There is a secret hidden poorly beneath the snow burnt and frost blackened branches of the old soldiers, heroes of the winter’s campaign. Sap runs to fill the wounds. The earth stirs and turns restless on the edge of a dream.
There is a secret hidden poorly beneath the snow burnt and frost blackened branches of the old soldiers, heroes of the winter’s campaign. Sap runs to fill the wounds. The earth stirs and turns restless on the edge of a dream.
I am wading through the end of a March tamed to the hand as gentle as a lamb. The sunny days and balmy weather have finally shown a tantalizing glimpse of spring green though it is still overshadowed by the morning frost. Early shoots show the ravages of an icy morning’s bite in the white that lays heavy on the lawn at dawn mimicking the snow of less than a week ago. The season of Lent, a time of sacrifice and penance, heralds the rebirth of faith and everlasting life. But until that resurrection the year is breached and the world is caught. We wade through the thick purgatory of a breath before the change. Like all anticipations, the minutes are drawn out in excruciating increments.
I am reading to pass the time, averaging a book every day and a half depending on the author and the length. Though the hour hand pushes through January molasses I refuse to waste even a gingerbread bite on banal, trite and overly dramatic volumes. Two Gregory Maguire’s are devoured, quickly washed down by a beautiful light touch. For the next hour or so I will be immersed in Gabriel Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It is the perfect story for this time of year, this span of days coloured by the fasting that marks an end and an everlasting beginning. An old man finds love at the end of his life. A young girl steps into the beginning of who she will be. Winter embraces the spring and releases the months into summer or so the synopsis promises. I’ll have to wait and see.
I am watching for my seeds to sprout. Any day now the small green tendrils will break the uneven covering of potting soil packed into the old raisin containers that I’ve saved over the winter dreaming my floral perfumed dreams. Planted indoors, weeks before the last frost they wait to find a place under the summer blue skies. It’s time to gather up the host of pine cones that litter the ground underneath the spruce and white pines. The wood pile, a carrion collection of limbs bark covered and white bone broken torn in the rage of winter, challenges the height of the shed. That heap only awaits a windless night, a spirit warmed company and a match to lay it to rest.
I almost waited too long to bring in my wreath from the front door. Last year we had two birds build and raise families in the shelter of our front porch. The babies were adorable but it was stressful for the mother when company came to ring the bell and the bird shit was hell on the stoop. I brought the wreath in yesterday with just the foundation of a nest built. I hate to destroy anyone’s hard work but it is for the best in the long run.
The lilac bushes are budding and the snowdrops are giving way to crocuses. The out flung arms of daffodils and tulips stretch overhead to break the soil after a long winter’s rest. The winter wheat shows green and crisp against the furrowed acres of umber fields. The grass still sleeps in golden dreams showing no faith in the promise of an approaching sun. I sit, hip deep in books and a mild impatience. I am waiting for the smell of fresh grass and the feel of wet dirt crusting under my nails. I am waiting for the limning of the lines of my heart and life in stark contrast to the white of my palms. I am waiting for one life to end and another to begin here at the end of bittersweet March…marking the transition in words, memories and time.
The winter dried grass, a golden expanse soft like the velvet fuzz in the warm nape of a baby’s neck, slides down to meet the sharp stubble of the cornstalk graveyard. Winding off in the distance the furrows are crowded in a jumble of waves. Distinct and stiff the guerillas’ pit is laid flat, open to the air. The stabbing swords are sometimes bare under the mercurial sky or hide in the dark moonless nights waiting only to break the skin.
The gate way to the fields is guarded by the weighted bows of sentries. Old generals’ vanities dangle from camouflaged limbs only to be cast aside to lie forgotten on the needle covered parapet. Lateral roots in the shallow bed wind through the acrid soil. The questing tendrils, cinnamon grey scabby fingers that poke out here and there, break the surface like the backs of whales as they gasp before sinking below the surface again. The morning sun strikes the three quarter profile running from pate to sole and sinks warm to the roots. The profile strains in a light flush from labouring up distant cliffs. Languorous, first arms and then legs, light and clear, crystal dew misted, wrap round to caresses the sap crusted bores.
In the daylight, overcast or bright, the trees mark the way to the world beyond and the preternatural quiet is not as noticeable. The empty thump of the root riddled ground, the hollow echo of an underground warren, is not so solemn, not so full. The trees are graceful, heavy and benevolent in the light of day. Back behind that green needled barrier the orchard spreads out and the acres of field behind seem just that and nothing more. Hemlock and nightshade are speckled in bright reds and blossoms of purple and gold, just that and nothing more.
