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Such Is My Beloved

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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also available: Paperback
tagged : literary, classics
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Father Dowling took off his hat and looked around slowly as if it were most important that he find a proper place to put it. He saw the room with the faded blue flowers on the wall-paper, the thick blue curtains on the window, the wide iron bed, painted white but chipped badly at the posts, and the copper-colored carpet that had a spot worn thin near the side of the bed. There were two chairs in the room. A door led into the next room. While he was looking around, the tall fair girl, who was wearing a loose blue dress that concealed the angularity of her body, assumed a ready smile, came over beside him and began to help him off with his coat with a dreadful efficiency. And the little, dark one with the round brown eyes and the smooth soft skin and a big bunch of black hair at the nape of her neck, jumped up from her chair with the same impressive efficiency, and in the affected manner of a great lady, extended her left hand with the elbow crooked as if he would be permitted just to touch the tips of her fingers. "How do you do, Sweetie. We are so mighty pleased to see you. You can't go wrong in coming here to see me."

"Who said he was coming to you?"

"He'll want to come to me. Won't you want to come to me?"

"Take it easy, Midge. Don't be so pushing. He doesn't want you. Why, he first spoke to me. You heard him speak to me. Hell, though, if Rosy Cheeks wants you, it's all the same to me."

"I'm not trying to rush him. Let him suit himself."

As Father Dowling listened, all the words from the sermon of the old missionary priest that had been in his head were forgotten, and by this time Ronnie, the tall one, was pulling off his scarf. Holding the scarf in her hand, she stood still. She saw his Roman collar and knew he was a priest. They both looked scared for a moment, then Ronnie said, "For the love of God, Midge, look what the wind blew in."

"He can't stay here. What are you going to do with him?"

"I didn't bring him. Maybe the poor guy wants to stay."

But Father Dowling had gained confidence in the one moment while the girls were abashed, so he waited to see what they would do. Starting to laugh, Ronnie said, "Don't get nervous, Father. It's all the same to us, you know," and her brisk, efficient manner returned, the grin settled on her face and she reached out in a hurry and took hold of his arm. Midge, who was slower to speak, had stepped back, frowning and timid; then she, too, grew bolder and she began to shake her shoulders till her full breasts swayed, and coming closer to him, she said, "Are you going for Ronnie, or do you want to leave it to me?"

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Street of Riches

Street of Riches

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : literary, classics
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When he built our home, my father took as model the only other house then standing on the brief length of Rue Deschambault — still unencumbered by any sidewalk, as virginal as a country path stretching through thickets of wild roses and, in April, resonant with the music of frogs. Maman was pleased with the street, with the quiet, with the good, pure air there, for the children, but she objected to the servile copying of our neighbor’s house, which was luckily not too close to ours. This neighbor, a Monsieur Guilbert, was a colleague of my father’s at the Ministry of Colonization and his political enemy to boot, for Papa had remained passionately faithful to Laurier’s memory, while Monsieur Guilbert, when the Conservative party came into power, had become a turncoat. Over this the two men quarreled momentously. My father would return home after one of these set-tos chewing on his little clay pipe. He would inform my mother: “I’m through. I’ll never set foot there again. The old jackass, with his Borden government!”

My mother concurred: “Certainly. You’d do far better to stay home than go looking for an argument wherever you stick your nose.”

Yet no more than my father could forgo his skirmishes with Monsieur Guilbert could she forgo her own with our neighbor’s wife.

This lady was from St. Hyacinth, in the Province of Quebec, and she made much of it. But above all she had a way of extolling her own children which, while lauding them, seemed to belittle Maman’s. “My Lucien is almost too conscientious,” she would say. “The Fathers tell me they have never seen a child work so hard.”

My mother would retort: “Only yesterday the Fathers told me again that my Gervais is so intelligent everything comes to him effortlessly; and apparently that’s not too good a thing, either.”

My mother was most skillful in parrying what she called Madame Guilbert’s “thrusts.” Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — our two families could scarcely get along without each other.

Often of an evening my mother would go out on the open porch in front of our big house and say to my sister Odette, “Supper is ready. Run over and tell your father; he’s still at the Guilberts’. Bring him back before any argument begins.”

Odette would sally forth across the field. When she reached the Guilberts’, there my father would be, his pipe clamped between his teeth, leaning against our neighbor’s gate and chatting peaceably with Monsieur Guilbert about rosebushes, apple trees, and asparagus. So long as the two men were on such subjects, there was no need for alarm; and here Monsieur Guilbert was willing enough to accept my father’s views, since he granted that my father knew more about gardening than he did. Then Odette would espy Gisèle’s face at one of the upstairs windows. Gisèle would call out, “Wait for me, Odette; I’m coming down. I want to show you my tatting.”

In those days they were both fanatically devoted to piano playing and to a sort of lacemaking that involved the use of a shuttle and was, if my memory serves me well, called tatting.

Then my mother would send my brother Gervais to see what on earth could be keeping my Father and Odette over there. At the field’s edge, Gervais would encounter his classmate Lucien Guilbert, and the latter would entice my brother behind an ancient barn to smoke a cigarette; needless to say, Madame Guilbert always maintained that it was Gervais who had induced Lucien to indulge this bad habit.

Out of patience, Maman would ship me off to corral them all. But I would chance to meet the Guilberts’ dog, and we would start playing in the tall grass; among us all, now at loggerheads, now so closely knit, I think that only I and the Guilbert dog were always of the same temper.

At last my mother would tear off her apron and come marching along the footpath to reprimand us. “My supper’s been ready for an hour now!”

