The fire on the hillside shimmered in the night like a bed of dying embers in a fireplace. Pretty. Not frightening at all. The smell of woodsmoke in the air conjured ghosts of past campfires. Wieners and blackened marshmallows. Watery hot chocolate. But the fire was crawling across the top of our mountain, and was now beginning to head down the slope as well, threatening this valley of farms and acreages. Several huge columns of smoke loomed over the Ptarmigan Hills, blackening out the stars.
Across the field, Jude passed under the yard light, carrying a box from his kiln shed to the Toyota pickup. If I could see him, he could see me standing here in my mother’s kitchen in the T-shirt and panties I had worn to bed. I reached for the switch intending to turn off the light so he wouldn’t notice me as I watched him, but I changed my mind and pressed my hand to the glass of the window instead. The smell of cumin on him as we danced in the Turtle Valley hall all those years ago. The heat of his hand at my waist. His thigh against mine.
A bird bashed into the pane and I gasped and jumped back. It was a junco, scared off the mountain by the fire, I imagined. When it flew away I saw a figure reflected in the window, an old woman standing beside the door to my parents’ room behind me. I swung around to see who it was, but I was alone in the kitchen. My mother’s whistles and Dad’s snores still rang from behind the closed door to their room. When I looked back at the window I saw only my own face mirrored hazily there, but I had seen the old woman, there had been someone in the room with me, I was sure of it.
I grabbed my father’s robe from the bathroom and put it on as I started my search through the house for the woman, opening my sister Val’s old room first, where my son, Jeremy, slept on one of the two single beds, his face flushed and his hair wet with the heat. Then I eased open the door to my parents’ room, careful not to bump the fire extinguisher that hung by the door, as it often fell from its housing when someone brushed by it. My mother was curled into herself and nearly falling off her side of the bed, her eyes moving beneath their lids in dream. My father spooned her; his arms and legs were outlined under the covers. Then to my childhood room, where my husband, Ezra, snored, his arm hanging off the side of the double bed. I opened the door to the parlour, which my mother used only for storage now. The boxes and bags stacked on the piano. But there was no one else in the house.
I checked to make sure Jeremy was all right one more time, stopping a moment to smooth his sweaty forehead, then went back to the kitchen, where I turned on a burner and placed a small pot of milk on the stove in an effort to calm myself. The Vancouver Sun I had picked up that afternoon at a gas station in Golden now sat on the table; on the front page a headline about this fire read, If you have 10 minutes to flee a forest fire, what do you take? The whole of Turtle Valley had just been placed on evacuation alert, and if the fire did take a run down that slope toward the valley, we would be given only a ten-minute warning to get out. Not nearly enough time to salvage my parents’ precious possessions. So we had begun to gather them now, for storage at my sister Val’s place in Canoe, just outside of Salmon Arm, until the threat of evacuation was over.
All around me cardboard boxes and garbage bags were stacked hip-high. But even before this fire, the house was not simply cluttered but tumultuous, each room full of my mother’s accumulated thrift-shop finds of wicker baskets, dishes, bags of yarn, and stacks of books, as well as her contest winnings. My mother entered competitions of all kinds, and her mailbox was jammed with junk mail as a result. But she did sometimes win. There was a ceramic geisha from a contest advertised on a box of mandarin oranges; a barbecue from a local grocery store; an exercise bike from a sporting goods store. These items sat about the house unused, gathering dust and cat hair. She never gave them away as gifts, as both Val and I wished she would.
Ezra, Jeremy, and I had arrived in Turtle Valley earlier that evening, after driving all day from our farm outside Cochrane, Alberta, to help load my parents’ things and deal with their farm animals. As we passed through Salmon Arm, we had seen a crowd of tourists on the pier, watching the Martin Mars water bomber as it picked up water from Shuswap Lake to dump on this fire. Twenty or more firefighters in full gear, grimy in soot, were gathered at the Tim Hortons that we stopped at for washrooms and donuts. When we entered Turtle Valley, making the skip from pavement to the reddish gravel of Blood Road, we saw neighbours sitting out on lawn chairs, drinking beer and watching the fire creep over the hills above. The sun, shining weakly through the plumes of smoke, cast a thin yellow light over the trees of the hillsides, the pastures on the benchlands, and the farms in the narrow valley bottom. On one lawn, children jumped on a trampoline as a light dusting of ash fell around them.
