A Student of Weather – Excerpt

Some nights she still goes over every detail, beginning with the weather and proceeding to the drop of blood on the old sheet—her quick wish for a man with straight white teeth and red lips—and then his arrival. His voice outside, her hand on the coin of frostbite on his cheek, his gift of an apple.

Everyone said it was eastern weather, the snow so deep and even that the carol was always in her mind, and she asked her father and sister who St. Stephen was, but as usual they didn’t know. The absence of wind, a certain mildness in the air, a certain depth: instead of cutting sideways, the weather came down. People said this was the way it snowed in Ontario, and she thought, since I cannot get to Ontario, Ontario has come to me.

Everything was quiet except for the awful spoon against the awful pot. Lucinda, making porridge downstairs. It was early and the sound carried easily up to the small dark child she used to be and remembers being. She heard her father go down, she heard him speak to Lucinda, she heard the spoon start up again with the circular scrape of bad luck for which there was only one antidote that she knew of. Over the side of the bed snaked her thin white arm.

Light entered the room. It came through the four- paned east- facing window packed along the edges with strips of sheet, every window in the house the same, all bandaged against the weather. It picked out the chest of drawers, the straight-backed chair, the double bed, of which one side was empty and the other occupied, but not by much, she was so little, and it changed in tone from brown to grainy white like a screen before the movie begins. In this pre-movie light her little fingers were busy.

From under the bed came her wooden box, from inside the box a small package in brown wax paper, from inside the package a heel of fruitcake so moist and rich that when she eased a bit of it away from the paper it left behind a mat of golden crumbs.

Soon she’ll go downstairs and say good morning Lucinda through nearly closed lips so that her sister will not smell her breath, but in the meantime she pictures herself running away to the apple-strewn east like Claudette Colbert running lickety-split to Clark Gable.

Nineteen thirty-eight, and snow is a change from dust. There have been times when so much dust has fallen so continuously that when she rose from bed in the morning her head left behind a white oval on the pillowcase. Towns have dried out except for their names: Swift Current, Gull Lake, Maple Creek, Willow Bend. Hotel towels are so thin, a traveller’s nose goes through the other side.

Here you find almost every extreme. The coldest winters and the hottest summers, the longest days and the shortest, the richest soil and the poorest, the biggest views of the simplest skies, the least rain, the most wind, the best light and the worst dust in this best and worst of all worlds. Heads or tails. The wide plain of southwestern Saskatchewan rolls away to the east forever and away to the west, but not so far, before rising into a cold dry Scotland. It’s the sort of landscape you can run your finger over, an apparently flat surface that’s less flat than almost-even, and it’s the almost that makes for its beauty and the even that lays it open to the wildest weather. Frosts in June, tornadoes in July, hailstorms in August, and drought all year long.

It’s a bit like Christmas. What will be in your weather stocking today? Oh joy. A plague of sawflies.

Children grew up never tasting an apple and thinking Ontario was heaven.

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