It was early morning, so early that Gil MacLean loaded the colt into the truck box under a sky still scattered with faint stars. The old man circled the truck once, checking the tail gate, the tyres, and the knot in the halter shank, tottering around on legs stiff as stilts, shoulders hunched to keep the chill off him. He was 69 and mostly cold these days.
A hundred yards behind him one window burned yellow in the dark house. That was his son Ronald, asleep under the bare light bulb and the airplanes. Whenever Ronald fled Darlene, the woman Gil MacLean referred to as the ‘backpages wife’, he slunk back to his father’s house in the dead of night to sleep in a room lit up like a Christmas tree. To her father-in-law Darlene was the backpages wife because Ronald had found her advertising herself in the classified section of a farm newspaper, right alongside sale notices for second-hand grain augurs and doubtful chain saws.
Dawn found the old man in a temper, a mood. It was the mare he had wanted when he rattled oats in the pail and whistled, but it was the gelding which had been lured. The mare, wiser and warier, had hung back. So this morning he had a green, rough-broke colt to ride. There was nothing for it, though. He needed a horse because his mind was made up to repair Ronald’s fences. They were a disgrace.
Generally that was the way to catch what you wanted, shake a little bait. It was what Darlene had done with Ronald, but she hadn’t fooled him, Gil MacLean, for a second. He knew how it was.
Four years ago his son and Darlene married after exchanging honied letters for six months. Ronald never breathed a word to him about any wedding. When Ronald’s mother was alive she used to say Ronald was too much under his father’s thumb. But the one time he slipped out from beneath it, look at the result. It happened like this. One morning Ronald drove off in the pickup. Twelve hours later he phoned from Regina to announce that he and his bride were bound for Plentywood, Montana, to honeymoon. Ronald was 38 then, had never been married, had never been engaged, had never had a date that his father could recollect. It was a shock and a mystery. The way Gil figured it, Ronald must have proposed by mail before he ever met face to face with Darlene. Ronald didn’t have it in him to offer himself in the flesh to someone with whom he was actually acquainted. He would be too shy, too embarrassed for that.
The old man folded himself into the cab of the truck, joint by joint. ‘The best work, the worst sleep,’ he muttered to Ronald’s lighted window as he drove under it. In the east there were mares’ tails on the horizon, fine as the vapour trails of jets, reddened by the rising sun.
It was Gil MacLean’s speculation that his son married only to get his hands on land. Not land of Darlene’s, she was a waif and a pauper and had none, but his land, Gil MacLean’s land. He never entertained the idea that Ronald might have married out of loneliness, or lust, or any feeling the remotest kin to either. Just land. That was why he was sometimes troubled, wondering what share of responsibility was his to bear for Ronald’s current unhappiness. Maybe he ought to have transferred title sooner, but he had never trusted the boy’s judgment. Events appeared to have confirmed his suspicions. Ronald had his own farm now, a wedding present. A married man needed land, so his father gave him the farm that the MacLeans had always called the ‘home place’. It gave Gil satisfaction to see it pass from father to son and he thought it might bring Ronald luck.
The home place consisted of the original quarter Gil’s father had homesteaded, the preemption, and another 320 acres picked up cheap from a Finnish immigrant who went to pieces when his wife ran off on him. Over the years the MacLean family acquired other holdings but the home place was special. Situated in a valley, it was a mix of rich bottomland and steep, wooded hills. In the spring, down by the river, blizzards of gulls floated in the wake of tractor and discer pursuing easy pickings, while hawks rode the air high above the lean hills and, shrieking, fell to plunder these lazy storms of white birds. To Gil it had all been beautiful. It was all he had ever wanted, to possess that place, those sights. A day spent away from the farm made him restless, cranky. Returning to it, even after the briefest absence, he acted oddly, dodging through the wires of a fence in his city clothes to wade about in his crop, hands running back and forth lightly over the bearded heads the way another man might absent-mindedly stroke a cat. Or he might suddenly strike off for the hills with all the energy and apparent purpose of someone hurrying to keep an appointment, tie flying over his shoulder.
The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 9 No. 22 · 10 December 1987
SIR: Like St Mawr, the horse in your recent story, ‘Home Place’ by Guy Vanderhaege (LRB, 12 November), is used as a metaphor for human emotions: a cipher of the resentment of a farmer’s son for his father. But Lawrence’s equine details are accurate, so that St Mawr is a real animal and smoothly carries out his role of manifesting Lou’s lack of respect for the husband who is thrown and maimed. The creature in your story completely fails to convince. He is ridden by the well-known type of plains farmer out West somewhere who will not let his son divorce a hated wife because she would get half the land. Assisting the farmer in fence-mending, the horse stops for several seconds before unseating his rider and bolting. No horse will freeze, then buck, then bolt; it might pause before taking off but if it was going to buck it would give no warning other than the sudden lowering of its neck. The old man knows this animal for a spirited beast, yet he uses it on a job that will require a loose rein. We read that the horse runs until winded, dragging the farmer, whom it then kicks twice for good measure and ignores until the old man has bled to death. When the man is dead the horse looks at him. The idea that even (or only) the horsey consciousness knows that the only anal old land-hoarding farmer worth considering is a dead one is weakened through being purveyed by such an unbelievable horse. Had it run until it had to stop for breath, the man would have already been dead or at least senseless. More likely the startled creature galloped until it felt sure there was enough space between it and the source of its fear. Had it been of such evil temperament as to then gratuitously kick its rider, it would have been the kind of horse no farmer would buy, and if he had bred one such it would straight away have gone for dogmeat. When St Mawr kicks Edward and Lou feels he conveys her own feelings, the symbolism is effortless – unforced. Having reared and fallen, the animal is trying to get up; Edward goes to grab the reins and it is easy to see how he could have got caught by a flailing hoof.
After Guy Vanderhaeghe has carefully built a veritably bucolic atmosphere, using a sort of American Gothic ethnic realism, the horse which then appears is a surrealist jolt. It shocks the reader out of serious contemplation of the notion that the bleeding to death of the old man parallels the stream of moral blackmail which he had poured into his son’s ears the night before. Proudhon would have approved the literary device that for his devotion to property the old man must die. But he should have gone in a less contrived way. Our villain could well have been dragged by his stirrup-iron in the traditional manner. Instead, we are asked to conceive him becoming tangled up in the single strand of wire with which he is trying to mend the fence, paying out the wire from a bale slung over his saddle horn. ‘It was bad luck to get tangled up in the wire.’ It was more than that. It was surely impossible.
Vol. 10 No. 3 · 4 February 1988
SIR: Susanna Merry (Letters, 10 December 1987) has surprised and puzzled me with her comments on my short story ‘Home Place’. It came as a shock to learn that the horse in my story, like Lawrence’s St Mawr, is ‘used as a metaphor for human emotions: a cipher of the resentment of a farmer’s son for his father’. I certainly had not intended this. I always thought of the horse as just a horse. Ms Merry’s habit of equating her absurd interpretations with my intentions and then chastising me for failing to realise them satisfactorily has me nonplussed. Perhaps her careless reading is the cause. For instance, she blithely states that the father’s moral blackmail of the son occurs the night before the old man’s death. The story makes it perfectly clear that this happens the first night Ronald MacLean returns to his father’s house, months before the old man is killed. Now this is a crucial point, since the blackmail is at the root of all that subsequently transpires, including the son’s methodical and systematic desolation of the farm which the old man loves.
Yet Ms Merry, blinders firmly in place, keeps her critical eye fixed on the horse, ingeniously regarding it as the purveyor of all sorts of fatuous notions: ‘The idea that even (or only) the horsey consciousness knows that the only land-hoarding farmer worth considering is a dead one.’ The problem may be compounded by her insistence on trying to make a new story conform to a work with which she is already familiar – in this case, one of Lawrence’s. After all, someone is harmed by a horse in his tale and someone is harmed by a horse in mine. If Lawrence’s horse is a metaphor, mustn’t this horse be a metaphor too? I am only glad ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ wasn’t fresh in Ms Merry’s mind when she wrote her letter.
But not only does my horse fail to pass muster as a metaphor, it fails as a real horse also. Maybe, I tell myself, Susanna Merry’s experience of ‘green, rough-broke’ cattle ponies is more extensive than mine. Still, mightn’t she be a little less categorical in her pronouncements? ‘No horse will freeze, then buck, then bolt.’ No horse? Ever? I once rode a horse that did exactly that.
And although Ms Merry wishes to scorn the notion of a bucking, bolting horse she happily abandons this position and contradicts herself when she volunteers an explanation for why my bucking, bolting horse finally stops doing what she has said it would never do. ‘More likely the startled creature galloped until it felt sure there was enough space between it and the source of its fear.’ This explanation she offers as more plausible than my own. But at this point the only possible source of the animal’s continuing fear is a man attached to it with a length of wire. If one stopped and thought about it, one could see that no amount of galloping could put any distance between it and the source of its fear. Unless the wire breaks (which it doesn’t) the space would remain constant.
She finds it unbelievable that the old man ‘knows this animal for a spirited beast yet he uses it on a job that will require a loose rein.’ This ignores the fact that the old man did not want to use this particular horse. He wanted to use the mare but couldn’t catch it. Still, why did he run the risk of riding the gelding? Because, as I took some pains to suggest in the story, Gil MacLean is obsessed with the farm. Ashamed of his son’s neglect of the fences, he feels compelled to mend them. Needing a horse for the job, he settles for what he can get. But does he really require a horse? Ms Merry thinks not. ‘The bale of wire which can be fitted over a saddle horn must be so small that one would hardly have thought it would be worth attempting the job from a horse anyway.’ First of all, she ought to keep in mind that Gil MacLean is not building a fence, he’s patching one. Wire likely to be sufficient for this purpose can be carried in a coil looped over the horn of a Western-style saddle. My father has been doing it all his life. Second, Gil MacLean has to locate the breaks in a fence enclosing 640 acres. In the opening paragraph of the story he is described as ‘tottering around on legs stiff as stilts’. In the part of Saskatchewan where the story is set fence lines often run through bush and up and down hills where a truck cannot go. Either this old man totters four miles over rough country packing wire, wire-stretchers, hammer, staples, fencing pliers etc, or he rides a horse. And if it is necessary to stretch wire out any appreciable distance, it is likely that he does so using the strength of the horse. But Ms Merry is confident that she knows what farmers in this part of the world would do and wouldn’t do, would think and wouldn’t think. She seems satisfied that she understands ‘the well-known type of plains farmer out West somewhere’. The precision of the characterisation alerts us to what a firm grip she has on the ‘type’.
Finally, she takes exception ‘to it was bad luck to get tangled up in the wire.’ She is having none of this. ‘It was more than that. It was impossible,’ she rejoins. This conclusion seems to be based on the properties of a variety of barbed-wire which I find unrecognisable and the assumption that it is being payed out from the saddle horn when it isn’t. In any case, none of her arguments would carry much weight with the man I know who did get tangled in wire in just this way.
Ms Merry ought not to assume every new story is trying to be an old one, or that whatever she knows of British farming and British farmers provides a fool-proof standard of believability when applied to conditions thousands of miles away.