Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately. And Whistler, it seems, is the place to come if you want to write deliberately. The fifth Whistler Writers Festival, Sept. 14-17, is a hyper-literate jam-packed long-weekend for readers, writers, closeted scribblers and anyone looking for a fresh perspective. From manuscript workshops and daily seminars to evening readings with Canadas best authors, the festival has something for everyone.
Here, in Piques special Word Made Flesh, four local writers come out of their closets. The series is a prelude to Writers in the Flesh, three incredible readings at Millennium Place, featuring the Chair of the Council of Canadians, Maude Barlow ( Too Close For Comfort: Canadas Future Within Fortress North America; Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop Corporate Theft of the Worlds Wate r) on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m.; Joseph Boyden ( Three Day Road) on Friday, Sept. 15, 8 p.m.; and Eden Robinson (Blood Sports) Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets are just $10. Or buy the trifecta for $25. Book tickets to the events at www.theviciouscircle.ca < or contact Stella Harvey at 604 932 4518 or email@example.com
By Rebecca Wood Barrett
I havent slept in on a Saturday since the summer of last year, not since Roger left us. I rolled out of bed, threw a jacket over my dressing gown and slid into a pair of muckers. It was only five minutes past seven and already Monty was making a racket for his grain, banging his knees against his stall door while Poncho punctuated the dull thudding with one of his nervy, high-pitched squeals. Outside the backdoor a murder of crows had assembled and were shrieking at me like a brood of hungry children. I walked through the middle of the flock and they hopped sideways on their thin claws.
To the northwest, tiny clouds bubbled over the mountains, like milk on the boil. Horsetail clouds lashed the sky. We needed one more day for the hay bales to dry completely. The hot, sunny weather had lasted two weeks and now wed lose the entire crop to an afternoons rainfall. I felt as though the system to the north was taunting me, offering me the better part of a day to fret over its arrival. In the dirt paddock behind the barn orange-bellied swallows swooped and dipped, swiping winged insects from the humid air.
I fed the horses in a rush, dumped a scoopful of grain into their buckets and tossed a flake of hay on the ground for each of them.
Last year it had taken Roger and his two work colleagues a full day and a flat of Kokanee to haul three hundred hay bales out of the field and into the barn. Now he lived in the city, in an executive apartment with a harbour view. If I threw myself at the job perhaps there was enough time maybe Ella could drive, wed take no breaks. On my way back to the house a light breeze delivered the scent of damp and warming earth from the fields.
I rapped on Ellas door with my knuckles.
"What?" she said.
I cracked open the door. She was lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her small head poked out from the covers, like a new bud.
"Rains coming, Ella."
"Oh," she said, not moving.
"The hay. We have to get it in." I grabbed the nearest corner of her quilt in my hand and tugged at it.
"I cant close my lips together," she said.
"Its going to rain, Ella. Get dressed."
"Last night my braces made my lower teeth stick out. I cant close my lips. See?" Ella forced her lips to join together over the sharp metal tracks.
"Does it hurt?" I asked. She looked uncomfortable, like a fish, gasping.
"No. But I feel stupid."
"You dont look stupid. No one will know."
"Till they see the drool," she said. "Can you go now?"
"Please get dressed Ella."
"Not with you standing there."
I fixed a plate of toast and a glass of orange juice and set them on the kitchen table in Ellas place. When she finally came downstairs she had makeup on. Cover-up, black eyeliner and mascara.
"Whats with all the makeup?"
Ella shrugged and sat down at the table. She picked out a piece of toast. "It doesnt look like rain to me," she said, gazing out the window.
"Mackerel skies and mares tails make tall ships take in their sails."
"Oh mum just turn on the Weather Network will you?" She left the table and then tipped the toaster upside down. A mottled shower of crumbs poured over the counter.
"Dont do that anymore, okay?"
"But they like it." Ella swept the crumbs into the palm of her hand.
"The crows are noisy. Rats of the sky. They freak me out."
"Dont say that! I like the crows."
"Why cant you like the swallows instead?"
Ella marched out the front door and strolled amidst her black flock, scattering her burnt offerings over their bobbing, pointy heads. I leaned out the doorway. "Quit messing around, Ella. If we cant sell the hay we wont make the farm taxes and you know what that means."
"Well have to move."
"So get going, okay?"
Ella drifted off towards the two walnut trees, rubbing her hands free of crumbs over the overgrown lawn. The crows sprang after her, flapping at each hop across the tall grass.
"Ella! For Gods sakes!"
"What about those guys who were gonna help?" she asked. "Tim and his friend?"
