Breathe In

2015 short story contest winner

By Bruce Cinnamon

Her face adorns a thousand trinkets. Lockets and charms. Fine bone china and votive candles. Paper fans and one-size-fits-all T-shirts. All bear Her revered image—eyes closed, serene and smiling.

It’s a commercial carnival out here on the Alberta prairies. Hawkers shout for attention. Small children harass visitors, drag them over to racks of statuettes and books. Vendors are arrayed around the impromptu temple and its bizarre tropical oasis.

When we pull up in the parking lot, sliding in behind a coach full of Québécois tourists, my husband smirks knowingly at the weary look on my face.

“Try to have fun, okay? Try to enjoy yourself.”

I cock an eyebrow at him. Since when have I ever had fun on one of his assignments?

We established our dynamic early on. I’m the curmudgeonly one. He’s the adventurous one. I stay at home in Toronto denying visa applications for the immigration bureau. He jets around the world writing articles for his surprisingly lucrative travel blog.

When he does drag me along, it’s all forcing a smile in front of cliché monuments and trying to avoid doing anything blogworthy—a lesson I learned the hard way when I accident-ally ate a bull penis in Saigon.

People bring their own inferior fruitslacking the fullness and weight of Her soulful produceto leave at her feet.

This trip, I can’t avoid being mentioned. I’m a subject of study. This is my home turf.

“I’ve been invited to go on a tour of Alberta!” he crowed the moment he got the email. “You have to come! You never talk about your homeland. You can show off your old haunts. Like I did when we went home to visit my parents.”

“Yeah, but you’re from New York. It’s not the same.”

“Well, I already emailed back, before the tour company finds some other blogger. Case closed. We’re going.”

Our marriage counsellor thinks it’s a great idea. Maybe going home will help resolve my insomnia and my sleepwalking, which have been getting worse.

So here I am. Musidora, Alberta. Formerly the armpit of nowhere. Now a major tourist destination. All thanks to Her.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been here,” says my husband as we leave the air-conditioned tranquility of the rental car and are immediately assaulted by a 10-year-old shaking sandalwood beads.

“You’d never been to the Statue of Liberty,” I say.

“That’s different. It’s a point of pride for New Yorkers to avoid the Statue of Liberty. And besides, there’s so much else to do in New York.”

We weave our way through the small community that has sprouted up around the accidental landmark. My husband buys too many souvenirs—a trucker hat, a pack of gum, a tube of incense. He buys a book, Divine Teachings of the Madonna of Musidora, which I’m sure will appear in my Christmas stocking this year.

We join the long queue for the temple, which stretches all the way around the spontaneous shrine. I hold our place as my husband goes to get some overpriced food. Really, he’s hunting for a good story in the thousand-strong crowd. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. There are dozens of pilgrims leaning on crutches and canes, waiting for the moment they can cast them away and declare themselves miraculously healed.

My husband returns eventually with some limp green onion cakes bathed in sriracha sauce, and I chew one of the cardboardy disks for the next 10 minutes. When we reach the entrance, a serene, white-robed acolyte tells us we are expected to limit our time to five minutes in Her presence, take no photos and remain reverently silent in the temple.

When we enter the grand room, however, we meet a scene of pande-monium. A crowd of at least a hundred is gathered around Her, pushing and jostling for position. Everyone has one hand in the air, all trying to take the exact same photo with their smartphones. I’m reminded of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, not just because of the mob of ill-behaved tourists, but also because of Her face.

The Madonna of Musidora wears an enigmatic smile. She sits there with Her legs pretzelled, Her eyes closed, Her metres of copper-gold hair. The temple has cold marble floors and golden walls, a cavernous space that amplifies the noise of the crowd. But the Madonna sits in the dirt, as She has since the beginning.

Behind Her sprouts the temple’s most impressive feature—a giant tree, growing up the curved side of the dome, reaching towards the oculus in its roof, through which sunlight rains down. Its boughs are heavy with fruit and bursting with blossoms, a biological impossibility just like the Madonna Herself.

The story goes that the Madonna had an orange in Her pocket when She sat down, and it fell out and implanted itself in the freshly tilled soil behind her. Her divine influence seeped out to infect the surrounding earth, making it absurdly fertile. People bring their own inferior fruits—genetically engineered to be flawless, though lacking the fullness and weight of Her soulful produce—to leave at Her feet and ask for a blessing.

Eventually we shuffle our way to the front of the crowd, behind a waist-high glass barrier that leaves us a metre away from Her. My husband passes me a piece of crystallized pineapple, and we kneel down and place our offerings beside a hundred-hour candle. I let the pineapple linger in my hand for a moment, visualizing my wish. My husband draws his hand away quickly. I’m sure he doesn’t wish for what I wish for.

The Madonna wears en enigmatic smile, with Her legs pretzelled, Her eyes closed, Her metres of copper-gold hair. She sits in the dirt.

He leans into me, almost nibbles on my ear as he whispers to me.

“What do you feel?”

