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Going to Ground: The Search for Home

Chapter One

The man 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.

He'd heard 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.

She waited 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.

"Here," 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 face.

"Thanks," he said, and she heard it in his voice. Someone dead. She knew by the sound.

"Sorry."

"Not your 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.

He hadn't 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.

She followed 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.

"Too dry," 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.

"Who died?" the girl asked finally.

He looked 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. "My mother."

She nodded, 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.

Far away 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.

She leaned 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.

Behind 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 grain.

The road 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.

He watched 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.

Below 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.

When the 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.

The grey 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.

"Hate to leave now," he said to the woman. "Still a few trees."

"We all 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.

"There's some extra in there. Help you get where you're going." She looked back at her desk as though the bills were calling to her.

"Thanks." He tried leaning against the door frame and then just stood.

"Least anyone could do." She glanced upstairs.

"I'll finish the job if I make it back out," he said finally.

"What's 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.

He walked 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.

 

Behind 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.

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