Conjunctions:37 Twentieth Anniversary Issue

View of Kala Murie Stepping Out of Her Black Dress
The following is an excerpt from Howard Norman’s contribution to Conjunctions:37.

I had arrived at Churchill, Manitoba, on September 11, 1926. I would soon discover that it was Kala Murie’s wedding night.
      About this new life I had no expectations. That kept manageable my fear of disappointment. It sufficed that I was no longer in Halifax. For the time being that was enough. What happened was, I’d simply answered an advertisement in the Halifax newspaper, the Herald:
GENERAL ASSISTANT. Knowledge of the art of photography. Darkroom experience required. Contact: Vienna Linn, Churchill, Manitoba.
     I qualified, especially the “darkroom experience,” since by that time I’d worked in the Herald’s darkroom for nearly five years. I immediately posted a letter. Just short of five weeks later came the reply:
Dear Peter Duvett,
You have the position secured, if you still want it. Write travel plans—to same address.
                            Vienna Linn
     No “Sincerely yours” or “Best wishes.” A man of some directness, I thought. Keep your expectations reasonable.
      Wanting to put things in motion right away, I then wired Vienna Linn. His return message was prompt and encouraging. Its only note of concern was put as a question: Have you located Churchill on the map? It’s no walk in the park up here. Your services, however, will be most welcome. I happily gave notice at the Herald, put what few pieces of furniture I owned in the basement of my apartment house on Water Street, paid my last month’s rent as was owed, purchased a train ticket to Winnipeg. I was on my way.
      I sat up in coach and hardly slept the entire journey, scrimped on meals, navigated the swaying aisle of the train, keeping to myself. Mostly I read my book, The Strange Life of Mrs. J. Doyle. It was about a real-life woman, Mrs. John Doyle, who’d lived her entire life in Dublin. One day, at age eighty-five, she fell down a flight of stairs in a neighbor’s house. When she woke in hospital, she had what the doctors called “selective amnesia.” She could now only remember things from the year 1895. All other years had been erased from her memory. The Dublin paper ran the headline: KNOCK ON HEAD SENDS MRS. DOYLE BACK TO 1895. Somehow, tumbling down the stairs had given Mrs. Doyle a “photographic memory,” but only for 1895. A kind of fame then pursued Mrs. Doyle. Historians, journalists, scholars of every sort—plus the occasional psychic—appeared at her door, wanting Mrs. Doyle to verify certain rumors, help decipher unsolved mysteries, look at photographs and talk about what was in them, “as if,” the author, Walter Manning, wrote, “it was a chance for humanity to fully recapture Time itself.” There Mrs. Doyle sat, day after day in her shabby room in Dublin as visitors came and went and Mrs. Doyle told what she remembered. And in fact no one disputed a single detail she offered. At the same time, Mrs. Doyle couldn’t for the life of her remember any number of her family—certain nieces, nephews, grandchildren, that is—because they hadn’t been alive in 1895.

Howard Norman is the author of What is Left the Daughter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the memoir I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place (Mariner).