Chapter One: Waking up Bowness
Every time he crosses the Bow River into Cochrane just north of Jumping Pound Creek, Chuck Erdrich adjusts his geographical mindset. He’s done this ever since that geologist fellow told him that this was where the foothills turn into the prairies – some underground fault-line apparently, evidenced by the creek, a crack running underground for hundreds of miles. Anyways, that’s what he heard, and he likes the idea of knowing the exact moment when he crosses from one terrain into the other. It’s amazing the way a small thing can underline what you’re doing and make something important of it. Of course, you can’t see the prairie at all when you cross. The tracks hug the edge of the river and stay down below the banks all the way and you have no idea the prairie is there until the far side of Calgary.
His co-engineer dozes beside him, unaware of the geological shift. He gave up the controls at Field and has been sleeping for two or three hours. Chuck figures the fellas back in the caboose are probably out for the count too. One of them is supposed to be awake but it’s a cattle run – no problems expected. Chuck runs a hand over his stubbly face. His overalls are a little tight on him and he takes a good long stretch. He’s driving number 2070 this morning, a great old train. He can remember driving her as far back as ’35. Just like Chuck she’s showing her age now but makes the run from Kamloops to Calgary as smooth as butter. And this morning’s no different. Looking out to the side he can see the sun hovering, pale and dampish as if exhausted from pulling itself up from the rim of the cut bank. The embankment, grassy brown, not yet free of winter, snow clinging to the base of the bushes. Chuck thinks of the sunroom in his house in Ogden where Min has dozens of bedding plants well rooted and healthy, ready for transplanting on Victoria Day. Winter doesn’t trouble Min. She has her strategies. And her routines. When she hears the blare that signals the train’s approach to Ogden, she’ll have the pan on and be pulling the eggs out of the fridge before the whistle stops.
Chuck has several whistles before then, the one approaching Keith Siding coming up soon: around seven o’clock it’ll be. He likes that one, announcing the morning to the folks of Bowness.
A red-tail hovers above the embankment, already on the lookout for breakfast. Ahead, a cluster of deer break and bound off through the bunch grass. The tracks unfold ahead of him. He never gets tired of their polished shine – their adventurous lure.
Keith Siding will be any moment now. He gives a pull on the whistle, stretching it out, long and mournful. Up ahead he can see the red barns of the Alberta Ice Factory and the ice plantation shimmering beside them where Sven his oldest worked for a couple of summers. The Factory’s getting run down, that’s for sure, and they’re hiring fewer than they used to. It’s the refrigerators, isn’t it? Who wants an ice box anymore? He got Min a nice little Cold Spot last summer and she’s crazy about it.
Soon, the San will come into view, the grand old hospital buildings, the orderly gardens. Then the twin bridges that take the tracks slow and easy across the Bow. There he will pull the horn again, a long, satisfying, shriek, and then another shorter one to announce his entrance to the village, Bowness, nestled in the curving arm of the river, the grass-and-mud flying field off to the right, Woods Children’s Home with its huge swing-and-teetertotter playground, the cream-stucco elementary school, the small row of stores.
Chuck sees himself as a herald of the new day to the village but never actually ponders on what kind of day it will be. A harmless preference for his own little world of Min, his daughters and Sven, the Coldspot, Min’s garden, her tasty meals always ready for him, this is what sustains him, gives his seat at the engine purpose and satisfaction.
And so, though he passes through Bowness almost every day Chuck knows none of its people. Not Chess Carmichael who longs to reclaim his life and himself; not Cora Latticer whose loneliness has become an unbearable burden; or Myrna Quin either, a nurse at the San, who two years after his death still mourns the loss of her only child Toddy. Chuck has no idea of the endless dangerous push and pull between Lou and Jimmy Prescott; nor the Grisham children’s terrible and overbearing need to escape the fists and threats of their father. And he definitely doesn’t know that any minute now Chrissie Carmichael, daughter of Chess, will fling a prediction into the day that will put the residents of Bowness on high alert, mix itself into their minds and conversations, and alter some of them irrevocably. Chuck knows nothing of them, nor does he wonder what lesser or greater events will mark their day, what call to adventure.