Madame Guilbert would then appear on her own porch and graciously exclaim, “Dear, dear! Do stay here for supper, seeing as you’re all here anyway.”

For Madame Guilbert, when you yielded her her full rights to superiority and distinction, was a most amiable person. Still, it was difficult to avoid, throughout an entire evening, the subject of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, or to settle once and for all which boy had induced the other to smoke; and the consequence was that often enough we came home from these kindly visits quite out of humor with the Guilberts.
Such was our situation — getting along together happily enough, I avow — when the unknown quite fantastically entered our lives, and brought with it relationships more difficult, yet how vastly more interesting!

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The Road Past Altamont

The Road Past Altamont

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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tagged : literary, classics
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One
 
I was six years old when my mother sent me to spend part of the summer with my grandmother in her village in Manitoba.
 
I balked slightly at going. My old grandmother frightened me a little. She was known to be so devoted to order, cleanliness, and discipline that you couldn’t leave the tiniest thing lying about at her house. With her, it seemed, it was always, “Pick up after yourself, put away your things, as the twig is bent . . .” and other admonitions of the sort. As well, nothing exasperated her so much as the tears of children, which she called “mewling” or “caterwauling.” That was another thing: her rather curious way of speaking, partly invented by herself and often far from easy to figure out. Later, however, I found several of my grandmother’s expressions in my old Littré and realized they must date back to the time when the first settlers came to Canada from France.
 
Yet she must have found time heavy on her hands, for it was her own idea that I should spend part of the summer in her company. “Send the little sickly one to me,” she wrote in a letter my mother showed me as proof that I would be welcome at Grandmother’s.
 
Those words “little sickly one” had already made me feel none too well-disposed toward my grandmother; so it was in a more or less hostile frame of mind that I set out for her house one day in July. I told her so, moreover, the moment I set foot in her house.
 
“I’m going to be bored here,” I said. “I’m sure of it. It’s written in the sky.”
 
I didn’t know that this was precisely the sort of language to amuse and beguile her. Nothing irritated her as much as the hypocrisy that is natural to so many children—”wheedling and coaxing,” she called it.
 
So at my dark prediction I saw something that in itself was unusual enough. She was smiling faintly.
 
“You’ll see. You may not be as bored as all that,” she said. “When I want to, when I really set my mind to it, I know a hundred ways to keep a child amused.”
 
But, for all her proud words, it was she herself who was often bored. Almost no one came to see her any more. She had swarms of grandchildren, but she seldom saw them, and her memory was failing, so it was difficult for her to tell one of them from another.
 
From time to time a car full of young people would slow down at the door, perhaps stop for an instant; a bevy of young girls would wave their hands, calling, “Hello, Mémère. How are you?”
 
Grandmother would just have time to run to the doorstep before the girls disappeared in a whirlwind of fine dust.
 
“Who were they?” she would ask. “Cléophas’s daughters? Or Nicolas’s? If only I’d had my spectacles I would have recognized them.”
 
“That,” I would inform her, “was Berthe, Alice, Graziella and Anne-Marie.”
 
“Ah!” she would say, struggling to remember whether these particular girls were the daughters of Nicolas, of Cléophas, or of Alberic.
 
The next moment she would begin to argue with herself. “But no. What am I thinking? Most of Nicolas’s children are boys.”
 
She would go to sit for a moment in her rocking chair beside the window to try to settle the matter once for all and make a complete inventory of her descendants. I loved seeing her like this, looking for all the world as if she were unraveling some skeins of tangled wool.
 
“In Cléophas’s family,” she would begin, “there’s Gertrude first, then the oldest son—now what is that big dark boy’s name? Is it Rémi?”
 
“No, indeed. Now let’s see,” I would answer, beginning to lose my patience. “Rémi belongs to Uncle Nicolas.”
 
“Ah, you don’t say,” she would remark with a vexed look.
 
But I noticed that little by little she became less troubled by my awareness of her infirmities—her dimming eyesight, her faulty hearing, and, what was even more irritating to her, the failure of her memory.
 
The following day another group of young people might descend upon us, this time by buggy, “but only for five minutes.”
 
Grandmother would hurry to set the table, perhaps hoping to bribe them to stay, but nothing of the sort: the moment she had gone down to the cellar to fetch a pot of gherkins, the girls in their Sunday clothes would be caroling, “We can’t wait. We’re on our way to Rathwell. . . . Bye bye, Mémère!”
 
She would come up, blinking a little, and ask, “Have they gone?”
 
From outside could be heard a great racket of departure.
 
“Oh these modern young people!” Grandmother would exclaim.
 
We were alone in the little house, listening to the lamentations of the prairie wind as it writhed interminably in the sunlight, forming and re-forming tiny rings of dust.
 
Grandmother would begin to talk to herself, perhaps unaware that I was listening. One day I heard her sigh at the window.
 
“You’re always punished by the very things you thought you wanted. I probably wished too often for comfort, to have everything neat and tidy, to be free of children clinging constantly to my skirts with their doleful wailing. I wanted just one minute to myself. Now I have a whole century to myself!”
 
She sighed again, then began to reproach God.
 
“Why does he listen to us when we ask for things that won’t suit us when we get them? He ought to have sense enough not to listen.”
 
Then she remembered my presence in the house and summoned me with a little gesture of the hand.
 
“Well, at least I know your name.”
 
Then she asked, “And what is your name again?”
 
“Christine,” I told her with some annoyance.
 
“Yes, that’s so. I knew. Christiane.”
 
