was in the middle of tying off a branch, concentrating, so
at first he didn't notice the girl standing below him. She
was both watching and not watching his hands cut into the
bark and prepare the limb of the cherry tree. Before the leaves
wilted, the limb needed to be joined. He'd seen grafts made
when the branch had set too long and even if it managed to
grow despite the neglect, it was weak and didn't produce.
She watched his hands circle like bull elk on the hillside,
economizing their energy for later in the dance. His fingers
flexed the limb slightly before it taped it, and when he returned
the knife to his belt he merely dropped it from chest height
and it fell unerringly into his pouch.
some say that branches were best cut sharp and joined directly,
but for him the splice worked better when approached at a
gentle angle, like an old car trying to climb a shallow rise.
A broad graft for strength, he would sometimes say to himself
in the quiet of the orchards, or a narrow graft for speed.
He knew of no graft that increased longevity.
until he wrapped the slender twig in tape, her toes digging
into the dirt and her sandals slipping in the dust. She motioned
for him to come down the ladder with the letter in her hand.
He watched it flutter in the wind as though it were eager
to fly away.
she said, and waited while he opened the envelope. She watched
his eyes rove the page, fasten on a detail, and then read
the note again. Her long blond hair blew into her face in
the hot breeze, caught briefly on her lips, and after a moment
she twitched it away with her left hand. She let her eyes
wander up the rows of trees and the dry soil that separated
them, pretending to look past him as she tried to read his
he said, and she heard it in his voice. Someone dead.
She knew by the sound.
fault." He looked up the hill at the curling leaves. It had
been a dry season, and with the water ban, farmers were worried
about their orchards. The east bank had it worse, and now
the late afternoon sun was burning onto the angled hill. She
waited, still, as though there would be an answer to the letter.
As if he could lean on the hood of the old Chevy and compose
a letter that would change the news she'd brought. She wondered
what he was thinking.
been busy all summer, and with the drought . . . If the rains
didn't come . . . Grafting in the dry meant it was less likely
to take. Cherries need a lot of water, everyone knew that.
By rights he shouldn't even be trying, but he needed the money,
although now he couldn't remember why. The edge of the tape
he'd just wrapped came loose and fluttered like an insect
caught on the bark.
his gaze further down the valley where a neighbour was ploughing
dry grape vines into the soil. They were a tough plant and
the roots resisted the plough. A dust cloud followed the tractor
and clung to the red paint. In the fall rains it would turn
to mud and then rust, but he knew by then he'd be gone.
he said. "Small wonder." Her lips parted as though she were
about to respond, but then she wiped the grit from her face
with the back of her hand. He looked further up the slope
where the Douglas fir and Bristlecone pine leaned against
the hill, dark green blotches that indicated little about
the moisture level.
the girl asked finally.
at her as if seeing her for the first time. She was small
for her age and her dress flickered against her in the dry
breeze. As stubborn as an apple root, she wasn't leaving until
she knew, her eyes a strange combination of defiance and empathy.
her eyes on his chin, and then she turned away to follow the
gaps in the trees back to the house, picking her way amongst
the dead leaves that pricked her feet. There was nothing to
say when a mother dies.
a woman stood on her porch and watched a highway that had
been empty since her children's father had driven away to
work in Biggar and then later, further still, to Peace River.
At first the phone had startled her from sleep, but soon its
ring was silent and her son, too young to understand, had
checked it repeatedly in case it was broken.
against the post that held up the porch roof, the curling
paint pressing through her thin dress and into her body. The
broad boards under her bare feet were scraped to wood, the
constant wind drifting dust onto the paint that was then pressed
by passing feet. "Sandpaper," she said aloud, and then glanced
back to the house where interrupted half-cries indicated that
her youngest was stirring from her nap.
her a tree sagged in the bright sun and in the distance the
sound of a motor proved to be a neighbour checking on his
stock. He'd driven his tractor through the field instead of
using his car along the empty road. Even he avoided the tarmac.
