They tell me it was an IED hidden in a truck full of goats going to market, pulled off to the side of the road with an apparent flat tire.
But of that I have no memory.
I rubbed small pebbles between my fingers. The sun burned hot on the scarf on my head and dust was thick in my mouth. A goat cried out—no, not a goat. A chicken. Not crying in fear or pain but clucking with hungry impatience.
I opened my eyes and studied the objects in my hand. Not stones, but chickenfeed. On my head was a Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap, not a scarf, and the land around me was lush and green and fertile, not brown and destroyed.
The bird stared at me. Tiny black eyes in front of a tiny brain. Only a chicken. A white rock hen pecking for worms and bugs in a patch of weeds and overgrown grasses in a farmyard in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
Memory flooded back, and I knew where I was, and I threw a handful of grain onto the ground. Chickens rushed to feed.
My sister was watching me, frozen in the act of crossing the yard, her face pinched with worry. “Okay, Hannah?”
“Good,” she said. “After you’ve finished that, collect the eggs, will you? I want to make a cake this afternoon for Lily’s birthday.”
“Will do.” I put on what I hoped was a convincing smile. Joanne gave me a long look before she continued down the path toward the greenhouse.
I let out a sigh and tossed the rest of the grain onto the ground. Eager chickens came running from all directions. Pressure was building behind my right eye and I hurried to get out of the glare of the rising sun into the dark, cool henhouse.
I don’t care for chickens. Noisy, vicious, stupid beasts. I tried to get them out of the coop before venturing in to raid the nests. A pair of heavy yellow work gloves was kept on a nail by the door, and I slipped them on to offer my hands some protection in case one of the birds had remained behind to defend her eggs. They didn’t want me stealing their offspring out from underneath them and used their sharp beaks to fight me off.
Isn’t that what mothers do? Protect their children?
The coop was dark and quiet, all the residents outside enjoy- ing the spring sunshine. I collected ten large brown eggs and laid them gently into a wicker basket. The heavy smell of ammonia and straw both fresh and molding that permeated the hen house did nothing for my oncoming headache.
We were raised in the city, Joanne and I. In a proper modern bungalow in a neat well laid-out suburb on a street lined with Norway maples and houses exactly the same as ours. Why my sister took so eagerly and happily to the life of a small-scale farmer is a mystery to me.
Perhaps not a total mystery. I came out of the chicken coop, egg basket over my arm, in time to see my brother-in-law Jake Stewart climbing into his truck, ready to deliver the first of the spring produce to local restaurants. He lifted a well-muscled arm in a lazy greeting but didn’t give me a smile. I waved in return. I put the eggs on the kitchen counter and dropped into a chair. Pain lurked behind my right eye, a black spot, evil and threatening and ever-present. Sunlight streamed through the French doors leading to the deck, and the old farmhouse was beginning to heat up. I closed my eyes, knowing I had to get upstairs and lie down while I could.
“Would you like me to fetch your pills, Aunt Hannah?” said a soft voice behind me.
“Thank you, dear, but no. I’ve had enough for now.” “They don’t help much, do they?”
“I’m sorry to say they don’t. But this will pass, and I’ll be fine soon.”
“I’m glad,” she said. I felt a cool hand on my arm and smelled toothpaste and hay. Lily was ten years old, and today was her birthday. She was a bright, cheerful, happy girl who absolutely adored her aunt Hannah. The feeling was mutual. With great effort, I lifted my hand and touched hers.
What if, I thought…
A stab of pain interrupted the thought, and my hand dropped to the table. “Can you pull the blinds, sweetie?” I said. “The light’s too strong.”
The chain rattled, and the blinds clattered as they slid along their track. Even though my eyes were closed, I knew when the sun was gone.
The light of the sun had become my enemy.
Sunlight had been strong in my eyes when it happened. We’d been driving west, the setting sun a brilliant, round yellow ball hovering above naked tan hills. I was adjusting my sunglasses, trying to cut the glare when a light so bright it seared my eyes followed instantly by a wave of sound overwhelmed me. I remember wondering if the sun had exploded, but that might have only been later, when I woke to the glare of pure white hospital lights.
Afghanistan. Where the sun always shone in a sky of brilliant blue and the hills were bare and the streets dusty tracks and behind every scrubby bush or mud hut death might lurk. I called my headaches Omar because they were so like the scowling, black-bearded, filthy-gowned, malicious mullah who’d treated me with unmitigated contempt that last day in Afghanistan. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror sometimes, peering into my own face, looking for him, trying to see him hiding behind my eyes, willing him to come out and fight me, face to face. Don’t get me wrong: I know he’s not there, not in spirit nor in body. I doubt he’s spared me a thought since our convoy rattled down the track heading out of his village. It’s just that it makes me feel better, sometimes, to think I have an enemy I might actually be able to fight. To defeat.
