Authors: Gil Adamson
Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000
The widow realized she had been only half listening. She glanced at her
benefactor, expecting to see her lost in her own thoughts too. But there was the feral
face, watching intently, the eyes moving back and forth as if reading a book. The old
woman only talked so that she could observe.
“It was dark much of the winter, and cold. We women spent time in
our beds after the chores, just to keep warm. We sat together with the sheets pulled up
to our chins, and the dogs lay at our feet and the cats crawled in under the blankets.
We all had fleas. You simply lived with that fact.
“One spring, we went off to Winnipeg to buy a new stove. We had a
cart and two massive oxen that together could pull almost a ton. They had the ridiculous
names of Maxwell and Minnie. I was terrified one of them might step on me and kill me.
As they walked past you, the ground shook. My father had purchased this pair of monsters
from a man outside Russell. They were tremendously stupid, gentle animals with huge
woolly heads. They looked prehistoric. Well, we lumbered along all day and through the
dusk into night. There was no moon overhead, nothing to show us our way, but we all
trusted in my father. I remember we were lying under many blankets, and the moon was
completely blurred by mist, and beautiful, you know? So I went to sleep. Now, when I
awoke, it was to the most terrific uproar, my parents shouting, the other girls
screaming, and the cart leaping as if the ground itself had begun to tear apart. I
realized that we were
speeding through the trees at top speed, the
oxen apparently gone mad. It was all I could do to seize my younger sister and hold us
both to the floor of the cart.”
“What was it?” the widow said.
The bird lady smiled to see how well her tale had taken hold. “Well,
I peeped my head over the railing and realized the oxen were charging toward a small
light, a house perhaps, I couldn't tell at first. And then I could see it was a
barn. Alone on a frozen field, surrounded by trackless forest, was a farm, and the oxen
had found it. In fact, it was their home. This was the very same farmer who had sold
them to my father. Without the moon to guide him, my father had drifted too close to
Russell, and the oxen had smelled home and made for it, with a vengeance. A pair of oxen
can move pretty quickly when they see oats in their future. It makes sense now,
“The farmer and his wife were nice people, but perhaps a little
childish. They put us up for the night and fed our oxen. The wife gave us biscuits and
told my sister ghost stories that failed to frighten her but kept her up all night
pondering the mysteries of death. She wouldn't let me sleep, and I was at my
wits' end to shut her up. I remember sitting up and hissing, âWhy
don't you just go ahead and die then, and let me sleep!' Finally, in the
morning, my mother's beloved cat could not be found. We all went searching without
success for almost an hour, until finally a plaintive mewing was heard, and we found him
pressed between our hosts' mattresses. The wife had hoped to keep him. I still
remember her tears as my mother carried the miserable, limp animal to the cart in the
frigid morning and placed him in his cage.”
“Your mother kept the cat in a cage?
“That strikes you as odd? I suppose it was odd. But we'd be
here all night if I tried to explain my mother's mind. I'm not even sure I
The bird lady sat stiffly on the soft couch by the roaring fire, her drink
almost finished. The thought of her own mother seemed to wither her, to redirect her
mind along a sadder path.
“I remember only cold,” she said, “snow against the
doors. My father on the roof shovelling it off. Even in spring it was unbearable. My
sister was put outside to play one day, missing one mitten. My mother ignored her cries
to be let in. You see, in those days children were supposed to get fresh air whether
they wanted it or not. By the time she got back in her hand was frostbitten. Almost
frozen through. Her fingers never grew properly after that.” The old lady drew a
line across the pads of her fingertips. “Never grew past here.”
“Did it hurt?”
“Oh yes. Frostbite hurts a great deal, especially once the flesh
begins to thaw.”
“No. I mean, the rest of your body growing and your fingers not
“No. Well . . . I don't know.” The old woman smiled.
“What a queer question.”
The widow took a little sip of her Scotch, and it burned slowly all the
“You might read to me now.” The old woman's voice was
fading. She seemed to have shrunk even farther somehow, as if she were a miniature
version of her already small self, sitting lightly on the soft cushions.
