Recommended Reading List
Great Beginnings
Download list
Please login or register to use this feature.

Great Beginnings

By 49thShelf
0 ratings
rated!
rated!
tagged: series
With this month, the first of year, we're taking a look at the notion of "beginnings," including with this list of books that were the start of iconic Canadian series.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Excerpt

ONE

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.

I tried hooking my fingernails under the silk scarf that bound my hands behind me but, since I always bit them to the quick, there was nothing to catch. Jolly good luck then that I’d remembered to put my fingertips together, using them as ten firm little bases to press my palms apart as they had pulled the knots tight.

Now I rotated my wrists, squeezing them together until I felt a bit of slack, using my thumbs to work the silk down until the knots were between my palms — then between my fingers. If they had been bright enough to think of tying my thumbs together, I should never have escaped. What utter morons they were.

With my hands free at last, I made short work of the gag.

Now for the door. But first, to be sure they were not lying in wait for me, I squatted and peered out through the keyhole at the attic. Thank heavens they had taken the key away with them. There was no one in sight: save for its perpetual tangle of shadows, junk and sad bric-a-brac, the long attic was empty. The coast was clear.

Reaching above my head at the back of the closet, I unscrewed one of the wire coat-hooks from its mounting board. By sticking its curved wing into the keyhole and levering the other end, I was able to form an L-shaped hook, which I poked into the depths of the ancient lock. A bit of judicious fishing and fiddling yielded a gratifying click. It was almost too easy. The door swung open and I was free.

I skipped down the broad stone staircase into the hall, pausing at the door of the dining room just long enough to toss my pigtails back over my shoulders and into their regulation position.

Father still insisted on dinner being served as the clock struck the hour and eaten at the massive oak refectory table, just as it had been when mother was alive.

‘Ophelia and Daphne not down yet, Flavia?’ he asked peevishly, looking up from the latest issue of The British Philatelist, which lay open beside his meat and potatoes.

‘I haven’t seen them in ages,’ I said.

It was true. I hadn’t seen them — not since they had gagged and blindfolded me, then lugged me hogtied up the attic stairs and locked me in the closet.

Father glared at me over his spectacles for the statutory four seconds before he went back to mumbling over his sticky treasures.

I shot him a broad smile: a smile wide enough to present him with a good view of the wire braces that caged my teeth. Although they gave me the look of a dirigible with the skin off, Father always liked being reminded that he was getting his money’s worth. But this time he was too preoccupied to notice.

I hoisted the lid off the Spode vegetable dish and, from the depths of its hand-painted butterflies and raspberries, spooned out a generous helping of peas. Using my knife as a ruler and my fork as a prod, I marshalled the peas so that they formed meticulous rows and columns across my plate: rank upon rank of little green spheres, spaced with a precision that would have delighted the heart of the most exacting Swiss watchmaker. Then, beginning at the bottom left, I speared the first pea with my fork and ate it.

It was all Ophelia’s fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she should come into as an adult. That she should gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn’t fair. Their combined ages totalled thirty years. Thirty years! — against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.

Next morning I was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory on the top floor of the east wing when Ophelia barged in without so much as a la-di-dah.

‘Where’s my pearl necklace?’

I shrugged. ‘I’m not the keeper of your trinkets.’

‘I know you took it. The Mint Imperials that were in my lingerie drawer are gone too, and I’ve observed that missing mints in this household seem always to wind up in the same grubby little mouth.’

I adjusted the flame on a spirit lamp that was heating a beaker of red liquid. ‘If you’re insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes.’

‘Flavia!’

‘Well, you can. I’m sick and tired of being blamed for everything, Feely.’

But my righteous indignation was cut short as Ophelia peered short-sightedly into the ruby flask, which was just coming to the boil.

‘What’s that sticky mass in the bottom?’ Her long, manicured fingernail tapped at the glass.

‘It’s an experiment. Careful, Feely, it’s acid!’

Ophelia’s face went white. ‘Those are my pearls! They belonged to Mummy!’

Ophelia was the only one of Harriet’s daughters who referred to her as ‘Mummy’; the only one of us old enough to have any real memories of the flesh-and-blood woman who had carried us in her body, a fact that Ophelia never tired of reminding us. Harriet had been killed in a mountaineering accident when I was just a year old, and she was not often spoken of at Buckshaw.

Was I jealous of Ophelia’s memories? Did I resent them? I don’t believe I did; it ran far deeper than that. In rather an odd way, I despised Ophelia’s memories of our mother.

I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont.

‘Beast!’

‘Hag!’ I retorted. But not until Ophelia had spun round on her heel — quite neatly, I thought — and stormed out the door.

Retribution was not long in coming, but then with Ophelia, it never was. Ophelia was not, as I was, a long-range planner who believed in letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
Here's the book that introduced the world to Flavia de Luce, a favour which the world will never be able to properly thank it for.
close this panel
Over Prairie Trails
Excerpt

Farms and Roads
 
 
At ten minutes past four, of an evening late in September, I sat in the buggy and swung out of the livery stable that boarded my horse. Peter, the horse, was a chunky bay, not too large, nor too small; and I had stumbled on to him through none of my sagacity. To tell the plain truth, I wanted to get home, I had to have a horse that could stand the trip, no other likely looking horse was offered, this one was – on a trial drive he looked as if he might do, and so I bought him – no, not quite – I arranged with the owner that I should make one complete trip with him and pay a fee of five dollars in case I did not keep him. As the sequence showed, I could not have found a better horse for the work in hand.
 
I turned on to the road leading north, crossed the bridge, and was between the fields. I looked at my watch and began to time myself. The moon was new and stood high in the western sky; the sun was sinking on the downward stretch. It was a pleasant, warm fall day, and it promised an evening such as I had wished for on my first drive out. Not a cloud showed anywhere. I did not urge the horse; he made the first mile in seven and a half minutes, and I counted that good enough.
 
Then came the turn to the west; this new road was a correction line, and I had to follow it for half a mile. There was no farmhouse on this short bend. Then north for five miles. The road was as level as a table top – a good, smooth, hard-beaten, age-mellowed prairie-grade. The land to east and west was also level; binders were going and whirring their harvest song. Nobody could have felt more contented than I did. There were two clusters of buildings – substantial buildings – set far back from the road, one east, the other one west, both clusters huddled homelike and sheltered in bluffs of planted cottonwoods, straight rows of them, three, four trees deep. My horse kept trotting leisurely along, the wheels kept turning, a meadow lark called in a desultory way from a nearby fence post. I was “on the go.” I had torn up my roots, as it were, I felt detached and free; and if both these prosperous looking farms had been my property – I believe, that moment a “Thank-you” would have bought them from me if parting from them had been the price of the liberty to proceed. But, of course, neither one of them ever could have been my property, for neither by temperament nor by profession had I ever been given to the accumulation of the wealth of this world.
 
