(Part 3 of 4)
Since they buried his little sister, the boy took to going for long walks through the woods on weekends after morning chores to escape the tension at home.
At first his parents had made half-hearted moves to stop him. But finally his mother had said “oh, let the boy go,” and with a shrug, his father had acquiesced. In his heart the boy felt they didn’t care. He could fall off the edge of the world and it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter to me either, he thought, wondering at the same time if that was in fact what he was doing – searching for the edge of the world.
Then he imagined actually being there, looking down into a darkness that was terrifying yet tempting to behold, and finally taking the leap into it – falling, falling, falling and discovering there was nothing after all to be afraid of, that it was a wonderful, free place to be, without the pain of grief and guilt.
But then he thought of Jeannie, and of how it would hurt her again if he did anything like that. So, he just kept walking, going further every time through the rest of spring and early summer.
At first he struggled through a dense layer of immature, second-growth trees and random piles of rotting slash – the branches, bark and sawdust left behind by loggers who had cut down the majestic, old-growth forests of tall pines. They had skidded and shipped countless logs away, and then left. The second-growth maple, birch, beech and ash grew slowly on the shallow soil. So now, 20 years after the loggers had cleared out, a new canopy had still not formed. The sky overhead cast a harsh, revealing light. It was hard walking. His face was soon scratched raw by branches. But he didn’t care. Indeed, he took some perverse pleasure in the pain as he was whipped by the vengeful wood.
One bright, sunny, summer Sunday he found himself out of the second-growth forest, and into a meadow colorful with an amazing array of wild flowers. It sloped up to a mature pine forest the loggers had left untouched for some unknown reason. The trunks of those monumental trees reached high and straight into the sky.
Beyond the treetops he caught a glimpse of columns of thick, white, cumulus clouds parading by in steady, stately grace. In no time his imagination was full again of visions of another time long, long ago when giants roamed the earth. They wore the skins of mighty beasts they had slain in epic life and death struggles. They had cooked their meat on open fires, praised and thanked the spirits of the noble dead, and told and retold the stories of many great deeds. He saw himself sitting among them, listening closely, dreaming of the day when he would be one of them. But then he remembered his vow, felt ashamed and unworthy of such things. He put his head down toward the ground and continued walking.
He found an old native trail and it became his new path of exploration and escape, as, through the summer, he walked deeper into the forest. He took note in passing of many little things that in another, happier time would have filled him with wonder – a chipmunk scampering over a moss-covered fallen trunk, a spider weaving its web between branches, a bear’s claw marks on a beech tree, rock crevices that hid countless mysteries. He spotted the sun now and then through the trees to gauge the time and, always reluctantly, turned back toward home where he had evening chores to do.
But he came to regard the deep woods as his new, real home. Someday, the boy thought, I will find my own special place, and never come out.
Each time he went into the woods his progress was a little faster because he knew the way. One day he noticed the trail went off in a different direction and he felt drawn to follow it. He soon reached the lofty brow of the cliffs overlooking the deep, blue waters of Georgian Bay. He found a place to sit right on the edge. On either side the steep limestone cliffs reached for miles to the north and to the south. He stayed there for a long time, just to look out over the waters that stretched to the distant horizon. He went back to that lookout again and again throughout that hot summer.
One afternoon near supper time in late August after a lengthy spell of hot, dry weather, the boy’s mother and father were in the kitchen together. They had been arguing all day. The table was not set. There was no dinner cooking on the wood stove. The woman was dressed for a trip. She was wearing her best shoes, dress and coat, an outfit that she had kept carefully packed away in a trunk for years. It was the uniform of a different class, of the society and home she had left behind when, as a high-spirited, rebellious young woman, she had dared to fall in with a handsome, young man her family said was “far below your station.”
