Hack­saws and beach sex

Geist - - Features - Jill Robin­son

Clear­ing the trails of our prop­erty on Galiano Is­land each year is my way to re­con­nect with the land. On the first day I do not al­low my­self to carry my clippers as I walk the paths on our prop­erty, tra­verse the body of the land. Up and down, across and around the perime­ter of the sloped five acres near the bot­tom of Mount Galiano, I make note of what wants my at­ten­tion this year. Our prop­erty is bor­dered at the top by Lord Road and slopes grad­u­ally down­ward to where it ends at Mor­gan Road, as though Mor­gan Road were a river and the prop­erty ended at its lap­ping edges in­stead of at a ditch and dusty gravel.

At first the walk­ing is, for me, like be­ing naked with some­one you haven’t been naked with for a long time but rec­og­nize in your be­ing and like very well. It’s a per­va­sive, cel­lu­lar re­mem­ber­ing, both body and be­ing. I want to re­mem­ber the land in the same way. And as one who likes the pa­thetic fal­lacy, I like to hope the land re­mem­bers me, too.

The first day’s walk is also a process of as­sess­ment, see­ing how much growth has oc­curred over the win­ter and spring to im­pede the trails— how much new salal and Ore­gon grape is pok­ing through; how many fern fronds now drape over the paths, how many trees; how many loose branches blown off in the win­ter storms have fallen on them and clut­tered the way; how many te­na­cious lit­tle broom have sprouted. I be­gan a decade ago with an ag­gres­sive spirit, an an­ni­hi­lat­ing drive to make the edges of the prop­erty clear to me. The prop­erty was only newly mine. It had orig­i­nally been pur­chased by my hus­band Steven and two fe­male friends, one of them his lover, be­fore I came along. Af­ter my mother died, I bought the two women out and stopped feel­ing like a vis­i­tor, stopped feel­ing I had to ask for per­mis­sion be­fore I un­der­took the small­est of changes, and how de­li­cious was my new-found power. I bought a small hand­saw. I bought clippers.

The first paths I made re­quired a strong push through nat­u­ral ob­sta­cles, from in­tim­i­dat­ing dead­fall to six-foot banks of black­berry vines, five-foot-high salal, swaths of sting­ing net­tles, nests of ma­son bees. I roughed in the paths with my saw and clippers and then went back to fine-tune. I was up to the task. In those early days I was an­gry with some of my old­est friends, and with my sis­ters, and with my mother even though she was dead, and some­times even with my de­crepit old fa­ther for not be­ing how he used to be, for not be­ing co­her­ent, for be­ing drunk, for be­com­ing frail and vague and wan­der­ing fur­ther and fur­ther away from me as he drew closer and closer to ninety. I took out my anger and frus­tra­tion on the tough lit­tle trees and plants and prick­les and dead­fall. I pulled and dragged dead trees and branches to one side; I made huge piles of brush with the in­ten­tion of burn­ing them some­day and that in­stead set­tled and be­came habi­tat for for­est crea­tures. On sub­se­quent passes on the roughed-in paths I bent and crouched and snipped through salal with prun­ing shears, sawed and yanked seedling fir and maples and broom with a redi­rected de­sire for vengeance fu­elled by anger that of­ten verged on hate. For peo­ple’s fail­ure to un­der­stand me, love me, lis­ten to me when they should. Each in their own way did not show they loved me in a way I could rec­og­nize and for that I hated them sev­er­ally or as one dis­ap­point­ing mass of hu­man­ity.

To­day was the sec­ond day of trail work. Yes­ter­day I worked from the cabin up the new trail to the out­house—the short­cut my son Em­mett dis­cov­ered last year. The trail has been nicely cleared now ex­cept for the rot­ting log lodged across the path, which we have to clam­ber over each time we pass. We leave a saw there

and Em­mett and Steven some­times ap­ply a few strokes on the trunk when they go by. Even­tu­ally one of them will saw right through.

To­day I wasn’t think­ing about fam­ily as I cleared a path higher up; I was think­ing about my child­hood friend Diana. The path was in pretty good shape—some prickly black­berry vines work­ing their way here and there, and the odd fern, and an hour’s work of salal clip­ping and toss­ing. Only three or four small broom to tug out by the roots and toss. I was think­ing about whether Diana would read my let­ter, my last at­tempt to con­nect. And if she read it, how she would re­spond in her head, for I am quite sure she won’t re­spond on pa­per. Just as I am sure she will not come to Galiano to cel­e­brate my sis­ter Cathy’s fifti­eth birth­day. Diana feels, I sup­pose, hu­mil­i­ated. I’m guess­ing her daugh­ters read my story and that’s what trig­gered all this.

