On a miserable November day in 1967, two women disappear from a working-class town on the Fraser River. The community is thrown into panic, with talk of drifters and murderous husbands. But no one can find a trace of Bette Parsons or Alice McFee. Even the egg seller, Doris Tenpenny, a woman to whom everyone tells their secrets, hears nothing.
Ten-year-old Lulu Parsons discovers something, though: a milk-stained note her mother, Bette, left for her father on the kitchen table. Wally, it says, I will not live in a tarpaper shack for the rest of my life . . .
Lulu tells no one, and months later she buries the note in the woods. At the age of ten, she starts running and forgetting lurching through her unraveled life, using the safety of solitude and detachment until, at fifty, she learns that she is not the only one who carries a secret.
Hopeful, lyrical, comedic, and intriguingly and lovingly told, The Very Marrow of Our Bones explores the isolated landscapes and thorny attachments bred by childhood loss and buried secrets.
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But you were looking for an orchid And I will always be a dandelion
ANTJE DUVEKOT, "Dandelion," Boys, Flowers, Miles
My parents had one last short argument the night Mum set the laundry on fire. It was late, and the house still stank of smoke. All the windows were open despite the November rain and the living room was cold. I heard the sharp tap-tap of Mum's kitten-heeled mules and then the slap-drag of Dad's old corduroy slippers. I don't think Mum knew I was behind the couch until the argument was over. I remember praying that she didn't — given what she said — and wishing I'd gone to my bed instead.
The narrow spot behind our battered green couch probably satisfied some animal instinct in me — a safe place to hide — but something else too. Occasionally, while lying there, I'd hear Mum come into the room and stand still in front of the couch. Those times, she must have known I was there, each of us listening for the other's breathing, but I would hold my breath, and maybe she did too. Then I'd hear her kneeling on the creaking springs. I'd look up and she'd be looking down, peering one-eyed through the gap between the wall and the couch. "All right?" she'd ask. "Just want to be alone? Want your rooster pillow?" She'd stare at me as if she didn't know me, or sometimes, as if I weren't really there. Sometimes I'd wake there in the morning, a crocheted blanket dropped over me from above and the tattered rooster pillow — a cross-stitched thing I loved — tucked under my head.
We each had our defenses, Mum and I. Mine was solitude. She didn't stay around long enough for me to know what hers were.
That night, my mother's voice was all harsh whispers. Dad was his pleasant, level-headed self, until the end. Even then, at ten, I had begun to understand that she found his evenness exasperating. Like me, she must have wanted something to smash up against and feel some resistance, someone pushing back.
"For Christ's sake, Wally. I can't take care of him anymore," my mother said.
"Geordie's a good boy, Bette. You don't have to."
"He's not a boy. He's twenty years old. And I do have to take care of him. He called on Frankie today to play skip with Lorna. She's six, Wally. Lorna's six. Frankie said the girl was terrified."
"Bette dear, how could anyone be terrified of Geordie?" Dad laughed a little, coaxing. "You've said yourself that everything Frankie says has to be taken with a grain of salt." He paused, then asked, "Why would you let Geordie play with Lorna anyway?"
"I don't, Wally. I can't control where Geordie goes anymore. He's big. You know how stubborn he is. Have you looked at your son recently?"
"He looks all right to me," Dad said.
Mum didn't reply for a minute. Dad must have reached out to take her hand or touch her because she hissed Don't. When she finally spoke again, she sounded like she was choking.
"Verna says we should think about Woodlands."
I thought I'd be sick behind the couch. Woodlands School was where the "mentals" were sent. It stood on a hill near the B.C. Penitentiary. Essondale, the insane asylum, was a few miles down the highway. But in my mind they were all the same forbidding fortress overlooking the Fraser River. My brothers had filled my head with images of bleak dungeons and long, dark corridors lined with tormented men, mad women, and abandoned children.
"You can't mean that," Dad said. There was such a silence I imagined I could hear their hearts beating. Mum said nothing. When he spoke again, his voice, for the first time in my life, sounded strangled. "He'll go to Woodlands over my dead body," he said.
I waited for her to say something, but it was Dad who broke the silence, with relief in his voice. "Besides, Geordie's too old for it," he said. "They'd never take him now." There was an even longer pause and then Dad said softly, "What has changed, Bette? You love Geordie. He's our boy."
Mom didn't answer. She must have waved him off because he left the room. I listened for the sound of my mother's heels. Go, I pleaded silently. Go. But she was moving the end table beside the couch and bending down. As she knelt, I saw her in the light and shadow cast by the floor lamp behind her, her face dark and a halo of light around her curly hair. My mother lay down on the floor and reached her arm toward me. She made a guttural, suffering sound that terrified me. I pulled away.
We only knew she was missing when Dad got home and our hungry stomachs brought us all together in the kitchen at the usual time. For a while Dad insisted we wait. "She's been late before at suppertime, he said." But it was Tuesday. She never did anything on Tuesdays. And it was rare that she wasn't home for supper. When she was out we'd know about it; there'd be instructions for one or all of us on the counter: Casserole in cooker ready at 6. Needs salt. Lulu, make sure Geordie drinks his milk. Back at 7. Mum.
