Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
ISBN: 978-0-7710-8646-5 (0-7710-8646-6)
Pub Date: August 31, 2010
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Look out the window.
The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination. Even by the time I was in my early twenties, the terrain had already altered – almost beyond recognition – what with the bunkhouses deteriorating and the trees left unpruned and therefore bearing scant fruit. But that was during the period when my aunt was beginning to sever parts of the property so that it could be sold to developers; a step, I believed then, in the march toward some kind of future, or at least a financial future for her, and for my mother, who had just begun to live here as well. Now my aunt is dead and my mother lives at a place called The Golden Field, an ironic moniker if there ever was one, especially in relation to the one remaining field at this location, its greyness in the fading light.
It’s true, certain vestiges of the past remained for a while: the rail fences built by one of the old great- greats and the odd cairn of stones the great- greats had hauled out of the fields. “The first harvest every year is boulders,” was the news they passed down to us, their lazy descendants. My uncle repeated this statement often, though there was little enough ploughing in his life. In the end, he told us, many of the fieldstones had gone into the building of this capacious farmhouse that has stood in place, firm and strong, since the middle of the prosperous nineteenth century, when it was built.
What’s more, according to my uncle, the very first harvest would have been the slaughter of acres of forest in order that a field, any field, boulder- filled or golden, could be seeded at all. I seem to recall that during my childhood, there was a trace of the shallow foundation of the original log house in which those pioneer tree- choppers must have lived. Evidence was so faint, however, that only someone like my uncle could find it, point to it, and insist that you look at it. I remember him showing the few scattered stones to Teo, who stood at his side gazing obediently at the ground, then turning to me with a quizzical glance, trying, I suppose, to fit me, a spoiled girl from the city, into the rough stories my uncle was telling him about the spot. Dead babies, young men lost in blizzards, horses stumbling through storms. Teo listened politely, his brown eyes coming to rest on my uncle’s handsome face, but during the moist heat of those summers of the 1980s, when the farm was a flourishing business, those tales must have been almost impossible for a child like him to believe.
Sometimes in the evening after I have washed my few dishes, I find myself examining the splendid furniture of this old house, a collection of cold artifacts. In spite of my intimacy with each table, every chair, and the knowledge that the hands that either purchased or constructed them – and the bodies that touched them – made me what I am, they seem to come from a culture so brief and fragile that no one can name its properties, never mind care about its persistence. These solid shapes, so esteemed by my uncle and his wife, so carefully maintained, so talked about in the development of family tales, now stand in one corner or another as dead as the grandfather or great- aunt or distant relation who gave them a story and a meaning. Now there are nights when I wonder who I am keeping the clocks wound for, or why I continue to remove dust from the pictures and mirrors. Like someone of uncertain lineage in an undiscovered tomb, I have all the furnishings and comforts I will need for the afterlife carefully arranged around me. Except I am alive and forty years old. And, unlike you, I do not believe in any kind of afterlife.
Another thing. Because my aunt was fond of glass and, by extension, indoor light, this house is filled with reflections. Images of the great lake, therefore, swing into sight where you least expect them. North windows that face south windows reproduce and scramble marine views, mirrors refract lake light, and now and then poplars from the lakeside flicker on the old painted landscapes framed under glass and hanging on the parlour wall. Glass doors open to rooms where shutters are flung wide to a view of water. The stone walls that once surrounded my aunt’s rose garden are mirrored in the round looking- glass over her dressing table. At certain times of the day, if you pull open one of the glass doors leading from her room to the patio, the view of those garden walls will be overlaid by a series of waves chasing one another toward an unseen shore. In August the monarchs rise against blue lake water on the glass of a storm door, and surf often feathers the face of the wall clock. I never noticed these reflections when I was in my teens and the house was merely a place one entered unwillingly after the action of the day was finished. But all this confusion, this uncertain, changing imagery, is mine now. There is no one else who needs it.
As you know so well, it is one year after Mandy’s burial, a full year since those of us who remain went to the air base to attend the repatriation ceremony, then drove in the slow cortege down the highway renamed to honour the heroes of the current war. It felt like a lengthy journey, though Toronto, where the military autopsy was performed, is only ninety miles west of the air base. As we moved toward that city, we passed beneath dozens of overpasses filled with onlookers respectfully holding flags and yellow ribbons. I had read that crowds always lined the route when a soldier was brought home. Still my mother and I, and the boys too, were surprised and moved by the sheer size of the turnout. “Poor Mandy,” my mother kept saying each time we approached an overpass. “Who would have thought it?” At the air base she had said, “Poor little Amanda . . . she always called me auntie, even when she was a senior officer.” Then she had begun to weep, and I could feel my own eyes filling as I put my arm around her. The words improvised explosive device kept repeating in my mind, the sound of them coming out of the mouth of the official who had delivered this impossible news a few days before. There was something too surprising and playful about that phrase – a jack- in- the- box, fireworks – and if I couldn’t erase it altogether, I wanted to reshape it, slow it down, give it more dignity.
