Justina Elias, excerpt from "To Do"


We pull up to the cabin. My brother goes in; I wait. The seatbelt’s a border on my chest: on one side, a wine-dark sea and my father, adrift in a glass half full; on the other, me, arms outstretched as the last wave laps him through. His robed figure sways on the porch, unleashes a stream—don’t look, Teen—and my three old-world syllables blur to a half-grown me in the vintage Chevy, no belts on these musty trampoline seats to keep us contained. We launch. My brother, my father, and me: trusty trinity, keepers of mirth and sweet coffee, early mornings breathing out ghosts on our way to the car on our way to the league on our way to this breathless morning piling into a car so sleek my father’s like a dog in clothes in the backseat, not the least for the clouds of white fur drifting off his sleeves. The real dog’s called Butter. Always there are cars and dogs and always, in the end, us three. Four if you count Miss Fluffypants there. We’re off to the Airbnb.

Make Camp

Five doors down, our heads bump on low lights. Mason jar fixture a booby trap in a barely-there bathroom. No screen door in front, no door door in back. Dog-smelling water the dog won’t drink. Bedside reading: A Tale of Two Cities, the Coles Notes. I always prep for tests. Could write the book on the gently coaxed shower, the gently coaxed shave, the gently coaxed Dad, I’ve hired a team to deal with the cabin. My brother coughs. A scritch in the ceiling—my father smacks the clapboard with a coat-padded arm, thuds back to his seat in a shimmer of dust. It’s fine, don’t get up. Just a squirrel. My brother and I, half-risen, open our mouths in mutual wordlessness. Guess I’ll have to clean that bathroom of mine, my father says finally. But that’s the whole point, I say, don’t you see? As though there were anything obvious about where these lines converge. 


His grandmother lived in a dank brown house like all the houses he’d live in. White braid, black bread. He watched her with reverent hunger. Could not choke down the lardy slabs in place of yellow-smeared Wonder, but oh, that unwound braid was wondrous, a nightly flow down her flannelled back like a channel to the old country. Hair’s dead, we all grow ghosts. He cut his own braid in his twenties. Found a coin-sized spot on his scalp and paid the ferryman early. Imagine my father’s mother’s mother crouched in the hull of a dank brown boat, her belly full with another to fill and the fields ahead of her empty. She never cut hers, bore that weight till she died. Meanwhile, my father’s scalp’s gone to seed. White fluff poised to scatter, but this late, what will grow? 

Start a Mission

My brother departs and here I sit, a freshly stitched transplant. Not much heals in a rented house a cigarette’s flick from hell. Hot, but the A/C’s blocked behind an ocean of a couch, my father sunk in its seafoam folds, gulping CBD to keep from ceding to the itchies—a travelling circus beneath his skin, red tents springing up wherever his nails descend. Could use some distraction, he says at last. There’s DVDs in the cabin. Face fogged with drugs or embarrassment, he fumbles for his keys. Fog of fur around sharp metal, fog of the past in each sharp breath. I scribble the first of many lists and slip out the unscreened door. Bugs at my arms, damp air licking. I walk, and his world eats me. 



"To Do" was the winner of 2021's Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize.

From The Malahat Review's winter issue #217.