In the dark of night, in the bright light of a blue moon (the moon light is always blue even when the moon is golden and full of the secret harvest) the evergreens are suddenly unknown and dark. The safety of the house floodlight reaches back as far as the trees where it is set upon and divided into long streamers. They falter and the warm comfort of home fades behind. The moonlight and the darkness paint the rises and the falls. The shadows should be black and empty but they’re not. They are full.
In the dark the nightshade glows and creeps. The hemlock is blacker than black. The line of the orchard caught frozen in a fleeing strand, shows surprised, a figure watching from the edge. A dun coat…a deer…no an upright figure…silent there and then lost as the dark tide rises again.
The passage from the controlled confines of the garden across the border to the place beyond is marked by the knell. The taproot and laterals have eaten away the foundations. Giants hang from perches, their limbs dangling in the sky anchored by macramé weavings. The pale strings vibrate to the tap of a step, booming loud through the delicate tatting that decorates the skin and the caves beneath. Stepping across the ridge, the alarm sounds, alerting the earth and whatever dwells beneath that someone walks there …in the dark or under a moon…sometimes hidden, sometimes bare, under the stars cloaked or jewel bright.
The small grave yard is marked by flats of slate. Old roofing tiles mark the slumber of the ones we brought to this place, the one who trusted us, that are with us no more. I did find a bullet casing in the garden buried a foot or so down but that was closer to the house; a most curious place for something like that. We buried them and in doing so carry some of the responsibility for the hand dealt. The scratching of claws on bark and the soft trill of a night bird join the rising wind. One would think that the darkest nights are the direst but that is not so. It is the moonlit nights that are the most laden, dripping with purpose and superstition.
In the blue light, the landscape is altered. The pines loom over head, a hundred feet high or more, blocking off the house. The flood light seems weaker under the full face of the pearl. The three graves are aligned but not even. Hemlock and nightshade creep and glow. Standing on that swell of velvet gold, the ocean of jagged knives is thrown into sharp relief and spread out in choppy furrows that lap on the shores of the orchard tree line. Perspective demands a precipice where reason says there isn’t. I could turn back and pass through the trees, past the graves while my steps sing a betrayal to the hollow ground below. I could step off the ledge into that bayoneted ocean and swim out to the distant tree line and whatever waits in the blackened raspberry caned corridors beyond.
It wasn’t cold enough, for long enough, this year and the lake never froze. Winters past you could walk meters out onto the surface of the water to look back at the high cliffs shining in the winter sun. This year was the warmest winter in this area since they started keeping track of these things. The lake stayed fluid, a mobile expanse of leaded motion adorned by the wind in crystallized crowns of froth and spit.
Open to the elements, the clay of the shoreline has shown the treacherous face of an amnesiac changing under the wind and waves of an incomplete season. Each day which dawns is unlike the day before and the sun of that day rests on sands that are unlike the sands of the day before. Yesterday’s shore is gone in the cold and the wind and the wave. Although today’s beach may pay homage to its lineage in mementos and relics, it wears a new face that will also fade with the passing of the hours and the tide.
Several calendar days short of spring the wind is a slap in the face. Cast up by the waves, the waters of the grey lady bare her fallen pilgrims. The smell of cucumbers, a hint of decay hangs in the air. Pale olive, purple and iridescent blue gems litter the gravelly shore. A pirate’s treasure is laid open to the sky for all to see. The smelt are running on Lake Erie.
Predestined, none escape. The frozen firmament that marks the boundaries of a preordained heaven never coalesced. Lost beyond time, a thread that was cut, now directionless in this unexpected reprieve, hosts of the misplaced have cast themselves upon the shore. Those of wing and fur who have over lingered or returned on a warm wind find a bloody eyed bounty, a banquet laid out on the sandy storm tossed shores of Erie.
Ice hangs, built up in motion as the mercury dips with the tide and laves the bones of bowering havens. Driftwood limbs, fallen from the heights, riding the shifts and tilts of copper cliffs made unsure but still graceful at right angles to the earth’s axis, are bearded in crusted ice. Tresses of lake bottom vines, lengths of auburn mermaid plaits, fringe the banquet table. The arcs of empty orbs are sanguine, puddled with the reflected rays of a condemned sun drowning in the opaque mirror while the cries of the gulls echo overhead.
Oscar Wilde said "There is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.”…yet on the breath of butterfly wings Homer’s moly rises her head and names the ghost of winter.