We ate peanut butter on toast that night — a restless group in the kitchen's glare, oddly peaceable together for the last time I can remember. Around the time Dad decided that it was no longer usual for Mum to be that late, someone knocked at the front door. In Fraser Arm, front doors were for pallbearers, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the police. Friends came to the kitchen door. But there was Martin Currie, one of Dad's former Boy Scouts, standing on our never-used front stoop in a spanking-new police uniform.
He stood up tall like Dad taught his Scouts to, and said, "Mr. Parsons, Captain Smallwood asked me to tell you to get your friggin' goats off the road. Sorry, Sir. I'm quoting."
We must have been a sight, the six of us crowded in the doorway looking at poor Martin. I don't suppose anyone knew whether to be relieved or more worried. Our little posse stepped past Martin to the corner of the house and looked across the side pasture. Even from there we could see that the gate was wide open. I went cold. I suddenly knew why she'd reached behind the couch, caught hold of my wrist and squeezed it hard. "You'll always take care of Geordie. Promise," she'd said. The note under the milk jug wasn't a warning, it was a farewell. My mother hated our goats, and the hanging gate should have tipped Dad off that she'd run off with what even my ten-year-old mind knew was one spiteful goodbye.
Then Martin said, "Besides, we've got enough on our hands with the disappearance of Mrs. McFee," and the kind of hell no one ever wants to talk about broke loose.
She wants to be able to speak. Surely here, in the henhouse, she could. The hens bock-bock as Doris Tenpenny, wearing muddy rubber boots, hooks back the chicken coop door. They squawk and flutter. They hurry on yellow or black or red feet down the ramp and out the door. But even here, she cannot sound the words. In her twenty-four years, not one word has ever come out of Doris' mouth.
Why do you squawk? I am here twice a day. I know I invade your sanctuary and steal your eggs, but I have done this for eighteen years. I knew your mother, and your grandmother, and her mother before.
Doris reaches into a straw-filled nest. The egg is still warm. This one is brown. She rolls it in her weathered hands wiping bits of straw and guck from the shell. How wonderfully essential and simple an egg is. A perfect oval, smooth, containing either one breakfast, eaten many ways, or the gestational home of a chicken — twenty-one days, sooner if it's warm or the hens are particularly broody, longer if she leaves the door to the henhouse open to the breezes. How many thousands of times has she placed eggs into the rough cardboard cartons: half a dozen, any colour or size, for Mrs. McFee; a flat of thirty smooth brown eggs, perfectly symmetrical and clean, for Mrs. Parsons. What does she do with so many?
But Bette Parsons has disappeared. And so has Alice McFee. The police have been here. Doris examines her hands. How can they be so worn? It is the hard work she does. Washing, cleaning, tending the garden. And the chickens.
When the police came, they asked when Mrs. Parsons and Mrs. McFee usually bought their eggs. Had they been here that week? Had she noticed any strangers about? Doris watched her own rough hands write Tuesdays and Thursdays and No and Yes, on the piece of paper they put in front of her. Which strangers? Three strangers. No. Ten, she wrote. An old couple in a rare red Rambler Rogue convertible, the top up, of course, with Oregon plates.
"You know your cars, eh?" The older policeman smiled. "You wouldn't have caught the plate number by any chance?"
She nodded. Doris had never seen a Rambler Rogue before. Why would she not remember the plate? The policemen exchanged a look, not believing.
"Really? Write it down, please. Who else?"
A woman with seven children in her car, a speckly-gray Ford Falcon, 1966. The woman driving it said her cousin said she should buy her eggs at the Tenpennys'. She was from Wesleyville. She talked a lot.
"That's three. What about the other seven strangers you mentioned?" the young policeman asked.
Doris took the pencil and circled 'seven children' tapping the words impatiently. Are they not listening?
"Oh, that's a passel of kids," he said. "No one else?" She shook her head. "And Alice McFee. You saw her last Thursday?" Doris felt a flush creeping up her neck. The younger policeman frowned at her. "What?" he asked. Doris shook her head.
"Thank you, Miss Tenpenny," the older policeman said. He took the pencil back when they left, a yellow HB, freshly sharpened, with an unused eraser.
On Monday nights Doris makes sure there are thirty browns ready for Mrs. Parsons. Or until this week, she used to. They're no better tasting, and no better for you, but they're prettier. Most hens lay brown eggs, but some people like white. The Crèvecur hens lay the big browns Doris gives to Bette Parsons. Sometimes the little girl, Lulu, and the big boy, Geordie, come with her, and Mrs. Parsons lets Lulu carry the flat back to the car, though never Geordie. There were too many accidents. And sometimes she just waits in the car for her children and waves at Doris. Mrs. Parsons looks like a movie star in her fitted coat and slim slacks, and her curly hair pinned behind her ears. She pretends to be happy and she smiles when she buys her eggs, but she smiles with her mouth only, not her eyes. She has iron in her soul. What will happen now?
