David Canaan had lived in Entremont all his thirty years. As far back as childhood, whenever anger had dishevelled him, or confusion, or the tick, tick, tick, of emptiness like he felt today, he had sought the log road that went to the top of the mountain. As he moved along this road, somewhere the twist of anger would loosen; a shaft of clarity would strike through the scud of confusion; blood would creep back into the pulse and pallor of the emptiness. He would take happiness there, to be alone with it; as another child might keep hidden for a day a toy that wasn’t his.
He stood at the kitchen window now, watching the highway.
The highway was irregularly noduled with whitewashed wooden houses. It cut through the Annapolis Valley; and on either side of it lay the flat frozen fields.
On the north side, the fields and orchards ran down to the big bend of the river, cut wide by the Fundy tides. Blocks of grimy, sun-eaten ice were piled up in Druidic formations on the river’s banks, where the tides had tumbled them. The North Mountain rose sharply beyond the river. It was solid blue in the afternoon light of December that was pale and sharp as starlight, except for the milky ways of choppings where traces of the first snow never quite disappeared.
On the south side of the highway, beyond the barn and the pastures, the South Mountain rose. Solid blue too at the bottom where the dark spruces huddled close, but snow-grey higher up where the sudden steepness and the leafless hardwood began. At the peak the gaunt limbs of the maples could be seen like the bones of hands all along the lemon-coloured horizon.
The mountain slopes were less than a mile high at their topmost point but they shut the valley in completely.
The afternoon stillness simmered soundlessly in the kitchen. The soft flutter of flame in the stove, the heat-tick of the stove itself, and the gentle rocking of the tea kettle with its own steam, were quieter than silence. The mat hook which his grandmother held in her right hand made a steady staccato like the sounds of seconds dropping, as it punctured the meshes of the meal bag, to draw up loop after loop of the rag she held in her left hand beneath.
His head was physically heavy. An ache fountained somewhere above the scar that sickled, like a smile-scar, from the corner of his mouth to his left temple. It never rose to actual pain, but it seeped through his whole head like the penetration of a night fog that crept up from the marshes.
Occasionally he moved his head from side to side, as a deer does that tries to dislodge, by the flick of tongue to flank, the bullet wound that hurts and puzzles him. His breath came smoothly, but as if it beat back and forth between two weights; one blocking the limit of inhalation and one the limit of exhalation.
Rain had taken the first snow on the fields. Then the sudden cold had come. Islands of milk-ice speckled the brown fields where the withered aftergrass held the snow longest, and in the ploughed land gravel was frozen into the lips of the brown sod like stones in a setting. Sockets of rocks which the plough had dislodged were frozen smooth as moulds. Honeycombs of ice stood white in the valleys of adjacent rows. In the flat dead furrows the ice shone enamelled and colourless in the glance of the sun that slanted, without warmth, from the bruised lids of the sky. The twisted arms of the apple trees and the bushes along the line fence looked locked and separate, as if all their life had fled its own nakedness.
Detail came clearly enough to David’s sight; but it was as if another glass, beyond the glass of the window pane, covered everything, made touch between any two things impossible. He saw the children skating on the flooded marshes, but the sound of their voices fell in the thin air before it reached the house. Their movements were like line drawings of movements. His eyes followed the peopled cars as they passed down the long straight stretch of road; yet when they disappeared around the corner there was no impression of severance.
He stood absolutely still. He was not quiet with thought or interest. It was simply that any impulse to movement receded before the compulsion of the emptiness: to suspend the moment and prolong it, exactly as it was, in a kind of spell.
At a first glance his face looked young. The tentative, blue-eyed look of a boy’s face still shadowed it. A touch of sun still lingered in the quick blond hair. The eyes and mouth were sober, but a trigger-readiness to grin lurked in them. At a second glance his face seemed old. The flesh was firm over the broad bones (so much broader than the tall slender body seemed to call for), but it had the cast of a bad night’s sleep. The longer you looked, the less you could be sure whether the face was young or old.
“What are you doing, David?” Ellen turned from the rug as she spoke. The patience in his face was his father’s; the quickness that disputed the patience his mother’s. Its fine graining was hers.
He didn’t reply. She scarcely noticed now, whether you answered or not.
“What are you looking at, child?” she asked again.
“Nothing,” he said.
She turned back to the rug.
She was so old that her face no longer held any trace of how she had looked when she was young. Only her eyes had no dustiness of age about them. The years that had washed away their colour seemed to have disclosed an original brightness.Neat, bright, delicate: that pattern was repeated everywhere—in the white hair caught back into a tight bun; in her hands, her feet; even in the black dress she wore, with the white piping at the neck. Her clothes had always stayed neat and clean, even if she had been transplanting cabbage plants on a wet day. She was the sort of woman whose daughters, if she had any, are delicate like herself, but who bears incredibly sturdy sons.
The pattern of the rug was not intricate. It had a wide dark border, then a target pattern of circles radiating from the centre of the canvas. David had marked them for her. Her eyes could no longer trace the outlines of scrolls and flowers.
She selected each rag carefully for texture and colour.
Rags were scarce now. These were the last she could find. The bag they were in had been tied tightly at the top, inside a trunk. They were good rags. All the garments were whole. She had torn them into strips herself.
The coat she’d used for the border was of sturdier cloth than the rest, but it felt rich and soft to pass her fingers over. It had been at the very bottom of the bag. Whose coat was that?
She stopped and thought: There is Joseph, my son—he married Martha; and there are the three children: Christopher, David, and Anna. She might have been writing the facts down somewhere, for reference. Her own husband’s name had been Richard. She didn’t remember him today.
But she remembered Joseph. The grey in the first lap of circle next the border was a work shirt of Joseph’s. She remembered Martha feeling it for texture the first day he tried it on, the day he went back to cut the keel. It still looked almost new. Where was Joseph?
The next ring of flowered gingham was an apron of Martha’s. Martha had sat that night with this apron to her eyes, but what night had it been?
She drew the last garment from the bag. It was a dress. Her fingers touched a bit of lace at the bottom of the sleeve. It must have been for a wrist no larger than mine, she thought. The wrist was
mine. But when did I wear that dress? There was music. It wasn’t here. It was some far-off place. She couldn’t remember where. She felt cold.
“David,” she said, “are you going to let the fire out?” There was a querulous note in her voice.
David caught his breath. He put a stick of wood from the oven, where it was drying, into the stove. Then he returned to the window.
“What are you doing, child?” she said.
“Child”! He winced now, just to feel it coming. There was a minute or two of silence.
“You’d better fix the fire,” Ellen said.
“I just fixed it.”
“That’s a good boy.”
Brown. She tumbled the little knoll of rags, searching for a strip of brown. Yes, that was brown. That was the stocking cap Chris had worn the day Joseph tied a bag of straw on the trailsled for a seat and took him back to the woods for the first time. She could see the tiny hatchet clutched in Chris’s own hand. He had been crying because they’d teased him about hauling Charlotte Gorman on her sled. She had spun that yarn herself, and knit it, and dyed it with alder bark. She could see the stain of brown on the kindling stick she’d stirred the salt into the dye with, to set it. Chris was two years older than David. Chris was ten. Is David only eight years old then? Where was Chris? David was there by the window, but where was Chris?
“What do you see, child?” she said.
“Is someone coming?”
Herb Hennessey was coming up the road, but he wouldn’t be coming here. He’d never gone into another house, as far back as when David was a child. He’d been the strangest creature in the world to the children.
There was music . . . Was it, “I’ll take the high road, and you take the low road . . .” ? No. It was before that. Quicker music. She began to hum, in a high quavery voice. “But me and my true love will never meet again ...