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Authors: Dorothy Speak

Tags: #Fiction, #Rural, #Sociology, #Social Science, #General

The Wife Tree

BOOK: The Wife Tree
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THE WIFE TREE

“There’s something fascinating and frightening in reading a writer who is willing to take risks. Because we’re conscious of the dangers lurking at the turn of a page, it’s particularly exhilarating when, as in this first novel, the writer succeeds so brilliantly. With
The Wife Tree
, Dorothy Speak moves firmly into the first rank of Canadian writers.”


Ottawa Citizen

“Sometimes you pick up a book and you just cannot put it down. The words leap off the page, seemingly written just for you, or even more spookily, written about you. That’s how I felt when I read Margaret Laurence’s
The Diviners
… I experienced that same thrill of recognition with
The Wife Tree
. … With
The Wife Tree
, Dorothy Speak has earned a berth in the CanLit hall of fame, right alongside Laurence.”


The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal


The Wife Tree
is a powerful novel, well worth reading for Speak’s ability to slice through to the ugliness in the human heart.”


Victoria Times Colonist

“Rooted firmly in the tradition of the Ontario Gothic, the story of [Morgan] Hazzard delivers literary pleasures of the highest order. Weaving together recollection, dreams, and letters never sent, the narrative moves with a fluid power through the four seasons, reaching its climax in the depth of winter, and concluding on a triumphant, summery note…. Speak is also blessed with a gift for black humour and a hardnosed empathy, which resists easy reduction to the maudlin or sentimental.”


Ottawa X Press

“Dorothy Speak is someone to sit up and take note of…. Like [Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence], she writes about real, believable people, and makes compelling stories out of the mundane elements of their lives…. The writing is deliberate and lyrical, lavish and full of pictures … Speak’s splendid first novel fills us with sumptuous detail.”


The Hamilton Spectator

For Monica

October 6

The trees have begun to shed their leaves. This afternoon as I walked home, I watched them drift silently out of the two-hundred-year-old maples. Heading east from the hospital grounds, I found myself fortified by the fresh air, the steady winds, the warm sunshine, the sensation of my limbs swinging along, after the silence of the intensive care unit where all the patients have been struck dumb. At five o’clock, the oblique sunrays turned the sidewalks into pathways of gold. I put the ornamental parks behind me, the sprawling mansions. My old heart knocking against my ribs, I climbed a gentle hill toward home.

Soon I’d entered sparer, simpler streets. For forty years this neighbourhood of fragile saltboxes stretching over three city blocks has been our home. Some of the houses, clad in tin siding, glint nakedly in the October sun. Others are covered with slate shingles, crumbling now with age. Four decades ago, this landscape was a bald plain. Before construction began, bulldozers were sent in to raze every living thing in sight, perhaps to remind us that, across the ocean, a war had devastated nature in its path. Soon the shadeless earth cracked and the thirsty gardens turned to dust and the parched lawns perished beneath the heels of growing families. But now we have mature trees and today, arriving home, I found Harry Lang standing in front of my house, a fan rake in his hand. Though a young man compared to William, he is, at fifty-five, retired and itching for chores.

“Oh, Harry,” I said gratefully, “you don’t need to rake my leaves. I could do that.”

“We saw the ambulance last night, Morgan.”

“William has had a stroke.”

Behind him, his wife, Heather, lingered on their porch, her white poodle pressed to her cheek, her glittering silver hair sweeping in waves back over her ears, the corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly in sympathy. She is a woman who smiles at Life.

The Langs were never able to produce children. Their hedges are neatly sculptured, their manicured lawns thick and green as a golf course, their pumpkin-coloured house without a flake of loose paint on it. All their energies have been poured into filling up the childless spaces in their lives. When our children were young, Harry used to tell William, “Heather loves to sit at the living-room window and count your children as they come home from school.” Seeing her now on the porch, I wanted to ask: Harry, what on earth has Heather been doing these past twenty years, now that there are no more Hazzard children to count?

Harry is a tall man and many years ago he was handsome and raven-haired and sleek-bodied and graceful of limb, like Clark Gable. I had a crush on him then, but now that his hair and moustache are peppered with grey and his gut thrusts out with the pleasures of retirement, I wonder: Was I in love not so much with Harry himself as with the bouquets of iris and delphinia I saw him bearing home from the market for Heather? Or with the way he turned and gazed at her every time she came out of the house? The phrase
dashing young man
has always amused me, but in those days Harry really did seem to dash. He was so brimming with life, perhaps because, once it became clear that his seed would never flower in Heather’s womb, the two of them could lie recklessly, wastefully, in each other’s arms,
certain that their passion would have no consequences — no hope or labour or responsibility or betrayal or risk attached to it — and Heather could trust that Harry’s little milky ejaculate pooling within her was solely for her thirst and he that her love channel existed only for his expeditions and not for the passage of a child into Life.

“Has anyone come home, Morgan?” Harry asked me.

“Morris will drive down as soon as he can.”

“And the girls? Will the girls come home too?”

“I haven’t had time to call them.”

“You must do that, Morgan. Promise me you’ll call. A person needs support at a time like this.”

“But they’re all so busy and so far away.”