“Can I help you upstairs, Aunt Hannah?” Lily normally had a loud voice, full of fun and enthusiasm and always madly excited about something. Around me, she whispered. They all did. They kept the radio and TV low and my sister hushed her children if they got too noisy. As children should.
Everyone walked as if crossing a road covered in egg shells. “That would be nice.” I leaned on the girl as I struggled to my feet. I opened my left eye, just a crack, and looked into her face. Pretty and concerned. Immediately after breakfast she’d gone out to tend to her beloved horses, and hay was caught in the back of her blond braid, and a streak of mud crossed her left cheek. She was all knees and elbows, bony chest, long thin legs, arms like sticks, luscious black lashes, and a perpetually laughing mouth. I thought she was incredibly beautiful.
“Be sure your mom wakes me up in time for the birthday dinner,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to miss that. What are we having anyway?” In my sister’s family, as in ours, the birthday child chose the celebratory meal.
“Hamburgers. Dad’s going to do them on the barbeque. Then cake. I’ve asked for chocolate.”
“Ummm. My favorite.”
“Grandma and Grandpa are coming.” “That’s nice.”
We made our way up the stairs, one careful tread at a time. Lily pushed open the door to my room and led me in. I lay on the soft bed and sighed. Lily glided slippers off my feet and pulled up the duvet. “Comfy?” she asked.
“Comfy,” I replied.
I heard her tiptoe away and then the sound of her running down the stairs, taking the last three in one leap. All fell quiet.
The windows were closed, the curtains drawn. They hadn’t been opened in all the time I’d been in residence.
The back door, the one off the farm office, slammed and I almost smiled to myself. No matter how she might try, it was impossible for a ten-year-old to stay quiet for long.
And that’s the way it should be. I thought of girls I’d seen in Afghanistan. No older than Lily, but already squelched by life, living in constant terror of attracting attention, anyone’s attention.
There’s something about an old house, a way you can tell when it’s empty. The walls seem almost to relax, and settle deeper into the foundations as they do so, taking a brief break until doors fly open and people flood back inside.
This house was old. Parts of it dated from the early 1800s. It had been expanded over the years, modernized many times. But the old bones remained, strong and resilient.
I lay back into the pillows and let my mind drift. The pain retreated. It was not defeated. It would never be defeated, but was merely regrouping its forces prior to a renewed attack.
The birthday dinner was a huge success. It was early May and warm enough to sit outside on the big wooden deck running off the kitchen. Jake flipped hamburgers on the barbeque, and Joanne made a salad with the first of the delicate baby greens from the gardens. It was a lovely evening, and my head felt almost normal. I fancied that Omar couldn’t bear to be in the presence of a happy laughing family. Particularly not when the birthday child was a beautiful young girl with tangled hair, a big laugh, and long tanned bare legs.
Jake’s parents, Marlene and Ralph, had joined us for dinner. They lived not far away, close to the town of Wellington, where they ran an industrial chicken operation. Ralph rarely said much but smiled at his son and grandchildren with warm affection. Marlene, as scrawny as a barn cat and about as tough, didn’t approve of organic farming. She lectured Jake at length about the better yields he’d get using chemical fertilizer and decried the extra effort that went into heirloom vegetables. Jake focused on his meal and said, “We like to do it our way, Mom,” and Joanne bit her tongue. I glanced at my sister. It was costing her, I thought, to keep quiet and not defend her farm, her husband, their choices. Her shoulders and her lips were set in tight lines and a small vein throbbed in her neck. Marlene changed course abruptly and asked Jake if he’d had time to look through any more of the boxes.
“It’s spring, Mom,” he said. “Spring on a farm. You know what that means. No time to do anything but turn soil, plant seeds, and try to get ahead of the weeds.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Life on a farm’s hard work. For most of us, anyway.”
Suspecting she’d aimed that comment at me, I got up to help Joanne clear the dishes and prepare dessert.
Inside the kitchen, Joanne rubbed at the side of her neck and gave me a rueful grin. “Sorry about that.”
“Not a problem. What boxes is she talking about?”
“In the attic. When we bought the house it came with just about every bit of stuff accumulated since it had been built. Marlene’s trying to encourage Jake to take an interest in his family legacy. He is interested; he just doesn’t have the time.”
“What family legacy? You guys bought the house, you didn’t inherit it.”