The whole town of Kingsville came out to meet us two days later, once we arrived here in the deep south of this northern province: all of Mandy’s high- school friends, the women who had helped my mother look after my aunt during her last illness, the mayor and council, and the people who had known my uncle when he was still in the vicinity.
Various attempts had been made to find him on this terrible occasion. Don was on the Internet day and night, and Shane contacted Interpol; messages were sent off to embassies – all to no avail. He has been gone, after all, for well over twenty years. He must be dead, Don said, during one of our booze- soaked evenings that week or the week after, or he would have come home for this. He may very well be dead, I thought, but I wondered if he would come back even if he were alive and in any condition to travel. Neither Don nor Shane had been caught in the drama the night their father disappeared. And Mandy hadn’t either, thankfully, though they all were witnesses to the coda of that drama.
But I had been there, right on the spot, at the wrong time.
What would there have been for him to return to anyway, even if he’d been able to do so? All his older relatives were gone, his wife as well, his dead daughter so changed by military glory even his memories of her would have felt unreliable. His sister, my mother, is still nearby, but after all this time she does not really resemble the woman he knew. And then there is me. And the farm, well, it barely exists.
Except for this house, now inhabited by me.
During the course of that long- ago summer when there were still many of us and the days walked slowly across the calendar, more or less in the way they always had, my uncle’s farm felt as certain and as established as a time- honoured empire – he, the famous Lake Erie orchardist, the agricultural king of the oldest part of southwestern Ontario, his territory and its lore delivered to us on a regular basis at dinner tables or beside campfires on the beach. Even now, when I wake on summer mornings and look out over the two remaining meadows filled with stumps, dead branches, and milkweed, I am startled by the disarray of the orchards, briefly surprised that there are neither ancestors nor Mexicans busy in the fields and trees – although, as I said, everything has been gone now for a considerable period of time.
I know something about orchards in a way that I never did before. Being the summer cousin, I wasn’t born to it, as Mandy was. By the time she was ten years old she could sort a basket of produce blindfolded: the ripest fruit on top, the too- soon harvested lining the bottom. I would watch her as she did this, a faint wrinkle of preoccupation on her smooth forehead, her busy hands assessing the firmness or softness of each fruit. Later, I would think she looked something like a blackjack professional dealing cards when she was sorting apples or pears. But when we were children, these quick, confident movements were to my mind a magical skill, made more magical by my uncle’s nod of approval when she had completed the job. She could also climb trees and shake cherries into the lap of the waiting apron of a tarpaulin, while my role was to stay earthbound and collect the few pieces of fruit that had rolled into the grass. Not that either of us had an official job as children, as Teo did. Teo, the picker. He could give Mandy a run for her money, his small brown hands darting along the ground of the fields or moving in the trees of the orchards, his eyes on the task.
Strawberries, cherries, peaches, pears, tomatoes, apples: that was the rhythm of ripening, put in motion by my great- great- grandfather on what was still a mixed farm, then improved by my great- grandfather, and perfected by my grandfather, who became the fruit specialist, obsessed by orchards, dismissing the animals and crops as if they had been mere incidentals and not what had come between his ancestors and certain starvation.
Oh those ancestors with their long shadows and their long stories. By the time we were teenagers, Mandy and I would exchange ironic glances whenever my uncle began what we called “the sagas,” tales in which he often called the head of each ancestral household “Old Great- great” rather than having to work his way mathematically back through the generations. It was as if all previous Butler males were the same Butler male anyway: obdurate, intractable, given to prodigious feats of labour in impossible conditions, one reign after another. Possessors of impressive strength, they were achievers of glorious successes and victims of spectacular failures. In the old photos, the full white beards and stern expressions of the great- greats resembled the frightening Old Testament figures – perhaps even Yahweh himself – illustrated in the family bible. You see, religion did play a role in the family once, but it was an unforgiving religion, one that became less essential to us as the generations progressed, while those things it was unwilling to forgive gained in importance.
Mandy and I were at our closest in our early teens, could communicate through eye contact, and were prone to shared fits of uncontrollable laughter at moments not entirely appropriate for laughter. Often these bouts of hilarity were at my uncle’s expense, though I am fairly confident that he never knew. This was in spite of our love for him. We were trying, I suppose, to separate a little from his power and his presence, which had dominated us since our earliest childhood. Or perhaps we were attempting to step away from the genetic inheritance that he enforced almost on a daily basis, though we certainly wouldn’t have known that at the time. We were part of the family. It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t be part of the family. Had we been asked, we probably would have insisted that our forebears had created the ground we walked on each day because without them there would have been no orchards, and without the orchards there would have been no sustaining livelihood.
