Her eyes, Stella thought, were the colour of Spanish mahogany, but they lacked the lustre of organic fibre. The soul had gone out of the wood, had dissipated. What was life, she asked herself, that the soul could escape so. She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s flame, and Harvey’s micro cosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl. With inevitable logic her mind pursued the theme from generation to decay, for aboutdeath, too, fine things had been written. But death – short as the circuit between cradle and grave – presumed life; and the flame, however thin, must be lit before it can be blown out by the thousand unsuspected gusts noted by the compilers and annotators, and amassers of vital statistics within the universal bills of mortality.
Rose stood at the door with a jug of hot water.
You get this every morning, she said. You use cold at night.
Stella took the jug and placed it in the grey-white basin. The room was completely square. Beside the iron bedstead Rose’s husband had placed the trunk and the box of books Stella had brought with her to eke out the experience she hoped to have. At the end of the bed was a purple quilt come fresh from the hands of Eaton’s or Simpsons packers. On a wooden table stood a coal-oil lamp. Stella pulled the trunk across the six-inch floor boards to make a seat at the window. The window was a narrow oblong pane set vertically in a hinged frame which hooked up to the low ceiling. The trunk dragged under it provided a seat from which she could smell the air sharp with sage – no more. She could see nothing. The house was set under the hill and between the window and the gravel bank there was a space only a few feet wide – a narrow track – wide enough to trap a cow or to let the house dog slink through to the brow of the hill.
From beyond the wooden door came the noise of the family at breakfast – the clink of the frying-pan, the scraping of benches, the ring of spoon or fork on plate, an occasional grunt or the quick querulous voice of a child and the sudden silence following a half-audible hist.
You can have yours, Rose had said to Stella, when they get out.
No doubt Stella’s being there, despite the tenacity with which Sam, the husband, had fought for the privilege, had complicated the ordinary domestic routine. Sam had been quite frank. The privilege was a matter of board. Arriving at the station to fetch Stella the day before, he had made his announcement with toneless finality:
When Mockett said to me you haven’t got the room you got six children, I said it’s my turn and I’m not going to be fooled any longer. You had the last and you had the one before that and the girl that married old Buzzard’s foreman. I’ve had none since Mr. Jones. It’s my turn to have her – and here I am to get you. The kids are sleeping up and Mrs. Sam Flower, he mentioned the name defiantly, has got the room all fixed. I brought her down for the ride. Don’t believe what he tells you. He’s one of hers at the stopping house and she makes a fool of him and Bill and the whole lot of them. Come with me.
Are you the brother the school secretary wrote about, Stella asked, looking at the grey curls which reached tendrils from under the inner edge of the brim of his small black felt hat.
His thin features tightened.
If he wrote against me that’s me – if he said that you could stay at the stopping house that’s Bill and her and him too and the others.
It was Rose’s eyes that Stella had first noticed. Between the shocks of stiff brown hair, which branched from under the circle of an orange tam-o’-shanter, lay the eyes. Only the tamo’-shanter glowed in the sunlight, with mock vitality. Rose was standing at the edge of the dusty road waiting to be picked up. She wore a blue cotton dress, brown cotton stockings, and a pair of flat-heeled rubber-soled shoes.
It’s her, Sam said, as she climbed into the back seat of the car, pulling by the hand a child in a white organdy dress. The child’s face was hidden by its roughly cut hair. Its feet, cased in black patent leather slippers, shuffled on the step.
Stella had looked about as the car crossed the bridge, which was balanced like a plank across the river. The hill rose on the other side – brown banks, dust-greyed sagebrush, and yellowed grass on the sheering, off-rolling hills.
This here, said Sam, was the old stage road. Freight went up and down here, hauled by horses. Then they brought camels, they did.
He glared defiance.
Shod ’em, he went on. The beasts should of done in the dry heat. They should of done, but they didn’t. Couldn’t stand the stones and lonesomeness.
Mrs. Sam said nothing.
We ran the first cars here, he said. We ran them – me and my brother-in-law, him as was husband to my sister before she left him and began to live with him who lives now with Bill and her at the stopping house.
They were fine cars too, he said, but that’s not the point now. It’s trucks. I just get my truck and he writes to the government and takes the contract for hauling mail and other things away for themselves. Now they live fine at the House.
High up the road wound. Below on the left the river flowed between reddish banks – flat to the eye’s sheer vertical. To the right stretched sand and sagebrush and gilded lifeless grass. Around the corner, over the bank – this way and that – balls of withered Russian thistle crept in the warm breeze like giant spiders.
Tumble-weed – snorted Sam Flower, as he flattened out a ball with his wheel. Made by the Almighty with the prime and only purpose of scaring a finicky mare.