"I hired them for Sunday. They cant come today. Its you and me."
Ella crouched down and held her hand out to the black birds. The boldest stretched his neck out to her long, slender fingers.
"Jesus, hurry Ella!"
"Im coming," she said, and stood up. She wandered back to the house and watched over her shoulder as the crows flew off, up into the walnut trees.
We turned the horses out into their chewed-down grass paddock before we set off down the field in the truck. The smell of fresh cut hay swirled about the cab and I wished I only ever needed to breathe in, that I could inhale the sweet and spicy air in one sustained, lifelong breath. I wondered if Ella tasted the sweetness of the air too, but she was leaning out the window to examine her face in the side view mirror. She planted her hand over her mouth and slumped over the windowsill, jerking up and down whenever I hit a rut.
"Can I drive?" she asked from behind the hand.
"Dont you trust me?"
"Youre not very experienced, thats all."
"Dad let me drive last year."
"Your fathers not here to help us get unstuck if we bog down."
"Why didnt you call him? Tell him to come and help."
"He wouldnt have come, Ella."
"Why not? Well never do it all ourselves."
"Well just have to manage."
"He wouldve come if you asked him. I couldve drove."
I steered the truck toward the driest section of blunt stubble grass and jammed it into Park with the engine running.
"You better wear some gloves," I said, handing Ella a pair of leather and canvas work gloves, before I slipped on a pair of my own. Last year was our first summer on the farm, and Id learned the hard way that sharp cords of binder twine could make a bloody mess of your palms. Out in the field I stretched over the first hay bale, grabbed its two cords in my hands and wrenched it off the ground onto my thighs. The stalks of hay needled my skin. At the end of the day my legs would be itchy with scores of red prick marks. I hoisted my second bale onto the truck and felt the muscles in my back strain against the awkward weight.
Ella had already thrown two bales onto the truck. She grasped the cords of baling twine and lurched backwards, hefting the bale onto her skinny thighs. She walked stiff-legged towards the truck, shoving the bale forward step-by-step with her legs. At the truck she twisted, grappled with the bale until she tipped it end-up on the ground. She re-positioned her hands and rested for a few seconds, like a weightlifter, before pitching it onto the tailgate. She plumped her fists into the end of the bale and shoved it a few feet across the truck bed.
"Make sure you lift with your legs. Keep your back straight," I said.
"Im not some old lady."
"You can still wreck your back." I hauled another bale onto the tailgate. Ella was right behind me with her own, waiting for me to get out of the way.
"Do you want to drive?" I asked.
Ellas face brightened. She climbed in behind the steering wheel.
"You should use a cushion so you can see."
"Mum, the only thing I can possibly hit are hay bales." Ella stepped on the brake pedal and shifted the truck into Drive.
"Dont stop on any of the green spots," I said. "If you get into a soft patch, just keep going. Whatever you do, dont pin it."
"Dad already taught me how to drive the truck."
"Dont drive like him. Hes a lead foot."
I got out of the cab and pointed at the row of hazelnut trees along the fence line, where the ground was firmer. The truck pitched forward and she swore. But once she got going she was fine, kept a steady speed, made a gentle turn and a smooth stop right where I pointed. I already had a bale in my grasp and I hoisted it on top. Ella carefully shifted the truck into Park. She left the engine running, then hopped down and tackled another bale.
"This is good," I said. "The secret is to pace yourself so youll last the whole day. Thats how the farmer does it."
Ella grunted. "Newsflash Mum. Were not farmers." She climbed back into the cab of the truck and drove to the next patch of bales. A cold breeze hustled up the valley. It blew across the tops of poplars that stood tall along the fence line, inciting their dry, stiff leaves into bitter chatter.
We continued for an hour until the bales were packed three high on the back of the truck. I was sweating all over. Bright beads stood out on Ellas forehead.
"Over there," I said, pointing to a patch where we could salvage the greatest number of bales. There were several natural springs on the property, and in the winter fresh water from an aquifer bubbled to the surface, forming shallow pools where watercress thrived. In the summer the springs dried up, and could only be identified by the weak depressions they left in the ground, and the thick, green clover and timothy grass that grew there. I checked the sky for encroaching cloud, but couldnt see the horizon past the poplars, shivering silver and green in the sunlight. Ella drove ahead slowly but the truck leaned to the right. She had steered into a boggy section.
"Pin it!" I shouted.
The tires sunk into the soft ground under the weight of several tonnes of hay.
"Hit the gas!"
The wheels spun and the rear tires sunk deeper, spitting chewed grass and mud into the air. The truck stalled.