In her memory the highway was unrealistically crowded, white-faced
tourists with clenched hands on the steering wheel of huge
motorhomes, busy city-dressed women between important appointments,
bikers, grouped together for safety, only passing where the
lines allowed, despite their reputation for Hells Angels lawlessness.
When she was young she dreamed that she'd leave one day. She
had talked about gesturing a drive with her thumb to Bassano
or Burstall, or, more daringly Lethbridge or Calgary. Some
of her friends had gone, but more of them had stayed, sagged
into their houses, their smiles split against the sagging
was empty, and from upstairs the cooing was lifting into a
cry. She listened to her son pad from chair to chair, the
clink of his spoon against the bowl, and waved to the man
on the tractor as she went inside, even though he was too
far away to see her and pull the gesture into meaning.
the girl walk away. She looked even smaller surrounded by
the crowded trees and on every fourth step she slid sideways
in the dry gravel of the hill. He looked at the wilting leaves
again. Then he cut a branch from one of the trees and found
a container amongst his gear. He held it up to the light as
he poured his drinking water into it. Then, glancing around
as if someone were watching, as if anyone would care, he spooned
some sugar into the water. He put the container on the floor
of his car and packed his grafting gear around it.
him, the girl was halfway down the slope. Her hair rippled
in the heat as the man took off his hat and wiped his face.
"Be cooler than here," he said to the car, and turned the
key. The ignition was worn and the key was loose in its tumblers,
but he knew exactly the right amount of force to exert, where
to push the key to one side. No one could steal it, he'd often
thought. Even if the key were in the ignition the car was
impossible for a stranger to start, its age proof against
theft. The car coughed a few times and the man rubbed dust
off the insignia on the dash while he waited.
engine's rumble had steadied, he shifted the big car into
drive with a clunk he'd learned to tolerate if not ignore
and followed the girl's path. She'd disappeared behind the
weeping willow that overshadowed the yard of the house, but
the dust she'd stirred still lingered waist height in the
air. With his last pay he could cross the mountains. He patted
the seat beside him as if he were inviting an invisible passenger
or wiping away dirt.
haired woman at the desk was ready with an envelope when he
pulled into the yard. The girl was nowhere to be seen; likely
she'd arrived before him and had passed the word.
to leave now," he said to the woman. "Still a few trees."
might blow away by then." She watched him tuck the envelope
into his shirt pocket, her face slack in the heat, her arms
crossed, uncrossed, and then held away from her body.
some extra in there. Help you get where you're going." She
looked back at her desk as though the bills were calling to
He tried leaning against the door frame and then just stood.
anyone could do." She glanced upstairs.
finish the job if I make it back out," he said finally.
more than a few trees? If the rains don't come . . ." She
sat heavily on the brown wicker chair and it tilted on the
uneven flagstones. She kicked off her sandals and pressed
her bare feet into the cool rock. He watched her toes root
themselves, and then, awkwardly, thanked her again.
back to his car. He could see himself as if from above, the
hovering view that dead people report when they're shocked
back to life. He looked up as he started the car. The girl
was watching from an upstairs window, her hair narrowing her
already thin face. He suddenly wondered whose child she was.
His pay had come from a woman who was too old to be her mother,
and no one had bothered to explain her presence on the farm.
He lifted a finger, his hand weighted too much by the steering
wheel to wave. She nodded and he crunched the gravel of the
driveway until he was on the pavement that skirted the lakes
and led into the back country.
him the girl watched until his car twisted out of sight behind
some apple trees, then she stood, sat, and turned to angle
her head away from the ceiling where the roof gabled the heat
of the sun into her room. She'd hung pictures she'd cut from
calendars on her walls, temples in exotic countries and strange
red bears in jungles she knew she'd never see. One foot dangled
as she crossed her legs, and she looked at the dust on her
toes. Without noticing she began rubbing the ends of her long
hair between her fingers, humming all the while a song she'd
heard on the radio in the man's car. She looked at the highway
again, but he was gone.