About the Author

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart was born in the far north of Ontario. She is the author of eight internationally acclaimed novels, among them The Whirlpool, which received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; Away, winner of the Trillium Award, The Underpainter, winner of the Governor General’s Award and a finalist for the Orange Prize in the UK and The Stone Carvers, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s Booker Prize. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction and four books of poetry. She has written a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and was editor of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Her work, which is published in many countries, has been translated into numerous foreign languages. Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Urquhart has received ten honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario and the Royal Military College of Canada. She has served on the Board of PEN Canada, on the Advisory Board for the Restoration of the Vimy Memorial and on several international prize juries including that of the International Dublin IMPAC Award, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the American International Neustadt Award.

Her most recent novel, The Night Stages, was released in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Oneworld in the UK.

Urquhart lives in southeastern Ontario with her husband, artist Tony Urquhart.

Books by this Author
A Map of Glass

In a small town thirty miles down the lakeshore, a woman woke early. There was no sound coming from the street below. Darkness was still pressed against her bedroom windows.

Her husband was sleeping and did not stir as she slid from the bed, crossed the room, and walked down the hall to the bathroom where she had laid out her clothes the night before: the dark wool suit and grey silk shirt, the string of small pearls, the black tights, white underwear, and conventional cream-­coloured slip, the sombre costume that she believed would ensure that no one would look at her, or look at her for very long. She took no special precautions as she washed and dressed, running the taps and opening the drawers as she would have on any other morning. Malcolm had been out on a night call and had not returned until 3 a.m. He would be sleeping deeply and would not waken for at least two more hours. By then she would be on the train, part of the journey completed.

She stood for some time in front of the open medicine cabinet in the bathroom, gazing at the plastic containers that held her various pills. Then she closed the door and stared at her own face in the mirror. Her fair hair, some of it grey now, was pulled back, and her face, she was relieved to see, was composed, her grey eyes were clear. She could not say whether it was an attractive face that looked back at her. Someone had once told her she was lovely and not, in some ways, that long ago, but she knew that her features, her expression had altered since.

The previous morning, after Malcolm had left for the clinic, she had filled an old suitcase with stockings, one blue skirt and cardigan, underwear, a few cosmetics, two well-­used green leather notebooks, a plastic bag containing squares of felt, scraps of fabric and wool, one antique album, and a worn hardcover book. Then she had lifted the bag from the bed where she had packed it and had placed it in the unused cupboard of the spare room. The interior of the case was pink and had elasticized compartments under the satin-­lined lid where, at one time or another, some long-­dead woman must have kept hairbrushes and clothes brushes, and perhaps a bottle filled with liquid detergent for washing silk stockings. That woman may very well have been her own mother, but she ­couldn’t be certain because as far as she knew her mother had never been a traveller. The people who lived in this rural County stayed home. Year after year, generation after generation. The geography of the County discouraged travel; trains no longer visited any of the pleasant towns of the peninsula where she had lived her entire life. She would have to drive for almost an hour to reach Belleville, the larger mainland town where she would catch the train that would take her to the city. The word city had hissed in her mind all week long, first as an idea, then as a possibility, and, finally, now as a certain destination.

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
A Number of Things

A Number of Things

Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects
by Jane Urquhart
illustrated by Scott McKowen
also available: eBook Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Sanctuary Line