I am sorry I caused you pain, I say in my head as I clip. But. I pause. But I thought it was okay.i re­ally did. I had sent her the story when it was first pub­lished in a lit­er­ary jour­nal, and then later I wrote and told her it had won a prize, and she said, “Great! Great!” So, I as­sumed that she had read it and was fine with its con­tent. (Never as­sume, the wis­dom has it, and now I con­cur. But it’s hard not to as­sume when you have al­most noth­ing to go on and have to make guesses, ed­u­cated and not, with what lit­tle in­sight or knowl­edge you have.) Not so, it turned out, when the story ap­peared in my book and she must ac­tu­ally have read it. Or one of her daugh­ters did. Diana lopped con­tact with me com­pletely off. But this year, a year later, I thought I’d make one last pitch and so I wrote Diana a let­ter on two sides of a piece of lined foolscap. In the let­ter I said that I hoped she would re­con­sider, that I never meant to cause her pain and I was sorry that I did, even in­ad­ver­tently. I asked her if she is a per­son who for­gives (think­ing of her re-em­braced Catholi­cism), and if she is, could she for­give me? Or un­der what con­di­tions could she for­give me? And I asked if there were any cir­cum­stances un­der which she would agree to come to Galiano—set­ting my jaw I said that I would agree to any con­di­tions. I would prom­ise not to write about her ever again. I would prom­ise not to bring up the sub­ject of my hav­ing writ­ten about her ever again. But be­cause my sis­ter Cathy has non-hodgkin lym­phoma and who knows if she will even be here next sum­mer, won’t you please agree to come for her sake? Si­lence. More si­lence.

Fuck­ing si­lence, I think as I clip clip clip. What if Diana hasn’t in fact read any of my books? What if only her daugh­ters have read them, and so Diana doesn’t know about the other sto­ries I’ve writ­ten with a char­ac­ter very much like her in them? Then I, too, am wounded! That my old­est, and once dear­est friend did not read my work and then pre­tended she had! Well. Clip clip. Off with her head.

Up near the out­house yes­ter­day Steven helped our eight-year-old son Em­mett be­gin a fort, with­out nails or rope, with­out scraps of ply­wood and dis­carded lengths of 2x4s. They used raw logs cho­sen from my slash piles, which they stacked and cribbed, build­ing a kind of blind to hide be­hind while hold­ing se­cret meet­ings that may or may not tran­spire. Their build­ing site is si­t­u­ated on a lesser-used path and I walk by it only oc­ca­sion­ally. It is near the spot where I found the first small stand of In­dian pipe two years ago. In­dian pipe. Corpse plant. Blooms af­ter a few days of rain. Can grow in dense for­est. Dif­fi­cult to prop­a­gate. Par­a­sitic, waxy white, with­out chloro­phyll.

The site is also near the two piles of pot­ting soil that are all that re­main of the mar­i­juana plants Steven found when he made a visit to the land and dis­cov­ered two thriv­ing plants in big black poly­mer pots. He called the RCMP, who came and took the plants away, the dis­tinc­tive leaves and stalks hang­ing out the trunk as the of­fi­cer went back down the drive­way with the ev­i­dence. “But why did you call the cops?” I asked, in­cred­u­lous, think­ing that I clearly didn’t know him all that well yet. “I had no idea you were that straight.” In re­turn he looked at me the same way. “Why wouldn’t I call the po­lice?”

On our way out to Galiano from Saska­toon this sum­mer we vis­ited Dad at the Ge­orge Derby Cen­tre in Burn­aby where he now lives, hav­ing been booted out of the well-ap­pointed suite in a White Rock fa­cil­ity for ex­ces­sive

drink­ing. Dad is pretty out of it now. It’s hard to be mad at him, this fee­ble, eighty-eight-yearold man. What’s the point? Though I can still man­age some­times. But not this year, not this time, for he wasn’t too far out of it to be very pleased with Em­mett’s piano play­ing. Most of the res­i­dents at Ge­orge Derby are vet­er­ans, and Em­mett sat in their midst and played “Marche Mil­i­taire” from his Royal Con­ser­va­tory reper­toire list, and they loved it, tap­ping their hands or feet, nod­ding their heads. Dad turned to one old guy and said, “And you—you’re more than eighty—can you do that? Can you? Imag­ine! Eight years old!” I ad­mit I basked in this smelly old ray of a com­pli­ment, in the praise not for me, but for my son, which is per­haps bet­ter.

We guided Dad off the se­cure floor and down­stairs to what is known as the mall and stopped to watch two old guys play­ing a game of pool. When they fin­ished and wan­dered off, Em­mett and Steven had a game while Dad and I watched. But Dad wasn’t very much in­ter­ested and he be­came more and more ap­pre­hen­sive, anx­ious, leaned over to me again and again and sug­gested that we should go back now, that he did not want to miss the bus for the out­ing. “Where are you go­ing, Dad?” I asked. “On a pic­nic!” he ex­claimed, ag­i­tated now. “We are go­ing on a pic­nic!” There was no bus; there was no pic­nic. I tried to ca­jole him. “Don’t worry, Dad. We have plenty of time.” But my re­as­sur­ances were not enough. We aban­doned the pool ta­ble and took Dad back up­stairs, helped him find his room. I kissed him good­bye and we left.

On the other side of the se­cure door I felt the huge ten­sion I al­ways feel when I visit my fa­ther dis­si­pate, ten­sion I never seem to know has moved into me and taken over un­til my du­ti­ful daugh­ter role has been played and I am safely out of there again. Safely? Why is “safely” the right word? What threat could he pos­si­bly pose to me now? What threat did he ever pose, my gen­tle­man fa­ther? He’s a far cry from gen­tle­man now.

