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One summer, in a hedge near her family’s cottage in Kenora, five-year-old Susan Coyne discovered an overgrown stone fireplace. Her father said it was the home of Uncle Joe Spondoolak, an elf who’d moved in after the cottage had burned down long ago. Susan, a fanciful child, decided to become keeper of the hearth, tidying it up and leaving little gifts for the elves: handfuls of ...
One summer, in a hedge near her family’s cottage in Kenora, five-year-old Susan Coyne discovered an overgrown stone fireplace. Her father said it was the home of Uncle Joe Spondoolak, an elf who’d moved in after the cottage had burned down long ago. Susan, a fanciful child, decided to become keeper of the hearth, tidying it up and leaving little gifts for the elves: handfuls of wild strawberries, daisy chains, a tiny birchbark canoe. Overnight the gifts would disappear. One morning, there was a tiny piece of carefully folded pink paper wedged in between the mossy stones.
To Helen Susan Cameron Coyne: Greetings Her Majesty, Queen Mab, has instructed me to thank you for making a home for all her people.
Thus began Susan’s correspondence with a precocious young fairy princess, Nootsie Tah, and her indoctrination into the world of the great and little people.
Susan took the letter next door to Mr. Moir, because he knew all sorts of interesting things. Sure enough, he had an entire library filled with books about characters such as Puck, Ariel and Oberon. The letters from Nootsie Tah continued, and that summer Susan developed two unique relationships: one with a proud princess from a mystical land, and the other with a gentle gardener with infinite wisdom and patience. These would sustain her throughout her life.
When I first read those lines, they struck me with the force of something I had always known, but somehow forgotten. They are by William Blake, from an unfinished poem called “Auguries of Innocence,” about the interconnectedness of all things, and especially the profound connection between faith and truth. To me, they perfectly describe the way a small child sees the world, before she learns to hurry up, settle down, and pay attention to what the grown-ups think is important.
This is the story of a remarkable friendship, which began when I was five years old, and has nourished me all my life.
I have a photograph taken that summer on the platform in Toronto’s Union Station. My mother, dressed in a tailored suit of robin’s egg blue, is holding my little brother Andrew by the hand. My nine-year-old sister Nancy is in braids and a skirt and blouse. I am wearing a smocked cotton dress and ankle socks, holding my doll, Lazy Mary, by one arm. On the back of the photograph my mother has scrawled the date: June 1963.
We are on our way once again from Toronto to Kenora, on Lake of the Woods. Our train is called the Trans-Canada Limited, or “The Fastest Train Across the Continent.”
Once inside the car, we pressed our faces to the window to watch as the train pulled out of the station and began to pick up speed. The little houses became a blur, and then there were green fields all around.
We played beneath the dome of the Observation Car, as the train plunged through corridors of pink granite, over cataracts and sunlit rivers, deeper and deeper into the boreal forest. Sometimes we stood at the back of the train, watching the tracks spool away from us into the far distance, hypnotized by the rhythm of the present becoming the past — Now . . . Now . . . Now . . .
We ate supper in the Dining Car. The table was covered with heavy white linen and there were little silver dishes of olives and celery and cold butter curled into barrel shapes. On the way out, if no one was looking, Nancy would pick up the big silver bowl of multicoloured mints and empty it into her skirt. Then we would make our way back to our room, my sister clutching her skirt to her waist as she lurched down the narrow aisle.
Next morning, in our bunks, we woke to see Lake Superior speeding by.
And then, after another day and another sleep, we arrived at the little station in Kenora. With shaky legs we climbed down the stairs onto the platform. And there was my father, beside the family station wagon with my two older brothers, Sandy and Patrick, and our poodle, Celeste.
Kenora, née Rat Portage, was at that time a rugged little pulp and paper town, with a Mill that blew a whistle every day at noon, a little brick Courthouse and a Post Office with a clock tower where we got our mail.
We left the station wagon in the parking lot at Cameron’s Point. Dragging our suitcases, we lumbered down the old cracked steps, beneath a canopy of leaves. And then, with a shock of pure joy, we saw it: The Lake — unbearably bright, slapping against the dock in ecstatic welcome.
The boat ride seemed to take forever. When we arrived, we had to stay seated while my father cut the engines and manoeuvred the boat into the echoing boathouse. And then the bags and the dog and the cat in his cage had to be lifted onto the dock. Only then were the children allowed to scramble out and run screaming up the hill to the house.
The terraced steps that wound up the hill were covered with pine cones and sticks that crunched beneath our feet. At the top of the hill was one last hurdle — the ten green steps up to the porch. The screen door slammed and the little glass wind chimes stirred in the breeze. Inside the house, the long silence of the winter months hung in the air.
And now began the ritual of arrival. The doors to the living room were swung wide, while my father stood by with a broom in case a bird came swooping down. The sheets in the linen closet were hung outside to air. In the kitchen, the cupboards were flung open and we stood still a long moment, fingers pressed to lips, listening for mice. Then the tins of sugar and flour were taken up and tapped before opening, and the shelves wiped down with hot soapy water. Upstairs, my mother found a little nest of cotton balls in the medicine cabinet. And then, having cleaned and swept and scoured and thinking we had the place back to ourselves, the screams of Paulina, our nanny, brought us all running to see the dead snake curled up in the waterless toilet.
Otherwise, everything was just as we had left it: the comic book lying open on the couch, last year’s swimming chart curling from the wall, a pair of dusty yellow shorts hiding under the bed. And I would always stop to look out the bedroom window at the lake, imagining it in winter, blanketed in snow.
My family was a large one. My mother had been widowed at a young age with three children. A few years later she met my father — then 47 — and they had two more.
Sandy and Patrick — “The Boys” — were inseparable, united by their love of mischief and horseplay. They were a constant trial to my sister Nancy, who had the middle child’s fierce hostility to injustice. In kindergarten, for example, she had hit an interfering nun on the knee with a small hammer and had to be expelled. Her passions were Mozart and Beethoven and the kings and queens of England.
My younger brother and I were known as “The Littles” — until we were well into our teens. Andrew, at three, was tow-headed, ropy-legged and two-fisted. His first words were “I won’t,” and from then on he delivered his opinions in a voice that, though high-pitched, was unwavering in its confidence.
I was marked down at an early age as the “sensitive” one. My first report card — from the Happy Days Nursery School — expressed concern over my “excessively emotional” nature. Patrick, less charitably, dubbed me “The Fastest Cry in the West.”
My mother tried very hard over the years to cure me of this disabling sensitivity. She feared that I lacked the necessary toughness for life in the “R.W.” (her own shorthand for the Real World). Once, while I was in the middle of an episode, she held out a goldfish bowl. Smiling, she delivered the punchline: “It’s a pity to waste those salty tears — let’s save them for the fish!” (Apparently, she had read a magazine article that recommended this “laughing cure” as a remedy for melancholy children. I must have been a particularly hard case, for it had the opposite effect on me.)
My father at this time had recently retired from public office, after a highly publicized and principled battle, to which he never referred. The exact nature of his present occupation remained one of the great unsolved mysteries of our childhood. There was always some inviolable corner of the house to which he would retire after breakfast to pore over his important papers. From time to time we would hear him whistling some ancient air from his youth. Later in the day, he would sit in his chair on the porch and do the cryptic crosswords, or read thick books on science or mathematics.
When we had finished opening up the cottage, and had been for our first swim in the cold lake of early summer, on that day or the next it would be time to revisit all our favourite wild places: Blueberry Mountain, and Waterlily Bay, and Spy Point, and the beaver dam, and the marsh where the bulrushes grew.
And then it was time to go and see the Moirs, who lived next door in a modest grey bungalow, with a pine-cone strewn lawn sloping down to the lake.
Mr. Moir’s garden was a kind of miracle in the wilderness, nurtured over many years in thin soil and rocks and in spite of the harsh climate. At this time the peonies would be in bloom and the branches of the lilac heavy with flowers. Later in the summer there would be delphiniums and foxgloves, sweet peas and columbines and a profusion of day lilies. There was a stand of raspberry canes, and raised beds of lettuce, rhubarb, squash, tomatoes and corn. Near the water was a large and reeking mulch pile.
When I was small, I spent a part of every day visiting with Mr. Moir, helping him with his tasks and learning from him about plants and animals and much else besides.
Mr. Moir had been a high school inspector on the Prairies during the Depression, working in remote areas of Saskatchewan, travelling by train and horse-drawn carriage. Upon retiring, he and Mrs. Moir had moved to Kingston, Ontario, to be near their son.
He was in his seventies now, a stooped figure in faded flannel trousers. He wore a hearing aid, and a big floppy hat to cover his bald pate. He carried a cane because of a childhood bout with polio that had shrivelled his leg. This disability seemed hardly to trouble him. It certainly did not prevent him from pushing his wheelbarrow deep into the surrounding woods, or from mending the dock, or chopping wood. When we gardened, he would simply pull himself along the ground as he worked.
Mrs. Moir was a small woman with very pale skin and bright black eyes. She suffered from chronic ill health. Her manner was soft and gentle, like someone from another century, as was her way of dress–long skirts and high-neck blouses. Once a week the Moirs went into town in their canoe to exchange their library books. Mrs. Moir always sat in the bow, holding a parasol in her gloved hands.
Between our two cottages, running down to the little bay, was a thick hedge. Soon after we arrived that summer I was five, I discovered a strange relic there: an old stone fireplace, half-hidden beneath the leaves. Moss and lichen clung to the rough-hewn stones in patches of black velvet and scaly grey, and brilliant dots of mustard-yellow.
I asked my father about it, as he sat on the porch with his crossword puzzle. He looked up. “Well, that’s Uncle Joe Spondoolak’s house,” he said, and went back to the crossword. “Who’s that?” I asked. My father put down his pencil. “Well . . . he was an elf, or so they say. There used to be a cottage there and when that burned down only the fireplace was left. And then Uncle Joe moved in and made it into a home for bachelor elves . . . Long time ago, of course.” And that was all I could get out of him.
I went back to the fireplace and knelt down to look inside. Deep in the shadows of the cool interior any number of doors might be hidden. I could almost hear the hum of busy elvish lives.
So I started leaving little gifts there for the elves: handfuls of wild strawberries, a daisy chain. And, overnight, the gifts would disappear. I found a little whisk broom and swept the hearth, and I filled some hazelnut shells with water for the elves to drink. And I drew a picture of myself and left it under a rock. These things, too, disappeared.
And then one morning, as I was on my way to visit Mr. Moir, I found something waiting for me. It was a neatly folded piece of pink paper, wedged in between the mossy stones. I turned it over and over in my fingers. Its edges were stuck down with a round seal of wax, stamped with an “N.” And on the outside were some words, written in ink in a spidery hand, a little blurred by the dew.
I ran to find Paulina. She was in the laundry room, feeding sheets through the ringer. I waved the paper at her and shouted over the noise, “I found it on the fireplace! What does it say? What does it say?” She wiped her hands and took it from me, peering at the inscription: “Not to be opened by any but Susan Coyne.” She gave it back and I broke the seal.
From the Hardcover edition.