Look out the window.
The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination. Even by the time I was in my early twenties, the terrain had already altered – almost beyond recognition – what with the bunkhouses deteriorating and the trees left unpruned and therefore bearing scant fruit. But that was during the period when my aunt was beginning to sever parts of the property so that it could be sold to developers; a step, I believed then, in the march toward some kind of future, or at least a financial future for her, and for my mother, who had just begun to live here as well. Now my aunt is dead and my mother lives at a place called The Golden Field, an ironic moniker if there ever was one, especially in relation to the one remaining field at this location, its greyness in the fading light.
It’s true, certain vestiges of the past remained for a while: the rail fences built by one of the old great- greats and the odd cairn of stones the great- greats had hauled out of the fields. “The first harvest every year is boulders,” was the news they passed down to us, their lazy descendants. My uncle repeated this statement often, though there was little enough ploughing in his life. In the end, he told us, many of the fieldstones had gone into the building of this capacious farmhouse that has stood in place, firm and strong, since the middle of the prosperous nineteenth century, when it was built.
What’s more, according to my uncle, the very first harvest would have been the slaughter of acres of forest in order that a field, any field, boulder- filled or golden, could be seeded at all. I seem to recall that during my childhood, there was a trace of the shallow foundation of the original log house in which those pioneer tree- choppers must have lived. Evidence was so faint, however, that only someone like my uncle could find it, point to it, and insist that you look at it. I remember him showing the few scattered stones to Teo, who stood at his side gazing obediently at the ground, then turning to me with a quizzical glance, trying, I suppose, to fit me, a spoiled girl from the city, into the rough stories my uncle was telling him about the spot. Dead babies, young men lost in blizzards, horses stumbling through storms. Teo listened politely, his brown eyes coming to rest on my uncle’s handsome face, but during the moist heat of those summers of the 1980s, when the farm was a flourishing business, those tales must have been almost impossible for a child like him to believe.
Sometimes in the evening after I have washed my few dishes, I find myself examining the splendid furniture of this old house, a collection of cold artifacts. In spite of my intimacy with each table, every chair, and the knowledge that the hands that either purchased or constructed them – and the bodies that touched them – made me what I am, they seem to come from a culture so brief and fragile that no one can name its properties, never mind care about its persistence. These solid shapes, so esteemed by my uncle and his wife, so carefully maintained, so talked about in the development of family tales, now stand in one corner or another as dead as the grandfather or great- aunt or distant relation who gave them a story and a meaning. Now there are nights when I wonder who I am keeping the clocks wound for, or why I continue to remove dust from the pictures and mirrors. Like someone of uncertain lineage in an undiscovered tomb, I have all the furnishings and comforts I will need for the afterlife carefully arranged around me. Except I am alive and forty years old. And, unlike you, I do not believe in any kind of afterlife.
Another thing. Because my aunt was fond of glass and, by extension, indoor light, this house is filled with reflections. Images of the great lake, therefore, swing into sight where you least expect them. North windows that face south windows reproduce and scramble marine views, mirrors refract lake light, and now and then poplars from the lakeside flicker on the old painted landscapes framed under glass and hanging on the parlour wall. Glass doors open to rooms where shutters are flung wide to a view of water. The stone walls that once surrounded my aunt’s rose garden are mirrored in the round looking- glass over her dressing table. At certain times of the day, if you pull open one of the glass doors leading from her room to the patio, the view of those garden walls will be overlaid by a series of waves chasing one another toward an unseen shore. In August the monarchs rise against blue lake water on the glass of a storm door, and surf often feathers the face of the wall clock. I never noticed these reflections when I was in my teens and the house was merely a place one entered unwillingly after the action of the day was finished. But all this confusion, this uncertain, changing imagery, is mine now. There is no one else who needs it.
As you know so well, it is one year after Mandy’s burial, a full year since those of us who remain went to the air base to attend the repatriation ceremony, then drove in the slow cortege down the highway renamed to honour the heroes of the current war. It felt like a lengthy journey, though Toronto, where the military autopsy was performed, is only ninety miles west of the air base. As we moved toward that city, we passed beneath dozens of overpasses filled with onlookers respectfully holding flags and yellow ribbons. I had read that crowds always lined the route when a soldier was brought home. Still my mother and I, and the boys too, were surprised and moved by the sheer size of the turnout. “Poor Mandy,” my mother kept saying each time we approached an overpass. “Who would have thought it?” At the air base she had said, “Poor little Amanda . . . she always called me auntie, even when she was a senior officer.” Then she had begun to weep, and I could feel my own eyes filling as I put my arm around her. The words improvised explosive device kept repeating in my mind, the sound of them coming out of the mouth of the official who had delivered this impossible news a few days before. There was something too surprising and playful about that phrase – a jack- in- the- box, fireworks – and if I couldn’t erase it altogether, I wanted to reshape it, slow it down, give it more dignity.
The whole town of Kingsville came out to meet us two days later, once we arrived here in the deep south of this northern province: all of Mandy’s high- school friends, the women who had helped my mother look after my aunt during her last illness, the mayor and council, and the people who had known my uncle when he was still in the vicinity.
Various attempts had been made to find him on this terrible occasion. Don was on the Internet day and night, and Shane contacted Interpol; messages were sent off to embassies – all to no avail. He has been gone, after all, for well over twenty years. He must be dead, Don said, during one of our booze- soaked evenings that week or the week after, or he would have come home for this. He may very well be dead, I thought, but I wondered if he would come back even if he were alive and in any condition to travel. Neither Don nor Shane had been caught in the drama the night their father disappeared. And Mandy hadn’t either, thankfully, though they all were witnesses to the coda of that drama.
But I had been there, right on the spot, at the wrong time.
What would there have been for him to return to anyway, even if he’d been able to do so? All his older relatives were gone, his wife as well, his dead daughter so changed by military glory even his memories of her would have felt unreliable. His sister, my mother, is still nearby, but after all this time she does not really resemble the woman he knew. And then there is me. And the farm, well, it barely exists.
Except for this house, now inhabited by me.
During the course of that long- ago summer when there were still many of us and the days walked slowly across the calendar, more or less in the way they always had, my uncle’s farm felt as certain and as established as a time- honoured empire – he, the famous Lake Erie orchardist, the agricultural king of the oldest part of southwestern Ontario, his territory and its lore delivered to us on a regular basis at dinner tables or beside campfires on the beach. Even now, when I wake on summer mornings and look out over the two remaining meadows filled with stumps, dead branches, and milkweed, I am startled by the disarray of the orchards, briefly surprised that there are neither ancestors nor Mexicans busy in the fields and trees – although, as I said, everything has been gone now for a considerable period of time.