The rest had been silence. Up hill – the road crumbling away at the shoulder – they climbed, close into the bank, with a sudden jerk of the wheel as the red hood of a truck rounded the corner wheels close to the inner bank. All else tended to the river-like artery which twisted below as the land sloped off – fell off roughly – tumbled stones down. All things converged to it. Only the car climbed tenaciously up the slope, challenging God’s providence and the laws of gravitation.
Breakfast was obviously over. The door slammed, feet rounded the corner of the house. There was a tap on the door.
You can have yours now, Rose said. I didn’t get it, not knowing what you’d want.
Stella scanned the domestic debris – greasy plates streaked with egg, bits of scorched fried potato.
Toast, she said. All I ever have is toast.
Rose cut slices off the loaf. Stella could see only the browned crust. When she ate she knew that something had gone wrong with the working of the yeast. The bread had soured in the bottle. The bread was cold and grey and sour. Only the surface had been charred a little on the flat rack over the flame.
Every morning as Stella washed she heard the scraping in the kitchen. Every morning she ate her toast while Rose stood behind her at the stove fingering the handle of the granite coffee pot. Every morning when she had finished her breakfast Rose swept up the crumbs and threw them to the chickens and cut more bread to pack in pails for the lunches. Every day at noon the children unpacked their pails in the space behind the partition in the schoolhouse. They accepted the bread as they accepted what Stella taught them, with out comment.
The bread, Stella thought, was Rose’s peculiar emblem – the emblem of a failure which Rose’s sister-in-law Mamie Flower let no one forget.
Can the validity of this emblem – or of any other emblem – she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross – and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.
Any day looking from Sam’s house on the hill, Stella could see the angled roof of the stopping house diagonally to the right against the downfalling drop of the land which she thought seemed to contract and fall into the narrow valley from the flat outreaching land above. Only with difficulty, she thought, can I raise my eyes. They focus inevitably on the stopping house – the inn at which, after the fashion of the country, one may stop for the payment of a fee – one may stop, she thought, if one is merely a traveller or a salesman with his commodity and not, in the nature of the now and here, more than a momentary commodity himself.
Over at the stopping house Rose’s sister-in-law would shake a knowing head. Arranging and rearranging the folds of black crepe to show a slim city-bred ankle, Mamie Flower measured Rose’s failure by her own success.
Mamie tells her story, Stella thought, with the abandoned fluency of the lady of quality in Smollett’s – or was it in Defoe’s tale.
Sam married one of the local girls, Mamie would say. A peculiar lot they were – she and those before her. Poor Rose, she would say, she knowing no more than to let Sam have her. And that’s how she came here and that’s how she’s lived. Sam was a fine boy. Old Pa Flower intended him for me, he being the oldest. When he wrote mother, he said, send the girlie for a visit. All the way from Hull it was. Old Ma Flower had gone to school with my mother long ago and after Pa Flower had made his way here with Ma Flower he brought her back to Hull for a visit, collecting tracts, picking up this and that to off set the way Pa made his money with the bar and the credit and the men herded along the river panning out gold and thinking of the New Jerusalem. I was brought up with chapel folk, too, but I plagued my mother till she let me learn to dance, and it was my dancing and my littleness, not five feet – patting her blonde curled hair, tightening a pearl bob in her ear – it was my dancing and littleness that made Bill gape.
He was the youngest, she said, of Adam Flower’s three boys. He wasn’t intended in the invitation. But I knew he would mould more easily than Sam. Sam had his cars and had had his girls before – and the threat of Rose’s father, though I didn’t know then. It’s to be Bill, I decided, and we can take his share of Pa’s money and go back to London and in London the money and Bill’s six feet of handsome muscle will go a long way. Sam, she said, was smaller and thin. I’ll brush Bill and comb him and take him out of his dungarees and put him in good blue Yorkshire woven serge, Sunday and weekday the like.
That was when Sam was running the taxis for the men. There was money everywhere – creeks vomiting money, men throwing it in heaps on the counter, too lazy to count it. Bill’s sister had just been married here to the bank clerk from the Rock. Pa had sent hands out on horses all over the country asking people to come. Minnie’s husband, Bernard, had given up banking and had started his own business with the cars – he and Sam. Mockett was Pa’s clerk – worth anything to him in the store, weighing out the tea, sending for supplies, adding up the bills. Mockett never liked Bernard but he did like Minnie. I’ll stand behind her, he said, when that porcupine sheds his quills; and he did and he had his neck broken for the doing. But that’s another story. Dick Mockett was my own sister-in-law’s so-called husband for a while and now she’s gone to eat her bread in bitterness and Dick’s still here weighing out tea, cooking when I can’t get a girl from the reserve, milking the cow, and Sam’s sold out to us and he has the prick of his Rose always in his thumb.
