A Novel Excerptby Angie Ellis
His early years were a hollow space, but he remembered well the day he was brought home. Perhaps three years old and without a name, he sat in front of a fiery-haired woman on a horse. She had black crescents of dirt under her rough fingernails, and when he squirmed she patted his hand and whispered words he didn’t understand.
They spent some time on a trail that cut through deep, shaded woods, he and the woman on the horse, and the man who walked beside them. He felt afraid at the darkness and the rustling, creaking sounds of the forest, and though the woman seemed kind, he was afraid of her too, but more afraid of the man, who said nothing. They came to a small clearing, chickens about the place and a low gray cabin in the center. He didn’t understand where he was and felt a sting behind his eyes, his vision blurred with tears, so that when he got off the horse, he fell and cracked his head on a sharp rock. The woman covered her mouth with her hand and stood him up. She examined his forehead, tsking and clucking, then brought him inside and wiped his face with her apron, dabbing beeswax into the scrape. The sweet, woodsy smell was curious to him, her humming strange and warm.
They sat at the small table, he and the woman, a slice of bread drizzled with molasses set before him. He watched her and she watched him in return, smiling and nodding and motioning to her own lips until he began to eat.
When he was done, she took his hand and showed him around the cabin, teaching him the French words of things. Chair, chaise. Window, fenêtre. Hand, main. Heart, coeur. A Swede, she’d learned French as a girl in Quebec, then English as a wife on Vancouver Island. She loved French and wanted him to know how to speak it.
Mother, mère. And she smiled and he smiled back.
Slow, the man later said to him, thunking his finger to the side of his head, a low popping sound like knocking wood underwater. And dark as dirt. Why doesn’t he talk?
The woman shushed and smiled and brought him to the sofa that would be his bed. She slipped a nightshirt over his head. Pillow, oreiller. Moon, lune.
Silent boy, garçon silencieux.
She named him Walter.
There was no sense in brushing off or wiping his feet or any other civilized thing. Walter’s clothes were plastered to his body and caked with mud, his hat dripping and hands raw. He opened the door, a puff of frozen breath hanging in the air. Fragrant wood heat beckoned him inside, yet he hesitated.
“Shut the goddamn door!”
He stepped inside, lowering his head under the frame, then peeled off his coat and set the pail of milk on the table.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Pig got out.”
“You catch him?”
He had scrabbled through thick, dark woods, branches slashing at his face and fallen trees catching his feet. The pig was wily and hard to grab in the rain. He repaired the fence that freed it while furiously blinking away the downpour, his hands slipping along the splintered wood post. Then he milked the old cow, who gave only a dribble.
“Anyone see you?” How could they, thought Walter, though he was used to the question and shook his head. They lived away from everything, two specks in the forest.
His father puffed on his pipe and watched Walter take off wet socks with some effort, the wool sticking to him like second skin. What was left of heated chicken and potatoes sat in a congealed puddle in the iron pan. He was hungry but would change to dry clothes first.
The lean-to at the back of the cabin was where Walter had slept since he could remember. His mother had called it the drawing room in anticipation of company, so every morning he folded his blankets and put them in the cupboard, along with his clothes and any other hint that he slept there.
He stripped down, his skin prickled with cold, and put on his dry clothes, then laid his wet things across a chair near the fire. He sat at the table and dug into the greasy chicken, three days old and rubbery against his teeth. It was gone before he tasted it, but his stomach wanted more.
“I’ll take some milk now, boy.”
Walter ladled out thick milk, still warm, from the bottom of the bucket and handed it to his father, waiting while he slowly drank, Adam’s apple sharp and lurching.
“Would you like help tonight?”
“I’ll let you know if I need help,” his father growled, but Walter didn’t take a step back or lower his gaze. Instead, he rinsed the dishes on the porch with water from the kettle, then set them upside down on the table, wood so worn the grain could be read like braille.