Chocolate Almond

Prose by Nina Sky Robertson

Art by Amy Ng

It is October and Highway 19 is bordered by blackberries and stinging nettle, both past their prime and beginning to decay in the burgeoning winter.  We work for Glen, a mill subcontractor, burning slash piles that loggers left last winter. Sometimes the piles are huge, the size of houses, towering precariously on steep mountainside roads like children’s scribbles through clear-cuts wreathed in mist. Other times they are quite small, made up only of a handful of trees too worthless to warrant the expense of milling.

At six-thirty AM, our crew meets in the Quatsino Motel parking lot. “Listen up,” Glen says.

We scuffle our feet, kicking yesterday’s ash off our boots. Cigarette smoke rises in silvery-blue plumes.

“Today we’re working up past Mount Fame,” Glen says. We nod our heads, ears cocked as he translates meteorology into colloquialisms.

I like Glen’s slow, enunciated speech and his penchant to dole out gruff advice with the weather data.  One day, when I was just beginning, he startled me by appearing silently through the smoke. “You need to make friends with the wind. It’s the boss round here, not me. Listen to it, like it’s your own flesh and blood. And for god’s sake be sensitive,” I scowled and he chuckled.

“Alright, you muckers, let’s get this show on the road,” Glen says.


For safety, we work in pairs. You pull my gasoline backpack from the F15O truck. Leaving our lunches and water on the dirt road, we move carefully through the clear-cut. We are at altitude, lost in the clouds. Snow flutters down, settling thinly on fresh stumps and salal. I am fascinated by the ice crystals which form on your hair, frozen galaxies. When we arrive at the slash pile, you spray the upwind edge with fuel. I take a match and, lighting it on my boot, toss it on the shimmer of gasoline. We stand thirty meters back. Frozen, watching the wind carry sparks into the mess of broken trees and dried needles. It catches, and the whole pile burns. Smoke fills the air. Heat melts the snow as it falls. Prisms and rainbows form around the fire.  The morning cold, which has seeped into our tendons and ligaments, is expelled as sweat. It condensates through the layers between our skin and high-vis vests. I feel woozy. We retreat, and go stand on top of an old-growth stump. You kiss the back of my neck, between the top of my vest and the bottom of my hard hat. “This stump could fit our whole motel room,” you whisper. We watch the fire, making sure it doesn’t spread to the treeline, until it burns down to a pile of white ash.

On other mornings, the wind makes it too hazardous to work. In the motel parking lot, Glen sends us all back to bed. Those days, I clomp up the stairs to our room in my heavy work boots. I fall into a funk that lasts until the sun rises. When I see light begin to glint, however dimly, on the briny estuary outside our window, I turn the radio on and let the crackling FM wash over me.


When we first met, you brought me rhododendrons. On soft May nights, you would appear in my kitchen doorway with flowers dripping like paint from your hands, their pungent scent filling the warm air and clinging to our flesh. You picked them from parking lot garden beds, and I wove them in my hair. Our eyes burned, and our mouths hurt. Language shrank, and we communicated by touch and the sharing of music. Once, wrapped in itchy wool blankets and petals in decay, you whispered “I like how the flowers make us smell the same.” Once, in my window, you left a young rhododendron, immature and unblooming wrapped in a black garbage bag, “for next year.”  In return, I wrote you postcards.


It is almost December and I am always cold. We arrive home late and exhausted. You hold me, wrapped in motel blankets until my shivers slow. Stripped of my wet clothes, I disappear under the duvet of our queen-sized box spring bed. We open our thirsty mouths and argue. Our words fly out harsh and unmediated. During sex, you slap my face. Normally I like it, but today it’s too much.  I feel hurt push on my diaphragm. You see, and, holding my exposed nervous system in your arms, graze my forehead with your lips. It never happens again, even when I ask.

