from Winter Wren (an unpublished novella)

winter wren

Some days he simply dreamed. Didn’t eat or rise from his bed except to use the toilet. If someone entered the room, he turned to face the other way. He kept his eyes closed and dreamed. It was a long path to dream down, to the past, where he was lithe and loose-limbed, a boy at home in the world. Tom, his father called, Don’t forget the tiller, and he paid attention, on those treacherous waves, murres and puffins with their curious beaks low in the surf, terns and kittiwakes wheeling above the boat.

            That trip to Klukwan, how long ago was that, when his father photographed the Whale House, photographed the blankets hung on a line, fine Chilkat blankets of spruce bark and goats’ wool. He saw so clearly the man in the Raven of the Roof hat, the dancers in their Snail House regalia, his father coaxing an acquaintance to act on his behalf to purchase them. He saw the Rain Wall with its hole for the chief to enter his quarters, the Raven Pole (he’d peered into the faces carved in the Raven’s feet), the Black Skin Pole. But the man knew their worth and wouldn’t help. He had other plans. His wife, who spoke no English, glared at Tom’s father and shook her finger fiercely. Still, his father photographed those events – the dances, the potlatches; and somewhere there were prints. The Museum, probably. But he didn’t need to look at them; there were times – this was one of them – when those days were as vivid as light. He walked the grey streets of Klukwan, smoke in each chimney, fish smell rank in the air, watching the sun come up, while his father still slept in the tiny cabin of their boat. The river steamed, full of salmon, and boys as young as himself crouched above them with spears and nets. And sailing back to Juneau, he watched the glacial creeks, dark and silty, swirl into the green water of the fjord. Fountains of water which his father said were humpback whales, so close the spray wet his face like rain.

Some days he dreamed of the War, how he tried to help the horses who screamed in the mud, their guts hanging out, flies already at work, he dreamed his way back to the terrible smell of gangrene and mustard gas. Some days, dreaming, he was already dead, a medic leaning over him and touching his wrist for the pulse; suddenly he sat up, asked for a smoke. For a moment he had entered heaven, then returned to earth, which he’d always regretted.

Some days he still sat on the porch above the ocean, a younger man with hands unspotted and strong, looking towards the salal where the little wrens hunted for spiders, rewarding him with their song, as plangent and lovely as anything he heard at the Royal Theatre in the days when he studied violin and thought he might pursue music as an occupation. He tried to capture the notes, the staff hastily drawn onto a blank page and his few years of theory helping him to figure out a time signature, pitch, the run of notes (16ths), a rest, another bar. He heard harmony, almost, the bird its own counterpoint, but realized it was another wren, further away. He was there on that porch at the end of the day, listening and transcribing, when a nurse appeared at his bedside to say that if he didn’t eat, then she would seek a doctor’s order for an IV.”


In Falkland, on Sunday, I bought these yarns.
yarnsI’m not sure what I’ll do with them. I’m not really a knitter, though I made my granddaughter a blanket and I’ve knit a few scarves in my life. Once, a sweater, under the guidance of the really experienced knitters I worked with at the Butchart Gardens back in the early 1970s — they always knit over the lunch break and I guess it was catching. I bought Lopi wool and made a sweater, coached through each difficult moment by their skill and kindness. But I was drawn to these particular yarns. The smaller balls are wool and nettle fibre. As a little girl, I loved the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Wild Swans. In it, a young princess is guided to reverse a spell put on her eleven brothers which turned them into swans. Elise is told by a fairy queen that she should gather stinging nettles from graveyards and spin the fibre into yarn which she must then knit into shirts which are thrown over the swans, allowing them to return to human form. There are difficulties along the way, of course, and one of the shirt-sleeves is left unfinished so that one brother retains a wing for the rest of his life. I remember Elise’s blistered hands as she knits the shirts and her silence — a requirement of the spell-reversal — as she worked. I wondered if I’d be able to do the same for my own three brothers but given the length of time it took me to knit a single lumpy sweater, I have to say probably not.
The larger skeins are a blend of wool, angora, and silk and they are impossibly soft and lovely in the hands. I can imagine making some beautiful garment, textured and intricate, but I don’t think I have the skill. Still, it might not be too late to learn a little more about the process of knitting to a pattern and the thought of plunging my hands into such lovely yarn is inviting.
It makes me think about origins. Origins of words. I’ve discovered a little about yarn and its roots in language. The online etymology dictionary tells me this:
Old English gearn “spun fiber, spun wool,” from Proto-Germanic *garnan (cognates: Old Norse, Old High German, German garn, Middle Dutch gaern, Dutch garen “yarn”), from PIE root *ghere- “intestine, gut, entrail” (cognates: Old Norse gorn “gut,” Sanskrit hira “vein; entrails,” Latin hernia “rupture,” Greek khorde “intestine, gut-string,” Lithuanian zarna “gut”). The phrase to spin a yarn “to tell a story” is first attested 1812, from a sailors’ expression, on notion of telling stories while engaged in sedentary work such as yarn-twisting.
The thing about sedentary work is that it relaxes the mind. Knitting or quilting, you can dream your way into stories (and if they’re good, you can tell them to others). The wool in your hands is the ball of string Ariadne gave Theseus so he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s maze. Or it’s the material of the three Fates who spin, measure, and cut the threads of life. It’s the long tangle of garden strings, apron strings, heart strings, basting threads, twine to train beans and peas, the untidy skeins of geese gabbling their way across the autumn skies, which will be in your mind as you cast on, count rows, run your thumbs along the rough and clumsy textures of your work. Choose colours that you love and keep your basket close for any stray moment and know that the tension will never be consistent. Think of Emily Dickinson, her slant rhymes, and all the hidden (knitted) drama in her punctuation.
Autumn – overlooked my Knitting –
Dyes – said He – have I –
Could disparage a Flamingo –
Show Me them – said I –
Cochineal – I chose – for deeming
It resemble Thee –
And the little Border – Dusker –
For resembling Me