Obediently, the widow put down her drink and took up her Bible. She opened
it to a page â it seemed like any page but was, in fact, a deliberate choice
â and she began to read in a plain, loud voice. “The Lord roars from Zion
and thunders from Jerusalem; the shepherd's pastures are scorched and the top of
Carmel is dried up.” The recitation went on from there.
The bird lady tried to conceal her fascination, but it proved impossible.
Finally, she leaned closer to peek over the widow's arm at the book. The page was
covered in marks and illuminations, strange symbols and pictures. The widow read in
halting rushes. She only looked at the book once in a while, as a navigator does to
check a map. The rest, clearly, was recited from memory. Well-rehearsed and dreamy, it
went on and on, rote memory never failing, a formidable performance. Like watching a
sparrow dip and surge in the air, resting as it flies, tireless, without thought.
Slowly, there came into the old woman's eyes the pall of doubt. This pet was not
turning out as expected, but was following perverse lines, unknown and covert routes.
The old lady looked away, and let the widow babble as she wished. “Enter the
narrow gate. The gate that leads to perdition is wide, and many go that way; but the
gate that leads to life is small and the road narrow, and those who find it are
When sometime later Emily arrived with a tray of hot chocolate, the old
lady bolted from her seat and scolded, “Not now, Emily, not now!” So, the
recitation went on unhindered, until the weird symbols petered out, and memory failed,
finally, and the lesson died away senselessly, and the book was closed.
IN THE MORNING
, they came up the drive under a canopy of
tall oak, walking in the wheel ruts with their rifles across their backs. August
dandelion seeds floated across their path, as if nature itself hoped to bewitch them
from their purpose and dream them into the trees. But still they came on, over the tufts
in their path, through floated cobwebs, their identical faces vigilant and sober. The
first building to rise into view was the barn, a wide, unpainted structure with two
massive doors standing open, a tin roof, and wooden filigree along its eaves. A little
cupola on top watched them come. They could see the house now too but made for the barn,
because it was closer.
Jeffrey was in the stalls sorting through old bridles when the door went
dim, as if a cloud had passed over. He looked up to see the silhouettes of two large men
standing side by side. They had guns. Jeffrey slowly removed his cap and held it
uncertainly, his eyes assessing them; then, making a decision, he screwed the cap into
his back pocket. He didn't speak, he didn't move. He waited. He was a man
accustomed to waiting. And slowly, the men, who had been stiff and unmoving as statues,
began to shift and shuffle as doubt overtook and annoyed them, impelled them forward on
their fine black boots into the gloom of the barn. Two horses watched them come, the
animals' long faces hanging over the stall doors with the guileless, expectant
gaze common to all horses, even the hellraisers.
What Jeffrey saw were two men as similar as twins. And yet, after a
moment, he could tell they were not the same at all. To his eye one was a follower, a
second, identical perhaps in
size and shape, and certainly
colouring, standing abreast of his brother as if he were his equal, but he was not. He
was somehow subordinate, in shadow, a copy not entirely faithful to the original. As if
to illustrate, the other spoke first.
“We're after a girl. People say she came through here. Your
missus maybe picked her up.”
“I don't have a missus,” said Jeffrey. The two redheads
moved closer â and he was right, one moved first and the other followed.
Their eyes were the problem, he could see that now â never mind the
dour and brutal cast of their faces, the sheer size of their bodies â but in their
eyes, a profound cunning. Of course people would talk, yammer helplessly looking into
those eyes. The people in this town, normally clannish and suspicious of strangers,
would find themselves suddenly blithering. Usually, when you saw that glint in a
man's eye he was a small man, mean, and resentful of being small. How calamitous,
then, to see it in a big man, and doubled.
“Who is she then?”
“The woman of the house.”
“My employer. What do you want with her?”
“We told you. We're after this girl.”
“And people told you what? That we had her?”
“That you might. That your missus picks up lame ducks
sometimes.” Jeffrey knew he'd said
she's got our girl, we want to know it.”
“You don't look like policemen,” Jeffrey said, taking in
the cut of their fine clothes, their freshly barbered beards.