A mile or so farther on there stood another group of farm buildings – this one close to the road. An unpainted barn, a long and low, rather ramshackle structure with sagging slidedoors that could no longer be closed, stood in the rear of the farm yard. The dwelling in front of it was a tall, boxlike two-story house, well painted in a rather loud green with white door and window frames. The door in front, one window beside it, two windows above, geometrically correct, and stiff and cold. The house was the only green thing around, however. Not a tree, not a shrub, not even a kitchen garden that I could see. I looked the place over critically, while I drove by. Somehow I was convinced that a bachelor owned it – a man who made this house – which was much too large for him – his “bunk.” There it stood, slick and cold, unhospitable as ever a house was. A house has its physiognomy as well as a man, for him who can read it; and this one, notwithstanding its new and shining paint, was sullen, morose, and nearly vicious and spiteful. I turned away. I should not have cared to work for its owner.
 
Peter was trotting along. I do not know why on this first trip he never showed the one of his two most prominent traits – his laziness. As I found out later on, so long as I drove him single (he changed entirely in this respect when he had a mate), he would have preferred to be hitched behind, with me between the shafts pulling buggy and him. That was his weakness, but in it there also lay his strength. As soon as I started to dream or to be absorbed in the things around, he was sure to fall into the slowest of walks. When then he heard the swish of the whip, he would start with the worst of consciences, gallop away at breakneck speed, and slow down only when he was sure the whip was safe in its socket. When we met a team and pulled out on the side of the road, he would take it for granted that I desired to make conversation. He stopped instantly, drew one hindleg up, stood on three legs, and drooped his head as if he had come from the ends of the world. Oh yes, he knew how to spare himself. But on the other hand, when it came to a tight place, where only an extraordinary effort would do, I had never driven a horse on which I could more confidently rely. What any horse could do, he did.
 
About two miles beyond I came again to a cluster of buildings, close to the corner of the crossroads, sheltered, homelike, inviting in a large natural bluff of tall, dark-green poplars. Those first two houses had had an aristocratic aloofness – I should not have liked to turn in there for shelter or for help. But this was prosperous, open handed, well-to-do middle class; not that conspicuous “moneyedness” that we so often find in our new west when people have made their success; but the solid, friendly, everyday liberality that for generations has not had to pinch itself and therefore has mellowed down to taking the necessities and a certain amount of give and take for granted. I was glad when on closer approach I noticed a school embedded in the shady green of the corner. I thought with pleasure of children being so close to people with whom I should freely have exchanged a friendly greeting and considered it a privilege. In my mental vision I saw beeches and elms and walnut trees around a squire’s place in the old country.
 
The road began to be lined with thickets of shrubs here: choke cherry bushes, with some ripe, dried-up black berries left on the branches, with iron-black bark, and with wiry stems, in the background; in front of them, closer to the driveway, hawthorn, rich with red fruit; rosebushes with scarlet leaves reaching down to nearly underfoot. It is one of the most pleasing characteristics of our native thickets that they never rise abruptly. Always they shade off through cushion-like copses of smaller growth into the level ground around.
 
The sun was sinking. I knew a mile or less further north I should have to turn west in order to avoid rough roads straight ahead. That meant doubling up, because some fifteen miles or so north I should have to turn east again, my goal being east of my starting place. These fifteen or sixteen miles of the northward road I did not know; so I was anxious to make them while I could see. I looked at the moon – I could count on some light from her for an hour or so after sundown. But although I knew the last ten or twelve miles of my drive fairly well, I was also aware of the fact that there were in it tricky spots – forkings of mere trails in muskeg bush – where leaving the beaten log-track might mean as much as being lost. So I looked at my watch again and shook the lines over Peter’s back. The first six miles had taken me nearly fifty minutes. I looked at the sun again, rather anxiously. I could count on him for another hour and a quarter – well and good then!
 
There was the turn. Just north of it, far back from both roads, another farmyard. Behind it – to the north, stretched out, a long windbreak of poplars, with a gap or a vista in its centre. Barn and outbuildings were unpainted, the house white; a not unpleasing group, but something slovenly about it. I saw with my mind’s eye numerous children, rather neglected, uncared for, an overworked, sickly woman, a man who was bossy and harsh.
 
The road angles here. Bell’s farm consists of three quarter-sections; the southwest quarter lends its diagonal for the trail. I had hardly made the turn, however, when a car came to meet me. It stopped. The school-inspector of the district looked out. I drew in and returned his greeting, half annoyed at being thus delayed. But his very next word made me sit up. He had that morning inspected my wife’s school and seen her and my little girl; they were both as well as they could be. I felt so glad that I got out of my buggy to hand him my pouch of tobacco, which he took readily enough. He praised my wife’s work, as no doubt he had reason to do, and I should have given him a friendly slap on the shoulder, had not just then my horse taken it into his head to walk away without me.
 
I believe I was whistling when I got back to the buggy seat. I know I slapped the horse’s rump with my lines and sang out, “Get up, Peter, we still have a matter of nearly thirty miles to make.”
 
The road becomes pretty much a mere trail here, a rut-track, smooth enough in the rut, where the wheels ran, but rough for the horse’s feet in between.
 
To the left I found the first untilled land. It stretched far away to the west, overgrown with shrub-willow, wolf-willow and symphoricarpus – a combination that is hard to break with the plow. I am fond of the silver grey, leathery foliage of the wolf-willow which is so characteristic of our native woods. Cinquefoil, too, the shrubby variety, I saw in great numbers – another one of our native dwarf shrubs which, though decried as a weed, should figure as a border plant in my millionaire’s park.
 
And as if to make my enjoyment of the evening’s drive supreme, I saw the first flocks of my favourite bird, the goldfinch. All over this vast expanse, which many would have called a waste, there were strings of them, chasing each other in their wavy flight, twittering on the downward stretch, darting in among the bushes, turning with incredible swiftness and sureness of wing the shortest of curves about a branch, and undulating away again to where they came from.
 
To the east I had, while pondering over the beautiful wilderness, passed a fine bluff of stately poplars that stood like green gold in the evening sun. They sheltered apparently, though at a considerable distance, another farmhouse; for a road led along their southern edge, lined with telephone posts. A large flock of sheep was grazing between the bluff and the trail, the most appropriate kind of stock for this particular landscape.
 
While looking back at them, I noticed a curious trifle. The fence along my road had good cedar posts, placed about fifteen feet apart. But at one point there were two posts where one would have done. The wire, in fact, was not fastened at all to the supernumerary one, and yet this useless post was strongly braced by two stout, slanting poles. A mere nothing, which I mention only because it was destined to be an important landmark for me on future drives.
 