And, lost in her thoughts, she asked, “And how old is that little girl?”
 
 
There was one time of day when I never failed to feel a sense of boredom and lassitude coming over me. This was the moment when the sun, just before it disappears, casts a great red light over the prairie, a remote strange light that seems to extend its vastness and at the same time empty it of all human presence, as if giving it over to wild dreams of the time when it existed in utter solitude. It seemed then that the prairie wished to have no people, no houses, no villages upon itself, that it had tried, with a single stroke, to rid itself completely of all this and be once more as it was in the old days, proud and lonely.
 
At Grandmother’s, moreover, there was no way to avoid this disturbing sight. The village was small and Grandmother’s house stood right at the end of it; the prairie surrounded us like the ocean on all sides except the east, where a few other little houses could be seen, our companions on what seemed to me a terrifying journey. For in the complete immobility of the prairie, one had the sense of being drawn forward on a sort of voyage across an endless land of everlasting sameness.
 
Suddenly, understanding neither my sorrow nor its source, I burst into loud wails.
 
“Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
 
“Will you be still,” said Grandmother irritably. “You make me think of a coyote howling at the moon.”
 
I tried to be still, but soon my strange sorrow, nameless, with no cause that I could define, seized me again and I howled more loudly than ever. “Oh I’m so bored, so bored, so bored!”
 
“Ah, the poor Innocents!” said Grandmother.
 
This was always her term for unhappy children, especially when they were in the depths of their inexplicable distress. She might have been alluding to the Massacre of the Blessed Innocents— I do not know— but whenever she saw a child weeping bitterly she would exclaim, in an indignant voice, “Ah, the poor Innocents!”
 
In vain she offered me all the many good things to eat there were in the house, and finally, knowing no other way to distract and console me, she said, “If you’ll just stop caterwauling, I’ll make you a doll.”
 
Immediately my tears stopped.
 
I looked skeptically at my grandmother seated in her high rocking chair.
 
“You find dolls in stores,” I said. “You don’t make them.”
 
“That’s what you think,” she said, and began as usual to complain about stores and high prices and the present-day custom of buying everything ready-made.
 
When she had vented her anger in this way, a little glimmer came into her eyes that I had never seen there before; it was quite extraordinary, like a light suddenly kindled in a place one had believed abandoned and overgrown. What she was going to accomplish today began, however, in the simplest way in the world.
 
 
“Go to the attic,” she said, “and fetch my big scrap bag. Don’t make a mistake. Get the one that’s tied on top with string. Bring it to me and then you’ll see whether I can make what I’ve a mind to make.”
 
Still incredulous, but curious too and perhaps secretly hoping to catch Grandmother napping, I went in search of the big scrap bag.
 
From it Grandmother drew some bits of multicolored material, all clean and sweet- smelling— Grandmother’s rags were always carefully washed before they were put away—pieces of chintz, of gingham, of dimity. I recognized, as was always the way in her quilts, the remains of a dress that had belonged to one of my sisters, of a blouse of Maman’s, of one of my own dresses and of an apron whose owner I could no longer remember. It was pleasant to be able to attach so many memories to these scraps. Finally Grandmother found a piece of white cloth. She cut this into several bits, from which she made what looked like a number of little bags of different shapes, one for the trunk, others for arms and legs.
 
“Now I’ll need some straw or salt or oats to stuff these with. It’s up to you. Which would you prefer,” she asked, “a soft doll stuffed with straw or—?”
 
“Oats,” I said.
 
“It will be heavy,” Grandmother warned.
 
“That won’t matter.”
 
“Very well then, go to the barn. There’s a sack of oats there left over from the time when I was thinking of keeping some hens. Fetch me a little dishful.”
 
When I came back, the various parts of the doll’s body were all ready to be filled with the oats Mémère had saved on the chance she might have some hens. I didn’t fail to notice the way a number of odd combinations of events were all rushing today to serve my pleasure. Soon my grandmother had stitched the stuffed limbs and body together and there before my eyes was a little human form, quite nicely made, with feet, hands, and a head that was a trifle flat on top.
 
I began to take a keen interest in the manufacture.
 
“But you’ll be stumped for hair,” I said.
 
“For hair? That’s what you think,” she said, enlivened by the discovery that the infinite and ingenious resources of her imagination, at least, were all intact. Imagination, you might say, was our family gift.
 
“Go back to the attic,” she said. “Open the right-hand drawer of the old chest I put up there. No rummaging, mind. Just take a skein of yarn . . . By the way, do you want one of those blonde dolls that are all the rage these days? Or a brunette? Or how about an old woman with white hair like me?”
 
I hesitated over the cruel choice. I felt a strong inclination toward an elderly doll with spectacles and white hair, thinking what a novel effect this would present. But I also greatly fancied a young lady doll.
 
“Could you make me one with blond curly hair?”
 
“Nothing simpler,” said Grandmother. “Bring the color of yarn that suits you and, on your way back, fetch my curling-iron from my room. Bring the oil lamp at the same time. No, on second thought, so you won’t break something, do it in two trips.”
 
This I proceeded to do. Grandmother then made a lovely wig of yellow hair, waved it with her curling-iron, and fitted it over my doll’s head.
 
I could no longer hide my astonishment.
 
“Do you know how to make everything?” I asked.
 
“Almost everything,” she said dreamily. “Young people nowadays don’t know the joy and pride of making do with what they have at hand. They toss everything out.”
 