“This house was built by Jake’s great-great-many-times-grandparents on his father’s side. Generations of Stewarts lived here until around 1945, when they sold it and moved into town. Something about one son being killed in the war and the surviving one not interested so no one was left to run the farm. Marlene’s family were farmers, and when she and Ralph married, he helped work their farm. When her parents retired, Ralph and Marlene took it over. You can take the farm family off the land, but you can’t always take the farm land…whatever. I guess you can take the farm land away. Anyhow, that’s a long way of telling you why Jake grew up on a farm, but not this one. Marlene might be dismissive of our farm—she thinks Jake should be working out at their place, but she sure was excited when we bought it. Marlene’s own ancestors came over from the Ukraine in the twentieth century, so she’s somehow gotten it into her head that the Stewarts were an important family, rather than just common-or-garden settlers like all the rest. Now, she needs to prove it to everyone else. “
I smiled. “Isn’t everyone looking for an exiled aristocrat or the bastard son of the King of England in their family tree?”
“People around here are proud of being Loyalist descendants. The property’s a fraction of the couple of hundred acres it was originally, but we have the old house. The original grant covered the land right down to the lake front. When the road went in, that strip of land was expropriated. Which is a good thing. We never would have been able to afford this place if it had lake frontage.” While she talked, her voice low, Joanne arranged colorful candles on the homemade cake and piled a tray with plates and forks. “Get the door, will you?” We went back outside. Lily blew out the ten candles on her cake with one breath, while Jake held his hand over his son’s mouth because Charlie had made threatening puffing gestures while the candles were being lit. Lily stuck her tongue out at her brother, and then she opened her presents while her mother sliced and served cake, and her grandmother babbled to no one about some precious silver teapot someone had found in their attic.
I’d bought Lily a pashmina, a genuine Afghan one, pale gray and so fine the entire thing would slip through a wedding ring. It was somewhere in my parents’ house, still in the boxes of possessions which had been packed up and sent after me. Instead of the pashmina, I’d given her a twenty-dollar bill. She was saving to buy an iPhone.
For a brief moment silence stretched across the deck and across the farm while everyone ate birthday cake. Even Marlene stopped talking for a while. Only the top of the orange sun was visible above the poplar trees that marked the boundary of the fields. The line between inertia and contentment is very fine, but I settled back into my chair and thought that perhaps, just this once, I was content.
“Have some cake, Aunt Hannah,” Lily said. “It’s really good.” I’ve never been overweight, but like most women I’ve always worried that I was. I’d lost thirty pounds in the last three months, and not a thing I owned fit me. I’d also lost a great deal of muscle in my arms and legs and knew I needed to put some weight back on and get some exercise. Joanne had suggested that Jake drive me to the swimming pool at the rec center in Picton in the mornings, but it seemed like far too much bother. I used to run half-marathons. These days a walk to the mailbox at the top of the driveway was an effort. I had an appointment with the neurologist in Toronto later in the week and he’d bug me about the importance of exercise and a good diet. I’d nod and agree and come home deciding to go to the pool the next day.
And never quite get around to it.
There were times when I wanted to get better, when there was nothing I wanted more. But those times were quickly superseded by periods of pure inertia. And, if I were to be honest with myself—self-pity.
I’d barely managed to eat a quarter of my burger and a few leaves of lettuce and had passed on the potato salad. The chocolate cake, covered in a shiny layer of thick ganache, a ball of vanilla ice cream melting alongside, looked highly unappealing. Lily was watching me, “Go on,” she said, “Try some.”
And so I did. I lifted my fork and broke off a tiny piece of cake, scooped up some of the icing and then ice cream. I put it all into my mouth. It was good.
But I only had one bite.
They were always watching me, my family. My sister and her daughter most of all, but occasionally I could see Jake poised to run for me if I stumbled, and even Charlie, as self-absorbed as only a seven-year-old boy can be, was quick to apologize if he made a loud noise or did anything that startled me.
It was nice to know they cared. It could have been annoying. In that as in many other things these days, I couldn’t summon up enough energy to mind.
As soon as she’d finished eating, Marlene pushed her chair back and announced that hard-working farm families need to get to bed early. She gave Lily a hug and a loud smack on the cheek, tousled Charlie’s hair, thanked Joanne for the meal, kissed her son, and marched down the steps. Ralph followed after saying his own goodbyes.
I helped Joanne carry in the dishes, while Jake took the kids to the paddock to gather the horses and settle them into the barn for the night.
“Lily’s going to be a fabulous young woman,” I said to my sister.
