The house where I was born and died nudged up against Ranch Road. No whisper of smoke lifted from the chimney. The day had been hot, the doors and windows shut tight as Mother waited alone at the kitchen table, gazing at the mountain. A thin breeze came in the window off the lakes and hills. For me there was no heat, no sleep, no cool of night. Swallows flew through me; Sulphur butterflies fluttered through my eyes and out my mouth.
I told Nettie to quiet. Her spirit was seething still. She was Mother’s mother and she’d told me yet again how Elmer Stark came to the farmhouse out in Saskatchewan following on the heels of her daughter who’d stopped him on the grid road and asked him to come in and share their evening meal, a flirty girl at the fence line watching the road for a man. Nettie told me how she regarded this man, younger than her and older than her daughter, his hands resting on the kitchen table, the large knuckles and the burnished hairs on the backs of his fingers and hands, the curl of his red hair, wet with sweat, stubbled out over the collar of the blue cotton shirt she’d given him after he washed at the sink, one of the two shirts of her husband’s she’d kept in the trunk in the bedroom chiffonier.
She told me how she’d stood, gripping the back of a kitchen chair while he washed, his naked shoulders, the gleam of his skin, and the lines of charred bronze where the sun had burned his neck and wrists, the faint red-gold of the hairs that edged from under his belt at his waist. Nettie had wanted to brush against them, feel that softness on her wrists, her belly. She’d not touched nor been touched by a man in the years since her husband hanged himself, leaving her and her young daughter, Lillian, alone on the farm. Now her daughter was seventeen and had spent the spring and summer afternoons at the window or standing at the fence line looking out along the grid road that led down from Prince Albert and up from Fort Qu’Appelle.
Nettie had stood with her back to the same window with its flour-sack curtains she’d dyed orange with willow bark and chokecherries. She told me how her daughter sat at the kitchen table and watched the man she’d brought in from the correction line. Nettie said she knew her daughter thought she was the only woman in the room, her mother to her a dry leaf, a forgotten stone. They both gazed at his naked back and the hairs leading like a wedge of late-summer wheat down under his brown, sweat-stained leather belt.
She stood there and watched her daughter suddenly become a woman. Her own need was heat between her legs.
As Nettie quiets, gone back to brooding, Elmer shouts into the dirt, his story blundering among the roots. He starts in again about the sister he left behind south of the land of the little sticks, the mother who stared into his back as he walked away, knowing what would happen when his father woke. Elmer said nothing to her when she gave him a bag with a part-loaf of day-old bread, a turnip, five eggs in a jar of vinegar, and strips of smoked venison she’d had hidden away. He’d rolled an extra shirt in a scrap of blanket along with three fish hooks, fish leader wound on a stick, and his father’s short knife stripped from his father’s belt as he lay sleeping. The sheath was stained with sweat, a salt line running like a lake edge across the leather. What was there to say but that he had to go, the bruise on his cheek a mottled blue from his father’s back-handed fist thrown at him when he’d forgotten to tie up the dog. His father had been herding cattle into the pen and the dog had spooked the stock, half the steers veering off and gone into the dusk, not to be found till the next day, and then that fist again, hard across the side of his head, Elmer calling to the dog to come back, all to no avail.
The fist was nothing to what his father did three hours later when he finished a jar of moonshine, hauling him out into the bull pasture and beating him as he cursed his son. His sister, Alice, the one I was named for, had burst from the kitchen door and run across the stubble field. She had begged her father to stop, but he wouldn’t listen. Elmer found out Alice was gone when he woke up in his cot in the lean-to at the back of the house. His mother was washing the cuts in his skin. She knew where Alice was and so did Elmer. She was where he always took her, out past the barn to the empty grain shed beyond the dugout.
Elmer had lain awake in the lean-to until he heard the early howl of a coyote. The moon was gone and the hours were running to the dawn. Alice wasn’t back, his father sleeping loud behind the half-wall that separated their bed from the kitchen.
What about Alice?
His whisper to his mother. She squatted beside him and told him not to fear, that his sister would be back later in the morning when father fetched her. Elmer looked at the chapped skin on her hands as she gave him a pair of his father’s old boots and a can with a skim of dubbin in the grooves. Take care of your boots, she’d said. They’ll save your feet on the road. She told him he had to go north before he could go south. Leave the road, she said. He’ll try to find you. Follow the creek. The creek leads to the river and the river leads to people. Remember that. Follow the upstream. The Saskatchewan River will find you a home.
It was the fear in his mother and sister that frightened
him the most, what he couldn’t accept. He was afraid that it might live in him some day, that woman-fear stopping him from becoming a man. He was afraid that it might grow inside him, until he became like his mother, like Alice. It never occurred to him that by leaving the farm and family it would be his father that would grow in him like a moth grub in an apple that waits for the fruit to ripen before eating the heart.