And after a moment she went on, “When I was young, I had to get along without buying things in stores. I learned. Oh yes, I learned,” she said, gazing far back into her life. . . .”But now your doll— she must have a face. Climb onto the table and see if you can stretch way up and snatch my pen and bottle of ink from the ledge.”
 
When I had brought her these things, she moistened her pen and drew on the still blank face of my doll the arcs of the eyebrows first, then eyes, mouth, and a completely straight, precise little nose.
 
I began to clap my hands and to prance about with a joy I found it impossible to contain. No doubt it was the creative talent of my grandmother that delighted me so. Indeed, whenever I have seen this gift of God at work, even if it is possessed by the humblest creature— and it is to be found in astonishing places— it has always filled me with the keenest pleasure.
 
“Oh but her mouth should be red,” I said.
 
“That’s so,” said Grandmother. “That blue mouth gives her a peaked look. This may present a bit of a problem. But we’ll manage.”
 
I noticed that she was beginning to associate me with her creative work and I felt prouder than ever of her talents.
 
“Go and look on the bureau in my room,” she said with a flash of inspiration. “See if there isn’t a tube of that stuff they call lipstick— atrocious stuff, real Indian war paint, but for once it will be of some use to us. It seems to me that Gertrude— no, I mean Anne- Marie— Ieft some here the last time she went into my room to titivate.”
 
I found just so, in the exact spot she had indicated, the Indian war paint.
 
With this, Grandmother drew the prettiest little red mouth, pursed just a trifle as if in a vague smile.
 
Curly-haired, a blond with blue eyes, my doll seemed to me now, with her rather mocking smile, to be completely beautiful, though she was still stark naked.
 
“To dress her,” said Grandmother, “I have some very nice curtain lace in the bottom drawer of the bureau in the guest room. Go and fetch it and, while you’re at it, look in the top drawer too. I think you’ll find some blue ribbon there.”
 
Half an hour later, my doll was wearing a pretty white dress, trimmed with ruffles and a sky-blue sash, and Grandmother was busily stitching a row of minute blue buttons down the front of the dress.
 
“But she’s barefoot,” I said suddenly in consternation. “Shoes will be a little harder, eh, Mémère?”
 
I was becoming humble, very humble indeed before her, before the grandeur of her mind, the deftness of her hands, the sense of exalted and mysterious solitude that surrounds all those who are busy with creation.
 
“Shoes,” she said simply. “Would you like them made of leather or satin or plush?”
 
“Oh, of leather!”
 
“Yes, it’s more durable. Well then, go and fetch the yellow leather gloves that used to belong to your uncle Nicolas. You will find them . . .”
 
This time too, under her directions, I put my hand without trouble on the yellow leather gloves.
 
“It’s store leather,” she said, turning them about and peering at them closely. “Stores sell mostly rubbish, badly stitched, badly finished. For once something handsome and of good quality has come from one of those places. Your uncle Nicolas had extravagant tastes in his youth,” she confided. “But it’s true that he bought these gloves for his wedding. Now you see how everything can be of service more than once. Yesterday for a wedding, today for dolls’ shoes. They say I keep everything, that I encumber myself, that I’m an old-fashioned old woman. But a day always comes when the things you tossed out of the window might have been put to good use.”
 
While she was talking, she first cut out, then put together the most adorable little dolls’ shoes I had ever seen.
 
“While I’m at it,” she said, “I might as well make her some gloves.”
 
Night came. Grandmother had me light the lamp and bring it close to her. Neither of us thought of the evening meal. The strict daily schedule to which my grandmother held so firmly for once had ceased to exist. So when something bigger than the timetable presented itself, she was quite able to ignore it. She went on working, her glasses on her nose, as happy, I am convinced, as in the days when urgent tasks claimed her from morning till night, leaving her, you might say, no moment’s respite in which to scrutinize the vast enigmatic depths of fate. Or perhaps I should say happy with a completeness she knew only when her task transcended the bare requirements of the moment.
 
“Have you thought of a name for her?” she asked, looking at me from under her spectacles.
 
They were old spectacles with steel rims.
 
“Yes. Anastasie.”
 
“Ah!” she said, and I knew that the name pleased her. “There was an Anastasie in my village in Quebec in the old days. It’s a striking name, not like these little short modern names that you forget the very next minute: Jean, Jeanne, Robert, Roberte. . . . In the old days people had names you could remember—Phidime, Viateur, Zoé, Sosthène, Zacharie. . . .”
 
All this time my doll was progressing. She didn’t, it might be said, need anything else, but Grandmother was undoubtedly too well launched by now to be able to stop. From some black cloth she fashioned a traveling cape, then— one thing suggesting another— painstakingly set to work with cardboard and glue to make her a little valise. To this she stitched a minute handle, which I slipped over Anastasie’s hand.
 
Even this wasn’t enough.
 
“She must have a hat,” Grandmother declared. “One doesn’t go traveling without a hat, even in these shameless modern times.”
 
She sent me to fetch an old straw hat from behind the door of the vestibule. She unraveled it, then, working slowly with her rheumatism-stiffened fingers— with such fingers, she told me, it was much more difficult to work with small things than with large— she knitted a new, this time tiny, dainty hat.
 
“What!” I cried, quite overcome. “So you know how to make hats too!”
 
“In the old days I made very pretty hats from the fine marsh straw not far from our house. . . . Not only that,” she told me, “I have often dressed someone— your mother, your grandfather— from head to foot. . . .”
 
“From head to foot, Mémère!”
 
“From head to foot . . . and without needing to go to the store for a single thing, except perhaps for buttons . . . And I’ve even made those out of ox horn; with an awl to pierce the holes, I managed.”
 
