Few writers portray the dignity of people trapped by poverty or emotional isolation as compassionately as Gabrielle Roy does in the four stories of western Canada that comprise Garden in the Wind. The effortless craft and poetic sensitivity evident in all her writing are here in full abundance as she recounts the stories of a tramp who belongs to no one, a Chinese immigrant struggling to fulfill his dream, Doukhobor settlers fired by a vision of a new land, and a lonely woman who nurtures her small but splendid garden. Imbued with a poignant simplicity, these are stories of sheer artistry.
About the authors
Gabrielle Roy was an award-winning French Canadian author.
Dennis Cooley grew up in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and attended the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Rochester. He is an active member of the writing community in Winnipeg and teaches at St. John’s College, University of Manitoba. His latest book of poetry is the bentleys (2006).
Nicole Markotić is a poet and critic who teaches at the University of Windsor and edits the chapbook publication Wrinkle Press. She has published two poetry books, Connect the Dots and Minotaurs & Other Alphabets, as well as a fictional biography of Alexander Graham Bell, Yellow Pages. She is currently completing a novel.
Excerpt: Garden in the Wind (by (author) Gabrielle Roy; afterword by Dennis Cooley)
A TRAMP AT THE DOOR
My mother was expecting something or other. She kept going to the door, drawing back from the windowpane the white curtain hemmed in red linen and staring long and vaguely out at the drenched countryside. Suddenly she gave a start, one hand going up to her forehead.
“Somebody’s coming,” she announced, and went on, her voice filled with surprise: “Coming here, it looks like!”
Rain was rattling on the roof. On either side of the house we could hear water from the spouts splashing down from the overflowing rain barrels. Evening was falling. From the ditches, filled to their banks, a white steam went up.Beyond the slope of the rye field you could see no more than a few blackened, bare treetops emerging soaked from the mist. For two days we hadn’t seen a living soul pass by. “Not a cat, not even a beggar,” my mother had sighed.
The man pushed the gate open. We could see him tip back his head and try to smile as he saw the two gable windows of the house and perhaps the smoke from the chimney. With every step he had to fight the wind, pulling his dark coat tight around him. The garden shrubs near him were twisted and tousled by the wind. Because of the shadow that already lay dark beneath the hedge, the man was on top of Farouche’s kennel before he saw our German shepherd about to spring.
My mother stifled a cry.
Almost at once we saw Farouche wagging his tail, wiggling his body and crouching in front of this man whose strangely gentle, coaxing tone we in the house could catch between the gusts of the storm.
My mother breathed a great sigh, even more astonished than she was relieved.
“Well,” she said, “that’s the first time I ever saw Farouche make friends that fast!”
The man straightened up and seemed to be surveying all the ways of entering the house. Finally, overcoming his hesitation, he made a half-turn and came rapping on the back door which looked out on the farmyard.
My father, sitting by the fire, was in the grip of the unbearable boredom he suffered with each return of the wet season to our country of the plains. The whole day long he hadn’t said a word. You wondered if he really felt he belonged there with the rest of us. Buried in his thoughts, he hadn’t seen the stranger coming, and even the sound of our voices had most likely not come through to him.
“It’s somebody who doesn’t know his way around here.” This was my mother again as she gestured to me to open the door.
As soon as autumn came we lived in the big room. The small lean-to that served as a kitchen in the summertime now turned into a kind of storage space where we could pile furniture and tools no longer needed. I went through this freezing space and with difficulty lifted the rusty latch. A wallop of rain took me in the face. The man’s head appeared, feebly lit by a vestige of light coming from the big puddles around the pump. All in all, it was a rather nice tramp’s face, the kind that isn’t any particular age and asks for a bowl of soup and will go on his way right afterwards if he isn’t offered an attic for the night. We didn’t see those people often in our out-of-the-way parts, maybe one or two a year, if that. But this one seemed to have a certain dignity and wasn’t in a hurry to beg. A short, reddish, frizzy beard, pearled with great raindrops, invaded half his cheeks; the peak of his cap threw a clean line of shadow on his forehead. His eyes, very gentle and smiling, almost tender, sparkled under the wet fringe of his lashes.
“Well! My little cousin!” he cried in a voice that was as soft and flexible and unsettling as his gaze. “You must be my little cousin Alice!” he went on, laughing.
I shook my head.
“No? Must be Agnes, then!”
“No,” I said, irritated. “I’m Ghislaine.”
“Of course, just what I thought! Of course you’re Ghislaine. I should have known it, even if I never saw you.”
As he spoke, his hands made as if they were drying each other, and he laughed behind his beard and his foot cleverly pushed at the door I was holding slightly open.
Somehow he was inside.
“This is the Rondeaus’ house, I guess?” he asked, and his incredible, friendly smile swept around the interior of the damp, cold shed as if he found it welcoming and filled with people.
“No,” I said, “we’re the Trudeaus.”
“Why, sure, just as I was going to say,” he went on coolly. “Rondeau, Trudeau, names as like as peas. Right, cousin?”
He gave me a little nudge, and I saw his eyes shining with satisfaction.
“Now, little girl, you just go and tell your father there’s a cousin here from the land of Quebec.”
I went before him into the big room – he was right on my heels – and blurted out to my father, as if in mocking reproach: “He says he’s a cousin from Quebec.”
