Flats of Darkness, chapter 1

Flats of Darkness is a novel piece of writing that may someday become a novel. The Prologue is posted here.

In January, I should have known things were changing. While Clifford had long been cruel to me, he had tempered himself with the children. Shortly after the new year, he started to show his true colours to all, and our son was the first to feel the brunt of his wrath.

            On these North Saskatchewan River flats, a place as stark and sinister as the Missouri hills of my birth, the winter of 1971 was the coldest anyone recalled. In this biting harshness, innocence wasn’t the only thing that died, but it may have been the most mourned.

            In rural Alberta, few things are as cherished as warmth. That year, the never-ending snows of November and December gave way to continually falling temperatures through January. For the farmers and their kin living amongst the meanders of the river, whether directly alongside in the flats or further north in the rolling hills of Meewasin, minus 40 became more than an abstract measurement, a number heard over the kitchen Sylvania; minus 40 was, day after day, a descriptor as predictable as sunrise.

            While dark came minutes later each afternoon, the red alcohol thermometers outside every kitchen window from Smithfield Corner to Carvel seldom showed more than a bubble of scarlet with a sliver rising less than an inch from its delicate glass reservoir. It was the kind of cold that is unforgiving to the hands of six-year old boys and the calves of farmers too stupid to ensure that bulls and cows were kept separated in early spring. Coyotes fed well that January.

            In this unforgiving place, when your jerry-rigged water system gives out hours after darkness envelopes the world, there isn’t any alternative but to put on several layers, stuff grey and red wrapped feet into your heartiest felt-lined boots, and go out to fix what you can.

            That’s how John found himself, six-years old and farmer proud, holding the flashlight while his father— six foot-three and over three hundred pounds of strength—banged and pounded rusted metal piping with wrenches and hammers of increasing heft, and with escalating frustration. During any other season, Clifford would be assisted by the hired hand, but in winter his cabin was dark and silent.

            The sky was moonless, the clouds having retreated to leave stars to dimly light the yard. The yard light atop the pole had given up the ghost weeks earlier and it had been too cold since to bother with fixing an unessential.

            As far as John knew his father never cursed and, up to that January night, had never raised a hand to him in anger. A spanking was different, that was deserved and ‘hurt me as much as it hurts you.’ But after an hour— or twenty minutes, when it is that cold out one is the same as the other— of fiddling with a stubborn motor, of beating on pipes and pulling yards of insulated tubing from under trees and beside sheds, trying to find an elusive blockage, Clifford had had enough.

            As the flashlight’s inconsistent and fading light wavered in the boy’s numbed, wool-mittened hands yet again—as it must when there are all those stars to stare upward, all those branches forming shapes against the sky, all the night sounds to turn an ear toward—there was no reminder to focus. No, the first the boy knew that there was a problem was when the angle of the sky turned around on him and he felt ice against his cheek.

            It was in those seconds that he could recall the feel of leather against his face, realize that the warmth that was beginning to emanate from his cheek was not natural. As the light from the dropped flashlight completed its final rotation on the hard-pack, John at once understood that his father had hit him, that the snow melting on his face was cooling an impact he was only beginning to feel.

            And as his eyes searched for his father, as he rolled upward to a sitting position, the metal zipper of his snowsuit stuck to his chin by the combination of moisture and cold or simply force, as he focused through eyes that were increasingly tear-filled, he knew that life had changed. Even though he wouldn’t understand the words spoken for years, he knew that his life was not as it had been moments before.

            “Just hold the fuckin’ light still, would ya—is that too much to ask of a bastard?”

            Later, repairs complete and water again able to run through the pipes, when John returned to the house I thought his frozen tears were a product of the cold. As I helped him remove his outerwear, unwrapping the scarf from around his neck, I saw the scrape against his reddened face. He shook his head when I asked what had happened, only confiding to me of his confusion later as he climbed into his bed.

            I made excuses for his father, as one did in those times. And eventually my son fell asleep, although I could tell that he would take longer than usual to fall into the deep, innocent slumber of youth.

