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"The blond earth..."

Blond Earth

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The blond earth (abridged from the original text)

The plane began its slow descent somewhere over Montana. From six miles in the air the blond earth was like a pelt, the matted flank of an elk in spring. I knew this country, searched it now for some sign of the season. Patches of snow in gullies, the faintest green on south-facing hills. At maybe two miles up, the patterns emerged. I’d forgotten this. No two fields ploughed or cut or seeded alike. Like a factory floor of shredded wheat; or microchips on some planetary circuit board. A twisted circuitry of coils and glints, of rivers in wooded draws. Then the sprawl and jumble of suburbs as we banked for the final approach.

            On May 8th, 1995 I flew back to Calgary from Mexico City, after three days in London, three weeks in Mexico, thirty-six hours without sleep.

            I drove a rental directly to the Foothills hospital. I’d called Dr. Aspen once or twice from Mexico . She was evasive about Beulah’s progress, a little defensive. She seems to have been hoping I would be of more help. I would have liked that too, but before. When it might have made a difference. Before.

In the afternoons, usually, I stop work on the manuscript to take drives out through the foothills.

            Once, a long time back, this land was described to me as the undulation of an ancient breath, in one of my father’s rapt disquisitions on geology. These were natural histories with the texture of myth, tales of alien chronologies and inscrutable motivations — vanished seas, and inexplicable returns. Half-drunk, rambling chronicles of titanic uprisings and eruptions. All the hecatombs — the vast dyings.  Weaving from ditch to ditch, he’d especially loved to talk about oil, as this corruption that lights and warms the world.

            Lately I drive those same roads and wonder how he is. Still maybe in that motor-home in Arizona , the last time I saw him, exhibiting the first signs of his own father’s senescence, the thing he feared most. Oblivion ahead, oblivion behind. For years, we’d driven everywhere together. From the time I was too small to sit and see out. Instead I stood on the hump of the drive-shaft behind the front seat and peered forward, my eyes just clearing the seat-back. We drove for hours like that, we drove for years.

            From the beginning he talked of the land. Maybe he was trying to say he was sorry. For the role he had begun to play in all our lives, for the figure he would become. I drive awhile longer, thinking about my daughter.

[]

It snowed last night. It began about three a.m., came down hard until six through a long, grey dawn. June 20th. It has snowed in each month of the past twelve. It is what we’re known for. Calgary weather. If you don’t like it, we say, wait ten minutes. It’ll change. The strange, wild winters, every year a little stranger. Snow in June; in February, powder skiers in sunblock and swimsuits. A kind of northern baroque.

            I take the long way into town. First north through the wet snow then east under a wintry sun. Summer solstice, 9 a.m. I drive past the Baptist seminary. Up onto the tableland, then a right; the chipped saw-blade of mountains swings into the rear-view mirror, dropping behind the deep swell of each hill as the car crests it.

            The road rises and falls under a sky of cast aluminium, a pale rivet of sun. I drive past the Big Hill Springs turnoff and finally south towards the city. I follow secondary highway 722, through long prairie grass along the creek, smaller now, that begins at Big Hill Springs. I think of following that creek one day with Catherine, to see if it reaches a larger stream, or else runs dry somewhere to the east.

    I drive down Crowchild Trail to Memorial Drive, west to 34th street, then up to the Foothills Hospital, where it stands above the Bow.

[]

I sit in the parking lot, in the heat of the sun, a remnant of snow melting under the windshield wipers. I sit, and see all the women I have failed to love and forgotten, or have loved and forgotten how. I feel them all now, as though rolled up into a ball in my chest. All rolled up into a single person, that person who is me. I sit, hands at ten after two on the steering wheel.

            After a while I get out. I walk around the west side of the grounds. Past the roaring column of a medical incinerator, venting what it has killed and what it maybe hasn’t. I sit a while at a scarred picnic table the maintenance crew appears to use for lunches, while they eat and talk and squint up the river valley.

[]

The June sun is hot in the late afternoon. A few hours later there is hardly a trace of last night’s snow as drive back out towards Cochrane, through deep swells of gold grass. In the troughs, stands of poplar are budding late, branches sharp through a faint spray of green. Ringing the sloughs are clumps of red brush, dogwood maybe, or alder. The hills are blue in the distance, below a line of white peaks.

            I park beside the cabin, walk down to the Bow. Along the banks, among the alders and the poplars, are scattered still a few snow patches. Here and there, sprigs of Indian paintbrush, candles of vermilion against the white. Asters and goldenrod shaking their tops free.

            If you bend low enough, look closely, right down on your hands and knees in the mud and the slush, you can see tiny wild strawberries, the palest pink. Not much larger than the pearl at the head of a tailor’s pin, but bursting, in a couple of weeks, with the most intense flavour, almost unrecognisably strawberry.

            I walk west along the north bank, steam rising off the snow. A silver braid trembles in the stream where it narrows.

            If there are many rivers left among us as beautiful as the Bow, I have not seen them. I follow the river’s baffled murmur, walk its passages. Soft tracts of a vague marble clatter.

            Here and there in the stream glimmer highlights of an alluvial blue, a shift to mint as you turn to look, then to smooth jade in deeper water. Through the slant of amber light, the south bank winds in and out of shadow. Half in sun, half in shade, a flock of mallards gabble and preen in the shallows among the rocks. A drake, head of vivid emerald in the sun, spreads its glistening wings and shakes off a spume of rainbows — a whale’s-breath against the shadows.

[]

Bundled in a blanket I sit out on the cabin’s veranda until after dark. Around midnight a locomotive pulls into a siding somewhere up the valley and begins assembling a pull. Now and again the bang of a coupling. The engine like a bellows that rises and falls in the quiet. Soon just quiet and stars. For twenty minutes or more.

            Then, as I stand to go inside, I hear a whistle-blast. One long, pure, organ-chord that rolls away up the valley.

            I am about to turn away again when I hear its echo. Ten seconds after, at least ... coming from somewhere far off.

            Then another blast. I count off a slow, steady ten to the echo. Over the next minute or so, three more chords. As though the engineer can hear over the engines, hear the echo return to him in the sweet-spot where he finds himself parked. Or maybe they all know the spot, and another railway man tugs on the whistle-cord while he stands a way off from the rails to listen.

            Then they are off. Two longs, two shorts, and the roar of several engines at once. Then they are gone.

            What do you say to someone who doesn’t want to go on?

            I have learned one answer is in the land.

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