Closing Time

  • 11 Sep - 17 Sep, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Deep under the hot grass, the panting dogs, the flower beds, the grasping willows, the bottle caps, the grit, rubble and pipes, the city earthworms, under the pure dark earth we lie.

But not pure as it looks; no.

This earth was disturbed, and disturbed again.

Ottawa’s boneyards are temporary, their residents transient. Covered up, dug up, built over. Slow factories for stripping the flesh off; a cauldron would be quicker.

The corpses go in, and the bones come out. Most of them.

We, the deepest bones, we were left behind.

This ground was sacred once. This boneyard was new when Canada was new, before Ottawa was its capital. There was a time when it was the clean, soft resting place for exhausted men and consumptive children.

Now they call it a dog park, when they call it anything.

The neighbourhood people, the ones who put signs in their lawns, who are proud of their little bit of history, they call it Macdonald Gardens, but that name means nothing to us. The students, who watch the fireworks from the high ground here on our Queen’s birthday, call it the Boneyard.

It is the best name.

They have their little flower beds, covered in wood chips and, strangely, plastic flowers, laid there in the dry dirt with care by the ragged lady who thinks she is talking only to herself.

They have their picnics on the round hill: too round. Unsettlingly like a barrow, yet surely there are no bones there.

There are no stones overheads to bear the names that even we have forgotten. The only stones are rocks mortared into the wall of the gazebo perched on the very top of the hill that is not a barrow.

Oh yes, and there is a small plaque, over there, in that corner shaded by new houses and young maples. The plaque bears the map of the four sections that once divided us neatly by Christian sect.


1913: They are not good boys. No one would call them good boys. They are the products of indifferent pedagogy and bullying older brothers, never mind the raw material. But they are not quite old enough to be criminals. They are still collectors: collectors of stories about said older brothers, or borrowed from them; collectors of greasy feathers and bottle shards and marbles.

They have little enough empathy for the living, none to spare for the dead.

In the philosophy of a ten–year–old boy, the eschatological and the scatological merge.

And we, the dead, bear them on our backs, as we have done a million times. They play on our green grass while the sun slants indulgently over their tousled boy heads. And as they play they trip and scud and open the turf, and more bones tumble out.

“And where are you off to so fast? Running from your parents or your master, I’ll warrant.

Out with it, boy, you’re waiting here whether you tell me or not. No escaping them now.”

But the boy cannot form words in his terror.

Around the corner comes a bigger boy, old enough that in a couple of years he’ll be lying about his age and a couple of years after that dead in the mud at Passchendaele, with something that looks a great deal like a skull.

“Tell him he must put it away!” screams the smaller boy, the one whose grimy collar is still between Mr Morningstar’s fingers. “Tell him to stop chasing me with it! I’m afraid of it, and I don’t care if they know it!”

Once the victim has been calmed and released, Mr Morningstar confiscates the skull, but the sullen bully smirks and boasts he has nine more just like it at home.

“Where do you purchase such awful things?”

He shrugs. “Who needs to purchase them? I can get you one right now. Just let me get a strong stick and I’ll have one dug up in five minutes. I know all the best spots.”

Mr Morningstar writes to his friend, an editor at the Ottawa Citizen, who makes inquiries of the Improvement Commission, which is responsible for the park.

“I do not see how it is possible,” says Mr Stuart, the superintendent of the Improvement Commission. “We keep a caretaker there at night and are careful to sink down any remains that are found. We have already had to sink down more than five hundred relics. We were told nearly all the coffins had been transferred. We have nonetheless been diligent in dealing with the unpleasant reality, and I do not see how the boy could have been telling the truth.”


We were laid in this ground when Bytown was small and nasty, and people hoped to live through the plagues of cholera and typhoid, and men carried truncheons in the dusty streets.

Later, the living started calling their town Ottawa. Scrub it up! Cover it up! Spit and polish! Strike an Improvement Commission! Tear up the train tracks! Tear down the slums! They were afraid of the past, unwilling to be reminded, not only of death, not only of disease, but of the outmoded varieties of death and disease.

They did not want their dead so near.

So they dug their families up and moved them to where the dead seemed to want to be, to the outskirts. They pushed them and their filthy frontier stories beyond the limits of the new clean city, the city razed of its memories.

Shovels in the ground, lads! They pulled up clods of black earth with worms half–dangling out, stretching and retracting in their shiny pink skins.

They rooted up skulls and bones, creaking coffins, bits of rotted fabric and rings. They carted them off across the splashing and treacherous Rideau River, to a new place. A pleasanter place, they said.

For some of the skeletons, it was their second uprooting. They had been buried,

first, in even older boneyards. Again the living came with their shovels, and said the little city has grown again, it’s pushing you out, there’s no space for you here.

But some of us had no families left to haunt. No one to pay for the men to come and move us. Our stones sank into the ground, our bones worked their way through to the surface, until finally the living, tut–tutting in their committees, buried all the leftover bones and stones deep enough to be forgotten.

We, the deepest bones, are here, forgotten, abandoned, while our fellows have long since settled into more hallowed ground. Some of us are part–skeletons; our feet lie in Beechwood and our heads lie here, as if we were giants.

Witches cannot cross running water, or so people said, once. What of ghosts? Which parcel of earth would they haunt, those ghosts attached to bones now exhumed and carted across the river?

We don’t know; we only know we haven’t seen them since.