We drove on. At the next mile-corner all signs of human habitation ceased. I had now on both sides that same virgin ground which I have described above. Only here it was interspersed with occasional thickets of young aspen boles. It was somewhere in this wilderness that I saw a wolf, a common prairie-wolf with whom I became quite familiar later on. I made it my custom during the following weeks, on my return trips, to start at a given point a few miles north of here eating the lunch which my wife used to put up for me: sandwiches with crisply fried bacon for a filling. And when I saw that wolf for the second time, I threw a little piece of bacon overboard. He seemed interested in the performance and stood and watched me in an averted kind of way from a distance. I have often noticed that you can never see a wolf from the front, unless it so happens that he does not see you. If he is aware of your presence, he will instantly swing around, even though he may stop and watch you. If he watches, he does so with his head turned back. That is one of the many precautions the wily fellow has learned, very likely through generations of bitter experience. After a while I threw out a second piece, and he started to trot alongside, still half turned away; he kept at a distance of about two hundred yards to the west, running in a furtive, half guilty-looking way, with his tail down and his eye on me. After that he became my regular companion, an expected feature of my return trips, running with me every time for a while and coming a little bit closer till about the middle of November he disappeared, never to be seen again. This time I saw him in the underbrush, about a hundred yards ahead and as many more to the west. I took him by surprise, as he took me. I was sorry I had not seen him a few seconds sooner. For, when I focused my eyes on him, he stood in a curious attitude: as if he was righting himself after having slipped on his hindfeet in running a sharp curve. At the same moment a rabbit shot across that part of my field of vision to the east which I saw in a blurred way only, from the very utmost corner of my right eye. I did not turn but kept my eyes glued to the wolf. Nor can I tell whether I had stirred the rabbit up, or whether the wolf had been chasing or stalking it. I should have liked to know, for I have never seen a wolf stalking a rabbit, though I have often seen him stalk fowl. Had he pulled up when he saw me? As I said, I cannot tell, for now he was standing in the characteristic wolf-way, half turned, head bent back, tail stretched out nearly horizontally. The tail sank, the whole beast seemed to shrink, and suddenly he slunk away with amazing agility. Poor fellow – he did not know that many a time I had fed some of his brothers in cruel winters. But he came to know me, as I knew him; for whenever he left me on later drives, very close to Bell’s corner, after I had finished my lunch, he would start right back on my trail, nose low, and I have no doubt that he picked up the bits of bacon which I had dropped as tidbits for him.
 
I drove and drove. The sun neared the horizon now. It was about six o’clock. The poplar thickets on both sides of the road began to be larger. In front the trail led towards a gate in a long, long line of towering cottonwoods. What was beyond?
 
It proved to be a gate indeed. Beyond the cottonwoods there ran an eastward grade lined on the north side by a ditch which I had to cross on a culvert. It will henceforth be known as the “twelve-mile bridge.” Beyond the culvert the road which I followed had likewise been worked up into a grade. I did not like it, for it was new and rough. But less did I like the habitation at the end of its short, one-mile career. It stood to the right, close to the road, and was a veritable hovel.* It was built of logs, but it looked more like a dugout, for stable as well as dwelling were covered by way of a roof with blower-thrown straw. In the door of the hovel there stood two brats – poor things!
 
The road was a trail again for a mile or two. It led once more through the underbrush-wilderness interspersed with poplar bluffs. Then it became by degrees a real “high-class” Southern Prairie grade. I wondered, but not for long. Tall cottonwood bluffs, unmistakably planted trees, betrayed more farms. There were three of them, and, strange to say, here on the very fringe of civilization I found that “moneyed” type – a house, so new and up-to-date, that it verily seemed to turn up its nose to the traveller. I am sure it had a bathroom without a bathtub and various similar modern inconveniences. The barn was of the Agricultural-College type – it may be good, scientific, and all that, but it seems to crush everything else around out of existence; and it surely is not picturesque – unless it has wings and silos to relieve its rigid contours. Here it had not.
 
The other two farms to which I presently came – buildings set back from the road, but not so far as to give them the air of aloofness – had again that friendly, old-country expression that I have already mentioned: here it was somewhat marred, though, by an over-rigidity of the lines. It is unfortunate that our farmers, when they plant at all, will nearly always plant in straight lines. The straight line is a flaw where we try to blend the work of our hands with Nature. They also as a rule neglect shrubs that would help to furnish a foreground for their trees; and, worst of all, they are given to importing, instead of utilising our native forest growth. Not often have I seen, for instance, our high-bush cranberry planted, although it certainly is one of the most beautiful shrubs to grow in copses.
 
These two farms proved to be pretty much the last sign of comfort that I was to meet on my drives to the north. Though later I learned the names of their owners and even made their acquaintance, for me they remained the “halfway farms,” for, after I had passed them, at the very next corner, I was seventeen miles from my starting point, seventeen miles from “home.”
 
Beyond, stretches of the real wilderness began, the pioneer country, where farms, except along occasional highroads, were still three, four miles apart, where the breaking on few homesteads had reached the thirty-acre mark, and where a real, “honest-to-goodness” cash dollar bill was often as scarce as a well-to-do teacher in the prairie country.
 
The sun went down, a ball of molten gold – two hours from “town,” as I called it. It was past six o’clock. There were no rosy-fingered clouds; just a paling of the blue into white; then a greying of the western sky; and lastly the blue again, only this time dark. A friendly crescent still showed trail and landmarks after even the dusk had died away. Four miles, or a little more, and I should be in familiar land again. Four miles, that I longed to make, before the last light failed. . . .
 
The road angled to the northeast. I was by no means very sure of it. I knew which general direction to hold, but trails that often became mere cattle-paths crossed and crisscrossed repeatedly. It was too dark by this time to see very far. I did not know the smaller landmarks. But I knew, if I drove my horse pretty briskly, I must within little more than half an hour strike a black wall of the densest primeval forest fringing a creek – and, skirting this creek, I must find an old, weather-beaten lumber bridge. When I had crossed that bridge, I should know the landmarks again.
 
Underbrush everywhere, mostly symphoricarpus, I thought. Large trunks loomed up, charred with forest fires; here and there a round, white or light-grey stone, ghostly in the waning light, knee-high, I should judge. Once I passed the skeleton of a stable – the remnant of the buildings put up by a pioneer settler who had to give in after having wasted effort and substance and worn his knuckles to the bones. The wilderness uses human material up. . . .
 
A breeze from the north sprang up, and it turned strangely chilly. I started to talk to Peter, the loneliness seemed so oppressive. I told him that he should have a walk, a real walk, as soon as we had crossed the creek. I told him we were on the homeward half – that I had a bag of oats in the box, and that my wife would have a pail of water ready. . . . And Peter trotted along.
 
Something loomed up in front. Dark and sinister it looked. Still there was enough light to recognize even that which I did not know. A large bluff of poplars rustled, the wind soughing through the stems with a wailing note. The brush grew higher to the right. I suddenly noticed that I was driving along a broken-down fence between the brush and myself. The brush became a grove of boles which next seemed to shoot up to the full height of the bluff. Then, unexpectedly, startlingly, a vista opened. Between the silent grove to the south and the large, whispering, wailing bluff to the north there stood in a little clearing a snow white log house, uncannily white in the paling moonlight. I could still distinctly see that its upper windows were nailed shut with boards – and yes, its lower ones, too. And yet, the moment I passed it, I saw through one unclosed window on the northside light. Unreasonably I shuddered.
 
