This book is dedicated to
Elsie McNeney (1910–2010) and my parents.
Other Books by Arley McNeney
About the Author
Nights, Slim would take her from the blindness of snow to the blindness of tunnels. Newly married and pent up in Zincton, she couldn’t sleep without him. And he liked her company: the easy shadow she made perched on a ledge, listening as he translated the rock’s cursive. His job was to read the long horizons of ore and determine where to timber the next path. Like a dowser, he followed seams black and snaking as rivers.
As he worked, he told her stories: his voice the one steady thing in the half-dark, in the sudden shocks of light when his headlamp veered toward her. The On to Ottawa Trek, mostly. The story of the dandelion wine in the work camps. Hobo jungles. How Arthur “Slim” Evans — a different Slim, the one jailed twice and shot in the leg at Ludlow — stood up to Prime Minister Bennett and said, “You ain’t fit to be prime minister of a Hottentot village.” Trains and marching: men pushing forward through towns Edie had never visited. “Saw a rally where there were so many people all crowded together they didn’t even look like people anymore,” he would say. “Saw weird little birds that sounded like babies crying and would eat anything from your hand. Saw a man who lost his leg under a train and he had a wooden one with all the names of the women he had been with carved into it.”
Sometimes he stole her a headlamp and she would listen beneath the battery’s hum, but mostly she had to stay within the range of Slim’s own glow, straining her eyes through the Morse code of light and darkness. They drank whiskey from a Thermos for the heat and ate icebox cookies and sandwiches she packed in a lard pail. They sang call-and-response songs. Sometimes he was the call and she the response; sometimes they sang together and the mine threw their voices back at them.
Married only a few months, everything he said was funny — “Hilarious,” she was fond of saying. “Oh darling, you’re hilarious!” — and the mine was exciting both because it belonged to Slim’s life and because she was dangerous down there. Illegal. No miner would have set foot in the elevator had he known a woman had been there before. By her very presence, Edie could inspire thousands of men to riot.
It didn’t stop her, though; she loved it. She tossed food scraps into the corners to appease the Tommyknockers and murmured the Lord’s Prayer as the elevator lurched her stomach. She loved hiding her shape in the baggy jumpsuit, slicking back her hair, loved the headlamp warm and heavy as an animal against her temples. She looked as if she inhabited a completely different body. When Slim needed to concentrate, she would prowl the tunnels with her headlamp stretching her shadow huge along the walls. She would press her body into the narrowest spaces to see where she would fit.
“Some men go crazy thinking about all the tons of earth that could come down on them,” Slim would say. “Sometimes I think about that and it makes me crazy as a shithouse rat.”
“That’s because you’re too tall,” said Edie, thinking of how easy it was to wedge herself into crevices: her belly against the cool stone, breasts flattened and throbbing, the texture of the rocks outlined in moisture on her jumpsuit. “You’re always reminded. I’m not bothered.” Half drunk. Warm in the stomach, though her toes felt petrified.
She loved the mine with its lake odour, its shafts and caverns crooked as a fuse, the rooms filled with immense cauldrons that still reeked of fire: a scum of rock crusted on the rims. On days when she was without a headlamp she would try to get lost and wander blindly through the tunnels, guided only by her fingertips along the chiselled grooves the miners left, loving the terror she could create within herself when something dripped down the back of her neck or when she tripped over a rock. Echoes made her voice big and many-tongued.
“Tell me something,” he would say when his voice went hoarse. “I hate the quiet here. Tell me something.”
“I once loved a prisoner and he gave me a piece of a spine as a sign of affection.” She was young enough to imagine that bold statements gave her an air of mystery.
“Hah. That isn’t true.”
“I have it at home. You’ve seen it. You probably didn’t know what it was. One time the old cemetery flooded and all the bones floated up.” She wiggled her fingers to mime floating and the light from the headlamp washed them out so they did look like bones. “You couldn’t imagine the stench, unbelievable, so they made the prisoners up at the Pen load the skeletons into sacks and haul them to the cemetery behind our house. This one fellow took a shine to me. Gave me a bone as a gift and I didn’t even know his name. I still have it. You’ve seen it.”
She did. She still does. A bone worn thin by water, its centre honeycombed so it looked as if it once housed a colony of small animals.