“I’m sure they’ll come. They’ll want to be here to shore you up. You’re lucky to have so many children, Morgan.”

Up and down the street, the young rake-bearing neighbours trickled out into the soft dusk to collect the leaves, heaping them like gravemounds against the sidewalk curbs. We watched their children shout and run through the fading light and leap suicidally into these funeral piles, only to resurface miraculously unharmed, immortal, their nostrils, their ears powdered with bitter leaf-dust. This new generation of parents on the street does not come and introduce themselves to us. They remain distant. They keep their silence, like young saplings certain that it’s only a matter of time and patience before the ancient timbers — the hardwoods — fall and the forest is theirs.

It was a sweet, tender evening, full of perfume and grief.

“Were we ever young, Harry?” I asked.

“You bet we were, Morgan. I can still picture you pushing a carriage down the street. A new baby in it nearly every year. It was a wonderful sight.”

“I don’t remember it, Harry. I don’t remember a time when we weren’t old and wrinkled.”

“You sound discouraged, Morgan. It’s important to keep your spirits up.”

October 7

A cold draft rose off the window this morning when I got up and peered out at the gentle slope of our little crescent. Searching for my winter housecoat, I parted the old curtains hanging across the closet, their pattern of tropical palms and birds of paradise faded now to muted olives and ochres. I remembered when the girls used to disappear behind those curtains as into the exotic foliage of a tropical jungle, dress themselves there, hiding from each other their developing bodies, perplexed by the soft beauty of their swelling breasts. Stepping across a small landing at the top of the enclosed stair, I looked down at the pie-shaped rear yard, a row of back porches, a screen of poplars, a busy thoroughfare beyond, the hum of its traffic drifting over the rooftops.

How long, I tried to recall, had I made my bed here on the second floor, where the girls once slept under sloping ceilings? Was it only five years since William sent me creeping upstairs with my pillow tucked under my arm because, he said, my snoring had begun to shake the walls of our room? It doesn’t trouble me, in fact it’s a comfort to be exiled to the bedrooms of my daughters. Sometimes at night I lie awake and think of the sultry summer evenings when, to escape the hot sheets, the girls stole out of their beds in thin cotton nightgowns and lay like happy martyrs on the
bare floor, imagining they could feel a refreshing draft sweeping along the naked boards. Reminded of this, I imagine the cool of the wood along my own calves and feel in my brittle hip bones, in my shoulder blades, the tough comfort of the hard planks.

Down in the kitchen, I stood at the window and lit a cigarette. Outside, the street was on fire with autumn colours, blazing like Judgment Day. Up and down the rows of houses, the neighbourhood women sent their children off to school beneath the flaming trees. I reached for the window, thinking I might fling it up, call out to these young mothers with their blonde ponytails flying in the wind:
You’re wasting your time! You’re wasting your energy buttoning up these children and waving them off and calling after them, “Have a happy day!” Because soon they’ll run away and forget you ever existed
.

One of my daughters once said to me: “What is the use of my coming home, Mother? You don’t understand what I’m talking about. I try to confide. I take the time to describe to you, in the simplest terms possible, what’s happening in my life. I tell you about my ambitions and my lovers and my depression and my shrink. And it all seems to go right over your head. What do I get back from you? Responses like: ‘But do you have a warm winter coat?’ That’s all you have to say. Do you know how frustrating it is to make the pilgrimage home to talk to your own mother about the things that you value most, things that are
fundamental
, and she doesn’t have a clue what you’re talking about?”

“Tell me again,” I answered. “Tell me again and maybe this time I’ll understand.”

And so, though I thought last night of contacting the children to tell them about their father’s condition, I hesitated to do so because I was afraid of their impatience and their scorn. I’m afraid that if I were to tell them how the oxygen mask is held onto William’s face
by two elastic bands looped over his ears — making them seem as large and baroque as cabbage leaves — or how in the lounge outside the intensive care unit there’s such a smell of fear coming out of the vinyl upholstery that it sends me running back to William’s sterile room, or how very silent it is in the intensive care unit with all the patients so terribly inert and wordless and uncomplaining in their crises and the nurses — passing soundless as ghosts in their crepe-soled shoes — flashing at me their deadly professional smiles: If I were to describe all of this to them, they’d surely howl and tear at their hair and say, “Oh, Mother, why are you so hopeless? Don’t you understand at all what’s going on? Can’t you look for the bottom
line
? What is his
heart
rate? What is the oxygen content of his
blood
? How much of his brain is
dead
now? Ask, Mother!
Ask.”

Yes, my children have become worldly-wise, having scattered all over the globe. Only Morris has stayed close by, which is ironic because when they were growing up, he was the child I noticed least. But Merilee is still living on this continent, and because it wouldn’t require me to sort through country codes and city codes and numbers beginning with triple zeros — which mystify me because how can a zero get one anywhere? — I picked up the phone after breakfast and dialled the United States.

A strange man answered and went away to get Merilee.

“Who was that?” I asked when she picked up.

“It was Alan.”

“Alan?” I said. “Aren’t you married to someone named Hugh? Or was that an earlier husband?”

“Hugh’s moved out, Mother,” she said curtly. “We’re getting a divorce.”

BOOK: The Wife Tree
11.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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