“I can only hope so. As soon as Mary Beth’s daughter turned thirteen she became a screeching harridan. Poor Mary Beth figured the girl had been replaced by an alien look-alike.”
“I seem to remember something like a screeching harridan in my own house,” I said with a laugh.
“Oh, god. Don’t remind me. Do you think my past sins will come back to haunt me? Do you remember when I went to Dad’s office on take-your-child-to-work day in full goth regalia?” “Yup. Good old Dad. Didn’t blink an eye when you marched into the kitchen and announced that you were ready to go.” “And you, goodie two-shoes, looking all prim and proper to go to the hospital with Mom.”
I stuck my tongue out in the same way Lily had to Charlie, and Joanne grinned. “Brat.”
“Hamster-brain,” I replied. We laughed together.
Then I said, “I don’t think your mother-in-law likes me very much.”
“Don’t take it personally. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way she is. I sometimes think she spends her life accumulating points. One for her, minus one for everyone else. Except for Jake. He can do no wrong. Well, other than marrying me and getting into organic farming, that is.”
We finished cleaning up in companionable silence. Outside, the sun had disappeared and slashes of pink and gray decorated the sky.
My sister and her husband farm ten acres of organic vegetables. Marlene may disdain small-scale organic farming, but despite growing corn and wheat and canola and raising factory- farm chickens they barely eke out a living. Seeing that agriculture‘s changing and the traditional way of life disappearing, Jake knew if he were to stay on the land he’d have to learn new ways of doing things. He went to the University of Guelph to get a degree in agriculture. There he met Joanne, studying biology.
It was a match, my mother always said with a hearty, approving laugh, made in manure.
Jake and Joanne were lucky to find a good piece of land for sale at an affordable price that they could farm. Land that came with an old barn and even older house. That was the only luck they needed. They worked hard to establish not only the farm, but the business. Can’t do much with ten acres of vegetables if you don’t have a market.
They’ve made quite a name for themselves, and their business, J&J Farms, provides the family with an adequate, if not lavish, income. I never would have figured my younger sister, the rebel, for a farmer. Unless it was growing marijuana. But I guess a small-scale, organic farmer has to be something of a rebel. I snuck a peek at her. She was wiping down the countertops.
Her round face glowed with health; the muscles in her arms and legs were strong. Her hair was long and uncut and wayward strands fell out of her casual ponytail. She was dressed in khaki shorts and a matching, but faded, shirt.
We’ve never been close. Too different, I suppose. But since my…injury, she’s watched over me like a mother hen.
“I’m going out to the root cellar,” she said. “Cheryl Foster’s coming by later for a bag of carrots. We’re almost out, and I’ll be glad to get rid of them. I have about twenty pounds left. Can you finish up here?”
“I’ll come with you. Give you a hand.”
She eyed me carefully. “The ramp’s steep and it’s dark down there.”
“Dark is good. I’m fine. Let me help you. Please.”
She looked dubious. But I was fine. Omar had temporarily departed. As always he lurked in the back of my right eye where he’d taken up what looked to be permanent residence. A black, malignant dot.
I gave Joanne a smile. I did want to be helpful, when I could. I’d been here for a month, and I was beginning to sense that Jake was wondering how much longer he’d have me on his hands.
“Okay. Might as well show you the cellar.” She put down the tea towel and headed for the back door. “You’ll need good boots.” She pulled on the mud-encrusted Wellingtons she wore around the farm. I’d been provided with a similar pair on my arrival. They were too big for me, but I hadn’t needed to go far in them. The root cellar was beneath the old building close to the road that served as a small shop. Most of the farm’s produce is sold to restaurants, community share agriculture holders, or at Saturday market in Kingston, but Joanne kept the store to serve tourists and passers-by. Introducing city people to fresh, local produce, organic or not, getting them hooked on real food and real flavor, she believed, was the key to the farm’s profitability. Being spring, not much was for sale yet. Eggs, some early baby greens, jars of soup Joanne and her helpers had put up in the fall. By late summer the shop would be crammed almost to the rafters with an abundance of fresh vegetables. The building was made out of roughly-hewn logs, gray with age, gaps in the mortar. It was about the size of the master bedroom in my condo in Toronto. “Can you believe a family of five lived there,” Joanne said as we crossed the patch of grass and weeds they called a lawn. “In the shop? It was once a house?”
“Yup. The first settlers here were United Empire Loyalists, refugees from the American Revolution. The British government gave them land and enough supplies to get them started. That old building was built in 1784. They would have lived in tents the first few months while they cleared a patch of land to get the farm started and used the wood to build the house. All the rest,” Joanne waved her arm, encompassing the big house, the driveway, the outbuildings, the neat, orderly fields, “came later. Much later.”