Another whistle, and he will be bridging the Bow again and heading out of Bowness and its story and across Montgomery for a straight run to the city itself where he will unload passengers and freight, and then push on to its eastern edges and Ogden, to his breakfast and Min.
The whistle of the morning train draws Myrna Quinn eagerly to the hall windows, and there it is below her, chuffing importantly toward the twin bridges. She looks at her watch, 6:58, it rarely varies more than a minute or two either way. It will be five more hours till her shift ends. Her morning will be busy but not arduous – two pneumothorax procedures among the routines.
From the clear sky and sunshine you would think a typical blue and gold Alberta day is in the offing, but just to the north Myrna spies a mass of bruise coloured clouds. The Sanatorium grounds spread out below her, the elegant gleaming white buildings that house the clinics and labs, the offices, the various wards, and the kitchens where right now the cooks are pushing out breakfast for the staff and patients. A good seven miles from Calgary, the Baker Memorial Sanatorium is virtually a self-contained community, with vegetable gardens, chicken coops, residences for many of the staff. Myrna herself lives just across the river in Bowness, where a few hours from now she’ll be at lunch with Lou and Queenie, indulging in gossip and silly fun.
Just below her a shiny black Tudor zips up the drive and pulls into the parking space beside her own little red coupe. Frank, her brother-in-law, trim, athletic, climbs out of the car and strides quickly to the entranceway of the hospital.
Myrna’s morning ritual of moving to the window when she hears the train is partly because she likes trains, but she wonders too if it isn’t Frank’s arrival she’s really anticipating, that shift in the day when he appears, the hospital’s long night abated and moved into positive daylight. She thinks of him as her brother-in-law but really he’s married to her cousin Queenie. Cousin in fact but sister in spirit, Queenie has, as in all things, been lucky in love. Dr. Frank Nelson is, in Myrna’s view, a positive force in the world, a man who exhales more oxygen than he breathes in.
The train rumbling along the berm above the Grisham house makes Jaycee shiver and cling to the warmth of her bed. It’s the second time she’s been wakened. Half an hour ago, it was her brother Cleve and the Barker leaving for the San. The whistle’s sadness fills the room and gets mixed up with her own feelings. After today she’ll be the oldest and there will be no one to stand between her and her dad’s fists. Come tonight, when he realizes Trinny and Cleve have run off, the Barker’ll be madder than a snake and there’ll be no escape. Delores won’t stir herself, that’s for sure. Jaycee pulls the blanket up tight, but the room seems colder by the second at the prospect of her father’s rage.
The sun is up, she can see its light on the tree branches outside. The white-ringed eye of a robin outside her window is intense, jewel-like, and everything out there seems newly washed and full of promise. Not her room, though, which is gloomy and unfixably shabby. Not that you could call it a room exactly, just a cot surrounded by unfinished two-by-fours. She can look through to the bunk beds next door where Richie and Ben are asleep. Everyone is asleep. Trinny down the hall. And further on, her stepmother Delores in the one real room in the house, and that’s only because a few blankets are nailed up on the two by fours.
Trinny will be up soon. Jaycee, who’s wide awake now, never gets out of bed before her sister. Somehow Trinny getting up before her signals that it’s okay to leave her bed, that no harm will come to her.
Normally, Trinny is up before the train whistle, making breakfast for everyone, but they’re out of food again. And today they’ll all be hungrier than ever, having missed supper last night. It was supposed to be a special supper, hotdogs and ice cream bought with some of the escape money, but the Barker and Delores, instead of going right to the tavern for their supper, had come home unexpectedly. When her dad saw what Trinny was cooking, he blew. Where did she get the money for hotdogs and buns he wanted to know? She didn’t get it from him, that’s for sure. Before Trinny could even answer him the Barker started in on her, jabbing her stomach with his fists, punching her head. Cleve shouted at him doing his best to pull him off Trinny, but the Barker was unstoppable. At one point, he smacked Trinny right against the wall and she’d fallen heavily. Jaycee was ready to tell him everything but Delores, tiring of his outburst, sat herself at the table. “Let’s eat while it’s hot.” The Barker left Trinny alone then, but not without promising to get it out of her later. He and Delores had eaten most of the hotdogs before any of them were allowed at the table. Trinny didn’t mention the ice cream, though, and doled it out after the Barker and Delores had left for the tavern.