I stare up into the woman’s face and consider the question. The Madonna of Musidora is like the Mona Lisa, with her famous smile. It’s mysterious and self-satisfied, to the point that it borders on smugness. She has this “I know something you don’t know” smirk, eyebrows raised to just the right angle.

When I look into her eternally young, glowing face I don’t feel peace or contentment or inspiration. I feel a yellow curd of resentment, stinking up my insides. Who does she think she is, really? Why are you oh-so-enlightened? What’s your great secret, huh?

I hate my life. Everything that once seemed exciting, colourful, full of promise is now just a taunt, a reminder of how naive I once was. Most people hate their lives, I think, which is why we spend so much time grasping around at distractions. Doing things that other people pretend to be happy about and advertise, like buying a house or getting married.

But here sits this woman, almost 120 years old with the face of a 20-year-old, announcing silently that She’s figured it all out. She’s beaten the misery monster that gnaws at everyone from the inside. She’s achieved a pure and perfect joy, independent of circumstance, unassailable by doubt or regret or exhaustion. Wherever She is in there—in that strange, ageless body sitting rooted to the dusty prairie—She seems to be mocking us, showing us how easy it is to slip free of our shackles.

We’re shuffled out of the temple, into the interpretive centre and gift shop. My husband drags me into a small theatre that plays a short film. The story of her life.

“Before She came to be known as the Madonna, Victoria Sunady had another nickname: The Queen of the Porcelain Throne.”

A baritone voice narrates as photos of Her as an old woman fill the screen.

“She recognized that great wealth could spring from the most unexpected of places. She read a strange statistic about the amount of rare and precious metals in human biosolids, and decided to begin a waste control business that filtered and collected these base elements. Gold, silver, platinum, copper—a dozen valuable metals were mined directly from a million toilets across Alberta.”

A map appears, showing Victoria Sunady’s sewage pipelines, running from across the province to her central distillery in Edmonton.

“Her business boomed, and soon she was selling these metals back to various industries, for use in electronics and construction. She survived several assassination attempts by panicked strip mining companies, and her eco-conscious business model prevailed. Other nations copied her, and now her method is used globally.”

Footage of the distillation process fills the screen, frothy pools with fine-meshed sieves.

“But after having built an empire and accrued massive wealth, Victoria Sunady was stunned to discover Herself extremely unhappy. She hid Her depression for years, burying it away, burying Herself in work. Eventually, She came to a breaking point. Her life was intolerable. She had to change. So she walked away from it all, through the day, through the night. At dawn She sat down in the middle of a field. She closed Her eyes, and let out a deep breath.”

The narration pauses here, for dramatic effect. The crowd leans in perceptibly. My husband is hanging off every word, scribbling on his notepad manically.

“The Madonna of Musidora has only breathed twice since She came across the fields and sat down. Once was 40 years ago, when She breathed in. Once was 15 years ago, when She breathed out. The acolytes of Her Order wait for Her third breath, where they will find synchronicity with Her.”

The video ends and the screen plays a video montage of the #musidora Twitter and Instagram streams. My husband spends an hour in the giftshop, buying everything from a tin of dirt to a jar of honey made from the bees that suck the nectar from Her tree. The honey costs several hundred dollars.

“It’s a business expense,” says my husband innocently. “I’ll write it off on our taxes.”

I follow him back to the car, arms laden with his purchases, and soon I’m pulling us out of the oasis and back onto the highway. We pass through Musidora itself, originally a hamlet of 200 people whose population has mushroomed to 50,000, a local economy supported entirely by Victoria Sunady.

“I wish we’d seen Her breathe,” says my husband, chewing on the end of his pencil and staring out the window. “Imagine breathing in the air She exhaled, that’s been held in Her lungs for so long. It would be like a blessing. Maybe you’d start aging in reverse too.”

He grins at me. I keep my eyes on the road.

“I like the age I am,” I say.

We ride on in silence until we get back to Vegreville, which has also benefited from Musidora’s cash-flush pilgrims.

The Pysanka Hotel is a gaudy kaleidoscopic building whose staff pretends it’s 1870 and will only talk to you in Ukrainian. Of course my husband loves it, washboard laundry and butter churning and all. We head into the dining room for a perogy and kolbassa buffet. I pick at the onion-infested meal while my husband eats with gusto.

“I have so much to write about,” he says through a mouthful of dumpling and sausage. “I met this woman who was selling oranges from the Madonna’s actual tree. She said she was a skeptic herself, but then she ate one of them 10 years ago and it cured her of her infertility. And she had, like, six kids around her now. The oranges cost, like, thirty thousand dollars though, so I was like nah…that’s too much.”

It’s nice to know my husband has a ceiling, no matter how high it is.

“I heard Her children had a big court battle over Her estate,” continues my husband. “But the government ruled that they couldn’t inherit Her fortune because legally she’s still alive, even if Her heart only beats once a year.”

He digs in to his braided bread-cake and washes down each chunk with a big gulp of milk.

