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Sheep Creek, a village tucked into the Purcell Range down in the southeast corner of British Columbia, is where I was born six months before the beginning of the Second World War. I was the third of three boys, Dick, John, and Pat, all of us born within three years of each other. I was born only because my mother wanted to replace my brother John. When she was eight months' pregnant with him she was told her father was dying in Nelson. It was deep winter and the roads were clogged with heavy snow. They were too dangerous for her to risk. She blamed the child in her womb when she could not go. She said to me once, I cursed the child in my womb. My father had to hire a woman to care for Johnny. My mother would neither nurse nor touch him. A few months after he was born she was pregnant with me.Back then Sheep Creek was a mining village high in the mountains above the town of Salmo. Lead, zinc, and silver ore were dragged from those mountains. Today nothing is left but a shaft that leads deep into the mountain and a few weathered and beaten logs and boards. The shacks that once were the homes of the miners and their families are gone. My mother and father moved to Sheep Creek in the 1930s after the Depression jobs on the Kootenay River dams ended. My father was a hard-rock miner for six years until the war when he joined the army and left my mother and the three of us boys to go to Europe. I can still feel those dark mountains. They rose like mourning clothes from Kootenay Lake. I can remember being three years old, small and hard as a fist. It was high summer and I watched the mountains to the north burning. There was a pall of smoke and the sun was a dark orb, a deep red ball with a corona of yellow in the summer sky. The smoke drifted down Kootenay Lake and wandered among the trees and houses of Nelson like a wraith in search of anything alive. On the porch of our yellow house high on the hill my mother was crying. She told me years later she was bereft. My father had been back but only for five days. Now he was returning to Vancouver and then to Ontario where he would guard the Welland Canal. A year later he would return again and we would live for a few months in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island before he shipped off to Europe and the war. I remember her grabbing my father by the shoulders and shaking him. He took her in his arms. She turned, and he walked away. The sky swirled with ribbons of smoke, thick as a yellow shroud. My father lifted me up from the boardwalk. He was wearing his uniform. I could smell the thick wool on his shoulder and my hand touched the red hairs that curled across the back of his hand. There were brass buttons shining by my lips. Below me my brothers turned in circles with their arms in the air. They were calling out to him to lift them up too, but he had no hands free. He was carrying me in one arm and in the other he was holding a bag of oranges, a gift from the wife he had left behind on the porch. She refused to go down to the station. She believed there had been no need for him to join up. My father was eight years old at the end of the First World War. All his life he had waited for another one. Now it had come. My mother stood on the porch of our yellow house. She had made herself beautiful for him in her best skirt and blouse. Her long slim legs were sheathed in silk that glistened like burnished copper. This was the image she wanted him to take to Europe. This was what he would remember. I was the white-haired child in his arms and I pushed my face into my father's neck. I smelled his sweat and felt the roughness of his cheek. It rasped my ear. At the end of the boardwalk my father stepped to the worn path that led down to the station and the train that would take him away. We were to go with him partway down the hill and then return to the woman on the porch. I never cried again, she said to me on her deathbed twenty-five years after my father was murdered. And she hadn't. All I heard was silence after my brother's death. It was the death of the first of her blood and the first of mine to die. She retreated behind the locked bedroom door and I crouched outside, my arms around my knees. I remember the bag of oranges breaking and the bright fruit falling. I can see my brothers running down the path in front of him as the oranges bounded on ahead. They laughed as they followed the golden balls, picking up one and then another from among the fir cones and needles, desiccated ferns, and stones. I wanted to be with them. I squirmed in his arms and he laughed a great laugh and took me in his two huge hands and held me out in front of him. I wriggled, desperate to be put down. My brothers were far ahead of me on the path. They were stuffing oranges into their ragged shirts. My father laughed. He lowered me for a moment as if to put me down. Then he threw me high in the air. Today it feels as if I never returned from that sky. My mother never forgave him going away. She scrabbled as best she could on a soldier's pay in Nelson, where this early memory was born. The following winter she sold her sewing machine to buy the three of us coats. That sacrifice became a family myth, an emblem of her