I run baths so hot that I come out scalded and red, still somehow shivering. It rains day after day. I skip breakfast, stop bringing lunch.  Each morning, empty belly growling, I balance one chocolate almond, on top of my coffee thermos.  After we meet with Glen and are settled in the crew trucks, barrelling down the highway, I pop it in my mouth and let its sweetness melt slowly, moistening my dry tongue, sticking like glue to my taste buds. We don’t talk for three days, sleeping in the same bed, living in the same little cube. You are full of wordless agitation, reflecting off my body, mixing with coastal rain and filling our motel room.


We spend our days off in Port Hardy, drinking americanos until our nerves vibrate and our sweat tastes bitter. The smell of smoke permeates our skin. Even after soaking in the public hot tub, old grimy fishermen and teenage mothers with pink running shoes and hoop earrings sniff and stare when we get too close.

In the supermarket we shop for groceries; it’s a complicated process. You want to be quick and efficient, searching for the best deals on rice, lentils, yogurt. You analyze price and quantity with specific, rational equations. I carry a list on dog-eared paper snipped from the back of a thrift store novel. I move around the edges of the supermarket, meticulously reading labels. I become overwhelmed and disgusted by the sheer number of options. Frozen, I let you make the choices and then criticize you.

On the way to the cash register we walk through the bulk bin section and, making sure you don’t see, I slip a few pieces of candy and dried fruit into my pocket. I intend to savor them over the next few days. Instead, I excuse myself, and hurry through the aisles, past the sales bins, and into the public washroom. No Merchandise.  I make eye contact with myself in the mirror and let a chocolate almond melt in my mouth.  I eat the rest quickly, watching the muscles of my jaw distend my face. The urge to vomit rising like a wave and breaking against my ribs.


We are driving south, back to the Quatsino Motel, tired bodies cradled by leopard print bucket seats. “There were always carrots in my school lunches. You know, like little sticks – with the peel.  I hated it, but I guess someone told my dad it was healthier.”

You blink, glance sideways at my knees, and then out the window.

 “I went through phases where I had to scrape the peel off with my teeth.” You don’t react to my emphasis, so I grab a yellow pencil from the dashboard. I put the pencil in my mouth. The sharp end jabbing the roof, nested it in the crevice between my bottom two front teeth. My fingers and toes are tingling, I can feel the skin of my thighs against the itchy nylon. I can taste the paint and wood that chips off on my tongue. It occurs to me I’m holding the pencil like a suicide gun. I pull down hard, my mouth fills with bits of dry pine and yellow paint.

A logging truck passes us heading north to the mill, loaded with giant first-growth cedar timber – my annual income in a single tree. We are caught in its slipstream and your old Dodge van is shaken violently by the wind.

“…only then,” I say, rolling down the window and spitting out woodchips “I had a gap between my front teeth.”

You look at me sideways. “Jesus,” you extend the ee and let the sus fall away from your tongue and drip down your shirt.

I stare at you, one hand gripping the steering wheel, rollie unlit in your fingers. “What?” My eyes are hot, wide open. “What?”  I am muddled, blurry. Shudders roll up my spine.  

You take the pencil and chuck it out the window, remove the lighter from my breast pocket, light the cigarette, and inhale. Slowly you suck the smoke through your mouth and into your lungs. On the exhale your words mix with the smell of tar and tobacco “Jesus. Don’t fucking do that okay? You’re in a goddamn moving vehicle. What the fuck happens if I hit a bump?” You lean forward and turn the music up.

My fingers are icy. I reach into the back and grab your winter coat from underneath the grocery bags, spreading it across my legs. The back of my ribcage is burning. The air is thick and cold. I turn away and look out the window. Chasing us like commit tails are dense patches of matter, a thickening of air, a congealing. When I look directly at them, they disappear.