“From head to foot!” I said.
 
She held out my doll with her straw hat hanging from her neck by a ribbon. I was so happy that I burst into tears.
 
“Well, if we’re going to have that again, if I’ve done all this for nothing!” Grandmother said in grumbling tones.
 
But, forgetting how little she cared for effusiveness or caresses, I climbed onto her knees, flung my arms around her neck, and sobbed with a happiness that was too piercing and wide to bear, almost incredible. It seemed to me that there was no limit to the things this old woman with the face covered with a thousand wrinkles could accomplish. A sense of grandeur, of infinite solitude, came over me.
 
“You’re like God,” I wept into her ear. “You’re just like God. You can make things out of nothing as he does.”
 
She pushed me away but without too much exasperation or impatience.
 
‘‘I’m far from being like God,” she said. “Do you think I’d know how to make a tree, a flower, a mountain?”
 
“A flower, perhaps.”
 
She smiled a little. “I’ve certainly made plenty of them grow.”
 
Nevertheless, I saw that she wasn’t offended by my comparing her to God.
 
“For with such means and strength as he gave me,” she said after a moment’s reflection, “I have aided him not too badly in his creation. I have perhaps done all a human being could do. I have twice built a home,” she told me, “having followed your trotting horse of a grandfather from one part of this vast country to another. I began all over again here in Manitoba what I’d already made back in Quebec, made once for all, I thought— a home. That is work,” she assured me. “Yes— a house, a family—that’s so much work that if you saw it before you all at once in a single heap, you’d think it was a high mountain— a mountain you couldn’t possibly climb over.”
 
She realized that I was listening to her, Anastasie clutched against my heart, but perhaps thought it all passed over me—and indeed most of it did, though I kept a little of it.
 
“That is what life is, if you want to know,” she continued, and I no longer knew to whom she was speaking, “a mountain made of housework. It’s a good thing you don’t see it at the outset; if you did you mightn’t risk it, you’d balk. But the mountain only shows itself as you climb it. Not only that, no matter how much housework you do in your life, just as much remains for those who come after you. Life is work that’s never finished. And in spite of that, when you’re shoved into a corner to rest, not knowing what to do with your ten fingers, do you know what happens?” she asked, and, without waiting for an answer, told me, “Well, you’re bored to death; you may even miss the housework. Can you make anything out of that?”
 
“No,” I said.
 
She seemed utterly astonished to discover me, all attention, at her feet.
 
“Are you mad at someone?” I asked.
 
“Mind your own business,” she said.
 
But an instant later, withdrawn again into her reveries, she named for me, one by one, all those who had so bitterly offended her.
 
“Your grandfather Elisée . . . such a trick to play on me, the gay adventurer . . . to go first, without waiting for me, leaving me all alone on this western prairie, in exile.”
 
“Manitoba isn’t exile,” I said. “It’s home.”
 
“All the rest of you too,” she went on. “You’ll be just like the others. You’re all like him— independent, selfish, travelers every one of you. You all have to be off somewhere. . . . And God too—even he in many ways has forsaken me. Because truly, no matter what the priests say, no matter how hard they try to make reason and sense out of it, he allows too many strange worrisome things to happen to us.”
 
She grumbled on so that I dozed, leaning against her knees, my doll in my arms, and saw my grandmother storm into Paradise with a great many things to complain about. In my dream God the Father, with his great beard and stern expression, yielded his place to Grandmother, with her keen, shrewd, far-seeing eyes. From now on it would be she, seated in the clouds, who would take care of the world, set up wise and just laws. Now all would be well for the poor people on earth.
 
For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands.

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The Double Hook

The Double Hook

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
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also available: Paperback Paperback
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1
In the folds of the hills

under Coyote’s eye

lived

the old lady, mother of William
of James and of Greta

lived James and Greta
lived William and Ara his wife
lived the Widow Wagner
the Widow’s girl Lenchen
the Widow’s boy
lived Felix Prosper and Angel
lived Theophil
and Kip

until one morning in July

Greta was at the stove. Turning hotcakes. Reaching for the coffee beans. Grinding away James’s voice.

James was at the top of the stairs. His hand half-raised. His voice in the rafters.

James walking away. The old lady falling. There under the jaw of the roof. In the vault of the bed loft. Into the shadow of death. Pushed by James’s will. By James’s hand. By James’s words: This is my day. You’ll not fish today.

2

Still the old lady fished. If the reeds had dried up and the banks folded and crumbled down she would have fished still. If God had come into the valley, come holding out the long finger of salvation, moaning in the darkness, thundering down the gap at the lake head, skimming across the water, drying up the blue signature like blotting-paper, asking where, asking why, defying an answer, she would have thrown her line against the rebuke; she would have caught a piece of mud and looked it over; she would have drawn a line with the barb when the fire of righteousness baked the bottom.

3

Ara saw her fishing along the creek. Fishing shamelessly with bait. Fishing without a glance towards her daughter-in-law, who was hanging washing on the bushes near the rail fence.

I might as well be dead for all of her, Ara said. Passing her own son’s house and never offering a fry even today when he’s off and gone with the post.

The old lady fished on with a concentrated ferocity as if she were fishing for something she’d never found.

Ara hung William’s drawers on a rail. She had covered the bushes with towels.

Then she looked out from under her shag of bangs at the old lady’s back.

It’s not for fish she fishes, Ara thought. There’s only three of them. They can’t eat all the fish she’d catch.

William would try to explain, but he couldn’t. He only felt, but he always felt he knew. He could give half a dozen reasons for anything. When a woman on his route flagged him down with a coat and asked him to bring back a spool of thread from the town below, he’d explain that thread has a hundred uses. When it comes down to it, he’d say, there’s no telling what thread is for. I knew a woman once, he’d say, who used it to sew up her man after he was throwed on a barbed-wire fence.

Ara could hear the cow mumbling dry grass by the bushes. There was no other sound.

The old lady was rounding the bend of the creek. She was throwing her line into a rock pool. She was fishing upstream to the source. That way she’d come to the bones of the hills and the flats between where the herd cows ranged. They’d turn their tails to her and stretch their hides tight. They’d turn their living flesh from her as she’d turned hers from others.

The water was running low in the creek. Except in the pools, it would be hardly up to the ankle. Yet as she watched the old lady, Ara felt death leaking through from the centre of the earth. Death rising to the knee. Death rising to the loin.

She raised her chin to unseat the thought. No such thing could happen. The water was drying away. It lay only in the deep pools.

Ara wasn’t sure where water started.

William wouldn’t hesitate: It comes gurgling up from inside the hill over beyond the lake. There’s water over and it falls down. There’s water under and it rushes up. The trouble with water is it never rushes at the right time. The creeks dry up and the grass with them. There are men, he’d say, have seen their whole place fade like a cheap shirt. And there’s no way a man can fold it up and bring it in out of the sun. You can save a cabbage plant or a tomato plant with tents of paper if you’ve got the paper, but there’s no human being living can tent a field and pasture.

I’ve seen cows, he’d say, with lard running off them into the ground. The most unaccountable thing, he’d say, is the way the sun falls. I’ve seen a great cow, he’d say, throw no more shadow for its calf than a lean rabbit.

Ara looked over the fence. There was no one on the road. It lay white across the burnt grass.

Coyote made the land his pastime. He stretched out his paw. He breathed on the grass. His spittle eyed it with prickly pear.

Ara went into the house. She filled the basin at the pump in the kitchen and cooled her feet in the water.

We’ve never had a pump in our house all the years we’ve lived here, she’d heard Greta say. Someday, she’d say, you’ll lift the handle and stand waiting till eternity. James brings water in barrels from the spring. The thing about a barrel is you take it where you take it. There’s something fixed about a pump, fixed and uncertain.

Ara went to the door. She threw the water from the basin into the dust. She watched the water roll in balls on the ground. Roll and divide and spin.

The old lady had disappeared.

Ara put on a straw hat. She tied it with a bootlace under the chin. She wiped the top of the table with her apron which she threw behind a pile of papers in the corner. She went to the fence and leaned against the rails.

If a man lost the road in the land round William Potter’s, he couldn’t find his way by keeping to the creek bottom for the creek flowed this way and that at the land’s whim. The earth fell away in hills and clefts as if it had been dropped carelessly wrinkled on the bare floor of the world.

Even God’s eye could not spy out the men lost here already, Ara thought. He had looked mercifully on the people of Nineveh though they did not know their right hand and their left. But there were not enough people here to attract his attention. The cattle were scrub cattle. The men lay like sift in the cracks of the earth.

Standing against the rails of the fence, she looked out over the yellow grass. The empty road leading from James’s gate went on from William’s past the streaked hills, past the Wagners’, down over the culvert, past Felix Prosper’s.

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Excerpt

The Lamp at Noon

A little before noon she lit the lamp. Demented wind fled keening past the house: a wail through the eaves that died every minute or two. Three days now with out respite it had held. The dust was thickening to an impenetrable fog.
 
She lit the lamp, then for a long time stood at the window motionless. In dim, fitful outline the stable and oat granary still were visible; beyond, obscuring fields and landmarks, the lower of dust clouds made the farmyard seem an isolated acre, poised aloft above a sombre void. At each blast of wind it shook, as if to topple and spin hurtling with the dust-reel into space.
 
From the window she went to the door, opening it a little, and peering toward the stable again. He was not coming yet. As she watched there was a sudden rift overhead, and for a moment through the tattered clouds the sun raced like a wizened orange. It shed a soft, diffused light, dim and yellow as if it were the light from the lamp reaching out through the open door.
 
She closed the door, and going to the stove tried the potatoes with a fork. Her eyes all the while were fixed and wide with a curious immobility. It was the window. Standing at it, she had let her forehead press against the pane until the eyes were strained apart and rigid. Wide like that they had looked out to the deepening ruin of the storm. Now she could not close them.
 
The baby started to cry. He was lying in a homemade crib over which she had arranged a tent of muslin. Careful not to disturb the folds of it, she knelt and tried to still him, whispering huskily in a singsong voice that he must hush and go to sleep again. She would have liked to rock him, to feel the comfort of his little body in her arms, but a fear had obsessed her that in the dust-filled air he might contract pneumonia. There was dust sifting everywhere. Her own throat was parched with it. The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes. The little cry continued, and with wincing, frightened lips she glanced around as if to find a corner where the air was less oppressive. But while the lips winced the eyes maintained their wide, immobile stare. “Sleep,” she whispered again. “It’s too soon for you to be hungry. Daddy’s coming for his dinner.”
 
He seemed a long time. Even the clock, still a few minutes off noon, could not dispel a foreboding sense that he was longer than he should be. She went to the door again – and then recoiled slowly to stand white and breathless in the middle of the room. She mustn’t. He would only despise her if she ran to the stable looking for him. There was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman. She must stay quiet and wait. Nothing was wrong. At noon he would come – and perhaps after dinner stay with her awhile.
 