“We've been deputized, if that's what you mean. Now,
have you seen her?”
One of the horses began to stamp in its dry stall. It jerked its head.
Jeffrey's face registered the movement, as if saying,
I agree. Let's get
rid of them
“She hasn't taken in anybody for weeks,” Jeffrey said.
“Yes, she sometimes picks up the poor, or as you say, lame ducks, people needing
help. But we haven't any girl. Now, if you don't mind . . .”
The two men shifted a little in the doorway, almost spreading out,
enormous impediments. Strong as he was, if Jeffrey had tried to get past them he
couldn't have done it.
“I'm asking you to leave the property,” he said
A long, tense moment followed, but finally they did turn to go, stepping
out onto the grass, where the distaff twin, the copy, turned and said,
“She's our sister-in-law. Does that make any difference to you?”
“Nor that she killed our brother?” This from the first
Jeffrey held his hands out in an appeasing gesture and said,
“I'm sorry” in exactly the same way he'd said it to butchers and
wheelwrights and vagrants looking for a handout, the same way he told the old woman she
couldn't have things before they were fixed, the way he'd said it a hundred
times to a hundred other people. He said it the way one jerks the reins on a defiant
horse, one hard yank that means
. But in that moment, all was lost, because
make a difference to him. The girl he'd had in the carriage, the
girl who the last two nights had slept under the benevolent old woman's roof, the
dark, furtive girl he'd held in his arms and carried upstairs was a murderess. It
made a difference all right. And they saw it in his eyes as clearly as if he'd
spoken. Like everyone else, Jeffrey had given them what they wanted.
THAT SAME MORNING
, standing at the library window, the
widow dandled a blue glass paperweight in her palm and listened. She heard a strange
scuffling sound from the forecourt below. Then it came again. She leaned out the window
and looked down. Emily's head appeared, just visible beyond the confusion of ivy.
She turned, turned again, disappeared. Then her head swung out again. Emily was dancing
by herself on the forecourt, her arms held stiffly before her, as if around a
companion's neck. The widow regarded the bobbing head â would the imagined
companion be a gentleman or another girl?
you are!” a voice barked behind her. The widow
jumped. Zenta was bearing down on her with a look of satisfied determination. The widow
had the distinct impression she was about to be spanked, but instead she was seized by
the upper arm and dragged downstairs.
“Time to make yourself useful, missy. No more creeping around like a
cat. I told Madam you'd been going through people's rooms, through their
private things. Yes I did! âThinks she can get away with anything,' I says.
âPut her to work,' she says. And that's what I'm about to
They entered the basement, a damp, sweet-smelling room with other rooms
coming off it. A massive antique stove slumbered against one wall. In another room was
an empty pantry with slate-lined shelves and counters that were surmounted by
glass-fronted cupboards, within which sat stacked dishes of various ornate designs. A
set of gaudy gold and peach, another one greenish, yet another set in a deep navy blue.
A tureen capable of feeding a platoon occupied its own cupboard, a visible beard of
greasy dust round its edges like feathered coral. Zenta impelled the widow into a
mudroom and made her stand still while she scrounged for a particular broom among many
brooms and mops and dusters. She fetched up a miscreant and scraggy loser, with straw
fibres sticking out sideways and patches missing, like a madman's hair.
Zenta leaned close, her milky breath on the widow's cheeks.
“Little miss sly-boots,” she whispered, grinning widely with malice.
“You'll have a job, you will.”
The widow was assigned a thorough sweeping of the forecourt: the fool
sweeps the beach. Formerly a grand and imperious platform above manicured garden depths,
the forecourt, like the house itself, was now swooning into a gorgeous, natural chaos.
Rain-sluiced mud and blown debris lay in deep drifts and runnels along the borders.
Between the heaved-up flagstones that formed the floor, seedlings and woody tufts pushed
up and knotted together, the growth following a vaguely geometric pattern of broken
green lines, like a mouse's maze. On every flat surface lay the gluey fossil
impressions of maple keys. Expired beetles hid in the loam. Spiders slung their nets
among the blown roses.