This house, too, became a much-looked-for landmark to me on my future drives. I learned that it stood on the range line and called it the “White Range Line House.” There hangs a story by this house. Maybe I shall one day tell it. . . .
 
Beyond the great and awe-inspiring poplar-bluff the trail took a sharp turn eastward. From the southwest another rut-road joined it at the bend. I could only just make it out in the dark, for even moonlight was fading fast now. The sudden, reverberating tramp of the horse’s feet betrayed that I was crossing a culvert. I had been absorbed in getting my bearings, and so it came as a surprise. It had not been mentioned in the elaborate directions which I had received with regard to the road to follow. For a moment, therefore, I thought I must be on the wrong trail. But just then the dim view, which had been obstructed by copses and thickets, cleared ahead in the last glimmer of the moon, and I made out the back cliff of forest darkly looming in the north – that forest I knew. Behind a narrow ribbon of bush the ground sloped down to the bed of the creek – a creek that filled in spring and became a torrent, but now was sluggish and slow where it ran at all. In places it consisted of nothing but a line of muddy pools strung along the bottom of its bed. In summer these were a favourite haunting place for mosquito-and-fly-plagued cows. There the great beasts would lie down in the mud and placidly cool their punctured skins. A few miles southwest the creek petered out entirely in a bed of shaly gravel bordering on the Big Marsh which I had skirted in my drive and a corner of which I was crossing just now.
 
The road was better here and spoke of more traffic. It was used to haul cordwood in late winter and early spring to a town some ten or fifteen miles to the southwest. So I felt sure again I was not lost but would presently emerge on familiar territory. The horse seemed to know it, too, for he raised his head and went at a better gait.
 
A few minutes passed. There was hardly a sound from my vehicle. The buggy was rubber-tired, and the horse selected a smooth ribbon of grass to run on. But from the black forest wall there came the soughing of the wind and the nocturnal rustle of things unknown. And suddenly there came from close at hand a startling sound: a clarion call that tore the veil lying over my mental vision: the sharp, repeated whistle of the whip-poor-will. And with my mind’s eye I saw the dusky bird: shooting slantways upward in its low flight which ends in a nearly perpendicular slide down to within ten or twelve feet from the ground, the bird being closely followed by a second one pursuing. In reality I did not see the birds, but I heard the fast whir of their wings.
 
Another bird I saw but did not hear. It was a small owl. The owl’s flight is too silent, its wing is down-padded. You may hear its beautiful call, but you will not hear its flight, even though it circles right around your head in the dusk. This owl crossed my path not more than an inch or two in front. It nearly grazed my forehead, so that I blinked. Oh, how I felt reassured! I believe tears welled in my eyes. When I come to the home of frog and toad, of gartersnake and owl and whip-poor-will, a great tenderness takes possession of me, and I should like to shield and help them all and tell them not to be afraid of me; but I rather think they know it anyway.
 
The road swung north, and then east again; we skirted the woods; we came to the bridge; it turned straight north; the horse fell into a walk. I felt that henceforth I could rely on my sense of orientation to find the road. It was pitch dark in the bush – the thin slice of the moon had reached the horizon and followed the sun; no light struck into the hollow which I had to thread after turning to the southeast for a while. But as if to reassure me once more and still further of the absolute friendliness of all creation for myself – at this very moment I saw high overhead, on a dead branch of poplar, a snow white owl, a large one, eighteen inches tall, sitting there in state, lord as he is of the realm of night. . . .
 
Peter walked – though I did not see the road, the horse could not mistake it. It lay at the bottom of a chasm of trees and bushes. I drew my cloak somewhat closer around and settled back. This cordwood trail took us on for half a mile, and then we came to a grade leading east. The grade was rough; it was the first one of a network of grades which were being built by the province, not primarily for the roads they afforded, but for the sake of the ditches of a bold and much needed drainage-system. To this very day these yellow grades of the pioneer country along the lake lie like naked scars on Nature’s body: ugly, raw, as if the bowels were torn out of a beautiful bird and left to dry and rot on its plumage. Age will mellow them down into harmony.
 
Peter had walked for nearly half an hour. The ditch was north of the grade. I had passed, without seeing it, a newly cut-out road to the north which led to a lonesome schoolhouse in the bush. As always when I passed or thought of it, I had wondered where through this wilderness-tangle of bush and brush the children came from to fill it – walking through winter-snows, through summer-muds, for two, three, four miles or more to get their meagre share of the accumulated knowledge of the world. And the teacher! Was it the money? Could it be when there were plenty of schools in the thickly settled districts waiting for them? I knew of one who had come to this very school in a car and turned right back when she saw that she was expected to live as a boarder on a comfortless homestead and walk quite a distance and teach mostly foreign-born children. It had been the money with her! Unfortunately it is not the woman – nor the man either, for that matter – who drives around in a car, that will buckle down and do this nation’s work! I also knew there were others like myself who think this backwoods bushland God’s own earth and second only to Paradise – but few! And these young girls that quake at their loneliness and yet go for a pittance and fill a mission! But was not my wife of their very number?
 
I started up. Peter was walking along. But here, somewhere, there led a trail off the grade, down through the ditch, and to the northeast into the bush which swallows it up and closes behind it. This trail needs to be looked for even in daytime, and I was to find it at night! But by this time starlight began to aid. Vega stood nearly straight overhead, and Deneb and Altair, the great autumnal triangle in our skies. The Bear, too, stood out boldly, and Cassiopeia opposite.
 
I drew in and got out of the buggy; and walking up to the horse’s head, got ahold of the bridle and led him, meanwhile scrutinizing the ground over which I stepped. At that I came near missing the trail. It was just a darkening of the ground, a suggestion of black on the brown of the grade, at the point where poles and logs had been pulled across with the logging chain. I sprang down into the ditch and climbed up beyond and felt with my foot for the dent worn into the edge of the slope, to make sure that I was where I should be. It was right, so I led the horse across. At once he stood on three legs again, left hindleg drawn up, and rested.
 
“Well, Peter,” I said, “I suppose I have made it easy enough for you. We have another twelve miles to make. You’ll have to get up.” But Peter this time did not stir till I touched him a flick with my whip.
 
The trail winds around, for it is a logging trail, leading up to the best bluffs, which are ruthlessly cut down by the fuel-hunters. Only dead and half decayed trees are spared. But still young boles spring up in astonishing numbers. Aspen and balm predominate, though there is some ash and oak left here and there, with a conifer as the rarest treat for the lover of trees. It is a pitiful thing to see a Nation’s heritage go into the discard. In France or in England it would be tended as something infinitely precious. The face of our country as yet shows the youth of infancy, but we make it prematurely old. The settler who should regard the trees as his greatest pride, to be cut into as sparingly as is compatible with the exigencies of his struggle for life – he regards them as a nuisance to be burned down by setting wholesale fires to them. Already there is a scarcity of fuel-wood in these parts.
 
