Humidity hangs like a presence about the graveside. Beth tightens her scarf over her ears in resistance to the probing dampness, and turns her collar against it, but the seeping moisture beads up on her face. Though the clods of earth are still freshly turned, her eyes remain dry; she feels neither grief, nor remorse, nor even relief at being home again. The stone hasn't been set yet. Of course, who else is left to have chosen an epitaph? The other mound in the family plot is settled and long ago grassed over.
Beth turns toward her pick-up, parked beneath cedars whose branches have snagged wisps of the mist. Franklin is standing beside her on the sodden turf, staring at her with his almond-slanty eyes, his jaw slack. At least he doesn't drool anymore, she thinks, glancing over at him. It only took Dad the last ten years to teach him that.
"He said Beth was coming to take care of me."
"I am Beth." Franklin doesn't recognize her bleached hair and freckled skin, the aging of a decade of prairie sun. His memory doesn't work like a normal person's, lucky for him.
"Wanna see the pond?" He childishly tugs at her hand though he towers above her now, his thick, clammy fingers grasping at hers with rushed insistence, a boy in a young man's body. "The pond looks nice when it's foggy. Let's go to the pond."
"Maybe later, Franklin." The phrase slips out of her mouth in a habit oft-repeated, long-forgotten. He still loves that pond, then, the way she had loved it once. Beth knows she can put him off indefinitely with that "maybe later." Maybe never.
No one bothers Beth and Franklin at the house, although a faceless neighbour leaves a casserole in the porch, and the social services worker phones to check on Franklin. So for the next two days, Beth packs up her father's few possessions, and sorts through the garden market accounts, and wonders that he'd ever stayed on the Island. She'd asked him about that, the one time she'd called.
"Thought you'd be able to find us easier this way, Beth, if you wanted to come back home." She hadn't.
For two days, she sorts and wonders. She folds and stacks Dad's old clothes which are too small for Franklin, flushes away the unused blood pressure pills, and purges the cupboards of ashtrays. She is seeking vestiges.
Franklin bumps aimlessly from living room to kitchen, mumbling to himself about when his sister will come back, like Dad promised, until she sends him out to do chores. Feed the few chickens, sort the seed potatoes for rot, check for holes in the irrigation hoses. Beth huddles in the house and cranks up the thermostat, trying to wring the late summer dampness from the rooms, wishing for her prairie wind.
Her first experience of that wind had brought such relief. The east-bound Greyhound had dropped her, still a teen, at Maple Creek on a howling, dry August day. She was running from the sticky closeness of isolated life with a father scrabbling to feed his dependents, from the stickiness of a needy brother.
Vancouver had served to cover her traces for a few weeks, but there she could still hear the gulls screeching. And the rain! Constant drizzle shrouded her mood. A tiny ad in the Calgary Sun's "Help Wanted" wanted help with fencing a Saskatchewan provincial community pasture—no experience necessary. The cows frightened her at first, until she realized their snotty snouts were only curious, not demanding, and she had stayed, and learned to fence, and finally had phoned home.
"Beth, they pinned up missing person posters at gas stations all along the Number One."
"I left a note, Dad." Just like Mom.
"Franklin misses you."
"You never told me I could get away from the wet."
The prairie wind had weathered her skin and her soul, had evaporated the memories of the farm and the gardens and the dripping of her little brother's nose, which she was responsible for wiping dry.
"Blow," she'd order. He'd blink uncomprehendingly up at her, long past the age when he should be wiping his own nose. Even then, Beth suspected that it wasn't Franklin's handicap which caused Mother's rejection, but the spark of life in him—the flash of vulnerability in his eyes, the spring of hope at being touched, the tears. When he finally learned to talk, he would pester her daily to take him along to high school instead of dropping him off at the elementary gates with the teacher's aide. He would tempt her to take him down to the pond on weekends.
"C'mon, Beth. Let's make a picnic again. You can teach me to swim." Even in the dead of that last winter, when a thin crust would be forming over the surface and the weeping willow's hoary mane would sparkle with jewelled frost, and the breath would hover, she'd resist with excuses. She'd stopped going down by herself, even, for the risk of falling into her own sweet memories, or the bitter one. A girl could drown in those memories.
