Excerpted: How You Were Born by Kate Cayley

We’re thrilled to join in on the celebration of the upcoming 10th publication anniversary of Kate Cayley’s How You Were Born (Book*hug Press). Read part of the story “Bloody Mary” below.

The cover of How You Were Born by Kate Cayley. The title cascades down the cover, as does an illustration of a falling boy, his face turned from the viewer.


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“Bloody Mary,” from How You Were Born

The three of them stared experimentally into the distorting mirrors—Eva to Grace’s left, and Avery on her right. Avery was new, to the school and to Grace. She was plump and wore a kilt and button-down shirt, as though this was a private school, and Grace admired the costume, sensing it was a costume or disguise, like the red streaks in Avery’s hair. Inviting Avery was Eva’s idea, Eva who was trying to become a loud and daring person, on the lookout for new things and new people, like Avery. Grace understood she would need to be quicker, sharper, more dangerous, to keep up. She’d lined her eyes badly and put on a blackened metal choker of her mother’s, which made a warm rash on her neck.

They’d played Bloody Mary before, once, at Eva’s house during a sleepover, but nothing happened. This second try was Grace’s idea, though Eva had pounced on it, asking Avery along, bringing candles and a pack of Tarot cards, telling them that her mother had played something similar as a child in Kyoto, the game of Hanako-san, in which you must tap lightly three times on the third stall door in a third floor school bathroom and whisper are you there and a voice answers here I am and you push open the door to find a little girl in a red skirt, who might drag you to the underworld. Eva’s mother told her about Hanako-san because Eva told her mother about their plan to play Bloody Mary. Eva told her mother everything. These days, Grace told her mother nothing. She did not want to risk being interpreted. Evading her mother was a new but firm resolution, written in tiny script in the back of one of her notebooks. She couldn’t tell if her mother had noticed yet.

Avery and Eva squatted down, rummaging through Eva’s backpack. Cards, candles, incense, crumpled paper, a flattened plastic bottle, an oozing banana, crumbs, a brush clumped with hair. Grace shut her eyes: there was Eva’s smell, and Avery’s, stronger and unfamiliar and a bit sickening. Grace was very concerned with smells, since her own might suddenly overtake and undo her. Her mother lately wrinkled her nose, ordered Grace absently into the shower.

“Should I light the candles?” Eva asked, clutching them in one hand, the lighter in the other, flicking the lighter at Grace, who flinched.

“You afraid of fire?” Avery asked.

“No,” Grace said.

They each held a candle into the flame, watched the wicks stutter and catch. Eva turned off the light and Avery jumped.

“Fuck off, don’t do that.”

Eva, giggling, turned the lights back on.

“This is so creepy.”

They dripped wax in little pools beside the taps.

“Mine’s not sticking,” Avery said.

Grace took the candle from her, dripped more wax, held it carefully in the centre of the pool until it hardened. She hoped competence might make up for her shyness, her propriety, that she couldn’t figure out how to say fuck without sounding self-conscious. 

Eva reached for the switch.

“Can I turn the lights off for real now?”

She spoke to Avery, who looked at Grace, who nodded. The lights went out.

Grace and Eva’s mothers were not friends, exactly, though they had become friendly over the years, because of their daughters, because they were both artists who were married to lawyers, because they inhabited a similar strata of middling artistic success bolstered by spousal affluence that meant they knew many of the same people. Later, Grace thought that Eva’s mother had found her mother too literal, too chaotic, her chaos a form of aspiration; she was in fact fairly conventional, even the symbolic concerns of her paintings (sex, feminine childhood) skirting close to cliché, aiming for a wildness that had nothing to do with her actual life, her patient bombastic husband with his job in environmental law, her scheduled and enriched daughter, her hardwood floors and vacations. Or perhaps it was just Grace who thought that her mother was too conventional (this was when she was attempting to live in the woods with her girlfriend in a cabin with no toilet or running water, biking into the nearest town to salvage food from a dumpster behind the grocery store, an experiment that lasted until the first real snow). Grace loved the things Eva’s mother made: miniature interiors full of perfect furniture, empty of human figures, as though everyone on earth had suddenly vanished. Dollhouses without dolls, Eva’s mother called them, smiling from her stool, bent over her tools, wearing a headlamp. Grace would sometimes sit and watch her in her attic studio, while Eva, bored by her mother’s work, sulked downstairs or played computer games with her father, both of them flushed and happy, yelling at the screen. Grace never asked Eva’s mother what the arrangements of the rooms meant, suspecting she disliked the question. Grace imagined a sympathy moving between them as she sat quietly, watching Eva’s mother create spaces that seemed more self-sustained than any place Grace had ever been in, free of history, free of people. Grace knew that the work was praised for the sense of unease it carried, but to her, there was nothing safer than those empty rooms. She was old enough to realize that the peace she felt stemmed from Eva’s mother leaving her completely alone, not old enough to understand that was because Grace was not her child.