At the fence line where it met the northwest road he almost turned aside. He’d looked into the dark where he was headed and saw it in shreds among the western clouds, the first light coming out of the east behind him in a brittle band. He knew where his sister was and he almost turned away from the road to go to the alder-log shed by the dugout, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t go. He knew what he would find there and he knew, finding her, he would have to do something. But what could he do? He lifted the barbed wire, and ducked through, the fence between him and what he knew. His mother had told him he had but an hour to run before his father woke.
He’ll not forgive you taking his knife, she said.
He started walking again, his feet loose in his father’s old boots, the bound blanket slung over his shoulder. He was thirteen years old and would not look back, not ever.
I know, Father, I know.
Father was just a boy when he first wandered the plains. That summer he found himself in the southern foothills down near Pincher Creek where he lived a short year in an abandoned sod hut with a Métis woman and her baby, the woman a stranger kind of mother, her language a mix of Stoney, Chippewa, and French. When he left, he stole his first horse from a ranch near Fort MacLeod and rode east out of the spring storms into the Cypress Hills where he worked the ranch and wheat country of Palliser’s Triangle. The border meant nothing to him, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, they were all one country in his mind. He didn’t think he belonged to any one place. He was a wanderer and called nowhere home. When he was fifteen, he hid out in a cave on the Big Muddy down in the Badlands, piling greasewood and sagebrush to block the blizzard winds. He lived there a winter, staring out at the rare antelope herds, an isolate buffalo stone at his feet, its wallow empty. He shot marauding wolves with a stolen Enfield rifle, selling their hides in Havre. In the spring, he drifted past Old Man On His Back to the Frenchman River near Eastend where he got a job on the railway for the summer. Later, he cowboyed on the McKinnon ranch, worked thresher crews near Medicine Hat and Olds, then quit and hit the trail again. He worked a season here and there, moving on from farm to ranch, from village to town, Sweetgrass, Climax, Wolf Point, Cut Bank, footloose and drifting through his younger years. He was a “stopper,” riding in alone, working a day or a week in exchange for a shed to sleep in and food for whatever horse he’d traded for or stolen.
Elmer knew the colour of the land in all its moods, felt the heaviness of the South Saskatchewan River, its great brown heave. He squatted in an abandoned shack one winter by the Qu’Appelle lakes, camped in the Badland coulees and in the wasteland at the edge of the Great Sand Hills. He heard the call of the loon and saw the fall of the snow geese onto the sloughs, the Canadas and curlews as they came in their millions down the sky onto the desolate prairie lakes. Going north or south, blade after blade of birds cried down until the water was so weighted by their breasts he thought the lakes themselves would rise above the earth and drown the land forever. He’d seen the dust walk the plains, a thousand-foot wall of earth moving across the fields. He lived the drought years. It seemed at times all he talked of was dust and roads.
I turn in the memory of his tellings.
But what’s a father’s witness to a dead child? What meaning was there in his hoard of words? Adventures, not confessions, his stories not a life.
There’s a leaf floated through the air. Now it rides the autumn current of Cheater Creek. Boulders have washed down over the years and lie strewn across the waters below the clay bluffs beyond the bridge. The spare rains and the winds blowing up the valley have eaten the clay away and the creek has chewed the foot of the bluff, glacial gravel sliding down from the seams. The leaf follows the current through the rocks and is thrown by a brown wave into an eddy bound by stone. The current runs close by and the leaf turns and touches faster water, its crinkled edge turned back and circling there, the leaf a small boat caught. Like that leaf, his life.
I’ve listened to it a dozen, dozen times, how he sat in the bar in LaBret and heard talk of the woman on the farm with a lonely daughter. Some drunken drifter told him how the woman’s husband had hanged himself in a barn. It was the old story, the woman going out and finding her man seven-stepping the air, then her cutting him down, the weight of him falling through her arms. He’d heard it many times in those days, so many he thought there must be a hanged man in each barn or house he passed, a lonely woman on every quarter-section from the Dakotas to Alberta. There was always a daughter who lay on a narrow cot each night, her hand between her legs as she imagined a man who might save her from feeding pigs, collecting eggs, and milking the cows she dreamed someday of owning, a hired man, lean and hungry, hanging his arms over a corral fence, smiling at her as she passed by.
He’d heard the story and the jokes. Did you hear the one about the farmer’s daughter? Men drinking their beer and laughing. It was the same in every bar, someone sitting alone and looking for company. After a few beers, he was told of the farm near Nokomis and the women living there alone.
