HOT PULSE 52
Hacksaws and beach sex
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.