“You never knew his name and you loved him?”
“I was fifteen.”
“Little tart. Hah. I don’t believe you.” He was too tall for the mine: hunched at odd angles, his birdlike shadow huge on the walls. His jumpsuit was too short and Edie could see a band of skin above his boots reddened with cold.
“Fine. Don’t believe me. It’s true. Why do you think my mother shackled me with Anne shortly after?”
Slim laughed. The noise turned choir with the echoes. “Oh, you didn’t mind that kid. Don’t be dramatic. You weren’t shackled. Weren’t anything more than what millions of big sisters are. Did you love him like you love me?”
“What do you think? I was fifteen. I only saw him a few times.”
“So you admit it, then. Like I said. You couldn’t have loved him because you were fifteen and didn’t even know his name. Hah! My point exactly.”
“I said I couldn’t have loved him more than you. This isn’t the Young Trotskyite Debating Society.”
He chuckled, the headlamp’s light shaking with his movement. “Trotskyist. Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist. Damn. I’ve lost count here. Tell me something else.” She could hear his pencil grinding against his notebook. “Better put that bone back where it came from, love. Bad luck. You’re already below ground; only difference between you and that skeleton is you’re not dead.”
At dawn, they would walk home in silence, shielding their eyes from the snow’s glare. In the moon-brightened living room, Slim would undress them both, his eyes watering as they adjusted. They would say nothing, hang their work gear on the hooks with the greatest care — if your clothes fell to the ground, you were destined to fall as well — and go to bed, safe above ground.
And now, nearly ten years later, the underground feeling is the same: the darkness of the tunnels, the odd strobes of light as the train emerges before plunging in again. Her son’s face lighter then darker, shadowed then blotted out with light. Five years and three clapboard towns since she was allowed in a mine, four years since Belly’s birth. They moved, then moved again. Slim went to his graveyard shift below ground and she stayed with her new graveyard shift above ground, walking in circles as she patted out the rhythm of love songs on the back of a sobbing baby.
Zincton, then Britannia, then Sandon, then Ymir. Two years in a tent in Ymir — minus a few months at Norah and Red’s house during the coldest part of winter — six months in an apartment and now she is leaving. For two years she’d wanted out of that tent and now that she has a proper home, she’s on a train headed away.
They emerge on the other side of the mountain and the landscape rolls by chilled and pale, horses the only darkness. Nothing about the view will calm her: not the white blurs of snow, not the grey sky, not the frost that spiderwebs the windows, making them appear cracked. All their belongings are piled on the bench beside them, and Belly often dozes against the carpetbag she’s stuffed with his clothing. While he chatters or conducts military raids with his toy soldiers up the aisle of the train, Edie looks out the window at her reflection projected onto the frigid ponds and lone houses and trees limbs snapped under the weight of snow. Nothing she hasn’t seen before. Again and again. Ten winters with Slim, four towns penned in by mountains.
Beside her, Belly names the horses he sees out the window. “Black one,” he says. “There’s another black one. Pal–o–mee–no. Uh huh. For sure. Chestnut. A chest and a nut. A chestnut mare.” He is cheerful because he loves trains — their mechanics and brute force — and because she told him there might be neighbourhood boys in New Westminster with toy fire trucks and soldiers. He reads the Hudson’s Bay Company Christmas Toy catalogue well into August as if it was a fairy tale — rubbing the pages between his fingers, smearing inky fingerprints on all her linens — and knows that some goods don’t come to the places he’s from. Edie has promised him a tank. Her son will not stop talking: palominos, piebalds, Paints, the wrong names for half-dead farm horses anyhow.
She is gone from a man who for ten years was as straight and hard in her life as a spine. Now the track curving endlessly behind her is the only backbone, now she is filleted, now the snow falls down or it falls up or it falls horizontally or it hangs suspended in a haze. They are descending from a mountain whose guts were ripped open, its ore taken and taken. They are leaving the same way the coal does: by train, through mine-ruined mountains, past towns named after what men strip from them: Zincton, Silverton, Argenta, Silver Creek. Sometimes she turns to ask Slim a question — the time, how long until we get there, should we eat lunch — but he’s gone and she remembers that she’s left him passed out on the bed with the windows open on the coldest night of the year, snow in his hair, the mirrors blurry with ice. The idea of this is a strange fizz in her stomach.
