from Winter Wren (an unpublished novella)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.


the ghosts arrived

We drove up the Fraser Canyon this morning on the first day of a little road trip in service to the novella I’m currently at work on. What am I looking for exactly? I always say I have no idea but I’ll know when I find it. The novella is set partly in Lytton in the late 1970s. And in many ways the communities along the Fraser Canyon haven’t changed much. When the Coquihalla Highway opened in 1986, people predicted that the small towns along the length of the TransCanada highway from Hope to Cache Creek would suffer. And they did. Yale, Boston Bar, Lytton, Spences Bridge — places with interesting and vital history, with quirky restaurants and funky auto-courts, with ice-cream stands and old-fashioned service stations. We like to drive this route, particularly this time of year. The river is sinuous, the sage is pungent, fishermen stand in hip-waders in the eddies, hoping for steelhead.

We were hungry at Boston Bar so we stopped at the Old Towne Inn.

P1100680A homey interior with some antique stoves and photographs on the walls and big delicious burgers. The room was decorated for Halloween with wispy spider webs and pumpkins and a skeleton or two. And a few old ghosts from my past, Kenny Rogers singing “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille”, June Carter and Johnny Cash singing “Jackson” — I was in heaven. And then a green pick-up truck pulled up in front the place and a man began to unload actual ghosts. He placed them carefully in the front patio where people would sit in good weather (it was raining while we were eating our lunch):

P1100679The thing is, the Canyon is haunted. Train whistles, the original Alexandra Bridge visible from the current one, the overgrown remnants of the Cariboo Wagon Road, weathered barns and cabins, the faded signs from the auto-courts of the 1940s and 50s. I said to John, “When you enter the tunnels, you come out to something you never expected.”  There are seven tunnels, all of them taking you through a mountain, so that you feel the weight of millions of years of rock on your chest. You feel the labour of those who created the tunnels, built between 1957 and 1964. And driving through them, you remember the photographs of the original wagon road taking miners and others from Yale to Barkerville:

Cariboo_RoadAt Lytton, we crossed the point where the Thompson River enters the Fraser and wound our way along Highway 12, past old ranches and rock slopes so precarious that we recalled a slide over the summer which closed the road to traffic for some days (and now there’s a sign with Big Slide on it, to which a wag has added “Really”), past sumac almost fluorescent in its fall colour —


— to Lillooet where we’re staying for the night, a town with its own ghosts –23 Bactrian camels and Ma Murray, fire-jumpers, Dr. Masajiro Miyazaki, Native fishermen and their fish-drying camps…And now Fort Berens Estate Winery with its beautiful tasting room and friendly dogs. We have a case of their award-winning wines in the trunk of our car as I write…

“I wish I had all this to do again” (for John)

On this day, thirty-five years ago, I married John Pass in a small ceremony which we wrote ourselves and which was officiated by a Unitarian minister at the Latch in Sidney. I wore a gauzy hippy dress and a wreath of yellow roses in my hair and John wore very wide corduroy trousers and a Harris tweed jacket. Our families, a motley group, attended the wedding itself and a luncheon afterwards; then friends joined us for champagne in one of the Latch’s beautiful reception rooms. Our parents hadn’t met before the wedding and John’s father, estranged from both John and his mother for at least ten years, charmed us all by telling jokes during the lunch, mostly ethnic jokes. I remember my father saying, after each of them, “Ben, I’m Ukrainian.” “Ben, I”m Polish!”. And so on.

We’d met eight months before. John was participating in one of the readings Warren Tallman organized as benefits for bill bissett when a couple of MPs felt that his work — as a writer and a publisher — shouldn’t receive government support. This one was at Open Space in Victoria and a mutual friend, Doug Beardsley, wondered if I’d like to join him and John for dinner before the reading. John and I didn’t like each other at first but during the reading, I had the sense that he was reading his poems for me, and at the end of the evening, he walked me from Doug’s place on Burdett to my flat on Fort Street, past the sleeping Art Gallery of Victoria, where he kissed me and told me I made him feel 16. So that was the beginning.

