In late April, Bernard Crowe volunteered to lead a few men north to survey the brush around Nagagami Lake. He left for Hornepayne days before the others, to see about lodgings and transportation. Years had passed since his wife’s death, but the need for solitude, a need that had come with her funeral, sometimes overtook him, and he often travelled to be alone.
On his first day in Hornepayne, he woke early and walked about the town’s black snow–gritted streets. He took the lake road halfway to the lake and then back. The walk was exactly what he’d wanted: bracing, the sun coming up to brighten the rocks and trees. There was more snow than he’d expected, snow coarse as rock salt, white beneath the trees but dark closer to the road. The trees were dense and green, or black and skeletal. He walked on grass that had survived the winter—
or had not survived but stood up anyway.
On his return to the bed and breakfast where he’d rented a room, he was met by his hostess, Mrs. Vetiver, a large woman, her hair fixed so it was like a dun hat with grey threads. She wore a white pinafore with red and yellow sunflowers over a blue summer dress.
—Oh, Mr. Crowe, she said. I’ve made grits with maple syrup and back bacon. There’s freshly squeezed melon juice and a blackberry compote. I hope you like it.
—I’m sure it’ll be great, he answered. Thank you.
For the rest of the day, Bernard did little. He made certain that reservations had been made at the hotel for himself and his crew. He walked about Hornepayne, quietly pacing its dozen or so streets, and he was charmed by a snowfall, flakes wispy as dandelion fluff, melting as they touched his skin. The town was modest and plain, but as all places are beautiful immediately after a harsh winter, it was also beautiful.
At supper that evening, there were three people: Bernard himself, Mrs. Vetiver, and a pale woman, her brown hair held up by a black band, the down along her neck translucent.
—Mr. Crowe, said Mrs. Vetiver, this is Mrs. Andrews. She’ll be with us a few days. Almost as long as you, now I think of it.
Bernard, who had taken the chair beside Mrs. Andrews, said,
—Pleased to meet you.
Mrs. Andrews raised her head, turned toward him, and smiled politely. Three deliberate motions. Her eyes were lovely, though it was as if she had been crying recently or had recently awakened.
—Nice to meet you, she said.
They ate their meal in a quiet broken only by Mrs. Vetiver’s commentary on the day she’d had and the dishes she had prepared. Once they’d eaten and had coffee, Mrs. Andrews rose and, taking Bernard’s hand, wished him a good night’s sleep.
—Thank you, said Bernard.
He would have said more, but Mrs. Andrews looked away and left the dining room. Mrs. Vetiver insisted on clearing the table herself, so Bernard went to his room, and went up the stairs thinking of Mrs. Andrews’ eyes. They were somehow familiar: blue-green with long, light lashes.
Bernard’s room had once been a playroom. Its walls were robin’s egg blue, with a gold band running above the quarter-round. His bed was good, not too soft, and there was a large window that looked out on a rise in the land beyond which was the rough, darkening forest. He was not tired, but he felt a kind of peace, a near-absence of longing. For a few hours, he tried to read a book someone had recommended, then fell asleep without turning off the light on his night table.
The next morning, as he went out for a walk, Bernard saw Mrs. Andrews on the street before him. Quickening his pace, he caught up, and they walked together. Mrs. Andrews was as reserved as she’d been the night before. They exchanged few words until they turned back to Mrs. Vetiver’s and Bernard asked if she (Clara Andrews) were in Hornepayne on business. After a moment, Mrs. Andrews said,
—Yes. And you?
—Yes, me too. I work for the federal government.
—You must be from Ottawa, she said. My father was from Ottawa.
For the next while, Mrs. Andrews kept to those subjects (her father and Ottawa), deflecting questions that might lead elsewhere. Bernard did not mind, because it had been two years, two years almost exactly, since he’d had anything like an intimate conversation with a woman. Still, there was something forbidding about her choice of subjects, and, after a while, his mind wandered and he looked up at the morning sky, which was grey, though, here and there, the sun came through, illuminating patches of town and forest.
As they approached the bed and breakfast, Mrs. Andrews suddenly stopped speaking. Contrite, she said,
—I’m so sorry. I’ve been going on and on.
But before Bernard could demur, she asked,
—Are you working today? Maybe we could explore the town together.
It was Saturday. He had nothing in particular to do, but as for exploring the town: that would take little more than an hour, an hour if they went slowly. No matter. He agreed to “do Hornepayne” with her. He went upstairs to bathe and shave. When he came down half an hour later, Mrs. Andrews was on the phone in the front hall.
—I changed my mind, that’s all… I don’t care.
She saw Bernard, turned away, and spoke more softly before hanging up. When she turned back to him, her smile was grim.
Mrs. Andrews was not interested in the town. They went first to the statue of the bear and cub, wandered along a few of the side streets, and then walked to Hornepayne Cemetery. She asked him about himself, but now it was Bernard’s turn to be evasive. He spoke of his life in the most fleeting way. And by the time they arrived at the cemetery, they had fallen back into silence.