Yes, having watched them wither and decay, I know something about orchards. I am intimate with the shortness of their lives. Sixteen years, tops, my uncle told us, or anyone else who would listen. The good fruit is borne between the third and the twelfth year, after which the yield begins to thin out. At the end of each season the “old” trees were cut and dismembered by the few Mexicans who stayed to complete the task. Teo, who had by then always returned with his mother to his home and presumably to school, was never among them. But that last summer I’d heard that he’d come back in April in time to burn the tangled brush of the previous years’ discards. I wasn’t at the farm until late June, but he told me about the burning when I arrived from the city with my mother.
When a job at the Sanctuary Research Centre brought me here and I took over the house, a few trees were still producing in what remained of one peach and one apple orchard. The cherry orchards along the lake had been sold almost immediately to developers and the wood harvested by specialty craftsmen. The tomato field behind the house gradually filled with wildflowers and, happily for me and for the butterflies, milkweed. I tried to keep a half- dozen apple trees going without the help of the sprays that I had come to detest because of what they had done to the butterflies, but the trees stopped producing. And then, of course, other life forms took up residence in their flesh, and the orchards began to die.
As for the monarchs, in those early summers we didn’t even know where they went or where they came from, depending on your point of view. We simply accepted them as something summer always brought to us, like our own fruit, or like strawberries or corn at roadside markets, or, for that matter, like the Mexicans. It would be years before the sanctuary on the Point began to tag the butterflies in order to follow the course of their migration, and several years more before the place where the specimens from our region “wintered over” would come to my attention.
Still, each summer we were stunned anew by what we came to call the butterfly tree. In the intervening months with winter upon us, preoccupied with school and other pursuits, we would have forgotten this spectacle, so its discovery was a surprising gift at the end of the season: an autumn tree that is a burning bush, an ordinary cedar alight with wings. Glancing down the lane, we would presume that while the surrounding foliage had retained its summer green, the leaves on that one tree had turned orange overnight. Then, before the phenomenon had fully registered in our minds, we would recall the previous occasions.
Not that the butterflies hadn’t been around all summer: one or two could be seen each day bouncing through the air in the vicinity of flowers and feeding on nectar. But, until the butterfly tree, they would never have gathered in such stupendous numbers. This multitude, this embarrassment of wings covered every available inch of leaf and bark, or sailed nearby, looking for a place to light. We would take the image of that tree with us as we turned toward the day, not remarking on it again until the shock of it had dissipated and the tree and its inhabitants had become a statement of fact. The butterflies are back on the tree. That announcement, more than anything else, was the beacon that lit the close of the season, the code that told us the games of summer were over.
Oddly, in those days we asked no questions about such an occurrence. Not one of us had ever witnessed the moment of the monarchs’ departure, which I imagined – not incorrectly – as an enormous orange veil lifting from the tree, then floating out over the great lake, heading for Ohio. They had surprised us and were no longer among us. We were blessedly young. We had no time for reflection.
Old enough to require explanations now, suspicious of unpredictability and impressions, I complete my fieldwork and my labwork with a meticulousness I couldn’t have even imagined in the thrall of those summers. These days it is all pinned specimens, tagged wings, and permanent records.
When I was in graduate school and was first told about the tagging of the monarchs, I considered the whole notion of fixing adhesive to something as fragile as a butterfly’s wing to be barbarous. But now I myself am a tagger, a labeller, one who is driven to track down the last mysterious fact until there is no mystery left. Yet I cannot explain how something as real and as settled as my uncle’s world – which was also our world – could shatter in one night. And while I might partly understand why he vanished, it is not possible for me to determine where he has gone. I picture him sometimes, standing on a mountain in Mexico surrounded by exhausted, tattered butterflies. Mating accomplished. Journey’s end. The temperature too cold for flight. Everything grounded. Not a single monarch ever returns, incidentally. The ones who come back to us may look exactly the same as those who departed, but it is their great- grandchildren who make the return flight, the twoprevious generations having mated and died at six- week intervals in springtime Texas and Illinois. The third generation we welcome in June mates and dies six weeks later in our very own Ontario fields, engendering the hardy fourth Methuselah generation, which amazes us on trees like the one at the end of the lane and lives an astonishing nine months in order to be able to make the long journey back. All that travel and change, all that death and birth and transformation takes place in the course of a single year.
And yet the pieces of furniture that surround me now, the mirrors that reflected our family’s dramas – even those we should never have been witness to – remain firmly in place, unmoved, unchanged. The mystery of Mandy: her march toward order and regimen, passion and death remains in place as well, unsolved. I cannot explain the perfect symmetry of a boy’s eyebrows or the exact design of a butterfly’s wing. And then there is the mystery of that Mexican boy himself, and what did and did not pass between us.
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