About the Author

Margaret Sweatman

Margaret Sweatman is a novelist, playwright, and singer-lyricist. She is the author of four previously published novels, Fox, Sam & Angie, When Alice Lay Down With Peter, and The Players, for which she has won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award, and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year.

Sweatman's plays have been produced by Prairie Theatre Exchange, Popular Theatre Alliance, and the Guelph Spring Festival. She has performed with her own Broken Songs Band and with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, and the National Academy Orchestra. With her husband, composer Glenn Buhr, Sweatman won a 2006 Genie Award for Best Song in Canadian Film.

Books by this Author
The Players

The Players

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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When Alice Lay Down With Peter
Excerpt

Chapter One

These are my beginnings.

Imagine heat. In the coupled loins of Alice (wearing wool pants and a heavy flannel shirt and, strangest of all, leather chaps, for he’d taken her while they chased a herd of thirsty cattle east from Turtle Mountain to the Pembina hills) and her skinny, ardent husband, Peter. Hot as liquor, the juice that made me, on the night of August’s showering meteors in a warm wind sweet with sage. They were alone under cowboy stars beside the embers of a campfire, laughing in their lovemaking. The most successful practical jokers in all the colony. Their britches whispered as leaves in the breeze when they rustled and rubbed together. He thrust inside her and she wrapped her chaps around him and drew her knees up to his shoulders while the seed ran down, itching and hot. A woman in her precarious circumstance must interrupt at all costs and they were careful to spill, laughing. My mum and dad, in God’s House of Lords, members of the opposition.

They’d been travelling with a half-dozen men, a sad bunch of Métis buffalo hunters reduced to driving cattle for a retired Hudson’s Bay Company officer. It had been a long month for them, feigning manly indifference to each other’s earthy scent under the duress of my mother’s disguise. It made them hot. And a little silly. And when the men had left them alone that night with instructions to return for the stragglers, a cow and her calf that had been separated from the herd, they both shrugged and spat and threw down their bedrolls, grunting acquiescence.

A lovely night, the stars above. Hunger from a long fast, constant temptation and the arousal, perhaps you know of it, that comes from watching a lover’s freedom or solitude, the aphrodisiac of the lover’s face averted, the part that leaves you out.

She thought he’d come. Their catechism had reached that stage of exchange where one becomes another, pulse and tide for tide and pulse. Her own juice she mistook for his. She thought he’d spilled; she was safely playing on the shores of pleasure. She was attuned to her rhythms and knew she was ripe. So when she looked above his pounding shoulder and saw the lurid purple of the thunderhead ink the half-moon, cover it, while Dad fought for an end to his need, pounding the walls of his beloved, seeking an end, when she saw the leader stroke of lightning, a brilliant ionized path stark white against the deep purple sky and after a split second another stroke and it was the great intake of breath, dry as rage and bright as a path of quicksilver, she knew, she knew. The next stroke made their hair stand on end, my father’s hair longer and scruffier than my mother’s theatrical boy’s bob. Twenty-five thousand volts.

My father was a compassionate man who would never deliberately inflict his needs upon his beloved wife, but I can’t say for certain that he would have had the discipline necessary to stop himself before the fact that magic night. Anyone with the imagination to put themselves in his boots at that moment will forgive him the indiscretion of the fiercest ejaculation by a white man in the brief history of Rupert’s Land. And though my mother was receptive, the voltage and the heat fired the seed, knocked her unconscious. She didn’t stand a chance. They woke up fourteen hours later, still coupled, surrounded by hailstones the size of turtle eggs, black and blue but happy. They smiled roguishly, knowing, and with muddy fingers combed each other’s sizzled hair. It was two o’clock on the first afternoon of my life as an embryo. My father withdrew from my mother slowly, very slowly, flesh welded to flesh, raw.

They would be satisfied for nearly a month. They helped each other stand and looked out at the trees, the leaves pounded by the hail. The light was white as the inside of an oxygen tent. They buttoned their trousers. Horses gone. Cow and calf vanished. They hobbled and sucked hailstones along the old trail marked by the wooden wheels of Red River carts. They held hands. They were glad I’d been tipped into the world, off a thundercloud like a huge tarnished tray, tipped like caviar into my mother’s womb. And scorched there, the seed of a jack pine. The catalyst, a stroke of lightning.

•••

They had met by accident in the stark sun of the Orkney island of Hoy, where she sat reading and he sat darning his socks. My mother had been the only female theology student at the University of Glasgow, establishing what was to become a family tradition of studying passionately all things extraneous to survival. Alice had been raised a Wesleyan, and had bred her faith on a meagre diet of duty and intellect. She’d been preparing for an examination on the methods of salvation when a sudden sneeze filled her with a need to smell the most northern sea. Telling her astonished family and her sceptical theologians that she was in a struggle with spiritual dryness, she put her books in a carpet bag, promised everyone that she would heal herself and return, and left for Orkney, the most northern place she could then imagine.

My father-to-be was a tenant farmer from Hoy. Sick of mud and poverty, he was yearning to join up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and jump aboard a ship headed for the New World. Sailing west sailing west, to prairie lands sunkissed and blest, the crofter’s trail to happiness. He and Alice sat down beside one another, total strangers, on a hill with a view of the sea. They’d arrived there at the same moment, obviously expecting to be alone, and had hesitated before shyly nodding hello and settling on the warm rock side by each, as if they’d planned it. He reached into his pocket and brought forth a darning needle and a pair of woollen socks, and began to sew. Strangely embarrassed, Alice quickly drew St. Augustine’s Confessions from her bag and pretended to read. She was wearing a black Methodist gown. Her black-laced boots were spread pigeon-toed, careless and ready. She noticed that he had a freckled complexion, her favourite kind of skin. Then he began to talk in a voice like the wind on the water, his words arriving as if out of nowhere. His Adam’s apple floated on his freckled throat. He said there was a land without landlords just across the ocean, a green and verdant place where a man could be free from tyranny, free from history itself. Rivers, he said, long and wild rivers run through the forests, into the great Hudson Bay, in a country where nobody can own you. I’m joining up, he said. The Hudson’s Bay Company can take me there, but then I’m going out on my own and never work for any man, never be owned by anybody, not ever again. Fish, hunt, live free, he said, vigorously stitching his socks.

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