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Fiction Literary

A Father's Kingdom

by (author) Sheila Watson

afterword by Glenn Willmott

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Sep 2010
Literary, Short Stories (single author)
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2010
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2004
    List Price

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This small collection of stories that were published between 1938 and 1980 includes a remarkable narrative range, from the closely observed realism of “Rough Answer,” Sheila Watson’s first story, through four stories which represent members of the family of Sophocles’ Oedipus as contemporary and naturalized, to the ritualized mystery of “And the Four Animals.” A Father’s Kingdom is an original New Canadian Library collection.

About the authors

Sheila Watson's profile page

Glenn Willmott is a professor in the Department of English at Queen's University.

Glenn Willmott's profile page

Excerpt: A Father's Kingdom (by (author) Sheila Watson; afterword by Glenn Willmott)

Rough Answer
Margaret stood at the door of the cabin. She watched the thin blue light of evening merge into the dark blue green of coming night. She heard the plaintive honking of some geese as they passed overhead, an arrow of blackness in the translucent sky. Somewhere in the black hills a coyote barked. “Joe will be coming soon,” she thought. “The school lady will be tired.”
She strained forward into the darkening evening, listening. The silence surged around her, cut off all contact with reality. The long drawn wail of the coyote wrenched her back to life. She went into the house and stirred up the fire. She lit the lamp. She looked once more into the little room which Joe had built by putting up a thin partition down the length of their one room. As she turned back to the fire she heard the rattle of wagon wheels coming over the culvert.
“Ho Major! Ho Colonel!” Joe’s voice rang clear with laughter. “They couldn’t hurt you nowise. We’re here all right and Margaret’ll make you comfortable.”
Margaret went to the door with the lamp.
“Come in,” she said. “Joe’ll put the horses in and bring your things.”
She watched Joe help the girl down from the high wagon. “She’s pretty,” she thought, “pretty like you don’t see around here.”
The girl pulled her fur jacket close about her and let Joe help her to the door.
“You must be cold,” said Margaret, letting her eyes travel down the slim length of silk- clad leg, letting them rest for a moment on the queer strapped slippers. Her voice rang with a half suppressed note of disapproval.
“It’s cold,” the girl said with a slight shudder as she went into the house.
“Pretty,” the girl thought to herself. “Pretty enough but old looking. I suppose they grow old living here – like this.”
She felt a little frightened. She wouldn’t let her thoughts rest on those months of boredom.
“God knows what I’ll find to do,” she thought.
Margaret took her into her bed- room. She lit a candle. The light flickered on the white spread, the work table and the frilled dresser.
“It looks like a hermit’s cell,” thought the girl.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable,” said Margaret. “Ask for anything you want. I’ll give you warm water and Joe he’ll fetch you a tubful Friday nights.”
Good heavens! the girl hadn’t thought of that. “In these places they didn’t bathe, did they?” She had known that before. She was just beginning to realize, though, what she’d done. She could stick it anyway if things didn’t pall too much. Joe – that was the man’s name, wasn’t it? – had asked her if she could ride. She had lied about it. Said she loved it. Perhaps he’d take her out sometime. He wasn’t bad looking in his own way. A little rough – but then – he’d be much more amusing than Margaret. “She looks,” the girl’s thoughts hesitated – “she looks good.”
At supper Joe seemed to be in a very good humour. He told several stories. Joe didn’t talk much as a rule. When he spoke it was of the price of beef or irrigating or fencing or of the new corral he was going to build.
“Trying to cheer the girl up,” thought Margaret. She, too, spoke more than was her wont. She and Joe didn’t need to speak much. They knew. A third person changed things somehow. Broke the contact. Silence seemed a little shameless, a little naked.
“They’re right glad to have a lady teacher,” she said. “We’ve had men so long. It’ll be nice to have a woman about.”
“I’ll let you have the bay mare to ride,” said Joe. “Then you can come and go as you like. Margaret’ll show you round.”
The girl’s eyelids fluttered slightly. She hadn’t thought of that. Margaret would ride. Ride with Margaret – she might have saved herself the trouble of a lie.
“You must be tired,” said Margaret. “Joe’ll take you to school in the morning to get you acquainted with the way.”
The girl went into her room. She felt a little depressed, a long way from nowhere. She shut the flimsy door and opening the window, lit a cigarette.
“The man’s rather nice looking,” she thought. She yawned and stared out into the darkness.
Margaret and Joe looked at each other.
“She’s pretty,” said Margaret, “but I think she’ll find it quiet here.”
“Don’t know,” said Joe. He felt a little disturbed. He’d never felt that way before, not that he could remember. He couldn’t just say. He felt he should say something. He didn’t know what. A third person always made a difference he guessed. He began to whistle under his breath.
The week hadn’t been so bad, thought the girl on Friday night as she sat curled round in the corrugated tub of warm water which Joe had fetched for her. She was getting used to things. She dried herself and slipped into a thin white dress which showed the curves of her slim body. She sat down on the bed and polished her nails.
