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Authors: Theresa Kishkan

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Sisters of Grass

BOOK: Sisters of Grass
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a novel by

THERESA KISHKAN

Copyright © Theresa Kishkan, 2000.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any requests for photocopying of any part of this book should be directed in writing to the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency.

Edited by Laurel Boone.

Cover image from Rubber Ball Productions.

Author photo by Charlaine Lacroix, 1999. Reproduced with permission.

Book design by Julie Scriver.

Printed in Canada by Transcontinental.

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Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Kishkan, Theresa, 1955-

Sisters of Grass

Electronic monograph in ePub format.

Issued also in print format.

ISBN 978-0-86492-714-9

I. Title.

PS8571.I75S58 2000   C813'.54   C00-900147-6

PR9199.3.K444S58 2000

Published with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program, and the New Brunswick Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Culture.

Goose Lane Editions

Suite 330, 500 Beaverbrook Court

Fredericton, NB

Canada E3B 5X4

www.gooselane.com

For John, Forrest, Brendan and Angelica Pass

The country of souls is underneath us, towards sunset.

— James Teit

IN DARKNESS I HEAR the stories come down from the Douglas Plateau like a summer herd of cattle, ranging for grass as they move into the valley. Such beauty in their coming, rustling through rabbitbrush, bringing their ripe smell, their mouths working their way around clumps of bunchgrass. Each story has a separate mouth, yet together they tell something larger and deeper, as all the individual grasses — bluebunch wheat grass, sweetgrass, coyote's needle, the giant wild rye often found near gravesites — growing with the sedges and buckwheats, make up a pasture. I have walked in the high pastures, picking blue flax and brown-eyed Susans, scratching at the foxtail barley seeds hooked into my socks. On distant hills the cattle watched, mild-eyed at a distance, and from every draw, a story waited until the dark. I lie in the blue tent and listen.

I have come to find someone I know only through an impression, a packet of photographs found in a box of memorabilia. The box itself is a few slats of old wood, stencilled with Smith, Spences Bridge, Grimes Golden, lined with a cardboard carton. Unsorted, unsung: letters bound with faded rose-coloured ribbon; a program from a concert; newspaper clippings; a copy of
Camera Work
, dated Autumn, 1906; a length of thin, hollow bone. But the photographs have a voice: quick vowels of sunlight articulating reeds in a body of water, the studied language of horses, long dissertations of pastures, and, huddled together like the generations in a family portrait, decorated baskets on rough planks. On the envelopes, a name, Margaret Stuart, and an address, Cottonwood Ranch, Nicola Lake, British Columbia. And postmarks that tell their own narrative of travel: Seattle; Astoria, Oregon; Fargo, North Dakota; New York.

The letters have been so lovingly bound that I was reluctant to break their embrace, but I studied the photographs, carefully opened the magazine, read the newspaper review of a concert in an unlikely place nearly a century ago. The box has been donated to the small museum where I work and has sat in a dusty corner, waiting to be catalogued or for someone to arrive with an eye to filling in a branch on a family tree. A colleague said, Anna, this is a place you go to, isn't it, the Nicola Valley? Have you looked in this box yet? It might be interesting to see what's in it. So I put aside my regular work, columns of notation and surmises based on external evidence, and took up each item to look at in the clear light of day. A shiver ran down my spine, as though someone had walked over my grave. Yes, my family does visit the valley regularly, feeling a kind of belonging we never have words for, needing the dry air and birdsong. Yet our grandmothers and grandfathers never farmed there or recorded their dead in the parish books. Still, drawn by scent, by pollens, by the caress of wind filtered through the high branches of pine trees, we come to find what we can: the pattern of cattle trails in the aspen groves, a phrase of lark call, a lake named for a beloved daughter. And would it make a difference to have a history, even this briefest of histories, incomplete and fading, to link to plants and horses, settlements of graves in two locations — one alongside the plain board church in what was once a thriving townsite, the other on a gentle shoulder of field leading down to a marsh of blackbirds trilling in the rushes?

This could be any summer. We've driven here in sunlight and rain, though the rain never lasts long, only wetting the rocks to release their flinty smell and washing the sagebrush and mulleins lining the roadsides clean of their dust. On one stretch of the road, erratics sit impassive among the sage, and marmots whistle from their shoulders. How long ago did those erratics ride the glacier down to this slope? They sprout a few pale, dry lichens, crisp to the touch. Cattle rub against their warm sides, leaving tufts of coarse hair.