On our way down the el­e­va­tor Em­mett said, “It’s too smelly here.”

“Is it?” Steven said.

“When you get old I won’t put you in a place that’s so smelly,” Em­mett con­tin­ued.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll look for­ward to that.”

When I sit qui­etly and un­ob­tru­sively in the cov­ered porch of our cabin, crea­tures come out of hid­ing. Right now there are two robins on the clothes­line Steven put up last year. Three oth­ers tweet on the grassy ground. Ru­fous­sided towhee rus­tle in the salal: when I first heard them I thought they were mice or rats. Rain would be good, for this parch­ing land­scape, but the tourist in me rel­ishes the sun­shine and the swimming. We have been to the beach ev­ery day but one so far in the month we have been here.

Last week I went on my own to the beach at Matthews Point, where only the diehards go be­cause the way down is so very steep and com­ing back up nearly kills you. I came upon a naked cou­ple mak­ing out: that beach can ap­pear to be a good place to make love naked in the hot sand, the like­li­hood be­ing that no one else will come along. Ex­cept the gi­ant fer­ries, that is, ply­ing the strait. This cou­ple may have thought that, but I did come along, and be­fore I flushed with em­bar­rass­ment I re­mem­bered, I knew again the feel of the warm sand against my naked back, my legs up, the cum slip­ping onto the sand and I re­mem­bered the gor­geous feel of sun-hot skin against sun-hot skin and the hot pulse of sated de­sire. Their heads turned and they looked at me. I was some non­de­script mid­dle-aged woman snoop­ing on them. Some dip­stick tourist. I turned and walked in the op­po­site di­rec­tion along the beach un­til surely they must be done, surely they must be at least par­tially draped with a towel or clothed, my em­bar­rass­ment puls­ing along with the wa­ter’s rhyth­mic in out pulse. Whoosh. Whoosh.

Steven has been busy since we ar­rived, has cleared the com­pletely clogged eave­stroughs, which were filled to the brim with pine nee­dles and other de­tri­tus fallen from the one re­main­ing gi­ant fir out­side the cabin. Em­mett wanted to climb up the lad­der and help but we wouldn’t let him, afraid he would fall. I told Steven the job wasn’t Em­mett’s any­way, it was his, that it was penance. He agreed to per­form the task, but he didn’t ask what the penance was for so I told him any­way: for build­ing this cabin too close to that lone mag­nif­i­cent tree that drops its hun­dreds of cones and thou­sands of nee­dles and twigs and small branches onto the roof and into the eave­stroughs. The old­est tree on the prop­erty, the only tree of its size left by the log­gers who trashed this place be­fore sell­ing it as “par­tially cleared.” Ev­ery year, in­stead of hav­ing his liver plucked out by birds or hav­ing to roll a boul­der up a hill, I tell him, Steven is doomed to clean­ing out the bur­geon­ing eave­stroughs.

A fam­ily of snakes lived at the base of the gi­ant fir un­til last sum­mer when Em­mett, then seven, built his first fort there with tri­an­gu­lar pieces of scrap ply­wood and sev­eral lengths of used 2x4s he found un­der the cabin. I gave him a ham­mer and nails of var­i­ous sizes and he oc­cu­pied him­self for hours, banged his vi­sion to­gether with plenty of nails and in­stalled the re­sult­ing “fort” against the huge tree with more nails still. The snakes must not have liked the noise and ac­tiv­ity and they left.

The fort isn’t there any­more ei­ther. It was, as my mother would have said, an eye­sore, and I re­moved it at the end of last sum­mer be­fore we left. I timed it so that Em­mett didn’t see me. Some­times I learn from my mis­takes. Once, af­ter tol­er­at­ing it for sev­eral months and ask­ing him to take it down, I dis­man­tled a huge Lego struc­ture he had made that was so big it made pas­sage into his lit­tle room im­pos­si­ble, and though I felt bad, ne­ces­sity drove me for­ward. He has never for­given me for tak­ing it down. He stood in the door­way to his room in shocked dis­be­lief.

“Where is my Lego?” he said.

“Em,” I said.

“Mum! Where is it?”

That was the first time in our his­tory he was truly an­gry with me, be­trayed by me, his mother, whom he had al­ways trusted com­pletely. He branded me with his eyes. I felt hor­ri­ble, I couldn’t undo what I had done even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.

How badly I have wanted the snakes to come back, to come home, but they haven’t. The other day I saw a whole fam­ily of snakes bask­ing on a sun-dap­pled trail not far from our place and I won­dered if by chance they were re­lated to the snakes that had been scared off, “our” snakes, and if they were, I won­dered if they could be en­cour­aged to come back to their aban­doned nest at the base of the tree. But how to en­cour­age snakes?

J. Jill Robin­son is the au­thor of the novel More in Anger, avail­able through Dun­durn Press, and four col­lec­tions of short sto­ries. “Hot Pulse” is ex­cerpted from a work-in-progress, “The Hot Pulse of Sated De­sire.” She di­vides her time be­tween Banff and Galiano Is­land, BC.

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