struggle. After the war, after my father returned, we moved to the desert country of the Okanagan Valley because of his silicosis, the gift the hard-rock mines gave to him. I can still hear the hiss of his lungs as he breathed. I remember the years of war. I remember my father gone and the room where I slept with my mother. Her bedroom was light, the pillows high and white, the blanket red with a black stripe. I was perhaps four years old, sitting up in my mother's bed. It was where I slept each night. In the smaller bedroom across the hall my brothers slept together. I have tried many times to climb inside that child. Everything then was a listening, was smell, touch, and sight. I couldn't write yet, couldn't read. Nothing was translated into the human. I was someone else, someone I have forgotten. I sit here and I wish that child well, though I know his life, know what was to come. In that moment I was happy. I was wide awake at first light. There was birdsong and I listened into the dawn, the cries of robins and sparrows floating through the open window above my head. My mother was sleeping. Her dark hair drifted upon the pillow beside me. I lifted one curl in my small hand, felt its many threads among my fingers. I moved with her breathing. Her sleeping rocked me gently, the bed moving delicately around me. Yet there was a heaviness to her, a weight, as if her flesh were tired. Mine wasn't. I knew, if I wanted, I could leave my body, rise into the light and enter my flying dream, the lake and forests far below me, the hawks and gulls quelling under my flight. Flying was like fainting, my spirit leaving my body in the little sickness of petit mal. My body was a weightless shell, the slit carapace of a chrysalis, the discarded catafalque of some vanished thing. This moment in my mother's bed was the quiet time. I knew I must not wake her. On a morning such as this I would pick up my coloring book and crayons from the low table beside the bed, but this morning the book was not there, only stubs of crayons in a small glass bowl, bits and pieces of colored wax. There was a newness to the world I inhabited. What I felt was a quickening, like a shard of red jasper in a field when the sun first touches it, so alive it seems to be more than life. To me everything was light. It caressed me as my mother's hands caressed me in the bath, as her hands placed the food in my mouth. I loved my mother's smell, loved lying close to her and placing my face against her neck, breathing in her body. I loved her flesh touching me, the warmth, the texture of her against my chest and belly. At night, my mother would pull me to her body, holding me against her, singing quietly as she rocked us both to sleep. "Mood Indigo," she sang, so softly her words created night. The blanket had fallen from her white shoulders and I moved it down gently until her back was bare. She wore only a thin, white slip. My pajamas were a faint gray. The cloth was thin, worn to a rare fineness, and my skin blazed through to meet the sun. I looked at the clean bones of my mother's back, her spine, the curve of her shoulder blade, her breast gentle on the sheet. I picked up a piece of crayon. It was a deep red, my favorite color. Carefully, so she wouldn't waken, I began to draw upon the skin of her back, the crayon just above her flesh. I moved it slowly in curves and arabesques. After a moment, I put the crayon down and selected another, a blue as dark and deep as the red I had discarded. I cannot see what I drew, but I knew what I was making. It was a tattoo, something I embedded in her flesh. I can see it there in all its richness and ferocity. The bones remember what the flesh forgets. This small place, this half-acre of land on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is paradise to me. I shake the past from my mind and ask myself the question, What is a garden that I should want one? Horace, that old Roman poet and philosopher, prayed for a garden. He said, "This was among my prayers: a piece of land not so very large, where a garden should be and a spring of ever-flowing water near the house, and a bit of woodland as well as these."And I might pray for such a place though I know I will never have a stream or spring or a bit of woodland to call my own and even if I had them how could I call them mine? Gardens belong to no one. A garden is a real place imagined and, with time and care, an imagined place made real. It is the way of gardens to tolerate intrusion. A day lily sighed at my hapless urge a year ago when I moved it from one bed to another, replacing the lily with a white campanula that had done poorly elsewhere. The valerian nearby accepted the campanula but only barely. Neither did well last summer, but I have new hopes for the lily just as I have hopes for myself and this painful sobriety I have brought to the garden. Gardens are passed on to gardeners. They can live through a generation of neglect only to find someone who values them enough to nurture them a few years more. Some gardens disappear altogether and remain only as words. "A little spot enclosed by grace, / Out of the world's wide wilderness," said Isaac Watts, and who knows now where Watts's garden was back in the eighteenth century? Yet I can imagine it just