the magpie courtesies

In this country — Thompson-Nicola — there are many magpies. My friend Barbara Lambert told me that it’s always prudent to say a little rhyme if you only see a single magpie: Hello, Mr. Magpie! How’s Mrs. Magpie and all the little magpies? She said it’s bad luck not to acknowledge them in this way. So we are polite to single birds and always offer that particular salutation. Today, driving a circle route from Kamloops along the Falkland road, up through the Salmon Valley, and over to Adams River, we kept seeing magpies and if there was only one, we greeted it appropriately. If we see more than one, I generally say the little verse I learned as a child, the one which has many variants (for crows, ravens, etc.):

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth.

Three a wedding,

Four a birth.

Five for silver,

Six for gold.

Seven for a secret

Never to be told.

I remember that in Ireland, it was very bad luck to see a single magpie on the roof of a house or outbuilding. Well, it was more than bad luck; it foretold a death. Some people believed the magpie was a bird with a drop of the devil’s blood under its tongue. Those beautiful birds with their irridescent feathers! A drop of the devil’s blood? Say it isn’t true!

Magpies mate for life, like other corvids. So it’s a courtesy to extend a greeting to a single bird in the hope that he is not a widower or an outcast. (Often another bird flies up shortly after we say the greeting! Coincidence? Hmmmm.) And they are known to rob nests of other birds to feed themselves and their own offspring. Humans do that too. (One of my best childhood memories involves being asked to gather eggs on the farm where we were staying on Matsqui Prairie. I reached under the warm body of a hen for the egg that would become part of the batter for the breakfast pancakes…And think of roast lamb, veal, suckling pig.) Magpies also forage for ticks and other parasites from the backs of ungulates. Like their other corvid cousins, they follow wolves to gain access to game carcasses.

In some cultures magpies are revered as bringers of good fortune. Or they’re tricksters. Or shape-shifters. They’re sacred to Dionysus. They are fearless. Mysterious (a secret never to be told).

And in this country, they are abundant!


a necklace of spoons

We wandered over to the Kamloops Farmers Market, a whole block devoted to produce — huge bags of carrots, heaps of squash, greens still damp with the morning, baskets of garlic with origins in Russia, Hungary, Italy, apples of every kind — and artisan cheeses, breads, sausages, and woolen things made from local sheep. Wine from the local Harper’s Trail — we tasted, then bought, a few bottles of their Cabernet Franc and Field Blend White. And a table of the most wonderful bijoux made from old silver cutlery. I have a bracelet bought in London, a silver fork which a fellow cunningly fashioned around my wrist. But these pieces, by Alyse Kirsten, are different. Parts of the flatwear are shaped, wound into rings or linked into bracelets. I saw this necklace made from spoons, their bowls hammered flat, and tried it on. The individual elements reminded me of abalone shells or weather-burnished fishing lures and of course I bought it. When I wear the spoons against my throat, will they tell me their stories?


the road from Lillooet to Kamloops, via Pavilion

First, a walk below Lillooet along the Fraser River, a path we quickly realized was a bear’s daily route. Scat every ten feet or so, filled with pin cherry pits and rose-hips, one so utterly fresh it almost steamed. But no other sign of him. We were led to the edge of the river by deer tracks, made just a little earlier:

P1100697The pines had long needles (not always the case in dry country) so I decided to gather them at various points today and tomorrow to make a basket when we return. Readers of Mnemonic: A Book of Trees might remember my efforts a few years ago and my hands have the sense they’d like to try again.

“Take a bundle of three pine needles (or two bundles, says one book). So take your three, six, or even eight pine needles, and snip the sheath(s) off the end (or pinch off between your fingers). Make a little circle of one end with a tail of the sheath-end of the needles. Thread a length of raffia onto a wide-eyed tapestry needle and begin to wrap the circle, drawing the tapestry needle from back to front. Oh, I am all fingers, all thumbs! No dexterity at all. I study the diagram, wrap my circle, drop my pine needles, and unravel my raffia until it is impossible to work with. I begin again, burning that first attempt. Then the second.”

I loved the cactus gardens and the little nest in the top of a small tree:


P1100715On the road through the Fountain Reserve, there were signs:

P1100721and when we reached Pavilion, we saw the sad evidence that the store had burned down: the remains of a beautiful stone fireplace and a two-storey chimney, metal flashing still intact. (Actually we knew this because we drove the road last in 2009 but I’d forgotten. The first time we saw the Pavilion store was on a camping trip with our children and we’d driven down over Pavilion Mountain, through the Diamond S Ranch, on a hot day and we stopped at the store for ice-cream.)

P1100726Hoodoos near Marble Canyon:

P1100736We didn’t drive into Walhachin this time but looked across the dry bench and over the Thompson River to where it exists like a small piece of history wrapped inside an enigma. Every time we pass, we realize that the flumes that were constructed in 1909-10 to carry water to the orchard community from springs near Deadman River, some twenty miles away, are a little more decrepit. They haven’t carried water for almost a century but when I did a reading tour for my novel The Age of Water Lilies, which is partly set in Walhachin, many people talked about the flumes and told me stories about a great-uncle who’d worked on them or a grandfather who went off to fight in the Great War, some of them with Lord Strathcona’s Horse, and I know that the flumes hold memories more seamlessly than they ever held water.