When we reach the Quatsino Motel a harvest moon is hanging in the sky above the ocean, orange and voluptuous. We have been eaten by silence, but I can hear the beach as we unpack the van, brush our teeth, and get into bed. Uncharacteristically, you fall asleep before me. I try to settle, but there is a buzzing in my calves like bees, so I get up. I eat three chocolate almonds and sit on the floor in the moonlight. Thoughts churn through my mind – piling up, reconfiguring, and blowing away like trash in a windstorm. I can’t hold onto anything or recognize its importance. My fingers and toes are still tingling. I go to the closet, drag a cardboard box across the floor and upend it on the carpet; there is a soft thudding sound and then the swish of moving paper. I want to find a photo of myself as a child, with gapped teeth, thick tangled hair, and chubby cheeks, my left eye drooping sleepily. I am afraid the noise will wake you, so I leave the papers on the floor and go back to bed.

My dreams hold me in my sleep, stick to me. During the day, they walk on the undersides of my shoes like a reflection. That night, I am alone in a white room, a perfect cube. Beyond an open window, the sky is wind. My body slips out of scale, grows. A baby pulls herself from my mouth and we look at each other. She is round and laughing. I taste her smell. In my arms, her body narrows and her proportions change. She becomes a doll, a tiny adult, too thin in the waist and limbs. Her flesh turns to wax, and the smell to paraffin. She is crying and I brush my thumb across her face to soothe her. The wax is too soft and her face is smudged, like a surrealist oil painting, the dripping clock.

I lose agency over my body, stuck in its parameters, a soul trapped in honey. Suddenly, I know I am dreaming, and I am incredulous that I did not know before. The baby wails with her wax lungs and out come gesticulating shadows, cross-hatched etchings like the lines in old botanical drawings.

In our motel bed, I begin to scream. It reaches into the dream and everything in that otherworld is shaking. My eyes open slowly, and I am still frozen. My voice keeps me awake and I must not stop. I run out of air and begin to cough and choke.

The words carried by your sleepy breath land on my skin and settle there with soft warmth, “It’s okay. You’re safe. I love you. I’m here.” You are still asleep. You pull me into your chest, kiss my hair, wrap your legs around me “It’s okay, you’re okay, just dreams, you’re safe.” I try to extricate myself from your body, but you hold onto me, clinging in your sleep. I cannot move without waking you. I lie there listening to the sound of waves crashing and the occasional car speeding along Highway 19. Eventually, you roll away and I get up and move through the dark room to the bathroom where I pee, blurry-eyed. The toilet seat is cold. I wash my hands and splash my face with tepid water. The towels are wet, so I use the edge of your dirty underwear to dry my face.


The next morning our alarm goes off at five-thirty. I am light-headed. I get up. Get half dressed; the room spins. I sink back into the bed. I take off my work clothes and slide under the duvet. I ask you to apologize to Glen for me, but I’m asleep before I hear your reply.

I wake up on the floor and, with the help of the bedside table, stand. It’s cold. The door has blown open. Scattered across the room are paper scraps, and postcards. Wind bursts in, and gains momentum across our unmade bed – my work clothes like sleeping cats in the brown floral sheets. The wind shuffles the postcards before it slips out the door and down the peeling green steps. It mixes with the heavy salt air coming up from beach and the intricate smells that permeate the motel parking lot, and subsides into the rain. It has shifted tectonic plates of paper and, in an effort to reflect this structural change, I realign my body. I push into the grainy carpet with my bare feet. I imagine there is a string pulling me upward; that my bones are girders; and that, by this act of pushing, the steel architecture might just snap into place.

Sluggish, I move to the door and close it, pressing my back against the cool surface. Get well soon cards pile up near the bedside table, interspersed with my sketches of women’s bodies delicate, greenish, and elongated. I slide to the ground, disturbing a mess of pioneer-era postcards, labourers’ eyes dark and clouded, their bodies weathered and worn like old socks. My eyes catch on a printed copy of The Crack, passages highlighted in lime green: a feeling that I was standing at twilight on a deserted range…. simply a silence, with only the sound of my own breathing. I dig through the papers; I can feel the carpet scratch my knees. I still want to find the photograph of me as a kid, but I can’t locate it. Instead, my third birthday card, a pastel drawing of the moon, letters, and a postcard from a friend that reads: you are standing on top of a mountain.