We have been to the Douglas Plateau in all seasons, driving up in summer to drink a thermos of coffee after dinner while the children turned cartwheels in the falling light, driving up in winter to see what the groves of cottonwoods looked like, bare of leaves, the ponds and small lakes brittle with ice. Once, in autumn, twenty, perhaps thirty, horses approached the truck, their eyes calm and curious. I took apples from a paper bag and walked to meet them, a girl again among horses. One, a bay mare with a star and white socks, came up to me, lowering her head so that I could rub between her ears and pull a few burrs from her forelock. She wouldn't touch the apples but blew softly through her nostrils as she sniffed my hair, my face. It was though we'd known each other all our lives and had just been reunited after a long absence. I've smelled her since in various winds, salt sweat and pungent grassy dung, and I've dreamed of her, dreamed that I vaulted onto her back the way I'd mounted my own horse years earlier, balancing with a handful of mane. I have a photograph of her, taken by my husband from the safety of the truck, and I've thought of approaching someone — but whom? — to ask about her. Do you know this horse, I imagine myself asking, can you tell me where I might find this horse? But then what? I can't think how the story might continue.

I lie in the blue tent and listen to the little brown bats, straining my ears to catch the pulse from their larynxes, seeing shadows of their wings on the walls. By day they roost between the bark and cambium layers of standing dead pines, coming out a dusk to hunt insects. When we walk, we see them flitting between trees. Once we found a dead one here and examined the odd wings, like fine leather, the fierce face reminding me of a wolverine.

Some nights I've stood out on the slope by the lake in moonlight to see what I could see. The dark silhouettes of loons, moving lights coming down the Pennask Lake Road, disappearing as a truck rounds a hidden corner, visible again in the open, the moon passing across the sky like a soft lamp, and once a spade-footed toad on its way down to the lake to cool off. When the traffic is scanty and the campers few, I feel as though I'm seeing the valley in its innocence. Nothing but the animals following their nocturnal habits, climbing out of holes in the sand, swimming from the safety of reeds to bask in moonlight, taking wing in the dry air. Big moths fly toward the candle on my picnic table, and before I can call a warning in a language resembling moth, the delicate wings have sizzled to ash.

I hear the stories coming down from the high plateau, attended by coyotes and burrowing owls, the tiny swift shape of a bat. One might be her story, Margaret Stuart of Nicola Lake, a gathering of small details that might make up a life. Weathers, generations of insects to riddle the fenceposts, a swatch of muslin from a favourite gown. The grasses are beautiful in moonlight — pinegrass, timbergrass, brome grass, giant rye.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

I AM ARRANGING an exhibit for the small museum where I work. I've wanted for some time to look at a period in the history of a community through its textiles. Mostly this will show the history of the women, although I would be happy to be surprised. I put a notice in the local newspaper, asking people to bring in textiles that might be a part of the exhibit, and I have phoned those whom I know have collections of suitable objects. There have always been quilters, for instance, and I hoped to find generations of quilts showing common family themes. I know also of a few women who made samplers for grandchildren. One of them told me that her family had always done this and that she still had the sampler her grandmother had made for her as an infant. One elderly woman makes lace, something I remember my own grandmother doing, even when she was very old and blind. With fine cotton and a thin crochet hook, she made lengths of fragile webbing which fell from her hands to her lap and then to the floor.

I am thinking, too, that the exhibit must include objects from the various cultures that have called this place home. In the museum's collection, there are pieces of clothing made by the aboriginal people — skirts of cedar bark, diapers of fine inner bark, hats and capes, blankets of yellow cedar bark. And there is also a small jacket, a child's jacket, of indigo cotton, padded and quilted with tiny white stitches, that I'm sure must be Japanese sashiko, although its card reads, “Donated by the Williams family, provenance unknown.”

But pieces are slow to come in, and I've been looking into the box which I've come to think of as Margaret's box, the name on the letters evoking a girl, perhaps the girl in one of the photographs, standing in a field with one hand shading her eyes. She is not smiling but looking towards the camera, her shadow falling to one side of her like a faint sister. And little by little I am trying to piece together a life from the small scraps of ephemera.