Where the fires as yet have not penetrated too badly, the cutting, which leaves only what is worthless, determines the impression the forest makes. At night this impression is distinctly uncanny. Like gigantic brooms, with their handles stuck into the ground, the dead wood stands up; the underbrush crowds against it, so dense that it lies like huge black cushions under the stars. The inner recesses form an almost impenetrable mass of young boles of shivering aspen and scented balm. This mass slopes down to thickets of alder, red dogwood, haw, highbush cranberry, and honeysuckle, with wide beds of goldenrod or purple asters shading off into the spangled meadows wherever the copses open up into grassy glades.
 
Through this bush, and skirting its meadows, I drove for an hour. There was another fork in the trail, and again I had to get out and walk on the side, to feel with my foot for the rut where it branched to the north. And then, after a while, the landscape opened up, the brush receded. At last I became conscious of a succession of posts to the right, and a few minutes later I emerged on the second east-west grade. Another mile to the east along this grade, and I should come to the last, homeward stretch.
 
Again I began to talk to the horse. “Only five miles now, Peter, and then the night’s rest. A good drink, a good feed of oats and wild hay, and the birds will waken you in the morning.”
 
The northern lights leaped into the sky just as I turned from this east-west grade, north again, across a high bridge, to the last road that led home. To the right I saw a friendly light, and a dog’s barking voice rang over from the still, distant farmstead. I knew the place. An American settler with a French sounding name had squatted down there a few years ago.
 
The road I followed was, properly speaking, not a road at all, though used for one. A deep master ditch had been cut from ten or twelve miles north of here; it angled, for engineering reasons, so that I was going northwest again. The ground removed from the ditch had been dumped along its east side, and though it formed only a narrow, high, and steep dam, rough with stones and overgrown with weeds, it was used by whoever had to go north or south here. The next eastwest grade which I was aiming to reach, four miles north, was the second correction line that I had to use, twenty-four miles distant from the first; and only a few hundred yards from its corner I should be at home!
 
At home! All my thoughts were bent on getting home now. Five or six hours of driving will make the strongest back tired, I am told. Mine is not of the strongest. This road lifted me above the things that I liked to watch. Invariably, on all these drives, I was to lose interest here unless the stars were particularly bright and brilliant. This night I watched the lights, it is true: how they streamed across the sky, like driving rain that is blown into wavy streaks by impetuous wind. And they leaped and receded, and leaped and receded again. But while I watched, I stretched my limbs and was bent on speed. There were a few particularly bad spots in the road, where I could not do anything but walk the horse. So, where the going was fair, I urged him to redoubled effort. I remember how I reflected that the horse as yet did not know we were so near home, this being his first trip out; and I also remember, that my wife afterwards told me that she had heard me a long while before I came – had heard me talking to the horse, urging him on and encouraging him.
 
Now I came to a slight bend in the road. Only half a mile! And sure enough: there was the signal put out for me. A lamp in one of the windows of the school – placed so that after I turned in on the yard, I could not see it – it might have blinded my eye, and the going is rough there with stumps and stones. I could not see the cottage, it stood behind the school. But the school I saw clearly outlined against the dark blue, star-spangled sky, for it stands on a high gravel ridge. And in the most friendly and welcoming way it looked with its single eye across at the nocturnal guest.
 
I could not see the cottage, but I knew that my little girl lay sleeping in her cosy bed, and that a young woman was sitting there in the dark, her face glued to the window-pane, to be ready with a lantern which burned in the kitchen whenever I might pull up between school and house. And there, no doubt, she had been sitting for a long while already; and there she was destined to sit during the winter that came, on Friday nights – full often for many and many an hour – full often till midnight – and sometimes longer . . .
 
 
* It might be well to state expressly here that, whatever has been said in these pages concerning farms and their inhabitants, has intentionally been so arranged as not to apply to the exact localities at which they are described. Anybody at all familiar with the district through which these drives were made will readily identify every natural landmark. But al though I have not consciously introduced any changes in the landscape as God made it, I have in fairness to the settlers entirely redrawn the superimposed man-made landscape.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
The first book in the New Canadian Library series, which presented classic works of Canadian literature in paperback between 1958 and 1978.
close this panel
The Stone Angel
Excerpt

Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.

Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless eyes. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all. But I was too young then to know her purpose, although my father often told me she had been brought from Italy at a terrible expense and was pure white marble. I think now she must have been carved in that distant sun by stone masons who were the cynical descendants of Bernini, gouging out her like by the score, gauging with admirable accuracy the needs of fledgling pharaohs in an uncouth land.

Her wings in winter were pitted by the snow and in summer by the blown grit. She was not the only angel in the Manawaka cemetery, but she was the first, the largest, and certainly the costliest. The others, as I recall, were a lesser breed entirely, petty angels, cherubim with pouting stone mouths, one holding aloft a stone heart, another strumming in eternal silence upon a small stone stringless harp, and yet another pointing with ecstatic leer to an inscription. I remember that inscription because we used to laugh at it when the stone was first placed there.
Rest in peace.
From toil, surcease.
Regina Weese.
1886
So much for sad Regina, now forgotten in Manawaka — as I, Hagar, am doubtless forgotten. And yet I always felt she had only herself to blame, for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out. When Regina died, from some obscure and maidenly disorder, the old disreputable lady rose from sick-smelling sheets and lived, to the despair of her married sons, another full ten years. No need to say God rest her soul, for she must be laughing spitefully in hell, while virginal Regina sighs in heaven.

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlor perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

I used to walk there often when I was a girl. There could not have been many places to walk primly in those days, on paths, where white kid boots and dangling skirts would not be torn by thistles or put in unseemly disarray. How anxious I was to be neat and orderly, imagining life had been created only to celebrate tidiness, like prissy Pippa as she passed. But sometimes through the hot rush of disrespectful wind that shook the scrub oak and the coarse couchgrass encroaching upon the dutifully cared-for habitations of the dead, the scent of the cowslips would rise momentarily. They were tough-rooted, these wild and gaudy flowers, and although they were held back at the cemetery’s edge, torn out by loving relatives determined to keep the plots clear and clearly civilized, for a second or two a person walking there could catch the faint, musky, dusttinged smell of things that grew untended and had grown always, before the portly peonies and the angels with rigid wings, when the prairie bluffs were walked through only by Cree with enigmatic faces and greasy hair.

Now I am rampant with memory. I don’t often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past — that’s nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such people as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this — it’s my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, “Mother’s having one of her days.” Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

Oh, my lost men. No, I will not think of that. What a disgrace to be seen crying by that fat Doris. The door of my room has no lock. They say it is because I might get taken ill in the night, and then how could they get in to tend me (tend — as though I were a crop, a cash crop). So they may enter my room any time they choose. Privacy is a privilege not granted to the aged or the young. Sometimes very young children can look at the old, and a look passes between them, conspiratorial, sly and knowing. It’s because neither are human to the middling ones, those in their prime, as they say, like beef.

