Home Place

Guy Vanderhaeghe

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.

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