"What did I tell you? Dont drive over the green spots."
"I didnt see it," said Ella, giving me a sour look.
"You shouldve used the cushion to boost you."
We exchanged places. I revved the gas and found traction, grinding upwards an inch. Then I released the pedal and the truck rolled backwards. Gas, forward again, until the wheels had almost crested the rut. The truck rolled backwards, even deeper into the muck. The tires spun. I got out to have a look. The wheels had carved two deep trenches.
"Were stuck," I said.
"If we had one more person we could push the truck out."
"Your father doesnt want to deal with this stuff."
"I cant do anything right," Ella said, her voice thin and tight, on the verge of cracking.
"Its not your fault." I leaned against the tailgate of the truck and felt the energy drain out of me. My arms were sapped, useless. I ached all over, felt the needling twinge of a spasm in my lower back.
"It is my fault. I mess up everything." Ella began to cry.
"Thats not true. Look how many bales you lifted. Its just too much to do all by ourselves. I guess I should have called your father."
"Im not talking about Dad. Im talking about everything else."
"Oh. I didnt know." I pulled off my work gloves and set them on the tailgate.
Ella removed her gloves as well and set them down tidily, one on top of the other, the same way I had done. She kicked the ground lightly with the toe of her boot. "I nearly starved to death because I forgot my lunch. That was Monday. Then I got yelled at in dance because my glissades were choppy. Jenny said my hair is greasy. I have fourteen zits. Three of them are big. I have a hole in my lip from my braces and now I cant even close my mouth. And yeah, Sherrie told Kristy something about me that was so bad she couldnt even tell me what it was. Then yesterday I got a nosebleed that went all over my top and I had to wear my stinky gym suit for the whole day."
"Sounds like you had a rough week."
"Yeah. It sucked."
"Is there anything else?"
Ella looked at me, with pools in her eyes. "I got a B on my math quiz."
She looked so fragile, slumped against the side of the truck. I looped my arms around her and squeezed and I felt her shoulder bones poking into my arms.
"Forget the hay," I said. "Were finished." I wrapped my fingers around a cord of baling twine and hauled a bale off the truck.
"If you push I could try driving," said Ella.
"Im not strong enough."
Ella picked up her gloves and climbed into the cab. She turned on the engine. I pressed my palms against the back corner of the truck.
"Give it some gas," I said, "then let it roll back!"
Ella found a rhythm, rolled the truck back and forth, and when the wheels reached the lip of the craters I shoved with all I had. The wheels gouged deeper into the mud and it spewed into the air and spattered up my jeans. The truck shifted forward onto solid ground. I ran after it and jumped into the passenger side of the cab.
"You drive," said Ella.
"No, youre doin good."
The fields smelled earthy, the rain was coming. We worked furiously; Ella drove and picked up one bale at each stop to my two. As we drove past the grass paddock up to the barn our horse and pony trotted alongside, raising their tails like streamers and then bumping and jostling each other when they were stopped short by the steel gate. Behind us, strewn across the track, was a trail of green and yellow, threads of hay and seed that had come unbound and were scattered in the dirt.
Ella and I humped two more truckloads into the barn. In the field the bales were now further apart, and it took longer to retrieve them. I felt a wet drop on my forehead. Ella looked at me; shed felt one too. We were in collusion it wasnt raining if we refused to admit it. I threw the bales onto the back of the truck like it was the beginning of the day. There was a feeling of static in the air; my heart was rushing ahead. Wed forgotten about pacing ourselves and lasting the day. All we knew was bend, grab, lift, twist and shove. Tonne after tonne, until we were exhausted. My back and arms felt like theyd been stretched too far.
We covered the hay on the truck with a blue plastic tarp; it flew and snapped in the cold wedge of air sweeping in from the north, across the saltwater inlet and down the valley. We were on opposite sides of the truck, tying down the tarp with baling twine when a flash went off, followed by a crack of thunder that shattered the air. I dropped onto my hands and knees. On the other side of the truck Ella was down on all fours too.
"Ill drive now." We got to our feet and switched sides. She had goose bumps on her arms, and I realized the hair on my own forearms was standing on end. I climbed shakily into the cab. My legs felt useless, tingly. I pressed my foot to the gas pedal and the truck crept ahead. A fork of lightning stabbed the darkening clouds in my rearview mirror. Thunder rolled behind us, over the inlet and tall poplars and up the hay field. It rolled through the truck and the paddocks and up Horth Hill and back into the clouds again. The sky blew open. Sheets of rain ran down the windshield.
