandy—a light-fingered libation—before retrieving his latest find from his jacket pocket and assessing it more thoroughly than his lightning-quick side trip into the archbishop’s library had allowed. How he loved old books, and the wealth they contained and, with entrepreneurial ingenuity, commanded.
Grif, a mere apprentice in this thieving business, had so far mainly taken himself away, up the road, beyond the city limits, beyond the limits of married life and of decent behaviour; beyond even the limits of the shoes’ stitching, for the leather burst open like pods somewhere around Lucan, which only seemed to accommodate further his escape.
If Griffith Smolders had never felt so free before, his wife of several hours had never felt so arrested. The immense amount of time on her hands was acting very oddly, and moving more slowly than she thought possible for someone still supposedly alive to perceive. She was sitting up in bed, Grif’s coat draped over her bare shoulders, the crumpled and undelivered speech she had discovered in his pocket (no one had asked him) long since torn into a storm of anti-confetti that had settled around her. She was finding the gulf between one minute and the next almost impossible to bridge, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to make it, proceeding like this through time being such a tedious and endless labour. Hollowed was how she felt, struck open, like a shattered window through which a chill wind seethes. She sat so completely and utterly still that she might indeed have been dead.
At around four in the morning she began to stir, for by then she had begun to realize that not only was she still alive, but she was hungry. Voracious, in fact. It would seem that on her singular and astonishing wedding night she had developed a new and demanding appetite. She blinked a couple of times, as if waking from a strange dream, and looked about. Her eye fell upon a small dark shape crawling in the bedclothes, a spider that was struggling over the mountainous cloth waves. She reached down, plucked it out of the folds, and stared at the poor creature as it wriggled desperately between her thumb and forefinger. Her sister Cecile, who was terrified of spiders and yet maintained that killing one was bad luck, would certainly not have touched the thing, and would have leapt out of bed screaming. Avice smiled. Formerly, and sympathetically, she would have flicked it onto the floor so that it might continue its tiny pilgrim’s progress. But tonight, without the slightest regret or remorse, she popped the spider into her mouth and ate it.
From The Iconoclast’s Journal. Used with permission of Biblioasis. Copyright © 2018 by Terry Griggs.