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
The first of Margaret Laurence's iconic Manawaka series, which culminated with The Diviners in 1974.
close this panel
Macdonald Hall #1: This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!
Why it's on the list ...
The book that launched the Bruno and Boots series AND Gordon Korman's career (and he wrote it when he was in grade 7!).
close this panel
Do or Die

Do or Die

An Inspector Green Mystery
edition:eBook
also available: eBook Paperback
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
The first title in the Inspector Green series by Fradkin, whom critic Sarah Weinman has included in a group of crime writers who "cast long shadows" in the CanCrime scene.
close this panel
Penguin Modern Classics Fifth Business
Why it's on the list ...
The first of Davies' Deptford trilogy, which followed with The Manticore and World of Wonders.
close this panel
Anne of Green Gables
Excerpt

Daring was the fashionable amusement among the Avonlea small fry just then. It had begun among the boys, but soon spread to the girls, and all the silly things that were done in Avonlea that summer because the doers thereof were “dared” to do them would fill a book by themselves. . . .

Now, to “walk” board fences requires more skill and steadiness of head and heel than one might suppose who has never tried it. But Josie Pye, if deficient in some qualities that make for popularity, had at least a natural and inborn gift, duly cultivated, for walking board fences. Josie walked the Barry fence with an airy unconcern which seemed to imply that a little thing like that wasn’t worth a “dare.” Reluctant admiration greeted her exploit, for most of the other girls could appreciate it, having suffered many things themselves in their efforts to walk fences. Josie descended from her perch, flushed with victory, and darted a defiant glance at Anne.

Anne tossed her red braids.

“I don’t think it’s such a very wonderful thing to walk a little, low, board fence,” she said. “I knew a girl in Marysville who could walk the ridge-pole of a roof.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Josie flatly. “I don’t believe anybody could walk a ridge-pole. You couldn’t, anyhow.”

“Couldn’t I?” cried Anne rashly.

“Then I dare you to do it,” said Josie defiantly. “I dare you to climb up there and walk the ridge-pole of Mr. Barry’s kitchen roof.”

Anne turned pale, but there was clearly only one thing to be done. She walked towards the house, where a ladder was leaning against the kitchen roof. All the fifth-class girls said, “Oh!” partly in excitement, partly in dismay.

“Don’t you do it, Anne,” entreated Diana. “You’ll fall off and be killed. Never mind Josie Pye. It isn’t fair to dare anybody to do anything so dangerous.”

“I must do it. My honour is at stake,” said Anne solemnly. “I shall walk that ridge-pole, Diana, or perish in the attempt. If I am killed you are to have my pearl bead ring.”

Anne climbed the ladder amid breathless silence, gained the ridge-pole, balanced herself uprightly on that precarious footing, and started to walk along it, dizzily conscious that she was uncomfortably high up in the world and that walking ridge-poles was not a thing in which your imagination helped you out much. Nevertheless, she managed to take several steps before the catastrophe came. Then she swayed, lost her balance, stumbled, staggered and fell, sliding down over the sun-baked roof and crashing off it through the tangle of Virginia creeper beneath — all before the dismayed circle below could give a simultaneous, terrified shriek.

If Anne had tumbled off the roof on the side up which she ascended Diana would probably have fallen heir to the pearl bead ring then and there. Fortunately she fell on the other side, where the roof extended down over the porch so nearly to the ground that a fall therefrom was a much less serious thing.

Nevertheless, when Diana and the other girls had rushed frantically around the house — except Ruby Gillis, who remained as if rooted to the ground and went into hysterics — they found Anne lying all white and limp among the wreck and ruin of the Virginia creeper.

“Anne, are you killed?” shrieked Diana, throwing herself on her knees beside her friend. “Oh, Anne, dear Anne, speak just one word to me and tell me if you’re killed.”

To the immense relief of all the girls, and especially of Josie Pye, who, in spite of lack of imagination, had been seized with horrible visions of a future branded as the girl who was the cause of Anne Shirley’s early and tragic death, Anne sat dizzily up and answered uncertainly:

“No, Diana, I am not killed, but I think I am rendered unconscious.”

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
The book that launched more than a century (so far) of literary love, and several other titles in the Anne series.
close this panel
Blood Red Road
Excerpt

The day’s hot. So hot an so dry that all I can taste in my mouth is dust. The kinda white heat day when you can hear th’earth crack.
 
We ain’t had a drop of rain fer near six months now. Even the spring that feeds the lake’s startin to run dry. You gotta walk some ways out now to fill a bucket. Pretty soon, there won’t be no point in callin it by its name.
 
Silverlake.
 
Every day Pa tries another one of his charms or spells. An every day, big bellied rainclouds gather on the horizon. Our hearts beat faster an our hopes rise as they creep our way. But, well before they reach us, they break apart, thin out an disappear. Every time.
 
Pa never says naught. He jest stares at the sky, the clear cruel sky. Then he gathers up the stones or twigs or whatever he’s set out on the ground this time, an puts ’em away fer tomorrow. Today, he shoves his hat back. Tips his head up an studies the sky fer a long while.
 
I do believe I’ll try a circle, he says. Yuh, I reckon a circle might be jest the thing.
 
Lugh’s bin sayin it fer a while now. Pa’s gittin worse. With every dry day that passes, a little bit more of Pa seems to . . . I guess disappear’s the best word fer it.
 
Once we could count on pullin a fish from the lake an a beast from our traps. Fer everythin else, we planted some, foraged some, an, all in all, we made out okay. But fer the last year, whatever we do, however hard we try, it jest ain’t enough. Not without rain. We bin watchin the land die, bit by bit.
 
An it’s the same with Pa. Day by day, what’s best in him withers away. Mind you, he ain’t bin right fer a long time. Not since Ma died. But what Lugh says is true. Jest like the land, Pa’s gittin worse an his eyes look more’n more to the sky instead of what’s here in front of him.
 
I don’t think he even sees us no more. Not really.
 
Emmi runs wild these days, with filthy hair an a runny nose. If it warn’t fer Lugh, I don’t think she’d ever wash at all. Before Emmi was born, when Ma was still alive an everythin was happy, Pa was different. Ma could always make him laugh. He’d chase me an Lugh around, or throw us up over his head till we shrieked fer him to stop. An he’d warn us about the wickedness of the world beyond Silverlake. Back then, I didn’t think there could be anybody ever lived who was taller or stronger or smarter’n our pa.
 
I watch him outta the corner of my eye while me an Lugh git on with repairs to the shanty roof. The walls is sturdy enough, bein that they’re made from tires all piled one on top of th’other. But the wicked hotwinds that whip across the lake sneak their way into the smallest chink an lift whole parts of the roof at once. We’re always havin to mend the damn thing.
 