Yesterday, and again at breakfast this morning, they had quarrelled bitterly. She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.
 
Tense, she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening. There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright. But only to return – to return and quake among the feeble eaves, as if in all this dust-mad wilderness it knew no other sanctuary.
 
Then Paul came. At his step she hurried to the stove, intent upon the pots and frying-pan. “The worst wind yet,” he ventured, hanging up his cap and smock. “I had to light the lantern in the tool shed, too.”
 
They looked at each other, then away. She wanted to go to him, to feel his arms supporting her, to cry a little just that he might soothe her, but because his presence made the menace of the wind seem less, she gripped herself and thought, “I’m in the right. I won’t give in. For his sake, too, I won’t.”
 
He washed, hurriedly, so that a few dark welts of dust remained to indent upon his face a haggard strength. It was all she could see as she wiped the dishes and set the food before him: the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will. “Hungry?” she asked, touched to a twinge of pity she had not intended. “There’s dust in everything. It keeps coming faster than I can clean it up.”
 
He nodded. “Tonight, though, you’ll see it go down. This is the third day.”
 
She looked at him in silence a moment, and then as if to herself muttered broodingly, “Until the next time. Until it starts again.”
 
There was a dark resentment in her voice now that boded another quarrel. He waited, his eyes on her dubiously as she mashed a potato with her fork. The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance – there remained only a harsh and clenched virility that yet became him, that seemed at the cost of more engaging qualities to be fulfilment of his inmost and essential nature. Whereas to her the same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come. The eyes were hollowed, the lips pinched dry and colourless. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the little vanities of life, and lost them wistfully.
 
‘‘I’m afraid, Paul,” she said suddenly. “I can’t stand it any longer. He cries all the time. You will go, Paul – say you will. We aren’t living here – not really living –”
 
The pleading in her voice now, after its shrill bitterness yesterday, made him think that this was only another way to persuade him. He answered evenly, “I told you this morning, Ellen; we keep on right where we are. At least I do. It’s yourself you’re thinking about, not the baby.”
 
This morning such an accusation would have stung her to rage; now, her voice swift and panting, she pressed on, “Listen, Paul – I’m thinking of all of us – you, too. Look at the sky – what’s happening. Are you blind? Thistles and tumbleweeds – it’s a desert. You won’t have a straw this fall. You won’t be able to feed a cow or a chicken. Please, Paul, say we’ll go away –”
 
“Go where?” His voice as he answered was still remote and even, inflexibly in unison with the narrowed eyes and the great hunch of muscle-knotted shoulder. “Even as a desert it’s better than sweeping out your father’s store and running his errands. That’s all I’ve got ahead of me if I do what you want.”
 
“And here –” she faltered. “What’s ahead of you here? At least we’ll get enough to eat and wear when you’re sweeping out his store. Look at it – look at it, you fool. Desert – the lamp lit at noon –”
 
“You’ll see it come back. There’s good wheat in it yet.”
 
“But in the meantime – year after year – can’t you understand, Paul? We’ll never get them back –”
 
He put down his knife and fork and leaned toward her across the table. “I can’t go, Ellen. Living off your people – charity – stop and think of it. This is where I belong. I can’t do anything else.”
 
“Charity!” she repeated him, letting her voice rise in derision.
 
“And this – you call this independence! Borrowed money you can’t even pay the interest on, seed from the government – grocery bills – doctor bills –”
 
“We’ll have crops again,” he persisted. “Good crops – the land will come back. It’s worth waiting for.”
 
“And while we’re waiting, Paul!” It was not anger now, but a kind of sob. “Think of me – and him. It’s not fair. We have our lives, too, to live.”
 
“And you think that going home to your family – taking your husband with you –”
 
“I don’t care – anything would be better than this. Look at the air he’s breathing. He cries all the time. For his sake, Paul. What’s ahead of him here, even if you do get crops?”
 
He clenched his lips a minute, then, with his eyes hard and contemptuous, struck back, “As much as in town, growing up a pauper. You’re the one who wants to go, it’s not for his sake. You think that in town you’d have a better time – not so much work – more clothes –”
 
“Maybe –” She dropped her head defencelessly. “I’m young still. I like pretty things.”
 
There was silence now – a deep fastness of it enclosed by rushing wind and creaking walls. It seemed the yellow lamplight cast a hush upon them. Through the haze of dusty air the walls receded, dimmed, and came again. At last she raised her head and said listlessly, “Go on – your dinner’s getting cold. Don’t sit and stare at me. I’ve said it all.”
 
The spent quietness in her voice was even harder to endure than her anger. It reproached him, against his will insisted that he see and understand her lot. To justify himself he tried, “I was a poor man when you married me. You said you didn’t mind. Farming’s never been easy, and never will be.”
 
“I wouldn’t mind the work or the skimping if there was something to look forward to. It’s the hopelessness – going on – watching the land blow away.”
 
“The land’s all right,” he repeated. “The dry years won’t last forever.”
 
“But it’s not just dry years, Paul!” The little sob in her voice gave way suddenly to a ring of exasperation. “Will you never see? It’s the land itself – the soil. You’ve plowed and harrowed it until there’s not a root or fibre left to hold it down. That’s why the soil drifts – that’s why in a year or two there’ll be nothing left but the bare clay. If in the first place you farmers had taken care of your land – if you hadn’t been so greedy for wheat every year –”
 
She had taught school before she married him, and of late in her anger there had been a kind of disdain, an attitude almost of condescension, as if she no longer looked upon the farmers as her equals. He sat still, his eyes fixed on the yellow lamp flame, and seeming to know how her words had hurt him, she went on softly, “I want to help you, Paul. That’s why I won’t sit quiet while you go on wasting your life. You’re only thirty – you owe it to yourself as well as me.”