Why did he believe the story? What made him cadge a ride on a passing truck and why did he get off the truck at the road where it swung east toward Nokomis? Why didn’t he keep riding all the way to Prince Albert? Or into Saskatoon? That’s where he thought he was going. He’d been told he’d find work there on the bridges. Why not go there? He said a man goes naturally toward trouble and it’s always a woman.
He told me he didn’t know.
What happened, Elmer?
She witched me wild, he’d say. I lost my mind the day I saw her there.
She was standing at the crook of the correction line just as the drunk in the bar back in LaBret said she’d be. She stood near naked in a threadbare dress by the barbed-wire fence with her hair adrift in the wind and he followed her to the house. Sometimes she walked backward, asking him questions about where he’d been and what he’d done. She said she was going to be a dancer someday. She turned once in a spin upon her bare brown feet and stood between the sun and him. He saw her body inside that white cotton dress, the fall of her young breasts, the shadow at her groin. Lillian knew what he was seeing, spinning there on her toes.
Nettie was in the house making bread, her mother. He knew, seeing them both in the kitchen, they were hungry for a man, and he knew he was good for both of them until the daughter swayed him apart with her talk of his owning the farm, the smell of her crotch rich as the crush of new-mown hay. He could have just had Nettie and the farm, but he couldn’t have both women. Not in the end.
Lillian knew that, young as she was. She waited for him in the field behind the barn and lifted her dress, brazen and wild. He says his brain was between his legs back then. When was it other than that? But back then, how could he turn down something sweet as her? And the farm was a good one. He knew he’d get a price for it no matter the drought.
The rope her father used was still hanging from its beam. Nettie wouldn’t have it down. The end of it where she’d cut her husband loose hung frayed like a shock of antelope hair caught on a barb of wire. Nettie told him her husband’s hair was the same colour. Elmer thought it’s why she left it hanging there. He’d watch it catch the breeze coming through the open doors. It swung there as if waiting for another man to hang himself. He told me he should’ve taken to the road the night the rope danced with blue fire, a storm passing over, lightning walking on its spider legs across the land, the thunder a fitful groan.
Read between the lines, Mother would say when he was little, cunning in her deceptions. My brother Tom had sat beside her on the couch and looked into the book she was reading from. He could see the cramped white space between the lines of letters and he imagined a secret code embedded there like lemon writing only a flame could reveal. Learning from her was like trying to read the story of a blizzard. It was like going out into the February snow and finding the tracks of animals and birds, small stories left behind in the drifts.
Everything you saw was the past of a winter hunt. It was the story of snow. You followed the trail of a rabbit and saw how it stopped at a red willow sapling and stood up on its two back paws to nibble the buds from the bare branches. You got close, hunkered down, and marked the cut of its sharp teeth in the bark, the delicate bites it took from next year’s leaves. The branch was bare. The rabbit stayed close to the willow and sagebrush and the tall grasses pushed up through the snow. The animal was white, the fur turned to the same cold of the land it wandered for food. Only the nose, the ear tips, could tell you where it hopped. You saw the rabbit sometimes on the snow, black specks moving like summer flies across a pure white tablecloth.
And you followed the tracks because you were a boy and the story of the rabbit was who the rabbit used to be, as it went this way and that, and always to the spare seeds hidden inside grass heads, the alder and willow buds. You saw how the rabbit moved at last, hesitant, careful, out into the open. The rabbit had come out from the safety of the creek brush and was crossing the orchard to the other side where the old fence hung its rusted wire. There was food over there, frozen, windfall apples under the snow kicked to the margin of the field by Father one night in autumn when he was out visiting his graves.
You stepped out into the open and followed the tracks into the field. You imagined yourself white as snow, crossing a great emptiness, imagined yourself with slender ears ending in tips of black fur, tiny reminders of the past summer, and you had a small black nose, and eyes looking to either side, seeing two landscapes, and how your mind brought them together like playing cards shuffled on a table before Eddy laid down a hand of Patience. The old fence with its fallen, tangled wire, the slender icicles hanging from the barbs, and the tall grasses were only a few hops away.
The rabbit didn’t hear the Great Horned owl as it rode the white sky. The owl was the story of silence. And you stood there in the small disturbance and saw the outline of the grey hunter, its mark on snow. It was as if the rabbit grew sudden wings and beat them down once before lifting into the sky.
The tracks of the rabbit stopped there, and you waited. It took time to step past the broken snow and into the perfect whiteness beyond and as you did you looked behind, looked at the horizon and the sun low in the south where it crawled among the clenched branches of the poplars and the cottonwoods by the creek. You saw the sun. You looked at that pale orb riding the hills and then you moved through the unbroken snow toward the safety of the far fence and the willow and the sage, the apples, and the spare grasses.
