Reeds and Wicks

“Moody child and wildly wise pursued the game with joyful eyes”

The Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson


The first time I saw Madelyn Odine, I thought she was a ghost. It was July. I remember because it was the summer Princess Diana died. Mom was ironing Dad’s shirts in the living room and I was watching a rerun of Saved by the Bell. Then the news anchor came on to tell us what had happened. Mom sat on the couch beside me and cried. The responsibility of holding her until she stopped fell to me because, at that time, Nate was still missing and Dad was away on the road.

Nearly two months earlier, late in the afternoon on whatever day it was, Nate went down to the creek for inspiration, so I followed him. The Beach Boys played through my yellow Sony Walkman as I walked slowly along the waterway, keeping my distance from Nate, after he found a spot in the grass to sit down.

I plucked a blade of grass from the riverbank as water ran quickly downstream and I wrapped the yellow stem around my finger for something to do. I saw a bed of sharp-looking wild flowers and wanted to touch them, so I did, and tiny prickles brushed my palm. I stopped to pull twice on one of the weeds, and then something dodged through the trees behind me.

I didn’t believe in ghosts. I thought everyone who claimed to have seen ghosts were just losing their minds. I didn’t think I was losing my mind, but I stared hard to figure it out. Warm wind blew through my shirt and I saw the sweat on my freckling nose when I squinted because of the sun. I looked in both directions before scanning the property like a light house, turning my head slowly in a semi-circle and then starting again like a sprinkler.

Grass covered the lawn in front of the house, and behind the house I could see squares of Poet land. Dad’s tractor-trailer was back and I still hadn’t finished fixing the fences like he wanted. Drying laundry flapped on the clothesline near the porch. Mr. Loomis’s ducks were bothering Mom’s chickens again, and a cat which wasn’t our cat was watching from the front step. The forest behind me was thick and deadly. A quick memory of Nate telling me scary stories while walking the paths when we were kids flashed in my head. But still, no ghosts.

I tugged the headphones from my ears to listen to the wide-open spaces. The Beach Boys sang almost silently in a tinny irritating buzz around my neck as I stared in the direction the creek flowed. If I looked hard enough I could imagine where the stream met the St. Lawrence River. I couldn’t see the actual river, but I knew it was there, calling to me. Then out of nowhere:

“Hey, you.”

A girlish laugh brought my eyes around and there she was, Madelyn Odine, a real-life ghost if I ever saw one.

Her shoes were the only things which grounded her. The rest of her clothes were made with muddy colours of pink, and her hair was the colour of pinewood. The skirt of her dress floated above her knees. She put one hand on the hem and the other hand on her hair when the wind picked up.

“Me?” I said.

“I’m looking for Nathaniel Poet.”

I’d known for a while that Nate was planning to introduce a girl to the band and let her audition to sing with them. It was a secret, but I knew Nate had been sneaking off during chores to practice with her for weeks.

I nodded toward the end of the creek. “He’s this way.”

Madelyn pointed curiously and said, “Down there?”

“I’ll walk you.”

I spotted my brother’s legs, bent at the knees, sticking above dry, golden grass. His eyes were shut tightly and his mouth was moving, silently reciting some half-created poem.

The ghost and I stood over him like we’d killed him and were waiting to see if we needed to finish the job. “Nate.” I nudged my sneaker into his side.

“I was working out a verse, you…” He opened one eye and stopped the insult.

Madelyn Odine smiled. “Well, hi, Nate.”

“Maddy?” Nate struggled to stand upright and then he brushed the dirt off his pants and his hands. “I thought we said we’d meet on Thursday.”

“It is Thursday.”

Nate looked at me and asked, “Is it Thursday?”

I nodded.

Madelyn smiled again, helping Nate make up his mind. “C’mon then,” he said. “I’ll get the guys over here. Have you met my little brother, John?”

“John Luke,” I corrected as Nate led us on the footpath toward the house.

Madelyn looked over her shoulder at me and we shook hands. “That’s a good name,” she said.

“My dad said it was better to have two biblical names instead of only one.”

She laughed, but I wasn’t trying to be funny. It was the truth. I followed her as Nate ranted about some new song he was writing and how he knew Madelyn would love it.

Our dog, Lazarus, an old Labrador Retriever the colour of cinnamon, crossed the yard. I tugged his collar when I could tell Madelyn didn’t like him barking and pawing at her, and he obediently followed me the rest of the way. I guess the real ghost running through the trees that day must have been Lazarus.

The outbuilding behind the house where Nate’s band practiced looked like a barn, but it wasn’t. It was a two-bay garage, and there were four-by-four beams sticking out of the ground everywhere to hold up the ceiling, so you could only get one car inside. The walls, inside and out, were covered in colourful antique signs from gas stations, collages of vintage license plates and other motor-related paraphernalia. Empty tin cans of motor oil from the 1920s and extra random things Dad collected were neatly displayed on shelves. He called it collecting, Mom called it hoarding.

Nate opened both bay doors, and the wooden walls were washed in pale sunlight. He showed Madelyn the drums Dad helped him buy. He pointed to the first guitar he ever owned, hanging up by the neck on a nearby wall. He told her that whenever the band wanted to practice with the piano, they had to go inside the house. On nights like those, I would lay on the living room floor, close my eyes and listen to the deep, echoing sound of keys and pedals. Sounds so loud I could feel them through the floor. Nate would get lost, only rejoining earth when he made mistakes. Errors I was too inept to notice.