"Jesus, I cant see a thing."
Ella laughed. "Turn on your wipers, Mum."
"Oh yeah." The wipers swept the torrent aside and I could see again. I focused on the ground ahead, watching for ruts that could dislodge our load.
"Montys going nuts," said Ella.
My horse galloped up and down the paddock fence line. At the end of each run he slid to a stop, turned tail and bolted up the fence line in the other direction. Where was Poncho? We drove up to the barn. Inside, the ponys dark shape was silhouetted against the far window. He didnt move.
"Get him in his stall," I shouted to Ella over the rain falling like bullets against the aluminum roof, "Ill grab Monty." I ran down to the paddock and managed to get a halter and lead cinched around my horses muzzle. With two hands wrapped around his nylon lead I led him to the barn. Monty jumped and yanked me off my feet. I touched down and jerked hard on his lead to tell him I was in control. He jigged in circles around me until we reached the barn and he dove through the double doors, down the hallway into his stall. I whipped the door closed behind him.
"Ponchos hurt himself," said Ella, from inside his stall. She was on her knees, examining the chest area between his front legs. The pony blew in and out, his nostrils wide with the effort. His kind brown eyes were dilated and circled with white, pain and fear. I knelt down beside Ella. She touched the opening of the wound and parted the flesh.
"Im not sure how bad it is," she said, probing, and I could see how cleanly the muscle and fat had been sheared apart. "He must have jumped the fence. Got caught up." Her hand slipped inside his chest and I felt a heave of queasiness. I looked away and stood up. I gripped the stall door and held on, trying to right myself against the tilting floor.
"He needs stitches for sure," said Ella. She reached up and stroked the ponys neck, leaving a smear of blood through his gray hair. "Can you call the vet?"
On my dash back to the house the rain battered my bare skin. I called the vet and reached the answering machine, jotted down the emergency number and made another call. The phone rang on the other end. Mud and water dripped from my sides onto the old wood floor.
"Hi, its Frances Palmer. Our ponys cut himself."
"How bad is it? Can you hang on for about an hour? Ive got another emergency. Delivering a foal."
"Just come as soon as you can," I said, and hung up the phone. I looked at my watch; it was seven-thirty. The minute hand jumped, and stalled.
I gathered up two fleece sweaters from my bedroom, leaving boot tracks on the carpeted stairs, before running back out to the barn. I found Ella firmly stroking the ponys ear in a hypnotic rhythm. She had pulled all the gray hair off his ear. His black skin glistened under her palm.
"Dr. Shaw will be here in an hour."
"Good. My arms getting tired."
"Things will get easier after this Ella, I promise. We can board the horses. Move back to the city." I stared out at the night and listened to the rain rattling heavily on the sheet metal roof. The smell of sweat-soaked hair and blood rose from the pony. He bled slowly now, minutes between each drip that fell onto the slick rubber stall mat.
"I dont want to go," said Ella, "I thought we got most of the hay in."
"Why do we have to go?"
"Because its all too much, Ella. I cant take care of everything by myself."
A barn swallow flew through a large air vent at the peak of the roof. It settled on one of the joists connecting the rafters. The swallows long forked tail switched back and forth while it tucked a tuft of grass or hair into the half constructed nest it was building.
"You dont have to do it all," said Ella. She stopped stroking the ponys ear. She put her arms around me and held on. "You got me." We stayed like that for a while, and I was soft inside her wiry arms, holding me in, keeping me together.
I remembered the fleece sweaters and we each put one on over our damp T-shirts. Ella kneeled to check underneath Ponchos chest again.
"Hes not bleeding so much. I think its closed up," she said, and resumed stroking his ear. His breathing was lighter now, more comfortable.
"Why are you doing that?" I asked.
"To stop him going into shock."
I smiled. "Hes going to look funny with one black ear."
"Dont worry Mum. He doesnt know."
The sky grew dark outside. Six barn swallows came in for the night and perched along one of the rafters, their orange bellies lined up like a string of tiny patio lanterns. They watched us wait, while we listened to the patter of the rain come and go in waves.
Writer and filmmaker Rebecca Wood Barrett has published her short fiction in Pique, The Antigonish Review and Room of Ones Own. She is a winner of the Whistler Film Festivals Whistler Stories grant, and a two-time finalist in Whistlers 72 hr. Filmmaker Showdown. Currently she is a producer for Resort TV Network, and a student in the UBC Creative Writing MFA low-residency program. She will be teaching the Screenwriting and Pitching workshops at the Whistler Writers Festival (www.theviciouscircle.ca) Sept. 14-17.