The train’s windows begin to bead with condensation and Belly rubs the moisture away, the horses appearing in the smeared arc his hand has left. The woman on the seat facing Edie’s unbuttons her coat and helps her small daughter do the same. Belly’s cheeks are red and Edie, too, feels slick between her breasts and shoulder blades. She has a few dozen sweat-dampened dollars pinned to her brassiere and a piece of spine in her pocket. Did he blame her? Because of the mining accident? Because she was bad luck? Stolen vertebrae were not the only things that could be cursed. But he was the one who ended up stuck down there, even as the war marched all the other men away overseas. Too knowledgeable to let go, too ruined in the lungs.
Still, Belly chatters away, nonsensical. “That one over there is a dog, and a dog is not a horse, but some dogs are big as horses and you can ride them and you can go anywhere.” His singsong voice couples with the train’s rocking and adds to her headache, but at least he is speaking English.
Slim would be at home on this train, Edie knows. He is a man at ease with them the way some people have a touch with horses. He speaks of trains as a thing to be broken in, that if you can tune yourself to the right rhythm and possess a musician’s sense of timing you can mount one even at top speed. But then again, Slim could barely walk in a straight line on dry, flat land the last she saw him. Still, Edie suspects that just being here, on this train, might restore his dexterity.
Belly kneels on the seat with the side of his face against the headrest, absently stroking the fabric as if it were the hide of an animal. “And a white one. Another white one. I think that’s the baby horse. A mom and a dad and a baby and — oh — a brown one that’s got spots, so I think if he was my horse I would call him Spot, even though usually that’s for dogs, right? Like Mr. Nielsen’s dog. Can a horse be called Spot? And that one’s called a Paint, but they don’t really paint them; it’s just a name; there’s no paint at all.”
“Hey,” says Edie. “Do you want me to tell you a story? How about you lie down and close your eyes?”
Belly stops, eyeing her suspiciously. “About what?”
“About anything. I don’t know. Did I tell you the story about the crows?” Sweat darkens the temples of Belly’s red hair — Slim’s hair, which looks wrong against the brown eyes he inherited from her — so Edie unbuttons his coat. Underneath his thin shirt, she can see his little ribs jutting out. Her son: skinny as Slim, the same devil’s hair.
“What about the one about Mister Red Walsh and his cat named Trinket and how Trinket rode on the trains and stole the apple pie and lived in Mr. Red Walsh’s shirt and that was a long time ago?”
“Belly, these people don’t want to hear you chattering. You’ve got to hush.” If she gave him a few drops of rum he would doze right off and she could have a moment to think for herself. She has done the wrong thing. There was no good reason to leave. No better reason to take Belly. She should go back; her mother won’t take them in; she doesn’t have enough money for the train ticket back; they’ll be stuck homeless in the city; her mother might say, “You made your bed and you lie in it,” shut the door and lock it; they’ll end up in a bad way. All the plush seats and the people in them are pressed close together, spicing the car with the odours of hair cream, snacks in lard pails, cigarettes.
“Another horse!” Belly exclaims, but the woman and her daughter sitting across from them are caught in their own conversation and don’t appear to notice. “A white one!”
“If I talk quietly like I’m just moving my mouth but hardly talking at all can I still tell about the horses?” His good dress shirt is damp with sweat and she’s lucky he’s too young for odour. He possesses only an oceany smell of salt, a hint of soap.
“Quietly,” says Edie. “If I can hear you, you’re being too loud.”
Belly peers out the window and whispers to himself, his voice lilting with the sway of the car. When she gives him a Spam sandwich for supper, he complains about the lack of mustard. He leaves a fur of crumbs on his chest and lap, keeps talking, eats so quickly he gets hiccups, talks between the hiccups. Soon, he lulls himself into a stupor with the cadence of his own stories, or Slim’s stories he’s made into his own.
The snow turns red and orange as the sun sets. The flurries pick up, sanding away the silhouettes of houses and trees, and then it is dark. Edie smoothes her son’s damp temples. He watches her, his mouth still moving, but either she can’t hear or she’s not listening carefully enough.