I was only the daughter of Ma Flower’s friend then – asked here because Ma Flower’s conscience was heavy under the thought of what whisky money might do to her boys. When Pa wrote, she wrote too. Send Mamie, she wrote, so that Sam can marry a God-fearing chapel girl, daughter to a friend of my blessed youth. Send a light into Egypt – to this heathen continent – to light the delusion of my first born.
My mother was a little uneasy. I wasn’t the straight burning flame that Ma Flower wanted. There was my dancing to account for. My sister, Hannah, would have been a better choice but she was already married to a man of some means. Despite her chapel ways Hannah had married a man with a big house and a grand piano. I played the piano too and danced, and my mother thought that the money she had spent on me would bring better returns in a foreign market. So little Mamie was sent across the Atlantic – across a whole vacant continent to marry a man on the outer rim. As I said, I didn’t intend to stay in this deep hollow valley after I married – but I didn’t have my whole way then.
I married Bill and Pa didn’t make the same fuss as he had for Minnie or as he would have for Sam. I was married, a stranger in a strange country, and I’ve been here ever since – not like the rest.
Just after I married Bill, Sam came creeping home with Rosie. Bernard had gone and there was nothing but debt on the cars. Pa Flower took it well enough. Take your share, he said to Sam, the middle half of the whole long stretch. Your brother Reg has taken his share by the river. Take your stretch and build your house and raise your get. But Ma thought of how the Lord’s hand was heavy because of the whisky money.
Things everywhere were beginning to crack. The men weren’t buying as they did. We couldn’t go to England just then, Pa Flower said. He’d only Bill now to depend on. Pa gave Bill money though and we went to the coast for our honeymoon.
I used to dance for Bill in the evenings and he would lie on the bed staring as if he somehow had got a thing too precious to touch. Mamie’s so little, he used to say. Mamie’s so little – why she’s the littlest woman in the whole goddam country. Sam’s Rosie was big-boned and dull. Sam took her off quietly in one of the cars he’d salvaged so that the baby could be born out of Ma’s sight. The doctor told Sam then that she was twisted inside as she was flat and square-boned out. Take my advice, he said, and let it be the last. But there were five more and each time Sam took her out.
Apart from that, she said to Stella, she’s not been off the place except when he took her this time to pick you up. Why, only Sam knows. He said to Bill, She’s not been off the place for some time. Since it’s my turn certain I’ll take her to see her sister.
Always the story came. The variations were only those inspired by the moment. The story was part of the fabric of their lives.
Rosie, Mamie Flower would say compassionately, is not really quite right here – her little hand with its pink nails resting near the tight curled fringe from under which her eyes moved greenly, restlessly.
Poor girl, she would say. I’d do anything to make life easier for her but she won’t have anything to do with me. Somehow you’d think I’d hurt her. Her children, now, come here often. They find it pleasant here. Gladys doesn’t like being at home; there’s nothing pretty there.
She would gaze at the white woodwork in the private parlour, the gleaming nickel on the Franklin heater, the chintz and lace on the windows, the orange and green fantasy on the polished linoleum floor.
My men change for dinner, she would say, white shirts all of them – even Mockett, out of his apron into his white shirt. Even a girl like Gladys can see the difference. I told Sam to get her things at the Rock. I taught her how to file her nails and I trimmed her hair for her. Rose doesn’t like it. She sent her back with a lace blouse I gave her. But it’s all here, she said to Stella, raising her hand, keeping it raised to tighten the bob on her ear. Like little shells, she said. Bill says they’re like little shells. Bill says he has the littlest woman and the biggest place on the whole creek.
Everyone comes here, she would say, rocking a little in her chair. What Sam wanted to do digging himself up into the hill I don’t know. There was to be another house later, he said; but there wasn’t and there won’t be. Every cent he gets he spends on cows and horses – every cent.
No one goes to see Rose, she would say. No one.
Round the valley the hills crowded. Rà’tltem the Shuswaps had called their village there; they were the people of the deep hollow. In the jack-pine the dusky grouse, the ruffed grouse, the sharp-tailed grouse hid away from the hunters in the autumn. On the branches, in the pools of light on the bleached and terra cotta hillside, the red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens sat unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot. Crossing the rock pile, with a rattle of quilts, the porcupine stripped bark from the trees. Antoine Billy’s boy saw a cougar in a canyon. Sometimes a moose crossed the creek with a great breaking and cracking of twigs – a face solemn and bearded as a patriarch thrust through the brittle branches. Out from the edge of the hill the land rolled in ridges dotted and streaked with the white rimmed alkali lakes. Out on the range hills the cattle moved – Bill’s with Sam’s, Sam’s with Reg’s. Only the brand made the distinction when, in the fall, the brothers joined forces from necessity to round them up, herding them here into the corral, cutting them out there, driving them off to their separate feed lots.