I know something about orchards in a way that I never did before. Being the summer cousin, I wasn’t born to it, as Mandy was. By the time she was ten years old she could sort a basket of produce blindfolded: the ripest fruit on top, the too- soon harvested lining the bottom. I would watch her as she did this, a faint wrinkle of preoccupation on her smooth forehead, her busy hands assessing the firmness or softness of each fruit. Later, I would think she looked something like a blackjack professional dealing cards when she was sorting apples or pears. But when we were children, these quick, confident movements were to my mind a magical skill, made more magical by my uncle’s nod of approval when she had completed the job. She could also climb trees and shake cherries into the lap of the waiting apron of a tarpaulin, while my role was to stay earthbound and collect the few pieces of fruit that had rolled into the grass. Not that either of us had an official job as children, as Teo did. Teo, the picker. He could give Mandy a run for her money, his small brown hands darting along the ground of the fields or moving in the trees of the orchards, his eyes on the task.
Strawberries, cherries, peaches, pears, tomatoes, apples: that was the rhythm of ripening, put in motion by my great- great- grandfather on what was still a mixed farm, then improved by my great- grandfather, and perfected by my grandfather, who became the fruit specialist, obsessed by orchards, dismissing the animals and crops as if they had been mere incidentals and not what had come between his ancestors and certain starvation.
Oh those ancestors with their long shadows and their long stories. By the time we were teenagers, Mandy and I would exchange ironic glances whenever my uncle began what we called “the sagas,” tales in which he often called the head of each ancestral household “Old Great- great” rather than having to work his way mathematically back through the generations. It was as if all previous Butler males were the same Butler male anyway: obdurate, intractable, given to prodigious feats of labour in impossible conditions, one reign after another. Possessors of impressive strength, they were achievers of glorious successes and victims of spectacular failures. In the old photos, the full white beards and stern expressions of the great- greats resembled the frightening Old Testament figures – perhaps even Yahweh himself – illustrated in the family bible. You see, religion did play a role in the family once, but it was an unforgiving religion, one that became less essential to us as the generations progressed, while those things it was unwilling to forgive gained in importance.
Mandy and I were at our closest in our early teens, could communicate through eye contact, and were prone to shared fits of uncontrollable laughter at moments not entirely appropriate for laughter. Often these bouts of hilarity were at my uncle’s expense, though I am fairly confident that he never knew. This was in spite of our love for him. We were trying, I suppose, to separate a little from his power and his presence, which had dominated us since our earliest childhood. Or perhaps we were attempting to step away from the genetic inheritance that he enforced almost on a daily basis, though we certainly wouldn’t have known that at the time. We were part of the family. It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t be part of the family. Had we been asked, we probably would have insisted that our forebears had created the ground we walked on each day because without them there would have been no orchards, and without the orchards there would have been no sustaining livelihood.
Yes, having watched them wither and decay, I know something about orchards. I am intimate with the shortness of their lives. Sixteen years, tops, my uncle told us, or anyone else who would listen. The good fruit is borne between the third and the twelfth year, after which the yield begins to thin out. At the end of each season the “old” trees were cut and dismembered by the few Mexicans who stayed to complete the task. Teo, who had by then always returned with his mother to his home and presumably to school, was never among them. But that last summer I’d heard that he’d come back in April in time to burn the tangled brush of the previous years’ discards. I wasn’t at the farm until late June, but he told me about the burning when I arrived from the city with my mother.
When a job at the Sanctuary Research Centre brought me here and I took over the house, a few trees were still producing in what remained of one peach and one apple orchard. The cherry orchards along the lake had been sold almost immediately to developers and the wood harvested by specialty craftsmen. The tomato field behind the house gradually filled with wildflowers and, happily for me and for the butterflies, milkweed. I tried to keep a half- dozen apple trees going without the help of the sprays that I had come to detest because of what they had done to the butterflies, but the trees stopped producing. And then, of course, other life forms took up residence in their flesh, and the orchards began to die.
As for the monarchs, in those early summers we didn’t even know where they went or where they came from, depending on your point of view. We simply accepted them as something summer always brought to us, like our own fruit, or like strawberries or corn at roadside markets, or, for that matter, like the Mexicans. It would be years before the sanctuary on the Point began to tag the butterflies in order to follow the course of their migration, and several years more before the place where the specimens from our region “wintered over” would come to my attention.
Still, each summer we were stunned anew by what we came to call the butterfly tree. In the intervening months with winter upon us, preoccupied with school and other pursuits, we would have forgotten this spectacle, so its discovery was a surprising gift at the end of the season: an autumn tree that is a burning bush, an ordinary cedar alight with wings. Glancing down the lane, we would presume that while the surrounding foliage had retained its summer green, the leaves on that one tree had turned orange overnight. Then, before the phenomenon had fully registered in our minds, we would recall the previous occasions.
Not that the butterflies hadn’t been around all summer: one or two could be seen each day bouncing through the air in the vicinity of flowers and feeding on nectar. But, until the butterfly tree, they would never have gathered in such stupendous numbers. This multitude, this embarrassment of wings covered every available inch of leaf and bark, or sailed nearby, looking for a place to light. We would take the image of that tree with us as we turned toward the day, not remarking on it again until the shock of it had dissipated and the tree and its inhabitants had become a statement of fact. The butterflies are back on the tree. That announcement, more than anything else, was the beacon that lit the close of the season, the code that told us the games of summer were over.
Oddly, in those days we asked no questions about such an occurrence. Not one of us had ever witnessed the moment of the monarchs’ departure, which I imagined – not incorrectly – as an enormous orange veil lifting from the tree, then floating out over the great lake, heading for Ohio. They had surprised us and were no longer among us. We were blessedly young. We had no time for reflection.
Old enough to require explanations now, suspicious of unpredictability and impressions, I complete my fieldwork and my labwork with a meticulousness I couldn’t have even imagined in the thrall of those summers. These days it is all pinned specimens, tagged wings, and permanent records.
When I was in graduate school and was first told about the tagging of the monarchs, I considered the whole notion of fixing adhesive to something as fragile as a butterfly’s wing to be barbarous. But now I myself am a tagger, a labeller, one who is driven to track down the last mysterious fact until there is no mystery left. Yet I cannot explain how something as real and as settled as my uncle’s world – which was also our world – could shatter in one night. And while I might partly understand why he vanished, it is not possible for me to determine where he has gone. I picture him sometimes, standing on a mountain in Mexico surrounded by exhausted, tattered butterflies. Mating accomplished. Journey’s end. The temperature too cold for flight. Everything grounded. Not a single monarch ever returns, incidentally. The ones who come back to us may look exactly the same as those who departed, but it is their  great- grandchildren who make the return flight, the twoprevious generations having mated and died at six- week intervals in springtime Texas and Illinois. The third generation we welcome in June mates and dies six weeks later in our very own Ontario fields, engendering the hardy fourth Methuselah generation, which amazes us on trees like the one at the end of the lane and lives an astonishing nine months in order to be able to make the long journey back. All that travel and change, all that death and birth and transformation takes place in the course of a single year.
And yet the pieces of furniture that surround me now, the mirrors that reflected our family’s dramas – even those we should never have been witness to – remain firmly in place, unmoved, unchanged. The mystery of Mandy: her march toward order and regimen, passion and death remains in place as well, unsolved. I cannot explain the perfect symmetry of a boy’s eyebrows or the exact design of a butterfly’s wing. And then there is the mystery of that Mexican boy himself, and what did and did not pass between us.