Edie reaches beyond him, then presses her palm to the glass hoping for a chill, leaving instead a smudge of her own sweat and oils. The train’s movement thrums beneath her fingertips, and she cannot help but picture her husband the way she likes to remember him: the wind reddening his cheeks and fraying the cuffs of his jacket as he rides on top of the boxcar in 1935. The On to Ottawa Trek. The slogans painted with shoe polish on a boy’s good sweater. The men snake-dancing from side to side down the road with arms linked so they would resemble a river when viewed from above. The story of the good fight. Of “Hold the Fort, for We Are Coming.” She knows this Slim better than the one passed out grey-faced on their bed. The Slim who was there. The Slim who took part. She cannot help trying to reassemble him.
THE STORY OF THE ON TO OTTAWA TREK
The jostled men are singing through a chill no wool can keep away. On top of the boxcar: metal and what cold can turn it into. Who knew summer could be like this? Nightly cold snaps that leave morning frost as a reminder. Soon, there will be bodies of other men organized into three divisions — four abreast marching down the streets of Golden — but for now Slim’s on a boxcar roof with maybe twenty others, a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, fingers stiffened around the catwalks. The men are singing that there is “‘power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hands of the worker,’” the song a deep hum against the buckle and sway of the boxcar, the words blurred by wind and many voices.
Comrade Hold the Fort backs them up with a mouth harp, and the men on nearby boxcars sing along: all kinds of accents, tenors and baritones, churchy little voices from the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. “‘Money speaks for money, but never for its own,’” they are singing. “‘Who’s going to speak for the skin and the bone?’”
Who’s going to speak for his fingers stiffened around metal? Slim thinks. Who’s going to speak for the sore from where his hip has rested for the past six hours, rubbed crimson by the rhythm of the train. Another man also named Slim. There are so many lanky boys here that the Trek’s leader, Arthur “Slim” Evans — jailed twice, shot in the leg at Ludlow — has become Arthur-Slim. Arthur-Slim will take them to Ottawa to make that bastard R.B. Bennett, Old Iron Heel, give them their due. Matt Shaw says that the fire of the working-class struggle constantly stoked inside him has burned off every ounce of fat. In contrast, Slim MacDonald (maybe they’ll start calling him Mack on account of his last name, or Pop or Dad on account of his age; twenty-seven must seem ancient to these teenagers) feels scrawny, all frozen bones.
But this cold. Lord. And he’s not some mama’s boy warmed by parental love and central heating. He got up early to tend the woodstove, started work at eleven, left home at fifteen. And, of course, he’s been down to the mine: a different kind of freeze. Three years in work camps and you’ll know what it is to be cold, what it is to be bored, what it is to go years without the sight of a woman’s face. He knows he could use the padding: some meat to fill in the space between his ribs, soften his elbows, hips, even those fingers. Give me steak and eggs, he thinks. Give me apple pie with cheese, bread fried in bacon grease, glossy clots of blackberries so thick they snap the branch.
Even in the dark, Slim can see that Matt Shaw, one of the few Trekkers without a nickname, definitely the only one who gets his name said whole, is looking at him. He’s the spokesman, that’s why he gets his full name said. They write him up in the papers. Matt Shaw winks, waving one arm as if conducting a band. “‘There is power in a union.’”
Oh, Comrade Hold the Fort is going strong now, boy, and the men launch into his signature song: “‘Hold the fort, for we are coming! Union men, be strong!’” And damned if Slim doesn’t want to sing along. It’s too easy to get lost in the mundane details of getting your fingers working again. Best to think of all these voices and where they’re headed. On to Ottawa to see that bastard Bennett, stopping in Golden for a bath, a piss, something to eat, on to Calgary, Swift Current, Medicine Hat, Moose Jaw. More than sixteen hundred men on three trains, and men from the relief camps in Alberta and Saskatchewan should be riding down to meet them in Calgary. Thousands of men still in their camp-issue khakis and sweaters so that they look like an army. Our Boys! On to Ottawa! “‘Hold the fort, for we are coming!’”