William Stuart: Astoria, 1883 — Nicola Valley, 1887

What William remembered most about his boyhood in Astoria: boats and horses. His father had been a bar pilot on the Columbia River and made sure that his son learned to manage a boat and navigate the dangerous sandbars at the entrance to the river. Standing in the pilot house, he pointed out the way the ocean currents moved against the steady surge of the river, how the sandbars endlessly changed so that a man had to keep his eyes open, to be constantly alert to weather and seasons. To know which birds were swimming in the grey water and which were perched on submerged hummocks of sand. Together, father and son went over and over the compass and the elder Stuart's annotated charts, faded handwriting indicating rocks or testily questioning the fathoms. He was less than happy, however, when William secured summer employment with a school friend's uncle, Jim MacKay, helping on a gill net boat.

“Remember, William, that we are descendants of the Stuart kings!” This was his refrain whenever his son threatened, by word or deed, to shame the family. Yet the elder Stuart's beginnings had been humble enough. A descendant of Scottish royalty? Perhaps — a small pool of blue blood in a forgotten hollow, a crook of the elbow or deep in the ribcage, ignored by generations of red blood coursing by in the daily work of the living. But his own immediate family had been Highland crofters and had sent him to North America during the Clearances. He'd survived by his wits and natural intelligence, marrying a daughter of John Jacob Astor's paymaster and with her building a comfortable life on the rim of America.

The Astoria they knew was a bustling seaport, with the first post office west of the Rockies, the first customs house west of the Mississippi, and a bevy of stately houses clinging to the steep slopes, one of which was their house, with its hipped roof, its balconies and verandas, its three-storey tower that looked right out to the estuary. On a good day, watchers could spot eagles and harrier hawks, black-shouldered kites, blue herons returning to their rookeries, plovers and murrelets, pelicans, and deer making their careful way across the sand. In immaculate copperplate, William's mother kept a journal of her sightings.
June 12, 1882: Using the telescope, I watched an eagle swoop down over the water and pluck a merganser chick from the clutch following the mother as she swam in the shallows by the entrance to Youngs Bay. Too far away to hear anything, I could only imagine the distress of the adult as she tried to protect the other five chicks from such predation. Also seen: three herons, bufflehead, a magnificent osprey and two sea lions pulling themselves up onto a islet. I think they must have been feeding on the candlefish that are making their way by the thousands up the river.
Her son would come upon her at such times and watch her hand moving across the paper, followed by a script as lovely as the scribble of bird tracks in the sand. Leaning to read over her shoulder, he could smell lavender and violets and would remember her cutting tall stems of lavender in high summer to dry in airy baskets spread about the floor of the attic, stripping the dried flowers later to fill muslin bags to tuck into the linen. Her fingers would be fragrant with the oils for some days afterward.

But William convinced his father that he was old enough to know his own mind, and the way he wanted to spend his summer was on Jim's boat. And anyway, from what he'd learned of the Stuart kings — Charles I, James who was sent to France, the Old Pretender, the Bonny Prince who'd come back to the island he'd heard about since his infancy in Rome (“A salvo of guns sounded from the Castle of St. Angelo”) to claim his true crown — William felt they would approve of the decision he had made.

He didn't talk about the work much at home. How to explain the feeling as the tow-boats pulled the fleet out past the mouth of the river and then released them one by one to the wind and tide, how he'd row and steady the boat as the nets went down, the mesh shoaling into the grey water? He would imagine the curtain of net across the current, the fish entangling themselves silently in the barrier. He loved pulling them in, splitting the lines, cork to one side, lead to the other, while Jim removed each fish, hitting it once firmly on the head and then putting it to rest in a box he would cover with damp burlap. Every muscle in William's body ached as he held the boat steady in the waves, even after he was accustomed to the work, and for the first few weeks, the palms of his hands were raw with rope burns. Until they callused, he'd wince every time he gripped the ropes, the salt water stinging. Putting the wound to his mouth, he tasted salt and blood, a tang of seaweed, thinking how remarkably close to fish was this blending of elements.

It wasn't so much for the money that he stayed on the job, though when the price for sockeye went to three cents a pound and the run was good, he would come home with more money than he'd imagined possible. At night he and Jim slept in turns in the doghouse, fragments of dream interrupted by wind and the push of the tide against the keel. When Jim was sleeping, William would sit out watching the lantern bobbing on the far end of the net, lulled by water. He thought of the song his mother had crooned him to sleep with, always saying, “And this was your ancestor, my son. His blood runs in your American veins.”

Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,

Onward, the sailors cry.

Carry the lad that's born to be king

Over the sea to Skye.

