Authors: Margaret Laurence
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
THE NEW CANADIAN LIBRARY
General Editor: David Staines
the Elmcot people
past present and future
and for the house itself
with love and gratitude.
but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on
–Roblin Mills Circa 1842
My deepest thanks to the following:
– Ian Cameron, who wrote the music for “Lazarus,” “Song for Piquette,” and “Pique’s Song,” and who did musical arrangements for all the songs, and tape-recorded them for me so I could hear them sung;
– Sandy Cameron, who set down the musical notations;
– Prue and John Bawden, who transcribed the songs;
– Jocelyn Laurence, who typed the manuscript for me;
– Bob Berry, Paula Berry, David Laurence, Peter MacLachlan, Joan Minkoff, John Valentine, who helped with either the singing or the playing of the songs, or with the obtaining of copies of the musical scores and Xerox copies of the manuscript.
I should like also to thank the Canada Council for the Senoir Arts Award which assisted me during the writing of this novel.
(Music © 1973 Heorte Music)
RIVER OF NOW AND THEN
he river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.
The dawn mist had lifted, and the morning air was filled with swallows, darting so low over the river that their wings sometimes brushed the water, then spiralling and pirouetting upward again. Morag watched, trying to avoid thought, but this ploy was not successful.
Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag would be certain to find it.
Now please do not get all uptight, Ma. I can look after myself. Am going west. Alone, at least for now. If Gord phones, tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating
down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.
Well, you had to give the girl some marks for style of writing. Slightly derivative, perhaps, but let it pass. Oh jesus, it was not funny. Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time. That wouldn’t happen again, not like before. Morag was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Not sure enough, probably.
I’ve got too damn much work in hand to fret over Pique. Lucky me. I’ve got my work to take my mind off my life. At forty-seven that’s not such a terrible state of affairs. If I hadn’t been a writer, I might’ve been a first-rate mess at this point. Don’t knock the trade.
Morag read Pique’s letter again, made coffee and sat looking out at the river, which was moving quietly, its surface wrinkled by the breeze, each crease of water outlined by the sun. Naturally, the river wasn’t wrinkled or creased at all–wrong words, implying something unfluid like skin, something unen-during, prey to age. Left to itself, the river would probably go on like this, flowing deep, for another million or so years. That would not be allowed to happen. In bygone days, Morag had once believed that nothing could be worse than killing a person. Now she perceived river-slaying as something worse. No wonder the kids felt themselves to be children of the apocalypse.
No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie. Seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great
significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.
Across the river, the clumps of willow bent silver-green down to the water, and behind them the great maples and oaks stirred a little, their giant dark green tranquility disturbed only slightly by the wind. There were more dead elms this year, dry bones, the grey skeletons of trees. Soon there would be no elms left.
The swallows dipped and spun over the water, a streaking of blue-black wings and bright breastfeathers. How could that colour be caught in words? A sort of rosy peach colour, but that sounded corny and was also inaccurate.
I used to think words could do anything. Magic. Sorcery. Even miracle. But no, only occasionally.
The house seemed too quiet. Dank. The kitchen had that sour milk and stale bread smell that Morag remembered from her childhood, and which she loathed. There was, however, no sour milk or stale bread here–it must be all in the head, emanating from the emptiness of the place. Until recently the house was full, not only Pique but A-Okay Smith and Maudie and their shifting but ever-large tribe. Morag, for the year when the Smiths lived here, had gone around torn between affection and rage–how could anyone be expected to work in such a madhouse, and here she was feeding them all, more or less, and no goddamn money would be coming in if she didn’t get back to the typewriter. Now, of course, she wished some of them were here again. True, they only lived across the river, now that they had their own place, and visited often, so perhaps that was enough.
Something about Pique’s going, apart from the actual departure itself, was unresolved in Morag’s mind. The fact that
Pique was going west? Yes. Morag was both glad and uncertain. What would Pique’s father think, if he knew? Well, he wouldn’t know and didn’t have all that much right to judge anyway. Would Pique go to Manawaka? If she did, would she find anything there which would have meaning for her? Morag rose, searched the house, finally found what she was looking for.