Slim sings along, imagining his voice warming him like whiskey. He sings to Matt Shaw, Flash, Piper, Ace, Paddy, Red, to the sky lightening so he can make out the shapes of trees. He sings through the scent of pine and smoke, wet wool and body odour. In this land of mouth harps, it’s too easy to feel like a lone guitar: thin as a string, a body of wood that warps in wind or cold. If not for these men, a fellow could go flat in this land. In the bars and pubs back in Vancouver, those who can afford it are dancing the lindy hop, the mad piano is going like stink, but here there’s only the mouth harp, its high slide against the ears, moving as wind does. Just the mouth harp tuned to one key, reminding you what C is so you can find yourself in relation to it.
The train is like a horse or like a Spitfire or a Lancaster or a Hurricane or a Hellcat; Belly can’t decide. He’s not supposed to say hell unless it has the word cat on the end of it. He’s not supposed to say a lot of things. The train races the horses across the fields and sometimes a palomino or a piebald will stare through the window as it gallops, looking at Belly even as the wind whips its mane against its eyes, wishing him luck. Belly has been awake, then asleep, and now he is awake again, even though it’s dark and he can’t see the horses but knows they’re there, looking back at him.
The train runs so fast for a thing with no feet — on wheels but not like car wheels, wheels that look too small for something so big — but anyways his dad has said that trains are nearly the same as flying, right, and a man who can hop a damn-bloody boxcar — he’s not supposed to say damn or bloody and especially not both together — and live to tell about it can fly a fighter plane no problem. Problem is, says his dad, you can’t put boxcar riding on your application. It’s all about your g.d. bloody lungs and the name of your mom and pop, don’t want no commies fighting for His Majesty no matter how high the body count gets.
So Belly gets up to use the lavatory car just so he can spread his arms out wide and sputter to himself up the hall, like he is made of metal, like the rose pattern on the carpet is really towns and bases viewed from far above. When he returns to his seat, his mom is still taking apart the sweater she’s been knitting, which Belly thinks would be fun, to pull at the hem of his sleeve and have it fall into a ball of yarn. He would like to pretend that he is a cat playing with string and bat the yarn between his cat paws until it gets tangled. In the seat across from his mother, a lady reads a book and a girl has her head on her mom’s lap but her eyes are open and she stares at Belly. She’s a blonde girl and her face is spooky white.
When he tries to climb onto his mom’s lap, she sets him beside her, telling him to sit like he’s big. He doesn’t want to. Sometimes he likes pretending he’s much younger than he is, seeing if he can curl himself small enough to fit exactly on her lap so that not even his toes fall off. Belly pokes the muzzle of his soldier’s gun into his finger. The soldier has a crazy look on his face like he’ll stab you or he’ll shoot you, he can’t decide he’s so mean and mad.
“When we get there you’re going to have to be quiet,” says his mom, even though he wasn’t saying anything. “You can’t go around — Nana will love you, of course she’ll take to you, but she’s a strange lady — not a bad lady, but odd, odd in a good way, eccentric — stranger since your grandpa up and left.” His mom moves her hands in the place of actual words, and Belly wonders if he’s supposed to know what her hands mean because he doesn’t and she doesn’t stop long enough for him to ask. “She’ll tell you that crows take souls to heaven, tell you not to wash your hair when you’re sick, wrap a sock around your neck to fight chills, all sorts of old wives’ tales, make you throw bread and oatmeal up on the carport so those dirty birds can shit all over the place.”
Belly doesn’t like it when his mom cusses, same as how he hates it when she calls him William MacDonald Jr. or even William. Poop is a better word; he loves to say it. Poop! The word like a little bean shooting out. That makes him want to laugh, but his mom looks mean at him so he shuts his mouth.
“When my own grandpa passed, Lord, she thought every bloody crow was a sign.” Bloody is another word no one should say unless they’re talking about real blood; that’s what his mom usually says. She rolls the kinked yarn around her hand, tighter and tighter, until her fingertips are white. Her lipstick has been chewed off, so her mouth is nearly the colour of her face; her face is red and her mouth is white and flaky and it’s as if the colour of her mouth and the colour of her face have switched places and something is wrong, but he doesn’t know quite what. “You’ll be good. You’ll be quiet. She’ll just love you, but she’s an odd duck, feeding those crows, taking flowers to the dead little ones in the graveyard. Busy household, but your nana runs a tight ship.”
