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.