The day after Mom’s funeral was cold for the season, rain heavy in the air but nothing actually spilling over, the sky a featureless silver-grey, and my whole body ached in sharp slivery ways. Her funeral was in Portage, where they lived, so I bussed out early from Winnipeg. Instead of going home afterward, I came back with Dad to keep him company and spend the night.
It was cold in the house when we walked in. There was a Mom-sized hole in everything. The frilly, faded cushions on her chair, piled together with a Mom-shaped dent in them. The clattering around that wasn’t happening. The not-invitation to sit down, put my feet up, tell her what’s been going on (keeping one eye on the TV while I answered). I stood by the front door taking in the emptiness while Dad made a beeline to his chair, without a glance at hers right next to it, pulled a beer from his jacket pocket, sat down and cracked it open. Then he picked up the remote and started clicking through the channels.
So he’d rather watch TV than talk. That’s Dad. This is me. I’d rather . . . I don’t know what I’d rather do. I watched him watching the idiots on the screen till my skin crawled and I decided to hit the sack.
I lay on my old bed looking at the ceiling for a long time. We lived—they lived—Dad lived on the edge of town right against the prairie, within spitting distance of the river. It would be half frozen by now. If I were to walk on its hardened edges they would squeak and crack and the river would slip around underneath like some water spirit, a drowned soul seeking release.
The brightness of the ceiling shifted now and then, when a car’s headlamps brushed it like paint across the shadows, or a silent owl for a second blocked the tall yard-light. Sometimes it was the light from the porch flashing on, to the sound of Dad rummaging in the icebox, and the clinking of bottles, and the door slamming shut. Then the light would die again.
I just lay there, a clamp across my chest, squeezing and squeezing, and dampness, just a little, around my eyes. Finally, I fell asleep.
I woke up early. Walked to the living room, sagged in the guest chair, a big lumpy thing that was hell on your back if you sat there long. The clock whispered every sixty seconds. Shh. Shh. Shh.
I had to get out. But go where? Not back to Winnipeg, that was sure; not back to work and questions and—I needed time. I didn’t need real life. I needed here.
An image rose in the back of my mind. Ducks rising off water, low sun igniting droplets as they fell, feather edges like blazing fans, trees black against the sky.
Delta Marsh. That was it. Wild as it gets around Portage. I could use wild.
Our marsh is famous all over the world. All sorts of scientists go there to do research, on the ducks and swans and the pelicans, too. It’s a special place.
I talked myself out of the deep, lumpy chair, pulled on a jacket and rubber boots and helped myself to the keys to Dad’s car. I filled the kettle and let it boil, poured hot water into a thermos and spooned in instant coffee. Took some biscuits off a plate on the counter, dabbed jam on them, wrapped them up and shoved them in my pack.
Gently opening the door to Dad’s room, I looked in to see how he was doing. He was asleep on his little iron bed, one arm hanging down, knuckles against the cold floor. His greasy white hair was scattered across his pate, his face was still. He was lying on top of his covers, funeral clothes disarranged, shoes dirty. Grey light came through his old sheer curtains, giving a cool lifelessness to the scene.
I withdrew. Walked away, my feet an inch above the floor, my arms no longer connected to my body. I pulled on my cap and left the house.
Their collie lay across the sidewalk. He looked up with faint interest as I stepped over him. Black poplars dominated the yard, leaves stiff and blotchy; a light breeze played them like castanets. I opened the garage, lifted the hood of the old Mustang, and checked the oil. Scrubbed the insects off the windshield and dust off the plates. Pulled the door open and slid in, starting up the car.
I like Winnipeg. But when I come back to Portage something uncoils in me, quiet and dark, like a garter snake waking up after a long winter sleep.
Winnipeg sprang up whole in an island universe of wild prairie; it squats on the land instead of growing out of it. Some day a big storm will clear it off, rake the whole mess of houses and trees and bright green lawns, the carefully tended gardens, the cars, the parking lots, take all the glass and steel and concrete and blow it all away. Blow, blow, blow, like giant tumbleweeds—far away, off the edge of the universe, back to the galaxy from which it came.
That’s what I hope for. I don’t even mind if it takes me with it. I just want the wild prairie back. But maybe Winnipeg’ll win the fight. That’s what frightens me.