Belly thinks of ducks and ships and how the train is like a ship, rocking back and forth, and when she lets him go he will pretend to be a captain or maybe a pirate. His mom digs her fingers into his shoulder.
“William MacDonald,” she says. “Do you want to go back to Ymir and maybe I’ll just go and live with Nana on my own and buy myself that nice new tank?”
Belly is less scared by the idea of not getting a tank than he is that she’s used his full name, the name she only uses when he won’t speak right, keeps jabbering away like a kammer-cazzy-Jap and what would people think if they heard him?
“Sorry,” says Belly.
“What did I just say? What was I talking about?”
Belly stares at her. They haven’t even gotten to his nana’s house and already he has been no good. “About the crows,” he says.
His mom stares out the window like she didn’t hear, then keeps up with the crows and the manners and the grandpa that ran off. Belly wonders where his grandpa ran to, but his mom’s on a roll now all right and there’s no stopping her, so he tries hard to listen, not to think of crows or ships or horses or airplanes or how if you had a gun with three muzzles no one could hurt you except maybe from the back, but you could probably have a gun in your back, though you’d have to have a special way to know who you’re shooting at. His mom tells terrible stories, not like his dad, who can do all the voices and sings songs.
“So you’ve got to be polite. No yelling, no running and absolutely no talking that, you know, that language.” She makes a fluttery gesture with her hand, as if Belly has been making bird noises. He wants to caw like a bird to see if he can make the sound and bets he could because he’s good at making sounds. “One word of that and — Your nana would have a royal fit if she knew I’d let you run wild with little Jap children.”
She continues with the list of nos and don’ts until the train itself seems to be chugging no no don’t no no don’t. There are brown stains on the ceiling that look like bears with their mouths open.
When his mom used to teach at the Orchard school, Belly learned a secret language he suspects is the language of all boys everywhere, so that they can talk about things and their moms and dads won’t have to know. Tomodachi means friend and uma means horse and sensou means war. He mouths the words to himself as his mom keeps up with the mind-your-manners and the crows who carry the souls of dead people up to heaven and the flowers on the graves of babies. Tomodachi, he says to himself, uma, sensou.
“It’s late,” says his mom in a soft voice like she’s saying sorry. “I don’t know what you’re still doing up.”
“You said before you would tell about Trinket the cat,” Belly says. That crazy cat, riding on Mr. Red Walsh’s shoulder like a parrot and sneaking away to get some mice for dinner. Stealing a pie! Right from a windowsill!
His mom sighs. “Lie down. Close your eyes.” Belly does. He shuts them so tight his head hurts and he sees little red sparks, but his mom puts her coat over him and he relaxes, even though he was already hot and now is more hot. “Well. Now. You know this story.” She sighs. “You could tell me this story.” She taps her fingers on his shoulder as if his shoulder was a piano and she could make music come out of it. His dad can play a piano for real and sometimes he pretends that the kitchen table is a piano even if it’s not. “Well. This one time when your father was on the On to Ottawa Trek, years and years before you were born, before I was even his wife, his friend Red Walsh found a tiny newborn kitten on the side of the road. He saved the poor thing’s life by feeding it milk through a knotted handkerchief all day and night and he named it Trinket.”
The story is nice because he knows it so well he doesn’t have tolisten. He can just wave his soldiers through the air so they can fan him and pretend they’re marching, each with their own perfect cat and each cat having its own special pie. It’s like being at home. They’ve lived in a tent and in an apartment and his dad has gone away and then come back and now they are going to see his nana whose magic pet crow takes dead people to heaven and he’s seen more horses today than anyone can count. All these things have happened, but the cat story has been the same and is still the same, no matter who tells it, no matter what they say.
