The horses are Alice’s, Pete explained, as we walked towards a grey barn with a weathervane creaking in the breeze, stopping every few feet to take another spoonful of soup. A weathervane of a copper fish, parts of it completely green. And three horses waited at the gate.
They like to know what’s going on, Alice told me. They’re curious about the new foal. She held her cheek against the cheek of the darker horse for a minute and one of the others, the colour of polished chestnuts with a rump dappled with white spots, nuzzled her hair. Then she turned to me and said, quietly, as though to keep the trio from overhearing: There was a twin, a colt, but he was born underdeveloped and I don’t believe he even took a breath. Rare for mares to have twins and mostly it doesn’t work out for the babies or the mare. I’m relieved that the filly survived and her momma was able to expel the placenta completely. I had to reach in and help her to let it go.
(Her hands, the long fingers, the rough palms, had been inside horses. Had stroked her husband’s body afterwards, or before. I kept looking at her, in wonder.)
In the barn, pigeons cooed in the high rafters and the air was sweet with hay. No, not hay just yet, said Pete, when I exclaimed, but just a few armloads of grass for the new momma. Hay comes later, when the grass is frozen. The mare was in a large stall, munching on the grass in the corner cradle, twitching at flies with her black tail, while her stilty-legged baby tugged at her milk-bag. I put my soup bowl on a bench and asked if I could pat the filly.
Oh, sure. Angel’s an experienced mother. She won’t mind. Here, let me – and Alice slid the bolt open on the stall door.
The foal was still damp from her mother’s licking. I put my hand out and her soft nostrils rested briefly on my palm. Then she returned to suckling. Her eyes, when she paused to look at me, were deep pools. They had only known daylight for a few hours and I thought of her still curled up in her mother’s body while I’d slept the night before, curled up with her brother who didn’t even taste his mother’s milk. I thought of them asleep in their watery darkness while I swam in the river, wanting to let go of life to join my own lost brother. Touching the filly’s spine as her tail flickered, I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears.
It gets me every time, Alice said quietly, and ‘course this time it’s sad too. There are foals every year and I deliver most of ‘em myself, unless there’s a breech or other problem, then the vet comes from Kamloops. And I always cry. But look at these two! This baby’s going to be a beauty. Her momma’s a marble roan and I’m hoping she’ll develop that too, though it’s too early to tell. You could write a book about the Appaloosa colours, she replied, when I asked if there were different names for the patterns. Her eyes shone. How could anyone not be interested in horses whose ancestors appeared in the cave drawings in Europe? The ancient wild horses – many of ‘em had the spots on their hips and rumps. I saw photos of those caves in National Geographic and I knew the horses right away.
They showed me more horses, including two mares with visibly moving foals still within them. (Put your hand right there, Alice said, guiding mine to the unmistakable thump of a tiny hoof against its mother’s side; my fingers tingled, held the sensation. Hers knew what it was to enter the body and ease shoulders through a narrow cervix.) An old red tractor parked by the barn, a pitchfork leaning against a stall door, a long wooden box spilling what looked to be shoeing tools, a cat sleeping in a bar of sunlight on the floor, the drowsy sound of flies: it felt like a place out of time where you could be invited in for a bowl of soup and then never leave. Three horses by the gate, their faces mild, long lashes fringing their eyes.
–from The Marriage of Rivers
If it seems quiet from my part of the world, it’s because it isn’t. It’s busy — a visiting grandson and his parents and aunt last week, followed by a mid-winter chamber music weekend organized by the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival committee, of which I’m a member. All of it lovely — tiny Arthur with his huge smile cuddling in bed with me one morning and tolerating many verses of “Mary Hamilton”; two concerts of the music of Brahms and both Schumanns, Clara and Robert, performed by Gary Levinson (violin), Baya Kakouberi (piano), and Andres Diaz (cello); meals with friends; some long walks through winter woods.
Today I turned and the tulips in the pot, only buds yesterday, were in bloom.
So as the flowers open, thoughts turn to road trips, driving up the Fraser Canyon with the car windows open, stopping at every historical signpost, taking the same photographs over and over (the hills, the river, the lonely abandoned cabins). I woke in the middle of the night, or rather very early this morning, and worked on a novella-in-progress, and the sentences took me into a beloved landscape. Here are a few of those sentences for those of you who also dream of other places, warmth, and the scent of sage:
Our bodies are porous. They take in river water, sunlight, the scent of Artemisa frigida, dust from bone dry slopes, dust of bones themselves littered on the talus (bighorn sheep, marmots, the tiny hollow leg bone of birds eaten and excreted by coyotes, sand particles), pollen from ponderosa pines, midges, spores too minute to affect anything other than a lung, fine hairs of mule deer, the stink of migrating salmon. Over us, the deep blue sky, through us the air so warm and clear we breathe it in deeply and it doesn’t seem altered when we exhale yet the work of our bodies is there too. And helium, beryllium, and carbon, iron and nickel, the dust from dying stars. (from The Marriage of Rivers)
One book released to the world and another finding its way into my daily life, another novella, The Marriage of Rivers. I began it some time ago but put it aside because I had the work of editing Patrin and then I also wrote a long essay. I’m never sure why some work agitates its way to the front of the line but it does and other writing goes quiet. But on a fall morning, this morning in fact, I woke excited about this novella again and there it was, waiting. I’ve finished the first half. And I like where it’s going, in actual terms and in narrative terms. In actual terms, here’s a glimpse of the main character (who doesn’t have a name. I don’t know why that is but maybe she’ll find one…) in country I’m thinking of these days, with that kind of longing you feel as keenly as anything.
“Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before.”
I had the map I’d drawn for my thesis, rough but fairly accurate, and I was marking it with the places I’d identified in Hetty Dorval. I’d left my car at the Totem Motel and walked to the bridge. An osprey nest was unoccupied, though birds fished over both rivers, dipping and plunging. On the far side, the Lillooet side, a man was walking towards town with a dog beside him. I could hear the ospreys whistling as they fished, a surprisingly thin sound for such a big bird. There was such power in their wings which formed a kind of sail for the birds to ride the currents of air and watch for fish. Emissaries, beacons, gods of the sky. I wondered if they saw you, James, as you fell from your kayak and tried to fight the wild water, tumbling against rocks, your head thrust up, and up, their impersonal gaze casting over you as you drowned.
I made my mark on the map. Then I walked out the Lillooet Road, along its narrow shoulder, grass and pines above my shoulders, and everywhere the scent of southernwood, its blossoms just finishing. Dry air, a dry wind as I walked. Where was it Frankie Burnaby first met Hetty Dorval on the dusty highway, Frankie riding back from her home ranch in Lillooet to where she boarded during the week when she attended school in Lytton, and Hetty, recently arrived in Lytton from some mysterious past, out exploring on her mare. Ethel Wilson wrote of hairpin turns and the hills dotted with sage and it could have been anywhere along the road where the two met and witnessed the long arrow of migrating geese in the autumn sky. As I walked, I looked up, hoping for the same arrow. But saw only the blue vault and a few high clouds.
From a letter you wrote to me: Sometimes we head up to Keatley Creek to see what they’re doing. Man, what a place. Huge village – probably around 1500. When the creek meets the Fraser, the fishing would have been amazing. In a kind of funnel which would have dried the fish in no time. I love that place. And you can drive by and never know that it exists.
A I walked out the road, I thought how our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.
From The Marriage of Rivers, a novella-in-progress:
Our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.