as I imagine Horace's in the last few decades before the birth of Christ. "A piece of land not so very large," he wrote. That is enough for me or for anyone. I can see old Horace, long poems poking from the folds of his toga, tottering around among his prized irises, his ordered olive groves, and stopping a moment to stare at the petals of the Cretan ebony he brought three years before from the dry hills south of Knossos. He reaches up and touches a branch of ripening olives in the grove just east of the catacombs where the Via Apia cuts in a cruel line toward the blue hills of his Roma. Testicles of the sun, he thinks, Orphic bags of light. Some gardens are as small as three containers of red geraniums circled by blue lobelia on a balcony in a high-rise apartment. A garden can be a single petunia in a pot on a windowsill. The smallest I ever saw was a thimble planted with moss. Others are hundreds of acres of woodland, lake, and hill. For most of us who grow our flowers and vegetables, a garden is the bit of land left over after the house is built. A garden is a place where someone spends a few hours each day in a wild place he tries to shape to his desire. It's a place of harmony, of balance, and it is made from living things. All creatures that fly, swim, burrow, crawl, or run are there. A polished stone with an aching arc of quartz, plucked from the sea at low tide near Port Renfrew, rests at the base of a young Douglas fir. Bracken, now crisp gold, hangs above its polished surface. Beside it, flat on the earth, lie the damp, heart-shaped leaves of a Frances Williams hosta. I can see through the desiccated leaves to the moss and earth below. The three create a small balance of shapes beside the rough trunk of the fir. Needles, tiny brown spears, crosshatch the ground. Two cones ripe with pitch touch their tips beside the veins of a single hosta leaf. They are together the accident beauty has made. I have gathered stones all my life. That little cairn I built on a mountain when I was a boy has become in my life a series of stone markers. I have measured my life with the bones of this good earth. I lived up the North Thompson River back in the early 1960s. I was a petty clerk and Industrial First Aid Man in a sawmill in the tiny village of Avola. In those days, it took four to five hours to drive out to Kamloops on the single-lane dirt road. I moved there with my young wife and our two small sons. My daughter was not yet born. When she was, her crib was the four-foot bathtub. There was nowhere else to put her. I remember lying awake worrying she would somehow turn on the hot-water tap and scald herself to death. I was twenty-one years old. That first day in the north I had our small trailer home jacked up. Sticking out from the thirty-degree mountainside, it looked like a wrecked ship's prow, beached and pointing at the river far below. The sawmill with its banging chains and whistles spewed out construction lumber by the riverbank. My exhausted wife rested in the trailer as the boys slept and I, wasted from hauling timbers and jacks, stepped into the forest to where a small creek, less than a yard wide, purled down from the mountain on its way to the river. I sat on a moss-covered stone and watched the clear, clean snowmelt slip among small stones and swirl the fine gravel it had washed for fifteen thousand years. I stared into the ripples, then knelt and scooped the water in my cupped hands and washed my face with last winter's snowmelt. As I blinked through the cold I saw an oval bit of granite near the bank and, reaching into the shallow drift, I moved it so the water, baffled, had to shift to find its way. The water curled and began to cut into the sand and gravel, creating a small eddy behind it. Black spruce needles trapped for years swirled in a growing circle and were swept out and down toward the river and the six hundred miles to the far Pacific. Over the next few years I moved stones, moss, and a few logs and made of that small place in the wilderness a garden where my small sons played and my wife and I could sit a moment, together or alone, and find some peace in our young lives. A garden? Yes, a garden, and different than the vegetable garden I dug below the trailer for corn and beans, peas and carrots, all of which grew stunted and poor in the glacial drift of gravel I had turned in hopes of a crop to come. The little pool with its moss and carefully placed stones was not my first garden, but was, perhaps, the first where I found solace in those hard years. I was barely a man with a young family among mountains that spent their days cheating the valley of the sun. My wife and I were so young we couldn't see beyond the light and dark of the days. Stones, water, moss, and wood-the building blocks of seclusion and peace. That garden was vaguely Asian, but I didn't know that then. I built with the materials at hand. A cluster of big laughing Gym mushrooms that appeared by a mossy log I moved that first fall was joy enough for me. A bear's paw print in the damp sand was a gift from the mountains. I move across the moss to the stepping-stones that lead to the pond. When I stop beside the fallen leaves of the golden bamboo where they rest on a bit of driftwood log I find harmony, but I must