Crown of Thornsby Douglas Glover
When Tobin was eight, he fell in love with his babysitter Aganetha, the awkward one with the large, damp eyes, floppy, uncontrollable bosoms and a soot-coloured hair-wing she kept pulled down over her face to hide her acne. One night, waking up to pee, Tobin spied Aganetha and his father embracing in the rose arbour at the back gate. Aganetha’s sweatshirt was rucked up at her throat, her bra askew, one breast dislodged and bright as a second moon. The scene was enveloped in silence, lit by a real moon hanging over the garden like a Japanese lantern or a breast. Dormant, dither, delft, dreadful, death and dalliance—d-words from his book droned through Tobin’s head. Seeing the breast flattened against his father’s hand, Aganetha’s pale flesh bulging like putty between the rough, muscular fingers, Tobin thought, She must be cold. Then his mother was standing just behind him, in his bedroom by the back window, her fingernails chill talons digging into his shoulder. He thought, he made a connection, never to be obliterated from memory, My mother’s hand on my shoulder is just like my father’s hand on Aganetha’s breast. He wet his pajamas right down to the floor.
Aganetha disappeared from Tobin’s life. He thought of her as a kite, but the string had snapped and she was floating away from him. His parents never mentioned her. He thought, She is the only person I ever loved. She is my beginning and my end. His mother, if anything, seemed warmer, more attentive, toward his father, but in an anxious, frenzied, hysterical manner which he later described to his therapist as a theatre of martyrdom. See, she seemed to say, I am the perfect one for you because I will bear anything, tolerate every betrayal and vice. To Tobin, his father seemed ineffably distant, cruel, cold, powerful and perverse. Both his parents were so involved in their private drama that they had no emotion to spare for Tobin. He thought, he told the therapist, he was having a happy childhood.
With Aganetha gone, life seemed like a dream to Tobin. He did not know why anything happened or what was real. He began to wet the bed. It just happened, he explained to his mother. Someone else was controlling his bodily functions. Erections were inexplicable and usually accompanied some act of cruelty. He got erections when he threw rocks at the neighbour’s puppy Squiggles. He got erections when he found his mother weeping in the rose arbour. He got erections every time he passed through the rose arbour. One day he threw himself against the rose arbour, impaling himself on the thorns, an image of the Jesus he had seen in his children’s Bible. When the blood came, he had an erection. He saw Aganetha’s breast in his father’s hand and had his first orgasm.
He was suddenly twelve and enrolled in a special school. He couldn’t understand why he was there. He told the school counsellor about his love for Aganetha, whom he assumed was dead, murdered, yes, by his father, with the help of his mother. He knew where she was buried. This explains why you keep digging up the rose arbour, said the therapist, reading from his notes. I don’t know why I dig there, said Tobin. I am controlled by outside forces, my mother and father, I think. They have a remote control transmitter and there is a chip embedded in my skull. When I dig in the back garden, I feel peaceful. Why do you stick pencils in your penis? asked the therapist. That’s easy, said Tobin. Then he fell silent. Then he said, There is a button. If they press that button, my head will explode and I’ll be dead. Do you think your parents love you? asked the therapist. Absolutely, said Tobin.
After the special school, there was an away school, then the incident with the school nurse’s kitten, the fires, another school, the internet pornography ring featuring first and second graders in the school washroom, shop-lifting, juvenile detention. In group therapy at the Cedar Vale Centre, he met a depressed girl named Rose who was addicted to several drug groups and had dabbled in prostitution. She was over-weight, her breasts swung like giant pods beneath her sweatshirt, she had lank black hair and a crucifix tattooed on her forehead. She taught Tobin to hold his breath til he fainted. Nights, Tobin dreamed he saw his father kissing Rose in the rose arbour, kneading her chubby breasts with his claw-like fingers. He showed Rose a photograph of his father. She said she might have known him, or someone just like him, a double. Tobin said, I can hold my breath til I’m dead. Have you ever been kissed? asked Rose. Have you ever made love? At which point, Tobin fainted. He bought a Crown of Thorns plant with his pocket money and kept it by his bedside. He avoided Rose and changed therapy groups, even when she wept and threatened to kill herself. His new therapist asked him what he made of the fact that his family name was Thorn. Tobin held his breath until he passed out. Seeing himself in the men’s room mirror, in the ghastly glow of the strip lights, he realized he was beginning to look like his father. They had the same sinister leer, the same feminine belly, the same hermaphrodite penis. This realization gave him an erection. He suddenly felt powerful. He felt an over-powering urge to find Rose or to dig a hole. But Rose had mysteriously left Cedar Vale. No one could explain it, but he took it as a sign of love.