I turned off the burner, poured the milk into a cup, and carried it to the window, where I stood for a time looking out at Jude’s yard. He carried another box to his truck, loading up his possessions for storage elsewhere, out of the path of the fire, just as we were. I hadn’t spoken to him for nearly six years. He had once come over to my parents’ place for coffee any time he saw our truck in the yard. But that last visit with him had been our first since Ezra’s stroke, and Ezra had still been very often confused, and prone to blurting out whatever thought came to mind. During a lull in the conversation he had asked Jude, “You come here to glance at Kat, don’t you?”
Jude’s cheeks reddened. “Well, yes, I came to see Kat. And you, and Gus and Beth.”
I put my hand on Ezra’s. “He comes over to visit Mom and Dad often. He’s not just here to see me.”
“You still want her, don’t you?”
Jude pushed back his chair. “Maybe I should go.”
“No, please, Jude,” I said. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. It’s the stroke talking.”
“It’s okay. Lillian is expecting me back home for lunch. It was good to see you Kat.” He nodded. “Ezra.” I watched him walk over to his place, following the path that wound past the old well. After that I waved to Jude when I saw him in town, or as I drove by his place on my way to my parents’ farm, but he didn’t come over during my visits home anymore, and I never summoned the courage to face him or Lillian, to stop in on them and say hello.
The fire extinguisher slipped from its mount on the wall and crashed into the open box below. I startled and turned, expecting to find my mother, as she often knocked that extinguisher down when she left her room, but there was no one there. I listened a moment to see if the noise had woken Jeremy, but the house remained still.
When I picked up the extinguisher to replace it, I saw the corner of my grandmother’s carpetbag lying beneath a stack of my mother’s writings in the box. This carpetbag was the one my grandmother carried in that last photograph of her, a picture taken by a street photographer who made a living snapping shots of people as they strode along the sidewalk in Kamloops. She was not expecting to be photographed–her brow was furrowed and her face was tense because, my mother told me, her hips and knees were so badly worn that each step she took was painful. Her outfit was very much of her time: the sensible black shoes, the big round buttons of her coat, the carpetbag slung over one arm. She had sewn the bag herself from flowered upholstery fabric, and fashioned it with curved wooden handles varnished the colour of butterscotch. Even though it wasn’t quite the sort of valise Mary Poppins carried, as a child I had begged my mother to let me play with it. But she always said no. “My mother was a very private woman,” she told me later, when I was in my twenties. “No one looked in her handbag, not even my father.”
“Surely she wouldn’t have minded us looking at her things once she was gone,” I said.
“I mind.” And she had kept it hidden from me, in her room.
As I pulled the carpetbag out of the box, my grandmother’s billfold and dozens of dead ladybugs fell from inside it to the floor. The insects often overwintered in this house, creeping inside in the fall through the many cracks in the door and window frames, and gathering into swarms within unused dresser drawers, just as they did outside under piles of leaves and other litter. But I had never before seen them in such great numbers.
I picked up my grandmother’s wallet. It was fat with bits of paper: shopping lists and receipts, the obituaries of lady friends, a few of the community notes my mother had written for the Promise paper. A tiny worn photograph–not much bigger than a good-sized postage stamp–was wrapped inside a carefully folded news story. It showed a slim, sharp-featured man, dressed in a white shirt with braces and armbands, leaning on a shovel. On the back, in my grandmother’s hand, was written: Valentine, June 1945, in his garden. Valentine Svensson, my father’s uncle. I unfolded the news story. My grandmother had written the date on the clipping: April 1, 1965.