I am tired, my head fuzzy. Sunlight comes through the window, delineating shadows that creep at the corners of my vision. I wish they would recede back into my dreams. They don’t, and I must step over their grotesque cross-hatched bodies as I make my way to the kitchenette. I make coffee slowly. The box of powdered skim milk has migrated to the top shelf of the cupboard and I must drag a chair from the kitchen table to reach it. The chair is heavy and its wood feet squeak along the linoleum. I feel my chin tuck and my mouth twitch at the sound, compressing my head and extending my neck. For a moment my hands on the back of the chair are foreign to me: each joint and vein outsized, the wrists pale and breakable. I add one teaspoon of powdered milk to the coffee and let the warm rich smell wash over me.


From then on, work slips from my grasp. The gasoline backpack is heavy and I struggle to lift it into the truck. I take days off and walk the shoreline to look for glass, and Japanese fish floats. I imagine them as time capsules, floating across the Pacific, bobbing in and out of green waves.

On the solstice, I misinterpret the wind.  Sparks catch a young pine, dried out by disease. As each needle ignites it makes a little pop. We stand upwind; your hand on the small of my back. We are frozen and mesmerized by the flames, our eyes wide open.

“I never realized forest fires burn one tree at a time.” You say and look right at me.

Then we blow our whistles and shout.  We are lucky, and the surrounding wood is too wet to catch.  Glen arrives, and the fire is doused with water from the truck’s cistern. 

The next few days I keep to myself, keep to the beach. I avoid our motel room phone and the possibility of holiday calls. Instead, I pop bladderwrack seaweed and watch cormorants dive in and out of the frothy water, whipped up by harsh winter winds.


It’s January, and I’ve missed the whole week. Glen and I are in his trailer which is plastered with photographs of his two young daughters, the brightness of their eyes illuminating his face. “What do, what do you think you need?” Glen has a soft frown, like a wilting flower.

Gurgling up from my belly there is only absence, “I don’t know.”

He takes a bite of avocado toast, chews, swallows, “I had a thought, wanted to share it with you.” His dark eyes are almost belligerent. “When things aren’t going well, and you, you’ve missed enough work, I can tell they aren’t, I always ask myself three questions. First, what’s going on? Second, why am I here? And third, what am I going to do about it?” He leans forward on his elbows, like a man about to confess, “So, what, are you going to do?”

I hide my body in the shadows. Retreat from the sudden intimacy and laugh it off, “I don’t know.” There are shapes crowded in my chest, fighting for position in my throat, but I am unable to translate them into words.

Glen takes another bite of avocado toast, leaning back. “Well, okay then,” he says.  Part of me is disappointed that he drops it so fast. “Forecast looks good this week; winter winds might have backed early. Will I see you tomorrow?

“Bright and early,” I say.


For a few days I am there in the morning, coffee and chocolate almond in my tingling hands. From the front seat, you control the music. You glance back with heavy and mischievous eyes. You play songs you hope will make me smile. Once Glen drops us off, I feel my energy dissipate, and my lips freeze. I let you take the lead. I defer.

I am in the bath and you are making eggplant curry in the other room. I have shut the door to keep myself safe from the smell which clings to the inside of my body like nicotine. I feel a hollowness in my lower abdomen, not a gnawing sensation, but a spinelessness. I sink my face into the water and rest the back of my head on the bottom of the tub. I cover my nose and mouth with one hand. Your music, in the other room, fades away, morphs, and mutates.

I trace my ribs with the pads of my fingers, coming up for air.  The bones have emerged between my breasts, separated by an indent, the perfect size to rest a dried date in. I work my fingers in circles around them. I believe my heart or lungs are reaching out for air. You stick your head in the door. Your eyes skid past my hips.  “Dinner’s ready,” you say, “if you are?”