These photographs from the past never agreed to get lost. Odd, because she had tried hard enough, over the years, to lose them, or thought she had. She had treated them carelessly, shoved them away in seldom-opened suitcases or in dresser drawers filled with discarded underwear, scorning to put them into anything as neat as an album. They were jammed any-old-how into an ancient tattered manilla envelope that Christie had given her once when she was a kid, and which said
McVitie & Pearl, Barristers & Solicitors, Manawaka, Manitoba
. Christie must have found it at the dump–the Nuisance Grounds, as they were known; what an incredible name, when you thought of the implications. The thick brown paper stank a bit when Christie had handed it to her, faintly shitlike, faintly the sweetish ether smell of spoiled fruit. He said Morag could have it to keep her pictures in, and she had taken it, although despising it, because she did not have any other sturdy envelope for the few and valued snapshots she owned then. Not realizing that if she had chucked them out, then and there, her skull would prove an envelope quite sturdy enough to retain them.
I’ve kept them, of course, because something in me doesn’t want to lose them, or perhaps doesn’t dare. Perhaps they’re my totems, or contain a portion of my spirit. Yeh, and perhaps they are exactly what they seem to be–a jumbled mess of old snapshots which I’ll still be lugging along with me when I’m an old lady,
clutching them as I enter or am shoved into the Salvation Army Old People’s home or wherever it is that I’ll find my death.
Morag put the pictures into chronological order. As though there were really any chronological order, or any order at all, if it came to that. She was not certain whether the people in the snapshots were legends she had once dreamed only, or were as real as anyone she now knew.
I keep the snapshots not for what they show but for what is hidden in them.
The man and woman are standing stiffly on the other side of the gate. It is a farm gate, very wide, dark metal, and old–as is shown by its sagging. The man is not touching the woman, but they stand close. She is young, clad in a cotton print dress (the pattern cannot be discerned) which appears too large for her thin frame. Looking more closely, one can observe that her slight and almost scrawny body thickens at the belly. Her hair is short and fluffy, possibly blonde. The man’s head is bent a little, and he is grinning with obvious embarrassment at the image-recorder who stands unseen and unrecorded on the near side of the gate. The man appears to be in his early thirties. He is tall and probably strong, narrowly but muscularly built. His hair is dark and somewhat unruly, as though he had combed it back with his fingers an instant before. In the far background, at the end of the road, can be seen the dim outlines of a house, two-storey, a square box of a house, its gracelessness atoned for, to some extent, by a veranda and steps at the front. Spruce trees, high and black, stand beside the house. In the further background there is a shadow-structure which could be the barn. Colin Gunn and his wife, Louisa, stand here always, in the middle 1920s, smiling their
tight smiles, holding their now-faded sepia selves straight, hopeful, their sepia house and sepia farm firmly behind them, looking forward to what will happen, not knowing the future weather of sky or spirit.
Morag Gunn is in this picture, concealed behind the ugliness of Louisa’s cheap housedress, concealed in her mother’s flesh, invisible. Morag is still buried alive, the first burial, still a little fish, connected unthinkingly with life, held to existence by a single thread.
The child sits on the front steps of the house. She has lost the infant plumpness which presumably she once had, but she is built stockily, at age about two. Her hair is straight and dark, like her father’s. She looks grave, although not unhappy. Thoughtful, perhaps. She wears a plain cotton dress with puffed sleeves and a sash, and she or someone has tucked it modestly around her knees. Beside her sits a grinning mongrel dog, tongue lolling out.
The dog, as one would not guess from the picture, is called Snap, short for Snapdragon. He always follows Morag around the yard, keeping an eye on her. He is a mild-natured dog, easygoing, and he never once snaps at anyone, despite his name. He would snap at thieves or robbers if there were any, but there aren’t, ever. Morag’s mother lets Snap sleep in Morag’s bedroom, to keep her company. Some people wouldn’t have allowed a dog to sleep at the foot of a bed, but Morag’s mother doesn’t mind, because she knows Morag wants Snap to be there so as she will feel safe. Morag’s mother is not the sort of mother who yells at kids. She does not whine either. She is not like Prin.
All this is crazy, of course, and quite untrue. Or maybe true and maybe not. I am remembering myself composing this interpretation, in Christie and Prin’s house.