What used to be endless aspen and wolf-willow, prairie sage and crocuses, wolves and bison and monarch butterflies, is now enormous squares of wheat, canola, rye, slashed down their middles with gravel roads. Porcupines, coyotes slip unseen. Wildflowers crouch knee-deep in the ditches. Aspens cluster in whispering, covert stands. And miles and miles and miles and miles of roads.
Once, when I was a teenager, Dad was draining a slough on his land. I’d known it since I was a kid.
It made me so sad. There wasn’t going to be anything left for the frogs and salamanders, or the birds that ate them. A bit of bush got sucked from the prairie every year. So I said, “Dad, what if all the prairie gets used up?” He just looked at me, snorted, and went back to work.
I was always the weird one, there.
I got the car backed out of the garage, steering around piles of machinery and tools and old bottles and cans, around chickens, coppery wings flapping as they scattered and squawked. I glanced back to see if Dad would appear in the window, then pulled off down the drive and onto the road to town.
Town had changed a lot, too. Spreading outward, fancier stores, more sophisticated people. But prairie breaks through around every turn. A tuft of grasses, a flicker of wings. Maybe the prairie would win.
I waved at Charlie Bouchet as our cars passed, and he waved back at me, smiling, on his way out of town to what I still think of as his parents’s farm.
You get born in one instant in ever-changing time and you think, this is it. This is what the world is like. But if you avert your eyes for a minute, you see the tail of it slithering away.
The prairie I thought of as endless, changeless. The people I fought with, played with, smoked with in the sandhills, the ones as idle and curious and mad at life as me, all moving away or stepping into their parents’ shoes and shifting everything around. The houses, the trucks, the fields. All ploughed up and planted with a whole new world. One I cannot understand.
I drove through Portage and continued past fields, farmhouses, great grunting machines bouncing over broken land, drove toward a low gathering of trees that extended over a large area and concealed the marsh, the prairie’s hidden heart.
As soon as I was there, I wanted to go the whole way. Not just peek at the marsh, but go to the research station. See what they were doing. What everyone was so excited about. I might have gone into science myself, if I had stayed in school. Studied the things these lucky people were studying. I was always very interested in the wild.
I steered the car up a short road that ended in a cluster of buildings. No one was visible. I sat there with the motor idling and looked at the dark buildings, the pale grey of the sky mirrored in their windows. I felt like an intruder, and certainly I had no claim to be there. What would I say if someone challenged me? “What the hell are you doing here? This is private property.”
I put the Mustang in reverse and drove back a ways to where there were some cottages, a couple of canoes left on their sides, and access to the public beach. I parked the car and climbed out, bringing my breakfast and walking along the path until I got close to the ice-fringed water. From the path I took, the marsh itself was hard to see. All I could catch was the occasional flat, reflected sky, with a view of ducks floating in conjoined pairs: one rightside up and the other upside down. Mostly all I could see were reed grasses and cattails, the dead of other years underfoot of the strong erect blades of this year’s growth, and some late-leaving red-winged blackbirds lecturing from the tips of the cattails. I walked along the wellworn path until I found a place to stop and look around. A flurry of feathered bodies scattered when I arrived, darting through the water, trailing black and silver Vs.
I drank some coffee, ate a few of the biscuits, listened to the chatter of the birds. When I’d been still awhile a wren came out of hiding among the rushes. A pair of gadwalls drifted by.
I thought about my mother. A long time ago she’d been jittery, excited, flaring up one minute and cheery the next. Other times she’d be staring out the window at the weather, her eyes large and questing, for months on end, it seemed. And then she’d be, “Come and sit with me, sweetie,” so I’d go and sit, but her attention would wander off till pretty soon I didn’t want to go to her anymore. Better to build castles out of popsicle sticks till it was time for bed. Better to look for empty bird nests, and mating snakes, and pitcher plants, their feet in muck, their pouchy faces open to the world.
I remember her, but it’s like a movie I saw years and years ago. No feeling, no colour even. Just that clamping on my chest.
A lady blackbird settled on the top of a reed. She was dull brown, pretty. I sat motionless till she dropped to the mud, scaring off the wren, and started kicking through the rushes. More blackbirds dropped down, or swooped in and clung to the tall brown stalks, or gathered in the bushes, clamouring.
This was it. This was where I needed to be. I felt that clamping ease a little. I breathed in the tart air. I was glad I was here.
At last the cold got to be too much, so I stood up stiffly, rubbing my hands together, frightening the birds away again. I walked back to the car, turned on the engine, the radio, the heat, and stared out ahead of me at fragile leaves on slender trees, paint peeling off the wobbly, incomplete fence, scratches against the bellies of the overturned canoes.