Years seemed to pass. Tobin (Thorn), along with his Crown of Thorns plant, moved back with his parents. The house had an antiseptic air, something like a barracks or a prison, much like Cedar Vale Centre. His mother and father rarely spoke to Tobin, or anyone else, for that matter. They locked him in his room at night. Their lives seemed shrouded in a dense, greasy fog. They moved awkwardly around the house in synchronized patterns like automata. They wore matching cardigan sweaters with deep pockets. At night he could hear them weeping. The back yard was pocked with unfilled holes, the rose arbour upended, the roses dead, their arched stems prickly in the moonlight like the backs of prehistoric monsters. He looked for jobs involving excavation. He found himself attracted to backhoes and barbed wire. He wore a cardigan sweater with deep pockets. He thought how everything repeated in his life, beginning with the moment when he fell in love with Aganetha. There were remnants of yellow plastic police tape in the back yard. When he came home, there had been a pile of letters in an unknown hand. He dared not open them, but he fondled them and got erections. After he got an erection, he would wet the bed. His erections were signs that a higher power was controlling him. The mysterious envelopes prompted him to write letters to the newspapers accusing the staff of Cedar Vale Centre of murdering Rose and concealing her body on the grounds. He also mentioned the alarming disappearance of a girl named Aganetha some years before. He fell in love with the music of Nirvana. When the police came, he remembered the psychologist from before. She said, You know your parents say there never was a babysitter named Aganetha. And Tobin (Thorn) said, Without Aganetha I am nothing.
At the cemetery where he found work, Tobin met a woman named Dolores. She was typical of the women to whom he found himself attracted—melancholy, shy, sexually-demanding, lonely, and possessed of large breasts. She lay down beside a headstone (a rose engraved in granite) and invited him to have sex with her. After he fainted, she said, Are you a virgin? He said, Every woman I have loved has been murdered. Was that before or after you had sex? she asked. Before, he said. Tobin felt himself getting woozy again, talking so intimately with those large breasts, which, now that he thought of it, reminded him of his mother. Once he had seen his mother naked on her bed, her breasts slung to the side; like boat bumpers, he thought. Then you’re a virgin, said Dolores. How old are you? Forty-two, he said. You’ve wet your pants, she said.
Everything reminded Tobin of everything else, as if the world were made up of signs and omens that only referred to other signs and omens. He understood that his life was ruled by a principle of recursion. It occurred to him that he might be nothing but a robot with a short circuit, that consciousness was a flaw that only caused anguish, anxiety, and alienation. He filled his room with thorny house plants—barrel cacti, fire thorn, Argentine mesquite, stinging nettle, Russian thistle, acacia, goat’s thorn—so that he could sleep safely at night, though twice he tripped and impaled himself inadvertently. His shrieks went unanswered. His body was a star map of scars and punctures. He remained terrified of his father, a man now broken in health and feeble from the strain of defending himself from his son’s accusations. His father had moved into an extended care home for invalids, but Tobin’s mother refused to tell him the address. Haven’t you done enough? she said. There had been a restraining order, at least once. Every day, when he left for work, he would knock on his mother’s door, give her a peck on the cheek, and say, I love you, Mom. Each time she seemed to shrink from him, shuddering, growing into herself, frail and sickly.