The sign above the cemetery was like that above a corral: a double arc in which the words HORNEPAYNE and CEMETERY nested, looking very much like a stencil. The white crosses and tombstones were not in strict rows, but there was order. Behind the cemetery, the trees of the woods stood shoulder to shoulder, but they were thin and bedraggled.
—This is the first week they could dig graves, said Mrs. Andrews. The ground’s too hard in winter.
—Oh, are you from around here? Bernard asked.
—No, she answered.
Mrs. Andrews lowered her head and her shoulders began to shake. Bernard thought she had begun to cry but she was laughing.
—What is it? he asked.
—Nothing. I’m in a cemetery in a horrible town with a man I don’t know. It feels like I’m dreaming. But I’m glad you’re here. Do you mind if I hold your arm?
Bernard gave her his arm, and they went slowly back to the town centre. A small wind ruffled the trees and brought pieces of paper to life. The weight of Mrs. Andrews’ arm in his was both comforting and a source of distress, the distress one feels on being handed something fragile. It was almost a relief when they came to the coffee shop and stopped for tea.
The shop was small and a little grimy, but as if this were the place and moment she’d been waiting for, Mrs. Andrews began to confide in him, sharing the details of her life. She was in town for her father’s funeral. His funeral was for the next day. She was not sure she should have come. She had never liked her father, had felt nothing for him but disgust since she was six years old. She did not say what, exactly, had disgusted her, but, for an hour, her world (like a planet) came darkly into view as she sat before him. Bernard studied Mrs. Andrews’ face. It was, even when she was distraught or confused, appealing.
As they returned to the bed and breakfast, Mrs. Andrews again took Bernard’s arm.
—You’ve been very kind, she said. I don’t know how to thank you, but I wonder if… I shouldn’t ask, I know, but I don’t think I can go to my father’s funeral alone. Would you come with me? Please. I don’t have anyone else to ask.
He would have preferred to avoid people, and the last thing he wanted was to attend a funeral. But it was not in his nature to turn away from those in distress.
—Yes, of course, he said.
The following day, Bernard went with Clara to her father’s funeral. The sky was bright blue. No clouds, little wind, a stillness that penetrated so deeply it was almost odd to find other people in the church. There were not many. There was a handful on one side of the aisle and a smaller handful on the other, all of them near the front. The stained glass windows on one side of the church were sun touched and brightly coloured, but their illumination did not reach the centre of the church, which was in mottled shadow. Clara and Bernard were to the right of the altar, three rows back. In the row before them, alone, was Clara’s sister. In the row before that, Clara’s mother sat. On the other side of the aisle were darkly dressed aunts and uncles. In all, eight people had come to the funeral.
The coffin was in the aisle, not far from the altar.
Before they entered the church, Clara had spoken to no one. Nor did anyone seem interested in speaking to her. Clara had entered briskly, as if there for some other business. She had told him the names of those in the church, speaking her mother’s and her sister’s names with a contemptuous whisper. Hearing Clara’s voice, her sister turned around, stared at Bernard for a moment, then turned away.
The priest began the service. There were two altar boys with him, genuflecting, rising, kneeling, bowing awkwardly, out of sync. Their faces were pale. When it was time for the eulogies, the priest said a few words about Mr. Johnson’s life—hockey, broken knees, devotion to his lovely daughters, amen—and then Mrs. Johnson spoke of him—hard life, bad knees, love for his daughters, amen. Mrs. Johnson spoke clearly, but her emotions were not clear, and there was a hint of defiance in her attitude. She held herself straight, as if expecting a challenge to her words. At the end of her mother’s eulogy, Clara nudged Bernard’s arm and, having his attention, rolled her eyes and shook her head.
When the mourners had knelt a final time and wished Godspeed to the soul of the dead, six young men entered from the sacristy and took up the coffin. They were not as awkward as the altar boys had been. They were freshly scrubbed. The hair on the tallest of them looked pasted to his forehead. Everyone followed the young men out. They watched as the coffin was put into the hearse and the doors were closed. In the brief lull after the hearse’s departure, Clara’s mother spoke to her.
—Where’s your husband? she asked.
—He couldn’t make it, said Clara.
—Well, it was nice that you and your friend here could come to your father’s funeral. Too bad your husband couldn’t make it.
One of Clara’s aunts approached. She was in a violet pantsuit and wore a dark, black lace veiled hat. Brushing at her clothes as if there were crumbs on her chest, she looked mistrustfully at Bernard.
—Who’s this? she asked.
—None of your business, answered Clara.
—Well, for God’s sake, Clara. Can’t you keep a civilized tongue?
—You know how she is, said Clara’s mother. She’s had such a difficult life, she doesn’t remember how to be polite.
