Read an Excerpt
Your eyes are very dark. And sad. They’re so sad. Why is that? What have You done that’s so terrible? You’re okay – what am I saying, of course You’re okay. You don’t have anything to be sad about. Cheer up. Dry those tears. Turn that frown upside down. You can do it. You can do anything.
So why are You crying? There, now You’ve got me doing it too.
Water. Tears are water. All around me is water, rising, slopping against everything. Rising inside of my lungs, choking me. Just like it was the last time. Oh, Mama. All that commotion, and I can’t breathe. Cold, so cold.
A long time ago now.
How much has happened, how many births and deaths and givings in marriage, heartaches and headaches, love and laughter, wars and breakfasts. How much life.
Harriet’s always telling everyone how much I love life. My daughter, don’t blame me for the name; it was Robbie’s choice. He laughed when I suggested Gert, my best friend in grade school. No, I’m serious, I said, and he laughed some more. Mother loves life, says Harriet. A wonderful woman, my daughter. I hope I had as much energy when I was her age.
Here she is now, standing beside You. Does she see You? Her mouth is open but she’s not talking to You. She reaches towards me, huge white hands – she got them from Robbie too, along with the name. My hands are fine and delicate, pretty hands, my mother used to say. How could anyone mistake you for a boy, with such pretty hands, my baby? Pretty hands grabbing her veil, her big hat, her cambric handkerchief. Oh dear, I’m drowning again.
Harriet wipes my face. It feels nice. She says, There there, but I don’t know where she means. This is a hospital, there’s only here here.
Her hands are as cold as grade school. I used to get there before the teacher, who came in a cart all the way from Cobourg, six miles each way, almost two hours in the winter. I had to walk a mile down the Harwood Road to Precious Corners, and by the time I got to the schoolhouse I’d be frozen. A beautiful time of day, the sun rising over snow-covered fields. But cold. First one to school had to light the stove. The kindling used to smell of mice and dust. The fire was friendly and warm. Sometimes the boys used to throw each other’s homework in.
Four years old and no daddy. He’s off at The War, my mama told me. So was my friend Gert’s daddy. He was a farmer too, like my daddy. Mama cried. So did Gert’s mama. She had red hair and a face like a harvest moon. What’s The War? I asked, but Mama wouldn’t answer. What’s The War? I asked the teacher. A terrible thing.
I stayed away from the school in the spring, to help Mama and Victor with the farm. Lettuces and cabbages and corn to plant and pigs to feed, until the pigs all got sick. Six years old and no school. The teacher would come by in the evenings, to tell me what I’d missed. She brought the newspaper with her. There’s been a terrible battle at a place called Loos, she’d say. Or Gallipoli. All the places were strange sounding. Mama cried. The newspaper smelled like the inside of the teacher’s coat pocket. Then the letter arrived from Ottawa, saying Daddy was coming home. He got sick just like the pigs, but they died and he didn’t. Mama and I met him at the station in town, with all the neighbours. He hugged us and then limped over to talk to Gert’s mama. She fainted.
The leg wound got better, but Daddy was different inside. He didn’t care about anything any more, as if The War had taken out the part of him that minded. The seed corn came up too late, and the cabbages got holes in them, and he didn’t mind. Something broke into the barnyard in the middle of the night, maybe a coyote, and took our chickens, and he didn’t mind. My teacher died of the flu, and they closed the school until they could find someone else, and he didn’t mind. For days and days he wouldn’t get out of bed. Mama did her best with the harvest, and neighbours gave us help and meat, but the snow lasted a long time that year, and some days we had nothing to eat but cabbages and stale bread. We needed new furniture, Mama said so, and I needed new clothes, but Daddy said he didn’t mind the table and chairs we had. And Rose looks fine, he said. He sat by himself at the dinner table, close to the bottle of poison. That’s what Mama called it. His hair was grey.
I would have been ten when Victor broke his leg and couldn’t get up. I saw him first and ran to the house for help. Daddy came with me to the barn, stood outside the stall while Victor flopped around in his stall. I was crying. Daddy watched for a long time, then went to the house for his gun. I stayed in my room, and Daddy fired four shots at Victor’s head. I heard them. Horses have hard heads, you have to hit them just right. Victor would have told me that, later. Or do I mean Uncle Brian?
Is Dr. Berman in Your way? He’s new. He has an odd first name – Sunday, would it be – and he introduces himself by it. You could ask him to move, You know. Or You could blast him with the power of the worm that dieth not. I wonder what he’s saying to my daughter. His teeth are very expressive.
From the Trade Paperback edition.