The rain is an omen, falling in pebble sharp raps. A temperate wanderer meets a winter bare sleeper. Lips part and ruptured clay spews forth a breath held warm and secret in the throat of the dreamer. Twilight over flows its banks and bleeds into the day. Stranded in the flood the black trees are stick bare and naked, caught in the murky half light. Upright and stiff they fight the rising current, hands outspread, reaching to a sky already lost under the onslaught. Choking in the cloudy ocean, overcome at last, they sink below the waves their accusing eyes lost in the greasy tide. Awash in still waters the world expands into solitude.
The air is filled with smell of diesel fuel and the bitter stench of stick welders. Even the stark rays of the fluorescent lights aren’t strong enough to clear the haze and the factory air is greasy and thick. Matching cadmium yellow lines, crumbling round the edges and crusty from paint layered over the years, mark the aisles and the designated working areas. The high bay is enormous. It comes by its size designation with being the tallest building on the lot at three stories high. It’s longer than several football fields. If you’re going to build locomotives you can’t go anywhere but big.
The screech of metal grinders and the buzz of compression tools is regularly punctuated by the warning siren as the cranes move up and down the huge bay carrying the under frames of locomotives. Those frames are heavy enough to leave a foot deep trench in the concrete floor if dropped. The cranes are enormous and though they run on wheels they are anchored to the building by weighty steel girders that follow the length of the walls. The factory works three shifts and with the exception of summer shut down and Christmas holidays it is a 24 hour world of production, metallic stench and the noises of progress and machinery. It’s not exactly the place one would expect to find wildlife. But as often is the case where you find people and their workings, there too you will find the animal world living off the avails.
There is a pond out behind the factory lying amidst the testing track for the light armored vehicles made next door. Each year it becomes the home of nesting ducks and Canadian geese that don’t seem to mind the LAVs racing round the track. Raccoons regularly visit the outdoor luncheon area where the workers save them the trouble of pawing through the garbage by tossing bits of sandwiches and cookies. The raccoons sit back on their haunches and catch the bread in their paws like trained circus performers. Many of the locomotive parts travel from south of the border and an eye must be kept out for black widows and other nasty crawlies.
All through the summer and part way through the fall the corrugated steel walls lock in the heat of the day. Even with giant fans positioned strategically the plant is like an oven, drawing a breath can make you break a sweat. As soon as the sun goes down the large doors that access the yard are opened up to let the heat out. They’re left open until the morning comes and the sun bakes the building again.
Despite the presence of people and the constant noise of production, the high bay is an attractive shelter to all sorts of avian travelers. Some even take the opportunity to make it their regular home, roosting high in the rafters and finding their meals in the garbage cans that regularly dot the factory floor. The bird population ebbs and flows with the seasons. For the most part the workers try to ignore the inside wild life. There are a variety of bird species that inhabit the factory but the most disruptive have to be the current flock of pigeons that are wintering in the rafters. At the top of the building, if not the food chain, the pigeons seem to be doing their best to make life miserable for those flightless creatures that go about their business below. The floor and anything that is anchored or moves over it have become fair game in the toilet bowl fiesta. Heated words rise up as welders, electricians and pipe fitters alike dance through a game with unknown rules and standards. Not only do you have to watch where you place your hands and feet, messes drop randomly from above to splatter on heads, shirts, tool boxes and blueprints… anything below the flight path. Complaints to the foremen and upper management have produced absolutely zero results.
The builders of locomotives aren’t your regular production line workers. Men of experience, they are the practical application of engineers’ plans and blueprints. The white collars look down on those grease covered grunts thinking that anyone can do the job. Upper management is confused as to the reason that production has slowed lately, never making a connection to the loss of the old timers that they’re slowly replacing with junior and therefore less expensive workers. Locomotives aren’t built on an assembly line like cars and on time delivery will never work for these mammoth constructs. These senior workers are the guys that make the blueprint theory a reality. Each carries their own notebook, some decades old, which hold the keys to the knowledge that actually makes those fancy blueprints work. If you tell these men that something has to be done, they’ll do it, whatever it takes. Given no logical instruction or recourse they will create a solution of their own.
Gus used to be a farmer. His whole family farmed. His ancestry is Dutch and Belgian and his family immigrated here years ago to work the land. Gus grew up working hard, knowing the satisfaction of a job well done and the rhythm of the labourer’s day. He could have retired already. He could have taken the buy-out a couple of years ago. Rumor has it, the buy-out was over $70,000 but Gus isn’t made that way. He’s a spare man, not built big but strong in the way the day is strong, built to last, built to endure. He does his job and then he goes home. Gus doesn’t know how not to work. His generation is a working generation and to not work would be like not breathing to him.