step into it to see each bamboo leaf, the way they lie upon each other, crosshatched, a slender filigree upon the gray of driftwood. Do the living things of this garden perceive the same as I do? Does the chickadee step inside himself or is he always what surrounds him? Is it only me who is separate, a man who wishes himself in the world? A red-breasted nuthatch works her way headfirst down the trunk of the fir. Her sharp beak probes the crannies in the bark for insect eggs. The white stripe above her eye gives her a jaunty look. She is always in a hurry. She flitters away in jerky flight to the dark skirts of the redwood in front of the house, her nasal call to the chickadees heralding her presence. She is a solitary bird, rarely with anyone but her mate. Sometimes I'll see three or four of them, but they're very territorial and quarrel with interlopers of their own species. My garden contains only one breeding pair. All the others have been driven off by the fierce male. He is the size of my thumb but has a heart bigger than an eagle's. In the past, solitude was my addiction. Yet even in the depth of withdrawal from the human world I have never been alone. On these early January days I talk to a river stone brought down from Haida Gwaii as a gift from a friend now in prison. I touch the delicate tip of a branch on the red cedar I planted ten years ago, and sing to a siskin my own song of early morning. Lao Tzu said, "True fullness seems empty, yet it is wholly present." The nuthatch knows that and so does the Okame-zasa bamboo. The sun glints off a flake of mica. For a moment I am blind and in the darkness I am taken away again to my childhood and that faraway war. The present slips into the past and I am once again a child. The troop train is leaving. The station platform in Nelson was crowded with soldiers, women, and children. Some cried and some laughed and some were silent while they held each other. Then there were the sullen drunks who looked as if they were going nowhere, leaving a place they were losing for somewhere equally lost. I had come down to the station to watch the soldiers leave. It was the same every week, the men in their clean and pressed uniforms holding on to women who were crying. Crying was something I knew how to do. But I had to find the right soldiers to cry for. The ones who had no women with them, no children. The two soldiers I followed were like that. The tall one had his arm around the shoulder of the other. They were weaving down the platform to the end of the train, steam screaming from the engine, the billows of black smoke, the noise and confusion I loved. I had no idea of anywhere other than where I was. What was beyond the mountains was nothing, was nowhere, something not even imagined. It was like when my mother read to me from The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, or The Water Babies. The places and things were not real yet, were only words in my mother's mouth where the stories came from. When I saw the soldiers stop, I walked over slowly, the tears already streaming down my cheeks. Are you my father? I asked the tall soldier. What? I'm looking for my father, I said, the tears still coming.
After a minute, the soldier squatting beside me, I told the same old story, the one about my father lost in the war. The man listened and then, because the soldier didn't know what else to do, put his hand in his pocket and took out a handful of coins. He poured the pennies, nickels, and dimes into my hands. Go home now, he said. Go home to your mother. Every time I came to the station it was like that. All I had to say was that my father was killed in the war and then cry. I put the money in the pocket of my torn pants and wiped the tears from my face. I think now of that boy as he stepped off the back of the platform and headed across the tracks into the trees where the trail led up the long hill to his home. It's hard to imagine him, his wiliness, his ability to act out such a story and make it believable. He was five years old, his white hair glinting like silver in the summer sun. His bare feet were hard and brown. He was mercurial, a shape-shifter, a charmer, quick and fast. But there was something at the heart of him that was hidden, something he carried inside himself I can't see, can't read now I am sixty years older. Mine was a dangerous game, the soldiers always drunk. One man gave me money in a corner of the station where the shadows were. The man put his hand in my pants. I let him do it. It had happened before and there was always money afterward. It had felt good, the man touching me there. The first time I had been frightened, but of what I didn't know. The last I see of that early self is my white hair going into the trees where the path up the mountain began. I was a blink of light and gone. The trees gathered me in, their green skirts pulling me into the shadows that were patience and knowing, a long, slow murmuring that was the song of limbs and branches. I shake my head and light forms itself into images, a leaf, a stone. Let the dead bury the dead, I say to myself and wonder where the dead begin and where the living end. That boy I was asked for his father, and the stories of disappeared fathers are as old as men. I keep no