So, after last night’s hotwind, me an Lugh was down at the landfill at first light scavenging. We dug around a part of it we ain’t never tried before an damn if we didn’t manage to score ourselves some primo Wrecker junk. A nice big sheet of metal, not too rusted, an a cookin pot that’s still got its handle.
 
Lugh works on the roof while I do what I always do, which is clamber up an down the ladder an hand him what he needs. Nero does what he always does, which is perch on my shoulder an caw real loud, right in my ear, to tell me what he’s thinkin. He’s always got a opinion does Nero, an he’s real smart too. I figger if only we could unnerstand crow talk, we’d find he was tellin us a thing or two about the best way to fix a roof.
 
He’ll of thought about it, you can bet on that. He’s watched us fix it fer five year now. Ever since I found him fell outta the nest an his ma nowhere to be seen. Pa warn’t too happy to see me bring a crow babby home. He told me some folk consider crows bring death, but I was set on rearin him by hand an once I set my mind on somethin I stick with it. An then there’s Emmi. She’s doin what she always does, which is pester me an Lugh. She dogs my heels as I go from the ladder to the junk pile an back.
 
I wanna help, she says.
 
Hold the ladder then, I says.
 
No! I mean really help! All you ever let me do is hold the ladder!
 
Well, I says, maybe that’s all yer fit fer. You ever think of that?
 
She folds her arms across her skinny little chest an scowls at me. Yer mean, she says.
 
So you keep tellin me, I says.
 
I start up the ladder, a piece of rusty metal in my hand, but I ain’t gone more’n three rungs before she takes hold an starts shakin it. I grab on to stop myself from fallin. Nero squawks an fl aps off in a flurry of feathers. I glare down at Em. Cut that out! I says. What’re you tryin to do, break my neck?
 
Lugh’s head pops over the side of the roof. All right, Em, he says, that’s enough. Go help Pa.
 
Right away, she lets go. Emmi always does what Lugh tells her.
 
But I wanna help you, she says with her sulky face.
 
We don’t need yer help, I says. We’re doin jest fine without you.
 
Yer the meanest sister that ever lived! I hate you, Saba!
 
Good! Cuz I hate you too!
 
That’s enough! says Lugh. Both of yuz!
 
Emmi sticks her tongue out at me an stomps off. I shin up the ladder onto the roof, crawl along an hand him the metal sheet.
 
I swear I’m gonna kill her one of these days, I says.
 
She’s only nine, Saba, says Lugh. You might try bein nice to her fer a change.
 
I grunt an hunker down nearby. Up here on the roof, I can see everythin. Emmi ridin around on her rickety two-wheeler that Lugh found in the landfill. Pa at his spell circle.
 
It ain’t nuthin more’n a bit of ground that he leveled off by stompin it down with his boots. We ain’t permitted nowhere near it, not without his say so. He’s always fussin around, sweepin clear any twigs or sand that blow onto it. He ain’t set out none of the sticks fer his rain circle on the ground yet. I watch as he lays down the broom. Then he takes three steps to the right an three steps to the left. Then he does it agin. An agin.
 
You seen what Pa’s up to? I says to Lugh.
 
He don’t raise his head. Jest starts hammerin away at the sheet to straighten it.
 
I seen, he says. He did it yesterday too. An the day before. What’s all that about? I says. Goin right, then left, over an over.
 
How should I know? he says. His lips is pressed together in a tight line. He’s got that look on his face agin. The blank look he gits when Pa says somethin or asks him to do somethin. I see it on him more an more these days.
 
Lugh! Pa lifts his head, shadin his eyes. I could use yer help here, son!
 
Foolish old man, Lugh mutters. He gives the metal sheet a extra hard whack with the hammer.
 
Don’t say that, I says. Pa knows what he’s doin. He’s a star reader.
 
Lugh looks at me. Shakes his head, like he cain’t believe I jest said what I did.
 
Ain’t you figgered it out yet? It’s all in his head. Made up. There ain’t nuthin written in the stars. There ain’t no great plan. The world goes on. Our lives jest go on an on in this gawdfersaken place. An that’s it. Till the day we die. I tell you what, Saba, I’ve took about all I can take.
 
I stare at him.
 
Lugh! Pa yells.
 
I’m busy! Lugh yells back.
 
Right now, son!
 
Lugh swears unner his breath. He throws the hammer down, pushes past me an pratikally runs down the ladder. He rushes over to Pa. He snatches the sticks from him an throws ’em to the ground. They scatter all over.
 
There! Lugh shouts. There you go! That should help! That should make the gawdam rain come! He kicks Pa’s new-swept spell circle till the dust flies. He pokes his finger hard into Pa’s chest. Wake up, old man! Yer livin in a dream! The rain ain’t never gonna come! This hellhole is dyin an we’re gonna die too if we stay here. Well, guess what? I ain’t doin it no more!
 
I’m outta here!
 
I knew this would come, says Pa. The stars told me you was unhappy, son. He reaches out an puts a hand on Lugh’s arm. Lugh flings it off so fierce it makes Pa stagger backwards. Yer crazy, you know that? Lugh shouts it right in his face. The stars told you! Why don’t you jest try listenin to what I say fer once?
 
He runs off. I hurry down the ladder. Pa’s starin at the ground, his shoulders slumped.
 
I don’t unnerstand, he says. I see the rain comin. . . . I read it in the stars but . . . it don’t come. Why don’t it come? It’s okay, Pa, says Emmi. I’ll help you. I’ll put ’em where you want. She scrabbles about on her knees, collectin all the sticks. She looks at him with a anxious smile.
 
Lugh didn’t mean it Pa, she says. I know he didn’t.
 
I go right on past ’em.
 
I know where Lugh’s headed.
 
I find him at Ma’s rock garden.
 
He sits on the ground, in the middle of the swirlin patterns, the squares an circles an little paths made from all different stones, each their own shade an size. Every last tiny pebble set out by Ma with her own hands. She wouldn’t allow that anybody should help her.
 
She carefully laid the last stone in place. Sat back on her heels an smiled at me, rubbin at her big babby-swolled belly. Her long golden hair in a braid over one shoulder.
 
There! You see, Saba? There can be beauty anywhere. Even here. An if it ain’t there, you can make it yerself.
 
The day after that, she birthed Emmi. A month too early. Ma bled fer two days, then she died. We built her funeral pyre high an sent her spirit back to the stars. Once we’d scattered her ash to the winds, all we was left with was Em.
 
A ugly little red scrap with a heartbeat like a whisper. More like a newborn mouse than a person. By rights, she shouldn’t of lasted longer’n a day or two. But somehow she hung on an she’s still here. Small fer her age though, an scrawny.
 
Fer a long time, I couldn’t stand even lookin at her. When Lugh says I shouldn’t be so hard on her, I says that if it warn’t fer Emmi, Ma ’ud still be alive. He ain’t got no answer to that cuz he knows it’s true, but he always shakes his head an says somethin like, It’s time you got over it, Saba, an that kinda thing.
 