“Of course, they’re both dead now. She’ll probably outlive all her grandchildren too.”

If he notices my silence he doesn’t care. He only ever needed someone to listen as he talks on and on. I wonder if he’s talking all about children just to be vindictive. No. Probably not. He’s more thoughtless than he is cruel.

“How do you think She does it, really?”

He sips his milk and looks up at the shumka dancers, performing at the other end of the dining room in their bright woven costumes.

“I don’t know. I have a headache. I’m gonna go to bed early, I think.”

“You should drink some water. Eighty per cent of Canadians are chronically dehydrated.”

“Thanks for the advice.”

I stand up and set my dinner napkin beside my fork.

“I’ll be upstairs. Try not to make too much noise when you come up.”

My husband nods distractedly. He’s flipped open his notepad and is staining its pages with greasy fingerprints, leafing back through his treasure trove of experiences from the day. He’ll distill all of it into a 3,000-word advertisement, inspiring the envy of anyone too poor or too busy or too mainstream to visit Musidora. I used to like his writing. Now it’s all just a big fake confection about how great everything is and how happy you’d be if you were there, elsewhere, anywhere but where you are.

I feel a yellow curd of resentment, stinking up my insides. Who does she think she is, really? Why are you oh-so-enlightened?

I brush my teeth and wash my face and lie in our bed, staring at the ceiling. Blood pounds in my temples. My eyes ache. I squeeze them shut. Like every night for the past decade, I retrace my steps through my memory, trying to find the moment where it all started to go wrong. When I left Edmonton? When I did a graduate degree in literature? When I met my husband-to-be? When I married him? Or even before all that, when I thought I was happy even though I wasn’t really?

I drift off to sleep, and dream myself through a dozen different lives, where I made better choices. In one of them I’m living in Nagasaki, teaching English, learning Japanese. In one of them I’m a famous poet, performing to packed halls in Montreal. In one of them I have a rich, powerful husband who loves kids and who loves me for raising our bright, wonderful children.

We’re at our cabin on Lake Edith, playing Scrabble as a family and making up words. I feel right, like I belong here, like this is the life I truly deserve. My caring husband holds my hand as we play, ganging up on the kids and trying to convince them that “quizzy” is definitely a word.

The little one gets mad, says “No, it’s not!” and starts to hold her breath for as long as she can in protest. She takes a big gulp of air and smirks at us. After a moment she starts floating up towards the ceiling, her fiery hair billowing out in all directions. She squeezes her face and her chipmunk cheeks quiver and then she explodes like a helium balloon introduced to a hairpin.

An icicle of horror plunges through my gut, but before I can scream or cry, the world is erased. I wake up.

I’m lying on a smooth marble floor, in a perfect circle of moonlight. My feet are bare, broken, aching, bleeding. I pick myself up and gasp when I see where my sleepwalking has carried me this time.

Victoria Sunady sits before me, on Her perfect circle of dirt. A heady perfume seeps down from Her tree’s white blossoms, filling up the empty temple. Her smile seems even more radiant than I remember. In this quiet, moonlit place, Her whole body seems to glow with soft, orange luminescence.

I try to stand but my feet are too tender. That’s what comes of walking for hours with no shoes. At least the marble is cool and soothing against my swollen skin.

I wonder how I even got into the dome. I thought they’d have security, or acolytes performing midnight rituals. But it’s just me and the Madonna.

I crawl over to Her shrine, under the branches of the mighty tree. The offerings are all gone, as is the glass barrier. I could reach out and touch Her bare feet if I wanted to. She exerts a mesmerizing magnetism, like staring into the embers at the heart of a bonfire.

Out of nowhere, a violent impulse urges me to strike the smug smile off her face, shake her by the shoulders until she admits that she’s no better than the rest of us. This feeling races through me, a wildfire of envy and hate.

Before I know it, I’m on my feet, bearing down on her, an inch away from her lustrous golden skin. But just as I’m about to destroy Victoria Sunady and her false promise of peace, something stays my hand.

She breathes.

One long, deep, constant inhalation. Her eyes stay shut, Her smile stays wide, but Her chest expands, drawing in gallons and gallons of air.

It’s only when Her deep breath ends that I realize I’ve been holding my own. I let it out, and I’m surprised by how deeply I can dig, how much stale dry air is lurking around the back tunnels of my lungs.

As the air leaves my lungs, it carries some dark spores of resentment up out of my body. The Madonna of Musidora smiles a little wider.

I imagine Her using whatever strange power She found buried out here on the random prairies—or maybe just found buried deep within Herself—to draw out my despair and share her tranquility. Not some zen bullshit from a fake memoir, but an earthy presence from her body.

I’m going to leave my husband. I’m going to quit my job. I’m going to breathe out all these noxious memory fumes. And when they’re gone, I’m going to pause and reflect in emptiness. And then I’m going to breathe in.

Bruce Cinnamon lives in Edmonton. His stories have appeared in various journals. He is working on his first novel.


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