She thought the pond was the ocean at his age, at eight, back when she was still the only child of older parents. They hadn't taken her to the seashore—too busy eking out their backwoods existence. The pond was the center of her life. Mists rose from it on cool summer mornings, and dew clung to the grasses on its banks. Beth's feet were always wet.
"Don't go past your knees, now," her father would warn. "The bottom's marshy."
Mother, rousing momentarily out of self-absorption, would pry, "What is so fascinating down there, Beth?" She didn't want an answer.
The best part was the cool, shady pool behind the willow's summer branches, a veiled sanctuary. She would pole over to that side of the water, and part the leafy curtain like an Amazon explorer, to enter the hushed, moist green refuge. It was there, as a girl, that she would lie, belly-to-raft, watching the teeming minnows dart, the water beetles skitter across the surface. It was there, as a young teen, that she would lean against the old, rugged bark with a book of ancient poetry, pondering philosophies while little Franklin dabbled in the shallows.
The banging of the door catches her attention, and Beth jerks her head up quickly from the papers on the table, the way she used to when Dad would come back in after supper, homework time.
"Wet out there tonight," he used to say, shaking the rain from his jacket before hanging it behind the door. "Franklin out with his chickens?"
"He thinks they're pets, Dad." It was embarrassing.
This time, of course, it isn't Dad at the door. Only Franklin. He'll never be quite able to manage on his own—it's funny that he hasn't drowned himself yet. Signing the papers for the group home is really the only thing to do. They'd discussed it, in that one phone call, when she'd made it plain that she wouldn't be coming back. Too damp.
"Dad, the shelter would be the best place for him. He'd be with his own kind."
"He calls you his own kind."
The quiet rebuff had stung behind Beth's eyes. It stings now. He doesn't even recognize me, she thinks defensively. He keeps wondering when his sister is coming home again.
The gentle, soaking rain continues, keeping Beth indoors. It patters on the thin roof and spatters on the kitchen windowpane, drop joining endless drop in dreary rivulets that fill the eavestroughing. Beth recalls the childhood days with her nose pressed up against that window, breathing vapour onto the glass and wondering why the sky was weeping. West Coast rains are enveloping, Beth thinks. They creep up around you like the rising of flood waters, the scent of mildew. She can't recall, now, ever having really experienced a thunderstorm as a child—at least, not like the thunderstorms of the prairies.
There is nothing subtle about the prairie sky, as she'd been reminded less than a week ago.
Miles of barbed wire fence sketched a line across the undulating Saskatchewan sandhills, scraped smooth by ancient glaciers whose waters had long since receeded. Beth kicked her way through the sparse, brittle grass, from post to post, checking for dry rot. She tasted the gritty film on her lips, the mortal remains of a dried-up slough. The wide bowl of sky, tipped upside down over the arid grazing land, had blazed with heat all afternoon, cooking up weather. With only a mile left to go on this pasture, Beth ignored the storm building in the west, ignored the rub of purple-black on the transluscent sky, the rumbling, trumpeting announcement of its far-off approach a prophetic voice calling out in the desert. She had worked furiously with the post hole digger, jabbing it into the ground, scooping out a space which caved in again almost as quickly with the fine, running sand. No moisture there but the dripping of her sweat as she pounded in staples to hold the barbed wire.
How she could sweat! She flung from her forehead salty drops recycled through her body to return to the dead seabed. The thirsty wind, with its long, hot sighing, its papery rustling through the sagebrush, snatched the moisture from her neck. She recalled the hothouse humidity of the Island, as she recalled it every time she ran for shelter from the prairie storms. There, in her coastal childhood, she'd been so constantly, so thoroughly wet. No longer. She had dried up from the inside out. True, she still sweated, she spat, she got rid of her daily water. But now she made sure the generative moisture never passed through her soul along the way. She never cried.