I put up with Emmi these days, but that’s about as far as it goes.
 
Now I set myself down on the hard-packed earth so’s my back leans against Lugh’s. I like it when we sit like this. I can feel his voice rumble inside my body when he talks. It must of bin like this when the two of us was inside Ma’s belly together. Esseptin that neether of us could talk then, of course.
 
We sit there fer a bit, silent. Then, We should of left here a long time ago, he says. There’s gotta be better places’n this. Pa should of took us away.
You ain’t really leavin, I says.
 
Ain’t I? There ain’t no reason to stay. I cain’t jest sit around
waitin to die.
 
Where would you go?
 
It don’t matter. Anywhere, so long as it ain’t Silverlake.
 
But you cain’t. It’s too dangerous.
 
We only got Pa’s word fer that. You do know that you an me ain’t ever bin more’n one day’s walk in any direction our whole lives. We never see nobody essept ourselves. That ain’t true, I says. What about that crazy medicine woman on her camel last year? An . . . we see Potbelly Pete. He’s always got a story or two about where he’s bin an who he’s seen.
 
I ain’t talkin about some shyster pedlar man stoppin by every couple of months, he says. By the way, I’m still sore about them britches he tried to unload on me last time. They was hummin all right, I says. Like a skunk wore ’em last. Hey wait, you fergot Procter.
 
Our only neighbor’s four leagues north of here. He’s a lone man, name of Procter John. He set up homestead jest around the time Lugh an me got born. He drops by once a month or so. Not that he ever stops proper, mind. He don’t git down offa his horse, Hob, but jest pulls up by the hut. Then he says the same thing, every time.
 
G’day, Willem. How’s the young ’uns? All right?
 
They’re fi ne, Procter, says Pa. You?
 
Well enough to last a bit longer.
 
Then he tips his hat an goes off an we don’t see him fer another month. Pa don’t like him. He never says so, but you can tell. You’d think he’d be glad of somebody to talk to besides us, but he never invites Procter to stay an take a dram. Lugh says it’s on account of the chaal. We only know that’s what it’s called because one time I asked Pa what it is that Procter’s always chewin an Pa’s face went all tight an it was like he didn’t wanna tell us. But then he said it’s called chaal an it’s poison to the mind an soul, an if anybody ever offers us any we’re to say no. But since we never see nobody, such a offer don’t seem too likely.
 
Now Lugh shakes his head. You cain’t count Procter John, he says. Nero’s got more conversation than him. I swear, Saba, if I stay here, I’ll eether go crazy or I’ll end up killin Pa. I gotta go.
 
I scramble around, kneel in front of him.
 
I’m comin with you, I says.
 
Of course, he says. An we’ll take Emmi with us.
 
I don’t think Pa ’ud let us, I says. An she wouldn’t wanna go anyways. She’d rather stay with him.
 
You mean you’d rather she stayed, he says. We gotta take her with us, Saba. We cain’t leave her behind.
 
What about . . . maybe if you was to talk to Pa, he might see sense, I says. Then we could all go to a new place together.
 
He won’t, Lugh says. He cain’t leave Ma.
 
Whaddya mean? I says. Ma’s dead.
 
Lugh says, What I mean is . . . him an Ma made this place together an, in his mind, she’s still here. He cain’t leave her memory, that’s what I’m sayin.
 
But we’re the ones still alive, I says. You an me.
 
An Emmi, he says. I know that. But you see how he is. It’s like we don’t exist. He don’t give two hoots fer us.
 
Lugh thinks fer a moment. Then he says, Love makes you weak. Carin fer somebody that much means you cain’t think straight. Look at Pa. Who’d wanna end up like him? I ain’t never gonna love nobody. It’s better that way.
 
I don’t say naught. Jest trace circles in the dirt with my finger.
 
My gut twists. Like a mean hand reached right inside me an grabbed it.
 
Then I says, What about me?
 
Yer my sister, he says. It ain’t the same.
 
But what if I died? You’d miss me, wouldn’t you?
 
Huh, he says. Fat chance of you dyin an leavin me in peace. Always followin me everywhere, drivin me nuts. Since the day we was born.
 
It ain’t my fault yer the tallest thing around, I says. You make a good sunshade.
 
Hey! He pushes me onto my back.
 
I push him with my foot. Hey yerself ! I prop myself up on my elbows. Well, I says, would you?
 
What?
 
Miss me.
 
Don’t be stupid, he says.
 
I kneel in front of him. He looks at me. Lugh’s got eyes as blue as the summer sky. Blue as the clearest water. Ma used to say his eyes was so blue, it made her want to sail away on ’em. I’d miss you, I says. If you died, I’d miss you so much I’d wanna kill myself.
 
Don’t talk foolish, Saba.
 
Promise me you won’t, I says.
 
Won’t what?
 
Die.
 
Everybody’s gotta die one day, he says.
 
I reach out an touch his birthmoon tattoo. High on his right cheekbone, jest like mine, it shows how the moon looked in the sky the night we was born. It was a full moon that midwinter. That’s a rare thing. But twins born unner a full moon at the turnin of the year, that’s even rarer. Pa did the tattoos hisself, to mark us out as special.
 
We was eighteen year our last birthday. That must be four month ago, near enough.
 
When we die, I says, d’you think we’ll end up stars together, side by side?
 
You gotta stop thinkin like that, he says. I told you, that’s jest Pa’s nonsense.
 
Go on then, if you know so much, tell me what happens when you die.
 
I dunno. He sighs an flops back on the ground, squintin at the sky. You jest . . . stop. Yer heart don’t beat no more, you don’t breathe an then yer jest . . . gone.
 
An that’s it, I says.
 
Yeah.
 
Well that’s stupid, I says. I mean, we spend our lives doin all this . . . sleepin an eatin an fixin roofs an then it all jest . . . ends. Hardly seems worth the trouble.
 
Well, that’s the way it is, he says.
 
You . . . hey Lugh, you wouldn’t ever leave without me, would you?
 
Of course not, he says. But even if I did, you’d only follow me.
 
I will follow you . . . everywhere you go! When I say it, I make crazy eyes an a crazy face because it creeps him out when I do that. To the bottom of the lake, I says, . . . to the ends of the earth . . . to the moon . . . to the stars. . . !
 
Shut up! He leaps to his feet. Bet you don’t follow me to skip rocks, he says an runs off.
 
Hey! I yell. Wait fer me!

close this panel
Why it's on the list ...
The first book in Moira Young's Dustlands series won international awards, and is currently in production as a film by Ridley Scott.
close this panel
comments powered by Disqus

There are two ways to make a reading list

This way:

  1. Click the "Create a New List" button just above this panel.
  2. Add as many books as you wish using the built-in search on the list edit page.

Or that way:

  1. Go to any book page.
  2. In the right-hand column, click on "Add to List." A drop-down menu will appear.
  3. From the drop-down menu, either add your book to a list you have already created or create a new list.
  4. View and edit your lists anytime on your profile page.
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...