The child, three years old, is standing behind the heavy-wire-netted farm gate, peering out. The person with the camera is standing unseen on the other side. The child is laughing, acting up, play-acting goofily, playing to an audience of one, the picture-taker.
What is not recorded in the picture is that after Morag’s father has taken this picture, he asks her if she’d like to have him help her climb the gate. Her father never minds helping her. He always has time. Her father is beside her, then, and lifts her up and sets her on the very top of the gate, holding her so she will not fall. She hangs onto his shoulder and puts her face beside his neck. He smells warm and good. Clean. Smells of soap and greengrass. Not manure. He never stinks of horseshit, even though he is a farmer. Morag’s father lifts her down from the gate, and they go into their house. The house is very huge, full of strange corners and places to explore. It even has a diningroom, with good furniture, a sideboard and a big round table. The Gunns eat in their diningroom every single Sunday without fail. There is a cupboard under the front stairs, into which Morag crawls when she wishes to find hidden treasure. It goes a long way back and is just high enough for her to stand up. Inside, there are stacks of books that once belonged to Alisdair Gunn, Morag’s grandfather, who came here a long long time ago and built the house and started the farm when probably nothing was here except buffalo grass and Indians. The books have leather bindings, and smell like harness, only
nicer, and the names are marked in gold. Also in this cupboard are vases and plates, painted with orange chrysanthemums and purple pansies, and old dresses, long, with lace on the sleeves, blue velvet and plum-coloured silk, fragile and rustling. A few spiders and ants live in that cupboard, but Morag is not afraid of them, or of anything in that house. It is a safe place. Nothing terrible can happen there.
I don’t recall when I invented that one. I can remember it, though, very clearly. Looking at the picture and knowing what was hidden in it. I must’ve made it up much later on, long long after something terrible had happened.
The child is leaning out the window, an upstairs window. She is smiling down at the person with the camera. Her face is calm, serene. Her straight black hair, neatly trimmed, comes just to the level of her earlobes.
What the picture does not tell is that Morag is leaning out the window of her own bedroom, a room not too small and yet not too large. It has a white dresser with a pale leafgreen ruffled curtain around the bottom, and underneath there is a white (cleaned every day) chamber pot for her to use during the night if she has to go. This is nice, because it means she never has to go outside to the backhouse in the winter nights. There is also a white-painted bed, with a lovely quilt, flowers in green and pink on a white background, very daintily stitched, maybe by a grandmother.
I recall looking at the pictures, these pictures, over and over again, each time imagining I remembered a little more. The farm couldn’t have been worth a plugged nickel at that point. The drought had begun, and the Depression. Why in these pictures am I smiling so seldom? A passing mood? Or inherited? In my invented
memories I always think of my father smiling, possibly because he really seldom did. He is smiling in the only picture I have of him, but that was for the camera. Colin Gunn, whose people came to this country so long ago, from Sutherland, during the Highland Clearances, maybe, and who had in them a sadness and a stern quality. Can it ever be eradicated?
The child’s black straight hair is now shoulder-length, and she is four years old. She is sitting primly on a piano stool in front of an old-fashioned high-backed upright piano. She is peering fixedly at the sheet music in front of her, which, from the dimly seen word “Roses” may be guessed to be “Roses of Picardy.” Morag wears a pullover which appears to be decorated with wool embroidery, possibly flowers, and an obviously tartan skirt. Her hands rest lightly on the keys and her feet do not reach the pedals.
My concentration appears to indicate interest and even enthusiasm. I did not yet know that I was severely myopic and had to peer closely to see anything at all.
Let the snapshot tell what is behind it. Morag’s mother, before she married, was a piano teacher in Manawaka. She is now trying to teach Morag how to play, and Morag really loves the lessons and is very good and quick at picking up how to do it. The livingroom is not used for everyday, but Morag and her mother go into it quite a lot in the afternoons. The carpet is royal blue, patterned with birds whose wings are amber, dovegrey, scarlet. On the piano is a red glass filled with cornflowers, and a very miniature tree made out of brass, with small bells attached to it. If you put the piano stool up as high as it will go, and start off quickly enough, it twirls all the way down again with you twirling on it. Morag’s mother plays, not the
plonk-plonk-plinkety-plonk of Sunday school music, but very light, very light.