Under the blistering sun, with hands calloused in their leather work gloves, and with back bent in ferocious labour, the woman worked, stretching wire, battering wood, deliberately disregarding the encroaching drama in the sky. She focused eyes and mind on her work at hand, dragging a new pole over, jamming it into the ground and kicking back in the sand to fill the hole. She hammered the staples in with the back of her fencing pliers, internally chanting the distance between each lightning flash and its peal of thunder...one blue mountain, two blue mountain. And she visualized. She saw the invisible wind sweep out of the heavens and hover over the face of the ocean a thousand kilometers away. She saw it reaping its crop of humidity, gathering, sucking moisture high up into itself, and rushing toward the Rockies. She saw the great, turbulent begetting, the forming of the clouds, the incarnational condensation of celestial waters. And now, she knew, would come the procession, when the eternal transcendent wetness, made visible, would wet.
Maybe she wanted to defy the storm, this time, to struggle beneath its ominous colour and cracking thunder as if she didn't care. And where was it that she could go from its wetness? Where could she flee from its presence? But finally, she could not ignore it any longer, could not run to hide this time, but only stand in awe beneath the great unfurling of the sky—the great disclosing. She stood beneath the billowing clouds as sheets of blowing torrents sluiced down from the pregnant sky, like the breaking of fetal waters. It issued forth precipitation to satiate thirsty deserts, to replenish turbulent rivers, to trickle in little rivulets down the windowpane of a forgotten family house a half-lifetime away.
That last prairie thunderstorm convinced her there was a God. She feared the rain.
"I love the rain," Franklin declares, his own grown nose pressed now against the windowpane. "Beth took me to the pond, sometimes, in the rain. Let's go to the pond."
"Franklin, it's me. I'm your sister, Beth." His lack of recognition is eroding her.
"She let me pick bullrushes from the edge. She told me not to go past my knees." He is speaking earnestly now, in her direction, and she finds herself holding her breath. She doesn't want to hear this. "We loved the tree."
Stop, she thinks. Stop telling me. I can't bear it.
Franklin blinks. He turns, impenetrable again, back to the steamy window.
"We'll go tomorrow," Beth says, resigned.
On the third day the mists rise again. The two trudge the half-mile down to the pond wearing patched black and red rubber boots. Franklin grips a greasy paper bag lunch, and struggles on ahead of Beth, showing her the path as he'd done the last time they'd come together, the last time she'd come.
"It's this way," he points excitedly.
It was with that same eagerness that she had approached the pond, a decade ago. Now, she dreads it. Dreads it.
"We're almost there. I can see the tree."
Can it have been only last week, the prairie thunderstorm? The day she had returned to the ranch yard to find the note tacked to the trailer door with its ink splotched and running from the rain? Family crisis—call home.
"I love the pond."
Finally, they had tracked her down to notify her of her obligations, too late for Dad's funeral.
"Beth loved the pond."
They come around by the back side, so they can get to the tree, opening the draping, dripping curtain of branches. Franklin sits down at its feet to open his lunch bag by the edge of the water, which is clear and green, its ripples casting soft light onto the shadowy tree bark. She stares into the water, into the reflection, giving up suddenly and sharply to turn, to run her hands up the trunk until she finds it.
The rusty nail, a mother's height above the roots, is hammered in deeply. Ten years ago it had punctured a hole in Beth's soul, and drained her dry. That day, she had found her mother's note nailed to the tree, a grand, flourishing farce of self-sacrifice, a parody of crucifixion. I'm sorry to do this to you, but I just can't go on any longer. It's for the best. I hope you're old enough to understand—sixteen is old enough. The ink of that note had become splotched and running from Beth's tears, those last tears. The RCMP dredged up the body from the pond, that giver and taker of life.
She had been old enough to run, as her mother had run, from the dull, yearning gaze of a little boy thirsty for a mother's touch. She lowers her gaze, now, to her grown, wet brother sitting on his haunches in the dappled and watery light. A drop falls onto his hand and he turns his face upward to see if it has shaken from the tree.
But she is crying, the water making its tributary again through her tear ducts, streaking her face, cascading off her chin, baptising him.
In a simple and wondering tone, Franklin says, "It's you. You are Beth."