In the valley all things moved to a point. The road ran into the creek both ways to the stopping house – though, if one stood on the hill where the water broke in the spring, one could see the road winding like a thread the whole length of the valley. No one stood on the hill. In the valley one spoke of the road running up or down, into or out of the centre. The private parlour, and the public parlour where the Indians stood shuffling their feet waiting patiently for Mockett to take off his apron, to come from his cow, to fold up his copy of the Manchester Guardian
and to unlock the store, weighing out tea, weighing out flour, pouring out coal-oil, sorting out mail – here was the centre. Here people came from choice or necessity. Here came the proud and the meek. Here came everyone except Rose.
I would starve on this hill, Rose said one day to Stella, rather than go there. Thank God Sam built up here – up under the hill. If you go up to the top, she said, you can look down away from it – down to the river, across to the great folds and twists on the other side.
What did she tell you? she asked, her glance thrusting for a moment down to the house in the valley, cutting through the logs, searching out Mamie. What did she say down there?
The quilt, she went on sullenly, I sent for to Eaton’s. There’s something soft about purple-coloured quilts. She won’t stay with you, Bill said to Sam about you. Even your kids like it best down here. Did she show you something when Sam took you down? she asked. Did she show you the room Mr. Thompson had? I said to Sam the table would make a good big desk. I told him you can’t hope to do it. I pay the most taxes, he said, I have the most kids.
Mockett writes to the government, she said. He says we have ten kids – three from the river, two of hers, and five of ours ready. If it wasn’t for our five there wouldn’t be a school and her boys could do like the rest. So the government says it’s a school and Mockett has himself made secretary and we have to send our five. If I don’t board the teacher, Sam says, I’ll take my five out and see what happens to the school. Then Mr. Duke, the inspector, comes down from the Rock and says, Sam it’s no use, if you don’t send your five the law will exact it of you. There’s fines and there’s punishments and penalties for such. Mockett’s a good fellow, he says. He’s got brains. He knows what’s best. That’s the only time Duke came here. Every year he comes. Every year he eats and plays down there. Only once he came to tell Sam that the law could make him pay the most taxes because he had the most kids. I wouldn’t go near the place, she said, not even if I starved. You can’t keep the kids away. It’s natural they want to go.
She emptied the pan of dishwater into the flume. Chickens came round the corner of the house, pecked and jostled, balanced on the edge of the trough, dipped for this, fluttered in and scratched automatically on the greasy boards. The water gurgled away over the little dip, leaving a trail of slime behind it.
I’ve got some nice things too, she said. But I’m not putting them for everyone to see. I’ve got some boudoir shoes, she said, and I’m not beholding to Sam for them either. My aunt gave me the money for my birthday a long time ago. I had it put by for a long time. Then I saw them in the catalogue. They’re purple, she said, like the quilt and they got feathers on the front like a curl of ostrich plumes.
She wiped her hands on the sides of her cotton dress as she went towards a box high up on the shelf in the corner – behind the box of shoeing nails, the pile of horseshoes tied together with a piece of rope, the box of buckles, the box of rivets.
The only trouble, she said, the only thing – when they did send them they had to go and send a pair that didn’t fit, and somehow I just never got time to send them back.
Rose’s eyes were dull cork. Even her branching hair resisted the morning light.
No animating fire within, no reflection of the sun outside, Stella thought, yet somewhere there is life – somewhere there must be fire burning inward, letting the ash drop on the source of fire itself. But still, she thought, what is this fire. And again – by what refraction can one know flame . . .
I like to go places too, Rose said. Six times Sam took me out – six times from here to the hospital. Reg’s wife had hers by the river without anyone – Reg saying nothing, going in the snow to get old Susannah from the reserve, passing right by her own sister’s door, mine, going round the hill to avoid the stopping house, Rose said – jerking her head towards the valley – then arriving back too late. Six times Sam took me out to have his kids respectable in a hospital bed. Up to the Rock she goes – her glance turned to the house in the valley – the littlest woman in the whole country, to the stampede dance, to sit in the shop to have her hair frizzed, playing the piano and dancing and coming back in a fainting condition, all wore out so that Mockett has to carry her up to bed, sitting in bed all winter in her lace negligee with Bill in a clean shirt holding her hand. So little and so weak, he told Sam, just like a doll propped up on her pillows – Mockett emptying her slop pail, the honour of emptying it all his own.
I never asked Sam to take me anywhere, she said, except once. They’d all been. Every one of them had been to Green Lake. It’s up on the hill about eighteen miles from here. In the spring they go to picnics there. I asked Sam, she said, to take me there too. I asked him, she said, and he did. But then, she said – looking at Stella steadily – but then he had to go and take me when the leaves was off the trees.
Excerpted from Deep Hollow Creek by Sheila Watson, Afterword by Jane Urquhart. Copyright © 2010 by Sheila Watson, Afterword by Jane Urquhart. 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.