A Student of Weatherby Elizabeth Hay
A Student of Weather is a brilliant first novel by acclaimed storywriter Elizabeth Hay. Already a best seller in Canada, it tells the story of the rivalry between two contrasting sisters and of the stranger who changes both their lives forever. Spanning thirty years, it opens in the Prairie Dust Bowl of the 1930s and, later, in the decades following the war,/i>… See more details below
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A Student of Weather is a brilliant first novel by acclaimed storywriter Elizabeth Hay. Already a best seller in Canada, it tells the story of the rivalry between two contrasting sisters and of the stranger who changes both their lives forever. Spanning thirty years, it opens in the Prairie Dust Bowl of the 1930s and, later, in the decades following the war, moves back and forth between Ottawa and New York City.
Maurice Dove is a visitor to the Saskatchewan farm of widower Ernest Hardy. The relationship he forms with Hardy's daughtersthe beautiful, virtuous Lucinda and the dark, intelligent, younger Norma-Joycegives rise to an act of betrayal that throws into relief the deep-rooted enmity between them. Norma-Joyce's life, from the time she is eight, is fuelled by her obsessive (and unrequited) love for Maurice Dove. Later, in pursuing her life as an artist, she makes discoveries about her past that bring the story full-circle.
Hay's evocation of place is palpable, vivid; her characters at once eccentric and familiar. Norma-Joyce, once a strange, dark, self-possessed child, becomes a woman who learns something of self-forgiveness and of the redemptive power of art. Hay's writing is spare yet richly textured, dark and erotic. The physical and emotional landscapes she portrays evoke tragic and comic surprises, and teach us about the lasting imprint of first love.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Hay's second book of stories, Small Change, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the Trillium Award, and the Rogers Communication Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. She has won a National magazine Award Gold Medal for Fiction and a Western Magazine Award, written two books of creative nonfiction, and her short stories have appeared in many Canadian magazines and anthologies. She lives in Ottawa, where she is at work on her next novel.
New York Times Book Review
“Hay exposes the beauty simmering in the heart of harsh settings with an evocative grace that brings to mind Annie Proulx.…I was so moved by Norma Joyce’s painful, haunting journey to wisdom – and Elizabeth Hay’s telling of it – that I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again.”
–The Washington Post
“This is a book to break (and warm) your heart over and over.…Hay’s language is precise, economical and evocative. In A Student of Weather, every word counts.”
“In stunningly precise and suggestive prose, Hay tells a story of obsession and rivalry.…Hay’s yearning, suffering women have the lit-from-within emotional intensity of D.H. Lawrence’s.…Brilliant.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A brilliant exploration of the universal themes of pain and betrayal and survival, rendered with such a sure, deft touch that Hay seems to be discovering new literary territory…”
–Quill & Quire (starred review)
“Be warned! You won’t be able to set this seductive book down until you’ve finished – sadder, wiser, and gladder to be alive.”
“In elegant and exacting prose, Elizabeth Hay lays bare the perilous power of love and all that we prefer to keep hidden about ourselves. Unsparing and unsettling, this exceptional first novel shines.”
“A Student of Weather is complicated, compelling, and beautifully told.”
“Hay’s contemplative yet dramatic ballad to beauty, autonomy, and creativity is akin to the work of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende…enthralling.…”
–Booklist (starred review)
“More than any other forecast, A Student of Weather reads the signs that mark the blessings and curses of persistence.…”
“Hay’s book both captivates and astonishes. Read A Student of Weather and rejoice.”
–London Free Press
“Compelling and highly original.…”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bad weather erupts and the result is the creation of an unforgettable fictional world.…This is a book to savour, to ponder and to read a second and third time.…A Student of Weather is first-class: heartfelt, with a sureness of touch and beauty of expression rare in fiction today.”
“This is a wise book, artful and impressively intelligent.…”
–Globe and Mail
“Hay has created a character who burrows into your mind and stays there. Norma Joyce is not larger than life, she is life, and she comes to us fully formed in this rich, compelling, satisfying novel.”
“A work of rare beauty and integrity. Hay has created a heroine, Norma Joyce Hardy, who will linger in the mind long after the last chapter ends.”
–Ottawa X Press
“Elizabeth Hay has intelligence coming out of her fingertips – integrity, insight, and wonder in every paragraph of her writing.…She connects. She stirs and provokes.”
- Counterpoint Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.81(w) x 8.57(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an ExcerptA Student of Weather
By Elizabeth Hay Counterpoint Press
Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Hay
All right reserved.
Some nights she still goes over every detail, beginning with the weather and proceeding to the drop of blood on the old sheet her quick wish for a man with straight white teeth and red lips and then his arrival. His voice outside, her hand on the coin of frostbite on his cheek, his gift of an apple.
Everyone said it was eastern weather, the snow so deep and even that the carol was always in her mind, and she asked her father and sister who St. Stephen was, but as usual they didn't know. The absence of wind, a certain mildness in the air, a certain depth: instead of cutting sideways, the weather came down. People said this was the way it snowed in Ontario, and she thought, since I cannot get to Ontario, Ontario has come to me.
Everything was quiet except for the awful spoon against the awful pot. Lucinda, making porridge downstairs. It was early and the sound carried easily up to the small dark child she used to be and remembers being. She heard her father go down, she heard him speak to Lucinda, she heard the spoon start up again with the circular scrape of bad luck for which there was only one antidote that she knew of. Over the side of the bed snaked her thin white arm.
Light entered the room. It came through thefour-paned east-facing window packed along the edges with strips of sheet, every window in the house the same, all bandaged against the weather. It picked out the chest of drawers, the straight-backed chair, the double bed, of which one side was empty and the other occupied, but not by much, she was so little, and it changed in tone from brown to grainy white like a screen before the movie begins. In this pre-movie light her little fingers were busy.
From under the bed came her wooden box, from inside the box a small package in brown wax paper, from inside the package a heel of fruitcake so moist and rich that when she eased a bit of it away from the paper it left behind a mat of golden crumbs.
Soon she'll go downstairs and say good morning Lucinda through nearly closed lips so that her sister will not smell her breath, but in the meantime she pictures herself running away to the apple-strewn east like Claudette Colbert running lickety-split to Clark Gable.
Nineteen thirty-eight, and snow is a change from dust. There have been times when so much dust has fallen so continuously that when she rose from bed in the morning her head left behind a white oval on the pillowcase. Towns have dried out except for their names: Swift Current, Gull Lake, Maple Creek, Willow Bend. Hotel towels are so thin, a traveller's nose goes through the other side.
Here you find almost every extreme. The coldest winters and the hottest summers, the longest days and the shortest, the richest soil and the poorest, the biggest views of the simplest skies, the least rain, the most wind, the best light and the worst dust in this best and worst of all worlds. Heads or tails. The wide plain of southwestern Saskatchewan rolls away to the east forever and away to the west, but not so far, before rising into a cold dry Scotland. It's the sort of landscape you can run your finger over, an apparently flat surface that's less flat than almost-even, and it's the almost that makes for its beauty and the even that lays it open to the wildest weather. Frosts in June, tornadoes in July, hailstorms in August, and drought all year long.
It's a bit like Christmas. What will be in your weather stocking today? Oh joy. A plague of sawflies.
Children grew up never tasting an apple and thinking Ontario was heaven.
At breakfast Lucinda drops a knife. Her father looks up in instant irritation only to soften when he sees who's to blame. Of course Norma Joyce notices.
But noticing isn't enough. She has to say, "It wasn't me this time," in a tone of four-square insistence. A child who always has her fists up. Who has to let everybody know she hasn't missed a trick. Who has to make everybody uncomfortable.
She is eight years old. Afflicted by early puberty, pencilled in by body hair, as weather-sensitive as a fish. At night she lies in bed belting out "Good King Wenceslas" until Lucinda comes to the foot of the stairs and says HUSH. Then there is only the sound of the treadle going up and down under Lucinda's slippered foot. Lucinda sews and dark hairs appear on Norma Joyce. In the morning she looks at herself and feels sewn inside out, threads left hanging by a clumsy child or an ill-intentioned adult. She plays with the tufts of hair under her arms.
They had been reading "Rapunzel." Lucinda was perched on the side of the bed, Norma Joyce was lying back with bare arms cradled behind her head because it was summer, and Lucinda stopped in mid-word and bent over to look. Touched the shadow in her sister's armpit (skin as soft as talcum powder) and Norma Joyce's own fingers went up to feel.
Eight years old and still with all her baby teeth. Something out of season. A child leaping ahead in a kind of gulping prematurity the aggressiveness of summer, the loss of light spring air. She was foliage in the wrong place, a jumble of weeds growing out of someone's back.
Midafternoon now, and everyone's indoors. She is at the kitchen table absorbed in The Flopsy Bunnies, Ernest is filling the kettle (afloat on tea should be the words on his gravestone), Lucinda is in the rocking chair darning socks on a wooden egg. She reaches into her ragbag and pulls out a piece of old sheet.
"Norma Joyce? Here. Make a hem."
There they are, the two of them, seated in the kitchen in this quiet time before he arrives. Beautiful, saintly Lucinda interrupting and believing she has the right to interrupt because all she sees is a tiny book in the hands of a tiny, out-of-proportion child whose forehead puts Elizabeth the First's to shame, whose earlobes could double as pillows, whose baggy eyes could sleep an army. All she sees is a child who never helps.
"I hate sewing," comes the plain, passionate answer, not calculated to offend, maybe, but offensive.
"Don't say hate on a Sunday," and Lucinda offers her a threaded needle.
"Oh Norma," softly, "for pity's sake," and she puts down her sock again. Both sisters watch the fat drop of blood spread across the poor old sheet. It forms a little red bird on a white background.
The sky drops. Big flakes of snow. Then wind. The first blizzard of the year puts an end to peaceful weather. For twelve hours, snow like flour blows sideways. At five o'clock they have potato soup, buttered bread, glasses of milk, bread pudding: a white meal in white weather, after which Lucinda picks up the lantern and heads for the woodshed, but not before turning to speak in that schoolteachery voice of hers.
"Don't stir until all your pudding is gone. Norma Joyce? Are you listening?"
Ernest has moved to the rocking chair and taken out his pipe. No help to be had from there, but when has Norma Joyce ever asked her father for help? This is her evening and her morning, the rotting-away looseness of milk-sodden bread that follows the slimy lumpiness of oatmeal porridge. She puts the pudding into her mouth and gags. Oh the horror.
And then, as luck sometimes has it, the salvation. She hears voices. Lucinda's voice and a man's. She slips on her coat, her mittens, and goes outside. Her sister is on the porch cradling wood (old fence posts, scavenged and split up into kindling) against her chest and holding the lantern high with her free hand so that the tall stranger is easy to see.
He comes right out of the wind and snow, his interested eyes on beautiful Lucinda, a coin of frostbite on his cheek. For a moment the two sisters look down at his relieved and smiling face, then he climbs the steps to meet them. Just before reaching the top he bends over to knock the snow off his trousers. In that moment, Norma Joyce steps forward. She slips off her mitten and puts her warm hand on his cheek.
"Most people," he says, taking in the odd little girl, "would just say, hey, you've got frostbite."
Inside, he mops the melting snow off his hair and neck, then takes an Ontario apple out of his knapsack. He polishes it against his flannel shirt, sets it on the kitchen table, says he's only sorry he doesn't have more. His name is Maurice Dove.
She will remember the hard white penny. It feels like congealed wax and turns eraser-pink in the warm kitchen. She will remember touching it a second time, when it's puffy and hot, before saying with considerable satisfaction that from now on this will be the first place to freeze. "It's going to freeze all the time," she says.
He wants to know if all little girls are so bloodthirsty. She has no answer for that. She just has the triumph of having surprised him into noticing her.
* * *
Two sisters fell down the same well, and the well was Maurice Dove. He stayed two weeks, he returned twice more the same year. Three times they were dipped into his handsome presence.
In the evenings he sat at the kitchen table with a faded red shawl over his shoulders, writing in his notebook or reading, and the others joined him one by one. Norma Joyce came first, bringing Beatrix Potter or Hurlbut's Story of the Bible, then Ernest came in from the barn, then Lucinda from upstairs where she had been folding sheets. The house felt warmer with him inside it; the kitchen glinted from extra sources of light: the second coal-oil lamp beside the sink, the brighter Aladdin lamp on the table, the white collar around Lucinda's neck and the tortoise-shell combs in her hair, the extra spoon beside the glazed brown teapot, and the ring on Maurice's hand, which moved across the pages of lined white paper.
"Is that a diamond?" the little girl asked, and he smiled, "You don't miss much, do you?", extending a hand she'll see again when she sees Marlon Brando in a movie, a square hand with long tapered fingers, an outdoor hand with indoor know-how.
In he came, smelling of the outside and of travel, and here she is, reaching out to touch the gold band inset with a tiny diamond star. His middle finger is calloused and ink-stained, the fingernails worn but a diamond ring. He must be rich.
She memorizes every inch of him. Every inch of floppy, thick, brown hair, blue eyes and milky neckline, slender hips and slippered feet, and long, flat, clever fingers. No matter whether riffling through papers or pulling things out of his knapsack, he holds his fingers the way a piano player isn't supposed to.
In the morning he gets up before everyone else "to make summer," he says, by adding coal to the range and grinding coffee in the hand grinder on the wall. From his small personal supply he makes enough for everyone, pouting himself half a cup, which he sniffs long and luxuriously.
Norma Joyce says, "It's like you're sniffing flowers."
This was his greatest gift: he relaxed you into talking. He drew blood from conversational stone. And if you weren't stone, if on the contrary you were susceptible, then you were putty in his hands.
"Tell me a secret," he said to Norma Joyce.
They were alone in the kitchen. He had poured her a small cup of coffee, a demi-tasse, he called it, and added a generous amount of sugar. She was sitting in her chair, the one on the inside of the table nearest the wall so that it wasn't easy to get up and help.
She said, "I have a special room."
He was listening. He waited.
"Nobody but me goes into it."
"Here?" he asked. "Or far away?"
"I'll show it to you. If you want."
It was the room off the front hall, the study once used in the evenings by her book-loving mother, who would sit comfortably at the desk, correcting homework from the two or three students she tutored in English or Chemistry or Math. A quiet room of blues and greys. The window looked east. Its curtains were a faded blue chintz; the walls were papered in a pattern of blue and grey bands separated by white lines; her mother's desk, to the left of the window, was a well-used surface, but tidy. From the doorway Norma Joyce watched the slope of her back and the angle of her head as she worked, knowing that eventually she would turn and smile and hold out her arms. She smelled of ink and Evening of Paris, this lovely woman who every Sunday dabbed perfume behind her ears, and Norma Joyce's too. For the rest of the week they would sniff each other to see whose scent lasted longest. (Norma Joyce's, because her skin held fragrance the way it held moisture.)
Florida May was her mother's name. Florida May would take her by the hand up to the room she shared with Lucinda at the top of the stairs. Midway down the hall a ladder continued the ascent up through a trap door to the windowless attic where the thin, black, many-elbowed stovepipes rising from the kitchen range and from the Nautilus heater in the sitting room reconnected and burst through the roof into the prairie sky.
Norma Joyce began with a small blue bowl. This happened the summer after her mother died. She found it drifted up against the side of the barn and put it on the floor beside her mother's desk (A schoolteacher, Maurice said to Lucinda. That accounts for your name) and let it fill with dust. Then she moved it to the corner table and set around it the stray objects she collected in her wanderings: a small shoe; a baby's soother; pieces of wood, glass, metal, crockery; small skulls and bones; smooth stones; buttons; pieces of yarn and string. Dust fell from every direction, and over time the corner turned into a dust sculpture, a shrine of sorts. For a while a spider, as still as a little grey glove, lived in one corner of this weather room.
"I don't mind," she said when Maurice picked up the small shoe, "so long as you put it back in the very same spot."
Even a fraction of an inch off and she shared the object's sense of disturbance. There was an exactitude to her arrangements that any thief would understand.
Her sense of order was the opposite of Lucinda's. For Lucinda order was erasure, for Norma Joyce it was accumulation. Each object had its home on a shelf or table or some corner of the floor, and its biography in her secret notebook. Each bit of yarn, colourful button, broken bit of china was identified: what it was, where she had found it, and when. Her favourite stone was a smooth black one she had found in the summer of 1937 beside the Hayden well. She showed it to Maurice, whose level of interest was entirely satisfying, then put it back into its outline, wishing she could do the same thing every night with her own head; but Lucinda was always at work shaking pillows, smoothing sheets, removing dust all over the house except here. This room Lucinda never entered. By unspoken agreement it was left to Norma Joyce the way you set to one side a bit of fruit or sugar for a wasp.
"You're a natural student," he said to Norma Joyce, and it was the first compliment she had received since her mother died.
He was a student too, sent out from Ottawa to study the weather. In Willow Bend people said, That's Ottawa for you, sending us a boy. But they couldn't resist his charm, and so right away he heard about many things, including the Hardy farm. People said, You came to learn about the weather, tell us why Ernest Hardy gets all the rain.
It was a magnet for moisture, this farm to the east of Willow Bend, a spot of dew in a dry field, a small hill that attracted rain and snow when nothing fell anywhere else. Didn't Zeus once take the form of a golden shower? Maybe Lucinda's beauty captivated the rain. Or this thought occurred to him later maybe the small, dark, unpredictable sister was the source of all the weather.
It was the morning after he arrived. January 7, 1938, the year of a blue moon in January and again in March. Out of long habit Lucinda set the table with cups and bowls upside-down to keep out the dust. Norma Joyce began to tackle her porridge and Maurice, to her enormous disappointment, said yes, he'd have another bowl, thank you Lucinda.
And so she asked aggressively, "Who was St. Stephen?"
He turned to the little girl with the eyes that didn't let up. Blue eyes, and questions out of the blue.
"St. Stephen? They stoned him to death. He was the first Christian martyr. And do you know who held the coats of the men who stoned him?"
She shook her head.
"St. Paul. That was when he was still Saul of Tarsus, before he saw the light."
"How do you know that?"
"Because I was born on the Feast of Stephen. Maurice Stephen Dove at your service," with a smile in Lucinda's direction.
"I was born on March 29th in 1929," said Norma Joyce.
"I'll remember that," and she believed him, which was her first mistake. He added, "Now they say he suffered from migraines."
"Migraines?" Lucinda looked up quickly.
"The light that blinded him. A headache."
"I know," she said.
"You mean the light on the road to Damascus?" asked Norma Joyce, although she knew perfectly well that was what he meant. She might not know about the saints but everybody knew about the road to Damascus.
"Yup," he said, swallowing his porridge. "When he was carrying that letter he didn't deliver."
"Norma Joyce. Let our guest eat in peace." Then, raising the coffee pot over his cup, "My sister goes for days without saying a word, then all of a sudden she'll question you to death."
"I don't mind," he said. But his words weren't the comfort they might have been, because he was so busy looking at Lucinda.
He had come downstairs wondering if full daylight might reveal a flaw, but no, the more daylight the better. Glorious golden-red hair, slender shoulders, measured quickness, an apparently serene energy that seemed almost Chinese, and beyond vanity as she poured coffee, served porridge, did to her sister's hair what she took half the time to do to her own: fashioned a braid that she wound twice around her head.
Her sore, chapped hands she treated like a child who tries your patience. Thorough, quick, no-nonsense, and the lid was back on the jar of dark yellow Vaseline.
Her way with him was no different. She only glanced, then looked away from his rosebud mouth, his lanky slenderness and warm smell. Retreating in order to adjust. And so she missed the morning conversation when Norma Joyce learned so much that was surprising. He knew their Ottawa uncle. He knew exactly where Uncle Dennis lived because his street ran parallel to Uncle Dennis's street. In his notebook he sketched a series of lines, Carlyle above Fulton, and Woodbine a dotted laneway on the right, and the canal a curving line to the left.
"He knows Uncle Dennis!" Norma Joyce told her.
By the time Maurice was ready to leave, Lucinda would be interested. This was her pattern: tugging carefully at every knot, pressing the wrapping paper flat, saving everything for future use, including her own anticipation. More than any amount of having, anticipation, laced with duty, seemed to please her.
Golden Lucinda. She rose before dawn, lit one lamp and cleaned the glass chimneys of the other four before setting to work, as unflagging in her advance as the elves who toil while everyone sleeps. The weather made her job Herculean by filling every nook with dust and removing water from the scene, but she rose to the challenge, nearly as tall as Maurice and blessed with the kind of prairie eyes that can drill a speck at any distance. Nothing escaped her. Walls, shelves, ceiling, floor, shiny black stove, school map of Canada above the treadle sewing machine, table without an oilcloth because she couldn't stand the look of them, black walnut rocking chair and armchair that once furnished the reception room of dentist-uncle Dennis, who lived in semi-retired splendour near the canal, he said, and they all imagined the endless brimming water.
In the corner of the kitchen (as Norma Joyce will one day see again in tiny Manhattan apartments) was an Ernest innovation from the days when he still thought big: a bathtub shipped by crate from Eaton's in Winnipeg, enamelled white on the inside, painted dark green on the outside, with four splayed feet. A pipe attached to the plug went through the floor to the yard outside; a fitted wooden cover served as a shelf for buckets and milk pails. Every Saturday Lucinda heated water for baths and was astonished by her sister's smooth olive skin. Where did she come from, this intact child whose skin never split, whose hair never tangled, whose teeth never ached?
Her own breath smelled of cloves, an old remedy to press a clove against the aching tooth like a consoling thought, and for a moment she stopped her dusting and dropped into a chair. People said she was a wonder, no one could touch her, no one could lay a finger on her: the most beautiful woman in southwestern Saskatchewan and the best housekeeper. The thought was a dream suddenly remembered. She was in a large room with two tall windows; she went to the first window and looked out at a garden in flower, she went to the next window and the same garden was buried under snow.
The dream was so clear, even now as she rocked back and forth, that she dwelt on the strangeness of seeing summer from one window and winter from the other.
"What are you thinking about?" asked Norma Joyce, surprised to see her sister seated and lost in thought.
"I had such a strange dream last night," and she went on to describe it.
"Luce? I had the same dream!"
A coincidence that might have drawn them closer but didn't. Lucinda felt irritated, though she couldn't have said why competition with her sister was the farthest thing from her mind. A common mistake of older sisters.
She stroked the arms of the rocker, running her fingers along the grooves on either side and stirring up other images, though these were waking ones. She thought about all the people who had gripped these same arms in apprehension before entering her uncle's dental chamber.
Framed by the black walnut chair, lost in thought, her sewing forgotten in her lap, she could have been the wishful queen in the old fairy tale. Remember the ebony frame around the snowwhite linen on which the drop of blood so tellingly falls?
* * *
The sitting-room walls are covered with flowered wallpaper whitewashed by Lucinda one nervous summer. Through the white, like hairs just under the skin, you can see the faint blue of what used to be roses. Lucinda touches the wall the way she touches everything to measure the dust then, hand at her side, she rubs her fingertips against her thumb like a dog scratching its ear.
She knows the pleasure of a wet cloth over a sticky table, an eraser over a blackboard, a hot iron over a wrinkled surface. The pleasure of order, routine, work.
Endless rows of knitting, endless dustings, endless buckets of water shape and soothe her days, her energy some magical jar that never empties until it's shattered. She was fifteen when the headaches began, and the pattern never varied and nor did the surprise. A sense of well-being lulled her, fooled her, opened the gates wide for the hordes of shiny zigzags that came galloping up to her eyes. The pain was always a surprise.
Ernest scrambled eggs. Norma Joyce set the table without being asked. Lucinda lay in bed facing away from the window, over which she had hung a dark blanket. After twenty-four wakeful, nauseated hours she fell into a deep sleep, then woke up refreshed, and cleaned like a fury.
Titian hair, Maurice tells Lucinda. The compliment sending her to the dictionary where she finds Tishri, tissue, Ticino; too shy to ask for the spelling. Years later, overhearing a docent in the National Art Gallery say Titian, she follows him around until the end of his tour, when he writes down the name for her. In the library she looks an especially long time at an illustration of The Venus of Urbino, struck by the contrast between the woman's warm nakedness and the servant's heavy garments, and reminded again of seeing summer and winter from different windows of the same dream room.
Like any good guest, Maurice is full of stories. He tells them about Cole Porter's fall the year before, and his mother's letter of condolence since she once worked as an atmosphere girl at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway. He says, "You see, I come by my love of weather naturally."
He tells warm-weather stories, describing his first hurricane when he was a boy in Florida: trees stripped of leaves and bark, rain like a milky-green wall, and afterwards, in battered branches, tropical birds blown all the way from the Caribbean. He tells about the time the Seminole Indians noticed an unseasonable blooming of sawgrass and moved north and west of the Everglades even as rabbits and rats moved in the same direction and birds stopped singing and flew that way too; a week later a wall of water swept over everything. He tells about whole civilizations lost to the weather, about a city near the Tigris and Euphrates buried under silt and uncovered after thousands of years, about mummified bodies emerging from Asian sand with shreds of silk still clinging, only to be covered once again by blowing sand.
That's why I'm here, he says. Weather catastrophes are my field and this is the nearest catastrophe.
Suddenly Norma Joyce sees herself as the star of a large-scale accident. She should be written up in the paper along with Bing Crosby's diet and Lana Turner's legs.
Not everyone finds Maurice's buoyancy so attractive. Ernest looks at him and thinks young. He thinks student. He thinks eastern bonehead.
Ernest Rupert Hardy. Quiet, stocky, compact, courteous to strangers, bad-tempered at home. He shares Lucinda's fair skin and hair, and abiding love of work He loved the work, people will say of him and Norma Joyce's unruly heart.
He cannot enter a room without making his presence felt, a man too wounded and ambitious to ever retreat gracefully into the background, a lucky man, but resentful, because good luck robs him of some of the sympathy he thinks he deserves. Always he needs a cup of tea, a gesture of respect, an acknowledgement of his importance, this self-indulgent man who stares out the window like General Eeyore eyeing his patch of weather. Gloomy, isolated, sorry for himself, and stubborn.
Florida May Lamb was putting flowers on her mother's grave the first time Ernest Hardy saw her. He should have taken the hint. That was in 1919, the year of the Spanish flu, when they had to tear boards off porches to keep up with the demand for coffins. Having come west to buy land and make a place for himself, and knowing a good thing when he saw it, he married Florida May within the year and he certainly loved her, though not as much as he loved his big brother Dennis. Uncle Dennis was twelve years older than Ernest and a bachelor, prosperous, wavy-haired, meticulous; he arrived for a visit in 1925, and fell in love at first sight because there wasn't any clutter, only huge sky and lifting prairie that opened so wide the dentist said ah!
He promised to join them in five years if Ernest would leave untilled a wide stretch of land for future orchards. We'll be the first, he said, to show it can be done. And so it happened that the Hardy farm included a sizable portion of virgin prairie, and that made all the difference.
Four years later came the crash of 1929. In his place, Uncle Dennis sent furniture, barrels of apples, pounds of fruitcake; and then, one ill-fated winter, a small box of venison jerky.
Dust to dust, Ernest liked to mutter, staring out the window. And under his breath, French, when Maurice Dove had the gall to drink coffee at night rather than tea.
Maurice doesn't let it bother him. He tells himself you have to be like a cork in water, you can't let difficult people pull you down. A buoyancy inherited from his mother, the atmosphere girl whose parents left Quebec for the cotton mills in Massachusetts when she was three. She was the oldest of nine children, and another was on its way when she made her break, taking off for New York City at the age of seventeen. There she met shy Walter Dove, who was working for his father's textile company in Montreal, and from time to time came down to New York on business. He always stayed at the Ritz-Carlton, eating in the dining room and every night ordering the same dinner of fish and chips followed by a bowl of vanilla ice cream. One night, at a performance of The Student Prince, he saw Annette Tremblay trip over her green chiffon dress, and his eyes cleared.
Walter took home a bride whose hatred of winter gave him the excuse he needed. So long, l'hiver. Au revoir, suckers. Off they went to Florida, where a year later Maurice was born on the edge of the Everglades.
As a boy he spent his days looking at birds, stealing their eggs, examining plants. At nine he was so shocked that his mother didn't know the names of the weeds in her garden that he made her a book called Dove Botany. At ten he was reading The Voyage of the Beagle. At eleven his grandfather died, and at twelve he was living in Ottawa to be close, but not too close, to his old granny in Montreal. By then a mink coat had reconciled Annette to winter weather.
She told her son, "Ottawa is a lucky place because it's built where three rivers meet, and you are a lucky boy because you're one of a family of three. Don't," she told him, "don't ever get tied down by a big family. I mean this. Don't have children before you're fifty."
He doesn't intend to. The pitter-patter of little feet is not what he hears in his head. Rather, Let's all clap for Maurice Dove, and a large audience is on its feet. He can't restrain his smile. He smiles at the foolishness and at the pleasure of it.
His voice, Norma Joyce will hear again when she sees Gene Kelly in a movie. An odd, light, husky voice that excites her the way layers of tissue paper around a gift excite her. Her own voice is low.
"A whiskey tenor," he teases.
She stares at him hard, then grins such an expansive grin that he discovers her strangest characteristic: her gums are the colour of Coca-Cola. The effect is astonishing. Her face brightens while her gums darken just like Jock's, his old dog.
Night and Day, he thinks, and goes to the piano. In the sitting room, against the wall, is the Mason and Risch brought out from Ontario by Florida May's parents. He plays Cole Porter while the sisters stand on either side of him: Norma Joyce, so unabashed, so forthright in her admiration that no one takes her seriously, and Lucinda, holding back but then, she has beauty on her side.
Excerpted from A Student of Weather by Elizabeth Hay Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Hay. Excerpted by permission.
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