Gus used to farm but that was a long time ago. If you look around you right now chances are you won’t see one thing that doesn’t owe something to some type of farmer but still it’s hard to make a living farming anymore. Farmers are a hardy lot, used to making something from nothing more than the dirt beneath their feet. Gus may have left the farm behind to walk the factory floor but it didn’t change who he is. To say Gus is a handy man is to underestimate Gus. He has offered to cut down the 150 foot of dead pine that shadows the back of our yard. He wants to cart it away, saw it into planks and build a shed out of it. He could, as this is a man who has his environment well in hand.
In the high bay the pigeon population has reached a number than makes it not only difficult to work but dangerous as well. Unsanitary globs of bird droppings mark the floor and the underframes. It’s dirty and slippery underfoot and underhand. Complaints have been made and there’s some talk of sweeping piles of it up (there is that much) and depositing it on one of the desks in the administrative offices to see how they like working in bird shit. Gus isn’t much on talking about getting something done. Necessity is the mother of invention and Gus has always been a member of that family.
Like most large factories the tools in the high bay are powered by compressed air. Using compressed air, an adapter, a valve and a copper tube Gus made his own solution. It was a simple concept; the adapter attaching the valve to the air hose and in turn the valve controlling the force of air running through the copper tubing. All that remained then was to find ammunition. Nuts and bolts abound in a place that creates the machineries of transportation. Using a selection of sizes Gus has began to invade the rafters above. The compressed air, normally used to power the tools of a massive industry provide more than enough power to send the nuts and bolt racing up to hit the ceiling. So far he hasn’t hit anything but he’s been able to create quite a stir up in steel firmament. There’s been some squawking and feathers flying and a bit of general unrest in the feathered ranks above. It’s not a long term solution but it is a start. Perhaps the birds will look for more peaceful pastures. Perhaps someone higher up the factory food chain will take a little more notice. Perhaps someone else will get beaned by one of the nuts and bolts falling from the ceiling. Either way things are on the move in the high bay; that’s just the way it is there.
The greasy air fills up with the sound of grinders and the stench of the welders and the business of building giants. The locomotives continue to roll past the high bay doors and out into the world. Last week there was a fork lift collision further down the bay. Management keeps reorganizing the workers. Someone forgot to remove the cardboard from the inside of a cab and something, a welding spark most likely, set the whole thing on fire. One of the junior workers forgot to drain the air from a tank after an air test, a possibly fatal mistake that’s happened more than once lately. Gossip abounds, faces change and the job gets done. The pigeons fly, maybe a little more cautiously. Engineers design and the blue collars make it work; filling in the gaps, smoothing out the creases and rewriting the plans. The siren wails, the crane rolls and the high bay rises up shadowing the lot and the buildings all around.
A flutter is a memory of summer sweet morning, cool before the heat of the midday and clean with the smell of fresh cut grass swimming in the air. The delicate wings of that dew kissed morning rise crisp and clean in the wake of the March lion and with one fragile sweep drown the savage roar.
The light shines through the front window in the upstairs hallway, flushed saffron with the first spark of day. Muntin bars mark the window pane and divide the rays into patterned squares. The lace curtain stencils each space to paint a granny square quilt, a faint blush of virgin sun on the cream door. The grey grizzled beard of old man winter lingers on into March. Even after a sleepless night the slow thawing of metallic blue, bleeding over the precipice until it tumbles into the full golden nectarine of the new day, is a welcome sight.
The mornings are still cold. Even though no one is out of bed yet the hum of the furnace makes the house seem busy and full. I always love the sound of the furnace kicking on. When the house was first built there was no furnace. There were only fireplaces to heat each floor. The old yellow brick chimney still remains but now it is plastered in behind the walls. A gas furnace was added years ago but the lath and plaster walls weren’t built to accommodate duct work so the house is heated by gravity. The high efficiency furnace pushes the heat up to the first level of the house. The warm air makes its way to the second level by rising through large round grates that open the first floor to the second above. The warm air pushes the cold air down the front and back stairs and the cycle (like the days) is repeated again.
There is no grate in the floor of the front bedroom. That room is my room. Without the grate to let the heat rise up from downstairs I’m occasionally cold, even in the summer. It’s not the largest room but I chose it so I could have a bit of privacy. Sometimes, if there’s an accident on the highway, the traffic picks up a little but other than that the road is quiet and local traveled for the most part. In the winter, at night, I can hear the roar of the plow from miles away. The bed shakes as it passes the house. The winter winds howl and the snow and rain fall, all to no avail. Tucked into bed under the mound of quilts and afghans, with the hum of the furnace singing through the house, I snuggle down deeper satisfied we’re safe from the storms that swirl around us.