It was noon. Dad would be asleep still, most likely. I could go and wait for him to wake up. Try to get him to talk while he was sober. I could do that.
That dislocated, suspended feeling came over me again, like I was stranded in a bubble, floating apart from everything else. Nothing mattered; everything was bleak. I switched off the radio and headed back to the research station.
The buildings seemed deserted. I went from one to another, knocking loudly, shocked at the noise I was making, at the angry bludgeoning of my arm against the doors, but there was no response. I’d turned away from the last door, tears welling, and was walking away when a young woman stepped out from between two buildings. I waved at her, as normally as I could, walked up to her, smiled a thin, tight smile, said I was interested in their work, asked if I could have a look around.
She listened with a sort of forced patience, nodding. Of course I would be interested in their work. Their work, unlike everything in my world, was intrinsically fascinating. Above my level, probably. Over my head. But she decided to be nice. Or diplomatic. I imagined the cogs turning in her head.
She was a student, she said. She offered to show me around, which she did in a perfunctory way, with a half-smile, and then led me to a lunch room and gave me a seat at the table. A number of other students looked at me curiously as they came in with their food.
My brief, wild anger was gone, drained back into the marsh. I was deflated and regretted having come, but saw it through. I drank the coffee she made me, glad of its heat. I brought out the last of my biscuits and gnawed on them while the others ate their lunches. She sat beside me as if I was her guest, but we had little conversation, and she joked with the others about their research. At one point I asked what she was working on.
“It’s a little hard to explain,” she said, and they all laughed. “People don’t generally understand. But it’s going well, it’s going very well. Only problem is I’m running out of ducklings.” She looked at me with a grin and said, “I cut the tops of their heads off, and somehow they don’t last too long after that.” I stared at her, hoping this was a joke. She looked at a fellow across the table from us. “You got any ducklings I can borrow, Tom?” He shook his head emphatically. NO.
After offering to help with the dishes and being refused, I went back out to the car. I had a little trouble getting my key in the ignition.
I drove slowly through the rain, minding the traffic, listening without comprehension to the radio. When I got back to Dad’s I eased the car into the garage and sat there with the motor off, staring at the damp, unpainted wall ahead of me, the tools hanging there, the cluttered counter, the dirty windows. I stayed a long time, just breathing, barely conscious of my thoughts.
Dad was sitting in the living room when I finally went inside, the lights off despite the bleakness of the day. His eyes were bleary and he didn’t respond when I said hello. I pulled off the rubber boots and jacket and went into my room to change. I sat down creakily on the bed, then lay back and let my gaze drift gradually over the far wall. An old jigsaw puzzle hung there in its frame. Two wolves snarling at each other, blood dripping down one’s brawny shoulder, a smaller wolf, a female maybe, or a big pup, cowering in the background. On the dresser lay a couple of books, and some socks, nicely folded, that I’d left in the laundry basket some other day. When Mom was still alive. A small crucifix hung over the dresser. More death.
After a long while I heard a movement in the doorway beside me. Wondering if I had drifted off, I turned to look. It was Dad. His eyes still bleary, his legs a little unsteady.
“Can I come in?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
He came over to the bed and sat down gingerly. He stared at his hands, stained fingers folded together. He stared at the floor. He stared at the wall. Finally, he looked at me. He pulled himself up and put on his Grownup look, and said, “Well, I guess you’ve just got me now—” Somewhere around ‘just’, or ‘me’, his voice broke and tears came spilling out of him. I was shocked, but I didn’t move, betrayed nothing. He turned away sharply as if he was letting me down to see him break, as if the best thing he could do was what he felt he’d never quite been able to: stand tough and be a man. “I shouldn’t cry,” he said. “I just never thought she’d go.” Then he did the other thing he had never quite been up to. He put his arms around me and held me, a big sob tearing from his throat. I turned my face away and stared at the wall.
There is a moment when the electric light in my dad’s yard is caught up to by the wakening light of day. At this moment, my eyes struggle open. The curtains are wide. A snore, low and steady, comes like waves of comfort from the next room.
On the wall the perpetual battle ensues, wolf against wolf, wolf bitch/wolf child cowering in suspense.
A thin blade pierces a tiny skull. I feel it piercing: accurate, calm, unhesitant.
A peeling back of down, of film-slight skin and paper bone. Like a tiny plum, a brain is revealed. No pain. In silence. Death.