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As for Me and My House
Excerpt

Saturday Evening, April 8
Philip has thrown himself across the bed and fallen asleep, his clothes on still, one of his long legs dangling to the floor. . . .

He looks old and worn-out tonight; and as I stood over him a little while ago his face brought home to me how he shrinks from another town, how tired he is, and heartsick of it all. I ran my fingers through his hair, then stooped and kissed him. Lightly, for that is of all things what I mustn’t do, let him ever suspect me of being sorry. He’s a very adult, selfsufficient man, who can’t bear to be fussed or worried over; and sometimes, broodless old woman that I am, I get impatient being just his wife, and start in trying to mother him too.

His sermon for tomorrow is spread out on the little table by the bed, the text that he always uses for his first Sunday. As For Me and My House We Will Serve the Lord. It’s a stalwart, four-square, Christian sermon. It nails his colors to the mast. It declares to the town his creed, lets them know what they may expect. The Word of God as revealed in Holy Writ — Christ Crucified — salvation through His Grace — those are the things that Philip stands for.

And as usual he’s been drawing again. I turned over the top sheet, and sure enough on the back of it there was a little Main Street sketched. It’s like all the rest, a single row of smug, false-fronted stores, a loiterer or two, in the distance the prairie again. And like all the rest there’s something about it that hurts. False fronts ought to be laughed at, never understood or pitied. They’re such outlandish things, the front of a store built up to look like a second storey. They ought always to be seen that way, pretentious, ridiculous, never as Philip sees them, stricken with a look of self-awareness and futility.

That’s Philip, though, what I must recognize and acknowledge as the artist in him. Sermon and drawing together, they’re a kind of symbol, a summing up. The smalltown preacher and the artist — what he is and what he nearly was — the failure, the compromise, the going-on — it’s all there — the discrepancy between the man and the little niche that holds him.

And that hurt too, made me slip away furtively and stand a minute looking at the dull bare walls, my shoulders drawn up round my ears to resist their cold damp stillness. And huddling there I wished for a son again, a son that I might give back a little of what I’ve taken from him, that I might at least believe I haven’t altogether wasted him, only postponed to another generation his fulfillment. A foolish, sentimental wish that I ought to have outgrown years ago — that drove me outside at last, to stand on the doorstep shivering, my lips locked, a spatter of rain in my face.

It’s an immense night out there, wheeling and windy. The lights on the street and in the houses are helpless against the black wetness, little unilluminating glints that might be painted on it. The town seems huddled together, cowering on a high, tiny perch, afraid to move lest it topple into the wind. Close to the parsonage is the church, black even against the darkness, towering ominously up through the night and merging with it. There’s a soft steady swish of rain on the roof, and a gurgle of eavestroughs running over. Above, in the high cold night, the wind goes swinging past, indifferent, liplessly mournful. It frightens me, makes me feel lost, dropped on this little perch of town and abandoned. I wish Philip would waken.

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Barometer Rising
Excerpt

Penny felt her heart beginning to labour. Of course, if Neil were alive and in disgrace he would be a deserter and would not dare wear a uniform…. Penny breathed deeply. Surely if Neil were in Halifax she would have heard from him. She could not endure the thought that he was alive anywhere and had not come to her.

Then the withering feeling returned as she remembered her father and the things people had whispered about Neil Macrae for the past two years. She remembered Murray’s unwillingness to talk and the sudden embarrassment of Billy Andrews only half an hour ago. But Angus, at least, would have told her if Neil was alive. He could never have brought himself to lie about a thing like that. She had been so sure of his sincerity that his answers had finally dispelled any lingering hope that Neil might still be living, in spite of everything.

The tram stopped at the foot of her street and she got off and began to climb the hill. It was silent and cold and empty on this street where she had lived all her life. The air cooled her brain and slowed her thoughts and her heart to a normal pace. As she began to calculate the situation she thanked God for this gift which never failed her, this merciful power within herself that enabled her to spill cold water over her brain and make it lucid in moments of crisis.

She moved slowly up the hill under the bare branches of the trees until she reached the red house at the crest….
She looked at the front door. That heavy rectangle of oak weighted with its brass knocker was a symbol. Her family had shut her in from the world when she was young; it had shut her out from itself when she had ceased being a child. Her body straightened, became erect and rigid, as though to counteract the trembling sensation in her spine which now was spreading to her hands, her knees, and her shoulders.

In that instant she knew unmistakably that Neil Macrae was alive and that she had seen him. She realized this beyond the power of any logic to confute it. Her eyes were trained to recognize what was placed before them; they had often tried to fool her, but after sober consideration, they had never cheated her in her whole life.

The quivering in her limbs subsided. She drew a deep breath of damp air, and slipped her hands into the pockets of her coat. And then she felt saturated with anger and cold determination. No one had ever had the kindness to give her an honest account of what had happened to Neil that day or night in Flanders when they hinted that his cowardice had ruined her father’s career in the army. The family had whispered their obscure remarks, and after Jean’s birth she had been too shaken and apprehensive to ask many questions. But Neil was alive now and she knew it. He was back in Halifax, and not all the coldness and pride of her father could keep her from compelling him to answer her questions tonight. She closed the door loudly behind her as she entered the house.

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