He tried to have his name legally changed from Thorn to Pillow. He went around introducing himself as Martin Pillow even though everyone knew him as Tobin Thorn. The house had fallen into ruin. Tobin sometimes borrowed the backhoe from the cemetery. He had undercut the foundation and knocked over the summer kitchen. One day Tobin’s mother, no doubt consumed with jealousy over his hard-won success and happiness, packed an overnight bag and ran away with a man named Reggie Wemyss whom she had met when he came to the door selling vinyl replacement windows. She wrote in soap on the bathroom mirror: Free At Last! She did not leave a forwarding address. Tobin’s new girl had roses tattooed on her breasts, a crown of thorns on her back, and a skein of barbed wire inked around her neck. Nobody can touch me, she said. No need to explain, he said. They had met during grief therapy. She idolized Kurt Cobain. She called Tobin Martin Pillow because that was how he introduced himself. She was overweight, with large, unmanageable breasts, lank black hair turning to gray. She seemed alarmingly familiar, like every other woman in his life but none the worse for having spent the last thirty years underground in the back yard. I thought you were dead, said Tobin. Murdered. I don’t know what you’re talking about, she said. But you’ve got me intrigued.
The new girl reminded Tobin of a kite come to earth, crumpled, broken, but still buffeted by the winds of desire. She showed him her paint-by-numbers Colonial America collection. She wore a cardigan sweater with deep pockets. She set the alarm at night and made him get up to pee. She taught him to play cribbage. They did jig-saw puzzles together. He took evening classes on power shovels and earth movers. They started a retirement account at the local credit union, bought a time-share in Boca Raton, and joined the End Times Church of Christthe Reanimate run out of a Trim-n-Buff nail salon in the mall. In his spare time, Tobin began to write a self-help guide for abused children. Nights, he dreamed of being buried alive and premature ejaculation. Tobin told his therapist that his life was shadowed by forgotten things. Like what? asked the therapist. I’ve forgotten, said Tobin. He said he believed his parents had undergone plastic surgery and moved into the house next door under the names Mr. and Mrs. Kirpal Singh, an insidious couple with a small child named Parvati. Their cats came into his yard and did their business in the excavations. He had notified the police on several occasions. He and his new girl moved around the house in synchronized patterns like automata. At night he could hear her weeping behind locked doors. Aside from the violent rages, intermittent catatonia, nightmares, sleep-walking, chronic priapism, nervous hair-pulling, delusions of grandeur, deathly boredom, spiritual emptiness, and sleep apnea, he felt that life had never been better.
One day Tobin spotted Aganetha in the street. It was as though he had entered the Land of the Dead. There were gods everywhere. All of life had been a promise. His iguana brain rejoiced in the sunlight. Her hair was the colour of slate. She had breasts like liquid fuel rockets. He remembered first love. She was his beginning and his end. He remembered hope. He remembered her nervous whisper, her habit of eating her hair when she was thinking. He remembered she could make quarters dance on her knuckles and disappear. Then he noticed the tall, silver-haired gent guiding her toward a black SUV, and the two cherubic teenagers, a boy and a girl, both resembling their parents. They were like visitors from another planet. His ardent heart heaved with adoration, yearning, jealousy, humiliation, and rage. What about me? he screamed, heaving a rock like a prayer. Then he threw another rock. Who are those people? he thought. The rock clanged off the SUV. Stern faces leafed toward him like pages in a book. The boy nodded omnisciently. The silver-haired gent aimed an elegant pointer finger at the tip of a long arm. They possessed all the qualities Tobin lacked—grace, affection, sangfroid, maturity and wisdom. For all Tobin knew, pure ichor ran in their veins. Aganetha gave him an ominous wave, almost as if she regretted it. If she is real, he thought, what of my dreams? My life? He held his breath. He willed himself not to breath. The wind suddenly picked up. A dust devil swirled toward him whipping street grit into his eyes, stinging his cheeks like nettles. Aganetha kept waving like a railway signal, the rhythmic motion of her hand uncanny and mesmerizing. Her face was molten wax. Her eyes were like pits. Tobin felt the wind lifting him, felt himself the centre of storm. She mouthed the words, I’m sorry. The roar of the wind was terrific. He had to shut his eyes. His lungs were full of sand. His heart ached. The sound of the wind was like an explosion. He remembered everything—his father’s hand on a breast, the rose arbour, his mother’s hot breath on his cheek, the absolute density of the moment from which all meaning emanated. There was always someone coming between you and the thing you love, he thought. Aganetha reminded him of a kite. He was holding the reel, but the line had broken. The kite was almost out of sight. All he had was the reel and a piece of broken string.
DOUGLAS GLOVER is the Canadian author of four novels and five story collections. His novel Elle won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction.