Read After River Online

Authors: Donna Milner

After River

BOOK: After River
After River

A Novel

Donna Milner


Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends…What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

John F. Kennedy: Address before the Canadian Parliament
Ottawa, May 17, 1961


Chapter One

HE CAME ON foot. Like a mirage, he rose in…

Chapter Two

I MUST HAVE known.

Chapter Three

MY MOTHER IS dying. She's been threatening to die for…

Chapter Four

SHE HEARS THE baby crying.

Chapter Five

IN THE GLOW from the computer screen, I press the…

Chapter Six

I PLACE MY hand on the window in a silent…

Chapter Seven

THE SHATTERING OF our family did not occur gradually. There…

Chapter Eight

‘WE WEREN'T POOR,' my mother often said about that time…

Chapter Nine

THINGS WENT BACK to normal after that. Monday's ironing and…

Chapter Ten

THE BUS HUMS along Highway 97 South. We pass rolling…

Chapter Eleven

ON A SEPTEMBER afternoon, when I was eight, I came…

Chapter Twelve

WHEN I WAS nine, Boyer left school. Quit. And just…

Chapter Thirteen

MY FATHER WAS not a complex man. Everything he was…

Chapter Fourteen

DURING THOSE TEENAGE years, extra bodies often crowded in at…

Chapter Fifteen

RIVER JORDAN. HE flowed into our lives as easily as…

Chapter Sixteen

FOR AS LONG as I remember visitors were always showing…

Chapter Seventeen

MOM AND I spent the next morning pulling weeds in…

Chapter Eighteen

SHE STANDS AT the gate. A dust-covered truck lumbers up…

Chapter Nineteen

THE BUS LEAVES me at Cache Creek. I eat my…

Chapter Twenty

‘IT'S AN ILL wind that blows no good,' Mom was…

Chapter Twenty-One

DURING THE TIME he was with us River never sought…

Chapter Twenty-Two

GHOSTS DANCE ON the edge of my vision. They follow…

Chapter Twenty-Three

THE HEADLIGHT BEAMS stab through the blackness, cut it wide…

Chapter Twenty-Four

ONE NIGHT IN January, Boyer announced his intention to fix…

Chapter Twenty-Five

I SMELL IT in the air.

Chapter Twenty-Six

GUS'S FACE FLOATS before her. She lifts a weighted arm…

Chapter Twenty-Seven

SOMEWHERE IN THE back of the bus a child cries,…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

NO ONE WAS home that night except me. And in…

Chapter Twenty-Nine

I GLANCE AT Jenny as she drives and I sort…

Chapter Thirty

EVEN IN HER dreams the perfume haunts her; the heavy…

Chapter Thirty-One

THE NEXT DAY, I woke to sunshine streaming in through…

Chapter Thirty-Two

I PULL MYSELF out of my private thoughts as the…

Chapter Thirty-Three

ALL MY LIFE I have wrestled with the question of…

Chapter Thirty-Four

I KNEW BEFORE I reached home, before I stumbled through…

Chapter Thirty-Five

IN THE HARSH bathroom light I filled the deep claw-foot…

Chapter Thirty-Six

WHILE BOYER LED the police to River and Mom murmured…

Chapter Thirty-Seven

MOM'S NOCTURNAL WANDERINGS saved Boyer's life that night. She smelled…

Chapter Thirty-Eight

I BARGAINED WITH God. As my parents rushed Boyer to…

Chapter Thirty-Nine

I DON'T KNOW how Boyer and I lived together in…

Chapter Forty

OUTSIDE ST HELENA'S hospital, Jenny leans into the intercom. ‘Jennifer…

Chapter Forty-One

SHE FELT IT. Nettie felt it the moment she put…

Chapter Forty-Two

GOSSIP SPREADS IN a small town like germs on a…

Chapter Forty-Three

THE CITY SWALLOWED me whole. It was easy to disappear,…

Chapter Forty-Four

THE OXYGEN TANK drones on in the stillness of my…

Chapter Forty-Five


Chapter Forty-Six

THE AMBER GLOW from the bedside lamp reflects on Jenny's…

Chapter Forty-Seven

SLEEP ELUDES ME. I toss and turn in the strange…

Chapter Forty-Eight

THE HOSPITAL CORRIDORS are decorated in the colours of autumn.

Chapter Forty-Nine

‘ARE YOU SURE about this?' Jenny asks as the Edsel…

Chapter Fifty

JENNY AND I rush down the narrow hallway of the…

Chapter Fifty-One

GUS STANDS BESIDE her bed. She strains to see his…

Chapter Fifty-Two

THE TELEPHONE ON the other end of the line rings…

Chapter Fifty-Three

WE PULL INTO the farmyard and park by the yard…

Chapter Fifty-Four

IN THE SUNROOM Jenny hooks up the intravenous while Nick…

Chapter Fifty-Five

FOR THE FIRST time in over thirty-four years our family…

Chapter Fifty-Six

SOMEONE IS PLAYING the piano. The familiar melody floats up…


A warm April wind drifts north across the Canada/US border.

foot. Like a mirage, he rose in a shimmer of heat waves above the winding dirt road leading to our door. I watched him from the shadows of our enclosed porch.

I was fourteen on that hot July day in 1966, would be fifteen in less than a month. I leaned against the porch doorway and squinted into the sun while the last dregs of water drained from the wringer washer behind me. Outside, the week's laundry hung limp and motionless on the three clotheslines stretched across the yard. Sheets, hurtfully white in the brilliant sunshine, created a backdrop for the orderly procession of our family's attire. Mom stood out on the wooden laundry platform, her mouth full of clothes pegs, her back to the road. She reached down and plucked a denim shirt from the wicker basket at her feet, snapped out the garment with a crack of wet fabric and pegged it to the line.

There was something different about my mother that day. On washdays she usually wore a kerchief tied in a rolled knot in the middle of her forehead. That afternoon, bobby pins and combs held up her hair. Wayward blonde locks and wispy tendrils escaped around her face and at the nape of her neck. But it was more than that. She was distracted, flushed even. I was certain she had applied a touch of Avon rouge to her cheeks. Earlier, she had
caught me studying her face as she fed my brothers' jeans through the wringer.

‘Oh, this heat,' she said, then pushed back her hair and tucked it behind her ears.

Her attention was not on the road though, as she hung the last load, and I saw him before she did. I watched as he came around the bend by our bottom pasture. He crossed over the cattle guard, through the flickering shadows of poplar trees, and back into the naked glare of the day. He carried a large green duffel bag on one shoulder and a black object slung over the other. As he got closer I saw it was a guitar case bouncing against his back in the easy rhythm of his unhurried steps.

Hippie. It was a new word in my vocabulary. A foreign word. It meant oddly dressed young Americans marching beneath peace signs that urged, ‘Make Love, Not War!' It meant Vietnam War protesters sticking flowers into the gun barrels of riot police. And it meant draft-dodgers. Some of whom, it was rumoured, were entering Canada through the border crossing a mile and a half south of our farm. Still they were nothing more than rumours. Rumours, and the snowy images from the hit and miss television reception in our mountain valley. I'd never seen one in the flesh. Until now.

‘What's wrong?' Mom's voice broke my trance. She stepped in from the laundry platform and handed me the empty basket. Before I could answer she turned to look down the road. As she did, our cow dog, Buddy, lifted his head, then bolted off the bottom porch step where he had been sleeping in the afternoon sun. The border collie leapt over the picket fence and raced past the barn, a blur of black and white, barking a belated warning.

‘Buddy!' Mom called after him. But by then the long-haired
stranger was kneeling in the dust on the road, murmuring quiet words to the growling dog. After a moment he stood and, with Buddy at his side, continued up to the yard. He smiled at us from the other side of the fence as the border collie licked his hand. Mom smiled back, smoothed her damp apron and started down the porch steps. I hesitated for only a moment before I put down the laundry basket and followed. We met him at the gate.

She was expecting him.

She wasn't expecting the heartache that would follow like a cold wind.


In all these years no one has ever said it out loud. But I could see the unasked question in their eyes.
How could I not have known
? Thirty-four years later, I still ask myself the same question.

Sometimes I catch myself falling back into memories. Back to the ‘before' of my childhood. Before everything changed. Back to the time when it was unimaginable that my family would not always be together. To when my entire world was our family farm, four hundred acres carved out of a narrow mountain valley deep in the Cascade Mountains of British Columbia. Everything else, the town of Atwood three miles north, and its twenty-five hundred inhabitants, appeared to be only backdrop to our perfect lives. Or so it seemed until I was almost fifteen years old.

That's when the ‘after' memories begin.

Sometimes I can stop them, those ‘after' memories. Sometimes I can go for weeks, months, even years, pretending none of it ever happened. Sometimes I even believe it.

Still, it's impossible to forget that summer day in 1966. The day that marks the time when my family was whole and good and right, to the time when nothing would ever be the same again.

The beginning of the sequence of events that would change all
our lives wasn't catastrophic or earth shattering. It even looked beautiful for a while.

Afterward, Mom would blame everything that happened on the world encroaching upon our little farm. New highways were being built; one would connect our town to the Trans-Canada. In the East Kootenays, valleys were being flooded and dams constructed to carry electricity to a growing province–and, my father said, ‘to our power-hungry neighbour to the south.'

‘There's too many jobs available,' Mom had worried out loud during dinner the evening Jake, the hired hand who had been with us for as long as I could remember, left without warning. ‘Who's going to be interested in working on a small dairy farm in the middle of nowhere?'

‘We'll get along,' Dad said between mouthfuls. ‘Morgan and Carl will take up the slack and Natalie can help in the dairy. We'll be fine.' He leaned over and patted her hand.

‘No,' Mom pulled away and stood up to get the coffeepot. ‘You keep increasing the herd, and my boys keep quitting school. At least one of my sons is going to finish high school.' She didn't add, ‘and go to university.' She never spoke this dream out loud any more. Carl was her last hope.

She hired the first and only person to call about her two-line ad in the
Atwood Weekly
. ‘He has a nice voice,' she said after she announced it that July morning. She started to gather up the breakfast dishes. Then, as if it was an afterthought, she added, ‘He's American.'

I glanced over at my father. His thick eyebrows lifted as he digested her words. I knew my parents held opposing views on the idea of young Americans fleeing the draft and seeking refuge in Canada. I wondered if, for the first time, I would see my parents
have a real argument. Dad was seldom cross with Mom, but then he wasn't used to her taking it on herself to make a decision without talking it over with him first. And certainly not over an issue she knew he held a strong opinion on. He said nothing. Still, by the way he stood up and snatched his snap-brim fedora–his milk delivering hat–from the peg by the door then slammed it onto his head, I knew he was not pleased.

‘Well,' Mom said after the kitchen door closed behind Dad and Carl, ‘I think that went well, eh, Natalie?' Then her face turned serious as she snapped on her rubber gloves and said, ‘I refuse to lose another son to this farm.'

From the moment they could carry a bucket, my three brothers were hostages to the milking schedule. Each morning they woke up in darkness to step onto the forever-cold linoleum floors of the upstairs bedroom and pulled on their overalls. I still believe Boyer slept with his clothes on.

Boyer, the eldest, had a room–more of a cubbyhole–to himself in the attic. When he was twelve years old he got tired of sharing his bedroom with Morgan and Carl. So he made himself a nest among the rafters above the two upstairs bedrooms. He hammered together a crude wooden ladder to climb through a hole in the hall ceiling. When he was fourteen he built a real set of stairs.

That narrow attic room was so cold on some winter days that you could see your breath. In the summers even the open window would not let the stifling air escape. Boyer never complained. The room was his sanctuary, and those of us privileged enough to be invited in, to share his company and the books that eventually filled every available space up there, envied the world he'd created under the eaves of the farmhouse built by my grandfather's hands at the turn of the century.

I was the only girl and so had a bedroom to myself. It had been Boyer's room before I came along and threw off the sleeping arrangements. If he ever resented me for it, he never showed it. I would have gladly shared the bedroom with him. I was too young to understand his need to have a room of his own. It was a long time before I stopped asking why he had to sleep with my brothers, and then way up in the attic.

Every morning Boyer was the first one to make his way down the enclosed stairway into the kitchen. For many years he would stir the embers, then add kindling, to re-light the hulking cast iron cook stove for Mom before he headed to the barn. After we got the electric range in 1959 he would go straight to the front porch where he pulled on knee-high rubber boots, winter or summer. And every morning, at exactly ten minutes before five, Boyer let the kitchen door slam behind him. His cue to let everyone know he was on his way to the barn. In the early darkness he and Jake, the hired man who lived above the dairy, herded the cows in from the pasture.

Morgan and Carl were never anxious to begin the day. Most mornings my father would holler up and threaten his youngest sons with ice water. ‘Mutt and Jeff,' he called them. Morgan was two years older than Carl, but from the time they were toddlers Carl towered over him. The two of them were best friends, inseparable. Once Morgan stumbled down the stairs wiping the sleep from his eyes, we knew Carl would not be far behind, his heavy woollen socks flapping out in front of his feet like so much extra skin. Mom was forever scolding him to pull up his socks, and we all wondered that he didn't trip over them, especially in the dark of the stairway, but they were as much a part of him as his toes.

My brothers' morning parade was as regular and expected as my mother's prayers.

Mom prayed at every occasion. When we were growing up she made sure we did too. At each meal we bowed our heads before a fork ever clicked against a plate. Every night after the milking, beneath pictures of Mary and Jesus propped on the mantel, beads in hand, she gathered us all together in the parlour. ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,' she led the rosary while I knelt beside my brothers on the scratchy pink and grey flowered linoleum trying not to fidget. Mom believed wholeheartedly in the saying, ‘the family that prays together stays together'.

When I was very young I would peek up at my mother's bowed head and moving lips as she fingered her beads and think that if praying made you that beautiful, then I wanted to be sure to do it right.

Mother grew up Protestant. When she and Dad married she converted. She embraced the Catholic Church with the enthusiasm of a hungry lover.

‘I knew the first time I walked into St Anthony's with your father, that I belonged,' she once told me. ‘It was the feeling,' she said, ‘the feeling of permanence. As if the building, the statues, the paintings, and icons had been there–would be there–forever. The light streaming in through the stained glass windows, the rituals, the perpetually burning candles, the incense,' she mused as if talking to herself. ‘It all felt natural, right somehow.'

The rosary beads were her comfort, something real, something solid to hold onto. They moved through her fingers as easily as breath through her lungs. ‘Converting,' she said, ‘was like coming home.'

She promised her future children to the Catholic Church. But the truth was, except perhaps for Boyer at one time, none of us ever became as devout as she was.

Even our father, who had been born Catholic, was not as pious.
Every Sunday, before he started his milk deliveries, he dropped us off at St Anthony's. When his route was complete he picked us up. If the weather and roads were good, and the chores were finished at home, he headed back into town for a later mass. Mom would return with him, attending twice on those Sundays.

She said nothing about his sporadic attendance. She knew the farm came first: before church, before friends, before family, before anything. Still, he joined us every evening for rosary in the parlour, and when my parents went to bed I often heard them murmur prayers in unison. I imagined them kneeling beside their quilt-covered four-poster bed like two picture-book children, their hands folded in reverence, their heads bowed.

Prayers were not all I heard.

My brothers, although we never spoke of it, must have heard too. The open ceiling grates that allowed heat to rise to the second-storey hallway also allowed the noises of the night to drift up. Noises not meant for children's ears. Later, as a mother myself, I often wondered at that.

They must have realized to some extent that sounds carried upstairs, because my parents seldom had conversations in their bedroom. The only words I ever heard were the perfunctory, ‘Goodnight, Gus,' and, ‘Goodnight, Nettie,' after their prayers. Then I'd hear the slow groaning of springs as they climbed into bed. And sometimes the rhythmic creaks and muffled animal sounds, followed by a few moments of silence before the night filled with my father's throat-catching snores and my mother's quick sneezes.

It was not until years later, as I watched my mother hold herself together during the days following my father's death, that I realized my mother gave three stifled sneezes whenever she was holding back tears. I don't think my father ever realized it.

He seemed as oblivious to her nocturnal wanderings.

Often, deep in the night, I would awaken to the protest of bedsprings, then hear my mother's footsteps as she left their bedroom. Sometimes, when I was a child, I crept down the stairs on the pretence of needing to use the bathroom. If Mom wasn't sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a book I went searching for her. I tiptoed around in the dark until I found her, either in the sunroom behind the parlour, or out on the front porch, staring into the night. Once I'd located her I slipped back upstairs before she realized I was there. I never once heard my father get up to join her or ask her to come back to bed.

During the day it was a different story. My parents were not above public displays of affection. They used any excuse to hold hands or put their arms around each other. Whenever they were within arm's length they touched. Like a teenage girl, Mom always sat right beside Dad in the truck. He would lift his chin and howl like an adolescent school boy–enjoying the embarrassment of whichever one of his children happened to be riding along–whenever he accidentally-on-purpose brushed Mom's bare leg with the gearshift. At the kitchen table, my mother constantly touched Dad's shoulder or stroked his arm while they discussed the business of the farm. And whenever they were outside together they walked hand in hand. Yet it seemed, when the day was done, as if all personal conversation was cut off at their bedroom door and they became intimate strangers. As if after settling in bed these two ceased to be, and whatever happened after that was not a part of who they were. I cannot imagine the strange couplings, which must have taken place through layers of nightclothes, leading to my mother giving birth to four children by the time she was twenty-six years old.

Years later, after my father died, my mother told me–in an
unusual late-night, soul-baring conversation brought on by grief and wine–that she'd never seen my father without his clothes on, and that he'd never seen her fully naked. From the way she said it I understood this was not her choice, but just the way things were with him. I was left with the image of each of them in opposite corners of the room, their backs to each other, as they changed in the dim light. I imagined my mother, behind her wardrobe door, slipping out of her printed dress and pulling a floor-length cotton nightgown over her head. And in the other corner, I envisioned my father stripping down to his woollen underwear. Longjohns. He wore them like a second skin, winter and summer; the only time he was out of them was for his infrequent baths.

My father refused to take regular baths like the rest of us. He swore that every time he bathed he got a cold, or pneumonia. He avoided the deep, claw-foot tub that took up half of our bathroom. Every night after the evening milking we heard splashing behind the locked door as he sponge bathed at the bathroom sink. Once a month he risked death and disease and took his ritual bath. And sure enough, the next day he was hacking and coughing and swearing he would never climb back into the tub.

Dad said he didn't need baths; his longjohns soaked up his sweat. He had three pairs, which he rotated throughout the week. Despite his refusal to bathe, I never thought my father smelled any different from the rest of us. We all carried that same barn aroma of cow manure, sour milk, and hay. The acrid-sweet smell was everywhere, in our clothes, in the house; it was as much a part of us as the milk that was our livelihood. When other children held their noses in the schoolyard it never occurred to me that those odours, so natural to our lives, were offensive to others. I didn't realize the truth of their taunts until the first time I returned home after being away for two
years. I can still remember how surprised I was when I walked in the door of our old farmhouse and inhaled memories.

But I couldn't help notice the odours on washday. Every Saturday morning my mother and I sorted the mountains of soiled clothes and linen on the floor of the enclosed front porch. Every week two pairs of father's longjohns ended up in a pile with my brothers' jockey shorts and T-shirts. My brothers refused to wear longjohns except in the worst of winter. Their underwear swished around with Dad's in the wringer washer, a grey swirl of man-and-barn smelling soup.

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