            Of course, things had changed. He was no longer the innocent he had been when he had ventured into the cold with his father, because indeed—within the twisted relationships that had long existed on this farm—Clifford was truly John’s father. John was also a bastard. That part of the story needs to come next, I suppose.

            Still, when the house went quiet and dark later that January night, I wasn’t aware that with Clifford’s angry exclamation and frustrated backhand the changes had begun.

Flats of Darkness, prologue

The start of a novel…maybe.

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This dark house is too small for restless wandering.

            Separated by a linen closet, two tiny bedrooms face each other. Inside each, my children sleep. The eldest, the boy, sleeps silently. His lips pursed as if in thought, he will not wake until the sky begins to lighten.

            His sister, two years younger than his six, is more fitful. A sheen of sweat mars her brow as it does each night no matter the temperature. Her upper lip, gently peaked in the middle like a turtle’s snout, protrudes past the bottom one, leaving space sufficient for a gentle whistle to be sounded upon each exhale.

            They did not come of me, but they are of me.

            The front room—at the back of the house—is dominated by a matching worn chesterfield and armchair, both now faded more pink than burgundy. The room is so compact there is not room for a side table between them, certainly no space for a coffee table. With rabbit ears extended and tilted to the northeast, the television rests on the only frivolous furniture in the house. This cedar stand had been a handcrafted wedding gift from my brother, now dead. Such a sweet boy he had been, and brave—signed up for the Air Force when he was not yet seventeen. Dead by drink before he was forty-five.

            The house is dominated by the kitchen. White cupboards and a rough-hewn, wooden counter run along one wall, empty except for a plastic basin and a hand pump secured at the far end. This is the only water source in the house.

            Standing at the basin, one looks out the window onto the driveway and farmyard, snow-packed, muddy or dirt-covered, depending on the vagaries of the weather. Now, in early spring, mud dominates. Walking is nearly impossible if one goes off the paths established by old boards laid across the most inhospitable masses.

            Opposite the counter is another wedding gift, this from his parents: a chipped, white Formica kitchen table and four vinyl-covered chairs, padding showing at the corners of most, a crack running down the back of one. This is my chair, the one that backs to the kitchen, closest to take the four or five steps to the stove or refrigerator, if needed. If told.

            The benefit of this position is that I have the view out the square of window that run along behind the table. From here, over my morning coffee, I can watch the wildlife of the year. Squirrels perform their intricate dances of courtship and survival most of the year, an occasional deer visits in the worst of winter. If I don’t mention the deer to Clifford, it has a chance to survive. Towering over this small building I have called home for twenty years are spruce trees planted when the place was homesteaded some fifty years before.

            Still, it is his house. Not mine.

            On nights when my mind is racing, I must find a way to release the compounding heaviness. With the weather cooperating, I wander the farm in the chilled darkness and consider the information that has been bestowed upon me this evening as a fait accompli. When I voiced concern at his intensions, I was provided sufficient encouragement to silence further doubts.

            The yard has a dull glow, the moon usually more reliable than it is tonight. With a heavy chore jacket draped across my shoulders, my feet stuffed into rubber boots that brush the bottom of my nightgown, I walk familiar paths, the mud somewhat solidified by the falling temperature. I am grateful for these moments of calm isolation. A visit to the outhouse allows me to check myself and stem the worst of the bleeding.

            I walk along the tired barbed-wire fence line and the raggedy willow trees that serve as a windbreak. These are barriers preventing escape, I know. I never attended college, but I’m a reader: I know symbolism.

            I wander this yard, picturing places to die. How it might happen, and at whose hands. I am confident I will die in this place. It is just a matter of time.

            My face throbs, as do my wrists. Further down, my private parts—areas that should be mine, but aren’t—burn. The abrasions are worse than usual, some of the tearing obvious even in the flashlight illuminated dimness of the outhouse. I realize only now that I never mentioned my bedroom—our bedroom—when previously describing the house. What would a Freudian analyst make of that, I wonder?

            Sometimes, as I do tonight, I sit outside the milk house on a stump, a huge burnt-orange, petrified piece of wood dragged from the sand of a neighbouring coulee decades ago. It is the only ornamentation within this utilitarian expanse of grey, worn sheds, colourless plank fences, and rusting wire gates.

            This is my favourite place to be.

            In the daylight and perched on this slice of history, I can see the entirety of the farmyard. In the dark, I can see only that which immediately surrounds me: the milking shelter to my left, several pens toward the barn. The barn itself, weatherworn to the same grey that most of the outbuildings now are, is hidden this night. In front of me is the old house, Grandma’s house—it has stood for fifty years, and sports the only significant colour on the place. She still visits during summer, spending a few weeks in the faded yellow two-story dwelling. While she isn’t the easiest woman to get along with, I have come to love and appreciate her. It isn’t her fault her son has become the person he is.

            To my right, I can see the road that passes in front of the farm, a ribbon of gravel along the straightway south before snaking around the curves of the distant river. Off this road, down a lane and across a wooden bridge spanning a narrow creek and through a final wheat field are cliffs overlooking the North Saskatchewan, another place I would sometimes wander. I would stand on the edge of the cliffs, seventy, eighty, or a hundred feet above the wide, willow covered sandy banks of the river and imagine a final leap.

            Tonight is not a night for that journey, one that would take thirty minutes of brisk walking. No, if I make that walk tonight, I may not return.

            Across the road from the farm yard is the Wagner’s pasture, and I hear a cow lowing across the dark field. This mournful call brings me back to the present.

            In the darkness, I am untroubled. I can recover, gain strength to face the challenges of tomorrow.

            Having retrieved a secreted blanket from the milk house, I sit here for an hour, maybe more, and wait for the chilling night breeze to remove his stench from my body.

I used to know why I was here. I was the protector, the nurturer. For twenty years of marriage and six years as a mother, that was sufficient. I could help those who needed protection, whether they be a stray dog, a barn cat, or a stubborn heifer. Later, when they arrived, the children.

            I could help the children by being present. I could provide them with the basics required for survival, and little more, but I could keep them from dangers that lurked in the trees or across the fields. And within their home, I would shield them from the rot which would eventually destroy us all.

            By taking the brunt of his brutality upon myself, I kept them safe.

            Eventually, that wasn’t enough. That was when I truly learned my role. I wasn’t placed here to protect the farm creatures or the children; I wasn’t here even to nourish. In the months to come, I learned I was sent to serve as witness.

            I could best aid by finding a way to document this narrative. By weaving together the seemingly random and discrepant horrors that had comprised my life and those which would shape the lives of my children I would be fulfilling my purpose.

            Be gentle with your judgment, as you do not yet know me.

            Much would happen on our little farm, all of it unexpected. If I was blessed with the foresight of an author, I would have recognized the clues that were liberally available.

            In little more than eighteen months there would be betrayal, infidelity, and suicide. There would be the momentary promise of something greater, a building of a dream, and there would be the stark reality of this being shaped into something reprehensible.

            Children would be marked by the stains of those who were to guide and protect them. The children would be exploited in ways the uninitiated never envision in their darkest moments, and children would make use of each other. There would be a birth from evil and the death of innocence. There would be small joys and terrible consequences.

            One would kill, another would be murdered, and my son would serve as my witness.

            Overnight, a family of four would become a brutal warren of twelve, and like a building without proper foundation and support, our family would crumble first into bitterness, then hostility, and into what some would call dissonant coexistence before fracturing in flurries of recrimination, fury, and resolution.

            No, I wasn’t placed here to stop any of the awful things from happening. I was placed here to record them. Once I learned this and stopped fighting the changes and accepted my place, I found comfort in my remoteness. At least, for awhile.

            There are those who in reading these words who will believe I failed in my role as mother, and I accept that scorn. I did fail my children, but not for a lack of awareness of my duty or effort in attempting to achieve it. At the time, faced with a malevolence presence—if that is what it was—I saw no option. When one is caught in a cycle or turmoil, one cannot guarantee that she will behave in the manner she wishes she had.

            Get out, you might suggest.

            You don’t know what our world was like. The Summer of Love, women’s liberation, and peace, love, and understanding hadn’t made it to our farm; the closest we came was an un-played Simon & Garfunkel record received as a prize at a county picnic the year before. One didn’t ‘leave’ their husband. Not that I had anywhere I could have gone, having left my family two thousand miles away to make a life with the man I once loved.

            By the time I met Suzi—what a stupid name for a woman closing on fifty—it was too late; the forces of immorality were well fixed and could not be stopped.

            One shouldn’t think that our life was perfect before she arrived. It wasn’t. But, it was manageable and I learned to live within the constraints provided by a domineering husband and the isolation of farm life. I could endure it, and I could protect the children from him. Then.

            Not after.

 

“Aunt Nellie’s Kitchen”

My Aunt Nellie was my first hero. When I was  preschool-aged and even after, she was the kindest person I knew. She wasn’t my aunt and now that I comprehend the family linage, she was an aunt of my uncle’s wife. But I never called her anything but ‘Aunt Nellie’ and as far as I know, neither did anyone else in our farming neighbourhood around the Scheideman Flats, an area named for her husband’s family. I loved spending time on her farm and especially within her home.

            Aunt Nellie was in her sixties when I first knew her, stooped with a hunched back and long graying, black hair twisted into a bun. Her eyes always gleamed with friendliness and no small bit of intelligence. Aunt Nellie tended to wear dark, functional slacks with patterned blouses. She moved slowly but with vigor, and was always busy when we stopped by for a visit. If she wasn’t butchering chickens in the walkout cellar or working in her flower gardens, she was putting up vegetables or fruit, carding or spinning wool, or working on a quilt around a wooden frame that took up most of her living room.

            Aunt Nellie never ignored me. She had a seemingly never-ending series of chores to accomplish, but she always had time to pause and visit over a slice of jelly roll and glass of milk. She would ask about my dog, my day at school—I frequently got off the school bus at her driveway, resulting in a walk of almost half a mile to her home—and the happenings around our farm. I never suspected she was mining for gossip, but perhaps she did have ulterior motivation; knowing her caring nature, and having learned about the events surrounding my parents and their turbulent life on the farm, most likely she was simply concerned for my welfare.

            Aunt Nellie was an important part of my life before I turned nine and left the area, although I returned for many widely-spaced visits. As well as I remember her and her generosity, I remember her house—on an impressive slope surrounded by spruce trees, nearly invisible from the distant gravel road bordering it on two sides—even better.

            It seems like I spent a lot of time at Aunt Nellie’s, although I don’t know why. My parents worked on our farm, so I can’t think of a specific reason why I so often was left at her place. I`m guessing it had something to do with my parents’ troubled and frequently violent relationship. I’m certainly glad I was left in her care because I loved it there.

            Aunt Nellie and Uncle Louis’ (pronounced Louie, always) farm was far more impressive than ours, their outbuildings colourfully painted, appearing neater in their functionality with every tool and machine in its place, no piles of discarded lumber or broken implements piled alongside crumbling outbuildings. So concerned was he with cleanliness, Uncle Louis once had me sweep the wooden aisle of his barn. Everything at Aunt Nellie and Uncle Louis’ seemed considered and tidy, in much better condition than our ramshackle, cluttered, and weather-beaten barn, sheds, and granaries.

            I remember their place as vividly as my own home. In their living room, a moose head, nestled between two windows overlooking their expansive pastures, looked down from the west wall. I would contemplate that moose seemingly for hours, studying the contours of its rack, the topography of its nostrils, and staring into its glass eyes. There was a round, wooden spinning piano stool, but I recall no piano. A wood-framed chesterfield with rough, embroidered upholstery and claw-and-ball feet ran along one wall. The room’s floor was gleaming wood, polished within an inch of its life, my mother would assert without rancor. I spent many hours playing on this floor, surrounded by Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs abandoned by the sons who once lived in the home.

            In the fridge, there was always a mutton roast, a slice or two cut off each meal by Uncle Louis to accompany whatever the main course was: I don’t recall anyone else being offered a piece, although I am confident this wasn’t from selfishness—I’m guessing all had previously declined the opportunity. I certainly was never curious for a taste: in my mind, it was something only Uncle Louis ate.

            When I think of Aunt Nellie and Uncle Louis’ home, I most fondly remember their kitchen. The cabinets were lightly-coloured stained wood, not painted, and for whatever reason I thought this made them impressive. Bird figurines collected from packages of tea bags lined the windowsill above the sink. A ripe odor often came from under the sink where a slop bucket waited to be emptied. Depending on the season, a bag or two of wool would sit in a corner beside the spinning wheel, and a substantial and—to my childhood eyes—intricate vertical radiant register dominated the wall beside the wheel. A fascinating cuckoo clock measured the passing hours.

            I have a distinct memory of Aunt Nellie sitting at the kitchen table reading with me one particularly cold winter’s night. Helping with my burgeoning Grade One reading skills, Aunt Nellie and I devoured the adventures of Dan Frontier and his friends. Earlier that same day she had comforted me as my frozen hands brought me to tears; I had forgotten my green and yellow knitted mittens on the school bus, and had alone walked the long drive snaking through their cattle pasture with my fingers first tingling with pain, eventually becoming numb.  Finally safe in her home, Aunt Nellie lovingly held my throbbing hands in cool water, my screams as sharp in my memory today as when the cold razored from my tender fingers more than forty years ago.

            I often sat colouring at their kitchen table. There was one corner drawer devoted to colouring books and wax crayons. As opposed to the rest of their orderly home and farm, these crayons were never neatly kept in packages; they were simply grabbed out by the handful and dropped back into the drawer after each use. I imagine every child who visited the Scheidemans used these crayons and books, but I can’t recall ever doubting that they were solely for my pleasure.

             I probably spent as much time colouring in their warm kitchen as I did exploring the cool shadows beneath the towering spruces that lined their walkways, playing with kittens in their barn, or following Uncle Louis as he completed chores. I don`t recall the action of colouring as much as I remember the contentment I possessed while filling pages of outlined animals and cartoon characters. At her kitchen table was where I remember being happiest, chatting with Aunt Nellie as she cleaned vegetables at the sink or kneaded bread dough or rolled out pie crust at the counter.  

            Several years later—after my first or second year of teaching—I paid what would be my last visit to Aunt Nellie and Uncle Louis’. They were now nearing ninety and moved even more slowly than I remembered. Still, they were every bit as active and sharp as before. Sitting with my wife in the kitchen I had spent so much time in two decades before, enveloped by the smell of chicken stew and freshly baked bread, and hearing stories of great-grandchildren I had no connection to, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable.

            At one point, my eyes settled on the corner drawer. I must have been staring at it for a bit, because when I looked up and made eye-contact with Aunt Nellie she grinned and nodded her head toward it. I got up and, walking to the drawer, I just knew what I would see. And indeed, as I pulled open the drawer, a fresh batch of colouring books and wax crayons came into view, ones used by the latest generation of children to have spent time in Aunt Nellie’s kitchen.

            It wasn’t the sight of the colours and books that got me, it was the smell. When I slid open that drawer, the powerful odor of wax crayons took the place of the more fragrant ones of lunch. I was immediately transported and was once again—just for a couple seconds—that kid who found sanctuary with a couple who had no obligation to care for me.

            I have tears clouding my vision now, just as I did that summer afternoon in the late 80s pulling open the crayon drawer for the final time. Shortly, they would pass within months of each other. I drove four hours to attend Aunt Nellie’s viewing in a city chapel, and I trust that they understood how special they were to me. I visited their gravesites last fall, and experienced an immensity of emotion I’ve not felt elsewhere.