From the Hardcover edition.

close this panel
Some Other Garden

You become the farthest planet

now I can’t identify
these marks across your surface
lakes that might be shadows
craters turning dark
towards the sea

and still my notebooks
fill with your reversals
moments from this distance
I can barely understand

I am a prisoner of language
a prisoner of moments
no vehicles have been invented
to bring me any closer

each night the constellations
dance for my approval
the focus of my bent
inverted lens

while I am fixed on you
on moments I can barely understand

I am watching
taking notes

you are a circle of light
ten billion miles away

I am a prisoner of lenses
a prisoner of language

waiting for your bright
deceptive image to respond

close this panel
The Underpainter

The woman is standing near the window in the downstairs front room of a log house on the north shore of Lake Superior.
It is the winter of 1937.
She is wearing a grey tweed skirt and a checked woollen bush jacket. Her dark-blonde hair is pulled back from her face and hangs in a thick braid almost to her waist. Despite the fact that she has kept her fires – both in the Quebec heater in this room and in the stove in the kitchen – burning all night, it is cold enough that she can see her breath. In her hand she holds an un - opened envelope with the words “Canadian National Tele gram” printed on it. Her head is bent and her shoulders are slightly stooped as she stares at this folded and glued piece of paper.
To the left and to the right of the house in which she stands lies a series of similar homes built for the miners who arrived in this place in the 1860s. Since the penultimate closure of the silver mine in 1884, all but a few of these dwellings are abandoned in winter. In recent decades they have been used as summer residences only by certain adventurous families from the small twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William, which are situated sixteen miles to the west but cannot be seen from here because a limb of the huge, human-shaped peninsula of rock, known as The Sleeping Giant, hides them from view.
This unconscious granite figure is famous. In the summer, tourists driving the gorgeous north shore of Lake Superior stop their cars and stare across Thunder Bay at his reclining body. Passengers who have travelled on the Trans-Canada train can bring his physique to mind long after mountains and prairies have faded from memory. He is twenty miles long, this person made from northern landscape, and, in 1937, no roads as yet have scarred his skin. According to the Ojibway, who have inhabited this region for hundreds of years, he was turned to stone as punishment for revealing the secret location of silver to white men greedy enough to demand the information. He will lie forever obdurate, unyielding, stretched across the bay.
The little settlement of Silver Islet Landing, where the woman lives, occupies a site on his anatomy sometimes referred to as “the toe of the giant.”
During the brief summer season, bonfires bloom nightly on the small offshore islands she can see from her front windows. Swimmers dive from the dock near the large clapboard building that acts as a hotel and a store. Steamers, which provide the only transportation to the spot, ply back and forth from Port Arthur; the narrow track near the shore is filled with running children. Occasionally games and entertainments take place on the sand beach at the end of the lane. There is often laughter, and sometimes singing.
By mid-September, stillness and quiet are reinstated, the summer population having returned to the schools and industries of daily life. One old government official, who is responsible for the maintenance of two lighthouses and for the sporadic winter postal deliveries, remains in his house near the dock. And the woman remains in her cabin a little farther down the shore. By the time the world begins to frost, and then to freeze, even the memory of the summer activity seems unreal, as if it had been a mere performance and she a witness – not even a member of the audience but a stranger in the wings.
When these houses were built, almost eighty years before, the need for shelter was so pressing that the mining company was forced to use unseasoned timber, which had warped in odd directions over the course of the first year. On frigid January mornings, the miners, their wives and children, had awakened to the sight of miniature snowdrifts on the floor and ragged open spaces between the logs. The gaps were swiftly filled with anything that came to hand – socks, knitted hats, treasured table linen from the Old Country. Eventually the houses gave up the struggle, settled, and became stable. Only then were the upstairs walls plastered and whitewashed. On the ground storey the logs remained – and still remain – exposed in the parlour and the kitchen.
Once when the woman was driving a nail between the timbers to hang a picture that I had given her – a picture of herself in her summer garden – a chunk of caulking gave way and an embroidered handkerchief, edged in lace, fell like a message out of the wall.
She is standing near the window beside a rough log wall.
The unopened telegram in her hand appears to have already darkened with time, darkened in comparison to the white snow around her house, the brightness of sun that enters the room. She pushes a tendril of hair behind her ear, a strand that has escaped the braid. This strand contains some threads of grey.
She stares at the envelope, then lifts her head to watch the departure of the mail sled, its driver and team of noisy dogs, to watch it glide over the snow-covered ice and disappear behind Burnt Island. For several minutes she wants to refuse the message she has not yet read. The world around her is quiet and fixed, frozen and beautiful. She does not want the scene disturbed. Even the tracks of the sled irritate her; they have scarred the white surface, they have soiled the day.
The woman’s winters are long and bright and silent. Just before nightfall the landscape blossoms into various shades of blue. Few events interrupt the tranquillity; a storm, maybe, or the delivery of supplies, or her own infrequent journeys over ice, around Thunder Cape, into Port Arthur. She has come to rely on the predictability of the season, its lengthiness, its cold. She doubts she would be able to understand a life without it.
She crosses the room and lifts the lid of the Quebec heater, which she holds at the end of the lever for some time as if not quite certain why she has taken this action. For a moment it looks as if she will toss the telegram, unread, into the fire. But this is not what she wants. When she replaces the lid, there is the sound of cast iron striking cast iron, a sound so familiar to her she barely hears it.
Sitting on the chair nearest the stove’s heat, she carefully opens the envelope. It falls to her lap. She reads the contents.
Almost immediately she decides to leave. In her father’s long-ago abandoned room upstairs, she takes his ancient mining clothes from the closet, shakes the dust from the overalls, and removes her jacket and skirt. She covers her feet in several layers of socks and steps into his boots, his overalls, then puts on his large down-filled parka. This is the costume she occasionally wears when she is outdoors in winter, though she knows it to be somewhat ridiculous on the body of a woman entering middle age. Outside her door she reaches for the skis leaning against the outer log wall, places them side by side on the paper-dry snow, tightens the leather straps over her father’s boots, and sets out.
Just before she passes, like the mail sled an hour ago, between the mainland and Burnt Island, she turns to look back at the shore, back at the house she is leaving behind her. There is no differentiation, in this season, between water and land. A delicate wisp of smoke is escaping from her chimney, though she has added no wood at all to her fire this morning.
It is six and a half miles to Thunder Cape, a large spearhead of land rising thirteen hundred feet and clearly visible across the frozen bay. She will spend the night with the couple that keeps the lighthouse there. Tomorrow she will ski sixteen miles across Thunder Bay to the modest lakehead city of Port Arthur.
All of this is a very long time ago now, forty years at least. A very long time ago and purely hypothetical on my part. I did not see her leave her house, ski towards Thunder Cape, turn to watch the thin trail of smoke emerge from her chimney. I did not see her shake the dust off of her father’s underground clothes or strap the skis to his large boots.
The telegram she carries in her pocket, or has left behind on the kitchen table, or has thrown into the trash, the telegram I never saw but know for certain she received and read, has told her that I, Austin Fraser, am waiting in Port Arthur, in a fifth floor hotel room, hours of distance away.