“Imagine living there. With a family.” “I think they had a maid as well.”
“No matter how low you are in this life, there’s always someone worse off than you.”
“I bet they were glad to have it,” she said. “Everything they owned, except the clothes on their backs, would have been left behind in the States.”
I shuddered. Joanne was right. I’d seen refugees, lots of them, in my time. They’d be nothing but thrilled if they’d been given a house like this one. With virgin land to farm. Hardship, yes. But safety above all.
“How do you know about them? The original settlers?” “They were Jake’s ancestors, and stories get passed down.
Jake’s always been interested in his history, and he liked to come here when he was a kid and poke around. When he was growing up the land was falling into disuse. The farm people moved away and sold to city folks who used it as a summer home. Sometimes he’d find a piece of rusty old metal from a horse’s bridle, a broken wagon wheel maybe, buried in the weeds. He found a belt buckle once. He still has that. He was over the moon when he learned that the property was up for sale.” She smiled at the memory.
“Must be interesting,” I said, “to know something about your ancestors.” Our family history went all the way back to my grandparents. Who’d come from England at the end of the Second World War and never talked about it. Not that I’d ever asked. I didn’t even know the maiden name of either of my grandmothers.
Joanne ducked through a small hole in a jumble of overgrown bushes. A steep wooden ramp laid over a packed-mud floor led down to the entrance to the cellar. “Watch your footing,” she said. “Stay in the middle of the boards. It can be treacherous.”
I followed her, placing my feet with care. The old wood creaked and swayed.
“Wait there while I get the light. We had electricity put in to run the fridge in the shop.”
The sun had disappeared behind the trees lining the property. A soft night breeze had risen, and shadows filled the entrance to the root cellar. The wooden ramp wobbled beneath my feet, and my sister made a dark outline ahead of me. The acrid scent of damp earth, stored vegetables, and burrowing earthworms filled the air.
The door opened with the protesting creak of old wood and rusty hinges.
A wave of foul air poured out of the cellar, and I staggered backwards. “What on earth?” I covered my mouth and nose with my hand, but that did nothing to cut the stench. A gush of icy wind reached cold probing fingers beneath my sweater and scraped slowly down my spine. The black spot behind my eyes throbbed and grew. But for once it brought no pain.
“My god, Joanne,” I said. “Something’s gone bad. Have you stored meat down here?”
“Of course not. It always smells like this. It’s the moisture in the dirt walls and floor.”
A blaze of harsh white light burst forth. I screamed and clutched my head. Nothing happened. There was no sudden pain, and Omar was still.
“Gosh, I’m sorry, Hannah. I forgot to warn you that I was about to turn on the light. Do you want it off?”
“No. It’s okay.” I lowered my hands. The smell, of death and decay and rot, was gone, leaving only traces of damp earth and last season’s vegetables. The cold wind had died as quickly as it began and air coming out of the root cellar was merely cool. I ducked my head and carefully followed my sister inside. The roof, packed mud reinforced with round logs that had once been whole tree trunks, was only about five feet high, and the floor was dirt. Piled rubble formed the walls. The room was largely empty. A bunch of brown bags containing carrots and potatoes were stacked against the back wall. The shelves lining the room held a few lonely jars of pickles, jam, and soup. Joanne swiped at a large cobweb hanging from the ceiling. A long-legged, fat-bellied spider dashed for cover.
She picked up one of the bags with a soft grunt and balanced it in her arms. “Got it. Let’s go. You first. I’ll get the light.”
I scarcely heard her. A one-hundred-watt bulb hung from the ceiling. It should have been enough to illuminate the entire small room, but the shadows in the corners were long and deep and very black. Nothing moved.
“Sorry, I’m thinking of the people who built this place.” “There are some old documents and things in the attic, if you’d like to look through them. Jake was thrilled when we got possession of the house and found that over the years no one had bothered to throw out several generations’ worth of letters. I was downstairs, unpacking, pregnant with Charlie, trying to keep Lily out of everything, and Jake disappeared for hours. His mother would like to take everything to her house, but Jake told her the items need to be properly inventoried first. Since we arrived, no one’s had the time to do much about it, although Jake’s made a start.”
I was vaguely aware of my sister’s voice as I walked out of the root cellar, my back bent to avoid the low ceiling. She switched off the light and we were plunged into darkness.
Tendrils of icy cold air wrapped around my ankles as the door shut behind Joanne. Did I hear a moan carried on the wind?