THE STORY OF THE MASCOT
Red Walsh travels with a cat named Trinket that he carries in his pocket, so tame she sleeps with her head on his palm. She’s stunted somehow, Red doesn’t know how, maybe because he found her on the roadside by Creston so young she was still blind and nursed her with a knotted handkerchief dipped in milk. She has grown to fit his pocket, into the exact proportions of the world around her. Thin, she passes through long grasses without rippling the stalks and emerges with mice, voles, once a squirrel, and no one complains because she feeds herself this way, by vanishing for a few hours and reappearing with her muzzle and paws stiff with blood and rests by the fire, licking clean, tasting and retasting the last of her meal. She is kitten-sized or maybe chooses to remain so, since after all can’t cats collapse their skeletons to fit through the slats of a fence, under a window? Once, she emerged with her whiskers purple from the blueberry pie a woman cooled on her sill. If she were my cat, says Matt Shaw, I would hit her on the head with a shovel, bloody nuisance animal, can’t hardly feed the men on this trip. If she was born at the farm, Red agrees, we would have drowned her in a sack. Cats are not work animals, but these days who the hell is working? On cold days, he wraps her in blankets like a baby and carries her in his mackinaw, so they can warm each other, so she can sleep to the rhythms of his heart and his footsteps, so she can collapse her bones into the exact proportions of his chest.
THE STORY EDIE DIDN'T TELL
The week Edie’s father left for the first time, Edie inherited the crows. Katherine had to brush her mother’s hair and bathe her; Tom had to make scrambled eggs and toast for every meal; and Edie took on the crows because they looked sad waiting on the carport for scraps that wouldn’t come, their heads cocked to one side like pet dogs. She was ten, maybe. Her father was a policeman who rode a motorcycle, and every morning he would drape his uniform over the radiator to dry and his family would wake to the scent of diesel and sweat and know that he had come home safely. For a week now, the house had smelled only mildly unclean, like unwashed hair.
Edie stood on the porch in her bare feet. The porridge and crusts had a sweet, brown-sugar smell, and she wondered whether crows have noses on their beaks. Probably not, or they wouldn’t poke around in the compost heap and the graveyard. The crows must have caught the scent of the food, though, because they began to sing in their scratchy old-lady voices.
The roof held a small pond from the recent snowmelt, and the crows bathed, ruffling their feathers as if they were prettier birds. They live in the cemetery and take the souls of dead people up to heaven to be with Jesus — that’s what her mother often said — and all that carrying is hard work, so the crows must be fed.
The sun was coming up over the muddy graveyard behind the house and made the little rooftop pond glow. All the neat rows of stones looked as if they were about to sink deep into the ground. Last week, a woman came from the church to sit with Edie’s mother and tell her about how God gives us sadness to make us strong and how the death of the lady’s own husband made her surrender her heart to the Lord and after all Edie’s father isn’t even dead and may still return after he gets all of this unpleasantness out of his system. Think, she said, what the Lord could do.
Edie’s mother just sat there wearing Edie’s father’s old bathrobe. Katherine had plaited her hair into ridiculous French braids with ribbons woven in them so her mother looked like a young girl from the neck up and an old man from the neck down. Thin in the filthy robe. Edie was embarrassed, but the lady didn’t seem to mind. She said that her own husband was buried in the cemetery, and Edie didn’t want to tell her the truth that he’s gone with the crows because that might make her feel sad. When the woman left, Edie fed her leftover cookies to the crows and told them to share with the husband.
Edie leaned over the porch railing. The trick was to toss the crusts from the porch to the carport, but when she tried, they fell to the driveway and the crows craned their smart eyes at her, as if to say, “Hey, little girl, we’ve been flying the whole night to get these here dead people up to the arms of our Lord Saviour, and you want us to fly down there in the middle of our lovely bath to get our breakfast?”
“Well, sorry,” Edie told them. “I’m just ten and I don’t play baseball.”
Baseball, she imagined the crows saying. We fly a million,thousand miles into a secret trap door in the sun where Jesus lives and call out the secret passwords and last night I sure had a fat old soul to carry and now my back hurts. You want to talk to us about baseball? The crows turned back to their bathing.
Edie walked down the steps, regretting her bare feet. It was bright but cold, colder now with her wet feet. She held the bowl up to the crows with both hands above her head. They didn’t move except to drink the puddle water, and Edie was amazed to see they had small tongues, black like snake’s tongues, and their feathers were not actually black but blue when the light was on them the right way. If she were a younger girl, she would have thought the crows must have picked up some dust from the blue sky to get blue wings like that, but at ten, she knew better and told herself that it was probably a trick of the light. From the house, she could hear her mother making sad little sounds and it filled her with shame, so she held the bowl higher, stretching on her tiptoes.