close this panel
The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info

At Halstead in England, during the last half of the nineteenth century, employees at Courtauld Limited wove secret cloth on secret looms in secret factories. Warp, woof . . . warp, woof. Like makers of Venetian glass they were devoted to their craft and frightened of their masters. They took, therefore, the coveted recipe for crape with them to their graves. The Courtaulds held the monopoly in mourning garb; it was the key to their immense fortune, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that they kept it.
The workers – mute, humble, and underpaid – spent twelve hours a day, in hideous conditions, at their steam-powered looms pounding black silk threads into acres of unpleasant cloth. In ten years, enough crape had been produced to completely cover the province of Quebec. In twenty, the whole empire could have been wrapped; a depressing parcel with a black sheen.
Still, death being what it is, there was often not enough cloth to go around. After major epidemics, or during wars, women would be forced to have their mourning attire made of less prestigious fabrics; bombazine or, in desperation, black cotton or wool. Men never had this problem. The same black hat-band did well for each bereavement.
Real crape did not hang down in smooth, graceful folds like cotton. It did not cuddle like wool. It encased the female body, instead, in a suit of crumpled armour, tarnished to a dull black. It scraped at the neck and dug at the armpits. It clung to the limbs and rasped at the shoulder blades. It lacerated the spine if that series of bones ever dared to relax. And it smelled, always, of grave mud and sorrow.
In Niagara Falls, Canada, the undertaker’s widow, Maud Grady, was forced to wrap herself in real Courtauld crape. No cheap, comfortable imitations for her; she felt duty bound to set an example. The perfect symbol of animate deep mourning, she wore crimped crape for two full years, adding, when the first few months had passed, some jet beads and a small amount of fringe to her costume. Much of her average day was spent organizing the paraphernalia of bereavement: black parasol, black stockings, underwear edged in black ribbon, black-framed stationery, black ink making black words, black sealing wax, black veil, black bonnet tied under the chin in a menacing black bow. The child, too, she dressed in crape for the first six months, moving to greys and mauves when that period was over.
It hadn’t been at all pleasant. Apart from the physical discomfort, there was the accompanying fear of weather; of heat and of precipitation. The smallest bit of moisture, fog, or even minor amounts of perspiration would cause the colour of the fabric to bleed through to her skin until, some nights when she undressed, her body looked as if it had been the victim of a severe beating. For a while she made use of a smelly concoction of tartar and oxalic acid in an attempt to remove the stains. Finally, however, despite a liberal sprinkling of rosewater, her whole bedroom reeked of chemicals. At that point she decided to let the black marks on her skin accumulate. Who would know? Who would care? She could fix it all later, if she survived.
At night, she dreamed dreams about her dead husband. Often he appeared in the very bedroom where she slept to announce that he had just died and would be busy for the next few days embalming himself and arranging his own funeral. He always had a black band wound around his hat out of respect for his own passing and a look on his face of profound sorrow. Maud would offer him a cape made of crape but he would reject it, outright, as if it had been something intended for the opera. Guiltily, in the dream, after this refusal, Maud would once again drape the heavy material on her own shoulders realizing, as she did so, where it rightfully belonged.
He walked through her dreams in a shroud of thick webs. There was nothing ghoulish about this, nothing even surprising. Apart from the art of embalming, his only interest had been in the habits of spiders. During his short adulthood he had studied them obsessively, collecting members of the species, recording their activities in a growing series of notebooks.
After two or three months of widowhood and strange dreams, Maud decided to have an elaborate brooch made out of a lock of her husband’s hair, his dead hair; an oval frame of gold would surround two desolate hairy willows which would, in turn, flank a hairy tombstone with his initials on it. All of this was to be placed under a bubble of thin glass; a sort of transparent barrier between that tiny hairy world of graves and weeping and the one that Maud walked around in every day. A barrier, but one that was easy enough to see through nonetheless.
Once the piece of jewellery was fabricated, she pinned it, after nightmares, at her gradually blackening throat each morning. Looking at herself and at the oval jewel in the centre of her collar in the mirror, she had to admit that one of the hairy willows looked remarkably like a spider that had been captured, chloroformed, and kept.
He had died on the same day as his parents. The epidemic, carried by him into the house after contact with a corpse, had spread like a fog into the three related sets of lungs, leaving Maud and the child (then two) completely untouched – not even a sniffle.
Maud, shock having cancelled fear, had nursed them all . . . had watched them die. She would always remember how the child stared from three separate doorways, his eyes widening when the convulsions set in. It simply had not occurred to her to remove him from the scene. Besides, there was no one to tend to him. The staff had decided to remain at home rather than risk the disease.
Oddly, she would also always remember the colours each of the dying faces had turned during the throes: Charles’ green; her mother-in-law’s red; and her father-in-law’s purple. Emotional, really, she had thought at the time, and quite in keeping with their personalities: Charles resigned; her mother-in-law flustered; her father-in-law furious with anything he couldn’t control. While one half of Maud’s brain turned to ice at the horror, the other remained curious and alert. Details, such as the way that hands picked at bedclothes or the way heads dented pillows, absorbed her. She found herself counting the number of seconds which passed between one dying breath and the next. Until there was no breath left at all.
All over town, behind shades drawn against the sun, people were dying. Maud knew the significance of the repetitive knocking at her door, knew parents and children were seeking the services of the undertaking establishment. She did not, could not, answer with three of her own dying upstairs and her heart inhabiting some other land where explanations were impossible. She found herself thinking of burial practices during medieval plagues; carts filled with bodies destined for huge, hastily dug pits. Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.
Charles died first. He inhaled deeply and smoothly, his first unlaboured breath for hours, opened his eyes, looked directly at Maud with an even gaze and, just as one heartbeat of hope reached her breast, he shrugged and disappeared, leaving behind a body that she hardly recognized.
His parents were more conventional. They gurgled and rattled appropriately before collapsing into absence. Maud left each of them alone, untouched, in their separate rooms with their eyes open.
Outside, the glorious weather of late spring continued as if nothing at all had changed – shadows of low, white, fluffy clouds on the garden and all the fruit trees in full bloom. For the first twelve hours after those dramatic morning deaths Maud spent her time at windows, the child near her skirts, silent, almost forgotten. She watched the yard all afternoon, noting how the sun moved, lending light to first one, then another of the flower-beds. The wind changed at some point and all the plants that had previously bent to the west began to bend to the east. Birds arrived and departed. A rabbit ate a third of the first crop of lettuce in the vegetable garden, unhurriedly, as if he knew he would not be disturbed.