—That’s right, said Clara.
Turning her back on her daughter, Clara’s mother said,
—What’s wrong with you, Belle? You get dirt on your clothes, or you just rubbing your tits?
—No, no, said Belle. Arty fell asleep on me in there. I got his hair all over me. When he goes on night shift, he falls asleep all over the place. Honestly, it’s like having one of those long-haired dogs around the house.
They walked away from Clara, to stand with the rest of the family at the foot of the church’s steps. No one else expressed any interest in Bernard. No one spoke to Clara. The family stood by the church to shake the priest’s hand or, as one did, to clap him on the back. Then they left for the cemetery.
Clara walked away from the church.
—You’ve been really kind, she said. I wish we could have met in different circumstances.
—Aren’t you going to the cemetery?
—No. I’ve done enough. My husband thought it’d be good to make peace with my father, but I shouldn’t have come.
At the door to the bed and breakfast, Mrs. Andrews turned and said,
Her face was expressionless, and she did not wait for Bernard’s response. As if she were embarrassed about something, she climbed the stairs and left him in the entrance hall. It was a moment before he came back to himself, and then, bewildered, he returned to the outside world. The sunlight was only occasionally impeded by clouds, shadows moving briskly over the face of the earth, and it was warm enough to leave his overcoat unbuttoned.
Bernard walked without a destination, trying to tire himself out. As he came to the centre of town for the third time, he recognized Clara’s mother. She was beside a lemon yellow car. She wore the same clothes she’d worn to the funeral: all dark. Seeing him, she stood up straight. Her face was heavily made up, pinkish, powder scored, and, as the sun was behind her, in shadow. Her eyes reminded Bernard of her daughter’s. Her lips were flat and fire red.
—My husband was a good man, she said. I don’t know what Clara told you, but her head’s been filled with nonsense since she went to Toronto. Everything’s memory this and memory that. Clara’s always going on about it. But the way I see it, the past is for people who don’t have better things to worry about. That’s just the way I see it.
But Mrs. Johnson turned, locked the door to her car, and walked away. She did not wait for him to finish speaking.
Decidedly, there were people who lived on shifting ground.
That evening, Bernard and Mrs. Vetiver were alone in the dining room. The bed and breakfast was almost empty. Mrs. Vetiver had prepared pork hocks in a cranberry reduction, sweet potatoes mashed with a rosemary-infused olive oil, and drunken chocolate cake for dessert.
—Did you like it? she asked when they had finished.
Though it had been an unexpected confluence of flavours, he said,
—Why don’t you stay another night, then? I’ll make coquilles St. Jacques.
—I wish I could, but I’ve got to be at the hotel with my crew. We start work tomorrow.
Bernard helped her with the dishes and wished her good night.
Outside his window, the last rays of sunlight turned the sky a reddish blue and made the trees appear darker than they were. He stood before the window thinking of nothing. And then, apropos of nothing, he thought of the funeral. Its details came to him: the church windows, the faces of the mourners, their dark clothes, the smell of candles and pews, the priest’s long fingers. How odd it all had been: subdued, and difficult to read. It had been unlike any funeral he’d attended, and yet, standing alone in the room that had once held Mrs. Vetiver’s children, staring out at the northern sky, which slowly brought forth the moon and the evening star, he was suddenly at another funeral, Elizabeth’s: the tall-ceilinged church, the dark panels of the stations of the cross, the sound of a breath caught and held, his mother-in-law, her rosary wrapped so tightly around her hand he thought its beads would fly off, the grief of some sixty people, their emotions deep and unmistakable.
Two more unalike versions of a sacrament, one could not have imagined. At the memory of Elizabeth’s funeral, sadness rose up and overwhelmed him. Whatever Clara’s father had been, however monstrous or kind, his funeral was erased by Elizabeth’s. In fact, all funerals were one to Bernard, still all one: they were all Elizabeth’s. The past was not a luxury, not a shadow, not even a black star.
And yet his grief passed after a moment. After a moment, he returned to himself, as a bank of clouds moved between the moon and the tops of the night-blackened trees. He was alone and in the dark, but his thoughts were not about darkness or solitude. He thought about Clara and her mother. He wondered if he were as mysterious to them as they were to him, wondered if the living are more mysterious than the dead, wondered, finally, if the dead are as restless as the living.
Then, as happened only rarely now, a moment from his life with Elizabeth surfaced, whole but brief: beads of water on her neck and shoulder blades, as he moved a bar of soap (a white eraser) across her white back. Where was she, he wondered, and could she still feel what he felt for her? He hoped not. He hoped the chaos of this world was an impenetrable screen between this world and the world that lay beyond.
And with these modest hopes in mind, he turned on the bedside lamp and, almost as a matter of course, sought refuge in a book that brought, eventually, only sleep.
Courtney Wotherspoon has had her work featured in Chatelaine, Spin, and EnRoute.