The day’s arrival puts an end to a second sleepless night. I had lain awake through the hours listening for his breath. His room is just down the hall. I had listened to his teeth grinding, the bed creaking as he tossed and turned and the sound of air passing in and out in sighs and whispers. He said he felt better before he went to bed but every hour or so I’d gotten up to check on him. Feeling for a fever, first with my hand and then gently brushing his hair back to press my lips to his forehead in the hopes of balancing out the ice in my palms. At one point he seemed to wake. Disorientated from within his dream he told me he couldn’t go first and I laughed and told him not to worry about it. His head dropped and he drifted back to where he’d never really left.
I could tell he was better but I still listened, lying awake until dawn. The night before there had been no sleep for either of us. It had been a long time since he’d been really sick. When he was younger and he’d spend weekends away he’d often come home too tired (he would say too sick) to go to school Monday morning. There had been a string of four day weeks until I’d told him he would just have to tough it out. It was difficult but he’d pushed hard, for me and for himself. He’d gotten tougher or smarter, I wasn’t really sure which but the Monday absences had slowly petered out.
He was tired this Monday morning, but not unusually so. He’d made it to school and came home to roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes for dinner and homemade brownies with a side serving of Cookies and Cream ice cream for desert. Right up to supper time he’d been fine, he was going to hockey, he was looking forward to one of his favourite meals. Then, just before the dinner bell sounded, he was violently ill and would continue to be all night.
He hadn’t been this sick since he was very small. Strep throat had wrapped him in its own particular misery and we’d sat together in the doctor’s office while he vomited over his fifth outfit of that day. I hadn’t brought an extra one. I’d been so concerned I’d rushed out of the house and Lord knows it was hard to believe that there could have been anything left to still spew out from such a small body. The nurse didn’t try to hide her disapproval. I had just wanted to get him there to find out what was wrong. Later when were back at home and I was bathing him in tepid water, trying to bring his temperature down, I did my best to put it aside but it was too late. I knew I’d never be able to totally bury that fear, now that I’d felt it. I had thought I was going to lose him. He had been so sick and it had happened so quickly and I had felt that I was so helpless really to do anything.
It was hard to reconcile the image of that roly-poly baby with the ashen faced teenager who stood in the kitchen apologizing. He hadn’t quite made it to the toilet and he’d forgotten, in his rush, to lift the seat. I soaked a face cloth in soap and warm water and washed his face and hands, reaching up to wipe his hair off of his face. After I settled him on the couch with a bucket I set about cleaning up the bathroom. My mind went back again to another night when he’d been unwell.
At four he’d still been round and sweet faced. When I’d picked him up I must have squeezed a little because as his head reached my shoulder he leaned over and threw up in my waist length hair. He began to cry and I told him not to worry, everyone gets sick sometimes. Then both of us got into the shower, clothes and all. It must have been my imagination but I thought I could smell it for days afterwards every time I brushed my hair.
It was still the same, I thought, as I cleaned up the larger puddles with toilet paper. You’d think it would change. He swore as he was sick, man curses. I could hear him through the bathroom door. His new man’s voice was hoarse and surprised at the violence of his own body. I hovered outside the door wanting to help but trying not to embarrass him, this angular stranger gulping and retching in my bathroom. And then he opened the door and he was still my child, the bitter smell of sick and pale face, still mine, even though he towered above me. All that night I sat up with him, bringing him water, emptying his bucket and wiping his forehead. Worrying and watching and in the morning, when he’d weathered the worst of it, I allowed myself to rest but only for a bit.
Through the day and into the second night I watched and listened though I could see that he would be alright. That moment of fear was once again lived through but it can never be conquered. The thoughts that kept me company through the night ruefully concluded, once again, that it is a terribly hard thing to take your heart out and let it walk free into the world without you.
As the golden light of morning warms the hallway I lay listening to him breathe. The house is quiet and I inhale and exhale, matching the rhythm of my breath to his. My hands, resting on my chest under a mountain of blankets, feel a faint flutter. I know it’s only a phantom beat. My heart lays down the hall and one door away.
I wait for his alarm to go off. I know he’ll hit snooze at least three times before he gets up. Most mornings, by the third time, I’m ready to brave the cold of my room and turn it off myself. This day I’m content to let him stay a little longer, maybe he might need me, just a little bit still. I watch the golden copper of dawn harden into the bright light of morning until I hear the sound of his yawns and sighs from the next room and then finally the bed creaking as he rises to greet another day.