Skip to content Skip to navigation

Excerpt from "Tabarnacle" by Ellen McGinn

Tabarnacle by Ellen McGinn



On the day, there is a darkness, raven black, on the far edge of the ocean, a soft settled line breaks the sky from the sea and the sea from the sky. Both summer blue, like twins. 

Do not start with darkness. Consider blackberry picking this afternoon. Consider a pie. The wasps going insane.

Greenland melts.

Australia is on fire.

Hurricanes threaten the east coast of the USA. But that happens every year, doesn’t it? The white eye of the wind, the sea all a snarl, palm trees streaming straight out flat, and everything on land smashed to ruins.

Made pastry.


Let me begin by saying infinity, tabular icebergs, and my coffee cup are all blue. That I am old. That I live on an island on the side of a mountain in a forest of young trees. Young because their elders were cut down decades ago, and this is a second-growth forest of cedar, Douglas fir, and alder. Average age younger than me. I am the old one walking amongst them. In tree years they are teenagers. I sing to them because they can be anxious. What remains of the old trees are stumps, colossal and grand like the broken columns of temples from another time. Moss grows over them, ferns spill around them, and thin new trees, root in their rich and rotting innards, delicate as lace, tracing upwards to what light they can reach in the straight bolt to the sky of everything elbowing around them. A tree will recognize you and know you by your biochemical smell as you pass by most mornings with a dog and a husband. The dog is glad and golden; the husband, like me, is old. We walk
easily up the mountain except for the mornings when our legs ache, and our breath is short. Sometimes we try to figure out why we are nimble as goats one day and sluggish as the half-dead on another. Is it the wine we drank last night? The supper? The fact that after getting up to pee for the third time, there was no getting back to sleep at all, so we lay awake staring at the night fir towering outside the bedroom window plastered black as pitch against the stars, discussing sporadically since we still hoped to go back to sleep, the different foods that we recalled from childhood? Like molasses pie in my case, or European wieners on New Year’s Eve in Daniel’s case. Then one of us would fall asleep at last, and the other, usually me, would continue to be wide awake until the grey light of dawn came as a relief, a reprieve allowing me to let go, to dream into the new day.

This is the day. Once upon a yestertime, there lived a little girl who grew fairies. She lived in Edmonton on an Air Force base. Her mother, the Queen, told her that if you planted the light puffs of dandelion seeds that floated in the air, they’d grow into fairies. So, she caught the seeds and placed them with care in the pot of African violets on the kitchen windowsill.

We want a story. A story, a story, a story. But what if there is no more? The end. Happily ever after. Darkness.


My blue coffee cup has an indent on the handle where you can rest your thumb. The only part not blue is two wavy white lines that are seagulls. I can’t drink coffee from any other cup. Tabular icebergs have the crisp texture of taffeta. I saw flotillas of them float by in the South Atlantic on a voyage to Antarctica. Long city blocks of tabular blue icebergs. There is something prayerful about them. It’s a reach, I know. Nothing in their rectangularity, their level flat surface, their stiff ruffled folds resemble the image of hands raised in prayer. Nothing. Perhaps it is their awful purity. As for infinity, I hold onto my coffee cup with its thumb imprint and give it no mind. Courteously, let it be blue. Off it goes forever and ever. A distraction. 

Because a little girl grew fairies, this is the day. That was me. So good at believing. Perhaps, says Daniel, you should do a little research about darkness. It is his turn to make coffee, to get up ten minutes earlier and let the dog out to pee, and then to give her breakfast — one cup of round crunchy things, three tablespoons of chicken broth (bought in a box at the store) and a sprinkling of chopped carrots, or a handful of blueberries, maybe a dash of yogurt. The crunchies look so denuded of taste. I do not want to research darkness. I know it comes up from the roots of the trees and covers the land. It suspends itself between the sky and the sea. No, says Daniel, that is your dream. He always makes strong coffee which is how I like it in my blue cup.

It is not my dream. It is the night happening from my armchair view through the big living room windows. And it issues forth from the earth.


In my dream, there are whales. The darkness is there, another land. Ink black emitting a low hum. Daniel says, in his opinion, that is Death. Plain and simple. We are cleaning the deck. Sweeping up the ragged ends of cedar branches, curled bits of papery arbutus bark, fir needles. Windfall litter. Some of the boards are so worn they need to be replaced before one of us falls right through. And that would be, I point out, the end of two good titanium hips in my case.

You’d break, but not your hips, says Daniel.

One of these days, we’ll fix the deck, put lights along the path so that we can see our way down to the house, get a new valve for the toilet, and write our wills, which we need to do soon, given the deck and the unlit path. We each wait for the other to initiate any one of these chores, so nothing gets done. At least not quickly. If you want to get something done, you have to put it on the list, says Daniel.

He believes this with an unquestioned faith. His lists are on scraps of paper on the kitchen table. When I tell him that I have lived my life quite well thus far without a list, he no longer comments on how much better quite well could have been with a little more organization, nor does he wonder why I even bother with a daybook. No. He just asks me not to throw out the scraps of paper on the kitchen table that are his lists. So, I don’t. I stopped.


Some nights I can hear them as I lie in bed. As I am reading, an eruption of whales from the deep, the heave of them heard, the basso profundo of their
breath. Humpbacks down below in the Salish Sea.

Listen! I shout to Daniel. He is downstairs watching the highlights of a hockey game on his computer. We rush outside and stand on the deck. Stock still. Stare into the sightless night. Above us, the cedars sway like gospel singers, and above them swing the stars. We wait in silence. We want to hear the whales, their breath.


Once I stood inside the skeleton of a whale. It hung from the roof of a long verandah outside a swimming pool. An indoor pool. A body of water enclosed. A long glass window ran along the length of the veranda, so if you were swimming, you could look right out and see the whale. I walked into it. It was easy because the skeleton was suspended low to the ground. I stepped in. It was a grey whale. All the bones were there. They’d been found buried in the mud somewhere. Someone found them. Then they were cleaned and put back together again. When I stretched my arms out, I could touch both sides. Jawbone to jawbone. Inside the whale, I looked through the white slats of its ribs and saw jade bars of the inlet, the satiny skin of arbutus trunks and pieces of blue sky opening and closing as the wind blew; my own bones inside me inside the whale. It was summer. I wore a sundress.


I have made a list:
Things I Am Avoiding
1. Paying my VISA bill
2. Irrigating my nasal passages
3. Kale
4. Finishing Middlemarch
5. Looking again at a photo of the Amazon Forest with no trees, only a couple of scraggly ones and a man walking through the mud with his dog.
6. Researching darkness.


To read the full essay, order your copy of the Summer Creative Nonfiction issue today!


Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.