I sat down on a blue milk crate inside the garage, leaned over my knees and put my chin in my hands. Nate said he was going to call the guys to see if they could come over, and left me and the ghost alone.

Madelyn walked the perimeter of the room, stopping in one corner to examine the stereo. She flipped through a box of vinyl records and then finally sat down on a wooden box Nate made in wood shop his senior year of high school.

“Are you in the band, too?” she asked.

“No. I make the posters.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The posters for the band. Advertisements. Do you want to see?”

The posters were tacked up on everything in the outbuilding. On a corkboard cluttered with ancient poems in Nate’s handwriting, on the wall above Dad’s workbench. I searched for the most impressive poster, a fourteen-by-sixteen taped to a nearby beam, next to the newspaper clipping of the boys after they won the talent show at St. David’s College. But before I could show Madelyn, truck tires crunched over gravel in the driveway and I heard the guys outside.

They barged inside nosily and Nate took Madelyn’s attention away from me. I sat down and admired my design by myself. I gripped the thin paper and read the faded red and blue painted letters, created from a font I invented.

“This is the girl,” Nate said to the guys, pulling Madelyn onto her feet. She laughed nervously and crossed her arms, self-conscious. “Madelyn Odine.”

When Nate said her name it seemed revered, sacred, like he’d thought about how each letter should sound, in fear of injuring the presentation of his project.

Colin, Mark, and Brad were Nate’s band mates. They lived down the road from us, and went to school with us from kindergarten to high school graduation. Colin and I were basically the same age, give or take a few months. But I wasn’t going back to school in the fall like he was.

Mom and Dad moved Nate and I to Woolf Island when I was four, after Dad lost his job at a lumber mill in the Ottawa Valley. We went to a French immersion school until then and when we started school at Woolf Island, they put Nate and I up a full grade each. Whether it was by mistake or because we were smart, I didn’t really know. Maybe speaking French automatically makes you smarter. But I guess it helped because I skipped grade-five, too. I still asked to go to the washroom in French until the eighth grade.

Nate wasn’t bumped up, but I wouldn’t say it was because he wasn’t smart enough. Nate was bored in class. He failed English nearly every semester. He said he didn’t like the books they made him read. He aced maths and sciences, and that always astounded me. He said numbers were patterns with solutions, and teachers gave you the equations. So, he helped me with grade-twelve college math and I was the third student in the history of Woolf Island High School to graduate at the age of sixteen.

I was glad I wasn’t the youngest in our group so I didn’t have to watch the rest of my buddies graduate, while being stuck at school without them for a whole year. But Colin was a musician, girls liked him, he’d be fine.

In the outbuilding, Mark and Brad swapped turns rustling my hair and squeezing my shoulders, babying me like they always did.

“Hey, Johnny. Didn’t see you there,” Mark said.

“What’s up, Johnny P?” Brad said.

“Hey, John Luke,” Colin said, always more civil.

“Hey, Colin.”

When Lazarus trotted inside, Mark and Brad petted him on the neck. Then the dog sat beside me and we all surveyed how well the ghost fit in with the group. Everyone spoke very loudly and argued about which song she should sing.

Mark played drums, so he sat at the set and repeatedly tapped the bass drum with his foot, like a nervous twitch, as he tinged cymbals and tightened snares. Colin played the cello most of the time, sometimes the banjo when Nate was in the mood. Brad played cello, too, and he had recently taken up the stand-up bass but he hadn’t mastered it yet, so he played the violin instead.

The cacophony of sounds in the garage was complete when Nate strummed his guitar. In the center of it was the ghost, standing behind the microphone stand and detangling the cord. I looked away for just a moment, to watch Lazarus panting beside me, and the noise melted into a choir of rhythms.

Madelyn’s mouth barely moved, but when she began to sing, her words swelled the room, like the walls were breathing with her. She stood, almost motionless, spraying the colour of September trees and bright sunshine everywhere.

There were moments of silence, of beat, of just Colin on the cello. Madelyn and Nate harmonized effortlessly. Madelyn finished a cappella and I could still hear the notes after they were gone. I looked at my brother and he smiled at me, letting me know she was the one. I agreed and smiled, too.

Nate held out his arms to Madelyn in praise and said, “Maddy, you’re it!”

She clasped her hands together, almost swooning. “Really?”

“Really,” Mark said, drumming a short triumphant ode.

Madelyn jumped in place and hugged Nate. “John Luke,” he said to me. “Go get Mom and Dad.”

I got up, smiled because the ghost was smiling, and went to collect my parents.

Mom and Dad walked from the porch, where they watched the sun set, and Lazarus sat by their feet inside the garage because Lazarus was Dad’s and he loved him the most. The band sang the same song again and my parents clapped and cheered, assuring Nate that Madelyn was the one.

“John Luke,” Nate said when the song was over. “Get that list of venues and dates from Ross, start making some posters—we’re going on tour.”

They weren’t really going on tour. Our old music teacher got them a few gigs in a few towns a few hours away because they had already played every venue within fifty-miles. Twice. But to my brother, this trip was big, beautiful.

I put my headphones on when leaving the outbuilding and I watched my brother look at the new girl in the hub of his world. And I watched the way the ghost looked at him, knowing firsthand what Nate was feeling when he stared at her. Because I was in love with her, too.

The Beach Boys played “Wild Honey” and I turned up the volume as loud as it could go.

Keeping Reading