Friday, September 28, 2012

Delphine Dodd - an excerpt

The crows acted like they owned the place. They didn't lift a wing to fly. They hopped and paced from branch to branch, casting shadows along deeper shadows in the cedars. They cawed to signal one another: Look here, a sight to see! Two of the feathered monsters, black eyes sparkling in the failing light, were bold enough to perch on a mound of earth on the other side of the narrow road, staring at us.

"How come they look at us like that?" Olive asked me.

"Don't be scared," I told her. "We probably woke them up. They're just curious."

I didn't know if this was true. I didn't know what a dozen crows might do on the spur of the moment. But, Olive was only eight, two-and-a-half years younger than me. So I thought I ought to say it. One of the birds, a fat sleek fellow balanced on a maple branch, cocked his head to the side and opened his beak wide but didn't make a sound.

"I'm not scared," said Olive.

Brave girl. Not very clever, but she had a stout heart.

Considering the hour and the amount of travel time, I decided we must be inland just north of the Columbia, and probably shy of the Cowlitz. I had dozed off during the last leg of our journey. When I woke up it was over. We had crossed the river by barge or by bridge, and I'd slept through it. I kicked myself for that. Now I couldn't tell for sure how many miles north of the Columbia we were. But we were certainly in Washington. Night was coming on fast. We would have reached the south side of the river long before nightfall.

What I knew for certain was that we were in a forest and it was after dusk. So we waited uncertain and quiet by the side of the road, ogled by inquisitive crows.

In those days I had long hair, which was black like my mother's and matched my eyes. I wore it in a braid with a blue silk ribbon. My dress was buttoned up close to the chin and I wore my coat for most of the trip. I felt better that way, especially when Mama made me sit next to John Dee while he drove. He had conducted this journey as he usually did, half-drunk and overconfident after a sleepover in a ratty, seaside hotel. But this time, instead of returning south to the rooming house in Eugene, he had driven us to this spot somewhere in the woods north of the Columbia River.

That day Mama had taken the front passenger seat and barely looked at us girls. I wondered why she was so quiet. She had stopped flouncing in her new silk dress and stopped complaining that it wasn't made for travel. She had stopped laughing. Her black bob was tucked smartly under a white scarf, and her lips were painted crimson. The fox stole John Dee had rescued from our landlady rested on Mama's left shoulder wearing a hopeless expression.

For most of the previous day she had sat in back with Olive and pointed out "landmarks of interest." All in the high, cheerful voice she took on whenever she started drinking John Dee's blackberry wine.

We had pursued bumpy, winding roads along the coast because Mama said the trip ought to be "special and scenic." We had stopped to admire the picked-over wreckage of the Peter Iredale, a barque driven ashore a few years earlier and trapped in the sand, her mighty masts hanging to one side, rotting away. As John Dee drove us east and away from the ocean, we had spotted warehouses and canneries where the workers packed salmon and sturgeon. We had seen enormous wooden fish wheels on the river, and John Dee remarked:

"Now there's the smart way to catch a salmon. Only a damn fool would hunt fish with a canoe."

When he said this he reached over and pinched Mama, who pushed his hand away. By then she had helped herself to a good supply of wine and was beginning to wind down and sulk. Olive took the opportunity to start singing an opera she had made up on the spot, until she caught a withering look from John Dee and decided to quiet down.

My sister was lighter than me, lighter in her skin and hair and eyes, but also her voice. She had what people called a musical voice. She was pretty but sort of soft and pudgy. She smiled too much, I thought, even when there was no reason to smile. I used to ask her, sometimes, what she was smiling about, but she would only shake her head and laugh. That made me mad. I still don't know why.

It had been a long trip. Two days of off-and-on drizzle and the usual mechanical trouble. Now my sister and I stood in the darkening border between the woods and the road, holding hands, waiting. Everything could change in a minute. We knew that well enough. Mama might shout out for John Dee to turn around. She might come back to fetch us, and swear that she would never leave again. This had happened twice the year before, in Portland and then Astoria.

The toes of our battered shoes lined up roughly along the edge of moss spreading to meet the muddy road. The night rain cast its sheen across the outer forest, trapping spots of moonlight in puddles. They glowed like paper lanterns between the ferns and cedars.