Press-time News Flashes
Turtle Valley Man Missing
A private search in the Ptarmigan Hills revealed no sign of Turtle Valley resident John Weeks. Well-known area woodsman Valentine Svensson undertook the search along with his nephew Gustave Svensson last night on horseback. They were doing so at the request of Mr. Weeks’s wife after Mr. Weeks failed to return from a late evening hike into the hills. Mr. Svensson says he plans to continue the search today and overnight if necessary, saying that his efforts last night and early this morning were hampered by heavy rainfall.
This newspaper story was about my family. John Weeks was my grandfather and his wife was Maud Weeks, the grandmother who had owned this carpetbag; their daughter, Beth, was my mother. Gustave Svensson–Gus–was my dad. I looked out the window at the Ptarmigan Hills where my father and great uncle had searched for my grandfather. Against the night sky the fire on the ridge was the corona of the sun seen in an eclipse: flames like solar flares licked up into the black. Why hadn’t my parents ever told me the story of how my grandfather was lost? They were both such great storytellers; it seemed so unlikely that they would forget to tell me this.
I searched through the rest of the contents of the purse, looking for other newspaper clippings that would tell me when my grandfather was found, but there weren’t any. Instead I was surprised to find a tiny jar of sweetly scented rouge, something I never would have guessed my grandmother owned. The blush still carried its vibrant red colour; its perfume was spicy, flamboyant, not words my mother used to describe my grandmother. I hadn’t known her; I was only a few months old when she passed away of a heart attack inside the greenhouse not far from the house.
I put everything back in the bag and went to the window to finish my hot milk. My grandmother would have looked out this window to see Valentine walking across his yard, just as I now saw Jude carrying another box to his truck. My parents had inherited that land on Valentine’s death and even now, more than twenty years after they had sold the place to Jude Garibaldi, they continued to graze their small herd of cattle there, as they had when they farmed the land with Valentine. I could just make out the rooflines of the crumbling log home that had once belonged to Valentine, and a second two-storey farmhouse that had been left incomplete and never lived in, and was badly weathered by the time I played in it as my parents drank coffee with my great-uncle. There were many loose floorboards in that house, and I would pry them up with a hammer, searching for treasure. I found one of my Uncle Valentine’s old MacDonald’s tobacco cans under there once, but it was rusted shut, and I was on the hunt for dimes and marbles, so I left the can where it was, and never thought any more of it.
Movement pulled my attention to my grandmother’s ancient greenhouse, a shadow dancing against the dirty glass walls. The old woman? I hunted through the kitchen junk drawer until I found a flashlight and then slipped on my runners to step out onto the porch stairs. The lilac bush beside me was strung, as always, with clear Christmas lights; I plugged the cord into the outside socket and the bush lit up, casting a circle of light around me. Jude was crossing his yard, carrying another box to the truck. When he saw the lights on the lilac bush go on, he stopped and shifted the box in order to wave. I waved back. He stopped a moment looking my way before continuing on to the truck.
The potting shed was the entrance to the greenhouse, and as I passed through it, I lifted cobwebs out of my way. “Hello?” I said and shone a light into the corners. The shelves of pots, the crunch of dry soil and pot shards beneath my feet, the smell of dust and smoke. A spider sped over the back of my hand and, after taking a moment to enjoy the panic and tickle, I shook it off. Then I stepped over the threshold into the greenhouse itself. But the place was empty. My mother had not grown anything here since my grandmother’s death; Maud had had her heart attack here, and my father had found her body lying on the dirt floor.
I heard the jingle of keys shaking within a pocket, and the crunch of footsteps on the gravel driveway, and I stepped outside. “Jude, is that you?” The footsteps stopped. I scanned the dark driveway–the haze of smoke in the flashlight’s stream–but couldn’t see anyone. Nevertheless, I heard footsteps, running toward me. I ran onto the porch and into the kitchen, closing the door behind me and locking it, and then listened, breathing hard, for footsteps on the porch. When I finally turned away from the door, I found that my grandmother’s chair was rocking by itself, and every burner on the stove was on, glowing red.