In the early evening she walked into the sunroom at the opposite side of the house and looked down at the street, very empty now because of the epidemic. The breeze had picked up considerably and little whirlwinds of dust, mixed with a few petals from apple blossoms, moved quietly down Main Street. Most of the shops were closed and the rocking chairs on the verandah of Kick’s Hotel were all vacant. For a moment or two Maud wondered if she and the child were the sole survivors, if bedrooms all over town were filled with corpses. Then a streetcar rumbled into sight, occupied by three or four apparently healthy passengers.
She was still gazing through glass when the gas-lamps were lit. These sudden illuminations caused her to stir and stretch and begin to move around the house. Wandering from room to room of the building that had never belonged to her, lighting lamp after lamp, Maud stared at the possessions of her inlaws which, in their haphazard placement, had become a kind of testimonial to the rapidity of the disease. The account book open on the desk in the sunroom where Charles had left it, her father-in-law’s pipe resting in a bowl in the parlour, her mother-in-law’s unfinished embroidery, the needle halted in mid-stitch. She decided to visit, for the first time, the storage room at the back of the building where the strange, relatively new embalming equipment was kept. Just three years ago, Charles and his friend Sam had received an embalming certificate, each, from the school in Rochester. In order to avoid the inevitable loss of income that would be the result of Charles’ friend opening up his own business, the elder Mr. Grady had immediately hired him. Now Sam would be the only licensed embalmer in Canada.
In the small manufactory adjacent to the storage room, Maud examined coffins. She ran her hands along the smooth wood and downy velvet she had never dared to touch, wondering if Jas the carpenter had survived the sickness and, if so, what kind of boxes he would choose, or prepare, for her husband and inlaws upstairs. Humorous stories she had heard Charles repeat ran inexplicably through her mind: coffins too short or too narrow for certain individuals; dignified military officers with maggots crawling out of their ears; the time that Charles’ father had backed accidentally into a grave, smashing the coffin and causing even the most grief-stricken mourners to titter.
During that first long night, while the child slept, Maud brought every moveable source of light into the parlour and there, surrounded by scores of candles and several coal-oil lamps, she began to play the piano – loudly, fiercely. By four in the morning she had exhausted her entire repertoire; all of the Canadian Hymnal and the few pieces of classical music she had learned as a girl. At regular intervals she played and sang “God Save the Queen.” Once she rose from the piano bench to close the doors of the three rooms where her family lay. She didn’t, somehow, want to disturb them.
At six a.m., after playing the hymn “Unto the Hills” for the ninth time, Maud abruptly left the piano, washed her face, ran a comb hastily through her hair, and descended the staircase that led to the world. Soon she was at Sam the embalmer’s door, offering him a substantial raise in pay and a position as manager of the business. From there she went to the housekeeper’s, to Jas the carpenter, and to the home of the man her father-in-law had hired to help in the garden and in the stables. Her conversations with these individuals were terse, perfunctory. Everyone was dead, she said, except for her and the child. She intended to survive, and it was her wish that the business should continue as usual. If they did not want to retain their positions they should tell her now so that she could replace them. If, however, they wished to stay on they should report for work in exactly one hour.
The house looked entirely different to her when she returned, as if the colours of the upholstered furniture had deepened, as if the patterns in the wallpaper had become more pronounced during her short absence. When she entered the child’s room, vivid colour lithographs of harmless lambs and ponies seemed to leap at her from the walls in a menacing fashion. The child’s own little face among the bedclothes was so startlingly beautiful, so vehemently alive, even in sleep, that, for a minute or so, Maud was afraid to waken him. By seven-thirty, however, she had him dressed and in the kitchen. There she quickly located the utensils which, until that moment, had been touched only by the housekeeper. While the child attacked a plateful of toast and jam and swallowed mugfuls of milk, Maud fixed herself a cup of strong coffee.
Half an hour later she was walking down the long, dark hall, past the three separate doors, into the brightness of the sunroom. She situated herself at Charles’ desk in front of the open ledger. She flipped up the silver lid of his inkwell and lifted his pen in her hand.
When at the end of the morning she heard the men climb the stairs with their canvas stretchers, she leaned back exhausted in her husband’s chair and surveyed her labours. She was amazed to see that she had brought the account book almost entirely up to date.
Today, exactly two years after the fatal date, was her first of halfmourning. Maud was able, therefore, to dress herself in a black and white cotton stripe, with long sleeves and a high neck, not neglecting, of course, the special brooch. She sat now in the sunroom, surrounded by the pungent aroma of the tartar and oxalic acid, which she had been scrubbing into her skin for most of the morning. The results had not been entirely satisfactory but she had succeeded, at last, in turning her upper torso from mottled black to spotty grey. Short of removing two layers of skin, she knew she would have to stop there for the time being.
She leaned back in the chair and felt the uncorseted part of her back respond to the cool cotton. Her greatest joy would come in the afternoon when, veilless, she would venture into the streets to do a few errands. For the past two years she had looked at the world beyond her walls through the permanent cloud of her black veil, occasionally latticed, when the wind blew them to the front, by the black ribbons, or weepers, from her oppressive bonnet. Not that she had gone far. Crape was not made for strolling about in. It clung to her blackstockinged thighs (her petticoat was made of the same fabric), while the weepers stuck to the material around her shoulders, making it impossible for her to move her head. This, combined with the partial blindness caused by the veil, had led her, more than once, into the path of an oncoming streetcar or carriage. Had it not been for her acute sense of hearing she might have joined her husband in Drummond Hill Cemetery months ago.
Just as she had done for the past two years, she was spending the morning working on accounts. But now she held the pen as easily as a teaspoon in her hand, and the scratch, scratch of the nib was as familiar as the sound of her own breathing. The dreams had subsided; Charles visiting her bedroom, now, only once or twice a month. It was as though he was forgetting her, she thought, rather irrationally, for, in truth, she was forgetting him. Not their time together but his physical actuality.
She could no longer bring his face clearly into her mind. As time went by, in fact, Maud found it more and more difficult to believe that she had ever been married at all, more and more difficult to believe that the pen she held in her hand had not always been her own.
Disaster had not disappeared, but it had diminished in size, had become, in a sense, manageable; no larger than the words one might use to describe it.