“Margaret’s a funny woman,” she thought. “Cuts her nails straight across as if she didn’t care.” Joe noticed those things, too. She was conscious of his eyes following her sometimes. Her thoughts hurried on, slipping over things she wouldn’t really think about. “He’s really nice,” she thought, “not the kind of man . . .” She rose abruptly and, putting on a sweater, went out.
Margaret was peeling the vegetables for supper.
“Going to watch Joe feed?” she asked. “He’s going to take you up to see the critters tomorrow. Thought you’d like to tell them at home about it, he did. We don’t want you to be lonely like.”
“That will be nice. I can write them a long letter.” The girl went out and down towards the yard.
Margaret went into her room and opened the window. She didn’t like the smell of smoke. She went back and began to cut the turnips into squares. She set the table, putting a side plate and napkin for the girl.
“I suppose she’s different to me, that’s all,” she thought. “Her way’s not my ways.”
She felt resentment rising in her throat. Her silence had been shattered. The presence of the girl in the house rang through the silence, the vibrant reality which was her only refuge, the tacit understanding she had with life. She couldn’t have explained it, but she knew.
Joe was different too. He sang sometimes and talked, as if to clothe the silence which had been theirs, the understanding which they had arrived at without words the first night she had come home with him.
Joe looked up. He saw the girl coming. “Slim and white like them lilies on the mountain,” he thought. Then he checked himself. He was thinking too much about that girl, he was, the way she moved, the helpless look in her eyes when she asked him to do anything, the soft white skin disappearing down her dress at the back of her neck. He didn’t think of Margaret like that. She was a fact, was Margaret, a mighty pleasant fact, too, with her long, unbroken silence and her quiet ways; but still, a man – he liked the flowers, didn’t he? – sort of made your throat ache to see them standing straight, their cups filled with sunlight.
The girl came up to him as he tossed down the hay. “You seem busy,” she said. “It’s nice out here.” She leant against the bars of the fence. Joe tossed down more hay. He began to whistle. She leant there, looking up the hill lonesome like. He saw the sunlight glint on her pale hair. His hand ached to touch the soft skin at her throat. “Wonder what it would feel like,” he thought, “soft and warm like a horse’s nostrils.” But he shouldn’t think that way. He knew that.
“He seems queer,” thought the girl. “Don’t think he’ll ever be the real thing.” She thought of the stories she had read – silent men, strong and passionate. Her own experience had not led her beyond the college boy type. She felt lonesome again. She was definitely bored but slightly expectant.
The next day Joe saddled the mare and his own fancy-looking stud. He felt himself possessed by a new sort of vanity, a desire to look smart. He had shaved and put on a clean shirt. Margaret had lent the girl a pair of overalls and Joe buckled her into his chaps.
“It’ll be windy there,” he said, bending closer as he tugged at the buckle, close enough to catch her fragrant warmth.
The mare was gentle but he went slowly. Anyone with half an eye in his head could see that the girl couldn’t ride. Margaret sat a horse well. Rode like a man.
It gave Joe a protective feeling, a feeling twin brother to his new vanity to see her sitting slim and helpless on the mare. She bumped up and down in the saddle.
“Press yourself against the cantle,” he suggested. “You’ll ride easier.”
When they reached the top of the hill the girl looked uncomfortably tired.
“Let’s rest for a bit,” he suggested. He knew he shouldn’t suggest it. He felt that his feet were on marshy ground. His feeling of vanity was oozing away, but the protective feeling became stronger.
“It’s a long way, isn’t it,” she said. He helped her down from the mare. Her hair brushed across his mouth. He let his hand rest on her shoulder for a moment. He wouldn’t – not he, but the next moment she had let her head slip forward on his shoulder.
“I’m so tired.” Her voice had a plaintive ring.
“We could go back,” he said, knowing that he should go back at once. Margaret was his woman. The girl moved a little closer.
“I’m so lonely,” she said, and began to whimper a little.
Joe knew what he should do – what you did to mares when they get a little skittish. He knew, but he stood gazing over the level stretch of the range. He thought of Margaret.
“You do tempt a man to pity,” he said, “like young mares in the spring or yearling heifers.”
She sprang back as if struck, her face crimson.
“How could you say that,” she cried out. She felt perhaps it was true, but she wouldn’t think, not for anything. He was crude, crude beyond belief.
“Let’s go – back,” she said.
He helped her to mount. He felt indifferent now. He looked out to where the blue sky and the yellow hills met. He felt the power of their silence.
That night the girl spoke to Margaret.
“I’m going,” she said. “It’s lonesome here. I shouldn’t have come. I’m not made your way.”
She wanted desperately to think. Joe had wakened in her a feeling, a stirring of realization which she could not comprehend. She felt different towards Margaret somehow. Yet she wanted to go. She wasn’t ready to meet herself yet.
The next morning Joe drove her to the station.
“They’ll have to get another girl for the school,” Margaret said.
“I think they’ll get a man again,” said Joe.
They sat down to supper. Margaret’s thoughts moved slowly. Joe’s my man, she thought. He’s life. Like rain for plants or hay for critters. The girl’s gone. She thought of the slim length of the girl’s supple legs.
“Beef ’s gone up,” said Joe. “They told me at the station.”
The light flickered on the plates. Margaret rose and stirred the fire. She felt at peace once more.
“We won’t board no more school- teachers,” said Joe.
“No,” said Margaret.
A coyote howled in the hills. The dog barked. They did not notice it. They sat each wrapped in his own thoughts, their silence unbroken.

Other titles by Sheila Watson

Other titles by Glenn Willmott