My father stood up and made an odd gesture, as if to take the stranger in his arms, but the impulse failed him. Yet his handsome, aging, peaceful face betrayed not so much a withdrawal as the vagueness of someone suddenly awakened from a dream.
“Well, now! What part of Quebec? Saint-Alphonse?”
“Saint-Alphonse,” said the man.
He approached the stove. His clothes were starting to steam. My mother brought the Aladdin lamp. She lifted it a little above the stranger and you could see great rips in his clothing, some held together by bits of string, others gaping to reveal glimpses of his red shirt.
But the man directed at my mother a gaze so filled with friendship that she set down the lamp and busied herself elsewhere without speaking. We could see that she was excited from the way she opened all the drawers of the sideboard without finding what she wanted.
For a moment the man stood alone in the middle of the room, trying to catch our eyes, which fled his. He drew up a chair by the stove, sat down and breathed a great sigh of well-being.
Then in the silence, two or three times, we could hear his soft, rather drawling voice: “Saint-Alphonse, yes sir. That’s where I come from. Saint-Alphonse. . . .”
My father took out his tobacco pouch. He was about to fill his pipe when the stranger held out a hand and, unabashed, helped himself to the tobacco. Then, after lighting a short clay pipe, he settled back in his chair and murmured distinctly: “Thank you. Much obliged.”
The two men smoked. My mother fussed among her pots with an unusual amount of noise. And sometimes her lips opened as if she were about to say some wounding word. The stranger looked around at us children sitting in the corners, observing one after the other, and smiled out of his beard. He made little jabs with his chin, winked at each of us, then started the rounds again. A badger that we had tamed, still highly suspicious of strangers, actually slipped under the man’s chair. He took it by the scruff of its neck and laid it in his lap. The little animal, far from protesting, licked his wet beard and, its claws retracted, allowed itself to be rocked like a baby. As wild and speechless as our only friends – our animals – we were astounded to see that two of them had taken up with this stranger. Even my mother seemed impressed, and that must have aggravated her ill humour. Little by little we slid off our chairs to come nearer. The strange man gave us signs of encouragement in the manner of the magician our parents had once taken us to see at the rodeo in the next village.
My father had stood up. He was pacing to and fro in the room, his hands behind his back. Then, planting himself in front of the vagabond, he asked: “But whose boy would you be then?”
“Me?” said the man. “Why, the one that disappeared.”
A glimmer of interest showed beneath my father’s lowered eyelids.
“But they thought he was dead!”
“He wasn’t dead. He went to the States. I’m his boy.”
“Oh!” said my father. “You’re his boy!”
“I’m his boy,” the stranger repeated in a voice that was soft and stubborn.
And he turned his smiling face to where my mother was beating her pancake batter. He seemed determined to drag from her a look, a smile, a word. But she was speeding up her supper preparations so as to stay out of the conversation. It wasn’t long before the first spoonful of batter dropped into the hot frying pan. A pleasant odour filled the room. Outside, darkness spread over the desolate, naked landscape. All that could still be seen through the windowpanes was the vague glimmer of water accumulated in great pools between the patches of brush, in the hollows of the plain or running in streams. The man stretched out his legs. He took time to look around the room, low-ceilinged, large, furnished with an oak sideboard and old, modest but solid pieces so well-polished and softened by use that they reflected a long contentment. Then, without moving, he began smiling at nothing again, to himself.
“But what put you onto our trail?” my father asked suddenly.
The stranger raised his blue eyes, which shone in the direct rays of the lamp.
My father gave a long sigh.
“It’s been a mighty long time since I saw hide or hair of any of them from Saint-Alphonse.”
It was his turn to look toward my mother, so tiny, so much younger than he. A big apron tied around her waist, she was leaning attentively above her pan and the flame at times leapt perilously close to her face.
“How long is it now, Albertine, since I was in those parts?”
And indeed it was she who was charged with refreshing his memory on events he had described to her about people she had never seen.
She took a little while to reflect, mentally juggling dates, her pretty eyebrows arched high and her mouth a little open.
“You told me you were fourteen when you left home and you hadn’t set foot there since. You figure it out. About fifty years, if you were telling the truth.”
She always ended up with that reservation, as if to throw back the error, if error there was, solely upon my father.
Then, sulking a little, and because the stranger’s presence doubtless irritated her, she added: “What’s more, you haven’t written the folks at home for fifteen years. It’s a real shame!”
“Yes,” said my father, ignoring his wife’s last remark. “It’ll be fifty years. I wouldn’t even know them back there anymore.”
He looked down, his face lit up by distant, melancholy memories.
My mother placed her fists on her hips. Quickly, without looking at the stranger, she said: “It’s ready! Come on, children. Come and eat, Arthur.”
The tramp too stood up gaily. He chose a seat by the wall, slid in, pulling his wretched jacket tight around him, and, once established, seized his fork.
“Yes,” my father mused, “there’s a lot of things back there I never heard a word about.”
The man speared a large slice of bread with his fork. He bit the bread in the middle, then, smiling, his mouth full, he promised: “I’ll tell you all about it after.”
“Roy’s writing celebrates itself…should there still be readers unacquainted with this superb writer, Garden in the Wind will serve as an excellent introduction.”
Other titles by Gabrielle Roy
Children of My Heart
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
The Tin Flute
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Street of Riches
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
The Road Past Altamont
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
Where Nests the Water Hen
The Gabrielle Roy-Joyce Marshall Correspondence
The Letters of Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy