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.

His wife used to say: ‘Gil’s gone off to satisfy himself that nobody so much as shifted a cup of dirt on this place when he was away.’

What Gil never confided to his wife was that he felt more present in the land than he did in his own flesh, his own body. Apart from it he had no real existence. When he looked in a mirror he stood at a great distance from what he regarded, but with the land it was different. All that he had emptied of himself into it, he recognised.

The road to the home place ran due east without deviating a hair, rising and falling regularly as a sleeper’s breath as it made its way over a succession of bare hills. The emerging sun drew his eyes into a squint when he topped a rise; the blue shadows in the hollows forced them wide again. In the back of the truck the slither and clatter of iron shoes was unremitting. The colt was either highly-strung or lacked balance. If it lost its footing and fell it would be a task to get it on its feet again; the box was narrow and there was little room for manoeuvring. He’d have to go back and get Ronald out of bed to help him.

Turning Ronald out of bed was not an easy job. Despite his son’s difficulties falling asleep, once he was gone he wasn’t likely to stir. Often he didn’t wake before noon. Gil, on the other hand, roused to the slightest sound. That first night the gritty scraping of the shoes on the stairs had been enough to jerk him out of a dreamless sleep. He’d never been one to lock doors, he had only himself to thank that a night intruder was climbing up to him. It was like the television and its stories of grinning madmen invading houses and arming themselves with drapery cords and butcher knives to strangle and to stab. The old man bunched up his pillow and held it out before him, ready to parry the first knife thrust. The footsteps, however, went on past his door. Only when the toilet flushed did he realise it had to be Ronald.

He simply shook in bed for several minutes, too angry and too relieved to ask himself what his son might be up to. Finally he grew calm and curiosity prodded him out into the hallway to investigate. The light was on in Ronald’s old bedroom and the door stood ajar.

Ronald was lying flat on his back on the bed, staring up at his model airplanes. As a teenager, even as a young man, he had exhibited little interest in anything other than building models of airplanes from kits, squeezing tubes of glue, pasting on decals, and painting engine cowlings with brushes whose tips he sucked into needle points. The models had never been removed. Forty or more of them hung suspended from the ceiling on fine wires; his room was almost exactly as he had left it when he chose Darlene. Flying Fortresses, Mustangs, Zeros, Spitfires, Messerschmidts, a whole catalogue of war planes dangled there. The light in the bedroom was also as harsh, pitiless and glaring as it had ever been. When Ronald was 14 he had unscrewed the bulb in the ceiling fixture and replaced it with a more powerful one. He also dispensed with the shade because he wanted the models hanging beneath the light bulb to cast their shadows on his bedspread and linoleum, in the way fighter planes and bombers passing between sun and earth print their images on country lanes and city squares. These shadows were repeated everywhere about the room, and in their midst lay Ronald, gazing up into the strong light, gazing up at undercarriages and silhouettes.

‘What’s all this, Ronald?’ his father said. ‘This is a hell of a time to pay a visit. It’s past two.’

Ronald said: ‘I can’t stand it. I can’t sleep there no longer.’ He kept his eyes fixed on the planes as he spoke.

Gil knew there was talk going around town about his son and his daughter-in-law, all of it unfortunate. Darlene had come stamped with the word trouble; he’d seen it from day one. The old man sighed and took a seat on the straight-back chair beside the dresser. Ronald was not exactly the forthcoming type, he was prepared to wait him out.

After a considerable stretch of silence his son said: ‘I should never have left.’ Gil knew what he meant. Ronald wasn’t saying he ought not to have left Darlene; he was saying he should not have abandoned this room and the comfort and solace of those planes that could not fly.