close this panel
Deep Hollow Creek

Deep Hollow Creek

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
More Info

Her eyes, Stella thought, were the colour of Spanish mahogany, but they lacked the lustre of organic fibre. The soul had gone out of the wood, had dissipated. What was life, she asked herself, that the soul could escape so. She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s flame, and Harvey’s micro cosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl. With inevitable logic her mind pursued the theme from generation to decay, for aboutdeath, too, fine things had been written. But death – short as  the circuit between cradle and grave – presumed life; and the flame, however thin, must be lit before it can be blown out by the thousand unsuspected gusts noted by the compilers and annotators, and amassers of vital statistics within the universal bills of mortality.
Rose stood at the door with a jug of hot water.
You get this every morning, she said. You use cold at night.
Stella took the jug and placed it in the grey-white basin. The room was completely square. Beside the iron bedstead Rose’s husband had placed the trunk and the box of books Stella had brought with her to eke out the experience she hoped to have. At the end of the bed was a purple quilt come fresh from the hands of Eaton’s or Simpsons packers. On a wooden table stood a coal-oil lamp. Stella pulled the trunk across the six-inch floor boards to make a seat at the window. The window was a narrow oblong pane set vertically in a hinged frame which hooked up to the low ceiling. The trunk dragged under it provided a seat from which she could smell the air sharp with sage – no more. She could see nothing. The house was set under the hill and between the window and the gravel bank there was a space only a few feet wide – a narrow track – wide enough to trap a cow or to let the house dog slink through to the brow of the hill.
From beyond the wooden door came the noise of the family at breakfast – the clink of the frying-pan, the scraping of benches, the ring of spoon or fork on plate, an occasional grunt or the quick querulous voice of a child and the sudden silence following a half-audible hist.
You can have yours, Rose had said to Stella, when they get out.
No doubt Stella’s being there, despite the tenacity with which Sam, the husband, had fought for the privilege, had complicated the ordinary domestic routine. Sam had been quite frank. The privilege was a matter of board. Arriving at the station to fetch Stella the day before, he had made his announcement with toneless finality:
When Mockett said to me you haven’t got the room you got six children, I said it’s my turn and I’m not going to be fooled any longer. You had the last and you had the one before that and the girl that married old Buzzard’s foreman. I’ve had none since Mr. Jones. It’s my turn to have her – and here I am to get you. The kids are sleeping up and Mrs. Sam Flower, he mentioned the name defiantly, has got the room all fixed. I brought her down for the ride. Don’t believe what he tells you. He’s one of hers at the stopping house and she makes a fool of him and Bill and the whole lot of them. Come with me.
Are you the brother the school secretary wrote about, Stella asked, looking at the grey curls which reached tendrils from under the inner edge of the brim of his small black felt hat.
His thin features tightened.
If he wrote against me that’s me – if he said that you could stay at the stopping house that’s Bill and her and him too and the others.
It was Rose’s eyes that Stella had first noticed. Between the shocks of stiff brown hair, which branched from under the circle of an orange tam-o’-shanter, lay the eyes. Only the tamo’-shanter glowed in the sunlight, with mock vitality. Rose was standing at the edge of the dusty road waiting to be picked up. She wore a blue cotton dress, brown cotton stockings, and a pair of flat-heeled rubber-soled shoes.
It’s her, Sam said, as she climbed into the back seat of the car, pulling by the hand a child in a white organdy dress. The child’s face was hidden by its roughly cut hair. Its feet, cased in black patent leather slippers, shuffled on the step.
Stella had looked about as the car crossed the bridge, which was balanced like a plank across the river. The hill rose on the other side – brown banks, dust-greyed sagebrush, and yellowed grass on the sheering, off-rolling hills.
This here, said Sam, was the old stage road. Freight went up and down here, hauled by horses. Then they brought camels, they did.
He glared defiance.
Shod ’em, he went on. The beasts should of done in the dry heat. They should of done, but they didn’t. Couldn’t stand the stones and lonesomeness.
Mrs. Sam said nothing.
We ran the first cars here, he said. We ran them – me and my brother-in-law, him as was husband to my sister before she left him and began to live with him who lives now with Bill and her at the stopping house.
They were fine cars too, he said, but that’s not the point now. It’s trucks. I just get my truck and he writes to the government and takes the contract for hauling mail and other things away for themselves. Now they live fine at the House.
High up the road wound. Below on the left the river flowed between reddish banks – flat to the eye’s sheer vertical. To the right stretched sand and sagebrush and gilded lifeless grass. Around the corner, over the bank – this way and that – balls of withered Russian thistle crept in the warm breeze like giant spiders.
Tumble-weed – snorted Sam Flower, as he flattened out a ball with his wheel. Made by the Almighty with the prime and only purpose of scaring a finicky mare.
The rest had been silence. Up hill – the road crumbling away at the shoulder – they climbed, close into the bank, with a sudden jerk of the wheel as the red hood of a truck rounded the corner wheels close to the inner bank. All else tended to the river-like artery which twisted below as the land sloped off – fell off roughly – tumbled stones down. All things converged to it. Only the car climbed tenaciously up the slope, challenging God’s providence and the laws of gravitation.
Breakfast was obviously over. The door slammed, feet rounded the corner of the house. There was a tap on the door.
You can have yours now, Rose said. I didn’t get it, not knowing what you’d want.
Stella scanned the domestic debris – greasy plates streaked with egg, bits of scorched fried potato.
Toast, she said. All I ever have is toast.
Rose cut slices off the loaf. Stella could see only the browned crust. When she ate she knew that something had gone wrong with the working of the yeast. The bread had soured in the bottle. The bread was cold and grey and sour. Only the surface had been charred a little on the flat rack over the flame.
Every morning as Stella washed she heard the scraping in the kitchen. Every morning she ate her toast while Rose stood behind her at the stove fingering the handle of the granite coffee pot. Every morning when she had finished her breakfast Rose swept up the crumbs and threw them to the chickens and cut more bread to pack in pails for the lunches. Every day at noon the children unpacked their pails in the space behind the partition in the schoolhouse. They accepted the bread as they accepted what Stella taught them, with out comment.
The bread, Stella thought, was Rose’s peculiar emblem – the emblem of a failure which Rose’s sister-in-law Mamie Flower let no one forget.
Can the validity of this emblem – or of any other emblem – she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross – and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.
Any day looking from Sam’s house on the hill, Stella could see the angled roof of the stopping house diagonally to the right against the downfalling drop of the land which she thought seemed to contract and fall into the narrow valley from the flat outreaching land above. Only with difficulty, she thought, can I raise my eyes. They focus inevitably on the stopping house – the inn at which, after the fashion of the country, one may stop for the payment of a fee – one may stop, she thought, if one is merely a traveller or a salesman with his commodity and not, in the nature of the now and here, more than a momentary commodity himself.
Over at the stopping house Rose’s sister-in-law would shake a knowing head. Arranging and rearranging the folds of black crepe to show a slim city-bred ankle, Mamie Flower measured Rose’s failure by her own success.
Mamie tells her story, Stella thought, with the abandoned fluency of the lady of quality in Smollett’s – or was it in Defoe’s tale.
Sam married one of the local girls, Mamie would say. A peculiar lot they were – she and those before her. Poor Rose, she would say, she knowing no more than to let Sam have her. And that’s how she came here and that’s how she’s lived. Sam was a fine boy. Old Pa Flower intended him for me, he being the oldest. When he wrote mother, he said, send the girlie for a visit. All the way from Hull it was. Old Ma Flower had gone to school with my mother long ago and after Pa Flower had made his way here with Ma Flower he brought her back to Hull for a visit, collecting tracts, picking up this and that to off set the way Pa made his money with the bar and the credit and the men herded along the river panning out gold and thinking of the New Jerusalem. I was brought up with chapel folk, too, but I plagued my mother till she let me learn to dance, and it was my dancing and my littleness, not five feet – patting her blonde curled hair, tightening a pearl bob in her ear – it was my dancing and littleness that made Bill gape.
He was the youngest, she said, of Adam Flower’s three boys. He wasn’t intended in the invitation. But I knew he would mould more easily than Sam. Sam had his cars and had had his girls before – and the threat of Rose’s father, though I didn’t know then. It’s to be Bill, I decided, and we can take his share of Pa’s money and go back to London and in London the money and Bill’s six feet of handsome muscle will go a long way. Sam, she said, was smaller and thin. I’ll brush Bill and comb him and take him out of his dungarees and put him in good blue Yorkshire woven serge, Sunday and weekday the like.
That was when Sam was running the taxis for the men. There was money everywhere – creeks vomiting money, men throwing it in heaps on the counter, too lazy to count it. Bill’s sister had just been married here to the bank clerk from the Rock. Pa had sent hands out on horses all over the country asking people to come. Minnie’s husband, Bernard, had given up banking and had started his own business with the cars – he and Sam. Mockett was Pa’s clerk – worth anything to him in the store, weighing out the tea, sending for supplies, adding up the bills. Mockett never liked Bernard but he did like Minnie. I’ll stand behind her, he said, when that porcupine sheds his quills; and he did and he had his neck broken for the doing. But that’s another story. Dick Mockett was my own sister-in-law’s so-called husband for a while and now she’s gone to eat her bread in bitterness and Dick’s still here weighing out tea, cooking when I can’t get a girl from the reserve, milking the cow, and Sam’s sold out to us and he has the prick of his Rose always in his thumb.