Her feet hurt from the stones on the pavement and the wind ruffled through the sleeves of her nightgown. “Come get it!” she yelled. Her father had cows as a boy and that’s what he said to bring them in: come and get it! She held the bowl high above her head. “Come on, fellows!”
They came in a flurry of wings flapping small breezes against her cheeks, tapping their beaks and claws on the china bowl as they pecked at the porridge. The bowl shifted as they squabbled for position and Edie’s arms quickly went sore. The smell was not what she imagined the sky to smell like or the carrier of souls to smell like: a swampy, oily scent, like something half dead. They argued close to her ears.
Edie wondered if after they got done with the porridge, they might want her soul, even though she was still alive. Which would be fun, she thought, to fly in the claws of those crows, invisible, spying on everyone with her newly dead eyes. Later, she would feel guilty that she didn’t think to have the crows fly her to find her father and bring him home. Jesus wouldn’t let anyone in the air without a noble purpose, she suspected, and making her mother happy would surely count, no matter what Jesus said about suffering. It didn’t matter. Her father would do that himself, a few months later, without anyone dragging him back, without Edie’s help at all.
Beside her, Belly stares up at the ceiling, moving his toy soldiers back and forth. She should never have brought him. Probably it would have been better to leave him with Norah and Red, maybe send for him when she gets back on her feet. She can picture it: a little apartment with a girl from the office — what office, she doesn’t know — and the place would be frayed around the edges but clean, and she would save for some of those collectible plates with the King’s face or the name of the province on them and display them on her sideboard, and they would keep a pretty glass decanter of brandy on top of the gramophone and every night after a long day’s work they would stretch out with their hair in rollers and sip just a fingerful in a tiny glass and gab about office gossip.
She watches her son’s breathing underneath his cotton shirt. Belly snores, wheezes a little when he’s running, and she’s worried it’s because of years of mould from living in that tent or the time they spent in refinery towns and mining towns. He’s not even five, but already she’s ruined him in some basic way.
Belly was born in a smelting town with streets named after the owner’s daughters. Between Elizabeth Street and Martha Street, there was a clinic with one doctor and two nurses. At the time of Belly’s birth, the doctor was off celebrating his birthday and some minor Allied victory.
The nurse had given her something. Chloroform? The birth was a type of pain she was not meant to remember. Edie lazed huge in the bed, untethered, as he slipped out of her. There was not one clean thing in that town. Not the bedsheets with Cominco Refineries Ltd. burned into the corner. Not the windows or any of the buildings outside the windows.
She was twenty-three years old and all the others were teenaged farm girls newly married and naming their babies after their teenaged husbands, who were away overseas. After five years of marriage, she had assumed pregnancy simply wouldn’t be possible for her. Her body was too boy-shaped maybe, or perhaps there was something wrong between her and Slim. She had not minded one way or the other; in fact, the only time she thought of children was when she would play bridge with the women’s auxiliary and some toddler would run into the room to press his sticky face and hands into his mother’s dress.
Edie peered out the window through the sick-sweet haze of whatever they’d given her, through the yellow fog that killed the apple trees every time the baffles were opened to let out the sulfur. Her son: a grey-blue thing. She’d dreamed about him in shades of white or pink, imagining she’d made him perfectly: his lungs, his pink toes. She’d dreamed of one pure cry, a red-faced child screaming. Instead, the nurse — her outfit rallying against the grey with its starched pleats and little cap — breathing into her son’s lungs. There was afterbirth on her cheeks when she came up for air. The nurse slapped him. Her red lipstick on his grey face, brighter than blood.
And then her son became red again. It was not the cry she noticed, but his stomach, his belly’s unrelenting moving and moving, working even in that air, filling him with colour. And so William MacDonald Jr. became Billy, then Belly, within the first five minutes of his life. In the room with the greying sheets, the nurse stuffed the life back into him. His belly expanding and contracting: going and going. The child has not had a proper name since.
Nor a proper home. Nor a proper life. From the refineries to the mine, to a tent in Ymir, to an apartment, and now here. He has learned Japanese from the Jap children in the internment camp and his skin is always tarnished with the filth of some machine.
The train lurches. A porter hurries from room to room, calling out warnings, his voice low and soothing.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “The Kettle Valley Railway is sorry to ...