We were both entangled in relationships. His was in North Vancouver. Mine was in Ireland. I was in Victoria that winter, having spent time in the west of Ireland, and I was planning to return. I did go back, for three months, in part to finish Inishbream, the novella I’d begun to write. After three months, John joined me in Dublin and I took him back to the little caravan in Aughris for a week, the one the cows rubbed themselves against at night so that it rocked back and forth on its concrete blocks. Its saving grace was its position on the very edge of the Atlantic.

At the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we wanted to find a place that was our own. Not Victoria, not North Vancouver. Maybe one of the Gulf Islands? By then, property on the more accessible ones was expensive. What about the Sechelt Peninsula, wondered John. I’d never been but we came up and camped on Ruby Lake. And we bought eight and a half acres near the lake late that first winter. We’d never built anything in our lives other than book-shelves (and with the guidance of a friend, I built a filing cabinet out of half-inch plywood…). But I told John I was sure we had vestigial knowledge in our hands and when the skills were needed, we’d discover we had them. Ha.

We did build a house, this house —


— and we had three children in fairly quick succession, these children —Scan— who have all grown up and gone out into the world. I can’t imagine another life. Or wait, maybe I can. There were things I’d dreamed of doing. But I wouldn’t trade any of what I have for those. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 35 years. We still find each other interesting. He’s tolerant. I’m, well, stubborn. This summer we were lying in our bed listening to Swainson’s thrushes in the woods just beyond our bedroom and John said, I wish I had all this to do again. We probably don’t have another thirty-five years — I’m 59 and John is nearly 67 — but oh, ten? Twenty?

Tonight we’ll have our favourite dinner — duck breasts with cherries soaked in port. Maybe roasted pears for dessert. And a Desert Hills wine — not sure which one — in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my fiftieth birthday, still remarkably intact.


burning her recipes

A small black scribbler, the cover textured like cheap crocodile skin. Her handwriting on every page, and some splatters of oil, grease, pancake batter. Yet I don’t remember her using the scribbler to cook from. Her repertoire was not large. It wasn’t fancy. Macaroni and cheese one night a week; after 1966 spaghetti rich with meat and tinned mushroom;, fried chicken (which I loved); a mixture of ground beef, canned peas, and onions over riced potatoes; a roast on Sunday, put into the oven before church so that when we arrived home, the house smelled of beef or lamb stuck with slivers of garlic. Her gravy was delicious. Goulash, which was much like the spaghetti sauce, but with paprika instead of oregano. Once she and my father bought a Kraft pizza kit and she followed the instructions on the box. My younger brother and I cried at the smell of the powdered cheese. Like throw-up, we sobbed, and she told us we didn’t have to eat any of it but there would be nothing else.

In an envelope, a mess of newspaper clippings, all recipes. A dark fruitcake I don’t believe she ever made. (Ours came from Woodwards, with marzipan and candied cherries.) A casserole of chicken and dried apricots which I think she did try once. My father professed to hate chicken in any form so it didn’t appear often. Just the fried version when he was away at sea. A handful of cards from a magazine with tips for the busy housewife: bright images of porkchops glazed with jam or syrup; meatballs in tomatoes and wine, heaped over noodles; a cake made from a boxed mix, but made richer with pudding and fresh eggs, and topped with Dream Whip and crushed pineapple.

All up in smoke, along with photographs of her foster sister in a nursing uniform, circa 1935, some Sunday School classes, sailors (my father among them) in costume under palm trees in some exotic port, and people I couldn’t recognize so didn’t want to keep on the off-chance (a phrase she used often, a justification for keeping so much, in such disorder). You could recycle some of this, my husband said, but I wanted it gone, out of the house, and the day was warm, some cloud, no rain: a good day to burn the past.
Now that the fire has died down, I can smell the smoke in my hair, the old recipes and their attractions reduced to fly ash, the photographs dissolved one smiling group at a time.