Grace was her mother’s subject. In another era, she would have been called her mother’s muse. She appeared in almost all the paintings, wearing petticoats, seated on strangely carved thrones, outlined in light from an obscure source, something about her face or body subtly altered. Sometimes her mother incorporated photographs, though with the face scratched out. Her first solo show had been a series about pregnancy in which a woman appeared to carry not a baby but an ornate tumorous growth, sprouting extra eyeballs and tufts of coarse hair. Grace had found an interview archived online in which her mother talked about the fear of the unborn baby, how it was linked to the fear of death, that other future that the body carried. Something eating you inside. She was pregnant herself, with Grace, and in the photo above the article she glowed with health, beautifully curved, in a long dress, hair like honey falling from a spoon, humming with life, as though she would interrogate death but never actually die.

These days Grace still appeared, but seemed to stop around age eight, her present self too knobby and intractable. The more recent paintings had not been well received by the few critics who had noticed them (“exploitative kitsch”) and her mother had cried on and off for days, sometimes in bed, sometimes feeling her way around the house. Grace, who did not think of herself as cruel, had been privately pleased, her mistrust of her mother vindicated. She was growing prudish and severe, and would remain that way for a while, but it was a necessary step to developing a sense of decency.

When Grace was much younger, her mother took her to the library after school. They came out together, lugging books, she was looking up at her mother when her mother shot her arm in front of Grace as though stopping her at the edge of a cliff. There was a man lying in the road, a car stopped in front of him and a woman getting out of it, all the cars stopped, a little ring of people gathering around the man, but Grace could see over their heads from the top of the steps. No-one seemed to know what to do, even the people who were on their phones calling for help hoping someone else would take over, and the people not holding phones flapped their hands uselessly, not sure if they should touch the man. The woman who’d gotten out of the car bent over him. She was young, young enough that Grace could imagine being her, would have wanted to be her if she’d seen her somewhere else. She was wearing a white sundress printed with huge pink roses.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, are you okay?”

She was trembling.

“Are you okay, are you okay?”

The man began to howl, a keening sound that had no relationship to language, and as the howl grew louder his shirt grew red, soaking red, and it seemed to Grace that the sound he made was calling the blood out of him slowly, then faster.

“Oh God,” the woman said, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

Grace’s mother dragged her back into the library and held her on her lap, explained that the man would be fine, and Grace made a convulsive movement in her arms, suspecting a lie. When they went back outside at last the man and the woman were gone, though the car was still there with the door open and the road was closed, a line of police tape around the red stain. The stain, beginning to dry, had a wobbling outline, the drops spattered around it islands off the coast of an unknown country. Grace heard her mother gasp the way she did when the world astonished her, even as she covered Grace’s eyes with her hand and led her gently down the stairs. And there it was, in her next painting, the exact red shape; her mother must have taken a picture on her phone as she shielded Grace. Later, when she was attempting to create a story about her mother for herself, she thought of that as one of the first clues that her mother could not be trusted. She could eat anything up, anything at all, and would not think twice about it.

* * *

A black and white photo of writer Kate Cayley. A light skin-toned woman with short cropped, light hair, she wears glasses and has a mild expression.

Kate Cayley is the author of three poetry collections, including Lent, a young adult novel, and two short story collections. How You Were Born won the of the Trillium Book Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. She has won the O. Henry Short Story Prize, the Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry, and the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. She has been a finalist for the K. M. Hunter Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Story Prize, and the Firecracker Award for Fiction, and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the CBC Literary Prizes in both poetry and fiction. Cayley’s plays have been produced in Canada, the US and the UK, and she is a frequent collaborator with immersive company Zuppa Theatre. Cayley lives in Toronto with her wife and their three children.