From the spot where we stood, the dirt road climbed gradually away. Then it snaked to the left and continued uphill. I couldn't see it any more but nearly a quarter of a mile off the automobile rattled its way into the night. The machine was a Tin Lizzie. Mama called it the Contraption. For weeks she had tried to wheedle the promise of a better vehicle out of John Dee. She had her heart set on something called a Crane Simplex, but I figured she would never get one, at least not to keep. John Dee and his friends were lowdown criminals, more talk than cash. Their money came and went like water.

Even after the sound of the Tin Lizzie died away, we waited. Finally Olive spoke.

"Is she coming back?"

"No," I said. Might as well admit the truth and let it bleed out. "Not this time."

Olive didn't cry. She never cried. She looked at me. I knew that if I showed no fear my sister would gladly stare down a rabid wolf. And who knew? There might be wolves in this place. There were plenty of crows. Wherever this place was, strung together out of moss and mud, scattershot with red alder and dogwood. Olive started to shiver so I put my arm around her shoulders.

Earlier that afternoon we had passed a clearing where the rippling light of the river had barely shown through the trees. John Dee had pulled over and stopped to relieve himself on a boulder. I marveled at that man's inability to simply pee on the ground like the other men Mama had known. He would hold out until he spied a tree or a rock or a fence he liked, and then he would announce his intentions and pull over, making a kind of ceremony out of the whole thing.

"Them girls don't know how lucky they are," he said over his shoulder to Mama as soon as he was done, because another part of the ceremony was to make conversation after the fact, while buttoning his trousers.

"That's enough," Mama told him. She sounded drowsy and far away.

"Listen, now," said John Dee. "Did you girls know your granny lives right down the road from a famous site?"

"You want to relieve yourself on that, too?" Mama asked.

John Dee never laughed at Mama's jokes, and this time was no exception. He finished buttoning up with one foot on the running board, and said to Olive:

"If your mama had stayed put she might've married herself a Kanaka and you'd be asleep in a little wigwam tonight, snug as a bug."

Mama had laughed then, a small snort that meant what he'd said was stupid but she didn't have the nerve to tell him outright. She played with the tiny blue silk purse she always wore around her neck. John Dee turned to me and said:

"Better say your prayers every night, little girl."

"Why?" I asked him point blank because I was sleepy and not thinking straight.

"So the river spooks don't get you, when they come creeping through the night. They crawl up from the river like Southern catfish, them Kanakas, crawl out of the water on their elbows, with mud all over their faces."

"There's no Kanaka around here," Mama said. And then she mumbled: "It's not even a Chinook word."

John Dee fixed his eyes upon her. This was the look that said they'd have words later.

Mama had stopped pointing out landmarks after that. Maybe she was too tired, too worn down by these men like John Dee who paid our way for months at a time. But in the years that followed I sometimes liked to think maybe she had a tiny regret, for her daughters, for the place where she was leaving us, even for the life she'd once led there herself.

In the end, all we had to do was turn around. Our grandmother's house stood only a hundred feet away, flanked by fir trees so tall we couldn't see the uppermost branches. The plank house was hoary, its walls weathered to green-blue and speckled with moss. We stared in the window like hungry cats. Inside, a cast iron stove gave off a glow all the way from the kitchen, inviting us away from the road, out of the night air and the spring rain and the calling of crows in the trees.

I hoisted the cloth satchel on my shoulder. The surface was damp. Everything we owned was packed into this small case, including the shortbread Mama had wrapped in a stained, embroidered table napkin she'd stolen from the last hotel.

We didn't have to knock. The front door, fashioned from soft wood and sporting weeds in the crevices, swung open before us. Into its frame stepped a figure unlike anyone I'd ever seen. For a second I imagined that the broad-shouldered woman with blue eyes and dark complexion had also grown from the mottled door.

Her dress was brown and she wore a faded cotton apron over it. The apron was stained with splotches of crimson, indigo, and emerald. Her shoes were slippers made of tanned deer hide. Around her neck she wore a tiny leather sack with a drawstring. On a ribbon she wore a single key made of dull brass. She was wiping blood from her hands with a damp cloth...

Delphine Dodd

Knock Knock

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