When People Seem Most Alive

Stories set in the crux of life and death

At first, Blood Secrets seems an odd title for this latest collection of Nadine McInnis’s short stories. The term, to me, implies race and genetics, the maimers and killers that lie dormant, the unpredictable and merciless inheritance of birth.

Instead, McInnis’s subject is dying. Most of the 13 stories in Blood Secrets take place in hospices and hospital rooms as family, friends, nurses and volunteers watch over the final moments of a life, the narratives spinning into the past and the future but always returning to that split second when the heart with its flow of life blood stops.

A question McInnis asks in one story could apply to them all: “Why is it that people seemed most alive when they would soon be gone?”

Blood Secrets begins with “The Story of Time,” named for a bleak sound-and-light show that marks the end of the millennium and the beginning of an affair for Joyce. As the crowd leaves, she is swept away from her husband and daughter and into the arms of a man who tends to her bleeding forehead and the discomforts of her life.

The secret of the affair is obvious, but the story is rife with other secrets, too. As Joyce stands in line at the pharmacy to see her new lover, she listens to women discuss their intimate problems with him.

When it was her turn, she said, “You know all our secrets.”

… “Only the secrets of the body,” he said.

“Are there any other kind?” she asked.

The story begins and ends with the catalytic moment when the chance encounter explodes into an affair. In between, the story moves forward to illuminate the consequences for Joyce and for her daughter Ruth, who bears the scars of self–mutilation as well as the scars of her mother’s leaving. “Everyone has a scar somewhere,” Joyce says.

A similar juxtaposition of consequences opens the second story, “Heart of Blue, Glowing,” which takes place in a hospice where candles burn for the recent dead even as ambulances bring new patients to take over their beds. Joyce is the protagonist here, too. The indigo buntings she was intending to paint in “The Story of Time” are hanging on the wall of the hospice she first visited with her pharmacist-lover and where she now volunteers to fill the hours emptied of both husband and lover.

At the hospice, she watches as a family fights over whether to give into their dying father’s sentimental last request, then she sits with the old man, holding his hand as he dies.

There were shimmery movements beneath the pale lids, his mouth thinning and widening like the mild dreamy face of a fish. This wasn’t exactly sleep, just as a newborn doesn’t exactly sleep. Gently, between being here and being nowhere, she felt herself travelling with him and understood that she wasn’t holding his hand any longer; he was holding hers.

Such delicately shifting perspectives pervade a second pair of stories, too. In “Where All the Ladders Start,” Deirdre is on a backpacking trip with her daughter, although she is barely recovered from a debilitating bout of depression, which runs in the family; her father has recently committed suicide. In the next story, “Bliss,” Deirdre is in a hospice, dying of breast cancer she left untreated, a self-imposed ending her husband cannot accept. “For God’s sake, can’t you just tell me why?” he begs. In the end, he sees that she is protecting their daughter from an even messier ending. “I know now. There are worse things that can happen than this,” he says.

Endings imply beginnings. In the title story, Dulcie, also a hospice volunteer, recalls her first sexual encounter with the man who would be her husband, a deflowering baptized in menstrual blood, which she refers to as “secret blood.”

Whereas Joyce sees the aliveness of the almost-dead, what Dulcie notices is how pale the dying are, how bloodless.

Death came on as a kind of gradual bleaching, the skin thinning and growing more dry. Just as her body was now starting to pale, her periods coming less frequently, and when they did, after an absence of months sometimes, she felt a melancholy for her lost fertility.

Melancholy pervades these stories, not in the sense of a gloomy state of mind, a depression, but rather in the pensiveness that melancholy implies, a sober thoughtfulness in the face of the end. In “Stone Deaf,” as his mother lies dying, a son searches for the theatre his father built, his grandparents’ graves and the house his mother was born in. In “Snow Moths,” a young man dying of AIDS is tended by a trainee who has scarcely recovered from injuries suffered in a terrible car crash. The girl breaks the rules to find the young man’s estranged family, although he welcomes his solitary end, believing that he has lived many past lives and that death will leave him finally “free and clear.”

In “Bare Bones,” a nurse who has been betrayed by her husband struggles with guilt at the passing of a friend, who died alone in a hallway as she rushed to get her a room. In “Lucky,” a father who convinces his daughter to take him out for one last spree at the casino wins $100,000, which she spends on palliative care. Such thumbnail descriptions are desperately inadequate for stories that are so deftly layered, so delicately positioned at the crux of life and death.

The final story neatly book-ends Joyce’s experience in the hospice, although the narrator is no longer an onlooker. She is standing with her sisters around her mother’s deathbed, telling the story in the first person, pushing our faces up close.

“She breathed and then she stopped,” McInnis writes. “I held my breath and waited and she did not resume although I had to, after a slow exhalation.” The daughter stays in the room as her mother’s body cools, her mind drifting with the Valium she has taken, recalling the Caesarian birth of her own child. “Unable to shake the sensation of a man’s hands inside me, pulling life from the split pod. Daughter arriving, mother leaving, the same.”

There are two anomalies in the collection. In “Persephone Without Maps,” a mother struggles to guide her daughter out of the dark broodings of adolescence. And in “The Men Have Gone Hunting,” a woman alone at home is confronted by men bloodied from their hunt. In the latter, the blood is there, and, in the former, the swirling structure and complex interweaving of past, present and future—but without the consequences of blood and secrets, without the scarring—make these links seem slight, breaking the taut tone of the collection.

Blood Secrets is Nadine McInnis’s second book of stories. She has also published five poetry collections, which explains the lean and lyrical language of these stories, and the arresting images. The silence between mother and daughter is described as “hardening like a carapace”; winter streets become “thick with serpent-patterned slush, a hissing as cars passed.”

Blood Secrets is a deceptively gentle book, a desperately tender succession of tales that bruise the heart with their sadness, while at the same time offering the salve of kindness. Be careful, they seem to say. The present will one day be the past: what scars will your secrets leave?