“We’re getting after the fall ploughing pretty soon, Mr. Branchaud. Just when I was coming away, Uncle said: ‘Tomorrow we’ll have to plough the field at the bottom of the hill.’ If only the rain lets up for a while.”
The two men sat in silence. Their chairs were tilted against the wall, balanced on two legs, and at regular intervals they took their pipes out of their mouths and, leaning over the edge of the veranda, sent a stream of saliva into the weeds. Then they took up their tranquil pose again and stared off into the distance.
Before them stretched the plain, splashed with colour by the first October frosts. Clumps of trees stood out in sharp relief, the black willows, already stripped of their leaves, blending into a pattern with the green beeches. In the distance ran the long belt of woods, the first outpost of the great Laurentian forest: a brilliant symphony in which the low notes were supplied by the dominant greens of the conifers, the high by the scarlet of the Norway maples.
Immediately in front lay the King’s Highway, winding and deserted. The water stagnant in the ruts mirrored the sky in two long parallel blue ribbons. The road ambled off to north and south. Coming from the country, it was in no particular hurry; it curved aside to pass under a friendly old willow tree and made a bend to brush past someone’s front doorstep. It would get there in the end; the later the better.
A buggy drove by, and when the horse passed in front of the house he broke into a smart trot. On the seat sat a courting couple, stiff and rather awkward in their Sunday best. The young man waved his whip in greeting. Branchaud and Moisan took their pipes out of their mouths in acknowledgement.
On the other side of the road the checkerboard pattern of the fields began again and stretched away until it came up against the russet fringe of alders and here, through the gaps, there were glimpses of the steely sheen of the river.
As if riveted to the wide circle of the horizon, and suspended above all this colour, was the pale blue dome of the northern sky.
But neither of the two men was conscious of the face of the earth, the overpainted face of an old woman with the first signs of winter already visible. For it was their arms and not their eyes which linked them to Mother Nature — their thickset arms, that on Sundays seemed to become paralysed and to hang inert beside their chair legs. Only their hands emerged from the sleeves of coarse homespun — rough calloused hands, alike in both men, though they were of different ages. For hands age fast from contact with the handles of the plough or from wielding the pitchfork and the axe. Branchaud had the face of a man of fifty, the body of a man of thirty-five. Euchariste Moisan might have been anywhere between twenty and thirty.
“I guess it’s better land round here than up by Sainte-Adèle.”
“It sure is, Mr. Branchaud. There wasn’t nothing but stones up there. We’d put in the potatoes and when we came to dig them up there’d be nothing but stones — big ones, little ones — and hardly no potatoes at all. It was kind of queer of the old man to go and settle up there. But Father Labelle came round here to where Pa was working on Uncle Ephrem’s farm. I don’t remember so well, because I was only five when we got burnt out. But I know sure enough that it was more of a stone-mine than a gold-mine. Just stones and stones.”
All that he could now remember clearly was the mountain to which their house clung and whose folds bore abundant crops of blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which he ate in handfuls when he went to fetch the cows. What else? To be sure, the creek where the fishing was so difficult with all the bushes in which the line caught, and the flash of a too agile trout slithering down through the branches to fall back into the current. What else? A vague memory of a huge valley with mountains and still more mountains at the other end of it and one in particular with a hump standing out above the others. For a long time he had thought that it was here Christ had been crucified.
But those were the recollections of a child and he was a man now.
“So when the fire took in the barn after five weeks without a drop of rain, there wasn’t much to burn. I got out, but nobody else did, and I don’t know how it was. You see it was night-time, Mr. Branchaud. It all burned up — the barn, the stable, and the house. My poor Pa and my poor Ma too, and Agénor and Marie-Louise. Everything, everybody. But I don’t remember well; I was pretty small.”
“And then your Uncle Ephrem adopted you?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Moisan, who seemed to be thinking of something else.
They spoke slowly and said little, as was their custom, for they were farmers and therefore sparing of words. But today there seemed to be an added hesitation — a groping for the right expression, as is fitting when you are discussing a matter of importance. They avoided looking at one another, each seeming to fear that the other might have too definite an idea of what was in the wind. It was the same idea with both of them — one that had been ripening somewhere outside the mind, as the seed ripens in darkness before it pushes proudly into the light of day as an ear of grain. Years of servitude to the land had made their every necessary gesture precise. But they did not possess precision of the mind, a luxury that is sometimes so hard to live up to.
Excerpted from Thirty Acres by Ringuet, Afterword by Antoine Sirois. Copyright © 2009 by Ringuet, Afterword by Antoine Sirois. Excerpted by permission of New Canadian Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.