            The children I work with tend to favour pencil crayons and markers. Only the youngest use wax crayons. When I enter a kindergarten class and see the kids colouring their letters and shapes, I become wistful. Each time I get down on my knees beside them to chat and I catch the powerful scent of the coloured wax crayons, I am again in the warmest place I have ever known. Aunt Nellie’s kitchen.

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This piece was written for a university course, and the focus was to develop a feeling of place. While not every detail may be accurate, the emotions related to this home and to these people, is genuine. Any details that I have mistakenly recalled (or invented) I hope are minor. The place is real, south-east of Duffield, Alberta-and driving past again this month I was again near-overwhelmed with memories. Most of all, I remember the sense of belonging and safety I felt with Aunt Nellie and Uncle Louis. If any of their relations are reading this, I hope they understand how important they were to me. 

 

“Home”

Mom has dementia.

            Her blonde hair faded to the colour of water-stained paper, she is in that impossible place where independence is well beyond her ability, but not her memory. She is confident that she should be living on her own at home.

            However, she is confused about where home is: Erskine, the small rural town in which she spent her childhood? The long-ago sold house in Leduc, or the high rise that followed? The seniors’ lodge where she lived for just over a year, or the clinical assessment facility? All are home depending on the day, the conversation, the moment.

            Home is never the utilitarian, bare walled, one-room suite in the locked-down wing of the supported care facility in which she lives, her physical needs attended to by a roster of warmly accented Jamaican women.

            “I’m not as far gone as the others here,” she tells me now, sitting—as always when I visit— on the edge of her single bed. “A bunch of drooling fools down there in those chairs, staring at me.” Bitterness increasingly pollutes each staccato burst of verbal venom.

            “I know, Mom. It’s hard,” I say, wondering how we got on the topic.

            “Hard! I’ll tell you what’s hard!” she says, her voice taking on strength from her indignation. “I caught one of them in here yesterday.” She points toward the particleboard armoire in the corner. “Right there- stupid old fool was putting on my best dress. They take them all.”

            “You don’t have any dresses, Mom.”

            “I do so. Your sister buys them for me. I wear them to church,” she declares, patting her chest.

            “Blouses.”

            “Blouses?” Her eyes shift. “Yes. They take them. Wear them around as if they own the place! Bitches.” Her growing agitation is obvious, her fingers tearing at the tissue in her hand.

            “Mom…” I begin to plead.

            “Well, they are. Miss High-and-Mighty, ooh-la-la! ‘Look at me!'” Tissue flakes fall onto the bedspread. “I told her if she ever came in here again, I’ll punch her. And I will.”

            “I’m glad you handled it without hurting her, Mom. It’ll be fine now.”

            A different emotion enters her voice, animates her face.

            “Your sister bought me those dresses. No one has the right to take them.” Moisture shines in her eyes. Sorrow. Resignation.

            “I hate this place.”

            “I know, Mom.” Come into her reality. “Maybe she needed the blouse more than you.”

            “Oh, I know.” The tears of a moment ago are wiped away, seemingly forgotten. “She doesn’t have much money. None of them do. I do. Don’t I?”

            I nod.

            “Daddy left me all right, didn’t he?”

            “I suppose. You get his pension. It’s expensive to live here; Tash takes care of that for you. You don’t need to worry.”

            “I know— your sister is the best. She takes care of me. I don’t worry about money.”

            She looks around the room. Her face changes again, opens. “I must be rich. You know, I always wanted to be, and look at me now, living in this hotel.” She smiles, comfortable at last.

            Mom isn’t sure where she is. She only knows it isn’t home.

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This piece was written for a university creative writing course:

Present a character who is in some essential way a misfit within the world where we meet him or her…

While some license was taken to meet the requirements of this fiction assignment, the setting and dialogue are essentially representative of a conversation I had with my mother. She passed away in May, 2016.