I was only the daughter of Ma Flower’s friend then – asked here because Ma Flower’s conscience was heavy under the thought of what whisky money might do to her boys. When Pa wrote, she wrote too. Send Mamie, she wrote, so that Sam can marry a God-fearing chapel girl, daughter to a friend of my blessed youth. Send a light into Egypt – to this heathen continent – to light the delusion of my first born.
My mother was a little uneasy. I wasn’t the straight burning flame that Ma Flower wanted. There was my dancing to account for. My sister, Hannah, would have been a better choice but she was already married to a man of some means. Despite her chapel ways Hannah had married a man with a big house and a grand piano. I played the piano too and danced, and my mother thought that the money she had spent on me would bring better returns in a foreign market. So little Mamie was sent across the Atlantic – across a whole vacant continent to marry a man on the outer rim. As I said, I didn’t intend to stay in this deep hollow valley after I married – but I didn’t have my whole way then.
I married Bill and Pa didn’t make the same fuss as he had for Minnie or as he would have for Sam. I was married, a stranger in a strange country, and I’ve been here ever since – not like the rest.
Just after I married Bill, Sam came creeping home with Rosie. Bernard had gone and there was nothing but debt on the cars. Pa Flower took it well enough. Take your share, he said to Sam, the middle half of the whole long stretch. Your brother Reg has taken his share by the river. Take your stretch and build your house and raise your get. But Ma thought of how the Lord’s hand was heavy because of the whisky money.
Things everywhere were beginning to crack. The men weren’t buying as they did. We couldn’t go to England just then, Pa Flower said. He’d only Bill now to depend on. Pa gave Bill money though and we went to the coast for our honeymoon.
I used to dance for Bill in the evenings and he would lie on the bed staring as if he somehow had got a thing too precious to touch. Mamie’s so little, he used to say. Mamie’s so little – why she’s the littlest woman in the whole goddam country. Sam’s Rosie was big-boned and dull. Sam took her off quietly in one of the cars he’d salvaged so that the baby could be born out of Ma’s sight. The doctor told Sam then that she was twisted inside as she was flat and square-boned out. Take my advice, he said, and let it be the last. But there were five more and each time Sam took her out.
Apart from that, she said to Stella, she’s not been off the place except when he took her this time to pick you up. Why, only Sam knows. He said to Bill, She’s not been off the place for some time. Since it’s my turn certain I’ll take her to see her sister.
Always the story came. The variations were only those inspired by the moment. The story was part of the fabric of their lives.
Rosie, Mamie Flower would say compassionately, is not really quite right here – her little hand with its pink nails resting near the tight curled fringe from under which her eyes moved greenly, restlessly.
Poor girl, she would say. I’d do anything to make life easier for her but she won’t have anything to do with me. Somehow you’d think I’d hurt her. Her children, now, come here often. They find it pleasant here. Gladys doesn’t like being at home; there’s nothing pretty there.
She would gaze at the white woodwork in the private parlour, the gleaming nickel on the Franklin heater, the chintz and lace on the windows, the orange and green fantasy on the polished linoleum floor.
My men change for dinner, she would say, white shirts all of them – even Mockett, out of his apron into his white shirt. Even a girl like Gladys can see the difference. I told Sam to get her things at the Rock. I taught her how to file her nails and I trimmed her hair for her. Rose doesn’t like it. She sent her back with a lace blouse I gave her. But it’s all here, she said to Stella, raising her hand, keeping it raised to tighten the bob on her ear. Like little shells, she said. Bill says they’re like little shells. Bill says he has the littlest woman and the biggest place on the whole creek.
Everyone comes here, she would say, rocking a little in her chair. What Sam wanted to do digging himself up into the hill I don’t know. There was to be another house later, he said; but there wasn’t and there won’t be. Every cent he gets he spends on cows and horses – every cent.
No one goes to see Rose, she would say. No one.
Round the valley the hills crowded. Rà’tltem the Shuswaps had called their village there; they were the people of the deep hollow. In the jack-pine the dusky grouse, the ruffed grouse, the sharp-tailed grouse hid away from the hunters in the autumn. On the branches, in the pools of light on the bleached and terra cotta hillside, the red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens sat unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot. Crossing the rock pile, with a rattle of quilts, the porcupine stripped bark from the trees. Antoine Billy’s boy saw a cougar in a canyon. Sometimes a moose crossed the creek with a great breaking and cracking of twigs – a face solemn and bearded as a patriarch thrust through the brittle branches. Out from the edge of the hill the land rolled in ridges dotted and streaked with the white rimmed alkali lakes. Out on the range hills the cattle moved – Bill’s with Sam’s, Sam’s with Reg’s. Only the brand made the distinction when, in the fall, the brothers joined forces from necessity to round them up, herding them here into the corral, cutting them out there, driving them off to their separate feed lots.
In the valley all things moved to a point. The road ran into the creek both ways to the stopping house – though, if one stood on the hill where the water broke in the spring, one could see the road winding like a thread the whole length of the valley. No one stood on the hill. In the valley one spoke of the road running up or down, into or out of the centre. The private parlour, and the public parlour where the Indians stood shuffling their feet waiting patiently for Mockett to take off his apron, to come from his cow, to fold up his copy of the Manchester Guardian and to unlock the store, weighing out tea, weighing out flour, pouring out coal-oil, sorting out mail – here was the centre. Here people came from choice or necessity. Here came the proud and the meek. Here came everyone except Rose.
I would starve on this hill, Rose said one day to Stella, rather than go there. Thank God Sam built up here – up under the hill. If you go up to the top, she said, you can look down away from it – down to the river, across to the great folds and twists on the other side.
What did she tell you? she asked, her glance thrusting for a moment down to the house in the valley, cutting through the logs, searching out Mamie. What did she say down there?
The quilt, she went on sullenly, I sent for to Eaton’s. There’s something soft about purple-coloured quilts. She won’t stay with you, Bill said to Sam about you. Even your kids like it best down here. Did she show you something when Sam took you down? she asked. Did she show you the room Mr. Thompson had? I said to Sam the table would make a good big desk. I told him you can’t hope to do it. I pay the most taxes, he said, I have the most kids.
Mockett writes to the government, she said. He says we have ten kids – three from the river, two of hers, and five of ours ready. If it wasn’t for our five there wouldn’t be a school and her boys could do like the rest. So the government says it’s a school and Mockett has himself made secretary and we have to send our five. If I don’t board the teacher, Sam says, I’ll take my five out and see what happens to the school. Then Mr. Duke, the inspector, comes down from the Rock and says, Sam it’s no use, if you don’t send your five the law will exact it of you. There’s fines and there’s punishments and penalties for such. Mockett’s a good fellow, he says. He’s got brains. He knows what’s best. That’s the only time Duke came here. Every year he comes. Every year he eats and plays down there. Only once he came to tell Sam that the law could make him pay the most taxes because he had the most kids. I wouldn’t go near the place, she said, not even if I starved. You can’t keep the kids away. It’s natural they want to go.
She emptied the pan of dishwater into the flume. Chickens came round the corner of the house, pecked and jostled, balanced on the edge of the trough, dipped for this, fluttered in and scratched automatically on the greasy boards. The water gurgled away over the little dip, leaving a trail of slime behind it.
I’ve got some nice things too, she said. But I’m not putting them for everyone to see. I’ve got some boudoir shoes, she said, and I’m not beholding to Sam for them either. My aunt gave me the money for my birthday a long time ago. I had it put by for a long time. Then I saw them in the catalogue. They’re purple, she said, like the quilt and they got feathers on the front like a curl of ostrich plumes.
She wiped her hands on the sides of her cotton dress as she went towards a box high up on the shelf in the corner – behind the box of shoeing nails, the pile of horseshoes tied together with a piece of rope, the box of buckles, the box of rivets.
The only trouble, she said, the only thing – when they did send them they had to go and send a pair that didn’t fit, and somehow I just never got time to send them back.
Rose’s eyes were dull cork. Even her branching hair resisted the morning light.
No animating fire within, no reflection of the sun outside, Stella thought, yet somewhere there is life – somewhere there must be fire burning inward, letting the ash drop on the source of fire itself. But still, she thought, what is this fire. And again – by what refraction can one know flame . . .
I like to go places too, Rose said. Six times Sam took me out – six times from here to the hospital. Reg’s wife had hers by the river without anyone – Reg saying nothing, going in the snow to get old Susannah from the reserve, passing right by her own sister’s door, mine, going round the hill to avoid the stopping house, Rose said – jerking her head towards the valley – then arriving back too late. Six times Sam took me out to have his kids respectable in a hospital bed. Up to the Rock she goes – her glance turned to the house in the valley – the littlest woman in the whole country, to the stampede dance, to sit in the shop to have her hair frizzed, playing the piano and dancing and coming back in a fainting condition, all wore out so that Mockett has to carry her up to bed, sitting in bed all winter in her lace negligee with Bill in a clean shirt holding her hand. So little and so weak, he told Sam, just like a doll propped up on her pillows – Mockett emptying her slop pail, the honour of emptying it all his own.
I never asked Sam to take me anywhere, she said, except once. They’d all been. Every one of them had been to Green Lake. It’s up on the hill about eighteen miles from here. In the spring they go to picnics there. I asked Sam, she said, to take me there too. I asked him, she said, and he did. But then, she said – looking at Stella steadily – but then he had to go and take me when the leaves was off the trees.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

close this panel
The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore

The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore

Open and Degrees of Nakedness
by Lisa Moore
introduction by Jane Urquhart
also available: eBook
More Info
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...