photographs, keep no family album. But I can remember my childhood father. He was a stocky, burly man. He had broad shoulders, a heavy chest, strong legs, and arms that I thought back then could lift a mountain and put it down in another valley. He was tough and strong. I can see the pride in him. He was an ignorant kid from the tiny farming town of Pincher Creek, Alberta, who'd made his own way through the plains and into the mountains. Barely literate, he took weeks and months to read a Luke Short western, and until the day he died he signed his name by drawing, not writing, the letters. Other men liked him, looked up to him. Dick, my oldest brother, inherited that gift. Both my father and he had a way of speaking, a way of holding men to them, a way of trust that made others follow them. Men placed the darkness of their lives in my father's hands, my brother's hands, so they could worry it back into a shape they could live with. It was enough for the men to pick themselves up and return to the misery of their lives for one more terrible try at poverty and loss. My father and my brother. The only record I have is the story. I dislike photographs, those stopped glimpses of time, that weasel-steal of shape and form and substance. My father loved the camera. He made an endless record of our lives. My mother stacked the family albums by her chair in those long years after my father's murder. She would pat them with her hand while she watched Jeopardy on television. The talismanic images she touched are silent for me. In the tension of remembering in these early weeks of sobriety I feel sometimes I have an ax in my eyes. It helps me keep to what I know, that shining blade worn into a delicate glaze so sharp it could cut a mind in half, or a word. There is too much anger in me. My mother could shut my father up with a look or a word. It didn't happen often. My father's stories of his past were rare, but my mother never liked sharing storytelling with him. Her family and her history were the important ones. My father's family were violent, lower-class farmers and roustabouts and, in my mother's mind, nothing to brag about. She was from better stock, her father a shopkeeper. Years later, before she died, she burned all the letters and documents that might have told me who my father was. I begged her to pass on to me the cigar box of records my great-uncle had left to me in his will. My mother was executrix of that gentle man's scant estate. When I came for them she told me she'd burned them along with the rest of his things. What do you want with that old Lane stuff? she said. I sat by the polluted well behind the house and wept with frustration. I get up from the stone bench at the foot of the garden and go back to the deck. It is the present I seek. Not to deny the past and not to ignore the future, but to have them live where they must, in memory and imagination. Wherever I am, I am always here.
What People are Saying About This
“In the sure and steady hands of a writer at the peak of his power, it is an achingly beautiful journey. There is a sorrowful beauty to the strong, poetic language. Despite the savage reality of the revelations, there is a peacefulness, a maturity of vision that is a pure gift to the reader.”—The Washington Post
“It is clear that in these vivid, intersecting worlds of nature and language, Lane has found true self-expression and a certain transcendence from the pain he seems destined to carry with him always.”—Seattle Times
“What the Stones Remember is a dark and beautiful memoir. Lane, ever the poet, exudes an elegance in his writing even when describing brutality.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“At once courageous, honest, and uplifting, this book of wisdom and wonder should be savored.”—Library Journal
"The sort of memoir you will leave open beside a favorite chair, and you will read it, I think, with long pauses to savor the beauty of the language and to reflect on its relevance for your own journey."—The Globe and Mail
“To read this book is to enter a state of enchantment.”—Alice Munro
“Patrick Lane has written a memoir of heartbreaking struggle that manages to be beautiful and encouraging, finding anchorage in what was once called Creation, the natural world and its unstinting promise of renewal.”—Thomas McGuane
“A tough, lovely book.”—Margaret Atwood
“There are scenes in this book so terrifyingly beautiful they take your breath away. Patrick Lane guides us across a grueling landscape with a steady hand. This is a tremendous contribution by an author at the peak of his power.”—Alistair MacLeod
“This is the best book I’ve read in a decade. Here is a classic memoir, wrought in prose as beautiful as the natural world that is his obsession and salvation.”—Guy Vanderhaeghe
“This is a record of recovery. Of a life, nearly lost, out of the dark into memory; of spiritual wholeness through a poet’s attentiveness, season after season, to his garden—a real one. Only a writer of Patrick Lane’s savage but forgiving vision could accomplish both in the same breath, and with such breathtaking beauty and power.”—David Malouf
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
i liked inward thoughts he wrote as he journeyed through his memories & his garden. words were juicy.