The memory of Trinny dazed, bruised, sinking to the floor, won’t go away. Jaycee is afraid for herself, but Trinny is in much more danger. Trinny only has to make it till tonight and then she’ll be free, but the Barker is unpredictable. What if he sniffs out the truth of what’s happening? Trinny could die! Jaycee gives in for a moment to her worries. Then her eyes light on the canvas bag beside her bed and the thought of its contents immediately lifts her spirits. Tomorrow will be bad but today will for sure be great!
Even though her mother has called her twice, Chrissie lingers at the screen door, unable to take her eyes off the dog in the lane. As soon as she saw him Chrissie knew he was hers, a little bristling patchwork of a thing stopping to snuffle at every plant and pebble on the road. Chrissie already has a name for him. Buddy. Buddy is inspecting a clump of dandelions at the end of the driveway. “Here, Buddy,” she wants to call out. “Come on, boy.” She’d call him in right now, but her mother doesn’t know it yet, that Buddy is her dog, and Chrissie doesn’t see how she will ever break the news to her.
“What are you looking at, Chrissie?” Her mother is behind her at the stove, spooning scrambled eggs onto plates.
“Well come away from there and call your dad. His breakfast is ready.”
Her grandmother is sitting across from her mother at the kitchen table. Chrissie heads between them for the hallway, but then stops beside her grandmother. Violet’s been asked again and again not to knit at the table, but there she is busy with her needles on something of no particular shape, poisonously red. And even though Chrissie has promised not to, been forbidden to in fact, she can’t help looking. It’s been ages now and she’s pretty sure it won’t be there. But it is and she’s sorry she looked, because she can’t stop it now, or what it does to her.
“She’s seen another one, Alma!” says her grandmother.
“No, I haven’t!”
Alma turns from the stove with a look that orders Chrissie to stop the conversation right now.
But Vi is insistent. “She’s seen another name for sure.”
And she has, and the feeling is there too, that same feeling she got the other times there was a name. She can’t describe it exactly but it’s like that time at the top of the escalator in Woodward’s when she went to see Santa, or going across the swing bridge at Bowness Park, a wobbly flutter in the knees and her stomach rushing to her throat.
“Who is it?” asks Vi.
“Mumma, you stop that! How many times must I tell you not to knit in front of her. All those crazy patterns.”
“There’s no pattern, Alma. Look. Plain knitting. There’s nothing there.” Violet, innocent as a lamb, holds up the knitting. “But she’s seeing it all the same, aren’t you Chrissie?”
“No!” Chrissie shakes her head fiercely. “No, I’m not!” But the name grins at her, bold and unmistakable. Nothing can diminish it. Not the cheery blue of the tablecloth or the silly cow-shaped milk jug waiting by her cereal bowl. The rumble of the morning train in the distance only deepens the churning feeling, the piercing whistle only adds to the evil of the grin.
“Who’s the poor devil this time?” says her Gran.
“Don’t you dare!” her mother cries. Is crying. “Do you hear me, Chrissie? Don’t you dare say it!”
And she doesn’t want to say it, no, she keeps her mouth shut tight, but the name works its way back up her throat no matter how much she tries to swallow it and forces itself out between her teeth.
Chess Carmichael still at the bathroom sink hears the commotion below and shrugs it off. It’s just Alma being her excitable self. Nothing different there. He rinses the last of the lather from his chin. He likes his daily ritual before the mirror, the moment before he assumes his formal role of teacher. For a few minutes he can see his younger self looking back at him, jaunty, muscular, energetic, the carefree, terrain-mad scrambler. He, his brother Mitch and their friend Harry, hill-hopping the summers away, lured by the enticements of rocks and cliffs and far-reaching plains. After all this time thoughts of the world of shale, up-thrusts and stratifications still get his heart beating. But never more than a few minutes. “Really Chess?” His father’s gently mocking who’re-you-trying-to-kid voice punctures his thoughts. Well, okay it occupies his every waking moment. But the suit and tie and freshly ironed shirt Alma laid out for him on the bed has its own persuasive force. By the time he buttons his shirt he’s halfway back to the domain of desks and chalk, drowsy teenagers and four walls that shut off the call of the plains. He takes his time, dressing slowly and purposefully, easing himself out of his fantasies and into the real world.