He'd imagined the child lying in the bottom of a small skiff ascending skyward, a look of astonishment on his face. At dawn, they'd pick up the net and find another drift where they could set it again, they'd make tea on the Primus and some sort of a meal. But it was for the run back to the cannery that he wanted this, when they'd raise the spritsail, sometimes even a second spritsail or a jib if they were running before the wind, and it was like flying low over the water, the sails flaring. Sometimes two or three of the gillnetters would go in together, racing in the wind like giant butterflies. William's heart was in his throat as he tacked and turned, gulls in their wake, the treacherous sandbars hidden in the white-capped water. Each safe return seemed a miracle. William had never known such freedom.

Passing Sand Island, they'd see the beach seiners taking out their nets in small flat-bottomed skiffs, then leading huge horses into the tide to pull the nets in. The horses waded belly-deep in icy water, received the lines, then turned, straining as they hauled the fish-laden nets to the shore. Jim MacKay told William that they'd take in thirty tons of salmon on a good day. The cries of the seiners, urging the horses to pull, pull ye lazy bastards, and the snorting of the teams, their sides sleek with water, their shoulders lathered in sweat. Passing near them, William could smell their sweat, cut with the iodine tang of the water, the cold odour of the salmon teeming in the nets. The horses were like unknown creatures, rich and strange, dressed with seaweed, more at home with gods than men, calm as mountains. After them, the Stuart horses seemed so sedate. A matched pair of Morgans to pull the carriage, a saddlehorse or two, they lived in a tidy stable behind the house, snorting primly from the small cinder paddock where they were turned out while the stalls were cleaned. A man cared for them, harnessed them when the carriage was required, and he was not too pleased to have a small boy — later, a young man — hanging about. The bridles were more like ladies' gloves than like the tack worn by the river horses, thin strips of fine leather, the brass polished to dull gold. The Stuart horses had delicate buckles at their throats, jointed snaffles between their jaws; the river horses wore their harnesses like armour, girdled in straps, mighty curb bits clanking in their mouths.

William liked to take his father's mare up to Coxcomb Hill, where he'd let her graze on the young grass while he followed the routes of the rivers with his eyes — the Lewis and Clark coming in from the southwest, Youngs River immediately south, the mist-covered Columbia surging from the east. His tutor once showed him reproductions of quattrocento paintings, and the rivers looked here and there to be painted by the same hands. They made him restless and homesick at the same time, the clear green of the surrounding trees, the contour of the rivers disappearing into fog. He wanted to venture up each to its end, and yet he was afraid of what he might discover hidden beyond that soft curtain. There were stories told in Astoria of men going into the wilderness and never coming out, their footprints vanishing into thin air. The woods teemed with stories of huge hairy creatures, half-human, watching from a ridge, valleys of trees too large to get the mind around. Jim MacKay had worked in the woods, and he told William about cutting down cedars near Mist, then inviting others to join him for a dance on the stumps. “I've seen four couples,” he said, “aye, four couples waltzing on the dance floor created by a stump, while two fellas sawed away at fiddles and another lad played a mandolin alongside, balancing on the springboards.” Below, in the town, William could hear saws whining at the mills, the commotion at the docks as crates of canned salmon were loaded onto waiting vessels. From this hill he'd once seen whales, a stately procession passing the estuary. The natives hunted them, he knew, using the bladders of seals as floats for their harpoons, and whaling ships came into port for provisions, their decks bloody, the piles of whale flesh stacked carefully to balance the load. But the day he saw the whales, they moved north, their progress unimpeded by anything more than curious seals.

Two summers of working with Jim MacKay convinced William that he ought to buy his own boat. He didn't tell his father but chose one himself, a twenty-six-and-a-half-foot Columbia River salmon boat. It was white with blue gunwales and beamy enough that he felt safe handling it himself. He bought it in February, 1883, and spent a few months down at the docks, scraping the bottom, tarring the inside planks, repairing the nets, patching a hole in the jib using stitches taught to him by his sister Elizabeth. He enjoyed being around the other fishermen, listening to them tell stories of good years and bad. Most of them fished for the cannery and used the cannery boats; they worked on these during the off-season for an hourly wage, labouring over them as carefully as if the boats were their own. William tried not to ask too many questions but watched and learned with his eyes and hands. Sometimes another fisherman would take William's hands in his own and draw the scraper over the curving wood of the hull, helping the young man to feel the pressure needed to pare off paint and barnacles, though barnacles were few here where the boats were moored in fresh water or lifted to the quays for the off-season. He'd smell the bitter edge of the pipe tobacco the Norwegians smoked, the unwashed sweaters of homespun wool, the thin, vinegary whiff of pickled salmon, pungent with mustard seeds.

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