Mother had told them to him and Eddy.
You had to watch a long time to see through her words. You’d listen to her read aloud and then you’d read between the lines to find the story beneath the story, the one she’d hidden. There were always clues, a word, a phrase or two, a small fragment that told you there was something hidden, but you had to imagine it, you had to piece it together bit by bit and supply the parts left out, the silences, the moments when she turned away and told you to go to sleep, the times you hid behind the door and listened to her and Father, the arguments, the shouts. But mostly it was the silences you found in the other rooms of the house when you had to invent what you read in their eyes, the sideways glance, the blink, the hesitation, the quick anger that told you there was something left unsaid, something you needed to know, but no matter your begging they never told you.
You had to find it for yourself.
You had to find the story.
You imagined your father still a boy and walking away from his home down a Saskatchewan road that cut in a straight line from the dwindled forest to the open plains, his father’s hunting knife strapped in the knotted baling twine that held up his threadbare pants. Tom could see him coming out of the sparse trees at the edge of the north, the Black spruce country where the deer were small and timid and there were coyotes and bears, wolverines and wolves.
He knew almost nothing of Father’s early childhood except how he hated his father and loved his mother and his sister, Alice. And how his grandfather strung her from a beam in the barn, hung her there in the shadows, her body swinging slow, and him taking the bullwhip out of the rain barrel where it was left to keep it supple and whipping her methodically, carefully, spacing the blows so no cut touched another, and how he cursed when he made a mistake as the long blade of the leather bull-cock whip crissed the air. Tom remembered the story, how his grandmother knelt in the dust and chaff at the door and begged him to stop. But Tom never learned why he whipped his daughter. That part wasn’t told, and he didn’t invent a reason because he couldn’t think of one. Tom couldn’t think of a reason why a father would do that to his daughter.
Did Father tell that story?
Or was it Mother? She hated Father going on about how her own father killed himself. He said her father was a coward, a worthless man who couldn’t look after his own. When he said that, Mother would retort: And what about you? When did you ever look after your family?
The story of Alice being bullwhipped was a tale told on him, not about him. But what part of the story was his and what part Mother’s? Was it the part about the precision of the blows or the part about the dust and chaff? When she told the story, Tom could see the swirls of dust and the bits of straw and hay on the worn boards, and the barn, its dank darkness smelling of cows and horses, chickens, rats, and mice, the earless barn cats, yowling, the tips of their tails gone, frozen off by the terrible cold from the north. He could see his Aunt Alice hanging from her tied hands as her father wrote his name on her skin. He could see the grandmother he never met, still young, on her knees in the doorway of the barn, the barn door pushed partly open and the great shadow splitting her in two, half her body darkness, the other light, while she prayed to whatever god she knew for him to stop, the whip moving from her daughter’s buttocks to her thighs.
Where were you hiding, Father? In what stall, what grain bin, straw pile, behind what harness rack? Was it you, Father, told Mother how Alice was laid down in the poplar-log lean-to behind the house, how she almost died, how her wounds took months to heal? Did you go to her? Or did you leave the barn to follow the stone-boat as the horses pulled it through the fields, your father on the other side bending to lift scattered boulders, dropping them into the sledge, and you afraid to speak her name for fear of what he’d do?
And when you finally ran, what then? That first night, did you hide yourself away? Did you find some gulch or gully and build a fire, or were you scared to have one lest your father see that small light in the darkness and track you down? Did you lie awake, thinking a rock falling was your father’s boots come walking? Were you afraid, Father? Or did your anger and your hate turn you into who you’d always be? Who were you when you were told to walk away from the bush farm, leaving behind your mother and your sister, their lives in the hands of that man. You knew what he’d do to your mother, your sister, when he found you gone. Did you know then you’d carry the memory of the boots and fists, the whip?
What about the one time Aunt Alice came out from Saskatchewan to visit? She was always covered from ankle to throat by a long cotton dress, the top button made of pearl. Tom saw the button the rare times she lifted her head and let the sun touch it, and it seemed to be a jewel then, a rare and mysterious jewel, something hard and bright she fastened there with her long white fingers each morning behind her door. That was her, Father’s sister, girl and woman, eggless in the Eden she made of herself, a single name writ large on her living skin. She sat in the kitchen late one night and told her brother that the day she finally left the family farm she swore to herself she’d never marry, never carry a child. She said: I bear his name and that is curse enough. What? And bear another Stark into the world? That name ends with me.
There is another story, there always is . . .
Read between the lines.
A rabbit takes a single hop from the shelter of the brush. It stops and sits up on its long back paws and touches the air with its black nose, nervous, testing the wind, almost ready to move into the open.