Doris goes into the henhouse and closes the door. It is just warm enough inside. She reaches up above the top row of roosts, and brings down a brown paper bag. She sits on the old wooden chair against the back wall, under the coop's dusty window — she must remember to clean it — and takes a book out of the bag. There is barely enough light to read by, which might account for my poor eyesight, Doris thinks, but it might be hereditary as well. Both Mother and Father wear glasses, after all. The heat lights are on but they are red. Doris doesn't like to make the hens lay when they do not want to, but Father insists that she light the hen house through the winter. She will not fight with him over it. That is for her little sister Joan to do, and Joan does not care about chickens. When she has done her reading she will leave the lights on. She does like the chickens to be warm. Warm enough. It has been a cold November.
Mr. Cray, Fraser Arm High School's librarian, is the source of Doris' books. He comes on Thursdays and buys a dozen whites or browns, greens or blues — he doesn't care which, and has said so. While Doris puts a red elastic band around the gray carton with the perfect checkerboard of eggs she has chosen for him, Mr. Cray lays a brown paper bag with a book in it on the egg stand and tells her about the author he has chosen. He gives her a brief synopsis of the book while he is getting his change out of his pocket, counting out the required forty-seven cents. Doris hands him a bag that contains his eggs and the book she is returning. They have read more than one hundred books together in the past five years without exchanging a word. Not a spoken word from Doris, at least. On a piece of typing paper taken from the room in which her father writes his sermons, Doris has written the names of every book Mr. Cray has brought her. The first ten books Mr. Cray chose for their secret reading club were books written by women. Though not without their own risks, Doris knows these books reflected Mr. Cray's initial tentativeness about Doris' appetite for controversy or spice:
Pride and Prejudice Wuthering Heights Jane Eyre Sense and Sensibility Emma Martha Quest Klee Wyck Swamp Angel The Stone Angel A Jest of God
She thinks of their list. She knows it by heart. Since their first ten, they have read Whitman and Ginsberg, Thoreau and Hesse, Mitford and Lindbergh, Brautigan and Solzhenitsyn, E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence, Salinger and de Beauvoir, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and more.
"I propose we read Sartre next," Mr. Cray said several weeks ago, and yesterday he left Iron in the Soul, the last of the trilogy, on the egg stand.
Doris wipes the cover with her hand, and ruffles the pages looking for his note. She takes out two pieces of light onionskin paper. On one he has typed his comments on their last book, a reply to her comments; the other piece is blank, for her. She rereads Mr. Cray's meticulous notes and feels the tiniest sensation of satisfaction, like someone else is smiling in her throat. She reaches up and pulls a manila folder from its hiding place. She adds today's piece of paper to the bottom of the pile and carefully writes 'Iron in the Soul, J.P. Sartre,' on her book list, hesitating only slightly over whether to hyphenate J.P. The chickens are calmer and a few of them have returned to the henhouse, pecking at the ground around her feet. She shh-shhs them and holds her palm out to Mary-Magdalene and Elizabeth who strut away, ignoring her. Then she opens the book. When she looks up again, Doris is on page 113.
She feels her glasses slipping down her nose, and pushes them up with a tickle of annoyance. Tomorrow is Thursday. Will Mr. McFee come? Please God, don't let him come. Please, dear Lord, don't let him come.
Through the rest of November and into December everyone was betting on the chances of stumbling upon the proverbial shallow grave in the farmer's field. Two shallow graves. Fraser Arm's pastures and forests were combed for fresh piles of dirt and the words drifter and murderer were tossed around as confirmations. Despite my secret knowledge of Mum's flight, I conjured a vivid image for my schoolmates — a man with cigarette-stained teeth, sallow skin, treacherous red-knuckled hands, and a cruel sneer he'd worn since birth. This made-up monster lurked with me at night, and the weather seemed to collaborate with everyone's fears and brought us endless days of cold rain and sleet and a merciless wind. Dad sat with me every night until I fell asleep — I presumed as much out of his own anxiety and grief as mine — but he didn't say much. The schoolyard parking lot was packed with cars mornings and afternoons as panic-eyed parents dropped off and picked up their kids who were now too precious to walk to and from school alone.
And Aunt Kat came.
We all drove to the airport on a foggy day at the end of November to meet her flight from England. None of us had set eyes on her before, except for Dad, twenty years earlier, and she'd been just a kid then. But when we saw the woman with the violin case strapped across her chest coming down the escalator Geordie ran toward her.
"That's not Mum," Alan shouted after him.
Crawling home in the fog, Dad kept apologizing to her for having brought all of us to the airport. I had to sit on Aunt Kat's bony knees in the front seat with the violin. She wasn't all that much bigger than me. The boys had a silent elbows-and-knees fight in the back seat until Dad turned around with another Mum-like glare. Geordie reached over the seat and took Aunt Kat's hand and wouldn't let it go.
Excerpted from "The Very Marrow of Our Bones"
Copyright © 2018 Christine Higdon.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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