It was strange that, given all the worrying he had done about Ronald and Darlene, Gil had never seen the real danger. Now he did. The realisation of what might lie ahead was like an attack of some kind. Before he could proceed it was necessary to relieve the pressure prodding his breastbone and robbing him of breath. He arched his back and squeezed his eyes tight until it eased and he could speak. And speak he did, urgently, for a solid hour without interruption and with a drying mouth. He said it was the government and the courts. They’d gone and changed the marriage property laws so that the women ended up with half of everything these days. Did Ronald know what that meant? Darlene could lay claim to a half share of the home place. ‘No divorce, Ronald,’ he repeated. ‘No divorce. Don’t let that bitch break up the home place. Don’t you give her that satisfaction.’ Only when he had wrung his promise out of Ronald did he cease arguing. For a moment he was overcome by his son’s loyalty. He patted the back of his hand and murmured: ‘Thank you. Thank you.’

In a month, however, Ronald came creeping back up the stairs. In fear of the future and baffled rage, Gil shouted through his bedroom door: ‘Don’t expect any sympathy from me if you won’t try to adjust!’

Ronald explained that he had a problem going to sleep in the same room, the same house as Darlene. That’s the reason he came home every once in a while, to relax and catch up on his sleep. Not that it was easy for him to get to sleep in his old room either, but there he could manage it. What he did was stare up at the glowing bulb and planes until the moment arrived when he could feel the sun hot on his back and suddenly he was winged and soaring, flying into sleep, released, sometimes for twelve hours at a time.

Ronald had been paying his visits to his father’s to sleep for a year. About the time they started he commenced on improvements to the home place. This meant pushing bush and clearing land up top, above the valley, in the hills. Gil had pointed out this was nothing but sheer craziness. Marginal land like that was suitable only for pasture, cropping it would never repay the cost of breaking and if the hillsides were stripped of cover they would erode. But Ronald, who was usually willing to be advised, wouldn’t listen to his father. A cunning, stubborn look stole over his face when he said: ‘We’ll see. I hired another dozer. Pretty soon the brush piles will be dry and ready to burn.’

All spring Ronald fired his huge, gasoline-laced bonfires of scrub oak and poplar. The gusty roar of flames was like constant static in his ears, heat crumpled the air around him and stained it a watery yellow, greasy black clouds mounted indolently into the purity of blue skies. The scars of the dozer blades fresh on the earth made the old man indignant. In places the soil had been cut so deep that streaks of rubbly gravel were exposed.

‘You won’t grow wheat in that,’ Gil MacLean shouted. ‘So what’ll it be? Carrots?’

Smiling oddly, Ronald said: ‘I’m not growing nothing. I’ll open a pit and peddle gravel to the Department of Highways by the yard.’

‘That’s not farming,’ his father returned, disgusted. ‘That’s mining.’

It was all Ronald had any interest in at present, pushing bush, clawing up roots, burning. His face appeared hot, scorched. His eyes were forever weepy and red, their lids puffy and swollen, lashes singed away. The ends of his hair had crinkled, crisped and gone white in the furnace-heat. Everything else Ronald neglected. He hadn’t yet done his summer-fallow and his cattle were continually straying. This morning Gil was determined to mend Ronald’s fences because he was ashamed of what the neighbours would think with his son’s cows belly-deep in their crops.

The old man crested the last rise and the valley spread itself out at his feet. There were days when he would pull his truck over to the shoulder of the road and look with deep satisfaction at the slow river and sombre quilt of green and black fields, look until he had his fill. From such a height the home place looked fatter and richer than with your nose shoved in it. Up close dirt was dirt. There was no time for stopping and admiring this morning, though: he was in a hurry.

Gil entered his son’s property by a little-used side gate because he didn’t want Darlene spying his truck and reporting his doings to Ronald. He parked, unloaded the horse and slung a duffle bag of tools and a coil of barbed wire on the saddle. Within minutes he was riding down an old trail they had hauled hay on in summer and wood in winter in his father’s time. Neither of those things would be possible now, encroaching wild rose and chokecherry bushes had narrowed it so a loaded wagon couldn’t pass. The occasional sapling had taken root between the old ruts. Sunlight and sparrows strayed amid the poplar leaves overhead. Ronald’s dozers hadn’t reached this far yet, hadn’t peeled all this back. Maybe his money would run out before they could, that was Gil’s fervent hope.