The young man’s dreams had been modest. All he had wanted was to be a free man working his own land and providing for a family. Then he had counted himself the luckiest man in the world when a beautiful, intelligent, and spirited young woman had fallen in love with him and consented to be his wife. And so they had been carried in their dream of love to a 100-acre homestead on the rugged Bruce Peninsula, one of the last Ontario frontiers. They had struggled to make a living for 12 years. But the hardship and ceaseless toil had worn them down. The passion, and then the dream had faded. The birth of their beautiful, little girl had brought them some renewed joy. But her death had finally shattered the last fragment of whatever was left of their happiness.
As the boy approached the house he heard his mother’s voice reaching a crescendo of emotion and rage. He stopped, leaned against an outside wall not far from the door, and listened.
“She was my angel, my precious little girl,” he heard his mother scream at his father, the man she now wanted to regard as no more than a stranger. With a torrent of furious words she was trying to kill the last vestiges of any love she might still feel for him. She had awakened that morning and wondered again how on earth she had ended up in this intolerable nightmare. Now the growing frustration, discontent, and anger she had kept bottled up too long came pouring out in a fury of anger and sorrow.
“She would have lived if you hadn’t brought me to this God-forsaken place,” she screamed again, as, with her fists clenched, she stared across the room at him with wet, blazing eyes.
The man was incapable of response. The intensity of her exploding rage had stunned him into silence. His back was to the wall, as far away from her as he could get without leaving the room. He felt beaten and helpless. He knew there was nothing he could do now to prevent what he had long feared would come to pass sooner or later.
For weeks, since the death of the child, he had sensed it coming. Even so, he had hoped it would pass, that somehow they would get beyond the silent misery and cold distance, perhaps even grow closer, consoling each other in their grief and rediscover the love they had once shared.
The fierce, even hateful, look in her eyes now killed his last hope. He knew it was over, and his heart sank. And yet, it seemed unbelievable and unreal, like a bad dream, that one’s life could so suddenly and utterly fall apart.
His mind was reeling, trying to find something, anything, to hang onto, even as she was telling him, quietly now, with an icy calm, that she was “going home,“ that she was already packed, that he must drive her to town one last time in the wagon. She would spend the night there at the hotel, then take the morning stage to Wiarton where she would catch the evening train to Toronto. It had all been arranged. Her parents, thank God, had sent the money. They had forgiven her. They understood. They welcomed her home.
“And what about the boy?” he asked.
“He should stay here with you. He likes the country. I hate it. He wouldn’t be happy in the city.”
“But he’s your son.”
“Yes, and I know what’s best for him, and me. Perhaps he can come to visit sometime.”
“What kind of woman leaves her son?”
“An unhappy woman, a very unhappy woman.”
“Have you thought about how it will make him feel? How unhappy he will be, how he’ll think you blame him for what happened? He already blames himself.”
“And so he should. If he had done as he was told that day and looked after her, instead of day-dreaming or whatever he was doing, she might be alive today. I can’t deny that’s what I think. I can’t deny that’s how I feel.”
Her eyes filled with tears again. He wanted to comfort her. But she turned away when, his eyes full of love and concern, he walked toward her.
“No. Don’t touch me. I just want to get away from here.”
Then they heard the boy taking his coat and boots off in the mud room.
“Who’s going to tell him?” the man asked.
“I will,” she said, just as her son opened the door and stepped into the room.
There was really no need for her to say anything. He had heard everything. But he didn’t let on as, avoiding his eyes, his mother explained that she was leaving, going back to her parent’s home in Toronto. She said it was her fault, that she had made a very big mistake thinking she could be the wife and mother of a pioneer family. He could come and visit her in the city, if he wanted, she said. She did not say she wanted him to visit her. She did not say she loved him and would miss him. And all the time she was talking to him her eyes were turned away, looking out the kitchen window down the road, as if she was already gone.
The boy had thought during the past few weeks that his heart couldn’t sink any lower. But he learned that day there are no limits to the depth the human heart can fall into darkness and despair, and yet go on beating.
He looked desperately at his father. Wasn’t there something he could do to salvage the situation and save the family? Isn’t that what fathers were supposed to do? But he saw nothing but the stricken look of a drowning man. They shared one last fleeting moment of sympathy, and then his father looked away.
To read part 4 of this story, click here.