It was eight o’clock before Gil located the first break in the fence. The wires were rotten with rust and would have to be replaced. He set to work. The old man ought not to have been taken by surprise. He knew the very nature of a young horse was unpredictability. It happened when he was playing out sixty yards of wire, lazy-man style, one end of the coil dallied round the horn, the horse walking it out. It could have been the sound the wire made hissing and writhing after them through the grass and weeds. It could have been that a barb nicked the gelding’s hocks. Suddenly the colt froze in his tracks, laid back his ears, and trembled all over like a leaf.

Gil had been a horseman all his life, all his seventy years. He knew what was coming and he fought with all his strength to keep the gelding from pulling its head down between its forelegs. If the colt managed to get its head down it would be able to buck. It managed. An old man’s strength was not sufficient. The horse squealed, wriggled, snapped out its hind legs. Gil’s lower plate popped out of his mouth. The sky tilted. He fell.

It was bad luck to get snarled in the wire. The colt dragged him several hundred yards, the old man skipping and bounding and tumbling along behind like a downed water-skier – without the presence of mind to relinquish his grip on the tow rope.

When it had winded itself the horse came to a halt, stood rolling its eyes and snorting. The old man began to paw himself feebly, searching his pockets for a pair of fencing-pliers with which to cut himself out of the jumble of wire. Using the pliers, he had to move cautiously and deliberately so as not to excite the skittish colt. Nevertheless, when the final strand of wire parted with a twang the colt kicked him twice in a convulsion of fear before trotting off a stone’s throw away. There it circled about anxiously, stepping on the ends of the dragging reins and bruising its mouth.

The old man lay still, taking stock. There seemed to be a lot of blood, the wire had cut him in many places. He sat up and the blood gushed out of his nose and mouth and spilled down his jacket front. He peered about him, dazed. The colt had dragged him to a desolate place. Ronald’s dozers had been at work. Here there was nothing but bare, black earth engraved by caterpillar treads, piles of stones, and the remains of bonfires, charred tree trunks furred in white powdery ash.

While he sat up the blood continued to pour from his mouth and nose. It was better to lie back down. He was feeling weak but he told himself that was because he had taken nothing that morning but a cup of instant coffee. ‘I’ll rest and my strength will come back,’ he told himself.

Gil closed his eyes and became aware of the powerful scents of sage, milkweed, grass. How was this possible in a place scoured clean? Then he realised they were coming from his clothes, had been rubbed into them by the dragging.

During the next three hours he tried a number of times to prop himself up, but the blood always ran so freely from his mouth he resigned the attempt. ‘Not yet,’ he muttered to himself. ‘In a while.’ He had little sense of passing time. There was only thirst and the stiff, scratchy ache of the wounds on his face, hands, legs.

When the sun shone directly down into his face he realised it was noon. The bright light in his eyes and the time of day made him think of Ronald. He would be waking now, looking up at his airplanes.

He had asked Ronald: ‘What is it with you? Why do you stare up at those planes?’ And Ronald had said: ‘I like to pretend I’m up there, high enough to look down on something or somebody for once in my life.’

Gil had laughed as if it were a joke, but an uneasy laugh.

Suddenly the old man was seized by a strange panic. Making a great effort, he sat himself up. It was as if he hoped the force of gravity would pull everything he just now thought and saw down out of his head, drain it away. What he saw was Ronald’s lashless eyes, singed hair, red burning face. What he thought was that such a face belonged to a man who wished to look down from a great height on fire, on ruin, on devastation, on dismay.

When the old man collapsed back into the wire he saw that face hovering above, looking down on him.

‘You’ve got no right to look down on me,’ he said to the burning sky. ‘I came to fix your fences. I gave you the home place and showed you how to keep it.’

His vehement voice filled the clearing and argued away the afternoon. It became harsher and louder when the sun passed out of Gil’s vision and he could not raise himself to follow its course. The horse grew so accustomed to this steady shouting and calling out that only when it suddenly stopped did the gelding prick its ears, swing its head and stare.